genesis n., pl. -ses. The coming into being of anything; origin; beginning; creation. [Latin, from Greek, generation, birth, origin.]
Dictionary of Standard English
Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
Richard Aston woke from dreams of agony to an unfamiliar ceiling. He'd never seen that particular swatch of acoustic tiles before, but he'd put in too much recovery time not to recognize a hospital ceiling when he saw it.
He tried to remember how he'd gotten here, but it was a blank. He turned his head and saw the IV plugged into his left arm, then carefully wiggled each finger and toe in turn. It was a ritual testing, first devised thirty years before, and he breathed a sigh of relief as each joint bent obediently, confirming its continued presence.
In fact, he couldn't find a single thing wrong with himself, except for a ravenous appetite. Which was strange. Why was he—?
His thoughts broke off as the door opened quietly. He turned his head and smiled as Ludmilla entered—then frowned as she froze just inside the door. She stared at him, her eyes huge, and he held out his right hand.
Her name broke the spell, and she hurled herself forward, her arms opening wide, and the strangest thing of all was the tears spilling down her face as she laughed and murmured his name over and over between kisses.
It took fifteen minutes for her to calm, and her tearful, wildly emotional state was a shock. It was so unlike her . . . and so filled with love he almost came unglued himself. But the pressure of her feelings slowly ebbed, and she slipped into the chair beside his bed, holding his hand in both of hers as she recounted all that had happened.
"I'd seen neuron whips before, Dick," she said finally, shivering. "I knew you were dying." Her hands tightened on his. "So . . . I took a chance. I made the corpsman inject you with about twenty cee-cees of blood—from me."
She paused, her eyes locked with his.
"But—" He broke off, his own eyes widening in shocked speculation.
"That's right," she said. "It could have killed you—should have killed you, really—but you were already dying anyway. So I did it, and . . ." She paused again, drawing a deep breath. "It worked."
"It worked?" he echoed blankly. "You mean it—? I—?"
"Yes," she said simply, smiling tremulously. "I know I didn't have any right to do it, but—"
"I'm a . . . a Thuselah?" he demanded, unable to grasp it.
"Yes," she said again, smiling at last. The wonder on his face was too much for her, and she lifted his hand to his head. "Feel," she commanded.
His eyes went wider than ever as his palm touched his smooth scalp and felt a soft, downy fuzz. Hair. It was hair!
Then it was true . . . he was a Thuselah! And that meant—
He stared at her and saw the future's endless promise in her deep-blue eyes.
"Well, Admiral," President Armbruster said, smiling from the bedside chair, "you did it."
"Yes, Sir." Aston sat upright in bed, a tray of food on his lap. It was remarkable; his symbiote's demands actually made hospital food taste good. "But it cost us."
"Yes," Armbruster said softly, his smile fading, "it did."
It had. A third of Asheville lay in ruins, as did more than half of Hendersonville, and virtually all of half a dozen other small towns and cities. The fighting had cost the North Carolina National Guard over eight hundred dead. The count of civilian casualties was still coming in, and the already hideously high figure didn't yet include the thousands of rioters who'd died . . . or the ones whose minds had broken when the Troll was killed.
Nor did it include Company T. Major Abernathy's leg had been saved, but it would be severely impaired for the rest of his life. At that, he was one of the lucky ones. Fifty-two percent of Company T's men were dead; another thirty-one percent had been wounded.
Oh, yes, Jared Armbruster thought, it had been a costly victory. But compared to the price they might have paid—
"At any rate," he said, shaking himself, his voice intentionally loud to break the somber mood, "we're all grateful to you. So grateful," he added with a twinkling smile, "that I'm going to give you two a choice."
"A choice, Mister President?" Aston was puzzled.
"Yes. I understand from Colonel Leonovna that this symbiote thing is going to make some changes, Admiral. Going to get a bit younger, are you?"
