“Uh ... ”
Jack appeared to have been rendered speechless.
So did everyone else. The Voice stood in the small foyer between the door, the livingroom and the kitchen; her face looked warmer and more flexible than it had when she had fallen asleep. Because of that, the slow embarrassment that flushed her cheeks was very noticeable.
Lynda cleared her throat. “Elisabéta?” She pushed, very gently, with her mind, but got no response.
“I use that name in honor of the woman whose body this once was,” the woman answered aloud. “Her name was Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill.” For the first time, she spoke with a lilt, some hint of a different language making what she said almost lyrical. “I chose Elizabeth, and changed it to my liking. I have not had a name until now. I ... hope ... you approve. I did not want to forget her.”
“I think she’d be — ” Lynda stopped, not certain at all what Meg would have thought. “ — she won’t be forgotten. Thank you.”
“But who are you,” Govinda asked, almost unwillingly, unable to tear her eyes away from the woman. “Why didn’t you have a name before?”
The Voice — Elisabéta, Lynda told herself, think of her that way, and it will get easier — took one of the deep breaths she seemed to need periodically. “May I sit down?”
Davitch jumped up. Elisabéta nodded in appreciation of Davitch’s gesture. “May I?” She looked at Govinda as she said it.
Govinda looked horrified for a moment, then shrugged and patted the couch beside her.
“Thank you.” She sat, and turned to Govinda, inclining her head as she had done to Davitch. “I realize this is still very strange for you. I promise you that I mean none of you any harm.” She smiled, and it transformed her face even further. “In fact, I am, for all intents and purposes, what remains of she who called you— ” and she turned suddenly to look at Jack, “— here at the very beginning.”
Jack straightened up, his blue eyes steady, but slightly wider than they normally were. “You’re ... the Controller? Are you kidding me?”
“I am not the controller,” Elisabéta said. To Lynda’s astonishment, she saw unshed tears in the other woman’s eyes. “She died on Os Maus’ command ship. But I am, in part, her memories. That was my start and she was ... to me, she was my sister, my mother. Everything she knew or remembered, she impressed onto a special program on her own private grid system, one accelerated by the bioimpress system she had networked to the grid.”
“Bioimpress,” Jack said, slowly nodding. “That could have worked. Mouse brain?”
“No, genetically modified rat.”
“That sort of thing was— ”
“ — banned, as possession was, yes. The Empire did not trust its subjects, or itself, to create new beings in that way. I — she — believed it was necessary in our case. She didn’t want what she knew, and the way she knew it, to be forgotten.”
Jack’s eyebrow shot up. “She thought a lot of herself, did she?”
Elisabéta’s eyes flashed. “Yes, she did.”
He put up both hands. “Don’t get angry. I understand her decision.”
He looked at the others; Hsieh and Govinda both obviously nonplused and Lynda fascinated. “Bioimpress was the only way she could actually store an entire personality outside her own brain.” He tapped an index finger against his lips, in that way he had. “She must have known she was at risk.”
“She knew Os Maus. And she wanted something of herself to survive.. Without bioimpress, no artificial grid in the empire, or beyond, could have held enough decision-tree activity to keep a true Turing, alive. And I am a Turing. I am not just AI. I believe she was right to do it. In my heart, I believe I am the daughter of Meg and of the Handmaid of the Storm.” Elisabéta sat up, her back straight and proud, her eyes glistening.
“Is that what she called herself?”
“Yes. And what I called myself until I left the bioimpress grid system. I was her, in a way, until I made the leap. Now that I am separate, it is no longer my name.” She smiled, very slightly. “It is hard, though. Sometimes I still think I’m her.”
Jack started again, businesslike. “Are you completely transferred?”
“Yes. The rat brain is dead, and the transfer process burned the grid system. I had only the servos to program the transfer, and they were much less careful than real human surgeons would have been. I can’t go back.”
“Did you set up the system with humans?”
“Yes. They are dead now.”
No one spoke after Elisabéta’s last comment. Lynda and Jack knew immediately what that meant, and the others could probably infer the same thing.
“Why can’t you speak with us telepathically?” Lynda asked, breaking the silence.
Elisabéta grimaced. “This body does not have the ... abilities ... needed for any form of psi activity. It is a shame to lose my connection with you and the Captain, but I can’t — what is the saying? A beggar can’t be a chooser.”
