Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Issue 48
Stories
Breeding True
by Orson Scott Card
Like a Thief in the Night
by Alethea Kontis
The Curie Priest
by Chris Phillips
The Price of Love
by Dantzel Cherry
For the Bible Tells Me So
by Edmund R. Schubert
Life With Slug
by Paul Eckheart
IGMS Audio
Life With Slug by Paul Eckheart
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Starsong
by Aliette de Bodard

Writing Fantasy

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

For the Bible Tells Me So
or
Angels, Rapists, and Other Drunken Heroes
    by Edmund R. Schubert

For the Bible Tells Me So
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

"Where did you find him?" asked a gravelly-voiced blond man in a lab coat as they wheeled me into the generation-ship Voyager's primitive-looking med center.

"Area 451," replied one of the three jumpsuit-clad men who'd been standing over me when I first regained consciousness. All three wore identical orange-sleeved and brown-bodied jumpsuits.

"451? I thought that space had been cleared out years ago."

"So did everyone else, brother. Guess they were gonged off," said jumpsuit guy number two, an albino. "We were scavenging spare parts. Found this guy in a cryo-pod shoved into one corner. He was surrounded by a few dozen non-functioning pods, but his was hardwired right into the bulkhead. Must have happened right after The Wrecking. Don't know how they did it without losing him, but there he was. It's some kind of miracle, praise God."

"Save the 'miracle' talk for someone who buys that bullshit," the labcoat blond said sharply.

The third guy in a jumpsuit turned out to be a woman. Her feminine voice contrasted starkly with her short black hair, her grime-covered face, and her unnaturally, almost inhumanly prominent chin and lower lip.

"Think I could get on the litht to breed with him, doc?" she said, her high-pitched lisp cutting through the fuzz wrapped around my brain. If I wasn't completely awake before she started, I was by the time she finished. Her words -- their meaning -- ignited a flame of panic to go along with the nausea that swept through my body. Have sex with a woman? If there had been any food left in my stomach, it would have been strewn across the floor like a bowl of frog leg soup.

"I'll have to check the computer's gene-pool program," the doc answered. "Maybe in a year. Consider yourself lucky you found a guy. If you'd found a woman, the boys would probably never've had a chance to spread their genetic material around."

"A year?" the woman cried, wiping her brow with a faded orange sleeve. "Come on, doc, can't you work me in any thooner? I'm the one who notithed his cryo-pod was thtill working, you know."

"No promises," the doc said. "I'll see what I can do." He transferred the IV bag from a metal rod overhanging the gurney to a higher one protruding from the wall. Then he shooed the three jumpsuits out the door.

"Scoot," he said, even as they tried to hover and gawk. "I've got tests to run. It's going to be a while before anyone gets to bed him down."

My mind reeled, trying to process what was going on around me. This gen-ship was a mess. The people were a mess. But worst of all, the things they were talking about were appalling. I was a decent, God-fearing man, yet the first thing they wanted to do after waking me was figure out how many women I could have sex with and who got to have me first.

I tried to think of a way to voice my indignation -- not that anyone had asked my opinion, or that I'd even tried speaking yet -- when the doctor jabbed a hypodermic into my thigh. "I know this is going to sound counterintuitive," he said. "But you need to go back to sleep. Those three were well-intentioned, but they didn't follow protocol when they pulled you out of that pod. If we don't wake you correctly, it's going to screw up your metabolism. We'll talk again in a few hours."

Before I could say a word, my eyelids became unbearably heavy. I think I was unconsciousness before they even finished closing . . .

When I woke again, I found myself surrounded by three new people and the doctor again. This batch was better dressed than the last, but seemed no less intent on hovering and gawking. Apparently I was quite the novelty.

One of them, an albino woman, stepped forward and began speaking. I'd never before seen an albino in person; now I'd seen two in the same day.

"Mr. Fallgood," she said. "I'm sure you -- " She shot her unnaturally pale blue eyes down to the tablet in her hands, the standard five-by-seven sheet of clear, hard glastic. It struck me as somewhat odd that in the 250-year transit from Earth to Kepler 186f, the technology hadn't changed, but before I could ask about it, the albino woman started over. "You are Jeremy Fallgood, yes? That's what it says on the crystal the techs pulled from your cryo-pod, but given the unusual location where you were found, maybe we shouldn't make assumptions. Are you Mr. Jeremy Fallgood, born October 10, 2669, in New Detroit, Ontario, Canada?"

I nodded, still unsure of my voice. Hearing this woman refer to me as Jeremy made me think of my husband, Michael. I coughed a little, then squeaked, 'Please, call me Jerry." The effort of speaking scratched my throat.

"Excellent," she said. "I'd hate to start with bad information. As I was about to say, I'm sure you have a lot of questions. We do, too."

It made no sense. After not using my voice for God knows how long, why would such a tiny effort be painful? Regardless, I wasn't about to test it again. I nodded.

The albino woman smiled. "I'm sorry. I forgot how uncomfortable speaking can be after hibernation. Your body didn't produce any saliva during that time, but I promise, it will come. It's been such a long time since anyone found a survivor of The Wrecking that I'd all but forgotten some of the problems you have."

Found a survivor? The Wrecking? Clearly things were bad, but what kind of disaster had I woken to?

The concern on my face must have been evident because she handed me her tablet, saying, "Use this to write your questions. But first give me a moment to explain what's going on."

I punched PLEASE DO into the image of a keyboard that materialized when I thought about typing. The tablet responded to commands as they passed through my mind, just as always. The tech was identical. I don't know why, but that troubled me.

A second woman, broad-faced with a hint of Asian in her ancestry, stepped up next to the albino, inserting herself into the conversation. "My name is Mary Ellen Trumbul," she said impatiently. "My pale colleague here is Tina Gareth, and the two gentlemen over there are Roy Markham and Dr. Chip Jones. Collectively we are the greeting committee for what is left of the crew of Voyager. In a nutshell, what was supposed to be a 250-year, multi-generation journey to a planet known as Kepler 186f has become a voyage of the damned, with no real end in sight, and not much hope of survival. Welcome to our party."

I looked at the tablet in my hands, wanting to ask so many questions. The display swirled randomly, mirroring the chaos of my thoughts. If this device sought something in my mind to work with, it would have to wait in line; I had no idea where to begin. Fortunately the doc stepped in.

