by John R. Plunkett
Captain Van Nuys entered the briefing room and took a seat at the center of the table. Commander Roquefort took a seat to his right. To the captain's left, Lt. Sara Beckman of Starfleet Intelligence was already seated. "We're ready," the captain announced.
Across the room a door opened. Doctor Cinnamon Sugar entered, leading the rescuee by the hand, as if she were a child. Indeed, she was small enough to pass for one, and her large, soft eyes only heightened the appearance of youth. The red thermal blanket she wore wrapped around herself didn't quite cover the shapely and distinctly un-childlike curve of her hips, however. Cinnamon Sugar pulled out a chair and the fem climbed into it. Literally; she actually had to boost herself up in order to sit down. The tabletop came all the way up to her chest. Cinnamon Sugar rested hir haunches on the floor, keeping hir torso upright, watching the party opposite with a distinctly disapproving air.
"Christ on a crutch," Lt. Beckman muttered. "She really does look just like hir."
"A little older, maybe," Commander Roquefort added "But other than that, I'd call 'em twins."
"What's your name, dear?" Captain Van Nuys gently inquired.
"Even sounds just like hir," Lt. Beckman commented.
"Are you related to Leanna?" Captain Van Nuys asked.
"Yes sir. Shi's my sister."
"Do you have any more sisters?" Lt. Beckman asked.
"Yes ma'am. Four."
"Where are they?"
"Still in cold storage. They're backup, in case something happens to me."
"Why did they need six of you?" Commander Roquefort inquired.
"The Link is still experimental technology," Selah explained. "Dr. Havershiem wasn't sure I'd survive the conversion process, so he had Leanna brought to term and prepared in case I didn't work out."
"You mean Dr. Gulius Havershiem, general secretary of the Truth party?" Captain Van Nuys interjected.
"What is this 'Link?'" Lt. Beckman demanded.
"She has a cybernetic implant in her skull," Cinnamon Sugar explained. "It's some kind of quantum matrix computer; the shielding blocks gravitonic scanners, so I haven't been able to examine it."
"Dr. Havershiem made you?" Captain Van Nuys asked.
"Himself. I'm his personal secretary."
A heavy silence followed that announcement. "Then what are you doing here, Selah?" Lt. Beckman wanted to know. Her gaze bored into Selah with a frightening intensity.
"Dr. Havershiem wanted me to do something," Selah began. "It involved Leanna. I don't know how; Dr. Cooper scrambled my memories."
"How can he do that?" Lt. Beckman wanted to know.
"He has a machine he calls the Big Rat," Selah explained. "He wanted a way to train Morphs while they were still growing, by injecting memories directly into their brains. The Big Rat does that, but it needs a client implant installed in the subject's brain, so it's not really practical. Working on the client implant led Dr. Cooper to develop the Link, which can also serve as a Big Rat interface."
"So they can re-write your memory any time they want?" Lt. Beckman demanded, glowering darkly.
"Not as such," Selah replied. "You can't erase organic memory the way you'd blank a data module. You can replace the associations that lead to them. The memories are technically still there, but... you've forgotten how to find them, as it were."
"Why did they do it?" Captain Van Nuys inquired.
"I was supposed to escape. I was supposed to know enough that you all would be sure to take me in, but not enough to give away anything really important. Dr. Cooper and Dr. Havershiem argued over what exactly that should be, though. The programming was supposed to be done in two days, but they ended up letting me sit for several days while they hashed it out. They'd given me the wipe but hadn't yet installed the new programming."
Then how'd you know Leanna was involved?" Lt. Beckman chimed in.
"I wrote myself a note."
"On the doctor's tea tray."
"Wouldn't someone have noticed that?"
"Why? Cleaning up is Morph work, and I was the only one there at the time. The only Morph, I mean." She paused a moment. "Besides," she continued in a more subdued tone, "What would I have to lose? Dr. Havershiem wouldn't beat me or kill me, I'm too valuable. Besides, he doesn't have to. All he has to do is make me forget, once he knows what to look for."
