5.1 Phoenix

The recapture of the frigate RenJiang followed a distinct pattern, perfected through repetition. First, the fighter ships went out in their easy way and sang until their victim could not fire back or escape. Second, the buzz-handers invaded like so many termites. The redheads chanted some hackneyed rhyme about pulverizing their enemy, and then it was over. It was so easy for them that Becca worried they would become complacent.

However, the lesson of the second garden had taught the girls to search every area before declaring something safe, and that's when they found two survivors on the ship. Lieutenant Nie Faren and Ensign Qi Liwei were found suffering from hypothermia in a walk-in refrigerator. There had never been survivors on a recaptured ship before.

Imala was delighted; she finally had an opportunity to try out her medical knowledge on a subject that was not one of her sisters.

Becca and Imala set to treating the two humans, first taking DNA samples, inserting IVs that would give them a supply of warm fluid, and then hurrying to the factory to mix two tubes of spray for the unresponsive victims. (Imala had to open the doors; they would not respond to Becca's hand and Becca did not want to reveal the presence of the door slugs.) The spray was to heal the frostbite and prevent the onset of sepsis, but Becca feared it may be too late for one of them. Lieutenant Nie had been found curled in a corner, entering into that terrifying terminal burrowing behavior found so often in final-stage hypothermia victims.

Ensign Qi was the first to regain consciousness. He was confused, incoherent, and terrified. Becca actually had to get the help of three redheads to strap him down to the bed. They did the same to Lieutenant Nie, but Becca did not think he would ever wake up; the brain damage was probably too great.

Iskandar offered a solution for Nie's blood-starved brain: an injection of some of the "base material" they used for cloning. Penemue was offered to connect to the unconscious man, to see what kind of damage there was. "If basic functions have been destroyed, we may be able to insert new ones," the librarian said. "This will actually direct the base to rebuild what has been lost."

Experimental, but worth the risk, Becca reasoned. We're just helping nature along. He might not survive otherwise.

Gordon was sitting with Ensign Qi, using calm, metered tones to explain to the man what had happened, as well as getting information from him. Hiding in the refrigerator had been the ensign's idea, and he had dragged Nie in with him when the officer was knocked unconscious by an explosion. "I thought I could save his life. We should have been able to get out and I reasoned the refrigerator was airtight. An explosion damaged the door, so we were stuck. He swore I would be tried for cowardice in combat. What's cowardly about saving a man's life? Isn't it better to live and tell others what happened? I wasn't just going to stand there and die."

Gordon patted the ensign's shoulder, "Spoken like a true officer."

Becca leaned forward and chittered in Gordon's ear, "Do you we can get him out of here safely? I need to bring in Iskandar and Penemue and I don't think that will go over well."

Ensign Qi Liwei stared at them. "This is the attack ship! You're the spy! You're supposed to be dead!"

"This is the ship that has been recovering the ships that were attacked," Gordon said. "This is the ship that stopped a war. This is the ship that will take you home and this is the woman who saved your life."

"I want to save Lieutenant Nie Faren's life as well," Becca said. "But I have to bring in two Vencume in order to do it." She looked up at Ensign Qi. "Can you let me save his life or are you too worried that he will report you?"

"I'm not a coward," Qi answered stiffly, "but you must tell me what you are going to do."

Becca tried to explain.

"You're going to brain-wash him," the ensign stated.

Gordon lost his cool. "Leave him here! We'll move his bed so he can watch his superior die. When we drop him off, we'll report how he denied the man medical attention!"

"That's not acceptable," Becca argued. "It's my duty as a doctor to help where I can. I can't just let him—"

"No, no," Gordon was shoving Becca from the room. "Forget it. The good ensign doesn't want us to save the life of a man who outranks him. So be it!"

The two of them struggled to the hallway, Becca protesting the entire time. Once the door was shut behind them, Gordon raised a finger to his lips.

"Let him consider it," he said. "You'll see."

There was a minute of silence, then a shout. Gordon held Becca back until the second shout came, more pleadingly. "Doctor! Please come back!"

And Gordon bowed to Becca, waving his arms to the door with a flourish.

Lieutenant Nie Faren woke a few hours after the procedure. He was left with Ensign Qi to discuss what had happened. Becca returned to them with two bowls of hot cabbage soup and a pot of barley tea that Asabi had made especially for the two men.

"It is a barbaric meal, but warming to the body and soul," Faren said. "But these are barbaric times and any refuge is welcomed, no matter the guise."

Becca nodded. He's an officer from one of the old families. Young, but well on his way up. He has to be handled very carefully.

It had been her second long distance run (before she understood that the private sector paid better), on an actual Shipping Authority freighter, when Becca had first learned how to properly handle the central arm. She was the junior medical crew on that run and would not soon to forget the shunning she had received by the crew for not addressing the officers with the correct tone of voice. This was, of course, her own fault for forgetting that the language was a tonal system and that the wrong inflection was the difference between praise and an insult. She knew she had to pick her words very carefully and listen to how she said it.

Becca clasped her hands across her lap. "We hope that this offering will also warm relations between our feuding camps."

"There is no feud between Vencume and human," the Lieutenant continued. "There is the question of prisoners that have escaped and the great dishonor done to one of our destroyers."

"There has been a terrible misunderstanding," Becca tried. "And in the heat of a battle there is little time to explain one's actions. Now that the battle is reaching an end, all accounts must be balanced."

Nie Faren smiled and sipped his tea. "You are a well-trained doctor, I must say. I appreciate your exquisite etiquette. You have a much finer touch than that oafish pilot."

"You know who Gordon is?" Becca blurted, then dropped to a more polite tone. "A most unfortunate turn of events has tarnished the polish of our manners and I apologize on their behalf. My fellow crew-members have not had dealings of any proper sort with the central arm of the Shipping Authority and do not understand the need for proper decorum."

The Lieutenant nodded. "But you have. I am familiar with your exemplary—if brief—record and you have been spoken of very highly by the shipping families. I see that their trust and praise has not been scattered carelessly."

"I do not wish to sully their words by any mis-actions," Becca answered.

"I am also fully aware of what has happened here," Nie Faren chittered, "and I will make it my duty to inform the Authority of the full story."

Ensign Qi's eye widened. "Sir, they have converted you!"

The officer waved a hand at his subordinate. "We have much to learn and damage has been caused by our fear." He turned to Becca. "I will report what I have found to my superiors. I cannot guarantee safety for you immediately, but you seem to have found your place on this ship of mirrors. There will be much to debate, but I know that you are an honorable woman. You have not treated us as a wounded enemy, waiting for the final blow." He laughed. "This one ship, and all its little girls. Oh, you have struck fear into our hearts! How embarrassing to High Command! We chased a tiger that was manned by kittens!"

Gordon and Evie were in the kitchen.

Evie was nervously chewing a carrot and staring at the floor. She held up her hands when Becca found them. "Hey! It's healthy!"

"It's snacking between meals," Becca chided her. Evie's weight gain had continued and the clothes she wore were getting tight across the hips. "What are you doing in here anyway?"

Gordon pointed half-heartedly to Evie. "I was just following her. She said she was hungry."

"I'm nervous," Evie answered. "I saw some of that...questioning....the girls are doing to that Tzikzik they captured earlier."

"How bad is it?" Becca asked.

Evie chewed thoughtfully, then spat what she had in her mouth into the sink. "I don't know what I was thinking. I've no appetite. It's just about the most awful thing I've ever seen."

Becca waved her head in a half-shake. "I heard they took all the arms off, not just one or two."

"They took the legs off, too," Evie muttered. "I've never seen hate like that. I wish I could unsee it. They've got it strapped to a table and Idana has some kind of pain-ray she's using on it. I don't think they're even asking it questions anymore."

"Imala was right," Becca said, more to herself than anyone. "They broke it."

"How's that?" Gordon asked.

"The pain-killing device that Imala made," Becca explained. "She said the others would break it. Looks like they did. The same way they broke her new field generator..."

"..And made the collapser," Evie finished.

"And now they have a weapon that can shoot through anything and take a limb off in one pass," Gordon stated. "This is the most dangerous ship in the universe."

"We're on their good side," Evie said. "I think it's the safest place to be for now."

"We're on a ship manned by more than twenty girls on the cusp of puberty," Becca retorted. "I can't think of a more dangerous place we could be."

Ensign Qi was alone in the room when Becca went back to check on the two men. "A girl came to get him," he said. "He left with her. They made that noise, but he told me to not worry. How far are we from Cancri-55?"

"We'll be there in two days," Becca told him. "What color was her hair?"

Ulan had taken Lieutenant Nie Faren to an observation deck. They were sitting cross-legged across from each other, chittering.

They were telling each other poems.

"Ah, dear doctor!" Lieutenant Nie said when he saw Becca. "You did not tell me that our little warriors have mastered the brush as well as the sword. You are most delightful."

"I feel they get that from their base model, our engineer, Evie," Becca said. "She read a lot and would make up these little rhymes all the time."

"First Authority understands chichitiizi," Ulan chittered. "His addition to the Library is most useful."

Faren waved a hand at the view. "Please! Drop all formalities! Oh, there will be much to report! How lucky you are to have such an experience."

"It hasn't all been wonderful," Becca said.

"Yes, you were treated most poorly by Peg-51," Lieutenant Nie said, glumly. "They are such a remote outpost and the High Command cannot keep track of them. We will send someone there to clean it up. The prisoner's block is a crude and disgusting thing; there is no excuse for poor treatment of prisoners. This dear child told me about how backwards they are. Their behavior was most shameful. It will be rectified."

Becca rubbed the scar on her forehead. "I apologize; I did not know it was isolated."

"Why would you think otherwise?" he laughed and struggled to get up. Ulan helped him. "You have never been arrested before, but surely your dealings with us would have let you know we are not so cruel. You cannot lead through fear alone."

Ulan smiled. "There is an understanding of leadership that is lacking on this ship."

"I am sorry to hear such a thing," he chittered in response. "Even the swarm of bees has a queen."

Becca laughed. "I think that might be Evie, considering she's the source of it all."

Ulan was shaking her head.

"I must meet this fantastic engineer!" Faren said. "I understand she saved your lives and then—poor woman—visited hell itself. She must be a fascinating person. I..." he stumbled a bit, "I am most tired. Please, bring her to me. I want to see who made the Queue at Peg-51 so unsettled that they felt they had to barbarically execute her in such an inept fashion."

Becca's eyebrows had already shot up.

"Oh yes," Faren said with a smile. "We all know you call us that. That is another problem to be addressed."

Evie left her interview with Lieutenant Nie Faren smiling from ear to ear.

"You look like that went well," Becca observed.

"Well, what can I say?" Evie beamed. "I made him laugh a few times, and it wasn't that awkward laugh I usually get from people. He said I had a generous smile."

"That sounds nice," Becca said. He said you were fat.

"So," Evie went on, "he wants to have our accounts reinstated, our arrest records wiped clean, and...oh...I think that someone's daughter might get a scholarship out of this."

Becca stood shock-still. "Don't joke about that."

"I'm not joking and I don't think he was."

"He can't promise that."

"He's not high-ranking," Evie said, "but his family is. And! What have we done? We've averted a war and saved the life of a very valuable young man who just so happens to be someone's eldest son."

"I didn't know that Lieutenant Nie was that well connected," Becca mused.

"Not him...Ensign Qi Liwei," Evie explained. "His father is the Fleet Admiral. Everyone used to tease him and call him the 'jade prince'. He was just happy someone didn't talk down to him."

Cancri-55 received the broken frigate and two survivors with gushing praise. "We are familiar with how these recoveries go, so for you to bring this back in....relatively one piece...we must commend you. But to find actual survivors goes well beyond our expectations! And not on a lifeboat. The Shipping Authority is most pleased by this outcome and will offer any assistance to any Vencume ship if it is desired."

Mirabilis blue-nodded. "This will only leave the three remaining victims. We hope to return these to you soon."

"There is only one ship left," Cancri responded. "We have the other two, so there is only the cruiser XingFeng left. And to see that the Vencume have sent their largest—and most powerful—ship for such a dangerous mission. You must alert us when you discover their location so we may assist."

"May it be our first true joint venture," Mirabilis answered.

"Are you sure you want that?" Evie asked once he had signed off. "Don't you think they're going to freak out a little when they discover who we are?"

"Engineer is worried for no reason," Mirabilis said. "We have repaired the rift. Let them see what we have prepared. Is this not part of our gift to you?"

Evie nodded, then shook her head. "That may be the case, but I think the girls prefer to work alone. What if we accidentally get one of their people killed? They don't know how to work with them. Someone's going to get a bolt in the eye or have an arm fried off."

Mirabilis shifted to a dark blue. "New Tzikzik must learn how to work with others. They cannot be alone all their lives."

Evie was still worrying about it when she and Becca were getting ready for bed. "It's going to ruin everything; we can't have them meet in a combat situation." She rubbed her right eye. "This is going to un-do everything we've been working towards."

"Or it will prove once and for all that it's a good thing and the project is a success," Becca said.

5.2 Buer

Becca ran into Buer on her way back from the factory. The four door slugs she and Gordon had been using were drying out and the doors were responding more slowly. She had to grow another four: one for her, one for Gordon, and the two back-ups.

"Becca," Buer asked. "What were you doing?"

"I told you to not use my name," Becca hissed, pushing past the Vencume.

"You have left the factory. You were growing something. What is its purpose?"

"It's a human purpose," Becca said. "You wouldn't understand."

Buer frowned deep-blue. "And you are not willing to teach me."

"I don't have time to dawdle," Becca answered.

"You are concerned about the reprogramming of the doors," Buer stated. "The Library has already interpreted your intent from the first time."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Becca found it hard to concentrate; her head hurt and she just wanted to get back to her room and hand Gordon his new slug. "My head hurts and I want to go lie down. Just let me by."

"Other Scientist's programming is still interfering," Buer stated. "What is it you call him? Renatus?"

"You just said him," Becca said, annoyed.

Buer pink-laughed. "Isn't that what you say? We should speak the same language. You also call Clever Blue...Iskandar. Another him."

Becca rubbed her eyes and continued down the corridor. "You said 'programming'. What are you even talking about?"

