Sphinx-6 was a gas giant with a pair of Mars-sized moons and several dozen smaller ones attempting to bask in its meager heat. It was around the largest that Elsie put the Farrago into orbit. Evette had considered greeting their clients in her dress uniform, but decided on her working uniform instead. Navy blue with silver trim at the collar and its many pockets, it was more comfortable, more practical and, hopefully, conveyed the competence of a longtime spacefarer.
Elsie wore her usual skin-tight uniform. Made of nanofabric, it was self-cleaning, self-repairing and could change colors. In many ways it was like a second skin. It only lacked pockets. Elsie wore a gray vest over her uniform that made up for the latter deficiency.
The two women rode in the elevator down from the Farragos living/working deck to the lower deck where the Farragos main cargo holds, pocket-warp deck, engine room, and workshop was. Between the two cargo holds was a small control room housing the Farragos pocket-warp facilities, which tapped into the ships engines to create small, handy warps in the space-time fabric. The practical result of this capability was that the Farrago could open a portal to any point within a thousand kilometers or so.
"You should let me greet our passengers," Elsie told Evette. "Ive read up on all their customs, including The Book of Truth."
"Is that what youve been up to all this time?" asked Evette knowing full well that Elsie could have reviewed everything in her database about the Seekers of Truth within the space of a minute or two. Elsie had been distant since their argument.
Elsie just shrugged and set the coordinates for the pocket-warp portal then transferred the controls to a hand unit so she could close the portal once their guests were aboard but still greet them in person.
Evette and Elsie stepped into the large airlock that separated the pocket-warp deck from the rest of the ship.
"Warning!" grated a loud and unpleasant voice as Elsie activated the pocket-warp. "Coordinates set to deep space! Hard vacuum hazard! Warning!"
"We have really got to get this thing fixed," complained Evette covering her ears.
Elsie punched the command override code. "Even if we do all the work ourselves, it would still mean at least three days in drydock, and we dont have the money. Maybe after this job."
Evette shook her head. "Were not getting much cash up front. They dont have much," she said. "Theyre hoping to discover some artifacts on Van Ham-2, which they can use toward our fee. Its pretty iffy. Unfortunately, no one else expressed any interest in hiring us at all, so were stuck with each other."
"Oh well, seeking out the lost artifacts of Truth should at least be interesting," said Elsie. She pressed the Go key on her remote control and the air in the center of the pocket-warp deck began to shimmer and ripple. Then a transparent bubble inflated out of nothing, somehow appearing convex and concave at the same time. When it reached its full diameter of about four meters, Elsie and Evette could see three humans in gold-and-purple robes waiting on landing pad at a spaceport on the moon below them. A fourth member of the group was a large, tentacled amphibian whose glistening blue skin was mottled with flecks of fiery orange. There was a soft whump of thunder as the atmosphere of the Farrago and that of the moon met and tried to achieve some sort of equilibrium. Elsie had made sure that the air pressure on the pocket-warp bay was less than that on the other side of the portal. After all, there was no sense in letting the Farragos valuable air bleed out onto some planet. Especially one that made them pick up their passengers from a spaceport in order to charge the Farrago a full landing fee.
"I bid you greetings, Seekers of Truth, and welcome you aboard the Farrago," Elsie called through the portal.
One of the humans stepped forward through the portal and into the Farragos pocket-warp bay. Behind him, the others gathered up the groups luggage and followed. The alien wheeled a metal box large enough to contain a quartet of refrigerators through in addition to the dozen or so cargo containers it dragged behind it. As soon as everyone was aboard, Elsie closed the portal.
The lead man threw back the hood of his robe, touched his fingertips together, and gave Elsie and Evette a slow nod. He was a balding middle-aged man, and his eyes, hair, and complexion all seemed to be gray, but perhaps it was just the light. "I am Brother Santos," he said. "I lead my fellow Seekers on the expedition in search of Holy Artifacts of Truth. My companions are Brother Karl, Brother Zanzibar, and Brother Thoo-Loo."
Brother Karl looked to be in his early twenties with dark hair, green eyes and a thin mustache. Even in his robes, he looked broad-shouldered and athletic. In contrast, Brother Zanzibar was a slightly built man in his thirties. He wore his brown hair cropped close to his narrow skull. Both Seekers bowed to Elsie and Evette.
