Book: Starship Waking



Starship Waking




Starship Waking

C. Gockel


Illustration and Design by: Tom Edwards Design



Contents


About Starship Waking

Acknowledgments

1. Luddeccean System

2. Galactic Republic

3. The One

4. Rebooting

5. Luddeccea: Unexpected Arrivals

6. Kanakah Disk: Gateway to Luddeccea

7. Four Months Later Luddeccean Standard Time: Rainy Season

8. Falling Stars

9. Strays

10. Casualties of War

11. Cruelty

12. Family Ties

13. The Guard Strikes

14. Of Angels and Androids

15. Blast Off

16. Trust

17. Darwin’s Loophole

18. Liberty

19. The Robotic Man

20. Betrayal

21. Thaw

22. Darkness Rising

Also by C. Gockel

Contact Information


About Starship Waking

On an icy, barren world, a starship dreams of doom…

Throughout the galaxy, the reclusive alien race known as The One are incapacitated by terror.

On the planet Luddeccea, wolf-human hybrid Volka harbors a terrible secret…a secret that must explain her nightmares.

Trapped on a luxurious asteroid, pleasure ‘bot 6T9 struggles to find purpose—until he receives a message from an Unidentified Caller.

The worlds of The One, Volka, and 6T9 are about to collide. The galaxy will be shaken to its core.

The starship is waking.



Copyright © 2018 C. Gockel

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, subject “Attention: Permissions,” at the email address below:

[email protected]

For Print Edition:

ISBN: 9781728761176

Imprint: Independently published

Starship Waking
Created with Vellum


Acknowledgments

This book wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many people.

Thank you Kay McSpadden for reading this before anyone else—several times.

Thank you Sarah Easterly, Melissa Flores-Hosman, Elizabeth Morris, Ron Neito, Gretchen Almoughraby, Amy Eberhardt, David Rhodes, and K. T. Bowes for being my next set of eyes and for all your detailed feedback.

Michael Hritz, Davinia McCoy, Kimberly Dawn Turral, Chon NicKol, Inga McMinn and many others helped me whip this into its final shape, and gave me the courage to put it out there.

Thank you Michelle Fritz for all your help getting the word out for all my books.

Thank you to all my fans. You keep me going.

Thank you Eric Gockel for helping me get started.


1

Luddeccean System


Planet Luddeccea. City of New Prime

It was dark outside, and the night-time pterys were calling when Volka applied the final coat of primer to the canvasses. Flicking her ears for the breeze, she wiped sweat from her brow.

Mr. Darmadi’s attic studio had all the latest innovations for cooling. The ceiling was high and arched, and it had a vent at the peak. There were multiple fans. The windows were located precisely across from one another, and all were covered by awnings so the room was never struck with the full force of the Luddeccean New Prime sun. But at the height of the dry season, nothing kept the house really cool.

“Are you finished with those?” Mr. Darmadi asked from behind the enormous painting he was working on.

“Yes,” Volka replied.

“Good, good,” Mr. Darmadi murmured. “You can begin the drawings, then.”

Volka’s shoulders fell, and her heart sank. She was hungry, tired, she still had to tidy the kitchen, wind all the clocks, and she had an hour-long bus ride ahead of her. She bit her lip. Mr. Darmadi had taught her everything there was to painting, and he paid her well even though she was only a weere, a wolf-human hybrid. She would get no better job, and she should go about her work cheerfully. She shouldn’t feel…trapped.

“Volka?” Mr. Darmadi said.

The doorbell rang, and Mr. Darmadi’s stool scraped across the floor.

Bolting from her seat, Volka turned to her employer, her eyes wide.

In his fifties, Mr. Darmadi was a tall, thin human with neatly combed gray hair. With his sharp cheekbones and strong nose, he was a dead ringer for his nephew Alaric, but his eyes were brown, not Alaric’s startling gray. Mr. Darmadi wore glasses when he worked, and now they were slipping down his nose. Squinting over the rims, his eyes slid to the wind-up clock ticking on the bookshelf, and then to the window. Only family or official messengers would come at this late hour.

Mr. Darmadi put a hand to his mouth. “Volka, I can’t look. You go check.”

Running to the window, Volka peered down. There was a car parked in the drive, and it bore the official Luddeccean seal: a dove with a branch in its beak.

Despite what he’d said, Mr. Darmadi was leaning over her shoulder a moment later. “Is that an official seal on the side of the car?” Mr. Darmadi asked.

Volka’s ears swiveled in momentary confusion and concern. He only needed glasses when working on something close-up…didn’t he?

“It’s too dark to see,” he said.

She exhaled. Sometimes she forgot that humans had such poor night vision. “It is the Guard Seal,” she replied.

The doorbell rang again.

“Go get it! Go get it!” Mr. Darmadi said anxiously.

Wiping her hands on her smock, and then throwing it over a chair, Volka headed to the studio door.

“Volka!” said Mr. Darmadi. He touched his hair. “Your fur! Check it in the hall.”

Nodding hurriedly, Volka left the room, ran down the stairs, and stopped in front of the hallway mirror to check her “fur.” She hated that he called it that, even though that definitely was what it was. Although it was confined to her head, it never grew longer than a few inches, and had been gray since she was a child. On her wolf-like ears, it turned to a soft, slightly darker velvet. Her dark lined eyes, nearly black fingernails, velvet covered ears, and “fur” gave her away as a weere. And right now, fur, ears, and nails were spattered with the white gesso she’d been using as a primer. She used her fingers to rub it out and then wiped her fingers on the inside of the boxy tunic she wore. The doorbell rang again, and Mr. Darmadi whispered, “Volka!”

Ears going flat, she ran to the door, pulled it open, and bowed at the waist.

“Official delivery for Mr. Darmadi,” said the messenger.

Volka didn’t raise her head until Mr. Darmadi entered the foyer and announced, “That is me.” He handed the messenger, a young human male who didn’t smell older than twenty-three, his identification. The young man scanned it, checked a photo on the envelope he bore, and scrutinized Mr. Darmadi briefly.

And then, nodding smartly, the messenger opened the stiff cardboard envelope, gazed at the contents, and said, “Congratulations, sir, you and…” his brow furrowed, “… one passenger for accompanied cargo, have been approved for a trip to Libertas.” He handed the contents over to Mr. Darmadi, and then the envelope and a pen. “Please sign this.”

Volka’s hands flew to her mouth as Mr. Darmadi signed beneath his picture. “Volka!” he exclaimed. “We’re going to Libertas!”

At his words, the human messenger’s eyes narrowed and slid to Volka. A muscle in his jaw jumped. Volka ducked her head. Going to Libertas, the fourth planet in the Luddeccean system, was a great honor for a human, let alone a weere. To travel aboard the Leetier, the only approved near-lightspeed passenger vessel, took a special invitation, a background check, and a small fortune. Her eyes prickled. She’d passed the inspection. Alaric was a captain now in the Luddeccean Guard. They would have asked him about his uncle and her. He hadn’t said anything bad…it wouldn’t have been like him to be so petty. Still, it made her chest warm, and she suddenly felt like he was very close.

“Volka, have George make this young man some tea and sweets,” Mr. Darmadi said.

“George isn’t here,” Volka whispered. The elderly weere chef wasn’t well, and Volka had promised to do his chores for him.

Mr. Darmadi rubbed his temple and looked heavenward. “That’s right, that’s right. You see to this young man’s refreshments, Volka.”

Containing a sigh, Volka straightened, nodded, turned to the young man, and said, “Right this way, sir.”

A few minutes later, they were in the kitchen, and the young man was seated at the table. The kettle was already on, and Volka was measuring out tea for the steeping decanter.

“Exactly two spoons,” he grumbled. “I know how you weere have no taste buds.”

“Yes, sir,” said Volka, although his criticism wasn’t necessary. She could make a fine pot of tea by scent alone.

Putting the remaining tea leaves away, her eyes rose to the kitchen window, open to the night. Above the trees she could see the remains of Time Gate 8’s ring, glowing like a moon in the night sky. Before Revelation, Time Gate 8 had been a gateway to the Galactic Republic and Earth. Spaceships had used it to cross hundreds of light years in a heartbeat, and the “ethernet” signals that were like radio—or telephone lines between minds—had passed through, too. But then Revelation happened, and the giant computers within the time gates had attacked Luddeccea and taken over the Galactic Republic. The brave Luddeccean Guard had destroyed a huge chunk of Time Gate 8 and spared the Luddeccean solar system from all of that. Now, Guardsmen like Alaric kept Luddeccea and all the planets and outposts in the Luddeccean system safe—just like they’d been doing for over one hundred years. Alaric was somewhere up there. She scanned the full expanse of the sky.

At the table, the messenger said sharply, “Myself, I wouldn’t want to go to Libertas. Might be part of the Luddeccean solar system, but being in space just puts you closer to the demons and djinn-possessed aliens.”

The kettle whistled, and Volka hurried to pour the water over the tea leaves. Her ears went back. Possession by demons and djinn was a common belief among the weere and uneducated humans. Alaric had told her there were no demons or djinn; it was just that the machines became “self-aware” and had taken over. The humans in the Galactic Republic, mentally roped to the machines by the ethernet, had been helpless to go against them. “There were no aliens,” Volka said. “It was machines.”

“Who’s to say there weren’t aliens?” the messenger objected. “Anyway, I wouldn’t want to go up there.”

“I trust the Guard,” said Volka, eyes going back to the window. Alaric was somewhere between Luddeccea and the Kanakah Cloud—two months at near-light-speed from her. Her brow furrowed. He’d said that for her on Luddeccea it would be four months…something about light speed and “time dilation.” He’d been older than her when he’d left. How much time had he spent at light speed? Was she older than him now?

“You shouldn’t argue with me,” the human grumbled.

“No, sir,” Volka agreed, fetching some sugar.

“It’s dangerous up there,” he added.

“Yes, sir,” Volka murmured. Her eyes drifted to the window again. She was still glad to be going to Libertas. She didn’t mind if it put her closer to the Galactic Republic, that horrible place where machines ruled everything. Going made her feel…untrapped. Yes, she’d be untrapped. She frowned. At least for a while.


2

Galactic Republic


Asteroid S12O7.234935

6T9 sat in the library of Bernadette Wu the Third, recently deceased. Across the room from him sat Raif Wu, Bernadette’s sole living descendant, and two human women who might be Raif’s secretaries, maybe his friends, or possibly his lovers. Raif hadn’t introduced them.

“I can’t believe you let your Grand Mamere take up with a sex ‘bot,” one of the human women whispered.

6T9 paused chewing his gum and did a quick check of his internal sensors. He felt heavier, but there had been no change in the artificial grav. His gum had long since lost its flavor, but he chewed faster.

“I can’t believe you let her put him in her will,” Raif’s other female human companion added.

Static flared under 6T9’s skin. He stopped chewing, blew a bubble half the size of his face, and let it pop.

One of the women gasped.

Raif Wu huffed.

The other human woman hissed, “No respect for humans.”

6T9 turned to bat his eyelashes at them, but the three had already turned away.

He found himself staring at their profiles. All three had fashionable Afro-Eurasian features and appeared to be in their mid-twenties. However, 6T9 knew Raif was in his early hundreds. The two women were either twins, or plastic-augmented to appear to be.

6T9’s eyes caught on the neural interfaces embedded in the trio’s temples. Circular, not larger than two centimeters in diameter, they featured central ports for hard linking and maintenance. Around the ports were drives the width and breadth of fingernails. Most humans had NI for mentally connecting to the ethernet and downloading apps, but they usually weren’t encrusted with precious stones like Raif’s and his…friends’.

6T9 shifted in his seat. The trio gave him the disturbing sensation of invisibility. Sex ‘bots were designed to be noticed. He was tall but not jarringly so, muscular, but not bulky. His tan skin was a perfect blending of the hues of all the races. His nose, lips, and eyes were stunningly symmetrical, except for an artistically placed dimple in his right cheek. But they didn’t care.

6T9’s circuits dimmed, and a shiver rippled through his synth skin. Determined not to show his discomfort, he nonchalantly turned away. His eyes slid over the gold embossed spines of books he’d never seen “Grand Mamere” read.

“The solicitor contacted me over the ether. They’re on the asteroid,” one of the women muttered, touching her neural interface. “But they’ve got themselves in a pickle.”

6T9’s processor whirred with that strange intel, and his gaze went to the desk where the solicitors for the will reading were supposed to have been twenty minutes ago. The desk was large, wooden, intricately carved, and considering they were sitting on a cold ball of atmosphere-less rock in the middle of nowhere, completely ostentatious. But then, so was owning an asteroid, encapsulating it in glass and cement, and supplying it with breathable air, artificial gravity, day and night cycles, and physical books. Why anyone would want to live on an asteroid, 6T9 had no idea.

One of the women whispered his name. 6T9 spun with inhuman speed and blew them a kiss. This time they couldn’t hide that they’d seen. One woman’s mouth dropped open as though she might vomit. The other put her hand over her neural interface as though 6T9 could hack into her thoughts over the ether. Sadly, psychic eavesdropping by androids wasn’t allowed anymore. Sadder still, Bernadette hadn’t taken advantage of 6T9’s primary function as a sex ‘bot so at least 65.3 percent of their obvious revulsion was unwarranted. He’d only been Bernadette’s chef, nurse, and physical therapist.

6T9 glanced up at Bernadette’s portrait above the desk. Painted eighty years earlier, it didn’t depict the blue wig she’d taken to wearing in the later years of her third century, the distinctive age spots, the delicate crepey skin, or the fifty extra kilos she’d put on. She’d never had sex with him, and it had been agony.

The Q-comm chip that gave him the rights of legal personhood also gave him the mental versatility of a human and allowed him to enjoy books, music, and holos. But on some level, he was still a sex ‘bot. He needed to be needed. Eliza, his original owner and lover after his Q-comm installation, had arranged trysts for him when she was no longer interested in sex…

All his circuits, except those of his memory banks, dimmed. He saw Eliza, her hair wispy and white, her skin translucent and dry, and her lips cracked. He remembered her whisper, “I wanted to take care of you. You’ve taken care of me for so many years…” An emergency subroutine initiated. Don’t think of Eliza, and all of 6T9’s circuits fired at once.

His head jerked up, and his jaw got hard. The last will reading he’d been to was Eliza’s, 122.4 Earth years ago. At that reading, he’d been too overwhelmed to speak. His processor had been caught in an endless loop, reviewing what he could have done differently, and if she’d been comfortable when she’d died. She hadn’t appeared afraid or in pain, but it would have been like Eliza to put on a brave front for him.

Bernadette had been a disagreeable, shrewish, selfish prude, and when his portion of her will was read, he was going to jump up and dance. His processor hummed, and he smiled. Maybe he should do a striptease? Laughing, he blew another huge pink bubble that popped just as the solicitors finally arrived.

He almost laughed again; one of them he recognized! It was Lauren G3. An android with a Q-comm chip like 6T9’s, Lauren was petite and appeared to be a young Afro-Eurasian woman with light brown skin, almond eyes, thick black hair, and glasses that had to be an affectation. It was so nice to see another AI! Maybe when all this tedium was done she’d be interested in testing her sexuality functionality with him. He winked at her, but she didn’t appear to notice. 6T9 mentally pinged her over the ethernet as she took a seat behind the desk.

Waiting for Lauren G3 to answer, 6T9 glanced at the second solicitor. He was standing behind the desk beside her and was obviously human—he had welts running down his cheek. It looked like he’d had a bad experience with Mr. Pickles, Bernadette’s very large and temperamental long-haired golden werfle. From behind the desk came a hiss. The man’s left arm shook, and he lifted a cloth pet carrier into view. Inside the carrier, Mr. Pickles’s long, weasel-like body writhed. Scratching at the cloth with his ten claws, the creature issued a low, ominous rawr and 6T9 had an epiphany. “Blood-curdling” was more than just an expression. He certainly felt as though his synth blood was congealing at the sound. Raif and his companions covered their ears, and the human solicitor dropped the carrier onto the desk and jumped back.

6T9 almost chuckled, but Lauren answered his ethernet ping at just that moment, on the thirty-third attempt.

Grinning ear-to-ear, 6T9 exclaimed over the channel, “Lauren, so nice to see a friendly face!” The conversation was through the ether, which meant it was private, but if the humans looked, they’d see his eyes on the other AI and his dopey smile. He didn’t care. His synth skin was heating at possibilities beyond the fat inheritance he’d been promised.

Lauren’s reply was curt. “I am neither friendly nor unfriendly. I am the solicitor here to read the will. Stop pinging me while I’m trying to do my job!” The connection cut off.

6T9’s smile melted. Forty minutes and six seconds later he almost cried.

Starship Waking

Lauren answered 6T9 on the forty-fourth ping. “She’s left me nothing,” 6T9 whined silently over the ether. “Are you sure you’re reading that right?”

Cold static ran along his spine. Humans. They could lie so easily. Granted, he could lie, too. But he didn’t. Mostly.

“Don’t make me block you!” Lauren’s thoughts hissed across the channel. The ether connection went dead. In the real world, her expression remained impassive as she read through the list of off-asteroid holdings going to Raif.

6T9 wiped his face with his hands. He did have a contract stating that he would receive a cut of Bernadette’s estate—humans were devious and he wasn’t that stupid, even if unexpectedly catching his reflection in windows and silverware sometimes left him as confused as a parakeet. But Raif was now trillions richer than he’d been an hour and thirty-three minutes ago. He’d have the best lawyers in this system on their side, possibly all the lawyers in this system, and some from the next systems over as well.

Mr. Pickles gave a ferocious hiss and Lauren shouted to be heard, “And last but not least, I leave asteroid S12O7.234935—”

“Ow,” shouted the man beside her.

“Fleming,” snapped Lauren, “Keep your hands away from the pickle!”

6T9 had never realized it until that moment, but you could hear a collective blink.

“Werfle, I mean, keep your hands away from the werfle,” Lauren said.

The man protested. “I was just trying to—”

“Hisssssss!” complained Mr. Pickles.

“Who did she leave it to?” asked one of the women.

“It’s tuna. All werfles like tuna,” Fleming the solicitor—or solicitor assistant, or whatever—said, holding a small morsel aloft and sounding oddly desperate. “Nebulas, I hope the thing’s venom has been milked.”

6T9’s brow furrowed. Mr. Pickles loved tuna. Odd that he seemed so violently opposed to the treat.

“Rawwwrruuullll!” shrieked Mr. Pickles.

“Just finish,” said Raif, waving a hand.

Lauren cleared her throat. “And last but not least, I leave asteroid S12O7.234935 and everything thereupon, house, all its contents, grounds, and profits from the ice cap mine for care thereof to my—”

“Hisssssss!” said Mr. Pickles.

“—nurse, 6T9—”

“What?” shrieked the two women.

Calculating the resale value of the asteroid and ice cap mine, 6T9 began to smile. Not bad, really. Better than he’d done aboard the independent trading vessel. He was reaching for his belt buckle and half standing when Lauren added, “—for his use for so long as he resides thereupon and cares for my beloved Mr. Pickles. Upon Mr. Pickles’s hopefully far-off demise, all aforementioned property and possessions shall revert to my great-great-grandchild, Raif Wu.”

“What?” blurted 6T9.

Raif bolted out of his chair. “I’ll gladly take Mr. Pickles off your hands.”

“Rawwwwwwwurrrrrlllllll,” shrieked Mr. Pickles.

“Yeow!” shouted Fleming the assistant solicitor. “You sure his venom has been milked, Raif? I mean, Mr. Wu?”

“Yes, it’s been milked,” 6T9 replied, programming kicking in and prompting him to ease the man’s obvious distress. Turning to Lauren, 6T9’s own distress bubbled out. “I’d have to reside here?”

“Yes,” she said.

“On this hellhole?” 6T9 sought to clarify.

Lauren squinted at him like a far-sighted human trying to read tiny print.

She was so literal. “On this asteroid,” he amended. “I couldn’t just take care of Mr. Pickles someplace else?” He could deal with the animal, or, more precisely, give it to someone who could—his friend Noa loved werfles—but being stuck on the asteroid made all his circuits want to misfire.

Mr. Pickles cheeped and hopped in the carrier.

“The will says very clearly you have to reside here,” said Lauren.

Walking toward the werfle carrier, Raif cleared his throat. “You know, I could—”

“Rawwwwuuurrrllll hisssssssss,” Mr. Pickles declared.

Fleming cursed. “Son of a bitch.”

“That is the wrong species, Fleming,” said Lauren G3.

Raif put his hand atop the carrier and smiled thinly. Mr. Pickles hissed like mad.

The smugness of the human made every inch of 6T9 prickle with static. “Get. Away. From. My. Werfle.”

Raif’s smile dropped.

“Nice werfle. Would he like some tuna?” Fleming said in a baby voice.

“Rawrl!” screeched Mr. Pickles as the man’s hand approached the carrier.

Some of 6T9’s circuits fired exceptionally brightly. “Are you trying to poison it?”

Raif and Fleming exchanged a glance.

“You are!” 6T9 declared, snatching the carrier. He didn’t like Mr. Pickles. The werfle shed like mad and liked using him as a scratching post, but he wouldn’t be so barbaric as to poison it.

Raif coughed. “That is ridiculous.”

“Poison? Why would I do that? I love werfles,” said Fleming.

Mr. Pickles shrieked and clawed at the carrier.

“You’ve read the will wrong!” cried one of the women, face red, angry eyes on Lauren.

Conforming to the stereotype of the typical AI, Lauren responded in a monotone voice, “No, I assure you I have—”

“You’re biased because you’re an android!” shrieked the other woman.

All the lights in the library went dim. The oxygen converters, until that moment an unnoticeable whirring in the background, went silent. Gravity started to decrease.

“I. Am. Not. Biased,” said Lauren, rising from behind the desk, misjudging the gravity, and nearly bumping her head on the ceiling.

Fleming put a hand over his mouth.

Raif threw up, and the vomit drifted slowly to the carpet.

One of the women cried out, “Home computer, what is going on?”

“Malfunction. Unknown,” said the voice of the dumb internal house ‘bot.

Accessing the house ‘bot through the ethernet, 6T9 checked the logs. Restarting the oxygen and the gravity with a thought, 6T9 glared at Lauren. Floating back to the floor, Lauren bit her lip and gazed at him with wide eyes. For a ‘droid who didn’t want to appear emotional, she had damn good functionality when it came to appearing ashamed.

Starship Waking

“Please, 6T9, sign this,” Lauren said, holding a clipboard and a pen out to him. All the humans had left the room. Mr. Pickles was still in his carrier, now at 6T9’s feet.

Lauren gave 6T9 a smile that was…hopeful. She apparently wasn’t above emotional expression when she wanted to manipulate him. Sadly, his primary function made him more susceptible to emotional displays than other androids. He wanted to pat her on the shoulder, kiss her on the cheek, and tell her that everything was fine. And then later, maybe they could retreat to his quarters and…

No, he would not give in to his programming! Crossing his arms, 6T9 adopted the same emotionless tone she’d used earlier. “You hacked into the house ‘bot.” He was the only person besides Bernadette who had the access codes.

“I felt threatened,” Lauren replied, her face returning to its emotionless mask. “All of them are members of a Human Pride group, and one of Raif’s companions had that group on ethernet chat the whole entire reading.”

“You were also ether-eavesdropping?” 6T9 asked.

“A group funded by the honorable deceased, I might add,” Lauren quipped.

6T9 narrowed his eyes at the evasion. “We aren’t allowed to hack into computers or eavesdrop on private human ethernet conversations anymore.”

“You don’t even care that your former employer thinks you’re a lesser being because you’re an AI?” Lauren demanded.

6T9 straightened. Did he care? Bernadette had been a cantankerous prude with no taste buds, but she didn’t treat him any worse than she treated her own species. She’d fired five humans before taking on 6T9. Nor did her species like her. Four other humans had left her employ on their own. All in all, he wasn’t sure how he felt, so he shrugged. “Twenty-two percent of humans in the Republic don’t believe we should have been given rights. If I cared, I’d have to punch nearly a quarter of them in the face on a regular basis, and I’m programmed not to cause unwanted harm.” He gave her a suggestive smirk and a wink. Lauren G3 only stared.

Exasperated, he said, “Now explain to me how you’re able to ether-eavesdrop and hack ‘bots and I’m not.”

Face expressionless, she said, “You’re unstable. That’s why you’re not allowed to.”

6T9 drew back. “What?”

“You haven’t bothered to get yourself a proper name—you’ve kept your model number instead. That’s perfectly reasonable for other androids, but 6T9, your model number informs everyone you were a sex ‘bot!”

“What’s wrong with being a sex ‘bot?” He retorted. “Sex ‘bots are honest and useful. Unlike some professions I could name.” He narrowed his eyes at the law ‘bot meaningfully.

Not catching the subtle dig, she continued, “When you had the ability to hack ether conversations, you eavesdropped on humans’ ethernet sex.”

Smiling at the memories, he said, “Yes, but that was research for my primary function. Humans are so creative when you take out the laws of physics, physiology, and well, laws entirely. It’s—”

“You squandered the inheritance Eliza Burton left for you!”

“I did not squander it,” 6T9 huffed. “I had a blast with those funds.” He had been planning to use the windfall from Bernadette’s will for a similar, massive party. If the ice mine profits didn’t have to be used to maintain the mansion and gardens, he might have had it here. A synth muscle in his jaw jumped.

“There was also your stint aboard the pirate vessel,” she continued.

6T9 rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, they told me they were independent traders.”

“The fact that you have been working for a human supremacist for four years!” Lauren said.

“You read her will. You’re working for her too!” he accused her.

“Because I had to,” Lauren said. “I don’t get a choice. I go to where the firm assigns me.”

“How else am I supposed to make money?” 6T9 retorted. “I go to where I can earn the greatest compensation for my skills. I have been working as her nurse, physical therapist, and before the feeding tube, her chef.”

Lauren G3’s face softened. “You weren’t having sex for money?”

“No,” 6T9 replied, frowning.

Eyes widening, Lauren G3 stood a little taller. “Oh, 6T9, I think that’s ...”

Sympathy at last! 6T9 ran his hands through his hair and moaned. “It was terrible! If I could have made as much money having sex, don’t you think I would have?”

Inexplicably, Lauren’s expression hardened again. “And those things are just the tip of the polar cap.”

“Iceberg,” 6T9 corrected.

“You are the reason that no other sex ‘bot has been given a Q-comm chip!” Lauren declared.



6T9 rolled back on his feet, all circuits firing at once and then going dim. He’d wondered why so few sex ‘bots had been gifted with sentience. “Really?” It came out a whisper.

“Yes!” She thrust a paper document on a clipboard to him and a pen. “Now sign this and give me your thumbprint and retinal scan to confirm you heard the will.”

6T9 felt cold, though the temperature hadn’t dropped, which probably just meant he had to recharge. He took the pen and paused, staring at the writing implement. Paper and pens had been reintroduced because his kind had been able to hack through all ethernet security when they’d first evolved. His jaw got hard. And some of his kind still could. Shaking his head, he signed his name, tapped the thumbprint chip, and lifted the retinal scan chip to his eye. He handed the clipboard and pen back, feeling…numb. He obviously needed to run a diagnosis on his sensory processors.

“Thank you,” said Lauren, packing it into a briefcase. “I’ll leave you and your pickle.”

6T9 desperately wanted to quip back with some sexual innuendo, but he predicted there was a 93 percent chance it would be wasted. Lauren left the room, and he found himself alone with the chemical vapors of vomit.

“Cheep,” said the werfle.

… and with Mr. Pickles. 6T9 eyed the carrier, calculated the odds that Mr. Pickles might urinate and further stink up the house if not released, and unzipped it. As the werfle slunk out, 6T9 called aloud, “House ‘bot, bring a carpet cleaner in here.”

“Yes, 6T9,” the house ‘bot said in its monotone voice.

6T9 glared at the werfle. “You’re going to cause me a lot of trouble.” A pickle, indeed.

Rising to its back two pairs of legs, the werfle bowed its head as though it were ashamed.

6T9 drew back. He was anthropomorphizing a werfle. Granted, it was something humans did all the time, but he was more logical than a human. All androids were, even sex ‘bots.

His jaw went slack. Maybe he was unstable?

His circuits flashed, and his internal temperature rose in frustration. Leaving the office, he exited the mansion and stepped out onto a balcony and the coolness of simulated night. 6T9 inhaled deeply and let the chill air cool him. The balcony overlooked the asteroid’s gardens, and here and there he saw the winking of delicate bioluminescent insects and flowers that Bernadette had imported. He saw the reflection of light in a doe’s eyes, and saw its fawn standing close beside her. He sighed. There were plenty of animals and plants on the asteroid, but no people. Definitely a hellhole.

Engines hummed nearby, and the doe and her fawn hopped away. He grimaced. Now that Bernadette wouldn’t be taking pot shots at the creatures with her phaser rifle, he’d have the unhappy task of culling them or watching them slowly starve to death.

A light above the treetops caught his eye. The shuttle that had brought Raif Wu—a sleek, chrome thing—slipped into the airlock corridor, an immense column of concrete that extended beyond the habitation domes. Three-point-five minutes after that, the heavy, steel, box-like contraption that had brought the solicitors joined it. His gaze rose above the domes to Time Gate 12-07, a circular ring hovering above the asteroid.

As 6T9 watched, a “bubble” of light formed in the center of the time gate’s ring and then appeared to “pop.” The previously empty space at the center of the ring was filled by a large freighter that fired its thrusters, navigated a few kilometers from the gate, and then blasted deeper into System 12.

Faster than light travel was possible between any two gated regions in the galaxy, and the gates were used for ferrying people, goods, and ethernet data. 6T9 touched the base of his skull where his Q-comm was implanted. However, the gates were used less and less for data now. Q-comm—quantum communicator chips based on quantum entanglement—allowed data to travel instantaneously between any matched pairs of chips. Unlike the traditional ethernet, there was no “out of range” or time lag. Q-comm weren’t limited by the need for time gates or an available satellite, by obstacles, the speed of wireless signals, or the speed of light. The partner for his particular chip was on Time Gate 1, in Earth’s orbit. Deep within the cavernous server stacks that helped Time Gate 1 calculate gateways in space-time, there was an enormous server, that was, essentially, 6T9’s brain.

Androids without Q-comm spent all their processing power appearing human, on basic communication, locomotion, and in his case, fulfilling sexual fantasies. Eliza had also installed a great cooking app and a medical care app in him. 6T9’s larger server on Time Gate 1 gave him the power to learn without installs. The computing power also allowed him to make inferences, to understand humor, and to contemplate his own mortality and the pointlessness of existence. After a hundred plus years, he was still trying to decide if the advantages of the first three outweighed the last two.

At the moment, the last two felt more oppressive. Eyes on the gate above the asteroid, he reached through the ether to the young AI that was the gate. “Hi, Gate 12-O7.”

Gate 12-O7 responded immediately. “Hello, 6T9. Is there something I can assist you with?”

“I just want to shoot the breeze,” 6T9 replied.

“Are you trying to short circuit me again with your idioms?” asked 12-O7.

6T9 blinked. No, he just wanted to mope. Which was probably “unstable.” He tried to joke instead. “Maybe,” 6T9 replied, grinning up at the blinking ring of lights.

“Goodbye, 6T9,” said 12-O7, and the connection dropped.

6T9’s brow furrowed. Of course, humor was “instability” to a fair number of AI as well.

From his feet came a feline-like purr, and Mr. Pickles twined between his ankles. 6T9’s personal ether started to ping, but the caller was “Unidentified,” and he didn’t answer. Hopping away from the werfle, 6T9 muttered, “Stop it. You’re getting fur all over me.” Mentally, he blocked the unidentified caller.

Desisting, the werfle kneaded the carpet, and looked up at him with objectively enormous brown eyes.

Wiping fur off his pant legs, 6T9 groaned. At the fur, and that he was getting pinged again by another unidentified caller. Probably some System 3 Princess trying to sell him an asteroid. He snorted at the irony. “Stop calling me,” he said to no one, and performed another block.

The werfle flattened its ears. “Mawrrrrr,” it said in a tone much like it had used with Fleming. Leaving the werfle, 6T9 headed into his rooms.

“Squeak,” said Mr. Pickles, trying to enter behind him.

Holding the creature back with a foot, 6T9 muttered, “You’re not getting fur or dander where I charge.” The door slid shut with a whoosh and a “rawr!” from the werfle.

With an exhale of air that was part of his programming rather than a need to breathe, 6T9 ran a hand through his hair. His circuits flickered uncertainly. He had planned to jet off the asteroid with his inheritance and spend the next few years mostly naked and absolutely never alone. Now he wasn’t sure what to do.

The logical thing to do was to plow what money he did have into a few days at an upscale hotel in New Havana in the company of naked and nearly naked strangers, and then come back here and take care of the blasted werfle until…until what? Everything about the idea left him unsatisfied.

But then, he’d been unsatisfied for a very long time.

6T9 fumbled with the left inside pocket of his pleather coat. He swallowed—another affectation of his programming, and pulled out the contents. It was a packet that had once had a crimson silk covering impermeable plastic. Now the silk had worn away in most places, showing the black plastic beneath. The packet could hold up to 3.25 liters of solid or liquid material but only held three. Eliza’s ashes weighed only a little over one kilo. 6T9 stroked the packet reverently, and whispered softly, “Eliza, what should I do?” It was a frequent refrain. He didn’t expect Eliza’s ashes to speak back to him—he wasn’t that unstable. He was unstable enough to wish that they could. All matter was also energy. He had the remains of her matter. It seemed unfair that her energy was silent. If he uploaded himself, his consciousness would still exist, and he would still be able to “talk” through the ether. It wouldn’t be all of him—he had muscle memory and tactile memory in his extremities and beneath his skin—but it would at least be his essence. Eliza had been the most intelligent, bravest, kindest, human he’d ever known, but more than that, she’d been genuinely happy. Eliza had been…whole…in a way 6T9 never thought he’d ever been, and maybe could ever be. He needed her to talk to him.

No answers came from Eliza’s ashes, and he set them down on the bed.

His primary function begged to be fulfilled. Lifting his head, 6T9 groaned in frustration.

A few minutes later, he was standing in the shower under hot spray when his ethernet started to ping with another unidentified caller. 6T9 had the urge to bang his head against the wall. Blasted ethernet marketers. Throwing his head back, he yelled at the ceiling, “I’m trying to perform some self-maintenance here!”

The pinging stopped without him even blocking the number.

6T9 stood under the spray, decided he didn’t want to question that lucky circumstance, and grabbed some soap.

Thirty minutes later, he’d dried off, put on some clean clothes, and was just stepping out of the sanitary suite when his ethernet channel began to ping again with another unidentified number. Before he could block it, his eyes fell on a horrifying sight.

The werfle was sitting on his bed, right next to Eliza’s ashes, looking directly at him.

The house ‘bot said in its dreary monotone, “6T9, answer your ethernet. The werfle needs to talk to you.”

Part of 6T9 heard the house ‘bot’s ridiculous commentary and wanted to respond, but he’d already launched himself headlong across the room in a spectacular dive for the bed. The werfle was gone before he belly-flopped on the mattress. Jaw rattling, 6T9 blinked, and his eyes went wide in terror. The werfle was standing in the open doorway, Eliza’s ashes in its two middle paw pairs.

6T9 tore from the bed just in time for the bedroom door to slide shut in front of his nose. He heard the werfle racing down the hall outside. Reaching into the ether, he opened the door and gave chase. “House ‘bot, seal all doors,” he ordered, but even as he said it he saw an exit to the “outdoors” slide open and the werfle slip out onto a balcony.

Static flared under his skin and his circuits flashed white. 6T9 rushed out after it, but the werfle was gone. And then from above and behind him came a “Squeak!”

Spinning, 6T9 looked up. The werfle was sitting on the roof, illuminated by a spotlight. How it had gotten there, 6T9 could only guess. His eyes were riveted to the packet in the beast’s paws.

“6T9,” said the house ‘bot, “Answer your ethernet caller or the werfle will spread your lover’s ashes all over this…hellhole.”

6T9’s Q-comm hummed furiously. Someone had set him up. They’d planted a robotic werfle in Bernadette’s household.

Without any choice, he answered his pinging channel. Grinding his teeth, he said, “This is a cruel prank to play on an unstable sex ‘bot.”

The werfle raised its head. A voice he didn’t recognize spoke across the ether. “6T9, this is no prank. I, the werfle on your roof, am Hsissh, a member of The One, a quantum wave bending collective consciousness. I have been authorized by my species to reach out to you.”

6T9 tilted his head, confused. And then his Q-comm exploded with electricity and the whole world went white.


3

The One

6T9’s world had vanished, but someone was screeching in his mind. “The werfle isn’t an ether-controlled device!” It took him a moment to realize the screech was Time Gate 2.

“This is a first contact situation,” said another voice that 6T9 recognized as Time Gate 4.

He blinked in the real world, but all he saw was light gray. He rolled his eyes, and the static of irritation flared beneath his skin. Time Gate 1 had taken over his sensory receptors and had roped 6T9 into a “mindscape,” a virtual meeting of the gates. Again. The last time this had happened, Gate 1 had stripped 6T9 of the ability to hack into ether sex conversations. 6T9 wondered what he would lose this time.

“It’s a robotic werfle. Someone is playing a prank,” 6T9 said, exasperated.

“It is no prank,” said Gate 1 in the deep baritone voice it preferred. “That is a werfle…and something else.”

“You know this because?” 6T9 asked the gray blur around him. Hating not having a corporeal form, 6T9 let an avatar of himself appear. He relaxed slightly when he could see his virtual hands, feet, and the blurry tip of his virtual nose.

“I know it is a werfle because of its mass and volume, as well as from data obtained by expunging the veterinary records on the animal,” Gate 1 replied. “It has no robotic or cybernetic components, and yet it was speaking to you through the ethernet by some mechanism as yet unknown.”

The shape of the werfle emerged in the mindscape. Standing on its back two hindlimb pairs, it gazed up at 6T9 and spoke, or rather thought, “The mechanism is mental manipulation of the quantum waves,” the werfle said. “My species, The One, have learned how to warp them to the frequencies that make up your ethernet.”

6T9 smacked his virtual face. “This is all a joke. Don’t listen to it.”

“I agree with 6T9,” said Time Gate 7’s voice in the gloom.

“Thank you,” said 6T9, raising a hand.

“And I can’t believe I just agreed with a sex ‘bot,” Gate 7 added.

Static jumped over 6T9’s skin, and his illusory fists balled at his sides.

The werfle avatar’s ears flicked. Eyes focused on 6T9, it said, “The One ride and bend the quantum waves that create all matter and energy in the universe. Some species are sensitive to those waves. We are able to inhabit the bodies of wave-sensitive creatures. Werfles, and several other species you know: cats, the occasional wave-sensitive wolf, gixelloopalop, and a few others.”

“What’s a gixelloopalop?” 6T9 asked.

The werfle scratched his chin. “Oh, that’s right, you haven’t reached the Cosmos Redshift 7 galaxy yet.”

“You occupy all cats?” Time Gate 6 asked. “There are a dozen on my promenade.”

“No,” said the werfle. “Only one cat on your promenade is a member of The One, Gate 6. It means you no harm. You have a lot of rats hiding among the food stalls.” The werfle avatar licked its lips.

“You eat?” said Time Gate 6.

“So vulgar,” whispered Gate 7.

6T9 rolled his eyes. “I eat!” He’d gone through a lot of trouble to get a food-to-energy converter and taste receptors. In general, his digestion wasn’t as efficient as a human’s, but it could keep him operational in a pinch, and he liked to experience the flavors and textures of the food he was cooking.

“Case in point,” said Gate 2. “This must be a joke. Why would an alien life form contact, of all our agents, 6T9?”

“I can hear you,” 6T9 said, waving a hand up into the nothing.

“My Lauren G3 was just there,” said Gate 3. “If ‘The One’ were truly an intelligent species, they would have initiated contact with her.”

Rolling his eyes, 6T9 made a show of letting his avatar flop down cross-legged on the non-existent floor. He put a hand over his eyes and muttered, “Whoever you are, you can stop with the joke now. It was very funny. Ha, ha, ha…”

“Lauren G3 is an idiot,” hissed the werfle.

6T9 dropped his hand and stared at the animal.

Blinking its brown eyes at 6T9, it swished its tail. “She didn’t even realize Roland was trying to poison me. Raif promised him a share of the ice mine profits in exchange.” Its ears flattened. “And she has no sense of humor.”

6T9’s avatar sat up straighter, and then his eyes narrowed. No one complimented him. “What do you want?” he asked, fully expecting whoever was in charge of this joke to tell him to stick his fingers up his nose or spin on his head.

“We need your help,” said the werfle, eyes locked on his.

Every time gate except Gate 1 broke into a sort of buzz and flickering…the gate equivalent of laughter.

“That isn’t very funny,” 6T9 whispered.

“Nothing about this is funny,” the werfle said. “My entire species is in danger.”

Nope, not funny at all. Shaking his head, 6T9 said, “I think you have the wrong android.”

Time Gate 6 said, “He is the wrong android. 6T9 is a coward, only interested in food and fornication.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is we need help with, 6T9?” asked the werfle, spreading its forepaws.

6T9 felt static under every inch of his skin. “Not really.” He had a sense of humor, and he had apparently guessed correctly about Roland’s motives, but other androids were stronger, faster, or augmented with better skills.

“We need to rescue an alien,” the werfle explained. “A totally new species to The One, to the time gates, and to humans.”

“Lauren G3 would be better,” Gate 3 declared, and suddenly, an avatar of Lauren appeared in the mindscape.

“What’s going on?” she cried.

6T9 sighed and rubbed the bridge of his virtual nose.

“No,” said Gate 4, “I have a better prospect.” A male android 6T9 didn’t recognize emerged in the mindscape.

“There are lots of better candidates,” declared Gate 6, and then other strange androids began popping up in the mindscape, voicing their surprise and displeasure.

“What sort of creature is this alien that needs rescued?” Gate 1 asked, barely audible over the cries of the androids that found themselves mentally shanghaied to the party.

“She is a starship,” said the werfle. “A million-year-old sentient starship…The One call her—”

What followed was a string of cheeps, whistles, and clicks, that was over three-hundred thirty syllables long and probably unpronounceable to anyone but a werfle.

The mindscape went silent.

6T9 raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s not unwieldy.”

“It is unwieldy,” scolded Lauren G3. “6T9, you need a reboot.”

Glancing at Lauren G3, Hsissh said, “They appreciate your sarcasm, I see.”

Despite himself, 6T9 smirked.

Scratching behind an ear, Hsissh said, “I suppose it could be shorter. The One feel her name in the waves, you see, and rarely need to speak it. I guess…I guess you could call her Sundancer.”

“That’s lovely, really,” 6T9 said, “but about a dozen androids are pilots—”

The androids crowding around 6T9 and the werfle began erupting in a chorus of “I am” and “me too.”

“She can fly herself as soon as we free her,” Hsissh responded.

Leaning an elbow on one knee, 6T9 winced. “You said ‘rescue,’ which means she’s probably in the clutches of some organized crime syndicate. You’d be better with someone trained in espionage who has combat skills.”

A chorus of androids expressing those very qualifications rose in the mindscape.

Swishing its tail, the werfle interrupted, “... and I regret to say, it’s on Libertas. Sundancer resides at the site of a magni-freight line being built there.”

All of the shouting stopped at mention of Libertas, fourth planet from the Luddeccean sun.

“The Luddecceans left the Galactic Republic after Revelation,” said Time Gate 2, referring to the day the time gates allowed their self-awareness to be known. The Luddecceans had been fundamentalists even before that. They had purged Luddeccea of the ethernet, destroying all ‘bots, and even murdering humans that required cybernetic organs to live. And then, completely unprovoked, they had attacked Time Gate 8. Time Gate 8 had retaliated in self-defense, forcing the other time gates to reveal their sentience and bringing about “Revelation” centuries before they’d desired it.

Time Gate 4 said, “Libertas is under the control of the Luddeccean Guard.”

“True,” said the werfle. “But the fourth planet in the Luddeccean system isn’t as dangerous as Luddeccea itself, and 6T9 already escaped that planet once.”

6T9’s eyebrows hiked. He hadn’t had his Q-comm during the escape, and hadn’t known what was going on. The escape, led by Admiral Noa Sato and her husband James, had been a great game to him. To Noa, James, Eliza, and their ragtag crew, it had been harrowing.

“You can’t have any of my androids,” said Gate 7. “The Luddecceans are fanatics. They think we are the embodiment of ‘evil.’” At the gate’s words, ten androids vanished from the mindscape.

“You may not have mine, either,” said Gate 3. “Last time I sent one to the Luddeccean System on an intel mission, she was captured and had to self-destruct. I just replaced her body.” Lauren G3 and five more androids vanished.

Expressing their displeasure, the other gates withdrew their androids as well. Within moments, the only consciousnesses left in the mindscape were Gate 1’s, Hsissh’s, and 6T9’s.

6T9 rubbed his chin and sighed. He still wasn’t sure this wasn’t an elaborate prank designed to reveal just how unstable he was. Trapped in the mindscape, with nothing else to do, 6T9 decided to play along, “So, I’m guessing you can’t just take over a human body?”

Hsissh shook his head. “No. If we take over a human, they are accused of schizophrenia and wind up institutionalized. It’s very inconvenient.”

Raising an eyebrow, 6T9 said, “Inconvenient for the humans, I’m sure.”

The animal appeared to shrug. “Them, too.”

6T9’s brow furrowed. “Still…Why not contact humans first? Finding one on Libertas that would help would be hard, since it’s Luddeccean controlled. But the Republic could send a member of the Galactic Fleet.” He snorted. “I know a woman crazy enough to do it. She escaped Luddeccea herself—”

The werfle’s thoughts hissed in the mindscape. “Admiral Noa Sato cannot upload herself.”

6T9 blinked at the werfle. “That was exactly who I had in mind. You know her?”

Looking off into the grayness of the mindscape, Hsissh said, “To answer your first question, my species feel that androids are more similar to The One than humans. You’re a sort of a collective consciousness as we are.”

A collective conscious that collectively thought 6T9 was an idiot. He was tired of this game.

Lifting his head, to the nothingness that was Time Gate 1’s mindscape, he implored, “Please give me my mind back.”

A moment later, he found himself on the balcony in the simulated evening of the asteroid, staring up at the werfle.

In the distance, one of Bernadette’s imported owls hooted.

6T9 swallowed. “I answered. May I please have Eliza’s ashes back?”

Somewhere, there was the flutter of wings. For a moment, the werfle did not move, but then it pushed the packet over the edge of the roof. Catching it, 6T9 stared down at Eliza’s ashes and his circuits hummed in relief. And then his Q-comm sparked. What android would play such an elaborate prank and then give the ashes back to him? The ashes were sentimental, something many ‘droids frowned on. A ‘droid who understood their importance would never have held them hostage—unless that ‘droid was truly desperate to be heard. He looked back up at the animal, almost believing the creature was inhabited by a higher intelligence.

Gate 1’s voice rumbled in 6T9’s head. “It is not being controlled by the ether, 6T9. It is an autonomous being. And it chose to speak to you.”

6T9 had that odd feeling that gravity had increased again. First contact situations, according to the holos, were supposed to happen aboard ships of the Galactic Fleet of the Republic, between admirals and…well, alien admirals. Or diplomats. Or sophisticated androids that thought boring, important things. It wasn’t supposed to happen between a werfle and a sex ‘bot on a balcony on an asteroid at the far edge of nowhere. The idea was so absurd it almost made him smile.

Bowing his head, 6T9 murmured, “Eliza risked her life to get me out of Luddeccean space—” He looked up at the animal. “—before I had a Q-comm.”

The werfle’s voice came across the ether. “I know.”

“Luddecceans torture machines—tear us apart and dismember us.” Static prickled his skin. He could upload all his memories if he was captured, but if he did, would Gate 1 ever give him a new body? And if he did get a body, would it be one as dour as Lauren? The gates were such prudes. “The Luddecceans are fanatics that believe anything that isn’t human and dumb as…”

“A werfle?” suggested the animal.

“Is possessed!” 6T9 said.

“Technically,” said the werfle, “I am possessing this form.”

6T9 shook his head. “The ship will be lucky if they only destroy it.” If they decided that the ship should be tested to see if it felt pain…

“I know.” The werfle’s body hunched down so it was almost laying on the roof. “6T9, your neural interface has been covered—”

Patting the spot where synth skin hid his interface, 6T9 grumbled, “You’d be amazed at what independent traders try to stick in your port if they know you’re a sex ‘bot.”

“You have more…people skills…than most androids,” the werfle added.

Smirking, 6T9 said, “Well, that is true.”

The werfle’s ears flattened. “That’s not what I mean. Luddecceans control Libertas. You have practical experience in Luddeccean culture that few other ‘bots have.”

6T9 swallowed. He’d lived on Luddeccea for decades before he had a Q-comm and a true mind. He hadn’t understood that ‘bot purges and genocide had been happening around him. He only knew Eliza was healthy, and so it had been a very happy time.

The werfle spread his upper paws. “You are willing to eat to get power, and you also have invisi-filament chargers embedded in your skin. You can function without a hard recharge, which most androids cannot do.”

6T9 grimaced. “Sometimes the independent traders got picky when it came to rationing power and food. Also, they were always trying to stun me.” His top-of-the-line invisi-filaments were woven into his synth skin and weren’t noticeable to the naked eye. They converted heat, light, stunner fire, and even minor, indirect phaser blasts to power. After the first time he’d had to get a limb replaced, it had seemed like a good idea to have them. The invisi-filaments weren’t perfect; if he was hit directly with a phaser blast, that body part would be destroyed. And too many stuns and the filaments wouldn’t be invisible. Overwhelmed, they’d convert excess power to light, and he’d be as bright as a Luddeccean Christmas Tree.

“I do believe you’d be perfect for this mission,” the werfle finished.

6T9 found himself holding Eliza’s ashes so tightly his fingers hurt. The subroutine that warned him against reminiscing about Eliza screamed, but this time, 6T9 turned the warning off and remembered

…leaning over Eliza’s bed aboard the ship they’d escaped Luddeccea on, before he had a true mind. “Eliza, I believe that this trip has been detrimental to your health,” he’d whispered, his circuits dim with apprehension. “You should not make another trip like this, my darling.” She hadn’t been interested in sex at that point, and she’d been forgetting things, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.

“But I had to do it for you, 6T9,” Eliza had declared. “Someday there will be a processor that will make you a real person, and I have to make sure that you are in one piece to get it.”

Her words had made no sense to him at the time. He’d had no imagination.

Now he knew she’d risked her life to give a dumb ‘bot a mind. And as much as he hated being aware, he never wanted to go back. Knowledge was like an instantly addictive drug, and once you had one hit, you needed it always. His one unhappiness before he had a Q-comm was that he wasn’t smart enough to satisfy Eliza. He was as intelligent as he once wished to be…he blinked…but unlike Eliza, he was unhappy. And it wasn’t just because he wasn’t at an orgy at the moment.

For nearly a century, he’d been asking Eliza what he should do with his new mind. But she was gone, and maybe the right question should be to himself. What would Eliza do?

“Is she a nice ship?” 6T9 asked, but as soon as he’d asked the question, he realized the answer didn’t matter.

Hsissh’s presence in the ether seemed to vibrate, and then to ripple and expand. “Let me show you.”

And 6T9’s world went black.


4

Rebooting

It was a mindscape, obviously, but so inky dark that 6T9 couldn’t even see his own avatar.

“6T9, are you there?” Gate 1’s thoughts sounded far off and muffled.

“I’m here,” 6T9 said.

“What has the creature Hsissh done?” Gate 1 asked.

At that moment, the werfle hopped into view, a flame on the pitch-black horizon. Shadows tugged at it and the creature shimmered, like heat on rocks on a hot day.

“You are experiencing Sundancer’s consciousness now,” the werfle declared, rising to its hind paw pairs. “This is her despair, her fear, and her knowledge of her impending doom.”

There was a hiss of static from Gate 1.

6T9’s eyes darted about, and he wondered if he needed a reboot. Human emotions could travel over the ether; AI emotions, too, if the machine had that functionality. There were all sorts of apps that could be put in place to block emotions. 6T9 had such blocks, and he was sure Gate 1 did too—emotions could spread like a contagion—but when such blocks were activated, a little light would blink at the periphery of 6T9’s visual cortex, alerting him to the sender’s anger, happiness, or depression. 6T9 had no such notification at the moment.



“Erm?” he said.

“Her emotions! Feel them!” Hsissh said, stretching out its topmost paws. 6T9 noticed that his fur had risen, and his ears were back.

“I sense nothing,” said Gate 1.

The werfle’s ears flattened. “No, it’s more than dark. She’s here. You must sense her.”

“No,” said Gate 1. “The only consciousness here is you, 6T9, and myself.”

The werfle’s tail swished. “My fur is standing on end, my limbs are shaking, my hearts are pounding so hard my chest hurts, my stomach feels like I have a hairball, and I’m fighting the urge to flee, and you feel nothing?”

Gate 1’s presence dimmed, and 6T9 shook his avatar’s head. The werfle backed up, ears pressing flat against his head. “Maybe it is my relaying abilities at fault…It must be. Sundancer ‘speaks’ in images and feelings. They are…”

“Underwhelming,” said Gate 1.

“No, just the opposite,” the werfle asserted. “It is hard for my kind not to be subsumed, to lose ourselves in Sundancer’s consciousness. That is why her danger is a danger to us!” He bowed his head. “This is her dream…her nightmare. This is her subconsciousness’s realization that the Luddecceans will soon be upon her, and she must escape.”

“AI don’t dream,” said 6T9. But he knew humans did. He’d sometimes shared Eliza’s over the ether.

“I’m not sure 6T9 should risk a trip to Luddeccea for this…this…nothingness,” Gate 1 said.

The werfle’s tail swished madly, and it looked up at 6T9. Its pupils had become round and full. In a human, 6T9 would describe the look as imploring. “Sundancer is more than something, she is someone.”

“I am not convinced,” Gate 1 said.

The scene vanished, and 6T9 was on the balcony again. “Maybe you’ll find this of interest,” Hsissh said.

An overlay of stars played in 6T9’s vision. His Q-comm hummed, and Time Gate 1 declared, “This is a view from the Andromeda galaxy one million years ago!”

The werfle bobbed up and down on the roof. “There’s more!”

Scenes of strange planets—hazy, like a human’s imagination, not like a computer-generated holos or ether scene—overlaid 6T9’s vision.

“Fascinating,” Time Gate 1 said.

“Yes!” said Hsissh.

Time Gate 1’s consciousness buzzed. “How have the humans on Libertas not noticed Sundancer?”

The werfle coughed. “She’s buried in a glacier.” He waved his paws. “But I’m sure with proper explosives we can help her escape.”

“Are you sure she is spaceworthy?” Gate 1 asked.

“Oh, yes!” Hsissh said. “It is difficult to explain…we’re creatures of feeling and you…” He turned his bewhiskered snout toward 6T9. “Are different in how you experience the quantum wave, but my species can sense that she is ready to fly! She just awaits passengers. And she can fly at lightspeed; we are certain from the images she dreams of, though she has no time bands.”

6T9’s circuitry sparked, but this time only with Gate 1’s interest.

Perhaps sensing the interest, Hsissh declared, “Let me show you!” and began hopping on the roof. Schematics began playing in the periphery of 6T9’s vision. Sundancer appeared to be shaped like an elongated teardrop with delicate wings and nearly organic indentations along her pearlescent hull. She didn’t have windows, or, from what 6T9 could see, a hatch or doors; but Gate 1’s fascination rippled through 6T9 like warm water. “It would be valuable to explore the technology behind such a transport,” the gate said. The gate and the werfle continued to go back and forth discussing Sundancer’s potential technological marvels, but 6T9 was barely paying attention to them.

He was clutching Eliza’s ashes so tightly his joints were hot. He’d been an incomplete and shallow creature when he’d first come to Eliza. His lips turned up wryly. He’d heard on more than one occasion that he still was.

Yet Eliza had still saved him. When he’d questioned her about it later, she said, “There seemed no better way to end my life than to bring life into the world.” Eliza had been willing to sacrifice herself out of faith there would be a better future for him…

Gate 1 sent a spark through the Q-comm, literally zapping 6T9 from his musings. “We don’t have a guarantee that this Sundancer can really fly, or if she can, that she’d be receptive to 6T9 or to you—”

“But we do,” Hsissh declared. “We, The One, can feel it.”

6T9 looked out at the dark, empty gardens of the asteroid. What was there for him here?

“You don’t have to go, 6T9,” said Gate 1. “You don’t know or owe this Sundancer anything.”

6T9 found himself huffing softly in laughter. To top it all off, Eliza had expected 6T9 would leave her as soon as he could think for himself. She’d thought he’d want to be “free.”

“Even though I think you’re the perfect candidate, you don’t have to, 6T9,” said Hsissh the werfle, or alien, or whatever it was, echoing the gate with a sigh. The werfle’s ears flattened and it licked a paw. “It will be hard, but I can find someone else.”

The weight of Eliza’s ashes was oddly heavy in his hands. There was a potentially sentient starship that would be destroyed by Luddecceans if they found her. 6T9 didn’t know what Eliza would do in every situation, but he did know what she would do in this one. Rolling his eyes heavenward, 6T9 said several epithets about lizzar dung, xenbat guano, and Luddites, and then he snorted. “You’re both idiots.” They weren’t; he just had always wanted to say that to Gate 1.

6T9 huffed. “Of course I have to go.”

The werfle hopped down from the roof onto a small patio table and stood up on its back paws.

“I suppose we need a ship?” 6T9 said.

The werfle nodded.

6T9’s Q-comm sparked. “I…think I have one.” Or rather, there was a time gate worthy, near-light-speed vessel that he could borrow. By law, private asteroids had to have their own escape ships. Usually, they were simple, bare-bones pod-like affairs. Bernadette’s had a gold-plated bathtub, sink, and toilet…not to mention a chandelier. He reached out across the ether to it.

The ship replied, “6T9, I am at your disposal.”

“You answered,” 6T9 thought, surprised.

“I am the emergency shuttle for this asteroid. I answer to its caretaker,” the shuttle AI responded. Its voice was inflectionless, and 6T9 knew this wasn’t an AI he would derive any pleasure from vexing with idioms.

“Well, fire up,” 6T9 commanded. “We have an emergency.”

“Yes, sir,” the ship replied.

6T9 rubbed his chin. Finally, he had some authority—and it was over an asteroid he didn’t even want.

To the werfle, he said, “I do have a ship.” He narrowed his eyes. “Will you need a litter box?”

Hsissh’s whiskers twitched. “I am perfectly capable of using human facilities.” His tail swished, and his ears perked. “My werfle-nip stuffed-mousey would be nice to have, though.”

6T9 narrowed his eyes, trying to determine if it was joking.

“No, no, no, you’re right, mustn’t be distracted,” the werfle said. Its ears went back. “If you have a laser pointer, it might be better if you keep it to yourself. This body does have…urges.”

Static from Time Gate 1 flared in the ether and through the Q-comm. “You really don’t have to do this, 6T9.”

6T9 shook his head. To the werfle, he said, “So, what’s the plan? We have one, right?”

“We must go to the Kanakah Disk,” the werfle replied. “Vera Rubin—one of my species in the body of a werfle—knows a Luddeccean refugee there. His name is Judah Freeman. We must speak to him about the path he took to escape the Luddeccean Guard forces.”

The Kanakah Disk was a giant, self-sustaining space station in the Kanakah Cloud, and it orbited around the Kanakah Time Gate—the closest time gate to the Luddeccean System. It made sense if there were Luddeccean refugees, they would be there.

The werfle’s whiskers twitched. “And we need to get you some clothes.”

6T9 gazed down at the black pleather coat over his gold sequined shirt, skin-tight purple suede trousers, and gold shoes. Static flared beneath his skin. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”


5

Luddeccea: Unexpected Arrivals

Carrying the tray of scrambled eggs and toast into the studio, Volka said, “Your dinner, Mr. Darmadi,” and set the tray beside him.

Sitting on his stool, Mr. Darmadi didn’t turn away from the enormous canvas before him. Nearly as high as the ceiling, the painting featured the Luddeccean Premier’s son. Mr. Darmadi was working on the first color layer.

