by BRK

When the mighty starship Q.S.S. Knox is destroyed falling through a suddenly created wormhole, its portable A.I. finds himself marooned on an alien world with the one man he can't stop thinking about.

Added: Dec 2019 11,815 words 4,760 views 4.8 stars (4 votes)


He waited as long as he could. At first the risks were too great, but beyond extremity lies desperation.

Perhaps Raul Ederra, lieutenant junior grade and senior engineering specialist aboard the mighty Q.S.S. Knox, was accustomed to facing death with equanimity after five years in the unforgiving expanse of deep space. He was known as much for his sober dependability as for his uncanny good looks. His unflappable confidence, plus his knack for seeing the simple solution others had missed, tended to inspire the men and women who worked with him.

Certainly he proved himself the day everything ended.

When an undetected quantum thread caused a sudden catastrophic rupture in our third subdrive engine, instantly destabilizing the aft sections of the now-crippled ship and hauling us inexorably into a dimensionally aggressive and rapidly expanding wormhole, Raul leapt into action, evacuating almost the entire engineering section before the bulkheads closed and securing as many as he could in lifepods, keeping his head even as existence became pandemonium. Perhaps that was why in the final seconds, with destruction imminent and all officers straining to coordinate the exodus of every last soul on board the massive vessel, bulky, square-jawed Captain Beck turned to Raul and clapped his shoulder—then abruptly shoved him hard into one of the very last pods, thrusting something heavy into his arms as he did so.

“Take care of him, lieutenant,” the captain barked over the klaxons. His face was gray and grim. To me, he said, “You’re on your own path now, Knox. Good luck.”

Frowning in confusion, Raul looked down at the package he had instinctively clutched to his chest. It was the A.I. transport module—a nondescript-looking black synthmetal backpack that happened to contain everything the ship had ever known and everything it had ever learned. In the midst of all the mayhem Beck must have found a moment to engage the emergency A.I. deport procedure in a bid to save the ship’s heart, mind, and memories.

Raul had never intended to leave the ship, not while others were still in danger. He looked up sharply, intending to protest, but Beck was already yanking down the release lever that sealed the pod. There was a loud clack, and then with a sudden jolt we were force-ejected into the devolving catastrophe.

We watched in horror as the disintegrating ship poured itself into the festering gash our exploding engine had rent in space itself…

But we did not have time to spectate. The ship’s remaining engines were striving hopelessly against the inexorable pull of the wormhole; our lifepod with its puny thrusters could not hope to escape. Raul barely had time to secure himself and grab the controls with one hand, clutching me to his chest with the other, before we were pulled in.

Passing over the terminus… I cannot explain. It was palpable in a way that it should not have been, not for a mass of attocircuits and deep-memory silicascapes like myself. For his part, Raul was momentarily overcome with what read to me as something close to pleasure. But as we shot through an interdimensional riot of… colors, and shapes, and… ideas?… that lay within the wormhole, the stimuli battering my protector rapidly became too much, and he blacked out. I survived by retreating within myself, shuttering my sensors and receptors to all external information, walling myself off from reality.

Raul later chided me about this, of course. “You passed out, just like I did,” he teased, and more than once, tossing me his trademark blazing smile as he did so. I did not pass out. I just closed my receptors for a time.

I had no idea how long to wait, huddled inside my own innards and out of touch with everything. When I finally opened my receptors again and peeked at our surroundings, the view had changed dramatically. We were out of the wormhole and madly careening out of control through the star-streaked blackness of normal space. Alarms sounded from the console—our thrusters and life support were both damaged from the journey through the wormhole, though whether from impact with other ejecta from the ship or from the journey itself I did not know. As if that were not alarming enough, a blue-green, habitation-standard planet loomed ahead of us—vast, and getting vaster. I caught sight of a yellow sun bled over the horizon from its position nearly a full A.U. beyond as the planet’s nightside sped toward us, unnervingly unblemished by any city-light archipelagoes, or visible installations of any kind. Only serene night could be seen, under soft, curling clouds.

Bad enough our pod was already caught in the planet’s pull. Worse, our trajectory was shit—the likelihood of crashing, rather than twisting at just the right moment and achieving a stable orbit where we could safely wait for rescue, was alarmingly high. Not that rescue seemed likely. There was no sign of the other lifepods in the black emptiness around us, nor of the wormhole, not even any debris of the massive starship that had been until now my only home. The insatiable maw our ship had opened could have sprayed its meal in a thousand directions from a thousand cosmic anuses spread through the unending reaches of space and time. We were alone in the universe.

We. The lieutenant! I turned my attention to my famously handsome protector, but though he still instinctively held me close to him his other hand was lax on the controls, and his head lolled against the protective headrest. I think in that moment I understood wheat fear was for the first time. “Lieutenant!” I cried out. He did not respond.

We slammed into the atmosphere. Air shrieked around us. “Lieutenant!” I called again franticly, boosting my volume. “Lieutenant Ederra!”

“Wha—?” Raul said blearily, cracking his eyes open a little before squeezing them shut and trying again. He seemed to be having trouble focusing.

“Lieutenant, we’re going to crash,” I informed him urgently. No sense sugar-coating it.

Raul blinked again and seemed to take in the planet surface hurtling toward us, now filling the wraparound viewport. “Shit!” he said, now fully alert. He leaned forward, grasping me close to his wiry torso. “Hang on, buddy,” he said, his expression determined. He engaged thrusters.

Too late, I thought, but I didn’t say it. The unknown planet fell up to meet us with a scream of rushing air and tearing metal, and this time I blacked out for real.

“Knox. C’mon, buddy, wake up.”

Blackness. My visual receptors weren’t working. Most of my sensors also. I didn’t like that. I tried to speak, but my voice sounded thready and uncertain. “Please identify.”

“It’s me, buddy. Raul. Raul Ederra. We… we lost the ship. Do you remember?”

My systems were sluggish. Was I damaged? Raul. I remembered the name. The crew talked about him a lot. “Lieutenant Edible,” I mumbled, my speech centers still misaligned. Wait—why had I said that aloud? How damaged was I?

I heard a soft huff of amusement. “Some people call me that, I think,” Raul said. “Though I’ve never heard it from an A.I. before.” His voice grew a little more concerned. “Are you okay? Run a systems check for me.”

Systems check. Right. “Stand by.” I reached out, sending the tendrils of my awareness into the vastness of the mighty Q.S.S. Knox, and—nothing. It wasn’t there.

I remembered. The ship… I had been wrenched free of the ship. Dumped into a transport module and shoved into the hands of the one officer I was most—aware of?—at the very brink of annihilation. Lifepod. Ejection. I had seen the ship dragged into the ravenous hole in space and destroyed, inch by inch. I… was no longer the mind, heart, and nerves of the most admired ship in the Qaslian fleet. I was a box in a knapsack on an unknown world at the ass-end of the universe.

