'Till Death Do Us Part
by John R. Plunkett
1130 hours, 13 December 2335
It's been ninety-eight days since my world ended.
Antonia looked up, over the top of hir workstation's screen. Anechoic tiles with long, narrow glow-strips set between them covered the ceiling of hir room. Originally the tiles had been white; over time they'd yellowed slightly. Only someone who'd studied them carefully for a long time would have noticed the change.
Yasha came to visit last week. Back then it was ninety-one days. I made the mistake of mentioning it. Yasha gives me a funny look and says 'but wasn't... it... almost two years ago?'
Antonia laughed. The sounds burbled up from deep inside hir like water from a hot spring.
Yasha cracks me up. I've been paralyzed from the chest down for a year and ten months but Yasha still thinks shi can dance around the issue, as if not mentioning it directly somehow makes it less real.
Antonia clenched hir hands but couldn't stop them from shaking. Hir lips drew back from hir tightly clenched teeth in a feral snarl; hir eyes focused neither on the workstation screen nor the ceiling behind it but somewhere far beyond either. Words continued to flow, out of hir brain through the cyberjack implanted in the base of hir skull, into the workstation through a tangle of fiber-optic cables, and onto the screen.
I hate Yasha. I wish shi'd stop coming. Shi doesn't understand what I'm feeling, what I'm going through. Shi doesn't want to. Shi tells hirself shi's coming to do me a service but really it's all for hirself. Because shi's scared. Whenever shi looks at me shi just about pisses hirself because all shi can think about is how horrible it would be to be me. Shi keeps imagining hirself strapped into a traction frame, unable to move or feel anything below hir breasts. So shi tries to laugh it off, to pretend that it never happened. Shi never hears a word I say because all shi hears, all shi sees, is hir own terror. Shi keeps coming because shi's more afraid of what people will think if shi stops. I want to take a bat and smash hir face in, then watch hir try and pretend it didn't happen. Shi doesn't know how much hir denial hurts me. I don't have the luxury of pretending I'm not really paralyzed. What shi struggles with for an hour or two each Friday I struggle with every second of every minute of every day and will from the rest of my life. Hir fear drags me back to the dark days right after the attack, when I woke up screaming only to discover that the real nightmare had only just begun. When I begged the doctors to kill me and put me out of my misery. Even now that hellish terror and despair lurks just under the surface of my mind. The only real difference is I no longer have the energy to get excited about it.
"Morning," Layna announced as she bustled into the room. "Ready to take a walk?"
"Yeah," Antonia replied. An electronic chip implanted in hir chest controlled hir diaphragm; to speak shi had to remember to activate it or hir voice came out a breathy whisper. With another thought shi blanked the workstation's screen, committing the words to an encrypted file only shi could access.
"Working on your diary?" Layna asked as she dragged out the pieces of Antonia's powered exoskeleton and arranged them on the floor.
"Uh huh." Antonia's cyberjack also gave hir limited control over the traction frame; with a whir of servos it rotated hir until she hung face down instead of face up. Then it lifted hir torso upright and lowered hir legs until they hung straight down. Layna freed Antonia's legs from the frame; another mental command lowered hir into the partially constructed exoskeleton. Layna detached the rest of the traction frame's slings and completed the exoskeleton, closing it over Antonia's back and around hir torso. Glowing, colored lines appeared in Antonia's field of vision as each part of the skeleton came on line.
"Okay, you're good to go," Layna announced after completing the final check-out.
"Thanks." Antonia imagined the colored lines moving. They did, and so did hir legs, carrying hir forward out of the frame. Shi glanced back to make sure hir haunches were clear before turning; there was still a bandage on hir right thigh where shi'd gashed it against a door frame.
"You're doing well," Layna commented as Antonia backed and turned, lining hirself up with the doorway.
Antonia shrugged. "The cyber-techs did all the work. I'm just the chauffeur."
"You're walking," Layna pointed out.
"No I'm not," Antonia replied as shi stepped out into the hallway and turned toward the elevators. "I'm driving. A very cleverly made vehicle. Which I'm grateful to have, believe me. It beats staying in my room. But it's not walking. Nothing even remotely like it."
For reasons Antonia had never learned the hospital's lifts had mirrors in them. As shi and Layna rode to the first floor Antonia beheld a terrifying creature. It resembled a Chakat- a centauroid feline- the way a zombie resembles a living person. Physical therapy couldn't quite overcome the inactivity of paralysis; the creature's skin hung loose on its bones like clothes laid on a drying rack. The fur covering it had once been fluffy and luxuriant, creamy white with closely spaced stripes of soft gray. Now it looked thin and straggly where it hadn't been rubbed off by constant contact with the traction frame's straps and harnesses. A gleaming metal exoskeleton with softly purring servos enclosed every part of the creature from the shoulders down, including the tail. Antonia thought it looked like the unholy creation of a B movie mad scientist; once shi'd asked Layna to wear bulky goggles, elbow length rubber gloves, and a double breasted lab coat, but Lanya failed to see the humor in it.
"We're here," Layna announced as the lift doors opened. Antonia backed out, turned, and headed for the main doors. Darwin's hot, muggy summer air hit hir like a slap in the face.
"Why do people live here?" Antonia wondered. "You go outside and it's like getting into a steam bath with your clothes on."
"You live here," Layna pointed out.
"Yeah," Antonia agreed. "I never could understand it."
An elegantly landscaped lawn surrounded the hospital, decorated with trees, shrubs, and flower beds. For the benefit of less ambulatory patients all walkways were gently graded and smoothly paved. As shi and Layna made a lazy circuit of the grounds Antonia stopped frequently to sniff or admire various blossoms. Operating hir exoskeleton required enough concentration that if shi tried sightseeing at the same time shi'd end up walking into things.
"I can't stand Yasha," Antonia said. "I wish shi'd stop coming."
"Why don't you tell hir that, next time shi drops by?" Layna countered.
Antonia said nothing. As much as shi disliked Yasha being alone was worse.
"Excuse me," a masculine voice said. "You are Antonia, daughter of Skye and Brenna." It wasn't a question.
Antonia stopped and wheeled about. A large, heavyset man with pale blond hair and fleshy features hurried up the path behind hir, moving with a stiff-legged gait reminiscent of Antonia's own very mechanical steps. He spoke with a Flemish accent thick enough to cut with a knife and he constantly mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. It did no good; Darwin's sticky heat raised beads of sweat on his forehead even as he wiped them away. Both the handkerchief and the collar of his short sleeved button-up shirt were almost dripping wet. "How'd you know?" Antonia asked.
He grinned. "If there are more than one quadriplegic grey tabby Chakats in Darwin, please accept my apologies." He gave a quick bow.
"There aren't," Antonia replied. "And you are?"
"Doctor Joss DerVoort, Federation Science Corps," he replied.
"May we ask what you're doing here, Doctor?" Layna demanded.
"You may," Joss replied. "I'm here to offer Shir Antonia something that may cure hir unfortunate condition."
"Doctor, you can't just-" Layna began hotly.
"Do you really mean that?" Antonia cut in.
"I wouldn't be so callous as to dangle hope in front of you, only to snatch it away," Joss replied. "What I have does indeed have the potential to restore you completely. But there are risks, which must be carefully weighed."
"Doctor, Antonia is already in a program of treatment-" Layna began.
"What risks?" Antonia asked.
"Death," Joss replied. "Or worse. Even if the treatment succeeds, you won't be as you were. You'll be... something new. I'm afraid I can't tell you more until you sign a confidentiality agreement."
Layna's eyes snapped with anger. "Doctor DerVoort, I find your attitude exceedingly callous. If you think you can barge in here, showing such a shocking disregard for Antonia's feelings-"
"My dear, I understand exactly how Antonia feels." Layna's outburst affected Joss' humor not in the least. He hoisted his trouser leg, exposing gleaming metal rods framing a calf that looked far too thin to support his robust body. "Just a touch of spinal cancer, you see," he explained. "Easily treated, but not before it paralyzed my legs." He turned his head, lifting his hair, exposing the cyberjack drilled into his mastoid bone, just behind his ear. "Fortunately I regained control of my pelvic muscles. Only my lower legs need to be braced. But it's not the same. I feel like I'm staggering around like Frankenstein, from those old 20th century horror movies. A few weeks ago I worked up the courage to go dancing with my wife. I ended up breaking four of her toes." He pulled a data pad from his breast pocket. "I will come see you tomorrow, Antonia. Because your companion is correct; this isn't something to be entered lightly. For starters, all your existing cyberware will have to be removed and you won't have the option of falling back to it if my procedure fails. You could suffer debilitating brain damage, ending up a vegetable as well as paralyzed."
"If it succeeds?" Antonia asked.
"Then you walk." Joss pirouetted clumsily. "Not the appearance of walking, like now, but real walking. Running, jumping, playing. Full and complete restoration of your entire nervous system."
"What's the success rate?" Layna wanted to know.
