Robert Nowall

Choices, by Robert Nowall
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Enter subhead content here

 

CHOICES

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

 

            I looked up as soon as I heard the click of someone opening the door.  I stood in silence in a jail cell, with three blank concrete walls and steel bars for the fourth.  Beyond that lay a room, the rest of the concrete walls, a wood chair, and a solid steel door in the far wall.  Hidden cameras---I knew where they all lay.  I stood alone.

            When the door opened, I turned my head to look.  I stood straight with all possible patience.  I half-expected him to show up.  I said, "Chief."

            "Officer Warrum."

            His tone sounded wary.  I let several moments pass before I said, "Does that mean you accept I'm who I say I am, sir?"

            The Chief hesitated, then said, "You're half a meter taller.  Your skin is blue.  Your voice is deeper.  Your hair is gone.  Your hands have seven fingers and they're not the fingers you started with.  I can't accept you're who you say you are without more to go on.  Are you Deborah Warrum?"

            I managed a natural-looking half-smile.  "I suppose it still depends on what I tell you."

            "You've already said a lot.  Interviews.  I've looked them over."

            "But will anyone believe what I say, sir?"

            "It depends.  If I can figure out who you are..."  He shrugged.  "I am also here to help determine if you're a danger to us or not.  How can I tell that?  You must convince me.  Speak and tell the truth."

            My turn to shrug.  "I can do that.  I must do that."

#

            I awoke.  My new eyes could see farther and deeper and with greater clarity than before.  I could close a shield over them, but I would never need to blink again.

            All my other senses, enhanced and rebuilt, provided more and better data than before.   All this now passed through the extra equipment within my skull, equipment better and more durable than the missing portions of my brain.

            I looked over the great amount of knowledge pumped into both the new and old parts of my brain.  I knew our history and why we came here, the experiences of the two drones who survived the accident.  I understood the requests for female corpses that brought my body here.

            I sat up---no restraints---and looked down at myself.  I found myself taller.  A dark blue skin now covered me from head to toe, a skin with a plastic sheen that concealed armor and an exoskeleton.  I looked down at my hands.   My hands bore seven fingers, fingers that could grip with power or extend and perform delicate tasks.  My feet still bore five toes but I could use them as well as my hands.

            I reviewed some of the changes.  My muscles: modified, stronger and more durable.  Joints: more flexible.  My skeleton: coated with a substance that made the bones almost unbreakable, or replaced with stronger substitutes.  My blood: a super-efficient clear liquid that carried oxygen and nutrients better, a small pump replaced my heart.  My lungs: reduced in size and existing just for purposes of verbal communication.  Oxygen absorbed from small slits along the sides of my torso, sealed and invisible when not in use.  A supply within my body grew with time.

            I found myself stronger, smarter, faster, more precise.  I could endure great extremes of temperature, from near-zero to blast-furnace hot.  I could take more punishment.  I found myself better, physical and mental, than before.

            New memories filled my brain.  Drones took much from the stored memories of their predecessors.  I shared the memories of three of those who died in the accident and lesser portions of many more.  I carried great knowledge of our history and technology.  And through links in my brain I could access anything I grew curious about.  I could do any job required on our ship.

            I needed to do a job.  This review took a split second.  I looked over at the next tables.  Tweenatov and Devovan, the two surviving drones, worked on a corpse each, assisted by mechanical arms.  One corpse remained untouched.  I knew they worked on me first because my body arrived in better shape than the others and would revive easier.

            I climbed down and felt a moment of disorientation, but that cleared and I stood steady.  I left the Drone Room and started to climb up the first knotted steel rope I found.

            Moving along the guide ropes would be easier when the ship moved, no up or down.  But I could climb.  I climbed up through the ship, past Storage and the damaged Engine section, until I reached the Communications Center, right below Navigation.

            I found it a tight fit, intended for a maximum of two drones at a time, crowded with just one.  I found the microphone.  I plugged into the circuitry and controls through the nerve endings of my hands.  But I needed the microphone in front of me.  I activated the equipment, tuned to the frequency we communicated with the humans on, and spoke, using my rebuilt lungs for the first time.