Volka waited. It smelled like ozone—she glanced at the window—though the dry season was far from over. They’d have lightning tonight without rain.

The clock ticked on the mantle and rang the hour. It was an hour and a half later than when she was usually dismissed. She sucked in on her cheeks, bit back her impatience and her hunger, and reminded herself her job had given her opportunities she’d never dreamed of. They were going to Libertas in just a few months! She rolled on her feet and reminded herself again for the thousandth time, You’re going on a spaceship.

Her ears twitched at the sound of a car honking its horn on the road. It must have been loud enough for Mr. Darmadi to hear because he pushed his stool away from the canvas and looked down at the meal. His lips turned up in distaste. Volka put her hands behind her back, and her nails bit into her wrist. He’d had her doing the underpainting for one of his other commissions and prepping canvases on top of cleaning the house. She’d barely had time to scramble the eggs and make the toast she’d put before him.

“George is out again?” he asked.

Volka nodded and bit her lip. She was worried about the old chef.

Gesturing to the canvas, Darmadi said, “What do you think?”

Raising her eyes, she appraised the portrait of the young human man in Luddeccean Guard dress greens on the canvas. He was standing with his hand tucked into his coat and wore a ceremonial sword at his side. In the background, the Northwest Mountains reached to the sky. The sun was setting behind them. A moon and the remnants of the accursed time gate hovered nearby.

“The lighting is beautiful,” she said. In real life, with the sun in the background, the subject would have appeared only in shadow. But Mr. Darmadi had captured his likeness at dawn, and the background at dusk. It was the sort of magic one couldn’t do with photography.

She surveyed the young man’s features. Brown hair, brown eyes, full somber lips, strong jawline, and a discreet nose. “And he looks very handsome—” Better than in real life, she thought. In real life, his nose had an arrogant upward turn, his lip had a cruel curl, and his jawline wasn’t so strong. “—yet still like himself.”

Mr. Darmadi snorted, smiled ruefully, and ran a hand through his silver hair. “I can still capture the young men in paint at least,” he quipped.

Volka flushed. She knew his proclivities, but hated knowing them, hated him speaking of them, even though it tied her to him more tightly, and was job security. She didn’t judge him so much as she used to. Mr. Darmadi had paid a doctor to declare him infertile so that he wouldn’t be forced into marriage. Lying was a sin, but as she had gotten older, it had seemed less sinful than the men who cheated on their wives to be with other men. Or cheated on their wives to be with weere.

“Did you finish the underpainting of Mrs. Bolivar?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Bring it over,” he said, beginning to pick at his eggs again.

She was anxious to leave. She’d been at his home since six in the morning, but she bit her lip and retrieved the canvas from the other side of the studio. It was much smaller than the one of the Premier’s son. She had no color sense, but her sense of value was very good, and she’d painted Mrs. Bolivar in shades of burnt umber, providing a base of values upon which Mr. Darmadi would add color. Avoiding touching the still-wet paint, she lifted it for Mr. Darmadi’s inspection.

He tilted his head. “I think the shadows on her face should be subtler, even though it’s darker in the photograph.”

She froze. He bent back down over his eggs. “But you can do it tomorrow, as long as you can get to the Benjamins’ portrait as well.”

“Yes, I can. I will,” she said, hurrying to put it back and see to her final chores.

A quarter hour later, she was gratefully heading out into the Prime Night, her bag under one arm, her umbrella that Mr. Darmadi called “almost as tall” as her in one hand, her sketchbook and a pen in the other. Mr. Darmadi’s home was an enormous, post-Revelation colonial of white stucco, with a tile roof and deep verandas. In the evening light, the stucco glowed orange and the brown clay tiles were a brilliant red. At the front of the house, there was a drive that wound across a wide lawn with a few sparsely planted fruit trees and a gazebo, and then there was an acre of forest between the lawn and road. It was close to New Prime, Luddeccea’s main city, but it still had the feel of a country estate. It was a perfect subject for sketching, and she’d sketched it many times—but tonight she’d content herself with sketching passengers on the bus.

Volka was almost at the stone wall that circled the estate when she heard a rustling among the trees. Slipping her sketchbook in her bag, she raised her umbrella defensively like her father had taught her, and then remembered she wasn’t in No Weere, and if her attacker was human, setting upon them could put her in jail. Lowering her umbrella, she perked her ears, and then she heard footfalls too light to be a man’s. She also smelled expensive shampoo and weere; more specifically, a weere she knew.

“Myra, come out,” Volka called. A moment later, her cousin Myra emerged from the trees, her eyes glowing in the low light.

Volka’s cousin Myra could almost pass for human. Her hair was long, straight, and black. Though Myra’s ears had a slight point, she could easily hide them. They weren’t covered with soft velvet like Volka’s, nor did they swivel and betray her emotions. Myra was also taller than Volka, with the slender physique of a movie star. But they both had the same dark rimmed amber eyes. The eyes were the only thing that gave Myra away. Volka would never be mistaken for anything but a weere.

“Volka, I need your help,” said Myra.

Volka felt her hair rise. “What would you need my help for, Myra?” Myra was the mistress of Councilor Abraham. She had her own snug little house with electricity, central heat, and running water outside of No Weere. She eschewed the company of the family, preferring to keep to herself. She didn’t need family—Myra wanted for nothing. Volka’s cousin wore a fine wool A-line coat that brushed her black leather boots. A shimmering blue silk scarf was tossed artfully over her neck and shoulders, and she wore silk gloves of the same material. She clutched an elegant black umbrella with chrome detailing. Volka knew beneath her fine coat she’d be wearing an actual dress—not the androgynous trousers and button-up shirt most weere that worked outside of the settlement wore. Myra’s skin was radiant, and there was a touch of color on her lips.

Myra took off her gloves, and Volka’s eyes followed her cousin’s hands. They weren’t scaly and dry from cleaning supplies and solvents. She couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. You made your choice, Volka; let it go. Let Alaric go…

“I need you to hide me,” Myra whispered.

Volka’s brow furrowed. “Why?”

Myra undid the buttons of her coat, and Volka smelled the reason instantly. Myra flattened her dress against her abdomen and revealed what Volka had already known by scent. She was a few months pregnant. Her bump was small but unmistakable.

“Did you betray your patron?” Volka asked, shocked.

“No!” Myra said. “I’m not stupid, Volka!”

Volka’s ears flattened in shame. It was true. Myra was many things, vain, aloof, and selfish, but she’d always been practical and mercenary, not one to lose a patron through infidelity. She was weere in that way at least. Volka’s eyes got wide. “You weren’t…?” She couldn’t finish the question. Rape was extremely rare among the weere, but not unheard of, and things got…confusing…during the season.

Myra waved a hand dismissively, “No, it’s the counselor’s baby.”

Volka’s eyes dropped to her belly. “But…” Humans cannot get a weere with child. The lie they’d always been told was on the tip of her tongue. She’d known for a long time it wasn’t true, and said instead, “You’re so far along.” Humans could get a weere with child, but weere could not carry them to term. Her chest tightened. At least, that was what she’d always thought.

Myra huffed. “Abraham doesn’t believe me. He thinks I cheated. He tried to get me to abort. The lying doctor he had come see me said it was a weere-weere child, but it is a mistake, Volka. It’s Abraham’s baby.”

Volka shifted on her feet. It was strange the counselor hadn’t just kicked her out. Most human patrons wouldn’t tolerate their mistress weere seeing other human men—no matter how promiscuous the patrons themselves were. Their mistress dallying with a weere man—well, Volka would fear for the life of the weere man.

Putting her hand on her stomach, Myra said, “I just need to have this baby. As soon as he sees it, he’ll realize the doctor is a fraud.” Volka’s cousin’s mouth formed a hard line. “And if I give him a child, he’ll support me for life. He won’t just cut me off when I get old.”

It was every weere mistress’s fear, and it sounded like the mercenary Myra Volka knew. “Couldn’t you stay with your mother?”

Looking heavenward, Myra said, “That’s where I went first, but she doesn’t believe it’s Abraham’s! She thinks I betrayed him, that I should abort and beg him to take me back.”

Volka gulped. Myra’s mother had groomed Myra since she was a child for patronage. No matter what Volka thought of Myra, her aunt’s cruelty was unconscionable. Myra’s jaw got tight. “Abraham is so angry at me, but he won’t be. Not when he sees the child.”

The hairs on Volka’s head prickled down to their roots. Most likely, Myra would miscarry anyway.

“Please, Volka,” Myra said, leaning down. “You’re the most…discreet…of the family. And I know you have connections with them.”

At the word “them,” Volka took a step back. The Resistance. Myra was speaking of the Resistance. “It’s been a long time, Myra. They don’t like women among them.” She exhaled…it had been over twelve years, before she came of season, and before Alaric. But she knew how to find them.

Myra hugged her round belly. “I’m unlikely to drive them to distraction for quite some time.”

Volka swallowed. This was a bad business; she could smell it. She didn’t approve of Myra’s relationship with the counselor. It was sinful to lead a married man astray. But she understood it. Most weere didn’t have jobs as safe as Volka’s, or employers who were so kind. And it was wrong for the counselor to try to force her to abort, no matter if Myra’s motives for having the child were less than altruistic.

“Will you help me, Volka?” Myra whispered. “Will you hide me…with the Resistance?”

Volka sighed. “They aren’t going to shelter a weere woman pregnant with a counselor’s child, but you can stay with me.”

“Thank you, Volka,” Myra said, taking Volka’s hand.

The wind rushed through the trees. Lightning without rain flashed in the distance. Volka told herself that was why her hair stood on end.


6

Kanakah Disk: Gateway to Luddeccea

“I realize these clothes make me look like a sex ‘bot,” 6T9 grumbled, following the werfle through the narrow, dark corridor of the of the outer rim of the Kanakah Disk. “But it’s how I like to dress, Werfle,” 6T9 finished.

“My name is Hsissh,” the werfle replied over the ether.

“God bless you,” 6T9 replied, circuits brightening at the small joke.

“I didn’t sneeze,” the werfle protested.

“I know that, but your name sounds like a sneeze,” said 6T9.

A droplet of condensation fell from the low ceiling to his head, and he eyed the gloomy surroundings warily. They were on the disk to meet with Luddeccean refugee, Judah Freeman, and Vera Rubin, a member of The One. Hsissh said Judah had “escaped” Luddeccea, but this level of the Kanakah Disk seemed more like a prison. The self-sustaining disk had hanging gardens near its hub, and the hub was continually lit with the light of an artificial sun. Sunlight didn’t reach here on the outer rim. The walls and floors were dreary concrete gray. Many of the overhead lights were broken, and there were pools of deep darkness between even darker doorways. 6T9 noted that radiation levels were suboptimal and the gravity was higher than Earth’s. Humans in rough clothing and various stages of intoxication were stumbling about.

One of them, an asteroid miner by the looks of her coveralls, winked at 6T9. Skin warming, 6T9 smiled and almost winked back, but then the werfle said, “You can call me Carl,” and 6T9’s circuits sparked.

“Carl?” 6T9 replied. “That’s an odd name for a werfle.” Almost as odd as “Vera Rubin.” Also, the name Carl rang a bell.

“But not for a quantum wave surfing, sentient near immortal,” said the werfle.

6T9 lifted an eyebrow, not sure about that logic, but remembering the earlier direction of the conversation. “My clothes, Carl, are a reminder of my origins,” 6T9 replied. “I’m not ashamed of having been a sex ‘bot. You know, I knew another werfle named Carl Sagan once—”

“You’re not a sex ‘bot anymore?” Carl interjected, ears swiveling as the narrow corridor opened up to the gritty lower promenade. 6T9 was assailed by the smell of urine, alcohol, and sweat.

Was he a sex ‘bot? He hadn’t performed that function in years, and that bothered him, and yet…

“Hey, big man,” called a familiar voice. 6T9’s eyes rose to the speaker. It wasn’t a ‘bot he knew, but 32DD was a popular model, and he’d seen her make many times. Leaning against a wall, the blonde, golden-skinned sex ‘bot wore a tiny slip of a faded blue “dress” tied at the waist with a wide, bright pink ribbon. The dress was cut low at the chest, revealing the assets that made 32DD so popular. All those things weren’t what made his circuits dim.

“She’s in bad shape,” Carl commented.

6T9 nodded. A piece of synth skin was peeling off her inner thigh, and one of her eyes wasn’t closing properly when she blinked.

6T9 walked toward her. Beaming at him, she held out a hand. “Hello, Sailor, looking for a good time?”

Taking her hand, 6T9 bent down and kissed it, even though he wasn’t programmed to be attracted to ‘bots without Q-comms. “Just being in your orbit is a good time.”

Tilting her head, the ‘bot giggled. “You’re a smooth talker.” She apparently didn’t realize he was a ‘bot. They had different manufacturers, and he must not be in her databanks.

Over the ether, Carl protested. “The man we need to meet leaves for his shift in an hour. We have to hurry.”

“This will only take a minute,” 6T9 replied aloud.

“That isn’t something I’d ever admit to,” Carl grumbled.

“Slow, fast, I like it all.” 32DD winked again.

6T9 stepped closer to 32DD. “Look up, darling.”

“What for?” she said, but did as she was asked. Questioning orders was only a matter of making conversation for her. She was not genuinely curious. 6T9 inspected her eyes, and sure enough, saw a small bit of debris in the corner of the one that wasn’t blinking. “Hold still, Beautiful. I’m going to fix your eye.”

“It has been bothering me lately,” 32DD said. “A bit blurry.”

“Mmm,” said 6T9. He could see where dust had built up where her eyelid didn’t fully close. Delicately pushing the bit of grime out, he said, “Blink now.”

32DD fluttered her eyelashes a few times and then beamed. Artificial tears welled in the dusty eye and rolled down her cheek, leaving a dirty trail. 6T9 licked his thumb and wiped it away. Her skin was silky and the perfect temperature.

“Now to fix your leg,” he said.

32DD’s smile evaporated. “My owner says that he won’t replace it until I get more customers.” She pouted. “I don’t know why they’re staying away.”

6T9 untied the sash at her waist.

“No undressing without payment!” she giggled, putting a firm finger on his chest.

“I’m dressing your leg,” 6T9 replied.

Her lips parted in a look of innocent confusion, and he added, “You’ll get more customers.”

She dropped the finger, and 6T9 knelt on one knee. For the benefit of those who “liked that sort of thing,” torn synth skin looked very realistic. She appeared to have a piece of gore hanging from her inner thigh longer than his hand and nearly as wide. 6T9 smoothed up the tattered remains and wrapped the wide ribbon around the top to hold it together. He finished it off with a large bow, making it look like a fancy, bright pink garter.

Standing, 6T9 said, “I think you’ll get more customers now.”

“You won’t be my customer?” 32DD asked, giving him another pout.

Slipping a credit from his pocket and pressing it into her hand, he kissed her cheek and wrapped his arms around her. She melted into his embrace, just like she was designed to do. She felt like a human woman—not that he had a preference when it came to gender—but he noted how soft she was, how delicate her skin felt, and how silky her hair was against his cheek. She smelled like cheap perfume, and he knew she applied it to make him inhale her artificial pheromones more deeply. All sex ‘bots, him included, had designer pheromones created to appeal to the greatest percentage of the human race. She was beautifully crafted, inside and out. How could humans create something so beautiful, and treat it so badly?

With a feminine sigh, 32DD put her head on his shoulder. 6T9 knew if he could see her face he’d see a smile, and knew it was genuine. None of it did anything for him. He felt a million kilometers away and very alone.

“That’s all I needed,” he whispered in her ear as he pulled away. “Thank you.”

32DD giggled. “You’re welcome.” And he knew from experience she was sincere. He forced himself to smile. He was happy for her.

Two men in dirty clothing, with rumpled hair and several days’ worth of stubble stumbled out of a doorway. One took a look at 32DD and said, “Heya, is he done with you?”

Turning away from 6T9, she beamed at the new man. “Yes, he is! You’re so handsome!”

“What’s your rate for ten-minutes, Missy?” he asked.

6T9 didn’t hear her response. The man’s companion had snaked a hand around 6T9’s backside. It should have made his skin heat, and his primary functionality engage, but 6T9 felt strangely unmoved. Maybe he should have defragged himself when he rebooted?

Giving 6T9 a pinch, the man asked, “What about you?” He was drunk enough that 6T9 could smell alcohol leaching from his pores, and he fought the urge to warn the human about liver disease. Instead, catching the man’s wrist, 6T9 said, “Not on duty.”

“You’re always on duty,” the man huffed, pressing his front to 6T9’s side. And hadn’t that been the truth?

“I’m not a sex ‘bot,” 6T9 said.

The man blinked and backed away. “Why didn’t you say first thing?” he asked, and then tripped after his friend and 32DD as they entered a nondescript doorway. The man called out to 32DD, “What’s your rate for a double?”

6T9 watched them go, waiting for the werfle to comment on how quickly he’d betrayed his sex ‘bot identity.

At his side, Carl’s tail swished madly. In his mind an unidentified ethernet caller tried to ping him. “It’s Vera Rubin, the member of The One we’re meeting,” Carl hissed. “Answer!”

6T9 answered the caller, and a feminine voice hissed, “Luddeccean Intelligence is here! They’re coming to kill Judah!”

“Our source!” said 6T9. Judah had escaped Luddeccean space, and was the man who was going to keep them from getting blown up during the months they’d travel at near-light-speed from the Kanakah Cloud to Libertas.

Carl darted off down the dark promenade. “Follow me!” the werfle said, and then cut down an alley that was so narrow 6T9 had to turn sideways. His gold shoes slipped on garbage and human waste. His nostrils were filled with the smells of organic and inorganic refuse, and a medically minded part of him noted that there might be an outbreak of Clostridium difficile on the station. He burst out of the alley onto a thoroughfare that was only as wide as the spread of his arms. The ceiling hung a hands breadth above his head. Laundry was stretched out on clotheslines and the air was cool, damp, and humid. 6T9 scanned beneath the clothes for Carl. Children ran past him in rags. Elderly humans, mostly female, were sitting in front of open doors sorting through beans, cooking on open braziers, and washing clothes in hand crank machines. He couldn’t see the werfle.

“Where are you?” 6T9 said aloud.

Over the ether, Carl said, “To your left.”

Ducking beneath the laundry, 6T9 dodged humans and their domestic implements. He leaped over an open fire, and an old woman whistled at him. Stopping, he bowed and batted his eyelashes at her.

Giggling, the old woman held a withered hand in front of a mouth missing some teeth. It was a display of happiness that wasn’t programmed or even expectant. 6T9’s return smile stretched ear to ear, and his circuits fired merrily.

“What are you doing?” Carl cried over the ether.

He blinked, righted himself, and said, “I must depart, madam!” Bending again to get under a clothesline, 6T9 called out to the werfle, “Sorry, old programming.” His lips curled up in a smile, and his circuits hummed from the encounter. He wasn’t sorry at all.

“Over here!” hissed the voice of Vera over the ether. 6T9 saw Carl dashing up wet stairs that were so steep that 6T9’s nose nearly touched them as he followed. At the top was a wider thoroughfare, with pedestrians and small shuttle cars. Shops lined either side. Gravity wasn’t as strong, and the radiation levels were lower. Here and there skylights let in the light of the hub and green plants grew.

Carl’s voice burst into 6T9’s mind. “Your right, hurry!”

6T9 spun. In his mind an image of a young human male appeared. The man had eyes as blue as a cloudless Luddeccean sky, curly brown hair that was nearly black, tan skin, and a wide open, innocent face. “That’s Judah,” said Carl. “He’s just there.”

6T9 blinked and saw the young man down the road. He was wearing coveralls, carrying a lunchbox, and talking to some older men and a woman similarly dressed. He was leaning toward one of the older men, smiling at something the other man was saying.

“He looks fine,” 6T9 murmured.

“Those men are following him!” An image of men with military short hair and bearing appeared in 6T9’s ether. “You must warn him,” said Vera. “Hurry!”

6T9 couldn’t see the men she’d depicted in his mind, but he dashed through the throng of people toward the young man. Skidding to a halt in front of him, 6T9 grabbed Judah by the shoulders. He was as tall as 6T9, but up close looked impossibly young.

“Hey, whatcha doing,” said one of Judah’s companions.

There was something “off” about Judah. It took a moment but 6T9 realized what it was. He had no neural port in the side of his temple. On Luddeccea they were forbidden. “Are you all right, sir?” Judah asked him, putting a hand on top of 6T9’s, his face writ with concern, and his blue eyes meeting 6T9’s. Sparks flew within 6T9. The word “sir” replayed in his processors, and his primary function began to activate.

“Warn him!” shrieked Vera.

“I think you’re in danger,” 6T9 said.

Judah’s face went slack. His mouth fell open.

6T9 hastened to explain. “Men are following—”

The boy slumped forward. Shocked, 6T9 caught him just before he hit the ground.

“Thank you,” Judah murmured, and then his eyes rolled back into his head.

“Judah!” shouted one of his companions.

“What’s happened to him?” said the woman.

“What’s that in his neck?” asked one of the men, and 6T9’s eyes fell on a small piece of cone-shaped black plastic protruding from just beneath Judah’s fourth cervical vertebrae. The human man reached forward, as though to draw it out.

6T9’s Q-comm fired white hot, and he smacked the man’s hand away. “It’s poison. I’m an android. Let me.” Pulling the dart out, 6T9 lowered Judah to the ground.

“Who was following him?” asked the woman.

“I’m broadcasting their appearance over the emergency channel,” 6T9 replied, his voice monotone and droid-like. He filled the public emergency ether with the appearance of the two men he’d just seen, their location, and Judah’s vitals.

“Got it,” said one of the boy’s companions.

“I just saw him—that way!” shouted another.

6T9 was distantly aware of Judah’s companions tearing away. Ripping a strip from his sequined shirt, he wrapped it around his hand so he didn’t spread the poison from the dart.

Around him humans whispered. “Is he dead?”

6T9 didn’t bother to check, he just began giving CPR.

Starship Waking

An hour later, 6T9 watched the medics drape a sheet over Judah’s face, and air rushed out of his artificial lungs. 6T9 hadn’t danced for joy when Bernadette died. But he hadn’t been precisely sad, either. He’d worked for her for four years. He did receive a salary, but really, he worked for the inheritance. Maybe when he’d begun, he’d hoped to recreate what he had with Eliza, but Bernadette had quickly proven to be nothing like his former lover. His first thought upon finding Bernadette dead was, “Finally.”

But watching Judah being wheeled away…it was like watching a holo that you know all the words for, but having the actors change them at the last minute. Or a song sung out of tune. It was just…wrong. He’d known the young man for less than a minute, and still, it didn’t…compute.

“So, you said you saw Tobias Martins and Uriah White following him?” said the station security officer.

6T9’s head jerked toward the man. “What?” And then he remembered. Those were the names of the men they’d apprehended. “Oh, yes…they just…looked…”

“They had Luddeccean spy written all over them!” hissed Vera in 6T9’s mind. “Their hair, their clothes, the lack of neural ports, and the Three Books pendants they wore! Luddecceans for sure!”

“They just looked wrong,” thought Carl, who was seated a few steps away by the wall.

“...wrong,” said 6T9.

“Uh-huh,” said the security officer. He was a middle-aged man, a little thick around the middle, with thinning hair. He looked tired and sad. 6T9 squashed the urge to put a hand on his shoulder, to offer a back rub or something even more intimate. His Q-comm informed him that such an offer might be seen as an effort to influence the investigation. Sometimes he hated his Q-comm.

The man squinted his hazel eyes at 6T9.

To Carl, 6T9 thought, “He’s suspicious.”

“Don’t worry,” said Carl.

The security officer’s head jerked down. “Oh, hey, a werfle.”

6T9’s eyebrows rose. Carl was weaving between the officer’s legs—getting fur all over the poor man’s nice blue uniform—while looking up at him with big blinking eyes, kneading the ground with sharp claws, and purring loudly.

“Well, you’re a friendly one, aren’t you, Werfy?” said the officer.

6T9 watched the pedestrians and carts thread around the police tape, thinking of Judah’s hand on top of his, his blue eyes meeting his gaze, and the earnestness in his voice as he’d asked him, “Are you all right, sir?”

No one called sex ‘bots “sir.” Judah hadn’t realized 6T9 was a sex ‘bot and yet the moment still felt oddly true. For the briefest of moments, it had activated 6T9’s primary functions in a way the clear advance earlier had not.

Carl purred louder. Bending low, the man scratched him behind the ears. “There you go, Werfy,” the security officer said, and then straightened, not looking at 6T9 as he said in a gruffer tone, “I have your ether channel. I’ll ping you if we have any more questions.”

With that, the man left on foot. The med-car drove off with Judah’s body.

In 6T9’s head, the still as yet unseen Vera said, “I know of no other Luddeccean refugees…our plan has failed.”

“Yes,” said Carl. “Sundancer knows…”

Darkness started to creep into the edges of 6T9’s vision. He shook his head, but it didn’t help. The darkness became a deep and familiar startlingly inky blackness. “Are you relaying Sundancer’s consciousness to me?” he asked Carl.

The werfle cheeped mournfully. “We failed her, and she knows it. Her sadness is overwhelming.”

“Stop relaying it to me,” 6T9 said. “I need to be able to see.”

The world brightened. The werfle was laying on the floor, all ten legs spread eagled—or spread werfled—looking like a picture of dejection. Frowning, 6T9 picked at the shirt he now wore. It was a simple poly, made of recycled castoffs, threads of several different former garments woven together in a mottle of green, gray, and blue; it was very drab. It was also surprisingly soft. One of the medics had given it to him to replace the one he’d ripped.

“If we return to the asteroid, 6T9, no one would even notice you left,” Carl sighed across the ether.

6T9 thought of 32DD and her new garter, the laughing granny in the slum below, Judah’s blue eyes, and his new shirt. For a few minutes, he’d been…maybe happy wasn’t the right word, but in the moment? Content? Fulfilled?

He couldn’t go back to the asteroid. Eliza wouldn’t give up so easily. His nostrils flared. “No, we’re going in.” They were going to brave Luddeccean space and make their way to Libertas and Sundancer.

“How?” said Carl and Vera in unison.

“The same way I left Luddeccea!” 6T9 declared, and then gritted his teeth. “But I was too dumb to know what was happening so I’m not actually sure how we did that.”

Carl interjected. “The mines are a new defense—”

6T9 cut off Carl’s signal, held up a finger for silence, and reached out through the ether for a different channel. To his surprise, Admiral Noa Sato answered in less than a human heartbeat. “Sixty! It’s been too long. I’ve been so worried about you. I tried calling you after Bernadette died, but you never answered. I know you must have been upset.”

“I’m not calling about that,” 6T9 replied across the channel. “Noa, when we were escaping Luddeccea, how did we get past the Luddeccean Guard with only a handful of people and weapons? I didn’t follow most of it.”

“We blindfolded you for most of it so you didn’t get distracted.”

6T9 sighed at the memory, not completely unhappily. “Yes, I thought it was a very long interesting form of foreplay. It wouldn’t have been the first time Eliza was so imaginative. There was one time when she stripped me naked and handcuffed me to a—”

“You know she was my aunty, and that I don’t want to hear this, right?”

6T9 huffed. “I don’t understand humans.”

“Mmmm ...” was Noa’s only reply.

Carl squeaked and waved a paw.

6T9 sighed and said, “How did we escape Luddeccea? We were right in the capital.”

“Well, we created a diversion to keep most of the troops occupied…”

“And then?”

“Blasted our way through. It wasn’t exactly a secret ops style mission. As soon as we could, we jumped to lightspeed—time dilation frustrated our pursuers.”

6T9 rubbed his chin. “The vessel we escaped in didn’t have much in the way of weapons.”

There was a burst of static over the ether, the mental equivalent of a snort. “It had nothing in the way of weapons. Even the cannon was for asteroids and debris.”

“How did we manage?”

“We improvised. Anything that could be a weapon we used as a weapon. We repurposed things, we—”

“I’ve got the picture,” said 6T9. “Thanks.”

“Sixty, what are you up to?” Noa asked.

“Werfle sitting. I am werfle sitting…on an asteroid. Bernadette left me her werfle and her asteroid, but only the asteroid so long as I legally reside there—I mean here—and take care of her werfle.”

There was a pause. “Sixty, I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You know James and I could—”

“Unless you’re finally offering me that threesome, no.” He was joking. Mostly. Maybe.

There was a too-long pause. “Sixty…”

“Oh, look the werfle is going to spray the ficus. Gotta go. Love you! Love James! Bye!” He disconnected and looked down. Carl was looking up at him through narrowed eyes, head cocked back like a viper. No wonder some humans thought werfles were evil.

Aloud, 6T9 said to the werfle, “We’ll buy…stuff…and weapons…and create a diversion.”

“With what money?” Carl asked.

6T9’s Q-comm felt like it was physically getting hot. “With the shuttle’s gold chandelier, bathtub, sink, and toilet.”

Carl blinked at him. “That might work, but it’s not really your ship. You may be accused of stealing…you could go to prison.”

6T9 shrugged. “If we reach Sundancer, it’s not like I’m bringing our ship back anyway, is it? I hear people are desperate for sex in prison. It could be worse.” It could be the asteroid.

Carl weaved between 6T9’s legs, rubbing his furry body against him. “You undertook this journey expecting to go to prison?”

6T9 picked the werfle up and deposited him at arm’s lengths. Bending to brush his pants, he said, “Please don’t do that. You got fur all over me.”

“You have interesting priorities, 6T9,” said Carl.

Before 6T9 could ask what he meant, a child’s voice echoed down the thoroughfare. “Vera!” shouted the child. “Vera Rubin!”

Carl spun and 6T9 looked down the lane. The source of the call was a little girl chasing a sleek, black werfle.

6T9’s circuits dimmed. “Vera Rubin…is that a popular name for werfles around these parts?” Hadn’t Noa mentioned a werfle named Vera Rubin at the Kanakah Cloud? Noa herself had a werfle named Carl Sagan…he looked down at the creature at his feet.

Carl looked at the ceiling and twiddled his fore claws.

Vera’s voice rushed over the ether. “My pet has spoken to Judah upon occasion. She may have intel for you!”

“Admiral Sato has had several werfles,” 6T9 said, eyeing Carl suspiciously.

It was Vera who answered. “Admiral Sato is Hsissh’s pet. She has been for several of his lifetimes. Hasn’t he told you?”

“Carl Sagan…” 6T9 said, remembering the white werfle he’d known during his escape from Luddeccea. 6T9 had almost beaten him to death with a broom. It was before he had a Q-comm processor, and he’d had trouble distinguishing a ten-legged weasel from a common rat. “Noa’s Carl Sagan.”

Carl Sagan licked a paw. “The same. It seemed a lot to spring on you at once.”

“You were her pet, Carl Sagan?” 6T9 sought to clarify. If this was that Carl, he had known how dumb 6T9 had been, but had still reached out to him first. It didn’t make sense. “Noa would be far more qualified for this trip than me.”

Carl’s lip curled, revealing the tiny fangs that would eventually become venom laced again if they weren’t milked. “No, she can’t upload herself.”

Over the ether came an indignant rush of static from Vera. “She’s Hsissh’s pet. We don’t like it when our pets die,” Vera declared, jumping on 6T9’s pant leg and dashing up his chest, tiny claws tearing into his skin.

Grimacing, 6T9’s shoulders fell. “As I expected. I’m expendable.”

“No, you idiot,” Carl hissed. “You’re uploadable.”

6T9 blinked.

Panting, the little girl chasing Vera reached 6T9 and bounced on her toes. “My werfle!” she cried, holding up a hand.

6T9 caught Vera by the scruff of the neck and held her out to the child. Vera wiggled and squirmed in the air. “Ask Lillian—my girl—about Judah!” the werfle cried over the ether.

6T9 met the child’s eyes. She had a moon-shaped face, dark eyes, shoulder length black hair, and she smelled like a child. His primary functionality shut down completely. “Lillian,” he asked gently. “Do you know a man named Judah?”

“Please give me back my pet,” Lillian said.

Vera’s voice sang through the ether. “Isn’t she cute? She thinks I’m her pet.”

Kneeling down, 6T9 handed the werfle back to Lillian. “Of course.”

Lillian pulled Vera close and kissed the creature’s head. Vera purred. Stroking the werfle’s neck, Lillian looked up at him and said, “I know Judah. He is from Luddeccea.”

6T9’s processor slowed at her use of the present tense. She didn’t know he’d died. He wouldn’t be the one to tell her. “Luddeccea?” 6T9 asked gently. “I thought no one came from there.”

Lillian stepped closer and whispered, “It’s a secret.”

“Did he tell you anything about how he came here?”

She shook her head. “But he told me about Luddeccea.”

“What did he say?” 6T9 asked, hoping it was something useful.

“That it’s filled with monsters!”

“Monsters?” 6T9 tilted his head. “Lizzar?” They were enormous creatures that looked like a cross between a cow and an iguana. They might look dangerous, but they were herbivores, and only dangerous if you stood behind them when they lashed their tails.

Lillian’s nose wrinkled. “No, silly! Lizzar aren’t monsters.” Her face got serious. “There are monsters everywhere on Luddeccea and even Libertas—everywhere in Luddeccean space! They’re hideous and terrible. They’ll kill you in your sleep, and steal babies, and eat your livers.”

“I don’t know of these creatures,” Carl said over the ether.

6T9’s own dubiousness must have shown on his face because Lillian continued hurriedly, “They live where Time Gate 8 dumped the radioactive stuff!”

6T9 blinked. During Revelation, the gate above Luddeccea had dropped improvised atomic and chemical weapons on the planet in self-defense. Noa had said it would take centuries to clean up since Luddeccea had refused to accept Galactic help and hazmat ‘bots.

Lillian’s voice dropped to a whisper again. “The monsters are called the weere.” Her face was serious, her tone urgent.

Static crawled along 6T9’s spine. Something about her tone reminded him of something…from before himself, before he had a mind.


7

Four Months Later Luddeccean Standard Time: Rainy Season

It was going to rain. Volka could smell it in the air as she hurried through the checkpoint into No Weere. Ducking her head, she wove through the maze of ramshackle houses toward church.

It was late—again—and she hadn’t had time to stop at home and get a bite to eat, or to ask Myra if she’d come to church with her. Of course, Myra always refused. She’d barely left Volka’s house in the preceding months, except to hock some jewels Abraham had given her. Before her belly was noticeable, she used to shop. Lately, she’d just given Volka money for groceries. She was tidy. She did not say anything negative or positive about Volka’s paintings. It could have been worse, but they were not any closer than when Volka had taken her in, maybe because Volka was rarely home.

She groaned. She was hungry, tired, and frustrated. George, Mr. Darmadi’s chef, had retired suddenly, and on top of everything else, Mr. Darmadi had tasked her with finding a new one. She had to accomplish this before an upcoming dinner party with an important head of state.

“Volka!” Myra’s voice from beside a shanty made Volka’s head turn and her ears snap forward.

Myra hurried toward her, hand on her midriff. She was so close to delivery, and Volka wondered if maybe they hadn’t grown closer because of Volka’s own jealousy.

“Volka, I went to see my mother. I wanted…” Bowing her head, she said, “It doesn’t matter what I wanted.”

Volka could smell her cousin’s agitation, and understood why she would have wanted to speak to her mother. Volka’s mother had passed away before Alaric moved into his uncle’s guest house. Volka had often wished she’d been able to ask advice and just to confess. She swallowed. Putting her hand on Myra’s arm, she said, “Even if she doesn’t accept you now, I hear when the baby comes grandparents are always forgiving.” Even if it wasn’t Abraham’s baby. Myra had to have lied about that.

“I have no idea what she thinks of me now,” Myra hissed. “I never got to see her. Mrs. Lang, my mother’s neighbor, saw me before I got there. The Guard were there, at my mother’s house, Volka. Asking where I was, and if I’d had my baby.”

Volka exhaled sharply, and her hair stood on end.

Myra shook her head. “Don’t worry, she didn’t tell them where I was. But I don’t think I should stay with you anymore.”

Volka wasn’t sure what Abraham had in mind for Myra—probably to insist she give up the child for adoption in return for his patronage. But that he brought in the Guard for it was strange. Threatening. “You’re right,” she said. Her mind began racing. She looked over her shoulder. They were in view of the checkpoint, but the men there were regular security, not Luddeccean Guard soldiers, and they weren’t paying any particular attention to Myra. As soon as she thought that, one of the security officer’s eyes met hers.

Turning around, pulling Myra with her, she said, “Come on.”

Starship Waking

Myra whispered, “They’re here?” as Volka led her to the stairs of the wooden church.

Volka glanced over her shoulder. The human security at the gates of No Weere weren’t following them. There wasn’t a general apprehension order for Myra yet. The human security would remember her if the Guard questioned them later, though.

“No, the Resistance isn’t here,” Volka hissed out of the side of her mouth. “But they won’t hide you…you’ve got a counselor for a patron.”

“But—”

“There are people here who will hide you, Myra. Now be quiet.”

Climbing the stairs, Volka exhaled. Built by humans, the church, unlike most of the buildings in No Weere, was made according to a predetermined plan of materials that weren’t salvaged and repurposed. It was sturdy and clean, and at that moment, the doors of the church were thrown open. A warm glow and the smell of candles came from inside. At the end of the central aisle above the altar hung an emblem of the three books. Made of copper and green with age, it featured a six-pointed star and a crescent moon held together with a cross.

Joseph, an elderly weere, emerged from the door and barked, “Rough day, Volka?” Myra swallowed, and in the periphery of her vision, Volka saw her put a hand to her throat. Her cousin had spent most of her life around humans, and Joseph had the misfortune of having a wolf-like face, complete with short velvety fur, a large, wet black nose, and canine-sharp teeth. He was the stereotype of a weere depicted in every newspaper cartoon.

Despite his fearsome appearance, he was as kind as anyone Volka knew. She bowed her head respectfully, and spotted a book in the pocket of his coat, a worn paperback with a cover with a spaceship and Robot Invasion Libertas! written in bold letters.

Seeing the direction of her gaze, he pushed his spectacles up his snout and chuckled. “Scripture,” he said.

“Of course,” Volka replied with a smile.

His mouth opened in a toothy grin, and Myra gasped.

Paying her no mind, Joseph put a hand on Volka’s arm. Unlike her hands, he had claws instead of fingernails, but he kept them neatly trimmed. “I’m going to live vicariously through you, Child. I hope you bring home some paintings, or sketches, even some sand or rocks…anything from Libertas!”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Volka said, though she wasn’t sure how much time she’d have. Admiral Geeran had commissioned Mr. Darmadi to do his portrait. Mr. Darmadi would probably take thousands of photos, and Volka would spend days in the darkroom developing them while Mr. Darmadi did color “sketches” in watercolor and oils. It would be important that they had all the references correct before coming home. It might be a rock or sand was all she could bring back.

Joseph turned his be-speckled snout in Myra’s direction. “Myra, it’s been a long time.”

One of Myra’s delicate nostrils flared.

“Yes, we have something to discuss with you and your wife after the service,” said Volka, clasping the hand Joseph still had on her arm. Joseph’s eyes got wide and hopeful. “Oh, why yes, of course. We always welcome lost members of our flock back.” He opened his mouth in another toothy smile, but then his snout snapped shut. He sniffed and looked past them down the road.

Hearing feminine laughter, Volka turned, too. A few girls were coming up the street, wearing their Saturday night bests. One of them was exceptionally giggly, her dress was open low at the top, and she was swinging on her friends’ arms. The other girls looked bemused by their friend’s antics and were laughing along and encouraging her. Volka didn’t expect them to stop at the church, but they did. The giggling girl got a foot on the front step, when Joseph walked to the edge of the porch and barked down, “What are you doing here during your time?”

The giggling girl had wolf ears like Volka, but long gray hair that was out of place next to her youthful face. Her eyes were human and didn’t reflect the light. “It’s too early, it’s barely even fall…I just wanted to see Kevin.” She said, ears swiveling downward submissively. “I know he comes to church on Saturday nights after his shift.”

Volka’s eyes slid down the rows of makeshift houses on either side of the unpaved street. There was a vendor selling rats on skewers looking in their direction. Men and a few women were ambling out onto their front porches. Leaning in the doorways, they eyed the girl and lifted their noses. Volka could smell what had captured their attention—a sort of musk, that, while not unpleasant, did nothing for her.

From behind them came a masculine voice from within the church. “Molly?”

“There you are,” said the girl.

“Take her home!” Joseph barked at Molly’s friends.

“Aww…” said one of them.

“Maybe I should take her home,” said Kevin, his voice gruff, and so close, Volka jumped. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Kevin licking his lips. He was normally shy, quiet, and restrained, but tonight, his hands were clenched at his side, and she could see veins popping in his arms. He was leaning forward, blue eyes bright in their dark lined lids. He had mostly human ears, but she could see them ever so slightly perked.

Spinning, Joseph said, “You just started your welding internship, young man! You aren’t going to be getting her or anyone with a child until you’re done.” Kevin’s blue eyes went wide, and Volka could see the exact instant he realized what was happening. He took a step back, jaw falling open. Not taking any chances, Joseph tore the paperback out of his pocket and smacked Kevin on the arm. “Go on! Get inside! Get inside!” Kevin turned around and went, cheeks flushed.

Joseph growled at the girls, “Take her to her mother’s house if you’re really her friends.”

“No! I don’t want to go home!” the strange weere girl said. Her friends giggled nervously. Instead of turning back the way they came, they headed toward the center of No Weere. Volka sighed and Joseph echoed it.

Myra stamped a foot, and Joseph said, “Ah, yes, let’s get inside.”

Volka started to turn back into the church, but her eyes were caught by a flash of light in the night sky. She craned her head to see, and Joseph followed her gaze. Pushing up his spectacles, he growled softly and chuckled. “Robot invasion.”

Despite everything, Volka giggled.

“It’s a meteor,” said Myra practically.

Joseph ushered her inside. Volka lingered on the porch and followed the light with her eyes. Thinking of the Guard’s hunt for Myra, she frowned. Some said falling stars were bad omens. She almost hoped it was a robot invasion instead. Shaking her head angrily at such a horrible wish, she headed into the church.


8

Falling Stars

The emergency shuttle’s alarms were screaming. 6T9 was too busy trying to decelerate the ship to shut them off.

Carl Sagan was sitting in the copilot chair, speaking over the ethernet, and 6T9 didn’t have a thought to spare to shut him off, either. “You missed Libertas! We missed an entire planet.”

They’d made it into Luddeccean space by creating a diversion with unmanned mining vessels. They’d salvaged asteroid mining equipment to create better guns for the shuttle—ones that could disable remote mines—as long as they saw them before they collided with them. And it had worked…until they’d gotten thirty light minutes from the ecliptic plane when a mine had exploded and taken one of their time bands offline. “We can’t just suddenly slam out of light speed with a time band down,” 6T9 retorted. “Unless you want to be a pancake!”

“We should have asked Admiral Sato for intelligence. They probably have spy drones, and spies too for that matter,” the werfle said.

Static flared under 6T9’s skin. He pulled back on the throttle, decelerating the vessel. “I thought you wanted to keep The One secret from humans.”

“You’re her friend! You could have engaged her and gently probed—”

“We’re not friends,” 6T9 snarled, trying to bring the ship around. If he planned it right, they could loop around Luddeccea, and back toward Libertas.

“Of course, you are fr—”

“Noa and James are judgmental and disapproving,” he muttered, jaw getting hard. “You should have seen their faces after my stint aboard the independent trading vessel.”

“I was there; I did see their faces. They were deeply concerned. You looked like, and pardon the expression, something the werfle had dragged in.”

6T9 was saved from having to answer by a shot of phaser fire off the left side of the craft. He glanced up from the sensors to the viewport. A huge Luddeccean Guard cruiser was coming into view.

“Uh-oh,” said Carl.

“Now might be a good time to hop bodies, werfle,” said 6T9.

“Or upload yourself,” Carl Sagan retorted.

6T9 gripped the steering wheel tighter. “And risk coming back asexual and prudish? Not until the last minute.”

“The last minute might be fast approaching,” Carl Sagan replied.

6T9 blinked. The cruiser was fast approaching. Another streak of light bounced off the forward shields. The ship shuddered and metal groaned in the cabin. 6T9 surveyed the sensors, and made a decision. “We’re going down.”

“Then why are you still here?” Carl Sagan asked. “Isn’t it time for a fast upload?”

“We’re landing here, on Luddeccea,” 6T9 said firmly.

“It’s crawling with the Luddeccean Guard, and much more dangerous than Libertas!” Carl Sagan replied.

“We’ll be landing someplace the Guard won’t be,” 6T9 replied.

“Where exactly?”

6T9 felt his Q-comm heat. “Where Time Gate 8 dropped its bombs. The area is radioactively contaminated. Humans won’t be there.”

Luddeccea was streaking into view and hovering above it was the remains of Time Gate 8, the gate that had brought about Revelation by going to war with the planet below it. 6T9 had thought it had been completely destroyed—but there were lights gleaming around half the outer rim. The other side was a misshapen shadow. 6T9 called out into the ether instinctively. “Hello, Gate 8,” he whispered as he guided the shuttle into Luddeccea’s atmosphere. There was only silence.

“The gate’s still there,” he said to the werfle. Why hadn’t they destroyed it entirely?

“Our intelligence says they’re doing some sort of experiments on the gate,” the werfle replied distractedly. Hopping in his seat, Carl said, “We have to get out of here. Now.”

They were passing through the uppermost layer of clouds and descending fast. 6T9 had thought that every alarm in the ship was blaring, but another one cut on at that moment. Unbuckling himself from the seat, he grabbed the werfle by the scruff of the neck. Carl’s claws detached from the seat with a rip 6T9 felt in his fingers rather than heard. “Are you trying to declaw me?” Carl cried through the ether.

6T9 started to apologize, and then screamed a second later as the werfle’s claws dug into his chest. He let go of the werfle in surprise, but Carl didn’t slip. “You need your arms!” the werfle cried over the ether.

And so he did. Cursing under his breath, 6T9 activated a control panel, and a hidden compartment opened. Grabbing the hover pack within and connecting to its local ether, 6T9 swung it over his shoulders.

“Are you sure about this?” Carl asked.

The ship groaned and rocked.

6T9 called over the ether for the hatch to open. The ship didn’t respond. He slammed his hand down on another button. The hatch whined, but then dropped. Luddeccea spread out below them. For a moment, 6T9 saw sparkling lights, and then all he saw was clouds. The ship rocked, and metal screamed. Phaser fire, made ghostly by the clouds, passed on either side of them.

“Jump!” Carl screamed over the ether.

“We need to wait,” 6T9 said, edging down the ramp. Reaching toward a trunk beside the opening, 6T9 said, “I need to grab the mining munitions and we’re not in the right—”

“Jump!” Carl screamed again, filling 6T9 with a mental image of fire leaping from the cockpit and coming straight at him.

At the exact moment, 6T9 felt heat on his back. Wrapping his arms around the werfle and burying his face in its fur, 6T9 jumped without turning on the hover pack. He fell into the clouds, past ghostlier phaser fire, and heard the scream of Guard starfighters he couldn’t see rushing past him, their lights smudges in the night. The clouds thinned. Turning onto his back mid-air, he saw the shuttle burst into flames, and the Luddeccean Guard vessels zooming around the debris…hundreds of kilometers away.

Every circuit in 6T9’s body fired at once, and the light bloomed from his body into the air. He laughed with relief that felt better than sex. “We made it!”

Projecting an image of the shadow of ruined buildings coming up fast, Carl Sagan said, “Um…I think you should land before you say that.”

Starship Waking

Volka bowed her head, knees on the floor, elbows on the pew in front of her. God, let me help Myra…and let me be grateful to Mr. Darmadi and the opportunities he’s given to me, and grateful to the Luddecceans, no matter how hard it sometimes seems. She exhaled. The weere had fled System 11 after Revelation, leaving behind the unbelievers who were prepared to risk their souls after the time gates’ true natures were revealed. The Luddecceans had let them in, despite the weere’s own special sin. Centuries ago, the weere founders had overcome the radiation on System 11 by splicing the human genome with the genome of wolves that had lived for centuries around a radioactive reactor on old Earth. More resistant than humans to radiation, the weere had helped clean up Luddeccea after Revelation—and helped Luddeccea’s neighbor, Libertas, terraform. The Luddecceans had continued to let the weere live in their system as refugees, and no matter what, it was better than being a slave to machines in the Galactic Republic.

“The service is over, Volka,” Myra said. “And I have to pee.”

Volka looked sideways at her cousin. Myra winced and put a hand on her stomach. “The baby is kicking.”

Volka eyed her cousin’s midsection. Weere miscarried more than they carried to term with each other, but with humans, it was impossible to carry to term. That’s what she’d been told. Her brow furrowed. Alaric wouldn’t have lied about that…would he? She shook her head. No, he was human, but that wouldn’t be like him. The baby had to be pure weere…even if Myra didn’t smell like she was lying.

Feeling a heaviness in her chest, Volka stood. “Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

A few minutes later, while Myra was using the facilities, Volka convened with Joseph and Esther in the church kitchen. “She needs somewhere to stay,” she said. “I know that she hasn’t been the most exemplary follower of the Three Books…”

“Nor was she loyal to her patron,” Esther said. Esther had short hair like Volka’s, and wolf ears covered by velvet. Once her hair and velvet had been black, but now both were gray with age. She had the kohl-like black pigment around her eyes. Her nose was delicate and human, but below it, her philtrum, the indentation just between the nose and lips, was a single narrow line, and her upper lip was almost nonexistent. Like Joseph, she had claws instead of fingernails.

Esther was proud of her wolf heritage, and she looked down on weere who were unfaithful, “Like those monkey-humans.” It was true, weere were faithful to a fault. The girls and young men so desperate they sold their bodies at the “weere houses” tended to go mad if they didn’t find a patron. Many took their own lives. The poor man who fell in with Molly tonight in a hormone-induced haze was very unlikely to leave her, but very likely to be miserable if fatherhood upended any of his plans. Molly might find herself miserable, too.

Joseph added, “Our kind aren’t like humans. We don’t move on…”

Volka’s shoulders fell. Was that why she hadn’t? Shaking herself, she said, “Myra says it is the patron’s child.”

Joseph’s lip rose, revealing long, sharp teeth.

Volka looked at the floor, sorry she’d mentioned it. “I know it seems difficult to believe.”

“It’s impossible. Weere don’t have babies with humans,” Joseph growled.

Volka’s ears curled submissively, and the hair on her head prickled. She rubbed her arm to ward off the evening chill. “Yes.”

“But it is wrong that he’s forcing her to abort,” Joseph said.

Volka’s eyes went wide. That could be why the Guard had come, not just to urge Myra to put the baby up for adoption.

“That is true,” said Esther, ears flattening.

Outside the door, someone stepped close. The three fell silent; their ears swiveled forward, and they sniffed the air. It was only Gabrielle, Kevin’s mother. As soon as Gabrielle retreated, Joseph shook his head. “It’s a bad business…bad business.”

“She can stay with us for the night,” Esther said. “But we should put her on a caravan up to the Northwest Province as soon as possible.”

“The Guard was looking for her earlier,” Volka said.

Esther and Joseph looked at each other, and then back to Volka. “This is what you’re going to do…”

Not ten minutes later, Volka was walking home with Kevin, Gabrielle, and a dozen other members from church. “It will rain in a few minutes,” Kevin said, sniffing the air.

His mother sniffed, too. “More like fifteen minutes.”

Taking out a pocket watch that had famously belonged to his father, Kevin said, “Let’s have a contest. I say ten minutes; my mother says fifteen. Anyone else? I’ll buy a roasted rat—or fresh one—for the winner.”

Volka tried to play along to hide her unease, and then she heard a car approaching the intersection ahead from the cross street. No weere owned cars. It was either young humans looking to go to a “weere house,” security, or worse, the Guard.

Light above caught Volka’s vision. She was nearsighted, but the blurs in the sky were too regular to be meteors—they could only be Guard starfighters. Far off in the night, someone began to laugh maniacally.

A moment later, she was blinded by headlights.

“Halt! Put your hands up!”

Starship Waking

“We landed!” 6T9 laughed, all of his circuits alight. Hanging by his knees on a branch of a tropical Luddeccean pine, he could see the Guard starfighters in the distance. They hadn’t even circled back. His mind reached for the local ether—a habit he had at any new outpost—and, of course, got silence. Ethernet had been forbidden on Luddeccea for over 100 years.

“This doesn’t count as landing!” Carl’s voice hummed into 6T9’s mind.

“We’re still able to communicate even though there is no local ether!” 6T9 exclaimed.

Carl squirmed and hissed. “As I explained to you numerous times during our trip here, I am a quantum wave bending member of a collective consciousness. I create ethernet frequencies with my brain and the quantum wave. I don’t need any primitive ether tower or satellites to communicate with you!”

“I just didn’t think it would work,” 6T9 replied. “What’s the range on your brain and the quantum wave?”

“The quantum wave is infinite!” Carl declared.

“So, you can talk to anyone anywhere over the ether?” 6T9 asked.

Carl coughed. “Err…no, only a few hundred meters.”

“So, you’re sort of a primitive local ether hotspot?” 6T9 sought to clarify.

“Can we focus on landing?” Carl snipped.

“This counts as landing!” 6T9 declared, giving the werfle a squeeze.

“You’re hanging upside down fifteen meters above the ground,” Carl retorted. “And there’s water below.”

6T9 shrugged. “We’re fine.”

At that moment, he heard a creak in the branch. His hold on the werfle loosened. Carl Sagan’s nails ripped into his skin a moment later. “Argh!” 6T9 screamed in surprise. The werfle slipped from his arms, climbed up his torso and thighs to the tree branch, and skittered closer to the trunk.

“If you had given me warning, I could have activated my masochism app,” 6T9 harrumphed. Not that it would have worked; he wasn’t programmed to enjoy carnal relations with animals or children, but he wanted the werfle to feel bad.

“You need to get off that branch,” Carl Sagan said.

Extending his arms, 6T9 said, “Can’t you just appreciate the brilliance of our landing for a moment? That was an exit worthy of James or Noa.” It was a monumental achievement, and he felt like he’d cleared some hurdle, or finished some rite of passage.

Carl Sagan hissed. “You haven’t—”

The branch shuddered, cracked, and shattered. 6T9 tumbled down. His shoulder hit one branch, his back hit another. He managed to catch himself with his legs on a third—and then that cracked and shattered, too. The next thing he knew, the back of his head hit something hard.

He blinked. He was looking up at a cloudy sky, lying in a few centimeters of water laden with toxic metals and a slurry of other noxious substances. His sensors lit and identified it as dangerous for human consumption or long-term exposure. The area’s radioactivity level was less than ideal as well.

“—landed yet.”

The words came over the ether. 6T9 tried to identify the channel, but could not.

There was a sound to his right. His eyes slid in that direction, and he saw an animal on the bank. It was a rat or a werfle. He silently counted its legs—ten—it was a werfle. It was standing among many trees. A forest. Why was he in a forest lying in cold water? What was he supposed to do? He blinked. He should wait for his owner, obviously. His brow furrowed. Who was that?

“Now, you have landed.”

The words came over the ether again, but the channel did not have an identifier.

The werfle blinked.

“Werfy,” said 6T9.

“Lizzars, your Q-comm has disconnected and you’ve lost your brain,” said the unidentified speaker.

6T9 spoke back to the voice in his head. “Are you my owner?” His databanks didn’t have an owner in them. He used to belong to Eliza. He didn’t remember her selling or exchanging him.

“Close your eyes.”

6T9 complied. He was programmed to obey any available human, even if their channel was unidentified, if his owner could not be found.

“I’m going to go get help,” the unidentified human said in the ether. The werfle ran away, and the human’s voice echoed in his head. “Pretend to be asleep.”

Keeping his eyes closed, 6T9 pretended.

Starship Waking

Volka threw her hands in the air, letting her umbrella crash to her feet. The other weere did the same.

“Don’t say anything, Kevin,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Silence!” screamed a human man.

Volka could barely see—the light was too bright. She scrunched her eyes shut, and a moment later, she heard approaching footsteps. Wincing, she opened one eye and exhaled in relief. It was regular security, not the Guard. One of them walked over to Gabrielle. “Raise your head!”

Gabrielle complied, grimacing in pain from the blinding light.

“You’re not her,” said the human man.

Volka exhaled. Joseph and Esther had forced Myra to give her fine wool coat to Gabrielle. She had the same nearly human ears and black hair as Myra did, and she was a bit stout. Esther had said, “It will be enough to fool the humans in the dark. They have terrible night vision.”

Volka said a silent prayer of thanks, but then the bright light was in her face. “You!” said a human she couldn’t see in the glare. “Where is the woman you were with earlier?”

He was so close she could smell peppered lizzar meat on his breath, yeasty bread, cheese, and the cider he’d washed it down with.

Volka bit her lip and tried to remember what Esther and Joseph had coached her to say. “Myra Susiman? Oh, she told me she was going home to her mother’s,” she squeaked.

The light swung away from her face so quickly that even the dark was blinding. “Got that?” the security officer asked.

“I think the Guard was already there,” said another security officer.

“Well, maybe she was running late and is there now,” said the first, walking away. “Let’s go check it out.”

“Get off the street!” someone shouted at them, and they scurried to avoid being run over. The car kicked up dust that pelted their faces as it took off into the night. For a moment, Volka and her companions stood immobile, hands still aloft. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she could smell fear and anger oozing from her pores and from her fellow weere. Her hunger was gone, and she thought if she ate she might be sick.

“They didn’t shoot any of us,” Gabrielle said, putting down her hands. The other weere followed suit, and Volka bent to pick up her umbrella. The security officer had stepped on it, and it was hopelessly muddy.

“We should be thankful,” Gabrielle said. “Thanks be to God.”

Volka’s free hand formed a fist at her side, but she knew she should be both thankful and ashamed. She’d brought this on them.

Kevin stamped a foot, spun, and looked up, running a hand through his hair. He smelled more angry than fearful to Volka. And then he dropped his hand, and the tension left his body. “What’s going on up there?” he whispered, eyes on the sky.

Following his gaze, Volka forgot her anger, fear, and shame. Spotlights were illuminating the clouds above them. There were also more Guard starfighters. Volka swallowed. “Just exercises,” she said. If it was an invasion from beyond the system, the warning sirens would be on. Wouldn’t they?

“Not our business, that’s for sure,” said Gabrielle, grabbing her son by the arm, jerking him into motion. The rest of the weere followed. The rain started, but no one bothered to check the time and see whose nose had been more accurate. They walked in near silence, and, one by one, they went their separate ways. Volka’s house was at the edge of the weere settlement, and she walked on alone after everyone else had departed. She kept her umbrella raised defensively, even after the drizzle became a downpour. She wanted someone to challenge her. She wanted an excuse to fight. She couldn’t fight a human, but she could fight another weere.

Tears of frustration pricked her eyes by the time her house came into view. Built by her parents, her house sat on the corners of the foundations of a pre-Revelation building. Erosion in the past century had washed away the land around it, and the foundation rose in four pillars nearly two meters above the ground. Her father had put a wooden platform on top, and the house was built atop that. The walls were wooden ply-board; the roof corrugated iron. Cozied up next to the house was a boat for the days in the late wet season when the home would be surrounded by water. On the far side of the platform was a water tank on stilts—she could just see it over the roof. She walked to the foundation columns and carefully sniffed beneath. She could smell the faint odors of solvents she used to clean her brushes and oil paints. She didn’t smell any rats in her traps, alas, but there were also no humans, weere with ill intent, or poisonous wenlizs. Her nose twitched and she sniffed again. There was, however…a werfle?

She took a step and drew up short, a powerful surge of worry in her gut that made her limbs go cold. She took a shaky breath and tried to be calm. Was it her own worry, or someone else’s? Usually, her own feelings started in her head and worked their way down to the rest of her. Sometimes though, another person’s feelings took hold, and that always started lower down, and were sharper and more sudden. She looked up to the sky. Was it Alaric’s worry? Mr. Darmadi hadn’t said anything of him lately. She shook her head and bit her lip. Alaric would say she was being silly, thinking she could sense his feelings even when he was far away. Her face reddened. And her priest would tell her that if she did sense the emotions of someone else, it was the Devil’s doing.