"Nothing quite like foreplay, is there?" he said, smiling. "Please forgive Mary Ellen's bluntness. Still, she has a point: there's no way to say and have it sound good, so we may as well say it straight. Maybe they solved their problems back on Earth, maybe they didn't. We don't know because we lost contact with them a long time ago. Voyager was always intended to be a one-way ticket someplace else -- Earth's insurance policy when it became obvious the planet was unable to support human life for much longer. Overpopulation, food shortages, water shortages, air and soil toxicity levels off the charts. We had to get a bunch of people off-planet, quick. I suspect that's why you entered the lottery in the first place.

"What you probably don't know is this: On its way out of the Solar System the Voyager was scheduled to stop in the Oort Cloud to collect ice for water and methane. We're not sure exactly what happened because the damage was so extensive, but it looks like multiple collisions occurred in the Cloud with some pretty massive ice comets. From there it was a deep-space reenactment of the Titanic that we called The Wrecking. Power failed throughout much of the ship. Few in hibernation survived. Going back to Earth was never an option, so we've limped along ever since, making do with what we have. Things have gotten tight in every way imaginable over the last 800 years, including genetically."

I could barely contain my astonishment. 800 YEARS???????

Doc nodded.

"That's where you come in," said the albino woman, Tina. She clasped her hands as if she were about to pray. I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn't thought to do so myself.

"Your contribution to Voyager's genetic diversity is vital to our survival," she said. "Your DNA is new, different, and we need you to spread it as widely and as quickly as possible. So for you, it literally will be a party."

"More like an orgy," said Roy Markham with feigned disapproval and a cheesy grin. He was an older gentleman with smoke-gray hair that contrasted attractively with his hot-cocoa skin. "Scientifically speaking we could do it through artificial insemination, but long ago we realized there were a lot more benefits to personal interaction, and now it's ingrained in our culture. Who sleeps with who has a lot of status associated with it."

"You're just jealous because he's going to sleep with everybody and be king of the ship," Doc Jones chided. He turned back to me and said with surprising earnestness, "Jokes aside, we really do need your help. The ship's overall F-values are routinely above .12, sometimes spiking as high as .17, and we're seeing more and more cases of hemophilia, deformities, and still-births. Your genes are going to help us forestall a genetic mutational meltdown."

I shook my head vigorously, not liking the direction this conversation was heading. I stabbed one finger at a time onto the onscreen keys: NOT THAT WAY.

I held the tablet up for all to see. Then I drew it back to my chest and typed one more word.

CHRISTIAN!

Doc Jones rolled his eyes and turned on his heel. The other three joined him in a conversation so animated it was impossible to follow. Raised voices spoke over each other and hands exploded repeatedly into the air like five-fingered fireworks. I caught words and phrases like "One of those elated people . . ." and ". . . that idea was gonged off almost a thousand years ago . . .: One of the women said something like "Make him do it anyway . . .," but besides that last comment, none of it made any sense; I had no context.

While they talked, I typed on the tablet.

CAN'T YOU DO IT WITH CLONING, THE WAY GOD INTENDED?

I held the tablet aloft, but they were so engrossed in their conversation they didn't notice me. I banged my hand against the metal bars of the gurney. It hurt, but it got their attention.

Roy noticed first. He walked over, shaking his head as he read what I'd typed.

"You're one of those elateds, aren't you? Part of that cult that bought into the government's bizarre reinterpretation of scripture when Earth's population got out of control."

Cult? I wasn't in any cult. Where I came from, the fanatics who demanded the right to have intergender sex were the cult -- a small but noisy minority who insisted they had the right to breed outside of society's accepted limits, regardless of the consequences. And I had no idea what he meant by "elated." That word must not have meant what it once did, because elated was the last word I'd use to describe my mood right now.

I started typing again, frustrated with the futility of conversing this way. I prayed for strength, even as I searched for my voice.

Surprisingly, my throat suddenly stopped hurting. It was as if God had said, Speak, my child.

For the first time since being reawakened, I felt His loving hand on me.

"The government had nothing to do with it," I said, feeling invigorated. "The priests finally understood what certain passages of scripture meant. John 13:34-35 says: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

"Jesus traveled with men; he spread his gospel with men. We're meant to be together, just like women are meant to be together." I felt foolish explaining something so obvious to them, but they seemed to have lost the truth. "Cloning made it feasible. We could finally procreate without intergender sex, enabling us to embrace Jesus' commandments. It's mankind's ultimate destiny; the perfect hybrid of science and religion."

The doctor stalked over, fiercely gripping the bars of my gurney. I don't know where the friendly doctor went, but he had vanished, replaced by an angry Mr. Hyde on the verge of losing control. Exasperation dripped from every gravel-covered word.

"It was the government's way of manipulating the world's population, you moron. During Old Testament-times they used the Bible to tell people not to eat pork and shellfish because pork and shellfish carried germs that made them sick. God had nothing to do with it; it was the best way to influence people. This 'Biblical cloning' business was the same thing. By finding choice verses of scripture they could twist to their purposes, they could control population growth and -- "

His sacrilege offended me. What's worse, he was wrong.

"There aren't just one or two verses," I said. "The Bible is rife with scripture telling us how we are meant to live and to love." I grew increasingly animated. I couldn't help it; if you challenge my faith, you challenge who I am. "Romans 12:9-10. 'Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor. . .' Don't you see? Preference to brotherly love. I could quote countless verses. I won't abandon my principles!"

Romans 12:9-10 was my husband, Michael's, favorite verse. . . .cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. . . It was like he'd been preparing me for this moment from the very beginning. Michael stood with God now, one of His angels, and together they would guide me.

"Oh yes," the doctor barked. "Please, quote as much scripture as possible. That never fails to fix things. In fact, have you got any verses about stupidity? Because we could use some help in that department, too. The government used scripture because this wasn't something they could legislate. It had to go deeper than that. Well apparently it went so deep in you that it skipped right past your brain."

"What the doctor means to say is that we don't have the ability to do cloning anymore," Roy said, taking the doctor by the arm and creating a safe space between us. "Any technology that would have allowed us to manipulate human genes has long since been lost. Good old fashioned sex is all that remains. Men and women did that in the Bible, too, didn't they? I seem to recall a few verses that mention it."

Dr. Jones gestured to me, though I'm not sure who he intended his comments for. "Of all the people to survive," he barked, "we had to end up with a damned elated Bible-thumper."

