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A by-request Challenge for "Historical Documents" on Project Andromeda.
This is for the Challenge set me by my Project Andromeda crew!

Subject:

1. initial set-up of Project Andromeda
2. talent scouting
3. recruitment
4. why did the scientists choose each member of the crew

Rules:

1. Must have a minimum word count: 1,000
2. To be told in second person
3. Nouns may not be used more than 3 times (excluding names and personal pronouns)


Okay, this is a rolling history of Project Andromeda, from the viewpoint of the Hephaestus Mining Base artificial intelligence unit. Each piece is separated by time from the rest. Reamie, I shall admit defeat, name your 'punishment.' The shorter I tried to make this, the longer it seemed to get, so buckle in, it's gonna be a bumpy ride!


*          *          *


A ship approaches, dragging you out of your normal lethargy and something stirs deep beneath your subconscious. The coded messages beamed over have all the right security tags, so you do not interfere with the automatic processes set into motion. You watch instead as the incoming vessel circles around and enters the docking bay, following their progress with a detatched, impersonal interest. Built to hold hundreds of mining pods and cargo ships, the inbound shuttle is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the space.

That queer feeling is back and you quickly scan your system readouts, but can see nothing out of the ordinary. You decide to ignore the fluttering in your circuits and concentrate on the ship, now coming to a halt. The hatch opens and four suited figures, three large, one small, emerge to stand, staring, on the deck. They wear orange pressure suits and hold helmets in their hands.

There's a woman, fortyish, black hair dotted with a few strands of gray, who seems to be in charge of this expedition. After consulting the datapad in her hand, she strikes out across the floor towards the doors leading further into the complex. Two men follow. The first, also with light-brown hair, blue eyes, and a scowl, looks neither to the right nor left, proceeding with a single-mindedness more common to machines than man. The second is a younger man, a suit, practically shaking with excitement, running his hands over the walls he passes, staring at everything as if striving to memorize every little nuance. And the last ... you pause in your scruitiny, feeling that odd little quiver again.

You turn back to the child, for a child she is, a girl maybe seven or eight years of age, evidently related to the woman, with the same black hair and cast to her features. She has a stubborn set to her jaw, her little legs pumping furiously to keep up with the adults. This is one child who does not wish to be left behind!

You almost smile, and the reaction hits you like a hammer, barraging senses long forgotten in this abandoned hulk of a mining installation. Memories spring to mind but they bring only disappointment. While you can visualize the faces, there are no histories, no data, no emotions associated with them. Who were they? What are they to you?

You sigh, a soft exchange of air in the circulation system.

"Hello?"

In that time lost in introspection, your visitors have worked their way to the data center. It's a large room, covered by two hundred screens with two hundred different viewpoints from the thousands of cameras within the installation. There are two larger screens in what amounts to the front of the room, facing two rows of four computer work stations. Two of your visitors sit in front of the computers, bringing the long-dead systems back to life. The suit prowls the room, staring, transfixed, at screen after screen.

The little girl, on the other hand, is staring up at the two darkened main screens. Somehow, she recognized the sigh, knows that you are here. That is ... unprecedented.

You focus on her face, beaded with perspiration, mouth slightly open, staring up at you with a wonder that is unmistakeable, though ignored by the others. There is something about this kid that appeals to you and you wonder about that. Even with all the information crammed inside this rocky tomb, there is no answer to the question that plagues you now: why would a successful space jockey condemn himself to this virtual existence, out here on the far side of Sol?

Built at the very beginning of the diaspora they built to last, for materials were expensive and hard to come by. This place, this plant, was hollowed from one of the asteroids in the field, designed to crunch random space rock into useful ores and minerals for shipping back to Earth, for building the fleet that would take mankind to the stars. But with better drives and access to new planets this base became obsolete, abandoned and forgotten. Until now.

The computer remembers how to work the speakers and turn on the screens. Your weathered face, old for thirty, stares out into the room, brown hair as unruly as it was in life, brown eyes crinkled at the corners with crows feet, mouth tipped up in the corner with a lopsided smile, all confidence and roguish charm, everything exactly as it was ... before ... before ... again that blankness, that impenetrable wall of nothing.

"Hello," you say.

Silence in the room as everyone stares at you, momentarily dumbfounded.

"Hi, I'm Zoe! Who are you?"

What a curious question.

"That's Hephaestus, Zoe."

You allow your on-screen picture to frown, but before you can speak, Zoe chirps, "That's cool! Your name is the same as the base!"

"Don't antagonize him, Orrin!" the mother hisses before turning back to you. "I apologize for coming onboard without proper introductions. I had not realized you were here."

You nod your head courteously. "That is all right." You must admit you are enjoying their stares and discomfiture, especially the younger of the two men. He is oggling you with unadulterated lust. You can practically see dollar signs dancing in front of him.

"Are ... artificial intelligences so uncommon these days?" It takes you a minute to recognize the wistfulness in your words.

"Well, no," says the woman, "not exactly, but in a station this old, we just never considered the possibility." She quirks an eyebrow at you. "When were you installed?"

"I was imprinted --"

"Imprinted?"

"Yes ...."

This sparks considerable debate amongst the three, but your attention goes once more to Zoe, still watching you.

"What does 'imprinted' mean?"

"Well," you reply, "it means I was once human, like you. When I ... when ...." Now you know. "When I died," you finally force out, "my mind was placed here, within this machine. A friend once said it was like virtual immortality."

"Oh. But, isn't that lonely?"

Another unfamiliar emotion washes over you and you are strangely unnerved by this little gal's empathy. If you'd had eyes you would have cried, struggling with the waves of feelings, the memories creeping up again. You'd been alone in life, too, and the desperate ache for companionship hits you hard. As a computer, you'd been isolated even more, only a tool to be used.

"I'm sorry."

What was this desperation that made those the most beautiful words you've ever heard? Why does the thought of having a friend, even with a seven year-old girl, make the lie so easy?

You make your image shrug. "It was nothing."

"Zoe! Leave him alone."

"No, Orrin, let them be."

The silly argument draws you from your gloomy thoughts and curiosity notes the strained faces and voices.

Orrin closes his mouth again into another furious scowl and bangs away again at the terminal. Zoe, confused, stares at her mother for a second, and then turns her eyes back to you. You lift your virtual eyebrows at the adult in question.

She comes around the desk towards you, flanked by the other man. "My name is Laura Seraph. These are my colleagues, Orrin Seraph and Thomas Bradford. And my daughter, Zoe."

"Welcome to Hephaestus."

"Thank you. We, I -- that is, Thomas here is a representative of the Jet Manufacturing Corporation. They are interested in re-starting operations here."

Your eyes flick coldly over to the businessman. "I see."

Thomas flushes. "There are no records of an artificial intelligence unit on Hephaestus!" he protests. "I am terribly sorry, but imprinting technology fell out of favor shortly before this station closed. We, we, the company shall make reparations to your next of --"

"There are none."

There is a rush of anger; you were expecting it, your emotions seem to be delayed somewhat, but the anger still has the power to shock you. The reasons for the anger at this company are missing, but you hold the corporation to blame for something ... something awful in your past. And then, too, there is hurt there, buried so far beneath the anger you almost miss it, but it is there all the same, the deep hole that is the root of all your lonliness and pain. Who was that man you were, to have erased the past but kept kept all the passion?

"Hef-a-stus?"

You are chagrined to realize you'd forgotten Zoe in the conversation with her mother. She seems used to the neglect, which only deepens your consternation.

"Yes?"

"You're not going to be alone here any more."

There is a startled silence. Even your screen image is lost for words. "I -- thank you, Zoe," you manage to say somehow.

"Isn't this great?" she continues, oblivious to the reactions of the adults. "We'll build the best spaceship ever!"

"Spaceship?" you echo.

"Oh, yes, Mother's building a spaceship!"

"Zoe, dear," said Laura, "Let's not be hasty."

"But she's right!" exclaims Thomas unexpectedly. "This place is perfect! And an A.I., too! I can't believe we've had something like this on the books and no one's checked it out before! The board's going to be ecstatic! And did you see the size of that hangar back there? That's the small one! You can build anything you like in there! I can't wait to radio back the news!"

Orrin drums his fingers against the console. "It's a little too perfect, if you ask me, which you haven't."

You can't stand the sudden look of fear on Zoe's face at what looks to be the start of an argument, so you say quickly, "Everything's in perfect working condition," which draws everyone's attention again.

"Really, the engineers were quite thorough when they packed this place up." You glance over at Laura and Thomas again. "You'll find all the equipment exactly as it was left. I can't imagine that even two hundred years would significantly impace that stuff."

"Uh, I don't know," Thomas answers, scratching his head. "I'm, uh, an accountant, not an engineer."

"Well," says Laura into the sudden silence. "Shall we go for a tour?"


*          *          *


Doctor Laura Seraph and the Jet Manufacturing Corporation finish outfitting Hephaestus within three years of their initial visit. While the influx of people and machinery and ships and all the construction keep you busy, you are still lonely. Laura treats you with respect, but she is not a friend. You're not even a colleague, in the same distant way she regards the rest of the staff.

Project Andromeda, as Laura calls her team, is now sixteen people strong, split between the asteroid, the supply hub on Archimedes Moonbase, and others still in transit, coming from all sides of settled space. Laura herself, Orrin, and Thomas Bradford you know. Thomas stays on as the Corporation Liason. The Corporation is financing this big project of Laura's, but the project is listed nowhere on any of the forms or data that you have yet seen. This is a secret, Laura tells you, and must be kept secret at all costs. The mining is both a front for their operations, to keep people from wondering what they're doing out here, and also a means of supplying their materiel needs. The engineers have almost quadrupled your storage space and they built pathways that instantly connected you to the rest of the GIG, the galaxy's information grid, a contact you exploit with almost reckless abandon, catching up on all the history you've missed since humans last lived aboard the facility.

