Główna Journey to the Year One Billion
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Journey to the Year 1,000,000,000 By Gary L.M. Martin Captain's Log, Stardate 1,000,000,000 It is a billion years in the future, and mankind is about to become extinct. I know this for a fact, because I am the last man in existence, and I am about to meet my end. A giant "Black Box", 400 miles to a side, appeared above the Earth. It sent a series of devastating shockwaves into our planet. We needed to find out the origins of this phenomenon, and the Survey Service sent my ship in. We discovered the Black Box was an entrance to a time tunnel. We were hurled into the distant future, nearly one billion years later. We can barely comprehend the life that exists now. They view us as little more than bacteria. They killed what's left of my crew without a trace of remorse. And when they come back, they are going to do the same to me. Mankind is extinct in the year 1,000,000,000, and when I am gone, so will the entire human race. So why do I make this log entry? I know, with a near certainty, that when I am wiped into nothingness, that this record will face the same fate. I cannot honestly say I have any realistic hope that this entry will ever be seen by anyone else. I guess, in my final moments, that I feel comfort in fulfilling a duty, a routine I am familiar with, one last task to give me the feeling that I am still a living, breathing member of the United Survey Service, however futile this final act may be. For when the aliens return, I will be gone, and with me goes the fate of humanity. Lieutenant Commander Michael Taylor, last surviving crewmember, USS Devonshire. Chapter 1: The Black Box The planet Earth was about to be destroyed, but Lieutenant Commander Michael Taylor had bigger problems. For four years the Survey Service had tried to drive him into resigning. Four years ago, Michael Taylor had been a junior lieutenant on the ill-fated USS Asgard, which had crashed on a primitive planet. Almost all the crew had been killed, but the passengers had survived. The native ; on the planet threatened to kill all of them, until Taylor convinced them that they were their gods. And so Taylor, and the rest of the passengers, impersonated their gods. Overall things went reasonably well, (as well as things could go when one was impersonating a god), until three of the passengers, the brothers Chaka, Ahmed, and Khalid, stirred their followers on a holy jihad to go out and kill everyone who had alternative theological perspectives. Taylor mustered an army to fight them, but he was overmatched. So he took the crippled Asgard up, and hovered low over Khalid's armies, and activated his reactor drive. It was like turning on a blow torch on a piece of meat. Thousands were killed. But as a result, many thousands more who would have been butchered or enslaved were saved. Later, when they were rescued by the Survey Service, Taylor was put on trial. For a time it looked as if he would face the death penalty, but ultimately, he was acquitted. For his valiant efforts in saving the lives of the passengers of the Asgard, as well as the inhabitants of PR-52981, he was even promoted to Lieutenant Commander. But that wasn't the end of his story. Many elements in the Survey Service didn't approve of Taylor's performance, to put it mildly. They wanted him drummed out of the service. So when the time came for Taylor to be assigned, no one wanted him on their ships. Normally, a Lieutenant Commander would serve as a first officer on a frigate, or a mid ranking officer on a destroyer or cruiser. But no one wanted Taylor to serve on their ship. He was given a few short term, temporary assignments on Survey Service vessels. But somehow, he would only seem to wind up in bigger trouble. Controversy followed him everywhere. Eventually, he was dumped back on Earth at Survey Service Headquarters in Perth, a spaceman without a spaceship. After two months on Earth, when he was seriously thinking of resigning his commission, Taylor was called into Rear Admiral Johann Von Windhoek's office. The admiral drummed his fingers on his desk. "It seems you're not very popular, Lieutenant Commander," said Von Windhoek. Taylor said nothing. "So what are we to do with you? Some want you assigned to a desk job. They think after six months of sitting at a desk in Perth, that you'll be ready to quit." He looked at Taylor, trying to sense a reaction. They were probably right, Taylor thought. He was almost ready to resign right now. "Or, you could be assigned to the Westerner," said Von Windhoek. "The Westerner?" said Taylor. He was unfamiliar with that ship. "A cargo ship." Taylor's face fell. He knew that the transport branch was where the Survey Service sent its officers that it had no great use for. "But...." Von Windhoek let the words hang in the air. "You'd be Captain." Taylor looked surprised. Even cargo ships were helmed by more senior officers. He had never heard of a Lieutenant Commander in charge of any ship, except perhaps tiny scoutships- "I would be Captain, sir?" said Taylor. "Unusual, I agree," said Von Windhoek. "Usually ships such as that are helmed by full Commanders, or even Captains. But I have some influence in the transport branch." He looked at Taylor. "What do you say, Mister?" Taylor considered quickly. The merchant marine was the least desirable branch of the service. But to be a Captain! It was more than he could reasonably expect, given the circumstances. He looked up at Von Windhoek, and realized that he had at least one ally in the Admiralty. "I'll take it, sir." "Good." And so for two years, Lieutenant Commander Michael Taylor had plied the stars, delivering materials from planet to planet, from starbase to starbase, or sometimes, from planet to starbase or from starbase to planet. At first he had been elated to have his own ship, and his own crew; but soon the tedium of his work caught up with him. His tasks were always the same. Move this here. Transport that there. He loved having his own command for the first six months. He enjoyed plying the Westerner across the stars the second six months. He was reasonably content commanding his own vessel the following six months after that. But by the end of the second year, he was increasingly restless. Admiral Von Windhoek had been hinting increasingly that his exile to the transport branch would end someday, and he would get, if not a real command, a posting to a ship that was doing important work. But Taylor didn't know when or if that day would come, or whether Admiral Von Windhoek really had the influence to make that happen. And then he met Pam. It was about a year after he had taken command of the Westerner. His ship was assigned a regular route, Earth to Vega, Vega to Earth, and back to Vega again, and so on and so forth. It was during a layover on Earth when he was awaiting his cargo that he met her. She was an exoanthropologist, lecturing on the development of cultures on foreign worlds. Taylor had gone to her lecture because he was bored, and also, to be honest, he had seen her holo and she looked really cute. Taylor's love life had gone downhill since he had stopped being a god, and now the only opportunity he had with women was to look at them. But when he attended the lecture, something sparked within him. Pamela Nesbitt was not simply beautiful, she was gorgeous. She had beautiful straight blonde hair that curved inwards. She had stunning green eyes, and high cheekbones, and a pert little nose. Pam had sexy red lips that formed an easy smile. She was thin, but had large breasts for a woman her size. As he listened to the lecture, sitting in the third row, he looked up at her. She saw him looking at her and she smiled. This happened more than once. After the lecture, Taylor went up to her. He introduced himself, and held his breath. Would she be repulsed? Would she turn away, like so many other- "You're that Michael Taylor? The Michael Taylor of PR-52981?" She even knew the numerical designation of the- "Yes," said Taylor, hoping beyond hope. Pam's eyes widened, and she broke out into a smile. "I've been so eager to meet you." And eager she was. Eager enough to be taken out to dinner, and eager enough to go out on another date, and another after that, and very soon Taylor's dry spell ended in a torrential thunderstorm. Pam's initial interest in Taylor had been his experience interacting with and altering the culture on PR-52981; but very quickly she became as interested in the man as much as his experiences. Michael was tall, and handsome, and dark haired; and to her he was the very model of a fine, young dashing Survey Service officer. The fact that he was Captain of a lowly cargo ship didn't seem to diminish his luster in her eyes. When he spoke defensively about it she responded thusly: "Still, to be in charge of an entire starship, with a crew that jumps at your every command, that's really impressive!" Pam grinned. She gazed at him adoringly. This was their fifth date. It had been the third date when they reached that stage in their relationship where the emotional translated into the physical, right on schedule. Having seen rockets aborted shortly before takeoff, over and over, Taylor knew from experience that if things didn't develop by the third or fourth attempt, they never would. And so it had been on the third date when Pam shyly invited him up to her apartment, since Michael was still sleeping on the Westerner. And then she poured them some wine, and they sat on the couch, and neither needed much convincing to let nature take its course. Taylor found he was smitten with her; she was as pretty without clothes as she was with them. As he made love to her and watched her body move, and saw her blonde face smile appreciatively at him, he reflected how good life was. As one date blended into another, Taylor could quickly feel himself falling in love with Pam. She was smart, and cute, and had a wonderful laugh, and, just as important, she was also in love with him. For the first time in his life, Taylor started to wonder if Pamela could be the one. But however strongly their feelings for each other, theirs was to be a long distance relationship. Taylor was gone for three weeks, sometimes four, before returning for a few days, and then the vicious cycle would start all over again. He spent every scrap of vacation time he had with her, but he could see with his own eyes, that their relationship had started to deteriorate, like a crack in the engine manifold chamber that was growing by the day. Trying to keep the relationship alive by talking by holochat just wasn't the same as being physically together. By six months into their relationship, Michael could see the strain starting to build; after a year, which was two years after Michael had taken command of the Westerner, he could see it was at a breaking point. And now, here it was. Out of malice or kindness, Michael wasn't sure which, Pam broke the news to him right after they had made love. The Westerner had been called back to Earth on short notice, breaking from its established trade route, and Taylor had been ordered to report to Admiral Von Windhoek the first thing in the morning. That left him with a few precious hours with Pam. As they lay together after making love, Pam held his hand and said, "Did you like that?" What an odd question. "Yes," said Taylor. "Good. I'm glad," said Pam. She smiled at him. "Why?" "I wanted to give you a good sendoff," she said. She got up and reached for her panties. Taylor watched with alarm she began to get dressed. "What do you mean?" "We're over, Michael," she said. As Pam stretched to put on her bra, Taylor realized matters were getting worse by the minute. Soon Pam was completely dressed. The final indignity was when she tossed him his own clothes. "Why, Pam?" Taylor asked, hurrying to get dressed. He felt at a distinct disadvantage being nude when she was clothed, and she knew it. "I want a man, not an empty bed," Pam said simply. Even with her shirt on, Taylor admired the curves. That was one of the things he loved most about her, that and her- "But you knew I was an officer in the Survey Service when we started seeing each other," said Taylor. He felt like he was whining now, and regretted it. "Knowing and experiencing are two different things. I was taken in by your..." she looked at him as he dressed, at his strong, handsome chest and broad shoulders. "...by your charm." "And now?" "I need a man in my life more than once in a blue sun," said Pam. "Pam, wherever are you going to find a man you like-" "Doug Weathers," she said