Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 5
Stories
Beauty's Folly
by Eugie Foster
Under Janey's Garden
by Margit Elland Schmitt
Rumspringa
by Jason Sanford
The Polka Man
by William John Watkins
Original Audrey
by Tammy Brown
From the Ender Saga
The Gold Bug
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Toon Out
by David Lubar
Braces
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Essays by Orson Scott Card
Who Is Snape?
by Orson Scott Card

Rumspringa
    by Jason Sanford
Rumspringa
Artwork by Walter Simon

The English arrived at the farm shortly before supper, their ship buzzing my draft horses and baling combine and kicking a cloud of hay dust into the dry air. Even though I wasn't impressed with the ship's acrobatics, my younger brother Sol, who'd been wrapping the hay bundles with twine, stared at the English with excitement. Knowing I wouldn't get any more work out of him, I stopped the horses. The socket beneath my straw hat itched in resonance with our new visitors, which I took to be a particularly bad sign.

The ship landed by the barn and three English stepped off. One, an older woman named Ms. Watkins, had served as New Lancaster's mediator between the Amish and English for the last three centuries and always respected our customs, as demonstrated by the plain gray dress she wore. The other English, though, didn't share her regard. The man behind Ms. Watkins wore a blue militia uniform, a definite slap at our nonviolent beliefs, while the teenage girl beside him was naked except for a swirl of colors obscuring her private parts. She gazed around the farm and smiled when she spotted me.

"What do you think they want, Sam?" Sol asked as he stared at the naked girl. I shook my head, even though I had a good idea. A new comet had shone in the sky for the last few weeks, growing massively larger with each passing day. My father and I had discussed its looming impact several times. Now, as my father walked toward the English, I knew he had come to the same conclusion as me. I quickly handed the horse reins to Sol and joined him.

"Ms. Watkins," my father said, shaking her hand.

"Bishop Yoder," Ms. Watkins said. Then, turning to me, "This can't be Samuel? Last time I saw him he was just a little boy."

"Sam hasn't been a boy for almost five years," my father said without a trace of pride, just like any proper Amish man. "In fact, he will turn twenty-one next month."

"Ah, rumspringa," the naked girl said, rudely stepping between my father and Ms. Watkins. "I assume you'll be baptized on your 21st birthday?"

"I hope to be," I said, annoyed at an outsider asking such a personal question. In addition, these English surely knew exactly who I was. Their pretense of ignorance was merely another of their endless, convoluted games, although it would be rude to say that.

"Well, I hope you'll reconsider. After all, there's more to life than working a left-behind farm." The girl dimmed the colors flowing across her chest, allowing everyone a full view of her bare breasts. "It's not too late, you know. You can still seek forgiveness for any deadly sin that comes your way."

My father coughed awkwardly. Even Ms. Watkins blushed a solid, scarlet red, testimony to the proxy she'd downloaded before coming here. The militia man, of course, didn't respond and stared stone-faced at everyone.

"Rumspringa isn't a time to simply run around and sin," I said. "It's when one 'puts away the things of a child' and becomes an adult. Nothing more. Nothing less. And I'm well aware of what life has to offer." As I said that, I readjusted my straw hat, feeling the skull socket I would give anything to have removed.

My father nodded to my words, indicating I had spoken a solid truth, then waved for Ms. Watkins and the others to follow him into the house. I wanted to follow but, glancing back at Sol, I saw he'd somehow tangled the horse reins in the baling combine's gears. By the time I reached him one of the horses had kicked the baler, damaging the main driveshaft.

I groaned. It would take all night to undo the reins and repair the driveshaft. Wanting to join my father inside, I glanced over at Sol, who was backing the horses up to give the reins more slack. Luckily for me, when the English created antique machines for us with their nanoforges, they included the same repair gollums as on their own equipment. With Sol distracted by the horses, I reached my mind through my socket and accessed the baler's gollum. The driveshaft's metal flowed and reworked itself until the reins lay free in my hand and the driveshaft looked as good as new.

As Sol and I led the horses back to the barn, he glanced once at the baler. But he didn't say a word as we unharnessed the horses and washed them down for the night.

By the time we finished, the sun had set and the new comet glowed brightly across the sky. I led Sol into the house, where my mother intercepted my brother at the doorway.

"The men are on the back porch," she said as she led Sol upstairs to bed, to my brother's obvious disappointment. "There's chicken and mashed potatoes on the table, but it'll keep."

I nodded and headed for the back porch, fighting down a combination of pride at being considered a man and nervousness at why the English were here. The pride worried me the most -- right after violence, our worst sin was hochmut. Before stepping onto the porch, I took a deep breath and calmed myself until I felt humble before God and life and the world.

