The vessel was minuscule, not much larger than lifeboat. It moved purposefully along, ignorant of any series of hazards that may have conspired against it.
The first sign of danger was a faint glitter, thirty degrees above it and coming in the five. It may have been an anomaly: some star that flickered through a passing gas-cloud, or the light refracted off another ship that had passed this way once before (or would pass this way some years future). But, the fact that the glittering object changed vector and grew larger quickly dismissed that theory. As the proximity sensors went off, the individual piloting the vessel took evasive maneuvers: stalling the engine, firing retros, jumping forward.
The glittering object got larger. Now that it was in visual range, it became obvious that the object was actually five small, star-shaped ships. The engines circling their rear-assemblies fired rapidly as the attacking acrobats spun around each other. They fanned out, like the fingertips of some giant grasping hand.
The individual manning the weapons array of the vessel started to fire. Even with a computer-assisted targeting system, it couldn't hit the spinning and circling attackers. Across the radio came the sound of singing. Five notes in quick succession, scaling over each other, in rounds...the five ships dodged the clumsily fired bolts with ease and started to dive, osprey-like, towards the vessel. A harmonic rose in pitch as the five glittering attackers opened fire on the ship...
Becca gripped the rail on the observation deck as the vessel fell to pieces. The singing over the radio had stopped.
"Even at half their size..." Idana noted. She started to pack up her remote control gear.
Imala helped her collect the equipment. "I'd say that was pretty good."
Ilyssa nodded and turned back to her hand-held receiver. "Odele, how was the lag on the sensors when you fired?"
"Wasn't bad," a bright, cheery voice answered. "Didn't drag the burn too much."
Another voice came in. "We'll just adjust the tune so the instrument can play it."
"Try coming in at bay twenty-eight," Ilyssa said. "I want to see if we can do a half-spin recovery."
"Let's wait on that," Idana said, shaking her head. "The full spin deployment was a success, but there's no hurry on recovery. Come in at bay thirty-four. We're still at dead spin there."
Ilyssa was walking out of the observation deck. "Let's go see what the recorders said."
Idana huffed the controller onto her back and brushed past Becca. The designer narrowed her eyes a bit as she walked past, obviously irritated that Becca was there.
"You didnít ask for any clarification this time," Imala said. "Does Doctor-Doctor suddenly understand everything?"
"Your sisters get annoyed anytime I ask questions," Becca explained. "Iím just trying to stay out of the way."
A week prior, the three designers were talking to the pilots about some adjustment they wanted to make to the ships. Two redheads had also stopped to watch this.
Ilyssa was explaining a new type of weapon that fired small metal rods through a magnetic tube. "This will not cause any recoil," she said, demonstrating, "but it may cause a minor lag in the control system when you use it because of the draw on the dynamo." She fired a small bolt across the room into a target; it was silent except for a faint hum from the device and the *pfft* of the bolt going through the air. "This system will be much better than the internal combustion versions you have now, but we need to run some tests on the draw."
Becca was sitting cross-legged on a ramp. Ilyssa had already shut her down when she asked about the magnetic system and seemed intensely annoyed that she had to stop to answer any questions about it at all. The girls present seemed to understand the mechanics enough to not ask the questions she did have.
While sitting there, the twins came in and sat on either side of Becca. They leaned against her.
Ulan took one arm and wrapped it around her. "Tick tock."
Uma took the other arm. "Mock doc."
"Grains," said Ulan.
"Beans," answered Uma.
Ulan smiled. "Fruits."
Uma giggled. "Nuts."
"Get them out of here!" Idana yelled. "You're such a distraction. All three of you, OUT!"
Becca started to stand, but the twins pulled her back down.
"New gun," Ulan hissed. "Share."
Idana pointed to the two redheads. "Anevay, Alima, seal the perimeter."
The two redheads started to walk over to them. Becca was intimidated by these squat children with thick arms and narrow-set eyes. "We're trying to do something," Alima said. "Either shut-up or get lost."
"You don't like guns anyway," Anevay snapped. "Go find something better to do." She reached out to grab Ulan.
Ulan tucked into a neat roll and knocked Anevay over. When she stood, she was holding the redhead's arm in a lock.
Becca stood quickly. "Let her go! We don't need to fight over this."
Evie came into the bay. "What's all this shouting?"
Idana pointed at the twins. "We're trying to demonstrate our new system and they keep interrupting."
"Ulan, let her go," Evie commanded. "Uma, you and your sister come with me."
Ulan threw Anevay from her and dropped to a combative crouch.
Anevay hissed with annoyance and rolled her shoulder. "We have enough trouble as is," she said balling a fist. "You just give me five minutes..."
Evie crossed her arms. "You've had five seconds and came out the worse."
Imala held out her hands in a peace-offering gesture. "You favor them because they're the most like you. We may be minor adjustments, but we need time to ourselves without these distractions. This is very important and we'd like to get through the testing phase as soon as possible."
Evie stiffened a bit. "Okay, we're leaving. You just go on with your tests."
"Take Doctor-Doctor with you," Idana added. "This doesn't concern her."
Becca looked at Evie, whose jaw was clenching.
"We uprooted Becca and brought her with us," Evie said. "At this point, everything concerns her."
"We brought her here so they wouldn't kill her," Idana stated.
Ilyssa nodded. "And you need a friend to keep you busy."
Ulan had run up to Evie and held her hand. Uma hid behind Becca.
"We might look like just children to you," Ilyssa said. "But you're forgetting that we have everything from your head and all your lessons. Plus," she stressed, "we have Vencume knowledge and their lessons."
"We have long trip ahead of us," Imala added, "and we have to get these things perfected before it's all over and done with. The Vencume have certain expectations and we plan on meeting them."
"We plan on exceeding them," Idana finished.
Evie was in an ancillary lab working on a larger version of her mechanical mantis automaton. She was wearing a thick set of safety-goggles and had a small screwdriver in her mouth. The mantis rocked back and forth on four legs.
"Howís it coming along?" Becca asked.
Evie pushed back her safety glasses and rubbed the back of her head. "Itís okay. It just feels so primitive." Her hair was getting longer and dark roots were coming in; it had an odd, mottled look.
Becca circled around to the workbench. "It looks fine to me. Whatís so primitive about it?"
"Watch out," Evie held out a hand towards Becca to back her away from the device and hurled herself at the mantis, shoving it over onto its side. The mantis wriggled for a moment, using its long arms to prop itself back up.
"You fixed the arms," Becca observed.
"Yeah," Evie grinned. "That had always bothered me. What good is it if it needs a minder?"
"Does it learn?"
"Itís only using a basic set of commands," Evie explained. "I just have to pare it down to the essentials. Simplicity is elegance...."
Becca nodded. "I suppose this thing needs you more and thatís why you spend time with it. The girls donít seem to need you much."
"Theyíre very independent," Evie grabbed one of the mantisí arms and gave it a tug. The device scrambled to catch itself. "I guess thatís a bit of my own childhood in there. I probably wouldnít have asked anyone for anything if things had been...normal."
"Iím sure your parents still loved you," Becca offered.
"I donít think it really had anything to do with love after a while." Evie kicked out one of the mantisí legs. Again, the device scrambled to catch itself and threw out an arm. Evie tsked and kicked out another leg. It caught itself without using its arms the second time. "I wasnít really there for them, you know?"
"But they were always there for youó"Beccaís voice broke a little.
Evie reached underneath the mantis and turned it off. "You want to talk to me about something?"
"How long do you think we'll be out here?" Becca asked.
Becca's eyes watered a bit. "I know you don't have anyone back home, but I..." She broke down sobbing.
"Hey hey hey..." Evie whipped off her safety-goggles and ran to Becca's side. "What's all this about? What's wrong? Why are you crying?"
"I have to get back," Becca said between raking breaths. "I never should have come out here. I don't want to miss her growing up."
"Don't want to miss who growing up?"
Becca rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. "My daughter, Huri. She's only nine-years-old, but... When her father died...."
Evie frowned and pulled back a bit. "I didn't know you were married."
"I was," Becca pressed the sleeve of her shirt against her eyes. "Huri was three when he finally....succumbed. After so long, we were practically bankrupt. I took up these flights because...You can't raise a child properly with that kind of debt."
The two stared at the floor for a while.
"Say," Evie said. "Why don't you write her a letter?"
Becca scowled. "Evie, that's not funny."
"I'm serious," Evie explained. "You spent all that time writing a letter to your cousin. Why not send a letter to your daughter? The Vencume can send it."
"Are you serious?" Becca frowned. "I don't see anyone being too keen on passing along a Vencume message to a nine-year-old child..."
Evie's eyes lit up. "Why not? Isn't that proof that you're you? Look, Becca, it's not just you saying...whatever it is you want to say...it's politics, right? I mean, you could write several letters. I'll help! I'll write a coupleóone to the Wainwrights and one to the Shipping Authorityóand we can say, 'Look, there's no war. We're just a couple of kooky chicks in space kicking around on an alien space-craft but we're still human, right?' Tell me what's wrong with that plan."
"The words 'kooky chicks', for one."
"Listen," Evie was in a scheming mode now. "Write a letter to your daughter. Sure, the Shipping Authority will read it first, but who cares? That's what we'll do. We'll tell everybody everything and maybe by the time we get back, it will all be okay."
"How can we send a message from here? The Vencume don't understand our language..."
"Maybe not," Evie countered. "But they can take images of things and send that. My little blue trilobite has lots of paper for their sketches. Will that work?"
Becca nodded, and smiled a little to herself. 'Trilobite'. That's a cute name for the three designers.
It had taken a while for Becca to write the letter; her right hand did not move as smoothly as she had expected and the fine motor skills involved in handwriting weren't there. She eventually worked out the text in square, compensating letters. Did the Shipping Authority have any examples of her prior handwriting? Surely, that would be something they would try to use against her. Nonetheless...
My most precious Huri,
I remember the day you were born. I was so happy, but at the same time, I was scared. Here was this precious baby girl who was depending on me to take care of her and keep her safe. You were a tiny, naked little life that was solely dependent on me and I knew I could not let you down. On that day, I experienced what it was like to love someone completely and unconditionally. And from the moment of your birth - even before you were born, when I talked to you in the womb, or when I first felt you roll over inside me - Iíve always loved you without conditions. I knew then, that no matter what would happen to us in life, I would always love you. I still do.
One night, you had a 101 fever and screamed and cried. Nothing I did seemed to ease your pain and I was beside myself. When you were older and got sick, Iíd get a damp washcloth to cool your fever and youíd lay your head on my lap. If only I could feel your hot head on my lap now...
I remember your first day of school; you were so excited, but you didn't cry. I did, however, because my baby girl was growing up. I was so very proud of you and I still am. I know I couldn't protect you from getting hurt as you grow, because that is part of growing up.
I have tried to be a good role-model, but I have to admit that sometimes I wasn't the best. If I had done better in the past, I would not be where I am today. Your father's illness drove us almost to ruin, not that I blame him. I only wanted to provide for you and give you a better future.
When I left you with Popo Sefer and Nana Fatma, you cried and begged me to look at you. I couldn't turn my head and let you see my tears. Daughters have to know their mothers are strong, but my heart ached more than when you waved bye-bye to Daddy on that bright, sunny day. Do you remember the flowers everyone brought? You were so happy around those bright colors; while we adults were dressed in black and dabbed our eyes. There wasn't a cloud in the sky that day, but everything was gray for me except you. Any pain I felt leaving the cemetery that day was nothing compared to the day I had to leave you behind and the regret gnaws at my heart.
When you are older, you'll understand. I don't want you to grow up angry at me. Everything I did was for you. I miss you more than life itself and you are always in my dreams. Take as many pictures as you can so if I get back I can watch you grow up. I look forward to your tales.
You are a lucky girl that we have such a good family and I am a very lucky woman to have had you in my life. People might say terrible things about me, but please know that what I did was in your best interests. When I realized I could not be there and provide for you at the same time, I was torn in half. I have always wanted you to have choices and I blame myself for not being a good example on that front. I want you to be able to be yourself in the world. Be clever, be strong, be graceful. Above all, be a kind and loving person. If you grow up happy and well-adjusted, then I know that everything I have given up is not in vain.
My heart is aching, my family is waiting, my love for you will never die,
Becca had just finished the letter and was wiping her eyes when Evie stuck her head in.
"How's it going?" Evie waved some papers she had with her. "I finished mine, so whenever you're ready."
"It's done." Becca held up the three sheets.
Evie glanced at the papers. "You really are a doctor. You have terrible handwriting."
After handing their letters to the Vencume, Evie went to work on her mantis some more.
Becca went to the mess hall and ran into the pilots. They were round, golden girls with large eyes and small hands and feet. Their minuscule extremities only made their well-padded torsos look the rounder. Becca remembered Evie in her silly, yellow jumpsuit; the duck-like quality the limping engineer had was not present in these girls.
She had not interacted with them much, but had learned to tell them apart; only occasionally did she confuse their names. Ofira had the darkest hair; Oriana, the lightest. Olathe was a little taller; Ovida was a little rounder. Odele had the strongest voice and was usually the first to speak.
The five girls were practicing some song and the harmony rose and fell. As Becca entered the room, Odele made eye-contact with her and sang a little off-key. The others stopped and turned to her and turned to look at Becca.
"Hi, Becca," Odele sang.
