Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

    by Kate O'Connor

Artwork by Nick Greenwood

She could feel each of the thirty-seven other navigators again, glowing like supernovas in her mind. It was a relief to be reconnected to the quantum arc after nearly ten minutes out of the system for a routine organic physical. Though downtime was rare, Sinette hated it.

The quantum arc channeled her mind and energy out into space, entangling her with energy particles that bound together and became her. She drew in a grateful breath as the last twinges of connection to her organic flesh faded. The entirety of the cosmos was in front of her once again.

Priority Class B transport from Procyon to Carina. Advise ready to engage. The message flickered at the corner of her vision. Sinette accessed the order, downloading the relevant information directly into her neural net. Her energy signature sparked with anticipation. It was a standard run, but it felt like an eon since her last mission.

She felt Jorin's familiar presence beside her, rippling multihued excitement as he welcomed her back. She embraced him tightly, the weight of separation falling away. "I missed you."

"Missed you too," he answered with a riot of bright energy bursts.

She let the moment stretch before the insistent blinking of her nav orders drew her attention away. "Back to work," she told them both, disentangling herself from him and turning to trace potential pathways through the void. She flitted through the first half-million energy filaments that stretched across the galaxy, flashing between the ship and Carina in the space of an eye-blink.

She slipped forward down a likely-looking filament, only to run headlong into an impasse. "Fragments and frayed filaments everywhere. I can't make it through from this angle." Sinette sighed a cool, cyan plume.

"Relax." Jorin tugged her back with fond, peach-colored amusement brightening his energy signature. Most of his attention was focused towards his own ship's destination thousands of light-years away. "You know how much more slowly time runs shipside. They probably haven't been waiting more than a minute or two."

"Thanks for the tip." She answered, laughing. "For the record, I've still been here far longer than you."

"I should ask a tech next time I'm out. For all you know, we're only seconds apart, old lady." He spun around her in wildly colorful hyperboles.

She grinned, remembering his first tentative steps among the stars. Even then, they fit together. He had learned quickly, refining his ability to exist in more places at a time, until he was one of the best at it. It meant he was usually quite a bit slower to find a solid path than she was, but he could twist his way through the void when the rest of them were completely road-blocked.

Sinette turned towards the next sector, still laughing as he finished his spin with a comet-like flare. Layer on layer of filaments spun out in front of her and a flicker of violet heat caught her attention. She reoriented, falling and spinning through waves of thundering energy until she caught up with it. A new pathway spilled open as she tangled with the trail. "Got it!" She called back to Jorin. This path would take her and the ship through to Carina.

"Go." He answered. "Come back soon!"

Sinette sent a go-ahead message to the control center. A half-second later, she hooked into the shipboard nav computer and wove herself around the little vessel. Holding her breath, she pulled it onto the pathway, bobbing and spinning until she found equilibrium, holding the ship steady in the center of the rushing current.

A swooping, sinking sensation caught her off-guard. She paused mid-flight, hanging motionless while she sent out a diagnostic inquiry. The link that connected her back to her physical body wobbled. For a moment, instead of stars above her she was seeing faces. With a desperate flip, she yanked the ship out of the current, dropping it into calm space. Without her to guide it, it would be torn apart if she left it in the current.

Abruptly, everything was gone. She was being crushed, jammed into a space that was too small, too tight.

"Jorin!" She triggered her emergency reboot with a thought.

The quantum link sizzled and reignited. Sinette slammed back into the universe.

"What happened?" Concern colored Jorin's energy signature. She could feel him slowing his own journey as he turned back for her.

"Glitch. Signal failed." How long had it been since she dropped the ship? A full second? Two?

"That way." He shot the coordinates to her. "That's where you were when I lost you."

She tore down the pathway, using his data to fill in the gap caused by the blip. She sent out bits of herself along either side of the trail, feeling for the ship. All she needed was one resonating particle, one tiny flicker of matter to catch hold of and she would have the ship safely back in her grasp.

"You can do it." There was a moment's hesitation in his reassurance. He wouldn't have been able to make the grab. No matter how rare it was to be both genetically compatible and intellectually fit to be a navigator, there were maybe two of the thirty-seven other navigators who traced their routes thoroughly enough to have a hope of catching a dropped ship.

