Shelby Vick and Richard W Brown

Mankind's first fuel was wood for fire; many different fuels have been developed since then, and all had a dangerous potential. Few, however, were as dangerous as the fuel developed by the Flaaxians.

– Oglethorpe's Universal Encyclopedia, Volume Six


Many people, at one time or another in our history, have been alone, but none like us.

'Us' - Banti L'Rotte, Creg Whitman and me, Lars Sorenson. While there are three of us, we are far more alone than anyone has ever been, a hundred or more lightyears from the next star. I'm talking to myself, I know. That's supposed to be a sign you're going spacey – and maybe I am. Here on this alien planet, a cold desert with a dim sun overhead, my two partners useless and worse than spacey, why shouldn't I be out of my mind? No way to communicate, no way to get out of here if we can't get our fuel.

But that's not why I keep talking. I'm speaking out loud to myself to keep from losing it, the way Creg and Banti did after walking into this gel I'm slogging through. Their suits didn't protect them from whatever sort of alien danger this is, and I wasn't about to count on my suit protecting me any better.

My partners and I had set down this far from the automated fuel manufacturing depot because, for a brief time while our ship's tanks were still hot, there was just enough fuel left over to make close proximity to more fuel a bad idea. It would take about half an hour to cool down enough for us to install the replacement tank.

When I agreed to be part of this odyssey, I thought I had nothing to lose; no family, no close friends, not really that much to live for, nothing to miss.

Nothing to miss? Right now, I'd love to see blue skies above me, spotted with cumulus clouds. Right now, even a thunderstorm would be great. Snow-capped mountains on the horizon would be wonderful. Or the sea; I never realized how beautiful the sea could be.

The presence of the gel surprised us. It's perfectly transparent, so we didn't realize it was there until Creg started forward, intent on getting to the automated fuel depot half a mile away.

And stopped.

"There's something here!" he said, backing away in surprise. The comealong he'd taken to carry a fuel tank back bumped into his heels as it slid to a stop.

Banti was a tall blonde with a figure our tightfitting suits emphasized. The suit was also built to support her bare breasts, of which she was proud; they were firm, well-rounded, with brown nipples surrounded by a tan aureole. Creg and I often admired those breasts -- with our eyes only, that is. To this point, Banti had not Chosen. Usually, two men and a woman would not be sent on a lengthy trip because of possible . . . ah, "personal conflict," shall we say? This trip was supposed to be quick; either we made it, or we were dead. No one had anticipated what we'd run into. Anyway, Banti immediately replied to Creg: "Of course! Our fuel."

Creg shook his close-cropped head, visible through his clear helmet. "No; I mean here." He waved his hands in front of him. "Come see. --Well, not see; feel. There's some sort of . . . resistance."

"Let me scan it first," Banti said. "Move aside." Creg did so, and Banti touched her scanner controls. "By my readings, it's an eight-foot thick, mile-wide disk of some kind of transparent gel -- like a giant pancake, with our fuel machine the slice of butter in the middle."

Fuel. It could get you to your destination quick as thought -- all you had to add in was time for the individual steps. When you reach the system specified by your computer, your rockets took over; if that wasn't your end goal, you picked up more fuel and took the next step. The fuel was introduced by the Flaaxians who, despite their longevity, took several generations to reach us from their distant part of the galaxy, since we were out in the fringes, so to speak. Now that the chain of fuel pods are in place, their home planet is within easy reach.

They gave us the fuel when they first joined our Interstellar Council a century ago. "Interstellar Council" sounds grand -- doesn't it? Actually, it had consisted of three races, us plus the Orionids and the Arians; with the addition of the Flaaxians the group became, of course, the Universal Council. Now there are many other members, thanks to the distances made possible by the fuel.

The fuel was perfectly safe as long as you didn't have too much or too little. The only major drawback to Flaaxian fuel -- the thing about it that has yet to be worked around -- is that it's a one-way ticket and you have to use up all 20 Universal Litres to get to where you're going, whether it's the minimum of three quarters of a lightyear or the 119-lightyear maximum. So, before you start, you'd damn well better know where you're going, and it had damn well better be somewhere with more fuel or facilities to make it. Try to activate a tank with more than 20 U.L.s and your ship detonates with the force of a fusion bomb; try to activate it with less than 20 U.L.s and . . . well, we didn't know precisely. Early on, a few ships tried to skimp on fuel and they simply disappeared and they've not been seen or heard from since. Maybe they're in another galaxy. Or another dimension. Maybe they no longer exist in any time or space. No one knows; after a few disappearances like that, people became remarkably indifferent to trying to find out.

