“This person you’re running from,” said Victor, “who is he?”
“He is–I suppose you’d call him an author,” said the boy.
They were in Victor’s lab, with Verdeschi stationed outside. Koenig had agreed to let Victor, who seemed to share an affinity with the boy, question him alone. Before they decided what to do about the ultimatum they had received, they needed more information.
“And, ah, what does this author write?” Victor asked.
“He doesn’t write. He creates–stories, realities. He brings them into being for amusement. His own and that of others.”
“Do you mean to say that he–he creates universes? As entertainment?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes he just enhances–rewrites the fabric of an existing story.”
Victor pursed his lips and considered it. “He makes editorial changes? To worlds? A singularly powerful author. And why is he pursuing you?”
“Because I can live in the stories. I can be part of them, change them. That’s something he can’t do–or is afraid to do.”
“To enter a universe, to really experience it, means to sacrifice power. The more involved I become, the more vulnerable I am. He’s terrified of losing power.”
“That’s why the Author said he would not become fully one of us,” observed Victor. “But how does he effect change to a world if he doesn’t know its people? He can’t even tell us apart.”
“He believes that the history of a reality occurs on a much larger scale than that of individual creatures.” The boy paused and pointed to the corner of the room, where a chessboard sat, awaiting the next move in a game half-played. “I recognize that from the data I absorbed. It’s an amusement.”
“A game,” said Victor. “We call it ‘chess.'”
The boy stood and walked over to study the board. “Yes. And you label the pieces–King, Queen, Bishop, Pawn–but you don’t name them. They have no identity.” He picked up a pawn and held it out. “Do you even know one of these pawns from another?”
Victor chuckled, seeing the point being made. “No. Is it like that for you?”
“It is for him. Individual lives don’t matter at all. I’m beginning to see that they do matter.”
“And is that why he doesn’t want you living among his stories?”
The boy nodded. “He says I cheapen his works. Make them a mockery.”
“We have creators who do something like that. They’re called satirists. They produce parodies. That, too, is an art form.”
“He says I’m an imperfect imitation of him, and I need to go away.”
Victor chuckled. “An imperfect author?” He reached out and picked up a book–old, leather-bound, dog-eared from many readings. “It’s funny. I was just reading a play–”
“A play?” asked the boy.
Victor nodded. “A story, meant to be acted out by a group of people. In this play, the author–his name was Shakespeare–created a character who was also an author who wrote plays. Many people call him an imperfect copy, a parody of Shakespeare.”
“And that is what I must be as well. Did this character have a name?”
“Quince,” said Victor. “Peter Quince.”
“Quince,” echoed the boy, as if trying it on for size. “Peter Quince. Do people sometimes take the names of other people, like characters in plays?”
He looked at Victor with a sincerity only the very young and very bright can manage. “Then that is who I am. You asked me if I had a name. I shall be named Quince.”
“I approve of your choice. You’re starting to see the importance of names,” observed Victor. “And you’re starting to see us as individuals. Why?”
The boy, now self-christened Quince, drew up his knees and rested his chin on them. A child-like posture, Victor was certain his own body could not manage.
“I–I made mistakes.”
“The Author said you wiped out worlds.”
“Not on purpose! I was trying to make things better. So I made big changes–rewrote histories. I didn’t see that changing one element of one person’s life could change a whole world–or even cause a world not to come into being at all. The universe looks so big, but you learn that the important things, the key moments and people, can be very, very small.”
He looked past Victor, as if gazing at something miles away. He was lost in memory. “It was a solar system inhabited by a people with a name you couldn’t pronounce. They weren’t like you at all, except that they were alive and intelligent. They had been born on one world, and they’d spread to five more. At the height of their civilization, a nearby star was going to die in a supernova. They discovered it too late to save themselves. It was going to wipe out all life on all their worlds.
“I–I changed history. I altered the properties of that star.”
“What happened?” asked Victor gently, sensing Quince didn’t want to go on.
“I hadn’t realized that radiation from that nearby star had quickened life on one of its planets. That planet was long dead when I arrived, but the civilization I wanted to save was actually born in that other system. By altering the star, I prevented life from beginning.” He hung his head. “I wiped out seven worlds.”
“And why, if this Author is so outraged, did he not simply bring those worlds back? Unmake the changes you made?”
“It doesn’t work that way. He can’t. Once a change is made, it’s permanent. I can’t fix my mistakes, and neither can he.”
“But you propose to make changes to our reality now, even against that risk?”
