Robert Nowall

Guardian of the Gate, by Robert Nowall
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GUARDIAN OF THE GATE

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

 

We revived. We knew we were in Medical Lab Receiving Room #2. Repairs are complete. Memories are accessed and integrated; we could now make use of it. We opened our new eyes, as the lights come on, a slow brightening to allow our eyes time to adjust.

We sat up and dangled our feet over the side of the table; the table is low and we brushed the soles onto the floor. We stood. There was a moment of weakness, but just a moment. Things were all right, and we felt good to have a body again. We dismissed the medical equipment, and watched with our new eyes as it folds itself into the wall.

Over on one wall is a large mirror. We examined this body, through security camera pictures and medical scanning, but this was the first opportunity we have had to see it with eyes and think about it with a brain.

The body was that of a human female, one point six five meters in height and weighing forty-six kilograms---or five-foot-four and one-hundred-two pounds in the measurements in use right now on the surface above.

The skin was tan where clothes covered; elsewhere it was pale in pink. The blood circulated again and a healthy rosy color predominated. Brown eyes. Brownish-blonde hair, the hair now in a tangle around the head.

We thought it is a handsome and attractive body, not beautiful. It will do.

Our skin was coated with a light layer of oil; we needed its protection later. Right now the oil gave the skin a shine.

We knew the name this body once bore: Alyssa Bensson, twenty-two standard years old, here with a group of friends exploring caves under the Eastern Big Mountains and looking for Empire relics and treasure.

They found their way in; they made it into the outskirts of the Base where time and running water opened new passages and our defensive perimeter was down in part. Alyssa slipped and broke her leg and, when her friends found an abandoned medical station within the base, We were able to whisk her away.

We did not intend her to die; We intended to communicate with her and the others. But the chemical form of our stock of anesthetics must have changed in the centuries---Alyssa suffered a severe reaction and experienced heart failure on the table. We tried to treat and revive her, but she died.

So, instead, we repaired her. We took her apart and put her back together with some modifications for our requirements. We accessed her mind and memories and added them to our store. The revived body might have the appearance of Alyssa Bensson, but it was we who looked out from her eyes.

Within seconds we looked away and looked around. The clothes Alyssa Bensson wore lay folded up at the foot of the table, but they were shredded, cut up to remove them while treating her, and useless. We would not need them for the immediate task at hand.

Instead, we left the room. We took a sharp right, down the dusty corridor. We began turning lights on all over the base---we would need them now. The hallways and corridors were grimy and damp; we would tend to that once we finished our immediate task.

#

We walked through the grimy corridors. There was no unsteadiness, now. Centuries passed since we could walk through the corridors in a body, and it felt good to us. The corridors were dirty and grimy. We were naked, our skin covered with nothing more than a light coating of protective oil, but that didn't bother us. First things first. The cleaning equipment was stored, low on power, but, now that we had a body, we hoped to fix that.

After awhile, we turned down a ramp and walked into standing water. This level, we knew, was flooded up to neck-high. The three levels below were underwater. We kept walking, and when the water was up to our waist, we dove in.

We swam down and down, eyes open, our new-augmented lungs giving us air, an hour's supply. We swam down three levels, into a large chamber. Lights, durable product of the Empire's finest manufacturing plants, still lit up the dark water here and there. We could see enough to reach our goal---the multiple pipes of our water-pumping system, mounted on the walls around us.

Many of the pipes were damaged, corroded---not working. We floated near them for five minutes, taking our first good look since the last security camera, a less-durable product, failed.

Then we dove. A number of supplies lay strewn about the floor. We had laid them in when the pumps began to fail; they had survived. A lot of pipes and much sheet metal. No tools---we were augmented to do what was needed without tools.

We picked up a square piece of rustproof steel, thick as our thumb and about a meter on either side. We bent it into a gentle curve, and fitted it over one of the big holes on one of the big pipes. We held it in place with one hand. We focused a hot electric spark between our fingers, and, with that, welded the piece of steel onto the pipe.

It took almost an hour just to finish that, and oxygen stored in our lungs grew low. We broke off and swam back the way we came, until our head broke the surface and we could breathe. We recharged our air with deep and measured breaths. We took five minutes---we could have done it faster, but we did not want to take unnecessary risks.

There were many damaged and corroded pipers, running from as big around as our body to as small as our fingers and toes. We did not plan to fix all of them, just the most essential. When that was done we could drain the water off, and proper repair units could take over and finish the rest of the repairs.

Four more times we rose to the surface and recharged our oxygen, and then returned to the job. The work was slow and tedious, but we knew just what we wanted to do.

The pump activated as we welded the last pipe into place. Water flowed around us. We grabbed a pipe and held ourself steady.

The water level dropped fast. Soon the surface lowered and we found ourself standing on the floor. Powerful air circulation began, to blow and dry out the remaining puddles of water.

Movement caught our eye and we turned and looked. Small robots, most no bigger than two hands put together, scurried in along the damp floor. They would finish what we started. We looked them over, then heard the sound of the pumps as they activated.

Things improved. We could now power the base and recharge all run-down batteries. Also we could seal the perimeter. We began pumping water into it at once.

But we took our new body back to Medical Lab we awoke in. There was some minor damage to our hands and skin, that would need repairs. We walked up the ramps, free of water but slimy, picking our footing with care. Once the appropriate robots were charged up the flooring would be polished and cleaned. But that would come later.

#

We lay on the table, and allowed the multiple arms of the medical robot to work on some of our hurts and aches. Minor cuts were sealed up and healed. No changes were made to the augmentation of our new body.

We avoided drugs and chemicals. Some changed chemical composition over the centuries; until we could synthesize more we would not trust them.

Instead we enjoyed the sharp pains of our cuts and the dull aches of our bruises. Lying on the table also gave us time to think. Before we obtained a body and a brain that went with it, our other preserved brains were limited to preprogrammed responses. Now we were aware of ourself and could write new programming.

We monitored the security camera activity, and found something surprising. We found that Alyssa Bensson's friends and fellow cave explorers had been caught in the flooding of the outer perimeter and were now trapped---within the base. They could not leave, their path in was now cut off and they had not found any other way to exit.

We observed them. One was missing and we could not find him in camera range; we activated microphones near them and monitored conversations in hope of learning what happened. The others were wet and missing their packs and gear; they appeared tired and depressed.

What to do about them? We could not permit them to leave. We decided they could not stay where they were. We would take them someplace within the base where there was heat and food...and someplace where we could also keep a careful eye on them. We had time to decide what to do.

We decided to have this body resume the persona of Alyssa Bensson. We created a story. Alyssa Bensson would be healed---what would have happened if she had not died by accident---and, in the time separated from the others, she learned something of the base and its equipment. We would omit mention of us, and how we ran the base. Alyssa would go to them, greet them, then bring them back to quarters prepared for them.

We sat up and climbed down from the table. The arms of the medical robot folded back into the walls. Our wounds were healed. We looked with sadness at what was left of Alyssa Bensson's clothing; it was too shredded to wear. But we kept other clothes nearby. We walked out of the room and turned left.

#

Around the corner we heard their voices. We crept up with care. They did not hear us. We straightened out our robe once more---a robe that looked like white cloth but was a fine wire mesh. It covered our body from shoulders to knees. We found it comfortable.

We made the effort to swallow our identity and become, to all appearances, Alyssa Bensson once again. Her memories were now too integrated to separate out altogether, but we reminded ourself to at least say "I," "me," and "my." We thought of ourself as "we" but it was not as if it was new to us. "I" mode and "we" mode, separate---we did it many times before.

We listened a moment with our ears alone. We could not make out words, but we recognized voices. We raised our hands and cupped them over our mouth. "Halloooo!" we shouted. It echoed off the walls.

They stopped talking. For a moment, all was quiet, the quiet broken by Mix. "That was Alyssa!" he said.

"She's alive!" Yolanthe shouted.

Then they started to talk at once. Mix shouted over them, "Hold it, hold it, hold it!" When they shut up Mix shouted, "Alyssa, where are you?"

By then we turned the corner. They were in a wider stretch of corridor, a common room, and sat or lay on benches pushed against the walls. In the security cameras they seemed tired, worn out by what they had been through. Now, seeing them through our own eyes, they were alert and looking up. Edith saw us first. "Alyssa!" she shouted, and grabbed our body in a hug almost powerful enough to crush our ribs.

"Edith!" we said, and hugged back.

Then they were all up and surrounding us, hugging us or pounding us on the back or grabbing our hands. Again they were talking all at once. Mix overrode them again. "All right, all right, everybody calm down," he said. "Let's find out a few things."

"Where'd you get that robe?" Yolanthe asked.

We spun around, the robe flaring a little at the knee, then smiled. "Like it?" we said. "There's a room full of clothes just like it back there."

"I'm sure that's all interesting enough," Mix said, with some sourness. "But I'm sure we'd all rather know what happened to Alyssa after that cart wheeled her away."

He looked at me for an answer. We knew we had to tread with care on this, sorting through where Alyssa's memories ended and our integrated memories began---and where the story we wanted to tell them began. "I, er, don't know. I was taken from one medical office to another. They fixed me up." We put our leg up on one of the benches---the robe was split along the thigh to let us do that. "Look. You can't tell where it was broken."

That was more or less true---but we left the part out about Alyssa dying on the table. We wanted to give them the idea that Alyssa had picked up some knowledge of what went on here and how things worked---a lie, but one we needed to tell. We wanted them to think Alyssa's knowledge came from somewhere else.

Before they could speak again, we put our leg down and said, "I, er, I've got a lot of ground to go over. Let's sit down and we can go over it together."

They all agreed and all of us sat down on the benches. We started to speak, then remembered. "Where's John?" we asked.

Their looks turned serious. We knew he was missing from the group, but did not know how or why. We said, "What happened?"

"Er..." Mix began, then coughed and said, "Well, we were over that way---" He pointed down the corridor. "We were there, and the water started rising."

"Fast, too," Yolanthe said. "He---we---well---"

"He drowned, we think," Pete said. "We swam one way and, we think, he got pulled another."

"Oh!" We had not realized. For a moment, inside our head, we snapped back to full "we" mode, and reviewed security footage. John was dragged off by the current. In the camera angle, we saw him struggle and try to swim as the current carried him off. But no video revealed where he went.

We needed to search for him, we knew. We made plans. We forced ourself back into "I" mode, then said, "It looks like it's been hard for us, all of us. But I, er, know a place---I found a place where we can settle down and rest and think of what to do next."

"I don't know what to do next," Mix said. "I think the waters cut off our route back. I don't know if there's another way."

"There's got to be," we said. We knew of several, but we couldn't tell them. "We've got to rest. This place---it's got beds, and clean sheets, and it's even got food. And it's about ten minutes walk from here."

Mix and Yolanthe were a little stubborn, but everybody admitted to being exhausted, and Pete and Edith were enthusiastic. Within a minute, they agreed to follow where we led. We got up and walked.

But Mix wasn't done with us. He was our leader---now it looked like we were taking that away. He walked by our side while the others followed behind; he asked question after question about what we knew and how we learned it.

We outlined our story. We kept it simple. When Alyssa Bensson woke up in the medical unit, she found herself aware of certain facts about the base and how things worked in it. The base was habitable but abandoned, in hibernation, a relic of the Empire just waiting for someone to come and use it again.

Alyssa knew what happened to her and why---artificial memories were put in her mind for her to make use of. She knew where to stay, and she knew where her companions on the journey were. She also knew how to operate some equipment. After she rested a day or two, she would go and find them and bring them in, and maybe they could all learn more.

We were quite firm about how we learned this. "No, Mix," we said, "I, er, don't know how this is in my mind. It's just I know that I know." We smiled. "It was just somehow...played into me. You remember that toy sound player we saw last year at the New-and-Old Science Fair?"