promptly. "What?" said Taylor. "Doug Weathers. The anthropologist in my lab. You met him at a party three months ago, though you may not recall it." Taylor did recall it, vaguely, though he had to work at it. Doug.... Tall. Blonde haired. Broad shoulders. Taylor remembered thinking he didn't look like an anthropologist. More like a male model. Realization flooded into his mind. "You've already....." "Well, it was kind of obvious that our relationship wasn't going anywhere," said Pam. "Is it?" Was it? Was she giving him some kind of choice? "What is it you're asking me, Pam?" "Resign your commission," said Pam immediately. "Resign, and get a job on Earth." "Pam... I'm an astronaut," said Taylor. "The door is that way," said Pam, pointing. "Pam!" "That way," said Pam. "I'll miss you." She went and hurriedly kissed his cheek. "Goodbye." She smacked him on the ass. "You'd better get going." She looked at him intently. Her message was clear. And so Taylor, walking on the streets of Perth in the rain in the middle of the night, realized he had a choice to make: The Survey Service, or Pam. And then there was the matter of the imminent destruction of the planet Earth. ******** They called it the Black Box. It had appeared suddenly above the Earth, some four months ago. It was a black spatial vortex, in a rectangular shape. Unmanned probes were sent in. They didn't come out. Telemetry was cut off the moment they entered. And then, several months after it first appeared, the Black Box sent out its first shock wave, causing earthquakes all over the Earth. More shockwaves followed, typically once every week or two. And the shockwaves were getting more severe. The first shockwave shook up the planet a bit. The second even more. By the third shockwave, hundreds were getting injured, and dozens were dying. The most recent shockwave, the fifth, caused damage all over the globe, killing over 400 people and injuring thousands. People clamored for action. After the third shockwave, the Survey Service sent in one of its top science ships, the USS Aurora. It never reported back. After the fourth shockwave, the Service sent in the USS Judicator, a modern, top of the line battle cruiser, literally the most powerful ship in the Survey Service's fleet. The Judicator was never heard from again. A week after that, the USS Exeter, a deep space cruiser, was dispatched. It failed to report in, too. And then the fifth shockwave hit, and five days later a very tired and distressed looking Lieutenant Commander Michael Taylor reported to Rear Admiral Johann Von Windhoek's office at Survey Service's Auburn Field in Perth. ******** "You've heard about the situation with the Black Box," said Admiral Von Windhoek. "The general information available to the public, yes," Taylor replied. Everyone on the Earth knew about the Black Box. They had all felt the quakes. "Does anyone know where it came from?" "Not a clue," said Von Windhoek. "It just appeared, eight hundred thousand miles above the Earth, four months ago." He punched up a holoimage of it. The Black Box appeared on the screen. "It looks a little like a black hole. An extremely small one, of course," said Taylor. "Others have made the same observation," said Von Windhoek. "But this phenomenon has an important difference. It's in a rectangular shape. No natural phenomenon has ever appeared in that shape. Our scientists assure us that there is no chance it is natural in nature." "So it's being generated, by someone?" "So we think," said Von Windhoek. "Someone who likes to eat starships," said Taylor. "One of them got spit out," said Von Windhoek. "The Exeter." "I hadn't heard that one of our ships came back," said Taylor. "It's not common knowledge," Von Windhoek admitted, giving Taylor a stony glance. "The Exeter returned, three days after it left." "And?" said Taylor expectantly. "See for yourself." Von Windhoek pressed a button. The interiors of the Exeter's bridge appeared. "What are those... lumps on the floor?" Taylor asked. "The crew," said Von Windhoek. "The crew?" said Taylor. The lumps looked like... dissolved chemicals. "What's happened to them?" "Their DNA has been corrupted," said Von Windhoek. "By the Black Box?" "I don't think so," said Von Windhoek. "There are only eight bodies aboard." "Where is the rest of the crew?" "Missing," said Von Windhoek. "Just like the crews of the Aurora and the Judicator." "Did you check the ship's logs?" Taylor asked. Von Windhoek nodded. "Wiped clean. The sensor recordings too. Although we were able to get one semi-clear image off of it." He pressed another button. A yellow sun appeared. "A sun." "The sun," Von Windhoek corrected him. "Our sun?" said Taylor. "The Black Box... didn't take them anywhere?" "Apparently not anywhere," said Von Windhoek. "But anywhen." Taylor stared at Von Windhoek for a long moment. "Time travel?" Von Windhoek nodded. "Our best experts have looked at the image and compared it to the current condition of our sun." He pressed a button, and a second sun appeared. "Ours is on the left. The one from the sensor log is on the right. Our scientists say that the one on the right is fractionally smaller and hotter, as one might expect... in about 200,000 years or so." Taylor looked at the two suns. They looked identical. "Are you sure?" "The image was not entirely clear, and we only had one partial to work from," said Von Windhoek. "But it's a reasonable assumption that this is a time tunnel, and our working assumption is that it doesn't go into the past." "From the future," said Taylor, his mind racing to consider the implications. "Why would people from 200,000 years in the future want to destroy the Earth?" "Why indeed?" said Von Windhoek. "They would be destroying themselves. The shockwaves are getting stronger and stronger. Our projections indicate that millions could be dying in a matter of months, and that the planet could be uninhabitable in less than two years. The public is panicking." That was putting it mildly. It seemed every media outlet had its own opinion on how to deal with the crisis. The World Government and the Survey Service was being flooded with demands to deal with the situation. "They are putting increasing pressure on us to send a few nova bombs into the Black Box," said Von Windhoek. "They think that will seal the rift." "Will it?" Taylor asked. "We have no idea," said Von Windhoek. "Half of the Scientific Branch thinks it will. But the other half thinks the explosion will rebound and destroy all life on the planet Earth. You can see the rather delicate situation we're in." "Yes," said Taylor. "Sooner or later, the World Government is going to bow to public pressure and insist we use nova bombs, which will either solve our problem, or not solve it, or destroy all life on the planet." Von Windhoek drummed his fingers on his desk. "I prefer a... less radical alternative." "Which is?" "You," said Von Windhoek. Taylor looked startled. "Me? Me what, sir?" Von Windhoek leaned forward and stared Taylor in the eyes. "I want you to go into the Black Box with a ship of your own. I want you to go in there, find out what's going on, and save the Earth." Taylor started to laugh, until he saw Von Windhoek was not joking. "You're serious. You're really serious. What can I do that three other Captains couldn't do before me?" "I don't know," said Von Windhoek. "But I saw what you did on PR-52981. You survived where no one else could, and you saved your passengers, as well as thousands of other people. Put simply, Lieutenant Commander, you are capable of doing what no one else is. And at this point, you're the only option left to try." "You're serious," Taylor repeated. "You will be given command of the USS Devonshire," said Von Windhoek. "It's an older frigate, but a good ship." "A Lieutenant Commander, in charge of a frigate?" said Taylor. "Impossible!" "It is now. Commander Gorsky is being reassigned. So is his first officer, Lieutenant Commander Bill Carey." Von Windhoek pointed a finger at Taylor. "You will be the senior officer on the ship. You are in command now, Lieutenant Commander." "But... what can I do?" said Taylor. "If someone's trying to destroy the Earth, they're from the future, I'll be terribly outmatched and outgunned." Von Windhoek leaned back and gave a sly smile. "I don't think they're trying to destroy the Earth." "No?" "No," said Von Windhoek. "If they are, they're being terribly indirect about it. Why send a shockwave every few weeks? Why not every day? Why set up the Black Box 800,000 miles from the Earth, when at 50,000 miles it could destroy the planet utterly? No, I think these shockwaves are a side effect. I think the Black Box is an invitation." "Some invitation," said Taylor, remembering the images of the melted crewmembers of the Exeter. "An invitation to what?" "I don't know," said Von Windhoek. "That's what you'll have to find out." Taylor thought about it. "But... time travel? We... I... we may never be able to come back home," said Taylor. "That's true," said Von Windhoek. "If you complete your mission, you may be stranded in the future. All you'll be left with is the knowledge that you've saved twelve billion people, and the entire human race." He paused. "You joined the Survey Service to have a life of consequence. Instead, you've been handed routine cargo runs from Earth to Vega and back to Earth again. This is your chance, Lieutenant Commander. Your chance to make a real difference." Taylor paused. For a brief moment he thought of Pam. "Can I think about it?" "No time," said Von Windhoek. "We estimate the next shockwave could strike again in four or five days. You leave in the Devonshire in two. I need your answer now; will you do it?" Taylor licked his lips nervously. It was a suicide mission. He saw that clearly. But Earth was in desperate need. And if he didn't try, the entire planet could be destroyed. Von Windhoek was right. This is what he had joined the Service for. To defend Earth. He couldn't turn away now, he just couldn't. But Pam.... "I'll do it," said Taylor, even before he had fully convinced himself. "Good," said Von Windhoek, not sounding at all surprised. He pressed a button on his desk. "Send in Doctor Shaw, please." A tall brown haired woman in her mid 30's, with her hair in a bun, entered the office. "Admiral?" "Have a seat," said Von Windhoek. As she sat down, Von Windhoek said, "Taylor, this is Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. She will be leading the science team on the Devonshire." Taylor looked over at her. Shaw seemed a very serious minded woman. "Nice to meet you," he said, extending a hand. "I wish I could say the same," she said. Taylor's jaw dropped. "Sir, may I speak freely?" Shaw asked. Von Windhoek looked annoyed. "Of course." "This man... I know this man's record. He is not the proper person to command this mission." "He isn't?" Von Windhoek said, sounding surprised. Not surprised by the conclusion, perhaps, but by the audacity of the person making it. "No, sir. He assumed the role of a God. He used women for his own pleasure under the guise of being a God. He killed thousands of people." "And perhaps you think I'm unaware of this," said Von Windhoek. "No sir," said Doctor Shaw. "It's just... he's not suitable for this kind of... delicate assignment." "You're mistaken, Doctor Shaw," said Von Windhoek, with an icy tone. "He is suitable. And do you know how I know this? Because I have assigned him to this mission." "Yes, sir," said Shaw, sensing from his tone that further argument wouldn't be advisable.. A new thought occurred to her. "Sir, Mr. Taylor is a Lieutenant Commander. I hold the reserve rank of a full Commander. Will I be in charge of the mission?" Von Windhoek gave her a long look. "Of your science team? Certainly." "And the mission?" "Lieutenant Commander Taylor is," said Von Windhoek. "A Lieutenant Commander can't give orders to a Commander," said Shaw. "Again, you're mistaken, Doctor Shaw." Von Windhoek leaned forward and stared at her. "He can if I say he can. Do you have any other questions?" Shaw looked flustered, as she turned rapidly from Von Windhoek to Taylor and back to the Admiral again. "No, sir." "Good. Get your science team aboard the Devonshire. You leave in two days." Von Windhoek turned to Taylor. "Any other questions, Lieutenant Commander?" Taylor had none. ******** They left the office together. Doctor Shaw looked apologetically at Taylor. "Lieutenant Commander... I hope you didn't take any offense. I didn't mean my criticisms to be taken personally. I'm sure we can work together professionally." Taylor gave her a cold look. "I'm sure we can