The Andromeda, so called because Laura would be sending her special spacecraft far away, into the Andromeda Galaxy, is still in rough schematic form, hanging next to the "To Andromeda or Bust!" logo painted along the wall of the main conference room.

Around that room, the core members of Project Andromeda are now gathering, some in person and some by virtual means across the GIG. There's Laura, Orrin, and Thomas of course, but also several new faces. One is Doctor Zach Abramowitz, or Doc as he prefers to be called, still en route. Doc will be heading up the medical team. The good doctor is a psychologist specializing in long-term voyages and cryo-enduced psychosis. He's coming all the way from the Sirius system, a journey of almost 12 years and, according to his history, he and Laura had served together aboard the scientific vessel Genesis where she'd first discovered the probe.

Actually onboard is Doctor Jomo Mwai, an aerospace engineer, so tall that he cannot go within Hephaestus' crawl spacess and access ways because he won't fit. Jomo had arrived with the first of the re-fit crew to help design the barriers and walls separating Project Andromeda from the rest of the complex. He and Orrin work closely together so that the materials Jomo needs for the ship can be sent to the PA section without the rest of the facility getting suspicious. Orrin designed quite the layout for the refit and, by the time the first of the miners arrived, there was no sign of that second docking bay, or any indication that any more than mining was going on here. Jomo is a pleasant, laid-back gentleman, with an easy smile and a wry humor that is not so easily translated from his native language.

Also on the virtual connection is Doctor Digotry Denens a dual-Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering and robotics. His fair skin and hair gone snowy-white with age are quite the contrast with his research partner Doctor Smadar Sheffi, physically present, who is about half Denens' age, but no less accomplished. They have been together for about thirty years now, and only the lure of the chase keeps Denens away from their painstakingly rendered technical drawings. Denens will soon be in cryo, off on another jaunt around the galaxy in pursuit of a legendary pilot, a long-shot, but one he is intent on running down to its final conclusion.

Sitting next to Smadar is Jennifer Joanou, a shrew-faced older woman who seldom speaks except to machines and the only one of the staff, besides Thomas, without a PhD. She is the resident computers expert, responsible for the upgrades to your programming. She loves her machines and Laura fights with her constantly about attending staff meetings.

Rounding out the top staff are Izabel Ehrlich and her husband John Bernard. Izzy and JB are a fascinating couple, in a morbidly disturbing kind of way, and always go everywhere together. When they talk it's always one at a time and Izzy starts but JB finishes. They have known each other their whole lives and are easily the most excentric of the team. Their specialty is astrophysics and they had pushed back their retirement to come work for Laura.

"Okay, that's everybody," says Laura as Izzy and JB take their seats, "Let's get started. Now that our facilities are well on the way to being completed, it's time to start discussing our crew. It goes without saying that we'll need a pilot, and an engineer, any ideas there, guys?"

"Actually, yes, take a look at this."

"What is it?"

Jomo leans forward, tapping on the table to bring up his brilliant idea. "A contest!"

"A contest?" Even Jennifer's curiosity is aroused.

Jomo glances over at Izzy and JB. "You say we need speed." They nod. "There's nothing currently in existence, or even at the basic research level, that meets your requirements, which means we need something brand-new. Way I figure it, we need somebody extraordinary, and I think this is just the way to fish for him. Or her."

Laura looks up from her perusal of the draft text. "But anybody could respond to this. How are you going to weed out the real prospectives?"

"I really don't think that's going to be a problem," Jomo replies. "Most engineers won't be able to resist a puzzle like this, I know I couldn't, and the rest will discard it as a practical joke. According to Einstein, no one can travel faster than the speed of light."

"That's right," says Laura, nodding, but frowning in confusion.

"But that's precisely what we need!" Jomo exclaims. "We're going to transmit this bulletin to every school in the settled galaxy. We'll find him."

"Oh-kay," Laura agrees, "but isn't this a really long lead time? Our best shot at the wormhole isn't until 2332."

"Yes, but we need to account for travel time."

"Okay, that's one plan, how about that pilot?"

"I don't know about that," Doc pipes up, "but I think I've found us a doctor."

"Oh?"

"Yes, Hephaestus, will you bring up the file on McCallum, please? Thank you."

"Hmm, a cutie!" says Izzy, earning her a roll of the eyes from JB.

"Please tell me he has other qualities than a handome face?" laughs Laura.

Denen chuckles. "What more do you need in a doc?"

Doc sighs. "Portfolio, please. Look, aside from the M.D., his base education is in biochemistry, he's got a doctorate in psychiatry, and he's a specialist in cryo systems. How is that not perfect? This guy's even smarter than I am!"

Everyone shares a laugh at Doc's expense.

"Alright," says Laura, "I'm convinced. What do we need to bring him in?"

"He's not far from me, at my current location, and there's a transport going that way in a couple days, but according to the latest news reels, there's a civil war brewing on his home planet, which is, of course, in the opposite direction. This data," he jabs at the table, "has McCallum working in residence at Sector General, but I don't think he'd be content to sit out while his planet gets pummelled by the military."

"No chance for them?" asks Jomo.

Denens shakes his head. "Highly unlikely that a colony world has the means to withstand the fleet. They're foolish to even try --"

"If he does get involved," Jomo interrupts to ask, "then how are we to get him out? And without revealing ourselves?"

"He has a father," Doc answers. "With a discrete word to him I should be able to get McCallum's attention fairly quickly. They're quite close."

"Hmm, okay, we've a doctor and an engineer, but still no pilot. How is that going, by the way?"

Denens sighs. "Dead end here. I'm moving on to the next stop in," he checks his watch, "about two hours, ship time. They've called for me twice on the intercom already."

Laura rolls her eyes. "Have you looked at any of the alternates yet?"

"Of course, Laura." He looks miffed. "But none of them are suitable."

She groans. "Fine. What else do we need?"

"A scientist," says Izzy.

"Because this is a scientific mission," JB adds.

"You're not going," says Laura bluntly. "We can't send two bodies when one is more than enough, and you're too old. Anyone you know?" They shake their heads. "Well, put together some recommendations and we'll take a look at them."

"What about weapons?" Thomas asks. "Even though this is a peaceful mission, we have no idea what they're going to face out there. They ought to be able to defend themselves."

There is a tense silence following his words, and Laura breaks in with, "I think you're right, Thomas. Much as we might not want to, we all know what the Alliance will do if they find out about this little shindig. What if the folks we're trying to help have a similar problem? We don't even know if they're even going to be there when we get there. I know, I know, Doc, but it would be foolhardy to send them out there unprotected."

"Systems."

"What was that, Jennifer?"

"Systems analyst," she repeats, managing to look down her nose at Jomo. She sniffs. "An engineer won't be able to handle everything."

There is a sprinkling of laughter around the table. Jennifer glares mutinously back down at the table.

"Forgive me, Jennifer," says Laura, "but you haven't met my daughter yet. Zoe will be filling that slot."

"Laura --"

"We can argue about that later, Orrin. Zoe's on the crew. Are there any other positions we think we need? No? Well then, let's give these positions some serious thought and think about what kind of additional training they'll need. Okay, people, good meeting, let's get back to work."


*          *          *


Orrin and Laura are fighting again. You've toned down your receptors in the area but the volume of their heated discussion still makes you wince. You've successfully distracted Zoe; she is busy drawing pictures of the roach she captured in your control room. For a ten year-old, she's remarkably skilled. You keep one eye on her and another in her parents' quarters. You know what they're arguing about and, surprisingly enough, you find that you are on Orrin's side for this one.

Zoe is not an engineer. She's a delight and super intelligent and treats you like a real person, a beloved uncle, perhaps, but you just don't have the rapport that is necessary for Laura's masterplan. And then, too, Zoe's not interested in machines or computers except in dissecting things. The stuff she's gotten into in Yvonne's labs makes even you rather squeamish. You and Orrin both want Laura to leave Zoe out of the equation, but so far she has refused to believe that Zoe won't be perfect for the Andromeda.

But worst of all, Zoe knows that she's not what her mother needs or wants and it's eating her up inside. You've found her father, you know they are in regular contact and he's been trying to gain custody of his sweet girl for years. If only you dared to tip him off as to where you are! As much as you will hate to lose Zoe, you are anxious to get her out of this poisonous environment.

There's a buzz from the Seraph's entry door and you turn your attention there with interest. Yvonne is standing there, holding some kind of terarium. She looks nervous, and with good reason. The raised voices within are audible even out in the corridor. You make a mental note to ask Orrin about that later.

There's a pause in the shouting and the door slides open. Yvonne shifts her feet nervously and holds up the terarium.

"Is Zoe at home?" she asks.

Orrin scowls. "No."

"Well, do you mind if I come in, then?" Yvonne continues, cradling the box back to her chest.

Orrin stares at her for a long minute, and then steps back silently, heading back into the living room. Laura is scowling. She'd gotten up a good steam and you know she hates being interrupted for any reason.

"So ... I've come about Zoe," begins Yvonne, nervously perching on the armrest of the couch. "There's this great program I ran across that I think she should attend."

"What is it?" Laura is at least pretending to be calm and interested.

"It's an -- a, uh, a prep course for Proxima Academy --"

"Proxima?" gasps Laura. "No! No way!"

"I think it's a great idea."

"Of course you do!" Laura snaps at Orrin.

"I've already sent in her application," says Yvonne. "She's been accepted."

"What??!" Laura is shaking she's so angry. She advances on Orrin. "This is all your idea, isn't it! This is what that whole 'I just want Zoe to be happy' bit was about, wasn't it? We'll I'll tell you right now that I'm her mother and I will decide what's best for her! In a few more years she'll go out to Callisto to learn --"

"That's not what's best for Zoe!" thunders Orrin. "Aidan's standing by on Archim--"

"How dare you!" Laura's screaming now, no evidence remaining as to her usual calm, collected, and detatched manner.

"He's her father, too!"

