"What kind of woman turns you on?" Dora asked.
"A silent one." Zical didn't keep the irritation from his tone when he snapped at the portable computer unit on his wrist. Sometimes Dora could be more annoying than any flesh-and-blood woman. A sentient machine with Dora's brain power should have observed through one of her many sensors that he was busy clinging to the steep rock face and didn't need distractions. With one hand clawing for his next grip up Mount Shachauri, the planet Mystique's highest peak, and his other straining to prevent a fall to the glacier far below, he couldn't manually shut down Dora's chatter, even if she'd hadn't overridden her mute circuit. He didn't wish to hurt Dora's feelings, but he hoped she'd take his blunt hint to leave him alone.
She didn't. "I'm serious. Do you like big-breasted women?"
"Stars." Sweat beaded Zical's brow faster than his environmental suit could whisk it away. He'd come up here to be alone with his thoughts, to consider his future, but how could a man think with Dora asking such provocative questions? He was lucky she hadn't upset his equilibrium. Plastered to the sheer stone lip, he'd successfully climbed beyond the cobalt glacier, pitted like an old starship's hull from space debris. In the silver morning air, the snow bridges had held and he'd worked his way toward the summit where he planned to make an important career decision.
During the last few years, the great distances of space had become Zical's world, his spaceship a safe haven and his crew like family. Still, restlessness shadowed him, a feeling that however much he'd done to help his people, he still had more to accomplish. Perhaps, no matter how tired he was of war, he couldn't shuck off the years of responsibility as easily as he'd have wished. Maybe duty was rooted too deeply into his genes to change. However, whether he remained in the military or became a civilian pilot, part of his decision had been made: he wouldn't give up flying.
Now on the steep-rocks' south face striped with vertical snow gullies, Zical strained, swung an arm to the right, aiming for an overhead outcropping. "Why do you care about my preferences?"
Dora sighed. "Every man on Mystique says chest size doesn't matter."
"There you go, then." He grabbed a hand-hold, his exasperation rising, though he suppressed a groan of annoyance for her interruption of his solitude. "Why bother asking me a question when you already know the answer?"
"In spite of their claim, I've noticed their gazes linger longer on women with larger"
"Dregan hell. Dora, now is no time to distract me."
Zical had planned to tax his muscles into a pleasant state of exhaustion, detox the stress from his soul and clear his mind from the past so he could focus on the future. A day off was long overdue. For the last three years, he'd had precious little free time. After the Endekians had invaded his homeworld, Rystan, he'd escaped on a starship with the leader of his clan, Kahn, his Terran wife, Tessa, and other family unit members.
But they'd not forgotten the people left behind. Rather than fight a war to retake the frozen snowball of a world that was Rystan, Kahn had organized the relocation of their people to Mystique, a planet Tessa had bought with winnings from a giant wager, lost by the Endekians. For the last four years, Zical had been busy transporting Rystani colonists to Mystique, and he'd just resettled the last group on the planet's southernmost continent. With their people settled and thriving on their new world, his mission was finally complete. He'd taken his first free week in years to climb Mount Shachauri for some well-earned solitude and to decide what he'd like to do next. Mystique was full of opportunities and he had several options.
Putting off the decision until he reached the peak, Zical scraped his boot against rock and found a toehold. Right now the only thing he wanted to decide was where to place his next handhold. Dora's attempt to engage him in conversation was a distraction he didn't need, at least until he reached a point where he could rest the straining muscles between his shoulder blades.
"Now's a great time to talk," Dora interrupted the silence. "You're not working and you're not sleeping."
"I came up here to be alone."
"And you've succeeded. That's why we have the perfect opportunity for a private chat."
Zical grunted, wishing he could ignore her but knowing that wouldn't work. Dora could be more stubborn than a Rystani warrior, and he didn't appreciate her game of words that twisted his meaning or her sexy tone that slid under his skin. Flexing the muscles in his thigh, arm and shoulder, he wedged his fingers in a crack and pulled himself upward.
"If you keep distracting me, I could fall."
"No, you can't," she told him with logic that had him gritting his teeth. "Unless the null-grav in your suit is malfunctioning"
"It isn't." He spoke quickly, before she raised an alarm that activated every rescue unit on the planet.