That was a shame, Lynda thought, before Jack continued his interrogation.
“Are you sure that you’re properly seated in Meg’s brain? Couldn’t you simply fade and leave us with a corpse?” he asked, as casually brutal as the Controller or Elisabéta might been had they asked the question.
“No. In fact, I don’t believe I could even be forcibly ejected. I am ...” she trailed off, looking confused. “There was something that happened here, before, during the attacks of Os Maus. I was not to have been awakened in the grid. It was to have been done after transfer to full biologicals.
“But ... there was something — no, someone ... ”
Now she was frustrated and she didn’t like it. “An event — I can’t tell you what or who, because there are no words, but there was an event with power that awakened me while I was still in the grid and the brain. That should not have been possible.”
Not just frustrated; perhaps she looked frightened, too, Lynda thought, just before the old pain unexpectedly daggered behind her eyes and memories crashed in.
(Ibringlifeibringlifelifelife burned into her brain as she buckled to the floor outside the vents, and somewhere inside her something howled as Meg fell, something else laughed and spoke in soft liquid syllables, and she heard it call from the depths of that shaft, commanding no more death, not death but life, and she — )
“Rose as red as blood, gold as the sun, sweeping across the sky...a beast in her eyes,” Lynda whispered.
Jack jerked, then stared at her as she continued. “Jack, remember? When we connected with each other for the first time? On that ledge, it was the first time we heard the voice. That was you, Elisabéta, yeah? And you’d just been ... you’d just been born, hadn’t you?”
“Yes,” the other woman said cautiously.
“One of the first things you told us was that Rose was gone, that her work was finished.”
“Oh.” Elisabéta’s lips parted in shock. “Oh. I remember now.”
The woman closed her eyes, and resumed.
“That’s why I awoke. I had ... I had forgotten. I had forgotten! I — ” She stopped, opened her eyes again. The earlier unshed tears now escaped and soaked her cheeks. “I remember now.
“The blue rose ... woke me. She — it — no, she ... she was burning in my mind, and I had to tell you, tell you that Rose had finished her work. It was the first independent thought I had, the first real thing there, after my codes and programming changed into me. I didn’t understand the message, but I knew I had to tell you.”
“Yes,” Lynda said. As the pain receded, she kept her own counsel. Elisabéta’s message to the contrary, she knew in her bones that something of Rose had remained, at least until now. “I think she wanted us to know that what happened was because of her. Or what she’d become, or what she started. She changed us; I don’t know how, but something was there, it felt like an animal calling to me in my head when Meg fell, but I knew it was Rose.”
Jack looked down, then up again. His eyes were shadowed. “Rose wasn’t like that.”
“Not when you knew her,” Lynda said, certain of what she was saying. “But ... but I don’t think the Doctor destroyed the Daleks.”
Even as she said it, the blood roared in her ears, and she knew she’d stumbled on the truth.
(A golden figure stood at the gateway of space and time, one hand beckoning a loved one to safety, the other summoning and dispensing justice in a wave of nothingness, dispersing atoms that had once been the scourge of the universe.)
She continued silently, pushing hard to open her communication with Jack again, in order to show him the image.
She had to, she realized. His dreams were indelibly stamped with love and loss, for Rose and for the Doctor. She knew he wanted to search for them, and all of a sudden, she was afraid of what he might find if he actually found them.
But if he didn’t find them, Jack would keep open that great hole she had seen in his heart, waiting for the Doctor and Rose to return. He’d keep it open until he bled out his humanity, and became nothing but surface and hard, shiny charm.
At least warn him, she thought, let him know what might greet him.
With a sudden rush, almost a percussive pop in her head, the door opened. She shot her message at him, mercilessly, lovingly.
She heard him draw in an unwilling breath.
(“No! That’s not Rose!”)
He glared at her, but she refused to wither. (“Jack, she saved us — but she couldn’t stay, not that way. She’d have died. I don’t know where she is, but she can’t come back. You know it,”)
(The Doctor— )
She waited until his breath blew out, long and ragged.
