4.1 Decoy

They were two days away from Peg-51; Evie had discussed her discovery with the three designers and changes had been made to the snapback.

For a ship that was now in new hands, little had changed. The Vencume didn't seem to mind that much, seeing as no aggression had been shown to them the way it had on the other ship. The five Vencume that had manned the bridge moved to the Library (maybe to join their underwater brethren), and the others adjusted easily enough.

Mirabilis was concentrating its time in the garden and Renatus and two other Vencume had moved to another section of the ship that Becca understood to be a nursery for the human-form Tzikzik. An additional six yellow pilots had come out of advancement and another seven red were about to enter.

Evie seemed magically at ease. "I said they wouldn't kill my girls," she confided in Becca at one meal. "And look what they've done: they took over and no one was hurt. How's that for a bloodless coup?"

The three designers moved easily into the main bridge and had installed a video-screen that worked more to their liking. "We used a Vencume skin for it," Ilyssa explained. "It can do the color-shifts easily enough."

Becca had expressed some distaste at the method of a video screen, but Idana put her mind at ease. "Why would we skin anyone if we can just grow it?"

And, considering how disposable (or how available) parts were, it made perfect sense. The new system used a model of a human eye lens (but using a cuttlefish model for the retina that lacked a blind-spot) that fed into the Library and then displayed the image on Vencume skin. The skin worked as well as any LCD, as long as it was kept wet. The girls had to occasionally paint it with a nutrient solution.

The skin-screen had been Iskandar's idea. This lithe creature reminded Becca of a surgeon she had worked with during her residency. Dr. Kemel had been self-depreciating man with a mop of prematurely gray hair and a wan smile. Iskandar had that same reserved potency of a man she had known so many years ago. The...Tzikzik...had a plan that would never be obvious and he moved with an unusual smoothness during the transition. Becca imagined that Iskandar was a part of the overthrow, no matter how bloodless it may have been. "He" was always there, assisting.

Buer was also heavily involved in getting the ship adjusted. This slightly-squatter Vencume (or maybe Becca was just super-imposing her great-aunt on it) seemed intently interested in assisting the girls. Becca imagined her great-aunt Lytle directing the girls' movements, or chuckling behind a hand after answering some seemingly obvious question. Buer was happy to explain the higher functions of the ship and the cloning factory. Becca also remembered that Mirabilis had called Buer "Assistant", so it might have been in its nature to help whoever was in charge.

The three designers seemed excited by a chance to prove themselves.

"We'll need a list of attack locations," Ilyssa said. "Once we have that, we'll just work our way down the line. Sadly, we can only get the human locations from the Shipping Authority, so no idea what the other civilized races are doing."

Idana nodded. "Just because we took over, it doesn't mean we aren't going to do what were were made for. We'll bother with the home-world later, after we've fulfilled our purpose."

"As we recover ships, we'll deliver them to the various stations," Imala added. "Our step-brothers have been busy, but it's doubtful they know about us."

"And as we start to work the edges, we'll also be in-line to intercept any bursts," Ilyssa cooed, showing off how they could pluck "secure" transmissions as they pleased. "So, we can monitor if there are any more attacks as well as how public opinion is going. I also want copies from the data-banks of any ships we recover, so we can monitor how the attacks took place and how they changed over time. We want to try to get them back in one piece, so we shouldn't use the collapser."

"Pity," Idana shook her head. "That would make this much easier."

All of the girls had been irritated at Gordon's presence.

"Did you think you could hide him forever?" Idana asked.

"We would have found him at some point," Ilyssa added. "We aren't entirely dim."

Imala cocked her head to one side. "It may be interesting...later. We'll see."

As they got closer to Peg-51, new concerns were raised. They held a small meeting in the mess-hall.

Ilyssa, Idana, and Imala sat on one side of the table with Iskandar standing behind them. Becca, Evie, and Gordon sat opposite them with Buer behind them.

Idana was pointing to a map she'd made that lay on the table between them. "We can't just fly past them," she frowned and tapped a star marked Peg-51. "They're on the lookout for this ship."

"They're on the lookout for a Vencume ship," Buer noted. "Do humans know the difference between one ship and another?"

Becca stared at the table. "So we just tell them, I mean, someone tells them that the situation has been handled and there will be no more attacks of any kind."

"That's how you deal with a grass-fire," Evie raised a hand and pantomimed. "Just run through to the other side where there's nothing left to burn."

"The Shipping Authority isn't just going to let you go that easily," Idana protested. "They probably want Doctor-Doctor's head."

Gordon crossed his arms. "So give it to them."

"She's too useful to us," Ilyssa's eyes narrowed. "We're not going to do something like that."

"No," he laced his fingers. "I wouldn't expect you to. But, I do know that we're having this conversation with a woman who lost her right hand, and another that lost a lot more than that, and they look fine to me."

Evie started to laugh and gave Becca a mock-punch to the arm. "Didn't I tell you I was the woman to get you a new head?"

"Oh," Becca thought on it, "but a hand or an arm is one thing. A head has a brain in it."

Evie was still laughing.

Imala was already nodding. "It doesn't have to be a working brain."

"Idana figured out how to replicate fingerprints," Evie noted. "I bet she can do retinals as well."

Buer nodded in its own blue-shift way. "They will chase them until they have them."

"Or until they think they have them," Iskandar added. "Third Human is useful."

"Hey," Gordon smiled, "I even got a name-change out of the deal."

"Doctor-Doctor is familiar with the process," Ilyssa pointed at Becca. "You will grow the decoy parts."

"An entire head is complicated..." Idana started.

The girl frowned. "Iskandar will assist."

"We should have done this in the first place," Imala said, shaking her head. "We could have avoided that fight with the ZhengYang."

"You had no way of preparing for that," Becca said.

"We're growing him a set, too," Ilyssa said suddenly, pointing at Gordon. "So, we'll need his chip. We still have the tank from last time."

Gordon stopped and looked at her. "Aren't you just dropping me off?"

Idana shook her head. "You're a risk. You stay here where we can watch you."

"Anyway," Imala said, smiling. "We have other things to learn. We need someone like you."

Iskandar took Becca to the "factory", where clones and parts were grown. Becca found it hard to focus on anything there because of the still-unexplained "shimmer" effect. If she concentrated, she could ignore it.

There was a tank filled with a thick, milky liquid. Iskandar made an adjustment to the machine next to it. "We have the map, so we'll extrapolate that information for what we want."

"What is this?" Becca pointed to the tank.

"Calcium solution," Iskandar replied. "We have to make the...frame-work? The skeleton. We don't grow the whole being here. Those are other tanks. We'll still have to leave these in advancement to let some parts grow naturally."

The device started to trace a pattern on the x, y, and z axises. The creamy solution hardened in places.

Becca frowned. "Are we making all of this in the same tank?"


"The bones are all going to have the same genetic signature."

"No one will check them."

She crossed her arms. "How can you be so sure?"

"By the time anyone gets to that point," Iskandar countered, "the problem should have resolved itself. We are counting on human shock and disgust. You are curious creatures, but there are some questions even you do not ask."

Slightly offended, Becca though of something else. "Is this where you made Evie's arms and legs?"

Iskandar almost chuckled. "You are very careful to not mention your own hand."

The machine had half-finished a skull.

"What about her bone marrow?" Becca asked. "We use that to protect ourselves against infection."

"In that case, it was grown separately and injected before we added anything else," Iskandar stated. "We know about marrow; you taught us. You have some in your hand. We are on a tight schedule, so these will have no marrow; they will be slightly lighter." Iskandar stopped. "How much does a human head weigh?"

Becca shook her head. "I've never weighed one. I think it's five kilos."

"Humans identify with heads and hands," Iskandar observed. "All your information takes those images and nothing else. You do not account the entire being."

"Faces and hands are unique," Becca countered. "Scars prove a lifetime of activity. A person who frowns or laughs forms lines that show how they frowned of laughed during their life. Fingerprints map the random nature of our birth."

"You must find it very hard to relate to us."

Becca looked at the shimmering creature beside her and saw that gray-haired surgeon from so long ago. His eyebrows were raised over pained eyes and a half-smile hid some uncomfortable truth.

"We find ways," she finally answered.

After the skulls were finished, they worked on rolling out meters of blood vessels and nerves. Becca was threading the vessels through the muscles they had made while Iskandar worked on the more delicate task of laying out a nervous structure. Another machine formed cartilage ears and noses.

Becca was jealous of Iskandar's multiple hands and ability to multi-task. His hands always turn yellow before they move quickly, but they turn blue when he slows down for precision work. I wonder if there are two nervous systems and the color shows which is active.

Even at that, the task took several days and they did not leave the factory while it was done. Becca was distracted at one point when she thought she could see the stars through the walls and floor of the room. This must be part of that shimmering effect. Or I'm tired. This is tiring work. She took four-hour naps every ten hours and ate zero-g rations. We must be right on top of Peg-51 by now. This is taking forever.

The heads were almost complete. Iskandar had done most of the work there and left the hands to Becca. It might have been his way of letting her work on something that was less disturbing; as the hands became less like bits and more like human parts, Becca found working on them more difficult. She had been working on the heads as well, but had to stop.

"It's looking at me," she complained

"It has no eyes," he answered.

Iskandar had injected the raw material for the "brain" through the base of the skull and sprayed the hands and heads with a solution. They left the factory.

"We will leave this in advancement and come back," Iskandar explained.

Becca took the opportunity to go clean up and change clothes. She ran into Evie on the way.

"You look like hell," Evie said. "How'd you get so messy in thirty minutes?"

Becca rubbed her eyes. "What are you talking about? We've been at it for days."

"You've been in there a half-hour," Evie said. "Days? Maybe it just feels that way."

Becca went to Iskandar without showering. He was discussing something with Buer.

"You went to clean," Iskandar said. "Why have you not done so?"

"We were in advancement," Becca was shaking with rage. "No one said we were going to be in advancement. I'm getting older doing this. You never told me how long this was going to take."

"The factory is in advancement now," Buer offered. "This step can be left unattended."

"How many days have I been in there?" Becca demanded.

"Three-hundred percent," Buer said flatly. "We will be at Peg-51 tomorrow. You will be in the factory another six days."

Iskandar nodded. "Doctor can spare two weeks, surely."

"If I had known," Becca protested. "If someone had explained it!"

"We are explaining it now," Buer answered.

"I will finish the process," Iskandar ran a hand over Becca. "Doctor did not understand and will not be able to perform any duties while in this state of mind."

Becca waved her hands dismissively in the air. "Fine! Six more days! I can do that. I just wish someone had told me how long this would take. What if it had taken years? I'd be coming out of there an old woman."

Buer took her to one side, away from Iskandar. "Becca, Rebbecca...I'm sorry."

She wiped away tears of fury. "Don't do that. Don't use my name like that."

"Does it upset you to humanize us?" Buer asked. Becca heard her great-aunt's voice.

Becca shook with confusion and betrayal. "Yes. You're not human. I can't look you in the eye. I don't see you frown or nod or smile. You've crossed a line with me."

"You gave us human names."

"I didn't do that," Becca wanted to sob. "Imala did that. I just went along with it because...It made things easier. You're not human and you never will be."

Despite it all, she saw Buer nod in its own blue-shift way.

"Gentle Blue, Imala, Cautious Blue, Idana, Noisy Blue, Ilyssa," Buer ran a litany. "First Human, Ulan, Second Human, Uma. Doctor, Becca, Engineer, Evie, Third Human, Gordon. You are unique. You name each other accordingly. Does my naming your uniqueness upset you?"

Becca rubbed her face with a sleeve.

"We don't want to upset you," Buer went on. "This is an unusual circumstance for you. No human has experienced these things. I think...I am of the opinion...You are not faint-hearted. We over-estimated the curious nature of humans. Our experience with you is limited. You will teach us?"

Becca nodded. "You thought we were like you."

Maybe the Vencume laughed. "We have...Vencumized you as you have humanized us."

Iskandar approached them. "We must return and finish the process. That is...if Doctor will come."

"Yes," Becca agreed and laughed a little to herself. "Let me go clean up. I'll be right there."

Back in the factory, the skin had spread across the human skulls and hands. Unseeing faces gaped through a miasma of pinkish liquid. Iskandar pulled out a tray of eyes and started to attach them.

Meanwhile, Becca checked the fingerprints on the hands to make sure everything matched there. It looked like Idana's process worked and she set about scarring the decoy Evie hands. She had a reformulated spray that would heal, but would keloid.

I can give them two weeks of my life. It's not that much and it's not the kind of thing I'll be doing on a regular schedule. What is that? One-fiftieth of a year? It's such a blur anyway. Maybe I'll just expect my birthday a little early. Ha! I'm a full fortnight ahead of everyone now! Maybe my sleep schedule will be a little messed up. I'm eating... So, someday, the broken hip will come two-weeks early. What can you do in two weeks anyway? I mean, besides make a head and a pair of hands. I'm glad he's handling that part. Why would I ever make a head back home? Maybe eyes? I bet I can grow a new ear. I know how this works. This is an internship all over again.

The hair had been the toughest part. Evie's hair was naturally a warm black, but the Shipping Authority would be looking for white hair. They couldn't tweak the genetics to make it grow out white and had to resort to the trauma of electric shocks to force the follicles to give up the pigment. With each zap, the face on the head would contort, life-like. Becca only watched it the first time. After that, she had to look away and gnaw on the knuckle of her left thumb to keep from screaming.

When the finished products were brought to the lab, Evie was waiting with Ulan and Uma.

The twins tapped the glass and frowned.

"Dead," Ulan said.

Uma nodded. "Blech."

Evie studied hers intently. "I have a weird shaped head."

Ilyssa stiffened a bit. "What's so weird about it?"

"It was worse before," Idana added.

"I don't know how you can stand to stare at that thing," Becca said. "It's ghoulish."

Gordon was also looking at his, albeit in a more side-ways manner. "It's hard to look at yourself like that. But you have to." He ran a hand over his front, like he was pushing down nausea. "It's not like a mirror. You see things differently when it's not reversed."

"Every time I turn around on this ship," Evie mused, "I see myself."

Becca suddenly realized there were no mirrors on the ship.

Imala was setting up the pressurized tank. One of the cuffs had been sealed off. Idana plucked out Gordon's right decoy hand from the tank and plopped it in the tank. Ilyssa shoved her hand in one of the cuffs and tested the gun-like device that would move the chip. Gordon obliged and placed his right hand in the tank.

Moving Gordon's chip was a quick process, the girls having done it once before. Imala was also pleased to use her pain-killing device on a larger and unknown subject.

Once it was done, Evie started to roll up a sleeve. "I suppose I'm next."

"We're not moving your chip," Idana said.

"We have to replace your eyes and hands," Ilyssa explained. "We're just going to give them what you have and give you something that matches how you were before."

Evie suddenly realized that the eyes for her head were not in its sockets. "I thought you were just..."

Iskandar gestured to a chair.

"You knew," Becca said. "You didn't tell me that."

"Why else would you scar the hands?" Idana asked.

Evie sat down and wrung her hands. "I don't know if I can do this."

Iskandar uncovered a tray with a set of surgical tools.

Becca still felt a righteous indignation. "Why doesn't anyone ever tell me anything?"

"That was our assumption again," Iskandar said. "You ask many questions, but did not ask about that."

Evie was wriggling in the chair. "What does it matter?"

