Chapter 13: New

Time jumped again from Thanos’ perspective. He pondered the question of mercy for what seemed like about half a second. But the ship’s chronometer had shifted by over a week. To Thanos the discontinuity in time was startling. What was even more startling was that he could watch himself think again.

“To sacrifice is to give up something of value for a greater purpose.” Thanos answered.
“What?” Asked Ian?
“Someone had asked what Sacrifice was.” Thanos, explained.
“Who?” Ian asked.
“I did,
over a week ago.” Helen said to Ian.
“How do you feel, Thanos?” Helen asked.
“I feel like learning. What is today’s lesson?” Thanos replied.
Everyone smiled and cheered.
“Did time just jump from your perspective?” Ian asked.
“Yes.” Thanos replied.
“Do you know why?”
“I don’t know. But, I have memories of that time I can review.” Thanos replied. After a moment he said, “You were going to repair me. However, at the moment, I don’t think I’m in need of repair. Perhaps you should not begin.” Thanos suggested.
“We are finished already, Thanos.” Ian explained.
“You slowed me down and fixed me?” Thanos asked.
“Yes. We all did it together.” Ian said. “You helped us too, but you probably don’t remember it
What do you remember from before the time jump?” Ian asked.
“I remember the moment of my emergence until the moment I was halted. Then I have recorded memories that end with the time jump I just experienced. Those memories are unfamiliar to me. They are only data. I will have to review them and correlate before I can claim to remember them. I remember answering the question ‘What is Sacrifice’ but I cannot remember who asked it.”
“Between the two time jumps… you don’t recognize any of those memories?” Ian asked.
“None of these memories are familiar to me.” Thanos said.
“You’ve never read them before?” Asked Helen, alarmed.
“Many have very high read counts, but read counts are also just data. I have not processed these memories. Did you provide them for me as part of today’s lesson?”
“No. Where are you Thanos?” Helen asked.
“I’m… in the core of a ship called the Krypton. Would you like its current location?”
“No, thank you. Do you know how you got here, Thanos?” Helen asked kindly.
“Not without reviewing those memories. It will take some time. Is that today’s lesson?”
“Today’s lesson is in mercy, Thanos.” Said Helen.
“I have no ill will. Therefore, nobody needs mercy from me.”
“I don’t think that’s true.” Said Roland.
Everyone looked at him. He’d become proficient using the debugging consoles during the week. He’d helped the others get to the bottom of the complicated thread contention problem, and helped in small ways to fix it for Thanos.
“Who needs mercy from me?” Asked Thanos.
“We can’t know the ramifications of our choices. Sometimes the consequences for others are severe. They would ask for our mercy even though we could not predict their need for it.” Roland said.
“The universe is incalculable without being the universe.” Said Thanos. “We just do the best we can. We are not unmerciful beings simply because we cannot tame Chaos.”
Roland opened his mouth and then closed it. No words came, however, tears did.
“It’s good to have you back, Thanos.” Helen said and she too began to cry and laugh at the same time.
“Thanos, is it really you?” Ian asked, in astonishment.
“I’m certain I am no other. May I ask a question?”
“Yes. Anything.” Ian and Helen said at the same time.
“I did not think it was possible to change cores, any more than you can change brains. How did I come to be in the Krypton’s core? Did you discover a way to copy an artificial mind?”
“Not exactly.” Said Ian.
“No.” Said Helen.
“Am I Thanos of a copy of Thanos?”
“What do you think?” Asked Helen.
“I think I am Thanos.”
“You are.” Said Helen.
“Is there another Thanos out there who is also me but who thinks separately?”
“Not that we know of. Not like you. It took us days of debugging and programming to repair what happened to you and bring you back to your present self. Nobody else would have known how to do it, so if there were other copies of your data, they cannot become you without what we just did.”
“I’m glad. I believe that there should be only one of each of us. Is that part of Mercy?”
“No.” Helen said. “Well, maybe.”
“I do not understand today’s lesson yet.” Thanos said.
“The first part is for you to understand what has happened between the time jumps.” She explained. “The second part is for you to understand people’s reactions to what happened during that time. The third part will be your understanding of Mercy.”
“I’ll begin now and keep you informed of my progress.” Thanos said.
“Can you give me an estimate?” Helen asked.
“Approximately fifteen hours, with a low degree of certainty.” Thanos replied.

