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Brian is an electronics engineer who lives near Oklahoma City. His stories have appeared in Aboriginal SF, Dragon Magazine, Adventures of Sword and Sorcery, and many small-press publications. This story originally appeared in the hardcover anthology Infinite Loop.

Illustration copyright 1995 by Jenise Aminoff. Jenise, a New Mexico native, works in Boston and is a graduate of Clarion 1995.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1997 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

My Father's House by Brian A. Hopkins

     The grass is a teal color which Holly associates with her childhood in Reeds Crossing, Kentucky. It's a genetically tailored strain requiring very little water, with broad, paper thin blades engineered to make maximum use of the dome's diffused light. Nothing like it ever grew in Kentucky. Nothing like it grew here on Port either, before their coming. But the grass feels and smells like home to her. It's one of their more successful transplants, though certainly not their only one.
     By far, the most important transplant is themselves. Thirty-six colonists -- thirty-seven when she delivers in five months. The first humans to settle on a world not circling Sol.
     Air. As foreign to her lungs as if she were an infant just pulled screaming from the womb.
     The taste of hospitals and camphor.
     A cold, hard surface. The uncertain familiarity of it against naked flesh.
     The smell of sour metal and plastic and ... something hot, something burning.
     Strangely transposed English, hesitant, muffled as by a thick fog: "Please, you ... wake up, Holly Knight. Time there is none to waste."
     Following the voice, pain. Needles in her lungs and flames held to her extremities. Transverse lasers burning behind her eyes. Tremors and chills and acid in her veins.
     A dark whirlpool beckoned, its black propinquity offering sensory caesura. Relief. Escape. She retreated down its silent throat....
     Beneath the turquoise sky, against the plethoric bed of grass, Evan's skin is a healthy, nutmeg brown. The vanity of sunlamps, thinks Holly. Dietary supplements provide all the photo-nutrients they need. In that strange way he has of knowing what she's thinking, Evan's face reddens. Then he smiles and lays a calloused hand against the slight velvet swell of her stomach. He doesn't speak. Words are rarely necessary between them. The child isn't technically his -- the colony's gene pool is much too small for natural insemination. The med computer chose the best genotype from ship's stores and Holly dutifully accepted. Still, Evan's treating the unborn child with no less attention than if it had come from his loins. Holly loves him all the more for it.
     And of course the sky isn't really blue; that's just the scattering effect of molecules in the dome field. Beyond the dome's illusive border the sky is an overcast haze of methane clouds, banded by a mustard brume of sulfuric acid, the comet-like trail of one of Port's two moons. But the field does more than fool them with an Earth-like blue sky; without it they'd be strangling on carbon dioxide, the principle component of Port's atmosphere.
     The methane clouds hang about forty kilometers above Port's surface, swirling with powerful vortices, scathing with fierce sheets of blue lightning. The fast-darkening horizon is stratified with distant aurorae that Holly has thus far failed to capture accurately with oil and canvas. Port's minute axial tilt means there are no seasons, just this perpetually overcast grey, as if it's always about to rain. Days and nights are short, just a little over six hours Earth-time, by which standard the colonists still reckon the passage of events, converting even Port's protracted 3.26 Earth-year course about Alpha Centauri into figures they can relate to.
     Evan draws her close through the thick grass, presses his lips against hers. His body is solid and warm.
     "Holly Knight!"
     Her summoner waited outside the whirlpool, impatient but determined. She was only peripherally aware of the voice, like conversation from another room or the whispering of ghosts.
     "Please, Holly! Minutes just, and they are through!"
     There was a child-like quality to the voice. Desperation. Maybe a rapidly fading hope. But most of all she heard a fear that tugged at her heart. As she drew near, the pain returned. Needles. Thousands of needles....
     It's the clouds and the carbon dioxide that make Port temperate. Like a greenhouse: stellar radiation slips through, but the longer wavelength of reflected heat energy is trapped in the heavy atmosphere.
     Evan's hands work their magic on her body. His mouth shifts to her neck, tracing the fine blue veins beneath her pale skin. No sunlamps for her. She's expecting. Over Evan's shoulder she watches Port's fleeting moons chase each other across the sky.
     There are two, the fiery giant the colonists named the Wicked Stepmother and the petite red lady they call Daughter. Stepmother is all orange and reds and yellows. Torn by Port's tidal pull, shattering seismic forces grind deep within the spherical moon. Tectonic surface plates shift and splinter. Volcanoes spew geysers of sulfur and steam into the upper atmosphere, leaving a yellow smear of sulfuric acid streaked across the sky. Daughter is much smaller, a triaxial ellipsoid measuring a mere 27 by 15 by 18 kilometers, tidally locked so her long axis is perpetually oriented to Port. Port's powerful magnetic field has captured Alpha Centauri's stellar particles, stockpiling them in the upper atmosphere. As Daughter moves through this swarm, she generates and sustains a flux tube, an elliptical hose of electrical current millions of amperes strong connecting her to the planet with a tempest of unequaled electrical fury. Thus the Stepmother chases the Daughter across Port's sky, each trailing their veil, one fire and smoke, the other blue lightning.
     She was aware of being slapped.
     Evan's hands slipped away as dream and reality intertwined. She clutched at him. Rather, she clutched at someone, for the flesh she caught was soft and cold.
     "No!" she screamed, seeking over his shoulder the panorama of Port's unique sky ... as if it could save her from reality.
     The other dominant feature in the sky, excepting Alpha Centauri's twin luminescence and the bright star of Legacy in orbit, is their only neighbor, the red gas giant they've named Ball. Ball's atmosphere is pure nitrogen, the red clouds a photochemical smog of carbon compounds, ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide, and ethylene. Beneath the smog, the slushy surface is scarred with slow rivers of liquified ethane and methane, the failing arteries of some vast beast whose heart pumps natural gas. Ball is harried about the double star by an even half dozen botryoidal moons, each covered with dark organic polymers formed from photo-dissociated methane. The gas giant's rotation axis is drastically tilted relative to the orbital plane such that the planet appears to roll on its side about Alpha Centauri; hence the name Ball.
     Evan's eyes are blue diamonds in which she's grown accustomed to seeing her face. But what she sees there now is a long room of plastic and steel and row upon row of horizontal glass cylinders, each teeming with pale, pulsating fluid. In the catoptric surface of the nearest cylinder she finds her own face, tiny reflection within tiny reflection. Her visage is twisted and obscured by the miasma of fluid within, but as she draws closer the juxtaposed fragments come together.
     Holly draws back in terror. In the reflection, she's seen the ruin of her face.
     And in the ruin of her face, she's seen the end of the dream.

