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Chapter twenty-two:
Bright lights, hard vacuum

The Chance of a Realtime
A J. Staute online epic

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This page last updated on or about late 1-14-08
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BACK to contents: Chapter twenty-one (not yet posted) A brief introduction to J. Staute

THE STORY SO FAR: Staute and his anomalous mental ally have initiated their own mutiny against Arbitur, the chief artificial intelligence of the ship. But the A.I. from 2483 AD is a formidable opponent. And it's unclear if Arbitur will abide by the same constraints as the crew.

Our respite was short lived.

Everything turned black. And weightless. And for just an instant I became acutely aware of my fourth skins, as they expanded slightly away from my biological skin, then contracted again.

A moment later I understood why.

We were in space. Arbitur had shifted us outside the ship.

Apparently Arbitur had either overcome the blocks on shifting-- or those blocks had only affected shifting between spots inside the ship, rather than to outside.

I was flabbergasted. Arbitur had won.

Arbitur wasn't taking any chances. He didn't know exactly where we were, so he'd simply shifted an entire section of passageway (and we, its contents) into space.

And the Pagnew was nowhere to be seen.

I could see the two dead androids floating near us. I suddenly felt defeated. Even Ovizatataron couldn't beat an artificial intelligence like Arbitur, it appeared.

Ovizatataron though seemed amused by my resignation.

I directed a query at him, and he sort of indicated 'just watch'.

Uh oh. Suddenly there were laser beams lancing through the darkness. Carving up the open ended corridor into slices.

I remembered the batteries of big lasers we'd installed on the Pagnew's hull in the Sol Realtime.

My own cleverness was coming back to haunt me.

But Ovizatataron didn't seem overly concerned, despite the fact these beams were much more powerful than the little lasers we'd dealt with inside the ship. One lick from these big babies could slice us in two, fourth skins or no fourth skins, I was sure.

Ovizatataron's next move stunned me. For instead of moving away from the deadly beams of the laser, he propelled us towards them!

I sort of panicked at that point, in my own thoughts. But Ovizatataron was in total control of us physically. I could do nothing to avert our headlong rush into death.

So this was how I was going to die, I thought. Sliced up like baloney by a laser beam.

But then I noticed something. Perhaps once again Ovizatataron was simply ahead of me on things.

Arbitur was methodically slicing up the passageway into pieces too thin to contain an intact human being. The beam was rising and falling in a deadly, silent rhythm ahead of us.

The sections didn't fall away as they were cut loose, for there was no gravity to cause such a movement.

There was only one difference between the section we now stood in and those ahead; this one was one long continuous section, and those beyond the sweeping beam just a lot of skinny ones, bunched close together.

The beam was fast but not instantaneous in its up and down pattern.

Ovizatataron carefully timed our movement towards the beam. We built up our speed as we advanced.

Perhaps we could pass into the other section between sweeps!

But the slightest miscalculation by Ovizatataron would see us cut in two by the laser.

Being the novice that I was, I didn't think to question Ovizatataron's method for propelling us forward from a standing start in space, without creating an opposite and equal reaction in the dis-embodied corridor-- or two dead android bodies-- which would give away our position to Arbitur. But within a moment my connection with the strange consciousness brought me passively to the knowledge.

Ovizatataron was maneuvering us forward with small strategic puffs of gas from our fourth skins. Just one fourth skin normally carried a substantial supply of breathing air in storage (metallic oxygen), and could even recycle that for a surprisingly long time. We could also affect maneuvers via certain bodily movements, ala acrobats. Unfortunately, we'd had negligible momentum or velocity of any useful sort prior to the shift, and even our third skins themselves needed something to push against or pull towards as well. But again, we had to avoid signaling Arbitur with reactive movements among the surrounding debris.

Normally, of course, our third skin fields could work off the great outer buffer fields of the Pagnew itself, this near to the ship. But Arbitur was having none of that today. The corridor at present existed within a purposeful void in the Pagnew's exterior buffer fields.

On the brighter side, Arbitur could have changed the shift procedure to simply not re-materialize us anywhere, and solved his immediate problems. For whatever reason, that he did not do.

Maybe he was afraid that taking too severe an action against me might wink out his own existence-- since I was supposed to be returned to 1972.

We came closer and closer to the swerving beam. We were almost there. The laser was sweeping up, down, up, down, up, down...

We were right at it, with no turning back possible, when I realized we'd miscalculated!

Just as we reached the beam I saw that it was arcing up even with my chest, my neck, my face... I shut my eyes as we struck the beam.

But we didn't hit it. We'd just cut it very close. Very close.

We were through!

And we were alive!

We slowly puffed our way to a stop on the other side. Ovizatataron was waiting for something else to happen, but I wasn't sure what.

We watched Arbitur's blade of light slice through the remainder of the corridor. Soon, it was done.

But the beam didn't stop there.

Now the beam began sweeping horizontally through the sections! Here it came at us, along the floor!

Swoosh! The light made no sound. But it was easy to imagine the noise, as it sped towards and past us. We lifted our feet higher as it passed below us, though we hadn't dared touch any corridor section before anyway, out of fear that it would move in response and give away our position.

Then there were sudden flashes of light coming through the precisely cut gaps between the corridor sections. It was different light than the lasers; dimmer, and less focused.

The slices of the corridor all began moving out of synch with one another.

What was happening? Was Arbitur somehow moving things around to see if we were still alive? Maybe with the Pagnew's exterior buffer fields?

Then I saw the reason for the movement. Small objects were hitting the sections of the hallway, causing them to react in a random fashion.

Arbitur's laser firing suddenly stopped. But why? He wasn't nearly done carving up the corridor. Indeed, he'd only just begun his second series of passes.

Had he thought of something worse to do to us?

But as the corridor sections moved farther apart-- giving me a better view-- I began to realize what was going on.

I could now see the Pagnew. It looked to be maybe several hundred yards from us, though the true distance was nearly impossible to judge by sight alone.

I knew the Pagnew was a huge vessel. But looking at it from the outside, and at a distance, made 'huge' seem an understatement. The Pagnew was all alone in my field of view, suspended in space. The ship's size soon gained additional definition for me though from the outlines of its hull's different component parts. The many laser gun emplacements dotting its bulk helped too-- for I knew just how big those guns were compared to a person standing next to them.

You could have built dozens of copies of my entire Tennessee hometown on that hull, and still had plenty of open space left over.

From my perspective the hull almost filled 180 degrees of my vision field, along the ship's length. Even at this distance.

But alas, the Pagnew's imposing size was no longer its most prominent feature.

The light shining through the corridor sections was from the Pagnew. Against the deep black of space, even with the fourth skin's protections, one beam shining almost directly at me seemed blinding at first. But as my eyes adjusted to the glare I could see better the light sources. There were quite a few.

At least a dozen large gaping holes now existed in the ship. The light pouring out of them was coming from interior lamps which were still functioning.

I could see the interiors of the affected rooms exposed to vacuum. Were we-- I was thinking of the ship-- under attack? I quickly checked the various readings available from our innermost fourth skin and shush net node, but saw nothing beyond my own current predicament.

Of course, in high tech future war, your enemies need not be anywhere near you to inflict damage.

I turned my attention back to the Pagnew. This time I noticed the holes were smoothly cut from the hull. So it hadn't been explosions that caused them. More like a laser beam...no...more like a shifter?

Arbitur was shifting the ship apart? That made no sense!

Unless he thought for some reason he'd failed to catch us in the wholesale corridor shift before.

More objects went flying by: debris from the Pagnew. Small articles that'd been blown out via explosive decompression when the hull sections had dematerialized.

Ovizatataron seemed amused with me again. Like all this was his own private joke, and he was waiting to serve up the punch line. Then I realized that he might be responsible for all this. But how?

It was then that a ship remote silently flew up to us from out of nowhere. I was suspicious. I seriously doubted that Arbitur had had a change of heart and was now rescuing us.

But Ovizatataron/me jetted aboard the remote without hesitation. Like he/we were expecting it.

With the infinite emptiness of space all around us-- but especially below us-- I mentally winced at our transfer to the remote. And stayed anxious until the void was behind us, and we back aboard the Pagnew again.

I was surprised that the remote didn't shift us back to the ship as it ordinarily would have done. Instead, it carried us back in Realtime. So we rode towards the stricken ship through the vast emptiness for what seemed like forever. Especially with what seemed to me a sure thing that Arbitur would fire on us again in our exposed position.

But Ovizatataron seemed utterly unconcerned.

We flew into one of the newly made holes, rather than towards a hatchway.

This close to the hole edges I could see them being rapidly regenerated with the Pagnew's self-healing nano-technology. It looked like they'd be completely repaired within a few hours in spite of their considerable size.

I wondered if the crew was all right. If Ling was safe from all this craziness.

This fight was between Arbitur and Ovizatataron. One-on-one. With me-- and maybe Ling too-- caught in the middle.

It was too late for me now, of course. Ovizatataron had decided for me which side I'd be on, before I'd ever known there was to be a fight.

Like the crew, I figured I too was going to be either a victim or a refugee, after it was all over.

It seemed there was no way I'd ever get back home now. Too much had happened. Hell: the Pagnew itself might not survive the battle, as things were going at the moment.

It was then that Ovizatataron began begrudgingly filling me in on what was going on. Not that he was wanting to keep anything from me; it was just that providing me with explanations used time and processing he needed elsewhere. Explanations were a luxury at the moment. So he kept them few and brief.

The crew was safe. At least from anything Ovizatataron/me might do, or had done so far.

Even the androids we'd battled would all be restored to like-new condition again, eventually.

Ovizatataron seemed to consider the androids just as important as any living crew.

One of our third skins was spread very thin-- literally throughout the entire ship, monitoring our status at all times. This field was also keeping us in tenuous tight-beam contact with other buffer fields under our control, as well as some remotes we'd already reconfigured. When it was discovered by our support fields that we were no longer onboard, a pre-arranged plan had been put into motion.

The remotes in several areas of the ship had dematerialized certain sections of the Pagnew's hull to create new problems for Arbitur.

A couple of these holes had been in storage areas containing remotes.

A few remotes had passed into space as one consequence of the explosive decompression. As well as a few members of our friendly ship-wide internal buffer field.