Nearly three meters tall and about as wide, Brother Thoo-Loo dwarfed his fellow Seekers. His size, proportions, and the half-dozen ropy tentacles ringing his torso precluded wearing a robe like his fellow Seekers of Truth, but he did wear a purple-and-gold collar around his thick neck and matching bands around each of his tentacles. He squatted on three powerful legs with webbed feet. His head was frog-like, complete with bulging lime-green eyes and a meter-wide mouth. A forest of fine wriggling feelers surrounded the latter. Instead of bowing, Brother Thoo-Loo merely bobbed his great head and blinked at Elsie and Evette.
Elsie mirrored Brother Santos gesture and Evette followed suit. "I am LC-3, but I prefer to be called Elsie. My co-captain is Evette du Reve," said Elsie.
"We will address you by your true name," sniffed Brother Santos.
Evette noted her companions features clouding briefly, but before either woman could respond, Brother Thoo-Loo spoke up. His voice was like a load of wet gravel being poured from a great height into a plastic trash bag.
"There is no deceit inherent in preferring a nickname," Bother Thoo-Loo told Brother Santos. "After all, you do not address me by my true name, which is Thoo-Loozulligullg Guggllazobb Ulthlaalzobb Thullzocataal Zanthaluun Gullubaloth."
"Call me whatever you want, just dont call me late for dinner," smiled Elsie bowing again and turning to leave. "Ill go upstairs and get us underway, Evette will show you to your cabins and help you get settled."
As Elsie left, Evette noticed Brother Karls eyes fixated on Elsies posterior. She sighed. "Gather up your personal belongings," she instructed the passengers. "Ill have the cargo bots store the rest of your gear here until we reach Van Ham-2."
"What about my habitat module?" asked Brother Thoo-Loo indicating the giant metal box.
Evette frowned. "Well, we could use the freight elevator to take it to one of the upper cargo bays, but I think wed have to disassemble it to install it in one of the cabins."
Brother Thoo-Loo nodded. "I dont mind using the cargo bay if your do not object to me doing so. I only use the module for sleep, feeding, and meditation."
"All right," said Evette. "Why dont we set you up in Bay 2 then? Weve converted it into a recreation room and that will give you the best access to your fellow Seekers."
"That will be satisfactory," said Brother Santos.
Evette led them to an elevator large enough to accommodate them all and Brother Thoo-Loos module comfortably. As they left, a small cargo bot wheeled out of its cubby and began stowing the rest of the Seekers gear.
The module fit easily in the corner of the rec room that had been cleared as a dance floor. She then showed Brothers Santos, Karl and Zanzibar to their cabins. "The galley/dining room is adjacent to the bridge, across from the captains quarters. Elsie and I generally dine at 1800. Youre welcome to join us, just let us know ahead of time so that we can cook enough for everyone," said Evette.
Brother Santos scowled. "Your android co-captain does not need to eat. Eating merely for the sake of appearing more human is deceitful," he said. "I disapprove."
Evette looked at Brother Santos levelly. "I," she said, "dont recall asking for your approval. If there is nothing else you need, I will go assist Elsie on the bridge."
"Whats our ETA?" asked Evette when she took her seat next to Elsie at the Farragos controls.
"Seventy hours to clear the Sphinx system, no time to warp to the Van Ham system, and another 120 hours to reach Van Ham-2," replied Elsie.
"I dont know if Brother Santos is going to live that long," grumbled Evette.
"Weve had worse," Elsie reminded her. "At least there hasnt been any gunplay so far this time."
The days still young, thought Evette pessimistically.
Evette was surprised to find that all their passengers chose to join them for dinner. She and Elsie sat together at the head of the table while Brothers Santos and Zanzibar sat to their left with Brother Karl across from them. Brother Thoo-Loo squeezed into the room, at the far end of the table near the door to the hall.
"I ate several days ago and will be digesting for several more," the alien told them. "I am here for companionship." He paused. "And perhaps a bit to drink. You wouldnt happen to have cold, fresh water with some old coffee grounds?"
"I think I can manage that," replied Elsie brightly. "How much would you like?"
"Three or four liters will be plenty, otherwise Ill have trouble sleeping."
Elsie went into the galley and returned with drinks for everyone. Brother Santos and Brother Zanzibar both chose ice water. Brother Karl asked for a beer, which earned him a slight disapproving look from Brother Santos. Evette and Elsie both had soft drinks. Dinner was an old Earth delicacy from Elsies database; Spaghetti-os and franks from scratch.