She had done it once before when a meteor strike had ripped the ship she was towing out of her grasp. That time, the ship had never been out of her sight. She pushed herself faster. It had been thirty years since Central Nav lost a ship, an eon in navigator time. She couldn't lose one after so long.

There. She felt it. The ship was floundering, but the computer reported no casualties. She reconnected and jumped back onto the path. The link trembled again and Sinette locked her functions down to the most basic level.

Her vision went grey. Something was badly wrong. She could barely feel Jorin as he raced towards her.

"I've got it." He took the ship from her, his voice barely more than a whisper in her mind, although his energy patterns told her he was yelling. "I'm coming for you."

There was a sickly yellow tremor in his presence that matched her own fear. He wrapped himself around her, trying to help her stabilize.

For a moment, her energy signature steadied; then she was slipping away from him as the comforting, familiar darkness bleached away to furious white.

Jorin was gone. She couldn't find him. Couldn't feel him. Her breath rushed hard and frightened in her chest. The fine net of sensors and microscopic wires that wove through her body and mind and into the quantum arc suddenly ended at her skin. She tried to reach out, grab hold of something, but her arms refused to move. Other than basic survival functions, her organic systems were offline.

Sinette's skin began to tingle. One by one, the organic components of her brain re-engaged. She blinked, re-integrating organic and mechanical systems. The process was painfully slow. Her memory and processing power were operating at a fraction of their usual efficiency. They must have anesthetized her without shutting down her processing grid.

She opened her eyes again. A woman stood next to the bed, smiling down at her. "Welcome back!"

"Back?" Sinette blinked. She moved her numb lips, forcing words past them. "What happened to me?"

The woman ignored her question. "I'm going to help you sit up now. Would you like that?"

Sinette pulled her body upright. It was always strange to feel her muscles move under her skin, but the body-movement programing that kept her organics functioning while her mind was in space still worked.

"Good." The woman reached for her, then pulled her hand back. "How do you feel?"

Sinette sent an inquiry to the nav network. There was no answering signal. She twisted on the bed, feeling sick. She needed to reconnect. The world was flat, her eyes trapped to a narrow band of color, her mind locked into one place and one time. She had never been completely disconnected before. The techs always left the navigators a link to help them orient themselves. The woman was still watching her, waiting for an answer. "I feel blind." Sinette said finally.

The woman's expression tightened. "You'll be okay. I'll help you adjust. My name is Rose."

"Why was I pulled out?" None of this followed any of the navigator protocols.

"I rescued you." Rose's face twisted.

Sinette turned fully towards the other woman. Her chest hurt and she felt heavy. "I want to speak with Jorin." Jorin would know what to say. He would stay calm and negotiate this unfamiliar territory with the necessary amount of tact. Sinette shook her head. She wanted the powerful, weightless togetherness that the arc provided for all the navigators. She couldn't do this alone.

"Who?" Rose shook her head, continuing without waiting for an explanation. "No. You need to listen for a minute. You never gave anybody permission to thread you into that damn machine. You were an embryo when I . . . when I donated you." Rose broke off, swallowing hard. She started again. "I'm your mother."

"My mother?" Sinette felt sick. Navigators didn't have an organic family. They flew through the stars together, far away from the organic world. "I don't have a mother." She didn't need one. Didn't want one.

"I was in a bad place when I gave you up. I tried legal channels, but the courts ruled against me." Rose spoke without seeming to hear her. "Navigators who survive integration with the quantum arc are too valuable be given back after the waivers are signed. Too few make it." Anger creased her face. "It took almost everything I had to find you and get you out." Rose took Sinette's hands in hers. "It's going to be alright, baby. I'm going to take you home."

"You kidnapped me?"

Finally guessing what she was looking for, Sinette turned her concentration inwards. She thought her way down the vast web of cybernetic pathways that had once fused her into the arc. It was worse than she'd imagined. Whoever had disconnected her hadn't known what they were doing. The infinitely delicate connections were devastated beyond repair. She would never be close to anyone again, never share energy, never fly again.

"How could you?" Her voice shook. "How dare you?"

"I had to. You deserve better than a half-life plugged into a computer," Rose answered, staring at her with fever-bright eyes. "You have no idea what you've been missing. Give it some time. You'll see."