"Hello...Odele," Becca answered. "You girls trying out some new maneuvers?"
Odele smiled at the others. "She remembered my name."
"But she had to think about it," someone responded.
"One of the bolts from the test almost hit me," Ofria said, actually answering Beccaís question. "We have to space ourselves out a bit more."
Ovida cocked her head to one side. "Were you coming here for something to eat? Thatís not for a while yet."
Becca shrugged. "No, I was just looking for something to...everyone here is healthy, so whatís a doctor to do?"
Oriana laughed. "Sheís bored."
"Letís take her to the garden," Olathe suggested. The others laughed and jumped, just like human girls their age...
"What garden?" Becca asked.
Olathe took her hand. "The Vencume have a couple gardens on the ship, for food and oxygen. Well, the one for us makes oxygen...."
"Should we use the pod or the bridge?" Ofria asked.
"The bridge! The bridge!" the others called.
They left the mess-hall and went to the long walkway where Evie had said she kicked Gordon over the railing. Half-way across, the lights flickered and the spin stopped.
"Why...does this do this?" Becca scrambled in the sudden weightlessness.
Odele laughed. "The section with the garden doesn't always spin at the same rate. This section stops to catch up with it."
"Or to slow down," someone answered.
Becca was getting used to zero-g maneuvers but she still kicked too hard or found herself spinning out of control. The pilots, meanwhile, had no trouble at all; but then, they danced when they walked and sang when they spoke. Everything about them had a lush grace to it. As the group glided across the bridge, the girls laughed at Becca's awkward attempts to swim across.
"It's not like in water," one girl pointed out. "You're not going to get that kind of resistance."
"Quit fighting it," Olathe said (at least Becca thought it was her; it was hard to gauge their height when they weren't standing on a solid surface). "You have to offer as little resistance as possible when youíre moving," the blonde continued.
One of her pilot sisters glided past; the pale hair marked her as Oriana. "If you can find a natural air-current, like a vent, that helps too."
"She'll never be comfortable in the air," a blonde voice behind her observed.
The lights came back up and spin resumed; Becca happy to feel the weight in her feet again. They walked the rest of the way across the bridge where Olathe pressed her hand against a small panel next to a door and...
Becca squinted in the sudden light. Once her eyes adjusted, she saw a large room with planters and trees and a pond and Oh! This is what they should have had on the station! The ceiling was incredibly high and studded with huge, bright floodlights. Trees stretched up to the light. Becca felt its warmth on her face.
"Hi, Annora!" Odele called out to a redhead kneeling by one of the planters. "Can we leave Becca with you while we practice?"
Annora looked up at the towheaded quintuplets. "Do I have a choice?"
Ofira skipped over to her fiery sister. "Just be a dear. The poor woman is bored out of her mind and looking for something to do. You can use another set of hands."
The redhead nodded and rubbed a square jaw. "And you golden girls want her out of the way while you practice being the star of the show."
Ofira frowned for a moment, then smiled broadly. "That is so kind of you. I'm so glad that you're such a team-player."
Becca remembered the popular girls' clique in school and was suddenly embarrassed.
The kneeling Annora shrugged. "And I am so happy that you would trust me enough to leave me such a huge responsibility. You must think so much of me." She hissed every S.
"I knew we could trust you," Ofria tapped Annora on the nose with a pointed finger and did a half-pirouette.
"You'll be okay here," Ovida nodded to Becca. "We have to get back to practice."
The pilots danced away to the door, giggling amongst themselves.
I've just been dumped. They're treating me like pretty-girl's friend.
Annora was transferring seedlings from a pallet to a prepared bed. Her broad hands and square shoulders worked in a smooth pattern from pallet to bed. Becca was nervous being left alone with her.
"Do you need some help?" Becca asked hopefully. Maybe if we're busy, she won't attack me.
The sharp-toothed girl shrugged and gestured next to her. "Pull up some floor."
Becca knelt next to her and took a seedling. Sitting closer to the child, she saw that the teeth were not sharp at all, but small and widely spaced. "Where did these come from?"
"Those are beans," Annora said in her gruff voice. "Ilyssa brought some on board and the Vencume multiplied them."
"Did these come from the Tong Dizhou?"
Annora shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe. I was told that the ones from the ship wouldn't give us any viable seeds. Like they had been neutered?"
Becca nodded. If they were designed new seeds, the company that made them wouldn't want them to make anything but foodstuff. If you keep the farmers from replanting, they have to buy more.
"I think the Vencume did something to them," the redhead continued. "We'll save some from this crop and make more."
"Aren't you like a new seed?" Becca asked.
The girl brushed back her hair. "No. We're intact. Ulan already had her period."
"Oh," Becca nodded. "You know about that."
Annora nodded. "We're neotenic for now."
The Vencume want to keep them as children. This is still an experiment for them.
"It's distracting," Annora continued. "We're taking injections for it."
They worked in silence and finished one bed. Annora stood and got another pallet.
"Which are those?" Becca asked.
The girl looked at the seedlings. "I think these are squash."
They started planting the next bed. It was a mindless endeavor with a Zen-like quality to it. Becca was happy to handle something alive and dependent again.
"You don't practice with your sisters?" Becca finally asked.
The girl shook her head. "This is good. I like doing something. This has to be done."
"What are they doing right now?"
A shrug. "Other things. There's always something that has to be done. We're doers."
Becca dug away some thick loam. "Where did this dirt come from?"
Annora laughed. "Living things produce a lot of waste."
"I heard you were in here!" Evie came in with the twins closely behind her. The two girls were chasing and tickling each other.
"They discovered tickling today," Evie explained. "They can't get enough of it. I've already told them not toó"
As if on cue, Uma started to tickle Annora.
The redhead jumped up, swinging. "Knock it off!"
Ulan slipped in behind Annora and gave her a tickle on the neck.
"Hey," Becca held out a hand. "Personal space, okay?"
The twins ran off behind a planter with high-pitched squeals of hyena-like laughter.
"They see it as a way to incapacitate someone," Evie watched the girls. "Tickling is better than dislocating a shoulder."
Annora rolled her shoulders and knelt back down next to the pallet of seedlings. "I'll do more than 'tickle' if one of them comes near me again."
Evie looked past her at Becca. "I wanted to let you know that our letters have been sent. No response back, but it might help to put a human face on this little diplomatic tiff."
Becca continued the planting process with Annora. "That's good. We'll see."
"I ran into the pilots on my way here," Evie smiled. "They told me you were here. Listen, when you come to...restricted areas like this...make sure you use your right hand, not the left."
Becca looked at her hand for a moment. "What would happen if I use the left?"
"It wonít work," Evie explained. "Itís missing the mitochondria or something."
"They didnít grow a clone for this, did they?"
"Oh, no," Evie laughed. "Not for just that. You wouldnít grow a whole one for parts; just start with a framework and build up from there."
The twins ran out and started to tickle Evie. She laughed loudly and returned the favor and they ran off.
"You're gaining it all back," Becca pointed at Evie's mid-section; a band of bright white belly stuck out over the top of her pants.
Evie pulled her top down. "I can't help it. I'm predisposed to packing it on. I have a slow metabolism or something."
Well, that much is true. She always did have a slow heart-rate and low blood-pressure. But still... "That's not healthy, Evie. You have to get some exercise. Maybe there's a wave-tank oró"
"I never want to be in a tank again," Evie said gravely.
Becca held out her hands defensively. "No, no, no tank. I'm sorry...I...I forgot."
"How could you forget?" Evie scowled.
"I'm just thinking about your health..."
"Maybe," Evie growled (her jaw was clenching), "maybe that extra weight was what kept me alive, huh? Did you think about that? How long were you on that lifeboat, huh? How well do you think I was doing at feeding myself when I didn't have any hands?"
"Evie, I'm sorry," Becca said. She's gone off a little suddenly. "I'm sorry it happened, but that was the past and..."
"It's not the kind of thing you just get over!" Evie yelled. She turned quickly on her heel and crossed her arms.
Annora stood up and dusted her hands on her thighs. "I'm done and I'm leaving. This isn't my fight." The redhead walked decisively to the door and let herself out.
Becca watched the child leave and looked at Evie's back. She could tell by the sound that Evie was holding back tears; the engineer would breathe hard and rakingly through her nose. The shoulders had risen to her ears.
"Evie," Becca started, "I don't think I'll ever understand what you went through. I'm proud of you for being able to walk upright after something like that. I'd probably still be curled into a little ball and screaming. I always knew you were smart, and kind, but I never knew how strong you were until all this happened. You've been through so much, and not just on the Tong Dizhou, but before that and after that. It doesn't seem like you to fly off the handle, but maybe I didn't treat those events with the gravity that you need right now. Back at Peg-51, everyone talked about how great you looked and you seemed so happy...like you finally had a little self-confidence. I'd like to think tható"
"If I recall, you did curl into a little ball and scream."
Becca stopped. "That isnít fair."
Evie turned around with red eyes and jaw clenched. "Nothing is fair."
Becca was in the kitchen attached to the mess-hall, preparing a dinner with the redheaded Alima and Arlene. She remembered what Annora had said in the garden about being doers and how there were a lot of things to do around the ship. They also reminded Becca of the Pegger steward, Franz, with their broad hands, short legs, and heads of thick, red hair. They even had gruff voicesóoddly deep for their age.
The three of them were making dolmas of various kinds: zucchini, eggplant, tomato, and pepper. Alima enjoyed coring the vegetables and Arlene was fluffing a pot of rice. Becca was mincing an onion and some parsley.
"It's so good to have a garden," Becca mused. "It's nice to have fresh things to eat."
"Putting the garden in advancement helps," Arlene said.
Becca stopped her chopping. "Advancement?"
"We take it out of field," Alima explained. "Just to send it ahead a few months. Like how they grew us."
"Oh," Becca nodded, understanding the effect but not the mechanics. "So you have a constant crop in circulation. That must make things much easier."
Alima finished coring the last tomato and set the bowl of seeds to one side. "The Vencume developed it."
Arlene watched Becca and rubbed her eyes. "How can you stand that onion? It's like a weapon."
"Maybe," Becca laughed. Cooking put her at ease.
The rice had cooled a bit and they mixed in the onion and parsley with their hands. Once it was at a consistency that satisfied Becca, they started to stuff the cored vegetables. "We'll steam these," Becca explained. "It won't take long."
"What if there's stuffing left over?" Alima asked.
"Well," Becca grinned. "We'll just have to eat it."
The girls laughed.
"Doctor-Doctor!" Idana yelled from the mess-hall. "Come out here!"
Becca wiped her hands and left the kitchen.
Idana was pacing, counting something on her fingers. "You!" she said when she saw Becca. "We have a situation." She paused. "Who's in the kitchen with you?"
Becca thumbed over her shoulder. "Arlene and Alima. We were getting dinner together."
Idana waved her hands in the air. "That can wait. Arlene! Alima! Get suited up!"
Alima poked her head out. "What's going on?"
"The Shipping Authority is here!" Idana yelled. "They've been chasing us this whole time. Now go get ready!"
Becca watched the two redheads run into the corridor. "The Shipping Authority? Why would theyó"
"Your sappy sentimentality led them right to us!" Idana snapped. "This is all your fault. You and your stupid letters home!"
"But we only wanted to let them know what was going on," Becca protested.
Idana pointed a firm finger. "And they traced the signal. They found our location!" She grabbed Becca's sleeve and started to pull her out of mess-hall. Becca obliged.
"Wouldnít the Vencume be dealing with this?" Becca asked as they entered a lift.
"The Vencume," Idana made a sound like she was clearing her throat or gagging. "Theyíre too busy navel-gazing or whatever it is they do. We have radio contact and weíve set-up an ad hoc bridge. Weíre handling this."
Evie was already waiting on the "bridge". Becca recognized it as the room where she had given the Vencume the human anatomy lesson. The three-dimensional display sat in the center and Imala was making some adjustment to it. Ilyssa was attaching a lead to a speaker.
"Where were you?" Evie asked. "Playing Space-Mom?"
"At least someone is," Becca answered.
The display clattered to life, the tiny balls clicking into position to form a rough human figure. Only the front of it was well defined; the back was a vague blob.
"We have to make do," Ilyssa waved at hand at the image dismissively. "The Vencume can see, but not that well, so they don't really have anything like we're...like you're used to."
"This is Captain Deng Xueshen of the destroyer ZhengYang," the mouth of the figure moved but the voice came from the speaker two meters away. "You have an escaped prisoner on your ship and we are requesting her return."
Idana held an imager up to focus on the tiny bridge. "I'm turning this on," Idana said, adjusting the lens. "Let's see what they think."
Becca watched the figure move its head to one side, looking at something. The eyebrows shot up.
Ilyssa approached Idana carefully with her hands behind her back. "You will cease your pursuit of this craft and its inhabitants," she stated. "This is a peaceful ship and you are well into Vencume territory."
The clattering display shifted as another figure came into view. "Let us see her," a female voice. Becca thought it sounded familiar.
Idana walked past Ilyssa and focused the imager on Becca.
Becca held up her hands. "I'll answer any questions to the best of my ability, but please call off your attack."
"We want to see Dr. Tabib," the woman said. "I want to see that horrible little spy."
"I am Dr. Tabib," Becca protested. "See? I...I still have the mark...here," she held back her hair to show a tiny scar on her forehead. "I hit myself with the block when you brought me in. It scarred. It was never looked after, so it..." She stopped.