The sort-of-Asian woman -- Mary Helen, I think her name was -- brought some sanity back to the med center.

"I think we need to take a break," she said. "We're not going to solve anything with tensions running this high. Doctor Jones, go write yourself a prescription for a chill pill. Mr. Fallgood, you need to think about what we've told you. With all due respect to your religious principles and your interpretation of scripture, we need your help. Plain and simple: this may be the end of the human race we're talking about."

I dreamt of Earth, hanging in space. The orb, the marble, the planet that gave us life. In my dream we were in the process of leaving it; far out, far away, but not so far that I couldn't still see the distinctive white whirl of clouds draped over the planet's surface.

Except this wasn't possible. I'd been placed in cryo before Voyager lifted off. I should have no memories of leaving Earth. I should have no --

Something slammed into the ship. It shook, and shook again, and I looked up and to the left, saw an iceberg -- a literal iceberg -- at the edge of my view. It loomed, pointy and slim at the top, rounded and immense at the bottom, floating against a background of star-freckled space. The ship rumbled again from another impact and when my vision cleared now there were dozens of icebergs, more than I could count; filling my field of view.

There came another impact, another rumble, another --

My eyes sprang open; my heart pounded inside my ribcage.

Above me a dark silhouette in human form.

"Michael?" I asked hopefully.

"Wake up, Mr. Fallgood," the silhouette said.

My head cleared. No, not Michael . . .

I recognized the med-center even as the memory of the dream melted away to be replaced with the reality of someone shaking me; waking me.

"Mr. Fallgood," the silhouette repeated. "You need to rise, brother. You need to follow me. Quickly."

Random specks of light emanated from the medical apparatus; otherwise it was dark.

"Why?" I said. "What's going on?"

I wasn't going anywhere with someone I didn't know, and this was clearly no official visit.

"I want to introduce you to some people, folks I think you'll like more than that science-worshipping doctor. He hated you from the moment he found out what you believed. I want you to meet some folks who'll treat you better."

"There are Christians on this ship?"

"We have to hide in order to worship. They won't let us do it openly."

That was always the church's finest hour: when it met and worshipped and grew in secret, persecuted yet persevering. From 2nd century Rome to 20th century China, the church always thrived when giving strength to the oppressed.

"Take me to them," I said.

My mysterious benefactor lowered the rail on one side of the gurney and I sat up, swinging my legs over the edge. I scooted my rear forward, placed my feet on the floor, and promptly collapsed in an ignominious heap.

"You're still weak from cryo," the silhouette said, bending to help me. It was then, with his face close, that I recognized him. The albino in the orange-sleeved jumpsuit; part of the crew who found me.

"The electronic stimulations they run through you when you're in hibernation are barely enough to prevent total muscular atrophy. It'll be a while yet before you're walking on your own."

He knelt beside me, pulling my arm around his neck and standing us both upright. "You think you can walk if you lean on me?" he asked.

I wondered for a moment why The Lord hadn't provided me with the strength to walk, like He'd earlier given me the ability to speak. Then I realized He didn't need to; He'd provided me with the albino.

Treasure all the gifts He gives you. That's what Michael always said.

"Happily," I replied.

The church group met in a large, half-lit room, which seemed appropriate, considering the oppression and abuse that my albino friend told me about. I had assumed ill-treatment based on the doctor's reaction when he heard me claim my Christianity, but the tales Oliver had told were heartrending: Christians treated as slaves, forced to do the most menial tasks while others lived in relative comfort; told when and who to breed with, and severely punished if they did otherwise.

I was trying my best to think about anything besides that last detail when Oliver led me into a room full of men and women with smudge-covered faces, all wearing the same style jumpsuit: brown body and legs, faded orange sleeves; everything frayed and worn.

The entire room reeked to the point of being overwhelming, a vivid contrast to the sterile med-center. Oliver helped me take a seat in a plastic folding chair facing the rest of the room, while everyone else faced me in rows, some in plastic chairs, everyone else cross-legged on the floor.

"Brothers and sisters in Christ," began Oliver. "Let us bow our heads together in prayer.

"Heavenly Father, we gather tonight in Your Son's holy name to thank You for the miracle of Jeremy Fallgood; for allowing him to survive The Wrecking so that he could bring everyone on the Voyager the truth of your Word, so that we may stand up to the Brahis and Satis above us, and aid the Chucks beneath us."

"Amen!" rang every voice in the room.

It was encouraging to see so many Christians united in prayer. Oliver had mentioned this was one congregation among several, but that they couldn't meet in larger groups for fear of being shut down. Yet right now everyone in the room exuded a palpable excitement. I looked around at a shadowy pool of smiling faces, about thirty of them, packed tightly. I even spotted a familiar face: the short-haired, long-chinned, lisping woman who'd found me. She smiled and nodded when she saw I'd recognized her -- an awkward smile given the extreme pronouncement of her chin and lower lip.

She and my albino friend weren't the only ones in the room with physical abnormalities. Truth be told, the "normal" looking ones were the exception.

Oliver made settling gestures with his hands. "Okay, I know you're eager to hear from the walking miracle himself, so let's get to it. Tonight I am pleased to introduce to you the man who survived 800 years of cryo-sleep under the most miraculous circumstances. The man who told those Brahis that he was a Christian and wasn't going to play their games. The man who told that Sati doctor what he could do with his computerized gene-pool program. I give you . . . Jeremy Fallgood!"

The room burst into applause and shouts of "Halleluiah."

I, however, was at a complete loss. Oliver hadn't said anything about me speaking. He said he would introduce me to some folks, that's all. I was no public speaker. That was . . .

that . . .

That was Michael's forte.

No.

No, damn it. I rejected that. It had only been one day, but I was tired of feeling sorry for myself. Done with it. Michael was gone and I had to learn to live with it.

"Um . . . Thank you . . . Oliver. For that introduction." I leaned forward in my chair, determined to do this well. "And thanks to all of you . . . brothers and sisters. You're too kind." I paused, nodding to the crowd, still trying to think what to say. "I don't mind sharing my faith with you. In fact, I'm happy to, though I don't know how much encouragement I can offer."

Cries of "No," and "Testify, brother," arose. I tamped it down.

"Seriously. There's so much I don't understand. I didn't understand half of what Oliver said when he introduced me. Why are you oppressed? Who or what are Brahis and Satis? For that matter, how did I end up here? Does Dr. Jones have any idea where . . ."