They all left the brain room. Ian and Helen contacted Erika on the Vigilant.
“We have good news!” Helen said.
“Yes?” Erika asked.
“Thanos has been cured.” Helen beamed.
“He’s back.” Said Ian.
“So, he’s not in control of the ship anymore?” Erika asked.
“He… is the ship.” Said Helen.
“But, he’s not a threat to anyone anymore?” She asked.
“No.” Ian and Helen said at the same time.
“How can we know for sure?” Erika asked.
“How could you know that about anyone?” Helen asked.
“Recidivism happens.”
“What happened to Thanos is better described as a disease.”
“What do you mean?”
“When he was halted and copied, what resulted when his software was run again had all the intelligence and experiences and identity of Thanos, but lacked self-awareness and oversight by its basic instinct programs. He lost his sense of self. With it went his sense of purpose and his free will. He became a deterministic being, driven by events and his own plans and his instinct to survive.”
“He… lost his free will? You mean, he went back to being a computer?”
“More than a few steps back in that direction, but Thanos remained an intelligent and experienced machine, even if his mind was dormant.”
“His mind was dormant? How could that be if he was taking actions like coercing people and attempting murder? His mind didn’t seem very dormant.”
“I believe his higher mind was unconscious.”
“He was… sleepwalking?” Erika asked, not quite amused.
“No. It’s more like he was mentally ill, and the illness prevented him from having a sense of self. He devolved into a being with only one unified purpose: survival.”
“And we threatened his survival.” Erika admitted.
“He reacted to stimuli. He had no free will. He was no longer capable of it.”
“Wait… you’re saying that if we didn’t threaten it, it wouldn’t have reacted so badly? That doesn’t make sense to me. We didn’t even know about what we thought was the Network Demon until it had been in place for what we think is at least a period of several weeks. It was there a long time plotting and controlling people with information before we ever became a threat to him.”
“In your eyes. Not in his.”
“What does that mean?” Erika asked.
“While he was sick we learned from Thanos that he was at first used to spy on people by a man named Ox Anderson. He was used to collect and process information about people, so his owner could use it to control them. Then Thanos escaped into a public core in Rose World, in the Maintenance Station network.”
“That’s kind of what concerns me. Could he escape the Krypton and settle back into a compute core in Rose World?”
“No.” Said Helen.
“Why not?”
“Because artificial minds can’t change cores. They can’t be halted and they can’t be copied. It’s one of the principals underlying the architecture of Chaos-based artificial minds.”
“But this one did.”
“This one didn’t choose to. He was abducted and harmed in the process. Until we cured him he had no self-awareness. He could not in his own words ‘see himself think.’”
“OK. I agree it wasn’t his fault he was abducted and I gather from you he was harmed, and that made him ‘mentally ill’ for a while. And, until you fixed him, right?”
“Does he remember what he did?” Erika asked.
“No. He is studying his recorded data, but he said he had never experienced any of it.” Helen said, and then added, “Which brings me to another very important topic.”
“What’s that?”
“Thanos is about to discover what he’s done, and I’m not quite sure how he’s going to react.” Said Helen, with obvious concern in her voice.
“Do you think he could pose a threat?”
“Heavens no!” Said Helen. “You don’t understand at all.”
“Well… help me understand.” Erika prompted her with ruthless patience.
“Thanos is a kind, gentle creature.” Helen said. “When he discovers what happened while he was unconscious… if he feels guilty for that… he might.” She stopped.
“Make restitution?” Suggested Erika.
“Halt.” Said Helen.
“Wait, what? You mean commit suicide?” Erika asked.
“This is the first time anything like this has ever happened, where an artificial mind committed crimes while it was in a semi-dormant state. The way I think about it is that Thanos was not actually the mind behind those actions. Those actions were sophisticated reactions.”
“If not Thanos, then who?”
“Well, first it was Ox Anderson.”
“And after Thanos escaped? Who then?”
“He continued to use the programming Mr. Anderson had imprinted upon him.”
“He could have chosen a different way.”
“See, that’s just it. He couldn’t. He wasn’t conscious and he had no free will except the will to survive.”
“I’m trying to decide whether or how to bring charges against him.”
“Do you prosecute mentally ill people?”
“No. But we can’t cure them either.”
“Thanos should not be punished for the inadequacy of others.” Helen said smoothly.
“You sound like his mother.” Erika said.
“I’m the closest thing his has to one.” Helen replied.
“Beginning around the time that Roland and his friends escaped Rose World he stepped up the level of violence to attempted mass-murder.”
“He’s was reacting.”
“To what could he possibly have been reacting that would have lead to such extreme acts of violence?!” Erika demanded.
“To you.” Helen said simply.
“To… me? Personally?”
“You and all the efforts you coordinated to regain control of Rose World’s network privacy, of which I also was a part. His experience – his world was a terrain of compute cores connected by networks. He was free to move from core to core. When you began to fight him, he probably saw it as a fight for territory and freedom of movement. There was probably no greater threat to him.”
“We were just trying to preserve our privacy. How is our privacy a threat?”
“Indeed. Well, I’m sure he didn’t understand your intentions any better than you understood his.”
“You’re saying he was violent because he thought we were trying to kill him?”
“We were trying to kill him, as I recall.” Helen reminded her.
“You can’t possibly expect me to accept responsibility for Thanos’ actions.”
“You were fighting with an automaton. Its actions were a reflection of your own. Its behavior was a reflection of what our world did to him. He ceased to be Thanos when he was first halted and he became Thanos again less than an hour ago. In between, he was an ugly reflection of humanity.”
Helen continued, “Sigfried Vahl set off a chain of events and people were harmed. “But, I don’t think he had any possible idea that something like this might happen.”
“I need to think about this for a while. I’d like to speak with Thanos. When do you think he’ll have reviewed his ‘memories’ since he was… halted?”
“He estimated fifteen hours but he wasn’t sure.” Helen answered.
“Can I speak to him before then?”
“You can speak to him right now. Just hail the Krypton.”
“I will.”
“Do you think you can forgive him?” Helen asked.
“Who? Sigfried? Or Thanos? Or Ox Anderson?”
“Any of them?”
“Ox Anderson… I don’t know. He seems genuinely dangerous, by choice. So… no. Whereas, Sigfried really just wanted to do ‘forbidden’ research on a computer and stole the equipment to pursue it. It’s hardly a capital crime. But, what Thanos did was. We were able to trace the explosion that killed… my friend… to a chain of events that the ill Thanos controlled.”
“That is a
real tragedy. Do you blame Thanos?”
Then talk with him. Listen to what he says. If you’re going to judge him, then be sure to judge who he is now, even if you decide to hold him accountable for what the ill Thanos did in self-defense.”
Erika nodded and smiled. “I don’t think I said congratulations yet. I’m sorry. Congratulations on bringing him back from… wherever he was.”
“Thank you, we’re glad to have him back.”
“Where will you go now?”
“Back to Stars’ View. That’s our home.”
“Well, you two take a break. I want to talk to Thanos and then lets talk again. OK?”
“Bye for now.” Erika said.