I have both of my hands. I lost a hand when...
"The Vencume have stem-tech," Becca rapidly explained. "They grew or built a new one...the hand. We mustn't go to war with them. This has all been a big misunderstanding."
The woman on the display was frowning. "We want the prisoner returned to us. We also request the body of..."
"I'm not dead, Rosemary," Evie said. Idana walked past Becca to focus on Evie. Evie continued, "I'm sorry for everythign that happened between us, but you should have understood it was me. You could have checked my medical history. You assumed I wasnít who I said I was and I'm sorry."
It was her! She must really hate Evie to chase her this far.
Captain Deng raised a hand on the display. His voice had a slight edge of fear to it. "We want the...prisoners...returned. If you put them aboard a lifeboat, we'll pick it up. If you do not comply in the next fifteen minutes, we will deploy our fighters."
Ilyssa crossed her arms. "If you deploy your fighters, we'll deploy ours. And ours are better than yours."
"We don't want a fight," Imala added. "We have a schedule we're trying to keep. Please, just let us go. You can have them later when we're done."
Officer Rosemary Gekki leaned forward on the display. "You have fifteen minutes."
The display clattered to a flat pool. The signal had been cut.
"We need a proper video system," Idana stated. "I don't think that the hand-held really did anyone any justice."
Imala nodded. "We're losing a lot of non-verbal communication. Forcing a 2-D image into 3-D just doesn't work."
"Very off-putting," Ilyssa agreed. She pulled a hand-held receiver from one of her smock-pockets. "Odele, go ahead and do a full spin launch. I think weíre going to have to prove something to these people."
Evie took Beccaís sleeve. "Youíll want to see this."
They went down the hall to an observation deck. Past the stern of the ship was a Shipping Authority vessel. Evie pointed to a bay door that was opening three sections down. They were rotating at the same rate, so the launch was never obscured. The five golden attack-fighters flung out of the bay in an easy arc. After turning around each other a few times, they circled the Shipping Authority vessel.
Becca and Evie went back to the bridge.
"Get them on the line," Ilyssa said. "They need to know we aren't kidding."
Idana nodded. There was a faint singing coming over the radio.
"Are you getting this?" Ilyssa asked. "We've launched our fighters and it will be another couple of minutes before you can launch yours. Are you going to turn around now?"
"I need to know you can hear me," Ilyssa said tersely, "and that you aren't just ignoring us."
A man's voice came over. "We hear you."
"We don't want to attack you," Imala said. "But we really do need for you to stop chasing us. Please stop."
"Call off your fighters," the man answered. Becca assumed it was Capitan Deng.
"Once we see you turn around," Ilyssa said, "we'll bring them back. This is not negotiable."
Imala switched the clattering display to a view of the Shipping Authority vessel. It stood on a thin stalk and five antenna-like spines came off it, each terminating in a model of one of the fighters.
"We're installing a proper display once all this is over," Idana growled. "This is ridiculous."
"Call off your fighters," Captain Deng demanded over the radio. "We are not moving until they are gone."
"Turn around and go home," Ilyssa snapped back. "If you halt a bay for launch, they will open fire. You have ten minutes. We're not going to sit around in a stupid stand-off!"
Becca heard an alarm come across the radio. The display exploded into many fine spikes coming from the Shipping Authority ship. The melody of the fighters over the radio altered as the models started to turn on the ends of their stalks.
"Is there a fault in the..." Evie started.
"They've opened fire on us," Idana stated.
Becca watched the display. "Why can't we hear...?"
"There's no sound in space," Ilyssa snapped and turned back to her hand-held receiver. "Halt your fire! You understand? You can't hit them. We're going to open fire if you don't..."
The singing over the radio changed to a new harmonic. Now the fighters grew thin spines that reached back to the large mass of the vessel.
"It can't handle this kind of image," Idana tsked. "We're going to lose the picture."
The display rattled, tiny metal balls rushing from point to point. There was a burning smell.
"Turn it off!" Ilyssa ordered. "We'll continue this on the observation deck." She marched out of the room.
They piled out of the ad hoc bridge to the observation deck. The battle rose and set over the ship.
Ilyssa was yelling into the receiver. "Cease firing on us! They will tear you apart!"
Again, the battle rose over one side of the ship with the spinning sections waving between them. It looked like a war on some distant shore.
Idana waved her arms. "How am I supposed to direct this if I can't see what the hell is going on?"
The singing on the radio fell in descending scales over the receiver.
Ilyssa stormed back to the bridge and the others followed.
"I'm trying the display again," Imala said, "but on a lower resolution,"
An amorphous blob grew and shrank before them.
"We can follow the battle better from the song," Idana moped.
Ilyssa paced back and forth. "One of the most important tests we've ever faced and we can't even get a proper view of it."
Becca glanced at the shifting display. The blob adjusted with the singing over the radio.
There was a static sound, only for a second. The blob bulged in one area and the singing shifted slightly off-key.
"What just happened?" Becca looked from face to face. "What was that?"
"Odele, bring them home," Ilyssa said coldly into the receiver.
"Weíre coming in," one of the pilots answered. "Full spin recovery."
"Adjust the display," Ilyssa commanded.
Imala changed the settings. The Shipping Authority vessel came into clear focus. It had stopped firing. The five fighters were no longer circling.
The three girls stood, staring, silently at the tiny model of a ship. Imala rubbed her right eye.
"What just happened?" Evie asked.
Idana answered, after a moment. "We've just lost a pilot. Not sure who, yet."
Becca ran from the bridge back to the observation deck. The Shipping Authority vessel rose over one end of the Vencume shipóa glittering debris field next to it. She watched it until it set.
Back on the bridge, Ilyssa and Idana were arguing.
"The reds can tear them apart," Ilyssa waved her arms. "We have the buzz-landers. Even if we don't launch any ground-troops, we can still put holes in their ship."
"I don't want to risk any more of us," Idana countered. "It was only a matter of time. We haven't had a proper test."
Imala raised a hand. "I might have something..."
Ilyssa's eyes were tearing up. "How the hell did they..?"
"They got lucky!" Idana snapped. "They were firing blind! Who knows how many bolts they put up beforeó"
"We are not going to let this pass." Ilyssa stood with clenched fists. "We made a big enough mistake when we let the first one go."
"They might still have communications," Idana said. "They could still call for help and give their location."
"I want everything on that ship destroyed," Ilyssa hissed.
Imala stood and turned to her sisters. "I have something. I...I was just toying with it."
Ilyssa turned with clenched teeth. "What were you just toying with?"
"The field..." Imala whispered.
Idana gestured to the door with her head. "We can do this."
The three girls hurried from the room.
Evie stared at the floor. "They killed one of my girls," she said, barely holding back tears. "The Shipping Authority killed one of my girls."
"Where are the Vencume?" Becca asked. "Why are they not involved in this?"
"We can make more," Evie continued. "And we will. We will. There will be more."
The radio buzzed. Ilyssa had left the receiver behind. Captain Deng's voice came over in harsh staccato. "We have lost stability on four sections. Sensors out. Multiple injuries."
He's not talking to us. He's sending out a distress signal on all channels.
"Engines at forty percent..." a string of numbers.
He's giving the location. They aren't going to survive.
Evie started to list her own numbers in response. "Three eight three two seven nine five zero..."
Becca ran to the radio and tried to hail the Shipping Authority vessel. "We can pick you up. Please, just hold on. Get your people evacuated to lifeboats. No one has to die because of this."
The clattering display shifted behind her; something had attached itself to the model ship. There was a flicker.
"Please, Capitan Deng Xueshen, come in," Becca pleaded. "Launch your lifeboats. I can talk to the Vencume. They'll understand. They're just children. They were just children. No more people have to die. Please, they don't understand. The children don't understand. Launch the lifeboats..."
The device that had attached itself to the vessel bloomed, long fins extending and spinning.
Becca ran to the tiny observation deck and waited for the ship to come into view.
What rose over the nose of the Vencume ship was surrounded by a shimmering bubble. Inside that, a vessel crumbled under its own weight. The implosion was silent and slow.
"Captain Deng! Please come in! Captain Deng!"
Becca ran back to the bridge. The clattering display showed the ship folding in on itself.
She wiped the tears from her eyes. "Please, Captain Deng. Someone? Come in!"
"They starved to death decades ago," Evie said. "They can't hear you."
Becca turned to face her. Evie was watching the display with glimmering eyes. "They collapsed the field, Becca."
Becca's vision was blurred by fear and misunderstanding. "They...advanced it?"
"The borrowed time field slows us down during travel," Evie intoned, "but if the field collapses, or if the snapback fails, or if the MOUS doesn't make the correct observation...I knew the Vencume were doing something like that, but Imala really figured it out. She's using our mode of transport as a weapon against us."
It was Odele who had been killed.
Evie had tried to explain the situation to the twins, but they had not been the most sympathetic audience and called Odelle a "silly pilot". Evie complained to Becca about it later that day.
"They don't seem to care much about death," she said, exasperatedly. "I don't think the others are even phased. It's like they're less upset about the death and more upset at being bested."
"Well," Becca noted, "you said they would make more. Why would anyone care about death if there was an inexhaustible supply?"
Evie was taken aback. "You're handling this rather well."
"Have you ever had someone close to you die?" Becca asked.
Evie frowned. "Yes. Well, not close. I suppose."
"And how did it make you feel?"
"I guess," Evie looked at the ceiling. "I don't know. I guess...well...I guess I felt like it served them all right. I know that sounds weird. But...uh...it was like...I don't know."
Is she talking about her own sister? Who was Gwennie?
"I don't know what I felt like then," Evie said. "I think I was more mad than anything else. But I don't know if I was angry at her or everyone else's reaction. Like...they acted like it was the end of the world. But the sun came up the next day, you know? Maybe I felt a little guilt. I guess the girls think the same way I do and they don't see it effecting their lives."
Becca clasped her fingers. "I suppose it's different for them, considering the circumstances. I remember for me it was..."
Evie leaned forward.
"I suppose for me it was very...devastating," Becca went on. "I had put that investment in. I thought we were going to get old together and I had all these fantasies about that. I don't know if you've ever been close to someone. You feel betrayed. You had these plans and they go and...leave. And you think to yourself 'Oh, if only we had done this. If only we had done that.' You start to regret all the petty arguments you had, like it was time stolen. All you can think about is how you wasted time with silly, little things like who was going to take out the garbage or whose turn it was to do laundry and it's all pointless. I remember feeling that way about you. I know; it's silly to think about it now. But I really did miss you. I was sure you were dead and I didn't know what I was going to do. And we didn't even know each other that long. We didn't even have a kid or anything."
"No," Evie nodded, "not like that. No."
"But you feel this thing," Becca went on. "It's this raw spot. It's this empty thing. You call their name and expect them to answer from some other part of the house and there's no answer. You cook more than you need. You wonder why you're doing so little laundry. I know that seems weird, but that's what happens. And people see you and they don't recognize you. They're so used to seeing that other person there that looking at you is like seeing a face without glasses. And you go to bed and it's empty....it's cold."
Evie held out a hand. Becca took it.
"You get used to a person and suddenly, one day, you're missing that." Becca sniffled. "You lose an arm or a leg and you can't stand up right or function, but you know you have to keep going. You know that you have to go on living and you feel cheated. Like they had choice in going away. You keep waiting for some communication or a knock at the door and you want to say 'That"s them; they"ve come back,' and that's not how it is. Everything looks dull and lifeless afterwards. You cling so tightly to what you have left. It's all you have left and you clutch it to your breast and sob in the middle of the night."
"But you were close," Evie said. "And if you care that way, then it feels like that. I've lost a leg. I've lost an arm. I have this intellectual knowledge that I can get it back. It's not like the loss is ever permanent."
Becca laughed a little to herself. It took her out of the momentary self-pity she felt. "You can't feel loss like that, I suppose. But you must feel something."
Evie nodded. "It's Imala's formula for the value of a thing. It's effect over effort. I suppose that if you can replace a thing easily, it has no great effect on its own. The effort is valueless."
"Do you feel that way about Ulan and Uma?"
"No," Evie shook her head. "There's something different about them. I guess I see a lot of myself in there, so it's more personal. I know what they are, but I know what they aren't. I don't think they're replaceable like that. There's a unique quality to them. I think maybe I fear the death of one and not both because I don't want to deal with one if the other is lost. I fear...their loneliness more than my own loss."
Becca nodded. "Then you really love them; you care more about how they feel than how you feel about them."
"I don't want them to get teased," Evie stated. "They don't really understand people and I worry that...if they ever meet other children...as long as they have each other, it should be okay." Evie rolled her eyes back and recited:
There is protection from almost everything,
from fire and storms to frosts that sting,
add whatever blows may come to mind
but there is no protection from mankind.[*]
She rubbed her right eye. "There's nothing more cruel than other children. I don't want them to face anything like that. They're so mean. That's where they get those fighting skills...from what I had to endure as a kid. You learn early on how to defend yourself. They aren't twisted and weird like that. They just need more time to learn how to be people. They need to be with people. You'll help me, right?"
Becca held a hand out to her friend. "Yes, I'll help you. I'll help them. They just have to learn how to be human."
