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Ithaca by Terri
Ithaca by Terri
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Story Notes:

The stories are presented in suggested reading order; this is not chronological order.

 

Although the arc isn't complete, each individual story is finished, and can be read separately to the others.

 

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No profit is being made. No copyright infringement is intended.

My name is Sister Catherine Mary and this is what happened.

I belong to the Sisters of Saint Catherine. For centuries our Order has maintained its convents and guesthouses where we welcome those in need of peace or a safe haven. All are welcome, whether or not they can pay; it is through this tradition of hosting the needy that I met a woman who either had a most remarkable tale to tell or who was completely insane.

When I was twenty-one, I joined the order; I met Fola Murphy when I was thirty-five or thirty-six, I disremember exactly.

It was high summer, I do remember that, and afternoon. I had been escorting a group of visitors around our convent. Our convent is very old, a century and a half then, now nearly two hundred years. The tourists still come.

Tours begin and end, then and now, at the impressive foyer; built of white stone native to the area, it stays cool in even the worst summer heat so all of us were glad to return to that echoing space. Visitors were checking in as I farewelled the tourists. I noticed one in particular; she didn't fit in with the usual backpacker crowd, being older than some, in her early thirties, and considerably neater than most.

I recall thinking that Fola looked played out, as though she'd been travelling far too long and would drop where she stood. By the time she'd signed in, the last of the tourists had left, and I offered to take her backpack for her.

She smiled at me, tired as she was, and said she'd manage it; "I've carted it over half the world. I should be able to cope with a hallway. But if you could direct me...?" She showed me her key with the room number on it.

First floor along the hall...I walked with her rather than just giving her directions. "Our rooms are basic, as I'm sure you know," I started to say.

That smile again, weary but still gentle. "All I need is a bed and a room that doesn't leak when it rains. I'm used to making do." She spoke an-Spectrai fluently but with a peculiar style. Her accent was good, but the way she constructed her sentences was unusual; it nagged at me.

"Have you been travelling long?"

She sighed, resettling the heavy pack on her shoulders. "Too long."

"Well, you've found a home now. For a while at least." I gestured at a white painted door. "And this is it."

As I'd told her, the room was simple; whitewashed walls of stone, bare wooden floor with only a bed, nightstand, chair and wardrobe for furniture; double doors opened out onto the balcony that circled the walls, overlooking our courtyard.

The convent is built in a pentagon shape with one of the sides missing, with a central courtyard. That's our reflection garden, complete with grotto and pond; it's there for no other reason than beauty and contemplation. Behind the convent itself are our more practical vegetable gardens; we try to be self-sufficient as far as possible, so they're extensive.

"I'll leave you to settle in. The bathroom - shared facilities - is down the hall. We start serving dinner in an hour and a half, and...we hold morning and evening chapel services. You're welcome to attend...." I left it hanging, and Fola nodded, having the kindness to not reject the idea outright. Visitors don't have to attend services unless they want to.

"Thank you for the offer."

I left her and heard the door lock behind me.

Now why had I made that offer? Those that wanted to worship asked for themselves; those that didn't usually didn't want to feel that they were being pushed. So why had I?

Even now, it's hard to put into words. But I understood that Fola was looking for peace; she'd said she'd been travelling for too long. She looked to be in her early thirties but the look in her eyes when she'd said that spoke of years of trouble.

That was the first time I thought that she might be running from someone.

###

I spent most of the next day in the contemplation garden, except for the hottest hours in the middle of the day. Contemplation, however, was not the aim; weeding was.

Fola joined me in the early evening, when the primary sun had set and the gentle sun was sitting on the horizon. It's a beautiful time of day, purple twilight with little heat and soft-edged shadows. Fola settled on the grass near me, watching.

"Did you get out to take a look around the town at all today?" I asked her.

"No. I was going to, but I was still too tired for much in the way of tourism." She picked a stalk of grass and crushed it, inhaling the fresh scent. "I ended up sleeping for much of the day."

I nodded, recalling again how close to exhaustion she'd seemed when she'd arrived, and puzzling again over the way she spoke, the puzzling sentence construction.