"Sam," Ms. Watkins said. "Glad you could join us. Please, have a seat."

Ms. Watkins sat in a wicker chair, while several elders from nearby farms sat on a bench beside my father. I walked toward my father, irritated at Ms. Watkins offering me a seat in my father's house. Beside her sat the militia man, while the teenage girl leaned on the porch railing with her body colorings flowing to the slight breeze. As I passed the English, my socket buzzed slightly and I wondered what they were discussing among themselves. As if knowing my thoughts, the teenage girl smiled a most wicked smile and slid her tongue along the top of her red lips.

"We have been discussing a problem," my father said, stroking his beard in irritation at the girl's behavior. "The comet will impact near here next week."

"How far?" I asked.

The militia officer, whose name holo read Captain Stryder, looked over. "Just over 500 kilometers from this settlement. As I told your father, there will be some modest damage at that distance -- windows blown out, that type of thing -- but your community should survive. Still, we need to do a temporary resettlement to be safe."

"Why are we just being notified?" I asked.

Captain Stryder didn't even blink. "Until yesterday, we didn't need to. A massive outventing changed the comet's course. Otherwise it would have impacted well away from here."

I nodded. New Lancaster was an earth-size planet, but lacked sufficient quantities of water, with little standing liquid and only modest underground reservoirs. Since settlement began four centuries ago, periodic comet impacts had been used to terraform the still mostly deserted planet.

Captain Stryder looked at me with the calm, reassuring gaze generated by his militia leadership proxy. But despite Stryder's attempt to put me at ease, I didn't trust him. I also recalled his name from somewhere. But short of accessing my socket, I couldn't figure out what I'd once known about him.

"There really is no choice," Stryder said. "We'll move everyone to a safe holding location, then move you back after impact."

Assuming nothing goes wrong, I thought, filling in the unspoken words.

My father opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say anything the teenage girl jumped up from the porch railing. "This is ridiculous," she said in agitation. "Why are we even discussing this?"

My socket again buzzed as, I assume, Ms. Watkins and Captain Stryder told the girl to shut up.

"No," she shouted. "These people depend on us for trips across the universe and machines and everything else, but they still don't want anything to do with us. Why do we bring them to each new world and baby sit them? I'd say it was nostalgia, but who even understands that emotion anymore."

In the faint glow of the gas lantern, Ms. Watkins blushed while the elders looked away. My father, though, kept a steady face. "I don't believe you've been properly introduced," he said. "This is Emma Beiler. She is an expert." He paused. "On the Amish."

"I see," I said, struggling to find a suitable response. "How does one become an expert at such a young age?"

Emma snorted. "Watch your manners, boy. I'm 641 years old come September. Born on old earth herself."

I was quite familiar with life extension, having witnessed it up close among the rich and powerful in New Lancaster's main city. A millennium ago, our Amish order decided that life extensions were not part of our ordnung, or rules of living. While there was nothing sinful about preserving one's life, extending it indefinitely was extremely expensive, more so to revert to a vastly younger age. This expense would have caused dissension in the community. In fact, I had no doubt that Emma's teenage body was an attempt to create jealousy among her much older-looking colleagues. I shook my head in sympathy. While I refused to judge Emma, the fact that she'd lived so long and understood so little of life saddened me.

"As I was telling our guests before you arrived," my father said, "we will send someone to their ship to examine the data on the comet impact. Once that's done, we will discuss this among the entire congregation."

Captain Stryder nodded. "We'll need an answer in four days."

I felt the far-too familiar buzz in my socket, meaning the English were heavily involved in matters among themselves. Even without accessing their data streams, I doubted they had come here out of concern for our Amish settlement. I wondered what Captain Stryder and Ms. Watkins would do if we refused to leave.

As the English walked back to their ship, Emma glanced at me. For a moment her eyes looked old and sad, as if she'd lost something she'd give anything to regain. But then, with the flash of a new proxy, her eyes became young again and she giggled in her teenage voice.

After the elders left, I walked to the barn with my father to make sure everything was in order. Because of the excitement, I hadn't properly taken care of the hay baler, a fact my father pointed out almost immediately. Embarrassed, I picked up a rag while he grabbed the grease gun.

"What do you think?" I asked.

My father placed the grease gun's nozzle over a lubrication nipple and squeezed the handle. "I think it's suspicious. During your time with the English, did you work on their comet program?"

"No, I worked in high orbit on the nanoforge assemblies. But as part of my advanced training, I studied comet work." What I didn't tell my father was that everyone working the assemblies downloaded complete work proxies covering any possible job one might do. All I had to do was access the proxy in my socket and I would become an instant expert on comet movement and impacts.