            "All our demands are met," I said.  "The metals and circuitry meet our needs.  The corpses are acceptable.  We will depart in six of your days, plus or minus four hours.  There will be no further communications."

            Perhaps someday, some other ship from the Hive would come and undo the damage done by what we needed to do.  But that lay far in the future.

            My voice sounded strange.  Now nodified to make the range of sounds needed for the subtle tones and mathematical patterns the drones of the Hive communicated with, it sounded strange, unnatural, as if the voice remained silent a long time, when I spoke in the native language.

            That didn't matter.  It sounded identical to Devovan's voice when she gave the original messages.  They would not know a different speaker sat at the microphone---unless I chose to let them know.  I hesitated a moment, with the microphone still on.  Then I uttered three one-syllable code words and cut the circuit.

            On the way out from Communications, I passed a rough reflective surface.   I looked at myself.  The blue-skin armor, the hairless head, the missing ears, the longer legs and arms, the smaller breasts and buttocks, the larger head, the thicker neck...I presented a different appearance.

            The eyes presented the greatest variation.  Golden, glowing, solid, no sign of pupils.  A narrow fat oval, the one part of my original skin exposed, looked different, pale gray and bloodless, even the lips.  A smaller nose.  Teeth, coated like the rest of my bones.

            None of it hurt in any way.   It felt natural.

            But the nose retained the same shape, something I always thought too long and thin for my face.  It was me.

            I knew who I was.  I knew I was, despite it all, still Officer Deborah Warrum.  And I remembered my assignment, my duty to try to get away and report.  I remembered everything.

#

            I came in as soon as I heard news of the explosions at the Halbert Tower.   I knew I wasn't dressed for duty---out of uniform, wearing a low-cut gold dress that showed off my thighs, boots that accented my calves.  I'd just spent part of my day off having my hair curled and set.  A banquet Bernie and I wanted to attend.  I looked gorgeous, but I did not look like the cop I was supposed to be.

            But before I could change into a uniform, I was steered into the office of the Chief of Police.  He sat at his paper-filled desk and looked at me over his reading glasses, taking me in with one glance.  He was a familiar face, from his sloppy uniform to his close-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.  "Office Deborah Warrum?" was all he said.

            I stood at close-to-attention.  "Yes, sir," I said, "you wanted to see me, sir?"

            "Yes."  He took off his glasses and leaned forward.  "Six hours ago, a spacecraft of unknown origin landed in the Halbert Woods.  We cordoned off the area and imposed a news blackout."

            "Sir, the explosion---"

            "Them."   He took a sheet of paper from his desk---he was a great believer in printed reports---and said, "We have their demands.  They destroyed the Halbert Tower to let us know they meant business."

            The Halbert Tower was a dusty old memorial, commemorating the spot where Boat Number Five from the Mothership first came to ground on Ormazd; Halbert was the man in charge of the boat, the city founder.  Two hundred and fifty years and more than five million people later, the city was large enough and prosperous enough to attract---who?  I said, "The news said a suspected terrorist attack."

            "That's what we wanted people to think, at least for now."  He paused for effect, letting it sink in on me.

            "But who is it?"

            "We suspect this craft is alien in origin."  The Chief switched papers and said, "If we don't meet their demands, they will destroy half the city in twelve hours.  Ten hours, now."

            That sunk in more.  I whistled.  He nodded.  I said, "Sir, the Planetary Patrol---"

            "They can't get here, no ships available, four days at most.  We're on our own till then."  He dropped the paper and leaned back.  "We've already decided to meet their demands.  Most are simple.  Some refined steel, some other refined minerals.  A bunch of electronic circuitry, no particular kind."

            "They must know---"

            "Yes, yes, that we're an industrial center.  All those things are available, and in the quantities they want.  But there is one oddity.  And that's where you figure in."

            I bit my lower lip.  "Me, sir?"

            "The oddity is they want six fresh corpses."

            A bad feeling came over me.

            The Chief went on.  "All women between age fifteen and forty standard.  Healthy.  Died in accidents, no severe damage, no autopsied or embalmed corpses."

            "What would they want six corpses for?"

