Clouds escaped his lips as Jon walked across the Pryde Steading Spaceport in the crisp morning air.  The private spaceport for the entire Pryde clan, hundreds of people used this part of the large Pryde Steading for storing spacecraft and coming to or leaving Pryde Rock.  Many had come for the Christmas and New Years parties before going back to their homes, wherever they were, and leaving the spaceport comparatively empty again.  He smiled as he remembered the rows of ships that had covered it a mere week ago, but that time was come and gone and he could swear he could still feel the headache the parties had given him.  Even with his constitution, he had to be careful about drinking too much.

He walked up to the end of one of the many large hangers in the spaceport, tapped in a code on a digital pad next to a small door, opened up his senses to look inside the lock, and telekinetically pressed another button.  The door opened and he walked through to see old fighters in various stages of assembly filling the hanger as he looked from side to side like always when entering a building.  Parts lay strewn across the floor, along with body panels and more wiring than he could shake a ten-foot pole at.  Two spaceships rested before him, looking ready to fly at a moment’s notice, one of them was an old Peloran Crow-class fighter from the Great War with some very obvious technological upgrades purchased from the military.  Being a Pryde had advantages.  The celtic runes that covered most Peloran designs were gone of course, just like the thousands of similar, but less upgraded, fighters owned by private individuals throughout explored space.  The other craft was considerably more interesting.

Designated a hyperboat, it was an old Crow fighter mounted on the front of an interstellar drive that could navigate wormholes or hyperspace and even had a fully functional small living area.  In battle, the fighter could detach and fight on alone while the transport section ran.  Jon smiled at the ship that Benjamin had designed and was now used throughout the Arnami Sector, minus the modern weapons of course, by hundreds of high-speed cargo companies as he walked between the two ships.

Walking past them he saw Benjamin and Elsie standing next to each other before Ben’s primary computer station looking proudly at something to his right.  Jon's gaze tracked over to look and stopped cold as he noticed the brown-haired AI wearing a simple white karate uniform running through her kata, in time to what he could charitably call "music" if he was out of his mind.

His mouth twitched as he considered just how perfect her form really was before walking up to Ben and Elsie and looked at them questioningly.  "I'm surprised you finished her," he said simply and glanced at Elsie.  She shrugged and looked at Ben whose sigh echoed her shrug.

"I started her.  We couldn't leave her partially completed.  It would have been cruel."

"We?" Jon asked.  Elsie nodded and Jon raised one eyebrow before turning to look at the AI as she completely another kata.  "Interesting.  What all martial arts did you program into her?"

"Everything I could find," Ben said proudly.  "There are a lot of preprogrammed modules out there.  Dojos use AIs for a lot of their training as they are more patient with failure than humans are, so there are a lot of martial arts modules you can find.  She's got ninjitsu, karate, aikido, tai chi, taekwondo, kenpo, savate, wrestling---"

"Not that crap on the holovid I hope," Jon interrupted and Ben rolled his eyes.

"God, no," he whispered in an annoyed tone and Jon laughed back at him before continuing.

"So she knows a lot?"

"Yeah, but she's doing that instead," Ben noted oddly, looking at her for a long second as she moved back and forth and around to the music.  "She's got rhythm, but so help me I can’t figure out what she’s doing from one second to the next.  It’s like she’s taken everything she knows, pulled it into one really odd amalgamation, and then put it to music," he finished with a shrug.

"The joys of programming AIs the old fashioned way," Jon chuckled.  “So have you tested her to see how good she is with it?”

“Oh yeah,” Ben whispered and winced as he massaged his right shoulder.  “She got me good.  Took down Elsie, too,” he added with another wince and she frowned at him as if he wasn’t supposed to say anything about it.

“Interesting,” Jon whispered.  “Mind if I test her?”

“Go for it,” Ben said quickly.  “I’d love to find out how she handles herself against a fully trained Guardian.”

"At this range, whichever one of us hit first would win,” Jon whispered.  “With time to concentrate, I could rip her apart right now.  But I assume she has blasters of some kind, and if not she probably knows how to use them.  One shot and I’d be wearing wings,” he noted with a wince.

