/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: The Forge of God

Anvil of Stars

Greg Bear

The acclaimed author of Eternity offers a compelling sequel to his visionary Forge of God. Earth is gone, completely destroyed by a ruthless alien. Hundreds of years away, a handful of exiles hurtles through the galaxies in a quest for revenge, armed with powers they do not understand—and determined to find and punish the killers who murdered their world.

Greg Bear

Anvil of Stars

Prolog

At the end of The Forge of God, the Earth is dead, murdered by self-replicating spacefaring machines. A few thousand humans have been saved by other robots, machines sent by the Benefactors to defend primitive worlds and civilizations from the depredations of planet-killing probes. The Benefactor machines have succeeded in wiping out these probes within the solar system, but not before Earth’s total destruction.

Kept aboard a huge Central Ark while Mars is made ready for their habitation, the humans are informed of the Law, a galactic code that governs the behavior of civilizations. The Law demands that civilizations which make self-replicating killer machines be punishedwith extinction. Humans must carry out this punishment, with the help of the Benefactors. Younger occupants of the Central Ark volunteer, and their journey begins.

This is how the balance is kept.

PART ONE

Marty sits in the front seat of his father’s buick, riding along a freeway in Oregon at midsummer twilight. The highway is thick with cars and rain glazes the road. Gray-blue sky, tail-lights brilliant red, streamers of reflection in wet dark blue roadways, road reflectors gold, big trucks with running lights and turn signals flashing, windshield wipers streaking all into dazzles and sparks, raindrops reflecting microcosms.

He feels the smooth fur and warmth of his dog, Gauge, pressed between the front seats, paw and jaw resting on Marty’s curled knee. “Father,” he asks, “is space empty?”

Arthur does not reply. There are no more highways, no more Earth. His father is off the Ark and on Mars by now, far centuries away.

Martin Gordon stirred and tried to wake up. He floated in his net, opened his eyes and unclenched his fists. A single salty tear, sucked into his mouth from the still, cool air, caught in his throat and he coughed, thrashing to complete awareness. In the large, high-ceilinged cabin, beads and snakes of yellow and white light curled along the walls like lanes of cars.

He rolled over in the suddenly strange place. A woman floated in the net beside him, hair dark brown almost black, face pixy with fresh sleep, upturned eyes opening, wide lips always half- smiling. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“I think so,” he said. “Dreaming.” Martin had been dreaming a great deal lately, much more since joining with Theresa. He had been dreaming of Earth; dreams both pleasant and disturbing, four or five each sleep.

“Of what?”

“Earth. My father.”

Eight years after Earth’s death, the children had left the Central Ark, in orbit around the Sun, and begun their journey on the Ship of the Law.

Two years after the children’s departure, measuring by the Ark’s reference frame, the survivors of Earth who stayed behind had entered suspended animation, the long sleep.

Two years for the Central Ark had occupied only a year for the children as the Ship of the Law accelerated to relativistic speed. Now, cruising at more than ninety-nine percent of the speed of light, time advanced even more slowly, relative to the outside universe; six and a half days for every year. Years were an archaic measure anyway, counted against the revolution of a world that no longer existed.

If still alive, Martin’s mother and father and all the remaining survivors on the Ark had settled on Mars by now, after almost three centuries of long sleep.

For Martin and the children, only five years had passed.

Theresa drew closer to him in the single net, curled her arms around him, made a warm sound in the back of her throat. “Always the thread,” she murmured. She slept again, could fall asleep so easily.

Martin looked at her, still disoriented. Dissonance between that past inconceivably far away in all dimensions, and this woman with her chest moving in and out, eyes flickering in dreamstate.

The thread, umbilicus of all the children, cut only in death.

“Dark, please,” he said, and the ribbon lights dimmed. He turned away from Theresa, coughed again, seeing behind closed eyes bright red tail-lights and mystic blue highways.

If the drivers had known how beautiful that traffic jam was, how lovely that rain, and how few twilight evenings remained.

The Ship of the Law was made of Earth, smelted and assembled from the fragments of Earth’s corpse, a world in itself, cruising massively close to the speed of light, hundreds of years from the dust and rubble of home.

Christened Dawn Treader by the children at the outset of their voyage, the ship resembled a snake that had swallowed three eggs, five hundred meters from nose to tail. Each egg, called a homeball, was one hundred meters in diameter. Between the homeballs, hung around the connecting necks like fruit in baskets, storage tanks held the ship’s reserves of volatiles: hydrogen, lithium, helium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon. Food and fuel.

The first two homeballs belonged to the children, vast spaces divided into a variety of chambers flexible in design and even in size.

Dawn Treader reminded Martin of a large plastic habitat his mother had pieced together in their house in Oregon; two hamsters in a maze of yellow plastic pipes, clear boxes lined with wood shavings, a feeding box and sleeping box and exercise wheel, even what his father had called a “remote excursion module,” a plastic ball in which a single hamster could roll outside the habitat, across the floors, carpet, into corners.

The eighty-two children had even more room in proportion to their numbers. There was sufficient space for every Wendy or Lost Boy to have dozens of quarters in the homeballs. Most chose one primary residence, and used two or three others as occasion suited.

The third egg, farthest aft, held training centers and weapons stores. The spaces between the homeballs, the necks, were filled with huge conduits and pipes. The second neck was cramped by protrusions that Martin had long since decided must be part of the ship’s engine. How the engine worked, or its location on the ship, had not been explained.

There were a lot of mysteries. Huge but light, most of the Dawn Treader’s bulk consisted of what the robot moms called fake matter. Fake matter had the properties of size and resistance to pressure, but no mass. Dawn Treader massed little more than twenty-five hundred tons unfueled.

The children trained with weapons whose inner workings they knew next to nothing about. What they did not specifically need to know, they were not told.

The necks—dubbed wormspaces because of the twisty pipes—were ideal for gymnastics and games, and thirty Lost Boys and Wendys, two cats, and three parrots even now skirmished, using wads of wet clothing as missiles. Sheets of water crawled along the outer wall beneath a transparent field. Shadows lay deep and black everywhere in the wormspaces, offering even more places to hide.

Martin watched his fellows. They might have been part of a street gang in a city robbed of up and down. He breathed in their beauty and harmony, focused on a select few: Hans Eagle of the Raptors, a year older than Martin—oldest on the ship—pug-nosed, broad-shouldered, short-legged, with powerful arms, blond hair cut close and bristly, skin glistening pale; Paola Bird-song, small and graceful, flowing black hair tied up in a waggling long braid; Stephanie Wing Feather, with gentle, intelligent gray eyes, hair wrapped in a compact bun; Rosa Sequoia, large, red-haired, with her characteristic look of puzzled concentration.

The children screamed, hissed, yelled instructions to fellow team-mates, tossed wads of wet clothes, kicked back and forth among the pipes, all but Rosa, who kept apart.

They had been weightless for over four years now. Ladder fields allowed them to get around where it was inconvenient to echo—bounce from the walls and surfaces—or fly, or climb on physical objects. Whenever possible, the children tried to avoid using them. That was part of the game.

Cats bounded between the children, or hid in the shadows. Birds squawked and pretended to be upset; but birds and cats always followed the children, scrambling along ladder fields or gliding free in the air.

Martin puckered his lips and whistled shrilly. Play broke off in a clatter of shouts and jeers and the children gathered, grumpy at being interrupted. The air between the pipes filled with ribbons and sheets of faint light, ladder fields intersecting, like curling thin paper floating in water.

The children formed a ball around Martin. Most were only half-dressed. Four retrieved the wet, wadded clothes.

“Time for pre-watch drill,” he said. “The rest can carry on.”

Martin had been elected Pan six months before. Pan was in charge of all strategic functions, the most important now being drill planning and crew training. Five previous Pans had commanded the children, beginning with Stephanie Wing Feather.

Rex Live Oak, Stephanie Wing Feather, Nguyen Mountain Lily, Jeanette Snap Dragon, Carl Phoenix, Giacomo Sicilia, David Aurora, Michael Vineyard, Hu East Wind, Kirsten Two Bites, Jacob Dead Sea, Attila Carpathia, Terry Loblolly, Alexis Baikal, Drusilla Norway, Thorkild Lax, Leo Parsifal, Nancy Flying Crow, Yueh Yellow River. These made up the Pan’s drill group today; each day, he drilled with a different group. There were five groups. Once a year, the groups reshuffled. Some members with well-honed skills moved from group to group depending on the drills.

The children’s skins, yellow and white, brown and black, shone with sweat. Slender and stocky, tall and short, manner not obeisant, not insolent, within the observed forms, they were family and team, forged by five long years into something his mother and father would not have recognized as a useful society, but it worked… So far.

The twenty rotated and bounced in mid-air, sliding into damp overalls, Wendys in blue, Lost Boys in red. Dressed, they followed Martin aft through the second neck, toward the third homeball. Behind them, Hans Eagle urged the others to continue the game.

Most of the children wore painted designs, chiefly on their faces and bare arms and legs, patterned after things found on Earth. The designs revealed ship family associations, also reflected in their names: Cats, Places, Birds, Gifts, Plants, Foods, twenty-one families in all. Some chose not to associate, or freelanced, as Hans did, though originally he had belonged to the Birds.

A Pan was required to be more circumspect than other children. Martin came by it naturally; he wore no designs, and had never worn paint, though he belonged in a semi-formal way to the Trees family. Behind him, bulky, strong Rex Live Oak followed with an oak leaf on each cheek; Stephanie Wing Feather carried parrot feathers in her hair; and so on, back through the ranks, climbing through the dim, close spaces of the second neck, dipping hands and toes into ladder fields. They used ladders in the neck to keep discipline before drill. The bunched-up colors of twenty ladders—personally selected shades of red, green, blue and yellow—made a dim rainbow down the neck’s clear center aisle, smearing like paint poured down a gutter.

Each child carried a wand, a cylinder of steel and glass about nine inches long and two inches wide, with no buttons or visible moving parts. The wands served as monitors and communicators and gave them access to the ship’s mind, the libraries, and to the moms. Nobody knew where the ship’s mind or the libraries resided—nobody knew where the moms went when they were not among the children, or even how many moms there actually were.

The wormspaces this far to the rear smelled of water and exercise, but that cleared with the push of air to the ship’s aft homeball. Around them, dark protrusions—round-edged cubes, lines of hemispheres, undulating conduits—reflected the light of their passage and their murmurs of conversation. There was always a steady breeze in the wormspaces, cooling and fresh.

The children’s sense of smell was acute, and even slight differences in odor were apparent. They knew each other by smell as well as by sight. The children had not known colds since the first few weeks on the Ark; there was nothing in the Dawn Treader to cause allergic reactions, except the cats and birds, and for one reason or another they did not.

Their physical health was perfect. They did not suffer ill effects from weightlessness. Minor wounds healed quickly. Wendys did not get pregnant.

For five years the children had been training and drilling, at first under the steady tutelage of the moms, then, as their social structure became solid, under their own leaders and appointed teachers. At the start of the voyage, the children had been divided into four teams: navigation, planning, crew maintenance, and search. Martin had been placed in charge of navigation and had learned the techniques of controlling ship motion.

After the first few months, however, navigation became unnecessary or routine. The Dawn Treader was largely self-directed, and the children all knew that much of the work was for their own benefit. Emphasis had then been switched to drill and study; Martin had become more interested in crew maintenance and the search team.

The Job they trained for was at once simple to express and almost too large to understand: if and when they located the civilization that had made the machines that destroyed Earth—the Killers—they would pass judgment and carry out the Law. The core of the Law had been translated for the children at the beginning of their training: “All intelligences responsible for or associated with the manufacture of self-replicating and destructive devices will be destroyed.” The message had dug deep, expressing in stiff, cold words the hatred and need they all felt. The Law was administrated by an alliance of civilizations, the Benefactors, that built machines to search out the Killers’ machines, to thwart them and destroy them, and to track down their makers.

The Law required that some of Earth’s survivors partake in the hunt and the destruction. To those who killed the Earth: beware her children!

Destroying an advanced civilization was a daunting task, even with the weapons contained within the Ship of the Law. Still, it was possible for the small and relatively simple to destroy the large, the powerful, and the complex. The moms had taught them tactics and general strategies; how to use the weapons, and how to avoid direct encounters with superior defenses.

But the morns had not told them everything they wanted to know, and as time progressed, the lack of trust or confidence or whatever it might be called rankled many of the children.

Martin tried not to question. He tried not to think too deeply; to lose himself in the drills and the training, and to concentrate on being a good Pan.

Still, the dreams came, and memories of Theodore Dawn. Theodore had been a good friend to Martin, practically his only friend in the beginning. Witty, learned, Theodore had spent hours alone with Martin, talking. Martin had helped Theodore study vats of terrestrial pond water, the little micro-organisms and crustaceans and insect larvae supplied from the ship’s biological records.

But two years into the journey, Theodore had used a ladder field to hang himself and the moms had not tried to stop him. Freedom of choice.

The moms did not discipline the children or issue direct orders; nor did they protect the children from themselves.

If we all tried to kill ourselves, would they intervene? What if we went to war with each other?

Three children had committed suicide since the journey began.

Once they had numbered eighty-five.

Martin in the lead, thoughtful and quiet, they emerged into the center of the third homeball. Here the lighting was bright as a sunny day, lines and spots of warm luminosity varying in angles and brightness as they progressed toward the weapons stores.

For the last three years, they had been training in the actual vessels they would use in a real encounter. They had not yet ventured outside the ship for external flight and were confined to the hemisphere of the weapons stores, training with simulations. The simulations were convincing, but the children were beginning to grumble. Martin felt their frustration acutely. How long must they wait to actually fly?

“Fall to,” Martin said. The group broke line to form a hemisphere behind him. “Here’s today.” He slaved their wands to his and each child saw what he had planned a few hours earlier. “We’ll be dealing with an offense, kinetic weapons with passive tracking, ambush near-planet. The planet is a gas giant, and we’re taking the Dawn Treader into a graze to refuel.”

Graphics projected by his wand illustrated the procedures. They had performed this drill before; it used maneuvers necessary to other scenarios and was good general exercise.

“Let’s do it. Four hours’ training today, triple squeeze.”

The children groaned; triple squeeze condensed drill time by two thirds. It was exhausting; it also got them out sooner, and Martin needed to make his tenday report to the moms before the communal dinnertime.

The weapons locker was a broad blister on the port side of the third homeball. Martin led his group to the wide bulkhead separating the locker from the rest of the homeball. He drifted to a smooth, unmarked, curved wall and the wall opened to a circle, exhaling a sigh of colder air. Stephanie smiled at Martin and swept her arm forward magnanimously. “You first, Pan,” she said. Martin laddered into the cavernous space beyond.

All piloted weapons were stored here, and all the smaller remotes and other mobile equipment. Martin glanced up at the interior. When weightless, “up” was pointing forward or away from a door in all directions; “down” the direction of a door or neck, or pointing aft. One came up into a room, down out of a room, up into the ship’s nose, or down to the third homeball.

Inside the locker, smaller bubbles of gray spotted the pale gray and brown walls like sporangia on fern leaves. The comparison was apt; these held millions of tiny robots, makers and doers, some the size of microbes, some a meter wide, most no larger than a human fingernail. Makers could burrow deep into a moon or planetary surface and create weapons of mass destruction out of the raw materials available. Doers could insinuate themselves into many kinds of machinery and break them down.

At the end of pylons or snared in pale fields hung matte gray tubes three meters thick and ten to twenty meters long. Gray ovoids, saucers and sausage-packed spiked cylinders five to twenty- five meters across were stacked double and triple, gripped by fields wrapped around pylons.

Entering the locker, Martin always felt as if he had walked into a sculpture hall dedicated to geometric abstractions, or onto a microscope slide of plankton and bacteria magnified huge. The style—if one could think of a style with regard to such simple shapes—was the same as the style Martin had come to associate with the moms, the Central Ark, and the general design of the Dawn Treader: utilitarian, muted basic colors, a subdued raw metal appearance for all surfaces.

Martin counted the piloted weapons stored here: not including those hidden in the blisters, there were ninety separate pieces.

“Let’s study,” Stephanie said, swinging down from the middle of the ranked weapons. They gathered at their craft.

The bombships and rifles opened their sides with soft hisses. The children deftly kicked themselves into the cockpits. Ladders vanished once the hatches smoothed shut. Martin entered his rifle last, feeling the soft interior conform to his shape.

“This craft belongs to Martin Spruce,” the rifle told him. The children knew the voice of the moms, warmly impersonal, craft voices cool and technical, and ship’s voice, rarely heard, soft and pleasant, not quite feminine. Martin believed they were actually all the same, but that was one of the questions not answered.

“All wands slaved to your wand, simulation drill,” the craft voice told him. “May we draw the simulation plan from your wand?”

“Yes,” Martin said.

The simulation began. The craft did not move from their docked positions. The children became enmeshed in the drill, and time passed.

They skimmed the cloud tops of a gas giant planet three times larger than Jupiter, while the Ship of the Law grazed the atmosphere ahead of them, wrapped in plasma friction fire. The Dawn Treader’s wing-like scooping fields dragged huge gouts of atmospheric hydrogen and methane and ammonia from the thick atmosphere, slowing the ship at dozens of g’s, torquing it tail over nose, and the smaller weapons sped ahead of the ship, encountering enemy craft, setting up a circuit of protection, drawing the attention of kinetic weapons designed to smash into them at high speed, using the roiling energies of the fireball created by the Dawn Treader’s passage to deflect energy beams…

As usual, they did well.

They had done well at this sort of drill for years now. It was second nature to them. It had also become a kind of game, difficult to connect to reality, to the actual performance of the Job itself. However convincing the simulations—and they were very convincing—they no longer expanded the children’s skills.

Still, they drilled tenday after tenday, year after year…

Growing older. Martin could feel their impatience, and it worried him.

He was responsible. He had been Pan for six months.

Martin laddered deep past the pipes and conduits in the long first neck of the Ship of the Law, going to the forward homeball and the schoolroom to meet with a mom and report for the tenday. Aboard the Dawn Treader there were twenty-eight hours to each day, three tendays in a month, twelve months in a year. Once each tenday, it was Martin’s duty as Pan to report to the mom. To tell what the children had been up to, and listen if the mom had anything to say.

He completed his climb through the neck, into the homeball and down a long cylindrical corridor to the homeball’s center. His ladder field stopped at a wide hatch; he kicked away and grabbed a metal pole within, swinging gracefully until the friction of his hand stopped him.

The schoolroom periphery was cool and dark. Light from the corridor cut at an angle and made a spot on the opposite curved wall.

Martin had arrived fifteen minutes early. He was alone.

Under weightless conditions, the schoolroom took a shape like the empty interiors of two wheels run through each other, sharing a common center, axes perpendicular. Twenty meters below, at the hub of the schoolroom, the homeball’s center, hung a spherical blackness filled with stars, a window to what lay outside the ship—but not directly viewed; like so much else in their life, a simulation.

At the ship’s present speed, the universe outside the Dawn Treader did not much resemble this pretty simulation. Outside the true stars were gnarled and twisted, rotated and compressed into a scintillating ring that flexed around the ship like a loose bracelet, blue on one side—the direction in which they flew—and red on the other, with a muddy and narrow mix of colors between. Ahead lay a pit empty to the unaided eye but in fact filled with hard radiation; behind, another pit, touched with weird sparkles of red-shifted X-ray sources, distant galaxies dying or being reshaped, dead stars ghoulishly eating their young.

The starry sky in the sphere appeared little different than it had on Earth, unless Martin looked for familiar constellations. None were visible; the Dawn Treader had traveled too far. Associations of the brightest stars had changed radically.

He took his wand from a pocket and let it hang in the air, floating beside him in the warm twilight. Martin and the wand precessed slowly, blown by idle air currents. Martin reached out with a finger and wrote two names large in the air: Theresa, William. The names glowed pink and electric blue, respectively.

Under Theresa, Martin used his index finger to write I’ve lived with or near you for five years, but only in the past tenday have I known what I feel for you. What you feel for me. Odd how we haven’t come together until now! I think of you always. I miss you when I am not near, even just a few minutes away. It’s not just physical wanting, though there is that, and it is almighty powerful, but a kinship, a matching like two molecules meeting in just the right way, and that is strange, because that is how I have often thought of God. I hope you don’t think this is all too intense; but perhaps it is through you, our love, that I really feel God. Don’t be afraid. I haven’t lost it. But can you tell me why we have not felt this before, have not known it until now? So fast!

The glowing message beneath Theresa shimmered slightly: the wand querying whether he wished to continue or quit and send. He lifted his finger again and wrote more:

I’ve told William, and he approves, or at least he does not tell me he objects. I know that you do not detract from our friendship, though I feel less free with him now, but he knows or intuits what there is between us, you and me, and that makes him wiser than I. He is a noble spirit. I realize your reluctance to break up a dyad that seems so stable, but you cannot take away from us what is most important. William and I are brothers, as I never had a brother. You cannot break that, and you cannot replace it.

I send you this, because I miss you even when I am on duty, and there is a short time here before I report to the mom.

I feel so naive but my love for you is more intense than any positive emotion I have felt until now, and I want you to know that.

He read the message through several times and winced at its awkwardness, its revelation. Even among the children Martin was reluctant to open himself so. He felt like a boy again, though at twenty-two he was one of the oldest on the Dawn Treader. Theresa was three years younger; William, a year younger.

“Send,” he said, and the message and Theresa’s name vanished, leaving William hanging alone. The name flickered. “I’m thinking,” Martin told the wand. Could he really remain involved with William, when he focused so much attention on Theresa?

Irony here. Throughout the voyage he had tried to keep above the play of emotions, to maintain his dignity, finally joining in a dyad with William because he could not resist the pressure to make some tie, and William seemed safest, and they did match.

Because of his aloofness, Martin had gained both respect and isolation; he had been voted sixth Pan of the Watch, an important position, and then (it seemed inevitable now, understanding the venery associated with position “and power) the Wendys had courted him, and he had dallied; that was expected. William did not object, in fact fantasized of what he would do when he became Pan.

Martin had lost his shield; and flirting with Theresa—initially innocent sex—had plunged him deep into what he had avoided for so long. It had to happen.

Still in him lingered fear of loving and losing, not just through separation, but through death. All of them had known the same losses—Earth itself, great Mother of all they knew and were; then separation from family and friends on the Ark.

They were more than children sent on a time-bent crusade; they were avenging angels, soldiers trained but not yet tested, given access to incredible power they did not completely understand. Eventually they would use that power if they were to fulfill their mission, and some of them would not survive.

As for William, Martin had nothing to say to him that he could not say better in person. “Fade,” he instructed. The name vanished. He raised his arms and crooked a finger and a thin ladder of green light crossed the periphery. He pointed his finger and the light flowed, broke up, and reformed, spanning one wheel of the schoolroom and intersecting the star sphere.

Martin poked his hands and feet into the plane and pushed himself ahead, drifted lazily around the sphere, viewing the stars from many angles. Folded his arms and drew up his long, thin legs to wait for the mom.

Martin had inherited his father’s physique and his father’s long, grim face; he also had his father’s sweetness of temper and sharpness of mind. But his almond eyes and his sensuous, full lips over protruding front teeth were his mother’s.

A mom entered from below and moved up silently beside him, a squat flattened cylinder about a meter tall, copper and tarnished brass, with a head-like bump but no features, no arms, and no legs.

“I am ready for your report,” the mom said. The mom’s voice was authoritative but not shrill or insistent. It never demanded, never ordered, merely instructed and guided. A mom always referred to itself in the first person, as did the ship’s mind on the rare occasions it was heard from. The children had no evidence, other than tone of voice, that ship and moms were any different.

“We’re doing okay,” Martin said. “The children all seem healthy, physically.” He looked away. “There’s some tension with four or five individuals who aren’t getting along with the rest. Rex Live Oak has troubles now and then. A few others. I’m keeping track and trying to work them back into the group. Rosa Sequoia’s the worst. She attends the meetings, does her drills, hangs around when we play games, but she has few friends now. She doesn’t even talk with the Wendys much.

“Exercises are going well. We’ve been simulating small-craft navigation in planetary space, orbits and evasive maneuvers, ship’s defense, shepherding makers and doers. I guess you know that.”

“Yes,” the mom said.

His neck grew stiff. Here it came. “I’d like to see some outside exercise. The real thing. I think we’re ready.”

This was the third time he had made such a suggestion in his six months as Pan. All the children were anxious to get outside the Dawn Treader in the craft they had been training to use. “Five and a half years is a long time. We’ve come a long way. We know it might take much longer, but… We’re impatient.”

“Understood,” the mom said. “Continue.”

“I suppose we’re growing up, more mature. There’s less upset… not as much squabbling about sexual stuff. Fewer arguments and noise. I talked about this last tenday.”

“These are all expected events.”

“Well, they’re still significant,” Martin said, irritated by the mom’s attitude, or non-attitude. “I’m trying to use this… calmness, whatever, to help us focus on the training. It’s working, a little, anyway. We’re doing better in the trials. But there’s still grumbling about how well informed we are. I’d like to suggest fuller participation. I’ve suggested that before.”

“Yes,” the mom said.

“That’s about it. Nothing spectacular.”

“I see no signs of major trouble. You are doing well.”

With a characteristic lack of the minutiae of social grace, the mom glided from the schoolroom along its own unseen ladder field.

Martin puffed his cheeks, blew out a breath, and turned to leave, then spotted Hakim Hadj in the doorway below.

Hakim moved aside for the mom’s passage and spread his ladder to where Martin waited by the star sphere.

“Hello, Pan Martin,” Hakim said. He climbed to within a couple of meters of Martin and assumed a floating lotus. “How are you today?”

“As usual,” Martin said. He bit his lower lip and gestured at the door with an unenthused hand. “The usual friendly brick wall.”

“Ah yes.” Leader of the search team, Hakim was shorter than Martin by seven or eight centimeters, with smooth brown skin, a thin sharp nose, and large confident eyes black as onyx. He spoke English with a strong hint of Oxford, where his father had gone to school.

To see Hakim blink was a wonder; his face conveyed centuries of equanimity in the midst of strife, his lips composed a genial and unjudging line. “I am glad to hear it.”

He had taught Martin Arabic a few years before, enough for him to read Arabic children’s books from the libraries, but the lingua franca of the Dawn Treader was English, as it had been aboard the Central Ark, Earth’s death having frozen the American moment in history.

“The search team may have a suspect,” Hakim said. “I would like to present the evidence to you, and then to the moms. If you do not agree, we will keep our thoughts from the moms until better evidence comes along.” Hakim was usually cautious and taciturn to a fault about the search team’s work.

Martin arranged himself in a less graceful lotus before him. “I just gave my tenday report…”

Hakim apologized. “We cannot be certain enough to render final judgment—but there is sufficient evidence that we believe the ship should send out remotes…” He caught himself, apologized again, and said, “But that is your decision, Martin.”

Martin said, “No offense taken, Hakim.”

“I am glad. We have found a stellar group of three stars less than a light-year from our present position. The spectra of the two contain a mix of trace radioactive elements and rare earths in proportions similar to those in the remains of the captured killer machines.”

Hakim presented the facts for Martin with his wand; they appeared to float before him, or he among them, words and images and icons and charts, a visual language created by the moms. Martin had become used to this method of teaching on the Ark; now he took it in stride.

At the center of the displays hung diagrams of three stellar systems. Figures surrounding the diagrams told him that these stars were no more than a trillion kilometers from each other.

The moms used stellar classifications based on mass, diameter, luminosity, age, and percentages of “metals,” elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Martin was more used to this scale than the one that would have been familiar to his father. The children had converted some of the moms’ technical terms to more informal language: Thus, the closest star was a Buttercup Seven, about nine tenths the mass and diameter of Sol, bright yellow, relatively high in metals. The second closest was a Cornflower Two, one and a half times Sol’s mass, with a lower percentage of metals. The third star in the group was an aging Firestorm Three, a brilliant bloated red giant. The Buttercup Seven had four planets, two of them peculiar, diminished gas giants.

Hakim noticed his interest in these worlds. “They are substantially smaller than might be expected—evidence of gas mining, perhaps,” he said.

Martin frowned. Tough to refuel the Ship of the Law in a system that had already been tapped out by an old civilization.

Two rocky planets hugged close to the Buttercup Seven. In addition, there were several—perhaps as many as five—invisible bodies close to the star. Together, they might have added up to the mass of Earth’s moon.

The Cornflower Two, a pale yellow giant, had ten planets, two of them apparent gas giants. The Firestorm Three was surrounded only by small rubble; at some ninety million kilometers in diameter, it could have swallowed several planets when it ballooned.

Numbers flickered in and out of his awareness; his eyes shifted around the display, picking out what he needed to know.

Martin examined the intrinsic spectra of the stars. There were intriguing diffraction patterns, unnatural ratios of infra-red versus other frequencies. A technological civilization had been at work around at least two of the stars, the Buttercup and the Cornflower.

“How long ago did the Firestorm balloon?” he asked.

“We estimate five thousand years,” Hakim said.

“Did they armor?”

“The civilization around the Buttercup apparently armored. We have no direct evidence yet for the Cornflower.”

“But they haven’t built an all-absorbing envelope…”

“No,” Hakim agreed. An envelope around each star—a Dyson construct of multiple orbiting structures surrounding the star in many layers—would have reduced the stellar images to heat-waste, dull infra-red only. Martin checked the information available on the interstellar particle fluxes surrounding the stars—the stellar winds—and felt a tickle of apprehension.

The Ship of the Law was one point eight trillion kilometers from the nearest, the Buttercup. Martin reached out to touch a glowing geometric shape pulsing slowly next to the star images. The shape unfolded like a flower into a series of pentagonal petals. He touched the petals in sequence until he had the information he desired. “The Buttercup may have large structures in orbit, besides these five dark masses. You think that’s sign of armoring?”

Hakim nodded. Martin summoned and inspected occultations, spectrum variability, brightness fluctuations. He called up absorption spectra for the stellar atmosphere, outer stellar envelope and “wind” of particles, and planetary atmospheres.

The Ship of the Law had not sent out its remotes, and the information he received obviously came from angles and distances not their own.

“I have obtained this additional information from the moms, three months ago,” Hakim said, as if reading his thoughts. “They’ve kept watch on this group for a long time. Perhaps thousands of years.”

The Benefactor machines that had destroyed the Killers around Sol had collected a fragment of a killer probe and analyzed its composition, checking for minute traces of radioactive elements and proportions of other elements. Martin thought it likely the Benefactor machines knew the characteristics of populations of stars for thousands of light years around Sol, and had sent the Dawn Treader in a direction likely to encounter stars matching the suspected origins of the killer probes. Perhaps the moms know even more

Martin suddenly didn’t like being alone with Hakim in the schoolroom, talking about such things. He wanted the others to share his responsibility and back his conclusions. He wanted a mom present. “How about the assay?” he asked, swallowing too noisily.

“You can refer to it.”

He flushed, touched another shape marked with a spinning atom symbol, and it blossomed. The comparison between the probe’s composition and the Buttercup’s stellar spectra and estimated planetary makeup was close. The killer machines could have been manufactured in this system.

Additional information came up beneath his questing fingers. Four other inhabited worlds within two hundred and ninety light years of the group had been attacked and transformed by killer probes, all within the past thousand years. There were one million three hundred thousand stars within this radius, or roughly one star for every seventy-eight and a half cubic light years. Four civilizations had been murdered, five including the Earth; only two besides the Earth had left any survivors.

And where are those survivors? On other Ships of the Law?

The four victim stars lay within a hypothetical sphere determined by the density of stars within the possible paths of killer probes, and complex analyses of how often those probes would reproduce, and how quickly they would saturate such a sphere. The center of the sphere was within two light years of this group of three, Buttercup, Cornflower, Firestorm.

Hakim had been through this material already, and with growing excitement, embellished details he thought might not be obvious.

“All right,” Martin said. His hand shook. He controlled it. “It seems… interesting.”

Hakim smiled and nodded once, then watched intently while Martin perused the data again.

On Earth, Martin’s father had compared the attempt to destroy killer probes to the murder of Captain Cook by distrustful Hawaiians. To the islanders, Cook had been the powerful representative of a more technologically advanced civilization.

If Earth’s Killers lived around one or more of these stars, the Ship of the Law would be up against a civilization so advanced that it controlled two or perhaps even three star systems, commanding the flux of an entire star, perhaps even capable of armoring that star against the expansion of a red giant.

If this was the home of Earth’s Killers, the children’s task would be much more difficult than just killing Captain Cook.

Such adversaries could be as far beyond human intellect as Martin had been beyond his dog Gauge, long dead, powder and ashes around distant Sol.

“The assay match is… I won’t say unique,” Hakim said softly as Martin’s thoughtful silence lengthened. “Other stars in this portion of the spiral arm might share it, having come from the same segment of old supernova cloud. But it’s very close. Did you see the potassium-argon ratios? The indium concentrations?”

Martin nodded, then lifted his head and said, “It does look good, Hakim. Fine work.”

“Tough decision, first time,” Hakim said, awaiting his reaction.

“I know,” Martin said. “We’ll take it to the children first, then to the moms.”

Hakim sighed and smiled. “So it is.”

The call went out to all the wands, and the children gathered in clusters, a full meeting, the first in Martin’s six months as Pan.

A few glued on to Martin’s trail as he laddered forward to the first homeball. Three cats and four parrots joined as well, using the children’s ladders to scramble after them into the schoolroom.

George Dempsey, a plump boy of nineteen from the Athletes family, came close to Martin and beamed a smile. Dempsey read muscles and expressions better than most of his fellows. “Good news?”

“We may have a candidate,” Martin said.

“Something new and startling, not a drill?” asked small, mouse-like Ginny Chocolate, of the Food family. She spoke twenty Earth languages and claimed she understood the moms better than any of them. Ginny cradled a tabby in her arms. It watched Martin with beautiful jade eyes and meowed silently.

“A high-tech civ,” Martin said. “Search team has a presentation.” Ginny spun on her tummy axis and kicked from a conduit, flying ahead of him, towing the relaxed cat by its tail. She did not make much speed, deliberately choosing a low-traction ladder field, and the rest quickly caught up, dancing, bouncing, climbing, putting on overalls and stuffing other clothes into knapsacks.

“We’re the lucky ones, hm?” Hans Eagle asked him as they matched course in the first neck. Hans served as Christopher Robin, second in command. Martin had chosen Hans because the children responded well to his instructions. Hans was strong, well liked, and kept a reserve Martin found intriguing.

“We’ll see,” Martin said.

By the specified time, there were eighty in the schoolroom, two missing. Martin summoned faces quickly and sorted through names, then spoke into his wand, to connect with their wands and remind them of the summons: “William Arrow Feather, Erin Eire.” He had seen neither of them in the wormspaces. He felt a pang of guilt and wondered what William was doing, ignoring his wand summons; that was uncharacteristic. Because of me?

Rosa was present, bulky, red hair in tangles, large arms and fists. She was almost as tall as Hans.

Theresa was there, as well, hiding in the middle ranks, short black hair and small, strong frame immediately drawing Martin’s eye. The sight of her made him feel hollow in his chest.

How long had it been since he last saw her? Barely seven hours… Yet she was discreet, expressionless but for a slight widening of the eyes when he looked directly at her. She did not show any sign of the passion they had shared.

Others in the crowd Martin hadn’t seen in weeks.

Each carried the brand of dead Earth in memory; all had seen Earth die, that hours-long agony of incandescence and orbiting debris. Some had been only four or five years old; their memories were expressed more often in nightmares than in conscious remembrance. Marty had been nine.

This was the Job and they all took it seriously.

Martin called Hakim forward. Hakim used his wand to display the group of three close stars and what information they had. He concluded with the analysis of planet deaths near the group.

“We have to make a decision to launch remotes,” Martin said. “We can gather a lot more information with a wide baseline. We also become a little more conspicuous. Our first decision is whether to take the risk now…”

“The moms should let us know what they think,” Ariel Hawthorn said from across the schoolroom. “We’re still not being told everything. We can’t make final decisions before we know…” Ariel Hawthorn did not appear to like Martin; Martin assumed she did not like any of the Lost Boys, but he knew very little about her sexual tastes. She was irritable and opinionated; she was also smart.

“We shouldn’t waste time on that now,” Martin said.

“If we’re going to make a decision that involves risk, we can’t afford to be wrong,” Ariel pursued.

Martin hid his exasperation. “Let’s not—”

“You’re only going to be Pan this watch,” Ariel said sharply. “The next Pan should have a say, as well.”

“If we make the judging on this watch, Martin will be Pan until we finish the Job,” Hans reminded her.

Ariel shot a withering look at Hans. “We should select a new Pan to lead us into the Job,” she said. “That should be our right.”

“That’s not procedure. We’re wasting time,” Hans said softly.

“Fuck you, Farley!” Ariel exploded.

“Out,” Martin said. “Need a Wendy to second the motion.”

“Second,” said Paola Birdsong, lifting large calm eyes.

“One hour in the wormspaces,” Martin said.

Ariel shrugged, stretched with a staccato popping of joints, and climbed out of the schoolroom.

“You’ll talk with her after, won’t you?” Paola asked softly, not pushing.

Martin did not answer for a moment, ashamed. Pans should be calm, should never discipline out of anger. “I’ll tell her what we decide,” he said.

“She has to decide, too. If it’s a close vote, you’ll ask her for her opinion, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Martin said. He did not think it was going to be a close vote. They were all impatient; this was a strong suspect.

“You’ll work out your differences, won’t you?” Paola pursued. “Because you’re Pan now. You can’t be out with her. That cuts.”

“I’ll talk,” Martin said. He lifted the wand again. “We know enough to decide whether to release remotes. We can do the figuring ourselves. And I think we should all do it now.”

The math was complex and did not guarantee an absolute answer. The possibility of detection when they issued the remotes—very slight at this distance—had to be weighed against the probability that this group contained the star or stars they were looking for.

Martin closed his eyes and ran through the figures yet again, using the techniques the moms had taught him, harnessing their inborn ability to judge distances and speeds, algorithms normally not accessible to the intellect, but far more powerful than higher, conscious calculation. The children had decided to call the new techniques momerath, suggested by Lewis Carroll and, some claimed, short for Mom’s Arithmetic Math.

Martin blanked all thoughts and fell into contemplation of a convergence of spaces and planes, saddles and hills, balls rolling across territories and joining in colored pools.

What Martin visualized when he had finished his momerath, almost as clearly as if his wand projected it, was the group of three stars and a synoptic of the most important local stars. Systems that had been exploited by outside visitors flashed bright red; systems that had probably been explored, but not altered, flashed hot pink; systems showing no signs of external interference flashed green. Ships of the Law did not show up in the mental picture. They never did; the moms could not know where they were.

The children finished their momerath within minutes of each other. Jennifer Hyacinth and Giacomo Sicilia opened their eyes and glanced at Martin first. They were the sharpest at momerath, or any kinds of math and physics theory. They were followed by Stephanie Wing Feather, Harpal Timechaser, Cham Shark, Hans Eagle, and then the others. The last was Rosa Sequoia, but she did complete the work.

Five had difficulty and said, “Not clear.” That was normal; they would not participate in the voting.

Hans as Christopher Robin did the counting as each raised two hands or none. He made a quick recount, and everyone lowered their hands.

“Fifty-two aye, twenty-two nay, five outs, three not present,” Hans reported. “Pan calls it now.”

“This is our first decision,” Martin said. “I’ll ask the moms to release the remotes. If the stars still look suspect, our next decision will be whether to go in closer, whether to enter the systems…” Some children stretched and groaned. They saw a long, boring process, rather than quick action. “We have to be sure. If we go into a—”

“We know,” Paola Birdsong said. They knew it all by heart. If we go into a civilized stellar system, we are in danger. All sufficiently advanced civilizations arm themselves. Not all systems subscribe to the Law. Not all know about the Law.

The occupants of this group of stars did not know about or subscribe to the Law.

“But for now, the decision is to release the remotes. That’s a start.”

Martin looked around the assembled faces in the schoolroom. All solemn; the impatience and irritation had been replaced by anticipation and barely hidden anxiety. They had been traveling for five and a half years. This was the first time they had actually made a decision, the first time the search team had come up with a likely prospect.

“This is no drill, Martin? You’re sure?” Ginny Chocolate asked with a quaver.

“No drill,” Martin confirmed.

“What do we do now?”

“We wait and we practice,” Hans said.

Most of the group raised both arms. Others sat in stunned silence.

“Time to grow up,” Paola said, patting Martin’s arm. Martin wrapped one arm around her and squeezed her. Theresa shot him a glance. No jealousy—he was being Pan, reassuring them all.

Martin released Paola, touched Theresa gently in passing—she smiled, caressed his shoulder—and they parted to go aft. He wanted more than anything to be with her, to get away from this responsibility, but they wouldn’t get together for hours yet.

About ten went with Hans to exercise in the wormspaces. The rest vanished into their private places in the expansive maze of halls, spaces and chambers. Two birds stayed behind, preening themselves, floating with claws curled on nothing.

Martin had three errands now: speaking to Ariel to bring her back into the group as best he could, and then finding and speaking with William and Erin Eire.

By the time he had finished with them, Theresa would be attending a Wendys party in the first homeball, and that would keep them apart for additional hours.

In the farthest depths of the ship, where the Dawn Treader’s tail tapered to a point, among the great dark smooth shapes that had never been explained, Martin found Ariel floating in a loosely curled ball, seemingly asleep.

“You and I aren’t getting along too well,” he said. She opened her eyes and blinked coldly.

“You’re a moms freak,” she said. “You swim in it, don’t you?”

Martin tried not to react to her anger. Still, he wondered why she had ever been chosen from the Central Ark volunteers, years past; she was the least cooperative, the most stubborn, and often the most assertive.

“I’m sorry. You know our group rules. I’ll be just as glad as you when I’m not Pan. Maybe you should try—”

“I’m sick of it,” she interrupted, curling her legs into a lotus. “We’re nothing but puppets. Why did they bring us out here in the first place? They could do everything by themselves. How can we help them? Don’t you see that it sucks?”

Martin felt her words like a slap. Still, he was Pan; he had to keep his calm or at least not let her see how angry he was. “It’s not easy. We all volunteered.”

“I volunteered without being told what I was in for,” Ariel said.

“You were told,” Martin said dubiously.

“We were children. We were playing glory games. Out for quick revenge. They’re asking us to get serious now, and we don’t even know why… Because they won’t tell us everything.”

“They haven’t asked us to do anything yet. Hakim’s team found the group—”

“The moms have been watching those stars for thousands of years. Don’t you know that?”

Martin swallowed and looked away. “They’re telling us all we need to know.”

Ariel smiled bitterly and shook her head. “They sent us out this way deliberately, to track these stars. Now they’re going to use us to kill somebody, or get ourselves killed,” she said. “I’m not alone. Others think this is shit, too.”

“But you’re the only one with the guts to come forward,” he said. He felt he had to leave soon or lose his temper completely.

She regarded him with nothing quite so strong as hate; more like pity, as if he were a mindless demagogue not responsible for his actions.

“I’m not alone,” she said. “You remember that. We have our… doubts about all this. The moms had damn well better do something about it.”

“Or what, Ariel? You’ll leave?”

“No,” she said. “Don’t be an ass, Martin. I’ll opt out for good. I’ll kill myself.”

His eyes widened. She turned away from his shock and pushed out from a curved cylinder mounted to an interior conduit. “Don’t worry about blood on your watch. I’m giving them time. I still hope we can do what we came out here to do. But my hope is fading fast. They have to tell us all, Martin.”

“You know that they won’t,” Martin said.

“I don’t know that, and why shouldn’t they?” She turned around and echoed back, coming on like a slow tiger, extending her ladder field and hooking to a stop just seconds before they collided.

Martin did not flinch. “The Benefactors have a home, too. They come from somewhere.”

“No shit,” Ariel said.

“Hear me out, please. You asked.”

She nodded. “All right.”

“If the whole galaxy is full of wolves, no bird peeps, not even eagles. The moms need to protect their makers. If we knew all about the Benefactors, in a few hundred years, a few thousand years, we might become wolves, too. Then we’d know where they were, and we’d come and get them.”

“That is so… cynical,” Ariel said. “If they are so worried about us, why did they save us at all?”

This was a question with many answers, none of them completely convincing. They had all debated the point, and Martin had never been satisfied with any of the answers, but he tried to put his best theories into words.

“They believe in a balance,” he said. “Whoever they are, they made the Ships of the Law to keep single civilizations from scouring the galaxy and having it all to themselves. Maybe it started out as self-defense—”

“Maybe that’s all it is now,” Ariel said.

“But they must believe that we’ll contribute something eventually, when we’re grown up.”

Ariel blew out her breath.

“The moms tell us all that they can. They tell us what we need to know. We could never avenge the Earth without them. You know that. There’s no reason to hate the moms.”

“I don’t hate them,” Ariel said.

“We have work to do, a lot of decisions and thinking. I’d like us all to be together.”

“I won’t disappoint anybody,” Ariel said.

“Please don’t talk about killing yourself. It’s stupid.”

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s the only thing that’s really mine, out here. Leave me that much.”

“I’m not taking anything from you,” Martin said softly. His anger had flown, replaced by a cavernous awareness of what they were heading toward, what they were planning to do. “I ask nothing of you that you didn’t volunteer to do.”

“How could we know what we’d lose?”

Martin shook his head. “We’ve never had a chance to be people, much less to be children. We’re a long way from a home that doesn’t exist any more. We won’t grow much older until after we do the Job. If we go back to the solar system, thousands of years will have passed for them. We’ll be strangers. That’s not just true of you, it’s true of all of us. We need to stick together.”

She seemed startled.

What kind of blind, unfeeling monster does she think I am? “We never will be children,” he concluded. “Come on, Ariel. We don’t need to lose any more, and I don’t need threats.”

“Why didn’t the moms stop them?” she asked plaintively.

Martin shook his head. “They don’t want us to be cattle, or zoo animals. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. We have as much freedom as they can give us, even the freedom to die.”

“We’re getting so sad,” Ariel said, looking away from him. “It’s been so long.”

Martin swallowed hard. “I…”

“Go, please,” she said.

He pushed away abruptly and bounced from wall to conduit to wall, then summoned a field and climbed up the length of the neck toward the second homeball, where William kept his quarters.

“Why weren’t you in the meeting?” Martin worked to keep his voice level. William Arrow Feather twisted within his corner net, pulled himself out, and nudged his head against a climbing field summoned with a mudra-like hand signal. “I didn’t want to make things tougher for you.”

“You’re supposed to be present for Job discussions,” Martin said. “And you didn’t vote.”

William smiled and shrugged. “No harm. I got the info. I can make my decision for the big one.” His expression shifted slightly. “Have you made yours?”

“We’re going to investigate—”

“Not that,” William said. “That was a foregone conclusion. I mean, have you decided who you are, what you are?”

“I don’t understand,” Martin said.

“It’s important for you.” William looked away. “And for Theresa.”

“I thought you approved.”

“I said I approved, but then we made love again, for the first time since you started this thing with Theresa—and I saw things a little differently.”

Martin settled grimly in an opposite corner, as if he were about to be forced to take medicine. “Explain.”

“Your heart wasn’t in it.”

“I’ve always enjoyed you.”

“Martin, how many lovers have you had?”

Martin looked away. “I’m not a fruitpicker,” he said.

“Right. You’re not shy, you’re just a little afraid… of hurting somebody, of being hurt.”

“Wise William,” Martin said.

“Slick that,” William said, not unkindly. “You picture me as some sort of brotherly saint, Saint Francis maybe. I’m not. I’m a fruitpicker. Most of us are. You… and Theresa… are not.”

“She’s had and been had,” Martin said, eyes rolling.

“Right. But nowhere near the average.”

“More than I,” Martin said. Weak defense.

“So how many have you had?”

William had never asked before; such things were seldom mentioned, being almost common knowledge in a group so small and tightly knit. “It’s not important.”

“Some say you’re a bad choice for Pan because you lack connections. That you have to slick with somebody to understand them, and you haven’t made love to enough of us to know who we are.”

Martin frowned. “Nobody’s said it to my face.”

“They wouldn’t, because they’re gossips and cowards, like all the humans on this ship.”

“I’m not human?”

“You try not to make mistakes.”

“Oh, Christ, William. What are you talking about?”

William spread out his muscular brown arms and legs. Martin noted the play of muscles, the ripple of skin on strong arms, the beautiful sheen of upper thigh—and felt nothing physical—a mental admiration, a brotherly recognition and approval of William’s health and supple vigor. “I’m homosexual, most of the time,” William said, “one of eight males and seven females among the children. You’re a crosser. You can slick or fall in love or whatever you want with so many more people… But I know something about you, Martin—you’re probably more passionate than I am. I’ve crossed, and found the experience enjoyable but not fulfilling—so I’ve slicked with maybe twelve of the children. You’ve had five or six, I’d guess. What are you afraid of?”

Martin pushed from the corner, angry again.

“You hate the idea of rejection. You really don’t like understanding people, accepting them for what they are. Why?”

Martin’s face muscles worked. “You’re not in a good mood,” he said, kicking off the opposite wall, rolling past William.

William laughed. “I’m not?”

“You’ve never been cruel before.” He put out a hand and stopped himself on the edge of William’s door.

William’s face contorted. “I’m not being cruel,” he said sadly. “I just know what’s going to happen, and I hate for you not to know, when it affects you so much… and Theresa. You’re one of our best.” William’s expression warmed, as it always did when he praised Martin. “At least I think so, and the children voted you Pan.”