"Think about later," Ilyssa demanded. "Once all this is over and done with...we have to make you match how it was."

Evie squirmed. "I can't. I...I wish I could. No, I can't."

"It's only for a couple of minutes," Idana explained. "It's only a moment. It won't be any time at all."

"No," Evie pressed her hands to her eyes. "You don't....You don't know what it's like."

"Now you're making assumptions," Idana said.

"We'll knock you out," Imala offered. "We'll wake you up when we're re-attaching them so we can map the nerves."

"No, no," Evie was almost sobbing. "I want to. Really, I want to. I....It's too much like...I don't care. I'll be a refugee my whole life."

"Strap her down," Ilyssa hissed. "This is stupid."

"Do me," Uma chittered. "Take out one of my eyes and replace it."

They turned to look at her. Iskandar rotated with tools clattering.

"I'll do it," Uma chittered on. "I'll do it to prove the process. I can be half-blind for a couple minutes, if it puts her mind at ease."

Becca suddenly thought about how the twins were coherent when they chittered. The rest of the time it was a hodge-podge collection of noise. When did they learn our language?

Imala made an adjustment to her pain-killing device and pointed it at Uma. Iskandar moved towards the girl with scalpel raised.

"No!" Evie cried out. "I'll do it. Don't do that to her." She leapt forward and raised a hand over Uma's eyes. "I'll sit still. I'm sorry."

Iskandar shifted from blue to violet. Becca saw the creature frown.

"Please," Evie begged. "I'll do it. I'll sit still for it. Don't blind her."

Imala made another adjustment to her pain-killing device.

Iskandar moved with the utmost, blue-handed precision, removing Evie's eyes and leaving as much nerve-stalk as possible. Evie gripped the chair with white knuckles and clenched jaw. She had flinched a few times and Iskandar had to hold her head still.

The old eyes went into the tank with the head. "We'll attach that later," Idana said.

Evie's new eyes went in a second later. They were a teary dark brown that quickly turned red as Evie sniffled.

"How are you doing?" Becca asked Evie.

Evie made fists and rubbed her eyes. "It's a little off. I have to get used to them. The focus is okay. My head feels strange and full."

"Let me know if you get hungry or nauseated," Imala said. "I've seen that side-effect."

Evie's hands took more time; first the left, then the right. The new ones, scars and prints intact, were seamlessly placed. The old, flawless hands fell away like so much dead skin. Idana placed them in the tank with the strange, lifeless head.

"You're feeling OK?" Gordon asked.

"I feel like a child's toy," Evie answered and rubbed her wrists. "A spoiled, angry child that knows its mother will just buy it new one."

The Shipping Authority wasn't taking any chances. Peg-51 had been turned into a military outpost.

Well, it was as much of a military outpost as could be gathered in a month's time. The cruiser that led the battle group, the XingLong, was waiting by the station with a destroyer, the JianYang. It was assumed that the two frigates of the group were running a picket along the border.

Because of the adjustments to the borrowed-time field and the snapback, the Vencume ship appeared somewhat suddenly over the station at Peg-51. Becca imagined that alarms were going off everywhere.

Mirabilis had been brought out of retirement from the garden and manned the comm between the ship and the station. Becca, Gordon, and Evie circled in the background, listening. Gordon had one of the Vencume translators with him, the volume turned down low.

It may have been Mirabilis' time in the garden, but this Vencume reminded Becca of Old Man Sazji. None of the children in town knew (or cared!) who he was or what he might have done before, but they all knew him as the old goat with the fruit trees in his garden.

Every year, in late summer, the children would raid the trees. They clambered over the wall like so many monkeys and ate themselves sick on the peaches, cherries, apricots, and plums he grew along the wall. It was a yearly ritual: climbing the wall, plucking as many fruit as one could, and then scampering away before Old Man Sazji (dressed in a towel and face white with shaving foam) would come out and wave his ancient straight-razor at them. He cursed at children and threw stones at the birds who came to eat what was left in the highest branches that the children weren't brave enough to climb after. His garden was always littered with rotten fruit that he could not be bothered (or was too old) to pick up. Becca remembered one boy falling from a tree and cracking his head open on the street below. It looked like an over-ripe fruit: red and glistening on the pavement.

And, remembering it further, Becca remembered going to Mr. Sazji's funeral as an adult. It turned out he'd been a diplomat during one of the flare-ups in the south. There was some battle he'd stopped that had saved millions of lives. They had read about it in school, but the name had never clicked. Old Man Sazji was just a crazy relic that shouted at children. Her personal truth could never be wiped away by anything that history said.

Mirabilis made an adjustment to the comm, like an old man trying to tune in his favorite evening drama. The Vencume hesitated, then chittered:

"Please, Peg-51, forgive our sudden appearance. We are trying to fix a mistake we have made. We must apologize for any misunderstandings that may have occurred. The Tzikzik threat will be neutralized soon and we only ask for human patience and cooperation in this venture."

Meanwhile, the translator intoned in a smooth, rich baritone:

Peg-51 does not see arrival. Vencume mistake. Vencume misery. Poor timing. Tzikzik soon unthreatened. Human follow.

"That's going to start a war," Gordon shook his head.

"Poor timing or not," a human voice said, "we cannot allow these attacks to continue. We need to know that this is not a Vencume activity. What guarantee do we have?"

The translator, however, said:

Bad occasion. Attack unplanned. Vencume action. Human submittal.

"Mirabilis," Becca offered, "just ignore the translator and let us do it. This stupid little machine can't handle it."

"He wants to know that this isn't a Vencume thing and they want a guarantee," Evie translated.

"We offer the humans that offended you, but only what we could recover." Mirabilis was turning a light purple. "We will send the parts to show that we have settled the issue with the ship that attacked you."

Human trophy to deliver. Technology further mechanics in time.

"Mirabilis!" Becca hissed. "Speak more plainly! They're going to get confused!"

"We will handle the remaining Tzikzik and there will be no more attacks," Mirabilis said haltingly. "We have the means to settle the situation and are taking such measures."

Vencume assist Tzikzik situation. Attack not. Vencume wager ship for destruction.

"They're going to flip out and starting firing any minute," Evie moaned.

"We do not wish to wager anything," the Shipping Authority stated. "We only want the prisoners returned to us so we can question them further."

No wager. Human trapped question more.

"I need to work on the translators," Gordon stated. "This isn't going to get us anywhere."

"No wager!" Mirabilis was turning a deep purple. "We offer the humans. We give what was recovered. Tzikzik issue resolved. We will settle it."

Wagerless. Humans returned. Tzikzik handled. Vencume absolve.

"That sounds a little better," Evie said and nodded. The other humans agreed.

Whoever was manning the Shipping Authority comm was working their own translation. "So you will return the human prisoners and we will handle the remaining Tzikzik attacks?"

Human returned trapped. Tzikzik attack human solve.

"Just say 'yes'!" Gordon hissed. "Say you're returning the parts you found!"

"Human remains returned.," Mirabilis struggled. "We return parts we found. We destroy Tzikzik."

Humans returned. Parts found. Vencume Tzikzik ended.

"Parts found should be enough," Evie rubbed an eye.

An un-named Vencume was sent to the station with the decoy parts. It felt like forever until the Shipping Authority responded.

"We see that you have recovered...three people," the voice stated with an edge of fear. "We only asked for two, but you might have been a little...overzealous in bringing these back to us."

Evie translated quickly to Mirabilis.

"We apologize for any misunderstanding," Mirabilis said. "We did not know what was involved."

The translator spat out a reasonable facsimile.

"They're trying to figure out what to do," Gordon explained in hushed tones. "Another effect of the heads, besides getting them off our backs, is to shock them a little. Humans still don't know much about the Vencume or how they deal with things. Presenting them with...scalps...will make them think we're capable of anything."

The Shipping Authority came back on. "We will give you attack locations. Inform us if there is need for assistance and we will help."

Mirabilis was the consummate diplomat. "We should be able to deal with the issue, but we will let you know if more help is needed. Again, we apologize for this. We know it will not bring back the dead. We will bring back your ships. There will be no more dead. We are sorry this has happened."

Now that this business was settled, the massive Vencume ship left Peg-51 and started the trek to Big Bear-47.

"I bet they don't think we can do it," Evie said. "Or they just want to send us on a wild goose chase."

Gordon shook his head. "They wanted to lie to us and make us go away, but they also think that we know more than we're letting on, which is true. The fact that this is such an out-of-the-way outpost puts their backs against the wall. They gave us some information so we'd leave, but they're going to watch us very carefully. Don't be surprised if we run into them again."

4.2 Crowded

Meanwhile, the mess-hall was getting crowded.

Gordon was sitting at a table with Evie and the three designers. As Becca approached this table, a voice called over the room.

"Becca! Becca!" One of the pilots called. "Come sit with us!"

Evie grinned falsely. "Someone just got popular."

Becca rolled her eyes and took her plate over to their table. The ten girls shuffled on their table.

The pilot who had called her over introduced herself as Odette. She had slightly thicker lips than the others. I have to learn a whole new set of similar faces with similar names.

Introductions were made: besides Odette, there were Olivia, Ortense, Octavia, Olena, and Orenda.

"How do you pick your names?" Becca asked.

"The Library picks them for us," Orenda said (she had slightly smaller eyes), "by meaning and organization."

Olena leaned over to Becca. "There was a baby-name book on one of Evie's data-sticks. Once the Library knew it was for unique identifiers, it decided to use them for us."

Ortense tapped the collar of her jump-suit. "We should write down our names, just to make it easier while we're getting to know each other."

"You guys aren't having any trouble, are you?" Olivia looked at the four original pilots.

Olathe frowned. "No."

"There's more of us then them," Octavia whispered. "So they're sorta threatened."

"We can also hear you just fine!" Ofria snapped.

They ate in relative silence after that. The new pilots still smiled at Becca and each other while the first four glowered at their end of the table. This new batch is friendlier. Batch. I just called them that. Like a batch of cookies or something. This new breed? This new series? These new girls...

"So," Odette looked at Becca. "Tell us about him."

The others giggled.

Becca had been jolted out of her reverie. "Who are you talking about?"

Ortense waved the question off. "How many hims are there on this ship?"

"Oh," Becca's eyebrows went up. "He...he always annoyed me."

Ovida squirmed. "We don't like him."

"Oh, he's okay," Olivia said. "He's a lot like us."

Becca laughed and shook her head. "You mean, you're a lot like him."

Orenda had finished eating and stood up. "You should come watch us launch."

"Becca's not going to care about that," Oriana said. "She's a doctor. She doesn't care about ships."

The first four stood and walked out, leaving their plates behind. Odette helped the others collect the dirty dishes into a stack and take them back to the kitchen.

Octavia came up to Becca's side and ran a hand down her arm. "Are you up for it? You want to watch a launch some time?"

Becca nodded. "Yes. I'd love to."

"Our first proper run," the pilot grinned. "We'll be hitting one soon. You'll enjoy it."

The girl winked.

Buer came to Evie and Becca's quarters and asked them if they could move in with the twins. "Additional red are coming out of advancement, but there is not room on the red arm. If you could move to the black arm, we can put them here in white."

Alima and Andrea had come to help with the move. "There's going to be another seven of us," Alima explained, "and we only have the ten beds. The pilots were able to double up when they made those additional six, but we just don't have that kind of space."

"What's the 'black arm'?" Evie asked.

Andrea held out a hand and counted off her fingers. "It's the five arms of the section: white, blue, yellow, red, and black."

"Just like on a Vencume," Alima finished.

Buer did a minor demonstration, color-shifting the three arms that were facing Evie.

"We're already in red," Alima continued, "and the pilots have yellow, but we need more room."

"There's only two of you in white," Andrea stated. "But there's three people in black, so we should just move you there."

Evie chuckled a little to herself. "It's also easier to ask us to move than the twins."

When Becca and Evie arrived, Ulan and Uma seemed overjoyed that they were going to share their quarters with others. They already used one of the rooms for themselves and had left Gordon in his own (with its spare bed).

The twins placed drawings of the occupants on the doors. Evie had been drawn in gray and purple. Becca's drawing was in shades of green, and Gordon in orange and brown. The twins had even cleared the last room (next to the one for Evie), overturning the beds and stacking them on top of each other to form a workbench. There was a drawing of the mechanical mantis on that door.

"My equipment is being moved here as well?" Evie asked.

Andrea nodded. "The others need that space. They said they were working on something."

"And it's not your equipment, anyway," Alima added. "Some of the things that you were using have been moved down, but we're only lending it to you."

"I'm being kicked out of the lab?" Evie's voice raised in indignation. "Are there going to be more designers as well? Is that it? They've getting more hands and they think they don't need me?"

"No more Blue Tzikzik," Buer said gravely. "Three is dangerous enough."

The twins giggled.

Evie was still fuming. "It's unacceptable! I gave them the plans for a better snapback on the borrowed-time field. Slowing down the field is pointless unless the snapback can catch up to the MOUS's reference frame! I did that and I think a little recognition is in order."

Becca could almost hear Ilyssa's demanding voice.

"This is preposterous," Evie sighed. "They have to see it differently. I'll be right back."

Becca went back to the kitchen. It was something she could do in the meantime. Cooking also helped clear her head.

There were three redheads there she didn't know. They introduced themselves as Atlanta, Aideen, and and Asabi (they even had their names written on the collars of their work-suits!) and they asked how they could help in preparing a meal. When Becca told them she had planned on imambayildi, they immediately collected the eggplant, tomato, onion and parsley without her telling them what was in the dish.

"You know what's in it?" she asked them.

Aideen nodded. "We've always known. It's served cold." She split the eggplant.

"But your daughter Huri prefers karniyarik," Atlanta stated, "with meat."

Becca froze. How do they know about my daughter?

Asabi started to peel an onion under cold water.

"I always had to tell the others," Becca said. "You even know how to peel an onion."

"We have some information they don't," Atlanta was removing seeds from the tomatoes. "We've had....minor issues."

Asabi nodded. "We always knew they were there,'s odd. It's like they're behind us."

"Not that they're stupid," Atlanta quickly added.

"Just less friendly," Aideen finished.

They have my information. They have Gordon's. The others have only Evie's.

"You know what a bursa is?" Becca probed.

"It's a fluid sac that forms a cushion between tendons and bones." Asabi was dicing the onion, cutting one side, cross cutting the other, then chopping off piles of diced onion. She kept her knuckles curled.

"When it's inflamed, it's called bursitis," Atlanta said, chopping the tomato. "Why?"

"I was just curious," Becca said.

"We're not like the others," Aideen stated. "They're very angry. I think they get mad because we're not angry the way they are."

The other two redheads nodded.

"Anevay had a sore shoulder," Asabi related. "I tried to fix it. You know? Massage? You can fix a sore spot if you put the right pressure on a spot. I was going to work out the knot and she tried to punch me."

Atlanta frowned in a sort of agreement. "They don't like to be touched. They're very picky."

"We keep our distance." Aideen said. "It's hard because we're all in together. We try to keep to the white arm. The ones in the red arm have their own way of doing things. Maybe they're jealous of us?"

"Yeah," Atlanta agreed. "I got Annora in an arm-lock during practice and she was really mad."

"They're very proud," Asabi noted. "But we came later. They've already seen combat. We'll see some soon. They might like us then."