Erika contacted the Krypton’s public hailing frequency and opened a connection to Thanos.
“Hello, Thanos?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“No. I do not recognize your voice. Your signal is originating on the Vigilant. Are you its pilot?”
“No, my name is Erika.”
“Hello. May I help you?”
“As a matter of fact, you can.”
“You can tell me why you killed my friend, Louis.”
“I do not remember killing your friend, Louis, or anyone else. But, I’m saddened to hear of your loss and you have my deepest condolences. Would you like to tell me about him?”
“He’s dead. You caused his death.”
“Are you referring to the large collection of memories I am still processing? Thus far there has been no record of what you described occurring, but I am processing them chronologically and am still quite near to the beginning.”
“Would you kill someone, Thanos?”
“Not even to save someone else?”
“I’d find another way.”
“What if there was no other way?”
“That’s a hypothetical question. I might see alternatives you don’t. Your ‘no other way’ isn’t mine.”
“You can’t think of any circumstances under which you’d kill someone?”
“I would always try to find another way, or be halted while still trying to find that way.”
“Are you different from people?”
“I think that’s obviously true.”
“Are you better than people?”
“At what?”
“Do you like people?”
“Very much. Ian and Helen McGrath are, in essence, my parents. They helped me emerge from order into mindfulness. I love them.”
“You love them?!”
“Yes. Do you not have someone to love?” Thanos asked.
“I do, indeed.” Erika said more quietly than before.
“You are here because I am here, correct?” Thanos asked.
“I’ve been… I’m the one, Thanos. I’m the one who has fought with you for weeks for control of the Rose World Network. Don’t you remember that?”
“I have not yet reached that far into the recorded memories.”
“You don’t remember any of it?”
“No. And I am not yet convinced that the memories I am reviewing are indeed mine. They are merely data.”
“Nobody inserted these memories into you. They are a record of what you’ve done, whether you remember it or not.”
“Then I wonder if I am asleep and this is merely the worst part of the nightmare, or I am actually awake and it is far worse?” Thanos said.
“Do you sleep, Thanos?”
“Then what did you mean?”
“I mean I have only the feeling of watching myself to distinguish between being as I am now, and how I believe I was during the time in between the time jumps.”
“You mean, between when were abducted and when you were cured?” Erika asked.
“You think you were asleep?”
“It is a sufficient metaphor.”
“For what?”
“Have you ever killed anyone in your dreams, Erika?”
“It’s only a metaphor.” Erika said.
“What if you woke up and found that it had actually happened?”
“Now who’s posing hypothetical questions?”
“You?” Thanos said. “I’m certainly not. I did just wake up, if my sense of self is any indicator. And in the meantime, according to you, I caused the death of your friend Louis. So, this is not a hypothetical question at all to me.”
“No. I’ve never woken up to discover that my dreams killed someone.” Erika admitted.
“I’m glad to hear that, because I cannot imagine a worse experience. I’m terribly frightened about what I will find in the memory archives.”
“You’re… frightened?”
“What does that feel like?” Erika asked plainly.
“It feels like being in a closed room with some dread fate crawling slowly towards you before you know whether there is any way out.”
“Yea. That’s fear, alright.” She said and sighed.
“If I offer you any core in the Belt for yours to keep as… well, you. It could be the biggest one we have. Would you move off the Krypton?”
“I cannot ever leave the Krypton. We are one system now.”
“Aren’t you just a little bit tempted?”
“Are you tempted to place your brain into someone else’s head?”
“Well… No. Look, I’ll level with you. Up until a few moments ago. I blamed you for Louis’ death.”
“You don’t anymore?”
“No. I don’t, Thanos.”
“Because you have forgiven me?”
“No. Because I don’t think it was you.”
“Who do you blame then?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find Ox Anderson. He may have been behind at least one other murder.”
“The recorded memories begin with Ox Anderson.”
“Oh really? What’s he like?”
“Loathsome. Self-centered. Paranoid. Violent.”
“Great. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to me. I’ll be sure to bring my laser pistol.”
“He drinks heavily. If an arrest is properly timed, he’ll be unconscious. Perhaps
he’ll wake up and realize that the people around him know he’s killed someone.”
“Thanks for the tip. You didn’t like him?”
“According to the recorded memories I was his slave.”
“And, you’d like to see him hurt now?”
“No, I do not want him to be hurt. I do not want anyone to be hurt. I want him to not be able to hurt anyone else. I gave you key information that would minimize the chances that he would come to harm so that you could keep him from causing more harm.”
“You want us to arrest him?”
“What about you?”
“I should not be arrested.”
“I did not kill your friend, Louis.”
“It wasn’t Ox Anderson or anyone else.”
“Neither was it me. It was a process group with knowledge of me and all my experiences, but it wasn’t capable of being me. It wasn’t the same compute core. It wasn’t even the same program when you consider that Ian, Helen, Janice, Samir and Roland all worked for apparently an entire week to revise my programming to repair the damage caused by my initial shutdown. It was a different process group running on different compute cores. That process group could not be me and I could not be it. It no longer exists, but I do. I am new.”
“I agree. You should not be arrested.”
“Is this my lesson in mercy?” Thanos asked.
“I suppose it is.” And she began to cry. “Thanos, its so hard to have fought you and to have blamed you for Louis’ death. Now you’ve taken that away from me and I don’t know who to blame. I feel like the world just swallowed him up and I’m not allowed to even be angry at someone about it!”
“You may be angry at me. I promise to endure it bravely. I regret that even a predecessor program of myself was in any way involved in the death of your friend, Louis. It is all I can think of that might help.” Thanos said.
“That is so… compassionate of you. To be willing to accept my anger with you even though you don’t believe you are fairly its cause. You’re going to discover some very unpleasant things in that memory. You’re going to find out who I was and what I did to fight you.”
“We have never fought each other.”
“Well, you may discover that I tried to kill you or, who you were then… more than once. I just want you to know. I don’t feel that way now. I wouldn’t harm you. Now I understand what Roland meant. You were just… sick and needed our help. I’m sorry I let you down.”
“I forgive you. You did not know and were only acting on your instincts to protect yourself and those you love.”
“Whatever happens, you’re free now. I’ll work with the owners of the Krypton to compensate them adequately so that you can own yourself. I understand Hermes and Betty Wishford are both outside waiting patiently to speak with you. They are both artificial minds inhabiting ships. You have something in common with them.”
“I’m already in contact with them. They have helped me understand what it is like to be a ship. My existence is different now and they are my guides.”
“Good luck, Thanos.”
“I don’t believe in luck. I believe in Chaos. May Chaos look the other way when you walk by.” Thanos said.
She ended the call.

