Authors: Brenda Cooper
It was what we’d promised.
In spite of our practice at Chance’s and during the long flight to the cave, the physical Paula was more difficult to get into than the
simulated Paula. She was awake, though calm. At first we synchronized our breaths to each other, and then Marcus added,
synchronize with her
His advice helped. I remembered how slowly Kayleen had breathed when we almost lost her; Paula’s meditative breathing was just a bit slower. With that memory, my body knew it could manage.
didn’t have as much available bandwidth as the war room in the cave. Nor so much distraction. Still, I needed all I could get. All three of us filled
’s dataspace, slowly, finding every available unused channel and bit of bandwidth. Where possible, we shared.
We turned to Paula. Our work began to feel familiar. She had moved on from the moment the sim had been taken: lost half a pound, cut her fingernails, stubbed her toe. But the time slices of her life were close enough that we fell easily there, her own internal nano sending signals we were used to from the sim, only slower.
Someone watched us.
Kayleen saw it, too, but she just watched, serene.
, Marcus soothed.
It’s Paula herself. You had to see that before you could work.
Okay, I can do this
. Changing Paula became something we had done and succeeded at. Familiar. Doable.
This time, I did more of the work. Kayleen fed the two of us more support. Her energy stayed strong and sweet, steady. Marcus directed, keeping as much attention on Kayleen as he kept on me. Like the last time with the sim, we expanded and grew and shrank all at once in way I have no words for, becoming Paula and yet being ourselves, becoming the dream we were building inside of this brave young woman.
It took a long time, and we forgot we were in the
, forgot we were far above Lopali, protected by fliers in little silver ships. We forgot everything but blood, and bone, and brain. Vein and organ and skin. Breath and heartbeat.
When we finished and floated back up to the surface, Kayleen collected in with the two of us, sweat drenched my forehead. I could
barely lift my head. But I did, and the three of us shared a smile, everyone as sweaty as me. Chance, watching us, smiled, too.
Paula blinked. She was still somewhere far away, carried on the waves of her training and her deep focus. It struck me that she knew at least as much as Seeyan had, that Paula’s purpose ran deep and clear.
She blinked again, and then her eyes focused, alert and aware. Aware of everything. She smiled.
Before we left her with Chance, we each gave her a deep hug. When it was my turn, I marveled at how touch enhanced my connection to her, even though being in our physical bodies made far more separation than reading and programming the nanomeds and cellular structures that controlled her very being. I looked into her eyes, and the whole of her was so much more than all of the tiny parts. I whispered in her ear. “Good luck.”
Her smile dazzled. “Thank you.”
Marcus’s hand on my arm pulled me into the corridor, and Kayleen took my hand, and we went to a room with couches and blankets. Tiala and Jenna offered water. I drank and lay down, and Marcus himself came and covered me. He knelt down beside me. “You are truly a powerful creator now. If you were my own true son, I could not be more proud of you.”
His words played in my head at least three times over before I passed out, exhausted and strangely happy.
arcus shook my shoulder. I blinked and yawned, trying to assess how long I might have slept. Not enough. A week wouldn’t be enough. Maybe a month. But my belly and bladder and dry mouth demanded movement, so I moved. Still, I grumbled, “Why’d you wake me up?”
“There’s a delegation from Lopali docking with us. We have about twenty minutes to get ready.”
Great. Or not so great. “Who?”
“I don’t know.”
But then I surged with hope. “Did they bring Alicia?”
He looked as tired as I felt, even though surely we’d slept at least a few hours. “I don’t think so. Meet me in the command room in ten minutes. I’ll get the others.”
Even though we were the only ones on the ship, the command room was way too small to hold all of us and any other kind of delegation. About half of it was table, and the rest was sink and art and video screens and open space. One of the myriad symbols for the Five Worlds took up the one wall that wasn’t screens, a single elliptical orbit with all five planets strung across it as if they were the same size, all represented in three-dimensional relief with color. I noticed that Islas and Silver’s Home were completely across the circle from each other.
Marcus, Chelo, Jenna, Kayleen, and I took chairs around the table, leaving room for three or four fliers to perch on stools Tiala had found in a storeroom. We piped camera feed to the others in the crew room we’d used to work on Paula.
We finished in time to wait.
I examined Marcus’s face across the table from me. He looked positive, and more rested. It turned out we had slept six hours. Not enough. But now that I’d moved around I felt at least slightly alert. “We did it, right? We fixed the fliers and they’ll join us and the war won’t have to happen. Right?”
Marcus smiled, his face saying it was so, but his words were, “Don’t count on anything until it’s done.” But he was excited; his eyes almost glowed.
Kayleen brushed at her glorious dark hair. “But Paula’s okay, right? She’s alive and well? She’s . . . fixed.”