"For repairing physical damage, one hundred percent," Joss replied. "I surgically removed a gibbon's brain, then treated it. It's brain grew back. But there's another aspect of the treatment which I can't tell you about until you've signed the agreement. That part no one has yet survived. Between now and tomorrow, think carefully about that. After disclosure you'll be given another opportunity to withdraw from the program. Once treatment begins there is no turning back."
"Are you doing this for yourself?" Antonia asked. "So you can walk again?"
"Yes," Joss replied. "I know how lucky I am. I understand how comparatively minor my condition is. But knowing that doesn't make me yearn to walk any less." He set the data pad in Antonia's hand. "One thing I can tell you is that the path to healing lies in being with where you are. Take careful stock of what you have before choosing to give it up for something else. Sometimes the price really is too high, though it may not look that way at first. If you can't be with yourself here and now you won't be happier somewhere else. Quite the opposite; you'll spend all your time regretting what you gave up. Which is the very thing you were so eager to give up in the first place." He bowed stiffly, a quick little bob of the torso. "I bid you both good day. And I wish you all the best in your futures, whatever they may hold." He turned and withdrew back down the path.
"Antonia, you're not seriously considering this, are you?" Yasha asked. Shi kept picking at hir fingers, as if trying to peel something sticky off them.
"Why not?" Antonia lowered hir hindquarters into a sitting position, after checking to make sure hir tail wasn't in the way. Once shi'd accidentally sat on it and the braces on the backs of hir legs lacerated it severely. Only when Layna noticed the blood did Antonia realize what had happened.
"You're risking your life on a procedure that's never been successfully tested?" Yasha exclaimed. "Forgive me, but that's crazy!"
"Crazy is doing the same thing over again and expecting it to come out different," Antonia replied, carefully lowering hir forequarters. Hir exoskeleton had a truly astounding range of motion but Antonia lacked the skill to right hirself without help if shi fell over.
"But- look at you," Yasha exclaimed. "You're up and about. Walking around. Are you prepared to risk loosing that?"
"Again," Antonia said, leaning hir torso forward and running hir fingers through the carefully tended, closely cropped grass. A eucalyptus tree shielded them from the sun, if not the humidity. "You mean 'risk loosing that again.' I already lost it once."
Yasha's face twisted as shi struggled with conflicting thoughts and feelings. "I'm sorry, Antonia, but I just don't understand! You use to be so- so-" faltered to a stop.
"Say it," Antonia snapped, hir ears laying back. Hir tail would have been lashing were it possible. "You meant to say 'Antonia, you used to be so happy. So full of hope. Before Littlepaw ran away.'"
Yasha said nothing. Shi scuffed the grass with hir forepaw.
"Yasha, you know what I really hate about you?" Antonia continued. "It's how you're so desperate to please that you'd eat your own foot before saying something that might offend. Which wouldn't bother me except that you spend so much time being polite you never listen. You never talk about anything important. Just pleasant, safe, banalities. When I try to express what's important to me it just bounces off."
"But Antonia, I do care," Yasha protested. "I want to help."
"Then start acting like it." Antonia rose to hir feet. "Or go back to the office where nobody cares if you've nothing important to say." Moving briskly, and without looking back, Antonia headed back toward the hospital.
Dawn came quickly to Darwin. Darkness, twilight, then day. Curtains obscured Antonia's direct view but light glowing through them was clear enough an indication.
"Good morning," Layna said, stifling a yawn. She entered in her 'civilian' clothes, not her hospital uniform, carrying a mug of steaming coffee. "Something troubling you?" She pulled up a chair and sat.
Antonia rotated hirself until shi could look directly at Layna without twisting hir head. Tears pooling on her face slid across hir muzzle. "I... I couldn't sleep. I'm sorry I got you up."
"Don't be sorry," Layna said. "I'm not just your therapist. I'm your friend."
"I couldn't sleep," Antonia mumbled, dabbing at hir face. "I couldn't stop thinking- about Dr. DerVoort. About Yasha... and Littlepaw. My, God, Layna, I did the same thing to hir I yelled at Yasha about! I so desperately needed hir to be well so I had something to cling to... I never saw how much shi was hurting! I didn't want to!"
"It's not your fault," Layna insisted, reaching in and gently stroking Antonia's face. "I got to know Littlepaw pretty well. After all shi came here every Friday for more than a year. Shi did that because shi loved you. Whatever happened in Oregon Territory... I think shi did it because shi loved you. Shi just... didn't know how else to express it."
"But shi's gone!" Antonia wailed, breaking down into gulping sobs.
"We don't know that," Layna insisted. "Right now shi's only missing. Even if- even if shi is gone... the best way to pay hir back for the love shi's given you is to get better. Be happy. That's what shi wanted, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Antonia replied, dabbing at hir face. Layna gave hir a tissue.
"Speaking of Dr. DerVoort," Layna went on, "He did say one thing I thought was pretty profound. The part about the path to healing lying in being with where you are. I think he was trying to say that you can be healed even if your body isn't restored to how it was. But to do that you have to forgive. Forgive Littlepaw for leaving... and forgive yourself for needing."
"Oh God," Antonia sobbed.
"Listen to me," Layna insisted, gently but firmly. "Fixing broken bodies is easy. Science comes up with new techniques every day. Healing wounded souls is the hard part, ninety-nine percent of what doctoring is all about. But it makes it all worth it." She lifted Antonia's hand to her face and kissed it gently, her own cheeks damp with tears. "Don't apologize. I'm the one who should be thanking you. For giving me the chance to help. To make a difference in your life. Seeing you content is the only reward I ask... and the only one that means anything, really."
In time Antonia's sobs died away to sniffles, then stopped. "But why did shi go?" Antonia asked plaintively. "Why did shi leave me?"
Layna sighed. "I don't know, Antonia. Littlepaw hurt terribly, I can see that now. Shi kept it bottled up, probably because shi thought letting it out would hurt you somehow. I guess if there's a lesson in that, it'd be don't do that. Don't be afraid to let it out. That's what friends are for. To soak up your pain."
"Thank you, Layna." Antonia gripped Layna's hands tightly. "I... I never would have made it without you."
"Thank you," Layna responded. "That makes it all worth it."
More time passed. Layna stifled a yawn.
"Oh, Layna, I'm sorry I dragged you out of bed at this ungodly hour," Antonia apologized.
"Are you gonna be all right?" Layna asked.
"Then it's okay." Layna gave Antonia a peck on the nose. "But if you don't mind I'd like to catch a nap before I have to be at work."
Layna took her coffee and left. Antonia rotated hirself to watch, then twisted the handle and held it, watching as the walls, ceiling, and floor panned slowly by. A thought activated hir workstation and opened the diary file.
What really frightens me is that Dr. DerVoort was right. I was ready to sign his release right on the spot, but all I've thought of since are reasons I shouldn't do his treatment. I've spent almost two years waiting to get out of this room and suddenly I'm thinking how comfortable it is. My treatment is coming along; things are getting better bit by bit, day by day. I can move around, even if it isn't really walking. As I learn, and as the technology improves, I'll be able to do more and more.
Antonia slipped a hand up under hir tunic, cupping and squeezing hir right breast, rubbing the nipple with hir thumb until it stiffened. Then shi slid hir hand downward; right at the bottom edge of hir rib cage sensation faded out over a boundary about two or three centimeters wide. Below it shi could feel fur and flesh against hir fingers but nothing the other way. Shi might as well have been running hir hand through someone else's fur. But if it had been someone else it would have responded to hir touch in some way; this flesh, except being warm, felt as lifeless as a side of beef hanging in a butcher shop.
I just realized something. Ever since getting paralyzed I'd been waiting for everything to get better. I figured that eventually everything would be just like it had been before, as if the attack had never happened. What Layna and the doctors have been trying to tell me is that it won't happen. Even if I regain full control of my body, the life I had before a terrorists gunman shot me in the back is over.
With hir other hand Antonia picked up Dr. DerVoort's data pad, not looking at it, just turning it over in hir fingers, experiencing the sensation of it.
Dr. DerVoort said that even if the treatment succeeded I wouldn't be what I was, but something new. I think I understand what he meant... and why I was afraid of doing it. Yes, I was afraid. Of loosing what I already had, even though I claimed to hate it. Because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. It doesn't matter how splendid the ones in the bush are or how ratty the one in your hand. You've gotta drop the one in your hand before you can pick up the other two... and what if you lose them all? Then you don't have any birds. Not even the one you started with, lousy as it was.
But is that such a bad thing, really? If you have a bird in your hand you must have caught it at some point. If you caught one, you can catch another. If it's about catching a bird instead of having one, why not go after the biggest, most splendid bird you can find?
Which means you have to release the bird you have, no matter what you feel about it. And having the new bird isn't going to be the same as having the old one, even if you deliberately seek out a bird that's exactly the same.
