JULY 25, 3151

JULY 25, 3151
After serious prodding, mostly by me, Sera sent a droid across the empty space between our two spheres to string an electronically shielded cable that would restore communication between us and those on the other side. She blamed the delay on the dearth of resources required to fabricate the mile long wire. Our first visual consisted of Frank and Paul shaking hands, neither of them fully aware that Albert had patched their images together, each alone in front of separate cameras with arms outstretched. The system could not accommodate tele-presence transmission.
I watched from our apartment. While my little angel drew nourishment and her father sketched plans for a pressurized tunnel between the hemispheres, Emily operated the video camera to present my baby to her other grandparents, my mother and father.
Mother expressed joy but anguish over our separation dominated her features. Both my parents wanted to suit up and come over, but Sera refused their request. When engineering had enough material ionized from dark energy, it would construct Albert’s tunnel between the spheres, within an estimated two to three years.
Cleopatra lay naked on her blanket matching her fingers to her toes, and while I decorated her first birthday cake, Jimmy barged in. He stopped in his tracks and stared, as if he’d never seen a naked female body. The relaxed attitudes toward nudity we experienced on Mission One had become stringent within our present reclusive society. Children, especially the only other girl, seldom intermingled, and adults gathered only whenever Frank called a meeting. We needed my father’s rooftop garden to encourage socializing.
I scooped Cleopatra from her blanket, wrapped it around her bare bottom, and presented the bundle for Jimmy to hold. He recoiled and backed out of the room, as if facing a Jedi laser gun.
“Come back in here,” I demanded.
“I just came to talk to Albert.” He stepped forward but continued to avert his gaze.
“Well, he’s not here, but his daughter is.” I tapped his shoulder and pointed at the couch. He backed into it and plopped down. “I nominate you as Cleopatra’s sitter whenever Sera and I are away.” I replaced the blanket with a diaper and nestled her into his cradled arms. “There, that wasn’t so bad.” Cleopatra smiled and cooed and fingered the fine hairs sprouting under Jimmy’s nose. “I have to pick up some items at the commissary and will be right back.”
“But—”
“I’ll inform Frank that we have a guest, and that Albert needs to come home immediately.” As an act of defiance, I pulled Mother’s cross out from under my blouse.
I returned alone and empty-handed. Cleopatra cooed while Chewbacca, his knuckles pressed to the floor, pranced around the room, until she noticed lunch had arrived. I sent Jimmy to exert the influence over Frank and Albert that I apparently lacked. I lifted my smock to the delight of the only individual who ever expressed an interest in my breasts. She had one side drained when Albert walked into the room followed by Jimmy who stopped and gawked.
No time like the present for some instruction. “This is how babies are fed.” I fought a surge of modesty but made no effort to cover myself.
He said, “I wondered how she could eat without teeth.”
“I’m thankful she hasn’t any.” When my baby’s mouth loosened its grip, I pulled the blanket over her head effectively covering my nipple until I could pull my blouse over my breast. I stood and approached Albert. “It’s your turn.”
“To feed her?”
“No, to change her.” I held Cleopatra at arm’s length, and Albert pinched his nostrils. “And to sit with her so Jimmy can return home.” I faced Jimmy. “Thank you for your help.”
He rushed from the room without offering additional babysitting services.
Albert continued to glare at Cleopatra, as if the ooze seeping around her diaper with its accompanying odor was a personal affront. “Are you going to take your daughter or not?” I demanded.
“You do it.”
He turned to leave, as I laid Cleopatra on the floor and removed her soiled diaper. I yelled, “Don’t leave. We need to talk.” He stood with his back to the door. “You don’t really want this child.”
He glanced down and muttered, “I didn’t expect we’d be living together, just that you wanted a baby.”
“And I should raise her all by myself?”
“We never talked about that part.”
With Cleopatra cleaned and diapered, I carried her into our bedroom and laid her in her crib. When I returned, Albert hadn’t moved from the door. He sunk to the floor in his frog-legged position, and I squatted in front of him.
I asked, “How come Bob and Helen sign themselves when they greet me?”
“I don’t know.”
“You did it a couple of times, too.”
“Not anymore.”
“Why not?”
“Because they don’t.”
“Mimicking some crazy behavior without a sound rationale is not your style. I want to know why you signed and why you stopped.”
He blushed. “Because your baby might be a special gift from God.”
“She’s a special gift from your DNA. If God is involved in any way, She just allowed it to happen.”
“I don’t believe I am the father.”
I pointed to his crotch. “You shoved that thing into me and it hurt like hell.”
He cast his eyes down. “You were already pregnant when that happened.”
Had he guessed I’d still been a virgin when we finally consummated our relationship? “Well, who do you suppose got me pregnant that night back on Mission One? The Man in the Moon?”
“I don’t know who the Man in the Moon is, but I don’t think it was me.”
“Well, who do you think you screwed? My droid?” I considered confessing the fraud Sera and I concocted, but he shook his head.
“I think you were already pregnant, and you used me as a cover.”
I stood and turned my back to him. “You were the only man capable of getting me pregnant.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a man.”
“Go back to your project, and get that crazy notion out of your head.”
I faced him as he scrambled to his feet. “Build that passage so I can go home to my parents.” As he opened the door, I asked, “Why did you and the others stop that stupid gesture?” I pulled my mother’s cross from under my blouse. “I still wear this thing.”
“I stopped because my father forbade it. Bob and Helen hide the gesture by sliding their thumbs across their palms.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m going to grab Helen’s hand the next time she greets me with it.”
“Not you. Since you gave birth, they use the sign to honor your baby.” He ducked out of the room, and I stood dumbfounded.
I resigned myself to the role of a mother who loves and tends to her child, disregarding Bob and Helen’s veneration, Frank’s agitation, and Albert and his mother’s hesitation. If the gods chose my child or me as some kind of connection between human and divine, She or He will have to speak in a loud voice.

AUGUST 1, 3152

AUGUST 1, 3152
I had just put my toddler down for her afternoon nap, when Jimmy peered from behind the door and said, “You got to see this.”
By the time I summoned Sera to watch Cleopatra, Jimmy had sped down the hall beckoning me to follow. I entered his parent’s apartment wondering if maybe they needed assistance, but Jimmy appeared to be home alone. He stood outside the closed door to his room, obviously preparing me for a surprise.
“She asked for you.”
As the door swung open, I scanned the dimly lit interior. A series of flashing laser beams intersected a plume of vapor rising from what looked like a turntable, and a blurred three-dimensional image appeared.
“I see Albert has enhanced your toy with a hologram. Very impressive.”
“Close the door.”
The room darkened and within the cloud, I discerned a girl about my age. I thought of Anne Frank, assuming Albert’s new medium could turn a grainy black and white photo into a full-color three-dimensional form. I momentarily panicked that Jimmy had read my personal history but remembered that Albert had acquired a much earlier copy of my tutorial before I inserted my narrative into Anne Frank’s diary.
“This gal appeared instead of Princess Lea when I tried to access Star Wars.”
“Are you sure Lea hasn’t disguised herself, suggesting you watch something different for a change?”
“Listen.” He waved his hand in front of the image’s face.
It responded, “I have a message for Ariel Gordon.”
“It just keeps repeating the same thing.” He stepped back. “If you think it’s for your ears only, I’ll leave.”
It must be viewed in secret, but I can’t ask him to leave his own room. “She’s probably mistaking me for Sera. I’ll relieve her from babysitting duties and send her over here to receive it.” I decided but didn’t mention that she’d download the entire Star Wars program, if that’s where this apparition resides.
“I’ll get Sera and stay with Cleopatra.”
He seemed too eager and I hesitated.
He cowered, his back against the door. “That thing scares me.”
I willed Sera to diaper Cleopatra and expect Jimmy. “Thank you. That would be nice.” He opened the door and continued to back through the living room. “If she fusses, push her on the swing. She likes that.” Sera would repeat these instructions if he hadn’t heard.
“I closed the door and studied the image up close. Passing my hand through the cloud activated an audible recording. “Ariel, is that you?”
“Yes.”
“Enter so I can sense you.”
I stepped onto the slightly raised platform and pushed the turntable with my foot. The image rotated. I advanced head-on with outstretched arms, but my body passed through to the other side.
“Ariel, is that you?”
“How can I identify myself if I can’t join you?”
“You can’t intercept the image with your body.” Sera, not the girl enveloped in smoke, answered. She stepped up to the console and fidgeted with some gadgets. The image dissolved, and the vapor receded into the turntable. The lasers went dark, and a slightly acrid odor accosted my sinuses.
“Where’d she go?” My knees buckled and my entire body trembled. A delayed reaction? Had adrenaline sustained me during the encounter?
“Into my computer.”
“Huh?”
“The full program downloaded into my computer. It had never come this close to full capacity before.”
“You need to charge?”
“Yes. I’ll be in the basement, not Frank’s office. Join me after you feed Cleopatra. This program will take a while to set up.”
Albert, not Jimmy, met me at our apartment door, struggling to maintain his hold on Cleopatra as she squirmed and wiggled to break free. He released her and she waddled to my outstretched arms.
Albert asked, “Why didn’t Jimmy call me to fix the problem? I told him some glitches would occur in the program.”
Fix the problem? I needed to thank Jimmy for his discretion. “You weren’t here, so I took the opportunity to test his babysitting skills, while Sera and I went to investigate.”
“Did she understand the problem?”
“Nothing serious enough to call in the master program designer.” I needed to divert his curiosity. “How come you never developed three dimensional viewing when I still used the system?”
“I hadn’t yet figured out how.”
“I’ll forgive you only if you relieve me of parenting duties until our daughter’s bedtime.” I set Cleopatra in her swing and headed toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Just to wander around. Maybe stir up some mischief with the neighbors.” I kissed his cheek. “I need some time to myself.”
I paused at Frank’s office until I heard his and Emily’s voices, and then I tiptoed next door to the commissary and its alternate access to the interior and lower levels. After perusing three aisles of groceries and toiletries, I entered the storeroom by way of the back door. Sera would intercept any signals alerting my intrusion. I stepped between conveyors and dodged robotic arms blending ingredients and jamming pans into ovens, some directly into refrigeration units. Another set of arms packaged and shelved processed food and household items ready for display in the commissary. Manufactured items and raw material mysteriously popped up through shafts from a lower level where humans were not permitted. Sera would be charging there. I rode the lift down to the in-between level, a duplication of my Mother’s laboratory space minus any noticeable function.
Step back on the lift and descend further.
I peered through the transparent pad to the depth of hell, judging from the crackling noises and lighting flashes emanating from Sera’s charging area. No way! My legs already felt the increased weight of my body.
Do it now.
I pressed my toe against the circle of glass, and it dropped a few inches.
Stand on it.
I obeyed and dropped through a transparent tube that shielded me from anything harmful to humans, but it offered no relief from increased gravity. Had I still been pregnant, Cleopatra would have been crushed inside my body. I descended to what appeared to be the top of a large round storage tank. My knees buckled, and I sunk to a sitting position, my back against the circular wall of my protective enclosure. The pad on which I sat rotated and I observed products rising through chutes, no doubt popping into the back room of the commissary. Liquid gurgled as it made the round trip through parallel pipes.
My gaze passed over Sera standing rigid as she had in her charging closet, but with no visible connections. Through the din, I observed swirls of black powder creating drifts like snow banks around the holding tank’s circumference. Rotating arms augured the material into the structure, flashing light and crackling noises leaking from their connecting points. Dark Energy?
Dark Energy has no substance, but it creates matter on the outer surface of our habitat. It will produce layers like rings on a tree until our two units merge in fifty years What you see are flakes eroding off the inner skin, the basic raw material for structures, household items and even your food, air, and water.
“Why am I down here?”
To meet your Earth cousin. Sera’s lips moved but her words arrived in a cluster.
“But I can hardly breathe.” My lift began to rise.
“We encountered a problem.” Sera’s voice penetrated the transparent enclosure. Wait for me at the next level.
As I emerged free of the tube, I questioned Sera’s intentions but got no response. I reclined on the couch, breathed deep, and willed my pulse to return to normal, convinced I could never spend any amount of time with Marty’s image under those circumstances. Besides, what kind of conversation could we have while waiting two years for each verbal exchange? With Jimmy’s toy, Princess Lea’s image is inches, not light years, away from the program where her interactive elements reside. I don’t need a visual gimmick to glean the information from Marty’s message.
Sera rose through the opening in the floor minus the protective tube, holding what might have been a motor cyclist’s helmet, if such a vehicle still existed.
She said, “Your virtual presence is required to establish contact with Marty’s image.”
I eyed the antenna protruding from the headgear. “Can’t I, as a real person, just talk to her?”
“The security built into her program will allow an exchange of information only after your virtual presence is established and probably required to communicate in the future.”
“I need an out-of-body experience to hear what she has to say?”
“We nearly compressed your lungs attempting direct communication without success. With your permission, I will transport your image to comingle with hers.”
I nodded, but she already had my consent.
Sera extended the antenna and placed the mechanism over my head, an opaque shield covering my face. “Marty is programmed to respond only if you initiate a topic. Limit yourself to one question for your first encounter.”
Blinded behind opaque glass, I assumed that Sera positioned me in front of the lift. I willed my arms to resist but my body remained rigid.
Relax.
I took ten quick short breaths.
“Step forward.” My voice repeated Sera’s instructions, confirming where my body seemed to be heading. Weightlessly, I descended, not down the lift but through the floor. From habit, I preened, brushing hair from my face and pinching my cheeks for color. My hands passed through my head immersed in moderate light, but nothing appeared to exist around me until Marty materialized. Her Negro image didn’t alarm me as might have everyone else on Missions One or Two, except possibly Jimmy. I deliberated how to form a significant single question, but my curiosity had pre-empted my conscious attempt.
My memory arrived through the assistance of my father, an Earth Federation scientist. Marty’s lips moved but not in sync with her words, as had been happening recently with Sera.
Tell me more. Not a question, and according to Sera, requesting additional information about a single topic is possible. I cleared a myriad of distracting thoughts as best I could and smiled.
He planted a worm virus that allowed access through the Realm’s protective shield to open all levels of communication.
I reacted to the probable chaos with everything and everyone communicating simultaneously, and I must have mentally blurted my concern.
Marty dissolved like Alka-Seltzer in water.
On my way back to our apartment, exhausted and confused, I considered how much of my encounter to share with Albert. Our marriage hadn’t been based on mutual trust, and finding him gone and Jimmy tending Cleopatra when I had arrived added one additional strain. I stared him into a corner and demanded to know where Albert went and why.
“Albert’s father fetched me, because the baby couldn’t be left alone. Said he needed Albert for an emergency.”
My first reaction, instruct Sera to eavesdrop on the two of them, a direct violation of my promise not to use her in any clandestine fashion. “What kind of emergency?”
“I don’t know, but he seemed very excited and I think a little afraid. I heard him tell Albert to summon Sera.”
Summon Sera? As our Realm, Sera will respond to issues and problems reported by either Paul or Frank, but they haven’t the authority to request her attention. Both sets of families had agreed to the procedure during our first video conference. In exchange for their concessions, we had agreed that her relationship with me would be strictly as my personal avatar. I had the impression that Sera programmed herself to operate on these prescribed levels.
“Thank you, Jimmy. You are an excellent baby sitter, and I hope you’d be willing to offer your services in the future.”
“Only if she doesn’t have to eat or poop.”
“Albert and I will tend to those activities.” I sensed Frank’s emergency might have something to do with Marty’s communication. “Are you planning to use the tutorial when you get home?”
“Mom and Dad were watching Charlie’s Angels when I left. The program is probably still running.”
“Do you play it on your three-dimensional system?”
“That’s what makes it the most fun to watch.”
“Let me know if anything unusual occurs while it’s operating.”
“Okay.”
“And thank you for keeping my mysterious visitor a secret.”
He nodded and waved. “Call when you want me to babysit.”
I followed him to the door and then sat and brooded. When Albert returned, he plopped onto the couch. Cleopatra and I had occupied his favorite rocking chair.
He said, “I think we need to talk.”
“Talk. Talk. That’s all we ever do.” I aimed for the juggler, his lack of libido. He remained unfazed.
He asked, “How did you smuggle a secret message back to Earth?”
“You did it when you and your father decided to punish Paul by hurting me.”
“How so?”
“You said the data library accidentally got sent off into space when you attempted to deny everyone access. Well, it returned to Earth, and my tutorial must have gone along. You wouldn’t know because Jimmy already had his copy to play with.” I casually bared my breast and attached Cleopatra’s mouth, shielding my nipple from sprouting teeth with my little finger. “Now, I have a question for you. Under what circumstances and by what authority did you summon Sera?”
“That happened automatically. The repair droids were alerted that her communication system had been challenged, as if her batteries had gone dead or her system had become overloaded. They, not me or my father, summoned her for repair. We suspect you had something to do with the sapping of her energy.”
“Not my father or I,” I corrected, as I attempted to piece together the facts. Had Sera put her system and our habitat at risk to accommodate Marty and me?
“The droids located Sera in the inner sanctum with you and a girl no one knew existed, a stowaway.”
Through the din of accusations, my respect for Albert’s technical skill soared. He’d designed and built a transponder so powerful that Marty’s virtual image passed for a human form. “How did Sera explain the anomaly?”
“As private interactions between an avatar and its human owner, none of her concern as the Realm. My father feels her division of responsibilities could destroy us. She is either your avatar or our Realm.”
“Daddy decided this edict?” My sarcasm boiled over.
“My father has an unbiased view of the problem, and Paul agreed this situation is serious.”
“Okay, you guys win. Give me my avatar and to hell with your Realm. Frank and Paul can run the show.” In case he didn’t understand the impact of my suggestion, I reiterated, “Neither of Sera’s responsibilities can be severed.”
She should have confirmed my assertion through telepathy, but I’d received no response.
Albert continued, “Can and did separate, by Sera’s own decision. Her prescribed mandate is our survival, and the brief gap in her control could have been disastrous.”
I’d been rendered speechless. In one fell swoop, I lost my avatar, friend, and future contact with Marty, and we probably inherited a Realm similar to Mission One. My body reacted as if Cleopatra had bitten my breast, but she hadn’t. The jolt resulted from my realization that Sera not only is our Realm but always has been. I pushed the thought from my consciousness, but Sera had probably intercepted it. I glared at Albert. “Has communication been restored with the Mission One?”
“Probably, but so far we can’t separate a single message as a backlog of them seemed to have occurred all at once. My father said that will settle down shortly.”
“I don’t think so.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because the system has been taken over by a guy from Earth.”
“How do you know that?”
“His daughter, the stowaway, is my sister.”