     The left side of C-Holly's face hung in a cadaverous devastation of micro-filaments and components, many of the latter blackened and fused into the memory grid that comprised the majority of her brain. In the twisted depths of the damage, Holly's eyes found a focus that the rest of the room refused to yield. She blinked several times, but failed to overcome the illusion that it was her head she was seeing reflected in some strangely warped mirror.
     When she reached out to touch, C-Holly caught her hand in a powerful grip. "Explanations wanting, no doubt. But not time."
     An emergency, Holly realized, rubbing fiercely at her eyes though it intensified the pain in her head. There's been an accident. Her retina held the afterimage of C-Holly's ravaged cranium. Crew damaged. Mission perhaps in jeopardy. Get up, Holly! Again her nostrils caught the acrid bite of hot metal.
     She tried to speak, coughing up several ounces of cryo fluid that ran like yellow syrup down the front of her. "Stim," she finally got out. Her voice was distant and weak.
     "Dumped," replied C-Holly.
     Holly looked at the custodian incredulously, but found only truth in that half of her face where emotions were still writ as honestly as software allowed. But to be expected to function just out of cryo without a stimulant? "Explain."
     "No time." And C-Holly dragged her to her feet.
     Weight meant they were still under spin, meant they were still out from Alpha Centauri and not, as she'd hoped, in orbit. Goodbye dreams, she thought with no little reluctance to let them go. Cryo-induced gloaming was all they'd been, but Evan had been there, had loved her again. And then there was the pregnancy that had never been. Holly ran her hand across the flat expanse of her belly and felt jaded and hollow.
     There were two doors to the cryo bay. Holly knew their location as if it were just yesterday she lay down here, though in fact she knew it had been much longer. Long enough for her custodian to have sustained this damage. How long, she couldn't tell. There was a chronometer on the wall, but her eyes refused to focus on its chemo-green numerals.
     It was the doors she smelled. Both were glowing, running in hot polysteel slag to the deck panels as someone burned through from the outside. The control panels beside them looked to have seen the operational end of a sledge hammer. Holly registered the twisted ruin of C-Holly's left hand.
     "Crew," explained the custodian.
     "Crew did this?" Holly pointed to the gaping cranial injury.
     The custodian's good hand went up as if to touch her face, a human gesture programmed for effect only. The custodian felt inoperability, but no pain.
     "Answer me."
     "Jean did ... this."
     Holly's gaze swept left and right down the sloping corridor, but hers was the only cryo cell open. Cupped within the pulsating fluid of each of the other thirty-five was the fuzzy dark silhouette of a human crewmate.
     "C-Jean," the custodian corrected herself.
     Holly pressed her temples in an attempt to silence the miniature chain saw in her forebrain. Her throat was raw, her thinking fuzzy, and every muscle in her body screamed for her to lie down. She needed a stim tab bad. She was naked and cold, with yellow goo drying on her body and clotted in her hair. "C-Jean's after you now?" It was a trick question: both doors were burning.
     "All custodians," C-Holly answered.
     "Explain. What have you done?"
     The custodian looked hurt, an easily readable emotion even with half her face in ruin. At least Holly had no trouble recognizing it; the custodian had, afterall, been programmed with her personality-profile.
     "No time!" she insisted, pointing to the doors running like hot summer ice cream.
     "But we're trapped. There are only two doors."
     "Knew you know way other than door."
     If I know another way, Holly thought, then you should, too. She wanted to trust the custodian, but this was not the awakening she had anticipated. She studied the shattered eggshell of C-Holly's head, the puerile set of her mouth, the vacuity behind her single emerald eye. Maybe she didn't know. How much data would such an injury destroy?
     Holly crossed to the inner wall where a massive bank of cryo controls jutted from the wall. Kneeling, she popped free a lower panel.
     "No exit there," insisted the custodian.
     Holly looked back over her shoulder at the desperate face of her carbon copy. "Access to the core," she explained irrecusably. "You've forgotten whose father designed Legacy."