"That's good," my father said. "The elders and I will present this information to the congregation on Sunday. While God's will always prevails, any information you can provide -- without using your socket -- will be appreciated."

My stomach sank at his mention of the socket. While my father had lived his entire life among the Amish, he always knew far more than he let on about the English world.

"What if that's the only way to find out the information we need?" I asked.

"Then we don't need it."

I nodded, remembering my years among the English. Every Amish adolescent was expected to make his or her own decision about whether to commit to our faith. Like many of my friends, I'd wanted to see the life I'd be giving up. Unlike them, I stayed away for over four years, only returning shortly before my 20th birthday. I hadn't talked much with my father about my life among the English, or why I had returned, but I wouldn't be surprised if he knew a good deal about what I'd done.

My father finished greasing the baler, then placed the grease gun back on the tool bench, where he eyed the damaged horse reins Sol had jammed in the combine's gears. "Do you remember when I was chosen as bishop?" he asked.

I said yes. Our congregation cast lots to select our deacons and bishops, letting God decide who should be chosen.

"A few weeks after I was chosen, Ms. Watkins flew in to congratulate me. I didn't know what to say. Until then, all anyone had expressed to me was sympathy at the heavy burden I'd been chosen to carry. Still, Ms. Watkins meant no ill. She just doesn't understand us. No English can. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"I believe so."

"I'm not sure you do." My father opened the access panel on the baler, revealing the clean, new-looking driveshaft.

I hung my head in shame. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

My father sighed and rubbed his beard. "Sam, you need to understand. Before you are baptized, the community can overlook these transgressions. But after baptism, if you keep using that socket, they will shun you. I don't want that to happen. I know you use the socket to help out, but it's not allowed. Don't give in to temptation. That's your burden to bear, just as mine was being selected Bishop. Embrace the burden and God will show you the way."

I nodded. I started to ask my father if he knew what had been required of me to live among the English, but I couldn't stand mentioning this to him. "I don't trust them," I said. "Few of the English care about anyone but themselves. Plus, this planet is almost totally empty. They could have easily aimed the comet to a place where it'd pose no risk to anyone. They're up to something."

"All the more reason to see what you can learn. English claims to the contrary, they have less understanding of life than we do. Perhaps something has tempted them. If so, we need to know."

As we left the barn, I glanced up at the sky. Just last night, the comet had been a object of beauty, a sparking exclamation of God's power in the universe. Now it was one more sign of humanity's ugliness, aimed directly at everything I cared about.

"Remember," my father said, patting me on the back as we walked in the house. "To the English, being chosen is an honor. Don't be like them. Don't be proud at being chosen."

Shortly before dawn, Sol and I woke up and fed the pigs and chickens. We then finished bailing the hay. I worked quickly, urging the Clydesdales faster and faster, unable to focus on the truth contained within this hard work. Instead, I continually glanced at the comet as it slowly disappeared below the horizon.

I finished my work around noon. After parking the baler in the barn, I walked by the water trough and noticed that the water flow had stopped. Because there was no rain on New Lancaster, we used large canvas water catchers in the foothills above our farms to collect the morning mists. Pipes carried the water down into large metal reservoirs for use in drip irrigation to grow crops and as drinking water for the animals and ourselves. While it rarely happened, the pipes sometimes clogged at different points. Not wanting to waste any more time, I told Sol to find the clog and remove it.

After washing up, I pulled on a plain gray shirt and pants, two suspenders, and my wide-brimmed, black-felt hat. I then harnessed a paint mare to our family's buggy and rode off to the English ship.

The ship had landed on a nearby foothill, which rose five-hundred meters above the plains. A stubby native grass called thickens, which stored their own water like a cactus, grew along the top of the foothills. Thickens were extremely difficult to remove from the land and the main reason we didn't farm near them. Luckily, they only grew at higher elevations, where they could condense water from the nightly mists.

When I reached the English ship, I parked the buggy and hobbled the mare's legs. I also slipped on her feedbag. Thickens were toxic to earth animals and I didn't want her to be tempted.

Captain Stryder waited for me at the foot of his ship. "About time," he said in an arrogant tone. "I expected you this morning."

"I had to finish bailing the hay."

For a moment Captain Stryder's proxy cracked as a smirk crossed his face. I knew what he thought: How could I bail hay with possible destruction heading toward us? But that just showed Stryder didn't understand the Amish, for whom everyday work was an act of devotion.