Antonia twisted hir neck to look at the curtained windows, carefully studying the bright, sunny glow illuminating them from outside. "I always thought I was living the same day over and over again," shi whispered. "But maybe... maybe I really am watching the dawning of a new one. And if that's so... maybe I don't have to fix this body. Maybe I can give it up... for the chance of having a new one." Shi smiled, laying back in hir supports. As sleep took hir the rising sun became a great, glowing bird, rising from the ocean to soar away into the vault of heaven.
"Did you sleep well?" Dr. DerVoort inquired. He reclined against the side of the Jacuzzi, wearing a pair of baggy, bright orange trunks.
"Yes, thank you." Antonia stepped carefully into the tub. If shi slipped shi could easily drown. "And yourself?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Joss replied. "I tossed and turned all night, wondering what I'd say to you today."
"What did you decide?"
"I decided to forget canned speeches and just speak from my heart. If that failed to move you, nothing else I could say would make the slightest difference."
Antonia chuckled. "I'd say you're off to a good start, Doctor."
"Call me Joss, please."
"All right. But only if you call me Antonia."
"Deal." Joss offered his hand. Antonia shook.
"I'm ready," Antonia said. "Give me your agreement and I'll sign it."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. You did say I'll have another chance to back out, right?"
"Yes. But this is your last chance to back out scot free. If you sign the agreement you're bound by it even if you don't participate in the therapy."
"I understand. I'm ready to sign."
"Very well. Have you got the pad I gave you?"
"Right here." Antonia handed it over.
Joss inserted a data chit and handed it back. "Thumbprint on the face."
Antonia applied hir right thumb to the face of the data pad. It beeped.
"Very good." Joss took it back and put it away in his briefcase, which rested on the edge of the pool. From it he produced another electronic gadget, which he activated and set beside the briefcase.
"What's that?" Antonia asked.
"Bug scrambler," Joss replied. "That confidentiality agreement isn't for show. What I'm about to tell you is classified. You may not repeat it. Not to your parents, your therapist, your lawyer, anyone. The reason should be clear enough in time. Beginning at the beginning, as it were, you may recall that about nine years ago we made contact with another star faring civilization."
"Yes, I remember hearing about that," Antonia said. "A ship landed on Chakona."
"Correct. The ship and its crew were transported back by the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov under Captain Keith Walker. To make a long story short, we exchanged with them pleasantries, deputations, bits of technology, and artifacts. One artifact they gave us was a bit of technology they'd captured from a third star faring race, one we have not yet- thankfully- encountered. This race calls itself the Borg, and their relevance to you and me is that their grasp of cybertechnology is far in advance of ours. I'm working with nanites- microscopic machines- that appear capable of repairing or replacing any organic structure. All you do is inject them and they set to work."
"If it's that simple-" Antonia began.
"It's not," Joss cut in. "These nanites don't merely fix damaged organs. They add other things as well. The Borg believe that the pinnacle of evolution is a blend of organic and technologic and their nanites are designed to enhance their organic hosts. We don't understand the nanites well enough to control them that finely. If you take these nanites you will become a cyborg. They will repair your damaged nervous system but also replace some of your otherwise healthy organs with cybernetic parts."
"Will this... require special maintenance?"
"No. Other than some particular dietary requirements, the nanites take care of themselves."
"Then what's the down side? The part no one's yet survived?"
"The Borg are a collective intelligence," Joss explained. "They are many individuals but each is only part of a single mind. Like cells in a body, except they aren't attached to one another. One of the 'enhancements' the nanites install is a link to this collective mind. When that happens the Borg collective intelligence will try to take you over and make you part of it."
Antonia frowned. "Then what's the use of it?"
"We've figured out where the link is, and how to safely disable it," Joss said. "Problem is, we can't stop it from being built. Not without killing the host. So, if you take the treatment, you have to resist the collective until we can disable the link."
Antonia stared at the surface of the pool, watching it fume and bubble. "That's why you're doing this research. To find out how to fight the Borg."
"Yes," Joss replied. "We'd be better off understanding their strengths and weaknesses before we meet them. But what I said at our first meeting is true. There's nothing evil about this technology, it's just a tool. If it serves the Borg, it can serve us. It can make people like you and me walk again... and run, and jump... and love."
"With a price," Antonia added. "I could lose everything that makes me human."
Joss nodded. "Yes. That's why you still have a chance to bail. I'll give you a week to think about it. As I said, some prices are too much to pay."
"Joss, do you have any idea what it is that might make a person better able to resist?"
Joss' eyes narrowed thoughtfully. He stroked his chin, studying Antonia carefully. "As a matter of fact, yes. We've done quite a number of trials, even with telepaths monitoring the subjects. The Borg can't do anything to you, not physically at least. They take you over by convincing you to give yourself to them. And they are very good at it. I believe that a strong mind, one capable of clinging to its sense of identity no matter what, will successfully resist. After all, it only has to hold out for a few minutes, until we disable the link."
"Yes. My colleagues in the Science Corps believe in a physiological vector of some sort, though in close to a hundred trials we've never observed it. Not on humans, of course; most of our tests are on animals. A fact which, I believe, reinforces my theory that the attack is purely psychological. None of the animals we've tested exhibit any sign of emotional distress, nor that the Borg are attempting to control them. I think the Borg dismiss them as irrelevant. They want sentient minds. My theories aren't popular because a number of presumably disciplined minds have failed the test. I believe that what this means is that discipline, by itself, isn't enough."
"Is that why you came to me?" Antonia asked.
"Yes. I believe that what's required is a mind that wants something so badly it'll do anything, endure anything, to get it. Who would not let even the might of the Borg stand in their way. I studied you very carefully before choosing you, Antonia. You are paralyzed because an Earth First terrorist shot you in the back simply because you happened not to be Terran. When that happened the idyllic life you'd planned with your lover, Littlepaw, was irrevocably destroyed. For a year and a half you and shi struggled to put your lives back together. Then, without hardly a word, Littlepaw flies off to Oregon Territory and disappears." Joss settled back until his mouth was barely above water. "You want to go to Oregon and find what happened to Littlepaw. What I'm offering will make it possible... and I think you want it badly enough you'll even face the Borg to get it."
"Let me get this straight," Layna said. "You're saying that if this experiment fails you die?"
"Yes," Antonia replied.
"And it's never been done successfully before?"
"Antonia, that's-" Layna turned away suddenly, rubbing her forehead. "Look. As your therapist it's my duty to advise you to the best of my ability. You understand that, right?" Antonia nodded. "Then I trust you won't be offended when I say I think you're throwing your life away?"
Antonia shook hir head. "No. I'm not offended. You're doing your job, which is to look out for me. But-" shi frowned, not in displeasure but in concentration as shi tried to articulate hir feelings. "I know I could go on like this. In ten or fifty years Joss may succeed in his research and I'll get the benefits without the risk. Or maybe he'll never succeed. Point is- I want a new life. But I can't have it if I'm not willing to give up this one."
"What if it doesn't work?" Layna demanded. "Then you don't have any life."
"Then, at least, it'll be over," Antonia replied. "No more pain, no more struggle. I'll have gone on to a better place."
"But- but-" Layna protested.
"Please," Antonia interjected. "I'm not throwing my life away. I want to live. If I just wanted to die there'd be quicker and easier ways to do it."
"Antonia, you're doing so well," Layna insisted. "You're handling the cyberware, you're moving around. What I'm trying to say is you don't have to do this! Give us a chance!"
"Layna, I don't meant to be rude but I've given you a chance," Antonia said. "I don't mean you specifically, I mean medial science. And this is what you've given me." Shi slapped the traction frame. "I'm not sorry you did it. It made it possible for me to be alive now so I could make this choice. But what's in the future? More of the same. Incremental changes, maybe, but everything stays fundamentally the same."
"Technology's improving all the time," Layna insisted. "In time- something will come up-"
"Something has come up," Antonia cut in. "Dr. DerVoort has come up. Joss is offering me everything you can't. The chance to walk, to run and jump... to feel... to have sex. Yes, I know it looks like I'm risking my life in a mad gamble. That's what it looks like when 'something comes up.' Fifty years from now it won't look any different... except that by then I'll have managed to convince myself that it isn't really worth the risk after all. That it's safer, more comfortable, to stick with what I've got." Shi held up hir hand, clenching it slowly into a fist. "Layna... you said that me being happy was the only reward you wanted. What would you give to see me walk? I mean really walk, not just stump around with this cybernetic crap? To see me run across the lawn? Jump into the reflecting pool? Climb that big eucalyptus out back?"
Layna stared at the floor. Tears welled in her eyes, dribbling down her cheeks. "Anything," she whispered.
"Even your life?"
"Then how can I do any less?"
Layna opened her mouth, shut it, then gulped back a sob. She dropped to her knees by the frame, reaching in to hug Antonia tightly. "This is so weird. I'm supposed to be the therapist."
"And you're a very good one," Antonia replied, stroking hir cheek against Layna's. "You kept me alive this long. Even when I didn't make it easy for you."
Layna gulped. "Please don't die," she sobbed. "The... the world would be emptier without you."
