Elin hated it when her duty rotation required her to mediate yet again between a Wrinkleship pilot and the spaceport authorities.
The pilots didn't bother her. They were decent enough people, even the worst of them, even when they acted like elitist snobs. Part of the problem, she knew, was that she did consider them people, while a growing percentage of the officers and officials and technicians she had to pass on her way through security levels to get to the Wrinkleships, did not. Wrinkleship pilots, according to the proponents of the pureblood radical genetic dogma of the Set'ri, were mutants. Mutants had to be destroyed, to prevent them from contaminating the true Human genome, according to the Set'ri. However, Wrinkleship pilots were necessary to the expansion of the Central Allied Worlds, so they weren't destroyed at birth, or when their mutations manifested at adolescence.
Lucky for them. Or maybe not so lucky.
What did it matter that their bodies were so malformed and defective that by the time they entered their second decade, most of them needed life support? According to all the ethics books Elin had studied, and the inherited memories of her ancestors, the mind and soul determined if a life form was Human, not the viability and performance of the body. Elin had enough experience, her own, as well as those imprinted in the Khrystal in her blood, to convince her that the converse of the Set'ri dogma was true, and a great many who looked Human did not qualify for the title.
Besides, most pilots lived inside so many layers of life support and fail-safes, not even their medical personnel had seen their faces in decades.
The pilot currently giving ulcers and nervous breakdowns to the spaceport staff had the nickname of Big Ugh-Ugly. Not because anyone knew what she looked like, but because several technicians, who she refused to let anywhere near her ship, and who were fired after trying a little 'harmless' sabotage to her fuel feeds, claimed that the last man who looked her in the face lost his mind.
The spaceport personnel were more a problem than anything else Elin had to deal with when she went on mediation errands. Elin held her breath as she walked through the second-to-last security check, because the last time she met up with this pair of guards currently on duty, they stank of alcohol and uniforms several duty cycles overdue for cleaning. And it wasn't just her augmented Khybor senses that made the reek sickening.
In a self-defense move that was so automatic it had become unconscious a decade before, Elin flipped open a tiny compartment in her tool wristband, and released a pinch of bio-crystal. It whisked through the air of the security checkpoint, so fine it barely shimmered in the air before landing on and adhering to the gate and control panels. The bio-crystal was a product of her own anatomical processes, giving her a sensory and data-gathering link to anything and everything it touched. In this instance, the dust let her see and hear whatever happened in the room behind her, until she chose to shatter the link and deactivate the bio-crystal. Neither guard said anything to her as she went through the retina and palm print scans to verify her identity and errand, and she knew that was a bad sign.
The moment the gate shut behind her, Elin heard the two guards discussing her physique and making bets, yet again, that one of them could get her horizontal by the end of the day. She sighed, wondering briefly what had ever happened to asking a girl out to dinner and some entertainment before using her for sex. Not that she would ever eat in the same room with either one of them. Even with her Khrystal-augmented strength, she doubted she would be able to keep down even one mouthful of food.
"Hello, be-u-ti-ful!" A tall, lean figure in the sloppy, eye-aching purple fatigues of the Wedge, the exploration-and-rescue arm of the Galactic Fleet, stood in the doorway of the next checkpoint.
Elin nearly barked a response that bordered on crude, but she knew she was under surveillance as much as she kept those idiots at the last checkpoint under surveillance. She was a Khybor, and no matter how valuable her services to the government, no matter how flawless her record, she still had her family reputation to live down. Her multi-great grandmother had been the first Human to successfully carry bio-crystal in her blood. Kerin had been classed a rebel and a danger because she refused to let the paranoid military lock her in a dark box for the rest of her life. All her descendants had proven themselves just as stubborn about freedom and personal choice, and just as willing to seriously damage anything that stood in their way. Even though Elin's great-grandmother had forged a profitable, useful alliance between Khybors and the government of the Central Allied Worlds, the so-called voice of civilization and Humanity, that didn't mean the family had given up its dedication to fighting for what they believed in or wanted. Elin's mother had taught her to watch her mouth whenever she was around the unenlightened. Who knew, after all, when the Set'ri would decide that a foul tongue meant Khybors were mentally defective, therefore unstable and a danger to Humanity?
Elin shoved aside the constant complaint about elitists and paranoid cowards that ran at the back of her mind in a subliminal grumble, and offered a wide grin and wide-spread arms to Colonel Rorin Pace as he strode down the walkway toward her.
