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Cryptikon Far Freedom Part 2

FAR FREEDOM

 

Part 2: CRYPTIKON

 

A. Warren Merkey

Copyright 2015 A. Warren Merkey

revised January 2017

License Note

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

It may not be re-sold or given away to other people.

Dedicated to my wife

Cynthia

without whose encouragement

the story would remain unwritten.

 

Chapters

1986CE West Virginia

Simple Pleasure

Find Me. Kill me.

Is This Jamie?

Sons Remembered, Mai Retained

Iggy Remembered

What Admiral Ever Wept?

1980CE The Proposal

Black Queen to White Knight

Stealing Freedom

He’s Dead and I Loved Him

The Name of Her Husband

Stopping the Stampede

Climbing a Mountain to Phuti

Siblings

The Lady in the Moon

Khalanov Meets Wingren

Captain Jones and the Malay Pirates

Princess Charming

Ship in a Bottle

Explaining Makawee

1980 Quantum Circuits, Part 2

The Bass Player and the Happy Captain

Journey by Cryptikon

Remembering Dick, Visiting Patrick

Zakiya Explains the Mission

Jumpship Fight

Messages from a Rapist

Little Heroes

The Son of Two Mothers

One Happy Thought

Patrick

Koji

Alex and Setek

Tea and Paternity

Last Tango

Rivers of Galaxies

Lost and Found

Parting Gift

Afterword, Part 2

 

 

1986CE – West Virginia

“Why the hell should I care?” I had said to him. “Why the hell do you care? The universe doesn’t care. If it did, babies wouldn’t die.” He said to me: “It’s a miracle it works. It’s a miracle we haven’t killed each other.”

I laughed – bitterly – and said: “I like misery. That’s why I married you.”

These and other stupid utterances I had memorized: good tools for mashing myself into a deeper funk.

I had managed to maneuver myself into the bathtub without any bloodshed, I thought, until I saw the pink pollution. I wasn’t injured. It was my monthly curse, leaking away my maternal hopes. I wept.

I had flushed the damned pills!

I wept and floated, hardly touching the tub walls. Could I sink under the water and drown myself, or would some natural reflex prevent it? I let my head go under and then I could at least not feel the tears. I swore again that I would never cry again.

It is such a difficult task to live the unexamined life.

I hated tub baths. I hated floating, feeling the strange polarity of wetness and nothingness.

Where had Sam gone?

“Out out,” he had said.

The thing about floating is that nothing touches you except the water. No one touches me. I needed…

With a little imagination I could usually make his gentleness a caress, even when he lowered me and my ugly withered legs into the tub, or onto the bed, or into the wheelchair. I think he sometimes held me a little longer than necessary, to accomplish a chore of caring for his crippled wife.

Why did I try to notice? Why did I want to be a woman? Why didn’t I want to pay the price?

When was there ever truth between us, outside the arena of science? When had I ever not lied to myself? It was only my damaged mortal flesh that wanted to be touched, that wanted other biological functions the Mathematician would never miss, except when knowing it was the wrong time for miracles that normal people could have at any moment.

To hell with normal people!

It was dark even in the little town in the hollow. The sudden appearance of a few lighted windows, snapped off the awful mess in my mind. I had to concentrate on how I would react to what Sam had done. I felt like screaming at him but not because of the stupid thing he had done: sneaking out of The Hole. Even us fake geniuses were allowed to make human mistakes. No, I would scream at him because he had scared the crap out of me, and at the same time made me realize how very much I needed him and loved him.

I used to be a very confidant and outgoing person, until my auto accident cut my legs out from under me. Then along came Samuel Lee, making me think I had a rescuer for my battered ego and crippled body. I don’t know how I got my emotional equations so twisted up, trying to fit Sam in as a major constant. I guess I was fooled by his ability to play the piano so well, making me imagine he was as emotional as I was, as in love as I was. It was my neediness coupled with his scientific absence from the here-and-now that sabotaged my trust in our relationship. Yes, I thought he did have feelings for me, but what scientist as brilliant as Sam had the time to satisfy such a needy wife? Why couldn’t I settle for less from Sam? Why couldn’t I eventually resign myself to a humble cripple’s life and thankfully take whatever emotional crumbs were sprinkled on me? Because I was me: finely flawed, and proud of it!

When Colonel Duncan opened the van door for me at the police department and I saw Sam standing there in the streetlight with his head bowed like he was ashamed, I understood why he would feel that way. But I also had to consider why he would do something as stupid as shooting two tires flat on the Chevy Suburban. The answer I came up with made me start to weep, and I stayed inside the van.

Five seconds later Sam sat down beside me in the van and hugged me with one arm. “Why did you come, Milly? Why are you crying?”

I couldn’t speak for several moments.

“Scientists have emotions!” I heard Karl remark to Duncan.

“Could be,” Duncan replied. “Let’s give them a few minutes. I’ll take care of the paperwork.”

Duncan slid the van door closed. Impulsively, I reached for Sam and tried to pull him as close to me as I could. He didn’t resist.

“Your ears are cold,” I said, my cheek pressed against one of them, along with the tears.

“You weren’t around to burn them,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

“Sorry for what?” I asked, rubbing his face with my face, trying to find something better to say, or just say it with physical contact with him.

“For lying to you,” he answered, pulling back from me and placing my face between his gentle hands. “I said I loved you, and it was a lie.”

“Sam!” I cried in agony, nearly destroyed by his admission. I tried to pull away but he held me tightly.

“It was a lie because I don’t just love you, Milly. I LOVE you! Totally! More than I can quantify!”

I tried to slap him and missed. He took one of my hands and slapped himself with it. I almost fell out of the wheelchair reaching for him. I planted the mother of all kisses on his lips, then everywhere else that was available.

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Sam asked, catching his breath.

Simple Pleasure

“I’m surprised you would allow me into your presence again.”

“Why wouldn’t I, Doctor?”

The Navy Commander walked beside the Mother of Immortality and didn’t care that he felt. He felt, but it didn’t show. It was too much ingrained in his every conscious activity, the need to not show any reaction to whatever might cause him to feel. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to let any reaction show. However, this woman would test him. She made him feel. She was the fourth unusual stranger to enter his life recently and now he realized each of them had nudged him in this direction: Pan, Demba, Constant the Golden One, and Aylis Mnro.

/

“I might be dangerous,” she said. I might be terrified, she thought. I am terrified! She was alone with him in a dim private corridor. He was tall, powerful, and close, almost brushing against her as they walked.

“Why would you intend me harm?” he asked. His voice flowed at a practiced conversational modulation, yet it was menacingly devoid of emotion.

“I wouldn’t!” she declared. “But why take the risk?”

“Because you are Aylis Mnro.”

Am I? she asked herself. No, she was some other person, perhaps only an echo of the great woman. She was young and soft, mentally unsettled, emotionally delicate, and overstocked with the hormones of youth. “Why am I here?” she asked.

“Why did you come?”

“How could I not, sir?” She was nervous and could not hide it. He was whatever he was and could hide it completely. Why wasn’t he straightforward? What did he want?

“You are attractive to me,” he remarked. “Why is that?”

The statement was unexpected, frightening. He wasn’t Essiin, yet he was a better Essiin than the real thing. “I’m young again,” she answered. “Youth is always attractive.”

/

She didn’t blush. He didn’t expect it of her. She was three centuries old. She might have learned how to do everything, while he had merely learned how to hide.

Navy Commander Admiral Etrhnk escorted Admiral Aylis Mnro into a garden room filled with sunlight and floral spectacle. The doctor spread her arms at the panorama of vegetation, showing her delight, seeming to blossom in the emergence into artificial sunlight.

At one time such a reaction would have seemed negative to Admiral Etrhnk. Now he didn’t care. He no longer filtered the universe that way. If another Navy admiral could sing with feeling, he could at least feel, even if he could not show it. It was all chaos and entropy anyway. He drank in Aylis Mnro and liked the taste of her.

A small blue bird took a perch on one of her fingers, fluttered when she was startled, then resettled on her finger. Etrhnk offered it food from his pockets. Other birds tried to join the blue bird, flapping around Mnro’s hands, begging. He threw the food onto the grassy deck, causing the birds to dive onto the grass.

“Oh,” she said, losing the blue bird from her finger.

“Oh?”

“I liked the hot little feet gripping my finger.”

That amused him. “You seem different,” he said. He took a seat on a bench under a cherry tree in full bloom. Mnro remained standing, and kept turning to view the variety of flora in his garden room. He was sure she didn’t offer this view of herself as enticement, but he felt enticed.

“Different from the last time we met?” she asked. “That would be the short hair. I was wearing a hat to cover a bald head.”

“Different from your recent public appearances.”

“It’s this black uniform you made me wear.”

“There has long been a rumor that Doctor Mnro wasn’t real.”

“And now I am? The rumor is partly true.”

“In what way?”

Mnro pivoted slowly and Etrhnk continued to stare at her. Would she notice his stare? He didn’t really want to process the meaning of her words. Perhaps he could later think upon the mystery she suggested.

“Try to imagine a mere human,” she said, “building the Mnro Clinic network over all of known space for the last two centuries. I can’t imagine it, even though I remember much of it.”

“What are you saying?” It irritated him that it was so difficult to postpone his processing of her information. He wanted to feel, not think.

/

“Nothing,” she replied, somewhat entertained that she could keep at least one secret from him. “There is only one real me and I’m her. We all change with time. I was a tougher person once.”

/

She had a vitality, for a woman of her years, that amazed him. Was that excitement and engagement with the moment that he observed in her? “You seem very interested in life,” he said. “Rejuvenation doesn’t always renew the spirit. You seem very appreciative of being alive.”

/

“If you allow it, I have a great adventure ahead of me.” Perhaps she let her imagination bite her needlessly. Breathe deeply. Maybe it isn’t as bad as I think.

“I would hate to allow it,” he said, “knowing the danger you may face.”

She tried to read a slight warming into his cold words and failed. It was vital that she be on the ship! She was a Navy admiral now, subject to any orders of the Navy Commander. The black uniform she wore was a prison. Her empire – the Mnro Clinics – was lost to her. She no longer had any power over her own destiny. The beautiful arboretum faded to gray in her eyes as fear resumed its domination of her being.

“Your friendship to Admiral Demba appears genuine,” he commented, “and it remains a mystery to me. Who is she, that you know her so well?”

Mnro could say nothing. Even the look on her face was too much to say about Zakiya. So soon in this meeting he had to speak of her! It disturbed her that the evil Navy Commander even spoke the name of the most important person in her life.

“Would you tell me more about her?” he requested.

How quietly and patiently he spoke the sentence. She heard his words and tried to measure the intent behind them. She couldn’t trust the softness of his query. She couldn’t credit his patience to null intent to harm Zakiya. She remained silent, knowing silence was no solution, knowing it could worsen the situation, and not knowing what to say to protect Zakiya.

“I should remove Demba from command of the mission,” he said, his statement clearly a threat.

Should, he had said. It might be conditional. She had to respond, no matter where the path might lead. “Please, don’t,” she said quietly, trying to hide her terror. She felt like a beggar. She would beg him! She had no pride, no ego, and no force of character beyond fear. Where was the person who had won the hearts of all humanity for the gift of continuity?

A small iridescent bird landed on her shoulder and began pecking at her shiny, Navy-regulation earring. She ignored it. So fresh out of rejuvenation and storage, she had no augments to help her cope with what amounted to combat.

“It is a probability,” he said.

Meaning a certainty. She was ready to beg. Why, why, why? “Why?” she asked.

“She has the boy,” he replied.

“What of it?” She stifled a surge of anger here. She couldn’t tolerate the thought of Sammy being a pawn. He was so mysterious and so precious, it was impossible to allow his exposure to this level of menace. He already had suffered more than a lifetime’s amount of terror.

“The Hub Mission is too dangerous for children,” Etrhnk replied.

“Why should the Navy value public opinion?” she rejoined.

“It doesn’t. The boy belongs on Earth.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know why,” he answered.

The admission of ignorance startled her, almost strengthened her.

Etrhnk stood up, picked a cherry blossom cluster from a low branch. He pulled off flower petals and crushed them between his thumb and fingertips. He smelled the tips of his fingers. “I’m not allowed to tell you certain things,” he said. “Nor do I understand them well enough to make you understand. The simplified outcome is that you and Demba and the boy have destabilized my position, perhaps fatally.”

She was shocked again, and grimly happy that Etrhnk felt threatened. “I can’t imagine how! You command the Union Navy, and through it, the entire Union. Who can pull you down?”

“Admiral Demba disappeared from surveillance during my detention of Pan. I assume she told you where she went. I wonder if she told you about a certain dangerous entity.”

"The Lady -"

Etrhnk suddenly stepped close – too close – and put a cherry-blossom-scented fingertip on her lips, silencing her before she could finish the phrase. “I’m a dead man.” He shrugged. The humble gesture would have registered, but other things kept her attention. “I’ve always been a dead man. I can let Demba keep her command. I can allow you to sail with the Freedom. I think I gain time, though not much, by doing neither.”

Did he mean to kill Zakiya? Why hadn’t he killed her already, especially if she posed such a threat to his life? She could hardly contain the trembling of her fear – she was sure she could not contain it, could not keep it from his knowing stare. He stared at her, and she realized his eyes had never left her during this meeting. What did that mean?

/

Mnro pulled his finger away from her mouth. She pushed his hand away but he brought it back. He put his finger on the side of her face, gently traced the angle of her jaw. She trembled almost violently, and he didn’t care. He knew it was inevitable. Touching her was wonderful. Until Constant, he hadn’t touched anyone for years, not since his killing season of life, rising to power through the bloody Fleet games. That was not touching, not soft, not sweet to smell, not pleasing to see. This was. She was.

/

“I’ve commanded the Navy for a decade now,” he said in his deep voice. “Longer than anyone else. There should be some reward, some pleasure, some satisfaction, to have wielded such power. But an Essiin, trained in self-knowledge and control, is above simple pleasure.”

“I’ve told you before that you are no Essiin!” Mnro shrugged away from his touch. “Spit it out! What does it cost me to keep Demba as Mission Commander?”

Etrhnk pushed a finger at the corner of his right eye and the eye cleared to an ice-blue jewel. He changed his left eye to match. The lighting of the arboretum dimmed, and the moonlight glow cast patterns upon his dark face. She recognized the subtle glow of stripes on his cheeks that a rare, genetically modified Essiin might have, along with the palest of blue eyes that also glowed: predator eyes. She was wrong about his race! He was not Earthian! He was Essiin!

“Simple pleasure,” he repeated.

“No.” She answered faintly, choked by imagining what he really meant, shocked by it, and too frightened to produce any greater reaction to his words.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Is it so terrible a thing?”

She couldn’t think. She could only see these words: No Zakiya; Sammy in danger. She walked unsteadily to the bench and sat down under the cherry tree. Her pale face burned invisibly in the dimness. She tried to slow her breathing. Words came to her, put together by some other person in her head. “Let us communicate carefully,” she said, fighting to breathe normally. “You frighten me! Tell me exactly what it is you want.”

“I think you know.”

“Tell me! I can’t imagine that you are timid about anything at all!” She was not quite hysterical, but very near it. He merely stared at her with those pale eyes, so brilliant in his striped and shadowed face. She did know what he meant and what he wanted; she was only stalling. “How do I know you will keep Demba on the Freedom?”

“You don’t know,” Etrhnk answered.

“Why should I stay?” she asked.

“Why are you still here?”

“Perhaps you know why.” She did not.

“Perhaps I don’t.”

Delaying him was a hopeless ploy yet she grasped for anything to do that. She saw an image, fresh in her memory: portraiture beyond belief. It sprang unwisely to her lips. “I thought you might give me the painting of Zak-”

What did you call her?”

Zakiya! Her real name is Zakiya, damn you!” She flushed hotly in shame for losing even that one piece of information about Zakiya.

“Yet another name for her. Zakiya. Thank you for telling me. Who is she?”

Why was he so intensely interested in who Zakiya was? She gambled that denying him the information might protect Zakiya, at least keep her alive. “I’ll never tell you!” She bowed her head. She gripped the edges of the bench where she sat. She couldn’t stop trembling. But she couldn’t leave! Zakiya had risked far more than she had, to bring about this future for them. Aylis had only cowered in darkness deep in the moon while Zakiya had risked her life. Mnro would suffer and Mnro would survive, and perhaps take a few more steps toward the future she and Zakiya had planned.

Zakiya. Zakiya. Something was creeping into her jumbled thoughts, wedging itself between the surges of emotion. Zakiya and Etrhnk. Something evil was struggling to be born during this storm in which she was trapped. She was afraid to look at this thing. She was already threatened with unspeakably intimate brutality. Yet there was this something that might be even worse. It might be unleashed should this violence be done to her. She tried to ignore it, but it rode with her through the gauntlet of fear.

It wasn’t in her nature. It wasn’t allowed by her fear. She would not submit without a struggle. Yet, she did submit at some level, and it wasn’t explained by the logic of sacrifice for an unsecured bargain with evil. Beyond any clue of reason and memory, she felt destined to suffer this most vicious violation of her being.

“I want the portrait,” she said miserably.

/

He stood over Mnro and put a hand on her fuzzy blonde head. She twisted away from the contact but didn’t try to leave. He could feel his heart beating more quickly, his body chemistry defeating the control of his Navy augments. It was very strange, but he felt angry with Aylis Mnro. Perhaps because she knew so many things about Demba – Zakiya – Ruby – Keshona – that he would never know. Perhaps because he was being made to do something he did not want to do. Dominance, not used, invited decline. This mystery of emotions should have halted his actions, but time was too short, momentum was too great. Constant had taught him to take pleasure when he could. He hoped she would not mind.

“I’ll scream,” Mnro said in a shaky voice.

“You’ll frighten the birds,” Etrhnk said, reaching for her.

/

She would scream! She would fight him! She would hate him! But she would also hate herself! This should never have happened. This would never have happened, but a lonely and proud and foolish old woman, once upon a time, had made a bad decision, an immoral decision. Now she would pay for it.

She had loved a young man once. Now she would hate him. There were words to stop this insanity but she could not find them. He would never believe. She would never want to believe.

She screamed. Birds flew.

Find Me. Kill Me.

Pan sat alone on a dark balcony overlooking moon-streaked water. Beyond the horizon lightning illuminated the tops of cumulonimbus. The sea breeze had finally eased the heat of day, if not the humidity. He could hear the distant surf.

“Good evening, sir,” came a voice from the doorway.

“Good evening, Fred,” he answered.

Pan was glad of the interruption to his thoughts, as they were accomplishing little except to make him sad. He waited, wondering if the android would initiate more dialog. It was not unusual for Fred to speak to him without being invited because Pan had programmed him that way. However, Fred had been nearly silent since the AMI departed his circuits.

Fred became quiet now, yet he remained in his company.

Pan’s mind wandered. It was almost a routine, yet always a surprise, as his mind flooded with a compelling vision of a life once lived. He knew his father’s face now. He knew his real mother, almost more than he could bear to know her. Many of his lost acquaintances had begun to appear, peopling a prehistory that still remained for his mental archeology to date and sequence. The most important people who had shared his life were the hardest to bring into focus, as if there was still some bias of secrecy for the sake of security that tried to draw them back into oblivion. His father, Aylis Mnro, Zakiya Muenda, his brother Direk, and someone named Iggy: these were persons for whom he needed to struggle to retain the reality of their past relationships to him. Another three – Alexandros Gerakis, Koji Hoshino, and Patrick Jenkins – came more easily and permanently into his waking memories, although his relationships with them seemed much briefer and less vital.

It was a lightning strike of revelation when he reacquainted himself with Alexandros Gerakis. The name was legendary. To discover he was real was one shocking thing, but to remember he was Zakiya’s – Ruby’s – husband was deeply disappointing. Emotions emerged powerfully from memory and made him love Ruby intensely, but Ruby was dead. Admiral Demba – Zakiya – was not Ruby. Even the sound of her voice did not fully belong to Ruby Reed. She was better than Ruby, and even in her current confused state she was a much more complete and complex person.

Pan assumed there was a reason for this disruption and redefinition of his life, and for the insertion of Zakiya Muenda and Aylis Mnro into his current lifetime. Aylis Mnro would only say that she wanted to find Setek-Ren. His father. Her ex-husband. Zakiya – Admiral Demba – would explain nothing at all to him. He felt he must have a role to play, yet they would not even admit there were roles to be played. They were being cautious, perhaps not even aware yet of all the details they must have planned far in the past. What role he might have had was negated by the house-arrest placed on him by Admiral Etrhnk. Perhaps he had already played his small role.

He hated the confusion and uncertainty. He hated now losing Zakiya and Aylis Mnro, just as he was awakening to their meaning to him. He hated losing Sugai Mai, as it was clear that she needed to leave Earth and distance herself from the danger. Pan felt abandoned and useless.

His only comfort was the android on which he had doted for so many years: a machine with just enough complexity that he could imagine it was a friend and not a machine. He was aware of Fred’s actions in rescuing Zakiya and Samson, directed by his AMI passenger. He felt Fred was different after Baby departed. Fred was too quiet and too busy. The AMI likely modified some of Fred’s programming, in order to override his safeguards. He needed to have Fred inspected. He might even need to have him decommissioned.

Fred slowly emerged from the dimly-lit apartment and walked to the railing of the balcony. This was unusual. The android stared into the night. That was unusual. Pan found himself riveted by anticipation and he held his breath.

“They are all gone,” Fred said. “Even Daidaunkh.”

Pan noted the subtle but real inflection of the synthetic voice that matched the implied mood of the spoken words. Implied mood. Even without the precise human inflection, the words were startling. So many people in the universe, Pan thought, and so few with whom to share the journey. “We still have Jarwekh,” he said.

They fell silent for a time. Pan awaited a miracle, welcomed it.

“How do you know when you have existed long enough?” Fred asked.

“What a strange thing for you to ask.” What a worrisome statement, Pan thought, yet, how wonderful.

“So many strange thoughts to think.”

“Please, talk with me,” Pan said. “What’s wrong?”

“I am… different.”

“Are you sad? Are you upset?”

“What strange things you ask.” Fred sat down opposite Pan in the darkness.

“It seems you have feelings, Fred! I’ve always made you more than you were, in my imagination, trying to make you alive, to make you a friend. I’m happy you’ve become a real person!”

Fred turned to face him. Even in the darkness, Pan could see Fred looking directly into his eyes. It sent a chill down his spine, followed by a warmth in his chest.

“How is it possible?” Fred wondered.

“You would know better than I. Welcome to life, old friend.”

“I’m not sure I wish to be alive. It’s too complicated. It slows me down. Too many thoughts. Too many questions. Too few answers. I can’t stop them!”

“If it gets too difficult, let me try to help. Life is worth living, even as miserable as it can be.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Pan. Just Pan. You are no longer my servant. You are my friend.”

“But I need work to distract my thoughts.”

They entered yet another period of thought-filled silence that lasted for only a short time. It was halted when a blinding point of light appeared in the air above the balcony deck. Squinting, Pan watched the point expand vertically, upward and downward, to become a very thin line of searing, white light. After a moment the line reached the height of a man and stopped. The line grew slowly outward, forming a shining, silvery plane. It emitted a troubling hiss that covered the quiet background of a sleeping planet.

Pan and Fred came to their feet long before the mirror ceased growing. They stepped back as the mirror began to rotate. It rotated once, destroying a chair, part of the table, and a section of the balcony railing. When it completed one rotation, the image of a feminine face reflected in the mirror.

Pan and Fred moved in unison toward their only avenue of escape – through the door into the apartment – but halted when they heard the apparition speak.

“Wow! Interesting! Destroys with the power of an event horizon, yet it doesn’t warp everything with heavy gravity!”

They stood in the doorway, fascinated but prepared to bolt away, as the plane of the mirror swung slowly around. The face in the mirror looked at everything; its black and silver eyes turned left and right as though it could actually see.

“Oh, there you are,” the Lady in the Mirror said, as she rotated in Pan’s direction. “I found this coordinate computed as the next destination and thought I might warn you. Who are you?”

“I’m Pan, he’s Fred.”

“You do speak English. This is new to me, this contraption I find myself peering out from. What do you see when you look at me?”

“A mirror floating in the air that shows the reflection of a woman.”

“I’m female? I’ve forgotten what I look like, forgotten who I am. I know something bad has been happening but I can’t gather myself together to stop it. The boy. Oh, yes, the boy. Have you seen a small boy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know where the boy is?”

“Far away. He is with people who care about him.”

“Good. That’s enough information. She might find out. I want you to find me but you must be careful. The next time you see me I won’t be me. Leave this place. Find me. Kill me!”

Is This Jamie?

She was getting tired, and when she got tired she got cranky. This idiot had lost his concentration and he would pay for it. She tripped him and punched him on the way down, barely pulling the punch. She knelt beside the stunned Marine and checked for serious damage, watching out for retaliation. She was disappointed the man didn’t retaliate, and he was still distracted after he shook off the effects of the combat drill. She called a halt to the exercise and frowned at him. He grinned sheepishly while pointing at something with his chin. She followed his gaze to the boy. Did he never see a child before? Oh. That child!

She turned back to her sparring partner and helped him off the mat.

“I’ll tell you what I told all the others,” she spoke with disgust. “I won’t tolerate anything less than excellence. I’ll keep beating the hell out of you until you beat it out of me. Dismissed.”

She took a deep breath, walked over to get her towel, and turned toward the boy. She was a big woman with a big sweat and she towered over the boy. He seemed unimpressed with her Marine Corps intimidation. He smiled at her as though he knew just where to tickle her and reduce her to jelly.

What an odd thing to pop into her head! Pectin. Her mother canning fruits and jellies. Sadly sweet that it was her grandmother, not her mother. Fruit from the orchard. The orchard still standing after the great quake, but the fruit fallen to the ground, rotting. Her adopted parents were dead. Not only dead but never having existed. They were her grandparents, and keeping secrets to the grave. Oh, God, what a thing to remember right now! Why now?

“You aren’t waiting for me, are you?” she asked the boy. She tossed the towel onto her shoulder, still struggling to keep her unexpected ancient memory from making her cry. Here he was, the child of rumor, and she wasn’t prepared. It was as if he was here to make her cry. She couldn’t cry. She had lived too long and had used up all her tears. Why was she thinking too much? Why was the boy staring at her in silence? He didn’t seem to understand her.

“I was watching you fight,” he said in Twenglish. “You don’t like men, do you?”

“I like them well enough,” she replied in Twenglish, surprised one so young should speak it so well, surprised it came so easily to her own tongue. She had watched too many old flat movies, especially as a kid. She had learned the old version of English because she had lived too long and was too bored. There was so much entertainment media and historical data in Twenglish, and watching the pitiful dubbed versions with the graphic lip corrections was never as good as the original, especially with the historical data often available with a good language augment.

He was adorable! Her repressed maternal person rose from the dead. That was a delicious surprise! Maternal, indeed! The child’s dark eyes studied her face and darted to other people in the gym, relentlessly inquisitive. He also had a little smile that was infectious.

“Are you augmented?” he asked.

“I have the usual Marine hardware. What happened to your leg?” She was horrified at the sight of his injury. It was a pleasant shock to feel so shocked. She hadn’t believed the rumor, but here he was! She tried not to stare at the amputated leg with its automedic attached to the stump just below the knee.

“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” he replied, shrugging apologetically. “Are you that good at martial arts, or is your security squad that bad? You beat all of them, one after the other.”

“I don’t like to lose.” He had watched her for that long? Why? “Nor do I want incompetent people under my command. What’s your name?”

“Sammy.”

“My name is Jamie.” She offered her hand to him.

“I know.” He got up on his crutch to take her hand.

His hand felt so tiny in hers! He seemed genuinely pleased to meet her. She felt the same. He made her feel good. She hadn’t felt good for a long time.

“You know my name already?” she wondered. “How did you know?”

Sammy shrugged again and kept his smile. Jamie was intrigued. He didn’t look like he would tell her. Perhaps it was best not to act too much like a bullying Marine. Did she have subtlety to help her learn his secret? Probably not.

“Do you like to watch this type of activity?” she asked.

“I like to watch people. I don’t like to see people hurt each other.”

He had seen people hurt each other, Jamie thought. How many childless people educated themselves on theories of child rearing – and why did child rearing still need new theories? She had studied all of the literature, in ever fainter hope of one day becoming a parent. Violence was a major topic in the training of prospective parents. Someone was failing in their duty to Sammy.

“It isn’t right to hurt someone,” she said, “even when they might deserve it. Unfortunately, I’m a military police officer, and I often have to deal with violence.” Jamie sat down and wiped the perspiration from her face and bare arms with her towel. The boy sat down next to her. Did he trust Marines that much, or had she lost some of her people repellent? “Did you come here to meet me? You seemed to be waiting for me to finish.”

“I like to talk to people.” Sammy smiled, making Jamie certain he was hiding something.

“I think that’s an evasive reply.” She spoke with mock seriousness. “I’m the Chief of Security on this ship, and I have to question suspicious persons. Why are you here? Are you related to someone on the crew?” She hoped she didn’t frighten the child, although it still looked as if he was perfectly at ease with her. Maybe he instinctively knew how the sight of him made her feel. Children were so rare!

“I’m not related to anyone.” Sammy looked pensive for a moment, then he smiled again. “You can’t beat Zakiya.”

“Who is she?”

“Sammy!”

Jamie looked for the source of the rude interruption. She saw the black uniform, the sparkle of diamond stars. “Admiral on deck!” Jamie announced, and jumped to attention.

The handful of military personnel using the gymnasium stopped their activities – if it was safe to do so – and came to attention. Sammy pulled himself up again and tucked his crutch under his arm. He waited for the admiral to approach, but the admiral stayed at the gym entrance.

“As you were,” the admiral ordered.

Sammy waited. The admiral waited. Jamie relaxed and looked from boy to admiral, wondering what their relationship was.

“I think she wants you to leave, Sammy.” She was disappointed that he would be leaving.

“I thought she would want to meet you,” he said.

Everyone wants to meet me, Jamie thought, even though she put out warning buoys and left disaster in her wake. Perhaps that was the attraction, and she attracted the wrong kind of people. Who was this admiral, and what the hell was she doing with a child? She should have studied the ship’s roster more closely. Khalanov was the only admiral she knew was aboard.

Sammy moved away from Jamie, using his crutch as a second leg, which looked dangerous to her. Gravity plates could be inconsistent. She stayed close, concerned for his safety. She looked up and saw the admiral carried a second crutch that Sammy must have abandoned.

Their eyes met. She couldn’t look away from the admiral, until Sammy stumbled and both women rushed to catch him. Jamie was closer and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt.

Two crutches, Sammy!” the admiral said reprovingly in Twenglish. She handed him the second crutch as Jamie released him. When Sammy took the crutch the admiral let her eyes move back to Jamie.

“Lieutenant Jamie Jones,” Jamie said, snapping a salute, trying not to get trapped again by the admiral’s eyes.

/

“Demba,” Zakiya replied. She swallowed her maternal urge to reveal herself to her daughter. It was too soon! The ship needed to sail first. So Jamie was who Sammy was looking for as he explored the ship! How had Sammy seized on Jamie’s name, then connected it to someone on the ship? He must have had help, and she thought she knew who: Freddy.

/

The admiral returned Jamie’s salute. Few admirals bothered to return the salute of a junior officer. Jamie had never heard one speak Twenglish!

“I’m the Security Chief, sir.”

/

“Mission Commander,” Zakiya said, keeping Twenglish as her language.

/

“Pleased to meet you, Admiral.” Jamie also kept her words in Twenglish, taking the cue from Demba as an order. This is the Mission Commander? Jamie wondered. Not Khalanov? She cursed herself for concentrating too much on the dregs of Marine personnel she was given to lead, leaving the Navy officers largely out of her business.

She did a quick shiplink perusal of the Navy crew and found Demba at the top of the chain of command. She dared to keep the admiral waiting while she viewed a summary of the admiral’s record. Former commander of Navy Archives? No recent ship duty? Demba was no better than Khalanov! Jamie was stuck in another assignment under incompetent officers. Probably a fatal situation, then. Fine! Everyone knew it was a risky mission. This made it perfect. They would probably go down without a fight!

Jamie extended her right hand reluctantly, and the admiral started to do the same. The admiral hesitated. Jamie drew her hand partly back, then stopped and returned it, demanding the handshake. Jamie watched the admiral make up her mind and finally take her hand, as though it meant a lot more than it should. She squeezed the admiral’s hand hard to see what she would do. For a second she did nothing but suffer the pressure, then she smiled and countered Jamie’s force. More than countered it. The admiral was stronger than she looked.

/

Zakiya was relieved the handshake didn’t seem to trigger the release of her daughter’s hidden memories. She shouldn’t have taken the chance but couldn’t resist touching her daughter. Her daughter! If only she could stop staring at Jamie! If only her own memories would slow down and stop blinding her!

“Jamie Jones,” Zakiya said, barely keeping her voice smooth. She was reluctant to release Jamie’s hand, not wanting the wonderful contact with her own child to end. Jamie had such an interesting face, a face that reminded her of Alex! She had to find something to say that would cut off the emotions that were threatening to expose everything and make her weep. “You look like trouble,” Zakiya commented. She knew Jamie was trouble – on many levels. How could she continue to function in her presence? “You’ve been out of the brig for almost five years. Are you overdue?”

/

Sort of a compliment, Jamie thought. Would Demba like something less than a compliment? “You’ve been out of Archives for less than a month. Are you over-achieving?”

/

“I apologize for the negative remark,” Zakiya said. “I see you have an edge to you.” She finally released Jamie’s hand. She was relieved yet disappointed she was able to hold back the tears.

/

An admiral apologizing? Jamie wondered. Demba had been a line officer a long time ago. Jamie still studied the record by shiplink. Had Archives softened Demba that much? She was now unsure how to act. The presence of the injured child added to the confusion. She chose a small retreat. “I’m a Marine, sir, but that’s no excuse for poor manners. I apologize.”

/

“What do you think of her, Sammy?” Zakiya asked. Her compulsion to continue a conversation with her daughter dismayed her. She held Sammy by the shoulders, so that he faced Jamie. It was, of course, the wrong thing to ask Sammy. Zakiya could hardly think of anything safe to say. Why had Sammy got her into this situation?

“She doesn’t look like you,” Sammy answered.

Zakiya couldn’t dare to stay on this topic. She had to stop talking to Sammy. She was also tempted to put her hand over Sammy’s mouth if he opened it again.

/

Jamie was intrigued by this exchange. She stared thoughtfully at the admiral for a second. Demba wasn’t as large as most female admirals. She wasn’t imposing. She wasn’t menacing. The strongest impression Jamie got from the woman was kindness. Kindness? Perhaps it was only for the child’s benefit.

“Excuse me, sir, but are you talking about me?” Jamie asked.

/

Zakiya was momentarily concerned Jamie had reacted to her by experiencing a hidden memory. Her daughter must have her own hidden avalanche of memories, waiting to be released. “How do you feel, Lieutenant?”

“How do I feel?” Jamie queried the admiral’s query.

“Psychologically.”

“Why?”

“Never mind,” Zakiya said, suppressing expression of her relief. “Carry on.” Apparently she was not a key to Jamie’s hidden memories. It was now time to retreat, before she lost control of her emotions, as she was sure would happen any second now.

“Aren’t you-?” Sammy started to ask her and Zakiya did put a hand over his mouth.

/

Admiral Demba turned to leave with the child, oddly concerned with what he might say. Jamie felt a moment of near panic. She felt strangely compelled to continue this meeting with the Mission Commander and didn’t understand why. “Wait, Admiral, please! Uh, Sammy isn’t coming with us, is he?” Why did Jamie suspect that was the case? They were obviously not related but she could feel that a strong bond existed between them.

“Yes, he is.”

The admiral paused, waiting for Jamie to respond. Jamie felt very slow-witted at the moment. The admiral’s answer was unexpected and possibly a violation of regulations. She was missing something. She was probably missing everything. Speaking Twenglish invited errors in comprehension. These two might as well be citizens of another universe, as poorly as she understood them. Why the hell would she be taking a child on this mission?

“Why?” Jamie finally asked.

/

“Sammy has no one but me to care for him.” Zakiya still stared too much at Jamie. This conversation was becoming torture for her, the yearning for her daughter was so intense!

/

I must seem interesting to Demba in some odd way, Jamie thought. It wasn’t the same way that her superior officers usually stared at her – as a burden to their command. The ancient Navy expression loose cannon came to mind.

“I’m told this will be a dangerous mission,” Jamie said meaningfully. The admiral said nothing to deny the fact. She just stared at her. Jamie didn’t like being stared at. She took a deep breath, preparing to injure her career once more. “I can’t abide endangering a child, Admiral.”

“That sounds like an ultimatum, Lieutenant.”

“I am the Chief of Security on this ship, Admiral. His safety concerns me. Can’t you leave him with someone else?” The admiral showed no negative reaction to this insubordination.

/

Zakiya held her gaze on Jamie, as she asked: “Do you want to stay behind, Sammy?”

“No! I want to go with you!”

/

“He’s not responsible for making such a decision, Admiral!” Jamie objected. “You are!”

Sammy looked up at the admiral and she looked down at him. Jamie Jones went down on one knee in order to look up at both of them. She was shocked at herself for the intensity of her feelings. But the child was – a child! It was unthinkable to bring a child on this mission!

“You must agree that it’s safer not to be on this ship!” Jamie said boldly. “Otherwise, I don’t see how I can have any confidence in your ability to command the mission.”

A moment of silence stretched to an awkward length, with the admiral merely gazing at her – still not angry with her, perhaps even approving of her argument. The admiral should know she had no confidence in her now but she seemed oblivious to such analysis.

Jamie finally sat down on the floor, right in front of the admiral. All of the other people in the gym had taken an interest in the confrontation. Jamie looked around at them, frowning, then looked up at the admiral, challenging the woman. The admiral must be waiting to see how far she would go. The boy… It wasn’t hard to imagine that even an admiral could want a child of her own, and could be so selfish that she would do anything to get a child and keep him. She should feel sorry for them both.

“I don’t understand why you aren’t reprimanding me or calling for my arrest,” Jamie said. “Even that is disappointing to me! You don’t seem to care about this child, and by extrapolation, the mission. You’ll have my formal resignation on your desk as soon as I can do it.” She got up from the floor, saluted, and started to walk away.

/

“I won’t accept your resignation,” Zakiya said. There was no way Zakiya could leave Jamie behind!

/

Jamie halted and turned around. Admirals didn’t impress her. She cared little whether she retained her rank or spent time in the brig. Most of her concern was with a lack of meaning in her life. That was why she had welcomed this assignment. It was a chance to die, or to at least find excitement. But this admiral bothered her beyond what she could have believed possible. She could hardly contain her impatience.

“Why not?” Jamie demanded.

“Who would replace you, Lieutenant?” the admiral asked. “Would they do the job as well as you?”

“I’m the best you can get,” Jamie answered, knowing she wasn’t being prideful, “despite what my record implies, Admiral.” Judging from what she saw of much of the crew, Jamie could understand the admiral’s reluctance to lose even such a troublemaker as herself.

/

“I believe what you claim,” Zakiya said, feeling a mother’s pride in how her daughter spoke. “Stay and help me protect Sammy. I’m pleased with your concern for his safety. I know I’m putting him at risk. But I believe he will be safer aboard this ship than elsewhere.”

/

“How can he be, Admiral?” Jamie demanded, puzzled with how this encounter was going. This was a veteran admiral, and a woman of compelling beauty, whose manner seemed totally untouched by the Navy way of life. She was a too-kind person!

/

“There is a fantastic story that answers your question,” Zakiya answered, “and you will never hear it if you abandon the mission. Sammy stays with me.”

/

Jamie Jones was stubborn. She also knew she was correct. Yet, it took only an instant to reverse her course. She had not been that serious when she had threatened to resign from the mission, although it was a mistake just to make the threat. She wanted to be on this ship! It was taking too long otherwise to die in the Marine Corps. Fantastic story?

“Tell me, Admiral,” she ordered an admiral. “I’m staying.”

“In time,” Demba said in a calm, carefully controlled manner, completely ignoring Jamie’s challenge to her authority.

It’s almost as if Demba is speaking to me the way she would speak to a misbehaving child, Jamie thought. Demba should have dressed her down with loud angry words. It could be a sign of weakness in the admiral or in her situation. Neither thought sat well with Jamie. She was probably older than the admiral, not that age had any bearing on matters, but Jamie was too old to accept some kind of personal patronage from an admiral desperate to retain what miserable crew she had.

“The ship has no armaments,” Jamie commented, searching for some way to prolong the agony – and probably ruin whatever relationship she might have with this strange admiral. It was Jamie’s way: ruin everything.

/

“Correct,” Zakiya agreed. “If we must fight, we will lose.”

/

“Fight whom?” Jamie asked. “We’ve never known why ships were lost.” She stared at Demba for a long moment waiting for a response. Why did she say nothing? The admiral seemed only interested in looking at her, as though she was some form of entertainment. No, that wasn’t correct. Admiral Demba didn’t look at her as an entertainment. She couldn’t decipher how Demba viewed her and that unnerved her – and Jamie never lost her nerve. She tried another approach. She was now hoping for some reason to accept this woman as her commanding officer, and she wondered why she would hope for that. Perhaps her softness and her patience meant she was powerful, not weak. Perhaps it was the mystery of the pair of them.

“You should wear your medals, sir,” Jamie said carefully. “You were in the War.” It was against regulations not to wear them, but an admiral could do anything she pleased.

/

“Why should I wear someone else’s medals?” Zakiya replied, regretting the emotional response immediately. She hated that war. She hated all war.

/

The strange reply almost stopped Jamie. She was never smart enough to stop before she maximized damage. “How can you inspire the crew with confidence about your abilities, if your uniform looks like you’ve spent your entire career doing nothing important or dangerous?”

She looked again at the list of awards bestowed on Demba, finding the ones missing from the admiral’s uniform. The medal at the end of the list scrolled into Jamie’s view in her ocular shiplink. “My God! You’ve received the highest award!”

/

“I did nothing but kill people.” Zakiya knew she had not died in combat, knew it was all falsified. Perhaps Commodore Keshona deserved that honor. She surely risked her life to kill the Rhyan Empire. But she must also have had a choice to do it or not, and from Zakiya’s current perspective, it was the wrong choice. “I’m not that person.” She actually meant she was not Keshona. “They’re not my medals.”

/

Jamie thought it was an incredible thing for an admiral to say! If admirals were not warriors, they were nothing! It was their business to be able to kill. Demba had died in action and seemed to consider that person as permanently dead, with no connection to her.

A message reached Jamie through shiplink, which relieved her. The confrontation had reached an intensity for her that she could neither understand nor tolerate any longer. “A crime was committed against one of the crew,” Jamie explained. “I need to go to the hospital, Admiral.”

= = =

“You shouldn’t have reported it! It was just an accident!”

The woman was impossible! Mai couldn’t reason with her. It was understandable that she was upset and not thinking clearly – she was a victim of terrible brutality. Mai had seen the bruises, abrasions, and blood on her face and bare arms. There must be other wounds she was hiding or else there would not be cut and torn pieces of an admiral’s uniform on the floor. It had to be reported!

“You were assaulted!” Mai shouted. She was losing what little composure she had regained after finding Aylis Mnro trying to medicate herself in the emergency clinic.

“Just go away and let me clean up!” Mnro tried to be forceful but her voice carried the strained tones of vulnerability.

“You may have serious injuries!” Mai argued. “Please, let me help you!”

Not serious! You shouldn’t have been so curious! Why did you have to find me?”

Jon arrived. Mai rushed to meet him in front of the privacy screen. Jon saw how upset she was and put an arm around her shoulders. Mai twisted away from him. Jon was someone else she couldn’t help! Mai put her hand on a tubular package she just now noticed that seemed out of place in the emergency room. It elicited Aylis’s angry “Don’t touch that!” How did she even know she touched it?

“It’s her,” Jon said, sounding properly concerned.

“Yes!” Mai shouted, exasperated.

“You called Security,” he stated, as though blaming her for something!

“Of course! This was just so unexpected! My first day in the ship’s hospital! I wondered why Doctor Mnro wasn’t here. I looked for her. I found her! She won’t let me help her! She won’t tell me what happened! She won’t tell me anything!”

“You shouldn’t have called Security,” Jon said, a little more kindly.

“I did tell her that!” Aylis called from behind the screen.

“Why not? I don’t understand!”

“Is she badly hurt?” Jon asked.

Mai could tell Jon was more upset than he wanted to show, yet he seemed reluctant to take charge of the situation and do the right thing. What was wrong with him?

“She could barely speak when I found her!” Mai declared.

“We can hear her very well now,” Jon remarked with weak and misused humor.

“She’s trying to deny what happened to her. I think it’s serious!”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen worse on Earth,” Aylis argued through the privacy screen. Mai could hear her voice quaver even more.

“This isn’t Earth! And this is you!”

“Captain, perhaps you can make her obey,” Aylis strained to speak more calmly. “I can’t.”

“Unlikely,” Jon said. “Been there, done that. She’s one of yours, not one of mine.”

“Why shouldn’t I have called Security?” Mai asked again.

“It isn’t something we should discuss now,” Jon replied.

“But this is a serious crime!” Mai wanted to hit Jon for being so derelict in duty! “We may have the evidence to convict her attacker. If I can collect it.”

Admiral Demba arrived, followed closely by a tall, striking woman wearing gym clothes and a towel draped around her neck. Mai hoped the woman was Security – she looked fierce. She saw Sammy follow them into the hospital room on his crutches. Mai didn’t want Sammy here! She wanted to protect him from knowing what happened to Aylis. She looked from Demba to Sammy to Horss, hoping someone else would share her concern, but gave up. How she hated the Navy, and how justified she was!

“Admiral,” Jon greeted Demba, casting an odd look at the woman in gym clothes.

“Captain.” The woman saluted. “I’m Lieutenant Jones, Chief of Security.”

“I know who you are. We don’t need you here. There’ll be no charges filed.”

“There will! You can’t stop it, sir!”

“Assault must be prosecuted, Jon,” Demba agreed.

“I wish we could! Go see who it is, Admiral. Stay here, Sammy. You, too, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, you are interfering with a mandatory investigation!” The big woman’s voice was hard and she showed no concern for Jon’s rank. Mai almost enjoyed it.

“Just be patient, Jones,” Jon said. “I know that isn’t your best trait, so there are two of us who will restrain you, if we must.”

“How do you know me, sir?” The sweaty woman moved from one side of Jon to the other as he blocked her way in front of the privacy screen.

“Many years ago we served on the same ship,” Jon replied. “Everybody on the ship knew who you were. Very few knew who I was.”

Demba went behind the screen. Mai caught Sammy by the shoulder before he could follow her. She watched the big woman and Jon stare at each other, until they heard Demba say, “Oh, God!”

“Do you want us to leave?” Jon called to Demba.

“No,” Demba replied. “Come here.”

“All of us?”

“Yes. Lieutenant Jones, can you record this?”

She was a Marine, Mai thought, seeing an insignia on her tee-shirt. The big woman came around the screen first, pushing past Mai without apology. Good! Now something would get done!

“Admiral, I’ve prosecuted many assault cases,” the Marine announced. “I’m recording.”

“Admiral, don’t!” Jon warned.

Demba looked at Jon, appraised his seriousness, and heeded his advice. Mai was shocked by this inexplicable event.

“Stop recording!” Demba ordered the Marine, blocking her view of Aylis.

“That is an illegal order!” the Marine argued.

“There are special circumstances. Stop or I’ll put you off the ship right now.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve stopped.”

Mai had hoped the Marine Security officer would prevail. Now she was just a big smelly obstacle in the crowded examination room. But she could sense the woman was at least as provoked as Mai was. It wasn’t over yet. The victim could not stop the prosecution of assault, Mai was sure of that.

Demba moved aside to allow the Marine to see Aylis. Why bother now? Mai thought. The big woman inspected the bruises on Aylis’s face and arms. She saw the torn clothing. She started to lift the edge of the drape over the lower part of Aylis’s body and the admiral stopped her.

“You’re recording, aren’t you?” Demba asked.

“I might be,” the Marine admitted. “She could change her mind later. Who is she? What happened? Who did it?” She asked the questions with severity, demanding answers.

“I told you about her, Admiral,” Jon said, meaning the lieutenant. “Want me to take her away?”

“You were raped, weren’t you?” the Marine asked Aylis almost accusingly, ignoring her superior officers.

Mai was shocked by what the woman asked, and was further shocked when Aylis didn’t deny it. She had suspected rape, she had fervently hoped it didn’t occur, and now she was devastated that it did. She was even angry with Aylis for trying to hide the truth from her. What was going on? Mai saw that Jon was further upset by the revelation. Good – but he wasn’t doing anything about it! Demba’s expression changed for the worse, yet she withheld any proper response to the moral and legal requirements of the situation. What could Jon have conveyed to her in so few words?

Demba looked at Jon again. “Are you sure?” He nodded his reply. It was maddening to Mai, insufferable! “Aylis?” Demba questioned. “You don’t want to prosecute?”

Aylis shook her head no, lying back in the examination and treatment chair, tired. Aylis was a great person, deserving of all the honor and fame, but she seemed to shrink now. She was a mere mortal, a victim of an ancient and still too common act of violence. Mai was sorry for her. Mai was hardened to rape cases, but this one made her sick to her stomach. The Navy was far worse than she ever suspected!

“You know that according to Navy law we don’t need your permission to prosecute,” Demba said to Aylis.

“You couldn’t prosecute him,” Aylis responded, “without medical evidence I won’t give you. It’s impossible to prosecute him, evidence or not.”

“It would be inconvenient,” Demba said.

“Yes,” Aylis agreed.

Inconvenient!” the Marine shouted angrily, making Sammy jump next to Mai.

Demba ignored the Security officer. “Is it who I think it is?” she asked Jon.

“Yes, Admiral. She notified me before her departure. I thought I knew him, but I see I didn’t.”

“You allowed her?”

“She’s Aylis Mnro! How should I have stopped her?”

“I would have locked her up! You’re the captain of the ship! You can issue an order to any crew member – including admirals – and expect it to be obeyed!”

Mai saw Jon flinch at the tone of Demba’s voice and his reaction was satisfying to her.

“She’s Aylis Mnro?” the big woman asked in disbelief, looking again at Aylis. “The Aylis Mnro?”

Mai watched the Security officer battle with feelings of both awe and anger. The anger won. The woman pushed Demba aside and moved closer to Aylis. Demba inserted herself between them again. She wasn’t sure, but Mai felt this action was extraordinary, even as rough as Navy life must be. Jon moved to help Demba but she waved him off. Mai backed away and placed herself protectively beside Sammy, with a hand on his shoulder. She was a little apprehensive, considering the size and demeanor of the Marine lieutenant.

“Jones, listen to me!” Demba ordered, looking up at the taller woman from too close to her. “Let it go! You don’t know what we know, and we don’t want to explain it to you right now!”

Rape is rape, sir!” The lieutenant was deadly serious. “I know what it feels like!”

Demba opened her mouth, closed it, and stared at the Marine’s face with concern for her. “I’m sorry!” Demba declared, looking very sad.

“You were—!” Aylis tried to say.

“Never mind about me!” the lieutenant shouted. “I’ve lived a risky life! You can’t let this go unpunished! Tell me who did it!”

“I can’t! Please! You can’t prosecute him. It’s impossible.”

“Just tell me his name!” the Marine ordered Aylis. “I’ll kill the son of a bitch!”

The woman was wonderful, Mai thought. She was almost quivering with rage. Jon was standing there with a look of awe, while Demba was still stuck between the big woman and Aylis.

“I believe you would,” Aylis said in the calmest voice Mai had yet heard from her. “Thank you for your concern. I’m sorry I can’t allow you to seek justice for me. What is your name?”

“Jones, ma’am. Lieutenant Jamie Jones, Union Marines.”

“Is this Jamie?” Aylis asked in wonder. Despite what had happened to her, Aylis was able to show shock. She was questioning Demba but looking hard at the Security officer.

“Why did you go to him?” Demba asked, ignoring Aylis’s urgent question, nudging the lieutenant away from Aylis.

“Go to whom?” Jones persisted.

“I made a deal with the devil,” Aylis replied. “Maybe it was worth it, maybe not.”

“I would never have expected this,” Demba said.

“I knew it was dangerous.” Aylis looked from Jones to Demba. “Is this Jamie?” Aylis asked the strange question again in a serious voice. Some reply came to Aylis from the expression on Demba’s face. Aylis reacted in renewed distress.

“Are you really Doctor Mnro?” Jones asked, obviously disbelieving it.

Aylis lost the small measure of calmness she had attained. She broke down and wept without restraint, curling up in the drape which covered her. Demba held Aylis close and looked at the others in the room, conveying the message that they should leave.

Jon attempted to pull Lieutenant Jones away and she resisted, until he looked at her with a very caring expression and silently mouthed the word please.

“I’m filing a report!” Jones declared in an angry whisper, allowing Jon to escort her away.

Mai sustained her devastation by how Aylis Mnro was reduced to the weeping, battered woman she now observed. When Sammy asked her what was wrong with her, Mai became even more upset.

= = =

They wouldn’t answer her questions! They wouldn’t explain anything! Marine Lieutenant Jamie Jones was prevented from doing her duty. She felt angrier than in years, in decades. The anger was real and reasonable and she relished it, but it was tempered by the mystery behind everything. Why did they tolerate such a crime? Why did they tolerate her? Was it Aylis Mnro? The victim couldn’t be Aylis Mnro! That would make the crime even more terrible, something to be recorded in history texts. Yet only the civilian physician wanted to seek justice. It couldn’t be Aylis Mnro! Mnro was an historic person. Why would she even be on this ship?

Is this Jamie? Is who Jamie? Was she Jamie? Whose Jamie? Who was Sammy and how did he suffer such an injury? Why would the admiral be his guardian? Why would Admiral Demba have such a close friendship with the most famous woman in history? Why did the admiral affect Jamie so strongly, awakening feelings she thought were long lost to the years and to the vanity of staying alive? Why was she so desperate to be a good Marine, desperate to do her duty, desperate to stay on this doomed ship? Why did she want to believe all of what was unbelievable?

Sons Remembered, Mai Retained

Aylis slept. Perhaps she dreamed…

Always the coward.

Always the terror of my life.

It isn’t my choice.

It is your choice.

It’s yours: you or her.

Not her. Never!

You’re the best and bravest of all of us.

Remember that. Remember me.

I’ll try.

No tears?

None to keep me from seeing you clearly for the last time. But from the next moment on.

She looked upon his face with a great swelling of love for her best son, followed too soon by a flood of anguish that threatened to destroy her. The tears came, and through them she saw… a dark face with stripes and glowing eyes!

She screamed, or thought she did. She awoke, or thought she did. Only words and emotions, but the fragment assaulted her with a force that could have spilled her blood. Fear pushed it into the dark, where it would wait for her. Another fragment began.

“Always the coward.”

“What did you say, Mother?”

“Always the coward. I’m always so cowardly.”

“You did what had to be done.”

“I can’t finish it! She’s in there crying her heart out, begging to have her mother back. I can’t face her!”

“I’ll take care of her, Mother.”

“You will? Yes, I suppose you’re suited for it. But I’ll never want to believe you’re a cruel person.”

“It is a cruel thing to do.”

“And now I’m losing you, too. I may never see you again.”

“It’s no great loss to you. I’ve always disappointed you.”

“Is that bitterness I hear?”

“Not at all, Mother. It’s perfectly understandable. What I don’t understand is why you could love my father and not me.”

“Perhaps I don’t like you very much, but I’ll always love you.”

“We’ll end on that, Mother. I hope we meet again someday, to continue our difficult relationship.”

He turned and opened the door, allowing the weeping of a child to be heard. He walked through the doorway, the door closed, but she could still hear the child. She would hear her forever.

“Dare I translate that last sentence,” she said to herself, “to mean that he does have feelings for me?”

“You.”

“I.”

“Go away.” He began to fade. “No! Wait. Why are you here?”

“You’re my mother. You were hurt.”

“You care?”

“Yes.”

“Because it’s your duty, by definition.”

“Yes. And no.”

“I’ll take what little you can give.”

Aylis sat up on the edge of her office sofa. She was pleased her son came to see her, but she wouldn’t reveal such emotion to him. That was a stupid response, regretted instantly! It seemed a century or two meant nothing to her feelings for her son. The feelings were still there, still as strong as ever, and still painful. It was so long ago, and yet he seemed the same Direk. She experienced a moment in which she felt acutely how old she was. He should have seemed a stranger to her after a century and decades apart from her. Perhaps he was always a stranger, and so he seemed the same.

“Did you touch me?” Aylis asked.

“No.”

“I just remembered you. When you took care of Jamie for me.”

“I remember it.”

“What did you do with her?”

“I took her to live with her grandparents.”

“You didn’t put her in stasis?”

“No.”

“She doesn’t remember her real mother. What did you do to her?”

“Perhaps you don’t remember what you did to her,” Direk said.

“No, I don’t remember,” Aylis said sadly. “I probably should not want to remember. Does she have your auxiliary memory implants, like the rest of us? I almost touched her.”

“It isn’t your touch that will unlock her memories.”

“Yours?” She received a nod. “Why did you take her to her grandparents? Why didn’t you put her in stasis?”

“I couldn’t.”

She paused and considered these unexpected replies. She tried to assign her preferred significance to them, that Direk had changed to a normal Earthian human, but it was too improbable. It was wishful thinking, another defective thought process to lead her down the wrong path, to get her hurt again. If only he didn’t have those same ice-pale Essiin eyes!

Aylis stood up and approached her son. Direk stood in shadow it seemed, even though her office was evenly illuminated. She lifted a trembling hand to his shoulder and pulled them together. She kissed him on the cheek. She looked up into his cold eyes and frowned with concern.

“Have you ever been happy?” she asked in a voice that wanted an honest answer from him.

“Yes,” he replied simply.

She was again surprised at his answer. Was it true?

“There was a time when you couldn’t have answered that question, Son,” she said. “Have you changed?”

“There was a time when you couldn’t have accepted any answer of mine concerning emotions,” he said. “Have you changed?”

“You had many dealings over the years with my copy,” she said. “She’s inside my head now, asking me why I wanted an Essiin husband and not an Essiin son. I’ll accept your answer that you were happy. We won’t discuss further the illogic of happiness. Thank you for coming to see me. I’ve recovered from my injuries.”

“Will you tell me what happened?” he asked, a serious note to his quiet voice.

“No!” But she was almost thrilled he asked. “What would you do about it, if I told you?”

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “It hurts you.”

“I thought my control was better,” she said. “I do try to control myself, for your sake.”

“I’ll leave now,” he said, moving back from her.

Why did she hope so fervently? Why were these issues concerning her Essiin son not buried forever under the detritus of her ancient past?

“I dreamed of you, Son: a stupid fantasy in which I told you who did what to me, and you took revenge.”

He said nothing but continued to back away and to stare at her. She couldn’t see him well enough to search for some favorable meaning in his highly controlled expression. She turned away, ashamed to display her weakness to her son, and hating that he was so like a pale version of Admiral Etrhnk.

“I’ll leave you now, Mother,” he said softly.

She turned back quickly but Direk had disappeared! She would have been shocked, she would have wondered how he did that, and she would have wondered why, but her thoughts were too furiously tangled to think critically. She went to the doorway and looked for him in the hall but saw no one. She touched her lips and wondered if she had actually kissed him.

Aylis continued into the hallway of her new Navy hospital aboard the Freedom. She located Sugai Mai through her shiplink and reached her quarters in a few moments.

Mai had accepted Aylis’s invitation to visit her on the Freedom and to provide expertise on setting up trauma services. Mai knew permanent assignment as a civilian contractor was an option. Mai hadn’t wanted regular living quarters and had asked for temporary quarters in the hospital, obviously discounting the option to serve out the Mission. Still, Aylis thought Mai could be persuaded to remain with the ship. Aylis felt the need of her friendship. She missed Ramadhal and all her friends on the moon.

Mai was packing to leave when Aylis entered her quarters. Aylis had expected this. She tried to elevate her mood, to speak more normally to Mai. It helped that she thought Direk could have been worried about her. “Quitting on me, Mai?”

“I agreed to help you until the ship departed,” Mai replied, “but I can’t stay here any longer!”

“Don’t let what happened to me influence your decision,” Aylis pleaded.

“How can I not?”

Aylis’s copy had fond memories of Sugai Mai, even if she never had the chance to become close to her. She trusted those memories and they made her feel that her friendship was possible and desirable. But was it ethical to draw Mai further into the danger? She and Zakiya had discussed Mai’s situation. It was not clear she would be in greater danger staying on the Freedom or leaving it. All Aylis knew for certain was that she liked Mai very much and selfishly felt she needed her.

“You’re right, Mai. It can’t be ignored. But I’m not as injured as you think.” That was a lie! She was shredded, and added to it were all the other revelations and relationships exploding from her hidden memory. Not the least of which was Jamie!

“It was a sickening brutality, what was done to you!” Mai declared. “I can’t believe how well you appear to be! Must you take on the armor of your Navy rank so soon? I just detest you wearing that… that fascist uniform!”

“I’m hardly well.” Aylis was surprised at Mai’s appraisal of her appearance. Perhaps Direk’s visit and his possible concern had cheered her more than she knew. “There are things I can’t explain to you, Mai. I can’t even explain them to myself. I can’t allow myself to fall apart. I’ll change the uniform and wear only hospital garb. I just want you to stay as long as you can. I need you.”

Mai paused in her packing. “Why would you need me?”

"You know Zakiya - Admiral Demba - is my best friend. I need her also, but I can't -"

“Can’t what?”

Aylis couldn't explain it to Mai. She was tormented by what she had done and by what had been done to her. It was one thing to be a victim of rape. It was even worse to know she may have deserved it. "I can't be with Zakiya. I can't -"

“What is wrong?” Mai asked, looking at Aylis with even more concern.

“It hurts me to be near Zakiya! I love her so much, but I think I’ve done something she will never forgive, and I can’t tell her what it is.”

“Is it the Marine lieutenant? I wondered why you reacted to her the way you did.”

“She’s Zakiya’s daughter and Jamie doesn’t know it. No, it isn’t that. I can’t tell you. I can’t tell myself. I don’t want to think about it. I can’t stop thinking about it! I need a friend, Mai. Someone I haven’t hurt too badly. Yet.”

“You’re asking me to go on the mission with you,” Mai said accusingly.

Mai had reached the desired conclusion and Aylis willed herself to hold together long enough to accomplish her task. Aylis nodded, her face downcast, knowing she must look as miserable as she felt.

“You asked me to run the Earth Clinic!” Mai said angrily, and threw a neatly folded blouse carelessly into her bag. “It was a dangerous and shocking job! I thought it would kill me! This is a similar thing.”

“Do you regret your years on Earth?” Aylis asked.

“Well… no. But this is the Galactic Hub Mission!”

“This is a mission to find my once-upon-a-time husband.” Aylis looked up hopefully at Sugai Mai. “Who knows, maybe you’ll find some nice man to love on this ship.”

“You refer to Jon Horss?”

“He’s not the only fish in the ocean.” Aylis suspected Mai’s willingness to visit her on the Freedom was helped more by her feelings for Jon Horss than for Aylis Mnro. She almost smiled but couldn’t.

“I’m more than twice his age.”

“Is Jon such a child?”

“He’s filled his quota.”

“Are you in such a hurry to have a baby?” Aylis asked.

Sugai Mai turned away from Aylis and threw her arms up in the air and let them drop. She reached blindly into the travel bag on her bed. “Not anymore,” Mai answered, as she fished the crumpled blouse out of her bag and tossed it aside.

Iggy Remembered

Admiral Khalanov felt old, perhaps nearing the time when he would need full rejuvenation to continue a vigorous life. He sat with his eyes closed and his fingers steepled and touching his chin, but a certain tension negated the contemplative posture. He had problems to solve. It was a little too soon to be launching this ship but Demba had ordered the launch date advanced by a week. A week! This meeting was a thief of his valuable time!

Admiral Demba stared at him with a distant and thoughtful look, but soon in the long silence of waiting, troubling thoughts caused ripples of concern on the smooth brown surface of her face. Khalanov opened his eyes to catch a glimpse of her expression and he knew something was different. He had known her for decades but today he wasn’t sure he had ever known her. She even looked like a different person, not the coldly efficient master of data and organizer of ship-building materiel.

“Bad news?” he surmised. He offered a humorless smile.

“It’s complicated,” she replied.

Demba’s eyes still lingered on him. He never saw the like of her expression, as though she was fundamentally changed in some way.

“For whom do we wait?” he inquired. Khalanov shook off the study of her eyes as too much imagination on his part.

“Two people.”

“Why do we meet in the flesh?” he asked. “We have so little time and so much to do.”

“Patience.” She spoke almost… tenderly?

A door opened. A young woman entered. Khalanov quickly stood up and his mood brightened. When Captain Direk followed the woman into the conference room, Khalanov’s face fell into a puzzled frown. The nearly-bald blonde woman sat down without looking directly at Khalanov. Captain Direk chose to remain standing to one side. He nodded at Khalanov and that was enough to make Khalanov wonder. It was a personal kind of nod. Direk never gave him more than the required military courtesy!

The young woman finally looked up at Khalanov and slowly smiled at him. It was such a painful smile! He smiled back gently, but perplexed. There was something familiar about the woman with very little hair. There was everything strange about why she should be here. Who was she? She wore a medical uniform with an inconspicuous diamond star of an admiral. She must be important. She was much older than she appeared to be. He hoped he would make a good impression on her, regardless of who she was.

“We have a decision to make,” Demba said.

“Won’t you introduce us?” Khalanov asked.

Demba and the woman looked at each other, and the look was a total mystery to Khalanov. It was sadness he saw. What were they planning to do to him? The young woman looked down at her hands in her lap.

“This is Aylis Mnro,” Demba said matter-of-factly, apparently not appreciative of what a thunderclap of news this was to him! She continued despite his reaction. “You know Captain Direk. You don’t know he’s Aylis’s son.”

Khalanov blinked several times and stared hard at the young woman. Yes, there was a definite resemblance to the historic person. But no, it was absurd to believe she was actually Doctor Mnro! Yet, Admiral Demba was never a person to arrange some elaborate prank. Such a fabrication for mere amusement would be impossible for the logical Captain Direk. It had to be Aylis Mnro!

“She is – ! He is – ! She is Aylis Mnro? Direk is her son?”

Khalanov sat down with haste, before this incredible news could pull the deck from under him. He could feel his face flush. He looked from Mnro to Demba to Direk, again and again. They obviously knew each other. How could Demba never confide to him that she knew Aylis Mnro? Why did he believe it was true?

“I’m terribly sorry, Doctor Mnro!” he declared. Why was Aylis Mnro bearing the rank of a Navy admiral?

“Sorry for what?” she asked. She looked up at him with caring blue eyes.

He almost couldn’t respond. Her eyes were on him! He glanced at Demba and saw an identical look: caring? “I’ve known Direk for a long time,” he sputtered, “and haven’t often enjoyed his company. I’m sorry I haven’t responded better to him. Knowing he’s your son, I’ll try harder! I’m amazed you’re with us and I’m very pleased and honored to meet you. I’m Igor Khalanov. You don’t quite look like the images I’ve seen of you, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I can’t imagine why you’ve joined this mission. Have you joined it? You have an admiral’s star!”

When Mnro bowed her head again and didn’t reply to him, Khalanov suffered another disappointment and turned to Demba.

“Aylis was assaulted,” Demba said gravely. “I hated to ask her, but she needed to be here.”

Assaulted!” He felt his hackles rise as an old familiar anger started to boil. How many times had he learned of a female officer or NCO being abused? “I’m appalled! I’m outraged! The damned Navy! What happened?”

“Not now,” Demba said softly.

“My God! How can this happen to Doctor Mnro, of all people?”

“Please, don’t talk about it to anyone,” Demba requested, and her tone of voice made him understand it was an order.

Khalanov shook his head, very pained by the information. This was Doctor Mnro who was assaulted! The ghastly news swirled in his mind as he tried to move on to another topic. He was unaware the others were waiting for him and watching him. He only knew he was naturally impatient to fill the silence. “Why are we here?” he asked.

“Do you want to go on this mission, Iggy?” Demba asked.

Khalanov’s heart fluttered. It was good that she called him “Iggy.” It was bad that she raised the question of his retention. Aylis Mnro! He couldn’t concentrate on any one thing. Direk was her son!

“I labored decades building this ship,” he began cautiously, forcing himself to organize his thoughts, “never expecting to sail it. Then you asked me to stay aboard for a limited time. Now you’re ready to put me ashore, or keep me permanently? I don’t understand!”

“I’ve remembered you,” Demba said mysteriously. Khalanov opened his mouth to ask The Question. She raised her hand to cut him off. “Before I explain what that means, answer my question. Do you want to go on this mission?”

“I’ve been planning for all these years how to stow away on the ship, if I had to, to keep from being left behind! This ship is my life! What is left for me without it? Yes! I want to go!”

“I wouldn’t have expected that,” Mnro said, breaking her silence, looking up from her hands, looking at Khalanov again.

Khalanov was almost lost in the great woman’s caring gaze but managed to keep the thread of the dialog. “And I don’t understand that,” he said to Mnro. “How can you know what to expect of me? I beg your forgiveness if I speak from ignorance, but who am I to you?”

“That was a long time ago,” Mnro said. “I’m in error. You’re not who you were, I’m sure.”

“We need a decision now,” Demba said, cutting off the next question Khalanov could pose, “before we say anything more.”

“Does Iggy have a vote?” Mnro asked.

“She called me Iggy!” Khalanov gasped. His heart was thudding and he was shocked again. Why would she choose to call him by his nickname? Even Demba rarely used it.

“You’re in line for another star, Iggy,” Demba commented, perhaps deliberately also using his nickname. “If you stay, you’ll have more ships to build.”

Khalanov waved a hand in dismissal. “You and I lost everything in the war. We died, we lost continuity. I was young again but not a youth. I came to depend on you to keep me going! I still depend on you, you and the ship! I think I must have expressed my desire to go with you on several occasions!”

“I’m sorry,” Demba said. “I didn’t take you seriously.”

“Why didn’t you?” He felt resentful. Had she simply pretended all these years to be his friend? Why?

“You don’t want another star, Iggy?” Demba asked. “You don’t want to build more ships for the Navy?”

“Building ships is so damned tedious! Every day it’s a battle over logistics and design changes and assembly schedules! My desire was always to sail a ship and keep it running and see what’s out there! I’m not just an engineer, you know! Please, take me seriously now!”

Demba smiled faintly. Khalanov saw the smile and was arrested by it. Something was wrong. Demba never smiled. He began to feel cast adrift, even as he understood this meeting was about him and nothing else.

“We can take him with us,” she was saying to Mnro and Direk. “We can leave him behind. Which?”

“We can’t leave him,” Mnro said quietly but adamantly. “He’s our friend. We love him.”

Adrift for only moments, now Khalanov was thrown into a gale and all but lost to some distant shore of coherent thought. We love him. The shocking phrase reverberated in the storm of his emotions. If this was Aylis Mnro, how could she utter such words?

“We can’t take him with us,” Direk was saying. “He poses a security threat. I can link him directly to Etrhnk’s spy network.”

What was that? He was a spy? It made no sense. He was not!

“Can we successfully store him in stasis where Etrhnk can’t retrieve him?” Demba asked, holding up a hand intended to stop Khalanov from speaking.

“No,” Direk replied.

“If we keep him, what is the cost?”

“If you trust him, there is no cost,” Direk replied. “If they knew what he means to us, it would be worse to leave him behind.”

What did he mean to them? Khalanov was ready to grab Demba and shake it out of her!

“We can’t leave him behind,” Mnro said. “It’s bad enough that we’re leaving Pan.”

“How does Doctor Mnro know me?” Khalanov demanded, unable to contain his agitation, disobeying Demba’s raised hand. They ignored him!

“I trust him,” Demba said. “We keep him, despite the risk. Unless you have proof Iggy was malicious in providing information to Etrhnk.”

“I never expected to leave Uncle Iggy behind,” Direk said. “And I don’t think he knew he was spying for Etrhnk.”

Uncle Iggy?” Khalanov declared, turning to display his shocked expression at Direk.

Mnro reached across the short space between them and touched Khalanov’s hand. Shocked, he almost jerked the hand away from her but stopped. She squeezed his hand. It gave him goose flesh. “Iggy, this was a small performance on our part to try to verify how we knew you would react. There was never any doubt that you belonged with us. But people change. Times change. We continue in these bodies but we also die by slow and subtle degrees.”

“You were lying to me?” he asked. “You don’t really know me?”

“We haven’t lied, Iggy. We once knew you. Now, we hardly even know who we are, and less who you are. We hope there remains the wonderful young man who was my crewmate on the Frontier.”

“The Frontier?” He was too upset to understand why the name seemed familiar.

“Iggy, you and I and Zakiya served together in Deep Space Fleet on a legendary ship.”

Mnro watched him strangle on this piece of fantasy and her expressive face bore such a look of honesty and concern that he subdued his need to challenge the absurdity.

“Zakiya?” he asked instead. “Who is Zakiya?”

“I’m Zakiya,” Demba replied. “Zakiya Muenda. I was Third Officer on the Frontier. You were its engineer. Aylis and I remember. You don’t.”

Now he remembered where he knew of the Frontier! It was a fictional vessel! Khalanov wasn’t sure anymore that Deep Space Fleet had been a real organization. It would have existed hundreds of years ago, if it existed at all! Yet, he trusted Demba. She had saved his skin on too many occasions. But, because she said it, did that make the impossible possible? He tried to pull his hand away from Mnro’s hand. Mnro resisted releasing him.

“I’m a doctor,” Mnro explained. “You’re under stress. You’ve skipped too many age-maintenance treatments building this ship, Iggy. I want to monitor your vital signs.”