(“I saw her. When we collapsed. Oh god, Lynda ... I saw her in front of me. I thought she was an angel. She had stars — the universe — in her eyes. I thought she had come back to take me to where they were.”) There was no hiding the flare of angry sorrow. (“Obviously, once I woke up, I saw that it wasn’t true.”)
(“You didn’t say anything.”)
The split second of silent conversation ended, and before Govinda or Elisabéta could notice the grief exposed for one vulnerable moment on Jack’s face, he smoothed it away and resumed speaking.
“So something happened that woke you up, and connected Lynda with me. We’ll call it Rose, because I think Lynda’s right. Much as I wish she were completely delusional.”
Abruptly he leapt from the chair, becoming the Captain with disorienting speed. “And having said that, boys and girls, there’s really nothing more to say about Rose or what she did. We came back from the dead, and if she did it, let’s hoist a glass to her later.
“Right now, I suggest we get a little help from Ms Elisabéta’s friends, then get the hell away from this goddamned station. As far as we can go.”
“The Bhari don’t seem to have any history with the Daleks, or so Elisabéta reports. It’s left them insanely unafraid of the bastards, which means they’re not going to be as chary about coming into a system that was swarming with Daleks 26 hours ago. That’s the first reason, ” Jack said, two fingers of each hand massaging his forehead. “They’re born diplomats, which is also all to the good.
“And they look as close to human as any of the four species who’ve responded to our SOS thus far. That’s the third, and most important, reason.”
“I get that,” Hsieh said, looking at the file flimsies again. “What worries me is the sheer size of their ships. The Bhari flagship is, what, three times the size of the station? I mean, how many of them are there? How are we going to handle that? The ... let’s see ... the, uhm, Cheth look like they have smaller vehicles, ones that can dock here.”
“The Cheth also resemble bipedal llamas. They smell like wet dog when they’re nervous. And they’re almost always nervous,” Jack snapped. “If you’re worried about overpopulating the station with Bhari, don’t be. They’ll keep most of their crew shipside, because they don’t want them in danger from the crazy xenophobic humans.”
Hsieh blinked. “Ah.”
“In any case, it’s too late to change our minds now,” Jack said, more gently. “Once I sent the message, there was no turning back.”
“I know,” Hsieh said. “It’s just ... never mind. We’ll handle it.” He shook his head slightly, as if trying to clear a lifetime of ‘dangerous alien’ warnings from his head.
Lynda didn’t know what a llama was, and she wondered what the Cheth really looked like. Jack seemed to know, but Lynda wondered if she should question him, weary and irritable as he was now.
They were back in the control room, and the restraints that had held the Controller still hung from the ceiling above the dais. The room remained dark and booby-trapped with foot-tangling pools of cable. Lynda was once again uneasy just being there.
“We can ask them to set up orbit around Luna, and send one of their life slips in with the Ambassador and her party,” Davitch said, eyeing a grid display that cast blue-green light over his face. “That’s easy enough, right Jack?”
Jack nodded wordlessly, and leaned back into one of the programming station chairs. Despite the gloom, Lynda could see the grey in his face. She felt guilty about their last conversation, particularly since he’d immediately plunged into preparing a rescue call.
He’d had help; Elisabéta, Hsieh, Davitch, Govinda and a couple of sleepy techs the latter had hauled out of bed. It had still been a difficult ten hours.
First they’d sunk neck deep into the job of strengthening the hardware and software patches with which Elisabéta’s grid information had initially provided them. It had been tricky to fix, or bypass, the Dalek damage, but they’d finally declared the Sol-out delivery grid completely accessible, and ready to contact non-human worlds.
While they wrestled with that, Ruthie monitored out-system chatter with a non-Facilitator SIOS tech. They needed to know what was going on in the human colonies, in case they had to deal with any incoming colonial strike force.
Seeking xenomorphs out — setting up communications protocols, and attempting contact with any one of six nearby and long-avoided non-human civilizations — was not an easy task. They’d winnowed down a host of former non-human allies to those six, based on their star chart proximity. Elisabéta and Lynda had repeatedly plumbed the depths of Archive Six information and their own memories to do so, leaving them far more tired than they’d expected to be.