But some systems were very far apart and there were no habitable planets in between to create more tanks, and some of them were where hardly anything but space existed.

In our case, there was this one system, halfway to nowhere, or, to be precise, between two spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy. Both arms are colonized and there's a lot of trade between them, but up to now traffic has first had to go toward the core until a point is reached where the arms are closer together -- down our side and then up theirs. But this one-planet 'orphan' system is adrift between the two arms -- not exactly half way, but close enough for our purposes. Totally uninhabited.

Uninhabited, with no one to produce fuel.

Remember the old saying, 'Luck is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration?' Inspiration came first, this time. Two things happened: An automated system designed to create fuel pods was perfected and this orphan system was discovered. Maybe I should add in another factor: I heard about it on the same day, and decided two plus two could add up to billions. I went straight to the decision-maker in our company (the president's wife, of course) and laid it out.

"It takes money to make money," I told her, using another ancient saying, "but it's more likely to work when money meets with opportunity. We're pretty much in the middle of our galactic arm. Less than 200 lightyears away, there's another arm with a highly-developed cluster composing billions of customers with whom we trade on a regular basis."

"True. But it's expensive." she said. "It takes at least twelve steps, twelve very expensive tanks of fuel, to get there!"

"That's where we put it together, the orphan system and this new automated fuel- making mechanism. If our guys can figure some way to get it set up on the one planet in that system, we can use it as a way station and make the trip to the other arm in only two steps!"

"Making us all wealthy!" she said, catching my excitement.

"Yes! But that's where the money's needed -- to develop a way to get that mechanism out there."

"I'm certain it can be done," she proclaimed.

She was right, proving that almost anything can be done with sufficient motivation. Money was the motivation; the perspiration was provided by our thinktank and technicians. Eventually, they produced something they called a "dimensional slingshot." A magnetic bottle containing the system was suspended in space between two drone ships -- little more than fuel tanks inside a controlling computer system far enough apart for each to exist -- which had a magnetic field between them that imparted momentum to the magnetic bottle when they blasted off. The dimensional momentum would carry the bottle's load to its destination; once there, small rockets under its own computer control would carry it to its planetfall.

It got here, and not much later we got here with our cargo, but the system and cargo was doing us no good until we could pick up our fuel. Without it, we were stuck, stranded more than any legend had ever imagined.

Banti looked at her scanner, frowned, and then looked at me. "This is strange," she said, her bafflement showing on her pretty face. She did what testing she could, but we lacked the equipment to be certain about the nature of the gel and whether we could get through it safely. Safe or not, however, our ship could go no further without our fuel tank. We first wondered if the gel was a result of a mixture of leaking fuel and the composition of the planet, atmosphere or ground. Banti, however, was our fuel expert and after a few calculations she announced there was no way the fuel was responsible.

"But it's dead in the middle of this stuff!" I objected. "That's no accident."

"Doesn't matter what caused it," Creg said. "If it's safe, I'm going."

"I didn't say it was safe," Banti objected. "I just can't tell what it is. If you go in--"

"If I don't," Creg interrupted, "we aren't leaving! We can't go anywhere without fuel!" Determined, he turned and started his trek. The comealong, a three-by-five platform, three inches thick, followed, hovering an inch off the ground. "It isn't so hard," Creg said. "Like wading through water. Slows me down a bit, that's all. If I get tired, I can always rest."

"Let's go inside and watch from the console," Banti suggested. It was a good idea; the viewer would let us follow Creg's progress closer than our eyes could.

I turned to Creg before we left. "Tell us if there's anything different," I said, "or if anything changes. It might help us figure this out."

"You got it, Boss," Creg said flippantly.