Evie had secured a collection of equipment. She was busy setting up her ancillary lab in the spare room Uma and Ulan had set aside for her. Two Vencume Becca did not recognize were helping her set up the various devices and bins of raw materials.

"It's not what it was before," Evie complained, "but it will do in a pinch. I still have room and the tools I need, so I can't kvetch too much."

"Glad you're happy," Becca said.

"She's delighted," Gordon offered from the other room. "She just won't admit it."

"I'm coping!" Evie yelled back at him. Then, under her breath, "He always has to be right. It's his worst attribute."

Becca smiled. "Not that you ever have that problem. You're a fine couple."

The two Vencume left and Evie shut the door. "You're just like him."

"How so?"

Evie shook her head. "You always have to be right as well. Doesn't' that get boring?"

"No more than you always being wrong," Becca countered. "But it would help if I knew what I was being right about."

"It, uh..." Evie looked at the door. "Gordon! Come in here!"

There was no response. Satisfied with the lack of response, Evie continued.

"He said I was a horrible woman, you know? I'm not 'feminine', whatever that is."

Becca sat cross-legged on the floor as Evie set up her lab. "I don't know what that is. You have a definition?"

"Not me, I guess," Evie answered, clamping a drill-press to a table. "I'm too masculine. I think for myself and I'm more interested in how things work than how they feel."

"You spend a lot of time thinking about things," Becca offered. "Why would you worry about what's feminine?"

Evie's jaw clenched. "Hell if I know."

"You mean like those guys back on Peg-51?" Becca offered. "Or like Rosemary?"

"Rosemary," Evie sighed. "I hope she's OK. They didn't hurt her, did they?"

Becca laughed. "They hit her with my hand and took off her helmet. They sang her a song. You must have cared on some level."

"Everyone thought because I was ugly that I wasn't into guys," Evie said, sorting out a set of screwdrivers. "Why do you have to be pretty to care about guys? Don't they call ugly women Sapphos?"

Becca thought about it: Sappho was a poet from the island of Lesbos. It was where the term lesbian came from. "I thought Sappho fell in love with a man named Phaeon. A ferryman or something."

Evie's eyebrows shot up. "I thought you found all that ancient stuff too boring."

"My family liked poetry." Becca answered with a shrug.

"It's all total bull," Evie put a container of bolts to one side. "A woman has to be ugly or smart or strong or successful and suddenly she can't be an object of desire for any man. Why is it all about looks? Like how you look determines what you like."

"You like machines," Becca said.

Evie sneered. "I like machines because they behave the way they're supposed to. You program it, it does its job. Humans make no sense."

"Do you think I'm weak?" Becca asked.

Evie stopped sorting bolts. "Weak? Whiskey, tango, fox-trot, over?"

"Well," Becca laced her fingers. "For having a husband and a family and all that. Does that violate some feminist ideal?"

"That was your choice," Evie said. "I mean, you decided on that. Heck, even if you had chosen to stay at home and raise a family, that still would have been your choice, right? It's all about choice. Who cares what you do with it. We can't all be spayed cats."

Becca laughed. "Spayed cats? So says the woman with over twenty daughters."

Evie frowned. "I didn't have them. I could never do that. That's terrifying."

"Terrifying?" Becca felt a mix of praise and revulsion from her friend. "It's wonderful. You haven't done it, but it really is wonderful. You know that you did that. That's a little bit of you. It's...programmed or not, biology rewards us."

"Genes that are happy they get to keep going," Evie said. "I guess. I saw a live birth once. That's gross."

Becca frowned. "You look at the inside of your hand all the time and you're going to tell me what gross is."

Evie rubbed her right eye. "You know what I mean. It's not like it used to be, but it's still creepy."

"It's only creepy to people who don't do it," Becca countered.

"Do you think that will change when we get back?" Evie asked.

Becca shook her head. "No, people will still have children. Naturally. Maybe some might choose a tank, but I feel that humans still need that time. Pregnancy isn't all bad. You get to know that person you're about to bring into the world. We need that. It's human."

Evie turned to sort a collection of electronic elements. "I guess. But I still say humans don't make sense."

It had been a busy day of cooking and cleaning and Becca was worn out. Just think! All your schooling, and look what you do. Wouldn't your father be proud? She can feed an army and still keep a clean house! Great-Aunt Lytle would be furious.

She showered and fell into bed. There was no time for thinking before sleep overtook her.

Becca woke up and heard chittering in the other room. She went into the door and listened to what sounded like some strange dialect; only some of the words didn't make sense.

"...Unavoidable...they may be smart, but not like that...."

"This lack of chichitiizi is going to cause trouble later on. If they had thought it through when they made the zikzikkiti we might not be in this situation. We'll have to see what the others do in response."

"We still have the three adults, and that may give us a tizizikikiki. I worry more about..."

Becca opened the door. The sound was coming from the twins' room.

Uma and Ulan were sitting on the floor, playing some kind of game they had made out of clay and paper. The two girls looked up at Becca and smiled.

"Awake," Ulan put down one of her game pieces decisively.

Uma frowned at whatever move had been made and picked one of her pieces off the board.

"Was there a Vencume here?" Becca asked. "I heard chittering."

The twins looked at each other. "No Vencume," Ulan said.

"If there was no Vencume," Becca chittered, "then who was talking?"

Uma put her hands to her ears and chittered, "Just stop. You mangle it."

"You always mess up the tenses," Ulan shook her head. "It's embarrassing."

"So, it was you," Becca said. "You can't talk, but you can chitter."

"We can talk just fine," Ulan chittered. "You just have to pay attention."

Becca faced the girl. If they can chitter like the Vencume, maybe they think like the Vencume. "Your sisters don't have any problem with human..."

"Our sisters," Ulan seemed upset, "connected when they were toddlers. You're lucky they didn't form their own dialect."

"That is the usual outcome," Uma chittered. "Adults learn a pidgin while the children form the grammar-based creole."

"You don't understand us at all," Ulan complained.

"We're Vencume in human skins," Uma ran a hand across her front. "We received the Vencume connection early, and grew off of that. It's hard to walk with two legs when your mind wants five."

Ulan smiled wide. "But the human mind still leads to human cunning. It's unusual. I think it's because of the brain structure. There's a monkey wrapped around a rat wrapped around a lizard."

Uma nodded. "Not that we've ever seen those creatures, but our second connection, with the human part; we got that image."

Becca sat down near the door, slowly.

"But," Uma chittered on, "we formed our own thoughts. The others are just Engineer plus ten years in an echo-chamber. They'll make her mistakes over and over."

"They always fight things head on; she never learned any subterfuge."

"There's no chichitiizi to them," Uma moved one of her game pieces. "They just go along and make decisions and then figure out how to get themselves out of trouble."

Ulan rubbed her chin at looked at the board. "No long term thinking. No plan." She moved a piece.

Becca looked at the game board. It might have been chess or some variant. "What is...chi-chi-ti..."

"Chichitiizi," Uma corrected. "It's a kind of...strategy? Diplomacy? It's the soft form of winning."

"The round-about-way-that-prevents-problems," Ulan explained.

Uma moved a piece. "Like the break-out. When we came and got you? They just wanted to go in, guns blazing. Everyone wanted some big fight. We suggested the gas. We told Assistant to suggest it. If we hadn't been there, more people would have been killed. What a mess! Very ugly."

"But the others treat you like idiots," Becca noted. "Doesn't that bother you?"

"Of course they do," Ulan moved a piece several spaces and forced her sister to remove more from the board. "No one asks an idiot to risk themselves. No one expects an idiot to do something clever. No one watches an idiot carefully."

"Not even Engineer knows about us, really," Uma said.

"And you're not going to tell her," Ulan threatened with narrowed eyes. "She'll tell everyone."

"She started this stupid zikzikkiti," Uma said. She knocked over a piece.

The girls set the board up again.

Becca sat stone still. Everyone has an agenda. I'm just another piece in some game. Evie's game. The twins' game. The Vencume's game. We're less than human now. We don't have our own goals anymore and we just go along with whatever whim others set up for us. It doesn't matter what we want or how we feel; we just move along as they decide. The twins are still treating us like toys. They just poke us with a stick and see how we wiggle.

"Doctor is very quiet," Uma said to her sister.

"Doctor is thinking about what to say next," Ulan answered. "And whether or not to say it."

Uma nodded. "Doctor is smarter than some people."

"Why..." Becca started, then stopped, then started again. "Why did you do what you did to Gordon?"

Ulan bared her teeth and growled the word. "Life-boat." She didn't chitter it.

Becca formed small fists in her lap. "Revenge."

Uma shook her head and moved a game piece. "Our connection was very recent. We would have been no matter what. It's the others that came from that. That connection they had so long ago doomed them all. If she hadn't been left behind, if she hadn't needed to be put back together, they never would have taken that information from her. That one action made the others what they are."

"But I gave them information as well," Becca protested. "I told them how a human works. They made changes to the shape, how they're built, because of me. Will you tear me apart as well?"

"You did it for her," Ulan answered. "You did what you were trained to do."

Uma held out a hand and turned her head. It was a command for silence.

Evie was making noises from her room. A groan and arguing.

Becca went silently up to the door and peeked in. Evie was wrapped hap-haphazardly in a sheet, thrashing in bed like a drunk. She must be having some nightmare.

"That damage," Ulan said softly by Becca's side. "That might never be undone."

Becca shut the door and they returned to the twins' room.

"She needs to sort that," Uma frowned and moved a game piece. "It's going to hamper her. They all do that."

Becca's head was swimming. "They all...?"

Ulan gestured with her chin as she sat back down at the board. "They all have nightmares. Every one. None of them sleep right. They all thrash and moan and kick and curse. No one talks about it. It makes the Blues nervous. It makes the Reds mean. It makes the Yellows try to hide it under false superiority. They're all afraid and hiding it from one another."

"The Reds get in terrible fights," Uma shook her head and studied the board. "They call each other cowards and claw at each other. They bully each other into not being afraid."

"Noisy Blue got her arm broken," Ulan said. "They beat her bad. Cautious Blue almost lost an eye in one fight. They fight all the time. Round Yellow lost a mean clump of hair once."

The twins nodded at each other.

"They don't seem afraid," said Becca.

"False false false," Uma spoke the words. "You no fear? You hide."

"No fear front daughter," Ulan spoke. "You look guts, you no fear."

"Don't talk about my daughter," Becca chittered.

The twins stared at her, cold, unfeeling.

"What is a daughter?" Ulan asked. "What is a mother?"

"We don't understand these terms," Uma chittered and moved pieces on the board. "But they mean a lot to you. They mean a lot to her. She wants to be mother. She wants us to be daughters. She wasn't there. We grew up without her. We play along."

"We'll learn something," Ulan added. "Maybe she will. No telling."

"Why didn't you kill Gordon?" Becca blurted.

Ulan laced her fingers. "That's another oddity of a human brain. You feel things and act on them. Killing him won't solve anything. And it was easier to hide him while he was alive. Bodies stink."

"We put him in the garden because he told us to leave him alone," Uma added. "I think it's improved him greatly. He's a little less bold."

"Doctor must be tired," Ulan moved a game piece. "You should go back to sleep."

Uma moved a piece across the board. "Tomorrow is a busy day."

4.3 Conflict

The red-headed Anaba came to Becca a couple days later with a dislocated shoulder. Avari helped her sister to the sick-bay Becca had set up in the black arm of the ship.

"What happened here?" Becca asked while she helped roll it back into place.

"It's stupid," Avari offered.

The shoulder popped back into place easily enough, but Anaba still howled with pain during the process. Her sister took out a tube of spray and applied it to the shoulder.

"Stupid or not," Becca said, "I'd like to know what you were doing that it happened."

"I challenged someone's authority," Anaba said between restrained sobs.

"Alima did it," Avari said gravely. "They got in an argument about how to shoot. Anaba suggested picking targets more carefully and Alima was offended."

Becca checked the shoulder for bruising; it looked like the spray had done its job.

"Why don't you use that pain ray?" Anaba asked.

Becca shook her head. "That's Imala's invention. You know, she knows some medicine. You could have asked for her help on this."

"No," Avari shook her head in response. "We don't ask Cerberus for anything."

"Cerberus?" Becca cocked her head. "The three—"

"One head might lick you," Anaba was rolling her shoulder, "but the other two will tear you apart. It's better to just avoid them."

The passenger-ship, Qiu Gong, was just ahead of them.

"This one might be pretty unpleasant," Idana said in the mess-hall. They were using it as a general meeting place. "There might be survivors, but I doubt it."

The pilots practically dragged Becca to the launch bay. "You have to see this," Olena said, adjusting her helmet. "At least once."

The launch bay was past the Library and the garden, three sections away from the engines. Becca was left in a control room where she peered through the thick window at the bay below.

There were five ships in this bay, held nose-up by massive, crescent-shaped arms. As each pilot approached her ship, a slice folded out, like a slide on a microscope. The slide had a human-shaped indentation that each girl lay on, spread-eagle. Once they fit their hands into the gloves and their feet into the boots that waited at four points of each star, the slides folded back into the ships.

Now, the crescent arms lifted each ship and rotated it, nose-down. The control-room door locked. The floor opened up to the passing stars and the ships were held over the gaping void. One-by-one, as each ship let off that first spark of engine-flair, the crescent arm released them into the exterior.

It may have been fifteen minutes later; the first ship suddenly appeared in the bay, firing retros and letting the massive crescent grasp it.

One-by-one, the ships returned. The floor closed underneath them and the door from the control-room to the bay unlocked.

The ships were turned right-side-up and the pilots exited.

Olivia smiled at Becca. "How was that? Exciting, huh?"

"Was that the whole fight?" Becca asked.

"Oh, no," Ortense laughed. "We've just knocked out the sensor array and engines. The Reds have it from here."


Later, two of the red-heads came to Becca in her ad-hoc sickbay. Anaba had long gash along her left side—the amour was striped in a thick, black paste.

"What did you find?" Becca asked, not wanting the answer she knew they would give her.

"Oh, they spaced the passengers," Avari explained, sitting to one side. "Nothing from them. Those other Tzikzik are just messy bastards, that's all."

Anaba wiggled her fingers in front of her face. "Booga-booga, and all that. Ew."

Becca tried to hide the revulsion she felt. To just be thrown out like that; how horrifying.

"I don't think they met a lot of opposition," Anaba said. "They must have killed them first."

"Yeah," Avari said. "They probably poisoned them or just tore them apart. Passenger ships should have some kind of defense, you know?"

"What poison?" Becca asked.

"Oh, it's the same thing the Vencume used to numb your hand," Avari said. "You know...that tank they put Evie in when she was first brought in. These new ones made it into a pretty mean poison. One of the hands is poisonous."

Becca absorbed the information given. It's a natural product they create. I wonder how much they had to use on Evie. She seems to process things like that so quickly. A tank-full, apparently. "Is there an antidote?"

"An antidote?" Anaba said. "No, not really. We can take a good dose of it."

"That's part of our design," Avari added.

Becca dabbed away the paste with swabs and checked the wound underneath. It looked like a simple scratch. "Your sisters wanted me to see their launch....the fighters? They were very excited by it."

Avari laughed. "They just want to show off that launching system. Sure, it's neat, but it's so removed from the dirty work."

"And you do the dirty work," Becca said. "You an the others."

"Our older sisters use too many bolts," Avari frowned. "It's wasteful. They just start firing without thinking about where to put them."

