Dare

Chapter 2

Thus the Tirol/Fantoma alliance was re-formed along those lines, and Tirolians and Zentraedi eventually went to Earth to inform the Humans of what had transpired. Lantas and I "hitched a ride" as it were, because I needed to close off my governmental ties to that planet, turn in my uniform and its copies, and relinquish my house near Pike Base, taking the rest of my belongings back to Tirol.

In the process, I also visited the Sterlings. They lived in a large but isolated house near a growing city, which they had already moved into by the time I left. Aurora still lived with them, but Dana had gone on to join a group called the Crazy Eights.

The Hunters were visiting the same day that Lantas and I were, and we all sat together in the living room, talking. Their Roy was outside (From where I sat, I could see that he was making a toy glider fly without touching it), but Aurora was sitting inside on a hassock, watching us.

I had brought some images of Fantoma and the Zentraedi, and told them about what my people were doing, and my part within it.

"Well, that's going to be the final touch," Lisa told me. "I keep telling them that I needed closure on the Zentraedi before I can finish Recollections, and they never seem to listen." She tilted her head and re-inspected the pictures. "Drannin really does look like Breetai, doesn't he?"

"It is true, yes. Before I would have thought you were merely echoing a Terran cliché, but it...seems to be correct in this case."

"Does he every ask you about Breetai?"

"Sometimes, yes."

Miriya: "How are they in general? The Zentraedi children, I mean?"

"They are showing a considerable curiosity, which is heartening. They seem to act normal, as near as I am able judge such things, but they seem to know a great deal more, as they show when you ask them the right questions."

Max: "Yeah, the human kids are pretty much the same."

Miriya asked if an unspecified "they" were planning to do anything with the Zentraedi children.

"None of the adult Zentraedi appear to have any anguish about the thing; they are too concerned with learning how to raise them, and building a society, to even consider rejecting or fearing them for not being adequately 'normal'. And the children themselves do seem to act standardly, as I have just said.

"The Tirolians are more ambivalent, but can no longer ask me to make secret reports on them, which I have never done, and shall never do."

"Sounds like you're getting pretty protective of them," Max remarked, smiling.

I blinked, suddenly feeling unbalanced. "Ah, w-well, I do not think it satisfies any thwarted paternal urges."

Lisa suddenly snorted laughter. She waved one hand as she tried to get herself under control. "I'm sorry." She sniffled. "It's just the way that you put it... You've always been so blunt."

Instead of continuing this, I said, "We are not going to treat them as a new sort of super-race."

"Are you sure about that? It's a new beginning for all of us."

It was Lantas who responded to her. "And that's very true. But if you spend so much time looking at your Messianic glow, you will forget to see the realities that always need to be addressed. The children still have the same needs as any other."

"I'm different," Aurora spoke up, and everyone looked to her. She was leaning farther forward than she had been.

"Of course you are." I tilted my head to one side. "Why are you not playing with Roy? This cannot be the best entertainment for you."

"Because I have something to tell you, but Mother thinks that I have to wait until she and Father discuss something similar."

"And what would that be?" I directed the last question to Max and Miriya. From the way Rick and Lisa looked at the Sterlings, it was news to them as well.

"We're considering running for ambassadorship to Tirol/Fantoma," was Miriya's answer.

I stared. "You? Well, that is, er, quite surprising."

Miriya smirked. "Is it? You saw how we've 'gone soft', haven't you?"

"Well, yes." I stretched out the last word as I spoke. "But it is still quite unexpected. Emissaries..."

"Well, what's one more surprise?" Miriya was now grinning fully. "Besides, I've always wanted to see my homeworld--as much as I can. I'll even bring the girls."

"You should visit the old Tirolian laboratories," Lantas added, and Miriya nodded.

Rick: "I gotta say Max, I never thought I'd see you sitting in the political chair."

"You can keep your politics." Lisa yawned. "I'm not ready to retire just yet, but I'm not getting into that again."

"Amen to it," Rick added, though he looked strangely pensive.

"I'm going to run for Interworld Council."

All we adults were looking at Aurora again. Lantas scratched her neck. "You'd be forbidden, because of your age."