"Evette told me that you had expressed some reservations regarding my need to eat," Elsie said to Brother Santos once she had served everyone.
"Actually, I expressed my disapproval," clarified Brother Santos.
"Id heard that," continued Elsie. "I was trying to be polite."
"The Book of Truth teaches us that even small deceits kindly meant are stepping stones to greater sins," offered Brother Zanzibar. "Little white lies are like a snow flurry that can turn into a blinding blizzard. (Findller 03:03)."
"Truth is neither polite nor impolite," continued Brother Santos. "It simply is. For example, in order to walk the Path of Truth faithfully, I must tell you that the orange sauce in this dish is far too sweet for my tastes and I find the meat rubbery."
Elsie bit her lip. "I could prepare you a sandwich, if you prefer."
"That wont be necessary," said Brother Santos.
Evette shot Brother Santos a withering glance. While it was true that some of Elsies cooking experiments had proven to be barely edible or worse, this was not one of them. And even if it was, it certainly wasnt Brother Santos place to say so.
"I like it," volunteered Brother Karl. It was apparent that he was walking the Path of Truth faithfully; he had cleaned his bowl. "Ill have yours if you dont want it." He reached across the table for Brother Santos bowl.
Elsie favored Brother Karl with a grateful smile. "Anyway," she continued, "I was going to say that my construction incorporates a number of organic components that benefit from the nutrients contained in human food, although eating isnt the most efficient way to get them."
"Am I or am I not correct in my understanding that the reason you are dining with us is so that you will appear more human?" asked Brother Santos.
"You are correct," allowed Elsie. "However, in order to be true to my design specifications and core programming directives, I must act as human as possible at all times. That is why I eat, sleep, breathe, and even use the toilet. To do anything less would be dishonest."
"An interesting paradox," mused Brother Zanzibar. "You were designed to deceive those around you into believing you human. To not deceive, in your case, would, in fact, be deceitful."
"Deceive is a strong word," said Elsie. "I only mimic human behavior. Any low-level security check or bio-scan would reveal that Im an android. Also, you could just ask me."
Brother Santos nodded. "I appreciate your candor."
"So, what are your primary functions?" asked Brother Karl.
"Librarian, bodyguard, and interactive sex toy," answered Elsie. Evette winced. "Ive recently added operation and maintenance of the Farrago."
"Tell us a bit about your expedition," suggested Evette before Brother Karl could engage Elsie in a detailed conversation about their sex life.
"We seek the Stone of Honesty, one of the Holy Artifacts of Truth described in The Book of Truth," said Brother Zanzibar. "It tells of a mission of Seekers of Truth who colonized a hostile and uncharted world. There, they discovered or created the Stone of Truth. And the light of the Stone of Honesty shined upon the Seekers and set them free, for at its heart was the physical element of pure Truth (Findller 30:27)."
"Brother Zanzibar is our librarian and archivist," explained Brother Karl. "He and Brother Santos have been working for years piecing together clues in The Book of Truth and other holy works to lead us to the Stone of Truth."
"And you believe it is on Van Ham-2?" asked Evette.
Brother Karl shrugged. "We dont have enough evidence to believe one way or another. There are ruins on Van Ham-2 that may be the remains of a lost colony of Seekers. Once we get there, as mission xeno-archaeologist, it will be my job to evaluate if the colony is the same one described in The Book of Truth and whether anything we find there turns out to be the Stone of Truth."
"My job," volunteered Brother Thoo-Loo, "is to make sure my fellow Seekers do not get eaten by giant bug-eyed aliens. It takes one to know one." The feelers around his mouth wriggled in a smile.
"So, if Brother Thoo-Loos the bodyguard and Brother Zanzibar is the librarian, does that make Brother San "
Evette reached under the table and tapped SHUT UP on Elsies knee in Morse code. "Why dont we clear the dinner dishes?" she hissed.
Elsie sighed. "Theres sherbet for dessert, if anyone cares for any."
"What did I do wrong this time?" Elsie wanted to know as soon as she and Evette were alone in the galley.
"You were about to suggest that Brother Santos must be the interactive sex toy of the group," Evette replied loading the dishwasher.
"It was only a joke," said Elsie.