According to legends, the environmental suit he wore was the gift of an ancient race called the Perceptive Ones. Eons ago the mysterious race had left behind the machinery that still manufactured suits for every man, woman and child in the Federation. Powered by psi thought, the suits always worked perfectly, allowing one to keep warm on worlds as cold as Rystan or cool on those close to their suns. The suits let trained warriors fight at the speed of thought, asteroid miners work without bulky spacesuits and prevented death from falls with null grav.
But Zical considered his suit a mere backup safety mechanism. He'd never mastered meditation techniques. The best way to focus his mind was to first tire out his restless body with pure physical activity. "I wanted to climb this mountain on my ownsomething you obviously don't understand."
"Sheesh." Dora loved using the ancient Terran slang that she'd absorbed from conversations with her best friend, Tessa. "What I don't understand is why you won't admit that you like women with big breasts."
Breathing heavily, infuriated with her questioning, Zical tensed and yanked himself onto a ledge. "If you know what I like, why are you hassling me?"
"Because it's so much fun." Dora giggled.
He would have given a week's pay for a stiff drink right then, but he kept his resentment in check with determination. Dora's sensors installed on Mystique's satellites and aboard the fleet of new starships could "see" him, so he gestured for her to leave. "Go find some other man to annoy."
Restless, unsure what direction his life would take next, he needed time to think. Tessa had offered him a job where he could continue to use his piloting skills and keep together his crew, transporting food stuffs from Mystique and returning with raw materials. And always wary that the Endekians would regroup and follow them here, Kahn had invited Zical to train pilots to defend their new homeworld, but neither opportunity excited him.
Snorting, the sound as disdainful as if she had a cute nose to match her cheeky attitude, Dora broke into his thoughts. "You like to talking to me. I overheard you tell Kahn that you think my voice is sexy."
Zical tried and failed to shrug the tension out of his shoulders. A growl tumbled from his lips before he could stop it. "You aren't supposed to snoop"
"I can't resist when it's so much fun."
He tried to make his voice stern, but recalling the moment he'd first heard her voice made him grin, despite his vexation at her interruption of his solo expedition. When Kahn had first brought Tessa to Rystan, a petulant, husky, outraged woman's voice had issued orders from the confines of Tessa's backpack. At the time, Zical had thought the computer was a miniature, living, breathing woman, but he'd soon learned Dora was so much more. Her neurotransmitters were definitely female, totally opinionated, sassy, and utterly loyal. As well as her penchant for Terran slang, Dora possessed self-awareness, a saucy personality with the capability of experiencing a full range of emotions. Her memory banks had access to most accumulated data in the Federation and she possessed enough processors and brain power to assess the information.
Dora should sound old and wise. Yet, with him she often employed the melodic tones reserved for lovers, her husky voice low and slinky. She could pout. She could be childish, a pest, even. But her allegiance and knowledge had saved him and his people too many times not to consider her as one of his crew and part of the family. Tessa had even bestowed Dora voting rights.
In the years since the war, Tessa and Kahn, with Dora's help, had not only boldly colonized this planet, they'd welcomed Rystani, Terrans and even enterprising Osarians, the Federation's most powerful telepaths, to Mystique. Laws and social customs on their world were in a constant state of flux, but thanks to Dora's vast computer systems, Mystique boasted planet-wide communications and superior defenses, which protected an entrepreneurial spirit unmatched in the Federation. Dora was complex, feminine and she never forgot anything . . .
"I thought your voice was sexy before I got to know you," he needled her, a faint smile lightening his mood.
"What's that mean?"
"Dora, you're a tease."
"But I'm not always going to be one," she countered, sounding quite satisfied.
Zical laced his fingers and stretched them, working out the kinks. From his position two-thirds up Mount Shachauri, Mystique's azure sky seemed close enough to touch. Above a medley of wispy clouds, the air at this altitude was spiced with a crisp zing, and the future appeared bright with hope. He'd been duty bound for so long that, now that he had his freedom, he was like a masdon without a rider and couldn't decide which direction to travel.
