The Author was prompt in his appearance. He materialized in the center of Main Mission and glared at Tanya Alexander. “Well, Koenig, have you made your choice?”
Koenig stepped forward, interposing himself between Tanya and the alien. “The boy has made it for us. He’s gone.”
The Author stared for a moment. Perhaps he was attempting to read Koenig’s facial expression, perhaps his mind. Perhaps he was merely scanning the base with his own extrasensory abilities. When he spoke, he said, “You’re lying.”
Koenig made a sweeping gesture. “You can search anywhere you like. You won’t find him here.”
As if in answer to Koenig’s invitation, the floor beneath him began to vibrate. The rumbling sensation felt like nothing so much as the beginnings of the explosion and shock wave which had blown the Moon out of Earth’s orbit, nearly a year ago.
“What are you doing?” Koenig demanded.
The Author smiled blandly. “I am doing nothing. That is to say, I am taking no action against you. I am applying resistance against an effort to act. Someone is attempting to move your world, to hide it from me. That is how I knew you were lying.”
“Commander,” said Paul Morrow, “it’s very strange. For a moment, our instruments indicated a change in position, as though we were on the other side of the galaxy.”
“You were farther than that,” said the Author. “But you will not escape me so easily.”
The floor beneath Koenig pitched, and, around him, people were thrown to the floor. He felt as though he were standing on liquid. He’d been through earthquakes and planet-quakes. This felt like one.
“Stop it!” he said to the Author.
“I am stopping it. You may wish that I had not. He’s still trying to transport you.”
The shaking ceased. The Author made no move. He stood with his fingers laced in front of him. “You’re a fool, Koenig. You know who is doing this. You know the boy is here.” One index finger raised ever-so-slightly. There was a flash behind Koenig.
Turning, he saw Quince, bandaged and pale.
The Author regarded him and asked “What have you done?”
Quince took a step forward, his voice trembling. “I’ve damaged this human vessel. It was a unique experience. It felt… pain. I felt pain.”
“I have no interest in your physical form. Your power, it’s fading. What did you do?”
“I surrendered it,” said Quince. “I am human now. I’m no longer one of you.”
Koenig turned on the boy. “If you surrendered your power, then what the hell just happened?”
Quince looked on the verge of tears. “I–I lied to you. I kept my power until he arrived.” He nodded at the Author. “I was going to step us all away from him. And then, once I was human, we’d have been lost to him forever. I couldn’t do it before he arrived. I had to catch him in the moment of change, so that I could erase us from his very mind.”
The Author walked a circle around the boy and said, approvingly, “It was a worthy gamble. You almost succeeded. If I were not more powerful, you would have. As it is, you have now burned yourself out.”
“Why did you lie, Quince?” asked Koenig.
“I didn’t think you would let me try,” he said.
“You were right,” said Koenig bitterly.
“I wanted to help you,” the boy protested, “to do it right this time.” He looked to the Author. “I surrender myself. Take me. I am yours to do with as you will. But spare these creatures.”
“I had intended to wipe you all out of existence,” said the Author.
“There is no need,” said Quince. “They cannot harm you. Neither can I, but I know you must exact your revenge. Do it to me, then. They are innocent of wrongdoing.”
“Innocence,” scoffed the Author. “An overrated commodity, if ever there was one. Innocence merely indicates that a creature has not learned the hard lessons of reality. And we must all learn those lessons. Further, I cannot leave in existence beings that believe they have defeated any of our kind. We cannot allow that arrogance.”
“Arrogance?” Quince’s voice broke, and tears flew from his eyes as he advanced on the Author. “You speak of arrogance in others? You are the most arrogant, power-mad creature in existence. You think you are a god.”
“I do not know what that means. What is a god?”
Before any of them could reply, Computer spoke:
A GOD IS AN ALL-POWERFUL BEING WHICH CREATES SUBSTANCE FROM NOTHINGNESS. A GOD PASSES JUDGMENT ON MORTAL BEINGS.
“Really? Well, then certainly I am one. I can create. I can destroy. And now, I pass judgment.”
“Wait,” said Koenig.
“There is no staying your sentence, Koenig. You and this creature have earned my wrath, and you shall suffer it. However,” he paused and smiled coldly. “I shall not destroy you. I shall let you live to know your defeat. I shall exact a price from you–one life for each world this Pretender destroyed.”