“It will be different this time. I’ve placed myself among you. That makes me vulnerable, but it also allows me to truly know you. In my weakness, there is strength. I understand now the value of one world, of one person. I can help.”
“And what if we don’t want your help? Will you force it on us?”
“Please don’t be offended, but I’m smarter than any of you.”
In fact, Victor was delighted with the boy’s directness. “I don’t doubt it. But, in deciding for others what was best for them, you violated the free will of intelligent beings. That was your mistake. That’s why they’re gone.”
Quince swallowed. “You think I’m a murderer. I’ve read your laws. You think I’m evil.”
Victor shook his head. “I’m a scientist. I don’t make such judgments.” Self-consciously, he rubbed the fingers of one hand over his breastbone. “Some say my emotions left me when my artificial heart was implanted. But, at any rate, it’s better for me not to become overwrought. I find an intellectual response more constructive than an indignant one. So tell me, Quince, what does your moral code say?”
“We don’t have one. The Author erases people and worlds all the time as it pleases him. He doesn’t want revenge for any sort of crime. He just wants me out of his way.” The boy looked suddenly sad. “And that’s what’s going to happen. The Author is going to wipe me out. You have no choice but to let him have me. He’ll erase you all, if you don’t.”
“Can’t you somehow elude him?”
“Maybe, but he’s powerful.”
“What if,” said Victor, thinking aloud, “you could make a change of realities… that applied to yourself?”
“You mean, could I make it so he couldn’t wipe me out? It’s never been tried. The cost is high. The power we’re born with… I might lose it.”
“But if you could?” asked Victor.
Quince looked at him for a long moment. “Could I stay here?”
The question intrigued Victor. “Why?”
“Because–I like talking to you. My people don’t talk this way. We don’t talk at all. We exchange information directly.”
“You mean mental telepathy, exchanging thoughts.”
“That comes close, but your people envision telepathy as being something like a silent conversation. It has order and flow. It’s sequential. For us, there’s no back and forth. If we want someone’s knowledge, we ask for it. If we’re the more powerful mind, we might just take it. We process that knowledge alone, like your computer does. That’s why the Author thinks it’s the smartest one on Alpha. It thinks the way we do–solitary and selfish.”
Victor mused, “Individual, and isolated, yet with no sympathy for the individual members of other races.”
“But you talk to me, Victor. You all do. And you listen when I answer. Well, all except that Mr. Verdeschi.” Quince made a face that suggested nausea. “I don’t like him.”
Victor smiled at the boy’s frankness. It rated equal candor. “I don’t think he likes you very much, either.”
“With you, though, it’s different. It’s–something I’ve never encountered before, this give and take. If I had to stay one place for the rest of my life, I’d want it to be here.”
Berman smiled sadly. “I wish it were possible.”
Quince sat up. “But I have to deal in reality, don’t I? If you had only minutes left to live, Victor, what would you do?”
Victor thought about it. “I suppose I’d… have a good cigar. Drink a brandy. Spend time with friends.”
“What if you could change things? What if you had my power? What if you could give a gift to someone?”
“What sort of gift, Quince?”
“What would you change about your life, Victor? If you could change one thing, what would it be?”
Victor just smiled and shook his head. “I could spend years analyzing that question and never answer it. I don’t think I’d change a thing.”
Quince looked at him intensely. “I can think of one thing.”
* * *
A command conference had been called in Koenig’s office. He faced his senior people around the table and cursed himself for what he had to say.
“We have no options. When the time comes, when that–whatever it is–returns, we give the boy to him.”
Helena fixed her eyes on Koenig’s, a slight tremor in her voice as she said, “He’ll be killed.”
“Helena, don’t you think I know that? But the alternative is we all die.”
“Worse than die,” said Paul Morrow. “We cease to exist utterly.”
There was a moment’s silence. There was nothing to add. Koenig saw in their faces the shadow of his own defeat, his own self-condemnation.
“We really know so little about him,” said Sandra Benes. “The medical data Dr. Russell has gathered shows he’s human. Little more.”
“Human with an amazing healing factor,” said Alan Carter.
“And an ability to communicate with Computer on levels even I don’t understand,” added David Kano.
“Anything in the salvaged data from the Voyager tapes?” asked Koenig, “Or the records shared with us by Captain Zantor and his people? Has a race like his been seen before?”
“No,” said Kano. “Unless you count mythological references to gods.”