He did. We remembered it from Alyssa...but we also knew that this sound player was based on primitive Edison recording devices, pre-Empire, from thousands of years ago.

We did not speak of repairing the pump, or that we ourself flooded the caves and chambers, or that we did that to seal the base off once more.

Mix asked, "Do you remember anything else, that you haven't told us?"

We shrugged. "I, er, don't know for sure. Maybe, I, er, I think it has to be jogged in some way to remember. Or maybe there's nothing more and that's it." We smiled again. "But maybe we can find some further explanation up ahead."

We did not think Mix believed us, but the others seemed to. At least they followed us through the maze of the base offices and quarters as we spoke with them. We went up some ramps and down others. By the time we explained our lies, we were there.

#

The quarters were rooms along a single corridor, several levels up from where we awoke. There was no direct connection. Rooms along a single corridor, with doors that slid open or closed with a little pressure. Inside the doors were small rooms. Each had two beds, and a table and chair set. There were no sheets or pillows, and the foam mattresses sunk down over the centuries to no more than a thin layer on top. But it was a warm and quiet place to rest up.

It was also clean. We set small cleaning robots loose on the area once we decided what to do; they were behind the walls now but we could still smell some of the chemicals used. We said, "I, er, I think these have been fresh-cleaned just for us, for our use."

We took them into one room and showed them the food unit. Embedded in the wall was a rectangle, a door and a keypad with a couple dozen keys. "I, er, know how to work this," we said, and pressed some buttons.

The unit hummed and its tiny doors opened. Inside was a tray, divided into compartments, each one filled with a bland-looking mush, each mush a different color. We pointed and said, "Er, I don't know what this stuff is, but it's safe to eat. Some of it's even tasty."

Yolanthe took the tray out and held it in one hand. "What choice do we have?"

We took it different than she meant it...but we knew. We reached over and closed the door. "You punch in a number from One to Six," we said, and touched a button. The unit hummed and another tray was there when the doors opened.

Yolanthe stuck her finger in the largest bit of food, swirled some it onto her finger, and then stuck it in her mouth. "Tastes...okay, I guess," she said. "It's warm, but not hot."

"Does it come with a knife or fork or spoon?" Pete asked.

"No," we said. "But you've still got your gear...what happened to your gear?"

They muttered and shook their heads. We learned they lost most of their gear---and all their packs---when the waters rose. Pete alone carried eating equipment; he had in his pocket what he called his Swiss-army knife, a pocketknife that had about two dozen different functions, among them a knife and fork-spoon combination. Pete took it out and took the second tray. "Hey," he said, "I'll share with anybody that wants it."

As we pressed buttons to bring up another meal, we realized something. We knew why a Swiss-army knife was called a Swiss-army knife. We knew its origins in a nation-state on ancient Earth called Switzerland, and we knew its history.

And we realized that Alyssa Bensson did not know that. No one now alive on this planet knew that besides us.

A minefield. We would have to be very careful of what we said and how we said it. They were suspicious. One slip and they would be more suspicious...and there would be trouble.

"Does this dispense drinks, Alyssa?" Mix asked.

"No, but there's a water fountain, down that way, in the shower room." We pointed. "The water is pure. There's a communal shower and toilets at the end of the hall, and some kind of laundry machine as well."

Mix smiled---was there any humor in the smile? He said, "They sure gave you a lot of information, didn't they?"
We shook our head. "Not enough."

Edith felt an urgent need to find and use one of the toilets. The others took their meals and settled down to eat, Pete with his tools and the rest with their fingers. We got a meal of our own and joined them. All of us sat on the floor, all of us, in a circle. There was just the one chair.

"What happened to your clothes, Alyssa?" Yolanthe asked.

"Shredded," we said. "Cut to pieces when the medical machine operated." More-or-less the truth, we thought. "A couple of doors down, there was this room. Er, I picked out these."

"Maybe I should go down and get some, too," Yolanthe said. "I mean, my clothes got pretty messed up." We looked her over. It was true---it was true of all of them.

"Your clothes will do, Yolanthe," Mix said. "Tomorrow we'll look around. Tonight we can get a good night's sleep and then see what there is to see." He stood up, and drew himself up to his full height---he stood just a little taller than our new body, but, right then, he seemed taller. "I'm thinking this place is just full of Empire relics. Alyssa. You must have seen what's what around here."

"I, er, wasn't looking," we said. "There are some around, for sure."

Yolanthe said, "Sit down, Mix. Worry about that later."

Mix sat down. Edith rejoined us, and said, "This is some place, Alyssa. It seems to go on and on."

We nodded. "I, er haven't explored, but it's large. Did you find the bathroom?"

Edith nodded. "But it makes me wonder. What is it all for? What did they do here?"

We knew the answer---but couldn't say. Instead, we shrugged. "No idea."

"I'd be happier knowing," Edith said. "If we could just figure that out---"

"Tomorrow," Mix said. "We'll rest. Tomorrow we'll look around. But we need rest and sleep now."

The others accepted that. So did we---we had plans. Mix said, "I think we need to keep someone on watch." He glanced at his wristwatch. "My watch has stopped. Water, I guess."

Edith glanced at her own wrist, and said, "It's just after seven in the evening. I saw clocks in the corridors as we walked."

"Er, I think they run on Earth time," we said. "Twenty-four hours and all that. Or maybe they're just broken." They weren't.

"We'll make do," Mix said. "What are two hours when we can't see the sun? Edith, you take the watch to midnight. Wake me up and I'll take it to dawn. The rest of you get some sleep."

"I, er, could take a watch," we said. "I am rested."

"You've been through a lot, Alyssa," Mix said. "Maybe you need more rest than us. You take that bed, I'll take the other. Edith, you stay up in the chair."

"What about us, Mix?" Pete asked. "You want us all together?"

"Mmm...no...you two, check out the room across the hall."

Edith sat in the chair while Mix climbed into one bed and we climbed into another. We looked at the ceiling, and put our ability to think to good use.

Mix---maybe the others, too, but Mix for sure---knew something was different about us. Our impersonation of Alyssa was not good enough. But we could work through it, we were sure.

#

We did not bring up John. We thought it best to avoid the subject. We understood relationships among them. Mix and Edith were paired off, approaching engagement and marriage. Pete and Yolanthe weren't quite as firmed-up a pair as Mix and Edith.

John and Alyssa were paired off for this trip. They were casual friends, but not lovers. Alyssa saw that Mix and Edith tried to play matchmaker and pair them off, at least for the trip duration. But it didn't take, with either of them. They admitted as much to each other.

But John wasn't around. We planned to investigate.

We did not need sleep---we could if we wanted, but we did not need to in our present state. But we closed our eyes. With our ears we heard Mix's breathing slow and Edith's breathing become steady.

But we could also see and hear with hidden microphones and cameras. We watched as Pete and Yolanthe climbed into one bed in the room across the hall. They did not sleep, not right away. Yolanthe asked, "What do you think about Alyssa?"

"Well," Pete said, sounding half-asleep, "I'm relieved to see her. I thought she was gone when that cart---"

"No, not that. Doesn't she seem, well, different, somehow?"
"Oh?" Pete lowered his voice. "You think something happened to her, more than she said?"

"She did seem unconcerned about John, don't you think?"

"That was Mix and Edith, Yolanthe, not John and Alyssa." He chuckled. "I don't think she much liked John."

"That's not what I mean!" Yolanthe said. She poked him in the ribs and said, "Lower your voice." After a silent second, she said, "I'm talking about Alyssa now, not Alyssa then."

"Maybe she's a little more hesitant---"

"Like she had to think over what she says. I wonder...maybe it's not Alyssa at all."

Pete let out a long sigh. "Yolanthe, listen to me. That's Alyssa in the other room. Same smile, same charm around her neck, same funny mole on her knee. Everything about her says it's Alyssa."

"I don't mean it's not Alyssa in front of us."

Pete shook his head, and said, "Now you're confusing me. All right. Lay it all out and I won't interrupt."

Yolanthe launched into a lengthy story of an old legend she knew. Her people came from the Highlands, the Galt Mountains; she heard the story before she came to the big city for education and a job. It involved an old Empire device that could possess someone. Possession meaning to take a person over, body and soul, every last memory, then send the body out to do their evil bidding.

We saw truth in what Yolanthe said. We did not see ourself as evil, but it was too close to what happened for us to be comfortable with it. And it might lead to more speculation, and problems.

Sleepy Pete tried to dismiss the matter, but Yolanthe persisted. We felt the need to bring the conversation to a close, to prevent Yolanthe and Pete, or Mix and Edith, from thinking until we ourself could work out a plan.

The rooms we took them to had alternate functions. They were also prison cells. A prisoner could be kept locked up---and kept quiet as well.

After what happened when we used centuries-old anesthetics on Alyssa Bensson, we were reluctant to use our stock of centuries-old sleeping gas. But we could use a subsonic vibration. It was less reliable than sleeping gas, and tended not to work on anyone aware of it. But the four of them knew nothing about it, and were also tired. Subsonic vibration would be effective. We turned it on.

Towards the end of Yolanthe's story, Pete began yawning, and closed his eyes. Yolanthe jabbed him in the ribs once more. "You're falling asleep on me!" she said. "That was a jawcracker of a yawn."

"It's late," Pete said, "I'm tired, and..." Just then, Yolanthe yawned, and Pete said, "You're tired, too. Who's jaw cracked just then?"

Before she could answer, Pete said, "I don't think this amounts to anything. I just think you're tired, and, maybe, well, maybe a little scared. It's a bad situation, but I think we're all right now. In no trouble, at least. We can talk about it in the morning."

"But---"

"We'll talk in the morning. We'll talk to Alyssa. You'll see. She's all right."

Yolanthe yawned again, and leaned against Pete's chest. Soon they were both asleep and snoring.

We shifted the subsonic frequency, and monitored their brain activity until we found a resonant pattern. We increased the intensity. Now they slipped into a deep sleep, one that they would not wake up out of without us ending the subsonic---or if they were disturbed.

We did the same with Edith and Mix. Mix was already asleep; the subsonic made sure he would not wake up. Edith, in the chair, was harder, but after several minutes she slumped over. We got up and carried her to bed. She muttered something but remained asleep.

That was that. We were free to operate. We left the room---the subsonic affected us, but we needed no sleep and could resist its effect---and were soon down the hall. There were many things to do before we let them wake up again.

#

The water was up over the point where John was lost. We went over the video replay and found the precise place, now in front of us. We found ourself in a descending corridor, wide and lined with empty crew quarter rooms. The water formed a pool from floor to ceiling. Lights shined from under the water, but, we knew, gave out as things moved from corridor to artificial cave to natural cave.

We removed our robe, well back from the water, and stood naked at the water's edge. We held a powerful globe flashlight in our hands, picked up after we left the sleepers. It would work underwater and we powered it with the internal power source we used to weld.

The oxygen in our lungs was charged at full. But we waited, and studied the security camera footage. The cameras should have worked underwater. But time and age, almost but not quite the same thing, caused a number of camera failures. We studied each, but John's body was not within range.

So we waded in. We would search every area possible, for as long as possible. There was still time. If we found John's body soon enough, we could revive and animate it, as we had done with Alyssa's body. With one more body it might be easier to control the other four.

When the water reached waist high, we dove under and swam on. We lit the globe flashlight; it projected a brilliant light that lit up the area, water or no water. As we swam we looked in every nook and cranny. There were many nooks and crannies.

The sunken corridor leveled off, into a large room, at an intersection of corridors, with a round reception desk in the middle. The waters rushed in from two sides and flowed down a third, the way the group had come in. John washed away that way. The others swam the other way, up and out of reach of the water.

Now it was all underwater. John's body was not in the room. We shined our light everywhere, even under the desk. We shrugged to ourself, and swam down the way John was carried.