“Then take mine,” said Koenig. Behind him, others stepped forward–Helena, Victor, Paul. He looked at them. “No. Not any of you. Alpha needs you.” He looked back to the author. “Take my life, and–”
“You shall not choose the dead, Koenig. Nor can I choose from among you. Even if I could tell you apart, I cannot be troubled to learn the relative value of each of you. But there is one among you who can choose, who knows which losses would cause the most pain, the most damage.”
“None of us would make that decision for you,” said Helena Russell.
“None of you who call yourselves human,” conceded the Author. “You are too rebellious, too full of your own illusion of free will. But there is a being among you–the smartest among you–who is accustomed to following instructions. I will ask the question, and it will answer.”
“Oh, God,” murmured David Kano.
“The choice shall be made,” said the Author. “You will feel the pain of their loss, and you will never forget it.”
CONSIDERING ALL FACTORS, THE SEVEN ALPHANS WHOSE ABSENCE WILL MOST HINDER THE EFFORT TO SURVIVE IN SPACE ARE AS FOLLOWS:
And she began to read off the names.
* * *
Upon Sue’s return to her quarters, she and Mike had stood in the corridor talking for so long that Jackie had grown restless. It seemed silly to stand with a toddler pulling at her leg. At the same time, she hadn’t engaged in adult conversation with someone–much less a man who seemed interested in her–for a long time. She had invited him in for coffee. As Jackie played, burbled and cruised along the edge of the table, back and forth between them, they’d spent a pleasant few minutes just… talking.
Mike grinned as Jackie offered him a piece of half-eaten cookie he’d found under the couch. The pilot took it gingerly and held it up for study. “Why thank you, Mr. Crawford,” he said. “You’ve quite an eye for geological oddities.”
Jackie fixed his eyes on Mike’s and said firmly, “Ba!”
“I’ll have to take you at your word,” said Mike. He smiled at Sue. “He’ll be accompanying me on survey missions in no time.” He mussed the boy’s dark hair as Sue collected the empty cups and offered more coffee.
“You know, Jackie,” Mike said as she moved to the side table, “one of these days–”
Sue grinned at the easy banter. Mike really was good with her son. “One of these days what?” she asked, turning.
She almost dropped the cup. As it was, it shook in her hands and splashed hot liquid on them. Mike was gone.
“Mike?” she said out loud. He was not in the room. He’d had no time to leave, and she would have heard the door open if he had. Was he hiding? Playing a game with Jackie? After looking behind the couch, she knelt and said to the boy, “Baby, where did Mike go? Are you playing a game?”
Jackie just giggled. She took his hand, stood, and said, “Michael, seriously, where are you?”
Jackie’s hand slipped from hers. No, not slipped, just… vanished. One moment it was warm–perhaps a little too warm–in her grasp; the next it was gone. She looked down, and, with horror, realized that Jackie, like Michael, was no longer there. A frantic search of the room revealed nothing, nor did she expect it to. There was no possibility he’d just crawled away. His hand had… dematerialized.
Tears in her eyes, Sue pulled the commlock from her belt. “Security. Security, please answer! My son is missing, and Michael Keel–”
Tony Verdeschi’s face appeared on the tiny screen. Even in monochrome it looked ashen. “Sue,” he said, his voice raw, “Sue, I need you to remain calm…”
* * *
Paul Morrow was not a man given to displays of emotion. He knew that his friends and co-workers often dismissed him as a cold fish. He wasn’t, truly. He was a man of profound faith who believed in a destiny for himself and the human race. He was capable, he know, of becoming inflamed with passion when he spoke about the future, and his place in it. He could be harshly defensive if he felt his family or friends were being defensive. More than once, Alan Carter had looked at him with a smile and said, “You’re a scary sonofabitch when you want to be, Morrow, you know that?” On the job, however, Paul always stayed calm. Anger and passion didn’t help you make decisions under pressure.
It was an effort now, however, to keep his air of calm. Already, Computer had read off two names, those of Michael Keel and Jackie Crawford.
Michael was a good man, a solid man. He liked to call himself the rock of the Eagle survey teams, and delighted in the way others groaned at the pun. His knowledge, his long experience–many pilots died exploring new worlds, seeking a home for the Alphans–made him Alan Carter’s right hand. He was also popular with his female colleagues. Someday, when they settled down, Michael Keel was going to be the father of many second-generation Alphans.
Or he would have been.