"I will," Aurora said. "I won't do anything special. I will simply run, and might win."

When I looked to Lantas, she had an odd, quirked expression on her face, which did not disappear as she said, "It looks like we can't stop you. But why do you want to restrict yourself so early?"

"It's something I have to do," Aurora replied. "I'm glad the others want to lead different lives, but this is my choice. I realize that you feel squeamish around children, especially ones like me, but it's simply how it will happen."

"Uh..."

Max leaned back. "Dana's got some issues with it. She told us that we've got to keep an eye on Roy and Aurora, and not put them in the spotlight or send them to any 'creeps'. But...Aurora volunteers anyway. Nobody's been able to find anything different in her."

Lisa put her chin upon one hand. "Some days I think we should never have told anybody about the kids. Though it's mostly okay."

She was still looking at me. "Exedore, can I ask you something?"

"You may."

Lisa looked sympathetic. "Miriya told me why you don't seem to get much older. But doesn't it bother you? You're going to outlive all of us, and Kazianna and your students, and..."

"Not me," Lantas said. "The Masters wanted their dolls to live as they did, and subjected us to the same lifespan-enhancing treatments, though no more Tirolian derivatives will ever have that same treatment, as it's banned. I don't know if Exedore and I can last that long, but I want to act as if we can."

"The same holds true for me, as well. As to everything else, I will do my duty to the best of my ability, until I expire or am relieved of it, rather than allow needless anguish to slow me."

Rick folded his hands and leaned forward. He spoke with a smirk. "Exedore, you're so enthusiastic. Does this mean you still think everybody enjoys making war?"

"Conflict is inevitable Mr. Hunter, and I always keep the worst possibilities in mind so that I may prepare for them. Why would you believe my opinion on that has changed?"

Rick moved his head to one side, still trying to smirk. "What do you see in him?"

Lantas answered with, "More than you, obviously. How hard is it to understand that you can be aware of something you do not wish for?" Lantas shifted position. "It means nothing against a search for the better things."

Lantas had been angry with me about something similar, once. When I, and the archived videos, had told her about some of the things that I had said during the Malcontent Uprisings, she had not been too appalled.

But when strife between Micronian clone and natural-born had begun to emerge on Tirol, after the two aspects had fought beside each other just previous, Lantas had suddenly found an anger to go against my aged statements.

I had not ever tried to use the inevitability of war as a method of consoling her, and she had admitted that her exhumation of my past had not been her "finest hour".

Lisa was saying, "So, we're thinking of going to the Andromeda Galaxy with some of the other Sentinels, see if Protoculture met anything there."

Lantas leaned forward. "Ah. I wish that I could go with you."

"Well, why can't you?" She smiled at her.

"There's still too much to be done on Tirol. We might be achieving more opportunity parity soon. And I'm hoping to enter into formal education."

"You seem pretty smart already," Rick remarked, although he had only met with Lantas twice before this and barely spoken to her.

"It's not the same. Cabell has been a fine teacher, and I do a good amount of learning on my own, but I would like to learn through a structure, and be...participatory, as well as further my own ambitions. But I do have a lot of time, so someday I will go to other worlds, and much farther."

Into the silence, Rick said, "I've got to say Exedore, I guess you're not as straight-laced as we thought."

"What do you mean?"

He was grinning still. "You told the UEG you were going to Tirol in order to 'monitor' its development, but all the time you had a girl on the side and were sticking your nose into that planet's business. And then you go right up to your leader and said you were going to play things your own way." He grinned, perhaps "boyishly", and shook his head.

"It could not be helped. If I was a rebel it was an unintentional one: I merely made the best out of a complex situation."

"But you know why you're doing it this way, don't you?" Miriya put in, grinning.

"Yes. And I shall make no apologies for it."

--

While we were on Earth, I had to take some time to point out to the other Zentraedi the populated places they could investigate without harm, or the location of less inhabited lands where they could walk more freely. Though a diplomatic mission, it was also a sort of "field trip" for the children.

Lantas also visited several urban centres and quieter places, but the last location we had to visit was the Military Cemetery.