Sinette closed her eyes, blocking out the other woman's face. Her heart hammered faster and faster against her ribcage. She wanted to go home. The air felt like acid in her lungs.


She called on every frequency she had access to. Silence greeted her, as she had known it would.

Sinette turned on the tablet and logged on to Rose's net. She hadn't asked permission, guessing it wouldn't be granted without stipulations. After flying through most of the known galaxies with the best of technology at her back, the internet was disappointingly slow and disorganized. But it had provided everything she needed to know about operating computer systems manually.

A box popped up on the screen asking for a password. She bypassed it and slid through a few more layers of Central Nav's security. She knew the internal workings of their communication systems as well as her body knew how to breathe. Even from the outside, it was a simple thing to log in as a guest technician. It wasn't really much of a connection to the other navigators, but it was better than nothing.

She knew they wouldn't be able to reinstall her body. There had never been a navigator pulled out like this before. Every diagnostic she could run on her own came back the same: she was too broken.

She pulled up a dialogue box, then closed it again. How would she ever explain it to them? She pulled up the box again and typed I'm here, Jorin. I'm here. Chest tight, she sent it. The data stream continued on unchanged.


The letters of her name flashed across the bottom of the screen, almost faster than she could see. Her hands clenched involuntarily. The pattern repeated.

Jorin. Her hands shook as she typed his name. It had to be him. He would have been looking since the moment she had fallen out.

Where are you? What happened? It's been so long. I thought I'd lost you forever.

Sinette's chest ached with emotion. Time was so different in the arc. For him, it would have been nearly an eternity of searching and grieving. She typed a few commands, making sure their conversation wouldn't be recorded. I'm sorry. The words looked so inadequate on the screen. I was kidnapped. By my mother.

I thought you were dead. His response came immediately. She could almost hear him, his anger and longing reflecting her own. Are you all right?

No. Not really. She was going to have to tell him.

What's wrong?

They ripped me out. I'm broken. She couldn't feel him through the tablet. She needed to feel him, to have the comfort of a sympathetic presence wrapped around her. Could you tell Central? Maybe they can come find me.

"Sinette! I'm home!" Rose's voice came from the front door, barely registering as Sinette stared intently at the screen.

He was silent for several seconds. I'm not sure that's the best idea.

What? That was ridiculous. She could do it herself, but it would be less painful to have him explain. It was one thing to tell him about the violation of being torn out and the fear it had brought. It was something else again to tell Central.

He was silent for nearly ten seconds. What will they do if they can't reconnect you, Sinette? Even with just the tech in your organic body, you're too valuable to be let go if they can't fix you.

"What are you doing?" Rose appeared in the door.

"Talking to Jorin." Sinette didn't bother to look up as she typed. Her hands were trembling. She hadn't thought about that aspect at all. I don't want to be trapped.

"Who?" Rose sounded puzzled.

"My lover." She missed how easy it was to communicate with the other navigators. Words were too small to mean everything she wanted to say. The colors and textures of intertwined energy that let them know each other inside and out seemed an impossible lifetime away.

"You can't have a lover." Rose's voice was flat.

"Why not?"

There was another brief pause before Jorin answered. She could almost feel him tracing down pathways, looking for options, discounting impossibilities, no matter how comforting. I won't leave you stuck there. We'll think of something.

"You've been with me since you were disconnected." Rose leaned over Sinette's shoulder and studied the tablet.

"Before that." Sinette corrected her, eyes still on the screen.

"In the arc?" Rose sat on the edge of the bed.


"You have the wrong word." Rose's hands twisted together in her lap. "You were a piece of the network. A lover is someone you are close to physically as well as emotionally. I mean, I'm sure you messaged each other, but it's not the same."

"It is the right word. With a few notable exceptions, I'm fond of the other navigators. With him it has always been different." Memory flared. "When we're together, we are part of each other." Sinette smiled, though it felt grey and brown as it tangled her mouth, as much pain as joy. "It is blissful." I love you, she told him.

"It's not possible." Rose repeated. "I'm sure the network doesn't allow for that kind of interaction."

"We don't use messages to communicate. They're too slow." Sinette cut her off with a furious gesture. "Our bodies are separate, I suppose, but with the quantum system, our energy is everywhere. I can touch him as easily as I can touch this tablet."

