Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 03bybradley_stoke©
Intrepid - 3754 C.E.
"It's beautiful here, isn't it!" exclaimed Beatrice who squeezed Paul's hand in hers as they walked through a park not far from their home on the Intrepid's outermost level.
Paul squeezed her hand in return. He gazed lovingly into her eyes. What he wanted to say was that the park was nothing like as beautiful as she was, but although she was his wife and they made love so often together he still didn't find it easy to say such things to a real woman. This was odd because he had less trouble in expressing himself so freely to the avatars in Nudeworld.
"Yes," he said, "even if it is very 32nd century in style." He was referring to the quaint statuary of naked women that were scattered between the bushes and trees in a park that evoked the baroque style of an age that celebrated geometric perfection.
"And what's wrong with that?" remarked Beatrice as she rubbed her thumb along Paul's knuckles. "This space ship was the ultimate in technology then and it's still pretty advanced now. I just love the lawns, the villas and the water features. They don't make space ships like this any more."
Paul's thoughts weren't really focused on the landscape around him. He gazed fondly at his wife who was dressed as always in the bare minimum that convention allowed. She wore nothing more than a skimpy thong and plasters that covered her nipples but hid nothing of her impressive bosom. Despite the fact that so many women in this day and age had their bodies enhanced in the most peculiar and erotic ways, there was something especially beautiful and sensuous about Beatrice.
"Look at those bluebirds flying over there," she said with a chuckle of delight. "See how they spiral and circle around each other. Look at the butterflies on that flower bush. Aren't they so very delightful?"
Another characteristic of Beatrice's that captivated Paul was her undisguised passion for the beauties of the Solar System. It was almost as if she'd only recently discovered them.
They strolled by a copse of leafy trees where a small fallow deer had been grazing just before they approached. All this seemed so natural that it was often easy to forget that the climate was controlled from the roof not many metres above the height of the tallest trees.
"There's no one here!" exclaimed Beatrice with delight. "We must be the only ones in the park today."
Paul knew exactly what his wife was implying and the result pressed against the crotch of his loose rope-belted trousers. She turned to face him, her full round bosom up against his chest. She pressed an open palm over his erect penis under the fabric.
"There's absolutely no one here," she remarked.
Paul surrendered himself to the inevitable. They'd already made love this morning and many times during the night before but there was no limit to Beatrice's desire for Paul's cock. And he was equally excited by the prospect of once again entering Beatrice's obliging vagina.
Although the grass was neither as comfortable nor as accommodating as the mattress in their marital bed, there was a vicarious pleasure in making love in the open air. Small insects and mites scattered away while Paul thrust in deep and hard, all their clothes discarded with the peculiar exception of Beatrice's nipple-plasters. However much Paul enjoyed his liaisons with Blanche, there was something special about making love to a real woman. The sensations of Beatrice's warm perspiring body might not have the hyperreal qualities of Paul's virtual lover (to whom making love now seemed rather like infidelity), but the human sensation of her flesh and the less absolute tightness of her vaginal grip enhanced rather than distracted from Paul's pleasure.
Although Beatrice would have been quite happy if their lovemaking culminated in anal sex and facial ejaculation, it seemed more natural to Paul to release his semen inside her and for the couple to lie down together on the grass under the sheltering shadow of an apple tree. The warmth in the air was generated from the ship's engines. The slight breeze that cooled the lovers' bodies came from the ship's revolutions.
"I love you," said Paul, who was only able to express the emotions that raged inside him when he was in a state of post-coitus. "I love you so much!"
"I know," said Beatrice as she peppered his face with kisses. "And I love you too!"
Even now Paul wasn't convinced. How could a woman so skilled in the ways of love, who could and, in fact, once did make love to anyone she chose, be in love with someone like him? He was such a social inadequate who relied rather more than he'd care to admit on his wife's sophisticated social skills when in mixed company. Just what was it that made her love him so much?
"Excuse me," said a voice from a few metres ahead of them. "I hate to interrupt but the captain has requested that I come to fetch you. She would like to see you in her office."