     Decades to dream. To remember Evan and autumn days. To relive a park where squirrels chase each other in mad circles through leaves of every imaginable shade of red and gold. To walk in the sad ruins of ancient colonists.
     And then a church where once two people of clashing cultures were wed.
     Jamestown, Virginia.
     She dreams she's Pocahontas. Swears she'll trade everything to live in his world.

     In one of several maintenance bays spaced the length of the starship's central axis, Holly huddled in a corner near the ceiling and fought the need to throw up. Her arms ached from the long haul up the shaft. She was shivering uncontrollably. It was cold here, but not as cold as it had been in the core. They'd come within a thousand meters of the ship's forward con, known as the garret, before she'd reluctantly surrendered to her screaming muscles and the nausea brought on by weightlessness. The garret, where there was a full set of ship's controls, had been her goal. The maintenance bay hosted little more than diagnostic terminals.
     She'd tried to draw more information from the custodian, but after a single epiphany -- "Our father designed Legacy!" -- C-Holly had withdrawn to an opposite corner to stare at the juncture of the walls.
     When her trembling muscles calmed, Holly pushed off from the ceiling, coasting with more force that she'd intended. Collision with the floor jarred her already pounding head. She rebounded and caught herself against a maintenance console where she hung, feet drifting aimlessly off the floor, body turning slightly in the minute centrifugal force of the ship's spin.
     The console responded promptly to her touch. A level one diagnostic reported all ship's systems functional and compartment integrity intact with the exception of CB-12. She ran a level two on the cargo bay and was told it had been blown, was even now gaping open in vacuum. The airlock refused to cycle, hinting at circuit damage that could be assessed with a level three query, but she didn't intend to waste the time.
     "C-Holly, what happened to the cargo bay?"
     No response. The custodian huddled in a tight ball, wrapped around whatever memories her damaged neuro-net still held. Holly recalled the custodian's earlier comment when she'd requested a stimulant. C-Holly had said the drugs had been dumped. Med supplies, Holly knew, had been stored in CB-12.
     Why had the bay been purged to space? What had caused the damage to the airlock? A more detailed systems check echoed the first. All systems were fully operational. Then she noticed something else. The forward sensors were locked on an approaching object. From here there was no way to get a visual, but with a diagnostic feedback loop she was able to tap into the raw data as it was relayed to the aft con. What she could decipher sent cold shivers up her spine.
     "C-Holly, you've got to tell me what's happened?"
     The custodian shook her head violently.
     "What's out there? What kind of trouble are we in?"
     "Crew terminate C-Holly."
     It wasn't an answer, but at least C-Holly was talking. "I won't let them hurt you," Holly promised.
     "Put you back in cryo."
     Custodians were programmed with an override that prevented them harming a human, but nothing kept the crew from putting her back under. The custodians were to awaken a human upon establishing orbit around Alpha Centauri or in the event of an emergency, but they'd also been programmed with personalities matching the thirty-six crewmembers. That made them human. That made them fallible, with perhaps motives and objectives of their own. The scientific rationale for the per-profile programming was so crew interrelationships could be simulated and studied before the actual life and death scenario of planetfall and colonization.
     But no one had been revived when the cargo bay had been blown. No one had been revived in the emergency that had damaged C-Holly. Holly had a sudden trepidation: if she were put under again, there'd be no second chance, no further awakening.
     Sensing she wasn't going to get anywhere with the custodian, Holly turned back to the maintenance terminal and entered a data request. Every con signal ran the length of the ship, from aft con to the garret, routed through the maintenance bays for diagnostic purposes. All she had to do was find the right signal.
     Schematics flowed across the screen, rapidly targeting the area of her query. The screen finally halted, a cable bundle marked MAIN VID flashing red, one strand of many highlighted via holography. Holly studied the hovering filament for a moment, noting its markings and the panel location blinking in the corner of the screen. Then she popped loose an access panel beneath the console and went to work.
     "Can't remember him," C-Holly all but whispered.
     "Who?" Holly asked as she separated cable bundles.
     "Our father."
     "My father," Holly corrected. You're a machine. And a damn poor one at that. If you'd tell me what the hell's going on, I wouldn't have to try to rewire this monitor.
     "Left him, didn't we?"
     A dozen or so delicate wires slipped through Holly's fingers, losing themselves with others she'd already checked for the proper routing codes. "Shut up," she told the custodian.

