"No." Gan looked disappointed.
Vila pawed at the cards in front of him. "Er, the ten of diamonds," he said somewhat more tentatively, taking a deep drink from his ever-present glass of soma.
Gan, slumped in his chair, just shook his head wearily.
"You sure? I've been doing this trick for years."
"Vila, it doesn't take an alpha grade to remember a card."
Jenna, in the middle of getting herself another cup of coffee from the rest room machine before returning to the flight deck, smiled to herself. Poor Gan, even his patience had been wearing thin these days. He was probably sorry he'd ever agreed to let Vila show him that card trick. She sipped at the coffee, her tenth this shift. It was only an hour before she went off watch, but she knew she wasn't going to make it without the caffeine. She hadn't yet stooped to using adrenalin from the medical stores, but it was only a matter of time.
Before she'd even had a chance to finish her drink, Blake's voice came over the intercom. <I want everyone on the flight deck.>
What did he want now?
Gan, obviously relieved, made his escape. Jenna paused to watch Vila for a moment; he was still looking at the cards in frustration. Then his expressive face lit up as he exclaimed, "Of course. The Queen of Hearts!" He glanced up to where Gan had been and saw Jenna looking pointedly at him.
"Huh? Oh right. Blake. The flight deck." Stumbling to his feet, he followed her unsteadily down the corridor.
"Cally," Blake began, "now that everyone's all here, would you please tell me what's going on?"
Even without the results of the medical tests, Cally would have been aware of the general air of weariness in her comrades: it was the same weariness she saw when she looked in the mirror every morning. Even Blake, one of the most dynamic men she had ever met, seemed somehow diminished.
"The medical reports of everyone here show that we are all suffering from extreme stress which is affecting not only our health, but also our ability to act effectively in a crisis situation."
"Tell us something we don't know," Vila retorted.
Cally ignored him and continued, "According to the medical computer we need to take at least three weeks away from the continual stress we have here, preferably on a recreation planet, otherwise we shall all run the risk of a complete breakdown."
Vila sat up straighter. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's set a course for the nearest recreation planet." He did his best to look virtuous. "For the good of the cause, of course."
"Of course," echoed Avon sardonically.
Blake scratched the back of his neck. "Three weeks? We can't spare that much time. We're due to meet up with Avalon's group on Xoares Three in two weeks. Destroying the mutoid hospital there will be a serious blow to the Federation. I can't just tell her to abort the mission because we need to go on holiday. Besides Zen predicted that if we attack at the projected time, we have a 75% chance of success. It should be an simple operation, then we can go on your retreat."
"Blake," Cally insisted, "I've re-run the projections correlating them with the medical reports. When you factor in our current fitness level, the success rate goes down to 50% and drops another 3% each day we don't resolve this situation. Zen can confirm this if you wish."
"Which means that the simple operation we agreed to has suddenly become much more dangerous," Avon summarized harshly. "But with ourselves as the danger factor."
Cally could tell by their expressions that they were all in agreement. Except Blake, of course. He wasn't going to relinquish this mission without a fight.
"Didn't the medical computer have any other suggestions?"
"It did have one," said Cally, feeling herself beginning to blush. Well you knew he would ask that, she thought to herself.
"What is it then? Anything has to be better lazing around for three weeks."
"I am not sure that better is the correct description," she replied, trying to sound clinical, "but the computer said that some of the stress will mitigated if we all have sexual intercourse as soon as possible." She knew her face was giving away her embarrassment; such matters were rarely discussed among the Auronar. "Studies dating back to the old calendar show that sex is one of the most effective, natural ways to relieve stress in a short period of time."
Jenna walked quickly over to her and under the natural uproar the announcement had caused, hissed at Cally, "I need to discuss this with you. Alone. Now." She grabbed Cally's arm and manoeuvred her forcefully off the flight deck. Cally had never seen Jenna this upset. She allowed herself to be dragged into the Liberator's rest room without visible protest.