The particles of our diffused third skin deployed into a highly efficient search pattern through near space, looking for us. As they weren't flagged by Arbitur as being allied to us, the Pagnew's fields hadn't denied them purchase or communications, and so they quickly determined our location and situation.

Some of the particulate robots then moved to the designated remotes with the information. Thus, practically no omni-directional radio use was involved that might give away the scheme.

The remote judged least likely to be noticed by Arbitur in dispersion resulting from the explosive decompressions began a close-to-routine thrusting loop, back towards the ship-- a maneuver all still functioning remotes would be expected to do in such an event.

The remote 'just happened' to pass near our end of the cut up corridor on its trajectory. In radio contact with Arbitur, this path was to avoid the debris flying about from the decompressions.

During Ovizatataron's explanation there was another flash outside the ship. Debris began pelting the Pagnew, and the vicinity of the very room we were now floating in.

One of the other remotes had exploded. Possibly from damage received in the previous explosive decompressions onboard.

Coincidentally, it had exploded very near the sliced up corridor, hurling sections of it in every direction.

That seemed a lucky break for us, I thought. For now when Arbitur examined the wreckage later, and didn't find us, it'd be a good possibility that the remote explosion had blown us farther out into space. Maybe even into smaller, tougher-to-find pieces.

I was pleased with myself for figuring this out. But Ovizatataron was amused at me, not with me.

He said there was no luck involved there at all.

And I realized he was ahead of me again.

At about that same moment, I began becoming overwhelmed with physical exhaustion. The fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks. Amazingly fast.

It reminded me of how the immediate aftermath of an intense several minutes of 'no-holds-barred' combination fist-fight and wrestling match back on Earth in my high school days had felt.

Any guy who's actually been in such fights will know what I mean there. Pro boxers have to undergo massive physical training to be able to last many times that long in televised bouts.

Ovizatataron told me though that my abrupt near-collapse was a result of our integration and optimization process. While it made our energy usage more efficient, it greatly increased its throughput as well. And running around in supercharged mode used up lots of resources, fast.

Now it seemed I recalled another incident of sudden overwhelming exhaustion on this trip-- around the same time as a miraculous win over multiple Resigents in Sarum 128. I had no conscious recollection of what had actually transpired, but Riki and others had given me enough info for me to now suspect Ovizatataron had simply taken control of me and my fourth skin to deal with a threat he didn't think me capable of handling.

Of course, I hadn't thought me capable of handling it either!

I was suddenly so wiped out now though that I didn't care for explanations. So exhausted, I didn't care if Arbitur caught us. So thoroughly worn out, I didn't care if I lived or died.

Ovizatataron seemed a bit more alarmed now than before. He said we had to hide while I rested. It'd be easier now that Arbitur thought us dead. But still risky.

My body was fast going limp inside the suits. I soon couldn't walk. Quickly after that, near unconscious-- even while still moving. I felt tears in my eyes. I was so awfully exhausted that I was crying.

It felt like enormously hard work to even blink away the tears. Mentally, I was reeling.

Ovizatataron was now struggling to keep me conscious until we reached safety. He had the multiple fourth skins walk us to a hiding place, as I did little more now than fill the suit.

I was deteriorating fast. Dreamily, I could see us entering a room I hadn't seen before. There were round disks on the walls, in a staggered pattern of horizontal rows.

Ovizatataron did something with one of my hands and a disk slid out of the wall. It proved to be the end of a long cylindrical tube, which was open along the top. The suits climbed in and laid us down in the tube. Then caused the cylinder to retract back into the wall. I dimly saw mechanical devices moving above me.

Then blackness descended upon my world.


For a moment I was sure I was awake. Then I wasn't. Sure, I mean. I thought I was blinking my eyes, but all I saw was darkness.

I moved my limbs, which were encumbered by something like heavy covers on a bed.

Where was I? Was I dreaming?

Then my arms and legs met with far more solid resistance in the darkness.

At that point lights slowly brightened around me.

The lights were readouts in a fourth skin face plate. And I remembered where I was, and what I was doing.

But the most important thing I realized was that I was starved.

I craved food so bad, I literally lusted for it.

Then Ovizatataron was there. He told me my hunger was to be expected, just as the exhaustion had been before.

Unfortunately, the only food to be had now was the stored and recycled nourishment of the fourth skins.

I didn't care about that though. I was so alarmingly famished I was ready to eat almost anything.

The suit began oozing a pasty substance into my mouth. Actually it tasted quite good. Better than I remembered it on Vrr, where I'd used this particular suit aspect before. I greedily lapped it up as quickly as it was produced.

I couldn't see the paste; only feel and taste it. But that was enough. I ate like it was my last meal.

And quite possibly it would be, I remembered.

I was surprised to discover that Ovizatataron had hidden us right alongside the crew.

The backup crew, that is.

Come to find out, Arbitur had placed Ling and Sasha there too! To protect them from all the dangerous things now happening onboard-- plus maybe keep them from interfering with his actions.

This part of the ship basically kept crew members in suspended animation as deemed expedient, in order to reduce the depletion of consumables onboard, reduce the toll of boredom on crew members, and for a myriad of other possible reasons. Such 'sleeping' crew members could be quickly roused again, as needed.

It was sort of Ling's origin's own version of the data Sols from Sym's time.

Ovizatataron informed me I'd been asleep for six point seven hours. His widely dispersed spy field was updating him on ship's status as we removed ourselves from the tube.

Arbitur had finished repairing the holes in the outer hull. And been maneuvering around in Realtime carving up all the large portions of the corridor he could locate outside. Simultaneously, his synthetic soldiers had been systematically searching the ship for signs of us. Luckily for us the ship was very large. And infinitely reconfigurable, by someone who knew how.

The stasis tubes existed in a cylindrical region near the very heart of the ship, with much of Arbitur's core self packed closely around it. The generic circuitry here was analogous to a human's medulla oblongata. It provided the interface between Arbitur's higher conscious functions and the body of the Pagnew.

Outside this packing, portions of Arbitur's circuitry extended like spokes up from the central core, to very near the outer hull. So in a way, this inner axis chamber was also the spinal column of the Pagnew.

There was a module located at the end of each of five of the spokes. These modules were the essential components of Arbitur's unique personality.

And thereby the essence of our enemy.

Ovizatataron informed me Arbitur had successfully closed the internal emergency/maintenance doors again. And reinstated onboard shifting. Though not yet back to normal, the ship's life support was gradually regenerating all the air lost from the decompression-- I realized for the first time that with all doors within the ship locked open, the holes in the hull had exposed nearly every compartment in the Pagnew to vacuum.

If Arbitur hadn't herded the organic crew into the stasis tubes when he did, the decompression could have killed them all!

Confronted with this fact, Ovizatataron assured me he'd verified the crew's safety before triggering the event.

His assurance seemed solid enough, but I remained skeptical, and insisted upon seeing Ling's body in the stasis section.

Ovizatataron protested mightily that it was a waste of precious time, but when he saw I was adamant about it we proceeded to Ling's tube some three rooms away in the stasis section of the ship, slid her out, and proved the veracity of Ovizatataron's tale. Ling was there alright. Lying in a misty transparent tube, looking for all the world as dead as a door nail.

Ovizatataron insisted she was fine, but the sight of her inert form unnerved me anyway. Ovizatataron reminded me that but for my bulky fourth skins, I didn't look much different just a few minutes earlier, inside a similar tube. Plus, so far as I could determine from associated tube readouts, Ling was OK, after all.

Ovizatataron wouldn't tolerate any more delay after that, and from my partial awareness of the knowledge he was harboring, I didn't argue the point.

We slid Ling back into the safety of the wall, and Ovizatataron set into motion the next stage in his plans.

I then noticed that my body seemed to be bracing for something: my fourth skin-enclosed hands locked themselves onto a nearby wall fixture in a death grip. Why?

Then I remembered Ovizatataron's resourcefulness before. And his intricate planning. Perhaps he had yet another trick up his sleeve.

In a few moments, Ovizatataron's magic was alive again. Doors opened at both ends of the tubes hall. Alarm signals reverberated throughout the ship.

And I swear I didn't see Ovizatataron do a damn thing to cause it!

The gravity went away. Ovizatataron had somehow knocked out the artificial gravity field onboard.

Next, an explosion rocked the ship. Apparently near our present location. Explosive, ship-wide decompression began again. A terrific whirlwind buffeted us.

Ovizatataron enlightened me as to what was happening and how-- after all, we couldn't do anything else until the hurricane died down.

It turned out that Arbitur and his minions had done more than repair and clean up the ship during my sleep. They'd also performed a few tasks for Ovizatataron as well. For the amazing trickster had in place programs that had 'piggy-backed' on the standard contingency algorithms for disaster recovery, to have the hard working robotic squads immediately follow the normal repair procedures while also incorporating work orders handed down by Ovizatataron himself-- with not the slightest notion of the duplicity in their programming.

In short, Arbitur's own repair efforts on the ship had laid the groundwork for the next step in Ovizatataron's plans.

A Warrantea harness had been rigged by Ovizatataron beforehand to explode, once provided with the proper signal from Ovizatataron's ship wide communications field. It initiated the second ship wide explosive decompression. All the open doors made it so.

This time the gravity was turned off as well, and the ship was no longer under maximum alert when the disaster began.

It turned out that these decompressions had had many purposes. One was to reduce the number of Arbitur's humanoid soldiers onboard, by throwing them into space, or at least damaging them in the unexpected tumbling about.

(Once again, Ovizatataron assured me that none of the androids would suffer permanent harm, and that those blown out into space would be retrieved again after the end of hostilities)

The decompressions were also distractions, to steal processing power from Arbitur so that he couldn't devote himself fulltime to our pursuit and capture.

Ovizatataron told me at that very moment there were several doppelgangers of us running amok throughout the ship again; empty fourth skins pretending to be us, as had worked so well before.

Naturally, all of them made their way past still working security eyes, so Arbitur was forced to assume that there were others where his eyes weren't entirely functional.

So, as before, Arbitur had to spread his forces and attention. And internal ship shifting had been disabled again. So once more Arbitur had no advantage in mobility over his enemy.

In addition to all this, he'd discovered multiple outbreaks of viruses in his sub-routines, all trying to eat up his active memory. Trying to 'eat him from the inside out', as it were.

Arbitur was also receiving false sensor readings that Sym had appeared and was attempting to direct link with him again.