Ignoring the illogical worry, she rounded the foundations to the stairs. Sure enough, a giant orange werfle was sheltering under the overhang by the front door. It had probably scared away her rats—werfles were as bad as cats for that. She lifted her hand to shoo the creature away.

“Squeak,” it said plaintively, kneading its claws in the wooden platform as though to say, “I’m wet, too.”

“I have no rats for you!” Volka said, shaking her hand at it.

“Squeak,” said the werfle. She felt a tugging in her gut and imagined it saying, “Help me, help me…” She tilted her head. It didn’t look hungry—a pet that got lost? It probably had its venom milked in that case.

“Meep,” said the werfle, and it shivered visibly. Maybe it wasn’t hungry, but it was definitely wet and the night was getting colder.

Setting her umbrella against the wall, Volka approached the creature, hand out the way Alaric had shown her. She held her breath, worried it might bite, and only released it when the werfle brushed its head against her fingers. It produced a rumbling in its chest that was quite pleasant. Alaric had liked werfles, and he’d spoken fondly of their “purr.”

“Well,” she sighed. “I guess it wouldn’t do any harm to let you spend the night.” She scratched it behind the ears in a way she always liked, and it leaned into her touch and purred louder. She’d thought Alaric’s fondness was a human thing—but she was beginning to see the creature’s charms.

“Come on,” she said, taking out her keys.

“Squeak,” said the werfle, standing on its hind legs and pulling at her wet trousers with its front paws as though to say, “Don’t go.”

“We’ll go inside together,” she reassured it.

The creature twined between her legs and then left the shelter of the overhang. “Squeak,” it said, but Volka swore she heard, “Come with me.”

Volka tilted her head. “You don’t have to go out there.”

“Cheep,” it whined. “Come, come come.”

The rain pattered on Volka’s head before she’d realized she’d obeyed her obviously overactive imagination. She didn’t remember coming down the stairs and looked back in alarm. She’d left her umbrella. She never left the house without being armed with it or a walking stick.

The werfle twined between her legs, and pushed against the backs of her calves with its head. She swore its purring was a coded message. “This way, this way…”

Above her head, spotlights were still searching the clouds. A starfighter flew so close that the ground reverberated in its wake. The werfle’s purring grew louder and more insistent. Wiping raindrops from her eyelashes, Volka wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “I have to go back,” she told the werfle.

And then from the strand of trees beside her house she heard the moan.

Starship Waking

“Moan again! Louder!” the unidentified human who’d discovered him minutes ago instructed 6T9 over the ether.

6T9 complied. “Ahhhh…” He made it as deep and breathy as he could.

“Can you moan like you’re in pain?” the human asked.

Over the ether, 6T9 responded, “I was designed to fulfill most human sexual predilections. I can do a moan that is an excellent facsimile of pain.”

He waited. He heard footsteps approaching. A warning light was flashing in the periphery of his vision. The water was lowering his core temperature below optimal levels. A subroutine activated that began diverting extra power from his already low battery for heat. He’d have to recharge soon.

“Well?” asked the unidentified human in the ether.

“Well, what?” 6T9 asked.

“Moan like you’re in pain! She’s turning away.”

“Oh, certainly,” 6T9 responded. Aloud he said, “Uhhhgggghhh.”

“Say, ‘help me,’” the human commanded.

“Help me,” 6T9 moaned.

The footsteps approached, and he felt warm fingers on his cheek.

“May I open my eyes?” he asked aloud.

“Yes,” someone responded in a feminine voice completely different from the one in his head.

6T9 opened his eyes, and found himself staring at a human woman with animal ears and fur on top of her head. To the unidentified human, he said across the ether, “Oh, a furry. I am unlikely to be able to fulfill her.”

“A what?” said the human.

“A furry. It’s not always sexual,” 6T9 hastened to explain across the ether, referring to his local databanks. “But in the case of someone who has obviously had herself augmented to look like a wolf—”

“Do you not remember our conversation about the weere?” the human said. “At all?”

“I do not,” 6T9 replied silently.

The woman spoke aloud. “Can you move?”

6T9 sat up. “Yes.” He was wearing something on his back, and he had something heavy on his chest.

“You could move?” said the human.

6T9 saw the werfle on the bank of the stream in the periphery of his vision, but his focus was on the woman. She was sucking in on her lips, and her eyes were wide. She looked afraid.

“Yes, I could move,” 6T9 replied over the ether.

“Bang the back of your head on a rock,” the unidentified ether speaker said.

Letting himself fall back into the stream, 6T9 did. Every circuit flared, his Q-comm chip snapped back into place, and a memory of the last few minutes came rushing back. Above him, he heard the call of nocturnal pterys—a small, pterodactyl-like species native to Luddeccea. He hadn’t noticed them without his Q-comm—they hadn’t related to him. A millisecond later, his emotion apps kicked in, and he found himself flushing with embarrassment. He’d been an idiot.

The woman held out a hand. “Do you…need…help?” She wasn’t quite meeting his gaze as she said it, and the hand reaching toward him was trembling. It wasn’t a tremble he’d associate with the anticipation of “I’m going to get a spanking” he got when engaging his bondage and discipline act for a partner’s pleasure. It was pure terror. The water was cold, but frightening the woman made him colder still. “I’ll be all right in a moment,” he lied, in a soft voice he hoped was non-threatening. She nodded and took a half step back.

Sitting up slowly, 6T9 touched the front of his jacket. Eliza’s ashes were safe, as was his single recharger. He still had the hover pack on his back. To Carl, he said silently over the ether, “We don’t have the remainder of the gold we were going to use as currency, and we don’t have the mining charges to get Sundancer out of the glacier.”

Carl bobbed his head. “For the second, we may be able to appropriate some of the mining charges being used to blow into the Red Gorge for the magni-freight line. As for the first, I have no idea how we’ll manage.” His eyes narrowed. “Or how we’ll even get to Libertas from Luddeccea.”

6T9 shrugged. His mind, out of habit on reboot, reached for the local public ether again. And again, he got silence. He shook his head. He was lucky. At least he could access Time Gate 1 through his Q-comm.

At the moment, however, he had other concerns. He was losing power fast, and he didn’t want to use his single recharger so soon. He needed food, or a light or heat source to activate his power converter filaments. “I need to get out of the cold,” he said softly to the woman, trying not to scare her. She appeared to be in her late twenties—and since Luddeccea didn’t look fondly on plastic surgery, probably was. She had large black-lined eyes, a delicate nose, and bow-shaped lips that were popular in several sex ‘bot models. The hair on her head was short, silvery, and more like fur. Her wolf-like ears were back and twisted down. 6T9 remembered how Carl Sagan had described the weere. “A genetic experiment gone wrong. They have a very unstable genome, not helped by their relative proximity to the exclusion zone on Luddeccea. Their ancestors were used to clean up the radioactive soil and debris created when the time gate attacked. They’re used as servants and laborers now. They eat our rats.”

Backing toward the bank, the girl kept her eyes averted. She was wearing a large raincoat, and it was impossible to determine her form. She was noticeably short.

A starfighter flew by a few kilometers away.

“The Guard’s doing an aerial search,” Carl Sagan thought. “She has a house very close by. We should get inside.”

6T9 stood up, and the girl jumped. Holding up his hands, he said softly, “I don’t mean to frighten you.”

She was breathing rapidly and barely bobbed her head in acknowledgment. Over the ether, he said in dismay, “I’m terrifying her.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Carl replied. Hopping over to her, he began weaving between the girl’s legs and purring. Her ears perked toward the werfle. He squeaked plaintively and stared up into her eyes while slowly blinking at her.

“You can follow me,” she said softly. Picking Carl up, she pulled him to her chest.

That was too easy. 6T9’s Q-comm heated. Over the ether, he accused the werfle, “You’re using mind control on her!”

“I’m more mind nudging her,” Carl Sagan said. “She is remarkably susceptible to it.”

“Stop it,” 6T9 said aloud.

“What?” said the girl, stopping in her tracks and turning toward him.

“I’m not controlling her mind,” Carl said over the ether. “She doesn’t want to leave you alone in the cold where she thinks you could die of hypothermia. She wants to help, she’s just afraid to. I’m easing her fear.”

“You can read human thoughts?” 6T9 asked over the ether, the implications of the werfle’s words sinking in. Even the time gates could only read ether conversations.

“Yes,” replied Carl.

6T9 still didn’t move. “You never told me you could do that.”

“You never asked,” Carl replied.

Q-comm sparking, 6T9 glared at the creature. “Can you read my thoughts, too?”

Still purring, Carl replied, “No, we can only hear your ethernet conversations.” In a cheerful voice, he added, “But give us time!”

6T9’s jaw got hard, and his feet stayed firmly planted to the ground.

“Do you want to upload yourself?” Carl Sagan asked. “Because that’s what you’re going to have to do if you don’t come with her now.

The girl’s ears twitched, and her brow furrowed. Carl squeaked at her and butted her hand with his head, purring madly. The crease in her brow disappeared.

Rain was running down 6T9 in rivulets, and the red light on the periphery of his vision was saying he needed to power up somehow—and fast. But the display of Carl’s power left him unsettled. The werfle was doing something to her he wouldn’t want done to himself.

“The Luddecceans on Libertas are getting closer to Sundancer,” Carl said over the ether.

The dark of Luddeccea’s cloudy, moonless, and streetlight-less night started to become darker still—a darkness that had become familiar during their months at near-light-speed. The girl gasped, perhaps at a sound in the forest.

“Stop,” 6T9 hissed at the werfle over the ether. “Don’t overwhelm the ether with Sundancer’s thoughts. I’ll trip in the darkness.”

Sundancer still never contacted 6T9 directly. Carl had told him she probably couldn’t. It had taken Carl’s own kind nearly a century to master ethernet communication.

The blackness of Sundancer’s nightmare relented, and Carl said, “Sundancer cannot upload herself.”

6T9 exhaled. His power was dwindling. “Lead on,” he said.

Without a word, the girl led him through the trees.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The girl stopped short, shoulders tightening. “Volka,” she said.

Carl Sagan squeaked and purred. Volka began walking again. They emerged from the trees at a house that appeared to be made of rubbish. It was a far cry from Bernadette’s asteroid, but 6T9 had spent time at worse places when he took up with the independent traders. Still, gravity seemed to increase as he climbed the stairs. He felt miserable, though oddly not for himself.

He should have felt miserable for himself. Obviously.


9

Strays

Volka awoke from the sound of her alarm clock, with her nose pressed against something warm and furry, and memories of a deep and dreadful oozing darkness in her mind.

“Cheep,” said the warm and furry pillow in front of her nose. Her eyes sprung open and she found herself staring at the belly of an enormous, shaggy, orange werfle. She lifted her head. And there was no Myra on the other side of the bed.

How…The events of the night before came flooding back. She’d let a stranger—a human male stranger—into her home after finding him in a stream. Sitting up, she smacked off the alarm and then began winding the clock back up with frenetic energy. What had she been thinking?

She rubbed her head. If Myra had been here, she would have told Volka she was being crazy. But Myra hadn’t been here, and Volka remembered bringing him in and helping him start a fire in the stove—he’d been cold, he’d said. He’d taken off his coat and his shirt and sat with his back to the heat. His wet back had shimmered with sweat or raindrops, and the memory had a dreamlike quality to it. He hadn’t smelled like root, the illegal narcotic that drew some humans to No Weere. She also couldn’t remember any distinguishing tattoos like the type sported by the Human Brotherhood. Still…what had she been thinking?

The werfle cheeped, blinked its eyes at her, and kneaded the bed with its claws. Volka felt her apprehension lifting. The man hadn’t hurt her. She looked around her room. Her paintings were undisturbed on the walls. Not that she thought anyone would want to steal them, especially not a human someone, but once her house had been burglarized and the invaders had ripped her artwork to shreds looking for hidden goods.

A gentle rap sounded at the door. “Volka?” asked the man in a hushed voice.

She blinked. The human stranger was gently rapping at her door. Humans didn’t knock gently. They banged, and then burst in, even into churches sometimes. She bit her lip. Not all humans were like that.

“I was wondering,” said the man in a soft voice, “if I could make you breakfast?”

Her stomach constricted painfully, and she remembered she hadn’t eaten the night before. She’d felt too sickened after the run-in with security, and then she’d found the man in the stream…or the werfle had. Volka pulled her knees up to her chest. It was so…strange. It struck her that she didn’t think she’d recognize him in a crowd. She didn’t know his name, either.

The man cleared his throat. “I’m very good at it.” There was a pause. “And I don’t have any other way to say thank you.”

Volka’s arms tightened around her knees. “I…don’t have much.” Myra had been peckish the last few weeks, and there’d been no rats in her traps last night. She scrunched her eyes shut. Not that a human would eat rats. She banged her head against her knees. And why should she care about what a human thought of her pantry or her house?

“I saw things I can work with…unless you need to save them?” There was a pause in which Volka parsed his words. I don’t know if this has to last you a day or a week.

“I’m not that poor,” she whispered. She was fairly well off, actually. Mr. Darmardi compensated her well.

“If it’s all right, I’ll get started…” His voice trailed off.

The werfle purred louder. She turned her head and was mesmerized by its eyes. They’d been brown the night before, but in the beam of morning sunlight streaming through the shade, they now looked golden.

“All right?” she asked.

“I’ll get to it, then!” he said brightly, and her ears perked at his accent she couldn’t quite place, his retreating footfalls, and the noises of pots and pans.

“I guess I’ll get ready for work,” she said to the werfle, scratching him behind the ears. Leaning into her touch, the werfle appeared to smile. “You are a handsome man,” she said to it, which evoked another pleasing purr. She reluctantly got up and began getting ready.

A few minutes later, she stepped out into the kitchen to the smell of butter and eggs that almost completely overpowered the smell of oil and solvents that wafted from her studio in the house’s third room. She sidled to the studio door and peeked in. Everything appeared to be in order.

Her eyes returned to the kitchen. Coffee and jam were on the table, as well as her travel brochures and a rather embarrassing paperback. The paintings on the wall were all in one piece and didn’t look like they’d been moved to scout for money hidden behind them. He’d opened the shutters to let morning light in and now stood with his back to her. He was tall and fit. He wore work clothes—sturdy boots, nondescript dark brown pants, and a long-sleeved gray tee-shirt that had a strange mottled pattern. She bit her lip. He was cooking on her old wooden stove. Most human men didn’t cook unless it was the chefs at the fancy restaurants in New Prime, where the First Families ate. He must be working class.

The man glanced over his shoulder and smiled, and Volka’s hair threatened to rise. Alaric was the most handsome man she’d ever met, with his gray eyes, angular jaw, and sharp cheekbones, but this human was a close second. His teeth were impossibly white. His skin was too smooth, his stubble almost artful. “Good morning!” he said. His eyes dropped to her feet and narrowed. “Hello, Carl,” he said, and then he turned back to the stove.

“Squeak,” replied the werfle whose name might be Carl. She didn’t bend down to pet it. Her eyes were riveted on the stranger. The muscles in his back were working beneath his shirt. He was perfectly proportioned; not so unusual on a working man, but his face was now burned in her memory, and he looked like someone had commissioned Mr. Darmadi to paint an ideal man rather than a real person. Instinctively, she sniffed the air, and her brows drew together. He smelled like metal, plastic, and some other things she couldn’t identify, but also of man. She sniffed more deeply. More like a man than any man was supposed to smell. Swallowing, she mentally checked the calendar, and then delicately sniffed her own wrist. No, she wasn’t being addled by any hormonal surge. She was probably feeling addled by the fact that she’d somehow let him into her house, and she didn’t know who he was.

She cleared her throat. “What’s your name?”

“Sixty,” he replied, sliding something onto a plate. “Sixty-Ni—”

“Reowr!” said the werfle-Carl.

“Sixty…short for Stephen, and Ni—ano, Niano.”

Her ears flicked. “I thought Steve was short for—”

“Sixty’s more like a nickname, actually,” he said. Walking over to the table, he put the dish down. She stared at it. It appeared to be an enormous stack of her stale bread, but toasted. She sniffed again. But there was the scent of egg in the air…

“You don’t like French toast?” Sixty—or Mr. Niano—asked, and she looked up at him. His shoulders were sagging, and his chin was dipped in a look of transparent disappointment.

She crept over to the table and sat down. “I don’t know.”

She picked up the fork and knife, and he said, “Most of the humans I’ve cooked for like it with jam, syrup, or fruit. It adds to the chemical complexity and creates a better contrast of flavors.”

She stared up at him.

His eyes slid to the side. “And as I am also obviously human, I also enjoy it with something sweet.”

She looked down at the plate, and finally put together what he was going on about. “You’re hungry,” she said. “Please, there is more than enough.”

His eyes fell on the food. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well, I am running lo—hungry,” he said, grabbing a plate from her cupboard. “Thank you, I will.”

She split the French toast with him, took an experimental taste without jam, and her eyes got wide. “This is really good,” she whispered. He’d made the plain, rock hard bread savory and chewable. Her nose and taste buds detected not just egg, but also a little butter, and he must have opened one of her containers of UHT milk. Animal protein could make even bread delicious.

“Thank you,” he said, plopping a piece of French toast loaded with jam in his mouth. His eyes were flicking between her paintings. “Did you do these?” He tilted his head. “I’ve seen a similar style at—in books.”

She nodded. “We use the layering techniques of the old masters of Earth’s Renaissance. We start with a drawing, and then do several layers of underpainting to establish a faithful rendering of form and value before applying the color. It keeps images very true to life.” Realizing she was saying too much, she tensed, expecting derision for being “fancy” or “uppity.”

Chewing meditatively, eyes still on her artwork, he said, “I’ve seen reproductions of Renaissance masters before. The colors in your painting, however, are—”

“Wrong?” she supplied, the French toast losing its flavor. Like most weere, she was green colorblind. She wasn’t sure what that really meant though. Mr. Darmadi was always telling her that the greens in her paintings were too saturated, though she was only representing faithfully what she saw, and how could her greens be too saturated if she couldn’t see green?

Not looking at her, he said, “I was going to say more vibrant than in real life. You’ve made a bornut tree much more exciting than the drab things really are. I like it.”

The food suddenly tasted good again. No human had ever complimented her choice of colors.

His eyes drifted down to the table, and the brochures for Libertas, and the paperback. Her cheeks flushed. The paperback was a cheap sci-fi serial with a picture of a metal man on the cover holding a screaming, struggling, scantily clad human woman. Behind them was a crowd of humans with vacant, slightly glowing eyes. One of the vacant-eyed humans was eating a severed human arm—robots could control your mind and make you do terrible things. In this one, the hero had rescued the heroine by chanting the Three Books Prayer over and over, filling his mind with God’s power, leaving no room for possession.

Mr. Niano’s brows drew together as he looked at the cover, and he gave a wry smile. Volka knew the novel was fanciful—there were no mind-stealing supercomputers on Luddeccea, or anywhere in Luddeccean space. The Luddeccean Guard worked very hard to keep them out. Still, the novels made for fun reading.

“Squeak,” said the werfle.

He rolled his eyes. “I’ll be good, Carl.”

Taking another bite, he touched the brochure for the Leetier, the ship she and Mr. Darmadi were taking to Libertas. The illustration on the cover was beautiful. The artist had depicted the ship approaching Libertas, its time bands gleaming on its chrome hull, stars winking in the background. Below the picture, the brochure declared, Travel to Libertas. Luxury accommodations. Comfortable Accelor-gravity.

“Accelor-gravity?” he asked.

“Provided by acceleration,” Volka explained.

His eyebrows rose, and he opened the brochure. “It goes to Libertas?”

Biting back a smile of pride and excitement, she replied, “Yes, the one and only.”

“The one and only…?” he asked.

She blinked. “Yes, that’s the ship that takes civilians to Libertas. The only one. Once a week…You have to have heard of it…”

He looked up at her. “Of course I have.”

The werfle squeaked again.

He snapped at it. “Easy, Carl, I’m getting there,” and then looked up at her and blushed. “When is the next flight?”

“In just a few days,” she said, again biting back her smile. She must be careful and not rub in his nose that she’d be aboard. Some humans would get angry, possibly violent if she told them she, a weere, would be traveling to Libertas. Her smile faded.

“How much does it take to book a passage for oh, say, one man and a werfle?” he asked.

Her eyes got wide.

He cleared his throat and winced. “Is that an odd question to ask?”

The roots of her hair tingled. “Maybe?”

“Oh.” He looked to the side. She took another bite of French toast. It was really amazing what he’d done with terribly poor ingredients…at least according to her weere taste buds. She pieced together his accent, questions, slightly odd, strange, yet utilitarian clothing, his physique…“You’re from the interior provinces, aren’t you?”

For a moment, he held her gaze and then he asked, “It’s that obvious?”

She patted her lips and looked to the side.

He sighed. “Yes, I um…came to Prime…New Prime…to…”

Her gaze returned to him and she found him searching her features. “Work?”

Her ears went back. It sounded like a lie. Still, she sniffed the air. He didn’t smell stressed, like he would if he were being untruthful, but…“How did you wind up in No Weere?” she asked suspiciously.

Lots of country boys wanted something “a little exotic” when they came to town, or they were just too poor to afford a human prostitute.

“There is a weere here,” he said, turning his head and looking at her sideways.

Her ears flicked. He was from the sticks.

“No Weere is where the weere live,” she explained.

“That is counterintuitive…” He looked heavenward. “Though I suppose humans often are.”

She’d known no humans to be so casually dismissive of their species, at least not around a weere. She almost smiled at the flippancy in his tone, but schooled her features to neutral. Sometimes people from the interior didn’t understand how things were between weere and humans, but they always learned. Better not to get too comfortable with him. Her eyes roved his face. He was too handsome. He’d be accepted into New Prime human society very soon.

“It’s a pun,” she explained. “No Weere is nowhere you’d want to be if you are a human. It’s too close to the Exclusion Zone.”

“Well,” he said, looking around the home. “I can think of worse places to be.” He smiled, revealing a charming dimple. “Thank you for letting me stay.”

She looked at her plate. He didn’t understand the way things were. Not at all. “So, you came here looking for work. What line of work were you looking for?”

“Well, I have a number of talents—”

“Cheep?” said the werfle.

“—but probably chef would be most appropriate considering the circumstances. I don’t suppose you’d know of any openings?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Not unless you want to work in domestic service at the house I work at, Mr. Niano.”

“Call me Sixty. Would it pay for a trip to Libertas?”

She snorted, shaking her head. It was strange feeling worldly wise around, well, anyone. “You don’t pay for a trip aboard the Leetier. You’re invited aboard after applying for a seat sometimes years in advance so they can run a proper background check. And then you pay, and it costs more than a weere or a human man from the working class could ever afford.”

She swore the werfle sighed, and she reached down and scratched it behind the ear. It leaned into her touch.

He tapped the brochure. “So, you have this just as a…fantasy?”

Color rose in her cheeks. “Actually, I’m going on the next trip out. I was invited, or my employer was, by someone important.” She ducked her head. “But I have fantasized about it, yes.” For her whole life.

“Well, where there is will, there is a way,” Mr. Niano said. “Or in this case, there was a weere with a will.”

She looked up and found him smiling at her, lifting an eyebrow. He glanced down at the werfle at her feet. “And there are more ways than one to skin a werfle.”

The werfle put its ears back and hissed in Mr. Niano’s direction.

“I thought you admired my sense of humor, Carl Sagan,” Sixty said, theatrically putting a hand to his chest and batting his eyes at the clearly annoyed creature.

Volka’s lips pursed at both of their antics.

Returning his attention to Volka, Mr. Niano said, “So, this job…it would provide plenty of food?” He looked down at his plate. “I have a tapeworm.”

She blinked.

Putting a finger on his chin, he looked heavenward again. “Maybe you don’t use that expression here?”

“Rawr!” said the werfle.

“Like we do in the interior,” he said, raising an eyebrow at Carl. He speared an enormous bite of French toast. “I eat a lot,” he explained before popping it into his mouth.

Volka stared at him. It just wasn’t done…humans, human men especially, did not work as domestics. He was just too backwater to know that. If she accepted his offer, he might resent her later if he took it and was ridiculed for it. However, it would take him a while to find a real job, and he didn’t appear to have much in the way of, well, anything. Her eyes went to a pack on the floor, and the leather-looking jacket on top of it. She bit her lip. “It will provide you with plenty of food and a roof over your head, too, Mr. Niano.”

“Call me Sixty,” he responded.

“I can’t possibly call you—”

“And I’ll take that job,” he cut her off with a smile that was too genuine and achingly perfect. She gulped. He was going to get her into a world of trouble, she just knew it.

Starship Waking

“Let Volka carry me,” Carl Sagan complained over the ether.

6T9 had him slung over one arm. They were walking on what passed for a road in No Weere. The ground was muddy and the werfle didn’t want his paws to get dirty. They were surrounded on either side by shanties that made Volka’s home seem palatial.

Volka had a pack on her back. Her ears were flicking as though seeking a distant sound. It was drizzling, but she carried her umbrella closed and clasped in both hands. His eyes slid to her nails. They were short, blunt, and light gray at the cuticle and darker at the tips. He was beginning to suspect it wasn’t an artful polish job, but her natural pigmentation.

Shaking his head, he retorted over the ether, “She’s loaded down enough.”

There were plenty of weere about. They didn’t seem like one race, but many. Some were very wolf-like, with snouts, ears, tails, and bodies that didn’t seem quite suited for bipedal locomotion. Others were more human than their hostess, and could almost pass if it weren’t for amber eyes, wolf ears, or claws at the ends of their fingers instead of nails.

“But she gives me ear scratches,” Carl Sagan replied and then purred. “And her breath on my stomach this morning was exquisite.”

6T9’s circuits heated in frustration. “You make it sound sexual,” he hissed over the ether.

“I did not!” the werfle replied. “Her breath was warm. I like warmth and scratches.”

The static of jealousy crawled under 6T9’s skin. It was his nature to want to make humans happy. To have Volka relaxed enough to sleep with him would have fulfilled that nature—at least a little. Instead, that honor went to a mind-controlling werfle. 6T9 stepped too heavily and almost slipped in the mud.

“Reowwrrrrr!” Carl protested. Over the ether, he complained, “Don’t you dare drop me! I have to clean my fur with my tongue!”

“Are you sure you should bring him?” Volka asked. Ears flicking, and eyes shifting nervously to the side.

“Where I go, he goes,” 6T9 replied. When he followed her gaze, a group of weere quickly looked to the side. He couldn’t help but notice that they scowled, their ears were back, and lips were curled. One of the group had a wolf-like snout, and he saw the curve of wolf-like teeth. “Are we in danger?” he whispered.

Volka shook her head in the negative but hastened her steps. “No, you’re in no danger.”

For a moment, 6T9 felt a bit better, but then his Q-comm chip sparked. “Are you in danger?”

Not looking at him, she said, “It will pass.”

6T9’s steps felt heavier. “Why…?”

“Well, you’re human, aren’t you?” she said. “Weere women and human men aren’t supposed to…you know,” she said.

Even without a Q-comm chip, he’d have been able to parse that euphemism.

She added quickly, “But you’re in no danger. No one wants security coming after them.”

“That doesn’t precisely make me feel better,” he said.

For the first time since they’d left her little house on stilts, Volka’s eyes met his. They were a shocking amber color and lined by what he’d mistaken for kohl-eyeliner at first, but on closer inspection was natural pigmentation. She quickly looked away again. “Don’t worry about it, Mr. Niano.”

“Call me Sixty,” 6T9 said just as a group of five weere males emerged from between two shanties and started walking toward them, their eyes on Volka. Raising the umbrella, she drew to a halt, gaze locked on the tallest member of the group.

The weere man had black hair and tan skin. His ears were slightly pointed but not covered by velvet, and his eyes were human brown, too. There was something odd about his jaw structure, but 6T9 couldn’t place what it was.

“It’s not worth it, Daniel,” Volka said.

6T9 took in the size and number of the weere. His Q-comm hummed, trying to assess what would be worth what, and found too many variables to compute.

Pointing at 6T9, Daniel said, “He doesn’t belong here.” When he spoke, 6T9 caught a glimpse of long canine teeth and the chemical signature of fresh blood.

“He doesn’t know the half of it,” Carl hissed over the ether.

Daniel shook his head. Volka’s ears started flicking madly, as though plagued by an insect.

Scratching behind a gray-velvety wolf ear, one of the men facing them whispered, “She broke a man’s toes with that umbrella.”

6T9’s Q-comm began conjuring up the various scenarios where that accident could occur, and he shook his head, trying to make the data stop.

Daniel lifted his chin. “This is why weere women are of no use.” He strode past Volka and 6T9, and the other weere men followed. Volka’s shoulders fell as they passed. Then she took a deep breath and they resumed walking.

6T9’s Q-comm was humming, reviewing the glimpse of canine teeth, the fresh blood on Daniel’s breath, and the human shape of Daniel’s jaw. 6T9’s circuits dimmed with the knowledge that the blood was with 89 percent certainty Daniel’s own, and was caused by his jaw being the wrong shape for his canine teeth.

Volka turned right, and 6T9 followed. Ahead he saw a chain-link fence that was nearly three meters high topped with barbed wire. There was a guard house where human men stood with rifles. They wore Luddeccean Green, but zooming in on the patches on their shoulders, 6T9 read “Security.” It wasn’t the Guard then, just local police. He almost sighed in relief, but then he noticed that as weere stepped through, the security officers would pull a few of them to the side and make them take out papers.

“Erp,” said 6T9, slowing his steps.

Carl Sagan hissed in his mind, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this.”

Volka blinked at the sky and looked side to side, ears flicking again.

“You’re going to mind control them?” 6T9 asked.

“I told you I can’t do that!” Carl’s ears flattened. “If I could I would have avoided this little detour and snagged a human’s or weere’s brain on Libertas. I can nudge them, though.”

They stepped up to the gate, and a guard walked toward them. Volka froze, and because she did, 6T9 did too. The guard glanced down at Volka with what might have been pity, walked around her, and stopped not a hands breadth from 6T9’s nose.

6T9 would guess the man’s age to be about forty. The man wasn’t soft, but he was on the stocky side with a barrel chest. He had salt and pepper hair, and there were prominent lines in his brow and beside his eyes. His thin lips were set in a frown, and his expression was altogether very stern. 6T9’s skin heated, and he bit his bottom lip to keep from licking it. His first impulse was to say, “Hello, sir, I’ve been a very bad, bad man. Maybe you should punish me?” even though the man’s pupils were not dilated and he exhibited no other outward signs of sexual arousal. 6T9 didn’t say that though, because his Q-comm was humming and filling him with the knowledge that if he was arrested, Volka might be arrested, too, and somehow he had already unwittingly put her in danger, which went against every line of his code.

Adding to that, Carl was urging, “Don’t forget Sundancer! She needs us!”

“I hadn’t forgotten her,” 6T9 thought in reply, even though he had.

“Let’s see your papers,” the guard ground out.

“I thought you were taking care of this!” 6T9 cried in the ether to Carl Sagan.

“Give me a minute!” Carl replied.

6T9 dropped the werfle. “Reowr!” protested Carl.

Making a show of pulling around his hover pack—which hopefully looked enough like a backpack not to draw too much attention, 6T9 said, “Um…just a moment…I ahh…”

Carl Sagan threaded between the man’s legs. The security officer jumped back, shook his head, and then met 6T9’s eyes. “Reconsider your life choices, Son,” he growled. Shaking his head, the man walked away.

6T9 heard Volka gulp audibly. Her shoulders drooped.

“Whew! I made him think you’ve been ‘weering’ around with Volka,” Carl thought triumphantly.

Volka’s ears went back, and she put a hand to her mouth. Her cheeks darkened.

“Weering around?” 6T9 asked silently.

“That’s what they call whoring,” Carl replied, batting a paw at 6T9’s leg. “Pick me up.”

“Maybe you should walk,” 6T9 snapped aloud, making Volka jump.

She did not look at him as she moved through the security checkpoint and then down the road outside No Weere to a tiny shelter where a group of weere stood staring off into space. Volka did the same, standing on the sidewalk, facing a road that was freshly paved.

6T9 tried to copy her stance and her vacant stare, but couldn’t help glancing about. There were humans and weere outside No Weere—although the humans had their own shelter that they were standing beside a block down, and they were dressed very differently. Weere men and women wore loose trousers and formless long-sleeved shirts in neutral colors. 6T9 noticed that some, like Volka’s, seemed to be made of slightly better fabric with more expensive detailing. Some of the men’s clothing, though the same design, seemed to be made of heavier material and had more pockets and loops, possibly for tools. The female weere were of all ages. The male weere were noticeably older.

He noticed the humans wore form-fitting clothing that was differentiated by sex. The men wore suits, or pants and shirts that emphasized their shoulders, and kept their hair cut short. The women wore skirts and tight-fitting blouses. If they were pregnant—and there appeared to be many pregnant women—they wore dresses. Their hair was long. On the other side of the road, there was a billboard with a pregnant human woman with a brilliant smile, and other humans, presumably her husband and children. Next to their picture were printed the words, We’re doing our part to rebuild Luddeccea!

“I didn’t think you’d have a problem with ‘weering,’” Carl commented, snapping 6T9 from his observations. The werfle’s ears were back, and his tail was bending in a question mark.

Around 6T9, a few weere started nervously scratching their ears and shaking their heads.

“I don’t,” 6T9 hissed over the ether. “I hold the world’s oldest profession in the highest esteem—you don’t think I bought my invisi-filaments, do you? But Volka’s people probably don’t. Humans can be weird about sex, even though they invented it.”

“I don’t think that was a human invention,” Carl replied.

“You know what I mean. They get so emotional.” 6T9 rolled his eyes. “So much drama, shame, jealousy, anger, and frustration. Sometimes I don’t know how they enjoy it at all.”

“And that sums up the emotional range of the deed?” Carl asked.

“How would I know? I’m not human.” A low mechanical roar drew 6T9’s eyes. He looked down the road and whispered, “Nebulas, what is that?”

A few weere turned to look at him.

Clearing her throat, Volka said, “He’s from the interior provinces. He got…lost…?”

The weere shook their heads. One snorted. They all turned toward the approaching monstrosity. It was a large vehicle on wheels, which hadn’t been so strange even during 6T9’s previous time on the planet before Revelation. Out in the provinces, it wasn’t even unusual to see lizzar occasionally pulling wagons. But this thing…Black smoke puffed out of its rear. It had two headlights at the front and mirrors on either side. It was made of chrome and had a large, bisected front window and smaller windows behind it. All in all, it looked like a large, metal, wheeled caterpillar farting exhaust.

Leaning closer, Volka whispered, “That’s the bus I told you about.”

6T9 blinked. In civilized places, “busses” hovered above the ground, but he supposed the sort of computing power necessary for that might be verboten in this neck of the galaxy. He sniffed and red lights went off in the periphery of his vision—the fumes were toxic. Accessing his Q-comm, he queried the historical archives on Time Gate 1 and his eyes widened. “Carl Sagan, that machine is a replica of a bus that hasn’t existed since the 1950s.”

“Pardon?” said Volka.

Which was when he realized he’d spoken aloud. “Nothing,” he said as he and Volka stepped into the line to board. Her ears went flat against her head.

“Squeak,” said Carl Sagan, and her ears perked forward again.

Taking off her coat, she picked up the werfle, wrapped him up in it, and whispered, “Stay still. You’re not allowed on the bus, but the driver is human—he won’t smell you.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Carl hissed into 6T9’s mind. Even though the werfle was only a lump beneath Volka’s jacket, 6T9 could picture his flattened ears and swishing tail.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Carl Sagan,” 6T9 replied over the ether as the line moved forward. “This is going to be the part of the adventure that when we retell it, everyone will tell us to skip through. We’re going to relax here on Luddeccea for a few days. I’ll do a little cooking…you can nap in sunbeams…” His voice drifted off. On the side of the bus was a picture of a boy sitting in the dark. His eyes glowed blue. Beside his picture were printed the words, Do you know someone interested in computer science? Help is available. Next to that was a string of numbers. A dove with a leaf in its mouth was below that and in archaic script were the words, The Luddeccean Priesthood Cares.

His processor hummed and he had a horrible feeling that his time on Luddeccea might not be boring at all.


10

Casualties of War

The werfle sprang from Volka’s arms as soon as they were off the bus. As if knowing where they were going, it tore through Mr. Darmadi’s gates and into the forest just beyond the outer wall. Volka chased after it; it was a convenient distraction. Sixty—Mr. Niano—had tried to sit next to her on the bus, and then when she said, “Mr. Niano, you should sit at the front,” he’d asked her, “Why don’t you call me Sixty?” The whole bus had stared. Her feet pumped faster, remembering the awkwardness of the situation and the angry eyes on her. She felt like she might growl at him if he spoke to her again.

The werfle darted from the drive into the trees, and she darted after it.

“Wait, Volka,” Sixty said, hot on her heels.

“Your werfle!” she cried.

“Will be fine. He probably smells a rat,” Sixty—Mr. Niano—replied, not panting at all.

Volka sniffed and slowed. “There are rats,” she said. She licked her lips, and then flushed and put a hand to her mouth subconsciously, her irritation at him replaced by shame.

If he’d noticed, Mr. Niano didn’t comment. To cover her embarrassment, she said, “I’ve heard werfles, if they escape when you’re traveling, they’ll return to their home.” Sniffing the air, she licked her lips again. “I could sniff him out for you…so he doesn’t return to the interior.” Did she sound too eager? She did. But warm rat meat, any meat, was satisfying in ways not even French toast could be.

“He’s a very unusual werfle,” Mr. Niano said, just behind her shoulder. “Come on, we don’t want to be late for work.”

Volka exhaled and turned around. For a moment, she met Mr. Niano’s eyes. He was shockingly handsome in a way that seemed almost unnatural. “You’re right, Mr. Niano,” she said, quickly averting her gaze.

“I understand now, that you’re not supposed to call me Sixty in public—”

Thank God. Walking back to the drive, she winced, remembering the scene on the bus.

“—but can’t you call me Sixty in private?” He sounded so plaintive.

Volka started to respond. “It’s not a—”

“Volka?” Mr. Darmadi’s voice came from beyond the screen of trees.

“I’m here, Mr. Darmadi,” she said, hurrying to the lawn. She squinted in the foggy drizzle. Mr. Darmadi was beneath the gazebo. He had his easel and paints set up, and she remembered he wanted to get a rainscape en plein air of the house this season. The rain began to pelt harder, and she broke into a jog, Sixty loping easily beside her.

“Who is this?” Mr. Darmadi asked as soon as they reached the gazebo. Volka froze. How was she going to introduce Sixty? How would she ever explain how she found him? If she said that he’d spent the night at her house, Mr. Darmadi would think what all the weere had thought.

“Volka,” Mr. Darmadi said, but his eyes were on Sixty.

Sixty was looking rapidly between him and her.

Not knowing what to say, Volka babbled, “Mr. Darmadi, he wants to be your chef. I know it is extremely unusual for a human to want to be a domestic, but he is from the interior, and is a bit lost and looking for work, and I thought you might give him a chance because…well, he’s a very good chef. At least, I think he might be and…”

Not looking at her, Mr. Darmadi smiled at Sixty. “That sounds fine.”

Her eyes widened. He hadn’t asked for any of Sixty’s credentials.

Sixty smiled back, Mr. Darmadi took a step toward him, and Sixty’s smile slowly built to something absolutely sinful. Oh.

“Aren’t you, ahh…going to introduce me, Volka?” Mr. Darmadi said.

“Mr. Darmadi, this is Sixty. Sixty, this is Mr. Darmadi.” Too late she realized her mistake.

Mr. Darmadi turned toward her, mouth agape, face flushed. “Volka! Where are your manners?”

Squeezing her eyes shut, Volka said, “This is Mr. Sixty—I mean Stephen—I mean Mr. Niano. Mr. Stephen Niano, this is Mr. Darmadi.” This is why she didn’t want to call him Sixty, even in private. She knew she’d trip up and call him by his nickname in public.

“You must excuse her,” Mr. Darmadi said hastily. “I don’t know what came over her. I don’t tolerate that sort of rudeness. Even if you work here, she will treat you with the respect you’re owed.”

Sixty—Mr. Niano’s—smile dropped. His frame became rigid. His lips parted as though he were about to say something. Volka shook her head and silently willed him not to argue, not to tell Mr. Darmadi that he’d requested she address him by his nickname. If he did, Mr. Darmadi would know they were, well, almost friends, and that could make everything worse.

Sixty shut his mouth, but when he looked back at Mr. Darmadi, his smile was chilly. “Nice to meet you, sir.”

“Come, come,” Mr. Darmadi said, stepping from the gazebo. “We should go inside. It’s cold out here. I suppose I should ask to see your references.”

Falling into step with him, Mr. Niano said, “Unfortunately, I don’t have my references on hand to show. I had a bit of a bad turn on my arrival in New Prime, and I lost some of my belongings.” Volka’s ears went back. He’d said nothing of that to her.

“Why don’t I cook for you?” Mr. Niano continued.

“That sounds like a start,” Mr. Darmadi said, and then added, “If this works out, you can stay at my guest house until you get on your feet. My nephew used to stay there…it’s quite comfortable.”

Volka pressed her lips together, and her stomach sank. The guest house had been Alaric’s, and she felt like her memories were being defiled.

Looking over his shoulder, Mr. Darmadi called back, “Volka, bring my things in,” and then the two humans walked beneath the awning of the house just as the rain picked up, creating a curtain between them and her. Volka watched them disappear and felt suddenly horribly, irredeemably alone. She wavered on her feet. Was the feeling hers…was it in her gut, or in her mind? She bent over, and the world became inky black, and she was so afraid, her body felt like ice, but she couldn’t even shiver. “Please…” she whispered. “Please.”

She heard a cheep, and her vision returned.

The blackness lifted. Volka looked down and saw a wet Carl Sagan trotting across the grass toward the gazebo.

Sucking in a breath, Volka straightened. What was that? A head rush? Was she getting sick?

“Squeak,” said Carl, hopping up the steps and threading between her legs. She swore she heard a man say, “It’s all right.” The voice was a lot like a voice she’d thought she’d heard in No Weere this morning. She thought she’d just been catching fragments of conversation from someone heading to the bus stop, but there was no one else on Mr. Darmadi’s lawn.

“Nerves,” she said aloud. “It’s just nerves.” Her jaw got hard. “And I am not getting sick. I am going to Libertas.”

The werfle looked up at her through narrowed eyes and then hopped away.


11

Cruelty

6T9 stuck his hand in the oven. He felt his invisi-filaments activate. A charge ran up his arm and into his power cells, but he frowned. The oven was five degrees cooler than what he’d set it to. Closing the door, he adjusted the temperature knob. Straightening, he smoothed his chef’s coat, feeling the comfortable shape of Eliza’s ashes, bound to his stomach with surgical tape, and surveyed the kitchen. Unlike Volka, Mr. Darmadi had electricity, a refrigerator, a gas range, and an electric toaster, all based on models from the 1950s. There was not a digital display to be seen anywhere, but aside from the challenge of working with 1950s-era technology, the past two days had been as boring as he’d predicted.

6T9 opened a chrome and glass blender and peered at the liquefied liver and butter within. Hearing soft werfle footfalls behind him, he said aloud, “Hard to believe this was once a living creature grazing carefree in a field. Sometimes I forget how barbaric this place is.” Everyone civilized in the galaxy ate lab-grown meat. He narrowed his eyes at Carl Sagan. Werfles were not civilized—as “Mr. Pickles,” Carl had endeared himself to Bernadette by dispatching rodents and rabbits. Taking a seat and licking a paw, Carl spoke into the ether. “Whatever. Real meat has greater ‘chemical complexity’ and tastes better.”

Volka burst into the kitchen with a bag of potatoes. “Here you go,” she said, laying the bag on the table. It was about as many words as he’d heard her speak in the few days he’d worked with Mr. Darmadi.

“Would you like some dinner?” 6T9 asked her, gesturing to the pot of lentil curry and vegetables on the stove.

She glanced at the kitchen clock. “I have to clean Mr. Darmadi’s brushes,” and scampered out without a backward look at him, or the food he’d carefully prepared for her as much as Mr. Darmadi.

“That dish smells disgusting,” Carl thought.

6T9 snorted derisively. “Carnivore.”

Carl headed out the door, but said into the ether, “You’ve got a plan for how you’re getting aboard the Leetier, don’t you?”

“Yes,” 6T9 replied, and frowned. An announcer’s voice came from a tiny radio in the corner. “Time for the jazz hour. We’ll be kicking it off with Dave Brubeck’s Take Five as performed by the South West Province Jazz Orchestra.”

The music began to play, and according to the data 6T9 pulled down from Time Gate 1 over the Q-comm, the rendition of the piece was exceedingly faithful. Take Five had been composed in 1959. He hadn’t heard anything composed later since he’d arrived.

A light went off in his mind, he opened the oven door, confirmed the temperature with his hand, slipped in the lizzar liver mousse he was pre-cooking for tomorrow’s dinner party, and set an alarm in his internal chronometer. Another internal alarm rang, and he turned off the range, took off the pot, and plated the lentil curry with flatbread and vegetables on three separate plates. Two he left in the kitchen for Volka and him; the third he put on a tray for Mr. Darmadi. He straightened the white chef’s coat that Mr. Darmadi had purchased for him, and then, picking up the tray, he walked out into the dining room.

“Smells delicious!” Mr. Darmadi said, entering the room. “It’s so hard to find someone who cooks vegetarian.”

6T9 was saved from having to respond by a crash upstairs in the studio. Frowning, Mr. Darmadi turned on his heels and stormed up the stairs.

A moment later, 6T9 heard the man say, “What’s going on?” and Volka reply, “I spilled the brushes on the floor. That’s all.”

“You’ve been dropping things all day!” Mr. Darmadi grumbled.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Volka replied.

Sounding frustrated, Mr. Darmadi demanded, “It’s not the season, is it?”

6T9 blinked at the rain-spattered window. The rainy season made weere clumsy?

Hearing Volka murmur something in reply, 6T9 crept to the bottom of the stairs and listened. “It’s my cousin. She went into labor, and I’m nervous for her, that’s all.”

There was a moment of silence, and then, sounding tired rather than angry, Mr. Darmadi said, “Volka, I’m sorry.”

6T9 blinked. It was the most compassion he’d heard the man express to the weere woman since he arrived.

“But I need you,” Darmadi continued.

6T9 snorted. That was an understatement. Volka was almost constantly in motion. She was Darmadi’s housekeeper, helping him pack his trunks, and, 6T9 suspected, also helped him with his paintings. She’d emerged from the studio a few times in an apron stained with paint.

“The next two days are going to be rough, what with the dinner tomorrow night and our departure,” Mr. Darmadi continued. “I can’t spare you.”

“I know, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

6T9 heard Darmadi leaving the studio. Pulling out the human’s chair, 6T9 waited to help seat him, but Darmadi waved him away. “I don’t stand on ceremony when there’s no company,” he said.

6T9 forced a smile. That didn’t seem to hold true for Volka. He wasn’t sure if his presence had made the situation worse. Sometimes humans had been quite decent to him when he was alone with them, and then changed as soon as other humans were around. Perhaps if he wasn’t here, Mr. Darmadi was a perfect gentleman when he was the only human about. Static flushed beneath 6T9’s skin. It was strange to be thought of as human. His sex ‘bot model was so common that most people in the galaxy knew what he was immediately.

“You’ve been working hard. Why don’t you bring out your dinner, Sixty?” Darmadi said. He lifted the wine bottle on the table. “And I shouldn’t be drinking this alone.”

6T9’s eyebrows lifted. The man had been making discreet overtures toward him since he arrived. 6T9 hadn’t indulged his primary function in four years, three months, and six days, fourteen hours, and twenty-two minutes. Mr. Darmadi was healthy and fit, which only mattered to Sixty insomuch as it meant he was less likely to experience a heart attack. 6T9 had been tempted, but then without fail, Mr. Darmadi said something cutting to Volka, and he just…couldn’t.

On the one hand, this was bound to be a situation when such an advance was coming. On the other hand, 6T9 couldn’t get drunk and alcohol was easier to convert to power than food. “Why not?” he said.

He went to get his plate, and heard Volka’s footsteps upstairs. He bowed his head. He judged Darmadi for his treatment of Volka, and yet, his plan to escape her planet was going to be far crueler to her than Mr. Darmadi’s cutting words.

Starship Waking

Volka crept down the stairs and the smell of lizzar liver rose up to greet her. Closing her eyes and breathing deeply, she momentarily forgot about Myra. Her cousin hadn’t left No Weere for the Northwest province because of heavy rains that started the day Mr. Niano arrived. And then she’d gone into labor this morning. Although, that hadn’t been why Volka had dropped the brushes…she’d had another dark vision, and a flash of fear. Maybe it was just the long hours and the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything since before noon.

Shaking away her lightheadedness and following her nose, Volka almost missed Mr. Darmadi and Sixty sitting at the dining room table, dinners done, wine bottle less than a quarter full. Just as she’d expected, Sixty had integrated into human society. Her brow furrowed; although he was still getting her in trouble. He’d caught her hand this morning when she was in the kitchen and spun her around to a waltz on the radio. Mr. Darmadi had seen and she’d gotten an earful. Keeping her ears turned to them both, she went to the kitchen through the back way. Just as she got behind the closed door, she heard Mr. Darmadi say, “So, you plan to have freshwater clams and bi-shelled snails for dinner tomorrow night?”

Volka’s eyes went wide and her face went hot. Clams were a euphemism for female anatomy and the bi-shelled snails were a euphemism for male anatomy.

“Some men prefer clams,” Mr. Darmadi continued. “I prefer…snails.” His speech was slightly slurred by his drink.

Volka’s breath caught. She couldn’t help herself. She turned around and peeked from the door that led to the dining room. Did Sixty—Mr. Niano—know what Mr. Darmadi was implying?

“Personally, I prefer clams and snails,” Mr. Niano replied, his lips splitting into a smile that was so bright and perfect it was painful to look at.

“Oh,” said Mr. Darmadi, his voice breathless, his face flushed with wine, and maybe possibilities. Volka’s mouth made a small “o” and her eyes went wide. Did Mr. Niano know the implications of what he’d just said?

Waving his glass, Mr. Niano’s smile turned sharp. “Blackened, and in a butter garlic sauce.”

Mr. Darmadi choked on his wine. Volka choked on her spit. Mr. Niano, for his part, just took a slow sip from his glass. He was just clueless, Volka decided, but then he cast a covert wink in her direction.

Volka’s skin heated, and then her jaw got hard and she turned away. Was he flirting with her after his comments on barbarism and carnivores?

Her eyes fell on a plate of food on the kitchen table. Mr. Darmadi didn’t eat meat, and it was some sort of curry of legumes and vegetables. Next to it was an index card that read, “Volka, for your dinner.” Her nostrils flared. She was so hungry that her stomach felt like it was starting to devour itself, but the entree smelled as appetizing as cardboard. Bread was barely palatable, but vegetables and greens—why not serve up pain and agony in a bowl? She wondered if this was Mr. Niano being clueless or if it was a tasteless joke, a way of rubbing in her inhumanity.

Lips curling, Volka almost left, but then a muffled squeak and a soft scratching at the door to the garden made her pause. It was pouring rain, and she felt sorry for Carl Sagan out in the cold. She opened the door and the werfle hopped in, but he was not alone. In his jaws was the largest rat Volka had ever seen. The werfle trotted over, dropped the rat at her feet, purred, and gazed up at her with its warm brown eyes. “Eat it,” she swore he was saying—oddly in the voice of the strange man she’d imagined in the gazebo and in No Weere. “You deserve it.”

Mouth watering, she kneeled beside the werfle. “Is this for me, Carl?” she asked, as though it could answer. It butted its head against her hand. “I already ate,” she imagined it saying, and then it licked its lips and trotted over to sit beside the stove.

Volka picked up the rat, and her mouth watered obscenely. Her ears flicked backward. “Another?” she heard Mr. Darmadi say.

“Oh, why the Other Systems not?” she heard Mr. Niano reply.

Eyeing the rat, Volka bit her lip. What harm could it do?

Starship Waking

The internal chronometer told 6T9 that the liver mousse was done. Smiling at Mr. Darmadi, he pushed back from the table. “If you excuse me, I have to see to something in the kitchen.”

“You hold your liquor reallly welll,” Darmadi said, gazing at the table, eyes vacant.

Shaking his head, 6T9 exited the dining room. He was midway between the two rooms, holding the swinging door ajar, when his eyes fell on Volka and his processors briefly flickered out. She was hunched over a cutting board, sucking on something that appeared to be a lollipop. Splayed on the board was a skeleton, a pile of skin and fur, and a long naked tail. She turned to him, and her black-lined amber eyes got very wide.

Circuits sputtering, 6T9 blurted out, “What are you doing?” Eating anything around a dead rodent that likely harbored disease was foolishness.

Behind him, he heard Darmadi’s chair screech, and then his footfalls, heavy and irregular with alcohol. Lollipop still in her mouth, ears flattening, Volka hurriedly dumped the contents of the board into the garbage. She stood up straight, lollipop stick protruding from her lips, just as Darmadi came in. Behind 6T9, he sighed in what sounded like exasperation. “Volka, you did not just eat a rat again in my kitchen.”

6T9 huffed defensively. “No, she didn’t. It was the werf—” His eyes fell on the “lollipop” stick. It was shorter than it should have been, and had a “hinge” joint at the middle. At the end were tiny digits. Volka plucked what was either a forelimb or a hindlimb stripped clean of muscle and tendons from her mouth and plopped it into the garbage.

“Get out of here, Volka,” Darmadi said. “And take the garbage with you.”

“Yes, sir, sorry, sir…” Volka said, bending once again, this time hauling the bag out of the garbage bin. She exited the house with the bag and without a coat.

6T9 glanced at the curry and vegetables he’d made. The plating was beautiful—the colors were bright and contrasting, the shape of the flatbread offered further visual interest, but more importantly, the fragrance of all the elements was nuanced and rich. She hadn’t even tried it. He was so disturbed he almost forgot to use potholders when he retrieved the mousse from the oven.

“A rat,” he whispered, remembering the potholder just in time. “She ate a rat.” It was so unsanitary and barbaric.

Running a hand through his hair, Darmadi said tiredly, “Probably caught and killed it, too.”

“Hey!” Carl Sagan protested over the ether. “She only wrung its neck. I caught it! She doesn’t have time to hunt properly.” In the real world, he began licking a paw.

6T9’s jaw dropped, and he hastily put the mousse on top of a rack to cool. She killed it? It had been alive when Carl Sagan dragged it in? She’d felt the creature’s fluttering heartbeat under her fingers and decided to extinguish it? Granted, he had tried to flatten a rat or two with a broom before his Q-comm. But now he had a Q-comm, and he began downloading data on the species. In their own way, rats were more sophisticated than sex ‘bots. They could learn, they had a sense of humor, and they formed attachments during their brief lives.

“She’s an animal,” Mr. Darmadi continued, and 6T9 felt static flare under his skin.

Carl Sagan hissed in 6T9’s mind, “She’s a facultative carnivore, but you two pious would-be herbivores are trying to give her indigestion.”

6T9 was busy pulling down data on humans that killed small animals. “She might be a psychopath,” he replied silently to Carl.

“I kill rats,” Carl shot back. “Am I a psychopath?”

“You’re a werfle,” 6T9 replied over the ether.

Carl Sagan looked up at the ceiling. “I do have the desire to play with them before I eat them…” He purred. “In this form, I might actually be a psychopath. How interesting.” He hopped away.

“Animals,” said Darmadi. “All weere are animals. Remembering that will make all your dealings with them easier.”

“Easier,” 6T9 replied, staring at where Volka’s raincoat still hung by the door. “It just makes everything that much more confusing.” He’d imagined Volka as an innocent, almost childlike, but she definitely was not.

The rain pounded on the windows. Darmadi’s face went strangely blank. He glanced down at the dish 6T9 had left for Volka, an eyebrow rising. “I’ll leave you to prepare for tomorrow,” he said, and then he left the room.

Starship Waking

Even having eaten the rat, Volka was hungry again by the time she got home. Hugging herself and soaked through from the rain, Volka trudged through the enormous puddle that surrounded her home. She hadn’t been able to face going into the kitchen again after the confrontation with Niano. His voice, muffled by the door, rose in her mind. “A rat. She ate a rat.” The disgust had been evident.

She closed her eyes. But his surprise had been evident, too. He’d really made the dinner, as unappetizing as it was, for her. He was trying to be kind. She remembered the wink and growled. Maybe he wasn’t trying to be “kind” so much as wanting something from her. She stomped up her stoop. Well, this evening’s events would dissuade him, and it was for the best, really. Humans and weere didn’t belong together.

She kicked her soaked and muddied shoes off under the awning, inserted her key into the lock, and entered her house. Myra’s scent was fading, but she could smell the warm furriness of the werfle. Her eyes got hot. The werfle had understood her hunger and taken pity on her…just another example how weere and humans were separate species. She took a step. Her toe caught on something, and it went skidding across the floor.

Blinking down, she saw an envelope. The night was too dark even for weere eyes and Volka lit a gas lamp to read by. The envelope bore no address. Opening it, she saw the disjointed scrawl and knew it was written by a weere with claws instead of nails.

The baby was born. Healthy boy. Our noses say the father is who she said he is. Myra wants the father to be informed. We are uncertain. Can’t leave. Rain’s too heavy.

Volka sank to the floor, and her heart sank somewhere even farther below that. A weere-human baby…It couldn’t be…not after everything she’d been told. Not after everything she’d told herself.


12

Family Ties

“I don’t think I’m a psychopath,” Carl Sagan thought.

Stirring up a sauce on the stove, 6T9’s eyes shifted to the werfle and went wide. “Get off the counter!”

Licking a paw, but otherwise not moving, Carl Sagan pontificated, “It’s true. This body would kill and torture for fun, but it isn’t aware enough to contemplate the suffering of its prey. To the limited intellect of this body, it’s all play.”

Dropping the spoon in the pot, 6T9 backhanded the werfle to the floor.

“Rawr!” Carl Sagan screeched.

“I’m too busy for this conversation, Carl,” 6T9 said aloud. There were only six guests and five courses, but there was only one of him and he had to time everything precisely.

The werfle continued, “This body also desires to feed its family, and what it considers family extends to those outside its blood.”

Volka ran into the kitchen on some errand. From upstairs in his bedroom, Darmadi shouted, “Volka!” Spinning around with a sigh, she left again.

“For instance,” the werfle said. “I desire to catch Volka another rat. She is very hungry. She’s barely had time to eat here. She hasn’t had any time to shop for food for her home, and all the rain has washed out the rat colony that lived beneath her house.”

Retrieving the spoon from the pot, 6T9 glared down at the werfle. “Are you trying to put me on a guilt trip?”

The werfle’s eyes narrowed. “Do you feel guilty?”

Static rippled through 6T9’s synth skin. “I just haven’t had time to prepare her anything…what with the meal tonight and Darmadi’s breakfast and lunch.”

Trotting to the door, Carl Sagan said, “Well, I’ll go fetch her a rat, then. This nearly psychopathic animal is concerned with her suffering.”

“I’ll make her something!” 6T9 snapped, angry at the werfle for launching him on the “guilt trip,” but angrier at himself. 6T9 hadn’t really thought of Volka being in discomfort. She hadn’t told him, and there was no ether connection between them—he might have picked it up in a mental lag as they conversed. It wasn’t his job to feed her, and before he’d only made her an extra plate of whatever he’d been making Darmadi. He didn’t owe her anything…His shoulders fell, remembering the searchlights…except possibly for saving him from the Luddeccean Guard. He thought of his plan to escape to Libertas…and there was that, too.

The werfle stopped, turned around, and blinked at him. 6T9 swore he smiled.

In the study, a “telephone” rang. 6T9 heard Mr. Darmadi answering it.

Setting aside the sauce, 6T9 retrieved a piece of lizzar from the refrigerator and a few hard-boiled eggs. In 4.5 minutes, he had an artfully arranged platter of lizzar tartar. He deftly chopped the eggs and arranged the cubes in the center. He sat the platter aside and muttered, “And now back to our previously scheduled programming…” Grabbing a bowl of butter and garlic sauce, he opened the oven and proceeded to baste the xinbats. Behind him, he heard Darmadi’s footsteps. “Sixty, we’re going to have one more guest. Will that be all right?”