"Why would Leanna's plight matter to you?" Lt. Beckman asked in a somewhat gentler tone than she'd been using so far. "Leanna's been gone for years. Why was it only now that you decided to run away?"
Selah lowered her eyes and remained silent for some time. "I..." she began. "It's really pretty stupid," she finally admitted. "I... I worked for Dr. Havershiem, but I never really liked him. He was my master, and a good one as far as it went. I never knew any different. After Leanna escaped he had me track hir. So all the time I'd get reports about Leanna doing something or another. Ordinary things, like going to the mall, or seeing a show, or taking a vacation... but things I couldn't imagine a Morph doing. It didn't matter, though; Leanna was there and I was here. What Leanna did... it didn't have any bearing on my life. Until this plan came along. Then... it was like he'd asked me to bring hir back. Even if I didn't literally bring hir back to the Fringe... I was, I'd be negating her escape by... bringing what shi'd run away from back to hir. And... I hadn't noticed, but I'd come to like hearing about all the ordinary things she was doing. I wouldn't just be ending it for her, I'd be ending it for me, too. I... I just couldn't do that." She dropped her eyes to the tabletop, drawing her legs up and huddling in a ball.
Cinnamon Sugar put hir arms around Selah and patted her gently, purring all the while. The look shi cast across the table, particularly at Lt. Beckman, wasn't nearly so friendly.
On the other side, no one spoke for a while. Even Lt. Beckman seemed affected.
"Would you tell us please how you escaped?" Captain Van Nuys requested. "How did you evade the security at the Big Rat facility? How did you prevent Dr. Havershiem from recapturing you at once?"
"There wasn't any," Selah explained. "No more than usual. You see... The Big Rat was installed at Dr. Havershiem's summer retreat. We orchestrated a major renovation in order to explain all the work going on. The doctor knew you people had intelligence taps in the Fringe, so only the people who absolutely needed to be were involved in the plan, and they never discussed it over monitorable channels. All the plans were made in face to face meetings."
"So having extra security at the retreat meant admitting there was a reason to have extra security," Lt. Beckman mused. Leanna nodded. "But why didn't Dr. Havershiem have any reason to suspect you were having second thoughts?"
"I'd always done everything he ever asked of me," Leanna said. "He had no reason to doubt my loyalty."
"That's not exactly what I meant," Lt. Beckman responded.
Selah hugged herself, her fingers working slowly on her shoulders. "A human doesn't ask a Morph how she feels, any more than he'd ask a chair or a table," she said quietly.
"Perhaps not, but a human does pay close attention to the proper care and maintenance of a piece of very expensive, mission-critial equipment," Lt. Beckman pointed out.
"Now just a minute-" Cinnamon Sugar cut in.
"No, she's right to ask," Selah said, turning to Cinnamon and squeezing hir hand. "Dr. Havershiem didn't regard me as a person, but he did appreciate my value. And yet... In the Fringe it's a given that Morphs aren't capable of refined thoughts and feelings. They don't have dreams or desires except of the basest sort. Morphs are clever animals that walk around on their hind legs."
"But that's not really true," Cinnamon interjected, frowning.
"No, it isn't, but everyone believes it," Selah responded. "Even the Morphs. It's so deeply ingrained no one even notices; it's just the way things are."
"But they can see how things are in the Federation," Cinnamon exclaimed. "How can they still think that?"
"People in the Federation are crazy," Selah responded. "They have all kinds of silly, wrong-headed notions."
"We're getting off topic," Captain Van Nuys pointed out. "Please continue, Selah."
