32 – Simulator

“Have you been to the simulators at all this whole trip?” Xannissa asked Atara as they stepped onto the simulator that was always running for general relaxation and amusement.

     “Of course,” Atara responded, “for the suiting ceremony.”

     Xannissa laughed and said, “You know you need to take more breaks.”

     “The simulator has never interested me.”

     “I know, but it’s for your personal wellbeing. You need to step away every now and then.”

     “What if this wasn’t the Kelsor and we didn’t have these simulators?”

     “Taking a day off every week wouldn’t be a bad thing, regardless.”

     The pair moved through the bright, sky-lit, spacious lobby of the main building past underdressed and undressed officers and starmen, onto the outdoor concourse, and down a set of stairs leading to a duralithic pathway that snaked into the coastal forest. The verdant foliage near the path was well-manicured, but further beyond it grew wild. The trees and leaves above shielded them from the warm, virtual sun. The path ended at the forest’s edge two-hundred-fifty meters from the concourse, and the semi-reflective duralithic walkway yielded to the fine, tan sand of the wide shoreline and the crystal blue waters beyond. The two officers strode across the untouched, secluded beach leaving the only trails of footprints behind them. They stopped at the wet sand on the ocean’s edge, and the seawater soaked the bottoms of their boots as it rushed ashore.

     “I also feel guilty when I come here,” Atara told her as she took in the afternoon.

     “How so?”

     “I feel like I’m shirking my duties when I do. I feel like I need to always be available.”

     “But you are always available,” Xannissa assured her, “even if you come here. You can call for an exit and be gone in an instant.”

     “Our intercept is next week.”

     “Atara.”

     “What?”

     “Just… enjoy it.”

     The pair walked back atop the dry sand. Xannissa recalled her bodysuit save for the upper torso section which served as a brassiere under her short jacket. Her naked, cool gray skin offered a stark contrast against the golden shore. After stepping out of her boots, the Elestan closed her eyes, raised her arms over her head, and stretched her body. She felt the virtual sunlight warm her face and slender abdomen as she inhaled deeply. After exhaling and relaxing herself, she dug her feet into the hot sand and let it seep between her toes. The relatively cool sea breeze was at odds with the warming sunlight. A brief shiver shot down Xannissa’s back as the wind whipped between her bare legs. Xannissa could have easily forgotten that all of this was just an elaborate fabrication.

     The Elestan turned to the Terran and said, “Well? What are you waiting for?”

     “Fine,” Atara sighed, “if it’s for my wellbeing.” The captain did the same as Xannissa—even going so far as to fabricate a short jacket of her own so that her upper torso was covered. Unlike Xannissa, Atara’s Terran skin blended well with the beach. “Now what?”

     “I was hoping we could go for a walk,” Xannissa told her as she stared at the pristine water. When she turned back to face Atara, she added, “Or not.”

     “Why not?” Just as Atara finished asking, she felt her bare buttocks be slapped by someone appearing behind her. The captain let out an uncharacteristic small scream as she retreated toward Xannissa and turned around to see that it was a fully-naked Cylenna.

     “Nice ass,” Cylenna commented.

     “Who invited you?” barked a red-faced, flustered Atara.

     “My little sister behind you,” Cylenna told her. Emerging from the forest several meters away were Sesh, Naret, Lieren, Kyora, Virn, and Krystal.

     “I kinda put the word out,” Xannissa explained. “Wasn’t counting on them being here so soon. I hope you haven’t forgotten what today is.”

     “Wait,” Atara thought for a moment as the others were undressing themselves, “you can’t be serious. How can I be so stupid?”

     “I’m never going to let you forget your birthday,” Xannissa assured her.

     Sesh—her skin blue as the distant ocean—yelled, “Atara!”

     “What?” Atara asked, turning toward the bottomless commander.

     “Think fast,” she yelled, launching a ball toward the captain. Atara quickly caught it before it hit her in the face. “How about a game?”

     “I’d sure be down for one,” Cylenna said.

     Xannissa was next to her sister and responded, “You should probably put a top on.”

     “Nonsense. I’ll be fine.”

     “Suit yourself. Just don’t complain to me if your breasts are sore afterward.”

     “Good point. Wait for me,” Cylenna told Xannissa before storming off toward her Accellus boots.

     “Hey, Qu-… Souq,” Namara greeted as she ran into the Larissian scientist in one of the corridors near the omnimology lab.

     “Oh, Sayn,” he said. Only a few weeks ago, he had hated her guts. Now, he delighted in seeing her wherever they met around the ship. “You… you can call me Quen… if you want.”

     “Are you sure you’re okay with that?”

     Souq closed his eyes and said, “I’m sure.”