"Thanks." Antonia's own tears soaked into the shoulder of Layna's jacket. "I won't. You... I love you, Layna. Through the darkest part of my life you were there, always beside me. I won't leave you behind. I swear."
"You've made all the arrangements?" Joss asked.
"Yes," Antonia replied. "I've spoken to my folks. They signed the papers you gave me."
"How do they feel about this?"
"Well..." Antonia sighed. "I'm not sure they really understand. But... they're willing to let me do it."
"You explained the facts to them? That is this fails, they'll never see you again?"
Antonia nodded. If Joss' experiment failed hir body would end up dissected in some ultra-secret Starfleet lab. Knowing that- and not being able to tell her parents- had been the most unpleasant part of the experience.
"Having second thoughts?"
"Good," Joss replied. "It means you understand what's at stake."
"Joss..." Antonia licked hir lips; they were dry. "You said you could train me. How does that work, exactly?"
"You are going to spend time with someone who will dredge up every bit of dirt from your past and throw it back in your face," Joss replied. "I figure if you can endure that, you can take anything the Borg throw at you."
"Has this ever worked before?"
"Nope. This is the first time I've ever tried it."
"If this doesn't work, what'll happen to you, Joss?"
"I'll probably spend the rest of my life in prison for conducting inhumane experiments on human subjects," Joss replied. "Starfleet's already smarting from the failures we've already had. They don't like my ideas and I'm bending the rules 'till they scream to put this together."
"I think you know," Joss replied. "Nothing worth doing comes without risk. If I succeed I help you, myself, and millions of people like us. If I fail... the history books at least will say I gave it my best shot."
"Joss..." Antonia took his hand and squeezed it. "You're the bravest person I know."
Joss shook his head. "No. You're the bravest person you know. Just thinking about what you're headed for makes my stomach churn. I'd never have the courage to do it myself."
"You'd do it if you thought people'd be better served than by you running the project," Antonia stated.
Joss grinned. "I guess I would. Thanks, Antonia." He took hir hand and squeezed it.
"Of course you are." Joss stroked Antonia's hand tenderly. "So am I. Only a fool wouldn't be. Just remember, fear's no reason not to do something. Especially when the rewards are so great."
"Welcome aboard the T.D.S.C.V. Korolev, our little home in the sky," Joss announced as the shuttle's ramp deployed. "Not counting the Komarov, on display at the Utopia Planitia Museum, she's the very last of the Leonov class science vessels. Her warp core's been decommissioned but her accommodations and laboratories are entirely suitable to our requirements and we've saved Starfleet the cost of building a space station."
"Wow." Antonia tried to look every which way as shi moved carefully down the ramp. Holding the four shuttles it had been designed to accommodate Korolev's hangar bay would have been uncomfortably cramped. With only one it looked huge.
"Allow me to introduce you to Lieutenant Toni Braxton, captain of the Korolev," Joss said, gesturing forward a delicately built young Mandarin woman.
"Really, I'm just here for show," Toni insisted, smiling warmly and shaking Antonia's hand. From head to toe she stood less even than Antonia; next to Joss she looked positively miniscule. "Joss here is really the one in charge."
"I trust everything's in readiness?" Joss inquired.
"Yep," Toni replied. "Cutter has the cyber-lab ready to go and I personally oversaw the setup of Antonia's quarters."
Joss beamed. "Good, good, good." He turned to Antonia. "First, we'll show you the quarters. Second, I'll introduce you to your instructor. Third, if you decide to continue, we'll go to the cyberlab and Cutter will remove your implants."
"Sounds like a plan." Antonia nodded. "Lead on."
"Lieutenant?" Joss inquired.
"Right this way." Toni turned, gesturing for Joss and Antonia to follow.
Maneuvering through Korolev's narrow corridors proved difficult. The designers hadn't made any attempt to accommodate Chakats in exoskeletons. On top of that, it seemed like every member of the crew came by to greet Antonia and wish hir well. Shi appreciated the sentiment but would have preferred not to struggle through the crowds.
"Here you are," Toni announced, opening the door and stepping aside.
"Where do I sleep?" Antonia asked, looking around. There wasn't a traction frame; in an ordinary bed shi'd not only be pinned down by hir own weight shi'd develop sores from laying in one position too long.
"Oh, we can do much better than that," Toni declared, walking out into the middle of the floor and tapping a control with her boot. "You're not healing, so we don't have to worry about holding you in a particular position." She leapt into the air, apparently diving face down onto the floor. Instead of hitting it she bounced, stabilizing in midair about a meter off the deck. Using only her hands she rolled completely around. "We installed a repulsor array in the deck. Like a water bed only better, though it takes a little getting used to."
"What about-" Antonia began, then stopped. Donning and removing hir exoskeleton wouldn't be an issue; hir cyber-implants were coming out. Once again shi'd be helpless....
"Not to worry, my dear," Joss said, laying a hand on Antonia's shoulder and squeezing gently. "There's fifty of us here and we exist only to serve your needs. We've fitted out a grav-sled for you and if you want to go out for any reason- or no reason at all- you have but to ask. Just in case you start feeling guilty about having someone at your beck and call, I've given orders that the person assigned to you will have to stand watch whether you use them or not. So you might as well, and at least make their wait worthwhile." He smiled.
"Thanks." Antonia took Joss' hand and squeezed it. "Let's go see the instructor."
"Very well." Joss squeezed Antonia's hand in reply. "This way."
After maneuvering through more narrow corridors- fortunately without well-wishers clogging them up- Antonia found hirself at the foot of a steep ladder. "What's this?" shi demanded.
"Access to the auxiliary signal bridge," Joss replied. "Chase is up there." He pointed.
Antonia frowned. "Why do I have to go up there?" Climbing the ladder in hir exoskeleton would be a chore an a half. Shi wasn't sure she even could.
"Why are you here?" A soft, purring, and strikingly feminine voice called down from above. "That is the reason you must climb the ladder."
"Why can't you come down here?" Antonia shot back.
"Why do you want to see me?" the voice responded.
Antonia felt hirself getting irritated. "I came here to see Chase. Would that happen to be you?"
"Then why do I have to climb this ladder to meet you? Why couldn't we meet somewhere more accessible?"
"A man is walking down the street," Chase replied. "He meets another man on his hands and knees, searching the sidewalk. 'Did you loose something?' the first man asks. 'Yes,' the second replies. 'I dropped my watch over there.' He points down the street. 'Then why are you looking here?' the first man asks. 'Because the light's better,' the second replies. What you seek is here, Antonia, not somewhere else. After coming all the way from Darwin are you going to quibble about one little ladder?"
Antonia frowned. "Fine, then," shi snapped. "But it's on your head if I fall and break my neck."
"Is it also upon my head if you succeed?"
Despite hirself Antonia paused. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"If you go into a casino, make a bet, and loose, who gets the money?"
"Why the Hell do you have to answer every question with another question?" Antonia demanded.
"Because I have no answers to give."
"Then what the Hell good are you?" Antonia shouted angrily.
"Isn't that what you came here to find out?"
Antonia lifted hir foot in preparation to turning around. Fuck this little prick and her mind games.
"Antonia, how much good did it do to get angry at Layna when she explained that you'd be paralyzed for the rest of your life?"
Antonia froze. Anger boiled up- but also a feeling of dread. Hir own words, committed to hir diary, came back to hir. I don't have the luxury of pretending I'm not really paralyzed.
"Do you think it'll help now?"
Antonia didn't respond.
"Do you know the definition of insanity?"
Antonia nodded. "Yes," she whispered. "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
Antonia looked down at hir forepaws, sheathed in gleaming metal. Shi looked at the ladder. "If I go to a casino, make a bet, and loose, I pay because it's my loss," shi said. "If I win I keep the money because it's my win." Shi lifted hir forepaw and set it on the first tread.
Getting up the ladder proved easier than Antonia had expected, primarily because hir exoskeleton didn't get tired. Shi could hang as long as necessary while placing each foot. finally shi emerged into a cylindrical room lined all the way around with view ports. Marks on the floor showed where consoles and chairs had once stood. Metal shutters covered approximately half of the windows; the half full disk of Luna loomed large in the others.