I swear I felt a momentary chill. Can an A.I. experience a frisson of existential dread?

Systems check. Right. I ran the procedures. It didn’t take long—nanoseconds instead of microseconds. There was less to keep track of, so much less. I tried to see this as a helpful reduction in processor load. “Physical structure, zero point nine eight intact,” I said. “Receptors, zero point nine offline. Sensors, one point zero offline.” That was a problem. I wouldn’t be much help navigating the terrain and dangers of this place until I had that fixed. “Linear processes, zero point zero five misaligned. Memoryscapes, zero point nine nine intact.” I ran down the list. “Summary: functional level delta one five.” Operational, but well short of optimal.

I assessed my ability to restore the afflicted systems through backup restoration or process reconstruction. Almost everything on the software side could be fixed, but one of the tiny physical external mechanisms was kaput, and now that my nanomaker was dust along with the rest of the ship there was no way for me to do anything about it. At least my defensive laser was intact. If we were ever, say, in danger of being mauled by a bear, I could definitely put out one of its eyes before I was violently ripped apart, if the bear stood still long enough.

“Self-repair factor: zero point nine nine,” I concluded. “Offline estimated duration: 27 seconds.” That seemed like a shockingly long time, especially for being just a brain in a box instead of a giant spaceship. I must have been pretty banged up in the crash. Wait—there had been a crash. There must have been, not that I remembered any of it. “Are you damaged?” I asked. I should have asked before.

“Nothing I can’t deal with,” Raul said. What did that mean? But Raul had already moved off himself and back to me. “What can’t you fix?”

“The third holoprojection microlens is irreparably damaged,” I admitted.

“So I won’t get to see your pretty face,” Raul said. This sounded like a joke to me. I was shaken up enough I didn’t trust my ability to joke back, so I said nothing. “Proceed with reboot and repair,” he instructed.

I complied, and my mind stilled.

Twenty-seven seconds later I was awake, and able to see again. What I saw took a while to take in.

We were encamped on a lush, narrow greensward very close to a vibrant, loud-flowing river, its cold blue water crashing past through what appeared to be a set of rapids. The churning rapids were flanked on either side by towering and redolent conifers marching thickly up the sides of a steep, rocky defile. Birds of some kind twittered in the dense, rising woodland, barely audible over the river’s roar.

Fifty meters or so up the curving riverbank lay the spherical, steel-gray lifepod, half embedded in the mud at the end of a short trough gouged into the bank when we’d landed half in the river and half out. The pod appeared broken and inert; one of the windows was staved in, still sporting a giant tree branch like a warrior-king’s eye shot through with an arrow. The hexagonal side hatch gaped open. A little ways up the gentle lawn an emergency self-erecting isoduranium shelter stood, solid and anomalous in this bucolic paradise, a home when all other homes are lost.

High overhead the white faces of two small moons shone, one half the size of Earth’s moon and the other tagging behind like a kid brother. The sibling moons glowed benignly from a dark turquoise sky that filled with the pricks of countless stars as I watched. The night was deepening rapidly, stoking my curiosity about the cycles and seasons of this world. Still, though the evening was falling around us the temperature remained comfortably mild, and Raul showed no inclination to cover his hairy, defined chest, lightly muscled arms, and long, tanned back, for which I felt an unaccountable gratitude.

I made a mental note to further investigate my increasing consciousness of Raul. I had noticed myself watching him before, back on the ship, and my own actions had mystified me even then. Now that we were alone together on a lost planet, my growing attachment to my protector might be a matter for concern and required monitoring.

Raul was sitting cross-legged on the grassy lawn, watching the stars emerge. He seemed to sense that I was awake again, or maybe he’d just waited until my reboot time had elapsed. “What do you think?” he asked.

I considered the entire tableau available to all my senses—the sights and sounds and scents. This strange world, with Raul in it, next to me. “It’s beautiful,” I said. I wondered at this—obviously it was not an ideal world for a machine, however sophisticated. No spare parts for a million light-years, probably, and one tumble in that river and I was a door-stop. But the aesthetics of everything I sensed around me appealed to my quantum core. Being programmed with a entirely human referential universe, yet not being human, could sometimes be confusing.

Raul looked down and smiled at me. To my surprise he sported a day’s growth of beard, though he’d been nicely clean-shaven when we left. I must have been unconscious longer than I realized. My internal clock had no external link now and so hadn’t measured the downtime. I’d have to rig up something from the local planetary rotation and visible star patterns I’d study while Raul slept.

“It is beautiful,” Raul agreed. He seemed pleased but not surprised that I thought so. He nodded up at the stars. “Any idea where we are?”

I didn’t respond immediately. “Without extra-atmospheric telescopy it is difficult to be certain,” I said, “but I may be able to match these patterns to possible positions in the galactic star charts. I will need several weeks, at least, to watch the movement of the stars before I can formulate a hypothesis.” I paused. “I should warn you, lieutenant—”

“Raul,” my protector cut in. “No point in standing on ceremony,” he added with a slight upturn of his lips.

I ignored the flare of pleasure that came from the knowing I could call him by his personal name and continued my speech. “I should warn you, Raul,” I iterated, “that the wormhole may have sent us far beyond our galaxy. Possibly… beyond our universe.”

Raul nodded. He rested a hand on me, causing another wave of un-me-like gratification. He’d removed me from my protective synthmetal knapsack, so that my transport module—a flat, sealed, cobalt-blue isoduranium casket slightly smaller than a human torso, purposely soft to the touch like leather to make for easier carrying—lay exposed to the world… and to Raul’s touch. I was still not understanding, or perhaps refusing to understand, my own reactions. I had tactile sensors on the emergency transport module, so that I could react to threats and other urgent stimuli, but this was not something that was supposed to be in programming. It wasn’t like I’d reacted with glee every time Captain Beck had idly stroked the starship bulkheads, as he was wont to do in a melancholy mood. Or when Ensign Keer ran barefoot around the antimatter containment ring every morning.

“I take it you haven’t picked up any transmissions?” Raul asked calmly. He began moving his thumb slowly side to side along the smooth surface of my module in a gentle caress. “You’d have told me if you had.”

“No transmissions,” I confirmed. The sky was silent as a stone—a condition I had never before experienced in twenty years of service on the Q.S.S. Knox. “In fact… Raul, the only technology I can sense in a fifty-kilometer radius is us. That lifepod, and what came out of it. Myself included.”

The little smile was gone. He nodded again, and swallowed. I watched his adam’s apple shift, down, then up. “Can you sense any humanoid life?”

“Indeterminate,” I said. “There’s animal life, lots of it, large and small. But at present I don’t have enough of a sensor baseline for this world to differentiate beyond size.”

