Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 2
Stories
The Yazoo Queen
by Orson Scott Card
Salt of Judas
by Eric James Stone
The Mooncalfe
by David Farland
Audience
by Ty Franck
I Am the Queen
by William Saxton
Zoo
by Al Sarrantonio
Adrift
by Scott D. Danielson
From the Ender Saga
Pretty Boy
by Orson Scott Card
Audio Bonus
Middle Woman
Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
Dissertation
On Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Holly Lawford-Smith
Column - I Screen the Body Eclectic
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

Adrift
Artwork by Sam Ellis
Adrift
    by Scott D. Danielson

Dr. Anne Gable waited for the call she knew was coming. A psyship was drifting in space, powerless, and she'd have to go, she just knew it. The pilot was unresponsive, and that put it squarely in her territory whether she liked it or not.

The visiphone beeped, and she pressed the button before it beeped again. Rob Spencer, the head systems engineer of the psyship program, appeared.

"We need you to come with us," he said.

Anne sat back in her chair. "How far out are we talking about?"

"The ship is drifting our way. We'll meet it about six days away, so you'll be back in about two weeks."

Space. She trained for it before ever interviewing psypilot candidates. She'd been in Earth orbit, but never deeper. "Is the pilot alive?"

"We don't know," said Rob. "If he isn't, then you won't have much to worry about."

"You can't take Dee?" she said. Dee was her ex-husband, the first of the psypilots. "Isn't he on Earth right now?"

"Yeah, he is. He'll be piloting, but we are still requesting that you come with us. Dee's no psychologist."

Oh, this is getting better and better. "The corporation guys know we used to be married. That's got to be some kind of violation of --"

"I just spent the last hour convincing the Board that I need you both. Dee is the only Earthside psypilot, not to mention the most experienced, and you are the one who wrote the book on potential psypilot problems. We need you both because we have no clue what we're looking at here. Between Dee, you, and myself, I'm confident we'll know everything we need to by the time we get back."

"But I haven't seen Dee since --"

"Anne, please. I really need you there. And I'll be with you the whole time. It's not like you guys will be alone."

"Yeah," she said.

"Neither one of you are the arguing type, anyway. You surprised the hell out of all of us when you said you were splitting."

All true. The marriage had ended not with a roar, but a whimper. Dee is comfortable in his psyship. That's just the way it is. In his psyship, Dee is alive. In his skin, he is ... not.

"Two weeks?" Anne asked.

"Yeah, two weeks," said Rob.

"What's the exact situation?" she said.

"There's no response at all from it. We're not even receiving on-board telemetry data. This leads us to believe that it's either a catastrophic systems failure, or the pilot shut the whole thing down. We've never had a systems failure like this, so I'm guessing that something's gone wrong with the pilot."

"Who's the pilot?" she asked.

"Thomas Schaeffer."

Thomas was a good friend. All of the psypilots were. She interviewed and approved them all.

"Thomas is a rock, Rob. You certainly don't think he lost it out there."

"I don't know what to think yet. Maybe he can't jack out. Maybe he's dead. I just don't know."

"When are we going?"

"Tomorrow morning. I'll send a car."

"Okay," she said. She turned off the visiphone and spun her chair to look out the office window.

#

Dee watched as his ex-wife and Rob climbed aboard. He had been jacked in for over an hour and was comfortable. When carrying passengers, he always liked to get settled in early. Besides, this way he'd avoid the inevitable awkward in-the-flesh meeting with Anne.

Dee's body was present on the ship, in the back near the engines. It was comfortably housed in a small, cushioned compartment. His brain was connected to the ship through a thin umbilical attached to the physical implant on top of his skull, near his motor cortex. When jacked in, the ship's sensors became the pilot's senses, its many cameras his eyes, all its moving parts his limbs. When jacked in, Dee became the ship.

And there was Anne. He could see her from a couple of different angles, and admired her beauty. He hadn't satisfied her, and he knew that. The way around that wasn't to try harder, because he simply had no more to give. The way around it was to let her go. So that's what he did.

He willed his face to appear on a screen in front of Anne. "Good morning, Doctor," he said, thinking immediately that he should have called her Anne.

"Good morning, Dee," she said. Stiff, but not unpleasant. "How are things?"

"Is there a correct answer to that when talking to a psychologist?" asked Dee. "We'll be on our way in no time."

"Good," she said.

"Dee, how are ya?" said Rob.