"What should I look at when I go out tomorrow?"

I considered; our town isn't much, really. The main thing that brings tourists here is the ruin of the old capital, destroyed in the war a century and a half ago. "Well, the usual visitor spends a day or two - or more - out at eil-Gharos. There's regular transport between here and there." Eil-Gharos, old Gharos, as opposed to Gharos, our town.

"I will get out there eventually...but I don't think I'm quite ready for it yet. In eo-Gharos?"

"You speak oddly."

She quirked an eyebrow. "How do you mean?

"It isn't accent so much; you would nearly pass for one of us. But you use old terms. Eo-Gharos; new Gharos. Nobody ever calls it that. Eil-Gharos is one thing - it's a ruin, so the older word seems to fit. But Gharos hasn't been New Gharos for a long time."

"I'm an historian of sorts, so it made sense to learn the old form; that's what's used in most of the documents I look at." she said.

"Here on Spectra?"

"No. Earth. To do with the war."

"Why that period?"

"Oh..." She dragged the single syllable out. "That's a long story. The short form is that an ancestress of mine played a part in it."

"She was a diplomat, or..."

"She was a soldier. A rather unique one. She was a member of an...elite unit, special operations I guess you could say. Five of them, and I understand they were rather effective." She picked at more grass. "So, within Gharos, if that's the preferred form, what is there to do?" Fola picked the conversation up as though the matter of her ancestry had never come up, and I turned my mind to an answer.

"Not much, truly. The marketplace can be fun. Mostly it's food and household basics, but on restdays - tomorrow and the next day - there's more on."

She nodded in sharp satisfaction. "I'll try that for a start then." She picked herself and went inside, leaving me with the weeds and my thoughts.

As a race, we tend to be mindful of the past. I'm given to understand that, on other planets, in other cultures, mathematics and science or language, even philosophy, may be the subjects given most emphasis in schools; for us, it's history. Maybe it's because we're an ancient civilisation, maybe it's because of a more recent collective guilt, but we enshrine the past. So I had my suspicions about her ancestress. Most of the action in the war had involved masses of force; there had been only a few groups that fit the description on Spectra's side, and only one on Earth's.

G-Force, and the thought sent a shiver down my spine.

Oh, nobody held any resentment towards them or Earth any more, that had died out over a century before. Most people, once the insanity was over, were happy to that the war was past, reduced to a comfortable, historical distance. They just wanted to live, and live well, and you can't do that when your planet's starting wars with every other world that counts.

But the stories about those five were downright spooky at times. I shook my head; even if her many-times-great-grandmother had had the ability to fly and fight like a demon, that didn't mean Fola had inherited those traits. She was just a tourist, here on Spectra for reasons of her own, to see the sights and tour the ruins where her ancestress had helped bring down a monster, that was all.

I went back to my weeding.

###

Several times over the next few days, I saw Fola around the convent; she didn't seem to go out much. Frequently she spent the middle hours of the day asleep in the cool of her room.

She started helping out in the kitchen; although she wouldn't cook, she lent a hand on food preparation. But it was the contemplation garden that was more to her taste, I think; that was where I saw her most frequently, and we talked.

"There's so little known about them here," I said. She'd joined me in the garden; we were both weeding. I'd protested that she didn't have to help, but she'd overridden me by asking about plants and then simply beginning to uproot the unwanted ones. I was actually happy to have some help; it's a never-ending job, and it was good to have company. Our talk had turned to the war and, by extension, her ancestress.

"That's not so different to Earth." Fola dug her fingers into the dark earth. "Remember, their identities were kept a secret for security reasons, and much of their work was classified. Even now, what people think they know is half-legend, not fact."

"You know more, I suppose?"

"More than most. But how much of what I know is true and how much has been distorted by retelling through generations? I don't know." She pulled a weed out of the earth. "Tell me something.... I was in the marketplace this morning and I saw something painted on the wall. Graffiti. It was the old Spectran insignia, that devil's-head logo Zoltar and his troops used to use."

I nodded; that sort of thing crops up occasionally. Reverence for the past has two sides. At least.

"Is it serious? Are there people who still believe in Zoltar's ideals?"