“Internal blasters,” Ben whispered back.  “In her wrists.  They’re designed to look like standard bones to sensors until she deploys them.  She’s designed for undercover work,” he finished with a wink and Jon cleared his throat as he tried to suppress a guilty smile.  She looked like she’d be really good undercover.  He shook his head to get that train of thought out if.

“I see,” he finally whispered.  “Anyways, out here it’s a wash.  I want to see what she can do up close.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Ben smiled back and Jon glared at him as he realized that could be taken wrong.  Or maybe right?  He shook his head again.

“I did not mean like that,” he noted in a quelling voice.  “Right now, fully trained Guardians can only spar with other trained psionics.  We can’t spar with anyone else because we know what he or she will go before they do it,” he noted in an annoyed voice.  “It’s that pesky ability to feel their emotions,” he finished and shifted his senses over to Benjamin questioningly.  Nothing.  So he was shielding his thoughts.  Interesting.

“Have you tried AI partners?” Ben asked and Jon shrugged.

“Yes.  Too predictable,” Jon muttered and Ben blinked before letting out a quick chuckle.

“How long ago did you try?”  Jon looked at him quickly, and then cocked his head as he thought about it.

“Must have been…fifty years ago now,” he whispered, and then blushed in embarrassment.

“AIs have gotten better since then,” Ben chuckled and Jon nodded quickly, not wanting to give Ben more time to have fun with that.  He and the other Engineers tended to be much more on top of things technologically wise than Guardians with their more jack-of-all-trades training.  And fifty years was a short time when you never had to worry about growing old.

“Very true.  Maybe they are good enough now.  I want to find out," Jon whispered and began walking towards the AI.  She saw him coming and arched her back, bending over backwards and spinning to end up facing him.  His jaw slackened as he saw that and paused for a split second before continuing on.  She was most definitely limber.  And every curve was in exactly the right spot and proportion.  "I'm Jon," he noted as he came up to her and stretched out his right hand towards her.

"Vanessa," she responded and leaned to the side in an odd pose, cocking her head to the side with her foot tapping to the beat of Ben's infernal heavy metal.  Then she reached out her hand to take his and he blinked at how fragile it felt.  She was an AI.  Her bones were made of metal, but she felt completely flesh and blood.  That was some good engineering.

Jon's eyebrow rose again in appreciation as the brown eyes and soft face registered in the back of his mind.  Make that very good engineering.  "Care to spar?" he asked, tearing his mind away from that line of thought, and she looked at him from head to toe, measuring him up one side and down the other.  "I do hope you don't have x-ray vision," he muttered and her mouth quirked up on one side.  Her behavior algorithms were easily as good as her engineering, though he expected nothing less from Benjamin’s coding practices.  He was one of the best after all, and only the best programmers were ever allowed to make AIs anymore.  The AIs simply wouldn’t stand for just anybody making more of their brothers and sisters now.

"No," she noted simply after a pause just the right length for a response after a joke.  "You are Terran.  You would be no challenge," she finished and turned away.  In doing so she missed his eyes flashing red in momentary anger before he quelled the urge to reach out and throw her across the room with his mind.  She was confident of herself and simply throwing her around like that would be unfair.  If we was going to teach her something, he would have to do it on a fair court.  As she walked away he reached up with his right hand and dropped it on her left shoulder, holding her tight.  He couldn’t help but notice that she felt completely human to the touch there as well, with all the bones and flesh in just the right places.  It felt like she’d been grown here.

She turned her head to look at him out of the corner of her left eye and brought her right hand up to his.  "Will you remove your hand or will I?" she asked simply and Jon smiled.  "Very well."  She grabbed it expertly, her thumb going behind his pinky, her index finger digging into the soft spot behind his thumb, and then she twisted in a move designed to remove his hand from her shoulder.

