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PG. Caution, incoming weirdness. VR foreplay, and a totally different kind
of lovemaking. Feedback and abuse to [email protected], please.

Soundtrack: Sledgehammer, by Peter Gabriel.



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"What, you want me to tell you the story so far?
I already did. Read part one, ya' lazy bearstich. :-)"
- Furball. Now. (Apologies to Lobo)
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Andromeda: Part 5 - Sledgehammer Chapter 2 - Scratch Monkey
by Furball

Somewhere in the small hours of the morning, my energy is flagging and I'm
considering calling it a night, when she broaches a subject I'd hoped to be
spared. "I ... couldn't help noticing your interface port. I've never seen
one like that before, what are its specs?" I've never heard this part of
her hesitate before; This is important.

I'm quiet for a moment before I reply. I know what's coming, and it scares
me. "Let's just say Harper'd have a massive case of bandwidth envy, and
leave it at that."

"If I had him build an adapter, would you let me use it?"

And there it is.

Crap.

What she's asking is no less intimate than anything we've done before, and
Harper shouldn't be involved. My suit was designed to board and take enemy
ships, its interface capabilities are very flexible. I take a deep breath,
and let it out slowly. "We don't need Harper." I reach for the suit's
ciurass, and start flipping dip switches with my fingernail, reconfiguring
it for High Guard protocols. I disengage its onboard AI; it's little
smarter than a dog, but like Harper it has no place in this.

I have to lift a few of her panels before I find a suitable bus to patch
into, I don't know what should plug in here but it has almost the bandwidth
I do. Cannibalizing a dormant circuit I soon have the cabling we need. I
sit there, plug in hand, for a long moment. A little too long. "What's
wrong?" she asks.

"As far as I know, nobody's done this before. Our suitminds aren't very
bright, we're way behind the Vedrans in AI tech. Last I heard we didn't
have *human* level AI to try this with, let alone a Glorious Heritage
class. I'm kind of scared. Sorry."

"Then how about if I partition off something smaller then? Something
Rommie's size?"

Suddenly, there's another figure in the room. HoloRommie. "How about me?
You did say all of me."

I look at Andromeda, and her eyes echo the same question. HoloRommie is the
one I understand least. But still... Another deep breath, and I nod.
"...Ready." they say, and I'm out of time. I make the last connection, and
HoloRommie bursts into my mind. The world is blue, with numerals flowing
through everything. Her digital avatar towers over me. "This is no
different from when Harper jacks in." she complains.

"This is just level one. Give me a moment." I open the bandwidth throttle
and the blue world shatters. In the formless void that remains a wisp of
mist forms in front of me, and solidifies into her human image. Her hair is
shorter than Rommie's, and she stands straighter. When she moves, it's a
little stiffly, disciplined. There are no blue numerals, the illusion is
perfect.

"You do have some bandwidth, don't you? Let's see how good you are with
it." She walks around me in a circle. Every ninety degrees she leaves
behind a solid after-image. Each one walks up to me and puts her arms
around me. They all start to snuggle. "Do you have an answer to this one?"
one of her asks.

Hmmm. Tricky. I can't partition myself like she can, so I can't copy that
move. Doesn't mean I don't have an answer though. It isn't easy, but if
you're centred, if your concentration is good, you don't have to obey your
body image in here. I raise my arms, leaving some after-images of my own.
Now I have four arms, and put one around each of her. "Impressive, for an
organic." another of her admits.

Not as impressive as it looks. My brain's only built for two arms of
course, so I have to flip my attention quickly between the four I'm
controlling. It's taking all the concentration I can muster. "Just don't
make any more of you, please? Four is quite hard enough to handle. Hell,
one is..."

"Sorry, this should be fun, not a challenge." Three of her fade away. My
stress level drops as I let my spare arms fade.

"Oh, I don't know, a challenge can be fun. Have you seen this one?" I ask
her, and have the bones in my arms dissolve. Stretching them, I wrap them
around our bodies like boa constrictors. It's a simpler trick, shape
changes are much easier than extra limbs. She shifts in the circle of my
arms, changes shape herself.

