Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
All Dora wants is to be the woman he loves . . .
All Zical wants is to complete his mission . . .
All the enemy wants is total annihilation . . .
Blocked by the limitations of her computer hardware, Dora has used only her smarts, her humor, and her sinfully sexy voice to intrigue Rystani warrior-pilot Zical. In order to experience human sexuality—and consummate her love for him—she builds the perfect female body to inhabit. Being human is more difficult and more wonderful than Dora expected. She didn't expect the sensation of touch to alter her emotions. Nor did she expect chocolate to taste so good. Or love to be so complicated.
But for a Rystani star pilot, accepting Dora as a crew woman, never mind a lover, is downright confusing. Even if Zical considered Dora fully human—which he doesn't—his tragic past has made him swear off falling in love. But as Dora's increasingly human allure becomes hard to resist, a threat to the solar system sends them on a dangerous mission to the very edge of the galaxy.
As Dora explores the full extent of what it means to love, can Zical's sense of honor and his proud adherence to Rystani customs ever let him give his heart to a woman who created herself only for him? And as their enemies turn deadly, Dora and Zical must overcome their pasts . . . if they hope to fight for all of their futures.
"I thorough[ly] enjoyed this book and couldn't wait to gulp it down." -- Tory Michaels, Tory Michaels's World
"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 brainpower should have observed through one of her many sensors that he was busy clinging to the steep rock face. 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 hadn’t overridden her mute circuit.
"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 was lucky she hadn’t upset his equilibrium. Plastered to the sheer stone lip, he’d successfully climbed beyond the cobalt glacier, pitted from space debris like an old starship’s hull. In the silver morning air, the snow bridges had held, and he’d worked his way toward the summit. He’d come up here to be alone, to consider his future, but how could a man think with Dora asking such provocative questions?
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 rock’s 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 handhold, his exasperation rising. "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 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.
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.
"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. 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, allowed 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 own—something 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, 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. 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. 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. "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. 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 brainpower 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 voting rights on Dora.
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. 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 rustic he’d once been. "You’re growing a body?”
"Yes.” Her voice thrummed with satisfaction.
"Taking your personality with you—that’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, yet contradictorily made him distinctly uncomfortable with 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 preferred to lecture mode. "Humanoids favor symmetry. Although many societies have their own standards of beauty, most rely on features that help reproduce the species—like 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. "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 handhold, 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. "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. "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 concentrate 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 portal—except there was no door.
"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.”
Hair on the back of his neck prickled. "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, yet 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 any opening.
Zical ran his hands over the force field that felt smooth as bendar, the hardest man-made 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. 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 to—all 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 to the brink of death, he trusted her to pull him back before he died. But what was so important that the builders required a man to risk death to enter?
Damn it, he wanted to see what was inside.
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 courageous—even 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 equipment—equipment 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.
"Come on, Dora. I want to look around.”
"Where’s your sense of adventure?” 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 tred 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.
AT THE SAME time that Dora’s central mainframe noted she was cut off from her portable unit with Zical and that he’d disappeared from her scanners, she maintained thousands of real-time conversations, coordinated satellite communications and space traffic, monitored the growth of her new body in the biological laboratory, mentored a child in basic arithmetic, collated incoming data from Mystique’s new fleet of starships, and observed and stored billions of details both insignificant and important. Noting the lack of communication with Zical and her portable unit, Dora wasn’t unduly alarmed. Whatever was blocking her sensors from penetrating Mount Shachauri had cut off contact, but she expected Zical to emerge from the cavern shortly.
Meanwhile, she enjoyed her conversation with Tessa, her Terran friend who had named Dora shortly after their first meeting. While Dora admired and respected Tessa’s opinions, she often had difficulty understanding her friend from Earth. Especially now. Tessa didn’t place a high value on beauty. In fact, on a scale from one to ten, Tessa would place comeliness at the bottom of her list. Tessa valued loyalty, honesty, friendship, intelligence, and open-mindedness above physical attractiveness. But Tessa had been born flesh and blood, and now secure in the knowledge that her Rystani husband adored her, she took her attractive features for granted.
"You haven’t asked Osari his opinion about beauty, have you?” Tessa only half-jested.