“You’ll be next,” Martin said, avoiding his eyes.

“No, I won’t,” William said, very subdued. “Hans maybe. He wants it. I fantasize about it, that maybe it’ll make more Lost Boys willing to cross… But it won’t be me. I’m a soldier, not a general. You’re a general. You don’t believe it, though, do you?”

Martin shook his head. “I never wanted to be Pan.”

“You didn’t turn it down. You know what a general does? Contrary to the gossips’ wisdom on this ship, he doesn’t slick with all the troops. He watches them from outside, and he learns how to use them. How to keep them safe. And how to sacrifice some of them to save the rest, or sacrifice all to get the Job done. Any child who reads history knows that. You read history, Martin. Do you agree?”

Instinctively, Martin did not agree, but he had never voiced his instinct.

“Do you agree?” William asked again.

“One for all, and all for one,” Martin said, knowing that was not quite the same thing. William seemed to think it was.

“Good. You need someone to stand beside you.”

“William, this is so much drift, I can’t be isolated and be any good…”

“Not isolated. Just outside a little bit. With a partner who can trim your sails now and then. I approve of Theresa, but you can’t—I suppose I’m getting around to what I really want to say, finally—you can’t be what you were with me, and have something even stronger with Theresa.”

“I don’t want to lose you, or hurt you.”

“You don’t want to lose anything or hurt anybody,” William said. He floated forward with an ankle kick against corner pads and took Martin’s shoulders. “But you’re still a general, and you’ve got to do both.

“Listen to wise old William. Here’s your fault, Martin. You think that if you slick with someone, you must fall in love with them, and they must fall in love with you. You think that if you lead someone, you must be gentle, and never hurt them, or make them angry.”

“Bolsh,” Martin said sharply, jerking his head back.

“And if they don’t love you, you feel rejected and hurt. You want to love everybody, but you don’t, and that’s hypocrisy. You want too much, I think. You want your lovers’ souls.”

“Not so wise, William,” Martin said. He pushed him back with an ungentle hand. “You’ve completely misunderstood me.”

“Theresa’s perfect for you,” William said. “She’s a little smarter than you and a little looser, and she sees something in you that I see as well. But I’ll stand aside. I don’t want to be second with you; it’s a losing game.”

Martin saw the tears in William’s eyes and reacted with his own. “I’m sorry,” he said, floating closer. He stroked William’s cheek. “You’re a brother to me.”

“Brothers we’ll be, but don’t give me charity slicks, “William said. “Respect me enough to believe I can get along without you.”

“You still don’t make sense, but if that’s what you want…”

“That’s the way it already is,” William said. “We’re going to be soldiers and generals, and we have a Job to do, and I think it’s going to be tougher on all of us than we imagine or fear. So no nonsense, no drift. We’re not really our own masters, Martin, whatever we like to believe, whatever the moms do or don’t do, except in whom we love and whom we call brother and sister.”

Martin opened the door, rotated in the frame, and said, “Please don’t avoid any more meetings.”

“I won’t.”

Erin Eire was a puzzle to Martin; intelligent, reasonable in conversation, clear-eyed, agreeable for the most part, but with a strong and sometimes arrogant streak of independence. Martin found her in the swimming hall, filter mask strapped over her mouth against the spray. He had to call her twice to get her attention.

“Sorry,” she said. She paddled out of an oblong of water and across the green ladder field that kept water and spray from the anteroom. The water rebounded through the spherical space; one swam in air sometimes, in water most of the time, the rest of the time in spray and fine mist like clouds.

Martin didn’t particularly enjoy swimming. He had almost drowned in the river beside his family home in Oregon when he was four; that memory tainted any enjoyment of the swimming hall.

“I should have been at the meeting, right?” Her smell was brisk, clean and tangy. Though she was naked, her manner removed any ambiguity about sexual arousal. She was straight-forward, natural, not in the least coy with him. The thought simply did not cross her mind. Martin compared her quickly to Theresa; with Theresa his instincts were clear. Though Erin was well-formed, he simply did not feel much sexual attraction to her.

“Right,” Martin said. He hated being stern. “Why weren’t you?”

“I trust your judgment, Martin.”

“That’s no excuse, Erin.”

She shrugged that off, smiled again. “Theresa’s very nice. I hope she takes the sting out of working with people like me.”

Martin was exhausted from the strain of the day. His face reddened. “Erin, why are you so bloody obtuse?”

Eyes level, she said, “Maybe because I’m afraid.” She wrapped herself in a towel, took an end of the towel and dried her short hair. Most of the Wendys kept their hair short but Erin’s was little more than bushy fuzz. Her startling green eyes emerged from behind the folds of towel, anything but nervous or afraid. Whatever she felt, her appearance betrayed nothing. “I’m not questioning your authority. I don’t side with Ariel. Not many of us do.”

“I count my small blessings,” Martin said.

“Did she agree with the others? About the decision? I’m curious.”

“She’s withholding judgment. Did you listen to the meeting on your wand?”

“Of course. I’m not a shirker. I just didn’t feel like being there. I hate formalities.”

“It’s important all the same,” Martin said. “We do the Job together. I need your input like I need everybody else’s.”

“I appreciate that, even if I don’t believe it.” She folded the towel and let it float while she put on her shorts and shirt and tied the tails below her sternum. Over these she slipped the obligatory overalls. Then she looked away. “I won’t make things any tougher on you.”

Martin started to add something but decided enough was enough. With a nod, he left the anteroom, glad to get away.

The Wendys’ party had gone on longer than expected, and Martin, fresh love exaggerated to a peak during the past few hours, worked alone in his quarters, digging through the training and resource materials available in the ship’s libraries.

Unable to wait any longer, he went in search of Theresa, and found her where she had said she would be. His relief was balanced by his chagrin at being so driven, by impatience and longing and an unspecified worry that something, anything, could go wrong.

The Wendys were making garments from materials supplied by the moms. Thirty had gathered in Paola Birdsong’s quarters; the door was open, and he entered. Theresa kneeled at the periphery of four women. Kimberly Quartz projected patterns from a wand onto a wide, bunched sheet of cloth on the floor. Theresa held one corner of the cloth, smoothing it as Paola drew on it with a blue marker. A few of the women noticed him, smiled politely. Paola glanced up, and then Theresa saw him. For a moment, he was afraid she would be angry, but she gave her corner of the billowing fabric to Kimberly Quartz and came to hug him.

“Time passes,” she said. “Sorry I was late.”

“No problem. I’ve been hitting brick walls.”

“Can you wait just a few more minutes?”

He took a seat near the door and looked over Paola’s quarters, which he had never been in before. She had covered her walls with paintings of jungles, wide green leaves, flowers, insects. A parrot flapped around the room, delighted by the view.

Only two children not at the meeting. It could have been much worse.

Martin shook out of his musings and saw the cutout pieces of cloth suspended in a translucent, colorless field for inspection. Other Wendys talking or singing or working on quilts started to break up and wander out now, nodding cordially to Martin as they passed.

“Come see,” Theresa said. She manipulated the projected images of the pattern, assembling them in the air. Paola Birdsong and Donna Emerald Sea smiled as they watched their design take shape. Donna’s cockatoo preened itself on a rack that held samples of cloth the moms could manufacture.

“It’s a gown. This is what it will look like, when it’s cut and sewn together,” Paola told him, smoothing the sheet of fabric.

He had never paid much attention to her, but in Theresa’s presence, he felt a sudden affection for her, and by extension for all the Wendys, and he regretted not having that kind of loose, undemanding, insightful affection.

“Paola and I designed it,” Donna said. She was quick and nervous, with generous eyes and a small mouth and short blond hair.

The final design showed a long white gown covered with tiny glass beads, glittering magnificently in a rotating light unseen beyond the projection. “A ceremonial gown,” Theresa said. She stepped into the projection.

“My turn,” Paola said. Theresa adjusted it for the smaller woman.

“It’s for when we find our new Earth, after we do the Job,” Paola said. “The first Wendy to step on the planet will wear this. The wedding of the children to the new Earth.”

Martin had heard nothing of these plans and he found himself suddenly filled with emotion. “It’s beautiful.”

“Glad you like it,” Theresa said. “Do you think the Lost Boys would like an outfit for their first step?”

“I don’t know,” he said. He had never given much thought to that time. Then, “We’d love them. Will everybody wear them?”

Donna looked at Theresa. “We were only making one…”

“Martin’s right. Everybody will want them,” Theresa said.

“Then we’d better plan more,” Donna said. “A good excuse for more parties.”

They tried a few more fittings, then Theresa made her farewells.

Martin escorted Theresa down a shadowed hall. They passed Rosa. She edged around them with a furtive nod. Martin wondered when he would have to talk with her, deal with her; she had few friends and no lovers. She was slowly opting out of their tight-knit society.

Theresa said, “It would be nice to make a gown for her,” looking back at Rosa. “She needs something, Martin.”

“I know.”

Theresa took his earlobes in her fingers, pulling him lightly down to kiss her. “We’re alone here,” she said. “You’ve been very patient. Talking to everybody… It must have been difficult. Ariel can be tough.”

Martin looked up and down the corridor. “Let’s go… to my quarters,” he said between her kisses.

“Why?” she asked, teasing with her hips.

“Because I’m shy. You know that.”

“Somebody will see us?”

“Come on.” He tugged her hand gently as he led the way.

“It’s because you’re Pan, isn’t it?”

“Theresa…”

“All right,” she said wistfully. “Nothing adventurous for a Pan’s lover.”

He frowned, then pulled her toward him and unsnapped her overalls. “You’ll make me do anything, won’t you? Shameless,” he said into her ear.

“Somebody in this dyad has to be adventurous.”

He kissed her while mulling over that word, dyad. They certainly were that; he had not called their relationship such, reserving the word for what he and William had had, but what he felt for Theresa deserved it more.

“Wedding dress,” he said, holding her high to suckle.

“For all of us,” Theresa said, eyes closed, grinding her hips against his stomach. “Lower me.”

“Not yet. Not until you say I’m adventurous.”

“You’re adventurous.”

Martin heard something, a breath or a rustle of cloth, and turned to see Rosa coming back. Her quarters were somewhere near here; they were in her path. She looked both sad and embarrassed, reversed, laddered back around the curve.

“Sorry,” Theresa called after her. “It’s your hall, too, Rosa.”

But she was gone. Martin lowered Theresa and made a face.

“You were right,” Theresa said, chagrined. “She’s so shy… she didn’t need to see us. But it’s nothing to do with your being Pan.” She pulled up her overalls. “Your quarters,” she said.

He lay beside Theresa in the darkness, awash in an abandonment he had not known in some time. He was free of care, loose in body luxury, all demands satisfied or put aside where they would not nag. Theresa lay still, breathing shallow, but she was not asleep. He heard her eyelids opening and closing. Long, languid blinks. Such sated animals.

“Thank you,” he said.

She caressed his leg with hers. “You’re so quiet. Where are you?”

“I’m home,” he said.

“Thinking about Earth?”

“No,” he said. “I’m home. Here with you.”

And it was true. For the first time in thirteen years, here in the darkness, he felt at home. Home was a few minutes between extreme worries and challenges; home was a suspension outside any place or time.

“That’s sweet,” Theresa said.

“I love you.”

“I love you, Martin. But I’m not home. Not yet.”

He pulled her to him. The moment was fleeting and he wanted to grab it but could not. Temporary, ineffable. Not home. No home.

Martin entered the nose dressed in exercise shorts, neck wrapped in a sweat towel. He had just worked out with Hans Eagle and Stephanie Wing Feather in the second homeball gym when Hakim signaled that they might have enough information to make the next decision.

The Dawn Treader’s long nose extended a hundred meters from the first homeball, a slender needle only three meters wide at the point. Hakim Hadj and three of the search team—Li Mountain, Thomas Orchard, and Luis Estevez Saguaro—kept station in the tip of the nose, surrounded by projections.

Transparent to visible light, the tip of the nose revealed a superabundant darkness, like an unctuous dye that could stain their souls.

The remotes, four thousand tiny sensors, had departed from the third homeball two days before, returning their signals to the Dawn Treader using the same point-to-point “no- channel” transmission their weapons and craft would use when outside the ship. Within a distance of ten billion kilometers, information simply “appeared” in a receiver, and could not be intercepted between; hence, no channel. The effective rate of transmission was almost instantaneous. The children called the no-channel transmissions noach.

Moms, ship’s mind, and libraries were unresponsive to inquiries on the subject of noach; it was one of the tools bequeathed without explanation.

With the remotes, the “eye” of the Dawn Treader had expanded enormously, and was now nine billion kilometers in diameter, nearly two thirds as wide as the solar systems they studied.

Hakim pushed through the haze of projections and glided toward Martin. Li Mountain and Luis Estevez Saguaro watched, fidgeting with their wands, but controlling their enthusiasm enough to let Hakim take charge.

“It’s even better,” Hakim said. “It’s very good indeed. We have resolution down to a thousand kilometers, and estimates of energy budgets. The nearest system is inhabited, but it’s not consuming energy like a thriving high-tech civ should. Still, it’s the most active, and it’s where we might expect it to be.”

Hakim’s wand projected graphics and figures for Martin. Assay fit very closely indeed. “We’ve been looking through the stellar envelopes and we’ve put together a picture of the birthing cloud in this region. Shock-wave passage from a supernova initiated starbirth about nine billion years ago, and the supernova remnants seeded heavy elements along these gradients…” Hakim’s finger traced a projected purple line through numbers describing metals densities, “metals” meaning elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. He jabbed at a clustering of numbers. “The Buttercup is right in this gradient, right in this magnetic pool, to receive the only dose of exactly these proportions.” Red numbers bunched within a dip in the galaxy’s magnetic field, where gases might collect, waiting to be condensed into stars. “No other star system within a hundred light years matches the Buttercup’s assay.”

Martin felt numb, not yet realizing with all of his faculties how significant this was.

“Time for another gathering,” he said thoughtfully.

“I’ll report to the moms,” Hakim said.

* * *

They had never before seen more than three moms together, although they had suspected there could be many more. Several times the children had kept track of their whereabouts in the Dawn Treader and tried to count them, as a kind of game, but they could never be sure how many there were. Now, all eighty-two children—Lost Boys and Wendys-—gathered in the schoolroom to make the final decision, and there were six identical moms, all with the same patient, neutral voices.

More than anything that had happened before, this gave Martin chills. He had personally estimated there were no more than four moms in the entire ship. It seemed likely to him now that the Dawn Treader could manufacture the robots at will; but that meant the ship itself was a kind of giant mom.

Putting six into the schoolroom was a symbolic action, surely… And it communicated to Martin, at least, with full force.

Four moms hovered at the periphery of the schoolroom, silent and unmoving, like sentinels. Two moms floated in the center of the schoolroom, beside the star sphere. They waited patiently until the children were quiet, which took less than a minute. Martin saw Ariel enter with William and Erin just as the first mom began to speak.

The mom at stage left advanced and said, “The information on the candidate stellar group has increased. If the ship alters its course now, and begins deceleration, you are less than three months from this system, ship’s time. Deceleration will use most of our reserves, and we will need to refuel within one of the stellar systems, the Buttercup or the Cornflower. There are unlikely to be sufficient volatiles available in the Firestorm system.”

A diagram of their orbital path and velocities spread before the children. Deceleration for three tendays at one g, ship’s reference, which would drop their speed to about ninety percent c and increase their tau considerably, bringing them into a position to enter the Buttercup system. Then deceleration of two g’s for twenty-three days. They would enter the system at just over three fourths the speed of light, crossing the system’s diameter of eleven point two billion kilometers in just under fourteen hours.

Martin noted that their trajectory would take them through the dark haloes of pre-birth material, through the plane of the ecliptic, and then under the Buttercup’s south pole, considerably below the plane of the ecliptic. They would pass within two hundred million kilometers of one rocky world, and a hundred million kilometers of the second, directly between them, when both were nearly aligned on one side of the system.

“The remotes have given your search team more information. You will now be provided with the expanded figures to make your next decision.”

Ariel watched Martin from across the room. Her expression said nothing, but he could feel her disapproval.

Hakim Hadj pushed forward from the search team. “The information is wonderful… Very provocative.” He raised his wand, and the wand of each sang in tune, and projected images into their eyes.

They saw:

That the two yellow stars had altered stellar envelopes—that the streams of particles flowing outward from the stars’ surfaces were being gathered and twisted like hair in braids, forming streamers above and below the poles. The magnetic fields of the stars were being altered to control their surface activity, and to allow fine tuning of their radiation output. None of the planets were swept by particle storms any more, nor were they subjected to the vagaries of stellar interiors. This helped explain the altered stellar signature—spectrum versus size and brightness—that had first pointed to the presence of an advanced civilization.

Other details could be discerned around the nearest yellow star, the Buttercup: altered planetary orbits, with a single gas giant world pushed in closer to the Buttercup, perhaps to allow easier mining of volatiles. The gas giants were even more depleted of volatiles than they had first estimated; refueling would be difficult around this star.

Between the Buttercup’s outermost rocky world and the nearest depleted gas giant orbited a million-kilometer-thick halo of flimsy structures largely made of silicates. One or more rocky worlds, or perhaps an entire asteroid belt, might have been sacrificed to make the halo; what purpose it served could not be known yet. Hakim speculated they might have been enormous mirrors to refocus energy on the inner planets, or perhaps to deflect radiation from the red giant in its more violent phase.

The farther yellow star showed no high-tech activity. “Someone might be hiding,” Hakim said, “but we have no way of knowing that.”

He saved the most impressive displays for last.

“Some of the information we’re about to show you was gathered by the Benefactors long before Earth was destroyed,” Hakim said. “Several thousand years ago… The moms have given this to us.”

In simulation, they saw dim flares around the two yellow stars, as viewed from hundreds or even thousands of light years away: the expenditure of vast energies necessary to move the planets and alter the stars. The flares had lasted only for a matter of decades—a mere instant on the time-scale of the galaxy, but obviously, eager eyes and ears had caught the flicker.

The transformation of the two solar systems had taken place simultaneously, about a hundred years before the Firestorm—twice the mass of Sol—went through helium flash to become a red giant, a hideous lively bloating that swallowed five planets. They watched in silence as the red giant cast away immense cloaks of gas, its face becoming pocked and ragged like a burning, decaying skull.

Hans Eagle spoke out. “If the Killers live here, did they send out machines before or after they made these changes?”

“Probably before,” the first mom said. “In our experience—”

“Nobody knows how much experience you’ve had, or how long,” Ariel said, voice chilly.

“Please, Ariel,” Hakim said, infinitely patient.

“In our experience,” the mom continued, “beings who build killer probes usually do so before they have mastered the techniques necessary to perform large-scale stellar reconstruction.”

“Then it’s been thousands of years since the probes were launched,” Hans continued.

“Very likely.”

Hans nodded, satisfied.

The last display traced the paths of intercepted killer machines, but covered a thousand light years rather than a dozen; their known and postulated victims were marked by red dots, and the systems they had merely passed through glowed green. Approximate dates relative to Earth’s death and distances of these events from the three-star group were given in flashing white.

Martin was astonished by the wealth of data; a partial answer to Ariel’s doubts. His mind raced to gather the implications: sometimes the Ships of the Law did break silence, to transmit the locations of killer machines, to broadcast their captures and triumphs. The transmissions would not have been hidden; the distances are too vast for the noach… They would have risked revealing themselves

Hakim concluded by placing all the displays around the star sphere for their contemplation. “That is all we have for now,” he said.

Again, the children did their momerath, and the schoolroom fell silent.

Martin visualized the spaces of probability behind tight-closed eyes, hands opening and closing, seeing the numbers and the paths, making them converge and diverge. Each time he repeated the momerath he concluded there was a high probability—perhaps ninety-five percent—that the Killers came from this stellar group. The probes had probably been manufactured in the system of the Buttercup, the near yellow star.

After sufficient time had passed—perhaps two hours of steady concentration, in complete silence—the moms gathered at the center of the schoolroom, and the first mom said, “What is your judgment?”

“Comments first,” Paola Birdsong insisted.

The comments were more expressions of personal involvement and emotion than substantive questions or objections; this much Martin had expected. He had watched the group reach consensus on other matters far less important than this, and this was how they worked: speaking out, finding individual roles.

Mei-li Wu-Hsiang Gemini, a small, quiet woman with the Starsigns family, asked whether there were other civilizations within the close vicinity of this group. Hakim called up a display already shown: all stars that might have harbored planets with life, within twenty-five light years of the group. None had shown even the most subtle signs of civilized development. That was not conclusive evidence one way or another; left alone, the planets might not have developed intelligent life—though the chances were two in five, for so many stars, that at least one civilization would have evolved.

There was always the possibility that the intelligences might have been smarter than humanity, keeping silent even in their technological youth.

But added to the other evidence, the lack was significant.

“What are the chances that civilizations would die off or abort themselves, in so many planetary systems?” George Dempsey asked.

The first mom said, “Given the number of systems with planets, and the probability of life arising, and the probability of that life developing technological ability—” The figures flashed before them again. Martin did not bother doing the momerath; he had done it already, the first time around. Chances were, so had Dempsey. This was socialization, not serious cross- examination.

Time of accepting what they all knew must come next…

More questions, for yet another hour, until Martin’s eyes and tense muscles burned. He could sense the group’s fatigue. He glanced at the remaining children in his mental queue, decided they would not have anything substantive to add, and said, “All right. Let’s get down to it.”

“You’re prepared to make a decision?” the first mom asked.

“We are,” Martin said.

Grumbling and rustling, the children rearranged themselves into their families and drill groups. They felt much more comfortable among their chosen peers; this was not an easy thing and none was happy to be hurried along.

“You are deciding whether to decelerate, at substantial fuel cost, and direct this Ship of the Law into the stellar group we have observed, to investigate the intelligent beings there, and to judge whether they built the machines that destroyed your world,” the first mom said. “Pan will count your votes.”

One by one, they voted, and Martin tallied. There could be no more than ten abstentions in the entire group, or the process would begin again. Seven abstained, including Ariel. Sixty-one voted to go in and investigate. Fourteen voted to pass the group by, to search for something more definite.

“We need an opposition Pan,” Ariel insisted. Paola Bird-song, who had voted to investigate, disagreed.

“We’ve followed procedures,” she said. “It’s done.”

“We’ve followed the moms’ procedures,” Ariel said.

“They train us and instruct us,” Ginny Chocolate said. “I don’t see what you’re after.”

“Are we puppets?” Ariel asked, glaring around the groups.

The other children seemed confused. The grumbling increased. Martin felt his stomach twist.

Jorge Rabbit intervened. Olive skinned, with thick black hair, quick with jokes, Jorge was popular in the group. “This is enough, poor children, Martin is right. We are here to do this work. We are not puppets; we are students.”

Ariel tightened her jaw and said no more. Martin felt a sudden perverse tug for her.

“It’s done,” he said. “The children have voted. We go.”

Martin ate in the cafeteria with the day’s drill group when the maneuvers began.

The children felt it first as a deeper vibration through the ship, singing in their muscles and bones.

“Oh, man,” Harpal Timechaser said. He brought out his wand and let it drift in the air. Slowly, precessing this way, then that, as the ship maneuvered to bring its drives to bear, the wand spun slowly, drawing their complete attention.

The vibration increased. The Dawn Treader’s hull made a melodic singing noise, deep and masculine, as all the stresses of the drive pushed through its fabric. The wand began to settle, first toward one wall. They felt themselves “pushed” with it, and they yelled with excitement, then groaned as the room oriented within the ship, as if spun on gimbals, one flat wall becoming a floor, the other a ceiling.

A gentle ten percent g as the drives came alive, stretched, clearing their throats.

“I’m going to be sick,” Paola Birdsong said. “Why don’t they smooth it for us?”

“Because we hate that more than this,” Martin reminded her.

Half an hour later, the ship sang again, on an even deeper note. Martin saw the ship in momerath, felt its load of fuel decreasing steadily, flare of particles and radiation disappearing into the bottomless darkness of the ship’s external sump, a way to conceal their wastes by scattering them across the surrounding light years as an increase in the energy of the vacuum.

They were going where fuel would be difficult to find.

Full gravity returned. The halls and quarters filled with complaints, more excitement; painted, half-dressed children running, stumbling, cursing, grimacing, trying to leap; falling, cursing again.

Two children broke bones in the first few hours. Their casts, applied by a mom in the dispensary after bone-knitting therapy, served as warning notice for the rest. Martin called a general meeting in the full-gravity schoolroom and the injured showed off their trophies.

The injured would be well within two days… The moms’ medicine was potent. But until the casts were off, they could not participate in most of the drills.

The ship transformed itself subtly like a living thing, usually when no one was watching. Throughout, rooms oriented to the end of weightless coasting.

Once past their initial excitement, the children did not find the change disturbing. Psychologically, it was a return to the old patterns of the Ark, and to their year-long acceleration to near light speed away from the Sun. Not to mention their years on Earth…

More changes would come soon—two g’s, a heavy burden—and if they decided to go for orbital insertion into the Buttercup system, the action would be spectacular.

They had never before experienced the Ship of the Law demonstrating its full power and sophistication…

The Dawn Treader was a single virus about to enter a highly protected and extremely powerful host, with unknown capabilities. Martin would report to the moms every day now, and a mom would be constantly available in the schoolroom; the same mom, with an identifying mark painted on it by Martin, at the suggestion of Jorge Rabbit and Stephanie Wing Feather, who thought it would boost morale.

The marking ceremony was attended by all the children. Just before his suicide, Theodore Dawn had written of this expected time: “We’ll get dressed up in war paint and war uniforms, and we’ll swear an oath, like mythic pirates or the Three Musketeers, and it won’t be all nonsense, all childsplay. It will mean something. Just wait and see.” The search for a meaningful ceremony had come too late for Theodore, Martin thought.

But now that moment had come for the rest of them.

The children gathered on the tiers of an amphitheater that had risen from the floor of the schoolroom at Martin’s command. They wore black and white paint on their faces and forearms, “To eliminate the gray feelings, the neutralities, the indecisions.” Even Martin wore the paint.

A mom floated near the middle of the schoolroom. Within the star sphere, a red circle blinked around the white point of the Buttercup star. Martin approached the mom with small pots of black and white paint in one hand, and a brush in the other.

“To show our resolve, to show our change of state, to strengthen our minds and our courage, we appoint this mom a War Mother. The War Mother will be here to speak with any of us, at any time.

“Now is our time.”

Martin applied the brush thick with white paint to one side of the mom’s stubby, featureless head. The other half he carefully painted black. Then, to complete the effect—something he had thought of himself—he painted a divided circle where the “face” might have been, reversing the colors, black within white, white within black. No grays, but cautious judgment of alternatives.

Painting completed, the War Mother decorated, Martin turned to the children on the risers. They stood quietly, no coughing, breathing hardly audible in the stillness, strong and beautiful and grim-faced with thoughts and memories. He stood before them, looking into their faces.

“Luis Estevez Saguaro and Li Mountain of the search team have suggested names for the star systems. They think the Buttercup star should be called Wormwood, the Cornflower Leviathan, and the Firestorm, Behemoth. Any other suggestions?”

“They’re good names,” Joe Flatworm said, scratching his sandy growth of beard.

No one objected.

“We’ve been training for years, but we’ve never exercised outside, in real conditions. I’m making a formal request of the moms, right now, that we begin external exercises as soon as possible, before this day is out if we can.”

The moms had always turned that request down. Martin had not conferred with them; by asking them now, in front of the children, he was taking a real risk, operating only on a hunch.

“You may begin three days of external drill,” the War Mother replied. “You may conduct a full-level exercise in the region around the ship.”

Hans’ face lit up and he raised his fist in a cheer, then turned to the children behind him. All but Ariel cheered, even Erin Eire. Ariel kept her face blank.

“We’re in it now,” Hans said to Martin as the group broke up. He smiled broadly and rubbed his hands together. “We’re really in it!”

“What kind of drill are you planning?” Martin asked the War Mother when the room was almost empty.

“That must be determined at the time of the exercise,” the War Mother said. Martin backed away, confused.

“No warning?”

“No warning,” said the mom.

During the coasting, Martin’s primary quarters—once shared with Theodore—had been spherical, nets at one end filled with the goods manufactured by the moms to give the children a feeling of place and purpose: paper books, jewelry. Since the deceleration began, Martin had redesigned the quarters to have several flat ledges he could sit on or brace against. His sleeping net had been swapped for a bag and sling hung between two pillars.

Theresa came to him in his primary quarters in the second homeball after a ten-hour period of self-imposed isolation. She stood at his closed hatch, inquiring discreetly through his wand whether he was available. With a groan, conflicting emotions making him ball up his fists and pound the yielding floor, he swung down from a ledge and opened the door.

“I didn’t want to bother you…” she said, her face tight, hair in disarray, skin glistening. “We’ve been exercising. Harpal and Stephanie told me you were here…”

He reached out for her and hugged her fiercely. “I need you. I need someone to balance me.”

“I’m glad,” she said, burying her face in his shoulder. She wore workout cutoffs, blue shorts and loose-fitting top. “The exercises are good,” she said. “We’re really into them.”

“I’m in the boneyard,” he said, sweeping his free arm at electronic slate and books piled into his sleep corner. What they called boneyard was everything human stored in the Dawn Treader’s libraries.

“Tactics?” she asked.

He grimaced. “Call it that.”

She hugged him again before moving away to riffle through the stack and pick up the slate. He didn’t mind her curiosity; she seemed interested in everything about him, and he was flattered. “Marshal Saxe,” she said, scrolling through the slate displays. She lifted a book. “Bourcet and Gilbert. Clausewitz, Caemerrer, Moltke, Goltz.” She lifted an eyebrow.

“Their armies could see each other, make sorties against each other,” Martin said. “We don’t even fight with armies.”

“These are the people T. E. Lawrence studied when he was young,” Theresa said, surprising him yet again. “You’ve been reading Liddell Hart.”

He smiled in chagrin. “You, too.”

“Me and about twenty others. I asked for crew access records.”

Martin grinned ruefully. “I should have thought of that. To see what they’re… thinking, preparing for.”

“Most are just doing your exercises. They respect you. They think you know what you’re doing. Hans is doing a lot of extra research. Erin Eire. Ariel.”

“I’m glad they’re keeping me on my toes.”

“We can’t afford to take chances, even with you, Martin.”

Theresa had never spoken to him in such a tone before; was she implying lack of confidence? She smiled, but the question was raised, and she looked away, aware she had raised it.

“I’m not criticizing you, Martin, but you—we—won’t find many answers in Earth strategy books.”

“Right,” Martin said.

“We can’t keep looking back.”

“It’s all we have,” Martin said.

“Not so.”

Martin nodded. “I mean, it’s all we have that’s our own.”

Theresa put the books back and returned the slate to the text he had been reading. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “I didn’t come here to talk about this.”

“I’m not just looking at Earth histories and texts,” Martin said. “I’ve been going over everything the moms taught us. They haven’t made up a drill for the external exercise—they seem to want to surprise us. I don’t like that, but I see their point—”

“Martin. You need a break.”

“There’s no time!” he shouted, fists clenching again.

“Are you thinking clearly?”

He paused, shook his head, squeezed his palms against his temples. “Not very.”

“I’m here.”

He closed the entrance, reached for her, put the wand into quiet mode, kicked the books and slate aside as they moved against each other. “I don’t want to be away from you for a second, not an instant,” he said. “That’s the bad part. I want to be someplace else with you.”

She looked at him intently, face showing none of the insinuation of her undulating body, lower lip under her teeth; hips moving with graceful need. He felt the motion of her stomach against his, the press of her curly hair, the flexing wet warmth startling, her small breasts hard against his chest; sought her neck behind her ear, knew she had closed her eyes, face still blank but for the bitten lip.

The experience was more effort, less ethereal, with up and down reestablished. It was also more familiar to his inner mind, flesh and bones; somehow more real.

They rolled from the ledge with half-purpose, falling into a glowing ladder, and were lowered gently to tumble down a slope into a pile of Martin’s clothes.

“I want to live with you always,” Martin said.

“I didn’t mean to make you think I…” Tears came to her eyes. “I’m so clumsy sometimes. I trust you. It’s pretty amazing how they trust you. The past Pans—Harpal, Stephanie, Sig, Cham…Joe—They’re right behind you.” She smiled. “Hans is just doing his job, I think. I can’t read Hans all the time. He seems to hide everything important. Ariel seems either angry or sad all the time.”

“Is that why you’re with me, because I’m trusted?” he asked quietly. That’s a stupid, stupid thing to ask.

“Not at all,” she said. “I don’t slick for status.”

“I know you don’t,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He stroked her face. “I wouldn’t call this slicking.”

“Oh, it is,” she said. “The very best. Don’t be afraid of it.”

“Of course not,” Martin whispered, edging closer, careful not to let the slight weight of his body oppress her. “I want you to live with me.”

“Dyad?” she asked.

“I want more than that,” he said. “I want to eat you up.”

“Ah ha.”

“I want you so much it hurts not to have you near me.”

“Oh.” She looked away, pretending embarrassment even as they moved against each other.

“I want to marry you.”

She stopped their rolling and lay quiet beside him, breasts moving up and down, eyes flicking over his features. “We don’t marry,” she said.

“Nothing stops us.”

“We’re Lost Boys and Wendys. Pans don’t get married.”

“We could get married in a new way. No priests or churches or licenses.”

“Married is something different. It’s for Earth, or back on the Ark. People got married on the Ark.”

“I doubt we’ll ever go back,” Martin said.

“I know,” she said softly.

“We’re our own Ark. We have all the information here. All the living things in memory. They’ll make every living thing we need, once we do our Job. We’ll be like war dogs.”

“War dogs?”

“Too vicious to be taken back. Because of what we do. We have to rely on ourselves alone. That means we can get married, whatever being married means out here.”

“We’ve only been lovers for a few tendays.”

“That’s enough for me,” Martin said.

Theresa drew back to him. “Slicking is so much simpler.”

“We make love,” Martin insisted.

Theresa suddenly put on an innocent look. “Do you remember,” she said, pushing tongue behind her lower lip, pushing it out, gazing at him intently, “how serious this would be on Earth? How fraught with meaning, making love or slicking?”

“It isn’t serious here?”

She put fingers to her lips, holding something: a cigarette, he remembered. Lowered her lashes, looked at him seductively, deep sensual meaning, smiling, drew back, flung back her hair. “I could be a temptress,” she said.

“Harlot,” he said.

“We would spend ever so much time worrying, once we were married, on Earth, about whether we were doing it right, whether we were in style.”

“We have styles here,” Martin said.

She made a bitter face, tossed the ghost cigarette away. “I read about it. In some places, we could have been arrested for…” She touched his limp tip with a finger, brought a drop of wheyish moisture to her mouth. “We could have been arrested for…” She reached into his mouth with the finger, and he obligingly tongued it. She moved the finger up her thigh, touched herself, moved without effort into a melodramatic vamping posture. “How can we be married without thousands knowing and approving or disapproving? Looking at us in our little home, approving or disapproving.” She whispered the words again, but there was a strain in her face. “All those people. But it’s okay.” She looked at him directly, struggling to hold back more tears. “And we know we can make children. That’s serious.”

Martin smiled. His eyes focused not on her now, but on far dead Earth. He had never thought or imagined such adult concerns on Earth. He had been a child when Earth died. So had she.

“Knowing you can make children if you want. That’s really making love,” she concluded, words catching in her throat. She closed her eyes and like a dark-headed bird laid her cheek and palm on his chest.

“We make love,” he persisted. “The moms will let us have children after we’ve done the Job.”

She wept in shaking silence in his arms.

If the children decided Wormwood was a source of killer probes, the Ship of the Law would break in two. Stephanie Wing Feather suggested the separate ships should be called Hare and Tortoise.

The two ships would decelerate at different rates. Tortoise, the smaller, would begin super deceleration—one thousand g’s—days before reaching the system, and would enter at maneuvering speed. The larger, Hare, would shoot through the system at three quarters c, conduct reconnaissance while passing between the two inner rocky planets, relay the information to Tortoise, then escape the system and wait for results. It would decelerate more gradually, reaching maneuvering speed some hundreds of billions of kilometers on the other side of Wormwood.

If Tortoise was severely damaged or destroyed, Hare could continue, hunting for fuel around the other stars in the group.

Before then, the Ship of the Law would pass through a section of Wormwood’s outlying haloes of pre-birth material: what around the Sun had been called the Oort and Kuiper clouds. It was possible that Wormwood’s inhabitants had mined even these outer reaches of the pre-birth material, probably in the youth of their civilization, when comets were used by “hitch-hikers” to ride far beyond the orbits of the outer planets. It was also possible that the clouds had never been rich with volatiles; even the rocky pickings were slim by comparison to the Sun’s cloud.

The Dawn Treader would release makers and doers into these diffuse haloes to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. If the judgment was guilty, the makers and doers would push these weapons inward toward the planets. The weapons would take time to accomplish their backup mission of destruction, should Hare and Tortoise fail, and at a net energy loss.

The energy required to make and move the weapons would come from conversion of carbon and silicon to anti-matter—what the children called anti em. Elements heavier than silicon did not convert with any energy gain. Elements between lithium and silicon converted with a marginal energy gain.

To make up for the clouds’ paucity, they would have to give the makers and doers substantial portions of the Dawn Treader’s fuel.

They desperately needed to find more fuel within the system.

They would enter as black as the Benefactors’ technologies allowed. Entry would be an extremely dangerous time; dangerous even should the children decide Earth’s Killers did not live here. How would the defenders of these stars know they had been judged innocent or guilty, or whether the Dawn Treader was itself a killer, a wolf between the stars?

The children filed into the weapons store, apprehensive. Martin led the way, and the children went to their craft in a welter of voices, calling names, moving on ladders to their vessels in the up and downness. Paola Birdsong lost her grasp and almost fell; Harpal Timechaser caught her halfway to the fore side of the hemisphere. Seeing her safe, the children hooted at her lack of attention. Paola crawled red-faced to her ovoid bombship and hooked both elbows in the ladder’s softly glowing field.

Martin stood beside his ship, watching his brothers and sisters find theirs, watching Theresa climb to her rifle, watching William join with Umberto Umbra in their cylinder cluster, called an Oscar Meyer by some, and a cigar box by others.

Fifty children stood apart. They would remain in the Ship of the Law. Hans would stay with them.

Martin moved forward along his ladder and hung next to his assigned craft, a rifle.

“The moms have promised a target and we’ll match ourselves against it. I don’t know what the target is, or how we’ll fight it.”

“We don’t have a set drill?” Erin Eire asked. Hans looked at Martin; they had discussed this already, and Hans had expressed real reservations. Going outside without a plan the first time did not seem wise to either of them; going outside with no known adversaries, no expressed situations, seemed foolhardy at best.

“The War Mother won’t tell us what it is,” Martin said.

“That’s stupid,” Erin Eire said. The children shook their heads.

“What are they trying to do to us?” Rex Live Oak asked.

“Make us less dependent, I assume. At any rate, I haven’t designed a plan; we’ll see what they’re up to, and see how well we react. They assume we’re well trained.”

Kimberly Quartz and her craftmate, Ginny Chocolate, hooted loudly. “Pan must be confident!” Kimberly called out. Martin smiled and lifted both thumbs.

Kai Khosrau, diminutive, with long head and long arms and muscular legs, began to sing the song and a few dozen joined in. The song was a rambling medley of tunes remembered from their youth on Earth and in the Ark, with new words.

Martin let them sing, watching Theresa in her accustomed place outside the cluster, at the rear. Just to be alone with her, nothing else.

Song finished, they climbed into their craft and the hatches smoothed shut. Martin took a seat in the rifle’s black interior, felt the surface of the couch wrap around his legs, the crawl of transparent membrane around his clothes and skin. The membrane connected with air supply intakes and waste removal ducts.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Cool fresh air filled his lungs. A faint green field surrounded his body, leaving arms and head free. Between the membrane and the field, water poured in, making a five-centimeter cushion around his legs and torso. A faint moisture fog rose up briefly around his face, covering the outer surface of the membrane, and almost immediately cleared. The membrane, water, and field protected him from accelerations up to fifty g’s. Anything beyond fifty g’s would require a volumetric field. He had experienced the volumetric fields in training; they were bearable, but not comfortable. At very high acceleration, they controlled motion down to the level of individual molecules.

Those not in ships departed from the hemispheric chamber. Deep bass pounding: air being rapidly pumped from the chamber.

A hatch opened to darkness and oily streamers of light.

They had not been outside the Dawn Treader since leaving the Ark. The interior of the Ship of the Law had been their home, their only solid universe; all else had been projection, simulation, memory and imagination.

Ten craft broke free of their pylons, wobbling as the maneuvering drives adjusted, pale yellow glows pulsing white opposite the direction of travel like captured fireflies. The pylons withdrew to the walls. Sporangia broke loose from the walls and ladder fields reached out from their escorts to lace them tightly to craft hulls.

The craft exited Dawn Treader in close formation, almost touching.

Martin rode his rifle. Through the membrane and a port close to his face, he saw the exterior universe—not in simulation, but in actual far-traveling photons.

The reality was not appreciably different from the high-level simulations; still, he knew it was real, could feel it in the twists and accelerations deep inside his gut as the craft swung about the Dawn Treader’s third homeball.

From within, the Dawn Treader was an all-encompassing universe, with no psychologically real exterior. Seen from outside, close up, it was simply immense. The scale confused Martin, confined for so long in spaces without infinite views.

The immensity of the Ship of the Law was enhanced by the strangeness of its environment. They still traveled at close to the speed of light; the universe “outside” was still twisted and distorted, with a lateral belt of blue and red stellar luminosity that followed him wherever he flew.

When his bombship rotated, the entire exterior universe seemed to tumble and reform, as if viewed through a madman’s lens. But the children had been trained to recognize these distortions, to orient themselves along axes relative to the Dawn Treader by comparing the distorted frames of reference.

Now, two twenty-eight-hour days after deceleration began, they were still traveling at greater than ninety-nine percent of the speed of light. Day by day, as the Ship of the Law slowed, as its tau increased, the stars would correct themselves, the luminous belt would expand to normality, the tunneling effects fore and aft would end.

Martin was eager for that time; to see stars again, as he had seen them from Earth, though not all the same stars, not the same sky.

The small craft aligned themselves. Their pilots saw others as silhouettes against the distorted sky, and communicated by noach.

Martin remembered the lectures of years past, watching his fellows practice different formations, warming up for the exercise itself, which would be like nothing they had experienced before. The defenses could be ancient and straightforward; orbiting sentinels, kinetic energy projectiles, or…

The defenses may be sophisticated beyond anything you have trained for. Advanced civilizations are infinitely surprising in the varieties of their accomplishments, in the expansion of their knowledge, puzzling in their expertise in one area, and their lack in another. Civilizations have personalities, if we may call them such; weaknesses and strengths, talents and blindness. Even a technologically superior civilization has weak points.

That much he had learned during training; it came back with crystal clarity, as if spoken in his ear.

Killing Captain Cook. Guerrilla warfare; South-East Asians against B-52s. But theirs would not be a long-term guerrilla action. They would lay the seeds of weapons that could not be removed without performing the very actions the weapons themselves were intended for: planet killers.

He saw Theresa’s rifle glinting in the weird light of blue stars emerging from behind the Ship of the Law. Theresa was to take picket duty with five others, reaching out thirty thousand kilometers beyond the Ship of the Law. He watched the rifle dwindle. Flies buzzing around a battleship; powerful flies, but no one could know how well-matched they might be against what was coming.

That was the unanswerable question. There was a very good chance they would encounter a civilization so far advanced that the power within the Ship of the Law would be insignificant.

Martin had had nightmares about what might happen then: would they be captured like animalcules plucked by an eyedropper out of pond water? If the superior intelligence swallows the animalcules, they might cause disease, still might kill; but if the intended victim refuses to swallow, the fighters are isolated, the Ship of the Law is frozen and sectioned and examined, the children are pulled apart cell by cell and studied; harmless, defeated.

Martin banished those thoughts. The exercise was all that mattered for the moment. He strained against the membrane, the layer of water, and the surrounding field. In the actual offensive, as they performed the Job, they would be aided by makers and doers and robot craft not limited by human physiology. But one or more of the children would pull the trigger. The execution would be performed by the survivors of Earth. That was the Law—while any of the crew remained…

Paola Birdsong and Bonita Imperial Valley escorted a torus of sporangia; in actual offensive action, such a torus could carry a million makers and doers. It was their duty to guard the torus until it was ready to broadcast its contents.

“Defenses have been sighted using statistical scintillation matching,” the mom’s voice announced in his ear. He saw and felt through the rifle’s sensors radiation pulses directed at their position: crude methods but effective. The pulses were absorbed in the Dawn Treader’s skin, but observers beyond the Ship of the Law could see its absorption shadow.

Judgment: the technology was more primitive than theirs, but possibly equal in destructive force, as a crossbow may equal a rifle in killing power.

The formation changed immediately to a protective envelope around the Dawn Treader. Picket craft had made it out to only twenty thousand kilometers, leaving faint trails of reaction mass, particles and radiation that dissipated quickly, but not quickly enough. Small craft like rifles, bombships, and pickets could not use sumps to hide their drives. The Ship of the Law, in effect, was pinpointed at the center of a star of ion traces.

The picket craft veered and the Dawn Treader changed its course abruptly and abandoned the formation. One instant, the Dawn Treader was clearly visible within the formation; the next, it was gone.

There would be hell to pay within the ship; volumetric fields would keep the children still aboard from being smashed to jelly, but the side-effects would be nausea and disorientation.

A weapon was being used against the remaining craft. It was quickly described to him: a hail of anti em needles, visible only through their attrition as they encountered stray hydrogen atoms: sparkles of gamma rays and brilliant white light. Five rifles jaunted into a screen formation, but that was not effective. The five craft—William’s among them—were deactivated, destroyed, to all intents and purposes, for this exercise… And Martin was next.

He felt the voices move into his head. His neurological states accelerated, something he had long since learned to hate; but he was thinking a thousand, ten thousand times faster, as fields created virtual neurons that mimicked his thought patterns. His personality split; he left the old self behind like a shed pupa case.

It seemed entirely too real when light filled all his senses: needles striking chaff. He ejected his chaff and retreated in the direction of the Dawn Treader. Volumetric fields divided him into portions as small as molecules and kept each particle in place; the rifle accelerating at maximum power, five, ten, one hundred, a thousand g’s, darting like a hellborn flea on an undisguised pillar of light, bouncing in and out of the flowers of dying anti em needles.

Paola Birdsong still shepherded the sporangia torus. Bonita Imperial Valley had been deactivated. Through his rifle’s senses he saw three bombships on Paola’s tail, spreading chaff to intersect the needles. They would be destroyed; Paola and the torus might survive. The needles hit the spread chaff. A vicious wash of radiation deactivated the three bombships and damaged Paola’s; crippled, she tried to keep up with the torus. He saw the torus accelerating madly, leaving Paola behind, needles outstripped.

Delivered, the torus was on its own now. He thought of using the Ship of the Law itself, directing it to convert its mass to a neutronium gravity-fuse bomb and head for the likeliest inhabited world, to supplement the torus’ destruction—but the situation was not yet desperate enough for such a suicide…

More needles coming in, floods of them. He was alone, thoughts going over every possibility; out of command, out of touch, simply alone. Just an exercise. Hell of an exercise. Each surviving craft had instructions to make its way to the nearest inhabited bodies and inflict maximum damage.

Kamikazes. He hated the thought of such waste to so little potential effect. The more dangerous choice was to locate the Ship of the Law again, but his craft could not match Dawn Treader for speed. That meant he would have to decide where the ship would go, in its mad course to evade the needles. All the other children would be making similar decisions; most, he suspected, would decide to hunt for the ship, and failing that, to kamikaze.

Effectively, he was no longer Pan—no longer a leader.

He would hunt.

The residue of radiations from intercepted needles left a crazy tangle throughout a billion cubic kilometers of space, the center of the battle. How many other needles—in how many other orbital tracks—were set up for this exercise?

None of the needles are real. None of this is real. It is simulation projected for our eyes only against a real background.

No matter. To lose this exercise so completely would be a disgrace, and he could not stand to see the children disgraced before the moms, with so little time until the real Job began. Martin could not feel his body. His accelerated thought gave him long hours for every breath or pound of heart. The body was separate from him now; his present self existed as a virtual simulacrum, which would re-connect with the physical mind at the end of the exercise.

At this rate, the craft he controlled seemed positively slow and balky. And that was perhaps part of the problem; he was not matched with his capabilities, but outmatched them. He was too high powered in his head for the weapon he used. He did not need the extra acceleration to contemplate strategy for all the small craft.

He slowed, brought himself to one third and then one quarter his highest rate, adjusted the flow of sensory to match, watching the information integrate again like blocks tumbling to form a conceptual castle, and moved at moderate speed through the debris of battle. No more needles presented themselves; every thing was spooky, at peace, but for the aftermath—clouds of debris.

Simulated. Only an exercise. He felt a quick moment of panic, blind fear, not an exercise they caught us while we were out but that made no sense at all.

They were still tendays away from the outer limits of Wormwood. Needles would not orbit in ranked shells out here; the sheer volume of anti-neutronium necessary for such a defense would consume hundreds of suns of mass. He pulled away from the fear.

A feeling of indignation. The children had not known what to expect; no preparation, no battle planning, and that was very unlikely. They had been set up artificially and artificially defeated.