"All systems go, Chief!" said Dee. "We should leave orbit in ten minutes."

"Excellent," said Rob.

Dee returned attention to himself, the ship. In under a second, he checked the hydrogen pressure (good), the engine temperature (climbing), the life support system (cabin pressure a touch low, nudge it up). Within that same second, he noticed the last of the docking station crew close a panel in the engine room, and he verified that some entertainment files he wanted had finished downloading. He planned to use them to keep himself occupied during the flight. He could only apologize to Anne so many times.

#

Anne stood there, feeling like an extra limb. She watched Rob make certain that all of his tools had been delivered. Her own tools were in her breast pocket in the form of a small reader that contained her entire library.

Ten years before, when the psyship program first started, she had been told that she might be called on for missions like this. No one knew at the time how a pilot would react to long-term connection to a system that completely replaced the body. Her first assignment was to head a team of psychologists that predicted possible problems that a person might experience under those conditions. Everything from mild addiction to major personality disorder had been applied, written about, and published. Then they all sat back to watch what happened.

Dee had been the first psypilot. He went through numerous tests before being connected to a psyship, performing everything from controlling robots to flying remotes through his implant. He'd been excellent not only at performing his duties, but also at reporting how it felt to him to do so. Anne had fallen in love with him, and they married before Dee's first mission. Before Anne truly understood what it meant to be a psyship pilot, for despite all her research and conjecture, she didn't foresee that a pilot would feel better in a metal skin than he did in his own.

Rob floated up the corridor. "Almost ready," he said.

"Where will I be sitting?" Anne asked.

"Up front," Rob said. "Take either seat."

She pulled herself along the corridor, gaining confidence in zero g. Her worries about meeting Dee had, until now, eclipsed her nervousness about the actual flight. She took a deep breath and entered the front compartment.

In a normal ship, the crew sat in the front with a whole host of switches and screens to operate. The point of the psyship program was to run the entire ship with one person, so the front compartment here was a comfortable, carpeted room with two chairs outfitted with restraining straps. Through the window, Anne could see the Earth and part of the docking station. Below that was a single screen that allowed the psypilot to interact with the passengers. No flight controls in sight. Dee would be doing the flying.

She picked the chair on the left, pulled herself down, and worked at the straps.

"Dee?" she said.

The screen in front of her flickered to life, and a digital rendition of Dee's face appeared. "Yes?"

"Did all of my stuff get delivered?"

"Yup. Your clothes and personal stuff are in your cabin."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome," said Dee. The screen went black.

"Dee?" said Anne.

He appeared again on the screen. "Yeah?"

Anne wanted to say something like, "I'm sorry it turned out how it did," or "how are you really," but said only a couple of words that had been a private joke during the short time they were married. "Drive safe."

Dee chuckled. "You got it."

#

Six days later, Dee could scan the psyship in question. Thomas.

The ship was dark and tumbling very slowly. Dee sent Thomas a burst in the language psypilots had developed over their decade of existence, and waited for an answer. None came.

Anne was in her cabin. Dee told her that Thomas was a half hour away, then told Rob in the foredeck that he'd be able to get him a good picture in a few minutes.

"Any obvious damage?" asked Rob.

"Can't tell yet. He's completely dark," said Dee.

From her cabin, Anne asked, "Any contact?"

"No, but I won't stop trying," said Dee.

Rob asked about the ship, Anne asked about the man. Dee chuckled. To them, psyships were person and craft, but to Dee, they were one. Can they possibly understand? The thought, like so many other thoughts, brought him to Anne and the familiar pang of guilt.

Dee focused to the limit of his instruments. Still dark, but he could make out a bit of detail on Thomas's hull. As it tumbled, the antenna came into view -- a small dish protruding from the ship's side, fragile as can be. It looked intact. He willed the image to appear on the screen in the foredeck.

"You see that?" said Dee.

"Yeah, I'm looking at it now," said Rob. "No damage that I can make out. Foresee any trouble docking?"

"I've calculated trajectory, and have adjusted," said Dee. "It should be smooth."

As they moved closer, Anne joined Rob in the forward compartment. Dee listened as Rob pointed several things out to her when details emerged.