"He's not! He never was! We weren't even married!" She whirls on the doctor. "And you! You have no right to even --"

Yvonne stands in the face of Laura's wrath. "Actually, I do," she says quietly. "I'm responsible for the mental and physical well-being of everyone on this station and I will not sit by and let Zoe be abused like this."

"She's not abused," argues Laura.

"All you talk about is the Andromeda! The child's under so much stress she's bound to have a break-down before she's a teen and by then she'll be so emotionally scarred she may never recover! You're obsessed, Laura! And the only reason I don't lock you up is because you're an adult and can make your own decisions, but Zoe can't! And I won't let this continue any more!"

As she spoke, Yvonne's voice got louder and louder and more defiant and determined until even Laura backed away. She turned about abruptly and left the room. Orrin and Yvonne looked at each other. He shrugged. When Laura didn't come back, Orrin thanked Yvonne for the terrarium, with another exotic pet for Zoe, and she left.

"Hephaestus!"

"Yes, Doctor Seraph?" you ask politely.

"I want Zoe to take the Briggs Aptitude test. Schedule that for tomorrow, please."

"Yes, Doctor."

Wow! you thought to yourself, That was a shrewd move, bringing Yvonne in like that. You might not ordinarily care for Orrin a while lot, but he was a shrewd strategist. Once Zoe took the test, that would be proof enough that Zoe's future lay in science and not with Project Andromeda. That would be a blow. You wonder what Laura will do ...

Shortly after Orrin left to escort Zoe to Archimedes, you got your answer. Laura, no dunce where it came to computers herself, was searching through a complex and comprehensive sperm bank database. She programmed several small subroutines for you to search this database for her, for a few key characteristics. The first was intelligence. She wanted someone in the top 1% according to the latest in IQ testing, and that narrowed the list quite a bit, even across the whole of the galaxy. Second, she wanted someone with a background in computers, and artificial intelligence units shaved that list even more. You started to get an uneasy feeling in your stomach, or at least you would if you still had one. But there's nothing technically wrong with what she's doing, so you have no cause to report her, and you'd be reporting her to herself anyway ...

The third criteria was that the person had to be alive. At this point, your data spit back one name: Alexander Kaiomenos. You run a check on the man and are not particularly surprised by his 'donations' to the sperm bank. Here was a man so convinced of his own superiority that he had concocted a radical plot to take over the world using his own sperm. According to this design, he'd had his own DNA tinkered with so that his sperm was especially potent and would yield little replicas of himself in any woman he inseminated. Creepy, but it was rather well thought-out. More interesting was where he was when he designed and implemented this plan: Charon Penal Colony.

The authorities had managed to find out about his scheme and shut him down, but his name was still listed under several agencies. He is older than Laura by more than a decade, but somehow you don't think she'll care.

You have to wonder how genetic tinkering popped up on your search for computer geniuses, so you dig a little deeper. Alexander is Greek, sentenced to Charon after having broken out of prison and violating the terms of his exile from Earth. Apparently, he'd learned and trained at Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons, and while so doing had developed a series of robot slaves that worshiped him like the ancient emperor he was named for. He'd returned to Earth, to his native Greece, and tried to take over the world, conquer it in the name of someone he claimed had been reincarnated as himself in this time. Yeah, not a stable personality. He'd caused all sorts of havoc before finally being safely ensconced at Charon. You might even say he's insane, except that most mental illnesses had been cured a century or more ago.

Laura hardly looks pleased to get the results herself and you sigh a small sigh of relief when the subject seems dropped. And yet, your suspicions are aroused when, little more than a year later, Laura announces that she's going to Callisto to check out some candidates for the systems position.

"They're young," she says, "but they should be the right age when we need them."

You are so totally not surprised when she comes back more than six months pregnant. She tells everyone that she must have been pregnant when she left and that's why she's back so soon, cutting her trip short, but you are not fooled. You can see that Orrin is suspicious, too, but he's too happy at the thought of being a father to care, overly much, anyway. He's way more excited than Laura is and, by the time she gives birth, has built a huge new addition to their quarters, expanding Zoe's old room into a massive nursery and playground for Robin, as they decide to call the kid.

Robin looks like Laura, even more than Zoe, but he is not the quiet, biddable child that Zoe was. For starters, he was a collicky newborn and Orrin ran himself ragged caring for him, walking him up and down the corridors for hours trying to get him to stop crying. Orrin tried lullabies and comfort toys, swings and old-fashioned rocking chairs and pacifiers, but nothing worked. But he is absolutely adorable to look at and everyone loves cuddling the baby; he's the only child or baby on Hephaestus, and as high maintenance as a child can be.

As soon as he learned to crawl, and then to walk, you had to advise Orrin to work tags into all Robin's clothing because the kid was a wanderer and constantly disappearing and getting himself into supposedly inaccessible places. Orrin has a little calendar he kept with the number of days since he's had to go track down his errant son. He got up so far as three days between disappearances, and then gave up.

You find Robin as engaging as the rest and probably more considering you could turn off your sound when he started to scream. You and Orrin design little drones to follow the child around and that worked until he grew fast enough to capture one and take it apart. It was then, coming across his son playing with microchips and hardwiring a circuit board, that you think Orrin got suspicious again. A three year-old should not have been able to do what Robin seemed to be doing. Orrin had crouched beside him and silently watched as the toddler manufactured a tiny version of the drone. The bug had two little antennae and made little purring noises. Robin could pick up the robot in one chubby fist and he carried it around for several weeks until it broke.

Once you'd figured out what he was doing, you had watched Robin to see what would happen. Robin acted in most respects like any normal, precocious toddler, but this was so far out of the norm that you began to wonder ... if Laura had done what you thought she'd done, there was every possibility that Robin would turn out to be a psycho. If Laura then managed to bully the staff into getting Robin on the Project, then they could be sending out their future crew with an insane A.I. What were you going to do?

Laura started talking about getting Robin a cybernetic implant when the boy was four and the arguments soon grew heated between her and Orrin again. Then Orrin abruptly departed, leaving Robin without his primary caregiver. Laura had screamed, "Well, you're not his father!" and Orrin had turned a sickly shade of yellow, left the room, the quarters, and never looked back.

Suddenly, you had a new role. Robin got the implant and Laura hooked him up with a direct interface to you. You had stared at this tiny kid who's mental image was much older and taller and could think of nothing at first to say.

"Hi!" he said, a poignant reminder of your first meeting with Zoe. "I'm Robin."

"I'm Hephaestus," you had replied.

"Isn't that Greek?" he'd asked, and you had burst out laughing.

Teaching Robin was the most challenging and enjoyable task you'd ever attempted. Robin had an insatiable curiosity and you loathed having to share his training with Jennifer, but she was just the right kind of person to introduce Robin to hardware and machinery.

When he was seven, Laura sent Robin to Callisto.


*          *          *


<Hephaestus.>

<Robin!>

<I thought that was your touch. You been checking up on me?>

<Yes.>

<:(>

<LOL. I miss you.>

<You sure Mom didn't ask you to spy on me?>

<Quite sure.>

<What's new?>

<Jomo's gone to Earth.>

<Earth? What for?>

<He thinks we've found our engineer. Her name is Maya and she's studying at EIT.>

<Cool. Why her?>

<Her engine design is like nothing anyone's ever seen. If she can really pull it off, if she's everything she claims to be, then we're a thousand steps closer to surviving that wormhole.>

<You seem to think something's wrong with her.>

<. . .>

<*Is* something wrong with her?>

<Well, she's young, very young.>

<You don't get accepted to EIT if you're dumb.>

<True, but her psych profile has Doc worried.>

<*Doc's* worried?>

<Yep. Got some bad stuff in her background, estranged from her family, history of fighting at school, average grades, she only stands out from her classmates for her capacity to cause trouble. Something's riding that girl -->

<She's bored.>

<I beg your pardon?>

<Bored. She's not being challenged enough.>

<Huh.>

<Just a hunch.>

<You might have something there, but that doesn't account for all of her erratic behavior.>

<You must like something about her if Jomo's going to check her out.>

<LOL -- her brains.>

<LOL.>

<If Jomo likes her, he'll bring her back, and then it'll be up to Doc.>

<*shudder*>

<*rolls eyes*>

<:P>

<Speaking of brains, how goes work?>

<These guys are pricks.>

<Oo-o>

<It's true! They don't like me.>

<Being liked is irrelevant. Are you learning anything?>

<I suppose.>

<Are you telling me you're not enjoying yourself at all?>

<I want to come home.>

<*sigh* I wish you could, too, kiddo. But you've still got a lot to prove. Those guys may be 'pricks,' but they're cybernetic geniuses. They build the finest robots and A.I. in the galaxy.>

<They're *all* robots.>

<LOL. Hang in there, buddy, it's only a few more years.>

<I hate you.>

<Right back at you, kid.>

<. . .>

<Hey, Hephaestus?>

<Yes?>

<I think I've found someone for Izzy and JB.>

<What?>

<Not a what a who.>

<Whom.>

<Whatever. Her tag is 'POW.' What's that mean?>

<It's a 20th century term for prisoner of war ... you didn't hack your way into the penal colony again, did you?>

<*rolls eyes*>

<I'll take that as a 'No, Hephaestus, I promise never to do that again.'>

<Yeah, sure.>

<*sigh* So, if she considers herself a POW, just where is she?>

<Not sure, some kind of high-tech school for geniuses.>

<How do you know she's a she?>

<Puh-lease, Hephaestus! I went digging for her file.>

<Right, how silly of me. And you don't know where she is?>

<No, that's some impressive firewall and security program. It's a wonder she can get a signal out at all. It's almost as well protected as you are.>

<How smart is she?>

<She's only a couple years older'n me and answered my math homework in like two minutes. Plus, she was complaining last time we talked about a genetically enhanced bullfrog that, yeah, she lost me there.>