too." He turned away at a brisk pace and made for the exit. ******** Taylor regretfully went back to his former ship to collect his things and say goodbye to everyone… but to one person in particular. His first officer, Lieutenant Jennifer Hale. Serving on a cargo ship wasn't exactly the best way to advance one's career in the Survey Service. It had been offered to Taylor as a way to assume his own command, but most crewmembers who were assigned to cargo ships were not given a choice in the matter. Jennifer Hale was the rare exception. She had actually sought out the assignment, which initially confused Taylor mightily. But Hale knew what she was doing. Few lieutenants in the fleet had the opportunity to be the first officer of a ship, any ship. On most ships lieutenants were given low ranking assignments. But because Taylor had been given a command more senior than his rank, his first officer would enjoy the same benefits. So Jennifer Hale happily became first officer on a freighter. She didn't see it as a career ender, but rather the opposite. "After four or five years I'll have more command experience than all the other officers of my grade," she said. And it was true. She didn't seem at all worried that she would be trapped in the merchant service. Even more importantly, she wasn't put off by Taylor's background. She knew, of course, of his notoriety from his experience on PR-52981. It didn't bother her in the least. When she told Taylor that the experience showed he had an "exceptionally creative mind", he immediately knew they would get along well. And they did. Exceptionally well. They became close, and not just in the professional way. There had been that one time when they had almost crossed the line, when they had crash landed a shuttle and were stranded on a planet together. Nothing had actually happened between them, but things had been said.... "You're really doing this?" said Jennifer Hale. "It sounds like a one-way mission." "It probably is," said Taylor. She studied him with her eyes. "What does Pam say about this?" "Pam... we broke up," said Taylor. That wasn't quite true, however. Pam had broken up with him. Jennifer seemed to sense the truth of it. "No more Pam?" "She... she wanted a man who could be with her more," said Taylor. "I see," said Jennifer. Her pink tongue snaked out and licked her lips. "I'm so sorry, Michael." She hugged him. Taylor enjoyed her firm embrace. When she pulled back, she looked at him searchingly. Taylor suddenly felt bashful. "So... the ship is yours, Lieutenant," said Taylor. He looked into her beautiful green eyes. He would miss her. He probably would never see her again. "I don't think so, sir," said Hale. "What?" "You're going to need a first officer on the Devonshire, aren't you?" The Devonshire's XO, Lieutenant Commander Bill Carey, was being reassigned, along with the Captain. "Yes, but-" "So you're going to need me." She stepped forward until her chest was almost touching his again. She looked into his eyes. "Sir." This was too intense for Taylor. He took two steps back. "Why, Jennifer? I just told you this is a one way mission. None of us are coming back from it." "All the more reason for me to go," said Hale firmly. "I joined the Survey Service to defend the Earth. Not simply to deliver foodstuffs to Vega. If I don't step up in Earth's most urgent time of need, what kind of officer am I?" "But Jennifer...." His voice trailed off. "What about Michael?" Jennifer's husband was named Michael. The same name as Taylor. That grated on him constantly. "Michael... Michael will understand," she said, and suddenly her face became unreadable. "He knew who and what he was marrying," she said. "You need me, sir. Don't make me sit this one out." Taylor thought for a long moment. Ultimately, the decision should be hers. He nodded. "All right. Place Lieutenant Talent in command, and get to the Devonshire by 1400 hours tomorrow." "Sir, yes sir. Thank you, sir," she said, saluting him. Taylor had thought he would miss that; as it turned out, he wasn't going to miss it at all. ******** Taylor was surprised again when the Westerner's medical officer, Doctor Bill McCrae, came by to say his farewells. He was an older man, a southern gentleman in his early 50's. "It sounds like a crazy dangerous mission you're going on, Michael," said McCrae. McCrae was the only one on the ship who could call him by his first name. McCrae had never asked for permission, he just did it. "Yes," said Taylor, trying not to think about it as he packed. "A crazy dangerous mission that probably you'll never come back from," said McCrae. "Yes," said Taylor, feeling his pulse jump. What was the point of this conversation? "It sounds like just the sort of mission I should be going on." Taylor looked up at McCrae for the first time. "What?" "You heard me." "I think I did. And now my next question is-" "Why?" McCrae smiled for the first time. "I did a little research on your new crew. The Doc there is brand new. 20 years my junior. It isn't right that he should have to go into early retirement." Taylor looked at McCrae. McCrae had never volunteered for anything. But now.... "Are you sure about this?" McCrae nodded. "All right then," said Taylor, closing his suitcase. "Be on board by 1400 hours tomorrow." ******** And then, back at his temporary living space in Survey Service barracks, Taylor was treated to yet another surprise. An unfamiliar face came to his door. "Michael Taylor?" he asked. "Yes?" Taylor looked up to see a tall man wearing a Survey Service uniform with Lieutenant Commander bars on them. "I'm Bill Carey," said the man, extending a hand. "First officer of the Devonshire." Taylor shook his hand, with confusion in his eyes. "You were notified that you were being detached, correct?" "Correct, sir," said Carey. "But I'd like to stay on." "Stay on?" said Taylor. "As your first officer," said Carey. "I already have a first officer," said Taylor. "My first officer, Jennifer Hale-" "Has never commanded a warship. And neither have you," said Carey. "You have never commanded this class of ship. You have never even been assigned to this class of ship. You have no familiarity with the crew. I do. You need me, sir." Taylor considered. Carey's logic was impeccable. He looked up at him. "But... you know how dangerous this mission is likely to be. Three ships have already been lost. Why...." And then he gave the answer that Taylor knew he would. The same answer that Jennifer Hale had given him. "Because Earth needs me, sir." And so Lieutenant Commander Bill Carey, temporarily reduced in grade to Lieutenant, became second officer on his own ship. ******** "Yes?" said Pam, as she flung the door open. Taylor could see the expectation in her face. She knew he would only be coming back for one reason. To announce that he was leaving the Survey Service to be with her. He was about to disappoint her. "I... I came to say goodbye," said Taylor. "Oh," said Pam. She turned and went back into her apartment. Taylor followed her in. "The admiralty has assigned me to deal with the danger to Earth caused by the Black Box," said Taylor. "Oh," said Pam. Oh? I'm about to risk my life to save the planet. Is that all she can say? "If it were anything else, anything else at all, you know I would be there for you," said Taylor desperately. He tried to reach out to touch her, but she pulled back. "Pam," he said, with pain in his eyes. "You don't have to explain, Michael," said Pam. "I haven't been living in a bubble for the past four months. I've felt the quakes. I know the Black Box has to be dealt with. My only question is, why do you have to be the one to do it?" "Because the Service asked me to." Pam stepped forward and pressed her body against his. He felt the warmth of her hard melons against his chest. "I also asked you for something, Michael." He looked into her eyes. "This is about saving the planet Earth." "Let someone else do it," she whispered. She reached out and kissed him. He felt her soft lips press against his. It felt glorious. "I... I can't," he said. Pam stared at him for a long moment. Then she slowly nodded. "And I was a fool. A fool, to think you ever could." "Pam-" he reached out for her. "Go!" She said. "Pam-" "Go now!" said Pam. She pointed to the door. Taylor turned and left. Chapter 2: The USS Devonshire The Devonshire was an old ship. The Survey Service, after throwing away three of its best ships (one of which, admittedly, returned, but without a living crew), had no appetite for sending a top of the line vessel into the Black Box. It didn't seem to matter what they sent. The Service had first sent a dedicate science ship, the Aurora, which never came back; a top of the line battle cruiser, the Judicator, which also never came back; and a deep space cruiser, the Exeter, which came back... along with the liquefied remains of eight members of the crew. And so they sent Taylor on an old ship. The Devonshire was the first of the Dorsetshire class frigates, and was a state of the art amazing feat of engineering… some forty years ago. It had been upgrades no less than four times since then, and was slated for retirement in another year… until it had been assigned to this mission. Taylor didn't mind. Until now he had only dreamed of commanding a Survey Service warship. He didn't care how old it was. The Devonshire had two massive plasma cannons, and four megajoulers, two in front and two in back. It had a crew of 54 and for this mission, 14 scientists as passengers. He had never commanded such a large complement before. Admiral Von Windhoek had used all his influence to get Taylor this command, which really merited at least a full Commander. The Devonshire was not just an old ship. It was also an unhappy one. He, Taylor, was a volunteer on this extremely hazardous mission. So was Jennifer Hale, his first officer, and his medical officer, Doctor McCrae, and his second officer, Bill Carey. And so were the scientists, volunteers all, from Doctor Elizabeth Shaw on down. But not so the crew. The crew had not been given a choice. They were officers and members of the Survey Service, and were expected to serve wherever the Service sent them. Sixteen crewmembers resigned their commissions rather than report for duty. They were quickly replaced with sixteen other crewmen, who also had been assigned against their wishes. The Devonshire was not a happy ship. The crew, rightly or wrongly, blamed Taylor for their predicament. They also weren't happy to see Commander Gorsky removed as Captain and replaced with a Lieutenant Commander who had never captained a warship before. Many felt he was unqualified. Many who knew of his past would never have served under him, given the choice. Bill Carey, the former first officer, now turned second officer, wasn't exactly one of Taylor's biggest supporters either. He clearly had doubts about his new Captain, which is why he had volunteered to stay on. The crew was not the only ones unhappy with him. Doctor Shaw had spread the poison thickly among her scientists. They were polite enough to Taylor, but kept their distance from him. And so Taylor had very few friends on the Devonshire. He held a ship wide meeting on the hanger deck, the only place which could accommodate the entire crew. Taylor took a deep breath. He had never addressed so many people before... at least, not since he had been a god. And that had been years ago. He had gotten rusty. How exactly did one inspire large numbers of people again? Jennifer Hale sensed his anxiety, and brushed some imaginary lint off his shoulder. "You're going to do fine. Knock them dead, Captain," she said, giving him her little smile. Taylor nodded and stepped forward to address the crew. All eyes were on him. "You all know why we're here," he said bluntly. A holo of the Black Box hung above him. "This thing is slowly ripping the Earth apart," said Taylor. "The Survey Service sent three ships into it. They couldn't stop it." "But I have news for you. We are going to succeed. We are going to succeed where they failed," said Taylor. He looked into their disbelieving eyes. They all thought they were going to die when the ship entered the Black Box. He had to convince them otherwise. "I've beaten worse odds," said Taylor. "You all know that. Not all of you want to be here. To be blunt, not all of you want to be under my command." Jennifer's eyebrows lifted, as did some of the crew's. It was a startling admission to make. "But you're all members of the Survey Service. We do things not because we want to, but because we have to. Because we are the shield and the sword which protects the