A chorus of boos sprang up at the mention of the doctor's name. Clearly not a popular figure.

"The Brahith and Thatith are --" began the long-chinned woman. She cut herself short, then tried again, "You have to imagine thingth here ath a thort of cathte thythtem, like a --"

"I'm sorry," I said. "Can you . . .?" I felt guilty interrupting but I literally couldn't understand her. "Imagine what like a what?"

A younger woman with short-cropped blonde hair -- I realized everyone in the room, male and female, had short-cropped hair -- rose from the floor.

"Melba said, you have to think of it like a caste system," she began. "It's gonged off to call it that publically, but that's what it is. The Brahis are the politicians; they make all the rules, all the decisions. The Satis are mainly scientists and engineers -- the next step down -- except that half the time they're the ones telling the Brahis what to tell us to do."

"Yeah," called out a voice from the floor, "Like flush their shit out an airlock when the plumbing breaks down."

The young woman ignored the interruption. "We're Madris: the worker bees, the ones who get the nasty jobs the Brahis and Satis don't want to sully their hands with. And the Chucks -- well, they're halfway to the other side. They don't do much of anything because they're such a sickly lot. The caste distinctions are set according to our personal F-value --" she paused, adding bitterly, "-- as if our F-value correlated to our value as human beings."

I raised a hand, stopping her. "That's the second time I've heard that term. What's it mean?"

"It's an indicator of how much genetic overlap a person has," said Oliver. "If your parents were brother and sister, you'd have an F-value of .25, because exactly 25% of your genetic material is duplicated. The Chucks' F-values are even higher than that. They're a pretty diseased, malformed lot." He indicated the pointy-chinned woman. "Melba there -- she's a .248. Barely qualifies as a Madri."

The young blonde woman broke back in. "And none of the other castes will even touch a Chuck. If they get cared for at all, it's by us. It's not one of our official duties, but if we don't do it, no one will."

"Because we're Christians!" called yet another voice from the back of the room. "We don't abandon people."

"Amen!" shouted the rest of the room.

"Amen," I repeated, my head bobbing with approval. Now I understood why the people in the med-center got so excited about bedding me with half the people on the ship. The undertone of desperation they showed in that first conversation. But I also found myself respecting these dirty, jumpsuit-wearing men and women so much more. They may have been persecuted -- the absolute dregs of Voyager's society -- but they were the ones who were true to Christ's message. They understood His purpose when He opposed the Pharisees and associated with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors.

I rose unsteadily to my feet. It required every ounce of strength I had, but I felt inspired by these true Christians. By their commitment to caring for the downtrodden even when they were downtrodden themselves.

"Brothers and sisters," I said, raising both hands. "Blessings on you all. As it says in Romans 12:9-10: 'Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.' You have embodied the essence of that verse better than anyone I've ever met, demonstrating true Christian love. That Bible verse was my husband's favorite verse, and every time it came up he always said --"

"Wait a minute," said the young blonde woman. "Did you say 'husband?' But you're a man."

"Of course," I answered. "Married for eighteen years. We actually got the lottery results about Voyager on our eighteenth anniversary --"

I had to stop there; I suddenly couldn't speak or breathe.

I hadn't thought about it until that very second, but the moment those words slipped through my lips, they came boomeranging back, hitting me between the eyes like the rock David had slung at Goliath. And with that painful blow, memories flooded my mind, overwhelming me, shutting out the room, the group, and everything else. That day -- our anniversary -- it should have been the happiest of my life.

But on our eighteenth anniversary, on that very day, Michael had come into our bedroom and woken me. At first I thought he wanted anniversary sex, but he'd kissed me so gently, so tenderly, telling me I'd won the lottery for Voyager. He held my face between his hands, and smiled, and cried.

And somehow he convinced me to get on that ship without him.

Had he really been that convincing? Or had I merely allowed it? Because I wanted to live . . .

A tidal wave of tears welled behind my eyes.

No. I would never do that to Michael; would I? Abandon him like that?

Then why did I feel the weight of . . . of . . .? Guilt? Pressing on my chest like a tombstone?

Because I had been afraid. Because I had let him convince me.

I had held the guilt at bay as long as I possibly could, and I had found my limit. Right here. I blinked, trying to hold back the tears.

Yet even as I sought to get control of my eyes, my ears heard something they could barely comprehend, much less believe. A cacophony of voices, protesting, disparaging; reviling. It was the med-center all over again, except this time I had context. This time their outrage was Biblical. "Abomination!" "Sinner!" "False prophet!"

The kick in the teeth was the repeated shouts of "Leviticus 18:22!" That verse was shouted loudly and often, spreading like a living organism through the room, an organism that seemed to grow darker and more dangerous by the moment. "Leviticus 18:22!"

Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with woman kind: it is an abomination.

I collapsed into my chair, my legs weakened by the verbal assault. Yet even then, I protested. "But that's the Old Testament," I cried. "It was replaced by His New Commandments. Men are supposed to love men, and women are supposed to love women. 1 John 4:21. 'For the one who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.'"

Even as I spoke, I made eye contact with Oliver, whose ultra-pale-blue eyes flashed with recognition at the verse I quoted.

"Wait a minute!" he said, calling for quiet, for calm. "Everybody wait a damn minute!"

Order was restored, albeit marginally. He turned his attention to me. "Are you saying that verse endorses homosexuality?"

The room burst out again, but Oliver wouldn't let the voices run rampant.

"Everybody SHUT UP!" he bellowed, his eyes looking at me, demanding answers.

"I'm saying it reveals His ultimate plan for us. The marriage of science and religion -- cloning. We could finally love each other the way God intended."

From the quasi-darkness someone shouted, "That's a filthy lie!"

The previously charming low lighting had morphed into a convenient hiding place for anger and resentment and I suddenly wished I could see better.

"Hold on," said Oliver, intrigued. But he was shouted down as the room scuffled to its feet. "Liar!" "Sinner!" "Scum!"

They morphed from congregation to mob in a nanosecond, pressing forward -- a mass of brown and orange jumpsuits intent on mayhem, violence, or worse. Never in my life had I witnessed such hatred. Their eyes burned like volcanoes and I was the city of Pompeii.

And just as the lava looked as if it were about to flow in my direction, in through the door burst a horde of uniformed men and women.