He spotted an active picket: Erin Eire. He pulled up beside her rifle and sent a noach message to her.

“We’ve lost it,” she said. “I’m just waiting for the call to go back.”

“We have other options,” he said.

“I know. Kamikaze.”

“I mean other options besides that.”

“Name them, Pan.” Her voice was only mildly sarcastic, but it still cut.

He raced through the scenarios they had trained for. “The Killers know we’re here. We’ve exhausted their means of defense right now—no more needles. So we broadcast a noach call and pick a rendezvous.”

She thought about that for a long time. He realized she was not accelerating her mind at all. That angered him.

“All right,” she said.

“Go to speed five on your thoughts,” he instructed.

“I don’t—”

“Go now or I’ll pull you from the exercise. You can ride free.”

Riding free was something he had never threatened before.

“You can’t do that—”

“Try me. Pull up, Erin.”

She said nothing. Then he received a rapid burst of chatter from her. She had complied.

“All right. I’ll send the message.”

He broadcast the code signal. In tenths of a second, eleven active craft replied. Seven of the dead tried to signal, but he ignored them. The active craft met at an assigned point and regrouped.

“It’s jaunted,” Paola said, referring to the Dawn Treader.

A chorus of confused comment followed. Martin ordered cutoff and suggested they all think and offer plans, one by one. “And quickly. We can’t afford to wait minutes out here.”

Only thirteen craft. No fake matter in the crafttotal mass: barely fifty tons. Complete conversion to neutronium, converting body mass to neutronium and anti-matter fuel to anti-neutronium, yields a total explosive force barely enough to sear a continent on a small world. It would be something, but

In another channel of thought, Martin considered long-term guerrilla action, but that was quite outside the scope of the exercise. What do the moms want us to do? What will they approve of?

He realized that wasn’t the point. It was easy to forget the moms were not there to be pleased or displeased; they were not human. In one way—the human way—they did not care, had no cares at all. They were simply goal-oriented. He should emulate them; they should all.

He heard Ariel’s voice saying, And then we become the moms, don’t we?

Out of the twelve others, four offered ideas, and eight kept silent. Three of the four ideas echoed what he had already rejected: searching for the Dawn Treader’s energy sumps. Sumps could not be detected from millions of kilometers away, unless one could monitor the local energy of the vacuum, and any number of high-tech processes caused that to fluctuate wildly; a sump could be located if one was right on top of it, within a thousand kilometers or so.

But at that range, energy sumps were dangerous. A hastily made, newly formed sump could leak bursts of radiation across a light hour of space sufficiently powerful to blind or even take out small craft.

Surprisingly, the fourth idea—a usable one, if not a scorcher—came from Erin Eire. We scatter and conduct reconnaissance around the planet. The Dawn Treader comes looking for us eventually, and we might have information to offer.

That was probably outside the scope of the exercise, but then, so be it. No planet was postulated, none projected either within the craft or by the Ship of the Law, wherever it was; but they could conduct their part of the exercise, and at the very least earn marks for innovation.

“All right,” Martin said. “We go down to the planet.”

“There is no planet!” others chorused.

“Then we make one up. Paola, Erin, it’s a rocky planet without an atmosphere—”

“Heavily defended by radiation and kinetic weapons,” Erin suggested.

“Good…”

“And Paola’s torus is nowhere to be seen,” suggested Jack Sand, usually silent in such interactions.

“All right. So what do we do?”

“We search the entire planet, note their weapon positions…”

“How many do we lose?” Martin asked with a touch of irony.

“It’s my idea,” Erin said. “I’ll volunteer.”

Two others volunteered.

“That should be enough,” Martin said, feeling light-headed. The whole exercise was turning into something crazy; what could he do?

They swept out to take up formations around a theoretical planet, positioning themselves in a sphere roughly ten thousand kilometers in diameter, sweeping in crude arcs to imitate orbits. Martin thought of youthful playtime, now made earnest; this dance of craft that would have dismayed his fifth-grade teachers on Earth, watching the ring-o and dodge-ball games on the playground.

Their wands made pictures of the hypothetical planet, projecting images into the areas usually reserved for their sensor reports. The effect was crude—no real artistry—but in their shame and fervor, somehow convincing.

Martin contributed weapons emplacements, dotting the mottled planet floating before him with finger-painted notations of defense and danger. Paola created a geology to match the airless ruined surface, and in quick noach updates, her sketches appeared on the sphere, cold ancient continents, internal heat fled, cracks in crust diving deep to solid cool core.

They played their game for several hours, caught in the raw high-speed spaces between the stars, between engagements.

They were growing weary when the Dawn Treader finally returned to retrieve them. Martin felt at first a neck prickle, before the ship alerted them to its presence; their sensors could not otherwise detect the great dark larval form hiding; then he felt a flood of giddy relief, apprehension, and finally a resurgence of shame.

They joined all their deactivated comrades and returned to the third homeball, flew to the outer hatch, connected to the pylons, pulled into the weapons store.

Their water drained, fields switched off, and membranes withdrew. Martin left his craft with an erection from the membrane’s intimacy. They laddered to the hatch and walked out bleary-eyed. Silent, they parted to get cleaned up, to rest for a few minutes before meeting in the schoolroom to receive Martin’s evaluation, to meet with Hans, who had been in charge of the Dawn Treader, and then to receive the War Mother’s critique.

Hans met with Martin alone in the second neck.

“That was a royal slickup,” Hans commented dryly. “Your outside teams were obliterated. We barely had time to get the ship to safety… We weren’t prepared at all.”

“First time out,” Martin said. “Not that it’s any excuse. We’ll have to do better.”

“Obviously,” Hans said.

The children gathered in the schoolroom, subdued, to receive the critique. The War Mother waited while Hans and Martin went first, taking questions from the children, actually more confessions than questions. Some were close to tears. Those who had been deactivated in the early stages of the drill were particularly somber. They had been shut out, and Martin could feel their resentment and brooding anger.

Ariel, who had stayed aboard the Dawn Treader in charge of the team responsible for tracking radiation, was sharply critical. “You were doing nothing but slicking it out,” she said, looking at Martin sidewise, lips downturned. “You could have been detected! Your acceleration flares were too damned bright—what are we doing, letting an exercise give us away?”

“The acceleration flares were too small to be detected by any known or postulated methods from the distance of Wormwood,” the War Mother said. Hakim agreed. Ariel fell silent.

Martin swallowed but said nothing. All voices must be heard. The string of confessions continued. William took his turn after the last craft pilot had spoken, and said, “It was our first time out. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. The moms gave us a blank deck and we played it.” He glanced at Martin in the center of the formation, winked one eye as if with a slight tic, folded his arms and legs and stepped to one side.

“These evaluations are useful,” the War Mother said when the silence had stretched for fifteen seconds. “There was no detailed structure to this exercise. The external team showed initiative in providing a structure, but they were ineffective in the opening moments of the engagement. What is the Pan’s evaluation?”

Martin’s anger leaped to several sharp answers but he held them back. “The exercise shows us what we need to learn. We did badly. The simulation was confusing, but reality will be even more confusing.”

“And if we learn how to die before we accomplish anything, what good is that?” Ariel asked. She leaned her head to one side, eyes distant.

“We learn all we can on our own,” Martin said, voice betraying his exhaustion. “The moms have told us that repeatedly. That way, when we pull the trigger, it’s our act as much as possible, not theirs.”

“When do we go out again?” Erin Eire asked, wrinkling her face as if puzzled.

“As soon as possible,” Martin said, suddenly aware he had not conferred with the War Mother. He glanced at the robot.

“In nine hours,” the mom said. “Time for sleep and food and independent study.”

Martin nodded. “Everybody out,” he said. “Private time with the War Mother. Ex-Pans, I’ll need to confer with you after I’m done here. Please wait for me outside.”

“It was our first exercise,” Martin said to the War Mother when all the children had left. “We thought there would be some structure to it… We didn’t expect to be stranded and have something completely random thrown at us. That’s why we did so badly.”

“We are no longer your teachers.”

Martin stared at the divided circle where the War Mother’s face might have been. “Beg pardon?”

“We are no longer your teachers. You are in charge of carrying out the Law. You tell us what to do. Now you train yourselves, and we help, but we do not lead.”

Martin’s astonishment was a painful black pit, and it took him a while to cross over it. “Who decided we’re ready?”

“There have been five years of training. You are ready.”

“I know you want us to carry out the Law of our own free will, but you can’t abandon us now, leave us all on our own…”

“You are not abandoned. We provide the necessary information. We provide the tools. You use them. That is the Law.”

“Slick the Law!” Martin shouted. “You can’t just jerk everything out from under us!”

“You have been informed from the beginning what would be required of you. We have now entered a situation where you must be in control, not us.”

“You warn us by letting us slick up on our first drill?”

“We do not make these choices. They are dictated by circumstance.”

“So we take over from here… all the way?”

“It is the end of our role as teachers.”

“There should have been warning,” Martin said.

The War Mother said nothing.

“This will be a shock… it’s a shock to me.”

Still silence.

Martin fumbled for a means of explaining to the children what he had just heard, a rationale. “You’re trying to knock us into action, break us out of our lethargy? You think that’s psychologically appropriate?”

“It is necessary. We can lead you no further.”

For the first time in his life, Martin became so furious with a mom that he felt he might lose control. He turned and ran from the schoolroom.

* * *

There had been five previous Pans, one for each year of their voyage. They had finished their year-long terms and returned to their groups and families, equal with all the children, but Martin always felt their eyes upon him: Stephanie Wing Feather, the first Pan, and her successors, Harpal Timechaser, Joe Flatworm, Sig Butterfly, Cham Shark.

All five followed Martin from the schoolroom to his quarters in the second homeball, saying little as they laddered and walked. This gave him time to calm down and frantically think. Everything’s skewed now, all our frames bent. How do we lead in this mess? How do I lead?

In Martin’s quarters, the ex-Pans took up positions in the center, in a cubicle of flexible tubes that Martin had made several years before. In zero g, the cage was for floating in while awake or exercising, or for guests to be close without being jammed together. Now that up and down had settled, the cage was just large enough to seat six.

“I’m going to need more help,” Martin said.

“Why?” Stephanie asked. She was a year younger than Martin, a muscular gray-eyed woman of medium height with fine black hair tightcurled in a single ball that when liberated stretched a meter and a half. She was proud of the hair and took scrupulous care of it; Theresa would have said it was her thread.

“The moms expected something from us and I didn’t provide it; they wanted us to design the exercise before we went out, to test our own skills and find our own weaknesses. That’s why the drill was such a mess. They aren’t going to make up any more tests for us.”

“They should have told us earlier,” Harpal said.

Martin shrugged. “I should have guessed. They want us to be more independent. Hell, I’m sorry. I’m not stating this exactly. I still can’t believe it. They’re not going to be teachers any more. We’re on our own. We design strategies based on what they’ve taught us, and we control the Dawn Treader and all the weapons. They say they’ll answer questions, give us information, but…”

“We’ve had trouble with their stinginess already,” Harpal said. He was of medium build, black, with a long, sympathetic face. He wore wraparounds rather than overalls, and within his wraparounds he had hidden pockets that constantly carried surprises. Now he pulled out an orange and peeled it. They hadn’t been fed oranges for fistfuls of tendays. He must have put several away in personal storage.

Stephanie shook her head in wonder. “They could have pushed us into this more gracefully,” she said.

Sig Butterfly was less constrained. “God damn it all to hell,” he said slowly, softly. Sig, dark skinned, with generous features and long hands that wrestled with each other as he spoke, continued, “I thought they understood human psychology. This is devastating. We screwed up thoroughly, and now they tell us we should have…” He shook his head and closed his eyes as if in pain.

“Maybe they do understand our psychology,” Joe Flatworm said. Joe reminded Martin of California surfers, minus the tan. He kept his light brown hair shaggy above a friendly face that simply inspired friendship and confidence. When Stephanie groaned, Joe cocked his head to one side and smiled. “I mean it… playing Devil’s advocate.”

“I feel like I’ve dropped it all,” Martin said. “I should have seen this coming.”

“Nobody saw it,” Harpal said. “Ariel’s not too far wrong. The moms are starting to get on my nerves.”

Martin frowned. “They’re doing what they should be doing—getting us prepared.”

Stephanie spoke again, but her words collided with Cham’s. Cham Shark, coffee colored, long jawed, hair cut close to his head, had been a tough Pan, not very popular. During his time the children had been tense and unhappy and now he seldom said anything. He looked at Stephanie, but she waved him to continue, surprised he was speaking at all.

“They’re making us prepare ourselves,” he said. “They’ve given us the tools but we have to use them ourselves, and that means we make up our own large-scale strategies… Our games have always been weak on general strategy.”

“So you said when you were Pan,” Joe Flatworm pointed out.

Cham blinked, nodded, and folded his arms.

“If Cham is right, they won’t let us in on any more strategies for the same reason they don’t tell us everything about their machines…” Stephanie paused. “They may say it’s because the Law requires we do the dirty work… But why not take multiple advantage? I’ve been speaking with Ariel. I don’t want to second-guess you, Martin, but she’s sharp and you haven’t brought her into the fold enough. I see why she’s frustrated.”

“She’s a pain,” Martin said with uncharacteristic bluntness.

“You’re spending too much time slicking between William and Theresa,” Stephanie said, with typical candor. “Pull your wire in and open your eyes. She told me what you’d said about the moms’ knowledge being too sensitive for them to explain everything. She thinks you’re probably right, but she doesn’t feel as complacent about it as you do.”

“I’m not complacent,” Martin said. “I just don’t know what we can do about it. Fighting among ourselves, or fighting the moms, won’t help.”

“They want us to finish the Job as much as we do. They must,” Joe said.

“Then they should trust us more,” Cham said. “Our ignorance has been a constant frustration.” He blinked again, looked around at the others, who regarded him with more surprise. “I’m no brick. I care about all this, too.”

“Martin,” Stephanie said, “if we’re on our own, we should be equal partners. We should have a council of the children and take a vote. If we don’t get what we want, what we think we need, we stand down on drills.”

Martin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I… we can’t just stand down after voting to go in. They must have reasons for doing what they’re doing.”

“Maybe,” Cham said, “but the moms are robots. Maybe they just can’t care, or can’t understand us well enough to give us what we need.” His reticence shattered, Cham had become voluble.

“Ariel is a rebel,” Martin said, hating the thought that the children might support her over him. “She’s sharp, but she’s not wise. We can’t just defy them. Who else do we have out here but the moms?”

“We have to get this resolved,” Stephanie said.

“Agreed,” Harpal said. “Martin, I concur with you about Ariel. She’s all mouth and not much common sense. I even agree that the moms might know what they’re doing. But we’re alive and they’re not. We have the most to lose.” He leaned over and took Martin’s shoulder in one hand. “My sympathies. It’s a tough watch.”

“You want me to confront the moms, threaten to stand down?”

“We need full disclosure,” Stephanie said. “Especially now.”

Martin made a small shiver. “After what they’ve done for us, threatening something so drastic… seems like sacrilege.”

“We have to be equal partners, not just trigger-pullers,” Cham said.

“I hope you don’t think we’re ganging up on you,” Harpal said. “You asked for our advice. Consult with Hans.”

Martin lowered his head, his misery evident. Stephanie touched his chin with a finger, then stroked his cheek. “I’ll go in with you,” she offered.

“No, thanks,” he said stiffly. “Something has to be done. We need to know what’s required of us…”

Martin,” Stephanie said, irritated.

“Damn it, I’ll do it! I’m just thinking out loud… We’ve always assumed… or rather, our parents always assumed the Benefactors were infallible, so much more powerful, our saviors, and not human. Like gods.”

“Gods aren’t made of metal,” Harpal said.

“How do you know?” Joe said, again playing Devil’s advocate. That had been his flaw when he had been Pan—an inability to settle on one course of action, to see all sides yet still concentrate on one plan. Martin saw that Joe sympathized with him, and double-saw himself through Joe’s eyes, and felt a puff of annoyance.

He was being pushed by forces he could not resist to take actions he had not thought through and might not agree with… The fate of a Pan. The fate of all leaders. The group never tolerates completely individual planning and initiative, not even in dictators, if his readings in human history were any guide.

Human history. What sort of history had the Benefactors lived through?

Know your enemy. Know your Benefactors.

“I’ll go to the War Mother,” Martin said.

“Talk with Hans first,” Stephanie suggested again. “Never take full responsibility.”

All but Cham nodded agreement.

“Somebody who’s never been a Pan can’t understand what it’s like,” Harpal said.

“Somebody’s going to scream at you that you questioned the moms,” Cham said.

“They’ll find some reason to scream, no matter what,” Joe said.

Theresa stood with arms outstretched under revolving spheres of sunbright light. She kept her room small and tidy, a scholar’s room she had once called it, and Martin liked the style, although it differed completely from his large, messy sprawl. He stood in the open hatch before announcing himself, pleased just to be near her.

“Hello,” she said. She came forward and he hugged her, nuzzling her neck. His response was not immediate; he felt a sour burn in the deep of his stomach.

“It wasn’t so bad,” she said. He lowered himself to his knees and she combed his hair with her fingers while he kissed her navel and belly. “The first drill, I mean.”

“It was awful,” Martin said. He pressed his cheek against the warmth of her stomach, chin nuzzling curled hair. “I’m going to speak with Hans now, and then I’m going to the moms.” He stood, head bowed, and she wrapped her arms around his waist.

“No time?” she asked, teasing him with her fingers, rubbing the overalled cleft between his buttocks. She pressed his coccyx. “I’m sorry,” she said, still touching him. “Not making it any easier.”

“No,” he said, sighing. “Are you going to a Wendy party this evening?”

“There is one,” she said. “I’d like to. I’ll stay for you.”

“I won’t be done until then, I think,” Martin said. “But we’ve been together so much, I don’t want to wear you out.”

“Do I act worn out?” she asked, lip-tugging the tip of his nose.

Martin bowed awkwardly and curled his face into her breasts and felt for the nipples. Lip-tugged and suckled. Her breasts were small and firm looking, yet still soft to his touch. He thought about other Lost Boys touching her, felt vaguely neutral for an instant, realized he did not like that thought, bit her gently to emphasize his presence. “I don’t want to bore you,” he said.

“Do I act bored?”

She held on to his shoulders, wrapped her legs around his hips and moved her pubis against him. His erection was quick despite the distractions and he pushed her back to the pad.

“Don’t ruin me,” he said.

“Touch touch,” she said, “then you can go.” He touched each thigh with two fingers of his left hand, lifted her easily to his lips, tongued her lightly. Then he let her go and Theresa slid to the floor.

“Delicious,” he said. “After the party?”

“Sleep here.”

“Pans sleep in quarters where they can be found.”

“Set their wands. They’ll know.”

Martin had always been shy of announcing the obvious. “Maybe,” he said.

Theresa turned back to the revolving lights. For a moment he thought she might have completely forgotten him, so swift and decisive was her motion; as if he were easily dismissed. But she smiled and said, “Go now. Come back when we both have time.”

Martin hesitated by the door, then passed through, walked down the hall, found a main shaft and laddered outward to the level where he would meet with Hans.

Hans was seldom in his quarters. He slept where exhaustion took him; he slept rarely, some said, exercising or researching for several days before finally collapsing in a corridor in a makeshift bed he carried in the backpack that was always with him.

Martin found him in the swim room. The water lay slowly rippling on the floor now. Hans lay back in the water up to his neck, pushing it toward one wall with broad sweeps of both arms. The water bounced from the wall and washed over his head, bounced from the rear wall and bobbed him up gently as he swam toward the edge of the pool.

Martin watched the water’s behavior for a moment as if it were completely unfamiliar. Hans stepped out and toweled off. He finished by tousling his short blond hair. It stood up in insolent spikes.

“The past Pans think we should confront the moms and ask for full disclosure,” Martin told him.

“Do what Ariel wants?” Hans asked.

“I suppose.”

“Poor Martin,” Hans said, chuckling. “What a grind.”

“Don’t worry about Ariel,” Martin said, irritated.

Hans pasted the towel on the wall to dry, flinging it up so that it spun flat and its wetness made it stick, and when it started to slip down, deftly pinned it with a ladder field. Even in full g, Hans was incredibly skillful in subtle physical acts; he had the best control of any of the children. On Earth, he might have become an acrobat.

“Any suggestions how I go about it?” Martin asked.

“Spring it on the moms at a tenday conference,” Hans said. “Unless they’re listening and already know. In which case, they ignore us, or they do something.”

“The moms don’t eavesdrop.”

Hans made a face but did not accuse Martin of naivete.

“God damn it, they don’t,” Martin said. “They have no reason to.”

Hans put on his overalls, his face slightly pink at Martin’s tone. “If you say so, brother,” he said tightly. “I just think they’d want to keep track of everything we do. Zookeepers and all that. They’re responsible for us—or at least responsible for seeing that we get our Job done, according to the Law, and if I were them, dealing with a bunch of Wendys and Lost Boys, I’d sure as hell want to keep tabs on us.”

Martin stood back as Hans walked by. Hans lifted his arms, shook his head. “But you believe them, that’s okay.”

Martin was speechless. “Has everybody on this ship gone flat cynical?” he asked.

Hans turned on him swiftly, pointing a finger. “Everybody feels bad and confused. What if we slick this whole Job? Who’s to blame? You’re Pan.”

Martin said, without hesitation, “I am.”

Hans stared, then grinned. “We are the leaders, brother. You and me. Maybe they’ll cook us and eat us. The children, I mean, not the moms. But hell, I think it’s a good idea we ask for… full disclosure, is it? I call it full partnership. My father was a businessman. Sold cars. I remember him talking about confidence and trust. He said he had to believe what he was doing was good for the customer, that they were actually partners, or he couldn’t convince them. Even if he didn’t tell the truth, he had to think he was while he was selling… I was ten. The Benefactors didn’t think he deserved to…” He lifted his eyes and didn’t finish. “Let’s go for it.”

Martin put a finger to his cheek and rubbed gently at the light bristle there. He hadn’t shaved in two days; still not much of a beard.

“Together,” Hans said. “More impact that way.”

“Not together,” Martin said.

“Why not?” Hans appeared puzzled.

“Because I’m Pan,” Martin said, looking away from him.

Hans rubbed his nose. “Better you than me, brother.”

Martin sat alone in his cubicle within the darkened quarters, wand in hand, concentrating. What were their limits? How much had they been told, and how much had they simply neglected to ask? It was time to find out, before he went to the moms and made a fool of himself.

“Strategy discussions,” Martin told the wand. A list of possible topics floated in the air before his face and he picked two: Armor and Deception in Deep Space Warfare, and Galactic Ecology and Galactic Defense Strategy. He had studied both topics before; nearly all the children had. Theodore had recorded some useful glosses. But no one, to his knowledge, had actively pursued the question of where these literary and visual productions had originated.

Martin asked, “Authors and sources, please.”

The wand projected: Authors and sources not relevant.

“I’d like to know anyway. As Pan. As leader for the children.”

Authors and sources: Translations and reinterpretations of materials devised by civilizations signatory to the Law.

“More details, please. Which civilizations? When?”

Not relevant.

“I’m demanding the answer, not asking for it,” Martin said, still calm, but understanding even more Ariel’s frustration. He had never tried this before; in his ignorance he had been content not to upset his preconceptions.

The basic texts and corresponding sensory additions were created three thousand four hundred years ago. A single civilization was responsible for the primary sources; other civilizations added to them, and adapted them. Names of the actual authors of the primal texts are not known.

“What was the first civilization like?”

Martin had asked for details about a good many civilizations, and had always been curious about the general nature of the answers, but not so curious as to seem disrespectful. Now it had been made his duty.

The originating civilization was severely damaged in a conflict involving offshoot spacefaring relations.

“Offshoots? You mean, its own colonies? Detail, please.” Martin tensed his jaw muscles as he waited for a reply.

Yes, its own colonies. Further details are not known to this source.

He had never pushed so far, and therefore, never received such an answer.

“Open another source, then,” Martin said, taking a wild chance. “Another library or whatever.”

Please refer to the moms.

“I’m asking now,” Martin said. “These facts are important to us. We need psychological insight.”

Details of civilizations participating in the Law are not relevant to your Job.

“I say they are,” Martin pursued, his voice rising. “I am Pan.”

Please refer to the moms.

There it was, then. The wall Ariel and others had doubtless hit. Martin could see why the moms were secretive about some things; the civilizations signatory to the Law could easily imagine another round of death and destruction if their whereabouts and the details of their defenses were known.

Earth had been an easy target because of innocent radiation of energy into space, its baby-bird cheeping in the unprotected tree branch of the solar system.

Martin felt a weary sadness, an echo of all the sadness he had known since Earth’s death. Was there ever a point in the scale of galactic civilizations when strangers could trust each other? Did civilizations ever develop sufficient scruples that not one of them would think of creating machines of mass destruction?

Perhaps; but humans were certainly not on that level.

Martin’s reading of human history easily led him to imagine planet-destroying probes created by his people, and turned against others. And if he could imagine it, the moms could imagine it as well.

What sort of equality could exist between children and Benefactors under those circumstances?

Martin waited in the empty schoolroom, uneasy, a tic in his left eye, simple nerves. He stood near the sphere. The stars appeared normal now, and the sphere was offering an unaltered view in the direction of Wormwood, which he could make out even without help as a slightly brighter spot of light among the myriads. Brighter still was the red burn of Behemoth. Leviathan was not visible from this angle.

The War Mother entered.

“Hello, Martin,” it said. “How are the children?”

“Fine, physically. A few social problems. Some aren’t meshing perfectly.” He always seemed to optimize the situation, making it sound better than he actually thought it was. Was this part of what Ariel might have called toadying to the moms?

“Have you developed plans for further training?”

He swallowed. “No,” he said. “We feel stymied.”

“Why?”

“We can’t do the Job without knowing what might be waiting for us down there.”

“All the information you need is being provided as we receive it.”

“I mean background,” Martin said. “Information about other civilizations, other incidents—how the strategies were created, how we can adapt them to suit our needs… I mean, to adapt them, we have to…” He swallowed again. For a Pan, he was not showing much fortitude. “You have to trust us with all your information. We’re calling for full disclosure.”

To Martin’s surprise and concern, the War Mother did not speak for several long seconds. “The information provided should be adequate,” it finally answered.

“We’re being asked to show independent thought, to devise our own strategies… and the libraries aren’t detailed. How did others fight against the planet-wreckers? How did your builders fight them?”

More seconds of silence. Surely it did not need so much time to compute or think of an answer.

“Your requests cannot be met,” the War Mother said. “The information you require is dangerous.”

Martin was astonished by the word “dangerous.” That doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“Cooperation was required to build the Ships of the Law. To encourage the cooperation of many civilizations and beings, certain precautions were necessary, among them, that security would be maintained. Ships of the Law might be captured, and their information used to seek out and harm those who built the ships.”

Martin had never thought of being captured; it had seemed, from the very beginning, that at least the children were safe, traveling in a Ship of the Law, the ultimate power, the belated victor of the war that had destroyed Earth. But of course that was not a warjust a battle. Probably an unimportant battle, at that.

Martin was not about to budge. “We need to have all your information shared with us.”

“Surely you hope to survive this mission,” the War Mother said.

“Of course.”

“Martin, if your brothers and sisters survive, you, too, could be dangerous. If you are given such information, you also might seek the builders of these instruments.”

Martin swallowed hard. “We cannot create strategies out of nothing. I’ve asked questions that need to be answered, and received no answers.”

“You have worked with the best information available. There are simply no clues to where the Benefactors might be found. The information you need is available. Use it.”

“I’ve been told—”

“You are Pan,” the mom said.

He swallowed harder, and his tongue seemed to grow thick. “We’ll stand down.”

“What is ‘stand down’?” the mom asked.

“We’ll refuse to enact the Law.”

“If that is your choice, the ship will change from its present course.”

Martin relaxed his clenched fists. He was not angry with the moms; he was not angry with the children. With regard to himself he felt nothing. He looked away from the copper-bronze robot, seeing too clearly how naive they all were.

“We’re just asking to be trusted,” Martin said, working to keep his voice level.

“We are not empowered to trust or not to trust. Nor can we give you information that this ship does not carry. We cannot do the impossible, Martin.”

He felt ill and exhausted. Why had he let the children put him up to this? Because he was Pan, and represented them? That didn’t seem at all sufficient to explain his predicament and his misery.

“Why were we sent on this mission when we don’t have the information we need to complete it?” He sounded petulant and petty, and he hated it.

“What you lack is information that our builders think you will not need.”

Martin’s mind worked furiously to find a chink in this thick armor of logic. I would have designed the ship the same way! We all would have!

“But the ship carries information about Earth. If it’s captured, they could—the Killers could—”

“This Job would be impossible if you did not have access to your culture, your history and planetary memories.”

“You’d risk our solar system, but you will not risk your… makers? Your planet, or planets?”

“That is the way it must be.”

Another wall, huge and unyielding; two walls actually, closing with him between. “We feel inadequate to do the Job,” he said softly, eyes turned away.

“Go back to the others and tell them they are not inadequate. They have the resources they need.

“There is, in this ship, something that goes beyond knowledge, that is hidden in its structure and the way it operates, which allows this ship to judge with high accuracy the chances of a mission’s success. Call it a mechanical instinct. Your people are very capable. Tell them.”

Martin lifted his head and stepped back. “I’ll try,” he said.

His face was red as he left the schoolroom. He had been maneuvered into presenting a case without believing it himself. That showed his weakness as a leader. Failing to get what he had been sent to get would make him seem weak in the eyes of some children—Ariel in particular. But he did not care what she thought.

What would Theresa think? And William?

What would Rosa Sequoia think? Rosa, who needed a strong leader to draw her back into the group?

Sitting on the edge of a table, Martin finished his crew report, the most difficult few minutes in recent memory. Most of the children—seventy-two of them—sat in the main cafeteria, the only space besides the schoolroom large enough to hold them all at once.

The ship’s deceleration had hastened and they now faced a steady two g’s. They were tired and they listened to his report quietly.

“That’s it,” he concluded, looking from face to face to keep direct visual contact with as many as he could. Then he gave that up; it might make him seem nervous. Instead, he focused on four or five in the front ranks.

Hans Eagle and Erin Eire sat in the front row. Hans’ expression was quizzical. Erin cradled her cat, a fat gray thing with exhausted, bored eyes and matted fur.

“Did you argue with them?” someone asked from the middle. Martin looked up quickly and tried to spot the face, but answered before he had identified Terence Sahara.

“I did my best to present our case,” he said. “Either we believe them, or we don’t. And if we don’t believe them…” He let the question hang.

Theresa sat on a bench to his right. He glanced at her; she smiled support. William, on the opposite side, about one third back into the crowd, sat with hands behind his head, elbows like stubby wings, eyes closed.

No one stood against the oppressive force; no one exerted themselves more than they absolutely had to.

“It’s frightening,” Erin Eire said. She swallowed; even speaking seemed tiring. “We thought they were all-wise, all-knowing. If the Ship of the Law doesn’t know, then the machines that saved us probably didn’t know, either… don’t know.”

“What do the Benefactors know? Anything?” Jack Sand asked.

Felicity Tigertail, in the front row—Martin’s first lover, back on the Central Ark, during a brief two-day tryst—raised her hand as if she were in school. Martin nodded to her. Her arm was bruised, he noted; they all had bruises from such casual actions as letting arms drop. She lowered her arm cautiously.

“We’re lost if we don’t believe them,” she said. “We have to believe them. That should be obvious.”

“We don’t have to believe anything,” Ariel said from the rear, voice loud to rise above the murmuring. She sounded harsh, angry. Martin wondered where she got her energy to stay angry. “We have to ask questions. We should continue to ask questions! I think this is bullshit. They can defend themselves against the kind of machines that destroyed Earth! Why worry about what information they carry? The moms—the Benefactors—are simply afraid of us. They don’t want us to know anything about them or their makers.”

Martin started to speak, but Paola Birdsong, in the middle of the group, shouted out first, “Hold it! Does anybody here have enough imagination to see what the moms are really saying? Martin, do you know what they’re telling us?”

“They’re not all-powerful,” Jack Sand said.

“I’m asking Martin!” Paola insisted.

Martin looked out over the group from his seat on the table top, then with great effort stood up, holding his hands behind his back. The table seemed very high. If he fell, he could break a leg. Or his neck. “They seem to say there are hunter-killers out there from civilizations much more technologically advanced than the one—or ones—that built the Ships of the Law.”

“It never ends! Nobody ever learns!” Erin Eire cried out. Her cat tried to crawl away in distaste. “Nobody ever grows old enough to be kind or wise!”

“Hold it,” Martin said, raising his hand. Noise rippled through the children, words of shock and dismay. “Hold it! Quiet!” he shouted hoarsely.

“Quiet!” Hans repeated, his voice like a bear’s growl in the cafeteria space.

The children quieted. Ariel stood and lumbered from the room, followed by two others whose faces Martin didn’t catch in the rear gloom.

“To get agreement to build these machines, the Benefactors have to guarantee security. Safety. They need to know that sending the ships and machines out won’t backfire and lead bigger wolves down on them. That’s just caution. Maybe there aren’t really any bigger wolves out there. But they have to be cautious. And of course, in time, maybe we will become dangerous, like a lion turning on its keeper.” He looked at Felicity and smiled. Felicity nodded.

“We shouldn’t be cynical,” Martin said. “The moms tell us we’re good, and that we have what we need. We just have to work extra hard with what we have. We have to drill. We have to make up our own exercises based on what we’ve already been taught. They took risks by teaching us what they have. We’re powerful, given the weapons we’re taught to use. That shows some kind of trust, doesn’t it?”

“We have what we need,” Hans repeated. “We have work to do.”

“Vote on it!” Ariel had returned and looked at Martin from the shadows at the rear.

Martin’s face flushed. “No,” he said. “We don’t do everything by some sort of silly consensus. If you don’t like the way things are being done, you elect another Pan. You can do that now if you want. The moms say we’ll be diverted if we stand down. Who wants to lose this chance, after five years?”

Silence.

“God damn it, we have the right to vote!” Ariel said, tears obvious in her voice.

“One vote only,” Martin insisted. “Whether I stay Pan.” He swung his arms and folded them in front of his chest, aware that this was a silly and classic pose of blustering leadership, and waited for a response, half-hoping for a swell of dissent to take the weight from his back.

Silence.

“God damn you all!” Ariel cried out. The children hunched their shoulders and looked back at her resentfully, but she stayed in the room.

Martin gingerly lowered himself, feeling a moment of vertigo. “We already voted to go in,” he said, voice softer. “This doesn’t change anything. We just have to work harder.”

“Time is short,” Hans said. “We work up a drill schedule now, and we drill by our own designs. We workshop what we might expect to find in this system, and we plan for it, and we take whatever help the moms offer!”

Martin’s heart went out again in a perverse way to Ariel, standing in the back of the room, face shiny with tears. He had done his performance and they had agreed, tacitly at least, to continue; he had exerted leadership and had molded consensus of a sort. How long would it last, though, and how strong was their resolve?

In that sick moment, he knew he was wrong to agree with the moms, not demanding a stand-down, not calling their bluff—and that Ariel was right.

He stood on the floor and took a deep breath. Hans came up to one side. Behind him, Stephanie Wing Feather and Harpal Timechaser sat on benches, not looking at him. Finally Stephanie turned.

“Way to go,” she said.

“Ignore them,” Hans said.

“You’ve got them dedicated now,” Stephanie said without sincerity as Martin turned to walk away. His entire head felt warm. He turned back suddenly, back muscles twinging. “What would you have done, God damn it?”

Stephanie kept her seat as he approached.

“What would you have done?” Martin repeated, less loudly. The other children had filed out now, leaving only Stephanie, Harpal, Hans and Martin in the cafeteria.

“I don’t know,” Stephanie said, swallowing. “I might have tried harder.”

“No,” Martin said, wiping his eyes and straightening. “No. You wouldn’t have.”

Stephanie got up from the bench and ran her hands down the sides of her overalls, smoothing the fabric. “It’s the weight, Martin,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. Sorry.”

Martin’s anger wouldn’t go so easily. He backed away, glanced at Hans, who pursed his lips and shook his head. “I’m sorry, too,” he murmured, and left the room, Hans following three steps behind.

In five days, as they flew through the pre-birth cloud surrounding Wormwood, the children would reach the next point of decision—to judge whether the system had been the source of the Earth-killing machines, and decide whether to split Dawn Treader into Hare and Tortoise.

Through the tendays of oppressive weight, the children drilled endlessly. Martin actually looked forward to time in the craft, to the relief of volumetric fields. Hakim pushed the search team patiently, trying to absorb as much information as possible about Wormwood before they pulled in the remotes.

Hakim could shed little light on the unresolved problem of the five dark masses close in to the star, orbiting in nearly perfect circles.

Martin pondered all this alone, preparing the preliminary order of battle in his quarters. He had not seen Theresa for eighteen hours; had not slept for thirty. Love-making was out of the question.

The children engaged in routine drills without him. He had to finish his work soon—in a few hours at most—to give time for final practice and one final external drill before they entered the pre-birth cloud.

They had flown for five and a half years, and yet there was the inevitable urgency and panic now, something that proved their humanity. He half-suspected the external drill had been deliberately arranged to be disastrous, that the moms in their subtle way were shocking the children, guiding them into battle-readiness…

But he could not assume that. The moms might be as coolly unconcerned as they seemed in conversation, relying entirely on the passion of the children to carry out the Law. Do the Job.

He rubbed his sweat-matted hair. Sometimes he could hardly think; he would curl up on the floor, eyes tight shut, trying to ignore exhaustion, frustrated desire for Theresa, and concentrate.

Despite these distractions, he was coming to a conclusion about the plan of battle.

Pan was in charge of general planning. No votes would be taken after the judgment had been made by all the children; Pan and Christopher Robin would have complete control, acting through the division leaders, the five former Pans. Each division leader would oversee a team of fifteen or sixteen children; each team would be assigned a task. Two teams would stay with the Hare. Three teams would fly Tortoise.

Tortoise would accomplish the main objective. Makers cast into the pre-birth cloud would use the available raw materials to manufacture weapons, gravity- or proximity-fuse neutronium bombs that would comprise a second automatic assault, in case the initial assault failed.

Tortoise would launch small craft. Their task would be to divert and/or destroy any defenses and accomplish reconnaissance. Two ex-Pans would lead these small craft teams.

Martin suffered a deep conflict when studying strategy and tactics. Too many possibilities occurred to him; he could not see his way through to a clear line of attack. With some chagrin, he knew the reason for his conflict: he regarded the massive destruction of space war, the necessary total vanquishing of an enemy, as an essentially immoral act. Yet he desired justice for the Earth’s murder as much as any of the children.

Clear thinking on the matter was very difficult; he simply did not trust his own instincts.

Many children had created and filed theoretical tactics over the years; Martin had consulted nearly all of them, particularly those created by Theodore Dawn.

Theodore had been a kind of brilliant child, wise in some respects, but supremely strong willed and irresponsible in others, a complement to Martin’s indecision and second-guessing. More effectively than Martin ever could, blithely ignoring questions of morality, Theodore had created a mathematics of space war tactics that used nearly all the features of the momerath to great advantage. His schemes covered many contingencies, all suggested by the principles taught by the moms. Basics of space warfare, as taught by the moms, had flowered in Theodore’s mind into a graceful dance devoid of consequences.

In Theodore’s plans, concealment was the only armor. Concealment, what Theodore called “silence,” was a fine art among high-technology civilizations. Silence meant complete damping of radiation; invisibility meant unaberrated replication of incident radiation. Advantages over an adversary could be measured mathematically by how silent each was. Silent delivery of weapons—and the silence of the weapons themselves—was next in importance.

Theodore had studied manuals of submarine warfare on Earth. But space was far more dangerous than a deep sea, because it was vast, transparent to all radiations, and a perfect medium for weapons delivery. Yet space had many advantages over ocean; it was three-dimensional without limit, travel paths were limited to orbits, and even the largest unconcealed weapons platform, given sufficient distance, was tiny compared to the background.

Interstellar space had no weather, and rarely changed its character during a period of confrontation. Interplanetary space—the region most likely to be assaulted and defended—was subject to the vagaries of stellar atmospheres and stellar particle streams, but advanced spacefaring civilizations were not bothered by them.

Interplanetary space was extremely difficult to guard. When assault could come undetected from almost any angle, the best defense lay in deceit—either camouflage or outright disguise. What did not attract attention was not attacked.

The libraries told them that only primitive civilizations, such as Earth’s, blatantly announced their existence.

If deceit and camouflage failed, space warfare was comparatively clean and dependent on initial conditions. Knowing the differences in technology suggested probable outcomes for most confrontations even before battle began.

For an invader, this could be turned into an advantage. If an invasion force was discovered within a system, it could “pigeon puff: provide misleading evidence of overwhelming superiority, thus forcing its adversary into ineffective and energy-wasting tactics accompanied by a sense of certain defeat. Psychological weapons were difficult to design because the psychology of an adversary might be unknown or, when facing machines, virtually nonexistent. Even the methods of perception of an adversary might be problematic.

More effective sometimes, Theodore postulated, was an appearance of weakness, of lesser technological ability. One part of an assault could perform deception while other parts deployed silently. If the adversary were deceived by this “lapwing,” it might exert its forces prematurely, inappropriately, or not at all.

These were solid but not brilliant reflections of what the moms had taught them. Where Theodore Dawn’s genius truly shined was in describing an adversary’s course of actions under the imagined circumstances of confrontation. Theodore seemed to have an aptitude for creating alien psychologies, and applying them to space warfare.

He created four categories of adversary: inferior, equal, superior, and unknowable. Unknowable could encompass any of the other categories; for example, a weak, low-technology adversary might have stumbled onto effective methods of maintaining silence, or of deceiving.

Inferior was easily enough defined, and even dealt with, given due caution; but it was unlikely the Killers were inferior to the Benefactors. Theodore outlined a few simple instances, warned of dangers, and went on to equality and superiority.

Equality was most difficult to plan for, simply because it could be planned for. Martin, choosing the most likely scenario, studied Theodore’s writing and displays on the tactics of attacking equals. What he was concerned with was not equality of force, but equality of technology and intelligence; not equality of desire or fear, nor even the sameness of creativity, but equality of the raw materials of warfare, in terms of capabilities. Thus, a torpedo was smaller and perhaps less complex than the submarine it was designed to destroy, yet it was equal in technological origins.

A simple device could be made clever at the same level as a more complex, far more powerful or forceful device; it could be effective against the greater force, preventing its use or destroying it.

A superior adversary was best not confronted directly, or at all (though that was not a choice here; they must bat against such a force like a moth against a glass window, if necessary, dedicated but all-uncomprehending). But the superior adversary was likely also best at concealment, deception, and diversion. A far superior adversary might not be an adversary at all, as much as a supernatural force, a Godlike potentiality that could brush aside the most careful planning and the most concerted assault like the whims of a child.

Still, the moms insisted—and Theodore agreed—confronting a technologically superior adversary was not necessarily folly. Killing Captain Cook.

The tactics of dealing with superiority were largely those of silence and attrition, like an infected flea creeping into a human’s clothes to spread plague. The makers and the doers could act as bacilli.

But repeatedly, Martin was reminded by Theodore’s writings that any comparisons they made—even the comparison to killing Cook—were faulty.

It was possible the superior adversary could nullify or escape any of their weapons.

Martin closed his eyes and tried to subdue his frustration, his conflict. There would never be enough information. And he—Martin—would never be sufficiently prepared…

The Dawn Treader used every method at its disposal to slow over the long days of space, and to conserve its fuel, girding for battle.

Martin led the children outside the ship again, and this time he felt they were prepared. He had set up a particularly nasty adversary—one suggested by Theodore years before.

Martin stayed within the ship, directing the efforts of this adversary with two others—Harpal Timechaser and Stephanie Wing Feather.

Outside, forty of the children flew their craft around the Dawn Treader, preparing for entry into a simulated system configured very much like Wormwood.

The five unknown masses around the yellow star were hidden defense stations, in Martin’s plan; and Theodore’s adversaries, pure machine intelligences that had long since replaced their biological creators, were in command.

Martin watched the scenario play itself out.

Planets met their end in compressed time, surfaces molten slag, and most of the children survived. Hare, portrayed by the still-intact Dawn Treader, came through with minimal damage.

The farthest-scattered craft came in fifteen minutes after the simulation’s end.

Stephanie licked her index finger, stuck it up to an imaginary breeze, swayed her arm toward Martin, and smiled. Confidence was returning.

The children gathered in the first homeball’s cafeteria and analyzed their performances, Martin and Hans overseeing. The self-criticism flowed steadily, without hurt feelings, and Martin felt a knitting of the teams that had gone out on drill.

Afterward, they ate dinner, then listened to music performed by Joe Flatworm and Kees North Sea: raucous, lively folk music from the Ukraine and Tennessee, barely slowed by the extra weight.

Their bodies had grown stronger, stockier. No need to ask if the moms were responsible.

The performance lasted less than half an hour; they rested after, Martin in Theresa’s quarters, in the heavy darkness, watching the ceiling, mind passing over the day’s events.

He slept peacefully, without dreams.

Two days until coasting resumed; five days from passage through the pre-birth material.

Martin exercised in the second neck, climbing along the ladder fields instead of letting them haul him up or down. He had climbed almost the entire distance from the second homeball to the third, enjoying the exertion, almost used to the heaviness, when he heard the screaming, thin and far away, sliced into ghastly echoes by the shapes in the wormspace.

Theresa was in the third homeball, above him, doing private practice in a bombship. She quickly descended on a field, pausing beside him where he hung, and listened, frowning. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

He nodded, hoping it was nothing. It did not sound like nothing. It sounded horrible, even more horrible when distorted, and they were used to the distortions of voices in the necks.

Nothing for seconds. Then, a barely audible keening, voices of concern, two or three people trying to comfort.

They descended quickly, ladders dropping them to the second homeball.

In the main corridor, they found Rosa Sequoia weeping, surrounded by five others, two Wendys and three Lost Boys. Her broad, strong face wet with tears, Rosa could not catch her breath, and she could not speak beyond a few gasped words.

“We didn’t see anything,” Min Giao Monsoon said, patting her on the shoulder. “There is nothing in the halls!”

“What’s wrong?” Martin asked.

“Rosa saw something,” Kees North Sea said, narrow face nervous, eyes shifting. “She’s scared out of her wits.”

“What did you see?” Theresa asked, moving in closer to Rosa. Rosa kneeled in a tighter crouch, large frame forming a round obstruction in the corridor.

“Rosa, stop it,” Martin said, an edge in his voice. “Please get yourself together.” She had piloted a ship outside and performed well in exercises; he had thought she was coming around. Now he was irritated, and then ashamed of his irritation. Doesn’t she know she makes this more difficult for us?

But that was truly beside the point, and he buried his resentment at her weakness. He knelt beside her, touching her wet cheek.

“No!” she shouted, starting up, falling back painfully on one arm. She looked so clumsy, so pitiably overwrought, that Martin’s anger surged almost too quickly to be hidden. “You didn’t see anything,” she said. “You won’t believe me… But I saw!”

What did you see?” Martin asked, teeth tight together.

Resonant, almost silky, Rosa’s voice carried down the hall to other children gathering, ten, then twenty, coming from both directions. “Something large and dark. It wasn’t a mom.”

Martin looked up, shoulders and neck tensing, less at Rosa’s proclamation than at an intuition something was going to go very wrong, and he could not stop it.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

“Did it do anything?” Theresa asked. Martin winced inwardly at her implicit affirmation that there had been something.

“It stared at me… I think. I couldn’t see any eyes. It left marks.”

“Where?”

Rosa got to her feet, wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands, swung her shoulders back and stood tall. She apologized in a barely audible voice. “I was in the C wing, coming down for my team exercise… The lights were down. I don’t know why.”

“Lights are always down in C wing,” Martin said. “Nobody has quarters there.”

“That’s the way I come here,” Rosa said, glancing at him resentfully. She avoids the place where she saw Theresa and me making love. “It was in the dark, just… being there, sitting or standing, I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Show us,” Martin said. He turned to the children gathered on both sides and said, “I’ll handle this.”

“We’d like to help,” Anna Gray Wolf said, face eager—something different attracting her, attracting all of them. She stared owlishly at Rosa.

“It’s okay,” Martin said. “Theresa and I will take care of it.” In case they doubt the masculine touch is sufficient.

The children dispersed, and Martin took Rosa’s elbow.

“You don’t think I saw it?” Rosa asked as she led them along the hall to the empty C wing.

“I don’t know what you saw,” Martin said. Then, trying for a joke, “Maybe you saw a mom without makeup.”

Rosa looked at him resentfully, sadly, then straightened and pointed to the area of the hall where she had seen the shape. Martin ordered the hall to brighten—wondering why Rosa had not already done the same.

He examined the walls. Never dirty, never dusty, the surfaces within the Ship of the Law cleaned themselves; it was taken for granted by the children. The walls showed no marks.

“I saw scuffs when I came through here,” Rosa said.

“It was dark,” Martin said.

Quietly, desperately, Rosa began to weep again.

“You could have turned the lights on and seen whatever it was,” he said.

“We don’t disbelieve you,” Theresa said, holding Rosa’s shoulder firmly, massaging it with her fingers. “But why didn’t you turn the lights on?”

“I was afraid! I didn’t want to see it, whatever it was… I didn’t want it to see me.”

“How big was it?” Martin asked. Dangerous, dangerous.