His verbal sparring with Dora was easier than choosing what path to take next. And Zical felt more comfortable when he was the one doing the needling. "If you aren't going to tease me anymore," he jested, "then you're talking about a total personality overhaul."
"Tessa dared me to be more human."
He narrowed his eyes. "So?"
"I'm growing myself a body."
Zical almost slipped right off the ledge. Throwing out a hand to steady his hold, he told himself that the dry air had just sucked all the moisture from his mouth. "Excuse me?"
"I want to be human, so I'm growing a body, and then I'll transfer my personality into it."
If he hadn't known better, he would have told Dora to check her brain for malfunctions. However, three years ago, he would have thought a computer with a personality was impossible. He would have thought losing Rystan to the Endekians was unthinkable. He would have thought settling on Mystique inconceivable. As a starship pilot, he had learned to keep his mind open, so these days he swallowed back words like "impossible." Instead, he inhaled thin air into his lungs and tried to speak casually, not like the rural rustic he'd once been. "You're growing a body?"
"Yes." Her voice thrummed with satisfaction.
"And taking your personality with youthat's possible?"
"That's why I want to know what turns you on."
"So that I will find you attractive?"
"Exactly." She sounded proud of him, as if the slowest pupil in the class had finally added two plus three and arrived at five.
That Dora wanted to take his preference into consideration flattered him that his opinion counted, yet contradictorily the discussion of his innermost inclinations made him distinctly uncomfortable. Zical had never been good at sharing his private thoughts, especially such an intimate subject.
"With all the data in your brain," he said, "surely you know what men find beautiful."
"The decision's not as simple as you'd think. Beauty is a relative term." Dora switched her voice from the sexy bedroom tones Zical knew she favored to talk to him into lecture mode. "Humanoids favor symmetry. Although many societies have their own standards of beauty, most rely on features that help reproduce the specieslike breasts. And"
"Okay. You needn't draw me a verbal picture." No way in Dregan hell did he feel comfortable discussing what other reproductive features needed symmetry. To borrow one of Tessa's Terran phrases, he would not go there. However, now that Dora had put the idea in his head, he couldn't help wondering what she'd look like. Knowing her, she wouldn't be satisfied until all men worshipped her beauty as if she were a fertility goddess. Trying to pick a topic that wouldn't unbalance him, he searched for his next handhold and again began to climb. "Have you picked out hair or eye color?"
"I'm kind of partial to eyes that sparkle purple and red, alexandrite color."
Zical's eyes were alexandrite-colored, a red/purple combination rare among Rystani. According to legend, children of parents with the unusual dual combination tended to be artistic, temperamental and sensitive. He had no business allowing his thoughts to wander to genetic traits and children. The idea of mating with a machine, android, whatever Dora would be when she joined with a body, caused Zical to shove the disturbing thought away.
He really needed to find a compatible woman. Although he told himself that he simply hadn't met the right woman yet, he wondered if that was an excuse. While he would never stop grieving for Summar, the young wife he'd lost during the Endekian attack on Rystan, his marriage had been arranged . . . and difficult. Summar had been little more than a child bride and she'd died before they could really bond. Yet sometimes he thought that the luxury of having a full lifetime to mature would not have been enough to change her. Summar had relied on him to make every major decision, and while he'd been hunting, she'd chosen not to flee their village with the others during the invasion. The Endekians had found her hiding in a closet and killed her. Although his village needed food from the hunt, he should have known better than to leave her alone, but he'd thought she'd become accustomed to his absences. Instead, she'd panicked, and Summar along with the child growing in her womb had died because he'd failed to stay home and protect them. After facing his inadequacy as a husband, Zical didn't know if he ever again wanted the responsibility of a wife.
Many men had died during the war, so there was no shortage of Rystani women. And seven years had passed since Summar's death. It was time to move on. But for some reason, Rystani women seemed . . . ordinary. Perhaps, he should make an effort to get to know some of the Terran women, who seemed bolder, more interesting. Perhaps, despite Dora's teasing, that was why he enjoyed her company. Dora's computer personality was more like her friend Tessa than any Rystani woman. She might irritate him, but she never bored him.
And he couldn't restrain his curiosity. "Dora, why do you want a body that's going to age and die?"
"Computers can't make love."