"Fi'in bless me, but I must have done some clean living for a change," he declared as he scooped her up, held her tight against him and spun them both around two revolutions. "You look good, bratty kid." He set her down, but didn't step back right away.
"You don't look so bad yourself, mud-grubber." Elin ducked when Rorin reached to yank on her long, bronze-colored braid. She stuck her tongue out at him, earning a roar of laughter.
"If I'd known you got the short straw this duty shift, I'd've come down to personally escort you," he said, as they strode up to the last checkpoint before Elin could enter the ship.
"Why?" She saw the answer in his eyes before he opened his mouth. "More Set'ri threats?"
"Rumors. Unfortunately, only the warped ones travel at twice the speed of light." Rorin shrugged and stepped back to let her go through the door ahead of him. "The ones that could do us some good move slower than sub-arctic mud."
Elin nodded, knowing exactly which ones he meant. The committee that had formed to stand as liaison between Khybors and "normal" Humans, most of whom were her relatives to one degree or another, had a subtle campaign going to change public opinion to more be positive toward Khybors. Unfortunately, sometimes the rumors they started to short-circuit the bad rumors created by their enemies became troublesome in and of themselves. The long-held belief that Khybors could create new Khybors in unwilling, undamaged Humans, simply by touching them, had finally died. The triumph came from a combination of scientific reports and very public marriages between Khybors and non-augmented Humans, where the Human didn't become a Khybor even after sols of marriage and having several children. The reaction to that relaxing of fear was a new 'game', among the idle rich and the military, to turn Khybors into sexual toys and take advantage of their hyper-sensitivity and superior reflexes, and healing ability. Fortunately, Khybors were able to protect themselves against rape most effectively, but there were other ways to force an unwilling partner to cooperate.
"What would I do without you?" she said on a sigh.
"Oh, you probably would have gotten into only half as much trouble when you were a little critter." Rorin squeezed her hand just before they stepped into the Security checkpoint.
The two had grown up together, childhood friends. Rorin's grandparents had been injured in a colony accident that would have ended their young lives if not for the bio-crystal that was finally safe for Human implantation. They had passed the Khrystal talent along to their daughter. Rorin's generation was the first to show no signs of Khrystal, even though he possessed it. His eyes didn't change color when he adjusted his vision to see in different spectrums, and he didn't produce and shed Khrystal dust, either involuntarily or at will. He healed quickly, his reflexes were slightly faster than normal Humans, but to all intents and purposes, he was no different from any other non-augmented Human in the military services. That, Elin knew, had helped him progress with far less difficulties than many in their generation.
The colonel in charge of this last checkpoint, Elin didn't bother learning his name, escorted her to the Wrinkleship hatch and opened the communication link with the pilot. Rorin stayed behind in the security checkpoint to cover for him if any other Wrinkleship pilots currently in the spaceport requested communication or supplies or had problems that needed addressing. Elin said nothing about her assignment, of which she knew little beyond the pilot's name and berth designation, and some port rumors, and the colonel didn't offer any information. She preferred to work that way, getting the complaint or problem from the pilot directly, instead of having to untangle whatever explanation the dirtsiders decided to give.
"Are you paired with anyone right now?" the colonel asked, just as Elin was about to step through the hatch into the Wrinkleship.
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that it was none of his business, but Elin had heard from friends how that tactic always seemed to encourage conversation, which escalated to argument. Sometimes, a quiet 'no' worked better than a bloody nose to convince someone his interested was neither appreciated nor wanted.
"Not right now, no. Too busy." Elin knew better than to offer a smile or even look the colonel in the eye.
She caught his smile in the gleaming, polished metal plate of the hatch door. Maybe this was one of those instances when a bloody nose was the most efficient response.
Big Ugh-Ugly's real name was Serren, and she greeted Elin with music piped into the main cabin and the mouthwatering aromas of fresh pastry just out of the oven in the ship's galley. Elin laughed and trailed her fingertips over the lump in the wall that showed where Serren's life-support tank was securely installed and shielded.
"Someone told me that all your habitation functions started malfunctioning during your last long-distance haul," she scolded softly, and stepped down the spiraling stairs into the galley.
"You know how most of my equipment is voice-activated. Something happened to the program," Serren responded, her synthetic voice a meshing of harp strings and woodwinds. "It needs to hear 'please' and 'thank you' at regular intervals."