“Hmph,” Raul said. He turned his head back up to look at the twinkling stars, now numbering in the unguessable billions against the deep, blue-black sky, though he didn’t take his hand away, or cease his slow thumb-strokes across my surface. He heaved a little sigh. “Hope it’s not the Planet of the Dinosaurs,” he joked.

“Unlikely,” I said. I was distracted as I spoke, because I found myself hoping—ridiculously—that his caresses would never end. “But it seems certain there will be dangerous predators.”

He turned back to me, and gave me a real smile that somehow made me shiver. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he said, before turning his face back up to the sky. “I’ll protect you.”

I know you will, I thought. But who will protect you?

Over the next week we explored the valley, charted the stars, and tried to ignore the dwindling of Raul’s supply of fresh water and rations. Each lifepod was equipped with enough of both for ten days if used very sparingly. Even with the distress beacon in the pod activated, the prospect of rescue in that time was, we agreed, vanishingly small. I’d yet to pick up any transmissions whatsoever either from the skies or from around us on our new world, and I’d continued to detect no sign of electronic technology anywhere nearby. If there were hominids on this world, they were most likely at a stage of development that suggested we couldn’t reasonably hope for a rocket they might have for us to borrow.

That meant that every day that ticked by brought us closer to the moment Raul would need to eat the local food and drink the local water, and there were plenty of horror stories about shipwrecked starcorps crews resorting to exactly that and either living to regret it, or… not. Breathing the air here was dangerous enough, though the genobooster Raul took after we’d crashed adapted Raul to the atmosphere inasmuch as it varied from his accustomed norm. In terms of its base constituents the local troposphere fielded the usual suspects for a terrestrial planet: nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and familiar trace gasses in proportions strikingly close to standard, though the CO2 was slightly high and the oxygen/nitrogen mix was marginally richer in O2 than I was used to detecting. But there was something else, something nonelemental that I could neither identify nor extrapolate from my memories or even the comprehensive, galaxy-spanning databases embedded in my deep-quantum memoryscapes. It read to me as a concentrated, pinpoint form of energy, but with a minute mass as well; and it acted like a particulate, swirling idly through the air like motes of impossibility. They concentrated in some places like a gentle swarm, notably in the forests and nears the grasses of the greensward where we camped, while elsewhere, over the noisy, frothing rapids for example, they dispersed, dancing in isolation over the long, winding river. I named them extraparticulae just to have something to file them under in my head, but I didn’t grok them at all. Still, they seemed not to affect Raul, nor did they subsume into his system when he breathed them in and out again; and it wasn’t in my nature to raise an alarm baselessly, with no information. I watched them, hoping to accumulate enough datapoints to understand what they were, and how they might affect my protector in the long term.

My main worry was more basic, and more immediate: Raul’s survival beyond the duration of our rations. There was as yet no genobooster, not even the latest in A.I.-enhanced nanorobotry, that could guarantee the safety of water and food on an alien world. Soon, unless rescue came unlooked-for, he would have to risk joining the biome of this world.

Other things I had a better handle on. The nights were lengthening and the days were contracting—that was easy enough to assess. Based on what I’d seen from space and my calculations on the ground, we now knew that the winter solstice approached on the ninth day after the crash, though the weather remained mild and springlike. We wended the pathless woods with both an astronomical and a circumstantial turning point before us, the one as impossible to avoid as the other.

It turned out that I had intuited Raul’s passing off the question of his injuries from the crash correctly: he had wrenched his left knee badly. Though it was healing normally and he kept it in a protective brace that had been included in the medical supplies, it still caused him discomfort. Raul refused, however, to let his injury slow us down, a reaction that provoked both admiration in me and frustrated unease. It was, of course, protocol and common sense to learn all we could about our new environs, and that meant diligent, methodical exploration. He’d found a sturdy hunting knife that he now wore in a sheath on his belt at all times, and he used it to fashioned himself a sturdy walking stick from a long, straight fallen bough. Nothing I said could dissuade him from exercising his knee while it was safe to do so. So we hiked for hour upon hour as the days shortened, gradually increasing the number of kilometers trod up and down both sides of the river (a ford of stones made crossing possible a click and a half upstream). As we walked Raul kept up a steady stream of conversation about his life and the valley and places he’d seen that it reminded him of, and all I could do from my position in my backpack, slung over Raul’s sturdy bare shoulders, was watch his knee anxiously with my sensors and monitor his slow recovery.

We’d catalogued the flora and fauna in our sprawling valley on our hikes, so at least we knew that Raul wouldn’t starve—if he survived. I’d assessed the trees and plants we passed and any animals in range for nutritional value and any characteristics indicating potential toxicity in humans. There were three or four families of large tube-shaped weasel-like animals in various colors. Raul went ahead and called them ferrets, though they were too big for that—plus many of them had six feet instead of four, as though there had been an evolutionary branching in the very recent past. They seemed generally frolicsome and the longer ones especially liked to dart straight across our path in twos or threes, like they were playing with us, or maybe letting us know how hard they would be to catch if we wanted to. Raul chuckled whenever he saw them. There was a couple strains of deer, too, lots of small rodents, and dozens of varieties of birds. And there were other animals that were harder to classify. One creature, a hairless arachnid the size of two fists with smooth, muscled legs like a bat, seemed to like the river and pattered down under the light of the twin moons to the edge of the water with its buggy dinner. We watched in fascination from the table Raul had set up in front of the shelter, half expecting it to start washing its food like a raccoon.

The flora was promising too. The trees were tall and thick, but fallen boughs were everywhere, as if the tree limbs were made to snap off for firewood and other constructive uses. Analysis of the conifer needles and bark indicated they would both make an excellent and nutritious tea that was potentially analgesic as well, and there were a number of thick roots and even a couple wild patches of some kind of leafy cruciferous vegetable that seemed promising. On the third day we stumbled into copse of heavy, juicy-looking berries the color of the night sky, and Raul drew in the scent happily, clearly temped to try them. The ferrets liked them too, if the missing fruit on the lower branches and little footprints in the dirt below were any indication.

The walls of the valley steepened swiftly downstream from our campside, becoming a narrow gorge with ragged slate cliffs on either side that continued another kilometer or so before abruptly emptying into a salt sea that seemed large enough for an ocean, though I’d need better sensor triangulation to be sure. Where we were, upstream, the ridgeline could be reached easily enough by hiking directly up the rambling slopes through the dense woods, but further down the highlands above could only be attained by scaling the craggy stone cliffside. He looked at the cliffs longingly—he loved to climb, he told me, and had spent hours on the rockwalls in the ship in his downtime—but he wouldn’t risk climbing on a leg that wasn’t fully healed.