Tessa had admitted once that although the Osarian she’d befriended during a trip to Zenon, the Federation’s capital planet, was a wise and gentle soul, the blind, slime-covered, eight-tentacled Osarian took some getting used to. But if Tessa hadn’t forced herself to look beyond his ugliness and established a business relationship that had altered the economic balance of power within the Federation, Dora wouldn’t have had the credits to grow a body.
Tessa’s insistence that Dora share in the family’s wealth had given Dora the resources for research and development. These last few years she’d studied every facet of placing her personality into a human body. Such a feat had never been successfully completed, but that didn’t deter her.
Dora had brainpower and means far beyond the scope of humans. After careful consideration, she’d grown a body from stock humanoid DNA. Modifying the genes to eliminate all weaknesses that led to disease, she’d supervised her development with critical expertise garnered from medical doctors, biologists, psychologists, geneticists, and nano scientists on a hundred worlds.
Dora’s thoughts hummed through her circuits, and she replied to Tessa with no gap in their conversation. "Osari told me that since his entire race is blind, they judge beauty according to telepathic factors that reflect spirituality.”
Tessa strode from her office to the laboratory, her steps quick. She changed the subject without slowing her pace, skipping from topic to topic as friends often do. "So what’s happening right now?”
Dora understood Tessa wanted an update on her becoming human. "I’m finalizing which data and memories to transfer.”
Tessa remained silent for a moment as if thinking hard. "I hadn’t realized that you can’t take everything. But of course, the human brain couldn’t possibly hold—”
"A billionth of my capacity,” Dora spoke gloomily. "I’m keeping all my memories of our years together and my time with the family, of course.”
"Thanks.” Tessa frowned. "Dora, are you going to feel stupid with a human brain?”
"The up side is that I won’t remember how much data I’ve lost. Since humans only use ten percent of their brains, I can pack in considerably more knowledge than most people carry in their heads.”
"Is that wise?”
"Smarter is always better.”
"Not if you don’t leave enough brain capacity to learn new things.”
"I’ll leave a little room.”
"Make sure it’s enough. Learning is a valuable part of being human.”
Dora sensed Tessa was having difficulty expressing her thoughts, and a touch of frustration entered her tone. "I don’t understand.”
"One example would be your new senses. You’ve never tasted or touched. You’ll want to remember that kind of data as well as all your new conversations and experiences.”
"Oh, yes.” Dora sought to allay her friend’s fears. "I’ll leave lots of room to experience every facet of kissing, hugging, and lovemaking.” Tessa wiped away her frown, but Dora recognized the worry in her eyes as they entered the lab. She’d noted that Tessa tended to worry, often without valid reasons. "Relax. Being human is going to be fun.”
"Being human will be a huge change for you.”
"That’s the point.”
"Are you sure you can handle being human?” Tessa’s voice was gentle but edged with a thick thread of apprehension.
"I won’t know until I try.”
"Is the process reversible?”
"Not at the present time, but this isn’t a decision I’ve made without considerable assessment and analysis.”
"Yes, I know.”
Tessa tightened her lips, and although Dora appreciated her concern, if billions of other beings could handle being human, then she could, too. Sure, she expected a few glitches. But she’d made certain to include a capacity to adapt and cope.
Tessa strode to the tank where Dora’s new body floated in a sea of nutrients. Although it was not yet fully formed, Dora was pleased with her progress. Her height was taller than Tessa’s, but most Rystani women towered over the Terran. Dora’s organs and bone structure were completed, but she had yet to decide upon the finishing touches.
Tessa stared into the tank, again silent and oddly still, obviously containing her apprehension, but she’d support Dora’s decision—no matter what—that’s what friends did, and warmth for the connection they shared sang through Dora’s circuits.
Tessa fisted her hands on her slender hips and chewed her bottom lip. "So what’s next?”
WHILE DORA conversed with Tessa in the lab, she also continued to monitor Zical’s disappearance. She didn’t like being cut off from her portable units, especially the one with Zical. Even when Zical slept, Dora remained totally aware of the man’s every breath, keeping him in the forefront of her processors.
Although she could assess the breadth of his shoulders down to the last millimeter, she never tired of watching light reflect off his bronze skin. While she could pin down his eye shade to numerical frequencies of reflected light, she liked watching his irises color change with his moods, a warm red when he was passionate about a subject, cool violet when he teased her.