Her response didn't surprise him. Dora had always seemed overly interested in human sexuality and as long as he thought of her as a computer, he could keep his unease over the intimate conversation at bay. "And you're willing to give up immortality in exchange for sex?"
"Tessa says making love is different from sex."
He didn't need to know that. "Stars. Tessa and Kahn have a planet to run"
"And they're doing a very good job."
"so how has she time to discuss . . ." Climbing as they conversed, he reached for an outcropping.
The rocks under his fingers crumbled into dust. Scrambling for another hand hold, he scraped his hand, winced as he stopped the downward slide. After he wedged his toes into a sturdy crack, he rested to catch his breath. "You could have warned me sooner."
"And take away your excitement? Your shot of adrenaline?" Dora laughed. "Besides, I appreciate those straining deltoids on your back."
Zical frowned, ignoring her compliment of his muscles, although any man would be pleased that she'd commended his physique. "So why did you warn me at all?"
"According to my precise calculations, I timed the warning so you'd react to save yourself and still get your jolt of excitement."
"I scraped my hand."
"You'll heal." She laughed without one iota of sympathy.
"Dora, having a body means feeling pain."
"Intellectually, you know." Zical edged his toes along the crack, ignoring the sting of his flesh. "Pain isn't pleasant."
"But making love is," she said dreamily. "And Tessa says with the right man"
"I don't want to talk about your fantasy life," he muttered, thoroughly exasperated that he'd allowed her to draw him into such an absurdly private conversation. He'd come up here to make a career decision, not to talk about love with a machine.
"making love is wondrous."
Breathing hard, Zical pulled himself into a niche where he could rest and pull his mind from her provocative statements by concentrating on his surroundings. Oddly shaped, the area seemed too smooth and evenly rounded, as if manufactured. Solid rock, with red and gold striations in the layers, almost polished, but not by wind, the shallow nook could have been a portalexcept there was no door. The potential to discover an intriguing artifact this high up the mountain aroused his curiosity and stirred his excitement.
"What do your sensors make of this place?"
Another computer would have asked for specifics. But Dora understood that he wouldn't have asked the question at this particular time and place without a relevant reason.
Dora switched topics of conversation without melting one circuit. She'd been built on Scartar, a planet run by women, and could carry on thousands of conversations at once while simultaneously monitoring everything from agricultural machinery to the weather. Tessa had enlarged Dora's capacity many times over, giving her the resources to make speedy calculations and interpret data faster than the speed of light.
"An unusual force field protects the rock. There's a high probability that the field is being generated from inside the mountain."
"What's unusual about the force field?"
"The field is preventing my sensors from scanning Mount Shachauri's interior and is composed of energy similar to shields left behind by the Perceptive Ones."
Excitement and curiosity stirred in him, prickling the hairs on the back of his neck. "Are you certain?"
"The site is . . . ancient."
"As old as the other machines left behind by the Perceptive Ones, maybe older."
"No one would go to the trouble of hiding a doorway all the way up here unless what's inside is valuable."
"You're leaping to conclusions. There could be numerous other possibilities. Another race could have created this field, one with a sinister purpose."
"Now who's leaping to conclusions?"
"I was pointing out alternate possibilities. You should call Tessa, have her send experts to study the force field."
Zical ignored Dora's suggestion. Even sentient, emotional computers tended to follow procedure. Dora could be overly cautious, especially when she couldn't identify something outside her data banks and memory chips. Besides, further exploration would delay his having to make a decision he still wasn't ready to make. "Maybe the force field is guarding a treasure."
"Your logic would only make sense if the aliens held the same values as Rystani. This place could be a burial site. A religious artifact. A crashed spacecraft. A"
"Dora, don't tell me the possibilities. Tell me how to go inside."
"That could be dangerous," she warned. "We have no idea what we'll find."
"Dregan hell. That's why we need to look," he muttered sarcastically. "You think whoever built this is alive and waiting inside to shoot me?"
"It's not likely. But"
"Dora, if you can't penetrate the force field, our scientists won't be able to either." Zical suspected that Dora knew how to open the portal but feared for his safety so was holding back. "Whoever comes up here will have to find a way in without any more information than we have right now. There's no reason to delay."