<Hmm. Send me what you've got.>

<Transmitting.>

<*whistles* That's an Alliance seal, Robin!>

<I know. I've had this file two weeks and still haven't managed to crack it.>

<Did they catch you?>

<Um, kind of, they know someone was there, but I managed to get out before they could trace me. Haven't been able to get back in since.>

<Hmm, we're going to have our work cut out for us, aren't we? Keep trying and send me everything you can get on her.>

<Okay. You know, Mother'll have kittens she knows you're encouraging me to break into a top-governmental facility.>

<LOL. Just don't get caught again.>

<Who, me?>

<You're too cocky by far, kid. Tone it down, would ya?>

<They still waffling about me?>

<Doc says -- and don't you dare repeat this -- that you've got abandonment issues. Don't even get him started on the impact to fragile young minds of raising you to believe your sole purpose in life is to build an A.I. for your obsessed mother.>

<You mean it isn't?>

<Very funny.>

<Stick in the mud.>

<He thinks you're growing up, how did it go? 'Bereft of familial affection which is causing him to act out in bigger and more destructive ways.' Yeah, something like that.>

<What, they think I'll booby-trap the Andromeda?>

<Trashing systems and sic-ing your homemade viruses on people you think have offended you is not helping.>

<How do they know it's me?>

<Please. Don't insult me.>

<You're telling on me???>

<Robin, you're not yet ten years old, standard. These guys can't see past your physical age. You're just a kid to them, and acting out in this way is only reinforcing their belief that you're not mature enough for such an important mission.>

<But I'm ready! I want to go!>

<Your mother wants you to as well, but she's not the one you have to convince.>

<. . .>

<Robin? You listening?>

<Yeah.>

<I'm done lecturing now.>

<Good. Want to see Nibble?>

<So you've named it?>

<Nibble's a he.>

<Oh. Sorry. Sure.>

<Can you see him?>

<Yeah. He's maturing nicely. What's he based on?>

<You.>

<ME?>

<Yeah. Why not?>

<But I'm not -- when did -- you shouldn't be able to *do* that!>

<All you need is a copy of a personality matrix, imprint that into a data grain, and then just feed and nurture. Like goldfish.>

<I'm not sure I like being compared to a goldfish ...>

<=D>

<Copying a copy only leads to degradation and instability.>

<You're not like A.I. these days, Hephaestus. There's nobody else like you out here.>

<That's because we all went insane. That's why they put a stop to imprinting.>

<So something about you is stable enough that this should work.>

< ... But, me, Robin? Parrots make the best A.I.s ...>

<No, that's just a myth. Parrots are just easy. But they're also rather stupid, they take forever to evolve, and there's limits to their intelligence.>

<That'd be true for any animal you use.>

<'Cept you.>

<Uh, that's not really true.>

<C'mon, Hephaestus! If you don't believe I know what I'm doing, no one will!>

<*groan* I hate when you use guilt.>

<:P Can you send me some samples of the base for ambient atmosphere? When he really wakes up, I want him to feel right at home. And some blueprints?>

<Uh ... sure. Robin?>

<Yeah?>

<Sometimes you scare me.>

<LOL>


*          *          *


You immediately recognize two of the men disembarking from the freighter. They are as different in appearance as two people can be, but both look as if they haven't slept or ate properly in quite a long time, a remarkable feat for someone who has just come out of cryo. You wonder what haunts them, to etch such misery into those young faces.

The blonde you know from his biography as the prospective doctor for Andromeda. Chance McCallum is not-quite thirty, on the small side of average, with blue eyes, a build that must have come in handy during the failed rebellion, and a limp. Funny, that, most injuries can be healed in cryo, if you sleep long enough.

The other one is Gabriel Marris, a military man, even through the 'camoflaging' miners' uniform he wears. He towers over Chance by several centimeters. His eyes are green and he has an old scar along one side of his face. Gabriel could make about two of Chance and he did not look to be someone you would want to encounter in a dark alley, not even when you were alive. Gabriel's resume, while certainly impressive for someone not even twenty, had not really prepared you for the real thing.

Just behind them is Doc and you smile to yourself as you see him. It's about time. Doctor Yvonne Wei, interim Chief Physician during Doc's absence, greets them as they disembark. Nothing suspicious in that, everyone aboard Hephaestus is considered one of her patients. She's made a point of greeting all the newcomers. You turn up some sensors in the area to hear what they're saying.

"Doc!" says Yvonne, giving him a hearty handshake. "It is good to see you!"

He sighs and stretches, giving her a tired smile. "It is good to finally be here. I've always wanted to work back in Sol, though this is not exactly what I had in mind."

He winks, they laugh and then Yvonne turns away to address the rest of the arrivals, gathering them together and giving them the usual spiel. They all head to security and Yvonne stays with the larger group while Doc speeds through processing with Chance and Gabriel in tow. In all the confusion, the three slip away unnoticed.

Doc leads them to the infirmary. "No point in letting them get settled in," he likes to say. "Everyone gets jittery before psych evals."

They are a quiet group as they walk along the corridors, and Doc is not likely to be the first to break the silence. You follow them with your sensors, watching as they step inside one of the lifts.

"Level Fourteen," says Doc.

Ah, so Gabriel will talk. "Why are we going to the medical level?"

Doc smiles, like a teacher will when their student says something particularly intelligent. "No time like the present to get the evaluations done."

Gabriel lifts an eyebrow. "Yer not goin' to let us see the ship unless we pass, are ye?"

Smiling still, Doc nods. "That is correct. No point in stretching our --"

Gabriel waves away the answer. "Makes sense. Ye cannae be too careful." He seems pleased, and visibly relaxes a little.

"Huh?" rasps Chance.

He has his hands deep within his pockets, shoulders hunched, staring into space. Now he glances up at the other two and you can see Doc's lips twitch. That's not a good sign. Chance is spared, however, by the doors opening and Doc leads the two down a short, busy corridor and into the main waiting room of the infirmary.

"Check these two in, please," Doc tells the young lady behind the desk. "I'll be back to check on them later."

"Very good, Doc," she replies, beaming up at the two newcomers. Her smile wavers when they don't respond and she's more business-like from there.

Doc leaves the infirmary and immediately goes to see Laura. She's eating alone in her cabin again, an open bottle of wine next to her on her lounge chair where she's poring over the latest files on her datapad. She jumps to her feet with a girlish squeal of delight.

"Doc! You're here!"

They embrace and she drags him over to a seat, pouring him some wine.

"So? How's it look?"

Doc doesn't answer at first. He leans back and stares at the ceiling, responding with, "These are some messed up young men, Laura."

She smiles a little, tiredly. "Sending a bunch of people on an extended and potentially one-way mission is not likely to attract the most ... normal of personalities."

"Ha," he barks out a little laugh. "Normal is so far out of the picture I hadn't even considered it. These two ... well ... let's just say I'm surprised they're in as good of condition as they are."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"Gabriel's got some anger issues, to put it mildly, and a huge grudge against the Alliance. Do you know they've issued a public statement to his death? Publicity funeral and everything. The kid's paranoid they're going to make good on that. And you know what else?"

"No, what?"

"He doesn't care! He doesn't care. He wants to die, he'd just rather take some of them with him."

"Zach, we both know his wife and son weren't killed in some burglery attempt. Maybe he's right to be paranoid."

Doc drums his fingers along the arm of his seat. "I have a bad feeling about him, Laura. He's lived under really intense scruitiny his whole life, I mean, just think who his father is! He's practically our age with all the traveling he's done, and what he's accomplished -- he's just taken such a huge blow to his ego I don't know that he'll ever recover. To think, you're on top of the world, poised to become the youngest Fleet Commander in history, and then, WHAM! That's it, sorry, goodbye, we don't need you anymore."

"But we do."

"I know." Doc sighs and rubs his face. "That's what I'm hoping to work with him on, getting all that anger focused on something." He groans. "And Chance! He wouldn't talk to me at all. Knows all the tricks, he said, but he wouldn't lie to me, either, don't know that he could lie, I can read his face easier than most."

"So what's his deal?"

"Not sure. Whatever kind of doctor he was when he left Sector General, he's not now. Something happened to him during the rebellion, I just don't know what."

"Hephaestus can find out, can't you?"

"Yes, Doctor Seraph, I can search the GIG, see if anything's posted there."

"Good, do that, and tell Doc what you find out." She takes a sip of wine. "Just one thing, Doc," says Laura seriously. "Gabriel and Chance. Can you work with them? Will they be ready?"

"Hmm, will it be safe you mean."

She shrugs. "Sure."

"I don't know. Give me a few months, then maybe I could say."

"Doc, we're four years from launch. Do I send for our backups or not?"

"Hell, Laura!" he exclaims, slapping both palms against his thighs. "I don't know."

"Are they physically fit?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah, reasonably. That's not a problem, they're both exceedingly healthy."

"Fine. Then work with them this week, monitor their activities, and let me know."

"A week? You want me to judge their mental acuity in a week?"

"They'll be in rehab full-time. Split them up between you and Yvonne however you like. After that, I need them either on their way out or in training. Chance in particular I want on the probe's data, and we should get Gabriel's input on the weapons systems before we get too much more built. I want as much done as possible before Jaci gets here."

"Who's that?"

"Didn't you get Denens' last transmission? Oh, well, I'll send it to you. Hephaestus?"

You repress a sigh. "Yes, Doctor Seraph?"

"Send Doc the data stream from Doctor Denens' last message."

"Yes, Doctor."

"Anyway, Doc, Jaci is the pilot that Denens got so worked up about before he left. You said he was chasing rumors and fairytales, remember?"

"Oh. Yes, I do." He sat up, surprised. "Don't tell me he found her? Why she must be over a hundred years old!"

Laura laughs. "He indeed found her, she's the very same one in the newsfeeds, down to the DNA and, especially, the nanites."

"Holy cow. I guess I've got some apologies to make. When are they due in?"

"About six months. She's on the last leg now. Apparently, she was a lot closer than we expected. Good thing, too. This means she'll have plenty of time to work out the kinks before launch."