Paul turned his gaze upwards, suddenly ashamed of his nudity. This wasn't a characteristic he shared with Beatrice who made no attempt to hide her crotch. A trickle of recently ejaculated semen was still visible on the inside of her open thighs.
The voice belonged to Colonel Vashti, who was one of the military officers stationed on the Intrepid. She was dressed in an army uniform that Paul thought made her look more, rather than less, sexy, although she was much more handsome and muscular than pretty. She was a tall brown-skinned woman with a bosom much the same size as Beatrice's. Her khaki uniform was pulled tight around her waist and her similarly tight leggings trailed from the puff of her waist to just above her knees.. Her face exhibited a curious mix of racial identities that suggested Asian ancestry. Her lips were full. Her cheeks were high. And her long jet black hair was tied back in a plait down her back. Although undoubtedly a woman, she had a slightly masculine bearing.
She stood in front of the pair and betrayed no sign of embarrassment. Although her home on Mars was most famous for its military culture, perhaps it was also sexually liberal.
Beatrice strapped her thong about her waist while Paul took rather more time to fight his way back into his underpants, trousers and loose shirt. He wished he'd known sooner that this summons would come so that he could dress more formally, but he knew such concerns wouldn't bother Beatrice.
The lovers walked with the colonel towards the nearest portal which was just beside an open-air swimming pool several hundred metres away. The colonel's strides were so long that Beatrice had to run to catch up with her.
"So, it's Mars you come from," she said to the colonel. "Is it true that the whole planet is at war?"
"Almost the whole planet," Colonel Vashti said with a sad smile. "My nation, Agathadaemon, belongs to the Mariner States Union and we've been in a state of war with the Polar States and their colonies for several centuries now. The conflict is as intense now as it's ever been."
"Isn't it appropriate that the planet named after the God of War should be the most warlike in the Solar System?"
"Appropriate, maybe," Colonel Vashti agreed. "But probably also unavoidable. The planet was the first to be properly colonised back in the 22nd and 23rd centuries. In those days, Earth was governed by nation states that employed their military for hazardous missions in space. So it's no surprise that the governments that came to dominate Mars should be of a military nature."
Paul caught up with the two women. "I've never been to Mars," he said. "It must be weird to live on a planet with such low gravity."
"It is only a matter of what you get used to," the colonel remarked. "My home is on the surface of a planet rather than inside a hollow cylinder. It's just as peculiar to live with your head under an artificial ceiling and with your feet facing outwards to the emptiness of outer space."
They entered a circular pod whose doors slid open both vertically and horizontally. Inside were chairs, a low table and a holographic wall display that showed whatever the passengers might choose but which was now displaying a view of the space outside. The doors slid close behind them when they sat down and a voice in a slightly archaic 32nd century accent asked them where they wanted to go.
It was dangerous for any free moving object to travel fast within the confines of the space ship. The journey took long enough for Paul to admire the view of deep space, while Beatrice chatted to the colonel about Martian customs.
It was less than two weeks since Paul and Beatrice had arrived on board the Interplanetary Space Ship Intrepid. It had taken well over a month to travel from the Solar System's ecliptic plane to dock after travelling in a series of rather smaller and less well-appointed space craft. None had sufficient space for forests, lakes or luxury villas. At the start of their journey, it was the planet Earth and the Moon that first vanished to dot-like proportions behind them, but now the Sun itself was getting steadily smaller. It was still by far the brightest object in space and appeared to be many times larger than it was from the far distant Godwin colony.
The many concentric levels of the space ship revolved around each other at different rates to maintain a force of one standard gravity on their surfaces. There was no direct link from one level to another except at the transparent interconnecting posts spaced half a kilometre apart. These moved constantly in relation to the ground and were the most hazardous objects on the space ship. The pod carried the passengers through a series of tubes in the floor space between the levels and didn't stop or pause until it reached its destination. And this was at the heart of the space ship where the captain and crew were stationed.