"And then they yell at us for moving too slow!" Anaba's eyebrows shot up. "Can you believe it? We're not afraid, but a little caution at times would be nice."

"Well, this was the first one," Avari grinned. "We'll get it sorted."

The garden had completed another cycle. Cucumbers and melons were coming out this time.

Becca had been doing cold dishes this cycle. Alameda and Aideen were helping in the kitchen. Aideen was cubing a honeydew melon while Alameda carefully sliced cantaloupe. Becca was preparing a pickling solution for some cucumbers.

"Anaba came to me the other day," Becca said, offhandedly. "You guys are having some problems?"

Aideen slowed down her cubing process. "It's not really a problem. We're handling it."

Becca pressed on. "How have they worked out the arrangements for you? Do you just fill one section and the whatever is left over goes into the new one?"

"We have the white arm to ourselves," Alameda said. "The seven of us. We thought about doubling, didn't work out."

"How did you all work that out?" Becca asked.

Aideen passed the bowl of seeds to her sister. "They have their ways. It's not really a problem until we meet for practice. We have to work as a team, so we're sorting it out."

But you're not going to tell me anything, are you? No, you'll keep it private, as any normal person would keep an internal argument to themselves.

"They fought a lot during advancement," Alameda stated. "But they had the others with them; you know, Cerberus and the Herd of Fillies."

The pilots call themselves the Golden Swans, Becca thought. Evie calls the three designers the Trilobite and these girls call them Cerberus. I wonder....

"So the designers are Cerberus and the pilots are fillies. What do you call yourselves?"

"We're the Red Tigers," Aideen said proudly.

"And what do the pilots call you?"

"Eagles," Alameda said with a mark of disdain.

"And Cerberus is 'The Owls'," Aideen added.

"And you can't forget the Crows," Alameda laughed. "Carrion Crows."

Becca nodded. Owls and eagles and swans, oh my. "You all have names for each other. You don't use each others' actual names."

Aideen crossed her arms. "What are we suppose to call them? Designers? Pilots? Warriors? We aren't Vencume. We don't call people by function."

The next ship they hit was a destroyer. Ilyssa wasn't as concerned with what they could salvage, so they used a field-collapser on it. They were still able to copy over the data-bank. Two tugs were sent for towing.

The three designers discussed it during a meal.

"This isn't unusual," Ilyssa reasoned. "We used the collapser on the ZhengYang , so if we're pretending to be fighting us, then it only stands to reason that we would have used a collapser on another destroyer."

"We're pretending to be an unrelated ship that's going after other unrelated ships," Idana reminded her.

Ilyssa waved it off. "Then they can assume that the Vencume have the technology to collapse the field."

"And if other Vencume ships have been attacked and haven't used a collapser?" Idana asked.

"Then they can take it as a remarkable show of constraint on our end," Ilyssa stated.

Because the ship they were on could move so quickly, getting to the next location didn't take much time. For an ordinary ship, it would have taken two weeks. It took them two days. The target was a freighter, four rotating sections; she couldn't make out the name, but Becca thought it said Tong Gu.

Ilyssa had accompanied Becca to an observation deck. The designer held a radio and smiled meanly. "This is getting easier," she said. "And I wanted to see what it really looks like. That new screen is okay, but nothing beats the real thing. It's nice that we have a near-by star to see all this, isn't it?" Ilyssa asked.

Becca nodded.

The golden fighters made their lazy arc out of the launch bays, accompanied by a complex ten-part harmony. They easily picked off the sensor array and engine, even though someone on the freighter fired a couple of recovery-lines at them. One recovery harpoon hit one of the fighters, but the tiny ship just spin wildly until the harpoon-launcher was torn out of the bay. The fighter spun the opposite direction and hit the freighter at a connection point with the detached gun. The harpoon released from the fighter and the fighters came back to their bay.

"Now there's a move you'll never see anywhere else," Ilyssa laughed and spoke into the hand-held radio, "Who did that harpoon move? That was pretty clever."

A sing-songy voice answered cheerily. "That was me, Orenda."

Ilyssa frowned a bit at the new pilot's name. "Nice adjustment to the unexpected." She seemed less impressed.

Next, the buzz-landers launched. These tiny cylinders attached themselves to the hull; there was only a spray of molten metal where they gained entry.

The redheads chanted over the radio:

We're setting sail on a a boat today
On the only sea we've ever seen
We'll kill them all, 'cause that's the way
Programmed to our singular gene
So fire a bolt; watch it go through
We'll fix this problem, good and well
We're yellow, red, and sometimes blue
Anyone else can go to hell

This moment of drama, then—mission accomplished—the signal was sent that all was clear. The other Tzikzik had been killed; shredded to tiny pieces by magnetically fired bolts of metal. It was no more exciting than putting a squid in a blender and pressing the "on" button. This is the legacy of mammals: their curiosity, their cunning, their adaptability, their willingness to turn any obstacle into a fine, palatable paste.

"Well, that's another one down," Ilyssa noted. "We'll copy over the data-bank and get that thing towed to Big Bear-47."

4.4 Family

The garden was producing squash this cycle. Becca made a soup of butternut and pumpkin.

"Not your usual fare," Gordon half-teased her.

Evie was working on her second bowl. "Who cares? It's good, even though it's missing something. I can't put my finger on it."

"Milk," Becca stated. "It should be thickened with heavy cream, really. And chicken stock. And we need pepper or chili. I feel limited with what we have on board."

"It's better than any other ship is doing right now," Gordon smiled.

Evie scraped out the bottom of her bowl. "Maybe, but I bet the first ships had gardens. They were pretty big and had hydroponic gardens. I mean, they weren't going to hit some populated port at the end of their journey. They had to survive on what they brought with them or could grow."

Becca watched Evie's long fingers work the spoon. "Don't you have portman in your background?"

"A long time ago," Evie laughed. "Once the spin-ships started up, my family decided it was better to rejoin the human race. Those others...pfft...they're so inbred it's freakish. Sure, they helped start the Shipping Authority, but so what? People who chose to stay on stations like's not natural."

Gordon gave her a half-hug. "Not that you ever had problems with gravity."

Evie frowned and shook him off. "I used to hear all sorts of stories about great-great-grandparents and how they were the first out there. I don't think anyone expected me to try to return to it. My blood is just more subject to centrifugal force than centripetal."

"Centripetal enough," Gordon mused. "Brought you right back to where you started."

"You're a lousy pilot," Evie countered. "How did you wind up out here?"

Gordon played with his spoon. "Rebellion. My mother was a lawyer and my father a psychologist. I could never win an argument with either of them."

"But I'm sure they were fascinating arguments," Becca said.

"And you, Doctor-Doctor?" Evie asked with keen eyes. "What were your folks like?"

Becca felt suddenly ashamed. "My mother stayed at home and raised us. I don't know what she did before that or what she would have done afterwards; she had a stroke when I started my residency."

Gordon's face softened. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Brothers and sisters?" Evie asked, glossing past the revelation.

"Eldest brother Mustafa has become the mayor in his town," Becca went through the list. "Older sister Selda teaches math at a secondary school. Younger brother Derin owns a chain of grocery stores. Youngest sister Jale is a fashion designer."

"Middle child," Evie observed. "I'm oldest. How about you?" The question was directed at Gordon.

"Only child," he answered. Then, he brightened somewhat. "What's your middle name?"

Evie frowned. "It's Gus."

"You're kidding," Becca laughed. "Gus? How'd you get saddled with that?"

Evie shrugged. "I guess my folks wanted a boy."

They actually picked up a lifeboat with six human survivors the next day. It wasn't one of the attacked ships on the list, and it worried the three humans that ships were still being attacked.

Evie insisted that she and Becca be the ones that greeted the lifeboat once it was brought on board. "We have to show that we aren't criminals of some sort."

They brought the lifeboat in on a half-spin recovery. Evie banged on the hull, two, three, five, seven....the accepted greeting of civil-kind.

The woman that opened the hatch was an obvious Wainwright. Becca noted the widely-spaced eyes and thick hair. They really are everywhere, aren't they? "I thought this was a Vencume ship," the woman said.

"It is." Evie offered her a hand.

"Capitan Bernice Wainwright," the woman introduced herself. "The freighter Tong Defu. Five-sections with a cargo of grain and machinery. We were going to Leonis-83." She's going by the book on this. The shock of it all is going to hit very soon.

Besides this Captain Wainwright, there was her husband and chief engineer (a Pritam Singh), his sister and navigator (Dristi Kaur), Bernice's cousin and pilot (Phillip Wainwright), the chief steward (Marinka Wrengel, who wore shoes that looked like gloves, with long toes exposed), and a second officer (Thomas Randi). They also had the body of Bernice's brother and second pilot (Jamie Wainwright).

Becca examined Jamie's body. There was a black gash across his back.

"They slashed him just as he came into the lifeboat," Phillip said. "Some kind of poison. He just gasped at that was it."

"We only just got away," Thomas said. "It's been three days."

"Did anyone else get stung?" Becca asked.

Captain Wainwright stiffened. "My doctor got it on the face. It killed him instantly. He never made it to the boat. They chased us."

Evie was examining the lifeboat. "Was it just the...eight of you?"

Pritam answered. "We also lost our junior engineer and three loadmen."

Jamie's face was frozen in an agonized rictus. Whatever the toxin had been, it had been painful and quick. The survivors were shaken and looking a little dehydrated.

"We'll see about recovering your ship and getting you the rest of the way," Evie said, matter-of-factly. "We can feed you for now and give you a place to sleep, I think. We're working on this Tzikzik threat."

The steward, Marinka, placed a long hand on Becca's shoulder. "What are they?"

"It's a Vencume experiment that got out of hand," Evie explained. "We're going to take care of it. Don't worry about that. We'll get your ship back."

"Why are there humans on a Vencume ship?" Dristi asked. "We've heard stories about a couple of Vencume spies. You're saying that Vencume are responsible for this, but that you're going to fix it. Doesn't that seem a little convenient?"

Becca stood away from Jamie's body. "It's a very long story to explain how we're here and what's going on. Please, I'm terribly sorry that you've been involved in this. The Vencume made a mistake and they're trying very hard to fix it. We only want to help."

"You're Dr. Tabib," Pritam Singh said. "The Shipping Authority said you were a spy. This is some kind of trap."

The survivors of the Tong Defu clustered together and held each other.

How much they look like Vencume! See how they run their hands over each other.

"Trust us or don't," Evie snapped. "If you need us to taste your food before you eat it, so be it. I'm done with proving to people who I am or what I am, but we're going to get your ship back and drop you off where you belong. If we'd wanted you dead, you'd be dead. Remember that we out-gun you a thousandfold. We gain nothing by lying to you."

The steward, Marinka, stepped forward. "Been out three days with a body in tight. We're glad to have spin again. If you say a thing, and you do a thing, I'm okay with you. "

Bernice looked angry and backed towards the life-boat. "Wrengel might be, but I can't risk the crew; there are too few of us."

Evie turned to say something, but Gordon came in with Imala, Octavia, and Alameda. He was all smiles and held out his arms wide to the survivors of the Tong Defu. "We are glad that you have made it! We were worried that we would never find a survivor!"

Gordon started to shake hands vigorously.

"Gordon Gorsky. You may have heard of me. I was the junior pilot on the Tong Dizhou. You're a Wainwright, right? We were flying with Wainwrights when this whole thing started. Maybe you know them? Captain David Bernal? Oh? You don't know them?"

"I do know them," Bernice stated. "He's an uncle of mine."

"Mine as well," Phillip stated. "We know them well."

"You have another cousin, you know," Gordon went on. "Jason had a son, did you hear? Isaac."

Bernice's eyes watered a bit. "I hadn't heard that."

"They're on the Qui Fa Zu, along with David, Stella, Judith, and Paul." It was like he was presenting them with a new ship and month's vacation somewhere warm. "So! You're going to the Lion? How about we get you to Big Bear for now? How long were you out?"

Phillip looked a little dazed. "We were three months in. We had another to go. We only got the bursts from the Shipping Authority about..."

Gordon took the man's hand and turned him to the three girls. "Let me introduce you. You've heard about Tzikzik, right? Here's three versions of a Tzikzik-fix. They're going to recover your ship. Girls, introduce yourselves."

Imala bend her knees a bit. "I'm Imala. I'm a designer. We...we make things that work."

"I'm Octavia," the blonde said. "We're fast pilots."

Alameda clicked her heels a bit and bowed. "Alameda. My team uses hand-to-hand combat and we recover ships. Imala and the others make our guns."

"They make our ships, too," Octavia added.

"Say, you're a portman, aren't you?" Gordon asked the steward, Marinka. "I can tell by your shoes. We had a Pegger steward on our ship. This must be rough on you. We have lower-spin areas if you get too worn out."

The woman pointed at her crew with a long toe. "I flew with them. I stay with them."

"Well, you're going to be sharing some quarters with Alameda and her crew while we get this sorted out. Say, Alameda, why don't you show them where that is so they can get cleaned up? Octavia, be a sweetie and get them something to eat. These are tired people and they need to rest up and get sorted." He pointed at Captain Bernice. "You want to let folk know what's going on? Come with me and we'll get a burst sent. Leonis-83, you said? That's a long trip. Is it true what they say about the beaches there?"

Bernice shook her head a little. "I think. I...I don't spend much time on the planet."

Gordon wrapped an arm around her and led her and the rest of her crew out of the bay. "I've heard some wonderful stories about things there. The sunsets cannot be beat...."

Becca had an opportunity to speak with Dristi Kaur later. The navigator was delighted to see the observation deck. They watched the rolling sections of ship.

"They look like storm clouds," Dristi said.

Becca nodded. "Evie says it looks like the ocean."

"That meal we had," the navigator looked out under the ship. "Fresh lettuce? Tomatoes? How do you manage it?"

"We have a garden," Becca explained. She smiled to herself. "We eat a lot of eggplant. Squash..."

"It must be nice to have a garden," Dristi said. Then, after a little while later, "Those girls we're with...are they human?"

Becca waffled a bit. "Genetically, yes. The Vencume have made some adjustments, but they made them to fight the Tzikzik. They're doing all of this for us. The first were – "

Dristi cut her off. "I'm sorry; I'm not going to absorb everything you're saying right now. This feels like a dream. We thought we were going to die."

Becca laughed a little. "I know how you feel."

"When they sent the first burst," Dristi explained, "when we first heard what happened to your ship, there was a lot of confusion. Do we go back? Do we just keep going? Then, we heard about other attacks. Then they said that two Vencume spies had escaped. We couldn't believe it. People were talking about war."

"I thought we were isolated," Becca said. "Then I found out we were the first."

"Rakota..." Dristi sniffed a bit. "Our junior engineer. He turned the ship. He got it away from the lifeboat. I think he's the only reason we...We owe our lives to him."

Becca nodded.

Dristi sighed, long and faint. "I haven't seen any Vencume on this ship yet. I wish I could meet one. I've never met a Vencume."

"They're strange creatures," Becca said. "There's nothing human about them, but they..." She laughed. "Some of them remind me of people I knew. Maybe I've just been with them so long. It might be a side-effect of connecting to the Library. I'm not sure."

"Library?" Dristi looked at Becca.

What would happen if she connected? If we take them back and some of them have connected, how will that effect things? It only seems right. They might not be here that long, but if they can go back and speak the Vencume language, that might make things easier later. I wonder if...