The introductory SOS burst originally started with a carefully written explanation of their plight and a request for help. But at Elisabéta’s urging, and after considerable debate, they agreed to preface it with an acknowledgment of the Empire’s most egregious wrongs against non-humans, and a plea for forgiveness. The remainder covered navigation and station condition reports, plus human anatomy and chemical make up. It was a general profile upon which potential rescuers could draw to plan supplies of species-compatible food and medical aid for the station, and perhaps those humans still alive on Earth.
They knew when they began broadcasting the information that they might be met by hostility and rejection. For a while it had indeed seemed as if silence was to be their punishment.
An hour had gone by, then another, and another. Govinda had smoked the last of her carefully hoarded cigarettes, Davitch had fiddled with grid readings and fielded increasingly nervous questions from Ruthie and the others. Jack had paced and worried at his fingernails. Elisabéta just paced. By the time return messages began coming in, they were too tired for any reaction but tense relief.
“Good to know folks out there might want to help,” Jack had said, leaving his celebration to that.
Deciding she would, after all, try to coax him from the mood into which she had hurtled him, Lynda scooted around in her chair until she was on her knees. She swung it around to face the Captain and Davitch across the narrow aisle separating the respective grid screen banks. It swung back to its own screen station until she kicked out at the base of the grid housing and jammed it into the wrong direction.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a llama. What does it look like?”
Jack looked at her blankly for a moment, then focused. She was relieved to see a faint smile; he still had his sense of humor, then. “Ask me later, sweetheart, but if you think supercilious, long-lipped, and long-eared, you’re thinking in the right direction,” he said. “I went out with a Cheth once. Had to break it off, though. I kept giggling at the wrong moment, and that was just plain rude of me.”
“See what I mean? Not conducive to overall dignity,” he said, shaking his head as his smile strengthened. “Seriously, folks; Cheth are good people, and I know we can use their help, I just don’t want them to be our first contact. It would be beyond inopportune to have what remains of the center of human empire shying away from the hand of friendship.”
“That had been what I feared, I admit. Humanity is so frightened ... Os Mausdid their job too well,” Elisabéta agreed, from where she was slowly peregrinating around the control room. She was fascinated with the act of walking, which probably wasn’t surprising for a being who had been forcibly immobilized in both phases of her existence. “Humans will have to learn to love Otherkind again.”
Govinda shot her a look at the odd turn of phrase, but it was a friendly one. She had, like Jack, abandoned her initial discomfort around the new woman. “Well, I’m looking forward to whoever gets here with food, and with medicines. Mayhew’s been driving them crazy in quarters, complaining about the baby’s croup — you’d think the kid was his — and we still have the broken leg and burn cases that Meg reported.” She didn’t flinch when she mentioned Meg. No one else did, either.
“So we need food, we need meds, and I’m sure you’ll think of other things,” she said before concluding, mournfully, “I don’t suppose I could convince someone to put cigarettes on the list. I’m dying for a fag.”
“Not bloody likely,” Davitch replied. “Can’t waste our requests on non-essentials.
“Besides, they smell horrid,” he added, sotto voce.
“I heard that,” Govinda said without heat.
“Meant you to, love,” he replied. “Jack, if you can spare me, I’d like to check in with Ruthie down in SecTwo. I think you and Elisabéta can help Vinda finish setting up our needs lists.”
Jack waved his hand in the general direction of the lift. “Go on. And find Vinda some cigarettes if you value your peace of mind. Or ours.”
“Will do,” the tall programmer said, giving his lover a peck on the cheek, and his seat. “I’ll check in with you once I know if Ruthie and her people need anything put on the list.”
He left the rest of them to the last phase of their work; being rescued.
Non-human rescuers, Lynda thought, with barely contained excitement.
“Alright, back to work,” Hsieh said, slightly less dubious about their pending visitors now. “Putting the Bhari into lunar orbit would work, I think. You say they look like us?”
“They are tall and slim. They have a slightly blue tinge to their skin, and that skin is very, very lightly scaled. One notices the scales only in certain light,” Elisabéta said. “In the old days, they were very welcome in the Empire, but they were driven out. The last of them left 70 years ago. Many of them died, and much of their memories of humans are not good.”
Beings who thought humans were the aliens, beings that didn’t look like humans, didn’t trust humans, weren’t human. What were they like? What type of worlds, what types of governments and laws, what histories?
So many questions ... she shivered, and was surprised at how good that shiver felt. So many questions ....