            He spread his hands over the laminated top of his desk.  "I wouldn't know.  We need to know."  He picked up another paper.  "Here is your record.  You are a practitioner of an ancient meditation technique that will allow you to pass for dead in casual examinations."

            I bit my lip again, a little harder.  "Sir, it's not some mystical practices.  It was used to prepare for and survive cold sleep hibernation.  All our ancestors used it before faster than light became practical."

            I started to explain how I used it on my own long three-month trip from Quetzalcoatl to Ormazd in a tin can masquerading as a ship, but the Chief cut me off.   "Never mind.  Not important."  He stood up, crossed his arms, and said, "I'm asking you, Warrum, to volunteer to pass for dead as one of these six corpses."

            I blinked.  "You, er,  don't know what these aliens want, do you?"

            "Some theories.  You will be briefed on them.  We need facts."

            "I see, sir."  I hesitated, then said, "You must understand, sir.  When I put myself into this meditative state, in a sense, I am not there.  My mind continues to record, but I cannot react, no matter what happens, no matter what is done to me."

            "Chance we must take, Warrum.  We have to get someone in there."

            I thought of many things.  I thought of Bernie, and the banquet we were going to miss.  But I thought about how dangerous this could be.  In a voice I could almost not believe was mine, I said, "I'll volunteer, sir."

            The Chief broke into a big grin and held out his hand to me.  "I knew I could count on you, Warrum."

#

            I didn't sleep again.  I couldn't risk drugs to stay awake.  Eight hours of briefings.  There was a lot to learn.

            The alien craft looked like a big obsidian knife pointed at the sky.  Stubby wings, if they were wings, protruded from the side.  You could go right up and touch it, and nothing happened.  Further activity was postponed pending further knowledge.

            A box was lowered from a door in the ship's side.  It was brought in.  It was black as the craft and seemed to be made of something stronger than steel.  Opening a hinged lid revealed six form-fitting spaces that could hold one corpse each.

            At one point I asked why we wanted to give in to this blackmail.  The officer briefing me, a stranger, said, "Never mind, Officer Warrum.  The decision is made.  You will carry out your assignment.

            My assignment was to infiltrate the alien craft and, if possible, report back on what was going on inside.  The town government didn't want to take their word that they wouldn't harm anyone---no one was around when Halbert Tower blew up---but harm was still possible.

            My assignment, I knew, might lead to my death.

            I spent a lot of the time memorizing a dizzying amount of code words and meanings, and possible ways to signal.  I would do my best to carry my assignment out.

            With under an hour to go, I reported to the morgue.  I "met" my five fellow corpses.  All died sometime in the last six hours.  They lay, stripped naked, on carts in the refrigerated section.  One was shot, two died in car accidents, one was stabbed, one hung herself.  Ranging from very pale to very dark. Dead between six hours and three.  A typical night's haul of corpses.

            Their eyes opened in varying degrees.  I knew this was to conceal that my own eyes would be open.  I would record events, and my eyes needed to be open to do as much of that as I could.

            I waited, dressed in a medical examination robe.  There was a cart waiting for me.

            Doctor Laines, the assistant medical examiner, was alone in the room with me and the corpses.  He would assist me in my "death."  He was the sole person in the department trusted to "know" what I was.  We held information as close as possible.

            Doctor Laines looked through a clipboard of ragged notes, and said, "I rejected an electrocution and a poisoning, along with three natural cause deaths.  They didn't meet the standards.  Also there's no doubt about how these died."  The doctor fixed me with a serious glare.  "It's time for a decision.  You must be wounded in a way that looks like it killed you."

            "Yes, sir, I see."  I considered this all day, keeping a list in my mind.  The doctor carried a corresponding list on his clipboard.  I said, "Doctor, I'm forced to rule out any injury that would puncture the skin.  My medication technique will keep me under for six hours, plus or minus.  When I wake up, I'll live.  And even before that, I'll bleed."

            "Right."  He glanced again at his notes.  "Three broken necks rules out another one.  I don't want to raise suspicions."

            "Then a skull fracture is best," I said.

            "Yes."  Doctor Laines put his clipboard down.  "It can be fatal, but it doesn't need to be fatal.  Might be trouble without treatment, but we're desperate.  Come with me."

