One hundred and two years later…
A gold chandelier floated over the dance floor where Mathius Pryde first played host to the Arnam over a century ago, illuminating the dancers and Christmas decorations as the orchestra played. Jack Daniels, looking like an eighteen year old from the Terran Sector instead of the nearly forty years that had passed him by, glanced around at the dancers on the floor and tried to look casual. His athletic frame and general demeanor suggested someone accustomed to loose fitting clothing instead of the black dress suit he wore, and he tugged on his tie uncomfortably, trying to figure out why he'd been stupid enough to fall for this. The suit felt like it had been starched up three ways from Sunday and it itched like a full body cast. And the tie was a noose just waiting to catch on something in order to hang him until he was very very dead.
He glanced around the room and saw a number of people who were all easily recognizable. Jonathan Anderson, grandson of Benjamin Pryde and owner of the eighth largest Corporation on Pryde Rock, turned around his wife as they stepped in and out in time to the slow music coming from the orchestra. Jack scowled at the music and wished the orchestra could play something with a bit more life to it.
Beside them, he saw John Pryde, son of Mathius Pryde and the current president of Pryde Rock, dancing with his wife and looking old compared to most of the people who’d stopped growing old around the age of eighteen. Jack shook his head, thinking third generation prolong was a very good thing, and continued looking around at all the very shapely young and not-so-young ladies until his eyes locked onto somebody he knew. Benjamin Pryde slow dancing very close with a blonde-haired young lady he didn't know. Then he jerked as he realized he did recognize her and his jaw fell open in a most impolitic stare.
"How rude," a voice said from his side and he turned to see Andrea watching him with one hand on her lithe waist, her head cocked to the side as the dark sun glasses all Arnam constantly wore glinted light from the chandelier. Like most Arnam, she was nearly two meters in height and her slim frame looked designed to knife through water easily. To most people of course, she was simply an adopted member of the very rich Carson family, and one of the few Arnam to live outside their crystal cities on the oceans of Pryde Rock, or on the slowly re-terraformed oceans of Arnami Prime. "I thought you knew that men were supposed to have eyes only for their date," she finished in a scolding tone.
Jack blushed and looked from her to Benjamin’s partner then back and shook his head slowly. "Sorry, but I know her. We've had dealings in the past and I never expected to see that."
"And how close were your dealings?" Andrea asked in a meaningfully way as the gills on either side of her neck flared open and Jack cleared his throat.
"I’ve been working for him off and on over the last couple years picking up pirates and other people he wants picked up without putting out an official bounty for,” he whispered calmingly.
“And her?” Andrea asked forcefully, letting him know she wasn’t going to be sidetracked.
“Elsie’s his assistant. An AI actually, though the most human-like AI I’ve ever met. He originally programmed her back in the Terran Sector and brought her with him when his cousin picked up a contract with you Arnam.”
“You mean Mathius Pryde? But that was over a century ago,” Andrea whispered disbelievingly and Jack shrugged carefully.
“He doesn’t grow old. He’s had very close dealings with the Pelorans you know. They helped him build her body and trained him as an Engineer.” Andrea’s mouth opened up wide at that comment and she looked at Benjamin for a long moment.
“He was married to that racer wasn’t he?” she asked slowly, a curious expression on her face. “The one that died in that crash last summer?”
“Yes he was. This is the first time I’ve seen him since then, but I’ve had my ear to the ground. Until a month or so ago he was starting to really come unhinged over that. She was an Engineer too. They met during the Fourth War right around here before the Aesiran came over to our side and tipped the balance of power. He was an aerojock and she was a skycar pilot. Speed demons the both of them”
“Did he fight in Twelfth Pryde Rock?” Andrea asked, her eyes wide with interest.
“He flew off the Odin,” Jack muttered as he casually wrapped his arm around her.
“My genetic grandfather fought during the Great War,” Andrea whispered sadly, using the name the Pelorans and the others races normally called it, and leaned into Jack. “Before I met you, he told me what they saw when the remnants of the Arnami fleet arrived at Pryde Rock. Said he couldn’t believe the Odin could still move under its own power.”
“It almost didn’t,” Jack shrugged back. “It fell down to the fifth sub-orbital plane before they were able to bring its thrusters back online. They ended up skipping it off the atmosphere to get back up into a true orbit. I don’t know how it held together through that after all the damage it took.”
Andrea looked back at Benjamin and the AI again, shaking her head in a confused manner. “An AI,” she finally whispered.
“She’s like no other AI I’ve ever met,” Jack returned. “She’s amazing,” he whispered in appreciation.”
“Really,” Andrea whispered darkly as her gills flared again and Jack realized he shouldn’t have said that, his eyes opening wide at the thought of what would come next. “Sounds like you need be reacquainted with how amazing real women can be," she returned in an annoyed voice and removed his hand from her hip. "Now let’s go to the other dance hall. I hear they have real music over there," she finished, reached up to grab his tie, and pulled him out of the dance hall into the corridor.