"I need to discuss something with someone," Becca said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I think it might make things easier for everyone, if you'll...if they'll...I'm sorry. I'll be right back."

Dristi rubbed her neck. "I don't know what's going on."

"Yes," Becca nodded. "I know exactly how you feel. I'll be right back."

The navigator nodded confusedly.

"Oh," Becca added. "If your neck is bothering you, go talk to Asabi. She knows some massage."

Buer and Gordon loved the idea.

"We want to give this to humans," Buer said. "We will give this to any human. We can start the process. The Tzikzik are one means, but this is much better."

"It gets the story out," Gordon agreed. "As long as these folk aren't going to catch any flak from the Authority when they get back, I'd say it was a perfect PR campaign."

"But if they connect," Becca noted, "then they'll know what the danger is. So they'll know if they can just keep quiet or let it out."

Buer chuckled. "Gordon already showed them the others. That much of the story has been blown."

Gordon gestured to Becca. "The moment those two decided they had to meet the boat, I knew it would be better to just be completely honest. Half a story only lets someone else write the missing bits. If you're going to give them part, better to hand the whole thing over."

"So, you see how connection might help?" Becca nodded. "If they tap into the Library, they're going to get language, some of the history; they'll get a background on why this is happening this way."

Buer nodded. "This will advance the schedule. Your Authority may not like it, but if there are enough, it cannot stop it. We must do this."

"The Authority already distrusts us," Gordon laced his fingers. "But to get a Wainwright in on it. Oh, they won't be able to hush that up."

"Our Captain Wainwright already knew the Vencume were doing things with DNA," Becca added. "Let's give this one the whole shebang."

Buer and Penemue were waiting outside the room. Becca and Gordon tried to explain to an unbelieving crew.

Marinka, the portman steward, sat with fingers and toes twitching. Captain Bernice had her hands folded in front of her chin. Pritam and Dristi paced with their hands behind their backs.

It was the second officer, Thomas Randi, who nodded first. "We've always wondered."

Becca opened the door and let the two Vencume in.

Dristi stood shock-still. Her brother steadied her.

"How's this all play, now?" Marinka asked.

Becca explained. The portman woman nodded. She's got a hungry look. She started flying to get away from the stations and steward was the easiest position to fill. She's out for adventure. She's ambitious. Even if her captain says it's a no-go, she'll still try for it.

"I'm a go," Marinka said.

Captain Bernice unlaced the fingers she had been breathing into. "No, I'll do it."

Pritam Singh stepped forward. "If my wife is in, I am as well."

"If my brother is in," Dristi said, "then I am."

"If sibling rivalry is driving this," the pilot Phillip said, "then I can't let Bernice go alone."

"We can't risk the entire crew," Bernice countered.

"It's not really a risk," Gordon explained. "You'll want to take a nap afterwards, just to let it settle."

Becca nodded. "I've connected twice, and I was watching when Gordon connected."

Dristi was staring at the two Vencume in the room. "What's it like?"

It's like a visitation. It's like a dream. It's like a vision. It's like prayer.

"It's like being a child and listening to your grandparents," Becca said.

"It's like like buying fresh fruit in an open-air market," Gordon said at the same time.

The crew of the Tong Defu laughed a little to themselves.

"It's different for everyone," Gordon stated. Becca nodded.

"Well," Phillip grinned. "I guess we're all in."

"There are six of them," Penemue chittered. "I cannot do more than five at one time. Even that will be difficult. They are too varied for this to be a simple process."

"What did it say?" Thomas asked.

"It said it can only do five at a time," Becca said.

"It's only doing five anyway," Thomas countered. "Count me out. I'm not a risk-taker."

"At least watch the process," Becca said. "They'll want a control back at the station. You're their witness."

Penemue seemed almost as tired as the crew of the Tong Defu after the connection.

While the humans retired to sleep, Becca walked with the Vencume Librarian. Becca was still humanizing them in her mind, and this one reminded her of a records clerk she had dealt with once: a Ms. Muren.

Ms. Muren always looked tired. She was a straight-laced woman who wore high collars and tailored suits. She hissed at people who wanted information from her, but was always able to find it more quickly and with less hassle than any of the friendly, fresh-faced clerks in the office. The hospital staff hated to deal with her, but they knew that if you needed something quickly, Ms. Muren was the one to ask.

Penemue shuffled along the hall like a drunken Ms. Muren. "So much information. Humans are so varied. The portmen....fascinating."

"I hope the Library is happy that there's more to give them," Becca said.

"They will be," Penemue said. "They will welcome this."

Becca halted in the hallway. "Will be? Didn't you just connect five humans?"

She thought she saw Penemue smile. "I have connected to them. Now I will give the information to the Library."

"I thought it was instantaneous."

"There is no means to do so," Penemue said. "I hold basic information, but much is held back from me. I will barter soon."

They were approaching the tiny lift that would go to the Library pod.

"How can you hold so much information?" Becca asked. "You connected Evie to Gordon, me to Imala, these five. How can you hold the whole of Vencume knowledge without some connection to the others?"

Penemue laughed like a dusty Ms. Muren. "Doctor, there are many of us. We take turns out of ocean. We all hold much."

The Vencume entered the lift.

"There's more than one Librarian?" Becca demanded.

The Vencume made an adjustment to the life control. "We are many."

The doors closed.

They recovered the Tong Defu the next day. There were no human bodies on board.

Pritam Singh, Evie, Imala, and three redheads went over and did enough repairs to sustain life on the ship. Captain Bernice took the time to talk to Becca and Gordon. Mirabilis was with them to see the crew off.

"We know what the risks are," Bernice said. "So we won't tell the Authority about you yet. They can think this is a strictly Vencume ship for now. We all agreed that."

"I'm sorry we put you in that situation," Gordon said.

The captain shook her head. "No, we needed to know. I have to thank you for the chance to win big on this gamble. I didn't know what we were getting into, but I'm glad we did it."

"I should thank you for being so open-minded about it," Becca explained. "I hope it help put your mind at ease."

Bernice laughed. "Well, if we're going to be neighbors, we should at least introduce ourselves correctly."

The massive Vencume ship arrived at Big Bear-47 with four ships in tow. Besides the two freighters, there was the collapsed destroyer and the passenger ship. The Shipping Authority was shocked.

"We appreciate these recoveries and are pleased to see there are survivors," Big Bear said.

Gordon had made adjustments to the translators and it came across much more smoothly.

"We sent these survivors with a new translator," Mirabilis said. "We hope that this additional information will help in the future. We must thank the crew of survivors for this opportunity."

"Yes, we have the new translator," the Authority radioed back. "We are copying over the programming and will forward this to our people. You should be aware that we found another two ships that had been pirated. We apologize for any conflict that may have come about during this time period. We see now that this threat is not Vencume. It may look similar, but we see that these are some different creature."

"Our apologies on this most unfortunate turn of events," Mirabilis was having only minor difficulties with the translation. "You are finding our attempts at advancement. This should have been an internal concern, but you were involved. We do not wish for any more harm to befall any humans. "

There was a pause as the Authority parsed what they had just heard. "We are forwarding new co-ordinates to you. We apologize for this misunderstanding."

"We hope that this is only a minor problem," Mirabilis said. The Vencume had turned a light blue. "We only wish for complete understanding in this situation."

4.5 Purpose

Meals were now being taken in shifts. With fourteen redheads, ten blondes, and the others, there was too little room for all the girls to be in the mess-hall at one time. The redheads and blondes were one shift, the humans and designers were another. The three gray-haired girls left the bridge to a team of pilots (the old ones) when they left it.

"What I don't understand is why they're pirating ships," Evie said between bites. "It's like they're shedding members or something. What's the point?"

"It makes sense if you're trying to start a war," Gordon shoved food around on his plate. "And if you have the means to produce more crew members easily, there's no risk in loosing anyone."

Idana chewed thoughtfully. "So we can't be sure of the numbers."

"We'll need more people," Ilyssa said.

The other two designers nodded.

"How many does it take to run a ship this size?" Evie asked.

"You can run a bridge with three," Ilyssa said, somewhat defensively. "But the Library can perform the auto-pilot functions. We give them the destination; they get us there. They make the adjustments."

"You make it sound like the Library is actually running the ship," Becca laughed.

The three designers did not laugh back.

"OK, so there could be a large number of them," Gordon interrupted. "How many do you usually encounter on a captured ship?"

Imala smiled at him. "We find anywhere from eight to eighteen. Never more than twenty."

"And to think, we run those ships on half that," Becca noted.

"It was only more than ten on the passenger ship," Idana glowered. "It must have taken that many to throw a hundred people off. Well, the manifest said a hundred passengers, but we didn't find any."

Becca felt her meal trying to force its way back into the open.

"No wonder the Shipping Authority was so upset," Evie said. She stared at her plate.

"There's still the matter of the first ship," Imala said. "The one that started the project. We have no idea how many are. It could be crawling with them."

Gordon nodded. "Then it would make more sense to pirate supplies. It may be getting too crowded."

"They're starving," Idana mused.

"But they aren't taking cargo," Evie pointed out. "They're just abandoning their people."

Ilyssa stared at the ceiling. "We haven't seen any changes from ship to ship. It's the same batch from before. If they've communicated with the main ship that has the factory, they might be trying something new. All the ones we've seen are the same basic design."

"They still haven't figured out an internal skeleton," Imala said.

"Or proper muscles for locomotion," Idana almost laughed. "They're still using a hydraulic vascular system. It makes immobilizing them pretty easy."

"The new Reds taught us that," Imala offered. "They're using a lot less ammo. We're getting much more efficient."

Becca was in the garden with Avariella, one of the new redheads. They were transplanting pallets of radish, beet, and potato seedlings.

"I hear you're teaching them a few new tricks," Becca said.

The girl cocked her head to one side. "I'll need couple of nouns, one of them proper."

Becca smiled. She sounds like me at her age. "Imala said your sisters were learning more efficient use of the weapons."

"Oh, that," Avariella nodded. "They saw how we didn't have to stop to reload as often. They're quick learners." She laughed. "We never could have just come out and said it. They're too proud."

"But you're all starting to get along a little better?"

"Once we taught them how to play chess, it all started to work out."

"You don't know how to play chess?"

Becca sprung the question on Evie as they walking the laundry down. Evie's mechanical mantis wobbled under the weight of so many dirty clothes and sheets while the women idled along either side.

Evie gave Becca a sidelong stare. "Who told you that?"

"One of the new redheads," Becca explained. "The new ones are teaching the old ones chess. That leads me to believe that you don't know how to play. That seems a little odd. You spent so much time at school with bright kids and all that time on ships—"

"Did you ever ask me to play?"

Becca laughed a little. "You can't just wait for other people to ask you. You never asked me. Sometimes you have to make the first move."

"Becca, let me tell you something," Evie sighed. "I'm not the most outgoing of people. I don't wander around with some board under my arm waiting to challenge people."

"You could have played against a computer."

"To what end?"

"Well," Becca tried again. "So you would know how to play. Lots of people know it, it's a very old game, and it's a nice way to spend some time with a person. It doesn't involve any interpersonal skills or chance; there's no running or jumping. It just seems like the kind of thing that would be right up your alley."

They went into the laundry room and set down their bundles. Evie's jaw was clenching.

"So why didn't you ever learn how to play chess?" Becca asked again.

"Stop teasing me."

"I'm not teasing you," Becca said. Why is she getting defensive? "I'm just wondering. It just seems so strange that you, of all people, would not know how to play. I mean, do you want to learn? I used to play against my grandfather and he was in a wheelchair."

Evie straightened suddenly. "So, it's some cripple game? Is that it? You're surprised I don't know a game that cripples play?"

"No, I mean," Becca stammered. "It's just a game. I figured you'd want to know."

"No, you felt it necessary to mention that your grandfather was in a wheelchair," Evie said tersely. "You could have just said your grandfather, but you threw in the wheelchair to sweeten it. There's no running or jumping, it's right up your alley. That's what you said and how you said it. You think that just because I spent my childhood in hospital after hospital that I would enjoy it. You think that because a game needs no interpersonal skills, that someone who people used to call 'Gargoyle Gaines' would be a wizard at it."

"Evie, it's just a game."

"A game that everyone in the galaxy knows how to play but me!"

"The twins play it," Becca stated. "I thought that maybe you played with—"

"They're lucky if they can play checkers," Evie hissed. "I don't think the Vencume knew how a human brain worked and they broke something when they connected them."

And you're not going to tell her, because she'll tell everyone.

Becca sighed. "No, I guess they don't play chess. It must be some other game."

Evie looked very satisfied.

"Well," Becca said, "the offer still stands. If you want to learn how to play, I'm available. Just let me know. How the pieces move is the easy part."

"So, what's the hard part?" Evie laughed.

"Knowing which piece to move."

The next ship they recovered was another passenger ship. There were sixteen Tzikzik and the remains of eighty humans. The humans had either been poisoned or torn apart.

"What's our death-count at so far?" Ilyssa asked callously at a meal.

"Are we including that destroyer we hit?" Idana asked.

"The ZhengYang or the other one?"

Idana rolled her eyes back. "A destroyer has a standing crew of thirty."

Imala quickly counted on her fingers. "So sixty on the two destroyers, four on the Tong Defu. Twelve on the Tong Gu, then the Qiu Shui had one-hundred-and-eighty passengers and a crew of fifteen. Qiu Gong had eighty passengers and a crew of twelve."

"So...minus our thirty, three-thirty-three," Ilyssa nodded. "That's not too bad."

Evie frowned. "That's still three-hundred families that have to mourn a lost loved one."

Imala shook her head. "No, eighteen were Wainwright. We even had twelve different Trechantiris."

"We only had that one portman," Ilyssa went on, "and she lived. Then two Peggers, a Lion, a Bear, one Crab, and several unrelated on the crews. We can't speak for the passengers, but the bag wasn't as mixed as you'd like to think. Most of them were families traveling together."

Idana nodded, "At most, it's eighty families."

"That doesn't make it better," Becca stated.

"There's no dearth of humans in the universe," Ilyssa said. "We've very adaptable and can survive in almost any environment. It's part of why the Vencume are so willing to use our model for their next stage. They can't withstand the same low temperatures or extreme gravitational stresses we can."

"A human can get shot and keep moving," Idana stated.

Becca was doing laundry with Alima and Asabi when Renatus called on her.

"Why does Doctor perform such menial tasks?"

Becca felt like she was being chided by her old anatomy professor, Mr. Mesut.

"I find them calming and fulfilling," Becca answered.

"Doctor should have joined us in advancement with Red Humans."

Becca left the laundry room with Renatus. He would not have come down here just to see what I was doing. There has to be a reason.

The Vencume shuffled beside her. "We are close to Alpha-Omega-Epsilon-Cee-Eks-Vee-Two-Thirty-Six. The new Tzikzik will try to recover it, but they will use the methods they have used before. These will not work."

He must be talking about...about what? A location?

"What is...?"

"It is the ship where I was stationed," Renatus said. "It is where I started my project. They will try the same tactics, but these will fail. They will be outnumbered. We cannot advance enough new Tzikzik in time."

Becca probed a place in the back of her head. ΑΩE-CXV-236. ΑΩE is a laboratory ship. CXV is the area where the ship was deployed. 236 is the ship itself.