            We left the room with those particular corpses.  The next room held several stainless steel tables.  Most were empty, some held shroud-wrapped corpses.

            The doctor directed me to one empty table.  There was a cart next to it; the cart held several tools.  Hoses and wires dangled overhead; above them were bright lights.  A portable examination scanner also lay next to the table.

            I hopped up onto the table and lay down.  It was biting cold.  The examination machine came alive, displaying my vital signs.

            "Roll over, please," the doctor said.  I rolled over onto my stomach.  If anything, it was colder than on my back.  There was a curving block of plastic, designed to hold a neck, my neck, in place.  I slipped my neck into it and waited.  The doctor put something against the back of my head.

            "Now," he said, "on the count of three...one...two..."

            I didn't hear the "three" from the sudden slam.  My sight blurred a little and I felt dizzy for a moment, but there wasn't much pain.  I came back to myself as the doctor said, "...fracture pattern consistent with a blow to the back of the head.  No other ill effects."

            "I have a headache," I croaked.  "Is that it?"

            "No, no, roll back over onto your back.  I've got to prepare the, prepare your, uh, corpse."   He glanced at the watch on his wrist.  "Less than half an hour to deadline.  The others are waiting."  He looked at me, then said, "If I were you I'd go into that meditative state of yours right now."

            My head cleared a little.  I did as he said, rolling onto my back.  "You understand what I will do, Doctor?"

            "I've read up on it, Ms. Warrum, but I've never seen it in practice.  Something of a lost art, I gather."

            "Something like that.  I'll begin now."  I lay back, took one deep breath, then another.  I tried to ignore the ache in my head.  I said, "Put your hand on my throat, doctor.  Monitor my pulse."

            He did so, with a rubber-gloved hand.  But he also kept his eyes on the examination scanner screens.  The vital signs looked normal; green lights abounded.   I took one more deep breath, and let the chain of thoughts that would trigger the meditative state run through my head...I felt my body relax...

#

            But I knew who I was here, and I knew my place in the "here" of it.  I could examine the information pumped into my brain, and I could access much more.  I was myself.

            I was both of them at the same time.

            Right now, with a crew of eight drones, we could repair the ship enough to leave the planet, then make further repairs while making all possible speed to rejoin the Hive.  Our mapped-out tasks lay before us.  We could do it.

            I climbed down the ropes and returned to the Drone Room.  Three of the new drones became active and assisted the others on the remaining two; these would be active in a short time.  Tweenatov broke away and approached me.  "Diatvordi," she said to me, and I knew my name and number without having heard it before.

            I raised my hand, palm outward, in salute.  "I am ready, Tweenatov."  I found the language precise and concise, a series of varying tones and phrases.  I looked Tweenatov over.  We did not look that different, though I knew her species of origin came from a planet on the other side of the galaxy.

            "You experience no disorientation?" Tweenatov asked.  "You understand what you are to do here?"

            "I know and understand and approve," I said.  "I made the final communication to the native population.  No further signs of activity."

            "I ask you the question asked of all drones."

            I knew the question.  I said, "I remember nothing of my previous life."

            I needed to suppress the truth.  Non-volunteer drones who remembered as much of their lives as I did could suffer anything from brain-wiping to destruction.  I needed to be safe---for the moment---till I could decide what to do.

            Tweenatov held up her hand---seven-fingered like mine---and turned away.  My next duty shone clear in my mind.  I left and climbed up into the middle of the Engine, into a tall empty space with a large central pillar four times my height.  One of the boxes of local electronic circuitry, a big metal crate, lay waiting.  I opened it up and picked through it.  I found I could touch printed circuity and rewire and reprogram it, using my eyes to magnify and my seven-fingered hands at their most delicate setting.  Not every circuit proved right for the job and I discarded some as I worked.

            Once I reworked the circuit I took it to the nearby wall.  I climbed up along the guide ropes and put the circuit in the right spot.  Sometimes I replaced one with another, sometimes I just pushed the new one into a place.

            Lights around the Engine changed, turning on and off, as I worked.  The repairs worked.  Links to systems came back on.  The end result showed its damage but it would work.  We could go where we wanted to go.  We could go home.