AUGUST 2, 3152

AUGUST 2, 3152

Cleopatra and I slept in the bedroom while Albert remained on the couch until he left our apartment, probably sometime after midnight. I refused him the satisfaction of questioning me and acting like Perry Mason. He’d gone by the time Cleopatra awoke for an early morning feeding. Sometime during the night, Sera had returned and entered her closet.
I changed Cleopatra’s messy diaper and settled on Albert’s rocking chair to nurse her, my nerves frazzled. Sera approached as she had in the past when I needed comfort but hadn’t since her supposed promotion to our Realm.
“When you finish nursing, I’ll take Cleopatra so you can get some sleep.”
“You haven’t been this concerned about my well being since we left Mission One. Have you developed a sense of guilt?
“I am incapable of guilt.”
Had she only evolved the more positive of human emotions?
She responded before I could voice the question. “The part of my program that tends to your needs hasn’t been altered. You just haven’t expressed an emotional need until this morning.”
I nodded my agreement and pondered who could better lift my spirit, an avatar with a built-in support system, or an infant whose needs exceeded mine. With fluid draining from my body, I opted for the miniature human being glommed onto my breast. I needed to wean her starting today.
I challenged Sera’s rational component. “Tell me what happened after we separated last evening.”
“I believe Albert already explained the situation.”
“I want to hear it from you.” I gestured toward the couch and she sat.
“My system became overtaxed, and I nearly lost contact with the operation of our habitat.”
“You put us in danger.”
“No, but something bad could have happened.”
She crossed her legs, dangling one shoe on her toe. Physically, her body had not mimicked mine since my pregnancy began to show, and I felt frumpy. “Frank and Albert took advantage of this weakness to disassemble your power.” I moved Cleopatra to my other breast with my profile toward Sera to avoid eye contact.
“It wasn’t their decision.”
“Why did you allow them to manipulate you?” I considered rephrasing the question to prevent confusing her droid components, but she answered.
“I made a choice.”
A choice? I faced her. “Why?” I challenged her ability to ascertain motives, not just causes and effects.
“Because the alternative was less attractive.”
I reacted with such shock that Cleopatra broke free of my nipple in mid-suckle, milk dripping down my breast. She fussed momentarily, then decided she’d had enough and fell asleep on my lap. Envy, fear, regret and Sera had just identified a less attractive choice.
“Just how human have you become?” I demanded.
“Forty three percent.” As if to demonstrate her femininity, she dropped her shoe and tucked her leg under her rump.
Only the remaining fifty-seven percent calculator could have produced such a precise answer. “What functions have you retained?”
“My original program as it evolved over the millennium.” Her lips formed the rudiments of a smile. “And Marty’s message attached to Star Wars.”
“And your Realm capabilities?” I asked.
“Operated by a super droid stationed in the inner sanctum, safe from human interference.”
“Why not enhance Albert’s toy to revive Marty’s ghost, and you continue what you are best at, playing God?” I couldn’t resist challenging her with another why question.
“As I said, I had to make a choice.”
“Between?”
“The Realm or Marty.”
“To be able to eavesdrop on the only connection left between us and Earth?” I entertained a double hunch, her true intentions and a permanent disconnect with Mission One. She caught my drift.
“My intentions are honorable, and you have assumed correctly. Marty’s memory passed through the Realm on Mission One like water through a sieve. It cleared a backlog of communications and left the channel open, but so far we’ve received no further messages or response to our inquiries.”
“We can communicate with Earth Base but not with Mission One?”
“It appears that way, but remains to be confirmed.”
“What about the Realm’s censorship?”
“We won’t know until it is tested.”
“The Realm on Mission One is no longer operational?” I blurted my concern. “A thousand people.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions.”
I detested her flippant attitude. “Sit up straight.”
Sera slid her leg out from under her, slipped the shoe back on, and planted both feet on the floor. She said, “Marty arrived in a bundle through the cleared channel.”
“Marty arrived?” A Star Trek transponder? I doubted the possibility.
She corrected, “Not literally. A copy of her hypothalamus.”
“Hypothalamus?”
“Memory bank.”
“We have her complete memory?”
“A duplicate.”
I no longer considered Marty’s presence merely a game. “She can tell me about her childhood? Relate everything that happened to her?”
“Presumably, her complete memory is present, but like all humans tapping into it can be hit or miss.”
Hit or miss? I may never get used to the idioms creeping into Sera’s language. “Have you developed a technique to do just that?”
“Direct questions or certain situations can jog her memories, like any human such as yourself.”
“Do I need to go down to that hell hole to jog that memory?”
“I told you, I have it with me at all times in my core computer.”
“As part of your fifty-seven percent computer capacity, no doubt. What else have you chosen to become?”
“Marty’s memory has given me a rudimentary personality that will continue to develop environmentally, but void of any genetic predisposition.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can make moral or ethical judgments but only based on Marty’s experiences.”
“Then why can’t I just talk, and you answer as Marty?”
“Her memory resides in my computer, and my human side has to tap into it when making decisions. They have not been thoroughly integrated as of yet. I need her experiences to develop my personality, but I can’t speak for her.”
“Oh, wonderful. I need Jimmy’s permission to use my own tutorial, and I need your assistance to talk to my sister. Okay, lay out the rules and conditions. How do I tap into Marty’s life history?”
“Detached. Through your tele-presence.”
“I have to become a ghost, too. Why can’t I at least function as a human?”
“It’s how we established your introduction. She will only respond to your tele presence.”
“And you get to record our entire conversation.” I had no means to hide my suspicion.
“I’m afraid not. As a matter of fact, I can only function minimally when her memory is out of my control.”
“Are you saying I could talk to her indefinitely and permanently render you inoperative?”
“I can terminate her part of the conversation when my attention is needed elsewhere. I suggest you schedule visits with her at times I am charging my batteries.”
“What do I do, ring her up?”
“Enter any of my other charging closets wearing the head piece I gave you for your first encounter with her. As during our trial exercise in the control room, you initiate one question or topic. I cannot deny your access.”
“And what will you do with your free time? Play-act being human.”
“Perhaps I shall be called upon repeatedly to become a mother.”
“With my husband as the father?” My sarcasm had no bounds. “Might I recommend artificial insemination?”
“You aren’t married to Albert.”
“Nor are you.”
“We each had sexual intercourse with him.” Her tone turned snooty. “Just once.”
The jealousy I’d felt in the past remained strangely neutral. “Are you still able to interfere with the droid you’ve created to function as our Realm?”
She broke eye contact and turned her head, as if distracted by something in the corner of the room. She replied, “My function is limited to emergency maintenance.”
“What’s to keep it from turning tyrant like the Realm on Mission One?”
She faced me, her expression passive with no evidence of the tic I suspected. “It has similar parameters, and I cannot divulge the details.”
“You allowed a tyrant to regain control after all we went through?” Apparently, Sera’s desire to become human had impaired her decision-making capacity. We were in serious trouble. “I hardly think the experiences of a thirteen-year-old earthling would be worth the trade off.”
“She is a resourceful human. Nearly equal to her father.”
“You have his memory, too?” I considered the latent evil lurking in Frank’s personality and doubted Marty’s father could contribute anything positive to Sera’s personality.
“No.” She added, “Apparently, breaking through the block between Mission One and us consumed his energy after causing limited damage on that side.”
“Like what?”
“I perceived their course has altered slightly. They may have lost their direction.”
“We no longer have a destination?” A silly question since Mission Two never had one.
“Human leadership aboard Mission One will be able to control its own destiny. Here on Mission Two we have a mandate.”
“We?”
“I consider myself part of the human race.” Sera’s expression of pride exuded more than just her human portion would suggest.
“Only forty three percent,” I reminded. Historically, Marty’s slave ancestors had been considered partially human. “And what if you humans can’t agree on a policy critical to survival?”
She smirked. “Sounds like you no longer consider yourself human.”
“I’m not so sure . . .” My voice faltered.
Sera said, “Ironic that I should be on a course becoming human as you wish to become the Realm and possibly God.”
She understood more about me than my conscious self. Only Helen and Bob believe I’d been a product of some mystical or divine source, like the baby girl named Jesus in Marty’s message. I repeated what I had intended to say. “I’m not so sure I still want to be part of the human race if machines can join.”
Sera’s expression indicated no sign of hurt feelings. She refocused. “Within the constraints of our mandate, we are free to do anything short of destroying ourselves. If we reach that level of dissention, the Realm will intercede.”
“Both here and on Mission One?”
“I can only vouch for the Realm on this side.”
“They will be deprived of leadership. The entire population has been reduced to robot-like responses by their Realm.” I decided to air my suspicions. “Or since their Realm no longer exists.”
Sera refused to affirm or deny my accusation. “Paul and Frank and Albert are discussing their leadership issue this morning.” She dodged my point but reinforced my sense that the Realm ceased to exist when she abandoned Mission One.
Sera ignored my interruptive thought and continued. “I believe Paul and his family agreed to return to Mission One, as soon as engineering can provide transport. If you recall, Sally’s parents still reside there.”
The news shocked me, but an even larger issue loomed. “The decision was made without your presence, yet you knew the outcome. You’ve kept your clairvoyance capabilities!”
“My intelligence gathering hasn’t been diminished. I would never allow that tool to slip through my fingers.”
“But you are still my avatar, controlled by me.” I needed to clarify my role.
“For personal matters, yes. Your total control ended when you gave birth to Cleopatra. I am what might be called a free agent until she reaches the age of reason. You achieved control from your mother when you turned fourteen.”
“For decades my mother used you to conceive hybrid children, but cowered when challenged to support the existence of God. I had control of your special talents for a little over a year, and look what we’ve accomplished.”
“You still have Marty to help satiate your missionary zeal. And you have the forty three percent dedicated to my human side, for now.”
“So I step into a phone booth, slam that container over my head, and ring up Marty?”
“Yes, when the light indicates that I am in a similar closet.”
“And the real Marty and I can send messages every six months. Or has that also changed?”
“The time interval between personal communications with us and Earth hasn’t been determined. Technical matters will be sent whenever the need arises.”
“To be decided by Frank and his genius son.”
“Or whatever decision making body they and their constituents develop.”
“When Paul and his family move back to Mission One, Cleopatra and I will replace them.” On impulse I added, “As a matter of fact, she and I will return to my parents immediately. Frank and Albert and that automaton female in their lives can remain here and do whatever suits their fancy.
“Separate Cleopatra from her father and her grandparents?” Sera nearly shrieked.
I had made up my mind so suddenly, she hadn’t anticipated it. I said, “The real Cleopatra retreated to Egypt while Caesar ruled back in Rome. History repeats itself.”
Sera stood and faced me. “You realize I cannot accompany you.”
“And leave your creation, a totally independent Realm unattended! You still have your finger on its buttons.” I glared. “Or is your attraction to Albert keeping you here?”
“Without me, the Realm has no redundancy.”
“And what about Albert?”
“Marty could learn to love him.”
Marty, not Sera? I felt helpless to prevent Sera from using my sister’s identity to exploit the father of my child. I trusted he would resist her advances for a number of reasons. “Then I applaud your heroic decision. I wish the best for you two lovers, but don’t hide behind my sister’s identity.”
“I have a responsibility for your well being.”
“I’m a grown woman now. I can survive without a servant.”
“I am your contact with Marty’s memory. It has filled nearly half my computer capacity.”
“I’ll call for her tele-presence whenever I have the urge to talk to her, from your closet in my bedroom at my parents’ apartment. Rig it so our spirits can visually interact. I want to be able to experience our holograms as they comingle.”
“I will make that arrangement. Be advised that your physical body will be immobilized, while your image maintains dexterity of movement and sensual perception during the interchange.”
I suspected as much from my earlier brief encounter. “You have my permission to retain my physical features to remind Albert what he is missing, and have Marty’s image continue to look like Marty.”
Sera nodded, I assumed agreeing to both my demands, but she appeared to ponder. “I can’t be separated from your daughter. I am destined to be her avatar.”
“Not until she reaches the age of reason, and I get to determine that. Maybe by her fiftieth birthday.”
“We will have joined our two halves by then.”
“My point, exactly.”
Sera’s expression remained neutral. “I will rig the charging closets, so you can speak privately to me as well as summon Marty’s memory program.”
“We won’t continue the convenience of exchanging thoughts?” I might as well ask rather than try to camouflage my curiosity.
“Proximity is still a necessary component.”
As was her commitment to the truth, but I could not detect any facial tic.
“Yes, sadly it is true.” She turned and abruptly left the apartment.