Rico, Bron, and Konda had been buried there because there had been no other conceivable place to put them. The monuments of many more significant players were also present, but I had never been able to discern if I considered them friends or not. Certainly well-valued comrades, but it was the trio that I had come for.

Their stones were quite small and very simple, with their full names of Rico Docel, Bron Mantes, and Konda Blomco, question marks for their birthdates, their death dates, and nothing more.

We stood together before them. Lantas stepped forward, kissed two of her fingers, and touched them to each headstone. She had also done so on a monument to the deceased Tirolian clones, killed in civil violence or by their own hands.

"I'm afraid I cannot think of much else to do." I looked down at their tombstones. "At least I, er, eventually found the cause of their deaths."

"You're saying goodbye to an old world, that's all. There's nothing else we need to do."

"I...suppose."

What would have become of them, had they lived? What would they have thought of my new direction? Of Lantas? The Zentraedi children?

I was aware that even if Zand had not killed them, they would have died in some other conflict, like the rest of our people who had remained on Earth, and had they come along on the mission, the odds were also against their survival.

But being in this location nevertheless made questions and memories return strongly. I had never been able to explain why I had come to care for the trio, when I had often found them vapid or exasperating even after making their more direct acquaintance. But it had eventually ceased to matter.

Of course it was over now. But the past could not be forgotten, as I had told Yaita. Even if the dwelling in memories was not pragmatic, I would accept that such a thing was occurring.

"For you, this is a journey of memories. Everything is coming back because you must leave this place now, and no longer belong to it."

I had turned round at the first words, but Aurora emerged from behind the tree only after she had finished speaking.

She was dressed perhaps too heavily for only the mildly cold weather, in a puffed green jacket and black hat.

Lantas edged closer to me; whether out of fear or a protective impulse, I could not ever discern. "Were you following us?"

Aurora took several steps forward. "You're interesting people. You don't see me as a fragile waif to be kept at a distance. And you don't find me as unnerving as you let on; you empathize with oddness."

I said, "That is quite incorrect. I only do what needs to be done, whether it allows me to appear 'normal' or not."

Aurora tilted her head. "And that isn't the proper meaning of eccentricity? You allowed yourself to be infantilized, treated as their little doll, all because you wanted to be with them, but be with Lantas as well. You knew that Gulliver was just a novelty in Brobdingnag, and did not care."

I frowned at her assessment of my situation, for thus far I had been treated with respect.

Lantas stepped in front of me. "Well, it doesn't matter, does it? We're going to be leaving soon."

"It's all right," Aurora replied, softly. "It's not going to be forever. Especially since..." She paused, as if for dramatic effect, "We consider you both a part of our family."

That was not something I had ever expected to hear. "What?"

"It's not really that surprising, Exedore. Especially since you yourself considered Miriya a distorted reflection. And you now both are bonded to non-Zentraedi. They have me and Dana, while you are childless by choice and ability--and not only to spare everyone's aesthetic sensibilities." Aurora smiled at the last statement, and then paused. "But the point is that you and Miriya have known each other for long enough for the it to mean other things than mere reflection."

Lantas' tone sharpened. "Have you been reading his mind?"

Aurora shook her head. "I can only get flickers of that, and can't always control it. I don't want to harm either of you. I do not want to cause angst over my condition, any more than I feel it. But this...even Dana believes it. 'You're like the crazy old great-uncle on my Mom's side' is what she might one day say to you."

"How did you get here?"

"I took a city transport, the same as you did, but slightly later. I'm going home now."

Aurora started off down the hill. The both of us stood there, staring.

"Well, she's your relative," Lantas finally said, but gently took my elbow and lead me away to the exit. This, and her quivering tone, made her levity ring false.

"I do not think you need to be afraid of her," I said, as we walked. "Aurora seems well-meaning enough, and her deeds account for something."

"I know, I know...it just might take me a while to get used to her. Though in that, I'm going to be in good company."

"All of you are dismissed."

I felt no fear at the commotion of giants about me, and probably never would; that instinct was absent. As the children and adults all stood and left, I walked to the edge of the platform and shut off the amplifier, and then both projection screens: the small one that I manipulated, and the larger, elevated one that it fed to. I cleaned my workstation even more carefully than usual.