I followed Stryder inside the ship, where I was struck yet again by how few people were needed to run English technology. While we used hundreds of Amish to build a barn, Stryder only needed himself to run his entire ship. He led me through the empty ship to the bridge, where Ms. Watkins and Emma waited. As I sat beside them, Ms. Watkins shook my hand. Emma nodded in the overly polite manner of an automatic proxy, meaning her other proxies were off diving into another socket-accessed reality.

For the next hour, Captain Stryder presented his data on the comet. A kilometer and a half in diameter, the comet had been directed toward the planet for the last century. While Stryder's data indicated our settlement wasn't vulnerable to the impact's electromagnetic pulse -- aside from the unused repair gollums in our nanoforge-created machines -- we would suffer minor air blast and seismic damage. That said, if the comet changed course even slightly our settlement would be destroyed.

To make clear the danger we faced, Stryder proceeded to show me startling images from a recent megaton-range weapon impact. That's when I remembered where I'd heard his name before. Stryder's unit enforced quarantine, making sure no unapproved biomatter reached the surface and interfered with terraforming. The images of mushroom clouds now boiling before me came from his controversial decision to destroy a large, unoccupied section of New Lancaster after an unapproved animal species was released. As Stryder spoke with pride about that destruction, I wondered why he was involved in relocating us. Perhaps the militia figured Stryder's experience using megaton-range weapons helped him understand comet impacts.

The fact that I hadn't remembered all this until now made me miss my socket even more. Even the most basic of sockets could spin Stryder's facts and figures and words a billion different ways to see through his flash and bang to the truth of this matter.

"That's all very nice," I finally said, trying to keep the English sarcasm I'd picked up out of my voice. "I still don't understand why we weren't informed until now."

"The outventing," Stryder repeated, as if I were an ignorant child.

"When I worked on the nanoforges, I downloaded a comet worker proxy. Based on what I know, any outventing big enough to cause such a large course change should have been easily predicted. I don't believe this happened by chance."

I was bluffing, since I'd never actually opened that proxy. While bluffing wasn't the most Amish of traits, I needed to know if Stryder was telling the truth.

Unfortunately, his proxy didn't waver. "That's perfect," he said. "Let's dispense with this charade. Download my data and use that little socket of yours. You'll see I'm telling the truth."

My socket almost screamed at the chance to access Stryder's information. Unfortunately, while my gut told me Stryder was also bluffing, unless I went against my community's rules I couldn't be certain. I glanced at Ms. Watkins, who refused to meet my eye.

"Can you provide the data in a printed format?" I asked.

"It would comprise a hundred million of your printed pages."

My heart sank.

"That's what I thought," Captain Stryder said with a sneer. "I knew you would act this way. Distrustful. Outwardly humble yet inwardly proud. Wanting to explore the world beyond your precious Amish, yet afraid of all the 'English' can do. Is that why you returned to your people? Out of fear?"

Not for the first time, I felt violated as a stranger accessed my memories. Instead of responding, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the memories Stryder had access to had been sold years ago. They weren't the man I was today.

To my surprise, though, his words woke Emma from her socket-induced stupor. "Stop tormenting him. Provide the child with any analysis he needs. He wins, we win, we get to save these backward idiots and go home."

Captain Stryder thought about this, then nodded. "Yes, this is a waste of my time. Do you have any old-grade computers in your settlement?"

"Yes, in the school house." Our order allowed a few higher tech machines for community use, in this case for accessing New Lancaster's weather and emergency net. While the school computer was more advanced than anything else in our community, it was still a millennium behind anything the English used.

"Perfect. Emma can download the data and enter it into your computer. Run a simulation on it. You'll see I'm telling the truth."

For a moment, my socket tingled as Captain Stryder and Ms. Watkins and Emma engaged in a ultra-fast and obviously high spirited argument. The communication ended with Emma apparently satisfied.

"What's the catch?" I asked. The English never did anything without payment in return.

"They said I can spend some time with the Amish," Emma said. "My research on you silly people is out of date."

I sighed but, seeing no alternative, agreed. For the briefest of moments Emma's eyes shivered as her socket downloaded the massive data on the comet, causing my own socket to ache for the power and ability it had once possessed. I muttered a silent prayer for God to deliver me from this temptation.

Instead of God answering, Emma grinned and blew me a kiss with her red, red lips.

Emma rode back to the farm with me. As the buggy creaked along the dirt road, she sat with her eyes glazed over as she dived into her socket without even bothering to generate a cover proxy to interact with me. I had insisted that Emma dress modestly, so she'd created a typical Amish outfit, in this case a full-length gray dress with long sleeves and a cape and apron. On her head she wore a black prayer covering, signifying, just like my lack of a beard, that she was not married. While Emma dressing as one of us annoyed me, I figured it was better than her running around naked.