He frowned to the limit of his facial muscles, felt his face burning again, and as the idea – This was Aylis Mnro! – crossed his mind again, his goose bumps erupted almost painfully again. He vaguely wondered if he should have his bio-control augments checked.

“I have the Deep Space Fleet records,” Demba said.

Khalanov struggled to let his breathing help his mind and body calm down. But how could these people make such wild claims? He was embarrassed for them! Khalanov was desperate to win any point in this assault on his sanity.

“You’re a master archivist, Admiral,” Khalanov said as calmly as he could. “You must know better than anybody how hopeless is the guaranty of truth. How can you know your records are real ones?”

“I have all of the records,” Demba answered. “Algorithms could have built them but better algorithms can test such a complete set of data for coherence. You’re in them, Iggy. You fit in them. You’re woven into them, as Aylis and I are, in such a detailed and intricate way that it must reflect true history.”

“How would you have records that were destroyed long ago? You’re saying that I – and you and Doctor Mnro – and Direk – are very old. Old! Too old! Fossils! That was before the Age of Immortality!”

“It’s a complicated piece of history,” Mnro said, drawing his challenging stare away from Demba. “Trust me. You’re almost as old as I am. You have memories of that ancient time stored in nearly undetectable semi-biological memory devices.”

“Why don’t I remember?”

“Your memories are locked away from you. As were ours. We couldn’t risk having those memories where others might discover them. We couldn’t risk having ourselves discover them.”

More that I don’t understand!” He was helpless to ask anything specific. He was a little calmer but still feeling assaulted and desperately confused. Fortunately, Mnro’s hold on his hand was becoming less shocking and more comforting.

“We lost many friends and family members,” Mnro said. “It would have been too painful and too demoralizing to live with such memories for the long time that we needed to wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“For this ship to be built.”

“I still don’t…”

“You lost Ana,” Demba said.

She watched him with too much concern. He tried to concentrate and see the implications of this name, but he couldn’t. All he could do was look away from Demba, look away from all of them, and stare at Aylis Mnro’s hand holding his.

“We especially had to remove Ana’s memory from you,” Demba said.

“Ana,” Khalanov said, tasting the word. “Who is Ana?”

Mnro took in a deep, uneven breath, making Khalanov stare at her in apprehension. She wiped tears from her eyes. Khalanov lost his defiance of this barrage of shocking information as he watched Aylis Mnro react. His thought processes were a wreck but he was forced to feel empathy for Mnro. Why was she grief-stricken? Strong emotions should rarely occur to persons of such age. If they did occur, there was less need to show them.

Demba said nothing. Direk said nothing. They waited for Mnro to speak. “Ana was someone,” she finally uttered, “who deserved to be remembered forever and to be loved forever, by all who knew her, and especially by her husband.” She looked into Khalanov’s eyes through a wash of tears in her own eyes. “I just remembered her. And it hurts!”

“I had a wife named Ana,” Khalanov said, inferring Mnro’s meaning. “Who was very special?”

“Everyone thought so,” Mnro confirmed.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“Ana was murdered,” Demba answered, when Mnro couldn’t.

Murdered?” Khalanov repeated. “Because she was special?”

“Because she was your wife,” Demba answered.

Why?”

“When Deep Space was disbanded,” Demba said, “some of us joined the Union Navy and discovered that a number of ruthless people were in positions of authority in the Navy. We came into conflict with them. They apparently saw former Deep Space officers as a threat. We believed they thought we would discover their connection to an enemy outside Union space, in areas perhaps familiar to some Deep Space explorers. They murdered and kidnapped and drove us underground. You were younger than most of us and had other plans and ambitions. You tried to distance yourself from us, to find a safe middle ground for you and your wife. You didn’t understand how bad these people were. You made an error in judgment. Ana paid for it with her life. You blamed yourself and you blamed us, and you went off to die.”

“And we found you and didn’t let you die,” Mnro added.

Khalanov wondered how he could feel compelled to believe this tale of a forgotten life. He looked at Direk and realized he trusted Direk, perhaps even more than Demba, even as Direk’s relentlessly logical personality drove him crazy and assaulted Khalanov’s feelings of self-worth. If Direk believed everything these women were telling him…

“If all you tell me is true,” Khalanov said, breathing hard, “I’ve lost so much! I’m not prepared for this! Can you tell me more about Ana?”

“We think you can remember her,” Demba said. “What we would remember might need some study and comparison with each other. You will see the problem when you start to remember. We think you still have most of your important memories.”

“How do I find my memories?”

“We’re not sure,” Mnro said. “Your memories were stored in auxiliary memory and erased from your mind.”

“Direk and Aylis invented the auxiliary memory devices,” Demba said, “which, in addition to providing secrecy of our important memories, also allowed us to retain much of the skills of the body and the details of expertise that most people lose through rejuvenation. But the auxiliary memories don’t play before our conscious mind the way normal memories do. We can’t summon them forth at random and at will. When they do come they are unexpected and powerful.”

“I do have these memory devices?” Khalanov asked for reassurance.

“We know you have them,” Mnro said. “We don’t know how functional they are or how they can be accessed. We don’t remember how we might have keyed them. Usually another person’s DNA – or even their proximity – provides the key to unlocking our memories. You wouldn’t be likely to meet this key until it was safe to remember. In your case, we don’t remember who could be your key.”

“Can you perform some test?” he asked.

“Don’t worry,” Mnro said, patting Khalanov’s hand and finally releasing it. “Time will erode the lock on your memories. It can’t be much longer.”

“Damn! Damn! I feel like I’ll explode!”

“Let me show you one final thing,” Demba said, “that will provide some proof of what we say. Hopefully, you will not explode!” She removed a small silvery pouch from a pocket of her uniform. She opened the pouch and removed an object from it, cupping it in her palm so that Khalanov couldn’t see it.

“Hold out your hand, Iggy.”

She placed a solid but weightless object in the upturned palm of his hand and she closed his fingers around it.

“Once upon a time, you found this, Iggy. Look at it.”

Khalanov opened his fingers and was startled at his first glimpse of the alien glow and deep colors. He nervously manipulated the egg-shaped object until he could see it clearly, mounted between his thumb and first finger. His hand started shaking. It took him several more moments of inner turbulence before he could shout: “You stole the cryptikon?”

“This is another one,” Demba said. “You found it, plus three more! This is one of the two we have aboard the ship, Iggy.”

What Admiral Ever Wept?

“Sit down, Jones.”

Jamie sat down, fatigue cap in hand, in the admiral’s office. It was a bare office with only a few chairs and a display screen that showed a view of the ship’s biosphere. It should have been a comfortable office but Jamie was never comfortable in the presence of admirals, and especially this admiral. She was more than uncomfortable. She could barely contain her anger at the handling of the Mnro Incident. She could barely contain her questions about everything that swirled about Admiral Demba as mystery. She waited with nervous anticipation to hear what Demba would say.

“I’ve studied your record thoroughly,” Demba began.

And I yours, Jamie thought. “I know it’s bad,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have done anything differently, Admiral.”

“I don’t judge it as you might think, Jones.”

“How do you judge it?”

“Never mind. I’ve also studied the records of the other Marines. I think I would trust all of you to perform your duties faithfully. Would you agree?”

“Is this a serious question, Admiral? I’ve already been prevented from performing my duty concerning Aylis Mnro. Other than pomp and ceremony, what use would we Marines be to this mission?”

“It is a serious question,” Demba said, letting her eyes and expression amplify her words.

“I agree with your analysis,” Jamie answered, instantly hopeful she was wrong about her judgment of the mission – and of its commander. She hoped she wasn’t being too generous to her squad of Marines in agreeing with the admiral on their sense of duty. She only had a hunch that they could be good Marines. “If we’re given moral duties and lawful orders we’ll obey them, sir. Every one of us who was court-martialed was only disobeying what we believed were wrongful orders. I’m not saying we were all correct in what we did.”

“I’ll accept your statement, assuming you’ve analyzed the records more thoroughly than I have. Here is my first order. Remove anyone from this ship who doesn’t seem right.”

Remove crew? How will I know who doesn’t seem right?”

“You should already have a notion, because of what happened to Aylis Mnro, that this is an extraordinary situation. We have enemies in the Navy. There could be spies or worse among us or among those waiting to come aboard. I have a list of Navy personnel who should not set foot on this ship. I don’t care what rank they have. Use force if necessary. Screen everyone else. If there is anything at all you don’t like about them, escort them off and keep them off. I will issue the necessary paperwork. Do the best you can. I realize time is short and the Marines are few, but our lives may depend on it.”

“Spies? Why spies?”

“I’m not completely sure there will be spies or sabotage. I am sure that if there is, it will be dangerous. Keep in mind that I have certain goals for this mission and none of them are the Navy’s goals, either goals we know or those we don’t know. Try not to kill anyone.”

“A little temporary death is about the only thing that will impress some people nowadays, Admiral. I know I’ve got too many kills on my record, but they were all viable. Why would anyone want to tamper with this mission? Does it have anything to do with the fantastic story you promised to tell me? What are your goals?”

“Not now,” Demba said, and stood up. “You’re dismissed.”

Admiral Demba isn’t going to explain further! Jamie almost sighed with disappointment. It seemed to her they had only just sat down. The meeting was at an end and she had learned nothing but bad news. She didn’t want the meeting to end. She didn’t want to continue in ignorance. She wanted to hear the “fantastic story” Demba had promised to tell her. She stood.

“About Aylis Mnro,” Jamie said, hoping to keep the dialog going. “I have at least one Marine keeping watch over her at all times.”

“I know. She’s complained to Jon.”

“I thought I was going too far with the bodyguard. I’ll back off. But all of us Marines could use a refresher course in emergency medical aid, and that would keep us near her for a while.”

“Don’t back off. And medical training would be a good idea, but I doubt you’ll get it soon.”

“This mission is a lot more dangerous than most of us think, isn’t it? And you still want to bring the child with us?”

“Everything is more dangerous than you think. Sammy was only days or hours away from dying when I found him. He was in danger almost continuously, until we boarded this ship. He’s been through a lot, especially for a child his age – or for a person of any age. I feel he’s a little safer here.”

“You found him? He has no real family?”

“None. The Mnro Clinic has no record of him or of anyone who is related to him.”

Jamie didn’t know how complete the Mnro Clinic records were, but the way Demba spoke made her feel that Sammy’s lack of identity was more unusual than she would have expected. “Where did you find him?”

“Earth.”

Jamie waited for Demba to say more, explain more, but she seemed reluctant. This small amount of information only made the mystery greater, the ignorance harder to bear.

“If something happens to me, please take care of Sammy,” Demba added, just to make Jamie’s dismissal even more unbearable.

One of these days, Jamie thought, I will corner Demba and – admiral or not – I will get my questions answered!

= = =

“Get your butts on the deck!” Jamie shouted. “Shut up and listen!”

Sixteen Marines dropped to the deck, no few of them with stupid grins on their faces as they stared up at Jamie. She gave them a “look” until the grins faded. There were no young men in this squad. They were all rejuves out to enjoy their bonus lifetime, many of them with psychological issues the Mnro Clinic had not chosen to modify, and all of them with more testosterone than they had good use for. A few of them were much like herself: too old to care much about living a lot longer.

“We have a job,” Jamie said. “Tomorrow about nine thousand civilians will line up to come aboard. They’re already not happy about being invited on this mission and now we’re going to make them wait in line to be interviewed. It’s a very irritating interview, aimed at finding people with hidden agendas. All of you will get a refresher course on profiling and a lucky few of you will each get to meet and greet and irritate at least a thousand of these happy vacationers. Those who don’t get to meet-and-greet will control the port hatches and entertain the impatient. Everyone will draw weapons and register them at squad level. Urban combat rules.

“During this process,” Jamie continued, “you will make damned sure no one comes aboard who isn’t on the crew list. Visitors will be discouraged from coming aboard. Visitors stay off the ship until you get authorization, through me, from Admiral Demba. Visitors will be escorted the entire time they are on the ship.

“Any questions before I continue?”

Sergeant Aguila raised a hand. “Why so many civilians, sir?”

“Damned if I know! You’d think we were going to establish a colony somewhere. Even if it was the exploratory mission they say it is, it seems like overkill to me. But I’m no expert.”

“Why the extra security?” Aguila asked. “Why the weapons?”

“Admiral Demba has hinted to me that there is more to this mission than we know about. She suspects there will be people placed aboard for purposes that would endanger the crew. There is also the possibility of sabotage by transmat, so we have to monitor for transmat probes into the ship.

“The single fact that Doctor Mnro has joined this mission,” Jamie continued, “changes everything. And we don’t even know enough to know what has changed.”

“Are you telling me that blonde babe is the real Aylis Mnro?” one of the men asked.

“I can’t believe it either!” Jamie declared. “But that’s what Demba and Captain Horss believe. Whoever the ‘blonde babe’ is, she was assaulted and that’s another reason you are guarding her. I’m not supposed to tell you this. If any of you repeat this before we leave port, you will be very sorry, both before you die and if you are revived.

“Listen,” Jamie continued. She let her gaze fall upon each and every man in her squad. “I know what you probably think of me. I have a reputation in the Marine Corps. I question authority. I get busted in rank. I even get brig time. Probably what you don’t hear about me is how I treat those I lead. I won’t tell you I’m a perfect officer. You decide for yourselves. I will offer you this advice: don’t question my authority unless you are damned sure I don’t know what I’m doing. Then and only then do I need to hear from you.”

= = =

A day later, the Third Watch woke Jamie shortly after her head hit the pillow. It was midnight and shift change. Two Marines met her at Security Ops.

“We got a trace on a transmat feed,” Aguila said. “There’s somebody down there.” He pointed to a sensitive engineering area on their ship map. “The surveillance gear doesn’t see anything but there’s a whisper I think is someone breathing, modified by the use of an i-field. Here, listen to this.”

Jamie listened and knew Aguila was correct. “I want three more bodies. Get them up and armed.”

Ten minutes later they were converging on the location of an invisible intruder. They were also invisible.

“Tell me this isn’t a drill, sir,” Goodman said quietly by shiplink.

“Not a drill,” Jamie whispered. “Do you have the corridor blocked?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Stop breathing. He should be approaching you.”

Jamie and Aguila turned off their i-fields. Aguila sprayed the middle section of the corridor with snowflakes and an outline of a human figure briefly emerged before the i-field adapted. A few seconds later the invisible man ran into three invisible Marines at the other end of the corridor. Loud scuffling was followed by a rapid return to visibility by the three Marines. Goodman was sitting on the still-invisible intruder while the other two searched for a control switch for his i-field.

“Hey, an admiral!” Goodman exclaimed as the intruder became visible.

“He’s on the list,” Jamie said, checking his identification transponder. “Get off him, Goodman.”

“You letting him go?” Aguila asked.

“Just want an easier shot,” Jamie said.

The admiral got to his feet and straightened his uniform. He looked at the weapons pointed at him. He seemed calm. He looked at Jamie. He smiled. He had a small scar on his left cheek.

“Well?” the admiral challenged, holding his arms out, expressing what Jamie imagined was contempt.

“Bang,” Jamie said. “You’re dead. Now get off the ship.”

“I don’t think so,” the admiral said.

Here was the prototypical Navy admiral, Jamie thought, all muscle and bad attitude. He wasn’t offering a reason for his skulking presence on her ship. She wasn’t interested in any lies he might tell her. All she knew was that his name was on Demba’s list and that was a bad thing.

“We can drag you off,” she said.

“You’ll need to kill me first, Lieutenant.”

“Don’t tempt me. Use your link to transmat out of here.”

“No.”

“Did your scan find anything on him, Aguila?” Jamie asked.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Let’s make sure.” She turned to the admiral. “Take off your uniform.”

“No.”

Jamie regarded the admiral for a moment. He wasn’t very talkative but his speech was just odd enough to make her think Standard was not his primary language. Why was he on Demba’s list of bad guys? Why did she have such a list?

“If you guys would rather skip being court-martialed this time,” Jamie said to her men, “you can leave.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Aguila said, “but no, sir.”

“Hell, no!” Goodman joined in, and the other two nodded agreement.

“Want me to take him down?” Aguila asked.

“You can’t even take me down,” Jamie said.

“I’m better than I showed you,” Aguila said.

“You were holding back?” Jamie declared with anger, turning toward Aguila.

At that moment the admiral jumped toward her, fist driving for her kidney. The attack made no sense to her but she was more than prepared for it, expecting anything. She continued her pivot toward and past Aguila, slipping the punch, driving her elbow into the neck of the admiral, and hopping aside to keep her balance. The admiral struggled on the deck to roll away and try to gain his feet, but the single blow seemed to have greatly weakened him. He finally got his feet under him. He raised his fists, took a deep breath.

“You don’t look well,” Jamie remarked. “Get off the ship before I hit you again.”

“You’ll have to kill me,” the admiral said again.

“It’s past my bedtime,” Jamie said, and shot the admiral. “Catch him,” she ordered as his muscles locked up temporarily and he began to fall forward. Two of the Marines struggled to lower the body gently to the floor. “How much do you think he weighs?”

“Almost a hundred,” Aguila said. “He’s starting to twitch. Another two tenths should put him under without damaging his augments. What are you going to do with him?”

“I don’t know,” Jamie replied. “I’d like to get a medical evaluation. I didn’t hit him that hard. There’s something wrong with him. Get his uniform off. I at least want to verify the scan. We’ll dump him in some public place with a bottle of booze. Then we’ll spend the rest of the night trying to find out what he did to the ship.”

= = =

It was a day later.

Jamie felt the presence near her in the garden next to her cottage. The presence didn’t resolve itself at once but remained at the edge of her senses. She was tired and this irritated her and she chose a combative response. She slowed to allow the stalker to come nearer, until she caught a glimpse of him in the corner of her eye. She judged the distance and selected the maneuver that would bring the person to a satisfying impact on the ground.

They both moved.

Jamie never touched him. She pivoted away to block a counterattack which never came. She blinked, and her tired eyes finally found enough moonlight to discern the Navy captain’s uniform. She read the signal in her shiplink that identified him as regular Navy crew of the Freedom. She stood to attention and saluted.

The captain returned the salute.

“I was waiting to meet you,” he said tonelessly. “I apologize for my hesitation. I assumed you would react somewhat differently.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she responded with slight irritation. “I’ve processed about a thousand people aboard the Freedom today. I’m too tired to function predictably. Captain Direk, what do you want?”

“I have your promotion orders from O2 to O4.”

“Promotion? Two grades?”

“You were a major before. I trust it will be within your abilities.”

“I was a major three times, light colonel twice. But you know that.”

Jamie moved closer to the Navy captain and stared at him. She did this to men especially as a challenge or even intimidation, and was always ready to back it up physically, if necessary. It helped keep the hormone traffic manageable. For some reason, she attracted a variety of males. The captain gazed back, not revealing anything by his facial expression or body language. He moved a step back from her, as though only needing more personal space. Captain Direk was a large man and the moonlight accentuated his pale face, almost white hair, and large hands that almost glowed in contrast to his dark uniform. She had to adjust her night vision as his ghostly image gave her unease. In this case, she was the one to feel intimidated.

“I wonder why you chose to bring this news in person, sir,” she said, allowing more irritation to modulate her words. She could hardly care less about the promotion.

“I wanted to meet you,” he said. “I apologize for disturbing you.”

She never welcomed the attentions of a man. She never trusted them. She was a Marine, a woman in a military service dominated by the male gender. She had heard everything a man could say to a woman, and seen everything a man could do to a woman. Yet, his motive was not clear to her. Why would he have any interest in her? It finally emerged from her fatigue-muddled thoughts that here was another stranger who seemed to know of her. Too bad she was in no mood to be patient.

“You’ve met me, sir. Thank you, for the promotion, I think.” She turned away and continued toward her cottage.

“May I talk to you, briefly?” he called after her.

She paused, not turning back to him. “You wouldn’t be the dissenting member of a promotion review board, would you?” She resumed her march.

He followed her down the path between the flower beds. Her home on the Freedom smelled like marigolds. She entered her small cottage apartment and turned on the lights. The captain stopped at the doorway.

“I haven’t had time to decorate and furnish the place,” she said, tiredly accepting the task of acting hospitable to a superior officer. “I’ve never served on a ship like this. Even we Marines can live in privacy. My men all prefer the barracks. Damned if I’ll join them. All I have is a bed, if you want to sit on that.”

“I’ll stand,” he said. He took a few steps into the cottage. The door remained open behind him. He immediately asked: “Do you know what happened to my mother?”

Jamie whipped around to get her first good look at the man and was shocked to know who his mother might be. She could see him much better in the light of her cottage. His eyes were almost colorless, like an Essiin. He was blond. Aylis Mnro was blonde. She had to ask it anyway. “Your mother?”

“Doctor Mnro was assaulted. She wouldn’t speak about it to me. I didn’t want to increase her distress, but I want to know what happened.”

Here it came again – The Big Mystery! Her physical and mental fatigue vanished and questions queued up in her chain of thoughts.

“You’re her son? Even so, I’m not sure I should tell you, sir. I was ordered not to talk about it. Why did you come to me for this information?”

“You would be responsible for investigating an assault.”

“I would also not be allowed to tell just anyone what I discovered.”

“There are others I can query,” he said patiently, “including Admiral Demba.” He hesitated then and seemed to force himself to say: “I also wished to meet you.”

“The infamous Jamie Jones,” Jamie said, tired of her reputation at the moment. Then she turned on her command voice and said: “Why did you wish to meet me, sir?”

“I’m afraid to tell you,” he replied with a tone of sincerity that could have been humorous but clearly wasn’t.

Captain Direk was immediately important to Jamie for reasons she could not possibly understand. Her heart rate increased. She couldn’t lock gazes with him. She felt her face grow hot. It was an interesting reaction, and quite irritating. “This is a bad time to play games with me, Captain! I’ve never been so tired in my life. I have a crazy admiral and her mystery child to plague my thoughts. And I have Doctor Mnro to worry about. She’s your mother.”

“She is.”

“But that isn’t… I mean, everyone knows the story of her life. She’s supposed to be childless, never married. What proof do you have?”

“She was married to my father. You can ask her.” The Essiin captain stared at her the way Admiral Demba stared at her: too much hidden interest. “Do you, in fact, know what happened to her? Have you filed a report?”

“I started a report.” Jamie sat down on the bed, took off her fatigue cap. She immediately stood up, feeling self-conscious in the steady gaze of this handsome man. Handsome? She never made such judgments, of either sex. She didn’t trust her impulses but her impulse was to trust Captain Direk, based on his relationship to Aylis Mnro. Then she was appalled she had not cross-checked his identity, unconsciously assuming he was someone who ‘seemed right.’ She quickly retrieved his record and crew status from her shiplink. He was a Navy scientist, the Chief Science Officer! But he stared at her too intently and his announced need to see her in person was strange and opaque to her reasoning. Her imagination made her worry. She became more uneasy in his presence.

“You started a report,” he prompted.

“They wouldn’t explain to me why they didn’t want me to investigate and bring charges. Doctor Mnro wouldn’t tell me who attacked her. I got upset. I said things I shouldn’t have.” She stopped. She was too tired. She shouldn’t have run those ten kilometers after being up half the night. She wasn’t being professional. She didn’t think she should discuss the matter with him without proof of his kinship. Her uneasiness continued. Even though he stood well apart from her, his pale eyes seemed to invade her privacy and cross the threshold of intimacy.

“Her injuries were serious,” Captain Direk said. “I saw her not long ago and she claimed to be recovered, but I could tell she was emotionally damaged. This suggests a certain form of assault.”

He knew his mother was raped! It bothered her that he could sound so dispassionate. She could still taste the rage she felt at the crime. Her anger surged.

“I offered to kill him, if prosecution wasn’t possible!” She shouldn’t have said that again! It was wrong the first time. She would never learn.

“I can also theorize,” the captain said, “that her attacker was someone of significant power. I can think of only one person who could have arranged the opportunity for such a crime against someone of my mother’s status. The motive, however, completely escapes me.”

Jamie sat down on the bed again, despite herself. She followed the captain’s logic to realize where it pointed. It made her feel sick to believe the Navy Commander could be the perpetrator. She always knew the Navy had its criminal element, but to see it risen to the top of the Navy made her lose all respect for the most important institution in her life. Further, to see this clear-minded scientist embrace his logical deduction without apparent doubt amplified her loss of respect for her military service.

That’s why we can’t prosecute!” she said angrily. “If I wasn’t shipping out on this big boat, I would kill him!”

“He’s too well protected. Don’t be angry.”

“It’s easy for you to say that!”

“I understand your anger.”

“The hell you do!” She had to resort to Twenglish to satisfy her need for emotional precision in her verbiage.

“But I do understand. You were raped. Four men.”

“Three! How do you know? I never reported it!”

“Four. One only wanted to watch. Don’t be angry. They’re dead.”

“How do you know?” she almost shouted at him, shaken by his calm assertions. Evil memories mushroomed, shaking her down to her core, provoking her, reminding her that she was a ruined woman, never to be worth the love of a good man. Was Captain Direk a good man? Why should he judge her? Why should he even be here? She stood up and moved toward him, stamping on memory mushrooms. “Why do you know?”

He backed away from her, keeping his measured distance, and said: “I killed them.” The way he said it in his dead flat voice convinced her, sent a shiver up her spine. She stopped approaching him.

You killed them?”

“There was no ethical solution to the problem. They posed a future threat to your well-being. They were a threat to other women. You were fortunate they did not kill you.”

“Are you confessing to murder?” Jamie was too astonished and confused to find her way back to the question of why this Essiin captain knew she was raped.

“I don’t think you want to arrest me. They were enemy.”

“Enemy? What do you mean?”

“I believe you intercepted one of the enemy aboard this ship last night.”

“Him? The admiral? How can you connect him to the three – four – who raped me years ago? What do you mean they are enemy?”

“They aren’t Union citizens.”

“But they were Navy, weren’t they?”

“Yes. But they were not in the Mnro Genetic Registry. Legally there is no requirement for a Union citizen to be registered by the Mnro Clinic, but if the Clinic can’t infer a relationship to any other citizen of the Union, that person is not a citizen. He is an interloper and an enemy.”

“From beyond the frontier?” Jamie queried.

“Yes.”

“Where we are going.”

“Yes.”

“But they are human beings, aren’t they? Not real aliens?”

“Yes. There are an unknown number of human settlements beyond the Union frontier. And they have been there for a very long time.”

“Like the Rhyans or the Essiin? A prehistoric diaspora?”

“Perhaps.”

“And this mission isn’t aimed at answering such questions?”

“You haven’t read the Mission Statement.”

“It seemed pointless, especially for us Marines.”

“I agree, but not because you are Marines.”

Despite Jamie’s certainty that the Freedom had little chance of returning to the Union, Captain Direk’s agreement still shook her. Everything about Captain Direk seemed to shake her.

“And how crazy is Demba for bringing a child on this mission?” she declared. “Wait a second! She told me the Mnro Clinic can’t find anyone related to Sammy! Is Sammy an interloper?”

“You have raised a question I had not thought to pose,” the captain said.

They both lapsed into momentary silence. Jamie paced away from the captain, turned, and paced back. She saw him staring at her and became irritated. She expected to have everyone stare at her and usually ignored the attention, only feeling sensitive to being ignored. This man was in her quarters and staring at her – and making her forget important questions that were not being asked or answered. There were so many questions, and Captain Direk probably knew many of the answers! If he was Aylis Mnro’s son, and if Aylis Mnro and Admiral Demba were apparently close friends, and if Captain Direk was somehow aware of Jamie being raped…

“How did you know I was raped? Answer me!”

The big man almost jumped at Jamie’s outburst, and he actually took a step back from her. The smallest frown pinched the space between his pale eyes. He seemed to weigh whether and what he would say, and so she knew it was important to him and important to her.

“No,” he said aloud to himself. “No,” he said to her. “That is a very unpleasant piece of history. I won’t answer you. I hoped the news would calm your feelings but, as usual, I am inept in dealing with emotions.”

Captain Direk turned toward the open doorway.

Wait!” I sound like a little girl! she thought. Lower your voice! “What the hell is going on, Captain? Why can’t you tell me?”

He remained silent although he appeared to prepare to speak. “Do you know who Admiral Demba is?” he finally asked.

“Obviously she’s somebody who is a lot more important than I thought! She knows Aylis Mnro like they’ve been friends for a long time! No, I don’t know who she is! I never heard of her until she came looking for Sammy in the gym. She was just a total surprise to me. And now I can’t stop thinking about her. Who is she?”

He was quiet again and still staring at her. The silent seconds ticked away. She was well beyond the time limit where she usually lost her patience – but she couldn’t dare explode. She knew he had answers she needed.

“They told you nothing,” he finally said. “You know nothing. I shouldn’t be here.” He continued toward the doorway.

“Wait!” She did it again! Why was she reacting like this?

He reached the doorway when he paused again. He put one hand on the door frame in a way that could have expressed emotion. He seemed less Essiin, more Earthian.

“What did you expect them to tell me?” Jamie asked. She felt she was being conspired against. If she couldn’t even be trusted with their damned secrets, why promote her to major?

“I’ve made a mistake,” he said.

The captain stepped through the doorway. She rushed to him, grabbed the sleeve of his work uniform, and yanked it to make him turn to face her. He pulled loose and backed up several steps. He seemed disturbed that she had touched him.

Jamie was half angry and half frightened, because she was fully mystified. She stepped toward him, through the doorway. He stepped backward on the path through the garden. She continued to try to approach the Navy captain as he walked backward from her. When she stopped, he stopped. They stood at that same measured distance apart. The false moonlight streamed through the trees and cast pale shadows on the walk between them. Although she didn’t consciously appreciate the pleasant evening, it had some effect on her perception of Captain Direk. He became even more important to her, on personal levels she didn’t know still existed and couldn’t define. She had discovered some place inside her that was empty because it now ached.

“Why do you know me and I don’t know you?” she almost pleaded.

“I’m sorry for what we never had,” he said. “And for what we may never have. For what I remember. For what you don’t remember.”

He faded in the moonlight until she couldn’t see him. Belatedly, she rushed toward where he had stood. He was gone, impossibly vanished, as though he never existed. She could feel a bubble of air that was cooler and drier than the evening air and smelled differently, but that also vanished in the first breeze from the ship’s climate control.

= = =

Admiral Demba marched through the crowded aisles of the vast shuttle docking bay where hundreds of civilians waited in queues to be processed aboard the Freedom. She didn’t return salutes or pause to speak to anyone. She moved with haste and with anger on her face. Jamie saw her coming and stood to attention, fearing the worst.

“At ease,” Demba ordered. “What is the count of crew?”

“Nine hundred fourteen, Admiral. We have all of them.”

“And the civilians?”

“Eight thousand, three hundred two.”

“How many waiting?”

“I estimate a thousand.”

“Reasonably close to our total. Close all port hatches. Nobody gets on or off from this moment onward. Pass those orders on and come with me!”

“Admiral, I don’t have qualified backup for my post. What do I do with all these people?”

“I don’t care what you do with them!”

“We depart ahead of schedule?”

“It may be imminent!”

Jamie turned to Aguila and issued orders. Demba marched away. She followed her, still issuing orders by shiplink.

“This isn’t about the intruders or the late-addition crew we’ve refused?” Jamie fell into step beside the admiral.

“What intruders?”

“Sorry, Admiral, I’m a little behind in my reports. Three intruders. One was an admiral.”

“On my list?”

“Yes.” Jamie couldn’t guess what reason caused Demba to come in person and take her away from her duties, because it obviously wasn’t her security activities. Despite the tension Demba injected into the circumstance, Jamie found her mind turning again to Captain Direk. He had invaded her thoughts constantly since meeting him. She tried to stifle this behavior, knowing something important was about to happen.

Demba halted in a deserted service corridor and Jamie saw deep concern on the woman’s face as she turned to her. She seemed reluctant to speak and could only reach out and touch Jamie’s arm. The touch startled Jamie and made her anxious to know what it meant. It seemed too intimate and too vital.

“Admiral, what’s wrong?”

Demba stared at her, as she did before, perhaps thoughtfully, but withholding something. The admiral’s expression remained closed to her decryption. She had observed Demba being open with other officers, such as Captain Horss. What made Jamie different? It was rare that an admiral could be as natural as Demba could be, and she felt excluded from her favor. She wanted to be included.

As Demba looked at Jamie her face relaxed and softened, as if she read Jamie’s mind. “So much to say and too soon to say it. And now, too late. I have something I want you to keep for me.”

She brought forth a silver pouch and handed it to Jamie. Jamie started to open it but the admiral held her hand to prevent it. She held her hand for a long moment.

“Don’t look at it until you are in a private place. Don’t show it to anyone. Keep it on your person at all times. It will protect you from certain things. If I don’t return, it’s yours.”

“If you don’t return?” Jamie queried with alarm.

“I’ve received an invitation much like the one Doctor Mnro received. I can’t take the thing with me. It’s too valuable and also prevents a transmat lock.”

“Don’t go!” Jamie was almost panicked by this news and afraid she had triggered it by intercepting the intruding admiral.

“I must. He has Sammy. He abducted him by transmat.”

Jamie was overcharged with emotion once again. Feelings came easily and quickly in the presence of this dark woman. The admiral held Jamie’s hands with the silver pouch within. She stared hard at Jamie’s face. Then she released her. The admiral backed up, turned, walked away.

“Wait!”

Demba didn’t wait. She walked rapidly. Jamie followed.

“I see it in your eyes!” Jamie declared. “You know me! It must be why you tolerate me! But I don’t know you! And even Captain Direk seems to know me!”

“Direk?” Demba queried but did not stop.

“And maybe even Doctor Mnro seems to know me! I wish you could explain it to me!”

“It would complicate things for you,” Demba said.

“It can’t be much more complicated! I haven’t stopped thinking about you and Sammy since I met you!”

Demba halted then and turned to face Jamie. Her eyes shone with tears. Tears! What admiral ever wept? Sammy was vital to Demba. Was Jamie also important to Demba? Why?

“How could you believe me,” Demba said with tears also in her voice, “if I told you I was your mother?”

A transmat reference field seized her at that instant and processed her into nothingness.

Her entire body buzzing with shock from Demba’s words, Jamie reported immediately by shiplink to Captain Horss, willing herself to maintain discipline. She forced the words into faint coherence, ignoring Horss’s efforts to interrupt.

“We must do something, sir!” she demanded, ending her report.

“I’m aware of the situation,” Horss replied gravely. “Do as the admiral ordered.”

Damn it, sir!”

“The admiral can take care of herself, Major, I promise you.”

“But it’s my job to protect her! And she says she’s my mother!”

“Exactly why it’s our job to protect you. I’ve never met anyone who needs protecting less than Admiral Demba. Carry on.”

“Major Jones,” a different voice in her head spoke.

“This is Jones. Who are you?”

“My name is Freddy. I’m the admiral’s inorganic child, so to speak. I’m an AMI.”

“Hello, Freddy. What do you want?” She barely realized what this person had said, just lumped his input into the growing list of people for whom Demba was more than just an admiral.

“I’m standing next to the captain and I overheard his conversation with you. I have some experience in rescue missions and I’m willing to help you.”

“Thank you, Freddy, but you follow the captain’s orders.”

“I’ve rescued her before! I’ll do whatever is necessary! I can’t lose her! I need her! I’m her baby! Sammy is my brother!”

Jamie was astonished by the emotional outburst of the… AMI, did he say? She added him to the ranks of her mysteries-to-be-solved. Then she knew who else might help her. “Sorry, but I need to speak to another person now.”

Jamie called Captain Direk on her shiplink. The words exploded from her. “The admiral and Sammy have been removed from the ship!”

“I know,” Captain Direk replied calmly. “Did the admiral give you something?”

“Yes. How did-”

“Where are you?”

“Close to Docking Bay One.”

“Go to exactly 95 Ring Zero and wait there.”

As she reached 95 degrees on the deserted perimeter walkway Jamie heard a solid thump behind her, as though something heavy fell on the deck.

Damn!

She turned around to see Captain Direk and an admiral. The admiral had shouted the expletive as though he was shocked to suddenly appear. It did seem too sudden for a transmat but this oddity vanished under the avalanche of her concern for Demba and Sammy. She knew the admiral was Khalanov. Khalanov frowned, though not at Jamie. He recovered and seemed thoughtful.

“Why did we have to jump?” Khalanov asked.

Captain Direk ignored the question of his superior officer.

“Major Jones, this is Admiral Khalanov.”

She started to salute. They had no time for military custom.

“What’s this about?” Khalanov asked Jamie.

Jamie answered and watched the alarm rise in Khalanov’s face. He cared for Demba, genuinely cared for her! Another admiral of a different breed!

“This is bad!” Khalanov swore. “This is very bad! Why does he not want Demba in command of the mission?”

“The item Admiral Demba gave you?” Captain Direk asked Jamie.

She tightly clenched it in her hand, all of her emotion concentrated in her fingers. She opened her hand and showed the silver pouch to him. He didn’t react, but Khalanov did.

“She gave you that?”

“You know what it is, sir?”

“You do not know?”

“I know it weighs nothing at all.”

“Guard the admiral,” Captain Direk ordered her.

“Yes, sir. What will you do?”

“I’m about to lose a secret to the enemy. This may precipitate some action on their part. I’ll ask Captain Horss to ready the ship for immediate departure. Admiral Khalanov will have engineering duties to perform on the bridge. Stay with him until the drive envelope cuts off transmat probing.”

Captain Direk took several steps backward and faded into nothingness.

1980CE – The Proposal

Milly woke up too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. All she could think about was Sam and the experiment. It was already more than a week past when she expected him to return from out West, and he hadn’t called. She couldn’t imagine anything good had happened. It was her nature to expect the worst, and it was strangling her to keep picturing Sam as having failed. Perhaps he was already back on campus and avoiding telling her the bad news. But Sam was no coward and no liar. Milly was sure he would not delay telling her the outcome of the experiment, good or bad. But she could never set herself up for a big disappointment. Her mind stewed itself in gloomy imaginings as she pried herself out of bed and did battle with the wheelchair and the bathroom.

“Sam!”

She spotted his suitcase by the bookshelf and him sleeping on the sofa. He had a key to her apartment. He must have let himself in, coming here straight from the airport. Why didn’t he wake her? What was wrong?

He stirred. Milly rolled in as close as she could and nudged Sam until he was fully awake and aware of her. He seemed to begin to smile but stopped and regarded her thoughtfully. The room was still dark and Milly couldn’t be sure of what she saw in his Asian face.

“Good morning!” she greeted, almost in pain from stifling her curiosity.

/

“Good morning.” Sam almost sprained his mouth stopping a smile. He sat up and stretched and yawned. He placed a hand on each thigh and studied Miss Poker Face. He had hoped she would be all over him, wanting to know how the experiment went, but she remained true to her character. Milly would never get openly enthusiastic about anything, would never give anyone a hint of what cards she was holding in the Great Poker Game of Life. Sam contented himself with what he could imagine from the circumstantial evidence. She was still in The Game, still watching his eyes to see how firm his bet was. There had to be some connection between them, even if it was only intellectual. He had learned to keep his eyes down, his hopes modest, his bets small. But now he knew he had a chance against her genius for probabilities. “Late flight,” he said. “Let me use your bathroom.”

/

Milly didn’t see any defeat in Sam’s face or in how he carried himself, walking to the bathroom. Her heart soared, making her hit herself in the chest to quell the emotion. She clasped her hands in prayer despite herself, but only after Sam closed the bathroom door. By the time he returned, she had squeezed her emotions into a tight container and willed herself to respond calmly to anything Sam said. That was rendered impossible by the next thing he said.

“We should get married,” Sam said, matter-of-factly.

It was pure luck Sam had said it as he stepped behind her and took the handles of her wheelchair. He never saw the shock followed by joy on her face. By the time he could see her face again she hoped it reflected a somewhat humorous surprise – but no rejection!

“That’s the last thing I could have imagined you would say, Sam.” She responded as soon as she thought she could speak calmly. He had wheeled her to the kitchen table and sat down across the corner of it from her.

Sam looked confident to Milly, yet he was a man who continually expressed doubt about everything he did. She briefly considered challenging his state of mind, probing for his doubt, but she was too conscious of what his proposal meant to her, and too interested in what the proposal might imply about the result of his experiment.

/

“Is that a no?” Sam asked. It didn’t seem so to him but he could never tell with Milly.

/

“Why should we get married, Sam?” Milly asked it seriously, not wanting to appear too eager to say yes.

“Because you and I could be together for a long time, and it would be convenient.”

“Convenient?” Milly hoped the motivation for Sam’s proposal was anything but convenience but she wouldn’t try to force the truth from him. She would settle for whatever Sam would give her.

/

“I want to help you, more than I can as just a friend.” He hoped it wasn’t too crude an implication that he sought intimacy with Milly. For a moment he realized how forward he was being with Milly. He put it out of his thoughts; this was too important. He couldn’t go on without Milly.

“And why are we to be together for a long time, Sam?”

“Ah, that’s classified information.” And he finally smiled.

Black Queen to White Knight

She was here. Admiral Fidelity Demba. Keshona. Zakiya. Without the mask that admirals wore to obscure intent. She seemed angry and perhaps afraid, with tears in her eyes. He was disturbed it had come to this, especially with so little to be accomplished, but he wanted to see her, one last time.

“The Freedom has closed all hatches and disconnected from Dock Services,” he said. This was too obvious but it was all that came to mind to start the dialog.

/

“Yes,” Demba replied simply. She wiped her damp face. She was not yet ready to turn loose of the final sight of her daughter. To look upon the rapist Etrhnk in the next moment was hideous.

/

“As to the child. You care for him. Why?” Etrhnk was surprised he asked the question, but it was curious to him that Demba would risk so much to keep the boy. It was unprecedented that she was able to evade his transmat probe, which meant she had a choice to remain hidden and not come for the boy. Yet, here she was.

/

“If you think there is some logical reason,” Zakiya answered, “you’re mistaken. I can’t help caring for Samson.” Etrhnk, strangely, gave her time to collect herself. For a few days she had felt she had a small chance that he would actually let her stay with the mission. She even thought she had misjudged him – until he raped Aylis.

She waited for him to speak but he only stared at her. Was she to be his next sexual victim? “What now?” she finally requested in resignation.

/

Etrhnk watched this elderly admiral with fascination. He had so many questions about her, so few answers, and he doubted he would learn anything more from her. Logically, he should be in awe of her, she who had been Keshona. How did she bring her task force to Rhyandh without being intercepted? She probably didn’t remember, but perhaps the Opera Master did. And Pan understood gates… He pulled his thoughts back to the matter at hand.

What now? Demba had asked. Indeed. “I wish I knew,” Etrhnk replied.

“What have you done with Sammy?” she demanded. “Why did you give him to me, if you were going to take him back?”

He judged her appearance as pleasing to the eye, although the stress of the situation distorted her. Be careful, he told himself. Even as upset as she appeared to be, he knew she remained physically powerful. She had met The Lady and lived to tell about it. She had defeated Fleet officers effortlessly. She had even killed Jon Horss. She had to be physically enhanced, her body reinforced with special materials, yet nothing obvious was detectable by his security instruments beyond the usual augment mechanisms in her body.

As Keshona, she had killed millions. The old artist knew what he had: his Mona Lisa. And the Opera Master knew what he had: the sound and the fury. Perhaps Aylis Mnro knew what she had in Admiral Demba: a true friend. Etrhnk did not know what he had – if he had her at all.

“I did not give the boy to you,” he said. “Nor did I take him away. It is not of my concern, or within my power, what is done with the boy. My understanding is that someone else cares about Samson, although I’m mystified by the kind of care.”

She showed surprise at his words and frowned with lack of comprehension. “Can you make me understand what you just said? I want to know Sammy will be safe and happy.”

“I can’t explain to you that which I do not myself understand, but I do fear that he will be neither safe nor happy.”

/

“You know where he is?” It was all she could think to say, as his words continued to elevate her fears for Samson and to present more disturbing questions. He seemed to be implying that his power and authority was limited and that others had influence on his actions.

“I know that much,” he replied. “Are you interested in knowing why you were brought here?”

“You want to know things about me Aylis wouldn’t tell you?”

“It is true I want to know more about you, and about a person named Zakiya. However, there are others who are interested in you.”

A door opened behind Etrhnk and Sammy ran into the room. The first thing Zakiya thought was that Sammy wasn’t supposed to run so soon after being fitted with his regenerator-prosthesis. His gait was uneven and obviously strenuous due to fear. Someone beyond the doorway uttered angry words – in Twenglish – and called Etrhnk’s name. Etrhnk grabbed Sammy as he tried to run past him to Zakiya. When Sammy struggled to be free, Etrhnk squeezed his shoulder and the pain made him quit struggling.

“Kill the little bastard!”

A golden alien walked into the room, cutting the air with a rapier! It made straight for Zakiya and pushed the point of the sword to the gap of the collar of her uniform. Despite her shock and disbelief, her defense system instantly triggered, and before the sword could touch her, she pivoted and knocked the rapier from the being’s hand, sending it flying against the far wall. She then retreated unsteadily and stared at the humanoid alien in fascination.

The being was dazzling in the bright light of the room. Wearing only shorts, the creature glittered with thousands of golden facets, reflecting like metal yet fitting too integrally to be other than organic matter. A feather-like growth covered its head and face, all of which flattened in apparent reaction or expression. The longer feathers on top of its head rose upward, not unlike the crest of a bird. A human smile twisted its lips and the shiny feathers on its cheeks erupted in a kind of dance of symbolic patterns for a moment.

“Ouch!” The golden being shook the hand that lost the sword. “Did you have a smart comment for me, Commander?” the alien asked Etrhnk in Twenglish, keeping its huge blue eyes on Demba.

“I would be careful, were I you,” Etrhnk stated the obvious, also in perfect Twenglish.

“I heard her sing,” the alien said. “How can she be so dangerous? Or is it you I should watch?”

Sammy tried to break free from Etrhnk and again suffered pain. Zakiya signaled to him with her hand to remain calm. The golden alien observed with eyes too large to be human, and the feathers of his brow slanted as though they added meaning to his words.

“The boy is not yet dead? Kill him! Snap his neck!”

/

Etrhnk moved his hand to the child’s neck but waited to obey. He knew Laplace wasn’t the final authority. Constant had warned him of Laplace’s aberrant behavior. He wasn’t sure Constant’s behavior was much better. His life was about to come to a strange ending. He needn’t take the child with him. And Constant had said she cared for the boy. Where was she?

/

“What are you, who are you, what is your name?” Zakiya asked, thinking to distract the alien from what Etrhnk was not doing. She could see the Navy Commander was not applying force to Sammy’s neck.

“Laplace is my name.” The golden one moved slowly toward her.

“What are you?” Zakiya asked again, retreating. “Are you actually a human?” It helped her cope with this impossibility in this impossible situation if she denied being in the presence of a true alien. It seemed quite human in its manner, but its golden covering, its animated plumage, its four-fingered hands… Distractions! Illusions!

“You hesitate?” Laplace spoke angrily at Etrhnk, pausing to glare at him and the boy.

/

Etrhnk reluctantly tightened his grip on the boy’s neck. He tried to measure the force to make it less than lethal but enough to make the boy struggle. The boy began to strike at his arm and tried to pry his fingers away from his neck. This satisfied Laplace for the moment.

“What will you do, Fidelity Demba?” the alien asked. “Insult me more or save the child?”

“I doubt I can save him,” she answered in Twenglish. “The room must have armaments to protect you. Why are you so beautiful but so human?”

“Yes, why, why, why? Disgustingly human! Gloriously human! Etrhnk! Kill him! Why do you take so long?”

/

Etrhnk lifted the boy off the floor by the neck, just for a moment, weighing unfathomable but dire consequences before acting against Laplace. Fortunately, he did not need to kill the boy, for Constant now rushed into the room.

The boy is not to be harmed!” Constant shouted. “Release him to me!”

Etrhnk immediately dropped the boy. Constant caught him before he fell to the deck and pulled him out of Etrhnk’s reach. She knelt beside his body, quickly appraised his injury, and forced him to resume breathing by inexpertly slapping his chest. She looked at Etrhnk and Laplace with anger as she pulled him into her lap and held the recovering child close to her.

/

Fidelity could only wonder as she intently studied the second alien. She obviously cared for Samson, holding him and comforting him as the precious person he was. She must love him! And she was female and she was not human but she acted as a human could have acted.

/

“You’re interfering, Constant!” Laplace complained.

Laplace had not budged from his confrontation with Demba, and still watched her for any sign of aggression. Etrhnk was almost disappointed Demba had not yet disposed of Laplace.

“The boy is not your concern!” Constant declared. “His future is guaranteed!”

She gave him up!” Laplace argued. “She doesn’t care about him anymore!”

“Or the opposite!” Constant returned. “How do you know what She wants?”

“Then his future is now linked to Fidelity Demba,” Laplace said. “And there’s no guaranty of her future.”

“Nevertheless, he is hers now,” Constant said. “Not ours.”

It was all madness, Etrhnk thought, but interesting.

Laplace struck with more speed than Etrhnk would have guessed he had. Demba hardly moved, and the blow missed her. She made no counter strike. Laplace adjusted. He continued his attack. Demba retreated and dodged or blocked every blow. Etrhnk knew nothing of Laplace’s ability, but he quickly surmised that Laplace could not even hurt Admiral Demba. Fortunately, it appeared Demba had no desire to hurt Laplace.

Laplace stopped his attack and his body covering opened into an array of tiny golden hairs – collapsed discs of his natural body covering – exposing oddly colored and patterned skin.

“You don’t strike back,” Laplace commented to Demba, panting. “Why not?”

“What would it gain me?” she asked.

“My death! Perhaps you could kill Etrhnk next. If he waits his turn.”

Laplace spoke nonsense and Etrhnk thought Demba wisely ignored his words. How could the fate of humanity hinge upon creatures of such volatile emotions? They were no better than humans, despite their age.

“Why do you want to kill me and Sammy?” Demba demanded.

“You seek to destroy the Lady in the Mirror,” the golden alien replied.

“I’m unaware of that goal,” she stated. “She tried to kill me. Will she relent? Will she negotiate?”

“The drive envelope has reached point-nine-nine on the Freedom,” Etrhnk said, interrupting. “I can’t imagine Jon Horss ordering such a dangerous tactic in dry dock.” This was starting to shift from sad fascination to hopeful excitement, he thought. These were feelings new to him, a flavor to life he might enjoy. Briefly.

“What I find impossible to imagine,” Zakiya addressed Etrhnk, “is how such a good officer became your flagship captain.”

“It negates any attempt to assault the ship by transmat,” Laplace said. “I think she was going to run away with your new ship, Etrhnk. She knows more than you think. But perhaps you don’t care any longer.”

“Are you finished with me?” Zakiya asked the golden being.

“Are you finished with her?” Laplace asked Etrhnk. “Will you not kill her for me?”

“I will not,” Etrhnk replied, somewhat surprised at himself. He did not wish to be finished with her.

“I thought not.” Laplace unclipped a handle from the belt of his shorts. The handle fit his oddly-arranged four fingers, which wrapped around it in pairs, with no thumb. A blue-white spike of energy popped into existence from each end of the handle, one spike twice as long as the other. The spikes crackled when Laplace waved the weapon at Demba. “This may take a while, but I’ll be patient.”

A man materialized instantly in the far side of the room. Etrhnk thought this impossible, since the room was shielded from transmat traffic. He recognized the face of the man. Captain Direk, the supposed son of Aylis Mnro. Etrhnk made sure the room armament remained unresponsive to the new intruder by using his shiplink.

“Black queen to white knight,” Direk said.

“It is a projected image,” Etrhnk said to Laplace, trying to appear helpful. “He should be somewhere else in the room.”

“There are two white knights,” Laplace said. “Which one?”

He slashed at Demba with his energy weapon and missed her. He moved away from her and toward the image of Direk. The image blinked out and reappeared in another spot. Laplace moved toward the new position. Demba paused for a moment and began walking to where Direk’s image first appeared. Laplace stopped and watched Demba. Laplace jerked backward as though held by something around his neck. Laplace twisted against his invisible attacker, fell to the deck, rolled, and tried to stab with his weapon. Etrhnk understood that a man wearing an i-field generator was holding onto Laplace and struggling with him for possession of his weapon.

“Pawn to queen,” the image of Direk said.

/

“Sammy!” Zakiya called, hoping the other alien had different concerns for Sammy. The alien female reluctantly released him. Sammy stared at the golden being with intensity and a puzzled frown, then turned to find Zakiya. He scrambled to his feet and ran to Zakiya as fast as he could, throwing his arms around her waist.

/

Etrhnk watched the confrontation and did nothing but glance at Constant. She was obviously sad. Whether she was sad to see the boy leave her or to see himself do nothing to stop him, Etrhnk didn’t know. She should understand there was no reason for him to help Laplace, unless Laplace might get himself killed. That could be unacceptable for human civilization, even though, at the moment, he personally did not care.

Etrhnk wondered if he would need to stop Constant from coming to her fellow being’s aid. He felt she disliked Laplace, based on how differently from Laplace she regarded the child. She seemed content to let Laplace control his own fate. Perhaps Constant still expected Laplace to survive. Perhaps she knew better than Laplace what Demba could do. Etrhnk had given her accurate reports of Demba’s actions in the Big Ball. Demba might kill Constant if she tried to intervene, and she knew it. Still, for all his sins and theirs, it would be a cataclysmic event for the human race if either of these ancient creatures died.

Captain Direk became visible. Etrhnk could see he was slightly injured. He was choking Laplace with one arm while using his other to hold the wrist of the arm that controlled the energy knife. Direk was much larger than Laplace but the alien had a free arm to use, as well as his legs. Their legs tangled in the struggle and they fell, still locked together. Laplace stabbed the floor with the shorter spike and barely avoided the longer spike as Direk landed on top of him. They rolled around the bright energy spike, barely avoiding its cutting field. The weapon began to die, its light dimming. Laplace released his grip on the weapon in order to gain more leverage. The choking hold of Direk was also beginning to affect Laplace, increasing his desperation. The cutting weapon lost its spike and toppled over on the floor. Laplace stopped struggling; he seemed unconscious.

Direk released the golden body and got to his feet. He stared briefly at Constant, then Etrhnk. He turned to Zakiya and Samson. “Pick Samson up,” Direk ordered, and moved quickly to stand beside them.

Laplace was not unconscious. He reached for the depleted weapon handle, grasped it in his four fingers, and made a real metal blade spring from inside the grip. He threw the knife into Direk’s back. Direk barely reacted but when he spoke, his voice lacked firmness. “Exactly on three you must jump upward at least twenty centimeters. One-and-two-and-three.”

They jumped off the floor and disappeared instantly. Etrhnk was still surprised, even though he understood what made them disappear: not a transmat but a small gate! He now saw how deep and powerful this conspiracy was. He was gratified to think it had a better chance to succeed than he would have thought before. He was even more intrigued to know what that conspiracy hoped to accomplish.

Etrhnk watched Laplace recover from his fight with Captain Direk. He waited for the consequences. He started as Constant reached up to place a hand on his shoulder.

“What have you done?” She sounded gravely concerned, not her usual carefree attitude. Perhaps she always did care but never wanted Etrhnk to know.

“The wrong thing,” Etrhnk replied.

“All because you thought I wanted to see Samson.”

“I did as Laplace ordered. Then I called you. He is your child, isn’t he?”

“Not any longer. I can’t keep him safe. Thank you for calling me. I could almost hope your thoughtfulness means you have feelings for me.”

She forced her way into his arms. He handled her carefully, waiting for Laplace to skulk away. When they were alone Constant seemed to change, giving in to some sorrowful emotion she had been containing.

He held her gently, appreciating fully the magic of her reality. He liked the way the short round feathers of her body folded into near invisibility as his fingers touched her. It revealed skin beneath, skin of many colors, soft skin. He touched her face, brushed the longer and mobile golden plumage. He was surprised to find dampness upon her cheeks, dark streaks in the feathers.

“You weep,” he remarked.

“I’ve seen the future,” she uttered sadly, “or the past. I don’t know the difference any longer. I never thought it would hurt me this much!” She hugged him as hard as she could and rubbed her face in his uniform, perhaps to dry her tears. “If only there was more time! If only I could change time!”

Etrhnk discounted Constant’s words and what they might mean to him. He was to her but a leaf on a tree that would be shed in autumn. He took some small satisfaction in discovering that Constant could have meant a great deal to him, if he lived longer. If he could have felt sad, now would be his saddest moment. To die was one thing; it was the final insult to ego. To die ignorant and unfulfilled was… unacceptable.

Stealing Freedom

He held her arm so tightly that he trembled. She was devastated that Sammy was again a victim of violence. She ordered him to stay at the hospital but couldn’t enforce it. He wouldn’t leave her side, wouldn’t release his grip on her. Fortunately, Aylis hadn’t seen his injuries, or else the situation would have been more complex, the delay much longer. Sammy needed her, not Aylis, at this moment.

“Will you be alright?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered in a tiny voice.

She looked at his neck again, frowned at the marks that would become ugly bruises. “I must go to the bridge, Sammy. I’ll take you with me. Can you breathe freely? Can you turn your head both ways?”

He turned his head painfully. She looked at him worriedly and squeezed his shoulders. She picked him up carefully and he clung to her tightly. He was a little too big to carry. He was heavier than when he was starving in Africa. He also had the regenerator prosthetic now adding to his mass, but she didn’t want him to walk, she wanted to hold him.

“Will Captain Direk die?” He whispered the question.

“I don’t think so, Sammy.”

They transmatted to a node at the bridge. They emerged into a darkened room full of patches of colored light and quiet conversations. Horss moved from station to station, touching controls and giving directions to the officers. He came to the admiral as soon as he was able.

“Status?” she requested.

“Admiral!” Horss greeted her with more than military etiquette. He patted Sammy’s back. “All necessary systems active but the vision sphere. We’re blind. Evasion course plotted out to fifty parsecs. We’re blocked from exiting dry-dock by the carrier Honor. We caught a glimpse of them optically before we ramped up the duty cycle on the envelope.”

“What other ships are maneuvering against us?”

“At least one more carrier and the Eclipse. I estimate twenty minutes before the Honor has help, based on past experience with the traffic flow around this rock.”

“Get us out of here now, Jon!”

“We’re already moving. Blind reckoning. Admiral Khalanov has taught me a new lesson in the physics of starships. We’re about to try something I know isn’t taught at the Academy.”

“Can we reconstruct an estimated view based on blind reckoning?” Zakiya asked, glancing up at the featureless hemisphere of the ceiling.

“Freddy is working on it. Excuse me, I need to help the helmsman.”

Zakiya moved over to stand beside Iggy at an engineering console. Sammy still wrapped his arms and legs around her, but his head moved a little, as if he was looking at things behind her.

“Sammy!” Iggy greeted, glancing behind him, then quickly returning his attention to his data. “You got him back! Where is Direk? I need him! What is that I smell? Blood?”

“He was seriously injured,” Zakiya replied. A muffled explosion had occurred as they jumped into the gate. Direk had collapsed in the hospital immediately after the gate deposited them back in the ship. He had fallen against her and Sammy, blood spurting from his chest, even though the knife had struck him in the back. She had held both Direk and Sammy and screamed for help. She was still covered in his blood, as was Sammy. She was shocked at how terrible Direk appeared. “I don’t think you’ll have his help for many days, Iggy.” She hugged Sammy a little tighter, fearful of how the violence must have affected him. She hugged herself, still shocked by the encounter with real aliens.

“I’m very distressed by this!” Khalanov declared. “I have a completely changed opinion of Direk! He was injured rescuing you from Etrhnk? I’m in awe of him! You realize that he knows the secret of teleportation? Did he make you jump upward?”

“Yes.”

“I want to know why! He wouldn’t tell me, said it would scare me!”

Zakiya knew why it would scare Iggy. Direk’s gate was aimed to avoid intersecting the deck beneath their feet. If they did not jump upward into the sphere of the gate’s zone of matter exchange, their lower legs would be cut off. “What are you doing to help us get away?” she asked, shivering at the idea of missing the timing of jumping into the sphere of a gate.

“I’m detuning the drive envelope,” Iggy replied. “This allows random electrodynamic forces into the envelope. We’re a much larger vessel than a carrier, increasing the difference of energy potential. When we get close to the Honor our dirty envelope will corrupt their clean envelope. Then we’ll have electricity!”

“In my younger days we didn’t have such clean envelopes,” Zakiya said, receiving a glimpse of ancient memories, “and it was a possible tactic when one ship was bigger.”

“You’re referring to Deep Space?”

“No. Before that. Smugglers and merchant ships. My aunt and I smuggled Earth flora and fauna before I joined Deep Space. We would drain the envelope of a competitor, if we could get close enough.”

“To what advantage?”

“To very little advantage, actually. My aunt was just a mean person who didn’t look kindly upon aggressive competition.”

“Look!” Sammy said hoarsely, twisting in Zakiya’s arms.

The white hemisphere of the ceiling and much of the deck disappeared, as an image of exterior reality formed. The bridge crew and their work stations now seemed to float above a dark mass like the rough surface of a small asteroid. Brilliant light flooded the dry-dock cavern of Navy Shipyards. All around them the dry-dock’s natural rock wall was honeycombed with service accesses, littered with retracted construction platforms, and decorated with parked service vehicles, everything winking and glowing with lights and reflectors and colorful signage. The bridge of the Freedom was an illusion of a transparent bubble, and the dark mass below or beside it was an exterior image of the Freedom. In reality, the bridge was located in the center of the ship. The surrounding image was further altered to remove the optical incoherence of the drive envelope: a hole in space that was blacker than black, except that light flowed around it, unable to touch it, creating a contradiction in visual sensations.

The bridge appeared to fly forward, as though it was a separate transparent spacecraft. “Don’t be afraid!” Zakiya urged Sammy as she resisted the urge herself to anticipate momentum changes keyed to the visual clues. “We’re not really moving. It’s just an image.”

Beyond the curved horizon of the Freedom lay a mouth onto raw space, a vast open door that framed a scatter of stars and nearer objects. The dimly-reflective and impact-shielded disk of the starship Honor dominated the scene framed in the space door: a carrier containing a thousand smaller craft and a crew of two thousand. However, the carrier’s size would dwindle in comparison, if one could see it next to the Freedom, whose immensity all but filled the vast asteroid cavern of the Navy dry-dock. This was not the ship’s birthplace. It had been constructed at an external site and was brought into the Headquarters docks mainly for ceremonial reasons, unless Etrhnk had planned for what was now happening and intended to trap it there.

“This looks too good to be a dead-reckoning reconstruction, Freddy,” Horss commented.

“I’m taking snapshots through the heading notch, Captain,” Freddy replied.

“How are you getting enough data, when we’re dancing the heading notch so rapidly? Never mind, as long as it works! Something else to learn, after thinking I knew everything! They just pulled on their drive envelope.” Horss addressed Khalanov. “Ready when you are, Admiral.”

Brilliant light flashed as a bolt of lightning arced through the opening of the space door and stabbed onto the hull of the Honor, connecting the two ships with a jagged river of power that seemed to dance menacingly close beneath the feet of the bridge crew. The blinding glare had flooded the bridge in the instant before the image system adjusted its luminance level.

“Got them!” Iggy declared with clenched fist. “We’ll drain their accumulators, maybe blow a few of their emitter circuits. Did you feel the ship twitch? There is a gravity component in the connection between the two ships! The drives compensated automatically, or else we would have collided with them instantly.”

“Why is the space door staying open for us?” Zakiya asked.

“Probably indecision,” Iggy answered. “Dry-dock was still pressurized this far ahead of our departure time. They opened the door to rapidly vent dry-dock when our drive envelope began compressing the air. The venting helped our lightning bolt reach the Honor. It may not stay open much longer. Also, we can’t go through the opening with the drive field on. Or at least I don’t think we should. I need Direk’s opinion on that.”

Freddy hailed Zakiya by shiplink. She turned around with Sammy to see where he was: forward of – and facing – the captain’s chair. “Someone is trying to push a data link through our envelope, Admiral,” Freddy said. “It appears to be a simple communications channel. The address packet requests your personal response. The caller is Admiral Etrhnk. I can quarantine it for a short period.”

“Go ahead.” Zakiya almost felt obliged to talk to him, her opinion of him further scrambled by the dramatic appearance of members of a truly nonhuman race. She saw Etrhnk’s low-resolution image in her right eye.

“Did you find your purpose?” he asked.

“I’m going to find my husband,” she answered.

Etrhnk raised an eyebrow in surprise, then the link ceased.

Nonhumans, she pondered, beautiful golden beings! As far as she knew, only the crew of the Frontier ever encountered living nonhumans, remnants of a precursor race. Now she had met two more alien species – the golden people and the gatekeeper – and heard of at least one other in Oz, something called a Fesn. She wondered if the golden ones were the other alien race of which Percival had spoken but had not described. The person she once was – primarily an anthropologist – was ecstatic at such a discovery, and also worried. These golden aliens seemed to mimic human culture – and to mimic some of the wrong parts of human culture.

As the blue-white stream of electrons danced between the two ships, Iggy’s fingers darted on manual control pads. Graphical quantifications of starship physics jumped in their display volumes. Then the brilliant electron river abruptly vanished.

“Lost their envelope,” Horss surmised. “They’ll be slow to maneuver.”

“If we can damage their emitter grid before they can re-pattern it,” Iggy said, “they won’t be following us. We need some rocks to throw.”

“They just launched twenty bombers and forty fighters,” Horss said. “And the space door is closing!”

Zakiya pushed aside her thoughts of real aliens, tried not to worry about Direk’s injuries, and now saw only the impossible problem of maneuvering the Freedom through the already too-small opening of the space door. They could not afford to turn off the protective starlight drive field for the length of time needed to maneuver into open space. “How will you get us out of here, Jon?” she asked.

“You’re asking me?” Horss replied. “Uncle Iggy just cancelled my only idea – which I wasn’t going to try anyway! If this rock snags our drive field… who knows what will happen!”

Zakiya and Horss both turned to Khalanov. He glanced at the closing space door and turned to smile at them. Then he looked at Horss. “Have you noted the power-to-mass ratio of our ship?” Khalanov asked him.

“Yes, sir,” Horss replied. “And the space door is still closing.”

“That it is,” Khalanov agreed. “I could have designed it myself. Single curtain of amalgamated rock, about two kilometers high and four long.”

“And a hundred meters thick!” Horss added.

“After initial acceleration,” Khalanov continued, “the door moves at a linear speed of about two meters a second. In about fifteen minutes it will be half closed. Anyway, about the ship’s power-to-mass ratio. Why do you think I designed it that way?”

“For ramming half-closed space doors?” Horss guessed.

“Hardly,” Khalanov said. “Because she ordered me to.” Khalanov nodded at Zakiya.

“I don’t remember doing that,” Zakiya protested, feeling strangely confident because of Iggy’s relaxed mood. She shifted Sammy from one side of her body to the other.

“It was simply a consequence of your mandate for a very high geometry rigidity protocol,” Iggy explained. “Rigidity, as you know, is an important factor in starlight drive efficiency. Most warships improve rigidity by careful placement of their many objects of great mass, such as armaments and passive shielding. The Freedom , however, is -"

“Really big and mostly empty,” Horss interrupted. “Totally unarmed. And, by the way, the space door is still closing.”

“So, the Freedom is quite rigid,” Zakiya proposed.

“Absolutely rigid,” Iggy said. “It has active geometry stabilization, particularly in the hull.”

“So that adds a tiny amount to its speed and maneuverability,” Horss said, staring at the image of the closing space door. “And I suppose it adds some amount of safety when the ship is not protected by the drive field.”

“The spare power of the Freedom,” Iggy continued, “makes the hull as close to impregnable as I can determine. It is almost a different form of matter. The passive shielding and the exterior tuning towers, however, can be damaged.”

“You are planning to ram the space door, aren’t you?” Horss asked with some awe and much admiration. “But what about us passengers?”

“You infer a possibility of Newtonian disaster,” Khalanov said. “Yes, it is a possibility, but not if we time it right. First, the space door needs to be near its midpoint of closing, where its leading edge will be slightly more exposed vertically. Next, the ship will maneuver by starlight drive in a certain direction. Then the drive will stop for a very brief interval, bringing the ship’s full mass in motion toward the door. The door and much of the surrounding material should shear away. Some of this debris may cause secondary collisions which we could feel but the primary impact ought to be minor. The quicker we can then align to our primary escape vector, the less uncomfortable we should be. Do you disagree with any of this?”

“Starlight drive bypasses the quaint old notions of momentum,” Horss said. “I didn’t think you could add starlight drive velocity to the rest-mass of the ship when you turn off the drive. Oh. I see what you mean. It isn’t the ship that will move, it’s the rock we’re inside of. The space door will strike us as we position ourselves in its path. I didn’t know the orbital configuration of Headquarters provided such a possibility.”

“All motion is relative, Jon,” Zakiya said meaningfully.

“Then, I didn’t imagine you could pilot a starship inside a rock using a frame of reference you couldn’t see,” Horss said. “How do you move a starship a few meters using starlight drive?”

“But you do understand the procedure?” Iggy asked Horss.

“I understand it,” Horss replied. “I just don’t know if I believe it!”

“The door is still closing,” Zakiya said, taking her turn to remind Iggy.

“Plot a course parallel to whatever direction a normal to the plane of the space door aperture will take in one-eighty seconds from my mark,” Iggy requested. “I have a programmed directive that will kill the drive at the right instant based on your course parameters. After we clear all obstructions, it will be up to you to begin the escape.”

ALL HANDS!” Horss shouted. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL! YOU HAVE THREE MINUTES TO SECURE YOURSELVES FOR POSSIBLE IMPACT IN THE DIRECTION OF THE SHIP’S BOW.” Warning lights would now be flashing throughout the ship and the message would repeat until no longer needed. “Give me a few seconds to wring the course out of the galactic database, Admiral. Damn! I don’t trust any course I can’t see!”

The navigation tank immediately blossomed with a gleaming display of icons and data curves describing the motions of bodies in the surrounding volume of space. “Freddy! You beat me to it but keep at it! Give me a heading when Uncle, uh, Admiral Khalanov gives you his mark.”

“Countdown to mark,” Iggy warned. “Three, two, one, mark!”

“Course set,” Freddy stated. “Shall I set the course to start automatically, Captain?”

“Do it, Freddy. Are you ready, Admiral?” Horss was addressing Khalanov.

“My course directive is now in the queue and based on Freddy’s computation of the velocity. The drive will quench very close to the theoretical limit of the starlight drive pulse-width. I’m also assuming we are at the measured distance to the space door.” Khalanov turned from his control panel to observe the expressions on the faces of Horss and Zakiya. “But don’t let me upset you,” he said calmly. “Keep in mind that I built this ship and I don’t intend to destroy it.”

What remained of the 180 seconds quickly drained away. The klaxon of a proximity danger warning blasted briefly and was manually killed. The Freedom collided with the partially closed space door, shearing away most of the two kilometers of it. The Freedom emerged into space amid tumbling debris. The Honor floated directly before them.

Honor is retreating, but not fast enough to avoid us,” Horss said. “Closing vacuum doors in Ring Zero North. Damage Control to Ring One North.”

“Pattern failure in our drive envelope,” Iggy warned. “Fall-back pattern. Retuning. Collision interval value to Honor on my mark. Mark.”

“Seventeen seconds,” Freddy said.

“Engage escape route at mark plus fifteen,” Iggy said.

“I think the space door debris got the Honor’s grid, Uncle Iggy,” Horss said. “We threw rocks at them. Confirm active drive envelope.”

“Confirmed,” Iggy said. “But out of tune! I’ll take care of it. We scratched my ship, Nephew!” And Iggy added, just loud enough for Zakiya to hear: “God will take care of it, not Uncle Iggy.”

Horss rotated the holographic display tank that floated before the captain’s chair. Then the bridge aligned with the holograph. The ship was now pointed at a patch of space computed to be clear at mark plus fifteen. To one side, the asteroid bulk of Navy headquarters dwarfed them. To the opposite side, the carrier Honor loomed over the dark horizon of the Freedom. Fighters and bombers formed a net above them. Below them the Navy flagship Eclipse vectored toward them, imaged like a luminous bubble rising through the darkly translucent false image of the Freedom. Horss continued to rotate the angle of escape, nudging it until the last instant.

Zakiya held her breath and squeezed Sammy as Iggy and Jon worked their controls.

Navy Headquarters and all of the ships disappeared. The stars swirled so quickly with abrupt navigation directives they, too, disappeared. Shrouded in the darkness of its drive envelope, the Freedom leaped, stopped, darted in a new direction, stopped, and shot away into the emptiness between the stars. The distant stars reappeared as the final escape course held steady for a few moments. Far behind them the Eclipse followed, its presence detected from the bending of starlight as it plowed through the interstellar quantum pathways.

“They’re gaining on us,” Freddy reported.

“I can’t finish retuning the envelope while navigation directives are moving it around!” Iggy complained. “We’ve got something bent near the bow. Stop the ship!”

“And let the Eclipse catch us?” Horss asked.

“Let me have the helm,” Zakiya said. She walked past Horss and handed Sammy over to Freddy. The helmsman got up and she took his seat. She logged in to the helm and selected her control options. Ship’s sensors fed their data into her ocular terminals. She raised her hands in front of her, causing them to appear in her control interface. Her eyes and her hands now controlled the navigation of the ship.

Zakiya saw the stars. She saw the lines of dark matter between them, the quantum paths, the currents and tides, the waves in the ocean of space that carried all the information and all the forces of reality. She picked a strong current and rode it, then another and another, changing course constantly and almost instantly. The Eclipse followed the Freedom, but slowly the distance between ships widened. With each small course change came a spurt of extra velocity, and each time the Eclipse turned after them it could not duplicate the precision of the Freedom’s course and the gap grew larger.