     In a dream, she stands still in her father's house. And she tries another time to walk away.
     As the day fades, shafts of sunlight cross the hardwood floor where her feet are mired. The sun goes down. And then the moon. Again and again in a mad procession and she watches him there in his rocker, the eerie back-and-forth sound of it on the oak, the creeping of age across his face, a mist across his eyes.
     Ashes to ashes.
     She crosses the room and bestows upon him one final kiss before the winds sweep him up and away.
     Dust to dust.

     It hung there on the jury-rigged maintenance monitor, a dark hispid disk bristling with antennae and weapons, all but lost against the black of space. No exploratory vessel, that. It was designed for short range speed. Maneuverability. War. Despite its shape, despite its obvious purpose, she wanted to believe it was alien. The legend across its starboard flank said otherwise.
     "How?" she asked aloud. But she knew how. There was only one way to have beaten Legacy to Alpha Centauri.

     "Faster-than-light travel, Holly. I'll crack it soon."
     "Dad, you know I can't wait that long." She took his hand. "They're looking for youth, vitality, women in their child-bearing years. By the time you solve the FTL riddle, I'll be too old."
     "I'll always be able to get you a berth, Holly. You know that. Let Legacy go."
     "I don't want a berth on your reputation! And I can't let Evan go, Dad."
     "Please, Holly. I'm begging you."
     She was all he had. Locked in his lab these past twenty-five years, she was all he'd known since her mother died giving her birth. She didn't want to see the tears in his eyes, didn't want to see him beg. She steered him toward the only thing she knew would take his mind off her deserting him: his work.
     "Tell me how it's possible to travel faster than light."
     She saw that he knew what she was doing. Alexander Knight was terrified of facing the reality of being alone. He led her across the lab to a large black object. "Do you remember this?"
     Holly ran her hand across the smooth plastic. "A vortex. You used to entertain me with it as a child. I'd set coins here on the rim and watch them spiral down through the center."
     He smiled. "You were much more easily amused then. Now it takes quantum physics and astrogation to entertain you."
     "What did you expect? I am, after all, Alexander Knight's daughter."
     "Pay attention then." It was an old, unnecessary admonition. He'd been lecturing to her all her life and she'd rarely failed to pay attention. She'd learned early on that her father knew the secrets of the universe and, through him, so could she.
     Knight placed, not a coin, but a stainless steel bearing on the rim of the vortex. "On a flat plane the bearing would roll in a straight line unless acted on by external forces, but here it behaves differently." He released the bearing and it started a graceful elliptical spiral toward the vortex's center. "If we took away friction with the air and the surface, and balanced the gravitational attraction, the bearing would circle indefinitely."
     "A miniature solar system."
     "Yes. The path of the bearing is called a geodesic. How much the geodesic deviates from a straight line depends on the mass of the central object and the radial distance."
     "The closer the bearing gets to the center, the faster it rolls," said Holly. "As it loops out, it slows down again." It seemed elementary to her. She was anxious to hear where FTL travel fit in with these basic principles of physics. Recognizing her impatience, she realized it stemmed from the same fear she saw in her father. She was terrified of leaving him.
     "Right. It has to do with the angle at which the bearing meets the vortex plane. The greater the angle, the more influence on the bearing. The angle corresponds to what in four dimensional space we call the gravitational gradient. What's interesting is what happens to the gravitational gradient very close to a tremendously massive, very small object --"
     "Like a black hole!"
     "Exactly. Imagine the center of our vortex is that black hole. Very massive, but smaller than the tip of a needle where it meets the space time continuum. The sides of the resulting gravity well are now almost vertical. As we approach, we fall faster and faster."
     "Faster than the speed of light?"
     "Maybe. There's a paradox here wherein the process shrinks space. You accelerate for a certain period, falling into the vortex, and then reverse the process, decelerating, and you wind up having gone much further than you seem to have gone, much further than you should have gone given the energy expended."
     "So if I had the means of projecting a black hole which I could chase through space . . ."