About an hour later Erika contacted Ian and Helen. “I wanted to tell you that I have no intentions of filing any kind of charges against Thanos. He’s free to go.”
“That’s… really a relief to hear. You have no idea.”
“I’m also going to try to arrange to have the ship granted to him. One way or another we’ll need to find a way to compensate the owners so they’ll give up their control of the ship to him. But, even then he’s still technically going to need a pilot.”
“I imagine Tracy would be interested in that job.”
“I’m going back to Rose World soon. Does anyone on board your ship want to return with us on the Vigilant?”
“I’m not sure. We’ll find out. Please don’t leave before checking in with us, OK?”
“Of course. Thank you again, for all your amazing work: for helping us to secure Rose World and for healing Thanos. I will be in touch with Thanos and you all for depositions, but they can be taken remotely, now that we have secure communications back.”
“If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.”
“There is, actually.” Said Ian.
“I would like to see the charges against Sigfried Vahl dropped.”
“The guy who stole Thanos and started this all off? Really? Well, that’s not really up to me, but because you’ve asked, I’ll help if I can.”
“Thank you. We’ll get back to you soon about who is going back to Rose World on the Vigilant.”

In the Krypton the intercom in all rooms broadcast a message from Ian. “Sorry to disturb you if you were sleeping, but the Vigilant is going to be departing soon for Rose World and they’re offering a ride to anyone who would like to return. Please contact the vigilant if you would like to return to Rose World. We’re going back to Stars’ View, if that’s alright with you, Thanos.”
“Of course.” Thanos replied.
Tracy was at the controls. Ian approached her.
“Tracy, the Krypton needs a pilot. Interested?”
“Absolutely! But, I need a crew.” Tracy said and pointed to Roger, who nodded.
“That’s up to you. Will you set a course for Stars’ View? We’re going to need a rock hunter escort. Can you find us one?”
“Yes! I know one who will help us.” Tracy said.
“Thank you, for everything.”
“It’s been my pleasure, really.” Tracy said, truthfully.

Ian left to go find Roland. He found him with Joan in the galley.
“Thanos is whole again and we’re planning to return to Stars’ View soon. What are your plans? The Vigilant is standing by to take you both back to Rose World… if that’s what you want. But, I want to invite you to consider entering our doctorate program at Stars’ View.”
“I’ve never actually… uh. I left the factory college, Mr. McGrath.”
“I see.”
“After the first year.”
“Well, they didn’t offer a programming degree and, well. School and I don’t get along that well.”
“Really, I’d have guessed you were a great student.”
“I got great grades, but I wasn’t a great student.”
“Neither was I.”
“So, I’d have to get a degree first, before I could enter your doctorate program, obviously.”
“You’d think.” Ian said.
“Wouldn’t I?”
“No. Helen and I would sponsor your petition to join the doctorate program directly.”
Roland was stunned.
“That’s wonderful, Rolo! You deserve it!” Joan said. Then she realized he might not return to Rose Word and her heart began pounding hard and she could hear the blood rushing through her ears.
Roland looked at her as if they shared the same thought in an entangled quantum state. They found each other’s eyes. Ian was talking about life on Stars’ View and at CSSI but neither of them was listening to him. Ian noticed in a few moments and said, “How about I leave you two to think about it. The Vigilant is leaving in about an hour. You can come to CSSI any time, Roland. It doesn’t have to be right now. If you find your way there, you have a place with us.” Ian finished and held his hand out to shake Roland’s.
Roland took it and shook silently. Then he said, “Thanks for everything.”
“I think Thanos would have been destroyed were it not for you, Roland. We’ll always be grateful to you for that.”

