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James Alan Gardner


To Rob and Carolyn, for getting me started in the Show, then continuing to cheer from the stands.

Thanks to the usual crew: Linda Carson, Richard Curtis, and Jennifer Brehl. For continuing support, a big thank-you too to Andy Heidel and Lou Aronica.

Since I’m writing this in 1999, I’d like to thank the developers of Microsoft Word for DOS 5.0, still the most useful word processor for a fiction writer; and then I’d like to whack those same developers upside the head for not making the software Y2K-compliant. Come December 31, I’ll have to switch to some elephantine replacement that thinks it knows what I want… when what I want is a decent thesaurus, intelligent use of style sheets, and a user interface that doesn’t keep making me take my hands off the keyboard. (Gardner’s Third Law: When a particular computer operation requires you to use the mouse, you will never get faster at that operation than your very first day of using the software. In other words, hunt-and-peck beats point-and-click. Grumble, grumble, grumble…)

Part 1




The first day of the flight, I was so happy to be heading home that I went to Willow’s cafeteria for supper with the crew… and it seemed as if every woman on the starship wanted me to try the Angoddi mushrooms, or did I listen to razzah poetry, or would I like a look at the engine-room service tunnels when the next shift was over?

I’d forgotten how bored folks get on long tours of duty. Bored with their jobs, bored with each other. One glimpse of a new face, and people go into feeding frenzy. Or breeding frenzy. Maybe I should have been flattered, but all that eager attention sort of got me terrified — I’d been stuck on a three-person moonbase for twenty whole years, so I felt way out of my depth when a dozen women wanted to make conversation with me.

"You’re so cute for an Explorer!"

"And you don’t smell bad!"

"Do you have a funny voice? I bet you have a funny voice. Say something."

"Um," I said. "Um."

"Look, he’s shy!" One of the women giggled. "Can they stick you in the Explorer Corps just because you’re shy? With a guy this built, I could cure his shyness real fast. Overnight!"

"He must be one of the new Explorers," another woman said. "The volunteers. The ones who don’t have anything wrong with them."

"Anyone who volunteers to be an Explorer has something wrong with them. Him. Whatever." A bald-headed woman laid both hands on my wrist and stared straight into my eyes. "Come on, handsome, you can be honest with us. You’re an Explorer, and Explorers are never normal. What’s wrong with you?"

I took a deep breath and told them all, "I’m stupid, okay? I’m stupid." Then I went back to my cabin and locked myself in.

The whole next day I kept getting comm-messages saying, "Sorry," or "We were just teasing," or "That invitation is still on for getting together in the service tunnels." Three women actually came to apologize at my door… and later, a man who said, "The women here are such bitches, aren’t they? Forget ’em. Why don’t you come down to my cabin for some sudsy VR?" I said thanks anyway, but maybe another time. After that, when somebody knocked I pretended I wasn’t home.

Just before noon on the third day, I got another visitor… and the peep-monitor showed it was a woman wearing an admiral’s gray uniform. I couldn’t very well keep an admiral shut out, so I ran my fingers through my hair, then told the door to open.

The admiral woman was short and brown and young, with a big purply blotch on her cheek; I couldn’t tell what the blotch was, and didn’t know if I was supposed to compliment it or pretend it didn’t exist. My twin sister Samantha used to yell at me, "Edward, when you see a woman has done something special with her face, for God’s sake say she looks pretty." It was easy to tell Sam she looked pretty, because she was always as beautiful as sunshine on a lake. With other women though, either I sat there tongue-tied, or I’d try a compliment and the woman would just stare at me… like maybe I was trying to be funny or something. I sure didn’t want an admiral to think I was making fun of her face; so I just ignored her blotchy cheek and gave her my best salute.

It’s hard to go wrong saluting. Especially with an admiral. The woman at my door introduced herself as Lieutenant Admiral Festina Ramos, and said I had to come to the party. "What party?" I asked. Back when Samantha and I had been on active duty, I couldn’t remember navy starships ever having parties. At least, none that I’d been invited to.

"We’re crossing the line in fifteen minutes," the admiral woman said. "You should be there."

I didn’t know what she meant, crossing the line; I was pretty sure there were no lines in outer space. When I said that, she laughed and pinched my cheek. "You’re an angel." Then she took me by the arm and leaned against me all warm and a bit perfumed while she led me to the Willow’s recreation lounge.

The perfume was in her hair.

I wasn’t so used to having perfumey women take me by the arm. Part of it was just being away from human things for so long — what with escorting Samantha on her big diplomatic mission, then the long awful time after, it’d been a whole thirty-five years since I’d gone out in human company. (That made me middle-aged, I guess: fifty-seven… though with YouthBoost treatments, I hadn’t changed a whit since my twenties.)

But even when I was a teenager on New Earth, I didn’t spend much time with women. My father didn’t like me being seen by anyone off our estate. Dad was rich and important — Alexander York, Admiral of the Gold in the Outward Fleet — and he treated me like a big smeary stain on his personal reputation. Even though it wasn’t my fault.

Back before I was born, Dad paid a doctor lots of money to make my sister and me more perfect than perfect: athletic and dazzling and smart, smart, smart. It didn’t matter that gene engineering was illegal in the Technocracy — my father went to an independent world where the laws were different… or where the police were cheaper to buy off.

The gene-splicing worked real well for Samantha, but with me it only did part of the job. I can do hundreds of push-ups without stopping, and Sam always called me devilishly handsome, but my brain chemistry didn’t come out so good. Too much of some things, too little of others. So Dad kept me at home for fear his "retarded idiot son" would embarrass him in public.

I didn’t mind so much. He kept Samantha at home too, with all kinds of private tutors. Sam became my private tutor, so it worked out pretty well. She taught me to be polite and brave and honest, and to think really hard about being good to people. Later, when we were teenagers, she’d take me on pretend-dates so I wouldn’t feel left out: to the gazebo on the south lawn near the reflecting pool, where we’d dance and dance and dance.

Sometimes I wished I had someone else to dance with — someone who liked me, who wasn’t my twin sister. But I never said that to Sam; I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

On our way to the party, the perfumey admiral woman explained that "crossing the line" meant leaving the Troyen star system for interstellar space. It was a big moment in any starship flight, the point where you cross out of your starting system… because the League of Peoples has a law, if you’ve been a bad person, you aren’t allowed to go from one star system to another. If you try it, they kill you. Not messily or anything like that — you just die the second you leave the system where you did the bad things. It’s like magic; except that there is no magic, just superadvanced science from races millions of years older than us humans. To the League, we were as stupid as worms on a plate, and no matter how smart we thought we were, the League was a billion times smarter. No one ever fooled them.