Earth. If we do nothing, that thing out there is going to slice up our planet. The Survey Service won't let that happen. I won't let that happen. And neither will you." Jennifer Hale started to clap. A crewer joined in. Then another, then another. Before long half the crewers were clapping. Taylor turned to Hale, who nodded, with a tight smile on her face. ******** As the ship made final preparations to get underway, Taylor found his mind drifting to thoughts of the Black Box. If it really was a passage for time travel, he might never see Earth, his Earth, ever again. He had made his goodbyes to his parents, and his brother Darden and his sister Val, and his friends. But he found himself thinking most about Pam. It could well be that he and Pam would be separated by 200,000 years of time. She would be long dead by then. Theoretically, it should not matter to him. Pam had already given him up, pushed him out the door. What did another 200,000 years matter? But somehow, it did. ******** Taylor went to the bridge. He checked in with his officers: Jennifer Hale, his XO; Bill Carey, his second officer; his security chief, Obongo Babangida; Bill Collins, his sensor officer, and Suki Tanaka, his navigator. All signaled they were ready to depart. Taylor turned to Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. Her brown hair was perfectly encapsulated in a bun, as always. "Doctor, are your scientists ready to go?" "Yes, Lieutenant Commander," said Shaw in a neutral tone. Lieutenant Commander. Not Captain. "Sir, there's an incoming message from Survey Service Command," said Ensign Tanaka. "Put it on main viewer," said Taylor. It was Admiral Von Windhoek. "Captain Taylor. Are you ready to depart?" "Yes, sir," said Taylor. "We hope you succeed. We will give you a few days to carry out your mission. But if we don't hear from you... extraordinary measures may be taken." "Nova bombs, sir?" said Taylor. Von Windhoek nodded. "Political pressure may force us to send a few of those through. I just hope you're not near any of them when they go off." "I hope so too, sir," said Taylor. "Good luck, Captain," said Von Windhoek. "Thank you, sir," said Taylor. He felt the eyes of the bridge crew on him. "Ensign Tanaka, set a course for the Black Box." He felt a wave of apprehension from the crew. Or was it just from himself? He tried to ignore it. "Course laid in and set, sir," said Tanaka. "Mr. Babangida, raise forcefields to maximum." "Forcefields now at maximum, sir," said the large black man behind him. "Everyone... we're going in," said Taylor. "Take us in, Suki." "Yes, sir," said Tanaka. The Devonshire started to move into the Black Box. It looked like they were going into a black hole. The entire bridge crew was tense. Taylor looked over at Jennifer Hale. She gave him a nervous look, and reached out and squeezed his hand. Taylor wondered how it would look to the rest of the crew; but since they might die in the next few seconds, what did it really matter? They raced ahead, into blackness…. And then the Devonshire entered the Black Box. The ship shuddered, and shook wildly, and accelerated rapidly, and.... ………………………………… nothing. They were still alive. "Report," said Taylor. "We are inside the Black Box," said Ensign Collins. "Velocity is off the scale," said Ensign Tanaka. "Readings?" Taylor asked. "Nothing," said Ensign Collins. "We're in some kind of corridor, which soaks up all our sensor energy." "We're moving incredibly fast, in the dark," said Taylor, checking the instrumentation. If they were in a time tunnel, how long would they be there for? Minutes? Hours? Days? There was no way to know. ******** As nothing happened, and their flight continued, the crew found itself relaxing slightly. Boredom started to set in. When Taylor's watch ended without incident, he nodded to himself. Wherever they were going, it would take a while to get there. He went down to the cafeteria. He saw Doctor Shaw and her scientists huddled together at one table. Taylor saw members of his crew looking away at another table as he walked by. He decided to sit alone at an empty table, and started eating. "May I join you?" Taylor nodded even before he looked up. To his surprise, it was one of Dr. Shaw's scientists. "You're...." "Victor Berman," said the scientist, giving him a smile. "So nice to meet you, Captain," he said, extending a hand. After a brief pause, Taylor shook his hand. "Aren't you sitting at the wrong table?" "What, you mean with them?" said Victor looking over at the scientist table. "I don't think so. They're all just a bunch of boring egotists." Taylor smiled despite himself. "Boring egotists?" "Isn't that how most people view scientists?" Victor asked, with a smile. Taylor stared at Victor. He saw a balding, middle aged man. "You're different from the others." "Why thank you. That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me today," said Victor. Taylor stared at him, trying to figure the man out. "What is your specialty?" "Exosociology. Foreign cultures and all that," said Victor. "The Survey Service thought I might be useful if we come across some alien cultures that need deciphering. I told them of course! I would be essential to this mission." Then he lowered his voice mockingly, as if he were telling a secret. "Truthfully, though, I would be as much in the dark as the rest of you. Imagine a culture 200,000 years in advance of our own. Yes, I heard the theory about the Black Box's origins. 200,000 years in the future, if my fellow eggheads are right. By that time scale, humanity would be so far advanced that we wouldn't even begin to have the first idea how to relate to them." "So why did you come?" "Why not?" said Victor, shrugging with another smile. "It's likely to be a one way trip," said Taylor. "To a very interesting place, if it's the future we're really going to," said Victor. "Captain, I've lived a good life. A long life. And by now, kind of a dull life. I could go to sociology symposiums and write papers for another twenty years. I choose to do this instead." Taylor smiled at him. He found himself liking the man. "I look forward to using your expertise. I just hope I can work as smoothly with the entire scientific team." Victor smiled back at him. "By entire scientific team, you mean Elizabeth, don't you?" Victor was very perceptive. "She doesn't seem to like me very much." "To the contrary. I think she likes you a great deal," said Victor. "What makes you say that?" Taylor asked. "She told us four times that you are unqualified to lead this expedition. She went on with great length and passion as to why you are temperamentally unsuited to be in command," said Victor. "And that means she likes me because...." "She only gets animated about people she likes," said Victor. "I really don't think Elizabeth, I mean Doctor Shaw, likes me," said Taylor. "Really?" said Victor. His eyebrows furled. "Then why is she looking at you right now?" Taylor slowly turned his head, and saw Elizabeth staring right at him. She blushed, and turned away. Taylor looked at Victor with an odd expression. Could he be right? ******** After dinner, Elizabeth made her way out of the cafeteria. On the way out she practically bumped into Vincent Roman. Vincent! "Oh, sorry," said Vincent, backing up. "That's all right," said Elizabeth, self consciously touching her hair, which of course was in a bun. She started to go around him, but he moved to block her. "Elizabeth, can I ask you a question?" said Vincent. "Sure, Vincent," said Elizabeth. Go away, Vincent. "I... I heard you didn't want me on your team." I didn't, but the admiralty overruled me. They said I needed an exoanthropologist, and you were it. "Where did you hear that?" Elizabeth asked. "I hope... I hope our past is not going to be a problem," said Vincent. "Not for me," said Elizabeth. "Good," said Vincent, giving a weak smile. He found himself staring at her chest. She noticed his stare and blushed. Vincent bit his lip, forced himself to look away, and started walking in the other direction. ******** That night, after checking in with the bridge to make sure the situation was unchanged, Taylor lay down on his back in bed and closed his eyes. Sleep was long in coming. He kept thinking about Pam. Pam! It was too late to have regrets now; there were probably thousands of years separating the two. By now, Pam was long, long dead and buried. But on top of all his other worries, the thought of it made him even more unsettled. ******** Everyone who had boarded the Devonshire had their own reasons for coming. Taylor's was one of patriotism, to the Survey Service, and to Earth. Victor was in search of excitement. Bill Carey came out of loyalty to his ship--he didn't think Taylor could handle the command, and wanted to be there to protect the crew. Jennifer Hale was there out of loyalty to the Survey Service... and to Taylor. Suki Tanaka, the navigator, came because of her disappointing career in the Survey Service thus far. She had entered the academy in the hopes of exploring the stars, and so was elated when her first assignment was to the Bonadventure, a deep space scoutship with a crew of three, assigned to explore the Magellan Sector. She thought nothing would make her happier. In reality, the assignment was deathly dull. All they ended up doing was cataloging star after star for ten months. And then there was Captain Waters. Actually, technically speaking, Waters was only a lieutenant, as a three man scoutship didn't rate more than a one-ringer as Captain. The first week he had cornered her in a maintenance pod, and gave her a hug that startled her. "Captain Waters, what are you doing?" Suki asked. "Giving you a kiss," he said, and then he did just that. Suki's eyes widened as the Captain pressed his lips against hers. She felt his need, and his very masculine body pressed against her, and her body responded. Suki was not very experienced, except for that one time at that late night party in the Academy- She felt Waters pressing against her belly through his clothes. This was a dangerous game to play. "But Captain-" "Who will it be," said Waters. "Me, or Sean?" Ensign Sean Flaherty was the other member of their crew. "What?" "Don't you know anything?" said Waters. "We always pair up on these long scoutship missions. You can be with me, or with Sean." He kissed her again. "Wouldn't you rather be a Captain's girl?" he murmured. Suki felt his breath on her lips. His hands all over her. "What will it be, Suki? Wouldn't you rather be a Captain's girl?" Suki felt a wave of attraction. Mark Waters was handsome, and dashing, and squeezing her body, and-"Yes," she whispered, overcome by her brash young captain. Waters took her to his small compartment and made it official. But it didn't end there. In a three module scoutship the size of the Bonadventure, it was impossible to keep intimacy secret. But Waters didn't even try. He started kissing her in the control module. At first, whenever Ensign Flaherty would come in, Suki would whisper "no" and pull from his grasp. But Waters became more and more insistence, and soon Suki was kissing him with abandon even while Flaherty watched. Somehow, things progressed from there, and soon Waters was making love to Suki with the cabin door open, while Suki was vaguely aware of Ensign Flaherty standing by the door and watching. It was purely a power trip on the part of Lieutenant Waters, to show Flaherty that he thoroughly dominated Suki. For Mark Waters, it made the love making all the more exciting. For Suki, it made it all the more degrading--until, to her horror, she found herself getting used to it, until one day she found herself thinking nothing of it as she passed Ensign Flaherty in the corridor while she was totally nude. By the end of the trip, Suki felt thoroughly degraded and used, like a whore. She never filed a complaint with Survey Service command, unsure of how much she had willingly participated in all of it, but she requested an immediate transfer. When the Devonshire's navigator resigned his commission and Suki was assigned to replace him, she didn't fight it; on the contrary, she relished the opportunity, despite the obvious risks. This was the reason she had joined the Survey Service in the first place, not to be some man's plaything. Unlike the rest of the crew who were there involuntarily, she actually had some sympathy for Captain Taylor. She knew of his past history, but in her mind that made him a creative, brave leader, not the reckless playboy that many in the Survey Service looked down on him as. She didn't think he was anything like Captain Waters, and despite