            But did I want to go?

            Many but one.  A collective but individuals.  It could be inevitable they would come to call themselves "the Hive."  And once named, the individuals that composed the Hive came to call themselves "drones."

            Long ago parties left their planet of origin, to explore the universe and plant colonies.  Large colony ships carried millions.  Small groups traveled in fast ships to explore, to find useful knowledge, or knowledge for its own sake.

            Drones numbered in the billions, and, as time passed, came to include many members of other species.  Not some omnivorous acquisition urge.  No one was forced to join.  Any who joined volunteered to do so.

            One small ship went on a long trip, taking a pass through an unknown section of an unexplored galaxy.  The task took centuries.  But drones did not live that long, and needed to be replaced.  Drones could be cultivated and grown to adulthood in a short time.  But sometimes circumstances dictated actions.

            The ship sustained damaged.  Something hit them while in faster-than-light drive, something that passed through the ship to cause great damage.  Stored information and memories remained safe; they existed in multiple locations in the ship and the drones.  But just two drones survived, and the two of them by themselves could not repair the damage.  The ship could never make it back home.

            They passed through a stretch of space inhabited by an intelligent species similar in structure to themselves.  This species looked ripe for friendship when the Hive sent further visitors.  Before they gathered information.  But after the accident, the two survivors formed a plan.

            They limped back in a big and slow circle and grounded their ship near a city on one world.  Not without risk.  They knew if their plan failed they would never lift again.  They picked a center of mining and industry.  What they needed to make repairs could be obtained here.

            With regret, they put their plan into action.  They destroyed one uninhabited landmark, then issued demands and threatened further action.  If that worked, that would be all well and good.  They did not intend to hurt and would not hurt on purpose.  But they assessed the psychology of the local species and believed the threat would do the job.

            They kept demands simple.  A certain amount of processed steel, smaller amounts of other minerals, and a collection of manufactured electronic circuitry.  And six corpses.

            Corpses could be repaired and built, to make new drones out of them.  If healthy dead specimens could be obtained, if they died accidental deaths rather than illness, if just a short time elapsed from the point of death...and if this demand would be met...

            It would not be easy.  A drone made from a corpse almost never retained memory of a former life---not that the drones wanted to return to their former lives---but "almost never" did not mean "never"...

 

           

            Another new drone came up along the ropes.  I recognized her as the corpse shot in a robbery.  I greeted her with her name---the name conveying information about who she was now and where she drew her data and memories from.  "Droantidia."

            "Diatvordi," she responded.   She joined in the work with the circuitry.  Together we worked through a third of this box, and others to be brought up.

            "I ask the question," Droantidia said.

            "I remember nothing about my previous life," I replied.  "I ask the same of you."

            "I give you the same answer."

            In silence we put circuits in the walls.  We worked together for hours by human time.  But we needed no immediate rest or sustenance and kept going.

            After some further time passed, Droantidia said, "I admit curiosity about my former state."

            "True," I said.  Human transmitted media, from this planet and others, recorded and studied before and after the accident, accessible through our links.  Droantidia examined this data, I could see.

            "I think," she said, "these humans will be upset.  I think they will, in their phrasing, ‘try something.'"  She used the Standard English phrase rather than our own language.

            "You know how they will respond?" I asked.

            "No.  But I am sure they will try."

            I reviewed a number of action plans.  We developed a number of possible scenarios, possible actions and responses.  We studied the species and compared what we learned with what we knew about other species.  But not everything could be anticipated.  We would need to be flexible.

            We would repair ourselves and leave.  We would avoid taking any human life.

            I said, "We must trust our ability to respond.  It is all we can do."

            Droantidia said, "You make me feel better.:

            Soon after, the two of us climbed down from the Engine and into the central core.  Substantial damage needed repair.  Broken struts and beams, latticework and frames with great holes in them.  We took the processed steel, shaped it with our hands with heat flowing through our bodies from a central unit.   We made temporary replacements, good enough to get us into space, but which would need more work in space on our way home.

            I made the acquaintance of the others.  But with all the new information I carried, I found it more like greeting old friends and lovers.  Tiodrovor and Diatoran, the two killed in the car crash; Nianiroda, the stabbing victim; and Vidinidia, the former suicide.