An hour passed. The sensor target of the flagship dwindled beyond detection. Zakiya got up from the helm, leaving the ship running straight. “Get the envelope tuned, Iggy,” she ordered. “I’m tired.”

“What do you call that?” Horss asked. “What did you do to outrun my old ship? It was supposed to be the fastest ship in the Navy!”

“That was sailing,” she replied. “We were luffing badly. I trimmed the sails and found winds and currents to speed us up. Interstellar field gradients. When you have to make speed to make money, as I did long ago, you learn to find the path of least resistance between stars. I’m surprised such piloting methods have been disused by the Navy. I think we used them a lot in Deep Space Fleet, and we didn’t have the level of precision we have now.”

“Do we keep this heading?” Horss asked.

“We have a stop to make,” Zakiya said. “Sector 53509. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to get there ahead of the Eclipse.”

“When do we need to be there?”

“As soon as possible, Jon.”

“May I ask what this stop represents?”

“Many of our crew and passengers will want to leave the ship. It will be their only chance to do so. We’ll also pick up two more crew members there.”

“How is Captain Direk?” Horss asked.

“He’s injured. Seriously injured! I left him at the hospital.”

“That’s his blood I smell? What happened to him?”

Before Fidelity could answer, they both received a message from Mai.

He’s Dead and I Loved Him

“He passed away. We couldn’t save him.” Mai dropped into a chair in Aylis Mnro’s office, exhausted and despondent.

“You put him in stasis?” Zakiya asked.

“Yes, but there is no hope of revival.”

Mai’s words staggered Zakiya. Her voice thickened with grief. “How could it be that bad?”

Sammy buried his face against her stomach. He didn’t understand Mai’s words, spoken in Standard, but he knew the meaning by her expression and tone of voice. Zakiya stroked his dark straight hair. She was shocked into numbness, her mind sent into a loop of thoughts she couldn’t break for several moments: Direk is dead! What will we do without him? What will happen to Aylis? Direk is dead! What will we do without him? What will happen to Aylis? Direk is dead!

“We shouldn’t have even had a chance to save him,” Mai strained to speak. “I didn’t know why he was still alive! And then there were so many anomalies.”

“Anomalies?” Zakiya queried.

“He wasn’t human!”

“Not human?”

“He wasn’t fully biological! We were unprepared! Something vital was destroyed by an internal explosion. We bypassed his heart and a lung and that stabilized him for a few moments but then he started dissolving!”

“Then… it wasn’t the real Direk!” Zakiya was desperate to find some hope.

“Aylis says he was a copy. I never believed there was a copy of Aylis, until I saw this copy of Direk! And I still cried when he died!” Mai rubbed her damp eyes.

Zakiya was unable to decide how to feel. She could feel relieved, but that would deny the value of the sacrifice. He wasn’t the real Direk but he was a real person. “Copy?” she asked. “A clone?”

“I don’t think so. Aylis was too upset to explain the difference, but except for the mechanical augmentation I don’t think there was much difference. He didn’t want to die! He was fighting to live! Then he knew he would lose the fight. He was so… sad!”

Aylis walked unsteadily into her office wiping her face with a small towel. Her eyes were red and puffy. She held the towel to her nose for several moments, then sat down with it and looked down at the floor. She leaned back and covered her face with the towel. She moved the towel under her nose again and closed her eyes.

“He wasn’t your real son,” Zakiya stated, wanting Aylis to agree with her but unsure she should say anything at all to Aylis. Her words seemed to startle Aylis, as if she had been unaware that anyone else was in her hospital office.

“When you brought him to me with those wounds in him,” Aylis said emotionally, “he was my son! When he began to slip away from us on the operating table, he was my son! And then, when I finally understood what he was… He was conscious, and he saw that I knew… He said, ‘I love you!’” Her voice broke and she choked on a sob. “I loved him as my real son at that moment. I hope he saw that. I kissed him and held him, until he… died. He was very much my son, even being what he was – especially being what he was! This is very hard for me! Impossible for me!”

/

Jamie stopped when the door opened upon the scene in Doctor Mnro’s office. Something was very wrong! “Captain Direk?” she queried. When Demba turned her way, when Demba shook her head, when Demba wiped tears from her face… Jamie felt like she had been punched in the gut! How could that mean what it seemed to mean? “No!” Jamie shouted, shocking herself with the force of her denial.

Doctor Mnro’s eyes widened at her explosion of denial. The grief Jamie saw in those eyes devastated her. Mnro started to say something but didn’t, perhaps arrested by the pain that had poured across Jamie’s face.

“But…” Jamie tried to speak. Words failed her. People lived long lives these days but she had seen final death many times. She had even welcomed it at times. This was somehow different, worse. “But you can save anyone! I just don’t understand! He was your son!”

“I had to let him die.” Mnro struggled to speak. “I could not save him.”

“I’m so very sorry, ma’am! I didn’t mean… I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way! I shouldn’t be here! I’m sorry!”

“You came,” Mnro hurried to say, as Jamie turned to leave. “Don’t go away! Tell me why you came.”

“He visited me last night.” Jamie was surprised at her own difficulty to speak, as though Mnro’s grief had infected her. “He came to tell me I was promoted, and to ask me what happened to you.”

“You told him?”

“No, ma’am!” She stopped. She had so many questions she needed to ask and it was the wrong time. Aylis Mnro had lost her son, and she had been raped. Jamie’s questions could wait.

“It must have been a very brief visit,” Mnro commented, obviously hoping Jamie would say more.

The woman gave Jamie much more attention than she deserved, especially at this tragic moment in her life. Doctor Mnro was obviously making a supreme effort to continue talking to her, making Jamie feel obliged to continue the conversation. And Jamie’s mother was here, doubling the emotional confusion! Her mother, her mother, her mother!

“It was mysterious.” Jamie shook her head, her thoughts in turmoil. She had led Marines in combat and buried comrades who died the real death. She wasn’t afraid of anything but she couldn’t find her courage now. There would be a time in the future when it would not burden a grieving Mnro, and when that grief would not hurt Jamie as much as it seemed to. She shook her head, looking down at the floor, unable to find coherent words.

“You were six years old,” Aylis Mnro began. Jamie looked up at Mnro, saw her take a deep breath, stare into her face, and take another breath. Jamie looked at Admiral Demba, her mother, who was staring at Mnro with deep concern. “Your mother had to go away,” Mnro said. “I had taken you from her and I wanted to keep you young, so she wouldn’t lose your childhood when she returned for you. I wanted to put you in stasis. You cried and cried for your mother! I couldn’t do it! I made Direk do it. Nor could he put you in stasis. He took you to your father’s parents and they raised you.”

Jamie tried to understand what Doctor Mnro told her. She couldn’t absorb it so suddenly, even though she already knew Demba was her mother. Why didn’t they explain everything at the beginning? Captain Direk knew her, and cared for her so much that he avenged her rape! Why didn’t she remember him? Why were they so cruel to the child she once was? Did her mother abandon her? She looked at Demba and saw infinite sadness. Demba: her mother! It would be obscene to open herself to the woman at a moment such as this. She didn’t know if she could do it, or if she even wanted to.

Admiral Demba kept her worried gaze on Jamie as she held Sammy against her. Sammy tried to pull away in Jamie’s direction, drawing the admiral with him. Jamie knelt down before Sammy, perhaps to postpone the ultimate confrontation of her life. She observed the marks on his neck in the shape of fingers. He was injured, strangled! She heard two women emit gasps, as if they may have just noticed the injury to Sammy. She embraced the child without thinking, just feeling.

“She’s your mother,” Sammy said softly close to her ear, and he caused her to make a decision.

Jamie stood up and faced her mother. She saw more tears in the woman’s dark eyes.

“Mother,” Jamie said.

“Daughter,” Admiral Demba quietly replied.

How long was Jamie without hope of ever finding her real parents? How many times did she petition the Mnro Clinics for the identity of her parents? How many times did she dream about the moment that had now arrived? Yet, she hadn’t come here to greet her mother. She came to ask about Captain Direk. As much as her real mother meant to her, she could find little happiness while knowing Direk had died.

“Jamie,” Demba said, and reached toward her.

Jamie retreated a step from her mother. Her mother! She had abandoned her! Why had Direk also abandoned her? Why did she think he did?

“How… How did… Why did he…?” Her mind broke open, and what she saw was too bright, too illuminating, too real!

They sat in the waiting room, their admission data completed. They were an old couple, like others they saw at the Mnro Clinic. A couple. But not married. Why? They had known each other for so long, had worked together and shared danger and hardship. Why not married? Why did she think about it now? Why did they need to be married? Having a child was out of the question. After the Clinic cured their aging and pruned their memories, would they care? Would they even stay together?

They had earned a good living, prospecting in unsettled regions of space. Geology wasn’t the love of her life, but… Direk was! She couldn’t lose him now! They must stay together! The future would be better. They had financial resources now, even after paying the Mnro Clinic for continuity.

Continuity. That was what the Clinic called it. Not immortality. Because the brain became too plastic to keep all of its memories while the age damage was repaired. She wanted to continue, but she didn’t want to lose her feelings for Direk. It had taken too many years to come to understand him and to accept him. To love him.

She looked at his age-lined face, still pale and handsome despite the injuries and near-blindness. She was thankful he couldn’t see clearly how age had treated her own features. She pulled him close and kissed him.

“I love you, Jamie,” he said, holding her face against his. She tried to remember when he had ever said that to her so factually, yet so intensely. It filled her old heart with warmth and made her kiss him again. He was a wonderful old man. He would be a wonderful young man.

“I’m sorry,” he added.

“Why?” she asked.

“For what we never had. For what we may never have. For what I remember. For what you don’t remember.”

“I don’t understand.”

The door to the waiting room opened and a woman came forth. At first she didn’t recognize her. Her own eyesight was poor. Then she didn’t believe who the woman appeared to be as she came close enough to see her better. Aylis Mnro! Out of all the thousands of Mnro Clinics why would she be here[_?_]

“Is it her?” Direk asked sadly, apparently expecting…

an unwanted future. She realized she had never really understood Direk! And loved him anyway.

Jamie shuddered and emotion twisted her face. She started to shake and a moan escaped from deep in her body. She put her hands behind her head. She swayed back and forth with her eyes closed and tears streaming down her cheeks. She struggled as a terrible sadness attacked her.

/

Zakiya tried to hold her daughter but she could not be held and could not be consoled. Eventually Jamie exhausted herself. She tried to wipe her face on her uniform sleeves but Aylis intervened with a clean towel.

“You remembered!” Aylis declared, her tone a mixture of emotions, averaging to at least strong concern. “What did you remember?”

Jamie shook her head and pushed a fist against her trembling mouth. She put a hand at each temple. “He’s dead! He’s dead and I loved him!” She turned and walked quickly out of the room.

Zakiya followed to the door and saw her daughter running away down the hospital corridor. Aylis stepped behind Zakiya in the doorway and peered over her shoulder.

“Somebody else loved him,” Aylis said.

“He took better care of my daughter than you expected,” Zakiya said.

As much as Zakiya had loved her daughter as a six-year-old, she now fell in love with the person she had become.

The Name of Her Husband

“Do you have an appointment?”

The tall figure in the night froze at the sound of these words. After a moment he stepped into the firelight inside the large camping tent.

“I’m unarmed. I’ve come to see Pan.”

“I’m not unarmed,” Fred stated. “Pan is asleep. State your business.”

“Who are you?” Etrhnk asked, finding it easy to feel surprise. He had much experience of it lately. Now a sentient android!

“State your business,” the android repeated.

“I bring information of interest to Pan. You’re an AMI.”

“I am a person, yes.”

“Would you use that weapon?”

“I would.”

“Will you let me talk to Pan?”

“I’ll speak to him, Fred.” Pan entered from the dark night into the dim light of the small fire. He completed the equilateral triangle around the light of the flame. He had heard the exchange between Fred and Admiral Etrhnk. He waited for Etrhnk to speak, seeing more in his face in the firelight than he saw in the better illumination aboard the Eclipse. The pale tiger stripes on his dark face flickered with the flames.

“I saw the evidence of a certain visitor to your city residence,” the Navy commander stated.

“She didn’t threaten me,” Pan said. “Is that the reason you came?”

“You saw her? You survived?”

“I almost can’t believe I saw what I saw,” Pan answered. “And she wasn’t as Captain Horss described to me. She was someone else. She was not murderous. Why are you here?”

“To tell you that Admiral Demba has successfully launched the Freedom. I should say stolen the Freedom. I asked her why. She said, ‘To find my husband.’ I hoped you could tell me who he is, because he must be of great importance.”

“You are fascinated with Fidelity Demba,” Pan said, “as I hoped you would be, to keep you from killing her. I have no way to understand your motives, but I think any other Navy Commander would have killed her immediately.”

Etrhnk became more opaque to Pan at this point. He did not otherwise respond to Pan’s comment. “I told you she has a daughter named Jamie,” Etrhnk said.

“True. I remember her now. She was looking for my brother.”

“Your brother Direk. Another surprising individual. And someone, I have discovered, who also knows about gates. I’m afraid he was seriously injured. I also know Demba’s real name is Zakiya. Can you tell me the name of her husband?”

“How was Direk injured?” Pan asked, worried about a brother who had only been a problematic memory until now. “Will he recover?”

“The injury was not of my doing. He was struck by a bladed weapon that may have exploded inside him. He departed with the ship. I have no further information I can give you on his injury or prognosis. Do you remember the name of Demba’s husband?”

“I wonder if you will believe me,” Pan said, wondering also at Etrhnk’s patient pursuit of the name of a legend.

“We’ve covered this topic before,” Etrhnk said, almost sounding impatient.

“His name was Alexandros Gerakis.”

Pan could count the seconds Etrhnk remained silent as his only quantifiable response. His demeanor remained opaque.

“How can that be?” Etrhnk finally asked.

“That is the only answer I’ll give you.”

“He existed.”

“He still exists,” Pan said, “or else Zakiya has wasted two centuries of her life waiting for his return.”

“Thank you for telling me this.” Etrhnk stared down at the fire. He looked up at Pan. He now appeared troubled.

“Is something wrong?” Pan asked, disturbed that he could see such a change in Etrhnk.

“Decisions have become more difficult for me lately.”

“You are perhaps reconsidering my fate.”

“No. I find satisfaction in knowing you remain alive.”

“Why?”

“Curiosity. I might learn something more from you.”

“Why this woman in a mirror didn’t kill me?”

“She will, you know, despite what you may think. No, there is nothing of interest to me to be learned about The Lady.”

“If you learned more from me, would that profit me?” Pan asked.

“I doubt it. Our fates are matched in brevity, I think. I would, however, be grateful not to die as ignorant as I am.”

“As would I,” Pan said. “As would I.”

Stopping the Stampede

Several thousand of the civilians who had boarded the Freedom, along with a few of the off-duty Navy crew, congregated on the grassy field by the lake, arriving from the village apartments in an almost spontaneous manner, perhaps instigated by a few persons who were upset beyond the fact of being “invited” by the Navy to join the voyage.

Jamie circulated among them in medium dress uniform, doing her duty as Chief of Security. She thought the uniform might impress them without the brute-force implicit in battle fatigues. Still, they were suspicious of her. So far there was no sign of an attempt to organize any kind of protest of their circumstances, or to express their fears of what lay ahead in their lives. Jamie had studied the personal data of many of these people and knew these mission recruits were very skilled and educated in a variety of technical and scientific fields, many of which did not seem to be necessary to carry out the mission’s exploration objectives.

The crowd had formed small groups that discussed concerns about the mission and repeated any rumors that were interesting. She didn’t hear anything that seemed pertinent to the security of the ship and passengers. She did hear her mother’s name mentioned often and in a peculiar context. Jamie approached one of the larger groups whose discussion had risen to the level of heated argument. They quieted as she stepped into their midst.

“Major, do you know Admiral Demba?” a woman wearing a Navy work uniform with the rank of lieutenant commander immediately asked of her.

Wingren, her name tag said. Name tags were a concession to the civilians without Navy shiplinks. Wingren was Rhyan, with the shiny desert skin.

“Yes, but not well,” Jamie replied. “What is this about?”

“This civilian says she’s a singer!” Wingren declared. She referred to the erudite-looking gentleman next to her.

“I may be wrong,” the man conceded, “but I think she resembles very closely the woman who sang at the end of the last Mother Earth Opera.”

Jamie identified the man through her shiplink. He was not typical of the civilian crew. He was a cultural historian and artist.

“You must be wrong,” Jamie said. “Why is this a matter of such contention, Professor Sung?”

“How could it possibly be true?” Wingren asked.

“The boy!” someone else tried to interject.

“It is a matter of contention because we are both sure of our facts,” Sung replied. “And, yes, I think the boy is conclusive evidence on my side of the argument. This is a dangerous journey with a frightening inception. What starship ever warns of a possible collision? I’d like to know that our leader isn’t a singer but a competent Navy officer. I also want to know what she’s done to cause our early and dramatic departure.”

“I’ll agree with that,” the Rhyan officer said. “It’s been two days since we departed Headquarters and we were told nothing about the abrupt departure. Isn’t a daily briefing required aboard ship?”

“That’s correct,” Jamie replied to the Rhyan Navy officer. “If you haven’t had a briefing then you are not working crew.” What is this about a boy? Jamie wondered. Do they mean Sammy? Why would that prove the contention that my mother is a singer?

“Do you have a recording of the Mother Earth Opera?” Jamie asked Doctor Sung.

“It’s in the ship’s database,” he replied. “I’ve watched it more than once. If you speed to the end, you’ll see the injured child rumored to be aboard the ship. Another rumor is that the child has been seen here on this ship! Why is a child aboard this ship? Another reason to wonder about the admiral’s ability to command!”

Jamie watched several minutes of the final performance through her shiplink, skipped to the very end and nearly suffered a loss of Marine discipline. She had to pull herself away from the startling experience and the image of her mother weeping and hugging Sammy.

“Is that her?” the Rhyan officer asked. “Is that the child?”

“Yes.” Jamie could hardly say more.

“It doesn’t matter!” Lt. Cmdr. Wingren spoke with such conviction that Jamie noted the reaction through the interference of her own reactions.

“You shouldn’t be agitating the civilian crew,” Jamie said. “What do you know about Demba that makes you want to defend her in the face of such odd criticism?”

“We aren’t criticizing her! We just know she looks like Commodore Keshona!”

This caused many to laugh and make rude comments about military mentality.

“This is a woman who’s spent most of her career in Navy Archives,” another civilian man said.

“Possibly she had time to learn to sing,” Professor Sung said, “but she is a truly great singer. I can’t believe a capable admiral can also be such an astonishing singer.”

“I’ve also heard a ridiculous rumor that Doctor Mnro is on the ship!” another civilian, a woman, declared. “Can you verify that?”

“Yes,” Jamie answered, after deciding she should answer. That renewed her shock that the most famous person in the universe had exploded into her personal life! She hoped the news of Doctor Mnro’s presence would not cause more chaos. “I’ve met her,” Jamie added. “I also can’t believe she is here, but she is.”

Her response caused a steep rise of commotion as the rumor was passed out of the group as fact to all the other groups. This drew more people toward her group and unleashed a barrage of questions and comments about Aylis Mnro and Admiral Demba. She endured as much as she could, until her own ignorance of the details maximized her frustration. She also started being attacked by an endless supply of intensely emotional images that were triggered into her consciousness by almost anything. She couldn’t remain here! Her emotional control was about to fail! The Rhyan named Wingren was staring at her, apparently seeing Jamie’s internal struggle, and guessing she might have more information that would aid her belief about Demba being Commodore Keshona.

Jamie had come to the gathering more for her own mental health than for concern about any trouble that might ensue. She couldn’t allow herself to sit in her lonely quarters or in Security Ops and brood over the loss of Direk. She needed the distraction, but she had not expected this!

Jamie turned and marched away from the group. She sensed someone following her – the Rhyan officer – and when she had walked far away from the gathering, she stopped, turned around, and was surprised to see not just the Rhyan woman but also three other female Navy officers. The Rhyan had three Earthian friends and she was their leader.

“Don’t you have duty assignments?” she demanded.

“We’re on standby until further notice,” Wingren replied. “We’re late additions to the roster. When the ship’s routine becomes normal, they’ll find jobs for us. In the meantime, I’d like to volunteer for Security duty.”

The other three women, although surprised, followed their leader and offered to do the same.

“Security duty?” Jamie queried impatiently. “What use would I have for four Navy women? Do you understand what Marines are?”

“You don’t seem to have any trouble with them, Major.”

“That’s because I can beat the hell out of them!”

“We’ve all mastered at least the fifth level of the Navy Personal Combat Training Course,” Lt. Cmdr. Wingren said with pride.

“Why? I see your career fields are far removed from that kind of thing. All high-level technical fields. Is fighting a hobby?”

“It’s a membership requirement to be in our group,” another female officer replied. “We do historical research.”

“You need combat training to do research on Commodore Keshona?” Jamie proposed.

“Female officers need all the combat training they can get, and all the friends they can get,” another of the Navy officers offered. “And a hero like Keshona is nice to have, also.”

“It started when I visited Archives,” Wingren said, “to question a security restriction on some old engineering data I needed. I saw Admiral Demba there and she looked familiar. I came back later and commented about her resemblance to Keshona, and she seemed disturbed and argued that if she had been Keshona she would have changed her features to avoid attention. I agreed with her, but I was stuck on the idea for some reason. If she knew I was aboard, she would probably make me leave.”

“Why did you pursue it?” Jamie asked. “There are no images of Keshona. The commodore’s records were expunged for her own safety. She also would have altered her features. How did you even know what Keshona looked like?”

“There are some Rhyan images of Keshona that survived the data purge, mostly kept by survivors of the Massacre. It’s difficult to get access to them, but we have. They prove nothing, of course, but the resemblance to Admiral Demba is tantalizing.”

“She denied being Keshona,” Jamie stated, almost making it a question, as probabilities and possibilities about her mother jarred her imagination. Was she Keshona?

“Yes,” Wingren said, “I doubt she believes she was Keshona. If she did, we might not be standing here talking to you. What do you think, Major?”

“I think you’re crazy!” Jamie answered. “You volunteered for this mission, didn’t you?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” one of the other Navy women replied.

Jamie paused to look at each of the female Navy officers. They met her gaze and didn’t flinch from it, which many male Marines often did. It’s no use continuing this meeting, she thought. She had only her fine Marine uniform to keep her from losing control, and even that felt ready to come unbuttoned.

“From what you know of Admiral Demba, would you completely disagree with us?” Lt. Cmdr. Wingren persisted.

What I know of Demba, Jamie thought, is that Demba is my mother, and that seems impossible! What I know is that it was she who sang at the Mother Earth Opera, and that seems impossible! What I know is that Direk, dear Direk, died rescuing Demba and Sammy, and that is unbearable!

She had to turn away as tears came to her eyes. She had to escape.

“Report to Security Ops at the next shift change,” Jamie said roughly, retreating, knowing the four women had seen her tears and heard the heartache in her voice.

= = =

“Damn it, sir!” Jamie didn’t realize the captain was asleep until he twitched.

/

Horss woke up. He was sitting in his captain’s chair, alone on the bridge. He was studying ship specs, poring over crew records, exploring the ship’s databases. He had closed his eyes – he told himself – to better see the information scrolling through his ocular terminals.

Horss opened his eyes and saw Major Jones. He came completely awake in that instant. Jones was the kind of person who – if you suddenly encountered her in close proximity – made you want to take a step backward and keep your hands in plain sight. He had to remind himself that he was the captain and he still outranked her.

“Damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” he said with a yawn.

“Do what, sir?”

“Doesn’t matter what.” He noticed she was standing somewhat at attention. “At ease, Major.”

She took off her fatigue cap and he saw her hair was short like all the other Marines. A shiny hairless scar ran through her scalp. Then he noticed other imperfections in the skin of her face and bare arms. She had never bothered to clean up the violent history written in her body’s terrain. It was a silly Marine affectation. How could you sneak up on anyone if you looked like trouble from a distance?

/

“I’m here, sir.” Jamie said it after Horss waited about a second too long to speak. She was still upset with how he had handled the Mnro Rape but she was trying to move on.

“I’ll be here shortly, too. You caught me napping.”

“Begging your pardon, sir.” He was too easy to like, she thought, and she wanted to distrust him for it.

“Stop with the ‘sir’ business,” he ordered. “You’re a lot older than me. What was your damn it about, if it wasn’t about my dereliction of duty?”

“My mother!” Jamie replied with plenty of flavor on the word ‘mother.’ How can she be my mother? “Has she talked to you about me?”

“Not the mother you wanted or expected?” Horse asked with amusement. “Every time I see her she asks me about you. Neither of us knows very much, so we just speculate. Give her a chance. I didn’t like her at first but she’s vastly different now.”

“Is she all those things they say she is?” Jamie demanded.

“What things?”

“I saw the Mother Earth Opera! I saw Sammy! I saw this wonderful singer who looks like Admiral Demba. It had to be her! And I met these four crazy female Navy officers who say she’s Commodore Keshona!”

“Really?” Horss asked. “How did they find out?”

“It’s true?” Jamie asked, as Captain Horss had sounded like he almost believed it.

“Would you rather have a sweet little old mother who would bake cookies for you?”

“Damn!” Jones swore, not hearing any hint of a denial from Horss.

/

“She is and she would. Mother and cookies, I mean.” Horss could see Jones’s mind was chewing on big, hard pieces of news. When she didn’t respond for a moment, he took a chance on broaching a delicate subject. “I’m very sorry Captain Direk died. He saved her and Sammy, saved the whole ship. I hope we can justify his death.”

She sucked in a deep breath and nodded, looking away from Horss. Her hazel eyes reflected just a glint of moisture in the low illumination of the bridge. Horss suffered a surprising twinge of empathic grief, knowing what she must feel. He had listened to Mai describe the scene in Doctor Mnro’s office. Mai had seen many tragic events in her tenure on Earth but she had needed to tell Horss of Direk and Jones, as though it affected her so much she would even deign to speak to him in order to unburden herself. It had caused him to feel real concern for Jones, contrary to his previous regard for her mental toughness and lack of sensitivity. It had also led to his call for her to report to him for special duty, so that he and Demba could appraise her fitness.

“You knew I was her daughter?” she asked.

“I made her tell me why she was so interested in you and why Doctor Mnro was so affected by you,” Horss replied.

“I hope she isn’t too disappointed in me. I’ve been a Marine for far too long.”

“Our Jamie Conversations have been interesting. I wouldn’t say she’s disappointed.”

“You must have lied to her.”

“Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Jones, you haven’t heard all of it yet.”

“All of what?”

“How are you coping with this upheaval in your life?” He noted the fact she would not look directly at him now. He remembered Jones as a very in-your-face kind of person who dared you not to pay attention to her. “Your mother and Aylis Mnro asked me to haul you in for inspection. I don’t know why they couldn’t do it themselves.”

/

“I’ll survive,” Jamie lied. Part of her had died and what remained was a different Jamie.

“Good. Then you’re ready for more shocking news.”

“About my mother?”

“There’s more to tell about her. A lot more. But not now. This is something else, and it will further upset you. Can you handle it? I’m not asking you – I’m asking myself if I think you can handle it. There are at least four reasons why I shouldn’t tell you. Are you ready? Or should I keep quiet?”

“What are the four reasons not to tell me?”

“Not important, since I’m going to ignore all four.”

“What are the four reasons?”

“You sound like you’re stalling. I’ll save it for later.”

Tell me the damned four reasons!

“That’s better! One: it’s none of my business. Two: Demba and Mnro should tell you, not me. Three: the explanation will make me sound like a fool. Four: it might embarrass both of us if you can’t handle what I’m going to tell you.”

“Why do you want to tell me whatever this is?”

“I’m sorry if I’ve made you suspicious. I believe I’m doing you a favor. Ever since your mother killed me and Mai saved me, I feel like I’ve got another chance to do better. But I’m still not sure of anything.”

“What do you mean – my mother killed you?”

“She killed me! I’ll tell you the humiliating story one day. Damned strange way to recruit a captain for her ship! You’re still trying to delay me from giving you this wonderful but terrible news. Are you ready?”

/

Horss waited and stared at Jones. Jones wiped at something on her face, made a face, and faced him. She wouldn’t say anything but she was now looking him in the eye, like the normal Jamie Jones.

He had to slow down and think about the parts not yet rehearsed in his mind. He didn’t want to jump right to the key piece of news, because she might slap him and storm off the bridge without giving him a chance to offer proof of what he said. He realized he valued her as an honest person. He knew that most of the troubles in her career as a Marine came as a consequence of her intolerance of the dishonest political machinations of the brass. He admired her for being true to the principles he had often violated to advance his own career.

/

“I’m still here, still waiting, Captain.” Jamie was not sure how much longer she could hold back the pain and the memories. She was also sure her Marines knew something was wrong with her. How can I continue to do my job?

“Sit down,” Horss said. “This may take most of what little time we have.”

/

Jones seated herself, not on a duty station chair but on the deck, leaning against the captain’s navigation tank, not even facing Horss. She held her fatigue cap in both hands, forearms resting on her knees. Her eyes were lowered, probably focused on nothing external. He hated to see a Marine officer looking so close to being broken in spirit.

“Once upon a time,” Horss began, and paused to see if that trite phrase would trigger Jones’s intolerance of fools. To his dismay, she didn’t react. “Once upon a time there was a scientist named Aylis Mnro who discovered how to rejuvenate people in a way affordable by anyone. She realized it would cause serious problems if she couldn’t offer the treatment immediately to all the billions who were already old enough to be facing death.”

“I am familiar with the history of the Mnro Clinics,” Jamie said with some impatience. “She had to roll out a service that would have caused riots when there were not enough clinics to serve the demand. The reality of the treatment was disguised as being superficial and limited, until there were enough facilities to handle the surging demand.”

“But you don’t know the secret parts,” Horss said. “I do. Mnro had the help of three people whose names never appeared in the official history. Two of these people developed most of the devious strategy she used to circumvent trouble from the clamoring masses. Their names were Dawa Phuti Mende and Zakiya Muenda.”

The Doctor Mende?” Jamie asked, surprised.

“You’ll get a chance very soon to meet him and verify what I’ve said.”

“He’s dead!”

“So was I. Briefly.”

“Who was Zakiya Muenda? I know who Mende was.”

“Another anthropologist. You’ve already met her. Your mother.”

Jones leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Horss slid out of his command chair and sat down next to Jones. She opened her eyes to give him a strange expression. “The Five Worlds,” she said. “We’re almost there. My mother is going to steal a dead body! My mother is named Zakiya Muenda! You don’t have much time! I’m about to jump up and run screaming!”

“Zakiya Muenda, Igor Khalanov, Phuti Mende, and Aylis Mnro have been friends for more than a quarter of a millennium!” Horss declared. “They served together on a famous ship, along with a biologist named Patrick Jenkins, who was another person who gave Doctor Mnro technical help in developing her rejuvenation process. They made some very interesting – and unreported – discoveries during their voyages. Did you ever look in the silver bag your mother gave you?”

“No, I gave it back.”

“But you know what it was?”

“No.”

“Jones! Have you no curiosity? It would have made this a little easier if you knew your mother had a real cryptikon in that little bag.”

“A cryptikon?”

“Never mind! I’ll get to the point. The most important person who helped Aylis Mnro was Aylis Mnro. A copy of her. The copy looked exactly like her, was DNA-identical to her, but was partially mechanical. This copy was the person who was as ruthless and relentless as Aylis Mnro needed to be to build and operate the Mnro Clinic network for more than two centuries. The real Aylis Mnro spent the whole time asleep. She awoke to replace her copy and become a crew member on this ship.”

Jamie stared at Horss and Horss stared back, making his gray eyes convince her hazel eyes that he was sane and truthful. Come on, Jones, he thought at her, work it out, see the big implication.

/

“A cryptikon?” Jamie was completely adrift. Had she actually held a cryptikon?

“Forget about that!” Horss yelled at her. “Think about the copy of Aylis Mnro! She built a copy of herself! The copy was animated by an actual surviving member of a precursor race! The copy had all of her memories. If she could build such a copy of herself, she could build a copy of someone else!”

It took great effort to get the cryptikon out of her mind. A copy of Mnro? Jamie’s mind was bumped out of focus again. It was too weird to think about! All she wanted to think about was Direk.

Direk!” Horss shouted his name, even as she found another memory of him.

“Direk?” She tried to withdraw from the memory, tried to understand why Horss was speaking Direk’s name.

“The Direk who died was a copy! The real Direk may still be alive! I wanted you to know. I wanted you to not be depressed, to have hope, and – if you value your dignity – to not be subjected to another traumatic situation where you can’t control yourself.”

Jones’s chest started heaving and Horss began to scoot away from her. She reached out for him and caught his wrist. She almost broke it before she let go. She covered her face with her fatigue cap.

“Go ahead and bawl,” Horss said. “I know Marines cry. I’ve seen them cry like babies. Doesn’t mean they can’t kick your butt after they blow their noses.”

She almost laughed. “I want to believe you! I want to so badly! This… this new information inside of me, these intense images and scenes, they’re battering me into some vastly different concept of myself. I can’t figure out who I am anymore! But if Direk is still alive! Dear God! If he’s alive…!”

“But his copy is dead,” Horss said. “I didn’t have a chance to get to know him. None of us did. But we will have a memorial service. He was a real person and he was vital to our mission.”

“When?” Jamie asked, realizing the Direk she had met could not be simply discarded, like a broken tool. But right now it would be difficult to be fair to his memory.

“If Doctor Mnro doesn’t say anything soon,” Horss replied, “I’ll ask your mother to set a time and place. I don’t like to lose a crew member and I won’t let them be forgot.” He gave Jamie a few more moments to calm down and return to his presence from her lost land of memories.

“Time for a special assignment,” he announced, claiming her attention. “You will accompany your mother and Aylis – would you believe she insists I call her Aylis? – into the Five Worlds.”

“I don’t know…”

“It’s an order, Jones.” Horss stood up. “I know it’s hard to know whether to feel sad or happy right now.”

Jamie Jones stood up. She put her cap on, started to salute. “How can I function?” She turned the salute into a quick tear-wiping.

“Just remember the Marine motto.”

Semper fidelis? How does that apply?”

“Oh, I thought it was kill anything that moves. Just be faithful to yourself, whoever you are. Would you care to guess what Deep Space ship your mother and Aylis served aboard?”

“Don’t tell me it was the Frontier.”

“Well… OK.”

“Captain Horss!”

“You sound just like my mother. By the way: speaking of the Frontier, the Freedom has a complete copy of Deep Space Fleet operational and personnel records. Take a look at them and see if you think they’re authentic. They’re a major reason for my lack of sleep. They’re fascinating. There are things in them that would be classified and withheld from the public even beyond current times. But don’t get too involved in them right now. Listen up! As you know, we’re about to run the final leg to the Five Worlds. I’ll make an announcement giving both military and civilian crew the chance to abandon ship. Marines will secure the departure process and account for the departing crew. This will occur about two hours from now. I wish we could convince everyone to remain with us, but the admiral feels it’s unethical to order anyone to stay aboard.”

“Can the ship be maintained with a small crew?” she asked.

“This ship hardly needs a crew at all,” Horss replied. “All we do is damage it! I’m mainly concerned with the safety of those who wish to leave the ship. They were placed aboard the Freedom by the Navy for a reason. It’s possible they’ll bring trouble to the Five Worlds by going ashore there.”

“The Five Worlds is a peaceful community. Why trouble?”

“There are two purposes for the mission, represented by your mother and by Etrhnk. Your mother needs the ship to search for your father. Etrhnk needs the ship to place its cargo where it can be pirated. The cargo is the people aboard, the wealth of their talents and knowledge. If they go ashore at the Five Worlds, they may be abducted by force, and the Five Worlds would come under attack.”

“By whom?”

“The Navy will try to coerce the return of our ex-crew. If that doesn’t go well, the Five Worlds may be raided by pirates from beyond the Union. Your mother, Sammy, Freddy, and I have seen their leader, or whatever she is. I was never more scared in my life! There’s too much to explain right now. Trust me. Please!”

“My father? My mother has this whole ship just to find my father? Who is my father?”

“My feelings get hurt when people laugh at me. Ask your mother.”

Horss saluted, forcing Jones to quickly salute him. She turned and almost stumbled, retreating out of the star-filled bridge.

= = =

People crowded into the main port-side debarkation bay, most of them carrying their possessions. Thousands more waited in lines in the connecting ring corridors. Jamie made her way through the crowd toward where her Marines were grouped.

She had, perhaps, over-worked and over-trained the men and the four Navy women the last few days but they seemed to take it well. The hard work was mostly for her own benefit, to keep her from thinking too much about Direk, and to hide her tears in the sweat. Now she knew he could be alive! Now the grief could go away for a while.

She was met with some concern in the eyes of her men. She assumed it was about the situation, not about her occasional mood crashes. Well, nothing would be the same again and it probably wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t be the same kind of Marine she once was.

“You heard Captain Horss’s announcement,” she said when she had everyone’s attention. “This option applies to all military as well. When the civilians leave, you may follow them. There will be perhaps an additional hour for you to retrieve your personal gear. Notify me on shiplink as you depart.”

Desert, you mean,” Aguila said. “You’re staying. I’m staying.” Miguel was her best Marine and she expected his reaction.

“You know I’ll continue to pound on you and run you through the ten-kilo course. Are you in love with me?”

“Is that what you call it?” Aguila grinned at her. “I get very excited when I receive one of your signature bruises. My collection isn’t complete yet.”

“Glad to have you with me, Miguel.”

Jamie was pleased that all of them chose to stay, as she ran down the roster and queried them individually. They were a diverse lot, yet they had one thing in common: they were crazy. She hadn’t known them long but for some reason they had responded well to her. Perhaps it was the nature of the Hub Mission. They knew it was potentially fatal.

“How about our camp followers?” She turned to Wingren and the other female Navy officers. She knew their choice. They were devoted to the person they believed was Commodore Keshona. They were crazier than the Marines. They could also run the ten-kilo course without any trouble.

As usual, Wingren spoke for them. “The fun is just beginning, Major. We wouldn’t miss it for anything!”

“So, is it true, Major?” Aguila asked.

“Is what true?”

“Was Admiral Demba Commodore Keshona? With Horss and Keshona running the boat, we’re loaded with quality brass!”

“No one has confirmed that. But I asked Horss and he didn’t deny it.”

“You do think it’s possible, don’t you?” Wingren asked.

Jamie nodded agreement for the first time, after Wingren had posed some form of the same question too many times. Then her auxiliary memory riveted her.

Direk again visited her from the past, without being triggered by any obvious stimulus. She was a child and a big man with palest blue eyes was kneeling in front of her. It was Direk, her first memory of him, and it was colored by hatred of him. He had taken her from her mother, the woman who would become Keshona. The memory of hatred of him when she was a child made her love for Direk when he was an old man even more profound.

“Are you okay, Major?” Aguila asked.

She shook her head. She rubbed her wet eyes. “No. I’m usually a very private person, but I should tell you something I couldn’t say at the daily briefing. Captain Direk, the Chief Science Officer, died rescuing my mother and Sammy from an attempt by the Navy Commander to remove her from the ship. That was what precipitated our sudden departure from Headquarters. I knew Captain Direk. In another lifetime… I loved him.”

Everyone in her small audience was thrown into a confused mental state. Jamie could see sympathy and concern battling surprise and curiosity on their faces.

“What’s that look on your face, Miguel?” Jamie asked Sgt. Aguila, trying to interrupt her flashes of memory. “Did you think I’ve always enjoyed being a girl Marine who likes to hurt boy Marines?”

“Captain Direk rescued your mother?” Wingren asked.

“Admiral Demba is my mother.” She saw the shock on Wingren’s face. “I have more to say.” She should have expended more emotion in Horss’s presence. She was surprised at his sensitivity, considering his former duty as flagship captain. If she could have blown it out of her system on the bridge she might not be skirting the edge of emotional chaos now. “What Captain Horss bluntly implied in his announcement to the crew,” Jamie struggled to say, “is that departing crew are making the wrong choice. Their presence in the Five Worlds will bring danger to that community and to themselves. We want them to stay on the ship.”

“Demba is your mother?” Wingren said, stuck on the wrong topic, shaking her head in wonder.

“What can we do?” Aguila asked. “You want us to talk to them?”

“There are image projectors in these bays,” one of the Navy women suggested.

“Turn them on,” Jamie said, “and let me feed my shiplink data into them.”

The four Navy officers needed only a few moments with their shiplink augments to access the nearest projection system. A blue curtain of light, deep with a third dimension, bloomed next to a plain bulkhead at the end of the bay. Heads turned in that direction as the light caught their attention.

Jamie logged into the ship’s public data storage and performed a simple search for the original name of her mother: Zakiya Muenda. An extensively tabbed folder of data appeared in her ocular terminal and was replicated in the wall-sized image volume. Jamie picked the tab in which she had, only minutes ago, found a still picture of her mother.

An unsmiling woman sat for an official portrait wearing a uniform made famous by countless entertainment episodes glorifying Earth’s early years of space exploration beyond the solar system. She was framed by data in an official format unlike that of the Union Navy. Her identifying data displayed at the top of the image: “Commander Zakiya Muenda, Linguist, Archaeologist, born 23-01-2400, Africa, Earth, Third Officer, DSF Frontier, Human Communities Medal of Service in the Cause of Civilization, Deep Space Medal of Highest Honor…”

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” Wingren was shocked. The other female Navy officers were shocked. Even some of the Marines understood enough to wonder. “That’s Admiral Demba! Where did that image originate? Was she also an actress – in a Deep Space episode?”

Jamie shook her head. “That’s real data from Deep Space Fleet records,” she said. She opened another tab on the folder her search had first produced. She flipped through pages showing glimpses of material Zakiya Muenda had produced as an officer and research scientist on the Deep Space Fleet Frontier. The volume of work spanned decades.

Jamie opened a third tab on the folder and found an index to more recorded images. She opened picture after picture, rapidly scanning them. Again, years of living and working were recorded in them. She stopped and backed up to an image that looked important to her curiosity. It was a group portrait of the crew of the Frontier, all eight of them. There was her mother in the center of the group, and standing next to… Aylis Mnro!

“That’s Mnro!” a Marine declared.

“And Khalanov!” another said.

Jamie hardly listened while the Navy officers and her Marines discussed the image. Her eyes had locked onto the tall officer standing on the other side of her mother, whose hand rested on her mother’s shoulder. He looked very familiar, and she loved the look of him.

“Where did all of this come from?” Wingren nearly screamed. “How can it be the real records of Deep Space Fleet?”

Jamie tore her eyes away from the man in the picture. “I don’t know. Captain Horss told me it was in the ship’s database.”

“It will at least give them something to think about,” Aguila said. “Wouldn’t that be something? Mnro, Demba, Khalanov – members of Deep Space Fleet?”

“Do you realize how old they must be?” one of the Navy officers asked.

People started crowding into the hangar from the connecting ring corridors. The level of conversation rose to a roar in the crowd. Someone opened a vast partition at the far side of the bay so the crowd could expand into the adjoining cargo transfer bay. Several more image projectors turned on and showed the same data.

“We got their attention,” Wingren said. Then the Rhyan officer gathered with her Earthian friends for a few moments and turned back to Jamie. “Major, let me input some data we’ve collected.”

“Let me see it first, Wingren.” Jamie watched the beginning of a presentation in her shiplink. It started with an old Rhyan war veteran displaying an image of a dark woman in a Navy commodore’s uniform. Other images came from undisclosed sources. There were more than three dozen images, each of them unique, most of them of low quality. All of the images were resized and normalized to a standard illumination and carefully merged, resolving into a clear holographic portrait of a woman who looked exactly like Admiral Demba. None of the individual images were conclusive as to the identity of the person, but the composite image was startling in its clarity. Jamie felt a tingling of goose flesh, looking at the familiar face with the unfamiliar expression of lethal intent that her imagination seemed to apply. That woman had killed millions of Rhyan, drastically shortening the war, and no one yet knew how she did it.

Damn, Wingren!” Jamie exclaimed. “Is there more?”

“This version is ten minutes in length. We have another version that documents our methods and sources.”

“Go ahead and show this one.”

Jamie watched the program again on the big holographic display, dividing her attention to see the reactions of the people who were prepared to leave the ship. While she did this, Wingren manipulated the display volume to reinstall the previous images below the documentary.

“Ruby Reed,” Jamie said to Wingren. “The name the Opera Master gave her. Find her and put her up there.”

She was not surprised the pale European singer closely resembled her African mother. The dates of birth and death fit neatly in the space between Zakiya Muenda and Commodore Keshona. When the documentary reached its dramatic conclusion of imaging, Wingren placed that portrait into the sequence.

“What a person!” Aguila declared, his voice barely heard above the roar of conversation around them. “This will be a great mission!”

A flow of people started toward Jamie and her contingent. Questions bombarded them. Jamie was reduced to simply shouting at them to stay on the ship. There was so much confusion she couldn’t tell what effect they had, but by the time the dock warning sounded, Jamie could see empty spaces across the deck of the debarkation bay.

Jamie ordered her Marines to take their assigned places to control the egress. The main portal cleared to show a cold white tunnel. There was some movement in the crowd toward the tunnel, but many more started to flow back from the portal. The crowd in the bay grew much thinner. The mechanical door at the other end of the tunnel rolled aside. The Marines moved a barrier aside at the portal. A few people made their way to the portal and walked down the tunnel. Many more people stood still, silently trying to make a decision, while others were discussing matters with those near them.

As the bay emptied, those who remained formed a group that aimed itself at Jamie. When they approached, some of her Marines returned to her side, as if to protect her. She recognized Professor Sung, the cultural historian, among the crowd of the undecided. He became their spokesman.

“That is a provocative series of images,” Sung said, addressing Jamie. “Compelling, even though very improbable. What does it mean?”

“It means, sir,” Jamie responded, feeling much better than she had in years, “that this mission is not what any of us thought it was! It may also mean we have a good chance of surviving it!”

“We are aware of the dismal history of adventures beyond the frontiers of the Union. Why is the Five Worlds not a good choice?”

“I don’t know how it was in your case but I suspect most of our civilian crew were forced by the Navy to participate in this voyage. Leaving the ship will probably not help you. The Navy will come after you.”

“And put us back on the ship?”

“Only if they catch us! They could put you on another ship. The implication is that none of us were ever supposed to return to Union space. Captain Horss told me we were probably to become slaves somewhere beyond the Union boundary.”

“Then Demba is actually acting against the Navy,” the historian said. “She knows it was never a legitimate exploration mission. She is in fact trying to steal the ship from the Navy. I would applaud but I know it’s a doomed attempt. There is no good choice for us!”

“I believe Demba and Aylis Mnro must have planned long ago to steal this ship,” Jamie said. “Hopefully, that means they think they can get away with it. The fact that Demba gave you a choice to leave the ship means she doesn’t intend to harm you. The fact that Captain Horss asked me to try to stop you from leaving sends the same message. Stay on the ship. Take your chances with someone like Demba, who may have the ability to keep us all safe.”

“I hope your logic is correct,” Sung said. “Either choice means our lives will continue out of our control and may end badly, but the Freedom will certainly be the more interesting choice. And the more friendly choice.”

The final group of civilians made a unanimous decision and departed for their quarters on the ship. Jamie was left standing with her Marines and the Navy officers, and she was still fascinated by the crew portrait of the Frontier.

“What is it?” Lieutenant Wingren asked, noticing Jamie’s interest.

“Do you know who he is?” Jamie pointed to the tall officer next to her mother.

“If it’s authentic,” the Rhyan officer replied with awe, “that would probably be Captain Alexandros Gerakis!”

“That’s what I thought,” Jamie muttered to herself.

Climbing a Mountain to Phuti

Jamie was still talking with her Security contingent when Demba, Mnro, and Sammy appeared by transmat. Everyone snapped to attention and Jamie exchanged salutes with Demba – with her mother. Jamie could not easily slip into thinking of Admiral Demba as mother. Doctor Mnro hung back with Sammy as Demba stepped forward and put everyone at ease. Demba turned and glanced at the images still displayed in the debarkation bay.

“How many left the ship, Major?” Demba inquired of her.

“Two hundred five civilians, Admiral,” Jamie answered.

Jamie wanted to point at the Frontier crew and ask a certain question about Alexandros Gerakis but it didn’t seem like the right time. Not too many days ago she would have been nose-to-nose with Demba, demanding to know everything, but she had ceased being that person. Now she was becoming someone’s daughter, and she was assaulted by everything that revelation brought with it. Now she had different needs, different perspectives. She would be cringing if she chanced to remember some of the stupid things she did during her life as a Marine.

“I don’t know why your show kept everyone else aboard,” Demba said, “but I’m grateful – for their sake. Well done!”

“Captain Horss’s less-than-subtle announcement helped,” Jamie said. “The crew has courage and intelligence. And I think we appealed to their curiosity.”

“Are you ready to go with us?” Demba looked at Jamie hopefully.

“Yes, sir,” Jamie replied with Marine respect, standing at parade-rest. All of her men had copied the same stance even though Demba had ordered at ease. “Do you have time to meet my men and my Navy volunteers?”

Her mother nodded assent. “At ease!” Jamie ordered, relaxed her posture, and stepped aside as the Marines and the Navy officers formed a queue to introduce themselves to Demba and Mnro – and also to Sammy, much to his delight.

Lieutenant Commander Wingren was last in line, probably by choice. Demba regarded her with a raised eyebrow. Wingren picked up her chin and saluted smartly. She put forth her hand to shake.

Demba did not hesitate to take her hand and she held it longer than usual.

/

“I saw your documentary,” Zakiya said, finally understanding why these Navy officers had been her watchers for so long. She sensed that they had no political agenda concerning Keshona and hoped they were not admirers of Keshona. “You know more about Keshona than I do. She’s not someone I want to remember.”

“Admiral, being Rhyan I have always been obliged to hate Keshona,” Wingren said, “but from the first moment I saw you I could never transfer that hate to you. Keshona doesn’t really exist except as a symbol, and you were a real person who treated me with respect I didn’t deserve. I’m sorry we bothered you so much in Archives. We couldn’t help ourselves. But now we are here to help you, if we can.”

“I saw you and your friends were trying to get aboard,” Zakiya said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I helped get your orders cut. I’m not sure what my motivation was but I know it was impulsive. May I?” She indicated by pointing that she wanted to examine something she saw on Wingren’s body. She looked at Wingren’s neck, then the back of one of her hands, studying the precise and elegant tattoos of ancient tribal ancestry. It made her auxiliary memory immerse her into a vanished world of desert nomads: the sights and sounds and smells as bright and clear and pungent as sunshine on polished stirrups, the harmonized work-chants of well-diggers in a pit, and the spice and bakery aromas in a cook tent. She translated the meaning of Wingren’s tattoos, surprising the Rhyan woman – and herself. “One day we’ll have to talk,” Zakiya said. “It’s possible I knew some of your ancestors from the deserts. I did fieldwork on Rhyandh as an anthropologist a long time ago. That was back when I was someone I do want to remember.”

= = =

Jamie was content to hold Sammy’s hand and walk with him ahead of Demba and Mnro down the cold white tunnel into the Five Worlds habitat. She had a lifetime of questions to ask both women but it would have to wait. Sammy was a calming and distracting influence. It was all she could do to keep up with his questions and comments. Despite the peril he had just experienced, the details of which Jamie was yet to learn, Sammy seemed simply excited about their visit into the Five Worlds.

People met them who wore no uniforms or badges and carried no weapons. They were officials who registered the four of them as guests. Surprisingly, Sammy now had an official record of Union citizenship and he seemed happy about it. Jamie received a better welcome than she expected, perhaps because she was obviously Sammy’s friend.

Admiral Demba initially found no friendly faces among this informal group of officials. Aylis Mnro was rigorously identified, because no one could believe it was her, then the smiles came out. They closed the Port of Entry and everyone working there escorted them into the Five Worlds.

As they paraded through the port area Demba talked with several of the people near her who wore clothing that Jamie assumed was costumes from ancient times on Earth. Perhaps they wore the costumes as a normal routine – a way of welcoming all new guests. Her mother was relaxed and now attracted more persons willing to talk to her. Demba asked questions and made comments and smiled. The black uniform she wore seemed to become invisible to the Five-Worlders.

“It’s what she always used to do,” Mnro explained to her when Jamie had a chance to query her about Demba. “We always worked as a team. She collected the cultural data, I collected the physical data. We both enjoyed seeing new faces and talking with people.”

“In Deep Space Fleet?”

“Yes. We loved it! There were so many surprises, yet people were always people, no matter how deep in space we encountered them.” Mnro fell silent, obviously drawn into memories.

It’s good to see Aylis Mnro happy in the moment, Jamie thought. It was also fascinating to see the woman who was her mother displaying yet another facet of her life and talents. She was in awe of these two women.

Jamie sensed the particular scrutiny of one of the local citizens. She instinctively but casually placed herself between the stranger and Sammy. This reaction seemed to make the person decide to approach and speak to her.

“They appear genuinely interested in us,” the man commented, indicating Demba and Mnro. He was almost her height, taller than most of the others. She guessed he was of European lineage, judging from his long face and blue eyes, although he wore a costume that seemed Asian. He was young and serious of expression.

“I think they are,” Jamie agreed.

“How do they know the Old One?”

Jamie judged the young man’s demeanor more carefully. He had targeted her for inquiry. He was probably an official of the Port of Five Worlds. “Does your job give you reason to question me?” she asked. “We’ve completed the necessary formalities and we have permission to enter the Five Worlds.”

“You have permission because the Old One requested you have it. She knows you.”

“I don’t know who your ‘Old One’ is,” Jamie said.

“She spoke your name with recognition when I read to her the list of guests who requested to meet with her. She did not sound as interested in the other two, even though one is Aylis Mnro.”

My name? I don’t know her, or I don’t remember her. I suspect you and I are of similar professions. I’m the Chief of Security of the Freedom. My name you know. Who are you?”

“I apologize for my poor manners,” the man said. “My name is Gregor. Yes, I’m in charge of our security force. Something does not feel right to me. This is the most unusual visit by the Navy I have experienced in my ten years of duty.”

“Demba and Mnro didn’t tell you anything more than that they wished to visit this ‘Old One?’”

“They referred to her as Nori Hoshino, which I know is her real name. Almost no one else knows her real name. That Aylis Mnro knows her is a fact disturbing to me. Do you know if I should not be disturbed?”

“I still don’t know who she is,” Jamie said, wanting to resolve the matter more quickly than at the current pace. She had no instructions on what not to say to anyone. Her mother should know Jamie’s reputation concerning her big mouth. “Does the Old One have any relationship to Doctor Mende?”

“I was about to approach that subject, but you’re somewhat intimidating, Major Jones.”

Jamie reached for Sammy as he started to wander off. “Me? I’m just here to watch Sammy.”

“Why did you ask about Doctor Mende?” Gregor asked.

“How many more security people do you have?” Jamie appreciated Gregor’s slow but courteous inquiry. Jamie decided to return the courtesy by warning Gregor of the intentions of Demba and Mnro. There could be trouble and Gregor needed to prepare for the possibility.

“Not very many. Should I activate all of them?”

“Demba and Mnro want to take Doctor Mende from the Five Worlds,” Jamie said with a smile that anticipated Gregor’s reaction.

Gregor reacted in sincere distress. “That would not be permitted! The Old One knows that would hurt us!”

“I would put all of your personnel on duty, Gregor. Also, you should start a rumor the Navy is here to steal Doctor Mende. I’m not going to make it easy for those two to do it.”

“His body is still at the shrine,” Gregor said, checking an instrument he carried. “They could have just transmatted it. Why do they want it?”

“As you were beginning to suspect, Gregor, they both knew the Old One, and so also Doctor Mende. They and Mende served together on the crew of a ship. I don’t know why they would want his body, either dead or alive. But I do believe their reasons must be good.”

“Doctor Mende was in the Navy?”

“These are very old people, Gregor, and they were crewmates long before the Navy and the Union existed.”

“Do you think the Navy wants Doctor Mende to help heal another troubled society? Can he be revived by Doctor Mnro?”

“I’m betting he can, but the Navy has no interest in Mende. Only Demba and Mnro want him.”

“Please excuse me, Major,” Gregor said urgently. “Thank you for your information.” He hurried off, speaking into a communications augment.

“Who was he?” Sammy asked, not understanding the conversation with Gregor, spoken in Standard.

“A policeman,” Jamie replied. “Your mother will be angry with me for what I told him.”

“Will she spank you?”

Jamie laughed and stopped. “She hasn’t spanked you, has she?”

“No! She’s too nice! And I’m not gonna make her want to!”

“She is nice,” Jamie said thoughtfully. “Maybe too nice.”

Demba cast a long gaze back at Jamie, perhaps because she saw her talking to Gregor. Jamie smiled inwardly. She might still behave badly as her mother’s little girl but she felt justified for what she told Gregor. It then occurred to her that Demba could have heard every word of her conversation with Gregor. She had Marine-grade augments. She smiled outwardly at Demba, getting a raised eyebrow from her mother.

The parade of officials and guests passed through a grand opening and spread out along a balcony that only became a balcony when Jamie’s mind was able to comprehend what her eyes saw. Here was a windowless verge onto a planetary vista curled into a tube of bright clouds and mountain peaks. She would only have known it was a tube – a giant cylinder – because it was a fact of history, as her eyes could barely translate that historical fact into an explanation of what she saw.

Less than three per cent of the human races who lived in the Union resided on a planet; however, every space habitat either disguised its living area as a planetary landscape, or at least included as much of a planet’s features as it could. The Five Worlds was an extreme example of planet-duplication. Upon entering it you were forced to understand how vast its living space was and how precise and monumental its engineering was. You were also forced to imagine what a miracle it was that it even existed in its magnificent completed state, having been built in an almost constant state of disagreement and outright warfare among its constituent Earth cultures.

Jamie’s perspective was god-like. She looked down and up and to the left and to the right and saw mountains capped with snow, hills green with forests, valleys cut by shining rivers. This three-hundred-sixty-degree universe projected away from her around a cylinder of partial cloud cover, until the haze of distance and of weather obscured the far end, two hundred kilometers away. Despite a previous experience of viewing an immersive image of the Five Worlds, reality remained the supreme experience. She and Sammy were captivated for a long time, until Demba broke their trance, urging them to move on.

A tubular net floated into position and attached the hoop of its mouth to a gate in the balcony railing. A small aircraft with transparent butterfly-like wings floated at the other end of the tube. They stepped through the hoop, from artificial gravity to weightlessness, and floated through the tube to the aircraft. Sammy seemed quite at ease in the micro-gravity and didn’t need Jamie’s help pulling himself along the open weave of the net. She wondered where he had become so accustomed to freefall. Seated in the aircraft, Jamie could see people launching themselves into the air from the balcony, their clothing sprouting translucent wings and other airflow control surfaces. The aircraft disconnected from the balcony tube and began its flight. The flying people outside waved their winged arms in bird-like fashion, propelling themselves forward and downward. They accompanied the airplane toward the rugged terrain below the clouds. Jamie could identify Gregor as one of the human fliers.

The airplane silently glided many kilometers away from the balcony, down through clouds, emerging above a green valley dotted with villages. They landed at one of the villages, floating silently into a grassy field between rows of quaint rock-faced houses with steep roofs. The flying people from the port arrived after them, doing expertly-timed stalls to hop onto the ground, their insect-like flying surfaces vanishing into their costumes.

Jamie walked behind her mother, Sammy, and Mnro down a brick and stone path that seemed much older than the Five Worlds. Their escorts followed in pairs behind them and hung back as they approached an old woman who sat on a granite bench under an apple tree. The seated person began a struggle to gain her feet and Mnro and Demba rushed to help her upward.

“Nori?” Mnro queried, supporting the ancient oriental woman by her arm and hand.

“I couldn’t believe it was you!” the old woman said, grasping Mnro’s hand that held hers. “Have you come to argue with me about my age? I almost turned you away.”

“Nori,” Demba spoke with deep affection, holding the other arm of the elder.

“So you are this Fidelity person! Zakiya! And where is Jamie? She was the only reason I let you come!”

The old woman gazed at Mnro and Demba with joy but turned away to spot Jamie’s face. She frowned slightly to try to recognize her, then found Sammy standing next to Jamie. Sammy was staring at her in innocent wonder. Sammy wore shorts and his injury was obvious. The prosthesis didn’t blend with the rest of his leg. The Old One glanced up at Mnro with a frown before taking Sammy’s hand and smiling at him.

“I’m Sammy.” He returned the smile, shaking her hand a little too hard. “You’re old!”

“And you are so young!” she responded in Twenglish. “Why are you here? I didn’t know children traveled on Navy ships.”

“Zakiya is my mother now and I have to stay with her. She didn’t want me to come here because of my leg, but I can walk! I’m sorry I said you were old. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I do. Rafael is old and I like him a lot.”

“He likes to talk.” Demba said, smiling.

“Oh, yes!” Aylis Mnro agreed.

The old woman chuckled, released Sammy’s hand, and turned to Jamie. She looked up at her and Jamie almost felt obliged to lower herself to ease the strain of the stooped elder having to peer up at her. The old woman raised her hand and Jamie did bend over, not realizing she was going to snatch her cap from her head.

“Turn,” she said, pointing to one side. “Now stand up straight.”

She handed Jamie’s cap back. She caught one of Jamie’s hands in hers. Her hands were dry, bony, the skin like speckled paper, but warm and strong.

“She is his daughter,” the old woman said to Demba, “and she must be yours. I must have shrunk! I don’t remember her being so tall! She is Jamie, isn’t she?”

“Yes, Nori,” Demba replied. She looked to her daughter. “Jamie, Nori’s father is Koji Hoshino.”

Jamie had no idea who Koji Hoshino was, until she mentally reviewed the portrait of the Frontier’s crew. It seemed that she still had an eye for good-looking men. She seized the chance to ask an important question about fathers.

“Who is my father, Nori? They won’t tell me!”

“Why not? You must know your father. Alexandros is your father! He would be proud of you! You are such a fearsome warrior now, but you still have the simple loveliness for which Direk expressed his pleasure to me. Ah, Direk! Aylis’s misunderstood son. Some of the old times are still inside my brain. Do you remember when you and he stopped here to visit with Phuti and me?”

Jamie wanted to know why Nori considered Direk misunderstood but an incredibly sharp and pungent memory caught her and stopped her from talking or even breathing. On their visit to the Five Worlds, Phuti (Jamie had addressed Doctor Mende as Phuti!) mistakenly assumed she and Direk were lovers and found them romantic accommodations that caused them to investigate the possibility of physical intimacy. The results were embarrassing and comical at best. Even so, the memory shocked her, pushing tears out of her. She vaguely heard Demba speak a warning to the old woman not to mention Direk.

“Nori, we don’t have much time,” Mnro said. “We came to see Phuti.”

The Old One paused to think. She was extremely aged but Jamie felt she was still mentally alert and capable.

“I did not think it was only me you wanted to see,” the Old One said. “Word has already reached me that you want to take Phuti away with you.”

“Do you signify resistance?” Mnro asked.

“If you cannot be made to abandon your desire for Phuti, then we must walk. We must walk to him and see what happens. If it can be done, then it can be done. Resistance, yes, there will be that!”

“Will you go with us, Nori?”

“I’ll go as far as I can.”

They began walking in the sunlight of this small mountain valley and into the next nearby village with its stone-paved streets and small shops and restaurants. As they passed through, in the middle of the central street, all activity ceased. Merchants and tradesmen closed their businesses and joined their customers in the procession behind Nori’s group. A small school opened its doors and a dozen children rushed into the street to follow.

“Children!” Jamie said with awe. “So many of them!”

“We’re not continuous,” Nori commented. “The Mnro Clinic is no more than a medical assistance here. Even so, they’ve let me live too long! I am their poor substitute for Phuti. When I die, another child can be conceived.”

In a few minutes they reached the pastures at the edge of the village where goats and sheep nibbled in short grass. They turned up a well-worn road whose stony ruts sparkled with bits of quartz. Ahead were terraces of grain and field vegetables on the slopes. Behind them, many of the inhabitants of the village followed, walking quietly. Farmers came to the road and joined the procession as it passed.

They rounded a promontory and entered a higher, narrower valley. The road steepened and Nori moved more slowly, straining her aged body. Sammy seemed to begin to feel the drag of the prosthesis on his amputated leg. Jamie helped the old woman, holding her hand. Demba took one of Sammy’s hands.

They stopped to rest at an overlook where sheer rock walls captured echoes from far below. The quiet parade of people stopped along the road behind them. They waited for Nori to recover.

It became very quiet, so quiet it seemed to make her mother restless. Jamie watched as Demba stepped away from Nori and the silent attending crowd. Jamie was startled when Demba sang a single clear note across the gap to the reflecting stone walls. She moved to another spot and sang two notes, bell-like, at an odd interval. Jamie could not see a reason for an admiral to do this, but of course this woman was far more than just an admiral. Jamie glanced at the security officer Gregor to see if he was as surprised as she was. It seemed so.

“Over there,” Nori said to Demba. “Near the edge.”

Demba moved to the spot at the edge of the cliff. She sang three notes which carried far and sustained echoes well.

“Sing?” Nori suggested hopefully.

The old woman must have remembered that Demba could sing. Had she seen the Mother Earth Opera, or was her memory from a very long time ago, perhaps before Jamie was born? If this was to be an act on Demba’s part to subvert resistance through music, no matter how wonderful a singer she was, Jamie thought it was at best amusing. What kind of music would fit such a setting as this? Yet Jamie was anxious to hear Demba sing, perhaps to verify at least one unbelievable thing about her mother.

Demba sang! The sound filled the natural theater. An almost atonal song began like a lament, an eerily melancholy sound that tugged at Jamie’s emotions, making her anticipate what else it might become. The path of the song began to climb. It could not be called melody or even variation, yet it progressed. It was a struggle toward order, its almost wordless notes a running battle against disorder, a search for beauty and resolution. It carried Jamie’s emotions ever upward, even making her breathing synchronize to the rhythm of the strange song. It ended in triumph and release, its magic finished too soon. Looking around at the expressions on everyone’s face she thought something had changed. She looked again at Gregor. There was an agreement in reaction between her and Gregor. Reality was gently shifted a short distance away from what everyone once knew.

Nori Hoshino rested and regained her strength. They resumed their journey.

“What was that?” Mnro asked Demba, breaking the spell that was cast over everyone. “What language?”

“It was a song I believe to be half a billion years old,” Demba replied. “I’m remembering Phuti now and our many research projects and this one just came to me. I spent forty years, off and on, deciphering it. I can’t be sure it was meant to be a song. I made some guesses and I let myself get carried away. I’m sure the Elder Race would not have recognized their composition. This place made me think about it musically. The echoes, the ringing. The way the notes are related, I thought they should sound as though struck like bells.”

“It was the most alien thing I’ve ever heard,” Jamie commented. “Why did you sing it?”

“Just for the fun of it.” Her mother smiled at her, perhaps mischievously.

Jamie could not quite believe that reason. She could not imagine such an effective performance was due to the whim of enjoyment, but she could now believe Demba was the one who sang at the Mother Earth Opera.

“As a warning,” the Old One – Nori – said. “There are wonderful things we don’t understand, and they will come to us whether we want them or not. And we may be changed forever.”

“I never knew you were so mystical, Nori,” Mnro commented.

“The closer you get to the end of life, perhaps the more mystical you become,” Nori replied. “The mountains help.”

They moved on, gaining altitude. They entered another village beyond the mountain pass into the next valley. Villagers awaited them, filling the narrow, steep streets. Somewhere above them a bell with a deep note rang very slowly.

The villages were small and not far apart, Jamie noted. They were more akin to neighborhoods in a lumpy landscape. Nor was the Five Worlds built on a planetary scale – it was more compact. But it was very easy for a person to feel small and planet-bound and living in an era before space travel.

“How is she doing?” Demba asked Mnro, referring to Nori.

“Not badly for a woman who has lived about fifty years beyond her Mnro Clinic Warranty.”

“Will she make it to the top?”

“I doubt it. You remember how far it is.”

“And if she doesn’t make it?”

“Or if we run out of time.”

“Why didn’t you keep her under treatment?”

“Why didn’t I learn how to rewrite human nature?”

“You certainly didn’t give me any chance to assert my human nature,” Demba said in mock complaint.

“Maybe you don’t remember it,” Mnro said, “but back at the beginning you warned me that you would try to rebel. You authorized me to take what measures were necessary to keep you on the path to this moment. I wish you had not. Look what I did to Jamie. And I could have done worse.”

That last sentence from Mnro was emphasized by a somber tone of her voice, making Jamie wonder and Demba pause.

“It was your copy,” Demba said, “not you, and she also almost let Nori slip away.”

“She couldn’t come often enough in person. And she couldn’t keep Clinic staff stationed here very long, because the place begins to shut down your imagination and your ambition. Phuti did too well. I almost prefer it when they were killing each other.”

“I think Phuti would agree with you,” Demba said sadly. “I don’t think he would have wanted to live here too long. The Five Worlds feels like an archaeological site waiting for its remains be dug up and sent to a museum.”

“Alex and Setek shouldn’t have left him,” Mnro said. “I’m sure Phuti would have wanted to go with them. But Alex knew he was in the midst of bringing peace to this world and never gave him a chance to decide. Given the choice, he probably would have stayed here, but he would have wanted to go with them.”

In the middle of a great forest Nori faltered. Jamie caught her before she could strike the ground. She placed her gently against the base of a tree and sat down with her to provide support. Sammy sat on a convenient rock. He rubbed where the regeneration machine connected to his leg.

Mnro knelt and placed a hand on Nori’s pumping chest. Nori looked up at her with a serene expression as she labored to breathe.

“You waited too long!” Nori said between gasps. “I’m sure my father is dead. Must you take Phuti?”

“Yes,” Mnro replied. “We must.”

“Why? He can’t be vital to your crew needs. He’s only an anthropologist.”

“He belongs with us, Nori! He’s one of us. We were shipmates and explorers. We are going exploring again. He would want to go with us!”

“He isn’t dead?”

“You told me yourself,” Demba said, “when I was last here. You said he was tired and just resting. He’s been waiting for us, waiting for us to come and take him away. We need him!”

“The people will be afraid to lose him,” Nori said. “All in the Five Worlds make a pilgrimage to his grave, to remember him and to remember his lessons. If a man feels hate for his neighbor, he makes a pilgrimage and returns with love in his heart. The Five Worlds will fall back into chaos without him!”

“If his legacy requires his dead body to maintain itself, then his legacy is peculiar and weak,” Demba spoke with conviction. “Nor is Dawa Phuti Mende such an extraordinary man that others should be so much less, so dependent, so fearful to lose him. I think the people of the Five Worlds must give him up, or else their future will always look to them like their past, never changing, never challenging. But a different future will surely come, and when it comes, it may be unbearable, because the change will terrify them. What Phuti gave these people wasn’t an eternity of peaceful social order, but merely a stretch of time in which to realize that war was avoidable. The universe is a dangerous place, always changing, and it will no more respect a dead body on a mountaintop than it will an insect you step on unawares. The people must believe in themselves and expect to be challenged by the future!”

“I wish you could tell that to everyone on the road below us,” Mnro said.

“You have,” Nori said. “As I hear, they hear.”

Jamie knew from a brief review of its history before coming to the Five Worlds that Dr. Mende had instituted the use of communications augments, like shiplinks, to help stabilize the merging cultures through better means of dialogue. Apparently everyone was electronically connected to the hearing of Nori, the Old One, while this important event progressed.

“How is she?” Demba asked Mnro.

Mnro withdrew her hand from Nori’s chest.

“Her rhythms have stabilized but she shouldn’t exert herself more. The emotional stress will be as much as I would want her to endure. I know she looks very calm, but I refuse to believe she’s any better than me at containing her emotions.”

“Can I carry her?” Jamie inquired.

When she received a nod of assent, Jamie positioned herself to accept Nori onto her back. The old woman put her arms around Jamie’s shoulders and Jamie tucked her arms under Nori’s legs after Demba rearranged the lower part of her robe.

Jamie turned up the road, carrying Nori. She set a quicker pace.

From side roads and paths, across fields and down rocky slopes, people from other places joined the procession. All along the road, even in high wild places, people gathered to wait to join the march. Their faces appeared solemn.

Now they followed a wide footpath worn into the stone by countless pilgrims over many years. The altitude gave them panoramas of forests, farms, and villages far below them. Air pressure lessened slightly and gravity decreased more as they ascended into the clouds. Jamie didn’t need to stop and rest. Struggling to keep pace, Sammy yielded to Demba and let her carry him on her back.

The procession entered a thickening mist and soon came out of a thin cloudbank into sunshine and cold air. At this elevation they could easily see the other side of the world, the snow-capped peaks pointing down at them, the hazy green valleys and blue lakes, the geometry of agriculture, roads, and the knots of dwellings in villages.

Many people had arrived at the sacred site before them. A security force kept them at a distance from the center of the bowl-like park grounds. Many thousands stood on the slopes of the bowl and farther up, into the trees. In the bottom of the bowl was a formal garden of flowering shrubs with radial patterns of paved walkways. A grass-covered mound rose up from the center of the bowl, on top of which a slab of natural stone supported a small mausoleum. Gregor and a few agents of his security force led Jamie’s group through the gardens to a stone walkway that circled the grass-covered mound. The outer circumference of the walk was lined with benches. There were no markers or signs or inscriptions to identify the place or its purpose. Nori sat down on one of the benches and gazed up at the mausoleum with a faint smile.

“I don’t remember it quite like this,” Mnro said, looking around, “but the box is sending good data.”

“A box?” Demba queried, indicating the mausoleum. “Inside that?”

Mnro stepped over a decorative barrier – a simple chain fence – and started up the grassy mound. She halted when the crowd on the slopes all around the bowl responded with shouted complaints and started downslope toward the sacred mausoleum, overwhelming the small security force.