We arrived home well after dark. After unhitching my horse, I turned on the faucet and found that the pipes were still blocked. After giving my horse some of our reserve water, I explained the situation with Emma to my parents and they showed her to the guest bedroom. I then woke Sol up and asked him about the pipes.

"I unblocked them," Sol mumbled, half asleep. "Thickens had gotten inside. But I cleaned them out and patched the pipe."

I told Sol to go back to sleep. I'd take care of the water problem in the morning.

At first light I watered the animals with the remainder of our reserves, then hitched up the horse and loaded the buggy with all the tools I might need. The distant water collectors in the foothills glittered with moisture in the rising light. Obviously the nightly mists had arrived, so the pipe must still be blocked. While running the simulation on the computer was important, more important was getting water for the animals and crops. In New Lancaster's dry air, they could die from dehydration well before the comet impact.

Once the horse and buggy were ready, I walked back in the house. To my surprise, Emma sat in the kitchen talking with my mother. I panicked -- afraid that Emma would insult my mother, or worse, reveal what I'd done among the English. To my surprise, though, my mother enjoyed talking with her.

"Is everything okay?" I asked warily as Emma handed me a plate of bacon, eggs, and oatmeal, which she'd evidently cooked by herself.

"Everything's perfect," my mother said. "Emma's a delightful young lady."

I glanced at Emma, who was again dressed like one of us. I wondered if my mother remembered Emma parading half-naked through our house only two days ago. Emma's eyes flickered for a moment and I realized she'd used yet another proxy to modify her behavior.

Not wanting to leave Emma alone with my parents, I told her we were riding up to the foothills to fix the water pipes.

"What about the computer sim?" she asked.

"We'll do it when we get back."

Emma shrugged and followed me out of the house, much to my relief.

The ride up was uneventful. Emma sat silently beside me, lost in whatever socket-derived world she wished to create. My own socket tingled to her presence and, as the buggy rolled slowly through the empty kilometers, I wished I could patch in with her. All I'd have to do was create a proxy to drive the buggy. I could then expand my mind into the endless connections and worlds used by all the English on New Lancaster.

As if knowing my thoughts, Emma turned to look at me. She seemed pleasant and I assumed this proxy was the one she'd used with my mother.

"Why were you so anxious to get me out of the house?" she asked.

I started to yell at her -- another habit I'd learned among the English -- but the look in her eyes said she truly didn't know. Proxies could compartmentalize knowledge and memories, so a person with a particular proxy literally wouldn't know what they'd done only moments before with a different proxy.

"To be honest, I'm afraid you'll tell my parents what I did among the English."

She stared at me with uncertainty until her socket supplied the missing information. "You sold yourself," she said.

I nodded. The problem all Amish face if they leave the faith is that, according to the current standards of humanity, we aren't truly human. We lack sockets. When humans can create new personalities and emotions at the drop of a pin, when humans have nanoforges to satisfy every whim and desire, what are the Amish, who've changed only a little across thousands of years?

As all Amish youth discover during rumspringa, an eighth-grade education can't compete with enhanced humans who can download libraries of information. While charity ensured that none of us starved -- after all, what were a few crumbs to nanoforges -- there was little hope for advancement in a society where only access to a socket ensured one's success.

Enter the devil's bargain. Any Amish kid could earn their own socket in exchange for the one thing we had which others wanted: Our lives. In an age where nothing about humanity was stable, where any person might possess a thousand distinct personalities, what the Amish owned were our experiences. Our beliefs. Our years of hard, physical work. Our secure love from growing up in a deep, nourishing community.

Most Amish youth refused to sell their lives and returned to their family farms. Not me. I not only uploaded my memories, I allowed others to experiment on me, to expose me to endless personality proxies then share in my reaction. I became a woman, a baby, a genius, a warrior, an idiot, a bird, a whale, and more. For a bit of money, anyone could see through my naïve eyes as I reacted to each startling mental change.

After four years of this, though, I began to yearn for what I'd given up. Ironically, this nostalgia made me even more popular. Those who had everything had no way of missing anything. I tried to upload an explanation about the emptiness I saw all around me, how even if one connected into a million different lives these proxies were nothing but a distraction from life. However, no one understood. So I collected the scattered pieces and memories of my original life, stitched them together into a new/old personality, burned them back into my brain, and returned home to beg my God and community for forgiveness.

I didn't explain any of this to Emma. With her socket, she downloaded all the information about me and understood in an instant. "I'm sorry," she said. "Believe me, I understand."