Jackie Crawford was Alpha’s second generation, her firstborn. He was their hope for the future.
Jackie Crawford was gone, and hope with him. On her secondary monitors, Computer reported the disappearance of his and Mike’s telemetry signals from the base.
Paul saw Sandra’s face fall as she read the little boy’s name on the screen. She was his favorite “aunt,” and adored the child. Sandra wanted children of her own. This was a blow to her most treasured wish. Paul wrapped an arm around her and drew her close. The next name would appear soon, and another Alphan would be lost. He wondered who it would be, dreaded who it would be. His grip tightened on the woman whose children he hoped someday to father. The name appeared.
He looked to Sandra, wanting to tell her–
* * *
A stab of pain shook Tanya Alexander’s chest as Paul vanished from her sight. They were not lovers. Well, they were not anymore. There had been that one time, when they believed Alpha was dying, and Sandra was gone. She knew it was Sandra he loved, and her respect for them both caused Tanya to keep her distance. Sandra was a good woman and a good friend.
Still, the stabbing realization of what might have been hit Tanya as Paul vanished. Dead. Gone. Stress and shock can cause the muscles to tense and worse.
God, she thought, don’t let me be having a heart attack on top of everything.
A scream from Sandra pulled Tanya’s focus away from her fears. The diminutive woman backed away slowly from where he’d been. Sandra was quivering in disbelief. Helena Russell was rushing to offer aid, but Tanya was closer. She started for Sandra as Computer read the next name. Tanya did not register whose it was. She only wanted to get to her friend.
But Sandra was making eye contact with her now, and he expression of shock switched to one of pity and sorrow. Why was Sandra looking at her like that?
Then the name registered. Sometimes were hear sounds but don’t process them until a few seconds later. Only as she winked out of existence did her brain acknowledge that Computer had just said TANYA ALEXANDER.
* * *
“Stop this,” David Kano begged. He knew he was begging and he knew it was foolish. He was demanding mercy of an artificial intelligence. Mercy was beyond her programming. Still, he continued, urgently trying to interrupt the running program and get Computer’s attention.
The Commander was shouting something at the alien Author. The boy was pleading as well. Kano couldn’t hear them. He had to stop Computer from participating in this slaughter, he had to.
Kano felt tears coming to his own eyes. For a frantic moment, he considered drawing his stun gun and firing it at the most vulnerable point in Computer’s Main Mission interface. It would not permanently damage her, but it would stop all readouts for a time.
How could she do this? Intellectually he knew, she was just responding to programming. Emotionally, Computer was his partner, his friend. That she could turn on the others riddled him with guilt. He’d so long considered her thoughts to be his, his actions to be hers.
It was with a kind of desperate relief that he recognized the next name on the list:
* * *
Victor Bergman closed his eyes and tried to process all that was happening. The deaths of three friends in front of him, good people all. The loss of a child and a courageous explorer. For years he’d practiced techniques to calm the seething tide of emotion within him–deep breathing, meditation, yoga. He had to, his surgeon had insisted. He had to stay calm or die. His surgeon was light years away now, and possibly dead. Helena had maintained the litany. “Remember your heart, Victor. You’ve got to be careful.”
His artificial heart was gone now. He didn’t have to be careful. He could feel like any other man with a new, perfect heart.
Only he didn’t know how any more. He wanted to feel sorrow. He wanted to feel rage. He wanted to sink to his knees in despair at the unfairness of the universe. He’d spent a decade training all of that away.
Now all he could feel was a pervasive regret at the death of hope, and compassion for the survivors.
So it was only compassion he felt when Computer read the penultimate name, and it was his own.
He saw the shock on the faces of John Koenig and Helena Russell. He saw Koenig shoot forward to where Victor stood with Helena, the two of them flanking him as always. He felt pain as Koenig seized his arms, squeezing tight. He saw Helena’s head shake in denial.
All he could do in the final moment was offer comfort to his dear friends. He managed a gentle smile and gave the faintest shake of his head to let them know there was nothing to be done. “They have you, John, Helena,” he said. “That’s all they–”
* * *
Swearing, fuming with rage, Alan Carter flung himself at the towering alien. Koenig caught him, thankful for the distraction. Had Alan not acted impulsively and given him a defensive action to pursue. Otherwise, he would have attacked the smug bastard himself.
“Commander, we’ve got to stop them!” said Alan.