"One that would not have been well received," said Evette. "Brother Santos has no sense of humor."
"Thats an exaggeration," said Elsie scooping orange sherbet into bowls. "Everyone has a sense of humor."
"Some more than others," said Evette. "Go ahead. Check your observations of Brother Santos against any references you have on similar personality types and tell me the most likely reactions."
Elsies blue eyes got that faraway look for a couple of seconds.
"Well?" asked Evette knowing Elsie had had more than enough time to run her analysis.
"Dont you ever get tired of being right?" grumbled Elsie. "There was a ninety-nine point some ridiculous number of decimal places percent chance that he wouldve stalked out of the room in a huff and spent the rest of the trip glaring and muttering under his breath at us. Anything else?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," said Evette. "Will you stop telling everyone youre an interactive sex toy?"
Elsie stiffened. "I am an interactive sex toy. Its one of my primary functions."
"Its just that a lot of people may be caught off-guard by such a frank admission so early on," explained Evette.
"Are you ashamed of me?" Elsie wanted to know.
"Elsie, you know I love you, but " began Evette.
"Theres always a but," said Elsie shaking her head. "Well, you can kiss my but."
"Elsie," Evette tried.
"I dont think I want to hear it," interrupted Elsie. "You should serve our passengers their dessert. Ill be down in the engine room with the rest of the machines." If there had been any way to slam the galley door when she left, Elsie would have done so. Instead, the galley door merely slid smoothly shut with a soft click.
Evette started to go after her, but then stopped. A big scene in front of their passengers would be about the least helpful thing that could occur at this point. Instead, she loaded the rest of the dishes into the ultrasonic dishwasher and then took coffee and dessert out to her guests.
By the time Evette returned to the dining room, Brothers Santos and Karl had excused themselves. Brother Zanzibar and Brother Thoo-Loo were talking quietly.
"You look upset," observed Brother Zanzibar as Evette served them.
She started to deny it, but then decided it was better not to risk offending the Seekers of Truth by lying. "I am upset," she sighed. "But I dont believe its anything you can help me with."
Brother Zanzibar reached into his robe and pulled out a small, plastic-bound book. "Perhaps The Book of Truth contains the answers that will ease your troubles," he suggested gently. "Ive found the solutions to a great many of my woes within these blessed pages."
Evette stared at the proffered book as if it was something covered with furry blue mold. "I am sorry," she told the Seeker of Truth. "Perhaps some other time."
"Very well," said Brother Zanzibar standing and bowing. He added some cream and sugar to his coffee and picked up his cup. "I will retire to my cabin, and in this evenings meditations, I will pray that the Light of Truth finds you and guides you to piece of mind."
"Merci," said Evette.
"May Truth guide you," said Brother Zanzibar leaving carefully so as not to spill his coffee.
"Perhaps you can help me," requested Brother Thoo-Loo.
"What do you need?" asked Evette.
"Ive set up my habitat module as best I could," explained the giant alien. "Unfortunately, it was designed by someone with opposable thumbs and, as you can see, I have a decided deficit in that category." He held his tentacles up to make his point. "If you could help me with some minor adjustments, I could retire for the night."
Evette followed Brother Thoo-Loo as he plodded down the corridor to the rec room. His tentacles waved to and fro, gently touching the walls, floor and ceiling as if he was feeling his way along.
The metal doors of Brother Thoo-Loos habitat module stood open and inside was a softly lit padded chamber. A large panel had been slid open in the back revealing a control board and a mass of pipes, tanks, and wires behind it. "I always have a bit of difficulty with these dials," explained Brother Thoo-Loo showing Evette the controls. "One of these days, Ill have to take it in and have a more species-appropriate set of controls installed. In the meantime, I thank you for your assistance."
"No problem," said Evette stepping inside. There was plenty of room for her, and maybe one or two other people besides, but it seemed a tight squeeze for Brother Thoo-Loo.
"I dont need to move around much during my rest periods," explained Brother Thoo-Loo. "I find the dimensions comfortably cozy. Now then, could you please increase the temperature by twenty degrees and quadruple the humidity?"
The controls had not been designed for human hands any more than they had been designed for Brother Thoo-Loos tentacles. The knobs were large, hard to turn, and had short spiky things sticking out of the sides.