"Well, yes, Sir, I suppose." Aston shrugged. "I don't understand it all yet, but Milla tells me no self-respecting symbiote would want to live in an old hulk like this, so—"
"I don't blame it a bit." Armbruster grinned. "But that means you've got quite a few years ahead of you, and it occurred to me that you two might like to spend them without official interference."
"You understand, don't you, Colonel?" Armbruster said, and Ludmilla nodded slowly, her eyes locked intently on his face.
"You see, Admiral," Armbruster continued calmly, "the Colonel's in what you might call a precarious position—not right now, but sooner or later.
"At the moment, you and she are international heroes, but eventually someone's going to want to talk to her. She knows too much for her own good, I'm afraid. Too much about her own past—what would have been our future without her—and about her technology."
Aston stared at his President in dawning awareness.
"Exactly," Armbruster said more grimly. "At the moment, the United States is in possession of a warship from five hundred years in the future, and every major power on the planet knows it. We can't make heads or tails of it yet, but you can bet we'll keep trying till we can. And the rest of the world knows that, too. Wars have been fought over far less, Admiral.
"But that's all right, because I don't plan on fighting any damned wars. Thanks to Colonel Leonovna—and you, and a lot of other people with guts—we kicked one Troll's ass, but there's a whole damned race of genocidal fanatics out there in the stars. We beat them in Colonel Leonovna's past, but we were lucky. I don't intend to rely on luck this time around, and President Yakolev, Prime Minister Henderson, and Chancellor Stallmaier agree with me. When the first Shirmaksu fleet enters the solar system, we intend for a united Earth to kick its miserable ass from here to Antares, and that ship is our leverage to make sure it happens.
"You've been closed up in here for three weeks, Admiral, so you may not realize what a state the world is in. The story's still coming out, but the pressure to do something is tremendous. Ambassador Nekrasov is already in Washington with a special delegation from Moscow and others are on the way. As I'm sure you can imagine, a few nations—like France, the PRC, and a dozen or so Third World states—are howling over our `high-handed, arrogant chauvinism' in keeping them in the dark. But that's all right. I'd anticipated something of the sort, and with Britain, Germany, and Russia backing us in Europe and Japan, South Korea, and the Republic of China backing us in Asia—not to mention the fact that we're the ones with all Grendel's hardware in our grasp—I think we've got the leverage we need. With a little luck, I'll have Congressional authority to begin negotiations for the creation of a real world government within the month. I don't say it will be easy, but I think we'll manage it. We have to.
"Which brings us back to Colonel Leonovna. I can absolutely guarantee that no one will lay a finger on her while I'm President, but I won't be President forever. And even if I were, the combination of her knowledge and her symbiote would almost certainly be too much for other governments to keep their hands off her."
"What exactly do you mean, Mister President?" Aston spoke sharply, but he knew. And, he thought with cold ferocity, he should always have known. Would have known, if only he'd actually expected to live and let himself look that far ahead.
"I mean that the Colonel is unique," Armbruster said, confirming Aston's grim thoughts. "An oracle to be consulted. The only female `Thuselah' in existence—or likely to exist, this time around. And, forgive me, Colonel, there will be those who suspect you could give them much more technical information than you have. If you're lucky, they'll be very civilized about it, but they won't let you run around loose once the truth starts to penetrate."
"Protective custody?" Aston's voice was harsh.
"If, as I say, you're lucky," Armbruster said evenly. "Don't be too hard on them, Admiral. Remember that she represents the humanity of the future—or a species-threatening abomination, depending on your viewpoint—because she's the only person on this planet who can possibly conceive and bear Thuselah children."
Aston's blood chilled as he recalled Ludmilla's description of how Thuselahs had been treated even when there were millions of them; how would the only Thuselah mother in existence fare?
