The starfield twinkled as it always did at sublight speeds, but even more so because the REGALIA skirted the edges of the Staceyan Belt. The pinpoints of light—some larger, some smaller—arced across the velvet darkness like a sash of jewels that even the most pampered Glitterkiln socialite would envy.
Branden Kel-Paten noticed none of it. He was in the ready room to answer questions. Deep, personal questions. He slid back the small covering on his left wrist and spiked into ship’s status through the chair’s armrest feed. It was the only way he could keep himself from pacing the room—or worse, fleeing it in panic.
But he’d promised Sass he’d do this.
“They like you, Branden,” she’d told him, not just an hour ago but several times over the past week. “They really do, and you have to understand this is just part of it. When people like you, they want to know more about you.”
More of his theories on starship design, he could understand. But this…this! He’d paged through the dozens of questions submitted several times over the last few days. Then new ones arrived and he was close, oh so close to tracking down Sass in her office and tell her to call this whole godsdamned thing off.
But he knew she’d just laugh and then wrap her arms around his waist and look up at him the way only she could… and his complaints would vaporize under the faith, the trust he could read in her eyes.
He could easily face squadrons of enemy fighters or an entire contingent of armed assassins and blink not an eye. But his deepest fears and desires, his thoughts, his inner demons…it was only because he’d learned that Sass’s inner demons weren’t all that different from his own that he knew she’d never ask him to do something she herself wouldn’t do.
So here he was.
A small light on the edge of his screen flashed. Incoming connection. He accessed the release code in his mind and—with a loud sigh—watched as a familiar female face appeared on the screen. Two familiar faces, actually. One was a woman, a middle-aged blonde who—had he not known better—he could have sworn could have qualified (visually, at any rate) to be Sass’s mother. The other was a smaller face, black and white and furry. That face was at the moment busy cleaning a plumey black tail.
The woman smiled knowingly. “Ready, Admiral?”
He nodded slowly, spiked out and steeled himself. Let the games begin.
How does it feel to 'spike in' to your ship? Is it painful or uncomfortable--or does it make you feel energized? Does it give you a sense of power or only a sense of isolation because of who and what you are?
“It depends on the ship,” Kel-Paten said, thinking, okay, this isn’t too bad. Laurie’s question was logical. “The Vaxxar was designed to integrate with me so the spike was a seamless process. After years, and you have to realize I was on that ship for over a decade, it was something I did without thinking. When you open the door to your house, or put your hand on a kitchen cabinet to open it, are you fully conscious of the act? I’d guess not. That’s probably the best way I can explain it to you.
“But the experience after spiking in is quite incredible. Energized is a very good way to describe it. I’m still speaking of the Vax, of course. Now with ships where I had to rig a dataport, yes, that could be problematic. Uncomfortable. Like,” and he thought for a moment, “wearing someone else’s shoes. The function is correct but the execution is lacking.
“As for a sense of isolation, well. Yes and no. When I’m fully integrated with the ship, I’m aware of so much of the ship that the sense of myself dissolves into that. Which is fine when I’m alone. But if I have to spike in with others around then, yes, I can feel very distant from them. My perceptions are so much wider at that moment. “
If you fell in a pond, would you short-circuit?
“No.” Kel-Paten glanced at the question’s tag on the screen. “Kimber An.” He shook his head. “I’m not a hair dryer. I’m an excellent swimmer, by the way. Something I haven’t yet been able to convince Sass to try.”
Sure, you're brave when it comes to blasting bad guy aliens, but what would you do if someone handed you a newborn baby human and you couldn't hand it off to anyone and Sass is totally clueless about babies and it would die if you didn't take care of it?
Kimber An again, Kel-Paten noted. Of course. The question revolved around babies. “I’m progr—fully trained in the necessary medical procedures for humans and other sentients at all stages of life, including, yes, human babies. An infant entrusted to my care wouldn’t perish mostly because,” and Kel-Paten allowed one corner of his mouth to quirk up slightly, “I’d track you down, Kimber, and hand the child to you. I do know an expert when I see one.”
I'm curious about your first confrontation with Captain Sebastian, many years ago. It's obvious that some not-exactly-regulation thoughts were going through your head during that face-off. Do you and Tasha ever look back on that time and laugh?
“A number of thoughts were going through my mind that time on the Sarna Bogue, Laurie. The most prominent of which was the fact that I had to requisition the ship’s cargo and had been inexplicably prevented from doing so. Inexplicably, you understand, because the Sarna Bogue should have been—what’s your expression?—a cake walk. Rostikov was nothing if not ineffectual. His crew usually aspired to the same lofty heights. To find myself so neatly locked out and by this, this—“ and he waved his right hand in the air— “imp who didn’t even bother to don her uniform.” He shook his head. “Yes, before you ask, she knows what I thought that day. She still laughs at me.