his known history with women, didn't think he would ever take advantage of her. She tried to smile at him whenever she could, and was pleased whenever he gave her a shy smile in return. ******** Vincent Roman, the staff exoanthropologist, also had his own reasons for being on the Devonshire; he just wasn't sure what they were. All scientists from the Scientific Branch were volunteers, unlike the regular crew. When Vincent heard the opportunity came up to be on the mission, the first thing he saw was Elizabeth's name, on the top of the roster. If Elizabeth Shaw was almost a virgin, then Vincent Roman was an actual one, at the age of 32. Vincent was socially awkward around women. He found himself staring at their chest. Staring at her chest made him feel socially awkward. It was a circular problem. He had worked with Doctor Elizabeth Shaw for six months in the Geneva research labs of the Survey Service before he worked up the courage to ask her out on a date. She hadn't smiled at him, not exactly, but he got the sense that she enjoyed his company, and they sometimes had lunch together. When he asked her out, Elizabeth looked shocked, but then said, after a pause, "All right. Sure. Why not?" That drove Vincent into a panic. He had never considered it going this far. Usually women turned him down with an excuse that they were busy, or needed to wash their hair for days on end. Vincent spent a day and a night worrying about it. He knew he wasn't up to it. The thought of being alone with Elizabeth made him so nervous that it gave him panic attacks. So a day later, he cancelled, saying he was busy and would have to reschedule. He didn't think Elizabeth would believe it if he said he had to wash his hair, since his hair was short and obviously quickly washable. Elizabeth nodded and accepted it, and things returned to the way they were, except they no longer had lunch together, which Vincent missed. He still found himself staring at her chest at awkward times and looking away when he got noticed. When he saw that Elizabeth was leading the science team for this mission, Vincent signed up without thinking. He wasn't sure if it was because of the mission, or Elizabeth, or... yes, it was probably because of Elizabeth. Elizabeth didn't seem happy to have him on her team, but didn't seem unhappy either; she treated him neutrally, coolly, like a writing stylus or an implement. And that was where things stood between them when Vincent boarded the Devonshire. ******** When Taylor awoke the next morning, he checked in with the bridge. There was no change. They were still in the time tunnel, if indeed it was a time tunnel. Admiral Von Windhoek's theory that they were traveling in time was just that, a theory. In reality they could be traveling through space, rather than time, or perhaps... Or perhaps they not traveling at all. The black tunnel they were in gave the illusion of motion, but what if they weren't traveling at all? What if they were simply caught in a spatial phenomenon that went nowhere? But then Taylor remembered the Exeter. It had come back from somewhere, and there were only the bodies of eight crewmembers on it. The rest of the crew had disembarked, or been taken off the ship. They must have gotten off somewhere. He went to the cafeteria and got some breakfast. As he looked for a place to sit, he saw Victor smiling and waving him over. "Over here, Michael," said Victor. Michael. No one on this ship was permitted to call him that; except perhaps Jennifer, when they were in private together. And yet here was Victor Bergman, yelling "Michael" at the top of his lungs. But he was such a friendly man. If any other man had said his first name, it would have come out mockingly, as an attempt to embarrass him; but Taylor instinctively felt that Victor was just being outgoing, and somehow it didn't bother him in the least. He came over to Victor's table and almost stopped in his tracks. Victor was sitting next to Elizabeth Shaw and some of the other scientists. "Come, sit down, join us," said Victor, making space for him. Taylor, feeling self conscious, sat down. "Thank you. Good morning, Doctor Shaw." "Lieutenant Commander," she said stiffly. Once again, she refused to call him Captain. She emphasized his rank, which was technically junior to hers. Taylor felt his phony smile wilt. "We were just talking about the situation, Michael," said Victor. "Has there been any change?" "I just checked with the bridge when I got up. We're still in this time tunnel, if it really is a time tunnel." "I was just debating that with Elizabeth," said Victor. "Do you know, I think the Survey Service may have gotten it wrong about this being a time corridor." "The Survey Service doesn't make mistakes," said Taylor. "The Survey Service makes mistakes all the time," said Elizabeth, staring at him pointedly. Taylor frowned. Victor pretended not to notice. "I had a look at that image of the sun, pulled from the scrambled logs of the Exeter. The one purporting to show a sun 200,000 years in our future." "What about it?" said Taylor, starting to eat his eggs. "It was heavily enhanced. I saw the original image. It was badly scrambled. There's no way to be sure that that image reliably showed a sun from the future. It was too badly garbled." "But it was an image of our sun," said Taylor, chewing on a piece of toast. "Apparently," said Victor. "The amazing thing about space is how little we truly know about it. We've explored less than two percent of our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of... what, millions? Billions?" "The universe is infinite, some people think," said Elizabeth. "Exactly," said Victor. "We can't be sure where or when we're going." "And what about the melted bodies from the Exeter?" said Taylor. "Do you think it could be a delayed reaction to travel inside this phenomena?" "Well, we haven't started melting yet, have we?" Victor grinned. "No, I think the crew went somewhere, and encountered something that changed them. A spatial phenomena distinct and separate from the Black Box, perhaps." "Or perhaps aliens, who experimented on them," said Bill Carey. He and Jennifer Hale sat down in empty spaces vacated by departing scientists who had finished eating. "That's why we've got plasma cannons and megajoulers," said Taylor. "The other ships had them as well, and it didn't seem to do them a whole lot of good," said Carey. "Captain, I would recommend battle drills for each of the three watches." Captain. "Agreed. See to it." It seemed sensible enough. "Let's hope if we do meet aliens, that they are in the mood to talk first," said Victor. "And let's hope we're in the right frame of mind to talk to them," said Carey. "What does that mean?" Taylor asked sharply. "Well, Captain...." His voice trailed off. "Out with it, Mister," said Taylor. Carey lowered his fork. "Sir, I don't know how to say this, so I'm just going to say it. Your experience on PR-52981 has some of the crew... concerned." "Some of the crew?" said Jennifer Hale sharply. "Or you?" "Sir, you landed in an alien culture, and by the time you had left, the entire planet was at war with itself, and you murdered thousands of-" Jennifer dropped her fork with a clatter. "That's out of line, Mister! Captain Taylor saved thousands of lives, and if you don't realize that-" "Jennifer!" said Taylor sharply. "Thank you, but I can defend myself." He turned to Carey. "Mr. Carey, you carry the permanent rank of Lieutenant Commander." "Yes sir," said Carey. "And your former Captain, Emil Gorsky, carried the rank of full Commander, did he not?" "Yes sir," said Carey. "And yet, neither you nor he are in command here. I am," said Taylor. "Why do you think that is?" Carey gulped. "The... The Survey Service thought-" "Yes, the Survey Service thought. And they probably think a lot better than you do. We sent three ships into the Black Box, three ships led by Captains with stellar records. Conventional thinkers all. None of them returned. The Survey Service decided something different was required. Whatever you may think of my service record, I'm a survivor. Whether you like me or deride me, the time may come when you're grateful for it." Carey bit his lip. He lowered his tone. "Sir, I never meant to demean you-" "I know what you meant," Taylor said sharply. "But I think there are a few things we can agree on. One of them is that we are going to have to work together, cohesively, as a team, if we are going to have any chance of carrying out our mission. Are we agreed, Lieutenant?" "Yes sir," said Carey. "Doctor Shaw?" "Of course, Captain," she said. And she meant it. Something remarkable had just happened in Elizabeth's eyes. Bill Carey had shrunk and Taylor had grown taller. Not just taller, but braver, bolder. Even more manly. It excited her, in a way she wanted to deny. She turned her head away, worried that she might betray an expression. Jennifer Hale raised an approving thumb. "Best breakfast ever!" she said, half-mockingly. Chapter 3: The Year 8,000,000 Taylor set the Devonshire on a three crew rotation with six hour watches. Taylor didn't want the crew to get too tired with longer watches. He headed one, Jennifer took the second, and Bill Carey took the third, and then Taylor took the next watch and so on. Whenever one of them needed a brief break, they left Lieutenant Babangida or Ensign Collins or Tanaka in command. Suki Tanaka was young, but Taylor had a good feeling about her. He saw she had served on a deep space mission for ten months. Those were tough assignments, with very small crews that required a lot of dedication and responsibility, and Suki's commander, Mark Waters, had spoken very highly of her, giving her top ratings. There was nothing but blackness on the viewscreen. All the instruments told them was that they were moving at incredible speeds. And then, on the morning of the third day, while Jennifer had the watch, it happened. She called him to the bridge immediately. There was a window. One side of the Black Box was now completely clear. They could see through it, into open space. The Black Box continued onwards, but for the first time they had the option to leave it, and return to normal space. Apparently. "What do sensors detect?" Taylor asked. "It is hard to get readings," said Ensign Collins. "Interference from the Black Box-" "Look! It's Earth!" Jennifer Hale cried. They looked out of the opaque side of the Black Box. Sure enough, they saw what looked like the planet Earth. "So they were right," said Victor. He and Elizabeth were on the bridge. "This is not a tunnel that goes through space, only time." "Not necessarily," said Taylor. "We may not have gone through space or time. We may simply be back where we started. Magnify." The image of the Earth magnified. The crew cried out. It was Earth, but not the Earth they had left. The Atlantic Ocean was practically gone. North America and Europe were close together. South America and Africa were almost having continental intercourse, as one fit neatly inside the bend of the other. "The continents have moved together," said Taylor. "This couldn't have happened in only 200,000 years, could it?" "No, Michael," said Victor. "We must have come farther than that. Much farther." "Sir, sensors show that the window on the side of the time tunnel is collapsing ahead," said Suki. "Can you slow down?" Taylor asked. "No sir, I can't. I estimate we have perhaps two minutes to make a decision whether to exit this window or not." Taylor thought rapidly. "The time tunnel has an exit here... but it keeps going on. Shouldn't we keep going on to its point of origin?" "The other crews probably asked the same question," said Elizabeth, feeling her pulse quickening. "It all depends on where the shockwaves are originating from. They could be from here, or somewhere farther in the future." "We have at most a minute and thirty seconds to decide, Captain," said Suki. "If we leave the Black Box, will we be able to reenter it?" Taylor asked quickly. "Unknown," said Ensign Collins, the sensor officer. "We are on the inside of it. We cannot know how it looks from the outside." "One minute fifteen," said Suki. "Opinions?" said Taylor, his voice tight. "We should keep going to the end of the time tunnel," said Elizabeth. "Bill?" said Taylor. "I agree," said Bill Carey, his second officer. "Jennifer?" said Taylor. She shrugged helplessly. "I honestly don't know, Captain." Taylor stared at the Earth for a long moment, trapped in his mind, unable to decide. "Forty five seconds, Captain!" said Suki. And then Victor caught his eye. "I think we should drop out now, Michael," he said