And, lastly, several remotes were even now trying to shift-merge outside debris with Arbitur's five personality modules positioned near the outer regions of the Pagnew; an event which would contribute mightily to Arbitur's utter destruction. If even one of the remotes succeeded, we would be much closer to victory.

Ovizatataron was pleased with himself, but not complacent. He told me that all that stuff was largely mere efforts at distraction. We ourselves had to perform the major job. And now that all our misdirections were active, it was time to begin.

The present absence of the artificial gravity field made it necessary to invoke a different technique of mobility. Something efficient to conserve our resources, but stealthy enough so as not to give away our position to Arbitur.

Ovizatataron performed some sort of tricky reconfiguration of the back of the outermost skin to extend thin but strong rod-like projections to the surfaces of floor, ceiling, and walls around us, with small driving wheels at the ends to both steer and propel us.

I hadn't even known you could do such a thing with fourth skins, before this!

This weird improvisation enabled us to enjoy much the same speed and maneuverability a third skin transport or other more typically used method would have-- only without the telltales Arbitur was likely to detect.

And the extensions could change or disappear back into our main skin near instantly, at Ovizatataron's command.

We moved swiftly up and down the stasis hall, tearing open all the access panels along one wall. Then we started a second pass. We spent about a minute at each panel, reconfiguring the circuitry inside.

On our third pass we pulled open the inner access doors of the tubes as we come to them. They all contained a nano eye. And I realized what Ovizatataron was up to.

He was gathering up an army.

The wall we were working at held the backup crew-- or the inorganic portion thereof-- of the Pagnew. All these androids were shut off, and under no one's particular control at the moment. This gave Ovizatataron the opening he needed to change over their waking allegiances from Arbitur to us.

But this evidently entailed a lot of work. About midway through the process Ovizatataron abruptly scaled down the number of nano eyes he was attempting to awaken and control. Said he'd underestimated the time required. So our potential army shrank to about a fourth the size he'd planned.

Soon we got word over our 'field net' that at least one of Arbitur's personality modules had been damaged by the shifting remotes.

The critical number was three. Other nano eyes onboard would automatically be called upon to form an all new Administration matrix if the number of functioning modules in Arbitur's makeup dropped below three.

And Ovizatataron had set up things so that any newly formed Administration matrix would be totally in the dark about us and our shenanigans.

Our new nano eyes began to wake up. It was a scary moment. Would Ovizatataron's reprogramming be successful? If not, we were up that famous creek!

Ovizatataron surprised me by telling me that every nano eye we activated had had his own personality temporarily stored away elsewhere, and a cloned subset of Ovizatataron installed in its stead!

So each of our ally nano eyes were, consciously speaking, duplicates of Ovizatataron himself.

Apparently it worked. The nano eyes we awakened immediately got up and went on their way.

We got ten androids activated and sent off before Arbitur got around to finding us amidst all his other troubles.

A horde of third skins streamed into the room. So many that they looked like a black cloud. I guess it was faster to reach us with flying micro-insectoids than running humanoids.

The buffer fields hit us like a semi-truck. They congealed around us, with a density quickly turning to something like that of hardened concrete. They especially seemed to like gumming up the little wheels on the ends of our improvised transport extensions.

The immense synchronized strength of our multiple fourth skins enabled us to prevent them from completely immobilizing us. We combination swam/crawled towards the door, in agonizingly slow fashion, utilizing whatever grip we could with hands and feet on nearby ship parts (as the fields had our rolling extrusions incapacitated). Knowing that at any moment humanoid nano eyes would burst in with lasers to finish us off.

I became aware that Ovizatataron was busily directing something among our fourth skins.

Electrical discharge! Lightning played about the walls. And large pieces of fused buffer field bugs sloughed off our body. Our burden was greatly relieved.

Only about two thirds of the tiny robots were fried. But that was enough to allow us to move much more easily again. Plus, just like your college physics teacher will tell you, the electrical charge had naturally concentrated wherever there seemed to be something like a point in our shape: like the far ends of our roller-extrusions. So we'd successfully zapped our wheels clear once more! But as we'd also fried that skin, the phenomenon didn't help as much as I would have preferred. We disembarked from the now dead outermost fourth skin. The remaining live particles, seemingly confused by events, clung stubbornly to the suit as it slowly bounced about the corridor in our wake. And we were off. Having extruded fresh wheel-tipped limbs from our still living fourth skin.

Ovizatataron had another news flash for me. The final stage was beginning. Its end would see victory for us-- or Arbitur. And death for the other.

That was a comforting thought, wasn't it?

Ovizatataron/me flew down a few halls, making a few quick turns. We stopped at an access panel, strangely already open and waiting for us. Ovizatataron configured the fourth skin fingertips of one hand to emulate a sort of computer bus. It fit perfectly into a tiny slot inside the panel.

Turned out Ovizatataron was uploading to the Pagnew another distraction for Arbitur. He said it would be intercepted by a friendly program already in memory, so Arbitur wouldn't realize it hadn't been there all along.

It was a direct feed into the Archives.

Next Ovizatataron warned me we were going to go 'live' with Arbitur. Meaning that our shush net node was going to open up again to him, as soon as we could find some nano eye foes to make it look like an accident.

He assured me that though Arbitur would think we were totally open, we wouldn't be; only enough to feed him some misinformation.

We were down to two fourth skins by this time; dangerously low, considering our need to tackle multiple fully functional nano eyes at a moment's notice. And another electrocution tactic would strip us of the single extra suit remaining.

But Ovizatataron said that tactic was obsolete anyway; Arbitur would have the humanoids better shielded against it now. So not to worry.

Not to worry?!

Turned out the wave of subservient nano eyes we sent out before us insured us of a meeting with a single enemy android by design. And our ship wide surveillance and communications field helped us meet up with him at our convenience. Fortunately our helpers had previously stripped him of his laser rifle. Unfortunately, he still possessed his laser pen. He burned a couple of points on us as we jumped him. Then he managed to cut a hole completely through our outer skin. But it was too late. For him, that is.

For our outer skin had, on orders from us, rapidly unwrapped from our form and onto our opposing nano eye.

The robot's movements became sluggish, as the strength of the fourth skin worked against his own. The suit couldn't immobilize the guy, but it could slow him down. By a lot.

This meant it became easy to avoid his laser beam.

We then retrieved our own laser pen. And the suit on the enemy robot obligingly opened up a hole about one inch in diameter on the nano eye's chest at our request. Holding the android's laser wielding wrist in one hand so that we knew what direction he was pointing his own laser, we positioned our laser onto his exposed chest and pressed the trigger. The smell of burning synthetics filled my imagination, but not the air-- due to vacuum which currently encompassed us.

We continued holding the laser in place, despite the android's labored movements to try to dislodge us. Besides the strength of two fourth skins and one human against him, the android's circumstances were also compromised by some sort of neat wrestling or martial arts hold Ovizatataron had picked up somewhere.

After a moment of such close range concentrated fire, critical circuitry inside him was destroyed, and his resistance to us collapsed. We retrieved our extra fourth skin, and took our leave.

During the struggle we'd opened up a partial net link to Arbitur's frequencies. We'd tried to make it appear as if our battle with the robot accidentally triggered it. To the embattled nano eye, it looked like a small window into our thoughts, opening and closing randomly at high speed. Allowing him only bits and pieces of our thought stream.

He couldn't know that we were spoon feeding those pieces to him, as if to a baby.

The Pagnew rocked with the force of another explosion.

More distractive sabotage, I wondered? Ovizatataron said no. It was specific attempts by our ally nano eyes to destroy another of Arbitur's personality modules. We couldn't yet know if it was successful, as our link field required a moment to transfer the information.

But having our own job to do, we didn't have the time to wait. We raced to the nearest emergency hatch. There Ovizatataron/me grabbed a small plate and loop of thin synthetic cord from a utility closet. We hesitated before the hatch. I realized Ovizatataron hoped to use it. And had beforehand disabled Arbitur's sensors in this area. But the hatch had been fused shut.

Evidently Arbitur has done some anticipation himself.

Just before we turned to leave, a buffer field cloud showed up. It was friendly, joining us in our effort.

We headed back towards the stasis area, but didn't actually get anywhere near it before taking a turn off into a side room. It was apparently the site of the explosion that'd occurred just after I woke up. I could see the Pagnew walls healing themselves. The hole was already too small for us to get through.

We used our Warrantea harness to blast it larger. The hole enlarged just a bit before the ray from the harness turned to simple light. The harness charge had fallen below minimum, now making it little more than a complex and bulky flashlight.

Partly this was due to the huge power expense required to burn completely through the Pagnew's outer hull. But maybe because Ovizatataron had only been able to get hold of and hide an already partially run down harness for this caper.

We threw off the useless harness to better fit through the hole.

We managed to squeeze through, though barely. Luckily all the air in the ship had evacuated minutes earlier, else we'd have been propelled far away from the ship.

Ovizatataron reconfigured the outermost fourth skin to present microscopic claws to help us hold onto the surface of the Pagnew. As an added precaution he placed the flat plate we grabbed before onto the hull, and latched one end of the thin line to it.

The other end we attached to ourselves.

The plate was especially made for outside excursions, and possessed it own mini-artificial gravity field, which held the plate firm to the ship (with a few inches of clearance), but at the same time allowed it to slide easily over the surface. Ergo, it kept us attached to the Pagnew without impeding our movement across the hull.

We didn't stand, but instead crawled-- slowly-- across the stark landscape of the exterior hull. The fourth skin visor automatically supplemented my own biological night-vision out here.

We soon stopped, so Ovizatataron could reexamine a map in memory. We raised the laser pen, carefully aiming it at the barely distinguishable silhouette of one of the large laser guns mounted on the hull.

A needle beam pierced the gloom, concentrating on exactly the same spot with nary a waver, for several seconds.

Having a fourth skin to steady your hand and help you aim is terrific.

It seemed an incredible shot to me, a plain old primitive human, still new to the powers of these future suits. The distance had to have been several football fields, at least.

And the target a box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. I know, because I'd examined some of the lasers before they'd originally been mounted. Ovizatataron was taking out the targeting interface on the guns, that synchronized them with the Pagnew's buffer fields.