"That would be enough all by itself," Armbruster said quietly. "But it won't be by itself. I may be confident that we'll get a united world in the end, but it's not going to be easy, it's not going to be simple, and unless I'm very much mistaken, it won't be bloodless, either. There are enough regimes out there with leaders who'd rather fight to the death than surrender their power and authority to anyone else, and you're a career military man. What wouldn't any war department give for the ability to field and train special forces, or elite antiterrorist squads—or terrorists of their own—with the advantages the Colonel's symbiote could provide them, especially in the face of everything that's about to come down? I can think of a dozen nations right off hand who would do anything to get their hands on her. Or, failing that, on samples of her DNA. Cloning is no longer a mystery of the future, Admiral. We have it now, and the techniques will only improve, which means—"
He shrugged, but his eyes never wavered from Aston's, and it was the admiral's turn to nod grimly.
"And even aside from that, as I say, they'll suspect she can give them more technical information than she has," Armbruster said almost gently. "Speaking of which, Colonel, I hope you'll forgive me if I suspect the same thing."
"Why should you, Mister President?" Ludmilla asked.
"You've been just a bit too vague, Colonel. I think you're holding back—on the very wise premise that we're not ready for all you know."
"Not ready yet, Mister President," she corrected gently, and he smiled.
"So, you have been holding out on us." He chuckled. "Very, very wise of you, Colonel. But I've known quite a few military people, and no `simple fighter jock' I ever met was quite as ignorant of theory as you are."
"Actually," she confessed calmly, "Thuselahs have lots of time to study. I have three advanced degrees: one in microbiology and two in molecular electronics and sub-particle physics." Aston stared at her in shock, and she smiled. "You know, Mister President, I rather thought you were suspicious."
"Damn right I was," he agreed cheerfully. "But it happens I agree with you—though I trust you will make some of that knowledge available if it becomes obvious our own R&D people have hit a brick wall?"
"I will," she said, then paused. "But that sounds as if you think I'll have a choice."
"I intend to see that you do," he said, suddenly very serious. "I probably shouldn't. Looked at in one way, letting you out of my grasp will probably constitute the greatest act of treason any sitting president has ever committed, because all the things I just said could be squeezed out of you by unscrupulous nations could be squeezed out of you by us, as well. But it happens that I would prefer to be able to sleep with myself at night, and given how much we owe you, that would become just a tad difficult if I didn't let you go. And," he added with a wry smile, "not giving you the chance would present difficulties of its own. Yakolev, Henderson, Stallmaier, and I are going to have a tough enough time determining how, when, and where to share access to the Troll's fighter, but at least that's only a piece of hardware—and one no one will be able to figure out for a while, anyway. If we handle it right, we can turn it into a focus for the new government we need to put together, make it into a sort of combined Rosetta Stone-Manhattan Project-Moon Race as we rally the human race's best and brightest in an effort to take it apart and learn how to reverse engineer it for our own use.
"But if you were available, Colonel, you'd make that much more difficult. People would keep turning to you for explanations instead of figuring things out on their own. And that doesn't even consider all the fights and squabbles we'd get into over which nation should have the privilege of serving as your `host.' After all, if I can see the advantages to grabbing you off, so can anyone else. And even if they weren't so nefarious as to want you for their own purposes, they'd sure as hell want to make sure that none of their rivals got hold of you."
"I see." Ludmilla gazed at him calmly, then cocked her head. "Obviously, I'm pleased to hear you coming up with all those reasons you should let me go, Mr. President. But are you certain you've really thought this through? We may have killed the Troll, but as you just pointed out, the Kangas are still out there, and they will be along in less than eighty years."
"Indeed they will," Armbruster agreed. "But we fought them to a standstill when they arrived in your own past, and that was without even knowing they were coming. This time we'll be forewarned—thanks to you—and, I feel quite certain, forearmed—thanks to Grendel's fighter. I'm sure we'll hit lots of problems in figuring out how it works, but those sorts of problems bring out the best in people and help pull them together, which is exactly what we need. So I'm confident that we will get it figured out . . . and I also hope that you'll be good enough to give us the coordinates of the Kangas' home systems before you swiftly and silently vanish away?"
"Oh, I think you can be reasonably confident of that, Mr. President," she said with a quirky smile.