The was an alarm from the nearby comm post. As heads turned, text flashed on the tiny monitor, and Computer’s cold voice read out:
MEDICAL EMERGENCY. PROFESSOR VICTOR BERGMAN. ARTIFICIAL HEART FUNCTIONS CEASED.
Panic seized Koenig. For an instant, he couldn’t breathe. He had dreaded this day, had nightmares about it. His old friend was dependent on fragile, human technology. Someday, Koenig knew, it had to give.
He forced himself to remain calm, and turned to a wide-eyed Helena Russell, who was already up, calling her team, starting for the door.
Koenig followed her at a run. The others scattered, nervous energy causing them to want to move with no destination in mind. Midway into her charge for the exit, Helena Russell vanished in a flash of light that was becoming all too familiar.
Koenig called out her name, then ripped his commlock from his belt, keyed the Computer interface and demanded, “What is Helena Russell’s location?”
The response was immediate:
PROFESSOR BERGMAN’S LABORATORY.
Koenig broke and ran.
* * *
When Koenig arrived in the lab, he found Helena kneeling over Victor’s prone form. Her face revealed nothing of their friend’s condition. She was immersed in examination, and yet he noticed she had not begun resuscitation, which was odd.
Beyond them, Verdeschi and the alien boy stared each other down over the squared-off form of a stun gun. Koenig saw that, despite its harmless name, it was set to fire a killing charge.
“Verdeschi, report,” said Koenig.
The young Italian’s words were clipped. “He’s killed the Professor.”
“I didn’t!” said the boy. “He’s not dead. Dr. Russell will tell you–”
“John, I need quiet,” snapped Helena Russell. “Take those two and get out of here!”
“Now,” she said with greater force than he’d ever heard from her.
The commander of hundreds of men and women traditionally did not take orders from a subordinate, but this was a medical emergency. In this case, Helena Russell was in absolute charge. “Come on,” he said to Verdeschi, jerking his head toward the door. To the boy, in the interests of expedience, he said with a friendly tone, “It will help Victor if you’ll come with us.”
The boy nodded and followed.
Helena, who had begun ignoring them as soon as she’d ordered them out, called after him as they cleared the door. “John, wait.”
Koenig signaled the others to remain in the corridor.
“What is it?” Koenig asked.
Helena Russell sat back on her heels. Her eyes showed the faintest trace of moisture, and her mouth was open in an expression of astonishment. “He’s alive,” she said.
“Is he in danger?” asked Koenig. “Is he–?”
Helena held up her hands. “He’s fine, he’s better than fine, he–”
“Then what the hell was the alert about? Why did Computer say his artificial heart had stopped?”
“Because it has stopped, John.” It was Victor’s voice, a little gruff, but loud and clear.
The Professor sat up, Helena fussing over him and insisting on holding him by the arm and shoulders as he did. He smiled and waved her off.
“My artificial heart has stopped–forever. You see, I have a real one again.” He tapped his chest in satisfaction, and winked at the boy hovering nervously in the door. “And John,” he added, “we have something of a plan.”
* * *
Sue Crawford exited a private cubicle in Medical Centre feeling, if not refreshed, at least calm. Dr. Russell had ordered supervised rest in one of the rooms used for decompression and de-stress. It was not unheard-of for Alpha’s chief physician to order a patient to meditate, listen to calming music, or even do a course of yoga to improve her health. In this case, after Sue’s near-hysterical response to the alien boy, the Doctor had ordered her to sleep, reassuring her that one of the nurses would watch her son.
It had been four hours, and it was time to collect her little boy. Sue always felt anxious, picking up Jackie. Would the edge of fear she felt when she looked at him ever go away?
Walking through the open ward, she saw a figure seated on one of the beds. Its body language said it was bored, sitting up, legs hanging over the edge, kicking idly back and forth. Sue approached and froze as she recognized the boy from the darkened corridor. A small gasp escaped her.
The boy turned and smiled. “Please don’t be afraid. I didn’t mean to frighten you before. My name’s Quince.” He stood and started toward her.
Sue backed up a couple of steps.
The boy sat back down on the bed, facing her. “All right, I promise I won’t come near you. But Mr. Verdeschi ordered me not to leave this room, and I’m trying to learn to cooperate. And it’s boring. Won’t you stay for a moment and talk to me?”
“I have to get my baby,” said Sue quickly. For the second time today, her voice sounded shrill in her own ears. This boy made her nervous. His very appearance brought back the fear. But was it fear of an alien, a potential invader? Or was it still fear of her own flesh and blood? Impatient with her own emotions, she determined not to back down, not to let this alien rattle her. “My son’s in the nursery, you see. Someone’s watching him for me.”