quietly. "Why?" said Taylor. Victor shrugged. "Call it instinct. We've apparently already come a very long distance. I think, just on general principle, that it's a good practice to stop by the side of the road every million years or so to ask for directions." Taylor looked at Victor, and saw his little smile. His point was obvious. It seemed like they had already lept a huge distance into the future. Victor, like everyone else, was curious what life was like on Earth eight million years in the future. But the decision, of course, would be his. "Thirty seconds, Captain!" Taylor looked at his crew. What if going on was the wrong decision? What if going too far had killed the other crews? Or what if dropping out was the wrong decision? What if they dropped out, came out at the wrong time, and were stranded here. But the Exeter had returned. But they had no idea of knowing what decision the Exeter crew had made- "Fifteen seconds, Captain, it's now or never!" Suki cried. Taylor found himself looking at Jennifer. For a second, a split second, he thought he saw Pam's features overwritten on her. "Drop out of the tunnel, now!" Taylor cried. The ship lurched as Suki steered to the clear part of the time tunnel. The ship flailed about for a moment, the instruments flickered wildly, and then.... they were out of it. "Status!" Taylor cried. "No damage reported," said Lieutenant Babangida, a moment later. "The ship is functioning within normal parameters." "Where are we? Suki? Collins?" It was Suki who answered first. "Earth, sir." "When?" "Working on it," she said. "Doing a star fix." "Collins, is the Black Box still visible? Get it on the viewscreen." Seconds later the Black Box appeared. From this perspective it looked like... an entrance. "So we can go back into it," said Victor. "You made the right choice, Michael," he said, putting an arm on Taylor's shoulder. Taylor, feeling his body covered with perspiration, nodded. That had been his biggest fear, that if they had landed in the wrong time, that they wouldn't be able to reenter the Black Box. Elizabeth was fuming silently. In their moment of crisis, Taylor had ignored the advice of his senior scientist, to take the advice of a man over hers. She gritted her teeth. But it appeared, so far, that Taylor's gamble had paid off. "Getting a star fix sir," said Suki. "No... no, this can't be." "What?" said Taylor. "Rechecking," said Suki. And then. "Confirmed." She turned to face Taylor. "Sir, if these readings are right, we are eight million years into the future." "Eight million years?" said Jennifer, turning pale. "That's not possible." "That's what the instruments say," said Suki helplessly. "Eight million years," said Victor. He raised his eyebrows. "So much for the Survey Service's theory of 200,000 years into the future." He chuckled. "And they worried that we wouldn't be able to relate to people who were 200,000 years in advance of us. They shouldn't have been concerned, should they, Michael?" Taylor gave Victor a cynical smile. "Get Earth on the viewscreen." It was Earth, but not their Earth. The continents had shifted closer together, though they were not quite touching. There was a mini ice age descending on North America and Europe. "So much for the Global Warming nuts," said Victor. "It was cooling they needed to fear. We'll have to get back, just to tell them." "Life signs?" said Taylor. "Scanning," said Suki. Then... "Yes. In the thousands. Several million, at least." Millions? The Earth previously had populations of billions. "I wonder who lives there now?" Victor asked. "Mankind has existed for only about 200,000 years. In seven or eight million years we evolved from the apes, it is said. And now we have eight million years more of evolution. Whatever we find down there, it's not likely to be recognizable as human." "Our mission is not to sample human evolution," said Taylor. "We have to find out who is controlling the time tunnel." "The time tunnel does not start here," said Elizabeth. "Logically speaking, it must be controlled farther ahead, in the future." "That presume that those who created the time tunnel didn't make it work in both directions," said Victor. "Perhaps they wanted to go both into their past and the future." "Victor's right," said Taylor. He saw Elizabeth wince and shake her head slightly. "We have to examine this time period to be certain that the time tunnel isn't generated from this era. Suki, are there any signs of spacecraft in orbit?" Suki checked. "No, sir." "Then we'll go down to say hello. I'll command a small landing party. Elizabeth, gather up a few of your anthropologists. Victor, you come too. Mr. Babangida, I want a security detail. And send for Dr. McCrae-" "Captain!" "Yes, Mr. Carey?" "You are too valuable to lead this mission, sir," said Carey. "I or Lieutenant Hale should lead it." Too valuable. Taylor knew full well what Carey was really worried about. The memory of burning thousands of religious zealots with the reaction drive of the Asgard suddenly flashed through his mind. "I appreciate your concern for my well-being, but I need the two of you here, in case something goes wrong." In case something goes wrong. He regretted it the moment he said it. ******** They took a shuttle down to southern Florida, or at least, what used to be Florida. Florida had twisted in shape now, bending back towards Alabama and Mississippi, like a male organ which was no longer firm. They landed down by what had once been Naples, Florida. There was a city there, of lean, one story homes, all made of some unidentifiable kind of material, perhaps some kind of futuristic plastic. They landed the shuttle in an open grassy field. A crowd of people gathered to meet them. People. They looked just like human beings. "Astonishing," said Victor. "They look exactly like us. Is it possible there has been no evolutionary development in eight million years?" "Not very likely," said Taylor. He nodded to Lieutenant Babangida and his men, who, like Taylor, were all armed. "Let me go first with the security detail." Taylor cautiously exited the shuttle first, with the others following behind. There were a crowd of people standing respectfully at some distance. Two approached them. One was a man, the other a woman. The man was wearing a one piece outfit, as was the woman, but the woman's was much more revealing. "Nice to see that some things haven't changed in eight million years," said Doctor McCrae. Elizabeth gave him a glare. The man and woman approached. "Hello," said the woman, with a nervous tone. "You are welcome here. Do you understand me?" "We understand you," said Taylor. "Do you understand me?" "Yes," said the woman. "My name is Juci. This is Tedi." "Hello," said Taylor. "My name is Lieutenant Commander Michael Taylor." Juci squinted. "Lu... Lu....." "A form of rank," said Taylor. It was to be expected that certain words would have changed. Frankly, it was amazing that they could even understand each other after eight million years. "I'm the Captain of the Survey Service ship USS Devonshire." Juci looked blankly at him. "The ship, in the sky," said Taylor. "That thing," said Tedi, pointing to the shuttle. "No, the ship... it's in orbit." "Ooorbit," said Juci, looking confused. Yes, they were definitely going to have a language problem. "We've come a long way," said Taylor. "Can we speak to someone in charge?" "In charge?" Juci looked confused. "You don't know what the words in charge mean?" Taylor asked. "Michael, the problem may not be linguistic, it may be conceptual," said Victor. "Juci, we're looking for the person who runs things." "Runs things?" she said blankly "Who makes decisions?" "Who makes decisions?" She parroted. "The person who... coordinates-" "Ah!" she smiled. "You want Coordinator." "Yes. We'd like to speak to your coordinator." "Engin," said Juci. She turned to Tedi. "They want to speak to Engin." "Engin is very nice," said Tedi. "Yes he is," said Juci. "Can we speak to him?" Taylor asked. "This way," said Juci. She led them through a crowd of curious spectators. "They don't seem hostile," said Lieutenant Babangida, the security chief. "Neither does a Vegan swamp toad, until it clamps down with steel jaws," said Elizabeth. "We can't judge things by our conventional senses. We must make a thorough scientific study." "Doctor Shaw is right," said Taylor. "Just because something looks harmless doesn't mean it is harmless." Elizabeth beamed and stuck out her chest slightly. It was the first time Taylor had said something supportive. They walked into a village and were lead to one of the larger structures, which was only two stories tall. "Deindustrialization," said Victor. "What happened to all the tall buildings?" "Perhaps the back-to-the-Earth movement took hold," said Elizabeth. "A scary thought," said Doctor McCrae. They met coordinate Engin. Engin was a nice man, as Juci had said. He gave them a pleasant smile and welcomed them. Taylor tried to explain where they were from, and when, but could see he was having no more luck than he had with Juci and Tedi. Finally he said, "Do you have any scientists here?" "Scientists?" said Engin. "Maybe they mean Bernard! Bernard really likes science," said Juci. "Yes, let us send for Bernard." As they waited, they talked among themselves in low voices. "Could human society have regressed to a lower intellectual level in eight million years?" Taylor asked. "Perhaps," said Elizabeth. "But it would usually be in response to a massive war, or environmental disaster. I see no evidence of-" "Ah, here is Bernard!" Bernard was a smiling brown haired man. Taylor introduced himself. "I'm Captain of a spaceship, the Devonshire, in low orbit. Do you know what a spaceship is?" "Of course, Captain Taylor," said Bernard. Taylor repressed a sigh of relief. "Do you also know about the Black Box in orbit around the Earth?" "Black Box?" said Bernard. "Do you... do you mean the dark phenomena in orbit-" "Yes, yes!" Taylor said joyously. Finally, to find someone with a mind! "We came from there. It's a time tunnel. This will be hard to believe... but... we're from eight million years in your past." "Eight million years?" said Bernard. Then a light appeared in his eyes. "You are like the others." "Others?" said Taylor. "They called themselves... Aura," said Bernard. "Aurora?" Taylor asked, barely containing his excitement. The Aurora was the science ship, the first sent out. "Yes, that was it, Aurora," said Bernard. "They came to visit us, some years ago." "How many years ago?" Taylor asked. Bernard shrugged. "I do not recall." "What happened to the people from the Aurora?" Taylor asked. "They went up," said Bernard. "Up?" "They went up," said Bernard. Taylor bit his lips. Bernard might well be the smartest guy in town, but there were obviously limits to even his understanding. It sounded like the Aurora had come to this version of Earth, looked around, and then taken off, probably reentering the Black Box. Which would imply that the people of this era were not responsible for the Black Box. Taylor could well believe that, given the limited level of intellectual development of this era. Taylor huddled with Elizabeth, Doctor McCrae, and Victor to see what they thought. "I agree, Captain," said Elizabeth. "This society doesn't have the technology to be in control of the Black Box. Somehow, humanity has regressed." "So let's get back to the ship and go back into the time tunnel again," said McCrae. "Wait a minute," said Elizabeth. "Just because this society isn't what we're looking for, doesn't mean that this can't be a tremendous learning experience. This is our one and only chance to look eight million years in the future. Think of all we could learn!" She saw the reluctance in Taylor's face. He was focused on the mission. "Please, Captain," Elizabeth said, and Taylor was very conscious that he was now Captain and not Lieutenant Commander. "Just a few days?" She looked longingly into his eyes. Taylor frowned. He was charged with one mission, and one mission only. But he said, "All right. I'll give you two days." "Only two days?" Elizabeth looked pained. "We could gather information a lot more quickly if we could bring more people down," said Victor. Taylor considered that. The people here seemed friendly enough. "All right. I'll authorize multiple landing parties. But I want everyone to be armed, and I want people to travel in at least groups of twos or threes. No one is to be alone here." "Thank you, Michael," said Victor. "Yes, thank you... Captain," said Elizabeth, and Taylor thought he detected just a hint of emotion in her voice. ******** Later that