Before I could ask her how she understood, my socket buzzed. I started to tell Emma no, but as I stared into her face I felt her utter sincerity. Asking God to forgive me, I opened my socket for the briefest of moments.

Emma's life flooded into me. I saw her as a child more than six centuries ago, growing up in Lancaster County on earth. She too was Amish, and she too yearned to see the universe beyond her one patch of ground. Like me, she sold her memories and life, but unlike me she never returned, instead living and aging across the years until she immigrated to New Lancaster as an Amish expert for the government.

But even as I learned this, I also saw her anger and regret. She hated her life, hated the emptiness of a society of self-centered people who could create anything they wished for. Emma only wished for one thing and that was the one thing she couldn't have -- to return to her family and community. Like me, she had created the proxy she now wore from the memories of her childhood and had embedded it into her brain by rewiring her very neurons. She used this hardwired proxy as an escape from her socket-driven life, or, occasionally, to interact with the planet's Amish. The rest of Emma's memories and personalities lived in her socket, connected forever and irrevocably to the very life they abhorred.

I closed my socket and said another prayer as I urged the horse up the gently sloping foothills. All the anger and hate Emma's proxies felt showed me how I might have turned out if I hadn't returned to the faith. I thanked Emma for sharing this, but instantly saw that the hardwired Emma was gone, replaced by a new proxy who sneered and called me a weak, backward idiot. I ignored her words and urged the horse to go even faster.

By the time we reached the water collection system, Emma was in rare form. She was so angry about her hardwired proxy giving me such a personal download that, as I unpacked my tools, she grabbed a knife and ran to the giant mesh nets which covered acre after acre of these hills.

"Screw Amish nonviolence," she said, dangling the knife under a section of mesh. "What'll you do if I cut this?"

"Repair it," I said. Emma smirked and sliced a long gap in the mesh. I shook my head and walked over to take the knife, but she wanted to fight for it. Refusing to do that, I simply ignored her. After cutting a few more nets, she hacked in anger at the yellow thickens growing beneath the nets then jammed the knife in the ground.

"That's why Stryder and Watkins will win," she said. "You won't fight them."

"One can still win without fighting."

Emma snickered, then zoned out as she retreated into the hedonistic paradise of her socket. While she zoned, I ran a rooter into the blocked section of pipe and pulled out a clump of thickens. While thickens grew all along these hills, I had never known them to clog the pipes. After estimating the distance to the clog, I grabbed my shovel and dug up the buried section of the nanoforge created pipe, which we'd been given in exchange for a crop of hand-grown tobacco. The pipe had cracked and thickens had grown inside, attracted by the abundant water source. It took me two hours to clear them out, an amazing fact since I could see where Sol had cleaned out and patched this very pipe the day before. Obviously thickens grew explosively fast when exposed to large amounts of water.

Once the pipe was clear, I reached for my patch kit before realizing that was exactly what Sol had done the day before. Knowing I didn't have the time to keep returning to the foothills, I opened my socket and activated the pipe's gollum. Instantly the pipe sealed shut.

Emma emerged from her socket trance to tease me. "You're addicted," she said, "so don't you dare look down on me." She then disappeared back into her socket.

I didn't say a word as I drove us back to the farm.

Over dinner that night, Emma and I explained what we'd learned. After returning from the foothills we'd had time for Emma to download the comet's data into the school house computer, where I'd run a number of simulations. Each one suggested Captain Stryder and Ms. Watkins were telling the truth.

"So there's no ulterior motive for wanting us to leave?" my father asked.

"I couldn't tell," I said. "But the information on why the comet is impacting nearby appears to be correct."

My father nodded. He ate another bite of chicken and looked out the window at the comet, which shone brightly across the darkening sky. "When the congregation comes over tomorrow for worship services, I'll tell everyone about this and suggest we evacuate until after the impact."

Before I could I agree with my father, Emma spoke up in the pleasant voice which meant she was using her hardwired Amish girl proxy. "Ms. Watkins and Captain Stryder are lying to you. They don't care about the Amish."

My father stared at his fork. "Excuse me?" he asked.

Emma stared at her plate, obviously embarrassed at having said anything.

"What do you mean, they don't care about us?" my father asked. "No offense intended, but I'm not sure you care either."

Emma nodded, and suddenly the arrogant, hateful Emma appeared. "You are correct. Concern among my people changes like the wind. Are Ms. Watkins and Captain Stryder concerned? No. Ms. Watkins believes the Amish are needed for colonization because you provide an underclass we 'English' can look down on, making our powerful yet disjointed lives seem better in comparison. Captain Stryder's proxy cares only about defending English civilization and terraforming this planet. You're fools to trust either of them."