“His name is Jackie. I like him. Could you bring him to see me?”
“I–I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I understand. I know I frightened you, and I didn’t mean to. I just want to do something to make up for it.” He studied her face, his gaze burning with an intensity that wasn’t at all threatening, but which still unnerved Sue. “Please… tell me something that you want. What would make things better for you?”
She laughed coldly. “To live on a new world? To have my child’s father alive again–”
“I promised Victor I wouldn’t do anything that drastic.”
“You promised–” Her voice trailed off as she realized that the boy had taken her humorless joke seriously. Did he really believe he could raise the dead? Change the Moon in its course? She relaxed slightly, realizing the poor kid was probably mad. “As long as my baby is okay, I don’t need anything.”
“Is that why you were so frightened when I appeared?” he asked. “Because you thought I’d hurt Jackie?”
“Partially,” she admitted. An overwhelming impulse pushed her to be honest, to tell this lunatic child the unvarnished truth. Why? What power did he have? Whatever it was, she told him, “I’m afraid for Jackie. I’m also… ” Her voice caught, but she managed, “I’m afraid of him. What kind of monster is afraid of her own child?”
“Is that a riddle?” asked Quince.
“No,” Sue laughed at the encounter between her own self-pity and the alien boy’s innocence. “No, it’s a very silly question.” She started for the door. “I should get Jackie–”
“Wait,” said Quince. “I don’t think it’s silly to question your feelings. Your fear is strong. Why are you afraid?”
She’d already talked this to death with Dr. Russell. She knew all she could do was try to make hers and Jackie’s life as normal as possible, to try to forget. Still, she told Quince, “The day Jackie was born, fugitives from another world took control of his body. They aged him. He grew to adulthood in a day. While he was growing, he was… evil. He wanted me dead. I can’t forget the hatred that was in his eyes, and they’re the same eyes.”
“Would you like to forget?” asked Quince.
She looked up from where she had lowered her face into her hands. “Is that possible?”
“Yes. Before I met you, I would have simply erased the past events. But changing the past could ruin your future. I can take away your memory of the terror, of the pain, without making you forget the events themselves.”
She shook her head. “I shouldn’t.”
Quince reached out and took her hand. “Please. My own people want to kill me. Commander Koenig may have no choice but to let them. This may be the last thing I ever do.” When she did not resist, he took her other hand, stood, and stepped close to her. Looking into her eyes, he said, “Show me your memories. Show me your fear.”
And she showed him an image of a five-year-old boy with Jackie’s clear green eyes, beautiful and terrible. This other Jackie did not speak, could not hear, but his eyes watched everything. Green eyes had burned into Sue’s, and once again she felt the terror, the chest-ripping horror, the delight in those eyes as she died of fright.
And then she felt it all slip away.
* * *
Sue carried Jackie down the corridor toward their quarters. He was getting too big to carry, and in fact Kano had had Technical design and build a stroller for her. Also, Jackie was starting to pull up on furniture, and was trying his first, tentative steps. He’d be walking soon. Still, tonight, she wanted to carry him, wanted to be close to him.
She didn’t know why she’d been so especially glad to see him this particular evening. In some ways, when he’d looked up at her from amidst a field of toys and smiled–his father’s smile–it was like she was seeing him for the first time. He was her baby, her future, and she’d never felt it so strongly.
As she opened the door, she snuggled him close, kissed his hair and whispered, “It’s you and me against the universe, kid.”
“Sue?” Michael Keel, coming from the travel tube station at the other end of the corridor, called to her.
She smiled. “Evening, Mike. How’s life in the Eagle hangars?”
“Fine.” He looked warily at her. “Are you okay? Earlier you seemed–”
“Wildly emotional and needy? I know, and I’m sorry for coming apart on you.”
He grinned, and perhaps blushed a little. “My shoulder’s always here when you need it.”
“Dr. Russell thinks I just had a mild anxiety attack. Seeing that boy appear in the shadows–I guess I’ve read one too many ghost stories. But she arranged to keep Jackie for a while and I got some rest.”
“And you’re okay?”
Sue smiled even more broadly. For some reason, tonight, she couldn’t stop smiling. “Michael, I’ve never been better.”
* * *
Verdeschi escorted Quince into the Medical ward, holding him firmly by the arm. The boy looked first to where Victor reclined on an exam couch, looking fit and rested.