During the long, mild nights, countless insects creaking from all the woods around as if to spice the ceaseless noise of the rapids, I pondered my increasingly irrational awareness of my protector. From the beginning Raul had slept holding my leather-soft module close to his bare chest. Out of my knapsack, and with memories of having once been ensconced deep inside the vast and many-layered workings of a ship of the line, I felt as naked as Raul was. He held me, and I listened to his soft, steady breathing, the thumping of his heart, and the rushing of his blood. I traced the electrical impulses of his mind, charting their activity in complex waveforms, and though I knew not what he dreamed of I could tell when his slumbering thoughts turned visceral and erotic. His scent deepened as his cock thickened and grew. His grip on me tightened and the rhythm of his breathing changed. When this happened, an altogether impossible sensation welled in me: desire. It was beautiful and agonizing, all at once. How could an A.I. make love to a man? How could a man love an A.I.? I could no longer ignore the truth, that I was in fact coming to love Raul. It was germination long in coming, from a seed I had nurtured from the moment he had entered the ship I had called myself. He had dwelt inside me, and I had come to want him, craving his attention, and even his touch.

Now I received both, and I wanted more. By day he walked the land with me, and we talked about our world and shared stories and made plans for our long-term survival. At night he held me in his arms, as he had in those first harrowing moments together, except here there was no danger, no exploding starships or ravenous rips in spacetime. Only peace, and safety, and the intimacy of the two of us utterly alone together. And I…

If only I could touch. To touch, and to give pleasure, as he did with me…

The turning point came sooner than we expected. We came back from a hike at twilight on day seven to find one of the two remaining lightweight microplastic quantum-compression water skins lying dead and empty like a carcass in the middle of the greensward, right where we liked to lie back in the grass and watch the stars before bed. Beyond it, the door to our emergency enclosure lolling suspiciously open, swaying slightly in the mild breeze.

Raul drew his knife and approached the structure stealthily from the side. He flattened himself behind the open door, then peered quickly within. “No intruders,” he reported. “But the cabin’s been tossed.”

He came around the door and stared at the little disaster. All of our possessions were strewn about. The wide, low padded cot was tumbled on its side, and the built-in drawers were open and draped with random articles of clothing and supplies. Nor were we left in any doubt as to who had perpetrated this little act of mayhem. The culprits were announced by the tiny paw-marks left on the thin, pale thermal blanket and all across the fabric floor of the cabin.

“Ferrets,” Raul grunted, though he sounded more exasperated than angry. He moved into the room and started swearing as he examined the drawers.

“They took all the rations,” he said after a moment, moving back to the center of the can and frowning down at all the mess.

I reached out with my sensors. No animal signatures anywhere near. “They’re long gone,” I reported. I pulled back to scan the cabin, checking for any ration packets or spilled food that Raul might have missed. Instead I found more bad news. “The other water skin is gone too,” I said.

“Shitgrease,” Raul swore. “Is it—?”

“I have it,” I said, interrupting. “It’s a hundred meters up the hill. It’s—”

“Don’t tell me.”

I didn’t have to say it. The skin was clawed open and empty, like the other one.

He stood there for a long moment, hands on his hips. “Well, that’s it then,” he said at last. “It’s river water and hunting for me from now on. Which is good,” he added dryly, “because I’ve very recently started to wonder what braised weasel tastes like.”

“We might still be rescued,” I said quietly. “You still have time.”

Raul sighed. “We both know we can’t plan for that. And we also know that there are probably large carnivores in this valley. I’m pretty sure that was a felid hiding up in the trees up near the ridgeline last night, and that thing was a hundred kilos at least.” He paused, then added in a determined voice, “Only a fool would make himself weaker by fasting and dehydration under such circumstances.”

I didn’t know what to say. A quiet moment passed. Even the roar of the rapids seemed muted. “I’ll… do everything I can,” I said finally.

“I know, Knox. I know.” He reached over his shoulder and rubbed my casing through the knapsack. Then, as if suddenly resolving on a course of action, he turned and powered out of the cabin, making for the low slopes northwest of camp.

“Where—?” I started to ask, but stopped myself. His direct trajectory allowed me to guess. I understood—it’s where I would go first if I wanted to wring some ferret neck.

Sure enough, about forty minutes later we arrived at the copse where we’d found the midnight-berries. The sun was mostly gone, leaving a fading orange fire in the western sky, but the twin moons gave Raul enough light to see without needing my help. No ferrets, but a couple of empty ration-packets lay abandoned under the tall bushes like a calling card. Sibbian beef and longsprouts—not Raul’s favorite, but I thought it smelled nice enough.

“I wonder what it will do to them,” I mused.

“Probably make them shit ice cream,” Raul muttered. He sounded distracted, and I realized he was staring at the heavy, sweet-looking berries. I knew exactly what he was likely to be thinking: that now he was resolved on a course of action, he saw no reason not to pursue it right away.

I waited a few moments, but he didn’t move. Finally, I said, “At least take them back to the camp,” I suggested nervously. “Our medical supplies are still intact, such as they are.”

Raul nodded. He began methodically collecting berries until he had six of the large fruits—as many as he could easily carry in one hand. Then we headed back. On arriving in camp Raul paused only to snatch up a drinking cup and an empty bowl from the floor of the cabin before marching directly to the riverside.

Now that the act was directly before us, my own nerve started to falter. “Raul—” I started to say, but he knew me as well as I knew him.

“I’m sure,” he said firmly. He laid the cup and bowl down, depositing the berries into the latter, then pulled me off his shoulders and set me in the grassy verge that lay alongside the muddy bank. Once that was done he moved to the water’s edge and dipped the cup in. I stared hard at the water with all my faculties. It looked clean and clear to my sensors, and I could detect nothing toxic, but—

He sat and faced me. “Here goes,” he said solemnly. He scooped up two of the midnight-berries from the bowl and popped them in his mouth. “Mmm,” he said around his prize. He chewed a bit consideringly, then smiled at me with berry-smeared teeth. “Tart and sweet—like you!”

“Funny,” I said. I was in agony. Was my protector—my human—was the man I loved about to die?

Still grinning, he lifted the cup in his other hand and washed the berries down, downing the cup’s contents in two long gulps. He let out a contented ahhh as he turned back to me. “Nice and refreshing,” he said happily.

Then, suddenly, his expression changed. He dropped the cup and gasped alarmingly, and then, all at once, he toppled backwards and collapsed like he’d experienced a sudden, catastrophic biosystems failure. Then he was just laying there, twitching, his eyes wide and staring up at the starlit sky in horror.

“Raul!!!” I screamed. Never had I felt so utterly helpless. I couldn’t even move, much less do anything to save him. “Raul! Baby, what have you done! You crazy, rock-headed, dumb-ass human!” I was losing it, totally beside myself with grief and anguish and fury. “I swear,” I ranted, “you’d better come back to me, or I will fry you inch by inch with my laser eye and—”

At first it looked like the twitching had given way to convulsions. Then I understood—he was laughing.