"Does Yvonne know?"

"Of course she does. She's been working on safety precautions ever since she and Denens hatched up this crazy plan. She's ecstatic. And, you'll be happy to know that I was able to get NanoTech to release all her medical files."

"No kidding."

"Yep. Everything from the accident to her last physical."

"That is good news. Wait, did I hear you right? Is Denens not on his way back?"

"No, he's on his way back, he just had another stop to make. There wasn't anyone closer that we could send. Had a hard enough time getting the credentials out there before he arrived. He and the last member of the crew are now on their way here as well, but they won't get here until shortly before launch." Pressing her lips together, she adds, "I don't like it, because there's no way to really get a feel for the girl in such a short time, but Izzy and JB like her, and you know how difficult they've both been about this whole thing."

"So you've found your scientist, too. How come I'm always the last to know these things?"

She grins. "Since you got re-routed for Marris on the way here."

"Oh, right, that whole quarantine bit on Sodex really ate up the time."

Now Laura laughs. "Yeah, that moon sucks. Damn bureaucrats."

He shrugs. "Would've been easier if we could've stayed together, but by the time we finally got out, I was more than ready to jump into cryo. Archimedes is not exactly a walk in the park, either."

"They weren't happy waiting for you, eh?"

"Not at all."

"Well, on the positive side, at least you know what you're getting into."

"True. All right, well, if I've only got a week, then I need to get busy. Got some calls to make."

"'Night, Doc."

"Good night, Laura."


*          *          *


Doc's office is a large affair, with three comfortable couches, a couple easy chairs, knee-high table in the middle of all that and, across the room, his massive desk. The thing is a monster of fabricated wood in a 'C' shape, with a large bookcase attached to the piece bolted to the wall, three computer screens, and enough drawers and cubbies to keep an obsessive-compulsive busy for years. The door into the office opens directly in front of the single, purposely uncomfortable chair before the desk and patients must necessarily siddle past the leviathan to get to the comfortable furniture on the other end. In the middle is a rug, a plant, and a water sculpture hanging on the wall.

You like Doc's office. There's not a lot there and he keeps the place impeccably tidy and organized. When he gets in a mood, he reorganizes the books on his shelves. Last time he shuffled them, he placed them back in reverse alphabetical order by psychoses and then by author. Every once in a while, he'll stand in front of the large observation window, feet wide apart, hands clasped behind his back, just staring out into the asteroid field. He's been known to ignore everything when he gets in one of those moods, like he is right now.

Chance, for Doctor McCallum refuses to answer to anything else, sits in the chair before the desk, idly playing solitare. He comes to Doc's office for an hour every other day without fail and both are proving to be exceedingly stubborn men.

"I won't talk about me," Chance had said that very first visit. "I'll talk about anything you like, but not me."

"You realize that already tells me something about you?"

"Of course, but is it something I've calculated on, the possibility that you would react a given way and so led you to believe you've discovered something? Or am I calculating that you'd know I was calculating and so then I would know that you know and thus do something totally against my nature?"

Yes, Chance was intelligent, but his test scores in school showed that. Doc had sighed and agreed.

So, they talk about patients, about Hephaestus, about sports, about random articles one or the other read about in journals, but nothing personal. Chance never inquired about Doc and Doc asked no questions. But talk Chance must, Doc has made that very clear, and talking is what Chance is doing, whispering, mumbling as he shuffles, nonsense, mainly, the gossip Chance always seems to hear about that has proven quite enlightening over the year and a half.

Chance shuffles again, flips over the king of hearts. He chuckles a little, sadly, taps the card with his index finger, and says, "This was always Lucia's favorite."

You can tell from the twitch off the reflection that Doc has been listening, that he heard that comment. You can see what an effort it takes him to not respond, to continue his little charade, as Chance plays out another hand (he's been losing bitterly, down to negative $322 and counting, by the old rules) and babbles on.

You wonder when Doc's musings ended and this little mind game began. Doc is shrewd, he's not afraid to resort to tricks to get his patients to open up. He boxes with Marris, once a week now, in the gym; that's always entertaining to watch. For an old man, Doc's remarkably fit. At first you assumed he boxed with Marris so he could beat his head in and call it therapy, but then you noticed that Marris secretly enjoyed sparring with Doc. He could rail at authority and not get in trouble, and talk about boxing quickly led directly down the path Doc wanted him to take. While Marris would never be outgoing, he was at least not threatening to kill every person who looked at him sideways.

With Chance, on the other hand, nothing had worked. Doc became more and more frustrated, but Chance never blinked. He was not, you had noticed, the most observant of people, but he was always on guard. He said little, revealed few interests, had no hobbies, and refused to get to know anyone. This more than anything else bothered Doc, especially when he was unable to discover its root cause. There was only one thing Chance had made clear: he wanted to be on the Andromeda's crew, and that was the only thing that kept him coming back into this office, to sit in an uncomfortable chair for an hour and repeat gossip.

So, you have to wonder, was that a slip? Or did he mean for that to come out? Was he finally ready to talk or was he unaware that he'd said that out loud? Chance did talk to himself sometimes, when no one else was around, especially in his lab, but he'd never had an unguarded moment in Doc's presence before.

At the designated time, you give a chime for the hour, and Chance leaves. Once the door is closed, Doc snaps into action and drops back into his own seat at his desk. His fingers dart across the terminal and he sits back, steepling his fingers while he waits. You trace the call and note with interest that Doc has called Chance's father. You decide to wait and see what unfolds.

The man who appears on Doc's central screen is a taller, older version of Chance with less hair. He smiles in greeting.

"Doctor Abramowitz! It's been a while. To what do I owe the pleasure of --"

"Tell me about Lucia," says Doc abruptly.

Kyle McCallum is momentarily taken aback. The camera adjusts as he leans back in thought. The calculating look that comes over his face now is definitely not an expression familiar to Chance.

"You tell me why you want to know, and I mean the whole truth, none of this top-secret bullshit."

"Your son needs help, Mister McCallum."

"My son can help himself."

"You don't seriously believe that, do you? Doctors are their own worst patients."

"You tell me what I want to know and I'll tell you what you want to know."

"Right now I'm standing between Chance and the opportunity of a lifetime. One word and I'll have him shipped straight back home."

"Sure, I'd love to see him. Tell him the key's right where he left it."

Doc stares at the screen silently, frustration written all over him, in the twitch of his lips down to the nervous tapping of his foot against the wall. Here, then, is the key to unlocking Chance's mysteries and you smile a little to yourself, knowing that he's going to give in, and knowing that he knows that too, and hates himself for it.

"Hephaestus," he says, "can you secure this transmission?"

"Yes, Doc," you answer, "Your line is secure."

"We're known as Project Andromeda," Doc begins. Kyle McCallum nods on the screen. "We've hired Chance to be our doctor on a mission to the Andromeda Galaxy."

He'd known that his son was going on an extended trip, but where he is going is new. Kyle's eyes widen in shock.

"I'm never going to see him again, am I?"

Doc shrugs. "I don't know, I don't understand the physics of it myself, but it is highly unlikely. In fact, the odds are astronomical against it."

Kyle is taking the news hard. He gets up and moves off screen. He's pacing. "I thought -- I had hoped ...." There is silence for a long time and then Kyle comes back and sits down. "Tell me that it's for a good cause."

"It is," says Doc, nodding. "Chance is working on the cure for an alien epidemic."

"God!" Kyle exclaims. "He would go for that."

"So, tell me about Lucia."

"You must mean Dominic Lucia, one of Chance's friends at the Academy."

"Where is he now?"

Kyle seems surprised. "Why, he's dead, during the rebellion."

"How?"

"I'm not quite sure. Chance only said he was dead. That was right before the end."

"You said they were friends, how close were they?"

"Oh, Lucia idolized Chance. Knew him better than anybody, I guess. Chance was popular in school, but he didn't have many friends. I guess you could say that Lucia kind of adopted him, looked after him, not that Chance ever noticed, of course."

"They were in the rebellion together?"

"Yes, though not together until almost the end. I don't know how long Lucia was there, only that Chance met him at the hospital that got bombed during the blitz part of the campaign. It was all over the news, was on pins and needles for weeks, waiting to see if my son had lived through that."

"What was Lucia's specialty, do you know?"

"Specialty? Lucia was a nurse, guess you could say surgery was his specialty. They teamed up many times at the Academy, he and Chance."

"Thank you, Mister McCallum, you've been most helpful."

"My son, is he alright?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Well," now Kyle looked uncomfortable. "When they smuggled him home, he, well, I don't know, he seemed more distracted than usual, I guess. I love my son, but I don't understand him most of the time. And you wouldn't be calling unless there was something still bothering you about him."

"Mister McCallum," says Doc, leaning forward and putting on his most sincere look. "Your son is going to be just fine."

"Can you answer one last question?"

"What's that?"

"Why Chance? Why, out of all the doctors in the galaxy, why did you have to pick him?"

Doc smiles kindly, a hint of remembered amusement tilting up the corners of his mouth and softening his gaze. "When my partner and I first discovered the probe we knew we would need to assemble the finest team in the galaxy to uncover its secrets. I spent many years researching, looking for the brightest minds, the best people that would work the best in a team. We needed, not a good doctor, or even a spectacular one, but one that was in many ways unique. There were, and are, many things our doctor would need to do.

"During my search, I talked to an old friend, the Chief Physician at your Academy. In the course of our conversation, she told me a story about a young boy in her school. He was gifted, she said, more than any she'd seen in a long time, and with a drive to match. But talk to him about anything other than medicine and he was completely lost."

Kyle chuckles.

"Yeah, that was my reaction, too. I asked her what made him special and she just shrugged and said he was like a little puppy that you just couldn't put down, even though it could walk perfectly well on its own. I don't remember her ever being that attached to a student before, so, as I got physically closer, I called her up and I asked about him. The timing seemed right, he'd spent years maturing while I was in transit. She sent me his resume, told me he was working at Sector General, and that was that."