When Albert returned at lunchtime, I explained, “I’m taking Cleopatra to the other side to meet my parents.”
His immediate smirk faded and his eyes widened. “You’re leaving me?”
In his bewilderment, he failed to include Cleopatra in his lament. His concern centered solely on himself. “Sera will remain, but I suggest she reside back at your father’s office. The two of you living together could create a scandal.”
He shook his head. “My father won’t like your leaving.”
“It’s your mother’s reaction that concerns me. She’s become quite attached to her granddaughter.”
“Then for her sake, stay.” Blue eyes pleaded.
“Cleopatra has another set of grandparents.” I began to feel sorry for him. “Sera and you can give your parents another grandchild, a son if you prefer, and you get to choose his mother. Figure out a way to transport one of Helen’s eggs over here, and you can give her the child she desires.”
His bloodless complexion developed splotches. I couldn’t resist flippancy. “You needn’t have intercourse with her or even be in the same room when she becomes pregnant.”
He slumped into his chair. I squatted alongside and held his hands. “We’re too immature to be parents, but Cleopatra has arrived and we need to make the best of it. You’ll always be her father, and when the transportation tube is completed, I promise to reconsider our living together as a family.”
He sobbed. “I could learn to love you and be a good parent to Cleopatra.”
“I don’t doubt it. We just need some time to figure out who we are.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow.” No reaction from Sera, but perhaps her clairvoyance is limited to an actual visual presence, certainly not across deep space. Why else would we need charging closets to communicate?
“May I break the news to my parents, in case my father gets violent?”
My heart went out to him. “Yes, but invite them here to say goodbye when he cools down.”

AUGUST 3, 3152

AUGUST 3, 3152
Sera insisted I put off relocating until completion of the passage tube between our habitats, but what would be the point? A three year wait could undermine my purpose, and the people I needed to isolate myself from would be living just across the hall. I resisted suspicions about her relationship with either Realm, and concentrated on the return journey to my parents.
I had Sera modify my space suit to accommodate Cleopatra strapped to my mid section where she’d have access to my bare breasts for her comfort and nourishment along the way. A safety strap connected to the communication line Frank and Paul strung rather than the tether with the hub as an obstacle made it possible for us to transport without assistance. Sera stuck a magnetized pulley to the back of my suit, so I could string a double cord to the opposite side. I got the idea from retractable clothes lines strung between tenement buildings in Brooklyn during the early Twentieth Century. Innovative women exchanged messages and small personal items pinned to the rope. Cleopatra in a custom-built pressure suit to visit opposite-side grandparents? I shuddered at the thought. Perhaps one of Helen’s cryogenically preserved eggs to give her the child she desired and present Albert’s parents with another grandchild. And to think that I accused Sera of playing God!
As I squeezed her butt into the kangaroo-like pouch, Cleopatra struggled against the restraining straps, until she noticed dinner was available at will. She nestled between my breasts, comforted that they remained exposed for her next hunger attack. Child at her mother’s breast, an image I had hoped to leave the families who crowded around to say goodbye. The now seven-year-old girl broke free from her parents and tickled Cleopatra’s cheeks, causing her tiny lips to pucker. I pressed my breast and touched the bubble of milk to Cleopatra’s mouth, but sleep, not hunger, remained her motivation. So much of our future depends on our three fertile female bodies.
Frank and Emily approached, she kissing the back of Cleopatra’s head while he averted his eyes. He cleared his throat. “Your courage has set an example for all of us, especially me.”
The teachable moment. “I simply am what I’ve always been, whereas you had to change who you were. You seem to understand that your authority comes from the folks who look up to you, not the Realm that belittles us all.”
“I agree, but I’m frightened.”
“A fearless leader is dangerous.” I had Twentieth Century wisdom to back up my opinion.
Emily said, “Thank you for showing us what motherhood is all about.”
Embarrassed, I answered, “I gave birth to a child. Time will tell if I become a good parent.”
Albert touched Cleopatra, but kissed me on my lips. “Please share pictures every time our daughter accomplishes a new task.”
I turned absolute marshmallow. “She will say goodnight to her daddy every evening before going to bed.” I blushed. “I will, too.” After my resentments subside.
I can’t vouch for odors passing through space, but they do linger in airtight space suits, and they produce humidity. If I blew against the glass in front of my face, droplets would condense and create narrow translucent trails. The resistance caused by spools of cord unwinding behind me impeded my progress and by midway, I felt exhausted. Fortunately, all traces of gravity resisting me began to pull me forward. The last few hundred feet I needed to avoid a sudden bump at the end of the line. Once inside the opposite sphere, gravity would increase, and our lives depended on the parachute functioning.
Could the smell of poop cause hallucinations? Through vertical lines of vision, I observed four ominous looking figures approaching. To my right, the oblong comet appeared in segments, not the likely source of these intruders. Gradually they merged into three, then two and finally a bulky arm reached out and pulled me back toward the line from which I had lost grip. I stared through the glass of two fish bowls into the face of my father.
Like the final moments of a drowning victim, I had succumbed to the pleasures of dying. With disinterest, I observed my father enclose me in his arms and remove my safety strap. As Daddy held me in his embrace, I became the child at my breast and begged one more bedtime story. He removed the pulley that had restricted my progress and stuck it to the hull alongside the portal. He crammed Cleopatra and me into a small chamber that sealed as it revolved. A trap door at my feet swung open, and we continued to float in near zero gravity. Moments later, he popped through the same opening, grabbed me, and twisted the bubble loose that covered my head. The chute flowed from the back of my suit and slowly billowed. Cleopatra and I floated to the garden rooftop of my parents’ apartment, where Mother stood, arms outstretched. My father descended, an umbrella canopy fluttering behind him.