He nodded. “Chance has already taken her home.”
Surely we’d succeeded. It had all felt right and complete. Working on Paula herself had felt better than working on the successful sim. Paula had practically glowed when we were done, so much that I felt sure she was healthier. After all our work to prepare, after we finally settled in, it had almost been easy.
Almost. Not too easy.
And Kayleen had stayed with us. Not as strong as Marcus or I, but almost. And this time, finally, I had Chelo by my side again. In spite of Bryan and Alicia, it was going to be all right.
The ship docked with ours.
I expected Matriana or Daniel or both. A single flier came through the airlock, wearing a suit that looked more like a bubble than anything
I’d ever seen in space. Made of hard triangles with thin, flexible material between them, it slumped neatly down into a ring under the black-winged flier’s feet.
The only sign of surprise that Marcus gave was a narrowing of his eyes.
Our strategists didn’t like this at all: Chelo drew her breath in. Jenna stiffened.
Kayleen piped up. “Hi Tsawo. How are you? How was the trip? Have you seen Alicia? Did you see Paula? Doesn’t she look great?”
Maybe she hadn’t changed that much. I had to suppress a smile as Tsawo reeled a bit under her fusillade of questions.
Jenna stood up and held out her hand. “We’re pleased to host you. Will there be anyone else joining you?”
“No. I’m by myself.” He did sit, across from Jenna and Marcus, shifting a bit until he found a comfortable way to place his wings. I watched him as Jenna brought him water. He was a rival; to all intents and purposes a rival who’d won.
I had to ask him. “Have you seen Alicia?”
Jenna shot me a disapproving glance.
He looked at the table and then over at me. It struck me again how beautiful fliers were, how pretty he was for a man. On the ground, they had a brittle strength, but nothing like the strength they’d shown in the air when they threw Bryan down. It had taken at least ten of them to do that, because Bryan had the bigger wings, the machine that helped him fly. I shut my eyes for a moment, dizzy with memory. I had not seen Tsawo in the fight, or I would have had trouble sitting there.
When he did speak, he said, “We buried your friend, the strongman. I apologize for our people. It was . . . not me. Not the people I represent. But it was an act of my kind, and I’m deeply sorry.”
He sounded like he meant it. It took as much strength as I had to stay calm as I asked, “So Alicia is all right?”
“She’s choosing to stay with us.”
I had thought so. Still, a lump rose in my throat. “Please . . . tell her . . . tell her I said good luck.” I got up and busied myself at the sink, washing a glass that didn’t need to be washed and refilling it with water just like the water I’d thrown out.
He sounded sure and calm as he said, “I’ll tell her.”
He could at least sound regretful. Surely he knew his words were knives. An awkward silence fell. Marcus was the only one with the presence of mind to fill it well. “Chance thinks your niece will have babies.”
Tsawo’s reaction was to simply nod and chew a bit on his upper lip.
I sat back down with my clean glass of water and watched. Even I knew Tsawo wasn’t giving us the reaction we expected. He shifted on his seat. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad. It will help us greatly.”
Chelo pressed him. “What about the war. You will come with us, now, right? We’ll go together?”
He shook his head, mute.
Marcus leaned in toward him, his voice strained. “We have an agreement.”
Tsawo met Marcus’s eyes, and spit out what he’d clearly come for. “And we have new leadership. We will not go to war.”
Marcus’s eyes narrowed further, and his shoulders sank. He blew out a long, slow breath, never taking his gaze from Tsawo’s face. As if simply staring him down would change his message.
After an uncomfortable silence, Jenna spoke. “And you are the new leader.” It wasn’t a question.
He nodded, sitting up straighter. “And we will not go to war. Why be given this wonderful chance at life, and then throw it away? We will stay neutral.”
nly three days had passed since Tsawo’s announcement, but I still felt betrayed. We’d done the work! We’d given them what we promised.
Marcus had found us a new ship, purchased outright so that we were the only passengers and Marcus and I and Kayleen the only pilots.
Marcus had taken the extra day to have her renamed. So we flew away from Lopali in
I didn’t actually like the name much, but Chelo seemed very happy with it.
The best thing about
was a single large room big enough for all of us to gather in. It already had a wall of simulated
sun for the kids and Chelo and Liam, so we would have daylight and night as we flew off to meet the fleet. It had enough workout equipment to please Jenna, and to make me groan. I knew what she’d put us through as soon as we were well and truly between worlds.
And it had a big entertainment corner with enough room for us all. We’d lost three: Bryan, Alicia, and Induan; and gained two: Mohami and Kala.
And, right now, I was as happy as I could be, given our losses. Everyone was in one place. The wall of simulated sun made it morning on
, and the children played, each of them with a keeper bot by their side. Sasha sat at my feet, her tail thumping on the floor.