“It filled this part of the hall,” Rosa said, stretching her arms to the ceiling. The hall was two meters wide, marked with blue circles where quarters might be chosen and doors made by the ship on request.

The entire ship had completely adapted itself to deceleration. The circles that had once marked doors in the ceiling and floor had been absorbed by the ship; only circles on the walls remained. Perhaps Rosa had misinterpreted some function of the ship, or seen something nobody else had witnessed.

He tried to express that diplomatically. “The ship usually cleans up or changes when we’re not watching; maybe it accidentally allowed you to see something.”

“It wasn’t part of the ship… I don’t think it was,” Rosa said. She had lost her tone of hysteria. Her face appeared calmer now, puzzled, and she seemed willing to cooperate, to help them solve the mystery.

“Was it metal, or something else?” Theresa asked.

“It was like a shadow. I didn’t see any details. I don’t know what it could have been. It seemed alive to me.” Rosa folded her arms. Martin saw her as she had been when the journey started, five years before, sixteen and not fully grown, slenderer, with a rugged attractiveness, now become a vulnerable burliness. He wondered again why the moms had chosen her. They had rejected so many others, many Martin had thought were good choices. She swallowed hard, looked, with her large black eyes, more and more lost. “Maybe it wasn’t part of the ship. Maybe it doesn’t belong here.”

“Hold on,” Theresa said sternly. Martin was grateful to her for taking a critical tone he dared not use. “We shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.”

“I saw it,” Rosa said, stubbornly defensive.

“We’re not questioning that,” Theresa said, though Martin certainly thought they should, and she had. “We’ve all been under a strain lately, and…”

Rosa was turning inward again.

“I saw it. I think it might be important,” she said.

“All right,” Martin said. “But for now, until we know more, or somebody else sees it, I’d like to keep this quiet.”

“Why?” Rosa asked, eyes narrowing. Martin saw more clearly the depth of her problem. She was not going to react well to his next request, but he saw no way around it.

“Please don’t talk about it,” he said.

Rosa tightened her lips, jaws clenched, eyes reduced to slits, face radiating defiance, but she did not say anything more. “Can I go?” she asked, as if she were a little girl requesting dismissal from class.

“You can go,” Martin said. Rosa walked on long, strong legs down the hall toward the central corridor, not looking back. Martin inhaled deeply, held it, watching her like a target, then exhaled when she was too far away to hear.

“Jesus.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Theresa said. She grinned. Martin felt the walls again, as if there might be some mark remaining, some trace of Rosa’s shadow.

“I don’t think there actually was anything,” he said, trying to be extra reasonable, extra careful, even with Theresa.

“Of course not,” Theresa said.

“But we shouldn’t be too certain,” he said without conviction.

“You think she’s… let’s not use the word hysterical,” Theresa said. “That has the wrong sexual connotations. Let’s say stressed out. She’s been working up to something. That’s what you think? Don’t be a hypocrite, Martin. Not with me.”

Martin grimaced. “If I tell it like I think it is, we might both reach the wrong conclusions. If I say Rosa is losing it, well… there’s evidence, but it’s not a sure thing. Maybe she saw a trick of the light. Something we don’t know about.”

“Ask the War Mother,” Theresa suggested.

That was an obvious first step. “Rosa should ask,” he said. “It’s her sighting. Let’s make her responsible for it.”

Theresa touched index finger on one hand to little finger on the other, bent it back until it was perpendicular to the joint, a gesture she sometimes made that fascinated Martin. “Good idea. Do you think she’ll keep quiet?”

“She doesn’t have many good friends.”

“Poor Martin. On your watch, too.”

“Maybe it’s just a temporary aberration, and she’ll pull out of it. Just to be safe—”

Theresa caught his meaning before he expressed it. “I’ll have some Wendys keep watch on her.”

Martin lowered his hands from the unmarked walls. “Right,” he said.

“Maybe Ariel…” Theresa said. “She seems to be the only friend Rosa has.”

“We’re all friends,” Martin said.

“You know what I mean. Don’t be obtuse.”

Theresa, as their time together lengthened, was becoming more and more critical, more and more judgmental, but in a gentle way, and Martin found that he liked it. He needed another voice now.

There were things he could not directly express, even to Theresa: a growing fear. Rosa expresses it her way. I almost wish I could be so direct.

In the central glow of the schoolroom, the War Mother contemplated Martin’s report. They were alone in the large chamber, Martin standing and the War Mother floating, both in a spot of bright light. The doors had closed. Nobody else could hear them. Rosa had refused to go to the War Mother, had seemed insulted they would ask her to. And inevitably, word about her experience had spread.

“No such phenomenon has been noticed within the ship,” the War Mother said.

“Rosa didn’t see anything?”

“What she saw is not apparent to our sense,” the War Mother said.

“Is it possible that we could see something aboard the ship, something with an objective reality, that you would not?”

“The possibility is remote.”

“Then it’s a psychological problem…” Martin said. And you won’t or can’t do anything about it.

“That is for you to decide.”

Martin nodded, less agitated by such an attitude than he might have been a few tendays before. Other than providing an interface with the ship, the moms did little now. He could issue direct instructions, request direct answers, but critical judgments from their former teachers were not forthcoming. This was independence and responsibility with a vengeance, and he had to complain, however weakly and uselessly.

“The strain is intense. We’re drilling day in, day out. The drills are going well, and everybody’s doing their job—no more absentees, not even Rosa. But I don’t like the way the children reacted to Rosa’s… sighting. Vision. They were fascinated by it.”

The War Mother said nothing.

“There hasn’t been much talk since, but it worries me.”

The War Mother said nothing more. He looked at the black and white paint on its facelessness. He wanted to reach out, just once, and strike it, but he did not.

The tenth drill on ship division went as smoothly as the first. In the nose, Martin projected the schematic of the Dawn Treader’s practice preparations. Paola and Hans and Joe crowded closer to see from his wand, somehow more special than viewing the same through their own.

The picture of the changing Dawn Treader loomed large in the corridor, a vivid ghost in three dimensions. The ship had contracted, necks reduced in length, tail and nose become blunt nubbins, grooves indenting the circumference of the second homeball like the cell divisions of a blastula. The third homeball also revealed grooves, an inscribed portion of the second neck connected to an orange-slice of the second homeball.

The drives would break down into two units, of sizes proportional to Tortoise and Hare, Hare being approximately twice the size of Tortoise. Tortoise claimed most of the second homeball and the shortened neck between.

Within the image, new bulkheads glowed red against the general green, spreading like wax in hot water over designated spaces, until the units were completely marked out, ready for separation.

“Show me status,” Martin said. Partitions melted away, necks lengthened, homeballs became ungrooved and round. Whiskers of magnetic field vanes streamed out from the third homeball; inner traces of the scoop field glowed red around the nose.

“Looks good,” Hans said. “When do you want to do final strategy?”

“The search team has more to show us. We’ll listen to them, then you and I and the ex-Pans will pow-wow.”

“Palaver,” Paola said, smiling.

“Jaw. Chew the fat,” Hans added, also smiling.

Martin was pleased that some excitement had returned.

Rosa Sequoia had performed her latest duties flawlessly, and there was little more talk about what she had seen. The incident seemed to have become an embarrassment to her, and she did not respond to inquiries from the children.

Hakim Hadj’s face was less beatifically calm, his manner less polite, though hardly abrupt. He looked tired. He seemed at most mildly irritated, perhaps by a tiny itch he could not get at. The transparent nose of the Dawn Treader showed stars now instead of abyssal darkness; the chamber was crowded with projection piled upon simulation upon chart and those piled upon neon finger-scribbles hanging wherever space allowed. Hakim and two assistants, Min Giao and Thorkild Lax, seemed to know their way through the confusion. Martin stood back and let Hakim approach him.

“We are close to knowing enough for a judgment,” Hakim said, black eyes rolling. “We shall have to withdraw our remotes soon, before we enter the cloud, but I think we will have enough evidence by then. Our information about the system is immense, Martin. I have abstracted important details for you. You can look at the orbital structures between planets two and three. They are very interesting, but do not seem active—not inhabited, perhaps. We still have no clue what the five inner masses are.”

“Close-in power stations?” Martin suggested.

Hakim smiled politely. “They may be reserves of converted anti em, but if so, they are very heavily shielded. They are practically invisible, much less reflective than fine carbon dust and non-radiating, and that makes little sense if they are stores of anything.”

“What’s your best theory?” Martin asked.

“I posit nothing,” Hakim said quietly. “The unknown troubles me, especially something so prominent.”

“Agreed.”

Hakim continued, moving simulations of the inner planetary surfaces closer to Martin, out of the stacks of projections. He mildly chided Thorkild and Min Giao for their contributions to the clutter. They seemed to ignore him and went about their work, adding even more projections, lists, charts, simulations; blinking, flashing, moving, blessedly silent displays.

“These worlds are not very active, even for a quiet and advanced civilization. Seismic or other noise through the crust is minimal. The planet seems old. No large-scale activities below ground, natural or unnatural. Such movement would produce vibrations from crustal settling. There is no planet-altering work being done, Martin; perhaps they finished all that thousands of years ago.”

“Go on,” Martin said.

“Radiation flux from the planets does not exceed expected natural levels. Both rocky inner worlds are either dead, or quiescent, pointing perhaps to a solid-state civilization, that is, all activity confined to information transfer through quiet links, or using noach, as we do.”

“No physical bodies? Nothing organic?” Martin asked.

“None visible. If there are organics below the surface, they produce no traces on the surface itself, and that is odd. At this distance we might miss extremely light organic activity, but judging from the telescope images… Here.” He pulled up a projection. Smiled at Martin as the image wavered. “My wand works overtime. Thorkild, clear some capacity, please, or shunt it to the moms’ systems!”

Thorkild looked up, lost in momerath and graphics. A few of the stacks dimmed or winked out.

The second planet rotated once every three hundred and two hours, surface temperature of one hundred and seventy degrees Celsius, albedo of point seven, light gray and tan, no oceans of course, thin atmosphere mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen, no oxygen, no geological activity, mountain chains old and worn with no young replacements, no visible structures over a hundred meters in size. Or no structures with a height of more than ten meters…

“All right,” Martin said, deliberately quelling his enthusiasm. “Both inner planets are quiet.”

“In keeping with the biblical turn of phrase,” Hakim said, “I suggest we call the inner planet Nebuchadnezzar, the second Ramses, and the third, Herod.”

Martin made a face. “Might be a bit prejudicial, don’t you think?”

“Mere suggestion,” Hakim said. His face brightened. “Ah, yes, I see what you are getting at. Herod destroying the first born… Ramses overseeing the captivity of the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar having destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem… I see.”

“The names are fine,” Martin said.

“Good.” Hakim seemed pleased. “Ramses… the next rocky planet, second planet out, is like this…” He drew forth another chart, put it through its paces. “Similar to the first, but cooler—minus four degrees Celsius average temperature, albedo of point seven, atmosphere again contains no oxygen or water vapor. No seismic activity, old mountains—old worlds.”

“They might be deserted.”

“We do not think so. The strongest evidence of continuing artifice lies in their temperatures versus their distances from Wormwood, and their atmospheric compositions. They are actively controlled environments, but for what sort of organisms or mechanisms—if any—I cannot say.”

“Very small machines,” Martin mused.

Hakim nodded. “That is difficult to confirm, of course. If they exist, their work is isolated from the surface.”

“But the worlds are active.”

“Active, yes, but they do not have large numbers of physical inhabitants—living creatures. The moms teach us that many civilizations reduce their presence to information matrices, abandoning their physical forms, and living as pure mentality.”

“About half of all advanced civilizations…” Martin remembered, stroking his cheek with one hand.

“Yes. That could be the case here.”

Maybe they’ve become ghosts. Martin shuddered at the thought of abandoning physical form; like spending forever in neural simulation. What would they gain? A low profile, a kind of immortality—but no need to physically colonize the systems they “sterilized” for future use. “You said we could almost make a judgment.”

Hakim’s face brightened. “I have been teasing, Martin. Withholding the best until last. This is very good. But you judge.”

He ordered a series of charts on debris scattered throughout the ecliptic between fifty million kilometers and seven hundred million kilometers from Wormwood. “Dust and larger particles heated by the star, chemical reactions excited by the little stellar wind that does get through… Very interesting.”

The dust and debris pointed to intense spaceborne industrial activity in the system’s past. Much of the debris consisted of simple waste—rocky materials, lacking all metals and volatiles, heavy on silicates.

Manufacturing dust from shaping and processing: trace elements inevitably mixed into the dust, reflecting even more precisely than in the spectrum of Wormwood itself the proportions of trace elements in the killer machines.

“It’s more than a close match,” Martin said.

Hakim revealed his excitement in a mild lift of eyebrow.

“It’s exact,” Martin said.

“Very nearly,” Hakim said.

“They made the killer machines around Wormwood.”

“Perhaps around Leviathan, as well. We are not close enough to judge.”

“But certainly here.”

“The evidence is compelling.”

Martin’s skin warmed and his eyes grew moist, a response he had seldom felt before, and could not ascribe to any particular emotion. Perhaps it came from a complex of emotions so deeply buried he did not experience them consciously.

“No defenses?”

“None,” Hakim said. “No evidence of defenses on the surface of the inner worlds. The depleted gas giant shows even less activity, a large lump of cold wastes and rocky debris, with a thin atmosphere of helium, carbon dioxide solids, bromine, and sparse hydrocarbons. Here is a list.”

“Where did the volatiles go?” Martin asked. The list was devoid of hydrogen, methane, and ammonia. The thin haze of helium was so diffuse as to be useless. No swooping down to scoop up fuel, like Robin Hood swinging out of a tree to snatch a purse.

“Good question, but I can only guess, the same as you. The star is well over six billion years old. The volatiles could have been lost during birth, with the cold outer worlds getting correspondingly thinner envelopes of atmosphere. But this would be unusual for a yellow dwarf in this neighborhood.”

“Even in a multiple group?”

Hakim nodded. “Even so. The volatiles might have fueled early interstellar travel within the group. The pre-birth cloud is also very low on volatiles, remember. Or…”

Martin looked up.

“Most of it could have been converted to anti em for making killer probes.”

“That’s a lot of probes,” Martin said.

Hakim agreed. “Billions, fueled and sent out across the stellar neighborhood. Depleting the outer cloud, the comets, the ice moons, the gas giant, everything… If I may say so, a massive and vicious campaign with great risks, at great expense. To be followed logically by a wave of stellar exploration and colonization.”

“But we don’t see any settled systems beyond the group… It wouldn’t make sense to launch such a campaign, and not follow through.”

“Ah.” Hakim raised his finger. “Centuries must pass while they wait for the probes to do their work. What if the civilization changes in that time?”

“Seems certain they’d change some,” Martin agreed.

“A change of heart, perhaps, or sudden fear of the wrath of other civilizations. Cowardice. Many possibilities.”

“What percentage of converted volatiles could be stored in the five masses?”

“A minuscule amount of the total estimated gases lost from the system,” Hakim said. “We’re not yet certain of the size, but each of the masses appears to be several thousand kilometers in diameter, which would rule out neutronium, if their densities were uniform.”

Thorkild Lax said, “I’m finishing work on the outer cloud, and Min Giao is redoing our work on the inner dust and debris.”

“Dust and debris… how long would it take to push most of it away from the system?”

“Wouldn’t happen,” Thorkild said. “Most of the dust grains and larger rubble are too big to be cleaned out by radiation. Remember, the stellar wind has been channeled up and out through the poles.”

“A good point,” Hakim said.

“How much more time do you need?”

“A day?” Hakim asked his colleagues.

“I’ll need a break,” Min Giao said. “My momerath is fading now.”

“A day and a half,” Hakim said.

“Fine,” Martin said.

They would enter the outer pre-birth material in three days. They would make their decision. Martin had no doubt how the children would decide. The Dawn Treader would split just beyond the diffuse inner boundaries of the cloud. Tortoise would begin super deceleration immediately after splitting.

They could disperse their weapons, carry out the Law, and at the very least, Hare would be outside the system before any defense could touch it.

The second stage of deceleration ended. Martin felt his stronger body jump free, like a highly charged battery. Some of the children felt mildly ill for a few hours, but the illness passed. Jennifer Hyacinth was a slim, chatty, energetic woman who had not impressed Martin upon their first meeting; triangular of face, neither pretty nor unpleasant to look at, with narrow eyes and a habit of wincing when spoken to, as if she were being insulted; thin of arm and large-chested, breasts sitting on her ribcage as if an afterthought. Jennifer had gradually acquired Martin’s respect by the wry and sharp observations she made about life on ship, by her willingness to volunteer for jobs others found unpleasant, and most of all, by her extraordinary command of momerath.

Like Ariel, Jennifer Hyacinth did not trust the moms any more than she had to by working with them or living in an environment made by them. But she had concentrated this distrust into a kind of mental guerrilla action, using her head to gain insight into those things the moms did not tell the children.

Martin put her request to see him into a short queue of appointments for the first half of the next day, and met with her in his early morning, while Theresa organized torus transfer drills for the bombship pilots.

Jennifer laddered into his quarters in the first homeball, face taut, clearly uncomfortable.

“What’s up?” Martin asked casually, hoping to relax her. She widened her eyes, shrugged, narrowed them again, as if she really had nothing to say, and was embarrassed by having called the meeting in the first place.

“Jennifer—” he said, exasperated.

“I’ve been thinking,” she blurted defensively, as if he were to blame for her discomfiture. “Doing momerath and just thinking. I’ve reached some conclusions—not really conclusions, actually, but they’re interesting, and I thought you’d like to hear them… I hoped you would.”

“I’d like to,” Martin said.

“They’re not final but they’re pretty compelling. I think you can follow most of it…”

“I’ll try.”

“The moms aren’t telling us everything.”

“That seems to be the popular wisdom,” Martin said.

She blinked. “It’s true. They haven’t told us how they do certain things—convert matter to anti em, for example. Or how they compress ordinary matter into neutronium. Or how they transmit on the noach without possibility of interception.”

“They don’t seem to think we need to know.”

“Well, curiosity is reason enough.”

“Right,” Martin said.

“I think I know how they do some things. Not how they actually do it, but the theory behind it.” Her eyes widened, defying him to think her efforts were trivial. “It’s good momer-ath. It’s self-consistent, I mean. I’ve even translated some of it into formal maths.”

“I’m listening,” Martin said.

Martin knew his momerath ability was dwarfed by Jennifer’s. She was probably the fastest and most innovative mathematician on the ship, followed only by Giacomo Sicilia.

“I’ve been putting some things together by looking at the moms’—I mean, the Benefactors’ technologies. What they did on Earth and on the Ark. On Mars. They have ways of altering matter on a fundamental level—that’s obvious, of course, since they can make matter into anti em. I don’t think they have spacewarps or can rotate mass points through higher dimensions—that would imply faster-than-light travel, which they don’t seem to have.”

“Okay,” Martin said.

“The way momerath is constructed—the formal side I mean, not the psychological—there are branches of the discipline that suggest human information theory. There’s an argument that physics can be reduced to the laws governing transfer of information; but I haven’t been working on that.”

“What I have been doing is looking at how the moms treat basic physics in their drill instructions. We have to know certain things, such as repair of maker delivery systems using remotes, in case they’re severely damaged in a fight. It’s funny, but the Dawn Treader can repair itself, and the bombships can’t… not without remotes, at any rate. I guess they don’t want bombships going off on their own, mutating—”

“Yes,” Martin said, in a tone that urged her to come back to the main subject.

“About the anti em conversion process. I think they’ve worked out ways to access a particle’s bit structure, its self-information. To do that, they’d have to tamper with the so-called privileged channels. Channels isn’t the right word, of course. I’d call them bands—but—”

Martin looked at her blankly.

“Some more radical theorists on Earth thought spacetime might be a giant computational matrix, with information transferred along privileged bands or channels instantaneously, and bosons—photons, and so on—conveying other types of information at no more than the speed of light. Baryons don’t expand when the universe expands. They’re loosely tied to spacetime. But bosons—photons, and so on—are in some respects strongly tied to spacetime. Their wavelengths expand as the universe expands. The privileged bands are not tied to spacetime at all, and they convey certain kinds of special information between particles. Kind of cosmic bookkeeping. The Benefactors seem to know how to access these bands, and to control the information they carry.”

“I’m still not following you.”

Jennifer sighed, squatted in the air beside Martin, and lifted her hands to add gestures to her explanation. “Particles need to know certain things, if I can use that word in its most basic sense. They need to know what they are—charge, mass, spin, strangeness, and so on—and where they are. They have to react to information conveyed by other particles, information about their own character and position. Particles are the most basic processors of information. Bosons and the privileged bands are the fundamental carriers of information.”

“All right,” Martin said, although the full implications of this were far from clear, and he was far from agreeing with the theory.

“I think the Benefactors—and probably the planet killers—have found ways to control the privileged bands. Now that’s remarkable by itself, because privileged bands aren’t supposed to be accessed by anything but the particles and bosons they work for. They might as well be called forbidden bands. They carry information about a particle’s state that helps keep things running on a quantum level—bookkeeping and housecleaning, so to speak. They have to carry information instantly because… well, in some experiments, that kind of bookkeeping seems to happen instantly, across great distances. Most information can’t travel faster than light. Well, that sort can, but it’s very special, the exception to the rule.

“Bosons travel at the speed of light. They carry information about changes in position, mass, and so on, like I said. If you can change their states and information content, you can make them lie. If you control all the information carried by bosons and along the privileged bands, you can lie to other particles. If you tinker with a particle’s internal information, you can change that particle. I think that’s what they do to make anti em.”

“They just tell an atom it’s anti em?”

Jennifer smiled brightly. “Nothing so simple, but that’s the gist, I think. They mess with privileged bands, they tinker with the memory stores of huge numbers of particles within atoms, all at once, and they create anti em. I’ve got the momerath…”

“How long would it take me to absorb it?”

She pursed her lips. “You, maybe three tendays.”

“I don’t have time, Jennifer. But I’d like to have the record anyway…” Her theory seemed less than important to him now. “Sounds impossible, though.”

Jennifer grinned. “It does, doesn’t it? That’s what’s so neat. Given certain assumptions, and running them through the momerath, the impossibilities go away. It becomes a coherent system, and it has huge implications, most of which I haven’t worked out. Like, what sort of coordinate system would a particle use? Relative, absolute? Cartesian? How many axes? I’m not really serious about it being Cartesian—it couldn’t be—and remember, the coordinates or whatever you want to call them have to be self-sensing. The particle has to be what it knows it is, and to be where it knows it is. Unless we start calling in observer-induced phenomena, which I do in my momerath… though that isn’t finished, yet.”

“How much information does a particle have to carry?” Martin asked.

“To differentiate itself from every other particle—a unique particle signature—and to know its state, its position, its motion, and so on… about two hundred bits.”

Martin looked to one side for a moment, frowning, getting interested despite his weariness. “If the universe is a computer, what’s the hardware like?”

“The momerath explicitly forbids positing a matrix for this system. None can be described. Only the rules exist, and the interactions.”

“There’s no programmer?”

“The momerath says nothing about that. Just, no hardware, no explicitly real matrix. The matrix is, but is not separate from what takes place. You are interested, aren’t you?”

He was, but there seemed so little time to think even the thoughts he needed to think, and make the necessary plans. “I’ll look the work over when I can. You know I’m bogged.”

“Yes, but this could be important. If we see something that fits, something around Wormwood maybe, something high tech that doesn’t make sense unless I’m right, then we can apply whole new ideas.”

“Obviously,” Martin said. “Thanks.”

Jennifer smiled brightly, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re sweet, but I thought you’d ask about something…”

“What?”

“About the noach—how we communicate with nearby craft and the remotes.”

“Along the privileged bands?”

She shook her head. “Not exactly. There wouldn’t be any distance limitations if the moms used the privileged bands to chat. Remember, we can’t chat beyond ten billion kilometers.”

“All right, how, then?”

“By setting up a resonance. You could change the bit or bits that distinguish one particle from another. The particles seem to resonate, to be somewhere else for a very short time. Signals could be sent that way. But there’s a limit how far. I don’t know why, yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Let me know what you come up with,” Martin said.

“Can I talk about it with the others? Get others to work on it?”

“If they have time,” Martin said.

She smiled again, bowed ceremonially in mid-air like a diver, and laddered through the door.

* * *

There was little time for anything but work, drill, sleep. Theresa slept with him, but they were too tired to make love more than once before sleep, down from their coasting average of two or three times per day.

Martin curled up against her in the warm darkness of his quarters, in the net. His limp penis nested between her thighs, just below her buttocks, slight stickiness adhering his prepuce to her skin. His hand on her hip, finger caressing lightly; she was already asleep, breathing shallow and even. Her hair in disarray tickled his nose. He moved his head back a few centimeters, opened his eyes, saw a dim memory of the momerath that had absorbed him in most of his time outside drilling and attending to the active teams. The personal momerath; what all the children were doing now, trying to think their way through to an individual judgment, to the most important decision of their lives.

There was much more than just analyzing the data Hakim provided. There was the intuition beyond rational thought; the unknown process of personal conviction, of human faculties at work, that made their judgments different from what the moms might have decided by themselves.

They probably had the power to destroy whatever life existed around Wormwood. The system did not look strongly defended; and in strategy, appearances could count for everything. An appearance of strength could be important… To appear weaker than one actually was could invite assault, never useful.

Going over it again and again. Gradually sleep came.

The universe is made of plateaus and valleys, stars nestled in valleys, the long spaces between the stars creating broad, almost flat plateaus along which orbital courses approach but never reach straightness. Martin floated in the nose of the Dawn Treader, the sleeping search team scattered in nets and in bags behind him. Through the transparent nose, peering into the valley around Wormwood, Martin contemplated their target, now the brightest star in their field of view.

Within twenty hours, they would begin separation into Tortoise and Hare. Martin would be in charge of Tortoise, Hans in command of Hare. Thirty-five children would accompany Martin, including Theresa and William and Ariel; Hakim and the search team would go with Hans. Hare would plunge through Wormwood’s system ahead of them, collecting information to be relayed back to Tortoise.

Martin felt someone behind him and turned to see Ariel. She looked angry or frightened, he could not tell which, and she was out of breath.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Rosa’s seen the dark shape again. In the second homeball. Alexis Baikal saw it before she did, in the third homeball, close to the neck and the stores.”

“Shit,” Martin said.

“Both think it’s real. They’re talking to others… I was the first to get here.”

“Why in Christ’s name now?”

“Maybe it is real,” Ariel said. “Maybe it knows when to disrupt us.”

“Where are they? Did they see it do anything or go anywhere?”

“I don’t know. I came up here as fast as I could.”

“Why not use the wand?”

“The moms…” She seemed slightly abashed, but still defiant. “Nobody wants them to know.”

“Why in hell not?” Martin said.

She shook her head briskly. “I’ll take you to where they are. They think maybe the moms have been… taken over. That we’re being forced to suicide.”

Martin took his wand and called for Hans and the five ex-Pans. “That’s so slicking stupid,” he said under his breath, following Ariel down the long nose to the central corridor passing through the first homeball. He noted the fissures already formed, stretching in thin grooves along the walls of the necks and around key pipes and protrusions, as the ship carved itself ahead of time for the likely partition. “If people are going to be this paranoid, they should at least use their heads…”

“I know,” Ariel said, echoing ahead, then using ladder fields to propel herself quickly up the long corridor. “Most of what they’re saying doesn’t make sense. Martin, I don’t agree with much of it. But some… it’s frightening. They saw something.”

Martin laddered grimly behind her.

She preceded him to the corridor leading to Rosa’s quarters on the outer perimeter of the second homeball. Hans joined them, glancing at Martin inquisitively. Martin shrugged and said, “Shadows again.” Hans pulled a disgusted face.

Stephanie Wing Feather and Harpal Timechaser waited outside the closed door to Rosa’s quarters. Martin took up his wand and tried to communicate with Rosa.

“She won’t be listening,” Ariel said. “They’re very frightened.”

“They can’t cut themselves off.” Martin and Hans banged on the door, creating a dull, hollow boom. He did not know whether those inside would hear.

The door opened silently and Rosa stood before them, her face radiant with some new-found assurance, tall and stately, red hair tied back, dressed in an opaque gray gown that made her appear massive, formidable.

“What in the hell—” Martin began, his anger getting the best of him.

“You shut up,” Rosa said, her deep voice cracking with emotion like a boy’s. “You made me feel like a fool, and now somebody else has seen it. What can you say to that? It’s real.”

Martin tried to push past her, but she blocked his entrance with an arm. “Who told you to come in?” she said. “Who do you think you are?”

He suddenly realized the extent of the problem and backed away, throttling his anger. “If you saw something, I need to know what it is.”

“Martin is Pan, Rosa, and he hasn’t done anything to you at all,” Stephanie said. “Don’t be an ass. Let us in.”

“Let them in,” Alexis called behind Rosa. Rosa reluctantly moved aside, glaring at them as they entered her quarters. Martin had never seen the inside of Rosa’s quarters before; few had. What he saw now startled him.

The cabin was filled with flowers, profusions of pots and bouquets, real flowers and synthetic, made of cloth or paper on wire stems. The air was warm and moist. Sunbright lamps glowed from the center to the periphery, where the flowers surrounded the walls in tiers.

Ten Wendys and two Lost Boys waited in the quarters with Rosa and Alexis. Two budgerigars played at hide and seek among the potted flowers.

Martin realized the disparity in sexes and his concern grew almost to befuddlement. “Alexis, what did you see?”

Alexis Baikal, swarthy and sandy haired, of middle height, with powerful legs and large hands, hung cross-legged from a net near the floor, despondent. “A big dark shape in the main corridor, heading toward the stores.”

“What did it look like?”

Rosa advanced on him threateningly, for no apparent reason, and Martin lifted his arm. Her smile spread immediate and triumphant. “He doesn’t believe any of us!” she called out, voice like a horn.

“Stop it, Rosa,” Ariel said quietly. “He’s trying to listen.”

“It was bigger than four or five people,” Alexis said, “but it didn’t have any real shape.”

“Did you ask the moms?” Hans asked. Rosa glared but did not move; Ariel’s hand rested on her elbow. Martin wondered about this; Ariel should have relished a chance to discomfit him, to discredit the moms, but instead, she was acting on the side of reason—at least as he perceived it. More befuddlement, shifting of mental gears.

“No,” Alexis said. “We saw something. We didn’t make it up!”

Alexis had been talking with Rosa for some time, Martin surmised; had come to Rosa first with her report, before going to any of the other children. No wonder Rosa was defensive; Alexis’ sighting was confirmation, vindication.

“Was it something alive?” Hans asked, stooping to be more on a level with Alexis.

“It was alive. It flowed like a liquid.”

“Did it have any features—face, arms, legs, whatever?” Stephanie asked. They were trying to distance Martin from the confrontation that had broken out, and Martin approved—for the time being. Best to listen impartially until the few available facts were sorted out.

Rosa looked at them, worried, but kept quiet.

“It was black,” Alexis said with an effort. “Big. Alive. It didn’t make any sound.” She knows it isn’t credible, what she saw.

“That’s all you saw?”

Alexis Baikal fixed on Stephanie’s eyes and nodded. “That’s all I saw.”

Hans stood and stretched his arms, flexing his shoulders as if they had cramped. “Where did it go?”

“I don’t know,” Alexis said. “I turned to run, and it was gone.”

The door opened and three Wendys came in, Nancy Flying Crow, Jeanette Snap Dragon, and leading them, Kirsten Two Bites. Kirsten said, “These two have something to report.”

“We are not cowards,” Nancy Flying Crow said.

“You should have told us,” Kirsten Two Bites chided. “Martin, they’ve seen things, too.”

“We didn’t see anything we could identify,” Nancy said.

“Did you see anything while you were together?” Stephanie asked.

“No,” Jeanette said.

“Ask them what they saw,” Rosa interjected.

Martin pointed to Nancy. “You first.”

“It was a man,” Nancy said. “Not one of us. Not one of the children, I mean. He was dark, wearing dark clothes.”

“Where did you see him?” Martin asked.

“In the second homeball. In the hall outside my quarters.”

“And you?” Martin asked Jeanette.

Jeanette Snap Dragon shook her head. “I’d rather not say, Martin.”

“It’s pretty important,” Martin said gently.

“It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t fit it into anything,” Jeanette said, face wrinkling in anguish. “Please. Rosa started this… I didn’t see what Rosa saw.”

“What do you mean, Rosa started this?” Hans asked.

“Don’t gang up on me!” Jeanette wailed. “I didn’t want to see it, and I don’t even know if I did see it.”

“I didn’t start anything, sister,” Rosa said in a hissing whisper, shaking her head. “Don’t blame me.”

“I saw my mother,” Jeanette said, looking down. “She’s dead, Martin. She died when I was five. I saw her dressed in black, carrying a suitcase or something like a suitcase.”

“That’s bolsh,” Rosa said.

“Be quiet,” Stephanie said.

“Rosa, please,” Ariel pleaded.

“This is all crap! She couldn’t have seen that,” Rosa said.

“Why the hell not?” Ariel said, face red. “Does everybody have to see what you saw?”

“They just want to be in on it. They’re making it up. What Alexis and I saw—”

“That’s enough,” Martin said, raising his hand.

“We saw something!” Alexis cried out. “This is all crazy!”

Hans muttered, “Righto.”

Martin raised his hand higher, nodding his head forward, lips tight. “Quiet, everybody,” he said. “Rosa, nobody’s accusing anybody of anything, and this is not a competition for weirdness. Understand?”

“You don’t control me,” Rosa said. “You—”

“Smother it, Rosa,” Ariel said. She looked sharply at Martin—Don’t take this cooperation for granted.

“Why is everybody down on me?” Rosa screamed, tears flying. “Everybody get out of here and leave us… leave Alexis and me alone.”

“No thanks,” Alexis said. “I don’t know what I saw, or what it means. I just reported it.”

Martin smelled the sweetness of flowers from Rosa’s garden, tried to think of some way to conclude this meeting without damaging delicate egos.

“Nobody knows what anybody saw,” he said. “Nobody blames anybody for seeing anything. Rosa, you reported what you saw, and that’s according to the rules. Whatever anybody sees, they come to me and tell me right away, understand? No embarrassment, no hiding, no shame. I want to know.”

Stephanie nodded approval. Hans seemed less than convinced.

“Have there been other sightings?” Martin asked. “This is not snitching. Have there?”

Nobody answered.

“I’m going to talk to each of you individually for the next hour, in my quarters,” Martin said. “There’s no time to waste now. We have to be disciplined, and we have to think of the Job. Got that?”

Heads nodding around the room, all but Ariel’s and Rosa’s.

“We have to make a judgment—if we’re going to make one before partition—by tomorrow morning. This is a very serious time, this is why we came here. Not to worry about our sanity and our egos. Think of Earth.”

One by one they came to his quarters. Martin recorded their words in his wand. Alexis Baikal came first, full of doubts, tearful in her apologies for having seen anything. Martin tried again to convince her there had been no crime, but his efforts seemed less than successful.

Ariel was cool, as if regretting her tacit support of Martin in Rosa’s quarters. “I think the moms are doing something,” she said, folding and unfolding her hands. “I think they’re experimenting with us, like when they made us screw up the first external drill.”

“You’ll never trust them, will you?” Martin asked.

Ariel shook her head. “We’re trapped. That’s what Rosa thinks, too, but she hasn’t said it directly. She’s desperate.”

“You think she’s seeing things, making them up?”

Reluctantly, Ariel nodded.

“That doesn’t make sense. You think the moms are fooling with us, but you think Rosa’s making up things, too?”

“I think they’re weeding out the weak ones,” Ariel said. “They might jeopardize our doing the Job. I don’t say I know what’s happening. You just wanted our ideas.”

“Rosa’s weak?”

“I don’t want to get her into trouble.”

“Ariel, she’s having real problems.”

“I know that.”

“Can she do her work?”

“She’s been doing pretty well, hasn’t she?”

“Will she keep it up?” Martin asked.

“I think she will. But the children need to accept her.”

“I get the impression she isn’t accepting the children.”

“Whatever,” Ariel said.

“You’re her friend. Can you bring her in?”

“We talk. She doesn’t tell me everything. I don’t think she’s anybody’s friend. I just make it a point to talk to her. You don’t. Nobody else does.”

Martin could not deny that. “I’m talking to her next.”

Ariel lifted her chin back. “Are you going to be her friend?”

You are a bloody-minded bitch. “I’ll try,” he said.

Ariel left. Rosa Sequoia came into his quarters a few minutes later, face set like stone, eyes wide with fear and that ever-present defiance, an expression that made Martin want to kick her.

“Tell me what you think you saw. Just me,” Martin said.

She shook her head. “You don’t believe any of us.”

“I’m listening.”

“The others… they saw something different. Why should you believe any of us?”

Martin lifted his hand and crooked his finger encouragingly: Come on.

“You think I started it,” Rosa said.

“I don’t think that. Do you think you started it?”

“I saw it first.” Under her breath. “It’s mine.”

“If it belongs to you, can you control it?” The conversation was getting looser and loonier. How far would he go to bring her in? Rosa was too sharp to be deceived. “Do you claim it?”

“I don’t have it. I don’t have anything.” She hung her head. “I don’t know what I’ve been doing.”

This reversal caught him by surprise. He opened and closed his mouth, then folded his legs beneath him. “Jesus, Rosa.”

“I’m not saying I… I’m not saying that we haven’t seen anything.”

“No… Sit. Please. Just talk.”

Rosa looked to one side and shook her head. “I don’t want to go against the Job. I’m afraid this might hurt us. Hurt the Job.”

“What is it? Do you know?”

She sobbed and held her head back to keep the tears in her eyes from spilling. “I didn’t make it up. I swear to Earth, Martin. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t know about the others.”

“Is it real?”

“It is, to me. I’ve only seen it once, though. It was more real than I am. It was more real than the Job. It scared me, but it was beautiful. Should I be ashamed of that?”

“I don’t know. Talk.”

“I do my work,” Rosa said, “I try to be competent, but I don’t belong here any more than I belonged on the Ark. Or on the Earth. You don’t think much of me because I’m causing trouble… But nobody thought anything of me when I was nothing at all.”

“You can’t own a… Whatever it is. It can’t be yours alone.”

“If it was important, it would make me useful. People wouldn’t look through me.”

Martin asked her to relax and again she refused. “I want to go back. I want this forgotten.”

“What about Alexis? What she saw?”

“I don’t know what she saw. It sounds like what I saw, but it may not be.”

“You didn’t make this up, I know that. But is it real?”

Rosa shook her head. “Alexis thinks it is.”

“Then maybe it is,” Martin said. “I’m not going to doubt what my fellows see. You and Alexis. You’ll continue to do your duties and attend all the drills. When you’re off-duty, you can keep a look out. Look through the ship. Until partition. If it doesn’t show up any more after that, we forget it. All right?”

“Jeanette and Nancy?”

“Jeanette saw her mother,” Martin said. “Nancy saw… a man. They didn’t see what you saw.”

“Maybe it can take different shapes… read our minds.”

Martin controlled his shudder. This was a real risk. Lancing the boil—acknowledging its existence—might do more than just drain the infection; it might spread it.

“You’re a part of us, and whatever happens to you is important.”

“I’m a large… thing,” Rosa said, holding out her arms, fingers clutched into fists. “I was large when I was a child. Everybody stared at me and avoided me. I thought by coming here, doing the Job, I could be important to the girls and boys who ignored me and who died on Earth.”

Martin took one of her fists and tried to massage it into openness. She stared at his hands, her fist, as if they were-disembodied. Her voice rose.

“I wanted to be important to them. When I got on the Dawn Treader, nothing much changed. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to make anybody think I was important.”

“You’re part of us,” Martin said. He reached out and brought her to him, wrapped his arms around her, felt her hard, thick—fleshed shoulders, broad ribcage, small breasts against his chest, the strength and tension and the damp warm skin of her neck. He hugged her, chin on her shoulder, smelling her, sharp like a large, frightened animal. “We don’t want to lose you, or anybody. Do what I ask, and we’ll see if it comes to anything.”

She pushed him back with strong, large hands and blinked at him. “I will,” she said. She smiled like a little girl. Possibly no one had hugged her in years. How could all the children have so ignored one of their own? Seeing the pain and hope in her eyes—a forlorn, lost hope—Martin wondered if he had done the right thing, used the right kind of influence.

So little time.

Rosa left, subdued to her old quietness, and Alexis Baikal came in, and then Jeanette and Nancy. They did not say much, and he did not push the issue. Somehow he felt he had broken the chain of events, that everything would go more smoothly now; but had he sacrificed the last of Rosa?

Only hours. Time flying by more swiftly, more in tune with the outside universe. Another partition drill; equally successful. One last brief external drill, also successful. The children seemed as prepared as they would ever be.

Hour by hour, Hakim’s search team produced more and more information.

The time of judgment had arrived.

In the schoolroom, in the presence of the War Mother, Martin set up the rules for the judgment. In the first year, Stephanie Wing Feather and Harpal Timechaser had prepared the rules, trying to catch the resonances of the justice systems established on the Ark, based on human laws back to the tablets of Hammurabi…

A jury of twelve children was chosen by lots. Each child could refuse the assignment; none did. With more qualms than satisfaction, Martin saw Rosa inducted as a juror, taking the oath Stephanie herself had written:

I will truly judge based on the evidence, and what I will judge is whether the evidence is sufficient, and whether it proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I will not allow prejudice or hate or fear to cloud my judgment, nor will I be swayed by any emotion or rhetoric from my fellows, so help me, in the name of truth, God, the memory of Earth, my family, and whatever I hold most dear, against the eternal guilt of my soul should I err

The choosing and swearing-in lasted a precious hour. A defense advocate was appointed by Martin; to Hakim’s dismay, Martin chose him. “No one knows the weakness of your evidence more than you do,” Martin said. He was acutely aware of the roughness and arbitrariness of this system they had chosen; they could do no better.

As prosecutor he appointed Luis Estevez Saguaro, Hakim’s second on the search team. Martin himself presided as judge.

The War Mother listened to the trial silently, its painted black and white designs prominent in the brightly illuminated schoolroom. All eighty-two children sat in quiet attendance as Martin went over the rules.

Luis presented the older evidence, and then outlined the new. Their data on the debris fields had increased enormously. The assay matches seemed indisputable.

Hakim questioned the conclusiveness of the data at this distance. Luis Estevez called on Li Mountain to explain again the functioning of the Dawn Treader’s remotes and sensors, the accuracy of observations, the science behind the different methods. The children had heard much of it before. They were reminded nevertheless.

Luis Estevez withheld his trump card until the final phase of the six-hour trial. Hakim fought vigorously to discredit this last bit of evidence, explaining the statistics of error on such observations at this distance, but the news made the children gasp nonetheless, more in horror than surprise.

Less than two hours away, at their present speed of three quarters c, the cloud of pre-birth material surrounding Wormwood offered one more startling confirmation.

The residue of Wormwood’s birth, a roughly shaped ring around the system, with patches and extrusions streaming billions of kilometers above the ecliptic, had been extensively mined, as suspected, and few volatiles remained. No cometary chunks were left to fall slowly around Wormwood; the civilization had many thousands of years before depleted these resources as part of a program of interstellar exploration.

Some leftovers from that program still floated amid the scoured dust of the irregular ring, spread here and there across the billions of kilometers like sand in an ocean tide.

The search team, probing the nearest extent of the ring, had found artificial needle-shaped bodies, the largest no more than a hundred meters long; inert now, perhaps experimental models, perhaps ships that had malfunctioned and been abandoned after being stripped of fuel and internal workings.

Luis projected for the jury, and all the children, graphics of what these needle ships looked like in their cold dusty junkyards. He then produced pictures they were all familiar with: the shapes of the killer machines when they entered Earth’s solar system, when they burrowed into the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and into the Earth itself:

Long needles. Identical in shape and size.

Hakim valiantly argued that these shapes were purely utilitarian, that any number of civilizations might produce vessels such as these, designed to fly between the stars. But the shapes of Ships of the Law, including Dawn Treader, countered that argument. Space allowed many designs for interstellar craft.

The conclusion seemed inevitable: dead killer machines orbited the extreme perimeter of the Wormwood system.

Hakim’s next suggestion was that this system had itself been entered by Killers, that the inhabitants had been wiped from their worlds, and that the worlds were not perpetrators, but victims. Luis countered that in such a case, it was their duty to expunge the final traces of the Killers from the victim’s corpse.

And if there were survivors?

That did not seem likely, judging from Earth’s experience.

But the Earth, Hakim argued, had been an extreme case; the Killers had been faced with strong, eventually fatal opposition. Perhaps they would behave differently with more time to perform their tasks. Perhaps there were survivors.

Luis pointed to the natural composition of Wormwood and its planets, the apparent origin of the machines themselves.

And if the machines had merely been manufactured here?

The debate went around and around, but these arguments were not convincing, however Hakim worked to make them so.

“If Wormwood is indeed the origin of the killer machines, why leave these wrecks out here for evidence?” Hakim asked, making his final attempt at a sound defense. “Why not sweep the cloud clean, and prepare for the vengeance of those you have failed to murder? Could there not be some other explanation for this evidence, allowing a reasonable doubt?”

No one could answer. No one doubted the evidence, however.

The jury was sequestered in unused quarters near the schoolroom.

The verdict was two hours in coming.

It was unanimous.

Wormwood must be cleared of all traces of Killers and their makers. Even if they had become ghosts, lost in their machines…

Hakim seemed perversely despondent that he had not presented his case more strongly. He moved to the rear of the room and curled behind the children, eyes wide and solemn.

Martin stood before the children, the weight of the judgment on his shoulders now. The hush in the schoolroom was almost deathly: no coughing, hardly a sound of breathing. The children did not move, waiting for him to issue the orders.

“We start dispersal as soon as we split,” he said. “Shipboard weapons team will launch makers into the Wormwood system. There are no visible defenses, but we’ll be cautious anyway. Instead of trying for three or four large-mass gravity-fuse bombs, we’ll let the makers create a few thousand smaller ones out of the rocks and debris. If we fail, makers in the outer cloud will assemble their weapons and send them in later.”

“That’ll cost much more fuel,” Hans said.

Stephanie and Harpal nodded.

“There aren’t enough volatiles to make enough bombs and escape quickly. We should act as soon as possible. We’ll destroy the rocky worlds first, then concentrate on the bald gas giants…”

“Destroy them, too?” Ariel asked from the rear.

“If we have enough weapons,” Martin said. “We can gather the remaining volatiles for fuel from the debris clouds afterward.”

“All of them?” William asked.

“Every world,” Martin said.

The children thought this over somberly. They would reenact the battle fought around the Sun, centuries past. This time, they would be the murderers.

“It’s not murder,” Martin said, anticipating their thoughts. “It’s execution. It’s the Law.”

That didn’t make the reality any less disturbing.

“You didn’t need to put me in your crew,” Theresa said as they ate together in her quarters. This was the last time they would have together, alone, until the Job had been completed. These were the last four hours of the Dawn Treader as a single ship, as they had always known her. If they survived, they might reconstruct the ship again, but chances were, they would have to make her much smaller, perhaps a tenth of her present size, and live in comparatively crowded conditions…

“I had no reason not to have you with me,” Martin said.

Theresa watched him, eyes bright.

“The Pan needs to think of himself now and then,” Martin said softly. “I’ll work better, knowing you’re with me.”

“When we finish the Job, where will we go?” she asked, finishing her pie. The ship was an excellent provider; this meal, however, tasted particularly fine. There would be little time to eat after partition, and the meals would be fast and small.

“I don’t know,” Martin said. “They’ve never told us where they’ll send us.”

“Where would you like to go?”

Martin chewed his last bite thoughtfully, swallowed, looked down at the empty plate. He smiled, thumped his knuckles on the small table, said, “I’d like to travel very far away. Just be free and see what there is out here. We could travel for thousands, millions of years… Away from everything.”

“That would be lovely,” she said, but she didn’t sound convinced.

“And you?” Martin asked.

“A new Earth,” she said. “I know that’s foolish. All the Earth-like worlds are probably taken, but perhaps the moms could send us to a place where nobody has been, find a planet where we could be alone. Where we could make a new Earth.”

“And have children,” he said. “Where the moms could let us have children.”

“No moms,” Theresa said. “Just ourselves.”

Martin considered this, saw nations arising, people disagreeing, history raising its ugly head, the inevitable round of Eden’s end and reality’s beginning. But he did not tell Theresa what she already knew. Fantasies were almost as important as fuel at this point.

“Do you think they’ll know when they die?” Theresa asked. Martin understood whom she meant. Down at the bottom of the gravity well, on the planets. The Killers.

“If they’re still alive…” Martin said, raising his eyebrows. “If there’s anybody still there, still conscious… not a machine.”

“Do you think they can be conscious if they’ve become machines?”

“The moms don’t tell us about such things,” Martin said.

“Can they be guilty if they’re just machines now?”

“I don’t know,” Martin said. “They can be dangerous.”

“If there are a few still in bodies, still living as we do, do you think they are… leaders, prophets… or just slaves?”

“Machines don’t need slaves,” Martin said, grinning.

Theresa shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. I mean slaves to their own bodies. The others might be so much more free, immortal, able to think and do whatever they please. Haven’t you ever felt as if you were a slave to your body?”

Martin shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Having to urinate every few hours, shit every day or two or three… Eat.”

“Make love,” Martin said.

“Have periods,” Theresa said.

Martin touched her arm.