When the room was clear and the noise of their passage had faded, I made my way from the platform to the new catwalk which wound round the upper walls, which in turn led to stairs that brought me down at the entrance to my quarters.

These quarters were of course more of a "pit stop" than anything, quite spare in decoration and content and holding only the very basic necessities.

A scattering of stools and couches in varying sizes were also stored in this room, and would be brought out for accommodating guests of various other species. The guests would come for diplomatic discussions, and also to provide advice and building materials for the construction of hospitals, indoor orchards, different sorts of classrooms, clothing manufacturing, and other new facilities.

All of that took place on this old Contact Satellite, once used for the Zentraedi to receive food and clothing (always strictly rationed, to keep them under control) from their Tirolian masters, and now reactivated to serve a new purpose. In another room, an extensive series of monitors allowed visitors to observe Fantoma, though work was being done on surface gravitational shielding, to one day allow others to visit Fantoma directly.

I was far from anything the Humans would recognize as a formal teacher. My sessions consisted mostly of expositing on various topics while the students listened intently, but I was confident that this process was still to their benefit, and the leaders seemed to agree.

Yaita also consulted me about the inner workings of the worlds' governments and general strategies of diplomacy, though she had already learned a fair deal independently. I still did not think she had been unwise in asking for an emissary separate from the leader, and eventually she would select someone to be a proper ambassador.

Today, I shed what Lisa had teasingly called my "doll's clothes" and donned a Tirolian outfit. Or rather, it was my formerly white, blue-caped Haydonite outfit, which had modified itself according to my wishes, in order to be even more Tirolian in appearance.

My cape, although still blue in shade, was worn about the neck, instead of hanging from the now-absent shoulder guards. The bodysuit was pale purple, with gloves, belt and boots in a darker shade; the resemblance to my old Expeditionary Force uniform proved that I was unimaginative. I excluded any other emblems or decorations, save for some holding pouches on my belt.

I activated one of the communications screens, whose feed resolved itself into an image of Yaita's new office.

Her chair had once been a pilot's seat for a mining vehicle, and her desk was made from scrap metal; pushed up to its side were a set of mobile stairs, for when I had to meet with her directly.

Yaita and I got along better now, but she still seemed slightly resentful, and for the most part lacked a spirit of inquiry. Her eyes were fully on the future, intending to be as utilitarian as possible without crushing spirits. If it did not serve the Zentraedi development, she wanted to wait to explore it.

"I must take my leave now. I shall return on the next cycle."

"It's accepted. Thank you, Exedore."

I nodded and departed for my "holiday".

My shuttle, which had been made for me by the other Zentraedi, was shaped somewhat like a mobile fighter pod, though smaller. It was blue and white, and its allegiance could not be mistaken: a silhouetted silver Zentraedi emblem adorned one side.

Down below on Fantoma there was constant movement. Everyone, even the two leaders, was expected to work at everything else (only the injured Yaita would be excluded from heavy physical work; Kazianna went to it vigorously), and the Zentraedi had for the moment become a series of "jacks-of-all-trades".

Even though most adults found time to sit in on an education session or two (and there was always at least one to lend some physical authority to my presence and provide any discipline that was needed), they were very busy, searching for work opportunities, making diplomatic efforts, and raising their latest children; they were trying to be prolific, both through their own abilities, and other methods.

Despite what Lisa Hunter had written of, the Zentraedi had eventually decided to increase their numbers by artificial means. While new Zentraedi could not ever be created from scratch, we had begun to use enlarged versions of Tirolian artificial womb technology, and the genetic material of the survivors, as well as that archived from other clone lines, to supplement the population, take some strain off the females, and resolve the looming issue of genetic diversity.

But only infants would be made this way, and only at the rate that the adults could handle in the normal fashion. Some of the children born in this fashion had already shown the unnatural skin tones and minor facial deformities that had once been familiar, but there was no time or need to correct for these.