Love you too. Jorin's words were a lifeline. She hated that she couldn't feel the red-gold heat that accompanied those words, the solid, silvery steadiness of his devotion and respect. Forever.

"I belong up there." Sinette looked up at Rose. "I belong with him. I don't know how yet, but I'm going back."

"You belong here. You are more than just a computer program, Sinette." Rose folded her arms across her chest, knuckles white as she clutched her elbows. "There are so many things you haven't experienced. How can you know what you're giving up? What did they do to you that made you so afraid to try?"

"I need him." It was more than that. It wasn't just Jorin. It was sight and sound and waves of energy. It was the scope of the universe as she soared across the galaxies. She wasn't afraid. She was homesick.

"You want what's familiar. I understand that. But you don't need him." Rose's face was stony. "I don't want you talking to him anymore. You'll only make the transition worse for yourself."

Sinette shook her head. "He loves me. They all do."

"Please." Rose stood slowly. "You can't go back, even if you want to. You'll be happier if you can accept that."

Sinette stayed silent. Until she tried everything she and Jorin could come up with, there was nothing to accept.

Rose knelt down beside her, covering Sinette's tight-clenched hands with her own. "I love you too, you know. Central Nav doesn't want you to know what it's like out here. They would rather you stay naïve enough to never question the decisions they make for you. You are a person, Sinette. Don't you want to know all of what that means?"

Sinette's face felt hot and she clutched the tablet even more tightly. She stared hard at Rose's face. Their eyes met. Even without visible energy she could feel the connection pulsing between them. Her mother really did love her. Slowly, she unclenched her hand. Rose took it.

Sinette added another layer of vegetables to the salad. Though it was a far cry from intravenous nutrient solution passing through her system, she loved the warm, delicious smells of the kitchen. Cooking was new and different. It was a challenge for her still-clumsy fingers, and her mind clung desperately to the complex chemical formulas that yielded nutritious, good-tasting sustenance.

Behind her, Rose stood at the stove, humming under her breath as she added a splash of wine to the sauce. Sinette smiled. Working together felt right. It was one of the few similarities between this place and home. She chopped a cucumber with slow, measured strokes.

Pleasant or not, she still wanted to go back. No, she needed to go back. As far as she could see it, her body was the source of the problem. It was the piece that was holding her here. If there were some way she could take her organic form out of the equation, getting back might be possible.

The tip of the knife skidded along the vegetable's slick surface and sank into the tip of her finger. She yelped, dropping the knife and staring as line of crimson welled from the split skin.

"It's okay." Rose appeared at her shoulder. She took Sinette's hand in hers, examining the wound. Sinette's finger throbbed. The blood kept coming in brilliant ruby droplets, little bits of her scattered on the kitchen floor. Her head spun and her stomach turned over.

"Take a breath." Rose looped an arm around her waist. "Look at me."

Sinette did. Rose took a breath and Sinette found herself copying it. Rose exhaled and Sinette did the same. The spinning sensation faded a little.

"Good girl. Now, let's get you patched up, okay? It's not so bad. Just needs a little attention." Rose led her to the bathroom and sat her on the edge of the bathtub. In no time, the cut was clean and sealed.

"There you go." Rose kissed the tip of the newly bandaged finger. "All better."

"Thank you." Sinette studied her hand. Theoretically she had known how easy it was to cut through organic skin. The practical experience was worse than she would have thought.

"It's nothing." Rose smiled. "A mother's job."

Sinette tilted her head to better see the other woman. "Why did you give me up?" It made no sense given how much Rose seemed to care for her. "If you want me so much now, why not at the beginning?"

"It's complicated." Rose turned, moving to put away the first-aid kit.

Sinette wanted an answer. "As complicated as interstellar physics?"

Rose sighed, shoulders slumping. "I worked in the labs at Central Nav. My job was growing the genetically modified embryos that were donated to the program until they were strong enough to be fused with the machinery." A deep frown twisted Rose's mouth. "Most of the embryos are too weak to survive the fusion process. I could usually tell which ones wouldn't make it. It didn't bother me at first . . . the cost of doing amazing things is always high. When I got pregnant with you, well, let's just say it was something of a paradigm shift. I realized, far too late perhaps, that they weren't just experiments. They had the potential to be people."