We spotted our of the five packs the others had carried, lying on the underwater floor---Alyssa's pack was dumped before the others placed Alyssa in the medical treatment room. The remaining packs washed up against a wall where the current had carried them. There was no time to retrieve them, but we made a note to ourself to do so when the chance arose.

The corridor went on beyond that, then took a swerve down into corridors designed to look like natural caves. They were not, they were carved out of the rock centuries ago as part of the defense system. They were dry not long ago; if they were filled with water the party of six would still be outside.

It was fortunate that we acquired the body of Alyssa to repair the pump, but it also left us with other problems.

But now our globe flashlight was the sole light. Some functioning security cameras lay beyond, but no mounted lights. We knew up ahead the artificial caves merged with natural caves. How far would the waters flood them?

Then the cave corridor swerved up. It was large, right at the border between the natural and artificial caves. We looked up and see the mirror of surface tension from an air pocket. It should not have been, it should have been filled.

Before we stuck our head out of the wate, the mirror surface broke and bubbles of air surrounded us. Something had dropped into the water next to us. We opened our eyes wide. "John!" we shouted. The globe flashlight went out.

In the last flash of light, we saw he was surprised as we were. "Lis!" his mouth mimed, and released air from his lungs---then he sputtered.

We grabbed and put our arms around him, and forced his head up into the air. We burst into the air with him. The air pocket was not large but there was room.

John sputtered and gasped for almost a minute. We let go of him, but he put his hand on our shoulder. "Over there!" he said, and pulled us along.

The two of us scrambled onto a sort of spot above the water, a sort-of narrow ledge, where one could climb out of the water. We sat next to each other, and touched each other. John coughed to clear his lungs. We said, "Are you all right?"

"Lis," he said, took one long gasping breath, then seemed all right. "I thought you were dead."

"We thought you were dead," we said. Though we had our built-in Aqualung, we were a little out of breath ourself. "How did you---John, you're shivering!" He was. The water temperature was near freezing. We could adjust; maybe he couldn't.

"I've got nothing to warm up with," he said, and gripped himself in an almost-hug. "No fire, no matches, nothing to burn."

"Just a second," we said. "Hold this. Let us keep our hands on it." We held our hands out. We still held onto the flashlight globe. It was well-designed and well-built, it could do many things. We shifted its frequencies to the infrared. The globe lit up with a dark and dim reddish glow, but it grew warm in our hands---our hands and his hands.

"Ooh!" John said. "That feels good."

The dim red glow from the flashlight gave off enough light for us to look him over. He wore the same pants and shirt that he wore when Alyssa saw him last---but now they were more ragged and torn, and also soaking wet. There was a bandage on his bare arm. His boots were gone, he had just socks on his feet---no, they weren't gone, we could see his boots over his shoulder, on a small raised rock behind him.

The glow let him see us, too. He said, with some surprise, "You're naked! What happened to your clothes?"

"We took them off to swim here," we said. "We did not need them." We looked down at our body. "We did not think it was necessary."

He grinned, but the grin did not get halfway. "Why are you talking like that, Alyssa?"

"How do you mean?"

"All this 'we' and 'us' and 'our' stuff." He raised the pitch of his voice to mimic us. " 'We took them off,' 'we did not need them,' 'let us put our hands on it.' " His voice dropped to normal. "What's it mean?"

We let too much out in the surprise of the moment. We could not avoid it---we would tell the truth.

John frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing is wrong. Or maybe everything is wrong. We must tell you a few things, things that you may have trouble understanding."

"Oh." He paused, then said, "Is this the afterlife? Am I dead?"

"No, you are still alive, but---well, this body you see in front of you, it doesn't belong to Alyssa Bensson anymore. She died under treatment, and we took it over."

"Oh," he said again, and pulled back from us. We leaned forward, trying to keep the flashlight globe in his lap---he needed the warmth. For a minute or so, he was silent, looking at us, looking like sometimes he was seeing us and sometimes he wasn't.

Then he said, "Who are you?"

"We have no name," we said. "But we are the guardian controller of the base. We have incorporated the body and the memories of Alyssa Bensson into us, and are communicating with you through the body."

"Possession," he said. We started to deny it, but we remembered what we overheard Yolanthe say. We couldn't deny it. It was true. It might not be all there was to it, but it was true.

After time passed, he said, "Are you...looking for...others to possess?"
We smiled at that. "In a way. We are prohibited from taking life for that purpose, but would activate a body if one becomes available." We leaned forward again, and he did not move away. "You recall our medical facility, where you placed Alyssa Bensson and she was removed from there for further treatment?"

John held up his arm, the one with the bandage on it. "I got this trying to stop that cart." He started to grin, but the grin vanished before it started. "You mean that you---that Lis---that Alyssa---died under treatment."

"We regret it, but, yes, it is true. She died. Afterwards, we were able to salvage the body and the memories."

He said nothing. In the dim reddish light we could see him think about it. Minutes passed. Was there nothing more he could say? We said, "We knew it would not be easy for any of you to understand, John. But we will try to clear things up."

"I---er, 'any of you?' The others---where are they?"

We checked the monitors. The four of them were still asleep, as we had left them. We told John, "We took them to some quarters within the base. They sleep. We put them into a deep sleep, so we could slip away and---" We hesitated, then said, "So we could recover your body."

He nodded. "Then you intended to incorporate me into whatever it is you are."

Now it was our turn to nod. "Yes, yes, we did. But that is not possible now. You are alive. We will see that you stay that way."

"I see." He thought some more, looking down at the red glow in our hands. Then he said, "How did the others take this?"

"We, er, did not tell them. We know they are suspicious, but they know nothing. We pretended to be Alyssa Bensson, healed and well."

" 'Healed and well,' " he repeated. We remembered an old expression, about seeing wheels turning in heads as they thought things through. This was how it was with John. He was always kind of a deep thinker. We felt hope. Maybe he would understand.

"Maybe you could help us explain to the others," we said.

John sighed. "You've told me a lot, a great deal. It's confusing. Suppose you tell me, from the beginning, just who you are and what you're doing here."

"We are the base guardian," we said. "But we would rather not go into detail about what that is and what it involves, until we have reunited you with your companions and can explain everything at one time."

"Do you mean any of us any harm?"

We hesitated. "We can tell you that we mean you no harm, but that does not mean that the presence of you and your companions gives us no problem. But we must tell you that later. Right now we must get you out of here, once you have warmed up to make the attempt."

John shook his head. "I can't. I tried. I can't hold my breath long enough to reach any other air pocket or open space." He looked at me. "You must have swum in from some direction I don't know about."

"No," we said, "but we are augmented. We can stay underwater for up to one hour." An idea formed. "We think we can help you reach the air without much trouble. Let us explain how this will work---how we work---"

#

The two of us stood knee-deep in the water. We used John's shirt to tie the two of us together, light and loose---if either of us got in trouble we could get free. John carried the flashlight globe in his pants pocket. We were ready. "Down in the water," we said." We took a couple steps down, right to where the water was neck-high.

We pressed our chest against John's and said, "Are you ready?" When he nodded, we put our arms tight around him and said, "Put your lips tight on these lips, and concentrate on your breathing."

He did as I told him. It was not a kiss. We let out a stream of air into his mouth. With our augmented lungs and air, we tried to function as an aqualung, to give John a steady stream of air. He looked us in the eye, nodded his head without breaking his lock on our lips. We pushed down into the water, his and our eyes above it but mouths under.

Air bubbled out from our mouth. He nodded again. He could breathe, he was getting air. We nodded back, and then we tipped both of us into the water.

We tried to look into John's eyes---he said he would make an effort to keep them open---but we could see nothing; it was too dark. We kept blowing air into his mouth. He breathed as normal as someone using an aqualung could breathe. We felt his chest rise and fall with each short breath of air. For over a minute, the two of us floated and John breathed.

Then he let go and leaned back. He tapped on our back, twice---the agreed-upon signal for surfacing. With a couple of kicks, we pushed up until both our heads broke the surface in a splash.

"It works," he said. "I got a steady stream of air. If there's no trouble, I think we can make it out that way."

"You must concentrate on your breathing," we said. "We will swim for both of us. We calculate we have twenty minutes before our air runs out. The trip should not take more than ten minutes, maybe less."

"Lis...whoever you are...if I should, well, not be able to do this---"

"We will not let you go," we said. "We will get you to the air, no matter what."

"Thank you. We'll do it, then." He hesitated, then said, "I understand, now, that you aren't Alyssa Bensson."

"Oh? How so?"

"Alyssa would never have pressed herself against me without clothes on...like you're doing right now."

We looked down at ourselves, despite the darkness around us. We felt our breasts against John's chest, our arms wrapped around him. To our surprise, we felt the redness of embarrassment on our face. We did not think it possible. We were glad we could not be seen.

John went on. "We can talk later about it---"

We cut him off and said, "We should go now. We will tap three times on your back, and on the third tap, we dive. Put your lips on mine."

He did so. Our lungs were charged. We slapped his back three times with our hand, then dove under on the third.

Without a flashlight, the trip was dark for a while. We followed the roof of the cave, both of us brushing up against the top from time to time. We could feel John breathing. We both kicked our legs; we moved slower than either of us would have alone.

Then we reached the point where the caves became corridors. There were lights, and we turned them all on, as bright as possible, at whatever risk to the lights themselves. We saw John's face; he seemed surprised. But he didn't let go and never stopped breathing as we told him to.

Then we could see the surface ahead of us in the rising corridor. John saw it, too. He kicked with more strength and we broke through. We were at the deep end, bobbing up and down in the disturbed water.

He was breathing hard. He said, "We made it. How long?"

"Eight minutes, forty-seven seconds," we said. "We were within the margin of safety."

We felt him shiver---the water was still cold. We said, "Come with us."

He let go. We pulled him along until we reached the shallow end and touched bottom. He untied his shirt. We grabbed his hand and tugged him out of the water and onto his feet. We both dripped as we walked along.

Six doors up the corridor we opened a closed door and pulled John inside. Inside were living quarters, the first full-functioning unit we could reach. It was Spartan, a single bed, desk-and-chair, a bathroom. There were blankets and sheets here, not crumbled from age.

We turned up the heat. It was not as warm as it could get but in seconds it was already up. "Wow," John said, standing in the door. He held his shirt in his hands---he was soaking wet, shirt and pants. His boots were back in the cave.

We pointed to the bed. "Get those clothes off and lie down," we said, in a tone that permitted no disobedience.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, and shivered as he stepped over to the bed.

We saw his back, scraped where he rubbed against the cave roof. We said, "Lie down on your stomach. Your back is cut and bleeding."

"Oh?" He tried to turn around and see it. "I don't feel a thing." Then he saw us, looking at him, and turned away and pulled his wet pants down. He wore underwear; it was damp, but we said nothing to him about removing it. We took his wet clothes and draped them over the chair. The flashlight fell out of his pocket as we did; we put it back.

As John lay down on the bed, we ran into the bathroom and grabbed the tiny first-aid kit on the wall. We couldn't trust the topical anesthetics, but we hoped the bandages would not fall apart from age. Maybe they were even still sterile. The seals looked good.

When we ran out again, John was already snoring. We knelt down next to him and rolled the bandages over his back, first one, then another, until we covered the cuts. The bandages were fine. It would have to do, till we could do better.

#

We saw to it that John got six hours of deep sleep. We kept his sleep natural---this room lacked the equipment to induce sleep---and, with what John went through, he needed it.

While John slumbered on, the other four awoke. We regretted that, we wanted to be there when they woke up, to carry on the charade. But matters with John delayed us---destroyed the charade too, we thought with some bitterness. All we could do now was seal the exit and see that they could not wander away---and hope they weren't too angry when we saw them again.