Dee matched rotation with Thomas. Both ships were identical, except that Thomas was carrying a cargo container attached to his underside. Dee reached out with his docking ring and grabbed the other ship. He used two of his grappling arms, one in front and one in back, to hold Thomas tight. He then pulled closer before extending the tunnel that would allow Anne and Rob to move between the ships. After pressurizing the tunnel, he used two additional arms to open Thomas's hatch. There was a very brief hiss as the door opened.

"Sounds like the pressure is Okay," he said.

He fastened the door open and retracted his arms.

"Yes, atmosphere is Okay. It feels cold, though." He retrieved some sensor data. "Seven degrees. At least it's above freezing. Better grab your coats." He opened his own hatch. "And don't forget flashlights."

#

Anne marveled at the ease with which Dee performed the docking procedure. The ship was a concert of coordinated movement when controlled by Dee. On one level she couldn't help but to be proud to see the psyship work so successfully. On another level she felt ... jealousy. Though she hated to admit it, she knew that was the right word. Jealous, of the machine that took her husband. Jealous, of the place he'd rather be.

The last six days had been agony for her. Dee, she knew, could watch her every minute if he wanted to. She didn't know if he wanted to watch, and wasn't even sure she'd be offended if he did. Either way, she was happy to be leaving Dee's ship.

She zipped up her coat and met Rob at the hatchway. They pulled themselves into the tunnel and moments later were in Thomas's ship.

"Are you there, Dee?" said Rob into a radio.

"Yeah, I hear you fine. Keep me posted," said Dee.

"Follow me," said Rob, heading aft. His flashlight beam bounced as he went.

Anne followed. Aft was toward the engines, where the pilot's compartment was also located, just like on Dee's ship.

"Anne, you've taken to space travel just fine, you know that?" said Rob.

She smiled at his attempt to ease the tension. But he was right. "Yeah, I'm an old pro. Being out here, six days away from Earth, in a dark spaceship ... yeah. This is my kind of stuff."

Rob laughed. They reached the engine compartment. He was flitting his flashlight over the room, taking it in. "Everything looks normal. I'm going to try the lights."

Anne moved her own flashlight to Thomas's cubicle. She walked over to it and put her hand on it. Cold.

The lights flickered, then turned on.

"I'm turning on the heaters, too," Rob said. "They're working."

Anne knelt down and raised the manual door panel to the cubicle. "Let's open this," she said, pressing the button. The door swung down, and Anne gasped.

"What do you see?" said Dee through the radio.

Thomas was most definitely dead. His body was stiff, his face a contorted mask of terror.

"He's dead, Dee," said Anne. "Thomas is dead."

#

After Dee listened to Anne and Rob describe the scene, he asked, "How's the core?"

"The core is running, but I can't access the engines," said Rob. "I'm going to need to reset the system to gain access."

"It was still running when you got there?" said Dee.

"Yeah, it was," said Rob.

"So it was running the whole time ..." said Anne.

"Thomas could have recorded something," said Dee.

"Other than telemetry data?" asked Rob.

"I don't normally go around recording everything, but I could," said Dee. "I used to send Anne stuff all the time."

"Well, let's get the ship back to Earth," said Anne. "I'm sure we can figure a way to get that data out of the core once we're there."

"There's a problem with that," said Rob.

"Yeah," said Dee. "If we reset the core, that data will be lost."

"And I have to reset the core to gain access to the engines," said Rob. "We can't maneuver without them. Dee's ship isn't carrying enough fuel to get us and Thomas's ship back."

Dee felt dread. He knew what was coming next, but also knew it was the obvious answer. "How's Thomas's implant?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" said Anne.

"I mean, does Thomas have burns or something? Does the implant look Okay?" said Dee.

"I don't see anything wrong there, Dee," said Rob.

"Wait a minute," said Anne. "You want to jack in over here?"

"I don't see any other way, Anne," said Dee. "I think we need to know what happened. If I jack in over there, I can see if Thomas left a recording, and possibly get the engines going without a reset."

"But, what if whatever happened to him ... you should see his face, Dee," said Anne. "What if the system itself did it? What if the core did that to him?"

Rob snorted. "No way. The system didn't suddenly become dangerous. It's sound. Ten years and nothing like this has happened. I'm convinced it was external."

"You don't know," said Anne.

"I think he's right," said Dee. "I've never experienced anything dangerous here. It's the only way. We've got no clues, and we better find out what happened here."

"I'll get Thomas out of the way," said Rob.