Cabell had helped in planning out these facilities, arguing successfully that by giving the roots of this technology to the Zentraedi, he was not violating the new Tirolian laws against the creation of artificial sentients, since the Zentraedi would use the technology only on their own world, and not subvert the natural growth process. There had been controversy among the Zentraedi themselves, but eventually the project had went ahead.

Drannin had also aided in the building of the local chambers, showing a precocious talent for mechanical things, though he always emphasized the use of his hands in the process.

Lantas' fears about the Zentraedi presence causing a resurgence in the hatred of artificial beings were not entirely unfounded: among the Tirolians, I had heard or received a share of fearful or obscene pronouncements. But the local movements did not return to their earlier state of affairs, and now, things had recently improved.

--

Today, Lantas sighed. "Can't they at least understand how important it still is? They can't sour this with their own lack of success."

"They shall not," I pointed out. "Their absence cannot change the facts, even if it might be better were they present."

"Mm. I would hope, at least, that they aren't petulant enough to not retake the exams when the opportunity comes up."

The presentation was not until the evening, and Lantas and I spent some time having an animated discussion about cybernetics. Louis Nichols had gotten around to publishing more of his findings, and though Lantas felt that there were still too many risks involved in cybernetic integration, she expressed interest in future possibilities.

I was a bit worried for her, remembering Gibley and his mental destruction, but I could only articulate my concerns, never hold her back.

We idly debated the effects of mechanical integration on the "soul". I did not believe in such a concept as the soul, and Lantas thought it was only a metaphor for sentience. She believed cybernetics would mean nothing to it, and I pretended that I disagreed, just to sustain the discussion.

But eventually we had to depart: the Sterlings, Bowie, and the Muses would be arriving soon.

We met them at the port. Everyone was dressed in Tirolian clothes, and the Muses had not chosen their original clone garments.

Unexpectedly, it was Bowie who first shook my hand, and asked me how I was.

"I am doing quite fine. Though my situation is complex, I will make the best of it."

"Yeah? Well, at least you're doing what you love." He looked to Lantas. "Congratulations."

"Thank you, Mr. Grant."

"Oh, you can call me Bowie."

"All right, then, Bowie. But my gratitude still stands."

"Sure." Bowie wasn't at all put off by the way Lantas sometimes spoke.

The two Muse clones walked forward and both embraced Lantas. "Hope for the future," Allegra said.

Lantas shook her head. "I'm just lucky enough that doing what I want manages to make me into a semi-palatable role model."

Max and Miriya told us more about events that had recently occurred on Earth. Lisa was well into her explorations of the Andromeda galaxy, and Bowie and Musica were planning to get married, and that led to the inevitable question:

"Are you ever going to get married?", asked by Allegra.

Lantas held up three long fingers, and folded each as she listed the point. "These are the three shallow rules of mine: no marriage, no children, and no demeaning pet names."

Allegra's eyes widened, but then she chuckled.

--

The event took place in a small basement area, now adorned with silken strands, small artworks, and banners proclaiming victory in archaic, elaborate fonts, all coloured in the simple, bold, colours of the clones' past lives.

It was already filled by the time we arrived. Though they had grown from the generic obedience favoured by the Maters, some clones were still more contained than others. Following the presumption, the scientists and scribes were the quietest, talking in lower voices and sitting down, while other groups talked more loudly, and were drinking already, even in sight of the media.

I caught sight of the Garuda-adapted clones, all of which had blank glowing eyes, hair stained green with the fungus of the planet, and required respirators.

There were introductions and re-introductions. Dana went from clone to clone, complimenting them on how much they had changed, how individualized they appeared, though she did not phrase it in such direct terms.

The table was carved and dark, made of deep blue ceramics. Lantas sipped her drink, then grimaced. "Far too strong." She put it back down, fitting it into the coaster niche.

"Not many made it that high," replied young Clio; a fair natural-born Tirolian who needed a hoverchair to move. "You deserve to indulge yourself."

She shook her head. "I can't hold it well enough at the best of times, and I've got the speech to do. Besides, this is going to be remembered."

Oh, indeed, I thought.

"I hope that the Senate keeps their promise," remarked Protus, a former scribe clone, ever the pessimist when he wasn't teasing.

"But why go to all the trouble simply to snatch it away? They have faced far more pressure when the deal was only a potential."