Their uniforms were navy blue, somewhat faded, but cleaner than the frayed brown and orange jumpsuits. And in the hands of each uniformed individual was a two-foot metal rod that sparked with orange and yellow charges of electricity -- charges that looked like tropical butterflies but kicked like mules when they swung them against the scattering congregants. Bodies fell before they could reach the exits, and seemingly before it began, it was over.

People lay on the floor, moaning, writhing, or plain unconscious; navy blue uniforms looming over them, on the lookout for trouble. One of the few congregants still conscious glared at me from her position on her stomach, a blue-uniformed knee crushing down in the middle of her back.

And into the middle of this artless scene strolled Dr. Chip Jones.

"Had enough Christianity for one night, Mr. Fallgood?"

I had never felt so relieved to hear a gravel voice in all my life.

Somewhat smugly, the doctor added, "I waited in that hall forever, wondering when you'd finally get to the good stuff."

I gazed at him in uncomprehending silence, still on the verge of tears. Despite the chaos, the memory of Michael haunted me. My betrayal of him.

Dr. Jones gestured to the woman lying face-first on the floor, the one who'd glared at me so hatefully. "Tell him," he ordered. "Tell him what being a Christian means to you."

The woman's eyes locked onto the doctor with even more venom than she had for me; stubbornly silent.

The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Do you need convincing?" he said. One of the guards raised his electric bat above her. "Tell him what it means to you to be a Christian. Tell him what you believe."

"I believe in the Bible. The Word of God."

She knew the answer Dr. Jones wanted. She also despised him -- more than she did me, and she wasn't interested in cooperating.

The doctor stepped toward her. Something about his manner was suddenly far more frightening than the electric weapon the guard wielded.

"Tell him!"

"The Bible talks about being brothers and sisters in Christ," snarled the woman. "It talks about brotherhood and sisterhood more than anything else in the New Testament. And every Madri on this ship is genetically closer than most biological brothers or sisters. Therefore it stands to reason that we are the true siblings of Christ. We have the right to breed with anyone we want, any time we want. That includes our biological siblings. God spits on your computer's gene-pool program, Dr. Jones." She spit when she said those words. "We are the Chosen People; brothers and sisters in both flesh and in spirit. The Bible tells us so."

"Breed with your siblings?" I said, stunned. "What happened to helping people? What happened to taking care of those who can't care for themselves?"

She looked at me incredulously, as if the answer were so obvious it pained her to speak it out loud.

"We can't do both?"

I sat in my prison cell, leaning against the glastic wall.

"Alice got out of Wonderland," I said. "Dorothy met the Wizard of Oz and then returned to Kansas. Frodo Baggins defeated Sauron and returned to the Shire. Even Sheva Rath, who explored twelve parallel universes in the Cycle of Rath -- even Sheva got to go home again." I gazed vacantly across the cell the guards had me thrown in. "But I'll never see Earth again. It's the 36th century and I've lost my husband and the better part of a millennium. And I'm going to be stuck in this hell-hole for the rest of my life."

Oliver stood and walked to the edge of the adjacent cell, splaying the fingers of one hand against the glastic wall in a gesture of support.

"No worries," he said. "Your crystal-pure genetics will have you out in an hour or two, tops. They're just making a point."

Oliver didn't get it. "I'm not talking about this two-bit jail cell. I'm talking about Voyager. I've been out of cryo less than twelve hours and I already know I'm going to die here. I'm never going to see my family or friends again. Never going to feel sunlight on my face."

"Most likely not," scratched the doctor's voice from a speaker up above.

I jumped in my skin, which hurt my already aching body.

Oliver flicked both ghost-hands dismissively. "Pay him no mind. That's just the doc's way of letting us know he's eavesdropping through the security feed while resting comfortably in his quarters."

Oliver paused. "Have you really felt the sun on your face?"

I looked at him: so pale, so wan. He was lucky to never have lived under the sun; the skin-cancer issues alone . . .

But to have lived your entire life and never once felt the warmth of the sun? Skin cancer or no, I couldn't conceive of an existence.

"Forget that," he said. "What I really want to know, Jeremy, is this: Were you actually married to another man?"

I'd been on edge from the moment they put me in this cell, but I was overwhelmed, out of mental and emotional resources. "That's the second time you've called me that!" I shouted. "My name is Jerry. Only Michael calls me Jeremy, and you're not Michael!"

The door to my cell made a double-clicking noise and popped open.

"There you go," said Oliver. "Told you you'd be out in no time."

The moment Oliver spoke, the doctor was on the intercom to correct him.

"No," said Dr. Jones. "He's not going anywhere."

A group of guards came around the corner. They were wheeling several pieces of medical equipment.

The doctor continued. "We're converting your cell into a hospital suite, Mr. Fallgood. Can't afford to have you going on any more unauthorized adventures. These men will tend to you in my absence, and when you're feeling better we'll resume that conversation we started in the med center. Because one way or the other, you will be making a contribution to keep mankind -- and womankind -- alive and kicking for a few more generations. The only question is how willingly you'll do it."

How willingly. That was funny -- as if I had a buffet of choices before me. The only thing on this ship that looked like a buffet was the electric-wire spaghetti hanging from every wall and juncture, and, sadly, right now my choices were even less appealing.

Over the course of the next week I grew stronger and more bored each day. The only thing that kept me sane through the physical therapy was the fact that they left Oliver in his cell, too. He'd grown a beard while we were there -- twice as fast as Michael ever did, yet somehow just as thin and wispy. Despite it being white, it made him look more than a little like my dearly departed Michael.

I said, "We're limping through space in a broken-down bucket of bolts, in a situation that puts a whole new spin on the term 'generation ship.' We're cut off from the rest of humanity and the only thing I can say with certainty is I'm going to die here."

Lord, it sounded worse out loud than it did in my head. I needed a distraction.

"Don't you have something amusing or entertaining? A story about hostile aliens who tried to force their way onboard Voyager? Or a wormhole you thought you could fly through to shorten the trip, but ended up going back in time? I could use something like that right now. Some good old-fashioned escapism."

"I can do that," said Dr. Jones. But his voice didn't come from the speaker up above like it had all week. It came from down the hall. The man was never where you thought he was going to be.

"You can do what?" I asked.

"Tell you a different story."

"Come to gloat in person?" said Oliver.

"It's been thirty-seven years since we last found anyone alive in a cryo-pod," the doctor replied. "Next to the life-support system, his genetic material is the most important thing on the entire ship."

"Don't I feel special," I said. "Stop or I'll blush."