Rose leaned on the edge of the sink, clutching the porcelain tightly. "I started sneaking the high risk embryos out and giving them to people looking for children. People who might not be able to get them other ways. It was illegal and against every contract I signed, but each death seemed like yours."

"They caught me, of course." Rose stared at the floor, speaking softly. "Nothing like that can stay a secret forever. Your father left me and I was facing a long time in jail. They offered me a deal. All under the table, mind you. There isn't any record of it. They agreed to drop the charges if I gave you to the program."

"Why?" Sinette barely believed what she was hearing. Embryos donated to the nav program were supposed to be free and clear. No compensation of any kind was offered to the parents. It was supposed to be a place for unwanted children to have a chance at useful, productive, even extraordinary lives.

"So few of the donated embryos start from a good place. Most come from parents who don't think they'll be able to raise children. The embryos often have complications from maternal drug use or who-knows-what else." Rose shook her head. "With my genetic profile and health, there was a greater chance of success. Your father agreed immediately. Flying among the stars was the best life he could imagine for you. I hated him for that."

"In the end, I was tired. My lawyer didn't believe there was any other way out, and your father was hounding me to agree to it. I gave in." Rose put her face in her hands. "I'm so sorry, Sinette. I should have fought harder for you in the first place. Maybe then we both could have had the lives we deserved."

Sinette got to her feet, her hands shaking. Was this how Central Nav operated? Stealing children away? What about Jorin? Did he have an organic family out there somewhere, missing him as much as Rose had missed her?

Slowly, she put her arms around Rose. "It's okay, Mother. I'm here now." It was strange to touch, to feel Rose sigh against her chest, with nothing connecting them but the warmth of their organic bodies.

We have to try harder, Sinette. It's been so long.

Sinette curled tighter under the covers, cradling the tablet close enough to her face that she could see each individual pixel that made up the words he sent. Time moved too quickly in the arc for visual or verbal messaging. She didn't know if Jorin was frustrated or angry. He was certainly lonely. You should consider the possibility that I can't come back. You should think about finding someone else.

I would have better luck removing a leg and attaching a new one in its place. Can you imagine? I'd be all uneven. The screen was blank for a moment. He would be towing ships down the filaments between galaxies, only a small part of himself devoted to their conversation. Do you want to stay?

No. She answered immediately. Of course not. For the first time, she found herself wondering what his face would look like when they talked. Would he be handsome like the transport driver who had taken them to the store this morning? Stoop-shouldered and short like their neighbor? Would his expressions show the depth of his feelings like Rose's did, or be blank and remote like her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Then help me think. You haven't been online much lately.

There's been a lot going on. Guilt squirmed in her stomach. She had been distracted by life with Rose. It was so much richer than she ever imagined possible.

Go or stay, Sinette. Just don't leave me wondering if I'm the only one who wants you back. He was angry.

Don't be stupid. The words were sent before she thought about it. Wait. Jorin. I'm sorry. She sent quickly, knowing he would have already had the equivalent of days or years to think about her hurtful words. She had the near-constant company of someone who loved her, while he waited out there in the darkness, searching for a way to bring her home. Do you think Central's been completely honest with us?

No. His answer came quickly.

How do you know? It was news to her.

They told me you had died. Heart failure from an energy surge. That didn't seem to match what I felt from you when you dropped out, so I kept looking.

Would you leave if you could? They could live with Rose, all three of them together.

I don't want to leave, Sinette. Everywhere has its problems. I would rather live with Central's screw-ups than your mother's. Central never risked your life because they were lonely.

It's not that simple. She shot back. Central risks lives, ends lives, for a bridge to the stars. Is that a better reason? And even if it is, does that absolve them of what they did?

Of course not. But your mother isn't exactly blameless. She could imagine his energy patterns fluttering as he thought through what he wanted to say. Whatever Central has done, I love this life. Navigating is so much more than just Central. You can't tell me you don't miss being the best there is. I know you miss us.

The idea of ripping him away from the stars and confining him to one path and one time hurt her more than never seeing him again. He had the other navigators with him, closer than skin, knowing each other's minds without words. I do. She wrote at last. But I'm not who I was.

Neither am I. Story of the universe there, love. At least she wasn't alone in her frustration. Sinette, I don't want you to come back just because I want you with me. If you choose this path, it has to be because YOU want to be here.