“I’ve never had a period,” she said. “I’ve grown up, but they’ve taken that away from me.”

“The Wendys don’t seem to miss them,” Martin said.

“How would we know?”

“My mother didn’t miss them on the Ark,” he said. “She told me she was glad.” Has she had any children since we left … on Mars? He had never thought of having brothers or sisters he would never know.

“What if they were thinking very deeply, solving very large problems, just working all the time, without worrying about bodies?”

“No passions, no sorrows,” Martin said, trying to stay in tune with her musing.

“Maybe they feel very large passions, larger than we can know. Passions without physical boundaries. Curiosity. Maybe they’ve come to actually love the universe, Martin.”

“We don’t know anything about them, except that they’re quiet,” Martin said.

“Are they frightened?” she asked. “Hoping not to be noticed?”

Martin shrugged. “It’s not worth thinking about,” he said.

“But all the strategists say we should know our enemies, be prepared for anything they might do by knowing what they must do, what they need to do.”

“I hope they die before they even know we’re here,” Martin said.

“Do you think that’s possible?”

He paused, shook his head, no.

“Do you think they already know?”

Shook his head again, acutely uncomfortable.

“We have an hour before you go back,” Theresa said. “Pan must take his scheduled free time, too. To be healthy.”

“I wouldn’t deny myself that. Or you,” Martin said.

“Let’s love,” Theresa said. “As if we were free, and our own people.”

And they tried. It worked, partly. At the very least it was intense, even more intense than in their first few days together.

“When I’m free,” Martin said, as they floated beside each other in the darkness, “I will choose you.”

“I am free,” Theresa said. “For this minute, I’m free as I’ll ever be. And I choose you.”

One hour before partition, Rosa stood in the schoolroom, next to the star sphere, less than twelve meters from the silent War Mother. Her eyes were heavy lidded, head bowed. Her hands shook slowly like leaves in a small breeze. She was naked but for a scarf tied around her neck. Dull light from the star sphere limned her pale skin.

Liam Oryx came into the schoolroom looking for Hakim, saw her, and immediately called Martin on his wand. He also called Ariel.

Martin arrived with Theresa, but William had gotten there first. William approached Rosa slowly, saying nothing.

“I don’t need you,” Rosa told him.

“Something wrong?” Ariel called from behind William. “Rosa?”

“I’ve seen it again,” Rosa said. “There’s something in the ship with us. It spoke to me. I can’t stop seeing things that are real.”

William stopped three meters from where she stood, beside the War Mother, which did not speak or move. “What did it say?” he asked.

Martin bit his lip, watching, his stomach sinking. So little time. Every child precious.

Theresa climbed around the schoolroom, hovered beside Ariel. Other children arrived until finally fifteen occupied the chamber, all Rosa’s Tree family and five others besides.

“What did it say?” William repeated.

“It’s alive,” Rosa said. “It lives out here, and it sees and hears things we can’t. It’s very large. I think it might be a god. Sometimes it hates us, sometimes it loves us.”

Martin closed his eyes, knowing now—in his flesh and bones—what he had only known intellectually. She saw herself inside. She saw nothing real to us.

“It said Martin is a bad leader.” She raised her head. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s going to lead us to our death. He doesn’t understand.”

“How could anybody else know how good Martin is?” William asked.

“Stop it, Rosa,” Ariel said.

“It isn’t true,” said Alexis Baikal. “That isn’t what I saw.”

“Quiet,” William said, gaze fixed on Rosa. “Rosa, everybody saw something different. That means they saw what they wanted to see.”

Rosa shook her head stubbornly.

“I think we are having a bit of panic,” William said. “Only to be expected. We’re young, and this is all very strange and difficult.”

“Be quiet,” Rosa said, tilting her head back, a large, naked Valkyrie in an opera. She appeared so vulnerable, and yet Martin could feel her threat to the Job as palpably as if she were a wasp stinging his flesh. No time to waste.

He said nothing, watching William.

William nodded to Ariel. “She’s your friend, Ariel,” he said. “She needs your help.”

“She’s a victim,” Ariel said.

“Stop it,” Rosa said.

“It’s panic,” William pursued. “You’re feeling our panic, our anxiety. You’re very perceptive. You see what we feel, Rosa.”

“Come with me, Rosa,” Ariel said.

“I will not fight,” Rosa said. “None of you should fight. The Pan is wrong. He’s—”

“Enough, please,” Ariel said, voice thick with emotion.

Martin saw Theresa crying, and Alexis Baikal; but only when William turned back to look at him, and Martin saw his face was damp, did his chest hitch and his own eyes fill. He stepped forward.

“You don’t have to fight, Rosa,” he said.

Rosa Sequoia looked at the fifteen companions around her, clasped her trembling hands together, said, “But I’ve trained. I deserve it as much as any of you. Pan can’t take my duty from me.”

Pan/panic. The words danced. If she goes on it will spread and we’ll all go mad. We’re that close.

“I hate you,” Rosa told Martin, eyes slitted, lip curling. “I hate everything you stand for.”

Ariel took her by the arm. William took her other arm. Together, they led her away.

Theresa stood by his side as Rosa left the room. “Who’ll take her tasks?” she asked him.

“Ariel can do them,” he said, looking at the empty space where Rosa had stood. “Rosa will be confined to quarters.”

“And when we split?”

“She stays on the Hare. Tortoise can’t afford her.”

“You’d better talk with Hans, then,” Theresa said.

“Why does she hate me?” Martin asked.

“That’s silly,” Theresa said, taking his hand. “You can’t take what she says personally…”

“William was right,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to hate me. I want everybody to love me… Hell of a thing for a Pan. Hans wouldn’t have this problem.”

Theresa tugged on his arm, pulling him toward the door. “Forty-five minutes,” she reminded him. Martin stared at the War Mother before yielding to her pressure. During this entire episode, the War Mother had done nothing. So little time.

The War Mother preceded Martin and Hans down the second neck as they made final inspections of the points where the Dawn Treader would split. The War Mother would go with Tortoise.

Hans and Martin shook hands, clasped each other. “Do it, brother,” Hans said. “We’ll come back for the mopping up. I envy you, Martin.”

“I don’t envy myself,” Martin said, then blushed. “I wish they’d chosen you Pan.”

“I voted for you,” Hans said, smiling, not very sincere. “I’m just a born slacker. You’ll get the Job done.”

William waited behind Martin. The children mingled to say their fare wells, hugging, kissing, patting shoulders, even singing one round of the wordless hum.

Rosa was not present.

In a few minutes, in the narrow space around the weapons store, all the children divided, Hare team to the right behind Hans, Tortoise team to the left behind Martin. William and Theresa hung beside each other as the teams parted again. Martin felt a sudden misgiving, taking both of them with him. This time brought nothing but qualms.

The teams backed farther away, around the curve of the weapons store. Already the children in the rear of each group could not see each other.

They parted.

Throughout its length, the Ship of the Law made a sound like a sigh, as if it laid down some tremendous burden, only to take up another. The children of the Tortoise crew surrounded Martin in a newly made space beside the weapons store. They waited apprehensively, listening to the ship’s noises, some holding on to each other. Despite the drills, they were afraid, and Martin was certainly not least afraid among them. He remembered Theodore’s words: “No machine works perfectly. Every machine can fail. Every day we are in danger.” But Theodore had added, “No planet lives forever. Every day on Earth, our lives were in danger …”

No safety anywhere. And the Ship of the Law had never failed them before…

Nor had it broken in two before.

Martin sat above a low couch in the center of the room. All around him, the children floated, squatted, stretched out, looking at each other or at nothing, trying to sleep, playing games with their wand projections, waiting, waiting.

The sigh turned into a strong wind moaning through the halls outside their chamber. Air pressure was being distributed before the walls closed.

Theresa came close to Martin. He held her in front of all, acknowledging this bond. No one seemed to mind; few seemed to notice, not even William, who played a game of matching colors with Andrew Jaguar.

“How are you doing?” he asked Theresa. She shook her head briskly as if shivering away the question.

“Waiting,” she said. “You?”

The floor beneath them vibrated. Their cabin rotated as the orientation of this part of the dividing Dawn Treader changed. Again the wind outside the walls, roaring like a storm; this was their only safe place, their calm cell within the turbulent body.

“What will it feel like, the super deceleration?” Patrick Angelfish asked, standing beside Martin.

“Like what we feel in the craft, I suppose,” Martin said. “Only more. Longer.”

“I don’t like the way that feels,” Patrick said.

Martin looked at him with mock-sternness. Patrick smiled back.

“I know,” he said. “I’m a wimp.”

“Let’s hope you’re a strong-stomached wimp,” Martin said, examining and reexamining his tone to see if it was right, if it was not too sarcastic where he did not mean it to be, if he was hiding from his words the complex of worries and fears he himself felt; if he was adopting the proper tone of command mixed with reassurance and comradely banter. I am not a natural leader. A natural leader would not even worry about such things

The children drew closer as the vibrations continued, the sounds of the new ships being made: belling and scraping, humming and faint rasping, heat in the cabin increasing for a few minutes, then cool returning. The air smelled different. Martin sniffed but did not mention it; Ariel came forward, frowning, and said, “Smells funny.”

Paola Birdsong and Stephanie Wing Feather agreed.

“Smells like rain,” Theresa said.

“ ‘Tut tut, it looks like rain,’ ” Theresa quoted.

“We need a Pooh,” Andrew Jaguar said. “Who should be the ship’s Pooh?”

“Who’s most popular?” Martin asked, glancing around. “Not me,” he said.

Mei-Li groaned. “Pans are never Poohs,” she said.

“How about Ariel?” William suggested.

“Bolsh,” Ariel said quickly.

“She’s very cuddly,” Mei-Li agreed.

Ariel looked around the circle, unsure whether to be angry or to shrug this off.

“We think it’s a fine idea. You have to be Pooh,” Hakim said, smiling serenely.

Ariel made a sound of disgust. “Cut the crap.”

“We mean it,” Mei-Li said with uncharacteristic force, and Andrew Jaguar added with a tone of implied threat, “You’re chosen.”

Martin did not know whether to interfere or let the game continue. He did not know if Ariel understood that the teasing was a display of affection. Leveling the road; no bumps.

“All right.” Ariel swept her arms out, stalking the children in the circle, starting with Mei-Li, who giggled and backed away. “Come to momma. Come hug the Pooh.” She mugged, menaced and threatened with a grim smile. No one offered themselves to her arms until she came to William, who sighed, cast his eyes to the ceiling, and said, “Take me, I’m yours.”

“Oh, oh, Christopher Robin” the children cried out.

Ariel embraced William, and expertly, they waltzed and flew around the cabin, swinging through the children as if they had rehearsed for months. A marvel; Martin had not known William could dance, much less Ariel. In truth, he saw they surprised themselves.

“May I butt in?” Mei-Li asked, tapping Ariel on the shoulder.

“Buzz off,” she said with a haughty shudder. “I’m Pooh.”

“Buzz off! You can fly,” Andrew Jaguar sang. “You can fly, you can fly, you can fly!”

William took Ariel around the waist and swung her legs up over the heads of several squatting children, who ducked and laughed.

“Bravo!” Theresa cried.

Martin clapped his hands in time to the loops of the dance, and the children joined in, making music, humming a waltz. Ariel assumed a pose of dignified involvement in her art, chin lifted, nose out-thrust, eyes half-closed, fingers tipping along William’s fingers, swirling, swirling.

Martin noticed the War Mother had entered the room. The dance continued until William said, “Oh Lord, enough, I’m worn out.” Ariel let him go and he echoed off the wall, grabbing a ladder field, laughing and waving one hand in time with the hummed waltz.

“Who’s next?” she called, swinging closer to the center. Her face glowed with exertion, eyes on fire, and she focused suddenly, unexpectedly, on Martin, hooded her eyes seductively, leaned back in an abbreviated S with fingers extended. “You, Pan? Dance with Pooh?”

Martin blushed, laughed, and extended his hand. Ariel touched it with an expression of anything but addle-headed Pooh-bear affection, and was about to swing him off when the cabin lurched violently. The children instinctively dropped to the floor, fingers clutching uselessly. Martin felt their weight increase: a tenth of a g, half, three quarters… He glanced at Ariel, sprawled across from him, eyes wide, scared, then rolled over to find Theresa on his other side; the couches had collapsed into the floor, leaving an unobstructed, cushioned environment.

The War Mother grounded against the floor, fastening itself. Ladder fields sprang up and the air vibrated with milky rainbow colors.

Martin tuned his wand to show Tortoise’s exterior. Like a wooden stake shivered by the tap of an axe, the Dawn Treader had split from the third homeball forward. The last tissue of connection—Martin noticed the flexibility of that connection, so unlike metal—parted, and Hare leaped with new freedom.

“Separation?” Theresa asked, though the answer was obvious. Belief did not necessarily follow seeing.

“The Ship of the Law is now two ships,” the War Mother said. They had already moved a dozen kilometers from Hare, and the distance quickly increased.

“We made it,” Martin said.

“Shit,” said Ariel, crossing her legs on the soft floor.

The children squatted and clasped their hands in front of them like so many Buddhas. Martin reached for Theresa’s hand, gripped it tightly. She smiled at him.

All so very brave. No choice.

“Let’s do it,” Martin said.

“Super deceleration will begin in one minute,” the War Mother said.

“Count!” Andrew Jaguar shouted, and they counted as the numbers from Martin’s wand gleamed in the air above them.

Five, four, three, two…

Martin took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Like a soft electric hand probing his body, the volumetric fields diffused through him. He heard a tiny distant whining noise in his ears, felt the blood stop in his veins, all the protoplasm in his cells pause, then the blood start again, pause, start: the vibrating jerkiness of fields controlling the path of each molecule, adjusting to allow normal vectors, to cancel the effects of the deceleration, temporarily paused thought, jammed his mind with half-aware impulses, threw him into blankness.

He could not see. His eyes hurt but he could not be fully aware of the pain. They would be in this state for days, but fortunately, the fields would soon give them a semblance of normality. They could see, move, talk, eat, however slowly and carefully.

If all goes well. No machine works perfectly. Every machine can fail.

The wands would not work under super deceleration. The War Mother would be inactive. They would have only themselves, in this small space, for days as they dropped from the top of the universe to the bottom, as they drained their momentum into massive sumps… as they let themselves be guided like pigeons in the head of a bomb, pigeons ready to peck their final destination, coo their final judgments, hoping to put out the eyes of those who had eaten their eggs, their young, their very coop.

Theodore came into the room where Martin sat alone with just the drip of thoughts to occupy him.

“Is it sadness then that makes you think of our enemy so?”

“Ah, Christ, Theodore. I miss you. Why did you kill yourself?”

“Because we’re just pigeons, that’s all.”

“You never said so.”

“I was never omniscient, Martin. You have original thoughts, you know, some better than mine ever were. Death just makes me larger, and that’s silly. I’m actually very small now, being dead; a dust mote in your mind.”

“I’d like to have you back in more than just dreams…”

“Hardly a dream. You’re awake.”

Martin sighed, shook his head. “I think we’ve gone through the worst part, and this is me, sleeping and dreaming, waiting for the whole thing to end. Boredom can do this to us. I think we’re all sleeping now, tired of each other, bored with being in a tiny room.”

“You’ve been thinking of Ariel, haven’t you?”

“I suppose… What can you tell me about her?”

“Nothing you don’t already know. The disadvantage of being dead. I can only be the image of your thoughts.”

“So what do I know about her that I can’t recognize?”

“She’s tough, she keeps her mind about her, she believes in very little, and she has a capacity for great”

love

Theresa lay next to him, snoring lightly. Martin stroked her hip, feeling the tingle of field adjustment in his hands, the constant bind of constraints as the fields decided (if such was the right word) what motion was permitted, and what might be the beginning of a disastrous tumble into one-thousand-g deceleration.

love

for individual, for family, for group, for companions, for ship, for world, for Earth.

How does one come to love a world? Born into it, suffused with it, the world is part of everything and not differentiable. The Dawn Trcoder was a world, as large in its way as any human lifetime; plenty of places to live, plenty of dreams to dream, even allowing them fragments of Earth. Scientific, curious Theodore Dawn, always observing, making notes, bent over his lenses and clear tanks of pond water in the quarters he shared with Martin, his personal equivalent of the cats and parrots other children kept as mutual pets and mascots. The lenses—the moms’ equivalent of microscopes—hovering in the air before Theodore’s face like tiny white jewels, light-refracting fields of optical strength and clarity far better than fluorite. Caught in a small spherical field that allowed in oxygen, but kept water from escaping, several chaoborus specimens, the larvae of phantom midges that Theodore favored so highly. The specimens were kept from escaping by gentle fields… fields within fields, allowing Theodore access to these living creatures that would have been impossible on old Earth.

“Quite lovely,” Theodore said. “And even better—harmless. Aren’t you glad I’m not raising mosquitoes? You’d sneak in at night and destroy my tanks.”

“We’d put up with it,” Martin said.

“No you wouldn’t,” Theodore said. “You’re much too judgmental…” Chaoborus, zooplankters, phytoplankters, varieties of beautiful algae, and above the pond, flying about the room, adult phantom midges buzzing, almost invisible, preening themselves on the walls; ignorant that they were no longer on Earth.

“Do you think we understand where we are?” Martin asked.

“You think we don’t and can’t, not where it counts. Not in our guts and cells. We always carry Earth with us. When a parent dies, the genes remain, and the memories, which are only lesser and weaker threads.”

“My parents are alive, probably, but I can’t feel them.”

“We’re on opposite sides of a gulf of physics difficult for us midges to understand, in our guts,” Theodore said. Musing over his spherical field-bound pond, stirring it with a glass rod, watching the algae twine on the rod, making history among the micro-organisms, the paramecia and rotifers, the euglenoids and diatoms, the desmids, amphipods, ostracods, wreaking havoc among the daphnia.

The comparatively large chaoborus larvae thin as ghosts with vicious curved beaks and black-eyed heads, pairs of beautifully patterned buoyancy organs fore and aft, whisking themselves away with a wriggle to avoid the currents.

Martin rolled over and opened his eyes and felt the tingle in his lids. Sometimes he made moves that were resisted: sudden moves, alarming the fields perhaps, though dropping his substance only a few ten thousandths into the forbidden chasm of one thousand g’s.

It was best not to move at all, and so most of the children did not.

Theresa and Ariel sat talking quietly about Hans the Eternal and others; as they talked, Martin saw Hans and Theodore together, though they had not been close friends, had rarely spoken to each other. Hans asked Theodore what he thought of Martin, whether Martin had what it took to be Pan.

“He doesn’t think so,” Theodore said, winking over his shoulder at Martin. “He thinks he cares too much.”

“Do you think I have what it takes?”

“Nobody who wants to be Pan should be,” Theodore said.

“I don’t want to be…” But there was something like hope on Hans’ face.

Theresa and Ariel discussed the gowns the Wendys would wear when all was done, and they married another world.

Theresa wore this gown as she marched down a vast cathedral aisle. The gown draped white, like a weave of quartz crystals and diamonds, supernaturally supple and beautiful, and in her hair threaded rubies, emeralds, opals, beryls, flowers of sulfur, selenite, celestite, amethyst, garnets, agates, sapphires, and on her hands she wore constellations of Iceland spar, white aragonite, green azurite, blue lapis, representing the dowry of her Mother, and Theodore gave her away, dressed in a suit woven entirely of shimmering midges and butterflies and moths, and Martin waited at the altar. Behind him opened the arms of another world, even more beautiful than Earth, and that meant a guilt of unfaithfulness.

Now the women were talking about having children someday, and Ariel shaking her head stubbornly, saying she would not be a good mother, she was too tough on others, no sympathy, but Theresa said instincts will kick in and they will be tender.

Three days, top to bottom, in this small room, sleeping and talking, eating only a few times, for food did not digest well under the tyranny of volumetric fields grumpy about adding new molecules to the body’s equation.

The bottom of the universe, perversely, was bright, and the top was dark. The Dawn Treader had fallen out of the darkness, away from the muddy twisted ring of stars, but there was still this vast cliff to descend, from three quarters of the speed of light to less than one hundredth of one percent c, a profligate excretion of momentum that must later be regained from fuel in the very system they would try to kill.

They tumbled toward the central furnace, their almost straight-line course gradually curving like an expertly drawn wire. They slowed to one half c, one quarter, one tenth, one hundredth, and now, one thousandth, one ten thousandth.

Breaking and entering. Intent to murder.

The enormous burden of momentum passed away, and the children were no longer fast gods, but pigeons in the head of a very quiet, dark bomb, stealing through the house, the solar system of Wormwood.

Martin opened his eyes and spread his arms, his fingers, savoring the freedom of no tingle, no tyranny.

Theresa leaned over him, already awake. “It’s over,” she said. “We’re here.”

In the first few hours of freedom from the cramped super deceleration space, the children reacquainted themselves with the ship. Martin led them stem to stern, following the map projected by his wand.

Tortoise had taken the shape of a squat dumbbell, the third homeball having split into two hemispheres, absorbing and redistributing the second neck to become a connecting bar between them. The nose was a mere blister on the blunt face of the fore hemisphere, and there was no tail.

Hakim set up the search shop in the nose of Tortoise to see what there was to see. The new star sphere quickly filled with information, and Hakim immediately reexamined their target worlds one by one as Martin observed: rocky Nebuchadnezzar, innermost, Ramses next, and far beyond, on the opposite side of Wormwood, Herod, the massive depleted gas giant. There were still no major surprises at this distance, half a billion kilometers from Nebuchadnezzar, but the images in the star sphere were gratifyingly crisp and clean.

“It’s very good,” Hakim told Martin. “What would we like to know?”

“The makers in the outer cloud should be ready in a few tendays,” Martin said. “We need to confirm our first target, or inform the makers by tight-beam whether we’ve chosen another.” The makers were beyond noach range; a tight-beam message would take days to reach them. “We need to know which is the most active world, and whether there are any defenses.”

Tortoise was one sixth the size of Dawn Treader, but still large enough for the children to rattle around in. The unfamiliar corridors smelled new, like fresh clothes made by the moms. Martin took in as much of the new design as he could, judging its suitability for their needs, finding it adequate, but with an intense, childish kind of disappointment, missing the huge spaces of the Dawn Treader. He put that disappointment aside.

Martin leading, the thirty-five children in the Tortoise crew echoed and laddered down a smaller, shorter neck to the redesigned, rearranged weapons store, where the pods containing the makers and doers that would infiltrate the inner rocky worlds of Wormwood had been moved to prominent position.

Paola Birdsong and Stephanie Wing Feather moved the first pod groupings into six bombships, part of the ritual demanded by the moms—that as much as possible, the children should take responsibility for their weapons, for their assigned tasks, to complete the Job. Martin confirmed the loading, and the War Mother inspected the results. Training was paying off; the work had been done perfectly.

With the first part of the Job done, Martin gave them permission to establish new quarters and manufacture those things they needed. No personal goods or pets had been transferred to Tortoise.

The first group meal would begin in an hour.

Within three days, as Tortoise slid farther down the well of Wormwood’s gravitation, all their familiarization, establishment of quarters, manufacturing of goods, might go for nothing; the ship might have to change again, to deal quickly with whatever defenses the planet killers could muster…

But until that time, Martin wanted to establish a sense of normality, to keep his children as stable and contented as he could.

Still, they all knew that their home had fled. The chances of Dawn Treader being reassembled as it had been were nil. The chances of all of them surviving… of Wormwood having no defenses, no sensors able to detect their presence… were also nil.

Hakim came to Martin in the weapons stores as he finished his inspection, waited patiently, approached the Pan with face alight with enthusiasm. “There’s news,” he said. “More information, and very interesting, too.”

Martin looked at the arrays of craft in the stores, at the bombships on their pylons and the pods of doers attached to toruses. Stephanie Wing Feather and Paola Birdsong floated between the ships like birds between two gray footballs, listening. All the children in the stores listened.

“We should all hear the news together,” Martin decided. “We’ll Update at mess.”

Hakim projected his information after their hasty meal. He showed them Nebuchadnezzar first, as seen from Hare as it streaked through the system: a tan world with spots of reddish-brown and thin ribbons of green.

“As we observed from farther out, this is the more active of the two planets, judging from its crustal vibrations,” Hakim said. “Nebuchadnezzar is very quiet, but it is definitely inhabited—if only by machines. Hare’s sensors tell us, on its pass through, that there are very likely some sorts of machines within the planet. We think the machines occupy the upper crust, nothing below, and they are very efficient. They use fields to transfer substances—possibly gases, water and other cool liquids, molten rock, molten metals, solids, slurries. We cannot judge how many individual biological creatures might be served by these machines, but there are none apparent oh the surface. The surface is deceptively calm. Too quiet, as a soldier or cowboy hero might have observed. Perhaps they feel a need to hide…”

Martin shook his head. “They’re not very good at hiding. If we can detect something, others can, as well.”

Hakim acknowledged that, and continued. “The planet, as we noticed earlier, lacks obvious weather patterns. Its air currents are fixed and stable, a highly unnatural situation. What were once ocean basins have been empty for thousands of years, and there are no reservoirs. For the most part, except for some ancient construction activity, the entire surface seems to be abandoned desert. We conclude that the water in the old oceans was either lost through abrupt weather changes—unlikely—or sacrificed to provide volatiles across thousands of years.”

“For conversion to anti em?” Martin asked.

“Perhaps,” Hakim conceded. “Here is our surprise for the day. Ships much too small to have been noticed before, much too few to really be called commerce—perhaps ten ships traveling in low-energy orbits between Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses, and only one traveling outward to Herod. They all appear to be trailing radioactive particles, indicating primitive anti em drives or perhaps fusion. The ships may be trivial, toys, like…”

“Yachts in a bathtub,” Stephanie Wing Feather suggested.

“Yes. If they are mere toys, then there is no longer spacefaring commerce in the Wormwood system… none that we can detect.”

“If there are any inhabitants, are they physical?” Martin asked.

“My guess is they are not. Not in discrete biological bodies, at any rate. All the moms’ profiles of other worlds and their development characteristics tell us that Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses are old, perhaps a billion years older than Earth, and that their civilizations, if any remain—if there are any intelligences in control of the planetary activity—have transferred to a non-biological matrix.”

“Perhaps they’ve fled Wormwood entirely,” Paola Birdsong suggested.

“Something’s going on down there,” Hakim said, the merest frown crossing his brow. “If the primary civilization has abandoned Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses, they’ve left machines to perform some task or other.”

“It doesn’t make sense. If nobody’s here, and if we destroy these worlds, what do we accomplish?” Ariel asked.

“I believe there are intelligences here,” Hakim said. “There is activity—it is just very low-key. Perhaps they have been hiding for a long time, and they are simply growing lax…”

Martin pondered this for a few seconds. “We go ahead,” he said. “We drop the planetary makers and doers, and if possible, we reconnoiter. Still no evidence of defenses?”

“None,” Hakim said.

“And the five masses inward from Nebuchadnezzar?”

“Still unknown,” Hakim said. “I’m giving them full priority now.”

The system of planets around Wormwood spanned fifteen billion kilometers, the major axis of the outermost planet’s orbit. The Tortoise would not resort to extreme acceleration except in an emergency, and that made the system as vast, with regard to their present flow of time, as the spaces between the stars. It could take them years to explore, reconnoiter… Or they could do their Job and get out as best they could, to rendezvous with Hare, and perhaps begin the new life.

Martin made his quarters small and spare, just large enough to suit two comfortably. He did not request many goods, hoping to set an example for the others.

There were still tough choices to be made, but they would not be made by vote of the children. The decisions were his alone now. The judgment had been passed; the system was condemned. But how much could they contribute to the total effort against the planet killers? How much could they learn here about the development and growth of such civilizations, about intelligences so inclined to destroy and murder?

If Wormwood contained clues to the morphology of such civilizations, Martin argued with himself that they had a duty to learn as much as they could, to help the Benefactors. That meant time, and study—and greatly increased danger.

“I’d like to speak with the War Mother,” he said to his wand. A few minutes later, the War Mother appeared at the hatch to his quarters, and he asked it to enter. The black and white paint on its surface had started to flake. They might have to renew it soon.

He expressed his thoughts about exploring in a few brief sentences, and asked for advice.

“Any knowledge gathered could be most useful,” the War Mother said. “Should we ever be in a situation to pass on what we learn to another Ship of the Law.”

“Would it be crucial!” Martin asked.

“That is impossible to judge until the knowledge is gathered.”

Martin smiled wryly, wondering why he engaged in such conversations at all. As Pan, it was all up to him—to his instincts, which Martin did not trust.

He bit his lip reflectively, sucking in a lungful of cool air. If things went bad on Mars and Venus, if the solar system was (or had been) attacked again and the Benefactors had lost, then the children and records of Earth contained within the Ships of the Law would be all that remained…

Far more than just their individual selves could be at stake. He wondered if, at some crucial moment, all Earth might scream through him, the world in his genes reaching up to his mind, the spirit of terrestrial creation demanding survival at any cost.

Martin sleeved sweat from his forehead. I fear the ghost of Earth.

“Then we concentrate on doing the Job,” he said, “and we learn what we can.”

For once, he was grateful for the War Mother’s silence.

The Tortoise coasted more quietly than any stone. Within, the children prepared, watched, listened to the natural whickerings of Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses and Herod and the high buzz and squeal of Wormwood, tracked the slow courses of the tiny points of light that were ships.

Drifting, drifting, around the shallow well of Wormwood, across its vast gently curved prairie of gravitation.

The children became quieter, more somber.

Theresa and Martin still found occasion to make love, but the love was peremptory, more necessity than enthusiasm. Ramses, slightly larger than Nebuchadnezzar, had once been covered with thick volcanic haze, high in sulfuric acid, still evident in traces in its soil. Some internal anomaly—a huge undigested lump of uranium, perhaps—had kept it hot and heavy with volcanism even into its late old age. It had been tamed only by the action of civilization, perhaps from Nebuchadnezzar if that was where life had first formed around Wormwood—perhaps from Leviathan, the closest star system, or even Behemoth before it became a red giant.

Martin studied the search team’s reports on Nebuchadnezzar hour by hour. Hakim did not sleep; Martin ordered him to rest finally when he found Hakim slumped on a ladder field, hardly able to move.

Down, down…

Time passed quickly enough, too quickly for Martin; there was no time to think the thoughts he needed to think, to reach the conclusions that had to be reached.

The purpose of their journey, perhaps the main purpose of their existence, approached all too rapidly.

The makers deposited in the pre-birth material around Wormwood converted rocky rubble into neutronium bombs sufficient to melt a single planet’s surface.

After reporting their status to Tortoise along channels mimicking the cosmic babble of distant stars, in low-information drones lasting hours, the makers became silent. Not even Tortoise could detect them, or learn where they were; the time for giving them alternate instructions had passed.

Whether Tortoise succeeded or not, the makers would stealthily drop their weapons into the system. The weapons’ journeys would take years…

Martin floated in a net beside Theresa. Both lay awake. For a long time—fifteen, twenty minutes—neither spoke, content, if that was the word, to merely stretch out next to each other, flesh warm against flesh, listening to their breath flow in and out.

“We’re doing it,” Martin said finally.

“You mean, it’s almost done,” Theresa said.

“Yes. The moms have trained us well.”

“To destroy.”

Martin snorted. “Destroy what? The Killers burned themselves out. Or they’ve left. How many thousands of years more advanced were they?” He snorted again, and stroked her arm. “Why did they kill Earth, when they still had their home worlds, and they couldn’t even fill them! Was it just greed?”

“Maybe it was fear,” Theresa said. “They were afraid we would send machines to kill them.”

“Everybody’s afraid in the forest,” Martin agreed. “Kill or be killed.”

“Kill and be killed,” Theresa said.

“I don’t like what I’ve become,” Martin said after a pause. “What I’m doing.”

“Do you like me?”

“Of course I do.”

“I’m doing the same thing.”

He shrugged, unable to explain the contradiction.

“Do you feel guilty?” Theresa asked.

“No,” Martin said. “I want to turn their worlds into slag.”

“All right,” Theresa said.

“Do you?”

“Feel guilty?”

“No. Want to watch.”

She didn’t answer for some time, her breath regular, as if asleep. “No,” she said. “But I will. For those who can’t.”

Falling, falling. Into the bright basement of Wormwood, around the furnace, a hundred million kilometers from Nebuchadnezzar, silent as a ghost, smaller than a midge, with snail-like slowness, observing, Hakim and his team concentrating on the five inner dark masses, Martin concentrating on the discipline, on the Job, keeping their minds tightly wrapped around this one thought.

Going from child to child, Wendy to Lost Boy, talking, encouraging, until his throat was hoarse and his eyes bleary; talking across the days to all at one time or another, maintaining the contact, as his father would have done, across that unreachable spatial and temporal gulf, where simultaneity had no meaning but in the deceived, dreaming mind.

All like a dream, eerily unreal; the new spaces of Tortoise working against their sense of having belonged, triply removed from the realities their bodies had come to understand: Earth, Ark, Dawn Treader. They belonged nowhere but in their work.

Theodore Dawn would have hated this, Martin thought. He would have chafed at the single-minded life-in-illusion; he would have demanded some bridging truth, some connectedness of purpose between what they had once been, on the Ark, and were now, purpose and connection gone missing.

He would have done poorly, or he would have changed as they all had changed, as Ariel had changed, subduing her obvious doubts, hardly ever complaining, drifting with the rest of them on the descending sweep of Tortoise’s orbit.

But later Martin thought, Theodore would have done well; better than I have done, he would have been, chosen Pan, he would have this responsibility; he would miss his ponds and chaoborus, wonderfully glassy ugly denizens of Earth, but he would bear down and focus his energies. The children would respect him and he would not expect them all to like him.

The Earth did not speak for revenge. It spoke for survival.

Down, down.

Martin went from child to child through the Tortoise, the image of his father and mother leading, trying to be to the children what the moms could not.

Strangely, Martin found old experiences opening to him as he spoke to his shipmates, flowers of memory suddenly revived: sucking on his mother’s breast, the warm rich smell of her like roses in a gymnasium, the smile on her face as she looked on him, cradled in her arms, an all-approving smile the moms could not produce, all-forgiving, all-loving, the soft ecstasy of her milk letting down.

He remembered the discipline and love of his father, less gentle then his mother; the guilt of his father when he punished Martin, especially when Martin provoked a spanking; his father’s solemn depression for hours after, locking himself away from wife and son while his mother sat quietly with Martin. The later years, spankings much less frequent—none after he was six—and the days of togetherness in the summers before Earth’s death, after his father’s return from Washington, D.C., investigating the river in a raft, exploring the forest around the house, talking, his father taciturn and solemn at times, at other times ebullient and even silly.

Arthur’s love for Francine, filling Martin’s childhood as a constant like sunlight. Martin did not forget the arguments, the family disputes, but they were as much a part of the picture as wrinkles in skin or mountains on the Earth’s surface or waves on the sea… ups and downs of emotional terrain.

The memories helped Martin keep that sense of purpose they had had when they left the Ark and climbed out of the sun’s basement, up into the long darkness.

“We still haven’t found anything that is obviously a defense,” Hakim pronounced on the eighteenth day. The children of Tortoise floated around him in the cafeteria, listening to the latest search team report. “Planetary activity hasn’t increased or decreased. We haven’t been swept by electromagnetic radiation of any artificial variety we can detect. We seem to be catching them by surprise.”

Martin hung with legs crossed at the rear of the group, Theresa beside him. He laddered to the center of the cafeteria when Hakim had finished.

“We have some choices,” Martin said. “We can drop makers and doers into Nebuchadnezzar first, then the same to Ramses, and hope they find enough raw material to do the Job. Or we can convert all of our fuel and most of the ship into bombs and concentrate on skinning one planet. Because of the lack of volatiles, we probably can’t do much damage to more than one, not right away. Just to skin one planet will probably take most of our fuel and large chunks of Tortoise itself. Or we can sleep and wait for the makers and doers in the pre-birth cloud to send their weapons down.”

“Let’s vote,” Ariel said when he paused.

“No.” He shook his head patiently. “This isn’t a matter for voting.”

“Why not?” Ariel asked, her expression languid, without passion. We all wear killing faces. Faces showing nobody home, nobody responsible.

“Because the Pan makes all decisions now,” Stephanie Wing Feather reminded her.

Martin half-expected Ariel to leave the cafeteria in anger, but she did not. She relaxed her arms, closed her eyes, sighed, then opened them again and watched his face intently.

“This is a tough one,” Martin said. “If we wait long enough, we might learn whether we should hit Herod, or even focus on it. If there are no defenses, if the risk is low, we can suck out all of Nebuchadnezzar’s atmospheric volatiles before the planet is destroyed—much easier and faster than after blowing it up…”

“Strip the atmosphere…” Andrew Jaguar said, shuddering. “Like vampires.”

“We’re going to blow it to dust anyway,” Mei-li reminded him, small voice like a bird’s chirrup.

“Hakim, how close do we need to be to investigate?”

“I don’t think there’s any real gain from being closer than a few thousand kilometers. If need be, we can send out remotes at this distance and create a bigger baseline, gather as much information as we would if we flew right down to the surface… But obviously, we could make a bigger blip in whatever sensors they have.”

“What kind of baseline?” Martin asked.

Hakim conferred with his team for a few seconds. “We think at this distance, about ten kilometers. We could resolve down to bugs in the air, if there are any.”

“The makers and doers have to be delivered from a distance of no more than one hundred kilometers,” Stephanie said. “The bombships, fully fueled, have a range of forty g hours, and that can translate into however many kilometers of orbit we wish, if we’re patient… We know that none of us can live in a bombship for more than about four tendays without going crazy. We could induce sleep, but that wouldn’t be optimum.”

The parameters were now clear to all the children. Each advantage had to be weighed against risk; Martin had worked through the momerath days before, and found several courses equally matched for danger and benefit. Theresa had checked his calculations, as had Stephanie Wing Feather and, he presumed, Hakim Hadj.

“We send out remotes and expand our baseline,” he said. “That seems to involve the lowest risk. We can gather all the information we need in a few days. We pull in the remotes, coast in quietly, release the bombships, pick them up again after they’ve injected the weapons into Nebuchadnezzar, drop our doers to gather volatiles in the ruins, accelerate outward to Ramses as fast as possible, and execute again. If we haven’t found any further signs of activity on Herod, we rendezvous with the robots after a fast orbit around Wormwood. Then we measure our resources, report to Hare, drop doers to mine what few resources there are on Herod, and boost out. The best estimate for a rendezvous with Hare is two years. Another year to swing back to Wormwood to gather up the robots and their gleanings.”

The children groaned. They had done much of the momerath themselves, but hearing it from Martin—losing all hope of fast action and sacrifice of fuel to boost up and out, knowing what they had already suspected, that he would choose the most conservative and practical course, however time-consuming—brought the truth home hard.

Over three years. Awake and vigilant. And then, unlikely to have enough fuel to accelerate to near-c, perhaps centuries to move on to Leviathan…

At the very least, under those circumstances, they would have to sleep. There were dangers in such a long sleep; even a Ship of the Law could grow old.

Saying the plan aloud, when he had hardly thought it through clearly himself, made it seem both more real and strangely beyond real. Young human beings saying such words, planning such things.

As if to highlight the absurdity, Mei-li giggled. Her giggle died quickly and was not picked up around the room.

“We will be in position to release the bombships in six days,” Hakim said.

Nebuchadnezzar was easily visible to the naked eye, a bright diamond among the lesser points of stars. Day by day, it became even brighter, and Martin ordered a star sphere expanded in the cafeteria. As they ate their meals, or gathered in quiet social groupings, they watched their target grow.

The remotes spread their photon-intercepting fields like webs and gathered in clear images of the brown world, as if opening an eye ten kilometers wide.

There were no bugs in the atmosphere—no life crawling on the surface, no organic chemical activity within the upper layers of soil.

Nebuchadnezzar’s subtle motions resembled a feeble, irregular heartbeat, but the profiles of the internal vibrations did not match tectonics. Unlike Ramses’, Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was cool; any internal heat had fled long before.

Martin finished examining Hakim’s figures while the other children slept, two days from H-hour.

The five inner masses remained enigmatic. From this angle to the ecliptic, they could not measure the objects in transit across Wormwood, but a chance star occultation allowed Hakim to confirm that one of the dark objects was three thousand kilometers in diameter, with a mass of approximately fourteen billion trillion kilograms, and only as dense as water. The dark objects might be clusters of neutronium with large spaces between, surrounded by a shell… or they might be balloons filled with water, a tantalizing idea, but unlikely.

“I have no idea what they are,” Hakim said, shaking his head, expression grim and exhausted. “They worry me greatly, Martin.”

Martin replayed the inner mass star occultation and associated graphics and measurement reports, trying to glean with supernatural intuition what could not be seen. “The War Mother has no suggestions?”

“The objects are outside the moms’ experience, I think,” Hakim said. He looked as if he were thinking, but would not say, Or they will not tell us.

But that would be absurd.

“We should pull in the remotes now,” Martin said, shivering slightly.

“Still no signs of defense, no awareness of our presence—no preparation to fight,” Hakim said.

“Nothing we can detect,” Martin added.

“I would appreciate more time with the remotes—more time to find something…”

Martin thought that over for a few seconds, then nodded. “Another twelve hours. But let somebody else keep watch. You sleep.”

“No,” Hakim said. “This is my only duty. I watch, I calculate, I keep you informed… For now, I do not need to sleep.” His eyes stared up at Martin out of sunken orbits. His hair tufted on his scalp, his face gleamed with oil, he smelled faintly sour.

“Sleep for five hours, and get cleaned up,” Martin said, touching his cheek with one hand. “You’ll make mistakes if you push yourself too much. We don’t need mistakes.”

“I will get along with two hours of sleep,” Hakim said. Then, smiling his angelic smile, “And I will take a shower, not to offend.”

“All right. Put Jennifer in charge. She’ll keep an eye out.”

“It is because I am so worried,” Hakim said. “What we do not know…”

When the remotes had been withdrawn, Martin conferred with Stephanie Wing Feather and Harpal Timechaser. Theresa and Jorge Rabbit hovered on the periphery in the otherwise empty quarters, representing the children aboard Tortoise in this final meeting of Pan and Tortoise’s share of ex-Pans.

“Stephanie…” Martin said. “Your thoughts. Twelve hours and we release the bombships. What have I neglected to do?”

“Nothing,” Stephanie said.

“Harpal?”

“Nothing. We’ve done everything we’ve been taught to do, everything we know how to do… But…”

“It’s too good,” Stephanie said. “No defenses, no reaction, quiet and almost dead. Nothing like what we’ve been led to expect, what we’ve trained to fight. And…”

“No volatiles,” Harpal said. “It’s going to be damned difficult to refuel.”

“Right. If there’s anything here at all, it’s a tired old civilization dreaming in its own high-tech grave,” Stephanie said. “Not much satisfaction killing an old codger who doesn’t care.”

“Wormwood doesn’t fit any profiles, does it?”

“It doesn’t,” Martin said. “The War Mother has nothing to suggest, except that this could be—”

“A sham,” Stephanie said. “Something to draw us into a dead system we can’t pull out of, something to waste our energy and time. Flypaper, baited with nasty evidence of past sins.”

Martin touched finger to nose, shrugged. “The War Mother thinks the evidence is pretty conclusive.” He glanced toward Theresa. She seemed to be daydreaming, staring at the wall beyond him.

“What if it is a trap, and we are wasted completely for nothing?” Jorge Rabbit said. Martin didn’t answer.

“We’ve made our decision,” Stephanie said quietly. “We have no proof it’s a trap. We just don’t know everything for sure.”

“The five masses,” Jorge said.

“Nothing’s ever for sure,” Harpal said.

Martin covered the unmagnified image of Nebuchadnezzar with his hand, edge of palm to edge of palm sufficing; or fist. Soft brown world like a dirty rubber ball. The search team conferred among themselves in the cafeteria, leaving the nose temporarily empty, and Martin had chosen this opportunity to see their target alone, photons reflected directly to his eyes.

We can kill you, whatever you are or were. Why don’t you react? Why so silent?

“I don’t think it’s a sham,” William said. “I think they’ve left Wormwood as a kind of sacrifice.” He had entered the nose behind Martin without his noticing. “I think this was their home world, but it’s old now, and they’re old. Maybe they’ve left behind the responsible types, the builders and planners, to wait for execution.”

Martin frowned over his shoulder at William.

William smiled a fey smile in reply to the frown, lifted a hand as they floated beside each other, looking through the transparent nose. “If we were to land and explore their… caverns, tunnels, whatever they have, we’d find the guilty ones waiting for us, ready for justice.”

“Jesus, William,” Martin said, turning away.

“It’s a freaky thought, isn’t it?”

“You said it.”

“The planners would give themselves to us, and the entire world… And it wouldn’t be enough. We want all of them to die, don’t we? Just getting the planners, the leaders, wouldn’t be enough.”

Martin said nothing, growing angry. This kind of fantasizing was more than useless; it was counter-productive, perhaps even bad for their morale.

“I hope you haven’t told anybody about this.”

“I keep my stupid ideas to myself… except for you.”

“Good,” Martin said, perhaps more firmly than necessary.

“Don’t be too hard,” William said. “Can you imagine the kind of guilt the Killers feel, if they feel guilt at all? Maybe they grew up after launching their machines, when it was too late. Or perhaps one tyrannical, fanatic government built and launched the machines, and then fell out of power, and others came in, and they decided the best thing would be to leave all this here for us, to let us destroy their home world, maybe the leaders… That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

“Nice isn’t the word,” Martin said, his anger subsiding. William was always willing to play this peculiar game, somewhere between Devil’s advocate and unbridled imp.

“I’m not really kidding, Martin,” William said. “I think that’s what it must be. If this is a trap, we’re in too close already… What sort of trap works only once, when there might be dozens, even hundreds of Ships of the Law closing in? We’ve come too far for this to be a trap. We’ve got them.”

Martin gave the merest nod.

“You must be feeling very strange now,” William said softly, cocking his head to one side, “It’s so close.”

“We’re here. It’s what we’ve waited and trained for.”

“We never trained for something this easy,” William said. “If they’re sitting ducks, if they just bare their breasts or whatever and shout mea culpa… What will that do to us? Like getting ready to jump over a high wall and finding it’s just a curb. Then waiting years in space, thinking about it. We might go mad. I might go mad.”

“We’ll make it,” Martin said. “How do you feel?”

“Numb,” William said. “I’ll be on a bombship with Fred Falcon. We’ll actually drop the makers and doers. We’ll be out there.”

“I wish I could be with you,” Martin said.

William nodded. “I suppose we’re privileged. Pulling the triggers to avenge the Earth.”

They said nothing for a time, the conversation having swung through so many curves, and no central issue apparent.

“I’m doing fine, William,” Martin said to an unspoken question. “It’s not much fun, but life isn’t supposed to be fun now. Is that what you’re getting at?”

William caressed the back of Martin’s neck. “It shouldn’t be like this. There should be noise, action, danger, excitement.”

“You’re lonely, aren’t you?”

William closed his eyes. “I feel like Rosa Sequoia,” he said. “I wonder how they’re getting along on Hare. They have even less to do than we. Second-line troops.”

“Are you lonely?”

“No, Martin, actually, I’m not very lonely. I’ve kind of given up on the old slicking. It seems so trivial. I think I’ll just shut down the libido and absorb these ambiguities. Not that there aren’t possibilities for exercising the old libido. Very thoughtfully you included a couple of compatriots on this side of the split. They’re less inhibited than I seem to be. There have been offers.”

“But no love,” Martin said.

William closed his eyes again, nodded. “There’s not much love among any of us now. How about you and Theresa?”

“Still love,” Martin said, watching his friend’s face closely.

“Must be a comfort.”

“I never stopped loving you, William.”

“I still don’t need comfort slicks,” William said testily.

“That’s not what I mean. You’re part of me.”

“Not an exclusive part,” William said, looking at Martin from the corner of his eyes, self-deprecatory smile flickering on his lips.

“Pretty exclusive,” Martin said. “Making love to you is like having a wonderful… was like having a wonderful kind of brother, a double, not dangerous, just accepting.”

“Like jerking off by remote,” William suggested. Martin knew that tone; sharp but not mean.

“Not at all.”

“Men know men. Women know women. The great justification of homosexual slicking.”

“William, stop it.”

“All right,” William said, subdued again.

“When I think about things, you’re in my head, and I try to think about what you’d say or do in a given situation. I talk to you in my head, and I talk to Theresa. Brother and sister, and more than that.” He was not actually lying, but this was not strictly true; he had given little thought to William, but did not want William to know that, or to acknowledge it to himself; that he could have passed over William with so little trauma, and yet still regard him with immense affection. What sort of love was that?

“You say you think about me, but you live with Theresa.”

Both stared at Nebuchadnezzar, the planet whose real name they did not know, if it had a name at all.

“Did they ever love?” William asked.

“I don’t give a damn,” Martin said. My friends and my home. They killed the fish in the seas and the birds in the air. They took away our childhood. They killed my dog. “It’s time to get this behind us and start living our own lives. We’ll become shadows if we do this forever.”

“Amen,” William said. “You want Theresa to wear that gown, on another world, our world?”

“I do,” Martin said.

“I’d like to see that. I want to wear something special, too.”

“We all will, I think,” Martin said.

“But first…”

Martin noticed William’s lips working, as if in silent prayer. For safe passage, or forgiveness?

Will safe passage be a sign of forgiveness?