The days after the memorial didn't seem that different from the ones ahead of it, except that Evie was coming to bed later and later, spending twenty, twenty-eight, and eventually thirty-six hours in her ancillary lab before crawling to bed. She would come in, unresponsive, and shamble to her bed, falling asleep moments after lying down.
Becca went to check up on Evie after a particularly long stint away. The engineer was slumped over her workbench across papers covered in long, mathematical formulas. Becca rested a hand on Evie's shoulder.
Evie woke with a start and papers scattered off the bench. "I don't know!"
The mantis automaton came to life and quickly gathered up the mess, placing a neat stack on the end on the bench.
"Evie," Becca said worriedly. "You've missed several meals. What are you working on?"
Evie turned to the stack and sorted the papers. "I must have dozed off." She handed a page to Becca.
It looked like absolute gibberish. "What is this?"
"That's a Kerr metric," Evie was rubbing her eyes. "which describes the geometry of spacetime in the vicinity of a mass M rotating with angular momentum J where where r sub s is the Schwarzschild radius."
"If you say so."
"But inside a rotating spherical shell, the acceleration due the Lense-Thirring effect would be..." Evie handed her another piece of paper.
Becca shook her head. "That doesn't explain what it is."
Evie took the papers back. "It's pointless and it's wrong." She rested her head on the workbench. "It's like it kills the MOUS or something. If I hadn't seen it, I would say it's physically impossible. Unless there's a GACHO involved, I can't figure it it, but even then...."
Evie stopped and rolled her eyes. "A gravitationally anomalous compact halo object."
"So, what is the MOUS anyway?"
"Mandatory observation/universal synchronization."
Becca shook her head again. "Well, that makes it perfectly clear."
"She showed it to me. She tried to explain it to me." Evie crumpled the papers in front of her and threw them at the wall. "And it still didn't make any sense!"
The mantis picked up the wadded papers and set them back on the workbench.
Evie ran her fingers through her hair; it was getting greasy again and the dark roots were getting longer. "I can't do it, Becca. I can't figure out how Imala made that thing work."
"But if she explained it—"
"It uses a different kind of math!" Evie wailed and flopped across the crumpled papers. "I have to unlearn everything I know about relativity and causality!"
"Well," Becca offered, "ask Iskandar. It said they use the borrowed time principle to mature the clones quickly and they even put the garden into advancement so they can harvest the crops quickly."
Evie shoved all the papers off the workbench with a string of curses. As the mantis moved forward to pick them up, she held out her hands. "NO! I want them there!"
The mantis sat back.
Still angry, Evie grabbed the mantis and knocked it over. "That's all I can do, is put together some dumb clunker that picks up trash!" She kicked the papers across the room. "Meanwhile, children understand how time works better than I do! I went to school and spent all that time studying and look how far it's gotten me!"
The mantis picked itself up.
"Evie," Becca held up her hands. "You're tired and hungry and frustrated. When's the last time you ate something?"
"You said I had to lose weight," Evie growled through a clenched jaw.
"Not like this," Becca said. "Go eat something and clean up and take a nap. Go get some real sleep. You're not going to figure it out by wearing yourself out."
Defeated, Evie sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess. I just need a break." She looked up at Becca. "What about you? You holding up okay?"
"Yes," Becca nodded. "I'm doing okay."
Becca was finding other things to do and, it turned out, there was a surprising amount to do a ship. Today, she was helping a couple of redheads with laundry: Acadia, and Anevay.
Ilyssa stormed in. "You, Doctor-Doctor," the child took her arm. "Thereís something wrong with Imala. Come fix her."
"Is she ill?" Becca asked.
Ilyssa tugged Becca out of the room. "Sheís just laying in bed. She wonít get up and wonít talk to us."
In the laboratory, Ilyssa led Becca to a door at the back. There was a room with a spartan bed and a workbench covered in drawings and odds bits of equipment. It was dark and papers crinkled underfoot as Becca approached the bed.
Imala was lying on her side, fully clothed, facing the wall with her arms over her head.
Becca sat next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Imala, are you not feeling well?"
The girl brushed off Beccaís hand. "Go away."
"Thereís something wrong with her," Ilyssa said from the doorway. "Just get her fixed, ok?"
Becca turned back to the figure on the bed. "Is there something bothering you?"
Imala rolled onto her stomach and buried her face in her arms. "I donít want to talk about it. Just go away."
Becca smiled to herself. Ah, itís not an illness. Sheís just being a teen-aged girl. Becca turned to Ilyssa and waved her out of the room. Ilyssa mouthed just get her fixed and stomped off.
Imala was crying. Becca was careful to not touch her.
"Are you sad about Odele?"
Imala shook her head.
"Youíre not sad about your sister dying?"
Imala rolled over. "I donít care about that dumb pilot." Her eyes were swollen and red. "We can always make more. Who cares?" She flung an arm over her face.
Becca pulled back a bit. Are they so caviler about death? Do they really not care? "I think youíre saying that you donít care because you donít want to be hurt," she said. "But you do care, so youíre feeling guilty that you donít want to care. Itís okay to be sad about someone dying. Itís not okay to beat yourself up about something that wasnít your fault."
Imala lifted her arm from her eyes. "What if people die and it is your fault?"
Becca frowned a little. "Well, you can feel guilty about it, but itís all about the circumstancesó"
"Because I didnít want to kill those people." Imala sat up and was staring intently at Becca. "It wasnít even what I had been working on. I wanted a better propulsion system. Thereís so much time spent in deep-space, and wouldnít it be better if it only took a couple of days? Or a couple hours?"
Beccaís head was spinning. "So why are you...?"
Imalaís eyes watered. "I was working on a better field generator. I didnít want it to be a weapon or anything. I just wanted it to attach to their ship and send them away. But they broke it!" She broke down sobbing. "They wanted all those people to die but I just wanted them to go away! I donít want to make bombs! I just want everyoneís life to be better!" The girlís shoulders heaved with each sob.
Becca held out her arms and hugged Imala. "That's why the Vencume call you Gentle Blue." And what do they call your sisters? Mean Blue and Bossy Blue? "You donít have to make bombs..." Becca stroked Imalaís head. "You donít have to hurt people if you donít want to."
"They made us to be weapons," Imala continued to cry. "I wanted to send them away, but Ilyssa was so angry that she turned it into a killing machine. Thatís all we are. Weíre just supposed to fight battles and win wars. Thatís why they made so many of the others. Weíre just supposed to give them weapons and fighters and guns and bombs. I want to do something else."
"Iíll tell you what..." Becca held the girl tightly. "Would you like to be a smart person who helps others? Someone who doesn't hurt anyone but actually makes them feel better?"
Imala sat back and nodded.
"Well," Becca continued. "Iím a doctor. So my job is to see how people are hurting and make it not hurt. You see?"
The gray-haired girl sniffled. "Isnít that in the data-bank?"
"I bet it is," Becca smoothed Imalaís hair back. "And if it isnít, then maybe I could reconnect so you can learn a few things from me. Would you like that?"
Imala rubbed her nose on her sleeve. "But you donít like people poking around in your head."
Becca nodded. "No, I didnít then. But no one had explained it to me then. I didnít have a say in the matter. I want to give you this. I want to show you how you can use your ability to help people."
The child took Becca by the sleeve. "We can do that. Penemue will let us do that."
They left the laboratory and went down a couple levels. In the room, were several human-shaped chairs. Becca had only seen the one before, but maybe things had changed? Maybe I only saw the one the first time.
The Vencume responsible for data-bank connections, Penemue, shifted from pale blue to light-purple when Becca and Imala entered the room. "The Doctor wishes to swim once more," it said.
"With more purpose," Becca answered. "I want to give her what I can."
The Vencume shifted to a pale blue-green.
Imala ran a hand over the Vencume. "She wants to teach me."
Penemue shifted to a blue nod. "Gentle Blue wishes to learn healing from the Doctor."
The two non-Vencume nodded.
Penemue gestured lightly to the chairs. "The ocean is taxed and wishes coaxing."
"We wish no hard decisions," Imala said, laying down. "Would this not calm the waters?
The Vencume was massaging the child's head, long fingers turning white and pressing and probing the top of her skull.
"Is this direct from me to her?" Becca asked, lying down.
"You are together in our ocean," the Vencume said.
Imala clasped her hands and shut her eyes. "Penemue, Librarian, teach me how to swim."
It's like a religious ritual, Becca thought. Is this a form of prayer?
Becca felt the faint pressure across the top of her head. Everything was warm and fuzzy.
There was a sound of static and the room filled with light.
Becca is sitting at the old oak table in her familyís house. It's covered with plates of cookies.
Imala sits opposite her. "Whatís this place?"
Becca takes a bite out of a cookie. "This is my home. When I'm sad, I come here."
Imala points at brown-headed girl with bright green eyes reading in the other room. "Whoís that girl?"
"Thatís my daughter, Huri," Becca explains.
"Why are you here and not there?" Imala asks.
Becca pushes a plate of cookies forward. "Because her father died when she was young. I want her to go to a good school and have a good life, so Iím out here and sending money back home."
"Didn't the Shipping Authority freeze your account?" Imala takes a bite of cookie. "Do you miss her?"
"Yes," Becca nods and sniffles a little. "Very much."
"This is a good cookie," Imala says.
"Iím glad you like it."
"Are you using me as a replacement for your daughter?"
Becca frowns. "I might."
Imala speaks with her mouth full. "Did you do that with Evie? She's younger than you."
Evie is sitting at the table now.
"Why are you here?" Becca asks.
Evie places a plate of cookies down on the table and pushes them forward. "You wanted to ask me a question."
Becca takes one of the cookies off the new plate. "I wanted to ask you about your sister, Gwen."
"I canít give you that information," Evie says. "I donít have access to it."
Becca takes a bite of her cookie. "This has absolutely no flavor at all."
Evie leans over to Imala, holding out a cookie. "You know I love you, don't you?"
The girl nods. "Those don't taste as good, though."
Becca realizes she had a cup of tea in front of her. "You can't talk to her. She's not really here."
Imala looks over her shoulder at Huri. "I want to be that girl. I want a real mother."
There is a Vencume in the room that runs long hands over Imala. "We want to be your mother." It holds out a plate of misshapen cookies.
Suddenly, the room is filled with children: redheads, blondes, gray and black.
"You understand love," a black-haired girl says. "Give it to us."
Becca puts her hands over her eyes.
"All the cookies are gone," Evie says.
When she takes her hands from her face, Becca sees the empty table.
Imala is licking her finger and collecting crumbs. "I'll take what I can get," the girl says. "And I'll give what I can. If I plant enough seeds, maybe they will grow."
They were back in the room. Becca's head ached.
"Peculiar creatures," Penemue said. "You apply context where none is."
Imala sat up and rubbed her eyes. "I need a nap."
Becca nodded. There was something new in her head, but it was still formless.
They made their way back to the laboratory. Imala kicked off her slippers and climbed into bed.
"Tuck me in?" she asked.
Becca leaned forward and pulled the thin sheet over the girl.
Imala stared at her intently. "Kiss goodnight?"
"Yes," Becca said. Her head was still fuzzy from the swim but she kissed Imala on the forehead.
The child smiled widely. "I'm going to dream about making people better."
Becca made it back to her own room and lay down, exhausted. When she woke, she looked at her right hand and thought it shimmered. The left hand, by comparison, looked perfectly normal.
In the mess-hall, all the girls had the same shimmering quality.
Evie was rubbing the bridge of her nose. She had dark circles under her eyes. Her hands shimmer as well, and her jaw, but most of her face is still and dark.
Evie opened her eyes and gave Becca a look. "What?"
Her eyes are practically glowing! "It's nothing."
"Nothing, she says," Evie humphed a bit. "Your eyes bothering you or something? You keep looking at things weird."
Two Vencume spun into the room to talk to the three designers. Ilyssa's eyes narrowed, Idana nodded gravely, and Imala traced a circle on the table in front of her.
And Imala looked up at Becca. Their eyes locked and the child smiled.
"Earth to Dr. Tabib, hello?" Evie was waving her hand. "Why are you so distracted?"
Becca shook it off. "Imala and I connected with the data-bank earlier. Maybe it is effecting my eyes. Everyone seems to be shimmering."
Evie frowned. "Like wiggly or glittery?"
"It's hard to describe," Becca knitted her brows. "Both, I suppose. But you only shimmer in places."
"Let Mirabilis know," Evie said flatly. "You know? It's in charge of this project so it might know what's going on."
"Doctor's sensors have not changed," Mirabilis drew a hand away from Becca's face. "This effect is unknown."
"I see it in my right hand, but not my left," Becca explained.
Iskandar took Becca's hands. "There is no perceivable difference."
Becca nodded. "No, but I see it on Evie as well, in places. Like on one of her ears but not the other."
Evie reflexively reached for her ears.
"Demonstrate the effect," Mirabilis asked.
"Well, her right ear, here," Becca pointed at Evie's face, holding her finger a few centimeters away. "But the line is traced here," under the nose, "to over here," under her left ear, "then it curves like so," across the neck.
Iskandar took Evie's head in one hand and traced the line with a straightened finger.
"I'm really not cool with this," Evie said weakly.
"Not the top of the head?" Iskandar asked, letting go of Evie's head.
"Just the eyes," Becca answered. "But I also see it in you two; Iskandar shimmers less."
The Vencume went through a complicated pattern of color shifts.