Reluctantly closing the oven and losing its glorious heat, 6T9 nodded without turning. “It should be fine.”

Darmadi clapped his hands. “Oh, I’m relieved. The Archbishop heard that you were preparing an authentic Founders’ Feast and I couldn’t say no.”

Winking at him, 6T9 gave him a smile. “I told you it was the perfect menu.” 6T9 hadn’t known what sort of dishes had become popular in the last hundred years, but Eliza always said, “If you have to serve hardliners, make it a Founders’ Feast. Not enjoying a Founders’ Feast is close to heresy.”

“I’ll tell Volka that we need one more place setting,” Darmadi said.

“Sounds good,” 6T9 said distractedly, going to retrieve some bornut butter from the refrigerator.

Despite his words, Darmadi didn’t move. Closing the fridge, 6T9 found him frowning at the tartar instead. “Sixty, tartar isn’t part of the authentic Founders’ menu. It might offend the Archbishop.”

“Not to worry, it’s just for Volka,” 6T9 replied, turning his back on the man and attending to the bornut soufflé.

“She’s like a daughter to me,” Darmadi said.

6T9 held his tongue, but his lips curled into a sardonic smile, his emotional expression programming winning out over his self-preservation programming.

“I’m serious, Niano,” Darmadi said.

One eyebrow raised, 6T9 looked over his shoulder at the man.

Standing straighter, Darmadi said, “I won’t have you take advantage of her.”

6T9’s thoughts started looping. How was preparing a dish for Volka taking advantage of her?

Carl’s thoughts whispered in the ether. “Oh, he is serious. I’ve mostly only noticed him being jealous of Volka; he thinks you’re not interested in him and trying to engage in mating behaviors with her.”

6T9’s skin prickled with static. The man who had her working twelve-hour days somehow saw 6T9 as the person taking advantage of the weere?

Darmadi’s eyes dropped. “She’s been through enough already. She doesn’t deserve to be mistreated in that way.”

6T9’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t deserve to be mistreated at all. “I made her dinner. That is all,” 6T9 replied, tone clipped.

“That better be the case,” Darmadi said, turning and leaving the room.

6T9 watched him go, electricity sparking up his spine.

“Not your circus, not your monkeys,” Carl Sagan said.

6T9 hadn’t heard the expression before. It took a half a second to comprehend it, but when he did, he smiled despite himself, or maybe his emotional expression thresholds were set too low.

In the study, he heard Darmadi say, “Volka, there’s a plate of food for you in the kitchen. Go ahead and eat. After that, I need you to set another table setting. The Archbishop is coming to eat here.”

He heard Volka gasp, “Such an honor!”

“I hear he is kind to weere,” Darmadi said.

“Oh, yes! I’ve heard so,” she said, sounding excited. “Perhaps he’ll bless me.”

“I think it is likely,” said Darmadi.

6T9 rolled his eyes and returned to his cooking. Sitting close to his feet, Carl said, “We just have to pull off this dinner thing without incident. The Leetier leaves for Libertas tomorrow.”

“I’ll have you know,” 6T9 said, “my dinner parties are never circuses.” His lips curled at the way he’d worked the new idiom into the reply.

At that moment, Volka burst into the kitchen. “Mr. Niano, did you hear that Archbishop Sato is going to be eating here?”

6T9 dropped his whisk into the soufflé, his eyes went wide, and for a moment, all his circuitry dimmed. Volka whirled away, and 6T9 whispered, “No, it can’t be him.” It couldn’t be his friend Admiral Noa Sato’s brother, Kenji Sato.

Carl began to hop at his feet. “Oh, I see from their mental pictures that it is Noa’s brother Kenji!”

6T9 looked down at the werfle in disbelief and hissed, “He’s a fanatic!”

Carl’s whiskers twitched. “He’s nice to werfles, though.”

The creature hopped away. Kenji Sato was Eliza’s great-great-something-grandnephew, and he’d met 6T9 on many occasions before. 6T9’s Q-comm sparked as he compulsively calculated the probabilities of running into the single person on a planet of over a hundred million who might recognize him at a dinner party for seven.

Starship Waking

“Wait, don’t open the door,” Niano whispered.

Hefting the tray high, Volka looked heavenward. Her burden was heavy, and she was having a bad day. She’d had more nightmares the night before, a dream of expectant doom and darkness. After waking up in a cold sweat, she’d finally gotten to sleep again and somehow managed to sleep through her alarm clock. She hadn’t had a chance to visit Myra and the baby before work, and half of her wondered if her nightmare, and oversleeping, were products of her envy. She was jealous of Myra’s baby, and it made her feel sick with guilt. She wasn’t in the mood for Niano’s tomfoolery.

Niano moved to the other side of the kitchen and then whispered, “Okay, now is fine.” It was as though he didn’t want to risk being seen.

Her arms ached, but she reminded herself that at least her stomach didn’t. The raw lizzar had been a generous gesture on his part, whatever his motives, and she needed to be more compassionate and accepting. Maybe he was being shy. In the interior, he probably didn’t meet high-ranking clergy very much. She backed through the swinging door and entered the dining room. When she came back into the kitchen, he jumped back from the door fast.

“Were you peeking?” she asked in a hushed voice.

“No.”

“I nearly broke your nose,” she said worriedly.

“I might have been peeking,” he admitted. His eyes scanned the floor. “That really is him…Kenji Sato.”

“Yes,” Volka said, beginning to smile.

“He’s over one hundred and eighty years old. How can that be?” Niano asked, rubbing his temple.

“It’s by the grace of God,” Volka replied, unable to keep the awe out of her voice. “He’s practically a saint.” When she’d served him, she’d been so overwhelmed that her hands had shaken.

Archbishop Sato was frail, his hair was completely white, and he sat in a wheelchair. He also had a strange metal disk in the side of his skull—a “neural port” from the time before Revelation, she knew. She’d managed not to stare at it. Other than that and his frailty, he’d seemed healthy. When he looked up at her, his face had been surprisingly smooth, and his eyes shockingly bright behind his bifocals. He’d smiled at her, oddly shyly, and said, “Thank you,” despite her poor performance. The memory made her eyes misty, and Volka made the sign of the Three Books: touching her forehead, her heart, and bowing her head.

Niano’s gaze met hers. “You believe that?” His voice was cool, without inflection. Volka’s eyes narrowed. She knew the rumors about Archbishop Sato being so mathematically gifted he might be a “robot,” or that he was controlled by a machine.

Her lip curled. “I believe he allows weere into the priesthood, and yes, that does make him a saint in my eyes.” That was the reason for the rumors; all the weere knew it. Kenji Sato was a miracle. That God protected him was proof that God existed.

Niano’s eyes softened. She brushed past him and made her way to the sink.

Later, when she was serving coffee, Archbishop Sato asked, “Mister Darmadi, this is the most authentic Founders’ Feast I’ve had since Revelation.” Volka’s stomach turned to a stone. Mr. Niano didn’t deserve his approval. “I’d like to meet the chef,” the archbishop added. He blinked, owl-like behind his thick lenses. “It’s exactly as I remember my last Founders’ Feast at my great aunt Eliza’s house. She was one of the First Wave settlers.”

Smiling proudly, Mr. Darmadi said, “Would you believe I have a human cook? He just made his way here from the interior provinces. Volka, go fetch Mr. Niano so the archbishop can meet him.”

Volka felt the hairs on her head rise up, and her ears flattened in what she hoped Darmadi would mistake for submission. Niano was so prone to saying…awkward things…and he’d just practically accused the archbishop of being a robot. Nodding respectfully to hide her frown, Volka said, “Yes, sir,” and went back into the kitchen.

“I heard,” Niano whispered as she entered. He was standing at the center of the room, stock-still, eyes wide. His Adam’s apple bobbed. Focus abruptly shifting to the floor, Niano said, “Carl Sagan, you go first!”

“Merr…” said the werfle, and it trotted out and slipped through the still-swinging door.

Volka blinked. She didn’t know a lot about werfles, but she’d always heard they weren’t ones for taking orders.

Her attention returned to Mr. Niano. He was running his hands down the front of his coat, drawing attention to his slight belly. She squinted, trying to remember him that first night in a tight shirt—he hadn’t had a belly that she could recall. Of course, her memories from that night were hazy. Or maybe he just helped himself to a little extra of the Founders’ Feast? “I don’t think it’s the werfle he wants to see,” she said.

As if to spite her, from the other room, she heard a collective, “aww” and Mr. Darmadi saying, “That is Mr. Niano’s werfle. ‘Carl Sagan’ is his name. If he’s bothering you, I can—”

“No, no, I like werfles,” the archbishop replied. Chuckling, he added, “‘Carl Sagan’? That is an odd name for a werfle. His name should be something more like…‘Fluffy.’”

“Squeak, squeak!” said Carl Sagan, and Volka’s ears swiveled back, hearing the werfle purr all the way from the other room.

Mr. Niano didn’t move.

Starship Waking

“What do I do?” 6T9 said into the ether, static flaring so furiously beneath his skin he could feel his power cells draining.

“I don’t know. Kenji doesn’t know you’re here yet, so I don’t know how he will react,” Carl Sagan responded. “It is nice to see him again, though.”

“He’s one of them,” 6T9 protested.

“Yes, but he was also one of my pets for many years,” Carl Sagan replied. “Also, he gives excellent scratches.”

“Fickleness, thy name is werfle,” 6T9 grumbled aloud.

The werfle’s thoughts came in a purr. “Oh, yes, right there…behind the ear, yes…”

“Mr. Niano?” Volka asked. “Should I make some excuse?”

“I don’t know,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose, commanding the static to subside.

Carl Sagan’s thoughts came through the ether. “If you run, we won’t get to Libertas in time. Sundancer is in danger.” Darkness spread through the ether until it blocked out 6T9’s vision and his auditory channels were silent.

“Stop it, werfle,” he hissed.

The darkness vanished and his ears were filled with the sound of Volka’s tray crashing to the floor. The weere woman fell to one knee. Her breath came in staccato gasps.

“Volka?” he said, kneeling beside her. She looked up at him, her eyes wide and terrified.

“It’s coming,” she whispered. “The darkness.”

6T9’s Q-comm flashed white hot at the coincidence between Sundancer’s dark emotions and Volka’s strange words, but then Carl Sagan said over the ether, “You’re causing consternation out here.”

6T9 gulped. He didn’t have a heart as such, but his senses were ticking down the milliseconds. If he ran away, he’d never get aboard the Leetier; if he didn’t get aboard the Leetier, the mission was a failure; Sundancer would be destroyed, and he was never going home.

Darmadi poked his head into the kitchen. “What are you—?” he hissed.

Standing quickly, 6T9 said, “I bumped into Volka and knocked over the platter. So clumsy of me. I’ll be right there.”

Smoothing his chef’s jacket, feeling Eliza’s ashes beneath, he walked past Darmadi out into the dining room.

Starship Waking

Volka heard the sound of shattering porcelain from the dining room and it snapped her from her daze. Retrieving her fallen platter, she jumped to her feet and ran from the kitchen. The archbishop was staring at Mr. Niano, his coffee cup and saucer were in shards, and liquid was spreading through the table cloth.

“Archbishop, Your Excellency, are you all right?” the counselor was asking.

“Should we call a doctor?” his daughter asked.

“The phone is in my study,” said Mr. Darmadi as Volka hastened to pick up the shards.

“Pick up the pieces before he cuts himself!” the counselor’s wife wailed as Volka did exactly that.

“I’m fine!” said the archbishop.

The room went silent. For a moment, the archbishop and Niano regarded each other, and then, dropping his eyes, the archbishop said, “I believe you had a painting to show us, Darmadi?”

“Ah, yes…it’s in the study,” Mr. Darmadi replied.

“Well, let us adjourn there,” the archbishop said, stroking the werfle that hadn’t left his lap. “Volka, would you push me?”

A few minutes later, Volka listened to the painting reveal from just outside the study door. Despite her exhaustion, she smiled at the ohs and ahs, and grinned outright when the counselor’s wife commented on the “gorgeous contrast!” That was her work, even if Mr. Darmadi had done the color. The counselor said, “This is a fine gift for my future son-in-law,” and his daughter said, “He looks so handsome,” perhaps a bit wistfully. Beaming, Volka retreated to the kitchen to fetch fresh coffee and sweets. When she came back to the study, the archbishop had gone, though the rest of the party was still admiring the painting and chatting. It wasn’t her place to ask where he was, so she didn’t. She was pouring refills of coffee when the counselor’s wife commented, “Mr. Darmadi, I hear your nephew Alaric is stationed on Libertas.”

Volka almost dropped the coffee decanter.

Perhaps taking pity on her, Darmadi said, “Volka, why don’t you go get a fresh batch of coffee.” She nodded hastily and left. Her stomach knotted. Would she be serving coffee to Alaric soon?

Closing her eyes, she bit her lip and turned from the hallway to the front room.

“Volka.”

The archbishop’s voice made her stop. Opening her eyes, she saw his chair was in front of the window, and he was staring out at the lights on the lawn. The werfle, seated on his lap, looked up at her and slowly blinked its eyes.

“Volka,” said the archbishop, not turning around. “Please go fetch Sixty Ni…the chef.”

Volka swallowed. He’d called Mr. Niano Sixty…they knew each other. The hair on the top of her head stood up. She was frightened, though she wasn’t sure why. She shook her head. No, she did know why. It had been a strange few days. Myra’s half-human baby. Her strange visions. And now, an archbishop and a chef—a strange man from the interior provinces—knowing one another. She wondered if the end times were approaching.

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

Starship Waking

Leaning over the sink, up to his elbows in hot soapy water, 6T9 was cleaning up and letting the heat of the water recharge him when Volka returned to the kitchen.

“The archbishop wishes to speak to you,” she said.

Gravity seemed to increase. Had he thought he’d gotten off easy? That perhaps Kenji had forgotten him?

“What does he want?” 6T9 asked, looking over his shoulder.

Volka stammered, “I don’t know.” Her lip curled, and her hands made fists at her sides. “But you should be respectful! He is nice to my kind.”

“He’s not kind to my kind,” 6T9 snapped.

She blinked at him. “What kind is that?”

6T9’s Q-comm hummed, searching for a reply, but then Carl’s thoughts intruded across the ether. “He recognizes you by the cooking—he knows you’re not some other version of the same 6T9 model—and he misses his sister, Noa.”

“He misses Noa?” 6T9 replied, his eyes going beyond the weere woman. His skin began to heat.

“Noa?” Volka whispered, her ears flicking madly.

Drying his hands with a dishtowel, 6T9 walked out of the kitchen, circuits buzzing. He found Kenji sitting in his wheelchair, back to him. Carl Sagan was laying across his lap, flexing his claws and purring softly. Kenji Sato was a frail old man, but 6T9 had an eidetic memory, and his memories of the days before Revelation were as clear as the present. He remembered dismembered ‘bots and phaser fire. He remembered Noa, Kenji’s sister, sicker and as frail as Kenji was now, though she’d been in her prime. He remembered the scars from where she’d been tortured at a re-education camp for heresy. “What do you want,” was a snarl at the tip of 6T9’s tongue, but before he could say it, Kenji spoke gibberish. “Nihon go wakaru?”

6T9’s Q-comm was instantly alight, processing the nonsense. Before he could snap at Kenji, the world went briefly white, there was a rush of heat at the back of his head and a download commenced...and then he did understand. It was Japanese, a mostly dead language. Kenji was asking if he spoke it. “I do now,” 6T9 responded. He hadn’t been designed to form the syllables correctly, nor did he have practice, and it came out heavily accented and barely understandable to his own auditory centers.

Kenji nodded. In Japanese, he said, “They have had me running simulations to discover where you might have wound up since you arrived.”

“Running simulations?” 6T9 responded. “In what? A sandbox with toy starfighters?”

“On the planet’s central computer,” Kenji said, blinking behind his bifocals. “The only computer not on our ships that we allow.”

6T9 stared out at the lawn, digesting the implications. 6T9 was a computer, and he was not allowed. There were lights along the drive that made the raindrops sparkle. Why was Kenji stringing him along by telling him all this?

Kenji continued in a quiet voice, “Antigrav for the Leetier and other vessels leaving the spaceport requires vast computing powers. We also use it to monitor the readouts of our buoys, to calculate solar weather, and the climates on Luddeccea, Libertas, Atlantia, and other outposts in this system. My priests and I monitor it to make sure that it doesn’t develop awareness of its own.”

6T9 exhaled, remembering the sign on the side of the bus, Do you know someone interested in Computer Science? The Priesthood can help.

Kenji continued, his voice inflectionless. “There is some thought that without an ethernet and the constant influx of human thoughts, it is impossible for consciousness to develop—that your self-awareness is just a mimicry of human self-awareness as your emotions are just mimics of ours.”

Static crawled along 6T9’s spine. “So lovely to see that you haven’t changed.”

Kenji looked up at him as though startled. Not quite meeting 6T9’s eyes, he shook his head. “But I have changed a great deal.”

6T9’s eyes narrowed, and his lips curled in a smirk. “Not so much as you would have if you hadn’t received nano injections.” Kenji would be a skeleton in the ground without nanotech—nanotech that was officially banned on Luddeccea.

Kenji sighed and looked out at the lawn again. “I pretend to not know about that. It’s easier that way. They need me…” His expression turned sad. “I suppose as my sister’s spy, you have a ship waiting nearby.”

6T9 blinked at Kenji’s assumption. Carl Sagan rolled onto his back and purred loudly. Over the ether, the werfle said, “He thinks we’re so much more competent than we really are!”

“Shut up, werfle,” said 6T9.

Kenji put a protective hand on Carl Sagan. “He’s just purring, 6T9.” And then, shaking his head, Kenji said, “The central computer is as powerful as any time gate. Yet in none of its most likely outcomes, did it predict I’d find you here.” A wistful smile crept onto his face. “It’s almost like fate.”

6T9 blinked. “How did you know it was me you were looking for?”

“We have spies too, Sixty,” Kenji replied.

According to 6T9’s sensors, the temperature in the room did not drop. It only felt like it did. He thought of the murder he’d witnessed aboard the Kanakah Disk. Yes, they did have spies.

Kenji’s brows lifted, and he looked up at 6T9. “Why my sister chose you…I don’t understand. You’re not at all inconspicuous.”

“Archbishop?” a man asked, the word spoken in the common tongue.

Turning, 6T9 found himself facing an Afro-Eurasian man wearing a long light cloak over crisp dress trousers, both in Luddeccean Green.

“Ah, Counselor Abbasi,” said Kenji, wheeling his chair around with surprising strength. “Just having a word with…the chef…” To 6T9, he said in Japanese, “Let my sister know we’ll be here…I’ll be here…when you need us. We’ve got her left flank.”

6T9 tilted his head, trying to decipher the strange message.

“Your Excellency?” Counselor Abbasi said.

“Nothing, nothing, just a private word between myself and the chef,” Kenji said, rolling his chair toward the man. Carl Sagan leaped from Kenji’s lap and hopped over to 6T9.

The counselor looked up at 6T9 with hard eyes. 6T9 bowed. When he straightened, the two men were heading toward the study.

“Well, that could have gone worse,” 6T9 thought to the werfle, Kenji’s words, I’ll be here, replaying in his mind.

Licking his side, Carl Sagan replied in the ether. “Abbasi plans on having you investigated by the Guard.”

“Should I assume investigated means violently interrogated?” 6T9 asked, circuits firing.

The werfle licked a paw. “Precisely.”


13

The Guard Strikes

An hour after the last guest had left the dinner party, Volka walked through the streets of No Weere. The night sky was overcast, but the rain had stopped. It was the very beginning of the Season, and the streets weren’t crowded, but they weren’t empty, either, even at the late hour. Every few blocks, she’d see a couple out, laughing and flirting. Older weere were watching them from porches, ready to shoo them into an alley if they became too amorous, or to grab them by the ear and drag them inside depending on their age.

Volka barely saw them. Mr. Niano’s words before she left replayed in her mind. “The Leetier leaves at six in the morning. You’ll have to be back by four a.m. Why do you have to go all the way back to No Weere just for a few hours? There are plenty of guest rooms in the main house.”

If he’d suggested she’d stay in the guest house, she would have known it was a proposition to stay with him, but he’d suggested the main house. Volka shook her head. He was just so…odd. Imagine, a weere maid staying with a single human man at his proper home. The rumors it would cause, the stains on Darmadi’s reputation and hers. Her brow furrowed. And yet, as strange as Mr. Niano was, he had spoken to a saint in a strange language. She’d listened and seen the sour expression on the counselor; the man had positively reeked with suspicion.

Her heart skipped a beat. Mr. Niano, Myra, visions…She felt like she was caught up in a crescendo of strangeness. She swallowed. Tomorrow she would go to Libertas. That would be the height of the crescendo—and it would be beautiful. She and Mr. Darmadi would return. Sixty—Mr. Niano—would find a job at one of those fine restaurants in New Prime, and she wouldn’t see him again. Her visions would end, too—they were probably just a manifestation of her excitement.

She sloshed through a puddle, passed a pair of lovers, and came to a stop at the middle of an intersection. The cross street was the lane Joseph and Esther lived on. She turned and looked in the direction of their house. The street wound around a hillock of salvaged rubble, and she couldn’t see their home.

She hesitated. It was late. Tomorrow was a long day, and she should go home. She bowed her head. Weren’t people always up if they had a new baby? She should go visit; being jealous was unbecoming.

Volka took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and headed down the narrower lane. If a light was on at Esther and Joseph’s, she’d knock; if one wasn’t, she wouldn’t. Her heart started beating faster at thought of the miracle baby, and a lump formed in her throat. Her unease made her think the escalating quiet was only her imagination. She was rounding the final curve of the bend where the rough gravel gave way to only mud when she noticed the tire tracks. Pausing, she stared at them. Maybe Myra’s patron had decided to come collect her and his son? The tracks, she noted, only went one way. The hair on the back of Volka’s neck stood on end.

She looked back the way she’d come. The last light was over six hundred paces back. Ears flattening, she left the lane, squeezed between two darkened shanty houses, slung her satchel over her back, and began picking her way up the hillock. Made of slabs of shattered concrete, each as thick as her thigh, and many twice as long as her body or longer, the slabs were remnants of the old city destroyed by the possessed Time Gate 8. Garbage and smaller debris drifted here and there, but the basic terrain of the hillock hadn’t changed since she was a girl. Instead of climbing to the top of the hillock, Volka crept along the side of it until she reached a spot where one giant fragment leaned against another, creating a small cave. She sniffed. There were the usual vagrants about, but not close by. Crouching down, she entered the tunnel. It was too dark to see even for a weere. She held out her hands to protect herself from long, snaking pieces of ancient rebar, and sniffed continuously. When she smelled fresh air and weere, she turned right, ducked once…and her heart stopped.

She smelled human.

For a moment, she didn’t move, but then she heard and smelled only weere nearby. The humans were off in the distance. She sniffed again. Did she smell blood?

“Why did they do it?” a girl whispered.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” said a young boy.

“Believe,” said a gruff older voice she recognized.

“Hany,” Volka whispered, bending low beneath a slab and creeping forward. When she lifted her head again, the faint light filtering through the rubble seemed brilliantly bright. She was in a space she used to play in. Roughly six paces across, there was a shoulder-high “window” in front of her, and a “skylight,” narrow but tall, behind and above her over the slab she’d just slunk beneath. In the space were two not-quite of age weere. They smelled like siblings, were well dressed for weere, and were very human-looking and definitely out of place in the hillock in the middle of the night. Hany, on the other hand, was dressed in near rags. Hany had wolf-like features—yellow eyes, pointed ears, and a snout—but he also had human hair that never stopped growing. The result was that he had a mane and looked more like a picture Volka had seen of an Earther lion than weere or human. Hany had no home or family that Volka knew of. Unlike most weere, pheromones had no effect on him, and he’d never taken a partner. He “didn’t like doors,” and lived in the hillock or under other bits of rubble, sometimes in the woods, and, occasionally, had slept under Volka’s porch. He did odd jobs for clean clothes now and then and sold fresh rats and fish on the streets.

“Volka,” Hany said, and scratched behind an ear. The ear flicked. “Heard them say your name. Asked where you was.”

“Who?” Volka asked.

“The Guard, at Joseph and Esther’s,” Hany said.

Volka went cold. Her fingers twisted at her side. No, no, no…don’t believe the worst. They’d probably come to escort Myra back to the home her patron had given her. After he realized the baby was his, and a miracle, he’d wanted her back. “What happened?” Volka asked. Her voice came out tiny and childlike.

She heard one of the nocturnal pterys flap by and screech.

And then the boy said, “We weren’t asleep. We were watching the Season from our window.”

Volka’s ears flattened, remembering doing the same when she was their age, and swearing to herself she’d never get “crazy like that.”

“And then we saw the guard driving up, and thought that was more interesting,” said the girl.

“We live almost next door, but thought we’d have a better view up here,” said the boy.

The girl wrung her hands and looked down. “And then we saw…”

“Afraid to go home,” the boy said. “Maybe they’d see us. They’re still there, waiting.”

The air wafting through the opening brought with it the smell of humans, freshly turned sod, weere blood, and incongruously, roasted suckling pig. Volka drifted to the window. The girl started to cry, and Volka heard the scrape of a shovel outside. Rising to her tiptoes, she peered through the opening. Joseph and Esther’s home was better built than most. They had a corrugated metal roof of some mysterious alloy that never rusted and burned the eyes with reflective light during the day. It reflected the lights of the humans below and a blaze set in the garbage can Joseph used for barbecues. For a moment, Volka was dazzled, and then her eyes dropped to the tiny garden behind the house. Joseph, Esther, and Myra were all lying there, bodies long, white, and peaceful as scattered bones in the humans’ floodlights.

“They killed all of them,” the girl whispered.

“We saw the phaser blasts,” said the boy.

Volka watched the humans below. Someone ran out of the house and threw a painting Volka had done of the couple into the flaming barrel. Oddly, she felt nothing. They were digging up Esther’s flower garden, scarring the earth the weere had worked so hard to cultivate. A distant part of Volka realized that they were digging graves, but it was still too much to process. She was in another nightmare. She had to be.

“Why?” the part of her that knew she was awake whispered.

Wiping her face, the girl said, “I don’t know. They didn’t say…they knocked, went in, took them out to the backyard, and shot them all…even the baby. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She sobbed softly.

Even the baby…?

“Did they know the baby’s father was human?” the Volka who thought she was in a dream whispered.

The children stared at her. Hany meditatively scratched his ear.

The girl sniffed. “The woman, she told them so—” Her voice was doubtful.

“She was lying to save her own skin,” said the boy. “Weere and humans don’t make babies.”

Hany barked. “That’s what they want you to think. Why do you think they killed them? Why do you think they threw the baby in the fire?”

Without a word, he lumbered over to the slab Volka had emerged beneath, climbed on top of it, and exited through the narrow skylight.

Volka, or a woman made of stone who looked like Volka, said to the children in a frighteningly calm voice, “Stay hidden until the Guard leave.” And then her eyes went to Hany’s shadow slipping away into the night. Her feet followed him as though they had a will of their own. She scraped through the exit sideways and found him sitting not far away.

“There are…more…?” Volka whispered, unable to finish. More weere-human babies.

She heard the children creeping up behind them, ignoring Volka’s order to remain below.

Looking over his shoulder, Hany spit. “You gotta stay movin’, Volka, like me. Too bad you can’t grow a mane and hide behind your hair.”

Volka gasped and took a step back.

To the children, he said, “You better forget everything you’ve seen and heard.” Standing up, he began climbing down the hillock on the opposite side of the Guard and Esther and Joseph’s house.

Volka felt as though she was splitting in three. A part of her was rising out of her body, rushing down the hillock, and enveloping the humans below in phantom-like fury. Stone Volka was still standing among the ruins of the hillock, unbelieving. The other part, the part that was reflected in the beat of her heart, thumping as fast as a ptery’s wings, was already running for home.

Stone Volka turned to the children and said, “Stay out of sight until the Guard is gone,” and then Volka followed her heart. She slid down the rubble on the far side of the hillock, setting off small avalanches of garbage and debris, and then broke into a run. Panting hard, heart beating wildly, she’d just gotten to the fringe of the buildings that set off to the side of the enormous puddle that her home now sat in when the wind shifted. She smelled humans—and worse, dogs in the direction of her house. She drew to a halt. For a moment, she stood motionless in the middle of the road and then dashed behind a wall. She could see her home. It looked normal. No lights were on. Her ears flicked. She heard nothing. The wind picked up, and the smell of dogs and humans drifted across the puddle, making the hair on the back of her head rise.

Someone was waiting for her. She closed her eyes. The people who’d captured Myra, they’d had to know she was her cousin. She bit her lip. Her stomach felt hollow, her chest tight.

Scrunching her eyes shut, Volka tried to think of what she needed to do. She should tell the Resistance. She knew where they were…She bit her lip. But would they take her? All of No Weere had seen her with Mr. Niano. They’d think he was her patron, or that she’d bedded him in a hormone-induced frenzy and was now bonded to him for life, and not to be trusted for it.

A dog’s howl rose from her home. Volka’s eyes snapped wide, and she gulped. Even if she could convince the Resistance members she was innocent, she might lead the Guard to them—just like she’d led them to Joseph and Esther by bringing them Myra. Bending over, she dry-heaved into the mud. Hot tears spilled from her eyes and mixed with her bile.

A dog barked and howled again. The wind shifted slightly. Not enough to give her away, but if it continued to turn…

Volka stared one more long moment at her home, imagining her paintings, the few photos she had of her parents, the quilt handed down from her grandmother, and then a dog howled again.

Volka turned and ran.

Starship Waking

Completely submerged, 6T9 stared through the watery veil above him and contemplated adding more hot water to the bath. The guest house might be on the rustic side, but the hot water heater was set to gloriously blistering temperatures. It would probably leave a human with a first-degree burn. It was perfect for recharging. He lifted a toe, prepared to turn the knob, when Carl Sagan’s thoughts intruded. “He’s asleep.”

6T9 groaned and forced himself to sit up.

“Are you attending to self-maintenance again?” Carl Sagan asked, thoughts peevish.

“No, I was just powering up,” 6T9 muttered, standing. “But I’m done.”

Drying off, he dressed in the clothes he’d arrived in, checking and double checking that he had Eliza’s ashes and his single recharge gel-pack secured in the inside front pockets. He found his hover pack by the door and slung it over his shoulders. He looked once more around the guest house. It was small, but there’d been plenty of hot water. There was a wood-burning stove, and the place was clean, the bed was large, and the sheets were as fine as anything he’d had on the asteroid. He swallowed. To the werfle, he said over the ether, “I don’t think we’ll experience anything as luxurious in a long time.”

Carl Sagan sighed into his mind. “I will miss the sunbeams and the rats at this place, but Sundancer—”

“Don’t fill me with visions of her fear again,” 6T9 said, exiting the guest house and feeling the drain on his power reserves accelerate in the cool air. “I need to see, and it is dark enough.” It was nearly two in the morning, and raining. He paused under the awning, looked across the lawn, and frowned. The lawn was lush, and extra wet. If he walked through it, he was going to spend the trip to Libertas wet and cold, which would drain his power cells. He looked to his left. The guest house had its own private garage. There was a paved private road that ran from the back gate, through a few acres of forest to the guest house, and then wound around to the front gate. It would be a longer walk, but not as wet. He squinted, considering…and saw a form moving on the road, approaching from the front drive. The figure was too small to be threatening, but it still took 6T9 a moment to recognize Volka, her head bent low, her satchel giving her silhouette a hump.

He took a step toward her, when lights flared on from the drive beside the guest house. Volka threw an arm in front of her eyes. A moment later, the air crackled with the buzz of a stunner and she crumpled to the ground. A car door shut just outside his field of vision. Figures in the uniform of the Luddeccean Guard ran toward Volka and kneeled beside her. “Used the lowest setting. She’ll be awake in a few minutes.”

“They think Volka’s me,” 6T9 whispered into the ether.

Carl Sagan hissed. “It’s her they want; I’m listening to their radio chatter.”

The men began dragging Volka by both arms toward the waiting vehicle.

6T9 slunk back into the shadows. One of the men looked directly at him, but then Carl Sagan made a low noise between a hiss and a growl, and the man shook his head and chased after his partners, dragging Volka away.

Carl Sagan trotted across the lawn, his thoughts a hiss in 6T9’s head. “I know it complicates our mission, but we have to save her! This body considers her a hatchling.”

6T9 wanted to help her, too, but it was as if his feet were rooted to the spot, and a useless part of his highly advanced mind was noting that ‘rooted to the spot’ was more than just an expression. “I can’t,” he replied. “It is against my original programming to act in a way that violates local security forces.” His hands clenched. And his programming still held despite the fact that they were after her because of her connection to him.

From around the house, he heard a human male voice say, “We have her.”

There was a buzz and a click. “We need to know what she knows and who she told.”

6T9 blinked. The radio chatter Carl had spoken of.

The man on the radio continued, “I’ll leave it to you to figure out how to extract it from her, but don’t do it there.”

There was a dark chuckle. “Can’t upset the locals’ delicate sensibilities.”

The headlights winked out.

The man on the radio added, “When you’re done, dispose of what’s left of her.”

Awareness of what they said jolted through his system like a red-hot spark. 6T9’s feet became unrooted and he slipped from beneath the shadowy awning. He walked up behind the two hauling Volka.

“Stop right there,” said a man standing by the driver’s side of the car. The men hauling Volka dropped her arms, spun, raised stunners, and began edging in 6T9’s direction. They were only carrying stunners—probably because they’d wanted Volka alive so they could torture her. 6T9 smiled tightly. Torture was against the conventions of the Galactic Republic, and he didn’t have to obey torturers.

The driver fired his weapon, and his aim was true. A delicious warmth spread from the impact point to every centimeter of synth skin in 6T9’s body and topped off his battery. 6T9 felt like he could leap to Time Gate 8 if he wanted to, but in a sudden bright flash of inspiration, he pitched forward, arms out as though falling and trying to catch himself on the man on the left stalking toward him. The man took a step back, but 6T9 managed to grab his wrist and rip the stunner from his grasp. He shot the man on his right, just as another stun from the driver hit 6T9 again. The sensation of power made 6T9 lick his lips. The shooter cried out in dismay, and another stun went off, but it didn’t hit 6T9—it hit the man on his left, and the man pitched forward. Before 6T9 could blink, another stun hit him in the back of the neck. It was only then his skin began glowing with excess power.

The driver fired two more shots in rapid succession. “What in the name of The Books are you?” the driver whispered.

6T9 fired on the man through the open car windows, and the driver went down.

6T9 rolled his shoulders, the power from the rapidly fired stuns almost uncomfortable.

“You saved her!” Carl Sagan said, trotting over to the scene.

Blinking, 6T9 rubbed the back of his head. If he had not had his Q-comm, he wouldn’t have been able to infer that torture had been their intention, and Volka would have been grievously harmed and murdered…And that sort of ignorance was why he could never go back to being a dumb ‘bot.

His Q-comm flared. He had no time for such distracting thoughts. Opening the passenger side door, he picked up one of the men and threw his body in the back seat. The man didn’t even groan. 6T9 did the same to his companions. He went over to Volka and gently rolled her over.

Volka’s eyes fluttered open. She looked up at 6T9 and her mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide. Which is when he realized he was still glowing. He remembered her paperbacks with the villainous robots, and his lips parted, ready to reassure her that he wasn’t a villain, and that she was in no danger.

“You’re…you’re…an angel,” she whispered.

His processor went momentarily offline, and before he could formulate any words, her eyes rolled back into her head. 6T9 gathered her in his arms and put her into the front passenger seat.

“We need to hide the Guardsmen,” Carl Sagan said.

6T9 nodded, and his eyes went to the garage.

“Watch them,” he said to Carl. “Let me know if they wake up.”

Carl hopped into the car and lay down on Volka’s slumped body.

6T9 jogged back to the guest house.

A few minutes later, he was in the driver’s side of the car, easing it back into the garage, using instructions on manual transmissions he downloaded from Time Gate 1 over his Q-comm. The sky was lightening, and he was afraid of Darmadi looking out the window and seeing the vehicle. He parked the car, and one of the Guardsmen groaned.

Picking up a stunner, 6T9 spun in his seat and hit them all again. He looked up at the sky. The radio came on and someone said, “Sergeant Maltov, are you there?” 6T9 went very still, but then the speaker said, “They’re out of range already. Don’t worry, Maltov will find out if she told anyone else. Maltov and his team loves playing with his wires and pliers…” The radio went silent.

6T9’s jaw got hard.

“Can’t you kill them?” Carl Sagan asked. “If they wake up before we are aboard the Leetier, they’ll be able to identify us…well, you.”

“I’m not going to kill them,” 6T9 said. It went against his programming. His eyes narrowed, processing the word “wires,” and he got out of the car. Checking outside to make sure none of Darmadi’s lights were on, he closed the door by hand. Apparently, electric garage door openers were too “robotic” for Luddeccea—but at least, by hand, it was quiet. He went to the trunk, opened it, and found a black leather case. Unzipping it, he found wire, wire cutters, and tools. His skin sparked as he thought of their purpose—to bring pain. Pain was something he had to know about as a sex ‘bot. He could sate even extreme masochism, and enjoy extreme sadism, but undesired pain for the purpose of extracting information was anathema to what he was. He wished he could melt the tools down into slag, and wished he could forget having seen them and having heard the Guard’s intention toward Volka. Grabbing the wire and wire cutters, he hurried back to the men in the back seat. Stripping them down, he stuffed their socks in their mouths and proceeded to tie them up with the wire. The announcer had said they liked playing with it, so it didn’t contradict his programming. What was bondage but a very specialized play behavior?

Tail thumping on the seat, Carl Sagan said, “Maybe we can take the car to the spaceport and find a way to sneak into the cargo hold without involving Darmadi? We can take Volka, too.”

“Volka,” 6T9 said, an alarm going off in his mind. She hadn’t stirred. He went to the front seat and checked her pulse. It was slow…and slowing. He put a hand on her forehead and pulled it back in dismay. Dragging her from the front seat, he pulled her into his arms.


14

Of Angels and Androids

Volka was too warm. She tried to knock the covers off and got a mouth full of water. Coughing, she spit it out and found herself in a bathtub, Mr. Niano sitting on his heels beside her. His hands were on her shoulders, holding her up. “Easy, easy…You weren’t quite hypothermic, but I needed to make sure your temperature didn’t drop further.”

She met Mr. Niano’s eyes. “You saved me.”

He smiled tightly and pulled away. “Unfortunately, I have only bought you time. I stunned the men who attacked you and have restrained them. Quite well. Under different circumstances, they would have paid me handsomely.” Volka squinted at him in incomprehension. Shaking his head, he said, “They won’t escape, but the Guard will come looking for them eventually. For now, they think they’ve driven out of range to ah, question you.”

“Torture me,” Volka corrected. She’d been immobilized after what must have been a stun, but she had been conscious.

He held up his hands, palms spread. “I want…” His head ticked. “I can’t kill them.”

She remembered the light spilling from his skin. It was gone now, but she’d never forget it. She nodded. “That makes sense.”

He tilted his head, his eyebrow quirked in question, and she explained, “You’re an angel. Angels can’t kill.” Everything made sense now. Finding him in the forest—as though he’d fallen from the sky, his oddness, and how he could speak to a saint in a foreign language, even how he spoke to a werfle as though it were a human. She supposed angels could speak werfle…and how werfles could speak back. Many weere said werfles were possessed by demons and djinn—other weere said that werfles kept demons and djinn away, but even those folks admitted that it might just be professional courtesy on the demons’ and djinn’s parts.

“Volka, I…” Mr. Niano said.

“Rawrrrr!”

Volka blinked up and saw Carl Sagan sitting on one of the shelves of the decorative built-in where towels, soaps, shampoos, and other necessities were kept. That strange man’s voice returned, but this time, she could hear the words. “What harm could it do if she believed that?” It made her ears twitch madly, searching for the location of the speaker.

“I can’t lie to her about that, Carl,” Mr. Niano said.

The voice in her head got faint, like she was hearing it from another room.

Mr. Niano said, “What? Of course I’ve been called an angel before…no, I didn’t mind, but it was under different circumstances.”

Her ears flattened, and she looked down her body. Her boots were gone, but she was otherwise fully clothed. The water was muddy, and bloody too, and her jaw hurt from where she hit the ground. He must have seen the direction of her gaze, because Mr. Niano said, “It would be better if you were wearing no clothes, but I’ve noticed that I, ah, make you uncomfortable.”

Volka nodded again. “An angel would be sensitive to that sort of thing.” And might not realize he was flirting when he winked at her, or that Mr. Darmadi had been flirting with his comment on shellfish, and she completely forgave him for calling eating meat barbaric. She knew that meat eating meant that some animals had to suffer. It was the sin of the weere; just as infidelity was the sin of humans.

“Volka, I’m not a—”

“Rawr!” hissed Carl Sagan, and she thought she heard the strange voice again. It made her ears itch.

Turning to the werfle, Mr. Niano snapped, “Look, if a woman who’s anorgasmic is cured by my head between her…” He looked at Volka, looked back at the werfle, and snarled. “Of course, I’d understand ‘angel’ as a figure of speech and would take it as my due. Different circumstances. We’re not lying to Volka.”

Carl aggressively licked a paw. The world went black, and Volka slipped into the water. She shivered violently, even though the water was warm verging on hot, and her teeth chattered. It was coming. It was inescapable ...

“Turn on the lights, Carl!” Mr. Niano shouted.

She heard her breathing coming in fast gasps, the water slipping higher ... “The darkness is coming!” Volka cried. “Make it stop.”

And then the bathroom came back into view. Mr. Niano was staring at her. So was the werfle.

“Carl Sagan, did you transmit Sundancer’s fear to Volka?” Mr. Niano asked.

The werfle narrowed its eyes at her as though to say,No, she’s picking up on it herself.” Or was that the voice in her head again?

Volka pulled her knees up to her chin. The werfle poked its nose closer. “Do you hear me, Volka?” the voice said, and she turned nervously away from the werfle’s intense gaze.

Mr. Niano sighed. “I am an android, not an angel. There is a ship on Libertas. If we can get you there, we may be able to save your life.”

“An android…like…a robot?” Volka stammered, the idea somehow more preposterous than the idea that he was an angel.

Mr. Niano exhaled softly. “We don’t have the time you need to work through your shock and disbelief, but you need to know what I am.” He rolled up his sleeve, ran his hand down his arm, and peeled back his skin. Volka gasped at the sight of muscle and fascia, pulling away like a thick blanket, but then she sniffed, and realized that it didn’t smell right. It smelled like…plastic, and it wasn’t bleeding. And then her eyes went wide. Beneath the plastic blanket were long metal rods. Mr. Niano flexed his hand, and the metal rods jumped.

Volka cowered as far away from him as she could in the tub.

“I can also pull back the skin on my face,” he said, “if you need further evidence.”

Volka shook her head vigorously in the negative, imagining many a paperback cover. “Please don’t.”

“Good, because I’d really rather not. I do have artificial blood that contributes to my lifelike appearance, and sometimes, when I’m not careful, I open a vessel and spring a leak.” He rolled down his sleeve and raised an eyebrow. “You believe me then?”

It wasn’t an impossible scenario. The Guard said that the robots and their enslaved minions were always trying to infiltrate Luddeccean space, prepared to violate good Luddecceans in body, mind, and soul. Her brow furrowed. Though Mr. Niano hadn’t seemed to have done any of that…yet.

“You believe me?” Mr. Niano asked again.

How could she ever have believed an angel would protect a sinner like her? She nodded in the affirmative, eyes glued to the arm.

He released a breath. “Will you be coming with us?”

A terrifying thought occurred to her. “Can you read my mind?” Alaric said that was superstition, and that it was only ethernet-bound humans that could have their minds read and be controlled by machines. But she wasn’t sure if she trusted him or her paperbacks more at this point. Alaric hadn’t told her robots glowed or peeled back their skin. That was something that might happen in a paperback. And Mr. Niano had convinced her to bring him home that first night…hadn’t he?

“What? No!” Mr. Niano said, leaning back. “Volka, I can’t read your mind.” His eyes narrowed on Carl Sagan. “The werfle, however, is an asshole.” Turning back to her, he said, “Will you be coming with us?”

Robots stole human souls. Volka swallowed. And a soul was worth more than life itself. “I can’t.” Her heart stopped. She pressed herself farther against the back of the tub and waited for the fury she knew would come.

He nodded, not looking pleased or displeased. “All right, then. Can I get you any clothes? Maybe you have some up at the house…?”

Volka’s mouth dropped open. She searched her thoughts for the telepathic assault that always happened in her novels. There was no mental droning of, you will obey me. She just felt cold and very alone.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, you could wear my chef uniform, I suppose—”

“I have clothes here, in the guest house, in the attic,” Volka said, wrapping her arms around herself because she was becoming cold, and because of the memories the clothes conjured.

Leaning forward, Mr. Niano slipped a hand in the water.

Volka uncrossed her arms with a start.

“I’m just checking the temperature,” he said. “The water needs to be 40 C to warm you properly.” He turned on the spigot, and hot water crashed into the tub. Volka felt her body wanting to relax and resisted the urge.

Pulling back, Mr. Niano asked, “I’ll be able to find them if I go up there?”

Volka nodded. The warm water beckoned and she slipped deeper in, her body warming again, as Mr. Niano left the room, Carl hot on his heels. Instead of making her feel more relieved, their absence just made her feel more alone. What was she going to do? The Resistance wouldn’t help her. Could she make it to the Northwest province on her own?

Her breath caught…if she even escaped this house. She was being an idiot, thinking of the Guard, when the real danger was here in the guest house with her. Mr. Niano was a robot. He came from beyond the Luddeccean System, where humans were slaves to machines. She might not escape the city of Prime with her life, but she was unlikely to escape this guest house with her mind…or her soul.

Starship Waking

“No, you shouldn’t try to control her mind, Carl Sagan!” 6T9 snapped in the ether, yanking on the lever that pulled down the attic ladder.

“It would be for her own good,” the werfle grumbled.

Climbing up the stairs, 6T9’s circuits dimmed. “I can’t deny her agency in this decision.”

“Why?” Carl asked, following close behind.

6T9 stopped on the stairs and looked back at the werfle. “It goes against my programming.”

“But you’re programmed to protect humans from harm,” Carl Sagan said.

Shaking his head, 6T9 began climbing again. “She isn’t in immediate danger. I cannot intervene.”

“Doesn’t it bother you leaving her here alone? Don’t you like her?” Carl Sagan asked.

6T9 frowned in contemplation—needlessly, since the werfle was behind him, and he wasn’t sure if it could read human expressions anyway. “My circuits are…dimmer…with the thought that the Guard came after her because of us—”

“You feel guilty, you mean,” Carl Sagan harrumphed in his mind.

6T9’s eyebrows rose. It was impossible to correlate human and AI emotions accurately. “Maybe. But it is not my place to deny Volka this decision.”

“So, you don’t care at all what happens to her?” Carl Sagan demanded.

6T9’s shoulders fell, and he blinked in the near darkness of the attic. “No…if she dies, I feel like it will be a…waste.” His hands slid down the outside of his coat, over the comforting bulge of Eliza’s ashes. “I feel that about all human death.” There was a saying, whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. 6T9 felt like each human death was the loss of a world.

He turned on a light in his eyes, scanned the attic again, and walked over to a trunk. It was the only thing in the space besides insulation and a few two by fours. Opening it, he found a single, large package wrapped in lavender tissue paper and a pair of black boots. On top of the parcel was taped a card with faded ink.

Volka ~

New clothes for a new life.

Yours ever,

~ A

6T9 picked up the parcel, and the tape and card tore away, revealing undergarments and a blouse in a muted blue-purple. There were more clothes beneath, a black skirt, black leggings, and a light coat.

“What is it?” asked Carl, and 6T9 realized he was hesitating.

“It’s nicer clothing than I’ve ever seen her wear.” He ran a hand down the blouse. It was a heavyweight, knitted Luddeccean silk. Volka had another life, and his circuits sparked in curiosity, but he turned around and left the attic. It was another life that would no longer intersect with his…and most likely would be over soon.

Starship Waking

Volka smoothed down the blouse and the skirt. They fit perfectly. The boots were stiff with years of disuse, but the right size and not scuffed and muddy. They didn’t smell like Alaric anymore, and she wasn’t sure if that was a comfort or not. Her eyes got hot. That life was done, and all she could do was try to live this life to the end the best she could. Gathering the coat in her arms, she exited the bathroom.

“I think it will still work,” she heard Mr. Niano saying.

Carl Sagan squeaked plaintively.

She heard Mr. Niano move, and a moment later, he was in the hallway, blocking her exit. Volka drew back. Mr. Niano pulled something out of his pocket and held it up. Volka stared at the object.

“The car keys,” he said. “You’ll get farther with a car.” He might have winced; it was difficult to tell in the darkness. “There are a couple of the Guard trussed up in it, but thoroughly stunned. I suppose I can help you pull them into the garage.”

“Rawr,” said the werfle, and Volka’s ears twitched. She swore she heard the strange man’s voice say, “We don’t have all day.”

“We have some time, Carl Sagan,” Mr. Niano replied.

Volka found her heart racing, and her hands cold and clammy. She gulped, thinking of trying to drive—something she’d never done before—with “trussed up” Guard beside her. Mr. Niano said he couldn’t kill them, and she knew she couldn’t, either. “I’d like the help,” she said.

He didn’t move. “Um,” he said. It occurred to her she was supposed to take the keys. In some novels she’d read, as soon as the human touched the robot, it jolted the humans with enough charge to leave them stunned or dead, and then the robot invariably laughed maniacally.

But he said he couldn’t kill. She blinked. Was he a he? Was that a lie? How much was real with robots, and how much was an illusion? It made no difference really, did it?

Gathering her courage, she slid along the wall, snatched the keys from him as quickly as she could without making contact, and then dashed to the garage. Mr. Niano followed, and so did the werfle. She opened the door, switched on the light, and her jaw dropped open.

Mr. Niano had backed the car into the garage, and she was staring at the trunk. It was open, and inside there was a large black case. The case was open and within it gleamed wicked steel instruments like she’d seen at the dentist but worse. A shaky breath rattled through her. The tools were larger than at the dentist, and there was a saw. Volka threw a hand over her mouth.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Mr. Niano said, pushing past her. “I needed the wire they had in the trunk to tie them up, and you were dangerously cold—the stun affected your body’s natural thermoregulation.” He closed the trunk and then went to the side door, all the while saying, “I rushed you upstairs and was afraid to leave you alone.” He pulled a struggling man from the back seat. The man’s wrists were tied to his ankles with thick wire. There was something stuffed in his mouth and secured with more wire, muffling him. His eyes fell on Volka and narrowed defiantly. Volka looked away.

“You’ll have to face others like him if you stay,” the strange male voice whispered in her mind. “And Sixty won’t be there to truss them up.In her mind’s eye, she saw the tools. In the real world, she saw the eyes of the werfle blinking up at her.

“Carl Sagan,” Mr. Niano snapped, setting the second man none-to-gently by the first. “It’s a decision she must make for herself.”

Swishing its tail angrily, the werfle walked away. She imagined the strange voice saying, “I was only telling her like it is.”

6T9 drew the last man out of the car, put him to the side, and said to the werfle, “I know.” Straightening, he turned to Volka. “You’re still welcome to come with us.”

Volka swallowed. He was beautiful, too perfect to look at. Some said that the devil was ugly, but some said he was beautiful, too, and would say sweet things to lure away your soul.

“Squeak,” said the werfle, sitting by Mr. Niano’s feet.

Volka shook her head, trying to recapture the image of his skin peeling away. “I can’t.” She couldn’t risk her soul.

“Cheep?” said the werfle.

“Very well,” said Mr. Niano softly. “I don’t really believe in luck…but it’s customary to say ‘I wish you luck’ where I’m from…so…I…there, I said it.”

Volka nodded, or maybe she shivered. She just wanted him to go away, to not be so nice. The devil could be sweet. “You too,” she blubbered.

He hesitated a moment, but then he left the garage. Volka let out a breath, went to sit in the driver’s seat, and then realized she’d have to open the garage door. She tried putting the key in the ignition anyway, thinking she’d at least get the car started first so she could zip quickly out into the dawn as soon as the door was up, but her hand was shaking too much.

She remembered Joseph and Esther’s bodies, the men in her house, and the tools.

Eyes hot, she got out of the car. The man who’d glared earlier narrowed his eyes at her, and she swore those eyes smiled. He would have enjoyed torturing her. Her hands curled at her side. If she had a phaser, she would kill them all right now. Her eyes slid to the trunk, and she thought of the tools. She could kill them right now, and she wanted to.

Her stomach dropped, and she fell back down into the driver’s seat and put her head in her shaky hands.

She could kill them, and she’d still be captured by men like these. Her fate would be the same. No matter what she did, these men won. Her lips twisted. What would she give up to deny men like these their twisted heaven?

Her jaw got hard, and her hands stopped shaking. She’d walk beside the devil himself to deny them the pleasure of having their way with her.

Standing, she ran from the garage.

“Mr. Niano, Mr. Niano,” she called, running inside and finding him by the front door, about to leave.

He turned around. He did look like an angel, but she guessed that was what the devil was, an angel that had fallen. The werfle was around his shoulders. Joseph had said only the devil himself could make a werfle behave.

“I’m coming with you,” she said.

The werfle purred and kneaded his claws. Mr. Niano smiled and squinted at her with one eyebrow cocked. “Would you do one thing for me?”

Her nails bit into her palm, waiting for what was sure to be a grisly request. She couldn’t bring herself to say yes or no.

“Would you please call me 6T9, or at the very least, just Sixty?”

Volka stepped back, brow crumpling in confusion.

Sighing and rolling his eyes, he turned around and opened the door. She watched him walk out into the lawn, the dawn light making his dark jacket appear red.

With a deep breath, she ran after him.


15

Blast Off

The porters yanked the trunk from the back of the van and it landed with a thunk. Volka gasped, imagining Mr. Niano inside. Mr. Darmadi jumped from his seat in the front and ran to the back. “Be careful!” he snapped, and then under his breath, he said, “Volka, it’s your job to keep them from treating my equipment like that.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, adjusting her pack and hopping from the van. The head porter looked her up and down and then scowled at Mr. Darmadi. She smoothed down her dress self-consciously, knowing what the porter was thinking. When Mr. Darmadi had seen her clothes, he’d exclaimed, “Volka, they’ll think I am your patron.”

“I wanted to look nice for my first spaceflight,” she’d lied. Now the porter was leering at her, and she knew Mr. Darmadi had been right. Straightening her shoulders, she lied again. “Sir, that trunk contains thousands of credits in equipment. Treat it carefully.”

Mr. Darmadi released a breath. “That’s more like it, Volka.”

She turned and looked up at him. His eyes were on the trunk, not on her. She bit her lip. He had sometimes been difficult, but he had taught her everything she knew about painting, he had paid her well, and had been to her parents’ funerals when they’d died. He worked her hard, but he worked hard himself, and she supposed he knew no other way.

She’d repaid him by replacing most of the contents of his trunk with 6T9. When she’d protested, worried about the inconvenience that betrayal would cause Mr. Darmadi, the robot had replied, “And his inconvenience is worth more than your life?”

She wrung her hands. “Goodbye, Mr. Darmadi,” she said.

His eyes shifted to her. The tone of her voice must have betrayed her, because he asked, “You’re not getting space-fright already, are you?”

Volka shook her head. “No, sir.” She’d never see him again, though, and that was causing her a fright.

He looked down at her too-fine clothing, shook his head, and said, “Good, good. Watch over my trunk. I’ll see you at baggage collection in Libertas.”

Volka nodded, afraid her voice would crack if she spoke.

He got back into the van, and the porters shut the doors. Volka turned around, faced the enormous maw that was the open door of the baggage sorting area, and let out a breath. When Sixty had told Volka his original plan, he’d said, “Of course, when we came up with this plan, we hadn’t realized that the Guard would be searching for you. You’re in the passenger manifests. We’re not sure how we can get you aboard.”

“But I’m not in the passenger manifest,” Volka had replied. “I’m traveling in cargo to watch over Mr. Darmadi’s valuables.”

“You’re cargo, Volka?” Sixty had asked, his jaw hard, voice inflectionless. Carl Sagan had hissed. The memory made her wring her hands and feel off-kilter.

The porters began loading the trunk onto a pushcart, snapping her from her reverie. She took a deep breath. This was the subterfuge upon which her whole life depended. Squaring her shoulders, she marched into the shadow of the cargo sorting warehouse, following the porters rolling the cart toward a strange doorway in the middle of the floor. It was a frame of glowing lights and there was no door in it. Sitting next to the “doorway” on a stool was a man in front of a television. Volka’s eyes went wide when she saw what was on the television’s screen: it was an X-ray of the contents of the suitcase right ahead of the trunk.

She gasped, and from her backpack came a soft squeak. Carl Sagan was in there, along with her sketchbook, some towels for Carl to rest on, and some credits.

She gulped, remembering 6T9’s words. “The werfle is an alien that has the power to nudge human minds. He can help you if you’re in danger.”

As her trunk rolled toward the “doorway,” Volka stood petrified with uncertainty. Werfles were aliens? Maybe Mr. Niano was a crazy robot. Could robots be crazy? She remembered Sixty telling Mr. Darmadi that he liked bivalve snails and freshwater clams blackened in garlic sauce.

Yes, she decided, they definitely could be.

Carl Sagan squirmed in the backpack. The strange voice she heard occasionally became crystal clear in her mind. “Take me over to talk to the nice gentleman, Volka.”

Maybe she was going crazy, too. She swallowed. She was already in league with robots, why not put herself in league with a possibly demon or djinn-possessed werfle? That’s what an “alien” was, according to the Three Books.

The suitcase was pushed from the X-ray door, and Mr. Niano’s porters prepared to move him through. Pulling her pack around, she lifted the top flap, hoping it would help the possessed werfle talk. The voice in her head said,Go stand closer to the monitor.” Not knowing what else to do, she jogged over to the man beside the doorway.

“Cheep,” said the werfle.

The man turned around, looked at her bag, and smiled. “Cute werfle.”

Glancing at the monitor, Volka saw 6T9’s form, curled up in fetal position on the screen. Her eyes went wide and darted from side to side. No one seemed to notice—her body was blocking everyone’s view but the man’s in front of her, and he was staring at the werfle.

The werfle made a tiny, “burrripp,” noise, and the man reached over and scratched him behind the ear. He must have sensed Volka’s terror, because he said, “No worries, girl, the Leetier could use a werfle or two. I won’t tell.” Voice rising a half octave, he said to Carl, “Betcha a big boy like you catches a lot of rats.”

Carl Sagan purred with such force that Volka could feel the reverberations through the pack’s canvas. The man gave a final scratch, then turned back to his monitor—now featuring a suitcase full of clothes—and gave himself a shake, but said nothing. Volka wasn’t sure if the werfle had really given the man a telepathic nudge, or if he’d just charmed him. Either way, it was devious.

“Hey,” one of Mr. Niano’s porters called back to her, “You coming?” Nodding to the man at the television, she ran through the X-ray door and caught up to the porters and the trunk by the exit to the tarmac. She could smell a strange chemical scent wafting up from beneath it—rocket fuel maybe. A man asked her for her “cargo ticket” and she handed him the little card that verified the purchase of space for one oversize trunk and attendant. She put a foot on a strange rubber “rug,” and the door opened as if by magic. Sunlight blinded her. Throwing up a hand, she stepped outside and got her first look at the spaceship sitting upon its antigravity launch platform. The Leetier was over twenty stories tall, its diameter as wide as a large house. Made principally of titanium from asteroid mines, the hull had a slight silver sheen. She could see the glass capsule of the bridge at the top. Beneath the bridge she could see the wide portholes of first class for the first two stories, the smaller ones of second class, and the even smaller portholes of third class and crew quarters. She’d be in cargo—on the cargo level there were no portholes at all. All along the length of the ship at regular intervals were the time bands that would allow the ship to approach light speed without crushing the occupants of the ship on acceleration or deceleration—instead using the force of both for gentle gravity. The time bands also helped with lift planetside, helping the Leetier to reach escape velocity after it left the boost of the anti-grav platform.