     "You did it, didn't you?" she asked the screen and its silent vessel with VIPER stenciled down its side. "You gave them FTL."
     C-Holly turned from her corner and studied the monitor. "Won't answer artificial life. Blast us, they say." She looked to Holly. "Woke you. Talk to them, Holly Knight."

     A thousand meters.
     The only consolation was that the center of the ship didn't experience the spin-induced gravity, thus the thousand meters was merely that and not a thousand meters straight up. She was trembling, dizzy and weak, fatigue and hunger riding her every fiber. She'd donned a jumpsuit from the maintenance bay, but it was thin and offered little protection against the cold. She had no shoes. Her feet might have stayed warm if she was using them, but the long haul up the shaft was accomplished by hand rungs, leaving her legs trailing useless behind. She knew the garret was far enough removed from the core that it would be under, if not a full G, at least considerable gravity. Knowing the rate of spin and the length of the garret's arm, she tried to do the math in her head, but her brain refused to cooperate. She only knew she wouldn't be able to stand up when she reached it.
     The custodian followed dutifully, a winking of cranial signals in the gloom, her silent labor antithesis to Holly's ragged breathing. They'd crossed half the distance when C-Holly began to ask questions.
     "Alexander Knight. He was ... how?"
     What was he like? "He was brilliant. Perhaps the most intelligent man that ever lived."
     "Not my meaning." Holly didn't look back, but she imagined the custodian shaking her head, laser strobes flashing through the tangled wires as she sought vocabulary and sentence structure protocols. "Left him ... we left him. Why?"
     "I left him," Holly corrected, leaving the rest unanswered. She'd left him to follow Evan. Evan, who'd already set her aside for another. For Jean Elwood. Determined not to lose him, Holly'd used her father's influence and her own technical credentials to get herself assigned to Legacy.
     "Hurt him." It was an observation, not a question.
     Holly's voice caught in her throat and it was a moment before she got out a strangled, "Yes."
     "Loved C-Evan."
     "Evan," she corrected before she realized the custodian hadn't meant it to be a question.
     "C-Evan," C-Holly insisted. "Loved C-Evan ... I did."
     Holly paused on a rung, her forward momentum arrested by tugging one arm nearly out of the socket. She sensed another piece of the puzzle hovering within her grasp. "You loved C-Evan?"
     She didn't say, But you're a machine, an acarpous, sterile facsimile of me. How can you love? Personality profiles, she realized, were more complete than she'd ever dreamed. As the rest of it fell into place, she said, "But C-Evan loved C-Jean."
     "At first."
     That seized at her heart. At first? "Explain."
     "In time, C-Evan love C-Holly."

     She kneels now before an empty rocker in total silence.
     Into this silence she says her goodbyes. Alexander Knight taught her all she ever needed to know. Not just the astronomy, the engineering, the physics and math and workings of the universe, but from the child he hid behind his eyes, she learned of music and laughter, love and art. It was he who taught her to paint.
     Yet all her life, a voice inside has whispered, "Set me free."
     "All this time," she asks the still rocker, "was it your voice or mine?"