Mix awoke first, and, realizing he had been asleep longer than expected, he roused up the others. They realized we were gone, and that heavy doors at the end of the corridor trapped them.

We watched and listened through the monitors. They were angry at first, loud angry, but the anger settled into determination. Then they tried to figure out how to get out of the trap we put them in. We thought that not impossible, but we did not intend to leave them long enough to find out.

John stirred---he slept on his back the whole time---winced as he rolled over, then looked straight at me. We had run and grabbed our robe, but we crouched in the same place next to John as when he went to sleep. We also lowered the heat to near normal temperatures. He remembered where he was and what had happened. "Good morning, er, Alyssa," he said, "or whoever you are. Is it morning?"

"Good morning, John," we said. "It is morning on the surface of. We wish to take you to the others this morning. Do you feel better?"

He stretched, and winced. "I suppose these cuts will loosen up a little when I move around."
We checked on progress in the labs, and said, "We will have a cream you can put on them in under seven days."

He nodded. "Come to think of it, I'm hungry." He rubbed his stomach. "Can I get a something to eat here? Or will it be a seven day wait for that, too?"

The room had a food processing unit, identical to those we showed the others how to operate. We selected a meal and let John eat. He ate---from his expression, he did not find it tasty, but he said nothing about that---then, when finished, he said, "Okay. What about you? Do you still need to eat?"

"Yes, we do, but we are not hungry now, we will eat later. If you are ready, we must take you to the others and then---" We sighed. "Then we will tell the truth about who we are."

"We meaning you and not the two of us?" he asked. We smiled a little at that. He held up his empty tray and said, "Can we leave now? Where do I put this?" We took it from him and placed it back in the food processing unit.

His clothes, dry now, hung over the chair where we put them. He put them on in a hurry and said, "Alright, let's go."

#

"You say they're on the other side of these doors?" John asked. He tapped on the door surface, then said, "Will they hear me?"

"No," we replied, "the material is too thick for that." We could see and here what was happening on the other side. We said, "Mix pounded on the door with one of the chairs; the chair splintered but the door didn't move. Yolanthe is trying to remove a ventilator duct grille, without tools...or luck, either."

"Pete and Edith?" John asked.

"Pete assists Yolanthe, Edith assists Mix." We hesitated, then said, "They are still angry. They speak of us---of Alyssa---in terms of anger. We fear, if we open the door, that they will rush us before we can explain." We grimaced. "We could hold them off but we might hurt them."

"Hmm..." John pondered the door for a moment, then said, "You can hear them from here, you say. Can we talk to them, from this side? I know it's possible."

We kicked ourself for not thinking of that...as a plan formed in our mind. "There is," we said, and pointed to a panel on the wall. A grille, concealing a microphone and speaker, and several contact buttons. There were phone links all over the base; though they were integrated with our eavesdropping system, we did not use them ourself and gave them no thought---till John brought it up.

We did not bother with buttons, but made the necessary connection with a panel on the other side of the doors, then stepped up to the panel and spoke. "Mix, Edith, Yolanthe, Pete?" we said. "Can you hear us?"

The speaker in the panel broadcast Mix's voice; we could hear it all along, but now John could. "Alyssa, what do you know about us being locked in?"

"We can explain," we said. "We have much to explain. But right now we are about to open the doors. We wish no trouble."

"Well, you've got it," Yolanthe said, with a good deal of heat. "And who's this 'we' you're talking about?"

"We will explain all after the doors open." We opened the doors. The doors parted in the middle. They creaked somewhat with age but they were well-maintained and slid back into the wall without trouble.

By then all four of them lined up at the door. Mix wore his anger on his face, enough to make us feel like stepping back from him. But we held our ground. "There you are!" he said. "Grab her!" The four of them stepped forward.

"Hold it," John said, and moved between us and them. They stepped back in surprise---they did not know we rescued John. He said to them, "Alyssa, or whoever this person is, just rescued me from certain death. I'd like you four to take that into account before you carry on with some kind of judgment binge."

"Then you know what---whatever's going on here," Mix said.

"I know that she brought you here, saw that you stayed asleep while she rescued me, then locked the doors until she had a chance to explain things to you."

Mix glared at John with an expression of anger. John glared back and went on. "I also know she could do something to you, right now, but she isn't doing anything. She told me she has something to tell all of us, together, and I think we should all sit down somewhere and hear her out."

Mix stayed angry, but the other three got less so. Pete said, "Mix, I think John has something there. Alyssa is different now."

"She might not even be Alyssa," John said. "But whoever she is, she knows more about what's going on here than we do. Let's listen to her."

Mix agreed.

#

A big square tank filled the center of the room. Surrounding the tank were various tables and terminals and boards; a lot of lights flashed on and off. To the others, who stared at it open-mouthed while we explained, this must seem the very heart of the technology of the long-vanished Empire.

But the contents of the tank demanded attention. Several dozen things that were once human brains hung suspended in the amber-like and amber-colored substance that filled the tank. They were recognizable for what they once were, even though brown and spotted-black with age. Little lights played up and down nerve endings.

We looked on the tank with distaste---our brains within the tank provided memories and stored data, but no sense of life. We needed a body for that---and we had one.

The others looked on the tank---with a mix of shock and horror on their faces.

After we explained to the others what it was and how it connected with us, we said, "In time, our brain will be removed and will join these brains. But that will be at some distant time. Now we need a body, for many things."

"You are not...looking for more bodies?" Yolanthe asked.

"No, not at all." Down at one end of the chamber was a round conference table, still with a few papers lying on it. Papers from the last conference at the table, centuries before. The wood-pulp papers were browned and unreadable...those printed on plastic were in better shape. What was printed on them would mean nothing to the others. We pointed to the table and said, "Let all of us discuss our problems sitting down."

They tore themselves away from the tank and came to the table, one at a time. Despite that, and despite the table being round, we and they formed up sides. We sat on one side, and the others sat opposite.

Mix, Edith, Yolanthe, and Pete sat together, but that they put a chair between them and John. There was no time to discuss much---but some distance cropped up between them Or were they just acting on suspicions?

Maybe we were suspicious. Maybe all of us were.

We gave them a brief outline of what we had already told John. We were prepared to fill in detail, but they listened with intensity while keeping their mouths shut. Once we reached the end, Mix said, "The question before us, is who you are. Not the body, but whatever's taken it over."

"You heard us say we are the guardian," we said. "That means we are the guardian of this base. Our brains act through the links and control most of the base's functions."
All five of them glanced back at the tank, then turned back to me. Pete closed his eyes and shuddered.

"But you are not Alyssa Bensson," Mix said.

"We are not the person you knew as Alyssa Bensson," we said, "but we have a continuity with her. We possess all her memories." We smiled. "Some of you had expressed private comments to Alyssa Bensson. We remember them, but we will not repeat them in front of others."

Iolanthe looked uncomfortable at learning that. "You're in no way Alyssa Bensson, then," she said.

"I can vouch for that," John said. "She is not Alyssa Bensson."

The others glanced at each other. Then Mix nodded, and said, "I think we can accept that. But I also think we need to know why we are here and what you intend to do with us."

We nodded back at him. "As we said, we are guardians of this base. You have intruded into the base---without intending to, we know, but you are here. Security is one of our prime functions. We must protect the base from intruders."

They were all silent for a while, thinking over the implications. John broke the silence and asked, "So what do you intend to do with us?"

"You do not have to be afraid that we will dispose of you---we will not kill you. We are prohibited from taking life. Our role in security is confined to keeping the base safe, secret, and functioning. We regret you were allowed to enter the base. Because of some technical problems in our operation we were unable to prevent that."

"But if we weren't supposed to enter---" Yolanthe said. She cut herself off, as she and the others realized what that meant.

We did not have to hear the full question to know what it is. "That is right," we said. "We cannot permit you to leave." We let that sink in for a few moments, then said, "This base exists because it is secret, unknown to the outside world. Should we let you go, that secrecy will be gone, and sooner or later you, or others, will return and breach any defense we could mount. We cannot allow that."

"You mean we're prisoners here?" Edith asked. There was a near-shriek in her now-shrill voice.

"Let us say you are our guests," we said. "We will let you have free run of the base."

"At least up to the exits," John said.

We looked at him. To our surprise, we found it something of an effort not to smile. But we just said, "That is true."

There was a projection unit within the table. We activated it---they jumped as the image began to shine---and built up a map of the base. To the untrained eye, it must have looked something like a long-legged spider, with a big thing in the center and eight legs going out to smaller things in irregular patterns. The base was lined out in green, and a long blue line ran through several of the legs. It was a basic map, but would do for this explanation.

"This is the base," we said. "We are here." We put a small red light inside the "big thing" and said, "This is the central core of the base. You came in here---" We put another red point on the map at the end of one of the spider legs. "---and you came to here along this route." We drew a red line, along the spider legs.

We rotated the map. "We are about three thousand five hundred meters under the surface. When you explore, you will find the ends of these areas blocked, either by massive doors or by long stretches of flooded caves and corridors."

"I can vouch for the water," John said. "If it wasn't for, well, 'her' here, I would still be stuck back in a stretch too long to swim through underwater."

"The floodwater is our first line of defense," we said. "It is too deep for someone to swim through holding their breath, and there is no reason to do so."

Mix stared at the map, then tried to point---his fingertip blurred the image but did not erase it. "What is this long blue streak here?" he asked.

"That is a large conduit for water," we said. "We control the flow of water from...the latitude and longitude would mean nothing to you. We control the flow of millions of liters of water per day from one point on this continent to another." We nodded. "Yes. That is the main purpose of this base."

"I'm intrigued," John said. "But from where to where? Could you give us a little more?"

We checked this against Alyssa's memories, and had to agree. "Let's say 'point X' and 'point Y." Point X is under a river on the west side of the continent and Point Y is a river near the east side, where a city was built when this planet was colonized...we know that the city is a smaller version of itself, but the water still flows." We smiled. "It has other names, but you know the city as Little Galt."

Mix said, "But that is the heart of the farmland for the eastern seaboard."

"It would be a desert if we did not provide the water."

John said, "Can you display a map of where the water flows?"

We did so. The base became a tiny dot on an irregular landscape. We took the water from a point high in the mountains to the west, and delivered it near the city, near the ocean. The map was three dimensional and we set it swinging back and forth, vertical to horizontal to vertical. The others stared at it for a couple of minutes, the greeninsh glow reflecting off their faces..

"That must stretch thousands of kilometers," Edith said.

"Three thousand five hundred and thirty-two."

"How much water passes through?" John asked.

"It varies, but millions of liters every day."

"Mmm. I see." He rubbed his chin. "I think, without that water, our side of the continent might be a desert."

Pete snapped his fingers. "So that's what you protect." We nodded in agreement.

"Protect, hmm, well, hmm," Mix said. "That's all well and good, but it doesn't explain why we're prisoners here. The water will flow whether we're here or not."

John chuckled and shook his head. "Don't you see? Alyssa---I mean, whatever it is that Lis is now part of---protects this water line."

"Protect and repair as necessary," we added.

"So?" Mix asked, a little hostile.

"So," John went on, "if someone from our world got in here and got control of it, he would have the life of our world in his hands."

Realization sunk on Mix, but he didn't seem about to retreat. He held up a hand. "I'm not interested in that. I just want to get out of here."

"But then the secret would be out," John said. "It'd be out and this place wouldn't be safe anymore."

"That is right," we said. "We must protect the base and the water." We hesitated, then said, "But just keeping you here presents its own problems."

"I would think it would," John said.

"No, not just keeping you here." We closed the map on the table, the glow fading from their faces. We leaned forward. "Your party left the lodge to explore the caves and hunt for treasure---" Mix opened his mouth to speak, but we said, "Don't bother to deny it, Mix. We know everything Alyssa knew and she knew that. You left the lodge and agreed to a return date no later than two tendays later. Nine of those twenty days have passed."