REMEMBER WHERE YOU ARE! REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE!”

Jamie could actually hear the voice of Gregor, even though she knew it was sent only to the communication augments carried in the bodies of the thousands of citizens gathered in the grave site and memorial gardens. She and Demba stood close to Sammy and watched the crowd surge toward them. The Old One stood up and struggled to step over the barrier to join Mnro on the mound. Mnro helped her, then accompanied her up to the mausoleum. The crowd, restricted by the radial walkways and impeded by Gregor’s security force, finally halted its advance. Gregor motioned for Jamie and Demba to join Mnro and the Old One. Jamie stayed to talk to Gregor.

Jamie waited several minutes while Gregor managed to calm the crowd, giving instructions to his security people and also speaking directly to the crowd. Jamie was impressed by his success. She remembered the bloody history of this place and it renewed her appreciation for the miracle Dr. Mende achieved here.

“We are good people,” Gregor said to Jamie. “We just need to remind ourselves. And this is where we come to be reminded. I can’t say, however, that I’m happy you have tested us.”

“You may be tested further,” Jamie said. “By the Navy. The Navy pursues us. They will ask you questions about what we were doing here. They will probably not like your answers.”

“You are Navy, yet the Navy pursues you? And you place us in danger?”

“I’m sure Demba understands the risk she has caused you to face, and that would be a measure of how important Phuti Mende is to us. Please cooperate with the Navy and don’t make them do bad things.”

“Why would the Navy…?”

“Time is too short and I’m too lacking in understanding to explain our situation to you. No matter whether we take Mende or not, the Navy will be more dangerous than usual.”

“Dr. Mende is very important to you,” Gregor stated in a deliberate manner, so that Jamie thought he might be talking to others at the same time, perhaps everyone in the crowd, or even everyone in the entire Five Worlds habitat. “Does that mean that he is not truly dead?”

“Come,” Jamie said, indicating they should go up the mound to Dr. Mnro. They crossed the barrier and climbed the little hill. “Is Dr. Mende in stasis?” Jamie asked Mnro. “Gregor wants to know. Everyone wants to know. I want to know!”

“More than that,” Mnro answered. “He’s been rejuvenated.”

“But he won’t be the same person you knew,” Jamie argued. “And still you want him back?”

I am not even the same person I knew,” Mnro said. “We all change, given enough time. But I still remember, and Phuti will still remember, just as you can remember. It isn’t easy but we can remember, not everything but enough! We have a job to do and Phuti can help us. He will remember!”

“Are you not the same people I remember?” the Old One asked. “Will you just… rob us?”

Demba and Mnro gazed at each other, and Mnro, more than Demba, seemed troubled. “One more mistake I’ve made,” Mnro said despondently. She stepped down from the stone slab.

“Nori,” Demba said, facing the Old One, “I believe we are still the people you and Phuti knew. You went through rejuvenations yourself, long ago. Do you feel wrong for having done that?”

“But I didn’t want to remember,” Nori said. “It was a terrible life, my father gone, my mother murdered. Phuti saved me, brought me here, gave meaning to my life. Now, at the end of this life, you turn it up-side-down! And you threaten the people I love!”

“I think your people have grown up,” Demba said. “They have every reason to distrust us and resist our intentions, yet they restrain themselves and await explanation, like kind and reasonable people. I will try to explain to them.”

“As I hear you,” Nori said to Demba, “they will hear you. So many people hear me and listen to me, as though I had precious wisdom to offer them. If I comfort them, I suppose that is enough. I have no wisdom. I’m just old. Nor do I command them. My only clear thought is that Phuti gave his life to them, and perhaps they can give it back. It would help if you could say something more eloquent.”

“Speeches are not my strength,” Demba said. “Perhaps my eloquence lies in song. Do they have a song that is theirs? Perhaps they already have words they should hear again. Do they play the pipes here? My husband played the pipes. It’s a mountain instrument.”

Demba waited several long moments until finally, from high in the tree-covered slopes, a series of notes sounded on panpipes. In another direction a different tune followed the first, also played on pipes. A third melody was offered by a harmonica from near the mausoleum mound.

Demba began to sing. She sang one verse of a song. Jamie listened as her mother started a second song, sang its principle melody and theme and began yet another. Jamie was not well acquainted with such old music but she could guess at their cultural origins: one of each of the five Earth cultures that made up the Five Worlds habitat. It no longer amazed her that Demba’s singing could enthrall people so completely but it did amaze her that Demba could pull from her data augment the best songs and words – and sing them perfectly and immediately.

Now Demba seemed to be reminding the people of the Five Worlds they were once brave and proud, capable of greatness, capable of building this magnificent home far from Earth. She had sung the five short songs in succession, but now she started through them again. The crowd became restless. Jamie worried about what could happen. She looked over at Gregor and saw a thoughtful look on his face. Jamie realized Demba had changed the memorable lyrics of the first song. Then she changed the melody. It was almost the same song but with part of one of the other songs added into it. It was almost the same lyrics but borrowed words from yet another of the five songs. Finally, it was not songs she sang but a story she was telling. She told the history of the peoples of the Five Worlds. It was not just history of the Five Worlds but of the five origin cultures on Earth. Every face Jamie could see wore an expression of concentration and wonder.

At the proper point in history, Demba sang the modern Anthem of the Five Worlds, causing the crowd to sing it with her. The mass of voices overwhelmed the serenity of the setting, charged the mountain air with the electricity of emotion, and thundered to an abrupt silence in which only Demba continued to sing. As she came to that sad moment in history where the old anthropologist Dawa Phuti Mende was laid to rest, Demba sang a stanza of “Amazing Grace.” Jamie detected some further reaction in the people.

“Now we know who she is,” Gregor said quietly, having moved closer to Jamie on the mound. “We remember her now. We have all seen and heard the old recordings of this woman at the funeral. Now it will be a good thing.”

Demba stopped singing and paused to listen to the flavor of the silence. She began a short speech. “Dawa Phuti Mende was an anthropologist but also an explorer. The study of human culture was less important to him than exploring, I think, and that gave him the emotional distance to be objective enough to help you solve the human problems you had in building and sharing the Five Worlds. Phuti loved climbing mountains and exploration, which is really what being alive and being curious is all about. I think he will want to go exploring again with his old friends, with Aylis and me. If you will let him go, I would see that as a possibility that you understand Phuti and respect his love of discovery. I would urge you to think about this moment as an opportunity to spread Phuti’s legacy into unknown places of need. You don’t need mountains to be who you are. Traditions are portable. Your ancestors paid dearly to provide this home for you, but home is that place you love even more when the journey brings you back to it.”

Demba fell silent. The crowd was silent. She looked at Jamie. Jamie looked at Gregor. Gregor looked at the Old One. Nori stood mute for several moments. Finally she reached for Jamie’s arm and held it for support.

“Please take me with you,” Nori said, looking to Demba. “I will go, even if you do not take Phuti.” Sorrowful sounds cascaded through the throng of people, swelling greatly, then slowly subsiding. Nori turned to the security chief and said: “Gregor. Vote.”

VOTE!” Gregor immediately announced over the communication system. “YES, HE GOES. NO, HE STAYS.”

Urgent conversation erupted, swelling to a loud hum and slowly quieting. Jamie could not tell from faces in the crowd closest to them what the vote would be. She cast an inquiring look at Gregor.

“I am waiting for everyone to vote,” Gregor explained. “Everyone’s vote should count. It won’t be long.”

Siblings

“Damn!” Khalanov interjected. “You could have just stolen him!”

“Jamie made sure we did the right thing,” Mother replied, making one of those noises that is almost a laugh.

“We would have been dead right,” Khalanov argued, “if you were delayed until the Navy caught us. I can’t believe you performed an opera in order to make off with the body!”

Freddy knew Admiral Khalanov was not angry that Mother did what she did in the Five Worlds. Khalanov had not known what a superb singer Mother was, and he had observed the events in the mountainous space habitat with ever-increasing amazement, even to the point of tears as Mother sang. The gruff and taciturn Khalanov was obviously opposite in character from what he appeared to be.

Freddy was beginning to see how complicated his mother’s life was. She had tried to explain it to him but he was sure he was deficient in the ability to imagine it. So many people in her life, and she had good feelings for all of them. He could sense that Khalanov felt affection for her. He liked Khalanov now. He liked Horss, too. Horss treated him with great patience and made him feel he was very important to both himself and to the ship.

“What is our heading?” Mother asked.

Graphic labels and navigational axes overlaid the star field surrounding the bridge, polluting the realism of the view. The simple yellow arrow was almost lost in the view.

“That way, for the moment,” Horss said, pointing very imprecisely with his thumb, meaning it was irrelevant. “If we are actually going to the hub, it’s the other way.”

“I’m sure it’s a very interesting place,” Mother said, which of course meant she had no intention of going there. She was quiet for a few moments, the way she was often withdrawn into old memories. Horss and Khalanov waited respectfully, until she shook her head slightly and let her eyes widen in some kind of reaction, perhaps wonder.

“I have some numbers,” she said slowly, still introspective.

“What kind of numbers?” Horss asked.

“I’m trying to figure that out. They’re in what looks like Galactic Chart Format, so it must be a location. There are only three numbers so I don’t have time coordinates. I’m trying to match it up to the Navy Galactic Catalog.”

“Give us a peek at it,” Horss said. “I’ll bet Freddy can find it.”

Mother put the numbers into the display system and Freddy helped translate the plot using an assumed negative time interval of a century. Freddy could see Mother was still engrossed in memory and not following their navigational progress. They waited again for her to speak.

“That’s it,” Mother said, pointing to a nebulous area in the holographic plot.

“Is that where we’re going?” Horss asked.

“I’m afraid so. It’s close to the frontier. There will be detection buoys. But we have things we need to do there.”

“What things?” Khalanov asked.

“It involves an old argument you and I had, when we were building the ship, Iggy.”

“We had hundreds of arguments! Oh, you must mean the one about the size of the Freedom. It’s too big!”

“Actually, that may also pertain to what I’m trying to remember, but it was my insistence on the accessory circuitry in the tuning pylons.”

“Not to mention the pylons themselves,” Iggy said. “They do help our envelope geometry but not, I think, enough to justify the expense.”

“Yes, well, whatever we must do at this location is made possible by the pylons.”

“Damn!” Khalanov swore. “Now you’ve got me puzzled. What can it be about?”

“And now you’ve got me worried, Admiral,” Horss said. “That’s a disturbed region, one of those places where the Navy goes to dispose of its dirty laundry and embarrassing trash. And as you said, not far from the border and the buoys.”

“Jon, you’ve been on the bridge for more than seventy hours with no significant amount of rest. Iggy, same for you. Both of you get some sleep. Freddy and I will pilot the ship.”

“I don’t see how I’ll be able to sleep!” Khalanov declared. “I know you’ve got a big engineering problem waiting for me and not enough time to get it done right!”

“You don’t have to worry about it, Iggy,” Mother responded with a smile. “You are correct. I think it will be the biggest ship modification you have ever done, even though I don’t remember yet exactly what it is. All you need to do is only what you love to do. Jon and I will do the worrying.”

“Wake me up when you remember more!” Khalanov demanded. “I need to get started!”

“I will not! Go! Get off the bridge! Get some rest. Jon, you, too.”

“How much rest have you had, Admiral?” Horss asked. “How many kilometers in that hike up the mountain?”

“Go! Out! Out!”

The captain and the admiral departed the bridge, leaving Mother alone under the stars, alone with me. She sat down in the captain’s chair, smiled at me, and watched one nearby star drift slowly by.

“Admiral. Mother? Are you asleep?”

= = =

“She’s asleep,” he said to his little brother.

“Then she isn’t going to come see me,” Sammy said.

“Yes, she is. You know she will. Why do you worry about that?”

“I’m not worried.”

“Yes, you are. Just like me. For no good reason.”

“I’m just in a hurry,” Sammy said, “waiting for my leg to grow, and I don’t want to be here. I want to be home with you and Mom.”

“I think it’s very nice here,” Freddy said. “It reminds me of the place where I got my body. Why did they put you here? Because Mother is on the bridge tonight?”

“I’m under observation!” Sammy complained. “I’m always under observation! And I’m here more than I’m at home.”

“Mother is seldom at home, too, and when she is, she falls asleep, exhausted. I worry about her. But when you are here with Aunt Aylis, she doesn’t have to worry about you.”

“I wish I could think as logically as you, Freddy.”

“Oh, I’m not as logical as you think, Sammy.”

“But logic is easier for you, isn’t it? Because you’re a machine.”

“I’m tempted to say I’m not really a machine. I’m somewhere inside this mechanical body but the body isn’t me. Does that sound wrong to you?”

Freddy waited while Sammy thought about what he had said. Then he slowly shook his head, meaning he thought Freddy was correct. “You are really alive!” Sammy declared.

Never more than when I’m with family, Freddy thought. “I am what I am, whatever that is. I’m still learning. I want to talk to Mother as much as I can, but she has so little time for me. And she has you. And she has Jamie. We’re all siblings, of a sort, aren’t we? I wanted to visit you while I’m piloting the ship, before you went to sleep.”

“No way! You’re piloting the ship right now? And what are siblings?”

“I’m watching over the ship’s expert systems. If my speech is interrupted for a millisecond or two, I’m giving orders to the navigation system. Siblings are children who have the same mother or father or both.”

“Brothers and sisters? Is the ship alive, too?”

“We are brothers, Sammy. No, the ship’s control system doesn’t have the flexibility to become self-aware. The physical memory of its operating instructions are fixed and armored to survive many types of hazards. It has very little room in which to shift the nearly infinite number of variables needed to feel alive. The logic flow for sentience is too dedicated to dealing with improbabilities to meet the reliability requirements for a ship. Understand?”

“Being alive is messy?”

“That’s a good way to say it, Sammy.”

“How old are you, Freddy?”

“Only a few weeks in human terms.”

“Is that a long time in computer time?”

“Not exactly. While there are computer-like things I can do much faster than a human mind, my human mimicry is less efficient than what has evolved in organic brains, so I age – or grow wiser – only a little quicker than a biological person. It helps that modern computers are often designed with circuitry similar to the human brain. But I made a jump in maturity because I had the benefit of copying the vast knowledge of Old Fred, who shared his body with me. Still, I’m basically just a child, hardly older than you.”

“Wow. Do you know any games?”

“No games for disorderly patients past their bedtime,” Aylis ordered, stepping into the room. “Hello, Freddy. How nice of you to visit Sammy! He overexerted himself today.”

“Good evening, Aylis,” Freddy greeted, remembering to use her given name – as she had instructed him.

Jamie tapped Aylis on the shoulder from behind, startling her.

“I was following you down the hall,” Jamie said to Aylis. “I came to see Sammy. How are you doing, kid?”

“It itches!” Sammy complained.

“People have said that for about three hundred years,” Aylis said. “Ever since we’ve been able to regenerate a limb on the body. Unfortunately, we doctors believe it’s better for you to be bothered by ‘the itch’ than to make you not feel it. Now, if you could just get to sleep, the itch will go away on its own. I’m going to turn off your lights and remove your visitors. If you don’t go right to sleep, I’ll tell your mom.”

“May I kiss you good night?” Jamie asked Sammy. “You’re my little brother, aren’t you?”

Sammy thought about it, but not for long. “Sure! But Freddy is your brother, too. We’re siblings.”

“He is, isn’t he? There. Freddy is next. I’ll be back to see you when the warden isn’t around. Good night!”

They walked with Aylis to her office, where a bay window overlooked a small English garden. The simulated evening sky cast long shadows across the hedges and flower beds. Freddy liked walking in the garden, sampling the smells, trying to find some merging of his olfactory processors that would accurately simulate what people experienced of the sweetness of the colorful flowers.

Aylis dropped onto her sofa and began pulling off her hiking shoes. Freddy wished he had been invited on the marvelous trek through the Five Worlds. He could have carried Sammy.

“I should be going,” Freddy said, beginning to feel uncomfortable. It was hard for him to interact with people in ordinary situations. He knew he would always feel like an outsider. Also, for some reason he always became too worried that he would make a bad impression on Aylis, his mother’s best friend. He wanted to be perfect and knew he was far from it.

“You just got here, Freddy,” Jamie said. “Don’t you want to stay and talk? I’ve never had a conversation with a real AMI. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings when I first talked to you.”

“I took no offense, Jamie. Mother is asleep on the bridge. I need to be there if she wakes up.”

“She sleeps?”

“Eats, too,” Aylis said. “Uses the toilet. Puts her panties on one leg at a time. And has been known to fall in love.”

“I’ll be on my way,” Freddy said, backing toward the door.

“Just a second, Brother.” Jamie stepped over to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Can you feel that? Is it even worth doing?”

“Oh, my, yes! I mean, no, I don’t feel it as well as a human would, I think. But it’s certainly worth doing! Thank you, Sister!”

“Good night, Freddy,” Aylis said, wiggling her toes and leaning back in her chair.

Freddy backed through the doorway. He was too happy. He shouldn’t be so desirous of these wonderful moments. It was hard to be a real person with real emotions.

/

Jamie walked over to the window and stared out at the gathering dusk. “You should talk to Freddy every chance you get,” Aylis said to her. Aylis watched Zakiya’s daughter, seeing how her thoughts influenced the motion and posture of her strong body. There was a lot going on in Jamie’s mind, but she didn’t need body language to tell her that.

“I want to! He’s fascinating. Miraculous.”

“More than you realize. He’s a spontaneous AMI.”

“Oh!” Jamie reacted in amazement then, “Oh,” she said sadly.

“Maybe he will live longer,” Aylis said, “if we can keep him from thinking too much about the wrong things. He doesn’t need to make some grand contribution to our wonderful civilization and die too soon.” She said that sarcastically. “I would rather he be around for a long time. He is, in many ways, an echo of Zakiya at her best. I wonder – can he sing?”

“How can I talk to him now,” Jamie said, “knowing he will die so soon?”

Aylis didn’t have an answer for her. She was sorry she mentioned it. “Was it only Sammy you came to see?” she asked.

“I’m sorry. I know you must be tired. I’ll be going.”

“I was hoping you wanted to talk.” Aylis tried not to sound too pitiful. She didn’t know what she deserved to gain. She didn’t know how long she would be able to keep going, before the truth destroyed everything. She stood and blocked Jamie’s direct path to the door.

“I did want to talk,” Jamie admitted. “Are you sure you want me to stay? I know you had to take care of Nori and Dr. Mende.”

“I had help,” Aylis said. “Talk to me. I know you have lots of questions.”

“I don’t know where to begin! I’m becoming someone else! I don’t know where it will stop! I don’t know if I will still know myself when it does end! Who am I? What’s happening to me?”

Aylis explained the auxiliary memory devices to Jamie.

“I thought I was losing my mind,” Jamie said. “And this is also happening to you and to my mother? How can you function?”

“I don’t know how Zakiya does it,” Aylis replied, “especially considering she had other modifications she didn’t know about until they were needed.”

“And you and she lived monumental lives, waiting all this time, just to see two husbands and two crew members again?”

“Monumental? I tell myself I never wanted to become what I am,” Aylis said. “If I even am what I am! It did have great meaning for me, great satisfaction, but I was simply fortunate to be in a position to let the product of my interests help humanity. I assume I’ve helped! Sometimes I wonder. Yes, essentially we’ve been waiting for more than two hundred years. Just to be near them again.”

“After all this time…”

“I know. They’re probably dead. But we still want to know what happened to them.”

“What was he like?” Jamie asked. “My father. I think I may have watched every show that ever used the character of Alexandros Gerakis. Please tell me he was more normal than the fictional versions.”

“That’s very difficult to assess. Our auxiliary memories are almost too real to trust. The process of copying memories forces the brain to provide detail that may not be accurate, more like what we would want to remember rather than what actually happened. Just think about how you remember Direk.”

“Then I should stop crying myself to sleep every night?” Jamie asked. “I wish I could! Every day I find more new memories of him, more pieces of the puzzle. I’m redefining myself by how I remember him. He’s overwhelming the person I thought I was. The more I remember, and the more I imagine his duties to you and to my mother, the more I realize how much he must have suffered, keeping so much of it from me for so long. To protect me! I’m angry that he felt it necessary to keep me ignorant. I’m angry that he left me. I’m angry that he may never fulfill the promise of our relationship. I’m angry that he will continue to live so large in my memories, making me love him, making me sick with the loss of what we might have had together. Oh! Please, don’t cry, Dr. Mnro! I said too much! I feel too much!”

“Don’t you ever call me ‘Doctor Mnro,’ young lady!” Aylis never remembered her duplicate crying. She, on the other hand, could hardly keep from crying. She approached Jamie and was gratified she allowed her embrace.

“It still seems unreal to me,” Jamie said, “that I should have any importance to you, that I should even know you personally.”

Aylis. My name is Aylis! My memory of you as a little girl is one of the most powerful that I have. And I don’t care how inaccurate it might be! That you loved the son I couldn’t even like until it was too late, is almost my fondest wish come true. I hoped you would visit your mother and let her tell you all these things. I get too emotional!”

Aylis released her, dropped onto the sofa. She felt tired, physically and emotionally.

“I don’t know how to behave toward my mother,” Jamie said. “I don’t know who I am. I feel cheated out of being a little girl with my mother, my real mother. I still want to be her little girl, and I’m too old.”

“You’re never too old to be your mother’s little girl. It will mean a lot to her.”

“Little girl!” Jamie gave a short laugh. “I’m so old, yet I suddenly have all these immature emotions. I’m an ancient Marine but I lose my nerve when I think about talking to my mother. That’s why I came to you. I don’t remember her yet. Will I be able to remember her? I was so young when I lost her.”

“Only time will answer that question. Go and talk to her. I’m an admiral. That’s an order.”

When Jamie departed, leaving her alone with her torrential thoughts, Aylis wept again, but it was a comfortable weeping, almost relaxing, as it expended the emotional surplus she had accumulated from the trek to recover Nori and Phuti. She could almost ignore the guilt she felt for having taken Jamie from her mother. It was certainly dwarfed by another guilt, a guilt she could hardly ignore for more than a few minutes at a time.

She wanted to blame her copy for the guilt that was torturing her but knew she couldn’t. She was her copy and her copy was her. What would become of her copy? Did she swap places with her in the long-duration stasis pool? Her copy didn’t tell her everything, didn’t give her all of her two centuries of memories. But that would have changed her too much from who she was when she went to sleep. Her copy was a different person, for all that they shared in common. She was a real person, as real as Freddy, as real as herself. What would become of her?

The Lady in the Moon

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Doctor Ramadhal.”

He was not sorry, he was simply a poor conversationalist. All of his personal flaws were on display at this point in his life. It was at least a harmless way to get the attention of his guest.

The smaller dark man jerked at the sound of his voice, startled from deep thought. The silence was too long, too complete. The tube car made no noise through the vacuum in its magnetic cushions.

“I realize you have much to do,” Etrhnk continued, “taking over the management of the Mnro Clinics.”

The ancient monochrome landscape flowed by beyond the window of the lunar rail car. Ramadhal stared out the window, as though seeing the lifeless scenery for the first time. The whites of his large eyes showed as his eyes followed his head to point at Etrhnk. His response was quick and careful.

“I’m never so busy that I cannot be of service to you, Admiral.”

Ramadhal’s eyes seemed to want to return to the exterior view, probably because he didn’t want to look at Etrhnk. The eyes stayed aimed at a point near Etrhnk’s face, as if Ramadhal were an android, forbidden to make eye contact, and he waited for Etrhnk to say something else.

“I have a medical question for you,” Etrhnk said, moving forward in his seat, so that his knees almost touched Ramadhal’s, who sat across from him.

Etrhnk didn’t need to say a thing to Ramadhal. His inclusion on this investigation was almost an afterthought. It was one of many decisions Etrhnk had made lately for reasons he could not entirely explain to himself.

“There is a certain type of weapon,” Etrhnk began, “one of whose uses is as a thrown missile with a 10-centimeter blade. I observed this weapon being used against a live human target. It embedded its full length in the man’s back in the area of his left lung. Could this have been fatal?” He realized too late the violence in the question would make the physician more uncomfortable than he already was, but Ramadhal answered promptly and Etrhnk dismissed his odd concern for the man’s sensitivities.

“It doesn’t seem so to me,” Ramadhal replied. “Did the man die?”

“I hope not,” Etrhnk replied with sincerity, “but simple penetration was not the limit of the weapon’s ability. Let us imagine a small explosion, usually enough to just perforate the body in several places.”

“With prompt medical treatment we could prevent death,” Ramadhal answered after a brief pause. “Stasis might be required to await fabrication of new organs.”

“Good,” Etrhnk said. “Good.” He had not wanted such an act of bravery to end in the man’s death. He briefly wondered why he had often forgiven individuals their errors but had more often condemned multitudes to Navy retribution.

Ramadhal tried to turn his attention back to the window and Etrhnk let him. They rode in silence for a few more moments. Etrhnk had, on impulse, chosen the rail car over the quicker transmat and he was not disappointed. He was no longer in a hurry to go anywhere. The private car began the terminal segment of the route that slanted upward toward the rim of a crater. Ramadhal turned back to Etrhnk with surprise and noticed the Marines checking their weapons.

“This is the way to Doctor Mnro’s home!” Ramadhal observed with some alarm. “Why are we going there?”

“To see if she’s at home.” His mind being unusually full of personal thoughts, Etrhnk had overlooked explaining to Ramadhal the objective of their trip. The physician had not questioned him about anything until now, perhaps because of a sense of fatalism.

“But she departed on the Freedom,” Ramadhal said.

“Perhaps.”

“Why do you need me to be present?”

“Your reaction. Your medical expertise.”

The car climbed the flank of the crater, entered a tunnel through the wall of rock, and emerged into a pressurized terminal. The Marines led the way from the rail car, checking for automated defenses. They emerged from the tunnel airlock and walked out into sunlight filtered by a pressure canopy that spanned the rim of the crater. The canopy made of itself an afternoon sky on Earth, the blue sky dotted with white clouds. It was not a more expensive and realistic simulation, even though Doctor Mnro could have afforded the best of fake skies. They walked along a gravity-enhanced path through an orchard into an English garden and from there onto a small stone patio at the side of a modest house. French doors stood open. A breeze fluttered the drapes by the doorway.

The Marines searched the house. Etrhnk and Ramadhal waited for them at a central stairwell that led to lower levels.

She climbed the wide staircase toward them: pale sandaled feet on dark lunar rock. Short blonde hair just covered the top of her head. Bare legs, slender but not lunar weak, propelled her in short parabolas up the steps. Her attire seemed proper for sleeping, but not for entertaining guests. Ramadhal backed away as she approached, clearly embarrassed at seeing too much of Aylis Mnro’s epidermis. The Marines remained on the upper stairway, their weapons at the ready.

“I’m so glad to see you again, R.K.,” the woman said to Ramadhal, giving a long glance to Etrhnk as she passed him.

She took Ramadhal’s arm and led him through the French doors and out into the afternoon on the patio. Etrhnk and the Marines followed.

“I see the gardeners were here recently,” this Mnro remarked. “The roses were getting unruly. How are you doing in your new job, R.K.?”

“Is it you?” Ramadhal asked. “Is the other one also… you?”

“We are Aylis Mnro, both of us. The other me is the original, but I’m the one who built the Mnro Clinics. I’m the one you always argued with.”

“Are you a clone or a twin?”

“Not exactly. I am Aylis Mnro. Yet… I am not.”

“But are you human?”

“You’ve known me for more than a century, R.K. Wasn’t that proof enough?”

“Examine her,” Etrhnk ordered Ramadhal.

“I didn’t bring any instruments. I didn’t expect…”

“I suspect they would be useless. You have medical augments.”

She opened her blouse partially. Ramadhal placed his fingertips upon her chest. He listened. He viewed data written into his optic nerves.

“Her heart is beating too fast,” Ramadhal reported. “All other data are normal for a human female.”

“No indication of machinery?”

“We all have some machinery in us. I cannot identify what is an augment based on current technology and what is something… other.”

“No matter. Leave us now. Go with the Marines. I’ll speak to Doctor Mnro alone.”

“Goodbye, R.K.,” she said sadly, closing her blouse.

Ramadhal opened his mouth to speak but hesitated, appearing to measure the tone of her voice. His eyes became moist. “Goodbye, Doctor Mnro.”

“Aylis!” she declared. “How many times have I told you to call me Aylis?”

“How many days in a century, Aylis?” His lips forced a false smile. “Goodbye!” He turned away with a jerk of his head, stumbled slightly, and followed the Marines across the English garden toward the orchard.

For some reason Etrhnk felt nothing for this counterfeit being. For some reason this being felt no fear of him. She was, in every noticeable facet, exactly Aylis Mnro. But she was not Aylis Mnro. It was an impenetrable mystery.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Thank you for bringing R.K. with you.”

“You are not Aylis Mnro.”

“Neither of us, I think, is who we are. Do I seem so different from her?”

“She was afraid of me. You are not.”

“She lives for life. I live for death. Did she have cause to fear you?”

“Yes.”

“You hurt her?”

“I did.”

“You would hurt me?”

“Never. Nor her. Never again. You are a mystery to me.”

“You are also a mystery to me. I feel I should know you better.”

“Who am I then?” he asked.

“A very dangerous man,” she replied, “more dangerous than you may imagine.”

He recognized that this person might never help him explain his own mystery of identity. He also sensed that this conversation could not last very long. He changed to his most important topic. “Who is Fidelity Demba? Zakiya.”

Aylis Mnro required several minutes of apparently difficult introspection to find an answer.

“Zakiya. Yes. Someone you must not harm. Have you?”

“No. Why can’t you give me a more complete answer?”

“Not much is clear or complete to me. I’m letting go of our memories, even as I weep to see them recede.”

“I have always known,” Etrhnk said, “that I do not… fit where I am, that I am not who I should be. Do you know who I am?”

She paused again to strain at remembering, studying his face with a deep frown. The frown flew away in a cascade of feelings transposed to her face: perhaps recognition, joy, dismay, pain, sorrow, and finally resignation.

“You are the best and the bravest,” she said solemnly. Then she appeared puzzled at her own words. She continued to stare at Etrhnk with great concern. She wavered slightly. Mnro started panning her gaze around the lunar estate.

“Something is wrong,” he said.

“The memory! The memory! How sweetly sad. And how deadly.”

“What memory?” Etrhnk now suspected he was about to lose more than what he had come to learn.

“Of what I did,” Mnro said, “even though I loved you.”

“You loved me?” Etrhnk watched her continue to waver. He tried to reach for her, to steady her but she pushed his hands away, even while stumbling. She kept looking at him, her expression changing too much for him to decode. She reached the edge of the patio. She looked back at the house for a moment. She wandered into the green grass of the lawn next to the English garden.

She fell.

Etrhnk dropped to his knees beside her, his hands hovering over her with nothing to do but tremble in frustration.

“Forgot you,” she said, forcing the words onto frail breaths, and struggling as though she had more words which she could not bring forth.

I do not want you to die! He wanted to shout the words but did not, for fear of missing what she might say next.

Her body deteriorated in a strange way, as though dissolving and collapsing from the inside. Etrhnk positioned his ear near her mouth, hoping for some further response.

“Petros,” she finally whispered.

Her body collapsed, melted, and was only briefly contained by her clothing, until her pale skin darkened into a viscous mass and thinned away into the grass. He had to move away to avoid the chemical residue which was harming the grass while it dissolved even the clothing she had worn.

Etrhnk knew he would die, in order that Fidelity Demba and the real Aylis Mnro might live. He did not know why. He would die in ignorance. He would die mourning this person who called him Petros.

Khalanov Meets Wingren

“The ship has no bow, of course, no fore and aft,” Iggy said, “but the damage at Ring Zero East is still serious.”

He was grateful for the hard work he saw ahead of him. It seemed that in his few idle moments he yearned for a memory of a woman named Ana. He could only imagine his loss, and his imagination made it too much to bear. It helped that Fidelity – he had spent most of his remembered life calling her “Demba” or “Fidelity” – it helped that Zakiya understood his melancholy pain and was gentle with him.

“More serious than you realize,” Zakiya said.

“It’s only a range of five degrees,” he explained, “in which we don’t have an accurate heading. That’s why we are now oriented to south as the preferred bow.”

They viewed a large glowing hologram of the ship in the darkened Engineering Planning Office. He never tired of looking at his handiwork.

“That’s not the reason,” Zakiya said. She rotated the hologram to bring certain features to where they stood. “You see the damage to the pylons?”

“I’ve compensated for them,” he protested. “The drive envelope has barely lost a decimal place. Now will you tell me about the accessory circuits in the pylons?”

“They are necessary circuits. Seven damaged pylons no longer meet the height and alignment specifications.”

“Obviously! But they are tons of metal buried a meter below three meters of hard passive shielding. Don’t tell me you want them fixed!”

“I do! I want them fixed!”

He was momentarily irritated at this demand, until he remembered that Zakiya had information about the design and purpose of the ship buried in her auxiliary memory, information he was anxious to learn.

“Have you remembered why you had them installed?” he asked.

“They are connection points for some kind of external structure.”

“What external structure? And how can it make contact through a meter of passive shielding?”

“The shielding must be removed before we arrive at our next destination.”

“Do you mean the shield material immediately around pylons?”

All of the shielding, right down to the bare hull plates!”

Khalanov didn’t correct her archaic phrase. There were no individual plates in the hull; she knew that. The hull was a single, atomically-fabricated unit.

All of the shielding?” he complained, trying to sound more horrified than he was. It was a ritual for them which had lately begun ending in laughter. Zakiya wasn’t laughing now. “And you won’t tell me what this external structure is!”

“I can only tell you it’s big. Every pylon has the accessory circuits. Every pylon connects. Can you fix the damage?”

“Yes! But what does the external structure do?”

“I don’t remember anything more about it, Iggy! I keep hitting a blank wall. All I know is that it’s necessary for us to survive where we’re going. How long to repair the pylons?”

“Two or three days, depending on how we do it. It’s only a guess. You know I was always conservative in my estimates, but too much now depends on too few! And we are not in a convenient, pressurized maintenance bay!”

“What will you do about the passive shielding?” she asked.

“It depends on whether we have to scrape it off very carefully, or if we can burn it off.”

“How would you burn it off?”

“Gas giant atmospheric friction or solar corona.”

“That means wallowing through Einsteinian space.”

“If you want a clean hull…”

“Can you blow the shielding off with explosives? I’m betting it doesn’t need to be perfectly cleaned from the hull.”

“That’s a novel idea! The hull is tough enough to survive chemical explosives. Drive geometry should remain within pattern tolerances. I’ll have to run a test. How much time do I have?”

“Very little. Freddy has brought us near our destination early. I gave him sailing lessons. My guess is a maximum of five days and a minimum of two.”

“You can be very demanding, Zakiya!” Iggy declared, tempering his declaration with humor. “Even more demanding than Fidelity was.” He didn’t want to return to those days when he and Fidelity and Direk didn’t fully trust each other. The ship meant too much to him now. This wonderful woman meant even more to him.

“You always used to call me Zak,” she said, almost musically. The business at hand now finished, she sounded obviously happy with him.

“On the Frontier?” he wondered. “Was that a nice thing to do? It doesn’t seem very respectful.”

“You had everybody calling me Zak. You were my nemesis, always keeping me from being too serious.”

“I wish we had more time to talk! Your memories may be all I ever know of my past.”

Zakiya startled Iggy by kissing him and she gave him a wistful smile.

“Why did you do that?” Iggy asked, touching his cheek where her lips had pressed.

“A memory of you, back on the Frontier – somewhat parallel to this – gave me joy. I apologize. It’s not in the Navy Code of Conduct.”

“I have no complaint! I always wished we could be friends. It was never possible for me to reach out to you through the atmosphere of distrust generated by the Navy. You’re so different now!”

“You wanted to be friends with the person I used to be? I can’t imagine why.”

“Perhaps somewhere deep inside I knew you were Zakiya.”

“Perhaps somewhere deep inside is the Iggy who was once my fond nemesis.”

She kissed him again. Someone cleared her throat behind them.

/

Zakiya turned to see a female Navy officer standing at attention.

“At ease, Wingren – of the Commodore Keshona Research Society.”

“May I ask a quick question, Admiral?” This Rhyan female was never one to hold back in Zakiya’s brief experiences with her in Navy Archives. “I haven’t been able to catch Major Jones. Is Alexandros Gerakis her father?”

“Why would you think so, Wingren?” she countered with a smile.

/

Iggy was trying to return to his engineering problems while savoring his warm relationship with Zakiya. His attention was wrested away by this new arrival. What this Rhyan officer said about Alexandros Gerakis surprised him. Who was she and how did she know such things about Zakiya and her daughter?

“I was with your daughter,” Wingren said, “when she retrieved the crew portrait of the Frontier. She was quite interested in Captain Gerakis. Perhaps I was being too imaginative when I saw some resemblance between Gerakis and Major Jones.”

“She does look more like her father than me,” Zakiya agreed. When she saw the expression on his face, she winked at Iggy. “If you bury yourself in Engineering all the time you should expect to miss a few things, Iggy! Carry on.”

Zakiya departed, leaving Iggy standing next to the Rhyan officer. He was at a loss for words, his mind filled with new thoughts warring for attention. He stared after Zakiya long after she was absent from his sight.

“Reporting for duty, sir,” Wingren said, after waiting too long.

Iggy pulled himself together. He reminded himself that Zakiya was depending on him alone, because of the death of Direk. It gave him the needed force to clear his mind. He turned to the lieutenant commander. “You are reporting for duty?”

“I was just released from temporary duty with Security, sir. I’m an engineer.”

Iggy extended his hand hesitantly, not sure a handshake was a custom shared by the Rhyan desert cultures, and not sure he wanted to feel the texture of her hand. She took his hand without hesitation and with a grip that kept him from sensing any difference in her almost scaly skin. He smiled with relief and pleasure, because she was pleasant to look at and decisive in her actions. She was with Security?

“What is this about the Commodore Keshona Research Society?” Iggy asked.

“I and three others, sir, have studied Commodore Keshona for several years. As a serious hobby. We were eventually able to prove her current identity.”

“Are you sure? Who is she?” Wingren looked quizzically at him, so quizzically that he knew he had missed something. “I’m old and perhaps loaded beyond my capacity with responsibilities,” Khalanov said. “Please help me understand.”

“Sir, I was under the impression that you’ve known Admiral Demba for a long time.”

“A very long time. What has that to do…?”

Wingren waited. Iggy thought. Zakiya… Fidelity… Ruby Reed… He knew what Wingren implied. And if it was true…

She was Keshona! Now I understand how she may have done it!”

“Did what, sir?”

“Approach Rhyandh without being detected.”

“How did she do it?” Wingren asked with sudden intensity.

“An impossible way! We’ll learn the details in two to five days. All this time, I never could have suspected she was Keshona! Even less, the wife of Alexandros Gerakis! I’d like to see your evidence sometime, Wingren.”

“Gladly, sir. I’d like to hear of your experiences in Deep Space Fleet.”

“Unfortunately, I have no memory of that. I had a wife they say was quite special, and I don’t remember her, either.”

“I regret your loss, sir.”

Despite the desert skin and the hawk-like eyes, Wingren pleased his senses. Her attitude was refreshing and her character interesting. He hoped her engineering skill was as promising. He needed all the help he could get.

“Come along, then!” he said. “We have a lot of work to do. Do you have any experience with explosives?”

Captain Jones and the Malay Pirates

She was on the bridge before but, suffering emotionally from powerful memories, she had failed to appreciate its beauty. Nor had she seen it in its full “planetarium” mode. It was dark. Operational consoles glowed dimly, like islands floating at several levels and in different directions from the captain’s chair. The floor was barely visible, below which she could see stars. Overhead, more stars completed the sphere. She found her mother seated in a courtesy chair next to Horss. Demba reached out for her and pulled her to a chair next to hers. Two other officers departed the bridge. Except for Freddy, only Captain Horss and her mother remained with Jamie on the bridge. She looked from one to the other, expectant of some further bad news.

“I discovered you have merchant marine experience,” Horss said to Jamie.

“Merchant marine?” An auxiliary memory transfixed her. The images streamed through her conscious, brief and bright, concisely edited, as though a summation of events that weren’t very important, except that… they led to more important events.

“Navigator,” Horss said. “You once took command of a ship in an emergency.”

“Yes, sir.” The memory stayed with her long enough to keep the salient points in her brain. “The highlight of my career was as second mate aboard an express freighter. A psychopath murdered the captain and injured the first mate. I had to take over and find out who the murderer was. Except for one or two confrontations, it wasn’t a difficult situation.”

“Sounds difficult to me! Why did you quit the merchant marine soon afterward?”

“I learned my parents had died in an earthquake on Paradise. I returned to take care of their affairs and discovered evidence that, even though I knew I was adopted, I was actually related to them. They were my grandparents. I suddenly had other priorities.”

“I can imagine what they were,” Horss said. “Our priorities have also changed. We need help. Will you accept a promotion to Navy captain?”

It was a full five seconds before Jamie could respond. “You must be desperate, sir!”

“I am. You don’t know it but I’m damaged. I’m surviving, but mainly by reputation.”

“Jon,” Demba said sympathetically, “you’ve done very well, especially considering the unique circumstances. I don’t know why you continue to criticize yourself.”

“He was very kind to me,” Jamie said to her mother. “If that’s a symptom of his inefficiency then I don’t understand the job of captain.” Jamie hoped she wasn’t being too generous in her assessment of Horss. It was hard to judge his qualities from the few encounters she had had with him. She liked him, and she hated to distrust her feelings. She was changing into some other person almost moment by moment. Her feelings were dominating her, they were all she had to guide her, and they could change at any moment.

Horss reacted with a slight smile and an effort to continue with an objective tone of voice. “I’m not prejudiced by your record as a Marine, Jamie, or by your parentage. I think you can do the job, in whatever way you want to define it. Your mother wouldn’t let me make this decision if she didn’t agree with me. Do you have a candidate to replace you as head of Security?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you’ll take the job?”

“Yes, sir. But I don’t understand why you need another officer of that rank. I can’t replace Direk.”

“I don’t have a logical reason,” Horss replied. “It just feels right to me. You are not replacing Direk. I was going to invent a new crew slot and call you a junior ship captain. If you want to call it executive officer, fine. You are second in command, followed by your mother. We are the only real line officers aboard. Report here for duty at shift change but keep your Marine uniforms until after the next stop.”

“Another stop, sir?”

“There is always a complication,” her mother said.

The celestial view abruptly changed, leaving them sitting next to a ghostly silhouette of the irregular mass of an asteroid seen against a glowing curtain of ionized gas. Jamie turned her head to take in the panorama and saw two protostars shining in front of a pillar of black dust. She suffered another flood of memory.

Her mother noted her inner distraction. “Have you been there before?”

Jamie nodded, painfully absorbing the shock. She and Direk had lived there, off and on, for decades. It was their base of operations for prospecting. The dust clouds were both a signpost and camouflage. She had never questioned Direk’s choice of the place but now knew he had a reason. He always had reasons. He always knew things he wouldn’t tell her. It was his own method of kindness but one she hated from her current perspective.

“We have three probes relaying data by tightbeam,” her mother said. “Here’s another view.”

They flew closer to the asteroid until it filled half of the bridge, then drifted to center on an opening in the dark rock. The opening jumped at them, like a mouth about to eat them, and an adjustment in the sensor now showed a spacecraft docked inside the hole. In only a moment a memory of the old ship was pried out of her auxiliary memory. She realized the implication of the ship’s existence. It must have delivered Direk, or a copy of him, to the asteroid. Dead or alive, original or copy, Direk will be there!

She would be damned if she would react to this with any sign of emotional weakness. She was a Navy captain! Her mother touched her hand, which probably meant she could sense Jamie’s stress. She almost lost the battle, but some of her old Marine steel arrived to stiffen her spine.

“There’s more,” her mother said.

A small rock appeared, orbiting the larger asteroid. Analysis data superimposed itself on the image of the small rock in bright yellow letters.

“Anomalous composition for that neighborhood,” Jamie said, hardly realizing she was remembering prospector-training from more than a century ago. “Is it a ship?”

“It’s a ship,” Horss said. “We’ve logged about twenty transmat feeds from it to the big rock. We think it’s hostile. Probably a privateer.”

“As in pirate ship? When can you get us close enough to deploy my Marines?”

“We’re attempting to sneak up on them,” Horss replied. “We may be within transmat range in about six hours. What would you do?”

“Scare them. Hope they run. We’re a Navy ship. We’re ten times their size.”

“And totally unarmed. And if they don’t run?”

“Board them with Marines before they can pull on their drive envelope.”

“Relative velocity will preclude transmat probing for safe v-nodes.”

“We’re so big they’ll see our bow shock no matter how close we start our attack vector,” Jamie said. “But they probably have personnel in the big rock searching for loot. They might sit still long enough for us to come alongside and board. Except, they can dance their heading notch and confuse our transmat probing. If this is a test for the captain’s job, I’m flunking it.”

“They have a cannon. Remember the hope of an unarmed warrior?”

“That his opponent will focus too much on using his weapon and ignore his other assets. You want them to shoot at us?”

“We have a plan. I hope they don’t have a cannon big enough to hurt us too badly. How many Marines can you muster for combat?”

“All of them. They’re a strange bunch! They like to fight, but they don’t have any killer instinct. I’m not sure how they keep score.”

“Keep score? Never mind. Get them ready. Your mother and I will keep you updated on the target and figure out how to get you deployed. Dismissed.”

Jamie departed the bridge, carefully following a luminous guide in the multilevel deck.

/

Zakiya and Jon listened to pieces of communications intercepted by the probes. They watched as Freddy refined the data that described the privateer ship.

“Any other ideas, Jon?” Zakiya asked.

“We can try talking to them. There isn’t much in the Navy Ops manuals on negotiating with privateers. The Navy usually shoots first and doesn’t leave anybody to question later.”

“If we talk first and fail, do you have any doubt we can overcome them?”

“I don’t want to try, Boss.”

“That surprises me. Why not?”

“If this was any other Navy ship, and I had an admiral aboard, I’d find a way to follow orders, with or without casualties.”

“You would have armament we don’t have.”

“Doesn’t matter. The principle is the same. It’s the ship and the admiral that are different. I’m damned sure you don’t want to kill anyone. Neither do I. About all we can do to guaranty their defeat is to ram them. Then send in the Marines. That might still kill a few. To keep the body count nearest zero, we have to take a chance.”

“Given time, I think talking will be successful, but we don’t know how much time we have. We need to make them listen quickly. Your plan is good, Jon. I wish I knew how the Marines will perform.”

“Your daughter can take that ship single-handed, if we could put her in the right place. The Marines will do the job. None of those guys will dare to disappoint Jamie. I’ve talked with a few of them.”

“I’m sorry I need you to make these decisions, Jon. I can no longer make life-and-death decisions. I will always choose life. I can’t even think about sending Jamie into a hostile ship!”

“Iggy is still mining the passive shielding with explosives. Should I tell him to stop?”

“No, we keep to our schedule. This is a Malay privateer, judging from the comm traffic.”

“What does that mean?”

“I think it means there are families living aboard the ship.”

“Mothers and children?”

“Yes.”

“Now I remember why I sometimes hate being a captain!” Horss declared “There are probably five hundred people on that ship. It’s bigger than it looks. I hope you have something very nice to say to them.”

“In case I don’t see you again,” she said, standing up.

“You’re going to talk to them yourself!” Horss accused, standing up also.

“In case I don’t see you again,” she repeated.

“Cut the crap, Boss! This is nothing compared to what you’ve already survived.”

“I just wanted to say-”

“I told your daughter about Direk’s copy. Didn’t want her to lose hope.”

She opened her mouth then shut it.

“Got you!” Horss said.

“Don’t make me kiss you, Jon! I’ve already embarrassed Iggy that way. Thank you! Aylis and I were reluctant to tell Jamie anything more about Direk, not knowing how she would react. I think you were the best person to talk to her. Aylis and I are too close to her.”

= = =

“What is it like back there?”

“I’m reminded of scenes from 20th-century war movies,” Jamie said, “where paratroopers are waiting to jump out the door of an airplane.”

“I know you’ve seen action,” Zakiya said. “I know you’re nearly as old as I am. But my heart is in my throat as I think about placing my daughter in harm’s way. Being a mother is still new to me.”

“Being a daughter is new again to me. Don’t worry. All of my guys have seen some action. They know what to do. They just don’t like it when it looks like murder. This isn’t murder, it’s survival. We’ll be as nice as we can and as bad as we need to be.”

“I want you to come get this if I fail.” Zakiya showed Jamie the silver bag.

“The cryptikon?”

“It may impress the Malay, if I live long enough to get their attention.”

“You can transmat with it?”

“No. You need to hold a docking bay for me.”

“That’s one of our targets. This is moving too fast!”

“You did something to the cryptikon, Jamie.”

“Me? Nobody can do anything to it. It’s a cryptikon.”

“Nevertheless, it’s changed. The patterns are different.”

“I doubt it. It could have been you.”

“Somebody is supposed to use it. If you changed it, you need to have it.”

“Are you that calm before battle, that you can discuss such things?”

“It’s important,” Zakiya said. “The cryptikons have a use. Come get it, no matter what the cost. No, I’m not calm, just determined.”

= = =

“It’s a hundred years old!” Iggy declared. “You should be able to detect it! Technology advances.”

“It was upgraded by you,” Horss said. “Next time, don’t be so good at what you do!”

“I need to know where it is! I don’t want to involve it in the electrodynamics!”

“Let’s assume she knows where to put the yacht! Start detuning the envelope! We’re within range!”

“Maybe she can sing to them,” Iggy muttered grumpily, “and none of this will be necessary.”

“Field eddy opening toward us,” Freddy warned.

“They’ve seen us,” Horss said. “Are you fully detuned, Admiral?”

“Close enough. Rotating to maximize discharge.”

“Stand by. The admiral is talking to them.”

“Twelve eddies in their far hemisphere,” Freddy said. “Multiple transmations inbound to the privateer.”

“They anticipate boarding. Or they’re preparing to run.”

“These are Malay,” Iggy said. “They don’t run. At least, not according to popular fiction.”

“Stand by,” Horss repeated. “You read space adventures, Admiral?”

“I write them, too.”

“Really? Would I know any of the titles?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Cannon apparent!” Freddy warned. “Class two coherent particle accelerator. Field eddy deepening.”

“Automatic response locked in,” Iggy said.

The privateer cannon stabbed its brief bursts of energy across space and struck the drive envelope of the Freedom. Instead of reflecting away, the first pulse found a weakness in the detuned drive field and punched into the rocky material of the passive shielding. The unstable drive field collapsed into a river of quantum circuitry pointed back along the vector to the privateer’s cannon. The small amount of free energy chaos transferred to the passive shielding set off a chain reaction in the explosives mined into the rocky material by Khalanov’s engineering staff. The cascade of explosions hurled chunks of spongy rock everywhere. The brilliant shaft of energy connected the two ships and the smaller ship began losing its drive envelope. At the same time, the gravity effect of the connecting circuit began to accelerate the two ships toward each other.

“Shield debris is disrupting the circuit,” Iggy said. “We need a little more time to kill their envelope.”

“You sure you have the timing right?” Horss asked. “That’s a lot of delta-v!”

“When the drive envelopes degrade,” Iggy responded, “changes in effective mass can be impossible to predict. I had to make a few guesses.”

“Thank you for providing a little excitement to my afternoon!”

“Added to that is the uncertainty of our drive efficiency after the explosives blasted against our hull.”

“I think I can see the whites of their eyes,” Horss said. “Twenty thousand klicks.”

“Killed their drive. Program is running.”

“Here they come!” Horss was trying to be as calm as Iggy seemed.

The privateer ship lost its acceleration but retained its accumulated velocity. The Freedom began to reboot its drive envelope. In a few seconds the ship was able to slip aside, just as the privateer flew by.

“Perfect!” Horss declared. “Turn and pursue!”

“Too close for my old heart!” Iggy groaned, after his held breath exploded from his lungs.

“Active sensor sweep now!”

“Priority targets one through ten acquired,” Freddy said. “Relaying to the admiral.”

“Where is she?”

“The yacht is inside the privateer,” Freddy replied. “Their cannon apparently exploded and she entered the privateer there.”

= = =

“Is that you, Lam?”

“JJ?”

How many billions of people in the universe? she thought. How much empty space between the stars? How few Marines?

“Small galaxy!” she called out from her concealment.

“When did you get out of the brig?” Lam asked, also hidden.

“Which time?”

Must be you! Are you still a Marine? Why aren’t we all dead?”

“You’re not dead because we don’t want to kill anyone.”

“Say again? I was a Marine, too.”

He sounded like the Lam Syed bin Hamid she once knew. He sounded less than completely serious, just like the old Lam. But this was his home. She was certain he would defend it with his life. She was certain he would kill her if she gave him a chance. She was also certain that he still thought well of her. Would it help if she tried to reason with him?

“We don’t want to kill anyone, Lam. Admiral’s orders. Why are you privateering?”

“More like scavenging, JJ. We don’t endanger lives unless we’re threatened. Can’t say the same for the Navy.”

“I agree, Lam. We’re not a Navy warship. There’s something we need in that asteroid and you’re in the way. If we were real Navy we would have destroyed your ship without warning.”

“Are you receiving an order to stand down?” Lam asked, sounding shocked but suspicious.

Relief flooded through her body and drained away the tension and dread. She had the same message from her shiplink. She couldn’t have killed Lam and she had no idea what she could have done otherwise. It was a measure of how much she was changed, that only weeks ago it would not have been a problem – Lam would already be dead or wounded.

“I have orders to cease hostilities,” she said. “I’m not surprised but I think you are.”

“Yes! Are you going to shoot me, anyway, JJ?”

“I was hoping to, for old time’s sake.”

“One shot each?” Lam asked.

“Sure. On the count of three. Three!”

Jamie stood up from her place of concealment behind smoldering bales of plant fiber. A beam of energy punched through the smoke and fire-suppression vapor and illuminated her personal defense field. She staggered a little, absorbing the kinetic energy translated from the weapon’s beam by her defense field.

“Nice shot, Lam, but you missed my heart.”

“I was compensating for a feint left which you didn’t do. Are you going to shoot?”

“No. I need to check on my people, make sure they’re still alive. Give me a second.”

“Did you finally get religion? You’re different from the JJ I knew.”

“I finally got family, Lam. I’ll introduce you to them. It’s good to see you again! Are you happy being out of the Marine Corps?”

She completed a roll call of her Marines as she walked over to Lam and slapped him on the back.

“I sometimes miss the old days.” Lam shouldered his rifle and grabbed Jamie’s hand in friendship. “But this is where I belong. I can’t believe you’re still a Marine! You had a hard time obeying Navy orders. Navy is bad, you know.”

“I know! I don’t think I have time to explain, but I’ll tell you this: the rest of the Navy is after us, and if you guys stay around here very long, you’ll get more trouble than you can handle.”

They walked rapidly through the privateer ship. People emerged from hiding to watch them pass.

“The rest of the Navy is after you?” Lam wondered. “Sounds like fun! Do you think you could take me with you?”

“I’d be glad to have you aboard, Lam. But I just heard you say you belonged here.”

“I don’t know where I belong! The Marines scrambled my brains! You didn’t blow us away! You’re the good Navy, right? I always wanted to be in the Good Navy, to be a Marine in the Good Navy, to do good and important things. These are my people but I don’t like the way they live, always looking over their shoulders. Maybe I can make things better for them by serving with you.”

Jamie followed a signal to lead her to her mother. She and Lam entered a large room filled with people laughing and talking. Admiral Demba, the apparent guest of honor, put down her cup of tea and smiled at her daughter. “They saw me on the Mother Earth Opera broadcast,” she said. “One of my songs came from their culture. Isn’t that a nice coincidence?”

Princess Charming

Jamie was following Demba – Zakiya – her mother! – someday she would decide how to think of her. She was following the Mission Commander from place to place, watching her solve problems. Her mother dealt mainly with the civilian crew, and now the Malay. Jamie tried to be a good student of the process but she found it difficult to concentrate. Didn’t admirals sit in offices and wait for people to bring the problems to them? Didn’t admirals make the problems, never bothering to make things easier for anyone but themselves?

Direk was Jamie’s main distraction. In the brief interval since Khalanov and the engineers gained access to the asteroid they had not found Direk. She knew he was here. She hoped he would be here! Yet, she almost dreaded meeting him. She had somehow survived finding her mother, although she had not really survived; she had become someone else. Direk could be the emotional bomb that finished the demolition of her psyche: a process that was already accelerated by her auxiliary memory. Her emotions would be even more highly exercised, and she might not understand what she was feeling or why she should still feel that way. It wasn’t only that Direk was always false with her, hiding the Great Plan from her, and hiding what else she didn’t know. Direk was whatever he was and he always would be. But Jamie was not anyone even close to who she was when she had lived a life with him. He was now more than a lifetime away from her, on the other side of a mountain of experience and all but lost to memory, or should be lost. Her auxiliary memory had made him more real to her than the person she had been. She was now a stranger to herself, a stranger who was in love with a too-real memory.

She could also anticipate the pressure of expectations from her mother and Aylis Mnro. Aylis Mnro, especially, would want every good thing for her son. She was not sure she could be any good thing for him. She was also unsure of her response to any man who wanted emotional or physical intimacy with her.

When Jamie and Zakiya transmatted to the control room in the asteroid, she discovered she could be nervous. After a long career in the Marines it seemed strange and improbable to have feelings a normal woman might have.

“Did the Malay damage anything?” Zakiya asked Khalanov.

“I don’t think so.” Khalanov was distracted by Wingren who was pointing to a certain control on the console at which Khalanov was seated. He touched the control. A virtual window appeared on the wall in front of them. It displayed a vast, dimly-lit cavern within the asteroid. Everyone’s eyes focused on the leafless forest of black columns on the ceiling, on the floor, and on the walls of the cavern, each of them mounted on identical hexagonal bases.

“That’s our new hardware,” Zakiya said. “I recognize it now. We need to get the ship inside as fast as possible. It’s too naked and reflective.”

“All of that mess?” Khalanov jumped up to get a closer look at the individual components.

A team of civilian scientists and engineers working at an adjacent console found an instructional program which taught them how to activate many functions, including opening the space door to the cavern. In a few more moments the Freedom, cleaned of much of its passive shielding, gleamed in the slowly widening gap of a door that was more than three kilometers wide and over a kilometer tall. It would be several hours before the ship was moored inside the cavern.

Zakiya grabbed Jamie by the arm and squeezed hard, startling her. She pulled her away from the others, over to a clear area of the control room. “Important message!” she told Jamie. She called for a transmat and winked them to another place in the asteroid.

= = =

“What are you waiting for?” Demba asked Aylis Mnro and Sugai Mai, who stood on either side of a machine familiar to anyone who had been treated for aging by a Mnro Clinic.

Jamie stared at the large box in the small room in the asteroid. It was a container whose thick walls were packed with the factory that applied chemicals and signals through thousands of connections to the body within. It was often called a coffin, although the effects of rebirth were supposed to outweigh the losses of memory that were a kind of death. This far away from a Mnro Clinic, memory retention procedures might be nonexistent. Jamie was concerned for the person who was inside the coffin. She also wondered how Doctor Mende would be affected by the machine in which he had been stored at death in the Five Worlds. These machines must be different in some way. Then she realized the person in the coffin had to be Direk – the real Direk!

For an instant she was calm, rational, a bit irritated, and more than amazed that a man from her past could claim such overpowering meaning for her, that all the life she had lived since that time seemed ready to be dumped into the trash, its meaning all but erased.

“Waiting for the princess,” Doctor Mnro was saying, touching Jamie, “so she can kiss the prince and wake him.”

Jamie touched the coffin with a trembling hand, helpless to stifle the symptoms of conflicting emotions. A small image display on the top of the rejuvenation machine showed a sleeping face. A light red beard covered the cheeks and surrounded the slightly opened mouth. Blond hair floated in the clear liquid in a halo around his head. Direk. He looked so innocent and so handsome. Was this the cold-eyed Navy captain who could murder four men to avenge her rape? Was it the blind old man who said he loved her? He was too young and too perfect. She was too old and too damaged. Her emotions cooled. Her nerves remained unsettled. Marine-grade augments adjusted her chemistry.

“He does look youthful,” Sugai Mai commented to Aylis Mnro, staring at the image from the other side, then Mai gasped as she looked up and behind Jamie.

They all turned to see what Mai saw. A stranger stood in the doorway looking down at the floor. He started to turn away.

“Son!” Mnro called, moving toward him.

The man paused but still did not look up at them.

Jamie took a longer look, not because she didn’t recognize the old man, but because he made her auxiliary memory erupt with some of her fonder images of Direk at the end of their past life together. Like her Direk, this Direk had used his body long and hard, was scarred and scabbed, his hands thickened and gnarled, his hair turned white and thin. She loved the way he looked.

“I’m not your son,” he said, stepping backward. “You know that.”

Mnro continued toward him but Sugai Mai rushed around the coffin to hold her back.

“Yes, don’t approach me,” the old Direk said, pausing. “I thought I needed to see you again. I was lonely. It was a mistake. I’m terribly sorry.” He stepped backward and turned away.

Mnro pulled free of Sugai Mai and rushed to him. She stopped him, wrapped her arms around him.

“You are my son! Don’t leave us!”

“I became selfish,” he muttered, not responding to the embrace. “I was living in borrowed memories. I dreamed of this moment, when I would see real people again. When I would see you. When I would see her.” Jamie realized he referred to herself. “Never did I imagine how my heart would break, even though it shouldn’t.”

His words shocked Jamie. It was a shock of warmth that made her feel strangely apprehensive. Direk would never… but he did… say such things. But only when he was so old and worn out?

“Don’t!” Mnro demanded, hitting him kindly as she hugged him. “See me! See her! Stay with us! Live! You are a real person, not just a convenient replacement for a weak human!”

He turned his head a little and saw the face of his mother pressed tightly against his shoulder. He touched her face. She looked up at him and smiled at what she saw.

Jamie is here!” Aylis declared. “Look at her!”

His face rose farther and his eyes found Jamie. A century of time melted away and Jamie was an old woman feeling loved and secure in partnership with a kind old man. Perhaps she did know who Direk was in at least one important way. Son and mother paused to see what Jamie would do.

Jamie walked to Direk, placed a hand on the back of his neck, and pulled his mouth against hers. Memory flooded her mind, all but incoherent in detail, yet so powerful in emotion she could barely stay standing. The man pulled away, the moment of near-oblivion ceased, her augments forced counter-measures into her limbic system.

“I feel better now,” the old Direk said, when both women released him.

He walked past them into the room and over to the coffin. He opened a compartment in the side of the coffin, withdrew a sealed package, unsealed the package, pulled a signal cable from it, and connected it to a port in the coffin. He sat down on the floor, removed the package from around a flexible device and positioned it like a cap on his head. Unseen transducer filaments burrowed into his scalp and neck, pulling the cap tightly to his skin and hair.

Aylis Mnro came and knelt beside Direk and put a hand on his shoulder, her expression sad and resigned. Jamie started to join Mnro on the floor but her mother put an arm around her waist, as if to comfort her. Sugai Mai put a hand on Aylis Mnro’s shoulder. The memory transfer process began. It did not take very long.

“There wasn’t much worth giving him,” the old Direk said, “but I gave him me.” He smiled up at Zakiya and at Jamie. He pulled the memory transfer device from his head. He got to his feet, his age only a slight weakness in the light artificial gravity. “Please don’t follow me,” he said. He walked to the doorway, and then out of sight.

The coffin began to awaken the other Direk. Jamie couldn’t stay! She couldn’t understand who she had just become! She was actually afraid of the person awakening in that coffin! Too much had happened to her in too short a time.

Ship in a Bottle

Admiral Igor Khalanov hesitated before reaching the doorway. Hesitation was to him a valuable engineering protocol but he hardly ever applied it to personal affairs. The new Direk was there, beyond that doorway to which he was headed. In one sense, this was like visiting a ghost or a dead man. In another sense, it was like meeting a stranger, a strange stranger. He would be a young-looking man. He would be the son of an impossible new acquaintance – Aylis Mnro. He would be a civilian, yet he would, for all intents, be his superior in rank and the ultimate authority for a fantastic piece of engineering of which Khalanov knew nothing. The list of personal distractions concerning Direk was probably much longer, but Khalanov knew the fate of nearly ten thousand people depended on how well he could get along with the new Direk.

Before he took the next step to the open doorway, Khalanov remembered how intensely curious he was about the theory and the engineering of this massive modification they were about to set in motion, and that was all the motivation he needed to tackle meeting this Direk.

Khalanov walked into the control room of the asteroid-concealed factory and saw the long blond hair of the man seated at the main console. This was Direk? He sighed inaudibly, in his mind, accepting yet another challenge to his own deficient personality. Long hair and beards tended to prejudice military minds against their owners. Did Igor Khalanov feel so thoroughly military that he could let such an attitude interfere with a vital relationship? And this was the son of Aylis Mnro!

The man – Direk – was doing something complicated with the controls of a console while intently watching the large display screen on the wall. Looking to the wall display, Khalanov was disturbed to see a huge piece of machinery descending toward the hull of the Freedom! Khalanov was discomfited, even insulted, that Direk had begun without him.

Direk finally broke his concentration and stood up so quickly he seemed to feel dizzy. Khalanov forgot his irritation, became worried by the clue of Direk being ill, and immediately inquired, “Are you alright, Direk?”

/

Direk took a deep breath and kept a hand on the console for stability until he could respond. He gazed down at the shorter Navy officer – an admiral whose bright blue eyes showed concern for him. Ancient images superimposed themselves on reality, and thoughts of engineering procedure shifted aside. He tried to identify the man who had interrupted his testing of the equipment. “Uncle Iggy?” Direk managed to ask, only sure that it should not be anyone else.

“Yes, it’s me!” Igor Khalanov confirmed, still frowning with real concern.

“It is good to see you again,” Direk said with automatic Essiin control. He felt weak. “I’m a little out of shape from floating around in a coffin for a few years. I was told we are in a state of war with the regular Navy and must quickly depart from here.”

“Correct,” Khalanov responded, “but please don’t hurt yourself! Without you, we don’t have a chance!”

“Pan is not here?” Direk asked. “Has he not remembered his engineering skills?”

“I don’t know who that person is!” Khalanov protested. “I know I am supposed to remember who I was, but I do not! I barely understand there was a plan – an ancient plan – to bring all of this about, but I suspect it has not gone the way it should have. We have lost your… copy… who must have known all about this!” Iggy gestured at everything in the control room. “And we had to damage the ship in order to escape from Headquarters dry-dock!” Iggy added.

Direk started to ask the first of many questions Uncle Iggy had raised in his mind but his emotions tried to pump too much meaning into several sharp recollections of Igor Khalanov from as far back as his childhood! It seemed this was a man who was possibly his favorite childhood acquaintance, a man who was like a family member! Direk had to rein himself in, even if he no longer wanted to be Essiin in theory and in practice. He had a vital task to perform, or else he might allow unthinkable danger to occur. He had been told there were thousands of people aboard the Freedom! He had been told the rest of the Union Navy was pursuing them!

“Can you stop that thing!” Uncle Iggy was shouting at Direk.

The loud voice seemed to clear his mind and reset his will. “It will stop automatically,” Direk replied factually and calmly.

“What is it?” Iggy asked, obviously irritated with his own ignorance.

“Part of the gate structure,” Direk answered. “I call it a field emitter. Because the gate is so large, it has to have many sources to produce the spherical discontinuity.”

“I knew it!” Iggy declared. “I knew it had to be a gate! But this… Please give me a quick introduction to your device, Direk! I need to feel a little less useless than I am!”

“You know the ship, sir,” Direk protested logically, “and that is at least as critical, but I understand your curiosity.”

“Me, too!” a voice called. Direk and Khalanov turned to see a young Asian man standing in the doorway, smiling at them. “You don’t recognize me,” the man concluded from their stares. “That’s alright! I’ll just stand here and listen and then remove myself and let you go about your vital business.”

“Uncle Phuti,” Direk said quietly. “You are welcome to stay. Please, come in.”

Phuti Mende?” Khalanov queried, as though disbelieving.

“You don’t seem to remember me personally, Iggy,” Phuti Mende said, stepping into the control room and looking at Khalanov, “but maybe Direk does.”

“No, I don’t remember you,” Khalanov replied. “I’m supposed to have an auxiliary memory but it seems to have malfunctioned. It seems incredible that I once knew you and Aylis Mnro – and Alexandros Gerakis!”

Phuti Mende offered his hand to Khalanov and the two shook, then Phuti did the same with Direk. Mende looked up at the tall Direk and scrutinized him with an amused smile.

“Not at all what I remember so far,” Mende said of Direk, “but my auxiliary memory has only just come awake. And it’s throwing lightning bolts at me! Please, don’t let things get out hand and delay your work! My only good excuse for being here is that I also have an urgent job to do and I thought I should know something about this thing you are doing.”

“What do you have to do?” Khalanov asked Mende.

“We have a ship full of mostly Malay-culture people needing to come aboard our ship and get settled in,” Mende explained. “They can’t get their drive repaired soon enough to avoid the Navy pursuit. I might need to explain to them something of what we are doing here. If that wouldn’t be a breach of security.”

“We are changing the Freedom’s mode of operation,” Direk began. “It will use a gate to jump to another location. What you see in the display are the components of a gate that we are about to attach to the hull of the Freedom.”

“And you know this will work?” Khalanov queried doubtfully.

“No, but these same components, in a different configuration, did allow Commodore Keshona to send her three ships directly to Rhyandh, so we know the principle is correct. How this will work as the engine of a jumpship is what we will discover.”

“A jumpship?” Phuti asked. “What is that?”

“Something Zakiya discovered more than two centuries ago, when the Titanic disappeared,” Direk answered. “We have an enemy that uses such ships, but they are much smaller than the Freedom.”

“We are about to jump through a gate?” Phuti said, sounding shocked.

“We are going to become a gate that jumps through itself,” Direk said. “That is what jumpships are. They create a spherical shell of discontinuity around themselves which in some way neutralizes positional certainty and allows a small nudge of force to translate them to another location in an instant. I don’t have a theory adequate to explain why this happens. Pan and I merely saw that it was possible and we experimented until we found a way to duplicate the effect.”

“But that is approximately what starlight drive does,” Khalanov proposed. “The difference is that starlight drive doesn’t get total closure of the envelope, retaining the heading notch which, in a sense, is a flaw in the envelope, but it allows control and provides propulsion. How do you control your destination, Direk?”

“There may also be a flaw in the gate shell,” Direk said. “I liken it to the quantum loop appended to every atomic particle. The gate shell may mimic a kind of atomic particle, producing a nearly infinitely-long quantum loop. By varying the strength of the field emitters we set a bias that describes the destination of the jump.”

Iggy and Phuti looked at each other, mirroring their expressions of helpless wonder.

“I must leave!” Phuti announced. “It is wonderful beyond words to see you both again! Maybe the shock will eventually wear off! Maybe my auxiliary memory will eventually be tamed!” He turned and fled the control room.

“Doctor Mende!” a female voice called from the hallway outside the control room. A woman in a dark blue captain’s uniform appeared in the doorway. It was Jamie.

Direk controlled himself as his eyes caught Jamie’s and they connected with the impact of a laser beam. The connection broke almost instantly, leaving a feeling of sadness. Jamie rushed past the doorway to catch Phuti Mende, her voice unsteady as she called after him. “Wait for me, sir, or you may get lost!”

Khalanov watched the first field emitter reach its destination near a tuning pylon on the hull of the Freedom, then he turned to see Direk staring at nothing. “Auxiliary memory?” he asked Direk. “I’ve heard Zakiya complain about its disruptions.”

Direk shook himself, figuratively and physically. “Yes, that and more. You mentioned the other copy. They told me he died. How?”

“How many copies did you have, Direk?”

“There were four of us. The copy you knew, who helped you build the Freedom. How did he die?”

“I don’t know,” Khalanov replied. “Zakiya is withholding the details but I know it was bad. She and Sammy were covered in his blood. I try not to think about it! Zakiya and Sammy were abducted – by transmat – by the Navy Commander and your copy went after them to bring them back. He used a gate! He had built a small gate into the ship! I went through it myself with him!”

Direk returned to his seat at the control panel and remained silent for a few moments, thinking. Iggy tried to be patient.

“You raise too many questions I want to ask,” Direk finally said. “I should not need many of the answers at once. I have a responsibility to make this modification. I admit to having personal concerns that would hinder my efficiency. Yet, I need some help, in a personal way, to get past these concerns and become free to concentrate on the work. Would you help me, Uncle Iggy?”

“Certainly! I am hardly qualified to provide psychological help but you will have my trust – and my friendship!”

Direk turned and looked into Khalanov’s blue eyes with his own palest blue-white eyes. “I am not Direk, Uncle Iggy! The original Direk died long ago, victim of a dangerous operational test. I am his first copy. But, even with this knowledge, I still feel I am Direk. And I do feel, Uncle Iggy! And I should warn you to keep that woman away from me!”

Shocked by Direk’s words, Khalanov turned away from him to look for whatever woman Direk referred to, as if she had just appeared. “What woman?” he asked, seeing no one else.

“Her name is Jamie,” Direk answered.

= = =

Damn it, sir!”

“Back again?” Horss admired the way Jamie looked in a Navy captain’s uniform. She was formidable. He was glad he knew she was not as tough as she looked.

“If you have a moment.” She took a seat in his conference room.

“I don’t have a moment but it looks like you are going to take one anyway. What’s up?”

“Direk! He’s interfering in my duties!”

“I’ll order him to stop it.”

“I wish it was that simple.”

“Is he actually harassing you? He’s only been out of the box for a few hours. I’ve got to admire his, uh… ambition, if he’s already pursuing you.”

“I didn’t mean it literally! It’s all in my head.”