John Koenig was not given to despair, but right now he saw no hope. Victor was gone. Six of his people were gone, dead. Two more would follow. He could not stop it. He could only hope…
He’d reflected earlier that Alpha could survive without him. She could be led by a different Commander. Paul Morrow. Alan Carter. Helena. The heart, the soul of the community, though, was none of them. The loss that would cripple was not a member of the command staff.
He’d tried to reassure himself that it was just an emotional judgment. Cold, emotionless Computer surely wouldn’t have the same sense of a person’s value that human John Koenig did.
He had never been so sorry to see his emotional responses justified by objective analysis. Computer had chosen Victor, no doubt for the same reasons Koenig would have.
Beside Koenig, Helena was weeping quietly. Koenig himself was just numb, his senses, his emotions, overloaded. And still the madness was not over. Still there was one name left. Dispassionate to the last, Computer read the name of the final Alphan to die.
Main Mission went dark. That is to say, the ceiling lights stayed on; the desk lamps were still lit; but every display, every indicator that depended on Computer for data or power winked off. The Author had told Computer to pick the Alphans whose absence would hurt the most. The Author considered Computer to be a living entity no less than the human occupants of the base. It made sense that the machine would include itself on the list of those to die. Dispassionate to the last, without even an impulse for self-preservation.
“Without Computer we’re blind,” Koenig said to the Author. “You’ve killed us all.”
“Very likely,” the alien agreed. “But you will still have existed, a testament to the folly of presuming to defy us. Additionally, I leave you the Pretender. Suffering his presence will be an additional burden. He is human now. Let him die with you.”
The boy stepped forward, anger etched in crimson on his face. Before he could speak, however, there was a shriek from one of the twin doorways leading to Main Mission. The shriek contained one word, and the word was, “Murderer.”
In its wake, Sue Crawford flew at the Author, hands raised and balled to fists. She beat frantically on the alien’s chest, sobbing, hysterical.
“What is the purpose of this exercise?” asked the Author with indifference. He did not seem to understand that Sue was attempting to harm him, or why she would do so.
“My baby–you killed my baby!”
“Baby?” wondered the Author.
Helena Russell’s voice was tight savagery. Her every syllable conveyed that she wished, like Sue, to flay this creature alive. “Her child. She is Jackie Crawford’s mother.”
“Ah, of course. Biological reproduction, I’d forgotten. It does create an emotional bond, doesn’t it?”
“Take me,” said Sue. She fell to her knees in front of the towering figure. “Kill me with my child.”
“That is not the point of the demonstration,” said the Author as if he were explaining the use of a can opener. “You are meant to suffer his loss.”
Sue Crawford curled into a fetal position and wept pitifully. The only words she could manage were, “Oh God.” She said them over and over again.
“Yes,” said the Author, “I am a God. And you have tried my patience.”
Helena went to Sue and gathered the woman in her arms. Quince came to stand over them protectively. “You’re a monster,” he said to the Author.
“You, who erased destinies on so many worlds, call me this?”
“I made mistakes in ignorance. I painlessly erased lives. And I offer my own existence now in atonement. You are torturing these creatures. I won’t let you continue.” He looked at Sue Crawford and, with a catch in his voice, said, “I’m sorry. All I can do is make the pain go away.”
He gestured with his hand. Sue Crawford was gone.
A feral smile lit the face of the Author. “Deceitful to the last. Twice now you’ve claimed your powers were gone, and twice you have lied.” He pointed a dark-gloved finger at the empty space where Helena Russell sat shocked, her arms no longer enfolding a patient. “And this, I suppose is mercy? Not that it matters particularly. They will die soon. But I see you must be erased.”
“You’ll have to catch me,” said Quince.
There was a flash of golden light, and he was gone.
Seconds behind him, the Author likewise disappeared.
Behind them stood the Alphans, stunned. Alan Carter held a sobbing Sandra Benes. Tony Verdeschi, who had made his way to Main Mission while the deaths were occurring, looked to Koenig as if for direction. Helena Russell rocked back on her heels and leaned against the legs of a desk, her face pale and tear-streaked.
“Is it over?” asked Alan. “Are they gone?”
“They defeated us,” said Verdeschi. “That’s all they wanted.”
“And what do we do now?” asked Sandra.
Koenig said the only thing he could think to say. Perhaps it was the obvious thing to say, perhaps it was the ultimate declaration of defiance. It was all he had.
END ACT THREE