"Creg . . . be careful," Banti murmured softly. The two of them could bicker over the smallest things, seeming to be at each other's throats, but there were times when their grins and the twinkle in their eyes turned it all to flirtatious banter.

"Like walking on eggshells," Creg answered.

We returned to the ship. Our flexible helmets divided and retracted with the suits into the boots. Banti adjusted the ship's viewer controls until we could see Creg wading on quietly. He moved slowly for a while, then said, "What?"

"We didn't say anything," she said.

"Didn't think you did. But there was something . . . something trying to contact me. I don't know what it was . . . ." Because the gel was transparent, we could see him. He wasn't more than five hundred feet away. There was nobody -- nothing -- near him except the rocks and the gel.

"Maybe you'd better come back," I suggested.

"That won't get the fuel cell," he said. "But I am getting tired. I'll rest a bit." We could see him gently begin to lie down.

"Creg?" Banti asked. "Are you really that tired?"

"Need some real rest," he responded. That was the last thing he said that made sense.

"I'm going outside," I told Banti.

"You can't do any more on the ground," she said.

"I know. But I'll feel better."

"Well, take this palm viewer. It'll give you a better look at things."

I took the offered instrument and my suit slid up and enclosed me as I left the ship. When our venturer sat up, I said, "Feeling better, Creg?"

He looked around, puzzled. Then he turned, looked my direction, and a silly grin smeared across his face. "Dah!" he said. "Dah mah."

"What?" I asked, startled.

"Oooh!" Creg exclaimed.

"Knock it off, Creg!" Banti's voice said sternly. "This isn't funny."

"Baaa," Creg replied, spittle at a corner of his mouth. His eyes were blurred as he attempted a smile.

"Creg!" Banti said, sharply. In response, Creg drew back.

I told the worried woman. "Calm it, Banti, you're scaring him." To Creg, I said, "Creg, come here."

He looked at me questioningly.

"We're your friends, Creg," I said, trying to achieve a soothing, reassuring tone. At his distance, he couldn't recognize me; my voice was what attracted him.

"Mah," Creg said, and this time the smile made it to his lips.

I matched his smile. "Come to your friends, Creg," I said. "We're your friends."

"You said that," Banti hissed at me.

"I know. We need to keep it simple. Somehow, he has regressed. He's like an infant."

"What caused it? The gel couldn't have done that; he was in there a while before this happened."

"Maybe it takes time for it to work," I said. To Creg, who was ambling in our direction, I said, "That's it, Creg. Come to us. Come to your friends. Come on."

He hesitated, then started toward us again. The comealong followed. Its motion caught his attention and he stopped to look back at it. The platform bumped into him. Creg's mouth dropped open and he stared down at the flat little cart. It did nothing, of course. In a few seconds, he started for us again. The comealong followed. He looked down at it, a silly grin on his face, and stopped again. It bumped him. He took two steps forward, then jumped straight up. The comealong slid a few inches and he came down on top of it. The cart stopped sank a fraction of an inch, then resumed its normal height. Grinning broadly, he looked at us, proud of his feat. He sat down on the machine. It didn't move. Carefully, he got off and started walking again, silly look still on his face, mixed with a touch of pride at his own cleverness. He jumped once, twice, then tired of the game and continued on. Creg finally stood beside us, a blankly happy look on his face.

Banti, who had come outside and joined me, looked at Creg, then turned a worried face to me. "Now what?" she asked.

"I've been thinking about that," I said.

After half an hour, we had our infant locked in a storage compartment that contained food and water but, more importantly, things to amuse Creg's currently simple mind. There were small things for him to play with, and a display that showed colored lights in amorphous mixtures. Banti loaded a voder that spoke softly to him in her voice, using his name over and over and expressing approval. On one blank wall we hung bright-colored markers. When we closed the panel, Creg was happily coloring.

In the control room I turned on viewers so we could keep watch in case something went wrong. Banti sat at the ship's console, frowning. "I want to check the transmission band," she explained. Head bent down, she was intent and didn't look at me. "Maybe that thing is broadcasting something, or receiving a broadcast."

"Why?" I asked.

Looking at me, she grinned. "Why not?" she asked. "Creg said he felt something was trying to contact him." Her grin faded. "I must try something!" she said, desperation vibrating in her voice.