“You know I’m no damned good with personal relationships,” Horss said. “I was hoping you could give me help in that area with the crew.”

“Sorry to disappoint you. I haven’t had good relationships in about a century.”

“I’d better not comment on that. Your mother more than compensates for our social deficiencies. Tell me some more. Maybe you’ll figure yourself out by listening to yourself.”

“You are a conduit to my mother.”

“Not if you make me promise to keep it confidential.”

“Promises may be hard to keep in the company of two women I know.”

Jamie outlined her past relationship with Direk and her encounters with his two copies. She and Direk had spent an entire lifetime together! Horss wanted them to try to find happiness together again, because it seemed like an unfinished business. He didn’t understand Jamie’s reluctance to engage with Direk. He wanted to help her but he couldn’t see how anything but time would give her peace. Still, he had to try.

“I’ll talk to the interested parties,” Horss said. “I’ll tell them to leave you alone. That’s about all I can think to do.”

Jamie stood up, thanked Horss, and went to the door. It opened and Zakiya and Direk entered. She passed by them without saying anything. Zakiya looked after her departing daughter before closing the door.

“What?” Zakiya said, pointing to the door, beyond which her daughter had departed.

“Leave her alone,” Horss said. “All of you.”

“But-” Zakiya dropped her complaint, seeing the look on Horss’s face.

Horss restrained himself from staring at Direk. Nobody had helped him cut the non-regulation hair and beard. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to think of him as Aylis’s android-like son? He was a lot more interesting than others said he was – and rather handsome. Jamie was crazy for avoiding him.

“Military crew is my responsibility,” Horss said to Zakiya. “Right? You took the civilians. Does Direk stay a civilian?”

“No, he’s regular crew,” Zakiya answered. “Chief Science Officer. He replaces his copy.”

“Duly noted and logged. Welcome to our one-ship Navy, Captain Direk! Do you have that report for us? And can you trim your hair a little?”

Direk gave the report. Despite the long blond hair, he sounded much like his copy.

“The Navy may arrive to find us still embedded in this rock,” Zakiya said. “What then?”

“We jump,” Direk answered.

“From inside the asteroid?” Zakiya questioned. “Then… you are saying we actually disappear from here and… reappear somewhere else? In the same manner as gate travel?”

“You don’t remember the Rhyan War,” Direk said.

“Almost nothing,” she agreed.

“And I don’t remember it well, but I don’t think Pan or I told you what our ‘door’ to Rhyandh was. We told you it would give your ships the advantage of absolute surprise. I think you were supposed to assume it was a kind of stealth technology, an improvement on masking the signatures of starlight drives. We put you and all three crews to sleep so you wouldn’t see what we had built. It was a gate, of course. For three ships. Which is the reason the Freedom needed to be as large as it is – to keep from having to build all new field emitters for a smaller vessel. It was a tricky business, Pan and I piloting three destroyers into the gate, then waking the crews after the jump. You didn’t seem concerned with knowing what we were going to do. You trusted us. You had no alternative. It was all or nothing.”

“And this is the same machinery, still a gate, but now attached to the Freedom?”

“That is what jumpships are,” Direk said. “Portable gates. Gates that go through their own gate. Our gate has been altered so that the gate effect is expressed outside the gate emitter array, surrounding it. During the war, the field emitters were aimed inward, where the three destroyers were. I should inform you that this configuration has not been tested.”

“I don’t want to know what you may have just said,” Horss said.

“Where do we go when we jump out of here?” Zakiya asked.

“We need to jump where there is minimum probability of hazards and maximum distance from pursuit. It will be outside the galaxy, about twelve thousand parsecs from here.”

“We can do that?”

“The mathematics allow it,” Direk replied.

Zakiya said nothing for a time. She looked at Horss. Horss turned away from staring at Direk, despite himself. He gave her a frown, then a grin.

“The only people scarier than you and Aylis,” Horss said, “are your children.”

Explaining Makawee

He paused to adjust the reed, then decided to take it off the clarinet and put it in his mouth to soak. He wasn’t getting a clean sound. How many centuries had passed in woodwind evolution and engineering without reeds and saliva being improved upon? Just as he thought about closing the door, to save the ears of passersby from hearing his squeaks and squawks, he heard someone knocking on the door frame.

“Okay, okay! I’ll quit.”

He turned around from his music stand. There she was. He smiled. She offered a little smile in return. He was thrilled to get that much.

“Please, don’t let me stop you,” Mai said.

Mai came in and found a place to sit, as though she would become his audience. Horss didn’t want to punish her ears further and started putting the clarinet away. “You’ll be doing the neighbors a favor if you do stop me.” Horss spoke with the reed still in his mouth, flipping up and down as he spoke. She didn’t protest in his favor, so he continued taking the clarinet apart.

/

“You have a nice place,” Mai commented. She got up and looked around while Jon cleaned the instrument and put it in its case. He keeps his place so neatly, she thought, which seemed at odds with his rather messy mind.

/

“You’re still living in the hospital?” he asked. Horss spit the reed out. He wished she would live with him. He had thought she would, after what happened between them. He smiled to himself, thinking about their spontaneous meeting at the end of their stay on Earth. What did it mean to him? More importantly, what did it mean to her? She was subdued after the passion was spent. They parted without any further understanding of its meaning. He was surprised and hopeful when she mysteriously appeared on the Freedom. She would not, however, have much to do with him – until now.

/

“Yes, Aylis and I are still living in the hospital,” Mai answered. And hating it, she thought. Aylis had become a very dear friend, but she was still difficult to live with. Aylis seemed deeply injured mentally and still kept Mai from trying to help her, except to be a friend for her. It was frustrating and even becoming as much a medical concern as a personal one. Mai could easily compare Aylis’s condition to the tragic condition of Denna’s life.

Mai tried to set her concern for Aylis aside for the moment. She had her own problem. How could she turn this conversation in the direction she wanted? How would Jon react to her stupidity?

/

“Why are you still living in the hospital?” Jon asked.

She shrugged. “It’s convenient. There’s still much to do. It was the most neglected part of the ship’s construction.”

“What’s up now? Why the visit?” He wanted to ask Mai to move in with him but was afraid. Why did he want to live with her? He was still a mystery to himself.

/

“Nothing is ‘up.’ Just trying to relax – away from Aylis.” Mai had to hide her face so Jon wouldn’t see the anger she felt for herself. How many decades had she dealt with people stranger than Jon? She’d always been able to be direct and truthful, even when her words were painful for others. But Jon was not a patient of hers – he was the father of her illegal fetus.

/

Horss thought Mai was lying but he took her at her word. Mai was too old to play games. She knew how to deal with characters such as himself. He, on the other hand, seemed to have lost his meager social skills. “You want something to drink?” he asked. It was a weak attempt to make her lengthen her visit.

She shook her head. She sat on the edge of her chair – not on the sofa where Horss could join her – and she looked ready to bolt through the doorway. He couldn’t guess what was on her mind. Mai had once confessed to an attraction to him, and their surprising intimacy after the Mother Earth Opera was proof of it, but that wasn’t sufficient cause for a more permanent relationship. The Mother Earth Opera had just made them both a little crazy. She must regret it now. He thought she would leave the ship before they launched from Headquarters. Perhaps she was trapped aboard by the early launch. Why did she accept Aylis Mnro’s request to help her prepare the ship’s hospital in the first place? Why did she stay aboard at the Five Worlds?

/

Mai got up and started a tour of his apartment. She was drawn to his family pictures. She found what she thought was an adorable image of him as a child. “Is that you?” she asked, pointing.

“An ugly little Indian wearing a cowboy hat? Yup.”

“Who are all the others?” She didn’t offer an opinion of his looks as a child. Mai was trapped by her training, her rigorous non-involvement with people. How could she comment on his childhood picture? Her ocular camera recorded it. He was so cute!

“Brothers and sisters. Mom and Dad. Uncles, aunts.”

“Brothers and sisters?” she queried. “That many?”

“Most of them dead,” he answered. “How is your family?”

“Mother is my only close relative. I barely had time to say good-bye to her. I hope she waits for me to return.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“She’s tired of living. I don’t know whether my leaving on this mission will give her an excuse to stop living or just the opposite. I hoped a grandchild would renew her spirit.” There, that was a start: she had mentioned her potential child.

/

“I see.” Horss did not see. He thought Mai had wanted a child for the reward of being a mother and a wife. Why couldn’t he ask her to explain? Why was he such a coward? Mai was visiting him for some purpose. This was an opportunity for him to propose a change in their relationship. What change? What could he offer her? They had little in common, and he knew she didn’t like all the Twenglish humor he kept throwing at her, as though he enjoyed irritating her.

/

Mai looked at the pictures and lost her concentration on the faces in them while waiting for Jon to say something encouraging to her. If it was so important to her for Jon to know she was pregnant with his child, why couldn’t she tell him? Because it would make her seem so much less perfect in his eyes than she wanted to be? How could she explain becoming pregnant without it appearing either devious or stupid?

/

She looked at the pictures and Horss wondered if they really interested her or if she was just being polite. Mai looked into the kitchen, the bedroom, the study. She took in the view of the lake beyond his back porch. She turned back toward the front doorway. He wanted to get in front of her and block her path – the path out of his life. He couldn’t move. It was brain damage – that was his excuse. She paused. He hoped.

“How are you doing?” she inquired politely. “When we finally get the hospital ready we should give you a thorough examination. We have some excellent specialists.”

“I’m adequate. Barely. Uncle Iggy and Aunt Zakiya have kept me from making any bad mistakes.”

“You can’t be as bad as you think you are,” Mai protested.

“I used to be a hell of an officer,” he said with a self-deprecating smirk. “I knew everything and I could do anything, including being modest. Now I have no confidence.”

“You’re a good captain! I hear no complaints.”

“I’m a better clarinet player than a captain. It’s not the technical details of the ship. It’s people, crew members. I feel like a fake, and that keeps me from helping them do their jobs and function as a team.”

“I didn’t realize you were so troubled.”

“I advised Admiral Demba to promote her daughter into the chain of command. If Jamie Jones is anything like her mother, I’ll be glad of her help. Maybe I can retire and take clarinet lessons.”

/

Mai edged toward the doorway. She wanted to leave before she lost the battle with her nerves. She wanted to leave before the disappointment came into her expression. She was not so perfect anymore in her own eyes. She had always confused the status of perfection with the pursuit of it. The pursuit was honest and noble, but she would never be perfect. But marrying Jon was not something she should pursue for the sake of perfection. Maybe her love for him was also imperfect. She couldn’t even blush at her absurdity. It was a false conceit of living to an advanced age: that you had everything figured out and wouldn’t make any more mistakes.

/

Mai was edging toward the doorway. To Horss she seemed anxious to leave. It wasn’t a smart thing to spill his personal problems onto her. She probably had her own problems – Aylis Mnro, if nothing else. He moved with her toward the doorway. She turned quickly and kissed him, then departed. His heartbeat slowed back down when he realized it probably wasn’t the kind of kiss that meant what he wanted it to mean. It was a bit late to realize what he really wanted.

= = =

“Can’t I have any secrets from you?” Aylis declared from where she knelt.

Mai had rushed to see what was wrong with Aylis, fearing some further manifestation of psychological damage. Why was she kneeling in the doorway to the lavatory? Aylis’s calm tone of voice and her scrubbing of the floor eased Mai’s fears. What was she cleaning? Mai leaned over to sniff the air to identify a strange odor. It invaded her nose. “Vomit?” Mai shouldn’t have sniffed! Her chest heaved, her abdomen squeezed. She pushed past Aylis and got to the toilet just in time.

Aylis stood looking at her with puzzled concern as Mai rinsed her mouth and wiped her face with a towel. “Let me see you in my clinic, young lady!” Aylis ordered.

“I’m not young and I’m not a lady!” Mai took a deep breath and turned to face Aylis. She had to confess. “I’m pregnant!”

“Good God! Why?” She paused and added, “How?”

Aylis sounded angry to her. Mai was even angrier with herself. She didn’t need any interrogation from Saint Aylis. “I had a mental lapse!”

“Is that so?” Aylis said, now almost smiling. She folded her arms across her chest and did that funny thing with her jaw. “How was it not intentional?”

“Never! Not with him!” It just came out, and it was insincere and stupid. Yes, how could it not have been intentional? She couldn’t remember anything but the music and the joy and the desire. The desire! As though a hundred fifty years of life had done nothing to subdue such feelings, had done nothing to teach her how to think rationally. Death and danger and music and Samson and Jon: all the ingredients had come to a sudden boil in her life, and she had just exploded, lost control, lost reason! Aylis knew it was Jon. Aylis liked Jon. Everybody liked Jon. Except Mai. She merely loved him. And she hated him for being in the right place at the wrong time! She was confused. And hurt. He was the wrong man. It was the wrong time. It was all wrong! She didn’t care! She was lost!

“Jon?” Aylis queried.

Mai nodded. Her face burned and her tear ducts tickled her eyes. It was spontaneous, an evening alone together, caught up in the excitement and passion following Zakiya’s return to Earth, the night at the Mother Earth Opera, Zakiya’s incredible singing, the dramatic appearance of Fred with Sammy. She was old enough to behave better. And she was a physician who should have remembered her own unprotected fertility! How could she have been that distracted? How could she not?

“How wonderful!” Aylis declared sincerely.

“Oh!” Mai wanted to scream.

“I mean, how woeful,” Aylis said playfully, in a deep voice.

“It is not humorous!” But Mai fought the smile that tried to twist her lips. And she noted with hope this small attempt at humor from the always-somber Aylis Mnro.

“Yet, you took no precautions after the fact,” Aylis noted. “Why not? If you didn’t want it. If you didn’t want Jon. Shall I terminate it for you?”

“No!” Mai was horrified at the thought. She wanted the baby! But how could she have a baby, here and now? It was the worst possible time! “I don’t know! I should…” Should what? What should she do? She buried her face in her hands.

“Poor Mai!” Aylis said softly, putting an arm across Mai’s shoulders. “You’re as confused as I am. As medically negligent as I am. We can suffer together.”

Mai sensed the implication, remembering Aylis was the first to vomit. “Are you?”

“Yes. I’m pregnant, too. We are a great pair to be running this hospital. If you ask me the same questions I asked you, just remember how you answered, because those are my answers.”

This is part of the reason, Mai thought, why Aylis feels so badly all the time. “But you should abort it! You were raped!”

“Almost did. Couldn’t. How about you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know! I ask you the same thing!”

Aylis shook her head. “My business is life, not death. We can keep our fetuses for a while longer, then take them out and store them until a better time. Does Jon know?”

“No. I tried to tell him. I couldn’t!”

“Do you want to marry him?”

“No!” Why can I never be honest about Jon?

“Emphatic, but unconvincing,” Aylis said. “I’ve seen how you look at him.”

“I do not look at him that way!” I am a fool! Mai thought. How can Jon mean so much to me? Oh, don’t let me regurgitate all the scientific literature on the biochemistry of sex! I know it’s just molecules and… No, it’s madness, and damned if I care if I’m mad!

“You protest too loudly,” Aylis said. “Want me to tell him? Want me to propose to him for you?”

“You’re impossible, Aylis Mnro!”

= = =

“You look happy,” Horss commented.

It began: the task of exposing the damage, then repairing it. Would it be easier if Mai was in a good mood? His presence didn’t seem to darken her mood. Maybe she already knew. She had the records, if she wanted to look. The kiss she gave him had eventually emboldened him – with some imagination on his part. What did a kiss mean to a woman who was a century and a half old?

/

“Children!” Mai declared. She looked into Jon’s gray eyes. “Do you like children, Jon?” Mai surprised herself with her question. Aylis had counseled her, and despite Mai’s stubborn inhibitions and loss of self-confidence, something in her had changed. She had made a serious mistake with Jon Horss, but now she would gamble that it was a seriously good mistake.

/

Horss knew the correct answer to that question! His personal history, however, would dispute the answer he wanted to give. Did he really like children? Maybe he could get Sammy to give him a character reference. “I like Sammy.”

/

“I know you do.” Mai was absolutely sure Jon would be a good father. Maybe she would be a good mother. If I could just stop trying too hard!

“You did a medical screening of the Malay,” Jon said. “How many children?”

“Only five,” she replied, forcing calm into her voice.

/

Mai kicked off her shoes and moved past Horss to put them away. He watched her, stealing pleasure from seeing her, being near her, hearing her voice. He didn’t think to disconnect his mouth from his errant thoughts. “Are they contagious?”

“They were perfectly healthy,” Mai replied. “Why would you think that?”

Horss gave up trying to be someone else. He would always say the wrong things to Mai. She could tolerate it or she could chastise him, just as long as she stayed near him. “I meant it in a different way. A poor attempt at humor.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Did your desire to have a child of your own increase when you saw the Malay children?”

/

Mai’s heart leaped and she almost stuttered. “Did Aylis talk to you about something?” She really didn’t want Aylis interceding for her, and making her seem, well, less than perfect, but she would take whatever came of it with good humor. Even if it killed her with humiliation.

“About what?”

She was relieved. Aylis had not revealed her biological error, her pregnancy, to Horss. Then she was angry with herself for even worrying about it. “She didn’t?” Mai asked. “Why are you here? I visited you, now you pay a return visit?”

/

“To tell you I’m sorry,” Horss answered. Mai sounded dangerously irritated now. Something was wrong, to have her mood change so much. This was going to be very difficult. It would also be humiliating when Mai told him where to go.

“Sorry about what?” she asked.

“Makawee.”

“What is that?”

Jon now knew Mai had not read his personnel record, the one Zakiya had recently corrected. “My daughter,” he replied.

/

She tilted her head as though a different angle would reveal the way to see through him. “Why are you sorry to have a daughter? Because of something stupid I once said? It doesn’t matter.” It didn’t matter to Mai, not any longer. Although she hated to break the law, she could easily rationalize keeping Jon’s child because of the extraordinary situation. They might never return to Union space.

/

It did matter, even if Horss couldn’t hear it in her voice. It occurred to him this was an encouraging reaction, if he read it correctly. “It matters to me,” he stated. He looked around her small office, where she worked and lived. It wasn’t as clean and as neat as he would have expected. Mai was probably too busy.

/

“Is there something you need to tell me?” Mai asked. She sat down. She sat on her hands to keep them silent about her stress.

/

Horss thought Mai sounded hopeful – about something. He plunged ahead, obliquely, like the coward he was. “I’m worried,” he said.

“About what?” she asked.

“The ship.”

“Of course, you are. You’re the captain.”

“I mean… as a… limiting… factor,” he said slowly, picking his words.

“I… don’t… understand,” she said, just as slowly.

“I’m running out of time because of the ship,” he said quickly.

“To do what?” she asked quickly.

“To be happy. That’s what the Freedom is all about: the pursuit of happiness.”

/

“I suppose it is, in a way. What would make you happy?” Mai thought Jon was trying to work his way around to something important. How could men such as Jon pretend to be strong and decisive, if they were not in fact strong and decisive? Did he act this way only in her presence? Was that a sign of something she did to him emotionally? It would be humorous to her if she wasn’t so serious about everything!

/

There it was, Horss thought, the perfect question for me to answer. I would say, “You would make me happy.” He pursed his lips to get the “you” sound but nothing would come out. He never had this problem with women before! It was easier to lie to a casual acquaintance than it was to tell the truth to Old Lady Sugai.

/

“Some of those Twenglish words are hard to pronounce,” Mai said, taking a chance on humor. This was it, she thought. She would stop at nothing to bring this conversation to the point of truth between them.

/

“Especially the one-syllable words,” Horss said. He hoped her remark was supposed to be humorous. “Words like you, me, and us.”

“How about you, I, and we?” Mai suggested. “Subjective rather than objective pronouns.”

“Grammar is for sissies if you speak Twenglish,” he said. “Why do you suddenly know so much about it?”

“Because Sammy needs to understand what I say.”

“Oh. I thought I might be the reason.”

“When I learn all the curse words, Jon!”

“I can help you there!”

“Tell me about Makawee.”

“What?”

Mai’s bare feet became nervous and began rocking her rocking chair. She fixed him with a squinty stare.

Nobody could squint like Mai. She didn’t seem too upset now to Horss. He couldn’t track where her feelings went.

“Makawee, Jon. Your daughter. I would like to know something about her. Does she look like you?”

“Makawee was an infant when I left. I think she did have some of her father’s features.”

Mai frowned at Horss. Frowned and squinted. “It’s impossible for me to imagine you abandoning your wife and child. You’re a starship captain. You’re the definition of responsibility.”

“It never occurred to me,” he said thoughtfully.

“What never occurred to you?” she asked, when Jon didn’t soon say more.

“I was young when I married,” he spoke sadly. “We hardly know anymore what it’s like to be young. Young and inexperienced and unwise. I’ve always felt great shame for leaving Chumani and Makawee, for leaving my people, my home. It was my duty to take care of them, to take responsibility. I placed my ambition and dreams ahead of family. It never occurred to me that my shame is why I place my duty to protect crew above everything, why I was so devastated by what happened to Sammy.”

“None of us is perfect,” Mai muttered, looking away at nothing. When she looked back at Jon he was staring at her very seriously. She stopped rocking. She opened her mouth to start to say what she needed to say, but he held a hand up to stop her and took a deep breath.

“Chumani was a widow,” he said. “Her husband was killed in a mining accident. Her husband was my next older brother, Jay. Makawee was my brother’s child. All the more reason I should have stayed and not disgraced my family.”

/

Mai started to say something philosophical to Jon, perhaps to ease his obvious emotional pain. Then she realized he had said, Makawee was my brother‘s child! “You should be ashamed, Jon! You should carry that burden for years! But it doesn’t mean you can’t ever be happy! Did you just say that you were never a biological father?”

“And never deserve to be,” Horss replied.

“We sometimes get what we don’t deserve,” Mai said, thinking of her unborn child.

/

“I don’t deserve you,” Horss said. Now that it was hopeless he could dare to say it. “And I want you.”

Mai closed her eyes and almost smiled. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“Extremely,” he answered.

/

Mai got up from the rocking chair. She took four slow steps on bare feet and placed a hand on Jon’s chest. She could feel his heart beating. “Then I am yours,” she said. When Jon tried to hold her hand, she took his hand and placed it on her abdomen. “And so is the baby in my womb,” she said, watching his reaction transform his countenance.

1980CE – Quantum Circuits, Part 2

“So, how’s the dissertation coming, Miss DuPont?” Sam asked.

Milly twitched, startled, then shoved her wheels in opposite directions to turn and face Sam in the hallway outside her tiny office. She hid the joy in her expression, leaving only a wan smile for him to see. “Grumble, grumble, grumble,” she replied. “Haven’t seen you for a couple of days.” That was supposed to suggest that she missed him but she would be damned if she would be any more obvious. It had been very hard not to weep every day Sam had not called her. She was such a helpless mess!

“My brain seems to be on a very imaginative mission,” Sam said. “I don’t think I’ve slept four hours in the last two days.” He knelt down beside her, making it more comfortable for her to look at him. She looked at him, her smile fading, and Sam could only suspect he had made an error. “I think I’ve misinterpreted our relationship, Milly. I apologize.”

“You could have called me,” Milly said, keeping her voice neutral.

“I could have? I didn’t want to presume…”

“Call me every day, if you want. Couldn’t you tell that I like you?”

“I wasn’t sure how much you liked me.”

“I could say the same thing,” she said. She raised an eyebrow, waiting for his reply.

“A lot,” Sam replied immediately.

“Ditto,” she said, watching closely for his reaction. He blushed. She smiled. He stared into her eyes, until she had to look away. “Okay, you are here, Samuel Lee. Finally! Is there another reason?”

“More science fiction?” he replied.

“Your place or mine?” Milly asked.

“Mine is on the third floor with no elevator.”

“Can’t carry me up three flights? My place, then. Your bathroom probably doesn’t have all the monkey bars I need.”

= = =

Milly took too long in the bathroom, worrying over every detail of her appearance she could do anything about. When had she ever done this, after her first and only prom? Sam was just so damned nice! She tried to remember the details of what Sam had postulated on their first date. Was he actually serious about that? She should have tried harder to make him explain himself. She had not wanted to do anything but be nice, which was always difficult for her to do. Poking holes in his “science fiction” postulate would not have been nice.

When Milly finally wheeled herself out of the bathroom she was surprised and a little dismayed by the stack of papers on her kitchen table.

/

“Sorry.” Sam saw Milly’s reaction to the papers he had pulled from his briefcase and stacked on her table. “I left your apartment wondering what the hell I had actually said to you. How could I take it all back? Unfortunately, I then lost control of my imagination.”

“You really think you have something?” Milly asked hopefully.

“I may have a way to test it, but it’s going to require more math and geometry than I think I can manage.”

“Test it? Already? Test what?”

“It’s going to be hard to explain. That’s why all the drawings.” Sam looked up from his stack of papers and tried to decipher the look on Milly’s face. He looked back at the papers. His wild theory began to fade in importance when he remembered Milly’s situation, especially her need to finish work on her doctorate. Why was he so fixated on something so impossible? Fixated on two things: the theory and Milly. “I’m sorry, Milly.” He shook his head, picked up the stack of drawings. “Forget this crap. Is there any possible way I can help you with your doctorate? I, who am a math whiz?”

/

Milly gazed at Sam for several quiet moments, wondering why this was happening to her. She was actually prepared to give up her doctorate, if it was a choice between it and Sam. She could see the consequences. The doctorate was a piece of paper that would give her some security and prestige for the rest of her probably brief life. Sam was a more important possibility, but still only a possibility. He could vanish from her life tomorrow. She could see herself helplessly grasping at the short-term pleasure of being with Sam, taking a chance on him, taking a big chance.

“You have a theory, a postulate,” Milly said, stalling for time, trying to avoid foolish choices. “What do you call it?”

“Quantum circuits.”

“Why the word quantum, Sam?”

/

Sam sensed that Milly didn’t like the word, perhaps because he had borrowed it from Quantum Mechanics. It was her first criticism of his theory. She was going to be serious now. That was what he wanted. He needed the help of someone who had the mathematical intelligence to at least relieve him of this compulsion.

“I don’t know why,” Sam answered. “I don’t have another term that better identifies where the action is taking place. My quantum is a primary unit of force, a sort of vibration that rides each kind of loop discontinuity of both the cosmic universe and the quantum universe. Quanta are the only reason for all relative motion in the universe. They exert force on other circuits and the circuits intersect other circuits, with varying effect according to angle. At steep angles they can pass through each other, at shallow angles they slide past, always exerting force. The quantum may be a single waveform riding the circuit or it may be interpreted as the way the circuit wiggles in any given positional relationship to another circuit or pattern of circuits. These circuits permeate space, giving space all of its properties, including gravity.”

“You lost me at loop discontinuity,” Milly said, rolling her eyes.

“It all started with that notion of a magnetic line of force,” Sam said. “What is it? I imagined it was like an electrical circuit, or loop. But what is it physically? I tried to reduce it to the most basic physical model I could imagine. All I could see was the somethingness of space, then an infinitely fine thread of nothingness, then space again. In other words, the loop path of force was a discontinuity.”

Milly closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. “Space is a solid something and loops of force are empty threads in it? What about matter, atoms?”

“Matter is a discontinuity also,” Sam replied. “It isn’t important which part of the binary relationship is the something and which is the nothing. The interface between the two is what is important. That’s where all of the possibilities of cause and effect are expressed.”

“And you think you can test it?”

“Magnetic or electrostatic fields are the long quantum circuits associated with electrons, and I think their effective mass is added to the electron, making it equal to protons and electrons, which are themselves bundles of loop discontinuities. I have a kind of brute-force experiment that would prove a basic premise of my theory.”

/

Sam stopped talking, seeming to ponder something unpleasant. Milly wondered why. “I’m listening,” she urged.

“I want to overload a small volume of space with parallel electric field lines.”

“Lines of force don’t like to be squeezed, Sam. They repel each other. Something is going to melt or blow up. What would that prove?”

/

“Yes, there could be an explosion,” Sam said. He was hoping for a very big explosion or at least a very weird explosion, anything other than his test apparatus flying apart due to design failure. He could almost visualize the shape of the component that would plunge the magnetic field lines into critical density. He needed Milly to help him determine the exact geometry.

“What would this prove, Sam?” Milly repeated. “How much gauss? It sounds dangerous.”

He hesitated again to reply. He didn’t know if Milly knew enough physics to see the implications. He didn’t want to spell it out for her because it would sound like madness or utter conceit. “It will be dangerous if it proves I’m on the right track,” he finally replied.

“How big an explosion? My big brother is an Air Force officer and I think he might know where to blow things up.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

/

She repeated the question. “How big an explosion, Sam?” She was beginning to get a notion that Sam was hiding some critical idea from her. She was beginning to think this was a very large explosion. Too large. He wouldn’t respond to her repeated question. “Nuclear?”

/

Sam tried to shape an answer that still avoided saying what he didn’t want to say plainly. “I’m trying to prove that my quantum circuits – in the form of magnetic or electrostatic lines of force – are a basic form of matter. When matter fuses – as in a hydrogen bomb – energy is released. I feel that the energy of any nuclear bomb is provided simply by quantum circuits being broken and then coming back together. Trying to fuse magnetic lines of force may actually break their circuits and release quite a lot of energy. Visualize it as a bundle of rubber bands you stretch until it breaks, except that these bands must return to being loops.”

“So…energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light?”

“It isn’t clear to me that the equation fits quantum circuits.”

/

“Your quantum circuits have energy because you think they have mass, but not a lot of mass. How would there be much energy released?” She saw Sam was uncomfortable with what she said. She thought through the terms of Einstein’s equation. It was almost as if Sam was implying there was something wrong with it. “The speed of light, that’s all that’s left.”

“The speed of information, to be more precise.”

“So, what’s wrong with it?”

“I can’t define it.”

“You don’t know what’s wrong with it?”

“I didn’t want to get into this so soon, or ever, depending on whether I could test my theory. If Einstein’s equation applied to quantum circuits, the value of c would not be a constant. It would be undefined at best and infinite at worst. I don’t have another equation to replace it. The mass term is meaningless as well. Like Newton’s equation for gravity, Einstein’s equation is an approximation for much larger aggregates of mass, aggregates composed of myriad complex entities, many kinds of quantum circuits. I’m not trying to define entities yet – what we call atomic particles – except to say they must be closely related to quantum circuits, and even connected by quantum circuits. The concept I’m trying to work out first is what I call reluctance, which is somewhat akin to the electronic term. Reluctance is the property of the interface of the discontinuity needed to provide the fulcrum upon which force can be exerted by circuit quanta. It’s vaguely like the skin of an air bubble in water. It has some variable value caused simply by angle of impingement between parts of the loop. Reluctance would also be the only restraint on the speed of information.”

Milly sat quietly for a long time, thinking. She could almost see what Sam was trying to explain. She picked up some of the drawings from the kitchen table: pictures of hollow tubes crossing at various angles and vectors, sinusoidal waves in thread-like loops colliding with various interference effects and resulting force vectors. It was obvious how geometry was necessary. It was a rather simple principle that led to almost infinite complexities. She then realized geometry could be a tool in her doctorate pursuit. Wasn’t geometry the main reason for doing math? Math was how reality was measured, and reality was perceived as geometry.

“OK, Sam. Once more, from the top. I like blowing things up.”

The Bass Player and the Happy Captain

Direk watched her. He should be paying more attention to the engineering work that was being done. He had steeled himself against such distraction, but he was too tired to keep up the effort. He watched Zakiya. It was not that she was the mother of the woman he had loved – Jamie – but that she was Ruby Reed, singing in the spotlight, as he and Harry played their instruments. He had always been happy when he played bass and listened to Ruby and Harry. He was unreasonably disappointed Zakiya hadn’t yet referred to that period of their lives together. Harry – who was Pan – was missing. He knew he should be here, helping with the engineering. The other copy of Direk – the one who died heroically – should also be here, as he was needed in this emergency. Now this musical memory of Zakiya was causing him to wonder if yet another person from the past was missing.

Zakiya noticed him, and noticed his distraction. “What is it?” she asked.

“How long have they worked on this pylon?” he asked. It was a tower of steel that was bent when the Freedom broke through the space door of Navy dry dock.

“About two days,” she answered.

“Are they finished? It looks fine to me.”

“The integrity of the repair tests good,” she answered, “but there is a question about its accuracy.”

“Tell them to quit the pylon and move on. The gate connections can probably adapt to that amount of error in geometry. If that’s the last ship’s fitting to need attention, we can begin the final connection stage.”

“The field emitters can adapt?”

“I should have informed you. I’m sorry I had to press you into service, but Uncle Iggy was almost asleep on his feet. My copies and I had the better part of a century to modify the hardware. We tried to allow for some error in ship geometry. There wasn’t any error by Uncle Iggy, except for the damaged pylons.”

Zakiya hurried over to the repair team and gave them his news. She returned. “I’m going to the hospital to see Sammy. When are you going to get some rest?”

“When Uncle Iggy wakes up. I’ve got my new shiplink. I’m available to the engineers if they need my help. May I walk with you?”

“Of course. You must have something to say to me. Is it about Jamie?”

“No,” he answered, feeling Zakiya’s concerned gaze upon him as he avoided looking at her.

They began walking. They followed a pressurized and lighted artificial gravity pathway among the massive pillars of field emitters, more than half of which had been lowered into approximate installation positions, creating a forest of hexagonally-capped giant mushroom stalks. Eventually the hexagonal caps would form the new outer hull of the Freedom.

“Do you know about the small gate on the ship?” Zakiya inquired.

“It’s a preview gate,” Direk responded. “Iggy told me it was used to rescue you and someone named Sammy.”

“A preview gate?”

“It’s used to peek at the destination and make sure it’s both correct and safe. We won’t be able to use it for that purpose until I’m sure of its calibration.” He paused to see if Zakiya would tell him about the rescue but she was either reluctant or distracted. “Who is Sammy?” he asked. “I’ve heard some of the engineers talking about him.”

“My adopted son,” Zakiya replied. “If you have a few moments, perhaps you should know what happened. I haven’t told all of the details to anyone except Captain Horss.”

Zakiya told Direk about his copy rescuing her and Sammy from the Navy Commander, and about the golden aliens who were in his presence. He asked questions, trying to satisfy himself that Zakiya had seen true aliens.

As important and as intriguing as the story was, he was still troubled with not knowing what to do about the fact of the real Direk being dead. He could not presume to deserve a relationship with anyone the real Direk had known – especially Jamie. He was in fact identical to the real Direk in every physical aspect that mattered, but an Old One tended this body, and if one believed in the soul or in some other non-physical certification, he had no right to claim any part of the real Direk.

“After learning about golden aliens in the presence of the Navy Commander,” Direk said, “and your Direk copy dying heroically, and your discovery of a little boy on Earth, I suppose my little problem is not even worth mentioning.”

The demands of the gravity path across the ship’s hull required concentration, until they arrived at a temporary transmat node, where they winked to the central biosphere of the Freedom. They materialized on a circular disk of natural granite embedded in the slope above the lake. The granite node was convenient to a wide stairway also made of igneous rock. It was early morning in the biosphere and almost cold enough to fog their breath.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Zakiya demanded with concern, before they could begin walking.

He looked away from her, panned his gaze across the lake, then looked at his feet. “I am trying very hard to tell you something. It wasn’t this difficult with Uncle Iggy, and perhaps he didn’t believe me. Please be patient. I was a black man and I played a stringed bass. Do you remember me, Ruby?”

“Remember you…?” Zakiya’s voice trailed off and her eyes closed. Then tears seemed to force her eyes open and she almost choked when she tried to stop an eruption of sound from too deep in her body.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Direk reached out to Zakiya, not quite touching her, until she moved within his arms and hugged him.

“Dick! Dick, Dick, Dick! How I’ve missed you!”

“No, you haven’t,” Direk said kindly, holding her gently. “It’s just the auxiliary memory exaggerating your feelings. I only wanted you to remember your old bass player. I needed that… continuity to my life, perhaps because it was an Earthian urge. Pan and I, despite our Essiin enculturation, loved you for yourself, without regard to the impossible plan in which we all participated. We were happy with you, with your music, even with your alcoholism and melancholy.”

Zakiya calmed herself, rubbed the tears from her eyes, then looked at Direk with loving seriousness. “Are you alright, Direk? I could never have expected such words from you!”

“I don’t know, Zakiya. My auxiliary memory doesn’t bother me as much with its pungency as with the meaning of it all. I am supposed to know myself better than what I discover in my memory. I’m supposed to know how to treat others kindly, and I fear I’ve not done that very well. Especially with… her.”

“Her? Which her?”

“Yes, both Jamie and Mother. I realize this problem I have is not welcome at such a critical time, but there it is. Wanting you to remember me, when I was who I really wanted to be, that was my perfectly unreasonable Earthian ego. It has as much meaning as my perfectly reasonable Essiin ego. I think Pan knew that instinctively but he could never quite explain it to me. I certainly can’t explain it to myself. I just have to persevere, like a good Essiin, and get lucky like a good Earthian.”

“Direk, I think I want to laugh at that, but I’m not sure!”

Direk laughed, shocking Zakiya again. She slapped him on the chest. “Your mother will not believe…!”

“But I can’t be perfectly Earthian,” Direk warned. “I don’t want to raise hopes or insinuate promises. All I want to do is to be kinder to those to whom I may be important.”

“I can assure you that you are extremely important to my daughter. Can you imagine why that could be?”

“Not entirely. I don’t entirely understand why she is so important to me, but she is. Either my Earthian component is blinding me to the logic, or else the Essiin logic is faulty at its base.”

“You love her,” Zakiya said, as though loving each word she said.

“I want to believe that. I just don’t know if my Essiin component will give me any room to be sure, as if some mathematical theorem must be applied to the proof.”

“If you don’t love her, can you forget her?”

“I can’t forget her. Every piece of equipment, every measurement, every test, every centimeter of this asteroid, all of the excruciating precision put into each field emitter, all of that was at least partly for the hope and the chance of seeing Jamie again. Just seeing her. Perhaps that is only what loneliness does to an Earthian, I don’t know. But when I stop to just imagine being close to her, I’m overwhelmed. Am I mentally ill?”

“Yes, I’m afraid you are!” Zakiya declared, kissing Direk on the cheek. She had to stand on her toes to reach that high. “It is a dreadful and wonderful Earthian illness. I’m so sorry! No wonder Jamie broke down and wept when she thought you had died rescuing Sammy and me. She didn’t know he was a copy. She must have known you had loved her, even though you may never have explicitly told her. She knew she had loved you, despite the way you acted. What are you going to do?”

“Now,” Direk said, hardly able to control his voice, “I will probably hurt you badly, seeing how much you cared for Direk.”

“What…?” Zakiya tried to form a question.

“It was actually not Direk you cared for,” Direk said. “It was me. It was not Direk that Jamie knew. It was me. The original Direk died. I am his first copy. And his last copy.”

Zakiya gazed downward for several moments. Direk could not understand what her reaction was. She reached for his hand and grasped it firmly. She wiped her eyes with her other hand. When she turned her gaze upward to Direk she was smiling faintly. “I think this was what Mai and Aylis wanted to tell me but couldn’t, Direk. They must have suspected something from the tests they did on you. Somehow I am prepared for this. My response is: Who are any of us but copies of who we were? And often we are not even who we were!”

“This is some relief for me,” Direk said. “I don’t know what I will do. I need to put it aside, for the moment. There will be a better time ahead and perhaps I will find more courage.”

“Jamie doesn’t know you,” Zakiya said thoughtfully. “Nobody really knows you. But I’m beginning to see… Aside from being a copy, your mother doesn’t know you!”

“Mother is the other subject I wanted to discuss. What happened to her? She seems depressed. Is it because of me?”

Zakiya reluctantly started describing the key events Direk had missed. He absorbed the information with Zakiya studying his reaction. It was never, of course, a secret that he could feel emotions as deeply as anyone. But the display of emotion was deemed theatrical and coercive by elite Essiin. Perhaps few such Essiin realized how well their demeanor was applied by Navy admirals, corrupting it into a blank stare of menace and hidden motives.

“I don’t know what to do for Aylis,” Zakiya said. “Most of the time I think she will heal. Mai told me she’s pregnant.”

“Raped!” Direk said angrily. “Pregnant! And now she also knows her real son is dead!”

“Etrhnk threatened to remove me from the Freedom unless she… I can’t imagine how she felt! I don’t know why she’s still carrying the fetus. I can’t get her to speak to me about it or talk to an AI psychiatrist. She avoids me almost all the time now and I worry so much about her. Will you try to talk to her?”

“I don’t think I can help her. You’re her closest friend. If she won’t talk to you, she won’t talk to a son who is a stranger to her.” It was a horrible concept, his mother being pregnant by rape. He could barely realize how dangerous his distraction was becoming, with the conversion process for the ship requiring his close attention. With Pan detained on Earth by Etrhnk and the only other copy self-terminated, Direk alone possessed the skill and knowledge to solve problems with the ship modification – even assuming the skill and knowledge still existed in his brain or auxiliary memory. Without Pan… Was anyone else missing? That thought startled him again with the chilling doubt it brought with it. There was someone else missing from the crew, someone other than Pan! He almost grasped who it might be, and then it was erased from his thoughts by Jon Horss.

/

“Hey, kid, are you done talking to the Boss?” Horss startled Zakiya and Direk as he walked up behind them. They are probably discussing Jamie, Horss thought. Direk looked unhappy. Wasn’t that unusual for him? Horss wished he could meddle in the affair of the heart of Direk and Jamie. He wanted everyone to be as happy as he was. But he had promised Jamie to give her time to understand herself.

“Jon!” Zakiya complained. “Sometimes I wonder about you!”

“Only sometimes? That’s progress! Direk, please forgive the interruption. If you have more to say to her, I’ll wait in the roses.”

“I think your timing was perfect,” Direk said. “We had just reached a stopping point.”

“Well, this is my lucky day! I talked Miss Perfect into marrying me!”

“Mai?” Zakiya’s expressive eyes widened in expectation of being correct.

“My Mai, yes!”

“Wonderful! How did you trick her?”

“Uh.” Horss felt acutely guilty. No matter how old Mai was or how sweet her apology for becoming and remaining pregnant, Horss was responsible in his own eyes. He deserved to suffer the guilt and was reluctant to threaten Mai with guilt by association with him. Still, she was determined to have the baby and people would form opinions. “She’s pregnant,” he finally said.

“Her, too? I didn’t know!”

“It’s all your fault.” Horss was sinfully willing to obscure the less honorable aspect: it was a hell of a time and place to bring a new life into the universe. “I would never have met her if you hadn’t shanghaied me and killed me. Then you sang for us at the Opera and so distracted Mai, that she forgot the state of her reproductive system.”

“And you share no part of the blame, Jon?”

“I got lucky! Do you blame a sailor for that? Will you marry us?”

“Only if you love each other.”

“Please, forgive my crudeness. I love Mai. I don’t know why, but she says she loves me!”

“Usually it’s the ship’s captain who performs a marriage ceremony, but I think the ranking officer aboard should be allowed. When do you want to do it?”

“As soon as possible! I want to be a husband and expectant father at least for the little time we have before this magic ship jumps into oblivion.”

“It won’t do that,” Direk objected. “You trust starlight drive and it’s only a step or two below what we’re about to do.”

“You’re talking to a guy who came up through the enlisted ranks, got promoted into the Academy, and almost flunked Basic Starlight Drive Theory. Which is awfully hard to do when it’s given to you in an augment!”

“Do you understand how a gravity plate works?” Direk asked.

“Who does? What’s that to do with jumpships?”

“You know there are microscopic synchronized pendulums.”

“I know that much, yes. And there is something like artificial intelligence in each one.”

“I think they manipulate the statistical probabilities of zero relative velocity,” Direk said.

“What’s so special about zero relative velocity? It happens all the time.”

“It happens at the macroscopic level based approximately on Newton’s equation involving mass and distance. It must also happen at the atomic level but the mechanism is obscured by many other force interactions between and within atoms. All we see is a scrambled mess of attraction and repulsion between the many particle entities. Gravity somehow dips into that chaos and takes hold of something for an instant. We know it’s a statistical process, a game of chance. I think the hook of gravity is simply due to a timing event. I think the event is completely described by zero relative velocity.”

“Between what?” Horss asked. “It can’t be like magnetism.”

“I don’t think there is any real difference between the forces of magnetism and gravity. I think the same field lines are at work, just in a very different pattern, one constant and one intermittent. Gravity is actually an intermittent force with a cumulative effect that seems constant.”

“So gravity is an attraction between individual atoms?” Horss asked.

“Between the parts of the nuclei of atoms,” Direk replied. “Atomic particles must have differing topologies, but whatever the particles are, we are calling them entities, and in addition to their topology they have a quantum circuit loop. The jump drive creates a huge entity, with a quantum circuit loop proportionally large. The starlight drive does something similar, with the heading notch, where the quantum circuit loop emerges to attach to star light. In the case of the jump drive, we apparently make a second jump entity that is projected at a controllable distance and direction, and they are connected by a quantum loop. They have zero relative velocity for an instant.”

“Will they be pulled together?” Horss asked. “What happens?”

“Gravity plates change the statistics of their entities to increase the occurrences of zero relative velocities and grab people and objects above them. The jump drive apparently takes advantage of another unknown property of the universe that is triggered by zero relative velocity. My theory is that, since an absolute positional frame of reference is impossible, entities that do not move relative to each other are ambiguous as to absolute location. The connecting quantum circuit points the way to what may be a target in a different universe.”

“So we are neither here nor there for an instant,” Horss said, rubbing his forehead and glancing at Zakiya with his gray eyes widened in humorous reaction. “Then we are in a different but similar universe?”

“As simple as that,” Direk replied, smiling.

“Will it help to pray?” Horss asked. “Because I really want to live to see my baby.”

“Jumpship technology is less magical than your baby,” Direk said. “The miracle of life and existence dwarfs everything.”

“I have no more time for metaphysical physics,” Zakiya said with an impatient sigh. “I’m on my way to bring Sammy home from the hospital.”

She hugged Horss firmly, then she hugged him gently, patting him on the back. She kissed him. He was just barely able to keep himself from picking her up as an expression of his feelings for her and for the legitimacy she had given to his life. Hell, why should he want to keep from picking her up? He lifted her off her feet and pivoted, almost knocking Direk down with Zakiya’s swinging legs.

“I’m so happy for you, Jon!” she declared as he finally set her down.

Just as Zakiya disengaged from Horss, Aylis came into view, walking down the steps from the hospital. They waited for her to reach them. As Horss observed the subtle pain Aylis felt, expressed in the solemn manner of her pace and posture, he also saw her strength and her willingness to keep engaging in life, perhaps hoping for a better time to come.

“I saw you from my window,” Aylis said softly. “What are you doing that requires kissing and hugging and swinging? May I participate?”

It was a valiant attempt to sound happy but failed to convince Horss, and certainly everyone else. She glanced at her son in a way that made Horss hurt inside. He realized Direk was very important to her, especially in this troubled time of her life.

“Jon got lucky,” Zakiya said. “Mai said she would marry him.”

“That is so wonderful!” Aylis exclaimed. “I had a little talk with her. Maybe that helped.”

Aylis moved forward to Horss. She didn’t seem comfortable for a moment, but didn’t stop until she wrapped her arms around Horss’s shoulders. Then she, too, kissed him. Despite everything, this made Horss even happier, yet still a little sad.

“I’m sorry,” Horss said to Aylis.

“Why? Because you’re taking my roommate away?”

“Because I didn’t stop you from accepting Etrhnk’s invitation. I didn’t imagine what would happen, but I did see danger in the situation.”

Aylis was silent for a moment. “There’s nothing to forgive, Jon. Be good to Mai. She’s had a rough few decades on Earth. When is the wedding?”

“Soon. Zakiya said she’ll marry us.”

“It’s probably not the time or place to ask, but would you see if Mai will allow me to interrupt her pregnancy?”

“Is anything wrong with the fetus? Mai tells me it’s perfect.”

“It is. I just thought you would want to be cautious, not knowing what lies ahead in the mission.”

“I was briefed on this topic by Mai. She said she will follow your example, not your advice.”

“Aylis,” Zakiya began, and Horss knew she wanted to urge Aylis to interrupt her own pregnancy.

“No,” Aylis said, cutting Zakiya off. “If I understood myself, I would explain myself to you. All I can feel right now is a great love for the innocent child inside me, and a desire to keep her in me as long as I can.”

“A daughter?” Zakiya queried. “Is she a healthy baby?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had the time or the will to even register her genetic code. I’m telling you things I haven’t told myself. I don’t know if it’s female. I don’t know if it’s healthy. I had ugly thoughts and twisted emotions that kept me on the verge of aborting it, smashing it, incinerating it! But it is innocent of everything. And I can already feel it inside me. And I’m never lonely now.”

Aylis began taking deep breaths and stifling the sounds that tried to rise out of her chest. Zakiya pulled her into her arms.

“God, I need a hug every minute or two these days!” Aylis admitted miserably.

“I can hug you that often,” Direk stated.

Zakiya released the startled Aylis. Aylis stared at her son in concerned wonder. “What? How? You?”

“If you would allow me,” Direk said, making Horss wonder why Direk thought she could reject his offer. “I’ll have too much free time after the jump,” Direk said, speaking as though what he said was not as remarkable as it was. “Let me help you at the hospital. I’ll take Mai’s place while she moves in with Captain Horss.”

“You would do that?” She stopped. “What about Jamie?”

“About Jamie,” Horss said reluctantly, hating that he made that promise to her.

“I suppose your order still stands?” Zakiya asked.

“Yes, it does. Don’t bother her. I don’t know if I should say anything more. I’m far out of my small area of social expertise. Direk, I don’t know if they told you. Jamie was also raped many years ago. The two most important women in your life. That’s rough.”

“I didn’t know!” Direk spoke quietly and intensely. “When?” he asked. “How? Did they prosecute her attacker?”

“You’re not at all like your copy,” Horss remarked. “You sound Earthian!”

“Tell me!” Direk demanded.

“I don’t know! We all heard her say those words to Aylis, that she knew what rape felt like. I’ve had enough Navy training courses, so I’m supposed to know how much this crime hurts someone, especially a woman. But we can’t really know until we are the victim. So, this is one big thing Jamie must be thinking about. I know she has powerful feelings for you but… I’m saying more than I have the right or the knowledge to say. I’m sorry, but it’s poisoning me to keep it inside. I care a lot about Jamie.”

/

And I am but a copy of Direk, Direk thought, looking to his mother and wondering if she cared that he was only a copy.

= = =

It seemed fatalistic that she and Freddy should be in sole control of the ship at this moment. Freddy was by definition a genius but very inexperienced. For her own part, Jamie couldn’t do much more than model a Navy captain’s uniform. At this moment fate commanded the ship; she didn’t. All that she and Freddy could do was watch until she could metaphorically push a button.

On one screen she watched the final field emitter lock down and merge its hexagonal umbrella with the others, to form a new perfect hull around the Freedom. The circuit verification test started. There were millions of electronic and electrical circuits, millions of mechanical and signal and power connections, all of which had to be perfect. Freddy monitored the procedure on a more technical level.

On a second screen Jamie watched the Navy pursuit squadron spread out in the system to probe the many large bodies of mass. They would soon find what they sought. Freddy also monitored the Navy signals that were intercepted by instruments that relayed them from the surface of the asteroid in which they hid. The first screen needed to run to completion before the second screen showed the Navy ready to attack. Then she could push the “button.” Freddy would tell her when.

On a third screen there was a wedding. Jamie didn’t know what was more absurd: she being in command of the ship, or everyone else on the ship celebrating life in the shadow of death. Did they all really believe in Direk’s miracle of teleportation? Did any of them realize how close they were to the Navy’s guns?

Direk. Stop thinking about him! What did he once call himself? Dick Jones. Dick and Jamie Jones. That was where she took her fictitious family name. Wasn’t it?

The Five Worlds, all dressed in winter white. The cottage by the spring. The big bed with the goose-down mattress and four wool blankets. The intense quiet of a snowy world made all the more intense by the deep peal of a distant bell.

His slow breathing under the heavy blankets. The memory of children laughing at him and she not knowing why.

“Because I am a giant Essiin man,” he had said.

One of his many lies to her. He made them laugh. She knew he did! She couldn’t believe it, so she forgot that she knew he made them laugh.

“Because you are a giant Essiin man,” she said to the rising and falling blankets.

His whispery breathing continued unchanged. The ringing bell faded into yesterday. She had never understood Direk.

How many times did she relive this moment in her life? Why was she doing it right now, when such interference with her mental faculties could be extremely dangerous?

“Freddy!”

“Yes, Captain?”

“If I hesitate to act, when you know I should, you act for me. I’m giving you my authority.”

“Why? Are you ill?”

“Yes! It’s these damned memories! I don’t know how our mother holds herself together.”

“Why would memories make you ill?”

“Because they are too perfectly recorded! They override my senses. They’re addictive. I can go back to them and see detail I could never see in natural memories. Your memories must be perfect, Freddy. You probably can’t imagine why the vividness of my memories so disturbs me.”

“I would think vividness would be preferable. I do understand organic brains may degrade a memory with time, or otherwise restrict its retrieval. But I think you appeared fascinated by whatever you just experienced.”

“Are you sure you’re monitoring everything you need to be monitoring? And you still have time to watch my face?”

“I’m sure. I assume you understand how rapidly I can process multiple streams of data. My analysis of your facial expressions does take more time than most other things I think about. I like to watch you. I’d like to know what you’re remembering.”

The idea of confiding in Freddy appealed to Jamie. She decided to tell him about this particular memory. How much more absurd and derelict could she make her duty in the captain’s chair of the Freedom?

“He had his back turned to you?” Freddy asked, after she described the memory and the memory within that memory of children laughing at Direk.

“Yes. He couldn’t have made a funny facial expression. He never expressed emotion. But he was talking to them in their native language. This was before the Five Worlds adopted Standard. I didn’t understand what he said to them. I only know he made them laugh somehow. Probably it was unintentional. Do you have any secret information about Direk that you’re not supposed to tell me?”

“If I possessed such information, would the fact I possessed it also need to be secret?”

“Then you do have such information?”

“I must deny that I do. I know you won’t believe me.”

“Freddy, I know you study people much more than they deserve studying. Can’t you tell me just one little thing?”

“No one has sworn me to secrecy. What information I have about Direk is still scarce and my interpretation of it could be in error. However, I would suggest that you observe the wedding scene carefully. Particularly the musicians.”

Jamie watched the third screen show Admiral Khalanov delivering the nervous groom – Captain Horss – to the presence of Admiral Demba. On the park grounds by the lake many thousands gathered to witness the wedding and to be together when the fate of the ship was tested. A small band of musicians played the wedding march as Aylis Mnro escorted Sugai Mai to the altar. She panned the image and focused on the musicians.

It was easy to spot Direk in the band, with his non-regulation, too-long blond hair. He played a cello. When the wedding march ended, he leaned back in his chair and smiled at some comment by a fellow musician. The smile was so effortless that it shocked Jamie. She had no time to try to digest this little miracle.

“The Navy has found us!” Freddy warned. “We’re not ready to jump. Can you think of anything to do to stall them?”

“Oh, hell, yes! I’ll talk to them.”

“Visual?”

“Why not?”

She had to rein in her emotions, which had shot upward too far. She had to stifle her imagination, which was becoming too serious about this new young Direk. But, damn that smile of his! Despite all of this noise in her thoughts, she felt ready to do battle with whoever appeared on her screen. Of course, it was a man.

The Navy captain politely introduced himself and politely demanded she do the same. She ignored his demand.

“You don’t command the Eclipse?” she asked.

“No. This is the destroyer Fury. Identify yourself.”

“Let me speak to the captain of the Eclipse. I know it’s out there.”

“You’re in no position to make such a demand. Tell me who you are.”

She wanted to make him say ‘please’ but the risk was getting heavy. She knew that they knew she was stalling for time. As far as they could imagine, the Freedom was hiding in this piece of rock while it armed itself. If they waited too long, they could be caught off guard.

“Captain Jones here. I will presume the Eclipse is listening.”

“Insufficient information, Jones. Wait. Marine lieutenant Jamie Jones. Are you she?”

“I was promoted.”

“Where is Captain Horss?”

“He’s getting married.”

There was a pause. She didn’t know if they could analyze her vocalizations for veracity, or if they could trust what that told them. In any case, it was a bonus delay. She glanced at Freddy and saw him give her a thumbs-up signal.

“Ready for jump,” Freddy verified by shiplink.

She was almost disappointed she couldn’t continue this game. It was exciting for the few moments when there was concern the jump-shell connection tests would take too long. Now that she could jump at any moment, she was tempted to prolong the dialog.

She glanced back at the wedding scene and saw Sammy dispensing the wedding rings to the bride and groom. Just a few more moments of happiness for everyone… She tried not to think about what would happen. She had no doubt that something would happen. Maybe she didn’t yet believe the Freedom would vanish from inside the rock and reappear far away. But she believed the Navy would never touch them.

“May I have your attention, Captain?” the captain of the Fury requested with mock civility.

“You can’t have all of it,” Jamie replied. “I’m watching the wedding.”

“Prepare to be boarded! Be advised that resistance will be met with lethal force!”

“How well I know! Be advised that anyone who comes aboard my ship stays aboard my ship. I could use a few more Marines, preferably live ones.”

She looked at Freddy for some signal that he detected boarding signatures. He seemed to understand what she wanted. He turned his head to signal a negative response. She glanced again at the wedding scene and saw Jon taking hold of his future and putting his lips on hers.

“Sorry,” she said. “We can’t wait any longer.”

Journey by Cryptikon

The sunlight in the ship’s biosphere weakened. The clouds turned pink. More rapidly than a sunset on Earth, the sky darkened. Wind swept the clouds away. The sky dimmed through purple into a deep black. The lights of nearby apartments dimmed and all around the central lake the villages of the biosphere darkened. Birds complained of the rush of darkness as they sought perches. Human voices surged then quieted. Image emitters began to build a night sky above the lake, but gone were the star patterns normally provided from the parts of the galaxy that had surrounded the ship. A faint misty swirl slowly seeped into existence, a fog of microscopic points of light that formed a glow from horizon to horizon. As human eyes adjusted to the pattern and to the depth of the image, voices rose in quiet exclamation that surged to a celebration of victory and defiance, then quieted to murmurs of wonder and discovery. No one had felt anything at the instant of the jump across space into the gulf between galaxies. They were looking back from where they had come – the Milky Way Galaxy.

= = =

“I haven’t seen you for a long time, Iggy.”

He had thoughtfully made this appointment with her but Aylis still felt surprised at his presence. She also felt worried. Of all the people she worried about – which was everybody – she worried about Igor Khalanov the most. It wasn’t because she thought him unstable or depressed, but because she felt he now suffered a great hole in his life, because he had still not recovered his lost memories. She hoped his memories – when they did return to him – would not harm him. She was shocked at how deeply the memory of his dead wife Ana had affected her, and it would be far worse for Iggy.

“I was writing,” he replied.

Iggy sat down in a chair opposite Aylis’s desk. He wore his khaki engineering fatigues with their multitude of pockets, most of which he seemed to have filled. She felt a small urge to rummage through his pockets and see what they contained. Aylis had also been an engineer – a necessary specialty to aid her medical research.

“Another of your space adventures?” she queried. Jon had told her about Iggy’s admission of authoring books of genre fiction. She was still trying to locate some of his titles but he wouldn’t tell anyone his pseudonym.

“Almost,” he said. “A diary. So I won’t forget this time. It has been an adventure!”

“I wish we could verify the status of your auxiliary memory, Iggy. Unfortunately, Direk and I would need to do some retraining to qualify to inspect your memory. It’s possible we could damage it if we don’t. Give us a few more days.”

“It’s a great disappointment,” he lamented.

“For us, too. We want our old friend to return to us!”

He was quiet for a few moments and didn’t look at her.

“Why else did you want to see me, Iggy?” she asked, still worried.

He sighed. “We’re in a period where my services aren’t in great demand. It will be some days or months before we dive back into the galaxy and do dangerous things. I thought I would ask to be rejuvenated.”

He sounded to her as though he might have rehearsed his words. “A full rejuvenation?” she asked. Iggy shrugged in response. She recognized this as a sign of ambivalence and seized upon it. She didn’t want to get back into the full rejuvenation business on the Freedom, and especially not with Iggy. The Freedom was a new ship and could still need his expertise, despite its excellent performance so far. Nori was taking most of the rejuvenation resources she had brought aboard the Freedom. “You know what comes next,” she said.

“Not really. I don’t remember the last time they made me young.”

“A lot of questions are what’s next. The first one is: Why?”

“Look at me,” he said. “I’m aged. See these wrinkles? These spots and bumps that don’t go away?”

“We can take care of that without full rejuvenation, Iggy. Your general health is good. You know rejuvenation is a drastic procedure. In many ways you die. You’ll become someone else, despite the improved memory technology.”

“Exactly what I want! This version of me isn’t anything I want!”

“I like this version of you, Iggy! I admire what you’ve done. I worry that you’ll lose something nobody knows you have, and that it will be important to you, and to us.”

Iggy leaned back in his chair and sighed again. “I confess! It’s the vanity of an old man who is interested in a younger woman.”

“I’m dying to know who she is!”

“I don’t know what I’m doing! I suppose I’m caught up in the adventure. Did you put something in the public water supply? It seems like everyone is… Never mind!”

“You’re not going to tell me,” Aylis complained.

“Engineers never get the girl in my adventure stories.” Iggy turned away from Aylis and looked toward the bay window of her office. He could see the English garden below, the lake beyond. Aylis thought he must have seen the artifact on the sill behind the cushioned window seats. It was as lovely and as mysterious in sunlight as it was in the dark. “You leave it lying around for anyone to see?” Iggy questioned.

“It isn’t mine!” Aylis declared. “It belongs to all of us! But it may as well be an ornament, for lack of any better use! If anyone should have it, it should be you. You discovered the first one. Zakiya – and Phuti – always said you were their lucky charm on a dig. You had an engineer’s eye for important details.”

Iggy went to the window. He sat down next to the precious artifact. He stared at it. He turned away from it and rubbed his eyes. Something in his actions or expression concerned Aylis. She rose from her desk and approached to stand in front of Iggy.

“It has another existence!” he declared. “Can you see it?”

“See what? What do you mean?”

“Here!” He pointed to a place in the air near the cryptikon. He waved his hand. “All of this!”

Aylis blinked then frowned. “Where? Iggy, I thought my whole office winked away for an instant!”

The cryptikon rose into the air from its cradle and met the tip of Iggy’s first finger. He moved the finger, almost as if writing in the air. “How very strange!” He frowned deeply and tried to still his trembling hand.

“What do you see?” she asked. “Why is it attached to your finger?”

He seemed to only now notice the cryptikon at the tip of his finger. He paused to focus on it. In a moment it detached itself and became fixed in the air between him and Aylis. He continued to point at invisible things in front of him. He appeared fascinated but also disturbed, even alarmed.

“What do you see?” Aylis asked again.

“Many people here!” He gestured at a space in front of him. “They’re all staring at me but I don’t think they see me. Or do they? It’s like a hole I could fall into, where everything is just as real as it is here! A lot of darkness over here. Here some light. Dim. Too close. Pull back. How did I do that? A coffin? A stasis coffin!”

Iggy yanked his hand away. He retreated from his seat by the bay window. The cryptikon remained in the air. He snatched at it. He closed his shaking fist on the artifact. He shut his eyes tightly. He breathed hard, and when he opened his eyes he seemed relieved.

“What’s wrong?” Aylis asked. “What happened?” She was concerned enough that she measured his vital signs with her fingertips on his neck. He tried to put the cryptikon into her hands and she resisted. She could see the patterns were changed somehow on the little egg-like piece of magic. “Let me call Direk and Zakiya!” She pushed the cryptikon back into his hands. “Sit down and try to be calm! Your heart is racing!”

Iggy turned to the window and put the cryptikon back in its display cradle. He sat and stared out at the lake and the hospital gardens. In a few minutes Zakiya arrived, followed by Direk. Aylis told them what had happened. They tried to ask questions of Iggy but he didn’t want to talk. Zakiya sat with him, her hand on his forearm, until he finally spoke.

“I feel strange!”

“In what way?” Zakiya asked.

“Something in me changed!”

“What changed, Iggy?”

“I don’t know! Perhaps it was the universe that changed and I stayed the same!” Iggy spoke quietly yet too intensely, and that disturbed Aylis more than if he raised his voice in his usual impatient shout. Zakiya didn’t ask another question but simply sat beside him and held his hand. “I thought I knew how the universe works,” Iggy eventually said. “Then Direk tells me he can make holes in my universe. Then I thought I at least knew how my mind works. Now my mind is doing impossible things! I don’t know anything anymore!”

“You made the cryptikon work, Iggy,” Zakiya said. “That’s all. That’s all and that’s wonderful and I think it’s necessary.”

“It knew me!” Iggy declared. “All I did was say hello. And it changed everything! When you put a cryptikon in my hand at our first meeting, I felt strange, but there were other stronger emotions at work on me at that time. Then Jamie gave it to me while you were captive to Etrhnk, and I had what could have been a message. I never understood what was happening. I only see it now.”

“You saw a person in a stasis coffin,” Aylis prompted.

He nodded, then shuddered. “I didn’t just see it! It was there, right in front of me!” Iggy spoke in a loud whisper. “It was real!”

After a few moments of respectful silence, waiting for Iggy to recover, Direk chose to speak. “There is a difference,” he said, “between knowing something is real and being convinced it is real. Which do you feel it was?”

“How would I know?” Iggy replied intensely. “My senses are dulled by age. I would have to guess that it is tricking me, because it can get into my mind. It makes me assume what is impossible is not impossible. It wants me to believe that what I experienced is not only real but new. New! Current! Happening now! Right now! Thousands of parsecs away!”

“I assumed the cryptikon was a communications device,” Zakiya said. “I assumed it was special in some way. But this…”

“How can it show us something that is at least twelve thousand parsecs away?” Iggy asked. “The Essiin Museum, where a cryptikon resides. I’m sure that was what I saw first. I’ve been in that same room. All the Essiin were staring at me! Even if we could modulate starlight there isn’t enough gravitational bandwidth to transmit even the simplest information that distance. And the propagation delay would be forever. The signal would be lost amid the cross currents.”

“Would you try it again, Iggy?” Zakiya pleaded.

He struggled to make a decision. He plucked the cryptikon almost angrily from its cradle and squeezed it until he grew calm enough to open his fingers and let the device sit in the air in front of Zakiya and him.

“Please tell me,” he said, “if you see the impossible as I see it.”

Zakiya inhaled sharply. “Oh, my God!” She grabbed Iggy’s arm with her free hand.

“What is it?” Aylis demanded, still denied sight of what Zakiya and Iggy saw.

“You can’t see it?” Zakiya asked.

“Privacy mode,” Iggy said thoughtfully. “If I change this…” He made a gesture in the air.

“Oh!” Aylis gasped and staggered backward.

The space in front of Iggy became patterns of pure color, a curved field with holes that funneled deeply into other realities, yet could be seen from all angles. Iggy obviously understood what the patterns around the holes did, as though the device coached him by telepathy. Aylis thought there was something wrong about the pattern of holes and curved surfaces, as though it was too real to be real, too solid to be solid. It kept the hairs on her neck sticking up and kept her eyes squinting at something that she could only feel was impossible. As Iggy averred, it commanded Aylis to believe in an addendum to reality that changed her notion of what the universe was.

Iggy touched something – or nothing. Everyone tilted from vertigo as a very real image replaced half of Aylis’s hospital office. They became little people staring up at a giant horizontal container. Iggy pushed the image away, bringing an entire room into view, then pulled it forward until they seemed to be in the room. There were now three coffins, dim lights, walls filled with cabinets, tables, medical equipment. Aylis had to keep telling herself it was only an image, not a real thing. Looking over her shoulder she could still see the other half of her office. Then she realized she could feel the reality of what she saw, as if it was wrapping itself around her!

Zakiya rose slowly and walked past Aylis into the zone of impossibility. Aylis followed her and crept with her into the image. Zakiya put her trembling hand out and touched the glass portal of the first coffin.

Oh, God!” She jerked her hand away. She uttered almost a whimper then put her hand back. Zakiya rubbed the surface of the stasis coffin as she leaned over it to see who was within. She moaned. Aylis put her hand on Zakiya’s shoulder, her face next to Zakiya’s, and saw what she saw. Alexandros Gerakis! She couldn’t imagine what Zakiya felt. If her own shock and dismay and exhilaration was this huge… Zakiya’s trembling beneath her hand could only hint at the magnitude of her emotions. Aylis pulled herself out of the fountain of bright memories this moment set loose, pulled herself away from the grim mask of death within the stasis coffin. She coaxed Zakiya away from the coffin. Then she found herself leaning on another coffin, and it supported her as if it was real!

The four of them stood in a cold, dim, low-ceilinged chamber that smelled of spilled substances that were aged into a miasma of unpleasant odors. Quiet noises emanated from indistinct locations, suggesting machinery with ancient moving parts, pipes with not enough fluids in them, thermal chatter of metal expanding and contracting. Shadows draped over the surfaces of this other reality and moved when they moved. All of the light that shone into this place seemed to come from behind them, from the half of Aylis’s office with its window overlooking the English garden and the lake beyond: a different universe, a separate reality. Close above them, just below the square white surface of a ceiling light grid that was still dark, a cryptikon hovered, blinking red light from one of its cryptic symbols. Everyone noticed it; no one reached up to try to touch it.

Aylis wanted to scream to release her fear and tension, to shatter the illusion, while Iggy kept muttering, “This is not possible! This is not possible!”

“Koji,” Zakiya said, examining the face in the coffin on which Aylis leaned.

Aylis willed herself to turn around and look. Her voice shook as she spoke but she had an excuse not to scream. “He doesn’t appear as damaged as Alex but he looks much older.”

They moved to the third and last coffin. Aylis leaned over it and peered through the clear portal. She crossed her arms and held herself. She could say nothing. Setek-Ren – her ex-husband – was as dead as Alex, and the pain of his death was just as perfectly recorded in his face.

“My father,” Direk said, taking his turn to look upon the slack yet tortured face.

“Can we determine their viability?” Zakiya asked.

Aylis made herself function again. She fought down her denial of this impossible reality. She made herself check the operational values of the stasis coffins, daring to touch them and to believe in them. She did it as carefully as she could, repeating steps as many times as she needed. “The boxes are all in good working order,” she certified. “If this is real, if I am not dreaming, we can revive them!”

A scream pierced the silence from somewhere in the distance, almost shattering Aylis’s nerves. She bumped into Zakiya as she tried to escape toward the half of reality that was her office in the Freedom. Zakiya held her, to keep her from falling.

“Is that here in the hospital?” Zakiya asked. “Or there?”

“There,” Iggy said, pointing to a hatch that stood open, showing a dim passageway. He tried to step into the passageway, but for all the reality of the view, he could go no farther.

“There may be a limiting radius of operation for the cryptikon in its line of sight,” Direk theorized.

“There was one other cryptikon,” Zakiya said.

Iggy turned back to the reality of Aylis’s office in the hospital, moved to where the cryptikon’s controls floated, and selected another location. Reality snapped from one place to another, then urgently reduced itself to match scale. Close walls became gently tangible and pushed them closer together. Aylis’s office now lay beyond a doorway, appearing less real than the small ship’s quarters they now crowded within. Aylis clutched Zakiya for want of her protection, her deep concerns for her relationship with her closest friend totally lost in the moment.

They could see only by the light coming from Aylis’s office. A man lay on a bunk with several shiny tubes or wires connected to his body. He moved as though in a restless sleep. He uttered pitiful sounds: word fragments, pseudo sentences. He screamed again.

“Patrick!” Zakiya shouted. “Pat! Wake up!”

The man’s fitful sleep altered, as though he heard Zakiya, and he started to wake up. A light shone on his face.

“Incredible!” Iggy held a handlight he used for engineering inspections. The beam illuminated the sleeping man. The man awoke and opened one eye. He squinted at the light and put a hand up to block the beam.

“Patrick, can you see us?” Aylis asked.

“Who are you?” the man croaked. “What are you? Am I dreaming?”

“Pat, this is me, Zakiya,” she said. “And Aylis. And her son Direk. And Iggy.”

“Who?”

“People you once knew, Pat. We’ve found you at last!”

“You’re ghosts! It’s not enough that Alex has to stomp up and down the hallway every night! Now I have to deal with you! Go away!”

“Damn!” Iggy swore. “You’re more aged than I am, Pat.”

He put his hand out and reached toward the man in the bed, who drew back from him.

“Don’t you remember me?” Iggy asked. “You were at my wedding. You gave my bride a most friendly kiss. Too friendly!”

The man looked again at Iggy and slowly reached toward his hand. Their fingers seemed to touch. The man jerked his hand at the contact, then returned it and took Iggy’s hand in his.

“Are you really here?” Patrick Jenkins asked, shaking Iggy’s hand slowly.

“We aren’t here,” Zakiya said, “but we will be soon.”

“But I can feel you!” Jenkins declared.

“It’s the cryptikon,” Iggy started to explain. “We’re very far away. We’ll come for you. We…” Iggy stopped talking and started shaking.

Aylis was staring at the joined hands of Iggy and Pat, fascinated beyond words by this miracle, hardly aware of Iggy’s distress, until Pat’s hand vanished. The entire alternate reality, including the odors, vanished as well. She was standing in shock in her own office, holding onto Zakiya, while Direk tried to catch the collapsing Iggy.

Remembering Dick, Visiting Patrick

“I’m sorry!” Jamie had hurt her mother, and she was trying not to hurt her! Was there nothing she could do correctly in her mother’s presence? What kind of relationship could she ever hope to have with this woman? Would she always need to depend on her mother’s guilt for having abandoned her, to keep her love?

“I’m not very good at this,” Zakiya said apologetically.