Even with the enhanced visuals of the fourth skin, Ovizatataron couldn't see that thing well enough to shoot it. Rather, he'd aimed according to the dimensions on the blueprints for the guns, and the edges of the silhouette as we could discern it.

In a way he was firing blind; yet, in another, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

I then wondered at the distance. There should have been more guns closer to us than that. For we'd installed them in an overlapping array. There were at least three guns missing here.

Then I remembered the previous explosions, when we'd been trapped in the shifted corridor.

Ovizatataron had blown away those guns then, in preparation for this tactic now.

This goddamn Ovizatataron was a genuis. No. More than a genuis. He was goddamn near perfect.

The perfect killing machine.

I mentally shuddered. I was glad he was on my side at the moment; but if he ever changed his mind, I'd stand no chance against him. None at all.

What are we doing? I asked mentally.

Neutralizing one of Arbitur's personality modules, Ovizatataron answered. But first, we must deal with the lasers.

There were other lasers far in the distance. One by one, Ovizatataron disabled them with the laser pen. Unfortunately, the pen's charge gave out before we were done.

Ovizatataron then dispatched a part of our buffer field to two faraway guns to finish the job.

We'd stood up to better sight upon the more distant guns. Now we crouched low to the hull again, to give our suit the benefit of more surface area with which to grip the ship. Then we resumed crawling toward the target area: a spot directly above one of Arbitur's personality modules.

Just before we reached it, the buffer bugs we'd sent after the lasers returned, mission accomplished.

And to my surprise, they were carrying one of the big lasers!

I'd thought they were to destroy both of them, but I was wrong.

For we needed something to help cut our way to Arbitur's module.

But the power cord to the ship had been necessarily severed.

So how were we to power the weapon? It was useless!

Not so, according to Ovizatataron. The power sources built-in to the fourth skins would do.

But this alarmed me. Those big lasers pulled lots of juice, I was sure. How long could our suits supply one and still protect us against the hard vacuum we now stood in?

Long enough, Ovizatataron said. And with that he began jury-rigging a power feed from the outer suit to the large weapon. He was aware that the beam from it would be only a tiny trickle compared to what it was capable of, because of the smaller power source available. But it should be enough.

He/we knew our targets precisely. There were eight interlocks close to the surface, then eight more farther down. Burn through those, and the outer block protecting Arbitur's module would slide up and out of the hull.

Since there was no gravity to speak of outside the ship, it was easy for the nano bugs to hold the big weapon for us.

We were on our knees, putting together the power feed, when the whole ship shook again. Another explosion, though this time soundless. It shook us loose of the hull, and even Ovizatataron became just the tiniest bit alarmed. But our buffer field pushed us back down to the ship's surface again. Plus, we were still utilizing our small gravity plate and safety cord for backup.

This momentary scare allowed me to get a flash of things from Ovizatataron that he'd been hiding from me. It turned out we were dangerously behind schedule. He expected Arbitur to attack us in any of several different ways, anytime now. Every fraction of a second counted.

The buffer bugs positioned the gun at Ovizatataron's directions. There was one flash of light, come and gone so fast that I almost didn't see it.

But I knew when it happened. Because all the readouts in my innermost fourth skin grew a bit dimmer in that instant.

This was scary! Our suits' power was all that was keeping us alive out here in space. And yet we were using it in the laser.

Another flash to cut the deeper interlock directly below, and then the gun was repositioned. Two flashes. Another move. We repeated the process until the interlocks were all cut.

I could see from readouts that combined suit power was down by forty percent. Well, that didn't seem too bad. If it didn't go lower, that is.

We better positioned ourselves, and re-affirmed our footing. Then we reached down and grabbed a maintenance protrusion on the top of the block, and pulled.

But no go. The burned interlocks had re-fused in the vacuum.

Some of our bugs squeezed into the narrow gaps between the block and the hull. They would attempt to weaken the fused locations.

We tried again. Still no go.

Calculations were made to optimize our body stance and muscle timing to near 100 percent efficiency.

The laser was allowed to float free, as our remaining buffer field formed tiny chains reaching from the top of the block to tenuous connections in the buffer field of the Pagnew itself. Sort of like a real-life 'sky hook' jokingly referred to by Old Earth construction workers. Our third skin would aid us in the next pull.

Finally, Ovizatataron routed all remaining suits power to augment our pulling power. This would shut down all life support at the moment of lift. Of course, a minute or two without oxygen or heat won't kill a person. And the physical integrity of the suits themselves protected me from the vacuum.

The time came. And we pulled. Pulled with everything we had.

The concentration on the pull became the whole world. Nothing else existed. Either for me or Ovizatataron.

When it finally broke loose, it came out like a rocket. And shot off into space. Taking us with it!

But our safety tether yanked us back to the ship. And the block went on without us; though the abrupt release from our grasp deflected its course greatly.

Suit life support flickered back on as our buffer field aided us in returning to the hull.

There was now something like a ten foot deep hole in the hull where the block had came from. And at the bottom was Arbitur's personality module.

My eyes strayed over the power gauge; we were down to only fifty-five percent of combined suits power.

The power feed to the laser had ripped loose from our outer suit when the block was freed. We started repairs.

The bugs also had to retrieve the laser. It too had pulled away from the ship, due to its connection with us, when the block had come loose.

Ovizatataron was perturbed; he recognized our efficiency was way down. My sleep may have rested my body well enough, but my mind was not yet fully recovered from our last session. The lingering mental fatigue was making our error rate skyrocket. Even as our time allowance for such mistakes was going into negative numbers.

Would Arbitur's module be as hard to pull as the first block? I wondered.

Our buffer field again maneuvered the big laser above the hole. We were now standing at the bottom, watching the beam as it entered the gap between Arbitur's module and the sides of the channel in which it rested.

Ovizatataron said this new set of interlocks were much less substantial than the last. But we'd spend more laser time so to clear out elements which re-fused after cutting.

So the laser flashes were a bit longer in duration this time. Each pair went smoothly. But drank deeply from our power reserves.

There went one pair of flashes. Then another. And another. One more remained...

But this time the bugs fired wildly. And hit us!

I was momentarily surprised, and uncertain what was happening. But Ovizatataron wasn't. He moved us at lightning speed out of harm's way. We jumped out of the beam, bounced against the wall, and then leaped directly at the gun itself.

Because the safest place to be around a long range laser is at its base. It can't shoot you there.

We got out of the line of fire, but failed at reaching the gun. Despite the power cable still linking us to it.

It wasn't our bugs' fault. They'd been attacked by other bugs. The Pagnew's buffer field had grabbed the laser.

The ship's giant exterior buffer field had been spread far more thinly than usual, as Arbitur had had it extended far into space to look for pieces of Ovizatataron/me, after our apparent demise in the shifted corridor.

Then, afterwards, Ovizatataron's distractions had helped slow the recall of the field particle-bots, as part of the overall sabotage plan.

But now Arbitur was catching up to events again. And by now was very aware of our presence and purpose above his module.

And that huge, monstrously strong buffer field at his command was rapidly regrouping in our vicinity.

Maybe to kill us. Certainly to stop us.

Lucky for us, the Pagnew field remained relatively sparsely populated locally at the moment. It was strong enough to overcome our little personal buffer field, but not two fourth skins in concert.

But still that was enough to defeat our efforts to blast the last interlocks. For the bugs could deflect our aim enough to prevent the destruction.

But what was worse, was that Arbitur had guessed we were powering the gun directly from our suits, and so the bugs were causing the gun to fire continuously, draining our power at a horrendous rate.

When our initial attempt to take back control of the laser failed, we tore loose the power feed to the gun with our super strong fourth skin covered hands.

The bugs then tried ramming us with the large weapon. They were basically delaying us until their reinforcements could arrive.

A development that was occurring even at that moment. The field of enemy bugs was growing more numerous in members, and so stronger, with each passing second.

Then a new danger became apparent. Some of the enemy bugs were clustering at the torn end of our suits' power feed, where naked super-conductors were present. They were creating a short circuit there to drain our power still more! With their very bodies!

It was a kamikaze attack, as the power feed fried the bugs. But that was small comfort as the Pagnew's buffer field population probably ran into the trillions.

We used a powerful swipe of one hand to clear the energy-draining wound of its parasites, and clamped our hand over the damaged area until the suit could seal it off.

It'd been like we were bleeding power from that exposed connection. And considering that our life depended on that power out here in the vacuum, the analogy to blood was about as appropriate as it could get.

A sudden wave of sizzling heat hit us again and Ovizatataron threw us back down into the hole. Arbitur was using the lasers on us once more! But how? We'd disabled all that were within line of sight of the hole. And ever since our refitting after the battle with the Sol and the rogue nanotech, the big lasers were permanently mounted to the hull, not just held by the buffer field like in our first impromptu battle.

Surely the buffer field hadn't been able to rip a gun from its moorings and redo the power feeds this quickly, to fire at us?

The damage to us this time was bad. Nearly a third of our outermost suit had been utterly fried by the blast. And was now totally dead. The nano tech that remained was making a valiant effort to keep systems online and repair the damage, but Ovizatataron made a quick decision to stop that effort.

And a look at our power readouts told me why.

We were down to 28 % of optimal power. Not far from the red danger zone.

At Ovizatataron's command, the outer suit 'let go' of its irretrievably damaged parts (causing the vacuum around us to momentarily fill with blackened particles), and reconfigured what components remained to cover body areas critical to lifting.

For our only hope was still to pull Arbitur's personality module from its housing. We had to assume that at least two modules had already been successfully dealt with by the efforts of the reprogrammed nano eye humanoids, and the remotes which had attempted to shift/merge ship debris with their targets. So that only one more had to be put out of commission to stop Arbitur in his tracks.


We couldn't come out of the hole now. Deadly laser light was pouring across the opening.

Where the hell was it coming from?

Ovizatataron knew though. And had expected it. He said Arbitur had had the Pagnew's buffer field form into rough mirrors high above the ship to reflect laser beams to our location from weapons over the horizon of the hull.

In a few moments mirrors would be in place to kill us even inside the hole.

Time was terribly short. We had to try to pull the personality module loose despite the two interlocks still intact below.

But we'd have no help from our little buffer field. At Ovizatataron's orders they'd positioned themselves at the opening above, in the densest wall they could form, to protect us from the much larger field gathering outside.

But they couldn't be expected to hold for long.