"What of it?" Mix said.

"When you fail to return, others will follow to see if you can be rescued." We sifted through Alyssa's memories, and said, "We know how clear your trail was marked. Any search party following it will be led here. They might even be able to penetrate our security perimeter"

"All that water?" John asked.

"Yes."

Yolanthe nodded. "I see," she said. "You're caught between two options, neither of which gives you much option. Is that right?"

We nodded, too. "Do any of you have any more questions?"

They looked at each other. John said, "I have at least a thousand. But you've given us a lot to think about for right now. Right?"

"I can't think of anything," Pete said. "Later, maybe."

The others nodded. We stood up with care. "Outside, down the corridor to the left and about four hundred meters, you will find crossing corridors in both directions. You will find living quarters there, apportioned as your last ones were." We smiled. "We think you might prefer to stay in quarters you cannot be locked into."

They nodded agreement with that.

"Then that concludes this discussion. We have some business to attend to right now. Please leave this room after me."

Mix looked solemn at that. "And if we don't?"

"You must."

Mix nodded to Pete. Pete nodded back, then got up and moved behind us, between us and the door. We realized what was intended, and said, "If you wish us to stay here and talk, we will. But you must be aware that you cannot prevent us from leaving. We will demonstrate, if you wish."

John, still sitting, grinned.

Pete did not move. We reviewed our memories. Many of us knew many different procedures for hand-to-hand combat. With our enhanced strength, any fight would be an uneven contest. Alyssa might not be trained, but from past experience it would not matter.

Pete tried to get us into a bear hug. We reached out and grabbed one arm, then flipped him into the air and held him over our head, as if to slam him down to the floor.

But we did not, instead holding him as it. Pete wiggled a moment, but then relaxed without going limp.

"You should be aware that if you had, say, stabbed or shot us, we would not even have been wounded."

"You are invincible?" Edith asked.

"Perhaps not, but it is beyond your means. We are prepared to demonstrate, if you wish."

John held up his hands, and said, "No, no, we'll take your word for it, for now at least."

We lowered Pete to the ground. Pete took it with calmness, and nodded to us as he backed off. We nodded back to him, and left.

#

We left the room, and turned left; they left after I did and headed right, to the living quarters. Once they settled in, they started to talk. They sat on the floor, in one room, in a big circle.

We thought we made it clear we could see and hear everything they said to each other. We were not sure they understood---or they did not care. We knew they had burning issues to discuss. Maybe thinking about being overheard would have stopped it.

John came out in favor of us. "Whatever Lis is now, I think she means well. We may be stuck here, but we're safe, we've got food and water. If we do nothing, nothing will happen to us."

"I don't want to be stuck here forever," Yolanthe said. "I want out."

"You heard what she said," John replied. "She's in an impossible position. Right now, all we have to do is wait. I'm sure in a tenday or less, we'll all be on our way."

Mix said, "You seem confident, John. I can't share that. The rest of us have been locked up once. Right now the jail cell is bigger, but it's still a jail cell."

"You seem quick to support her on this," Edith said. "I wonder about you. That woman who walked out of here---it's not Alyssa anymore, no matter what she looks like. Alyssa couldn't have done the things we've all seen that---person---do. She's some kind of Empire relic, something that's taken control of Alyssa's body and mind."

Pete nodded. "I agree. Alyssa couldn't have flipped me like that. But I'm more concerned with getting out of here than what she might be. I'm not convinced it's impossible."

"Chances are, if she says she can stop us, she can." John leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. "I haven't told you how I got here, have I?" He gave a brief outline how he had been trapped and how we had rescued him. "It may just be the tip of the mountaintop. She may be able to do other things, things we don't know about---things that might hurt us when we find out."

"I don't think she's a super-woman," Pete said. "She admitted we could destroy her. We might still find a way around her, and once we do, we'll be free."

"Or she might kill us," Yolanthe added.

John shrugged. "Look, she saved me when she could just have left me to my fate. Or she could have drowned me." He leaned forward. "She's not infallible. She told me she thought I was dead, that she was looking for my body with the idea of reviving it and putting it into that 'we' she talked of. But she didn't. She let me live. She rescued me."

"Did she now?" Edith asked. "That's what I was wondering. You've been on her side since you got back. More so than you would've been for Alyssa Bensson."

"And just what do you mean by that?" John said, his voice frosty.

"Maybe you find her more interesting now than when she was Alyssa."

John blinked. "I hadn't thought of that. I suppose she is more interesting to me now." He shrugged. "But it doesn't have anything to do with getting out. I still want to get out. Just because I---well, never mind."

Edith said, "Maybe she went further than that. Maybe you're now part of whatever she is, whatever that is." She lit up her face with a cold smile. "Maybe John isn't here right now."

John flushed red. "You take that back."

Edith went on. "We thought Alyssa was Alyssa, but she wasn't."

John was about to say more, but Mix said, "All right, all right, we don't know this happened."

"It couldn't," Pete said. "Alyssa could have come back alone, or come back with John. But she didn't need to say anything. We wouldn't have guessed. We couldn't."

Mix nodded at this. Edith frowned and said, "We were locked in. She wasn't there. That says something."

Pete said, "But you'd never have thought of this."

John still a little angry, said, "Look, what do you want me to do, submit to some kind of test? Maybe you could stab me and see if I die."

The others all spoke at once, but Mix stood up and held his arms out, palms out, and shouted, "All right, that's enough of this. John, we'll have to accept you at face value, unless you say otherwise. But the rest of us, we'll stick together. I gather this incorporation thing is some kind of involved process. It's not quick or easy. If we don't get separated we'll be all right."

"She says she doesn't mean any harm," John said. "Can't we take her at that?"

"I suppose we'll have to." Mix thought for a moment, and the others kept quiet and let him think. After several heartbeats he said, "John, you can come and go as you please. The rest of us will explore the base, or whatever this is, right now. But you should find Alyssa---find her--- and find out what she's doing. That's what I'd like to see you do. Agreed?"

The others murmured approval. John sat silent.

#

They stayed in a group of four and wandered where they pleased. They let us show them how to bring up a map on the screens mounted near every door, and told them if they got lost we would find them and guide them back.

They went around the immediate area, peeking into the rooms where the doors would open for them. We monitored their conversations and activities, but let them alone. They soon moved to the base perimeter and started to look around.

Meanwhile, we went alone back to the underwater corridors, and dove into the cold water. We looked for the packs that were washed away when the water came. We found four packs, all but Yolanthe's, which must have drifted somewhere we could not see.

When we hauled the fourth pack out, we found John waiting for us, sitting on one of the packs. We knew he was coming and were not surprised. We heaved the last pack out of the water, then stood up in water up to mid-calf. John looked at us and said, "You didn't have to do this."

"We felt the need to," we said to him. "We hoped it might improve our relationship with all of you."

"Mmm," John said. "You've got to understand we don't want to be confined. I get your reasons. But we don't want to be your prisoners."

"We understand that. We regret the necessity."

John nodded. After several moments, he said, "You know Mix and the others are searching your base perimeter for a way out."

"We are monitoring," we said. "They will not find a way. We have flooded the perimeter with water, and those that go up are barred by doors you cannot open." We paused, then added, "Do not think you can gain our trust by betraying your companions, John."

"Oh, no, nothing of the sort." He held up his hands, palms out, and shook them back and forth. Then he smiled. "I don't believe we can find a way out---not that way. But that doesn't mean we couldn't figure out some other way."

We had to nod at that. "You are right. It is possible. We must be on guard."

"Mmm." Hohn sat in thought for a minute, watching us. We looked him over. His clothes were dry now, but battered and faded. Draped over one arm, we realized, he held our robe. He must have picked it up without our noticing. "You must be cold," he said, "standing like that in that water."

We nodded, and climbed out. He tossed us our robe. We put it on, then sat down on the pile of packs opposite him.

John said, "I know you answered a lot of questions before, but I still don't think we got the full story of the base, and who you are. Could you go back to the beginning? I'll try not to interrupt."

We thought about that, then said, "All right. But ask questions if you have them. We will not mind." Then we took a deep breath, and began.

Close to four thousand years before, the deep tunnel, intended for the transfer of water from one end of the continent to the other, was dug out. The base was dug out at the same time, intended to be the control point for the flow of water, and where maintenance crews, for inevitable repairs and blockages, would be based.

About seven hundred years later, the base was abandoned. Around that time, we were installed as the guardian of the base. We were to defend the base and keep the water flowing, to the best of our ability, even though the base was no longer manned.

We were a cyborg composite of various people. "How many people?" John asked.

"It's a complex answer," we replied. "In the beginning none were whole brains or personalities or memories---they were not with us in the sense that your Alyssa Bensson is. Later additions were whole. But it is difficult to do a precise count. I would say no more than one hundred people."

John made an "o" shape with his mouth and let us go on.

At the abandonment we had no bodies, though as time went on we acquired and used them until they aged and died and their preserved brains were placed in storage for further use. Despite our best efforts, there was a certain deterioration. Our designers did not know we would have to last as long as we did. Without the occasional new brain, we would have broken down long ago---leaving the base left defenseless.

We were aware of civilization's collapse on the planet's surface. After analysis, we concluded our moving water from one open point to another would aid survival and revival of civilization, and it was still our duty to see that the flow continued.

But our abilities deteriorated. Within a hundred years we lost all ability to repair the water tunnels; all the robotic equipment failed. We relied on letting the water flush out any problems---the tunnel was wide, the flow was swift, and very little could clog it.

We also rigged up a defensive shield of sorts. Our outlying areas connected with other caves and passages. With a little work we could pump large amounts of water into these areas. None but the most determined of intruders could approach us.

But a century or so ago, the pumps broke down and the lower levels of the base flooded, and the outlying areas dried up. Until we obtained the body of Alyssa Bensson, and modified it to dive underwater and affect repairs, we were open to all.

"So that is why you got your powers," John said. "They are built into you." When we nodded, he asked, "Just what can you do?"

We thought, then said, "We are very strong. We can bend metal. We can channel electricity through our fingers and weld with it. We can also stay underwater for up to an hour while we do it." We demonstrated by holding up a thumb and forefinger and producing a bright arc of electricity between them. "It may seem extraordinary but there are rational explanations for our powers."

John nodded. "So...your water barrier wasn't working until you made repairs."

"Yes." We paused, then said, "Do not think you can sabotage the pumps. Within the base we can stop you in some other way." Then, thinking of something else, we said, "We can also be further augmented, to acquire other powers, but we will not share the details with you at this time."

"Mmm...I see." John crossed one leg over another, and, with his hand, tapped the sole of his foot. "Would the water flow through the big pipe if you weren't here to see that it did?"

"It would," we said, "at least for awhile. It might be lower than its peak volume but still large by most standards." We shrugged. "If we do fail, we would leave the base vulnerable to damage and...outside influences." We leaned forward. "Suppose someone gained control of the base and the water flow? In the wrong hands, it would be a powerful weapon."

"Yes, yes, I can see that. You don't expect that any time soon?"

We shook our head. "Not yet."

John nodded, and said, "Tell me about your, er, brains. The ones I saw didn't, well, look so great."

"Our preserved brains deteriorate over the centuries. It has been some years since we added fresh brains, and even then, it is a rare occasion."

"Mmm?" John leaned forward; our heads were almost touching. "How do you go about getting them?"

"Some came from over-aggressive cave explorers, who came down as you have. We did not kill them, but they died in accidents and we recovered the bodies. Then there are some that drifted into the tunnel and we were able to pull from the water and salvage the brains---but this has happened just four times." We leaned back and smiled. "We have added just fourteen brains since we were established."