"Is Doctor familiar with Engineer's injuries?" Mirabilis asked.
Evie rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's impossible."
"Humans have a quality, it is ittichitti..." Iskandar tried to form a word. "You see things that are not there. You have thoughts not based on the observed. Not a vision, not a thought...."
"Imagination?" Evie offered in her own tongue.
The Vencume ran its hand over her. "There. That quality. It terrifies you."
Becca shook her head. "It's not terrifying."
But Evie was nodding. "When it plays tricks with your head, or if it gives you nightmares? Yeah, it is."
"So I'm imagining it," Becca summed up.
The two Vencume blue-nodded.
Evie was rubbing her right eye. "But I didn't tell you about the ear, did I?"
"You might have," Becca offered. "That whole period is still a little fuzzy for me."
"Doctor swam with Gentle Blue," Iskandar said to Mirabilis. "This is an after-effect."
Mirabilis blue-nodded. "What did Doctor ask?"
Becca shrugged. "I might have wanted to know more about the cloning process. The genetic mapping?"
"So you're looking for it now," Evie offered. "Do you get it when you're in the garden?"
Iskandar purple-shifted to a frown. "The garden is in advancement right now. It is not safe to go there."
Becca looked at her hands. "I don't know if I would get it there."
"Advancement will end soon," Mirabilis said. "See if the effect lingers there."
Later that day, Becca took the pod out to the garden section. She had to take a lift to the center of the section, where the spin had the least amount of pull, but the short trip from the lift to the pod was less taxing than trying to cross the bridge. The conduit hissed passed her and the pod moved up and down, side to side, through the flexible connections between sections. Once in the garden section, she kicked to the lift and rode it down, into the pull.
In the outer ring, Becca accidentally tried to open a door with her left hand and got no response, then used her right. There was a prickling sensation.
The door was not to a human garden. This room was red-lit and there was a thick, warm mist. The sea-smell was choking, and she knew she had gone the wrong direction, but she was curious and had to look in.
The plants here were thin and tall. Most were red (or looked red in the light), but a few were a dark purple. She took a pinch from one succulent leaf and thought it smelled like pine or citrus. It tasted much the same when she pressed it to her tongue and spat the sticky sap away.
Leaving this garden, she crossed the corridor to the other, human, garden. It was much drier here and the lighting was a strong, pale, yellow.
The trees were taller than she remembered. But it was out of field, wasn't it? They've allowed time to take some natural course here. The squash seedlings she had planted with Annora were now crawling vines with rich yellow fruit. These shimmered only slightly. So the effect is still here, or I only think it is. Annora did say the Vencume had done something to them.
There was a stand of trees to one side. There was hardly any shimmer there and she crossed to something her eyes could fix on. A grape bower spanned behind them, thick with dark, purple fruit. Becca leaned up against the tree and looked up at the gnarled branches. She was unsure of the type of tree or how long ago the Vencume had planted it. It was covered in tiny white flowers.
There was a faint voice behind her. "Dr. Tabib?"
She swung around to see two tired, terrified eyes peering out of the shadows. They seemed familiar.
A man's voice...barely a whisper. "Is that you? Are they with you?"
Becca quickly stood. "Gordon?"
He limped out of the darkness, jumpsuit torn and stained. It was Gordon, but there were streaks of gray in his long blond hair and there was a full beard.
"How long have you..?" but she stopped. If he was in the garden when...
"I never thought I'd see a human again," Gordon said, his voice gruff and unused. "I'd almost forgotten. I've had visions."
He had lost weight and his nails were chewed down. Becca recoiled in terror.
"Don't leave me," he whimpered.
This is too much, too quickly. Becca swallowed hard. "How long have you been here?"
Gordon looked around. "I'm not sure. I lost count." He rushed at her and held her hand. "Oh...but you are real. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." He broke down into heaving sobs. "I tried to kill her. They took me here. They took my shoulder and..." He glanced past her. "They aren't here. They brought me here. At least we can eat."
Is this something I'm actually seeing or something I think I'm seeing? Play along with it for now. See if anyone else notices and you'll know for sure.
"You can't stay here," she said. "You have to come with me."
"The door is always locked," Gordon moaned. "I've tried...I've tried."
Becca pulled him to the entrance to the garden. "We can go. We can get out. Come on."
She rested her right hand on the panel and the door swished open. Becca crossed the threshold. Gordon held back.
"You're an angel," he intoned.
This isn't real. You're imagining it. You'll pass someone in a hallway and that will settle it.
They went up the lift and floated out to the pod. Gordon seemed oddly graceful in the lack of gravity and said something about "it's been a long time", but Becca was only thinking about how her mind was obviously slipping away. Even when she found herself running out of momentum and Gordon gave her a little push to the pod, she was sure none of it was actually happening.
And as they rode out to the other section of ship, Becca tried hard to not think about the human stink next to her. It's in your head. You have to report it to Mirabilis. You're just remembering your time on the lifeboat. That's what that is. Smells bring back memories. You bit off more than you can chew and it's eating a hole in your brain. Nausea was creeping in.
So the pod got to its destination and they floated out of the pod and to the lift You're going to be haunted. He loved you, didn't he? You feel guilty. You want to go home and you're imagining other humans because you really are lonely, aren't you? Doesn't it feel nice to be wanted? Becca formed a tight fist against her stomach. Don't you like to be needed like that? He's obviously injured. Look at his arm and how he can hardly use it. Oh, wonderful doctor, only you can help him. What an imagination you have! Don't you miss your husband? Look, you've gone out to space and gotten a replacement. What would your father think?
They got out of the lift and started to walk down the hallway. Isn't the ceiling a little taller here? It's like a church, isn't it? Do you remember when you went to that big, old cathedral with your family? You were so young and looked up at the mosaics and wasn't it wonderful? You thought all the windows were made of candy. And then you met the most wonderful man in the world and he gave you a daughter. What kind of woman are you that you aren't at home raising her?
And there were Evie and a Vencume. Was it Iskandar, who shimmered a little less than Mirabilis? Why was the Vencume turning that awful deep purple? The skin all mottled and spiky... Almost red now... Oh, Evie, your face is so pale, even the parts that don't shimmer. They're both so still, still, like statues. And Evie is speaking but her fists are so tight, tight, white knuckles and her jaw is tight, tight, like tetanus, and that must be Iskandar with wiggling digits and they're both so upset and...
"Tell me it's not real. Tell me I'm imagining it."
Becca had a headache. Iskandar and Evie were arguing.
"Librarian might not allow it," Iskandar said. The Vencume was shifting from indigo to magenta; Becca took it as a sign of worried indecision.
"I can understand why Penemue would be hesitant to allow a connection," Evie went on, "but he'll have to be able to understand what's being said on this ship. Thereís also...what heís been doing this whole time. He wasn't in the garden the whole time. You canít imagine what kind of damage can be caused by an improperly motivated human."
"It is unfortunate, but we do not know the quality of Broken Human," Iskandar mulled.
"There's nothing we can do about it now." Evie shook her head. "He's already in our frame of reference. We'll have to consider it time served. He's lucky if it was only a few months."
"Connect him," Becca said. The words seemed to end the discussion. "I want to know how long he was actually in there. I'm...I'm a doctor. I have to maintain the welfare of the crew."
Evie frowned. "He's not on the crew anymore. Captain Wainwright said."
"Captain Wainwright isn't here!" Becca shouted, surprised by her own conviction. "That's a human being and I'm held by a set of...I took an oath. Okay?" She massaged her temples. "This isn't real, so what does it matter?"
"Oh..." Evie crossed her arms. "This is very real. This is just really bad timing."
"We will talk with the Library directly," Iskandar finally said, moving out into the corridor.
"Youíre going behind Penemueís back?" Becca asked worriedly. Although, really, Vencume donít have backs to go behind or heads to go over.
Evie nodded. "This is Vencume politics."
Iskandar flickered from light blue to pale green. "Engineer is correct. There is still debate on the value of the Tzikzik project. Some think it is too dangerous, others think it is too stingy."
Becca turned to face Iskandar. "Which camp are you?"
The Vencume shifted to a dark-blue frown. "Doctor asks this question?"
They were standing in front of a small lift. Becca had the feeling that its size was related to its visibility, so they were even taking a back-door.
Iskandar gestured to the lift. "There is a pod, too small for all of us. Take it four sections to stern and wait."
"And you?" Evie asked.
"Send the pod back. We will continue from the landing there."
The lift was hardly big enough for two humans; it may have accommodated a single Vencume. At the top, they were in near-weightlessness and kicked to the small pod that would take them between sections.
Evie was stone-faced the entire trip.
"You can't still hate him," Becca offered. "So much has happened since then. Look at what the twins did to him; that arm might never work properly again."
"Thatís too easily fixed," Evie said flatly. "I know youíve wanted to watch the Vencume process. Wonít that be a nice example? Youíll go back as the best doctor that ever there was."
Becca frowned. "And youíll go back with a stunning new ship design to shock and awe everyone."
Evie laughed. "Everyone gets something out of this."
"I think Gordon turning up now is a good sign," Becca said. "It's like we get a second chance on some level of...death assumed. The Shipping Authority will be pleased he isnít dead."
"It's a bad sign," Evie answered. "The twins had him hidden somewhere. They took him there and they knew that the garden had to be advanced. They've got a mean streak."
Now, in a section she had never been in before, Becca floated out of the pod to wait by the lift. Evie sent the pod back.
"But you two never got along," Becca said. "So if the children were just using a model of the world based on what was in your head, they would have used something like that against him."
"So it's my fault?"
Becca shook her head. "I didn't say that. You also have to consider that they were obviously taking care of him. They had to feed him and leaving him in the garden...well, they left him somewhere relatively safe. He didn't starve to death. As much as they might have abused him, they do seem to care for him a little."
"We donít know where weíre going from here," Evie said, changing the subject. "Iskandar didnít say."
"It should be along shortly," Becca floated against one wall. "There should be hand-holds or something here. This is terrible. I should be better at this...."
"Yeah, you should," Evie was having no problem, hanging mid-air. "How did you ever pass zero-g training?"
"The training was on a human ship. Oh," Becca noted. She saw the pod arriving behind Evie. "It looks like Iskandar isó"
"While we're here..." Evie turned. She halted and paled.
Iskandar was exiting the pod.
The Vencume was not lumbering or shuffling. The top half floated easily out, fanning out its five long arms in a graceful, star-shaped radial. It twisted slightly; the five bulky feet had flattened into long, wide paddles. The arms arced smoothly behind it as it left the pod.
It was beautiful.
Becca heard a choking sound beside her. Evie had curled into a tight, fetal ball and held her head with white-knuckled fear. Her eyes widened and pupils dilated.
"Evie?" Becca reached out to her.
Evie's arms were crossed at the elbows over her knees. Her wide eyes stared past her forearms at nothing.
Becca turned back to Iskandar. The Vencume slowly kicked and floated next to them. The move was smooth and calm. Its body twisted in zero-g, reaching out and forward, and glided towards them.
"No..." Evie tightened smaller and shut her eyes tightly. "Get it away!"
Iskandar reached forward and ran a blue hand over Evie. "Engineer is behaving strangely."
Evie's hands were strained fists that she jammed against her eyes. "Don't touch me! Becca, don't let it touch me. I can't...."
What did the Tzikzik that attacked the Tong Dizhou look like?
"Iskandar," Becca held out a hand. "Go back a bit. Let me get her down to where there's some spin. She can't deal with you in zero-g."
Iskandar waved a long arm to Becca's right. "Go down five levels."
Becca took Evie's arm and pulled her to the lift. They got in and rode down.
Evie was shaking and cowered in a corner the trip down. "Is it gone?" she finally asked.
"What's wrong with you?" Becca asked. "You know Iskandar. He would never hurt you."
"God, Becca," Evie moaned. "You weren't there. You don't know what they look like."
"I can guess."
"I don't know what came over me." Evie was crying a little. "I just...It looked like...I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize to me," Becca said.
Evie smoothed back her hair and gave her face a few light slaps. "I'm okay. Really. It's fine. I'll be fine."
They exited the lift and sent it back up for the Vencume.
"It was just a shock, I guess," Evie was still shaking slightly. "I'm lucky I didn't wet myself. It just came over me. I don't..."
Iskandar arrived on their level. The Vencume shuffled out of the lift. "Is Engineer still distressed?"
Evie stiffened. "I'm alright." She rubbed her right eye.
The Vencume lumbered forward and ran a hand over Evie. "Engineer is still distressed. Voice is distressed. There is a smell...sharp. Twice now, this has been encountered before."
"No, no," Evie shook her head. "Itís just leftovers. Iíll be fine. I just...it was a visual thing."
Iskandar shuffled slowly to a door. "Engineer still seems distressed. Doctor will tend to it."
The door led to a large chamber, many thousands of meters wide and deep. Everywhere, laid out in neat rows, were shallow tanks, maybe three meters by three. The walkway between was only a meter wide. No, it wasnít that the tanks were shallow, but the lip of one only came a meter up from the walkway. The tanks themselves were deep; it was the walkway that was raised.
But they werenít tanks; they were openings that curled up the sides of the shipís section. It was a vast ocean...orbiting the central column of the section. It stretched on forever. Becca realized it was the entire section of ship. She leaned over the side of one opening. Something waved just below the surface that looked like a sea-anemone or...