Five people reclined on the bare floor. Three of them were Skunktaurs, which might lead a person to believe them to be centauroid skunks in the way Chakats were centauroid cats. However that was not, strictly speaking, the case. Their heads and tails looked skunk-like but their lower bodies appeared more feline than musteline. Nevertheless one could not doubt the authenticity of their pelts: solid black except for a white blaze on the face, a white topknot, and a pair of white stripes running along the spine. At the tail the two stripes joined into one and ran out to the tip. Of the three one was female and much older than the other two, who seemed about Antonia's age, which was to say in their late twenties. Two others- neither of whom were Skunktaurs- used the older Skunktaur's lower body as a couch. Both of these individuals were female and humanoid, though not Terran. The taller one resembled a fox, with a ruddy orange pelt, black stockings on her arms and legs, and a white patch on the front of her body running from her chin to her crotch and also on the insides of her thighs and upper arms. Her triangular ears stuck up through a mane of firey red hair that spilled loose to the level of her exceptionally large and well rounded breasts. In fact, the construction of her whole body could not be considered anything but voluptuous. A fluffy fox's tail, ruddy orange like her pelt but with a white tip, lay across her lap. Beside her lay a much shorter woman whose head looked sort of skunk like, with a blunt muzzle and round, mouse like ears, but whose tail looked more like a squirrel's. Her pelt was solid, snowy white except for a short, black mane and a black tag at the end of her tail. Her figure was as full as the fox woman's, though on a smaller scale, and possessed of an athletic firmness the taller woman lacked. She watched Antonia with large, expressive eyes the deep blue of bottomless pools.
Antonia cleared hir throat, fidgeting uncomfortably. None of these people wore so much as a single shred of clothing. The white woman- an ermine, Antonia decided- reclined with her legs apart, baring her crotch for all to see. As a general rule Chakats were free of encumbering modesty but living among Terrans had, to some extent, imbued Antonia with their morals. Moreover, there was something about these people that made Antonia feel very much like an outsider.
"See, you've already learned something and I still haven't given you any answers," the ermine woman said in the voice identified as Chase. "Allow me to present my, apprentice, Liska-" she indicated the fox woman- "and my friend, Nakala." She indicated the old, female Skunktaur. "Brisco and Sevarius-" she indicated the two young, male Skunktaurs- "are the telepaths who've been observing Joss' experiments."
"Ah, hello everyone," Antonia said, rather hesitantly. "Are you all telepaths?"
"All us Skunktaurs are, yes," Nakala replied. "Chase... well, technically Chase is an empath, though that's really too limiting a term to describe what she does. Liska has no psionic talents to speak of."
But-" Antonia frowned, looking at Chase. "I thought you said she was your apprentice."
"She never said I was an apprentice telepath. Or empath," Liska pointed out. Her voice seemed like an echo of Chase's, in a way: sexy and sultry but though deeper somehow not as penetrating.
"Oh." Now that shi looked more closely Antonia noticed that each Skunktaur had a mark resembling a red paw print on the right breast of hys humanoid torso. Antonia had never met a Skunktaur before but shi'd heard things about them. That they, like Chakats, were a genetically engineered species; that in fact they'd been created immediately after the Chakats and the engineer who did the work tool most of the basic pattern straight from the Chakat genome, for which reason Skunktaurs were sometimes referred to as Chakat-Kin. But instead of emerging into public view, for the first part of their existence Skunktaurs existed as slaves, kept docile by drugs. Until the Three Firms Scandal, which led to their liberation and eventual resettlement on Chakona- where it was discovered that generations of drugging had somehow changed them. They developed powerful psionic abilities... and the Redpaw variety usually became telepaths. But all Skunktaur psionisists, at least so far as Antonia knew, wore headbands of some sort, which apparently had something to do with how they controlled their powers. Yet none of these three did. What did that mean?
"It means," Chase said, "That they, like you, are here to learn a new way of being."
Antonia started. "You- you read my mind!" Anger at having hir privacy violated warred with fear at the implications. "I- I thought you said you were an empath," shi added hesitantly.
All of them- even Chase- burst out laughing. Antonia would have fled except that getting down the ladder would take more care than coming up.
"Chase demonstrates the fundamental shortcoming of words when it comes to describing who we are and what we do," Nakala said. "I In my youth I was one of the most powerful telepaths in existence." Hy smiled. "I fancy I'm still pretty good... but I am as nothing compared to Chase. What I am is this." Hy drew a vertical line in the air. "An empath, in the conventional sense, is this." Hy drew a second line beside the first. "Chase is this." Using both hands hy described a globe around the two lines.
Antonia blinked. Nakala's explanation made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Chase chuckled. "Try this, Antonia. If Nakala, Brisco, and Sevarius are telepaths, then I am not merely a larger version of the same thing. I am something completely different, something for which no word currently exists. I'm called an empath because it's the best fit from a selection of poor choices. Also because, strictly speaking, I can't read your thoughts. I do not hear the words that flit through your mind when you're thinking. I do feel your emotions, and not merely in a gross way, such as if you're happy or sad or angry, but all the subtle nuances. It might be said that your emotions fill the spaces around your words, enough that I've learned to make a good guess at what the words are. Moreover- and this, more than anything else, is what separates me from a conventional telepath or empath- I don't merely see what lies on the surface of your mind. I see.... all of it at once, including the parts that you yourself don't. That difference is like... like the difference between looking at a a tapestry and inferring its structure by following the pattern of a single thread."
Antonia frowned. Now shi definitely would have run were it practical. "But- then- you're prying."
Chase tapped her face. "Am I prying by looking at you? With my eyes?"
Antonia blinked, utterly baffled.
"Your mind, just like your body, exists in a time and place," Chase said. "In fact, both are nothing but different faces of an essential you that is not composed of discrete parts but a complete, unified whole. When I use my eyes I see your body. Because your body is an expression of the essential you everything about it is an expression of the essential you. The way you stand, the way you hold you hands, the way you trim and style your fur, the way you speak, the way you move your eyes... all these things are expressions of, and map directly to, elements of the essential you which lies beneath. Thus when I look at them I see... you." She gestured sharply with her index finger. "So: am I violating your privacy by using my eyes and looking at you?"
Antonia's eyes narrowed. "If I don't like you looking at me I can cover myself or otherwise block what you see."
"Which actions also spring from the essential you," Chase replied. "By watching how you evade my sight I see you as clearly as if you stood still."
Antonia opened hir mouth then shut it, stunned by the implications. "Wait," shi protested. "If what you say is true... there is no privacy."
"Exactly," Chase replied. "Privacy is a gentlemen's agreement. When you meet someone on the road you avert your eyes. If you notice something odd about the person you don't mention it. You tell yourself you're being polite but what you're really doing is protecting yourself. After all, you wouldn't like it if people pointed out everything strange they saw about you. But children don't know this; they have to be taught. When they stare at people, and blurt out what they see, their parents scold them and tell them it's not polite. Skunktaurs- not these but most of their breed- are properly socialized. They politely avert their eyes when you meet them. They even wear headbands so you know they're averting their eyes. But I am not properly socialized. You might say I'm still a child... which I am, in a great many ways. I was never trained to avert my eyes... and because of it I see things that no Skunktaur ever did. That no Skunktaur ever could. These Skunktaurs do not wear headbands because their eyes are open. For the first time in their lives they are learning to see."
"But- but-" Antonia stammered. "Why do they have to look at- at-" Me? "People?"
Chase smiled. Antonia realized suddenly that she knew what Antonia had thought as clearly as if shi'd said it aloud. "You've noticed that of everyone here, for the most part only I speak," Chase said. "Why do you suppose that is?"
Antonia looked around. "You're all... looking at me."
"Exactly." Chase nodded. "We are observing you. How you react to what I say, what we look like, this place... everything. They are doing it to learn what a mind- yours, in this case- looks like."
An idea came into Antonia's mind like a flash of light. "Because they don't know," shi blurted. "Because... they've spent their lives averting their eyes."
Chase snapped her fingers. Liska rose and smacked Brisco on the back of the head. "Fifteen minutes of casual conversation and shi zeros in on the heart of the matter like a laser," Chase declared, fixing Brisco with a disapproving glare. "I hope this demonstration clarifies things sufficiently that I don't have to listen to any more of your bellyaching."
"Yes, Sensei," Brisco replied resignedly. The others laughed good naturedly. "And shi's not even a telepath," Brisco added, glancing at Antonia and shaking hys head in wonder.
"Anyone care to take that?" Chase asked. Liska raised her hand. "Go," Chase prompted.
"It's because shi's not a telepath," Liska said. "Shi doesn't have bad habits to unlearn."
"Shi doesn't have those particular bad habits to unlearn," Chase clarified. "But otherwise yes. Shi sees what shi sees because shi does not have a stake in not seeing it." She shifted her attention back to Antonia. "We can poke fun at each other because we've all been through it already. At one point or another we have all revealed ourselves as shameful, weak and helpless." She looked around, meeting and briefly holding every eye. "All of us," she reiterated firmly. "I no less than any of you. The only difference between me and any of you- including you, Antonia- is that I've spent more time actively concentrating on my education. There is nothing special about me that sets me apart. Which means, Sevarius, that saying you can't do what I do because you're not like me is a cop-out, not an answer. Liska does what I do and she's not even a telepath." She looked once again at Antonia. "You have a question. Which reveals your ignorance, yes. However, I assert that stupidity is defined as trying to hide what is blindingly apparent to all. Therefore the only stupid question is one you refrain from asking. So ask."
Antonia drew a breath- then let it out and blinked. "You know," shi said, "I think that in putting together my question I answered it already. I was going to ask why you're all doing this when a lot of people- powerful people- would get really upset if they knew. But... it's because of the Borg, isn't it? You need to know what they're doing to people's minds... because that's the only way you can figure out how to stop it."