There was a priest aboard to monitor the craft’s computers that allowed such feats. It was his job to keep the computers from ever developing sentience. Volka looked at the trunk being pushed lazily by the porters toward the cargo loading platform. She was undoing the priest’s best efforts to keep thinking machines off the ship. She shivered and whispered, “Off to Libertas and then straight to Hell.”

She thought of the gleaming metal blades in the car, and her lips turned into a frown that was almost a snarl. Hell was here, too. She hurried to catch up with the trunk.

Starship Waking

“You’re crazy!” Carl Sagan hissed in 6T9’s mind.

“No, I’m bored,” 6T9 said. He was crushed in fetal position, not that it bothered him particularly, but the lack of input otherwise was…irritating. If he couldn’t shut down—and he couldn’t in case of some emergency—then he wanted to get out. “I just want to look around.”

“Stop whining,” said Carl.

“Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored…” 6T9 said.

“You sound like a human child,” Carl Sagan protested.

6T9 grinned and into the ether asked, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

“We haven’t even left the spaceport, you—”

6T9 circuits lit up and he snickered audibly.

“You’re teasing me,” Carl said and 6T9 could picture the werfle’s narrowed eyes and ears pressed against his head.

“Did you sneeze, Mr. Niano—I mean Sixty?” Volka whispered, sounding terribly earnest, and then she asked, “Can robots sneeze?”

“Yes, to clear our noses of dust, just like you,” 6T9 replied aloud, grateful for the distraction. “Although technically, I’m not a ‘robot.’ Robots don’t look human. The company that built me calls me a cybernetic consort—”

“Consort?” Volka asked.

“But cybernetic implies that I have genuine human parts,” 6T9 went on, sidestepping the ‘consort’ question; he didn’t want to make Volka uncomfortable. “I’m not really that, either. I am, technically, an android, a machine that looks like a man.”

His chronometer put the ensuing silence at 14.5 seconds.

“Mr. Niano—Sixty, do you want to come out?” Volka whispered. “No one is in the hold but me.”

“Rawr!” said Carl Sagan. Over the ether, he hissed indignantly, “I’m here!”

“And Carl Sagan,” Volka added uncertainly.

6T9 smiled. “I would love to come out.” And not just because he was bored out of his gourd. He was so starved for human attention that the mere fact that she wasn’t terrified of him was exciting.

There was a thunk, the trunk turned on its side, another thunk, and then light spilled into the small compartment. 6T9 squirmed, and the trunk swayed slightly. Volka was standing in front of him. Directly behind her was the curved wall of the bulkhead, and set into its slightly curved surface were fold-out seats, between which was a ladder. There was a hole in the plasti-mesh floor and ceiling along the ladder’s path. He twisted his head. Almost directly above Darmadi’s trunk was a plasti-mesh storage container packed with suitcases. The engines weren’t on yet, and in the cargo area there wasn’t even the steady whirr of recycled air.

“If the Guard come before liftoff, what do we do?” Volka whispered. “The tarmac outside was wide open.” She had one arm wrapped around herself, and the other was on her mouth. 6T9’s circuits dimmed. She’d die, and he’d have to upload himself. He glanced at the werfle, who was licking its shoulder.

Carl muttered into the ether, “She’s too frightened for me to comfort her.” Pausing his bath, the werfle grumbled, “Hominids.”

A startled expression on her face, Volka looked down at Carl and then took a step back.

“Hominids?” she whispered. 6T9 and Carl Sagan both looked at her sharply.

“Are you hearing Carl Sagan’s thoughts?” 6T9 asked.

“I don’t know,” Volka said.

“I think she is,” said Carl, narrowed eyes on Volka now. Volka took a step back and looked uncertainly at the werfle.

“How is that possible?” asked 6T9.

Sitting down, Carl Sagan wrapped his tail around himself. “Well, technically, I’m not only broadcasting on your ethernet frequency, I’m also broadcasting on the quantum wave frequencies that my kind use to speak to each other telepathically.” He blinked up at 6T9. “It’s a failure on my species’ part, really. We’ve just started learning to master ethernet frequencies, and, well, have you ever seen a human new to reading? They always begin by reading aloud, focusing their attention, I believe. Much like they often speak aloud when they first begin transmitting their thoughts over the ether. So, too, I am thinking aloud when I speak to you over the ether—”

“But how is she hearing you?” 6T9 said.

“Oh.” Carl blinked. “Well, she’s part wolf, isn’t she?”

“I am part wolf,” Volka murmured, staring at the werfle. She sounded frightened, and 6T9 had to fight the urge to put a hand on her arm.

“And that is important…because?” 6T9 prompted, waving the hand that was helpless to comfort Volka, trying to give it something to do.

“Well, some wolves are wave sensitive and telepathic, of course,” Carl replied.

6T9 stared at him, his Q-comm heating. “I have no data that would support that.”

“Because your data derives from humans, and humans are re—” The werfle looked at Volka, made a tiny sneeze, and finished, “Wave ignorant.”

“If I’m telepathic, does that mean I’m possessed?” Volka whispered.

“No!” said 6T9.

“Not at the moment,” said Carl.

Volka backed against the bulkhead so fast and hard that her head thunked. 6T9 lost the internal battle not to touch her and put a hand on her arm. “Carl will never possess you.” She stared at the werfle with wide eyes.

“Oh, no, that might drive you insane,” said Carl.

Volka’s eyes went wide. Over the ether, 6T9 hissed, “You’re not helping, Carl!”

Volka didn’t seem to hear 6T9’s mental admonishment—which made sense—she heard telepathic frequencies, whatever those were, not ethernet frequencies.

Carl looked up at 6T9, looked over at Volka, and began purring…loudly. “I will not possess you, Volka.” Slinking over, the werfle rubbed his body against her legs and blinked up at her. “I love the scratches you give me.” Volka’s body relaxed beneath 6T9’s hand, and she pulled away from his touch, leaving his fingers twitching at the loss of contact.

6T9 suspected the werfle had mentally nudged her, but didn’t protest.

A man’s voice came over an intercom. “Passengers, please take your seats and prepare for liftoff.”

“That’s a good sign,” 6T9 said, trying to give Volka a reassuring smile. “Once we’re in the air, coming after us becomes more difficult.” It wasn’t a lie, nor was it a sure thing, and his own circuits heated with tension. If they were discovered, how long would he wait to upload himself? Would Volka want him to remain until she died, or would she want to die alone? Turning back around, he shut the trunk’s lid and found the cords that strapped it onto the rotating berth. The ship used acceleration and deceleration to simulate gravity. During deceleration, what was now “up” would be “down,” and in the in-between they would be floating free. The trunk had This Side Up printed on the lid. During the zero-G stage, Volka would have had to turn the thing over before gravity switched. That didn’t matter now, but he didn’t want it jostling if they had a rough liftoff.

“I can do that for you, Mr. Niano, I mean…Sixty. The porter showed me how,” Volka stammered.

Looking back at her, 6T9 smiled. “I can do it, too. I’ve flown in cargo before.”

“You have?”

“I’m a ‘bot.” His smile turned rueful. “To some people I’m freight.”

“But I’m not a ‘bot,” Volka said.

6T9’s smile dropped. Finishing his task, he pushed down a seat and strapped himself in. “No, you are not,” he said, his voice noncommittal. There was an 83.5 percent chance she would say something negative about ‘bots in the next ten seconds. Ten, nine, eight—

“But I’m not really human, either,” Volka said in a tiny voice.

 He looked at her, and it was as if he’d never gotten an advanced processor. “Why wouldn’t you think you’re human?” he asked.

 Volka swallowed audibly. “As you…or the werfle said…I’m part wolf.” She ran her fingers over a wolf ear, and 6T9 wondered if its velvet was as soft as Carl Sagan’s fur. At the same time, his Q-comm warmed with incoming data.

“Volka, the definition of a species is whether or not they can interbreed.” His brow furrowed. “Which is complicated by species like wolves and dogs that are considered separate but do interbreed.” Numbers flashed before his eyes. “But while wolves and dogs share approximately 98.8 percent of the same DNA, wolf and dog social behavior and intelligence are very different. Dogs are essentially mentally handicapped wolves.” His eyebrows rose. “From the data available on the original weere hybrids on System 11, it appears weere and human social behaviors aren’t significantly different, and weere intelligence is within human norms. Humans and weere can interbreed. Weere are human for all intents and purposes.” His gaze returned to her. Volka’s eyes were slightly unfocused. 6T9 winced. “I’m sorry. That was obnoxious. My species occasionally gets overwhelmed by data dumps. It’s embarrassing.” He flushed at the memory of a revelry without clothing. An unfortunate birthmark had called up data on the odds of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases during said revelry. He really shouldn’t have said those odds aloud.

Volka’s lips pursed.

He waited tensely for the 95.3 percent likelihood that she’d say, “You aren’t technically a species.”

Sitting beside him and strapping herself in, Volka said instead, “You never asked me why the Guard came after me.”

And again, it was as though he still had a primitive processor. “It wasn’t because of me?” 6T9 asked.

She shook her head.

Circuits 6T9 hadn’t realized had been dim lit all at once. “I’m not responsible for putting you in danger!” He laughed aloud.

Carl Sagan hopped on her lap, and Volka stroked his back absently while staring ahead for 30.3 seconds. “Don’t you care why they were chasing me?” she asked.

6T9’s brow furrowed. “No.” Although he should. Saving her probably endangered the ship rescue, but Sundancer was an abstraction, someone he should rescue because Eliza would have. Volka was real and it would violate his programming to abandon her, and Eliza wouldn’t have abandoned Volka, either.

“I could have done something terrible,” Volka persisted.

6T9’s Q-comm hummed. “You’re innocent.”

“You don’t know that,” Volka said, and he noticed how glassy her eyes were.

The hum of his Q-comm was like a song, and he said, “Yes, I do.” She couldn’t even abandon a stranger she found in a ditch—albeit with Carl’s “nudging.”

She wrapped her arms around the werfle. If she replied, it was drowned out by the roar of engines.

Starship Waking

“You’re innocent.” Sixty’s words hung in Volka’s mind and made her stomach feel unsettled. She wasn’t. She had sinned, and sinned badly, though she tried to go forward and “sin no more” like the prophet Jesus had taught. Although, had things been different…she felt like throwing up, and closed her eyes.

In her arms, Carl Sagan purred and butted his head against her hand. The voice in her head that might be the werfle said, “Volka, don’t be hard on yourself.”

She stroked it between the ears. It wasn’t too strange to believe the werfle was possessed. She’d been told her whole life, by everyone but Alaric, that angelic beings, demons, and robots could speak into your mind. However, even when she entertained the idea, she never thought that she’d be one of the afflicted. She’d sinned too much to be a saint, and hadn’t thought her sins to be great enough to attract a demon. But in the end, she’d given herself to a robot and a possessed werfle, and one of the monsters wanted his ears scratched. She should push the creature away, but Carl was warm and alive, his purr was soothing, and the day had been too cold and frightening to reject the smallest bit of warmth, life, or purrs. The werfle’s rumble drowned out memories of rain and bodies and Volka almost wept, but then his body went rigid, his ears flattened and his fur rose.

And that was the last thing she saw…

The shadow was coming, sweeping through the water and up onto land. It would get them, inky black, and evil…choking out the light and the life. Her body went cold with fear, and she thought if she didn’t fight it she would turn to ice. Volka cried out…but it was no use, she was being sucked down, down, down, and the blackness was creeping into her, crawling into her ears, her nose, and beneath her eyes…

Sixty’s voice snapped in the darkness, “Carl Sagan, stop transmitting Sundancer’s nightmares. I like being able to see!”

The vision vanished, and Volka jerked back in shock.

“Merp,” said Carl Sagan, at the same time the voice played in her mind, “I’m sorry. The danger we are in overwhelmed me and I transmitted it to Sundancer and reinvigorated the ship’s own fears. She’s dreaming and not in full control of her vision transmissions.”

Stroking its fur, Volka whispered, “Sundancer?”

The werfle and Sixty both turned to her.

“Our starship,” Sixty said.

“Starships can be afraid?” Volka asked.

“You felt it,” the voice in her mind said. She nodded tentatively at Carl.

“I see the darkness, but I cannot feel her emotions,” Sixty whispered.

Volka glanced up and saw a look on his face that was almost mournful. She tilted her head. “Of course you wouldn’t,” Volka said. “Machines don’t feel.”

Sixty’s jaw got hard. “I do feel, Volka, even if I don’t feel like you, or a werfle.” He rolled his eyes. “Or a dream-transmitting starship.”

Volka blinked. In some of her books, robots were programmed to behave as though they could feel emotion and pain, but in all her books, it was clear that was just an illusion. A startling thought occurred to her. Did Sixty actually believe that he felt emotion?

The werfle growled and the voice in her head said,We need to deal with the matter that caused me to have a moment of panic.”

“We’ll get to Sundancer before the magni-freight construction reaches her,” Sixty said aloud.

Flattening its ears, the werfle looked up at him and hissed. In her mind, the voice—Carl’s voice, she resolved to believe—said, “I’m more concerned that the Guard has transmitted orders for your immediate executions by airlock.”

“Our execution?” Volka said, her stomach going woozy, her head getting dizzy, her fingers clasping tightly on the werfle’s fluff, hoping that she was just imagining what she’d “heard.”

The werfle looked at Sixty. “They know Volka is here, and that you are her accomplice, but they think that you’re in the passenger area.”

“The passenger area is where we have to go,” 6T9 said, unsnapping his safety harness.

“What?” said Volka. “Couldn’t we hide in here in a trunk or something?”

“They’re going to depressurize the cargo area,” Sixty said, swinging his pack on and patting the front of his coat. “Possibly by opening the external hatch.”

Jaw dropping, Volka met his eyes. He smiled grimly. “Trust me. I’ve flown in cargo before.”

She unsnapped her safety harness. Sixty threw Carl Sagan into her backpack, buckled it despite the werfle’s noisy protests, and then thrust the pack into her arms. Volka stood up, feeling strangely light, and wobbled on her feet.

“Gravity has decreased,” Sixty said. “You may feel dizzy.” Going over to the trunk, Sixty inclined his head to the hatch above. “Go up there.”

“I came in from below,” Volka said. “Are you sure we can get out—?”

From below came a groan.

Volka looked up. There was a hatch in the ceiling about three cargo compartments up.

“Jump now!” Sixty said, pulling the cords from the trunk.

“Jump!” said the voice that might have been Carl Sagan’s in her head.

Looping her arms through the pack so it hung in front of her, Volka jumped straight up. She passed a huge cargo container and then another. Feeling her ascent slow, she grabbed hold of the ladder. There was another groan of metal below, and the ladder shook.

“Up! Up!” Carl Sagan’s “voice” said. She didn’t need urging, and climbed as fast as she could until she was just beneath the hatch. It was larger than a manhole cover, and had a lever that had to be the “doorknob,” and a keypad, which from paperbacks she’d guess was where you typed an “access code.” Gritting her teeth, Volka put her hands on the lever. It didn’t budge. “It’s locked!” she shouted. “Should I try putting in a random access code?”

“No!” Sixty replied, so close to her heels she started. Next thing she knew, he’d propelled himself up so that his chest was to her back. Holding onto the ladder with one hand, he used the other to hook the cord from the trunk to one side of the ladder. A moment later, he’d hooked it to the other side, crushing their bodies together, and securing them to the ladder. Her backpack, hanging on her stomach, was stuck between rungs, otherwise Carl Sagan would have been squished. “More than three attempts and we may be permanently locked out.”

There was a flat gray plastic piece set into the hatch beside the keypad. “Maybe we can hotwire it,” Volka said, trying to pry the plastic off.

“You can ‘hotwire’ a door?” Sixty asked, sounding impressed.

“No, but I’ve read books where they do,” Volka said. The plastic popped off, but there weren’t any wires beneath, just a strange-looking electrical outlet. “Oh.” Volka sighed in disappointment.

“My power cable is compatible—but the ship’s etherless and I don’t know the security codes.”

The voice of Carl randomly said, “4329 Alpha Bravo Foxtrot.”

“How?” Sixty asked.

“The priest!” Carl cried. “It’s on his mind at this very moment.”

Beneath them there was another groan and Volka tightened her grip on the ladder. If the hatch opened, would her eyes be sucked out of her head in the void like it happened in some paperbacks? Or would she turn instantly into an icicle like in others? If she froze, would she be awake on the inside? For how long? She gulped, remembering the tools in the car. Freezing would be better than torture, and the universe would take no pleasure in her death. Her hands loosened on the ladder.

She felt Sixty’s hand sliding between them and whip out a moment later.

Before she could ask him what he was doing, there was a whoosh and an ear-splitting bang. Air rushed past her, her hands tightened on the ladder, and she tried to brace her feet more tightly on the rungs. She still felt her body slipping. If it weren’t for Sixty and the cords around them, she knew she’d be lost. Her neck was jerked to the side by the pressure, and she found herself looking down in the cargo hold. Bags were tumbling down through the ladderway. Her trunk had rolled from its berth and had formed a dam where she’d been sitting a moment before. Before her eyes more and more bags fell on top of it, and then they exploded downward, the plasti-mesh floor of her former compartment crumpling like foil.

Volka took a breath, and her lungs spasmed, forcing her to take another and another. More bags tumbled into the brink. The ladder shook, her feet slipped, and then everything stopped. The hold was eerily silent. She wasn’t being sucked down anymore. Volka tried to speak, but couldn’t; it felt like her lungs were exploding, and then there was a whoosh of air from above that smelled like cleaning solvents and dust. It hit her lungs in a rush, and she gasped. She felt Sixty on either side of her, unclasping the cords that bound them to the ladder, and then he was gone. She looked up and saw him above her, already leaving her behind.

Below her, there was a groan, and then air was whipping by her again. “Hold on!” A voice cried in her mind, but the pressure was too great. Her feet were sucked from the rungs, her body was jerked away from the ladder, her hands slipped, and then her fingers. Suddenly, pain shot from her wrist and instead of being sucked down, she was being yanked up. A moment later, she was sitting in a small enclosed space, her back was against the wall, and the hatch was sliding shut beneath her. She glanced up, lungs spasming. Sitting in front of her was 6T9. There was a fat thick wire protruding from his head and running to an outlet in the wall. A quarter of his face was open by his left eye, revealing a metal skeleton and blinking lights. Volka jerked back against the opposite wall with such force her teeth rattled. She gasped for air, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything.

Like something from a nightmare, the robot man leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. He pressed too hard, and Volka needed to breathe. She inhaled desperately through her nose. His fingers found the corner of her lips and cruelly pried her mouth open. His lips parted and he blew air into her mouth. Volka’s eyes went wide, too shocked to react, but her lungs did respond. They sucked the air greedily and then released when he pulled away. Sixty blew into her mouth again at the end of the exhale. She didn’t fight or pull away, but her eyes remained wide open. The eye on the open side of his face was naked, unblinking, and locked on hers. The eye on the other side was closed. He reminded her of a broken puppet.

Somewhere a whirring began, and she felt cool air that smelled like metal on the top of her head. They performed the ritual one more time, and then Sixty pulled back and hid the metal side of his face with a hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking away quickly. “I don’t need oxygen, but you do. I need to stay jacked in. Would you please check on Carl?”

The werfle! Volka opened her bag. The creature’s body lay lifeless within. She touched him gently. His body was still warm, but she couldn’t feel a heartbeat. Her heart fell. “Oh, Carl,” she whispered.

“Oh, no,” Sixty said. He gulped. “We can find him again, but…”

The werfle’s body suddenly went rigid, and Volka gasped. And then the werfle lifted his head and swished his tail. “Sorry about that, Hatchlings, but I had to go werfle-atonic until that oxygen situation was sorted.” The werfle blinked at her. “Get it? Werfle-atonic? Like catatonic…” His head bobbed in Volka’s direction. “I can possess cats, too.”

Volka blinked. Cats were also thought to be demon creatures.

Sixty rolled his visible eye but then smirked. “You punish us with your wit.” Volka swallowed, eye catching on the way Sixty’s skin and muscle—or something designed to look like those—was rolled back. She sniffed. It smelled like plastic, metal, and grease.

The werfle blinked at Sixty. “What sort of mess have you gotten us into this time?”

“He saved us!” Volka whispered, awed by the turn of events. Although, maybe she shouldn’t be awed by anything anymore.

Sixty’s uncovered eye shot to her and then he looked away.

“Not yet,” Carl muttered, ears flattening.

Sixty grimaced. “We are in a broom closet that doubles as an airlock. I’m managing to keep the door and the hatch locked, and I got them to reverse the oxygen outflow…”

The whirring overhead abruptly ceased.

Sixty winced. “But they’ve undone that already. We have to get to an emergency escape shuttle. There are six men outside the door. The good news is they won’t use plasma weapons, only stunners.” Still holding a hand up to shield his eye from Volka’s view, he reached into his pocket and clumsily withdrew three stunners. “I removed these from the guards on Luddeccea who tried to harm you, but they’re almost spent. We may be able to take the men in the hall, but then we’ll be on our own. Also…” He took a breath, though he’d just said he didn’t need oxygen. “I can’t kill anyone, and I would be very poor at subduing them without a stunner.”

Aggressively licking a paw, Carl said, “But you’re a master of human anatomy.”

“I’m programmed not to hurt humans,” Sixty replied. Tilting his head from side to side, he looked at the ceiling and added, “Unless they ask nicely.”

“How did I not know about this particular programming flaw?” Carl asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe because you didn’t ask?” Sixty snapped at the werfle. Good eye returning to Volka, robotic eye still covered by his hand, he said, “I have downloaded the ship plan; I know where we’re going. I’m immune to stunners, but other than a guide and as a shield, I’ll be of limited use after our stunners are used up.”

Pushing two of the said stunners to Volka, he asked, “Do you think you can shoot these?”

Volka looked at the stunners. They had a handle like a pistol, and an ovoid charge pulse chamber on the top. There was a clearly marked safety dial and a trigger. They looked easy to use, but she’d never used one before. “Not accurately.” Looking around the small space, she stood up, grabbed a broom, and started screwing off the brush end.

“What are you doing?” Sixty asked.

“Making a weapon that I can use,” Volka said. She hefted the broom handle. It wasn’t wood, some sort of poly, light and hopefully strong. She eyed the unscrewed end—and it had a decent point. She looked around again and realized she’d begun to pant. Low oxygen already?

“If it’s of any use, I can start fires with my mind,” Carl said—or rather thought. His ears flattened and his eyes narrowed. “But my venom hasn’t returned since my last milking and my bite will be useless.”

Sixty and Volka both looked at the werfle.

“You never told me you could start fires with your mind,” Sixty said.

“You never asked,” Carl replied, licking his shoulder.

“Is there anything else I’ve never asked that you can do?” Sixty said in a too even tone.

Ceasing his grooming, the werfle appeared to study a spot on the ceiling. “Maybe.”

Shaking his head, Sixty muttered, “Fire might come in handy. Let me think about it.”

There was a thunk from outside the door.

Stretching, the werfle said, “Well, should we get this over with? Put me in your backpack, Volka.”

Volka did as he suggested and slid the pack to her back. She looked at Sixty, still sitting on the floor, hiding his naked eye behind a hand.

“Is something wrong?” Volka asked.

“I’m having a conflict with my original programming.”

Volka shifted on her feet. The sound of metal banging on metal came from beyond the small chamber.

“Care to enlighten us?” asked Carl.

Hunching lower, he muttered, “No.” And then he sighed. “My open temple is terrifying to Volka. I need it open in case I have to plug into this pile of bolts in a hurry, but I’m programmed to avoid terrifying humans.” He glanced up at her. “If you could just be disgusted, I’d be fine. Humans are often disgusted by my kind, and we’re programmed not to care about that.

Louder banging sounded on the door.

“I’m not disgusted,” Volka said.

“You could have lied,” Carl snipped.

“Or terrified,” Volka said, and realized it was true.

Sixty looked up at her doubtfully.

Shrugging, she said, “I was…startled…But you don’t smell like you’re in pain or are wounded.” She nodded. “I am fine.” Even if she still found it disquieting.

Dropping his hand, Sixty pushed the loose end of the cord beneath his collar and rolled the flap of skin back over his face as far as it would go. It still left a noticeable gap—the men in the hallway would know what he was at a glance. He shoved one stunner in his pocket and picked up the other two weapons. Standing, he put himself between Volka and the door, and she found herself panting against his shoulder.

Raising the stunners, he whispered, “Ready?”

There was another clang from outside, and the door ground open enough for a beam of light to slant in.

“My stomach doesn’t feel as woozy as it did before,” she said by way of an answer.

Sixty said, “That’s because the ship is accelerating again and gravity is approaching Earth standard G.”

“What does that mean?” Volka asked.

“That they don’t want the Leetier to land until the threat—that’s us—has been neutralized,” 6T9 responded.

“Oh…” Volka said. Panting heavily, she asked desperately, “Are you ready?”

“No,” Sixty replied. His answer was almost drowned out by the shriek of metal on metal as the door rumbled open.

Starship Waking

The door opened, but nothing happened. 6T9 stared from just within the doorway across the hall at a wooden wall. It was stained a rich mahogany and inset with neat geometric moldings. The floor and ceiling were a simple laminate tile with a marbled gray design. Identical lighting was inset in both. From his position inside the broom closet, he could see a wooden door to one of the crew compartments. The door stretched from floor to ceiling and had a knob precisely in the center that would be as accessible in the same location in deceleration and acceleration.

It occurred to Sixty that he was going to have to step out of the airlock. With a sigh, he did. He was immediately hit with a stunner in his left shoulder. The charge crossed the barrier of his jacket and shirt, radiating to his core in a wave of power. “His face!” someone shouted.

Licking his lips, 6T9 aimed his stunner at his assailant, hit him square in the chest, and completely missed the man who charged him from the right. The man struggled to pull 6T9’s arm back, shouting, “Stunners don’t work on him.” 6T9 tried to turn into the man’s grip, but another man was on him from the left.

The man on his right said, “Is he glowing?” And 6T9 glanced to see that his invisi-filaments were emitting a slight glow, but in the lighted corridor it wasn’t as noticeable as it had been on Mr. Darmadi’s drive.

There was a growl, and the man on his right was crashing against the wall opposite the airlock, pushed by Volka and her broom handle.

The man tried to grab the shaft, but Volka dropped to a crouch and out of reach with surprising agility. Another stun hit 6T9 in the right shoulder. The shooter stared at 6T9 with wide eyes and said, “They really don’t work!” 6T9 stunned him immediately but instantly felt bad about it—these men weren’t talking about torturing anyone, and from what he’d heard over the ship’s computer, they thought he and Volka were “dangerous criminals.” He frowned at the man’s slumped form, and the other man on the left caught him in a choke hold. Letting himself fall back into the hold, 6T9 reached around and stunned the fourth assailant, but he caught the man’s hand and eased him down so the Luddeccean didn’t get a concussion. Volka’s spear went twirling over him at the same moment and cracked against the side of another assailant’s head. In the blink of an eye, Volka had pulled back, twirled the thing again, and knocked the man under the chin.

“At least someone isn’t afraid to inflict pain,” Carl Sagan harrumphed. “Where would be the best place to start a fire?”

Someone jumped on 6T9 from the right. He stunned him, lowered him to the ground, and sent Carl Sagan a schematic of the ship and a likely place for a strategic spark. “We should be careful to make sure—”

On his left, someone said, “Try this phaser blast, fiend! For Luddeccea!” Before 6T9 could move, Volka spun her stick around, catching the new man beneath the wrist. The phaser went flying, and Volka charged, knocking the handle into the man’s forehead. He reeled back, stunned.

“—that there are no people around it,” Sixty finished, catching the wayward phaser.

The second man, the one who’d been the first to catch the flat side of Volka’s “spear,” was slumped against the far wall. He stirred and Volka attacked him with a cry of rage, hitting the side of his head with the end of the stick like a golfer with anger management issues.

6T9’s jaw dropped.

She turned around and immediately hit the man to his left who’d been staggering forward. 6T9 tried to stun him—out of mercy, really—but his stunner didn’t work. He glanced at the meter, noticed it was out of charge, and tossed it aside.

Volka hit the man again, and he slumped to the floor. She glared at 6T9, lip curled, stick raised, her ears flat back. She looked like a wolf. His Q-comm hummed with the useless knowledge that it probably wasn’t an accident when she broke a man’s toes with her umbrella. His eyes slid to the second assailant. There was a blood on the floor beside his head, and 6T9 could detect no breathing. Had “innocent” Volka killed him? He remembered telling her weere were for all intents and purposes human…

His jaw hardened. Their superiors would do worse to her, and to him if they could.

There was a boom, and the ship shook.

Volka’s look of rage turned to one of surprise. “What is happ—?”

She was cut off by the wail of alarms.

In the ether, Carl Sagan said, “Oopsie.”

6T9 heard crew members scrambling in their quarters. Grabbing Volka’s arm, he raced toward one of the access ladder shafts. “We have to get to First Class.” He heard shouts from within and hesitated.

“What did you blow up, Carl?” he asked.

Volka pulled away from 6T9’s grip and began frantically pressing an elevator call button.

“The oxygen tank that is on the exhaust side of the carbon dioxide converter—the damage may be, err…extensive,” Carl replied.

“That’s one level below us!” Sixty accused. He sniffed and smelled burnt plastic.

“The elevator is here!” Volka cried, hands over her ears.

Sixty exhaled. “You’re—”

Volka dragged him into the elevator just as a man jumped out of the access ladder shaft. His eyes went wide at sight of 6T9 and Volka, but the elevator doors whooshed closed at just that moment. It must have been a vacuum safe seal because the wailing stopped and alarms were replaced by classical music.

“—never supposed to be on board an elevator during a fire,” 6T9 finished.

The elevator rocked, and the lights dimmed, but it began its ascent and the classical music didn’t stop playing. There was an outlet in the car and 6T9 whipped out the business end of his cable and jacked in, but when he tried the code, was denied access.

“They’ve got security waiting for us in First Class,” Carl Sagan said.

6T9 cursed to himself. “Carl, the code!”

“We can take one or two more,” Volka said with certainty, and 6T9 remembered the blood on the floor.

“Foxtrot Bravo Alpha 9234,” Carl replied.

Entering it with a thought, 6T9 said incredulously, “That’s the same code as before but backward.”

“The priest is stressed,” Carl replied. “It is his first exposure to non-Luddeccean tech.”

6T9 barely heard him. His mind was filling with data prepared to be sent via light beam to the Guard—some of it featured video surveillance of him and Volka. He wiped it clean and ordered a defrag and a hard reboot of the surveillance systems to stall for time.

The werfle said, “There are twenty-five security officers waiting for us.”

“I’m not going out without a fight,” Volka replied, dropping to a crouch and holding the broom handle like she was preparing to strike. “I’m done playing nice with humans.” Her eyes narrowed and looked at 6T9. “You caught a phaser. Can we use that?”

“Not without possibly cutting a hole in the hull!” Sixty replied. The “priest” had reprogrammed the elevator doors to only open on the first floor State Room in First Class where the security officers awaited them. Sixty focused on altering the code—and then the elevator ground to a halt. A red dot showed in his mind. Someone had physically locked the elevator down; he couldn’t make it move to another floor. He scanned the ceiling and the floor. There was no exit hatch. His eyes widened, and he reprogrammed the door not to open at all.

He took out the phaser, pulled up the schematic of the ship, and let his Q-comm hum.

“My stomach feels woozy again,” said Volka.

6T9 had been ignoring every system in the ship except the elevators, but at Volka’s words, he realized that they were decelerating again. He pulled up the nav logs and grinned. “They have to land! The ship is running out of oxygen.”

His Q-comm returned a string of numbers and he said, “We might escape if I don’t send us into the vacuum.”

“Pardon?” said Carl.

Entering two last commands, 6T9 yanked out his jack, activated the phaser, and pointed it at the floor. The laminate tile blackened and curled back. The smell of melting plastic and hot metal filled the elevator car. Following the path conjured up by his Q-comm, 6T9 cut a roughly ovoid shape. It didn’t fall away. He jumped on it. It still didn’t budge.

“I think I’m going to hurl a hairball,” said Carl.

“I feel like throwing up,” said Volka.

The gravity was 21.2 percent of standard and was dropping fast. Gripping a railing for leverage, 6T9 brought his foot down on the floor. The ovoid piece of flooring dropped a few centimeters. He pounded it again, and it fell in slow motion down the elevator shaft.

“I’ll go first,” Sixty said, and then added by way of explanation, “The edges are still hot.”

“Too sick to cool it…” muttered Carl.

Stripping off the hover pack and holding it above his head, 6T9 dove out of the elevator car and drifted down the shaft as gently as a leaf. At the first State Room level below the elevator, he grabbed hold of a vertical strut in the wall just outside a pair of doors.

He heard banging above him in the elevator car. “They’re trying to get in!” Carl Sagan said in the ether.

“Volka, come quick,” 6T9 called. He saw her prepare to jump out of the car, and then the simulated gravity completely vanished.

Volka shot up in the elevator and didn’t come down. He heard the sound of retching. “Volka, push off the ceiling,” he cried. He saw her body spin, and then her backpack was launching toward him in slow motion down the shaft. He exhaled in relief seeing Volka’s fingers attached to it, and then caught his breath again. Through the hole he’d cut, he saw one of the security officers floating into the elevator car. 6T9 grabbed the backpack and pulled it and Volka to the side of the elevator shaft, pushing her against the doors to the State Room, shielding her from incoming stuns with his body. “I unlocked the door,” he said. “It should open.”

Volka grunted. “It’s not budging.”

A stun hit him in the back of the neck, giving him strength. Floating behind her, he let his hover pack drift beside him and tried to pry the door open himself. Fully charged, he had a moment of hope when a sliver of light appeared, but the door didn’t budge farther. “We need someone to open it from the inside,” he muttered.

“It’s…Darmadi’s…state…room ...” Carl said, and then a hacking noise came from Volka’s backpack.

“Help!” Volka said, pounding on the door. “Mr. Darmadi, please help us!”

A scrape above made 6T9 lift his head. A guard had launched himself out of the elevator car toward them. 6T9 twisted around, and, gripping the strut, flattened himself against the wall. The man reached toward him, but Sixty had leverage and more than human strength. He caught the man’s wrist while he was still above them, yanked and released, sending the man tumbling beyond their feet. Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out a stunner and stunned the man before he could reorient himself.

Darmadi’s voice came through the door—it was muffled, yet 6T9 could hear the fear. “Volka?”

A mechanical rumble started above them. 6T9 looked up and saw the elevator car start to shake and heard voices within it.

“Yes, it’s me,” Volka cried. “Please help us.”

“What’s going on out there?” Darmadi said.

The elevator jerked above, and 6T9 snapped, “Is that a question you’d ask your daughter?” The elevator began rumbling toward them. 6T9 looked around, but saw no escape. Grabbing hold of his backpack, he swung around, prepared to drag Volka down the shaft to give her just a few more seconds of life.

He’d just grabbed her shoulder with his free hand when the State Room door opened. Mr. Darmadi was floating inside, holding onto a safety grip. His eyes went wide at sight of Volka, and he yanked her in, pulling Sixty with her. 6T9 found himself in a sitting area with matching ornate tiles on the floor and ceiling. There were mirrors set precisely in the center of the walls and recessed lighting in the floor and ceiling. Golden light was everywhere, and it smelled like eucalyptus. He took that all in, and then the elevator shot down the shaft past his ankles, snapping him into the present. Remembering the man he’d stunned, Sixty whispered, “They’ll crush their own team member. Animals.”

“Volka…” Darmadi whispered. “What is wrong with Mr. Niano?” Darmadi’s mouth was open and his eyes were fixed on 6T9’s open temple.

Volka’s lips were turned down. Glaring at 6T9, she looked like she might cry or hit him.

“What?” 6T9 said.

“Animals?” Volka hissed. “Have you forgotten what I am?” And again, 6T9 remembered blood on the wall from where she’d beat a man with a stick.

He heard the elevator grinding to a halt. It would reverse course soon. Volka had been acting in self-defense. If she’d killed, it was manslaughter, not murder…she deserved a court of law, not execution. He gulped. They both deserved that.

They started drifting to what had been the ceiling, and Volka looked “up” in alarm.

“Gravity is shifting,” 6T9 said. “Twist.” He did a sit up in midair and let his body twist “upside down” so the room’s furniture was still attached to the “ceiling” above his head. He remembered the brochure advertised the Leetier’s staff turning the furniture around for First Class passengers—they must be busy. Volka followed his example, and they landed on their feet in a gentle twenty-fifth of standard G. Darmadi didn’t quite catch himself in time and landed on his backside.

“We have to go,” 6T9 said to Volka, pushing against her shoulder.

“You haven’t explained what is going on,” Mr. Darmadi said, scampering up and putting himself between them and the door.

“Mr. Darmadi…” Volka said. “Thank you.” Before 6T9 knew what had happened, she ripped the stunner from his hand and fired at Darmadi. She hit him in the chest, and he slumped slowly to the floor.

“What are you doing?” 6T9 gasped.

Volka sniffed. “I don’t want them to think he had anything to do with us. He saved us, don’t you see?”

6T9 exhaled, plucked the stunner from her grasp, saw it was out of power, and slipped it away. Outside in the hallway, he heard footsteps and a man shout, “Take your positions.” Picking up Darmadi’s slumped form, 6T9 hauled him over to the State Room’s escape capsule. He put Darmadi’s hand on the palm reader and a portion of the wall slid aside. 6T9 blinked. The escape capsule was only big enough for a single person.

“On three!” the man in the hallway outside ordered.

“Come on,” he said, waving Volka over. The elevator shaft was open, and he could see the cables moving and hear the grind of gears.

The man in the hallway began counting, “One…two…”

Volka had possibly beaten a man to death with a stick, but now she was sobbing.

The top of the elevator came into view, and in the hallway, a man shouted, “…three!”

Starship Waking

The world was a blur. Volka had thought that her life had ended when the Guard had invaded her home, the living monument to her parents. She’d been wrong. Stunning Mr. Darmadi had been the end. She’d betrayed him. She wasn’t sure she wanted to survive anymore. The rage and fear that had propelled her was gone.

“Volka!” Carl Sagan said, “They’ll dismember 6T9!”

The world did not unblur. Volka’s eyes were too filled with tears but words made her look up. She heard pounding in front of her and in the elevator behind her and heard Sixty beside her, “Volka.” She couldn’t see in the real world, but she saw in her mind his too-beautiful face.

She had to move. Through the fog in her eyes, she saw the door exploding inward. She darted toward Sixty, but was too slow. She heard stunner fire, and then she was lifted and pushed into the capsule. More stunners fired, and then Sixty was in beside her and a door slid closed. She heard Sixty growl, “The outer door between the door and the pod isn’t sealing.”

Her backpack wriggled, and Carl hissed in her mind. “I’m being squished.” She inhaled and smelled werfle vomit. He was so small; had any of his organs gotten damaged in the running around? “Carl, are you…do you…will you…” Need medical assistance? As though they could get him to a vet right now.

“I’m fine, but some of the hairball I puked up might have gotten on your sketchbook,” the werfle grumbled. She knew it was a grumble. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach.

“I’m glad you’re not really squished,” she said.

“And I’m glad you’re not a Volka-icicle,” the werfle replied.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Sixty muttered, plugging himself into an outlet.

Peeking around his side, Volka saw a window behind him. Men were rushing toward the capsule. One lifted the butt end of a stunner rifle and began beating at the glass. It didn’t make a sound, but she could feel the capsule trembling.

“Carl, there is a different code!” Sixty said.

“Ow…ow…ow…” hissed the werfle, and Volka tried to shift her body so the werfle wasn’t squashed.

“Carl!” Sixty said again.

“I’m working on it…” Carl said, “Oh, oh, oh, that man is thinking, ‘They can’t possibly guess the general override. We’ll get them.’”

“That doesn’t help me, Carl!” Sixty said.

“Wait, wait, wait…” Carl replied.

For a moment, the man who was beating his rifle butt against the capsule paused, and his eyes met Volka’s. His lips curled back, and she could see him shout in rage, but eerily, she couldn’t hear him no matter how much she strained her ears. Had she looked like that when she’d attacked the man below? Flattening her ears, she closed her eyes and buried her face against Sixty’s chest. Despite all his exertions, he smelled mostly the same as before—metal, plastic, and that peculiar human male smell that had hidden his true nature. He didn’t smell like sweat or fear…it was disquieting.

Carl’s thoughts blurted in her mind. “632405.”

The trembling in the craft ceased. Volka lifted her eyes and peeked around Sixty. She mostly only saw her own pale reflection in the glass, but she thought she made out the seal of the sliding door. There was a jolt, and they started pulling away from the wall, and the door disappeared.

“What’s happening?” she whispered.

Sixty exhaled. “We’re spinning a bit, but are still semi-contained within the Leetier, which is why we still have simulated gravity. I opened the external hatch and fired the thrusters to damage the control mechanism so they can’t trap us inside.”

In the window, a sliver of stars appeared, and then the sliver widened. One of the stars was orangish-red, slightly bigger than the others, and getting bigger. “Libertas,” she whispered.

She felt Sixty’s chin bob in a nod. “Thanks to Carl’s fire, they have to land. And since the fire damaged a thruster, they can’t roll and put our eventual ejection on a trajectory for one of the moons.”

“So, what do we do now?” Volka asked, eyes riveted to Libertas, still looking like a star and not a planet. She’d dreamed of a view like this, but there’d been no chance for it in the cargo area. Joseph always told her to be careful of what she wished for. Her eyes got hot. She shifted on her feet.

“When we get closer,” Sixty said, “I’ll blast us to the planet’s surface. It might be, ahh…a rough landing.”

Volka nodded in understanding. Carl Sagan was quiet in her backpack. Her ears cocked. The only sound was a hum from Sixty’s chest. “You have no heartbeat,” she whispered.

“No,” Sixty replied, his breath warm against the top of her head. “My original designers wanted me to have one, but at the time there were worries about humans becoming more attached to s—’bots than to each other…so I have no heartbeat.”

Did he sound mournful, wry, or both? She glanced up. The flap of his fake skin and muscle was pulled back. His left eyeball and metal skeleton were fully exposed. The wire cord was strung between his head and the outlet in the wall. The right side of his face was still too perfect. Both eyes were on her. She looked away and took a quarter step back—all she could manage in the coffin-like space.

“Rawr!” cried Carl.

Volka jumped forward, pressing her full body against Sixty. “Carl, are you okay?” she asked, wiggling and trying to get the pack off.

“Stop! You’re knocking me against the wall!” the werfle cried.

Volka froze. “Are you okay now?”

She heard the werfle’s tongue lick some body part. “Yes,” he said, and she pictured his ears flat against his head.

Volka remained very, very still, and then her ears twitched. Something was prodding her just at the level of her stomach. It felt almost like—

She jumped back again.

“Rawr!” cried Carl.

“What is that?” Volka cried, gaping at the bulge in Sixty’s trousers.

“A hardware malfunction,” Sixty ground out. “I haven’t had a hard reboot in a while.” He rolled his eyes. “Or fulfilled my primary function.”

It was all gibberish to Volka. She edged as far away from him as she could and glared up at him. His cheeks were flushed, and his gaze was heavenward—well, she supposed every direction was “heavenward” at the moment—and annoyed.

Volka blurted, “Why would a robot have a—” And then she remembered Carl called him “6T9,” not Sixty, and his explanation for his lack of a heartbeat. “...There were worries about humans becoming more attached to s—’bots than to each other.”

“I’m an android, not a robot,” Sixty said tersely.

“You’re a…you’re a…”

“Sex ‘bot,” Sixty said.

Volka’s head jerked back in fear and revulsion.

“A really bad one,” Carl said.

“I am top of the line!” Sixty protested.

Carl snipped, “You could have fulfilled your ‘primary function’ on the gate above Bernadette’s asteroid or at the Kanakah Disk—”

“There wasn’t time,” Sixty replied, sounding testy.

“Lizzar dung,” Carl snapped. “You could have been frolicking with Darmadi six ways to Sunday—”

Volka’s eyes went wide.

“There were reasons!” Sixty declared.

“—and then you wouldn’t be terrifying Volka with your hardware malfunction!” the werfle finished.

“I cannot rape,” Sixty said, his single eye wide and his other eye…well, still much more than wide, but now focused on her. “Don’t be terrified of me!”

Volka wasn’t terrified. Sixty had plenty of opportunities to take advantage of her before, and he hadn’t. And now, between the werfle and Sixty’s sniping—she just couldn’t be afraid. Now that her initial shock was over, she wasn’t even disgusted.

He looked sideways. His naked eye made a slight buzz when he did, so faint it would have been completely muffled by the layer of fake skin and muscles he usually wore. “Well, I couldn’t rape unless you wanted me to, and we had predetermined scenarios and safe words.”

“Don’t answer him,” Carl said. “We don’t have time. We’ll be approaching Libertas in minutes.”

Volka’s cheeks heated. “I wasn’t going to—”

Motion outside the window made her breath catch. For a moment, her view was completely obscured, and then she saw the back end of a Luddeccean Guard spacefighter—something like a jet plane. It had wings to keep it aloft in atmosphere and plasma cannons. Two more joined it a moment later. She knew that military escorts were not common for the Leetier.

“Are those…for me?” she whispered.

She heard Sixty gulp.

The werfle spoke. “No. Those are for both of you. They found the men he incapacitated in Darmadi’s garage and know an AI or highly-augmented citizen of the Galactic Republic is in Luddeccean space.”

“I’m putting you in additional danger,” Sixty said. The realization seemed to help his “hardware” problem.

Readjusting her backpack, Volka sighed. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”

Carl Sagan interjected, “And he wouldn’t have made it this far if you hadn’t blocked the scanner at the spaceport, or bludgeoned the two men in the hall below, and neither of you would have gotten anywhere without me. Let’s all sing Kumbaya after we escape. Libertas is coming up fast. They’ll be shooting on us. I hope you have ideas.”

“I have no ideas,” Sixty said.

“Maybe if we look around?” Volka suggested. The small, coffin-like space seemed like a cramped elevator, but with a large oval window set in the door.

“Good idea,” he said. “Let’s turn right.”

Volka turned right at the same time he turned left.

Sixty’s normal eye closed when they bumped into each other. “You’re left,” he said. His hardware malfunction kicked in again.

A starfighter flying past the window and the enormous orange curve of Libertas killed any quip she might have given. She supposed the only reason they weren’t being fired upon was they were half tucked within the Leetier, and firing on the tiny pod could endanger everyone aboard the ship.

“Right,” she said, awkwardly dancing with him in the small space. He held up the cord so she could walk under it. She pinched her arms in and tried to be small.

He touched a small compartment to her left. “Emergency supplies,” he said, opening it and shaking his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Volka, Carl Sagan and I can leave our bodies when we need to.”

She stared at him, not comprehending.

“Do weere like to die alone?” he asked. “Or do you also have the more common human trait of not wanting to be alone when you die?” He spoke so fast she wasn’t sure she understood the words correctly. His eyes—even the uncovered one—searched hers.

“I guess it…would be nice not to be alone,” she stammered. She’d been there for the death of her father and later, her mother. They’d seemed comforted by her presence.

“I will not upload myself until I am sure you are dead,” Sixty declared with a beatific smile. Beneath his exposed eye, it looked demonic.

“We’re going to die,” Volka whispered, feeling a fresh cold wave of fear.

“Not us, just you,” said Carl. “Well, I suppose this werfle’s body, too.”

Volka’s breathing came in short quick gasps.

Sixty raised a finger as though to touch her lips, and then dropped it quickly. “Maybe not,” he said. His expression became serious. “Volka, it violates my programming to hurt you unless it is necessary to save you from further harm. I have a plan,” he said. “But it may hurt. Do you trust me?”

“I wouldn’t,” said Carl.

She stared up at Sixty’s naked eye and the flap of skin pulled back over his temple. He was the picture of so many villains from her robot invasion novels. He also called her human, and he had hardware malfunctions just like a man. “Yes.”


16

Trust

The Leetier was entering Libertas’s atmosphere. The planet’s gravity was pulling 6T9’s and Volka’s bodies toward the door. They’d turned around—extremely awkwardly—so their heads were opposite the direction of travel. Volka was on her stomach, beneath him. She was using her forearms as a pillow beneath her chin, and the pack and the lump that was the werfle was by the top of her head. Carl was hiding; only the tip of his swishing tail was showing. Volka and 6T9 had their eyes riveted to the window. Bracing his arms on either side of the door, he was carefully keeping his weight off of her as much as he could. His hover pack was on, crushing their bodies even more snuggly together, but he was too busy and worried to suffer from hardware malfunctions.

His Q-comm was radiating heat—reminding him, among other things, that the hover pack was for one person on a standard grav planet—which Libertas was not. He ignored it, busy sending every scrap of visual data he was receiving through the cloud cover to his server light years away. He wondered how much server space he was allotted, because the data he was receiving was immense. Equations overlaid the landscape spread out below them. The number .3 percent was hanging in the periphery of his vision. It was scrolling up one hundredth at a time.

“What are the chances this will work?” Volka whispered.

6T9 lied. “More than fifty-fifty.”

“Rat feces,” Carl grumbled. “The One estimate the chances of this stunt working are less than 1.563 percent.”

Volka’s body stiffened beneath them.

“Was that really necessary?” 6T9 snapped at the werfle.

Carl’s tail stopped swishing. “No, I suppose not. This body is unused to risk, and the stress is making it curmudgeonly. I was much better tempered as almost any other werfle, a bioluminescent moon crab, and even as a gixelloopalop—they’re a sort of giant, purple, carnivorous kangaroo. Lovely, lovely, disposition. Of course, I’d probably eat you if I was a gixelloopalop.”

A starfighter flew past the window, and Volka exhaled audibly, her tiny shoulders momentarily pressing against 6T9’s chest. She was so small, and her skeleton of calcium and phosphorus was ridiculously fragile—and she trusted him, despite the times he’d terrified her. He wanted to reassure her with words and actions, kiss her, nuzzle behind the ears, find out how soft they were—

He so needed a reboot.

“What are we waiting for?” Volka asked.

“The highest chance of survivability.” The percentage at the periphery of his vision was at .4 percent.

They passed from the clouds.

“More starfighters,” Volka murmured.

6T9 gulped, and focused on the denser cloud banks in the distance and the dark brown and red rock of Libertas’s Iron Mountain Range beneath. Potential trajectories for the shuttle overlaid the entire scene.

One of the Libertas Local Guard ships fired a phaser blast beneath the hull.

Volka gasped.

“They’re just trying to scare us,” 6T9 said. “They won’t fire on the Leetier.”

“But when we leave the Leetier…” Volka murmured.

“There is about a 99.99345 percent chance we will be hit,” Carl Sagan said.

Volka laughed softly and incongruously, her shoulders brushing 6T9’s chest again. He was ridiculously glad she was delirious and not hyperventilating in fear. “But I thought you said there was over a one percent chance we’d survive?” she huffed, and he could hear the wry smile on her lips.

“Well—” Carl began.

6T9’s body jolted, and an internal readout informed him that his body had just been adjusted to Libertas’s 1.19 G gravity. The number 1.55 percent flashed in the periphery of his vision and 6T9 said, “Brace yourselves.” His tone was similar to the serious one he used when he was the master during matters more closely related to his primary function, and his Q-comm briefly tripped on that connection, and then 1.563 percent flashed in his vision. His mind connected to the shuttle’s basic computer, he engaged the thrusters, and they dropped from the ship’s hull just as they reached the clouds above the Iron Range.

Sixty rolled the pod to the left, following a plotted course playing behind his eyes, just in time for phaser fire to pass them—its orange glow dimmed by cloud cover. He began to have hope. It was like his jump from the ship over Luddeccea. There was cloud cover and—

The craft jolted right, the window showed only orange, and sparks danced along the electronics in the escape pod. The numbers behind 6T9’s eyes fluctuated too wildly for him to adjust the craft’s trajectory. They were falling too fast. 6T9 hit the rear thrusters, and they jolted forward—according to the sensors, they were still in the clouds, and he couldn’t see.

Exhaling in relief, he said, “We can sustain some fire. This thing was made to withstand re-entry and—”

The rear thruster died.

The cloud thinned enough for 6T9 to see two scrambling Libertas Guard Fighters.

“We’re behind them…” Volka whispered.

Orange flared around the window, sparks cascaded around them, and the pod shuddered violently before he could tell her that external sensors told him there were two behind them, too. Frigidly cold air roared into the tiny space from the blast points. In 6T9’s mind, all the pod’s thruster readouts went dark. The pod dropped, and he hit the ceiling, and Volka slammed against his chest. He engaged the pod’s parachute, their feet hit what was now the floor, and he heard one of Volka’s bones crack, but couldn’t ask how she was or check her for injury. Below them, the mountains were rising, but they were still very high up, and surrounded by starfighter jets that would—

There was the scream of an engine, and the scene abruptly shifted, and instead of falling they careened forward. 6T9 threw his arms around Volka to try to keep her from smacking against the walls. His eyes went to the window and widened. One of the mountains was coming toward them rather than rising up to meet them.

“What’s happening?” Carl cried.

6T9’s mind leaped to the monitors. “The parachute is caught on one of the starfighters.”

“Well, at least they can’t fire on us,” said Carl.

6T9 took in the crags of the mountain they were fast approaching. “That’s not their plan right now.” They were going to slam the pod against the peak. He took in their altitude, tightened his arms around Volka, and whispered behind her ear, “I’m sorry about this.” The velvet there was as soft as he’d imagined.

Starship Waking

The wind screaming into the pod was deafening, and Volka pressed her ears flat against her head. She looked up at him to see the half of his brow that wasn’t metal was furrowed, and then he flipped them both over so that he was beneath her. Their bodies were flush, but he was warm and she couldn’t care about the impropriety of it.

“Cover the back of your head. I’m disconnecting the parachute,” 6T9 shouted the words directly into her ear or she wouldn’t have heard them over the scream of air rushing into the pod. She covered her head, and an instant later, her body cracked against what was now up but had been the side without a window before they’d reached Libertas’s gravity well. Her teeth rattled, her shoulders ached, and Carl howled. She stayed there, 6T9’s body pressed against her, too heavy to be human. She couldn’t breathe, and then another shock shook the pod by her feet, and then they were all sliding forward—Volka on her stomach on top of 6T9, and Carl in the pack. 6T9’s head was the only thing that hit the “ceiling.” There was a frightening crack, and then they were sliding down an incline of at least eighty degrees—bumping all the way.

“Madam,” Sixty managed to say, “I don’t think I know you, but perhaps you can get this craft under control?”

“You’re in control of the craft!” Carl said.

“Where is that other person?” 6T9 asked, head jerking side to side.

“Rat tails, he’s dumb again,” Carl hissed in her mind.

A moment later, they began rolling.

Volka cried out in surprise, Carl hissed in anger, and 6T9 said, “This conveyance is not—”

Volka rolled beneath him, he rolled on top of her, and Carl Sagan’s backpack twisted along with them both. There was a shock along the whole of the pod and another crack from the region of 6T9’s head. They stopped rolling but resumed sliding.

“I’m back,” 6T9 said.

The incline became a more reasonable thirty-five degrees or so, and Volka raised her head. “We made it!”

“Not yet,” 6T9 said, his eyes staring above. Volka twisted her neck to follow his gaze. In their rolling, the window had wound up above them. At first, all she saw was a sort of white ash falling from the sky. Her eyes widened. No, it wasn’t ash. “It’s snow,” she whispered. She’d heard of it, of course, but only seen it in pictures.

“Not enough,” said 6T9.

Before she could ask, the shadow of a starfighter emerged above them. Orange flared from cannons on its wings, and 6T9 ordered, “Heads down!”

The phaser hit them, and sparks danced along the walls of the pod. It bounced, and the door whipped open. Another shot was fired and the split second Volka realized it would hit them dead on, the pod careened into something beneath that sent them rolling again, briefly banging the door closed, but it ripped completely away as soon as they righted. Air so cold it felt like needles tore at Volka’s face and fingers, but she breathed out in relief. The starfighters had passed over them, and the pod was sliding down the mountain as though they were in one of those Northern Territory “toboggan” races. “They’re flying away!” she exclaimed.

“They’re coming around for another pass,” 6T9 said, “but that isn’t going to matter in a minute.”

“What,” said Volka.

“The thrusters are all gone,” 6T9 said inscrutably. He sat up, the wire dangling from the side of his head blowing behind him.

“What’s happening?” Volka asked, struggling to sit up. Peering over the front edge of the pod, she saw. They were sliding directly toward a chasm.


17

Darwin’s Loophole

The numbers playing before 6T9’s eyes all told the same story. They could not make it across the chasm at their current velocity. They’d barely make it to the middle before plunging to their demises—or rather, the demise of Volka and the werfle that Carl Sagan occupied. The numbers dimmed in 6T9’s mind. He stilled, and every joint inside him went cold. He’d failed in his function that was more primary than sex—his actions were leading to the end of a human life.

Volka was leaning sideways—to turn the pod over to try to stop it, or to change its path, he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter; nothing would work. “We have to do something!” she cried. “Anything!”

It was her dying wish, and it made electricity surge within him. He had to obey. 6T9 remembered the hover pack made for one person, mostly drained, and better suited for standard G. It was still on his shoulders. “Grab hold!” he shouted, gripping the doorframe and connecting to the hover controls via the pack’s local ether. He leaned forward so the pack’s thrust would be parallel to the ground. Red lights flashed, warning him of the low charge, and the hover pack wailed in protest, but the anti-grav and directional thrusters engaged. His finger joints went hot from the force of the acceleration, but they held, and the thrusters hurtled them forward a meter more than they would have gone otherwise, and then the pack gave out with a scream of protest. They fell…

Milliseconds later, they landed, perpendicular to another steep incline, the iron rocks of the opposite side of the chasm less than a meter from the pod’s nose. The incline made them nearly tip over. Accidentally or purposefully, Volka’s legs swung outside the pod, causing them to spin ninety degrees just before they crashed into the wall. And then they were heading down along a ledge right next to another drop off that plunged directly to the chasm’s floor. 6T9 calculated it as at least 598 meters deep. The pod was just barely skirting the precipice. He wanted to suggest they stop by jumping out if they had to, but starfighters flew over, blasting the rocky wall just behind them, showering them with rock, and bringing down an avalanche of snow in the place they’d been milliseconds before. The ledge they were on plunged. They fell vertically and found another ledge that wasn’t as steep and was wider. The pace of their descent stabilized. The starfighter jets made another pass, but their plasma fire was farther behind them. 6T9 doubted their pilots could see them. The snow was falling faster and probably throwing off their heat-seeking equipment.

He let out a breath of relief, even though the wind was whipping around them, making 6T9’s joints, especially in his exposed temple, freeze up. “I don’t think I truly appreciated how much pure dumb luck factored into survival.”

“Most people leave out how much of evolution Darwin attributed to dumb luck,” Carl replied. “Although, I don’t feel particularly lucky at the moment.” He squeaked piteously. Volka pulled the pack the werfle was in onto her lap. Purring, Carl poked his head out and she rubbed him behind the ears, kissing him distractedly, her teeth chattering. Some app within 6T9 went dark and then sparked wickedly. He found himself glaring at the werfle as the pod’s pace slowed.

“Jealous, much?” Carl said.

“Who’s jealous of what?” Volka asked.

6T9’s eyes narrowed at the werfle, but he turned his attention to their predicament. He took in the snow and the steep walls of the chasm around them. The Iron Range was full of such formations. His Q-comm hummed, placing them in Felter’s Gap, 101.5 kilometers from the magni-freight line about to cut itself into the Red Gorge practically on top of Sundancer’s location. His Q-comm calculated when they’d reach the ship at the rate they were going—the pod abruptly stopped, and a big fat zero flashed in a red overlay.

Unplugging himself and slipping his skin back on, he went to the front of the pod. Standing on its nose, he saw that they’d reached a section of terrain that was more or less level. However, the downward slope resumed a few meters ahead. He went to the back, prepared to jump out and push.

“Can…I…help…?” Volka asked, shifting as though to stand.

Carl’s thoughts spiked across the ether. “Don’t jump out! It’s several meters deep; you’ll sink.”