I didn't really know how to answer that. It's a planetary shame that we've inherited, and we'd rather ignore those who still dream dreams that were ended a century and a half ago.

Fola sat back on her heels. "Let me tell you something. Nearly three hundred years ago, Earth had its own monster. The difference was the level of technology available to him and the fact that he only dreamed of conquering a continent, not an entire planet. He committed suicide in a bunker at the end of the war when it was plain he couldn't win, but fifty years later people still firmly believed he was alive and would one day emerge from hiding and lead them to victory over the lesser races.

"When enough time had passed, they stopped believing he was alive, but they still believed in his ideals. They still marched and preached hate; a few are still at it." She dug ferociously. "I'm telling you this so you'll understand that Spectra is not the only planet with skeletons in its closet. Earth does too. I'm in no position to judge; I'm only curious."

I sighed. "I wish I didn't have to admit it, but it's true. Yes, some people still believe. Only a few."

"Well, every planet's got its share of them, I suppose." Her voice was soft and tired. "I always wonder, every time I see Earth's neo-Nazis, how many times we have to go through it before all the idiots learn. And how long the patience of those who watch the idiots will last."

With that, she went back to her weeding.

###

It was several more days before we really had the chance to talk again; apparently acclimated to the midday heat and light - Gharos is mostly white-walled to reflect the heat and the glare can be painful to those who aren't accustomed to it - Fola spent hours in the town, walking around and looking around our few tourist attractions. She often ate in town and returned to the convent well into the night.

Then early one evening, after her four days of intensive exploration, she joined me again in the garden, bringing two cups of tea. "Break time," she said, settling herself on the grass beside me and handing me one of the cups.

"Thank you."

"I'm going out to eil-Gharos tomorrow," she said without preamble. "and I wondered if you wanted to come along. Keep me company and stop me from getting lost."

I considered it; our Order has never been a cloistered one. Even in our history on Earth, before we came to Spectra, we never stayed inside all that much. And I hadn't been out to the ruins for a long time. Almost every Spectran visits there at some point; it's a stark reminder of what we once did, who we once were. My parents took me and my sibs; a trek halfway around the world from the city where I was born and raised, and I hadn't been back since. To see it through an Earther's eyes...

"All right. If I can get permission to be away from here for the day, I'll be happy to."

When it's brought down to the simplest possible explanation, I liked her company. She was intelligent and, unlike many travelers who want to see the sights, she was a quiet, contemplative sort of person. Maybe it was due to her historical studies, or maybe she'd been drawn to them because of a nature that already existed. But, in comparison to some of the other travelers we've had stay with us, her quiet was a relief.

After the nightmeal, I found her reading in her room. Permission acquired, we made our plans. There was regular transport, which made it easy; we'd take the first run out and the last run back, take a lunch with us.

###

Eil-Gharos is, even now, an unsettling experience. It was never that large a city; it was built mainly to guard and supply Zoltar's palace, not to house and employ a population. Picture a circle, with six main avenues radiating out from a central point; that central point on what once was the highest rise of land being Zoltar's sprawling, ugly palace. Of course, that is where the worst devastation is.

We alighted and began our trek along one of the six radiating avenues. We walked on our own; there are professional tours and guides, but they're not a condition of entry. As we walked, I realised one would have been superfluous anyway. Fola proved more than adequate at giving information.

It's an eerie place, eil-Gharos, more so than I remembered from my only other visit there; I was still in school then. The buildings at the outer edge were relatively undamaged except by wind and weather of a century and a half, but as we walked further, the destruction grew. Through the inner half of the city, you can't rush; uncertain footing precludes hurry. So does the atmosphere; it would feel like running through a graveyard.

Halfway in, buildings were collapsed instead of damaged, toppled by the shockwave of that final cataclysmic but contained explosion. Zoltar's palace had been protected by a force-field; when the Phoenix had crashed the barrier and ploughed into the palace, that force-field had contained the worst of the detonation, and magnified it within its folds. So there was a demarcation, a terminator.

We were in the ruins proper, and even our slight conversation had ceased. Partly that was because we were climbing the hill, the rise before the crater, but mostly it was because that place discouraged casual chatter.