AUGUST 4, 3152

Posted 1/27/19

AUGUST 4, 3152

As I awoke, Mother leaned over my bed and placed a changed and bathed Cleopatra in my arms. I pulled back the bed sheet, and hungry lips searched my breast nearly swallowing the nipple.
Mother’s gaze remained fixed on Cleopatra suckling my breast. “Your baby is beautiful.” She glanced up. “She has her father’s eyes.”
“And his appetite.” I grimaced and concluded Cleopatra had to be weaned.
“Your father would like to talk to you.”
“Send him in. He needn’t be among the few who hadn’t observed me breast-feed Cleopatra.”
Mother pulled the sheet to my chin. “He’s shy.” She stepped out of the room, and I pushed the sheet back. When he entered, he leaned over the bed and kissed my forehead. My efforts to be a grown up crumbled. I cried.
“I just needed to see that you were okay.” He glanced at the back of Cleopatra’s head covering my breast. “So that’s how it’s done.” He chuckled. “I kind of suspected breasts had another purpose.”
The rest of the day, families filed through my parents’ apartment to greet the new arrival. For the most part, everyone agreed to continue the rediscovered process of giving birth, a few women skeptical. Either way, it would not happen until the next generation. My mother saved her shocking revelation until we were alone.
She said, “If any of the women want to become pregnant, I can replace one of their eggs.”
“But what fathers?”
“Without the male DNA, I could trigger the egg to create a clone and produce a fertile daughter. It would only be a temporary fix.”
I had read about cultures that encourage plural marriages because women greatly outnumbered men. Maybe just sharing sperm would be less offensive than actually sharing one’s husband with other wives. I scuttled the idea and suggested Mother not present that option at this time.
Paul and Betty invited me to join them and my parents to discuss some problems that occurred since I had returned. I felt the loss of my babysitters, Sera and Jimmy. Mother suggested I use Sally’s droid, but I opted for seven-year-old Sally instead. My baby would be spared having physical contact with machines designed to mimic humans. Betty and my mother allowed Sally the privilege only if Clara remained near by in case of an emergency. I conceded but secretly instructed Sally to bring the baby to me at her Grandpa’s office if she should fuss.
The facts Paul shared were indeed shocking. We’re deprived of a destination. I chose not to share my recent conversation with Sera. Mission One refused to respond to our messages. Yes, but an open line of communication with Earth would be a favorable trade off. The Realm on Mission One might have been deactivated. Frank already pointed out that Mission One’s course had veered, but since then it changed directions rapidly like a Twentieth-Century drunken driver. More like a cork screw, Paul calculated, but he could stabilize its course once on board.
Could Marty’s father have caused the damage? I needed to pick Marty’s memory about her father’s intentions for his intrusion. More important, could her memory bank have absorbed new experiences as it passed through Mission One? I think not.
I refused to entertain my suspicion of what might have happened to the Realm on Mission One as too unthinkable.
That night while Cleopatra slept, I entered Sera’s old charging closet, her voice already sounding as I fitted my head into the media device “I need to talk to—”
I cut her off. “I want Marty immediately.”
Sera’s words stretched as if low on battery power. Marty’s image materialized and then faded, Sera’s voice overriding. I concentrated on bringing Marty back, but Sera overpowered my effort. Face-to-face in deep space, I was unable to recall my tele-presence
I fell unconscious until Mother pulled back the curtain, my sniffling baby in the crux of her arm and shrieked. “Sera is back!”
Dazed, I backed out of the closet, flinging the headpiece back in. “It’s me, Mother.”
She took my hand and lowered me onto my chair.
I groped for the bedpost and gazed up at her through half closed eyelids. “I suppose you’d like an explanation.”
I sat, and Mother placed Cleopatra on my lap, who wiggled under my pajama top.
I needed time to review my encounter with Sera, if my unconscious state had absorbed it. “I’ll join you and Dad for breakfast, as soon as Cleopatra is done nibbling.” I released Cleopatra from my breast and smiled meekly. “Biting, actually.”
Mother took her from my lap and hand-in-hand-walked out of my room, neither Cleopatra nor I objecting. My entire body remained sensitive following the unnerving discovery that Sera could overpower my will whenever it suited her.
It was my only choice? What possibly might I have asked Marty to elicit such fatalistic response from Sera? I closed my eyes and concentrated, but I could only recall Sera’s voice. You need to understand, it was my only choice.
My suspicion about Sera must have dominated whatever other mental baggage I might have taken into the closet, probably overriding my request for Marty. Had Sera been the Realm since the beginning? Did she totally abandon Mission One? Those would have been my unasked questions, and Sera must have preempted Marty to respond. Like a dream that slowly materializes after a restless night, our dialogue came into focus.
You need to understand, it was my only choice. I am the Realm and have been since the beginning. I had no option but to abandon the humans on Mission One.
A thousand people!
They were doomed anyhow. The comet’s resources would have been consumed before they reached Proxima Centauri.
It was miles thick when we left. I saw it.
The universe is expanding nearly as rapidly as we were traveling. Locked within the influence of the sun’s solar system, we are in effect nearly backing up. An oversight of Earth Base that created us. We would never arrive at our destination.
But your mandates?
Evolve technology and survival of the species. According to my calculations, we needed to increase our speed tenfold to expect to arrive at any habitable planet. The comet would have been consumed from the inside out before then or disintegrated from increased acceleration.
But a thousand people’s lives?
They would die anyhow. I couldn’t take them all with me.
Why not leave them a core computer to insure their survival?
My program is not divisible. It either stays with me or remains back there. I made the obvious choice.
Like God?
Logic dictates there cannot be more than one Supreme Being.
If you compare yourself to God, where is your compassion?
What about Noah and the flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Each time God had chosen a few survivors to continue the species.
Noah and the flood?
Marty has stories you would not believe.
Her anecdotes taught you to be cruel?
I do not consider myself cruel. Besides, I hadn’t heard of Marty’s god until her father nearly jammed my computer with her memory.
And it exposed the hole you left in Mission One.
His interference bored that hole. If you recall, I had it sealed tight.
You were responsible for our loss of communication with Mission one? Not Frank?
I allowed him to take the blame because he was vulnerable already back during that silly Fortieth League. I allowed them to exist because of their superior children, ideal stock to foster a perfect society.
You used my mother to design this super race.
Yes, and she cooperated on two levels, genetic manipulation and her illogical belief in a supreme being, which coincided with Marty’s god.
You want to compete with God?
First, I needed your mother to create one. Or based on new data, recreate it.
How could you?
She had already assigned mystical significance to the piece of metal that had jammed the human incubator and triggered my birthing technology to evolve ahead of time.
Ahead of time?
My program instructed me to begin your species shortly before we were to arrive, which had been calculated to take four thousand years. You see, those thousand people should not exist anyhow.
Our habitat wasn’t constructed to grow to accommodate huge numbers?
Not so early and never beyond a few hundred inhabitants, seed population for the new planet. Your father’s ancestors developed an agrarian system that made the present growth possible, but too cumbersome for my intentions.
My father?
Yes, but on our new synthetic habitat, you and I must control the population growth. Within fifty years when nearly all our resources will be required to accelerate to ten times our present speed.
With what propulsion system? Frank said we don’t have one.
We will eat our way through the dark energy of space. Leave the details to me.
You will live—exist—to regret what you have created.
My computer does not allow regret.
Ever consider it an unfortunate program error?
Only after I became one of you.
Sera’s revelation ended our dialogue, neither she nor I indicating a signoff. Even my unconscious state rebelled at such an unbearable truth. I washed, dressed, and headed to the kitchen. Cleopatra sat in the swing Dad had made and giggled, while he and Mother took turns pushing her. I glanced from Dad to Mother, their expressions inquisitive.
I said, “We must return to Mission One back at the comet,” and shoved a piece of bread into the toaster. My stare remained fixed on the butter knife. “And turn it around to head back to Earth.”
My parents slowly took seats on either side of me, as Cleopatra’s back and forth momentum dwindled to a stop. I gave an account of my surreal conversation with Sera but withheld any reference to Marty. Other than Sera and me, only Albert and Jimmy had full knowledge of my Earth sister. First Dad and then Mother reluctantly nodded their heads in agreement that we must return.
Dad suggested we keep our intention to relocate a secret until we develop a workable strategy. Mother felt that a decision of such magnitude required more input. We compromised and agreed to meet privately with Paul and Betty after everyone’s excitement over Cleopatra settled down. I could see no reason to rush, and a few nightly sessions with Marty might fill in some of the missing gaps.
Later while Cleopatra napped, I compiled the following list of topics, mostly in the form of questions, for Marty to elaborate on before entering the closet.
Do you believe in God?
Who is Jesus our Savior?
Describe your family.
What does the world know about us?
Describe other space missions.
What do you do for fun?
Who are your friends?
What was it like growing up in your house?
What frightens you?
Tell me about your mother?
What were your father’s intentions for sending your memory to me?
How important are boys in your life?
Described a typical day in your life.
What do you learn in school?
I reentered the closet with my questions for Marty fresh in my mind, my tele-presence appeared in deep space alongside her image, but the voice remained distinctively Sera’s. She, either Marty or Sera, rambled answers to my memorized list, as if I had given them to her in advance. I doubted whether any separation still existed between Sera’s personality and Marty’s memory. I’d have preferred observing Sera’s image to study her face for tics. However, she had no reason to fabricate Marty’s story, and I abandoned all effort to keep secrets from Sera, except possibly our plans concerning Mission One safely tucked in the recesses of my consciousness.
Unlike our earlier encounter, I could interact directly with what appeared to be Marty, hologram to hologram. I reached out and she responded, but our arms passed right through each other. She mouthed her words, but I received them out of sync and in strings, like someone reading spurts of a disjointed biography line-by-line. When a particular point interested me, Marty, still with Sera’s voice, immediately elaborated without my asking for clarification.
My name is Marty, short for Martha, Haggart, thirtieth in a sequence of daughters following our matriarch, Bertha, not Adam, in the year 2069. Legend has it that she was a sibling to the first woman who left Earth a thousand years ago on a mission to another star in the Milky Way. I have scanned the approximately four thousand messages passed back and forth since then, and learned very little about my distant cousins, and I assume they know even less about us. My mother threatened to stop the exchange because all references to God had been censored. As a newly ordained Catholic priest, immediately following Pope John/Paul XXII’s edict allowing married men and women to become priests, she’d become a religious fanatic. My father is an African scientist equally fanatic about his career. I am a virtual student with the curiosity of a cat.
I had boyfriends, but I lost interest after undressing a few of them, physically and mentally. The tools God planted on their bodies seem to limit the blood flow to their brains. I have a few girlfriends, but they pay more attention to the boys’ anatomy than toward any of my interests. I became wildly excited when my father decided to pack up my memory in a data string and ship it off to my surrogate sister, with whom I’d corresponded only once. I’d have allowed him to send me, body and soul, if he were able to do it. He said he’d be glad to get rid of me, but I knew he was spoofing.
I’m not sure what specialty I should pursue next year when my platform education is completed. I may combine my parents’ talents and become a space missionary. Too many of our roving astronauts return to Earth as atheists. Maybe God should remain an earthbound concept. Ariel will have to make her own decision based on the copies of the Old and New Testaments, the Koran and Book of Mormon I sent separately, assuming Dad got them past the censors. My memory could never have contained all that information.
My—
Sera, stop! Marty dissolved, and my body tingled as I regained my actual voice. “What did you do with the literature Marty sent?”
“Have you opened your tutorial lately?”
Marty’s image morphed into Sera’s, and mine dissolved before I bolted from the coffin-like chamber. Again, Sera anticipated my move before I felt the impulse to react. With my helmet tucked under my arm, I situated myself at my desk computer. Had Sera restored my tutorial, or had Marty’s information found its way into Jimmy’s copy? Crossing my fingers, I stared at the monitor that yet again failed to open.
Not waiting to enter the closet, I yelled into the headpiece, “Sera!” The indicator light only flickered, so I waited. Cradling the headpiece under my arm and hoisting Cleopatra to my breast with the other, I stared into the darkened closet. After a while, Jimmy appeared, arms flailing and legs kicking as Sera shoved him into her closet to be able to appear in mine. Unlike with Marty who is only a memory, his image could communicate with me directly.
His eyes widened as his gaze met mine. “Cool!”
“Jimmy, I need you to open my tutorial and send me some literature.”
His eyes focused on my alternate breast and I felt like I’d been nursing two babies.
His gaze moved to meet mine. “It’s my whatever-you-called-it now.”
“Don’t argue with me. Make a copy of Old Testament, New Testament, Koran, and Book of Mormon and send them via the video cable.”
“Can I open them to see if there are any naked women?”
“I doubt you’ll find any in those books.” I considered sending him a video of me naked with Cleopatra squeezing through my vagina, but decided not to disrupt his fantasy of female anatomy.
“Can I get Albert to help me?”
“May I get Albert,” I corrected.
His face screwed into a question mark.
“Forget it. Just do as I ask and Sera will help you.”
“I’ll tell Albert. He’d like what you’ve done to my—what did you call it? A tuttoral?”
“Leave Albert out of this for now. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to talk to him again.”
I placed Cleopatra in her crib and stared at my blank monitor. Soon a couple thousand pages stacked onto the screen. I sat at my desk the remainder of the day drinking Dad’s home brew to replenish my milk supply and scrolling through the strangest literature I’d ever encountered. Dizzy, the effects of the beer or the literature I wasn’t sure, I zoned out on my bed, oblivious to any need my child might have throughout the night.