"Renatus wants this project to fail even now," Buer explained, spinning to keep up with Becca's brisk pace. "It was Renatus who directed Librarian to install the effect. You see what you were told to see. I had said that we did not understand humans well enough and would need the assistance of one more experience in such matters. Yes, we used Evie because the opportunity presented itself, and we saw that you were resilient to injury, capable of damaging us without intent, but also compassionate. We knew that when the escape pod exploded and she was wounded. A Vencume in a similar circumstance would have been immobilized, but when she ruptured the hydraulic bladders in my hand, and then expressed sorrow and regret, both Iskandar and I knew that humans were a better route to take. Renatus never saw the process, but Helpmeet and Gardener both agreed that—"

"Iskandar isn't even Vencume," Becca growled. Her head was pounding. "And you told me you wanted to pass on such great gifts. You've created a monster and now you want me to rein it in for you. No one ever asked me what I thought. I got dragged into all this; you and your little army of...monsters. I just want to get home and see my own daughter again. My human daughter. I had a life outside of all this and you almost managed to take it from me!"

"This is bigger than you!" Buer almost yelled, spinning and colliding with Becca, pinning her to the wall. The Vencume wrapped long arms around her, around her head, covering her mouth. "Becca, you do not understand how important this is. If you won't listen, at least look."

Becca struggled against the impossibly strong arms of the Vencume. Buer was already probing the top of her head.

"I will not install any directive," Buer stated calmly. "I don't want a puppet."

As Becca's eyes dilated, the corridor turned bright white.

They are sitting in Great-Aunt Lytle's living room. The old woman pours two cups of frothing brown coffee.

"You take two sugars, if I recall," Lytle says.

"Don't do this," Becca protests. "You're forcing this connection. Just let me go."

Lytle smiles widely. "I'm trying to make this as pleasant as possible. You need to give me a chance and I can't get it from you voluntarily."

They are suddenly floating in open space. An angry red star swells before them.

"Where are we now?" Becca asks.

Buer-Lytle points at the expanding star. "Watch."

The star expands and reduces, like a breath. A wave of super-heated gas comes off and passes through them. Becca's eyes water and she licks her chapped lips. A bright green planet to one side is in the path of the gas-wave. It only takes a moment for it to turn a dull orange.

"You see, the ocean cover has been boiled away," Buer-Lytle states. "The vapor is gone forever. There will be no recovery."

Becca wipes her eyes. "This is the destruction of your home planet. I wondered but I never knew."

Still in space, they are a tiny party to fleet of ships. There are hundreds of them, ranging in size from five sections to more than twenty. As one curls past them, Becca and Buer-Lytle settle on the side of it. The rotating section stretches out under them.

"Let us see how things are inside," Buer-Lytle says.

The hull of the ship parts like water and they sink into an ocean of rooted Vencume. Becca twists herself to an upright position inside the vast library. There is a buzz of voices around her. She suddenly feels very lonely.

Buer-Lytle is behind her and rests a hand on her shoulder. When Becca turns, it is more her great-aunt than the Vencume. "See what is left of us?"

"When did this happen?" Becca asks.

"In your time," Lytle answers, "it was when humans were first discovering lighter-than-air travel. It is the only context I can give you, from what you and others know. I am sorry it cannot be more precise."

The image of the ocean fades and they stand on the surface of Peg-51. It is a bleak landscape and harsh winds swirl around them. The wreckage of a Vencume ship looms over them.

Becca feels dread. "Do I have to see what's inside?"

"You already know what's inside and how it happened," Lytle answers.

Crushed Vencume bodies litter the inside of the ship. The floor is awash in water and blood.

"We cannot live here," Lytle states.

Now they are on the surface of Big Bear-47. Becca is reminded of the time she took shore-leave there and the train-ride through the desert. A dessicated Vencume body leans in the corridor of a ship. Sand piles next to the body.

"We cannot live here," Lytle repeats.

A Toshdohai ship is in the bay of a Vencume ship. The tiny insect-like crew shudders under the fingertips of a Vencume librarian. Their bodies quaver and die.

"We cannot live through this," Lytle intones.

The parade of death continues: planets where Vencume cannot live, other civilized races that cannot accept Vencume connections, other races that cannot live on other planets.

Suddenly, there is something new. It is a funny creature and Becca feels herself stifling a laugh at how it moves. These new beings seem to dance and sing. Arms become legs, arms become heads, legs become arms. They sing like birds and move through so many forms, tall and thin, short and squat. These delightful things change shape and color so many times, it's hard to get a clear image of them.

Lytle laughs as well. "Look at these! Who are these things? They ask questions. They are not afraid."

Now, Becca recognizes the shifting creatures as portmen. These were the first humans in space; flying for generations on slow ships with no spin. Delicate in their own way, they stand with a self-confidence that makes them look as strong as stone. Longs hands and feet curl and flex in anticipation. Large eyes peer past the fearful mass of tentacles before them. There are pictures, sounds, pictures, sounds, pictures, words, words, words. They are translating: forming a connection with an alien species. They are preparing the way for a home-world they thought they would never see again.

Mountains of grain! The yellow ocean of corn and rice and barley! And the Vencume eat and are pleased. Now, a strange device: the borrowed-time field. Here is the MOUS. These are tomatoes. This is a new engine. Here is lettuce. Here is a new ship design. Here are eggplant.

And the portmen go home and now there are humans everywhere.

On Peg-51, under the wreckage of the Vencume ship, there is a dome built into the landscape. Small, hirsute creatures busy themselves growing food. They grow winter wheat and triticale. They sing under the dome and there is a space-station. The Vencume buy food from them and trade technology.

On Big Bear-47, golden-haired creatures grow fruit and their bronzed bodies move with such grace. The Vencume buy food from them and give them technology.

On Cancri-55, pale creatures work their tanks and raise fish and algae of many kinds. These creatures have dark hair and the Vencume wonder if they are the same as the others.

And the Vencume try other planets, other planets, other planets and they cannot live there. They cannot live there and they die. There are fewer and fewer ships.

We are dying. There are less of us. We must find a way.

But look at the humans who change shape! Look at the humans who change color! Here is the happy planet. Here is the sad planet. Here is the questioning planet.

"Look," Buer-Lytle points at a ship. The Vencume are changing shape and color here. It has suddenly become dangerous. These are angry Vencume who despise the humans. They are jealous.

This is it: the war between old and new. Old is slow. Old is weak. New is swift and cruel.

"Such ugly creatures," a dark blue Vencume chitters angrily. "We cannot trust our future in a thing that cannot maintain its own shape."

A Vencume stretches out before her, in zero-gee, radiating out. Becca watches three of the arms turn into girls. They break away from the mangled source, the two remaining arms flailing helplessly. The three girls start to fight amongst themselves.

"Tell me about Vencume arms," Becca asks.

Buer-Lytle is changing color and the arms move by like a carnival ride. "The red arm is strong and does many tasks. The yellow arm is quick and friendly. The blue arm is clever and sensitive."

Becca watches the girls fighting. They are much younger than the ones she knows. She is seeing them while in advancement. A blue girl holds her hands to her eye and cries. A yellow girl is holding a handful of her own hair, matted with blood. A red girl stands alone as the others dance around her—such hateful words....

And great-aunt Buer is there, holding the girls apart. Chiding and soothing.

"You did not mention the black or white arms," Becca says.

"The black hand chastises," Buer coos. "The white arm teaches."

And Becca laughs and wipes away tears. "You never finished the project. Even I know that a three-legged creature limps."

The buzzing in her head settled and the corridor re-formed around Becca.

"I apologize," Buer said.

Becca was slumped against the wall, exhausted and crying.

Buer reached out to her. "That was a bit much at once, and I am sorry. I had to tell you."

She knocked the Vencume hand away. "You could have just told me.," Becca said, chokingly. "You could have just said. Why do you have to complicate things?"

Buer started to flatten against the ground, spreading out like a torn drape. "It is terrible. It is too much information and I have done you a disservice. Forgive my presumptive nature."

"Why can't you just be honest?" Becca sobbed. "Why do you try to hide what you say? Are you afraid of it?"

The puddle of Buer turned a dark blue. "Yes. We fear it. We fear you."

"We're your bogyman," Becca said flatly.

Buer was almost flat against the floor now and shifting to a dark gray. "We admire the things we fear. We envy them. You do this as well: your mix of fear and envy. Do you not describe the most dangerous things as beautiful? It is not aesthetics that causes that."

Becca sniffled and looked at the flattened Vencume on the floor. "Are you trying to hide?"

"This is shame," Buer said softly. "I am ashamed of what I have done to you. I am ashamed of what we have done to Evie and all her daughters. It was too much for you to handle. I was too assumptive when I suggested it and I do not know how to fix the situation."

It was a ridiculous situation. Becca laughed to spite it all.

"What is so amusing?" Buer started to rise off the floor.

"You limping, dripping, melting thing," Becca said. "With all you learned from us, you couldn't even give yourself bones. Your stupid round-about-way-that-prevents-problems is so soft you can't stand up for yourself. You want me to fix your problems because you can't bear to dirty your hands—and you have five."

Buer was fully up now and loomed over her. "You mock us now?"

Becca suddenly remembered that a Vencume stood almost two meters tall. It didn't make her afraid; it just made the situation more absurd. "I mock you, you massive thing. You made children and thought that by filling them with Evie's head that you could hurry things. You can control time and you still did a sloppy rush job."

"You are obviously exhausted." Buer was a deep purple.

"I meant what I said in there," Becca said as she struggled to get up. "You never finished the project because you were in a stupid hurry. That army isn't a Vencume; it's only got three arms. Where is the leadership? They have no sense of purpose."

Buer spun up on her quickly again; this time, lifting her suddenly from the ground and then setting her down. "Let me help you back to your room. You need to lie down. You're tired."

Becca's knees were loose, but she managed to walk. Buer guided her the rest of the way down the corridor.

After her nap, Becca noticed the shimmer effect she had seen in her left hand was gone.

So were the two spare slugs.

5.3 Introductions

Now that she could see unhindered, Becca was able to pay full attention to the people she was interacting with. The last five weeks had been such a blur to her it was as if she was being introduced to everyone on the ship for the first time.

Gordon had lost considerable weight since his flight on the Tong Dizhou and his clothing hung loosely over his shoulders. If the twins had meant to wear the brash quality out of him, they had obviously succeeded. Becca had never been distracted by the shimmering effect when looking at him, but now that it had stopped, she discovered that the faint headache she'd had for the last month was gone as well.

Evie had circles under her eyes and the weight she had gained was not filling her face. She had a perpetually worn-out look. The white tips on her hair didn't help soften the effect. Evie had also been chewing on her fingernails—something Becca had never noticed before. The engineer had thick, white cuticles with rough spots on either side of each nail.

Ulan had stopped playing idiot since the Library defection and the death of her sister. The girl watched everything with glittering brown eyes and furrowed brow. She was now a regular at group meals and sat silently, eyes shut, listening. Now that she had stopped shimmering, Becca was able to see the resemblance to Evie more clearly. They once shared the same goofy grin; they now shared the same stern exhaustion.

The redheads and blondes looked the same as they had before, but the new ones had a slightly different nose. Becca thought it looked a little like Gordon's. They haven't just adjusted the connection programming; they've altered the DNA formula as well. I wonder what characteristics he's passed on. Are they physically stronger? Evie's pretty strong. Maybe their reflexes are a little faster.

"Doctor-Doctor will be pleased to know that we're going to handle the last ship today," Ilyssa announced. "It's a cruiser, so you'll get to see some fancy flying this time."

"So there won't be any more battles?" Becca asked.

Imala nodded. "Once the threat is fully neutralized, you'll be able to go home."

"There's been some interesting chatter," Idana added. "I suspect they've figured out we're only one ship. People keep talking about how 'the dragon will embrace the tiger'. Does that sound like a friendly meeting?"

"White tiger is female," Ulan said. "Means misfortune and bad relationships."

Ilyssa crossed her arms. "Yeah, in a culture that thought girls were bad luck. We've grown past that. White tiger is also the protector."

Ulan smiled slightly.

"We'll be at the location in a couple hours," Idana continued. "From what I've heard, they've dropped out of field and the Shipping Authority is holding them. No telling what will happen once we get there."

"We'll know soon enough," Ilyssa concluded.

Becca and Evie were brought to the bridge by Annora and Anaba to watch the final fight. The two redheads escorted them to the first section of ship and opened the doors, but left immediately afterwards.

Evie looked like she was glad it was all going to be over soon. Becca was nervous that something would go wrong.

The Shipping Authority was waiting with two destroyers: DeYang and FuYang. The cruiser XingFeng was just out of its firing range.

"They haven't even started," Ilyssa complained, spraying down the screen with a nutrient solution. "They're waiting for us."

Idana nodded. "They're keeping their distance. I figured they'd wait. They want to know how we do this."

Imala raised a radio channel between them and the destroyers, but chittered as she hailed them. "You have settled this already? Is there nothing for us to do?"

It was the FuYang that responded. "We can't get close to them. They already took out two of our fighters. We don't want to just attack it. There may be survivors and we can't get close enough to be sure."

"We can't use the collapser," Ilyssa hissed. "Again..."

"We will send our fighters," Imala chittered. "Let us take out the weapons array and then you can land safely."

"You're hiding who you are," Evie said. "Just say it. Let them know what they're dealing with."

Imala gave her a worried look and turned back to the radio. She did not chitter this time. "We're sending out our fighters. We'll soften it and then you can take it safely."

There was a moment of indecision from the Shipping Authority. "Who are we speaking to?"

"We're launching!" Ilyssa snatched the radio from her sister. "Take our help or don't!"

Ten golden fighter ships eased out of their bays and zeroed in on the cruiser. There was a flurry of weapons fire and the song over the radio pitched, rolled, and yawed to avoid the bolts. They moved so quickly it looked less like individual objects and more like a field-effect.

The two destroyers discussed this between themselves, overheard by three gray-haired girls with small blue eyes and long hands.

"They're afraid," Imala stated.

"They're in awe," Ilyssa countered.

A harmonic rose over the radio. Weapons were picked off one-by-one. The sensors on the cruiser were obliterated.

As the fighters returned to their bay, Imala spoke cleanly into the radio, "Do you want to land now? It should be safe to approach."

DeYang responded this time. "We have never seen this process. We yield the field to the more potent warrior."

"Launch the buzz-landers," Ilyssa said with pride.

Idana shook her head. "That's not a good idea. They're testing us. Don't launch all of them."

Ilyssa waved it off. "They want to see a show. We'll give them a show."