The walk in lasted four hours and it seemed to last a year; time can be elastic under certain circumstances. At last we stood on the lip of the crater, having walked the last half-kilometre over rubble.

I had last seen this sight in the flesh when I was a schoolgirl, twenty years before, and of course I'd seen images, thousands of them. But it still took my breath away.

At the centre of the crater, where Zoltar's palace had once stood, there was a flat plain; rock, metal and glass had incinerated, melted; the liquid had cooled level as glass, black as murder. That was perhaps a kilometre across and far below; surrounding it, the bent-back stubs of buildings that hadn't quite suffered the same fate.

It was a dead place, that was all, a place where the wind whistled - or were they the ghosts of the dead? "How did anyone ever escape this?" My voice had no carrying power.

"Zoltar knew there were four G Forcers loose in his city out there - " And she waved her hand back towards the demi-hell behind us. "But he also knew the Phoenix was above. The warship was damaged, badly, barely staying aloft. The pilot knew he had minutes of flight left before it crashed..." She took a deep, shaky breath. "So he deliberately crashed it into the palace. Zoltar knew it was coming and he ran."

Fola's voice had gained strength over the last sentence, but in the middle of her recitation, she'd sounded about to crack, and when I looked at her, there were tears on her face. She kept speaking.

"The commander of G Force and one other member found Zoltar out in the city. He'd been hurt in the explosion - burned - but he was alive. They arrested him, took him back to Earth for trial."

"This place..." I started, then stopped. The look on her face said she was miles away. Or years away, with her forebear? Whichever, she wasn't listening to me. She stood at the very lip of the crater, looking down over that charred hell for an hour, then we turned back. The walk out was silent.

###

At the lowest tide of night, I couldn't sleep. Partly it was my aching muscles from all the walking; mostly it was the memory of what I'd seen that day. I left my room and went to the kitchen for a cup of tea.

I wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. Fola was there ahead of me, still dressed, seated at the battered kitchen table.

"Insomnia strikes again," she said. "That place..."

"I know what you mean. The first time I saw it I had nightmares for weeks afterwards." I made my tea; Fola already had one in front of her. "That must have been something special for you, studying the history of that period." I sat beside her.

The expression that crossed her face wasn't a smile for all that her lips twisted up. It was the bitterest thing I've ever seen on anyone's face, before or since. "Special...that's not the word I'd choose."

"Have you been there before?"

She sipped her tea, hair fallen forward like wings around her face. "I've been to Spectra a few times, a while back. Once before to Zoltar's palace."

Something about her attitude seemed to beg questions. Or, more likely, it was just my own curiosity. "When?"

A long pause, and then she answered. "One hundred and fifty two years ago. When the palace still stood. When G1 and I arrested Zoltar."

There isn't much you can say to something like that. We sat in silence for long minutes.

"You're saying, you're over one hundred and fifty--"

"I was nineteen when the war ended. Now I'm one hundred and seventy one." She looked at me as though she were the skeptic when I didn't immediately burst out laughing. "I want to show you something." She stood, went to the kitchen dresser and took a paring knife, short-bladed and very sharp, out of one of the drawers. "Watch this." She set the tip of the knife against the pad of her left index finger - and flicked the knife quick and hard, digging it deep into her flesh. She gave no indication of pain when she did it, either.

I swore - a very un-sisterly thing to do, I admit, but I've not often seen people deliberately harm themselves like that.

She put the knife down, sending it sliding along the counter until it was well out of her reach. "Take a good look. I did that for a reason," she said.

I grabbed her hand. Blood was welling, and I held her hand over the sink. "It had better be a good one." I turned away and hunted up the first aid kit, digging out an adhesive dressing, suppressing thoughts about danger. I will admit, however, I took a sidelong look to see if there was anything else sharp within range. There wasn't, and she made no move as I dressed the cut. It was deep, I'd swear to that to this day.

She tolerated the attention, and resumed her seat. "I'm not dangerous, you know."

I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was blushing. "Why in the name of God...why would you hurt yourself like that? Or didn't it hurt?" She hadn't so much as flinched.