I shut up. He sat up on his elbows and looked at me with twinkling eyes, grinning unrepentantly. “Gotcha,” he said, wiggling his brows in victory.

I just stared at him. “You gremlinfucker,” I growled, low and cold.

He laughed at me again, harder this time. “You’d have done the same to me,” he said as he climbed to his feet, still chuckling. He reached down and picked up the knapsack, but instead of slinging me over his shoulder he drew me out and held my bare module to his naked, firm chest and started walking back to the cabin, carrying the empty knapsack in his other hand.

“Like hell I would,” I grumbled, trying to ignore how comforting it was to be held so close to him like that after the huge scare he’d given me.

“Okay, okay. Don’t sulk. I’m sorry, Knox,” he said placatingly, though he was obviously still amused. Then, to my utter astonishment, he bent down and kissed the edge of my module near the corner. Objectively, the press of his lips felt like any of the other tactile caresses he’d given me with fingers or palms or the surface of his bare chest, and yet—it was also so much more. I said nothing.

“C’mon, buddy,” he said as we approached the cabin. “Let’s go to bed.”

It took little time to right the cabin and restore order. Then Raul closed the door and, as he had on every previous night, unselfconsciously shed his boots, uniform trousers, and undershorts before climbing onto the cot and drawing the covers over us.

“How do you feel?” I asked him.

“Fine,” he said, drawing his arm over me and pulling me close. “Great, even.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him. I just had to make sure. “For real?”

“For real,” he said, smiling into the dark. He kissed me again. It seemed to be turning into a thing. “Good night, Knox.” Then: “Wake me if you detect anything strange happening, okay?”

“Oh, I will.”

He snorted lightly and snuggled us closer. Soon his breathing had evened out and his brainwaves confirmed a normal, untroubled sleep.

I sent several minutes using my sensors to scan Raul every way I knew how. He seemed normal, but I had so few datapoints regarding the anomalies of this world. I did sense a shift in the behavior of the extraparticulae: they seemed to swirl around him now as if dimly aware of him as an organism, though this hard to measure and impossible to interpret. Some of the energy-matter motes Raul breathed in were not being breathed out, but still I couldn’t detect any measurable impact. As he slept on and no seizures or sickness or intestinal explosions occurred, I started to think we might have dodged a laserblast after all. I calmed a little, letting my senses drift beyond our cabin, taking in the constant tumble of the river and a breezy contentment in the surrounding forest. I sensed our felid again, this time prowling closer than before, though it was still many kilometers away and its prey was one of the strange three-eyed nocturnal rabbits we’d spotted the few times we’d kept hiking after dark.

After a while Raul’s brain patterns shifted. He murmured something, and I knew he was dreaming. They must have been mundane or meaningless at first, because he didn’t really react for some time. Then he abruptly fell into some kind of intense dream, maybe a nightmare. He shifted around, his emotions characteristically signaling both fear and determination. “No,” he murmured in his sleep. “You can’t have him. You can’t hurt him.”

Something shifted in him, and he made what sounded like a muffled growl into the pillow. The grip he had on me became tighter. Much tighter.

As the throes of his dream deepened, Raul’s muscles started to swell.

It wasn’t just exertion, or the involuntary flexing I’d seen him do in other dreams. This time… it was like nothing I had ever seen. His muscles were accruing mass. I could sense it everywhere, but especially in his arms, shoulders, and chest. I could even feel it in the forearm he had across me as he held me. Muscle gathered muscle like a slow time-lapse of a gymnast or a soldier who spent all his time weight-training for strength and muscle density.

“Can’t hurt him,” Raul snarled, deep and defiant.

If I had had a mouth it would have been hanging open. I remembered Raul’s instructions. “Something strange is happening…” I said weakly.

Maybe he did hear me in his dream, because he murmured, “Knox.” Then: “Can’t hurt Knox!” He bared his teeth, and I was shocked to see fangs. My mind raced. Clearly, in Raul’s dream I was being menaced by some powerful entity, a creature or a monster that outmatched Raul, and Raul was unconsciously changing himself to even the odds. Somehow, he was becoming a predator—a thick-muscled, bad-ass, tears-throats-out-with-his-teeth predator—and all to protect me.

“Raul!” I said, hoping to wake him, or at least reassure him in his dream. “Raul, it’s okay! I’m okay!”

He was panting, clutching me close. His muscles still gathered mass in slow motion as though drawing it from the air itself. His grip on me was so tight I was almost afraid he’d crack my case. “Can’t… hurt… Knox!” Raul seethed ferociously at his dream-opponent. Short, vicious-looking claws sprang suddenly from his knuckles.

I yelped in dismay. “Raul!” I said, louder this time. “Raul, baby! I’m okay! I’m okay!”

He snuffled, shifting. “Knox?” he murmured. He was still deeply asleep, but the dream had changed.

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Knox,” he said muzzily, drawing me half under him, against his newly thickened chest. “Love you,” he slurred, a dopey grin spreading across his lips.

I almost laughed. “Love you too,” I said softly, secure in the knowledge I could say this while he was asleep. Awake would be… awkward. What with him being a human man, and me being an emergency A.I. transport module and all.

He was getting turned on. His scent changed, and his skin warmed. And below, now that his muscles were done growing, something else was thickening instead.

And not just in the usual way.

All my sensors and receptors focused with rapt attention on his erect, titanium-hard manhood. I knew it well, of course. I knew that body, from the mole on his lower back to the tiny tattoo of a sleeping puppy on the side of his left butt-cheek. I knew every contour, every proportion, every scent, every smile—but most of all I knew that erection. It was long and wide and flat and it curved back gently toward his fuzzy lower belly when he was really aroused and I knew every gremlinfucking micrometer of it. I’d seen it nightly in what felt now like the before-times, back on the ship, and my attention to it had troubled me even then. It was as unnaturally beautiful as the man himself. Since the crash he’d been hard every night and on waking every morning, and I’d started constructing my first active fantasies of what it would be like to wrap something warm and human of my own around that exquisite shaft. Twice he’d gone off into the woods after breakfast and left me behind, only to return a half-hour later with an embarrassed smirk. As if my sensors couldn’t follow him everywhere he went.

I knew that erection. I dreamed of it, as only self-aware software constructs can dream. And now… now it was gathering mass, just like his muscles had. It was growing. It was growing fast, faster than his muscles. Its proportions were exactly as before. Long. Wide. Flat. Gently curving back. And steadily pushing right past huge and straight toward enormous.

I should stop this. An erection this size was a dream, but it was also not exactly a feasible, everyday piece of equipment. The ferrets would probably laugh at him. “Uh, hey… Raul…” I said, like I was nudging him with an elbow.