day, Taylor took a tour of the colony, in the company of Jennifer Hale, who he had invited down to walk with him. He left Bill Carey in command of the Devonshire, much to his second officer's displeasure. Elizabeth, who was a qualified exobiologist, had performed a physiological analysis of one of the locals using a hand scanner. "They seem human like we are," she said. "Do you concur, Doctor?" Taylor asked Doctor McCrae. "No, I do not," said McCrae. "Our hand scanners are very useful for telling the difference between a rock and a banana. But less so, when it comes to subtle differences in the human body." "What are you suggesting?" "We take one of these lovelies up to the ship and I do some thorough scans." "Do you think you could get someone to agree to it?" "I already have," said McCrae, pointing to a tittering young woman. "Her name is Gouda." "Are we going to the sky now, Bill?" Gouda asked. "Are you going to show me your thing?" Jennifer's eyebrows went up. "I promised her a tour of the ship," said McCrae. He saw the expression on Jennifer's face. "That's what she meant." "Of course," said Jennifer, a bit mockingly. "Fine, doctor," said Taylor. "Just make sure you have someone from security escort her up to the ship with you." "Security?" McCrae snorted. "For her?" "Just in case," said Taylor. That had been over an hour ago. Taylor was still waiting to hear his findings. In the meantime, Juci was giving him and Jennifer a tour of the town. "We never talked about Michael," said Taylor, in a low voice. "Did he have a hard time letting you go on this mission?" "I won't lie," said Jennifer. "Michael, my Michael, wasn't happy about it. But he agreed to let me take the assignment." "I'm just a little surprised, you being a married woman and all, that you would agree to go," said Taylor. He looked at her, but was thinking of her unspoken words, after they had been rescued from the cave near where they had crash landed last year. Things had gotten... confused between the two of them, and a line had been crossed. After they had been rescued, Taylor had invited Jennifer to dinner in his quarters, and he raised the subject of... them. If it weren't for Michael, my Michael, we could be together, she had told him. And that was the end of that. So Taylor had thought. But now Jennifer had left her husband to go on a mission that was very likely to be one-way. How much in love with him could she be to leave him like that? "Michael... Michael understood," said Jennifer quietly. There was something, something more, something she was hiding. Taylor could sense it. But now was not the time to discuss it. Juci was showing them around the local recreation center. There were people sitting in front of holographic displays, displays of sports, or entertainment, holoplays or holofilms. That at least hadn't changed in eight million years. "This is happy time," said Juci. "I see," said Taylor. "Everyone is happy," said Juci. "They look it," said Jennifer, giving Taylor a frowning look. But while some people were watching entertainment, many weren't. Most were sitting in front of holographic lists of messages and numbers. "What are they doing?" Taylor asked. "Counting their status chits," said Juci. "Status chits?" "People give each other status chits," said Juci. "What do they do?" "They make us happy," said Juci. "What?" said Taylor, trying to understand. "They make us happy," Juci repeated. They walked behind two women chatting avidly as they studied their holographic messages. "I just got a status chit from Jeri!" said one. "I just got a red cherry from Bobi!" said another. "This is my tenth status chit today!" said the first one. "This is my second red cherry," said the second woman. "Red cherries are special, because they don't come as often." "I want a red cherry," said the first woman. "I'll give you one of mine," said the second woman, and she waved her hand, and a red cherry left her holographic ledger and went to the first woman's. The first woman chortled with glee. "And this is what they do... all day?" Jennifer asked. "It is a lot of fun," said Juci. Jennifer whispered in Taylor's ear. "A society where everyone is glued to their comms in search of likes from their friends. How weird is that?" "This society has regressed farther than I thought," said Taylor. He looked around, noticed something, and frowned. "Juci... do these people have jobs?" "Jobs?" she said, looking confused. "You know... work, to keep things going. Like making food." "We don't need jobs for that," said Juci. "Here, let me show you." She walked over to an alcove. "Ka-pla!" she said. There was a sparkle, and a tray of red cubes appeared in a dish. "What is that?" Taylor asked. "Food," said Juci. She picked up a red cube, and popped it in her mouth. "Ummm, good." "Ummm, good," said Jennifer, mocking her to her face. "Yes," said Juci, smiling. "Would you like one?" "No," said Taylor quickly. "So... machines produce your food. But who produces your machines?" Juci looked confused. "When things break down. When things stop working. Who fixes them?" Juci brightened. "Oh, you mean the big heads." "The big heads?" "We don't see much of them. They don't like to show themselves." "Where are the big heads, Juci?" "Up there," said Juci. "Up there," she said again. Up there. The same words Bernard had used to describe what had happened to the Aurora crew. Could the Aurora have met with these "Big heads"? "Big heads sounds like the technical class," said Jennifer. "Perhaps we should speak to them." "Definitely," said Taylor. He turned around, and something caught his eye. Someone. "Doctor Shaw?" Taylor said, with a tone of disbelief. Elizabeth turned. "Oh, Captain Taylor." "Are you alone, Doctor?" Taylor asked. "Well, I just-" "I gave strict orders that no one was to wander around alone," said Taylor. "Do you feel that you're exempt from my rules, Doctor?" "No, of course not, Captain," she said, reddening slightly. "But I just... I just...." "What is it?" Taylor asked. "I can't find any children." It was true. Since Taylor had come to the village, he hadn't seen a single child. He turned to Jennifer. "Have you seen any children, since we landed?" "No," said Jennifer. Taylor turned to Juci. "Juci, where are the children?" He saw the confused look on her face. "Babies. Young ones." "Young ones!" she said, brightening. "You would like a young one?" "I'd like to see one, yes," said Taylor. "Coming right up!" said Juci. She went over to a taller alcove, almost like a walkin closet. "Please give me Toni." She turned and giggled. "Toni is my favorite." The alcove sparkled, and a girl, apparently ten years old, suddenly appeared. "Mommy!" the girl cried, reaching out to hug Juci. "Oh, baby girl!" said Juci. "How I missed you!" "Elizabeth, what are we seeing?" Taylor asked. "I just saw a child appear from an alcove," said Elizabeth. "They keep their children... in storage?" Jennifer asked, with heavy disbelief in her voice. Elizabeth raised her scanner. "She... she reads as human." "Juci, where was Toni a few minutes ago?" Taylor asked. "In there," said Juci, pointing to the alcove. "No, that was empty. Before you called for her, where was she?" Juci shrugged. "Away." "Does she spend a lot of time away?" Juci nodded. "She comes only when I want her to." She hugged Toni, who giggled in her arms. "And when you don't want her?" "She goes away," said Juci. "This would make so many parents I know so very happy," said Jennifer. "Quiet! I'm trying to understand this," said Taylor. "Juci, are there any babies?" "Babies?" she frowned. "Younger ones than Toni." "Oh, I can make them any age you like. Would you like to see a really young one?" Taylor nodded. "All right. Toni, go away now!" "Yes Mommy." They watched, opened mouth, as the child entered the alcove. There was a flash, and she disappeared. "Did you just kill your child?" Jennifer asked. "No, silly, she just went away! Do you want me to call her back?" Juci asked. "No, Juci," said Taylor. "Show us a baby, a... really young one." "All right," said Juci. She smiled and spoke to the alcove. "Make me... a really, really young one. With green eyes! I so love green eyes! Just like yours," she said flirtatiously to Taylor. There was a flash, and a baby appeared on the floor, wrapped in a blanket. Juci picked him up. "Oh, he's so cute." "Juci... is that your child?" Taylor asked. He watched Elizabeth rapidly scan the baby. She nodded, and mouthed "human". "My child?" The question seemed to confuse her. "Of course. I called for him, therefore he is mine. I have never called for such a young one before. Shall we name him together?" "You have never seen this baby before?" Taylor asked. "No," said Juci. "I usually like them older." "And this baby... is your child?" "I called for it," said Juci. "Instant babies," said Jennifer. "They've put women out of business." "Jennifer, they will never put women out of business," said Taylor. Elizabeth bit her lip as she watched Jennifer titter and smile slyly at Taylor. "They make babies. They actually make babies," Taylor marveled. "But... how does it work? If they are sent away, do they grow up... in some other place? I have so many questions-" suddenly his wristcom beeped. "Yes, Taylor here." "Captain?" Taylor recognized the voice. "Doctor McCrae? Is something wrong?" "We've had an incident," said McCrae. ******** McCrae had taken Gouda up to the Devonshire in a shuttle, accompanied by a security guard, as per Taylor's orders. Personally he thought the precautions were excessive; Gouda didn't look like she could hurt a fly. She was a blonde, giggly girl, perhaps 20 years of age. Her age was one of the things McCrae intended to verify. He had heaped scorn on Elizabeth's impromptu "scanner examination". That was the difference between biologists and doctors. He practiced medicine. The girl was tittering as McCrae put her on an examination bed and inserted her body into the med scanner. A full analysis commenced. McCrae was analyzing the results even as the bed slid back and she came out of it. Gouda really was 20 years old, or thereabouts. McCrae was disappointed, somehow; he was expecting these people to be thousands of years old. There were differences in her brain. Her brain was like a human from the 23rd century, but had somehow... atrophied. There were fewer neurons, fewer interbrain connections. It was like looking at the brain of a child. And there was something else... a line of nerves extending from her brain, down to her fingertips. And what was implanted in her fingers? Gouda giggled as McCrae picked up her hand and started to look at her fingertips. They looked normal, but the scans said there was something there. "You like my hands?" she asked. "Yes," said McCrae. "I can do many things with my hands," said Gouda. "Things you would like," she added. "I'm sure," said McCrae, giving a quick glance at the security guard standing by the door, his face impassive. He went back to examining her fingers. Just what was it the scanners had picked up? "Do you like Shulpapa?" she asked. "Sure," said McCrae. "Everyone likes Shulpapa, right?" He went back to examining the readout from her scan. He barely paid attention as Gouda got up and wrapped her hands around his body. Suddenly, he began to get aroused. Very aroused. "Stop that," he said, trying to shrug her off. But Gouda simply giggled and latched onto him stronger. McCrae's mind was suddenly filled with the images of a nurse named Kathy he had met at a recent medical conference, a woman in her 40's who found time to spare between lectures just as he did..... they had gone back to his hotel room, and he had made love to her. He had pounded between her legs... it had felt so good... it had been so long.... As McCrae slipped in and out of the vision of lust, he became aware of Gouda's fingers, on his face. Her fingers had developed suction cups. She was taking from him, draining him. McCrae, pounding between Kathy's legs.... Gouda, sucking the lust from his mind, feeding on it. McCrae, his organ getting tighter and tighter... The pounding in his head, getting tighter and tighter. McCrae exploded inside of Kathy, and he cried out.... The security guard heard his cry, and realized something was wrong. He ran forward, and pulled at Gouda, but she flung him away, and turned back to McCrae For a moment, though, McCrae was free. He grabbed the first thing on his medical tray and injected her, even as she raised her hands to make contact with him again. ******** "It's built into their fingertips. They use it to elicit strong emotions from others, and then absorb them," said McCrae. "It's