"Pain can be ignored, up to a point. But remember how that looked. It'll be important later. Now, do you want to hear this story?"

It wasn't that I immediately believed her; I didn't. But I did want to know what had started her on this delusion. So I sat back down, taking a chair opposite her, the table between us.

She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a small black rectangle the size of a deck of cards; a portable holo projector, although at first glance a very old fashioned one. "It's getting near impossible to find batteries for this thing, it's so old," she said as she thumbed the switch.

The pictures weren't holos but transfers from old photos; they were small and two dimensional, but the definition was good. The first image was a group shot, six people standing close together.

She named them as she pointed to each; "Mark, our commander; Jason, Tiny, Keyop. Security Chief David Anderson. Me."

I took the unit and studied the image closely; the woman in the photo did look enough like Fola to be her, although perhaps fifteen years younger. But that could just be a family resemblance... I handed the projector back to her and she thumbed the switch to show the next picture. Another group picture, five people - but in uniform this time. G Force uniform.

"The official portrait, I guess you'd say. They took this when G Force was commissioned." Flick to the next picture; a wedding? A formal occasion, anyway. "Mark and I married after the war ended. We were going to be so happy, that was the plan..." Her voice trailed off.

"What happened? Where are your teammates now? Here on Spectra?" Then I remembered what she'd said about their pilot and ducked my head.

She shook her head. "Tiny died when he crashed the Phoenix into Zoltar's palace. Keyop..." A long pause. "I'll tell it in order.

"Three of us were orphans. Mark's father disappeared when he was four; his mother died a few years later, and because his parents had been close friends of Anderson's Mark was given into his custody. My parents and Jason's had died in accidents, Tiny's as well, although he did still have relatives alive. Keyop was a construct, a clone grown specifically for our project. Anderson was on the team that designed him.

"We were given a few years to live together, then taken for training as G Force. Formally, we started when I was nine or ten. Mark, Jason and Tiny were all a little older, a year or two, Keyop was three."

I started to protest; there was no way a child that young could be trained to fight.

Fola cut me off. "He wasn't a normal child. Forget that. He was a clone, as I've said, and areas of his development were incredibly accelerated."

"Not much of a childhood for him. For any of you." Understand, at this point, I didn't believe her, but I was willing to play by her rules for the time being.

"No; it was on the bizarre side. But kids make the best of things. Other children had toys, so did we; it's just that our were more dangerous. Other girls my age got crushes on boys, spent time playing with makeup and the like; when I had a fight with my foster brothers once, I locked myself in the lab and spent fourteen hours computer-modeling cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine and improving the mix for a better explosive yield." She noticed my look. "Otherwise known as RDX, or plastic explosive. It was fairly popular at the time. Lightweight, difficult to detect, pretty high-yield, even without my tinkering.

"That's what I mean by all of us having our own toys, and making our own fun. We had no choice. When you're a child, your options are limited to what you're given. So we trained, and we thought we were doing the right thing. The ethics of it didn't really arise in our minds, not for years. When they did, I spent years hating Anderson for what he'd done to us."

"But surely it was in a good cause?"

"Oh yes...and I reminded myself of that many times when I spent years trying to readjust to being a normal human being, not a warrior. When you're trained that young, when all you know is fighting and paranoia, everyday suburban existence is a culture shock." She turned the little projector off and put it back in her pocket. "We trained like hell, we fought and we won. We thought we could settle down and live normal lives."

"What happened?"

"Everything was normal for a little while, the four of us left alive stayed in close contact. Mark and I married, as I've said. Then, and remember how much younger Keyop was than the rest of us, when he turned thirteen...things began to go wrong. He was a clone, and genetically engineered to a fare-thee-well by experts who weren't quite expert enough. Something went haywire when he reached puberty. He fought as hard as he could, but when your own biology rebels against you and all the scientists can't figure out either what they did wrong or what to do--" She stopped suddenly and looked down at the table.

I think that was the moment that I began to believe that she believed - that she wasn't just spinning a story - and found myself wanting to believe her as well. For a good five minutes I waited for her to recollect herself, getting up to make each of us a fresh cup of tea to give her time. I set her cup in front of her.

