“Welcome, Calden. Thank you for coming to see FATHER. What guidance do you seek today?”
Calden of the Jor’gen Kindred shifted on the slightly-too-small stool which sat in the middle of the scanning booth. Everything aboard the Mentat station was slightly too small for him but since he was over three meters tall, it wasn’t surprising. In the five years he had been living and working there, he had gotten used to accommodating himself to the smaller living quarters and furnishings. It was worth a bit of discomfort to do the work he loved.
The Jor’gen Kindred were a branch of the Kindred who had bonded themselves, against the High Council’s will, to a race of people who were thirty percent larger than most other humanoid races. They had lost touch with their Kindred brothers and then, as the High Council had predicted, they ran out of females to bond with. Because of a genetic anomaly, any joining with a Kindred warrior produced only sons, 95% of the time, which meant that the Kindred were always on the move, looking for new brides.
When the Jor’gen Kindred ran out of females, they built a Mother Ship and went in search of new females to bond with them. Their leader, Bram, was certain that the Goddess—the Mother of All Life whom all Kindred worship—would lead them in the right direction.
Calden had disagreed. He was an atheist and a scientist and he cared nothing for religion or wild hopes and dreams—or for females for that matter. He could happily live without a mate and so he had taken a shuttle and gone to live and work at the Mentat science station, a place where logic and reason were valued above all else. He had also taken the seed of a bonding fruit plant—a requirement for any Jor’gen Kindred who decided to leave the Mother Ship.
“I will never use this, you know,” he had objected when Ren, the science officer and his good friend, had given it to him on his departure. “You know how the Mentats are—you know the rules aboard the station where I’m going to work.”
“Nevertheless, you must take it,” Ren had insisted. “Bram wants to be certain that any warrior who leaves the Mother Ship has the means to bond with a chosen female if he meets one. And since we are so much larger than most of the people we can bond with, the bonding fruit is a necessity.”
“I will take it as a token and memento of my race,” Calden had agreed, relenting. “Though I know I will never use it.”
“Go in peace, Brother. And may the Goddess bless you,” Ren told him. “If you ever wish to join with us again, simply signal. Though we are going far from the Mentat station, I fear.” He frowned. “Still, we may hear you.”
“I will be certain to keep my shuttle tuned to the Mother Ship for as long as possible,” Calden had promised. He and Ren had embraced one last time and then he had left, going to his new life—a life of science and study and observation.
It was the life Calden had always wished for and he was happy here at the Mentat station. It was a bit cramped but since the race he now lived with was only half a meter or so shorter than he was, it wasn’t too bad. He had no problems living and working with the most logical beings in the universe, who valued reason over emotion. He fit right in with them and had no difficulty following their rules—even the more stringent ones most males would balk at.
But now he was here in the scanning booth asking to break one of those rules…or at least bend it a little.
“I am not so much in need of guidance as permission, FATHER,” he said, choosing his words carefully. The AI who oversaw and ran the Mentat station was a reasonable entity but some topics must still be approached with caution.
There was a moment while the soothing blue light which suffused the scanning booth flickered and then FATHER’s voice spoke in that same, soft, melodious tone.
“Very well, Calden. Explain.”
“The recovery droids have made an extraordinary find,” Calden said. “The remains of a spaceship—a colony ship, we believe. Its inhabitants must have been seeking a new planet to live on because there are frozen embryos of many different animals and cuttings and seeds of hundreds of plants.”
“A most stirring discovery.” The lighting in the scanning booth flickered faintly pink and FATHER’s voice sounded mildly interested, which for the Mentat AI was an extreme expression of emotion. “A whole new sentient alien race, you say—one none of us has encountered before?”
“Exactly.” Calden worked hard to keep the excitement out of his own voice, though it was difficult to contain himself. To his curious, scientific mind, this was like the biggest name-day present anyone could wish for. He was itching to start studying some of the new plants and animals but there was one in particular he wanted to study—if only FATHER would agree.
“What do you need permission for?” the AI asked, the lighting going back to soothing blue. “Why do you not begin your study of this new race at once? All knowledge is valuable, as you know.”
“Yes, of course.” Calden nodded. “But there is one specimen in particular that I wish to study. You see, FATHER, despite the many plant and animal samples we have acquired, only one member of the alien race who sent this space craft out in the first place has been recovered.”
“Only one?” FATHER inquired.