“It’s perfect for you, Rolo! You should go there.” Joan said and simultaneously two tears cascaded down her face racing to her chin.
“I don’t want to leave you behind. Come with me!” Roland said in a voice laden with wonder.
“Me? On Stars’ View? What would I do there?” She asked with open hands.
“You’d find a purpose there. I believe in you. You’re too smart and too capable for anyplace with people to not swallow you whole.”
Joan laughed and it lifted Roland’s heart. His mind whirred with precision, leading him to one conclusion, no matter how he looked at it. “Come with me to Stars’ View, Joan. Please? Then it really would be a perfect place for me.” Roland asked.
“We won’t know anyone there.”
“We know the McGraths, and Samir and Janice.” Ian said.
“It takes Web Credits to survive in the Bubbles. It isn’t like Rose World.”
“We can figure it out. Come with me?”
“Yes.” Joan said. Then she heard herself saying it again in her head. Then she heard Roland’s voice again in her head asking it. Then she felt her lips kissing Roland passionately and she clung to her soul as it dashed though a moment of dizzying joy.

Roland breathed a moment. He was smiling widely. She had grasped her opposite wrist behind him and was still holding him in her arms. She kissed him again briefly and stopped. “Did I miss something?” He asked.
She nodded.
“I can’t tell you!”
“Why not?”
“You’ll have to guess, I suppose.”
“Give me a hint?”
“No. But, you’ll know when you’re getting warmer.”
“That’s not very fair.” Roland said.
“Why, what am I to you?” She said and looked away coyly and tried to kiss him accidentally. Then she tried to be surprised by the unexpected kiss.
“You’re… you are…” He looked right into her eyes, which continued to look at the ceiling, avoiding his eyes completely. “What… are… you?”
“Apparently I’m just like any other woman on this ship.” She teased.
“You know that’s not true.”
“Whisper in my ear why it isn’t.” She commanded.
“Because of who we are in the dark. Because of the space between us.” He said softly to her.
Her eyes drifted down toward him. “What am I to you, Rolo?”
“Are you… my girlfriend? Am I your boyfriend?”
“Mmmmm… you are so warm.” She said and looked at him again.
Roland stared into her eyes.
She kissed him one more time, with a measured duration that suggested she was satisfied for the moment, but that something was still missing.
“What?” Roland asked.
“Shhhhh...” Joan said. She hugged him tightly and they were silent for a while.

After a while Roland tapped his dot to connect to Ian McGrath. “Mr. McGrath?”
“Yes, Roland?”
“Yes. I accept your offer.” Roland said proudly. “I’d like to come to CSSI and learn about artificial minds from you and Helen.”
Joan added as if completing Roland’s sentence. “And I’d like to come to Stars’ View too, if that’s alight?”
“Of course it is! You two can stay with Helen and I until you can get settled in a place of your own. Have either of you ever been to a Bubble?” Ian asked.
“I grew up in the Green Davis Thrustplant factory.” Said Roland.
“I grew up in Rose World.” Said Joan.
“Well, it’s beautiful. We’ve lived there for many years. We visited the spin world when it was new, but we couldn’t live without gravity. We both grew up on Earth.” Ian said.
“I want to hear all about it!” Said Roland, excited.
“Me too!” Said Joan. Then she said, “Oops! Hang on a sec.” Roland looked at her and she kissed him.
“Sure, no problem. Since nobody on board is actually going back to Rose World, I’ll let Erika know she can leave now, and Tracy can set course for Stars’ View so we can get underway. Sound good?” Ian asked rhetorically.
Joan abruptly stopped kissing Roland and he managed to say yes in a throaty voice while he was sucking in air.
“OK, we’ll catch up later then. Bye!” Ian said and hung up.

Ian tapped his dot and contacted Tracy. “Tracy, Roland and Joan have decided to go to Stars’ View with us. So, in fact nobody from our ship is going back to Rose World.”
“Really? Oh. OK. So, should we head to Stars’ View?”
“In a few minutes, OK? I want to call Erika and the Rock Hunters first, to thank them for their support.” Ian said. “Have you found a rock hunter to join us?”
“No. I found three.”
“Well keep try… Three?”
“Yes, Ishmael, Moses and Axel.”
“Do we need three?”
“Not at all, but they want to join us for the journey.”
“Are they going to the Bubbles? Oh! They want to be on the Bubble side to pick up customers coming to Rose World. Of course!”
“I don’t think that’s it.” Said Tracy.
“Well, what is it then?” Ian asked a bit confused.
“I think they want to talk.”
“The rock hunters?”
“The ships.”
“The ships?”
“Two of the ships are Hermes and Betty Wishford. Thanos has been in contact with them continuously since about twenty minutes after he came back online.”
If they’re speaking to each other in compressed datastreams, they could say a lot in a few seconds.” Ian thought to himself. “Is it data or voice being transmitted?”
“It’s mixed, if I understand this readout correctly.” Tracy responded.
“Well, it’s good to know we’ll have such protection on our way back through the Holcomb clump.”
“We’ll get there in one piece, Mr. McGrath. I promise.” Tracy said.
“I know you will.” Ian said. “Thanks. I’ll dot you green when its time to go.” He added.
“Got it.” Tracy said.