“Is he all right?” Quince asked Helena Russell. “I didn’t do anything damaging, did I?”
“You didn’t,” Helena confirmed. “Victor has a healthy, strong, human heart.”
“I didn’t change his past,” said Quince.
“No,” said Victor, smiling. “I’ve still got all the lessons I learned from being a cybernetic man.”
“All right, Quince,” said John Koenig abruptly, “Victor’s told us about your plan.”
“I can do it,” said Quince. “I can make myself fully human. It means giving up my powers–”
“If your friend recognizes you–”
“He’s not my friend. He’s a monster.”
“Still, if he detects that you’re here, we’re all dead.”
“He won’t. He told you himself he can’t even tell humans apart. I’ll be human. My unique energy signature as a higher being will be gone from Alpha.”
“Quince,” said Helena, “you’re giving up your power. Are you also giving up immortality?”
“Yes,” said Quince. “Eventually I’ll die, like any of you. But I’ll have lived. You’ll remember me. Others will remember me. That’s better than being wiped from the face of history.”
“You’re asking me to take a very big chance, Quince,” said Koenig. “300 lives are on the line, and I don’t have any assurance that you can do what you say you’re going to do.”
“You don’t trust me,” said Quince.
“I can’t afford to trust anyone,” said Koenig.
Quince looked around the room. “Do you all feel that way?
They were all silent, except Verdeschi. “I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you. Or maybe that’s a bad analogy, because I could throw you pretty far.”
“John,” said Victor quietly, drawing him and Helena into a loose huddle. “It’s your decision, but I think we should risk it.”
“Because,” Victor paused a moment, and seemed to be measuring his words carefully. “Because he’s like us. He’s a lost soul, cast out from his home into a dangerous universe. If we’re going to survive out here, we’re going to need the compassion of other species to do it. Do we have the right to offer any less?”
“I think that human heart has made you into a poet,” said Koenig.
“Victor’s right, John,” said Helena. “I know it’s not the safe choice, but it’s the compassionate one.”
Koenig looked at her with none of the warmth he might have showed at any other time. It was a mask he put on. When command decisions had to be made, he didn’t play favorites. She was used to it. It still hurt. “Are you willing to take responsibility for everyone else’s life?”
She met his gaze, and hoped her tone was as strong as his sounded. “I take lives into my hands every day, Commander. And you do the same, in even greater numbers.”
“Don’t argue over me,” said Quince behind them.
They turned to reply, and, as they did so, a gentle, orange light warmed the room. It emanated from the boy, bathing him, causing him briefly to glow. He straightened and stretched within it, like a sunbather. When it faded, he seemed weakened. His stance was slumped a bit, his skin tone a touch ashen.
“I’ve made my decision,” Quince said. “I’ll be one of you. If you choose to hand me over to the Author, I’ll go as a human.”
Helena moved to the boy’s side–quickly, for he looked as if he might stumble at any moment. She took his arms and guided him to a bed.
“What did he do?” asked Koenig.
“I’m not sure,” said Helena. Quickly, she placed two sensors on the boy’s forehead and activated the bed’s monitoring systems. “It appears that he’s altered his cellular structure. I detect no sign of the enhanced brain function I saw when I first examined him. The unique regenerative properties of his cells aren’t there either.” She looked up at Koenig. “He’s truly human now.”
“It’s a trick,” said Verdeschi.
Koenig eyed the security officer carefully. “Then you think we should hand him over?”
“I think we shouldn’t throw away our lives in someone else’s battle.” He nodded at the weakened figure on the bed. “He can walk around the universe like it’s his own personal playground. Let him escape on his own.”
“Dr. Russell just said that he no longer can, Mr. Verdeschi,” said Victor.
“He can make us see whatever he wants us to.”
Quince looked at the guard and his eyes flashed momentarily with anger. “Then see this,” he practically spat out.
Helena saw Koenig stiffen. If Verdeschi was right, if Quince was faking, then he still had all his dreadful power. He might be about to wipe Tony Verdeschi out of existence.
Instead, the boy reached to a supply tray next to his bed and secured a surgical scalpel. Helena gasped and tried to get to him, to stop him. She moved too slowly. The boy had already made two, quick, clean cuts on each of his wrists. Blood began to soak his pants and the cover of the bed.
“Do you believe me now?” he asked. He looked down at the torn flesh. His eyes widened and he went pale as he saw the blood. In typically human fashion, he fell, unconscious, against Victor.
END ACT TWO