That was when he looked down to see what she was wearing for the first time and almost choked. He swore he could see everything from London to Timbuktu the way it left her entire back uncovered. Small green spots ran from below her waist where the dress opened all the way up her spine to the neck where her green hair covered them up. "Nice spots," he finally sputtered out, his uncomfortable suit and the noose around his neck suddenly forgotten in the back of his mind.
The orchestra came to the end of the song and Jonathan and Rosemary Anderson walked off the dance floor, sitting down to watch the other dancers. “What happened out there, Jon,” Rosemary whispered in a concerned voice. “I felt you go somewhere again.”
“Just memories,” he whispered back sadly and looked out at the other dancers. Before prolong, there never would have been this many young bodies on the floor, and so few older ones. “Twelfth Pryde Rock again, looking at all those young men and women I’ll never see again. Like I was there again,” he sighed helplessly. “I love these Christmas parties, but they always remind of those I sent to death,” he finished and Rosemary put a hand on his arm comfortingly.
“The wars are over,” she whispered and he nodded.
“But accidents still happen,” Jon shrugged helplessly. “And one day we will be forced to fight another war. I don’t want to see that happen. Look at the Arnam. They still haven’t recovered. I don’t think they ever will. I feel it whenever I talk to them. It’s like their souls have died and they’re just waiting for their bodies to realize it. The one that was in here a few minutes ago,” he added quickly. “She was different. Rebellious. Spunky. Not afraid to say what she thought. She would never fit in with other Arnam, but she and those like her are the only hope for that race now. If they don’t do something soon, I fear the Fourth War will claim another victim,” he finished sadly, his head shaking back and forth slowly.
“You’ve done a lot for them,” Rosemary whispered and leaned her head up against his comfortingly.
“Not enough,” Jon whispered back. “We owe them our lives. They gave us a planet out here. I probably would have died out on one of the borders of the Terran Sectors in some annoying little conflict over a minor world if I hadn’t accepted their contract out here, and even if I somehow survived, I wouldn’t be alive now. It just gets me that I owe the Arnam so much and can’t return the favor. They saved us. But I can’t save them. All I can do is give them a nice place to live out their lives and then watch as they fade away.”
“You’ve done what you can, Jon,” Rosemary noted firmly and slapped him gently on his hand. “And they’re recolonizing Arnami Prime. Maybe that will give them something to live for again. All any of us can do is give someone the ability to do something with their lives. They have to take that opportunity and learn to stand on their own, Jon. You gave them a chance to live in the oceans of this world. You and the Pelorans helped them clean the radioactive clouds from their home. Now it’s up to them to take those chances and run with them. We can’t do it for them.”
“Swim with them,” Jon whispered and Rosemary slapped him again, harder this time.
“Don’t get smart with me, young man,” she muttered in an angry tone, but he felt the amusement lingering under her act.
“I’m not as young as I look,” he smiled back mischievously and pinched her rear playfully.
“Not in the front of the guests, dad,” a plaintive voice came from behind as Rosemary was about to return the favor and Jon turned to look with a smile. Looking a good fifty years old, John Pryde’s hair was streaked with gray and lines covered his face as he sat down carefully.
"This has been one interesting year, Mister President" Jon, looking more like eighteen years old, whispered and his son nodded in response.
"I'm glad it’s almost over," John returned tiredly. "I'm getting too old for this business."
"And you think next year will be easier?"
"At least we won't have to worry about those damned Shang raiders," John muttered sourly.
“I thought the Shang had disowned them?” Rosemary asked and John sighed slowly.
“Officially they did. Even gave them great big showy trials before ‘executing’ them,” John muttered angrily.
“You think we’ll see them again?” Jon asked and his father nodded.
“After a full genetic overlay. But the Shang haven’t figured out all of our tricks yet. If we catch them raiding again, we forget we ever found them,” the president of Pryde Rock finished meaningfully.”
"Good," Rosemary dropped in darkly and father and son nodded in full agreement.
John turned his head and looked out to the dance floor to see Benjamin and his partner still dancing very closely and scowled. "So what do we do about that?" he asked and Jon followed his gaze.
"Why should we do anything?"
John’s face wrinkled in annoyance and he looked at his father as he shook his head slowly. "She's...she's...she's a..."
"So?" Jon final interjected. "And what difference does that make?"
"But she's not natural!" John finally spluttered out.
"So? Neither are the Arnam and you don't see the courts banning marriages with them. But let’s just put aside the whole question about AIs being alive. Elsie’s a ship AI. She has a standard datacore like all AIs, but she also has a fully organic core as well. A brain just like ours. She feels and has emotions just like all living beings."
At that John pulled his mouth closed and shook his head slowly. He didn't like it but knew when his father's mind was made up. He reached up to run his hands through his grey hair. "I really need to look at treating this," he changed the subject and Jon smiled.
"During your free time?"
"What free time?" the president responded in an annoyed tone and Jon smiled innocently.
"My point exactly," he came back and John scowled at him.
"Maybe next year," he finally growled and Jon and Rosemary rolled their eyes. They'd heard that one every year now for ten years.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Jon responded and John shook his head in annoyance.