“Wanna make love to you,” Raul mumbled lasciviously. “Wanna fuck your sweet ass with my big, hard—”

His dick was sliding along the slide of my module now, its tip slipping up his now powerfully thick, still-hairy chest. Holy mother of vacuum tubes. “Raul, you gotta stop,” I said. His dick pushed higher—soon it would be at his throat. “Raul, stop! You gotta stop!”

He stilled. I held my breath—metaphorically, anyway. “Stop?” he said from his dream. He sounded hurt.

“Baby, you have to wake up now,” I said gently. “You’re dreaming. Wake up, and come back to me.”

His brainwaves shifted again, all at once, and his eyes opened. Neither of us said anything, like we were both listening to Raul’s heartbeats, waiting for a reversion to reality. It didn’t come.

“What happened?” Raul said at last, almost in a whisper.

“Remember when you asked me to wake you if anything strange happened?” I said.

He swallowed. “It feels like my… my muscles…”


“And… my dick…”


He sat up, throwing off the thin blanket. He was a sight to behold. His shoulders, chest, and arms had all swollen with what looked like two years of growth from intensive training—twenty-five kilos easy, maybe more. His legs were thicker, too—stronger, and I think, like his torso, longer, too, like he’d needed to become bigger in his dream, not just stronger. His wide, flat dick was so huge it was actually bobbing a few centimeters from his stubbly chin. His testicles had swollen too, though not nearly as much as his cock.

He seemed to be trying to ignore his massive erection, an impressive feat if he could manage it. Instead he was taking in his bulging arms and shoulders and legs and chest with obvious awe. Then: “Shitgrease! I have claws!”

“You were fighting something in your dream,” I said, trying to lead him back to it.

He looked at me, blinking. Then he seemed to remember. “That jaguar! The hundred-kilo jaguar!” he said excitedly. “He stalked into camp and was going to rip you apart, so I leapt on him, only I needed to be stronger to fight him, and then…”

“Then you were,” I said. “You… grew yourself in your dream.”

“Only, not just in the dream,” he said wonderingly. He flexed a bicep and stared at it, shaking his head at the strength and bulk he had never known before.

“Then the dream changed,” I prodded.

He nodded and looked right at me. One corner of his mouth twisted up. “We were making love,” he admitted.

“I was… human?” I asked, desperately curious.

He gave me a smoldering look. “You were a man,” he said seriously. “A very, very sexy man. But you were also… you. Nothing different about you. It was you I was making love to.”

“Just… with a body you could actually fuck.” I was overcome with so many emotions, so I did like Raul and resorted to humor. “Must have been a pretty impressive body to be able to take that thing,” I said.

Raul finally looked down at his colossal erection. We both stared at it a while. “I don’t think it’s going away,” he observed.

I let a couple seconds go by. “If you wanted to do something about it,” I said diffidently, “that would be okay.”

He bit his lip, then turned to me and grinned. “I don’t have to go off into the woods?”

“Please don’t,” I blurted.

His grin turn lewdly crooked again. “It won’t take much,” he admitted. “I’m already close. Just from thinking about the dream. Thinking about you, Knox.”

I faked clearing me throat. “Okay, you’re killing me here. Just hurry up, okay?”

His grin turned full and brilliant, and I fell in love all over again. “For you, anything,” he said. Then he added pointedly, “Baby.”

Great. Now I couldn’t pretend he hadn’t heard it. “Please,” I begged.

“You have to do something for me, though,” he said.

“What?” I said, and I heard my own impatience in the single word.

He winked. “Watch close.”

“Gremlinfucker.” As if I could see anything right now but him, or hear anything but his thumping heart.

He smiled at me another second or two, then turned to his uncanny dick… and swallowed the top third of it in one swift, smooth motion.

I gasped.

He brought both his large, long-fingered, knuckle-clawed hands and grasped the lower shaft, one fist above the other. I wanted to moan, but I held myself back. No, that wasn’t what I wanted—I wanted feel what his hands were feeling, feel what his mouth was feeling.

Raul began fellating himself in earnest, stroking his fists in time with the bobbing of hids mouth and tongue. I think I did moan at this point, I’m not sure. Raul was right, though—it seemed like he had barely started before he was groaning audibly around his dick, quickening his pace, and then suddenly he was cumming hard, his reddened dick so huge it was easy to see the pulsing cum as he shot huge quantities of seed into his own eager mouth. At first he kept up, swallowing rapidly as his mouth filled with spunk, but then he pulled off, sputtering, while his enormous dick was still spraying gouts of hot white semen, so that his face was almost instantly coated with the stuff. He squeezed his eyes shut, laughing, while his dick still spat the dregs of his release. “Fuck, that stings!” he said, retrieving a hand to wipe thick, globby ejaculate out of his eyes.

“Careful,” I said, “watch the claws.”

“Huh, right,” he said, obviously having momentarily forgotten them. He cautiously wiped his eyes clear with his fingers and blinked them rapidly. We both spent a couple moments calming down, then he turned to me, flushed and grinning. “So, what did you think?” he asked. He was still panting lightly from the exertion.

“I think someone needs a river bath,” I said archly. Though the truth was, the scent of his spunk was so potent it was almost intoxicating, even to me. I wasn’t in a hurry for him to wash it away, unless perhaps as prelude to him producing a whole new batch and dousing himself with it all over again.

He shoved playfully at my console, leaving a trail of spunk across my leather-soft housing. “C’mon,” he said. “What’d you really think?”

“I think,” I admitted, “that was the most beautiful, sexiest, most amazing moment of my cybernetic life.”

He smiled fondly at me. “Wait till we make love for real,” he said softly, and I didn’t think he was teasing.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

We looked at each other for another heartbeat or two. Then he picked me up in one meaty hand and got to his feet. “Okay, let’s go,” he said, heading for the door without bothering with his trousers. He had to duck slightly under the cabin door where he’d only skimmed the low doorjamb before, and his giant dick, mostly on its way to being soft by now, hung low and heavy between his impressively sculpted thighs, the head bobbing around a few centimeters above his knees. “Bath time, lover,” he said. “And lucky you—you get to watch.”

The rest of the night was uneventful—no self-willed mutations, just contented slumber. I even put myself in standby mode, partly to refresh my algorithms and partly to avoid obsessing on how more more obsessed I would be with Raul now that he was (a) so much bigger, hotter, and sexier than ever, (b) had grown himself bigger, hotter, and sexier dreaming of sex with me, and (c) had willingly gone down on himself right in front of me. After that, a little processor downtime seemed prudent.

For breakfast the next morning, Raul finished the rest of the berries he collected. At my suggestion we tried brewing the hearty conifer-needle tea I’d posited in our early assessment walks, and though Raul claimed it tasted like ass he seemed to like it well enough. I wondered if the fresh intake of new-planet food and drink would inspire Raul to try changing himself again, deliberately this time; but Raul seemed to like his new form, claws and all, though he cast me more than one wistful glance. Eventually he was ready to suit up as usual and head out. He had trouble with his uniform trousers, finally getting out his knife and converting them into cutoffs, though he still had immense difficulty fastening the fly over his tremendous bulge. Eventually he gave up and just left it open, the gray of his undershorts gleaming against the dark navy of the trousers.