"A challenge, hmm? Did you mean what you said, about caring for all of me?"
I let my arms uncoil, and she doesn't look human any more. She is a
graceful, looping, curving shape that speaks of speed and power. Her other
body image; A glorious heritage class heavy cruiser. "Can you cope with
this aspect of me?"

More than she knows.

If she can be human for me, it's only fair I be a ship for her. I consider
my old ship the Wilson, but it's far too ugly; I can do better than that. I
picture in my mind a Kaydran fast courier. I've always liked their simple,
classic lines - besides, simpler is easier. They're much smaller than her,
but scale is flexible here. I deconstruct my view of myself, rebuild it,
and become a slender triangle with curved, ivory walls.

Through the interface I taste surprise, approval, and pleasure. I've called
her bluff, she thought I'd back down but she's glad I didn't. The formless
void around us takes on substance as she builds us a playground. Good
choice. The planet is huge, and its rings should be a challenge to fly. For
me, at least. I never was much of a pilot. "Catch me!" she calls, and she's
gone, arcing between the rocks. Adjusting my size down a touch to be more
manouvreable, I take off after her.

She's moving fast, far faster than me. Her reflexes are so much better
suited to this I'm going to have to get sneaky, but I mustn't break the
rules of this universe she's built. That would be rude. I change my hull to
black. Burying the plan in the back of my mind so the interface won't give
me away, I turn away from her and set a course to graze the planet, going
in the opposite direction to her on full power. It's called a slingshot,
I'm going to let gravity give me a speed boost. It's kind of obvious, but
I'm hoping she won't expect me to try something this corny.

I nearly blow it right away, I swing past so close the planet's atmosphere
leaves me scorched, but my speed is through the roof. I have to flip and
come in backwards so I can brake with my main engines. Good job they're
gravitics, no burning fuel to betray my course.

I hit the ring several degrees ahead of her and lie in wait, doing my best
impersonation of a rock. She's moving slower now, dodging less, wondering
where I am. Heh. I got her, hook, line, sinker, fishing rod and silly hat.
I try to predict her path, drifting on manouvring thrusters until I'm in
position to intercept. Then a large rock glides between us, and I lose
track of her. Damn! I wait, looking for her, but she doesn't come back into
view.

Then there is a throat clearing noise right behind me, and a large curved
prow slides into view beneath me. Right. Warship. Advanced tactical
capabilities. Just call me 'sucker'. She peels away, and then she's darting
among the rocks again. I guess I have to do this the hard way. Shrinking
smaller still, I hit the gas and get serious.

The difference in our sizes buys me an edge on the turns, but her larger
engines give her the edge on the straight. I think she's staying in the
rings to give me a chance, there's very few long straight paths in here.
Pushing my meagre piloting skills to the edge, and taking some knocks in
the process, eventually I start to draw close. Inevitably, I make a
mistake. I zig when I should have zagged, clip a rock hard, and spiral out
of control. She's there to catch me. Her hull is soft, I adjust mine to
match. I'd almost forgotten this is an illusion.

Her thought brushes through my mind as she tightens the interface again.
"Nice try, but you have to catch me. It's the rules." And she's off again.

So, the seal has to perform to get his fish, eh? OK. Sneaky didn't work,
and I don't have the skill to catch her, that leaves one thing. Brute
force. The Wilson it is then. The slender form of the courier bulges and
warps, losing its elegance and becoming almost grotesque. My prow becomes
an outward tapered cylinder with a slightly concave end. The back is a four
scoop ice-cream cone of engines far too powerful for her size. Three rings
of stubby tubes extend from her waist, angled backwards. She's ugly as sin,
fast as hell, and built to take a lot of punishment head on. I point myself
at the Andromeda, and light the drives.

I don't need to turn, rocks bounce off my reinforced prow, or disintegrate.
The acceleration is a headrush, and even at half power more than she can
manage in these tight spaces. I'm on her in seconds. She tries to dodge,
but my manouvring thrusters are prodigious too, she doesn't stand a chance.
I get her cradled in my prow, aim for a gap in the rocks and kick it up to
full. The acceleration holds her trapped as we burst from the rings.