"Thank you."

"You still grieve."

"Every day." Her voice was hoarse with pain. "Whatever else he was, he was my little brother. When Keyop died, that was when I started to hate Anderson. He designed him, after all." She sipped her tea and fell silent again.

I wanted her to continue her story; even if it was a delusion, it was fascinating. But I didn't want to prod her, not just then. I didn't have to, either, because she continued on her own.

"About a year later, Chief Anderson died. He'd still been Chief of Galactic Security at that point and his death was sudden. Cerebral hemorrhage. Time had passed, but not enough for me to forgive him for Keyop. I went to the funeral but it was all I could do not to shout out 'Hallelujah, the old bastard's dead.' For Keyop, and for what he'd done to us.

"They put McGarvey, Anderson's deputy, into the job, and he lasted for three years or so. Then I took over; I'd been consulting for him anyway, so when he quit I was the natural choice."

"Your husband?"

Fola shook her head. "He'd already left by then; that was one reason I was a success at the job. I buried myself in it, trying to forget for a few hours each day... Like I said, none of us were adjusting particularly well to the normal suburban routine. We had to get back in harness or go crazy. I had my consulting with GalSec, Mark had...other avenues."

I wanted to ask her what those avenues were, but the closed look on her face stopped me; she was being honest about most things, but evidently some areas were not open for public scrutiny. I chose to change tack instead. "There's one area that you haven't covered--"

"More than that, surely."

She was right; I had plenty of questions for her, but there was one that I really wanted an answer for. "If you really are a hundred and seventy one, I take it something besides clean living is responsible for your longevity."

She laughed once, then sobered. "Something else indeed.

"I mentioned training; how early in life we started and how hard we worked. But that wasn't the only factor in our...makeup. Keyop's genetic engineering meant he didn't need them, but the rest of us were implanted before puberty with a series of implants. Cerebonics."

"What were they for?"

"To turn us into something...other than human, I think." She looked at me, one eyebrow hooked. "Do you understand? Those implants tweaked us. Faster, stronger - our reaction times are a fraction of those of a normal human. I'm stronger than anyone you ever met, even if I don't look it. I can go sixty or so hours without sleep without losing my edge, although I don't particularly enjoy it, and up to another thirty hours after that with some impairment to my judgement. They did other things too. We were immune to some degree to a range of drugs, extreme heat was something we could cope with if not enjoy." She started picking at the dressing on her finger, the one she'd sliced open so casually; the dressing peeled off. "They helped us heal and kept us able to go in battle when a normal human would be in hospital, or near collapse from physical trauma."

Fola displayed her fingertip. The deep cut was not quite healed, but it was well on the way. Instead of a deep slice, there was a pale scar across the loops and whorls of her fingerprint; there was hardly any blood on the dressing either.

"See? Our cerebonic implants help us heal very rapidly. There are some things they can't heal, of course; there's a limit to how much damage even we can take and still survive. That's how Tiny died; too much damage, there was nothing for the implants to work with. And Keyop - when your entire genetic makeup rebels..."

"The side effect our technological wizards never expected when they were developing cerebonics, of course, was what something which those healing abilities would do with our aging process. It's the cerebonics that keep us - all three of us survivors - alive. They're healing the damage of aging as soon as it occurs.

"I look in my early thirties. That means I've physically aged around fifteen years in the century and a half since the end of the war. Based on current human life expectancy figures, I'll probably live another seven hundred or so years."

If it's difficult to come up with a response to the announcement that someone's one hundred and seventy-some years old, the offhand comment that they expect to see another seven centuries is even more of a facer. All I could do was stare at her. It says in the bible that Methuselah lived nearly a thousand years, and all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven, but that had been ordained by God, not by man. "How do you..." I had to swallow. "How do you cope, how do you handle knowing you're going to live..." I was sounding like a magazine interview.

"So far, 'one day at a time' has worked. And the alternative is not something I'm prepared to contemplate. I'm tired of life some days, but not that tired." Her smile was wintry. "But if you ask me in another century or two, I might give a different answer."