He suddenly realized he couldn’t sense her emotions; tell when she was going to attack.  He panicked for a bit, wondering how she’d done that.  Then it clicked again.  She was an AI, not a real person.  Of course he couldn’t read her processors.  Empathic senses only worked on organic minds.  But he knew what he’d do if he were in her situation, and figured she would probably stick to her programming.  This early in her life cycle she wouldn’t have learned how to make new plans yet.  He prepared for the move he would do in her case and jumped as she twisted his hand, using her grip as a pivot.  His legs went up over his head and he cart wheeled around her grip, reversing it and landing on his feet again, holding her hand firmly.  The hand that felt as human as…well…a human’s.  Even with his fingers digging into her pressure points, her hand still felt perfect.  This was by far the best AI frame he’d ever seen.  She simply cocked one eyebrow at him and scowled, her eyes showing her surprise.  Her eyes actually showed her emotions.  Make that excellent engineering.  "I am not a Terran.  Those pressure points do not affect me," she noted before pulling her hand from his.  "What type of a match would you like?" she asked and Jon smiled.

"Two out of three falls.  Nothing fatal.  No moves that can injure past our ability to regrow," he noted simply and she smiled.

"Excellent," she whispered and then moved.

"Sheesh!" Jon exclaimed as she shot towards him faster then he would have thought possible and came in for a simple punch.  Any normal Terran wouldn't have even seen it coming, but Jon wasn’t exactly normal.  Even so, he couldn’t tell she was going to do it until she did it and he had barely enough time to react, falling backwards to avoid her strike and arching his back to plant his hands on the ground before kicking his feet up.  His right foot planted itself in the middle of her very shapely chest and pushed, propelling him up and over to land on his feet again as she stepped backwards to keep her balance.

His head came up to look at her, eyes glowing bright red as he reached out with all his senses to feel everything around him, and she smiled.  He swore he'd seen that same smile on a Myrcat ready to pounce.  And pounce she did, moving towards him with a different punch that he saw coming better, feeling the reactions of the air around them.  He blocked it with one arm, telekinetic power radiating out of it to make sure nothing broke when she hit it, and then blocked her follow up before responding in kind.  She brushed it aside and drilled back, but he stepped to the outside of the punch and knocked her arm further around with another slight touch of telekinesis, nearly twisting her off balance.

She swung the arm back, her elbow making for his face, and he arched back again to plant his hands on the ground and vault away from her again.  But this time she was ready and arched herself back to avoid his kick and rob him of his power before leaning over and kicking him in the small of the back as he hung in midair without any purchase.  He flew three meters and fell to the ground on his face.  Lying there for a moment, he caught his breath before standing back up and loosening his joints carefully.  He let his senses flow through his body, making sure nothing was broken, and then looked back at her in appreciation as he rubbed the small of his back ruefully.  She could have broken his back with that kick, but had purposefully kept her kick weak enough to just leave a bruise.  A bruise he would be feeling for a week unless he did something about it.

"You're good," he muttered as he walked back towards her, removing his trench coat and dropping it on the floor.

"You're psionic," she returned simply and he smiled.  By now, her use of contractions, usually rare for an AI this young, didn’t surprise him.  It fit the way she acted and looked.  Totally human.

"Guardian," he whispered and began stretching out his muscles in preparation for the next fall.

"I’m programmed in every major form of martial arts known to mankind,” she noted.  “I can move faster than you and despite your abilities can easily outmatch you.  Do you wish to concede now?"

"Hardly," Jon smiled back and she cocked her head to the side again.  "I have not yet begun to fight."

"John Paul Jones.  September 23, 1779.  I’m not the Serapis," she finished with a nasty smile and began circling Jon again.

"I see your historical database is extensive," Jon returned with a sharp nod and shifted into another stance, balancing back on his right leg with his left arm ready to block any of her blows.  His eyes glowing red as his senses reached out to read her body and more telekinesis flowed around his limbs to stop her from hurting them, they traded blows in a whirlwind of moves that each redirected or blocked.  She was moving faster this time, making him work harder to stop her, and she drove him to one knee with a punch he couldn’t quite deflect before bringing a kick around from the side, aimed at his head.  He caught it with both hands, barely, surging more telekinesis through them as she ramped up the power to push him, then reached up with one hand to grab her uniform top and pulled her down.  She dropped, rolling back over his knee, and her arms arched back to touch the ground.  For a split second, she simply arched in front of him and he froze.  If there was anything about her frame that wasn’t in exactly the right proportion he hadn’t seen it yet.  Then her legs kicked her up and over faster than he could get his attention back and he lost his grip on her uniform.