No signs, no consolation, no forgiveness; no blame. The forest was full of wolves.

No God of kindness and justice could allow such a thing. Nature could, but nature kept a balance.

The forest was also full of hunters.

The bombship pilots gathered in the weapons stores, Martin and the War Mother presiding. Between them hung a projected image of Nebuchadnezzar, its aspect changing as it slowly rotated night •into day, the crescent orb visibly growing: two hours until release.

Theresa and William floated beside their craft, faces blank. Fred Falcon joined William. Stephanie, alone beside her ship, and Yueh Yellow River beside his. Theresa would fly a bombship alone. Nguyen Mountain Lily and Ginny Chocolate together; Michael Vineyard and Hu East Wind; Leo Parsifal and Nancy Flying Crow. Seven ships for this sortie.

Martin kept his face blank, hiding the gut-knot within, that nausea of excitement and naked fear, that urge to tremble and run and beg forgiveness of whatever nasty supernatural being controlled things. In his sporadic journal, Martin had written:

We have hugged and made love this morning, eaten breakfast together. I have seen her wrapped in the final gown, and we have sworn that we are married, that we are bound. “We will make children,” she said, and I agreed; when we are out from under the moms, there will be fertility and we will make children, and we will love and live and argue and feel despair and feel brightness, but nothing like this will come to us again; we will have done our Job, and nothing more like this will be asked of us again, please God, we do not understand the Why…

The children gathered in the reduced space of the weapons store, fields dimmed almost to invisibility so as not to obscure the ranked Wendys and Lost Boys. It came time for Martin to speak; awkward, expected pep talk before the cosmically deadly game.

His throat seized and for a moment he could say nothing, just stare at his people with throat and jaw working. Do it. He cleared his throat painfully, swallowed, and said, voice cracking, “You are the finest people I’ve ever known. You are all volunteers, and my friends. We’ve been friends and lovers for over five years now, and we’ve always known that what we are about to do—that’s the reason why… we’re here. We are the best there is, and the moms know that.”

He turned to the War Mother. There had been no rehearsal, no previous discussion between them of what this ceremony should be like, and Martin thought, Damn you to hell if you don’t commit yourself now and say something.

The War Mother did not fail him. “You are indeed the best,” it said. “You have been trained and given tremendous responsibilities, and you have done exceptionally well. There is not a race of beings among all those who made and enact the Law who would not have their sympathies with you now.”

They have sympathies? They feel as we do?

“The Ship of the Law is pleased to be associated with you, to work with you,” the War Mother said. “You are no longer children. Today you are partners in the Law.”

“Good,” Ariel said.

“We’ve voted and judged and now we must act,” Martin said. He raised his fist, acutely conscious of the symbolic nature of this act, and its disturbing connotations, and most of him filled with passion and energy as the fist rose higher, until his arm pointed straight above his head. “For Earth,” he said. “And for us, and all our memories, and our future lives.”

His eyes were moist, warm. Theresa did not weep; William did, and through the crowd of children, others as well, including Ariel, whose eyes met Martin’s briefly. She wiped her tears with her sleeve, stiff gesture and anguished face seeming to say: God damn it, I’m human, too, you bastard.

The children not assigned to weapons backed out of the chamber. Martin was the last to go, after the War Mother, and his eyes lingered on Theresa’s for three long seconds, as if they could live their lives in that moment. They looked away from each other simultaneously. The hatch closed. In the projections of their wands, they saw the pilots enter the bombships.

They saw the ship’s outer hatches open. Glowing fields pushed the bombships outside Tortoise.

The children quickly climbed to the first hemisphere and the cafeteria. Martin, for once unable emotionally to fulfill his duty, left them in the cafeteria and went to the nose. Hakim was there, and Jennifer, but none of the rest of the search team; they were all congregated in the cafeteria, watching the craft outside Tortoise.

Hakim smiled weakly at Martin. Jennifer floated curled behind the star sphere, now showing the bombships trailing Tortoise by a few hundred meters.

“They are all gathered in the cafeteria?” Hakim asked, perhaps more pointedly than he had intended.

Martin nodded. “I can’t be there,” he said softly. “I feel like shit right now. I can’t be in a crowd.”

Hakim put his hand on Martin’s shoulder. Jennifer uncurled and recurled near the transparent nose. The nose was turned away from Nebuchadnezzar.

“Are they going to make it?” Martin asked.

Jennifer shrugged. “I’m not psychic.”

“They will make it,” Hakim said with calm confidence.

“Are you psychic?” Jennifer asked with a kind of innocence, as if he very well might be.

“No,” Hakim said.

Jennifer frowned and concentrated on the star sphere. “Maybe Rosa would know,” she said.

Martin made himself as comfortable as possible in the nose, unfolding a net and hooking it to the wall, then wrapping himself in the net. Andrew Jaguar poked his head through the hatchway, saw Martin, and said, “We’re waiting.”

“I’ll stay here,” Martin said.

“I mean, we’re waiting for orders.”

“There aren’t any for the next hour,’” Martin said. “We drift in close, the Tortoise is on automatic. The bombships do their job and we gather them and we retreat and watch. You know that.”

“We know that,” Andrew said, “but we’re still waiting. We need everybody together, Martin. Everybody.”

Jennifer sniffed. Martin closed his eyes and with a tremendous effort, wanting nothing more than solitude or at most the company of a select few, released himself from the net.

Nothing was appropriate or inappropriate; nothing was condemned. In the cafeteria, four couples made love with theatrical noisiness. Martin skirted them and drifted toward the place the crew of Tortoise had made for him near the cafeteria star sphere. Most eyes were on him, and his weariness and frustration gave way to the numbness of a lamb under the knife. Sacrificing the needs of the self to the needs of the group down to even the smallest impulse to privacy.

The Why. This is the Why.

Hakim and Jennifer followed. Harpal Timechaser sat next to him by the sphere, the only other ex-Pan aboard Tortoise now that Stephanie led the bombships.

Tortoise sharpened all its passive sensors. The star sphere divided to show the bombships, the planetary surface, the heavens beyond, then concentrated on the bombships.

“Still no defenses,” Hakim marveled, head shaking.

“Maybe they’re cowards,” Jennifer said.

Martin looked around the room, suddenly disliking his companions intensely. He shuddered the feeling away and settled into a restless neutrality of emotions, waiting.

The War Mother floated near a wall, still as a monument. After all this is over, can we take a mom with us and set it up in the middle of our town, on the new world, on a pedestal?

The view changed. They saw the bombships up close, all six of them, one by one. Martin recognized Theresa’s ship. He fought to keep the neutrality, but his chest seemed stuffed with straw and his palms were damp. No defenses.

“This is cruel,” said Andrew Jaguar. “We have to do something!”

Martin said nothing. There was nothing for them to do; best to keep them all in one place, all vigilant, all aware of what was happening.

The bombships had descended to within four thousand kilometers of Nebuchadnezzar’s surface. Still, the planet had not changed its aspect; dusty brown with gray patches and green mineral stripes and black spots of reservoirs. Atmosphere clear and calm.

“Hakim,” Martin said softly, “report on seismic disturbances.”

“Nothing new. Same low-level rhythms,” Hakim said.

“Project it for us.”

The traces of crustal and mantle activity moved in graphic display beside the star sphere.

“Can you turn it into sound for us?” Martin asked.

“I will have to increase its frequency, repeat it like an echo.”

“Fine,” Martin said.

So treated, the deep susurration of Nebuchadnezzar became very like a heartbeat, booming and ticking, the repetition false but still informative, ears providing a more natural interpretation of this information than eyes. Martin quickly picked up the actual rhythms of sound as the series of beats rose at once to a higher frequency, dropped back, rose, dropped.

“Small ship between Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses is firing thrusters,” Jennifer reported. With a scowl of concern, Hakim projected the picture, checked the images and interpretation, nodded, glanced at Martin, eyebrow raised.

A very small reaction.

“Pod release in ten minutes,” Harpal said, stating what they all knew, tracking the numbers on their wands.

The room fell quiet. Three of the four couples stopped making love. The fourth became subdued, though still active.

Martin felt sick.

Nebuchadnezzar’s heartbeat changed. Hakim cycled the signal through several enhancements and interpretations, meaning little to most of the crew, and said, “Subsurface activity seems to have decreased.”

Decreased?” Martin asked.

Seen in the star sphere, Nebuchadnezzar’s atmosphere shimmered. Something sang through the Tortoise’s hull, between a bell tone and the screech of a fingernail on slate.

Martin’s entire body tensed and he rubbed his eyes with one hand. Nobody moved. The War Mother did not move. Seconds passed.

“Jesus Christ,” Harpal Timechaser murmured.

“Quiet,” Martin said.

The fourth couple had separated and put on overalls. It would not be decorous to die naked and in the clinch.

Long minutes passed. Two minutes to releasing the pods and scattering the mines.

The atmosphere rippled again. The simulated beat changed abruptly to a chirp-thud and another bell-screech hurt their ears.

“The planet’s crust has risen and fallen a few centimeters,” Hakim reported.

“The entire crust?” Andrew Jaguar asked, incredulous.

“All that we can see,” Hakim said. “I presume the entire—”

The surface of the planet seemed to shatter, hot white lines racing from the poles to meet at the equator, marking off jagged polygons, then dying into racing small reddish lines, fading again to normal brown.

Hakim’s face blanched. “I don’t know what that was… The mines are released.”

“All eleven of the ships in the outer solar system have turned on thrusters,” Jennifer said.

Martin surveyed the room, working to steady his breathing. “Something’s up,” he said.

The star sphere followed the progress of a pod of mines from a bombship. The pod dropped, exploded in a puff, and thousands of mines spread out in a shimmer, disappearing rapidly. Thirty seconds later, massive blossoms of light spread across the atmosphere. Spinning fireballs cascaded like fireworks, dazzling the eye, too many to count.

That was not supposed to happen.

Some of the bombships seemed to ignite with burning halos.

“Strong traces of anti em reactions,” Hakim said. “Extreme gamma ray production, split nuclei forming alpha particles and larger ions. Cherenkov in the atmosphere… I think perhaps the entire planet is made of anti em…”

“No,” said the War Mother. All faces turned to the painted robot. “The sensors do not support this interpretation.”

“Still, there are anti em reactions,” Hakim said, voice trembling. “The mines have detonated prematurely…”

“Have any mines reached the surface?”

“None,” Hakim said.

“Are the bombships pulling away?”

The star sphere showed that the ships were indeed pulling away, four of them surrounded by glowing halos. The halos faded as they gained altitude.

“Four of our craft show strong anti em traces,” Hakim said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Martin said. “Is there a layer of anti em in the atmosphere…?”

“Not possible,” Hakim said, looking to the War Mother for support. The War Mother agreed.

Tortoise had passed beyond Nebuchadnezzar and was now dipping below the ecliptic. The bombships, one by one, had dropped their loads. Three of the ships, upon spreading their mines filled with makers and doers, had produced merely the flowering of immense atmospheric explosions across thousands of kilometers, leaving turbulent scars on the planet’s surface.

The fresh scars made very little difference.

The planet looks like one huge scar, smoothed over by time.

“It’s been attacked before, hasn’t it?” Harpal Timechaser asked.

Martin shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“That’s it. We drilled on that. Nebuchadnezzar has been attacked before. It’s always survived.”

But three of the ships’ weapons had found their marks and dropped to the surface, leaving no flowers of radiation behind; falling and entering, unseen from this distance but tracked by the bombships responsible. These ships rose from their close approach, clearly visible to anyone watching on the planet, to Tortoise, but minus halos of light.

The bombships began their acceleration to be picked up by Tortoise. Nothing followed them; nothing attacked. The defense craft around Tortoise stayed in formation, unchallenged.

“How long until we pick up the bombships?” Martin asked.

“Twenty minutes,” Hakim said. “They have to accelerate and decelerate on combat schedule—they will be almost out of fuel. We could be more leisurely about it, perhaps.” But he didn’t sound convinced. Unexplained things had happened; not all the mines had made it to Nebuchadnezzar’s surface.

Martin bit his fingernail.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into something,” he said softly.

“What?” Hakim asked.

They waited, the crew in the cafeteria silent, or whispering softly. Harpal approached the star sphere, examining the planet closely. “We’ve failed, haven’t we? The seeds from the outer cloud will have to do the Job now.”

“That will take years,” Martin said. He turned to the War Mother. “We can’t get volatiles from Nebuchadnezzar. We’ll have to move on to Ramses and try again. Do you know what happened?”

“There is deception here,” the War Mother said.

“No shit,” Harpal said.

“Bombships are returning. Something’s wrong,” Hakim said.

In the sphere, Martin could see them outlined by tiny sparkles of white light.

“What’s the discharge?” Martin asked the War Mother.

“Not known,” the War Mother said. “The effect produces intense gamma rays, much like anti-matter reactions.”

“Do we keep the bombships out?” Hakim asked.

Martin masked his face with intense concentration, eyebrows knit, lips tightened and pushed out, breath harsh in his nostrils. “That doesn’t make sense,” he said.

The six bombships drew closer to Tortoise, came into position for pickup, signaling their status on noach. All were intact, all weapons dispersed. The first ship in line-up for retrieval was William and Fred Falcon’s.

William’s voice came over the noach. “Mines discharged. I’ve got sparkles all around me. I think I picked something up in the upper atmosphere. Why would my mines discharge? Tortoise!”

Martin asked, “Is it possible the mines were defective?”

Hakim shook his head. “I think not.”

“We’ve never been in combat. Could something on the planet deactivate the mines?” He turned to the War Mother.

“No conclusions are possible. Deactivation of the mines is not inconceivable, but simple deactivation would not cause an explosion. The atmosphere may contain seeker and doer systems designed to attack incoming weapons, but we have detected nothing of that nature. Shielded anti-matter dust does not seem a likely possibility.”

“The weapons could be disguised, or hidden, like our own ships,” Hakim suggested.

“That is possible,” the War Mother said.

“Then they do have defenses,” Harpal said. “Maybe the defenses are trying to break through to the bombships—maybe they’re carrying some back with them.”

“Are they carrying anything?” Martin asked.

Hakim examined the bombships again. “There is no atmospheric residue around them. We are trailing a residue ourselves—a very faint cloud of discharged ions and molecules… That is all I detect. I do not know what the sparkles are. The craft look clean otherwise.”

Martin gritted his teeth, relaxed his face, opened and closed his eyes slowly, found his chest bound with tense muscle, relaxed the muscle and exhaled.

“Bring them in, one at a time,” he said. “Fred and William first. Keep them isolated in a one way field—nothing gets out.”

“Martin, I don’t feel very good,” Fred said over the noach. “My skin’s changing color, or my vision is going bad. William’s sick, too.”

Something was very wrong. Don’t let them in.

Hakim and Jennifer floated nearby. “Bring Fred and William in,” he instructed the War Mother. “Isolated, like I said.”

The bombships took formation behind the Tortoise’s aft home-ball, awaiting instructions. Fred and William’s craft was first in line.

Hakim inquired on the other bombships: “Theresa, Stephanie, any reactions? Problems?”

Their ships also sparkled as if surrounded by fireworks. The other four did not sparkle. Martin thought: The mines from these ships did not explode in the atmosphere.

Stephanie Wing Feather responded: “I feel a little ill. We might have been swept by radiation. The fields should have kept it out, but there was such a burst from our mines…”

“Theresa?”

“I’m okay. I’m a little dizzy but I’m not sick.”

The first bombship entered the hatch. The arresting boom, glowing with a bubble isolation field, reached out to attach to the craft.

Hakim switched the star sphere to a view of the weapons store. Martin’s eyes narrowed.

The War Mother said: “There is danger of—”

Time ran out.

The arresting boom touched William’s bombship. The star sphere filled with light and winked out, leaving dark dazzles swimming in their eyes. Hakim cursed loudly in Arabic.

A violent shudder slammed the crew against the walls. Fields rose instantly between them, suspending them from further harm, but already there were screams of pain and smears of blood.

Anti em, Martin’s inner voice said, too late. The bombships and mines were changed into anti-matter.

The star sphere flickered back for a fraction of a second, showing a lump of twisted, torch-bright wreckage careening through the weapons store, setting off violent blasts and shrapnel wherever it touched. The bombship disintegrated into hissing, sizzling shards; ambiplasma filled the weapons store, and again the sphere disappeared.

Martin’s wand sang with warnings and messages, too many to be projected at once. The ship will do something without consulting us.

“Weapons store and the whole hemisphere is going,” Theresa said from outside. “What happened?”

The other bombships contributed to the chatter.

Stephanie Wing Feather was the last to be heard: “Tortoise, the aft hemisphere is cracking—”

Tortoise spun violently like a whirled dumb-bell, accelerating out of control. Messages from the bombships ceased.

The noise that sang through Tortoise now was more than he could bear. Screaming, Martin shut his eyes and waited for death.

The protective fields around them abruptly vanished and they were shoved into an agonized mass in one corner of the cafeteria, arms and knees and heads and torsos interlocking with the force as if manipulated by a giant puzzlemaker. Bones cracked and blood misted.

The fields came on again, but jammed the crew against one another, unable to pick them apart and suspend them separately. All was failing; control was gone, they could see nothing and feel nothing but their crush and pain.

The ship twisted like a snake. Martin opened his eyes and tried to move but could not. He lay meshed with Andrew Jaguar, Hakim pressed behind him. Martin’s face threw globules of blood against a bulkhead in the flashing twilight. Barely three or four seconds had passed; he still clutched his wand, and Hakim’s fist and wand ground into his calf. He could not move or think.

All had returned to the animal, to protoplasm.

Fear and the smell of blood and pressure like an enormous hand grinding them into the cafeteria wall.

I’m sorry

Theresa

William

Relief. Blessed nothing.

I suppose it picked us apart and put us here, was his first thought on awakening and finding himself surrounded by a green net and a gently throbbing field. Suspended in the field, all his body a huge bruise, medical doers like tiny golden worms criss-crossing, touching his bruised flesh, nothing touching him but the golden worms, mouth dry but not parched, top of head burning.

They all hung in darkness. A cool breeze pricked the hairs on his head and chest. For a moment Martin thought of being dead, corpses laid out for ejection into space. But all the green fields pulsed gently and doers wove around them all. He could not see to identify the faces and he could not count all the bodies so suspended.

William is dead. And Fred Falcon.

There were others awake now, making sounds not like moans, more like sighs and whimpers. All too weak to talk.

A mom floated beside Martin. He did not know whether it actually appeared out of nothing, or whether his attention had flagged; consciousness was a sometime thing under the ministration of the golden worms.

“How long since we were hurt?” he asked.

“Two tendays,” the mom said. He noticed a remnant of black and white paint on the front; this was still the War Mother.

“Where are we?”

“We have moved to a wide orbit around Nebuchadnezzar. There has been no further attempt to damage the ship.”

“Why not? They could kill us.”

“I do not know,” the War Mother answered.

“How many of us died?”

“No one who remained aboard Tortoise has died, but all are injured. Half of Tortoise was destroyed. William Arrow Feather and Fred Falcon died first. Yueh Yellow River’s craft disintegrated.”

“They were turned into anti em, weren’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Anti-matter doesn’t behave exactly like matter… Their chemistry was going wrong, wasn’t it? I should have known that. I should have seen the clues, the sparkles… Our outgassing and fuel remnants reacting with the bombship. I should have seen it.”

“I also did not draw the right conclusions until it was too late. You are not to blame,” the War Mother said.

“There were four. The other two… What happened to Stephanie and Theresa? Can you convert them back to matter?”

“We cannot,” the War Mother said. “Tortoise collided with one of the unconverted craft during the explosion. Nguyen Mountain Lily and Ginny Chocolate died. Stephanie and Theresa survived. Hu East Wind, Michael Vineyard, Leo Parsifal, and Nancy Flying Crow are back aboard and safe.

“Stephanie was killed later by my unsuccessful attempt to convert her craft back to matter. We do not have the technique or the understanding of how the conversion was accomplished—”

Martin turned his head away from the War Mother, knowing now that Theresa was dead, too.

“Stephanie Wing Feather’s craft was only partially converted, or converted unevenly. It exploded, causing yet more damage to Tortoise.’”

“Then you tried again with Theresa.”

“No. Theresa is still in her craft.”

Martin jerked his head around. “She’s alive?”

“She is still alive.”

Martin’s weak grip on consciousness wavered and the War Mother seemed to shimmer before him. He pushed the dark pressures away and said, “Let me speak to her.”

The War Mother raised his wand to his hand with a slender green ladder field. The wand projected an image of Theresa’s bombship into his eyes. The skin of her bombship still sparkled, but sharp pulses of light occurred much less often. The craft drifted a hundred kilometers from Tortoise.

Martin saw Theresa’s face, wrapped in the folds of her couch, ladder fields glowing fitfully around her.

Martin spoke her name. She fumbled to complete the noach connection.

“You’re awake,” she said listlessly. Her face had yellowed, her hands ulcerated; her anti-matter chemistry, tuned to a slightly different physics, did not match her biological makeup. She was very ill. “I can’t see you too well,” Theresa said. “Were you badly hurt?”

“I think I’m healing. So are the others.” His voice wobbled with emotion and he swallowed to control it. “I screwed up, Theresa.”

“You couldn’t have known.”

“The ship’s badly hurt, I think.”

“The War Mother tells me about half of it is left,” Theresa said. A picture of Tortoise from her perspective grew above Theresa’s image; one hemisphere, a blunt-ended, debris-scarred pylon, drives gone. “Some amazing things,” Theresa said. “The moms actually used the explosion—William and Fred—to propel the ship away from Nebuchadnezzar. The ship turned into it, used it. I followed… we all followed.”

“How… How are you feeling?” Martin asked.

“I’ve been in this can for two tendays. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I can’t eat. I’m pretty weak. I’ve been waiting—”

“I’ll ask the War Mother. We’ll try everything.”

Theresa shook her head. “They got us good. They know things the Benefactors don’t.”

Or aren’t willing to teach us, Martin thought, but that didn’t make sense; the War Mother could have converted the craft while the injured crew slept and nobody would have been much the wiser. Theresa was right. We’ve been aced.

Martin looked at the War Mother. “You tried, and it didn’t work?”

“Stephanie Wing Feather agreed to an experiment. She is dead. We cannot turn anti-matter into matter.”

“You’re supposed to understand,” Martin said. “How can you be ignorant about this?”

“The techniques are unknown to us.”

“Jesus, I’m not asking for so much, just learn how to do it! She’s dying!”

The War Mother said nothing. Martin wrapped his face in his hands.

“I’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” Theresa said. “I’m glad you did before… I have a plan, and it’s not much, but it’s something. I’ve asked the War Mother to make a strong field and put pellets of matter into it, with me. I’m behind the field. You’re protected. The explosion could be even more powerful than Stephanie’s. That’s what Stephanie asked for. If the experiment didn’t work. It didn’t. She helped push you—”

“No!” Martin shouted.

Theresa closed her eyes as if to sleep. “I’ve stayed this long to talk to you. Maybe it would have been easier to just do it while you were asleep. The War Mother says it would be useful.”

“We’ll take you with us, carry you in a field,” Martin said. “We’ll work on some way to convert you. Jennifer can think of something if the War Mother can’t.”

“I was being selfish,” Theresa continued, as if she hadn’t heard him. “I wanted to say some things to you, make sure you were all right. I wanted to see you again and talk with you.”

“Please,” Martin wailed, suddenly back in the crowded chamber aboard the Ark, watching the Earth die, and knowing even as a young boy what he was losing. He struggled but all he could do was twist in the field.

“Right now I’m good for nothing and I hurt. I thought about going back to Nebuchadnezzar, looking for a target, but the War Mother and I agreed, I’d just fizzle out and give the planet another useless scar.”

God damn it!” Martin screamed.

“Please,” Theresa said, laying her head against the neck rest. “Let’s just talk while there’s time.”

Martin felt immediate shame and sobered. “I love you,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t want you to go away.”

“I can’t come back to you, Martin, and that means I’m dead already.”

He struggled against the fields again but kept his face under control. “We need to think.” He stared at the War Mother, face wreathed with a child’s bitter disappointment. “Nothing?”

“She is suffering and will not survive much longer,” the War Mother said.

“I was selfish,” Theresa said. “I’m hurting you more than if I just—”

“No, no. I’m glad you stayed.” He pushed to be closer to her image. “I’m… I’ll tell you something. I’m going to tell you about the new home.” He made a supreme effort to put on a face of expectancy and joy. “It’s going to be far away from here and so beautiful, Theresa. We’ll make it. We’re going to do the Job, and we’ll go there, and I swear it will be beautiful.

“I’ll wear my suit. All the Lost Boys will wear their suits. All the Wendys will wear gowns. We’ll step out on the planet, and we’ll marry the new home. We’ll remember everybody, and they’ll be with us, and we’ll grow food, and make wine, and babies, and we’ll… Oh, Jesus, it will be such a party, Theresa.”

Her face relaxed. “I can see it,” she said.

“You’ll be there with me, honey.”

“I think I will.”

“We’ll do it,” he said. He had run out of words.

“Martin, Tortoise tells me it’s ready. I’d like to go now. I want to help you get to the new home. Can I do it now, my love?”

Martin could not speak. He could hardly see. He pushed against the field like a fly in a web. The healing doers hummed.

“Goodbye.” Theresa blew him a kiss.

Her image was replaced by a view from the rear of Tortoise. Theresa moved her bombship into position.

Martin shook his head, disbelieving.

He wanted to keep her alive as long as possible, to make up for the awkwardness and inadequacy of his last words to her. He wanted to scream but did not.

Martin closed his eyes and turned away, but he could not keep them shut; he wanted to see, to feel and appreciate the push, to realize for her sake as the first step into grief that Theresa was becoming something so absurd and simple as acceleration.

He whispered her name. She might have heard.

Theresa’s bombship hung steady as pellets of mass approached. The stars moved behind her, peaceful and constant; Wormwood’s corona flared in silence beyond a shadowed, ripped edge of Tortoise’s tail.

The pellets closed.

Ambiplasma bloomed brighter than Wormwood. Theresa’s bombship wasped within the fields, frenzied by inequalities of blast. Light ate her. She was eaten by light clean and uncompromising, the opposite of space, of night and ending, all light, all colors.

The hull sang high and sweet like the tremolo of a flute.

Martin’s scream came and he choked on it, struggling against the mercy of the healing doers.

Tortoise moved slowly between the worlds, her children ignored by Nebuchadnezzar, by Ramses, by Herod. The silence of these grim barren worlds proclaimed defeat.

Within, as the ship repaired itself, as the Wendys and Lost Boys healed, Martin thought about the Killers, the tricksters, impersonal, unseen.

As on Earth, so it was with the traps of Wormwood. Luring, testing, destroying.

He slept to the humming of the golden doers, finishing their work.

Came William this time. “You’re dreaming of me, aren’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“I’m glad, Martin. I was pretty sure you wouldn’t forget.”

But he could not dream of Theresa.

Until now, Martin had wanted revenge, but he had not felt the extraordinary burn of hatred.

These monsters had cost him too many worlds, too many loves.

The children had been brushed away with a casual swat, crippled by an enemy who knew more tricks than their Benefactors. The survivors had been left to starve in a depleted void.

Tens of billions of kilometers away, Hare fell downward to the brightness.

Martin came out of his healing field to arrange things, to talk on the noach with Hans, who suppressed emotion in his voice, as Martin expressed no emotion in his. And then he led the children into a long sleep. No dreams, just coldness.

Tortoise rose from the pit of Wormwood to meet her sister.

There would be no defeat, no giving up.

And no peace.

PART TWO

Ten years in cold, tracking each other on the rim of a shallow well: Tortoise and Hare. In defeat, caution, conserving resources. Ten years would not matter in this war of centuries.

While the crew slept, the ships came together again and made a new Dawn Treader, half its previous length, only two home-balls connected by a short neck. Some old spaces came back, though empty of pets and personal effects.

The schoolroom and cafeteria remained. No damage showed, but the fuel reserves wrapped around the neck were much reduced.

Martin awoke a month after the rejoining, to consult with the moms. Field-wrapped in a cushion of warm air, he laddered through the cold, evacuated chambers of the Ship of the Law, approving or suggesting changes. He was not sure why he had been awakened; perhaps the moms were interested in the changed psychology of a crew facing defeat and death, and sought to study one individual’s response. If so, they found Martin taciturn.

He had suffered no ill effects from the long cold sleep. He thought he much preferred sleep to years between the stars, these brief silent deaths between bright lives.

But there was a handicap to cold sleep. They would all awake with disaster fresh in their minds, their emotions raw, and immediately have to go to work. Martin was angry and frightened and twisted to such an extent he wondered if he was ill. How much psychological damage had he sustained? He could not know; there was no time for grieving and readjustment.

None of the moms carried a mark of paint. Either the marks had flaked away completely during the ten years, or the War Mother had returned to the bulk of the ship, emerging with Martin from a different kind of sleep.

Martin completed his inspection in five hours. A mom accompanied him to the chamber where the crew slept. “It is time to awaken everyone,” it said. “Final deceleration will begin before they are revived. We will approach the inner worlds within two tendays.”

“Good,” Martin said. “Let’s go.”

He listened to the winds blowing through the ship as atmosphere and warmth returned. Isolated in a small room next to the sleep chamber, he felt weight return, and stood on his feet for the first time in ten years.

The others came awake in groups of five, were tested by the moms for any health problems, cleared, and gathered slowly, quietly, in the schoolroom.

The ship’s floor felt cool to their bare feet.

Martin stayed away from the crew until they gathered in the schoolroom. His mind wandered; he thought of the children’s pets, which would not return; Dawn Treader did not have reserves to spare. Martin did not know how this would affect morale; he thought they had other and larger griefs to deal with first.

He could hardly bring himself to face the crew and tell what had happened; he did not want to feel their grief as well as his own.

But duty at least remained, if no direction or feeling, and he spoke to them, to start and to finish, to do what he knew must be done.

“We’re no longer children,” Martin told them. The schoolroom at least had changed little, with a star sphere at the center, filled with thirty-eight men and thirty-seven women. “We’ve fought and lost. We may not be mature, or very smart, but we’re no longer children.”

The crew listened in silence.

I’ve fought and lost,” Martin said. “I missed what should have been obvious.”

“The moms missed it, too,” Hakim said, but Martin shook his head.

“A decade has passed. My term as Pan has long since expired. It’s time to choose a new Pan. We should do that now.”

Ariel sat looking at her folded hands.

“I nominate Hans,” Martin said. “Hans is my choice for Pan.”

Hans stood in a group of Hare’s crew, big arms folded, lips tightening slightly, pale skin reddening. “We usually measure time by how long we’re awake,” he said. “By that measure, you still have some months left.”

“Hans did a fine job commanding Hare,” Martin said, ignoring the comment. “His instincts are better than mine.” He looked briefly at Hans: Do not make me say it more clearly. Hans looked up at the ceiling.

Alexis Baikal seconded the nomination.

“We’ll take any other nominations,” Martin continued.

The crew looked among each other, then Kimberly Quartz said, “I nominate Rosa Sequoia.”

Rosa’s broad face flushed but she said nothing. Decline, Martin silently suggested, swallowing back an even deeper sense of dread. No sane person would nominate Rosa.

“I second the nomination,” Jeanette Snap Dragon said.

Martin surveyed the crew.

“I nominate Hakim Hadj,” Paola Birdsong said.

That was a pretty good choice, Martin thought. Hakim looked up in surprise and said, “I decline. I have my place, and it is not as Pan.”

“I renominate Martin son of Arthur Gordon,” Joe Flatworm said.

“Decline,” Martin said.

There were no further nominations.

“Vote through wands,” Martin said. The voting was quick: sixty-seven for Hans, eight for Rosa. Martin projected the results, then laddered forward to offer his hand to Hans. Hans shook it lightly and broke the grip quickly.

“Hans is the new Pan,” Martin said.

“I don’t want any ceremony,” Hans said. “There’s work to do. I appoint Harpal Timechaser as Christopher Robin.”

“Decline,” Harpal said.

“The hell you will,” Hans said. “We’ve had about enough emotional shit. Take the job or we’re all damned.”

Harpal gaped. Without waiting for his answer, Hans pushed through the crew to the edge of the schoolroom and the door, twisted around with feline grace, and said, “Martin’s right. We’re not children. We’re scum. We’ve failed and we’ve lost friends. I condemn us all to hell until we kill these goddamned worlds, all of them. We’re already dead; there isn’t enough fuel to get out of here and go any place decent. Let’s take these sons of bitches with us.”

The crew began to look at each other now, shyly at first, then with a few reckless grins.

“God damn it,” Paola Birdsong said, as if trying out the word for size. It was much too big a word for her, but the solemnity passed from her face, replaced by a grim, lively determination.

Rosa Sequoia floated as still as a statue, face as impenetrable as a mom’s.

“Let’s go see what’s up,” Hans said.

Hakim approached Martin as the crew echoed and laddered out of the schoolroom. “There have been changes,” he said conspiratorially. “I would like you to be on the search team.”

“Hans should—”

“Hans has no say, unless he wishes to disband the search team and start over. I do not think he will ask for that, Martin. I would enjoy working with you.”

“Thank you,” Martin said. “I accept.”

Hakim smiled. “My friend,” he said, touching Martin’s shoulder.

There had indeed been changes. “I do not think we wasted our time,” Hakim said as Hans, Harpal, and the search team gathered in the nose before the star sphere.

Nebuchadnezzar was no longer a brown world. Marked by streaks of bright red running longitudinally from pole to pole, dark lines like cracks covered the surface.

“It looks sick,” Thomas Orchard said.

“It is sick,” Martin said in wonder. “Some of our makers and doers got through.”

Hans regarded the star sphere image with chin in hand, frowning. “I thought everything we sent down turned to anti em and blew up.”

“Three pods got through,” Martin said. “We assumed they were destroyed some other way, but apparently they weren’t.”

Hans said nothing for a few seconds.

Hakim glanced at Martin almost shyly, as if preferring still to think of him as Pan. “Perhaps not all is lost,” Hakim said.

“Bullshit. We’re dead,” Hans said. “But we may not die in vain.”

“Perhaps that is what I mean,” Hakim said.

“All right,” Hans said. “How long would it take for seeds to come down from the outer haloes?”

“Nine or ten years,” Martin said. Harpal concurred.

“The planet’s still there. Either they haven’t come in yet, or they were deactivated. Can we signal them?”

“They should pick up the noach,” Harpal said. “If they haven’t been destroyed.”

“Let’s do it,” Hans said. Hakim made the arrangements on his wand. The results were almost instantaneous; a signal sent out, a signal returned from a seed carrier to the ship’s noach receivers. The carrier reported that eleven seeds had been delivered to Nebuchadnezzar’s interior, sufficient to cook the planet’s entire surface to a depth of fifty kilometers. Detonation of the seeds was imminent. Seeds would be delivered to Ramses within two tendays.

“I’ll be damned,” Hans said. “We’ve come to just in time for a show.”

The search team and Martin moved closer to the star sphere.

“Let’s send out remotes and take a closer look,” Hans said. “We’re how far?”

“Four hundred million kilometers from Ramses. Two hundred and fifty million from Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar must be a very sick planet,” Hakim said. “We were more successful than we ever hoped.”

“I trust in nothing,” Hans said. “Martin didn’t make any obvious big mistakes, and we still got whipped badly. I have to be that much better.” He smiled almost shyly at Martin, suggesting that they might share some secret joke, and his smile actually took a weight from Martin’s shoulders; he was not anathema, at least not to Hans. “If the planet’s sick, and if our doers have jammed its defenses, we don’t have to worry—but we haven’t dropped doers on Ramses, and anything could happen there when the seeds arrive to be inserted. Am I right?”

Harpal and Martin nodded. Hakim was busy releasing remotes to increase their baseline. “What about those orbiting dark masses?”

“They have not changed,” Hakim said, interrupting himself. “The same orbits, the same masses, the same sizes, judging by occultations.”

“And the small craft?”

“We are actually not far from one such,” Hakim said. “They are still in orbit. They have returned to status quo.”

“I’d like to see the close one,” Hans said.

“I have records from the past few tendays, recorded by the ship,” Hakim said. “I will play them back.” The star sphere sectioned and they watched a small bright point grow in size in compressed time to a long, blunt cylinder, gray in color, featureless, barely ten meters long. “It is coasting,” Hakim said. “Quiet, no drives;”

“Can we take it out?” Hans asked.

Hakim looked to Harpal and Martin.

“I suppose,” Harpal said dubiously. “Why waste the effort?”

“I want to try,” Hans said dryly. “I guess I give the order, am I right?” He lifted his wand. “We’re how close to this little slicker?”

“Two million kilometers.”

“I want two rifles to waste a little fuel, see if we can destroy it. That’ll wake the sons of bitches up if they’re still sleeping, or if they’re just logy from dealing with our doers. If they don’t react, we know something…”

“What?” Martin asked.

“That these orbiting ships aren’t important, or…” Hans shrugged. “That the planets are sitting ducks.”

“Or something else,” Harpal said.

“Keep it up,” Hans said, not unkindly. “Keep badgering me. What else?”

He’s getting into this much more quickly than I did. Good, Martin thought.

“Or they’ve got another trap set.”

“That’s what I think. But… I’m about to make the same mistake Martin did. I’m going to spring their trap and see what they can do to us. We survived the first one. Maybe we can survive the second. And if not, well…” He rubbed his palms together, as if scrubbing away dirt. “Our grief is shorter, hm?”

Martin shivered. Here was something he had never felt as Pan: fatalism. Hakim sensed it too, and looked away, swallowing. It was a reaction the others might embrace; a Wagnerian dedication to duty, a mighty blow against the enemy, valiant but useless, ending in death.

“Too strong, huh?” Hans asked, as if Martin had said something. “All right. I’ll tone it down, but I still want two rifles out there. Kill it.” He looked to Harpal. “Go to it, CR.”

Harpal left the nose. Hans concentrated on the cylinder for a moment, frowning. “I can’t imagine what purpose they serve, except… Hakim, could they work as mass detectors? Very sensitive to orbital changes caused by anything large entering the system?”

Hakim considered this. “I cannot say for sure, but I think there would be better ways to do that…”

“You could ask Jennifer,” Martin suggested.

“She gives me the shivers,” Hans said briskly. “But you’re right. What other purpose? They accelerated hours before our assault… Psychological weapons. I can’t buy that. These things don’t give a damn about our psychology. They just want us dead.”

“I have an idea,” Thomas Orchard said. The other members of the search team had been keeping a low profile, taking Hans’ measure now that he was Pan.

“Give it to me,” Hans said.

“I think they’re remote signaling stations. Something goes wrong in the trap, they survive a little while longer… They don’t attract much attention because they are small, because they seem to have primitive drives.”

“And…” Hans said, tapping his little finger again, “they accelerate just before an attack to be ready to zip out of here, if everything goes to hell…” He smiled and ran his hand through his stiff blond hair. “God damn. I like that. It makes sense.”

“But we can’t be sure,” Thomas said, proud to have Hans’ approval.

Born leader, Martin thought with a twinge.

“We can be sure of nothing in this miserable place,” Hans said. “I say we try to take one out, and if they’re vulnerable, we’ll take them all out. Meanwhile, one planet down… maybe. I’ll be interested to see how Ramses responds.” He lifted his fist and grimaced. “Slick ’em all!”

Away from the nose, going with Harpal to choose two rifle pilots for the job, Martin broke into a sweat. He lingered a few meters behind Harpal and wiped his face on his sleeve.

Ten years. Theresa and William had been dead ten years—and the others. Yet he had seen Theresa just a few days ago. She was fresh in his mind, her words were fresh.

A private and selfish bitterness came over him. He stood on the edge of a mental gulf filled with emptiness. He closed his eyes and actually saw this gulf, melodramatic imagery nonetheless real and painful. Guilt at this private bitterness could not drive it away. Others grieved; why should his grief be any the worse?

Martin told himself to catch up with Harpal, now almost one third of the neck ahead. His body refused to move.

“What are you doing?”

He turned and saw Ariel. The despair on his face must have been obvious. She backed away as if he were contagious. “What’s wrong?”

Martin shook his head.

“Tired?” she asked tentatively.

“I don’t know. Bleak.”

“Be glad you’re not Pan,” she said, not forgiving but not accusing.

“Hans will do a good job,” Martin said automatically.

“Something’s wrong,” Ariel pursued. “What is it?”

“Nothing for you to worry about.”

“You’re having a reaction, aren’t you?” she said. “You were strong and stalwart, and now you’re paying for it.”

He grimaced. “You were always so full of bullshit,” he said before he could think to keep quiet.

“That’s me, bullshit babe,” Ariel said softly. “At least I don’t get trussed up like a lamb for my own slaughter.”

“I’m okay,” he said.

“Where are you going?”

“With Harpal. To pick rifle pilots.”

“Then let’s go,” Ariel said. “We have to keep moving.”

She treated his pain as something trivial. His hatred for her burned like fire. But he followed her along the neck to the aft homeball, still bleak, but at least moving, doing.

Paola Birdsong and Liam Oryx volunteered to take the rifles out. Their journey would last a day, as planned by Hans and Harpal.

Hans and Ariel accompanied the chosen pilots to the new weapons store. There were only thirty craft in the smaller space, all newly made after the destruction of William’s bombship. The designs were familiar, however. Martin and Ariel watched the two volunteers enter the slender craft, checked out their systems through the wands, stood behind ladder fields as the ships pushed through the hatch on pylons.

The rifles began their journey of hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

“I feel guilty about keeping my room temperature above freezing now,” Ariel said. “We have so little fuel. I hope this is really worthwhile.”

Martin shrugged and left the weapons store for the schoolroom.

“Where are you going?” Ariel asked. He told her. “Can I come with you?”

Martin was surprised into a long, even a rude, silence. “You can go wherever you want,” he said. “We’re gathering to see if anything happens to Nebuchadnezzar.”

“You need company. I don’t want to see you bleak again.”

He closed one eye, squinted at her, and again, without thinking, said what was on his mind: “I can’t figure you. You were such a bitch when I was Pan. Now it’s sweetness and light. Are you crazier than I am?”

She backed away, stung, then said, “Probably. What’s it matter now?”

To that, he had no answer.

The crew gathered around the star sphere in the schoolroom, all but Hakim and Luis Estevez Saguaro, who stayed in the nose to keep working. “What we learned in training makes us think this planet’s really sick with our doers,” Thomas Orchard explained, pointing out large brown and red patches on Nebuchadnezzar. “Whatever turned our people into and em may have been failing to start with—it didn’t stop some pods from dropping doers. And it didn’t convert all our ships. Now we think the machinery, the defenses, are completely gone.”

“How long until it blows up?” David Aurora asked.

“It won’t blow up,” Harpal said. “It’s just set to cook.”

“That’s what I mean,” David said, smirking. Martin watched the crew closely, uneasy, still bleak despite Ariel’s company.

“Any minute now,” Thomas said.

“Then we got a win,” David continued, raising his fist in a victory salute.

“Fat lot of good it does us,” Ariel said. “Two more planets to go, and so little fuel we can’t escape.”

“It’s something,” Harpal said.

“I don’t think it’s much,” Erin Eire said at the rear. Martin had not even seen her since the awakening, not closely enough to pull her apart from the crowd. “I think we all know this place isn’t the real target.”

“What makes you think that?” Thomas asked.

A mom entered the schoolroom. The crew fell silent as it floated to the center, but when it said and did nothing more, they resumed.

“Wormwood’s a tar baby,” Erin said. “We got stuck. We might blow off the tar baby’s arm or leg. But it will still be sticky enough to get those who come after.”

“A seed carrier signals by noach that demolition is beginning,” the mom announced. The crew cheered, but not as lustily as they might have. “We will see the results visually within ten minutes.”

Thomas shifted from the planet view and caught the rifles on their way to the nearest orbiting cylinder. His wand sang and a message appeared for his eyes only. “That’s Hakim,” he said. “Things are happening again…”

Martin followed Thomas to the nose. Hans floated with arms wrapped around legs, watching the search team put together their information.

Hakim played the wands and the data banks like musical instruments.

“Get Jennifer Hyacinth up here,” Hans said. Thomas called Jennifer to the nose.

Martin quickly read the information projected by Hakim’s wand. The five inner orbiting masses had diffused into elongated clouds.”

Harpal had closed his eyes. The air smelled of tension. Hans seemed a still point in the swirl of motion around the star sphere. He faced the projected information with unmoving eyes, not really seeing it. Martin knew what Hans was up to: he was trying to put together a clear picture through the clutter and uncertainty.

Jennifer Hyacinth arrived in the nose a few minutes later. She squeezed in beside Hans to be in the best position to see the information.

“The masses are the next part of the trap,” she said, frowning.

“Good girl,” Hans said. “We’re in close, the planet is going, so we’re obviously dangerous and they don’t want us to escape. They don’t know how much fuel we have left, or what we’re capable of…”

“We’ve done better than previous contenders,” Martin said.

“Maybe,” Hans said. “Harpal, what—”

“The dark masses could be loose-packed neutronium bombs,” Jennifer said. “The measurements are about right.”

“Good Christ,” Harpal said. “That many bombs could wipe out every planet in the system five, ten times over. If we could gather them—”

“They’re falling into Wormwood,” Hakim said.

Fresh diagrams floating in the air showed the rearrangements of the inner masses, their drift toward the star, estimates of time of entry into the heliosphere. “They’re being pushed in,” Jennifer said. “I think—”

“Wormwood’s going to go,” Hans said. “Jennifer, work up some momerath on what that will mean for us. Martin, coordinate with the moms. Tell the rifles to come back in, fast.”

“Wormwood’s particle wind is partially channeled to the poles,” Jennifer said. “There must be powerful fields controlling its interior. When it blows, if those fields are still in place—and I don’t think they could just be switched off—it won’t expand as a sphere…”

Martin pulled back and spoke through his wand to the moms.

Hakim pulled up a picture of Nebuchadnezzar’s surface glowing from the internal plasma of their seeds, but that seemed inconsequential now; the second part of the trap was indeed about to close.

The Dawn Treader orbited less than two hundred million kilometers from Wormwood. If the star went supernova, a tremendous burst of neutrinos would blow away the star’s outer layers.

Neutrinos in normal quantities were less substantial than any ghost, capable of traveling through light year thicknesses of lead unimpeded. But if they were present in such huge numbers, their interactions with matter—with the Dawn Treader and everything else in Wormwood’s vicinity—would become deadly.

Martin had no idea what so many neutrinos would do to their chemistry, but the sheer force of the neutrino blast could tear them to pieces.

Jennifer seemed lost in an ecstasy of calculation.

A mom appeared in the nose. “If this information is correct,” it said, “there is both danger, and extraordinary opportunity.”

Jennifer’s face lit up. “There could be channeling of the blast in different areas,” she said. “Neutrinos will pour out in all directions, but most of the star’s mass may push through the poles, making two jets, like a quasar.” She linked her hands and used two thumbs up and down to show the flow.

“I concur,” the mom said.

Hans looked between Jennifer and the mom, biting his lower lip, and slowly uncurled, stretching his arms. “What do we do?”

“We use all available fuel for rapid acceleration into a new orbit to pass over the star’s south pole,” the mom said.

Jennifer laughed as if this were the funniest thing in the world. Tears came to her eyes. “Right, right!” she said.

“We can protect the ship’s contents against most of the effects of a neutrino storm,” the mom continued. “We will use neutrino pressure to propel us out of this system.”

“We’ll be like a seed in the wind,” Jennifer said. “If we hold together, we’ll be blown out into deep space.”

“The post-explosion environment will be rich with volatiles from Wormwood,” the mom continued. “We will gather volatiles even as we are propelled outward.”

“They want to destroy us, but they may save us!” Jennifer said.

“Then why are they doing this?” Harpal asked. “Why give us this gift?”

“Very likely, they will destroy us,” the mom said. “But the opportunity exists, if we are skillful, and very quick. Alert the crew to field confinement and super acceleration. We will begin in a few minutes.”

Martin watched the star sphere. Haze covered Nebuchadnezzar’s surface now, shot through with flashes of intense white light. The neutronium and anti-neutronium seeds deep within heated the body’s surface to plasma; there would not be sufficient energy released to place any of the planet’s material in orbit about itself, as had happened with Earth; indeed, Nebuchadnezzar would keep its spherical shape. But for the next few million years, the planet’s surface would consist of cooling magma.

Martin could not exult at this small victory. Assistance in a suicide was no triumph; self-immolation designed to trap arsonists was comically absurd. But to have the fire offer them a chance at life, a chance to move on and finish the Job…

He began to laugh. Jennifer joined him. Harpal grimaced and left the nose to coordinate the crew. Hans stared at them as if they were crazy, then shook his head vigorously, and whooped.

Theresa would have appreciated this, Martin thought. William would have simply loved it.

They recovered their craft and prepared for the storm.

Wormwood’s death-throes took seven hours. The star’s magnetic field—restructured to push the solar wind up through the poles—whipped about like hair blown in the wind, clearly visible as the surface layers boiled and churned and cast up dancing streamers. The star began to resemble a fiery turnip with leafy top and frantic roots.

Within, billions of neutronium weapons ate through the star’s dense inner layers and ended their unseen, unknown orbits, mated positive to negative, anti em to matter. The ambiplasma generated by these deadly copulations marched steadily outward.

The moms timed everything.

Hans ordered the crew into the schoolroom and fell silent, sitting beside the star sphere, watching with half-lidded eyes as things beyond his command and control—beyond his comprehension—began to happen.