Under the water, were millions of shimmering Vencume. They were rooted in place and undulated with a deep, invisible wave.
"Iskandar," Becca asked. "What is this place? Is this a nursery?"
Iskandar turned. "This is the Library."
Evie was staring at the underwater creatures. "I thought the data-bank was a computer."
The solitary Vencume shifted to a deep violet frown. "No artificial thing can work this effectively. The system is too complex."
"They gave up on cybernetics," Evie stammered. "The data-bank is a super-organism!"
Iskandar waved a hand over the surface of the water. There was a deep vibration. The surface of the water danced. The sound was sudden and full.
NOW SINGLE DIRECT CURRENT REQUEST TO US NOW SINGLE TZIKZIK CURRENT HAS PAST GONE AROUND LIBRARIAN OBJECT CURRENT THERE IS SINGLE NO INTERMEDIARY OBJECT TO US
Evie and Becca looked at each other with the same question. Tzikzik?
Iskandar had fanned out two hands in the tank. The long digits turned yellow and vibrated.
The two humans are with us. A third has been found. Will you allow connection?
Becca looked out across the surface as the underwater Vencume shifted color from dull gray to bright green.
CURRENT WHAT IS INDIVIDUAL ITS NATURE UNKNOWN QUERRY
The water around Iskandarís hands danced in vibratory patterns.
Their reproduction system has led to biological differentiation. The mind is unfamiliar. Information content is unknown. It has conflicting motives and is damaged.
The library had color-shifted again to a pale pink.
UNKNOWN ADDITIONAL INFORMATION MUST IMPERATIVE BE COLLECTED DIRECTION CURRENT ABERRANT BEHAVIOR INDIVIDUAL IS NOTED OBJECT BY US UNKNOWN IS DAMAGE PAST RESULT OF BIOLOGICAL DIFFERENTIATION QUERRY
Iskandar ran a hand over Becca, who shook her head. "No."
Iskandar's hands vibrated across the water.
Humans have no ocean. They stand alone as pools. It is isolated.
Shades of blue shifted through the library. Becca saw it as a million nods.
FUTURE THERE WILL BE CONNECTION OBJECT UNKNOWN NEW INFORMATION COLLECTED IMPERATIVE WE DESIRE IT OBJECT UNKNOWN
Iskandar raised its hands out of the water and started to shuffle to the door.
Evie ran up behind and laid a hand on the Vencume. "Hey, what did the library mean by Tzikzik? Youíre a Vencume, arenít you?"
Iskandar shifted to a pale purple. "I am Tzikzik. I am Blue Design."
Becca nodded. "That's why Imala gave you that name."
As they followed the...Tzikzik...out of the library, Evie hugged herself tightly.
Iskandar entered the lift. "I will go ahead and enter the pod. Engineer will not be distressed."
Evie shifted uneasily from foot to foot. "I feel like we should be walking out of there with a couple of stone tablets."
As the lift door shut, Becca turned to Evie. "Iskandar mentioned something else back there."
"Whatís that?" Evie was furiously rubbing her right eye.
Becca studied her right hand for a moment. "Thereís only three humans on this ship."
Gordon was sitting shock-still at the table in the twin's room, where Evie and Iskandar had hidden him.
Ulan and Uma were sitting opposite him, staring intently.
Becca had never been to the twin's room before. There were strips of colored cloth strewn about the room and dried flowers collected from the gardens; some of the dessicated plants were spindly, red, Vencume growth. Scattered across the three com displays were several drawings that had been done in colored pencil. One was of two girls, drawn in black, that towered over red, yellow, and blue dots. Another showed a familyómother, father, daughteróthe daughter was holding a star. This had been crossed out and the paper was wrinkled. There was a drawing of a red Vencume in zero-g; long lines of blue were coming out of it and a girl drawn in red was smiling with sharp, angry teeth. The table was covered with crude clay models of humans and Vencume, some with bits of cloth pressed onto their bodies. Becca could make out a square girl with red cloth, a round one in yellow, and a long figure in blue. The yellow figure had been covered in dried flowers.
"Gorsky," Evie said, not hiding the disdain in her voice. "You've hardly touched a bite of your meal."
He glanced at the bowl for a moment and looked quickly up at the twins.
Becca sat next to Ulan. "Didn't they feed you before?"
Uma reached out and picked up two of her rough figurines. They mock-battled in her hands.
Gordon was gripping a spoon. His knuckles were white.
"Let him eat," Evie chittered.
Ulan crossed her arms on the table and rested her chin on them. "Our room. Our toy."
"That's not a toy," Becca took Ulan's arm. "He's a human being, just like you."
Uma picked up a Vencume figure and chittered. "We like humans. We're going to play humans." She then picked up the long, blue figure. "We're going to play war!"
Iskandar shifted to a pale purple and wiggled long fingers.
Ulan picked up the red one. "We want to play, too!" She wiggled the yellow one under the flowers. "I can't play. I am dead."
Uma giggled and wiggled the Vencume figure. "We broke our toy," she chittered.
Becca watched the display with disgust and pity. It's the most cohesive thing they've ever said.
Evie watched with tight fists and clenched jaw.
Gordon was still gripping his spoon. He shut his eyes tightly and his face contorted. "I'm sorry. Please. I said I was sorry."
"Human is broken," Iskandar said. It started to move forward.
Uma leapt up and ran to Gordon's side. She rubbed his face and shook her head. "No, no. No cry."
Gordon stiffened and gripped the spoon.
"Uma, Ulan," Evie said tersely, "why don't you two go and get Gordon something to drink? Don't you think he's thirsty?"
The twins looked at each other and skipped merrily from the room.
Gordon stared at the bowl in front of him. "Thank you."
"Broken Human needs to be connected," Iskandar said. "The Library has already said to connect. How soon can we do this?"
"I think that might be a bit much at the moment," Becca answered.
Evie shook her head. "If we're going to do it, we may as well do it as quickly as possible. I don't think there's any advantage to waiting."
Gordon was watching them with wide eyes. "You're talking about me, I know it."
They stopped to look at him.
"Broken Human cannot understand us," Iskandar noted.
Evie took a chair at the table. "Gordon, listen, the Vencume have this thing, a direct interface. You remember the goggles I was wearing? How I could see with my eyes shut?"
Gordon stared at her. "I don't remember your eyes."
She shook her head. "Forget the eyes. That's not a good reference. Listen. We need you to understand what's going on while you're on the ship. We need to be able to communicate with you."
"I don't know who you are," he said to her.
"You've changed appearance a great deal," Becca said. "When's the last time he saw you, Evie?"
When Becca (and Gordon) had first met Evie, the engineer was an uneven, slouching, overweight woman with dark greasy hair, bad teeth, brown eyes made grotesquely large by thick glasses, and distinctive limp caused by a malformed pelvis and uneven legs. The last time Gordon had seen her, she had white hair, sat cross-legged in a mechanical walker that could raise nearly to the ceiling, and the upper-half of her face had been obscured by an array of many, tiny, independently moving lenses. Now, she was slightly taller than Becca (and starting to gain that weight back!) with two-toned hair, green-brown eyes, and two tiny dot-like scars under her eyes.
Gordon's eyes widened. "You're Evie?" He dropped the spoon and grabbed her hand. "I'm sorry, I am. I'm sorry about he lifeboat and I'm sorry about that time on the bridge. You don't know how sorry I am about all of that and I don't know what's wrong with me...what was wrong with me...I didn't know it was you under all that stuff. I didn't think that was human. You were just a mechanical thing and you broke my rib and I never saw your eyes. Not under your glasses not under your goggles. I never saw your eyes before. I never saw your sad, beautiful eyes...."
Evie stood suddenly. Her jaw was clenched.
Iskandar was color-shifting again: magenta, dark purple, dark blue. "What is Broken Human saying?"
"You should connect to the Library," Becca answered, "and download our language."
Iskandar turned a pale green and back to light blue. Becca wondered if that was the equivalent of raised eyebrows.
"The point is," Evie was saying stiffly, "the Vencume have a way of giving you information, directly. We need you to connect to this system so you can get the language. You'll be able to understand what's being said on the ship and you'll also be able to talk to anyone. Becca and I have both done it and it's painless. We...uh...we have to make our lives a little easier here. We can't rely on translators because they're too crude."
Gordon was staring at Evie, nodding occasionally.
Becca thought he looked like he wasn't paying attention. "Gordon," she asked. "Do you understand what she's saying to you?"
He answered without looking at her. "Evie wants to put something in my head."
Becca frowned. "It's not Evie who would do it. It's the Vencume. I'm probably going to do the connection with you, just to help show you around."
Evie turned suddenly. "Why would you do that?"
"Well, just so he isn't in there by himself," Becca answered.
"We both did our initial connection alone," Evie chittered.
Becca narrowed her eyes and chittered her response. "You're worried about him being nuts, and Iskandar is as well, but you think it's okay for him to go in there without a minder?"
"I need to talk to you about something," Evie gestured to the door and left the room.
Becca went out into the hallway where Evie was pacing.
"No, Becca," Evie shook her head. "You still have that eye thing and we don't know what caused it."
"But if it's just my imaginationó"Becca protested.
Evie held up her hands. "It's your brain, then. You still have a brain thing going on. Not an eye thing." She sighed. "You know, I remember this old movie I saw once about a ship that lands on an alien planet and the doctor gets killed because he tries to use this alien device to boost his I.Q. I'd feel pretty crummy if that happened to you."
Becca wrinkled her brow. "What movie was that?"
Evie shrugged. "I think it was something by Shakespeare. The point is, we're dealing with stuff we don't understand and there's too much risk."
"A risk you can take but I can't? That's very altruistic of you, to help out a guy who tried to kill you once."
Evie rubbed her right eye. "Ok, fine. It's not completely selfless." Her voice dropped to a terse, conspiratorial tone. "Imala connected after she developed that field-collapser and did the alterations to the ships. I want that. I want that so bad I can taste it. She had a break-through that I've worked towards for years and always missed. I can't just ask her how she did it because she...You got your cloning technology and I'm owed something, you know? I laid the groundwork for that and I earned it. So it's a pretext for going in and taking what's rightfully mine, but you aren't going to stand in my way."
"A lust for knowledge," Becca said flatly. "I wonder if the doctor from your old movie thought that before he died."
Evie's jaw clenched. "I don't have family back home. I've nearly died twice already."
"No," Becca responded with a curt smile. "Your family is here. Why not just risk it again? Third time's a charm."
"You're not going to give me this, are you?"
"And if you come out with a 'brain thing'? Well, what then?"
Evie grinned to herself. "Oh, but I remember when you found him. 'Oh, tell me it's not real.' And you want to hop right in there with him because I told you he loved you."
Becca stiffened. "You're jealous."
"Don't be stupid."
Becca shook her head with a wicked grin. "Oh, no, you don't get off easy on this one. You two always fought. What do your old movies say about that?" She suddenly straightened out. "You...you don't actually hate him at all. You're afraid of him. Not because of some stupid mistake he might make but because of how he makes you feel."
"Shut up," Evie hissed. "Just shut it, now."
"Why did you make your pilots blondes?"
Evie rammed her fists into her eyes. "The Vencume decided that. Just shut up."
"Fine, do it," Becca said.
"What?" Evie lowered her fists.
"Do it," Becca said again. "Connect with him. You want to understand him. Maybe that's what the two of you need. It's obvious you care for him, otherwise the twins might have actually killed him. They knocked him down a few pegs and now he's non-threatening. They softened him up for you."
"God, Becca," Evie moaned. "You make it sound so calculated. I didn't do any of that."
"No," Becca shook her head. "But you wanted to."
Evie's face twisted. "That's sick."
Becca pressed on. "You can't be intimate with anyone. You're afraid of them. Think about those guys on the station and the 'Gaines constant'. You kept them at arm's length because you didn't want to get hurt. You even did that with Rosemary. I've heard the girls sing that song. You did care about her, but you pushed her away so no one would get hurt. And then you did that with Gordon. You knew he'd never accept you as you were, so you pushed him harder and harder until the two of you came to blows. You might have thought you were fighting over me, but you were really fighting over him. The way you're fighting me now."
"Go to hell, Becca," Evie said tearfully. "I can't believe you'd say that to me. We saved your life."
"And you hate me right now," Becca nodded. "Right at this moment, you can't stand the sight of me."
Evie turned and flung her arms against her face, elbows crossed and tight fists at her ears. Her shoulders had risen up to her ears.
"Evie," Becca said calmly. "Listen, do it. Make the connection. Dive in there with him. I'm not going to stop you. Just be honest with yourself on why you're doing it. I don't think less of you. You're a human being and you're allowed to be close to someone. I just hope that those feelings are returned, ok? Remember what you said about pain and how it's necessary for human development? Just do it. Take that chance, no matter what the pretext might be. I support you."
"You're making this all about him," Evie said, her back still to Becca. "You think you could could do it? You're still busted up about your family back home. You're just going to put him back into that. Like that stupid arm of his."
"It looks like a torn ligament," Becca explained. "When the twins dislocated his shoulder they must have torn a fewó"
"How long did you have to care for your husband?" Evie asked. "I'll bet you were a regular Florence Nightingale."
Becca withdrew a bit.
Evie turned around. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. That was low of me."
"Becca, I'm sorry," Evie sniffled and rubbed her eye. "I'm scared and I get mean when I'm scared."