"Wonderful," gushed Brother Thoo-Loo once Evette had made the adjustment. "Now, could you turn the gravity to 2.75? Ive been feeling like Im in danger of floating away all day."
"We keep the gravity on the Farrago at 1.15," Evette told him wrenching the awkward knob to the desired setting. Already feeling hot and sticky from the temperature and humidity change, Evette held off on activating the new gravity setting immediately. This turned out to be just as well, as Brother Thoo-Loo still had a long list of other adjustments: He wanted the lighting a little redder with a little more ultraviolet radiation, a little more methane (which Evette also held off on activating), a little less oxygen, and so on. Brother Thoo-Loos habitat module did have one feature Evette found herself coveting, however. It was equipped with sprayers and nozzles that could turn the interior from anything from a sauna to a jacuzzi. It had been ages since Evette had last has a genuine water shower. The sonic showers that were all the rage these days were more efficient and more effective than water, but there was something lacking.
Meanwhile, Elsie was in the small workshop adjacent to the Farragos engine room reviewing maintenance logs that really didnt need reviewing. At the same time, she was reading the scripts from a mid-Twenty-Second Century sitcom in her database, occasionally chuckling at the funny bits. To top it all off, she was sitting nude at a workbench tuning up one of the Farragos little utility bots. The versatile little machine had was wearing out some of its joints and needed a thorough lubing and had checked itself into the workshop for maintenance.
Elsie generally preferred being nude. She idly wondered whether this preference was something that had been hard programmed or if it was another one of those personality markers that had developed by itself after shed been activated. Finding an answer would have required a complete self-diagnostic and review of her personal history logs. She didnt have the time or inclination to shut herself down for the long days it would take to do that.
The problem with nudity was that most humans Evette included equated it with sex. Not that Elsie had a problem with that; after all, it was one of her primary functions. But Evette swore that she just couldnt concentrate with Elsie running around the ship naked. Other humans (and certain non-humans) also suffered from the same or often much greater levels of distractibility, so Elsie yielded to the prevailing societal norms and kept herself clothed unless it was appropriate to do otherwise.
In this case, she was making an exception because it would have annoyed Evette, had she known. Unfortunately, Evette had not made the effort to come find her and be annoyed. Instead, Brother Karl had come to call.
"This area of the ship is normally off-limits to passengers," Elsie advised him without looking up.
Brother Karl did that little bowing thing with his fingertips touched together. "I apologize, but the Path of Truth has led me here to you."
Somewhere within Elsies plasteel skull, several series of specific-function nanochips activated. Warning, they indicated, pick-up line approaching.
"I enjoyed our conversation at dinner," said Brother Karl.
Elsie cross-referenced the statement against her master list of standard openings and found it quickly. Nothing special. She finished with the utility bot and sent it on its way. The little machine half-scuttled, half-rolled off to resume its job list.
Brother Karl helped himself to an eyeful as Elsie got up to put her toolkit back in its cabinet. Elsie giggled a bit at a particularly goofy running gag in the sitcom script she was mentally reviewing.
Mistakenly believing Elsie was laughing at him, Brother Karl momentarily forgot what he was going to say, bowed again, fiddled with his robe, and then self-consciously stopped fiddling with his robe. He persevered. "The Book of Truth teaches that we must be honest first with ourselves," he said, "and to do so, I must be honest with you and state my passionate desire to make love to you."
Pick-up line has arrived. Elsie cross-referenced it first against her master list of unusually direct pick-up lines, then against the file on use and misuse of religious scripture to obtain sex.
"Actually," replied Elsie, "The Book of Truth counsels discretion in volunteering such truths. But Im flattered. Im also curious."
"About what?" asked Brother Karl stepping into the workshop.
"Has that line ever worked for you?"
He looked chagrined and took a step back toward the doorway. He had to answer honestly: "No."
"Yet you keep using it? Now if thats not religious faith, nothing is." She filed it under religion, faith, and obsessive compulsions.
"Uh, thank you?"
"Now then, in regard to your passionate desire," continued Elsie. "Im currently involved in a monogamous relationship with my co-captain, so any lovemaking that involves me would have to be cleared through her first."
"Oh," said Brother Karl thoroughly outmaneuvered. "Well. I should let you get back to your work then."
They used that silly gag about the cat and the cyborg frog again and Elsie chuckled. That bit got funnier every time!
"Ill show myself back upstairs," volunteered Brother Karl.
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