"I see. Well, what about Alyssa's brain? What will become of it?"

"For the time being, it stays with this body. But when the body dies, or is close to death, we will remove the brain and add it to our collection." We smiled again. "But already we have incorporated the memories of Alyssa Bensson into our other brains, as well as putting much into the brain that had been hers."

John was silent for a time, taking it in. He said, "I'm glad to know this. But it's all...creepy, by normal standards."

We thought for a moment, then nodded and said, "We see your point." After a moment, we added, "Most of us would have found it so, we know."

John nodded again. "We're all at your mercy, you know that."

"We mean none of you harm, John."

"I understand." He shrugged. "But I don't know if the others do, or ever will. Where are they now? You said you were monitoring us."

We nodded and said, "They are in Section B---no, the coding will not mean anything to you. They are opposite us, one level down. They are descending and approaching the water tunnel, at a point where it is open and they can stand by its side." We smiled. "We can hear their conversation. They know they are coming to the water. They are thinking of swimming out through it." We stopped smiling. "It will not work. The current is swift. The water is cold. There are no pockets of air."

John tensed up. "You don't think they'll try?"
"We hope they will not." We paused. "They are at the water. They sit at its edge. They are still considering it."

"Can you stop them?"

"We are afraid not, if they are determined to try." We stood up. "We must go there and reason with them. But..." We hesitated, and listened to what the others were saying, halfway across the base. "But it looks like they have decided against trying, at least for now. We will continue to monitor." We frowned. "If any of them had dived right in, we could not have stopped them."
"They would have died?"

"We are afraid so."

"They might risk it anyway, but you must tell them that." John got to his feet. "I suppose we both better go to them." He pointed to the pile of packs. "One of these is mine, and I can carry it. Do you need help with the other three?"

We shook our heads. "It is not necessary. We have sent for a cart and it will be here in---it is here." We pointed down the corridor. A cart moved along, waist-high off the floor.

We allowed John to help us lift the four soaked-through-and-through packs onto the cart. He said, "This reminds me of the cart that carried you---that carried Alyssa off."

"It is a similar model." When we were done, we asked him, "Should we dry the packs out before we give them back?"

"No, you can just turn them over to us. We can hang things up somewhere and let them dry out." He grinned. "Thank you for doing it."

"You are welcome."

The cart moved off at a slow pace, away from the water. We and John walked behind it. For a while, we walked in silence. But John said, "It's disturbing."

"What?"

"That you're here with me, and at the same time, you can somehow hear everything the others say and do."

We pondered that for a moment. It was clear to us but we found it difficult to put ourselves in the position of someone who was not hooked in. "We are sorry for the confusion," we said. We thumped our hand on our chest. "We are here, in this body, looking out through these eyes and listening with these ears." We waved our arms. "But we are also the whole of the base, and at the same time."

"That is hard to understand," John said. "Well, not hard, but confusing."

"We do not mean to confuse," we said. We leaned closer to him and said, "We must admit, after a couple of centuries of being the base, we find it...thrilling to have a body to walk around into it. Memories cannot replace being in the flesh, so to speak."

"You are glad to have a body?"
"Yes. Also, we could not relate to you and the others if we were not in a body. We would not be able to talk to you, as we are doing now."

He looked puzzled, so we said, "We know this is not familiar to you." We remembered something, and said, "We have a place that might be helpful. We just now remembered it." The cart speeded up. We and John hurried after it. "Let us go there."

#

Most of the wood-pulp in the base library was gone, crumbled to dust and cleaned away. But forty-two percent of the stock was printed on plastic and survived. Besides, almost all the books existed in electronic files.

But we did not wish to confuse John by forcing him to learn how to use strange machinery. Books, we knew, still existed in the outside world---John carried two in his pack, ruined by the water---but scanners and readers were distant legends of old times.

We parked the cart outside the library entrance, then steered John to a chair at a table. We handed him a manual on base operations, written in the simplest of terms, intended for the rawest of human recruits. As he began to read, we roamed through the library stacks and picked out several more volumes for him to look at. We piled them next to him, then pulled up a chair opposite him at the table. We leaned forward, our chin resting on our hands.

John moved from one book to the other. He would ask what something meant...and, by filtering our knowledge through what Alyssa knew, we could explain the meaning of this unfamiliar word or that unfamiliar process. John returned to his reading, muttering the occasional, "Fascinating, " or, "Interesting," or some wordless mumble.

After a few hours, John raised his head from his fourth book, and said, "You had better tell the others where I am and what I'm doing. Come to think of it, where are the others?"

"They are in Subdivision A," we said. John put down his current book, grabbed the first book, thumbed through the book in his hand, and found the printed map. Subdivision A was one of the spider-arms we showed them in the map projection the day before---by now a whole day had passed, more than two days since we finished repairs on this body and awoke in it. Subdivision A was devoted to equipment storage.

John said so, and we nodded and said, "There is also a long access tunnel from there to the open area of the water tunnel. They took that after deciding not to dive into the deep water. It is four point nine kilometers from there to here, by the most direct route." We paused, then said, "Edith believes they are lost, but Mix insists he knows where they are."

"A long way off. You had better tell them."

We activated the communications panel nearest to them and beeped the phone until they came up to it. We told them where they were, and where we and John were. They decided to break off wandering and come to the library. Since they did not carry a map and knew little of base terminology, we analyzed the situation and came up with an answer.

There were little lights every few meters along all but a few corridors, intended as emergency alerts. We were able to activate a series of them, along the entire route from their location to the library door, at low-power so the lights would not blind. We informed them, and they started out.

Meanwhile, John kept reading. He picked up a manual on how cyber-brains like ourselves functioned. "We warn you," we said, "that some of what we do is adapted from other functions. We are self-repairing. After a point, units never meet manufacturer's standards."

John nodded, but kept reading. This manual had more technical terms than the others. We had to answer some question about terminology on almost every page. John nodded, but now we were not sure he understood our explanations. Greater education would produce a greater understanding. We hoped we could give him that.

John lifted his head from the book and let out a long sigh. "That's it. I'm drained. I think I know how you work, but I need to think about it. You're just so many brains floating in some thick liquid. But you're more than that. You animate this base...you animate Alyssa."

We nodded. "In a way---"

John held up his hand. "No, don't tell me. Just let me think about it." He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Was he trying to take a nap?

Just then the others reached the library and came in through the open door. John opened his eyes, leaned forward, and then stood up.

After they greeted John, they noticed their four packs, still resting on the cart hovering outside the door. We got up and stood next to them. "Here they are," we said. "We regret we were unable to find Yolanthe's pack. It must have drifted further on, or become lodged in some crack or alcove. We will try to locate it later."

Yolanthe shot us a sour look, then said, "Well, it's more than can be expected. Don't risk your life diving for my pack."

"She is self repairing," John replied.

"In a sense," we added. "But we would not risk great damage without good cause."

Mix said, "So this is your library. What's available to read?"

"A lot," John said, "I've read a guide to the base, and a technical manual on how, er, 'the guardian,' works."

"Oh." Mix smiled. "Did you understand any of it?"

"The base guide, yes, but the guardian manual---" He shrugged. "I'm just beat right now. What time is it?"

We started to reel off numbers, but said, "It's late afternoon on the surface. You have been up and around since the middle of the night."

"Thought so. I'm going to go back to our quarters and get some sleep, or...or..." He grinned at me. "Any quarters around here?"

"There's a bunkroom down the corridor. You are all welcome to use it, if you wish to stay close to the library."

"It works for me," Yolanthe said. "We didn't get much out of hiking around today." She shrugged. "If we have to be here..."

"We know," we said. "We heard. The tunnel that carries the water goes on for many tens of kilometers. There are no air pockets. The current is swift."

"We'd be dashed to pieces---" Mix began, then cut himself off. "Wait a minute, how did you---of course. You must listen in to us, all over this place, this base---" He waved his arms. "Everywhere."

We nodded, then said, "We must keep an eye and an ear on you, so to speak."

Mix shrugged. He looked disappointed. He shook himself out of it, then said, "Well, where's this base guide John mentioned? I'd like to look it over."

We picked up the book from the table and handed it to Mix. He settled into another plastic chair, the one John vacated, and began to read. The others tried to read over his shoulder.

Seeing the table and the books occupied, John shrugged, then yawned and said, "Sleep. I need sleep. Could you show me this, er, bunkroom?
We led him down to the bunkroom---laid out for ten, roomy for five. We tucked him in, more or less. After that, we went back to the library. The others found the other books, and passed them back and forth, until they, too, got tired and we took them to the bunkroom.

We did not grow tired as they did, but we did grow weary of it all.

#

In the next two days, John stayed fascinated by the library and the books therein---but the others were after information, and, we realized with some sadness, information to help them escape.

Pete read in one manual of an access tunnel to the surface---it emerged in the high mountains in the middle of the continent, some two hundred kilometers from where they entered the caves, maybe two days' journey, a lot of hiking and climbing, from where they were.

Pete and Yolanthe took off to explore it, despite our warnings. They were back in just over an hour. We told them, before they left, that a door they could not open blocked the route. They chose not to believe us, and came back, sad and disappointed, to rejoin the others.

We felt bad. We were determined to make their stay here as comfortable as possible---however long that stay might be. But they would never be happy as long as they were prisoners.

We knew we could protect the base, or make them happy by letting them go. But we could not do both.

But they were here, and others would come, and we could not conceal the base from all. Meanwhile, a deadline loomed---the day they were scheduled to return, the day someone would know they were lost in the caves---the day someone would send a rescue party to find them.

Things would change. What would we do? What could we do? It haunted us.

#

We were alone with John, in the library, reading. The others explored. We and John worked on a difficult passage in one book, when we looked up, alarmed. John said, "What's wrong?"

"Edith," we said. "She has slipped on a difficult piece of ground near the water. She---" We caught ourself, and said, "She says her leg is broken."

"Can I talk to them? Should we go there?" He stood up.

We waved him back into his seat. "An ambulance cart is on the scene," we said. "Edith will be brought---" We had to catch ourself again. "The others will not let the cart pick Edith up. We cannot treat her if we cannot pick her up."

"You sound angry."

"Anger?" We turned it over in our mind. "We cannot stand by while a medical emergency is taking place."

"Remember," John said, a slight hint of a smile in one corner of his mouth, "that when we last saw Alyssa Bensson alive she was being carried off by, I guess, by one of your ambulance carts. The others are worried---with justification."
"No, that won't happen again. We---" We thought for several seconds, then rose from where we sat and said, "We had better go, after all. Edith is in a great deal of pain, we judge. We must persuade her to accept medical treatment."

John rose from his seat again. "How far?"

"Not far."

#

The two of us made better time; we did not have to carry Edith along. We rounded a bend in the corridor and they were there, four of them carrying a grimacing Edith in their locked arms. Behind them, at a discrete distance, the ambulance wagon followed.

We stepped closer. Mix freed an arm and shoved us back. He said, "Keep back!"

"We are trying to help. You must let us help you."

"We won't let you treat Edith, not after what happened to you!"

"It will not happen again." We shouted, "Edith? Are you all right?"

"My leg is broken!" Edith said.

We looked at her. The others made a crude splint from a straight metal piece---we, from the ambulance, provided the metal piece---but the fracture, in the lower leg, was not set. Already the leg was swelling. "We can fix it," we said. "We cannot let it go like that."

"No!" Pete said.

"Stop!" Edith shouted. "Let her do it!"

"Edith, what?" Mix asked, confused. "You know what happened!"

"I'm in a great deal of pain here!"

"But she said her drugs weren't to be trusted," Yolanthe said.

"We will not use them," we said.

"Never mind that," Edith said, teeth clenched. "I'll take my chances. Put me on that thing."

Mix thought, and made a decision. "Take her. But we're all going with you."