"Wait a minute," said Anne. "Before we do this, let's look at the rest of the ship, okay? Maybe there's something somewhere that will tell us what happened. And don't you have a gadget that you can test the umbilical with? Something to make sure that you don't electrocute Dee when he connects?"

"The system is sound," said Rob.

Dee heard a few moments of silence.

"Okay," said Rob. "I can run a few tests, but anything extensive will require a core reset. I'll check everything I can without going that far."

"Thank you," said Anne.

"And you check the rest of the ship," said Rob. "Let us know if you find anything. Come on over, Dee."

"Fine," said Anne.

"Will do," said Dee. "I'm offline."

The channel went silent. Dee felt dread, but not for fear of jacking into Thomas's ship. He felt as good about the system as Rob. His dread was withdrawal from his own ship. The thought of returning to the tiny shell that was his body, even for the brief time it would take to get through the tunnel to Thomas's ship, filled him with unease.

He checked his systems one more time; then, satisfied, he pushed himself through a small hole and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times. The cubicle was lit very dimly, and would gradually get brighter as he became more conscious. He flexed his fingers and toes, then his grappling arms -- wait, not there. He moved his arm toward a red button, then pressed it. The umbilical on top of his head gently disconnected and retracted.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there, pulling his mind together. The process didn't always take very long, but the nagging feeling of missing things never left him, no matter how long he was away from the ship. He settled into the feeling, then pushed another button. The cubicle door opened, and there stood Anne.

A flash of anger overcame him. He was at his weakest right at this moment, and hated for people to see him like this. But this was Anne. She'd seen him like this before. He pushed the anger aside.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

"Just give me a minute," he said. It was odd that he hadn't known she was there. He tried to look through the cameras in the engine room -- not there.

He swung his feet to the side and sat up.

"Are you sure this is the only way?" asked Anne.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure," said Dee. "Did you find anything in the rest of the ship?"

"No. Everything's fine over there," she said. "Listen, I need you to know something."

Dee looked at her.

"I need you to know that I'm okay," she said. "I expected things from you that you couldn't give --"

"Things that every other husband can," said Dee. "You didn't ask anything of me that you shouldn't have expected. I just couldn't give it."

"You didn't love me?"

"No, that's no it at all," he said. "I do love you. I do to this day. Anne, look at us. We've been in flight for six days. Six dull days during which we could have talked about this. But it's only when I jack out that you can. It's only when I'm in the flesh that I'm me to you, but it's only when I'm jacked in that I'm me to me." He willed his face to disappear from the screen. Not there.

Anne stood in silence.

Dee pushed himself up. "Let's go do this before I change my mind."

#

Anne watched Dee make his way to Thomas's ship. He was right. She couldn't bring herself to talk to him when he was the ship, but the moment she saw his body, his eyes, his face ... he was real.

They floated into the engine room of Thomas's ship. Rob was zipping a body bag.

"I tested the connector, and the voltages look normal," Rob said. "I'll, uh, get this secured." He went forward.

Dee settled into Thomas's cubicle.

"I don't like this," said Anne.

"I know. But there's no reason to be afraid."

He reached over to close the door.

"Dee?"

"Yeah?"

"Drive safe."

Dee smiled. "Will do." He closed the door.

Anne touched the cubicle. Seeing him had been overwhelming, and losing him to a ship so quickly made her heart ache.

#

Dee pushed the button to extend the umbilical. It sought and found his implant, then snapped home.

"Okay," he said, and breathed deep.

The connection gave him a gradual feeling that there was someplace he needed to go. When it became strong enough, moving into the core was simply a matter of going to that place. Dee concentrated, then pushed.

Slowly, he became aware of his new body. Sensors came online one by one, and he could now see Anne standing next to the cubicle, from both angles. He also saw that Rob had returned to the engine room.

He checked the engine. It was cold, but besides that, normal. He kicked it on in warmup mode.

"Rob, the engine is warming up now, so I think we're --"

Dee paused. He felt the urge to look behind himself, and he actually tried to do it. He looked through all the cameras at once, and saw no one but Anne and Rob. He felt through all his sensors, but there was nothing.

Who's there?

"Did you guys hear that?" asked Dee.

"What did you hear?" said Rob, moving toward a panel.

Dee paused another moment, and heard nothing.

"No, wait. Everything's fine. I'll run a test of --"

Dee? Is that you, Dee?

"Who is that?" said Dee through every speaker on the ship.

"What's happening, Dee?" asked Anne.