            They all looked and felt healthy and happy, and free of human memories.  Together with Tweeantov and Devovan, we worked hard and long.  We did not stop for rest or breaks or meals.  We never became hungry or thirsty.  We didn't sleep.

            But the work occupied just a small portion of our now-enhanced minds.  While we worked, we also dipped into the stored records.  Our personalities, for the most part, reflected the many drones that came before us.  We connected to our predecessors.

            We all could see what interested each of us.  Exploration, the people we contacted, drones and former drones...we all looked into one aspect or another of our new lives.

            None of them doubted.  But I did.  I remembered how I became a drone...I was there but, thanks to the meditative technique, I wasn't there at all...

#

            The container lid opened.  A festival of strange lights and sounds, colors and patterns, none familiar.  For a moment, nothing moved, or seemed to move.  Then two shapes detached themselves from the patters.  The indistinct shapes turned into rough humanoid outlines.  Shapes, black in color, not the black of skin color, but black like the color of the container.

            Except the eyes.  Eyes, large and glowing golden.

            The humanoid shapes bent over the body and became more solid.  They slipped hands and arms under the body and lifted.  The body, stiff and unmoving did not cooperate.  They placed the body on a warm and soft surface, and the surface and the body rolled away.

            The area became bright with light, of an intensity that would hurt the open eyes if they could feel pain.  The body came under a bank of bright lights, and on the edges of the lights, things with multiple mechanical arms moved about.  One humanoid shape stayed.  In the light, it could be seen that the humanoid appeared female, and that she wore some kind of dark almost-black skintight suit.  Her arms came in with the arms of the machines.

            The arms touched the body right over the head.  A buzzing sound came as the skin on the sliced into the scalp and peeled it back.  Blood flowed, sucked away.  More arms moved in.  The arms pierced and stabbed and sliced the body in multiple locations.  Tubes slipped into various holes, old and new.  The lungs began to inflate and deflate; something outside the heart began to pump blood.

            One long arm came down over the head.  A long and straight needle hung from the end of the arm.  The needle swerved and then stabbed just next to the left ear.  In moments, memories started to form in the inactive brain...

#

 

            Time passed, days of it.  At one point Nianvidoda and I detached ourselves from the group, and returned to the Engine to work on circuitry.  Together we peeled back one wall and worked on the circuitry and complex micro-wiring behind it.

            "The humans signal us," Nianvidoda said to me.

            "We spoke," I said.  "There will be no further communications.  We will leave soon and that will be all."

            "They bring weapons and other equipment."

            I looked at the situation outside the ship through our cameras.  Quite a large force, with great firepower, camped around us.  I said, "They cannot harm us."

            "They might hurt themselves."

            I considered that.  But we could do nothing.

#

            That time approached.  We would beat our deadline time by two local hours.  We put the final touches, all eight of us, on the Engine, a matter of incorporating some gold and silver circuitry, constructed from scratch, into what we made and reprogrammed.   A rough job, but it would get us into space.  When we finished we would take up positions, in case some unforeseen problem caused more damage and death.

            But the humans cast their net on us---in a literal sense.  They threw a large net of steel cables over the ship and tried to topple us.  They could not.  We could compensate and stay upright, but it proved an inconvenience and would delay our departure.

            It was among anticipated problems.  We could lift and pull the net with us, but that might hurt the attacking humans in some way.  We decided two of us would climb out, cut the cables before we launched, then hang onto the outside of the ship until we rose high in the atmosphere of the planet.  Simple.

            By chance Devovan and I worked closest to the hatch.  The job fell to us.  When we opened the hatch, the sunlight struck us---the first sunlight I felt since becoming a drone.  The breeze, the smells, familiar yet filtered through my upgraded senses---they spoke to me in a way I didn't expect.

            But I couldn't dwell on them.  I adjusted my eyes to the light.  I could see the cables on the ship, the winches the cables hooked up to---and the people running around them.  Devovan and I separated and we each worked our way around the ship.  Handholds and footholds appeared in the skin of the ship as we needed them.  We crawled along like spiders.