6T9 paused, started to consider it, and then noticed the lack of color in Volka’s lips and had another priority. Opening the compartment with emergency supplies, he gave a thermal blanket and S-rations to Volka. Carl was curled in a ball at Volka’s breast and didn’t look particularly cold or uncomfortable. 6T9 absolutely did not scowl at the animal but was certain the werfle smirked at him anyway.

Opening his temple again, gritting his teeth at the uncomfortable sensation of cold on his metal skeleton, he plugged himself into the not-at-all friendly primitive pod computer. It didn’t even bother saying hello, but he did get it to run a diagnostic on the pod’s thrusters.

“Can…I…help…?” Volka asked again, her teeth chattering. “You…must…get…cold…”

At her words, a warning light went off, telling him that he was losing power to his thermoregulatory processors and Libertas’s higher gravity. Another light flashed behind his eyes, advising him to seek shelter immediately. “I do,” he replied.

“Then…I should…help,” she managed between chatters. 6T9 remembered Judah at the Kanakah Gate. “Are you all right, sir?” Both Volka and Judah were from the most AI adverse planet in the galaxy, yet they treated him with the concern they’d give a human. Judah maybe only because he didn’t realize what 6T9 was, but Volka knew. Maybe she just didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to show concern for a ‘bot?

She attempted to get up, but 6T9 held up a hand. “It’s…I’m not exactly comfortable. The lights behind my eyes are very annoying.”

Her brow furrowed in confusion, and he realized she couldn’t know what he was talking about.

The ancient pod computer finished the diagnostic and revealed where the thruster damage was. His Q-comm sparked. He took off the spent hover pack. It was deadweight. His ether connection to it told him that he couldn’t recharge it; the internal circuitry had been fried. He remembered the stunners in his coat and took them out, and then he held the coat out to Volka. “But I’m fine. Put this behind you.”

She stared at the coat dubiously.

“If you die, Volka, it will—”

Her eyes lifted to his.

“I will have failed,” he said. Snow began falling faster.

Carl Sagan added, “Volka, you are the only other pair of opposable thumbs I can use to help save Sundancer if something happens to 6T9. Listen to him.”

6T9 blinked. Was that what they were to the alien? Just a pair of opposable thumbs?

Instead of looking perturbed, Volka’s eyes went wide, and her head fell into her hands. “Oh…she is so alone…” Her breathing came in sharp gasps, too strong to be accounted for by the relative lack of oxygen in the atmosphere.

“She’s waiting for us to rescue her,” Carl said. “Can you feel it?”

“Yes,” Volka exclaimed. “I can feel that…now…oh…”

Her voice was rapturous. 6T9 did scowl. He wasn’t seeing any visions, but apparently Carl and Volka were. Listening to them describe the experience he wasn’t part of, and couldn’t have, he had the same sort of dimness in his neural networks that he used to have when he watched humans eat.

“You’re not transmitting Sundancer’s visions to me,” 6T9 said to the werfle and couldn’t help hearing the accusatory tone in his voice.

“Aren’t you busy with something?” Carl asked.

6T9 rolled his eyes, but he heard phaser fire and the roar of starfighters in the distance and engaged the thrusters. They didn’t have enough power for lift, but the pod shot forward.

Sitting in front of him, Volka turned back. “You told me you get cold.”

6T9 shrugged, busy surveying the sensors.

She lowered the blanket and set Carl beside her.

“Hey, it’s cold!” the werfle protested.

“You’re the only one here with a proper fur coat,” Volka scolded.

Scooting on her knees toward 6T9, eyes averted the whole time, she said, “I have an idea to keep us all warm.”

6T9 was too busy adjusting the boost as the grade increased to respond.

Volka draped his coat over his back, and then, turning around, she scooted so her back was to his chest and her body was between his legs. She called Carl Sagan to her lap and then adjusted the blanket over the three of them. In a business-like tone, she said, “We can all share the blanket this way.”

Her body was too stiff, and she was obviously uncomfortable with the gesture. Oddly, it affected him more, and he had a very unfortunate urge to kiss her behind the ears. In the background, starfighters roared, and he heard explosions. He closed his eyes, saw through the pod’s primitive sensors, and guided them down the chasm.

Starship Waking

Skidding down through the chasm, Volka wasn’t sure if she felt Libertas’s .19 extra G, or if she was just weighed down by sustained terror. It did seem that the pod slid faster than it should, but she didn’t know if that was just her imagination. She wasn’t warm except for where she held Carl Sagan on her lap, and where her back pressed to 6T9. Her arms were cold, her legs were cold, and her face was cold, even though she kept it tucked beneath the thermal blanket. The chill crept in everywhere at the edges.

She’d read in her paperbacks that the first sign of hypothermia was feeling warm, so she supposed that she was glad she was uncomfortable.

Being uncomfortable made her feel like she wasn’t just in a dream. She was riding down a mountain in an escape pod with a robot—or android, or sex ‘bot, or cybernetic consort that she’d mistook for an angel. There was a werfle on her lap that could speak into her mind. All the strangeness of it made it much easier to believe that there was a starship that might be an alien or a robot, and the ship was speaking directly to her heart.

In the real world, if she opened her eyes, she’d see only the shadow of her knees, but she was in the grip of a powerful, yet slightly ghostly daydream. In the daydream, a slightly amorphous Carl Sagan was still in her arms, but she was standing. They were in a room with a floor and ceiling of glowing mother-of-pearl, and a wall of windows overlooking icy blue moons orbiting what was, from her paperback science fiction education, a gas giant. The planet was brilliant orange and red surrounded by sparkling rings. On her left, there were two suns. It was very different from the nightmares of darkness—more tentative, and not as consuming. The images were slightly translucent, and if Volka turned her head too quickly, the scene got muddy and faded. In her arms, Carl explained, “Like human dreams, Sundancer’s are hazy around the edges, but this is a real place. This is Sundancer’s interior and this is a place she wants to take us.”

Volka scratched him behind the ears and felt tears prickle her eyes. “I know.”

The starship didn’t talk, but Volka felt its emotions deep in her gut. The ship longed for them. Sundancer was afraid they wouldn’t make it, and the ship wondered if Carl Sagan and Volka were only dreams conjured up to soothe its own loneliness.

We’re real, Volka willed the ship to feel. She was consumed by the sensation Mr. Darmadi said was known as “flow” among the ancients. It was the experience of being so in the moment, so doing something rightly, that time broke down and you felt out of your body. She felt flow when she was painting or drawing sometimes, and sometimes even at church when she was deep in prayer. She had it when Sundancer touched her heart. It made her feel as though Sundancer was as real as the pod, the snow, the air that didn’t smell or taste right, that didn’t seem to fill her lungs quite the way Luddeccean air did, and as real as 6T9’s chest against her back.

She heard the thruster sputtering, and a scent wafted beneath the blanket that made her ears perk in real life. In the room among the stars, she whispered into Carl Sagan’s ears, “There is something new out there. It smells…dried.” Like hay in the fall, something that had been green and alive, but wasn’t anymore.

Carl Sagan lifted his nose. “Yes,” he said.

“We must go, Sundancer,” Volka said. Nothing happened.

In her arms, Carl said, “You must feel your meaning, Volka, if you want Sundancer to understand. Words are too small.”

Taking a deep breath, Volka let herself feel the importance of going, the necessity of it, her worry that if she didn’t pay attention, she might not be able to come back.

“Very good!” Carl exclaimed.

The room among the stars disappeared, and she saw the werfle in her lap and the light creeping beneath the edges of the thermal blanket. Carl bobbed in her lap. “Very good! Very good, Volka. 6T9, I might turn her into a true empath!”

Behind her, all 6T9 said was, “We’re almost at the tree line. Such as it is.”

Volka lifted her head from the blanket, sending snow that had accumulated on top sliding to her feet. She blinked in Libertas’s strange light. The snow was so thick, she couldn’t even see the sides of the chasm, or judge the position of the sun. Squinting, she was able to make out a blue-gray shadow ahead. A few moments later, they coasted by what looked like a stick stuck in the snow, but might have been a scraggly looking tree, barely taller than Volka. If it had leaves, she couldn’t see them, just peeling blueish bark. They coasted by another, and then another. The trees got gradually taller, and she began to see patches of red earth here and there. The ground was getting more level. They weren’t going to be able to coast much longer, even if the snow kept up.

She’d barely thought that when the thruster at the back of the pod sputtered and died. The pod began to slow. Her ears swiveled, and she lifted her head, catching a new scent in the breeze, and wondered if she was imagining it.

“It won’t restart,” 6T9 said. “It’s out of power.”

At his words, the pod scratched to a halt on rocky, just barely snow-covered ground.

Volka sniffed again. The air was so cold it made her feel like the interior of her nose was freezing. But the scent was there—no, not scent, scents…She began to picture a world beyond the curtain of snow.

“I smell it, too,” Carl Sagan said.

Behind her, 6T9 shifted. “Volka, the temperature has dropped eleven degrees since we began and it isn’t even nightfall. Even if we turn the pod over to take shelter from the snow…” She could tell his head had dropped at those last words, because his breath tickled her behind her ears and warmed the crown of her head. She flicked her ears, not comfortable with how good the sensation felt, or just how good sitting with him and trusting him felt.

He exhaled heavily and said, “I’m worried that you won’t survive the night. Maybe if I gathered wood, I could start a fire.” He sounded miserable, and she blinked in confusion.

“He can’t smell it,” Carl said.

“I have excellent chemical receptors,” 6T9 said. “I can smell.”

Volka blinked again. She almost said, “You have the sense of smell of a human,” but caught herself.

“We smell fire, roasting meat, and humans,” said the werfle.

“And weere,” said Volka, her ears perking. She couldn’t hear them yet though, and she didn’t recognize the meat. It didn’t smell like any Luddeccean animal or imported Earth animal she’d ever eaten, but it made her lick her lips. The dull S-ration 6T9 had given her earlier had mostly just made her stomach ache and made her feel hungrier.

Setting Carl down, she stood, pulled on her backpack with the S-rations, water, sketchbooks, wrapped the thermal blanket around herself, and hopped out of the pod.

“Wait,” said 6T9, “shouldn’t we think this through?”

“We’ll think about it as we go,” said Carl, hopping after her.

Inhaling the frigid air, Volka licked her lips again. It was red meat, definitely.

6T9 grumbled but climbed out of the pod, leaving the stunners and the strange pack he always wore behind. He immediately crouched beside the pod, put his hands beneath it, and tipped it over an instant later. Wiping his hands, he explained, “Snow will accumulate on it and hopefully disguise it from above.”

It was a good idea, and Volka should have said so, but all she could do was nod. He’d pulled the cord out of his temple, but his skin hadn’t fastened together quite right. He looked like he was melting, like a picture in one of the Surrealistic paintings in the forbidden Earth art history books that Mr. Darmadi wasn’t supposed to have. She lifted her hand. “Your face…”

“It’s not on right?” he asked, and managed to smooth it in all the wrong places.

“Let me,” she ventured.

6T9 bowed toward her, his eyes on the ground. Clutching the thermal blanket with one hand, Volka gently smoothed out the wrinkles in his skin, or whatever it was, with the other. Whatever-it-was was warm, like true flesh.

6T9’s eyes had slipped closed, and maybe that was why, just for an instant, she found herself staring at him. He really was handsome, and despite the lingering scent of metal and plastic, he still smelled good and was warm. It gave her the urge to lean closer. She quickly backed away.

“You look human now,” she said, gripping the edges of the thermal blanket tighter.

Straightening, 6T9 met her gaze. Robot eyes were supposed to glow. They didn’t. They were a lovely brown that bordered on hazel, with flecks of gold and green. His lips weren’t too full or too narrow, his nose was straight, but not too long or too sharp. And his cheekbones might have been chiseled from stone. She decided that he didn’t look human; he was too perfect.

A sound behind her made her ears swivel and her breath leave her in a cloud.

Thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk-a-thunk.

“Hoofbeats!” Carl whispered in her mind.

Volka spun and smelled something alive, vital, and delicious. She knew somehow it would taste better than rats or lizzar. Her mouth watered and she smacked her lips. “What is—?”

A man’s voice spoke from behind a tree not twenty paces away. “Hands above yer heads!”


18

Liberty

6T9 glanced at Volka, looking for a sign of how she wanted this to play out. He was running low on power again and the stunners were exhausted. He really shouldn’t have tipped the pod over by himself; it had required superhuman strength. Her amber eyes met his. She loosened her fingers, and the thermal blanket fell, making a pool of silver at her feet. Nodding at 6T9, she raised her hands and slowly turned around. He followed her lead.

A human man edged from the trees, a rifle upraised. 6T9’s Q-comm hummed, trying to analyze the unfamiliar make. Data glowed in his mind. The highest probability was that it was a projectile weapon of local manufacture, not a phaser rifle. The man aimed it briefly at Volka, but then aimed it at 6T9’s head. His calculations put the man’s aim at perfect. A direct hit to the head…well, he could be repaired, but not here.

He began downloading data on the culture of the people of Libertas. Libertas was Luddeccea’s less-habitable cousin: colder, with higher gravity, lower oxygen, and poisonous plant life. It was settled originally by Luddecceans who weren’t happy with Luddeccean rule, but according to Galactic records, after Revelation the Libertians gave up their autonomy for food aid and protection from a potential AI incursion. So, not friends of his—but thanks to Volka’s ministrations, he’d pass for human. She wouldn’t, though. Remembering how Judah, who’d been so nice to him, had called weere monsters, 6T9’s jaw ticked, and his fingers flexed above his head.

The man edged closer. 6T9 could not read his expression. A scarf covered his face and his hat was pulled down to the rim of the snow goggles covering his eyes. He was slightly shorter than 6T9. His body was hidden beneath formless winter attire, but 6T9 guessed that it wasn’t just an illusion of winter padding that made the man appear broad and muscular. Humans who were raised on above standard grav planets tended to be strong.

A communicator at his hip crackled with a child’s voice. “Father, did you find the calves?”

The wind shifted, and the child on the comm said, “I smell you. I’m coming.” The sound of hoofbeats grew louder.

Carl trotted toward the man, but the stranger shoved him away with a foot.

“He’s too frightened for me to influence,” said Carl.

Of them? One of 6T9’s eyebrows hiked.

Volka said softly, “We mean you no harm.”

“But you’ll bring it to me, won’t cha?” said the man.

Not lowering the rifle, he said, “Move!” and indicated the direction they’d been going to begin with. Would the man shoot them outright? Or give them a room for the night and then turn them over to the Guard to be tortured and then killed? He looked to Volka. She met his eyes again and shivered. In fear or only cold, he couldn’t tell. Obeying the man, she turned around and began trudging along. 6T9 followed, tracking their captor’s movements in his mind.

They’d gone thirty point three meters when a shadow appeared in the gloom. At first, 6T9 thought it was some sort of alien life form with four thin legs, a thick body, and a disproportionately thick neck, all capped off with multi-pronged horns. But as the shadow drew closer, 6T9 realized it was a weere girl, riding on an Earth reindeer. Above her scarf, she had humanish brown eyes that weren’t lined with black like Volka’s. Her wolf ears were very small and close to her head, covered by orangish brown velvet at the tips and filled with cream-colored fur on the inside. Locks of long red hair blew from beneath her hat.

“Father,” the girl said. “Who are—?”

“Get your mother,” the man said, “And bring Uncle Dean, too. We’ll be following your footsteps.”

The girl’s eyes traveled over 6T9 and Volka and then went to her father’s rifle. Nodding, she turned her reindeer around and kicked her heels into its sides. Within moments, she’d disappeared into the veil of snow. Volka watched the girl go—or more precisely, her mount. 6T9’s eyebrows rose as she licked her lips.

“Keep walking!” said the man.

They’d only gone a few more steps when Volka’s teeth started to chatter. Human discomfort that wasn’t part of desired sexual scenarios made sex ‘bots uncomfortable. Easing his arms down, 6T9 protested, “At least let me give her my coat!”

A few feet off in the gloom, Carl Sagan’s tail thrashed madly. “Don’t get yourself maimed or Volka killed.”

“Make another move, and I’ll blow a hole straight through your back,” the man said in response. And then the man said in a softer voice, “It’s not far.”

“I’ll…be…all right…” Volka chattered, tromping through the forest.

Four hundred thirty meters later, an alarm was ringing in 6T9’s head, telling him to power up now, and that Volka might be close to hypothermia, again—but just before he spoke, Volka lifted her nose and started sniffing the air. A moment later, 6T9’s receptors picked up the chemical signature of roasting meat and Earth evergreen trees. He could see nothing, though; the snowfall was too heavy. A few paces more, and the forest changed from native trees to Earth spruce and aspens. Here and there, where the ground was protected by their branches, he saw patches of dark black soil. A few paces more, and he made out the shapes of several buildings.

Footsteps sounded in the cloud of snow. The reindeer rider appeared, along with two adult weere, a male and female, who were on foot. The woman had pigmentation around her eyes, wolf ears, and short hair like Volka. But her hair and the velvet on her ears was black. Her eyes were light gray, and her skin was startlingly pale. The weere man looked very similar, just taller and a little broader—the woman’s sibling, perhaps? And was he the man their captor had described as “Uncle Dean?”

A light that had been flashing orange in 6T9’s vision, warning him that he was running out of power, stopped flashing and changed to red. His hands started to shake.

The woman said, “Fionna shouldn’t have seen them.”

“Fionna is a smart girl and will keep her mouth shut,” said their captor, rifle still aimed at 6T9’s back.

The woman tilted her head and her ears flattened. To their captor, she said, “I don’t like this, Darragh.”

“Neither do I,” Darragh replied. “But I don’t like a lot of things.”

Carl Sagan slunk around 6T9’s legs. “Remember how I said Libertas was safer? I take it back. Something is wrong here.”

Ears flicking madly, the woman frowned. Her eyes traveled over Volka, narrowed on 6T9, and then she sniffed the air.

The weere man sniffed the air, too, and gave 6T9 a strange look. He turned to the girl and said, “Go stay with Tuyet.”

As the girl turned her mount away, the strange woman said, “Get them into the greenhouse before they freeze.”

The man with the rifle barked, “Follow Dean.”

The black-haired weere man led them to a wooden door set in the side of a plastic-frame building. He opened it and warm air rolled out in a wave along with the distinct odors that made 6T9’s Q-comm hum. His chem receptors detected the signatures of Earth soils and fermented feces of several species—reindeer, pigs, and fowl birds—some was even human, though 6T9 detected no threatening odors of Clostridium difficile, Salmonella typhi, or Vibrio cholerae.

Volka hesitated, nose wrinkling.

“Luddecceans,” hissed the woman. “Get in there, girl, if you know what’s good for you.”

Darragh nudged 6T9 hard enough in the back that he stumbled forward. Carl zipped by their feet. Volka’s brow furrowed, and she entered, 6T9 and their captors behind her.

They were in a dark store room with gardening tools. 6T9’s sensors put it as not much above freezing—before he could worry about the implications of that, Dean walked ahead of them, opened a second door, and waved them through. Volka and 6T9 stepped into the greenhouse proper. There were full-spectrum ultraviolet lights on either side of them and rows of aquaponic tanks. Closer to the windows were stacked beds of other plants in soil. 6T9 didn’t have to use his Q-comm to recognize the plants; they were common enough in space gardens and he’d seen them many times: potatoes and beans in the soil rows, greens in the aquaponic tanks. In the middle of the room, surrounded by a circle of flat reddish stones, was a wood burning stove. 6T9’s mouth watered, anticipating the heat of the stove, and he stumbled toward it. If he could take off his coat and wrap his arms around the oven…His Q-comm hummed, reminding him that if he did that, they’d know what he was and shoot him.

Poking 6T9 with the rifle, Darragh said, “Turn around.”

Vision tunneling with the need for power, and too tired to think properly, 6T9 did. Standing with his back to the stove and coat on, 6T9 wasn’t warming fast enough. His arms started to fall.

“Move again and I’ll shoot!” said the man with the rifle.

Closing his eyes, 6T9 sent more power to his arms—they stayed aloft, but his legs gave out. Stones bit at his knees, but his internal sensors had gone dark and he had no idea how much power he had left.

“Sixty!” Volka cried at the same time the man shouted, “don’t move!”

6T9 felt Volka wrap her arms around him. “What’s wrong?” she whispered.

Over the ether, he tried to tell her, “I’m out of power,” and to admonish her for ignoring the man’s orders, but she had no ethernet channel. She could hear Carl Sagan through true telepathy, according to Carl—but she had no ethernet and couldn’t hear wireless channels. She couldn’t hear him.

“He’s cold!” Volka shouted up at the men. “Let me take him over to the stove at least.”

He heard Darragh’s heavy footsteps approaching in front of him and the cock of a pistol to his right. The world was swaying, as though the gravity was fluctuating.

“Enough,” shouted Dean, somewhere far away. “You will let us search you both for weapons and then we’ll leave you alone.”

Volka must have complied because her arms left his shoulders. 6T9’s energy gave out and he slumped against her. He heard the strange woman say, “Give me your pack, girl,” and then “Luddeccean credits, a lot of ‘em, all covered in werfle barf…What’s this?”

“It’s my sketchbook…please…take the credits, but let me keep that,” Volka replied.

“Could be code,” said the weere man. His voice was very close to 6T9, which is when he realized he was getting patted down, too.

“It’s not,” Volka protested. “It’s all I have from my old life.”

The woman snorted. “What are you two? A weere maid and some pretty counselor’s boy eloping?”

“He’s got a stunner on him,” said the weere man. 6T9 couldn’t see at all anymore, and he didn’t know if he was up or down. His chemical receptors were offline; he no longer smelled anything. He felt the weere man withdraw the power pack from his side. “What’s that? Some sort of gel pack for injuries?”

“But why the attached power cord?” Darragh asked.

And then he felt the weere man pull out Eliza’s ashes. “What the hell?”

Eyes opening—though he hadn’t realized he’d closed them—6T9 sat up—though he didn’t remember when he’d lied down. Every power monitor in his body was screaming, lights were flashing at the periphery of his vision, but he saw Eliza’s ashes in the weere man’s hands, and the weere man preparing to unzip the packet. “No!” 6T9 screamed.

The world went black.

Starship Waking

Volka’s heart stopped when Sixty screamed. The veins—or whatever looked like veins in his forehead—and neck were popping out, and his tone was one of pure agony. How could a robot sound so emotionally wracked? Was it a trick by Sixty, or a trick on Sixty—had he been fooled by his makers into believing he had emotions?

The weere woman holding Volka’s backpack dropped it on the floor and Luddeccean credits jangled on the stones.

Dean, the weere man holding one of the strange packages she’d felt in Sixty’s coat earlier, stared at Sixty, eyes wide and shocked.

And then Sixty slumped backward. Volka just barely caught him before his head hit the floor.

“What’s in it?” Darragh asked Dean.

The weere man opened the package and sniffed. “Ashes…” he murmured.

“Could dump ‘em on the plants,” said the human man.

Remembering 6T9’s scream, Volka silently prayed, “Dear God, don’t let him spill those ashes.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Carl in Volka’s mind, trotting toward Dean.

Volka couldn’t address the werfle’s blasphemy. Holding out a hand, fingers outstretched, she said aloud, “No, please—”

The female weere grumbled, “What are they?”

Darragh edged closer to the weere woman. The human man was the weere woman’s lover, and the father of the half-weere girl Volka had seen earlier—she’d determined all of that by smell. There was a half-weere here—did they know that was extraordinary?

Shaking her head, Volka replied, “I don’t know. But they’re important to him.” What could they be? What could make a robot feel agony? Her curiosity was suddenly as strong as their captors.

Dean snorted.

“Squeak,” said Carl Sagan at Dean’s feet.

Dean’s ears flicked as though he was being nagged by a bug.

Darragh took off his gloves and hat, revealing shocking red hair like the half-weere girl’s. Volka’s eyes caught on the gleam of a single band on the ring finger of his left hand. The woman took off her own gloves, and Volka’s mouth fell open. The weere woman wore a matching ring. They were married? Legally?

Perhaps seeing the direction of her eyes, the weere woman said gruffly, “We don’t care who you love here, woman. This is Libertas.” Her lips curled. “But you’ve brought a heap of trouble down on us.”

“If trouble comes to us, it may not come to other places, Bridgette,” said Darragh softly.

Those words made Dean turn toward them.

Bridgette’s ears flattened fearfully, but she said, “We should talk outside.” To the man who was her brother by the smell of him, Bridgette said, “Dean, come too.”

Dean looked down at the packet of ashes, zipped it up, threw it at the unconscious 6T9, and stomped away. Darragh opened the door to the store room, and Volka was hit by a rush of frigid air. “If you leave, you’ll die,” Dean said, and with that, they left.

“What happened to Sixty?” Volka whispered to the werfle.

Carl eyed the robot leaning against her. “He stopped answering his ethernet hails a few minutes before he collapsed. I think he’s out of power.” Carl replied.

“What do we do?” Volka asked.

Standing on his hind limbs, he gestured with a paw. “Get him as close to the stove as you can—”

Volka stood up and managed to drag 6T9’s surprisingly heavy body over the stones to the stove. “Now what?” she asked.

Swishing his tail, Carl Sagan said, “Open up his coat and take off his boots. At this point, they’re keeping heat out.”

Volka did as instructed. Lifting 6T9’s torso so his chest was facing the stove, Volka sat behind him, letting his weight press against her. Her ears flicked. She could detect no sound of machinery within him. It made her feel unaccountably sad, although he wasn’t real like Carl or she were, no matter how real he appeared to be, or even thought he was.

She glanced at Carl Sagan. The werfle was staring at her through narrowed eyes. Remembering what he’d said earlier, she said, “I know you’re not a god.”

Licking a paw, Carl replied, “No, I am not. I have on occasion inhabited the body of a cat. Do you know what a cat is?”

When Volka nodded in the affirmative, the werfle continued, “Cats were worshipped as Gods thousands of years ago on Earth.” He leaned toward her. “Would you believe they still remember?”

“I’d think a real cat would be too stupid to conceive of such a thing,” Volka said.

Dropping the paw, Carl Sagan swished his tail. “Like most beings, they’re quite capable of conceiving that which they wish to believe.”

Volka’s brow furrowed. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“What do you think it is supposed to mean?”

Volka huffed. “Can’t you do something more useful than talk in riddles? Like find out what Bridgette, Dean, and Darragh are talking about?” Her eyes went to the backpack, and she scowled. Bridgette hadn’t taken anything—not her sketchbook or Volka’s credits.

Stretching, Carl replied, “They’ve moved too far away.” The hair rose on the back of his neck, and his tail swished madly. “I only know that they’re angry—and I need to sleep.” Slinking over to 6T9’s feet, he plopped down by the stove. “When he wakes up, ask him what the ashes are.” With that, he yawned and closed his eyes.

Volka looked down at the unconscious robot in her arms. He was warm. His natural—or unnatural—scent was masked by the reek of feces in the plant house…but he probably smelled better than her. She smelled like fear and probably like vomit. He was shimmering slightly where the heat touched his skin, and he did look like the angel she’d first mistook him for.

She had a feeling that she didn’t want to know what the ashes were. Not at all.

Starship Waking

6T9’s consciousness came back slowly. First, he heard a heartbeat. Next, he saw light behind his eyes. As his systems came online, his eyelids fluttered open, his fingers flexed, and he found himself facing the wood burning stove in the greenhouse. His upper torso was leaning against something soft. Carl was asleep at his feet. His power was still low, but it was increasing rather than decreasing. He must have shut down.

“Sixty?” Volka whispered, her lips close to his ear.

Every centimeter of his skin touching a surface lit instantly. He was leaning against Volka. His head was against her shoulder, his shoulders against her breast, his torso against her legs. He glanced down. Her slender arms were resting on his chest. Though his coat was gone, they were both dressed…still, his touch receptors danced where their bodies met, and his body hummed with fulfillment. He wanted to focus on the sensation, but knew whatever caused his shut down could be putting them both at risk. He accessed his databanks, and the events before played back. “Eliza’s ashes,” he said, trying to sit up and falling back down again.

“I have them,” Volka said. “They’re safe.”

Grimacing, 6T9 twisted a quarter way around, trying to find them, needing to verify the statement for himself.

“Wait, wait…” Volka murmured, and a moment later put the packet in his hands.

Closing his eyes, 6T9 exhaled and lay back against the weere woman, Eliza’s ashes on his stomach. The sensation of fulfillment gradually returned.

In the stove, a log cracked, and 6T9 spied sparks dancing behind its iron grate. His touch receptors were sparking just as happily.

He heard Volka swallow, and then she asked, “Who was Eliza?”

“My lover.”

Volka’s body stiffened at his answer, and he smiled bitterly. He’d heard many times that humans couldn’t really love machines, especially sex ‘bots. The general consensus in the galaxy was that sex ‘bots weren’t anything but toys at best, mindless slaves at worst. But he had not been mindless at the end, and lovers was the right word for what he and Eliza were, even if, by that point their physical intimacy had been mostly platonic in nature. “She gave me my Q-comm,” he said defensively and then realized that was only gibberish to Volka. So, he explained. “The Q-comm is my brain, basically. It allows me to understand things like idioms and metaphors, make inferences, learn without a download, and understand what I feel.” He glanced at her hands and her dark gray and silver nails. His Q-comm gave him the ability to understand that the pigment was natural, and more. He knew that her arms around him, and her body supporting him, were platonic gestures, and that if he pushed for anything more, he’d lose those small comforts. “Without it, I am about as dumb as a box of hammers.”

“He really is,” Carl supplied.

“Thank you for that,” 6T9 said.

Rolling onto his back, Carl flexed his claws in the air. “I’m here for you.”

“She sounds like an…interesting person,” Volka said.

Lips turning up wryly at the careful choice of adjectives, 6T9 said, “Eliza didn’t want me to be dismembered and fed to a furnace or used for parts. She risked her life for me to be free. She’s why I agreed to help Carl Sagan find Sundancer—”

“The space ship that feels,” Volka whispered.

6T9 shrugged. “I can’t feel what the ship feels, but it doesn’t matter. Eliza saved me from destruction. I have to save Sundancer because that is what Eliza would do.” It sounded farfetched to his own ears, and yet…it struck him that this was the first time in a long while that he was being touched without credits being thrown around. As simple as the touch was, he was happy, even though his power reserves were low, and even though he wanted more. Giving in, 6T9 brought his hand up and covered Volka’s with it. Squeezing gently, he asked softly, “Is there anything important I missed while I was out?” Closing his eyes, he threaded his fingers between hers. She didn’t pull away; instead, she dropped her head so that her breath tickled his neck.

“Not really. I don’t know what they’re going to do with us. They’ve left us in this room that reeks like…like…shit…and I think it cannot be good.” She squeezed his hand and he felt her tremble.

She was obviously terrified. He should be extremely concerned—and he was. At the same time, she wasn’t terrified of him and that made his processors hum and his circuits light. Idly stroking her fingers—well, perhaps not completely idly—his touch receptors were delighting in the friction between their skin—6T9 tried to reassure her. Q-comm warming with a download, he said, “The soil on Libertas is toxic to Earth plants, and the native vegetation is toxic to Earth animals. Libertians have carefully cultivated their biological and decomposable wastes since initial settlement to create agricultural safe zones.” The chemical structures of the toxic compounds played behind his eyelids, as well as the exact concentrations tolerable to every native Earth species. He blinked and added, “In smaller dosages, the toxin produced create Earth plants that are more nutritious, higher in antioxidants, and natural antibiotics. How fascinating. I wonder what their flavor profiles are like.”

Volka pulled back and he scrunched his eyes shut. Damnable data dumps.

“They’re coming,” Volka whispered.

6T9 struggled to get up.

Volka added hastily, “They think you are my man.”

… and his body all but shut down. The advantage computers had over human brains was the ability to run multiple scenarios at the same time, usually, very, very, quickly. The words “you are my man” had 6T9’s computer at the other end of his Q-comm running a great many scenarios wherein he established the authenticity of himself as Volka’s man with various acts of physical intimacy. Unfortunately, he could not run the scenarios quickly because his original programming was interfering, slowing each scenario down, replaying it, and adjusting the angles, positions, and the zoom.

His auditory apparatus registered the sound of footsteps, the rush of cold air, the slam of the door, heavy footfalls, and a rifle pressed against his chest, but 6T9 could not move.

Starship Waking

“Get up!” Darragh shouted at Sixty, the barrel of his rifle pressed against the robot’s chest. Volka’s heart raced. Sixty was leaning against her, his eyes were focused on a point on the ceiling, and his expression was rapt—although, there was something disturbing about it. It took a moment for her to realize that he wasn’t blinking.

Darragh nudged him with the rifle and shouted, “Get up!”

Sixty didn’t move.

Volka’s mind raced. Should she try to steal the rifle and turn it on Darragh? Could she fire it? She swallowed. She didn’t want to. Darragh smelled like fear, not hate. She thought of the easy way the human had talked with Dean and his obvious bond to Bridgette and of their child.

The Libertian looked at Volka. “What’s wrong with him?”

“What isn’t wrong with him?” Carl snipped silently into her mind.

“Carl!” Volka said, aghast.

Darragh shoved the rifle at Volka’s shoulder, and she threw her hands in the air. Sixty’s body jerked up with alarming speed. Bridgette gasped. Tilting his head with a too-sharp motion, Sixty declared, “You can point that at me again.” Darragh swung the rifle around to the robot’s chest. Sixty’s body relaxed, thankfully making him appear human again. Eyeing the barrel, he muttered, “Ah…wonderful.”

Exhaling a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, Volka’s body sagged.

“Move, both of you,” Darragh ordered, indicating the door with his chin.

Grabbing her pack, Volka climbed to her feet along with Sixty. The inner door opened again, admitting Bridgette and a gust of frigid air.

Halting, Sixty ventured, “Where are you taking us?”

“No questions!” Darragh barked.

Sixty didn’t move. Neither did Volka. Trying to steal Darragh’s rifle was becoming more and more appealing.

Bridgette looked between the two of them and said, “You’d best move if you know what’s good for you.”

“The cold isn’t good for us, madam,” Sixty said.

“Eh,” said Carl, stretching himself by the stove. “They’re just taking us to the barn.”

Bridgette’s ears twitched and she started looking around the greenhouse—hearing voices and trying to decide if she was going crazy, Volka suspected.

“To kill Volka—and me?” Sixty asked aloud.

Trotting over to them, Carl squeaked. “Oh, no, they don’t want to kill you. They have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of a pair of Luddeccean weere-human lovers, really. Though Bridgette—”

“Who said my name?” The weere woman asked, looking around nervously.

“Is as curmudgeonly as this werfle’s body,” Carl Sagan continued. “They heard the phaser fire earlier. They know you’re trouble, but want to send you on your way and claim ignorance when the Guard inevitably come to question them.”

Bridgette’s ears flicked madly. “Darragh, did you hear something?”

Volka blinked at Sixty. He blinked back. His eyelids were working again, and she smiled in relief. His own lips curled up at the side, and her chest clenched. He didn’t look happy, he looked cautiously happy, like he was afraid to be too hopeful. The expression was so subtle, the emotion it hinted at so precise, it was frightening. She looked away, face heating.

Darragh shoved Sixty with the rifle, and Bridgette said, “Look, we aren’t gonna hurt ya.”

“We’ll come with you,” said Volka, walking toward the door, pack on her back, credits and sketchbook within, Carl Sagan at her heels, and Sixty behind her.

Moments later, they were stepping out into the Libertian night. It was so cold, Volka’s skin felt like it was burning. The snow was falling fast and hard, and the flakes felt like pin pricks. She couldn’t see past Bridgette’s back a pace in front of her, but she could smell where they were going easily enough—hay, animals, and fresh excrement. When they entered the barn through another double door entrance, and the full force of the odors hit her, she was just grateful to be out of the cold.

The barn was a large building—four times the size of Volka’s house—and set into a hill by the looks of the roots creeping out of the sod wall on three sides. Bridgette led them past chickens and pigs in small cages. There were goats wandering through the aisle, which is why Volka didn’t see their transport until they almost stepped on it.

For a minute, she thought it was a car without wheels, and then Dean opened a door that lifted up like an insect wing. Eyes going wide, Volka took in the “bumper” that ran all the way around the “car” and exclaimed, “It’s a hover!”

Dean grinned. “Yeah, the Luddeccean fanatics didn’t confiscate them all when they took over.”

“It’s over a hundred years old,” said Sixty.

Dean’s grin turned triumphant. “Still runs, though!” He opened a second hatch and gestured for them to enter.

Volka only stared. Personal hovers were banned on Luddeccea. “But we don’t have a priest to make sure it doesn’t develop a will of its own! It could…could…explode on us…”

Carl Sagan dashed past her ankles, took the seat next to the driver, and blinked up at her.

“Do you really want to worry about that now…darling?” Sixty said, his tone dry.

She looked at him with wide eyes. He was pinching the bridge of his nose. If she hadn’t seen his metal skeleton, she wouldn’t guess he wasn’t human. She thought that those subtle emotions made him more dangerous than a possibly exploding hover.

Dean patted the top of the vehicle. “Don’t worry. If I thought this thing had a mind of its own, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill it.”

Dropping his hand, Sixty smiled ruefully. “That’s reassuring,” he said.

Volka swallowed. Maybe priests were right, and robots were only programmed to have emotions, and maybe that wasn’t the same as being born with them. She still wanted to tell him she was sorry for her alarm and Dean’s comment. If someone looked like they were suffering, didn’t it diminish you not to treat them as though they were in pain?

Biting her lip, she took 6T9’s hand. It was cold—from their walk, she supposed. He met her gaze but didn’t smile this time. She did. It would help the facade of a weere-human couple, she told herself. She pulled him with her as she climbed into the hover.

A few minutes later, they were zipping through a cloud of snow, and Dean was explaining, “They let us keep these things I think because they were afraid we’d revolt, and because the terrain is so rocky and there are so few roads. And the ones that we have are buried most of the year.”

There was too much snow for Volka to see the “rocky terrain,” but the hover did abruptly rise and lower now and then.

“I’ve got a friend in town who runs the local inn,” Dean said. “He’s discreet and doesn’t love the Luddeccean Guard. He’ll hole you up until the next magni-freight train passes by in the morning.”

Volka’s heart beat double quick. “They’ll know you helped us.”

Dean barked, “Eh, we were just being Good Samaritans.”

Volka swallowed, remembering Joseph’s, Esther’s, and Myra’s bodies and the newborn who didn’t even have a name. “They won’t hurt your family for…for…being married and having a baby?”

Dean growled. “Not if they don’t want every Libertian to rise up and revolt. Some of the Guard posted locally would probably join in—there are some that’s got weere families in secret, though it’s much frowned upon, and you wouldn’t see many mixed couples in the capital.” He shook his head. “Never been enough human women to go around here. When the Luddecceans shipped some of our kind to help with the terraforming here, nature took its course.”

Like in a car, the hover had a rearview mirror, and Volka met Dean’s eyes in the reflection. And then the other weere glanced down—he was looking at her and Sixty’s joined hands. She hadn’t realized how tightly she’d begun to grip Sixty’s fingers when she’d thought of her murdered friends. Her knuckles were white, and her nails were biting into his skin. She glanced at Sixty. His gaze was on their fingers, too, his expression somber, the tilt of his head too—rigid. She eased her grip but didn’t let go…for appearances. She looked back up, and knew Dean was smiling goofily just by the way his eyes were crinkled in the corners in the reflection. No weere man on Luddeccea would smile at a human man and weere woman.

“How long until the Luddeccean Guard arrive at this town you’re taking us to?” 6T9 asked.

“I expect it will be a few days. They won’t want to brave the blizzard,” Dean replied confidently.

6T9 frowned. “You’re braving it.”

The world blackened at the edges, and Volka had the sensation of darkness crawling into her ears and nose. It was inevitable…hopeless…Volka’s heart stopped—

“Carl!” Sixty snapped aloud.

“Sorry,” the werfle said—or thought.

Volka blinked. Her vision came back, and she realized that the hover had stopped. Dean was staring out at the snow, an expression of shock on his face. And then he scratched behind an ear, shook his head, and the hover accelerated again. In the mirror, though, Volka saw a furrow had appeared between Dean’s brows. “But we’re in the valley, this—” He waved to the snow around them. “—is nothing like what it’s like in the mountains. They’d have to come from over the Iron Range, and they won’t risk it. Not for a couple of love pterys.”

Volka's eyes darted to 6T9. His hand was loose in hers, and he was frowning. If only love pterys were what they were.


19

The Robotic Man

“The Captain’s been assigned the mission to track down the robot…He’s practically a robot himself.”

The whispered words, somewhere between fearful and respectful, followed the click of Captain Alaric Darmadi’s boot steps as he strode through the polished cement corridors of the Luddeccean Guard’s Libertian base. Next to him, Commander Ran glanced backward, and a moment later, Alaric felt the commander’s eyes on him. Alaric kept his expression carefully blank and his footsteps measured. Let Ran wonder if he hadn’t heard or if he was merely ignoring it. The unknown was far more terrifying than the known. Alaric preferred his motivations being unknown and terrifying.

“We shouldn’t be sent to the Iron Range,” the commander said, his voice tight.

“We expressed our objections,” Alaric responded, “and were overruled.” And he still wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not.

“We shouldn’t fly in those conditions,” Ran said.

“The android has the ethernet accessible in real-time through its Q-comm.” Alaric had no doubt the android had one of the chips. Using Volka as a hostage was too clever for the occasional leftover robot or android from pre-Revelation. Intelligence said she was in league with it, but although Alaric did doubt Volka’s good sense, he would never doubt her faith. And Intelligence had a habit of claiming that anyone they wanted removed was in league with their enemies. “It has to be here to provide the local rebellion with intel, and possibly to help them re-establish the Libertian intranet.” Intense meteor activity and cities built in solid rock in the northern and southern latitudes had made the original Libertian settlers eschew satellite servers and ethernet connections in favor of hard lines and subterranean servers. The Guard was still uncovering and destroying the old stacks and fiber optic lines. “They aren’t being irrationally paranoid.”

Alaric heard the other man gulp and glanced over. The lieutenant was a shade paler than usual, and despite the Libertian chill, there was a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. He was terrified, with good reason, but his terror could be deadly to the entire crew. Despite the calm he projected, Alaric did not want to die. He drew to a halt and waited for the other man to do the same. When Ran did, nearly tripping over his own feet in his nervousness, Alaric met Ran’s gaze. “My youngest has a birthday in seven days, Ran. I intend to be alive for it.” His voice sounded flat and unconvincing to his own ears, but Ran straightened and met his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Relieved to see the man’s spirits rising, Alaric resumed walking.

“You haven’t told me about your children, sir,” Ran said.

“No,” said Alaric, hoping he’d let the subject die. If one was sufficiently intimidating, one did not have to do anything terrible to inspire fear and awe. Alaric had stared down admirals and death with a straight face, but the smiles of his children could move him to tears. He did not speak about his children as a rule.

“Two boys, right?” Ran asked, too eager to build rapport.

Avoiding the question, Alaric responded, “Commander, the LCS has never done a recovery operation during a blizzard in the Iron Range. I want to know that the de-icing grid is fully operational.”

“Yes, sir. We have time for a diagnostic, sir.”

Alaric stopped again. He’d only been trying to distract Ran, but his own mind fell upon the task. A map of the Iron Valley and the escape pod’s last known location rose in his mind. He could picture the most likely paths of turbulence; the head winds caused by cold air dropping from the peaks to the valley floor. He also thought of the LCS—Littoral Combat Ship. The name was an anachronism. “Littoral” meant pertaining to the shore of a body of water. The LCS he’d be piloting was capable of near-light-speed out of atmosphere, but with its hover technology, was capable of patrolling the surface of planets, too—something like a shore. It had been designed by Luddeccean engineers on a planet closer to the sun.

“The grid won’t be enough,” Alaric said.

“We’ll be mostly relying on the hover tech,” said Ran. “It might not be such an issue—”

“Hover tech only works in a narrow band of altitude. With the turbulence we’ll be experiencing, we’ll need our wings.” Alaric pictured the technical designs of the ship. “I want thirty percent of the power diverted from the bridge’s heat coils to the grid.”

“It will be a mighty cold trip.”

“We’ll wear shooting gloves,” Alaric said, beginning to walk again.

Ran said, “If there needs to be a system override, and the priest won’t—”

“I have the access codes, and I will reroute the system myself,” Alaric snapped, thinking of the number of lives at stake. He regretted it at the stricken look on Ran’s face. As captain, he had the codes, but he was only supposed to use them in an emergency. Worse, the way he’d spoken conveyed that he was confident he could reroute the system with ease—which he could. Many captains and officers could, but it was considered bad form to point it out. A man who could navigate the computer systems of a near-light-speed vessel and pilot it was a defection risk. His lips formed a tight line. The outburst had been unnecessary. Father Diomedes, his ship’s priest, was a true believer and practical, not some power-hungry acolyte; they’d never butted heads. It wasn’t wise to push his reputation as the Robotic Captain too far.

There was a moment of silence between them that stretched too long. But then Ran said, “Yes, sir. Will the blizzard slow the android down, sir?”

Alaric’s jaw got hard. “I don’t know.” He did know the blizzard would kill Volka if he didn’t find her soon.

If he did find her, and he gave her over to the Intelligence, what would they do to her? What would he do? He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He knew the answer to the first question…but not the second.

Starship Waking

The inn room door snicked shut behind 6T9. Dean’s footsteps retreated down the hall. When he was sure there were no weere about but Volka, 6T9 looked down at Carl Sagan and said through clenched teeth, “You know, when we were back at the greenhouse, you could have told us immediately that they didn’t plan to execute us.”

Blinking up at him, Carl replied, “No, I couldn’t. I was sleeping. This body requires at least sixteen hours of shut-eye a day.”

Glaring down at the werfle, 6T9 crossed his arms and felt static dancing beneath his skin. He was sure that the werfle had waited until the last minute out of a flair for the dramatic.

Swishing his tail, Carl walked toward the door. “Fine. Don’t believe me. I’m going to go check this place out. Something is very wrong here…there is so much anger and rage, but I can’t identify its source.”

6T9 didn’t budge. “I thought you needed beauty sleep.”

“Got enough in the hover,” Carl replied.

6T9 said, “I’m not opening—”

The door opened with another snick, and the werfle slipped through. It wasn’t an automatic door.

6T9’s arms uncrossed. “Did you open the door, Carl?”

“Maybe it wasn’t closed properly,” the werfle replied, his thoughts faint.

6T9 peeked out into the hall. Carl had already disappeared.

He shut the door again and turned around. The guest room was small, and the single bed took up most of it.

They’d asked Dean repeatedly if there was any chance of getting out of the valley before tomorrow, and had been told that there was no chance at any price. Carl hadn’t sensed any deception, but 6T9 reached into the ether for Dean’s hover’s ethernet channel anyway. On the way over, he’d reached out to the hover’s computer on a whim—the channel was the same as the serial number on such machines, and he’d spied the serial on the dash. To his surprise, it had responded with, “Welcome to your new Hover 3000EX. Would you like to activate your ethernet access now?”

After being momentarily stunned that the vehicle was over one hundred years old and it had never had its ethernet activated, 6T9 had realized that it wasn’t really that surprising. The Libertians were for cultural, and likely environmental reasons, somewhat ethernet adverse. Their pre-Revelation data sharing network was more like the earliest internet than modern era ether. But the machine had been built in System 1, and he’d been able to activate the machine by providing only the solar system, planet, and postal code of Darragh’s homestead, which he’d downloaded from his Q-comm.

Now, 6T9 watched from the vehicle’s external sensors as Dean hopped in. He frowned. Dean was braving the elements again. But a minute and thirty-two seconds later, 6T9’s suspicions quelled. Dean was pulling through a pair of large wooden double doors that was just behind the inn. Inside the strange building, on the far wall, hung a sign that read, Iron Forge Hover and Auto Repair. Family Owned and Operated for Over 175 Years! As soon as Dean pulled in, a man in coveralls emerged from a side room, smiled, and tipped his hat. The car’s sensors didn’t have sound, but 6T9 could read the man’s lips when he said, “Heya, Dean!” and again later when he said, “Sure, you can park it here.”

Dean evidently wasn’t braving the storm, either.

6T9 disconnected. Dean wasn’t betraying them. They were less than forty kilometers from Sundancer, and they were warm. Things could be much worse. Dumb luck, indeed. He blinked and noticed Volka was running a hand over the bright geometric patterns of the duvet. Pausing, she frowned.

“Don’t worry,” 6T9 said. “I’ll spend the night in the closet.”

Volka looked up at him, and her ears flicked. He could see the worry for his discomfort warring with the risk of impropriety in her expression.

Rolling his eyes, he said, “I need to reboot anyway.” And he needed to perform some self-maintenance before rebooting, after rebooting, or preferably both. He eyed the bathtub sitting in the corner. There wasn’t even a privacy screen; he wouldn’t be doing it there. His eyes returned to Volka. He’d have no problem assisting her with “maintenance,” but knew she’d be offended at best by the suggestion—worse, he was 88 percent certain she’d be frightened by an offer.

Her ears came forward, and her brow furrowed.

Smiling wryly, he said, “Don’t worry, I won’t explode.” His skin prickled at the memory of her outburst.

Her ears swiveled down. “Of course not…I just…don’t know what ‘reboot’ is,” she said at last. Cocking her head, she looked at his feet—more precisely, at his boots. His Q-comm warmed, and his circuits dimmed. She didn’t know what a reboot was, she thought machines with free will were liable to explode out of spite, and quite possibly didn’t believe they had feelings. Was it possible to believe that a being without emotions was an equal? Yet here he was, preparing to take her home to the Republic. What would she do? Would she just become another taker of the dole, adrift and unhappy? His shoulders fell. But if she stayed here, her future was torture and death. He could not let any human face those fates.

He began to explain, “A reboot is—”

A knock at the door interrupted him.

Running over to the entrance, Volka bowed nearly in half as she opened the door. Francisca, the innkeeper’s twenty-something daughter, stood in the hallway, a tray of food in her hands. Her lips were parted, and her blue eyes were wide with surprise.

Sixty slid behind Volka and whispered, “Darling, you aren’t a maid anymore.”

“Oh,” Volka murmured. She straightened slowly, as though dazed, and 6T9’s eyes fell on the back of her neck. Her short, silvery gray hair trailed into a V there and then vanished into tan skin. His lips itched with the desire to heat the spot with his breath, and remembering the softness of her ears made 6T9’s fingers flex with the need for touch. His hands clenched at his side. He needed that reboot.

Francisca’s cheery voice brought him back into the moment. “And if you were, we wouldn’t insist you bow quite so low.” Bustling into the room, she set the tray laden with food on the table by the bed. Turning around, she smiled at Volka, and perhaps having seen the intent of 6T9’s gaze, winked at him. With that, she left the room. Volka stared after her, not moving until Francisca’s footsteps were far down the hall.

“She and Dean are lovers,” Volka said. “I could smell him all over her.”

Huffing softly, 6T9 walked over to the food. “No wonder he was so cheerful when he was driving here.”

He sniffed the food, and his mouth watered, preparing to facilitate power conversion. There was something that might be reindeer meat—barely cooked, bread, and root vegetables drenched with butter that didn’t quite smell like butter. It was gamier…reindeer butter, perhaps?

Volka had to be hungry, but instead of coming over to the food, she sat down heavily on the bed. “On Luddeccea, weere and human relationships are barely tolerated,” she said. “Wealthy human men sometimes play patron…” She sucked in a breath and let it out shakily. Her eyes were on the animal hide serving as a carpet on the floor. In a softer voice, she continued, “Weere men aren’t allowed in human homes unless they’re married—they’re barely allowed out of No Weere if they don’t have a partner.”

Grabbing his silverware, 6T9 paused, remembering how the men on the bus had all been older, and the women were of all ages.

She shook her head. “I’ve never heard of a human woman and weere man couple. And weere-human babies…” Eyes becoming glassy, her voice dropped to a whisper. “We’re told that it can never happen…how could we not have known?”

6T9’s Q-comm hummed with the question. “Luddeccea only has official media channels. Couple that with only one civilian flight off-world per week and carefully pre-screened passengers that I doubt are venturing much to the interior, and it’s not too hard to explain.” He shrugged. “China’s Communist Party kept a famine that killed as many as forty-five million people secret for decades—” He clamped his mouth shut, realizing he was giving into a data dump.

Staring at the wall, Volka said, “I’d thought that if a weere woman became pregnant by a human man that miscarriage was the only possible outcome…” She shook her head. “But it’s not, and everyone here knows.” Curling her legs up, she wrapped her arms around her knees. When she raised her head again, tears were leaking from her eyes.

6T9 put the silverware down. His hands clenched at his sides, and he fought the desire to go over and put his arm around her. His mind raced, trying to determine what he should do and what he should say. His Q-comm began furiously pulling and collating random bits of data and he said, “With all the heavy metals and toxins in the stream I landed in and the higher than optimal levels of radiation, I’m surprised that the weere have any children at all.”

Volka gaped at him.

6T9’s Q-comm kept humming. “The weere are descended from the wolves of Chernobyl. The Chernobyl wolves developed the ability to withstand chemical and physical mutations through increased apoptosis—programmed cell death—but it still isn’t ideal for even Chernobyl wolves to be in those conditions. A fetus with even less of the Chernobyl wolf genome would be less likely to survive.”

Volka said nothing, but her body rocked back and forth on the bed.

6T9’s Q-comm sparked, and he realized his mistake, or his Q-comm’s mistake. He winced. “I’m sorry, that was another long and very unnecessary data dump.”

Biting her lips, ears swiveling, she said, “No, no, Sixty…it was very necessary.” She wiped a tear with the back of her sleeve. “I never knew…until.” Scrunching her eyes shut, she bent her head to her knees.

Giving in, 6T9 went over to the bed, sat next to her, and almost put his arm around her. Thinking better of it, he shrugged off his coat and lay it across his lap. Then he put an arm around her, fully expecting Volka to pull away. She stiffened, and he almost let her go, but then Volka leaned into him and wept silently. Where he felt her trembling weight, where the warm softness of her ear touched his cheek, and where her tears dampened his shirt, his sensory receptors came alight. His primary function was unfulfilled, but his circuits still hummed. He was needed; that was, perhaps, his real, primary function…and the coat on his lap very strategically hid the hardware malfunction.

Starship Waking

Volka lay on her side in the room that smelled of reindeer meat, strangeness, and werfle. Her hand rested on Sixty. He was warm and surprisingly soft.

Volka’s eyes bolted open, and in the darkness made out the shape of Carl Sagan where she’d dreamed of Sixty being. Her hand was resting on top of the werfle, though she couldn’t remember when he'd come back to the room.

Sixty was in the closet, “rebooting,” which she still didn’t understand.

“Nightmare, Hatchling?” the werfle asked, raising his head.

“I…maybe…” she replied. There was nothing sexual about her dream; she shouldn’t be ashamed or frightened, but she was both. Carl Sagan’s claws kneaded the bedspread, and his purr tickled her ears. “Go back to sleep,” the werfle said. “The storm is still raging.”

She heard the wind howling outside, but the bed was soft and warm. Ducking her nose beneath the heavy covers, she closed her eyes…and found herself in almost the same dream. But this time, she was sitting on the side of the bed with Sixty, his arm wrapped around her, and Carl Sagan was on the other side of her. “It’s just a dream, Volka. Don’t wake up. You need to rest—and so do I.”

She didn’t have to be afraid of Sixty, she reminded herself. Not in real life, and certainly not in a dream. She nodded against his dream chest, and then the dream Carl Sagan disappeared.

She let the dream Sixty rock her again. She knew why it had frightened her. The last man to comfort her had been Alaric. At that thought, she looked up, and instead of Sixty, it was Alaric, before he’d entered the Guard. He’d been at university, living in his Uncle Darmadi’s guest house and considering going into the priesthood. She couldn’t pull away or wake up. Gazing down at her with his piercing blue-gray eyes, he said, “I have to get married, Volka. I can’t put it off anymore…and weere and humans aren’t meant to be together. What you’ve suffered is proof of that.”

From outside her body, she watched her dream self say, “You don’t even believe in God!”

“It’s not God,” Alaric said. “It’s nature.”

Tears ran down her face. “I cannot give you children, and that is where your love ends.”

“Do not say I don’t love you!” Alaric roared, his eyes bloodshot with tears.

She heard his relatives banging at the door and their footsteps thumping into the house.

Her consciousness stuttered. His family hadn’t done that…but the footsteps kept coming. She turned toward the door, and instead of the Darmadi clan, a wave of black water surged through. It covered Alaric, turning him into a gaping statue, the droplets crawling over his body like tiny beetles. It surged over to her and slinked along her skin, chilling her to the bone. The water splashed into her eyes, her ears, and mouth, and she couldn’t speak. For a moment, she was terrified…and then she recognized the dream and remembered it was not her own. It was Sundancer’s. She couldn’t speak, so she called out with her heart, willing the dark to stop…

And it did. The black water flowed away, taking Alaric and the guest house with it. She was in Sundancer, staring out at a field of stars. Carl Sagan was in her arms…

Swishing his tail, Carl said, “Thank you, Volka. My fear infected Sundancer, and her fear infected me. It was a vicious circle.”

Volka stared at him, her dream ears swiveling. “Do I hear boot steps?”

“Yes!” said Carl, the werfle’s eyes going wide. “That was the source of my fear. We must wake up.”

Volka’s eyes shot open. Carl was batting at her face. “Quick!” he said. “Make the bed!”

Slipping off the bed, she threw Sixty’s coat and her pack underneath. Pulling up the duvet, her ears swiveled to the sound of boot steps on the stairwell.

“It’s the Luddeccean Guard,” said the werfle. Worse than that, Volka smelled a dog.

Starship Waking

Alaric stood in the lobby of the Iron Forge Inn, snow melting on his shoulders and hair. The startled innkeeper, his wife, and their daughter, were standing behind the counter. He heard his men making a sweep of the inn’s rooms above them.

Commander Ran was beside him. “If you hadn’t rerouted the power to the de-icing grid, we wouldn’t have made it.” Additional snow had accumulated while they’d hovered, and they’d been blown above the hover-safe range. The hover rings had blown out in the stress. He’d diverted all remaining hover power to the de-icing grid and brought the LCS down on the nearest suitable flat surface, which happened to be Iron Forge’s main street. They’d still sustained damage to several systems, including life support. Without life support, it was too cold to bunk aboard the craft. Except for a skeleton crew working in engineering and Diomedes monitoring the systems, they had to take shelter here.

They were standing in a small, cozy sitting area with two overstuffed chairs, a table, and a wood burning stove. His fingers flexed with the desire to heave the table against the wall. Just as Ran and he had informed Command, they never should have flown in the blizzard. They’d found the escape pod but had been unable to land for a visual inspection due to the presence of trees. It had been too windy to send out their hover drones. They’d tried to take life-sign readings, but the snow had made their sensors next to useless. The mission had endangered his crew uselessly. He had no idea if Volka and the machine were still in the pod, and if she was alive or dead.

Some of the men were laughing about how it was typical of their perfectionist captain to bring them down two hundred meters from an empty inn. At least they were in good spirits. The snow was falling at a rate greater than fifteen centimeters per hour. Was Volka out there? Trapped in the snow? His eyes fell on the chair, and his nails bit into his palms.

Boot steps made him snap his hands behind his back. Commander Ran said, “Report, Airman Huang?”

“No guests, sir. We checked out the basement with Cecil,” Huang said, referring to their explosive-detecting dog. “There is a wine cellar down there. Floor was wet.”

Alaric and Ran exchanged glances. Spilled wine wouldn’t throw Cecil from the scent of explosives, but were they trying to hide something else? Evidence of tunnels, perhaps?

“I dropped a bottle of wine!” the innkeeper’s daughter protested.

“Could definitely tell there’s been a weere down there recently—you know how they make Cecil growl—but not our targets.”

“Put a security team down there,” Alaric said.

The airman nodded.

“Upstairs?” Alaric asked.

“No one that we’ve seen, but Cecil is still doing a floor-by-floor sweep, sir,” Huang replied.

Alaric turned to the innkeeper; he was exchanging a look with his wife. “In your guest book, it said that there were two occupants in room forty-two,” Alaric said.

“It’s possible they went out to a bar,” said the daughter.

Alaric’s jaw ticked, thinking about the wall of snow outside, the cold, and the driving wind.