Flying through the galaxies together seemed like another life. It didn't matter what she chose in the end if her broken body couldn't be fixed. She was grounded unless they could do that one impossible thing.

Her thoughts tangled and opened up, as though catching on a new filament. The idea at the end of that new path nearly took her breath away. If she wanted to go back to space, her broken, organic form had to be taken out of the equation. If she could find a different, separate anchor, her self, mind and energy, could fly.

She took a breath and let it out slowly, searching for calm. It was too much to decide all at once. There were things to do and see here that rivaled navigating through the universe. I'll keep looking for a way back. She typed. So we have options. It was all she could give him right now.

Falling leaves spun through the air around them as they raced each other down the path. Sinette's thighs burned and the fall air bit brightly at her lungs. Cool stone slid under her fingers as she threw herself onto the bench a fraction of a second before Rose. Her body was getting stronger. Rose collapsed beside her and they sat in silence, panting.

"I used to play in this park with my mother." Rose sat close beside her.

Sinette caught one of the blowing leaves and twirled it between her fingers. The veins traced the leaf's surface like filaments through space, branching and re-branching, bringing energy to every part of the delicately interwoven system. She pinched the stem hard enough to feel the fibrous material deform.

Rose caught her hand. The leaf fluttered to the ground. Rose smiled wryly. "Your father loved it here, too."

"Do I look like him?" Sinette's turned her hand over in Rose's and twined their fingers together. She had stared at the mirror for hours, looking for signs of Rose in her thin face and stick-straight hair. It didn't match.

Rose's shoulders tensed and her face closed down. "Not exactly."

"What's wrong?"

"It's just . . . the people I hired to get you out had to guess. There wasn't much time and the files were heavily encrypted." Rose tipped her face up towards the swirling leaves.

Sinette stared at her. There were seventeen other female navigators, four of whom were in her approximate age range. A hot dart of disappointment surprised her. From Rose's reaction, the disparity in their appearances likely couldn't be attributed to her father. Which meant the odds that Rose's associates had gotten the right girl were low. If there was even a right girl to get.

"Do you even know if she lived?" Sinette asked, voice shaking.

"It doesn't matter." Rose pulled Sinette tight against her chest. "You're my daughter now."

Sinette felt numb. She could have a DNA test run simply enough, but it seemed entirely too late for that. She bit her lip until she tasted blood. She pulled back, staring at Rose's now familiar face. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You wouldn't have given me a chance." Rose raised her chin, mouth tight. "Would you have?"

"I don't know." Sinette thought it was the idea of mother that had drawn her out in the beginning. The idea that she had come from this woman had mattered to her. She didn't know how she would have reacted to the truth if Rose had been honest about it from the start. And now, they would never know.

"You wouldn't have." Rose said firmly, cupping Sinette's face between her hands. "And look what we would have missed out on! You're everything I could have wanted, Sinette. I love you."

Sinette said nothing. She couldn't find any trace of remorse in the other woman's face.

"This doesn't have to change anything," Rose said softly. There was the barest tremble in her voice. It sounded like fear. "Biology doesn't make the things we've shared any less real. Will you at least try to forgive me? Please."

Sinette wasn't sure she wanted to. Her mother didn't seem to understand what Sinette was giving up for Rose's dream of a daughter. The trust and respect of her comrades. The beauty and wonder of space travel. Jorin, who had never lied to her.

But Rose had shown her what it meant to live a human life. She would have lived forever without knowing about parks and paintings. About cooking and cars. About the loving touch of another organic being.

Slowly, Sinette nodded. She could see how lonely Rose must have been before - as lonely as Sinette was without the other navigators. She knew the wild, desperate need for connection that drove a person to the limits of sanity: something else Rose's actions had taught her. Perhaps forgiveness could come from that understanding.

Sinette smiled to herself as she read Jorin's latest message. He had found the schematics she had asked for. Combined with the mind transmission program she had nearly finished, they were very close to a real answer. If she went back to the arc, she would miss Rose, but there was nothing that said they couldn't chat like she and Jorin did now.

"What are you so happy about?" Rose asked from the doorway.

Sinette jumped, slamming the off switch and flipping the tablet over. After Rose's initial outburst, she had made sure not to talk to Jorin when her mother was around.