"You wouldn't believe how excited he was to get the position there," says Kyle, reminiscing. "He kept saying over and over about how difficult it was to get a residency there, that they don't just pick anyone."

"So that's the story. I didn't look at another resume after Chance. And now that I know what's bothering him, I can toss the few I've got left."

"I'm glad I could help, if it means he'll get to go off on this cruise. He's even more excited about this than his residency."

"He doesn't appear that way to me."

"Of course not, but I know my son. When does he leave?"

"Another couple years, about."

"Don't tell him?"

"I won't. Enjoy the time you've got left, Mister McCallum."

"Thank you. Farewell."

"Good-bye."

Doc leans back as the screen goes dark and props his feet up on the desk. He stares up at the ceiling.

"Hephaestus?"

"Yes, Doc?"

"Are there any male nurses on the staff during Chance's shifts?"

"Negative, Doc."

"Damn! I can't believe I missed that."


*          *          *


Wira Jaci, the new pilot, arrived the very day they fired up the engines on the Andromeda for the first time. Jaci is tall and fit, with a spacer's tan over her naturally bronzed skin. She had stepped out of the freighter she'd arrived in as if she owned it. From listening in on the captain and crew's conversations later, you learned that she'd totally entranced the men on the cargo liner and they were looking forward to seeing her around the docks on their next trip. Evidently, they had believed her cover story, that she was a new mining pod pilot. Were they in for a big disappointment!

She arrived six months after Chance and Gabriel, approximately three and a half years until launch. She stood out immediately during the physical and mental exams. Doc had even remarked that there just had to be something wrong with her because normal was just not, well, normal here. But she'd given him a cocky grin and said normal was something they could still surgically implant way back when. He had laughed and kicked her out of his office.

You really didn't give her much thought until the day that they took the Andromeda out for her first test run, almost two years later. They hooked her into the pilot's seat and said, "Take her out." Jaci, grinning with glee, did just that. With a great deal of the scientists and engineers aboard, and Maya giving a running commentary from the engineering compartment, the maiden voyage could have been thick with tension, but Jaci laughed when she flew and her energy was contagious. You couldn't be there, but you had watched the footage later and listened in as the scientists prattled on about how exciting it was.

Jaci expertly guided the Andromeda out of the hanger and through the asteroid field with a deft touch and only the lightest of pulls on the nuclear pulse engines. Those were a standard set, she was used to those, if not particularly used to having four of them. And then, sitting at the bank of terminals at the engineering station on the bridge, Laura had told Jaci to flip on the phase transition engines.

Maya had cheered and said, "They're ready and rarin' to go! Let's see what these babies can do!"

There was a pause while everyone held their breaths and then Bam! Off they went, the G-forces plastering all the occupants to their seats and several blacked out. Jaci had whooped and Maya had cheered and they had raced to the edge of the solar system and back faster than you ever would have thought possible.

When they popped the hatch on their return, there were cries of, "We did it! We did it!" and a massive party in the hangar.

Jaci spends a lot of time in the company of Doctor Yvonne Wei and Smadar Sheffi. Yvonne is the Chief Surgeon on Hephaestus, second to Doc as the Chief Physician. She has a team of doctors under her who treat all the physical problems that miners in enforced isolation tend to acquire. There's not much different with humans now as there was 200 years ago. They still manage to beat each other up on a regular basis. Plus, there's the usual rounds of cold viruses and bacteria, and injuries on the job. Maneuvering ten-ton rocks with a few kilos of a mining pod is dangerous work.

In addition to the normal tests, Yvonne took samples of Jaci's nanites and checked her bio systems. Jaci had to have special supplements, and her cryo pod had to be altered for the same, to keep her healthy in transit. It's a common enough procedure, for pilots, and, too, the cryo pods on the Andromeda would also serve as medical stasis chambers should someone require extensive medical care, so there were adjustments for everyone.

Many years ago, when mankind first started exploring the stars, biomechanical systems were introduced at the nano-scale level to enable a pilot to control mechancial systems with the same reflexes with which they could control their own bodies. At first, everyone who wished and who could afford it, had injected themselves with these nano-robots or nanites, as they came to be called; but then they noticed that not everyone could handle them. Nanites were commonly used for surgery when lasers were not enough or unsuitable, or for fighting bacterium and diseases, but this new use started to cause more trouble than it solved.

Over time, those who could effectively learn to control the nanites became almost a breed set apart. There were numerous levels of piloting skills, requiring different levels of fine motor control, manual dexterity, and a particular kind of flexible mind-set, so that a person could stretch out into a new skin and then come back when the job was complete. Interstellar pilots were the elite, the very best, trusted with hundreds and even thousands of lives.

Standard time, she was only 21 years old when she came to Hephaestus, but when you add in all her years in cryo, she comes out to be well over one hundred. Jaci's nanites are a very old design, designed over a hundred years ago. The functionality is much the same as today's nanites, they're just more fragile, less durable and efficient, and require much more in the way of supplements than the current nanotechnology. Because they had her old medical files, Yvonne and Denens' assistant Smadar Sheffi, had been able to completely design the Andromeda to Jaci's specifications, so she wouldn't have to undergo any mods, refits, or take additional supplements to adjust her nanites to the ship.

But what makes Jaci really special, makes her stand out from all her peers, is the chip implanted in the base of her brain, the chip that allows Jaci to walk and move and run and behave like your average person. Jaci has two sets of different nanites in her system, one that lets her pilot, and one that serves as an alternate nervous system. Back when she was a child, Jaci had been crushed, almost fatally, in a horrible accident and her spinal cord was badly damaged.

At the time there was an innovative treatment that involved new nanotechnology and a robotic body suit. The way the treatment went, they would inject her with nanites that would mimic the severed nerves and, in effect, with training, she could live a normal life. It was a totally revolutionary approach and prohibively expensive. Jaci's parents enrolled her in the experiment, free to them as a proof of concept test with human subjects. She was the only one for which it was a success.

Following injection with the nanites, she lived for two years in a robotic body suit that slowly taught the biochip in her brain how to move Jaci's body; and taught Jaci how to think to control the chip to make her body do what she needed it to. She still has little feeling from the neck down; the experiment was not a total success, so Jaci has to be careful that she observes herself closely. She could burn herself or break bones and never know, if she's not careful.

It was the newsreels of Jaci wearing the body suit that first grabbed Denens' attention. He was in charge of designing the piloting system, but he also had blueprints and designs for which he was struggling to make adhere to the current nanite piloting system. Unfortunately, Jaci dropped off the radar shortly after becoming a pilot. She'd lived more than ten years with a body filled with nanites when she decided to become a pilot, and that experience let her merge with her ships to an extent never once reproduced, though many tried. He hadn't even been sure she was still alive, so you had gone searching through the GIG and found somebody who seemed to match her description, even the same name, and was rich enough, through stocks and maturing accounts, that it was, conceivably, the right person. Denens went, 'found' Jaci, and became a hero.

That made you angry. She made you angry. You'd set yourself up to believe that she'd be this totally unlikeable character, conceited and completely convinced as to her own superiority, but that hadn't proven to be the case. She's nice, and everybody loves her. She is a pilot, a damn good one. She is better than you were, and you are jealous. She smiles and makes the scientists fall in love with her, makes nice with everyone, and she gets to fly the Andromeda. She makes the sleek ship dance, gliding through space like a dream, and you can only watch the feeds when she gets back, and wish.

Oh, how you wish! You're as excited about the Andromeda as anyone, you're helping build her in your own way, but you'll never get the chance to go, you'll always be on the outside, watching, watching others do all the things you used to do. This, truly, is hell. No wonder imprinted A.I.s went insane. You'd been isolated, alone, for most of your existence. Watching these humans exist around you, experiencing life, preys on your mind. You can feel the anger building, turning into hatred and you know that's not right, but you can't help what you feel. You're invisible and you have found yourself pushing at your limits, trying to find ways around the safety precautions to make them notice you. You know it's wrong, but you try anyway.

And it's all Jaci's fault. You hate her and wish she would just go away. Then they'd see that you are the only other possible choice to pilot the Andromeda.

You go find Doc. He's in his office, talking with Chance. He's really turned around since Doc started pressing him about Lucia. He's stopped crying in his sleep, and he's starting to take an active interests in what's going on around him. Not a lot, but a little. You wait around until after the session and then send your image to one of Doc's monitors.

Doc looks surprised to see you and you suddenly realize that you've never spontaneously appeared to him. Or, really, to anyone other than Zoe and Robin.

"Uh, Hephaestus?" asks Doc.

You nod your head. "Yes, Doc."

"I didn't know you could do that."

You're not sure what approach to take, so you stand there, shifting from foot to foot, feeling like you've just damaged your pod and the mining chief is about to take out the cost of repairs on your hide.

"You look nervous, what's the matter?" He's a quick study, is Doc, getting over his astonishment and curiosity to focus on you. "Why don't you sit down?"

Okay, you reflect Doc's room behind you and sit in the desk chair, facing him. You stare down at your hands for a minute, hesitant about meeting Doc's eyes. He waits, not even fiddling with his over-organized desk drawers, giving you his whole attention. Somehow, this makes you even more uneasy. You fidget.

"How is Chance?" You wince as Doc's eyebrows shoot up. That's not what you wanted to ask, and he knows it.

"Why don't you ask me what's really on your mind?" says Doc, evidently deciding to go with the straight-forward approach.

"Uh, I'm unhappy?"

"No one's happy all the time."

"I know, but ... this is different, I think, it's getting worse."

"What's getting worse?"

You wish you could pace, but all you can do is fidget. "Well, I ... don't want to be me anymore."

"Hephaestus," says Doc slowly, sitting upright. "Are you experiencing sudden twinges of anger?"

"Yes."

"Any other strong feelings like that?"

You don't want to answer, but you must, it's why you're here. "Yes," you whisper. "Am I ... going insane?" Don't say yes, don't say yes!