"Dr. Havershiem knows it's not really true true," Selah said. "That's why he created me the way I am, and how he uses me. Mostly, I spy for him. I go to peoples' houses and work for a while. When only Morphs are around, people talk as if they were alone. Some people are alert enough to order their Morphs not to talk about anything they hear, but fewer than you'd think. Most Morphs really aren't capable of understanding what they're supposed to be protecting in any case. Not stupid, more like naive. Uneducated. With clever questioning I can tease information out of them without them ever realizing they've divulged it. No doubt you wonder now why people would let strange Morphs walk in and out of their homes. Among upper class families who own their Morphs, it's considered a status symbol to own more Morphs than you can keep track of. Aside from that, Morphs are occasionally sidelined by injury or illness. So you contact an agency and have a temp sent over."
"And where necessary you arrange one of those accidents?" Lt. Beckman inquired.
"Yes, though Dr. Havershiem had other people to do that," Selah continued. "Among middle class people it's more common to hire Morphs from an agency rather than owning them outright. Most folk in that range have regulars they prefer, but there's any number of entirely legitimate reasons the regular might not be available."
"Won't people recognize you, walking around on the street?" Lt. Beckman asked.
"No," Selah responded. "When I'm with Dr. Havershiem of course everyone knows me. But on the street, by myself, I'm just another Morph. The notion that Dr. Havershiem would send his personal servant out to do menial work- for someone else- is absurd. Dr. Havershiem is different because he realizes all that's just how people think, not something that's actually so. But he knows it in an abstract, intellectual way; he doesn't feel it in his heart. He monitors my health and behavior... but he only watches the outside, if that makes sense. To him I'm just a collection of behaviors. Besides, he's the one who asked me to keep track of Leanna. I didn't understand at first, because I couldn't see how it mattered. I think now it was personal, because Leanna killed his son."
Everyone started, even Cinnamon Sugar. "When did shi do that?" Shi demanded.
Selah blinked. "Didn't you know? Leanna's master was Dr. Havershiem's son."
"Why didn't we know that?" Lt. Beckman asked in a flat voice.
"Gulius and Reynn didn't get along," Selah said. "They'd parted a long time ago. Gulius supported him, though, giving him money through various fronts. He even had Leanna customized to his specifications."
"But he just let hir go after shi killed him?" Commander Roquefort asked.
"When I gave him the news, Dr. Havershiem only said that Reynn hadn't ever done anything right in his life, including how he left it. He didn't give any instructions for disposing of Reynn's estate, so his assets- including Leanna- were liquidated to pay his debts."
"That's cold," Commander Roquefort said, glowering.
"How did you get away from the summer house?" Lt. Beckman asked, before anyone else could interject with a comment.
"I just got in the car and left," Selah explained. "On the first day they erased my memory, and I don't remember much of that. That night they fell to arguing about the next phase. In the morning they still hadn't reached an agreement, so further work was postponed. The argument became more and more acrimonious, though generally I only saw them when I served them meals."
"They erased your memory and you were still able to serve them?" Lt. Beckman asked.
"They didn't erase all my memories, just the ones they considered dangerous. What they disagreed on was what to replace them with. They didn't discuss it where I could hear, so they wouldn't have to wipe me again before implanting the new memories. That... left me with a lot of time to myself. More than usual, because normally the doctor had all kinds of tasks for me, even when I wasn't attending to him personally. For most of that day I had nothing to do but think. It was... scary. I'd never been in that position before. I tried to occupy myself with housework, but it wasn't enough to keep me from thinking." She leaned forward, placing her hands on the table and clasping them tightly. "By that evening, I knew what would happen. Dr. Cooper and Dr. Havershiem would resolve their differences. They'd agree on a program and implant it. Whatever they decided on I'd do, because it would include compulsions that made it impossible for me to disobey. And it would hurt Leanna. I don't know how, but when I did know, that's what I decided. I took the chance of writing myself a note so I wouldn't forget after they'd wiped my memory. In the normal course of things that wouldn't have mattered; I'd have the new programming installed and even if I found the note I likely wouldn't have been able to act on it. But my previous self felt it important enough to act on, even with no real hope of success. I knew that if I was to do anything it would have to be now, and the chance would probably never come again." She fell silent, staring at the table. "For myself I probably would have let it pass. But for Leanna... the fact that I didn't know made it worse. I... turned the unknown into a nightmare that plagued me constantly. So I left. I waited until evening, when they'd gone to bed. Then I got in the car and rode into town. Yes, the guards let me go. Dr. Havershiem is always sending me off on various errands, and checking on it would mean waking him up after a day in which everyone had heard him and Dr. Cooper yelling at each other. Maybe he wouldn't really order someone shot out of hand, but who'd want to take the chance?"