The doctor pulled a small device from his pocket and pushed a button. Our cell doors opened with a hollow-sounding kthunk.

"Walk with me, gentlemen," he said.

Surprised to be included, Oliver moved quickly lest the doctor change his mind. As we walked three abreast down the detention center's hall, Oliver waved to the guards. I couldn't tell if it was intended as a friendly gesture or a provocative one.

"So," began the doctor. "Your requested tale opens in a post-apocalyptic wasteland: a place scourged of whatever human life it once held. The entire region has been devastated by a series of blasts -- firebombs, atomic, biological; whatever devastation you care to name."

"Where are we headed?" asked Oliver.

"You'll know once we get closer," the doctor replied, hands clasped behind his back.

The hallways all looked alike to me -- panels hanging open everywhere, wiring splayed, half the overhead lights burned out.

"Through this blasted setting the last three survivors struggle onward, a father and his two daughters. They've worked their way through a city where an EMP bomb was detonated, which destroyed anything technological but left all the buildings and roads, all of the infrastructure, undamaged."

We rounded a corner and found ourselves in a hallway crammed with crates of electronic junk. The light at the end of the hall flickered erratically.

"We're headed for Area 451," Oliver realized aloud.

"The father wants to stay in the city," continued Dr. Jones, ignoring him. "But both daughters are creeped out by the ghost town, so they push on, heading into the surrounding mountains where they stumble across a rocket ship -- a rocket that's stocked and ready to go. It's a God-damn miracle."

Oliver and I simultaneously said, "Don't blaspheme."

The doctor grinned. "Begging your pardon."

The story had a familiar ring but I couldn't place it.

We halted outside one of the closed doors and Oliver picked up a trio of headlamps, putting one on and distributing the other two.

We walked through a doorway -- and into darkness. Oliver seemed to know where the doctor wanted to go and took point. Good thing, because the headlamps barely scratched the surface of the blackness that owned the room.

"There's a problem, though," Dr. Jones continued. "There's tension between the father and his daughters. You see, right before the apocalypse, two men had come into the town where they lived, important representatives from the government. And because the father knew the city to be a dangerous place he went out to meet them and offered them a place to stay. But when they got home, behind them came an angry mob who wanted to rape the men."

"This is the story of Lot," Oliver said, even as I recognized it. "The story of Sodom and Gomorrah."

"No, it's not," said the doctor. "You think I've read your silly little book?"

"It certainly is," I replied.

"Then tell me the rest."

I looked up and around me. This was no ordinary storeroom; it was a warehouse-sized space, desolate in some areas, packed with random stuff in others. But you could only see one speck of it at a time -- just what appeared in the muddy yellow grapefruit-colored dot produced by the headlamp. It was like walking around with a peephole strapped to your eye.

I had to hope Oliver and the doctor knew where they were going because I was lost. So I focused on Dr. Jones' story. "The father offered his virgin daughters to the mob in place of your so-called government men -- who were angels, by the way. He was prepared to let them rape his daughters instead. But the angels saved them and warned them about the coming apocalypse. Told them to flee town at once. On their way, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt. That's the most famous part of the story."

"Yes," the doctor said. "I've always admired your God for punishing Lot's wife for the unforgivable sin of looking over her shoulder."

"It's not our place to question God's orders," I replied.

"How convenient. So what happened in the rocket ship?"

"It was a cave," said Oliver. "Not a rocket ship."

"Yes, well," the doctor chuckled. "I thought a modern-day parable would be appropriate."

"A parable?"

"Parables were Jesus' favorite teaching tool. If you tell people things directly, their defenses go up. But if you come at them sideways. . ."

Oliver said sharply, "You claimed you hadn't read our 'silly little book.'"

"No, I asked if you thought I had read it. Thirty percent of the population of this ship believes everything that damn book tells them. I'd be an idiot not to familiarize myself with it. You think I'm an idiot?"

"Yes," Oliver said. "But not because of that."

I realized we'd stopped walking. Had, in fact, some time ago. But I was so engrossed in the conversation that I'd lost track of everything else.

Dr. Jones prompted, "So what happened? On the rocket ship?"

Oliver said, "It's one of the core teachings of Christianity." He glanced at me, adding, "Well, Christianity as I know it."

"So . . .?"

"So in this cave they find some wine. The daughters decide that since everyone else is dead, the pragmatic thing to do is get their father drunk and use him to get themselves pregnant. The story makes it clear that sex with your relatives isn't a sin. The incestuous bloodline that came from that coupling is a key part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, so how can it be seen as anything but sacred?"

The doctor looked at me and gestured to Oliver. "You should know that not all Madris share his views. Many aren't even Christians. The guards I brought with me that night I saved you, for instance."

"Most of them are Christian," Oliver said, not bothering to hide his satisfaction. "They just know how to hide it from you."

"Yes, well . . ."

"In fact, some of your high and mighty Satis are Christians, too."

"Let me guess: Tina Gareth?"

"That albino freak? Heaven forbid."

Oliver and Dr. Jones laughed. It was a strange sight, as much as they disliked each other.

"You're wrong, you know," the doctor said. "That story is a warning about the perils of disobeying God. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; Lot's wife -- they disobeyed God and felt his wrath. He's not a nice God."

"I always appreciated the story of Sodom and Gomorrah for its poetic justice," I said. "A father offers up his own daughters for rape and ends up getting raped by them. It's about justice. It's about doing whatever is necessary to survive."

Oliver and the doctor stared at me, mute.

"So what are we here for," I asked, afraid that waiting another minute would bring another interpretation.

"We're here so I can see this miraculous cryo-pod of yours," the doctor replied, content to change the subject. "I don't believe in divine intervention, but I do think there's a chance we might learn something that'll help us find other survivors."

Oliver held up one finger. "Give me a moment and I'll show you exactly where we found him."

Oliver scurried back where we had entered, disappearing into the engulfing darkness until the only thing that remained was a dancing grapefruit. Some banging and clanging ensued and then a moment later he reappeared with a three-foot section of metal pipe.

"One of the pods shifted as we pulled him out and I suspect it wedged in pretty tightly. I'm assuming you'll want to see the inside as well as the outside."

I know I did. I had never been part of a miracle before.