They put Edith on the cart and we all move on, slower than should have been.

#

We did not take her to the main area where Alyssa was taken, but set up shop in a smaller room. We left the cart outside for the moment, with the others around Edith. We assessed the situation, and decided what to do.

A chair sat in the middle of the room. The room was for dental procedures, but we could adapt it for the aid we intended to give. We allowed the others to lift Edith off the cart. "Put her in that chair," we said, and pointed.

Once Edith half-sat, half-lay in the chair, we stood next to her---there was supposed to be a stool, but it disappeared long ago and was not replaced---and reached up and lowered an attached light until it shone into her face. Edith blinked but said nothing.

The others lined up against the wall

We said, "Now, Edith, please count backwards from one hundred. Slow."

Edith nodded. She was tense and sweating; she gripped the chair's armrests tight with her white-knuckled hands. "One hundred...ninety-nine...ninety-eight..."

At "ninety-two," Edith relaxed. She did not faint or slump over, but seemed conscious. Her grip on the arms of the chair lessened. She did not speak.

"Edith?" Mix said.

"She cannot hear you," we said. "With the chair and the lights, we have reproduced an effect similar to that which kept you asleep when you first came here." We grimaced and said, "We would explain further, but we must work fast and there is no time."

We worked on Edith. There were a wide variety of instruments within the chair; we pulled some out and used them. With a laser cutter drill we cut the splint off. We stuck several wire probes into the leg.

A quick examination revealed a simple fracture in the tibia. Painful but easy to deal with. Within a minute we had repaired the bone and reduced the swelling. We pulled all the wires out of the leg and stepped back. "It is done. The break is healed. It will be sore for a day or two but it can be walked on." We stood back and said, "In a minute, perhaps two, we will bring Edith out of it. We can explain now."

"What was that you used," Mix asked, "that put her under?"

"A form of hypnosis. She felt nothing."

"I'm not sure I would understand if you explained it to me," John said. "But we can take it that nothing like, say, what happened to you happened to Edith?"

"No, nothing at all like that," we said. We checked things---her heart and brain were functioning as they should. "We would have used this method on Alyssa---if we knew our stockpile of drugs could not be trusted." We nodded. "She will wake now."

"Ninety-two," Edith said, then said, "What?" She sat up, and reached down and felt her bare leg---the pants sliced away by the others when they set her leg, but now just unneeded shreds of clothing. "What happened? It's---well, it's better. It doesn't hurt."

"Are you all right, Edith?" Yolanthe asked.

"I feel---well, like I did before." She ran her hands over her leg. "There's not even a scar." She looked at us. "You did good work."

We nodded. "We would like to give you an antibiotic, but our stocks aren't to be trusted and we have not completed synthesis of the replacement stock."

"What's an antibiotic?"

We blinked. We missed something---rather, we failed to notice that something that wasn't there. Antibiotics did not exist on the surface of this planet---so little in the way of infection was imported that they were not often needed, and, over the years, "not often" became "never.".

We also remembered that Edith trained to be a nurse. We smiled at Edith. "We will be happy to teach you. There are books in the library that will be of help."

#

We sat with Edith as she browsed through a fat medical manual. It was difficult for her to understand---many techniques were unfamiliar to her, but medical technology changed over the thousand-plus years since it was published. Different words were used; some words acquired new meaning. Still, thanks to her training, there was a degree of familiarity, in procedure and the occasional unchanged world.

Edith found a passage concerning how new-dead corpses were revived---for various usages, including the one we put Alyssa to. She read this, then pointed out a red warning paragraph, whose meaning was clear. "'This procedure is to be followed when death occurs,'" Edith read aloud. "'See page thirty-five paragraphs one, two, and three for definition of death. Under no circumstances is this procedure to be undertaken while the patient is alive.'"

"That is a routine warning," we said. "It is not permitted to perform this procedure on a living patient."

"You said Alyssa was dead when you began."

"Yes." We remembered it. Alyssa was not conscious, and had not been since just before being placed on the operating table. We watched through cameras and monitored medical data. We said, "After her heart failed and we continued to work on her, her brain flatlined, and, in effect, her personality was destroyed. After that we finished repairs and salvaged her memories. These are incorporated into us, now."

"But with a broken leg? And one I set? How?"

We shook our head. "We are sorry. It appears some of the drugs we used have changed in chemical composition over the years, producing unexpected results. We analyzed them, but the results are inconclusive."

"So you say," Edith said. She leaned back from the book on the table. "But we have your word for it."

John, who sat nearby in a chair against the wall, trying to make a go of a thousand-year-old novel, lowered his book and said, "Hey, Edith, what are you---"

Edith said, "Shh!" and John quieted down. Edith went on. "What I'm saying, is maybe that was your intention all along."

We felt heat in our cheeks. "Just what do you mean by that?" we asked.

"I mean you wanted to take over her body the minute you got your hands on it, and I mean you weren't going to let a little thing like her life stand in the way. I mean you might have killed Alyssa on purpose." She sagged back into her chair. "Whew."

We felt anger, and were surprised to feel anger, and were confused. In a loud voice, we started to say, "That is ridiculous. We---she---" Then we coughed, and said, in a more measured, open tone, "We are prohibited from taking human life, except in self-defense."

"So you say," Edith said.

Mix came into the room---he had been catnapping in the library's outer office. He did not hear the whole of our discussion but he heard enough of it. "Oho," he said. "Maybe that's it. You wanted, maybe you needed, to experience the world through human flesh again. You grabbed Alyssa's body and made it yours." He smiled a crooked smile. "Maybe you killed her to do it."

"That is ridiculous," we said, forcing ourself to keep calm. "We have never done more than reanimate dead tissue and access memories. We needed a body to make repairs to the base and then to communicate with you."

"What are you talking about?" John asked. "Alyssa---this person---this person here---has done nothing to justify taking that position. In fact---" He grinned. "In fact, if she wanted bodies, why didn't she kill all of us and then take them?"

"Maybe she just needed one," Edith said.

"Maybe she can just control one at a time," Mix added.

"Not true," we said. "We can handle up to fifteen bodies at any one time."

"We don't have to believe what you say," Mix said. "In fact, we don't. We're prisoners here---your prisoners. Why should we believe you."

"You cannot escape," we said. "Why would we need to lie to you?"

"Maybe there's something else here, something you need to lie about."

We raised our voice again. Our anger was getting difficult to control. "What? We told you the truth."

"We can't believe you," Edith said.

"Right," Mix said. "Let's go." Edith nodded and slammed the medical text closed. She got to her feet, and she and Mix left. We followed them in our camera eyes; they went down to the bunkroom, woke the sleeping Pete and Yolanthe, and began to tell them what happened.

We found ourself breathing hard. Our anger was hard to get under control. John, who stayed behind, said to us, with a look of surprise on his face, "I'm sorry, Lis---er, uh...guardian."

"You might as well call us that," we said. "We are not Alyssa."

"But you've got to realize, to know, to understand---no matter how pleasant you can make this captivity to them---to us---to all of us---it's still captivity. To us."

We nodded, took a deep breath, and tried to calm ourself. We wondered at ourself. It was so long since we wore flesh that we forgot how powerful emotions could creep up on us. We said, "We know. It is not good." We paused, then said, "We would not have you think we are lying to you now."

"I am not so sure they believe you, guardian." He nodded. "You lied to them once."

We felt the need to sigh, but we suppressed it. "You are right. We lied to the others, at the time, it is true. But that was just at the beginning, and just to establish and keep control of a situation. We are not lying now."

When John did not speak right away, we said, "But you believe us...don't you, John?"

John said, "I, er, uh, I admit to a certain doubt about it all. I believe you could lie to us. But I don't think you're lying now. Yes. I do not think you are lying now. I believe you."

We nodded. The best we could hope for.

John said, "How many days are left, guardian? I mean, before the situation changes and search parties set out for us?"

We went through Alyssa's memories, and made a few calculations. "If all is consistent," we said, "no more than seven days. They will take the route you came, they will see where the trail ends and the water rises."

"What about your barrier of water?"

"It will not stop them. They will carry underwater diving equipment with them, and, with that, will swim through to the base. They will realize what the base is. They will swim out---your group and the search party will swim out together---and after that others will come. It will all be over."

"Hmm." He seemed lost in thought. Then he said, "We can expect you to decide on a course of action before then. Am I right?"

"We...er, we will decide. Yes, we will decide. But, right now, we cannot decide."

John nodded. "I would suggest, guardian, that you let us all go, right now."

We frowned. "That also means the end of the base. You would go, you would tell, and others will come."

"If we gave our word---" John began.

"We do not think all of you will keep it."

John sighed. "I suppose that's the best you can do."

"Right now, yes. We must face the inevitable, and we...er..." We fell silent, thinking of other possibilities. John looked at us in confusion as we reached a decision.

#

It was a relief, once we decided on one course of action, to follow through and act on it. We left John in the library. He started to get up and follow, but we said, "No, John, we must do something alone." Before he could speak, we left. To be sure he did not follow, we locked the door after leaving, to prevent him from catching up.

It was a moot point. He did not get up. We unlocked it.

We went down to the repaired pump room. What we had in mind would not take long. We walked through the room, studying the pipes and connections. Already water was ankle-high on the floor. The valves were open.

It would go no higher without further work. We found the section of pipe we wanted. We put our hands on it and began to weld. One after another, the pipes under our hands ruptured. Water flowed onto us but we ignored it.

It took over an hour to set what we wanted. By that time the water was at our waist. For two days, it would not get much higher, but in the end, this flood would crest, higher than before.

Satisfied, we left. The water sloshed in our wake. There were details to attend to elsewhere.

#

The day after the argument, we found the five of them, John as well, in the bunkroom by the library. We looked the bunkroom over, and them. They stood or lay on their bunks. Their packs and gear were spread about. A clothesline had been strung across the room, and various items, not all clothes, were drying on it.

John still carried some sympathy for us in his face, but in the others, we read just hostility. No surprise, we thought. In addition, they did not know where we were for the last day---this upset them, all of them, even John.

We spent our time working in this room and that. Some things could not be done by remote control. Lots of hands-on work was needed. Now, things would happen as we wanted them to, and we need do nothing further. It was time to explain.

Before any of them could speak, we held up our hand, and said, "You are free to go."

Mix was about to say something angry, but he stopped himself and said, "What?"

"You are free to go," we repeated. "We must tell you, we have decided it is best to let you leave, and leave now."

The hostility melted somewhat, replaced by joy, surprise, fear. On Mix's face, there was something that, despite our experience, and to our surprise, we could not read. None spoke at first. We said, "There are a few things we must tell you before you leave."

Mix looked at the others, then nodded, and said, "I hope that doesn't mean you expect us not to tell anyone of this place."

From monitoring their conversation, we knew they contemplated just that. But it was another moot point. "We do not expect you to not tell," we said. "But you must be gone from this base in no more than three days."

"What?" Edith asked. "A deadline?" More confusion among them.

"For your own safety," we said. "After three days, it will not be safe for you to remain. Sometime between now-plus-three-days and now-plus-six-days, this base will be destroyed."

Now they reacted with surprise.. John started to speak, but Mix waved him silent. "You've said enough to her," he said. "Let me speak." To me, he said, "You're going to destroy the base after we leave?"

"In all essentials, yes," we said. We ran through the matter and said, "It is done. It is happening. We opened the valves and the lower levels fill with water as we speak. Things will happen soon that you will not want to be around."

"Anything you can tell us?" Pete asked.

"Yes. On day now-plus-four, the water will reach the level of our power plant. The plant will short out and darkness will engulf these corridors. There will also be explosions. By day now-plus-six, most of the base, including these rooms, will have caved in."

They absorbed that for a few moments. Mix said, "So how do we get out of here? I mean, in what way? You flooded the way we came in."