She had plans for herself and Zical, so he had best not disappear on her. Out of millions of humanoids, Zical fascinated her and irritated her more than any other. If she’d been human, she would have called her appetite to know more about him a consuming compulsion. Dora had devoted a great deal of time studying what body shape, skin tone, and coloring he’d prefer in a woman. Since he never arranged alone time with members of the opposite sex, she really had no concrete knowledge on how to base his preferences. He’d been married once, but that was long before she’d arrived on Rystan with Tessa, so she knew little about his past. The man could be frustratingly close-mouthed.
Right about now, she’d love to hear his deep voice as he exited Mount Shachauri, even if it was only to complain about her portable unit bossing him around. What was taking him so long in there?
Knowing he would be less than pleased if she set off an alert, Dora would give him another thirty Federation minutes before reporting a loss of contact to Tessa and Kahn. Meanwhile she tried to assure Kahn that when she left her neurotransmitters behind and entered her human body, she’d leave the planet’s defense system in able hands.
"How do I know your entire system won’t crash?” Kahn paced the deck of his command center. A large Rystani male, one of the foremost fighters in the Federation, he’d married Tessa against his will in order to save his people. Stubborn-minded, intelligent, he leaned aggressively forward, the image of a confident leader in complete charge of his crew and the technology around him.
Built deep beneath the surface of Mystique, the state-of-the-art military station was the headquarters of the planetary defense system. From here Kahn could track an invading force, and if necessary, direct his small but deadly fleet of pilots to repel an invasion.
"I’m training my replacement as we speak.” Dora kept her tone calm, but experience told her that when it came to the safety of his people, Kahn would never accept less than full measures. For a man who’d lost his homeworld and had to marry an alien and colonize a new planet, altering his perceptions on a grand scale, he could be remarkably inflexible.
Kahn spoke through gritted teeth, his tone harsh. "So nothing will change? I won’t notice that you’re gone?”
Dora chuckled. "Oh, you’ll notice. The Dora you know is moving into a human body. You’ll be able to see me.”
"Your twin will remain in our computer?” Kahn asked.
"My personality will leave. The data and memory chips will remain intact—except for personal memories that I’ll wipe clean.” Dora didn’t intend to leave behind her most private conversations.
"Exactly what will take your place?” Kahn raised a speculative brow.
"Who will take my place might be a better question.”
Kahn crossed thick forearms across his massive chest, a perfectly attractive chest, but she much preferred Zical’s less massive but sleek-edged muscles. "Fine. Who will take your place?”
"I don’t know. The personality hasn’t formed yet.”
"Suppose it never forms?”
"Then you will have a non-sentient computer. But I don’t think that’ll happen.”
Dora hesitated. As she’d removed her private essence and cached her personality, she’d sensed a new entity emerging. In the formative stages, the being was so young that it barely hummed above the neurotransmitters, yet she perceived another presence. "I’m no longer alone.”
"Can I talk to the new personality?”
"It’s like a seedling. A baby.”
"A baby? Dora, I need a fully functional computer to keep Mystique safe. You cannot leave until—”
"Your worry is unfounded. When you replace a starship pilot, do you expect the next man to have the same personality?”
"I expect him to fulfill his duties.”
"You expect him to have the same skills. My replacement will have my skills,” she said, making her tone as reassuring as she could. It always amazed her how humans spent so much time worrying. Yet Kahn was a great leader. He’d saved his people from starvation and invasion. If he pressed her for details, it wasn’t so much that he doubted her statements but needed more data to convince himself. He responded to her the same way he would a valued warrior, not a computer.
Dora explained, using an example he would find acceptable. "But you must stop thinking of my replacement as another me. Brothers that are born of the same parents in the same womb can have totally different personalities. My replacement has been born of neurotransmitters and memory chips integrating deep in my hardware but the probability of the being resembling me is infinitesimal.”
Kahn glowered at his banks of monitors. "Suppose the new computer doesn’t like us?”
A quick scan told her his monitor readings all read normal. She concluded the reason for his displeasure was Kahn was suspicious of change. "My programs allow latitude in carrying out commands. However, the new entity must follow your orders.”
"It’s the latitude I’m worried about,” Kahn grumbled.