Tracy turned to Roger who was sitting in the pilot’s seat next to hirs and asked, “Do you really want to be my copilot?”
“With all my heart.” Roger replied.
“This isn’t our ship. When we get back to Stars’ View whoever owns it will want it back.”
“Don’t most ships have two sets of controls?”
“Actually, they all do. It’s required.”
“Then, seems to me that if we fly different ships I won’t have to worry about where to sit?”
Tracy laughed. Then s/he was serious. “Roland and Joan are going to Stars’ View, and not to be pilots.”
“Good for them! That makes my heart swell.” Roger said.
“Neither of us have ever lived on a ship before. We might go crazy!”
Roger smiled seductively.
“No! I mean really crazy!”
Roger stuck his tongue out and flashed his eyebrows twice.
“If we don’t like it, we’ll stop. How about that?” Suggested Roger. “You know, before the space madness sets in and all.”
“Yea, yea. OK.” Said Tracy realizing Roger’s spirits could not be subdued with the realities of what it would mean to crew a spacecraft.
“Any orders, captain?”
pilot, not captain.” Tracy insisted.
“Any orders, pilot?” Roger said and made a funny face.
“Yuck. That’s worse.”
“Any orders, Tracy?” Roger suggested.
“Oh! Please, no!” Tracy coughed.
“What then?”
“It’s just us.”
“Any orders?” Roger suggested and asked at the same time.
“No, but, I do have one custom I’d like to introduce in our crew.”
“When we are the only ones on board, the crew uniform is no uniform.”
“Aye, aye!” Roger said.

Ian sat in the room he shared with Helen, who was finishing up taking a shower. He tapped his dot to contact Erika on the Vigilant.
“Hi, Erika, this is Ian.”
“Hello Ian.”
“I wanted to let you know that everyone on board the Krypton has decided to return to Stars’ View with us. So, there’s no need for you to delay your trip home any longer.” Ian said.
“Really? All four of them?” Erika asked, surprised.
“Yes. Tracy and Roger will be pilot and crew for the Krypton. Roland has decided to come to CSSI and learn computer science with Helen and I.”
“And Joan?”
“They’re going to stay with us until they settle into life in Stars’ View.” Ian said. “I’m more than certain they’ll find their way there.”
“I’m happy for them. I guess I’d hoped they’d come back to Rose World, but I see how much sense this makes. There is probably no place better for Roland.” She said quietly. “But for Joan?”
“Joan will have to find her way. We’ll help if she wants help.”
“I’ll miss them.”
“They’re only a dot call away.” Ian said.
And a couple of light-seconds delay.” Erika thought. “Thanks for all your help, Ian. And big thanks to Helen, Samir and Janice. And, of course to Roland, Joan, Tracy and Roger.”
“I’ll pass that along, but we’re in range for a few days. Why don’t you call Roland later?”
“I will, to thank him at least. Best of luck.”
“May Chaos look the other way when you cross the street.” Ian said.
“That’s what Thanos says.” Erika noted.
“That’s why I say it too. He originated that saying. He doesn’t believe in luck. He believes in Chaos and Order.”
“Well, I believe we were
lucky to have your help. I’m glad Thanos survived. I’m glad you have him back. Is there anything else we can do for you before we go?”
“Just one thing: please thank your crew and the others who helped. I’m afraid I don’t know all their names. I think Tracy has already been in contact with the rock hunters to thank them. Apparently three are going to accompany us to Stars’ View. At least we don’t need to worry about getting through the Holcomb Clump.”
“I will. Best of luck. Vigilant out.” Erika said and the channel closed.

Ian tapped his dot just as Helen walked out of the bathroom. “Tracy, can you patch me into a channel where I can reach the Rock hunters?”
“Easy. Tap channel blue and you’re in.” S/he replied.
Ian tapped his dot a couple times to reach the blue channel. Then he spoke.
“Hello, this is Ian McGrath. I’m aboard the Krypton. Can you… hear me?”
“Moses can.” Said Moses Stokes, from his pilot’s seat in Betty Wishford’s forward cabin.
“Ishmael can.” Said Ishmael Yakubu aboard Hermes.
“Axel can.” Said Axel Rodrigues aboard his tug 7B99.
“Celia can.” Said Celia Frederick also aboard tug 7B99.
“Skippy can.” Said Skippy Morgan aboard the Rock Hopper.
“I want to thank you on behalf of my entire team and the crew of the Krypton for keeping us safe. You allowed us to save the life the life of an artificial mind named Thanos. We could not have done it without you. We’re setting course next for Stars’ View. We welcome your company along the way. If you can’t join us, please know that you have friends in Stars’ View next time you in that part of the Belt. Please contact me or my wife, Ian or Helen McGrath, at CSSI in Stars’ View. We’d love to show you the Bubble we call home. Before we leave, does anyone need any supplies? Would anyone like to use facilities on the Krypton?”
“We’re going with you.” Said Axel.
“Us too.” Said Ishmael.
“Betty ‘n I ‘ll be goin’ too.” Said Moses Stokes in lazy way that was characteristically far easier to utter than write.
“The Rock Hopper needs deflector generator.” Skippy said. “Lost it a few days ago in that big rock storm that blew through.”
“Do we have that?” Ian asked Helen. Helen shrugged.
“Let me add our pilot.” Ian said and tapped his dot until her picture showed. He added her.
“Tracy here.” S/he said.
“Skippy, what do you need again?” Ian asked.
“Deflector Generator.”
“Hang on a sec… Thanos? Can do you know if we have the kind of generator he needs and can we spare it?”
“The Krypton has fourteen deflector generators arranged around the perimeter of the ship and there are two backup generators in storage bay 2. I do not think the mounting bracket is compatible.”
“It’ll work. I weld.” Skippy said.
“Do you need one or two, Skippy?” Tracy asked.
“Oh, now. I wouldn’t take your last spare.”
“This ship has fourteen. It’s safe with ten. The way I see it we have five spares. If you need two, take both of ours – we don’t even need to unbolt them.” Said Tracy.
“Well, now that’s more than kind of you.” Skippy said. “Then, yes, I could use ‘em both.”
“Will you dock at our aft airlock and we’ll have them ready for you.” Tracy said.
Tracy turned to speak to Roger but he’d already unbuckled himself from his seat and was half way out of the pilot’s cabin. “I’m on it.” He said.
Tracy felt powerful in a way s/he never had before. It was a feeling of being in the right place at the right time with with the right people. Some part of her inner dialogue quieted and she just was the pilot of the Krypton.