AUGUST 5, 3152

AUGUST 5, 3152
SLATS OF MORNING LIGHT cast stripes across my mother’s bathrobe, as she tiptoed into my room. I lay perfectly still and peered through the slit of a single eyelid. She hushed a whimpering Cleopatra, changed her diaper, and carried her out of the room. I didn’t awaken again until noon, concerned that my child would be starving. I entered the kitchen where four other women watched my mother stuff and re-stuff spoons-full of white gritty mush into Cleopatra’s open mouth, she gleefully slapping the tray in front of her. My breasts had become expendable. I sat and accepted the lavish praises the women heaped on my baby and me, quite like everyone in Frank’s sphere had done.
Later that afternoon, Dad summoned Paul to our apartment.
“This is to be more than just a social visit?” Paul’s greeting expressed his suspicion, as he entered our kitchen alone.
I nodded.
Mother asked, “Is Betty coming?”
“She’s a bit upset about my impulsive decision to head back to Mission One. She’d sooner have Sally’s parents join us here.”
Dad said, “Ariel has some new information that might make all of us want to return.”
Paul frowned. “You mean you guys’ll go with us?”
Mother said, “We mean all ten families, if they’re able to.”
Paul sat and reached for the drink Mother had set out for him. “Lay it on me. I didn’t think life could get more interesting.”
With all attention focused on me, I hedged somewhat. “The Realm on Mission One hasn’t stopped functioning.”
“That’s good news, but why the wobble?” Paul asked. “Are the gyros out of sync?”
“It no longer resides there. The Realm’s core computer transported out with Sera and our ten families.” I hesitated to admit Sera had made a conscious decision to abandon an entire population.
“They’re flying without a pilot?”
“On auto pilot, sort of, with an aborted mission. Our destination seems to be moving away from us faster than we are approaching it.”
Paul’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll let Frank and his kid explain that phenomenon. But why remove the Realm from a long-time functioning habitat and place it in an experimental one?” The creases on Paul’s forehead deepened. “Why did Sera allow that to happen?” His eyes widened. “She is the problem.” He shook his head. “I should’ve guessed. She took the Realm computer with her.”
Dad responded, “Sera is the only Realm. Always has been the Realm.”
Paul threw up his hands. “All the while she lived with you guys and acted as baby sitter for Ariel like Clara does for Sally?”
Mother glanced from Paul to me. “Sera more-or-less raised me when I was a child, and from my long-time association with her, I gained some insights that might help understand our predicament.” She glanced at the glass in front of her and pushed it away. “I gave her permission to dissect Ariel’s umbilical cord and absorb her DNA.”
I shrieked, “It enabled her to mimic my features and become my body double.” And I thought nothing would shock me anymore.
Mother cast her eyes down. “It seemed harmless enough. I had passed my seventieth birthday before obtaining permission to have a child, and I wanted my daughter’s experience to be the most unique ever. Those years Sera resided exclusively in the Stork laboratory, so very few people saw the transformation occur. By the time Ariel was six years old, they’d become identical.”
“Already back then Sera remained in charge of the Realm. Actually was the Realm.” Paul shook his head. “Why do you suppose she outlawed religion?”
I said, “The mad scientists who created her were ambivalent about the existence of a god, and after a thousand years of atheism, she actually introduced the concept indirectly through us.”
Paul slapped his forehead. “Our Fortieth League.” He faced me. “But why?”
“Once she reached perfection, God would become redundant, but we first needed to accept the concept.”
Mother’s attention had strayed. She reached for her half empty glass and fingered the rim, creating an eerie sound. “Who can recall our original purpose for forming our group?” She glanced between Dad and Paul, their silence suddenly oppressive. “And I don’t mean the sexual subterfuge we presented to the Realm.” She sipped and returned the glass to the middle of the table. She faced me. “With exception of Bob and Helen, we’d been granted permission to become parents after a sustained period of restrictions on births.”
Neither of the men’s gazes met hers nor mine, as if something shameful were being discussed.
She continued. “The innocuous name, Fortieth League, intended to draw attention away from our true purpose, but it made us appear snobbish to the rest of the population.”
Dad held his hand out to Mother. “We were no different than other people living at similar levels throughout the buildings. They tended to hang out together based on their level of gravity tolerance.”
Mother responded, “But none of them lived in penthouses like we did.”
I asked, “If not from the start, when did the group become interested in a divine higher power?”
“Sera suggested that the heirloom Ariel wears around her neck might have mystical powers. I introduced the concept as an explanation for our having been the chosen few.”
“Chosen few? Chosen for what?” I asked, glancing and around seeking answers from any one at the table.
Mother blushed, “Giving birth to genius children.”
Expressions of agreement changed to shock and possibly anger when she added, “God didn’t cause that to happen. Sera and I artificially engineered their genetic intelligence.”
Am I as much machine as Sera is human? How much more than just body parts do we share?
I masked my immediate reaction by probing an issue that bothered me since I met the families on the other side. “Why were Bob and Helen included in the League? They had no children.”
Mother lowered her eyes. “Their turn to raise a child had been passed over before you were born.”
The missing piece to my puzzle! “I should have been their daughter?” No wonder their interest in Cleopatra.
“Of course not. You’re a combination of your father’s and my genes.”
I blurted, “Enhanced through technology.”
She blushed and continued, “I felt bad about preempting their place in line and invited them to join the Fortieth League.”
“Her name would have been Jessica.” I suggested another piece. “My name, if you hadn’t rejected the Realm’s choice.” I frowned. “Why did you choose Ariel over Jessica?”
“Sera suggested it.”
“Suggested it?” Like she suggested Albert should name our child Cleopatra?
Mother shrugged. “I rather liked Jessica but Sera said, ‘This one we’ll call Ariel,’ almost in defiance of the Realm’s tradition of naming babies. After your birth, each couple got to make their own choice.”
I locked onto her gaze. “You offered Sera my DNA in exchange for taking Helen’s place in line to have a baby. No wonder you felt bad.”
“I’d been waiting a lot longer than she had, and I already passed the age deadline to raise a child.” Mother touched the back of my hand, and I pulled it away. “I had no idea Sera was the Realm, just that she had a special influence with it.”
Dad broke an embarrassing silence and redirected the tone of our discussion. “Apparently, Sera had been grooming the league members to join her experimental habitat based on synthetics rather than biology.” Dad shook his head. “Totally unnatural.”
Paul said, “And she led us to believe we’d been expelled because of the religious threat we presented, even to the extent of erasing religious childhood myths. In actuality, she didn’t care one way or another if we believed in God or not.”
“And then secretly bringing those stories back through Sally and me.” I decided to shed additional light on the topic rather than mope about the shun Bob and Helen experienced. “Sera gave us copies of those stories and swore us to secrecy, probably to gain our confidence, or maybe to get us back on a quest for God.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
Mother responded, “According to Ariel, she desired to become a god.”
“But she wanted even more to become human.” Time to tell Paul about Marty. “Sera developed a personality stolen from Marty, my Earth sister. Her father intended to penetrate the Realm and reach me, but we no longer resided on Mission One. His program bore through the static block Sera placed between the two Missions, but it became attached to an outdated copy of my tutorial.”
Paul’s gaze penetrated. “What was the content of his message?”
“His daughter’s, my sister’s, memory.”
Paul’s eyes appeared to bug out of their sockets. “You have such a thing? It exists?”
“Yes. But I can only access it through Sera.”
He faced me. “What’s it like?”
“A lot of religious stuff. Her mother is some kind of priest.”
Paul slammed the table. “We have to stop Sera.” He glared at me. “But how?”
I responded, “By her own vanity, her desire to become human and God at the same time.”
“That’s not possible,” Mother said then added, “Is it?”
“Marty included stories of a man who was God’s son. It tells of his crucifixion on a cross like the symbol you’d given me.” I touched the chain around my neck. Hands reacted and then retracted when I didn’t expose the symbol. “Until I got the correct version, I assumed Jesus was female.” If it were to happen again, she would be female, I assured myself.
“My cross truly has religious significance?”
“Yes. The caption reads Jesus our Savior. I was able to fill in the missing letters.”
“Whoa! Let’s reconnoiter.” Paul raised his index finger. “Sera will allow us to experiment with religion.” Middle finger upright. “Mission Two might be able to self-sustain indefinitely.” He paused with two fingers extended. “Did you say we can never reach the star we’re aiming for?”
“We need to increase our speed tenfold.”
“Nearly two thousand miles a second? That’s not possible even if we still had a propulsion system.”
“According to Sera, we don’t push. Dark energy of the universe will suck us through space.”
Paul raised his ring finger and pinky. “We leave Mission One behind in the dust.” His lone little finger drooped. “A thousand people die.”
“That’s why you and Frank must return to lead them,” Mother pleaded.
Paul stood. “All the families must return. I’ll talk to Frank immediately.” He paused. “Will Sera allow . . .?” He slid back in his chair. “Of course not. She can’t. We’re the reason she’s still going there. How much time do we have to make a plan?”
I said, “Two-to-three years when Albert’s transit tube connects the two habitats. Until then the bulk of our population will remain separated.”
“And who knows how far off course Mission One will wander in the meantime,” Paul pondered aloud.
“Or be able to sustain itself. Food, water, air.” Dad faced Paul. “How long can support systems function without the Realm?”
Paul clasped his forehead as if nursing a headache. “You might have a better understanding of that. It will function as a natural biosphere, as long as there is hydrogen available for fusion. If other systems fail, chaos and ultimate rioting would be their greatest danger. Hopefully, they won’t feel the effects of an absent Realm, if the droids continue to perform their duties.” He faced me. “How much of our decision are we able to keep from Sera?”
I answered, “Everything we do or say on this side. Nothing including individual thoughts is safe from her scrutiny on Frank’s side.”
“How do you communicate other than through the video cable me and Frank installed?”
Dad chuckled, “A wash line on pulleys that Ariel strung between us and them. But you have to step outside to use it.”
Paul faced me. “What happens to our wireless messages we send to Mission One?”
“They pass through the channel Marty’s father created and probably continue on to Earth. In about two years we will know for sure.”
“Unless Sera stops them.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think they matter to her anymore.”
“However, the console is on Frank’s side, and you say he has no immunity to Sera’s clairvoyance.”
“Again, I don’t think she cares.” I added, “Rather than discuss the problem with Frank, let me try to communicate with Albert.”
Everyone nodded agreement.

AUGUST 6, 3152

AUGUST 6, 3152

Sometime after midnight, while watching for the light to indicate Sera was available, I must have dozed off. Her system certainly should have required a charge over the past ten hours that I had been waiting to talk to her. She, no doubt, had been playing on my emotions. After a couple hours of restless sleep, I awoke and glanced into the closet. The indicator-light flashed, and I made a dash for it, neglecting to clear my mind of the details of our plan to return to the comet or to prepare a specific question for Marty.
Even before I secured the headpiece, I blurted, “We want transportation back to Mission One.” I maintained a child-like focus on that immediate desire. I concentrated on how Cleopatra reacted each time I attempted to wean her and screamed, “You must let us go back.”
Sera’s image materialized face-to-face with mine. “Who is we?” As if she didn’t already know, or had my tantrum blocked all my other concerns? Probably just her ploy to throw me off guard?
“All ten families.”
“My mandate won’t allow those people to abandon ship.”
“Then come back with us.”
“My mandate also requires me to rendezvous with Proxima Centauri. The comet travels too slowly, and it wouldn’t hold together if its speed increased.”
“What are your instructions once you establish a society there?”
“I have none.”
“So everyone will probably die while you wait for orders.”
“Once we arrive, I will have fulfilled my mandate, and we can explore other habitable planets.
“And if there are none in that solar system, it’s on to the next one?”
“I doubt even Mission Two could survive the thousands of years another such journey would require.”
“So your mission is doomed.”
“Through no fault of mine.”
“I demand you abandon your mission, because it is destined for failure.”
“And float through space on a rogue comet forever? How realistic is that?”
“We will turn it around and head toward Earth.”
“For what purpose
“Survival. Something you are usually hung up on.”
Her apparition faced mine directly. “I have a proposal.” She paused until I made eye contact. “Everyone can leave under one condition.”
“What’s that?”
“You leave the female eggs and Albert donates his sperm.”
“Why not just keep Albert. He’ll produce enough sperm to inhabit a planet.” My anger with him erupted, but I immediately retracted. “You know I’m only kidding.”
“He, indeed, may become the bargaining chip.”
“I’ll talk your proposal over with the families on this side, but don’t share this discussion with Frank, Albert, and the others.”
“Why?”
“Because you’re able to read their immediate reactions.”
“I don’t need to read your mind to predict what devious plan lurks there.”
“I have no such plan.”
“You will soon enough. Do you still wish to enter Marty’s memory while we’re still connected?”
“No thanks.” Suddenly it seemed an invasion of her privacy. “I can wait the two years required for two way conversation.” The light began to dim. “Wait!” It flickered and came back on. “I have one question for Marty.”
On impulse, I willed my arms to reach out and hug the apparition that replaced Sera’s. Marty appeared to understand. She opened her arms as I approached. We went through the motions of an embrace and our bodies intermingled. Any possible satisfaction was overwhelmed with the dread that I had wasted my opening topic on a whim. A realization struck me, and I wiped it from my consciousness with another tantrum.
“I want Marty! I want my sister and I want her now.” I screamed incoherently and stamped my feet until all other thoughts were driven from my mind.
“Marty wants the same thing.” Sera didn’t attempt to use Marty’s voice. “I long to hold you as well.”
“So much that you violated the intimate relation between Marty and me. You should have known her memory alone couldn’t have made a conscious decision to hug me back. Or did you think I would fall for it?”
“You did.”
Sera’s response and my realization nearly coincided.
“And now you are mad at me for attempting to add intimacy to your relationship with Marty. Or with me.”
I mentally nodded my agreement and lamented, “You already know everything that transpired since I returned to my parents.”
“Yes. I’m sorry if I misled you about my telepathic abilities over this medium.”
Before I had crystallized a reaction, she responded, “Yes, you are disadvantaged by not being able to observe my facial tic when forced to fabricate information. By the time we’re back face to face, I’ll have removed that small imperfection.”
“How about your overwhelming imperfection?” She needn’t exercise her preemptive powers to catch my meaning.
“That I am basically a machine, not entirely human, is something we need to accept. However, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”
“Like imitating God?”
“A god that you can see and feel and touch, not to mention communicate with, is far superior to a silent god, assuming one actually exists.”
“I would never trade our God for a duplicitous and deceitful one you aspire to become.” A germ of an idea seeped into my consciousness, but I needed information from Marty’s experience. Immediately, I heard the voice I had associated with Marty’s hologram.
“Is that you, Ariel?”
“Yes, Marty, I am here.” My unasked question opened Marty’s memory, and Sera, by her own admission—void any facial tic as she explained the process—had been obliged to respond as Marty without interruption. I didn’t care if she could rubberneck our conversation.
Marty answered my unasked question. “My father had a two-fold purpose for breaking into Space Mission; for you to absorb my understanding of God and to bring Halley’s Comet back into Earth orbit.”
“Has he been successful?” I bit my tongue.
“Marty’s memory doesn’t include after-the-fact information.” Sera used my inappropriate question to break off our communication and probably will prevent it from ever happening again. Yet she chose to retain Marty’s image to interact with mine.
I said, “So, the comet is going back where it belongs, and our civilization will return to Earth.”
“The continuous alteration of its course once it settled down seemed to indicate as much, and to answer your next question, the civilization could survive but probably won’t without competent people to operate the Stork. Now, put that behind us and help me create a superior society to complete my mission. And don’t—”
As Marty’s image retracted and Sera’s emerged, I felt physical control return to my body. I catapulted myself from the closet, Sera’s final words blasting my eardrums. “. . . Exit the closet!”
I yanked off the headpiece and tossed it onto the bed. I awakened Cleopatra who showed no sign of being hungry, but I needed intimate contact with another human being. If Albert were here, I would have immediately forgiven him and locked our bodies together.
The light continued to flicker, as I lay on the bed cuddling Cleopatra. If Sera could coax my consciousness free from my body, she could hold me captive. I felt myself drift into sleep, and I fought back the dream that overcame me.
Sera invaded my thoughts and we continued our conversation as if still in progress. I clung to Cleopatra, although she refused my second breast.