We climbed over and ducked under piles of gear, finally arriving at a group of cryo-pods, some of which stood upright and open, some leaned cockeyed, closed. Oliver pointed to a pair jammed into the corner, one leaning against the other, both standing silent and dark. Neither showed any sign of having functioned for a long time. In fact, each had a noticeable layer of dust. And if I saw it, so did they. What kind of game was this?

"Help me shove this aside," Oliver said, pointing to the cockeyed pod.

Doctor Jones and I positioned ourselves on one side of the pod and Oliver went to the other. I bent to get a good hand-hold but even as I did I kept one eye on Oliver and one on the doctor -- who had both eyes on Oliver.

None of it mattered, because all the open eyes on the world don't make a lick of difference when you've got two hands full of cryo-pod -- which is precisely the moment Oliver struck. He lifted the length of pipe in the air and brought it crashing down on the back of the doctor's head.

For a moment I was too stunned to speak.

I heard a voice murmuring weakly, "What the hell?!?"

Except it wasn't me speaking. It was the doctor. He staggered, bloodied. But he hadn't been knocked out. Blood flowed down the right side of his face and neck.

Oliver raised the pipe again, and this time I found my voice.

"No!" I grabbed his arm.

Doctor Jones struggled to stay on his feet, staggered, fell to his knees. Tried to rise, fell again. Oliver broke free of my grasp and swung again, but I threw myself at him, spoiling his aim. The pipe hit the doctor's shoulder instead of his head, but it was a solid blow. Screaming, the doctor collapsed to the floor.

Over top of the doctor's cries, I shouted, "Is this what you call Christian behavior? Is there something in your Bible that makes this okay?"

I expected argument. Struggles. But Oliver froze.

"Fine," he said, backing up a step. "You don't want me to hit him again, help me stuff him into the pod."

"They're not air-tight, are they?" I asked, keenly aware that he still held his makeshift weapon.

"Only when they're working properly, and none of these are." He waggled the pipe. "Make up your mind quickly. Club him, stuff him; it makes no difference to me."

"Okay, okay," I said. "Into the pod." Oliver put his hands under the doctor's armpits, I grabbed him behind the knees, and we hefted him into a cryo-pod. Oliver swung the glastic cover in place and wedged the length of pipe under the door handle so it was impossible to open it from the inside. It would be easy enough from the outside, but Oliver wasn't going to let me do that.

Inside the pod, the doctor groaned, bleeding but recovering from the initial blows; getting more clear-headed and irritated with each passing second.

Oliver leaned up against the glastic door and grinned. "I knew sooner or later you'd have to see the place where we found him. It's nowhere near here, by the way. Area 451 is just the most out-of-the-way place I could think to bring you."

"You think I didn't expect treachery?" the doctor snarled. "You think I didn't expect this? The guards are two minutes behind us."

"Well then I guess I best not waste time telling you the details of my evil plan," Oliver said with child-like glee. He paused, bringing his hand to his white-whiskered chin, then added, "Oh wait, I have loads of time. I sealed the door. No one is getting in here until they backtrack and get tools to cut their way in, and I locked the tool room, too." He was immensely pleased with himself. "For years I've let you pull the same stupid trick over and over, letting you 'surprise' me with your stormtroopers. All so that one day, the day I needed it most, I could be one step ahead of you. Well today is that day, Dr. Jones. Today the cavalry will not be riding in to save you."

Dr. Jones lost it. He screamed. He pounded on the glastic door. Curses flew from his mouth like hornets.

But the only thing his outburst succeeded in doing was amusing Oliver, who said to me, "I know we have our own ideas of what it means to be Christian, but I think ultimately we're more alike than different. If you'll help us, pretend to be our hostage, I think we can force the Brahis and Satis to make real concessions. They'll do anything to get you and your genetic material back. Even treat us like human beings."

He took a step forward, closing the gap between us. "And in the meantime . . ."

He ran the back of his fingers against my cheek, leaned in, and kissed me, his beard brushing my cheeks exactly the way Michael's used to. The hairs tickled, soft and feathery, just as his lips fluttered soft against my lips. For a minute, for just one minute, it was as if Michael were back from the dead. I closed my eyes and leaned into the kiss.

"I want to be a good Christian," Oliver said, suddenly breaking off. "But at the same time I need to be able to express who I am. I've always felt repulsed by the women they make me breed with -- every one of them. Your reading of the Bible allows for something different."

I opened my eyes and before me stood Michael but not Michael. My Michael, who I had betrayed and left to die. And one week later -- at least in terms of my being awake and alert -- here I was, betraying him again by kissing another man.

I was a horrible human being.

"No," I said, backing away; unsure who I was more upset with, myself or Oliver. "I'm pleased to know you find my 'version' of Christianity convenient for expressing your sexuality, but convenience is a lousy reason to embrace something so important. I won't do this."

"Won't do what?" Oliver grabbed my arm, yanking me toward him hard enough to wrench my shoulder. "Help stop the abuse? Help us get access to food and medicine? Do you know they won't treat half the diseases we suffer from? They say there's no hope for us, so why waste resources?"

I gazed at Oliver in disbelief. I sympathized with his plight, but it didn't justify his actions.

I moved away and he yanked my arm again, harder.

But this time I was prepared. I spun toward him, using his own momentum, transferring it into a shove that sent him stumbling backwards -- right into an open cryo-pod. I slammed the door and threw my weight against it, looking for something to wedge it. But I couldn't find anything -- nothing that I could reach without releasing the door.

Oliver raged, but within the confines of the pod he had no leverage. The doctor laughed.

"What are you doing?!" Oliver shouted. "Let me out of here!"

But the look in his eyes. . . Even through the rage, he seemed genuinely wounded. He stared, still struggling, but it was half-hearted. "I thought we were kindred spirits."

"Just because what they're doing is wrong doesn't make you right."

Michael stopped struggling.

I mean Oliver. Oliver stopped.

"You have to pick a side," he said.

I shook my head. "No."

"Set me free, Jerry," the doctor said. "I'll make sure they know you had nothing to do with this. But if you go with him -- if you let him out -- I don't care how much we need your genetic material, I will make your life hell."

"Yes," I said, "That's the way to win me over. Nothing says 'Do the right thing' like threats."

I had a flash of insight and took off one of my shoes and wedged it under the door handle. It worked. Not as rigid as a pipe, but it didn't need to be. Now I could step back from Oliver's pod. Now I could think.

But what to do?