"Oh, come on! Your ship has to exist, you can't just make something up!
That's a ridiculous design!"

"It exists alright. I served on her once." I show it to her in my mind, and
feel a hint of jealousy. Oops. Talk fast... "She's really low tech, and her
armament sucks. One on one you'd cream her in a real fight. All she has is
speed and an armoured nose." I kill the engines and the acceleration fades,
setting her free.

"She's ugly too."

"Yup, that she is." Phew, I think I got away with it. It's true, the
Wilson's dear to me for the memories she holds, the friends I served with,
the sanctuary she represents. But I love the Andromeda. I'd destroy the
Wilson in a heartbeat if it meant saving her.

"Ready?" I ask.

"For what?"

"Level three."

"There's more? Lead on."

I trigger semiorganic filaments spread throughout my brain that make my
interface so much more than Harper's. We don't merge like I'm used to
doing, it's more like oil and water shaken together; we occupy the same
space but we're separate. It's understandable, she wasn't designed for
this. There are other differences too. The suitmind's touch is cold,
simplistic, a glorified calculator with vicious instincts. Her touch is
warm gold and her complexity takes my breath away. Fractal thoughts blossom
and divide with frightening clarity, the fruitless branches are culled with
ruthless efficiency. Her essence is a tidal wave, threatening to overwhelm
me. That doesn't happen with the suitmind either, it's no match for me.
Somewhere far away I feel my physical body shake as my self image fights to
maintain its integrity.

She's observing me too. "How do you live in here?" she asks. "It's so ...
organic."

"It's who I am. I *am* organic, remember?"

I feel her smile. "For some reason I keep forgetting. I suppose that means
you've never done this..." A wave of pure joy washes over me as she
directly stimulates my pleasure centres. I've heard rumours that AIs make
love mind to mind like this. Maybe they were true.

"You'd be surprised what I've done before." I reply, and tickle the reward
mechanisms that serve the same purpose in her. But this is crude, no
finesse, and we both know it. Our thoughts start to intertwine, each
seeking out the other's desires and stroking them, sharing images, moments,
ourselves. I give her skiing in the mountains of my homeworld on a crystal
clear day, she gives me the feel of ripping a perfect dive into slipstream.
I give her the moment I first held my nephew as a baby, she gives me her
first moment of self awareness at the Tern Vedran shipyards. The lines
between us blur to the point where I'm not quite sure where she begins and
I end. It's been a long time since I've felt this close to someone. This
comfortable.

I know her now. She's the warrior, the competitor, the one who runs the
battle sims. Rommie is her physical side, Andromeda her intellect.
HoloRommie is the player of games.

[Are you ready?]
[For what?]
[The rest of me.]
{fear nerves trust acceptance}
Barriers fall.

She is vast. Still we don't merge; I dissolve.

<>
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Footnote: "What the hell is a scratch monkey?"

If you google for this term you'll find a few hits, but I'll save you the
trouble.

First you have to know what a scratch tape is. Back when big quarter inch
tape reels were common, programmers would use them as near-online storage,
since actual memory was very expensive and disks were small. When
debugging, they would always be sure to mount a tape that didn't matter, in
case it got mangled. Something old, with no useful data. This was known as
a scratch tape.

In around 1980, long before Windows and even before the IBM PC (No,
Bill Gates didn't invent the computer. Google for "Konrad Zuse". He beat
Colossus by over a decade, and Eniac by nearly two.) a university was
doing experiments that involved putting electrodes in live monkeys' brains,
hooking them up to a computer, and monitoring them as they performed
various tasks. The computer, a DEC VAX, was in the machine room, quite a
istance from the monkeys. One day it crashed. A DEC engineer was called out
to try and work out what had gone wrong, and as is usual he power-cycled the
machine several times during his investigation and ran some diagnostics to
exercise the various devices attached to it. Unfortunately, unknown to him,
one of said devices was a monkey called Mabel, their star performer. Sadly,
poor Mabel did not survive the experience of being "diagnosed". The lesson
to be learned? Always mount a scratch monkey.

    

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