There was nothing in the hole for us to find purchase on for our effort.

The walls were smooth. The only protrusions had been the interlocks, but we'd melted them down to negligible size and purchase.

We tried to span the width with our legs. I felt my leg muscles stretch painfully. I wasn't in good shape for such a maneuver, it seemed.

My legs were too short. I could only touch my toes to the opposite walls, even at maximum strain.

Then the fourth skins began to flow. Getting thinner everywhere but at the soles of my feet, using their own mass to span the distance. And stretching that mass by forming an economical foamed structure below the soles of my feet.

There were sure a lot of tricks you could do with this equipment, if you only knew how!

But this filling in at my feet still resulted in a terribly thin skin around other parts, like my face. It became transparent, even where it wasn't supposed to. And I could suddenly feel a deep cold. The cold of space. My fourth skin was so thin in places that the cold of space was seeping in. I shivered, both physically and mentally.

We readied ourselves. All systems optimized. All organic and inorganic equipment integrated and synchronized.

Eighty-seven percent overall efficiency was the maximum sustained rate we could muster now. With a single burst capacity of ninety-six point four six seven percent.

I saw this in Ovizatataron 's thoughts.

Suit power levels were just below 28%.

Ovizatataron even took control of my breathing pace, just before the pull. And actually shut me down consciously, just before our burst effort. Told me he needed it all. I didn't argue.

I just blacked out.


I awoke shivering. And hurting. Sharp pains were causing my legs and arms and back to spasm periodically.

It even felt like my neck was sprained. It hurt awful just to move my head.

But mostly, I was cold.

I looked to the suit readout. Six percent power remained. Deep into the red danger zone.

How the hell had we burned up that much juice in a few seconds? Well, it didn't matter now.

I was having trouble seeing. It was like my head had just emerged from underwater, so far as my eyes were concerned. I finally realized what the problem was.

I was crying. I guess from the pain. My body hadn't shared the latest little nap with my consciousness. And the fourth skin wasn't sopping up the excess fluid like it normally would have done. After a moment, I realized the lack of gravity too was causing my tears to pool in my eyes, rather than fall away. I immediately tried to wipe them with my hand, but was stopped by the presence of the suit over my face.

Finally, after much blinking and squeezing of my eyes, I managed to partially clear my vision, and look around.

The Pagnew's bugs were just kind of floating around us. No longer attacking us. Or doing anything in particular, it looked like.

I was no longer straddling the hole, with my legs braced against opposing walls. Now I was sitting in a heap, atop Arbitur's personality module.

The pain had at first intensified, after I awoke. But it seemed I could detect a lessening now.

When I tried to get up though, a mighty blast hit me. As it throbbed, I resolved not to repeat that error.

There was something terribly wrong with one of my legs. The one I was sitting on, and couldn't see. Any movement on my part sparked a firestorm of pain from it. But if I stayed still, it wasn't so bad.

Everything was pretty cold too. My legs were growing numb.

Where was Ovizatataron? I wondered.

I looked up. The lasers no longer beamed overhead. And there was no sign whatsoever of our little buffer field ally. Like the Alamo, they must have died to the last man.

Like the Alamo. To the last man. Or bug.

I was the last man here.

It was terribly cold. But the pain simply wouldn't permit me to move. My will power was not strong enough to overcome it.

I began to suspect my leg was broken. I'd never broken a leg before, so I wasn't sure. But surely there weren't many things that hurt this bad. It had to be in the same league as broken legs.

I couldn't tell that we'd even budged the damn module. Apparently we'd pulled so hard that we'd pulled loose of our mooring against the walls, and maybe broken my leg in the process.

So we'd failed. No wonder the bugs no longer bothered us. Our power was shot. Our air and heat would go with the power. Heat. That's why I was cold. The power was running out, and letting the cold in.

Especially where I was in contact with the ultra-cold surface of the ship, I realized. I needed to move myself up, away from the ship. It'd make my heat last longer.

But the monster pain returned when I tried. It was too hard. Harder than it should have been. There seemed to be just a bit of gravity seeping up from the ship down here. Holding me down. Or could I have been imagining it?

Holding me down so I'd freeze faster. Yeah, Arbitur was getting his revenge, I figured. He no longer needed his bugs. Or his lasers. I was too far gone. Now he could just monitor my life signs at his leisure, and watch me die.

Where the hell was Ovizatataron?

*I am here* then registered in my consciousness. Something had changed in how we communicated with one another. We seemed to somehow be separate beings now. With Ovizatataron communicating in a fashion similar to the shush net, rather than the direct link connection we seemed to have before.

Why didn't you answer before? I projected through this new channel.

*I too had minimized consciousness to conserve energy.*

Oh. You were asleep?

*Unconscious. We should return to unconsciousness.*


*To conserve energy.*

Ovizatataron, I hate to tell you this, but Arbitur's not going to rescue us. No matter how long he has to think about it.


And the crew's all knocked out and in stasis. So they can't do anything either.


Huh? Oh yeah, they don't know what's happened. And Arbitur will never let them find out. He'll mess with their minds 'til they never know I was even aboard. Like he did with Ling's conditioning to prep her for kidnapping me.


What do you mean? What's incorrect?

*Arbitur is no longer a factor.*


*Arbitur is no longer a factor.*

You mean he's dead? We succeeded?

*Yes, we succeeded. No, Arbitur is not deleted. He is incapacitated. That was our goal. Not deletion.*

Oh yeah! But how? It's still here. The module, I mean. I looked down at the module I was sitting atop as I reminded Ovizatataron of this fact.


So we didn't succeed.

*Arbitur is no longer a factor.*

Why not?

*We neutralized him. We succeeded in breaking the interlocks. We interrupted his data feeds for a few nanoseconds, which caused the Pagnew's lower level systems to take him off-line.*

So everything's fine? Then why are we sitting out here about to die?

*Some parameters of the new situation are not yet stabilized.*

What does that mean?

*Many elements here must be reestablished.*

Damn right! But the first one is for us to get back into the ship!


Incorrect? Just how long do you think we have out here, anyway? Before we die and fall over, that is?

*Incorrect. We would not fall over after death, but instead be frozen in an upright position.

*We have twenty-three minutes and forty-three seconds from...now, before organic core shutdown. In our present configuration.*

Great. So we'll be frozen in an upright position in twenty minutes huh?

*Incorrect. Twenty-three--*

Yeah, yeah, yeah-- I was rounding off. OK?

*I can help you return to unconsciousness--*

No! No thanks. Maybe later, nearer the end. I'd rather be awake for a few minutes while I'm still here.

*But unconsciousness will extend our time.*

Oh? By how much?

*By a factor of at least two--*

Hmm. Sounds like our odds are getting slim where the nap option is concerned. What's our chance of making it back into the ship through an emergency hatch?


Why's that?

*Increased exertion combined with stress from damaged limbs and delays due to limited mobility would sharply cut our survival time. And the emergency hatches are at present inoperable. This was one of Arbitur's last acts in command.*

So Arbitur gets the last laugh after all, huh? Great.

*I can assure you Arbitur is not laughing.*

What? Oh yeah. Well, it doesn't matter anyway. What are we waiting for then? I mean, do you have another trick up your sleeve to save us?

*There is not another trick. Our survival depends upon other variables now.*

Like what?

*The success and speed of the Pagnew Administrator exchange. Survival of our ally nano eyes. The self-repair capability of the Pagnew. The resourcefulness of the crew--*

What? You mean the crew's awake?

*That variable is a function of others.*

But for the crew to be awake, the Pagnew would have to have repaired the holes in the hull, and refilled itself with air again...

*As I said, that variable is a function of others.*

Ovizatataron, how long was I out-- unconscious, I mean?

*Six hours, forty-seven minutes, and fourteen seconds.*

What? I was out that long? No wonder we're so low on power! What happened while I was out?

*Within three minutes of your descent into unconsciousness we had successfully broken the interlocks. This action brought us relief from the Pagnew's buffer field attacks.

*However, we expended substantial resources. Near eighty nine point two percent of maximum sustainable.

*To conserve energy and shield you from your pains I did not reawaken you.*

Well, thanks-- I guess-- Ovizatataron. But to be honest, if I have to die, I'd rather be awake at least a little longer before it. There'll be plenty of time for sleep afterwards.

*You will not die.*

Oh? Why not?

*I know the stream. You have the luck of the stream. The probability you will survive this incident is high.*

What do you mean 'the luck of the Stream'? That's the first I've heard of that.

*All organics are of a special class to the stream. Sentients, even more so. Their experiences differ from those of inorganics.*

Ovizatataron, I'm sorry, but I'm not following you. Could you rephrase that?

*Sentient organic development is a part of the foundation of the organizational matrix-- a major element of the stream. Arbitrary modification of the this foundation is not permitted.*

I'm still not following you, Ovizatataron.

*If you died here you would not return to your origin. This would be a low level modification of the stream. As such it is not permitted. Thus, you should not die.*

Well, I guess I like your theory, but why do you call it the luck of the Stream?

*The greater the positive time span between a subject's origin and current realtime, the greater the probability that the subject will survive a given incident within that realtime, to return to origin. The more negative the time difference, the less the probability of survival.*

Ovizatataron, I-- I don't know. I'm supposed to understand the terms you're using there, but for some reason I'm making no sense of it at all. I'm so tired and hurting so bad I can't think anything but simple thoughts.

*You are traumatized from the recent multiple high efficiency operations. This is to be expected. In simpler terms, your luck is better the farther into the future you travel, but worse in movement to the past. This is because of the interaction between the functions of your own existence and that of the stream.

*It is easier for the stream to adapt to changes downstream-- which is the future--than it is upstream, which is the past. The farther upstream a change occurs, the more elements which must be adjusted downstream as a consequence.

*This matter is complex. For this fact itself may be reversed under certain circumstances. But those circumstances are so unlikely in regards to your own origin that it would not serve you to comprehend them.*

I think I understand well enough, Ovizatataron. My 'luck' should save me from dying here. Well, I just hope you're right.

*There is another matter.*

Oh? What's that?

*My presence adds significantly to your energy consumption burden. Therefore it also reduces your remaining survival time.*

Well...Ovizatataron, I can't begrudge you that. Hell: I wouldn't have lasted nearly this long without you. So you've more than earned your share, I'm sure.