"Do you want me to try to dissuade them?" she asked.

Renatus was an agitated purple. "You must be prepared to evacuate. You must take Engineer, First, Second, and Third humans with you. We have a ship prepared for you in the white arm of section eight. Your Shipping Authority is following us by three days. They will pick you up. If we must, we will destroy both ships. This has been discussed with the Library."

Becca's face flushed. She felt like she had just been caught cheating at a test.

Renatus dragged a hand across her. "Doctor is upset. You cannot dissuade the new Tzikzik. This project is still a failure. The final battle will show it. You must be ready to evacuate."

"What about you?" Becca asked. "Do you have a ship ready? Are you going to cut-and-run as well?"

"Our records are on the ship we have prepared for you," Renatus answered.

Becca felt the blood leaving her neck and face. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Engineer is responsible for the current zikzikkiti," Renatus said. "Any additional information passed on that route will lead to more confusion."

"What is a zik-zik...?"

"It is an action-to-advance-or-improve-a-decision," Renatus answered. "Our current zikzikkiti was caused when Engineer told the new Tzikzik that the project was to be ended. The one on ΑΩE-CXV-236 was caused by similar circumstances."

Becca was transplanting a bed of peppers in the garden when Ortense came to her.

"Will I ever have children?" the blonde asked.

Becca brushed back a curl of hair with the back of her hand. "That's up to you. I hear you're intact, so you have the possibility."

The pilot sighed long and hard. "Do you think it will be soon?"

"Oh, not for a few years yet," Becca answered. "When you're older."

"Because I want children," the girl blurted. Her eyes glistened.

Becca turned away from the bed of seedlings. "What brought this on?"

Ortense blushed deeply. "You have to promise to not tell anyone."

"I promise," Becca nodded.

"I had a dream," Ortense said. "You know dreams? And I was flying with Gordon. And we flew through the sky, but it was a funny sky—all blue and no stars. And we didn't have ships. It was just us, flying in the sky. And I saw....uhm," she blushed again.

"Right," Becca said. "You saw him."

The girl continued. "But we were flying and then we were flying together and I was warm but the air was cold and we were together. And then I had babies. They were all blonde and they could fly."

Becca smiled. "So you want babies?"

"They were little," Ortense said. "And they needed me and I loved them and they loved me. They loved me no matter what. And I had to take care of them, but it was okay because they were mine."

"Someday," Becca rested a hand on the girl's shoulder, "you might have children. But they're a lot of work. It's not like when you were little."

Ortense nodded. "There was a lot of blood, and it hurt, but it was OK. And they cried a lot."

"Yes," Becca said. "Babies cry a lot."

"But I could have babies?" the girl looked hopeful. "Someday, when I'm older?"

A thought came to Becca, strange and pink. "Did you ever play with dolls when you were little?"

Ortense shook her head. "We never were little like that. I see what you mean, but no. We always played with ships and songs. We never played like that."

Becca nodded. "I'll bet, if you wanted to, someday, you could do whatever you wanted to. You know, I had a baby. A daughter."

The girl nodded slowly. "It hurts to be away. You want to see her grow up, but you still think she's your baby. She'll always be small to you and it hurts because you think she'll be big when you get back."

Becca nodded.

"You'll get back," Ortense said. "We're going to make sure. You're going to see her again and she won't be all grown-up when you see her. We'll make sure."

It was two days later when Becca was called to the bridge. The girl who took her there, Acadia, was already in her amour.

Evie and Gordon were waiting when Becca arrived.

"Glad you could make it," Evie said. "Thought you'd like to witness the final chapter."

"This is only another chapter," Imala said, giving the Vencume-skin screen a coat of nutrient. "We hope to have many more after this."

"There it is," Idana pointed. "There's the source." A large shape was taking form on the screen.

Becca looked at the massive ship before them and realized that the ship she was on was just as large. That's it. That's ΑΩE -CXV-236. Can I get the others to the escape-pod in time if I have to? How will I get them out past the designers? Are we going to take them with us? How many will Evie try to save before all this is over?

"That's the one that started it all," Ilyssa said. "It launched the first escape-pod; it attacked the Tong Dizhou."

"It's like going home, in a way," Imala observed.

Ship 236 started an assault of hurled projectiles. It looked like junk that had been scrounged at the last minute: tanks, half of an escape pod, something that looked like armor plating. Most of them missed, but the ones that did hit bounced away.

"That's just stupid and desperate," Idana tsked. "This is a large ship and prepared for assaults like that."

Now, ship 236 started to curl, helix-like, on itself. Ilyssa made adjustments on the control panel. "This is where it gets interesting. You're going to see just how we do things."

As they came alongside the other, their ship started its own spiral-curl. The double-helix swiveled through the void of space, tightening in. They weren't even going to bother with hurled projectiles, but were out to physically over-power the ship with the craft itself.

The ships started to change texture. Each section spread out long, spiked fins. Becca could only see the other, but imagined both vessels undergoing the same transformation. The long barbs aimed slowly at the flank of the ship beside it, scraping the side of the vessel alongside it. The spirals tightened even more, each threatening to crush the other like a boa.

"That's the first thing to disable," Imala said as she launched one of her field collapsers at the head of the other ship. It rapidly advanced the sensor array and bridge in a slow, painful implosion. The child smiled at the contained effect. "I said I could control the radius."

Ship 236 stopped its physical assault and the texture smoothed. The tightening spiral relaxed.

The fighters deployed in a smooth arc; Becca saw them lazily exit one bay and gnat about the wrestling match that was the two main behemoths. Fighters were deployed from the other side, but they were an older design that moved much more slowly and were easily picked off. An easy massacre played out before them, accompanied by a complicated melody of ten notes that fell over each other and danced through careful harmonics. No pilots would be lost to this fight.

Now, the buzz-landers started their deployment, all fourteen of them. They were tiny in comparison with the vastness of the other ship, but they hit their target in two neat groups of five and one of four. It was the virus invasion of a cell; a sudden spray of molten metal announced the breech on the hull. Becca knew that inside the ship, holes had opened in the floor of the outermost ring and vengeful, red combatants had sprung from the depths. It must have looked like devils leaping out of hell itself.

The redheads chanted as well, announcing themselves to the universe and anyone who cared to listen.

There are no months, no weeks, no days
Our seasons are by will alone
So where we lived effects our ways
A ship has been our only home
There is no sun to go around
We know only one sky
But now our feet are on your ground
Best just lay down and die!

Ilyssa laughed.

"There's something else happening," Idana noted.

A pod passed by the connection point between two of the sections on the other ship. It found an entry point and attached itself.

"Who launched that?" Ilyssa demanded.

The pod fell away from the point, a hatch closing.

Becca felt a moment's panic. Was that the escape pod Renatus wanted me to use?

"It's the Vencume!" Ilyssa yelled. "They're going to the other side. They think they can just escape like that?" She gripped the hand-held and barked into it, "Arlene! Start working back. We just had some defectors cross over."

"To where?" the redhead asked.

Imala was checking a display. "It's the Library on our ship."

"We'll mop it up when we're done here," Arlene answered. There was an angry rattling sound in the background and a ffpt ffpt ffpt of bolts being fired. "Things are a little hairy here right now."

"Go handle it now!" Ilyssa screeched. "I don't want them getting away like that!"

"And they won't," Arlene countered over the noise on her end. "Our hands are full right now. Once we finish with this, we'll deal with that."

Ilyssa was fuming.

Arlene's voice crackled over the radio. "There's something happening over here. Sections of ship are closing off."

"That's standard defense protocol," Idana answered. "They should have done that first."

"There's waves of them over here," Arlene responded. "Why would they cut off their own supply line?"

"Where are you?" Ilyssa shouted into the hand-held. "Are you together?"

Aideen responded this time. "We're pinned in section three, red arm. Five of us here. They just keep coming."

"Arlene here; similar situation in white arm. Five on this team, no idea how many of the others. We've never seen them in numbers like this."

Another voice came over. "Annora in blue arm. Four of us here. We're going to run out of ammo if this keeps up."

"You didn't tell us there were this many!" Aideen shouted over the radio.

Annora come on again. "It's a good thing the sections closed off, we only have a few more to deal with."

"This is only one section, too," Arlene responded. "How many in the others?"

Ilyssa turned off her feed to the radio. "We need to handle this pod issue."

"You could always send the twins," Idana offered. "Just give them a couple guns and have them go over there. They like those kinds of odds."

"I need to send someone who knows what they're doing," Ilyssa hissed. "You can't trust those two when—"

Gordon pointed at the other ship. "Look."

Connection linkages were giving way. The other ship was breaking apart, one section at a time.

"Is that because you advanced the bridge?" Evie asked.

"We're loosing spin over here!" Aideen yelled. "The lights are going out."

"You're all still in section three?" Idana asked.

"We're in the Library," someone chittered. "We've convinced them to loose the sections on the condition we retrieve them."

"Ulan, is that you?" Evie asked.

"Uma, actually, but Ulan is with me. We've spoken with the Library directly," the girl chittered over the radio, "but we have to absorb their section. They have a lot of information that they want to share with ours."

Ilyssa was seething. "You should have told us what you were doing. You could have gotten someone killed."

"Unlikely," Ulan chittered back. "Call the Reds back; the hull is breached already and once they leave in the buzz-landers, that section will depressurize. The other sections will eventually die once they're cut off. You can send the Yellows out to pick off any pods they fire."

"You also want to retrieve this garden," Uma chittered. "They've been doing things to the plants here that produce a higher yield. The Library has the information, but we can save ourselves the bother."

The twins giggled over the radio.

"Oh," Uma added. "Let Librarian know what's going on. The Library will want to be informed so there's no redundancy. We'll need to move quickly on this before the two sections cool down too much."

Ulan laughed a little. "You might want to take a swim once all this is done."

"You did this behind my back!" Ilyssa shouted into the radio.

A reedy giggle. "You would have sent us anyway, eventually. We've just saved you a lot of trouble."

"This was our fight!" Idana snapped.

Uma's calm voice chittered over the radio. "You wanted a fight; we wanted a victory."

"Sorry to steal your thunder," Ulan added.

4.6 Prestidigitation

Penemue reported later that the Library had feared that the other collection had been lost and welcomed the addition. The Vencume was overjoyed that an agreement had been found.

Although, really? Why call it Penemue now? Becca wondered There are so many of them. Can I still call it that if I know it might not be the same one? Is that why Vencume don't use names? How many Iskandars are there? How many Buers? Is Penemue just the member of the Library who gets to walk around?

Two tugs were sent out to bring in the other library and garden. They coaxed the free-floating sections until they were alongside their counter-parts.

The operation of connection was going to be tricker. The main Library loosed the connection between itself and the rest of the ship, breaking the craft in two and leading to a few tense moments while the main body of the ship was cut off from the engines. The tugs nudged the second Library section into position and connection linkages reached out to clasp on to one another. Once the spin had started, a similar procedure was used to connect the second garden. The new Library was now in position between the old one and the gardens. The second garden sat before the first, between the first and the rest of the ship.

"They will need time to themselves," Penemue said. "There is much to discuss."

Idana did not welcome the new additions as warmly as the others. "If a library can do that to a ship, then it means they're the ones in control. We don't have any work-around."

Two more freighters were recovered that week and towed to Leonis-83. Now that there would be no more attacks, it was just a matter of mopping up what mess was left.

Mirabilis was discussing this with the Shipping Authority. The new translators had been implemented and the conversation was smoother than before, with no false starts or corrections to be made. Becca and Gordon were still on hand, in case there needed to be any clarification.

"We are overjoyed that there will be no additional attacks," Leonis said. "We have brought in an additional three ships ourselves, so it would appear that only four more are in need of recovery. We are sending the locations to you."

"We are overjoyed that we have been able to so swiftly handle this situation," Mirabilis answered. "We hope that this dark time has reached an end and that the relations between our peoples can be repaired."

"Indeed," Leonis agreed. "I must thank the efforts of the Vencume fleet that was sent on this mission. Tell me, how many ships did it take?"

"Tell them five," Gordon whispered.

"The five arms of the Vencume," Mirabilis said, "have reached across the galaxy and the five fingers of the human hand have received it. May this symbol mark our new partnership."

The Shipping Authority paused for a moment while the statement was translated.

"May this new Khamsa ward off all who attack us," Leonis finally answered. "Five books, five pillars, five cloaks, five symbols. There is a God that has given you such meaning. We shake hands firmly."

Becca quickly translated the meaning to Mirabilis. We found the one person on that station who's religious...or superstitious. The Khamsa was a pendant shaped like a human hand with an eye in the palm and was supposed to serve as some protection to the wearer. She had once received a pair of earrings made of silver and turquoise in the shape of Khamsas. It was the last birthday present her husband had ever given her.

"Is shaking hands still the human custom when they greet or agree?" Mirabilis asked.

"May this be our first true handshake," Leonis said. "We wish you peace and prosperity and may our peoples never quarrel again."

Becca caught up with Gordon in the hall. "Why did you say to tell them five?"

"It seemed a better number than one," he answered. "We don't want them to know that we're the only ones taking care of this, do we? It also makes it look like the Vencume are actually involved in this."

"I guess that makes sense," Becca nodded.

"What I think is remarkable is how we are the only ship handling this," Gordon went on. "What I mean to say is, why aren't there other Vencume ships involved? Do you think our cover story about this being a rouge ship wasn't too far off the mark?"

He's right. This one and the other are the only two ships that have been present for any of this. Many of the same Vencume are involved. Iskandar was a Tzikzik on the first ship and was on that escape pod the Tong Dizhou picked up. Was Iskandar the one who suggested they try using humans? Sure, we're on the outskirts, but humans have been dealing with Vencume for a long time.

"Didn't the Vencume give us the borrowed time field?" Gordon asked.

"We gave them wheat and rice," Becca answered. "It's the colony/colonizer relationship. We give them raw materials and they give us technology." Her face felt hot.

"We've been set up," Gordon said.

Becca shook her head. "No, that can't be the case. Why do something like that?"

"They've always been interested in our affairs." Gordon had dropped to a conspiratorial tone. "And they helped us spread out all over the galaxy. Wasn't Peg-51 a Vencume outpost? They just gave it to us; everyone knows that. Now we're here, bustling about with technology we've never seen before that's going to push our spread even further. We're making it from one system to another in a matter of weeks, not months. They're putzing around with our DNA and making..." he waved his arms, "...people that can live in any environment. They know how to suck information out of our heads and how to implant it. You can't say they just want serve man, now can you?"

"There's more than one Penemue," Becca whispered. "That means that any information that is given to us is from one individual. It's not a direct connection to the Library. Our connections have been directed."

Gordon nodded and rubbed his chin. "So we only have limited access to what's really going on."

"And," Becca added, "Buer tried a direct connection with me once. She said that they had to pass on as much information as quickly as possible, like there was some kind of time limit. They all keep talking about the 'schedule'. I'm starting to doubt that this ship was ever headed to the Vencume home-world, where ever that is."

"Buer and Penemue are the names of demons," a voice behind them said.

Becca and Gordon turned to see Evie leaning up against a wall.

"Buer taught man medicine," Evie explained. "Penemue taught mankind the art of writing with ink and paper... and thereby many sinned from eternity to eternity and until this day. For man was not created for such a purpose.*"

"But it was Imala who gave them those names," Becca noted.