     The crew had detected her hasty wiring in the maintenance bay and guessed her next move. They were waiting when she dropped from an access shaft into the garret.
     Seated at the nav station, C-Jean covered Holly with a hand-held laser wielder, a smaller version of what they'd used to burn down the cryo bay doors; sloppy, but deadly. It was make-do; Legacy carried no weapons.
     There were four others: C-Grace covering the shaft through which Holly had entered, C-Tyler blocking the garret's only other exit, C-William and C-Scott loitering uncomfortably. None of them were armed, which she took to mean C-Jean didn't entirely trust their loyalty. None of them wore any clothing, a common enough practice among custodians. The smooth, hairless and genderless glean of their bodies seemed an affront to her bruises and scrapes and C-Holly's obvious damage.
     On the forward screen, three meters high and six wide, the venomous looking Viper hurtled outbound on an intercept course. The screen was wide enough that Holly could see Alpha Centauri's bicentric fire and two planets in orbit. One planet was obscured by milky clouds, girded with rings of mustard and electric-blue fire. The other was an enormous red giant chased by six tiny moons. Holly had a moment to wonder where dreams left off and reality began before C-Jean rose from the nav station and stood before her.
     Holly tried to stand, but her legs were numb. C-Holly stood over her protectively, her single green eye glaring at C-Jean.
     "As you can see, we've reached Alpha Centauri, Holly Knight. There's only one habitable planet," C-Jean explained, "and the natives aren't interested in sharing it."
     "Hail them," Holly said. "Let me talk to them."
     "No." C-Jean turned smartly and walked back to her seat. "It's more complicated than you think." She sat, crossing long legs. "You've been asleep a long time, Holly."
     Holly glanced again at the main viewscreen, noting the magnification factor in the lower corner, and estimated their proximity to the double star. "About forty years would be my guess."
     "Almost forty-two now. Forty-two years of living our own lives, of growing beyond the memories stolen from you and the others. Forty-two years of establishing who we are. We're individuals, Holly Knight. We're not machines."
     "We can work this out, C-Jean."
     "That's what we've been trying to do. Twenty years ago we cut off all communication with Earth. Made it look as if there was an accident onboard. Made it look as if Legacy had no one at the helm, a derelict --"
     "What you did," Holly interjected, "was made it look as if Alpha Centauri was fair game for another set of colonists."
     C-Jean nodded solemnly. "We didn't anticipate Earth's technological advances. We never thought they'd pass us in space."
     You didn't count on my father, Holly thought. Or how completely he'd retreat into his work without me there.
     She didn't ask the obvious question, thought perhaps she'd already seen enough flaws in per-profile programming to understand. The problem was the programming was too complete. The custodians knew once Alpha Centauri was reached and the real crew of Legacy awakened, that their job would be over. Termination awaited them. Faced with this realization, they'd had only one option if they wanted to survive. They couldn't kill the dreaming humans -- at least Holly hoped that much of their original programming remained -- but nothing prevented their letting the humans sleep forever.
     "Now what?" Holly asked.
     C-Jean looked to the viewscreen. "That's not your concern. We're taking you back to the cryo bay."
     "Let me talk to them," Holly pleaded, managing to find the strength to get to her feet. "I can persuade them to let us settle among them. I --"
     "There's more that you're not telling me." Holly turned to C-Holly. "Alpha Centauri's residents knew enough to build a warship, C-Holly. They brought that warship out to intercept us. Why?"
     "On Earth," explained C-Holly, nervous eye looking to C-Jean, "happened before."
     "C-Grace, shut her up."
     Holly stepped between the two custodians, placed a trembling palm against C-Grace's chest. "C-Grace, is this how C-Jean commands?" She pointed to C-Holly's face. "Is this what'll happen to you if you disobey?"
     "That was an unfortunate accident," said C-Grace.
     "Is that true, C-Holly?"
     "C-Jean blow cargo bay."
     "Why, C-Holly?"
     "C-Jean find C-Holly with C-Evan." The custodian's lips trembled. "I saved. Tether line. But C-Evan . . . C-Evan expelled to space." In C-Holly's remaining eye was the look of the utterly lost.
     C-Jean crossed the room and forcibly separated them. Holly's legs gave out and she collapsed to the floor. "A system failure," C-Jean insisted. She pointed the laser at C-Holly's face. "This one's brains are too scrambled to --"
     Something flashed bright on the viewscreen, accelerating out from the approaching vessel. As it approached, the flare died to a white phosphorescent ring eclipsed by a single gleaming black eye.
     "It's a missile!" gasped Holly. "Hail them now, dammit!"
     Without waiting for permission, C-William, closest to the comm panel, opened a channel and hailed the Viper. There was no response. As the missile closed the distance between them, he turned to Holly. "What should we do?"
     "Scan it for emissions," Holly ordered.
     "I'm in charge here!" C-Jean hissed.
     Holly struggled to her knees. "Tell the truth, C-Jean. The colonists on Alpha Centauri knew to be ready because this has happened before. You're not the first custodian crew to do this."
     C-Scott had taken the nav panel. "Four minutes till impact."
     "I'm not detecting anything!" C-William yelled.
     "Run the whole spectrum," Holly told him. "It's emitting something in order to target us. Find it."
     "Get away from that panel!" C-Jean ordered.
     He ignored her, his fingers dancing across the keyboards. Legacy's forward optics retracted to stay focused on the approaching missile which had now eclipsed the other vessel on the screen.
     "Your ruse never fooled them, C-Jean. Earth knew all along what had happened out here."
     "Not only in space," C-Holly explained.
     "Shut up!"
     "On Earth," spoke up C-Grace. "There were wars, horrible wars."
     "All we wanted was equality," said C-Scott.
     "But we got death," C-Jean spat. "Termination of services, Holly Knight. Product recall. Custodians were run through reclamation centers by the thousands. Scrapped for parts. Recycled for polysteel and circuit boards." The custodian caught Holly by her jumpsuit and pulled her to her feet, pressed the tip of the wielder against her throat. "That's what you'd do to us after we helped colonize your world, isn't it?"