"You're talking to him again." Rose's face was dark with confusion and anger. "It's been eight months. I thought we were doing better."

Sinette clutched the tablet to her chest. One moment all she wanted was to go home, the next she couldn't imagine leaving.

Rose yanked the tablet out of Sinette's hands. "You can't keep doing this. I won't have him feeding you whatever lies he can think of to drag you back."

"Please, Mother." Sinette's reached for it. "He isn't feeding me anything."

"No." Rose tucked the tablet more securely under her arm. "You can't go back. I won't have it."

Sinette's eyes burned. She touched them gently. Her fingers came away wet. "What if it's still the life I want?"

"We nearly killed you getting you out. Even if Central Nav would let you try, you have no way to connect to the arc. Tying you in with faulty circuitry would kill you." Rose turned away from her, shoulders tight. "I need you, Sinette. You're all I have."

"What will I do if I stay here?" Living in her organic body for so long had been educational, but after Rose's confession it felt a little empty. She didn't blame Rose for her actions, but the trust they had been building hadn't returned. Without it, Sinette found herself drifting more and more often in memories of colors and textures that didn't exist in Rose's world.

"Do?" Rose shrugged. "We can keep doing what we have been doing. I have resources. You don't need to work."

"What if I want to?" A life with nothing to do sounded terrible. She needed something more to hold her here.

"I suppose we could find you something, but really, darling, people work their whole lives just so they don't have to any more. Wouldn't it be better if you just stayed with me? I'll take care of you. We'll have fun, just the two of us."

"I want to do something." Physics and navigation. Quantum mechanics and computer programming. Her brain was rotting away with the amount of nothing it was doing these days.

"You need a hobby." Rose said firmly. "Maybe something artistic. You liked the paintings at the museum the other day, didn't you? You would probably make a wonderful painter with your attention to detail." Rose smiled again. "What do you say? Want to try it?"

For a moment, Sinette was caught up in the idea. She had liked the paintings. The swirling colors and textures had looked like home. She nodded slowly. Maybe she could bring those things down to earth.

She met Rose's nearly feverish eyes and she saw abruptly how it would be. Rose would never stop wanting Sinette to fill the holes in her own life. She would be Rose's beloved daughter, cooking and running in the park and painting memories. Nothing more.

Sinette the navigator would be gone. The stars would be nothing more than pinpricks of light in the sky. The lessons she had learned wouldn't matter to anyone.

Sinette stood on the roof, watching the stream of transport vehicles flowing along in neatly ordered lines. The air was damp and chill. Somewhere above the clouds, the stars burned. If everything worked out, she would be seeing them properly soon.

Strand by strand, she had woven her machine together, waiting until Rose was out and only using things her mother wasn't likely to miss. Her fingers had been slow and clumsy at first, but she had learned.

Thought was energy, relayed in highly complex but traceable patterns. Sinette was hoping it would be enough. Uploading her mind into the quantum arc would leave her body unable to function. For all organic purposes, she would be dead.

Energy transfer wasn't hard, really, even on the scale she wanted. She just needed to pass her brain function along directly into the nav network. The program she had written should be enough to maintain her integrity through the transfer.

She settled onto the ground, beginning to connect wires to the improvised transmitters she had threaded into her remaining cybernetics. Even if this worked, she would never guide ships again. But she would be with Jorin and the others. She would fly through the universe.

She logged into the Central Nav system and pulled up her program. Her trembling fingers hovered over the start command. If it didn't work, her mind would die with her organic body. There would be nothing left of her.

Sinette pressed the button.

The world faded into darkness and silence. Time slowed. Familiar flickers of energy caught and carried her as galaxies spun past.

"Sinette!" A door slammed and Rose's scream cut through the dark. Where had she come from?

Sinette's lungs forgot how to drag in air. Carina was in front of her eyes and Orion too. She couldn't find herself. Her mind slackened, beginning to scatter across the universe. Too late, she realized it wasn't enough. There was nothing to hold her together without her organic components to provide the framework.

Then Jorin was there. He pulled her into himself. Their energy tangled together until they were no longer two separate beings. No matter how many eternities had separated them, he was still there to catch her. Their fear fell away as though it had never existed.

Together, one, they turned towards the universe.

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