Brisco made an exasperated noise and started pounding hys forehead against the deck. Liska and Nakala laughed; Sevarius put a hand around Brisco's shoulders and patted hym reassuringly.
"Not even just the Borg," Chase said. "There are the Stariionae... and other races whose interests are not necessarily friendly to our own and who may attack our minds, in one form or another. Including me, for that matter." She grinned; the others chuckled. "To defend the mind we must understand it. To understand it we must look at it unflinchingly, even when that examination reveals unpleasant things about ourselves. Especially when it reveals unpleasant things, because those are the weakness our enemies will exploit. And yes, just like Dr. DerVoort we're all taking risks by doing this. We're stretching the definition of our charter to the breaking point and actively violating several of the Rhine Institute's key ethical standards. We're doing it for the exact same reason Joss is: because we tried the conventional way and it didn't work."
Antonia found hirself nodding, but a question forced its way to the front of hir mind. Shi'd already asked it once but Chase hadn't answered. Or, more to the point, Antonia didn't feel that Chase hand answered. "If you don't have any answers, what are you here to teach me?"
Suddenly Antonia felt the weight of all eyes upon hir. As shi looked around at them shi couldn't help feeling that they were struggling not to smile. As hir gaze passed over Brisco hy gave up the fight and burst out in a fit of giggles. "I- I'm sorry, Shir Antonia," hy gasped. "I- I'm not laughing at you. It's-" hy swallowed- "because every single one of us asked almost that exact same question, in almost exactly that way." They all chuckled, even Chase.
"Which brings us to your question, Antonia," Chase began, interjecting gently but smoothly, her expression serious. "We've given you a small taste of what it is we do here. Do you find, as before, that an answer suggests itself in the question?"
Antonia opened hir mouth. But the thought that sprang into hir mind felt... ill formed. And rather silly, come to think of it. "No," shi muttered.
"It's all right," Chase said, smiling warming. "Then I will tell you straight out. I will teach you to ask questions."
Antonia blinked. That was, almost exactly the thought that had come into hir mind. Looking at Chase's face shi also understood, somehow, that Chase had known. They'd all known. They were watching hir. "How does asking questions help against the Borg?" shi demanded.
"May I take this one?" Nakala inquired.
Chase looked up at Nakala, then around. "If no one else minds," she said. No one spoke, so Chase indicated for Nakala to continue.
"Before I answer your question directly, I need to fill in a little background," Nakala began. "For most of my life I was a commercial telepath. I detected duplicity in business agreements and I could say, to a fair degree of accuracy, whether or not a given team was capable of completing a particular project. I knew which managers to promote, which ones to move, which to let go. I became fantastically rich because any company I worked with flourished. I used the money to start my own company, which also flourished. It didn't even matter that I didn't know anything to speak of about the aerospace industry. I'd become so skilled at choosing people that they made the company work. And then..." Nakala's eyes unfocused. "my son went away." Nakala's eyes locked onto Antonia's with such an intensity shi would have taken a step back had not that been such a complex process. "I raised hym just as I managed my business, Shir Antonia. I chose the very best people. They made him brave, strong, confident, and capable." Hy swallowed; there was a pain in hys eyes so intense that Antonia wanted to cry out in sympathy. "Hy took on a mission that was too much for hym. It left hym in a coma. I went to hym, hoping to call hym back. But... hy wouldn't listen. He wouldn't come. I'd stopped being his mother so long ago that he'd didn't recognize me any more." Hy dabbed at his face. "I- I'm sorry, Antonia. I... didn't really mean to say all that, but it... came out." Hy took a deep breath. "I... merely wanted to make clear that I do have a background in such matters."
"Then why aren't you leading?" Antonia asked.
Nakala licked hys lips and looked down at Chase. "I think it would be best you to answer that," Chase commented.
"Yes, I think you're right." Nakala sighed. "Antonia... I have years of experience and training behind me. But there's... gaps in it. My son fell through one of them, and there wasn't a God damn thing I could do about it. Chase is the leader- or rather, I'd say the chief instructor- because she knows more about those things than I do. She... taught me to see into those places. So... I don't have to watch helplessly as someone I love slips out of my grip. And the way she did it... was by asking questions. Questions that... made me think about things I'd never thought about. That made me look at things about myself I'd never looked at. Because of Chase's questions... I saw that I'd given my son away years ago. I even saw exactly how I did it. I... wanted him to be a success. I wasn't willing... to let hym be. Be my son." Hy scrubbed his face. "What I mean is... Chase's questions opened up a part of my life I'd never seen before. A part I'd never even have known existed if, if Kei hadn't died that way." Hy took a deep breath. "Now you want to know what all that has to do with the Borg." Hy locked his gaze on Antonia's. "My answer is this: it is exactly what /they/ will do. They will ask you a series of carefully crafted questions that will uncover all the dreck you've spent your life burying in the bottom of your mind. I think that when you see it, all at once, you'll be so shocked and horrified that you'll give yourself to the Borg simply to get away from it."
"But-" But-" Antonia stammered. "It... couldn't be that bad? Could it?"
"Maybe, maybe not," Nakala allowed. "Still and all, better we should find out before the Borg, not so?"
"How do you know that is what the Borg do?" Antonia asked.
"We don't," Brisco put in. "All we know is how a sentient mind reacts when the Borg attack it. We also know that Chase can create indistinguishable effects in a test mind. As such we assume that what she does and what they do are analogous. We hope that by studying one, we better understand the other."
Antonia swallowed. "That's... not very reassuring."
"It's why you came to us before going to see Cutter," Chase said. "You have to believe that we'll save your life. If not there's nothing we can do for you."
Antonia licked hir lips. "Does... that mean it's over?" In a way it was a relief. This was all much too incredible to believe anyway-
"It's over when you say it's over," Chase replied. "We swear to aid you, in whatever fashion is necessary, for however long is necessary. Success or failure, though, lies only and entirely with you. Brisco is cautious; it's hys nature. What hy told you is the truth, but not all of it. We- all of us, including Brisco- are here because we believe that we've discovered the basic nature of the Borg attack. We believe this strongly enough that, like Dr. DerVoort, we are staking our professional reputations- and our lives- upon it. If we fail, prison is the least any of us can expect. Psi Corps will insist that we must have used our powers to force you to go along with us. The penalty for that is death, with no possibility of mitigating circumstances."
"But- why?" Antonia exclaimed. "Why take that risk?"
"Why are you?" Nakala shot back. "You're right; giving up and walking away would be the easiest thing. The best, in some ways. All we'd have to do is decide that your fate doesn't matter as much to us as our own."
Antonia looked down. Shi found hirself recalling hir conversation with Joss, just before boarding the shuttle. The words were much the same, but this time they took on a terrifying reality they'd somehow lacked before. The specter of Death had a lot to do with it; being executed wasn't the same as going to prison, not by a long shot. "I-" shi began. I can't let you do this.
"Antonia, before you decide, please let me say something." Chase rose to her feet. "You didn't feel this way while talking to Joss because you didn't think that your failure could doom someone else." She stepped up, putting her hands on Antonia's cheeks and rubbing them gently. "I've looked into your heart, Antonia. Deeper than you realize. What I see there... is that you are strong, Antonia. Stronger than you know. Stronger than you can imagine. I do not fear to put my life into your hands, Antonia." Chase took Antonia's in her own. "Because I know you won't fall. Because I won't let you. Wherever you go... I will be beside you, holding your hand."
Antonia squeezed hir eyes shut. Even so shi felt tears welling up. Shi didn't see Nakala rise to hys feet and come over but shi did feel Nakala take hir hand. Liska came as well, joined quickly by Brisco and Sevarius. Shi broke down and cried because shi didn't know how else to express the emotion shi felt. Shi couldn't remember feeling such love, such unconditional acceptance, at any other time in hir life.
"Chase?" Antonia heard hirself asking. "How... does asking questions save me from the Borg?"
Chase chuckled. "Like a laser."
Nakala snorted. "Of course like a laser, Chase. Shi knows that hir life hangs on your answer. Such things have a remarkable way of focusing one's perceptions."
Antonia swallowed. Hir whole body would have been quivering, were that possible. Hir torso was. Shi kept a death grip on all the hands thrust into hir own. Shi'd felt a growing suspicion of what Nakala had said, growing in the back of hir mind... but shi rather wished hy hadn't just come out and said it like that. The remark made it all... too real. Too immediate.