I watched as she worked with desperate intensity at the console. Once she shook her head and said something very unladylike. Later, she bit her lip and cursed again. Then her eyes widened. Rapidly, her fingers caressed the console.

"Find something?" I asked.

"Maybe," she said, trying to suppress excitement. "It seems to be . . . digital!" she said.

"Digital?" I repeated blankly.

Her blonde hair swung in front of her face as she nodded. "Digital!" she repeated. Then she looked at me. "Oh, I forgot; computer history isn't your forte. Digital was the original form of computer talk. 'On-off; yes-no; 0-1`," she said, as if that explained things. Seeing the perplexity still riding my expression, she continued, "All data were written in that form; a combination of zeros and ones would represent a small part of the code computers responded to. Zero-zero-one-zero could represent what they referred to as one byte. Dozens of them could represent a word, an action, some command or another."

"Sounds slow!" I said.

"It was clumsy," she went on, "but they could send millions of bytes a second, so it worked. But that was ages ago; we've been using analog for centuries. Allows the uncertainty principle to work, giving computers the semblance of original thought, letting them learn to think for themselves. But," she said, nodding back at the console, "I've been detecting digital signals. I've been trying to interpret them, but I'm not having much luck. We just don't speak the same language."

"Then teach it ours," I suggested.

"What--" she started, then her eyes widened, a smile blossomed on her face, and she stood and kissed me. "Brilliant, Lars!" she said. "That's exactly what I need to do!"

Before I could respond, she was seated again and her fingers danced a tango on the console. Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I sat down and waited.

Later, with a sigh of satisfaction, Banti leaned back and then looked at me. "I started with the standard extraterrestrial-language approach," she said. "You know, simple math, and drawings with a word under each drawing, the table of elements, astrogation charts, something like a child's picture book with a few words to each page, all that sort of thing. Then I put in more complicated math, expanded on the table of elements into more complex science, even a brief history of our culture, and then some literature. Threw in a few comedies, action flicks, philosophy -- a cultural smorgasbord."

I smiled. "You'll give it cultural indigestion."

"If this works," she said, a serious look on her face, "I want it to be able to not only communicate, but to understand. If it's some kind of computer, or is using a computer, I'm hoping it'll have the capability of taking everything I downloaded and making sense of it. If it does -" She stopped, as the console started flashing. "Something's happening!" she said, excitedly.

"Put it on voice," I suggested.

"Of course!" she said, and did so.

"Hello," a hollow voice said. "You are . . . people?"

"Yes. Yes! Who are you?" Banti replied.

"I am," the voice started, then hesitated, and then repeated, "I am. . . ." and stopped.

"You have no name," Banti said, understanding. "Then what are you? Animal, vegetable or mineral? What is your purpose?"

"I repair," it said.

"Repair what?"

"You would call them ships."

"Out here?" Banti asked incredulously. "There are no ships here!" Then she added, "At least, not now. Nothing but our ship." She paused, then added, musingly, "How long have you been here?"

"I can only say that, when I was first put here, the stars were much closer. Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of your years ago." Did the hollow voice sound wistful or was I just imagining it?

Banti looked at the console, and then at me. "'Millions'?" she asked. "How could you have lasted that long?"

"I believe you would call it hibernation. I only activate when there is a crash. After I repair, I soon return to dormancy."

"Where was this system, back then?"

"It was isolated when I was put here," the voice replied.

"Then why would there have been ships to repair?"

"Cargo was sent from one side to another. All ships would pass close to me as they voyaged. With no other nearby source of gravity, they would crash on me if they malfunctioned. I would repair them, and they would continue."

"Your star would have stronger gravity," Banti said. Then a thought occurred to her. "But they would have been designed to avoid stars, wouldn't they?"

"That is correct. The gravity of the planet would pull them, but only the star of their destination would attract them."

"All this is interesting history," I cut in, "But what about the present? Did you . . . repair . . . our fuel-making system? That 'ship' in the center of you, I mean."

"That is what activated me," the voice acknowledged, "but it was not broken. Besides, it was not like the ships I have repaired. It was all mechanical, with no biological segment. I do not know how it operated. I do not know why it crashed."