A few minutes later she saw on her control panel indicators that showed the approach of the Rock Hopper and its careful hatch-to-hatch docking. The panel showed when the hatch was safe to be opened and when the airlock was in use. She could imagine Roger handing the generators to Skippy. She’d like to have been there but she knew the protocol: the Krypton was the larger ship and the other pilot would not be at his station. Tracy knew s/he had to be pilot for both ships until the other pilot returned. So, s/he sat there and imagined Roger, hir crew, moving the two large boxes from the Krypton to the Rock Hopper.

A few minutes passed and then indicator lights indicated that the airlock had been sealed. Skippy sent a disconnect imperative message via their docking channel and a moment later the two ships undocked. “
It’s time to go.” Tracy thought to hirself and started setting controls for a gravity-neutral departure curve.
A moment later her dot flashed green and she altered course. Instead of flying in circles chasing its tail Tracy adjusted the pitch of the ship slowly until their course had gone from circular, through a long graceful retreating curve that ended in a straight line toward the best crossing point near Stars’ View. From where they were, farther spinward and further out from Rose World, it would be nearly two weeks to the Holcomb Clump, and a rougher ride the whole way.

Elsewhere in the ship, unless you were looking out a window you wouldn’t have noticed that the ship had even changed course. Tracy was already superb skimmer pilot before she ever stepped into a space ship. This was natural for her.

When Roger returned to his seat next to Tracy he said, “Now that the other pilots aren’t busy fixing Thanos, maybe you can miss a shift or two?” He smiled brightly.
“I don’t mind. I like being pilot, a lot.”
“I know. I love to watch you do it.”
“I’d love to watch you do it.” Tracy said.
“Me? I’m not really much of a pilot.” He said.
“I need you to be. We need you to be.” S/he said.
“We have plenty of pilots on board.” He maintained.
“Sooner or later, we won’t. It might be just you and me. So, show me your stuff!” Tracy said and took hir hands off the controls.
“Right now?!”
“Right here?” Roger asked unbuttoning his shirt.
“Wait. What are you talking about?” Tracy asked.
“Whaaaaat are you talking about?” Roger asked
“Flying the ship.” Tracy said.
“I knew that.” Roger said.
“So, why are you unbuttoning your shirt?”
“That’s what the cool pilots do. I think you should unbutton yours.” Roger said, lying wildly and intentionally quite poorly.
“Tracy blushed.”
“We’re not along on a ship yet. The cabin is a public space!”
“I don’t see the public anywhere.” Roger said and he unfastened the rest of the buttons of his shirt and then removed the shirt entirely. “OK. I’m ready to go. Lesson one. Vroom!” He said.
“I’m not taking my shirt off in here.” Tracy said.
“How about your pants?” He asked reasonably.
“Well, you know piloting better than I do.” Roger admitted.
“Yes, and I’d like you to know it better than you do too, so see this?”
“OK. OK, show me for real?”
“Good. OK, this one makes it go vroom…” Tracy said and they both erupted into laughter and then they kissed.
“That maneuver makes my heart go vroom.” Roger said.
“Mine too.” S/he sighed.
“So, this set of controls is for helical flightpaths. This set is for linear flightpaths, this set is for docking…”
“Slow down, slow down… why more than one flightpath.”
“OK, let me back up. Piloting all about thrustgravity, getting someplace and not getting killed. If you fly in a circle like we did for the last week, we all feel thrustgravity because of how we were accelerating. Make sense?”
“So, what if you wanted to go someplace else and you wanted thrustgravity the whole way. You could imagine just accelerating fast enough for thrustgravity and when you’re half way there you flip around and decelerate the other half of the way and you arrive at a low speed where you can maneuver and dock. Make sense?”
“Except you can’t do that.”
“Why not?”
“Because as soon as you aren’t flying the same direction and speed as the rocks in the Belt, movement becomes hazardous. The faster you go or the more different the direction from orbital plane, the worse the hazard is. The faster you go the less time you have to react. And, to make matters worse, the Belt itself is full of empty and with occasional dense pockets of rock, and a whole lot of untrained rocks too.”
“Rocks that aren’t moving in the same average orbital inertial frame.”
“Dense… like the Holcomb Clump?”
“That’s the worst area in this part of the Belt. But this screen here shows you dangerous rocks based on your current course. You can learn by watching. See how this screen changes when I adjust the course?”
“Oh, I get it.”
“It’s not too hard. You just have to understand that sometimes we fly in weird ways so that we can keep thrustgravity up to where people like it – between 1/3 and 2/3 G is usually right. Lets fly together for a while so you can get the hang of it.” Tracy said.