"Antonia, listen to me." Chase took Antonia's cheeks in her hands. "The Borg have no power over you. They can talk to you, they can make you experience things... but that's all. The can't make you believe. They can't make you anything you don't choose to be. They'll try to frighten you with grave words and terrifying illusions... but that's all they are. Illusions. Reality is yours and yours alone to choose. How does asking questions help you? Because that is what they will do. They will ask questions designed to strip away the comfortable illusions and habits of thought that you use to keep yourself sane and oriented in this chaotic world. While you're reeling from shock they'll slam you with all the horrible, disgusting things you've buried and forgotten about. But what they're hitting you with is yourself. You'll run to them to escape yourself... and that is exactly what they will give you. Once you join them there is no self, ever again." Chase's eyes burned like a pair of blue stars. "That's the truth behind the lie, Antonia. They'll promise you freedom from fear, pain, doubt, and struggle. They will offer you a life of perfect contentment and bliss, long after your physical body has turned to dust. And they can deliver exactly what they promise. All you have to do is give up your self." She drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Questions will save you because you will ask them. You will uncover the dark places in your own soul. As you look at them, with compassion instead of fear, they will cease to have power over you. Without them the Borg will have no power over you. Their only weapon is your own fear."
After what felt like a very long time, though was most likely only a minute or two, Antonia freed a hand and lay it on Chase's shoulder. "Okay," shi whispered. "I believe you."
"However far you walk in shadow, I'll be with you," Chase promised.
"We'll all be with you," Nakala added. The others murmured in agreement.
Antonia hugged them all, as tightly as shi could. "Let's go see Cutter," shi said.
"Are you sure?" Liska asked. "It's... after that it's forever, however it turns out."
Antonia's expression hardened. "It always was forever, Liska. It always was."
"Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad, I'm hot for teacher," Brisco sang as hy pushed Antonia on a padded dolly. "I've got it bad, so bad, I'm hot for teacher..."
Antonia repeatedly stroked hir chest. Hir hands continually crossed and re-crossed the border zone just below hir breasts where sensation ended. The antigravity bed was far more comfortable than the traction frame; shi couldn't help wondering why the hospital in Darwin hadn't ever used one.
"I heard about your lessons, but lessons are so cold," Brisco continued. "I know about this school. Little girl from cherry lane, how did you get so bold? How did you know that golden rule?"
Once again Antonia drew a breath to tell Brisco to shut up... and once again shi let it out without speaking. The only reason shi wanted hym to shut up was because shi was tense.
In hir mind's eye Antonia saw a high diving board. Shi saw hirself on it, having just reached the top of the ladder and walking slowly out to the end of the board. Shi looked over the edge... but this board was so high shi couldn't even see the pool. Shi couldn't see anything; just... a gray, swirling fog. Shi couldn't tell what lay below, or even how far down it might be. But here shi was, about ready to jump off.
"I think of all the education that I missed," Brisco sang. "But then my homework was never quite like this." Hy carefully maneuvered the dolly through a ninety degree turn into the wardroom. "Brring, brring!" hy shouted. "School's in session, folks!"
"Good morning, Shir Antonia," Nakala said. "I hope you slept well?"
"Hey, teach!" Brisco lofted something. "I got you an apple!"
Without looking up Chase caught the object just before it smacked into the side of her head. "Thanks," she responded, taking a bite.
"How can you be so- so flippant about this?" Antonia exploded.
Brisco paused in the act of turning away to take hys own seat. "Because-" hy began. "This is all way too serious to take seriously," hy said after a short pause. "When you go... I'll be with you, seeing what you see and feeling what you feel. Just... thinking about that scares me so much I wanna wet myself. If I couldn't joke about it I'd... go nuts."
Antonia swallowed. I'm the one who's going, not you, shi wanted to remind hym- but that was too much like reminding hirself as well.
"Good morning, class!" Chase declared, seating herself on the edge of a table set facing a semi-circle where Antonia, Nakala, Brisco, Sevarius, and Liska sat or reclined, as per their inclination. "Today we begin our first official training session. I realize that most of you have been through this before, in one form or another, but since this is Antonia's first time-" he nodded to hir- "and some of you may or may not have received the full briefing, I will explain as if we are all newcomers." She clasped her hands together, smiling warmly at her audience. "First off, the purpose of this training is to teach you how to ask questions. Not just any questions but a particular type. Specifically, those to which you do not already know the answer." She grinned. "Learning how to phrase these questions, and finding the answers to them, will make it possible for you to see portions of yourself that you didn't know existed, or had forgotten about. Once un-concealed, you may release these things by declaring them to be exactly what they are. Once released they will fade away, leaving empty space into which new states of being may be declared, unconstrained by the past. "It is the nature of what we're doing here that things will come to light we'd rather not let others see," she continued in a very serious tone. "But for the training to work this must happen... and we must be willing to let it happen. As such I require every participant to sign this agreement." She passed the clipboard to Sevarius, and the end of the line. "But doing so you promise that whatever is said in this room stays in this room. You will not share what you hear in this room with anyone not a part of the training. You will not discuss it amongst yourselves except as it pertains to the training. I won't tolerate any gossip or snide remarks being passed around. I expect each one of you to speak when directed and listen politely otherwise. If you wish to speak, raise your hand. I will call upon you- or not- as the situation requires. In return for this I aver that these training sessions are closed: no non-participants will be present at any time. There will be no recording or monitoring of what is said here."
Antonia took the clipboard when it came to hir. Somewhat to hir surprise, what it said on the sheet was basically what Chase had said aloud, as opposed to legal boilerplate. Shi signed hir name and passed it on.
"What if we confess to committing a crime?" Sevarius asked.
"You mean the ones we're already committing aren't enough?" Liska inquired. A smattering of chuckles greeted her comment.
"It's a serious question," Chase interjected. "But at the heart of it I agree with Liska. Quite a few of us are committing crimes merely by being here. Against that I'm not sure any confession of wrongdoing would make a quantitative difference. But I'm no lawyer, so the truth is I really don't know." She looked around, meeting and holding each and every gaze, ending with Antonia. "What I do know is that when we go to face the Borg there will be no Peace Force. There will be no law. Whether we live or die depends only and entirely on the relationships we forge with one another. Does that answer your question?"
Antonia licked hir lips. Sevarius and asked the question but everyone seemed to be waiting for hir. Shi nodded.
"Excellent." Chase jumped to her feet. She was short, Antonia realized with a start, no more than 167 or 168 centimeters tall. "Then allow me to pose the first question. To wit: how is it that what is real comes into being?"
"Shouldn't we ask God?" Antonia quipped.
"Okay," Chase replied. "How do we go about doing that?"
Antonia blinked. Shi hadn't expected hir comment to be taken seriously. "Read the Bible, I suppose," shi suggested with a shrug.
"Which part? There's seventy-three different books. Be nice if we could narrow it down a bit."
"Well then... the part where He creates everything," Antonia concluded.
"Genesis, chapter 1," Liska put in.
"Right, then." Chase casually vaulted over the table. "Computer, activate room display. Show chapter one of the Book of Genesis."
The room lights dimmed slightly and a large view screen behind Chase's table lit up. Text appeared, black against white. "The text displayed is a modern English translation of the Douay-Rheims version of the Holy Bible," the computer announced in its briskly impersonal voice.
"Would you begin reading here, please, Antonia?" Chase requested, indicating the spot with her finger.
"In the beginning, God created heaven and earth," Antonia began. "And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness. And he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day."
"Excellent," Chase declared. "Did an act of creation occur in this passage?"
"Yes." Antonia nodded. "He created light."
"Where did this happen?"
"There." Antonia pointed. "'And God said: Be light made.' But you see, it doesn't say how He did it. It just says that he did it."
"What's the difference?" Chase wanted to know.
"Chase, we aren't God," Antonia pointed out. "This ship-" shi gestured at the room- "didn't just spring into being because someone stood up and said 'let there be ship.'"
"Not by itself, no," Chase replied. "The person who said that went around and asked a whole bunch of other people for help. They all got together, did their bits, and only at the end of it all did a ship come into being. But let me ask you this, Antonia: would there be a ship if no one had said, 'let there be ship?'"
Antonia opened hir mouth, then shut it. She could feel the presence of an answer, like a weight pressing on hir mind, but shi couldn't find the words to express it. Even in hir own thoughts it felt... vague and insubstantial, like a fog bank. "I- I don't know!" shi blurted.
Chase smiled gently. "That's all right, Antonia. It's what you're here to learn."
"Then why can't you just explain it to me?" Antonia demanded.
"Do you recall what I said to you when we first met?" Chase inquired.
"You asked me why I was here," Antonia replied. "You said that's why I should climb the ladder."
"You told me a story about a guy looking for his watch."
"I-" Antonia's eyes narrowed. "You're doing it again! I ask you a simple question and you throw a dozen more back in my face! Why can't you just explain things?"
"Did I not say that I had no answers to give?" Chase inquired.
"You did," Antonia admitted, suspiciously.
"I still don't have any answers to give."
"Then what are we doing here?"
"Asking questions." Chase pushed the table out of the way and walked up to the display screen. "As to why I'm asking questions... I hope this will help to explain. Computer, graphic A please."