"No," Idana growled. "If we launch everything at that ship, our forces are just sitting there. The pilots can get out of the way, but ground-troops are stuck. We're going to toss our teeth into a blender if we go about this carelessly."

Becca hugged herself. "You don't think the Authority is going to try to use this to settle two fronts, do you?"

"They might," Idana's right eye twitched. "I would."

Evie frowned. "They aren't you."

Imala fiddled with the radio. "I don't know what to tell them."

"Let's not be stupid about this," Idana said. "They fear us; we know that. If we send out everything we have, we might have to take them out as well."

"We can still send out a couple collapsers," Ilyssa said.

"And we can start a war anew," Imala mewed.

Ilyssa was pacing. "This is the last one. We have to end this."

DeYang hailed them again. "Were you going to land troops? We await your response."

Idana took the radio this time. "We respectfully ask that the Shipping Authority recover its own ship in this circumstance. We will stand by if you need assistance. You should be able to safely approach them at this point. We respect your right to privacy in this regard that we may not accidentally see any secrets or weakness." She cut the signal and crossed her arms. "Let them take this risk."

Evie was frowning. "They're going to know there's indecision over here. You just let them know you're weak."

Ilyssa glowered back. "They don't know there are three of us."

"Indecision in one person is the same as between three people," Evie countered.

"Send out ten buzz-landers," Becca suggested. "Tell them you're going to send a portion of your ground-troops. If they think there are more, then they may play nice."

"We'll send out five," Idana countered. "Then we have enough in reserve."

Ilyssa was losing her patience and her eyes bugged. "Who cares what the number is? We'll send some over and that will be that. We're also re-launching half of the pilots."

Idana rolled her eyes and pulled out a secondary radio. "Arlene, can you send a team of five over to that ship?"

"Only five?" a voice asked back.

"Just five," Idana answered. "We're doing a joint deployment on this. You'll be fighting beside Shipping Authority solders."

Imala was already relaying to the two destroyers that they should land ground-troops and back-up would be coming soon.

"And, Arlene...leave your channel open," Idana added. "I want to hear everything."

FuYang sent over a landing ship and docked with the disabled cruiser. Imala told the Shipping Authority that they were going to re-launch some fighters (in case they were needed), as well as five landing craft and the troops should not be surprised by what they saw. "If it looks human, make sure to not shoot at it. We'd hate for this to fall apart amidst friendly fire."

Arlene's radio had transmitted the entire process: the clang of the doors when the buzz-lander closed, the whoomp as it launched, the thud as it landed, and the horrible gnarr as it cut a neat hole in the hull of the XingFeng. It even caught Arlene's oof-ah as the spring mechanism launched her into the ship.

Arlene was muttering under her breath:

A brand-new ship and the same old foes
There may be a friend here, who knows?
My gun is cocked and at my side
Waiting to see just what I'll find.

"No war-chants," Idana chided. "Try to play this one clean."

"It feels unnatural," Arlene said.

Evie leaned over to Becca and whispered, "You know, if I had been in charge of the attacks, I would have rigged at least one ship to self-detonate when the ground troops were landed. Might have lost a few men, but you could really hurt the opposing side with something like that. Makes you wonder why they haven't booby-trapped at least one."

"There are other people here," Arlene said. "They're much bigger than us."

"There are children there," FuYang radioed. "Is this your fighting force?"

"Just follow their lead," Ilyssa answered. "They've done this before and they'll show you how to clear the ship."

"Are we to fight alongside children?" FuYang asked. "You said to not shoot anything that looks human. Is this what you meant? Our men are confused."

"Behind you!" Arlene's radio blared and there was a fup fup fup as she let loose some bolts. "Don't be so shocked. We have a job to do so let's do it!"

Someone answered in the background, but there was the rattling noise of a gun.

"Nice!" Arlene said. "Look out!"

"I wish we had imagers on their helmets," Ilyssa mused. "Why didn't we ever do that?"

"Too heavy," Idana answered. She was listening intently to the battle on the XingFeng.

Arlene sounded like she was enjoying herself. "Stand back! Hands!" And a fup fup fup as more bolts were fired. "Yeah, those are poisonous," she explained to someone.

There was a hissing sound.

"Smoke grenade," Ilyssa announced. "They're bringing out the laser."

Someone in the background yelled in excitement. A Shipping Authority solder was expressing awe as a laser cut through something.

"You and you," Arlene said, "follow me. We want this tight and neat. You others keep behind your guide."

Imala was shivering with excitement. "This is going wonderfully."

Someone screamed.

"Behind!" Arlene yelled. "I said behind! Get out of the way!" Then, in a calm voice to the radio in her helmet, "Guy just got a bolt to the leg. Went right through. He's out."

"Tell them we have a medical team," Imala said. "We'll fix it if he doesn't bleed out."

Another voice sang over the radio: one of the pilots. "Are we doing anything here?"

Idana gripped her own radio. "Arlene, are those guys in pressure suits?"

"Yes," Arlene answered. "But the guy with the bolt is comprised."

"Get him evacuated," Idana said. "We're going to pop the hull."

"What good is that going to do?" Arlene asked in response. There was gunfire in the background.

"You're in suits," Ilyssa snapped. "Your enemy isn't. We're just going to let physics do the work of clearing the ship."

Becca leaned over to Evie. "Have you ever seen a Vencume in a pressure suit?"

Evie nodded. "Once. They're hard-shell. Looks like a turtle."

"But we're looking for survivors," Arlene countered. Then, "Hold on."

Someone in the background was talking to her. She followed with "uh-huh" and "yeah" and then "OK, if that's the case, we're about to poke a hole in the hull. Space the rest...OK."

Idana took the radio. "What's going on?"

Arlene tsked on her end before answering. "They have a remote-reader here for the blackboxes. No one's chip is responding. There are no survivors on this ship."

"We don't have one of those," Imala said. "We should get one."

"What good would it do us now?" Idana asked.

Ilyssa relayed the information to the pilots and three bolts were fired at one of the junction points. The three plumes of escaping atmosphere were equidistant and the craft only wobbled slightly from the thrust.

"That got their attention!" Arlene almost sang. There was a loud hissing and then a pop. "Oh, yuck."

Evie took Becca's sleeve. "I need to go."

"You're going to leave now?" Ilyssa said.

Becca and Evie were suddenly the center of attention.

"I'm not feeling well," Evie said. "All this excitement. It's just too much right now."

"What's wrong?" Imala asked.

Evie fanned herself with one hand. "I'm light-headed. I feel sick to my stomach. I just need to go lie down."

Idana narrowed her eyes. "This is important. This is going to decide if you can go home."

"I know, I just…" Evie's knees buckled and Becca caught her.

Imala took a step forward. "Do you need help getting her back to the room?"

"We need you here," Idana answered.

"I'll….I'll be okay," Evie said weakly. "I'll just go lie down for a bit. I'll be fine."

Once Becca and Evie were off the bridge, Evie straightened out and walked briskly down the corridor. She summoned the lift and entered with purpose.

"You're not ill?" Becca asked.

"I have something I need to do," Evie answered. "You don't have to come with me; you can if you want to. Everyone is doing something right now and I might not have another chance."

Becca got into the lift. "What are you going to do?"

Evie rubbed her right eye. "I have to go face one of my fears."

5.4 Tzikzik

The corridors were empty.

Evie lead Becca down past where her ancillary lab had been: where the mantis had been perfected. They passed the old ad-hoc bridge: where Imala's collapser was first demonstrated, where Becca had given the Vencume a lesson in human anatomy. They passed the observation deck: where the crew of the Tong Dizhou had first seen the pilots, where Becca had first noticed Evie's scarless hands.

Evie stopped in front of a door and turned to Becca. "You don't have to come in if you don't want to. This might get ugly."

Becca hugged her arms and nodded. "We've come this far. What's in there, anyway?"

Evie smiled a little to herself. "One of my nightmares."

It was dark in the room and Becca had difficulty seeing. Evie turned on the lights.

The Tzikzik was strapped to a table that lay at an extreme rake. Legless and armless, it shuddered when the lights came on. Becca was reminded of an uprooted tree after a storm—immobile, dying, helpless.

Evie faced it with shimmering eyes. "You tried to kill me," she said. "You tore me apart. You left me for dead."

The creature seemed to sigh. The chitter it formed was halting and mangled. "Another torment."

"We're not interested in torturing you," Evie explained. "I'm not here for revenge."

"So you say," it answered. "How could I stop you now?"

Evie held out a hand and rested it atop the mass of tentacles. "How I I've been there. You never asked me anything. You just tore away what threatened you." There was a moment of the two together: Evie's face was mere centimeters from the cauterized surface of the missing arms and legs.

"Are we to be tried for our desire to survive?" the Tzikzik asked. "You will hold us accountable for that? They wanted to kill us. No connection. No core. We were to end. The project was to end."

Evie removed her hand and rubbed her right eye. "What is the Vencume schedule?"

What was left of the Tzikzik faded to a pale pink. It seemed to laugh at them. "There is no schedule. There is nothing. We are the idle musing of a senile mind."

"Why did you put me in the Vencume escape pod?" Evie asked.

"A warning," the Tzikzik sighed. "It showed them what a bad idea you were." The Tzikzik entertained itself with a secret narrative, directed to no one. "Is not conflict the basis of advancement? One needs an enemy to grow. Even in humans—we know—you must fight each other to find what is worthy of preservation. Does not the predator create the swift and strong? Is it not physical weakness that engenders the clever? Without opposition, you stagnate. If there is nothing to fight, there is no need to adapt."

"What is the project?" Evie insisted.

"We need an enemy," the bulk of meat responded. "We cannot advance unless we are hunted. We need something stronger than ourselves. We need something that will not negotiate. We need evolution. You are terrifying and you have passed your test well."

"There was never any intention of humans being a partner with Vencume," Evie summed it up. "We are here to frighten you and force your next stage. We're the next thing for you to overcome."

"And clever," the Tzikzik pink-laughed. "Not fully formed, yet formidable. You are the force that acts upon itself. We are nothing to you but the next meal that feeds your malicious minds."

Becca pulled Evie aside. "We're not getting anywhere with this. Let's just go."

Evie shook her head. "Think of all we did in the Great War. Think of how much of your precious medicine was gathered by unwilling human experiments. We may call it inhumane but it's never been inhuman. We did that and it chased us to the stars. We meld and yield and do what we have to in the name of human survival. And in the end, what are we doing here? We're having a conversation with so much calamari. The Vencume don't want stable people for this. It's why they picked me. Don't you see? They want us wounded and bitter and hateful because it's the only way we can spook them into doing what they have to do. Sure, they made the clones, but it was what was in my head they really wanted. They wanted revenge and hurt and everything that makes those vicious little girls do what they do. My god, Becca. They never wanted something sane! They wanted a nightmare to keep them up at night and make them jump. I'm their bogyman and I'm supposed to make them better. I'm supposed to scare them straight."

Becca shook her head. "No, that can't be it. Think of what monsters like this are trying to do. They want to start a war. There's no advantage to that. Not for anyone."

"You did exactly what you were supposed to do," the Tzikzik chittered. "We have been misguided just as much as you have. We were created to lure you. It was the human army that was wanted, not us. Think of the power they exhibit, even now. This ship is more powerful, more clever, more strong than any ship: Vencume or human."

Becca almost choked. "That's insane. You can't say this was all a set up."

But the Tzikzik was laughing pink still. "You are dealing with a race that has no offspring. These are the same individuals who saw their home planet destroyed. These are the same individuals that first met humans and gave you the power to create colonies. The bodies may have changed, but the minds are the same. You cannot think that far."

Evie's jaw was clenching. "So, they always intended to make human clones. They opened door after door and we blithely walked through it."

"You finally understand our politics," the Tzikzik answered. "And now, there is a ship that can unite the Empire once again. The voyage to the meeting-place will be a demonstration of that power. The Vencume will have a leader. I am glad to see the schedule reach its conclusion."

"Yes," Evie nodded. "I know you are. And I forgive you." She seemed to embrace the Tzikzik on the table. "We made each other. I'm so sorry that I have to do this. It has to end."

Evie pulled a long screwdriver from one of her pockets and plunged it into the base of the Tzikzik. Water gushed onto the floor, mixed with that blue liquid Becca had learned to recognize as Vencume blood.

"I forgive you," Evie said, burying the tool deep into the creature before her. "You're broken and need to be fixed."

Becca stepped back from the expanding puddle on the floor. Her shock at what had happened turned into instant panic when the door behind them opened.

Ulan's head moved in a seizure-like movement as she entered the room and assessed the situation. "You have killed an unarmed prisoner," she chittered.

Evie left the bleeding monstrosity and approached her daughter with hands out. "Ulan, please. You know I had to do this."

"You killed it," Ulan said again, her hands balling into tight fists. "You killed it and you didn't give me a go at it!"

"What?" Evie suddenly stiffened. "You...what?"

But Ulan had already pushed past her and grabbed the handle that still protruded from under the sagging flesh of the Tzizik carcass. The screwdriver came out, followed by more water and blood.

"I wanted this!" Ulan screeched, stabbing the dead thing on the table over and over again. "This was mine! You should have told me!"

Evie backed away, bumping into the equally stunned Becca.

"My sister, ugly thing!" Ulan howled the words rather than chitter. "All I had! Ugly thing, die! Die and hurt and die!"

"Ulan," Evie held out a hand towards her daughter.

Becca held her back. "You had to do it. So does she."

"She's making more noise," Evie glared at Becca and then the door. "The others don't like her and this might send them over the top." She moved Becca aside and tried to get the tool from Ulan.

When Ulan caught Evie's left hand with one of her frenzied stabs, they both yelped with the same surprise.

"We need to go, now," Becca demanded.

The three quickly rushed from the room and down the corridor towards the black arm.

Becca strapped Evie's left wrist before she pulled the screwdriver out. Ulan had already brought a tube of spray.

"Vesta, Diana, Minerva..." Evie swore under her breath. "I was not expecting that."

Ulan shook her head and watched as the spray took effect. "I apologize," she chittered. "I don't know what came over me. I was not thinking clearly."

"You're lucky you won't get a scar from this one," Becca said.

"I need to check our path," Ulan chittered. "There may be a trail of blood." She left the room with some scraps of cloth.

Evie watched her go and made a slow fist. Her jaw was clenching. "She doesn't need to apologize to me. I know what she was thinking. She took the same opportunity I did."