Dora’s extraordinary mind had found ways to "bypass” orders she didn’t want to follow. She hadn’t understood until now that Kahn was aware of her unique ability. Since Tessa would never have told him, even if she did love the man to distraction, Kahn must have figured out that Dora often helped Tessa without sticking to the letter of his commands.
Using a tried and true technique to distract him that she’d learned from Tessa, Dora changed the subject. "Zical has been out of touch from my scanners for almost a Federation hour.”
"Your portable unit?”
"Out of touch as well.” Dora didn’t attempt to hide the concern in her tone. Zical should have checked in by now, and while any number of perfectly harmless possibilities could be preventing his exit, she could also think of other dangerous perils—from a rock slide to a fall to sudden illness.
Kahn stared at a monitor. "Show me his last known location.”
A human wouldn’t have noted any transformation in Kahn’s demeanor. His bronzed face remained in a stoic glower. His wide stance didn’t alter. But Dora picked up his slightly elevated blood pressure. Sweat glands opened and her delicate sensors heard his teeth click as he ground his molars.
Zical wasn’t only Kahn’s friend, they shared the same family unit. Their bond was extraordinarily tight. They’d fought together, escaped the invasion together, and when Kahn and Tessa had marriage problems, Kahn sought Zical’s advice as often as he did Etru’s, the eldest married male in their family.
To the human eye Kahn might not show his concern, but Dora read him more easily and understood his worry for his friend. Kahn might pretend to be the stoic warrior, but he possessed a huge heart. He’d protect his family and his world with his life, and Dora was glad he’d married Tessa. She was also glad his protective instincts had kicked in over Zical’s disappearance. Where was he?
Dora projected a holograph of Mount Shachauri, Mystique’s highest peak. With a blinking light she showed Zical’s last location. After playing back her portable unit’s conversation with Zical before he’d entered the portal, she prodded Kahn. "Time to send a rescue team?”
TESSA STRODE INTO the command center, obviously overhearing Dora’s last words. "Who needs rescuing?”
"Zical.” Dora explained the situation quietly to Tessa while monitoring Kahn’s communications. He’d ordered a rescue unit to the site but told them not to enter without his specific command. He also readied his private skimmer, and when Dora advised him that he couldn’t land near the site, he spoke with Etru about piloting close enough to the site for Kahn to jump-and-float, a procedure where he’d leap from the skimmer’s open hatch, employ his suit’s null-grav capabilities to descend, and land at his destination point.
Tessa must also have been listening to Kahn’s conversation with Dora. She placed a hand on his shoulder. Kahn’s blood pressure steadied and he glanced down at his wife, one inquisitive brow quirked upward. "Yes?”
Her tone remained gentle but firm, but her eyes brightened with urgency. "I’m coming with you.”
He nodded. "Fine. Let’s move.”
As they ran hand in hand for the bay where Kahn’s personal skimmer awaited, Dora couldn’t help admiring their partnership. Not so long ago, Kahn would have told Tessa to remain at home where she would be safe. He now recognized that kind of life was unacceptable to his adventurous wife. In fact, Tessa thrived amid turmoil and danger, and Kahn had learned to cherish her fighting spirit.
In Dora’s quest to become human, she hoped to someday share her life with a man who understood her so well. The yearning to share part of herself had led to building a body, but with Zical’s disappearance, she worried that her goal might end before she’d even started the transfer.
The couple had exchanged few words, each of them recognizing that time might be of the essence. But although their synchronized run might appear effortless, Kahn had shortened his steps to match Tessa’s shorter legs. He kept her hand in his.
Dora couldn’t wait to touch and be touched like that. She’d read all the definitions of touch, but it was like explaining sight to an Osarian—nothing could duplicate the reality of experience. More importantly she wanted to share the kind of communication, sensitivity, and empathy that Tessa shared with Kahn. She longed for a time when she could understand another human so well and have him understand her. The marriage had made Tessa happy and complete, and Dora wanted that kind of love.