"I'm hearing something. Someone is talking to me."

I'm sorry Dee, but they know everything.

"What's it saying?" asked Anne.

"Thomas? Is that you?" said Dee. "It says 'I'm sorry, but they know everything. It's calling me by name."

"My God, could Thomas still be in the core?" said Anne.

"Impossible!" said Rob.

Dee fought the urge to withdraw. "Thomas?"

They took it from me. Almost sucked me right out with it, but they took it all. Everything.

"Who did? Is this Thomas?" said Dee.

Yes. Thomas. I lost part of myself, have you seen it?

A laugh.

"What happened to you?" said Dee.

Dee was flooded with sensory information. He was floating in dark space, stars all around. Then he noticed a dark patch of space, as if a dark hole had opened. The hole grew larger and larger, the stars disappearing, until he realized that he was looking at another ship. An immense, completely dark craft approached.

This image was briefly replaced by an image of Thomas, looking at his hand. The image zoomed in to his hand, upon which sat a fly. Thomas slapped the fly with his other hand, leaving a smear. Then the image zoomed back out.

Hint. We're the fly.

Thomas laughed hysterically.

Again Dee was floating in space, the immense craft pulling along side. A tendril stretched out toward him, coming closer and closer. The moment it touched the hull, Dee saw a bright flash of light, and felt data sweeping out of him.

#

"Dee, what's happening?" said Anne, frantic.

No response.

She opened the cubicle door. Dee's body convulsed.

"Don't touch the umbilical!" said Rob. "I'm going to shut down the core. He'll know how to get out!" He moved to the other side of the room and started tapping away on a keypad.

#

Dee felt data flow from the ship at unbelievable speed, a vortex of information flowing into the alien tendril. He then started to pull away, watching the scene from afar. He could now see Thomas shutting down every system. He could feel Thomas's self being pulled into the vortex. Then Dee was yanked away, as if he was on the end of a taut rubber band, leaving Thomas and the immense alien craft behind.

Silence.

Blackness.

Nothing.

#

Anne watched Dee regain consciousness. His eyes opened, focused on nothing, then finally Anne.

"What happened? Are you alright?"

"Did you reset the core?" mumbled Dee.

"Yes," Rob said. "We reset the core."

Dee reached up and snapped the umbilical off his head. Tears welled in his eyes. "Thomas was in there. He was in there."

"Impossible!" said Rob. "He couldn't possibly have --"

"He was in there!" yelled Dee. "It was him. He called me by name, he ... he wasn't right, but it was him."

"And resetting the core ..." said Anne.

"Killed him," said Dee. "He's gone."

He hugged Anne. Anne, confused and scared, hugged him back. Dee started and broke the hug.

"Rob, get Earth online immediately. Anne, help me get back to my ship."

#

Dee liked the way Anne felt against him as they moved, and for the first time in a long time, he was reluctant to jack in. But they needed to get back, and he needed to contact Earth.

"What's happening, Dee?" said Anne.

"Thomas made physical contact with an alien ship," he said. "A ship from God knows where, and it was mind-bogglingly immense. It didn't show up on Thomas's sensors. He didn't even notice it until it blocked enough stars from his sight."

They reached the cubicle, and Dee held Anne tight for a moment before climbing in. They looked at each other without speaking as Dee closed the door.

After jacking in, Dee searched sensors and cameras until he satisfied himself that the ship was not hovering nearby.

"Incoming message from Earth," Dee said. "There are military ships en route. Four days out. And they are asking for a full explanation."

Rob entered the engine room. "How about giving us one, too?" he asked.

Dee described and recorded what he experienced to Anne and Rob in detail. After sending the recording to Earth, he scanned another time.

"I can't see the thing around here anywhere," said Dee.

"First contact," said Rob. "I always thought it would come."

"They'll know quite a bit about us if they figure out how to read the data," said Dee. "But somehow, I don't think that will be a big problem for them. Wish we knew something helpful about them."

After a few moments of silence, Rob said, "I'll go secure the engines over there. We can probably start making for home, meet those ships on the way."

Anne watched Rob leave, and placed a hand on Dee's cubicle. She looked around until she found a camera, then looked right at it. "Let's talk, Dee."

"Are you sure you want to talk to a flying hunk of metal?" he asked while scanning again.

Anne could sense his smile. "Yeah. I'm sure."

"Good." He completed another scan. Nothing. "Let's talk. You and me."


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