"If you're scared of doing it, then don't."
"No," she shook her head. "I have to. I have to know what's going on in there. I can't stand unanswered questions and I just have so many. I have to know. I don't know what I'll find or if it will be worthwhile, but I'm not going to be satisfied unless I know one way of the other."
"Curiosity killed the cat," Becca warned.
Evie smiled. "And gruesome rituals brought her back."
They smiled at each other and the understanding they had reached.
Becca rested a hand on Evie's shoulder. "I'm not fighting you. Make the connection. I'm not going to stop you."
The girls were all in the mess-hall, and Becca and Evie snuck Gordon down the hall.
Iskandar had gone ahead to explain the situation to the Penemue. The two of them were shifting from purple to blue when the humans entered the room.
"Only because the Library requests it," Penemue gestured to two beds.
Evie lay down on one and Gordon the other.
"Is this going to hurt?" Gordon asked.
Becca smiled and took his hand. "No, it won't hurt."
The Vencume shifted a pale pink. "Doctor will take both hands." It gestured to Evie.
"We're trying something new?" Evie asked, holding out a hand to Becca.
"Doctor will monitor human health," Penemue stated. "Doctor will observe the process to prevent mishap."
Becca held out her right hand to Evie, holding Gordon's in her left. She let her eyes relax and saw the shimmering effect in full force, as if Evie had been dropped in a tank of some glimmering liquid and it was spreading across. I feel like I'm officiating at a wedding. Evie's grip was dry and strong, like she was holding a tool; Gordon's was sweaty and desperate, like he was clinging on for dear life.
Penemue started to probe the tops of their heads.
Leaning forward, Becca saw that Penemue's hands were changing color to a pale green, almost white. It started the probing with just the tips of the long, tentacle-like fingers, slowly fanning out to cover more and more of the head.
Gordon's right arm twitched. "My face is going numb."
"That's normal," Evie answered. Her eyes were dilating.
Evie's hand went limp.
Gordon was looking straight at Becca, his eyes slowly dilating. He blinked, "Oh." A sudden tight grip before his left hand went slack as well.
Penemue had turned a dull gray. Just like the Vencume in the library. Becca leaned forward a bit to look at the hands. There was a fine film of what looked like a gel between the Vencume's hands and the two human heads. On closer inspection, it was actually many, tiny, fine, white hairs.
Evie mumbled, "Thank-you. That's very kind."
I wonder what they're doing in there. They look so at peace.
Watching the two humans laying there with perfectly relaxed faces, Becca imagined a swap-meet. There were tables strewn with bits and parts of machines, each table manned by a Vencume. Imala was dancing between the tables, handing out flowers.
Evie laughed a little. Gordon did as well.
The swap-meet vision came back. Evie and Gordon had baskets with them, putting items in each other's baskets, pointing out random objects. Smiling.
Gordon's eyed widened a bit. "You did?"
Evie's eyes watered.
"Tzikzik," Gordon said. "I see."
She's explaining the girls to him. I hope they're working it out.
Gordon frowned a bit. Evie was also frowning.
Are they disagreeing on something?
"That's terrible," he said.
I wonder how much I talked during this.
"We can fix it," Evie mumbled.
Color came back to Penemue. The Vencume wiggled its fingers and released the human heads.
Evie's hand came to life. She gripped and blinked. Her eyes watered a little.
"How do you feel?" Becca asked. She released their hands.
Evie was rubbing her face. "Argle argle argle," she said through her hands. "I need a nap."
"Yeah," Gordon had sat up. "That's, uh...that's a lot to take in." He rubbed the back of his head and gave Evie a look of concern. He hopped up and held out his left hand to her. "Let me help."
Evie uncovered her face and took Gordon's hand. He pulled her up to a seated position.
Iskandar approached the two humans. "We must hide Broken Human now. Tzikzik will be returning."
Becca was in the room she shared with Evie, reading about surgical techniques on one of the three displays. She was thinking about Gordon's right shoulder and how it was most likely a glenoid labrum tear. Either the ligament would need to be patched or replaced. Considering the nature of the ship, replacement seemed the best option.
Gordon was back in the twins' room, sleeping. Uma and Ulan had promised they wouldn't hurt him anymore, and hiding him there seemed the best solution. No one had found him there before; no one would find him there now. Plus, it was accepted behavior that the twins would take food from the mess-hall to their own rooms. If they suddenly stopped, it would arouse suspicion. Gordon, meanwhile, seemed oddly accepting of the situation.
There was a knock at the door. "Becca," Imala said. "I need your help with something."
She used my name, not Doctor-Doctor. Is it a form of respect? Becca sat up and opened the door half-way. "Imala, what kind of help did you need?"
The girl pulled her into the corridor. "Well, I have Andrea helping out, but I want another pair of eyes on this. I need someone there besides me who knows what she's doing."
In the mess-hall, they went back to the kitchen where the redheaded Andrea was waiting. There was a device on the table and a tube of spray.
Becca picked up the tube. "Are you expecting an injury of some sort?"
"Of course," Imala stated. "That's the whole point. I have to know how much she can stand."
Andrea turned on a burner. The super-hot coils turned a bright orange and the fan started to buzz. "Let me know when you're ready."
Imala made an adjustment to the device on the table and pointed it at Andrea. "How does that feel?"
"I don't feel anything. You sure it's on?"
Becca felt dread mixed with mild nausea. "What are you trying to do here?"
"Andrea is going to hold her hand over the burner," Imala made another adjustment to the device. "I have a field pointed at her that's going to kill the pain and we're going to see how much she can take before she actually feels it."
Becca ran forward and turned the heat-source off. "You can't do that."
"Yeah, we can," Andrea said. "You have the spray there to fix any damage. It's fine."
"I need to know the effect," Imala protested. "We have a hot-plate but I don't have any mice to see if they lick their feet."
Becca realized that Imala was describing a common procedure for testing the pain-killing effect of a drug. A mouse would be placed on a hot-plate and the temperature would slowly be increased. The number of times the mouse licked its feet was a measure of the animal's discomfort. The greater the temperature the mouse could withstand, and the reduction of the number of foot-licks, was an analgesimetric test of pharmaceutical efficiency.
Andrea turned the burner back on. "If it's really bad, you're here."
Imala turned back to the device on the table.
"Huh," the redhead grunted. "It feels like my sinuses are full."
"You don't have to do this," Becca protested.
Andrea gave Becca a dismissive look and started to lower her hand over the burner. "OK, I'm aware of warmth, but it's tolerable."
"Do you feel light-headed or groggy?" Imala asked.
Andrea shook her head. "No, nothing like that. A slight pressure." She lowered her hand more. "The heat is there, and I can tell that it's hot, but it doesn't hurt. I can feel the instinct to pull my hand away…I'm aware of that."
Imala watched Andrea lower her hand more. "You're aware of an instinct, but you're able to override it?"
"Yeah," Andrea nodded and turned her hand over. "The heat here is new on this side. The skin is thinner." Her palm was bright red. "Don't turn that thing off until we apply the spray, okay?"
There was a smell. Becca felt abject revulsion.
"How much damage do you think you can take on that?" Imala asked.
Andrea shook her head. "I'm not sure. The instinct is strong. I think this side is cooked." She turned her hand over and the back was red and blistered. "Well, second degree or something. I'm iffy on risking any more."
Oh, praise be; they're stopping.
Andrea turned the burner off and grabbed the spray from Becca. "Keep broadcasting. I'm serious. You turn that off, I'll pound you."
Imala put her hands behind her back. "I shan't touch it."
Andrea applied a liberal amount of the spray on her hand, back and front. The flesh sizzled.
"That was a good test," Imala smiled.
Idana poked her head into the kitchen. "Hey, are you doing something in here? I was getting weird readings."
"Nothing you'd be interested in," Imala said. She quickly turned the device off.
Andrea hissed a little and Becca handed her a towel.
"Nothing?" Idana entered the kitchen, scanning with narrowed eyes. "I was trying to get a new screen to work and there was some interference."
Andrea slyly slipped the tube of spray into Becca's pocket. "I have to go take care of some things." She left with the towel still wrapped around her hand.
Idana was sniffing the air. "There's a smell in here. It's odd. What have you been doing?"
"I said it was nothing you'd be interested in," Imala muttered.
Unpersuaded, Idana picked up Imala's device from the table. She turned it on and pointed it at Becca.
Becca felt a pressure behind her eyes. She suddenly felt hungry.
"Stop it!" Imala reached for the device. "You're going to break it!"
"This broadcasts something," Idana stated. She made an adjustment.
Becca felt a wave of nausea. "Give the...thing...back to your sister."
Imala snatched the device from Idana and turned it off. "You don't know what you're doing. You always break things. Just leave it alone."
Idana raised her eyebrows. "We'll see." She left the kitchen with her hands behind her back.
"They always break things," Imala tsked and checked the device. "They're just going to break it again. I know it."
Mirabilis and Renatus approached Becca later that day. They were both an agitated dark blue and Becca wondered what the scientist in charge of the current Tzikzik project (and the other scientist who had been in charge of the previous project) would want to discuss with a human doctor.
"Doctor has another human on board," Mirabilis shifted from dark blue to purple. "Librarian is upset."
"The twins had hidden him," Becca explained. "I understand that you're upset as well. It wasn't something any of us planned on."
"This changes the schedule. Broken Human must be returned. All humans will be returned." The Vencume was staying purple and moving to a light red-violet.
Buer spin into the room. "You cannot return the Humans so early. We still have too much to learn. The Library has been pleased with their connection and there is great danger awaiting them."
Becca held out her hands. "Buer is right; we can't just go back. All of us face stiff charges in human hands. They already tried to execute Evie and there were orders for my execution. Now that a Shipping Authority vessel has been destroyed, it's only going to be worse."
Buer ran hands over Miralilis. "Scientist must not end the project yet. Doctor will help."
Becca looked at the Vencume. "You wanted to end the project?"
"Scientist is concerned with the project's viability," Buer ran hands over Becca, maintaining a light blue. "Current conflict with Humans is a concern and Other Scientist has expressed certain...objections."
Renatus was a deep purple now. "We cannot risk civil-kind conflict. This is not the purpose of the project."
Buer went through a complicated color-shift and made a high-pitched whining sound.
"Assistant is noted," Mirabilis said. "The schedule has still changed. The ship will return all humans. There will be no conflict." The two Vencume scientists left the room.
Buer ran a hand over Becca. "Doctor is distressed. Humans will not be returned. The Tzikzik project is teaching us many new things about Humans and ourselves. These are...you say it...'birthing pains'. The Tzikzik are too valuable to us. What you are sensing is pride of others who think they are far beyond you. We cannot continue our current path or we will stagnate."
"If they hand us over to the Shipping Authority," Becca asked, "do you think things will go the same? Is this something we have to do to protect the girls?"
"Those rains do not fall now," Buer massaged the top of Becca's head. "Scientist does not sense far. The project will continue. Scientist does not understand human politics. Humans will not be returned."
Becca felt her eyes getting heavy. "Hey...you're...don't do that..."
Buer continued to massage her head. It wrapped an arm around her. "Doctor is too useful. Tzikizik project will continue. Your distress is a result of our actions. We cannot allow you to be harmed."
"I'm relaxed. It's fine." Her face was going numb and she tried, weakly, to move the arm away.
"Doctor will assist with Broken Human," Buer said. "Doctor will fix Broken Human, Engineer, and the Tzikzik. You have a knowledge that goes beyond the helix. This is something we must understand as well. You express this knowledge in how you deal with them. It is a knowledge we wish to express to all humans. You will be the means of our expression...not the Tzikzik."
Becca pushed against Buer's arm. She saw the Vencume's hands had turned a pale green.
The room was getting brighter. There was a buzzing sound.
"I figured it out!" Evie came into the room, smiling wide.
Buer let go of Becca.
"I hope I'm not interrupting something," Evie said. "You two having a moment?"
Did Buer just try a connection? What just happened?
"Engineer is pleased," Buer said, running hands over Evie. "Additional Yellow design is leaving advancement soon. Evie will assist Blue with additional ships."
Evie's eyebrows shot up. "Oh! You started that already? That's good! That's great."
Buer was pale pink. "Yellow design is useful. The other Tzikzik are still a threat and that situation must be repaired before we can say the project is a success."
Evie was nodding, but Becca felt herself shaking her head.
"Repairs for Broken Human are in preparation," Buer continued. "Becca will perform fix."
Evie gave Becca a mock-punch on the arm. "Hey, you get to do it. You always wanted to. You can work on that arm of Gordon's."
Becca brushed her lips. The numbness was fading and she nodded weakly.
"Evie is useful and senses far," Buer ran hands over Evie. "Humans are useful and will be maintained." The Vencume spun from the room.
"Did you hear that, Becca?" Evie was still smiling broadly. "They made more. I said they would."
"Mirabilis wants to end the project," Becca stated flatly.
"I said," Becca looked up. Her head still felt fuzzy. "You heard what I said. They want to end the project. Iskandar said..."
"Iskandar is Tzikzik," Evie crossed her arms. "Like Imala."
Becca rubbed her eyes. "Mirabilis and Renatus were here. They say that the project is ending and that they're going to return us. You, me, Gordon. They want to hand us back over."
Evie sat down. "Don't you want that? Don't you want to go back and see your daughter?"