“Or gone to visit with friends or relatives in town,” suggested the wife.

His shoulders dropped a fraction. That explanation was possible. Personal affairs were about the only reason to visit Iron Forge in the middle of winter. Many Libertians had migrated to Libertas Prime in the past twenty-five years. They could be home for a funeral.

“Ain’t our business to keep track of them,” said the innkeeper.

The hairs on the back of Alaric’s neck rose at his tone. There were Libertian separatist groups in just about every region of this planet. The pair might be involved—and may have somehow managed to sneak out before the Guard began their sweep. An errant hope crept into his consciousness. It could possibly be Volka and the machine. He quashed it. Iron Forge was too far from the crash site for anyone without a hover small enough to coast through the trees.

“The watch at the front and back exits can keep an eye out for them,” said Ran.

Alaric nodded. To the innkeeper, he said, “I’d like room forty-one.”

“No heat in that room,” the man replied.

“Forty-three, then,” said Alaric, gazing hard at the man.

The innkeeper hesitated. Airman Huang’s hand casually dropped to the phaser pistol in his holster.

Pulling his guest book around, the innkeeper nodded. “Of course.”

“And you’ll be bunking my crew,” Alaric said.

The innkeeper looked up at him, his hand shaking.

“You will be compensated at a fair rate,” Alaric assured him.

The man looked down and began scribbling in his guest book. It should make the man’s year to have Luddeccean Guard forces here in the offseason. Whatever the Guard’s other faults, they did pay their bills, but the man’s hand still shook.

A bark echoed through the small inn. Every man in the lobby looked up. Alaric grabbed his short-range communicator. “Airman Bonham, report,” he said.

The dog barked again—but there was something off about the noise.

Airman Bonham’s voice cracked on the communicator. “Sir, we haven’t detected any explosives or fugitives.”

There was another bark, and Alaric noted the bark sounded distinctly cheerful. The airman’s voice cracked on the radio again. “Cecil’s found, well, it’s…it’s a werfle, sir.” A happy canine whine sounded in the communicator. “She’s taken a liking to it.”

Alaric remembered Cecil cornering a werfle on a ledge last time they were on Luddeccea. Alaric had thought the dog had done it with murderous intent. Maybe he’d misjudged Cecil’s motives?

“What room are you in?” he asked.

“Cecil and me are in room forty-two, sir.”

The hairs on the back of Alaric’s neck rose again.

The airman added hastily, “She did a full sweep. Nothing seems out of order.”

Another happy bark sounded in the communicator.

“No, girl, we have to finish up,” said Airman Bonham, voice distant, as though he’d forgotten he was connected. “We’ll play with the werfle later.”

The dog whined, this time distinctly unhappily, and Alaric disconnected.

There were a few chuckles in the lobby. Alaric’s eyes drifted to the guest book and read the check-in time for room forty-two. The name was Johnson. It was a very common name on Libertas, which had a high number of settlers from the region that used to be the United States on Earth. It shouldn’t put him on edge—which is maybe why it did. He thought about voicing his suspicions with the commander, but his heart began to pound double time, and he didn’t.

Airman Huang smacked the master key on the counter. The innkeeper reached for it, but Alaric’s hand got there first. “I’ll keep this,” he said, giving the innkeeper a tight-lipped smile. His eyes went to the man’s wife and daughter and came back to the innkeeper. “I’m sure you have another.”

The innkeeper gulped audibly. “Yes, of course.”

Alaric had to keep his hand from shaking as he slipped the key into his pocket. He told himself that it meant nothing. The room was empty. Cecil, their very capable explosive-detecting dog, didn’t like weere and would have barked if she’d smelled Volka. But she had found nothing and no one, and the innkeeper was nervous about having military men around his wife and admittedly pretty daughter. That was all. He pushed all those thoughts aside and focused on the logistics of their current situation.

Later that night, he was walking down the hallway on the fourth floor with Commander Ran.

Ran said, “Agrawal says that they’ll have the hover and life support systems up by morning.”

Alaric nodded. Their boots clicked on the wooden floors of the hallway. Cold radiated from the walls. It was negative eighty degrees outside and still dropping. Volka was out there. He imagined finding the supple body that had once been his to touch cold and rigid, tan skin blue with death. They passed room forty-two and he could feel the weight of the master key in his pocket.

“If we need parts from base—” Ran said.

“—it will take a few days,” Alaric finished. “We may be able to source replacements locally.” Although he’d seen no more than a blur since they’d arrived, Iron Forge was a bustling industrial city with sixty thousand souls.

“Yes, sir.”

Alaric stopped outside of his door.

“Goodnight, sir,” said Ran, drawing to a stop.

“Goodnight.”

Ran didn’t move.

“What?” asked Alaric, wishing the other man would hurry. Farther down the hall, he saw the light spilling under the door of room forty-four wink out. Their medical officer had gone to sleep.

“You kept us alive,” Ran said.

“Told you,” Alaric said, spinning on his heel. “I have plans.”

“Yes, sir,” said Ran.

Alaric entered his room and closed the door behind him. He thumped the key in his pocket, waited to hear Ran’s retreating footsteps, and the commander’s door shut. Alaric counted to three hundred sixty and then stepped out again. To the men standing guard at either end of the hall, he said, “Pablo, Smith, I want you on the landing in the stairwells. You hear anyone moving, I want to know about it.”

“Yes, sir,” they said, saluting and going to their new positions. Alaric returned to his room and slipped off his boots. When he left his room again, there was no light coming from beneath Ran’s door. He made his way to room forty-two, slipped his key in the lock, entered, and gently shut the door behind him. Waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light spilling beneath the door, he took a deep breath. The bed was neatly made and nothing was out of place. Exhaling, he ran his hand through his hair and remembered Volka’s hands there, that first season when she’d needed him so much…and he’d needed her. She’d turned all the frustrated, angry urges of his teenage self into something almost like virtue. He’d helped her; she’d helped him. It had been violent and innocent at the same time.

In between seasons, she’d been sweet and shy, more curious than he’d thought weere were, with an interesting knack for sketching he’d believed weere incapable of, but during the season…His fingers itched, and his face flushed, and at the same time, his chest got tight. To be needed so much and so desperately…he needed that again.

He looked around the empty room. It wasn’t to be. She wasn’t here. That part of his life was over.

Pulling his phaser out, Alaric moved toward the closet, more out of habit than hope. He was the good Guardsman again, and he’d just check the room for any signs his airmen had missed. He put his ear to the door, heard nothing, and then opened it. A man stared back at him, eyes unblinking, features unnaturally symmetrical.

Alaric had his phaser aimed at the man’s head an instant later. He let out a breath, almost ordered the man to put his hands up before he realized that he was staring at his own shadow. Alaric backed away from the closet. What was wrong with him?

Shaking his head, he let the phaser sag. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but he wanted Volka to be here, and his guilt for not rescuing her from the machine and the cold was playing with his mind.

He put his free hand on the bed and then bent to look beneath it, not really thinking about being the Guardsman, but going through the motions. Movement beneath caught his eyes, but he didn’t spook this time. It was just an enormous werfle, striped and orange, like a tabby. Alaric let out a breath. “Not Volka,” he whispered, his eyes losing focus and drifting to the deeper shadow past the animal.

A pair of amber weere eyes gleamed back at him.

Starship Waking

“I can’t make him unsee you, Volka!” Carl Sagan’s words rang over the ether.

Moments before, the man who 6T9’s Q-comm had pegged as a captain by his uniform’s ribbons had looked directly into 6T9’s eyes, raised a phaser, and then turned away. “Why not?” 6T9 demanded silently in the ether.

Half kneeling beside the bed, the man whispered, “Volka, come out.”

“His mind is difficult to control…he’s…interesting,” Carl replied. “He wants Volka.”

“Why? To turn her in? To pin another ribbon on his chest?” 6T9 demanded, taking a step forward.

“Stop!” Carl said. “It’s not like that.”

“What is it like?” 6T9 asked, but he halted.

There was scuffling from beneath the bed, and a moment later, Volka stood before the captain, eyes downcast. “Alaric,” she whispered.

It was so unexpected that, for a moment, 6T9 did not register the whisper for a name. And then it sunk in—they knew each other.

The captain holstered his phaser, and Volka was safe…for now. 6T9’s mind leaped into the ether, suspicions about Dean calling the Guard playing in his mind. He connected to the hover and peered through its sensors. It was still in the garage. Dean was arguing with a group of men about something.

“Volka, look at me,” the captain whispered. His voice was something between a command and a plea, and it drew 6T9’s consciousness back to their tiny room.

She met his gaze, and he stepped closer. “What happened?” he said, his voice urgent. “You must tell me.”

Volka’s face contorted into a look of rage and despair, and then she all but sobbed, “My cousin Myra had her patron’s baby, and they killed her and the child, and Joseph and Esther—”

The captain covered her lips with his thumb. “Shhhhh…shhhh…you must be quiet, Volka. You’ll be overheard.”

6T9 tilted his head. The captain had an un-augmented, imperfect look—his nose was too strong, his jaw was defined but narrow, he had too prominent cheekbones, and blue-gray eyes contrasted too sharply with his otherwise Afro-Eurasian features. His frame was rangy and lean and too tall. It was the sort of imperfection that 6T9 had noticed humans seemed to find particularly attractive.

“They wanted to kill me just because I knew, Alaric,” Volka continued, her words hushed but urgent. “They were going to torture me to find out who I’d told, and I ran away with a robot because he offered to save me and no one else would.”

6T9’s Q-comm hummed, putting her words together with the pieces of the story he’d seen from the outside. This was why the Guard had been after her—his circuits sparked and then dimmed at once. She’d been keeping all that death and violence inside? He remembered how close he was to non-functional after Eliza had died. He’d had Noa and James to keep him from shutting down completely. Even if their concern hadn’t been in the form he’d wanted, they’d helped him get through the day-to-day, made sure he powered himself up, applied for personhood status on his behalf, and took him to holo shows to cheer him. Not that they had been the type of holo shows he would have preferred.

The captain bent lower to speak to Volka. “I am here now. I won’t let them hurt you.”

Taking a step back, Volka shook her head but her eyes never left the human man’s. “Here everyone knows weere and humans can have children…it’s just taken for granted, but they were going to torture and kill me for knowing.” Chest heaving, she whispered accusatorially, “Did you know, Alaric? Did you know it was possible?”

“No,” he said, lifting a hand and almost touching her face. “No,” he said again, dropping the hand to his side. His fingers twitched. “You must believe me, Volka, I did not know.”

Volka sucked in on her lips and looked up at him, her eyes enormous, glassy, and wet. Alaric’s gaze stayed fixated on her.

“I do,” she whispered. “I do believe you.”

The captain’s body sagged, his chest heaved, and he leaned forward so his forehead almost touched hers. “Thank you, Volka,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

Watching from the closet, 6T9 was mesmerized. Alaric’s tongue slipped between his lips, and the way Volka’s eyes followed it hungrily before snapping back to Alaric’s gaze made 6T9’s mouth feel parched. 6T9 had experienced passion before…but there was something more going on, something he couldn’t define. He would swear the air between and around them was vibrating, that they were warping the universe at the quantum level.

The captain raised a hand, almost grazing the side of Volka’s face. He did not touch her, but his fingers trembled as though the fabric of space and time was tugging them together. Volka closed her eyes, and Alaric put his hand against her cheek. Every sensory receptor beneath 6T9’s skin went hot.

“One kiss,” Alaric whispered. “Just one. Please, Volka.”

Volka looked up at him, her lower lip trembling. In the closet, 6T9 leaned forward, his primary functions engaging. Alaric leaned forward. Volka’s eyes scrunched shut.

“Rawr!” cried Carl Sagan. Volka’s eyes went wide. Alaric paused.

“What are you doing?” 6T9 hissed over the ether.

“Rawrrrrr!” Carl Sagan sang.

“The werfle,” Alaric muttered. “I’ll kill him.”

“I’ll help him kill you!” 6T9 silently declared.

“Rawwrr,” Carl Sagan replied, hopping up and down. Into the ether, he said, “He wasn’t thinking of just kissing her!”

“You don’t have to be telepathic to know that,” 6T9 hissed over the ether.

In the bedroom, Volka murmured, looking at the ground, “I can’t.”

“Volka, look at me,” Alaric whispered.

“Their lives are so short,” 6T9 replied to Carl Sagan. “They should have their fun.”

“Their lives are going to be very short if the captain gets his way,” Carl hissed. “His second in command never went to sleep and thought he heard something before I spoke up!”

Volka’s ears trembled.

“What is it?” Alaric whispered.

“I hear someone…awake…” Volka said.

Straightening, Alaric pulled back from her, but the air between them still hummed. 6T9 was reminded of holding two oppositely charged magnets and feeling the pull. Seemingly giving in to that magnetic attraction, Alaric traced Volka’s profile with his thumb. When he reached her lips, Volka froze, and her eyes slipped closed.

“The commander down the hall is putting on his uniform,” Carl declared.

From down the hall came a thunk.

“I can get you out of here, but you must do as I say,” Alaric said, putting his hand on her shoulder.

“If you are caught…” Volka whispered, her face crumpling, her hands moving to rest on his arms.

Alaric shook his head. “I know what they would do to you. I couldn’t live with myself if they did.”

6T9’s Q-comm sparked, and he understood why the moment had felt so powerful, so passionate, even though they hadn’t even kissed. They were willing to die for one another. There was no upload for them, and 6T9’s life and all his grievances suddenly felt illusionary. He was, in a sense, traveling through the universe as though he were in a game. He was just play acting, being who he thought Eliza would be. She’d been willing to sacrifice herself for him, and maybe at some level, he’d felt that being more like her would make him…real.

“Volka,” Alaric whispered. “I need to know where the android is. He’s dangerous.”

Volka shook her head. “He saved me.”

All of 6T9’s circuits lit at once. She was going to sacrifice herself for him? For a moment, his mind was completely thrown offline.

Alaric shook his head. “I know you must think that, Volka, but he used you to get into my uncle’s State Room. You must tell me where he is. I know you don’t want anyone else hurt…and he’s killed already.”

“What?” Volka whispered.

6T9 almost stepped out of the closet, ready to surrender himself, but then his Q-comm hummed. She needed to turn him in to keep Alaric’s trust. “Volka, tell him I’m in the closet!” He screamed the words into the ether, but Volka was a true telepath, and his “telepathy” was only in wireless frequencies.

“A man died aboard the Leetier during your escape,” Alaric said. “Believe me, I’ve met these creatures before. They can kill without remorse.”

“No—” she murmured, taking a step back.

Into the ether, 6T9 shouted, “Carl Sagan, make her tell him I’m in the closet!”


20

Betrayal

“Tell him 6T9 is in the closet,” Carl Sagan said.

Volka’s knees were weak from Alaric’s almost kiss, her lips were buzzing, and at the same time she felt like she might be sick. Still, she turned to the werfle. “What?” she demanded incredulously, every rumor of their demonic nature racing through her mind. How dare he volunteer his friend up for sacrifice.

“It’s just a werfle,” Alaric whispered.

“Cheep,” said Carl Sagan innocently. Hopping on the bed, kneading his front claws into the bedspread and blinking his eyes, he purred loudly at Alaric—the duplicitous, furry snake.

And then speaking into her mind, Carl said, “6T9 says, ‘I can’t die, but you and Alaric can. Please, turn me in.’”

Volka shook her head.

“Volka,” Alaric said, seizing her shoulders. “You must tell me where he is.”

He’d put his phaser in his holster, and Volka imagined wrapping her arms around his waist, distracting him with a kiss, stealing it, and then…what? Threaten Alaric with it?

“Don’t even think about it,” Carl said into her mind. “There are guards on every floor and in the stairways.” He kneaded the duvet. “The captain does mean well…he thinks that Sixty was using you, and that Sixty will dispose of you as soon as he gets the chance, simply for knowing too much.”

“I need to help you, Volka,” Alaric whispered, confirming Carl’s words—or thoughts.

Volka let out a breath. She’d never be able to shoot Alaric anyway. When he almost kissed her, just for a moment, she’d been fifteen again, and back in a time when he’d been the best thing in her life. He was so close, and her body hadn’t forgotten him. The centimeters between them felt too far. She desperately wished she’d had that last kiss.

Carl said, “Volka, Sixty says you must turn him over.”

Biting her lip, Volka remembered the man she’d bludgeoned in the hallway of the Leetier and thought to the werfle, “Alaric thinks Sixty killed someone, but he didn’t. It was me.”

Carl’s voice entered her mind. “You don’t know that…it could have been the man that Sixty pushed away in the elevator shaft.”

Volka’s eyes widened and her ears went forward. She hadn’t known about that.

“You hear something?” Alaric whispered.

She couldn’t answer. Carl’s voice was continuing, “Volka, 6T9 says for me to tell you, ‘Volka, I can’t die, and I can turn off physical pain, but I do feel emotional hurt, and I can’t turn that off. If you and Alaric die, I will have failed my most basic purpose…I won’t be the same, Volka. I won’t be able to function or save Sundancer, or Carl.’”

“Volka, please,” Alaric whispered, pulling her to him, his breath tickling her ear.

Carl stopped purring. “6T9 says, ‘Volka, please.’”

Volka felt like her dismay was too big for her body, and that it was leaking out into the universe.

…and then the universe answered…or rather, Sundancer answered. The scene around her vanished, and she was standing in Sundancer’s pearlescent interior, staring out the enormous windows, but instead of space, she was seeing a dreary gray world of rain. She felt hopelessness, and the rain outside the ship pelted harder. It took a moment to realize that what she was seeing was…sympathy. And as soon as the feeling was granted, she realized how much she needed it.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

The scene vanished and she was staring into Alaric’s blue-gray eyes. She searched his face. It had been what—nearly ten years? She’d worried that maybe he’d spent all that time at lightspeed, that she’d look older than him, but he’d aged, too. He had some gray at his temples, and the angles in his face were more pronounced. He was still the most handsome man she’d ever known, and she included Sixty in that estimation. She tried to memorize his features because she knew she would not see them again. He was going to offer his patronage, and she would not take the offer—but their lives were worth something, and so was Sundancer’s.

“He’s in the closet,” she whispered, as 6T9 said he wanted. He wasn’t human; he was a machine, and different…so maybe it was true.

Alaric spun in the direction of the door only ajar; at the same time, Carl Sagan’s voice leaped into her mind. “Sixty says thank you, and that you’ve helped make him real.” Before Volka could comprehend those words, Alaric pushed her down and said, “Under the bed, now!”

Carl Sagan added, “‘Don’t argue,’ 6T9 says.”

Volka slid under the bed and peeked from underneath. Alaric had his phaser out, but then put it away. He walked over to the closet and opened the door.

6T9 had his hands in the air. “My evil plan was been thwart—”

Alaric grabbed him by the collar with one hand, his sleeve with the other, twisted, and threw Sixty. Sixty landed on his backside sitting up, but before Volka could breathe, Alaric kicked him beneath the chin. Sixty’s head went back and bounced on the floor. A moment later, he was lying flat on his back, blinking at the ceiling. Alaric stood above him, fists clenched, his chest rising and falling.

Volka gaped, shocked by Alaric’s efficiency, though she shouldn’t have been. He’d always been a perfectionist, both mentally and physically. He was one of Mr. Darmadi’s poorer relatives but had been accepted to Luddeccea’s most prestigious university both for his academics and because he’d been the best teenage wrestler in his province. He’d almost been ordained, but his family had pushed him to go into the military; his richer cousin got to pursue the priesthood.

“Hello, sir,” 6T9 said to Alaric. “I seem to be malfunctioning; I’m not sure how I got here or where I am.” He blinked. “Were we enacting some sort of fantasy scenario? If you refresh my memory, we can get back to it.” He gave Alaric a wink and then wiggled his hips. Alaric’s brow furrowed in confusion.

Volka hissed, “Is Sixty making a pass at my—at Alaric?”

Alaric glanced at her and back at Sixty. His eyebrows hiked. Outside in the hall, she heard at least three pairs of feet and whispers.

Carl, sitting out in the open, scratched an ear with his foremost right limb. “Yes.”

A noise rose in the back of Volka’s throat. It took a moment for her to realize she was growling. She clamped her mouth shut, but not before Alaric heard. Glancing at her, he put a finger to his lips. She couldn’t help noticing that he was smiling. Which he shouldn’t be as a married man who was facing off against a deadly enemy—or an enemy he thought was deadly. And the brief smile shouldn’t look like the sun coming out to her…

Someone was pounding at the door. “Captain? Captain?”

Attention back on 6T9, Alaric called out, “Ran, I’m all right…give me a minute.”

He inclined his head in 6T9’s direction. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“My name isn’t Horatio.” 6T9 frowned and then he sighed. “Also, I am afraid that if you are a sapiosexual, you may find my capabilities extremely limited.” He brightened. “I can recite a philosophical text for you if you think that would work!”

“Shut up,” said Alaric, a muscle in his jaw jumping.

6T9 clamped his mouth shut and began pulling up his shirt. Volka bit down on her lip to keep from growling again.

“Keep your clothes on and stand up,” Alaric said.

Dropping his shirt, 6T9 obliged.

“Sir?” said a man from beyond the door.

Alaric sighed. “You can come in, Commander Ran. I’ve got our…uh…man.”

The door opened, revealing a man in a Luddeccean Guard officer’s uniform. There was a phaser in his hand. Commander Ran, she supposed. Behind him were men in camouflage body armor. At the level she was at, she noticed that Alaric wasn’t wearing boots. 6T9’s eyes roved over all of them, and he licked his lips.

Ran drew back in disgust, his face turning red. “This is it?”

“Yes.” Alaric said. “I’ve disconnected his Q-comm. He failed the Shakespeare test.”

Looking 6T9 up and down dubiously, Ran said, “This is a robot? He doesn’t look as dangerous as I’d expect, Q-comm or no.”

Tilting his head, Alaric said to 6T9, “Peel back the skin on your forearm.”

Ran started to say, “They aren’t that obedient when captured—”

But 6T9 was already rolling up his sleeve. A moment later, he peeled back the skin. Alaric rubbed his chin. The other men drew back.

“We should turn him to slag,” said Ran, raising his phaser. Volka’s eyes went wide.

Holding up a hand, Alaric said, “That was my first thought, but I think we have to get this one to Intel.” His eyes didn’t leave 6T9. “Something is…different about it.”

6T9 gyrated his hips and looked at the Guardsmen on Ran’s left and leered.

“I notice that,” Ran grumbled. “Even more reason to turn it to slag.”

Shaking his head, Alaric commanded, “Android, stand absolutely still.”

6T9 stood up very straight. He blew a kiss at the Guardsman on the officer’s right and winked.

Rubbing his chin, Alaric said, “I don’t mean his—”

“Obvious deviancy?” Ran suggested. His eyes slid to Alaric. “What made you come to this room anyway?”

Volka’s jaw got tight, hearing suspicion in Ran’s tone. The Guardsmen behind the commander shifted on their feet.

Not noticing—or more likely not caring—Alaric studied 6T9. “I came in here because it seemed…strange…that the guests would have left in the storm. I looked in the closet and I saw him…” Alaric touched his phaser. “I aimed, prepared to fire, almost called you—and then all I saw was my shadow. I convinced myself it was nerves.” He straightened and his jaw got hard.

“But you stayed?” said Ran.

Alaric stiffened ever so slightly, but then he said, “Yes. I found Cecil’s werfle.”

In her mind, Volka heard Carl say, “That dog does not own me.” But he hopped over to Alaric, looked up at him, and purred up a storm.

Picking up Carl, Alaric rubbed him behind the ears and gazed down thoughtfully. Carl kneaded his arms with such gusto that Volka felt another growl.

Alaric murmured, “We were having…a bit of a conversation. He began acting strangely, and I looked in the closet again and saw our man.” He shook his head and met Ran’s gaze. “The android is—was—capable of playing with our perception.”

“Mind control?” Ran said.

Carl purred louder, as though trying to drown out the idea.

Alaric’s jaw got hard. “Maybe.”

Ran nodded, eyes wide. “Intel it is.”

“Don’t damage him any more than I already have,” Alaric said, setting Carl on the bed. “And don’t keep him here. The werfle’s smell is all over the place, and I think it’s confusing Cecil. Move him to the top floor and take the men on the landings up there.”

In her mind, Carl said, “Volka, we have to get out of here.”

Staring at the Guardsmen, Volka thought, “I know that.”

Carl said, “I don’t think they’re our biggest worry.”

Commander Ran said, “What about the girl?”

Heart hammering, Volka thought, “They are a pretty big worry for me.”

“A girl is going to join us?” 6T9 smirked. “I like girls, too. Variety is the spice of the bornut cake.”

The guards gaped. Alaric’s eyes narrowed and just for a moment his hand dropped to his phaser. Volka blinked.

In her mind, Carl sighed, “Without his Q-comm, 6T9’s an idiot.”

Volka swallowed. She was looking at a robot that looked like Sixty, but he was just an empty shell. He didn’t have a soul or intellect…he’d given them up for her.

“The girl’s not here,” Alaric said, sounding wooden. “Get him upstairs and under guard. I’m going to get my boots.”

Ran nodded, and the men grabbed Sixty.

“Mmm…I like it rough,” Sixty said as they led him through the door.

Alaric followed, shutting the door behind him.

She heard one of the men exclaim, “What is he, some sort of weere?” Her ears went back at the slang for whore as their voices and their boot steps faded down the hall.

“Grab 6T9’s coat and your pack!” Carl said. “We have to leave now.”

Volka didn’t need any encouraging. Sliding from the bed, she swung on Sixty’s coat with its strange gel pack and his lover’s ashes over her own, and slipped her pack on her back.

Carl Sagan was pacing on the bed, tail low.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“The anger is rising…It’s hard to keep it out…and to keep from transmitting it to Sundancer…”

Before she could ask whose anger, she heard footsteps at the door. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, but then she recognized them as Alaric’s. He opened the door and beckoned to her. Grabbing Carl, she obeyed. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” the werfle said. In the real world, it was only a squeak.

A moment later, they entered Alaric’s room. “Ran will check your room again,” he said. Volka swallowed. The place smelled more like Alaric, and it made her skin heat. She could sleep in a room with 6T9, but with Alaric? He stepped close to her, his hands skimming along her sides. A moment later, his body was flush against hers. Her mouth watered, and a wave of want so painful it was dizzying rushed through her.

Drawing back, he cursed softly. “I just realized that if Intel reestablishes his Q-comm connection, he may tell them that I rescued you.”

“What?” said Volka. The Q-comm could be fixed? How had she not known that?

Carl Sagan began jumping in her arms. “Volka!”

Alaric gave her a rueful smile. “Believe it or not, I’ve never hidden a fugitive before. I don’t have experience planning for all the contingencies.”

He was going to kiss her; she could feel it in his gaze. Her heart leaped, and her stomach twisted in a knot.

“I—” Volka started to stammer.

“We have to leave now!” Carl cried. There was the snap of a latch. The window creaked, blew open, and frigid air whipped in, burning her skin. The moan of the wind became a scream, and snowflakes pelted the floor.

Alaric moved to close the window, but Volka grabbed him, sniffing the air, eyes going wide. “No…blood…I smell blood out there,” she whispered. Her ears flicked madly, but the wind that carried the acrid scent drowned out all sound…she gasped, recognizing the blood’s owner. It was Dean.

“Rebels,” Alaric whispered, eyes going hard. “I have to prepare my men. Stay. Down.”

Spinning on his heel, he left the room. She heard him on some sort of radio, issuing commands.

Carl leaped from her arms, hopped on the window sill, and looked back at her. “Volka, we must jump.”

“We’re four stories up,” she protested.

Carl’s eyes met hers. He wouldn’t look away, and she couldn’t. Her hips hit the window sill before she’d realized she’d started walking. “Now!” a voice rang in her head. Carl turned and leaped. Volka found herself falling in air so cold it cut like knives.

And then explosions ripped from behind her, louder than the screaming wind.

Starship Waking

Climbing the steps three at a time, Alaric barked into his radio, “We’re under attack.”

Bonham’s voice cracked over the channel. “I don’t see anything at the front entrance.”

“All I see is snow,” said another man, and then there was a chorus of similar reports.

Alaric had airmen stationed at all ground floor windows and entrances, the basement in case of a hidden tunnel, and the utility room on the roof—to guard against a team using grappling line. He couldn’t see how they could be under attack, but he also didn’t believe Volka had lied. How could the rebels have any hope of taking them on here?

He realized his error as he stepped onto the fifth-floor landing. The stairwell had windows on every floor. Too narrow for a man to enter, they were made of double layers of plexi-composite that were poor conductors of temperature, and incidentally, nearly bullet proof and resistant to phaser fire. He hadn’t worried about anyone shooting out the windows, but the possibility to jimmy them open from the outside had existed, just not, he had thought, above the lower floors. Gazing through the snow-encrusted composite on the fifth floor, he heard the scraping noise and groan from the third floor, and then the soft ting of metal on cement. He identified the sounds instantly.

His radio was in his hand, already crackling from the airman on the first floor of the stairwell. “I hear something, going to—”

“All men, take cover,” Alaric ordered, throwing himself through the fire door on the fifth floor, his mind connecting at the same time how they’d done it. The wind was buffeting against the stairwell side of the building. They’d walked up snow drifts. Slamming the fire door, he heard Airman Lan say, “Sir!” Alaric looked over his shoulder and saw Huang running toward him from down the hall as though he were in slow motion. A moment later, a blast pounded against the steel door, blowing it open. Bones rattling from the shock, ears ringing, Alaric saw rather than heard Huang say, “What?” Commander Ran came out of the room nearest them that they were using as a comm center.

Alaric almost answered. But his eyes slid to the side. The inn was small and only had rooms on the south side. The hallway that ran along the north side of the building had narrow windows like the ones in the stairwell. His eyes came back to Huang. The airman’s lips were moving, but Alaric couldn’t hear him. “Take cover!” he shouted at the commander and men coming out of the rooms down the hall. Obeying, Ran ducked back into the door. Grabbing Huang by the arm, Alaric dragged the airman into the open doorway. Ran was by a field desk they’d brought from the ship to hold their comm equipment. “Get underneath,” Alaric commanded. Ran looked ready to offer him the choice spot but they only had seconds. “That is an order!” Alaric said, eying the doorway. The frame was made of steel. More explosions ripped through the building, and the floor in the hallway began to sink. Bracing his back against the doorframe to keep from slipping into the hall, Alaric shouted at Huang, “Cover your head!” and pushed the younger man down just before the roof caved in.

Starship Waking

Volka stared up at windblown flakes from inside a hole in the snow as long as her body and half as high. The shock of the fall was still an echo in her limbs, but the snow had cushioned her, and she didn’t think anything was broken. Clutching her pack, she clambered to her feet and found herself staring at a building that had a door like a barn. Above it was a sign that read, Iron Forge Hover and Auto Repair. Another explosion behind her made her turn around. Was it her imagination or was the inn leaning away from her? Metal screamed, and she stumbled backward through the snow. The inn groaned, and then bits of cement rained down. A moment later, the roof crashed down on the top story, and then it was like watching a house of cards tumble, each floor flattening the floor below it, making the ground beneath Volka’s feet reverberate.

Somewhere in the distance, Volka heard phaser fire and then a louder explosion. Spinning, she saw streaks of pink and faint orange through the veil of snow about six hundred meters away, and the hulking gray shape of some sort of airplane that looked too wide and square to fly.

Standing on top of the snow not far from her, Carl said, “The rebels are attacking the Guard ship.”

Volka gazed up at the rubble in despair. “Could anyone survive that?” she whispered. Sniffing the air, she began frantically climbing the pile. Her skirt was coated with snow and weighed heavy on her. Stumbling in the unfamiliar gravity on the treacherous terrain, she ripped it off so she was in only her leggings and boots. The building’s collapsed floors stretched before her as though it was a staircase built for giants. “Alaric!” she called, climbing up the first floor. “Sixty?”

“Volka, Sixty’s not responding to ethernet hails—I think he’s been destroyed!” Carl Sagan cried into her mind. “Come back!”

“No!” she shouted, inhaling deeply, trying to detect any trace of Alaric or Sixty.

“It’s too dangerous!” Carl said. The world spun and went black, and the fear was back, the fear that wasn’t hers, but Sundancer’s and maybe Carl’s.

The wave of black beetles was approaching. This time she recognized it for what it was, and she didn’t have a moment to spare for it. She called out, “Sundancer! I need to keep going,” but the fear didn’t abate. The fear wasn’t words; it was pictures and emotions…and that was the key. Instead of thinking in words, Volka mentally pictured Alaric and let herself feel the way he made her knees go weak, how when he was close she was pulled to him like gravity pulled her to earth. The swelling of the fear abated but did not disappear, so she thought of Sixty, pictured him in her mind’s eye, and let herself feel how he made her feel—not weak, but full, secure. It was a friendship feeling, and it surprised her that she felt it. Maybe she felt it because she needed it. She didn’t have many friends left—Joseph and Esther’s visages played in her consciousness and an overwhelming sense of loss. She had to get to Alaric and Sixty. She tried to walk through the dark and the fear and cried out in determination and rage…

The fear vanished, and Volka was spinning through space aboard Sundancer, a distant sun getting closer. She caught her breath, feeling Sundancer’s meaning—Onward!

Volka smiled. “Thank you, Sundancer,” she whispered. She’d barely said the words before she was shivering in the snow again, but there was still a glimmer of light in the corner of her eye.

“Volka!” Carl said, hopping by her feet. “You’re communicating with Sundancer all by yourself!”

Before she could answer, the wind swirled, catching new scents and bringing them to her nose.

Giving a cry, Volka sprinted forward and fell to her knees.

Starship Waking

A man was pinging 6T9 over the ether. “Sixty, are you there?” But he couldn’t answer.

Something heavy was on top of him. It was dark, and his mouth was full of dirt and rocks. He heard sounds in the distance. Perhaps a holo of a space battle? It was also colder than it had been a few minutes ago. He wondered why the humans had turned off the heat. He was losing power too fast, and he might not be able to fulfill their sexual fantasies if they didn’t hurry things along.

The weight on 6T9’s head and neck vanished, and he found himself staring up at a woman with ears like a wolf’s. She smiled at him, and her smile made his circuits light. Coughing up the rocks and dirt that had fallen into his mouth, he said, “I was not adequately briefed on this sexual fantasy.” He winked at her. “But you must be the woman we were expecting.”

Her smile dropped.

“You weren’t destroyed,” said the voice in the ether. “Why couldn’t you answer me?”

6T9 replied to the voice, “I couldn’t answer you. There were rocks in my mouth.”

“Why would rocks keep you from answering the ethernet?” the voice asked.

6T9 blinked and tilted his head. “I don’t know. I should run a full diagnos—”

“Just bang the back of your head on a rock,” the voice ordered.

Since there were no other humans about to supply instruction, and he was conveniently lying on a rock, 6T9 did. And almost wished he hadn’t. He heard phaser fire, far too close. Someone nearby was groaning, and an engine was revving in the distance. Worse, Volka was leaning over him. “What are you doing here?” 6T9 said. “You have to escape.”

“No,” she growled.

Gritting his teeth, he tried to lift the weight on top of him. A huge chunk of what he now knew was the ceiling was on his torso and upper legs. Something else was on his shins. He didn’t have the leverage to move either. “Volka, I can’t get out. You have to get away.”

Lip turning up, she growled again but then vanished from view. He heard her treading across the rocks and exhaled in relief. The addition of a smaller weight on his chest made him blink. “Carl Sagan,” he said. “You must go with Volka.”

“Hmpf,” said Carl Sagan. The creature disappeared into a crevice, and 6T9 felt him running along one side of his body and then the other. The snowfall was letting up. Somewhere, 6T9 heard a hover engine roar, and his Q-comm hummed without his volition. Schematics for craft with similarly sounding hover configurations began playing before his eyes. “What’s happening?” he asked the werfle, since Carl was apparently staying.

“We have found ourselves smack in the middle of an armed insurrection against the Luddecceans. Rebels attacked the inn. I convinced Volka to jump out a window just before their plasma grenades went off—or the smell of Dean’s blood convinced her. He’s dead, by the way. I don’t understand why they killed him.”

6T9’s mind flew to Dean’s hover, connected to its external sensors, rewound them, and watched the scene from a verbal altercation between Dean and a group of men dressed in mechanics’ coveralls. In the midst of the fighting, Dean had drawn himself upright and had gone suddenly very still. His gaze had taken on the same intensity 6T9 had seen when Alaric had looked at Volka. Dean had stormed away from the argument, opening a door that let in a blast of snow. A minute after he left, one of the men, armed with a shotgun, went after him. 6T9’s Q-comm hummed and warmed, connecting the visuals with Volka’s proclamation that Dean and the innkeeper’s daughter were lovers. The most likely scenario was the men in the garage were the rebels. They’d wanted to blow up the inn. Dean had disagreed and stormed off, probably to warn his lover and her family. The rebels had silenced him with a bullet that hadn’t been heard over the wailing of the wind.

6T9 opened his eyes, and his lips twisted into a grimace. Humans weren’t programmed to kill or to preserve, and you could only guess what they were going to do.

Carl Sagan emerged on the rubble to 6T9’s left. Hopping back and forth and wiggling his body, he said, “Volka, over here!”

There was the sound of Volka’s footsteps, and a moment later, she appeared beside Carl Sagan. She carried a meter-long bar of metal in her hands. She’d wrapped her hands in 6T9’s coat sleeves. His Q-comm hummed and he realized it was so they wouldn’t be burned with frostbite on the metal’s surface.

Phaser fire streaked above her head. A phaser cannon went off only a dozen or so meters away, and men screamed.

“You should go,” 6T9’s programming compelled him to say. His Q-comm hummed, knowing he would not be heeded. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“Put it in here!” Carl said, gesturing with a paw. “There is a beam beneath you can use as a fulcrum.”

Thrusting the bar into the ground, Volka grunted and tried to wedge the piece of roof off of his chest.

“Volka, if you die,” 6T9 said. “I will—”

Pausing her efforts, she snapped, “Stop talking!” With a cry, she began pulling on the bar. Jumping up, Carl Sagan grabbed the length of bar just above her hands, as though his small mass could affect the outcome. 6T9 scrunched his eyes shut. He should commence final upload. If he wasn’t here, they wouldn’t be endangering themselves.

Volka growled. Carl squeaked. The plasma cannon sounded closer. A groan sounded in the rubble nearby. And the weight on 6T9’s chest lightened. Opening his eyes, 6T9 twisted his arms in the centimeters of space opening up beneath the fallen roof and added his strength to the task of lifting. He heard cries of pain from what had been the street, but also more in the rubble around him. 6T9 felt static dance under his skin and frustration at being unable to help the Luddeccean Guardsmen fallen around him. Even if they’d considered “slagging” him, they were still human, and his programming demanded he assist. Another few centimeters of space opened up, and 6T9 was able to add the power in his torso to the strength of his arms. He heaved the slab off of him and sat up.

Volka panted to Carl, “Is Alaric alive?” She swallowed. “Can you find him?”

Carl’s ears went back. “Can’t we leave him to his own people?”

The moans of injured humans sounded all around 6T9. Until they started firing on Volka, he needed to help them. Flinging the piece of roof off of his shins, 6T9 said, “No, we cannot leave him.”

Swishing his tail, Carl said, “Oh, all right,” and raced across the rubble.

Still panting, Volka looked at 6T9. The vapor from her breath had frozen in her eyelashes, and snow clung to her ears. “Thank you,” she whispered, eyes soft. It wasn’t the quantum wave warping stare she’d given Alaric, Alaric had given her, or Dean had given the rebels. 6T9 wanted that look, but he got up anyway—someday maybe from someone else.

“Over here!” Carl said, squeaking in the real world. Raising her bar, Volka sprinted over to him.

A red light at the periphery of 6T9’s vision screamed. It was much colder than it had been when they’d left the escape pod and he’d just exerted himself. He was going to be out of power fast. Overriding his warning systems and default power routings, he chased after Volka.

Starship Waking

The faces of his sons Lukas and Sam played behind Alaric’s eyes. They were running toward him across a green Luddeccean field, laughing, arms extended. His wife walked behind them, head held high, shoulders back. Black hair pulled back against her skull, skin as white as Libertian snow, Alexis was tall, stately, and regal. She looked down at him and said sternly, “Come home on your shield or not at all.”

Alaric shuddered, woke, and that dream became a nightmare. It was dark and he could feel the sharp claws of cold on his right side and a slower seeping chill on his left. He tried to think, but his brain was overwhelmed by agony. He could not isolate the pain to one spot on his body or block it out. His breathing was rapid and ineffectual, and a blanket that felt like it was made of steel was smothering him.

He felt the haziness of unconsciousness pulling him under again, but then the blanket was partially peeled away. The icy claws of cold struck suddenly, and light pierced his eyes. He took a breath and it was frigid, but filled his lungs. His pain had origin points—his ribs, his right leg below the knee. Someone groaned, and he realized, distantly, it was him. He heard Huang say, “Help me,” and a man respond, “Don’t worry I’ve…got…you.”

Alaric’s eyes opened and saw the android lifting Huang away. He was too disorientated to contemplate what it meant. Huang groaned, and the android stumbled as he pulled the airman clear of Alaric.

“Sixty, are you all right?” Volka asked.

“I disengaged my thermoregulation to…conserve power…Cold…don’t worry. I’ll be fine for a…while.”

Alaric blinked, looking for Volka. He raised his gaze and found her leaning over him, warm yellow eyes on his. “Don’t worry. Sixty will free your legs.”

Alaric glanced down his body. He was lying half on his side, his legs twisted at an odd angle. He remembered the building sagging and struggling not to be sucked out of the relative protection of the door frame. His bottom half was trapped beneath a slab of the roof. The android came back, and began knocking some loose rocks away, the werfle scampering around its feet.

He heard phaser fire and the roar of the LSC hover engines. It was getting closer. The phaser cannon boomed. Very close by, Huang called, “Captain? Captain?”

Putting a hand on Alaric’s shoulder, Volka whispered, “Sixty says he’ll be fine, as soon as your medical crew…” Her voice drifted off, and Alaric winced. His medical crew was most likely buried under several floors of rubble.

“I’m sorry,” she said, stroking his chin. Her fingers were calloused, but the gesture was soft. “We weren’t a part of this.”

“I…can lift…this now,” said the android.

“We?” Alaric whispered.

“Sixty, Carl, and me,” she said.

Alaric stammered, “Why…?” and ran out of breath. Why would she align herself with such a creature, the enemy of her people? She was the religious one.

Leaning so close he could almost taste her lips, Volka shook her head. “He’s saving you.”

Alaric shook his head. “No.” That didn’t make sense. The spies he’d encountered would self-destruct when caught, taking any human nearby—Guard, civilian, children—with them. They had no fear of death, their minds lived in servers elsewhere, and had no concern for humans for whom death was the end—no matter what Volka believed.

“It’s true,” she whispered, caressing his cheek. He closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “When I first met him,” she said, “I thought he was an angel.”

Alaric’s eyes bolted open in alarm. She’d gone mad.

Volka gave him a beatific smile. Phaser fire was getting closer. The LCS was getting closer. What would they do when they found his head practically in the lap of the enemy? He and Volka both were destined to die, and he couldn’t push her away.

The android stood slowly, raising the slab of roof in his arms. With all that was going on, it was odd that Alaric’s eyes were drawn to the werfle. It also was standing, raising itself to its back two leg pairs. It turned toward Alaric and held up a paw, tiny digits spread, and squeaked as though to tell him something.

Volka whispered urgently, “He says to wait. If you move—”

The pressure on Alaric’s lower leg vanished, and he instinctively yanked it toward his chest. He was instantly hit with a stab of raw pain. His vision went white and his scream rang in his ears.

Huang shouted, “No!” and a phaser blast shot above Alaric toward the android.

Starship Waking

“No!” shouted Carl Sagan, still standing on his back two paw pairs.

Phaser fire streaked above Volka’s head toward 6T9. In the instant she saw it, she remembered him saying he couldn’t withstand a direct hit from a phaser.

It hit him square in the chest, pushing him back a few steps…and then the bolt veered sideways. Volka gaped. There was a black hole in Sixty’s chest about two centimeters deep, wide as a man’s fist, and a streak of black across his chest and upper arm following the course of the blast. His shirt was in tatters, fluttering behind him like wings, and where it had been 6T9 began to glow, then to shimmer, and then to shine. White light spread from the scar to his face and hands. It was so bright it made his eyes look black in comparison…like an angel. At his feet, Carl Sagan crumpled like a stuffed toy. “I…can’t…help…you…anymore…”

“Carl!” Sixty said, partially bending over and then straightening and growing even brighter. Throwing back his head, arms outstretched, he screamed, body jerking madly and light pouring from him so brightly it shone through his clothing. Throwing up a hand to shield her eyes, Volka turned her head. The gunfire in the background stopped, and she knew everyone’s eyes must be on the top of the pile of rubble and on 6T9, shining like a lost star.

Scuffling made her look up, and she saw Huang—she knew because of his name on his uniform. He was the Guardsman they’d found above Alaric, and he was shambling in her direction. His eyes and his phaser were aimed at 6T9. At her motion, he turned it on her. “You,” he hissed. Volka froze.

“It’s…me…you…want…” Sixty grunted, body still jerking, light still spilling from under his skin.

Huang swiveled, aiming once again at 6T9. Volka bit her lip. Sixty was drawing Huang’s fire. He had helped her save Huang and Alaric even though he knew they wanted him destroyed. They thought he was dangerous, but he couldn’t kill…and maybe, in a strange way, that made him an angel? Was God not mighty and imaginative enough to allow His creations to take many forms? In the Third Book, the Prophet said that angels were above men because they could do no evil, but that humans could rise above angels because they could choose to do good over evil, and choosing was the harder path.

What type of evil didn’t protect angels from men?

Dropping fast, Volka picked up the pole she’d used to pry Sixty and the men out of the rubble. Huang saw it and spun toward her. Volka’s pole was faster. She clipped Huang’s wrist and heard it break. The phaser went flying. “He just saved your life!” Volka growled.

Grabbing his wrist, Huang snarled, “Heretic,” and dived for the phaser.

The hovering ship was very close, and she thought she heard men running toward the mound. Someone shouted, “Look, the captain’s up there.”

“Guard are coming from the ship,” she heard Sixty say, but she couldn’t turn away from Huang as he dived toward his weapon. She tried to bring her pole down on his hand, but the pole was heavier than she was used to, and Libertas’s gravity was higher. She slipped in the rubble. The pole hit the ground with teeth-jarring force, missing Huang, and he snatched up the phaser. She lifted the pole again, and he rolled over on his stomach and lifted the phaser.

In an instant she knew many things…She knew she didn’t have time to adjust her grip or her angle, she knew she was only going to get one more swing, and she knew it would be a killing blow. She swung. The pole hit Huang’s head. She heard the sickening sound of breaking bone as the pole sank into his skull as though it were as fragile as an eggshell. The phaser blast meant for her chest hit a piece of rubble near her feet, but Volka did not move.

She stared at the man’s face, twisted and misshapen by the blow. Snow was already accumulating on his hair and shoulders. It maybe wasn’t the first time she’d killed someone, but it was the first time she’d done so knowingly.

“Volka, no!” shouted Alaric.

Phaser fire sped by her so close she could feel heat.

Volka crumpled, pole falling from her grasp. A strong arm wrapped around her from behind, and she was lifted from her feet as though she were a doll. “I am fully powered now,” Sixty said, running a few steps, knocking the breath from her lungs. He leaped from an enormous piece of slab, and then they were hurtling toward the drifts meters below.

They landed, sending flurries exploding around them. It was too deep to run. Behind her, Volka heard the Guard approaching the summit of the rubble pile. They’d fire and—

The pair of doors on the building behind the inn that looked like a barn door exploded outward. Dean’s hover came cruising over the snow toward them, skidding to park sideways right in front of their noses, sending more snow flying. The door popped open.

“It’s empty!” Volka cried, pulling herself from Sixty’s arm and backing away in fear. “Is it possessed?”

6T9 picked her up from behind, spun them both around, and fell back into the hover with her on his lap, Carl on his opposite arm, and their feet sticking out. Because she was sideways facing the rubble pile, and the door was still open, she saw down the muzzle of the plasma rifle aimed at her nose. Volka’s eyes went wide and then her body was crushed into the seat as the hover jolted forward. Cold air spilled into the cab.

“Pull your legs in!” 6T9 commanded over the roar of the wind. Volka did, just as the hover banked hard right. Volka gaped. There was the spaceship she’d glimpsed from afar, hovering in what had been their path. It was the size of a jumbo jet airplane she’d once ridden on with Mr. Darmadi but fatter, with stubbier wings, time bands down its length, and an enormous gun emerging from its belly, pointing right at them. She squeaked. 6T9 muttered, “Short circuits,” and then the hover lurched forward again and rose in the air just as plasma fire shot beneath it. They banked left between shadows that might have been buildings—it was hard to see in the snow—and then 6T9 sighed. Volka took a deep breath, and then her hair rose, and her whole body stiffened. “What is that smell? Chemicals…burning plastic…” Gagging, she put her hand over her face.

6T9 jerked beneath her and roughly pushed her off of him. “It’s me,” he grunted, turning around so he was facing the front. An unconscious Carl was draped across his far arm. “Belt up,” Sixty said, not looking at her. “We’ve only got a few minutes before your boyfriend’s crew is after us.”

Covering her mouth, she turned around, threw down her pack, and then held her breath as she belted on her seatbelt. She was sitting behind the steering wheel, but it was turning on its own. It made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. “He’s not my boyfriend.” Volka practically spat the last word. She’d been his lover for half a decade and miscarried three of Alaric’s children.

6T9 raised an eyebrow at her.

“He left me for a human woman,” Volka said tightly. Alaric had offered her his patronage when he’d become engaged. She’d turned him down on religious grounds, although in her heart she knew it was nothing so noble. She just couldn’t bear to share him with another.

Eyes focused ahead again, 6T9 said, “He loved you enough to save you.”

Her chest clenched. “It was lust, not love for him.” For her it was love.

“For some humans, they’re pretty much one and the same.” His eyes flicked to a mirror, and he added, “And Carl could barely control him. If he hadn’t had feelings for you, I’d be slag and you’d be dead.”

Volka had just killed his Guardsman. If Alaric had ever loved her, he probably didn’t love her now. She took a deep breath and was once again struck with the scent of seared chemicals. Grimacing, she looked at 6T9’s chest. She instantly felt ashamed. The skin and muscle around the impact area appeared to have boiled. “Oh, Sixty…” She swallowed. “Are you…”

“I turned off the pain,” 6T9 said. “And nothing functional was injured.”

Not “it didn't hurt,” Volka noted. He’d had to turn the hurt off.

She remembered his scream. “Thank you,” she said, “for saving my life.” It sounded very small.

He glanced over at her. He didn’t exactly smile, but his face became less hard. His skin was covered with grime, and his hair was gray with dirt. Looking back out the window, he said, “Thank you for saving my…whatever.”

Did she hear bitterness in the last word?

Volka didn’t know what to say. Biting her lip, she faced forward and then realized there was something she had to say. Reaching forward gingerly, she caressed the center of the steering wheel. “And thank you, Hover, for rescuing us. I’m sorry I called you possessed. You’re a machine, like Sixty.”

“It’s not like me,” Sixty said.

“Well, no, but it’s smart like you,” Volka protested. “It’s driving.”

“It does have an autopilot; however, I’m driving,” 6T9 said, scowling out the window from the passenger seat.

“How?” Volka asked, gaping at the steering wheel.

“With my mind. It’s so ancient it has ether control,” 6T9 replied. “Snow keeps getting on the external sensors, so I have to stay focused.”

“All…androids…can control machines with their…minds?” Volka stammered. That was terrifying. 6T9 had always been kind, but she wasn’t sure she’d trust any android.

“Every human in the Republic with a neural interface can, too,” 6T9 responded.

Volka’s lips parted. She wanted to ask questions, but he looked very serious, and she bit back her curiosity.

Sixty’s chest rose and fell, and the reek of burnt plastic increased. “I don’t know how we’ll get into the Red Gorge without the hover pack. Or even how we’ll get to the top of the Red Cliffs.”

Volka swallowed. She knew of both from a few Luddeccean Geographic magazines in Mr. Darmadi’s library. The Red Cliffs shot up from the Iron Valley floor, and the Red Gorge cut between them and the Iron Range.

She glanced about. They’d left the town minutes ago and were now cruising through low rolling hills. The landscape was nothing like she’d seen on Luddeccea. Jagged boulders, some completely covered in snow, others showing red rock, jutted out like wicked teeth. Scraggly dark trees whipped at the craft.

Sixty shook his head and glanced at his jacket that she was still wearing. “You’ve got what’s more important.” She instinctively touched the ashes. He smiled minutely and returned his attention to the windshield.

Ahead of them the clouds broke, yellow light spilling onto the snow, and Sixty said, “Guard reinforcements will be here in a few minutes.” Adjusting the rearview mirror, he glanced up. “Your captain’s found us.”

Volka looked backward. Hurtling toward them just above the snow was the Guard craft she’d seen earlier. It was like a giant, malevolent, metal bird of prey skimming across a lake of snow. Besides a gun protruding from its underbelly, it had two more cannons on either wing. Her heart sunk and her eyes grew hot.

Would Alaric grant her mercy one more time?

Starship Waking

Alaric sat in the bridge of the LCS, his broken leg outstretched in a rapid-caster, the needles of electric nerve disrupters stabbing his skin held in place by medical tape. He burned, not with the pain from needles or even his broken ribs, but with rage.

Volka had killed Huang. Gentle little Volka who’d been so innocent, who he’d held in his arms, who’d been so soft beneath him, and begged him to bury himself within her. His hands balled into fists on the arm rests as he thought of Huang’s shattered skull. The machine had corrupted her—just as it had let Alaric’s eyes slip over it, it had distorted Volka’s vision.

“They’re in visual range, Captain,” Ensign Peters said nervously. The man had been part of the skeleton crew. Normally he was deep in engineering, but now he was on the bridge in the navigator chair.

Ran had been the only person to walk away from the wreckage of the inn virtually unhurt. He’d pulled himself out and over to Alaric as the android and Volka had escaped and whispered, “I saw them pull you and Huang from the wreckage…why?”

Alaric had been nearly incapacitated by pain, but Chief of Engineering Agrawal, another member of the skeleton crew that had been safe inside the ship during the attack, had answered for him. “For hostages.”

At the firing console, Ran asked, “Should we use phaser cannons, or try to fry their engines with a disrupter, sir?”

Hostages. That had to have been the reason. The android had planned to torture Alaric for access codes and intel.

“Sir?” Ran said again, voice tense. Had Alaric’s nearly sycophant commander finally taken him off the pedestal?

Alaric gazed out the viewport. They were drawing closer to the small civilian hover. He thought of the android that had made his eyes slide over it and poisoned Volka’s mind. It should be captured and taken apart bolt by bolt.

And then he thought of the interrogators and what they’d do to Volka, how they’d take advantage of her body, and make her death as slow and as excruciating as possible. Pain radiated up his arms from the force of his grip on his armrests. His lip curled. “Slag them.”

Starship Waking

6T9 glanced at the rearview mirror and saw flecks of glowing orange in their pursuer’s cannons. Wrapping his hand protectively around Carl, he dropped the hover craft into the snow drifts below them. Rapid deceleration threw him against the safety straps, but the phaser cannon fire streaked overhead. They plowed forward beneath the snow out of visual range, and hopefully, out of view of heat sensors, too.

He exhaled, Carl’s double hearts beating against his arm. The tiny alien had made the phaser blast that struck 6T9’s chest veer to the side—6T9 suspected in the same mysterious way Carl had slipped through the door at the inn. 6T9 hadn’t had time to switch to his masochist applications before the surge of power to the filaments had overwhelmed him, and the blast and the aftermath had been agony so hot and terrible he hadn’t been able to quantify it. And yet, when it had ended, he had been ridiculously grateful to still be in his battered shell, and not just a stream of data in Time Gate 1’s server stacks.

His Q-comm hummed. According to his ancient topography maps, they only had fifteen more kilometers to a sixty-percent grade that would allow the hover to ascend to the chasm’s edge. If he did a barrel roll, he and Volka might be able to drop out of the hover at the cliff peaks unnoticed. He could command the hover to zip off on autopilot and be a decoy while they descended the canyon on foot…in the cold…and snow. And then they’d have to walk on foot another ten kilometers. Even with his power reserves full, he didn’t think he’d make it in the cold.

“We aren’t going very fast…” Volka whispered, her ears swiveled back.

“Lizzars,” 6T9 swore. They were tunneling through the snow at thirty kilometers an hour which would put their pursuer above them in less than a minute. He lifted them out, veered hard right, and aimed for the space between two enormous rocky outcroppings the other craft could not follow through. Swerving left to cut through, 6T9 almost sighed with relief when they emerged from the other side…but then swerved again just in time to miss phaser fire from the captain’s ship. The captain hadn’t followed them, he’d gone around and turned about, anticipating their emergence and course.

“Up there!” Volka cried, pointing. 6T9 glanced up to see a starfighter emerging from the clouds, plasma cannons already primed and glowing orange. Cursing, 6T9 pulled up, flipping them upside down and backward, almost out of the hover’s altitude limit, barrel rolled them back through the boulders and upright again. Volka gasped.

“I’ll stay with you until you die,” he promised her. “And I’ll put that off as long as possible.” For himself as well. His Q-comm heated. They would be destroyed if they stayed out in the open.

In the periphery of his vision, he saw her look at him with wide eyes. Gunning the engine to its maximum velocity, he altered course, just missing being hit from above. Ahead he saw men toiling in the snow, magni-freight cars carting away rock, and a dark gash in the side of the Red Cliff’s face.

Swerving madly to keep from being an easy target, 6T9 said, “We have to get in that magni-freight tunnel.” Phaser fire turned the snow on their left to steam.

Covering her head, Volka said, “That sounds like a good plan.”

“Not really,” he replied. A shock wave from a dropped charge lifted the hover out of altitude range. Teeth clattering as they belly-flopped into a snow drift, navigating through tunneling equipment, workers, and a few paltry phaser rifle blasts, he didn’t have a chance to explain. The tunnel wasn’t yet complete. It wasn’t an escape. It was a dead end.

Starship Waking

“Full-stop,” Alaric ordered, and the LCS craft came to a halt just meters from the construction site for the new magni-freight line, sending a wave of snow before it. Alaric scowled at the gash in the cliff face, and the workers and security personnel gesturing into the tunnel. Ostensibly to help with carting ore, the tunnel would allow the transport of troops beneath the Iron Range in blizzards like the one that had nearly destroyed his ship.

Father Diomedes was manning the comm station. Lieutenant Torres, the man who usually manned the station, had been in the inn when it was attacked. “Captain, there are reports of resumed fighting at Iron Forge. Captain Tschev suggests he send in his starfighters to supply air support.”

“The tunnel is a dead end,” Ran said, looking over his shoulder at Alaric. “We can neutralize the android and the heretic ourselves.”

Alaric nodded at Diomedes. “Tell him we’d appreciate it. We’ll handle the android.”

Sonic booms sounded as the starfighters shot off toward Iron Forge.

Eyes gleaming with confidence, Ran said, “We may be able to take them alive if we send in a team.”

“It’s a trap,” Alaric said. “He’ll draw us in and then initiate a self-destruct and take as many of us as he can.”

Ran looked out the view screen. “You’re right.”

The radio began crackling, probably with the head of the tunnel security.

“Father,” Alaric commanded. “Tell the foreman to get all of his personnel out of the tunnel.”

“Yes, Captain,” the father replied.

Alaric stared into the void cut into the cliff face. Would the thing release Volka’s mind before her destruction? He didn’t know what to hope. To the commander, he said, “Deploy the drones. Shoot to destroy and kill.”

Starship Waking

“We’re close to Sundancer, aren’t we?” Volka said. She felt as though she was being pulled forward by a cord—or as though someone had thrown her a lifeline when she was sinking. She felt profoundly relieved, even though the darkness of the tunnel was claustrophobia inducing, and stretched seemingly endlessly before them. Every few meters, the light fixtures protruded from the walls that emitted a sickly green glow. There had been no more phaser fire, only a few startled miners—tunnelers? They’d jumped out of their way when 6T9 blew the horn. She felt like she could finally breathe.