"We will let you leave via the route to the top level of the base," we said. "The route you explored but which we blocked before. We will open the door---we have opened the door. The way is free now."

"We are free to go, then?" Yolanthe asked.

"You are, but we would appreciate it if you listened to us first. The way of exit leads to more natural-appearing caverns, one after another, until you emerge from the ground." We smiled. "We regret that this will put you some sixty kilometers northwest from where you entered the cavers, but you will have to live with any problems that might cause."

Mix seemed lost in thought, then grabbed for one of the items on the clothesline. It was a map. Mix looked at it. "Yes, that'll put us over there. Hmm! We traveled further than we thought."

"Never mind that," Edith said. "We've got to get moving, and soon, if what Alyssa---er, if what this person says is true."

"It is true," we said. "You may leave now, but you must leave within three days."

John wouldn't be quiet anymore. "I'm a little confused now," he said. "Guardian. You've spoken of how important this base is to the flow of water through these pipes and culverts and whatever. Why destroy it now?"

"We have reached the conclusion," we said, "that the secret of this base's existence cannot be maintained much longer. No matter what we do, we cannot prevent it. And if this base is intact, it could be used for evil or sinister purposes. We cannot allow that."

"But if the base is destroyed," John said, "then what will happen to the water flow?"

"We are taking steps, not yet complete. The gates will be opened, unable to close again. Water will flow, at least for awhile. It will be many years before the technology to repair this base is recovered." We looked at all of them. "This is the best we can do."

While we spoke to John, Yolanthe and Pete started to pack, taking clothes off the clothesline and stuffing them in their packs. Mix said, "Whoah, there, guys, there is plenty of time."

"None to waste," Pete replied. "We can talk about this on the way out."

"We've got time to spare," Mix said, "and I still have questions." He waved his arm around, a slow-motion roll with open palm. "There's a lot of stuff, empire relics, just lying around. Do you want to destroy them?"

"No," we said. "But it is an unfortunate byproduct. This base must be destroyed if its mission is to be preserved."

"But the relics?"

We shrugged. "You are welcome to carry away anything you wish. But you must be able to do it before three days are up."

"Dibs on some of the library," Edith said, and started to head off.

Mix grabbed her arm and stopped her. "Later."

John shook his head. "So the base must be destroyed. But that's the base. What about you?" He pointed his finger at me, almost touching my chest. "What happens to you, guardian?"

"We will be destroyed with the base."

John nodded to Mix, and said, "I don't mean the base. I mean this body right in front of us, the one you're talking too. It's not the base. You are not the base. Will this body...go with us?"

We shook our head, and looked down. Our feelings were confused. "It is not necessary. We have...already outlived our usefulness. It was, well...good to be in the flesh one more time before the end."

"But the end wouldn't be coming if we weren't here," John said.

"No," we replied, "but a decision is made." We stepped back to one bunk, then sat down on it. "It is not necessary to remain active anymore."

"What are you saying?" Yolanthe asked. "You're not going to die here and now?"

"It is not death." We lay down on the bed, and put our legs up on the thin mattress. We crossed our hands over our chest. "The route is marked out for you, as before. Good luck." We closed our eyes, ceased to breathe, and let the darkness engulf us.

#

But when we opened our eyes again, they knelt around us. We blinked in the light---there was little light, but our eyes were not working for some time. We were not where we expected to be. We were puzzled.

"You're awake," Mix said. "You're alive. No matter what you wanted us to think."

We blinked again, and opened our eyes and craned our neck up to look at the others. They crouched around us, Mix to our left, John to our right, the others at our feet. We were laid out on a flat surface, with some sort of sheet or blanket under us and pillows under our head. We were wrapped in blankets, but, underneath, we still wore the same clothes as when we closed our eyes.

Beyond them, we could see the irregular walls of a natural cave. Or was it one created to be natural-looking? We weren't certain.

John smiled and said, to the others, "See? I told you she'd wake up again."

"Once she started breathing again," Mix replied, as much to us as to John, "was there ever any doubt?" Then, to us, he said, "Can you talk?"

We opened our mouth and let out a croak, then coughed, then said, in a hoarse voice, "We are alive." We ran through a few things in our mind. "We are cut off. We are confined to this body. We cannot contact any part of the base." We hesitated, then said, "Was the base destroyed? How many days has it been?"

"Don't you know?" Edith asked.

We sat up. "No, we don't. But we cannot see and hear anything." We shrugged. "It is as we expected---almost as we expected."

Mix looked at John. John nodded to him, then said to us, "We got as close as we dared. We are in the tunnel you told us about. But, back about two kilometers, past the point where the corridors ended, the tunnel caved in."

"That was yesterday," Yolanthe said. "The tunnel here shook but did not collapse."

"The base flooded as we left," Mix added. "There was water everywhere. We think we are above that."

"This tunnel will not flood," we croaked. "How many days...since we..."

"Since you pretended to die?" Mix shrugged. "Six days. About now the search parties should be setting out." He looked at us. "They won't find anything, will they?"

We nodded, and swallowed. Our voice was stronger when we spoke. "It is the best we could hope for. The base is gone. The waters will flow for a generation or more without our supervision. No outside interference with the waters will be possible."

"And that is what you wanted?" Mix asked.

"The best we could hope for."

We fell silent, and the others did too. We looked around. Past the circle they made, we saw their packs, extra-stuffed with gear and books from the base. A lantern---base gear---was set up on a rock pedestal. We nodded. "We are glad you could salvage something."

Mix shrugged again. "We're glad you're glad. But we have a few questions." He leaned forward and poked his finger at our chest. "Why aren't you dead?"

"That's what you appeared to be," John said. "Dead, I mean."

We hesitated, then said, "We knew we would revive in about six days, plus or minus a few hours. It seems to be a moot point now, but some of the base might survive and, if this body survived as well, we would take further action to complete the destruction." We paused, then said, "Just how did you get our body out? We planned to carry it away to a secure location."

"That was John's doing," Pete said. "When the cart came to take you away, he knocked it over, grabbed you, and carried you straight to the exit door."

"Chased all the way by several of your robot carts." Pete grinned. "He outran them all."

"They chased John," Yolanthe said.

"Wouldn't grab at anybody else," Edith added.

"They didn't bother us," Mix said, "but chasing after you and John did limit our ability to grab stuff. Once we were out, they didn't bother us, and when we went back in to grab some books and stuff, they didn't bother us again."

"They weren't programmed to," we said, thinking about things. We had no memory, or trace of memory, of any of it. We said, "What made you think we weren't dead?"
John looked down, and then said, "I didn't think the cart would come for you if you were dead, I mean, if you weren't somehow faking death."

"We didn't think so," Mix added, "but then you didn't get cold and your blood didn't pool in your extremities...but then you started shallow breathing about two days after, and then we knew John was right."

We nodded. "All right. All right. But you shouldn't have done it. You could have been hurt. Or you could have been trapped."

"But it didn't happen." John laughed. "You're here and we're here---we're all here, and we're on the way out that you directed us to take."

"Yes...well, why haven't you gone on? You should have reached the surface---"

"Well..." Mix pointed to the far wall. We leaned up to look. There were two dark splotches on the dim-lit walls, entrances to further passageways. Mix pointed to each in turn, left to right. "That way leads to a dead end. That one dips, then goes on for fifty-some meters, then dips again---and it's flooded. We can't get past it."

"We swam," Edith added, "but it was too far."

"And," Mix said, "John mentioned how you rescued him---"

"Right." We sat up. "We can do that. We can still do that. We can help you."

#

It was simple. First we swam down it ourself, to see how far the water ran. We could swim from one end to the other in under nine minutes.

Then, we took the others, one at a time, packs and gears and all, through the water. We swam along with them, pumped air to them, about fifteen minutes each time. More than enough safety margin.

John went last. We found ourself alone at the water's edge with him. As we waded in, tied to him as we were before, we realized he had no pack or gear. "You didn't take anything from the base, John?" we asked.

John laughed. "You said we could take anything we wanted from the base, as long as we could carry it away. I took you."

We laughed---we had to laugh. Then we and John dove under the water and swam for the other end, his mouth and ours locked together.

#

Once the two of us came out of the water on the other end, and we released John from our tied-up embrace, we realized the others were finishing up another serious conversation. We could not listen in as before; what they said was secret---unless they shared it with us.

They stood around and stared at us, all with somewhat puzzled expressions on their faces. We said, "What is wrong?"

"Well, nothing," Mix said. "And everything. We're on the other side, and from a quick look it looks like there's clear passage from here to the surface. We explored a little way. This cave leads up and is free of floodwater."

"We don't think there's any further barrier ahead," Yolanthe added.

We said, "That is how we expected it to be. We're sorry about our mistake...we almost trapped you by accident."

"That's all right. Over and done with."

We looked at Mix. "But that's not what you had in mind, is it?"
"No, it's not," Mix replied.

He might have continued, we thought, but Pete broke in. "Guardian, or Alyssa, or whatever...what are your plans right now?"

"Us?" We thought, then said, "We did not plan to be here. You know that."

"Yes, yes," Mix said, "we know about your plans to go down with the base. But that's not possible, not now. What are you going to do?"
We looked away from, into the light of the lantern they salvaged. But we looked back to them, and said, "We have no idea."

"Well," Mix said, "we think you should come with us."

"And we're not inclined to let you die again," John said. He stepped over and stood to one side of Mix. "You should come with us."

"I suppose we should," we said.

"And that's our other idea," Edith said. "We're stuck with a few stubborn facts, but I don't think any of us want to say anything about who and what you are and what you can do."

"That's right," John said. "If somebody gets the idea that you're not Alyssa Bensson, but some empire relic that took over her body and mind and memories---" He broke off, grinned, and said, "Gee, that makes it sound kind of unpleasant."

"Never mind," Mix said. "She's been as fair as she could be to us. We're out, or almost out, and, well..." He turned towards us. "No hard feelings, right?"

"None here," we said. "We see what you want, or think we do. You want us to be Alyssa Bensson again. Is that right?"

"As close as you can manage," Mix replied. "It would be a great help."

"You did it once before," Yolanthe said. "We didn't realize. Nobody else will, either." She frowned. "But you have to stop referring to yourself as 'we' or 'us.'"

"You are just one person now," John added.

"We think..." we began, then choked it off and forced out, "I think I can. I can. In think I should."

John laughed and reached out and hugged us---hugged me. It was not easy to stop and think and say "I" instead of "we." There was a lot of commitment to the idea of "we."

Even though "we" were just one mind now.

But we---I---had no choice. "There isn't another option," we---I---said, trying to say it as Alyssa Bensson would say it. We would not have to be just "I" but Alyssa Bensson.

John went on. "We'll help. We'll all help. And I don't think anybody will have much trouble seeing you as Alyssa Bensson. The whole thing is, well, outside everybody's experience."

"Everybody's experience but ours," we---I---said. "Meaning 'ours' in the sense of all of us."

#

We---the six of us---stayed where we were for another day, to rest up, but also so we---I---could work on our---my speech and attitude. It was well past the deadline for search parties, but that didn't matter---they would find collapsed caverns, nothing else. The six of us would explain what happened when we came out---leaving out a few important details.

After a day we---I---had the outward sign of a slight hesitation in speech, a hesitation that came and went. It would do. With constant practice, it would get better. The others helped, calling us---calling me---Alyssa.

As for what went on within our---my---mind, we---I---also hoped for the best.

One point still bothered us---bothered me. We---I---asked John, "Why did you pick us, er, pick me up and carry me away like that?"

John smiled and said, "It wasn't a difficult decision to make, Alyssa. We took you with us because, well, when you get right down to it, that's the way Alyssa would want it."

We---I---had to laugh. The others joined in. The laughter echoed off the smooth walls.

************************************************************************