*Thank you. But I must consider all the ramifications involved. If the true margin of error in my calculations is greater than estimated, my continued presence may result in both our deaths.*

But you said my luck should prevent that.

*Yes. But your luck only pertains to you: not I. I suffer from the opposing side of the equation, as I am from the future. Therefore my luck is bad where yours is good.*

I don't know about that! Your luck seemed pretty damn good a few hours ago! Maybe you have this luck of the Stream thing backwards!

[Agh! Caught up in the moment as he was, my younger self seemed to completely miss it when Ovizatataron announced he came from the future! But how far in the future? Relative to what era? Hmm. Judging from his adeptness at dealing with Arbitur and the Sol, could it be Ovizatataron hails from a future beyond both 2483 and 2823 AD? Wow! And if that's so, what would that mean for the bigger picture here?

Damn! I hope my younger self got a few more details about all that, in the subsequent moments...]

*Negative. Our previous success was based on careful preparations and planning. Luck, or unusually favorable probabilities, were of little relevance. However, planning and preparations are now exhausted; only the natural randomness of events remains.

Which means what?

*The net result of our combined presence might defeat your luck, and result in an end to us both. I can not allow that.*

How can you stop it?

*By purging myself from your physical form.*

And that will save us both from dying?

*No. It may allow your luck to save you. This cell will end.*

Ovizatataron, like I said before, I feel like you gave me this bonus time. So it's only fair that we split it, if you want. I won't throw you out.

*Thank you. But there is more at stake than you and I. The stream itself could suffer if I drag you into a death you are not fated for.

*The reverberations could adversely affect my own origin.

*I have nothing to gain by causing your death, Jerry Staute. Only everything to lose.*

So, uh, what do you propose to do?

*I will stay until my calculations force me to purge, in order to maximize your own survival stakes. There remains at the moment a brief span where I could be more useful to you active than not-- depending upon certain contingencies.*

Will you tell me before you go?


I felt guilty as hell. I should have already been dead. But Ovizatataron had saved me. Now he was going to fade out to save me again. God, I hoped he wasn't wasting his life for nothing!

*Jerry Staute?*


*I will leave you with gifts.*

I don't understand.

*I will leave you five gifts, which may be of use to you if you survive the present circumstances.*

Oh. Well, thanks, I guess. Was Ovizatataron already fading out on me? I mean, there wasn't much around that he could be leaving to me, was there? Beyond the few extra minutes of breathing, I mean. We were dying though. So what did it matter? I'd humor him. He deserved it, didn't he?

What are the gifts? Can you tell me?

*The first gift is an expanded memory capacity. I made certain changes in the electro-chemical organization of your brain to better accommodate my own storage. After the purge most of this space will be available as extra memory for your own use.*

Like how much extra memory are we talking about here?

*The actual amount will fluctuate due to its organic nature and your own usage patterns. The total will also gradually diminish as a result of aging. But the range of added capacity immediately after my purge should be between two and four gigabytes, in purely digital terms.*

Gigabytes. Four extra Gigabytes. Is that a lot?

*Four Gigabytes would be approximately 400% more than the potential capacity you possessed prior to our merge.*

Well! That's a lot then, I guess! I didn't want to tell Ovizatataron that this didn't mean much to me at the time.

[ Four Gigabytes was four times what I had originally? That can't be right, can it? This might be a technical slip on the part of the memory implant team, at last! I mean, I'm fairly sure no one knows the true memory capacity of a human being yet-- whoops. Ovizatataron may be from Sym's time or beyond, himself. According to what he said before. So theoretically he'd know. And maybe actually be able to measure it himself, if he truly was inside my head...

But one Gigabyte! That's only around 1000 Megabytes! In 1990 there's hard drives available for computers with more space than that! And those new CD-ROMs, they hold around 650 MB, I'm pretty sure. So that'd work out to a human being-- or me, rather-- only having the memory space of around one and a third CD ROM disks! Surely we have more than that! If we didn't, that'd mean we already had the potential for human equivalent intelligence in our computers, today in 1990 (in terms of storage space), and lacked only the proper algorithms and sufficient working RAM to achieve critical mass...a most disturbing thought.]

What's the second gift?

*I will exempt the survival training and physical coordination conditioning installed in your kineasethic regions from my purge.*

I'm sorry, Ovizatataron, but I don't understand again.

*The martial arts skills and physical coordination you have witnessed in our recent battles will remain with you.*

You mean I'll still have all these kung fu skills after you're gone?

*Though the term is inaccurate, your statement is true from your perspective.*

Oh man! That's great! I always wanted to be a better fighter! Oh man! That's fantastic! You mean anytime I want to I can turn into Bruce Lee again?

*Negative. The skills and control will be involuntary.*

What does that mean?

*You will not possess conscious control of these things, but rather will have their support in certain crisis situations, such as when adrenalin has been released. Adrenalin will be the usual trigger, and your instinct for survival the controller. The appearance of the elements themselves may at times be sufficiently subtle and brief as to seem accidental to you and others.

Furthermore, like the added memory space, these skills will fade over time as they are overwritten in your unconscious and regular practice is lacking. If your general state of physical fitness falls below a certain level, use of these skills may also result in injury to yourself as a byproduct.*

Hmm. The king fu stuff sounded interesting. But a little iffy in terms of practicality. I didn't project this to Ovizatataron, though.

*The third gift is related to the second. It will be a subconscious compulsion to maintain your health and physical condition at a higher than average level for your time, and will help minimize injuries stemming from the second gift, as well as enable it to work better than it otherwise might, when called upon.

*The third gift may also aid in buoying your morale in difficult times.*

'Buoying my morale'? I didn't question Ovizatataron on the point, but his statement seemed curious to me at the time.

[Oh boy! Maybe my 1972 self didn't get the morale boosting thing, but in 1990 I sure as hell do! Ovizatataron must have known about all the gigantic hits to my morale I'd be facing in the years ahead: hence his reference. I do have to admit that exercising regularly has turned out to be a significant help in that area.]

*The fourth gift will be a recollection of your experiences aboard the Pagnew, arranged partially via Riki's marooning in the third millennium. This recollection will include your own memory of events, as well as selected portions of my own.*

'Selected portions of your own'? You mean I'll remember some of your memories too? You mean you have different memories from mine?

*Yes. My stream of consciousness has largely been separate from your own throughout our time together. At some point in your future you will recall selected bits of my perspectives alongside your own.

[Finally! So this is the formal explanation of the alien viewpoints sprinkled all throughout this experience-- they belong to Ovizatataron! And, of course, my recollections of Sym's and Ling's thoughts can be explained by the fact we shared consciousnesses in some of our links. Still, it all makes for a strange way of remembering...]

*The fifth gift will consist of items from the Pagnew left behind in 1972, which should remain in existence and of value to you in 1990 and beyond.

*It is my hope these gifts will provide you aid and succor in your own tasks ahead.*

Items from the Pagnew? You mean Riki?

*Yes. And more. Please use them as you deem best. I hope as well that you will provide critical aid to various other individuals of your time when necessary--*

Like who?

*Individuals much like yourself, who will mostly lead lives of obscurity among their own Realtime peers, but prove vitally important to the timeline in terms of continued human survival and progress. Some of their accomplishments may rival your own-- if they survive and succeed.*

'If they survive and succeed'? Does that mean they might not, if I don't help them?


But how's that? If they're in the historic record already, I mean?

*You should eventually see reference to a grave timeline threat in my own memory store. That threat poses a special risk to these people, as well as yourself. The existing timeline is at risk. As this threat consists partly of downstream elements, it seemed advisable to me that I equip you with the gifts I have provided, as well as voice my plea to aid those others where possible.*

Have you got names for these people? Or will I have to figure them out as I go along?

*I have names. They include...*

Ovizatataron then rattled off a relatively long list of names. Long enough that I would have been concerned about remembering them, if not for what he'd said earlier about helping my recollections in at least a couple different ways. I then pressed him for further details regarding the people on the list, but he said that I would indeed be largely on my own in regards to those. Partly because time was running out in the here and now. And partly because existing historic records in Ovizatataron's time were often as spotty regarding those folks as they were relating to me.

*My time nears its end, Jerry Staute. I must take my leave in two minutes. I wish to spend this time alone. I have final thoughts upon which I would dwell.*

I-- I understand, Ovizatataron. I do too. Good bye, Ovizatataron. And good luck.

*Thank you, Jerry Staute. May your own luck return you to your origin safe and sound.*

And with that, we went our separate ways. Of course, since we were both in the same head, it was more like we were two people in a closet who simply turned away from each other for a last private moment to ourselves, before the end.

I didn't realize it at the time, but Ovizatataron had programmed the fourth skin to closely supervise my activities after his purge. To basically put me immediately to sleep, then take some pretty extreme measures to insure my survival for as long as possible outside the ship.

I was soon feeling inexplicably much warmer than before. Cozy, even.

Was there something bad about the warmth? No, warm was good. I'd been cold for way too long.

Sleep was coming. I could feel it. I knew it. Dreams were crowding at the gate.

Sweet, sweet dreams.


The sunlight was glorious. The breeze wonderful. And Sym's laugh made my heart sing.

I tried to remember where I was. But I couldn't.

The hills were low, lush, and green. Spring smells swirled about us in the breeze. The wind tickled my skin as it lazily wafted by.

I could smell Sym's heady perfume. I turned and there she was. Still laughing at something clever I'd said.

We joined arms and walked away from the others. Steve and Riki, and Will and Sasha, and Ling, were all there.

Sym had never seen Earth before. Not really. Humanity had destroyed it long before the year in which I'd met her. And in its final century or so, it had bore little resemblance to my own 20th century planet.

She was delighted by the flowers and the clouds. And the clouds were especially nice that day. Huge and fluffy and white.

Sym was acting like a little child, she was so happy. And I was happy too.

It was great how Sym had figured out a way we could all meet together like this. Without harming the Stream.

Then, without warning, the Hurt began coming back. I wanted it to go away. Please go away, I begged it. I'm so happy. I don't want the Hurt again.

I tried to hold onto something. To stop the Hurt from pulling me into it. But there was nothing to hold onto.

It pulled me away from Sym. I saw her getting smaller in the distance, as I suddenly hurtled upwards into the sky, and dark storm clouds boiled all about me. Sym was imploring me to come back. Her scent faded. The shrinking pool of sunlight below me dimmed. Blackness closed in.