The biblical text vanished, replaced by a circle. It had been divided by lines into three regions: two narrow wedges, and the rest. "Let us pretend that this circle represents all that can be known," Chase said. "In it are things you know: how to count money, tell time, drive a groundcar, do your job, so on." She tapped one of the narrow wedges. "There are also things you know you don't know. Do you know how to pilot a star ship or perform brain surgery?"
"No." Antonia shook hir head.
"You know you don't know these things," Chase continued, tapping the other narrow wedge. "But if so inclined you could learn. You read a book, take a course... in which you would be given answers and develop and understanding. In so doing a bit of this-" she tapped the know-you-don't-know wedge- "moves here." She tapped the know-you-know wedge. "But what about all this?" Her finger traced the rest of the circle. "What about all the things you don't know you don't know? Understanding only exists here." She traced the outline of the two narrow wedges. "To understand something you have to know about it. You have to know you know it-" she tapped the first wedge- "or know you don't know it." She tapped the second. Which means that understanding can't access anything that exists out here, that you don't know you don't know. Which means that if you understand a thing, it's already in here." She tapped the wedges. "If it isn't already in here, it isn't possible to understand it."
Antonia's mouth worked. Shi felt as if hir mind had just been pulled inside out and stuffed back into hir head upside down.
"Let's bring it back to you, specifically," Chase continued. "Antonia, do you know what you need to do to resist the Borg?" She placed her finger on the know-you-know wedge.
Antonia shook hir head mutely.
"Is there a book you can read? A course you can take?" Chase moved her finger to the know-you-don't-know wedge.
"Not... unless one of you have written it, I'm guessing," Antonia admitted after a lengthy pause.
"We haven't," Chase replied, taking her finger away from the diagram. "Which means it's not here either." She traced an X over the know-you-don't-know wedge. "So where is it, Antonia? Where in the diagram will you find what you seek?"
Once again Antonia felt the weight of an answer pressing on hir. This time it wasn't vague; it showed up with crystal clarity. But it was silly. Like a child's game; too obvious, too simple, to possibly be true.
"Go ahead and say it, Antonia," Nakala prompted gently. "If we aren't speaking of answers, then nothing you say can be wrong."
"Out... out there," Antonia whispered. "In the big part."
"Here, you mean?" Chase indicated the don't-know-you-don't-know part.
"But if that's so, and if understanding only exists here-" Chase traced the two wedges- "then it seems to me that understanding- in this particular case- is not only pointless, it's counter-productive. Because it traps you in this space." She traced the wedges again. "Antonia, you are the man looking for his watch under the lamp post, even though he lost it up the street. Because here is the only place you know to look. And you will keep looking there, even though you know it's wrong." Her eyes bored into Antonia's like a pair of pale blue lasers. "What is the definition of insanity, Antonia?"
Antonia couldn't speak. The words were there, right in her mouth... and they stuck in hir throat. Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
"Don't feel bad, Antonia," Chase said, moving up and gently lifting Antonia's face. "This is what you came here to learn. I don't expect you have known it beforehand. It might not seem like it but you've come a tremendously long way in a remarkably short time. Far enough, in fact, that you've given me great hope for the future. I do think you'll find that what we're doing here isn't nearly so strange as it may seem right now. When you lost the use of your lower body you had to become someone completely new to deal with it. Someone you couldn't even have imagined before. You had to do it again merely to consider, to say nothing of accepting. Joss' offer. So you've already been here, one way or another. All we're doing there is codifying it, so you can call it on demand."
Antonia nodded slowly. "But-" shi bit hir lip. "I... know it's not about understanding, but... what do I do?"
"Listen," Chase replied. "I'll ask questions. Answer them as best you can. Don't worry about whether or not it makes sense, is true, or whatever. When you go outside of understanding, those things only get in your way. If questions occur to you, ask them. Don't worry if they don't make any sense. The questions, both mine and yours, are what leads you to new wisdom. Play the game to the best of your ability, but don't try to force it. What you seek will come with the time is right for it, not before and not after." She patted Antonia's cheek, then stepped back. "Now I'm going to demonstrate the act of creation. Since this is for instructional purposes, I'll use something very simple, and has already been created. That way you can examine it from both sides, and see how all the bits of the process fit together." She went to the table and detached the pen from the clip board. "For the purposes of this demonstration I ask you all to pretend that you are children, beginning your pre-school education. Those of you who have children- or remember being them- will know that kids know almost nothing at birth. They even have to be taught how to suckle." She rubbed one of her breasts. "Later they learn how to walk, talk, use the bathroom, and dress themselves. Then they move on to higher education: spelling, telling time... and counting." She held up the pen. "You can imagine that there was a time in your life when you didn't know how to count. A teacher, or parent, sat you down and taught you. Until then, the whole idea of counting existed here." She pointed over her shoulder at the diagram. "You didn't know it and you didn't even know that you didn't know. So, your teacher explained it by showing a series of examples." Chase held up a single finger. "Shi might have said, 'this is one.'" She extended another finger. "'And this is two.' Now, for the sake of brevity, I'm only going to speak of two. You can extend the analogy to other numbers if you want. Thus: we have established that this-" she indicated her hand, with two fingers extended- "is two. Now then: is this two?" She held up two hands, each with one finger up.
"Yes," Antonia replied, dutifully nodding.
"Is this?" Chase held up two fingers on each hand.
"Yes," Antonia said after only the briefest of hesitations. "Two sets of two."
"This?" Chase held up her hands with no fingers extended.
"Yes," Antonia said. "Two fists."
"Let's try something a bit more advanced." Chase walked to the screen, putting her hand on the circle diagram and pushing it to one side, leaving half the screen empty. "Is this two?" She drew two parallel lines on the screen with her fingertip.
"Yep," Antonia replied.
"This?" Chase drew a vertical line and a horizontal one.
"This?" Chase drew a line and an X.
"It is?" Chase looked over her shoulder.
"It's two symbols," Antonia pointed out.
"You mean that the things that make the two don't necessarily have to be the same?" Chase ventured.
"This, then?" Chase drew an X and an O.
"This?" X and Y.
"What about this?" Chase drew a single X.
Antonia opened hir mouth, then closed it. "No," shi said.
"Why not?" Chase wanted to know.
"It's only one," Antonia replied.
"With all due respect Shir Antonia, I beg to differ," Nakala put in. "It is two. Two lines, crossing in the middle."
Antonia smacked hirself in the forehead. Liska and Brisco giggled. "Antonia, if you'd seen me fighting with this, you wouldn't be able to breathe for laughing so hard," Brisco added.
"We aren't done yet," Chase admonished. "What about this?" She drew an O.
An expectant hush fell over the room. Antonia looked around; all eyes were on hir. "You've all done this before, haven't you?"
"We have," Nakala replied. "But the important thing to remember is that we were all once exactly where you are now. Which is to say, feeling like an idiot and trying desperately to think of the right answer."
Antonia looked again at the screen. "All right," shi sighed. "I don't see it. All I see there is one."
"Can I? Can I?" Liska asked, bouncing excitedly.
"Not just yet," Chase replied. "Let's try something else." She wiped away all the marks except for the single O. "Here's a little logic puzzle, Antonia. It's not directly related to the question of two but working through it might give you an insight." She drew a grid of nine dots. "Connect all the dots with no more than four straight lines, without lifting your finger from the screen."
Antonia tapped hir chin. Shi remembered doing puzzles like this as a child, but hadn't tried one in a long time. Shi couldn't remember ever doing this particular one either. "Start at the upper left corner," shi said. "Draw diagonally to the lower right. Now across to the left- oh, bugger."
As Chase completed the second line Antonia realized that shi'd blown it. Shi'd intended to draw diagonally to the upper right, then down, but that left two dots to either side of the start point and no more lines. Re-ordering the lines didn't help; even if shi ended adjacent to the two dots shi couldn't cover them without breaking the rules of the game.
"May I give hir a hint?" Nakala inquired.
"Very well," Chase allowed.
"In business, there is a phrase you may have heard bandied about," Nakala said. "It is: 'think outside the box.'"
Like a flash of silent lighting in hir mind, the answer suddenly appeared to Antonia, fully formed and complete. "May I start again?" shi asked.
"Of course." Chase wiped the diagram and re-drew it.
"Upper left corner," Antonia announced. "Diagonal to the lower right. Now left... keep going. As if there were one more dot." Chase kept drawing, past the lower left dot to a point where the next dot would have been. "diagonally up and right," Antonia continued. "To just above the upper right dot." Chase drew, the line passing through the two previously orphaned dots to either side of the start point. "Down," Antonia concluded. A single line, straight down to the lower right dot, completed the solution.
"Very good!" Chase applauded; Antonia bowed as best shi could. "Ready to tackle the two question now?"
Antonia almost said no, but in a flash shi suddenly realized that, as Chase had said, the two exercises were related... and shi even saw how. "I'm ready," shi said. "The O there is two."
"How?" Chase wanted to know.
"It's O and not O."
"Very good." Chase's counteance practically glowed with approval. Antonia couldn't help smiling in return.
To Be Continued