            When I reached for a cable I put a free hand or foot on it.  A moment of heat, focused through me, severed them.  I watched them as they snapped and plummeted to the ground.

            But doing so expended a good deal of my internal resources; outside the ship I could not access the power there.   I would need replenishment once we lifted.

            Little pings and splashes hit me and around me.  I looked up.  Rain?   No, it came from the ground.  Gunfire, high-powered rifles trained on me.  I looked down.  I could see individuals aiming and firing.

            Their fire proved accurate but it could not harm the ship and it could not harm me.   My skin deflected all bullets, as did the tougher ship's skin.  One bullet hit the exposed skin of my face.  It stung---the protection level not as high as my armor, a tradeoff for mobility in the face, but creating a weak point.  It stung a little and traces of fluid oozed out before I cut it off.  I turned my face away from the gunfire and worked on the cables.

            The two of us just needed to finish cutting the cables.  We could go when we finished.

            Devovan and I met up on the other side of the ship.  One last cable, tense and taut, tugged on from below as I reached it.  When I put my hand on it, an idea formed.  If I cut the cable just so, and lessened my grips on the handhold just so...I would hang onto the cable and be flung from the ship when it lifted.  They would lift and they would leave me behind.

            I hesitated.  All my old doubts emerged.  Both directions.  Did I want to escape?

            Devovan leaned forward and put her face---a face so like my own but so not human---right next to mine.  She said, "Do it.  We knew all along you remembered your past life."

            "You knew?"

            "You hid it well.  You needed to hide it.  But you did remember.  And as long as you remember you cannot be happy with us."  She leaned forward and kissed me.  "Go.  Go with our love.  Go and undo the damage."

            I cut the cable and lessened my grips.  I found myself flung from the side of the ship, falling backwards.  I saw Devovan swing in and grip new grip holds.

            The ship rose as I fell.  I contemplated how they would get by with a crew of seven---but they could make do.  We finished ground repairs.

            Transmission between me and the ship ceased as I slammed into the ground.

            It stunned me for a moment, and when I came back I lay on my back looking up.  The ship rose high in the air, tangled cables flapping in the air.  I saw a couple of anti-air rounds fired from somewhere; they hit and did no damage.

            The ship dwindled to a dot and disappeared.

            Then I found myself surrounded by uniformed men with rifles.  They approached with caution.  I knew they could not hurt me with bullets.  But I didn't want to alarm them and maybe get them hurt.

            I sat up, then held my hands in the air.  "Don't shoot!" I said.  "I'm Officer Deborah Warrum!"

#

            "After that you know the rest," I said.   I looked at the Chief, who looked back at me, a peculiar expression on his face.  I couldn't read his thoughts.

            "Tell me anyway," he said.

            "Once I came here and questioned."  Endless questioning, police, officials, and once, Doctor Laines.  "Brought here, to this cell.  This is the City Jail, right?  Top floor?  Prisoners---other prisoners---evacuated?"

            The Chief nodded.   "We're preparing a special holding area for you, but it won't be ready for some time.  Maybe someday you'll walk on our streets again."  He sighed.  "Meanwhile, we must figure out just who and what you are."

            "I am Deborah Warrum," I said.  "I may not look that much like I used to, but that's who I am."

            "Or who you think you are."

            I said, "I don't know how to answer that."

            The Chief went on.  "I've listened to some of the interviews you gave.  It's a matter of how you use your memories."

            "How I use them?"  I gave it a little thought, then said, "I may be using my memories with greater clarity and precision, but there's no gap, no discontinuity between then and now.  My body and brain underwent some alterations, but they are one and the same.  I am Deborah Warrum."

            "Are you?"  The Chief grinned without humor.   He got up out of his chair and went to the jail cell's outer door.  With what seemed like a rehearsed gesture, he knocked twice on the door without turning his back.  "What about Bernie?"

            The door opened.  I got to my feet.  "Bernie!"   I remembered...

#

            I ran into Bernie on the way out of the Chief's office.  He seemed surprised to see me coming out of the Chief's office.  He worked in the office and I worked out on the streets, but here I was.  "What's up, Deb?" he asked.  "What's going on?"