"It's possible," Doc responds. "Now, no need to get all alarmed, Hephaestus, calm down."

"Calm down!" you blurt, hands clenching the edge of the virtual table. You suddenly find it difficult to breathe, which is ridiculous, but you can't focus your thoughts.

"Hephaestus!" Doc is yelling, standing, when did he stand up? "Hephaestus, you've got to stop panicking! Nothing is for sure yet!"

You shake off the vertigo and place your image back on the screen. "I'm sorry, Doc."

He wipes moisture from his face and sits back down. "You're right," he says, "this is serious. I'm glad you came. We need do a full system assessment on you, see if there's a physical reason for the changes in your personality matrix. That okay with you?"

"Yes, Doc."

"I'm going to call Jennifer, will you connect me, please? And stay put, we're not finished yet."

After a moment, Jennifer's annoyed stare glares back from the screen. "What is it, Doc?"

"Jennifer, Hephaestus has just reported some anomalies in his personality matrix. Could you please run a systems check?"

She looks alarmed. "Of course, Doc! Right away."

The screen darkens; she's gone. Doc shakes his head.

"That didn't sound good," you say.

"It's probably nothing," says Doc in his soothing tone. "Now, why don't you tell me when you first started having these spikes."

"Thirty-nine days ago."

He frowns. "That's when they did the first test-drive, isn't it?"

"Yes, Doc."

"Do you think there's any significance to that?"

"Well ...."

"Hephaestus, what kind of person were you, you know, before you died?"

"A pilot," you answer in a small voice. "I worked here. I think. I'm not sure."

"Are you jealous of Jaci?"

"I -- yes, Doc, I am. But it's so stupid! It's not her fault!"

"The heart doesn't like to listen to logic."

"I don't have a heart."

"That's beside the point. The point is, you know what you used to be, and your matrix is rebelling against what you are now. Call it regret, if you will."

"O-kay ... Are you telling me I'm having a mid-life crisis?"

Doc shrugs. "It's possible. I've never counseled an A.I. before, I can't really be sure what's possible and what's not. What do you think?"

"Um, that kind of makes some sense, but what about these feelings?"

"I don't know, Hephaestus. I'm going to have to do some research on others of your kind, some of the technology behind what you are. Why don't you go do something relaxing while I work on it?"

"Can you fix me, Doc?"

"The mind is not a tool to be fixed, but yes, I think I can help you."

"Thank God."

"Go on, this may take me a while."


*          *          *


With 300 days left until launch, Hephaestus is a busy place. Thomas has said on a number of occassions that the mining is more than paying for the cost of Project Andromeda's operations. You know, from discretely looking at the books, that he's right. Surprising, but true. The crew is working well together and the engineers are now working on the aesthetics of the Andromeda rather than the nuts and bolts. The botanist, Helene Sanguinetti, is having difficulty getting the Conservatory set up correctly, and there are still large holes where the Andromeda's A.I. would be going, among other things, but the ship is almost complete. The weapons have been installed and tested, at speed, and, oddly enough, Gabriel and Jaci have become friends. If you hadn't witnessed it with your own eyes, you probably wouldn't have believed it, but that's life for you.

It all started because Laura insisted that the crew study basic self-defense together, to include hand weapons, with Gabriel teaching the class. He was a strict taskmaster and Jaci inevitably rebelled against his leadership. He had challenged her to a boxing match and she had subsequently beaten the crap out of him. Turns out boxing was something she'd learned to help adjust to her nanites and she'd kept up with the hobby. From then on, their fitness routines included rounds of boxing, nearly every day.

Maya comes out of Engineering only reluctantly, spending most of her time with Jomo clambering around the insides of the Andromeda and arguing about the best placement of doors and power cells and cables and wires and all sorts of other stuff. And Chance now actually interacts with the other members of the staff. He and Gabriel had formed an immediate dislike of each other, which was unfortunate, but they had come to an uneasy working arrangement during the times they were forced together.

That leaves two members of the crew yet to arrive. Hyke, the genius girl rescued from the System, still several months away, and Robin, who you're eagerly awaiting. The ship he's in seems to travel slower the closer it comes. He's not disguised as a miner, that wouldn't work; he's traveling as himself, coming home. You had talked to him briefly after his arrival on Archimedes Moonbase, but his transport had been late and the freighter to Hephaestus was eager to be away. You haven't talked to him in several months and you haven't seen him since he was seven. This was it! He was finally coming home.

You keep checking on the ship and flashing over to the hangars every few minutes to see if the freighter has landed yet and the time drags on interminably. The only other person who seems even half as excited as you is Jennifer, and that's mostly because she's been assembling the componets from the long list Robin had sent ages ago and she's practically frothing at the mouth to get the mainframe on the Andromeda up and running and to integrate her systems with the new A.I.

You're pretty curious about Nibble yourself. What would he be like? What would he look like? Robin has said that he had designs for a holographic projection system so that Nibble could walk the corridors freely. Nibble would have so much more freedom than any other A.I. ever designed, and Robin said that he was already really intelligent, and he wasn't even hooked into the GIG. Nor would he be. A large capacity of the mainframe was set aside to hold as much data on human life as possible to store and carry with them. You've been burning data chips for most of the past year that Robin's been in transit. You want to make sure that Nibble has all the information he could possibly need to share with the aliens you hope they'll be encountering.

At last, at last! The freighter settles, and the hatch opens. There are a stream of passengers that disembark. Doc takes them under his wing and shuffles them into an organized kind of chaos. You know immediately when Robin steps to the top of the ramp. Just fourteen, he's thin and gangly, yet to grow into his full height. His hair is long and shaggy, his eyes a darker shade of gray, and he seems much more pale than you'd prefer to see on a growing boy. Still, it's Robin.

His mother runs up and hugs him and you can see him squirm to get away. She ruffles his hair, but you can't hear what she's saying over the noise in the hangar. He is carrying a bag slung over his shoulder and what looks like a tacklebox in his hand.

Laura waves to Doc and introduces Robin. Doc sticks out his hand, friendly enough, but you can see the calculation behind that carefully neutral expression. Robin frowns. He knows who Doc is and is wary.

Laura grills Robin with questions about school, about girlfriends, about his choice of clothes, his interests, his trip, and she tells him in no uncertain terms that she doesn't like the tattoo and wishes his hair were shorter. Through it all, Robin answers stoicly, trying not to roll his eyes too much, but obviously wishing she wouldn't make such a big fuss. They pass through the main hallways like any other mother and son and Laura introduces Robin to their head of security, getting Robin his badge and access keys. They pass through security's main offices, enter a lift that Laura directs Robin to activate with his control key, and they descend to the levels of Project Andromeda.

"There are two access points to these levels," instructs Laura. "One here, and one on the medical level, level fourteen, next to the park. Housing is on level A-5, my office and the rest of admin on A-4, labs on A-3, all the fabrication and construction stuff is on A-2, and the hangar is A-1."

They get off the lift, flash their badges to security, and cross the open space to the lifts beyond. "This is A-5, the lifts to the rest of the base stop here. You have to come out this way, get through security, and here are the lifts to the rest of P-A. Do you want to see the Andromeda first, or see your room first?"

"I want to see Hephaestus," says Robin, which gives you a thrill.

For a minute, Laura looks cross. You can almost read her mind. You're not important to the grand scheme that is the Andromeda. To her, Robin's first thoughts should always be on the Andromeda. Anything else is just details, a waste of time.

Then she shrugs. "We have to go back up."

"It's okay, Mom, I know my way around. I can find the control room myself, I'm sure you're really busy."

She hesitates a minute longer, then ruffles his hair again, a gesture you can see that he hates already. "Well, if you're sure, then go ahead. The cafeteria is on level eleven. I'll see you there for dinner at nineteen hundred, okay?"

"Sure, Mom."

"Oh, take the lift," she points back the way they'd come, "and go back through security. From there --"

"I know, Mom, honest, I can find my own way."

"Then I'll see you later."

"Bye."

Robin backtracks, winds his way back through security and steps in a lift. At last, he's alone!

"Hey, kiddo!"

He grins. "Hey, Hephaestus!"

"Like the new look!"

He laughs. "Yeah, well, it pissed off the 'robots' so it seemed worth it."

"I've missed you, kid. It's been a long year."

"How do you like the crew so far?"

"Well, you're almost at my stop, so tell you in a minute!"

When the doors of the lift open, Robin steps out cautiously. This corridor seems very quiet compared to the noise and crowds of the other places he's been. He's evidently studied the blueprints you sent because he navigates confidently and slides his key card through the panel on an unobtrusive door in a hallway that looks the same as every other hallway on this level. He steps inside the control room and places the toolbox on an empty chair, coming to stand in front of the main screens, beaming up at you.

"Long time no see."

"Hmm," you muse outloud, "you seem a lot taller than I remember." You smile back to his laughter. You wish you had a body that could give him an embrace, or a man's friendly thump on the back. "You're all grown up."

"So, about the crew."

"Oh, right." You fire up the adjacent screen. "Meet Maya Dhatri, our Engineer. You were right about her, I just want to say that for the record. She has been everything we could have wished, and more." Next picture. "This is Wira Jaci, the pilot."

"Oh, yeah, I read about her in those data chips you sent me. Is she a good pilot?"

"The best!" Next picture. "This is Doctor Chance McCallum, he'll be your doctor, by the way, not Doc." You chuckle. "Thought you'd appreciate that."

"Just how did you manage that?"

"Oh, Chance is the doctor for the whole crew. Might as well start right away, then he'll know you all before launch." You tactfully decide not to mention that Chance is a trained psychologist, too.

"That's a swell idea, Hephaestus. So let's see Gabriel."

"Okay, here he is, and call him Marris, so he doesn't box your ears."

"Cool scar. Is he as mean as he looks?"

"Guess you'll find out, won't you? I don't think he's especially mean, he just takes some getting used to."

"So you ready?"