Protus gave me a strange look. Had he not expected me to speak? But I would.

The lights were eventually turned low, making some of the phosphorous decorations glow faintly. (The white skin of the clones also seemed luminous in the dark). Not everyone took this as a signal to become more subdued, however.

The curtains drew aside, revealing, along with the more typical Human and Tirolian instruments, a torus-like device with iridescent strings spread in a fan, one that I recognized immediately. Bowie and the Muses stood before the array, and they bowed and introduced themselves.

They sang, as three or two or one, songs from various worlds, including Earth, including "We Will Win".

More musicians came on after them. I had never had much interest in music but for the symbolic importance of Minmei, but what it represented on this night was also enough to take my attention.

The deal had been that if the Tirolian clones passed exams that demonstrated their educational competence would be allowed to enter their schools, and for the most intelligent, the recently re-established Tiresian universities were also an option.

Lantas had worked hard to reach her point. Even before the possibility of being accepted into conventional schooling, she had put all her effort into a well-rounded, contemporary education, knowing exactly how far she could push herself before overexertion placed her farther behind. The end result had been that she had been judged intelligent enough to be an immediate candidate for a university-level education.

When she ascended the podium to make her speech, I clapped as loud as I was able, listening to the cheers of others.

"To be placed into a future is quite a different thing from having to contemplate it. But we do not go into this future with ignorance. We have lived through strife internal and external, the rending of the very fabric of our lives.

"But we have shown that not only were we unafraid to come into the light, but that we were also not blinded. Compared to what we have endured to reach this point, entering higher education may look like nothing.

"Yet its importance can't be underestimated. It is knowledge which let us become more than what we were, let us see that the essential force of sapience exists whether one was born from a womb or a tank. We were born to live, and we will."

"For my own part, I want to thank Cabell for being such a...good and patient mentor, and everyone here for believing in this. Especially Exedore, for always knowing that such things were possible."

A slight lie, but this would not be spoiled for her. I listened to Lantas with warmth, and when she walked back to our table, I squeezed her hand and told her, "You shall be wonderful at whatever you choose," before kissing her upon the cheek.

After this there would be more interviews, more questions. The clones would be watched with utter scrutiny, and some might break underneath it. But it had begun.

There were more speeches done in that same inspirational fashion, and even the most talkative became quiet and listened respectfully, but things loosened again when everyone was free to stand and speak to each other.

"Architecture is an art and a science," Lantas was saying to Allegra. "But I'm not going to abandon my other explorations."

"Mm. You always did have a more developed aesthetic sensibility than me," I said to Lantas, though we had acknowledged it before.

"Then how did she end up with you?" asked Sheta, a former guardian clone.

Lantas ignored the comment.

"You must be proud of her," Max remarked to Cabell.

"I am proud of all my creations," Cabell replied, graciously. But his smile drew away. "I have known for a long time that even were Lantas...natural-born, she would still have been at the age to make her own choices when she met Exedore. But...I'm afraid that I had begun to think of her in a more explicitly paternal way than most."

"It wasn't entirely unwarranted," I remarked. "There were many issues involved, ones that we did not truly understand because of our social ignorance, even though we tried to tell ourselves otherwise."

Lantas added, "And we never needed your blessing, but it wasn't as though we enjoyed offending you. I'm...glad that you never wanted to destroy our friendship over this."

"How could I? But if Exedore is willing to give up his natural place for this, then obviously there is nothing to do but see it through."

Lantas: "Would this be a reconciliation?"

Cabell actually smiled. "Consider it resignation."

We all moved about and talked for hours longer. Tomorrow I would help to take the foreign visitors around Tiresia, even the Garuda-adapted clones, who had been reluctant at first, but now intended to stay for a visit longer than this night, though eventually they would leave. And perhaps Miriya would take advantage of the occasion to visit the Contact Satellite with her daughters.

No, nothing here was perfect. There were challenges yet, and by choosing to walk between worlds, I had somewhat lost face, even with my long-time Tirolian allies. But Lantas had her victory, and I had my choice: Tirol would be my home, for as long as it wanted me.

End.