"I can relate to that all too well," Commander Roquefort muttered. Even Lt. Beckman nodded, a wry expression on her face.
"On my way into town I forged paperwork-" Selah continued.
"Wait." Lt. Beckman held up a hand. "You just happened to have everything you needed, ready to hand?"
"Yes, actually," Selah explained. "Because all I did need was my data link, which let me access the planetary comm network. From there it wasn't unduly difficult to hack into various databases and insert the necessary records."
"This Link is really all that?" Lt. Beckman asked.
"Oh yes," Selah responded. "It's a quantum system, so its logic density is as high as anything you could get anywhere. It uses a neural net processing model, so it's more like an extension to my brain than a client system. Best of all it's biologically powered, so it doesn't need any other energy source."
"How did Dr. Cooper figure out how to install that without turning you into a vegetable?" Commander Roquefort wanted to know.
"How do you think?" Cinnamon Sugar responded. "He turned Morphs into vegetables until it finally worked."
Selah nodded. "There were several hundred failures. In the end the host brain needed specific genetic modification so it would accept the implant. Even then it wasn't a sure thing; that's why Dr. Havershiem made six of us."
"Please go on," Captain Van Nuys prompted.
"I knew I had to get off planet as quickly as possible," Selah explained. "I gambled that Dr. Havershiem wouldn't list me as runaway because it would lead to questions about things he wouldn't want made public. Also, it would give his political enemies a chance to grab me."
"Because they hadn't erased all your memories," Captain Van Nuys put in.
"Exactly. And even the things that were removed... they aren't really gone, just... unlinked. It's at least conceivably possible that some of it might be recoverable. Anyway, I registered myself on board a couple dozen ships, though Dr. Havershiem would know that only a few of them would leave soon enough and have course profiles that could be easily modified to take them into Federation territory."
"You had a memory plastic knife when you were found," Lt. Beckman said. "Where did you get it? How did you get it on board without tripping the weapon detectors?"
"Spacers on labor transports always carry weapons, even though they aren't supposed to," Selah replied. "In port they get drunk and carve each other up, not to mention the locals. Dockside taverns, brothels, and hotels generally require patrons to check their weapons at the door and confiscate weapons from patrons who get rowdy. Finding a weapon isn't hard at all if you know where to look. I got in on board by taking the core out of a dildo and putting the knife in its place. Since I'd listed myself as a courtesan on the manifest, the crew didn't put me below decks; they brought me on board through the accommodation hatch. Since all the crew members carry knives the scanners are set to ignore memory plastic; that way the captain doesn't have to take official notice and either write them up or explain why he didn't."
"That's pretty slipshod security," Lt. Beckman commented.
"It's merchant service," Commander Roquefort pointed out. "Even in Starfleet you aren't going to tell me you've never encountered an 'arrangement' like that. It isn't supposed to happen but it does."
"How did you set the course change, Selah?" Lt. Beckman asked. "Are you an astrogator along with your other talents?"
"No, I'm not an astrogator. Jasper liked talking about his work; he showed me what to do and I memorized the steps."
"Selah, you cut Officer Lynch's throat, you stabbed Officer Carter through the heart, and you killed the rest of the crew by dumping the atmosphere," Captain Van Nuys said quietly. "Why did you do that?"
"What choice did she have?" Cinnamon Sugar demanded hotly.
"We'd like to hear her answer, please," Captain Van Nuys responded, in the same tone as before.