"Well, then—there you have it!" Armbruster raised both hands shoulder high, palms uppermost, and grinned at her. "Yakolev, Henderson, Stallmaier, and I will use possession of the fighter and access to it as bait to draw the rest of the world into our coils. At the same time, we'll use our combined military strength to discourage anyone who might have thoughts of gaining control of it for themselves or simply destroying it to deprive anyone else of it. Once we've got the world headed in the right direction, we'll use the job of taking it apart and learning how it works—and how to duplicate or even improve upon it—as the challenge to get us used to working together and keep us heading in the right direction. And frankly, Colonel, I think I can convince my conscience that having you around, as well, would only interfere with my nice, neat plans. It may take me a while, but I'm pretty sure I can pull it off if I try hard enough. So if you'll be good enough to give me those coordinates on your way out . . ."
He beamed at her, and she chuckled. Then she looked at Aston. The admiral looked back with a smile of his own, but then his expression sobered, and he turned his eyes to the President.
"That all sounds good, Sir. It may even sound logical and reasonable . . . to us. But it's not going to sound that way to some of those other nations you've mentioned, or even to some US politicos—or big corporations, for that matter—that I can think of right off hand. So just how do we go about letting Milla fade into the woodwork?"
"I've given that some thought," Armbruster said more seriously, "and that's one reason the official press release hasn't gone out yet. If you two want it that way, the record will show that Admiral Richard K. Aston and Captain Elizabeth Ross died of their wounds. The only people who know better are the survivors of your Company T and the MAG pilots who pulled you out. I think you can trust them to keep their mouths shut."
"So do I," Ludmilla said softly. "Long enough for it not to matter if they don't, anyway."
"Exactly, Colonel," Armbruster said. "In the meantime, you two will be free to fade away. If you like, I'll have Commander Morris set it up—we can trust him to hide you so deep I couldn't find you. I'll provide ample funds to a blind account and see to it that no one but you and I know that he did it." He paused, then shook his head.
"It's your choice, of course, and I could be wrong about how hunted and harried the two of you would find yourselves. But I might not be, too. So think about it, people." He smiled again, a gentler, warmer smile than many people would have believed he could produce. "Whatever you decide, you've more than earned it."
The seventy-foot twin-masted schooner Beowulf sliced through the Pacific swell under a forest of stars. Her tall, youthful skipper had originally intended to sail the South Atlantic on their first long cruise, but the first mate had changed his mind, and they were still a week out from Hawaii as they sat together at the wheel, sipping coffee and watching the sky.
Evelyn Horton snuggled into the curve of her husband's arm, her chestnut hair blowing on the wind to mingle with his own shoulder-length mop of dark black, and Adam Horton pressed his palm to the still tiny bulge of her abdomen. A girl, he hoped, and not just for evolutionary purposes. He'd always secretly wanted a daughter; he suspected most men did, whatever they might tell the rest of the world. But there was another reason he hoped for one in his own case, for his wife had threatened to complete Mordecai's joke by naming a boy Cain.
Evelyn checked her watch again, then looked back up at the sky.
"Any time now," she murmured.
"Are you sure?" he asked softly.
"Jared had NASA run the figures even before we caught up with the Troll," she replied. "I'm sure."
"In that case—" he began, but she shook her head and pressed her fingers to his lips.
"Just hold me, Dick," she whispered, and his arm tightened.
They stared up together, and then she stiffened with a quick, convulsive gasp. High above them, the cobalt sky blossomed with light—a brilliant, flaring light, bigger than any five stars and brighter than a score of them. A light which had come from another universe to die . . . and taken fourteen months to reach their eyes.
It glowed in the depths of space like a searing beacon—beautiful and defiant, yet somehow forlorn and lost—a glorious diadem marking the trackless graves of the men and women of TFNS Defender who had died to save an Earth not even their own. It grew and expanded as they watched, and then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone, snuffed by the breath of eternity, and Richard Aston felt his wife sob against his shoulder, weeping for her dead at last.