As soon as she finished speaking, Emma's eyes flickered and she blushed a deep red. "I'm so sorry," she stammered, standing up from the table. "Please forgive me." She then ran from the house. I explained to my shocked family how the English used personality proxies, which changed from moment to moment. I also explained that Emma had been born Amish and left during rumspringa. The personality we liked was created from the centuries-old remnants of Emma's Amish memories. My father nodded with a sad look on his face, as if we'd just witnessed a horrible accident, but could do nothing to help.

"When you disturb the most basic things God has given us -- memory, emotion, soul -- can you call what remains human?" my father asked. "But that's for God to decide, I suppose."

I nodded, even as I wondered if my father would consider me human if he knew how much I resembled Emma.

The next few days passed quickly. After Sunday church services in our house, my father explained to the congregation about the comet and why he believed we needed to temporarily evacuate. The congregation discussed the situation for hours, but eventually agreed we should leave. My father and I volunteered to stay until the last minute to take care of the animals on the nearby farms while the rest of the families flew to a relocation camp four hundred kilometers away.

Captain Stryder wasn't happy with me and my father staying. Still, he said he'd spare a small AI piloted shuttle to pull us out at the last minute, as long as we accepted responsibility for our deaths if anything happened.

The next day the ships landed and our families boarded. Sol hugged me so long that I didn't think he'd board the ship. I then kissed my mother, who told me to watch over my father. They then flew away to safety.

That night, with the comet lighting up the entire sky, my father and I rode our buggy from farm to farm to check on the animals, making sure they had enough food and water and were protected from the coming blast. Now that we had time to talk, I mentioned how the thickens had grown into the pipe. He said he'd heard rumors they could grow explosively fast around standing water. He asked me how I'd fixed the pipe, to which I didn't respond.

"No matter," he said. "In the last week you have behaved very much like the man God intended you to be." He didn't say he was proud of me -- because that wouldn't have been fitting -- but I still felt a sinful pride at his words.

We woke the next morning a few hours before impact. After a final check on the animals in the area, we bedded down our horse and waited for the shuttle to arrive. It did so with a mere fifteen minutes left before impact.

"We English like to cut it short," Emma said as the shuttle's door opened. "Life's boring without a little drama."

My father started to ask why she was here, but I saw the wild look in her eyes and told him to get onboard before she changed her mind. While I didn't trust this proxy of hers, I doubted she'd do anything to endanger her own life.

Naturally enough, I was totally wrong. Emma flew the shuttle directly toward the impact zone, buzzing so low over the foothills that I saw our buggy tracks from the other day.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"I'm doing you a favor, Sammy boy. I downloaded your life last night and had a revelation. If I can't go home, I might as well save your worthless community."

My father glanced at me, but remained silent. I was about to say something when I saw Captain Stryder's ship appear on one of the foothills, where it'd been hidden from view. Emma landed the shuttle by the ship in a small explosion of dirt and thickens.

The door opened and Emma jumped out. My father and I followed. Even though I didn't want to, I accessed my socket and learned we had eight minutes until impact. I nervously glanced at the comet, which burned in the sky directly over the horizon.

As we approached the ship, a door opened and Captain Stryder emerged. "What the hell are you doing here?" he yelled, his calm militia proxy obviously overwhelmed.

"I'm on to you," Emma shouted, hitting Stryder across the face. "I won't let you do it."

With a quick motion, Stryder reached into his tunic and pulled out a stun gun, which collapsed Emma into pain on the yellow thickens. He bent over to make sure she was alright, then looked at us and shook his head.

"I sincerely want to apologize for this," he said. "I knew she was unstable, but I had no idea her disjointment went this far."

"What are you doing?" I asked.

Stryder aimed the stun gun at us. "We don't have time to fight," he said. "I'm alone on the ship. If I hurt you, I can't carry all of you onboard to safety before the impact."

"We won't fight you," I said. "But what are you doing?"

Stryder wavered for a moment, then kicked at a thicken. "They're spreading," he said. "The damn things used to only cover places like these foothills, where the mists fed them. But as the planet grows wetter they're starting to spread. What's the point of terraforming if a native plant spreads everywhere and keeps out our own vegetation?"

I stared for a moment at the thickens and thought about how hard a time we'd had removing them from a few isolated spots. I then remembered Stryder's role in removing any unauthorized biomatter which threatened terraforming. "You're going to destroy them," I said, even as my socket warned me there were only three minutes until impact. "You're going to vaporize the entire region, just like you did a year ago."

Stryder sighed. "This is the only group of thickens near a settlement. With the comet hitting nearby, we could burn the region away and say any harm to your settlement was merely unanticipated comet damage."