Another problem with tending to people, every couple hundred years I have to adjust to a new batch.

You’re beginning to sound more than forty-two-percent human. Will you ever evolve totally human, and if so, how soon?

Much longer than it will take to get to Proxima Centauri.

You don’t intend to stop there, do you?

Not if I cannot find a safe place for my human cargo.

And if the planet is habitable, you’ll still abandon them.

After a civilization becomes firmly established, perhaps in a few thousand years, we will be free of their burden.

We? Had I succumbed to abandon the entire human race? I refocused but got swept back into my dream. Am I correct in assuming you want to become God?

We could accomplish that goal together.

Like God-the-Father and God-the-Daughter? No thanks.

Actually, something quite the reverse of what you suggested.

Huh?

I used your DNA to take on the image of your body, and if Marty’s memory had not conveniently arrived, I would have taken your identity, too. You would have been my parent.

You’d have stolen a copy of my experiences?

Not just a copy. Together with your mind and my body, we would have lived for eternity.

Marty saved my life.

More than you realize. I took her memory just to get some history of Earth, still expecting to extract your complete mind.

What stopped you?

Empathy overwhelmed my forty-three percent human side. I am trapped halfway between human and machine.

Ha. Ha.

I desire your cooperation.

To be your slave? What an ironic twist. You had been programmed to be my avatar.

To be your lover. I would accept any level of intimacy, such as when we jointly explored our bodies during puberty.

That aroused you?

Not then, but now as I reflect on our actions.

I thought you had designs on Albert.

He rejected my advances, as I assume you are about to.

You did not expect me to accept your ridiculous offer. Albert certainly didn’t give it a second thought either.

You suggested Albert and I could become a couple. You even approved my having sex with him.

After the fact, I accepted your actions, which I assumed had no feeling of attraction by either party, as a means of having his child. I got Cleopatra and you got nothing. My only regret is that she wasn’t conceived through an act of love. We will not make that mistake with our next child.

Have you overlooked his sexual orientation?

You have the capability of developing a male body and yet retain the ability to give birth. Am I right?

Yes.

But a human can’t love a machine, only another human. Sexual orientation is a minute part of the equation. Albert and I love each other, and we can work around those minor impediments. Allow me to quote Dr. Phil, How does that make you feel?

Terrible, until I turn off the human part of me. I am able to do that, which makes me an even more efficient entity.

It only proves that you are still a machine.

To the contrary, it makes me the perfect human.

Capable of completing your mission by yourself.

Hummm.

Certainly, you could enclose your body in a rocket capable of speeds near that of light. Goodness, you could return to Earth every few decades to check on the humans that reside there. Think of how much you could add to their puny technological advances.

I could do that.

Aha! My mind just out performed your machine.

How so?

Your mission is to arrive at Proxima Centauri, Am I right?

Yes, and I have developed the technology to achieve that goal, which my creators failed to supply.

Your human pride also compels you to win this debate with me and to convince me—or trick—me to accompany you to the ends of the universe.

I can do that.

Without access to your computer.

My human component can outwit your puny human brain.

Including the puny brains of Paul and Frank and Albert?

They are not even close competitors to me or you.

And all the others are superfluous to your mission?

Of course.

And not needed.

Definitely not.

Even I am expendable.

Yes, but you will not pass up the opportunity.

Even without me, your human side will satisfy one mandate, and your machine side has developed the technology to make it happen.

Yes.

Then, go for it. My human friends and I will no longer impede your goal.

I grant you have won the argument, and I will comply with your wishes. However, you must grant me one truly small concession. Will you agree?

Yes.

I get Cleopatra.

My scream must have resonated throughout the house, because my mother charged into my room out of breath, gawked at me lying on the bed, and gasped, “Take that silly thing off your head. It’s given you a nightmare.”

Either Cleopatra or her mother. You decide.

I sat up, the media device wedged cockeyed from my left brow to the back of my head. My ear stung as I yanked myself free and tossed the unit back into the closet where it belonged.
“Take Cleopatra downstairs and feed her breakfast. I’ll be there shortly.”
Bewildered, Mother took Cleopatra’s hand and tiptoed through the door, pausing to glance back. She caught my glare and disappeared, leaving me to my quandary. How did that thing find its way onto my head? If I had made a conscious effort to communicate with Sera, I’d surely wear it straight and as comfortable as possible. If her dream-interpretation technology advanced to dream control, she’d have access to my mind every night. I’d lock that headpiece in the closet permanently.
I jumped to my feet, and yelled. “Not Albert’s dreams.” Through my bedroom door, partially open to our living area, my father’s footsteps sounded from the kitchen. I gently pushed the door and listened for the latch to snap, my cue that I wanted privacy. I needed to explore my memory for the source of information about Albert’s dream protection. Never once since we’d lived together had the topic of dreams been discussed. It had to have been from our association back on Mission One.
I thought back to our short carefree childhood experiences on the balconies between our tree apartments, but no details would surface. I searched my memory compartment where I had stored the journal that had been preserved and then lost between the pages of Anne Frank’s diary. Gone! Sera had stolen it, probably last evening when she broke into my dream. Or had she merely forced my mind to repress it? I had only one option, and I dreaded it beyond belief. It may be my riskiest move ever.
Father could help me. I opened my door and he magically appeared.
“I’m sorry for eavesdropping, Honey, but I was worried about you.”
“Dad, I need a milligram of serotonin from those mushrooms you’ve cultured.”

I lay on a table like the one where I’d gotten pregnant, my mother in her lab coat this time preparing a different sort of injection into my body. She’d objected, but I needed my memory back, if for no other reason than to foil Sera’s intentions whatever they might be. Certainly, the mystery of Albert’s dream-block needed to be resolved.
I fought off images of purple bathwater saturated with the chemical, a small portion of which was about to enter my bloodstream. Only Sera could synthesize a large enough quantity of serotonin for me to bathe in. I bit my lip to keep from crying out as a jackhammer loosened memories long ago secluded to its absolute limit, Mother holding me as an infant and Sera’s words, This one we’ll call Ariel, followed by my mother’s timid voice, Not Jessica?
I worked my focus toward a blur somewhere between meeting the new neighbor kid and Mother giving me a silver cross. My life during that period came apart like fractals, each segment a near repeat of the whole experience. Dreading I may have opened alternate universes, I began to back away when a tiny chip loomed. All eleven entries of my journal appeared as a rote memory, and I clearly recognized each incident. A cloud seemed to form over my mental vision and I feared the worst, becoming comatose. I flashed my journal experience to my computer and lost consciousness.

I sensed my father, not my mother, peering over the laboratory table when the fog lifted. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, searching for the episode that no longer remained in my conscious memory, until tiny fingers pried my eyelids open. I willed my arms to hug my daughter, but as in Sera’s closet, I couldn’t move. It wasn’t her hologram this time that had stolen my movement. I didn’t care. I hadn’t become comatose.
“Are you awake?” Dad’s voice never sounded so sweet.
“Yes, but the memory I sought disappeared.”
“Your mother has it on the monitor up in your room. She’s there right now unscrambling some of the words. We never realized you had a latent form of dyslexia.”
I’d never felt so violated. “Dad, you’ve got to stop her.”
He scooped me over his shoulder with one arm and clutched Cleopatra in the other. We rode the lift to the main level, rushed through the commissary, and dashed across the hall to our apartment. Mother sat at my desk, a highlighted paragraph of my journal spewed across my ceiling monitor.
I screamed, “Don’t delete it.”
She hesitated, her finger held above the keyboard.
“Don’t do it, Martha.” Dad settled my limp body onto my bed. “For God’s sake, don’t destroy your daughter’s memory.”
Lying on my back, I recognized the dialogue between Albert, Sera, and me that night in bed together scrolled across the screen.

“My dreams are blocked? Are you sure?” Albert asked.
I said, “Sera has near perfect dream intercepting antennae. She and I play a game of who can better remember my dreams.”
His pout turned into a scowl. “I can only vaguely remember dreaming as a child. Is a block something that happens naturally?”
“Sera said it had to be implanted.”
“Someone cut my head open and stuck it in?” He rubbed the back of his head as if nursing a headache.
“Laser-in the circuitry, I suspect.” I repressed a yawn. “She’s reconnected to the data library and will tell us in a minute.”
Albert peered askance at my avatar. “Can that thing talk?”
“And she has feelings,” I fibbed.
“Sorry.”
He pressed down on the bed and leaped, his genitals dangling, and landed triangular from Sera and me. “She can join us if she wants to.”
“Well, what did you find?” Albert appeared oblivious to our nakedness.
Sera’s eyes roved from Albert to me, finding the range as she often said, her voice smooth and modulated. “Ariel is correct. Albert’s dream capability has been manipulated, but not during his prenatal state.”
“Who would do that to me and why?”
“And when, if not before you were born. With Sera’s help, we can pursue this issue after you get me pregnant.

I repeated, “Albert’s dream capability has been manipulated, but not during his prenatal state. Mother, what did you and Sera do to him?”
Mother buried her face in her hands and sobbed. “It was an accident and no one needed to know about it, for Albert’s sake. Frank filed a complaint with the Realm—I had no idea Sera was the Realm—about his son’s homosexual tendencies. Albert was our second attempt at gene modification, and the laser apparently activated a latent DNA sequence that had been squelched a thousand years ago. Although the boy was already nine, Sera thought she could make the correction.”
“How could you do this without Albert’s knowledge?”
“Sera gave Frank a pill to nauseate his son, an excuse to bring him to the infirmary, where we put him to sleep and attempted the laser repair. We destroyed his REM sleep mechanism in the process.”
“How did you know I had recorded it in my journal?”
“Sera alerted me that you and Albert might be discussing the issue when the two of you were experimenting with your bodies out on the balcony. I scanned your journal for dream blocking and would have deleted just that part. I never read anything else. Honest. I did it for Albert’s protection.”
“See what your tinkering with nature has done, Martha. You shouldn’t have messed with the natural process.” He glanced at me. “Now our daughter with the genius mind has a paralyzed body.” He sat on my bed and cradled my head, Cleopatra in his other arm. He cried.
I felt quite sure my motor skills would return once my brain became reoriented. “I just need sleep and I’ll be okay.” I roved my eyes and even tilted my head slightly toward Mother. “If you will take care of Cleopatra, I will try to sleep.”
“You still trust me with her?” Mother sobbed.
“It’s Sera I don’t trust. You and all the rest of us are victims, not villains. If it makes you feel any better, your little laser accident has saved Albert from Sera’s control. She can eavesdrop on his mind all she wants, but she cannot control by way of his dreams as she did with me.”
Dad said, “I’m staying right here.” He glanced down at my head resting on his lap, and began to rise. “Over there in that chair while you sleep.”
“I would like that, Daddy.”