Jenna locked the door behind them and made sure that the intercom was off. Then she rounded on Cally. "Are you out of your mind? I didn't sign on to be the ship's whore."
"Jenna, I realize this is a shock. I seriously debated whether or not to mention this option at all. But surely on some instinctive level, you understand the benefits sex would have on everyone on board. Besides, can you really imagine that Blake would be willing to give up on this mission? You know how he feels about mutoids and the window of opportunity we have is narrow."
"I agree something needs to done something to release the pressure we've been under, but I will not let myself be used, as Vila would put it, for the good of the cause."
"What about for the good of yourself and for your friends? Can you honestly say that you have never slept with a man for mutual comfort than rather than for some kind of romantic love?"
Jenna looked thoughtful at that, and calmed a little. "No, of course, not," she admitted
"And was the man any more of a friend than the men here?"
"No, probably less so. Point taken." She smiled briefly. "Maybe Blake should be putting you in charge of negotiations."
Jenna sat down, resting her elbows on the table, and tried to think through this crazy scheme. She was dimly aware of Cally sitting down as well, but the other woman didn't say anything, apparently giving her time to make up her mind. Have sex with the men on board? Yes, she considered them friends ™ even Avon, but still... Damn it was hard to concentrate when she was so tired. She looked down at her hands which trembled slightly from all the caffeine she'd been drinking. Cally was right, they had to do something; pretty soon the fine touch she needed to handle the controls of the ship would be destroyed. What the hell, Jenna thought defiantly, we've risked our lives for each other often enough; I can risk some time in bed.
"All right, Cally. I think it's an insane idea, but I'll go along. However, you can't disguise the fact that there are four of them and only two of us." She looked narrowly at Cally. "At least I assume there are two of us. Can..." Jenna's voice trailed off.
Cally finished the sentence. "...Aurons and humans mate? Yes." A slight smile touched her lips. "I wouldn't have even suggested it if I weren't willing to participate. Sex was one of the first things I checked out when I left my planet. Most Auronar consider sexual intercourse primitive; not surprising, I guess, since they consider fighting even more primitive. I've always been a bit curious about the act. Despite being a clone, I'm a bit of a throwback." She added somewhat sadly, "In some ways I am closer to humans than I am to my own people. I found intercourse reasonably pleasurable, but I cannot say I quite understand what all the fuss is about. However, I'm under as much stress as the rest of you, so I'm willing to give it another try."
"So there are two of us. How do we prevent them from tearing out each other's throats over us? Instead of relieving stress, might we be setting the stage for self-destruction." Jenna was struck by a sudden thought, "Wait a second. Why do the men have to be in charge of the situation?"
"You mean we should be in control? That doesn't sound like the traditional arrangement among humans. Will they agree?"
"They won't have a choice," Jenna grinned. "I don't give much for anyone's life expectancy if he tries to treat me like a Neanderthal." Her smile died away as she considered some of the implications. "You do realise that we both have to sleep with two of them? We can't leave anyone out."
"Since they are all under the same stress we are ™ yes. Choosing two above the others could easily set them fighting. Do you have any preferences, Jenna?"
Jenna considered that. She had been drawn to Blake from the start, but he had never seemed interested in anything more than friendship. Was this her chance? But did she want Blake under such clinical conditions? There was also Cally. There had been several occasions when she'd suspected that Cally was interested in Blake as well. For all their high-minded talk about preventing fighting, were they going to battle over Blake? She felt too tired to fight or make another decision or even to discuss her private feelings. Besides, she hated whining.
"No, I've no preferences. What about you?" she lied, not meeting Cally's eyes.
Jenna couldn't tell if she was telling the truth or not. Maybe it was better to do this arbitrarily rather than to try and force a romance. "So," she said, "we don't want them choosing and we don't want to have to choose ourselves." She picked up a handful of cards that Vila had left on the table.
"How about these?"
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