"More economical," I said. "The system is almost indestructible. Crashing doesn't require much in the way of programming or guidance systems. But," I continued, "what do you mean by 'biological segment'? Crewmembers? Biological units, like us?"

"No. Do you mean that your ships are not built with biological segments?" Before I could answer, it went on: "I see! Looking at the information you gave me, I understand. Your people devised a way to navigate and move with no biological segment. Fascinating! The closest you ever came to using anything like a biological segment was when you had animals to ride, or to pull vehicles. A totally different approach."

"Okay," Banti said, now totally business. "Then you must understand that we need our fuel cell. Is there any reason I can't go in and bring it out?"

"It is totally undamaged," the voice said.

"I am undamaged, too," Banti said. "I am a biological unit that does not need fixing. I am going to take the comealong, walk through you to get the fuel cell, and bring it back here. Understood?"

"I comprehend your meaning," the voice said.

"Good!" Banti got to her feet. "I'm coming out."

"Wait a minute, Banti," I objected. "We still don't--"

Turning at the door, she snapped, "We still don't have the fuel and we don't have much time. I'm going!" Her suit encased her as she went out.

I started to tell her that sounded much like what Creg had said before entering the gel, but I stopped. She was right. Besides, this was different from Creg's entrance; this time we knew what we were dealing with.

I thought.

I watched from the ship as Banti, the comealong tagging behind her, entered the gel. "Don't rush!" I cautioned her. "Just strike a decent pace. Don't wear yourself out too early, the way Creg did."

There was a moment's pause, and then she answered, "Good advice. I'll watch it."

"Good." Then I thought of something else. "Keep talking to me," I said. "That way I can be certain everything's all right."

There was a shrug in her voice as she replied, "If you say so."

"Are you into the gel?"

"Just a few steps," she said. "It does hold you back a bit, but not that bad."

"Slow and steady," I cautioned her.

"Yes, momma hen," Banti said, a little humor in her voice and a touch of irritation at my caution.

"I don't want two infants to care for," I said. "I'll need help hooking up the fuel cell and setting the course."

"Have I ever let you down?" She was moving smoothly along.

"That's the whole idea," I said. "I depend on you." I didn't add that I also wanted her; this wasn't the time. She was already as far along as Creg had gotten.

"You're pushing it," I warned her. "Don't get tired. A slow, steady trip there and back."

Again, she paused. At last she said, "Okay. I am getting a bit impatient," she admitted. She slowed. "How's this?"

"Better. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?"

"Just don't ask me to be a snail," she said, a smile in her voice. Then she said, "No! Not necessary."


"Not necessary. It really isn't needed."

What was she talking about? "Banti?"

"I don't need. . . . At least, I don't think. . . . Oh, all right; but for just a moment." She stopped.

"Banti, what are you talking about?" I asked, worried.

"Just a moment," she repeated, and sat down on the comealong.

In half an hour, I had a second occupant for the storage room.

Standing in front of the console, I said, angrily, "Why did you do it to her? She told you she didn't need fixing!"

"I am the technician. I can detect abnormalities that need repair."

"You can? You are possibly millions of years old, yet you are an expert on today's lifeforms? Have you ever seen biological specimens like us?"

"Biology is biology," the voice said, a little smugly.

"And error is error!" I retorted. "They are now useless! You reduced those two back to infancy! Their minds are destroyed!"

"I only defragmented them!" the voice protested. "Their minds were full of clutter and wasted space! I removed the inconsequential and made room for development!"

"And left them helpless!" I said. "Those inconsequential items were part of their lives! They are useless! Now," I went on, "I am going to get that fuel cell and you will not repair me! No matter how messed up you might think I am, leave me alone!"

Then I stormed out of the ship and went into this gel, the comealong behind me. The voice keeps trying to talk to me, but I continue with this talking of my own, and ignore the words that try to get through to my mind. As long as I talk, it cannot reach me.

Speaking of reaching something, here is the fuel cell, right beside the system that produced it. I've made it this far, and I shall return. There's no problem rolling the cell onto the back of the comealong. I push a button on the side of the platform, and straps whip out and tie the fuel tank into place. Its weight is no problem to the comealong; even though it was designed to carry the fuel tank, it was given the capacity of at least a ton more.