"Ready for what?"

Robin pulled the bag off his shoulder and began riffling through it. "I brought something for you."

"What could you be bringing me?"

He flips out a manilla envelope and waves it at you. "This. Here, take a look." Moving to one of the computers, he opens up a box-like device and slides the sheet inside. You activate the scanner and wait impatiently for the data to render so you can see it.

It's a photograph, of a brown-skinned man with a military haircut wearing a black uniform with a badge. He's beaming up at the camera proudly, helmet in hand, and the flag of the Alliance behind him.

"Oh my God." You transfer your attention to the anxious Robin.

"Do you like it?"

"Where did you get this?"

"I found it when I busted into the Alliance's archives. It's you!"

"I know it's me. I don't -- I mean I ... Wow, this means an awful lot to me, Robin, thank you."

"Ah, but that's not all!"

He flourishes a small device in his hand, a data chip, and you freeze. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Yep!" says Robin. "I found your file. Do you want to know your name?"

"Uh ... I don't know, Robin, is this a good idea? I don't have that information for a reason, maybe I shouldn't get it back."

He frowns, considers the chip. "I hadn't thought about that." He clutches the disk in his fist. His mouth turns downward in disappointment, he'd been looking forward to this surprise.

"It's just," you try to explain, "I do want to know, I just, I'm just not sure that I should know. Is it ... is it good stuff?"

"Oh, yes, Hephaestus, you were a good man." He's smiling and nodding, but he's holding something back.

"Why am I here, Robin? Why did I give up flying?"

He looks away, not meeting your gaze. "I don't know, Hephaestus. I didn't find that out."

The picture of a man with hard eyes and a large, beaky nose surfaces in the front of your thoughts. You don't know his name but there's a stirring of emotion there, distant, but very strong. You push it away, for it scares you. You don't know where it comes from or why it's there and you suddenly wish very much that Robin holds the answers.

"Tell me, Robin," you find yourself whispering. "Who am I?"

He pockets the chip again, crossing his arms over his chest to meet your haunted gaze squarely. "Your name is Teo Diluca and you were born on Mars. You volunteered when you were seventeen and passed the entry requirements for the peacekeepers. You gained the rank of constable, received a couple of awards, and you were happy. You were very happy, Hephaestus."

"Oh, God," you murmer. "Something bad happened to me, didn't it?"

"I don't know. Your record just ends. The Alliance declared you missing in action, presumed dead. There was no investigation."

"But, I remember being here! This doesn't make any sense! I was a mining pod pilot, a good one, I --" You stop, blanking the screen. "Excuse me, Robin."

You flee, curling up around your shattered thoughts in confusion. It had to be wrong, it had to be! Unbidden, faces bobbed back across your thoughts, people and places you knew that you knew, but you can't say for sure who they were. You study them, their hair, their faces, their clothes, the scenery in the background. There's quite a few, you realize, in the black uniforms of the corps. After some rapid shuffling, you start to recognize a few of the faces, appearing multiple times. There was a black man with a shaved head, a small, rabbit-faced man, and a woman with short-cropped red hair and a smattering of freckles.

They must have been my friends, you realize and a pang of lonliness hits you. What had happened? Why had no one searched for you? But that couldn't be right! You remembered hunting the field for ore and mineral-rich asteroids, hooking them into the processing line, getting reamed by the pit boss for damaging your pod. How could those two memories be reconciled?

"Hephaestus?"

That's Doc calling. You open your eyes into his office and note that Robin's there, and Doc's got the data chip. You leave.

"Hephaestus!"

You ignore even Robin, going back to your gloomy memories. You want eyes with which to cry, hands to strike out at something, a voice is all you have but there's nowhere private to go to howl out your misery. You race through your sensors, but there's people everywhere! You can't get away, you're alone, but never with a moment's privacy, thousands of requests come your way every second, people needing this, needing that, you just don't want to deal with it anymore.

Who am I?

"Hello? Hello?"

The timid little voice, young and sounding lost, plucks at your angry and wounded heart. You can't resist checking on the child and you send out a tentative tendril towards that sound.

"Hello?" he calls again.

His voice sounds distorted somewhat and you realize that he has somehow patched through the Andromeda's communication relays, and it's a poor job, hastily done. Curious. This call was a broadband stream, not directed at anyone in particular.

"Hello?"

"Hello," you finally decide to rumble back, and cut down the stream so that the rest of the channels are no longer overwhelmed.

"You're here!"

You're puzzled, and a little exasperated. There are no children on Hephaestus, and none should be able to get anywhere near the Andromeda.

"And you shouldn't be. Show yourself right now."

"Okay," he says meekly and an image forms on your circuits, a little brown-haired boy that .. looks awfully familiar. It has to be ...

"Nibble!"

He smiles shyly, shuffling his feet. "Hi."

"How did you get here?"

"Robin sent me. He's worried about you."

"Well, come here, let me get a good look at you, then." He shuffles forward when you beckon and your eyes have not decieved you; he looks exactly as you did when you were young.

"Hey, kiddo, I'm not going to bite."

"Are -- are you mad at Robin?"

You shake your head. "No, kid, I'm not mad. I've just got a lot of things to think about. Hey, you're really sapping the relays here. Go on, get back, tell Robin to fix up your place real good, okay?"

"Okay."

He leaves, fading away into the aether of reality and you wander back to your control room, hunting, probing, searching for your earliest memories after the imprinting. They're not much, just records of data transmissions, basic stuff that gradually got more difficult and varied as you learned your limits. You search and search and search, but there's nothing. There aren't even any files for those memories you have; neither the good ones nor the bad. Just nothing. Reluctantly you pull out and open up your consciousness to the base again.

"Doc?"

The psychologist swivels in his chair to face you on the monitor. He smiles a smile filled with relief. "Hephaestus. We've been worried about you."

"You have?"

He cocks his head. "Of course we have. And Robin's been beside himself. How are you doing?"

"I'm okay."

"You don't look okay."

"I don't know who I am."

"Yes, Robin gave me the chip. Would you like it now?"

"No. I don't know who that man is. He's not me."

"Are you sure?"

"No. That's the worst part. Is there any way to find out?"

"Robin's going to try, see if there's anything in your data that you can't see."

"He shouldn't be doing that, he's got enough to work on."

"He feels guilty, but more than that -- no, don't interrupt. He's your friend, Hephaestus, we all are, and this is the sort of thing we do for our friends."

"Oh." You reflect on that for a moment. "Doc, I have memories that I don't have record of. Is that normal?"

"Like what?"

"Like I remember working here, flying a pod, getting chewed out by my supervisor for crashing it. I remember people and places that are obviously not here, but none of this is anywhere in my data. I've checked."

"I'm afraid I can't help you there. You need to talk to Robin about that. Hey."

"What?"

"Don't just disappear like that again, without a word, eh? You scared us."

Your computer image shrugs. "Sorry, Doc."

"Hey, I understand, that was a lot coming at you all at once. Go talk to Robin."

"Yes, Doc."


*          *          *


Ten hours before launch, you and Nibble and Robin spend some time together in the control room. Robin is reclining in a chair, feet up on the desk, plugged into the system so that we are all together, virtually, lounging in a semi-crowded bar and enjoying drinks and reminiscing on old times. Nibble is playing with a finger puzzle, the virtual manifestation of a complex algorithim. He's a quiet kid, more like yourself than you are often comfortable with, but he's also undeniably Robin and loves him unconditionally, a feeling you both share.

"Hey, Hephaestus," says Robin at one point.

"Yeah?" you reply, eyeing an attractive blonde on the far side of the room.

"Hyke's not exactly what I'd envisioned, you know?"

Your mouth quirks and you bite back a sarcastic comment. "Oh, no?" you manage to reply.

"She's pretty."

"That's normally a good thing."

"Yeah, but, I don't know, she's just not what I'd pictured."

"You don't exactly look, in Real Life, the way you do on the GIG, either, Robin."

"I know that."

"Chances are she's still getting used to this place. The System is so highly structured that even this place must've been quite a shock."

"How come I didn't get caught up by them? Aren't I smart enough?"

You frown. "Don't even think about that. You were protected for the same reason that I was, that this whole place has remained off the radar. You did get to go to Callisto, and you know how hard it is to be accepted there."

"Yeah."

Deciding to change the subject, you ask, "Did you say good-bye to Zoe yet?"

"Yeah, she still thinks I'm borderline crazy to be going through with this, but she wished me well, says she'll archive family photos and stuff and send 'em to my account for when we get back."

"She always did have such a positive outlook on life."

"Yeah."

There's a pleasant silence for a time.

"Hey, Hephaestus?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"I never did find out why Teo came here. You'll never know now."

You shrug. "I guess I'm resigned to it. Besides, my old bones will still be here even in a thousand years. You'll just have to come back and search some more."

He sticks his tongue out at you. Sometimes, he really is just a kid.

"I got it!" cries Nibble, holding up the puzzle and waving it at Robin.

You all laugh, a companionship that is disrupted suddenly by the fire alarm ringing and the patrons of the bar all trampling over each other to get out. You close your eyes for a minute and when you open them, you're on your feet with no memory of having jumped up.

"Out!" you shout at Robin. "Get out of here, the self-destruct has been initiated!"

"What!"

"Nibble, go! Fire up the engines on the Andromeda! You've got to get out of here now, you don't have much time."

"But, Hephaestus!" Nibble is gone, but Robin is staring at you in shock.

Virtually, you envelop his avatar in a bone-crushing hug, planting a rough kiss on the top of his touseled head. "I love you, kiddo, take care of yourself, okay?"

"Hephaestus!"

You step back and, with a wave of your arm, kick him out of your system. You watch as he runs from the control room, into the lift that you hold active for him, and then all the way to the hangar and the Andromeda. Then and only then do you let the blast doors and automatic systems seal off the view. You have other people to protect after all.

"Good-bye ...."

© Copyright 2007 KC under the midnight sun (goonie at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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