            Bernie was my friend, and the closest thing to family for me since I left Quetzalcoatl five years before.  He looked pretty good in his uniform, I thought, clean and clean-shaven.  I was glad to see him, I was always glad to see him, but this was a bad time and a bad place.  I swallowed hard and said, "I've just got an assignment."

            "Related to this terrorist attack?"

            The Chief warned me to say as little as possible to anyone not involved---and Bernie was not involved.  I wanted to tell him but I couldn't.  "I can't talk about it," I said.  "But we'll miss the banquet."

            He smiled.  "I already thought that, Deb.  Double shifts till the crisis is past.  But you---"

            "Special assignment.  You might not see me for days, Bern."  Or maybe ever, I thought.

            He put one arm around my shoulder and put a kiss on my forehead.  "Go, Deb.  We can talk after."

            I hope, I thought, as I left.

#

            Bernie!   I remembered how serious I felt about him.   I remembered how I wanted the talk to be about how and when things would happen between us.

            Could I be serious about Bernie now?

            Bernie came in through the door and stood next to the Chief.  He looked at me with a half-smile expression, as if he studied me.

            I looked at him, but I did not smile.  I felt---what did I feel?  I didn't know.

            I ran through all my memories of Bernie, our meeting and friendship, our friendship deepening to romance and love, the nights spent together...

            Then I realized it was just memory.  I could remember what I felt.  But I knew I did not feel that way anymore.

            And if I didn't feel that way anymore, was I Deborah Warrum?

            Maybe I looked too lost in thought.  Bernie coughed, and said, "Uh, hello, uh, Deb."

            "Bernie," I said.  After another awkward moment, I reached a realization, and said, "Bernie, I might or might not be who I think I am, but, I'm sorry.  I can't be to you what I was before."

            "I thought as much," Bernie said.  "I've been reading the transcripts and watching the videos."

            "I'm sorry," I said again.  "I've changed.  Not just my appearance."

            "Your life is different.   Is this goodbye?"

            "Well, I'd like to remain friends.  I will need friends."  I stepped close to the cell bars and held my hand out.  Bernie looked at the Chief, who nodded.  He stepped up and took my hand.  The first physical contact I'd made with anyone since I left the ship---everyone avoided touching me, even Doctor Laines examined me from outside the cell---and I was grateful for the contact.

            After a moment, he let go.   He nodded to the Chief, then said to me, "If they let, I'll be seeing you later, Deb."  He then left, closing the door behind him.

            For a moment, we stood, me and the Chief, looking straight into each other's eyes.  Then the Chief said, "Do you still want to be called Deborah Warrum?  Do you have another name?"

            "You can call me Droantidia, sir," I said.

            "Droantidia," he repeated.  Somehow, from a human throat, it lost all its poetry and mathematics, a statement reduced to a mere five syllables.

            He went on.  "I'm still supposed to decide whether you mean us any harm or not.  Far as I can tell, you don't."

            "I don't."

            "But it's subject to interpretation.   You'll have to remain in custody, maybe for the rest of your life.  How long will that be?"

            I managed a smile.  "No longer than anyone else, sir," I said.  "Too many variables."  I made a rough projection in my mind; no more than one hundred years, with seventy to eighty possible, but too many factors to know for sure.

            "We'll be talking again.  I think...ah, I think you need to think a few things out."

            I nodded.  The Chief nodded and left, closing the door behind him.  I turned away and faced the blank wall.  I didn't want to face anybody, not even the hidden cameras.  I needed to think.

            If I was not Deborah Warrum...if I was Droantidia.   Did I make a mistake, a terrible mistake, in leaving the ship, leaving the Hive?

            These memories were mine.  I was who I was.  I remembered my last moments hanging from the ship---memories clear as any other.  Devovan said I would never be happy on the ship, happy with the Hive, with those memories.  I couldn't lose them without destroying myself.

            And I had a job to do.  We did damage in how we repaired the ship.  Given time, that seventy-eighty years of time, maybe I could undo it.  After all, other ships of the Hive would be back someday.  Could we all meet later as friends?

            I turned away from the wall and smiled.  Work, lots of work, lay before me.  But first I needed to get out of this cell.  To this new prison.  But out of the old one.

 

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