"I didn't have a choice," Selah whispered, barely audibly. Her hands shook; she clasped them more tightly to make them stop. "There's no way I could fight Jasper; he was too big. I couldn't risk that he'd wake up and catch me changing the nav program. Carter wasn't so big, but he could have dumped the program, initiated a lockdown, or any number of other things that would have stopped me. I had to get rid of him, and I had to do it quickly so I'd have time to deal with the rest of the crew. As for them... if I'd let them alive they'd have figured out a way to retake the bridge or undo the course correction. I didn't want to kill them, but there just wasn't any possible way I could control the ship all by myself."
"That's enough for today," Cinnamon Sugar announced, rising to hir feet and taking Selah in hir arms, like a child. Lt. Beckman opened her mouth to object; Captain Van Nuys stopped her with a stern look.
The other half of the room faded into grayness. It was actually located in another part of the ship; a large view screen made it appear as if the two halves were part of the same room. Close investigation revealed the illusion for what it was; Captain Van Nuys never ceased marveling at how convincing it was.
"You think she's a plant?" the captain asked of Lt. Beckman.
"Yes sir, I do," she replied. "There's nothing about her story we can check, and she's too sweet a morsel to pass up. I don't like things that're too good to be true."
"I'd agree except for one thing," Commander Roquefort put in. "Her defection is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. The circumstances of her arrival guarantee that we'll be all over her. Whether we believe her or think she's a plant doesn't make any difference. There's nothing she could possibly do that would justify the cost of sending her here."
"Oh?" Lt. Beckman arched an eyebrow. "Are you so sure of that, sir? Do you know what will happen when the public finds out about this? Leanna's sister risks her life to follow her sister to freedom. Her reward is that we bang her up and subject her to brutal interrogation because she might be a spy, and even if she isn't we're going to wring every single drop of strategic intelligence out of her. I don't think they'll literally skin us alive, but I wouldn't count on it. We'll be forced to release her, whether we want to or not. Dr. Havershiem is smart enough to know that."
"I'm sorry, but that sounds awfully paranoid to me," Commander Roquefort opined. He didn't sound sorry.
"Sir, do you know what a magic trick is?" Lt. Beckman asked.
"I think I know what a magic trick is, Lieutenant," the commander growled, crossing his arms.
"What are you getting at, Lieutenant?" the captain inquired, before the discussion could degenerate into an argument.
"A magic trick is where you do something ordinary, but in such a way that the audience convinces themselves that what they saw isn't really what they saw."
"Yes, I take your point." The captain stroked his chin. "You're saying Dr. Havershiem is devious enough to attack us openly, on the assumption that we'd never believe he'd actually do that. We spend all our time looking for an angle that doesn't exist, while ignoring the threat right in front of us."
"Exactly." Lt. Beckman nodded curtly.
"I'm sorry sir, I still don't like it," Commander Roquefort said. "It's too clever, too complicated. In intelligence especially, you have to keep it simple. There may be lots of details, but the essence of the plan has to be easy and straightforward, so everyone knows how what they're doing advances the overall effort without having to think hard about it. This plan- even assuming it is one- is positively Byzantine."
"It's magic," Lt. Beckman insisted. "You wave your hands and make a lot of noise so no one's looking in the right place when you pull the switch. We're supposed to run around in circles, chasing the noise. Under it is the real plan, which will be simple."
"Do you have any idea what the real plan is?" the captain wanted to know.
"No sir, but I'll find out, I'll promise you. We need to examine this Link. It's the key."
"Oh, I agree completely," the commander said. "We have to do it without killing or maiming her, though. The press wouldn't like that." Then, noting the captain's expression, he added hastily: "no sir, I'm not advocating torture or vivisection. I was being facetious. Sorry."
The captain sighed heavily. "No, what I'm thinking won't leave any physical marks, though I'm not sure if it's really any better."
"Psi Corps?" Lt. Beckman ventured.
The captain nodded. "Psi Corps."