     “I don’t mean to stop you if you’re busy.”

     “I was actually on my way to the simulator to surprise my daughter. I wanted to see if I could pop in and spend some time with her.”

     “Funny,” Namara said, “now that you mention it, Xannissa invited me there. I was going to blow it off, but since you’re going, I might as well, too.”

     “Alright, let’s go.”

     As Namara led him through the ship, the two conversed about current topics in omnimology. This brief taste of meaningful, scholarly discussion reminded him of his past lab meetings with his researchers, filling him with a mixture of sadness and fondness. Those minds he used to pick were no more, and there was nothing he could do, nor could have done, to change that fact, but he was grateful to have found a friend in Namara.

     “Here we are,” Namara said, interrupting the discussion. “Have you been here before?”

     “Never,” he told her. “What do I need to do?” Souq asked as starmen moved into and out of the simulator room.

     “Just follow these girls here,” she said, looking toward a pair of starmen about to step into the simulation. The scientists left the corridor and moved into the lobby of the resort. There, they were immediately confronted with nude female flesh. The virtual sun shining through the skylights warmed Souq’s face as he looked down at the fastened white lab coat he wore over his bodysuit.

     “I’m starting to feel a little overdressed,” Souq told Namara. “Are you sure it’s okay if I’m here?”

     “You’re perfectly fine. This is a beach resort.”

     Before the two was a set of large, transparent doors that opened for them as they approached. Beyond the doors was the wide outdoor concourse that overlooked the shoreline and light blue shallows. The two scientists descended the steps that led to the pathway into the forest. When he left the stairs, Souq shielded his eyes and looked toward the sky.

     “Can you get a sunburn here?”

     “It’s possible,” Namara explained, “but not likely. These lumionics do emit ultraviolet, but it’s at low levels. A little UV is healthy for you.” After checking a simulator lumigraph she opened, she said, “Lieren is this way,” pointing toward the forest.

     The two started down the path when Souq mentioned, “What if I told you that spontaneous omnionic field attenuation was possible?”

     “Does this have to do with ecksivar?”

     “Of course.”

     They strode down the path as they discussed omnimology in general, and ecksivar specifically. Their strides slowed as the conversation deepened. Three times they came to a dead stop to get out an idea. This turned a ten-minute walk into a half-hour. Finally, the forest opened before them and the scientists stepped onto the golden sand. Birds called through the trees and over the sea. Waves rolled upon the shore. Women shouted as they played in the distance.

     “I have to say,” Souq said, “I’d almost forgotten I was on a ship way out in deep space.”

     “Pretty effective, isn’t it?” Namara asked. Both of them moved down toward the water.

     “I hope you’re not bothered that I recorded our conversation.”

     “No, it’s fine.”

     “You have a very interesting mind, you know?” Namara blushed at the compliment.

     “I wish I felt that way,” Namara told him as they stared at the horizon. “I joined the Military as a scientist because I knew I couldn’t make it in academia.”

     “Academia isn’t that fun sometimes,” Souq admitted. “That used to be my career before I went into industry; joined Akkain. It’s a full of a bunch of tenured, over-opinionated, ego-centric, hot-headed bastards, and I was one of them. I would have wanted to the join the Military, but being the only male on a base or ship made me anxious to join.”

     “You’re not the only male I’ve seen on a Military starship wearing Accellus.”

     “I know,” he said, “but at the time, I was already swamped in other responsibilities and—” a plastic ball collided with the side of Souq’s head. “Ouch! Son-of-a-bitch!” he exclaimed. The ball bounced away and rolled toward the water. Souq and Namara heard feet running through the sand.

     “I’m sorry!” said a young voice. “It was my fault!” The woman paused before saying, “Dad?” Lieren ignored the ball as it was caught by the waves. “Are you here to join us?”

     “I came here to see you,” Souq explained, still recovering from the hit. “Just wanted to see if you wanted to spend some time together.”

     “You could have called me,” Lieren told him.

     “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. By the time I wanted to, you were on the simulator. I didn’t know I’d embarrass you. I’m sorry.”

     “It’s a little awkward,” she admitted as she briefly concealed her exposed crotch with her clasped hands, “especially when you’re clothed and I’m not, but I’m not embarrassed.”

     Sesh shed her short jacket and waded into the water. The ocean was up to her waist when she grabbed the ball. Her lower body was soaked when she made it back to the shore, but she left her jacket in the sand.

     “Souq! Namara!” Sesh called to the scientists. “Care to join us?”

     “That’s tempting,” Souq shouted back, “but considering the current sexual imbalance, I’m a little intimidated.”

     “I think I’m going to sit out,” Namara said. “Quen and I were in the middle of an interesting conversation.”