Martin sat nearby, his body frightened but his mind too lost in sorrow to care what would happen next. He watched Rosa Sequoia, who squatted in an awkward lotus in one corner, rocking gently, eyes closed. He envied her personal treasure of spiritual solace, her ability to be lost in an inner reality that did not match the external. What had she found, that Martin would never find?

The images in the star sphere conveyed only an abstract meaning. What were the energies of a dying star if not incomprehensible? A human life—all their lives—could be snuffed with a paltry fraction of the energy about to be released.

They had climbed to the top of an enormous wave, years before, and now the wave crashed down, and any slight bubble in that foaming maelstrom would be sufficient to snuff their candles utterly and completely, forever darkness, no amens.

The peculiarity of Martin’s state of mind was that he did not so much think these things as feel them, joined to his body’s fear like an anatomical footnote.

Fear made its own opiate. Emotions cannot ride forever at high intensity; within an hour, terror declined to numbness, with clear and selfless perception. Certainty of death was replaced by light curiosity, an intensity of unattached thought impossible only a few minutes before.

Scattered parts of his overwhelmed self made ironic commentary: This is the dark night of the soul Not hardly, this is just panic carried to its extreme Look at them they do not experience this the way you do They must They must

Visceral moans filled the schoolroom as they felt the fields lock down. Martin’s body tingled and all internal motions slowed.

Waves of darkness passed as the fields subdued their eyes, all their physical senses.

Yet something remained. What could possibly be left to him? Undefined memory, perhaps an illusion; who could say where that memory began? During their sequestering, or after, as a balancing of his brain’s chemical bookkeeping…

What he later remembered was a fairy tale thread of personal continuity, all thought reduced to parable, and an extraphysical awareness of the star in its last stages. That such memory and perception were not possible did not make it less compelling.

Wormwood blossomed like a daffodil with twin streamers of intense blond hair and a sigh of neutrinos, phantom particles now in such numbers they blew millions of times stronger than hurricane winds above the tingling in his body, the battle of the neutrinos to change his chemistry, pushing denser than matter through the ship; a subtle whisper of persuasion, like a crowd of autistic children never heard, never seen, suddenly screaming in his ear at once, the silent ones of space and time gaining a voice in their liberation, that voice changing from a whisper to a propulsive scream the remade Dawn Treader having reached a point above the southern pole of the star allowed itself to be pushed, very slowly at first, its own fuel depleted, on the rush of neutrinos, its crew held in place against the persuasion of those winds, against the subnuclear argument for deadly change, accepting only the force and not the persuasion.

The fox speaks with the hurricane and says, “I need to travel far and fast. Can you take me?” The hurricane regards the puny fox with its huge, calm eye and asks, “What can you do for me?”

“Why, I will let you whisper your dreams to me.”

“But I must kill whatever I carry. You are a living thing and do not wish to die.”

“If you do not kill me, I will listen to your inmost self, and tell all the animals, that they may feel sympathy for you.”

“What do I care for sympathy? I am all-powerful.”

“Yes, but someday, your winds will die, and my kits will tell this tale even when you are gone, of the time Great-great-greatgrandfather Fox was carried by the winds and lived and learned their secrets.”

“But then they will not be afraid of me, and what good am I if I do not inspire fear?”

“Oh, no living thing could ever be so strong they would not fear you. I give you something more. I give you a voice throughout time that is more than a wordless bellow of rage.”

Dawn Treader spiraled through the plumes of gases rising south from Wormwood’s pyre, and gathered fuel. It scooped hundreds of thousands of tons of hydrogen and helium and lithium, compressing them, storing them in envelopes around its waist as a bee stores pollen.

There was a kind of joy in its flight away from the dying system; it had subverted the last-ditch attempt by the Killers. The Killers’ trap became a cornucopia.

The crew spent a silent, still year in the schoolroom, another chunk of time reassigned.

Behind them, receding into a reddened hole, Wormwood’s nebula engulfed the system’s farthest reaches. All traces of ancient crimes were obliterated; planets, orbital warning systems, clouds of depleted pre-birth material, needle ships.

The tar baby burned to cosmic ash. That alone was worth their deaths, but they did not die.

The ash of gases flowed around and ahead of them and they breathed their fill, as a drowning man draws long, grateful breaths of air.

Martin accepted a glass of water from Hakim.

Ten bodies lay in parallel around the outer perimeter of the schoolroom. Hans stood over them, chin in hand, silent, as he had stood for the last half hour. Every few minutes he would shake his head and grunt, as if in renewed astonishment. The new dead, Jorge Rabbit, David Sasquatch, Min Giao Monsoon, Thomas Orchard, Kees North Sea, Sig Butterfly, Liam Oryx, Giorgio Livorno, Rajiv Ganges, Ivan Hellas. The bodies bore no marks of violence but for faint purple blotches visible on the face and hands; they lay with eyes closed.

They had died in confinement.

Twenty-three of the survivors kneeled by the bodies, still dazed.

With a start, Martin realized they were standing in full gravity. The Dawn Treader accelerated again.

“How did this happen?” he asked, throat still dry and sore.

Hakim drank deep from his bulb of water. “Their volumetric fields must have weakened… Neutrino flux may have transmuted some of their elements. They were poisoned, or perhaps just…” He swallowed. “Burned. I have only looked at them briefly. There are no moms to talk with.”

“The moms couldn’t keep them alive?”

Hakim shook his head.

Rosa Sequoia walked among the crew, making weird and meaningless hand-gestures that most of the others ignored. Jeanette Snap Dragon and Kimberly Quartz followed her, heads bowed.

Cham approached Martin and pointed to Sig Butterfly’s body, still and gray in the lineup. “One of our own,” he said.

“They’re all our own,” Martin said.

“That’s not what I mean.” Cham screwed up his face. “We’re losing the experience of our own leaders. We should arrange a full inquiry. We need to know what happened. Why the moms failed us again.”

“I don’t think they failed us,” Martin said. “We’re here. Most of us are alive.”

“We need to know the facts,” Cham said, getting more irritated.

“I agree,” Martin said. “But Hans is Pan, and he calls the shots now.”

“Not if he’s too stunned to move,” Cham said. “Where’s Harpal?”

They looked for the Christopher Robin, but he was not in the schoolroom. Most of the surviving crew had gone elsewhere, perhaps to recover in privacy. Martin itched to get things moving, but he resisted. “I’ll find Harpal,” he said. “Hakim, tell Hans we need to inspect the nose and the star sphere.” He pointed with his chin. “Let’s give him something concrete to think about.”

“Then I will gather the search team,” Hakim said.

* * *

The ship’s corridors smelled cooked, as if a fire had swept through the Dawn Treader while they were in confinement. The neutrino storm of dying Wormwood had done them more damage than Martin had first guessed; and that meant their escape had been something new for the moms, something experimental.

They could have lost many more.

I should be arranging for the burial of the bodies, Martin thought. The moms had always disposed of bodies before; why were they left out in the open now?

He stopped in a corridor and referred to his wand. Where were the moms? He called for one. None appeared. The wand itself acted fitfully, its projections weak and flickering.

He waited several minutes, beginning to shiver with a new fear: that the ship itself had suffered substantial damage, that its resources were diminished, that they might all die in a vessel without a ship’s mind or the moms.

He was about to continue toward Harpal’s chambers when a mom floated into view several meters ahead of him. “Thank God,” Martin said. He embraced the robot gently, as if it might shatter. The mom did not react to his relief.

“I’m looking for Harpal,” Martin said. “We have a lot of organizing to do, a lot of… psychological work.”

“A description of damage is necessary,” the mom said. “We will present an assessment before the entire crew.”

“The bodies…”

“We cannot recycle for the time being. Repair work is under way now. Some of our facilities are limited or inoperative until the work is done. The dead will be kept in fields—”

Martin shook his head and held up his hand, not wanting to hear the minute details. “We just need reassurance,” he said. “There could be a bad reaction if we don’t have a meeting soon.”

“Understood,” the mom said.

“Where is Harpal?”

“He is in the tail,” the mom said.

“I’ll go get him.”

Ariel came up behind them, sidled around the mom as if it were a wall, looked directly at Martin. “Hans is fuguing out,” she said. “He’s scaring the crew. Let’s find Harpal, and fast.”

They walked aft, not speaking until they were in the spaces of the second homeball. Here, the peculiar singed odor was even stronger.

Ariel wrinkled her nose. “Are we as bad off as it smells?” she asked.

“You heard what the mom said.”

“You know how I feel about the moms,” Ariel said.

Martin shrugged. “They saved us.”

“They put Us down there in the first place. How grateful should I be that they got us out?”

“We chose—”

“Let’s not argue,” Ariel said. “Not while Hans is sucking his thumb and Rosa is back there acting like a priestess. We have to move, or we’re going to be in more trouble than we ever imagined—our own kind of trouble. The moms aren’t going to pull us out of a fugue. They don’t know how.”

“Hans isn’t sucking his thumb,” Martin said. “He’s… putting it all together.”

“You sympathize with everyone and everything, don’t you?” Ariel said. She smiled as if in admiration, and then the smile took on a tinge of pity.

Harpal Timechaser looked at them with a frightening blankness as they approached. He had hidden in a dense tangle of pipes.

Martin’s temper had worn thin; now he was angry at Harpal, angry at everybody, not least angry at this woman who mocked him at every step and followed him for reasons he couldn’t understand.

“What is it?” Harpal asked too loudly, as if using the question as a wall or a defense.

“We have to get the crew together,” Ariel said before Martin could speak.

“Slick it,” Harpal said. “We could have died. We could have bought it while stuck in those goddamned fields.”

“Most of us survived,” Martin said.

“Jesus, I was right next to Sig,” Harpal said. “It’s never been that close for me. Whatever cooked him could have cooked me.”

“I was next to Giorgio Livorno,” Ariel said. “The moms have some explaining to do.”

“The ship is damaged,” Martin said.

“Tell them to fucking get it over with” Harpal screamed, tears streaking his cheeks. “Nobody should have died, or we all should have died!”

Martin and Ariel stood among the thick twisted pipes, the silence interrupted only by Harpal’s faint, constrained, helpless weeping. Ariel glanced at Martin, put on a resigned look, and went to Harpal. She wrapped him in her arms and rocked him gently, eyebrows arched, lips puckered as if to croon a reassuring song to a child, and she meant it.

Martin was impressed. He could not have predicted this nurturing side of Ariel.

His wand chimed. The communications at least worked now. He answered and heard Cham.

“We’ve got problems,” Cham said. Noise in the background; Hans shouting, weeping. “Hans is freaking.”

Harpal wiped his face and pulled from Ariel’s embrace. “Shit,” he said. “Time to zip it.” He crawled out of the curl of pipe. They laddered forward.

When they got to the schoolroom, Hans had left for his quarters. The ten bodies had been rearranged haphazardly on the floor, as if kicked. Five of the crew, including Jeanette Snap Dragon and Erin Eire, wore bruised faces. Half the crew had left. Martin felt sick foreboding; this was the beginning of something Theodore had talked about long ago, something Martin had refused to consider possible: the breaking strain.

Rosa Sequoia had stayed. Hans had not touched her. Now that Harpal, Hans, and Ariel had reappeared, she carefully rearranged the bodies, positioning their arms and legs, closing eyes that had opened, straightening the overalls.

Watching her pushed Martin very close to the edge, and he pulled himself back with considerable effort, swallowing, pinching his outer thigh until he bruised.

“What happened?” Harpal asked.

Cham nursed a cut cheek. “Wendys started mourning. Rosa led them. Hans told them to stop. They kept on, and a few Lost Boys joined in, started weeping, carrying on, and Hans… kicked them. David Aurora fought back and Hans really laid into him. David—”

“Where is he?” Ariel asked.

“He’s fine. Cut, bruised, but as I was saying, he got some good licks in. Hans pulled out.”

“Where is Aurora?” she asked again.

“In his quarters, I assume.”

Martin could hardly bring himself to move. He shivered suddenly, casting away the paralysis of fugue, and said to Ariel, “Get water and make some bandages and help Rosa nurse the crew. Keep her away from the bodies.”

“Right,” Ariel agreed.

“I’m not Pan,” Martin said, as if to make that clear; the crew in the schoolroom had focused on him with expectation when he spoke. “Harpal, find Hans and let’s get all the past Pans together. I want a mom there.”

“Who’s ordering what?” Harpal asked, neither grim nor accusing.

“Sorry.”

“Understood,” Harpal said. “Let’s go.”

Ariel gently coaxed Rosa away, speaking to her softly; was she trying to impress him? He could not deal with that now. He allowed himself a few seconds of closed eyes, trying to push Theresa’s remembered features into a complete portrait. The pieces would not combine.

He followed Harpal.

Hans had not locked his door. They entered his quarters, prepared for anything but what they found. He sat in the middle on a raised section of floor, sipping from a bulb of water, and greeted them with a weak smile.

“I’ve really slicked it,” he said, almost cheerfully.

“That you have,” Harpal agreed.

“Are you going to vote me out?” Hans asked.

“Why did you do it?” Martin asked.

Hans looked away. “They started keening. Women and men. I couldn’t believe it, coming out and finding bodies. It was more than I could take. I’m sorry.”

“Say it to them,” Martin said.

“I’m saying it to you.”

Cham and Joe Flatworm entered. “You bastard,” Joe said. “You slicking bastard. We should kick you out now. Give it back to Martin and stick you away like a rat.”

Hans’ face flushed and his jaw muscles tightened but he did not say anything, or move from his seat.

“We’ve all gone through hell,” Martin said, feeling how pitifully reduced the Dawn Treader’s group of leaders had become, and so quickly. “Hans agrees to apologize.”

“Apologize hell. He should resign. Martin, you take the title again.”

“No,” Martin said. “Hans, convince us. Now.”

“I don’t know if I want this mess on my head,” he said lightly, standing and stretching his arms. “I’m giving serious thought to the old Big Exit. Cut my wrists and be done with it.” He glanced at Martin. “The moms don’t seem to give a slick what we do. We’re just tools.”

“I’m not satisfied,” Joe said. He seemed on the verge of punching Hans; his arms crooked, fists clenched, chin thrust out.

“All right,” Harpal said. “Stop this shit now and talk straight. Hans, tell us what you’re going to do. And don’t flex your ego.”

Hans shrank a bit at Harpal’s tone and unyielding choice of words. “I’ll pick it up again,” he said. “I know we’re in trouble if we let it slide now. Bigger responsibilities.”

“Good for a start,” Harpal said. “What else?”

“I’ll do penance,” Hans said. “I’ll put myself in solitude for a week after we get back on our feet. I’ll tell the children—”

“Crew,” Martin said.

“I’ll tell the crew. If…”

“If what?” Joe shot back.

“I want the mourners to spend time in solitude, as well. A day. The ones who set me off.”

“That’s crap,” Joe said.

“That’s how they coped,” Harpal said.

“I have a different way of coping…” Hans began, but let it go with a shrug. “All right. Just myself. In solitude for a week. I’m still Pan, I still give the orders. I agree to that, too. Harpal, can I lean on you for help—lean hard?”

“I’ll do whatever I can,” Harpal said.

“That’s all I ask,” Hans said.

We start fresh now, Martin thought, and with that thought came a kind of relief. They had cut cleanly from the disastrous past. In a way, Hans had taken the perfect course, allowing a clean break, expiation by the leader, a new game starting from this point.

If Hans had known this from the beginning, from the time he had come out of confinement—if Hans had planned this—then he was far more canny than anybody had given him credit for.

Martin shivered. He hoped it wasn’t so.

The single mom—all the ship could produce now—told the crew what had happened to them and to the ship. They had survived the explosion of Wormwood with major damage—up to half the ship’s capabilities reduced by failure of confinement fields under extreme neutrino bombardment; ten of the crew had died, and only now were their bodies being recycled. They had sufficient fuel to move on to Leviathan—if they voted to do so. The journey would take a minimum of one year, ship’s time.

“Because of damage, you will not be able to face the anticipated defenses alone,” the mom explained. “For that reason, we suggest a combining of resources.”

Martin raised his eyes. This was the first he had heard of such a thing.

“There is another Ship of the Law about two light years distant. We can match course with this vessel and join forces. This ship has suffered damage as well, and will benefit from joining forces.”

“How do you know all this?” Hans asked. “You couldn’t have heard about it on the noach.”

“We detected the results of their skirmish, and correlated their probable path of escape. When remotes extended this ship’s sensing abilities, we used them to confirm the ship’s path.”

“Without telling us,” Hans said.

“It was not important at the time.”

Hans shrugged, looked down at the deck. “If we know, then the Killers know as well,” he said.

“The Killers do not know that we have escaped, though they may know of the survival of this second vessel. They do not know its present position, however. With both ships combined, we will have the capabilities of a fully equipped Ship of the Law.”

“On the other ship… are they human?” Erin Eire asked.

“They are not human,” the mom said.

“Do they need the same things we need?” Paola Birdsong asked. “I mean, do they breathe oxygen, and so on?”

“With slight adjustments, environments can be joined,” the mom replied.

“What do they look like?” David Aurora asked.

“More information about this ship and its inhabitants will be available before we join forces.”

“Do we take a vote?” Ariel asked.

“A vote is not forbidden. But you must understand that we cannot fulfill our mission in our present condition.”

“No shit,” someone said in the back, out of Martin’s sight; it sounded like Rex Live Oak.

“Do we really need to vote?” Hans said. “I’m still ready to fight. If this is our only chance, we should take it.”

“Vote,” Ariel insisted, and Rosa Sequoia, in a calm, deep voice, as if speaking from a cave, agreed.

“All right,” Hans said. “Martin, Harpal, take the count.”

The crew voted quickly, without energy. Of the sixty-five remaining, thirty voted no; thirty-five voted yes. Ariel voted to go; Rosa Sequoia voted against further action.

“That’s close,” Hans said, standing before them. “Now I’m here to take my licks. I screwed up today. I really fouled the nest. I apologize. I’ll go into solitary for a week. I appoint Harpal as Pan in the interim. He’ll work with Martin. I suggest we all take a rest. Let the mom finish its work. We say our farewells to everybody we lost around Wormwood, and we think things through.”

He nodded to the closest members of the crew as he passed them, heading toward the door. Harpal looked at Martin; this was hardly what they had hoped for. Martin felt sick inside; sick with his unresolved pain, and sick at the dissolution that seemed to be upon them.

“We need to talk this out,” Harpal told Martin.

Martin declined. “Rest,” he said. “We’ve been through too much, and I can’t talk sensibly now. Aliens!” He trembled suddenly, whether with excitement or exhaustion, he could not say. Harpal’s shoulders slumped and his chin dropped.

“We’ll all rest,” Martin said, touching his arm delicately. “And mourn.”

Martin’s quarters were bare and cold. Still the smell of burning lingered; the odor of neutrino-singed matter. He entered and the door slid shut behind him and for this moment at least, ignoring the smell, he might have been at the beginning of his journey, when first the Dawn Treader had been presented to the children, and they had made their new homes here.

With some relief and some sorrow, he knew that these were not the same quarters in which he and Theresa had made love. The ship had rearranged and repaired itself too extensively; the deck on which their bed had rested might now be shifted meters away, or recycled completely. What connection did he have to the past?

None.

Martin closed his eyes and curled up on the floor, laid his cheek against the smooth cool surface, flexed his fingertips against it, and waited for sleep.

He thought on the edge of that desired sleep of Jorge Rabbit’s bruised body, and what it had once held: language and laughter and sharp reliability, a favorite of the children. The crew.

Jorge Rabbit and the others might soon be in the air they breathed, the food and water they took in. But not William or Theresa.

Martin reached out for Theresa’s hand. He could almost feel it, his fingers brushing the air where it would be, faintest rasp of sensation. Then, deliberately, he withdrew his hand and folded it under his chest. “Goodbye,” he whispered, and slept.

Behind the Dawn Treader, the corpse of Wormwood expanded as a many-colored vapor, like milk swirling in water and illuminated by many lights.

“Hakim watched the stellar corpse with cold curiosity, arms folded. Beside the image in the star sphere scrolled and flashed figures, charts, condensed images, conveying the qualities of the corpse in an interstellar autopsy of incredible depth and complexity.

“If I were back on Earth now,” he told Martin, “I would be an astronomer, but never in my life would I see something like this. Where would I rather be, do you think? Here, now, seeing this, or…?”

“You’d rather be on Earth,” Martin said. They were alone in the nose; the rest of the crew awaited the end of Hans’ self-imposed week of isolation, going through their own isolations, their own regroupings, reassessments.

Hakim agreed. His face had changed since the Skirmish, as Erin Eire called their costly victory. His expression had hardened, eyes shining brighter, perpetual smile tighter, lines more deeply grooved around his lips and eyes.

“It was a fair exchange, perhaps,” Hakim said. “How many Ships of the Law were trapped by Wormwood and destroyed?”

“We were lucky,” Martin said. “The trap was getting rusty.”

“You know as well as I, war is a matter of luck as much as strategy. We should not deny ourselves satisfaction because we came upon a weakened enemy.”

“We don’t know the enemy is weak,” Martin said. “They might still be strong.”

“Then why do they hide behind traps?”

“To avoid trouble. Maybe this was no more significant to them than the loss of a bug zapper in a front yard.”

Hakim’s smile curled wickedly. “I like this metaphor,” he said. “We are mosquitoes, but we bring yellow fever… And now the bug zapper is down, we fly freely toward the house…”

“About to join with a group of moths,” Martin suggested.

“I would prefer wasps.” Hakim chuckled, and then suddenly his voice caught and he turned away. “Excuse me,” he said, clearing his throat.

“Someone you loved,” Martin said after a moment. He had never followed Hakim’s romantic affairs, partly out of respect, partly because Hakim and his partners had always been extremely circumspect.

“It was hard for me to call it love,” Hakim said. “Min Giao Monsoon. She was my equal, and I couldn’t… I didn’t know how to digest that. But she was very important to me. We were not very open.” For an instant, Hakim showed simple and enormous pain.

Martin watched the beautiful display, greens and reds dominating, cinders of planets visible only in the graphs and enhancements at this distance. Spirals of plasma from the poles had quickly spread and whipped in arcs to encompass a vast sphere; the artificial fields that controlled Wormwood giving way and rearranging in the violence. Wormwood’s corpse had finally assumed an aspect of natural star death. Perhaps that had been planned by the Killers, as well…

No need to light any brighter a beacon in the forest than absolutely necessary.

“However you loved, you loved,” Martin said.

Hakim agreed to that with a measured nod. “I have high hopes that our new Pan will grow into his position.” He spoke quietly, as if Hans might be listening.

“It’s not easy.”

“There are many challenges even before we get to our destination. I wonder how I will react to new and inhuman colleagues… perhaps better to say nonhuman.”

“The ship and the mom don’t know an awful lot about them,” Martin said. “Otherwise they’d tell us more.”

“I agree,” Hakim said. “I have never believed the moms hold things back from us.”

“Oh…” Martin said, “I wouldn’t go that far. They always tell us what we need to know, but…”

“Pardon my saying so, but you sound like Ariel.”

Martin scowled. “Please,” he said.

“Not to offend,” Hakim added with a touch of his old impish-ness.

Rosa Sequoia sat in the cafeteria among a group of twenty-two of the crew, conducting a ceremony for the dead, following— as far as Martin could tell—her own rules and her own rituals. He could not object; ritual was healthy at this point.

She had made up hymns or borrowed from old songs and projected lyrics for the crew to sing. Martin watched from the outside, near the door, and did not sing, but felt his heart tug at the swell of voices.

Rosa looked up, and her eyes met his, and she smiled—broadly, without resentment; beautifully.

In our grief and pain, she finds herself, he thought. But perhaps that was too unkind.

Hans came out of his isolation after six days, somber and unshaven, blond beard bristling and face wreathed in a dreary scowl that gave nobody confidence, least of all Martin. He asked for a private session with Hakim and the remains of the search team. After, he emerged from the nose to brush past Martin and Erin Eire in the corridor, saying nothing.

“He hasn’t taken a lover since he became Pan,” Erin said.

Martin looked at her. “So?”

Erin blinked. “So it’s unusual. He’s not exactly been chaste, Martin. A lot of Wendys go for bulk over brains.”

“He’s not stupid,” Martin said.

“He’s still acting like a jerk,” Erin said.

“Maybe he’s waiting for the right girl to come along,” Martin said, aware how silly that sounded.

Erin hooted. “Oh, sure. Somebody he’s never met before.”

“We’ll have visitors soon,” Martin said, face straight.

“Spare me,” Erin said, grimacing over her shoulder as she departed.

Ariel laid her meal tray on the table across from Martin in the cafeteria. New watch schedules posted by Hans had placed her in an opposite sleep cycle; he was having dinner, she breakfast, but the food appeared much the same.

The ship was not yet up to the broad variety of meals it had once offered; what they were served now was bland but filling, a brownish bread-like pudding varied occasionally by soups.

They exchanged minimal greetings. Ariel made him uncomfortable by focusing on him when he wasn’t looking.

“What do you think of Hans now?” she asked when their eyes met.

“He’s doing fine,” Martin said.

“Better than you?” she asked.

“In some ways,” Martin said.

“How? I’m curious. I don’t mean to embarrass you.”

“I’m not embarrassed. He’s probably more canny than I am, more sensitive to the crew’s swings of mood.”

She tipped her head in a way that implied neither agreement nor disagreement.

“And you?” he asked.

“Reserving judgment. He is more canny than some Pans we’ve had. Rosa approves of him. She talks about the duty to our leader in her sermons.”

“Sermons?”

“I haven’t been to one, but I hear about them.”

“She’s preaching?”

“Not yet,” Ariel said, “but close. She’s counseling. Helping some of the crew face up to the Skirmish and what it means.”

“Blaming the moms?”

“Not implicitly.”

“Blaming them at all?”

“She doesn’t even mention them, from what I’ve been told. She talks about responsibility and free will and our place in the broad scheme. Maybe we should go and listen.”

“Maybe I will,” Martin said.

“Maybe Hans should go, too.”

“Do you want me to spy on her for Hans?”

Ariel shook her head. “I just think it’s significant, what’s happening.”

“It’s inevitable, maybe,” Martin said under his breath, and got up to go to his quarters.

Theodore Dawn visited his dreams, and was full of talk, some of which Martin remembered on waking.

They sat in a garden, under an arbor in full flower, Theodore in a short white tunic, his legs tanned from long exposure to the summer sun now at zenith over their heads. They were eating grapes; they might have been Romans. Theodore had been fond of reading about Romans.

“Something terrible is about to happen to Rosa,” Theodore said. “You know what it is?”

“I think so,” Martin answered, letting a grape leaf fall to the pebble gravel at their feet.

“The worst thing that can happen to a prophet is not to be ignored and forgotten; it’s to have her cause taken up and chewed by the masses. Whatever she says, if it doesn’t fit, will be chewed some more; some opportunist will come along and forge a contradiction, polish a rough edge of meaning, and then it will fit. People believe in everything but the original words.”

“Rosa isn’t a prophet.”

“You said you knew what’s happening.”

“She isn’t a prophet. Just look at her.”

“She’s had the vision. This is a special time for you.”

“Nonsense!” Martin said, angry now. He got up from the marble bench and adjusted his robe clumsily, not used to its folds. “By the way, is Theresa here with you?”

Theodore shook his head sadly. “She’s dead. You have to be alive to die.”

Paola Birdsong and Martin found themselves alone in the tail of the ship, having completed a wand transmission test for the mom, and with no further instructions, they sat and talked, glad to be away from the glum business of the crew.

Their talk trailed off. She looked away, olive skin darkening, lips pressed together. Martin reached out to stroke her cheek, make her relax, and she leaned into the stroke, and then tears came to her face. “I don’t know what to do or how to feel,” she said.

She had been loosely bonded with Sig Butterfly. Martin did not want to inquire for fear of opening wounds, so he kept silent and let her talk.

“We weren’t deep with each other,” she said. “I’ve never really been deep with any lover. But he was a friend and he listened to me.”

Martin nodded.

“Would he want me to feel badly for him?” she asked.

Martin was about to shake his head, but then smiled and said, “A little, maybe.”

“I’ll remember him.” She shuddered at the word “remember,” as if it were a realization or betrayal or both, remembrance being so different from seeing directly, remembrance being an acknowledgment of death.

It was natural for him to fold her in his arms. He had never been strongly attracted to Paola Birdsong, and perhaps that was why holding her seemed less a violation to his memory of Theresa. Paola must have felt the same about Martin. The embrace became more awkwardly direct, and they lay side by side in the curls of pipes, the burned smell almost too faint to notice now.

Where they lay was dry and quiet and isolated. Martin felt a little like a mouse in a giant house, having found a place away from so many cats; and Paola was herself small, mouselike, undemanding, touching him in a way that did not discourage, did not invite. The momentum of the situation was carried by instinct. He did not undress her completely, nor himself, but rolled over on top of her, and with a direct motion they joined, and she closed her eyes.

Neither of them cried.

Martin made love to her slowly, without urgency. She had no orgasm to match his, which was surprisingly powerful, and he did not press her for one; it seemed this was what she wished, only a little betrayal of memory at a time, a little return to whole life. After, with no word of what they had just done, they rearranged their overalls.

“What have your dreams been like lately?” he asked.

“Nothing unusual,” she said, drawing her knees up in her arms and resting her chin on them.

“I’ve been having pretty vivid dreams. For a long time now. Pretty specific dreams, almost instructive.”

“Like what?”

Martin found himself much more reluctant to describe the dreams than to characterize them. “Memories with real people in them. People from the ship, I mean, saying things to me. Giving advice as if they were alive.”

Paola bumped her chin on her knees as she nodded. “I’ve had dreams like that,” she said. “I think it means we’re in a special time.”

Martin jerked at that phrase.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“It just seems right. We’re so far away from our people. We’re losing more and more connections. Something’s bound to change.”

“What will change?” Martin asked.

She uncurled, pulled up a bare foot to inspect a toenail. “Our psychologies,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m just talking. A special time is when we learn who we are all over again.”

“Shrugging off the past,” Martin suggested.

“Maybe. Or seeing it differently.”

“Does Sig come to you in your dreams?” he asked.

“No,” she said, dark eyes watching him.

He thought it unlikely they would make love again.

After, in his quarters to prepare for a watch in the nose, he felt melancholy, but that was an improvement. It had been only weeks in his personal, conscious time, but the clouds thinned, and he could think clearly for moments at a stretch without the shadow of Theresa or William.

In the nose, Hakim slept while Li Mountain and Giacomo Sicilia tracked the corpse of Wormwood. In a few months, they would see the shroud of gas as no more than a blotch in the receding blackness.

“Any sign of a neutron star?” Martin asked Li Mountain.

“None,” she said. “Jennifer doesn’t think one will form. She thinks the star’s interior was deeply disturbed, that everything was flung out.”

“It must have been quite a blast,” Giacomo Sicilia said. Almost as adept as Jennifer at momerath, he had replaced Thomas Orchard on the search team.

There was little else for them to do but science, which Hakim enjoyed, but Martin found vaguely dissatisfying. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge was not their Job. But Hakim insisted that studying the corpse of Wormwood could teach them about Killer technology.

They would be many months traveling to meet with the second ship; training was not an option in their present situation. Healing and reknitting the crew would be their major occupations.

Martin recorded the figures with Giacomo, and stared back into the past, at the beautiful tendrils and shells of gas and dust.

No sign of Killer activity around Wormwood.

The tar baby was truly dead.

The following months passed slow and hard in their dullness. The state of comparative luxury they had known before the Skirmish and the neutrino storm did not return; the solitary mom merely told them that the ship was damaged in ways not quickly mended. Food was nourishing but bland; access to the libraries was limited to text materials, and wand graphics were severely curtailed.

Martin suspected the Ship of the Law had lost portions of its crucial memory, and was merely a shadow of its former self. The mom would not elaborate; it, too, seemed lost in a kind of dullness, and dullness was the order of things. In a way, Martin did not mind this difficulty; it gave them all plenty of time for thought, and he used that time.

Hans was clearly made uneasy by it.

The ex-Pans held colloquium every five days in his quarters.

“I’d hate to be known as the exercise Pan,” Hans said. “We have three more months until we rendezvous with our new partners. We’ve done about all the science there is to do with Wormwood—at least, everybody has but Jennifer and Giacomo… We’re bored, there’s still only one mom, and that worries me. Am I right?”

Hans had been asking that more and more lately: a slightly nasal “Am I right?” with one eyebrow lifted and a perfectly receptive expression. “We need some mental action, too. The ship isn’t going to be much help.” He looked to Cham, but Cham shrugged.

“Martin?” Harpal asked.

Martin made a wry face. “Without the remotes, we can’t learn much more about Leviathan.”

“The food is dull,” Harpal offered. “Maybe we can cook it ourselves.”

Joe Flatworm snorted. “The mom won’t let us near raw materials.”

“Any suggestions, Joe?” Hans asked.

“We’re stuck in a long dull rut,” Joe said softly. “We should be asleep.”

“I’m sure if that were an option—” Martin began.

“Yeah. The mom is concerned.” That was another phrase Hans used often now, and others in the crew had picked it up. The proper form was: stated problem or dissatisfaction; reply, “Yeah, the mom is concerned.”

“I think we should—” Martin began again.

“Slick worrying about the ship,” Hans said.

“That wasn’t what I was—”

“Fine,” Hans interrupted.

“Goddammit, let me finish!” Martin shouted. Joe and Cham flinched, but Hans grinned, held up his hands, and shook his head.

“You have the floor,” he said.

“We can’t blame the ship for saving our lives,” Martin said, expressing not a shred of what he had meant to say, and now realized was useless to say under the present circumstances.

“I don’t think any of us Pans have actively enjoyed our rank,” Hans said, drumming his fingers on the table between them. “Am I right? But I’m faced with problems none of you faced. Political problems. Psychological problems. We don’t have any real work to do. We have plenty of time on our hands. The only thing I can think of to keep us occupied is sports. I don’t like it, but there it is.”

Cham raised one hand to shoulder level.

“Yes?”

“We should begin thinking about after,” he said.

“After what?”

“After the Job is done. We should work on a constitution. Laws, and so on. Get ready for when we look for another world…”

Hans considered with a thoughtfulness that somehow did not convince Martin. “Right,” he said. “Joe, get on it. Cham, for your sins, organize some games and competitions. Start with races from nose to tail, like we used to do. Think up rewards.

Shake them up, get their blood moving. Martin, perhaps you should work on intellectual games… More your speed, no? Get together with Hakim. Jennifer. Whoever. Competition. If we’re cast on our own resources, we have to be resourceful.” Am I right? Martin predicted. Hans smiled and said nothing.

Rosa Sequoia sat comfortably in the middle of thirty-two of the crew—a broad selection, including Erin Eire and Paola Bird-song. Martin stood to one side of the schoolroom, listening, observing.

With all of her words, she made gentle, sweeping hand gestures, drawing in but not demanding or assertive. Her voice soothed, low and soft, yet authoritative. Something had come together for her, Martin saw; and her newfound grace and ease of expression worried him. A special time.

Hans entered behind him, leaned against the wall next to Martin, nodded in greeting, folded his arms, and listened.

“… To have lost the home we all cherished, we all grew up with, is like the farmer who lost his farm, when the wind came and blew it away. One day he awoke and walked out his door to see barren dirt, the crops smashed flat, dead and brown, and he told himself, ‘I have worked this land all my life, why didn’t the wind take me as well? This farm is like an arm or a leg to me—why wasn’t I snatched away with it?’ ”

Martin listened intently, waiting to see if Rosa’s fairy tale or parable or whatever it was came close to those he had experienced in the volumetric fields.

Rosa looked down, lowered her arms as if resting. “The farmer became bitter. He thought he would fight the wind. He built walls against the wind, higher and higher, making them out of the dust and straw and the mud that ran in rivers across the dead fields. But the wind knocked the walls down, and still the farmer was alive. The wind took his family one by one, and still the farmer lived, and cursed the wind, and finally he began to curse the Maker of Winds—”

“He became a wind breaker!” Rex Live Oak called out.

Rosa smiled, unperturbed. “He tried magic when the walls wouldn’t work. He chanted against the wind, and sang songs, and all the while, he grew to hate the land, the wind, the water.

He cursed them all and he became more and more bitter, until it seemed bad water ran in his veins, and his mind was poisoned with hate and fear and change. He no longer missed his family; he no longer missed the farm. It seemed nothing meant anything to him but revenge against the wind—”

“Sounds subversive to me,” Hans whispered to Martin.

“And he grew thinner and thinner each day, more and more wrinkled, until he looked like a dead stalk of corn—”

“I don’t remember what corn looked like, growing on a stalk,” Bonita Imperial Valley said. “I grew up in a farm town, and I just don’t remember.”

“He couldn’t remember, either,” Rosa continued smoothly. “He couldn’t remember what the crops looked like, or what had been important to him. He fought the wind with the only weapon he had left, useless empty words, and the wind howled and howled. Finally, the farmer became so bitter and dry and dead inside, the wind sucked him up through the air like a leaf. He lived inside the wind, empty as a husk, and the wind filled his dry lungs, and reached into his dry stomach, and then into his dry, rattling head.”

“So what’s the point?” Jack Sand asked, looking around the assembled group with a puzzled expression.

“It’s a story,” Kimberly Quartz said. “Just listen.”

“I don’t listen to stories unless they have a point. It’s a waste of time,” Jack said. He got up and left, glancing at Hans and Martin and shaking his head.

“In the wind,” Rosa continued, hardly missing a beat, “the farmer knew what he was up against, and that he had no power. He stopped cursing and he started listening. He stopped resisting—I mean, how can you resist something so powerful?—and he began to live in the wind, as part of the howl and the whirl and the swirling. He saw other people in the wind—”

Hans motioned for Martin to follow him outside. Martin walked through the door and they stayed in step down the corridor, past Jack Sand, past Andrew Jaguar and Kirsten Two Bites.

Out of the others’ hearing, Hans said, “When I was a little kid, back on Earth, my folks took television and video games away from me for a week to punish me for something I did. I went nuts. I even started to read books. Well,” he said, “our TV’s gone now. Rosa is better than nothing.” He shook his head. “But not much.”

“Did you slick Paola Birdsong?” Ariel asked. Martin picked up his tray of food and walked away from her, face pinking.

“Did you?” she asked innocently, following with her own tray.

He sat, got up when she sat next to him, moved to another table, started to get up again as she kept pace with him, and finally dropped the tray a few inches to the table, slapped the tabletop once with his fist, and said, “Who the hell cares?”

Martin ate and tried to ignore her.

“I’m not trying to be nosy,” Ariel said. “I want to know what it means to be devoted to someone for a long time, even after they’re dead.”

Martin found the situation intensely uncomfortable. “I’d like to eat in peace,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I’m bothering you. I apologize.” She got up, carried her tray out of the cafeteria, and left him feeling guilty, mad, and confused.

That sleep, he cried again, thinking of Theresa, but he did not remember any dreams.

Two moms appeared in the schoolroom for the next crew tenday report. There had been no announcement, no fanfare, but the crew cheered, taking it as a sign that things were improving.

Hans announced the results of the previous day’s nose-to-tail races.

Hakim had five minutes to squeeze in a report on science.

Jennifer Hyacinth came up to Martin after the meeting.

“Maybe you’d like to be in on what we’re doing,” she said. She sounded almost conspiratorial, but he could not imagine Jennifer involved in intrigue.

“About what?” he asked.

“The noach. We’re having a little conference to share results.”

“Oh.” He had planned to attend the next trial for the main race, but that was certainly trivial enough to ignore.

“Sure,” he said.

“In the nose in ten minutes. Hakim Hadj, Giacomo Sicilia and Thorkild Lax are coming.”

“I’ll be there,” he said.

Hakim, Giacomo, Thorkild and Jennifer had formed a Noach Studies Society some tendays before. Martin had not attended the meetings—they were reportedly dry and mathematical, the chief excitement being momerath challenges.

The reports were wrong.

Jennifer, with Giacomo’s help, had put together a comprehensive description of how the noach could work, how matter could change character under the influence of noach-transmitted information, and what that meant for the ultimate shape of Benefactor society as they imagined it.

Hakim spent a few minutes projecting graphics for Martin, filling him in on the key points.

Jennifer and Giacomo held hands and contemplated momerath until the meeting was convened by Thorkild.

“We’ve been trying to piece together an overview of Benefactor technology,” Thorkild began. “Jennifer’s done most of the tough work, laying a foundation for the rest of us. Giacomo has erected the frame on that foundation…”

Giacomo smiled.

“You might say they work together intimately,” Thorkild added. Hakim clapped his hand on Giacomo’s shoulder as if in congratulations. Jennifer’s face remained set in solid neutrality, but her eyes flashed.

“Hakim has put on the siding and I’ve painted,” Thorkild concluded. “Mind you, none of what we’ve come up with has much meaning for our mission. It’s all theoretical—”

“I disagree,” Jennifer said.

“Which I was about to add,” Thorkild said.

“I think it could have a lot of meaning for the Job,” Jennifer said. “We were caught by surprise when the Killers converted our craft to anti em. We assume the moms were caught by surprise. The more we can guess about the technology and theory behind our weapons, the more we can contribute to planning.”

Martin rubbed his nose. “So what’s the house look like?”

Hakim projected a list. “First, the noach—instantaneous communication at a distance. This is made possible by confusing two particles—in this case, atomic nuclei—into ‘believing’ that they are the same. Second, actually creating a particle at a distance—deluding the matrix into believing that a particle exists at a certain position, and has a certain history attached. This could be how fake matter is created—resistance to pressure, but no resistance to acceleration; extension, but no mass.”

“Noach could be the key to all of this,” Jennifer said. “To send a noach message, you have to confuse a particle’s bit makeup, its self-contained information about character, position and quantum state.”

“What do you mean by a particle ‘believing’ something?” Martin asked.

“The particle’s bit makeup determines its behavior,” Hakim said. “ ‘Behavior’ is a bad word, like ‘belief.’ We do not think particles are alive or think. But they do exhibit simple behavior, of course—a nature or character, which is the same for all similar particles, and a history in spacetime.”

“Given that,” Martin said, “how do we get to the rest of the abilities in this list?”

“To create fake matter,” Giacomo said, “basic elements in the matrix are convinced they have some of the properties of matter. To noach messages, you tamper with the privileged channels used by particles to convince one particle at some distance to believe it is the same as, or in resonance with, another particle under our local control.

“There could be several ways to convert a particle to an-anti-particle. A boson, approaching a particle, carries information from its source, some of which has already been conveyed by information following so-called privileged bands. The boson also conveys energy, which acts on the particle’s data, changing a particular bit sequence.”

“Energy is information?” Martin asked.

“Energy is a catalyst for information change. It’s information in only a limited sense. To convert a particle to an anti-particle, you can change its bit makeup either by perverting the privileged band information, say by sending it a boson tailored to react falsely, which might compel it to switch a series of bits to be consistent, or by creating a resonance with outside anti-particles.”

“Resonance…?”

“Imposing the data of an anti-particle on a particle in another position by making them congruent, coextensive,” Hakim said. “It is similar to how the noach works.”

“We think,” Jennifer cautioned.

Martin could not keep up with their projected momerath, or even all of their explanations. “I’ll have to take some of this on faith,” he said wearily.

“Oh, please no,” Hakim said. “Work it out for yourself in private. We may be wrong, and we need criticism.”

“Not from me, I’m afraid.”

“We are all out of our depth here, actually,” Hakim said. “We must not accept this as anything more than playful theory.”

Martin poked at a few expressions in the momerath that he could just begin to riddle. “Would they have to have a lot of anti em to convert something else to anti em—match a mass particle for particle?”

“We do not think so,” Hakim said. “In Jennifer’s momerath, a single particle could be used as template to confuse and convert many other particles. Possibly, simply knowing the structure of a particle would be enough.”

“Even at a distance,” Thorkild said.

“But just how it’s done, we haven’t a clue,” Jennifer said. “The difference between theory and application.”

“Oh,” Martin said.

“Neat, huh?” Thorkild asked.

Martin closed his eyes and shook his head.

After, Martin sat alone in an empty quarters space, dabbling with the momerath but not able to concentrate on it, thinking instead about how much the crew had changed in just a few months. They acted like passengers enduring hard times on a down-on-its-luck cruise ship, or like students in a particularly lax high school with a principal too hip for their own good.

He longed for time to speed up, for the rendezvous to occur, for anything to happen that was significant and not theoretical.

* * *

Rosa’s storytelling improved.

The races were concluded, with Hans pitting himself against the fastest of ten trials, Rex Live Oak, and winning by two seconds, the races being run nose to tail within the ship. Hans was inordinately proud of the victory, and took two Wendys to his quarters after for a private free-for-all, the first partners he had taken since becoming Pan.

Martin did not notice who the Wendy’s were; he had tired of the growing reliance on gossip for excitement. He did not care who Hans was slicking, or whether Hans had stolen Harpal’s love interest, or who was going to attempt Rosa soon.

Rosa, thinner by five kilos, face austere and happy at once, was becoming, for Martin, the most interesting and at the same time the most disturbing person aboard Dawn Treader.

Martin came to the nose when it was empty and collapsed the star sphere to see the outside universe without interpretation. The stars ahead had not yet changed noticeably; bright, frozen forever against measureless black.

Jennifer’s theories had upset him on some deep level. He had dreamed about enemies they could not see, malevolent beings confusing and perverting them from a distance like puppetmasters.

“What the hell are we doing here?” he asked. He had come to the nose to pray, but he could not conceive of anything or anyone to pray to. Nothing touched him; nothing felt for him, or knew that he was in the nose, that he was alone. Nothing knew that he was confused and needed help, that Martin son of Arthur Gordon had lost whatever path he had ever known, and that merely doing the Job seemed a highly inadequate reason for living.

His father might have thought this view of deep space the most spectacular and beautiful thing one could wish for; Martin could not see it as anything but scattered light impinging on exhausted eyes.

He had fought the end of his pain for many tendays now, but his grief followed its natural course like a healing wound. Finally even the itch would be gone and Theresa would truly be dead—and William—

He groaned softly, for he owed William so much more than he could give emotionally, now or ever.

With his grief knitting its torn edges, there would be nothing left to define him but the dreary nothingness at his core, more blank than any black between stars, a comfortable emptiness to fall into, a gentle negation and dissolution.

He thought he would gladly die if death were an end in itself and not something more.

What he would pray to, then, was a weak candle of hope: that in these horrible spans of contesting civilizations, there was something, somewhere, that oversaw and judged and sympathized; that was wise in a way they could not conceive of; that might, given a chance, intervene, however mysteriously.

Something that cradled and nurtured his dead loves in its bosom; but something that would also acknowledge his unworthiness and allow him a finality, an end.

He thought of the powerful orgasm with Paola, stronger by many degrees than he remembered experiencing with Theresa.

Confusion and stars. What a combination, he thought.

He encouraged the pain to return and let depression settle over him, until his heart seemed to slow, his eyelids drooped, and he was surrounded by a comfortable blanket of despair, so much more palpable than memory or responsibility or the day-to-day dreariness of shipboard life.

Nothing intervened.

Nothing cared.

In a way, that was reassuring. There could be an end to the universe’s complexity, an end to the strife and confusion of intelligence.

In the middle of the sports and competitions, in the middle of Martin’s despair, Rosa Sequoia disappeared.

Kimberly Quartz and Jeanette Snap Dragon found her naked and half-dead from thirst five days later. They brought her to the schoolroom. Ariel kneeled on the floor and gripped her hair, pulling her head back and forcing her to drink water. Her eyes wandered to fix on points between the people in the room. “What the hell are you doing?” Ariel asked.

Rosa smiled up at her, water leaking from her mouth, cracked lips bleeding sluggish drops. Her face was smeared with dried blood. She had bitten her lower lip. “It came again and touched me,” she said. “I was dangerous. I might have hurt somebody.”

Hans entered the schoolroom already in a rage and brushed Ariel aside. “Get up, damn you,” he said. Rosa stood unsteadily, smelling sour, drips of dried blood on her breasts.

“Are you nuts?” Hans asked.

She shook her head, her shy smile opening the bites. They bled more freely.

Hans grabbed Rosa’s arm, looked around the room for someone to come forward of the ten crew that had gathered. Ariel stepped up again, and Hans transferred the unresisting arm to her hands, as if passing a dog’s leash. “Feed her and clean her up. She’s confined to quarters. Jeanette, guard her door and make sure she doesn’t come out.”

“I should be telling stories later today,” Rosa said meekly. “That’s why I came back.”

“You won’t talk to anybody,” Hans said. He brushed past them all, ridding himself of the mess with a backward wave of his hands.

Martin followed him from the schoolroom, anger piercing his gloom. “She’s sick,” he told Hans. “She’s not responsible.”

“I’m sick, too,” Hans said. “We’re all sick. But she’s slicking crazy. What about you?” He whirled on Martin. “Christ, you mope like a goddamned snail. Harpal’s no better. What in hell is going on?”

Martin said, “We’ve fallen into a hole.”

“Then let’s climb out of it, by God!”

“There is no god. I hope. No one listening to us.”

Hans gave him a withering, pitying glare. “Rosa would disagree,” he said sharply. “I’ll bet she has God’s business card in her overalls right now. Wherever her overalls are.” Hans shook his head vigorously. “Of all the women on this ship, she has to shed her clothes when she feels a fit coming on.” He stopped a few meters down the corridor, shoulders hunched as if Martin were about to throw something at him.