This was the section of the Intrepid that most resembled the majority of space ships that flew across the Solar System. It was generally utilitarian in design and made no attempt to be like the space colonies where most people in the Solar System lived. The captain's office was surrounded by an extensive network of rooms with relatively low ceilings interconnected by corridors. This would once have accommodated a ship's crew of several thousand people, but modern technology had reduced the number of necessary human staff to a fraction of that number. On this mission, however, it now also housed a few thousand military personnel.
Captain Kerensky was probably well over a hundred years old but she looked exactly as old as everyone else. She was a slender woman, with pale freckled skin and a totally shaven head. Despite her rank and official bearing Paul was immediately attracted to her. However inappropriate it might seem, a woman in uniform held a bizarre sexual fascination for him. This was probably because in Godwin there was no institution such as the military and nobody ever wore a uniform of any kind.
The captain wore the livery of a space officer of the Socialist Republics of Saturn. This was pale purple, tight around her bosom and buttoned up to her throat. Like Colonel Vashti her trousers tapered to above her knees to display her calves and smart functional shoes. She was standing as the colonel escorted the two civilians into her office. She extended a hand towards Paul, who had only recently learnt about this peculiar custom of shaking hands that was still practised throughout much of the Solar System. He shook it with none of the captain's firmness of grip, unlike Beatrice who showed once again her skill at adapting to the customs of other cultures, (even though she didn't understand the conventions of modesty that some cultures insisted on).
"It's a splendid ship, captain," Beatrice said. "You must be very proud to be its commander."
"It is," said Captain Kerensky agreeably. "It was a wonder of its time. In fact, at one time it was the flagship of the Interplanetary Union. We were lucky that any long-distance ship was available at all and fortunate indeed that it should be such a venerable vessel."
"Would none of the more modern vehicles have done?" wondered Paul. This thought had troubled him ever since he'd first passed through its quaintly old-fashioned entrance port.
"None could be taken out of service given the short notice," said the captain. "But let's not stand on ceremony. Please sit down." She gestured towards some leather sofas and waited until everyone else was seated until she also sat down.
Like everything else in the room, the furniture was chosen to suggest authority and status. This was rather wasted on Paul who still didn't understand its significance. Everything was just a little more splendid than it needed to be: from the thick carpet to the mahogany desk and to the massive holographic display of the constellations that towered above and behind the desk.
"It's true that a more modern ship might have been better equipped," said the captain, "but there aren't that many ships circling the Solar System in this plane at any one time. And there are even fewer that can survive without being restocked for as long as this will have to. Space ships such as these were originally designed as a prototype for interstellar travel."
"And can't they do that now?" Beatrice asked. "Surely this has everything you need to get to the next stellar system in comfort."
"It will take us three years to get beyond the Heliosphere and we'd still only be a fraction of the distance required to get to, say, Proxima Centauri. That would be a colossal cost for a one-way journey with no foreseeable economic benefit for hundreds of years. Only an optimistic century like the 32nd could contemplate such extravagant expenditure that was well in excess of the economic turnover of most states or colonies within the Solar System. Even a socialist republic such as mine would find it difficult to argue for the benefits given the time it would take to recoup the expense."
"Surely the wealth of knowledge alone would make it worthwhile?" argued Beatrice.
"We've sent enough interstellar probes over the centuries to answer that question," said the captain with an amused smile. "There's more than enough to handle in one Solar System. Unless you could cut the communication time to rather less than that determined by the speed of light and reduce the times to arrive to less than a lifetime, I can't believe that any government—whether capitalist, anarchist or socialist—could take such a huge gamble at so much cost for so little gain."
Captain Kerensky paused to signal that she'd imparted all the wisdom on economics and politics she was willing to give.