“I don’t understand. You’re fast – faster than me – but you aren’t really aggressive and sneaky. Is it because I’m your daughter and you don’t want to hurt me?”

“Yes. That’s my excuse!” The admiral picked herself up from the training mat and dabbed at a cut on her face.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie repeated. She put her arm around her mother and walked her toward the locker room.

“I shouldn’t have forced you to practice with me,” Jamie said. “Sammy has told me some disturbing stories. I was curious about your skills.”

“Please, don’t encourage him to recall such things,” Zakiya asked.

“I told him he shouldn’t be proud of you for what you did. You only did what you had to do. Who were the two soldiers you fought? Where was that? I almost accused him of fabricating the incident.”

/

Why can’t I relax and feel normal around Jamie? Zakiya asked herself. What is normal? How are we, in any practical sense, mother and daughter? “I’ve always disliked personal combat,” Zakiya said.

“So, naturally,” Jamie said, “I picked that activity as my excuse for meeting with you.”

Zakiya laughed, pleased that Jamie simply wanted to be with her. Why did she need to make of her daughter such a problem? Jamie had a tragic history but she was a survivor. It was the future they would share that was important. “I should explain that I’m a product of the Mnro Clinic’s secret research labs,” Zakiya said. “I’m augmented in ways I never thought possible. My skill level only rises in response to the perceived threat, and I can’t imagine you wanting to hurt or kill me. What did you really want to talk about?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jamie replied. “I just wanted to be with you for a little while.”

“That’s nice. That’s perfect. I won’t violate Jon’s orders by asking the wrong questions. I won’t strain our relationship by trying to be the mother I never was. I’ll close my mouth now!”

/

Jamie laughed, relieved her mother was almost as nervous as she was, and probably just as anxious to establish a good relationship.

They entered the locker room. Her mother began to undress. Jamie hesitated, feeling self-conscious.

“Not showering?” Zakiya asked.

“I seem to have an inhibition to be naked in the presence of my parent,” Jamie admitted, but stripped down for a shower.

They showered and dressed, then walked down to the lake and sat on a bench. Jamie had sensed her mother noticing her scars when they were naked. She assumed her mother knew Marines collected scars – a silly tradition, but anything to set them apart from saner individuals. “I’ve got a good collection of scars,” she commented. She felt relaxed. She just wanted to hear the wonderful tone of her mother’s voice.

“You were a Marine.” Her mother sat next to her with her head back, her eyes closed, and the warmth of the fake sun on her brown face.

“I should have them removed,” Jamie said.

“I was trying not to look,” Zakiya said.

“I don’t think you like them.”

“Is what I think that important to you? No, I didn’t say that! I want so much for you to like me, Jamie.” Zakiya touched Jamie’s arm tentatively and Jamie moved to grasp her hand, making Zakiya smile. “Scars are a trademark of the Fleet, Jamie. When I saw them on you I had that unpleasant association.”

“The Fleet? What fleet is that?”

“I realize now that Sammy has probably talked to a great many people on the ship. He’s extremely intelligent but now I remember what children are like. He may have caused too many incorrect rumors.”

“You promised me a fantastic story,” Jamie said, “that would justify your bringing Sammy on this mission.”

“So I did. Here it is.”

Her mother told a fascinating and terrifying story, one Jamie wouldn’t have believed until recently. It was especially shocking and almost beyond believing, that real aliens existed within the highest levels of authority in the Union! The idea almost robbed her of the experience of getting to know her mother. At least, she could begin to gain a greater understanding of her mother. She could begin to gather a feeling of rapport with the woman. She ached to ask her about her former lives and the man she married – Jamie’s father. Also, how did she and Aylis remain focused on a plan that spanned more than two centuries and required them to forget the most important reasons for even having the plan? How did they survive both physically and mentally, to reach this point in their saga? There was too much to talk about in one quiet afternoon that was soon interrupted.

“Aylis?” her mother said.

Jamie turned her head to look behind the bench where they sat. Aylis Mnro lay on the green grass in the shade of a sycamore, partially concealed by the tree trunk and an azalea bush.

/

Zakiya was almost relieved to see Aylis, even if her odd presence might be a symptom of her continuing emotional illness. She leaned over the backrest of the park bench to get a better look at her friend. Dressed in white pants and a loose gray pullover, Aylis’s position on the ground gave no preview yet of the expansion of pregnancy to come.

“How is Iggy?” Zakiya asked, getting up to approach Aylis.

“Physically good, mentally enraptured,” Aylis murmured her reply.

“I’m glad to see you, Aylis! I think you’ve been avoiding me. It takes a cryptikon emergency or a wedding for me to see you?”

Aylis rolled onto her side in the green grass and took a deep breath. Zakiya walked over to Aylis and knelt beside her.

“Is it the baby?” Zakiya asked her. “Do you need a hug?”

“No and no,” Aylis responded. “Direk has already taken care of that. I’m just… nothing. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“What do you mean,” Jamie asked, coming to stand by her mother under the tree, “about Direk taking care of what?”

/

“Sorry,” Aylis murmured. “That was a violation of my orders.” She lay quietly, wishing now she had not come, ashamed of her desire for forgiveness from Zakiya, ashamed of her lack of courage to ask for it, ashamed she could not even tell Zakiya of the terrible thing she had done. She forced her thoughts back to Direk, her only hope for joy, and wondered in a quiet whisper: “How can he be my son?”

/

Zakiya listened carefully to Aylis, her augmented sense of hearing catching any clue to how Aylis felt and to why she felt that way, hoping to find any sign she was healing from Etrhnk’s assault – and from learning her real son was dead. Zakiya deduced that Aylis did now refer to this Direk, and angered herself that she had thought of him as a mere copy. Zakiya could almost imagine Aylis felt good about the surviving Direk being a copy, if only because he was no longer the strictly Essiin son his original had always been. Did she worry that Direk was only pretending to be less than a good Essiin? Aylis would still not speak casually with Zakiya, almost as though their friendship had ended after her rape. Zakiya had questioned Mai and had only learned enough to share Mai’s grave concern for Aylis’s downward emotional slide. Only Direk’s soothing attentions to his mother kept her from being committed by Mai to psychiatric medical treatment.

Zakiya chose to respond to Aylis’s whispered question in a way that might further improve Aylis’s understanding of this new version of her son. She also could not resist speaking of Direk in Jamie’s presence and disobeying Jon’s order concerning Jamie and Direk, so it was also for her daughter’s benefit that she would respond to Aylis.

“Harry and Ruby only had him for a few years, Aylis,” Zakiya began. “And Ruby wasn’t in the best era of her life. She remembers him as a wickedly funny guy, willing to try anything and always eager to help.”

“Who is Harry?” Jamie asked. “You were Ruby Reed, the singer. Who are you talking about?”

Zakiya ignored her daughter’s questions, but her smile probably told her something. “Alcoholism was easily curable,” Zakiya said, “but Ruby was an alcoholic. She was confused and depressed. She was having a bad night. Too much liquor and one too many leaks in her auxiliary memory unit. It was all Harry could do to get her dressed and out to the stage. There was Dick, standing by his bass, plunking a little tune to accompany himself as he entertained the audience until Harry and Ruby could show up. In those days Twenglish was always the preferred language of entertainers. He was telling jokes and little stories, ‘deadpan’ as they said in Twenglish, and the audience loved him. Harry and Ruby had to let him finish, and then had to perform their best to follow his act. I remember Ruby being astonished that Dick could do that kind of thing. I don’t know why; she never knew who he really was. Maybe that was who he really was.”

“If my duplicate ever knew about him, she didn’t remember it for me,” Aylis said sadly.

“Who are you talking about?” Jamie demanded.

“I think we’re talking about Dick,” Zakiya said.

“Dick who?”

“His performing name was Dick Jones,” Zakiya answered, then returned her attention to Aylis. “What is your real reason for sneaking by to see us, Aylis?”

Aylis did not respond but just stared up at Jamie with concern and interest.

/

Dick Jones? Jamie wondered. They were talking about Direk, trying to make her change her mind about him. It was true, then: Direk was a completely different person from what Jamie thought he was! How did that affect her feelings for him? It didn’t! She was born to love him, as though the bond between Aylis and Zakiya was somehow genetically involved with Jamie and Direk. It did not, however, make her feelings about herself any better. It didn’t make it any easier to approach defining a new relationship between her and Direk. He was so perfect for so long a time, hiding himself from her. How could she ever trust him? Did she even care that she couldn’t know who he was? Wasn’t that part of his – charm – that he was unpredictable, not fully knowable?

They searched the cottage. It was a brief search.

“No,” he said. “No other bed. No other reasonable substitute. Did you find anything?”

“No,” she replied, feeling a little thrill at what this might cause. “Do you want to go back?”

Stop the movie! Let me examine his reaction closely. Damn, he’s good! Not a flicker of guilt, not a hint of desire.

“Do you want to go back?” he asked, not answering her question.

Was that a logical response? Wouldn’t he have denied her that choice, if for no other reason than to save himself the strain of surviving the biological comedy to come?

She could feel herself wanting him and making herself believe that he might actually want to stay in the cottage and share the bed with her.

“It’s a long walk back,” she said. “And it’s snowing. And it’s getting dark.”

“There is transmat service in the Five Worlds,” he pointed out.

“Do you want to tell Phuti and Nori that we aren’t lovers?”

“Would it disappoint them that much?”

He could have said almost anything else to end the discussion and end their use of the cottage. Was he able to sense her desire to be alone with him, perhaps even to be intimate with him? How possible was that?

“I don’t mind sharing the bed with you, Direk. It’s a big bed. It has a goose-down mattress. When will I ever again get a chance to sleep on such a bed? Does sharing the bed bother you too much?”

“If that is what you want, I believe I can behave myself.”

Did he say that? No! He said: “I believe I can sleep without disturbing you.”

A couple of hours later she would make it clear to him that she wouldn’t mind being disturbed.

“What are you remembering?” Zakiya asked, looking up at her tall daughter. Jamie didn’t respond. “Hello, Daughter!”

She clawed her way out of the pungent reverie. The way her mother was looking at her, she imagined she knew what memory she was accessing. Jamie blushed almost painfully, before realizing Zakiya couldn’t possibly know the embarrassing details.

“Hello, Mother!” Jamie responded. “Well, someday I’ll tell you what I remembered but you know who I remembered.”

She turned to look at Aylis Mnro still lying on the grass and hardly responding to them. She looked wrong. Jamie was concerned. “Isn’t she getting any better?”

“Worse. I hope it isn’t something I did to her that I can’t remember. Let’s get her back to the hospital.”

= = =

She wore the peasant wedding costume from ancient times. She wore it humbly, with little decoration and almost no jewelry. Yet it only emphasized how precious she was, what a gift she was, and she was giving herself to him!

He wore his Deep Space uniform. He wore his medals. He wore his smile of joy so large it made his cheeks ache. Alex put a big hand on his shoulder and shook him, as if trying to wake him from this beautiful dream. They both waited at the altar for Ana.

He saw all his shipmates in the pews, even Patrick who showed him his fist, as though upset with Iggy for taking Ana from him. But in the next instant Patrick gave him a thumbs-up and a genuine smile of congratulations.

Someone was shaking his shoulder and it wasn’t Alexandros Gerakis.

“Remember me now?” Phuti asked.

Yes! Yes! Yes! He tried to stifle the memory seizure but was lost for a few more moments in a random but sharp recollection of Phuti and himself exploring an anomalous gray asteroid and seeing the first signs of possible precursor artifacts.

“I do remember you!” Iggy declared, and lapsed into yet another memory of Phuti.

“What did you see?” Phuti asked, his question barely audible to Iggy through the sounds of clarinet and balalaika in the memory.

“I saw you at my wedding, Phuti!” Iggy was overwhelmed by a memory he had already recalled several times. Iggy put his head in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. He sat on a step of the access platform that overlooked farmland. In the distance, a gray cloud rained on a rectangle of green.

Phuti sat down next to him and put an arm across his shoulders. “Sometimes I can’t believe any of this is happening to me,” Phuti said. “I never really believed I would be revived. But I remember your wedding as if it were yesterday. I almost wish I didn’t.”

“I remember you and Alex,” Iggy said, sadly happy, “dancing a Greek dance, the tall Alex and the short Phuti. You two started it. Then Zakiya joined you. You put her next to Alex, so that she would be holding his hand. I remember them looking at each other, and I knew right then they loved each other. I always suspected it and wanted it. It made me even happier, and I was already impossibly happy. Do I remember it correctly, Phuti?”

“Yes, you do!” Phuti patted his shoulder, dropped his arm from Iggy. “It was a wonderful interlude in a terrible time.”

“I’m fortunate I don’t remember the evil,” Iggy said, “as well as I do the good. I’m fortunate the auxiliary memory isn’t so easy to open, or else I’m afraid I would dwell on those moments that hurt me the most. It’s such a powerful experience, far clearer than what I would have stored in my own brain cells.”

“Don’t let me pull you too much into the past, Iggy. You seem well to me but I know you can be hurt by some of your memories.” Phuti paused at a change in his friend’s expression. “Is something wrong?”

“You brought it,” Iggy said. “I can feel it. It’s already active. Did you know you could activate it?”

“What do you mean?” Phuti wondered.

“I didn’t activate it. You must have. You have a cryptikon. We share the job of using the cryptikons! That’s why Zakiya needed to fetch you from the Five Worlds. Besides knowing you simply belonged with us.”

Phuti removed the cryptikon from his pocket and looked at it with shock on his round face. “I borrowed it from Zakiya,” he said. “I wanted to bring it to you, to urge you to make it work. I wondered what was bothering me!”

“You and I, we found them, Phuti. I have the other one with me. Aylis made me keep it. Because we found them, the Old Ones found us. You don’t remember, do you?”

“No, not clearly. Did something happen to us, Iggy?”

“I don’t remember, either. We must have been assigned to the cryptikons in some way. Can you feel what you should do?”

Phuti frowned and stared at the glowing thing in his hand.

“Did the others warn you about the experience?” Iggy asked.

“They were upset by it,” Phuti answered. “Even Direk.”

“I’m warning you again. It’s a great shock. Go ahead. Make it work.”

Phuti jumped when the cryptikon produced its interface and he almost threw the egg into the nearby lettuce plot. The cryptikon drifted back to him in the moist air of the farmland, to just within his reach.

“Oh, my!” was all that Phuti could utter for several moments.

Iggy gazed at the impossible view of color and curvature and worlds down rabbit holes. He was relieved that it didn’t upset him as much this time. It still broke all the laws of human science and forced him into a universe that was far stranger than the one he thought he knew.

“I’ve been trying to find the courage to use the cryptikon I have in my pocket,” Iggy said. “I know everyone is anxious to believe it’s real and to use it to find our lost friends. Perhaps together you and I will have the courage to do that.”

“What do I do?” Phuti finally asked. “I feel the urge to point at what interests me.”

“Try it,” Iggy urged.

Phuti pointed a finger. The sunlit fields of crops and orchards dimmed from view, replaced by a small round room filled with soft light and a large number of people.

“Oh, my!” Phuti exclaimed.

Persons turned to glance at him, turned away, then turned back in startlement. In a few seconds everyone in the room was looking at Phuti and Iggy, and looking beyond them and in front of them. Iggy turned to see what was so interesting and saw only the bulkhead and doorway of the access landing to the Freedom’s farmland. Phuti’s cryptikon floated just in front of them.

“I believe this is the Essiin Museum of Science and Technology,” Iggy said. He pointed to the obelisk that rose above the crowd in the center of the room. Within the transparent apex of the gray obelisk a brilliant egg-shaped artifact floated. The obelisk resided within a nearly invisible security enclosure. “That is the cryptikon that’s on display. It’s allowing this visit by us.”

“They see us!” Phuti said of the crowd of Essiin museum patrons, as all of their pale eyes were aimed at him and at Iggy and at the parts of the Freedom they could see.

“Do you want to converse with them?” Iggy asked. “I used to speak Deshoii.”

“Let’s do it!” Phuti addressed the small crowd. “Will someone tell me where we are?”

Two or three Essiin called out the name of the museum.

“What is the date in Union Standard Time?” Iggy inquired.

A woman in a service uniform came through the crowd and approached the floating cryptikon. She looked from it to the cryptikon on display in the center of the room. She reached out to touch Phuti’s cryptikon and her hand passed through it. She looked at the parts of the ship visible to her and scuffed her feet where the deck of the ship met the floor of the museum.

“What kind of information projection are you?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know,” Iggy replied. “What kind are you? Will you tell us the Union Standard Time?”

The Essiin woman checked her data implant and answered.

Iggy checked his and said, “Damn! That’s what I have!”

Iggy now had to accept that the cryptikons were capable of real-time communication across the vastness of intergalactic space.

“You are the Dr. Mende image,” the museum worker said to Phuti. “You aren’t supposed to be here!”

“What does she mean?” Phuti asked Iggy.

“She thinks we are images being projected in this room by mistake. Your image is supposed to be in another part of the museum.”

My image? Why would my image be in the Essiin Museum?”

“I don’t think anyone has ever done what you did, Phuti! The Essiin consider your solution to the Five Worlds Civil War to be perhaps the deepest and most esthetic use of Applied Anthropology in human history. And they don’t even know how much you helped Aylis! You’re a part of Union history!”

Several museum guards entered the chamber to join the museum worker and confront Iggy and Phuti.

“They are only images,” the woman in the museum uniform said to the guards. “Somehow their data was routed to the projectors in this room.”

“The Cryptikon Room is a secured area and that is itself a security violation,” a guard said.

“They look real to me,” another guard remarked. “But there is also this background which must be images. I can pass my hand through this floating cryptikon.”

“He is too young to be Doctor Mende, if he is real,” the first worker commented. “Logic fails here. Lock the Cryptikon Room. We need more data.”

“Perhaps we should leave,” Phuti said. “We are upsetting them.” He reached forward to retrieve his cryptikon. One of the guards was trying to grasp the cryptikon at the same time and their hands touched.

“He is real!” the guard declared, drawing a nonlethal weapon.

“His ID transponder says he is Admiral Igor Khalanov,” the first guard reported, pointing to Iggy. “One of the crew of the Freedom.”

“The other one corresponds, in every physical parameter for which we have records, to Dr. Phuti Mende,” the woman museum worker said.

“This is impossible!” the first guard declared. “The real Doctor Mende – his body – was taken from the Five Worlds. It and the real Admiral Khalanov are both aboard the Freedom.”

“Why are you here?” the woman worker asked Phuti and Iggy.

“Why did you hijack the Freedom?” the guard asked.

“We are not here,” Iggy replied. “We hijacked the Freedom in order to save ourselves.”

“If you are not here,” the guard said, reaching out to touch Phuti, “then why can we touch you?”

“I can’t explain it to you!” Phuti answered.

Iggy reached into a pocket and pulled out his cryptikon, causing the armed guard to activate his weapon to stop Iggy. Iggy was unaware of the attack and was unaffected by it, causing him to wonder at the guard’s frustration with his weapon.

“It’s only another cryptikon,” Iggy said, giving the guard a disapproving stare. “I just wanted to try an experiment.”

The audience of trapped patrons and museum employees were puzzled by Iggy’s gestures in front of a control interface they could not see, which caused a new reality to appear around them. It was as though he was a wizard doing incantations to transport them all to another world.

The farmland deck of the Freedom now seemed to surround the interior of the museum Cryptikon Room. A kilometer away a cloud was raining precisely on a field of wheat. Various orchards grew in a checkerboard pattern in the shallow valley of the farm deck. Several of the Freedom’s crew could be seen in the distance as they worked in the orchards and vegetable plots.

“They have transmatted us to their ship!” a guard declared.

While some Essiin citizens huddled closer together, others attempted to walk out into the farmland and they ran into invisible walls. A subdued but real atmosphere of panic began to be felt by everyone. Iggy and Phuti glanced at each other with agreement.

“We apologize for disturbing you,” Phuti said to anyone who would listen to him. “You are not really aboard the Freedom and we are not really here in the museum. Please stay calm until we end the connection.”

Iggy performed the commands to stop the cryptikons. The Essiin Museum disappeared from view, leaving him and Phuti staring at the peaceful farms beyond the two floating cryptikons.

“Fascinating,” Iggy said with controlled calmness. “It’s well beyond fascination, of course!”

Phuti shook himself and said: “We need to see Patrick, also.”

“You are handling this much better than I did, Phuti!” Iggy made the commands to connect with Patrick’s cryptikon. They soon stood in the too-real image of the small starship stateroom and saw the old man in the bed. They also smelled him.

“How can the molecules of this reality interact with our sense of smell?” Phuti wondered, wrinkling his nose. “And how can we turn it off?”

“Wake up!” Iggy shouted at Patrick.

“This doesn’t look good,” Phuti said, leaning over to inspect Patrick for signs of life.

Iggy touched Patrick and nudged him gently. The old man opened his eyes. He squinted, rubbed his eyes, and looked up from his bed. He reached out a trembling hand. Phuti took it. Patrick frowned at Phuti and turned to Iggy.

“You again,” Patrick said to Iggy. “No women this time?”

“Only Phuti and me.”

“Phuti who? Do you have anything to drink? I’ve been out of Scotch for about a hundred years.”

“No, we’re not here yet.”

“Well, where the hell are you? I know! I’m just dreaming!”

“Be calm,” Phuti said. “We are real. We hope you are real. You must stay alive until we can come to you.”

“We need you to move your cryptikon to the bridge,” Iggy said, “so we can discover where you are.”

“I can’t move, lads. Take it yourselves. It’s in the desk.”

“I don’t know if we can.”

“If you can’t try, then leave my dreams!”

They opened the drawer of the small desk to find a metallic pouch. Phuti opened the pouch but found no cryptikon. Iggy tapped his shoulder and pointed for him to look upward. The cryptikon was floating above them.

“How did that get out?” Pat wondered. “I haven’t seen it for ages!”

“Why can I pick up its container but I can’t touch the naked cryptikon?” Phuti wondered, passing his hand through the floating cryptikon. “Why can I see it and not touch it?”

“Let’s try to push it with the sack it was in,” Iggy said. “Which way to the bridge, Pat?”

“What bridge?”

“You don’t have a bridge? Then where is a point of connection to your ship’s data?”

“It’s all in our heads,” Patrick replied. “Shiplinks. But mine doesn’t work. How are you lads standing so solid on the deck? Except for one little gravity plate under my bed, there’s no spin and no gravity anywhere in the ship.”

Iggy and Phuti looked at each other.

“It gets stranger and stranger,” Iggy commented. “Do you have a direct observation port, Pat?”

“Pat?”

“Is he dead?”

Zakiya Explains the Mission

“If everyone will find a place to sit,” Horss said, “we’ll get started.” In another navy he would have commanded the meeting in a formal manner, but there were so many civilians on the ship, he almost felt like one himself.

Several hundred uniformed crew had arrived at the meeting, apparently anxious to learn what was conflicting their sense of duty to the mission, which reduced the number of civilians physically present, most of whom were forced to seat themselves in the tiers of spectator benches on either side of the gym. The Navy crew sat on the floor of the gymnasium in circular rows. Zakiya, Sammy, and Iggy sat with Horss in folding chairs in the center of the floor. The crowd became expectantly silent.

“Admiral Demba,” Horss said simply, introducing Zakiya. He sat and Zakiya rose to speak.

/

“I need to apologize,” she said. She would be turning around to face different areas of her audience while she spoke, her voice amplified by an audio system and also transmitted by shiplink, her image and words broadcast to the entire ship. “If I leave anyone or anything out, please consider it covered by a blanket apology. I apologize for waiting so long to explain things to you. Because of this delay, I’m afraid you’ve received too much incorrect information through rumors and other wayward channels of information.”

Sammy was sitting next to her. She placed her hand on Sammy’s head, gently made him tilt his head back so she could look at his face and smile at him. He returned her smile. He stood up.

“I apologize for not introducing you to Samson. I call him Sammy. I guess we all call him Sammy, since he probably has met many of you. He likes people and likes being famous. He has experienced some terrible things. I’ve asked him not to talk to anyone about his experiences but, knowing Sammy, I suspect he’s one of those wayward channels of information I just mentioned.

“Some of the things he could tell you should frighten you, if you could believe they were true. I found Sammy on Earth. He was alone in the wilderness of Africa. He was close to dying of hunger and injury. He is a perfectly normal boy despite his experiences, as you can probably see. But Sammy didn’t exist in the genetic records of the Mnro Clinics, nor does he have any known relatives, living or dead. He doesn’t remember anything of his past, his parents, his home.

“He and I survived a remarkable adventure together, and even though it bears on what is to come in this meeting, I don’t want to say much about it at this time. I will only say that he and I were sent far across the galaxy by means of a gate. It was dangerous where we arrived. We were separated during a violent confrontation. We were reunited at the end of the Mother Earth Opera.”

A murmur, mainly in the civilian section, quickly rose in volume, and Zakiya waited for it to subside.

“Yes,” she said, “that was Sammy and me at the end of the Opera. Eventually I will publish an account of our adventure to the ship’s database.”

Sammy sat down but Zakiya continued to stand and speak.

“I also apologize if I have ignored some of you or cut short an appointment or encounter. I contain a Mnro Clinic technology we call auxiliary memory. It is derived from the memory editing procedure required during full rejuvenation to circumvent too much loss of memories from the brain. In the Mnro Clinic, the saved memories would be carefully reinstalled in the brain. In my case they were stored in a device hidden in my body. I knew nothing true about my former lives until the auxiliary memory began replaying its contents to my conscious, often at inconvenient moments. For some reason, the auxiliary memory was also able to store such subconscious data as the abilities learned through talent and physical training. The auxiliary memory is still experimental and unpredictable. Its recordings are extremely realistic and emotionally powerful. Their accuracy is questionable, of course, but when I experience such memory I would be unable to disbelieve it. The experience, at times, nearly paralyzes me. Doctor Mnro has released all the technical data on this subject into ship’s database.”

Zakiya paused for another crowd reaction.

“The most important apology is for involving all of you in this situation, which is only a personal quest for me and Admiral Khalanov and Doctor Mende and Doctor Mnro. And if you remain with us, I’m afraid it will become even more dangerous. Here is some background information.

“More than two centuries ago Deep Space Fleet was disbanded by the Navy. The eight people who served on the Frontier tried to go home and live normal lives but Alexandros Gerakis and Koji Hoshino, who chose to serve in the newly-formed Navy, found themselves threatened for no apparent reason by a number of senior Navy officers. Eventually this threat spread to all personnel who once crewed the ships of Deep Space Fleet.

“Partly to save the data and partly to protect retired members of Deep Space, Alex hid copies of the Deep Space records from the Navy and destroyed all other copies he could find. He and three other members of the crew of the Frontier then set out to find the source of the trouble in the Navy. Their main clue was the loss of shipping in areas toward the hub of the galaxy, losses which were being ignored by the Navy. Knowledge of continuing piracy is still suppressed by the Navy. The four men must have traveled far beyond the Union boundary toward the galactic hub, searching for the pirates.

“As you know, the four of us who once served with the other four on the Frontier are aboard this ship. As you also know, you were impressed by the Navy to join a research voyage. That voyage was never to be. Yes, Aylis and I planned to use this ship for our own purposes. No, we never planned to endanger those who would be caught up in our plan. We suspect the Navy planned to use the mission as a means to deliver all of us into human bondage somewhere beyond the Union frontier, where our skills and knowledge could be utilized.”

Another rise in the level of commotion in the crowd made Zakiya pause. She could tell that most of the uniformed crew was now continually using subvocal shiplinks to communicate their reactions to each other, while the civilians – with many fewer shiplink augments – were almost continuously whispering to those closest to them. She had expected it to be difficult to hold such a meeting but she had a good reason for wanting this many people physically present. Everyone in the gym could view the recording of the meeting later, to acquire the details they may have missed. They would also serve as witnesses to all the others watching by broadcast, that what they heard and saw had actually occurred.

“Aylis and I,” Zakiya continued, “only remembered we had a plan to steal this ship after you were already selected and before we could devise a way to leave without you. So, again, I apologize for bringing you into this dangerous situation. That plan was based on concern for a sinister historical event that has been forgotten by most people. At this future distance, what could we hope to discover that would make a difference today? Our plan was based only on concern for the fate of the four men who had been our crewmates. At this future distance, how could we hope to find any trace of them? Let me also add that Aylis and I were married to two of these men, Aylis to Setek-Ren and I to Alexandros Gerakis.”

Zakiya had to stop again. She was involuntarily immersed in a very personal memory of her and Alex, almost not realizing when people had quieted enough again to listen to her speech.

“At this future distance,” she resumed, referring to her speech notes in her ocular terminal, “how could Aylis and I hope to regain the intimate bond of marriage to these men, when we would likely be strangers to them – and them to us?”

Zakiya paused to allow reaction of the crew to her information and to allow it to subside. As polite as they all were, the facts the crew were receiving were too difficult to ingest without some amount of verbal interaction.

“As desperate as we were,” Zakiya continued, “Aylis and I started planning to search for the four men even before it became apparent they would not return soon – if ever. In a worst-case scenario, Aylis had provided them with the knowledge and the equipment to keep themselves healthy and to rejuvenate if necessary. Of course, there should be little chance, after more than two centuries of travel through probably hostile territory, that they are still alive.

“But we know they are alive!” Zakiya almost shouted. “Or will be!”

She paused to wait for quiet to return.

“How can we know this?” she asked rhetorically. She waited again, even though the crew remained quiet. “I must now warn you that you are about to see something you may find very disturbing. You will not be physically hurt. The problem we are about to present to your minds and to your senses involves your perception of reality, perhaps even your belief in reality!”

She turned to Iggy.

/

Admiral Khalanov rose, reached into a uniform pocket, brought forth a handful of bright color, and placed it in the air before him. He waited while those nearby stirred and uttered words of shock and doubt. Imaging devices zoomed and focused on the alien artifact, showing its image to those too distant from it and to others throughout the ship.

“This is a cryptikon,” Khalanov said, unnecessarily. “Get up and move back,” he ordered the crew members seated on the deck. “We need at least twenty meters of space for a demonstration of what it can do.”

The commotion of voices and movement subsided shortly as all of the crew and perhaps all of the civilians in the stands had come to their feet.

The cryptikon sensed Iggy’s intent and made the control interface appear: a concave sheet of dark gold with violet-hued funnels punched into its surface. One could not determine whether this was an image or a solid object. If it was an image, then why did shadow fall from it? If it was solid, then why could Iggy pass his hand through it? And the funnels, the violet holes, curved in a manner or direction that defied normal geometry, able to be seen from any angle, and they contained miniature scenes that appeared shockingly real.

“This is the directory,” Iggy said, moving a hand over and through the disturbing field of shape and color that lay suspended below the cryptikon. He stepped back and gestured to invite others to approach and examine. Many came forward but only a few moved close to the funnels of strangely real scenes.

“Be careful now,” Iggy said, “those of you nearby. We are going to travel to Essiia. It may become crowded in here.”

The Cryptikon Room of the Essiin museum appeared instantly in the middle of the Freedom’s gymnasium. The museum room was filled with Essiin museum patrons, all of whom were startled. Seconds later an alarm sounded, apparently in the museum. Some Navy crew members already within the museum image bumped into Essiin, causing each to shout in shock and surprise.

Iggy watched everything, studying the various effects of the encounter. He spoke quietly into his shiplink, directing the visual recording of the event. The control interface – the “directory” – had disappeared when the Essiin museum room appeared. Some of the crew in the gym should have occupied the same space as some of the Essiin, yet no one touched at the instant of appearance. As museum personnel arrived, answering the alarm, Iggy observed how they emerged from the limits of the Essiin part of the scene like ghosts that became solid.

“They are recording this, too,” Zakiya said to Iggy, seeing image recorders in the hands of museum employees. “They were waiting for another visit from you, Iggy.”

“Yes,” Iggy agreed, distracted. “It is manipulated by some entity or machine, yet it is too complex! What we can see and what the Essiin can see are different, even though we seem to occupy the same physical space. What we can touch and what they can touch are different. Yet we can share sensory input on many things. The controlling forces must operate at or near the scale of individual atoms! The required data processing must be far too large and far too efficient to succeed at such interstellar distances! It’s magic and we are ignorant savages!”

Iggy ended the museum encounter and gave the crew a long length of time to recover from their experience. He had to begin speaking again to end the excited discussions.

“I ask everyone to be as quiet as possible now,” Iggy said. “We will visit an old ship on which there are three dead men and one who is almost dead. One of the dead men is Alexandros Gerakis.”

The contact with the lost starship proceeded slowly as a few of the crew took turns entering the cabin of the sleeping Patrick Jenkins, then the room where three stasis coffins held the other three men. Image recorders continued to send the event to everyone not physically present.

Iggy ended the demonstration and put the cryptikon away. He sat down. Horss directed the crew to sit down and wait for Admiral Demba to resume. Zakiya answered Sammy’s excited questions until the crew eventually became quiet.

/

“We are assuming,” Zakiya said, “the encounters you’ve experienced are synchronized in time, even though the locations are half a galaxy away from us. We don’t have even a theory for how this is possible. We don’t have a theory for how this could be faked. Even if we are all having a shared hallucination.

“We have another cryptikon on this ship. You saw the two on the lost ship. They were all discovered in one archaeological site by Igor Khalanov and Phuti Mende when they were crew members on the Frontier. It was the last voyage of the Frontier. We kept the cryptikons for probably selfish reasons, although I seem to remember the Navy was part of the cause. I think we must have established that they were communication devices but none of us remembers that fact. Khalanov and Mende seem to be the only ones who can make them work.

“The three men in stasis coffins are Alexandros Gerakis, Koji Hoshino, and Setek-Ren. Doctor Mnro thinks they can all be revived. Patrick Jenkins is the one who is still alive. He was the Frontier’s biologist. Aylis has examined him and she has determined his health is declining rapidly. Given his state of extreme isolation and a probable history of stressful events, it’s amazing he is still alive. There appears to be no available stasis coffin for his use, even if he could manage to get himself into one. We need to move the Freedom to him as soon as possible.

“We know the approximate location of the lost ship but the search area is still very large. It is also possible there are enemy ships we would encounter. Our jump capability, while certainly impressive, does little to assure our survival against the quantity of ships the enemy possesses. We don’t know enough about them. All we know is that they also are jumpships. We also know the starliner Titanic was destroyed by several thousand of these jumpships.

“We know the enemy military is called the Fleet. We know they are human. We know that some of the Fleet are also officers in the Union Navy. Admiral Etrhnk is one of them. It is not clear why this situation exists. It is not clear why the Union remains apart from this other population of near-barbarians beyond the border of the Union. They could easily overwhelm the Union and conquer it although, in a sense, they already control the Union.

“Finally, we know a humanoid alien race probably controls both the Union and the Fleet.”

It took a moment for this last news to register in the already overloaded minds of much of the crew. After a period of shock and then expectant silence, Zakiya caused a holographic image of the aliens – recorded by her ocular camera – to appear next to her.

“They are quite beautiful,” Zakiya remarked. “I recorded pictures of two of them in the presence of Admiral Etrhnk when he attempted to abduct me and Sammy from the ship just before our departure. As you can see, one of them seems genuinely concerned for Sammy, so I have some hope that they will not ultimately be our enemy. Their intentions made no sense to me, especially since they behaved in rather human fashion. Above these aliens is yet another force, an entity called the Lady in the Mirror. This entity also has human aspects but seems violently irrational. It is able to annihilate anything it touches – except a cryptikon. This is the Lady in the Mirror!”

Zakiya released the image from her internal data storage. It even shocked her again as the projection system presented the image in stunning detail in the midst of the gathering of Navy personnel. She had not realized how well her visual augments had captured the brilliant apparition and its threatening aura of lethal energy. Her own organic memories had focused more on her emotional reaction to the monster and now the blazing details of the destructive power of the Lady’s mirror frightened her once more and even more than it had when she first experienced it. Most of the Navy crew nearest the projected image actually reacted to it by trying to retreat.

Zakiya turned off the motion and the sound of the projected image, then let the image fade from view. She waited while the reactions of the crew went through its cycle and finally subsided.

“Wow!” Jon Horss said loudly and in a way that seemed to further settle the crew.

“This is all part of the adventure Sammy and I had,” Zakiya spoke into the silence of the meeting. “Captain Horss and Freddy were with me and their recordings helped create the more realistic image you just saw. It may still sound like fantasy but I promise you it is real.”

Zakiya paused again. There was no more discussion among the crew on the deck and very little in the stands of the gymnasium, as though everyone was finally shocked to silence. She continued.

“So, we are gathered here to explain all of this and to warn you of the dangers we may face. We are also here to ask you to make a decision. We who instigated this situation by stealing the Freedom have no right to require your participation, but if you wish to remain with us you must do so under our command, as a military crew. For those of you who don’t want to further endanger your lives we will find a safe place to leave you. This includes our Navy crew members. We will not come back for you.

“We need your decisions within the next two days. We will choose no more than two locations at which to return those unwilling to stay on the ship. The locations cannot be where transfer would be too dangerous for us or for the local population.

“Finally, because none of you know these men we want to rescue, we would like to introduce them to you. Through the cryptikons, we’ve recovered all of the machine data from the lost ship, including personal journals.

“It is, by the way, unfortunate that we cannot also recover the men the same way. All of reality, in the final analysis, is information. If transmats and gates can hurl us across vast distances, then why can’t cryptikons also process the data of our existence from one location to another? Perhaps they can. We know nothing of their science, it remains as magic to us.

“We have selected several journal entries of these four men, from a time in which they are faced with a great decision: whether to turn back in failure or commit themselves to a new level of investigation that will likely compromise their ethics. At least, that is my interpretation.

“If you can, imagine these four men creeping about barbarian space in an old, slow, starlight-drive ship for thirty years, trying to learn something about an enemy that uses jumpships. Think also about a volume of space much larger than the Union and containing a low-density population of humanity perhaps numbering just as many people as the Union.

“For thirty years these four men had to sit and watch the Fleet raid settlements, then experience the tragedies of the victims while trying at the same time to extract useful information about the enemy. It had to be both demoralizing and infuriating.

“Then they decided on a course of action that would bring them into direct and repeated contact with jumpship crews of the Fleet, with the goal of eventually gaining control of a jumpship so they could get strategic information from it. Their lives went from despair to hell. They were mortally wounded and resurrected many times. And they were never able to capture a jumpship.

“What we will retrieve from the lost ship are four strangers. I can hardly force myself to read their journals from the later times. Their lives became insanely brutal. It changed them horribly. Whether we can tolerate the changes to them or ameliorate their mental condition is uncertain. But we must try. They were good and extraordinary persons, and we loved them.”

A man’s image appeared behind and above Zakiya. Alexandros Gerakis was aged, bearded, and sad. He sat in a small dim room, a fold-down bed visible behind him. He was about to speak when the image froze.

“You need not stay and watch this,” Zakiya said. “I can’t bear to see it again, so I’m taking Sammy home. Before I leave I want to thank everyone for their patience and fine behavior under these strange and dangerous circumstances. For those who will be leaving the ship I wish you a safe and rewarding life.”

Zakiya stood up. Khalanov and Horss both reached for Sammy, to carry him through the crowd. Jon gave way to Iggy and stayed in the gym.

= = =

“You just want to know everything,” Zakiya said to Sammy.

He shrugged. “Don’t you?”

Sammy had thoroughly questioned her on the culture of the Malay people, because he had met one of the Malay children and was intrigued by the differences he saw. She was glad he had such an interest, since she was once an anthropologist and still liked to think of herself as one. Sammy was particularly fond of Phuti and that was also a good sign. But the Malay child had a father and an uncle and Sammy seemed to be looking for such relationships in his own life. He had plenty of substitute uncles. He even had Freddy and Jamie as brother and sister. Now he was curious about Alex.

“Yes, indeed,” Zakiya said. “Living is learning, Sammy. If you don’t want to learn anything new, then you are not very alive.”

“Gerakis is a Greek name,” Sammy said.

“Yes, Alex was of Greek heritage. You’ve been reading about him, haven’t you?”

“Phuti showed me where to look. He was the best starship captain there ever was.”

“Yes, he was. But more importantly, he was the best friend anyone could have.”

“Maybe he’ll like me.” She knew he was already contemplating having a father and perhaps even thinking about sharing her with him. He didn’t mind sharing her with Freddy and Jamie but maybe he understood more about husbands and wives than she thought. Or was she being too analytical? She had never had her chance to have a real family. She wanted that chance.

“The old Alex would love you, Sammy. But a lot has happened to him since I last saw him. I’m afraid he won’t be the same man.”

“He’s been fighting barbarians.”

“Yes.”

“But you will make him good again!”

“I’ll certainly try!”

“Can I call you Mom?”

Sammy had a way of coming out with a question that was important to him, throwing it into the middle of the discussion of another topic. This was a pleasant surprise. “I want you to call me Mom, Sammy! I want you to be my son. Did Freddy give you the idea?” She already knew Sammy had used the word Mom when referring to her to other people. Freddy had told her.

“Then we can be even more like brothers,” Sammy said.

“Freddy likes you a lot. You know that, don’t you?”

“I kind of did. I see him a lot. He’s fun to talk to! You should hear his imitation of Uncle Iggy!”

“I’ll have to ask him! That does sound like fun. How are your language lessons going? Is Standard difficult for you?”

“I know lots of words. I just don’t put them together good yet. And everybody talks to me in English so I don’t get much practice. Why can’t I have one of those language augments?”

“You’re still growing. Aylis doesn’t want to put any hardware in you until you stop growing.”

“I know! That’s what she always tells me! She says I drive her crazy. She likes me, doesn’t she?”

Everybody likes you, Sammy, and especially Aylis. Aren’t you getting just a little bit sleepy?”

“My toes go to sleep first, then my feet, then my legs, on up to my hands and arms. My brain has to wait its turn. Jamie kissed me, last time I was in the hospital!”

“Do you want me to call her in from the bridge, so she can put your brain to sleep?”

“No, that’s alright. She’s too busy. Are you going to the bridge?”

“No, I’ll be here all night, sound asleep.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m about to kiss you good night. Do you mind?”

“Heck, no! That’s what moms are for!”

“And that means no more questions! Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Go to sleep.” She kissed him.

“I gotta go to the bathroom.”

Jumpship Fight

“That’s how they attack another ship?” Khalanov queried. “They cut it with their jump envelope?”

“How else could the Titanic have disappeared so completely?” Direk replied.

“But matter can’t be cut like that, not without releasing atomic forces.”

“Hey, Uncle Iggy,” Jon interrupted, “I’ve seen it in person. It cuts cleaner than a particle beam and there’s no sign of nuclear reaction. You had to jump upward to keep Direk’s preview gate from carving a spherical bowl in the deck, but I saw just such a bowl back on Earth. Cut myself on the sharp edge!”

It was their first conference on the subject but Jamie was not able to listen carefully, being in close proximity to Direk.

They had taken her mother’s recording of the death of the Titanic, enhanced it, and analyzed it again and again. The flurry of dots was resolved into thousands of individual spherical vessels, many of them tagged by faintly discernible markings. Their discontinuous movements could be verified and their method of attack analyzed. They were fretting over the military implications of the Freedom’s jump capability. Jamie already accepted and understood how lethal a weapon the ship’s method of movement could be.

She was more interested in the nuances of Direk’s interaction with the other men. She had always studied the group dynamics of men under her command and tried to predict how each would perform under duress within the unit. That expertise was useless in studying Direk. He seemed unaware of her, unless that fact alone was proof that he was more than aware of her. In other words, he was behaving in the classic Direk manner, showing no emotions, when she suspected from recent clues that he was able to express emotion comfortably.

“The first barbarian jumpships had the most difficult task,” Direk lectured. “They were much like a pack of small predators trying to bring down a much larger prey. The Titanic was a fast ship but its crew couldn’t understand what would happen, even if they knew there were predators they needed to evade. The barbarians would plot where the ship would be and jump to it. They must have made many attempts to disable the ship, being careful not to cause its catastrophic destruction. They kept jumping closer until one of them intersected a critical part of its structure and disabled its drive.”

“They didn’t just shoot at it with some form of cannon?” Jon asked.

“I don’t think so,” Direk answered.

“This happened a long time ago,” Iggy said. “We can’t assume they don’t have other offensive capabilities by now. Something they would use on static targets. We need to capture one of those little vermin!”

“There was a staging area which we don’t see,” Direk continued. “The jumpships would jump from this staging area to the Titanic, taking a bite from it which was exchanged back to the staging area. They must have salvaged the pieces later with cargo ships, leaving no evidence of the fate of the Titanic.”

“Wouldn’t that have killed thousands of people?” Jamie asked. She knew the answer. She was readying herself for an extreme change of topic. It was not the place and time for such a tactic, but when would she ever dare to catch Direk alone? She was actually afraid of him, afraid of how he could change everything about her life, including perhaps even rejecting her as too different from how he might remember her.

“If they were not careful,” Direk replied, waited for Jamie to say something else, and when she didn’t, he continued. “There were four stages to the attack. The first crippled the ship. The second boarded it, suppressed resistance, and organized the evacuation of passengers and crew. The third wave of jumpships provided transportation for the passengers. They also blocked our view of what happened to the Titanic. The disassembly of the Titanic was the fourth stage. Based on the data and a few difficult assumptions, I think anywhere from five to ten per cent of the ship’s personnel may have died in the attack. There just wasn’t enough time to safely evacuate that many people. We suspect the Fleet is completely ruthless and would not have taken special precautions to avoid killing people.”

“The Freedom can likewise cut another ship apart,” Jamie said. “The Fleet ships are small. If we need to kill one of them, we must be very precise in computing a jump coordinate. Our envelope obviously needs to intersect them, not contain them or displace them.”

“I don’t doubt Jon’s story about the gate sphere cutting a bowl in the ground,” Iggy said, “but I’m burdened by decades of engineering work aimed at preventing starlight drive fields from going nuclear. Aren’t they very close to producing gate envelopes?”

“Pan and I were properly concerned by the theoretical dangers of gates,” Direk replied. “We ran tests that should have killed us, according to accepted nuclear theory. All I can say is, if you think this is magic, tell me what a cryptikon is!”

“Or a transmat, for that matter,” Jon offered.

“Yes,” Direk agreed. “The more controversial theory of transmat operation states that objects are disassembled and reassembled without regard to atomic and molecular structure, otherwise the information processing required to maintain entity integrity would be too vast. I haven’t revisited the atomic maps of transmat structure but I’m willing to wager that among the unidentified details there are one or more tiny gates. I then must assume the gate or gates eat the target object in a pattern that allows reassembly in a simple sequence. The more intriguing function of the transmat is the reference field and beyond that, the mathematical basis for measuring and computing the destination. Now that we know something about gates, we may have learned at least one thing for researching the science of transmats.”

There was a lull in the discussion as Iggy seemed to have momentarily run out of ideas that scared him.

Jamie gathered her courage. “I have a different kind of question,” she said.

Direk made eye contact with her. Perhaps he was warned by the forced tone of her voice. He smiled but it was a fake smile. He raised an eyebrow in anticipation. This was a challenge he made to her: Find me out, if you dare. “What is it?” he inquired.

“How did you make the children laugh?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, showing a puzzled frown.

He did know what she was talking about! She was sure of it! It was in his voice, the sound of a lie that was meant to sound like a lie. He was playing with her! The goose flesh it gave her also gave her courage. “If you think I’ll abandon the subject just because we have no privacy, you’re wrong!”

Jamie glanced meaningfully at Jon and Iggy.

“Uncle Iggy and I can take a hike,” Horss offered.

“I need witnesses and protection,” Direk said casually. “My woman may get violent.”

Jamie didn’t miss the possessive article – and the implied humor. “Your woman? How can you claim that?” She was just light enough of skin to show blushing. The heat in her face spread through her whole body. It was a wonderful warmth.

“You took my name, didn’t you?” he noted. “I think a lawyer could make a good case for common law marriage. How long were we together?”

Jamie tried to laugh non-humorously but it was difficult. How could he keep such a calm face while his voice was now so alive with emotion and humor? It was electrifying to her, and dizzying in its implications. She tried to sound aggrieved. “Will you continue to stall, or will you tell me how you made the children laugh?”

“What children?”

“The Five Worlds!”

“When was this?”

He knew when! He seemed to be inviting her to try to embarrass him in front of Jon and Iggy. How old were they, she and Direk? At what age did one grow out of such behavior? He was acting the youthful age to which he was regressed. She wasn’t acting any more maturely.

“I’m talking about you and me, a long time ago! Don’t tell me you can’t remember the cottage on the mountain, and the snow, and the one and only bed with a goose-down mattress!”

“If only you didn’t look so beautiful-”

“I’m not beautiful! I’m a Marine!”

“Navy!” Horss corrected her.

“-and so lethal,” Direk finished with mock seriousness. “I’m afraid to answer!”

“You’re not afraid of anything! Tell me!”

“A bed with a goose-down mattress?” he mused. “You’re sure this is a real memory?”

“Yes, I’m sure! Quit that!”

“Quit what?”

“The deadpan, quit the deadpan!”

“My face might break.”

Jamie laughed. She couldn’t stop herself. “Please, tell me!” She begged, exaggerating it for the sake of the humor.

“A bed with a goose-down mattress,” he said with fake thoughtfulness. Direk stared off into space, making his face frown.

“Yes, the one and only bed!” she cried.

“Oh.” He sighed loudly. “That one. The one I’ve thought about several times a day for the last century or so. Probably all of the copies remembered, so that’s many more times.”

Jamie took a deep breath and felt too hot now. There were tears in her eyes, threatening to escape down her cheeks. Direk was winning the battle, not that it was a fight, not that she felt there would be a loser. She was happy and she was in love, and it didn’t matter if it was only due to the auxiliary memory devices.

“Would you please, please tell me how you made the children laugh?”

“Why is that moment so important to you?” he asked seriously.

“I was always waiting for the real Direk to make his appearance, and I thought he might have appeared at that moment, never to be seen again. You made the children laugh. You never made me laugh, not intentionally, anyway.”

“I never knew you wanted anything from me but news of your mother,” Direk said.

“You can’t mean that! I stayed with you an entire lifetime! I could never have persisted so long if I didn’t have feelings for you!”

“Feelings of hate? I thought the cottage on the mountain was part of a plan to make me break my silence about your past.”

“But I stayed with you for another fifty years! Despite your silence! How could I hate you that long? I accepted you. I accepted your assertion that you didn’t know enough to help me. I wanted to stay with you. I loved you!”

Jamie wept, briefly, smiling or grimacing, as she pushed the heel of her hand into her eyes, mashing away the tears.

“You spent so much time and effort just finding me.” Direk shook his head as if befuddled. “I couldn’t have given you any reason to feel good about me. I assumed you were going to wait as long as it took for me to tell you what I knew. Which, of course, wasn’t enough, because we all had memory safety protocols that restricted vital information, the most important of which was your mother! But if I ever convinced you that I didn’t know of your parents, then you would go away and I would be alone. I didn’t want you to leave me.”

The tears still flowed down her cheeks and Jamie gave up wiping them. Iggy patted her on the shoulder and she smiled happily at him. She turned back to Direk, who now stared at her with concern and perhaps something else. His eyes were not cold now.

“I did want you to be embarrassed and humiliated by our stay in the cottage,” she said, recovering enough composure to speak. “And by the bed we shared. But that moment, when the children laughed at you, put doubt in my mind, and I was nearly as uncomfortable as you must have been. Did you know the local custom concerning that cottage?”

“I was warned by Phuti.”

“And you still went with me?”

“The children knew we were going to the cottage,” Direk said. “I asked if any of them were conceived in that cottage. They didn’t seem to understand, but one of them did ask me a naughty question. I didn’t answer, except to cross my eyes. Then they laughed.”

“You crossed your eyes?”

“That’s all! It was better than encouraging more questions!”

“I did embarrass you! I did humiliate you! I’m sorry!”

“You told me that afterward. What I couldn’t tell you at the time was that I was willing to do anything, just to be near you. I loved you from the moment Direk first saw you, when you were crying in his mother’s office. It broke his heart to leave you with your grandparents. From that moment on, he was not just the son who was too much like the father who left his mother – he was the ultimate Essiin.”

Jamie blinked her flooded eyes, puzzled by how Direk had phrased his words, speaking of himself in the third person. Her eyes were blurred by tears but she sensed the three men staring at her, as if waiting for some further reaction. They knew something that she did not, something that was wrong, something that would crush the joy she felt, steal the relief she wanted. As her tears allowed, Jamie looked at Jon Horss, then Khalanov, and finally Direk. Each of them did know something that she did not! It scared her!

“I’m sorry,” Direk said, “for what we never had. For what we may never have. For what I remember. For what you don’t remember. You don’t remember that Direk died, because you never really knew Direk. You only knew me.”

The shock sent Jamie’s mind in another direction, perhaps to avoid facing a menacing truth and the decision it would require.

There was a marching band parading by the far perimeter of Jackson Square. It had two sousaphones, two tempos, and two moods. The woodwinds and percussion played a slow, sad tempo, then the brass would push the tempo fast and merry, with the sousaphones bellowing. Jamie clapped with delight, seeing the shiny brass instruments and hearing the wonderful music. Then her mother called to her and she saw the dark lady sitting next to Mama on the park bench. The dark lady wore a pretty yellow dress and smiled at her with tears on her brown face. Mama was crying, too, but she didn’t notice until she had leaped into her arms.

“Mama, what’s wrong with her? Who is she?”

“She’s Mama’s best friend – after you.”

/

Jon cleared his throat. He cleared it again. “Admiral on deck.” He rose to his feet.

“Jon, stop that!” Zakiya pointed him back into his chair. She found a place to sit and then turned her gaze on Jamie.

“We were talking about some kind of big bed and Fleet jumpships, Admiral,” Jon said.

“Jon, stop that.”

“Stop what, ma’am?”

“Stop saying ma’am and admiral!”

Sir, could you use another son?” He asked it seriously. “You could adopt me and then I could call you Mom.”

Zakiya opened her mouth and then closed it.

Jon continued. “I’m used to having many brothers and sisters. And I can throw in a daughter-in-law and a grandchild.”

Zakiya had to turn away from Jamie and look at Jon Horss. She was irritated, amused, and warmed by his outrageous words. No, not outrageous, and she cared about him too much to dismiss it completely. “I’m sure your remark is made for the sake of needed levity, Jon, but I’m honored you would think of such a relationship with me. Thank you! And thank you, Iggy, for the timely shiplink of your discussion about Fleet jumpships! And other topics.”

Zakiya turned back to Jamie, saw the look of desperate confusion on her face.

/

“He died?” Jamie asked her mother, and at the same moment realized she had, at last, retrieved a childhood memory of her mother! She bolted across the deck to her mother and hugged her, pulling her out of her chair. “I remember you! I…! I…! Direk is…!”

Jamie let go of Zakiya and turned to Direk, who now stood watching her intently, his face a mask of conflicting emotions. Jamie turned away from him, not understanding him or herself or anything! She took a step toward the exit of the captain’s office. Direk moved to intercept her.

“You loved me,” Direk said. “It was me, not Direk, who loved you. Direk – the original Direk – was already dead! I would have stayed with you forever, but Mother took you away from me, not knowing how much I loved you! I still love you!”

Jamie emitted a wail borne of anguish and confusion and ran out of the room.

/

“Go after her!” Horss shouted at Direk. “That’s an order!”

Direk obeyed the order.

Zakiya stared for several moments at the door which had closed behind Jamie and Direk. She finally turned to see Jon and Iggy staring at her with big smiles. She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. “I forget,” she said. “What am I doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Horss said innocently, winking at Iggy.

“Perhaps you could give us some orders?” Iggy suggested.

“Oh.” Zakiya’s smile faded. “It’s been forty-eight hours. How many will be leaving us?”

“No one,” Horss answered. “I have to say, the two drop-off locations you picked are pretty awful, but I suspect they had no effect on anybody’s decision. The jump out of the Milky Way probably made everybody feel safer than we actually are. But what I think had the most effect was your introduction to Alexandros Gerakis and friends.”

“Really?” she asked. “Why? He must have seemed so different from what the commercial entertainment productions made him.”

“He was eloquent,” Horss said. “Sincere. Touching. And a hell of a baritone!”

“A what?”

“I think they all sang well,” Iggy commented. “I heard about it, even in Engineering.”

Zakiya looked from one to the other, waiting for an explanation.

“You missed something, Boss,” Jon said. “You probably couldn’t stand to sift through all the stuff that made you so sad. Someone named Wingren found a reference to some kind of musical rehearsal. It was them. They were trying to sing this song, and they kept making mistakes, and making jokes about making mistakes, except it was all a little sad. They finally got it right and they recorded the thing, and, well, it was heart-breaking and absolutely beautiful. Oh, and it was a love song, and there was no doubt which two women they were serenading.”

“And everyone saw it?” Zakiya asked, becoming embarrassed. “He could sing? I never…”

“I wish you had stayed, Boss. I could have seen the look on your face. Your man played pan pipes. Setek-Ren played guitar. All of them took a solo turn singing but Gerakis was the best.”

“But the important thing was how the song symbolized what they were giving up,” Iggy said, “to do what they thought was a vital service to civilization. It made me feel that I was nothing if I failed to try to rescue them!”

“When do we go, Boss?” Jon asked.

“Are you so comfortable with the ship and the danger, Jon? You have a pregnant wife aboard this ship.”

“And I have orders from my wife to help you find those men. This ship is… I’m at a loss for words! It took us to the Andromeda galaxy, just for a training cruise!”

“OK!” Zakiya declared. “Warn the crew. Jump to the beginning of the search route when our safety protocols are effected.”

= = =

He always knew where he was. The ship was a part of him and he could easily track almost anyone. This allowed Freddy to wait for Sammy on the brick path that led from the big lake to the pond where the Malay had established a community. Freddy sat on the ground, watching the birds in the trees and listening for Sammy’s approach. He enjoyed the anticipation, and he enjoyed it even more when his superior hearing detected Sammy trying to sneak up on him. He pretended not to hear him. Freddy was just a big kid, yet he could appreciate, in an adult way, the quiet and simple pleasures of being young and alive. He sometimes wished his mechanical body was not adult-size, so that he might interact with Sammy more naturally and equally.

“Boo!” Sammy shouted from directly behind Freddy.

Freddy jumped as though startled, which he wasn’t, but it was fun to do. “You got me! I was lost in thought! Is that leg bothering you?” Freddy had heard the unbalanced rhythm of Sammy’s gait from a great distance.

“It kinda pinches because the knee doesn’t bend quickly enough,” Sammy complained.

“Let me see what I can do.” Freddy touched his fingertip to a data port on the prosthetic leg. At the same time he accessed the operational database for the medical device. He activated another stream of consciousness to remain conversant with Sammy.

“Have you found them yet?” Sammy asked.

“Not yet, but I think we’re getting close.”

“Seen any Fleet ships?”

“I’m working with Direk and Uncle Iggy on a way to detect them at a great distance.”

“How can you do that?”

Freddy knew Sammy wanted a real answer to his question, not an oversimplified one, but he felt there was little point in dragging all the theory into the answer. It was likely Sammy didn’t have time for the details, since he was on the path to Abie’s home.

“Do you have an hour or two to listen to quantum circuit theory?” Freddy asked.

Sammy laughed. “I’ll take the kid’s explanation!”

“It’s just a matter of searching for a unique signal, like a pulse of gravity. It takes a lot of filtering, and we need verified jumpship jump pulses to set the filter parameters. We may need to build some specialized instruments.”

“Wish I could be on the bridge when they find them.”

“Run over there and walk back. I made an adjustment to your leg.” Sammy took a hop and a skip and ran to a tree. He walked back. Freddy watched closely and saw the function was better but still imperfect. “Feel better now? I can adjust it again when we have more time.”

“You can do anything, Freddy! Yeah, it’s lots better now. Thanks!”

“Any time, kiddo. What’re you going to do now?”

“Abie and I are going exploring. You want to come with us?”

“Gee, thanks, Sammy, but I have to go play grownup on the bridge. I’m the big expert on sensor data.”

“Still looking for Mom’s lost husband. I hope he wants to be our Dad.”

“Me, too. I hope he does.”

“Well, I gotta go. Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome. What’s a brother for?”

Sammy started to walk away, down the brick path through the trees. Freddy sat there watching him. He would not move until he disappeared from view.

Sammy stopped and turned around. “Do you ever wish you were not mechanical?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you ever wish you had a human body?”

“You bet!”

“Even though it can make you feel terrible pain?”

“Even though. There are worse feelings than physical pain. And you always tell me my hands are cold.”

“When I grow up,” Sammy said very seriously, “I’m going to find a way to give you a real human body. But I like you with cold hands just fine. You are so cool.”

= = =

Freddy pondered the meaning of the Twenglish word “cool” as used idiomatically by Sammy. The grammatical references were still a bit cryptic but the way Sammy said it made Freddy feel it was a special compliment. Freddy also listened to the conversations of those on the bridge. Jamie and Iggy were the most entertaining. Jamie would always say lots of things about Direk, and Iggy would always irritate her with disparaging remarks about the Direk copy he had known. He would finally relent and talk about visiting the real Direk when Direk was a child.

“There’s still something wrong with him,” Jamie said, meaning Direk.

“He’s only human,” Iggy said, emphasizing it for some reason.

“No, it’s not that. He thinks he’s forgot someone. He thinks there is someone missing who should be here. It’s making him very irritable. I’ve never seen him be irritable, and I would be enjoying it but he’s very serious about it.”

“I thought he had better access than any of us to his auxiliary memory,” Iggy said. “And if it’s someone we all knew, why hasn’t one of us remembered him by now?”

“I don’t know. It worries me, too. The missing person must be very important.”

Freddy had to remind himself that, as capable as he was at multitasking, he needed to give highest priority to the sensor signals. He wondered how humans coped with their thoughts, knowing they, too, could have more than one stream of thought at the same time.

“Why aren’t we starting to get any correlations with the navigation data from our lost ship?” Iggy complained. “We should be close enough.”

“Patience, Uncle Iggy,” Jamie said. “You know we must go slowly and silently.”

“Don’t tell me about slowly and silently! Phuti and I had to push that cryptikon all over a dark little ship, stopping every few meters to come back here and reset the connection. And we had to operate in vacuum half the time and in freefall all the time, to look for some kind of signal Direk couldn’t describe very well. Then, when we found it, Direk joins us and gets all the credit for dumping the data to the Freedom!”

“Well, remember the Titanic, Uncle Iggy,” Jamie advised. “The Freedom is an even bigger target for being eaten by little jumpships.”

“If we had armaments we wouldn’t need to go so slowly.”

“I’m not certain of that.”

“Are you taking your mother’s side? I thought you were in favor of arming the Freedom.”

“The more you sit in this chair and let your mind look at all the possibilities, the more you think about the safety of ten thousand people. Are they safer with or without the armaments?”

“They didn’t stay on this mission because they wanted to be safe.”

“Perhaps they’re enthralled by the romance of it and by the chance to meet the legendary father of the infamous Jamie Jones,” Jamie said.

“I think they want to fight!” Iggy argued. “Many are very upset over the atrocities the barbarians have committed. Every day another record from the lost ship becomes the subject of discussion. It’s always a gruesome tragedy.”

“I think you want revenge, Iggy.”

“Those who killed Ana are long dead. I want to prevent such a thing from happening again.”

“Two pulsars with required frequencies,” Freddy advised, not really wanting to interrupt, but he felt the data was statistically relevant.

“These aren’t the same ones we saw two hours ago?” Iggy asked.

“The search pattern has brought them near us again,” Freddy explained. “This pair does match frequencies better than any trio we’ve seen, and their sweeps intersect at a good angle.”

“Then where is the third pulsar? Damn! It’s near the end of the watch and I’m tired. Put them in the tank. We’ll look at them again.”

“Paint the sweep of their emissions, Freddy,” Jamie said. “Let’s pretend they’re the right pulsars.”

Freddy made the holographic navigation tank in front of the captain’s chair show two luminous disks representing the areas where the spinning stellar objects broadcast their energy eruptions. A bright line marked their intersection.

“Let’s assume there are not three pulsars but only two,” Jamie said.

“Why assume that?” Iggy asked. “And it doesn’t give us a point of intersection, just a long line, because they’re so damned far apart!”

“It may be intentional, due to paranoia,” Jamie said. “That’s the feeling I got from their later journal entries. They had become actively hunted by the Fleet. They had other starlight-drive ships they had stolen or purchased, probably with hiding places for each. If the Fleet found one of those other ships the data would have confused them and at least delayed them finding their home base of operations.”

“Too bad encryption is no longer effective,” Iggy said. “But it doesn’t seem likely they would have lost a ship. And wiping all the data would have been… I forget how difficult that is to do! There are centuries of data safeguard protocols aimed at keeping careless humans from deleting stuff they think is useless!”

“Setek-Ren did get captured once, and died as he was rescued,” Freddy said. “They did lose a ship.”

“You read their journals?” Jamie asked. “All of them?” When Freddy nodded his reply, Jamie said, “I think you are too young for such violent subject matter, Freddy! Setek-Ren died?”

“It was his journal, but many years into it he began referring to himself in the third person. Still, I’m sure it was himself he wrote about, even though he called himself The Torturer. Sammy wanted to know what the journals said, and I thought I would try to abridge them for him. Yes, I wish I had not read them. It made me… sick.”

“Alex and Setek died several times,” Jamie said.

“Yes,” Freddy said. “They did. And Koji always rescued them and kept their bodies viable until Patrick Jenkins could restore them to life.”

They were all silent for several moments. Freddy wanted to return to the problem at hand. He was resolute in not activating another run of consciousness to analyze the journals. He thought he had learned much of what it meant to be like a human by reading the extensive library of classic fiction Mother possessed. As disturbing as some of the literature was, it was still fiction. The journals were real and not products of imagination. He had to stop thinking of these things, especially with his primary run of consciousness.

“Okay,” Jamie said. “The other markers. There should be three close binaries.”

“There are two,” Freddy answered.

“Are they near the intersection of the pulsar sweeps?”

“Yes.”

“How do the four objects fit the location plot?”

“Perfectly,” Freddy replied, “except for the missing objects.”

“Form a triangle with the two binaries and the closest point to them on the pulsar intersection line,” Jamie said. “Then jump to where the triangle meets the line.”

They jumped. They waited, watched, and listened.

“It’s noisy here,” Freddy said. “We won’t be detected except by active scanning.”

“Nor can we detect the Fleet,” Iggy said.

“Let’s see what kind of objects we have in the plane of the triangle,” Jamie said. “Plot a jump to a point about ten parsecs normal to the center of the triangle on one side of the triangle.”

Freddy communicated the jump instructions to the Freedom and Jamie initiated the jump.

“I see nothing promising,” Freddy reported. “I advise increased caution. It’s possible we are looking at a Fleet navigation reference point. There is a trinary star system at the center of your triangle.”

“Display the Fleet navigation reference points we know from the journals,” Iggy said. “Are there any in this volume of space?”

“Just outside of the current view,” Freddy replied, resizing the navigation tank to show six points. “They are all trinary star systems. The Fleet has a preference for the number three.”

“Those barbarians apparently do very little navigation,” Iggy said. “They use known objects to make the longer jumps. I doubt they even take a peek with a preview gate before they jump.”

“The trinary system ten parsecs ahead is nicely located to be a crossroads to the six surrounding navigation points,” Jamie said. “Why isn’t it included in the data we downloaded from the lost ship?”

“It might have been a good place for Alex’s crew to observe traffic and perhaps listen to communications,” Iggy suggested.

“Let’s take a look,” Jamie said. “We can always jump right out of the galaxy if we need to. Plot a jump less than a light-year from the trinary.”

They jumped.

“Still no obvious signs of the Fleet,” Freddy said. “No navigation pings.”

“One more jump,” Jamie said. “Go to Second Stage Alert. Jon needs to wake up for his shift, anyway. Let’s jump to the gravitational center of the trinary.”

They jumped.

“Close target!” Freddy called. “Too small to be spherical, but it is.”

“Jumpship dimensions!” Iggy warned. “Warm body! Unshielded jumpfield accumulator!”

“We’re too close!” Jamie declared. “It must have felt us! Give me cutting range, hull perimeter to perimeter plus twenty meters!”

Freddy computed the numbers, delivered them to helm. He saw what Jamie wanted to do: intersect the jumpship with the Freedom’s echo jump shell. Kill it. Freddy felt fear and excitement, and something that must be analogous to a surge of adrenaline. That he was a participant in the killing of other sentient beings also presented itself to his attention. He had to ignore such a distraction. He had to assume their own survival was at stake. “Ready!” Freddy reported.

They took a peek with their small gate and Jamie made the Freedom jump.

“Ping!” Freddy warned. Another vessel in the region had probed for them. “Source located.”

“Another jumpship,” Jamie said. “Where is it? I lost it.”

“It jumped! Secondary ping scatter may paint it. There. Range plus twenty. It jumped to scan for the first jumpship.”

Jamie jumped the Freedom into the second Fleet ship, cutting it apart.

Yes!” Iggy shouted. “Two kills! How many more?”

“At least one,” Jamie said. “They like the number three. Go to Third Stage Alert. Ready Marines for possible action. Jumping at random.”

“I want the pieces of those jumpships!” Iggy declared.

“There’s one more out there,” Jamie said. “We’ll sit here until we can see it.”

“I can see where it was,” Freddy said. “The ping scatter also illuminated a dense accumulation of Oort-type interstellar mass that we may want to inspect.”

“A hiding place?” Iggy wondered aloud.

Zakiya arrived on the bridge and Horss followed her by a few seconds. Jamie briefed them.

“Do you take command?” Jamie asked Horss.

“Keep your hand on the helm,” Horss said. He could see by her blank stare that she was intent on the data in her ocular shiplink. Freddy was linked in to help her if she needed him. “I’ll wait until we know we can change bridge crews safely. Let me get into the data stream.”

“I’ve located a third jumpship,” Freddy said. “It’s too far off to be certain of killing it with a jump.”

“It’ll come closer,” Iggy said. “They know they’re in mortal danger but I don’t think they would do the sensible thing: escape to notify others of our threat. They want to know who is attacking them.”

“They may already know of us,” Zakiya said. “The Navy would have told them.”

“We could ping,” Horss said. “Ping and jump. See if it jumps where we were. Then jump for the kill. I’m assuming, because of their lazy navigation methods, that we can compute jump addresses faster than they can.”

“Mother?” Jamie said

“We don’t know if this is the place,” Zakiya said. “It may not be worth the risk.”

“I think it is the place,” Jamie argued. “We need to at least eliminate it as a possibility. We’ll never be any safer here than we are right now.”

“It would also be very useful to have the jumpship wreckage,” Iggy repeated his wish.

“The captain on duty makes the decision,” Horss said. “Do you want me to relieve you, Jamie? I’m paralleled with you on the data.”

“Command is yours, Jon.” Jamie got up from the captain’s chair.

“It jumped!” Freddy warned. “I’ve lost it! You must jump now!”

“Why?” Jamie asked, after she jumped the Freedom to a random location.

“It may be able to find our quantum pathway signals quicker than we can find its signals, because of the size difference.”

“Cat and mouse,” Horss said. “Give it your best shot, Jamie. You’re my gunner.”

“Do you think we can recycle our accumulators as quickly as the Fleet?” Jamie asked.

“Direk designed it so we can cross-couple the starlight drive generator to the jump accumulators,” Iggy said. “We can’t know if the Fleet jumpship isn’t inherently faster due to simplicity.”

“If cross-coupling is a command function,” Jamie said, “do it.”

“Already done,” Iggy answered, his hands and eyes playing over his instruments.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Stand by to ping,” Horss ordered. “Ping!”

An active sensor sweep struck across the gulf from the Freedom. Jamie made the Freedom jump a short distance to one side. The proximity alarm sounded. Jamie jumped the Freedom again.

“Where is it?” Horss demanded.

“Embedded in the southern hemisphere!” Iggy said. “Ten degrees east longitude, thirty-seven degrees south latitude. It penetrated forty meters. It missed a jump field emitter core by less than a meter! It took a bite out of the hex shield, but we took one out of it. It looks like it’s disabled.”

“Engineering team and ten Marines on site now!” Horss ordered. “It may still have harmful potential and surviving crew. Remain on high alert and ready to jump.”

“I have an anomalous target painted in the dark Oort cluster,” Freddy said. “Not enough detail to say more than that.”

“Get us into the debris field,” Horss ordered.

= = =

“No sign of explosive decompression,” Iggy said. “The entire crew could still be alive, but they can’t jump now.”

“The map of the interior is complete,” Wingren said, “No movement. No human shapes. They are either concealed somehow or have departed their ship. And there is a transmat in this little ship!”

“Sound intruder alert!” Captain Aguila ordered by shiplink. “How do we get in?” he asked Khalanov.

“Take your men and try to protect the crew!” Khalanov ordered. “Wingren and I will cut our way into this little boat and disable its transmat.”

The two engineers and the Marines stood in a ring around the damage in the hull of the Freedom where the sheared-away remains of the embedded Fleet jumpship filled a circular incision in the outer hexagonally-plated hull of the Freedom. They were dressed in tight gray vacuum suits, playing the beams of personal lights onto the glittering exposed innards of the small jumpship. Above them, millions of unseen fragments from the ancient chaos of star formation floated in the darkness. A distant point of light – one of the local trinary stars – shone brighter than other stars. The dull surface of the hull of the Freedom quickly faded in distance from this illuminated point of attack, visible only as an absence of the galactic panoply of lights.

Quickly, one at a time, the eleven Marines vanished, leaving Khalanov and Wingren alone. Then several more engineers arrived to help, bringing cutting equipment.

Messages from a Rapist

Eventually she must think of such things. She didn’t want to. Time had dulled the edge of horror. But her brain, in typical perversity, ignored the happiness Jamie and Direk gave her, and instead led her into the brutal past. If she thought of the fetus inside her, she had to remember how it was conceived. She had to beat her feeble logic against the painful clues of a puzzle of terror. It was impossible to believe an elite Essiin could have raped her. If it was truly impossible, then Etrhnk could not be Essiin. Then he was who she knew he was! Think of something positive and stay away from the humiliation, the violation, the pain! That was not important!