Martin had not moved, wrapped in a wonderfully thick and protective melancholy, feeling very little beyond the fixed anger at Hans.

Hans turned, frowning. “You say we’re in a hole. We’re losing it, aren’t we?” he asked. “By damn, I will not let us lose it.” He tipped an almost jaunty wave to Martin, and skipped up the corridor, whistling tunelessly.

Martin shivered as if with cold. He returned to the schoolroom. Rosa talked freely with the five who remained. Ariel had brought her a pair of overalls that did not fit. She looked ridiculous but she did not care.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I apologize for my condition. I couldn’t even think. I was wired to a big generator. I wasn’t human. My body didn’t matter.” She faced Martin, large powerful arms held out as if she might try to fly. “I felt so ugly before this. Now it just isn’t important.” The light went suddenly from her eyes and she seemed to collapse a couple of inches. “I’m really tired,” she whispered, chin dropping to her chest. “Jeanette, please take me to my room. Hans is right. Don’t let me out for a while, and don’t let anybody but you—or Ariel—in to see me.” She raised a hand and pointed at the three, including Martin. “You are my friends,” she said.

“It’s a very weak signal,” Hakim said. He unveiled the analysis for Hans, Harpal, and Martin, all gathered in the Dawn Treader’s nose. “With our remotes out, we could have picked it up months ago… Maybe even when we were orbiting Wormwood. But we weren’t focusing in this direction…”

“All right,” Hans said impatiently. “It’s a ship. It’s close to us. How close?”

“Four hundred billion kilometers. If we do not alter course, we will pass within a hundred billion kilometers. It is following a course similar to our own, but traveling much more slowly. It is not accelerating.”

Hans said. “It seems odd to find such a needle in the haystack. Why is it close to our course?”

Hakim ventured no guesses.

“Maybe it’s a reasonable course between the two stars,” Harpal suggested. “Give or take a few hundred billion kilometers…”

“Bolsh,” Hans said. “They could have swung wide either way. We came up out of the poles… a reasonable course would have been to use least-energy vectors between the planes of the ecliptic. What’s our relative velocity?”

Hakim highlighted the figure on the chart: the difference in their velocities amounted to one quarter c, about seventy-five thousand kilometers per second.

“Even if we could change course, we wouldn’t want to shed that much speed to rendezvous… We’ll just have to pass in the night. You’re sure it’s a ship?”

“The dimensions are appropriate. It is less than a kilometer long. We were fortunate enough to get a star occultation.”

Hans hummed faintly and rubbed his cheeks with his palms. “Why send out a signal? Why not just hide and get your work done? Whatever the work is…”

Nobody had an answer.

“Can we interpret the signal?”

“It is not language of a spoken variety. That much we know. It may be a series of numbers, perhaps coordinates.”

“You mean, telling rescuers where it is?”

“I think not. If these pulses are numbers, they are repetitive… There are about a hundred such groups of numbers, assuming that a long pause—a few microseconds—means a new group. Giacomo and Jennifer are working on the possibilities now.”

“What kind of coordinates?” Hans asked.

“Jennifer thinks they may describe a two-dimensional image.”

“You mean, television?”

“Digital, not analog—not modulated.”

“A crude picture,” Martin suggested.

“Perhaps only a few dozen pictures in sequence,” Hakim said. “We just can’t be sure yet.”

“Call me when you are,” Hans said.

Jennifer entered the nose and stood for a moment, blinking at them, grinning with canines prominent: Jennifer’s wolfish expression of intellect triumphant. Giacomo came in behind her. She lifted her wand and said, “We’ve got it. Too simple to see, actually. Polar coordinates, not rectangular, spiral within a circle, a sweep point, angle theta, radius measured from the center, groups of numbers in sequence: theta, radius, gray-scale value. Theta changes every one hundred and twenty numbers. The gray-scale value gives about thirty shades. The signals translate to about a hundred graphic images before it starts to repeat. It’s clumsy but simple enough for almost anyone to decode.”

“Want to see?” Giacomo said.

Hans patted his arm with strained gentleness, impatient. “Show us.”

Jennifer lifted her wand.

The first picture was difficult to make out, a series of blurs and blocks of shadow. Harpal pointed to a mottled oval white blur and said, “That’s a face, I think. It’s very low resolution, isn’t it?”

“We can interpolate, do some so-called Laplace enhancements,” Giacomo said. “But I thought we should see the original images first.”

“Enhance. We’ll worry about distortions later,” Martin suggested.

Giacomo picked out simple enhancements, stabbing with his finger expertly at a menu of selections only he could see. The picture became at once more contrasting and easier to perceive, but reduced to blacks and whites with few shades of gray. “Five faces, I think,” Harpal said, pointing them out slowly. Martin nodded; Hans simply looked with hands folded, frowning.

“They’re not human, but they’re bilaterally symmetric,” Harpal said.

“I think there are more faces, but they’re too blurred to make out,” Giacomo said.

“Eyes,” Jennifer said. “A mouth perhaps.”

“I don’t give a slick what they look like,” Hans said, scowl deepening. “What do they mean!”

“Maybe these are the crew of the…” Jennifer said, and stopped.

“The crew of the other Ship of the Law. Our future comrades,” Martin finished for her.

“If they are, they’re awfully stupid, radiating a signal like this for anybody to pick up.”

“This could be more of a last testament,” Hakim said. “A dying ship, channeling power to send out a weak but detectable signal… Someone who no longer cares about being found.”

“The moms would tell us at least that much—whether they’re still dead, or alive. Wouldn’t they?” Harpal asked.

“These aren’t our partners,” Hans said. “They’re just some other poor sons of bitches lost out here.”

More faces. Dark interiors with brightly lighted figures. They began to see the overall shape of the beings: round bodies with four thick stubby legs, elongated horse-like heads on long necks, a pair of slender limbs rising from the “shoulders” and tipped with four-fingered hands. They wore harness-like outfits more useful for carrying things than as concealment.

“Centaurs,” Jennifer said.

“They look more like dinosaurs to me,” Giacomo said. “Sauropods.”

“Tweak it again,” Hans ordered.

Giacomo and Jennifer worked together to interpolate more detail. For a moment, the picture fuzzed into grayness, and then it stood out in artificial clarity, all shapes reduced to plastic simplifications. “I’ll enhance shadows, since the light source seems to be from this angle,” Giacomo said, pointing his finger in toward the picture experimentally.

Hans’ scowl did not change. Something new and he doesn’t like it, Martin thought.

Giacomo poked the unseen menu and keyboard and spoke short verbal commands, all interpreted by his wand.

The image’s contrast became more dramatic, shadows more pronounced, and the scene suddenly took on depth. Five of the sauropod beings floated in an ill-defined interior, joined in a five-pointed star, heads toward the middle, linked by hand-like appendages.

“Group portrait,” Martin said.

“Next picture, and tweak it the same,” Hans said.

More figures appeared, arrayed with machines as difficult to riddle as the interiors of the Dawn Treader might have been to fresh Earthbound eyes. The tenth image was a diagram: stars and larger balls against mottled dark sky. Arrays of dots and slashes that might have been labels for the image seemed to be compromised by the enhancements, but when Giacomo removed the enhancements, the symbols made no more sense than before.

Hakim leaned closer to the picture and said, “I can make out a familiar constellation. Familiar to the search team, at least… We have called it the Orchid. It has been with us for a year now. It looks a little different, however… The brightest star, there…” He gestured to Giacomo, who surrendered control of the image to him. Hakim brought up a crystalline starfield, live, and rotated it until he found the constellation he wanted. Then he flash-compared the blurred chart with the fresh image, adjusted for scale, and the corresponding stars jumped in and out, the brightest jumping the farthest.

“Time has passed,” Hakim said, “but these are the same stars. Notice that stars in the distant background do not jump.”

“I noticed,” Hans said. “How long has it been?”

Hakim worked his momerath quickly. “If estimates of proper motion are correct, this image would have to be one, perhaps two thousand years old.”

“They’ve been out here two thousand years?” Harpal asked, whistling.

The next few images showed the spacecraft itself from several angles: three spheres linked by necks.

“It’s like our ship,” Jennifer said.

Harpal whistled again. “It’s a Ship of the Law, all right.”

More pictures: cabin interiors, what might have been a social or even a mating ritual, sauropods holding up pale ovoids for examination, breaking the ovoids and appearing to consume the contents, beings in repose or dead, twenty blocks of what was probably text, then a series of ten individual portraits.

The next ten images were simple charts of a stellar system. Hakim compared these charts with the charts they had made of Leviathan. The numbers and orbits of the planets were very similar, though not exact. “Puzzling,” Hakim said. “There is strong similarity, but…”

“Maybe the system has changed,” Martin suggested.

“Not natural changes. Twelve planets are shown in these charts, but we have detected only ten. The largest planet is not shown in the earlier charts. Where could it have come from?”

“You’re saying they didn’t visit Leviathan? This is another system?” Hans asked.

Hakim frowned. “I do not know what to say. The resemblance is too close to be coincidence… these six similar planets, congruent masses, orbits, diameters…”

“Forget it for now,” Hans said.

The next forty images showed planets and planetary surfaces, details too muddied to be very useful. Hints of mountains or large structures with regular, smooth surfaces; a lake or body of water; dramatic cloud formations over a flat-topped mesa, sauropods in suits exploring a broad field.

The last image was startling in its directness.

Three sauropods in suits on a planetary surface confronted a being of another kind entirely; three times more massive than they, barrel-bodied, standing on two massive legs like an elephant’s, with a long, flat head topped by a row of what might have been eyes, nine of them.

They were exchanging ovoids. One sauropod appeared to be kneeling before the larger being; offering up an ovoid.

“What in the hell happened?” Hans asked, frowning, fixed on the final image. “They’ve picked a mighty poor choice of pictures to tell a story.”

“Perhaps the sequence is incomplete,” Hakim said. “What could be left after such a time?”

“Are we going to change course and find out?” Giacomo asked.

“Hell, no,” Hans said immediately. “They’re dead. This isn’t a distress call, that’s clear; they must have known they were dying.”

Silence settled. Then, very distinctly, the ship’s voice spoke—the first time they had heard it since a year before the Skirmish, before Martin served as Pan.

“There will be an expedition to examine this ship,” it said in a rich contralto. “It would be best if members of the crew accompany the expedition.”

Hans’ face reddened as much with surprise as anger. “We don’t have the fuel to waste!”

“There is sufficient fuel,” the ship’s voice said. “A vessel will be manufactured. It can carry three people, or none, depending on your decision.”

“You can make another ship now?” Hakim asked in a small voice.

“Why do it at all?” Hans said. “The ship is dead—it must be! Two thousand years!”

“It is a Ship of the Law,” the ship’s voice answered. “The transmitted information is likely to be much less than what is stored aboard the ship itself. It is required for all Ships of the Law to rendezvous and exchange information, if such a rendezvous is possible.”

Hans lifted his eyes, then his hands, giving up. “Who wants to go?” he asked.

“We can draw lots,” Hakim said.

“No—we won’t draw lots,” Hans said. “Martin, I assume you’d like to go?”

“I don’t know,” Martin said.

“I’d like you to go. Take Hakim and Giacomo with you.”

Jennifer’s breath hitched.

“How long a voyage?” Giacomo asked.

“Your time, one month,” the ship’s voice said. “Time for this ship, four months. There will be super acceleration and deceleration.”

“A lot of fuel,” Hans said under his breath.

Giacomo touched Jennifer’s hand. “Nothing like a side trip,” she said. “Makes the heart grow fonder.”

Giacomo did not look at all convinced.

“If people go, it will use more fuel,” Martin said. He wondered if Hans wanted him out of the way.

“That is correct,” the ship’s voice said. “But it is not a major consideration. You will learn much that cannot be learned by sending an uncrewed vessel. Your observations will be valuable.”

“There it is,” Hans said. He wrapped his arm around Martin. “It’ll cheer you up,” he said.

“How?” Martin asked. “Visiting a derelict…”

“Get your goddamned glum face off this barge,” Hans said.

“Doesn’t sound like I’m being given a choice.”

“I could send Rosa,” Hans said.

Martin stared him down. “All right,” Martin said. Hakim tried to break the tension.

“It will be a very unusual journey. While we are gone, the crew will have something to do. They’ll study these pictures and—”

“Bolsh,” Hans said. “We don’t show them to anybody now. We can’t avoid letting them know there’s a ship, but everything else… zipped lips.”

“Why?” Jennifer asked, astonished.

“Our morale is so low the pictures might kill us,” Hans said. “Martin, Giacomo, you study them with Hakim and Jennifer. Nobody else sees them for now. I don’t even want to look at them. Report only to me.”

“Hans, that’s deception,” Jennifer said, still astonished.

“It’s an order, if that means anything now. Are we agreed?”

Jennifer started to talk again, but Hans interrupted.

“Slick it. If everybody wants to choose another Pan now, let’s go to it. I’ll be glad to go back to a relatively normal life, taking orders instead of giving them,” he said evenly. “Am I right?”

Nobody was willing to push the issue. They agreed reluctantly. Jennifer transferred the images to their private wands.

For the first time in their journey, one group would withhold information from another.

Numb, his gloom deeper and more perversely comforting than ever, Martin returned to his quarters and looked through the images again, trying to fathom the seriousness of what had just happened, and whether he had gone along with Hans too quickly.

He did not look forward to the journey. The pictures were devastating. The Benefactors apparently could not save this Ship of the Law; the sauropod beings were almost certainly thousands of years dead.

The Benefactors could have known about Wormwood and Leviathan for millennia.

They had sent others here before. They had surmised that much around Wormwood; now it was confirmed.

The Dawn Treader was just another in a series.

No ship had succeeded; none had even gone so far as to burn the tar baby, until now.

But what awaited them around Leviathan might be even more deceptive, even more complex, playing for much higher stakes…

The craft created within the second homeball was slightly bigger than a bombship—ten meters long, with a bulbous compartment four meters in diameter, within which Martin, Giacomo, and Hakim would spend one month—much of that time asleep or wrapped in volumetric fields.

They said their farewells. The crew still knew next to nothing—only that there was another Ship of the Law, probably a death ship, and that the three of them would investigate.

Hans withdrew from the interior of the new craft, looked at Martin with narrow eyes, and said, “You can back out if you want. This is no picnic.”

Martin shook his head. He felt foolish, being manipulated so blatantly—challenged to back away, refusing to be so weak in front of Hans. Hans cocked his head to one side. “Giacomo, keep your brain running. Maybe we can learn something they don’t want us to know.”

“Why would they have invited us to come if they wanted to keep secrets?” Hakim asked.

“I don’t know,” Hans said. “Maybe we’re being paranoid.”

“Maybe,” Martin said.

“But I doubt it.”

He shook hands with each of them. Giacomo and Jennifer had said their farewells privately.

“We’re ready,” Martin said. A journey of a trillion kilometers begins with a single step. He pulled himself into the craft, kicking free of the ladder field, into the spherical interior. Giacomo followed, then Hakim.

As they settled, Hakim said, “The Dawn Treader is giving us one quarter of its fuel.”

Martin nodded. Such profligacy seemed beside the point now.

“We will be like a fish carrying a yolk sac,” Hakim continued. “Very ungainly. And this craft is sixty percent fake matter…”

“Please,” Giacomo said. “I’m queasy enough.”

“Big adventure,” Hakim concluded with a sigh. His skin was pale and he shivered a little.

The hatch smoothed shut.

They eased out of the weapons store. Dawn Treader receded to no more than a pinpoint against the stars.

A mom’s voice spoke. “We begin super acceleration in three minutes.”

The ship was little more than an enlarged mom, Martin thought, given seven-league boots.

“You might want to see this,” Hans’ voice came over the noach.

They witnessed their departure from Dawn Treader’s point of view, a tiny dart with bulbous middle surrounded by pale green fuel tanks.

Volumetric fields wrapped the three passengers in smothering safety. Martin’s eyesight suffered, as usual, but he still watched the noach transmission. A sump swallowed their flare. Little more than a rim of intense white showed, and quickly faded.

“Bon voyage,” Hans said.

Martin passed the acceleration in a slice of nothingness in which only a few incoherent dreams surfaced—meeting girls at dances on the Central Ark, Mother and Father, basement sweepings from his brain, exhausting in their banality. When they had reached near-c, they coasted, their fields folded, and they faced each other balefully, cramped shipmates. Outside, space twisted and stars huddled into a blurred torque. The ship restored the star fields to a normal appearance for their benefit.

“How long until we arrive?” Giacomo asked, clearly not comfortable in the close quarters.

“A tenday,” Hakim said.

“You may sleep for the first six days if you wish,” the mom’s voice told them.

“Earth’s astronauts did this for months at a time,” Hakim said.

“Yeah, but we’re spoiled,” Giacomo said.

“Let’s sleep,” Martin said.

Sleep came and went, another longer slice of oblivion. Martin awoke disoriented, drank a cup of sweetened fluid, exercised in the weightlessness, observed his companions surface from their slumbers.

He had expected the journey to add even more weight to his burden of gloom. Instead, he experienced exhilaration and freedom he had never known before.

Hakim behaved as if the burden had shifted from Martin to him. He worked quietly but without enthusiasm. Giacomo spent much of his time contemplating the small star sphere.

“We’re further away from our fellows than anybody’s ever been before,” he said at the end of their second day awake. The derelict was now two days away.

“Farther,” Hakim said softly.

“Whatever,” Giacomo said. “I don’t feel isolated. Do you?”

“The Dawn Treader is pretty isolated,” Martin observed.

“Yes, but they have each other… too many to keep track of. We have just three.”

In natural sleep, Martin saw Rosa’s dark shadow entity walk through an impossibly green field, wind knocking pieces of it away like fluff from a black dandelion. It towered over trees and hills, yet it was fragile and somehow vulnerable…

Awake, he helped Hakim prepare for their investigation. The craft mom briefed them on designs of Ships of the Law launched over the past few thousand years, though without any indication of their origins or destinations. Martin thought this was make-work; indeed, he was coming to believe their presence on this journey had more to do with ship-crew relations than practical function.

But the crew was the entire reason for the Dawn Treader’s existence. Perhaps the ship’s mind recognized the impact of crew fears and suspicions, and was working to reduce them.

“Let’s try something,” Hakim said when boredom had set in at the end of the second day of coasting. “Let’s float by ourselves in the middle of nothing, and see what we think about.”

Giacomo gave Hakim a pained look. “You want us to go nuts?”

“It will be amusing,” he said. Hakim’s gloom had lifted, but his sense of humor had taken on a strange tinge, part fatalism, part puckishness; his face stayed calm, eyes large and inoffensive, but his words sometimes aimed at targets neither of his companions could see.

“I’m not so sure,” Giacomo said.

“You’re big and strong, a strapping theoretical fellow,” Hakim said with a smile. “Catholic cannot take a dare from a Muslim?”

Giacomo squinted. “Bolsh,” he said. “My parents didn’t even go to church.”

“Nobody mentions my religion,” Martin said. The conversation was becoming too ragged for his taste, but he could not just stay out of it.

“We don’t know what you are,” Hakim said.

Martin thought for a moment. “I don’t know myself,” he said. “My grandparents were Unitarians, I think.”

“I challenge us all to sit in the middle of a projection of the exterior, unaltered, and speak of what we experience,” Hakim said.

Giacomo and Martin glanced at each other. “Okay,” Martin said.

The craft mom obliged. Within a few minutes the exterior enveloped them: intense speckled darkness ahead, twisted torque of blurred stars, muddy warmth behind.

Martin experienced immediate vertigo. The weightlessness had never bothered him until now, and he clutched the arms of his seat and felt sweat break out. They did not look at each other for several minutes, afraid of showing their discomfort.

Strangely, it was Hakim’s voice that dispelled Martin’s sense of endless falling. “It is worse than I thought,” Hakim said. “Is everybody all right?”

“Fine,” Giacomo said tersely. “Who’s going to clean up if I vomit?”

“Hakim dared us,” Martin said.

“Hand me the mop,” Hakim said. Nervous giggles almost got the better of them.

“It’s pretty strange,” Giacomo said. “I look to my left, and… Jesus! That’s weird beyond belief. Everything twists and spins like a carousel.”

Martin tried looking to his right. The torque shivered, an infinity of stars cowed into being social, like little knots tied in strings of dissolving paint. It all seemed oceanic, the glow of an underwater volcano behind and the queer glimmer of deep water fish ahead. Galactic fish, X-ray fish in the depth of beginning time.

“What are you thinking?” Hakim asked after a few minutes of silence.

“I think I want to go inside,” Martin said.

But they remained “outside,” minutes following one on the other, and their hands crept out and grasped, their breathing came in synchrony. “Wow,” Giacomo said. “I’m not asleep, am I?”

“No,” Martin said.

“I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye, where the star necklace tries to be. Things reaching out to touch me. Pretty spooky.”

“I hear the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer,” Hakim said. “It’s very beautiful. I wish you could hear it.”

“Are you still a Muslim, Hakim?” Martin asked.

“We are all of us Muslims,” Hakim said. “It is our natural state. We must give ourselves to Allah at some point, become obedient. Allah is looking out for us, that I feel… And Muhammad is his prophet. But what shape Allah is, who can say? And it is no use bowing to Mecca.”

“I think that means you’re a Muslim,” Martin said.

“The Pope died with Earth,” Giacomo said. “Isn’t that something? The moms didn’t save the Pope. I wonder why.”

Martin saw grass growing on the rim of a tunnel, the greenness bright and welcoming, blending toward the center.

“Remember volunteering?” Giacomo said.

“A difficult time for me,” Hakim said. “My mother did not want me to go. My father spoke to her sternly and she cried. I decided I had to go, and my mother… she ignored me from that day. Very sad.”

“The tests?”

“I didn’t take a lot of tests,” Martin said.

“I remember a lot of tests,” Giacomo said. “Physical—”

“Oh, those,” Martin said. He remembered being wrapped in fields that tingled while the moms floated in attendance, never telling whether the results were good or poor.

Martin remembered his father’s face, proud and sad, on the last day. The families in the Ark gathering at the berthing bay for the new Ship of the Law, stars visible beyond the curve of the third homeball. Some of the children barely into their teens getting caught up in the excitement. Martin remembered Rex Live Oak throwing up and a hastily spread field grabbing the expelled contents of his stomach and whisking them away. He smiled. The moms did not disqualify the children for nerves or fright.

Sleepless nights as the Dawn Treader rose into darkness, climbing for almost a year on a torch dipped into a sump. The classes, momerath refreshers, Martin’s first tryst with Felicity Tigertail, awkward and delicious, a little scary to him, how much he fixed on her. With a little more innate physical wisdom, she did not fix on him, gently repulsed his further advances, introduced him without embarrassment to her other boyfriends…

Strange that he did not feel attracted to Theresa much sooner. Eighty-five young crew, given subtle guidance or no guidance by moms intent on letting their charges come to wisdom the human way, not the Benefactors’ way, whatever that might be…

“Martin,” Giacomo said. “Do you remember first meeting Jennifer?”

“Yes,” Martin said.

“Was it on the Ark?”

“No,” Martin said. “On the ship.”

“What was she like then? I just don’t remember much about her…”

They talked into the weirdness for hours, and gradually their talk fell silent, and they simply stared, or slept fitfully. The universe seemed to quiver with Martin’s heart, flinching, star necklace alive, a thinly spread tissue of life. His own scale increased to match; Martin became galactic and with his new size came a nervous euphoria.

How long they sat, Martin couldn’t tell at first. But Giacomo broke the vigil and said, “That’s enough for me.”

Hakim made a little grunt. “Why?” he said.

“Because I just had a wet dream, damn it,” Giacomo said.

They agreed to stop, and the projection folded into a small star sphere, returning them to the narrow and much more comfortable confines of the craft.

* * *

Their deceleration was brief, merely two hours, to match course and speed with the derelict. As volumetric fields faded, they waited eagerly for a first glimpse of the ship from a few kilometers.

What first appeared was almost impossible to comprehend. The ship resembled a twisted, crisped piece of paper in a fire, covered with holes, the edges of the holes burning orange and red; homeballs skeletal, debris drifting in a cloud.

“Dear God,” Giacomo said.

“What happened?” Hakim asked.

The mom took them around the derelict in a slow loop. “This ship is very old,” it said. “Central control of its shape has failed. Fake matter is decaying. Within a few hundred years, there will be only the shells of real matter.”

“There are no survivors?” Hakim asked.

“We guessed that much already,” Martin said.

“Not with certainty,” Hakim persisted.

“There are no survivors,” the mom said. “The ship’s mind is inoperative. We will search for deep time memory stores.”

A hole opened in the side of their craft. Martin pushed himself through first, wrapped in a spherical field with a green balloon of life support.

“It’s like being in a soap bubble,” he said. They had not practised with these fields before. Martin pulled down an ephemeral control panel and touched arrows to indicate the direction he wanted to move. The bubble thrust away from the craft with a barely audible tink and a tiny flash of light—individually matched atoms of anti em and matter, their explosions cupped against a mirror-reflective field the size of his hand.

Giacomo emerged next, then Hakim. Except for their few words and the sounds of breathing, again they were enveloped by the universe, although in the form of an undistorted field of stars. Martin saw the constellation of the Orchid. In that direction, visually aligned within a degree of the star known to humans as Betelgeuse, lay the Dawn Treader, two hundred billion kilometers away.

He rotated his bubble toward the constellation Hakim had named Philosopher. The derelict crossed the sweep of the Philosopher’s hand.

“What was its name?” Giacomo asked.

The craft mom’s voice answered, “I do not know.”

They pushed slowly across the two kilometers. Martin trailed Giacomo’s balloon, watching the staccato, firecracker punctuations of dying atoms.

“I feel like an angel. This is incredible,” Hakim said, following Martin.

Martin’s attention focused on the disintegrating hulk looming before them. He could make out the three homeballs, reduced to psychedelic leaf-skeletons, all edges glowing red and orange and white.

“I knew it took energy to maintain fake matter… I didn’t know it would just fizzle out,” Giacomo said. Martin spun around and urged his bubble toward the third homeball, leaving Giacomo and Hakim near the middle. He had spotted a hole big enough to squeeze his bubble through, and with the craft mom’s approval, he was going to attempt entry.

Beside him followed a half-sized copper-bronze mom; he had not seen the craft produce the little robot, but no explanations were necessary. The diminutive mom advanced on its own firecracker bursts.

“What do I look for?” he asked the little mom.

“Ship’s mind will have left a marker that will interact with close fields. The deep time memory store will probably reside within the third homeball, in the densest concentrations of real matter.”

His bubble passed through what must have once been the hatch to the weapons store. “This ship wasn’t attacked, was it?”

“No,” the little mom said. “It ceased performing its mission.”

“Why?”

“We have insufficient information to answer,” the little mom said. Martin watched an extrusion of glowing scrap push against his bubble. He slowed and moved deeper, through layer after glimmering layer; walls, distorted cubicles, warped structural members. Sheets of disengaged matter—real matter, not subject to deterioration—hung undisturbed, brushed against his bubble, bounced aside silently, rippling like cloth. He could see now how little real matter actually coated the fake matter within a Ship of the Law; no thicker than paint.

“I’m inside the second homeball,” Giacomo said.

“I’m entering the first neck,” Hakim said. “It’s really thinning out here—not much holding it together. I’ll go forward.”

Within a dark cavity, wrapped by sheets of pitted matter, Martin saw an intriguing shadow, something that did not appear to be part of the ship. He extruded a green field to push aside the sheets. A shriveled cold face stared at him, eyes sunk within their orbits, long neck desiccated to knots of dried skin and muscle around sharply defined bone.

“I’ve found one of the crew,” he said.

“Freeze dried?” Giacomo asked.

“Not exactly. Looks like it died and mummified, then was exposed to space, maybe centuries later.”

“One of our sauropods?”

Martin transmitted an image to satisfy their curiosity. A flapping sail of matter tapped the corpse and knocked lines of powder free.

He maneuvered around the corpse and pushed deeper.

His bubble pulsed suddenly, glowed pale green, returned to normal.

“That is the beacon,” the little mom said. “We are near a deep time memory store.”

“I’ve found more bodies,” Giacomo said. “Dozens of them. They look like they fell asleep, or died quietly—like they’re lying down.”

“The ship must have been accelerating when they died,” Hakim said. “Unless we are seeing peculiar patterns of rigor.”

Martin wiped his eyes with a sleeve. “Really awful,” he murmured.

“Do you think they just gave up, or did they run out of fuel?” Giacomo asked. Nobody could answer. “What happened to them?”

Martin’s bubble advanced through curving pipes and conduits, the ship’s drive, real matter, not fake. He had come to the very bowels of the ship.

The bubble pulsed again. The deep time memory store was a white dodecahedron surrounded by an intact cage of real matter, near the center of the third homeball. “Found what we’re looking for,” he said. “I think.”

The half-sized robot pushed closer, used fields like hands and fingers to disengage the dodecahedron, pulled it from its cage. “I will store it in the craft. You may explore more if you wish.”

Martin’s horror and pity had diminished enough to bring curiosity to the fore. He moved forward through the neck to the second homeball, saw Giacomo prying his way into what must have once been a large room—a kind of schoolroom—to get at what lay within. More bodies, some hidden by membranes of surface matter, all shrunken, limbs curled in death’s rigor, necks pulled back as if they were in despair or agony—rigor also, he hoped—arranged against what might have been a floor. The floor rippled under the impact of dislodged particles. The bodies drifted centimeters from their resting places, illuminated by the spooky fireside glow of fake matter coming apart.

Giacomo kept muttering under his breath.

“Speak up,” Martin said, irritated.

“It’s so much more… obvious, how they do it,” Giacomo said.

“Who does what?”

“How the Benefactors make Ships of the Law. There must be a kind of noach transmitter, and it makes a shape… fools the privileged bands into informing other particles that matter is there, but doesn’t finish the job. Leaves out mass. Something paints real matter over the fake, and voila! A big fake matter balloon. That’s all Dawn Treader is. Our ship could look like this in a few thousand years.”

“I think there must have been fifty or sixty crew members,” Hakim said. “I count thirteen where I am, near the nose. They all seem to have slept before they died.”

“They sure as hell didn’t die in combat” Giacomo said.

“Our mission is accomplished,” the little mom said. “It is time to return.”

Back in the craft, they sampled portions of the deep time memory store, what little was comprehensible to them. Martin confirmed what he had already suspected; the Benefactors’ representatives, the moms, even on this Ship of the Law, interfered very little with their charges, and did not keep day-to-day records of activities. But they did store records kept by the crew, and that was what occupied Martin, Giacomo and Hakim in their free moments on the return voyage.

They decelerated, saw the two homeballs of Dawn Treader, and were welcomed back to the ship by a crowd of fit-looking crew.

Martin did not look forward to briefing Hans. Hans immediately took them to his quarters, with no time to recover. Harpal and Jennifer came as well, but no others.

“The moms let you see what you recovered?” Hans asked.

“They did, as much as we could understand,” Martin answered.

“Most of the memory is ship’s mind data,” Hakim said. “We do not know what that contained.”

Martin produced his wand. “We’ve tried to translate and edit. You can look over the crew records in detail… For purposes of a briefing, I thought this might cover the important points.”

They watched in silence as picture and sound unfolded. The unfamiliar visual language of the recordings made viewing difficult; different color values, different notions of perspective and “editing,” attempts at three-dimensional images which did not match human eyes, all added to their problems.

But the salient points were clear.

They watched hour after hour of sauropod crew history, rituals, ceremonies; and as the other Ship of the Law moved farther and farther from Leviathan and their encounters with the civilization there, the sauropod social structure became less and less firm.

Martin pointed out what must have been acts of murder. The sauropods needed a kind of reproductive analog without full reproduction; non-fertile eggs provided essential nutrients, apparently. But egg production dropped off, and the egg-producing sex—not precisely females, as three sexes were involved—underwent chastisement, isolation, and then death for their failures.

All of this was recorded with a solemn and unwinking attention to detail, a little slice of hell from human perspective, but day-to-day existence for the sauropods.

“Don’t they see what they’re doing?” Jennifer asked, aghast; they saw the ritualized execution of the last egg-producer, multiple hammer-blows by a group of dominants, all of one sex.

Hans grunted, turned away from the flickering images.

“It’ll take us a long time to riddle some of this,” Giacomo said, clutching Jennifer’s hand.

“Seems pretty clear to me,” Hans said. “They went to Leviathan, they were given the runaround, they gave up and left. Play back the meetings.”

In much clearer detail, they saw selected images and motion sequences of Leviathan’s worlds, conferences with multiple-eyed, bipedal creatures that seemed to represent the civilization; these segments were particularly muddy, almost useless in terms of linear history.

A mom entered Hans’ cabin. “The ship has translated all Benefactor and ship language records,” the mom said. “We may call these beings Red Tree Runners.”

“Why would we want to?” Hans asked.

“That is a close translation of their name for themselves. Their home system was invaded four thousand three hundred and fifty years ago, Dawn Treader frame of reference. They had already established a pact with representatives of the Benefactors. The killer probes were defeated and their worlds were not substantially damaged. Perhaps half of their original population survived, and they were able to rebuild. They were outfitted with ships and weapons suitable to seek out the Killers. They became part of the Benefactor alliance.”

“But they weren’t Benefactors themselves?” Hakim asked.

“No. You might call them junior partners.”

Hans chuckled. “Higher rank than us.”

“A different arrangement, under different circumstances. The Red Tree Runners traveled over one hundred light years, a journey lasting thirty Earth years by their reference frame.”

“And?” Hans said.

“They arrived at Leviathan nineteen hundred years ago. Leviathan has changed considerably since then.”

“We noticed,” Giacomo said.

“Reasons for the changes are not clear. But they were convinced Leviathan was not their target, obtained fuel from the inhabitants of one of the worlds, and departed.”

Martin shook his head. “That’s all?”

“The memory store has undergone considerable decay. The Red Tree Runners may have discovered how to deactivate the ship’s mind, or interfere with its operations. Over ninety percent of the records are too deteriorated for retrieval. One third of the shipboard recordings have survived, but all biological, historical, and library records of their civilization have decayed.”

“Of course,” Hans said dryly.

“They fell apart,” Jennifer said. “They lost it and they killed themselves. Or decided to die.”

Martin recalled the mummified corpses, the last of the crew, saw them lying down to accept the end.

“By God, that won’t happen to us,” Hans said.

“Will this information be made available to all crew members?” the mom asked.

Hans seemed startled by the question. He mused for a moment, squinted one eye, looked at Martin as if about to dress him down for some unspecified offense. “Yeah,” he said. “Open to everybody. Why not. Warning to us all.”

“It’ll be our albatross,” Harpal said. “I don’t know what the others are going to think…”

“It’s a goddamned bloody sign from heaven,” Hans said. “Rosa’s going to have a ball.”

Wild Night was not, as the awkward name suggested, a free-for-all; boredom with lust had settled in. The occasion was treated as both a welcome home for the three travelers and a chance for the crew to let off steam after absorbing news of the death ship; to get back at authority—at the moms, and more implicitly, at Hans, with his planning and approval.

In the cafeteria, the crew enjoyed the first dinner they had had since the Skirmish that tasted like anything.

Martin had not participated in the Wild Night planning, and so was as surprised as anybody by the depth of vituperation Hans endured. Rex Live Oak cut his hair to resemble Hans’, and performed a skit with three Wendys about Hans’ sexual escapades. The jokes were explicit and not very funny, but brought hoots and cackles from the crew. Hans smiled grimly and tilted his head back in mock chagrin.

Martin wanted to leave before the third skit, but saw clearly that that would not have been appreciated. Group action was the call of the night, cooperation and coordination: laugh together, poke fun together, rise from the pit together. The entire atmosphere only deepened Martin’s gloom; on Earth, he had never seen a social gathering turn sour, but this must have been what it was like: forced hilarity, insults and insincerity passing for humor, bitterness and sadness masking as camaraderie. Hans presided over it all with dogged equanimity, sitting slightly apart from the others at a table.

The unexpected came, of course, from Rosa Sequoia. She had been quiet for the months when Martin, Giacomo, and Hakim had been away, “Biding her time,” as Hans said. Now, as the skit’s players took a break, she climbed on top of the center table and began to speak.

The show’s presenters could not intervene without breaking the fragile, false mood of all for one and one for all; they had started something, and Rosa took advantage of it.

“You know me,” she said. “I’m the crazy one. I see things and tell stories. You think Hans is funny. You think you are funny. What about me?”

Nobody said a word. Uncomfortable shufflings.

“What about us?” Rosa’s loose robe did not hide the fact that her bulk had turned to muscle, that while neither thin nor graceful, she had grown much stronger in the past four months, much more self-assured.

Her face radiated simple pleasure at being in front of them; of all the people in the crew, now only Rosa could manage a genuinely pleasant smile.

“We’re flesh and blood, but we allow ourselves to be dragged across hundreds of trillions of kilometers, to fight with ghosts… to take revenge on people who aren’t there. That’s funny.”

Hans’ expression solidified, dangerous, head drawn back as if he might snap at a passing bug with his teeth.

But there was something about Rosa’s tone that kept them in their seats. She was not going to harangue them for being foolish; nor play the doom-saying prophet, holding up the example of the corpse of a Ship of the Law to chasten them; she was up to something else.

“How many of you have had strange dreams?” she asked. That hit the mark; nobody answered or raised their hands, but a stiffening of bodies, a turning away of eyes, showed that most had. Martin looked over his crewmates, neckhair rising.

“You’ve been dreaming about people who died, haven’t you?” Rosa continued, still smiling, still disarming.

“What about you?” Rex barked.

“Oh, yes, I’ve been dreaming; if you could call it dreaming, the crazy things that happen to me. I’ve got it bad. I don’t just talk to dead people; I talk to dead ideas. I visit places none of us have thought about since we were little children. Now that’s crazy!”

“Sit down, Rosa,” Hans said.

Rosa did not flinch, did not shift her smile or narrow her eyes; she was oblivious to him.

“I’ve been dreaming about people who died on Earth,” Jeanette said. “They tell me things.”

“What do they tell you?” Rosa asked. Target acquired, audience responding, some at least warming to this change, welcoming relief from the previous cruel absurdity.

Kai Khosrau jumped in before Jeanette could answer. “My parents,” he said.

“What do your parents tell you?”

“My friends when I was a little girl,” Kirsten Two Bites called out. “They must be dead; they weren’t on the Ark.”

“What do they tell you, Kirsten?”

“My brother on the Ark,” Patrick Angelfish said.

“What does he tell you, Patrick?” Rosa’s face reddened with enthusiasm.

Martin’s skin prickled. Theodore.

“They all tell us we’re in a maze and we’ve forgotten what’s important,” Rosa answered herself, triumphant. “We’re in a maze of pain and we can’t find a way out. We don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re here any more. We used to know. Who knows why we’re here?”

“We all know,” Hans said, eyes squinted, looking from face to face around him, shrewd, assessing. “We’re doing the Job. We’ve already done more than all the others before us—”

He cut himself short, glanced at Martin, grimaced.

“We know up here,” Rosa said, tapping her head. She placed her hand over her breast. “We do not know here.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Hans groaned. No one else said a word.

“We play and we try to laugh. We laugh at Hans, but he doesn’t deserve our laughter. He’s Pan. His job is tough. We should be laughing at ourselves. At our sadness.”

Paola Birdsong cried out, “You’re sick, Rosa. Some of us are still grieving. We don’t know what to think… Stop this crap now!”

“We’re all grieving. All our lives is grief,” Rosa said. “Grief and vengeance. Hate and death. No birth, no redemption. We are like mindless knives and guns, bombs, pigeons in rockets.”

“Make your point and get off,” Hans said, sensing that taking her off by force would meet with strong disapproval.

“Something else speaks to me,” Rosa said, chin dipping, shoulders rising.

“Monsters in the halls?” Rex Live Oak called out.

“Let her talk,” Jeanette Snap Dragon demanded, angry.

Hans started to rise.

Rosa lifted her arms. “The things we fight against, we might have called gods once, but we would have been wrong. They are not gods. They aren’t even close. I saw something last tenday that nearly burned me alive.”

“The God of our mothers and fathers!” Jeanette sobbed.

Martin slipped from his chair and started to leave. He did not want to be here, did not want to face this.

“No!” Rosa cried. “It has a voice like chimes, like flutes, like birds, but it crosses this span of stars like a whale in the sea.”

Martin froze, eyes welling up. Yes. So huge and yet it cares.

“It touches everything, and around it swirls parts of itself like bees around a flower. It…” She nodded self-affirmation and wiped her eyes.

“Stop this now!” Hans ordered. “Enough!”

It loves me!” Rosa cried, hands held out, fingers clutching. “It loves me, and I do not deserve its love!”

A few of the men walked out past Martin, shaking their heads and muttering. None of the women left, though Ariel looked as if she might spit fire. Her body shook with anger, but she said nothing.

“It spoke to me. Its words ripped my head apart. Even when it was gentle, it overloaded me.”

“Pray for us!” Kimberly Quartz shouted. Others yelled, “Back to the show! Get off!” Voices strained, bleating, angry.

“Then it showed itself to me,” Rosa said in a stage whisper.

“What did it look like?” Kirsten Two Bites asked.

“It didn’t come as a shadow. That was my preparation, my illness. I had to become sick to see, to want to see; sick and desperate and completely lost. It came to me when I was most ready, weakest and least myself. It was not a shadow, not a presence, but a folding-around. I cannot fold myself around this; it must wrap me. I saw it was not just a whale among the stars; it covered everything known. The parts of it that I saw buzzing like bees were bigger than galaxies, dancing so slowly in endless night, trying to return to the center…”

“They can’t! We can’t!” Kirsten Two Bites said.

Hans got up, caught Martin’s eye, gestured for him to follow.

Martin followed him outside the schoolroom. “What the hell am I going to do?” Hans asked, shaking his head. “Some of them are into it. I should have kept the death ship secret.”

“How?” Martin asked.

Hans shook his head. “If I ordered everybody out now, what would happen?”

“It would get worse,” Martin said. He could still feel the tingle, the gooseflesh. He was confused; he feared Rosa, but part of him needed to hear what she had to say. He realized her message was crude, that she was undoubtedly crazy, but she had a message, and no one else did.

“If we don’t do something, what’ll happen to us?” Hans asked. “We might end up like those poor bastards, drifting for thousands of years!”

Martin lowered his head. He did not want to acknowledge what such an awkward, unattractive person had made him feel: the depth of their lostness.

Hans stared at him and whistled. “You too, huh?”

“No,” Martin said, shaking his head. “We should break it up now.”

“Just you and me?”

“I’ll get Ariel and the past Pans. You stay outside. We’ll meet here and go back in, announce…”

“Training,” Hans said. “If we can get back to some kind of training…”

“All right,” Martin said, unable to think of anything better.

Martin entered the cafeteria, Rosa started to step down, and collapsed into the arms of Jeanette Snap Dragon and Kirsten Two Bites.

The meeting broke up with a scatter of hard, fragile laughter. Jeanette and Kirsten supported Rosa out the opposite door, away from the crowd. Martin subdued an urge to follow them, to question Rosa; instead, he collected Cham and Harpal and Ariel, and told them they were meeting with Hans. Ariel was puzzled.

“Why does Hans want to see me?” she asked.

“Maybe he doesn’t know yet,” Martin said. “But I do.”

“We’re two months away from rendezvous.” Hans folded his hands behind his head, leaning back on a chair that rose from the floor. Six gathered in his quarters; the past Pans, Ariel, at Martin’s insistence, and Rex Live Oak, whom Hans had invited. “We’re losing our edge. Martin sees this, and I’m sure the rest of you do, too. This is a shitty way to fight. Rosa isn’t too far wrong; we fight ghosts, we lose our friends and gain nothing really deeply satisfying—just another step in the Job. And now we have nothing to do for months.

“We find a ship full of corpses, and the moms force us to go take a close look, stick our noses into the stink of failure. Meanwhile, we’re waiting to receive strangers—new crewmates, not even human beings. Any wonder we start listening to Rosa?”

The six said nothing, waiting for a point to be made. Hans drew his lips together, said, “Am I right?”

“Right,” Rex said.

Hans raised his hand over his head, spread the fingers, contemplated them.

Very melodramatic, Martin thought. Child-like.

Hans’ mood was unreadable. Nobody else dared to speak. Martin felt some dreadful kind of grit being revealed in their Pan; tough, determined and perhaps a little perverse, even uncaring.

“The moms say we won’t practise in simulations for a tenday, perhaps two,” Hans said. “The hell with waiting. We forget games and free-for-alls. I don’t want anybody slicking with anybody until this ship is fully prepared. I want some real tensions and angers, not these fake, shitty boredoms we have now. I’m going to have to slap this crew, hit them with work, busy work if necessary. Martin, can you figure the moms?”

Martin showed his surprise. “Beg pardon?”

“Any more insights into what they’re up to?”

He fumbled for a second, shrugging, finally said, “They’re making repairs still. I don’t know what you—”

“Repairs hell. They made your goddamned racing boat to visit the death ship. They gave up a quarter of the fuel we gathered around Wormwood—at the cost of how many lives? Are they keeping anything else important from us?”

“I don’t think so,” Martin said. Ariel did not react. She seemed frozen, listening, waiting.

“We train ourselves, without simulations. We drill for discipline and to keep our blood flowing. We fight each other in physical combat. All of you will be drill instructors. Martin, Rex, and I will work up a schedule of physical endurance and combat. Hand to hand. Winners get to slick. Nobody else. We’ll ask for volunteers to be rewards.”

Only Rex returned his smile. The rest were astonished into blank expressions and silence. Ariel closed her eyes, swallowed.

Before now, except for his outburst following the neutrino storm, Hans’ leadership instincts had always seemed acute. But Martin’s gut reaction to this pronouncement was abhorrence. To go up against crewmates in zero-sum games, physical exercises, competing for the physical affection of a few—he could think of no other words for them—prostitutes, whores, seemed as far wrong as they could go.

But nobody objected, not Martin, not even Ariel. That horrified Martin more than anything else.

“Then let the games begin,” Hans said.

Martin faced Jimmy Satsuma. They bowed to each other, circled warily, clinched.

In the schoolroom, fifteen other opponents faced off, circled, clinched. The room filled with grunts and shufflings, outrushes of air as bodies hit the resilient floor, slaps of flesh on flesh. Wendys wrestled Wendys, Lost Boys faced off against each other.

The family groups, already reduced and weakened by the deaths, became even weaker as Cats opposed each other, Trees and Places wrestled together, Fish and Flowers grappled with Fish and Flowers.

The ship was finding a new social order. Victors emerged; Martin came in sixth out of the top fifteen Lost Boys.

Hans picked out the top fifteen as instructors, and the next round began with additional competitions: running, variations on football, soccer, handball.

There was some satisfaction to Martin in seeing that most of the victors eschewed Hans’ rewards, walking from the matches with wary, embarrassed glances. Rex Live Oak eschewed nothing, taking Donna Emerald Sea to his quarters.

Exhausted, bruised and sore, Martin spent half an hour in his quarters before sleep exploring the libraries of Dawn Treader. The libraries had re-opened in the past few days. There were gaps, but not large ones; about ninety-five percent had been saved or reconstructed from damaged domains. The libraries now integrated the remnants of the derelict’s deep time memory store.

With the libraries restored, he felt some of the pressure of turning inward pass away. He could venture outward again, through the ship’s information universe.

The zero-sum competition was not nearly as divisive as Martin had feared. There were casualties; there were abstainers. Rosa Sequoia and a few of her followers did not compete, and Hans did not compel them to. Some refused after a few attempts, and Hans did not subject them to ridicule.

Days passed.

Nobody talked much about the upcoming rendezvous. It would be like inviting strangers to join a family already having enough troubles; the thought frightened Martin, and he realized with some elation that at least now he could genuinely feel uneasy, that the journey and Hans’ outrages had pulled him out of the gloom that had returned since the voyage to the death ship, lifted that gloom sufficiently to have emotions other than blanketing, all-too-comfortable despair. Perhaps Hans had been right again.

Sixty-four of the crew listened to Rosa’s storytelling. Hans was not there; Ariel and Martin, at his request, attended.

Ariel had accepted Hans and Martin’s attempt to bring her into the fold of authority with surprising composure. Martin thought of two explanations for her placidity: proximity to the center of things gave access to crucial information, and Ariel was no fool; and she would be closer to Martin.

Ariel sat beside Martin in the cafeteria. Martin was reasonably sure she had been making her moves on him, in her peculiar way, since the Skirmish.

He had been celibate since Paola Birdsong. The lure of the flesh was nothing compared to the other conflicts he had to resolve.

The crew came to the cafeteria singly and in triples; few entered in pairs. The dyad structure had broken down in Hans’ exercises and rewards; those who had lost partners in the Skirmish had not yet made new matches, and only one or two new dyads were apparent.

Rosa began her session with a parable.

“Once, back when Earth was young, three children came upon a sick wolf in the woods. The first child was a girl, and her name was Penelope, and she was sweet and younger than the others, and spoke with a lisp. The second was Kim, her brother, who did not know where to go in life, and who always worried about fighting and winning. The third was Jacob, a cousin, the oldest, frightened of his shadow.

“They circled the wolf and Penelope asked the wolf what was wrong with it.

“ ‘I am in a trap,’ the wolf said, and Penelope saw that this was so; the wolf’s paw was caught in a steel jaw chained to the ground. ‘Please release me.’

“ ‘Wait a minute,’ Kim said. ‘What if the trapper sees us? We’ll get in