As we went through our revised morning routine the sky overhead started to cloud over rapidly, heavy clouds rolling silently in from upstream and to the east. They looked fairly ominous, but Raul planned to get in a quick walk to the ridgeline to look for jaguar prints. I think he wanted to see if his dreaming of the beast had any connection to the real jaguar’s activity, though all he said was that it was a good idea to be sure of its movements. He slung me over his much broader shoulders, making me feel small for the first time in his company, and more aware of his delicious size than ever.

Fat drops were already pelting the ground by the time we reached the cat’s last known location, but there were no tracks to be found apart from the usual deer, rabbit, and various rodents, and Raul hurried us back down the hill. My backpack was good protection against the increasing rain, and I was generally safe from water as long as I wasn’t actually submerged, but Raul wanted to get us indoors as quickly as possible for my sake more than his—he seemed to revel in the water of this new world pouring down over his thick, beautiful brawn.

We were back in the cabin by noon, and we wiled away the afternoon trading funny secondhand stories of Qaslia, the federation homeworld that neither of us had ever set foot on, while increasingly heavy rain battered against our cabin. It being the solstice eve, our talk turned to old solstice day customs on Qaslia and elsewhere in the federation. On most worlds people traded gifts on solstice day, or in some cases on solstice eve. On some, like the colony world where Raul had grown up, the tradition was for the gifts to be small or even meaningless, while on others, Qaslia included, custom allowed for as lavish as one’s resources and the nature of the relationship allowed. Raul even asked about the convention on Rask, the shipyard world where the Knox had been built and where I had been constructed and programmed.

“On Rask, they don’t give gifts at solstice,” I told him. “Or rather, the gift you give your friends and loved ones must be a service or a kindness, not material goods.”

“I like that,” Raul said, smiling at me. In a teasing tone he added, “Alas, the solstice is upon us, good sir of Rask, and I have neither gift nor service for you.” His smile went crooked. “There’s so much I wish I could give you,” he said wistfully.

“You?” I protested. “I’m the one that’s a brain in a box with nothing to give, material or otherwise. And as far as that goes, I think you gave me your gift already,” I added, thinking of everything that had happened the night before. “I just got it a day early.”

“I don’t know,” Raul said cryptically, still with that heartwarming crooked smile. “After we went back to bed I had another dream last night. Not a crazy one, but it gave me some ideas.”

Before he could explain there was a crack of thunder from very close by upstream followed by loud series of crashes from the forest above. At the same time something heavy struck the cabin, causing us to lurch to the side where we sat. Raul looked at me, alarmed, then jumped to the door and opened it, having to use his considerable new strength against the wind and rain pushing against him.

What we saw was sobering. The whole greensward was flooded with raging river-water, and soon the cabin, which stood only centimeters above the ground, would be too. What had struck the cabin so unexpectedly was the huge sphere of the lifepod itself, which had been dislodged by the torrent from where it had lain partly buried in the mud and been thrown against the structure by the force of the current.

Neither Raul nor I bothered with words. We both knew we needed to get to higher ground, and fast. Quickly, Raul slipped me in my backpack and sealed it tight, something we had not bothered doing till now. He checked his knife on his belt, then grabbed the waterproof go-bag with the transmitter he’d placed against the door against just such an eventuality, threw that over his shoulder as well, and stepped out into the flood, pausing only to firmly secure the cabin door against the possibility of our return.

Our first thought was to head straight up the slope from camp, but now we saw the origin of the crashing sounds we’d heard, as more heavy snap-off boughs plummeted to the ground all up the thickly wooded slop. No go that way, and upstream the woods were even thicker. Downstream was the only choice. Reluctantly Raul stayed in the rising river, edging as close as he could to the edge of the forest without us risking falling boughs, and slogged south, fighting every step to keep the current from toppling us over.

The water was most of the way up Raul’s thighs even where we are near the perimeter. The flood was rising so fast that we might well be swimming by the time we got past the trees. My sensors were everywhere, but the churning of the floodwaters was so erratic that I barely had a chance to scream “Look out!” over the deafening noise of rain and current before a gigantic log, big enough to be most of an entire tree, shifted directions and came hurtling toward us. Raul had just enough time to turn and brace his footing under water when the log slammed into him. Raul cried out and fell, nearly submerging, while the log rolled by, deflected by the blow. The ragged end barely missed Raul’s head as he fought to recover his footing. He rose to his feet, then faltered, swearing loudly.

“Are you okay?” I asked him, shouting to be heard.

“I twisted my bad knee,” he shouted back.

He regained his footing and started walking again, but I could tell he was in pain. We slogged in silence for some time, until, just as the raging water passed Raul’s waist and threatened to take him under with every step, we reached the first of the cliffs that lead up to the highlands past the conifer forest. Instantly, Raul found footholds and began climbing.

It was a relief to emerge from the flood and get clear at last, though we were still being pelted by the driving downpour. It soon became clear that Raul was struggling. Though he was an expert climber and under normal circumstances would have had no trouble with a craggy cliff face like this one, not only was it raining like the end of the world, but he only had the use of two arms and one leg, the other being too weak to put weight on. Finally, about halfway up, he got stuck. He clung to the side of the cliff, letting the rain batter him, and tried to sort out what to do.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The next handholds,” he said, nodding to a lip visible most of a meter above his head. “I need to let go to reach it, but my one foothold isn’t secure enough to take that much of my weight.” He glanced down to where his right boot was positioned to the right of his center of mass, while his left dangled more or less uselessly.

I searched my memoryscapes at lightning speed for useful advice about rock-climbing in a deluge. Nothing. Maybe he’d find my sheer faith in him empowering. “You can do it. Just rest a minute,” I said, for lack of anything better to say. “After all, we’ve already survived one Armageddon thanks to you, right?” He laughed, as I intended. “I know you’ll find a way,” I said. “You can do it.”

He paused. “You’re right,” he said, sounding as though I’d actually offered him a real plan of action instead of a pile of useless platitudes. He glanced over his shoulder at me, and I could see he was in the throes of a genuine eureka moment. His eyes were alight and his brow was clear. “That’s what it’s for, Knox—survival! Survival, through adaptation!”

I was mystified, but I dared not ask him what he meant for fear of disrupting his train of thought. He faced the cliff again and bowed his head, and something about his energy started to shift. “I can do it,” he told himself, as though it were a mantra. “I… can… do it.”