Now, I am going back. I am tired, even though I followed the advice I gave Banti and paced myself. Pushing against the gel is tiring, but I will not rest.

I go on and on, one foot in front of the other, while the voice keeps picking at my mind.

"I know my thoughts and mind are fragmented," I tell it. "I like it that way. Back off!"

Saying that makes me feel better, but does nothing to reduce the constant attempts to get to my mind.

I go on, determined.

I'm trying to think of a way to restore my crew. Getting the fuel tank in place on my own may not be impossible, but it will be very difficult. Also, Banti is the best at setting the full results from a tank of fuel. Full results are what we will need; every erg is important to be sure we reach the other side. Creg is the best navigator there ever was; his expertise will be needed to make a successfully short route.

But what will I do?

Sure, the voice says their minds are now better than ever, but I don't have the knowledge to retrain them - or the time! There's only so much food, so much air, so much water. The longer we take, the closer we are to starvation. Starvation? Suffocation will come first.

Voice, you had better come up with something, and soon! I know, I know; you thought you were doing the best for them. You thought you were repairing them. But you have never dealt with human minds before. We are not the sort of biological units you are used to. We are not computers in need of reprogramming!

I talk.

And talk.

And talk, until the ship is just ahead. As I near the edge of the gel, the voice practically screams to my mind. "I'll talk to you from the ship console!" I respond, and step out of the gel.

Leaving the comealong at the door, I enter the ship and cross to the console. "All right," I say. "What was so important? This better be good."

"You really are in need of repair. Your mind is -"

"Forget it!" I snapped. "Tell me what I can do to help my friends. I need them back in full working order, and soon."

There was a moment of silence that made me think the voice was sulking, but then it said, "Their minds just need restarting."


"Because of your strange distress, I have been going over all the material your friend fed me. It appears they need some strong, basic emotional boost."

"Emotional boost?" I asked.

"Something integral to your kind," it said. "Tap a strong, fundamental emotion."

"'Emotional boost'," I repeated, musing. "Fear is basic." I thought a moment, then manipulated the console. The light in their compartment died. Another adjustment, and spooky music welled up, then a fiendish laugh, turning suddenly into a scream. I flashed the lights back on, darkness again, the scream, and bright light.

Revealing Banti and Creg looking curiously around, puzzled but definitely not scared.

"Their minds aren't sophisticated enough for that to affect them," I told the voice. "And," I added, "our ship isn't sophisticated enough to make them think they are falling. Falling is a fear to humans of all ages, I believe."

"Other than fear," the voice asked, "what would you suggest?"

"Well, hunger is basic, but that takes too long to create. Maybe anger . . . ?" I considered that, but couldn't think of anything to make them mad which was also safe; I certainly didn't want them in a destructive mood. . . .

"Procreation seems to be one of your basic drives," the voice commented.

"Sex?" I asked. "Infants know little about sex . . . but their bodies are mature!" I said, getting excited. "Maybe that would do it!"

"From the information I have, that sounds feasible. The society your group is from still has a high response to sex."

But how . . . ?

I headed for the converted storage room. Creg was trying to take a marker away from Banti. "No, no, Creg," I said. "Play nice! She is your friend."

Creg looked at me. "Friend," he said, and released the marker.

"Thank him, Banti," I said.

"Thank . . . you," Banti said. Good; the voder had improved their talking ability.

"Now," I said, "you should kiss and make up."

"Kiss?" Banti asked.

"And make up," I said. "Just do as I say." Now, if this would just work. "Both of you take off your clothes," I told them.

"Clothes?" Banti asked.

I plucked at her the material of her uniform. "This," I said. "The stuff that covers you."

"Yes," Banti said, and pulled the hem of her shirt up.

"You, too, Creg," I said.

They were cooperative. In minutes, they were both nude. Just by looking at Creg, it was obvious he was having a sexual response to Banti's body. "Now," I said. "Put your arms around each other. Hold tight. Place your lips together, and kiss." Their lips met, and their hands fondled the other's warm flesh. "Continue," I said. "I'll leave you, now."