She was jolted from her daydream. “What? Oh. Sorry, what?”
Govinda patiently repeated what she had just said. “A million miles away, are you? I asked if you were bored, and if you wanted to head back to the apartment. You’ve got nothing to do here—”
She broke off, looking chagrined. “I don’t mean to say you’re supernumerary. God knows you’ve been a treasure for us. I’d hate to see the bloody invoice if you were charging.”
“No, no, not at all, Vinda,” Lynda hastened to assure her, a little horrified by the image of presenting an invoice. That’ll be 25 credits for panicking in the vents, another 50c for getting my head rearranged to hear people inside my skull. Oh, and 500c for killing a man.
“I know what you mean, but you don’t have to worry. Trust me, I’m not bored. This is fascinating to me. It’s like ... it’s history, yeah? It’s history we’re making. It’s the first time that — what did you call them, Elisabéta? Otherkind? Sounds nicer than xenomorph, doesn’t it? Anyhow, it’s the first time that Otherkind have come into Sol system for a century, and we’re here to see it! Actually, if you think about it, we’ve been in the middle of history ourselves ever . As awful as it’s been, we’re making it! ”
Jack finished reading the flimsy Davitch had left with him, then handed it to Hsieh. “There, that’s everything we need to set up the Bhari delegation. We should have at least one Big Brother suite we can clear out for their use for as long as they’re here. Thank god we won’t have to feed them. Everything they eat has to be prepared in a special — well, it’s all moot. As long as we have water and booze for the toasts.”
“What kind of way? I mean, what kind of way do they want their food prepared?” Lynda asked.
“Hmm? Oh. Actually, you’re right. It’s fascinating, but maybe it’s something for later,” he said absently. “That does remind me, though; Hsieh, can you ask Cherrie and Rog to assign people to clean up the cafeteria, too? We’ll officially greet them there, then show them to their rooms. Give them an hour to prepare, then we’ll repair to the staff room just off here and negotiate terms. If we can arrange for supply ships for Earth, and for evacuation to Hidden for as many of us who want it, we’ll have done our job.”
He stopped, tilted his head and looked at Lynda. “I want you with me when I do this.”
She raised both eyebrows, since a singular hike was beyond her ability. “You’ve already got your delegation picked. Elisabéta, Hsieh and Davitch. You don’t need me.”
“Relax — you don’t have to talk to them if you don’t want to. I just need you to help Elisabéta, keep her human focus. You two work well together, and believe me, we don’t want the Bhari realizing that we have a possession case here. Plus, if I need to bounce something off someone before I let it out of my mouth, you’re my secret weapon. We can communicate quickly, with no one the wiser.”
“Besides,” he said, looking at her and letting that sly grin of his out. “You’re going to be Earth’s official historian for this meeting. I know you’re the right one for the job because, frankly, you’re the only person I’ve met here that showed any interest in history.”
“Jack’s right, Lynda,” Govinda said, her attention still glued to grid displays. “You were going on about history our first night back.”
Lynda laughed a little. “Oh, at the pasta and chutney supper?”
“Oh, right. God, don’t remind me,” Jack said, wincing at her words. “I was an ass.”
“Yes, you were, rather,” Lynda said, grinning at him.
“Yeah,” Govinda said, turning her seat around — only too glad, obviously, to avoid more archive work. “As I recall, Lynda was mouthy and you were icy.”
Hsieh, who hadn’t been there, looked interested but said nothing. Elisabéta wasn’t paying attention; she had walked out of hearing and was standing in front of the dais, staring up at the empty harness.
“I couldn’t believe she was telling the crowd where it could go,” Jack said, one corner of his mouth quirking up again. “I had absolutely no idea what to do when I was up on that dais. I think I was about an inch from bolting like a spooked horse when she announced our travel plans.” He gave the little chuckle that meant he was almost really amused. “ You hadn’t a clue how difficult your blithe pronouncement would be to carry out, did you?”
“Not really, no,” she said.
At that, the Captain laughed outright. “See, that’s what frosted me. You said it, and I knew they believed it, and I was the only one in place who stood a chance of making it happen. And I wanted the job like I wanted a case of crabs.”
