For a cruiser belonging to a rawlstone, the dining hall was anything but ornate in design. Bock credited it to the fact that the man probably did the majority of his entertaining in his private chambers. Compared to the size of the mess hall, which could hold up to twenty guests, the rawlstone’s single-occupant cabin was twice as large.

The rear wall of the dining area contained the food ordering and preparation containment units. Bock demonstrated how she could help herself, adding, "What would you like?"

"Is there any cava water?"

The soft plea cupped his heart with warm hands. Bock growled to himself and tried to shake off the feeling. Damn it, this was starting to border on moronic! There had to be something built or coded into her that gave her voice that mesmerizing quality. He wondered if it would affect Patt or Via the same way. Well, it would be a nice experiment. Otherwise it was a moot issue.

"Cava water."

The dispenser hummed, and presently a little door slid open to reveal a tall glass filled with the bluish liquid. He handed the glass to her and watched as she drank. She emptied the glass, pausing twice to take a breath, then handed him back the container.

"Thank you, Commander."

"Bock," he almost snapped at her. "Look, we’re going to be stuck on this ship for the next six days. Unless you plan on remaining in your cabin the whole time, you might as well drop the formalities now."

She nodded, and the contrite look on her face made him curse himself again. He was being too curt with her for no damn reason other than the fact that she had a voice he knew would haunt his dreams.

"Do you mind answering a few questions?"

Golden eyes widened in surprise. She shook her head, and he fetched two more glasses of cava water before leading her over to a table next to a window. The view port was not as large as the one on the bridge, but it gave a decent view of blurry stars. Hyper light drive was not the best way to watch the universe glide by, but it beat staring at a bulkhead.

Once she was seated, he took the chair opposite. She murmured a thank you for the extra water and took several sips. Sitting down, the difference in height wasn’t as apparent. But as his long legs stretched out underneath the table, her feet swung back and forth in the air.

"Rhea. That’s an unusual name. I’ve never heard it before."

"It was assigned to me when I was born. I was part of the eighteenth cycle, which meant all of us hatched were given names beginning with the letter ‘R’."

"The facility uses Earth English, or Province Linguistics?" Bock asked, already fascinated to learn what very few people were privy to.

"Province Linguistics, which you know Earth English is part of the field of study. When a cycle is ready to be named, the computers go through their database and pick the number of names they’ll need."

"What do you mean? You’re saying that, if there’s twenty people being born, the computer will choose twenty names?"

Rhea nodded. "Something like that, but there are variances given to gender names."

"I would assume." He gave her a quick smile, which she returned. The effect was startling. Despite her size and build, her voice and smile belonged to a woman. Even her vocabulary defied her real age.

At the thought of her age, Bock asked the question that had been bugging him for some time. "How old are you really, as opposed to how old you would be if know?"

The young woman took another sip of her water. Setting the glass on the table, she paused, her gaze directed inward. He got the impression she was getting her thoughts in order. As she bowed her head, the ceiling lights reflected off of her hair, which she wore unbound over her shoulders. From where he sat, he could count at least six different colors: pink, green, a pale lavender, a dark purple, blue, and bright yellow. They were small bits of hair, not long locks, and they mixed in with her natural light brown coloring. He wondered if the effect was created or part of her makeup.

"I have the physique of a twenty-five-year-old Earth sapian. Prior to my birth, my brain was chemically fed enough information to equal advanced degrees in three subject areas, language, mathematics, and bio-medicine." Lifting her face to look directly at him, Rhea’s sadness was undeniable. "My aging has been slowed to where I will remain at peak physical condition for a minimum of fifty-three Dulian years."

"Fifty-three?" Bock did a rough mental calculation. In rough Earth sapian years, she would remain looking the way she did now, in her "peak physical condition", for no less than one hundred eighty of his years. Give or take a decade. "You said you were hatched. You mean from one of those egg pods?"

"Yes." She added a nod.

"How long ago? Exactly how old are you, in real terms?"

"On BIMIC? Eighty-one days ago."

Bock felt his entire body go numb. "What? You’re how old? I mean, you were born how long ago"

"Eighty-one days," Rhea almost whispered. "I was hatched, looking exactly as I do now, eighty-one days ago."