Oliver had a point. I'd only been awake for eight days, but it was clear that he and his people were being treated unfairly. They had some pretty strange ideas, but to call them second-class citizens would have belittled the extent to which they were mistreated. Using me as a hostage, though, that was no way to go about changing things.

On the other hand, though Dr. Jones and his people were rigid and controlling, I could see the sense in their gene-pool program. If things were this bad -- and again, eight days was plenty of time to see that they were -- then extreme measures were justifiable. If Earth had already died, we might be humanity's last chance for survival. Didn't that trump everything else?

Now that I thought about it, I realized Oliver had been correct about one thing: I had to pick a side. Eventually I was going to get used by someone. That much was clear. Inevitable even. The most I could hope for now was to decide by whom. And maybe use my fifteen minutes of power and influence to make some small, good thing come out of it.

But what? How?

I had no idea. None at all.

But I knew who did.

I knelt. And I prayed for guidance.

In the background two competing voices clamored for my attention, appealing to my sense of justice, pleading with me to see their point of view. They shouted and cajoled. They cursed and offered bribes. And they wouldn't shut up.

How was I supposed to hear God's voice over all that noise?

That's when I heard Michael, whispering in my ear . . .

I staggered drunkenly toward Dr. Jones, my robe flapping open and flashing my otherwise naked body. I was not ashamed. Alcohol was still available in the 36th century and it still did its job. Praise God.

"You have to admit, it's pretty amazing," I said. Or did I slur? With Dr. Jones' homemade hootch flooding my system, I couldn't tell.

"What is?"

"How one book can do all that," I said. "How the Bible can remain relevant for over three thousand years."

The doctor shook his bandaged head. "What I find amazing is how people manage to find ways to make that book say exactly what they want it to, no matter what the facts might be."

"No," I corrected him emphatically. Possibly over-emphatically. I jabbed my right forefinger into my left palm, saying, "I'll tell you what's amazing. What's amazing is that for thousands of years that book has been able to say exactly what people need to hear in order to make society work."

Dr. Jones shrugged. "You say tomato, I say tomahawk. I don't mind disagreeing, as long as we can do it civilly."

"Says the man who lost his mind when I confessed I was a Christian."

"Admittedly not my finest hour."

"Tell me something," I said, hopeful, yet afraid of the answer. "Is there anyone left who believes what I believe? Anyone at all?"

The doctor shrugged. "Honestly? There may have been a few, for a while, but I'm certain that life after the Wrecking required a radical rethinking of many things. And that was a very, very long time ago."

I lumbered toward the doctor. I needed to hug him. I appreciated his honesty so much. And he was so cute, even with half his head wrapped in gauze.

He dodged me easily. "Did you really have to consume quite so much alcohol?"

Given what I had agreed to do, yes, I needed to be very drunk. Often and a lot. But at least I got to establish the ground rules. And being plastered was just the first of them.

"Getting wasted worked for Lot's daughters," I said. "Can't imagine that either of them were terribly excited about having sex with their father. But without that, there's no Lord and Saviour. No one to save mankind."

"Did you actually go back in the Bible and follow all of those 'begats' or are you just taking Oliver's word for it?" The doctor immediately waved off his own question. "Never mind, I really don't care. I'm much more concerned that you're so drunk it'll keep you from performing sexually. Alcohol impairs people, you know."

The door opened, and in walked Melba, she of the pointy chin and loopy lower lip.

Dr. Jones said, "On the other hand, in order to have sex with that I'd have to be so drunk I was blind, so. . ."

"I don't know 'bout that," I said, squinting. "If you look at her right, she kind of looks like a man."

"I'm thtanding right here," Melba said.

"Whatever gets you in the mood," the doc said, looking at her and grimacing.

Alcohol plus Melba looking like a man was exactly what would be required to get me in the mood, at least this first time. After that I had to hope I could find my way with only booze, because I had seen some of the Brahis and Satis, and they didn't look nearly as manly as sweet Melba.

Doc Jones insisted that the status of sleeping with me was as important to people socially as the genetic material I'd be sharing. So as much as it disgusted me, this was what the situation required. I flopped back onto the bed and patted the space on the mattress next to me. My robe fell open. "C'mere, Melba," I said. She looked aside modestly. It was a horribly feminine gesture.

The doctor headed out the doorway Melba had just entered, saying as he passed, "Be careful with him. He's had a hard day." He turned back to me and said, "I'm going to visit Oliver in his cell again, see if he's ready to tell us where he really found you. I still think there's valuable information to be gleaned. And before you ask again, yes, I will make sure he honors his part of your agreement and shaves that stupid beard."

"Tha's right," I said. This time I know I slurred. "He don't get out of jail until that awful thing is gone."

"Right," Dr. Jones said. "As we agreed. Might be a few other things I require before he gets out, but that's definitely on the list. When you're done here with Melba, you should sleep it off. You're too drunk to go again anytime soon."

"Really?" That was wonderful news, because I was truly freaked out by the whole thing. Starting with Melba was the right place to begin -- and it had the added benefit of meeting one of my other requirements: equal time for the Madris. But it was still going to be difficult. And unpleasant.

I realized my robe was open and pulled it closed.

"And for pity's sake, try to relax," said the doctor. "Even spacing things out so we don't have too many babies born at the same time, you're going to have to impregnate an average of eight women a month for a long time to come."

"As long as we do one Madri for each Brahi and Sati," I said. "I'll do 'em when and where you tell me." So many women, such stomach turning results. But it was the one thing I could think of that would bring balance to this system. The genetics were too far out of whack for the Madris to be viable as a breeding group, but if the status conferred by sleeping with me would change the way people treated them . . . well, it wasn't much, but it was a start.

Let love be without hypocrisy, right Michael? That's what he always said. That was my new prayer, every day.

"As we agreed," the doctor said. "Everybody gets a turn."

I looked at him longingly. Teasingly. Flirtatiously. I didn't mean it, but if he was going to put me in this awkward position with all these women, making him a little uncomfortable was the least I could do to pay him back. I waggled my eyebrows. "That's right: Everybody gets a turn. Every body."

He started to laugh, stopped, then started again, unsure if I were serious. Good.

He said, "God damn, you're drunk. No, not every everybody. Not for all the cloning machines in the universe. That is never happening."

"Don't blaspheme," I said, even though I laughed when he said it.

But as I closed my eyes so as to avoid watching Melba get undressed, I couldn't help adding, "And don't say 'never' too quickly, my dear doctor. Stranger things have happened in this universe. . ."

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