“Impressive,” he whispered as she backed away slowly, straightening her uniform and cocking her head to the side, analyzing him.  Make that perfect engineering.  She stepped towards him again as he stood up and prepared for the next phase of the match.  She kicked to the side and he moved to block it, realizing too late it was a feint.  The leg stopped, then shot up towards his head and he dodged to the side, feeling a breath of wind across his cheek as she twisted and drilled another kick at him.  He almost managed to dodge that one, but stumbled to the side as she connected and spun to face him again.  Pain exploded through his body where he’d been unable to stop her blow and a hand grabbed his wrist and twisted it.  He reacted instantly, stepped to the side, braced, and kicked up, bringing his feet up and around, pivoting around her grip to keep her from twisting his hand off.  He was completely upside down when he saw her other arm snaking towards him nearly faster than thought and his heart stopped as he reached out to grab it with his own hand as fast as he could.

Caught off guard by his quick move, she pulled, arresting his jump and yanking his upper body out from below his legs.  They slammed down feet first on the ground and Jon found himself completely off balance looking up the front of her uniform with his back to the ground.  It wasn’t one bit of a bad view.  He blinked as he remembered he was a married man and shouldn’t be having thoughts like those.  With that going through his mind he sent a surge of telekinesis through his feet and shot up over her, using her grip as a pivot again.

Holding onto her hands and pulling them back over her shoulders, he landed behind her, moved to snake his arm around her neck, but she spun around, ripping her hands from his forcefully, and brought her right leg up to knee him in a very painful spot.  Warned by his senses, a quick move to the right avoided her attack without a centimeter to spare, and then he put his left hand on the outside of her leg below the knee, his heart racing at the thought of how close he’d come to keening in pain while rolling on the mat.  His right hand grabbed her high up on the inside of her completely human-feeling thigh and he spun with her attack, using her momentum to propel her up into the air and away from him.

As she spun in mid-air, he took a single step forward, spun, and slammed a snap kick into the small of her back.  She landed flat on her face three meters away and stood up slowly, running her body through a series of motions to make sure all of her joints still worked.  It was not a bad sight to watch.  "Impressive," she noted, echoing his previous statement.

"Thanks," Jon whispered softly and smiled at her before loosening up again.  “I try," he added mischievously and she smiled back, returning to her odd stance and swaying back and forth to the beat of the heavy metal.

And suddenly, just like that, he saw the pattern.  He felt the beat of the music swell again, felt the notes pounding through the hanger, and felt the attack coming.  He smiled as the beat came and she moved with it.  This time he knew before she did it.  His left hand flashed up, blocking her attack with a surge of telekinesis, and he stepped into her as she moved.  She came in for her attack, but he was there already, his right hand resting on the solid bone between her breasts.  Their eyes met and he sent a surge of telekinesis through his right hand.

She landed flat on her back four meters away from him and lay there for a moment before standing up.  "I thought psionics had trouble reading AIs and yet you anticipated my attack," she noted questioningly.  "How?"

"You've grown up to this music," Jon responded.  "Ben wrote you a line at a time, all the while listening to music, and your code incorporated it.  I can see that in how you stand, how you moved in your kata, and how you fought.  Music is as much a part of you as anything is.  As soon as I let myself actually listen to that music, I understood how you fought.  Or more importantly, when you fought," he noted firmly and smiled.  "Know your enemy..."

"And know yourself," Vanessa completed for him.  "Sun Tzu.  The Art of War.  You're good," she said with a nod.

"Thank you," Jon returned with an answering nod.  "As are you.  I honestly didn't think I was going to beat you for a bit there.  I’ve never seen your form before."

"Would you like to see more of it?" she noted with an innocent smile and he blushed at the thought that went through his mind in response to that question.