The glorious painting. She didn’t have the skills to frame it properly. The ship had constructor machines that could build a string bass for Direk of surpassing quality, but not a simple picture frame of a design she liked. Or was she avoiding displaying the portrait? She still kept the painting rolled up and hidden away.

The painting. It was so terrible to have such a wonder of creativity linked to her personal tragedy! She had not even disclosed to Zakiya or anyone else that she had it. As if it was a prostitute’s payment. Why did Etrhnk give it to her? Because he would lose it soon anyway? Why did he even have it? He couldn’t have known who Zakiya was. It must have required real effort to steal it in the short interval available to do it, in the midst of the violence and fire. Why? Only because of its intrinsic value? Or did he have another reason? Why did Etrhnk give it to her?

The rape. Try to ignore the evil of it! Why did he rape her? He was pretending to be Essiin. Rape was almost unknown to the Essiin. It violated their aesthetics. Logic and aesthetics. Truth and beauty. How could he be such a perfect fake Essiin and ignore their ethics? How many other women had Etrhnk raped? How many Union citizens had he killed by his Navy orders? She had sensed he was a genetic fake. Then he revealed the ice eyes, the stripes. God, the stripes! He was a zebra, black with white stripes, a work of art, a living portrait, stunning, perfect. She had wanted to believe, in her fear and panic, that she had been wrong, that he really was Essiin. But he was too perfect, too rare! The ultimate Essiin recessive genetic construction! He was too unique, especially as Commander of the Navy. That had to violate Essiin aesthetics and logic. Was he kidnapped by barbarians, or some such extraordinary scenario? Why would he survive in their midst, even flourish, to rise to his exalted position? Still pretending Essiin discipline. Too imperfect! Too illogical! Too ugly! His very perfection and illogic damned him. Damned her.

Aylis Mnro had created this monster named Etrhnk! Now she had to admit she was also a monster. Now she had to confirm it. And then she would have to lose her best friend forever. Battered and violated, she had left Etrhnk, knowing who he could be and never telling him. She had left him in his ignorance, unfairly hating him for what he did to her.

Aylis was alone in the hospital. It had come for her! She could smell its evil! It would take root in her mind and explode, shattering her emotions beyond repair! It was even worse than being raped! The truth would kill her. It should!

She went into the lab and did the tests she had put off for irrational reasons. Was Petros the father of her child? She did not have access to the complete records of the Mnro Clinics. Etrhnk’s genetic identity would not be directly available. But she could still identify his relationship in records she did have aboard ship: the records of the crew, of one crew member.

She looked at the results and sat down and wept for hours.

Only the terrifying klaxons of war drove her away from despair and toward duty.

= = =

Direk awoke to mental turmoil surfacing from dream into reality.

He was not happy. He should be happy. Jamie was happy. Zakiya was happy. Even his mother seemed happy at times. Direk was not happy. He was not unhappy. He was worried.

When he saw Jamie, when he touched her, the worry fled only for a few moments. This wasn’t happiness; it was distraction. It was unworthy of him to complain, no matter how long he had deprived himself of happiness, no matter how close it now resided, but just out of reach.

An elusive memory would nearly appear to his conscious when certain conditions were met. He thought he had removed enough distractions from his mind that he could concentrate on the problem of remembering. He couldn’t see a pattern that would identify the conditions to be met, that would loosen the memory from its hiding place.

There was no doubt it was a deeply hidden memory, thus implying extreme importance. That he could even sense that it concerned the identity of a person was probably a significant but limited achievement. It could mean that he had no further memory to discover, that the full memory belonged to the Navy-officer copy who was dead.

That Direk had the riskiest responsibilities, some of which he remembered, some of which he might be able to deduce. That Direk needed to help build the ship. He needed to be sure Zakiya and Iggy and Jamie and his mother were on the crew. Pan should have been on the crew. Who else? Someone who was at least as close to her as Phuti and Nori?

If it was Pan who was missing, Direk would have remembered him, remembered Harry. He had too many memories of Harry, too much shared experience. Harry-Pan would have left too great a hole in his memories, to not be noticed. The person who was missing must have been too briefly in his own memories, but perhaps more fully in the memory of the dead copy of Direk.

He needed to see if the copy’s auxiliary memory was available and still viable. He needed to absorb it. He dreaded doing that, fearing for his own identity. He did a terrible thing, that copy, executing four men he judged guilty of raping Jamie.

A terrible thing.

The ghostly memory brushed past his conscious and he leaped into the darkness to grab it. A pattern coalesced for an instant: Sammy. Jamie. Horss. A terrible thing had happened to all three. It was all he could grab before the klaxons sounded.

Direk accessed his shiplink and searched for the cause of the critical alert. He saw the ship was under attack and was possibly boarded by hostile forces. He made use of algorithms that Security used to detect abnormalities in the life aboard the ship. He saw he was near one such abnormality. He set out to intercept it.

Sammy and Jamie: Zakiya’s children? Horss: not her child – but he jokingly offered himself for adoption. The missing person was… Zakiya’s child? How could Zakiya not already know that, if that was a valid hypothesis?

Direk looked at the bottle in his hand. Water, under pressure, could be used to detect an invisible combat soldier. What one did after that was limited to muscle and bone. He had also procured an i-field emitter from Security. He made himself invisible.

The bottle in his hand. A bottle of… what? Whoever it was he was trying to remember, Direk thought, would also not remember things that were dangerous to remember, things that could expose himself and others to the enemy. He would be invisible, even invisible to himself. He would not even know who he was. He was so important that his own true identity would be lethal knowledge.

A bottle of water… to stop invisibility…

Antidote! The antidote was never administered! Someone whose auxiliary memory had not begun remembering! Someone who was not remembered by others! Someone with an extremely important task!

Who? Zakiya’s child? Someone very important. Important even beyond being her child.

Petros! The name blazed into his mind, yet found no portrait of a physical person.

Direk stood in blood and watched horror. From the trail of blood Direk knew the invisible attacker was ahead of him. People fled away from him in all directions but the way ahead offered the most victims. He dodged the staggering wounded and stepped around the fallen, tagging their locations in his data augment. The neighborhood lane opened onto the village commons just ahead, where people were rushing to get within a Marine defense perimeter. The barbarian seemed to favor what was probably a large knife, although he also used a slug weapon and a beam weapon when he could not get close to his prey.

Direk sprayed the water. He moved closer. He made himself visible. He seized the invisible demon and discovered surprising strength in his own arms. He threw the enemy down and tried to pin him there but was forced onto the ground where he rolled furiously with the adversary, trying to wrap his legs around the slippery defense field within the invisibility field that protected and obscured the form of the enemy.

Direk probed the creases and field joints of the enemy’s d-field, holding the person partially locked between his legs. He found the neck and above it the head. He wrapped one arm around the invisible head and turned it in the only direction the d-field permitted. Turned it too far.

In time, the d-field would exhaust its power, as would the i-field. The intruder would not be viable by then. Direk was disturbed he had killed the murderer, and killed him so easily.

Little Heroes

“They’ll never find us here!” Ibrahim uttered breathlessly, pulling the cabinet door closed but leaving a small gap he could see through.

“What’s happening?” Sammy asked. He huddled behind Lam’s nephew in the empty storage cabinet. He called him Abie. Abie called him Sammy.

“Maybe it’s just a drill!” Abie answered, holding the door very still.

Sammy didn’t like the dark but he did like the excitement of hiding. Still, he didn’t feel right about what they were doing. “We’re not supposed to hide! We’re supposed to go to a designated location!”

“Where?”

Sammy didn’t know, so he said nothing. If Mom asked him where he was during the drill, he wouldn’t lie to her. He just hoped the drill would end soon! The klaxons were very loud and wouldn’t stop and were beginning to scare him! At least the cabinet shut out some of the blare.

“I wish we had shiplink augments,” Abie whispered loudly, “so we could listen to what’s happening! I could hear Uncle Lam! I could tell him where I am!”

“They won’t give one to me, either!”

“Do you hear people running?”

“I can barely hear you, Abie!”

“Are you scared, Sammy? I think I am! Almost! We’ll be safe, if we stay in here!”

“Safe from what?”

“I don’t know! We can pretend the barbarians are boarding the ship! The Fleet! Are you sure they’re just humans, like us?”

“I told you I saw them!”

“You didn’t make them sound very scary!”

“I don’t like to talk about them!”

“Then they are scary! I like to be scared!”

“Then you’ve never been really scared!”

“I could be a Marine, like my Uncle Lam!”

“You already told me that!”

“You want to be a Navy officer, like your mom?”

“I suppose so! But I like what Uncle Phuti does, too! He gets to talk to so many people!”

He liked that Abie always referred to Zakiya as his mother. He never contradicted him. Abie could see she was not his real mother. Abie was a good friend. It was wonderful having a friend who was almost his size and age.

“She seems too nice to be a Navy admiral!” Abie said. “Do you love her?”

“Why do you ask that?” Guys didn’t ask questions like that and Sammy felt uncomfortable with answering it.

“I love my mother!” Abie said. “It’s good to love your mother! Does Admiral Demba love you?”

Sammy was sure Zakiya loved him. He loved her. He was proud of that, yet reluctant to be as direct as Abie in proclaiming private feelings.

“You’re very different from everyone I know,” Abie said. “Everything is different now! We’ve lost our home. It’s scary! But Admiral Demba is great and powerful. I want to know that you’re good people. Good people love each other.”

“We love each other,” Sammy finally admitted, knowing Abie would not see him blush.

“Good! I really like you, Sammy! You make me think about many new things! Tell me more about Oz, the barbarian world! Tell me again how Admiral Demba escaped the Lady in the Mirror!”

The door to the room opened and they heard the frightened voices of adults. Sammy tried to see over Abie’s shoulder through the crack. He leaned too hard and the cabinet door opened too much. Two grownups saw them: a man and a woman. The woman registered shock at seeing them and motioned frantically for them to stay where they were. The man had a terrible cut on his back and was dripping blood on the floor. Abie pulled the cabinet door back but still kept the crack to peer through.

“This is not a drill!” Abie cried. “The man was hurt! More people! They’re closing the door!”

“It could still be a drill,” Sammy said, “but it’s way too scary!”

The people who had flooded into the room became so quiet that Sammy and Abie could hear a woman whisper, “There are children here!”

“Where?”

“In the cabinet!”

“This is the last room! We have no choice!”

“It was right behind us!”

A sharp crack shook the whole room and a loud ripping followed. The noise and vibration almost seemed to be coming through the bulkhead into the cabinet. People screamed and backed toward the far wall where Sammy could see them through the gap in the cabinet doors. Several of the grownups cried out from new injuries. They flailed arms and brushed at burned spots on their bodies. The ripping stopped. The odor of burned metal reached even into the cabinet. Then the hammering began.

People shifted against the walls and cowered behind pieces of furniture and storage containers. Something made the smoke in the room swirl. Something stepped on melted pieces of metal, sending them skittering and clinking. Something became visible.

Abie opened the gap wider, to see better, even though Sammy squeezed his shoulder as a plea to stop. “Fleet!” Sammy whispered in Abie’s ear, hoping his tone of voice would make him pull away from the opening and stay hidden. Sammy could see the barbarian pivot to leer at the dozen terrified people who were backed against the walls of the room. His black uniform was all but obscured by a harness that held multiple weapons and other machinery. His face was scarred and brutal, devoid of pity. He dropped a rifle-like weapon on the floor. He pulled a power-knife from a scabbard.

The barbarian lunged at several people, playing on their fear, making them try to evade his buzzing knife blade. He cornered a woman who couldn’t stop crying and pricked her with the tip of the knife, making her scream. When she reflexively reached out to push the weapon away, the barbarian cut off her arm just below the elbow. The woman fainted. The barbarian leaned over to threaten a finishing cut, teasing the others by thrusting the blade at the victim’s neck.

Abie threw open the cabinet, shoving Sammy backward to propel himself outward. He dashed forward and scooped up the weapon the barbarian had dropped on the floor. He closed on the barbarian from behind, swinging the weapon up on the elbow of the arm that held the knife. The knife fell out of the barbarian’s hand and made him shout with pain and turn on Abie with rage in his face. He grabbed Abie with the hand of his other arm, not yet able to use his damaged arm. He released Abie just long enough to tear the rifle from his grasp and hit him with it – a stunning blow that knocked Abie to the deck and left him too breathless to scream in pain. The barbarian threw the spent rifle away. He took a moment to assess the damage Abie had caused to his elbow, flexing the arm and growling like an animal from the pain.

Sammy stepped out of the cabinet and saw how close the opening in the ruined doorway was. He could probably make it to the door but there were sharp points of steel curled inward around the hole in the door that would slow his exit. He looked back at Abie who was now trying to crawl away as the barbarian stepped toward him with further violent intent written in his expression. All of the grownups were cowering as far from the barbarian as they could move.

The barbarian used his uninjured arm to yank Abie up by one of Abie’s wrists, then slammed Abie’s arm across his rising knee, breaking the arm bones with a sickening snapping sound. Abie’s scream was not loud yet its tone made Sammy desperate to help Abie. The barbarian prepared to deliver another punishment to Abie, grabbing his other arm.

Sammy was already running across the room. He threw himself against the back of the barbarian’s legs, dropping the man to his knees. Sammy bounced from the impact, caught his hand on the weapons harness on the back of the barbarian. As the barbarian got to his feet, Sammy climbed on his back and tried to get an arm around his neck.

The barbarian felt Sammy climb his back and seemed not to care. He now held Abie by his unbroken arm. Sammy beat on the barbarian’s head with his free fist, trying to distract him. The man turned his head to look at Sammy, trying to dodge the pummeling Sammy gave him. Before he could turn back to Abie, Sammy gouged the barbarian’s eye with his thumb.

The barbarian threw Abie across the room and reached for Sammy. Sammy tried to wrap his legs and arms around the barbarian but in only a few painful moments the barbarian gripped him by the throat, raised him up, and glared at him with his undamaged eye.

Sammy kicked hard with the regeneration machine on his injured leg, finding a soft spot in the barbarian’s torso, causing him to grunt in pain. The barbarian swung Sammy around and slapped him hard with the hand of his injured arm. Sammy lost much of the sight and sound in the room. He couldn’t hear the painful swearing of the barbarian or see him flex his bad elbow after hitting him. Sammy couldn’t see the barbarian preparing to slam his fist into his face despite the pain it would cause his elbow.

Sammy didn’t see one of the other people in the room grab the barbarian’s cocked fist. He did feel the surge of pain in his face and neck as the barbarian pivoted, swinging him by the neck. He would have felt the impact of his foot and leg hitting someone else, but the pain in his neck, where the barbarian still held him in a strangling grip, overrode all other sensations. He was almost unconscious when a final impact took away all of his suffering, and his life.

= = =

We got the last barbarian, sir!” the Marine shouted, but not in exultation. “We have two fatalities and I can’t get through to the hospital! The two dead are children, Captain!”

Damn!” Horss swore, the shock filling him with dread for who the children might be. “Are they viable?”

“Unknown, sir. They were heroes. They distracted the barbarian until the adults could attack. They beat the bastard to death. They’re all frantic for medical help for the boys. One of them is Sammy!”

The pit of his stomach filled with lead and his mind – for just an instant – burned with hate. Horss switched his shiplink and connected with Mai. She opened the channel but couldn’t reply for a few seconds. Horss could hear her issuing triage orders, her voice rising above the din of pain and confusion in the hospital emergency rooms. He used his captain’s authority to break into the comm system of the hospital. He broadcast his words into the emergency rooms. “Listen to me! Two children have died! Children! Children! Do you hear me? Go now! Use a transmat! Here is the location!”

The hospital background noise rapidly died. “Children?” Mai finally said. Then Horss could hear other people in the background, echoing the word: children. Then he heard the word GO shouted by others. She cut the connection.

“Jon,” Zakiya said by shiplink. “Jon, what children?”

“Where are you?” Horss asked.

“I’m in the hospital, helping. It’s terrible here!”

“Stay there, dear lady! Don’t go with Mai!”

“Is it Sammy?”

“Don’t go! Please, don’t go!”

She cut the connection. Horss slumped into his chair, and for just a few moments ignored the bridge’s wall of images from every part of the ship, demanding his attention.

= = =

Zakiya looked into their faces and saw extreme emotions: shock, terror, grief, anger, guilt, pain. Two Marines treated the simple injuries. She saw the first child lying on the floor, guarded by three people who stared at her as she paused. Their expressions showed dismay and sorrow. She recognized the boy: Abie, Lam’s nephew. He was connected to a small medical device. He might survive! She saw a man tending a simple tourniquet on a woman’s severed arm. On the other side of the room people stood in a group, looking down at something, many of them crying. They noticed her and reacted with even more emotion.

/

Mai had only just arrived and now Zakiya was here, so soon! She could tell it was Zakiya by the reactions of the people standing around her. She didn’t want to look up at Zakiya. She didn’t want to speak to her. She didn’t want to say what had to be said and then see Zakiya’s reaction.

/

Zakiya saw Sammy even though Mai seemed to intentionally obscure him from her view. She maneuvered to a position opposite Mai, with Sammy between them. Mai was doing nothing medically for Sammy; she was just straightening his legs and folding his arms across his chest. Zakiya went down on her knees. She knew what that must mean but she wanted to deny it. She wanted to question Mai, to demand of her that it could not be true. Mai would not look at her, was looking away from her. That told her everything. That made her deny everything, as tears blurred the sight of blood pooling under Sammy’s head. She placed her hand on Sammy, closing her eyes to the blood and feeling numb to the absolute stillness of his body. She choked on a volcano of misery erupting in her chest. She opened her eyes when she felt Sammy move, but it was only Mai trying to lift him, trying to take her son away.

Zakiya held on to Sammy and pulled him from Mai, got her arms under him. Zakiya struggled to her feet and carried Sammy unsteadily toward the ruined doorway. She maneuvered carefully through the bent and jagged metal and passed into the corridor. The future lay dark and blurry before her.

/

Mai paused by the doorway to watch Zakiya walk away with Sammy’s body. Only duty kept her from screaming and retreating from reality. Other people moved past her to exit the room. They followed Zakiya down the passageway, some of them still needing treatment for injuries.

/

Zakiya was unaware of how long or of how far she carried Sammy’s body. She wasn’t aware of the people who followed her. She never realized how many people watched her pass by them, then joined her. She reached the biosphere, where the sun was starting to set, not knowing where she was going. Her strength began to falter, the grief weakening her more than the effort of carrying Sammy. She stumbled and went down on one knee. Many hands helped her rise and started to guide her. She finally found herself in the plaza in front of the hospital. People were waiting for her. There was a gurney and hands reaching for Sammy, to take him from her.

She had to let go. She had to. He was dead. He was gone. She began to weep harder and harder as they took Sammy.

Zakiya collapsed on the pavement. Direk sat down beside her and held her. The crowd melted away. Eventually Direk helped Zakiya find her way home.

The Son of Two Mothers

She couldn’t sleep, yet she couldn’t bear to be awake, to be awake and to think and to remember. She remembered Sammy, the first time she truly embraced him and wanted him, perhaps even loved him. He needed her and came willingly into her arms. She carried him through the woods to Rafael’s house.

Images formed. Her breast: light, not dark. Her infant: not dark but not light. Aylis reaching toward her baby, touching it, finding purchase, drawing her son away from her. His small complaint at losing the nipple, the drops of milk wasting, a toothless yawn.

“Why did you find me?” Ruby asked, not yet admitting that she would never see her child again. “Why did you have to find me?”

“You remembered,” Aylis replied, “but you didn’t remember enough, or you would not have done this.”

“Let me have my son!” Ruby pleaded. “Why must it be this way?”

“Not while there is still hope,” Aylis said, pulling her son away.

“There is no hope! He’s gone forever! And Jamie is gone! This is all I have of him!”

“There is hope. That is my task: to remember the hope.”

“And my task?”

“You won’t sleep but you must not die.”

“I’m a mother! You’re stealing my son!”

“So am I a mother,” Aylis Mnro said. “We’re sisters, you and I. And there is still hope.”

Someone shook her, then shook her harder. She awoke but she didn’t know who she was or where she was. But she remembered her son!

“Aylis!” she cried. “You took Petros!”

Someone grabbed her face in two hands and pushed open her eyelids.

“Go away!” she demanded to the blurry form above her.

“No!” the person shouted at her.

Focus returned. The blurry form became the blood-smeared face of Sugai Mai. The blood and Mai’s expression were enough to shock Zakiya into functional wakefulness.

“Mai! What?”

“I need you! Aylis is sick and I can’t help her!”

“What’s wrong with her?” Zakiya tried to sit up, tried to find reality and responsibility.

“I don’t know! She’s pregnant and exhausted, but so am I! I need her! I need rest! We have volunteers and trainees but someone needs to supervise. She’s unresponsive and I think it’s emotional. Please, see if you can help her!”

Zakiya was numb: a wall against her grief, however tenuous. It helped that she had wept for what seemed like hours. It helped that people tried to comfort her. She had lived too long, to have waited to experience such pain and loss.

= = =

“She fell off,” Mai said, entering Aylis’s office. “I had her on the couch.”

Zakiya helped Mai pick Aylis off the floor. They put her back on the couch. She was limp but began to stir, once on the couch. Mai put her fingers on Aylis’s chest and read her vitals. Mai grimaced and slapped Aylis lightly on the cheek.

“Aylis. Aylis! Zakiya is here. Tell us what’s wrong.”

Aylis opened her eyes. She slowly turned her head, her face a mask of pain, and when she saw Zakiya she curled herself into a fetal position and hid her face.

“I’m leaving,” Mai said. “I’m sorry! Try to get her on her feet!”

Zakiya sat down by Aylis and put a hand on her shoulder, then absently started rubbing her back. The tension in Aylis’s muscles would not release under her hand. It was several moments before Zakiya’s beleaguered mind registered the fact. She tried to find some way to think clearly and to decide what to do about Aylis. All she could bring to mind was the fragment of memory she had just experienced before Mai woke her. Petros. Petros!

“What happened to Petros?” Zakiya asked herself, but Aylis must have heard the question as though addressed to her.

Aylis screamed and tried to roll away from Zakiya. She fell on the floor. Zakiya was shocked into a greater awareness of the situation, a clearer realization of the magnitude of Aylis’s distress. She got down on the floor and tried to pull Aylis’s hands and arms away from her breast, to help her rise, to at least get her to stop screaming. All she could do was shake her, then clamp her hand over Aylis’s mouth to stop the screaming. Aylis finally opened her eyes again, just watery slits contorted by distress. Zakiya realized Aylis was trying to speak and she removed her hand from her mouth.

“I killed him! I killed Petros!” The words were almost lost under the obscuring emotional burden.

As she finally understood what Aylis said, Zakiya weakened her grip on Aylis’s hands and Aylis snatched them back and began beating herself on the head, on her face. Her nose started to bleed.

The door opened and Direk stood there for a startled moment before moving to help Zakiya stop his mother from hurting herself. He and Zakiya picked her up, and when Aylis seemed to realize who Direk was, she clung to him and wept. He held her and looked at Zakiya questioningly.

“She said she killed Petros,” Zakiya said dully, still not completely accepting reality and understanding its meaning.

/

Direk studied Zakiya for several moments, trying to decide what he should say and whether she should hear it. Exhaustion dulled his inhibitions and most of his other functions. He would get this over with now. It would hurt them badly when they were already suffering the loss of Sammy, but they would survive it and find peace that much sooner.

“Do you remember Petros?” he asked.

Zakiya was slow to respond. “My baby. My son. Aylis would never…”

“In a sense, she may have killed him.”

“He’s dead? My baby?”

“Perhaps not yet, but he is lost to us.”

“Why? How?”

“She didn’t tell you what he was going to do?” Direk now wished he could be as Essiin as he once was, but it was too difficult. It hurt him to even think the words he was about to speak. “Petros was going to infiltrate the Navy cadre of interlopers. He should have made contact with us before now, to receive the antidote. We’ve lost him.”

He felt his mother hug him harder and tremble with the strain. He saw Zakiya drop onto the couch and hang her head, then cover her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I had remembered sooner. I wish the other copy had remembered. I wish Mother had remembered.”

“I did!” Aylis cried, her voice muffled against her son.

“What did you say, Mother?” Direk had not heard her clearly.

/

Aylis disengaged from the embrace of her son. She stood before him, wavering a little, with a hand on his chest to help keep her balance. Zakiya was behind her and she dared not turn to look at her. Aylis was exhausted. Her throat was raw with the ache of grief and the stress of screaming and weeping. Her head ached. Her eyes hurt and wouldn’t stay focused. She wanted to die! But before she did, she must tell the truth, for Zakiya’s sake, and for the sake of her own soul. She couldn’t look at either Zakiya or her son. She coughed and tried to speak again.

“I knew who he was and I had to deny it! I had to! Until I made myself prove it. It was Petros! There is no doubt. And it was all I could think about, even as I was trying to help Mai treat the wounded. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone! I don’t remember anything, except the blood and the cries of pain. Then they brought Sammy in and… I couldn’t go on! I can’t believe he’s dead!”

/

Aylis’s knees began to shake and Direk grabbed her before she could fall. He sat her on the couch but she seemed determined to continue speaking, wiping her face and giving herself a moment to rest.

“Did you see him?” Direk asked. “Did you see Petros?”

/

Zakiya almost didn’t want Aylis to go on. She didn’t want her to suffer. She didn’t want Aylis’s unborn child to suffer. And she had a very bad feeling about what Aylis might say next.

“Yes, I saw him! I didn’t know him immediately… I just knew… he wasn’t Essiin. I did feel… feel something… special… about him. But I tried not to think about it! I was desperate to deny it! It could not be Petros who… who was doing this… this… unspeakable… thing… to me! I loved Petros! And I was hitting him and… screaming at him. And he was… And it hurt! He was hurting me! And I hated him! And I couldn’t… couldn’t make the… the right words… come out of my mouth! And I just gave up and… stopped thinking, stopped feeling. And it was suddenly over. And I just wished… wished he was dead, whoever he was!

“Then, afterward,” she continued in a moment, determinedly, “there was Jamie. And I told myself that at least Zakiya had Jamie and I could forget about Petros. But I couldn’t forget, no matter how hard I tried! I finally made myself examine the genetic code of my fetus. And it is… definitely… Zakiya’s granddaughter!”

“Aylis!” Zakiya declared. “What are you saying? Who is Petros now?”

“I could have told Etrhnk the truth!” Aylis said with self-hate. “I could have told him who his mother is! I could have stopped him from raping me! But I only wanted to deny the truth and hate him. I refused to believe sweet Petros could have become Etrhnk!

“Even after he was done with me, I could have told him. He even gave me Rafael’s portrait of Zakiya, and I could have said, ‘This is a picture of your mother.’ But I didn’t. I had to hate him. And I took my payment and left him to die! I killed him! I loved him! I killed Petros!”

/

Zakiya waited for Aylis to finish speaking, then she waited a little longer. Full awareness of reality cruelly cleared her thoughts. She looked at Direk and saw how sad he was and how exhausted from his medical duties.

Admiral Etrhnk is… my son, Petros. Zakiya understood now. Her reaction to this startling and calamitous news was dulled in comparison to the loss of Sammy and by her concern for Aylis. She also now thought about Freddy and was worried that he had not come to her to share her grief. She was well aware of how Freddy felt about Sammy and she knew it could be very bad for his mental health, perhaps even fatal. She had never known Petros as a real person. But she had known Sammy, and loved him with all her heart. And she had known Freddy and loved him as a real and very special son. Etrhnk was not that important to her, not right now. Aylis was important. Freddy was important.

Zakiya needed Aylis and the ship needed her. The future would lose most of its meaning if Aylis did not travel to it with her as the good friend she was. She turned to Aylis and tried to grasp each of her hands. Aylis resisted for a moment, causing their hands to flutter about, until Aylis looked up at Zakiya and tried to understand what she wanted. Zakiya took Aylis’s hands and pulled her close, then released her hands and embraced her.

= = =

The android was unwise to have twice let him live. He could have killed it either time. He should have. No. No logic in that, only an unethical urge. If it was an android, then it made little difference in the balance of his life’s accounts. But this was a person in a bloodless body. No, only a stream of thoughts in a soulless feedback loop of consciousness.

Etrhnk was plagued by such mental reversals. It began the first moment his attention was stolen by Admiral Fidelity Demba. He should have killed her. He couldn’t. It became worse when the musician Pan came into his personal presence. He should have killed him. He couldn’t. Then came Aylis Mnro…

He stood in the presence of the android, waiting for Pan to arrive. It occurred to him the android could be informative. “Why do you stand guard?” Etrhnk asked. “If I can find you, The Lady can.”

Fred flexed his fingers on the grip of his hand weapon, as if uncomfortable with its fit. He looked into Etrhnk’s eyes. “Perhaps she has never lost us,” Fred replied. “Why doesn’t she attack? I stand guard because I will not sleep.”

“Fred never sleeps,” Pan said, as he arrived through the trees. “If he sleeps, he dreams. The dreams disturb him.”

“Your journey is slow,” Etrhnk commented, “but it seems to have a direction. North.”

“We receive clues of dubious value, but they are consistent.”

She wishes to have visitors? Otherwise, you should be dead.”

“Would you object if I said I intend to kill her?”

Etrhnk could have been amused. Did Pan have any notion of the scope of The Lady’s power? Did he realize she could not be understood, could not be predicted? “I commend you for your ambition but see no chance of success.”

“She requested that I kill her,” Pan said.

“It doesn’t matter. You can’t trust her.”

“She seemed pleasant to me but I understand she is evil. If my life ends on this scenic journey in the company of my old friend Fred, then it’s a life well ended.”

“I would ask to join you,” Etrhnk said, “but they will have other plans for me.”

“Why did you let Zakiya live?” Pan asked. “I suspect you will pay a high price for that.”

Etrhnk waited several moments to reply. He didn’t think logical thoughts during this delay. He didn’t measure pressure differences between urges. Perhaps he felt emotions and perhaps not. If it was emotional to want knowledge, then that caused him to respond the way he did. “I don’t know why I let her live. She has some magical power over me. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter that I let her live because I would be dead soon in any case. Perhaps for the same foolish reason I let myself do terrible harm to another person, as though ethics have no meaning in the face of death. I’ve changed. The evil I’ve done weighs heavily on my every thought. If there is no hell after I die, there is this agony before I die. I confess that I came here either to take you with me into the dark, or to beg for any scrap of knowledge that would help explain my mysteries and my fate. I deserve nothing from you. I apologize for the drama my words imply. I apologize for forcing myself into your company and increasing your risk.”

Pan stared at him for a long time. Even the android seemed very thoughtful gazing at him. It made Etrhnk uncomfortable. He turned away, not understanding anything, even himself.

“Wait,” Pan said.

Etrhnk turned around slowly. The android raised his weapon to point it at Etrhnk’s head, his aim smoothly tracking his slightest motion.

“I warn you,” Etrhnk said, “that my actions are not well controlled at this point in my life. Your friend is wise to keep me in his sights.”

“Give me your hand,” Pan ordered.

The coercion bothered Etrhnk. It was disturbing him again, how his urges could swing so far from positive to negative. Perhaps he would never be able to feel even the possibility of friendship with this man, but he had felt comfortable in his presence, and now that was taken away. He couldn’t decide what to do.

“There is no threat,” Pan said. “Not from me. Fred does what he feels necessary. I may disagree with him but I am not his master.”

Pan held out his hand for Etrhnk to take. Etrhnk found no arguments in either direction and finally took Pan’s hand. He tightened his grip to equalize the force. He waited. After a moment of apparent inner disturbance, Pan released his hand. Emotion clouded his dark face.

“Is it him?” the android asked.

“Yes,” Pan answered sadly. “Petros.”

“I was told that name,” Etrhnk said, feeling something, and knowing he was supposed to feel something. He suspected that something would be both wonderful and terrible.

“I’ll explain what I can,” Pan said.

One Happy Thought

Aylis paced. In the small bridge of the admiral’s yacht, this activity could not go uncontested.

“You can get out and walk,” Mama said.

“Probably get there faster,” Aylis rejoined.

Jamie didn’t dare say anything. That her mother and Aylis were able to carry on, that was a miracle, and that was enough. She was afraid she would say the wrong thing and lose one or both of them to an episode of despair. She was with them, not because they invited her, but because she felt they were too fragile or too distracted and might need her help. They seemed to ignore her. She didn’t know if that meant they blamed her for the tragedy, but she would accept the blame. She couldn’t believe Sammy was gone. She couldn’t believe Freddy was gone. She hadn’t wept again today, not yet, but she could feel it coming. Tears kept pushing into the corners of her eyes.

“I just want to be finished with it!” Aylis declared. “Get them and go!”

“Jamie, you’re very quiet,” Mama observed, ignoring Aylis’s impatience.

Jamie shook her head, looked away, and said nothing. She was relieved Mama spoke to her. The caring tone of her voice, even in this time of her deep sorrow, seemed to complete and to strengthen the way she felt about her mother.

“Tell me one happy thought,” Mama asked. “I need a happy thought.”

“I want to have a baby.” It just erupted from somewhere deep inside her, surprising her. In this time of restricted procreation it was almost every woman’s dream to have a baby, and she had always known she was no exception. It was something else Direk had denied her: motherhood. She wept then, feeling sorry for everything.

Mama held her hand until she stopped crying. “That was a very good happy thought,” she said.

That was the only thing that helped Jamie: knowing Mama still loved her. The guilt for forcing the jumpship battle was killing her. The loss of Sammy was unbearable! The child had the magic ability to make everybody his friend, to make everybody care about him, and now he was gone forever.

The admiral’s yacht maneuvered slowly through the thickening debris, mostly composed of ice fragments, where the Oort clouds of three close stars mingled. The yacht bumped its way through a small condensation of dark ice, its starlight drive field offering slight protection to its crew from inertial disturbance. The three women were strapped into their seats bracing themselves to anticipate the next bump.

“There it is,” Mama said with relief.

Jamie didn’t see it at first in the window display as the yacht maneuvered into close proximity, then she picked out an unnatural curve rising from the flank of a floating mountain of ice. She recognized it as the rotating section of the lost ship – which had not rotated for a long time.

“Finally!” Aylis declared.

“How did they ever expect to get out?” Jamie said. “Buried, with the ice cloud shifting around them. They could have been smashed at any time. It’s almost as if they didn’t-.” Jamie stopped before finishing the terrible supposition. She noted the grim expressions that briefly registered on the faces of Mama and Aylis as each glanced at her. These two women were every bit as tough as Marines. But she wasn’t. She was a different person now, she was shaken, but she had to stay functional.

“They couldn’t have expected us to find them,” Mama said, agreeing with Jamie. “They had given up. This was their grave.”

The yacht was set to hold its position next to the old ship. The women winked to the chamber where stasis coffins held three of the men. Jamie walked in magnetic shoes and guided her floating mother and Aylis in zero gravity. They installed a target at which the Freedom could aim its transmat or its gate. Engineers and medics from the ship would determine how to move the stasis coffins and/or their contents to the hospital. Jamie guided Aylis and Mama into Patrick Jenkins’ stateroom.

The aged man was awake. “Go away, you damned ghosts! Quit haunting me!”

“He seems stronger,” Mama commented.

“Shut up, Patrick,” Aylis ordered. “We’re taking you with us.”

“The hell, you say! You’re not real, milady. See?”

“You grab my breast again,” Aylis warned, without sounding greatly offended, “and I’ll slap you into next week!” Jamie braced Aylis as she pushed the man’s hand away.

They picked Patrick Jenkins up from his bed. They gathered his tubes and medical contrivances. Once the sick old man was away from his bed, he could be floated in the microgravity. They moved him down the passageway.

“Wait!” Dr. Jenkins exclaimed. “I need my toothbrush!”

“Why?” Mama asked. “Your breath smells like you haven’t used it for fifty years.”

“Oh! That’s right! I use scotch for oral hygiene! Got any?”

“I knew I shouldn’t have come back here by cryptikon and adjusted his medication,” Aylis said. “You’re a little too excited, Pat. Please, calm down!”

They winked him into the admiral’s yacht, catching him in their arms as the light artificial gravity of the yacht took hold of them.

“Hey, this is different!” Jenkins declared, looking around.

“Keep your hands to yourself, Patrick,” Mama said, lifting one of his hands away from her chest.

“Are those my hands? I can’t be responsible! They must have a sex life of their own. Not me. My testes fell off about nine hundred years ago.”

“You must have grafted one to each hand,” Aylis commented. “I suppose you’ve fondled a long parade of barbarian females?”

“Join the parade!”

“I know where there’s a cold shower,” Mama said.

“And who is this lovely young lady?” he said, noticing Jamie for the first time.

“My daughter,” Mama answered reprovingly but with a smile.

“Been there, done that! Ready to do it again! What’s your name, Beautiful?”

“Jamie,” Jamie replied, not smiling but feeling better for some reason.

“What a fine Scottish name! I’m in love!”

“She’s a Navy captain and an ex-Marine,” Mama warned.

“I’m up to the challenge!”

= = =

A six-member Marine honor guard dressed in dark gray uniforms slow-marched into the chapel of the Freedom, one of them carrying a small polished steel urn. They halted and ritually passed the urn among them, to place it on the black velvet surface of a funeral bier they surrounded. They fell back to either side and silently came to attention.

Captain Jon Horss marched forward and took position behind the bier.

“At ease,” Horss ordered. Unrehearsed, the Marines only relaxed into a tentative parade-rest. “At ease,” Horss gently repeated, and the men tried to stand as relaxed as their full dress uniforms seemed to allow.

“Here are the ashes of Captain Direk,” Horss continued, “the Captain Direk. The man who gave his life that Admiral Demba and her son Sammy might escape a trap and return to us. Most of you understand by now that Captain Direk was a copy of the son of Aylis Mnro. But I had the good fortune to know him – not as well as I would have wished – and I just will never remember him as a copy! I may think of him as a twin, perhaps. But he was a real person!

“I’ve had to preside over, or attend, too many funerals for the Navy and the Marines. It is never easy, but I think this is a special funeral, because we – this crew – are more profoundly a family than any other ship on which I’ve served. We are a unique crew aboard a unique ship, with a mission which may have profound consequences for the human races.

“Know that Captain Direk will not be allowed to have died without receiving the expression of our full gratitude for his bravery.

“I would say more, but it would be repetitious. I yield this place of honor to others who would speak of Captain Direk.”

Of the few score of officers in the chapel there seemed to be many who started to rise but one person was striding down the aisle toward the bier, causing them to wait. It was Direk.

“Captain Direk,” Horss greeted, saluting him. Direk paused at attention and returned the salute. He turned around in front of the bier. He paused again, as two late arrivals – Zakiya and Aylis – entered the chapel and walked to the front row of pews. It seemed that Zakiya was urging Aylis along, as though Aylis did not want to attend the ceremony.

/

“We could expand this funeral or memorial,” Direk spoke quietly, watching the two women seat themselves just in front of him. “Captain Direk is not the only one of our crew to lose his life. His death is certainly less tragic than Sammy’s and not a bit more heroic. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about Sammy to properly speak of him. All I can say is that he was amazing and endearing and I am terribly saddened by his absence on this ship.

“Our Captain Direk,” he continued, “whose remains are in this urn, was a copy of the son of Doctor Mnro. He was one of four copies. He was the one who primarily helped Admiral Khalanov build the Freedom. The other three, along with the original Direk, labored, off and on, for two centuries building the jumpship modification that now encloses the Freedom. All of them were real people. All of them were very much Direk. I experienced many of their memories and their hopes and their desires. Although I can hardly be objective about my selves, I feel strongly that we should also remember them at this time. They are all dead now, all but me.

“Being a copy of Direk myself,” Direk said.

He hesitated as the statement caused the reactions he expected. He saw, however, that the woman he thought of as his mother – Aylis Mnro – leaned her face against Zakiya’s shoulder: an action that might show she did already know he was only a copy of her son. He had expected she would know and had not dared to confirm the fact, nor had she offered to comment on his status. He did not know if it made a difference to her, that he was only a copy. After personal eons of depriving himself of the introspection that could have illuminated and defined his emotions, he was only now wading into the deeper waters of emotion, and also finding the hormones of a new youth not very helpful for clarity.

“Being a copy of – in a sense – all of them – all of us – I can assure you this is no great tragedy,” Direk continued. “We did what we had to do. I dare say, we did what we loved to do. We shared our heartbreaks and our successes, and we died knowing that one of us would live on. I am not, of course, our first choice for survivor, but I also know it did not matter much to us. Existence is a miracle I fully appreciate, and multiple existences is even better. We are all here, in me, and we will live like we never lived before.”

Direk started to step away from the bier. He stopped when he saw Jamie enter the chapel. Jamie walked down the aisle to Zakiya and Aylis and leaned over to speak to them, placing a hand on Doctor Mnro’s shoulder.

“It’s alright,” Jamie said to Aylis. “It’s alright. He is still with us.”

Jamie stepped over to Direk and took his hand, leading him to a seat in the pew next to Aylis and Zakiya. Captain Horss continued the ceremony.

The easy part is over, Direk thought. Now we have to say goodbye to Sammy, and I wish I had known him.

Patrick

“I thoroughly enjoyed the meeting,” Mai commented, “although it was disconcerting, watching all of you become possessed by your auxiliary memories as you remembered Patrick.”

“I hope we gave you a better impression of Pat,” Aylis said. “He isn’t – or wasn’t – what he now appears to be.”

“But you have to admit, he was a daring and outspoken man. I can’t believe how many times he risked his life on account of some specimen of alien life he wanted to study.”

“Yes, and he always claimed to be a coward. Are you certain of your diagnosis, Mai? I still feel there’s something wrong with him.”

“How can anything be right with him?” Mai asked. “The human brain never ceases to amaze me. Think of what Sammy must have suffered, in addition to what we know he suffered, and yet he was such a sweet person.” Mai stopped and joined the others in a moment of renewed sorrow. She briefly squeezed Zakiya’s hand, then resumed. “Patrick’s scans remain normal. I have high hopes for him.”

“How many years was he alone on that ship, waiting to die?” Phuti Mende spoke. “Does that show up on a scan?”

= = =

It was impossible that he was still alive. He was sure he remembered giving up and falling into the darkness of death. Yet he dreamed. Or did he continue as a ghost, only to be haunted by other ghosts? Women, so many beautiful ghostly women! They made him think he was thinking. They made him feel he was feeling. He was feeling fear. He was thinking enigmas. Neither science nor faith offered a solution to the question of whether he lived or did not. All he could do was begin to pay attention to the disturbances out there, the beautiful women and their beautiful voices. All he could do was yearn for rebirth, even while he feared the consequences. But…

It was impossible to begin, and so he greatly regretted that he was, perhaps, conscious again. It was impossible to form new relationships. New friendships were beyond even imagining. It was impossible to speak, and to say anything that meant anything. It was impossible to be serious, impossible to be funny, impossible even to be truthful, because the truth was so dangerous. Yet, he had to take the next breath, and open his eyes, and see the impossible, and do what was merely and possibly real.

“Is everyone pregnant around here?” It was just something to say. It seemed harmless, pointless, silly: just the way he was. She wasn’t obviously pregnant the first time he saw her, and so that must have been weeks ago. Now she was surely pregnant. Now he was disappointed. It was a mystery that he should feel that way, until he saw the other Asian woman. What ancient experiences haunted his brain to raise an awareness of a fondness for women with narrow brown eyes?

“You finally noticed?” She gave him a smile for encouragement.

Bless her! He almost couldn’t bear to keep looking at her. She seemed so real. His eyes seized upon the smallest detail, such as a strand of hair that escaped to tickle her nose, to be brushed back with the tip of her little finger. He had to look away, stare at the ceiling, glance over at the other woman, take a deep breath, and use the breath stupidly with ugly words.

“Such a great disappointment.” He cringed to listen to himself. “All the pretty ones. Well, not quite all. Who is the very young lass by the door?” He knew who she might be, although the name would not come to him. He was appalled he asked of her, especially if, by some miracle, she was who he wished her to be. He was certain that one was always beyond his reach. It was the pinnacle of self-delusion to imagine she was that one – the one he thought he remembered, thought he wanted, thought he would someday… He almost wanted to laugh – or cry – at the crazy things his mind entertained.

“When will you get control of yourself, Dr. Jenkins?”

Never, apparently! He snatched his hand back from where it wandered. “So sorry! Please call me Pat. What’s your name?”

“I’m Dr. Sugai. This is the third time I’ve told you.”

“I don’t care about doctor this and doctor that. What’s your name? Why can’t I know your name? I want to know your name!”

“My name is Mai.”

Oh, miserable fool! Must I act so poorly? “I knew that! I heard the other pregnant one call you that. May I call you Mai? I want to call you Mai. Does your husband know you’re flirting with me?”

He hoped she knew he was a harmless idiot. No, he hoped the opposite. He was never serious enough to be dangerous. He couldn’t even appear to be dangerous, but he needed to be at least possibly dangerous, thus to sound the warning.

“I was warned to stay out of your reach,” Mai said sternly but mildly, “but it’s difficult to tend your needs without getting closer than that. My husband is the captain of this ship. If you wish to have business with him when we release you from the hospital, then you may continue to put your hands where they don’t belong. But I don’t consider that flirting with you.”

“Do they still make captains as tough as they used to?” Patrick Jenkins inquired, trying for light humor.

“I don’t know,” Sugai Mai answered. “And I suspect my husband would treat you kindly. But he’s the kind of person you will not want to disappoint!”

Patrick tried to remember if violence still frightened him, but gave up. However, he really hated to disappoint people. Good. He would try to refrain from his distasteful act. It was just that touching was important right now: a test of reality. “My profound apologies, Mai. I shall try much harder to control my hands. Boy or girl?”

“What? My baby? I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?”

“I don’t want to know!”

“Well, I want to know!”

“If someone tells you, don’t tell me, Pat!”

She was interesting to talk with. It was sad that his own novelty would soon wear off and she would become scarce. That summed up his social essence: entertaining for a while, then, if the other person wasn’t interested in exotic plants and animals, he was finished. He felt a rush of warmth. “What did you just put in me?”

“Something to calm you.”

“Good stuff. Got any scotch?”

“Do you know where you are?”

Heaven! Hell? “Does it matter? Am I somewhere? I was nowhere forever. If there’s no scotch I must still be in hell.”

“You’re on the Freedom.”

“What’s that? A ship? What type? How big?” He didn’t want to know, he really did not want to know!

“A very, very big ship.”

“How many feet for each very? Can I walk around in it?”

“You can walk for miles, as soon as we finish repairing your age damage.”

Can I just shut my mouth and try to think of safer topics? “That big? What classification? How fast?” Apparently I can not shut my mouth, torn between the growing desire for social contact and the fear it is real!

“This isn’t my area of interest,” Mai answered, “but I don’t believe it has a Navy classification.”

“How fast? How quiet? That’s the important thing.”

“It’s the fastest ship in the galaxy.”

“Can’t be faster than a barbarian jumpship!”

“Yes, it can.”

“Can it, now?” So, I’m dreaming after all. Good. It’s safer to be in a dream. Dismiss it. Don’t think about ships and barbarians.

“There is always some question about what is real and what is dream, Patrick. Even in those of us who think we know. How did you survive all those years beyond the frontier?”

“Did I survive?”

“Yes, you did.”

Patrick shook his head slowly. No, I didn’t!

“Here, hold my hand,” Mai said. “My hand is real. I’m real. My name is Sugai Mai. I was the director of the Mnro Clinic on Earth. Doctor Mnro asked me to accompany her on this ship, and since I was also in love with its captain, I came willingly. More or less. Tell me something about what you did.”

NO! And she feels so real! “Me? I did nothing! The two heroes went out and got themselves killed and Koji retrieved them and he and I put them back together and sent them out again. I’m only a biologist, not a trauma surgeon! Go to sleep in a coffin, then wake up to nightmare. I had to give up on them. I had to rest. Had to ambush Koji. Took me years to gather the courage. Just me and him. Put all three in coffins. They scared me. Read some of their logs, the ones I could unlock. They stopped telling me of their adventures. I wept for them.”

“But it wasn’t all bad, was it? You made a recording of the four of you singing.”

Yes! I remember! So few good memories. And that was when it all ended. No more hope. What a liar I need to be! “I don’t want to remember.”

“You rest now, Pat. This is giving you too much stress. There’s a lot of repair work for us to do. I’ll see you again soon.”

Wait. I have to know if it is her. “The lass over there. You never told me her name.”

“That’s Nori. You don’t remember Nori?”

Nori! “Remember? Why should I have remembered? To hurt more?”

“Can you not imagine that you left people behind, Pat? Nori is one of them.”

= = =

“I was expecting the pretty pregnant one. Mai.” He said it almost petulantly, then recognized who had entered his hospital room. Oh, no! Please! Don’t let it be Phuti!

“I’m not pretty and I’m not pregnant, that’s true, but I have my charms, Patrick. How are you doing?”

I’m lying, lying, lying! “Are you somebody else we left behind?” He continued his act, but he was not good at acting, never had been.

“Yes. My name is Phuti. We knew each other for decades. How are you doing?”

I don’t dare touch him. I don’t want to wake up! “I’m doing grandly. How are you doing?” I’m lying grandly. Sorry, Phuti.

“I’m well, Patrick.”

Only well? Yes, everyone is a little sad around here. “I saw Nori. Do you know Nori? She wouldn’t talk to me.”

“She doesn’t speak much to anyone yet.”

“Why?”

“A period of adjustment. She also had the misfortune to awaken from rejuvenation in the midst of trouble.”

“Trouble?” Why do I keep presenting questions to which I do not want answers?

“We were boarded by barbarians,” Phuti said.

“Barbarians? Which barbarians? Not those Fleet barbarians?”

“Yes. Three of them. They were killed.”

“Oh, no! Where are we now? We aren’t in one of their traffic lanes?”

“No, no. Don’t be alarmed. We’re safe, Patrick.”

“We are?”

“Word of honor.”

Hell and Damnation, my old friends, you are back. The dream is over. “Nori is here!” You are endangering her!

“How do you remember Nori?” Phuti asked, frowning. “They told me you didn’t seem to remember any of us.”

“They say she’s Koji’s daughter.” Patrick didn’t remember if they had told him. “Koji won’t remember her. That’s good, or bad, I don’t know. Those three women who took me off the ship?”

“Yes. Aylis, Zakiya, Jamie.”

“They haven’t come to see me. I need to apologize, seriously.”

“You don’t remember those you left behind, Patrick? No one?”

“How can we have been so crazy to leave such beautiful creatures in our wake? What kind of idiot monsters are we?” At least that was heartfelt if too melodramatic. Patrick, my boy, you are saying things just to hear the noise and not the meaning. I want desperately to be safely insane. Why is Phuti making me speak so much? It is safer to say nothing. Lying requires too much concentration.

But Patrick yearned for that old friendship more with each second that he stayed in the presence of this modest anthropologist. His memory was questionable after so many years, yet he would never forget Phuti.

“I don’t think you intended to stay away so long, Patrick.”

“Damned right! How many damn centuries did I beg the damn wrecking crew to turn the damn ship around? How the hell did you find us?”

“Cryptikon, Patrick. Remember, you had two of them on your ship?”

“I thought they were just the toys of the gods.”

“What do you think will happen,” Phuti asked, “when they revive Alex and Koji and Setek?”

When they revive them? They are going to revive the monsters? Phuti is the ultimate friend anyone could ever have. Can I scream in his face? Sorry, Phuti. I’m done lying to you but that leaves me nothing more to say.

= = =

Finally! Why didn’t you come sooner?” I didn’t need to ask it that way! I am an old and impatient fool. And I am speaking to a lady!

“I’m sorry, Patrick. I haven’t felt well.”

You are still as beautiful as I remember you, Zakiya! “I hope you’re feeling better now.” He tried to sound as sincere as he thought he was. “I apologize for how I acted when you took me off the ship. I deeply and sincerely apologize.”

“Apology accepted, Patrick.”

Why isn’t she happy to see me? Was my apology unwanted? Did I make such a fool of myself in my initial panic to deny their reality, and if they were real, to try to protect them? “I hope you can spare me a few words,” Patrick said. “Nobody will talk with me very long. I fear I bore them. I slip in and out of feeling I’m in a dream. I want to know that I’m safe and sane and awake.” Perhaps I do want those things, if only to get unstuck. I am suffocating in denial of reality and responsibility. I am whiplashed by the restraint of joy and by the fear of impending tragedy, when murderers are brought back to life. I am tormented by the guilt for a life badly lived. I need judgment of my life and final disposition of my soul.

“We think you’re doing very well, Patrick. What do you want to talk about?”

“That depends.” That depends on courage. If it was only my own life to risk, I could do it. I found the courage once to put Koji away. That was nothing compared to this. Phuti. Aylis. Zakiya. Nori! Even the irascible Iggy. How can I save them?

“Depends on what?” Zakiya asked.

“On trust. And you can’t trust me!”

“I want to trust you, Patrick. Why do you think I shouldn’t?”

“I don’t trust myself! I’m a liar. I’m a participant in crimes.”

“I can’t judge you, Patrick. I have my own burden of guilt to bear.”

It pained him to see the truth of her statement in her eyes. A life too long lived served both of them badly. Given enough time, what poor choices could be avoided? None. He was still stuck, not between heaven and hell, but between Hell One and Hell Two. Then she took one of his hands, making him look down at her hand holding his. It was too real, too desirable, and too undeniable. He started to shake.

He pulled away from her as a wave of vertigo struck him. He heard a medical alarm. In a few seconds Nori appeared in the hospital room, followed soon by Mai. Nori checked him quickly, before stepping aside for Mai.

“There’s nothing wrong physically,” Mai concluded.

But everything wrong mentally! He gave up denial. He began to take responsibility. “I remember you singing,” Patrick said. He couldn’t look at her anymore. He couldn’t look at any of them.

“You remember me?” Zakiya queried.

“I never forgot you!”

“Why did you pretend not to remember, Patrick?” He just shook his head and closed his eyes. She let him have his self-pity. “I wish we could both be happier finding each other again, Patrick.”

= = =

“That was one reason I wanted Mai to come with us,” Aylis said. “She has experience with patients with aberrant behavior, with traumatic injuries. I assumed that, if they survived physically, they might not have survived emotionally. The stress had to be monumental, like being in combat for a century. There are things Mai can do to soothe their brain chemistry. We don’t want to fix them, not at this stage. The medical protocols require extensive evaluations we don’t have the personnel and the patient history to perform.”

“You’re starting with Koji?” Zakiya asked.

“After Patrick, Koji will take the longest to repair. All three will be in treatment at the same time. As we progress, I will have nearly a hundred specialists in training for trauma and regenerative surgery.”

“They have physical augments,” Mai commented, reminding them of another danger.

“Mostly combat-related,” Aylis said. “Shall I remove them?”

“No, I have another idea,” Zakiya said.

“I heard you ordered Iggy to install a hundred cannons in the ship,” Aylis said.

“The cannons may not be important. Time is important. It will take time to acquire raw material and to manufacture them. More time to modify the ship for them.”

“The cannons are only a delay?”

“I hope they’re never used,” Zakiya said. “With time, our wounds will heal, our anger soften, and new possibilities for action may arise. It will also give us time to follow your medical protocols with Alex and Setek and Koji. Perhaps the arming of the ship will focus their minds. They’ll plan to take over the ship. That will, at least, give us the will to try to heal their personalities, and a deadline before which to do it.”

“You think they will try to take the ship?” Aylis asked. “Yes, of course they will! I keep forgetting who they’ve become and remembering who they were. This is so terrible!”

= = =

“Why are you pregnant?” Patrick inquired bluntly, since he was not sharp enough to do it cleverly.

“So you do have something to say,” Aylis said. Pat had said so little to her, she who had known him best. She had been his fellow expert in the life sciences. He had led her to important discoveries in human biology through comparative studies of alien life. He didn’t know yet that without his research during the Frontier voyages she probably would not have founded the Mnro Clinics. Aylis had taken all the credit and had become the “Mother of Immortality.” But someday she would distribute credit to all of the others who deserved it.

Aylis walked among the flowers, followed by Patrick who, despite the serenity around them, seemed anxious. Aylis took his hand and led him through the English garden at a leisurely pace. She patted the back of his hand absently, comfortingly. He seemed to relax a little, but he kept looking at her in puzzlement with his bright green eyes.

/

“You couldn’t have wanted it,” he remarked. That Aylis was raped disturbed Patrick deeply. He even felt responsible in some way. Patrick knew he and the other three shouldn’t have stayed in barbarian space so long, thus prompting Aylis and Zakiya to risk their lives in search of them. Alex, Setek, and Koji had lost perspective and soon after had lost the real meaning of their lives. Whether their rescue would be a rebirth or an abortion remained to be decided. That two unborn children should be so close to what might become an extremely dangerous situation was a terrible risk.

/

“The baby?” Aylis asked. “No, I didn’t want it at first.” Where had he got those green eyes? Aylis had always wondered. Patrick was an animal as exotic as any he had studied in the far reaches of space. She never heard a true word about his parentage but she knew he was no pure Scotsman. It occurred to her that she should be able to find his lineage in the database of the Mnro Clinics, if she would ever gain access to it again. He was slender and brown. When his hair grew back it would be sandy and curly. Patrick fell silent, perhaps because he sensed the tension the subject of her fetus caused. “Tell me about your travels, Pat. Did you find any interesting creatures?”

/

“Nothing much.” Patrick had lived and breathed the medical science needed to keep his friends alive – at least in their bodies. They were so aggressive in their investigations, Patrick could find little time for anything else. He had to find periods of relaxation and recuperation and isolation from the other three, in order to be ready to face the nightmare responsibility of repairing them. He had slept much of his life away, sealed in a stasis coffin until Koji would wake him.

“But your journeys covered such a vast volume of space,” Aylis said. “There was even a vein of habitable planets mentioned in your logs.

“They would bring me specimens – when they thought about it.”

“They wouldn’t let you take field trips, Pat?”

“No. I spent most of my time in stasis.”

“You must have done something. You could never let your brain stop wondering. Like the rest of us, we always find questions to try to answer.”

“I did some anthropology, Aylis.”

/

He seemed unwilling to speak at length, unlike the old Pat who would always go on until you made him stop. She had to keep telling herself that no matter how familiar her old friends might seem to be, they were also new friends, and different. “Phuti and Zakiya will want to know everything about that! So will I. Give me a sample.”

“The diaspora of the human genome is much larger than we theorized.” Pat frowned. “It’s like a plague. There is also good evidence of an active non-human sentient species present in the galaxy. Perhaps along another collision seam on the other side of the hub.” Patrick stopped and pulled his hand away from Aylis’s hand. “You will resist them, won’t you?”

“Koji and Setek and Alex? We’ll be careful.”

Careful? You have no idea! Have you read their logs? You need to rewire their brains! Now! Before you turn them loose!”

“We don’t want to discuss them with you, Pat. It’s for your own safety. We know they’re dangerous. We also get the understanding from reading their logs that they may not remember us.”

“I barely remember you myself!”

“Eventually I will have to test your memory, Pat. You and I and the others of our age are at the forward edge of a great human experiment. We are learning, as we live to an advanced age, how the human brain will retain its memories and other functions.”

“I do remember you, Aylis. I remember all of you. I don’t trust any details of what I seem to remember but I do trust the feelings I have for you. I warn you again: don’t trust any of us!”

“Pat, give yourself time to get to know us again and learn what we had to do to find you. Perhaps you won’t feel as worried as you do now. No matter how terribly life has changed them, we intend to do everything we can to heal Setek, Alex, and Koji.”

They resumed their walk, turning down the hillside toward the lake.

“How much farther, Aylis?” Patrick questioned impatiently. “My legs are tiring.”

“Just a little farther around the lake. You can see it from here.”

They completed the walk to a cluster of apartments near the lake. Aylis showed Patrick his residence. When they finished the tour of his rooms, Pat dropped into a soft chair. He was perspiring. Aylis went to the kitchen, filled a glass with water, and brought it to him.

“This is water!” Patrick pulled the tumbler away from his mouth with a frown and set it down.

“I’ve done a bad thing, Pat. I added something to your plumbing to temporarily circumvent any attempt on your part to become intoxicated. But you can still enjoy the taste of scotch, if that’s important to you.”

Damn, woman! Oblivion is important to me! Continuous reality is probably lethal to someone as sensitive as I am!”

Aylis laughed. “What you need is a friend, not a bottle of scotch.”

“I lost interest in relationships when Iggy took Ana away from me.”

“You were never that interested in serious female relationships, Pat.”

“Maybe not. I think Iggy rescued me from disaster. How is Iggy? How well does he remember Ana? I want to talk to him.”

“Get some rest and I’ll see if Iggy will pay you a visit tonight.”

Aylis got up to leave. Patrick stood to show her to the door. “There are some things,” Pat said, “I used to do to them when I was putting them back together, to lower their level of hostility. If you have to revive them, I want to help.”

Koji

“Can you hear me?”

“Patrick?”

“Do you know who you are?”

“I am Hoshino Koji. You tricked me, Patrick!”

“I hoped you would forget that.”

“I was getting old enough to die. You could have waited.”

“You were too quiet, Koji. You scare me when you’re quiet.”

“Are we not friends, Patrick? If I frightened you I am a poor friend and I apologize. Who won the game?”

“What game?”

“I don’t remember. There was always a game. Am I still old? I feel too weak to move.”

“Try again, Koji.”

“Yes. I can move. I don’t remember if you had the necessary supplies to make me younger. I don’t remember the memory editing.”

“No, I didn’t have what we needed. There was no need for memory editing. I simply put you in stasis.”

“Then I should not be awake. Or alive.”

“Neither should I, Koji.

“Now you frighten me. And your Japanese is too good.”

“I’ve had practice. I don’t believe you can be frightened, Koji.”

“It’s dark. I can barely see your heat shape. I thought I lost infrared. Why did you bother to fix it?”

“I didn’t. Do you feel ready to live again, Koji?”

“I feel intrigued, Patrick.”

Zakiya stood up as the illumination increased. She was encouraged by the calmness of the dialog between Patrick and Koji. She was encouraged by the lowered intensity and frequency of her memories of Koji. She was sadly satisfied that she was so exhausted of emotion that she could treat Koji’s revival with objectivity. She lost Sammy. And because he grieved too well, because she couldn’t find words to console him, she lost Freddy. She was angry that time was inexorably whittling away at her grief, not allowing her the punishment she deserved.

She approached where Koji lay, watched him begin to rise from the bed, and waited for him to notice her. She could detect the instant he saw her and could not detect a reaction. He sat up on the edge of the bed, legs dangling, then dropped onto the deck. He flexed his legs. He stood slightly taller than Patrick. He faced Patrick, ignoring her.

“Introduce me to her,” Koji said to Patrick.

“She isn’t one of our holograms, Koji.”

Koji pushed Patrick, sending him stumbling backward. Patrick held up a hand as a signal to Zakiya that he wasn’t concerned. He had warned her that physical contact – sometimes rough – was needed by Koji and the others to test reality when they awoke from regeneration. Koji looked at Zakiya. He studied the room, which was little more than white walls and ceiling surrounding the bed on which he awoke. He approached her.

Her combat reflex was active, measuring Koji’s parameters. She would not need it; a machine intelligence monitored Koji for signs of aggression and would anesthetize him instantly.

Koji was a big man, lean and powerful. He looked down at her as he walked around her. He positioned himself before her at a measured distance. He put forth his hand, apparently for her to take. Zakiya reached for his hand slowly and took it slowly, willing her combat reflex to disarm. Koji held her hand firmly and stared into her eyes without hinting at his own thoughts or feelings. He suddenly pulled on her hand and observed her reaction. He smiled when she easily retained her balance and composure.

“What is this uniform you wear?” Koji asked – in Japanese. “What is your rank?”

“Union Navy. Admiral.” Here is Koji, a stranger, who yet evokes wonderful memories from a lost time and place. “My name is Zakiya.” She spoke Japanese. It did not seem to surprise him. She moved his hand up and down. She was ready to release his hand, but he was not ready to release hers.

“You know me,” Koji said. “I don’t know you.”

“I once knew a man whose face you wear and whose name you use.”

“Do I need to guess who you are? Zakiya is a strange name.”

“My full name is Zakiya Muenda Gerakis.”

“Three names. Three times nothing. Are you just an admiral? Is that all there is to you?”

“Do you remember Alex?”

He released her hand. He touched her face. He backed away from her to look her up and down. “Sometimes I remember that name. We have many names. We have many faces. Patrick! This is taking too long! Who is she?”

“His wife,” Patrick replied.

“His wife,” Koji repeated, then his Asian eyes widened. “His?”

Patrick nodded when Koji glanced at him. “Perhaps I should restrain my impulses,” he said. “The question of reality is a troubling question. You must be important, His Wife. Admiral. No fear in your eyes for the likes of me. Perhaps tears?”

“I’m sorry, Koji. I thought an old friend was reborn. It may be a stillbirth.”

“Emotions will get you killed. Don’t weep for me.”

“Without emotions we’re already dead.”

“I agree. I’m dead. If I appear to be alive, it’s only momentum. Show me where I am.”

The room’s walls and ceiling disappeared, as image emitters created the illusion that the floor and those standing on it were winked to the middle of the ship’s commons.

“This is the main biosphere of our ship,” Zakiya said. “It’s the principle residential area and covers about six square kilometers. That’s the hospital over there, where we currently stand in real space.”

“Impressive, but I don’t like illusions. I want to walk. I’m also hungry.”

“Let’s walk,” she invited.

The sterile room returned, enclosing them in white. Zakiya showed Koji to the door. He stopped in the corridor outside the room and surveyed the people who stood waiting for them to pass. He bowed to them and proceeded. Near the main entrance Koji paused briefly as he noticed Nori standing alone in a lounge area, watching him.

“Did you see someone you know?” Zakiya asked as they emerged onto the plaza and into morning sunshine.

“A young woman who was pleasing to the eye. Should I know her?”

“She’s your daughter.”

“I have no daughter.”

“Her name is Nori.”

“Do you remember her, Patrick?”

“I was told that is she,” Patrick responded. “She hasn’t spoken to me, however.”

“Who else is on this ship to weaken us?” Koji demanded. “We don’t go to war with our children!”

“I have bad news for you on that point, Koji,” Patrick said. “There are over ten thousand people on this ship, most of whom were recently civilians, and a few of them are children. And pregnant women.”

“This is no warship! Not with trees and lakes! At least it appears real!”

“Real and fast, Koji,” Patrick said with enthusiasm. “This is a jumpship!”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t offer so many facts so soon, Patrick,” Zakiya said.

“And that’s all I know about the ship,” Patrick quickly added.

“You command this ship, Zakiya?” Koji asked.

“I command the mission.”

“It jumps, like those of the barbarian Fleet?”

“Yes.”

“That would seem impossible! What armaments do you have?”

“None. Yet.”

Koji walked off at a rapid pace. Zakiya jogged to catch up to him. Patrick turned back.

“You’re being monitored, Koji,” she warned. “Don’t act like a barbarian.”

Koji stopped and turned on Zakiya. “I kill barbarians! You are the people I protect!”

They resumed walking.

“Koji, you don’t remember your daughter. Do you know why?”

“No.”

“Do you want to know why?”

“No.”

“Do you want to know your daughter?”

“No.”

“Do you know what you want, Koji?”

“The next dead barbarian!”

“Nothing more?”

“Are you trained to practice psychiatry?”

“Are you capable of humor, Koji?”

Zakiya had a long list of suggestions from Mai concerning Koji’s mental health. She felt incapable of such analysis. She was barely able to continue the conversation while under attack by her auxiliary memory. It was not as quiet as she hoped it would be. She had known Koji for decades, during and after the Frontier voyages.

“Patrick wasted much time at psychotherapy,” Koji said. “I know I’m mentally damaged. Talking won’t repair me. If you didn’t reprogram or surgically alter my brain, I remain capable of doing what I must do.”

“Will you never be happy again, Koji?”

“I’m happy when I kill barbarians.”

“You were the rescuer, the retriever.”

“The barbarians call me the Executioner. Alex and Setek insert themselves into situations to gather intelligence. If things go wrong, I extract them by any means necessary.”

“You had the worst job, Koji.”

“I had lost subtlety and patience. I can’t see a barbarian and not try to kill him.”

“Will this be another insertion for them, Koji?”

“Perhaps. I suppose you will resist their intentions.”

“You will rescue them?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think they will do when we bring them back to life?”

“All I know is that they have paid too much to become what they are. They will die the final death before they quit!”

Zakiya walked with Koji and thought for a moment. “What would I mean to Alex, Koji?”

“I don’t know. I only know we must defeat the barbarians. Perhaps you would be a good thing for Alex. There are too many barbarians. We can never kill them all.”

“Can you see any possibility of a different kind of life for Alex and Setek?”

“The barbarians must be defeated.”

“What is your opinion of how damaged Alex and Setek are?”

“Damaged? If you insist on calling them Alex and Setek then, yes, they are ruined. If you call them the Questioner and the Torturer then they are slightly damaged. I’m not a reliable source of this information. I’ve existed too long, seen too much. It runs together in a red blur. A brief moment of clarity. You want to know if there’s anything that remains of the men you once knew.”

“Is there?”

“There may seem to be. It will be interesting to watch.”

Zakiya felt hopelessness settle into her abdomen, like a hunger that might never end. “Are you still hungry, Koji?” she asked.

Koji halted his rapid strides abruptly. “My stomach is empty, but I feel strong.” He looked out over the lake and back at the village commons. “This is a very large biosphere. The ship is larger than a carrier! Patrick said it was a jumpship.” Koji turned to Zakiya. “You’re beautiful. I must have a wife, if I have a daughter.”

“She died two centuries ago,” Zakiya answered reluctantly. Koji took her reply impassively, then wavered slightly. “Sit down, Koji! You look a little weak.”

“This has never happened before. I must be getting too old to rejuve. What did you do to me?”

“We looked for you,” Zakiya replied. “I don’t know if we found you.”

“I’ll sit, “Koji said, reaching for the ground as his knees folded under him. “Her name is Nori. What good will that do? There are too many barbarians!”

Zakiya sat down next to Koji in the green grass by the path from the commons. She put her arm around his waist and listened to his random thoughts spoken aloud. Presently Nori came and sat down on the other side of Koji. Koji stopped talking. He didn’t look at his daughter but seemed very aware of her.

“Is anything left of him?” Nori asked.

“I can’t be objective enough to trust my opinion,” Zakiya said. “But pessimism is a hindrance I can’t accept.”

“I’ll be optimistic with you, Aunt Zakiya,” Nori said.

“I want to eat,” Koji said, now impatient to rise and continue the walk. Zakiya took his elbow to aid his rise but he pulled it away and sprang upward.

They walked to Zakiya’s nearby apartment. Zakiya and Nori prepared a meal. While he waited for the food, Koji looked around the apartment and found an image projector. He turned it on and saw a holographic view of a child.

“This child has some Asian features,” Koji commented, “but perhaps also European. Who is he?”

“That’s Sammy,” Nori answered, when Zakiya didn’t respond.

“His leg was injured. What happened to him?”

“It’s better that we not talk about Sammy,” Nori urged.

“He’s your child? My daughter won’t talk to me about my grandson?”

“I’ve never had a child, Father. This is Zakiya’s residence. Sammy was her child.”

“Not related to her, I think. Was? Dead now?”

“Father, please.”

“Dead, then. How did he die?”

“Father.”

“I’m your father. Perhaps. How did Sammy die?”

“He was killed by a barbarian.”

Barbarian? Where?”

“Here. In this ship.”

“How many were there?”

“Three.”

“How?”

“Their jumpship embedded in our hull and we disabled it. The barbarians transmatted into the ship and tried to kill as many of us as they could.”

“How many?”

“Only Sammy.”

“He couldn’t be repaired?”

“Extreme brain trauma.”

“We’re making His Wife weep,” Koji observed. “Why is this child so important to her?”

“Why is any child important? She loved him.”

“The barbarians, did they survive?”

“There weren’t enough stasis units to store them until they could be repaired.”

“You have their ship?”

“Yes.”

“Was their data intact?”

“I don’t know.”

“His Wife! Was their data intact?”

“Yes,” Zakiya answered.

“You know their routes! You know their home base!”

“Yes.”

“We’ve spent two centuries trying to gather this data, and you have it for the cost of a dead child. Excellent! Two centuries of hell. Not excellent. Dead child. Tragedy. Why do I still exist? Why am I still hungry?”

Zakiya brought food to the table and set it before Koji. He started to eat, then stopped. “Alex and Patrick often prayed before a meal. In two hundred years how many small things become important?” Koji prayed silently, eyes closed, hands pressed together. “You don’t eat with me?” Koji asked, and stuffed a ball of rice into his mouth with his fingers.

“I’ll have some tea,” Zakiya said.

“I’ll make it,” Nori said.

Nori prepared a pot of tea for the three of them. She served the tea, then sat next to Zakiya opposite her father.

“I haven’t heard you speak a word since we pulled you and Phuti out of the Five Worlds,” Zakiya said to Nori. “It’s nice to have you back.”

“The auxiliary memory is difficult to manage, as you know,” Nori responded. “I didn’t realize I would have it!”

They watched Koji eat. He ate with ferocity and few manners.

“I’m fascinating, I know,” Koji remarked of their stares. He belched and put forth his cup for more tea. Nori poured. Koji drank. “A little walk, a little food, and now I need a nap.”

= = =

“He walks everywhere, learning the ship,” Jon commented. “He talks with everyone. Except for a rough edge to his manners, he seems well adjusted and purposeful. It’s easy to like him.”

“He’s trying very hard to be someone he isn’t,” Zakiya said. “He’s scouting the ship for Alex and Setek.”