"Well, now you really should lie down." Becca had cocked her head to one side, looking at the back of Evie's left hand. "Let me see that."

The skin around where the wound had been was tight and smooth. There was a faint splotch on the back that had a different quality and on the palm, Evie's complicated grid-pattern had been worn away in one section. The center of Evie's life-line was gone.

"Who's spray is that?" Evie asked, examining the tube.

It was Ulan's.

Becca had to change her shoes; they had blood on them.

This was all a huge set-up! From the first time they saw us, they were going to use us! Buer and her stupid plans for where we can live and where they can't. It's where we can go and enforce their will. It's not an uprising in the Vencume Empire, like they told Evie. It's the plan for the creation of an empire! And we're going to bumble along because we got a few shiny toys out of the deal. They're using us.

Gordon was in the mess hall with Iskandar, five of the pilots, and the rest of the redheads. The girls were all in their combat suits and were crammed around a small device. As Becca got closer to it, she saw it was a screen with a speaker.

"We're losing the picture," a redhead said. "Give it another coat."

Gordan started to spray down the screen with what must have been a nutrient solution and the image became clearer and more vivid.

"Doctor is here," Iskandar said. "You have left the bridge. Are operations complete? They have not returned yet. Our feed is limited."

Gordon turned and smiled. "Evie's still up there, huh? This has been great."

Becca shook her head and joined the group. "Evie wasn't feeling well and went to lie down."

"She's missing all the excitement!" a pilot chirped. Her collar said Olena.

A redhead whose collar said Altsoba leaned back. "This is hardly exciting anymore. I suited up for nothing."

"Luck of the draw," her sister Acadia answered.

Look at them. Huddled around the television, watching a game. Becca laughed. Brothers and cousins--cheering their side. This is my family now, isn't it? And there's Iskandar. "Friend of mankind" indeed! We're just another tool for them to use. More base material. We've been idiots.

"You should have made some popcorn," Becca said.

Gordon started to stand up. "What a great idea!"

But Ovida shook her head. "Who could eat during this?"

Gordon was already standing and Becca gestured to the kitchen. We need to talk.

"Well, I'm hungry, so I'm going to help Becca make something,"Gordon answered.

Atlanta waved her hand at them dismissively. "Let us know if you need help."

"So," Gordon rubbed his hands together once they were in the kitchen. "What are you in the mood for?"

"Evie killed the Tzikzik," Becca said flatly.

He stood for a moment, unsure of what had been said. "Which one? There are--"

She cut him off. "The one they brought back. That armless thing. She punched a hole in it with a screwdriver."

Gordon nodded, taking it in. "Well, that stands to reason."


He shrugged. "She's an engineer. Of course she would use a screwdriver."

Becca's eyes bugged and she circled in place. "Gordon, did you hear me? She killed it."

"Yeah, it's her right," he answered. "We've been wondering why she hadn't done anything yet. The girls have been keeping it for her."

"Keeping...?" Becca's knees went weak and she crumpled to the floor. "You knew that?"

Gordon sat cross-legged on the floor next to her. "Revenge is a very primal, human thing. I ought to know; I've been on the receiving end of it. The girls have been playing with it, but they knew they had to leave it for Evie."

"The same way the twins left you," Becca said.

"I've been a jackass in the past but I know that act isn't needed anymore," Gordon smiled uneasily. "It never did what I wanted it to do, anyway."

"What act was that?"

"The bold, dashing pilot, of course," he grinned. "You know how it is on the pebble-jumpers; all the guys have to be Dick Daring and wow the ladies and the other pilots just look down on you if you're a decent human being. It was a month on the Dizhou before I knew that wasn't how the deep-space flights went but it was too late to be someone else. I know that sounds dumb now, but I've been there in the thick of it. You women are lucky; you get to be sensitive and smart at the same time."

Becca laughed. "So you were never 'madly in love with me', is that it?"

"Don't get me wrong," he said with hands raised. "I respect the hell out of you. I thought that I could drop the act around you, but I'd already done the damage and nothing makes a lie stand out more than telling the truth. I figured you'd just hate me for a whole new set of reasons and I didn't want to deal with it. Call me lazy."


"Deserved," he nodded.

"Listen," Becca dropped her voice again. "We still have a situation. That Tzikzik said some things. Remember how you thought that Vencume/human relations were a big set-up?"

Gordon's eyes lit up. "Tell me how I was right."

Becca frowned. "This army was made to unite the Vencume ships. It's supposed to scare them into accepting someone's authority."

"That's why Renatus has been trying to halt it," Gordon answered. "That's why Mirabilis has been so willing to play diplomat. No one would ever suspect the Vencume after the Vencume had worked so hard to neutralize a threat. These girls aren't just going to be used to scare Vencume. They're supposed to intimidate humans as well."

"Don't you feel intimidated?" Becca asked.

"They're coming back!" someone shouted from the mess-hall.

"We'll be right there!" Gordon shouted back. Then, to Becca, "We're on their good side, and we have this..." He listed his shirt to show the field-belt Evie had made. "If they do try to attack us, we can at least avoid getting hurt. You've made sure the doors aren't an issue and Ulan packed us a ticket out of here."

"And if the pilots shoot down that ticket?" Becca asked.

Gordon smiled. "Evie's been working on it. She made a shield for it. We'd still be okay."

As they re-entered the mess-hall, two redheads were packing the screen. Iskandar was directing them in how to break it down.

The pilots giggled. "You didn't get anything to eat," Odette said.

"Couldn't find anything I liked," Becca told her.

The five redheads who had done the landing almost got a hero's welcome from the other nine. Becca watched them jostle and jest one another in the buzz-lander bay.

"You're so lucky," Aideen said. "I wanted to go over and really show them something."

Andrea handed her gun over and laughed. "It wasn't that much. We had to baby-sit those Shipping Authority solders. Asabi shot one in the leg."

Asabi shrugged. "Jumped in front of me. They say he's fine. Missed the main artery. But oh, how he screamed."

"Once the hull went out, it wasn't much of a fight," Arlene said. Her suit was covered in dark-blue splotches.

Alima laughed. "And Arlene was there to get the full force of one when it depressureized."

The others laughed in response.

Alameda gave Arlene a punch to the arm. "Now you have to clean your suit."

"You're support staff," Arlene handed her a filthy helmet. "Congratulations."

The three designers joined them in the bay. "You all did a wonderful job," Ilyssa said. "And that was a fine introduction to these Shipping Authority people. I don't think they'll try any funny business with us."

Arlene frowned. "I don't think they would try anything with us anyway. Why would they?"

"Because you're Tzikzik," Becca offered.

Idana's right eye twitched. "That's beside the point."

Becca smiled at the girls. "Well! Now that you've shown those nasty things who's boss, what are you going to do now?"

The others stood very still.

"I mean," Becca continued, "you've spent your entire lives preparing for combat and now you've got no one left to fight. Who's next on your list?"

Alima still had her gun. The muzzle slowly started to point Becca's direction.

"We have to go meet the other Vencume," Imala offered. "And then...they'll decide."

"But you're the ones in control of this ship," Becca countered. "Who says you have to do anything?"

Asabi had formed tight fists. "We can decide for ourselves, and we've decided to go meet the other Vencume."

"Why don't you meet some other humans first?" Becca asked. "You are human, after all. Don't you want to meet them?"

Idana slapped a hand to her right eye to stop the twitching. "Get her out of here."

"You're not the one in charge," Ilyssa hissed.

"Neither are you," Idana growled back. "Just get her out of here."

"Becca's not hurting anyone," Imala protested.

Atlanta stood away from the group and took Becca by the arm. "We have some things to discuss. You don't mind sitting it out, do you?"

"What's going on here?" Becca asked.

Aideen nodded. "This is our business. We need to handle it."

5.5 Blink

When Becca got back to the black arm of the ship, Evie was napping. Becca peeked into the room where Evie lay like death itself. She really was unwell. That wound could not have helped.

Becca knocked softly on the door to the room that the twins once shared. There was no answer. When she opened the door, the room was empty.

How long does it take to clean up some blood? Ulan must be off doing something else.

As she was shutting the door, Evie came into the main room.

"You're back," Evie said, sleepily.

"Yeah," Becca responded. "Did I wake you up?"

Evie shook her head. "No, I was just lying there, thinking." She was rubbing her temples and threw herself at one of the chairs in the main room.

"You look worn out," Becca said. "How's the hand?"

"What?" Evie looked up, then at the hand, then back at Becca. "Oh, It's fine."

No. Something is wrong. She's worn out in a new way. She looks sad. Does she regret killing the Tzikzik?

Evie was rubbing her face. "Buer was here. Said she'd be absent a while."

"She?" Becca asked.

"Reminds me of a physical therapist I had as a kid," Evie said, half-laughing. "Dr. Karnataka was a real hard-ass with me. It was always, 'Oh, I know you can do better,' and 'You could do another run on the bars if you wanted to walk again.' I hated her, but she taught me a lot after the accident. It's silly that a Vencume could remind me of a human. I must be going crazy."

"It's not that crazy. Buer reminds me of my great-aunt," Becca said. "Listen, when Buer was here, did she try to connect with you at any point? Did she talk about the home-world or the purpose of the project?"

Evie frowned. "I thought we had already decided that the project was bunk."

"That's not answering the question."

"No," Evie said. "Buer didn't try any kind of connection. She did say the project was nearing completion, and said she was going to be absent for a while, but she didn't say much more than that."

"What are we going to do?" Becca asked.

"We do what we always do," Evie answered. "We stumble around in the dark and hope we bump into something friendly. We're strange and creepy things that occasionally behave the way we say we should."

Becca finally sat down at the table. "I meant about the army."

Evie laughed, somewhat self-consciously. "Well, they look like they're going to start puberty pretty soon. We'll just find a bunch of cute boys to distract them."

"Would that have worked with you?"

"No," Evie shook her head. "They need something to concentrate on. The big concern up to this point has been stopping the attacks on human ships. Maybe I could convince them to build some automatons to fight. That would keep them busy."

"I think they've decided to go meet the other Vencume ships," Becca said. "They're going to go reunite the Empire. I don't know what will happen after that."

Evie rubbed her right eye. "I think they're going to get rid of us very soon."

Becca was headed to the kitchen when she ran into Gordon.

"Have you seen Ulan?" she asked him.

"I saw her on the way back from the pilots' bay," Gordon noted. "She was talking to Imala about something. Have you seen those ships? I never got to look at one up close, but the girls wanted me to see it, you know, how it compared to our ships. I berthed with some fighter-pilots once— "

Becca cut him off. "She was talking to Imala? I thought the designers hated her."

"That may well be," Gordon answered. "But the two of them were chittering away about something. It was too fast and too low for me to catch any of it, but Imala looked tickled pink."

Imala does seem to be the most receptive of the trio, but Ulan's always been the outcast with them. Maybe Ulan wants to take Imala with us if we have to make an escape.

"But you don't know what they were talking about?"

He shrugged. "Not a clue. They both looked happy, though. Maybe Ulan taught Imala some new game."

Becca gave Gordon a sidelong glance. "Ulan does not play well with others and breaks her toys on a regular basis."

Gordon rested a hand on Becca's shoulder. "She's not going to hurt her. Don't worry. Anyway, Imala is the brightest of the three grays; she's not going to put herself in a situation that she can't vaporize her way out of."

Anevay and Avari were already in the kitchen when Becca went there to start dinner.

"I thought we'd have zucchini moussaka," Avari said, coring some bell peppers. "But we don't have any ground beef, so we're just going to substitute rice."

"Rice is fine," Becca said.

Anevay was slicing zucchini into medallions. "What are you going to do when you get home?"

The question threw Becca off. "Oh, uh, well, I'm going to spend a lot of quality time with my daughter, to start."

"What's that?" Anevay asked. "What's quality time?"

"It's time you spend with loved ones," Avari explained. "It's time you spend paying attention to a person or doing something both of you enjoy. It just gives you time to be with someone that you care about."

Anevay stopped slicing zucchini. "Like how Becca spends time cooking with us?"

Becca cocked her head to one side. "Doesn't Evie spend any quality time with you?"

The two redheads shrugged.

"She watches us practice sometimes," said Avari. "But she never really does anything with us. We don't have any shared interests, I guess."

"You could teach her how to play chess," Becca suggested. "Then you could play a game with her. That would be quality time."

"We're going to be at Cancri-55 in two days," Anevay said. "That's not enough time."

No, it isn't. We've been here almost three months and she doesn't spend any time with them. She always spent time with the twins. Even the designers were on the outside.

"We spend quality time together," Avari said to her sister. "We cook together and spend time doing laundry or in the garden or at practice. We do lots of things together."

Anevay nodded. "I hope we get to stay together afterwards. I'm used to you."

"I'm used to you, too," Avari grinned.

Becca had taken a shower and was still toweling off her hair when there was a pounding at the door.

"Imala! Are you in there? Come out!"

Becca went to open the door when the two designers came rushing in with four of their redheaded sisters.

"Where is she?" Ilyssa demanded.

Evie poked her head in from her tiny lab. "What's all this noise? Who are you talking about?"

"A section of the ship has gone into advancement," Ilyssa said. "We didn't put anything in there and we had it locked down. The Libraries have overridden our programming and the Vencume are doing something. We need Imala to help stop it."

Becca felt her heart skip a beat. That's where Buer has gone! That's why she stole those two slugs from me. What are they up to? Is that where Ulan is? Did she take Imala? Is that why Imala was so happy?

"So a section of ship is in advancement," Evie said. "You're so smart; just stop the process."

Idana's right eye was twitching. "We tried. We can't. We tried to expand the field, but it's had no effect. The pod's halting like it hit a wall."

"And Buer is missing," Ilyssa snapped. "That Vencume is up to something and she's going behind our backs."

Becca cocked her head to one side. "She?"

"You know what I mean!" Ilyssa shouted. "We can't get a hold of any of the Vencume and there's a section in advancement. What do you think that means, huh?"

Evie shrugged. "It means you need to get the Reds ready for whatever comes off that pod."

"And if it's more Tzikzik?" Idana hinted. "How many do you think we can hold at bay?"

"What kind of Tzikzik?" Evie asked. "Like you?"

Ilyssa pointed at Evie, her finger centimeters from the engineer's face. "You're not funny!"

"You don't know how to laugh," Evie said, crossing her arms.