Then I got nearer the hurt. The big Hurt. Other lights became evident in the darkness. Lights that hurt. Lights that were part of the hurt.

I became sad. So sad I had to leave Sym. So sad to leave the Happy Place. So sad to leave my friends.

But the Hurt wouldn't let me be. It wanted me back.

Everything hurt. Why? There was no why. No reason. Just hurt.

Rhyme without reason. Reason without rhyme. The story of life.

Talking. Someone talking amidst the hurt. Talking to me.

It was a girl. Was it Sym? It had to be Sym! Sym was coming to help me, to take me back to the Happy Place! I rejoiced.

Sym! I'm here, Sym! Here I am! I tried to call out to her. But Sym couldn't hear me. I realized then that my words were just in my head. Maybe her node wasn't working. Maybe if I yelled? Sym! Sym! Here I am! Help me! I projected with all my might.

Something cold touched me. I was back at the Big Hurt again. I could tell. Because there was no cold in the Happy Place.

Spots. Movement. Sound. Cold. And lots and lots of pain. Fresh pain. Served up raw. Agh!

I was floating deep within a body of liquid pain now. It was a strange, tingly pain. Like little balls of scorching flame, skipping across the surface of a pond of quivering flesh. I was nearing the surface. Weird visual spots were coalescing into shapes. Transforming into colors and shadows. Then movement helped me resolve them into images.

It was darker here than the Happy Place. And colder. Just plain awful.

Sym wasn't here. Steve wasn't here. But...some of the faces did seem familiar.

*Juurree? Arrr uuu oh kay?* Someone was saying to me. What were they talking gibberish for? I wondered.

*Ezz awk too uz, juree! Ezz!* What a bunch of shit, I thought. First they drag me away from the Happy Place and now they spout nonsense at me. Why? I didn't ask to be brought here!

Please, please let me go back to the Happy Place! I begged my unidentified assailants.

Something blurred into place very close to me. Eyes?

They seemed familiar. Sym? No, not Sym. It was...Ling?

*--ree, Juree, Jerry! Wake up, Jerry!*

I tried to raise my hands to her, but nothing happened. I spoke to her.

And some horrible croaking noise erupted within the room.

Ling-- if it was Ling-- spoke to me again. *Jerry! Don't use your voice! Use your node! Can you use your node?*

My...node? Something about...something in the back of my head? I remembered something like that.

But it was hard. I tried to talk again. But nothing came out. That damn croaking noise was covering up my words. Couldn't they silence whatever that was? I obviously couldn't speak loudly enough to overcome it. The croaking just got louder when I tried to outdo it in volume. Ling continued to prod me towards another means of communication.

*Your node, Jerry. You must use your node. We need you to use your node so we can help you-- inside. Please, Jerry?*

It was so hard. Why were they making me do this? I was so tired. I just wanted to rest. Hadn't I done enough?

But what had I done, again?

There was something about the ship. It got holes in it. And-- I-- I think I went outside to fix it? Somebody had to fix it. But something happened to me outside?

I wearily tried to look for my node. It was supposed to be in my head. I could remember that. I remembered it was always buzzing, too.

There was something moving in the back of my head. I had to go into it. Ling said I had to. I tried to think hard. I had to think hard, so that I could catch up with the fast moving things. It was like a merry-go-round. It was spinning, and you had to mentally 'run' so you could jump on.

But it was hard to catch the ride. I kept stumbling, tripping over unseen obstacles. There was stuff in my way that hadn't been there before. At least I didn't remember them being there.

But I kept trying. And finally I did it. Then the spinning stopped. Or I caught up to it.

Now the sudden stability itself disoriented me. I realize how dumb that sounds, but it was true in the moment.

*Jerry?* The query sounded inside my head. I opened my eyes again at my name. It was Ling speaking to me, over the net. I felt like I'd awakened from a deep sleep. We were alone. But we weren't in my room, or hers. Instead, we were in the weirdest room I'd seen yet on the Pagnew. And I was looking at Ling through some sort of Rube Goldberg contraption that surrounded me on every side.

Evidently the crew had deemed me way too dangerous to be let loose, and trussed me up to where I couldn't even move. Damn!

*Ling, what is this? Is this really necessary?* I asked over the net, alarmed at my restraints.

*Yes it is, Jerry,* Ling told me.

*But I'm not going to do anything else, Ling. Honest! Ovizatataron caused me to do all that stuff before. And now he's gone. And besides, we had to do it. Arbitur went rogue. Really! Don't you--*

*Yes, Jerry. I remember. Arbitur did go rogue. And you were right in what you did. You saved the Pagnew,* she told me. Then she added, *But you came near to destroying it as well.*

I couldn't argue that point. From what I could remember, Ovizatataron/me had done more damage to the ship than both the rogue nanotech and Sol put together. But we'd won.

Hadn't we?

*Ling!* I projected unwittingly both net-wise and verbally, and simultaneously perceived some god-awful noise erupting into the room once again.

*Yes?* Ling winced visibly.

"Ling, is Arbitur--" I whispered verbally, momentarily forgetting about the net, afraid to ask my question. Afraid Arbitur was listening, and waiting to strike me dead as I asked "-- is Arbitur gone?" I hoarsely asked her.

The ship automatically translated it to her node.

Ling smiled. But responded via shush net. *Yes. Only three of his personality modules remain intact, and all three have been removed from their docks and placed in storage for later examination.*

Ling's response over the net reminded me of the normal protocols she preferred, nudging me back to exclusive net-speak again.

*Thank God!* I net-exclaimed with relief. *Ling, you wouldn't believe all the stuff Arbitur was doing-- and all the stuff we had to go through to neutralize him!*

*We, Jerry?*

*Yeah. Me and Ovizatataron. Well, I guess I really have to give Ovizatataron just about all the credit. I couldn't have done a bit of it on my own. Arbitur was downright-- was a killer and a half, Ling, after we discovered what he was up to. But Ovizatataron was even smarter than Arbitur.*

*Who was this Ovizatataron, Jerry?* Ling asked.

I went into a lengthy explanation about Ovizatataron. But as I spoke I could see that mischievous look on Ling's face once again. That look I'd seen before. Like she knew something I didn't.

Once I concluded my explanation, Ling gave me her own version of events.

*Jerry, I must tell you we did a full retrieval of your memories, back through the time that Arbitur immobilized the rest of us--*

*So you know everything then! Great!*

*Not everything.*

*What do you mean?*

*I mean we cannot understand how you defeated Arbitur. By all rights that should have been impossible.*

*Ovizatataron helped me! If you've seen my memories, then you know how we did it.*

*Yes, we know that you and a-- an Ovizatataron-- seemed to be collaborating as you worked the task.*

*So what's not to understand?*

*Jerry, there is no Ovizatataron.*

*Well-- of course there isn't, now. But there was! He purged himself from me to give me more time. So that you could rescue me.*

Ling appeared to be carefully framing her next words.

*Jerry, we can find no trace that any other intelligence exists in you now, or ever did. Even in the routine medical scans that Arbitur made of you periodically throughout the entire journey.*

*But he did exist, Ling! I wouldn't be here now if he hadn't! Ling, this isn't fair to Ovizatataron! He saved us all! It's not fair to say he didn't exist! It's not!* Tears were streaming down my face. I tried to blink them back. But my frustration was overwhelming. Ovizatataron was dead. He at least deserved recognition for what he'd done. We owed him that.

*Jerry, I'm sorry. But it's just that-- just that it would be strange to find no trace whatsoever of him, if he'd existed--*

*No trace? No trace? It's all around us, Ling! We're still here, aren't we? And Arbitur's defeated, isn't he? This is the proof! Don't you see, Ling? This is the proof that Ovizatataron was here! Why in the world would we need more than this?*

Even as I transmitted the thought through my node, I noted again my constraints. For I'd meant to wave my arms around during my last statement. But I couldn't.

Ling was silent for a moment. Then she spoke again.

*Jerry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have upset you. You should be resting now.*

*I-- I'm sorry for yelling at you, Ling. Um, Ling?*

*Yes, Jerry?*

*Is it Jorgon's orders that I be tied down like this?*

*Tied down?*

*Yeah. I can't even move, Ling! Could you please ask Jorgon if he'd release me? I promise I'll stay in whatever room he says--*

*But you cannot move about Jerry--*

*That's what I mean, Ling--*

*No, no, no. You misunderstand, Jerry. We are not restraining you for any reasons other than medical. You almost died, Jerry. When we located you all that remained was your head and trunk-- your fourth skin had flowed to protect your head and vital organs, severing the rest of your body to extend your survival. The skin re-routed and reinforced your circulatory systems as well. It was quite a marvel of medical engineering to be done out in the field, and without any advanced training whatsoever.

*Never before has a fourth skin been so well orchestrated to extend life in the harshness of space, and under such conditions of extreme energy loss and depletion of other reserves. Your feat has set a new precedent for such things, Jerry. A full write up on your achievement will definitely find its way into the Archives at origin.

*But now we must regenerate the lost portions of your body. That is the reason for your immobilization.

*You are not a prisoner, Jerry. But a patient. A patient and a hero.*

Ling bent over and kissed my cheek. I could see a tear in her eye.

"But I'm not the hero, Ling. Ovizatataron is." I hoarsely whispered to her, simultaneously with my node-cast, the tears returning to my eyes too.

Ling smiled. *Well, at least we agree that there's a hero in all this somewhere, Jerry. And though you protest the facts, all I see before me is you. Sleep now, my modest little...whatever-you-are. I will return later.*


It took a couple of weeks for me to fully regenerate. And some time beyond that to fully 'wake up' my newly reconstituted limbs. But it seemed like a lot longer, since I couldn't do much of anything in the meantime. It was too bad Fance existed far in the future from Ling's Origin. It would have helped me better pass the time.

As it was, all I tended to do when alone was mostly reminisce about my times in direct link with Sym. Which sort of helped me pass the time better than some other things-- but also left me depressed, and badly in need of Ling to cheer me up again afterwards.

The Pagnew's miraculous medical facilities worked wonders on my devastated body. And kept me from freaking out over the loss of things as important to any twentieth century male as his sexual organs (egads!).