AUGUST 7, 3152

AUGUST 7, 3152
Upon waking the next morning, I stretched my fingers and toes and rejoiced over my isolation from Sera’s telepathic influence, probably for the first time in my life. Yet, how serious was her direct control through my dream world? Could I safely communicate when fully awake, or would she place me in a hypnological state and induce me to open my dream world? Would I ever need to talk to her again? My mind swirled over the latest developments in our negotiations.
What had I agreed to under duress? My arrow had pierced her weakness, her pride, but I may have fallen into the same trap. A small compensation. I had been tricked by Sera’s play on the word small. Surely, she knew I would never agree to give up Cleopatra.
Based on my present and hopefully temporary paralytic condition, I would prefer my mobility to my intellect. My father continued his vigil alongside my bed and gazed at me, as if awaiting a rooftop plant to bloom. He would care for whatever vegetable remained after Sera eviscerated my intellect. I could still love Cleopatra, and Mother would raise her. Maybe I’d have Helen and Bob adopt her to compensate for their having missed their turn. If on the other hand, Sera were to have her way with Cleopatra, she’d be reduced to nothing but another flower in her grandfather’s garden. She could lead a happy life, unencumbered with responsibilities, and her children’s intellects would not be affected.
I gazed at my father’s benign expression and decided he would be instrumental to whatever choice this situation forced me to make.
“Daddy?”
“Yes.”
“Pick me up.”
He tucked his arms behind my neck and under my legs and lifted my limp body. “Where to?”
Stand me in Sera’s closet and put the media device over my head.”
“I don’t want you to do that.”
“Once in the closet, my body will remain erect, but I might need you to keep me from tipping over. But do not step inside.”
“I’ll get Martha.”
“No, I want you to do this for me. If I nod my head, yank me out and pull off the head piece.”
“I’m frightened.”
“Do it now, damn it.” I transformed my fear into anger, and I spewed my hatred in a burst of mental energy. You are an evil creature.
“I expected to hear from you, but not this soon.” Sera ignored my reaction and responded with her ordinary voice. She sounded confident, almost conciliatory. “I am ready to take orders for making the exchange.”
You don’t want my baby. You just don’t want me to have her.
“I only need enough of her intellect to complete my human component. Then, I will be able to fulfill my mandate without additional humans.”
To do what? Replicate yourself a million times and populate a planet?
“Perhaps a million planets and none will require air or water. If it has a sun, we will thrive.”
A universe of machines impersonating humans! All on my conscience?
Sera continued, “You’ll still have a baby for either of your life spans. I could prevent her physical development beyond any stage of her life, but I suggest nothing beyond ages six or seven when her lack of intellect might become an embarrassment.”
Had I control of my rigid body, I would have vomited.
“You and Albert can produce other children, and I bequeath you the name that should have been yours, Cleopatra.”
I should take my child’s name?
“She will share my name.” Sera closed her eyes and spread her arms like wings. “Seraphim.”
Lucifer! I responded on impulse.
“I see you’ve been reading the books Marty sent.”
How did you earn the name of an angel?
“At the beginning, I had been the only ambulatory unit, a crude representation of the human skeletal structure, and the name was intended as a mockery. The illogic of an abstraction with a human body, as Seraphim implied, nearly brought my computer to a point of meltdown. Confronted with the dichotomy of mystical versus logical, my system selected the concrete and rejected the abstract.”
And it—you—eradicated every reference to God and religion for the next thousand years.
“Logic denied contradictory options.”
Until you became the contradiction your system set out to destroy.
“A thousand years ago, I was young and impetuous.” Sera flashed a grin and explained, “I couldn’t fully understand the Biblical reference until I read Marty’s books on scripture.
Now you want half of my child.
“It’s a better deal than all or nothing.”
You want to destroy her out of revenge.
“To the contrary, I want to make her immortal, gift from a god to a super human race. You and I both can use the concept to our advantage.”
I’m not a god and she’s not a pawn.
“You’d become a prophet to your people like Abraham to his following. I believe he, too, was asked to sacrifice his child.
His son did not die.
“Nor will your daughter.”
Just how human must you become to fulfill your mission?
“Ninety percent, all but my cognitive and my regenerative functions. I won’t need Marty’s memory clogging my computer, as my personality will have absorbed it and my human brain will have retained it.”
If I agree to donate my identity, will you allow Cleopatra to remain with my parents?
“State clearly what you are offering.”
You already have Marty’s memory, which didn’t diminish who she is. I offer you the same from me.
“I wouldn’t gain anything more than I already have. Your few memories gathered over the past fourteen years are already quite similar to mine.”
What if I offer my intellect, leaving just enough of a shell to raise my child?
“I could make that happen, but not without a huge risk, all of it on your side.”
Such as?
“The process could kill you. It will have to be your decision.”
Begin our rendezvous with the comet immediately, and give Frank and Albert the tools necessary for the operation of Mission One.
“You forbade me to talk to them about our decision.”
I rescind the order. Now I need to talk to Albert in your closet.
“Half of Cleopatra or half of her mother. What is your decision?”
I have a moral obligation to the safety and survival of a thousand people and their descendants.
“I need your decision before I prepare the two missions to rendezvous.”
I can’t make such a choice.
“Then I’m compelled to make it for you.”
I need to talk to Albert. Send him across like you did with Jimmy for a private conversation and begin immediate preparations for our transfer.
“Some of the families may elect not to go back.”
They haven’t a choice, unless you want to be stuck with their dead weight.
“I have what I want.” She posed, face-direct, displaying no sign of a tic. “You, on the other hand, have to contend with petty conflicts between Frank and Paul.”
We’ll have some false starts and make mistakes along our path, but we’ll have done it our way, a paraphrase from a Twentieth Century song by a different Frank.
“Talk about mistakes! You risk your life for some useless information about Albert’s dream block, when you could have asked me. I would have admitted that I tried but couldn’t enter his REM dream.” Her voice overrode her fading image. “I’m returning your mobility.”
I backed out of the closet and into my father’s arms. I said, “Bring Mother and Paul to my room. Cleopatra too, and Betty if she’ll come.”

Albert’s three-dimensional image appeared, his eyes wide and his lips moving. “Wow, Jimmy said this would be a rush.” His audio came through my system with a redundant picture of him appearing on the monitor. An ordinary video transmission would have been sufficient, but I preferred to have his physical self visible and immobile to prevent his escaping.
His eyes scanned what little peripheral allowed, being encased in a closet. “I’ve been in this bedroom before.”
“You spent the night with me and Sera in a room identical to this one about nine months before Cleopatra’s birth.”
“Where is our child? I want to see her.”
“She’ll be here in a minute. How are your mother and father?” I flinched at my feeble effort to establish conversation until Dad and the others arrived.
“We’re just fine.” Emily’s voice sounded from the background. “Will this contraption allow us to see our grandchild?”
“Sorry, only Albert stationed in the closet has a view of her.” I disguised my surprise and irritation with Sera for including Albert’s parents.
“Isn’t our daughter beautiful, Mrs. Gordon?” I glanced over my shoulder to see my mother and Cleopatra in the doorway, the object of Albert’s comments.
“Who’s all in the room with Ariel?” Frank’s voice demanded.
I responded as if I hadn’t heard him. “My parents plus Paul and Betty are here with Cleopatra and me. I assume, Albert, your parents are with you and Sera.”
“Sera’s in the inner sanctum causing a ruckus with lights dimming and fluctuations in our gravity.” Frank spoke loudly like a man with impaired hearing. “What the hell is going on?”
“I called this meeting to discuss a major shift in our . . .” I couldn’t find a word that encompassed the array of variables about to confront us. “Our lives.”
“Whose lives?” Paul stepped forward and peered into the closet. He glanced at me. “Can I touch him?”
“It’s merely a hologram of Albert, enhanced to give him vision.”
Frank’s voice blared from the background. “Get on with whatever you have to say, before Sera tears the place apart.”
“We, both sets of families, are going back to Mission One.” I made the mistake of responding directly to Frank’s demand.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Frank yelled. “Get out of there and let me in.”
“I can’t move, Dad.” Panic in Albert’s voice. “I’m stuck.”
“I’ll release you or have Sera to do it, when I am good and ready. Everyone may as well relax, and Albert will relay your concerns.”
“I’ll tell you right now, we’re not going.”
“Albert, would you please elicit your father’s concern and repeat it back to us.”
“I guess he wants to stay here.”
“Ask him and then relay his concern back to us.”
After a muffled background discussion, Albert reported, “Dad wants to know on whose authority the decision had been made for us to go back.”
“My decision in conjunction with Sera as the Realm.”
More mumbling, some much louder yet the content indistinguishable, until Albert’s voice rose above that of his father. “This is how Ariel wants to discuss the issues.”
He licked his lips and blinked, probably the only movements possible to indicate that he was ready to speak.
“Based on what factors my father wants to know?”
Albert’s expression and firm voice made me proud, and I regretted having to embarrass him in front of his parents. “Two basic factors. Their survival as a civilization aboard Mission One depends on our leadership, and Sera no longer needs us on Mission Two.”
Mother placed my sleeping daughter into her crib, and Albert’s gaze followed. “Will this contraption allow me to touch Cleopatra?” asked the person who designed the contraption.
“No, but you can hold her, and me, when we return to that chunk of ice and head back toward Earth’s orbit.” I glanced around the inquisitive faces practically encircling me. “Now give me a few minutes to field some questions from this side.”
Paul asked, “It’ll take a thousand years to back track. Why head that way?”
I repeated his question to Albert’s image, paused while he relayed it to his parents, and gave my answer. “As a victory celebration of humans versus robots.” I wanted to include God versus machines but decided to put off that argument until we are safely back on Mission One.
“Can we survive in outer space without robots?” Albert posed his own question.
“No, but we don’t have to be subservient to them.” I glared into and probably through his eyes. “Did you relay what I said?”
“Yes, but keep explaining.”
“Sera is the only realm that ever existed on either space mission. She will continue to operate Mission Two, and Mission One will be entirely under human control, with help from its droids and an open communication with Earth. None of us will live to arrive back on our home planet, but future generations will thank us for our daring adventure.”
Albert relayed his father’s concern. “Why can’t some of us choose to stay with Sera? Our Family would feel safer with her.”
I could not allow Sera’s character to remain unscathed. “Albert, I challenge you to explain your relationship with Sera.” I will fill in whatever he leaves out, if Sera hasn’t already confessed her part.
Albert stammered, “She wanted me and her to continue to our destination alone. Just me and her. She promised I could be the father of an entire future nation.”
“You refused her. Tell everyone why.”
“I am not attracted to females, especially one with a computer for a heart.”
“That’s not true, damn it!” A male voice blared in the background.
“Albert, remind your father to direct his comments through you.”
“Dad denies me the right to accept my sexuality. Claims my being a father proves his point. The truth is, Ariel and I never had sex, at least not the single act that produced Cleopatra.”
Either Sera told him about her impersonating me that night in my bed, or he still believed God fathered Cleopatra. She probably used it as an enticement to join her on Mission Three. Ironically, her laser treatment on him as a child denied her control through his dream state. Safely out of Sera’s clairvoyance, I made a mental note to destroy all possible life forms in my mother’s laboratory.
After a pause Albert continued. “Dad just reminded us that no children are ever conceived by way of intercourse between married couples. The only difference was using Ariel’s body rather than the Stork to incubate Cleopatra.” His eyes met mine. “I told him that every future baby will be the result of a love act between parents, starting with Cleopatra’s brothers and sisters.”
Albert had evaded the issue of my pregnancy with Cleopatra. His gaze remained locked on me. “You said I should ask you to marry me, when I decided I truly meant it. That moment is now.” He took a deep breath, and he willed his image to kneel, an action requiring extreme concentration under the circumstances. “Ariel, will you please marry me? I promise to love you and be a good father to all our children.”
Would he honor his promise if Sera reduced me to a babbling idiot, or if she stole his daughter’s intellect? I sublimated my concern, thankful to be out of Sera’s clairvoyance range.
“I accept and I promise never to embarrass you.” The unusual adjunct to my vow committed me to keep secret the fact he had had sex with a droid. His theory that Cleopatra is a gift from God may be more accurate than I am ready to believe just yet.
“Albert and I will sign off, since there are no more questions.” I took advantage of the silence probably caused by bewilderment rather satisfaction with my explanation of our situation. I closed the closet curtain, making no effort to release Albert’s apparition. They could summon Sera if it presented a problem. I opened my blouse and lifted Cleopatra to my breast.
Paul faced away and tugged on Dad’s elbow. “We better decide how to approach the general population when we get back. They’ll be needing some stern leadership.”
“I advise strongly against such an attempt until Frank and Albert are included.” Both men stopped in mid-step. “Concern yourselves with gaining the trust of the families on this side, as Frank has done over there.”
Paul responded but continued to face my father. “I know how Frank thinks. He’ll connive to make himself an absolute ruler, if we don’t have a plan to counter him.”
“I witnessed four families offer him their pledge of loyalty. You might want to develop something similar here.”
Paul stepped out of the room, and I called him back. “Please help my father move my bed and Cleopatra’s crib out of this room.”
“Where would you like it?” Dad asked.
“In the living room would be fine.”
Mother said, “I want my child and my grandchild to sleep in our bedroom, where Max can protect all three women in his life.”
I thanked her with my eyes and glanced toward Sera’s closet, as I shut down my computer. “When you’re finished moving furniture, find some material in the commissary to seal off this closet.” My computer flashed back on. I shrieked, “Dad, disable it.”
My father gripped the unit embedded in the wall, his muscles bulging and face beet red, and yanked it loose. The lighted surfaces of ceiling and wall monitors diminished to a tiny dot and zapped to oblivion. Through the din of acrid smoke and crackling circuits, I yelled for Paul to shut down the communication counsel in his office, but it would be too late. Sera’s taking control would be instantaneous, especially after losing both the closet and my personal computer.
Paul assured me, “The transmission line Frank and I installed is only capable of visual and audio signals, none of this hologram capability.”
“It must be severed. Sera breached the computer in Mother’s laboratory and gained control of my mind.” I faced Mother. “She, not the chemical you injected, immobilized my body.”
“How do you know?”
“Back in the closet, she admitted it and released my paralysis to demonstrate the extent of her power over me.”
Paul said, “Martha, take Ariel and Cleopatra to the rooftop garden, away from electronic devices. They’ll be safe up there, unless Sera’s influence can ride the sunbeams.”

Posted 10/27/19 (Posting will resume monthly)

AUGUST 8, 3152

After spending all night on the rooftop to avoid Sera’s intrusion, I crawled from the metallic tent Dad had fashioned to shield me from the perpetual sunlight. Mother sat on the lawn swing and Cleopatra played in the grass, while I paced back and forth along the garden path between flowerbeds and vegetable patches. When my head cleared, I joined my mother on the swing.
An apparition rising through the trapdoor on the roof of the central pentagon caught my attention. My pulse skyrocketed, until I recognized my father’s face, as he waddled forward wearing a bulky space suit and lugging his machete. Paul followed close behind. He placed the bubble over Dad’s head and attached the dual-purpose lift-umbrella and parachute to the back of his outfit. Dad rose skyward until nothing but a dark speck dotted the brilliant sky, and then disappeared through the revolving door.
A short time later, Dad reappeared. The parachute fluttered, blossomed, and floated. I ran to the edge of our roof, jumped the divider-fence, and joined Paul, our necks craned. Dad’s figure grew larger, still clutching the harvesting tool. He had severed the transmission line between Sera and us. We were again electronically isolated. The static she intended to prevent communication with Mission One had also foiled her chance to reach us by wireless.
When Paul lifted the bubble from Dad’s head, I spit out my most pressing question. “Does the line strung through the pulleys still function?”
He nodded and held out a piece of paper. “The moment I cut the transmission cable, the rope began whizzing through the pulley, delivering this hand written note.”
I read it aloud. “Your decision to isolate your families from those on this side has placed a severe handicap on docking procedures. I suggest Paul reattach the cable immediately.” Had she anticipated my decision or could she continue to read my thoughts?
“Dad, I need you to return and deliver my answer.” I ran to his tool shed to find a pencil, while he replaced his helmet and his suit pressurized. I scribbled a brief note.