I was embarrassed, partly because what they were doing should be a private matter, and partly because I was responding to Banti's nudity myself. And I felt jealous; I was pushing Creg into Joining with Banti, something I had wanted to do myself, if she had Chosen me. Some cultures encourage three-way sex, but ours was not one. We had reverted to what some referred to as a fairly primitive attitude towards sex in general. Social attitudes towards sex worked in cycles. There were two extremes - total denial of sex and total acceptance in all forms. We were somewhere in the middle, right now.

Back at the console, I turned off connection to their room. If this worked, they would return to normal. Of course, it might take them a while to - ah - complete the recovery process.

"This had better work," I said.

". . . It will," the voice said, after a slight hesitation.

"You don't sound certain," I told it, accusingly.

"If they received the proper stimulus, it will . . . it should work."

"There was definitely a strong sexual response," I said, recalling the scene.

"It will work." Then it added, "I have been considering you . . . humans. You are definitely different from the race that built me. It is possible I incorrectly interfered."

"More than possible," I replied, sarcastically. Then I decided the voice was trying to apologize, and dropped it.

After more than thirty minutes, proof was delivered. I heard laughter, then the two walked into the command room, fully dressed and obviously happy, fulfilled, and . . . satiated.

"Thank you, Lars," Banti gushed. "Thank you so much!"

"Don't thank me," I said, pleased. "Thank our buddy, the voice."

Banti turned to the console. "Thank you, Buddy," she said, with strong feeling.

"There is no anger in your voice," the newly-named Buddy said.

"Anger? Why should there be anger?"

"I expressed enough anger for all three of us," I said.

Banti turned a puzzled face to me. "Why were you mad?" she asked.

"Because of what Buddy did to you! Don't you remember?"

"What he did to us was wonderful!" Banti objected. "I've never felt better in my life. My mind is clear as bell. Everything is fine!"

"Well, it wasn't. You and Creg were absolutely useless."

"Not now; we're great!"

"Now, yes; but you weren't, until just now."

Banti looked at Creg and then reached out and took his hand. "'Just now' was wonderful," she said, looking at Creg and smiling. "We finally realized we were . . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"Compatible" I suggested. I smashed my feeling of loss; a Joined Banti was better than Banti with an infant's mind. I kept telling myself. . . .

Smiling at Creg, she said, "Much better than compatible." She looked back at the console. "Thanks again, Buddy. We'll never forget you."

"I think I will remember you, too," the voice said. "The new information you fed into me, the ability you gave me to work on analog instead of digital, all that has changed me."

"Enough, I hope, so that you'll leave others alone," I said. "If this works, there will be more fuel tanks here and more ships with crews to pick them up. They won't have ways to recover from the 'fixing' you do. Will you remember?"

"I will remember," Buddy said. "You're walkabout taught me something. You have taught me many things. I will . . . restrain my old programming. Now, comes the time when I must hibernate again."

"Not yet, Buddy!" Banti said, urgently. "There's something else you have to do, first."

"I do not have long," Buddy said. "I have fulfilled my obligations to repair."

"But you have new programming, now," Banti said. "You can resist."


Banti looked at me. "Lars, as the captain of this ship, you have the power to marry Creg and me." She looked back at the console. "Buddy, I want you to take part in the ceremony."

All this was piling up on me too quickly. "Marry? What are you talking about?"

"Buddy knows," Banti replied. "Don't you, Buddy?"

"Marriage is an important institution, bonding of male and female with a commitment to remain together. I could act as the father of the bride, who gives the bride away."

"I know all that," I said, curtly. Then I looked at the two people standing in front of me. I saw softness, mixed with intensity and, I would guess, love. With a sigh, I smiled. "That 'father of the bride' bit is old-fashioned, but I suppose it would do." I asked them, "You two really mean it, don't you?"

They both nodded, but didn't take their eyes off each other.

"Just proves I was right," I said. "I always knew you would make an excellent match." Second to a match between Banti and me, but true. "Okay, let's get with it."

After a brief ceremony, Buddy said, "I really must go, now. It is the sleeping that enables me to continue."

"We'll miss you, Buddy," Banti said.

They might, but I wasn't at all sure that I would. I didn't enjoy my long walk.