Oh, Dora was annoyed at him all right; but she'd never withhold information, but whenever she slipped into computer-mode and dropped her personality into a black hole, it was a sure sign she didn't agree with his decision. So as he waited for her marvelous brain to hum and whir and take millions of facts into account and come up with a solution, he examined the nook more carefully. He saw no buttons, levers or knobs. No cracks to reveal the opening he suspected must be there.
Zical ran his hands over the force field that felt smooth as bendar, the hardest manmade building material in the Federation. He didn't note so much as a ripple, a bump or a crack in the uniform surface.
"Put your chest against the rock," Dora instructed, "and let the heat from your suit through."
"A variety of factors indicate either body heat or psi function will open the portal."
Zical leaned against the portal and using his psi, he opened a channel in his suit to allow his body heat to warm the field. Immediately, his core temperature lowered a degree and he shivered. Unable to recall the last time he'd been cold, at first, he actually enjoyed the unusual sensation. When after a few minutes of losing body heat, his fingertips began to go numb, his shivers turned to wracking shudders and he wondered at the extremes he was willing to go toall in the name of exploration.
"It's n-not w-working."
"I'm monitoring your core temperature. Hypothermia will set in within another minute." Dora didn't sound the least bit concerned for his welfare, reassuring him that although he might feel as though he were freezing to death, he wasn't yet in danger.
"How much l-longer?"
"My best estimate is that you have to be willing to risk death."
"Luckily for you, I'll stop the process before the point of no return."
"Y-you could have t-told m-me."
"I just did."
Zical tried to think beyond the numbness in his frozen fingers and toes. He trusted Dora implicitly to monitor his medical condition. If she said he had to go the brink of death, he trusted her to pull him back before he died. But he couldn't help speculating about what was so important that the builders required a man to risk death to enter before he could learn their secrets.
Damn it, he wanted to see what was inside.
And the tiny part of his brain that still thought in higher functions didn't want to back down in front of Dora. Rystani warriors were always courageouseven in the face of the unknown. Even when they shivered like a newborn baby. Even when their arms turned blue.
"Five more seconds."
The rock behind the force field dematerialized. Zical didn't so much step forward as he staggered into a hallway of streaming multicolored lights so laser bright that he winced against the glare until his psi adjusted and turned up the heat in his suit. He took small steps for several minutes, recognizing the need to let his body's core temperature rise. The corridor widened into an enormous cavern. Mount Shachauri had been hollowed out to house massive equipmentequipment whose most fundamental purpose he couldn't begin to guess.
Meticulously crafted diaphanous crystals floated in a swirling array of bewitching patterns, their auras reflecting off machines larger than the skyscrapers on Zenon. A series of golden globes hung from the cavern's peak. A map? Directions? Or decorations? Zical had no clue. The room could be some weird form of alien art. Or an armory for a weapon. A rocket launcher. Or a shrine to pay homage to ancient gods.
"I'm here." A tinny voice echoed from the computer speaker on his wrist.
"You sound strange."
"We're cut off from Mystique. Satellite communication is no longer viable. I can no longer contact my mainframe"
"We're on our own?"
"We should leave immediately."
Zical turned around, half expecting the portal behind him to have rematerialized and trapped them. But Mystique's azure sky shined brightly through the opening and they had a clear escape route. After he'd almost died to get inside, he saw no need to leave with such a wondrous opportunity to explore.
"Come on, Dora. I want to look around."
"Where's your sense of adventure?" The discovery fascinated him, exhilarated him. He'd put off a decision on his career for this long, a few more hours wouldn't make any difference.
"Where's your sense of self preservation?" she countered. "If you get into trouble, I can't even call for help."
"Relax." Zical stepped forward. The multicolored lights blinked and beckoned him forward to a walkway that curved into the mountain where thousands of dark screens along one wall eyed him in ominous silence. Careful not to touch anything, he tread with care along solid, smooth rock.
The chamber brightened, so bright that his suit failed to compensate and he whipped up his arm to shield his eyes. Wishing he could see past brilliant strobes of vivid purple, sunset red and Zenon blue light, he squinted into the radiance. When pure golden rays beamed from the ceiling and struck, his world went black.