It might never happen. Not everyone was lucky enough to find a mate. Despite her vast stores of knowledge, Dora figured wanting a man to love was only the first part of the quest. Next she needed to find the right man. At the moment, Zical was her prime candidate. First and foremost, Zical possessed a devastatingly sexy grin that sparked all the way to his unusual and wondrous alexandrite eyes. She adored how his eyebrows raised inquiringly when he teased her, how his mouth set in a firm line, yet one corner usually turned up in amusement, especially when he was trying to appear firm. Right now she missed the full-bodied sound of his voice, the low throaty grunt while his eyes smoldered. Of course, her perception of the man might alter after she transferred to her human body, so she’d mostly kept her thoughts private.
Through human eyes, Dora might not find him as attractive as her sensors. But sheesh, Zical had eyes that sparked liked magical lightning, a ready smile, and a responsibility to his people that she admired. She accepted that she might not be attracted to his smell, another sense she had yet to experience, but she’d considered options to offset the possibility. Since subliminal chemistry was very important to humans, she’d used her best science to ensure her pheromones and his would integrate on both the conscious and subconscious levels.
Even if her feelings for Zical remained after her transformation, she understood on an intellectual level that he might never return her passion. Tessa had questioned Dora, then made her talk to a psychiatrist to ascertain that she wanted to be human for herself—even if she never found a mate. The psychiatrist had agreed that the yen to touch, to love, was an intrinsic part of Dora, a part she couldn’t eradicate even if she wanted. However, her idea of bliss was to have a relationship that ran deep and true, like her best friend’s.
Kahn and Tessa reached their skimmer and Dora picked them up on her portable units as well as a small mainframe inside the craft. Tessa took a seat in the rear at a navigation console. Kahn slid into the copilot’s seat next to Etru, who had the engines primed to go. From his muscular physique, Dora wouldn’t have guessed Etru’s age. Broad-shoulders and bronze skin seemed to define Rystani men, as did their flat bellies and lean limbs due to lack of fat in their diet. Etru’s hair was dark red, except at the temples where it was white. His eyes were amber like Kahn’s, but nowhere near as vivid.
Dora’s scanners noted a stowaway on board. Kirek, the little rascal, had sneaked in when no one appeared to be looking. While he still wore his portable unit on his wrist, the portable unit had lost contact for the last several minutes with her mainframe. Dora had been about to report the malfunction. She ran a self-diagnostic check, and Kirek’s unit once again appeared to check out in good working order, but Dora found it statistically impossible that Kirek’s unit so often malfunctioned without good reason and suspected the boy’s powerful psi had something to do with the breakdown.
Kirek didn’t resemble his father, Etru, or his brown-eyed mother, Miri. His birth in hyperspace had marked him with deep blue eyes and dark black hair, and it had also given him an off-the-charts intellect and one of the strongest psi abilities of any Rystani. Since the intellectually adult, four-year-old boy was in no danger, Dora had the latitude to decide whether or not to report his activity to his father. Tessa had already spotted the boy and said nothing, so Dora took the cue from her and remained silent.
"Dora, give me everything you have on the area,” Tessa requested. "Geography and weather conditions, please.”
"Compliance.” Dora called up the data and shot it to Tessa’s monitor.
Kahn strapped himself in. "Dora, what’s our estimated time of landing?”
The calculation took less than a nanosecond. "With the current tailwind, twenty minutes.”
"Dora.” Etru fired the jets to initiate a vertical liftoff. "Inform Miri we may be late for supper.”
"Compliance.” Dora passed on the message and added that Kirek was aboard the skimmer so Miri wouldn’t worry over his absence, then Dora aimed three extra sensors in his direction.
Meanwhile, she scanned for signs of Zical. She found his absence disturbing.
Dora had become accustomed to his presence. Looked forward to their conversations. Enjoyed looking at him while he worked, ate, and slept. He shouldn’t risk his life to satisfy his curiosity. Humans were so fragile, each person so unique. Zical was one in a billion. Just in case he’d emerged at another location on the mountain, she broadened the scan and came up with zip. Zero. Zilch. It was if a black hole had swallowed the man alive.
DURING THE FLIGHT, Dora finalized her alexandrite eye color, choosing the chromosomes to achieve the exact shade she wanted. Of course, she also gave herself perfect vision, genetically protected her eyes against disease, including several types of blindness, and began the process of choosing a skin tone and hair color. The combinations were infinite, and slowly she narrowed the choices.