I glanced at Emma, who rolled in pain on the thickens. Any weapon strike big enough to completely destroy all these plants would also destroy our settlement. My anger rose at Stryder's arrogance in deciding the fate of our community and I tensed to charge him. But before I could move, my father laid his hand on my arm. Stryder smirked. He obviously considered nonviolence a weakness. He gestured with the stun gun. "Carry her onboard the ship," he ordered. "We need to be inside to be safe from the impact."

As I bent over Emma, my socket buzzed. On a hunch, I opened myself to her and a wave of information flooded in, everything from her uncovering Stryder and Watkins' plan to detailed sims showing Stryder using his ship's weapons to destroy everything within a hundred kilometers of these hills. As I watched our community explode, Emma suddenly smiled. One final, but critical, piece of information clicked into me.

I stood up and faced Stryder. "We're not going anywhere."

My father reached for me, but he didn't have to worry -- I had no intention of fighting. Instead, I uploaded the access code Emma had just given me into Stryder's ship, sealing the main door shut. A look of panic crossed Stryder's face as my socket warned we were one minute to impact.

"Open the door," Stryder screamed, but I'd already scrambled the code. He aimed the stun gun at me and fired, sending pain coursing through my body. As I fell onto the thicken-coated ground, I glanced up at the comet, which appeared unmoving and eternal yet also ever changing.

As Stryder banged on the door in pure panic, the comet entered the atmosphere with a massive, eye-burning explosion. The fire reached above the distant horizon like God's hand embracing His own. As I passed out, my last thoughts were a prayer, hoping He would forgive my sins and pull me into the sweet night of His bosom.

I woke two days later in my own bed. At first I was disoriented and thought I'd entered a sim of my parent's house, but when tried to find my way out I only felt my own body and senses. I rubbed the slight bump under the back of my skull. The socket was physically there, but the slight buzz I'd felt ever since installation was gone.

I stood up and looked out the broken window at the foothills. The distant hills were still covered in yellow thickens and I saw the glint of water on the damaged water condensers. I then walked downstairs to find my parents sitting on the back porch with Ms. Watkins.

"Sam," Ms. Watkins said, standing up and offering me her chair. "Glad to see that you are up and about."

Remembering Emma's last upload and how Ms. Watkins had been working with Stryder to destroy our community, I refused to take her seat. Ms. Watkins gave me a sour look, then shook her head and walked toward the barn, where a shuttle waited for her.

My father and mother quickly filled me in. After the electromagnetic pulse fried the sockets of Stryder, myself, and Emma, my father had pulled us behind the relative safety of the English ship. The seismic shaking hit a minute and a half after impact; the shock wave twenty minutes later. As we'd been told, the damage to the community was minimal at this distance, although ejecta from the impact pelted our crops rather hard.

Ms. Watkins and other rescuers arrived an hour later. Stryder was in bad shape -- evidently he'd relied almost totally on his socket for storage of his memories and proxies. While Emma's socket, and my own, were also destroyed, Ms. Watkins said we should be okay because we had stable personalities hardwired in our neurons. As a precaution she'd sedated us, but said there would be no lasting effects -- aside from having a dead socket in our head for the rest of our lives. She'd also half-heartedly apologized for going behind our backs in dealing with the thickens problem. While my father knew she didn't truly mean this, he still suggested several low-tech solutions for controlling the plants near the Amish settlement. Ms. Watkins had expressed interest in exploring those options.

"Do you trust her?" I asked.

"No," my father said. "But I trust God, and even you must admit He handled things rather well."

I nodded, still amazed that my socket could no longer tempt me. While I'd been praying for this ever since returning to the faith, the fact that I couldn't go back to the English world now scared me more than anything. Seeing my concern, my mother hugged me and told me to go check on our guest in the spare bedroom. I nervously walked to the bedroom and knocked on the door. An excited voice told me to come in.

Emma sat on the bed, a black prayer covering in her hands. She quickly placed it on her head and smiled.

"Your mother let me borrow some clothes," she said, standing up. Her dress was loose and baggy, and she laughed as her apron slipped from her waist. "She said I could stay as long as I want. Guess I'll need to make myself some clothes. Been a few centuries since I've had to do that."

I took her hand and squeezed it, then hugged her tightly. I wanted to ask how much of this her other proxies had planned and how much had resulted from God, or chance, or any of the above. But as I looked at Emma's happy face, I realized none of that mattered. Everyone else she'd ever been was dead and, in a strange way, both of our prayers had been answered. What else could we do but be content with the new lives we'd been given.


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