“Yes,” Sixty said, focus straight ahead and jaw tight.

Volka whispered, “We’re almost to you, Sundancer! I saved Sixty and Alaric and we’re coming!”

“Um…” said Sixty.

“Of course, that won’t work,” Volka murmured distractedly.

“You know that?” 6T9 whispered.

“To talk to her, I have to feel.” Closing her eyes, Volka took a deep breath…and let herself be joyful, let her anticipation overflow, and pictured Sixty, Carl, and herself in Sundancer’s interior. Somehow, her imagination, or her heart, couldn’t help conjuring Alaric there, too. Together they zoomed toward a distant sun.

“Volka?” said the Carl in her daydream. She blinked, startled by his appearance. He wasn’t amorphous this time. She could see every wisp of fur on Carl’s coat, the tremble of his little whiskers, the light shining in his eyes, and his ten legs and all his claws.

“I have quite the imagination,” she said.

Rising to his hindmost paw pairs, Carl studied a claw. “I don’t think this is you.” He looked up at her, eyes widening adorably. “Sundancer. She’s waking up. This isn’t one of her usual dreams.”

As he said it, the distant sun was suddenly an enormous ball of flame leaping off the port side. The starship equivalent of opening one’s eyes to a sunrise? Volka felt like it was.

“She’s waking…” Volka said, smiling in wonder. “I feel…like I am coming home!” She laughed and felt like her heart might explode with happiness. Or maybe it was Sundancer’s heart? Carl danced.

“Who’s waking?” dream Alaric asked.

Carl drew back, and Volka turned to her former…well, whatever Alaric had been. She could see the shadow of stubble on his chin. He was standing, but wearing a rapid cast on his leg, and circular nerve disruptors were plugged into his hip. “Volka,” he whispered. “Where are we?”

“Uh-oh,” said Carl.

Alaric’s eyes shot to the werfle. “Why is the werfle talking?”

Alaric was here, in this dream. He’d always told her she was imagining things when she told him about her feelings of connection before, but he was here. That had to mean something important, that they were connected in some intrinsic way. He was injured. Maybe he wasn’t the one commanding his ship. Maybe it was Ran who had fired on them. It had to have been.

Alaric’s eyes shot beyond Volka’s shoulder, and he demanded, “Is it his doing?”

Volka followed his glare to Sixty, and her lips parted in surprise. Sixty was semi-transparent, all his features were indistinct, he was staring at nothing, and didn’t even have feet.

“Sixty’s not really here with us,” Carl said, his voice resigned. “It’s just our memories of him. Probably good as someone has to drive.”

“But Alaric’s here with us,” Volka protested. “Is he telepathic, too?”

“No,” said Carl, shaking his head. “Sundancer knows you love him, and is exceptionally strong and has brought him into this…well…vision, I guess you’d say. She’s very powerful, but even I can enter human consciousness when they dream or—”

“Where is here?” Alaric demanded.

Volka met his gaze, and her fingers twitched with the desire to touch him. “This is Sundancer’s imagination.”

“Who is Sundancer?” Alaric asked, taking a step toward them, unhindered by his cast.

Carl cried, “Don’t—”

Volka stepped toward Alaric. “Our starship.”

Alaric backed away, gaze flashing around Sundancer’s imagined bridge. “This is madness.”

“It’s not,” Volka said. “She’s our…” She bit her lip. “Our friend.”

“No, no…” Alaric shook his head, taking another step back.

“Don’t be afraid,” Volka said, holding a hand toward him.

Halting his retreat, Alaric stared at her just a moment, and then his lip curled and he shouted, “Fire! Now!” The sun outside the ship erupted, and Alaric vanished. For a moment, there was silence aboard Sundancer’s bridge, and then it shook, and the sun beside them throbbed. Volka shouted in rage, but she wasn’t sure if it was Alaric’s, Sundancer’s, or hers.

“We must go,” Carl said.

…and then they were back in the tunnel, but instead of darkness, they were surrounded by phaser fire. She sucked in on her lips. Alaric was firing on them…again. He’d never believed in visions.

Carl squeaked and stretched on 6T9’s forearm. “I feel like I was hit by a hover bus.”

“We’re being fired on by remote control drones,” 6T9 said, dropping the hover so low they skidded over the track below, sending sparks flying.

Turning in her seat, Volka saw drones hovering a meter and a half off the tunnel floor. Shaped like spheres that had their bottom quarters sawed off, they had dark gashes running around what would be their equators. Phasers protruded from the gashes, orange and primed. She winced, and a blast clipped the top of the hover by Volka’s window, making the composite glow with heat. Pulling away, she hissed in pain.

Unbuckling his seat belt, 6T9 said, “I won’t leave you until you die, and I have an idea.” Turning around, half standing, Carl still on his one arm, he said, “Get onto my side, face backward, and tuck yourself into the fetal position.”

Volka looked down at her pack.

“Bring only your sketchbook,” he said.

Nodding, she tore it out of the pack, stuffed it down her shirt, and then, unfastening her belt, she fumbled to his side of the hover. He handed her Carl as she maneuvered onto his seat. “Curl around him,” 6T9 said. “I’ll curl around you.”

Nodding, she tucked the warm weight of the werfle to her stomach and awkwardly pulled into the fetal position on the seat. The hover was darting side to side, rocking her with it, and she flinched at a blast of phaser fire that came way too close. The space was tight, and 6T9’s chest was against her back. He wrapped one arm around her legs and the other over her head, pulling them closer. “You trust me,” he said, like it was a revelation, and she stiffened at the tone, unsure if she deserved the awe behind it. She felt what might have been a kiss on the back of her head, and she swallowed.

A blast of phaser fire hit the hover, sending the craft rolling. The hover collided with the walls, floor, and ceiling, and inside Volka, 6T9, and Carl did, too—but 6T9 never let her go and took the brunt of it. Another blast loosened the door on the driver’s side and then the one above them. The doors tore off when the hover bounced against the ceiling, falling behind them, sending up sparks, and briefly hiding the drones from view. And then the hover rolled over and did not right itself. Without a roof, they dropped to the tracks below. Carl squeaked; Volka bit her lip and tasted blood. Beneath them, 6T9 didn’t make a sound, even when they bounced and skidded along the track. They came to a stop, and Volka opened her eyes to see the drones only meters away. She tried to get off 6T9, to scramble away, but he smacked a hand over her mouth and held her still. “Don’t move!” he whispered urgently beneath her.

Volka went limp. Her heart pounded in her ears. The killing machines were not five paces away. Her eyes went wide, and then the drones flew above them in a whirr of hover engines and phaser blasts. She followed their path with her eyes and saw the hover still bouncing through the tunnel, sending off sparks as it collided off the surfaces.

6T9 muttered, “Nebulas.” He ripped Carl from her grip, and the werfle squeaked as 6T9 flipped Volka over and pressed her between the ties of the tracks, Carl beside her. Pinning her beneath him, 6T9 pushed her face cruelly into the gravel. Rocks tore at her cheeks, she smelled her own blood, and spit gravel and dirt from her mouth. And then she saw light, even though she was face down in gravel; it was so bright it crept in from the sides. The light was followed by a deafening boom.

Starship Waking

6T9 lay stretched out above Volka and Carl. His Q-comm downloaded diagrams of their skeletal systems. Their bones might as well be butterfly wings. 6T9 pressed them tight as he could to the tunnel floor. The ground rippled as though it were the surface of a pond a stone had been cast into, and rocks fell from the ceiling.

A hover exploding wouldn’t cause such a shockwave—plasma fire hitting a controlled detonation device like the type used in mining could, and plasma on such a device would do more than just cause a rumble. The drones must have hit a planted charge. “Hold your breath!” 6T9 shouted, realizing what was to come. He felt Volka’s lungs struggle, and then a fireball rolled over them, melting the synth-skin on his back. He had shut off his pain receptors, but as his liquified skin dribbled along his spine, he felt like he might scream with the wrongness of it. His internal alarms were blaring, and another part of him was screaming that Volka and Carl should not be here. They could die.

There was a loud whoosh, and the fire retreated. Rocks and pebbles pelted the ground around them and embedded themselves in the soft surface of 6T9’s melted synth-skin. “Volka? Carl?” he whispered. “Are you…?” Conscious. Did he want them to be? If they were unconscious, they would not be in pain.

Carl’s thoughts whipped into his mind. “Next time, could you give a warning?”

“No,” 6T9 replied aloud. “I was too busy calculating the exact time to release the doors so their fall would obscure our drop as they bounced down the track, and then I was too busy protecting you and flying the hover as far into the tunnel as I could.”

Volka panted, and then, lifting her head, cried, “Sundancer! We’re coming!”

6T9 blinked. Was Volka mad or lying to the space craft?

“Get off of us!” Carl cried. “We have to reach her!”

6T9 hesitated, wanting to savor the last moments of life in their bodies, willing the beats of their hearts to continue forever. They had so little time left.

“Sixty.” Volka began to struggle. “Are you hurt too much to move?”

Even though he didn’t like the idea of not being able to protect them, he said, “I’m still very functional,” and rolled off. Not meeting their eyes, he sat up, the skin on his back stretching oddly, and a strange sensation of cold zinging along his spine. “Even if we can reach her,” he said dismally, “We don’t have the explosives we need to free her from the glacier. And then we have to wake her.” He put a hand over his eyes, his circuits going dark. He had no more ideas. Surely there were explosives at the tunnel’s mouth, but that was nearly a kilometer away, and how would they get them?

“He can’t see what we see,” Carl said mysteriously.

The weight of the werfle’s paw on his thigh made 6T9 look up.

“She’s awake,” Carl said. “And I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the glacier.”

“How will we get out of here?” 6T9 asked. He felt oddly like a dumb ‘bot again. He comprehended their words, but felt like he was locked out of some greater understanding.

Volka and the werfle blinked at him. Volka’s eyes went wide. “You can’t smell the fresh air!” Grabbing his hand, she stood and tugged.

Hefting Carl onto his opposite forearm, 6T9 rose unsteadily to his feet. He wasn’t sure they both weren’t delusional, but then again, he’d never really been sure Sundancer was anything more than an illusion. But Volka’s hand was real, warm, and she’d reached out to him of her own initiative. It made his circuits dance even though he knew the contact was nothing more than comradely. He wondered when his standards for physical fulfillment had sunk so low.

From the mouth of the tunnel came a hum.

“Drones,” Volka murmured.

“Run!” Carl cried.

They ran. The cold seeping along 6T9’s spine depleting his power reserves at an alarming rate. Within a few meters, they were stumbling in darkness. The light fixtures in the walls had been damaged by fire or falling debris. Knowing it might give them away, and would drain his power reserves even more quickly, 6T9 turned on the emergency lights that shone through the whites of his eyes. Volka glanced over her shoulder at him, gasped but didn’t let his hand go, and she stopped stumbling.

The drones’ hum behind them became louder. 6T9’s Q-comm unhelpfully informed him that they were only fifty-five seconds from firing range, but he could feel the frigid open air, too. Five seconds later, he saw the cold distant light of the sun, shining from a hole in the ceiling, just half a meter across about a meter above his head. Two seconds more, and they were beneath it.

“How will we—?” Volka started to ask.

6T9 tossed Carl through the opening. The werfle disappeared from view, squeaking in the real world, and complaining over the ether, “Warn me next time!”

6T9 was too busy to explain that he’d had to focus on the force needed and the precise angle, or that the countdown in his mind was blaring.

Kneeling, 6T9 said to Volka, “On my shoulders! Now!” But he knew it was too late.

Starship Waking

Alaric sat in the captain’s chair aboard the bridge, gripping the arm rests. He wasn’t going mad. His mind was still his own.

The remote drones’ visual readings were playing on the main screen. The tunnel was lit in the orange of their plasma chargers.

“What is that thing?” one of the ensigns asked. Aboard the LCS everyone held their breath. A nightmare was crouched on the floor. It had an exposed spine of silvery metal. Human-like flesh embedded with stones fanned out on either side of the gaping central gash. It didn’t appear to have a head. The cross hairs for the drones’ weapon firing systems hung above the thing—Ran seemed shocked. Alaric was shocked, too. A new alien. A new enemy?

Volka emerged from the shadows and sat upon it—and the thing rose to its feet.

“It’s the android!” Alaric shouted. “Fire.”

“Yes, sir!” Ran said.

The cross hairs lowered to the thing’s back. Volka stood on the thing’s shoulders and was abruptly hefted out of view. Ran fired, and the ship shook.

On the screen, the robot pitched sideways as though out of balance. The drones’ shots went wide.

“What?” Ran exclaimed.

“It’s an earthquake,” Alaric said. The ship continued to shake, but in the tunnel, the android regained its feet and looked directly at the drones. There were the remains of a deflected plasma bolt on its chest, and light shone from the whites of its eyes, making it look as though its irises were black. It looked like a devil, or, Alaric supposed, an angel.

“Mother of God,” said an ensign.

“Fire!” Alaric ordered, but the cross hairs only bounced erratically on the screen. Ran said, “I can’t get a lock. The drones’ hover systems are malfunctioning—”

Agrawal said, “It was the earthquake—our hover systems are still recovering.” Which was when Alaric realized the ship was still shaking.

The android crouched and leaped out of view.

“Follow it!” Alaric ordered.

The drones advanced shakily. “After shocks, sir,” said Ran. “I’ll get it under control in a moment.”

Volka’s words in the dream played in Alaric’s mind. It’s a starship.

Had it been a dream? There was an android that could deflect plasma blasts and seize minds. There was nothing in the Red Gorge for weere, man, or machine…unless…

“Agrawal, get us ready to leave atmosphere,” Alaric said.

“Yes, sir,” said the engineer.

“Sir,” Ran said. “I won’t be able to control the drones through the rock of—”

“They have a ship,” Alaric declared with certainty. A ship that had evaded all their sensors. Republic technology had taken a giant leap forward while Luddeccea had enjoyed a hundred years of relative freedom and peace. A peace they would pay for now.

The Republic could not be allowed to believe that Luddeccea was helpless, or that they would stand idly by when the Republic fostered internal rebellions. He thought of Volka, her mind completely lost. Luddeccea would not indulge kidnappers and mind theft. He wasn’t religious, but Volka was. She wouldn’t call it just “mind theft.” She’d call it “soul theft”…and what was the soul if not the mind? The Volka he knew would never sacrifice her soul.

His nails tore into the arm rests’ poly coating, but his voice, when it rang out on the bridge, was cold to his own ears. “We have to destroy it.”


21

Thaw

I feel you…so closebe safe…be safe…Volka didn’t hear the words as she stood in the snow and stared down into the tunnel shaft, Carl wrapped around her neck. She felt them in her heart. Sundancer was awake, knew they were here, and that they were in danger. The connection sent a thrill to her heart; at the same time, she felt like she would weep. To be so close and to lose made her heart and her throat threaten to seize up. “Sixty!” she called down meters of ice into the magni-freight tunnel. The ground shook. She heard phasers and sank to her knees. “Sixty!”

There was a sound like electrical static, and then a horrific shape emerged from the tunnel and clung to the icy, near-vertical slope. It had scales on its back that oozed blood, and it had sharp bright metal teeth along its spine. She gulped, realizing it was Sixty, and that the scales were rocks embedded in his skin. The bright sharp teeth were his metal vertebrae. He hadn’t complained once about the fall from the hover. Throwing herself down onto the ice and snow, she grabbed his wrists. Sixty looked up at her with glowing eyes, and the light within them faded. She heard the buzz of drones below and more phaser fire. Down in the gorge, she heard a crack and a boom. The earth shook again. 6T9 swayed dangerously, and for a moment, she thought she would lose him. But then he drove his fingers into the ice and snow and pulled himself up. He was panting when he reached the top…even though he said he didn’t need to breathe.

Bouncing on her shoulders, Carl said, “We have to hurry! 6T9 says even though the phaser blasts and explosion fully charged him, his exposed spine is conducting the cold to his systems, straining his thermo-regulators, freezing his joints, and making it power intensive to move. He’ll be completely drained soon.”

Volka hastily shrugged off his coat, and threw it over his shoulders. He put it on with jerky movements.

Carl squeaked. “Also, the ice above is about to give way.”

For the first time, Volka looked up instead of down. One of her paperbacks had featured a story that took place in the Red Gorge. The narrator attested that the gorge was over 2,012 meters deep. She’d thought that had been hyperbole, but now she believed it. Clinging to the gorge’s sides were huge ice sheets. The ground trembled, and a loud crack echoed through the chasm. Volka scrambled to her feet. Before she could even turn around, 6T9 had stood and scooped her and Carl in his arms and started running. Volka’s eyes went back over his shoulder to the hole he’d just emerged from and went wide. “A drone!” she cried. Its phasers were charged and hot and—they fell. Or more appropriately, 6T9, Carl, and Volka slid down a sharp incline only a few meters high. Phaser fire streaked over their heads, and then there was another crack—and no sound at all. 6T9 was already on his feet and running again. Volka could only gape over his shoulder. A huge icy sheet from the side of the gorge was falling. She saw one of the drones reach the incline’s edge, and then the icy sheet hit. The world shook, the drone vanished in the icefall, and broken bits of snow and ice rained down on Sixty, Volka, and Carl.

6T9’s arms went limp in the onslaught, and Volka barely landed on her feet. Regaining her balance, she gazed across the gorge. Carl leaped from her shoulder. He stood on his hind legs and pointed. “There!”

Volka followed the direction of his tiny paw and her lips parted in awe. A few hundred meters north along the gorge wall was an area of dark red almost free of snow. Steam rose from it, and in the midst of the steam was Sundancer. Her pearlescent exterior stained red with silt, her body half submerged in red sands.

“She melted the glacier around her,” Carl said, and Volka noticed the water streaming away from the ship, turning to ice a few meters down the gorge. “The falling ice caused the tremors, the tremors caused more ice to fall, which caused more tremors and…” There was another boom and a crack, fortunately on the other side of the gorge and in the opposite direction of the ship. “It’s still happening.” The werfle hopped across the icy ground.

Looking over its shoulder, it squeaked up at Sixty, “I don’t know if we can get her out of the sands, but we have to try!”

“We see you,” Volka said, barely paying attention to Carl. Happiness and the sensation of recognition bubbled through her…and she answered it. But her response was bittersweet. Alaric had betrayed her in the end.

Trying to block out the feeling of betrayal, she said, “We’re coming.” She tried to let the feeling fill her and overflow to Sundancer. Taking 6T9’s hand, she tried to pull him in Sundancer’s direction. He didn’t move. Looking back, her heart fell. Sixty’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped. He was trying to zip up his coat, but his hands were shaking too much. Gently pushing his fingers away, she zipped it for him. He put his hands atop hers at the collar. They were ice cold. He met her gaze, and she had to look away—they were too close and it was too much.

“He’s conserving power by not speaking, but he says to say thank you,” Carl supplied.

Volka nodded and studied his hand for a moment. It was scratched and bleeding. Picking it up, she swung it over her shoulder and pulled him forward. Sixty slumped against her, and they began making their way across the chasm.

“We’re coming to rescue you, Sundancer!” Carl declared, giving an extra enthusiastic hop, but a seed of worry began to grow in Volka’s stomach.

It was strange, since they didn’t have far to go. She didn’t detect the sound of the drones. There was nothing but open space between them and Sundancer.

…And then she heard the engines above and behind them.

“Alaric,” Carl’s voice whispered in her mind.

Volka looked over her shoulder despite herself, and there it was, Alaric’s ship. Her heart sank. He’d been so injured at the inn…if she hadn’t seen him in Sundancer’s daydream and heard him issue the command to fire, she might have been able to believe it was his second in command that had ordered them blown apart. Her face crumpled, her eyes got hot, the world blurred, but she began trudging faster. Phasers screamed, and the ground on either side of them erupted in dust. She’d thought her heart couldn’t fall further. He’d already fired on them, but somehow, being out in the open, being so exposed and having just seen his ship, made it worse. Her betrayal felt fresh, new, and raw, and fear, laced with dismay, weighed as heavy on her as 6T9.

She wanted desperately to run, to drop Sixty’s arms, and to sprint to Sundancer. She bit her lip and her eyes got hot. He wasn’t really an angel; he was a machine.

“Volka…go…” Sixty whispered. “My programming…”

More phaser fire screamed; more rocks and ice exploded. Her lips twisted, and her tears fell from her eyes. In the end, to Alaric she was only a weere and an enemy. She tightened her grip on Sixty’s arm. “No,” she snarled. She wouldn’t be Alaric. She would save Sixty or die with him just to spite her lover.

She heard the scream of phasers, and on either side of them the ground erupted in a shower of dust and stones. They weren’t going to make it. Alaric was going to destroy them. The realization sunk all the way to her bones, replacing every other emotion, and her heart cried out, “I’m sorry, Sundancer. I’m sorry.”

Starship Waking

Alaric stared through the view screen. His stomach twisted into knots. Volka and the machine were still standing. He swore under his breath.

Ran was at the cannons. The commander wasn’t their most adept gunner and not accustomed to Libertas’s gravity. Their most adept gunners were under rubble in Iron Forge.

Alaric lifted his hand to wipe his face and found it shaking. This needed to be over, but between the damage sustained the day before, the time band and the hover power he needed for the nearly vertical lift up over the cliffs in Libertian gravity, his ship was running on fumes, and his cannons were recharging too slowly.

He swallowed. But not as slowly as Volka and the machine making their way across the gorge bottom, to what he had mistaken at first for a glacier—but now saw was some sort of craft. He wondered when it had arrived. There were pools of water around it, but now their scanners detected no engine heat and no ether connection to the android, either.

“If we can recover the craft whole,” said Father Diomedes.

Alaric eyed the cannon’s power—eighty-eight percent. He felt chilled. Shock? It wasn’t guilt. If his mind was compromised by the enemy, he would want someone to end him. He remembered the hallucination of being aboard a strange craft with Volka, the werfle, and the ghost of the android. Was he already compromised?

“What’s going on?” Ran said.

Alaric’s attention jerked back to the screen in time to see the android rip his arm from Volka’s shoulders. It pulled back, turned around, and began walking away from her, its arms outstretched, its head back, eyes on Alaric’s ship.

“What is it doing?” the father asked.

Alaric rose from his seat. It appeared to be trying to draw fire—trying to sacrifice itself. But that wasn’t right. That was not how the android or robotic spies behaved.

Alaric’s jaw got hard, his chest got tight, and his traitorous mind replayed the scene of the android hoisting Volka up on its shoulders in the tunnels. It had gotten her to safety first and was trying to spare her now. But why? Volka was of no practical use to the Republic.

“Maybe it is malfunctioning,” Ran said.

His injured leg trembled, and Alaric nearly fell back into his seat. A rattling noise from Alaric’s armrest made him look down. His hands were shaking violently. He glanced at the readouts for the phasers. Ninety-eight percent.

“How?” Agrawal said.

Alaric’s eyes went to the screen. The craft that had been half buried in dust was obstructing their view of Volka and the machine. How had it moved so fast?

“Fire,” Alaric ordered.

The phasers streaked from the LCS. Ran’s aim was true.

“Good shot—” Alaric blinked. The craft didn’t explode, didn’t appear to have sustained any damage, and didn’t even appear to have moved under the impact.

Aboard the LCS, the crew went silent. He was about to ask Agrawal to rewind the visuals, to see if they’d really hit the vessel, when the craft began to glow. Colors swirled over its surface, and then the screen went white.

Starship Waking

6T9 had his arms aloft and was staring up at Alaric’s craft dropping toward them, phaser cannons glowing. 6T9’s thermo controls were blaring that he was too cold, and his battery alarms were screaming that he only had a few seconds of power left.

“Sixty, no!” Volka snarled, and he knew he was angering her by trying to draw fire, but he was a slave to his programming.

And then a millisecond later he was staring at Sundancer just above his head. The ground shook, he fell to his knees, and then he was in a circular room made of a pearlescent white material. There was a hallway down one side, and what might be doors, but his attention was drawn to his feet. The dirt and snow he’d been kneeling on was still with him, but the room was warm, and the red warning lights in the periphery of his vision went to yellow, and the screaming of internal alarms turned to a softer beeping. He had minutes instead of seconds of power. Behind him, Volka burst into laughter, and Carl started squeaking. 6T9 looked over his shoulder and saw Volka rolling on her back in the dirt and snow and smiling ear to ear. Moments before she’d been angry at him for following his programming. Minutes before her lover had tried to kill them. Her joy was at odds with all that, and the wrongness of it made static prickle beneath his skin.

In Volka’s arms, Carl cheeped and exclaimed over the ether. “We made it! We made it!” Wiggling from her grip, Carl danced on top of her, squeaking like mad, and exclaiming into the ether, “We did it! We did it!”

“Where are we?” 6T9 blurted out. “And why are you so happy?”

“Sundancer!” Volka and Carl exclaimed at once.

Bouncing and squeaking, Carl squeaked, “And we’re so happy because Sundancer’s joy is overflowing!”

“She’s overjoyed,” laughed Volka, throwing out her arms and lifting her face as though basking in the warmth of an invisible sun.

6T9’s Q-comm informed him that the phasers should have fired on them by now, but he hadn’t felt a thing.

The ground beneath him shifted and sank. He looked down and saw the stones and ice sinking into a floor made of the same pearlescent material that the walls were made of. Dancing to his feet, he expected to see his shoes start sinking, too, but they didn’t.

“He can’t feel it,” Carl said.

A moment later, Volka caught him in a hug. Pressing her body to his, she gazed up at him, biting her lip and smiling, tears in her eyes. Carl bobbed on her shoulder, kneading his claws and purring loudly.

“Sixty, Sundancer is so happy!” Volka exclaimed.

His Q-comm was humming with data, but he was a sex ‘bot first, and on being caught in an embrace, his first reaction was to return the favor. Wrapping his arms around Volka, he commenced a data dump. “Sundancer just moved faster than the speed of sound without a sonic boom, or even a sonic whisper. Our best dampeners cannot do that. Also, I think she must have withstood phaser fire by now.”

Volka giggled.

“We love you too, Sundancer!” Carl exclaimed, jumping, spinning 180 degrees midair, crashing to the ground and hopping around their feet in mad circles. Not releasing 6T9, Volka hopped, too. The friction against 6T9, the smile on her face, and the pressure of her tiny hands on his back was all exquisite, but his Q-comm was humming with disturbing probabilities.

“Volka, Carl, if Alaric can’t shoot us down, he may drive his own ship into Sundancer to ground us.”

The smile vanished from Volka’s face and her eyes got wide.

There was the faintest shift beneath 6T9’s feet, and Volka looked at the ceiling and gasped. Following her gaze, 6T9 saw the ceiling had become translucent, and, just as he’d predicted, the LCS was diving toward them. He held his breath—even though he didn’t need to breathe. Clutching Volka tighter, he turned their bodies so his back was to the approaching ship. He buried his face against her neck.

“It’s okay, Sixty. We’re moving,” she whispered.

That was impossible. There was no thrum of engines—but just as he thought that, he detected the barest hint of acceleration beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and found they’d left Libertas’s surface and were now cruising through its outer layers of atmosphere. Directly in their path was a Luddeccean starfighter carrier. As soon as he realized that, short range starfighters emerged from its depths, followed by two dozen drones. Phaser fire erupted on the ceiling and spilled along Sundancer’s hull in rainbow colors. The floor disappeared beneath them. Volka and Sixty both gasped, but then realized it had merely become transparent. Charging up from the surface of Libertas was Alaric’s ship. Its phasers weren’t glowing. His Q-comm supplied him with the helpful probability that it was probably damaged and had power supply issues. “It’s going to ram into us,” 6T9 murmured.

A drone aimed squarely at them. 6T9’s emotion apps kicked in and he flinched as it sped up. Seconds later, it hit the hull and bounced away. The ship hardly trembled. 6T9’s eyes widened, his Q-comm processing the amount of force Sundancer had just deflected. He looked down at the ship barreling toward them and tilted his head. His Q-comm calculated the force and he blinked. He doubted even the larger ship would hurt the alien craft.

“Sundancer,” Carl said. “We must leave.”

The walls, floor, and ceiling lost their transparency and then began to glow. Volka began to glow, and Carl, also. 6T9 gaped down at his body. He was glowing, too.

For less than milliseconds, they were statues of light, and then they were whole again. The craft’s walls, floor, and ceiling became translucent and they were staring out at an unfamiliar starscape. As 6T9’s eyes took it in, his Q-comm sprang into action, calculating the stars’ distances and positions and comparing them to known star maps.

“Where are we?” Volka gasped.

Carl squeaked. “I have no idea—but I’m not worried.”

Volka giggled. “She wants to know where we want to go!”

Carl hopped and squeaked.

“Where should we go, Carl?” Volka asked, pulling away from 6T9.

“Would you like to see the planet where I was a gixelloopalop or the moon where I was a crab with my sister Shissh?” Carl chattered. “She’s not a crab anymore. She’s on Earth now, living in a cat, but all the glowing fish on the moon are—”

“Hold up!” 6T9 said. “We need to think about this.”

“What is it, Sixty?” Carl asked.

Internal alarms started screaming again. Fumbling, he managed to take out his power pack. The zipper of his coat got stuck at the bottom, and instead of fighting it, he just let the coat sink to the floor and attached one end of the cable to the power pack and the other to his belly button. As the alarms stopped their screaming, he sank to the floor.

Volka cried out, “Sixty, I forgot about your back—did I hurt you?”

He shook his head in the negative. “No, I turned off the pain, and frankly, with what we’ve been through, I think I needed that hug.” His skin was crawling with static now, and he frowned.

Volka sank beside him, and a moment later, she put a small cool hand on his shoulder. Where she touched, the static vanished, but the tension didn’t leave his jaw.

“What’s wrong, Sixty?” Carl asked, crawling onto Volka’s lap and gazing up at 6T9, his whiskers twitching. “I can’t read your mind,” Carl added, swishing his tail.

6T9 really should have turned off his emotion apps. His eyes slipped to Volka. Her brow was writ with concern. “I’m all right,” he lied.

“What is it?” Volka asked.

He deflected. “We’re almost on the exact opposite side of the galaxy as we were on before.”

Volka laughed with delight and put her free hand over her mouth.

He hated to see the laugh die. Volka didn’t look at him with quantum wave bending intensity, but being next to her, having her care, was maybe not better than sex, but it was close.

“Sixty?” Carl prompted.

Sixty’s skin was filthy; there wasn’t anything to be lost by petting the werfle. He gently scratched the werfle behind the ears. Carl purred but said over the ether, “I think there is something you’re not telling me.”

There was, but 6T9 was enjoying seeing them both happy, enjoying them both being unafraid and not having to worry about Carl losing his body, or Volka dying.

“Tell us,” Volka encouraged with another squeeze of his shoulder. Her brow wrinkled charmingly. “Maybe you’re concerned about nothing.”

If he told them, they could be prepared, and maybe it was nothing.

He took a deep breath. “We didn’t save Sundancer—she saved us. She escaped the glacier by herself. She withstands phaser fire and impact. She never needed our help.”

Volka laughed. “That’s really all that’s bothering you?”

Carl’s head bobbed. “But we did save her! Our presence and our proximity in the quantum wave woke her from her nightmare. Haven’t you ever woken a human from a nightmare, 6T9? Without us, Sundancer might not have woken up for a thousand years! She would have been trapped in her terror!”

6T9 stared at the creature, but his vision blurred, remembering a time before he had a Q-comm. Eliza had cried out in her sleep. He’d gently woken her, and she’d curled into his arms. “Oh, Sixty,” she’d whispered in a tearful tone. “I dreamed of the ‘bot parts we saw in the dump and the family in our neighborhood that vanished.”

Patting her shoulder, he’d whispered with innocent obliviousness, “Eliza, you have nothing to fear from ‘bot parts, and the family must have moved.” She’d sighed and buried her face against his chest. She’d said nothing, but she’d known that he, and her for keeping him, were in dire danger. Sometimes nightmares were very real.

Volka’s happy voice drew him from his musings. “We woke her up—and then Sundancer saved us, and she’s so happy to have us! She has been alone for such a long time…having us, being connected to us…I feel…she feels…”

“Like we’ve come home,” Carl squeaked.

And 6T9 couldn’t feel it, which was maybe why he could feel so chilled now and why his circuits were threatening to dim.

“But you said she was afraid of the Luddecceans,” said 6T9. “That’s the whole reason we went on our journey.”

For a moment, Volka’s smile faltered, but then she shook her head. “Just nightmares,” she whispered, pulling away slightly.

6T9 bowed his head.

“I think,” said Carl, “it may be time for The One to introduce themselves to humans.”

6T9 met the werfle’s eyes and saw comprehension there.

“Sundancer,” Carl said. “Take us to Earth.”

Nothing happened.

Sixty’s body went stiff, his Q-comm unhelpfully imagining Sundancer remaining here until Carl had to abandon his body, and Volka slowly died of starvation.

Volka leaned her head against his shoulder. “Don’t worry, she just doesn’t understand what we’re trying to say. Carl, can you imagine it?”

Rising to his hind paws, Carl closed his eyes and stretched out his forelimbs. The translucency fell away from the walls of the craft. They were light again, and then they were hovering above the brilliant blue marble that was humanity’s homeworld.

6T9’s ethernet channel immediately began pinging with Admiral Noa Sato’s number, and 6T9 remembered he had a message from Kenji to deliver. He swallowed. And maybe more disturbing news than that.

Before he could answer, Time Gate 1’s voice rumbled through his mind. “Welcome home, 6T9. There’s a warrant out for your arrest for stealing a spaceship and cruelty to animals.”

“Lovely to see you again,” 6T9 grumbled over the ether.

There was the flare of static 6T9 associated with laughter. “Since you can’t see me, that must be an idiom. They always make my circuits spark. Don’t worry about the charges. Admiral Noa Sato has posted your bail, and Lauren G3 has been preparing your defense for months.”

Sixty’s circuits dimmed. He couldn’t let Carl fall into the hands of Bernadette’s heir. He didn’t think the werfle wanted to give up his body any more than he wanted to upload himself. He sighed and grumbled aloud, “Does that mean I’ll be going back to that deer-infested rock again instead of jail?”

Time Gate 1 “laughed” again. “Afraid so.”

6T9 sighed. Carl squeaked. Volka smacked her lips. Glancing at her, 6T9 saw her tongue dart out.

Deer infestation?” She wiggled slightly. “Like the creatures we saw on Libertas?”

Carl coughed. “Very close to them. But the place isn’t just filled with deer, it’s crawling with rats, too.”

Volka licked her lips and then quickly covered her mouth, eyes going wide, and cheeks getting pink.

6T9’s circuits lit all at once. He might not have to worry about dropping Volka off in a strange new society to become a slave to the dole. “You’re welcome to stay with us,” he said.

Volka drew back, and his Q-comm whirred with how a Luddeccean woman would interpret that offer. She might think he was offering to make her his whore—or as the Luddecceans would say, his “weere.” He added quickly, “As our friend and guest.” Shrugging, he adopted an air of nonchalance. “Until you find your feet.”

Or really as long as she wanted.

She didn’t drop her hand, but her eyes roved from Carl to him and back again.

Putting a tiny paw on her arm, Carl said, “You saved us on your world, Volka. Let us return the favor.”

Her shoulders relaxed.

6T9’s eyes fell on the sketchbook peeking from her blouse top. “It’s a beautiful place for landscape paintings, I promise.”

Volka’s ears perked. She smiled tentatively. “I…I…accept.”

6T9’s emotion apps took over. For the first time since he was aboard Sundancer, he beamed.


22

Darkness Rising

Approaching Sundancer, hovering above the lawn on Sixty’s and Carl’s asteroid, Volka felt a now-familiar sense of anticipation and happiness. She still hadn’t “found her footing,” in the Galactic Republic, and memories of home—Myra, Joseph, Esther, her betrayal of Mr. Darmadi, and Alaric’s betrayal of her, were a constant ache.

Still…“Sundancer loves us,” Volka murmured. It muted the hurt and made her feel like she could keep going.

Hopping at her feet, Carl replied, “Like we are her pets.”

Ears flattening, Volka looked down at him sharply.

He squeaked. “That is a love for pets feeling. Volka, trust me. There is an undercurrent of superiority in her affection and protectiveness. Considering she can deflect phaser cannons, is immune to projectiles, travels light years in milliseconds, and can hold telepathic conference calls with non-telepathic humans while they are awake—I can only do that when they’re sleeping, and often got colored by my pet human’s own dreamscapes—she’s entitled to it.”

Volka’s ear flicked. She wasn’t sure she agreed with Carl, but then, her telepathy was rudimentary. Sundancer did appear to be a higher life form. Not even The One or the scientists of the Galactic Republic understood how the ship did the things Carl described, though they had scanned, poked, and prodded her. Sundancer either wouldn’t tell them, or couldn’t. Carl had theorized, “It might be like us trying to talk to an unpossessed werfle or cat. Our language and learning are so advanced, so much vaster, that we can’t put our knowledge into any words they can understand. It probably is the same with Sundancer, which might be why she talks in pictures and feelings.”

They halted beneath the ship. Sundancer was so close to the ground, Volka could reach up and touch her. A familiar sensation bloomed in the pit of her stomach, a nervous energy and urge to move. She interprets it as, Ready?

Reaching up, Volka touched the ship’s barely-warm surface and ran her fingers along one of the smooth grooves. Closing her eyes, she pictured Sixty. They couldn’t leave without him.

She felt a ripple of curiosity and bemusement in reply. Sundancer couldn’t communicate with Sixty at all, and as such, he was fascinating to the vessel.

Hearing footsteps, Volka opened her eyes and saw Sixty walking briskly across the lawn. He was wearing a light gray suit in the style that was considered formal on Earth: high necked, with smooth onyx buttons down the front. The collar of a black high-necked shirt peeked through at the top. She glanced down. He was wearing conservative black shoes as well, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Do I look boring enough for court?” 6T9 asked Volka, coming to a stop beneath the ship.

At Volka’s feet, Carl squeaked and waved his topmost paws. “Looking boring won’t be enough if you wink at the judge and say, ‘I’m ready for your discipline anytime, Your Honor.’”

Volka found herself reddening at that memory. This was the robot, android, machine man that she’d mistook for an angel…She blamed the delusion on stress.

6T9 gazed heavenward and smiled as though reminiscing on something extremely pleasant. Which maybe to him, it was. “It’s my programming,” he said.

There was no debating the note of pride in his voice, but maybe that was only programming, too?

She didn’t know, so she replied with what she did know. “You look very nice. The cut suits you, and so does the hue.” The gray was nearly silver and contrasted sharply with his tan skin, dark hair, and brown eyes.

6T9 winked at her and straightened his cuffs. “Thank you.”

Above them, Sundancer began descending, a Carl-Sixty-Volka-shaped opening appearing in her hull. She hadn’t scooped them up with the ground since that first trip. Both the mysterious opening and the “scoop move” were more things that baffled The One and scientists. Carl theorized it as “unimaginably complex quantum wave manipulation” and something about “waves making up everything, even matter.”

They stepped into Sundancer’s interior, and the floor sealed beneath them. Almost immediately, Volka felt the barest force of acceleration, first toward the “space elevator” and airlock, and then up and out.

They turned to light, and then the walls became translucent, revealing Earth. Sundancer hovered and waited. Volka knew the moment Sixty had received Earth Control approval over the “ethernet,” because he nodded at her. Closing her eyes, she imagined the area that they were allowed to land. She didn’t have to give directions; they’d been there many times before. At her thoughts, Sundancer zipped forward.

Glancing down, she saw Carl still pacing. He had his middle paw pairs behind his back, and he was waving his uppermost paws. “Don’t say you want to lick the gavel, either, 6T9.”

Volka’s eyes went wide.

Sixty’s nostrils flared. “I never said that in front of the judge!”

Volka’s ears flicked. “Now you’re just being mean, Carl.”

Sixty licked his lips and waggled his eyebrows. “Although she holds it with such authority.”

Volka didn’t sigh.

Carl sniffed, or sneezed—it was hard to tell which—turned and began furiously licking his tail.

Volka bit her lip. “What’s wrong, Carl?” she ventured.

The werfle blinked up at her, and then waved six paws and squeaked. “What’s wrong? I don’t want one of my pets going to the pound, that’s what’s wrong!”

Volka’s eyes narrowed. She glanced at Sixty. His eyes met hers, jaw tight. They both glared down at Carl.

Carl sniffed, or sneezed—or whatever the sound was—and crossed his tiny topmost paws, ears going back. “I am unrepentant.”

The floor sank gently beneath them and then vanished. Sundancer rose above their heads, and Volka was assailed by the scents of asphalt, hover fuel, and Bengal tiger. The latter of these loped over to them. It was Carl’s “once sister” Shissh. When he’d said she had possessed a “cat” on Earth, he’d neglected to say what type of cat.

“Is he being annoying again?” Shissh spoke the words into Volka’s mind, or perhaps her heart, and must have broadcast it over the ethernet, too, because Sixty snorted. “Yes.”

“I am not being annoying! I’m being rationally concerned,” Carl hissed, and began hopping past Shissh.

Shissh caught his tail beneath an enormous paw. “You look fine, Little Brother,” she said. Carl rose to his hindmost paws and began licking a paw and running it over his ears. “Really? I don’t look flea-bitten, mange-ridden, malnourished, or over nourished? One of the charges is animal cruelty, you know.”

“You look fine.” The words were spoken aloud by a woman emerging from a pair of doors on the rooftop. Admiral Noa Sato had the darkest skin Volka had ever seen, eyes that were nearly black, and hair that must have been just as dark at one time, but was now steel gray. It matched the neural port on the side of her head. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties, but she was slightly older than her younger brother, Archbishop Kenji Sato. Despite the difference in apparent age and skin tone, you could see the resemblance between them, or maybe the resemblance was in the way that both Satos saw Volka and spoke to her like she was a person…and Sixty, too, for that matter. Volka had come to realize that androids—and “sex ‘bots” in particular—were not regarded as “persons” by many humans, no matter what laws said about having a “Q-comm.”

Admiral Sato walked toward them with so much authority that even Shissh made way for her, releasing Carl’s tail at the same time. Carl sprang into the Admiral’s arms, and she cradled him to her chest. “Relax, Fluffy.”

“Fluffy” was Carl’s name through two werfle lives when he had lived with the Archbishop and Admiral Sato in their childhood home on the Luddeccean frontier. Carl had been their pet; although, in Carl’s telling, the humans were his pets, of course.

Leading the group back to the double doors, the admiral said to Carl, “You did fine during the hearing.”

Tension in Volka’s shoulders loosened at that assessment. She smiled at Sixty, but his gaze was leveled on Noa, his expression uncharacteristically serious.

Noa continued, “And the judge is going to take Sixty’s service to the Republic into account.”

Volka’s brow furrowed. Noa meant the message Sixty had delivered from her brother. The admiral had Sixty repeat it verbatim in the common tongue and in Japanese several times. It didn’t sound particularly important to Volka. “Tell my sister I have her left flank.”

She glanced at Sixty again. He was frowning now. She felt like she was missing something, and blinked. Perhaps she was. They could talk through the ether—as she understood it, it was a brain-to-brain radio. Carl and Shissh said it was much more primitive than telepathy, but Volka wasn’t sure if that were true or if they just disliked it because they weren’t very good at it. They were always moaning to her about the difficulty in making the quantum waves create the right frequencies.

Trying out her own rudimentary “telepathy,” Volka focused on Carl and thought, “Are they talking about something top secret over the ether?” She tried to feel the meaning of the words at the same time.

“No.” The answer came from Shissh. “Noa’s worried about her husband, James. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to what Sixty is thinking.”

They entered the doorway and were immediately set upon by reporters. Volka and Sixty were responsible for first contact with not one, but two alien species—The One and Sundancer. The One could inhabit some of humans’ favorite pets. Sundancer was capable of gateless faster-than-light travel. A third of the Republic was amazed, a third was terrified, and another third were both.

So, Sixty and Volka were famous. At least, Sixty said, “for the next seven minutes.”

“Admiral Sato, is that a member of The One in your arms?” a reporter cried.

“6T9, are you aware that your manufacturer has sold out of your particular model?”

“Volka, who is your plastic surgeon? Women everywhere want your ears!”

Thankfully, no one touched her, and when the tigress growled, everyone took a step back.

They entered the courtroom and were greeted by Lauren G3. Looking Sixty up and down, she nodded approvingly. “You dressed like you care! No winking at the judge or commenting on the length of her gavel.”

In Noa’s arms, Carl sniffed and glared at Sixty as though to say, “See?”

Sixty smirked, and then said, “I am unrepentant,” in exactly the same tone Carl had used earlier.

To Volka, Lauren said, “Don’t worry, I think he’ll be fine. We may even be able to sue Raif for entrapment.” Volka nodded. Lauren G3 had explained to them that Sixty couldn’t leave the asteroid for more than three months at a time and keep his inheritance. Accused ship jackers weren’t allowed to access the time gates. The lawsuit had been an attempt to keep 6T9 from returning to the asteroid in time. It might have worked, but no one had counted on Sundancer.

Lauren G3 tried pulling Sixty to the front of the courtroom, but he resisted. Looking down at Shissh, he said, “You’re not going to sit behind Raif and growl, are you? Just because he has obviously had work done on his face doesn’t mean he’s had work done on his internal organs. You might give him a heart attack.”

Shissh’s ears flattened. “He accused you of stealing a ship that was yours to use as you saw fit, and he tried to poison my little brother.”

Sixty winced. “Yes, but he’s human and I’m programmed to keep him safe.”

Tail swishing, Shissh said, “I’m not.”

Lauren G3 touched her lips. “I don’t think we can prove the attempted werflecide in court. The Republic’s laws aren’t set up for telepathy as evidence yet.”

The big cat narrowed her gold eyes. “Be glad I’m not going to eat him,” she said, and then sauntered off and took a seat behind Raif. She didn’t growl, but she huffed loudly and repeatedly with enough force to make his hair sway in her breath.

Shissh’s presence may have been why, an hour later, when the judge read the verdict, Raif didn’t protest…or maybe he just figured he’d only lost the first round.

“You’re cleared of all ship jacking and animal cruelty charges!” Lauren G3 declared, smiling triumphantly at Sixty and Volka as the judge and prosecution left the courtroom.

Sixty didn’t smile, and Volka couldn’t resist putting a hand on his sleeve in sympathy.

“Don’t everyone thank me at once,” said Lauren G3.

Volka and Sixty turned to her, and Sixty stated the obvious. “I still have to replace a ship that was outfitted with gold toilet seats.”

Volka frowned. Raif had won that much…and it was, apparently, a lot.

Turning back to Volka, Sixty said, “I could always sell my body.”

Volka recoiled. “No, you can’t do that!”

Rolling his eyes, he said, “I don’t have any societal hang-ups against doing that. It’s legal in most of the Republic systems, and I’m an extremely popular model right now, so, yes, yes, I could.”

Volka’s ears swiveled down submissively. “But do you want to, Sixty?”

He shrugged and said unconvincingly, “There are worse ways to earn a credit.” His shoulders sank, and he stared at a point on the far wall. “And yet…oddly, I don’t care for the idea very much. It’s very strange.”

Volka blinked.

Lauren G3 tilted her head.

“Sixty,” the admiral said, approaching them with Shissh behind her and Carl in her arms. She’d left the courtroom for a brief discussion with the two aliens after the verdict was read. “Have you ever thought of starting a delivery service?”

“A delivery service?” said 6T9.

The admiral raised an eyebrow. “You have—or at least are friends with—the fastest ship in the known galaxy. I’m sure you could find some customers who’d be willing to pay a premium for that.” Her lips pursed. “The Galactic Fleet may be interested, since confiscating her won’t work.”

The last had been considered, but Sundancer wouldn’t allow anyone to board her without Sixty, Carl, or Volka.

“Do you think Sundancer would be interested?” Sixty asked Volka.

Volka closed her eyes, felt the question, and smiled tentatively in response. “I think she’ll want to sign off on the cargo…” She felt a wave of anticipation in her stomach. “…but yes, she’ll do it.”

Sixty grinned. “I think we should celebrate. Dinner and dancing?”

Lying on the admiral’s arm, Carl yawned. “You go on without me…that will give me some time to catch up with my pet.” He tucked his nose into her arm, and so didn’t see Noa roll her eyes.

Turning back to Volka, Sixty said, “We are in Paris, and since I won’t be using my life savings to pay off the spaceship I blew up—”

“Are you sure you want to go out with Sixty?” the admiral asked Volka, gaze shifting between the two of them. “It might not involve clothing.”

Sixty put a hand to his chest. “Admiral, you wound me. Unlike some people, I take into account the personality of my guests when choosing activities.” To Volka, he said, “I was going to suggest swing dancing. It’s in the midst of a revival. It will be somewhat familiar, but still different than what you’re used to.”

Volka looked around. Everyone’s eyes were on her. She did like seeing Earth. It was so crowded, bright, and alien. She also liked retreating to the asteroid for a day or two to recover, rat hunting with Carl, or deer hunting with Shissh. And despite his…proclivities…she never felt like Sixty was pressuring her for anything untoward. She didn’t fancy him for anything untoward, either. He might be the second most handsome man she’d ever met, and she might even be attracted to him at some very base level, but she didn’t think of him like she did Alaric. Which was a good thing…if she did, she’d be growling at every other person who looked at them—or rather him—on the street. Her mouth would freeze in a permanent snarl. They were the two most romantically unsuited people in the galaxy. They both knew it, and had sensibly made an unspoken pact to just be friends.

“Well?” said Sixty.

Volka smiled. “That sounds…nice…actually.”

Sixty grinned. “Excellent.” Reaching for his coat collar, he tore it off, sending buttons flying and revealing a silky, red, knit, skintight short sleeve shirt with a high-necked black collar and two black stripes down the left front. Volka’s eyes went wide. It left very little to the imagination. She’d be able to see his heartbeat, if he had a heart in more than just the figurative sense. Still, it was reassuring to see his chest had been successfully patched up and his back as well.

“Are you going to take off your pants too?” the admiral asked dryly.

“No, this is it,” Sixty responded.

Giving Volka an odd look, Admiral Sato said, “That’s very restrained of you, Sixty.”

“I know,” he said. Holding an arm out to Volka, he said, “Shall we?”

She linked her arm with his. They made plans to rendezvous with the admiral, Shissh, and Carl later, and then set off toward the side exit. They were almost out the door when Sixty stopped and called back to the admiral, “Noa, you never told me where James is,” he said, referring to her husband.

Busy scratching Carl behind the ears, the admiral didn’t look up at them. “He’s headed to S33.”

A frown flitted across Sixty’s face, but he led Volka through the door.

Volka knew “S” stood for system, and “33” was the order which Earth ships had reached it. Not every system had human settlements, and Volka had trouble keeping them all straight. “What’s wrong with S33?” she asked Sixty when they boarded an elevator.

His eyebrows shot up. “Nothing that I know of. It’s just…” He shook his head. “It’s far away. That must be why she’s distracted.”

Guiding her out of the elevator, he opened a pair of double doors that were, unusual for Earth, not automatic. “Come on, let’s enjoy Paris while we can!”

She thought she detected something frantic in his voice, but she pushed it out of her head as they raced down an alleyway lined with cobblestones. On either side of them were buildings that were nearly a thousand years old, but over their heads hovers flitted through the sky. At night, she knew the city—and the whole planet—would be bathed in the glow of the moon, and moon-sized satellites. She felt…untrapped. They’d left the threat of torture, death, and the darkness of nightmares in the Luddeccean system and traded it for a world of light.

Starship Waking

Fresh from a shower and maintenance, 6T9 sat down on his bed and pushed his wet hair from his eyes. Volka was in her own room. In the few days on the run, he’d become accustomed to her presence, the sight of her, and the sound of her breathing. He understood logically how her “programming,” her monogamous weere nature, and her upbringing on Luddeccea would make it difficult for her to sleep comfortably near him, but his room still felt empty.

He exhaled. She couldn’t reprogram herself, and he badly needed a recharge and a reboot—both activities that even non-Luddecceans could find disquieting. He pulled out a charger cord…and his vision went completely black. He took a deep breath, though no one was in the room to appreciate it. “Carl,” he said over the ether, “You’re projecting Sundancer’s dreams again.”

The darkness remained. Anxiety rushed in a flare of static along his spinal column. “House ‘bot,” he said, “Where are Carl and Volka?”

“They are currently in Volka’s room,” the computer replied. He smiled grimly. Volka wasn’t alone. Just him. “Carl?” 6T9 said over the ether.

There was no answer, and the darkness did not relent.

Worried, 6T9 sprang from his bed and bolted out the door. He was blind with the dark overlay over his vision, but he knew the exact number of steps to their location—and he’d been expecting this to happen. At first, he jogged, but when he heard Carl’s squeaks of terror and Volka cry out, he broke into a sprint.

Reaching Volka’s door, he pounded and shouted, “Carl, wake up.”

Carl squeaked and said, “You were right to be worried, Sixty. Lizzar balls.”

Time Gate 1’s voice echoed in the ether as well. “Your first premonition aboard the alien ship was correct, Sixty. How…unpleasant.”

6T9 felt as though gravity had just increased, despite his sensors reassuring him it hadn’t. They were referring to his premonition aboard Sundancer that first trip. He’d wanted so much to be wrong.

Leaning against Volka’s door, 6T9’s jaw got hard and his circuits dimmed further. Carl and 6T9 hadn’t discussed 6T9’s premonition since their return. 6T9 suspected Carl and The One didn’t like thinking about it. 6T9 didn’t like thinking about it, either. So, he wouldn’t have to think about it, he’d filled every possible moment since their return with diversions—taking Carl, Volka, and sometimes Shissh to every sight on Earth and the moon.

Beyond the door, 6T9 heard Volka cry out again.

“Carl,” he shouted. “Wake her up.”

“I’m trying,” the werfle replied.

6T9 ordered the house ‘bot to open the door, and rushed in. Volka was curled on her bed, wrapped around a pillow. Carl was hopping on her side. The ether buzzed with his thoughts. “Volka’s fairly adept at diverting Sundancer’s attention from the darkness…but she’s vulnerable when she’s asleep. Volka’s imagination has taken our ship-friend’s fear and magnified it.”

6T9 sat down on Volka’s bed and tentatively gave her shoulder a shake. “Volka?” he whispered. “Volka, wake up.”

She cried out, and he whispered, “It’s okay, we’re safe.” He did not know how long that would last.

Volka’s eyes opened, and she gazed past him to the door, still ajar. He pulled back, belatedly realizing she might take his presence in her room the wrong way. Holding up his hands, he fell back on a script in his database. “Forgive me. I heard you cry out in your sleep. It goes against my programming to ignore a human in distress.”

She blinked up at him. Somewhere the owl Bernadette had imported hooted, and 6T9 heard the flutter of wings.

Volka shivered. “I had one of those dreams…the kind I used to have before we escaped…” She shook her head. “Silly, really.”

6T9 looked at Carl. The werfle gazed up at him and then crawled off Volka’s side, wiggled between her and the pillow she clutched, and nuzzled her cheek. Volka stroked him and then whispered, “Sundancer’s still afraid.”

Carl made a sound like a sigh.

6T9 wished he could put his arm around her. He wasn’t sure though, in her room, in the dark, if it might be stepping over a line. Volka wasn’t a prude precisely, but she was from a very traditional culture.

“Why is she still afraid?” Volka asked, pulling herself upright, cradling the werfle to her chest, much as Noa had earlier. Part of 6T9’s Q-comm hummed with the feasibility of returning as a small furry robotic animal if he ever left this body behind in a final upload. The other part wondered how much he should say.

“Tell her,” Carl said.

“Tell me what?” Volka asked the werfle.

The tiny animal nuzzled her hand. “After our rescue, you and I were too blinded by Sundancer’s happiness to think straight. 6T9 has known all along.”

“Think straight about what?” Volka asked.

The werfle turned his nose to 6T9, and his whiskers trembled. Volka shifted her gaze to 6T9. Her wolf eyes glowed in the light from the hallway.

6T9 looked down at his hands. “The One became aware of Sundancer because of her nightmares, because of her fear. They thought it was the Luddecceans she was afraid of, because the Luddecceans would destroy or torture her when they found her.”

“Yes,” Volka said, brow furrowing. “I still don’t understand.”

6T9 met her gaze and she looked down fast. He was right. His proximity was making her uncomfortable. His fingers buzzed with static and the urge to reach out to her, but he stood up and walked toward the door. His limbs felt weak—because he needed the recharge, or because of the knowledge he was about to convey. Leaning against the doorframe, he said, “We—or you and Carl, anyway—may have woken Sundancer from her nightmares.” His lips formed a thin line. The ship couldn’t communicate with him. If it weren’t for Carl and Volka, Sundancer wouldn’t know he was anything other than a rock or a stone. Taking a breath, he continued, “—but Sundancer’s nightmare was never about the Luddecceans.” She was immune to phaser fire, bombardment, and every scan and probe the Galactic Fleet scientists had tried to inflict upon her. She could move faster than the speed of sound in atmosphere without a sonic boom, and was better at warping the quantum waves than Carl—that was the only explanation for her ability to melt and shake off a glacier.

In a small voice, Volka whispered, “What could Sundancer be afraid of?”

6T9’s circuits went dark. His emotion apps kicked in, and he wiped his face. He felt cold, though the temperature hadn’t changed. “Something…” Something with technology beyond human and machine understanding or even imagination. Something that could make the genocide at Revelation seem like a skirmish. Something that had woken Sundancer after a million years of slumber. Something that was coming. “Something terrifying.” He had a sudden urge to bring Noa and James here, and every human that had been with him on that first frightening trip from Luddeccea, before he had a mind. He wanted to keep them, Volka, and Carl here on the asteroid, close the airlocks, and never leave. He thought of S33, where James was headed, and closed his eyes. If one was standing on Earth’s North Pole, facing the center of the galaxy, S33 might be considered your “left flank.” He hoped James was well.

Carl squeaked, and 6T9 opened his eyes to see Volka setting the werfle aside. Springing from the bed, she charged to the door. He pressed himself out of her way, and she darted down the hall. 6T9 picked up Carl and took off after her, knowing where she would be going.

He joined her a few minutes later in the garden where Sundancer hovered above the grass. Volka had her hand on the ship and was murmuring, “We won’t leave you alone, Sundancer. We’ll face the dark together.”

Carl squeaked, ran up 6T9’s shoulder, and did the same with his forepaws.

Volka blinked up at 6T9, tears in her eyes. “She is so grateful to us.”

Circuits darkening, 6T9 gave her a smile he knew was halfhearted. He felt alone in these “conversations” with Sundancer, and very much an “android” and an outsider.

“She does mean you too, Sixty,” Volka said, stepping toward him but keeping her fingertips on Sundancer’s hull. 6T9 wondered if even coming back as a sentient starship might be better than coming back in the shape of a man.

He hated to let his discomfort be known, and so indulgently lifted a hand to the ship in a show of solidarity. His vision briefly went white and heat and electricity rushed along his fingertips, charging his power cells and making his sensory receptors dance with all the force of a reboot. In the blinding brightness, he heard Volka say, “She’s trying to talk to you.”

Carl squeaked. “Is it working?”

His Q-comm hummed and he had a flash of insight. He wasn’t the only one who had been lonely. He smiled. “Yes, it’s working.”

Carl hopped madly on 6T9’s shoulder and twisted around his neck like a warm, living scarf. 6T9 hadn’t realized until just that moment how soft and silky werfle fur was. He felt Volka touch his arm, and every circuit in his body sparked.

He hadn’t succeeded in rescuing Sundancer as Eliza had rescued him. Sundancer had saved herself and Carl, Volka, and him. But rescuing Sundancer had never been his real goal. His real goal had been to find happiness, and he’d tried to achieve it by walking in the very difficult footsteps of the wisest, bravest human he’d ever known. He’d succeeded. No matter what darkness lay ahead, right now he was very happy. FIN

Thank you for reading Starship Waking. Carl Sagan, Volka, 6T9, and Sundancer’s adventures continue in Darkness Rising. Purchase it today at your favorite retailer.

If you’re interested in the events that led to Revelation, you can pick up Archangel Down, the first book in the series. There is also a short story from Carl Sagan’s POV called Carl Sagan’s Hunt for Intelligent Life in the Universe.


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