"I'm not playing games!" Ilyssa screeched. She gestured to Idana, who pushed up her sleeve to reveal something that looked like an over-sized wrist-watch.

Evie dropped her arms a bit so they crossed her waist and made the slightest of motions that activated her belt-field.

Figuring on the side of caution, Becca gave herself a little hug and pressed the button on her own belt with her forearm. The room became muffled and Becca wondered how much air she had in the field.

Idana stood for a moment, pointing the wrist-device at Evie. The girl's brow wrinkled and she checked the device, then pointed it at a redhead who doubled over in agony. While everyone was distracted, Evie walked over to Idana, took the device off the girl's wrist in one motion, and then turned to slap Ilyssa. While the two designers were still in shock, Evie hustled them out the door as one redhead helped her sister out.

Evie closed the door and Becca clicked off her field-belt. Her ears rang a bit as the sounds of the room returned.

"This isn't over!" Ilyssa was yelling on the other side of the door. "You better find her!"

Evie sat at the table, examining the device she had taken off the girl.

"What is that?" Becca asked nervously.

Evie looked up at her and pressed the button on her belt, turning the field off. "Say that again?"

"Is that the pain ray?" Becca asked.

"I guess so," Evie nodded. She was turning the device in her hands, scrutinizing it. "Huh, look at that. The battery on this won't hold more than a few charges, but she didn't put any kind of power-port on it. There must be an inductor base. I'll have to make one." Evie stood and walked to her tiny side-lab.

Becca followed her. "Are we safe?"

Evie was rummaging through a bin of parts. "Where the hell is that coil? I saw it ten times when I didn't need it and now it's nowhere to be found."

"Evie," Becca asked again. "Are we safe? What's happening?"

"I don't want to have to wrap a new coil," Evie was muttering. "That takes too much time and I don't have any gloves. It tears your hands up."

She's trying not to think about it. She's distracting herself. No. You can't do that. Not now.

"Evie!" Becca demanded. "What just happened there? Are we going to be safe?"

Evie had put on a pair of microscoping goggles. "We're fine. I had already reprogrammed the door. That's why you had to open it for them. Go find Gordon and Ulan and get to the escape pod."

Becca leaned against the wall and ran her fingers through her hair. "We don't know where Ulan is. I was worried she might have done something to Imala."

"Here it is!" Evie said, holding up a coil of wire. "It's always under something, isn't it?"

"Evie..." Becca leaned on the workbench and put her hand on the coil. "We don't know where Ulan is. Did you hear me?"

"I heard you," Evie said, looking at Becca through the goggles. "See if you can find Gordon at least. Do you still have those slugs you made for the doors?"

"You know about that?"

"Buer told me," Evie nodded. "The Library knows. We can still go there or the garden for now. The section in advancement isn't between us and them."

"If we hide in the garden, they might advance it," Becca said. "We could be stuck in there for months."

Evie shook her head and found another piece for what she was working on. "The Library controls what's in advancement and what isn't. We need to go ask them what's going on."

Becca was gripping the control of her field-belt through her shirt. "I'll go see if I can find Gordon."

"You go do that," Evie said, tightening a screw. "Go to the Library and I'll meet you there. See if you can find Iskandar or any of the other Vencume while you're at it. I want to get this thing charged up and ready to go before we blow this thing open."

"What thing is that?"

Evie grinned under the goggles. "Cloth-mommy won't cut it anymore. We need to teach the girls some wire-mommy magic."

Becca found Gordon on the observation deck with a couple of pilots. The two blonde girls were pointing at stars and Gordon was telling them the names of constellations.

"Of course," he was saying, "it's much harder to keep track of things because we're always moving. They don't always look the same."

"So Peg-51 is in the constellation of Pegasus," one girl said. "You could never see it because you were in it."

"You might still see some of the stars," he said. "Just because they're next to each other in the sky back home doesn't mean that they're actually close to each other. We've been all over the sky during this adventure, but because they're closer to the origin than others, it hasn't taken that long."

The other blonde grinned and nodded. "And we're really fast, too."

"Of course you are," he tousled her hair.

"Gordon," Becca said. She hated to interrupt. "I need to talk to you about something."

He clapped his hands. "OK, kiddos. I have grown-up things to go do. You go practice and learn your star-charts and we'll go over it again tomorrow at breakfast."

The two girls giggled and skipped off the deck.

Gordon turned to Becca with his silly, brash smile. "They are just little sponges! They want to know everything about everything. I could get used to teaching."

"Try not to get too comfortable," Becca said. "We just had a little confrontation with two designers and a couple redheads."

He frowned. "Only two? Is Ilyssa no longer doing her own dirty-work?"


Becca gave Gordon a quick run-down of what had just transpired.

Gordon whistled. "You miss just one episode of your favorite soap and it's impossible to keep up."

They had to use their slugs to get into the lift to the Library pod. Becca's had dried out more than Gordon's, but even his was slow to respond. They rode the pod between sections in silence.

On the landing, Becca found it hard to get to the lift door in one push.

"I thought you took zero-gee training," Gordon said.

"Don't you start," Becca answered. "I get enough grief from Evie about it."

They rode the lift down and waited by the door to the Library.

"Was she going to meet us here?" Gordon asked. "Or are we supposed to meet inside?"

"I guess we could wait in there," Becca said. "But I think that place is kind of creepy. Did you know they found five of those Tzikzik in the second Library, but they had already—"

She was only there for a second.

Becca thought it was Ulan at first, but then the girl turned and blinked. Her eyes were perfectly black. It wasn't a piercing stare, more the kind that sliced through you and reduced you to little pieces. Becca felt changed, being gazed at by such a being.

"Gordon, I'm going crazy again," Becca said.

"What is it this time?" Gordon asked.

Becca rubbed her eyes, but the girl was gone. "I just saw something...someone. It looked like Ulan but the eyes were different. I felt...observed..."

Gordon looked around. "Where? Was it Ulan?"

"It wasn't Ulan," Becca answered. "This one had sharper features and darker eyes."

"Ulan has very dark eyes," Gordon said. "That kid looks like she's seen hell."

"Yeah," Becca agreed. "She probably has."

The lights in the Library were as bright as ever. Gordon and Becca moved hesitantly down the walkway.

Gordon was marveling at the vastness of the Library. "How many are in here?"

"Millions?" Becca offered. "Last time I was here, Iskandar vibrated the surface with his hands to talk to them. We're not going to be able to ask them anything if we can't talk to them."

"We need to get their attention," Gordon said and slapped the surface of the water.

Millions of Vencume changed color from drab gray to light green. There was a low rumble.

"Don't start without me," Evie said as she entered the Library. "Here's the pain-ray. Just put it on," and slipped something into Becca's hands. She handed something to Gordon as well. "You get one too. Not sure if it's as powerful, but it should do the trick."

"That was quick," Becca said, putting the thing on her wrist.

Evie grinned. "Simple device. Easy to copy." She put her hands on her hips and turned in a neat circle. "OK, we're here and you woke them up. What now?"

"You didn't build something to talk to them?" Gordon asked.

"Sure thing, with my own two hands." Evie fell to her knees next to the wall of the opening and cupped her hands against the wall. She shouted into the crude megaphone. "The three humans are here! We're in danger!"

When it came, it was like thunder. Everything vibrated at once, like an earthquake.


"The Tzikzik! The human Tzikzik! One is missing! A section of ship is in advancement! What is being grown?"


"What does that even mean?" Becca whined. "We should leave. Remember what they did to those five Tzikzik from the other ship."

Evie pulled her face away from her cupped hands. "We have to try something." She pressed her face against her hands again. "We don't want to halt anything! We need help."


"Your guess is as good as mine," Gordon said.

"What's a black Tzikzik?" Becca asked. "Was that a noun or a verb? Do you understand them at all?"

Evie lifted her face from her cupped hands and rested her forehead against the wall. "No. I don't understand them at all. I wish I did."

"We're not doing any good here," Becca said. "Let's go. Maybe we can hide out in the factory for a while until things calm down or Imala turns up."


"Which one of us is first human?" Gordon asked. "Is that you, Evie?"

"First Human is Ulan," Becca answered. "Evie is Engineer."

"So we can guess from that cryptic statement that Ulan and Imala are on the section in advancement—" Evie suddenly stopped. "Did you see that?"

"See what?" Gordon asked.

"I must be seeing things," Evie said as she rubbed her eyes. "I thought I saw Ulan. It was only for a second."

"Did she have perfectly black eyes?" Becca asked.

"You saw it too?" Evie asked.

Becca leaned her head to one side. "Earlier. Only for a moment."

Evie cupped her hands again. "Are they still in advancement? Is the project reaching its end?"


"Tell them the threat is blue and red," Becca offered. "I think that was the question."

"Red and blue threat!" Evie shouted into her hands. "Threat is red and blue!"


"No threat yellow!" Evie shouted. "What is black and white? What is five arms?"


"We can't communicate with them," Becca sighed. "We don't have the right context."

"OK, the crazy is catching," Gordon said.

Becca perked up. "You saw her, too."

He shook his head. "You two have been talking about it enough I'm starting to believe it. And I thought only women got hysterical."

"Well, that's very progressive of you," Becca complained.

"It's the root," Evie explained, glad for a change of subject. "Same basis as hysterectomy. The ancient Greeks thought that the crazy was caused by the uterus floating around in the body and messing with internal organs."

"And venial diseases are caused by the plant Venus," he countered. "I'm still seeing things."

"Goddess Venus," Evie corrected. Then, "Oh! Hell! I just saw her again! This isn't crazy. We are seeing something!"

Becca looked out across the openings. "She's too fast. It's like she blinks into existence and then out."

Evie activated her shield-belt. She said something, but the others couldn't hear.

Out of shared fear, Becca pressed her belt on as well.

Gordon was shouting something and pointing across the section. He waved his arms and gestured to a tiny spot on the far wall. It was a shuffling thing, maybe one-hundred meters away.

Becca turned her belt off. "What's that?"

"Which Vencume is that?" Gordon shouted.

The creature was coming closer, dripping wet. It moved slowly, painfully.

"Is that Penemue?" Becca shouted at the approaching Vencume.

Evie was already standing. She held an arm out and pressed Becca back. There was a tingling sensation when she touched Becca's arm.

Gordon was backing up. "This isn't looking good. We might need to make a hasty exit."

Evie was already walking over to the Vencume. The creature turned a dark gray and shrank to half its height.

"Whoever it is," Becca said, "they feel ashamed."

The Vencume was color shifting to a light blue. Evie had turned her belt off and the two were talking.

"Better go find out," Gordon said, and walked past her to where Evie and the Vencume were.

Out of the corner of her eye, Becca saw the black-eyed girl again.

"I don't know who you are," Becca said, not turning to face the child directly, "but you're scaring us. Why are you here?"

"Forget you saw me," the girl said. "We are here to protect you and the project. Do not be afraid. You will be returned home unharmed."

Becca nodded, then turned to see where nothing was. No girl stood there.

"Becca!" Evie shouted from across the way. "It's OK! Come on over!"

Evie was taking her field-belt off as Becca got within ear-shot of the small group.

"You'll want this, just to protect yourself," Evie said. "I can take a hit, but I know that a single bolt will incapacitate you." She laughed. "You should have developed thicker skin or real muscles. That hydraulic vascular system of yours springs a leak too easily."

"Engineer has high sensors that see far," the creature responded. It was Iskandar. "Your concern for my safety is flattering."

"Where have you been?" Becca demanded.

"Fulfilling my function," Iskandar answered. "I had much to offer and the Library was willing to listen."

"So you know what they were talking about," Gordon said. "This whole thing is too amazing. I thought the Library was a computer."

"This is too complex for a computer," Becca said. "Have you been hiding in here?"

"Most of us are here," Iskandar answered. "This controls the ship. The bridge is only for observation, but Blue Tzikzik have created the sensor array and we are better able to observe."

"So, yes," Evie said. "You are going to hide here. You and the Vencume."

Iskandar shifted to a deep-blue frown. "Assistant has worked to complete the project. Black Tzikzik are out of advancement and now patrol the ship."

"Where are they?" Gordon asked.

Iskandar ran a yellow hand along Gordon's arm. "They are with us now."

"How do they do it?" Becca asked. "Is it invisibility?"

"Gentle Blue has created the device," Iskandar said. "It is based off a device First Human brought. We have some information on in, but its mechanism is complex."

Evie jaw had clenched somewhat. "So if there's a Black Tzikzik, there's a white as well. What are they?"

"White Tzikzik leads and teaches," Iskandar faded to a deep blue. "But Assistant has gone past us in programming. There is an imperative we do not understand. You will discover it and report back to us. It is not part of the project. It does not match the schedule. We must know its purpose."

Becca stood with crossed arms. "What is the schedule, anyway? Everyone talks about it but no one ever said what it was. Is it why you did such a rush job on the girls?"

"You are not the only civilized race," Iskandar answered.

"I know about the Toshdohai and the Mavdares," Becca said. "And I know your cloning experiments don't work with them."

Iskandar pink-laughed. "Besides them. There are many more."

"And the Vencume have ships that have contacted all of them," Evie said. "And now you're going to get together and compare notes."

"Engineer senses far."

"Did you use the Tzikzik attack rouse with all of them?" Becca asked.

Iskandar turned gray and drooped. "The system works. It helps maintain the schedule."

"The schedule is when you meet," Gordon said. "You only meet every five-hundred years, and you were hard-pressed to come up with something at the last minute. So, you decided hood-wink a human into helping you. You cooked up monsters with only one command: attack humans."

Evie's jaw was in full-clench. "You tore me apart so you could figure out how a human fits together. But the girls decided to handle the threat before fitting to your schedule. But you weren't worried because we made improvements to the snapback and you figured you could still make it to the meeting place at the right time."

"Are you still trying to find something to live through?" Becca asked.

"I am confident that humans are the correct model," Iskandar said. "When we first connected with humans, we knew that your model would be better than any the others have found."

"When you first met the portmen," Becca said.

Evie stepped suddenly up on Iskandar and held out a fist. "You better put on that shield before I start punching you. My grandmother was a portman."

Iskandar straightened up and shifted a bright red. "I know. You look just like her."

Evie didn't wait for Iskandar to put on the belt. It was a neat swing that caught the creature at the connection point between two arms.

"I came here because I wanted to!" Evie yelled. "I'm in space because I chose to! Not because of you! You had nothing to do with it!"