She also helped Miri pick out a recipe for dinner, found a trader to deliver Mystique’s new crop of orangewheat for Shaloma, helped a mechanic overhaul a starship engine, continued to watch Kirek, and scanned for Zical. In addition, part of her circuits, a large part, focused on solving the communications problem with Zical’s portable unit, penetrating the peculiar force field on Mount Shachauri. Even as she connected all planetary and interplanetary communications, monitored the weather, and searched for Zical, she still noted the fascinating byplay between Tessa and Kahn.
Although Kahn sat upfront in the copilot’s seat and Tessa remained aft in navigation, Kahn frequently glanced in her direction, but not in any regular pattern. Each time he did so, his gaze ever-so-slightly softened, his pupils dilating. Too often for coincidence, Tessa seemed to glance up from her monitor to latch onto his gaze as if she were attuned to him on a special wavelength they alone shared.
Envious, but oh-so-glad her friend had such a strong connection with her mate, Dora longed for that kind of bond with another being. The complexity of human emotion endlessly fascinated Dora, and she eagerly anticipated the day she could experience a comparable relationship.
Although Dora had often been alone during her first three hundred years, she hadn’t longed to become human until after she and Tessa had become friends. Then Zical had come along, and the Rystani male had affected her sensors and stimulated her processors, until conversation alone had not been enough to satisfy her. She wanted to be a blood-and-flesh woman who could wrap her arms around a man, kiss him, stroke him, caress him. She wanted to be a true partner, and if she had to give up her immortality to have her chance at love, so be it.
Apparently, Kirek decided that they were too close to their final destination for his father to turn back. He climbed out from his hiding spot. "Hi, Dad.”
"Stars!” Etru swore, and Dora prepared to take over the piloting if necessary, but his hand remained steady on the controls. "How many times have I told you that a skimmer is no place for a child?”
"If I stayed home, I’d miss all the excitement.” Knowing his father was too busy to hold him, Kirek slid onto Kahn’s lap, the clever boy sure of his welcome. "I’m going to be a starship pilot one day.”
Kahn chuckled and his arm closed lovingly around Kirek’s waist. "You should have asked to come along.”
"You would have said no.”
"Starship pilots obey orders,” Kahn countered. "Your mother must—”
"I notified Miri that Kirek’s with his father,” Dora informed Kahn and Etru, remaining silent about exactly when she’d sent the message. However, when Kahn rolled his eyes at the ceiling, a Terran habit he’d picked up from Tessa, Dora suspected he’d figured out that her scanners had picked up the boy and she’d informed Miri, but not him, shortly after takeoff.
During their conversation, Tessa prepared emergency kits in the back. Dora lowered her tone so only Tessa could hear. "I’m modifying my portable unit in hopes that when you enter the cavern, we can maintain contact.”
"The modification may not work.”
Tessa picked up a laser weapon. "Understood. How long until the drop?”
Up front Kahn stood, placed Kirek in the copilot seat, and then strapped him in. "Stay.” His tone was harsh, but he gave away his true feelings when he tousled the boy’s hair with a gentle hand.
"He’s not going anywhere,” Etru muttered.
At Kahn’s approach, Tessa braced as if fearing her husband was about to give her the same order. But Kahn had learned that his wife rarely obeyed him. At the sight of three packed kits, his eyebrow lifted. "You’re coming along?”
"You might get into too much trouble on your own. Besides you’ve been telling me I work too hard and need to relax more.”
"You call dropping out of a skimmer relaxation?” Kahn sighed at his rhetorical question, but his lips ticked upward into a grin. He opened the hatch and wind blasted into the skimmer. Kahn leaned forward and gave his wife a fierce kiss. Almost always during times of intimate contact, one of them commanded Dora to leave their presence—while all the interesting stuff happened. However, they appeared so wrapped in the kiss that she had a perfect opportunity to observe.
All she could think was... yum.
Dora couldn’t wait to find a man to look at her with that kind of heat and tenderness. A man who’d kiss her with that combination of untamed need and savage possessiveness.
As always when she thought of a mate, her thoughts turned to Zical. Dora had done her best to ensure that the composition and elasticity of her human vocal cords produced the same timbre as her computer-generated voice. Would he find her human voice as sexy as her computer one? If she made herself attractive enough, would he be compelled to make love to her?