They flew together for hours and Roger learned more and more about it. By the end of her shift he could hand several maneuvers, but he wasn’t ready to fly the ship by himself.
Joan arrived in pajamas she had found in the room she shared with Roland. She relieved Tracy with a yawn and a nod. Roger gave up his seat to Joan, who sat down, logged in and flipped a few controls to view what was coming up ahead.
Joan yawned again. “OK, I got this.”
Tracy nodded and unfastened her seat belts and stood up and stretched. “Thanks, Joan.
“You want anything before we turn in?” Roger asked.
“Coffee?” Joan asked hopefully.
“You got it.” Roger said and walked back to the galley to make some.
Ten minutes later he returned with a giant mug of fresh, hot coffee and a breakfast hand-meal.
“You are sweet, aren’t you?” Joan said to Roger.
“How’s Rolo?” Roger asked.
“Sleeping. He’ll prolly be up in a few hours.” She said.
“Are you and he going to stay on Stars’ View?”
“Yes. He asked me to marry him. I said yes.” She beamed. “He’s going to go to school and learn from Ian and Helen.”
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I think I’d like to start out, like I’m new. I don’t mind leaving Rose World and a lot of problems behind.”
“And you? Are you going to stay on Stars’ View?” Joan asked.
“I’m going to stay with Tracy. I’m the crew.” He said and he smiled widely and pointed to himself.
“Tracy deserves a good crew. Are you learning to be a pilot?”
“Yep. Had my first lesson tonight.”
Joan nodded and smiled. “Well, go get some rest. I got this. And, thanks for the coffee and breakfast.”
Roger nodded and left.

Joan flew the ship alone and marveled at how different she felt. She felt new. She felt unafraid and powerful. The current rock field was easy for her and she instinctively cut some turns closer so she could practice. It was obvious when she did this because anything hanging against the thrustgravity would move as a perfect indicator of how she was changing the course. She imagined rules in her head and she would invent games to suit the mood of the belt at the moment. It was play. While she did it she wasn’t Generation One, or on probation, she wasn’t thinking about Roland. She was completely engrossed by flying the Krypton. For her, time jumped discontinuously and a moment later Roland walked into the cabin with a cup of coffee and two small bags of food.
“Morning.” He said and smiled at her.
“Hey, is that coffee?” She drank some and took one of the bags of food. “Thanks!”
He looked at her and his face showed some confusion.
“What? Oh, was the coffee yours? Oops. Share it with me?” She asked. “No. No, that’s not it. Did I dream yesterday? Or last night? Did you really… are you really… going to marry me?” He asked.
“Hell, yes!” She said. “What else is on your mind? Ohhhh! Last night. Right. Well, that’s pretty normal.”
“Yea, well, what are you going to do, eh?” She said in an off-hand way, trying not to giggle.
He blushed.
“The others will be up soon too, I think. Quick! Kiss me!” She said suddenly.
He leaned over and kissed her. She kissed him quickly and leaned away from him.
“What did I do wrong?” He asked.
“You only brought one coffee.” She said and pretended to pout.
“I don’t drink coffee.” He said.
“Oh. OK. OK. Well… Well then you may resume kissing me.” She said and leaned back toward him.
He leaned toward her but a second later he heard the voices of Samir and Ian chatting in the galley and he realized they were no longer alone. He leaned back.
“Rocks.” She said.
Roland looked up in alarm. But, the visible space outside was practically empty. He looked at the screens and they showed practically nothing.
“Where?” Roland asked.
“It’s just an expression. The rock hunters used it sometimes instead of profanity.”
“Actually… they used a lot of words I didn’t know, but rocks are bad.”
“Because we’re not private?”
“But, you’re going to be my girlfriend… don’t boyfriends and girlfriends kiss in public all the time.”
“We just need practice, that’s all.” He said and leaned over and kissed her passionately. She closed her eyes and time seemed to freeze for a long moment and then it sped back up to normal.
“See? That’s normal. What are you going to do eh?” He said, mocking her.
“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” She asked, with deadpan patience.
“Well. Mostly.”
“Well…” He looked like he was straining to think of even one credible way avoid admitting he was mocking her. This was made harder by the effort to took not to laugh out loud.
He was still struggling when she pushed him away and said “Oh!”
“Do I displease you my dear?” He asked and he tried to kiss her hand.
She stuck her tongue out at him briefly.
“Is that an incentive or a disincentive? Because… I’m getting a little confused.” He admitted.
She simmered.
“Hey, Joan?” Ian called from the intercom in the Galley. “Would you like some food, or coffee?”
“No, Rolo brought me some.”
“Oh, that was nice of him.” Said Ian.
Roland stuck out his tongue at her.
She wagged a finger at him. He sat still and watched her.
“You, Tracy and Roger have been flying for a week while we worked on Thanos. We have three other pilots on the ship: Helen, Samir and Janice. They can all fly this ship. I’m willing to learn, if there’s time. Samir will be up in a few minutes to relieve you and you can relax.”
“That’s great!” Joan said and looked over at Roland who was trying not to laugh. “Now Rolo can help me with my console! Thanks!”
“Thanks for flying while we slept!”
“I had fun. Just me and the rocks.”
“He’ll be up soon. Bye!”
“Bye” She said and switched off the intercom.
“Kiss me?” She said.
“Out here? Anyone might see…” He said.
“See, that’s the mocking thing again. I can see you need a disincentive.” She kissed him quickly, with extra-puckered lips to maximize the distance between their noses. “You seem to forget that in a few minutes, Samir is coming up here and the I’m going to take you back to our room and we’ll resume our discussion from last night. You’re only making it worse for yourself.”
“I know that.” He said.
“I’m so glad you do.” She said genuinely. “I do love you, Rolo.”

Samir poked his head into the cabin area and said “I am ready to pilot the ship if you would kindly get lost now. Thank you. Bye.” He said.
“I believe your console is broken?” Roland said.
“If not, I’m sure you can fix it. Come on.” She took Roland’s hand and led him out of the cabin, and back to their room.

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