Iskandar crumpled and there was a rattling sound.


"Shut up!" Evie shouted.

Becca held out a hand. "Evie, get your belt. Let's go before they decide we're expendable."

Evie snatched up the belt and put it on in one smooth movement. "Let them stay here. Stupid Vencume. You don't mess with my family!"

Gordon took Evie's arm and pulled her towards the exit. "Yes, you're very hard-core. Everyone is afraid of you. Let's go."

Iskandar was still slumped against one of the opening walls. It shuddered and rattled.

"I think you really hurt him," Becca said.

"Bastard monster always reminded me of my uncle," Evie hissed. "Know-it-all creep."

5.6 Wire-Mommy

The three humans left the Library, each sure they were being watched.

"It's unnerving," Evie complained. "They're tinkering with us and now we're surrounded by something we can't even see."

"The Black Tzikzik are here to protect us," Becca said. "One told me so. She also told me to forget I had seen her."

Evie shook her head. "And you blabbed the first chance you had."

Becca frowned. "You would have done the same."

"Oh, I don't know," Evie laughed. "Maybe I would have dug a hole in the garden. 'The Black Tzikzik are going to protect us! Everyone is a last-minute science-fair project! King Midas has ass's ears!"

Gordon shrugged.

The lift was crowded as they rode away from the pod landing.

"So, what next, huh?" Becca asked. "We just go on about our way and hope no one loses an arm when the girls open fire?"

"Something like that," Evie nodded.

Becca frowned. "You were pretty ready to give Iskandar your belt."

Evie laughed again:

What is a belt? Or even shield?
And what good can these things yet yield?
Preventing loss of leg or arm
More than weapons cause us harm.

Gordon rubbed his nose and smiled:

But toss away your safety net,
A demonstration of your pride.
Some big revenge you hope to get
By beating some poor Tzikzik's hide.

Evie's eyebrows shot up. "It's like that, is it?"

He smiled at her. "It's not that hard. Try to mix it up a little."

When the lift doors opened. Gordon made sure he was the first out. Becca saw a faint flicker as he activated his belt-shield and stuck his head into the corridor.

"How much air do we have when these things are on?" Becca asked.

"Never had it on long enough to run out," Evie answered. "Less, now that we're scared."

Gordon waved for them to move on. Becca turned on her shield and the corridor fell into muffled silence.

Idana was kneeling next to the door, probing the panel with long tools. Becca could see the girl muttering but couldn't hear anything.

The two redheads standing on either side of the door swung to one side, obviously surprised. The two redheads weren't even in their blood-red armor; instead, they wore drab work-suits.

They don't even see us as a threat. We're just something soft in their way.

One girl aimed and fired.

Gordon stood broadly in the hall, arms on his hips. When the bolt went past him, Becca saw a faint quaver in the air around his head. He flinched slightly, and the bolt went off in a wild angle, lodging itself in the wall behind Becca.

Idana was standing, the whites of her eyes fully visible around her cold blue irises.

Evie shouted something.

The two redheads looked at each other in amazement and the girl who had fired flicked a switch on the side of her gun. The other followed suit and they aimed at the three adults.

They aren't going to fire them one at a time. How well do these things work?

Becca rushed forward, next to Gordon and shut her eyes, preparing for the onslaught.

When nothing happened, Becca opened her eyes.

The redheads were standing shock-still, looking at their empty hands. One bared her teeth and started to run towards them, head down, arms back, leaning into what was going to be a very powerful attack.

And Becca turned her shield off and raised her arm, aiming the pain-ray at the trio of prepubescent threats...

At first, it looked like smoke, thick and black. The blur swirled around stand-off in the hallway and, just as suddenly, took the shape of three black-haired girls in dark uniforms. Two held guns; the third had the redhead who had charged on her knees in an arm-lock.

"Doctor Tabib might be unwilling to inflict pain," the third black-haired girl said. "But I am unhampered by such restrictions."

The redhead, whose collar said Avariella, growled and tried to twist out of the lock.

The black-haired girl leaned her face next to Avariella's ear. "If you do that wrong, you're going to dislocate your own shoulder. But please, by all means...."

The redhead relaxed somewhat. "I know when I'm beaten. Let me up."

"Go ahead," Evie had turned her shield off. "You can let her go."

The shadowy bodyguard released Avariella and stepped back. Avariella stood, rolled her shoulder, and then rushed the black-haired girl...

...Who disappeared in a dark blur that crushed the redhead's hand and broke her nose.

The other two black guards stood to one side and did not smile. One handed her captured gun to the other, who disappeared.

The remaining girl cocked her head to one side. "We're still here. Don't forget that." And she faded away as well.

Idana had pressed her hand to her right eye to stop the rapid fluttering that had started when the first bolt missed. "How..." she whispered. "You cannot. It doesn't work that way. We're the smart ones. You're only human. We're better. You cannot. We're stronger. We're faster. It's not possible."

Becca knelt next to Avariella to examine the broken nose. The redhead was cradling her hand, crying. Her sister, Altsoba, had already reached into a pocket and pulled out a tube of spray.

"We're older than you," Evie said, walking over to Idana. "We've been around and we know what's out there."

Idana was madly shaking her head. "No, we had the connection. You grew something. You teamed up with the Vencume and you made something. I know you. You had nothing to do with that. I know you. You're not that smart."

Altsoba was spraying Avariella's hand and face with spray, holding out fingers to pull them straight.

Evie was standing over Idana and put her arms around the girl. "I wasn't a good mother to you. You grew up without me and then I never paid attention to you afterwards. But you need to know how proud I am of you. I am so proud and you are so clever. Despite it all, I'm glad I met you."

Idana squirmed, but could not escape Evie's hug."Let me go!"

"And I do love you, even though I'm not very good at showing it," Evie said. "And I know you're not very good at showing it either, because you're so much like me. You're so afraid of everything around you and you have to control it and you can't because you're so small. The universe is so big and scary and you're so small."

"You're not my mother!" Idana screamed. "The Vencume are my mother! You're a fake!"

Evie pulled back, visibly stung.

Idana wriggled away and stood squarely, wiping away tears. "Be as proud as you like, but the only thing you ever did for us was donate some DNA and ideas. You never carried us or tucked us in bed or read stories to us. We grew up alone." The girl broke down sobbing. "I just want my sister back. I just want Imala back. Please, just give her back. I miss my sister and I want her back...."

"I...I don't have her," Evie stammered.

"Then what good are you?" Idana yelled.

Evie formed fists at her side. "I'm all you have. As crummy as it is, I'm it. I'm sorry. I think Idana is in advancement and I think Ulan is there as well. They must be working on something very important to be away so long. You don't think she misses you as well? And she's been away from you so much longer than you have from her."

Idana picked up her tools and started to walk down the corridor. "You don't know anything about away. You've always been away."

Becca had to open the door to the room. Evie had programmed it to respond to her DNA and her DNA alone. Not even Evie could open it if she wanted to.

Annora knocked on the door several hours later. Becca answered it with shield raised, but turned it off once she saw the look on the girl's face and what she was holding.

"We're really sorry," Annora said, holding out the mechanical mantis arm.

Ilyssa was standing behind Annora. "We tried to fix it, but we don't know how it works."

Evie came out of her side-lab and pushed her goggles back. "What did you do to it?"

"It surprised us," Annora explained. "We gave it a few bolts and the arm came off. We're really sorry. We didn't know what it was."

Evie came into the main room and took the arm from the redhead. "This is from the first one. Did you destroy the other two?"

Ilyssa shook her head. "It was just this one, in the garden."

"Well, it can be fixed," Evie said. "Where's the rest of it?"

"That's all that's left," Ilyssa said.

Becca watched the exchange. The girls look defeated. But is this a trap of some kind?

Ilyssa scanned the room. ""

"Maybe," Evie answered. "Why?"

"I thought maybe they wanted revenge," Ilyssa mumbled.

Evie crossed her arms. "They aren't like that."

"Will..." Ilyssa started. "Will you show me how to fix it?"

"Sure thing," Evie nodded. "Come on back."

As the two walked through the main room, Gordon held out a hand to Ilyssa. "How's your sister?"

Ilyssa nodded with glassy eyes. "The one I still have? She's fine. We'll...we'll be OK."

"Come on," Evie said, holding open the door to her workroom. "Let's see what we can do about this."

Annora watched them disappear and turned to Becca. "Avariella is doing better. Her hand healed up."

"How's her nose?" Becca asked.

"A little crooked," the redhead said. "We're calling it her war-wound. It was dishonorable to attack like that. You aren't the enemy."

Gordon had stood and walked over to the door. "Are you guys going to go see the rest of the Vencume now?"

They were interrupted by Evie and Ilyssa laughing in the lab.

"We're deciding," Annora said, craning her head to see into the room. "Right now, we need to get you home. You've been away from your families and that's not fair to anyone."

"Just because we leave," Becca said, "doesn't mean the black Tzikzik will leave as well."

Annora glared at her. "We're more worried about Imala. We think they did something to her."

"But you aren't worried about Ulan," Gordon said. "She's missing as well."

The redhead sniffled. "We'll be at Cancri-55 soon. You should pack."

Evie and Ilyssa were in the lab for a very long time. Occasionally, there would be a peal of laughter, either from both of them of just the girl.

Becca poked her head into the lab. As the genetically elected door-master, she felt she should let them know when she was leaving. They would be locked out of the quarters if she left.

"I was going to head to the kitchen," Becca told them. "I have lots of work to do."

Ilyssa cocked her head to one side. "How much is that?"

Evie grinned. "Eight bookoos in a lot."

Ilyssa grinned back. "Sixteen lots in scad."

The two laughed and said in unison, "Four scads in a buttload!"

Becca rolled her eyes, but smiled inside. They're spending quality time together. They're laughing. I'm going to go home and see my daughter soon.

Ilyssa jumped up and gathered the mess off the workbench. "We can go to my lab! I have more room and an injection mold. We can finish up the legs there."

"That sounds like a great idea," Evie answered.

Here they are: the designer and the engineer. Both of them are inventors, making things they understand better then the people around them. They both need so much control over their environment and together, they're going to make something. What was it that stopped them before? Pride? Or just the fear of getting close to another person? But they're going to connect now, and if they have to keep one another a screwdriver's distance away, well, at least it's a shared tool and they can be productive.

"Gordon still out there?" Evie asked.

Becca shook her head. "I let him out earlier." Like a dog or something. "He had promised the pilots an astronomy class."

"Let him know where we'll be," Ilyssa chirped, hoisting a box of parts off the table. "We're going to see if we can get a two-legged version."

Evie wrapped up some tools and stuffed others in her pockets. "The balance will be tricky, so it will have to walk the bias. It will look like a cat-walk model by the time we're done." She did a brief imitation.

"Wider stance!" Ilyssa corrected. "The knees aren't that advanced."

The two laughed again and bustled out of the lab.

Evie and Ilyssa had not returned from the main lab; whatever they were working on took all their concentration. Idana had come to the mess-hall, which was crowded with pilots and ground-troops.

Becca was eating in the kitchen, leaning against a counter and spooning up red lentil soup. They did not have any meat stock to start the soup, but Acadia and Aideen had substituted caramelized onions and a soy thickener. I don't even have to tell them how to cook anymore. And they're getting more creative on how to do it. And I'm learning from them. This is good.

Idana entered the kitchen and ladled out a serving of soup into a bowl. She leaned on a counter opposite Becca and ate in silence.

"Do you think we'll ever eat meat?" Idana finally asked.

Becca shrugged. "You'd have to raise it and slaughter it. You might try keeping chickens, but they don't do well in zero-gee. They can't eat or drink and their hollow bones prevent them from making orbital launches."

Idana spooned up more soup. "We could just bring eggs on board."

"You could do that," Becca agreed. "But you'd have to tend them. Living animals need someone to look after them."

After a few more moments, Idana looked at her bowl sideways. "We could bring on lepacines. They do well on zero-gee and we could just advance them like we do the garden."

Becca thought about it. Lepacines were a pig-like rabbit form that had snoutish noses and trotters. Cows were too big for the trip to the colonies and pigs were too smart to go through the journey without losing massive amounts of weight due to worry.

"You'd still have to get someone to tend them," Becca observed.

Idana shrugged. "Who cares? They have large litters."

Becca finished her meal and put the bowl in the kitchen sink.

Idana held her bowl for a few moments after finishing hers. "I miss her," she girl said.

"I know," Becca answered. "I'm sure she'll turn up."

"I hope so," Idana sniffed. "We really need her. She sees things we don't. She thinks differently."

"Do you think that's because she connected with me?" Becca asked.

Idana gave Becca a long stare. "Why would that make any difference? You don't know anything about machines or guns or time."

"I was just curious," Becca offered.

"You're saying that Imala's ability came from an ordinary person."

Becca shrugged. "Maybe I'm saying that Imala's ability came from being able to think in a way you had dismissed."

Idana set her bowl in the sink and approached Becca. The girl held out her arms and gave Becca a long hug.

"I don't understand this," Idana said. "But it's very calming. I'm not as scared."

"It's because you're human," Becca said, hugging back.

Idana nodded. "And the shame of it will outlive me."

Becca was the first one back to the quarters. She had been cleaning up after the meal and wiped her wrinkled hands on her pants.

As she opened the door, Becca just about jumped out of her skin. There were two young women sitting at the table: one with warm black hair and large brown eyes, the other with long gray hair and small blue eyes.

"Becca," the gray-haired teen said, standing. "I'm sorry we startled you."

"Who are you?" Becca asked. They look just like Evie!

The black-haired teen shook her head. "I guess we really did change that much." She looked around the room. "It's like I never left; but then, it's only been a little while for you, hasn't it?"

Becca's knees went weak. "Ulan...Imala."

"Please, have a seat," the teen-aged Imala answered. "I'm sure our appearance must be startling. It was only five years, but these bodies change so much in such a short period of time and, I admit, we did leave at a critical stage."

Becca's head was spinning. "Where have you two been?"

"In advancement," Ulan said. "We have two new Tzikzik coming out, Black and White, and Buer asked us if we would like to help with the last stage..."

"We saw…" Becca started.

"It was something you had said, long ago," Imala explained. "In order to complete the project, all the arms of Vencume had to be represented. We've been operating a hand with no thumb for too long now. There has always been that undercurrent of something that…wasn't quite right. My sisters have done well, but they aren't really leaders. And now that there's no one to fight, what will they put all their energy into? They are advanced, yes, but there's much more to do…internally."