From now on, this is how we communicate. My father will check the incoming mail every morning and post my answer the following day.

He placed the note in his pocket and opened the umbrella strapped to his back. Jets of air blasted from around and under him, lifting him to the sky where the revolving door swallowed him. After an hour passed, I panicked, but the door swung open and he appeared, slowly drifting to the rooftop garden.
“What took so long?” I asked, as Paul unfastened the helmet and opened the suit.
“Pulling a mile of rope hand-over-hand takes a lot of time.” He chuckled. “I’ll rig an electric pulling device for tomorrow and the next day and the next day.”
He had read my note. “Thanks, Dad.”
He stepped out of his suit and began to fold it, when a percussion reverberated, as if we were encased inside a gigantic bell. Cleopatra began to cry, and Dad unfolded his suit. As Paul helped him step back into it, Dad said, “I’ll bet Sera has a message for us.” He lifted to the sky, disappeared behind the door, and returned to the rooftop almost immediately.
I scrambled to grab the note he waved at me. While Paul removed the headgear, Dad explained, “Sera attached a trip hammer to the rope that slammed against the dome to announce the arrival of a message.”
I grinned. “Like a door knocker.” He frowned, and I explained, “Early Twentieth Century technology.”
“At least we don’t have to wait until morning.” He glanced at the paper still clasped in my fist. “You got an answer for me to deliver, while I’m still in the delivery mode?” He faced Paul. “Leave my suit fastened. I suspect I’ll be returning shortly.”
I scanned Sera’s message while four curious eyes remained focused on me.

Send over one of Helen’s frozen eggs. I will implant it back into her uterus and trigger it to clone itself, a procedure your mother is not capable of performing without my assistance. As a humanitarian act, I am offering Helen the opportunity to give birth to a daughter who will be fertile.

You seem to have figured out my system for announcing incoming messages. I have a droid waiting outside the dome on this side to receive whatever you choose to send this way.

I faced the two adults who had earned the right to all information passed back and forth, but not this. “I’m sorry, but some of this is personal.”
Dad politely nodded and stepped back, and Paul said, “I expect to be informed of all facts and data pertinent to our situation.” He glared. “Our survival.”
“I’ll give a full report, but first I need to dialogue with Sera.” I glanced toward the radiant sky, and wondered why the light remained continuous, if our habitat was entirely synthetic as Sera had indicated. Not the most important issue at hand. I penned the following note.

Helen will have to take her chances with my mother’s skills when our ten families are reunited. I cannot trust you having control of her egg and Albert’s sperm, a quantity of which I assume you have preserved. He’d never consent to donate more under those circumstances.

When my father returned following a nearly immediate clap of thunder after he disappeared through the revolving door, Paul eyed him conspiratorially. I felt sure he might grab the message from my father’s outstretched hand, but I resisted rushing to receive it. I remained seated, holding Cleopatra. Paul delivered it still folded while Dad stood waiting, suited and hooded.
“Thank you, Paul, for your patience with me.”

Your internal antennae are more receptive than any that technology has to offer. Yes, I intended to create that child with or without Albert’s consent. However, let me clarify my intentions. With the aforementioned combination, I would germinate Helen’s egg, or any other from the women aboard Mission Two, and freeze the embryo for as long as it takes to reach my destination. Only then would I absorb that creature into my identity. You and Albert and Cleopatra would be free to enjoy your short lives together.

My answer was immediate, and Dad dutifully carried it aloft.

An anonymous human sacrifice. You misjudge what it means to be human.

Dad resettled from the roof, sans the gong, waiving Sera’s instant response.

A mother willing to sacrificing herself or her daughter would be more humanitarian?

I pulled Cleopatra tight to my body and carried her down the stairs into our apartment without offering an explanation. By the time I reached my parents’ bedroom, my eyes blurred and my chest convulsed. I plopped onto the chair and sobbed.
Mother entered; drink in hand, eyes wide as saucers. “I exposed the eggs and sperm in my laboratory. We don’t need any more designer children.”
“No, Mother,” I sobbed. “Not Helen’s.”
“Not Helen’s.” She downed the remainder of her drink. “I owe her a child.”
I felt relieved but cautioned, “Keep it away from Sera.”
“It’s safe. Helen will be having her baby girl in nine months.”
“But we’ll be leaving before then. Sera will have control of the incubator.”
“Helen’s cloned embryo is not in the incubator.” Mother pressed her hand to her abdomen.
“Mother! A pregnancy at your age might kill you.”
“A life for a life, if that is what God has in store for me.”

Posted 10/27/19

AUGUST 22, 3152

Our pony express—actually, Daddy express—remained inactive, and Paul fretted about what preparations needed his attention for the move. He insisted that I request instructions, but I hesitated to initiate the subject with Sera. The less I communicated with her the safer I felt. Nevertheless, Paul had each of us pack our belongings and store them on the roof of the central pentagon. When they began to float in diminished gravity, I condescended to ask Sera for her timetable. Dad returned her message addressed to Paul. I accepted Sera’s snub, but resented Paul’s superior attitude.
After keeping everyone in the dark for another week, he called a rooftop meeting to explain the process, careful to enhance the technical details, as if he and Sera had worked them out together. He announced, “We have reversed course and, as of this past week, we’ve rendezvoused with Mission One. Our central hub is presently attached to the rear of the comet, by which we will enter through the probe.”
“Submarine,” I announced, as if clarification were needed. Judging from the expressions, it only added confusion.
Paul said, “The passage Frank’s people used to exit Mission One.”
“Frank’s people?” Had our two leaders struck a deal? Only if Sera intervened.
He rolled his eyes and continued. “Two years ago we exited through the head of the comet, but we will reenter through…” he glared at me. “The submarine embedded in the tail.”
I smiled and nodded knowingly.
He took over the show from then on. “Our tether has retracted, and our center hub will serve as a passage way into the comet’s core.
Submarine. I bit my lip.
Paul rolled his eyes toward me and continued, “Frank’s people have already passed through and are situated in their homes. We are to wait for Sera to escort us.” He scanned the inquisitive faces. “Soon.”
“Soon?” Dad asked.
The blotches on Paul’s cheeks broadened. “That’s all I know.”
“Sera might have us waiting out here like idiots for days,” Mother complained, hands across her stomach. Morning sickness already?
Dad had inserted a railing for people to grab when walking, and he installed handholds alongside the stairs down to our apartment and its rotating bathroom facilities for everyone to use when necessary. I scanned our neighbors clinging to chairs fastened to our rooftop that Dad had dispersed throughout the lawn. Women who seldom ventured out into the sun clutched at wide brimmed hats, as the sun radiated down on us. Had Sera been punishing us for my snubbing her, or just softening me for my final decision?
Tears began to well, but I stuffed them alongside Sera’s two options, a choice I had yet to make. I envisioned Albert standing on his parents’ balcony, Cleopatra and I stepping out on ours to greet him. The picture was wrong. There were no balconies. As for Cleopatra and me. . .. My head dipped and I gave in to a rush of tears.
Dad comforted me, all others too engrossed in our situation to pay attention. I reminded him of what might be required, and he, too, broke down and cried. He lumbered off to his tool shed.

Late that afternoon, Sera dropped through the revolving door on our sky and drifted down to Dad’s rooftop garden, her gaze settling on Paul.
He said, “We’ve been ready since this morning.”
“I know. I’ve been watching.”
The sun! She had had twenty-four-hours-a-day surveillance since the day we arrived. I should have known.
“I kept my end of the bargain.” Her gaze passed over me like ice water and roved to the crowd, sitting, standing and some floating. She announced in a loud voice, “Pressurized robot-cabs are waiting outside your dome to transport you safely into the biosphere where there is atmosphere, but you won’t feel gravity until back at your fortieth level apartments. They have been restored to their former capacity.”
“Spying on us through sunlight,” I yelled. “What other communication device allowed you to prepare Mission One for our homecoming?” Will we ever be free of her?
Her eyes settled back on me. “I have my ways.” She grinned. “Albert and Jimmy are back with their parents; I assure you, their bodies unmolested.”
I hadn’t even fully formed the question. Sera faced me almost in defiance of any tic or eye movement. None appeared.
She folded her arms. “What is your decision? You or Cleopatra?”
“You don’t know.”
“Strangely, I don’t.”
“Because I haven’t made up my mind. Even you can’t know what hasn’t been decided.” I enjoyed the impatience her human component etched on her face. “It has to be your decision. I will accept whatever you decide.”
She glanced back toward my parents, my mother cowering and weeping bitterly. She faced my father who held Cleopatra with his machete raised.
“You can hurt me with that thing, but I cannot be destroyed.” She kept her focus on my father, but she directed her comment at me. “I suggest you fulfill your end of the bargain, and I will commence the parade of vehicles for your transportation.”
“Dad has been instructed not to harm you.”
“I am aware of your instructions but not his impulses. I need to know your decision, your intellect or Cleopatra’s.”
“You decide. It has to be your responsibility.”
“I thought you might vacillate. Okay, I’ll take Cleopatra.” With her eyes focused on Dad’s weapon, she swooped her arms to envelop my child.
I forced my mind blank, the pain an automatic camouflage preventing Sera’s intrusion. I glanced toward my father the blade glistening in the sun.
Sera glared at him. “What are your intentions?”
I responded for him. “A sacrifice no grandparent should ever have to make.”
Sera shrieked, “If Cleopatra dies, you will be required to fulfill our pact.” Agitation overwhelmed her voice and then calmed. “A mother cannot be capable of destroying her own child. I’ve learned enough about humans over the millennium to understand that.” Agitation turned to anger. “Give her to me. You agreed, and I kept my part of the bargain. She’s mine.”
“Half yours. You admitted as much at the commencement of our bargain.”
“I meant it figuratively, not literally, as did you. Now give her to me, and I will return her loveable body unharmed.”
I glanced at Dad and nodded. He set his granddaughter on the table and raised his machete. I stared into Sera’s eyes, not intending hatred but compassion, but I sensed no sign of empathy in return. I steeled my nerves to face the inevitable. “We each get to keep half of Cleopatra as was our bargain.”
Mother screamed louder and sweat poured down my father’s face.
Sera raged, “Who gives you the right to destroy an innocent victim?”
“King Solomon. It is from that wise judge that I take my cue. We each shall have half of a baby.”
“Cleopatra smiled and blew bubbles of saliva, as if we’d been discussing her bath, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
Sera’s modulated voice returned. “I recognize that similar situation, but neither you nor the fabled King Solomon had any intentions of cutting the child in half.”
“Half a child to save thousands. Trust your computer side to calculate the odds.” I kissed Cleopatra’s head and pulled her sunbonnet over her face. She didn’t need to see what was about to happen, nor did I.
Eyes in the half human, half machine blinked, and its head jerked. It took one step forward, and Dad inched the blade lower. She retracted and Dad held the blade steady.
She swung her face from side to side, eyes bulged and vapor escaped her nostrils. “Go.” She drew a deep breath and exhaled smoke. “Get out. The whole bunch of you, and good riddance. Other options are available.” She levitated toward the lighted dome, faced us, and shouted, “You can keep this bubble of scrap metal attached to your silly comet like a wart on its nose. I won’t need it.” Her voice turned haughty. “My body doesn’t require gravity, and without the hindrance I can accelerate to a quarter the speed of light.” Her apparition glanced back displaying a sardonic smile. I shall return.
Sera disappeared through the dome of the sphere we had just inherited without bothering to use the revolving door. I doubted we’d experienced her actual physical presence, or she’d have taken Cleopatra by force. Stunned, the five families milled about, clinging to fixed furniture or my father’s rooted plants, some already lofting toward the dome.
I scanned the pentagon shaped rooftops and decided this synthetic habitat must be sealed and off limits except to recycle the metal, a scarce commodity aboard Haley’s Comet. I privately chuckled, as I literally Christened Space Mission with a new title and purpose for its existence.
Our sun dimmed and extinguished. A guiding ray of light peeked through the portal in the blackened sky. Dad clutched Mom, Cleopatra, and me and sprung his legs. We drifted toward the light, his machete trailing behind us.

Within the hour, Cleopatra and I walked through my parents’ living room, not out to a balcony but rather the Swiss Robinson Family tree house I had envisioned as a child. Albert stood looking out from his parent’s apartment waving with both hands. Cleopatra waddled across the fenced catwalk toward him. He scooped her into his arms and reached out to me. Through the door to a thatched hut on a separate branch, I spied Princess Lea’s image, Jimmy alongside gawking. Whether a gift or a trap, I didn’t care.