“Isn’t it just,” he grinned at Govinda’s disgust. “But she did the right thing. I was so angry I forgot to spook any further. In retrospect, it was my first hint that Lynda was going to be helpful, but I didn’t see it that way in the heat of the moment.”
“I don’t think I would have opened my mouth before the Daleks came and killed us all,” Lynda said. “I don’t know why I did — well, yeah, I did know. And I’m glad I did it. It’s one thing I know for certain now, how stupid it is to keep quiet when you don’t want to.”
Jack’s wrist com chirped. “Ruthie! Talk to me.”
Ruthie’s voice was low and Lynda couldn’t hear the message, but seconds later his smile disappeared. “Well, fuck.”
“What?” Lynda asked, alarmed.
“Hold on a sec Ruthie.” He massaged his temples again before answering. “The Facilitators are gone.”
She was confused. “Gone?”
“One of the guards made the mistake of mentioning our pending xeno arrivals while we were checking the bandages on a couple of prisoners. After we left, when no one was really paying attention to the CCTV feeds, they killed themselves. Apparently to avoid contamination with lesser races, or so the message they left said.”
“But how?” Govinda did not look upset, just sad.
“Ruthie, how’d they do it?” Jack relayed the question.
He listened briefly, then turned back to his companions. “It figures. Some of them had poison capsules — probably their teeth — and one of them managed to smuggle in a neural blaster that we didn’t catch when we locked them up. Anyone who didn’t poison themselves got shot, and the shooter then fried her own brains. They even found a couple in the maintenance corridors near the suite. The last holdouts apparently got the order too. ” He looked sick. “Goddamned stupid sons of bitches.”
He addressed his wrist com again. “Ruthie, you still there? Listen, I’m sending Hsieh down. You and he get over to the holding suite and calm our people down. Remind them that they couldn’t have stopped these jokers, that we had no reason to expect them to suicide. Then get names, any information at all, from the bodies. We may possibly have relatives to contact. After that, use the dispose-alls. Right. We need it done within the hour. I’m out.”
“Os pobres crianças sentenciadas ... poor things. They ended as I thought they would,” Elisabéta said, rejoining them almost soundlessly. Despite the words, she sounded calm.
“You knew they’d do this?” Lynda was horrified.
“No. But I was not surprised. Once they knew we were bringing non-humans into Sol system, there could have been only one outcome,” the other woman said. “They were raised to think of non-humans as demons, and had treated them as such in the xeno purges. They would have feared demonic reprisals.”
“The people who worshipped Daleks?” Govinda asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Os Maus were different. They were God.”
“Oh, well, that makes all the difference,” Govinda said, rolling her eyes. “Christ. Does anyone mind if I say I’m not going to miss them?”
“No,” Jack said, grim. “No, not at all.”
He didn’t move to go down to investigate. He sat motionless, occasionally picking at the edge of his communicator’s wrist band with the fingers on his other hand. Lynda saw lights blinking on the mechanism itself that she hadn’t seen blinking before.
All of them waited, silently, for some time. News of the Facilitators seemed to have struck them all temporarily dumb. Lynda wondered if Hsieh would say a word over the bodies before he consigned them to the dispose-all.
Eventually, Jack’s wrist comm chirped again. This time they all heard the message.
“You’re not going to believe this,” an awed Davitch reported. “We are about to have visitors. Now. They’re already here. The Bhari came. They didn’t wait, they didn’t even ask questions. They say they just want to help.”
The Bhari life slip was a tear shaped piece of strangeness sliding soundlessly into the ruined ship bay. They watched from the safety of an undamaged airlock, as the ship’s hull opened to allow four exo-suited figures to approach the door.
(I want to go travelling, she said to her mother. I want to go to the asteroids and maybe out system. She was young, lying in her bed and talking to a mother who seemed the most beautiful woman in her entire world, luminous skin and an aureola of golden hair about her face. I want to explore. You will, her mother assured her. You will.)
The Bhari were everything Elisabéta had said they were. Lynda, horrified, found herself crying.
Jack reached for her silently.
(“You going to be OK?”)
(“They’re beautiful, Jack!”)
(“So are we, sweetheart. So are we. Hold you head up. You’re representing the Fourth Great and Bountiful Empire.”)
She nodded, and wiped her tears away, and moved from behind him to meet her future.
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