"Evie!" Becca shouted. "The Shipping Authority wants to kill us! You don't remember that? We destroyed one of their ships. How many people died on that ship? You think they're going to welcome us back with open arms?"
Evie stiffened. "Becca, I know how the collapser works. You know how cloning works. They can't just toss that aside. I know how to halve a journey between systems. You don't think that the Shipping Authority wants to know how to do that?"
"Does anything in your head have anything to do with what happens outside of it?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Evie asked. She seemed genuinely confused.
"Before we left the station," Becca explained, "the Shipping Authority thought we were going to war with the Vencume. What have we done to prove them wrong? A jail break, a ship was attacked, a ship was DESTROYED. The Vencume are trying to avoid a conflict and they want to end the project. Do you understand what's going on here? What does ending a project usually entail?"
Evie's jaw was clenching. "They're not killing my girls."
"They're turning the ship around!" Becca went on. "They want us off the ship. They want to start over. We're going to be sacrificed for civil-kind relations!"
Evie started to mutter a string of numbers.
"What the hell is that anyway?" Becca demanded. "I need you here, not off in number-number-land."
Evie looked up at Becca. Her right eye twitched.
"OK," Becca threw her hands in the air. "Finding Gordon wasn't a good thing. Happy?"
The two of them sat at the table for a long time, not saying anything.
Evie sighed. "Go fix Gordon's arm."
Becca looked up at her.
"Seriously," Evie waved a hand. "Go do that. I'll go say goodbye or whatever. I wanted to talk to Imala about the field anyway. I figured out some others things as well, so I should at least give her that."
"Buer doesn't want the project to end," Becca added. "I think it tried to—"
"I need to talk to Iskandar." Evie rubbed her eye. "I understand the field a lot more now. We might be able to use that. I found some...effects."
"Which Vencume is in charge of this ship?" Becca asked. "Who's the captain?"
Evie laughed hollowly. "I think the Library is in charge. Maybe Penemue? I don't think they have a captain the way we do."
Becca rubbed her chin. "The Library wanted connection. Buer was saying that we were too useful and the Library was pleased. If the Library is in charge..."
"I only guessed," Evie said. "I don't know for sure. Hey, if they want to end the project, what's going to happen to Iskandar? It's a Tzikzik as well." She paused. "Wait, how can they be ending the project if there are going to be more pilots? "
Becca rubbed her eyes and stopped cold. "Did Buer use our names just then?"
The two humans looked at each other.
Iskandar brought Becca the tools she would need for the surgery, along with a twelve-centimeter strip of ligament on a tray and a tube of spray.
The twins let them in to where Gordon was, laying on a bed. He sat up and smiled. "Rebbecca, the girls were telling me about your prison break. Uma told me you punched a Shipping Authority guard."
Becca frowned. "I didn't punch anyone."
"Oh," he frowned in response. "She said your hand got the guard right in the head."
"I didn't have much to do with that," Becca said flatly and started to arrange the tools on the tray. "Take off your shirt. We're going to fix your shoulder."
"Right here?" Gordon fumbled with a sleeve. "Is this some kind of Vencume stuff?"
Iskandar moved in behind Gordon and helped him out of the shirt. "Broken Human talks too much."
Becca laughed a little. "Yes, Gordon. It's Vencume medical technology. We're going to replace a ligament in your shoulder that was torn. Normally, we'd just try to repair it, but that would add to your healing time. We need you up and running as soon as possible."
"Are you...hey!" Gordon swung around out of Iskandar's hands. "What's it doing?"
"Broken Human should lie down," Iskandar said. "Broken Human will want to rest afterwards."
"It has to numb you for surgery," Becca explained. Didn't Gordon get the language? Shouldn't he know this? What were they doing when they connected?
But Gordon was laying down and let Iskandar continue to probe his head. "Like you did with Evie, right? But you're going to do the actual stitching, right?"
"Not like back home, but yeah."
Gordon brushed his lips with his left hand. "I feel weird."
Iskandar was massaging the right shoulder with one black hand. The flesh paled.
Becca quickly washed the shoulder and held a scalpel on the end of one finger. "Are you ready?"
Iskandar blue-nodded and Gordon mumbled a weak "yeah".
Becca made the first incision. This seems so advanced, but it's actually very primitive. This is such an invasive way of doing this. Back home, we'd only make a few small cuts and then use endoscopes to do it all inside the shoulder. But we are replacing the ligament, aren't we? I'm not just tacking into place. She pulled her shirt up over her mouth and nose. Let's try to minimize the risk of infection, okay?
Once the top of the shoulder was open, Iskandar pulled back the opening. Becca saw its hands were covered in a fine film.
Becca replaced the scalpel on her finger with a couple of hooks. These were on long stalks, so her hands were not near the opened shoulder. She worried slightly that the tools would fall off her fingers, but they held tightly.
Iskandar held Gordon's arm out from his body and rotated the arm. Becca could see the torn ligament immediately.
And she cut it away, leaving only a centimeter at the connection points.
Gordon had his head turned and was watching. His large pupils could not focus and he blinked slowly.
Iskandar handed her the arm, and Becca held it out straight while the long fingers placed the new ligament in place. She dropped the tools off her fingers and picked up the long tines that would hold it in place while it was stitched down.
Now, Iskandar slipped a couple of needles on its fingers. His hand turned yellow and the rapid stitching started.
"You did my hand, didn't you?" Becca asked.
Iskandar turned a light pink. "That was more complicated."
Iskandar had finished the attachment at the glenoid cavity and Becca pulled the new ligament taught. They relaxed the arm to a resting position across Gordon's chest to check for length.
After a bit more stitching, Iskandar was done with the attachment to the top of the humerus. Becca held the flaps of skin in place and Iskandar applied the spray.
It was done.
Ulan and Uma got up from where they had been sitting and ran to Becca's side. "You fixed him!" Ulan said with a broad smile.
Becca pulled her shirt off her face. Her chin was sweaty. "Yes, and you can't break him again."
"We promised," Ulan frowned. "You worked hard."
Iskandar was still massaging Gordon's head with a black hand and it pulled him up to a seated position. "Broken Human will rest now."
Gordon rolled his shoulder and smiled. "That's amazing," he said groggily.
"OK," Becca led the twins from the room. "Let's leave him alone for a while."
"You worked hard and fixed him," Uma said. "You're the best mommy."
In the hallway, Becca turned to Iskandar. "What happens to the twins if the project is ended?"
It color-shifted a complicated pattern. "First and Second are not proper Tzikzik. They may be considered human and will be returned."
"And what happens to the others?"
Again, Iskandar shifted in indecision. "They cannot be returned. They are not human. Destruction would be....complicated. This decision has yet to be made, but our ocean still laps. It may not reach that point. The water raises high in them and must not dry out."
"Who makes that final decision?"
"The Library," Iskandar ran a hand over Becca. "Doctor did not mention this to First and Second."
"No," she shook her head. "I guess that was dishonest of me."
"It is human," Iskandar said. "You do not wish to discuss such things with offspring. You treat them as offspring."
"Those two make me nervous."
"They were alone. We had not connected with Engineer yet. They did, later, but there was much time from advancement to connection." It ran a hand over Becca. "They are...raw? It is not a good term."
"They're children," Becca offered. "But they aren't Evie."
Becca had found herself exhausted after the surgery on Gordon and the discussion with Iskandar. Also, worry gnawed at her stomach. Even if she skipped a meal, she needed to rest. She didn't feel she could face the children while their fate had yet to be decided.
In her dream, she is a child herself. She is watching an argument between her parents through a cracked door.
Her great-aunt is suddenly in the room. "You're a clever little girl, staying hidden."
Becca's great-aunt, her teyze, Lytle had always sacred her a little and she feels the childish fear return. The old woman had never married, but had traveled the world and now ran a curio-shop in the old district. And in dream-logic, they are suddenly in the shop, surrounded by dust and antiquities.
"I have been everywhere in the world,"Great-Aunt Lytle says. "I have seen just about everything there is to see. But I think that you will see much finer and greater things."
The old woman pours some coffee. The frothy, brown liquid steams from the small, glass beaker.
"What do you mean, Teyze Lytle?"
"I have seen the stars,"the old woman goes on, "but you will dance with them. You are Rebbecca and you will bind us with them."
The child Becca nods at the meaning of her name.
"Your father does not want you to go to school,"the old woman chuckles. "This is foolish. If you teach a boy, you teach a boy. But if you teach a girl, you teach everyone she knows."A long Vencume arm peaked out from under her skirts and stirred her coffee.
One of the twins is in the shop with her, examining a typewriter closely and watching the keys as they rise and fall. But it isn't one of the twins.
"This is my friend Evie,"Becca says. "She's really smart."
One of Lytle's Vencume arms tousles the child Evie on the head. "Did you meet at school, or on that boat trip you took?"
Child Evie runs off to look at an old telephone. She dials a number and runs the chord through her fingers.
"She's just a child as well,"Lytle says between sips.
Becca now stands as an adult in her great-aunt's curio shop. "Why did you open this place?"
Teyze Lytle is now a Vencume and speaks with Buer's voice. "Look at all these things I've collected over time. Someday I'll die and what good will it be? Nothing but dust and faded memories. Maybe here, someone will see something and take it home and love it anew."
Becca recalled this explanation from her great-aunt.
The Buer-Lytle continues. "We have been everywhere and we don't have much time. We cannot lose our knowledge. It must be passed on. I wish I could express this better to you. Forgive the seeds I have planted. We are at a turning point. This must be preserved. Please believe me. Please trust me. If we do not start this process now, it may be too late."
There is a rumble of thunder outside.
Becca woke with a start in an unusually quiet room.
Didn't Buer try to connect to me earlier? Was that what it wanted to say? Why use my great-aunt?
As she pulled on her shoes, she remembered Lytle. Yes, there had been a discussion when she was young as to if she would go to school. But it had been Lytle and the old woman's clout that had sent her to school. Her father had just wanted her to get married.
And she did. She did get married. But that was after she got her degree.
She remembered when Great-Aunt Lytle died. A surprising number of people had come to the service and they all shook Becca's hand. "Oh, you look just like her." And "You were always the smart one. She liked you best."
Great-Aunt Lytle had left behind a trust for Becca's schooling.
How will Huri go on without me? If the Shipping Authority froze my account, doesn't all this time away count for nothing? And if the Vencume take us back? Will that make amends? They can't punish her for that.
The Vencume can't punish the children for what the Shipping Authority did.
It's only two of them. It's only Renatus and Mirabilis. Maybe Renatus is bitter. Didn't they kill him on the other ship? But the girls took care of the other ship, so hasn't he been avenged? No, they don't think like that.
Becca combed her hair back and left the room she shared with Evie.
And what is Evie doing? She's done with her mantis; now she's working on something new. Don't you have something to work on? Yes, Evie. That's what you can do while you're here. She's not an adult. She's never made an adult decision. Look at where you are now and how that was all Evie's doing. No, not Evie. Well, parts of her. Parts of Evie made that decision. They won't kill the twins, will they?
She was walking down the hallway now, going to the mess-hall. Maybe we'll make one last meal together. Those redheads aren't that scary, really. I've gotten used to them.
Does Evie have any children back home? No, she's too young for that. She really is young, considering. I wonder if she was a prodigy.
No one was in the mess-hall. No redheads were cooking or cleaning.
Do you think you'll ever see Huri again? Maybe not. But you were a good mother to the children here, weren't you? For what that's worth. You at least tried to love them.
In the laundry room now, and no one was there.
Even in the twins' room, there was no one. Not even Gordon.
And no one on the observation deck.
Or the ad hoc bridge.
Or Evie's ancillary lab.
It was as if the ship had been deserted.
Where is everyone? Are they in the garden? They must have put it into advancement and are collecting another harvest.
That must have been it. Becca made her way down the hallway to the lift that would take her to the connecting pod. They must be in the garden. Did they end the project already? They couldn't have. Maybe the girls are having some sort of farewell in the garden? How would they react to that? They don't seem to care much about death.
There was a Vencume ahead of her, shuffling slowly along, its long blue hands tracing the wall. It looked odd.
"Doctor," the Vencume held an arm out to Becca and she recognized the voice as Renatus. "Doctor is safe. Humans will...return will..."
"Are you okay?"
The Vencume ran its hands over Becca. "Where is Engineer? We do not know. Where is Broken Human?" There was something different about the Vencume's hands.
Now Becca was afraid. "I don't know. I haven't seen any of them." It looked like the Vencume had human hands. Renatus flickered and Becca was suddenly reminded of an old professor who taught anatomy. "What's wrong?"
Renatus shifted to a deep purple. "We saw a toughness, a cleverness. We have swum these waters before....before we met you. Before we met Engineer. You are strange creatures."
"Do you need my help?" Becca held out her arms.
"The Tzikzik are on the bridge," Renatus quivered. "We have been here before."
The...on the...like before?
"The project was to continue," the Vencume shifted to a magenta. "It was explained. Engineer had spoken with them. We cannot end the project. Your...imagination...is in play again."
Becca stared at the lumbering creature before her and swallowed hard. It did look like her old anatomy professor now. She could make out the bald head and hunched shoulders. "What's going on?"
"The Tzikzik are in control," Renatus sighed. "They say the ship now belongs to their army."
[*]This is a section from the epic poem "Aniara"by the Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. We can assume that Evie came across it once and this section stuck in her head.