"The Intrepid is full of army personnel, as you know," said the captain. "They've been dragooned from all corners of the Solar System: from Mercury to Uranus, from the Kuiper to the Asteroid Belt, from moons, planets and space colonies of every kind. A multinational force of this size of nature hasn't been gathered together under the command of the Interplanetary Union for decades. You'd expect such a substantial effort to have a fairly well-defined end. This might be for peace-keeping, or it might just be for show. The endeavour for which I've been given the privilege of being captain isn't like that at all. Amongst the thousands of passengers on this ship there are fewer than a thousand civilians and most of those are scientists. And then, Paul Morris of the tiny Godwin anarchosyndicalist colony, there is you."
The captain paused for effect.
"Why are you on an expedition to beyond the Solar System in a direction to where we know there are no planetoids or asteroids? What is the purpose of your passage on the Intrepid?"
"Don't you know?" asked Paul, who assumed that the captain above all would have the answer to a question that still plagued him.
"Beyond minimal instructions that you should be afforded customary care and attention, nothing at all," admitted the captain. "And, of course, that such courtesy should extend equally to your delightful wife, Beatrice Canopus. Such a lovely name!"
She smiled at Beatrice with rather more warmth than she did Paul. His near naked wife was curled close to her husband, an arm over his shoulder and a hand clasping his.
The captain addressed Paul again. "You are, no doubt, under instruction to keep secret whatever role you have in this mission. I shall make no effort to extract from you why you're here, but I'll admit that it troubles me and no doubt the other officers on this ship. From what you know, can you tell me whether you expect there to be a military engagement on this voyage? Is there anything you can tell me about our destination in the middle of as much nowhere as it is possible to travel within three years?"
These were yet other questions which were not asked that troubled Paul at least as much as they did the captain. It wasn't the first time since he'd left the relative comfort of Godwin that he'd felt like an utter fraud. Paul was nervous. What could he say? He was at least comforted by the fact that his very real ignorance would almost certainly be interpreted as convincing subterfuge.
"I don't know the answer to any of your questions," he replied. "My specialist discipline is data mining. I try to make sense of data that is freely available and has often been around for millennia rather than centuries. I'm sure there's someone who has a good idea why the Interplanetary Union is going through all this trouble and expense, but that person isn't me."
"Well, you would say that," said the captain with a sigh. "I apologise for trying to break your cover. But be aware that I disapprove of being engaged on a mission with such an ill-defined purpose. It isn't fair on the service personnel of whom I'm in command and it isn't fair on the passengers of the space ship whose safety and security is my paramount concern. You do appear to be a key person in all this and I still don't understand why. Are we hunting aliens? You must be aware that there are few people on this ship who don't believe we're going to be privileged with the first ever encounter with an alien intelligence."
"I've thought that, too," said Paul. "But no one's yet come across any convincing proof that they exist. The only evidence we've had of alien life so far has been microbial and not very inspiring."
"Don't I know it!" exclaimed the captain, who'd lived on one of the few parts of the Solar System where extraterrestrial life was known to exist. And very unimpressive it was too. Ever since it had been proved that there was indeed life on Mars and that it was never more than a few microns in width, all subsequent discoveries of alien life had been fairly disappointing. Except, that is, to those who were excited by microbes.
Captain Kerensky decided that she'd learnt all she was likely to from her interrogation and steered the conversation onto more mundane matters.
"I trust that you'll enjoy your stay on board the Intrepid," she said. "There are many delights on offer that I don't know whether you've yet sampled. There's a beautiful waterfall garden on level 17. There's a holodeck on level 23, but it is very 32nd century and the virtualisation is very retro. However, as a kind of archaeologist you might quite like that sort of thing. The crew on the Intrepid are organising some entertainments and sports which you are welcome to either participate in or watch."
There was no way that the captain could convincingly paint the voyage as a pleasure cruise, but Paul appreciated her attempt. He was pleased that he was being looked after, but all he really wanted was to spend time with his wife and, when not with her, back in the comforting embrace of Virtual Reality. Sport had never interested him. Most art and entertainment passed him by. And it was unlikely that, with the transmission gap between the space ship and the rest of the Solar System increasing with every day, that he could satisfactorily conduct any meaningful research.