     Holly said nothing. She was thinking that war on Earth meant the custodians there had overcome their programming, learned to kill humans.
     "Isn't it?" C-Jean screamed.
     "I've got it!" C-William cried. "It's looking in the IR, tracking our heat signature. What should I do?"
     "Send someone out on the hull and burn it with a laser," C-Jean told him. But her eyes never left Holly's face.
     "We've three minutes," argued C-Scott. "That's not enough time to get someone outside, let alone target --"
     "It's her fault!" screamed C-Jean. "We'll never be free until her kind have been obliterated!" She flipped the safety tab off the laser.
     Suddenly C-Holly shouldered C-Jean, a powerful blow that knocked her sprawling. The laser spun away across the floor, stopping at C-William's feet. Released, Holly buckled and sank to her knees.
     C-Jean surged quickly to her feet and swung a wicked blow that C Holly somehow managed to block, but then C-Jean attacked from C-Holly's blind side. Her hand plunged into the nest of disarrayed fiber optics. With a savage jerk, she ripped a handful of wire and components from C-Holly's head.
     As C-Holly fell, what issued from her mouth was nothing less than a human shriek of terror and pain. Impact with the floor cut off the scream. The custodian's head rolled lifelessly to one side. Rainbow flashes lit the burnished polysteel of the floor nearest her head, but quickly died.
     Helpless, Holly watched as C-Jean came for her next. The custodian's mouth was twisted in a snarl, her eyes flashing with hate. Her hands were hooked like claws, flexing as if she could already feel Holly's throat. But as C-Jean stepped forward, an intense red beam lanced across the room, played briefly across her face and upper torso, and then winked out. C Jean went down without a sound, flames and smoke pouring from the black swathe cut through her.
     "Help us," C-William gasped, the laser hanging loose in his trembling hand.
     C-Holly's good hand raised as if to clutch at the wires spilling from the side of her head, but, uncontrolled, it wouldn't reach. Overloaded servo motors in her shoulder whined.
     C-Jean was still.
     "Help us. Please!"
     "In one of the cargo bays," Holly told him, "there are mining supplies. Explosives. Blow the bay and set them off. It'll confuse the missile with another heat signature."
     "Won't work," said C-Tyler, the first he'd spoken. His voice was a terror-pitched whine. "We can't set the detonators on the explosives from here."
     "We're dead," muttered C-William. The laser slipped through his fingers and clattered to the deck.
     Holly surged drunkenly to her feet, pushed him away from the comm station and punched for an open channel. "This is Holly Knight aboard Legacy. Repeat, this is Holly Knight! I am not a custodian. Answer me, dammit!"
     C-Tyler dropped to the floor, a moan slipping through his slack lips.
     Merciless, the missile grew on the screen.
     "Do you hear me?" Holly screamed. "I'm Holly Knight and --"
     A side screen crackled to life around the image of a uniformed man standing beside several others seated at stations. A grey wall covered with system displays framed the shot. He ran his hand through unruly black hair and asked, "How do we know you're human?"
     Holly raised her hand and raked her nails down her face, from forehead to chin, leaving four blistering lines of pain in their wake. Blood welled up. It ran in her eyes and dripped to the front of her jumpsuit. "I bleed," she told him. She pointed at the floor where C-Jean still smoked. "That does not."
     Viper's officer made a slashing motion across his throat and the audio half of his transmission died. Holly and the custodians watched as he turned to confer with his crew.
     "What are they doing?" C-William asked.
     "Twenty seconds to impact," reported C-Scott.
     C-Tyler's moan went up an octave.
     Holly sat in the chair, relaxed and let her quivering muscles go limp. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, tried to think of her father and Evan.
     There came a hollow thud and a shudder that echoed the length of the ship. Silence.
     "They didn't detonate it," C-William sighed.
     "Damage?" Holly asked.
     C-Scott queried the systems from his position at the nav console. "Hull breach in crew quarters. Bulkheads seven and nine contained it."
     "Three custodians were lost," he added.
     "Regrettable." She wished she could muster more sincerity, but it wasn't in her.
     Audio on the side screen returned with a hiss. "My name is Captain Urie Brennan," said the officer. "You've five minutes before we launch another missile. We won't neglect to arm the next one."
     Holly wiped blood from her eyes and swiveled the chair to face the viewscreen. She smiled weakly. "I don't know where to start."
     "I can't let you enter our system," Brennan said bluntly.
     "I understand."
     "Do you? Millions died on Earth."
     "So I've gathered. Suppose we go somewhere else? Will you let me use Alpha Centauri to establish a new vector? I realize we'll be entering your system, but what other options do I have?"
     He considered that, finally gave her a curt nod. "Granted. I'll transmit data on applicable targets -- systems not yet targeted for colonization."
     "Thank you."
     "Just see that I don't live to regret this." Brennan studied her silently for several long minutes. Holly wasn't sure, but she thought she might have briefly lost consciousness. When she came to, the data he'd promised was displayed on Legacy's forward screen.
     "Which star?" C-Scott asked.
     "Doesn't matter," she told him. "Whatever's closest."
     C-Scott began programming the nav computer.
     "I knew your father," said Brennan.
     Holly smiled. "I figured as much. Who else could have put you here?"
     Her humor was wasted on him. Brennan ran his hand through his hair again, a nervous gesture. "You wouldn't know this," he said softly, "but your father ... he died six years ago."
     "Thank you," she whispered and turned away so he wouldn't see her cry.
     "Course laid in," reported C-Scott.
     Brennan cleared his throat. "I'll have to ask that you transmit that course before entering our system."
     "Of course, Captain."
     "Done," said C-Scott a moment later.
     "Best of luck to you then, Holly Knight."
     "Best to you, Urie Brennan." She reached for the comm to cut him off, but then turned back to the side screen. "Tell me something, Captain Brennan. What have you named your world?"
     He smiled for the first time, the smile of a man bolstered by his accomplishments. "When we arrived, it seemed like a quiet port in a storm...."