     “You two suit yourselves,” Sesh said. She dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it hard enough for it to take flight off the sand. It traveled several meters before being blocked in midair by Kyora’s bare body. The phantom’s breasts were small enough that she didn’t worry about securing them, so she wore nothing but her Accellus bracelets.

     Souq and Namara walked away from the group to a quieter section of the beach. There, Namara opened a lumigraph and spawned an umbrella and a couple of lounge chairs. Before Souq could turn around, Namara had already stripped bottomless and was removing her boots.

     “How do you do that so fast?” he asked.

     “What?”

     “Undressing.”

     “Neural interface,” she explained, “and practice.” She watched him fumble a bit with his lumionic interface without actually changing his clothing. “Still getting used to the Accellus?” she teased.

     “I’m just trying to find some suitable attire,” he told her.

     “Mind if I help?”

     “Absolutely.” Souq held his forearm plate toward her, and she grabbed it as she walked around him. She moved in close. Her bare hip pressed against his as she scrolled through the menu.

     “Here,” she said, pressing an option, and his lab coat and bodysuit were replaced with a pair of white shorts. “How’s this?”

     “That’s great,” he said, chuckling. They took their seats in the shade and looked out at the coast. Souq reached down, picked up a handful of sand, and let it pour from his fist like an hourglass. He expected the conversation to have continued, but it never resumed. After a few minutes of listening to the other officers playing many meters away, Souq spoke up. “Have you ever shared a link with someone?”

     “A Q-comms link? No. Why?”

     “Just curious.” Souq paused, and then he asked, “Are you in a partnership?”

     “Not currently,” Namara responded. Her tone betrayed her embarrassment. “What’s with all these personal questions? I thought we were talking about omnium.”

     “You’ve been pretty quiet since we sat down,” Souq noted.

     “I’m just enjoying the breeze.”

     “What if we did want to benefit from some kind of long-term collaboration?” Souq asked her. “If you’d been willing, even a partnership.”

     The suggestion of a partnership made Namara even more uncomfortable. “You do know what you’re asking, right? I mean, a partnership is very serious. You do know what happens if the partnership fails before the first two years are over?”

     “We’re dishonorably discharged.”

     “Exactly.”

     “But what makes you think it would fail?”

     “Well, I never said or thought it would. I just wanted you to know the gravity of your proposal. It’s the closest legal binding there is to a marriage.”

     “I do know,” Souq told her. “My late wife was in a Military partnership with another woman before they both died; while she was married to me. She wanted to eventually share a Q-comms link with her.”

     “Is that what you want with me?” Namara’s face flushed at the thought.

     “Well, I, uhh,” Souq stuttered. “I, umm… I guess I thought we were compatible.”

     “I’m going to need some time,” Namara said. “I’m going to need to think about it.” She stood up from the chair, turned to him, and said, “I think I’m going to join the others for a little while.” Before he could acknowledge her, the Elestan scientist was running across the sand. Not once before he spoke did he realize that his asking her for a partnership was akin to proposing marriage. The more he pondered it, the more he felt like a fool. He leaned back in the chair and let the fake sun warm his feet which rested on the hot sand beyond the umbrella’s shade.

     “Dad, I’m ready to go.” Souq awoke from his nap to see his half-naked, lilac-skinned daughter shaking his arm. “There you are,” she said. Souq blinked his eyes quickly as they readjusted to the bright sky and descending sun. “Do you need help with your Accellus?”

     After they were both back in their uniforms, Souq left the simulator with Lieren and they returned to the former’s quarters. He allowed Lieren to use his bathroom to shower, and when she finished, he fabricated a meal that they shared for dinner.

     “How would you feel if I joined the Military?” Souq asked as they dined.

     “I suppose that’s your choice,” Lieren said. “I always thought you’d stay in the private sector.”

     “I don’t know where I want to go yet,” he admitted before taking a bite.

     “What is it about the Military that makes you want to join?”

     “I’m done with Akkain,” Souq said. “Emotionally, I’m done. I can’t go back; not after what happened. I find the Military to be intellectually stimulating. At least, more so than I previously imagined.”

     “Uh-huh,” Lieren nodded. “Is Doctor Namara intellectually stimulating?”

     “This has nothing to do with her,” he said in denial.

     “I noticed the way Doctor Namara behaved after she talked with you. Omnium wasn’t the only thing the two of you talked about.”

     “That’s none of your business.”

     “Dad, if you want to remarry, I’m okay with that.” At this, Souq’s face blushed as Namara’s had earlier that afternoon.

     “That’s enough. Let’s talk about something else. How’s that cadet training coming along?”

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