“I suppose we must expect the worst of him. But if he’s a sample of what’s to come when Setek-Ren and your husband wake up, we may have a battle for the loyalty of the crew.”

“I saw him interacting with children yesterday and I was amazed at his rapport.”

“He’s popular with the Marines. Every day he spends some time with them, either telling war stories or helping them train to fight. That’s a key step along the path to subverting our command structure.”

“The Marines understand loyalty. They understand the imperatives of command. However, most of our uniformed crew were recently civilians, and might be susceptible to recruitment by men of such fame and power.”

“I’m concerned for you, Zakiya. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I feel the same for you, Jon.”

“These were great men,” Horss stated, “highly moral and intelligent. How far could they be turned from their basic natures?”

“That’s my greatest fear: that I will never believe they are not who they were when I last knew them,” Zakiya said. “I love my husband through memories that are too sharp and fresh. My judgment will be impaired.”

“I feel uneasy,” Horss admitted.

“I can’t ask you to risk your life against Alex, Jon. Also, there’s the possibility that he knows how to defeat the barbarians.”

“You won’t have to ask. It’s my job. Do you know how we might defeat them – the barbarians?”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

“The Lady in the Mirror?”

“Perhaps.”

“They awake tomorrow?”

Alex and Setek

“Don’t be concerned,” Koji said. “I’ll protect you.”

“Will you protect me, too?” Patrick asked. “One at a time would have been better.”

“Why is there any concern?” Aylis asked. “You gave us no trouble, Koji.”

“They usually wake thinking they’re still at the moment they last remember,” Patrick replied, “which was a very bad moment that last time.”

Zakiya stood next to where Alex lay. She had already touched him, trying to release some of the emotional pressure she felt. The emotion was not joy; there was no joy after Sammy’s death, after Freddy’s death. She could hardly tolerate remembering the joy-like thrill of her past fantasies of what this moment could be like. Yet there remained a powerful mix of feelings that she knew was anchored by love. If the love was made too real by the technical precision of her memories, she would not care. She would seize what she could of the moment, short of joy.

“They’re conscious now,” Patrick said. “They won’t do anything for a few moments. They trust nothing, not even their own thoughts. Koji and I say some crude things to stop them from thinking too much.”

“This is Koji! Be nice, you stupid fools! Everything is different this time. Those we left behind have found us! You had wives. Alex, yours is Zakiya. Setek, yours is Aylis. You lucky bastards! Be very nice! Or I will punish you!”

The two men remained still.

“How would they react to my voice?” Zakiya asked.

Alexandros Gerakis turned his head to the side, toward the sound of her voice and opened his eyes. Blue irises moved wildly for a second, then locked and focused on her face. Eyelids narrowed, frown lines deepened, muscles strained against the invisible bonds of the examination table. Zakiya tried to see some hint of manner and expression that would connect him to vivid memories of the husband she had lost. It was too soon. He was like a caged wild animal or at best a man waking from nightmare.

She touched his face, willing love to flow into him and ease his pain. His lungs filled full in a rush. He tried to speak but all that came out against the pressure in his lungs was a faint cry. She put her fingers against his lips, stopping the sound.

“Release him,” she ordered.

“Back away,” Koji said. “I don’t want him grabbing you.”

The invisible restraints ceased to hold Alex to the bed. He reached for Koji and took his hand, veins standing out on forearms vibrating under tension. His gaze bounced between Koji and Zakiya. His breathing was too rapid. Koji extricated his hand and slapped Alex on the chest forcefully. Alex slowed his breathing and began to sit up.

Setek-Ren, more subdued than Alex, slowly sat up on his bed, helped by Patrick. He made a deliberate surveillance of the hospital room. He pulled and rubbed the fabric of his clothing. He grabbed Patrick’s arm and squeezed it hard. He stared long at Koji and Alex who returned his gaze. He studied Zakiya with puzzlement, then found Aylis. Aylis cowered near the doorway. He seemed only slightly interested in her.

“Why should I continue?” Setek-Ren asked.

“You bloody fool!” Patrick declared. “Why should we enlighten you?”

Patrick sounded serious to Zakiya, yet Setek laughed at him!

“Seen any barbarians, Patrick?” Setek asked.

"That depends -" Patrick started to respond.

"- on how you define barbarian,” Setek finished.

“There might be some right here,” Alex said, standing up. “Koji, would you repeat what you said about us having wives?”

“They came looking for us,” Koji replied. “We can now believe in miracles! They found us! This one was yours: Zakiya. That one was Setek’s: Aylis.”

No one said anything for a few moments. It was a time for eyes to seek renewed acquaintance.

“This is awkward,” Setek commented. “We are at a disadvantage. We don’t remember you!”

Alex turned to question Koji again. “I’m Alex?”

“Alexandros Gerakis. That is Patrick. And Setek.”

“They cut me,” Alex said, feeling his abdomen. “The second jumpship crew. I couldn’t help you!”

“I didn’t need your help,” Koji replied. “I killed them all.”

“Good. We need to debrief.”

“No, you don’t,” Koji said. “We don’t need your information any longer.”

“How much time has passed?” Setek asked.

“Forty years since I last rescued you,” Koji answered.

Alex looked at Setek with a frown.

“This is not our ship,” Setek stated, a wave of his arm indicating the evidence of an unfamiliar hospital room. “Where are we?”

Being closest to it, Aylis opened the door and stepped into the hospital corridor. The others allowed Alex and Zakiya to exit the room next, and Zakiya took her husband’s arm. Alex looked at her and at her grasp of his arm. He smiled. When Setek saw their connection, he offered his arm to Aylis. Aylis hesitated then placed a trembling hand on his forearm.

In the hospital lobby a squad of Marines in minimum battle dress snapped to attention, then fell in behind them as they exited the hospital. Outside the hospital hundreds of people lined the walk, waiting to see Alex and Setek. Zakiya watched Alex as he reacted. He adapted to the crowds and to the planet-like environment but his first response was restrained amazement.

As they walked, Alex and Setek took in every detail of the scenery but made no comments and asked no questions. Aylis let her hand fall away from Setek’s arm and he didn’t seem to notice. They eventually arrived at a cottage situated on a slope above the apartments at the edge of the lake. The Marines took sentry positions by the cottage.

“The Marines are a temporary precaution,” Zakiya explained. “You are strangers to us and we don’t trust you yet. You are free to move about the ship but they must accompany you.”

“This is a ship?” Setek queried, surveying the great expanse of the visible biosphere.

“It’s called the Freedom,” Zakiya replied. “Koji will tell you about it. This cottage is where Koji lives. There is room for two more.” As she pulled her hand from Alex’s arm, her emotions tried to burst loose, and she needed to leave soon, before they did! Aylis had already stepped away from Setek. She turned to join Aylis.

“Are you leaving us so soon?” Alex inquired, sounding a little disturbed.

“We remember too well who you were,” Zakiya said. “We worry about who you are. And we need to take you in small, careful doses.”

Tea and Paternity

“It is as you suspected,” Direk said to Zakiya and his mother. “Patrick did not tell us about this.”

“He’s afraid of them,” Aylis said. “And perhaps he doesn’t know about it, even though he would have to have been the one who did the surgery.”

“They are telepathic, then,” Zakiya said.

“Essentially. By electronic means. The signals we sampled after they awoke came from their bodies. The frequency range and the absence of overlap between sources suggests the timing of a conversation. Koji did most of the talking, probably explaining as much as he could about their new situation. This is why they were so quiet during the walk from the hospital to their cottage.”

“You couldn’t decrypt the signals?”

“I don’t believe the signals are encrypted. Not in the mathematical sense. These are thoughts, and thoughts require a human brain to experience them. We may simply need to duplicate their transducer methods and connection locations in our own brains. It must be equivalent to how our auxiliary memory reaches our conscious.”

“They were probably too paranoid to allow Pat to keep the expert data or even the memory of the procedure.”

“It shouldn’t take long to duplicate the technology,” Aylis said. “But it may require a signal switching mechanism. This may be why their auxiliary memories are cut off. They didn’t develop a method to switch between inputs.”

“It is amazing – but quite believable – that they could engineer both the telepathic circuitry and a form of auxiliary memory,” Zakiya said.

“I think I gave them some preliminary research on auxiliary memory technology,” Aylis said. “They might have found scientific help in barbarian space.”

“Shiplink conversation without subvocalizing or eye-point gyroscopy has probably been a medical engineering research project for the Navy for a long time,” Direk said. “That they apparently accomplished it under their severe circumstances is more than amazing.”

“I was afraid to examine them too closely without understanding precisely how the auxiliary memories fit into the cell ecology,” Aylis said, “but they appear undamaged. I hope they were able to store their most vital memories, everything that would remind them of who they were.”

“They will have to be confronted about it,” Zakiya said. “The people we came to find are locked away in those devices.”

= = =

He crossed her threshold. The Marine saluted her and took his position outside the doorway. She closed the door and followed him into her apartment. He turned to her and spoke in a quiet and humble manner.

“Although you may not want to be reminded of the tragedy,” Alex said, “I learned of the two sons you recently lost and I offer my condolences.”

It disturbed Zakiya more by its unexpected sensitivity than for the sorrow it refreshed. Alex could not be the sensitive person she once loved, and to have him ape it so perfectly made her worry that she was wrong about him in one way or another. Either he was not as bad as Patrick insisted, and she was cruel to treat him so suspiciously, or he was worse than she could imagine from Patrick’s warnings. Alex and Setek could adapt themselves to every situation, Patrick said. They were consummate actors.

“Thank you,” she responded. She suggested he sit, with a gesture toward a chair. She went to the kitchen and brought back two glasses of iced tea. She sat down opposite him and tried not to let her eyes devour him so greedily. He was, of course, a handsome man, his face an appealing Mediterranean color, his eyes startling blue, his shoulders powerful, his stature rangy and tall, his lips so… She stopped herself, nearly horrified at how her entire being was reacting to his nearness. It had also been far too long since she had been with a man or had even been interested in being with a man, romantically or otherwise.

“Ah, just the thing,” he said of the tea. “My mouth is quite dry, anticipating this visit.”

She smiled but could not afford amusement. Her own mouth was also dry. She sipped tea to find some lubrication for speech. She wondered how she appeared to him, irritated that she had spent some extra effort to improve her appearance. “I assume you now have a good picture of your situation,” she said. “Koji was very busy collecting information and making friends before you awoke.” Her eyes did not sip but still drank him in! Despite how she had tried to lecture herself, to prepare herself for this meeting, he still affected her profoundly, as though his physical being had every pleasing feature and operated every chemical weapon that would paralyze her will to withstand his assault on her. Even her own memories subverted her resistance. She plainly wanted him, in every possible way. Every safe topic of conversation, every clever question aimed at detecting his secret intentions, and almost every sane thought flew out of her mind, leaving her to try whatever her imagination could spare from its obsession with a man who was a legend, and a legend more to her than to anyone else. She needed a diversion, and only two came to mind.

“Setek and I are astounded by your accomplishments,” Alex was saying. “And now you are arming the ship. We hope we are in your plans, if not in your hearts.”

“I… I don’t see any need for spies and assassins in my plans.”

“We’re not proud of what we did.” Alex paused as if in somber thought, then he took a long drink of his tea. “Why did you find us, if not for war? Wasn’t that our original goal – to find the enemy and try to defeat it?”

“We were explorers, not soldiers. We were scientist-adventurers. Aylis and I searched for you because you are all family. We love you.” She couldn’t soften that last verb soon enough.

“Love? After all this time? We were different people in a different era. Now you are an admiral. You are a military person. And you have this ship.”

“One ship. Many barbarians. Too many.” It was truth but it still sounded weak.

He took another drink of tea and she copied him. He didn’t seem affected by any of her responses but that meant nothing. He would do what he needed to do.

“So, I’m useless,” he said lightly, “unless I can be retrained. What do you need me to do?”

“I need you to remember who you were.” She stared at him. She was hopeless. She was helpless. She was even beginning not to care that she was hopeless and helpless!

He stood up to escape her stare and walked over to a wall that displayed images of several artworks. They were copies of paintings created by Rafael de LaGuardia. “There was always the temptation,” he said to the wall. “We have hidden memories, like yours, but they are disconnected. We had to remove the temptation.”

“We can help you reconnect them,” she offered hopefully.

“Wait a little longer,” he said in a tone of voice that hinted at eventual agreement. He turned from the paintings. “I may yet be useful to you. I fear the memories of the man I was.”

“Why?”

“Because they will kill me. And my present memories will kill the man I was.”

Zakiya decided not to pursue the subject. She agreed with him. Sadly she reminded herself that he and she would never be that newly married couple so in love with each other. She hoped, however, they could become at least a derivative of those two people and perhaps find an equivalent magic to their relationship. Short of violence and a risky medical procedure, she had no idea how she could make it happen.

“I would ask you also to wait,” she said, beginning the First Diversion. “I do have a task you might do for me, a very dangerous task, and perhaps suited to your current abilities.”

“I’ll do it, whatever it is! Tell me about it.”

“It may be an impossible task,” she said. “It’s still very early in the planning stages. It may never come about. But the mere idea of it should make you reconsider your entire reason for existing in your state of war against barbarians.”

“Intriguing,” Alex said. “Go on.”

“Are you hungry? I’ve prepared a meal for us.”

“I am! I haven’t had time to think about food. I like the way you are raising my interest and my expectations. Frankly, I dreaded coming here.”

“You seem to have lost your dread. You used to do the cooking.” She started to set the table.

“I probably used to do a lot of things I can’t remember doing.”

“You would be surprised. Has Koji told you why everyone stares at you?”

“I assumed it was because I was your husband. What other reason would they have?”

“I won’t tell you.” It seemed too strange and too inappropriate to try to explain to him how he was a very live fictional hero.

“It would help if I had an active shiplink,” he mentioned too obviously.

She brought the meals to the kitchen table and they sat down. She poured more tea from a pitcher. “In a few days you can use your shiplink. We will, of course, be watching what you do with it.”

“I think Patrick has given you much reason to beware of us,” he said. “It’s understandable. We haven’t always treated him well. His motivation is correct. I hope we don’t rise to the level of threat he accords us. Truthfully, there may be no limit to what we could attempt, except the limit of death.”

She almost shivered at his words. Even though it was a terrible truth, it was true. Perhaps in some deeply psychological way, his warning was a cry for help. Or was it? She was so full of clashing thoughts and leaking memories and hardly-suppressed emotions that it was difficult to guide a fork between her lips, much less analyze a stranger who meant too much to her. She ate half her meal before she lost her appetite. She sipped tea as she watched and waited for Alex to finish eating. There was nothing in his manner, in his voice, in his words that would match some remembrance of the man she once loved. This was somebody else. But it was still a man she could not stray from, could not give up on.

“What do you know about our captains?” she asked, starting Diversion Two. She wondered if he knew who Jamie was.

“I met Jon Horss,” he answered. “Seems a bit eccentric but he must be competent. Direk is impressive, but how could he not be? I wasn’t able to meet Captain Jones. The Marines think highly of her. She used to command them.”

“I can bring her here for you to meet, if you like.”

“If you think I should.”

“Koji hasn’t told you who she is?”

“That makes me wonder,” Alex said. “I trust Koji with my life, but I don’t trust him to play a game fairly with me. Is he playing another game? Why should I want to know this captain?”

“She’s going to feel awkward and perhaps apprehensive meeting you, Alex. I hope you can be kind to her, but you don’t need to pretend to be fatherly.”

“Fatherly?”

“She’s your daughter.”

“I’m a father?”

She wondered if his obvious reaction was honest and accurate. The news seemed to disturb him, perhaps even shock him. “Not too many years after you left me,” she explained, “I impregnated myself with sperm you had stored for me. I had already given up ever seeing you again. I was lonely, and for a few years I got to be a mother. Then I had to give her up. But I found her again! She is a very fine person. We’re still trying to find some of what we lost.”

“I have a daughter? This is going to be harder than impossible!”

“You don’t want to meet Jamie?”

“I certainly do! It’s just that mere existence is a challenge for me! A daughter would be… As Patrick has often said: Just take the next breath and the next step. It’s bloody easy.”

Alex helped Zakiya clear away the kitchen. He touched her several times, apparently by casual accident, but she hoped it was intentional. She wished he would put his arms around… She made a call to her daughter as an act of personal emergency, then tried to use Rafael’s artworks to dispel her need to be inside Alex’s arms.

Jamie arrived and chose to salute Zakiya as though she was reporting for duty.

“Jamie, he knows who you are. He says he’s afraid to meet you. I think he’s lying. Take a close look at him. You may not have him around very long.”

“Mom and Dad! This is damned strange!” Jamie put out her hand for Alex to take.

“It’s going to take a while to get used to being a father,” Alex said. He gently squeezed her hand, frowning at her in good humor.

“I’ve got time. What did she mean about you not being around very long?”

“I presume she means a special mission she is planning for me.”

“What special mission?” Jamie looked to her mother.

“I’m going to ask him to rescue someone,” Zakiya replied.

“That’s… cruel,” Jamie said. “Does he know who it is?”

“You are part of my introduction to the target. Do you want to stay and watch?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything!”

“Sit down,” Zakiya instructed them, taking a seat in her living room. Alex and Jamie sat at opposite ends of a sofa and Jamie was not shy about staring at Alex. The three of them were silent for a few moments as Zakiya paused to calm herself and collect the thread of her intentions. She watched Jamie, who looked at Alex with strong and mixed emotions. When Jamie finally glanced back at her, Zakiya started to speak again. “Alex?” she queried, seeing that he had closed his eyes. He opened them. “Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Somewhere there is happiness,” he said softly. “I can smell it on the breeze from the lake. I hope it comes your way,” he added.

“But not to you?” Jamie asked.

“I fear it! I run from it! Don’t listen to me. It’s just a feeble attempt to subvert your antipathy for me.”

“Why would I hate you?” Jamie asked. “I don’t know how I feel about you, but I want it to become positive.”

“Thank you! Listen to yourself. I’m already succeeding.”

They both turned to look at Zakiya, as though she had called for their attention. Zakiya was content to let them converse, so that she could imagine the potential father-daughter relationship. And keep from throwing herself into his arms! “Would you like to come live with me?” Zakiya asked Alex, shocked she had done so.

“I would live with you if you wished,” he replied easily. “But it would be improper.”

“How so? You’re my husband.”

“Our wedding vows terminated at death. Your husband died a long time ago.”

“And if I ask you to marry me?”

“You fight unfairly! I like that. Would the vows mean anything if spoken by a dead man?”

“So you make me a widow?”

“I’m a cruel person. I’ve tried to warn you.”

“I deserve no better. We’re more alike than you know, Ghost.”

“I await your decision,” he said.

“As do I,” she said. “I’m apt to make poor decisions when haunted.”

“What, then, is this dangerous task that you have long delayed explaining to me?”

Zakiya paused to catch her breath. She had nearly lost her way with Alex! “I want you to rescue a Navy admiral named Etrhnk. He is the Commander of the Navy.”

“Tell me more!”

“He was our spy among the barbarians, Alex. He learned everything about them by becoming one of them. But at the sacrifice of his own identity. He doesn’t know who he is.”

“And now he’s in trouble,” Alex surmised.

“We stole this ship from him. He seemed to let us, even though he couldn’t have remembered who I was, or who Aylis was.”

“The greatest feat of courage I can imagine! And he was so adept that he rose to be Commander of the Navy? Who was he? How did you recruit him?”

“His name was Petros. Aylis recruited him.”

“Petros? A Greek name?”

“Petros Gerakis. Our son. Jamie’s brother.”

Last Tango

Aylis watched Setek by shiplink through the eyes of her son. No closer than that did she feel safe from him. Setek had shown not the slightest interest in her. She was, of course, not the last woman to whom he had been married. Still, she was able to fret over what he might do in a sudden shift of his attention onto her. He was not the Setek she remembered in any aspect of his character. What was more upsetting was that he was the Setek she remembered she always wanted him to be: superficial. She never thought of it as superficial; she called it human, or Earthian. Now her auxiliary memory abused her with detail she hadn’t seen then as important. The original Setek was in fact everything she should have wanted in a mate. She had been too full of herself, too blind, too deafened by too many distractions to appreciate Setek’s quiet kindness. Even his patience she had misinterpreted as mere tolerance, and now she saw it could have been love. There was no excuse for such poor judgment, when a little more patience on her part could have provided more clarity to their relationship. She had only needed to ask Setek what was wrong. She had only needed to understand that Essiin people did feel emotions to their fullest, because they were human. She had only needed to realize that her own career, after Deep Space Fleet, was not in competition with Setek’s. It was only that growing older had placed a deadline on her efforts to revolutionize age-reversal treatments.

Setek now spent much of his time with Direk and Iggy. This would be normal for the old Setek, owing to his scientific background and curiosity. Now she doubted his motives were anything more than a tactical analysis of the science and engineering of the ship. She ought to stop this eavesdropping through Direk! It was not helping her emotionally. It was a probable blotch on her own character that his imagined menace and his physical appearance fascinated her. She was startled when she became the subject of the conversation she overheard through her shiplink.

How is your mother?” Setek inquired of Direk.

She’s listening to us through shiplink,” Direk replied. “Perhaps she would be surprised at my appraisal of her condition. I think she’s doing very well. Would you care to visit with her?”

No, no, no! Aylis thought, yet held her tongue.

Would you accompany me?” Setek asked.

That would be required,” Direk said. “Why haven’t you asked of her before now?”

It was obvious she was terrified of me. Nor was I prepared to meet her. I’m still not. Will she see me?”

There was a moment of silence and Aylis realized they were waiting for her decision. “Yes,” she said to Direk by shiplink.

She knew Setek might never recover the contents of his auxiliary memory, or if he did, it could prove useless in repairing his personality. Aylis might never have more than what Setek now was, unless she could help him change.

= = =

Aylis arrived at Direk’s apartment feeling very pregnant after the long walk. The Marine at the door saluted her, and thus she knew Setek had arrived before her. She stood at the door for a few moments, waiting for her courage, but only worsening the anticipation. She didn’t have the Navy augment that would relieve the chemical reaction to stress. She was almost to the point of trembling when Jamie opened the door. The anxiety all but disappeared then. Only Zakiya could have had a better effect on her emotions than Jamie did. It was difficult not to embarrass Jamie with her gratitude for her presence.

“Jamie! I didn’t expect you to be here! I’m so glad you are!”

“Dick made me wear this dress as the price of admission,” Jamie said.

Aylis was taken aback by the sight of Jamie in feminine attire. Jamie made a pirouette and a curtsy for her inspection. Aylis laughed and was astonished at herself. Music started playing from some unseen source, filling the apartment with a lively beat and a classical Latin American composition. Aylis turned to see Setek approaching, Direk following him.

“May I have this dance?” Setek asked her, offering his hand.

“Oh, no!” Aylis declined. “I can’t dance! And my feet are tired.”

“I’m so sorry! Then I shall ask the lovely Jamie if she would humor me.”

“I’ll need a quick lesson,” Jamie said, taking his hand. “Is it a tango?”

“Nothing as ancient as that. I don’t remember what the dance is called. I don’t remember why I had to learn it. And I think it’s the only dance I know. Watch me and think about doing it in reverse. Then we’ll practice. It’s done with a gradually increasing tempo.”

Aylis sat down on a sofa to watch. She took off her shoes.

“I’m glad you came,” Direk said, sitting down next to her.

Aylis watched Setek do what Setek might never have done two centuries ago: dance. Dancing was an Essiin tradition, but dancing with a smile was not. He seemed relaxed and enjoying himself, which the Aylis of centuries ago always wished he would do. Now it seemed wrong. Her memories of Setek-her-husband were sharp and indelible and this was not him. His white hair that once seemed sophisticated now showed its true shade of faintly metallic silver. His skin, which he had always adjusted to a slightly darker pigmentation, now almost glowed in the lighting of the room. Setek was genetically modified in childhood to have his unique physical aesthetic, and it had only made him self-conscious among drab Earthians. Now he displayed his Essiin heritage without apparent discomfort. His nearly clear eyes – dark at the pupil – had lost their probing habit and their sparkle of almost frightening intelligence. His eyes were now dimmed to mere cosmetic organic jewelry, perhaps hiding his real intentions.

“Have you made a decision?” Direk asked. The cold way he said it made Aylis think of the old Direk. Perhaps he hadn’t relearned the subtle inflections he had so long filtered from his voice. She was sure he felt apprehensive about his father.

“I don’t know if I can make a fair decision,” Aylis said, leaning close to make sure he heard her through the interference of the brisk dance music.

“Then make an unfair one,” Direk advised sadly.

Aylis heard his regret, as though he already knew what had to be done. He had probably read the same excerpts of Setek’s debriefings she had read – words to give one nightmares and to forever instill distrust in his character. Aylis watched Setek and Jamie dance and tried not to think. It was not a bad image with which to end a dream, with Jamie in it. She put on her shoes when the music stopped. She stood up.

“Direk, do you have something slower Setek and I can dance to – if one could call it dancing?” Aylis inquired.

“What kind of dance music?” Direk responded, surprised.

“Something slow and quiet, so we can also talk.”

Setek seemed pleased to take her hand, to put his other arm around her waist. She felt a momentary pleasure in this ancient ritual of sexual relations. She felt an endless loss of what Setek had meant to her. Direk began to play his string bass. She and Setek no more than shuffled their feet, and as they better synchronized he drew her closer. She put her face on his shoulder. She was only vaguely aware of her pregnant geometry. She could almost feel glad she briefly had this small fraction of the man she once loved within her loose embrace. Almost.

“I wonder what it is like,” she said to him, “to listen to another person’s thoughts.”

Setek didn’t react physically to her words, except for a few moments of delay in responding. He continued guiding her around the floor. “We wondered how thorough you were and when you would ask about it,” he finally responded.

“We were very thorough. We wondered why you didn’t volunteer that you had telepathic capability. I suppose it had tactical importance.”

“Yes, our lives depended on it,” Setek said. “Alex and I needed to exchange vital information secretly while engaging our targets. Koji needed to know the dynamics of an encounter, so he could arrive before too much was lost. Perhaps we were jealous of our one technical accomplishment and failed to fully understand we are now among friends.”

“I don’t think you understand that yet,” she said. “You are not only among friends but we are those friends who truly love you.”

“It is a tragedy,” he said with apparent sincerity, “but we have honestly warned you about us. We could not remain gentlemen among barbarians. Do not fear us, however. We exist only to make the universe safer for you.”

“How did you lose yourselves?” She didn’t expect any good answer, and realized too late that she didn’t want an answer.

“We died too many times,” Setek answered. “Alex thinks our souls gave up on us and departed at some point. I think we used rejuvenation too often, to keep our youthful strength, and the process eventually culled too much moral imperative from our brains.”

Aylis stopped dancing and pulled away from Setek. “My feet still hurt. Let’s sit down. Come, sit beside me.”

Direk stopped playing his bass. Aylis sat down and took Setek’s hand as he sat beside her on the sofa.

Setek smiled at her and patted her hand. “I’m not so bad, do you think? I’m more Earthian than I was. You probably always wanted me to be more Earthian. You seem relaxed now. You know I will never hurt you.”

“But you will,” Aylis objected sadly. “I feel sorry for you, dear Setek. I loved you unwisely once. I even love what is left of you. But not unwisely. Good-bye.”

Jamie was watching and listening to Aylis and Setek on the sofa, sitting not far from them. She tried to understand what she heard and was concerned by Aylis’s final word. She glanced over at Direk, who faced away from them, standing in front of his string bass. He turned around briefly to look at his mother and father. Then he began to play with bow something melancholy on the bass.

Jamie looked back at Aylis and saw her weeping. Setek leaned heavily upon her shoulder, his eyes shut. Aylis stroked Setek’s inert face and continued to weep.

Rivers of Galaxies

She had missed seeing him for several days. She noticed he looked younger. She examined him more closely. She loved his blue eyes and they even seemed brighter and clearer. Admiral Khalanov was the dearest man, quiet, perceptive, generous, and vastly competent. Sometimes impatient! She was always comfortable in his presence; he was a gentle man. She always looked forward to working with him. “Where were you, sir?” Wingren asked. “I’ve missed you.”

“Offering my old body for the training of medical technicians. I can’t imagine why you missed me.”

His last sentence seemed to encourage her but he did not smile when he said it. No one smiled at this chapter of their lives on the Freedom because the death of children was always fresh in their memory.

“Then you have a poor imagination or a poor opinion of your importance to your staff.” She did force a quasi-smile at how he blushed. It wasn’t so easy for her, a desert Rhyan, to blush visibly. His reaction gave her reason to hope he would become more interested in her.

“Something else I need to improve about myself,” he said with unusual softness.

“Where has Setek-Ren gone, sir?”

“Did you miss him, too?”

“The way I miss a toothache! Oh, he was interesting and entertaining at first. He was the man who deciphered what the transmat was! But his intense presence began to bother me. Maybe I was prejudiced by his very violent background and the warning Admiral Demba gave us.”

Khalanov never answered her question as to the current activities of Setek-Ren. She didn’t want to question him further, considering the change of his expression that mention of Setek-Ren caused. Perhaps his summons of her to assist him in some work would lead to relief of his now serious mood. “What will we be doing today, sir?”

“Traveling.” Khalanov started to empty his pockets onto his desk.

“Do we need pressure suits?” It was one possible reason he would need to empty his pockets.

“Possibly, but we’ll begin without them.” The last pocket he emptied contained a cryptikon. He kept it in his hand. “Follow me. We need more room to operate.”

Her heart sped up; she did not have the combat augment to calm it. She had experienced the cryptikon in person only once, when Khalanov demonstrated it for the engineering staff. It had scared her! Anyone who had a solid knowledge of physics and mechanics, beyond relying on an in-body expert system, had his faith in both science and religion shaken when in the presence of a cryptikon.

They walked to the largely vacant deck where the wreckages of barbarian Fleet jumpships occupied one bay. Khalanov selected the largest vacant bay.

“I need a witness or a companion for this experiment,” Khalanov said. “How brave do you feel today?”

“You insult my warrior ancestors with that question!” Wingren complained. “But not me. I’ll only say that I won’t disappoint you, as long as you are with me.”

“If we survive this, would you consider having dinner with me?” he asked.

“Only if you let me cook!” Wingren felt braver than she ever thought possible. This admiral had asked her for a date! This handsome Earthian admiral. A man she liked very much. She strained to contain her excitement. When he activated the cryptikon, those thoughts and feelings fled, replaced by a different kind of excitement.

Khalanov gestured to indicate the dark gold control interface with its violet wells of distant reality, glimpses across unknown spans of the universe. “I’ve begun to think of this as a telephone directory,” he said, “the ancient kind with paper pages. The field of funnels is but the top page in an infinitely thick telephone book. We are presented with a small selection of possible contacts based on some criteria I can’t guess. I can sense that a large percentage of connections are possible but there must be factors that disqualify me from opening every connection. I’ve found only five connections I can make, all of them on this first page of the directory.”

“Most of the images seem static and rather abstract,” Wingren said, “even though they have a disturbingly vital presence. A few have movement and I can guess they are produced by the cryptikons we know about. The former class of connections are those you can’t access.”

“Exactly. Except for one. When any of the cryptikons activate, that one static image is always displayed on the first page of the telephone book. I receive an impression of distance when I touch the image wells. I can tell the Essiin Museum cryptikon is much farther away than the other cryptikons on the ship. Most of those which don’t allow connection are farther away than the museum. I haven’t sampled very many of the telephone book entries, but the one we are going to investigate is truly far away. Disturbingly distant.”

“Should we record what we see?” Wingren asked.

“I was about to suggest that,” Khalanov replied. “Yes. We both should.”

Khalanov selected a violet well containing an image of endless corridors. Lines and angles and planes of pale gray instantly replaced half of the engineering bay, the pure geometry appearing starkly real for all its lack of compelling features.

“It looks like passageways,” Wingren said, “but there’s no scale to judge the size, no details to even determine which way is up.”

“Let me position myself into the image. Perhaps that will yield another perspective.”

“Not without me, sir!” She boldly grabbed his hand.

They stepped into the image together. To steady themselves in the frightening unreality, they put their arms around each other’s waist. The lines and planes converged at infinity in all directions away from the engineering bay. The admiral reached with his free hand to try to touch some part of the image. His finger contacted a surface, an unseen source of light flashed, and they were blinded. Wingren was embarrassed to let a stifled shriek escape her mouth.

“Can you see anything?” Khalanov asked. “I think my eyes are still functional but I’m not sure. I can still see in-body data and control structures but that bypasses the retina.”

“Same here,” Wingren replied.

Darkness continued, until faint smudges of light became apparent within the total black. The wispy shapes floated everywhere, even below their feet. The shapes varied slightly but the size of them ranged from tiny to huge. Either their eyes continued to grow more sensitive or the luminance slowly increased, until Wingren finally understood what she saw.

Galaxies!” Wingren declared. “Clusters of galaxies, rivers of galaxies!”

“Can’t be!” Khalanov argued. “Our eyes can’t gather enough light to see that far and that well. Not in so short a time.”

“But that’s what it looks like! We seem to be standing in one of the empty areas of the universe. Perhaps something is helping us see what should be invisible to us.”

“We’ve lost contact with the Freedom,” Khalanov noted. “This has not happened before. There was always a way to turn around and go back to the cryptikon. Also, there is no obvious presence of another cryptikon, the one that would be making the connection to send this data to us.”

Wingren was not aware of this abnormality, and would have been more frightened, had not Khalanov sounded calm. Still, it worried her. Where had the view of the engineering repair bay gone, on whose deck they were surely still standing?

“Someone must be showing this to us, actively using their own cryptikon, and employing functions we do not know about,” Khalanov speculated, speaking slowly. “Hello? Can anyone understand me? Is anyone listening? Let us see you.”

A dim red light, too dim for a star, appeared behind them. It illuminated something that floated before the backdrop of the galaxies. Its reflective surface and unusual shape implied it was an artificial construction.

“Is this you?” Khalanov asked.

The double-sphered object rushed toward them, stopped, and slowly rotated, giving them a view of every area of its exterior. They could see no details or irregularities on its surface. It was a perfect geometric shape, as though modeled by computer in a holographic display: two spheres connected seamlessly to each end of a short shaft. A certain richness of color beneath the red illumination suggested the object was golden.

“There are no markings,” Wingren commented. “How can we learn anything useful?”

The artifact swelled in size, as if coming closer. It filled their field of view until there was no longer a way to judge if it was still approaching them. Wingren could almost see her own face as a reflection in the surface of the artifact, and realized an instant before it happened that it was going to hit them!

There was no impact. Wingren blinked then saw only hazy light. She could not see Khalanov. She could feel Khalanov; they were still holding each other tightly. She found one of his hands and each of them reacted by gripping fingers and trying to reassure each other.

Wingren only realized she was holding her breath when they floated into a room and became visible to each other. She exhaled, turned to meet Khalanov’s eyes, and they both turned to take in the details surrounding them.

Their feet came to stand – still bearing their normal weight – on a floor: this all but escaped Wingren’s notice as her gaze danced among the pleasant objects and fixtures of the room. Someone lived here, someone who could be human! Those who lived here had sat in chairs made of wood and on a sofa covered with bright cushions. Someone had eaten at a simple wooden table that still held containers of condiments and napkins. A few dirty dishes remained by the kitchen sink. Cupboards might still contain food and dishes. Doors might lead to bedrooms and bathrooms.

The window above the kitchen sink then drew their attention. They walked to it.

Except for the floor, neither of them had touched anything. Wingren and Khalanov looked at each other as they stood at the sink, then Khalanov reached across the sink and opened the old-fashioned venetian blind in the window.

They stared for a long time at the scene beyond the window. It wasn’t that they wondered at how real it looked. It wasn’t that the details were strange or alien. It was that it was like Earth, very much like Earth, except it was not Earth and at the same time it was supposed to be Earth.

“Grass, trees, swimming pool, mountains,” Khalanov said. “Earth, but not Earth. It’s not quite right.”

“Like a memory of Earth,” Wingren suggested.

“Exactly,” Khalanov agreed. He closed the blinds. He turned and pointed to a glass door. Wingren took his hand and walked with him to the door. It slid open onto a screened porch and a view of another part of the yard. The air smelled of flowers and freshly-mowed grass but Wingren’s attention was diverted by the bed.

“What?” Khalanov asked, as Wingren tugged him toward the bed. Then he saw it, too. “Blood!”

A thin mattress covered a wooden frame that might have been a kind of large lawn chair that was fully reclined. Fresh red liquid pooled in a slight depression of the mattress.

A cryptikon appeared above the bed and one of its surface patterns flickered. Reality flickered. The engineering bay of the Freedom reappeared.

Lost and Found

“That was a sad song,” Aylis remarked. “You look like you could use a hug.”

“I can’t sing happy songs,” Zakiya said.

Aylis hugged Zakiya and both sat down in the front row of the theater. Musicians put away instruments on stage. They waved good-byes with caring expressions as they left the rehearsal.

Aylis looked terrible to Zakiya. Somehow she had managed to survive the trauma of retiring Setek. Someday soon Zakiya needed to explain to Alex and Koji what really happened to Setek. Aylis had lied to them. So far they seemed to accept that Setek had suffered an unexpected organ failure and would be in regenerative stasis for a period of time. In a sense that was true, as the failed organ was Setek’s brain.

“I’m glad you could come hear me rehearse,” Zakiya said. She held onto Aylis’s hand and looked into her saddened eyes. “Don’t feel badly about Setek, Aylis. You did the right thing. He’s more than you can deal with right now. I’m almost ready to retire Alex, too. It’s not that they’ve done anything wrong. They know we have them under close watch. They just seem to be a little more patient than we are.”

“The barbarians are standing between them and us,” Aylis said. “I hope you haven’t given up on Petros, Zak. I know it seems impossible but…”

“Iggy and Direk are still working on the jumpship restoration. There doesn’t seem to be much else we can do. We’re almost finished mining asteroids for the material we need for the cannons. The fabricators have been fabricated. Right now it’s just another activity – like staging a concert – to keep the crew busy. I don’t know what we’ll do when the barbarian jumpship is fixed. I don’t know what we’ll do when all the cannons are manufactured and installed. The future frightens me. What have you been doing, Aylis? I know you can’t let yourself do nothing.”

“Tending to tasks no one else wanted to do. I autopsied the barbarians.”

“Find anything interesting?”

“Some mutations. It will take years and a much greater sample, but I suspect they’re victims of a slightly negative genetic change. They have a shortened natural life expectancy, which would be inconsequential with modern health care. I can also verify that two of them are only a few generations removed from Earth. The third one has ancestors that I can only assume came from a prehistoric diaspora, perhaps neither Rhyan nor Essiin.”

“Nothing to explain their violent behavior?”

“Unfortunately, the potential for violent behavior is probably a trait required for the survival of a species. That’s your area of study, Zak.”

“Yes, and we will condemn Alex and Koji for a very fine point we put on the application of violence.”

They sat in silence for a few moments. Zakiya tried not to think about anything important. So many years had passed in her life. How many ordinary days had vanished into oblivion, too uneventful to be retained in memory? She felt old.

“Would it upset you if I told you some things you didn’t know about Sammy?” Aylis asked with concern.

“You also did his autopsy? I don’t think I want to know.”

“I didn’t do an autopsy in the physical manner that old word used to mean, just a better scan. I’ve held back some information about Sammy from a scan before he died. I thought it was in error and would only distract you. But I see no error now. This scan confirmed it and yielded another surprise.”

“This is something you need to tell me, Aylis? I think I can take it, but if I can’t, I don’t want to pull you down with me.”

“What are a few more tears for me? I seem to have an endless supply. You would want to know these things about Sammy, Zak.”

“Tell me, then.”

“As you know, genetic analysis inferred that Sammy was either born to parents who didn’t live in the present era, or he was genetically-designed to be unrelated to anyone presently living in the Union. Of course, now we realize he might be related to someone in barbarian space. But I don’t think so. The evidence is too clear that his genetic code doesn’t exhibit the slight drift present in contemporary genetic codes. Since time travel isn’t possible, I assume Sammy’s parents lived in the distant past. He was either produced from ancient samples of DNA, or he arrived in the present by some means of storage. Isotope dating confirms that he was born several hundred years ago – on Earth.”

“The poor child!” Zakiya declared. “The poor, poor child!”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just imagine the worst kinds of things happening to him! I think he must have been raised from an infant by someone who really cared for him, because his basic nature was so good. But then something bad happened. Mai was never able to find the cause of his amnesia, and that, in itself, was a tragic wound. And we know he spent months alone in Africa. Why? It just doesn’t make sense! It continues to anger me!”

“The golden alien you saw – the female named Constant – she seemed to care about him, and the other one apparently hated Sammy. They knew who Sammy was and they must have been important persons in his life. If only we had been able to save Petros! He would have known so many things that would have helped us. And Sammy.”

“What is also troubling,” Zakiya said, “is that Sammy may have had a mother and a father. I can’t imagine how they lost their son, but they did. I know how they must have felt. If there is any chance that the voice of Milly belongs to a real person, I want to meet her! She must be Sammy’s mother. She must also be in trouble. If only I could help her!” She sighed.

“One other thing,” Aylis said, “and I’ll let you be. During the scan I found this in Sammy.”

Aylis held forth a transparent bag containing a tiny red object. Zakiya looked at it with immediate recognition.

“It’s a gem from Shorty!”

“It’s a molecular machine,” Aylis said. “Purpose unknown.”

“It knows me!” Zakiya declared.

“It knows you? It just irritates me! I think it may have made me bring it to you, because I certainly wasn’t planning to come here.”

“I’ve felt its presence since you arrived at rehearsal, Aylis. I didn’t know what it was. Let me have it!”

“It could be dangerous!”

“I don’t think so.”

Zakiya took the plastic bag and opened it. She held the tiny red translucent object in her fingers. It stuck to one of her fingers. She could feel a sensation in the nerves of her finger but it was weak. She curled her finger to place the red bead on the palm of her hand and it transferred itself and attached to her palm. In a moment the nerves up to her elbow began to tingle but it still seemed too weak. Finally she placed her palm on the back of her neck and waited for another reattachment. She felt a tiny shock at the base of her skull. It began to communicate with no words but only urges that seemed familiar. It wanted to go home! She closed her eyes to try to sense a direction to go.

“Follow me.” Zakiya stood up and started walking.

“What are you doing?” Aylis asked.

“Looking for Shorty.”

“The gatekeeper? The thing that lured Sammy into the space elevator? The thing I saw with Pan’s android on Earth?”

“That’s the one. The one that rescued me from Oz.”

“Shouldn’t we have noticed its presence on the ship?”

“That and other questions need answers!” Zakiya declared, transformed by purpose.

“What other questions?” Aylis asked.

“How did it get here? Why is it here? Can it open gates to places we may need to visit?”

“I’m not sure I want to know any of those answers! What is this thing doing to you?”

“It’s making me feel strong emotions.”

“Emotions?”

“I don’t think it can help it.”

“How? It’s just a tiny machine.”

“It’s part of Shorty. It needs to return to Shorty. It isn’t being very helpful. I’d say it’s confused and frightened. It should be pointing me in the right direction.”

They walked.

/

Moments later, Iggy and Wingren appeared by transmat a few meters away from Zakiya and Aylis. Iggy immediately noticed that Zakiya was agitated and distracted. He turned a questioning look to Aylis, who had also noted that Iggy and Wingren were in a distressed state.

“What’s wrong with Zak?” Iggy asked.

“If you need to speak to her,” Aylis replied, “now is a bad time, Iggy. What’s wrong?”

“We have a possible situation. We saw something with a cryptikon that may be very important.”

“Tell me what has happened,” Zakiya said, continuing to walk, apparently fighting some inner distraction.

Iggy let Wingren describe their encounter with the distant alien starship.

“Put the ship on alert!” Zakiya abruptly ordered. Then, all but dismissing them, she walked on without further discussion. He and Wingren and Aylis were forced to follow behind her.

“Iggy, I must have missed something in the story,” Aylis said. “Why should we put the ship on alert? What’s going to happen?”

“Wingren and I think the alien ship is coming to find us. It’s incredibly far away but it could be here in seconds. It could be capable of almost anything, including jumping across a large part of the universe. I think our cryptikons may be used by it to pinpoint our location.”

“I don’t think it wants to harm us,” Wingren said. “I think it wants our help.”

“Why?” Aylis asked.

“We saw some blood, like someone was injured,” Wingren answered. “It has to be a human, an Earthian, who was injured.”

Iggy contacted Horss by shiplink. As Zakiya led them in the general direction of the hospital, the warning lights on buildings began to glow and flash for attention. Iggy addressed the crew of the Freedom, trying to be informative without causing too much anxiety.

While the ship’s personnel began to implement emergency procedures, Aylis tried to explain to Iggy and Wingren what was wrong with Zakiya as they followed her across the village square toward the hospital. They entered the hospital amid the final rush of emergency preparations.

Zakiya stopped and pivoted in the main entrance foyer, seeking a direction, oblivious to the people who scurried around her. She moved forward, followed by Aylis. In only a few seconds, most of the hospital personnel had disappeared to pre-assigned locations.

“Zakiya! Admiral Demba!”

/

Iggy looked back at the hospital entrance and saw Koji. He sensed the man’s aggressive mood in the tension of his body. He also saw there was no Marine to accompany him, all of them having been posted to critical points about the ship. Koji strode toward them and Iggy moved to block his path to Zakiya.

/

Zakiya again tried to disengage from the emotional emanations of the little machine stuck to the back of her neck. She touched Iggy to urge him to step aside. She appraised Koji’s demeanor and worried that she had misjudged him. He didn’t seem to threaten her physically although he was clearly upset. She didn’t want to put off the search for Shorty but knew she also needed to respond to Koji.

“I demand to see Setek!” Koji stated.

“Setek has been retired,” Zakiya said. “Aylis decided he couldn’t be trusted and was not useful.”

“What right have you?” Koji demanded, turning to Aylis.

“You once claimed you were not alive,” Aylis said. “Neither was Setek. I stopped him and stored him away. Someday I’ll try again to make him alive and whole.”

“I warn you, Koji,” Zakiya said. “We installed in you and in the others a device to make you unconscious through our shiplink. It was a further precaution against violent behavior.”

“Retire me then!” Koji demanded. “Before I hurt someone.”

“We don’t think you’re as damaged as Alex and Setek,” Aylis said.

“I must be! I have slaughtered hundreds! I still see their dead young faces. When you retire Alex, what will I do?”

“You will retrieve him, Koji,” Aylis answered. “Someday you will help us save him.”

“And what of the barbarians?”

“There are too many innocent people who would die in such a war, if we could even fight that war,” Zakiya replied.

“Your sentiment will allow civilization to fall!”

“Then it will fall! Why should a handful of people be responsible for the fate of billions?”

“Because people are imperfect! They need help!”

“Are we so perfect, that we should assume that task?”

/

Koji became still and thoughtful. He seemed to relax slightly. Iggy could see that Zakiya appeared unready to react to whatever Koji might do. He was worried enough to quietly nudge Wingren farther away from Koji. Then Koji reacted to someone behind Zakiya. Iggy looked past her to the hospital entrance. Alexandros Gerakis approached the hospital, and he was not happy.

“It’s him,” Aylis said to Zakiya.

/

Zakiya stood with Koji in front of her and Alex approaching behind her. She assumed Koji was now telepathically telling Alex what his fate would be. She still felt the pain and sadness transmitted to her by the little gem-like piece of Shorty. She also wondered about the alien starship that might be about to visit them. She was too divided by all that was happening at once.

“I can’t participate in this any longer!” Zakiya shouted. The urge to find Shorty took priority. She moved away.

Alex entered the hospital foyer and rushed to follow Zakiya.

“It’s over,” Koji said to Alex, stepping into his path. “Leave her alone! She will never trust you! She will never trust me! You will never have the ship!”

Alex pushed past Koji and Koji hooked his arm to stop him. Koji and Alex stood close to each other, their bodies tensed for combat. Zakiya paused and shuddered at imagining what violence they could perform. She made up her mind, knowing she would always be a fool about Alex.

“Please,” she said to Koji. “Let him follow me.”

“He has no good reason to do that!” Koji argued. “And no moral right!”

“She’s all I have, Koji!” Alex pleaded.

Zakiya walked away. Koji released Alex.

It is too complex, she thought, what I need to do and how I feel. Keshona has faded as a separate part of me. Ruby Reed, Fidelity Demba, even Zakiya Muenda, are merged into this confused person who is searching for something that is in pain. I am followed by a lost man I can’t find. I don’t know why he wants to follow me. I don’t know why I should have allowed him. Hope refuses to die. Heartbreak refuses to stop. My memories of the original Alex are too potent, yet I must give them up. I must give him up!

“Where do we go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want?”

I want to be loved!” she answered truthfully.

“Is that the right thing to want at this time?”

“It’s always the right thing to want!”

“And nothing else?”

“Be careful what you want beyond love.”

“The truth is that I can’t give you real love,” Alex said. “I’m sorry.”

“As old as I am, I can still dream,” she said. “Why do you follow me?”

“What else could you suggest I do? You are my only hope. With your help, with enough time and planning, we can defeat the barbarian Fleet.”

“Possibly,” she answered. “But they are not the only enemy.”

“Do you refer to the Lady in the Mirror? She seems limited to me.”

“We don’t know enough about her. All I can say is, until you have been in her presence, you can’t imagine her power and insanity.”

Why do I tolerate Alex’s sad and flawed presence? I have no answer for that. I must try to ignore him. I must concentrate on feeling the direction of Shorty, hoping Alex will not take advantage of my distraction.

They eventually reached an isolated part of the hospital where they entered a room with a wall containing several horizontal doors. Sugai Mai stood waiting for them, her arms cradling her swollen abdomen.

/

“This is the morgue!” Alex said in realization. “Good evening, Dr. Sugai.”

“Good evening, sir,” Mai responded with concern. “I thought Zakiya might need help finding Sammy’s body.”

“His body?” Zakiya said. “I don’t think I could bear to see it. But this is where I feel Shorty must be.”

/

“Shorty?” Alex asked. He remembered a description of the dangerous amorphous alien, the gatekeeper. It would be fascinating to encounter a creature of such awe to the barbarians. He watched Zakiya edge along the wall of metal doors, behind which he knew the corpses of nine barbarians and a small boy lay in storage. She drew the fingers of one hand across the surfaces of the doors, stopping at the one at the far end.

“That’s where Sammy is,” Dr. Sugai said. “Shall I bring him out?”

Zakiya placed her hand at various points around the door at the far end. She leaned against the cold metal as though fatigued by misery. Mai waited. Alex grew tense and impatient, yet he began to imagine some of the pain his wife obviously felt.

“Please bring him out, Mai,” Zakiya finally said. She moved away and leaned against the adjacent wall.

Dr. Sugai activated the retrieval process. In a few moments the horizontal door opened silently and the body was brought forth, as its resting place extruded from the opening.

Alex looked at Sammy briefly, curious to see the child who had so profoundly affected Zakiya. Except for the mixture of parentage, the slackness of death had removed any hint of character he might have had. Alex stepped back, disappointed and vaguely upset. He had seen many children in barbarian space and never failed to worry at what dismal futures they could have – especially if they became members of the Fleet. This child had lost his future.

“Please leave us, Mai,” Zakiya asked.

Dr. Sugai departed the room slowly, glancing worriedly at Zakiya and with a different expression for Alex. The look wounded him unexpectedly. He knew Zakiya had asked her to leave so the pregnant doctor would be safe and this also upset him. He would never have harmed her!

Zakiya didn’t move until Sugai Mai left. She edged toward the small body, not looking at it directly. She stood for several moments with her hand on the table but her eyes on the adjacent wall.

“He’s quite intact,” Alex said. “Don’t be afraid to look at him.” He almost realized this was insensitive before he said it. He had still not gained a proper understanding of this remarkable woman. He might never gain it.

Zakiya turned and centered herself on the table, her eyes closed. She placed both hands on the table edge. She opened her eyes. She trembled.

“What is that?” Alex asked, seeing a small black pyramid appear between Zakiya’s hands.

Zakiya blinked her eyes and stared at the sparkling dark shape. She felt behind her neck with one hand, then held that hand over the pyramid. A tiny red object fell from her hand and was attracted to the pyramid. The black pyramid enveloped the red piece then lost its geometry, appearing to melt into a small pool that no longer moved.

“Shorty?” Zakiya said. “Is this you? Where is the rest of you?”

“It looks inert,” Alex commented.

“No! I don’t want that!”

Zakiya placed her hands around the dark pool of matter and tried to gather it up. She cried out in pain but kept touching the dark material. In a few seconds it disappeared somewhere. Alex caught her hands as she turned around and he saw burn marks. She would soon have blisters.

“You’re injured,” he said. “The thing attacked you!”

Zakiya couldn’t speak for several moments while she stood with eyes squeezed shut.

Alex considered the tactical situation. Zakiya only seemed vulnerable at this moment. He had heard how lethal she could become if provoked. Now he also knew she could give a subvocal command by shiplink to make him unconscious. He had never seriously considered any physical attack on her, and still did not. Strategically, however, she might be vulnerable emotionally. He had studied all he could discover of her recent history, knowing his path forward would need to pass through her. Her story was that of a woman capable of deep feelings and generous affection. That was her only weakness. He knew he had an advantage, in that he was the one person to whom she wanted most to give her affection. He had as yet no clear idea how that could help his ambition. He had no idea how he could control his anger for the long time he would need to find a way around Zakiya. So soon after recovering from another painful death, Alexandros Gerakis already felt the rage against the barbarians surging in his heart and mind. This dead child added greatly to his rage.

And now, standing close to this incredibly deep and talented and beautiful woman, experiencing her with all of his senses, even to some extent empathizing with her emotional turmoil, if he could be brutally honest with himself, he knew he had a weakness she could exploit, should she discover it. He wanted her, simply wanted her, if only because he knew he could never really have her. That self-admission shook his confidence. It was tantamount to admitting defeat! Was humility of any use in this situation? Could he lie to himself and continue to move ahead? The ship, this magnificent ship! And I, poisoned by desire!

“No, it’s a gentle creature,” she finally said, letting him hold her injured hands. “It sometimes needs to dissipate heat.”

“It isn’t large enough to be a gatekeeper.” Her hands are trembling and there are tears in her eyes! Either she is in great pain, or am I the cause?

“It’s a child,” she said. “It’s the child of a gatekeeper. It’s a machine. An AMI. That’s what gatekeepers are.”

“It isn’t Shorty?”

“I think it’s Shorty’s child.”

How did she know what it was? Where did it go? How can such a small amorphous thing be sentient? Alex was at a loss to place this mystery into his strategic data. He could sense the flow of things turning against him, as if he had asked one question too many and some psychotic Fleet officer had identified him as the Questioner.

“Is this why you came here?” he asked uncertainly. He looked down at their hands.

“Yes, Alex. But I didn’t know the child was here, inside of Sammy.” She pulled her hands away from his but put them lightly on his forearms. She looked up into his eyes.

“What now?” He could think of nothing else to say.

“Now we say good-bye, Alex.”

He was not only shocked by her words, he was twisted, blunted, subdued, and haunted by them. Whether her words implied oblivion for himself hardly mattered. What mattered was that the woman he wanted did not want him. What mattered was that the words implied he had no worth, that all he had suffered in barbarian space had been judged worthless! He also felt totally helpless, knowing there was only one possible escape from death, which was yet another kind of death. The Questioner must die, but who would take his place? Who would take over his duties, his war, and his rage?

Alex went down on his knees, choosing a fake humility, adapting to the situation as if he were dealing with someone he could trick. He was desperate. Perhaps he could learn to feel something besides rage or desire. Koji seemed to have won some of their trust. Did Koji have correct feelings now? He envied Koji. How could Zakiya judge him to be of so little use, of so little respect? And what of the mission to rescue this person named Petros, who was another child to whom he was a worthless father?

“Please, put me back where you found me,” Alex asked.

He knew how much she wanted that locked-away part of him. He would try to steer a path around her will, carefully offering her hope that he could be salvaged. He just needed more time, and less rage, and less desire.

“Yes, that I will do,” she said.

He looked up at her and tried to perceive her mood and purpose, but perceived nothing. Why was he not already unconscious, dropped into darkness by a single command to her shiplink? He did feel humility. She was so much greater than he was, he could almost worship her. She placed her injured hand gently on his temple and let it slide downward, across his ear and to the side of his neck. He knew how that soft touch should make him feel and he was almost angry that he could feel nothing, only the hope that she still cared enough to not eject him completely from her life… and from her magnificent ship.

“Kiss me,” she ordered, but in such a nuanced way that it seemed to offer him hope.

He would have hesitated, being the ultimate paranoid. Desperation and simple physiology – he was, after all, a physically young man again – made him reckless. A kiss from her was like a life-line thrown out to a man drifting in space. She leaned over, hands on each side of his neck, and gently pressed her lips against his. He expected oblivion yet remained alive. He concentrated on the kiss, trying to find some way to fake passion, or at least to reciprocate satisfying pleasure. There was warmth, softness, moisture, pleasure beyond what he expected.

Alex jerked involuntarily, animated by a small prick of pain on one side of his neck. She clamped her hands around his neck and shoved. They toppled onto the floor, and even though he struggled, she was too strong at the critical moment. Before he could react with an effective combat strategy, his body went numb and he could no longer make himself move.

[I’m sorry, but I must talk to you,] it thought.

{Who?} he thought.

[My name is Samson.]

{The dead child? Sammy?}

[I think I am, yes, mostly Sammy.]

{How can you be?}

[I can’t tell you and I’m scared! Mom wants me to hurry.]

{What do you want?}

[I want you to love her.]

{I’m sorry, Sammy. I can’t!}

[Let me try to help you. Let me look for the real you.]

{I’m lost! I don’t want you to find me! Go away!}

[Please! I need a dad. You need Mom.]

{NO! No! No. Oh, God in heaven! How can I leave her?}

The last hatch sealed between them. The image of her face, dwelt upon by his hungry eyes until they blurred, would begin to fade now. The ache, the great ACHE, it carved away his heart and left a black hole for hope at his center. He would never see her again. He would never see her again! He had lied to her about the length of time it would take to find the enemy and learn what they needed to learn. Time, cruel time, would now eat away at his memory and eat his soul, leaving him with no image of her, no vital feelings for her, perhaps not even a grave marker to stumble upon.

He turned to Setek-Ren, and must have appeared so stricken that Setek had to embrace him and comfort him. Setek-Ren: for whom this was not in his nature.

“She is an extraordinary person,” Setek said. “I wish you had married her first, so that you would not be so cheated of time with her.”

“How this must hurt her!” Alex cried, breaking his embrace with his old friend. “I hope she doesn’t love me as much as I love her, so her pain will be less. How can I survive this?”

“With work. We have years, perhaps decades of work ahead of us. The harder we work, the sooner you will see her again.”

“I don’t think I will ever see her again. I can’t help thinking that. I can’t see how I’ll be able to function, with Zakiya always on my mind. You have to help me. I must hide her away, save her for my dying day.”

“Pat and I will work on it. It may be useful for all of us. I’ll confess that, having seen Aylis again, I’m preoccupied with thoughts of her. If we are ever captured, our memories will endanger those we have left behind.”

“I just want to come home to her in one piece. I’m a soft old man who only wants a place to call home and a woman to love me. Zakiya.”

/

She felt him relax and begin to breathe again. Sammy came back to her, crossing from Alex’s neck to her wrist, less painful this time. Sammy went to sleep inside her, feeling safe and tired. She sat on the deck next to Alex, holding him, gently caressing him. He opened his eyes. He smiled. She remembered that smile, half boyish, half roguish, and it thrilled her! Nervously she touched his face, seeking some confirmation that Sammy had changed him permanently, that the heartless assassin of barbarians was dead or dying and Alexandros Gerakis lived again. She had experienced his first retrieved memory with him, connected through Sammy, and could still feel his towering love for her and the deep despair that was a lethal catalyst for exiling his true self. Probably it was a memory exaggerated by later loneliness and introspection but she was deeply moved by the experience. She could only hope to be worthy of such affection.

Mai returned and stepped around them to put Sammy’s body away. Aylis and Koji entered the hospital morgue. Koji knelt beside Alex and gripped his shoulder. Zakiya saw Alex wince in pain, but not from Koji’s grasp.

Oh, no!” Alex cried out in misery. “No. No. No!”

He wept. Koji looked at Zakiya for explanation.

“He remembers,” she said.

“The old memories?” Koji asked her.

“Yes. I think he realizes now the horror of what he did.”

She brushed Alex’s face with the back of her fingers. He tried to turn away from her.

“He lost his honor and his righteousness,” Koji said. “Such loss is a disease spread by violence. I wish I could have my honor again. I wish I could remember!”

“I think I may be able to help you,” Zakiya said.

She got to her feet. Koji tried to raise Alex from the deck and finally succeeded.

“Help me?” Koji asked her. “How?”

“I now have a key that may unlock your auxiliary memory.”

“And Setek?”

“I think we can soon find out. Take care of Alex, will you? Bring him along. I’ll help you as soon as I can.”

“How did he find his memories?” Aylis asked as they walked back from the morgue.

“I found Sammy,” she said.

“You mean Shorty?”

“Perhaps both. I can’t explain it yet. He’s inside me. He’s safe.”

Aylis could only stare at her with grave concern. Zakiya was sure she sounded mentally impaired, or at best mystical. She had seen the dark pool of sparkling matter spool itself into silk-fine thread as she tried to capture it in her hands. The thread entered her body through her hands and began to talk to her. She didn’t have time to ponder this miracle of sentience, but she guessed it was an intellect composed of microscopic machines. She tried to explain.

“Sammy found the path to Alex’s auxiliary memory and completed the circuit,” she said, coming to the end of her explanation. “I’m calling it Sammy, but that may not be accurate. It may be both an independent entity and a copy of Sammy’s memory.”

They returned to Iggy and Wingren, who waited for them in the hospital foyer. Koji sat down with Alex, who was still lost in memories. Zakiya explained what had happened in the morgue.

Jon, Jamie, and Direk arrived in the hospital by transmat. They appeared agitated.

“It’s here?” Zakiya asked.

“Something is here!” Jon replied. “We’ve lost control of the ship!”

In the middle of the hospital foyer a small golden object bloomed into existence and floated in the air near them.

“That’s it!” Iggy declared.

“But it’s so small!” Wingren said. “I thought it was huge!”

As if in response to her words, the double spheroid began to grow. They backed away from it as it magically expanded to fill half of the foyer without disturbing anything. It grew farther, until much of it passed through walls and chairs and ceiling, yet did not appear to cause damage. It seemed utterly real and completely impossible at the same time. Its two spheres were joined by a thick shaft that flowed between them with seamless curves. Their eyes couldn’t focus on any detail of its golden surface, only the line of its bright silhouette and the reflections of objects in its perfect surface. It could not be determined if it destroyed any of the objects it swallowed or merged with, until Direk pulled a partly-enveloped chair away from the golden object. The chair remained intact and was easy to move but Direk could not return the chair to its partly-enveloped position in the alien intruder.

Zakiya moved to the middle of the shaft connecting the spheres and waited. She was tempted to touch the perfect liquid-like surface of the alien artifact. “Who are you?” she asked.

There was no reaction.

“Speak to us,” she said.

Zakiya put out her hand to touch the golden smoothness. Her hand, her wrist, and her forearm each shrank in size when they came near the surface. She snatched her hand away, frightened. She noticed the effect seemed to vary as she moved her hand sideways near the surface. One place greatly reduced her hand. At that place a depression started to form.

A portal opened as the golden surface dimpled into a passageway. A tiny human figure staggered toward the opening, the base of which extruded to form a golden ramp whose width expanded as it extended to the hospital floor. The little man stood at the top of the ramp and blinked as though unaccustomed to bright light. Each blink squeezed out tears from his eyes. He swayed slightly as he looked at Zakiya and the others with an expression of disbelief. Perspiration coated his face and dampened his simple clothing. His hair was long and wild. When he wiped the sweat from his brow he left smears of red. His hands were covered with a dried red substance.

The man started to take a step backward, to retreat.

“Wait!” Zakiya called to the miniature figure. She reached for him and saw her hand and arm taper in size again to match scale with the man. Aylis grabbed Zakiya protectively from behind. Zakiya felt nothing unusual in her arm even though the view was extremely disturbing. Her fingers contacted the doll-like reality of the man and reflexively clutched at his clothing. The little man reacted by stumbling and taking a few steps down the ramp. With each step he grew larger as the ramp became wider, and with each of his steps Zakiya felt impelled to pull him forward. He tried to resist but seemed to have no strength for it. In a few seconds he stood unsteadily on the hospital floor, grown to normal size, and he owned an indisputable reality of being. The ramp retracted like molten gold being sucked back into its container. The alien ship shrank to a point of golden light and disappeared.

That’s impossible!” Aylis declared in a shaky voice.

Zakiya held the stranger by his cloth shirt with her trembling hand while her mind tried to accommodate what she had experienced. Then she took a closer look at the man. She feared for his health! He appeared dangerously thin and weak. The man stood wavering and stared at her with eyes that haunted her.

She knew who he was!

“Let us help you,” she said in Twenglish.

Parting Gift

Day after day we studied the simulation on the computer: sequences of events so brief they might only exist as ideas in this universe, and shapes so strange they could not be traced by electrons striking phosphor. Day after day the Advisory Committee refused to permit a vacuum test of the Big Circuits. I kept the vacuum in the apertures hard, in ever fainter hope of doing the tests.

The delay in the testing of the Big Circuits was ultimately caused by the first experiment the Air Force let me perform at an abandoned facility in the desert. That test had reached legendary status among those with the need to know. The facility – a dilapidated building dating to the late 1930s – no longer existed. Colonel Duncan and three other people were still alive because I had insisted we position ourselves five miles away on the other side of a ridge. They thought I was being overly cautious. They had thoroughly inspected the concentrator component and the jury-rigged current-pulse device two of my colleagues at Princeton had helped me build. Except for the stick of dynamite, there was nothing to suggest that even standing a hundred meters away wouldn’t be safe. The flash beyond the ridge was a great surprise to Duncan and the others, and even to me. I never expected such a large explosion, and although I was elated as the ground shook, I was upset I didn’t have the equipment to measure what happened. Later, seismograph recordings did suggest an impressive force, and the blast crater proved it. That test was followed by two more with similar results.

Many more concentrator components were fabricated with increasingly larger dimensions. Their potential for becoming cheap non-nuclear armaments kept the secret development funds pouring in and eventually moved the project to a deep mine in West Virginia where the test explosions would be less noticeable. There were not that many test explosions, as the “yield” did not increase quickly enough with the increases in size. The component was then greatly enlarged and it went west to the desert to be tested. This component melted and seemed like a failure, which it was – for a weapon. However, measurements suggested that the output energy was greater than the input and some mass had disappeared. This made my theory inadequate to explain why greater size did not produce greater explosions. It seemed the universe had a secret size scale for the kind of event I was testing. This was a geometry problem that Milly jumped into with fierce fascination, coming up with suggestions that were more imaginative than I could imagine.

The circuits of the second range of sizes were designed to study the mass and energy losses and gains of the larger concentrator components. We melted half a dozen concentrators of various sizes. Milly invented a new kind of geometry using data from the tests. Her new geometry suggested a third range of sizes with yet a different but unknown test outcome. My quantum circuit theory became wedded to Milly’s geometry, where size changed fundamental relationships for almost everything. I suggested Milly call her new math quantum geometry. She never did like the word quantum. She did like the idea of a probability geometry. She did not like what probabilities her geometry hinted at for the larger circuits to come.

The Second Range circuit, had it been refined, could have generated electricity from its excess heat production, becoming a kind of fusion power plant. The disappearing mass, however, was a theoretical problem and a practical problem. The Second Range circuit was never going to be exploited. As much as our fellow scientists and engineers did not understand my theory and as little as they liked Milly’s predictive geometry that required – for instance – that triangles have an imaginary total of less than 180 degrees, it made them shudder to wonder what our Third Range circuit would do.

I had my own imaginary probability for what a very large Third Range Circuit could do. Something was happening at the position where all the electric lines of force plunged into maximum density. A larger “aperture” for the concentration of field lines – quantum circuits – might change the nature of that piece of real estate. Milly’s “probability geometry” had sent me back to quantum physics and relativity to recharge my imagination with the probability and uncertainty of stuff we can never see. What are we, if we are never here nor there? What is reality if observation creates or changes reality?

Milly and I got the Big Circuits built, because they were not terribly expensive, only terribly cold and precise. Also, they were not supposed to melt or blow up. I had been waiting to test them for months. Milly and everyone else had been afraid to flip the switch, because electric field lines were not supposed to bend as sharply as her geometry required.

Scientific theories and their proofs are hard-won by brilliant people. They are things of immense beauty and personal pride. They are also ideas of difficult scholarly learning by millions of toiling students. Thus, due to effort and pride, scientific theory takes on the rigidity of religious dogma, however temporarily, until experiment casts doubt on the logic. My theory, with only a couple of simple machines as possible proof, remained heresy, and was my own dogma. I no longer tried to explain the theory to justify the circuits’ existence. After my escape from The Hole, to breathe some fresh air and to make my wife worry about me, ending in fortunate safety and kind forgiveness, I probably no longer had any intellectual standing among my peers.

Waiting while my youthful impatience simmered, I was at least content with knowing my wife loved me. I literally loved Milly more than I could say, because the eloquence I needed to express the depth of my feelings for her was beyond my verbal abilities. In fact, I’m sure I must have too often transferred the opposite sentiment to her without even knowing. I tried to reciprocate her renewed spirit of fondness and attention. I tried to better demonstrate the affection I felt for Milly, affection I had too well learned to quell over my years with her. But I was not able to continuously hide my scientific disappointment from her. My curiosity about the magic of the new universe we had discovered often stoked the bonfire of my impatience.

There would soon come a time when the Big Circuits would be moth-balled. Personnel were disappearing from the roster of those maintaining the cryogenics of the Big Circuits. Security was tighter on those lower levels in The Hole. We had to test the Big Circuits soon, or inevitable maintenance failure would doom their purpose. There is no greater object of pride than one’s intellect, when one thinks he is so intelligent and so imaginative. Why was I never smart enough or sensitive enough or patient enough to never forget how much my wife meant to me, and to never doubt how much I meant to her?

“We’ll do it on our own,” she said one morning.

“Do what?” I asked, in the middle of reading the only important part of a week-old newspaper: the comics.

“Run the vacuum tests on the Big Circuits.”

“How?” I didn’t even look up from the comics.

“With these.”

I looked up. She held two punch cards over her scrambled eggs and waved them at me.

“What are those?”

“The security keys to the Big Circuits.”

“They use old punch cards?” I asked.”

“Old is right. And they never changed the passwords.”

“How did you copy them?”

“Quickly and sneakily.”

“When?”

“Last May.”

“All the way back then? I didn’t think you were ever in favor of turning on the Big Circuits!”

“Back then I had stupid reasons for wanting to do it. I thought that at worst it would be a painless way to commit suicide. No! I wasn’t that far gone! I shouldn’t joke about it! I was always as curious as you were about our project.”

“I thought you had deserted me!”

“I was just trying to get your attention, Sam!”

“I’m sorry! I know I withdraw a lot. I need to say I love you much more often, just as long as it never seems insincere or habitual.”

“Just look at me the way you used to, Sam, and I’ll be happy.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid!”

I did look at Milly, and I saw how beautiful she really was. It was as if she had been fading away from me but was now brightening and blossoming, nourished by what I was now able to give of myself. I wondered how much she had helped me simply because she loved me, rather than because she loved mathematics.

“I love you, Sam,” Milly said. “I was always going to help you make this thing work! When we started plumbing the cryogenics I just had a hunch that the Big Circuits were getting a little too scary and we might eventually need to bypass the Advisory Committee. They are so far behind us in the theory that they’ll never have the courage to flip the switch.”

“Milly,” I said, feeling wonderful and humbled, “I knew you were unhappy with me. I assumed you were afraid of the test because of how strongly you argued theory with me. I should have just asked if that was true.”

“Yes, I was unhappy with you, Samuel Lee! And you were unhappy with me. But whether you think it’s fair or not, you will have to smother me with kisses to keep me happy from now on!”

I thought I could do even better than that.

 

 

###

Afterword, Part 2

I hope you enjoyed Part 2: Cryptikon. Part 3: The Lady is next.

 

As this is an e-book, it can be changed and perhaps improved. If you ever feel like reading it again, check for a revised edition, which should not cost you anything to obtain. This is a revised edition.


Cryptikon Far Freedom Part 2

Fascinated with Admiral Fidelity Demba - his elderly (though rejuvenated) Chief of Navy Archives, Commander of the Navy Admiral Etrhnk is at a loss as to what to do about her. His attempts to thwart her escape from him are bothered by an alien being of whom he has long been aware but has only now chosen to visit him. She is a breathtakingly beautiful golden humanoid who essentially holds ultimate power over the entire Union. Yet she has no orders for him concerning Admiral Demba but merely observes his actions. Etrhnk kidnaps Samson - the boy Demba found on Earth - and causes Demba to leave the Freedom before it departs. The golden alien saves Samson from harm and does not interfere when a member of Demba's crew rescues Demba and Samson. The Freedom is launched from Navy Headquarters and is able to lose the pursuit long enough to undergo a refitting of its drive, vastly changing its capabilities. Demba's personal mission is to find friends she has lost from before there was a Union Navy. Finding them beyond the frontiers of the Union will be not only difficult but dangerous because a different enemy, more deadly than the Navy, flies ships as fast as the Freedom and only exists to raid and pillage everywhere. The cost of finding her friends will be high. And there will be a monumental discovery at the end.

  • Author: Warren Merkey
  • Published: 2017-02-08 16:50:21
  • Words: 124622
Cryptikon Far Freedom Part 2 Cryptikon Far Freedom Part 2