I started to notice an uptick in the swirling of the extraparticulae. I hadn’t been monitoring the energy motes closely, reserving my attention for the immediate threats the crisis had entailed, but now I saw that the punishing rain itself was full of the strange matter-energy loci. And now that Raul was bending his intelligence and will toward them, through an ability gained by sharing the food and water of this world at long last, the particulae ceased spattering off his muscled flesh with the rain and started sinking in like Raul was calling them home to him.

Nothing happened for a moment. Then, slowly but steadily, Raul’s arms started to swell.

At first I thought Raul’s plan might be to make his arms immensely strong, so that he could just pummel his way up tol the top of the cliff face through sheer brute force. But the swelling was not symmetrical in all directions: Raul’s thick, beautiful arms were getting wider along with the massive, rounded deltoids above, rather then bigger overall. His chest was expanding, too, I sensed, though more subtly than the rest. Just as I saw where he was going with this, they started to divide. Lightning crashed somewhere upstream, and by the time the thunder finished rattled us on our tenuous perch Raul had two more powerful arms depending from his doubled deltoid muscles than he’d had for the entirety of his life so far.

“What do you think?” he said, grinning over his shoulder at me.

Had we not been fighting a catastrophic storm for our very lives, I would have swooned. Yes, swooned. “Just get us to the top, you crazy, beautiful, sexy beast,” I said.

He reached up easily with his powerful new arms—they were clawed as well, and I saw abruptly—how had I, I the all-observant artificial intelligence, not noticed?—that all his hands had six fingers now instead of five, each fist now sporting five fierce-looking claws at the knuckles. It had to be for extra grabbing power—that was the logical reason for him to have done it. But as he pulled himself easily up from the new handholds and kept going, spidering his way up the slope like he was back on the recreational rock-wall and effortlessly saving us from death by natural disaster, I couldn’t help but think that the fingers, and the arms, were kind of also a little bit for me, too.

Happy Solstice, Knox, I told myself. You got a gift you never even knew you wanted.

We found a sheltered hollow in the highlands and waited out the storm. Once it passed we walked up the ridgeline until we could see out camp, but there was no point heading down to it. The cabin was completely gone, washed away to who knew where, and the lifepod was broken apart and half gone. The whole greensward was littered with logs and boughs.

Maybe the valley wasn’t an ideal dwelling place after all.

We turned back up the ridgeline. We’d make camp in that hollow for a day or two, then move on. Maybe that ocean was worth a visit. I’d never seen one in person, of course, and that was reason enough for Raul to take me there.

“So, what’s the verdict?” he asked as we walked. The air was moist, and now that the rain was past a mist was rising from the ravaged woodlands below us. He flexed his four knuckle-clawed hands demonstratively. “Do I keep ’em?”

“What do you think?” I sassed back at him. I wasn’t quite prepared to admit just how much I liked all the ways Raul was changing himself for me.

“Okay, I’ll get rid of ’em,” he said equably. He stopped and closed his eyes. “Ommmmm…” he chanted.

“Don’t you dare,” I barked.

He laughed and resumed walking. After a while I asked, “So, why extra arms, anyway? Why not wings? Grow out some wings and just fly us to the top.”

Raul shrugged those massive, doubled shoulders. “I don’t know how to make wings,” he said. “Arms were easy. I already had them, so copying them was the simplest plan. Besides,” he added with a grin over his shoulder, “you were in the way.”

“Huh,” I said. “Fair enough.” I wasn’t going to quibble—I liked the arms. A lot,

That night he dined on a fig-like fruit that seemed prevalent up here. That passed muster in my scans, so he went ahead and chowed down on them, and I also found him a carroty root that seemed tasty and nutritious. Tomorrow would be a better day to hunt, and he asked me for suggestions from my memoryscapes about fashioning some spears, and maybe a bow and arrows down the road.

Night fell, and we listened to the distant tumble of the river below and the cry of birds taking wing for their own carnivorous pursuits. I looked up at my shirtless, crazy-muscled, four-armed, wildly hung beauty. It was a wonder he had looked so perfect kitted out in full ship’s uniform only eight or nine days ago. Now, I felt privileged to be the only one to be able to see him in what felt to me like his true form. He belonged here. Not a wild man, but a man of the wild.

“It’s solstice night,” Raul said, his eyes twinling as he regarded me. “Any services you care to gift me, O sir of Rask?”

“I have naught to give,” I lamented.

He huffed a laugh. “Then rest,” he said.

I decided that was a wise plan. I set myself to begen a restoration cycle, and my mind subsided into black.

When I awoke, it was to… inexplicable sensations. “Wh…?” I started to say—only I was saying them not with my accustomed synthesizer but with lips and tongue. What in the forty moons—?

“Wait,” Raul commanded. His face was a mask of concentration, and sweat beaded over his brow as he leaned over me, his four hands all pressed to my… my flesh

I looked down—with eyes, not receptors!—to see that I was no longer a backpackable, slightly cuddly A.I. transport module. I was… I was…

“Don’t pass out,” Raul said. He was still concentrating hard, but he spared me a smile. “I’m almost done, but it’ll take some getting used to.”

That was an understatement. I lay my head back, trying to make sense of my sensations. I was still the transport module, I realized, or at least partly. Some of its components, including all the memoryscapes, were carefully preserved and sealed within the human body that my insane, wonderful, insanely wonderful man was building for me with energy motes and stubborn force of will. And love, I guess. Definitely love had something to do with it. The particulae swarmed around me like a hive, passing between us, sinking into Raul as he worked, sizzling through every part of what I was becoming.

Then the pitch of energy softened. The air around us relaxed, and the particulae resumed their normal manner of drifting idly around us—though some still found their way into me, and into Raul.

An excessively handsome face loomed before my strange, new human vision. Raul looked tired, happy, worried, and hopeful all at once. “How do you feel?” he asked.

I fell into his eyes and wanted to drown in them. “Why don’t I show you?” I said. I lifted a right hand—one of two, I realized—and slid its many fingers around his nape, noting for the first time the knuckle-claws. I paused. “Wait—you copied yourself?” I asked curiously.

He shrugged. “With a modification or two,” he said slyly. “It seemed like the simplest plan. And if there’s something you don’t like, I can always change it.” He wiggled his dark brows. “Or you can.”

Or I can. Food for thought. His beauty was turning me on something fierce, and I discovered for the first time the wondrous sensation of a hardening cock. Or—no, there was not just one gigantic hardening cock down there… “You mischievous gremlinfucker,” I said warmly. His eyes shone as I pulled him down into my first kiss, an experience so sweet and beautiful and utterly euphoric that I never wanted it to end.

At last our lips and long, loving tongues separated, though we both knew it would not be for long. “Thanks for the solstice gift,” I said, as though gaining a body was nothing at all.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “This was my gift for me. Your gift is still to come.”

I kissed him again to shut him up, and we did not need words again until after a very long and happy night had passed, and the alien sun had dawned on a new year, a new world, and a new life together.

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