a very painful process." "What kind of emotion did she absorb from you?" Jennifer asked. "We can talk about that later," said McCrae, looking down at the unconscious Gouda. "The important thing, Captain, is that anyone on the surface may be in danger." "I'm on it," said Taylor crisply. He readjusted his frequency to broadband. "Attention all landing parties. This is Captain Taylor. Report back to the landing area immediately. Do not delay for any reason. Lieutenant Babangida?" "Yes sir," said a deep voice. "Contact all landing parties and make sure they are on their way." "Yes sir," came the response. Taylor, his face full of tension, tried to compose himself as he faced Juci. "This thing of absorbing emotion through the fingers; do you know about it?" "Of course. We all do it," said Juci. "It is all part of receiving pleasure," she giggled, as she tried to touch Taylor. Taylor slapped her hand away. "This receiving pleasure, can it ever hurt people?" "Well, no," said Juci. "Except those few who like boing boing. And some who really like shulpapa. You need to stay away from those." Taylor activated his wristcom. "Lieutenant Babangida? Have all landing parties reported in?" "All except two groups. Ensign Raleigh was escorting two scientists in the northwest corner. I can't raise him. Scientists Asimov and Clark were in viewing some outdoor sculpture in the southeast section, and I can't raise them either." Taylor knew the sculpture yard Babangida was talking about. It wasn't far away. He made an instant decision. "Take some men and begin a search in both locations. Use extreme caution. I'll meet the team searching for Asimov and Clark. Taylor out." Taylor turned to Jennifer Hale. "Get Doctor Shaw back to the ship." "Captain, you're not going to go out there alone! That will violate your own rules," said Jennifer. "Lieutenant, I need to find our missing men, and I need to make sure that Doctor Shaw gets back to the shuttle safely. This is the only way I know how to do both. Go, Jennifer!" "Yes sir," she said. As they turned and left, Taylor thought he saw a look of concern in Elizabeth's eyes. Taylor started off for the sculpture area at a run. He saw people all around him, but he was on his guard now, and didn't let any get near him. As he got closer to the sculpture yard he heard voices yelling. "Boing boing! Boing boing! Do you like the pain? Does the pain make you feel good? Boing boing! Boing boing! Boing boing!" Taylor burst into the sculpture yard, and saw a terrible sight. The two scientists were on the ground. They were surrounded by people who were kicking them, beating them, punching them, and slamming blocks of wood into them. At the same time there were people with their hands on the heads of the fallen scientists, yelling "Boing boing! Boing boing!" at the top of their lungs. The ground around them was red with blood. Taylor drew his compression pistol, set it to maximum, and blew apart a statue just feet away. That got their attention. Some of them turned and faced him. "Do you like pain?" one of them shouted. "Boing boing! Boing boing! Boing boing!" the crowd cried. And then they rushed him. Survey Service training kicked in. Taylor instinctively held his arm up to his face and rapidly fired off shots. He hadn't had time to reset his pistol; each shot ripped through the body of an attacker. Five were blown to pieces before they could reach him. But they were too many. They started grabbing him and punching him. Someone grabbed his pistol away. He started to go down under the blows of madmen. And then there was a shout, and someone in front of him exploded. And then another person exploded, and another after him. The mob turned tail and ran, leaving a pile of bodies behind them. Ensign Bill Collins and two crewmen stood there, with smoking compression guns. "Captain, are you all right?" said Collins. "Yes, I'm all right," said Taylor, feeling blood on his forehead. Blood was spilling on his face, but it wasn't a deep wound. "See to the scientists." There was nothing to see too. Asimov and Clarke had both been beaten to a pulp. The crowd had beaten them to death and fed on their pain. "What kind of crazy society is this?" Collins asked, gasping as he saw the dead bodies. "It's the kind that we don't want to spend any more time with." Taylor made another instant decision. They would be very vulnerable carrying the bodies to the ship. They would leave them here, and come back later, in force, to retrieve the bodies. "Let's get back to the landing area." There were a lot of scared scientists and crewman lining up to get into the waiting shuttles. The Devonshire had two shuttles and both of them were rapidly being filled to capacity. It would take more than one trip bring everyone back, but they should be all right as long as they set up a defensive perimeter around the landing site. One of the shuttles had just landed and Doctor McCrae emerged with Gouda in tow even as people rushed aboard it. "Michael! Are you all right?" said McCrae. Without waiting for an answer, he started to inspect Taylor's head wound. "I'm fine. I... where is Lieutenant Babangida? And where is Jennifer and Doctor Shaw?" At that moment Elizabeth came running up to them, in the company of another scientist named Wade Tanner. Elizabeth's clothes were torn, and her hair, which was normally in a bun, was coming apart. "Elizabeth! Doctor Shaw! What happened? Where's Jennifer?" Taylor asked. Elizabeth struggled to get her breath. Finally she spoke. "We were attacked. By a mob. Jennifer and Ensign... Ensign Tanaka, who was escorting Wade... drove them off, so we could escape...." "What direction?" Elizabeth pointed, her chest heaving. "Fulton, Myers, with me," said Taylor. "Michael! You're not going to take on a mob, are you?" McCrae yelled after him. Taylor didn't answer. ******** As Jennifer and Elizabeth rushed back to the shuttle, the crowd around them grew increasingly menacing. They had linked up with Suki Tanaka and Wade Tanner, but only Jennifer and Suki were armed. "I like your softies," said one man. "Thanks," said Jennifer, fast walking back to the ship. She couldn't help but notice the growing crowd that was fast walking with her. "I like your softies too," said a second man, looking at the curves of Jennifer's uniform. "That's great," said Jennifer, not liking the look of things. Suddenly, their way was blocked by two big men. "I'm Dani," said one. "And I'm Fulgi," said the other. "Do you like Shulpapa?" Dani asked. Jennifer looked at the crowd as it closed in. She realized they were about to be taken. She raised her compression pistol and made eye contact with Suki, who did the same. "Elizabeth!" said Jennifer. "When I say run, you and Wade run." "What?" There was no time to say any more. Jennifer and Suki opened fire, and started gunning the crowd down. They would have made their Survey Service marksmanship trainer proud. They stood shoulder to shoulder, emotionlessly gunning down everything in a 45 degree angle, clearing a path. "Run!" Jennifer cried. Elizabeth only blinked twice before she grabbed Wade by the hand and ran through the crowd. The crowd converged on Jennifer and Suki, and Elizabeth heard the sounds of more compression pistol shots, until suddenly the guns went silent. ******** Jennifer and Suki were having intense mental experiences. Jennifer was reliving an experience she had had with her husband Michael, the day he proposed to her. He had gotten on bended knee and asked her to marry him. At the time, it had been the happiest moment of her life. Jennifer had said yes, and then they cried and hugged each other, and then Michael had made sweet love to her. It was such a sweet taking... so sweet to be taken, by the one she loved.... Meanwhile, Suki was back on the Bonadventure. Mark Waters was having relations with her in the small cargo bay, in the third module. "No, Albert," she had said. "Sean might come by." "Let him come," Waters chuckled. "No..." she moaned, but it was just a moan. His lips were on hers. He had taken her so many times, that her resistance was just a ritual. She smiled as he kissed her again while continuing the lovemaking. "Captain's girl... Captain's girl... Captain's girl... so helpless... so needy...." "Yes... yes... yessssss....." Suki hissed. She felt the pain, and the pleasure. The pain, and the pleasure. His eyes... his body... his hands... his fingers.... There was the sound of an explosion, and then another and another. Suki gasped, as if blinders had been taken off her eyes. She saw a man, with suction cups on his fingers, bent over her face, pressing against it with his fingers, suddenly flung away, by a strong source. One by one they were all flung away, until she saw a new face, familiar face. "Suki? Suki? Are you all right? Myers, see to her!" Taylor went over to Jennifer. Like Suki she was lying on the ground, in a daze. He could still see the faint imprints of suction cups on her face. "Jennifer? Jennifer, answer me." "Michael," she said, as if in a dream. From the way she said it, Taylor wasn't sure exactly who she was addressing. "Come on, we have to get you back to the shuttle." ******** The shuttles were gone by the time they were returned, ferrying up scientists and crewmen to the ship. The remaining eight, all Survey Service crewmembers, stood in a semi circle, with weapons drawn. A crowd stood respectfully in the distance. "Was there any trouble?" Taylor asked Lieutenant Babangida, who seemed to be in charge. "No sir, not from this lot." "Is everyone accounted for?" "No," said Babangida. "I found the bodies of two of our men, Niles and Draper." "Bodies? Were they beaten to death, like Asimov and Clark?" "No sir," said Babangida. "They didn't have a mark on them. Doctor McCrae took them back to the Devonshire." That meant there were four men dead, two scientists and two crewman. "Anyone else?" "Ensign Raleigh is missing. He was with Niles and Draper. We weren't able to find any sign of him." Taylor looked up and saw a shuttle maneuvering to land. He would have liked nothing better than to tear this city apart looking for Raleigh. But he saw how quickly they could be overcome by sheer numbers. As the shuttle touched down, Babangida said, "Do we go after him?" "We will," said Taylor. "But not now." ******** After they returned to the ship, Taylor went to the sickbay to see to the injured men. When McCrae saw the Captain, he insisted on bandaging his cuts. In addition to his forehead, Taylor had a cut on his upper arm that he hadn't noticed, but had bled onto his uniform sleeve. McCrae cleaned and bandaged both of his wounds. "You examined the native girl, Doctor. What are they?" Taylor asked. "Humans, more or less," said McCrae. "With a few changes. Their minds have become simple. And their purpose in life is to seek pleasure. Those suction cups on the fingers only come out when they're draining experiences or feelings from others." Taylor nodded. He went over to Jennifer and Suki, who were being examined by a nurse. "Jennifer, are you all right?" "Yes sir," said Jennifer. "Just a little shook up." Taylor looked at Suki. "Suki?" "I'm... I'll be fine, sir," she said. She still had the faint imprints of suction cups on her face. "What... what did they take from you?" Taylor asked. "Sen... sensual experiences," Jennifer stuttered. Taylor looked at Suki, who nodded, blushing. ******** Four dead. Two scientists and two crewman. And possibly a third crewman, if Ensign Raleigh wasn't recovered. And it was all his fault. "Don't blame yourself, Michael," said Victor. He smiled and patted Taylor on the back as he sat down next to him in the cafeteria. "It isn't difficult to guess what you're thinking about." "It was my decision to allow landing parties." "You took all necessary precautions," said Victor. "You insisted the parties be armed. You insisted no one be alone." "It wasn't enough," said Taylor, thinking of the bloody bodies of crewmen Asimov and Clark, literally beaten to a pulp. And they were still down there. "This is what the Survey Service is all about," said Victor. "Taking risks. We all knew that when we signed up, Michael. Every time we step in or out of an airlock we're taking chances with our lives. It's all part of the game. Asimov and Clark knew that. So did Niles and Draper." "He's right," said a new voice. Taylor turned to see Doctor Shaw standing there. She was freshly bathed and in a clean uniform. "May I join you?" "Please," said Taylor. She sat down. Her hair was once again in a bun. "I feel the blame is mine, Captain," she said. "I was the one who persuaded you to allow landing parties." "