"And Penemue taught the children of men the bitter and the sweet and the secrets of wisdom," Evie quoted. "The girls found something in there and named it. It makes you wonder what that crew we brought on the other day got out of it all, doesn't it?"

"How long have the Vencume known about humans?" Gordon asked. "Since before recorded history?"

"That's stupid," Becca snerked. "You can't say they've been directing humankind this entire time. You heard the girls. They said the Vencume didn't know about internal skeletons until recently."

"Maybe not that long," Evie rubbed her right eye. "But this is the kind of divine intervention that people used to talk about in legends. We're making a myth right now."

"So," Gordon mused. "Are these angels or demons?"

"Neither," Evie shrugged. "Because we're smarter than that. We're just fitting them into our own vocabulary. We grew up afraid of the dark and now we spend months in it, aiming...for what?

"We're looking for the back-door to Eden," Becca answered. "We do it because we have to."

Evie stared at Becca a long time, then narrowed her eyes. "Either/or, here we are. What are we going to do about it?"

"Renatus told me about an escape pod before we did that raid on ΑΩE -CXV-236," Becca said. "He also said that the Shipping Authority is three days behind us and—"

"Alpha-Omega-what?" Gordon asked.

"The other Vencume ship," Evie answered. "We're on 158, if that gives you any idea how many of these there are."

"The Shipping Authority has been following us as best they can," Becca tried again. "If they already know it's only one ship, then why are they playing along?"

"They can't be three days behind us," Evie said. "We're moving at an advanced rate. They might be transmitting information between themselves, but we would have picked it up."

"Who is 'we'?" Gordon asked.

Evie gave him an odd stare. "The ship, of course."

"Right..." Becca was staring at the ceiling. "The Library might be picking something up and not letting the girls know."

"Which means," Evie had gone pale, "that the Library might also be transmitting something and no one would ever know."

Ulan and Uma joined them for a meal this time. They sat and ate in relative silence while the three designers discussed the recovery of the remaining ships.

"Two of these are frigates," Idana pointed to the list. "That means that they're going to have weaponry, so we might have to use a collapser on them."

"I dislike using it," Imala frowned. "We're not getting real information when we do that."

Ilyssa nodded. "I want to bring one in alive and question it. We could have done that with any of the ones we found in the garden. This next ship, I want one alive. If we're going to make them extinct, we should at least figure out what makes them tick."

"The Library already tore the others apart," Imala noted. "We had no chance there."

Idana stared hard at the table. "It just lets us know we can't try anything on that front. Now we have two of them. They've been discussing things a long time."

"The ship still works," Imala said. "They're not going to kill everyone off."

Ilyssa narrowed her eyes and nodded slowly. "We still have two million Vencume on this ship that could turn on us at any minute. It's obvious that we're only here by their good graces. It's not like we can reprogram the door."

"Actually," Idana was counting something off on her fingers. "We can. We all have the same basic DNA. If we recode the doors to the sequence that makes our shape, then nothing with more than two arms would be able to open the door."

"Or it requests some of our hemoglobin," Ilyssa leaned forward. "So if it asks for an iron sample from us, no Vencume would be able to get through that door."

"The Library cannot live without the rest of the ship," Idana stated. "It needs the heat we provide and food. It has to be kept fed and if we can control their access to that, we can control them."

"That will not give you any tizizikikiki," Ulan chittered. "You need an advantage that gives you favor and control. Your idea of power is too limited."

"Who cares about your ideas of tizizikikiki?" Ilyssa chittered back.

Uma raised her eyebrows and took a bite of her meal. "I care about it."

Ilyssa rolled her eyes. "As I was saying, we can make some adjustments to the doors and the lifts. I don't see that being a major issue."

"It will effect our new screen," Idana stated.

Ilyssa waved her hands in the air. "I don't care about that! I want a live Tzikzik. If we have to change the weapons again, so be it. Let's see if we can get an energy weapon of some sort. It has to cauterize the wound. We'll take off the black hand and bring the thing in for questioning."

Imala had a new gun two days later that used used gaseous hydrogen and fluorine to produce an invisible beam that could cut through most anything. Acadia and Atlanta helped test the new device. The effect was a cauterized stump in three seconds.

Iskandar was livid at having to re-attach two limbs in one day. Becca helped, but it did not make him any calmer.

"Gentle Blue is not so gentle," Iskandar rattled. "This is not a good test. There are better ways to gauge efficacy."

Becca was working on re-attaching Acadia's left leg. One of Imala's pain killing devices was aimed at the girl's head.

"It didn't hurt when it happened," Acadia said. "It was just a moment of heat and it fell off. I was more mad at falling over."

Atlanta watched Iskandar stitch her right arm back in place. "We're just helping out before the next recovery. I'm not happy that it happened—don't get me wrong—but we needed to know if it would work."

"It's still an unnecessary risk," Iskandar chided. "We won't always be here to put these things back on."

Imala was pacing back and forth, rubbing her right eye. "I didn't think it would work that quickly. I'm sorry that we caused any trouble."

"I'm still going to discuss this with you later," Atlanta growled. "What if it had been my head?"

"I said I was sorry," Imala mewed.

Becca pinched Acadia's big toe and the girl wiggled it.

"If you need test matter, just ask us," Becca said, applying spray to the attachment point. "We can make some for you in the factory. This is too dangerous."

Imala looked at the point of tears. "I needed to test it! Ilyssa was yelling at me to make it work."

Atlanta was making a slow fist. "Test it on her next time. See if you can cauterize her mouth shut."

Acadia's leg was back on and the blood rushed to the limb, slowly turning it pink.

"See if you can stand on that," Becca directed.

"Pins and needles!" Acadia cursed and wobbled. "It's like it was asleep for an hour."

"I feel it," Atlanta said, wiggling fingers. "I might have to beat something just to get the feeling back."

Imala was already crying. "I said I was sorry! It won't happen again, I promise."

Iskandar was still an agitated purple as he and Becca left the lab.

"This is not a good risk," he chittered. "They are becoming more a danger to each other."

Becca walked along side with her hands clasped behind her back and nodded.

"This is becoming unacceptable," Iskandar went on.

"What was it like on the other ship?" Becca asked, trying to change the subject.

Iskandar shifted to a bright magenta and there was a flicker of some pattern across his skin.

I've asked an upsetting question. He's blushing, or fuming, or deciding if he can tear my head off and get away with it. He's surprised and threatened and trying to figure out how to respond.

"We did not have this infighting," Iskandar shifted back to a calm blue. "I worked with my team, knowing that we were an improvement over the old design. Our nervous system was adjusted for quicker response and greater capacity. Blue design was to stay analytical at all times. I know my team is dead now."

"I'm sorry," Becca ran a hand down Iskandar's side.

The Tzikzik returned the gesture. "It is through no fault of Doctor. We knew our project was to end because there had been no improvement. My capacity is there, but it cannot be used for what we intended. I am better suited for Library duty. I am sure there are more of my design in the new Library. We store information and process it more quickly."

But you still don't use my name, do you? That's why you're everywhere the action is. You're trying to collect as much as you can.

"The zikzikkiti came quickly after it was decided to end the project. We had considered humans for a long time and knew that you would be better suited for our purpose. The Toshdohai are too small, and have a collective sentience that we cannot teach. Mavdares are limited in how and where they can live. The others are too alien or limited in other ways."

But to what end? You aren't going to say, are you?

"Other Scientist took four of us, including Assistant and myself," Iskandar said. "Once we had lost control of the ship, a distress call was sent and we escaped. Other Scientist was...reduced... when the pod was attacked, but they were already moving and decided we would die on our own. They intended to destroy the relationship between us and humans so the project could not take that route. It was not Tzikzik that made that decision, but other Vencume."

"So we weren't fighting a Tzikzik ship, but a Vencume one," Becca summed it up. "Is that why no other Vencume have been involved in this? Is this ship going against Vencume wishes?"

Iskandar blue-nodded. "There has been much argument on if the humans are actually suitable for our purpose. The current in-fighting in the new Tzikzik is of great concern. If there is no way to control them, this project will be ended as well. These recovery missions prove that it will be difficult."

That's why Renatus wanted me to know about the escape pod.

A strange thought came to Becca then. "Iskandar, have you ever seen the Vencume home-world?"

Iskandar went through a complicated color-shift, but did not answer the question. "Do not feel any guilt in this situation," Iskandar said. "We have prevented a war that a tiny faction tried to start. Your calming presence may save this project yet. As much as we appreciate Engineer's contribution, you have given much more."

Becca felt herself blush. "What do you mean?"

Iskandar turned a pale pink. "You understand humans much better."

The recovery of the frigate QingJiang used a mixed weaponry assault of both the magnetically fired metal bolts and the new HF laser. Two of the new fighters were equipped with the weapon, but it would only fire on three-second bursts. When ground troops went over, they took several smoke grenades, so they could see the beam of the laser and not get in the way. These safety precautions did not assist the enemy in any way, but did allow the girls to bring back their main prize, an armless red Vencume Tzikzik (Alima had been over-zealous in removing arms and Avari had been over-cautious, not knowing which arm would have the poisonous hand).

4.7 Only Human

The Libraries were still in discussion, so Evie, Gordon, Becca, and the twins went to check the new garden. The three designers seemed more interested in the Libraries and how they connected to the rest of the ship. Idana must be trying to figure out a way to control them. It must bother those three to no end that they aren't actually the ones in charge.

Buer, Iskandar, and Penemue had joined them. The librarian was there mostly to see how this new garden was going to keep the second Library fed. Buer was there to see how a new section of ship was going to effect day-to-day operations. Iskandar had come along because Iskandar made himself part of every important event on the ship. There was a part of Becca that distrusted the creature, but was resigned on how useful he was. She wondered if he felt the same way about her.

The twins were ecstatic about the new garden. They danced and chittered between themselves.

Becca understood their excitement the moment the door opened.

She did not understand Vencume plants, but she knew that they had not been as tall, nor as thick as the ones she saw here. The seaweed smell was not as choking, either. They seemed more vital than the rare sample she'd seen. So this must be creating a better yield. I've never seen a Vencume eat...

Buer was practically beside herself. "This is vast improvement! We must communicate with the Library when they are out of congress and send the information home. If nothing else, this river must flow."

"Capability is greatly increased," Iskandar added. The creature was shifting from light green to pale blue. "Protein production is ten-fold. We had tried this but had not reached such a goal."

"Other Scientist did not inform us of such advancement," Penemue said.

Becca was finding it hard to concentrate; the shimmering effect that had bothered her before made this garden quiver and shine to the point past recognizability. Her head started to hurt.

"I hope that this will make things better back home," Evie was saying. "If you get nothing more, at least there are plants that can feed your people."

There was a shadow that moved through the garden. Becca saw it blink dark red against the glittering blue.

"This is a well fed Library," Penemue stated. "We shall shift the diet over for ours. This is a vast improvement."

The hairs on the back of Becca's neck stood up. A tingling sensation crawled across her shoulders, like impending nausea.

"Other Blue Tzikzik have done this," Iskandar said. "I am sorry to have left the ship when I did."

"Clever Blue must not apologize for prudent behavior," Buer answered.

Penemue was shifting from a pale blue to light pink. "This is perfect work. Indeed, Clever Blue must swim again and expose more garden information."

Gordon shook his head. "I have no idea why this is so fantastic. It looks like any other to me."

Becca's head was pounding.

Her grandmother had told her a story once. A little girl was sent with a basket of food to see her babaanne and there was a wolf waiting in the woods. "Do not stray from the path," the mother in the story had warned. Becca always wondered why a mother would send her child on such a dangerous mission. If the woods are full of wolves, didn't the mother want her daughter to be eaten? She could have sent her with a stick or a gun, not just a basket of sweet-smelling food. Did the mother hate the grandmother? Was she looking for an excuse to blame the old woman for the death of the child? That story was never right.

"I like how this can grow anywhere," Evie said. "If the lessons from the garden can be used, then Vencume will be able to spread to any planet."

There was a rustling to their left.

These woods are full of wolves.

The Tzikzik spun out before them. It looked like a double-ended Vencume; there were five hands on one side, five on the other, and a spoke of five legs between.

For the first time since Becca had known them, the twins looked disgusted.

Ulan and Uma pushed the others back.

The monster spun on its axis and chittered angrily, "This is a Vencume matter and will be resolved by Vencume. There will be no more outsiders."

Then everything happened at once.

Uma leapt to one side. Evie grabbed Ulan's arm. Gordon grabbed Evie and pulled her away, but because Evie had Ulan's arm she was pulled away as well. Buer, Iskandar, and Penemue turned suddenly and rushed forward at the Tzikzik. The Tzikzik slashed out with two black hands, striking Uma in the chest and Ulan across the arm. Uma fell stiffly and Iskandar caught her and threw her at Becca in one swift movement.

Iskandar, Buer and Penemue fell on the Tzikzik, each turning deep red, grabbing arms and punching? no, stabbing the monster repeatedly with one hand that had formed a sharp spike. It was fifteen hands versus ten, and three of those hands were flame-red and poisonous. They were pulping the monstrosity before them and water gushed out. A thick blue liquid rushed onto the floor, mixed with water, and it stained the shoes of those who stood and watched.

Ulan struggled in Evie's arms, then rushed to her sister.

Evie struggled in Gordon's arms.

Becca found herself praying while holding Uma's stiffening body. Our eyes shed tears and our hearts grieve, but we must not say anything that is not pleasing to our creator. Please, welcome this soul with open arms. Take these words for the sake of the departed and not the soul that utters them. Prove to us that you are most merciful. You must be merciful if you are all-powerful. You must be good if you are everywhere. You allowed this to be made. You must forgive it. You must not punish this. You cannot allow that. If you love us, you'll love even this. This is a life. You have to honor that! You have to honor what we made. You wouldn't have let us do it otherwise. Please, we're so alone here. We're trying. Can't you see that? We're trying! Why do you have to do this? Why do you have to test us so much? Is this how you tell how good we are? Why are you so arbitrary? Why are you so capricious? Why do you throw blind chance at us so often? We're trying! Why can't you let us be and let us live our lives? It's like you harvest us at our peak. You take us away from our loved ones all the time. Are you trying to teach us something? Fine! We've learned how to love and you have to show us how to lose. We'll never be good enough for you! You show us the dawn just to prove how dark the night can be. Please, please, don't make me watch a child die. I can't take this. I can't watch a child die like this. They're so defenseless. Why did you make me love something if you were just going to take it away? At least, let the other one live. Don't destroy this. We'll beat you at your own sick game; some day. Someday. I'll face you and you'll have to answer for this. Please. I'll make a deal with you. You make deals all the time, don't you? Aren't you always asking for some noble sacrifice? Do you always have to take that pound of flesh? Don't you have enough? Haven't we thrown a billion corpses at you? You have to let them live. They never would have lived if you hadn't allowed it. You don't just give us things to take them from us. You can't be that cruel. They only have each other. Let them live. Please, I'm begging you. Just let them live long enough to say goodbye.

Uma's face had turned blue. Her eyes still locked with Ulan's. The twins held each other tightly.

Iskandar, Buer, and Penemue had finished with the Tzikzik and left the bloodied meat in a heap.

Gordon was still holding Evie tightly. She thrashed and clutched the air.

Iskandar grabbed Ulan's arm and started a quick succession of massage. A thick black liquid collected on her sleeve. The girl was pale and unfocused.