Becca examined the girls at the table. "Weren't you bored?"

Ulan chuckled. "At first? Very. But then, our lives have always been restricted. And these new girls, well, they're still younger than we are, but they never teased me about how I spoke. They asked me questions and offered suggestions and they never fought the way the others did."

"Oh, and I have a new device for you," Imala said cheerily. She pulled an object from the floor and set it on the table; it looked like her pain-killing ray.

"What does that do?" Becca asked.

Imala made some adjustments and fitted a small wire tiara to her head. She placed a similar tiara on Becca's head and fed two leads to the apparatus on the table.

"I've seen your experiments before, Imala," Becca said. "Am I going to lose an arm to this?"

Imala chuckled a bit and made another adjustment. "Here, let me show you."

When she turned it on, the room started to buzz and turn white.

There are five children with white hair. There is one with a square head and orange eyes, another with small hands and yellow eyes, a third with long hands and small, blue eyes, and a fourth, silent one, with black eyes. The fifth white-haired child has her eyes shut and when she opens them, Becca can see her eyes are pale, almost white.

"Erica represents the Reds now," the girl states. "Estelle is for the Yellows; Elaina for the Blues. Eleanor represents the Black group. My name is Enola. It means alone."

The teen-aged Imala sitting across from Becca smiles and rests a hand on the machine on the table. "We found a purpose. I think you'll agree with our solution"

Buer is in the vision as well. "Quality, not quantity. We have much to learn."

The room re-formed around Becca and the table.

"It's just like the Vencume connection process," Imala was chattering. "But you don't need a nap afterwards. And you can do it sitting up; you won't lose muscle control. The Vencume try to fit the whole brain in, but this is only dealing with the frontal cortex."

Becca stared at the device. "Why did you make that?"

Imala smiled. "I want you to have it. I'll show you and Evie how it's made. You're going to need it because we won't have any Vencume when you get back home."

Ulan nodded. "I'll be coming with you, but you'll still find the Evidencer useful."

"That's what I'm calling it," Imala said. "The Evidencer. I need to name all of my devices. I think I'm going to call the pain-killing one an Insulator. Kind of a double-play on words there on what it effects and what it does."

"What about your Collapser?" Becca asked.

Imala frowned. "I hate that thing."

There was a sound behind her, but Becca did not see anyone come in. A girl with black hair and deep, black eyes suddenly appeared. There she is! The one we thought was Ulan! How do they do that?

The girl leaned over to Ulan and whispered in her ear. Then, just as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

Imala was smiling broadly. "That's the Advancer. I do like that device."

"Who was that?" Becca demanded. "That's the black Tzikzik."

"Yes," Ulan answered. "They're enforcers. Special forces. Imala gave them a doohickey that ignores the borrowed-time field, so they can pop in and out as they please."

"You're getting a copy of that as well," Imala said proudly. "Evie will understand it; she was getting close to it anyway with the shield generator you have on."

Ulan pulled something out of her pocket. "Here's a little thing that turns the shield and the Advancer off. You should have that." She handed a tiny, square gadget to Becca.

"For every lock," Imala grinned. "There's a lock-pick. And every advance that a system makes gets hacked one way or the other."

Becca pressed the round button in the center of the metal square. There was a faint zzt and three black-haired girls suddenly appeared in the room.

"That's not really fair," one said with narrowed black eyes.

Another bared her teeth. "We're just doing our job."

Becca pressed the button again and the three girls disappeared.

"That one only works when the ship is in transit and the field is active," Imala explained. "There's another one that works on its own, but I'm not ready to hand it over yet. We don't trust the Shipping Authority completely and you'll still need protection when we get to Cancri-55."

Becca turned to Imala. "Your sisters have missed you. It's only been a few days, but they're very upset."

Imala nodded. "I understand. I missed them terribly while I was gone. You get so used to seeing someone every day and then, one day, they aren't there. It's like losing an arm or a leg, but you know you have to stand up on your own."

"And then, no one can recognize you," Ulan added. "Like seeing a face without glasses. You don't even recognize yourself." She paused. "Ursula?"

One of the black-haired girls appeared.

"Ursula," Ulan said. "Go find out how far we are from the station. I want to know how much time we have."

Ursula nodded, disappeared, then reappeared. "We'll be there in ten hours."

Imala stood and held out a hand to Becca. "We have to go and you need to get some sleep. I know that will be hard, but you have a very busy day tomorrow."

"I'll be back later," Ulan said, standing, shorter than Imala. "You can tell Evie what's going on, but remember that all of you are leaving the ship tomorrow. I'll be coming with you, like I said, but she'll need sleep and so will you."

Imala pulled another apparatus out of a pocket. "You can set this. It will let you sleep for however long you like." She fiddled with the settings. "I've set it for eight hours, but I'll go over it again with you before you go. We have data-stiks for all of this. I'll pack you a bag."

"Try to contain your excitement," Ulan said, holding yet another device to the door. "I'll explain everything later. The trip home will still be a long one."

5.7 Return

Gordon was on the observation deck with the ten pilots. They were singing:

God bless them all
I was told we'd cruise the skies in the dark and cold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
Now we're broken souls in a Vencume pier,
The last of Wainwright's Privateers

"Very nice," Becca slowly clapped. "Now teach them Wild Blue Yonder."

Gordon laughed. "I'm sure the Reds could teach them better lyrics."

As if on cue, Avari wondered onto the observation deck.

Flying high and low and fast
Twirling madly through the stars
The enemy's not meant to last.
The glory, soon, will all be ours.

It was Orenda who sang the words back first. The other nine pilots found the melody and sang Avari's words in rounds.

Arlene joined them and threw in another verse:

Stomp along across the sky
Or thunder through some poor ship's deck
Any method can apply
Just knock them off and leave a wreck.

The pilots picked up the lyrics and sang along in rising and falling scales. Avari sat down and beat out a rhythm on the floor with flat hands.

Avariella came onto the deck. Her nose was only slightly crooked, but she still slapped the floor with her sister.

We've got a ship, we all have names
We showed those nasty beasts what-for!
Burning brighter than the flames
Of any sun, and then some more!

Other redheads had come onto the observation deck. They clapped and snapped their fingers or beat their thighs or the floor and the rhythm became more complicated and the blonde pilots took lyrics and sang them through one scale, then the next. The melody and harmony fell over itself; one group chanting or singing a verse, the others playing with more complicated tones.

Idana came onto the deck. She scanned it all with narrowed eyes and the others stopped their singing and clapping.

"You're all having fun," Idana said, pacing the deck.

"We were!" a pilot called out. The others laughed.

Idana raised her brows and crossed her arms.

You stop your fun on my account.
I understand; my dour demeanor
Would bring a frown to any face
And stop any song or dance cold.
I stand alone and look upon you
And see myself reflected back so many times
So now, what should I do?
We are all cast from the same mold
And all of us raised in the same place.
I'm just like you, maybe meaner,
But still your sister, by any count.

The redheads suddenly stood up, whooped, and stomped the floor. Idana smiled and joined in with the others. Becca laughed and clapped. Gordon kept time with a thigh slap. It went on like this for some time. Evie and Ilyssa joined them during it, followed by a graceful, two-legged, automaton.

"OK!" Ilyssa finally said. "We're at Cancri-55 in less than eight hours. If you're on watch, you get to stay up. If not, go get some rest. We have a full schedule tomorrow."

The device Imala had given Becca clicked on fifteen minutes after she climbed into bed. It didn't make any sound itself, but Becca thought she heard the ocean, or the wind, or the laughter of her nieces and nephews. Her body became heavier than leaving orbit, then lighter than zero-gee.

This is the last dream Becca has in space that she can remember. After this, she only remembers the ones she has in a bed at home. The adventure is almost over and Becca will be reunited with her family soon, so be happy for her. Think about all the times you've missed someone and multiply that by fifty and you'll understand the ache she's felt this entire time.

And now, remember how you see a shape in the clouds or how an electrical outlet looks like a face and think about Becca on that ship and know why she tried to find things that reminded her of people she knew. She is so close to her daughter now. Her dream is about home and her daughter is happy to see her mother after so long and they hug for forever. The faces she had missed for so long come crashing in like a flood and it's overwhelming but in a good way.

And Evie and Gordon are in the dream and happy as well. They are all sitting at a table and having a big family meal. They didn't know each other before this, and this adventure has lasted as long as most deep-space flights, but they've gotten to know each other and they'll stay in contact after this.

Becca has cooked a meal and everyone talks about how good it is and they wistfully remember how they all used to eat together in the mess-hall of the Vencume ship and it tastes almost the same, but Becca has bits of chicken in it now. They have coffee afterwards and don't talk about what happened to them so long ago because so much has happened since then.

Ulan is looking more and more like her mother, but there are no pictures of Evie from that time in her life. Ulan doesn't have thick glasses and she doesn't limp and she never underwent all those surgeries. She is alone, but she's starting to reach out to people.

The meal has ended and Ulan and Huri, Becca's daughter, clean the dishes while Evie and Becca play a quick game of chess. Gordon sits by the fire and reads a book while the two women match wits and battle with tiny, wooden figures.

The evening is over. The dream is coming to an end. Everyone hugs and kisses each other's cheeks and fond farewell from here. I hope to see you again. Don't forget to write. Stay safe. Have fun. Be nice.

When she woke, Becca felt refreshed. The dream she'd had felt like a memory.

Becca was getting dressed when there was a knock at the door. It was Alameda.

"We've brought a delegation on board from the Shipping Authority," the redhead explained. "They want to talk to you."

Becca adjusted her shirt and slipped on a pair of shoes. "The Shipping Authority? Did they come on from one of the ships?"

Anevay shook her head. "We're right over Cancri-55. They sent over a small craft with some equipment. We've checked it out. You just let us know if you need help from us."

They walked down the corridor to the mess-hall, Becca's mind racing the entire time. The Authority is on this ship! They must know I'm here if they asked for me by name. I wonder is Lieutenant Nie told them something. Well, then, it can't be bad, right? We saved his life—him and Ensign Qi. Are there still charges against us? I don't have a chip anymore; lost that with the hand. Her right wrist started to ache. Don't think about that. No, you have to think about it. They're thinking about it. They're going to ask about it. But Lieutenant Nie said everything should be okay. The girls are here. They said they would help if need be. I have my shield-belt on, so no one can fire anything at me. I want to go home. I want to see Huri again. Why am I so nervous? How can they scare me now?

There were two Shipping Authority representatives sitting at a table in the mess-hall with their equipment. They stood when Becca entered the room.

"Doctor Tabib," the woman said cheerily. "Please have a seat."

The man smiled broadly and turned a recorder on. "If you could state your full name for the record?"

"Dr. Rebecca Safiye Tabib."

The woman slid a small scanner forward. "Place your hands on the scanner, palm down, in their natural position." Becca put down her hands and the device flashed. "Thank-you," the woman said.

The man had set up another device—the retinal scanner. "If you'll look in here, please? There will be a flash of light so try not to blink. Just look straight ahead."

Becca pressed her eyes into the scanner and a bright light came on for two seconds. Leaning back, the afterimage floated over the table. She rubbed her eyes. I've done all of this before.

The woman was holding an imager. "If you'll look this way? Straight forward. Don't smile." A picture was taken. "And now if you could smile for us. Show your teeth." Becca obliged and laughed a bit.

The man chuckled as well. "Forgive us if it all sounds a little familiar. We do this all the time. There's a script."

"We know that the last time you went through this, it was rather unpleasant," the woman added. "We won't be playing good-cop/bad-cop with you."

"We should also apologize for how you were treated on Peg-51," the man concluded. "Do you want something to drink during this? One of the girls offered us buckwheat tea."

Alameda was still in the room. "You thirsty, Becca? Asabi made that tea again."

Becca turned and shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Thank-you, though."

"The girls are very familiar with you," the woman observed. "Did you know them before your arrival at Peg-51?"

"We were properly introduced afterwards," Becca answered. "But Asabi and Alameda are from the second batch. I met them later."

"Second batch?" the man asked.

Becca blushed a bit. I did it again. Like cookies or something. "They're a second run. Their programming was different—after my connection."

"We have a report given by a Lieutenant Nie Faren of the QingJiang, so we have a basic understanding of the connection process. There is an additional report that was given by the crew of a Tong Defu. They have described the process as well. Do you feel that any system secrets have been given up during this?"

"Just the recipe for imambayildi," Becca said. Then, in response to the two quizzical faces before her, "It's made with eggplant, tomatoes, and onion."

The woman smiled and nodded. "Of course. Isn't that how we measure culture these days? By what we eat?"

Becca laughed a little and nodded.

"You are a widow," the man said, reading a pad. "And you left behind a daughter. May I ask how your husband died?"

"Slowly," Becca frowned. "He had systemic scleroderma. His kidneys and digestive tract failed."

"That's an autoimmune disease," the woman said. "It hardens the internal organs, correct?"

"It's a slow and painful way to die," Becca said grimly.

"We're terribly sorry for your loss," the man said. "It must have been terribly expensive."

Becca felt a flash of anger. How dare you brush that aside! I had to watch it! "Yes, it was."

The Shipping Authority woman leaned forward. "Please, we don't mean to make light of it in any way. We understand that some of these questions may bring back painful memories. My own brother was diagnosed with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. My mother never forgave herself."

Becca was temporarily off-guard. "I'm not familiar with...."

"He gouged his own eyes out," the woman said. "He screamed as he did it and died blind."

The hall was suddenly silent. Becca's moment of anger was quelled by the tears she saw in the Shipping Authority woman's eyes.

"If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen getting breakfast ready," Alameda said as she walked to the kitchen.

"Moving on," the man said. "You had a new hand constructed for you by the Vencume. Are you familiar with how this is done?"

Becca shook off the shared misery with the woman. "Yes. I also helped to grow the parts that we delivered to Peg-51 on our return trip. And I replaced the glenoid labrum in pilot Gordon Gorsky's right shoulder."

"We have already spoken with him," the woman said (who stopped for a moment to wipe her eyes). "He said that both you and a Vencume named 'Iskandar' performed the surgery."

"Iskandar is a Tzikzik," Becca answered.

The two representatives stiffened.