Calden nodded. “The ship was torn in two—we speculate that it went through a wormhole and came out in the middle of an asteroid field. The front half was lost and only the back half—the storage area—remained. At least, that is the only part our recovery droids found. The body of the sentient being was discovered there.”
“I see.” FATHER hummed quietly to itself. “So only one sentient specimen remains and naturally you wish to grow a clone of it in the nutrient tanks and study it.”
“Naturally,” Calden said.
“Why must you ask permission for this, Calden?” FATHER asked. “Though you have not grown sentient specimens before, the protocol is the same as for non-sentient ones.”
“I must ask permission because…” Calden took a deep breath. “Because this particular specimen is…female.”
“Female?” The light in the scanning booth flickered again—this time turning an ominous reddish-orange. “Calden, you know our rules here. You were told when you first came to the Mentat station and were allowed to live and work with us. Females cause discord and illogical reactions among males. For this reason they are banned from our station with no exception.”
“Of course I know the rules and I am not seeking to circumvent them now,” Calden said quickly. “But this is the only sentient member of the crew left. She could teach us so much about the plant and animal specimens we have collected.” He sat forward on the too-small stool, his hands clasped on his knees. “FATHER, I swear that this female would not be sexually compatible with any of the Mentats aboard the station. She is too different physically for any of them to mate with.”
The Mentats were humanoid in some respects, having two eyes located on the front of their elongated heads, two nostril slits, a thin, lipless mouth, and a long, narrow torso from which two sets of arms sprouted. They were also bipedal and walked upright. But they kept their organs of reproduction tucked in a pouch under their narrow, pointed chins. And even if they had been able to breed with this new sentient species which had been recovered, their DNA was far too different to allow any kind of viable embryo to result.
“And what of yourself, Calden?” FATHER demanded in its soft, melodious voice. “Would you be able to mate with this female if you grew a clone of her in the tanks?”
“Certainly not,” Calden said firmly.
“Because you would not be a match genetically?” the AI probed.
“Well…” Calden cleared his throat and shifted uneasily on the stool. “As a matter of fact, our DNA is compatible—from what I have seen so far, anyway. But there is still no way that I would be able to mate with this female—even if I wanted to. Which I most certainly do not.”
“And why is that, Calden?” FATHER asked.
“Because of our size difference, FATHER. Even fully grown, this female would be no more than half my size. My, er…” He cleared his throat. “My shaft would never be able to fit inside her—again, not that I would want it to—rendering a mating between us completely impossible.”
“Hmmm…” The lights flickered again, this time to a thoughtful bluish-purple. Clearly FATHER was considering the proposition.
Calden waited anxiously, trying to appear relaxed. He took deep, even breaths and concentrated on keeping his heart rate slow and steady, knowing that the AI was scanning him all the time for untoward emotion. But how could he help being excited? This was the find of a lifetime—thousands of specimens from a whole new world—and this female could be the key to it all. She could tell him so much that wouldn’t be evident any other way. If only FATHER would agree…
“All right, Calden,” the AI said at last, breaking his train of thought. “Clearly you wish only to study this female and not to breed with her. You are granted permission to grow a clone of your new specimen in the nutrient tanks—provided that she is implanted with a self-termination unit as are all live specimens.”
“Oh, but I don’t really think—” Calden started to protest.
“A self-termination unit is necessary,” FATHER’s soft voice repeated implacably. “This new specimen must not be treated any differently than any of the others, even if she is sentient. Also, knowing that she has a limited lifespan may discourage any untoward emotion between you.”
“If you are implying that I get emotionally attached to my work, FATHER I must protest,” Calden said, frowning.
“You did resist allowing the brantha specimens you were studying to terminate,” the AI reminded him softly.
Calden shifted again. “They were…small. And harmless. Also very affectionate. It would not have been a problem to allow them to continue living.”
“Calden, you know the station has limited resources.” FATHER’s soft voice was reasonable. “If every specimen that you started to have emotions for was allowed to live—”
“I don’t have emotions for my specimens,” Calden denied quickly. “I simply dislike waste. It seemed…unnecessary for the branthas to terminate.”
“Nevertheless, you know the rules, Calden. All specimens must have a self-termination unit implanted. Otherwise the station would be overrun with creatures we cannot accommodate.”
“Understood,” Calden said stiffly. “Thank you for permission to continue this new study, FATHER.”