Then, Penemue shoved Becca aside and quickly grabbed Uma and Ulan's heads. The hands turned white.

Uma's fingernails were a dark blue. She still gripped her sister and her lips moved. There was no sound.

Ulan shuddered and whispered something.

Then, Uma's eyes glassed over and she stopped breathing.

Penemue released the heads of the twins and ran a slow hand over Uma.

Ulan held her arm and tears formed.

Evie broke free from Gordon and she scrambled to the twins, holding Ulan tightly in one arm, and Uma's lifeless form in the other. She wailed.

"It's not fair!" Evie bellowed. "No! No! No! It's not fair! Give her back! Give her back! Give her back!"

A tiny part of Becca remembered when her husband died.

Evie was inconsolable. "No, no, no! Becca! You're a doctor! Do something! No! No! Give her back. Please, please. Oh god. Give her back. That's not yours to take. Give her back! Please, please. Give her back!"

Gordon approached, carefully, and tried to hold Evie.

"It's not fair!" Evie howled and pushed him away. "You can't do that! That's mine! She's mine! She's mine! Give her back!"

Buer gave the Tzikzik body a slight kick. It did not move.

Evie rocked back and forth. "You don't do that! She's mine! Give her back! You don't do that!"

Iskandar ran a hand over Becca.

Ulan looked exhausted and held Evie tightly. The girl had dark circles under her eyes.

"It's not fair," Evie whimpered. "It's not fair. Not like that. Please, not like that. No. No. Please."

Uma's body sagged in her arms.

"The parent should never mourn the child," Iskandar chittered to Becca. "Your unique nature..."

"Shut up," Becca said, numbly.

Evie was clutching Ulan tightly with both arms now and making inhuman sounds. It was a keening mixed with chokes and heaves.

Ulan shut her eyes and held her mother as tightly as she could.

The Reds did a sweep of the new garden and found two other Vencume Tzikzik. Five were found in the secondary Library, but it was the Library itself that had exposed and then expunged them.

Ulan spent the next few days in bed, recovering from both the chemical and emotional assault on her body. Evie spent most of her time curled up behind the child, stroking her hair.

Both Gordon and Becca circled the room, unsure of what to do. Evie was unapproachable. No one bothered them. Buer, Iskandar, and Penemue kept their distance. Penemue was busy with the Library. Buer was helping the others with whatever they wanted to do. Iskandar was fulfilling some internal agenda.

Maybe they starved in that time of grief. Hunger seemed so petty.

Gordon fell asleep with his head on the table. He was surrounded by clay models and drawings. He woke with a start some time later and shambled to bed.

He's so trapped. We all are. Why didn't we feel this when the pilot Odele was killed? Were there too many of them for us to make an investment? Is it because the death was so removed from us? Is Evie directing how we feel? Can't they grow another one? Becca knew the answer to that. Even Iskandar had said they were unique. Humans are isolated. They have no ocean.

But there had been that moment, she remembered. Penemue had connected them at the last minute. The librarian, that multi-bodied creature we named Penemue, let them see each other off. That death, no matter how small, is going to be part of the Library now. Was that the only reason for the connection? To gather what it could? Would the grief be transmitted as well? We're so small. They're so small, really. Why should I cry over something that isn't human? They always scared me. How did something so inhuman affect me so much?

Evie came out of the room, stumbling. She pulled the drawing of the two girls from the door and crumpled it with one hand. She left the quarters and came back a few moments later and approached the table opposite Becca.

Becca didn't know how to respond.

Evie collapsed in a chair. "You want to know about my sister, don't you?"

The question was startling. It was as if she had been questioned for hours and was finally giving in. There was a tortured aspect to it.

"I've always wondered," Becca said.

"But you've never asked me," Evie noted. The tone was almost accusatory, like Becca was coming to an event too late and everyone want to know where she had been. Evie stared at Becca: unsmiling, tired, beaten. "I've...seen you wonder," she went on, "but you've never asked me directly."

"I figured you'd tell me when the time was right."

"She was everything I wasn't," Evie started. "Graceful. Pretty. My parents thought the world of her. I was never going to give them grandchildren, so they pinned their hopes on her." Evie traced an imaginary line on the table and shut her eyes. "People doted on her. Everyone paid attention to her and I guess I was jealous. She wouldn't say a word, but she had complete command of every room she was in. It's hard to grow up in that. She was born a couple years after my accident. I guess she was a comfort to my parents. At least they had a child they could keep at home; I was always in the hospital."

Becca imagined the golden pilots and knew, somehow, that Gwennie had blonde hair. Evie never had to say it, but the model the Vencume had used came from somewhere.

Evie continued, in fits and starts. "When I got out, I started on my engineering degree and I was away at school most of the time. When I wasn't at school, I was lost in my studies. I never interacted with my parents much. I don't think I was ever good at dealing with people on a face-to-face level. Any friends I had growing up either got better and left or died. Only the doctors stayed. Maybe that's why we're friends. I don't mean to cheapen it; I'm just saying...I might have gained a tolerance to pain, considering the number of surgeries I had, but I was never good at at putting any feelings behinds my interactions with people.

"Meanwhile, Gwennie was going out and making real connections with real people and forming real relationships. Unfortunately, one of those relationships was with a good-for-nothing several years her senior. He strung her along and abused her, I'm sure. Gordon reminded me of him a bit...the one time I met the guy... Arrogant, self-centered, selfish. He called me a troll and we came to blows. By then, he had decided to cut Gwennie away from us. He took over her life and we were excluded from every aspect of it." She sighed rakingly. "I wasn't devastated then. Somehow, I felt it served everyone right for doting on her for so long and ignoring me. I can't say I felt any increase of love from them, but maybe it was my own self-satisfaction."

Becca nodded. Aren't the three designers upset by the attention Evie puts on the twins?

"This was all idiocy, of course," Evie continued her naked confession. "So, when Gwen came back, after that guy spent all her money or beat her or whatever it was he did, I found myself in the shadows again. But, that sun shone a little less bright. Gwennie was broken in ways we didn't see, and so no one could help her because no one knew anything was wrong.

"And then one day, she showed us all how broken she was by swallowing a fist-full of pills."

Becca felt revulsion and pity. It was hard and cold in her stomach, but it turned over and over.

Evie sighed and blinked. "It was...the worst kind of sibling rivalry; no one can compete with the image of someone who can never fail again. We speak so highly of the dead because they aren't there to prove us wrong.

"My parents put a new pressure on me. Gwennie became a constant reminder of how I had failed them. This was the same time I was testing for the civil-engineering corps and I couldn't concentrate. I failed miserably. So, maybe he was right," and she gestured to Gordon's room with a tilt of her head. "I failed there, so I came here.

"Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore," Evie bowed her head and nodded to no one in particular. "It's one thing to be held up to some shining ideal, but it's another when you know how tarnished that ideal was. Gwennie might have been sociable and pretty, but she was a silly, giggly girl who made stupid mistakes as an adult and failed everyone when the going got rough. Maybe it was too rough for me as well. I took to the skies and never looked back. She failed them in her own way, but I did as well."

Becca held out a hand across the table. Evie didn't take it.

"I'm not the most sympathetic of characters," Evie said softly. "I don't react the way people expect me to. Maybe my response to a death seems too cold. I was there. I felt it. I just chose to not fall to pieces."

"I was there," Becca said. "You were human enough."

Evie shook her head. "I'll be judged on that. Uma isn't Gwennie. People will judge me."

"That was years ago," Becca offered. "You've had time to think about it. You're distanced from it."

"Maybe...." When Evie sobbed, it was a voiceless thing. Her face twisted into a grimace and her shoulders spasmed with a soundless wheeze. She formed fists that reached to her face but stopped and died on the table. Her chin rested on her chest and shook.

Becca started to stand. "Hey, hey, you're going to be okay. It's okay."

"I could bare anything," Evie directed the statement to her lap. "Let them tear me apart. Let them put me back together. I can take any pain. I can't take this. You can't fix this. I'm such a coward. Why couldn't I hold both of them back?"

"You saved one," Becca said. "It could have been both. You saved one. You're only human."

"Only human," Evie whispered. "I failed."

Ulan stumbled from the doorway. "Mom?"

Evie held her arms out. She fell to her knees from the chair and clutched the girl tightly.

"Don't cry," Ulan said, clearly. "We're here. We still love you."

"Don't leave me," Evie begged.

"We won't," Ulan promised. "We won't leave you."

Becca took the threat of reprogrammed doors very seriously.

Everyone was busy with something, so Becca took the pod out to the factory. She knew that if things were designed to look for Evie's DNA, then she would be unable to get from point to point as she needed. She wasn't about to try to graft on a new hand, but there might be another way around it. Pulling up the information from the Library allowed her to set a tank to her specifications. This is the most clandestine thing I've ever done.

It was also her way of warning the Library of what might be on the horizon. She couldn't communicate with them directly, but they would be able to extrapolate the purpose of what she was making, as well as the reason for such a thing.

Once they were done, Becca slipped the four gray things in her pocket. One for me, one for Gordon, and two extra for...for who? Iskandar? Buer? Maybe just as extras.

When Becca got back to their quarters, Gordon and Ulan were sitting at the table, playing the board-game that Ulan had played with her sister so long ago.

"Does everyone know how to play this stupid game but me?" Evie cried when she saw them.

"It's not a stupid game at all," Gordon marveled. "It's a lot like chess, but if you capture a piece it starts to fight for you. But this has the extra twist that if a piece is recaptured, it's pulled from the board. And you don't keep the captured pieces in-hand and then drop them later, they turn instantly and they can capture any piece on the board."

"Well, I'm glad you're having fun," Evie snapped and went back into her ancillary lab.

Becca reached into her pocket. "I need to give you this. Try to keep quiet about it." She palmed him a fleshy gray slug.

"What is this?" Gordon took the four-centimeter thing from Becca. "It's soft."

"That's your key," Becca explained in hushed tones. "Just hold that up to the door-panels when you want to get in and out. Let me know if it wears out and I'll see if I can grow you a new one."

Gordon obviously felt revulsion handling it. "This is because my hands are still my own, right?"

Becca leaned in. "It's because you aren't Evie or an Evie clone. Just hold on to that and try to not be obvious about it. I don't know if we'll need it, but it might come in handy."

Gordon slipped the object reverently into his pocket, like a dead mouse.

Almost on cue, Evie came out of her lab in the spare room. It looked like she had finally given up on keeping her weight under control and she wore a voluminous gray smock.

"Oh. Becca, here," Evie gave her a belt. It was a a cumbersome object with a large buckle. "Put that on and tell me what you think."

"It's not much for fashion," Becca observed, trying the complicated fastener. "What's this supposed to do?"

"Stand back," Evie said with a flourish, "and witness some magic."

Meanwhile, Evie pressed a button on the belt. Becca saw the room shimmer around her. Sounds were muffled.

And Evie took a swing at her

There was a sound, like someone had dropped a paper cup and Evie's fist was redirected to one side. Becca felt her head pressed slightly to the right.

Evie gestured to the belt. Turn it off, she mouthed.

Becca obliged and pressed the button.

"That's a minor force-field," Evie explained. "You won't be able to use it for long periods of time because you'll run out of air."

"You've been busy," Becca stated.

"She's been in there all day," Gordon mused.

Evie grinned with manic eyes. "This will toss off the rail-bolts and deflect a bit from the laser. It will look like a miss."

Becca pressed the button on the belt again. When she spoke, it sounded like she had her fingers in her ears. "You're just as afraid of them as the rest of us."

Can't hear you, Evie mouthed.

"How many of these did you make?" Becca asked after turning it off.

Evie lifted her smock to show the belt. "I made four. You, me, Gordon, and Ulan. Try to hide it a little. We don't want to be obvious."

Gordon lifted his shirt to reveal a similar belt.

Becca reflexively touched her pocket. "So I'm not the only one who's worried."

Ulan smiled. "Humans are discussing chichitiizi," she chittered.

"The round-about-way-that-prevents-problems," Becca explained to the others.

"You are expecting conflict and preparing for it," Ulan gestured to the room she used to share with her sister. "Come."

The three adults followed her into her room. There was a large map on one wall.

Ulan traced a line across the map. "There are many ways to exit the ship. This path will be the most direct route to where the lifeboats are held. In a panic situation, we must be able to get there before any others." She tapped one location. "This is the ship we...I used to contact the Library. It is not in the usual location."

Gordon was studying the map. "Are those similar to our lifeboats?"

"You will not leave us a second time," Ulan chittered. "There is a code."

He blushed deeply. "I wasn't considering it."

Ulan grinned. "We learn from our mistakes."

There was a faint knock at the door. Becca answered it and Imala came in.

"Hey, kiddo, what's up?" Gordon asked

Imala walked past Evie and tugged on Becca's sleeve. "I need to talk to you."

"It's like I'm not here at all!" Evie shouted. "No one wants my attention! Oh, run along, Evie, and go do whatever it is you do; we don't need you."

"I want to talk to Becca about this," Imala replied meekly.

"Oh, whatever, cloth-mommy!" Evie shouted.

Becca was surprised that Evie knew about Harry Harlow's experiments with rhesus monkeys. It was a basic study done ages ago, where Harlow removed baby rhesus monkeys from their biological mothers, and offered them a choice between two surrogate mothers: one made of terrycloth and another made of wire with a milk-bottle attached. The monkey infants only went to the wire mother when they were hungry, but always ran to the cloth mother in times of distress.

"Can I go deal with this and talk with you later?" Becca asked.

"Fine, fine. You're the one they want..." Evie waved her hands in the air and went into her room.

Becca frowned and watched Evie leave the room, but smiled when she turned to Imala. "What's going on? Are you having a problem with your sisters again?"

Imala was looking at Ulan nervously. "Not here."

They went out into the hallway.

"OK," Becca tried again. "What's going on?"

"They won't stop torturing it!" Imala started to cry. "It's just helpless and awful and they keep hurting it. And they're starving it and Idana keeps sticking it with pins and then soldering the wounds shut and they won't stop!"

Becca frowned and tried not to show any fear. "You mean Ilyssa and Idana are tormenting that captured Tzikzik?"

"Not just them," Imala shook her head. "Everyone is. They all want a go at it. They just go in there and hit it and kick it and they're all so angry..."

"Even the new pilots?" Becca asked with some concern.

Imala nodded.

Even the friendly ones want to hurt something. I thought they were different. I thought there was enough of me in there to keep that kind of blood-lust at bay. We're like the prison on Peg-51; we've devolved to barbaric torture on a helpless prisoner. It's not human, but still...

"I can't stop them," Imala sobbed. "I just want it to stop, but they won't listen to me. They chased me out of the room."

"Maybe they're just angry because they had to fight them," Becca tried to soothe her. "Maybe they're afraid and you know how bullies are always afraid, right? They always pick on things that are weaker than them because they can't fight the things that are bigger."

I'm pretty afraid right now. I'm terrified. We have to get off this ship and soon. If they're going to act like that, then maybe the project is a failure. Maybe Evie is right and the girls have to be kept away from others. And they're still just children! This would be so much worse if they were older. All that hate has been brewing in them and now that they finally have a release, they aren't going to let up.

"I asked them to stop," Imala said. "I begged them. Ilyssa told me to not interfere with her army."







*Book of Enoch, chapter 69, verse 8.