He turned to Benjamin to see him suppressing laughter and sighed slowly.  "Touché," he muttered and Benjamin cleared his throat, dropped his mental shields, and allowed Jon to feel his laughter.  And pride for his creation.  A softer emotion colored his mind as well.  Love.  He loved her.  But then Jon felt a deeper emotion, a stronger one aimed at Elsie.  That was love too, but it made his feelings for Vanessa feel…more like loving a child.  That mad sense.  Jon looked at Vanessa, Elsie, and Ben and shrugged as he returned his thoughts to Vanessa.  He hated being outsmarted by an AI, but that was apparently the price of progress.  “I’m a bit busy today, but I’d love to schedule some time to test out your abilities some more,” he noted professionally towards Vanessa and felt pure amusement rolling off Ben.  “Don’t go there,” he added, his finger pointing towards his cousin as Ben shrugged innocently, his emotions putting the lie to the posture.

“Why do you wish to test me further?” Vanessa asked.  “You beat me easily the third time.”

“I beat you because I could hear the music you were listening to,” Jon responded and she blinked.  “It gave me an unfair advantage.”

“I’d love to spar without the music, once you’ve…adapted a bit more.”

“Why?” she asked and Jon sighed slowly.

“Because Guardians don’t get much chance to spar with anyone they can’t read,” he finally muttered in an annoyed tone.  “There aren’t very many Guardians out there and we know each other so well that even if we can’t feel a move coming until it hits, we still know our styles.  Fifty years ago we tried sparing with AIs to get something different in the mix but they were still too…predictable.  If things have changed…which I think they have…” he let his voice trail off and she nodded in understanding.

“You could get more practice in.”

“Exactly.  All of us could.  With forms we don’t normally see,” he whispered and she nodded again.

“Ok,” she said with a winning smile.  “I’d love to help out showing you new forms,” she added and he felt his cheeks blush at the thoughts going through his mind again.  She was going to be a real handful.  He blushed again at that thought and let out a long breath as he tried to balance his thoughts.

"Thanks,” he whispered awkwardly as she smiled at him with a knowing look in her eye.  “You and others like you could be…very nice to spar with,” he added, trying to keep himself on thoughts of business.  “As a note though, you might want to try suppressing your urge to…move with the music.  It could give your timing away even if we can’t hear the music.”  She nodded at his comment and he gave her a half bow.  “But anyways, I came here for another matter entirely that I’d like to address now," he noted and turned to Ben.  "I spent the morning talking to John.  The president,” he noted in Vanessa’s direction.  “Intelligence thinks someone is working against the government.  Someone big."

"Who?" Elsie asked and Jon shrugged.

"One of the Great Corporations, but they haven’t been able to nail down who yet.  The money’s being laundered way too well for us to track once it gets within our borders and Inter-Planetary Security doesn’t want to just start throwing fighters and incursion teams around.

“From outside?” Elsie asked in confusion as she put her hand on Benjamin’s shoulder.  “What makes you think money from the outside is automatically working against the government?  Pryde Rock companies do business from the Terran to Aesiran Sectors.”

“We’ve managed to track money from the Shang Sector,” Jon whispered and Elsie’s mouth opened wide in surprise.

“You’d think they’d learn not to frag with us,” she snarled and Benjamin brought his hand up to hold her softly.  The Shang had executed every AI they captured during the Great War, gaining the hatred of every AI ever made.  Hatred and fear.  She looked at him and they exchanged comforting smiles before turning back to Jon.

“I need you to look into this,” Jon asked.  “I think your…shadier…contacts can help us here.  They know the lay of the land.  The politics between the Corporations better than any Guardian possible can.  We need to know what's going on."

Ben nodded slowly in agreement.  "I'll do what I can," he responded firmly.  "Trust me."

"If I didn't, I wouldn't have come," Jon noted simply and turned to walk away.

"You don't know me," Vanessa noted and he stopped.  "What makes you think you can trust me?  Why didn't you ask me to leave?"

"Benjamin coded you.  I understand Benjamin.  That means I understand you,” Jon said, nodded simply, and then turned to walk out of the hanger, his hand tapping his thigh in time to the heavy metal filling the hanger.