I said a prayer for her there and then; Oh God, give her strength... The sight of that almost-healed wound, small as it was, had rocked me. "Do they - GalSec - know about you?" It was all I could think of to ask.

"Of course. They created me - all of us. I still work for them, on and off. They don't like any of us. To them, we're something unnatural, I think, a once-necessary evil that hasn't got the grace to go away when its time is up. We're still classified.

"By the time I turned forty, I'd started to notice...well, let's just say I'd expected at least one gray hair by then, but none showed up. So I started digging in Anderson's files. He had a large hand in developing the cerebonic technology in the first place, and if there was any clue about what was happening to us, I was sure it would be there."

It was a guess, but I said it anyway on a hunch. "He knew."

Fola nodded. "Oh yes. And he never told us. It was in his notes. The unexpected life span of test animals while they were developing the cerebonics told him and his scientists what would happen to us. He knew before he had us implanted with the damned things, and he went ahead and ordered it done anyway. That was another reason for me to spend a decade or two hating him."

"Have you stopped yet?"

She shrugged in resignation. "There's no point. He's dead, so he can't hear me curse him. And...." She sighed. "Along the line, I discovered that we all deal with the devil. I've been as guilty of expediency as he was, however much I might wish otherwise. And I've investigated having the cerebonics removed; it can't be done, not without killing the subject. And, as I said, I'm not ready to quit yet." She stood and stretched. "Any other questions?"

Given time to think, I would have come up with roughly a thousand, but I could manage only two; "Is Fola Murphy your real name? And are you on or off duty for Galactic Security at the moment?"

She started to walk from the kitchen and didn't look back. "No, and classified. Good night."

"See you in the morning," I said faintly.

She didn't answer; just walked away. I heard her footsteps on the bare wooden floors as she walked down the hall and up the stairs.

###

I didn't go looking for Fola immediately the next morning. Instead, I spent the morning in the contemplation garden. It gave me time to think at least. The way that cut on her finger had healed...

When I went in for lunch, I asked if anyone had seen her. Sister Therese said she'd left early in the morning, around dawn. "She left you a note," she said and handed me an envelope; my name was written on the front in a graceful, upright hand.

Instead of staying inside for lunch I returned to the contemplation garden and read my letter there.

Believe if you want that I'm delusional; I can't make you believe me.

But I saw it start, and I saw it end, when our pilot crashed the Phoenix into Zoltar's palace although he knew he'd die in the attempt and my commander and I arrested that madman. I testified at his trial. I saw his body; he hanged himself after two decades in prison, when he finally understood that he was never getting out.

I watched my beloved younger brother die from inadequate gene-tinkering, performed by inadequate wizards, led by the man I once respected and loved, then spent a decade cursing.

All the medals they hung around our necks never compensated for those losses. The honours never made up for the years of trying to adjust to a normal life. We were trained as war dogs, and I don't think any of us ever really recovered.

I never thought I'd return to Spectra; even if I returned, I never thought I'd see that devil's head painted openly on walls. Be warned; Earth will not sit passively by and watch the rise of a second dictator. There are old men in back rooms who watch what is happening, and they are growing uneasy. They look at me and my surviving teammates and say, "This is what we had to create last time to survive the conflict; we will not create such again. There is another way to deal with the problem." If that 'other way' is to launch a pre-emptive strike and take control of Spectra, impose martial law or worse, they will do it. Believe me.

Meantime, thank you for your hospitality; maybe I'll come back in half a century and see whether or not you believed my tale.

Be well, friend, and pray I never have to come back as Earth's protector.

###

So now, fifty years after I first met her, I spend time in the marketplace of Gharos. After all, that half-century has passed and you never know... I don't honestly know if she'll come back and visit me or not. When she does, she'll only look a few years older; I'll still recognise her, although I don't think she'll recognise me so easily.

Thinking back, I recall how little she smiled; even when she did it never touched her eyes. I remember the anger and grief she carried with her. In fifty years would they have diminished at all?

The sunlight's brilliant as I walk through the crowded marketplace. My hips and feet ache; my hair is grey and my eyesight is shot; I'm getting old.

But at least I can.

 

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