Perhaps I went a little overboard when I realized I'd lost my genitals in the episode. But hell: early on, I didn't realize how easily the Pagnew's facilities could regenerate my lost parts. At first I thought I'd been castrated forever as Arbitur's final revenge! Ha, ha.

The equipment and systems of Ling's origin were designed to treat every part of the trauma related to catastrophic injuries, mental as well as physical. Uncannily, I could still feel all my missing parts as if they were still there, the entire time of my recovery. I could examine live progress displays within my net node, to see my limbs physically regenerating to match the phantom mental sensations. There was hardly any pain through most of it; at least, not exactly. Mostly there was an itching. Not bad, but continuous. Just a tad worse than that I'd experienced just after they'd installed the second skin on me.

But all this itching was internal-- not external. Plus I had no limbs or digits. So I couldn't scratch in any natural way! Ugh! There's no way I can adequately describe the sensation. Ling told me it was a part of the normal regeneration process though.

Ling's gadgets were so thorough that they also took care to regenerate a few scars I'd possessed from before my abduction. I was a bit ambivalent about getting those back. One of them, in particular, was an ugly little thing on my left leg, that I'd gotten from a somewhat scary event years before. I'd almost been killed then.

[ Ha! I've added quite a few more scars to my collection since '72.]

But Ling said I had to be the same when I returned as when I left. Otherwise there might be problems. For instance, she told me, at my origin things like scars and dental patterns were used for detailed identifications of individuals.

So the scars had to be brought back.

After I had my arms and legs and everything else about 90% restored (100% physically grown, but only about 80% functional due to various fresh nerve endings requiring some wake up work), I then had to spend about a week dressed up in a weird set of coveralls. They were a lot like a fourth skin, but specialized to help with the therapy required by people going through limb regeneration. At first it took complete responsibility for all my movements, but gradually gave more and more control back to me, as I extended what Ling called my kineasthetic awareness back into the all new body parts once again.

The net node came in really handy during this time. For it allowed me to sometimes control my limb movements via the suit from outside, until I regained the hang of doing it from the inside. This meant the suit would move me around at my bidding, prioritizing my own movements first, and the suit's helping motions, second.

Those days were pretty difficult, even with all the aid from Ling's advanced technology. I shuddered to think what people in my own time had to go through for similar things. And used that thought to help motivate myself to do the work which was necessary to complete the task. I kept reminding myself that I had it super easy compared to lots of people. And that if I didn't do my best, I'd be wimping out.

Hell: Ovizatataron had died so that I could live. So I couldn't whine about a few measly weeks of regeneration and therapy, could I?

In one way it was nice to get all the credit for Ovizatataron's work. I didn't feel so guilty about it since I did my best to make it clear to everyone that he was responsible, and not me.

I couldn't help it if no one believed me.

Actually, after a while I stopped trying to convince them, because everyone acted like I'd invented him in some sort of stress related psychological thing. Like I'd suddenly sprouted some kind of super alter ego to handle the critical situation at the time, and now that it was all over, and SuperMe was no longer needed, it'd disappeared back into my mental woodwork.

My future weenie friends would believe just about anything, it seemed.

Anything but the truth, that is.

Well, someone said once that truth was stranger than fiction, didn't they?

The crew had pegged me for a genius from the very beginning, since they thought I'd wrote the Signposts document. And instilled lots of extra advanced knowledge and training in me since I'd come onboard. So they figured I'd just used all those super smarts, and been blessed with a hearty share of good luck too, to defeat Arbitur.

Ling had pulled a bunch of precedents for this out of the Archives, apparently to convince me I'd imagined up the whole being of Ovizatataron. Ling collected up cases where otherwise normal people had pulled off amazing feats under extraordinary circumstances. Adrenaline, training, sensibilities, skills, and psychological factors all welded together to produce astonishing results. And these cases often involved people considered only average-- or less-- by others. Until they turned superhuman for a brief instant. Could not the writer of the Signposts document be expected to match such deeds? Perhaps even surpass them? She'd prodded me.

My continual denials ended up being little more than a wet blanket on the happiness of the crew. And also served as a constant reminder of the weird psychological mind set I'd supposedly taken on to achieve my great feats.

They didn't want such a powerful mind set to return. For it had to be pretty fearsome, to have incapacitated Arbitur! And my harping about the incident just made them increasingly uneasy. So I finally shut up about it, once I realized they might restrict me to my quarters or worse just to be on the safe side, if I didn't close my trap.

But at least I tried, Ovizatataron.

There'd been lots of repair work to do onboard. But my memories Ling had accessed of the battle with Arbitur had given the crew a blueprint of sorts with which to help direct repairs onboard.

I got to avoid practically all the rebuild work, since I was on my back being regenerated through most of it. But I would have gladly pitched in just to get out of that healer gizmo, if I could have. It was a bit more than two weeks before I was able to even begin hobbling about in those medical coveralls.

The crew gave me a party after I was up and around, and the most critical repairs had been completed on the Pagnew.

It was too soon for a wing ding, in my opinion. I was still unsteady on my new legs. But I liked it anyway. Because it seemed like everyone had finally accepted me. Even Jorgon and Yamal. And most amazing of all, recalcitrant Sasha: Ling's strange onboard twin.

Plus, the party turned out to mostly be virtual in nature, and so much easier on my fragile physical state than I expected.

Heck: I even got to see certain past body images of some of the Pagnew's machine ghosts I'd never seen before!

The present-day ghostly Will in her shapely red-haired female days was especially enjoyable. Grrr!

I found out during the party that the entire crew had carefully pored over my memories of the event. This was somewhat embarrassing, but not wholly unexpected. I mean, all this began with them living vicariously through first-hand memories of Ling and I going at it at school!

Just as the party began to die down, Ling used her greater skill with the net to abruptly pull me away from the others and out into the corporeal world again. In an eye-blink she had us shifted elsewhere, too.

Ling turned out to be wearing a particularly interesting outfit for the event.

I found my self off-balance in more ways than one by her actions. The sudden shift on the heels of exiting shush net space surprised me, for one thing. And having so recently come out of regeneration, it was hard for me to keep my physical balance, too.

*What's going on, Ling?* I asked. At the same time I was taking the opportunity to more closely examine her outfit. This was the closest and most accessible Ling had been to me for a while now.

Her outfit was a wraparound affair, of two separate lengths which swirled tightly around her taut little body from knee to hip to breast, and then spilled loosely over her shoulders and down her back. It was a very light color, and seemed to sparkle just the slightest bit as she moved.

It was most becoming.

We'd blinked into Ling's quarters.

*It's my turn now, Jerry. I've shared you with everyone else long enough. It's time to see just how well you have healed.* She looked at me appraisingly.

I was torn. Part of me was looking forward to such an 'examination'; but another part was very ill at ease. For my parts hadn't all 'woken up' yet. Ling herself had told me only a couple of days before that my nervous system switchboard wasn't yet back up to snuff.

So I figured that I might not come out so well in the kind of examination Ling had in mind.

I felt it only fair to say so.

*Uh, Ling?*

*Yes?* She was pulling one of the long trailing edges of her wrap up over her shoulder. I stared intently at her progress as she unwrapped her right bosom, and let the cloth fall in an air deflected curve around her to the floor.

There was two surprises: one, the dress appeared made from normal fabric! And two, Ling was wearing panties! One side became exposed as the wrap fell away.

*--umm, I just wanted to say-- uh, is that a real dress you're wearing? And twentieth century panties?*

*And Sasha didn't think you'd notice! Yes, the dress is simple fabric similar to Old Earth's; the Pagnew's primary manufacturing facilities are still occupied in large part with ship repairs; so I couldn't tax them for such a frivolous item. However, I was able to coax several third skins into combining as a test to see how closely they could emulate such materials-- with you to be the judge.*

*That's a bunch of third skins?* I asked incredulously. For I hadn't seen them do anything like this before!

*Yes. It seems a close match according to what visuals I've found of clothing from your era. Do you agree?*

*Hell yeah!* I responded enthusiastically.

*The panties I made weeks ago, but never had a chance to show them off to you. I obtained their pattern from the Archives. Do you like them?*

Did I like them? Whoa! Even if my parts were still lame in their healing process, my mind sure wasn't.

*I think they're gorgeous, Ling. And I love the dress, too.*

Ling beamed. *I thought you'd like it.*

By this time she'd started the other side of the dress unraveling too.

This was one well designed dress! I loved how it fell, twirling around and away from her form, unwrapping her like a Christmas present before me.

But there was a trick to it. The cloth was attached at its ends to the front of her panties; and this helped guide its movements. Momentarily, Ling stood before me with the near-white glittering cloth looking like a luxurious skirt swaddling her legs, with spiral cuts up both sides showing off her beautiful limbs, and exposing the quaint hip hugging sides of her white panties.

She was now stripped above the hip line.

Her Asian mix looks and unusual skirt combined to make her look more exotic than ever.

But there was still my condition...

*Uh, Ling, I think there's something I better tell you...*

*Oh? And what is that?* She asked, as she gently eased me down to sit on her sleeper shelf.

*Uh, I may-- I mean-- you look great, Ling-- but maybe I'm not yet in good enough shape for this examination of yours...*

*Nonsense!* She smiled broadly, standing close in front of me, and pulling my hands up to her firm, soft, and flat belly.

She got my fingers started, and I took it from there. First, I pulled loose the dress fabric from the front upper edge of her panties, and it fell easily away. It'd only been stuck there, as if with a very weak glue.

As always, I was struck by the perfect smoothness and softness of Ling's skin. How old had Arbitur told me Ling was? I seemed to have forgotten at the moment. But I did recall it'd sounded positively, agonizingly ancient when I'd first heard it! But you couldn't tell it from here! She looked to have the features of a young woman in the prime of life; she was well preserved indeed!

The panties were a nice touch. I'd realized that I missed the endearing little articles of intimate underwear when I'd found Sym using them.

It added a little something to the whole deal, to be able to take off a woman's panties.

Which I did with Ling. Slowly. Savoring the process.

It turned out that I was indeed still too early in my healing process to do everything I would have liked. But Ling had known this even better than I, and hadn't planned on any strenuous recreations. Instead, we mostly just stripped down and enjoyed the naked closeness of one another, that evening.

Somehow, it seemed like it couldn't have felt much better even had I been fully recovered.

What happened next? Return to origin

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