“You are most welcome, Calden. You know that we find you a valuable addition to the scientific study here aboard our station,” FATHER said. “Keep up the excellent progress. And remember, all knowledge is valuable.”
“All knowledge is valuable,” Calden repeated, rising to go.
As he left the scanning booth, the lights flickered again and then resumed their cool, soothing blue tone. FATHER was quiescent once more, waiting for the next supplicant in need of help or guidance.
Calden tried to hold back a grimace of irritation. He knew the station was lucky to have such a benevolent overseer but sometimes he could not help chafing under the AI’s strict rule. Still, he had agreed to obey FATHER and to be held accountable by the AI for all his actions and emotions when he first came to live and work at the Mentat station, so it was only fair that he keep his end of the agreement.
At least FATHER agreed to let me grow the new specimen. I’ll learn so much from her!
The hum of excitement in his veins wasn’t the Mentat way but as long as Calden kept the emotion hidden, what harm could it do? He strode back down the long, winding metal corridor of the circular station towards his own quarters with a spring in his step. Exploring and learning about this new find the recovery droids had brought in could be the work of a lifetime!
A very short lifetime—for the female, at least, whispered a little voice in his brain.
Calden frowned as he placed his palm to the privacy pad and the metal door to his room slid silently open. Well, that was true. He would just have to make the most of the time he had with her and not think about her ultimate end.
And after all, he argued with himself, it wasn’t like the self-termination switch was a painful way to end existence. It was lodged in the brainstem, where all autonomic functions were located in most species. When the specimen’s time was done, the switch simply stopped the nervous impulses from the brain to the heart and lungs. The heart stopped beating and the lungs stopped drawing breath. Termination was almost instantaneous and entirely painless—or so Calden had been assured by the Mentats.
It will be fine, he told himself as he walked to his work station and logged in. He seated himself and began to work at the hand-board. Above it hovered the 3-D monitor cube which showed his research notes and findings from every angle. To his right, growing in a little pot beside the hand-board, was a small, green bush—a bonding fruit plant.
Calden still didn’t know why he had planted the seed and grown it in the first place. Maybe to remind him of his home world and the Kindred Brothers he had left behind. Though he found his work here fulfilling, he still missed Ren and Bram and the rest of his friends aboard the Jor’gen Kindred Mother Ship. He wondered if they had ever found a new race of females to bond with. Had they also planted bonding fruit seeds in the hope of finding new mates?
“Well if they did, I hope their seeds worked better than mine,” Calden muttered to himself as he studied the holo-cube of the 3-D monitor which glowed softly in the air in front of him. The seed he had planted had resulted in a sickly, stunted piece of vegetation which had never borne a single piece of fruit. It was almost as though the plant knew it wasn’t needed, so why bother to grow properly?
Which was a silly thought, Calden told himself. You couldn’t go around anthropomorphizing plants or getting attached to specimens like the tiny, fluffy branthas with their big eyes and their affectionate way of rubbing their heads against your hand as though begging to be petted and stroked. His heart fisted in his chest as he remembered the way the last of the little specimens—his favorite if he was being honest—had collapsed in his hands as he held it and stroked its lithe body, waiting for the inevitable end. His throat got tight at the memory and his eyes seemed to burn.
But that was emotion he was feeling—unnecessary emotion. He tried to push it away and concentrate on the task at hand.
Calling up the controls to the nutrient tank where he had already planted the DNA for his new specimen, he gave it the command to start the growth sequence. Luckily, the subject’s brain had been preserved, though the body had been frozen solid and mangled by some heavy machinery aboard the ship. She must have died of shock and been instantly frozen the moment her ship was torn in two and the vacuum of space found her.
Not a pleasant way to die but it was lucky for Calden. Her body was of no use since he intended to grow a new one anyway. But an undamaged brain meant that the clone he would grow in the nutrient tanks would have all of the original owner’s knowledge and the personality should be intact. It might take a little while for the memories to come back but that was just as well—it wouldn’t do to have her wake up in the tanks remembering the moment of her death. Such traumatic recollections could be emotionally scarring and were best left for later in the acclimation process.
She’s going to be perfect, Calden thought as he entered the command to begin accelerated clone growth. Perfect inside and out and I’m going to learn so much from her…
He had no idea how right he was…or how painful that knowledge would be.