“And yes, when I moved beyond my expected annoyance, I was decidedly intrigued. She didn’t back down, you know,” he continued, his voice softening. “Everyone does or rather, at that point in time, everyone did. Sass intrigued me because she challenged me. That was a rare occurrence in my life. She’s a rare occurrence in my life.”
I would like to know how the cyborg transition affected him and his relationship with his family. Especially his brother. They seem really close, but obviously have to hide it.
“That could be a book in and of itself, Mary,” Kel-Paten said. “How did it affect me. Well.” He huffed out a short sigh. Why did the memories never fade? “Initially, it was horrible. Yes, I’d been trained and prepared for what was going to happen. I was told how glorious this was going to be, all the things I’d be able to do. Before the surgeries, I was honestly quite excited. I had a purpose, a definite positive one. I saw myself as some kind of hero and when you’re fourteen, fifteen years old, that’s the things dreams are made of. I think that’s probably why it all became so horrible. Because I never felt like a hero . I felt like a…well, I felt far too different. And clumsy. Relearning to walk was frustrating. Relearning how to hold a glass of juice was embarrassing.
“There was a lot of pain, a lot of problems. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone. And as for my family, Rall’s the only one I consider family. He just accepted me. Whatever was done to me, he simply accepted it. He was a cheerful child. All right. He was goofy. He always had some prank going, was always making faces behind the technicians’ backs. And before you ask, no, I don’t know why he was allowed such access to the labs or to me. But he was and what little sanity I retained is solely his doing.
“I didn’t initially know he was my brother. I knew there was some relationship because he was so often around when I was growing up and during the surgeries. I did know he was Rafe Kel-Tyra’s son. It wasn’t until I was in the academy and decided to hack into the Triad’s locked records on me that I found out Rafe was my primary biological donor. Which made Rall my brother, yes. It worried me for a while that Rafe was going to augment Rall, too. I wouldn’t have let that happen. I was totally loyal to the Triad. I accepted what they did to me because I knew I’d been created for that purpose. But I would not have stood by and let them augment my brother.”
What sign are you?
“Technically, Donna, that doesn’t come into play here. Our constellations are different from your world’s. However, I’ve worked on a recalculation and the closest approximation would be Aries. My birthday—reconfigured to your world—would be 15 April.”
You've probably been in love with Sass from the moment you first saw her, but my question is this. Were you already able to override your emo-inhibitors? Or was it your love for Sass that gave you that ability?
“Actually, Kathy, I was annoyed and intrigued when I first saw her. Love didn’t enter into the equation at that point. It wasn’t something I felt capable of or more so, it wasn’t something I felt I deserved. But Sass and her attitude fascinated me. I wanted to spend time with her because being around her was like that clichéd breath of fresh air. Time was running short on the Sarna Bogue. We had to get back to the Vax. And I was surprised to realize how much I did not want to leave her behind. I also realized how wasted a talent like hers was on the Bogue.
“I knew she was pretty and that’s what scared me. Women didn’t like me. Pretty women didn’t like me at all. And here was a pretty and creative and intelligent woman. I didn’t have a chance.
“Overriding my emo-inhibitors was something I’d been doing for quite some time. First of all, it was a tremendously flawed program. Anger is permissible but affection is not? Emotions aren’t that cleanly divisible. Once I realized how easy it was to be angry, it wasn’t that difficult to test to see if other emotions could break through.
“What the inhibitor does is allow me the option of shutting emotions off. That’s saved my life more than once. My biggest problem, though, wasn’t that I couldn’t feel love or affection. It’s that I had no idea what to do with it when I did. Not a lot of practice.” Kel-Paten grimaced wryly. “That’s one of the reasons I started dictating log entries to her. Practice. Practice talking about how I felt, what I wanted to tell her. I’m a military officer. We run a lot of drills, a lot of simulations and scenarios. The logs were my way to try to make sure that if I ever had a chance to talk to her—just casually—that I wouldn’t trip over my tongue and make a complete idiot of myself. Which, of course, I did anyway. Because none of my practice drills ever included how standing near her would make me feel. Or the kinds of things she’d say—the gods only knows what’s going to come out of her mouth—and that I’ve have nothing to say in kind. She still—”
A red light suddenly flashed in the corner of the screen but Kel-Paten was already spiking in and receiving the data from his link with the ship.
“If you’ll all excuse me, we have a Rebashee freighter convoy issuing a distress signal.” He spiked out and pushed himself to his feet. “Next week, then, barring any more emergencies?”