"Tzikzik just means a genetic experiment in cloning and genetic manipulation for improvement," Becca explained. "There are several kinds. The girls you've met are Red Tzikzik. The pilots are Yellow Tzikzik. There are three Blue Tzikzik that do design work. Iskandar is a Blue Vencume Tzikzik. It's a tricky word."

The man nodded. "So there are Vencume Tzikzik and human Tzikzik. We can assume that the attacks were by Vencume Tzikzik?"

They were, but not for the reasons you're thinking. Should I expose them while we're still on their ship? Howe many civilized races are going through something like this right now?

Becca's throat suddenly went dry. "Asabi!" she shouted. "Can we get some tea?"

Asabi brought out a small pot and three cups.

"Are these...human Tzikzik actually human?" the man asked.

"We're human," Asabi said. "Buer already said that when we get older, we can cross-breed, whatever that means."

"Buer is another Vencume," Becca said. Then, to Asabi, "It means you can have children with humans when you get older."

Asabi smiled. "Neat."

The three adults watched the girl leave the room.

Becca cocked her head to one side. "The Vencume gave us the borrowed-time field, didn't they? And the snapback and the MOUS, right?"

The man nodded. "Several generations ago, yes. We wouldn't have the colonies if they hadn't."

"Why do you think they did that?" Becca asked.

Both the man and woman laughed.

"I don't mean to mock the question," the man apologized. "You've hit a bit of a parlor game."

The woman nodded as well. "Those of us who deal with them on a regular basis think they're lonely. Don't humans keep pets to hold that at bay? Anyone who has owned a dog or cat wishes—at some point—that they could talk or had longer lives. We want to know that we aren't alone. The Vencume probably want the same thing."

Becca nodded. But that's not the case. That's not the purpose; it's so much more. Am I going to be the one to suck the humor out and replace it with the truth? Loneliness seems so innocent in comparison.

"When did humans first discover lighter-than-air travel?" Becca asked. "Wasn't the first hot-air balloon in the late 1700's?"

The woman cocked her head and the man looked at the ceiling. "Somewhere around there," he mused. "Why?"

You have to say something. Maybe they already know but you have to say something.

Becca formed the words slowly. "Do you know where the Vencume home-world is?"

The two Shipping Authority representatives chuckled again.

"Another parlor game, is it?" Becca guessed. "Anyone who does deep-space flights knows about Vencume, but no one's ever been near their home-world."

"You may as well ask how the Mavdares ever constructed a space-ship under water," the woman said.

"There is no Vencume home-world," Becca blurted. "It was destroyed when their sun died. I've seen it. I know that sounds crazy, but the...connection...process. They can show you things."

The two representatives sat, stony-faced and still.

"They can't find a planet where they can live," Becca continued. "But they know that humans can live anywhere."

The man nodded. "Before you came in, we were just discussing how much the redheads look like Peggers."

"Mr. Gorsky noted that as well," the woman continued, mentioning Gordon. "And your blonde pilots look like Leonis natives."

"Ms. Gaines was the base model, correct?" the man asked.

Becca nodded. "Yes, they used Evie's DNA and adjusted from there. That was about the time they grew new arms and legs for her. After the attack on the Tong Dizhou."

"That wasn't very long ago," the woman noted.

"Relatively speaking, no. But the Vencume developed the borrowed-time field," Becca explained. "You don't think they could halt the process while in transit? They call it advancement."

The two representatives nodded.

"I think," Becca started, but halted. You know something and you have to tell them. Tell them the Vencume aren't a threat. Tell them the girls are the result of an all-nighter cram session. Tell them about the schedule.

"I think," Becca started again, "that this project is nowhere near ended. I think, maybe, that the Vencume are looking for something to rally behind and this ship is going to be it. It has twice the computing power of any ship, it moves at a completely different rate, and it has a fighting force on it that—for all intents and purposes—is unstoppable. There may be this. There are more civilized races than we know about."

The man looked past Becca at the kitchen door. He leaned forward and asked in hushed tones, "Do you think we might actually go to war with them?"

Becca looked over her shoulder at the kitchen, then leaned forward herself. "I don't think if it came to that, it would be much of a war."

The Shipping Authority woman had already laced her fingers and now tightened her hands until the knuckled turned white. "Mr. Gorsky already expressed this concern with us. He said that you and Ms. Gaines might be the best defense against such a threat."

"How's that?" Becca asked.

"It has to do with your...connections," the woman answered. "He said, 'With a doctor and an engineer, you'd know everything you needed to know.' You understand the cloning process. She understands the borrowed-time field. He seems to understand Vencume history and politics. We aren't just here to re-introduce you to human society. We want the three of you to teach us what you know. We are offering you whatever resources you need to advance the human race and to help us in any future conflicts."

Gordon was reading something on one of the displays when Becca got back to the room.

"So, they asked you a bunch of questions," he stated.

Becca nodded.

He held up his right hand. There was a tiny star-shaped scar on his palm. "And your travel visa was reinstated?"

Becca held up her right hand to show the tiny scar where a new chip had been installed.

He held out his hand. "Welcome back to the world of the certifiable and verified."

They shook hands.

"And they offered you a lucrative teaching job," he said. "Because right now, you, me, and Evie are the smartest humans in the galaxy."

"Knowledgeable," Becca corrected. "Not smart. If any of us were smart, we wouldn't be here."

Gordon laughed and nodded.

"How soon do you think we'll be heading over to the station?" Becca wondered.

Gordon shrugged. "They're still talking to Evie, so I guess it's whenever she's done and ready."

Becca nodded. "Do you think she'd want to go?"

"Honestly? No," Gordon answered. "I'm not even sure I want to go back. Sure, teaching or working as an advisor sounds great, and sure, we haven't really been the most active members on this ship, but aren't you curious how the adventure will end?"

"I want to go home and I want to see my daughter," Becca stated. "I've been away long enough and my family must be worried about me. I want to go home and see a blue sky and tuck my little girl in for the night and have a cup of tea and look at the stars and know that they are far, far away. I want to be a human again and I'm tired of Vencume and I'm tired of this awful ship and the awful things that happen here. There's an old oak table back home and it's calling my name."

Gordon smiled. "You want stability."

"Gordon, I've been crazy-scared since all this started," Becca sighed. "Who's attacking the ship? Is Evie dead? Why was I arrested? Where is my right hand? Who are these children? What do the Vencume want? Why are the Tzikzik attacking ships? Who's in my head this time? Is any of this real? Am I going crazy? Am I ever going to get home? How old will my daughter be before I get to be her mother again? How did a little girl create something that can kill so many people so quickly? What the hell is going on?"

He held his hands out. "OK, calm down. It's freaky, but don't freak out. If you can't be the most stable person on this ship, we're all doomed."

"Stable?" Becca balked. "Gordon, I've never been more unstable in my entire life! I thought when Deniz died I'd hit rock-bottom, but these last few months have been full of more self-doubt and worry than I thought possible."

Gordon wrinkled his brow. "Deniz was your husband, right?"

Becca shut her eyes and sighed. Calm down. You are freaking out and it's not going to help anyone. Try to put all of this in context. Are the events of the past few months going to put you in debt? No, they will actually help. Have you been away longer than you would have on the return trip from Peg-51? Maybe by a month. Do you still have the same number of teeth as you did when you started the trip? Yes. Well then; you're doing better than some.

"I'm sorry," Becca rubbed the tiny scar on her forehead. "It all rushed at me at once. I don't mean to unload on you like that, but it's been very stressful."

"That would explain the gray hairs," Gordon said. "But if it's any consolation, they actually make you look very distinguished."

Becca's hands wiped to her head. "What gray hairs?"

Gordon pointed. "Just at the temples. Like I said...distinguished."

"You're one to talk," Becca countered. "You're gold and silver, mister."

"There are no mirrors on this ship," Gordon stated as he ran his fingers through his hair. "I can't even keep my beard trimmed. Ulan did it for me."

"We'll have mirrors enough when we get back," Becca answered. "Humans like to look at themselves."

It was the nearly adult Ulan who came for them later that day.

Evie stood when the girl entered the room, but it wasn't with any kind of shock, so Becca assumed they had seen each other before then.

"The Shipping Authority ship is preparing to leave," Ulan said. "Before we go, I'd like you to see something."

The four of them walked down the corridor in silence. As they crossed the long bridge between sections, the lights flickered and the spin stopped.

Evie glided along in the half-dark. "Gordon, remember last time we were here together?"

"That was a lifetime ago," he said.

"I have better toys now," Ulan grinned. "We've all come a long way from here."

The spin re-started and they continued the walk. Ulan opened the door to the garden.

The five white-haired girls were sitting cross-legged under a tree. Evie stopped when she saw them, then approached half-bowed, like a supplicant.

"You're the white Tzikzik," Evie said softly. "Are you going to finish the project?"

The girl with pale eyes, Enola, smiled softly. "We are, yes. We have been discussing you."

"All of you have strengths," the blue-eyed Elaina explained. "You have much to offer, much to teach. But you also have much to learn. You have your weaknesses. For too long, you have ignored these things."

Evie held out her hands in a pleading gesture. "We try, don't we? We didn't just pop up one day and say, 'This is how things are going to be.' We came to those conclusions slowly and painfully and everything we do is hard-earned."

"That's true," Enola said wearily. "But isn't that the problem every parent has? You've been down that path once before, and you've made those mistakes, and you try to tell your children, 'Listen, I know this thing.' But children don't listen. They have to make those mistakes themselves. They have to have those experiences themselves or the lessons don't mean anything."

"But you have those experiences!" Evie objected. "Isn't that the point of the Library? Isn't that everything you've pulled out of our heads? Not just us, but...everybody. Don't you have those lessons? Didn't we give you everything we are?"

"You did," the square-jawed Erica agreed. "But, what you learned is only partially applicable here. We are not you. We are not going to face the same problems you faced. Yes, we may have some shared hurdles, but we're making a new world for ourselves. These are our lives, not some extension of your own. We are not a chance for you to live your life over; that's the mistake the Vencume made so long ago. They stopped having offspring of their own because they just looked at it as a chance for immortality. They remade themselves and lived on through their own creations, never letting go of control. They could never adapt to a changing universe."

The black-eyed Eleanor nodded in agreement. "If you try to stand firm against the storm, it will snap you in two. But if you bend, you can stand back up again. It isn't a weakness at all."

"Even humans did that," yellow-eyed and jolly round Estelle sang. "If you had never changed at all, you'd still be living in trees or hiding from jaguars. And look at how you adapted to other planets: the Peggers on that large, cold planet. Even your ancestors, Evie; they became portmen and then returned and became human again, only to go back."

"We are human," Enola said. "But we're not. And we are Vencume, but we're not. We learn from the triumphs and failures of both and we'll have triumphs and failures of our own. The important part is that we're taking the first step, the first real step, towards finding our place in the universe."

"Where will you go next?" Gordon asked.

"We have some growing up to do," Eleanor answered.

Enola stood and reached up to the low branches over her head. She plucked out a granny smith apple and handed it to Evie.

We're going to go with the Vencume to the meeting-place," Enola said. "The others are going to stay behind with humans. They need to be human—more than we do."

"We are enough to prove the concept to the others," Elaina nodded. "We contain so much DNA from humans, we can show them what they need to know."

Estelle grinned broadly. "You should take your daughters. We're fine with representing them."

"And you should get something for your efforts," Erica continued. "Humans deserve that much for all the trouble they've been through."

"They are the gift of the Vencume," Eleanor said. "If this is to be a marriage between races, some offspring should be left with the family."

"You will not see us for some time," Enola sat back down under the tree. "We have the map of many humans, so we can always come back, even if we have short lives."

Erica crossed her legs and sank next to her sister. "You will recognize us when we return. We will keep a badge of our ancestry." She tugged at her bright white bangs.

Ulan touched her mother's arm. "The ship is waiting. It's time for us to go."

"So all of the girls are coming with us?" Evie asked.

"As powerful as they are," Enola stated, "they are not a good representation of what we are capable of. They may be a vast improvement on what you had before, but that's not good enough for what we have to do."

"Are you going to be able to cope without us?" Becca wondered.

"Dear Doctor Tabib," Eleanor cooed. "You underestimate our army."

5.8 Home

These days, Becca has a home in the mountains. There are fruit trees near the back of her yard, next to the wind-fence--plums and cherries--and in the spring they cover the yard with a fine snow of white petals. In late summer, the children from the village will climb their branches and feed themselves sick on the fruit.

On the fence itself are honey-suckle and jasmine and during the hot months, the yellow flowers fill the air with their sweet perfume. In the planters, there are four-o'clocks in varying colors that open late in the afternoon. The moon-flowers bloom at night. Aster daisies and cosmos fill in the patches and a fine layer of violets even it out.

Becca walks everywhere here. The local market has what she cannot grow at home and everyone in the village knows everyone else. It may be a little cut off from the rest of the world, but they produce everything they need there. It's a tight-knit community. Becca is occasionally asked to break the tie when the local council has a vote, but she avoids politics for the most part. No reporters or government representatives bother her here, but people from around the world do come to the school she runs. The introduction of the evidencer has made teaching much easier.

Huri, her daughter, has just entered secondary school and in the evenings, after a meal of chicken in white sauce or a bowl of Noah's stew, they sit in the living room, at the ancient oak table, and Becca helps Huri with her studies.

She did get a letter from Evie once that included a picture of her family at the beach. Ulan's long black hair is in pig-tails and she smiles broadly, shielding her eyes from the sun and holding up a star-fish she has found. Gordon has put on a few pounds and kept his beard. They look happy.

Evie also has a school where she teaches engineering. Gordon teaches a class on Vencume history.

Ulan manages the affairs of her sisters, wherever they are. The girls are scattered throughout the colonies. Imala settled on Cygnus-70 to study the local black-hole and she writes that she has almost figured out how to use it as a transport system. Idana is moving up the ranks of the Shipping Authority as a security expert. Ilyssa went to Big-Bear-47 to see if she could improve the vegetable farming system there. There are pilots between every colony. There are redheads everywhere. Evie's family is expanding slowly and Gaines is now as popular a name as Wainwright or Trechantiris.

After making sure that Huri is in bed, Becca will pour a cup of tea and sit in her backyard, enjoying the smell of her garden and looking up at the stars, satisfied that they are far away.

She still has a terrible sense of direction.

*Gordon has re-written "Barrett's Privateers" by Stan Rogers. This is a fine shanty is you have a rich bass voice.