"Ah. That explains quite a bit. I'll make a note of it in my report. So, anything interesting happen on this last run?" Elin settled down with the fresh pastry and propped her feet up on the bench on the other side of the dining booth.
It only took ten minutes for Serren to bring up the tapes of the scientific team she had transported on her last assignment. The tapes showed most of the members of the team participating in suspicious activities, including unauthorized personnel coming on board and unauthorized cargo being hidden in compartments no one but spaceport crew should have been able to open. To keep them from getting into her outer layers of memory and security and wiping the records, Serren had forced malfunctions on her ship, to keep the scientists busy and make it more than believable that she couldn't open the storage compartments where the contraband and stowaways were still hidden.
Elin thought of the stink from several days of imprisonment, no food or water or hygiene facilities, and didn't know whether to laugh or be angry or scold Serren. Wrinkleship pilots had to defend themselves with whatever methods necessary, simply because the technicians and military personnel who were supposed to protect them were often those most guilty of abuse and neglect.
She opened the access channel in her tool wristband and linked all the information directly to her superior, the Wrinkleship liaison and legal advocate. By the time Elin finished her pastry and shared a few stories about mutual friends with Serren, Security had arrived, ready to open the formerly jammed shut compartments. Elin noted the communication log showed repeated attempts by the scientific team to get back onto the ship and get into those jammed compartments, and their insistence that they didn't need help from the military or security personnel to do it.
Elin exchanged warm good-byes with Serren and sauntered back down to the security checkpoint while everyone else was busy inside the ship. The colonel, she still couldn't remember his name, was alone.
"That didn't take long," he greeted her, and looked her over, head to toe. "I checked your duty shift and you're off in two hours. I'll meet you at Vinder's in three. Wear something green and soft."
"I don't recall you asking if I wanted to spend time with you." Elin wanted to add that she owned nothing either soft or green, and she certainly wouldn't waste time prettying herself for him.
"Doesn't matter what you want." His pleasant smile turned into a smirk. He patted the security console. "With this, I can find out all sorts of things about you that you might not want people to know, and I can make changes to your record if I need to. Wouldn't it just be smarter and more fun to play along? I thought you were a smart girl."
"Elin." Rorin stepped into the room. He tipped his head toward the door, indicating she should leave.
"Three hours," the colonel called after her when she nodded to Rorin and stepped out.
"I don't think so," Rorin responded. His voice hadn't changed one bit, but Elin's sensitivity to vibrations and changing chemicals in the air told her that he hung poised on the verge of something nasty.
Two hours later, instead of heading to her home outside the city after her duty shift, Elin found herself standing in a judiciary's office, verifying Colonel Rorin Pace's assertion that he had been defending her from sexual harassment when he struck the Security colonel and knocked him unconscious. The man still hadn't awakened. The security cameras had malfunctioned suspiciously, halting just before Elin was due to step into the security checkpoint and then resuming just moments after she left, and just in time for the vicious argument between the two men. The gap in the recording did more for verifying the colonel's illicit demands than anything Elin or Rorin might have said.
"You realize, our public relations campaign has worked too well," Elin said. "No one is afraid of body contact or exchange of fluids anymore."
"It doesn't help that Khybors are in such perfect health, thanks to Khrystal, they're hard to resist." He linked his arm through hers and led her off the walkway, into a middle-class market district, where Elin was sure they would find a quiet corner to sit and gorge on food bought at a dozen different vendor carts.
"I think it's time for us to leave," she said softly.
"But we just got, oh, that leave." Rorin nodded.
They had grown up listening to her mother and grandmother talk about a future in which Khybors might need to strike out across the vastness of space, to find a place safe from both the destructive beliefs of the Set'ri, and the foolish prejudices and fears of ordinary Humans.
"It's just about time for another idiot to get vocal and start pressuring for us to be declared either precious resources to be carefully controlled, or mental defectives to be sterilized and kept away from the innocent and vulnerable." She grinned when Rorin hocked and spat, effective comment on that sentiment. "If so-called civilized folk are so afraid of us that they want to take away our minds and free will and the right to reproduce, then we should just leave. Take away all the services we perform for the settled universe. Let ordinary Humans suffer without all the things we provide and do for them. They can't have their luxuries and easy living without giving us some respect."
"Has to be done quietly," he said, and gestured for her to step into a shaded alcove full of trees and a tiny, chuckling fountain. "If they realize their semi-slave class is about to run away, they really will lock us up this time."
"Quietly and slowly," Elin agreed.