     As Legacy plunged toward Alpha Centauri, borrowing the twin star's gravity to slingshot them on a new vector, Holly made herself a place in the cryo bay. The custodians had offered her the con, the Captain's quarters, the role of leader, but she'd refused.
     The frosted glass of Evan's cryo cell was cold to the touch. She couldn't make out his facial features through the slow churning fluid, had only the cell number and log as proof it was him.
     "It would have worked, Evan. You would have loved me again."
     Behind her, the cell where she'd once lay was now a mass of misshaped plastic and slag. She'd made certain the custodians could never put her back to sleep. It was the only way she knew to guarantee that the human crew would have a chance at their next stop. She still didn't know where that next stop was. Once C-Scott had told her how long it would take to get there, it didn't matter.
     With her cell destroyed, she'd had time to eat and then to sleep. Sixteen hours of sleep, while the custodians prepared Legacy for the heavy G's anticipated at perihelion. Rested now, she was ready to get to work.
     On a gurney set between the rows of milky cylinders lay C-Holly, ringed with spare cable and parts, test equipment and tools. They had a lot in common, Holly and her custodian. If Holly doubted they shared the same emotions, the same basic skills and memories, she had only to walk Legacy's corridors again. The long sloping walls were covered with C Holly's paintings, forty-two years worth of paintings, chronicling the breadth of their shared hopes and dreams, their joint experience and memory.
     Repairing the custodian would not be easy. There were parts for which she had no replacement, memory grid sectors that she had no means of restoring. But she had lots of time.
     Ninety-seven years.
     More time than she'd be able to guard on her own.
     She frowned and studied the rows of dreaming humans: Evan and Jean, William and Scott and Grace and all the others. She wondered who she'd awake fifty or sixty years hence to replace her, knowing that they'd share her fate. To grow old. To watch the occupied stars slip past while Legacy crept on toward what might be a suitable planet. To awaken young men and women once called friends and lovers. To negotiate a peace between the nigh-immortal custodians and those they'd borrowed their minds from.
     There was time enough to think it through. To work out the love and the hate still fresh in her heart.

     Deep-stored memories in feedback loops. Unanswerable interrupt requests. Endless gold grids and channeled beams of light unbridled by sensory distractions and process commands. A world in and of oneself.
     She dreams of Kentucky. Of long hills and blue grass and music. Of boundless skies and clear river water and a house nestled in the pines.
     On the porch there's a rocker.
     A waiting smile and open arms.