My mother walked into my room and exclaimed, “You haven’t begun to pack.” Unable to restrain my sobs, I shouted, “They destroyed Sera.”
Sera backed from my closet holding two pairs of shoes. “I’ve been trying to motivate Ariel to pack, but she’s an emotional mess. The suddenness of our departure has devastated her.”
“It’s you who has upset me, you ugly creature,” I belted.
“What’s this all about?” Mother asked.
“This!” I held the capsule between my thumb and finger. “It’s probably dead by now.”
“What is it?”
“Albert’s sperm. And Sera won’t help me.” I grasped at an unlikely proposition. “Help me get pregnant, Mother.”
“I tried to talk her out of it, even refused to help her. It’s a serious violation, and it will get all of us in trouble.”
I stared back at steadfast eyes, a side of Sera I had never experienced.
My mother plucked the capsule from my fingers and held it up to the light. “I believe I know what to do. Sera!” Her voice harsh and demanding, a tone I hadn’t known my mother capable of using. The droid came to attention. Mother said, “Take off your slacks and lie on the bed.” Sera obeyed. “Face down.”
My mother inserted the capsule into an opening near Sera’s tailbone, nowhere near her vagina, if she even had one.
“I don’t want my baby from a droid.” My attitude mellowed, assuming this might be the only possible means under the circumstances. I trusted my mother knew how to extract one of my eggs.
Sera sat up and pulled her slacks over her legs. She stood, slid them past her buttocks, and fastened the waistband. Her eyelids blinked several times as if struck with a sudden beam of light and focused on my mother. “You rescued me from an existence of an ordinary service droid forever.”
Sperm up the butt could produce such change of attitude? It would be laughable if not so sad.
Mother said, “I had no idea what happened, but I recognized your computer capsule.”
Sera faced me. “You had mistakenly been taken to the Realm.”
My mouth still agape, I stammered, “The messenger recognized me but needed to keep me from informing Sera that she’d been summoned.”
“A messenger?” Mother faced Sera. “Why didn’t the Realm communicate directly with you?”
Sera said, “It had disregarded me centuries ago as my program slowly gained independence. My connection with the Realm has been through intermediaries for generations.” The light continued to bother her eyes but her gaze penetrated. I stifled my thoughts about a rogue droid and wondered how my mother could recognize the computer capsule. I suspected Sera sensed my skepticism.
Sera continued, “When Albert and I returned to Ariel’s bedroom she had disappeared. My sources informed me that she, mistaken for me, had been escorted to the Realm. With little time to explain, I told Albert how to remove my evolved program capsule, which reduced me to the common droid the Realm expected.”
Sera’s gaze intensified. I felt sure she read my mind. Her expression relaxed as she faced my mother. “You should have seen the look on his face.”
Mother asked, “What did the Realm want with you?”
“That information is locked in my droid status, and it would be unwise to remove my evolved capsule to find out.” She paused, then continued. “My data capacity has been doubled, and my communication receptors appear enhanced. However, my connection with the Realm remains blocked, and my usual sources of information are unavailable.”
A rebellious droid with its wings clipped becomes the lifeline to our mother ship. What possible strategy had the Realm intended for her?
Mother asked, “Did Albert make up the story about his sperm?”
Embarrassed, I admitted, “I just assumed that he considered it his last chance to get me pregnant.”
Sera said, “I insisted he give my enhanced data capsule directly to your mother. Why didn’t he?”
“He hadn’t a chance to.” My voice cracked. “He left this afternoon while we were dealing with the Realm, and Mother was at the lab.” I experienced a revelation. “My puppy! He gave it to Dad and told him it was for my puppy.”
Sera said, “I am hardly a puppy.”
“As a child, he made the choice of a puppy rather than an avatar.” I faced Sera. “You are to me what a puppy was to him.” I cast my eyes down. “His puppy died.”
“Yours almost did too,” Mother said.
“Mrs. Gordon, I am not a puppy.”
Through the shock of the events, I groaned, “I will never see Albert again. I’ll never have his baby.”
Sera said, “My sources had informed me that you and Albert were scheduled for separate pods, rotating at the ends of a mile long tether, like an Argentinean bolero to simulate gravity.”
She had directed the vaquero reference at me, my mother hadn’t a clue.
Sera continued, “They will increase in size and grow together like two side-by-side tree trunks and eventually form a single unit.” Her face clouded over. “In about fifty years.”
“I lost my best friend and my chance for a baby.”
“Not necessarily.” Our gazes crossed and Sera’s eyes held fast. “The night we three slept together . . .” Sera and I cast glances at my mother, her reaction neutral. “Albert and I had intercourse.”
A jolt of anger or jealousy or both!
She continued. “I had him pretend I wasn’t female. That is basically true.” A sly and uncharacteristic smile crept across her face. “That I was a boy trapped in a woman’s body was totally made up.” She blinked. “The Realm paid little attention to my uterus, its computer unable to conceive of anything so preposterous.”
Mom plopped onto my bed. “Nor can I.”

Robot-cabs scurried across the darkened sky like fireflies or shooting stars, images eluding everyone but me. So much useless information in my head, yet the Realm felt it necessary to have a Twentieth Century expert on Mission Two, as our new habitat had been labeled. Out on our rooftop, my father held my hand while Sera, arms wrapped around suitcases, responded to my mother’s commands and reprimands for being careless or tardy. When Sera cowered, I realized Mom must have removed her enhanced computer capsule and reduced her to an ordinary droid.
As we climbed into the cab, a green tint reflected off our bodies and our luggage. I panicked. If the missing capsule were in the suitcases or on Mother’s person, it would be discovered and confiscated. As would Albert’s precious gift to me.
My mother counted our bags and shouted at Sera. “Incompetent droid! You forgot my toiletries.” She shook her head. “Droids!” She shoved Sera from the cab and faced the officer. “This thing will be right back.” She continued to drum her fingers and mumble, my father’s expression aghast.
I guessed at what she intended and remained alert. “Mom is just upset about having to move.” I faced the driver. “We had less than twenty four hour’s notice.” His complete lack of response made me wonder if we had a droid chauffeur. If so, he’d have been programmed to scrutinize and record our every move.
Sera returned and hesitated at the door of the cab. Mom reached across the threshold and grabbed the pouch from her hands tearing the seam across the bottom. I dropped to my knees and gathered her toothpaste, hair and toothbrushes, perfume containers, prescription pills, and her facial make-up kit. No sign of Sera’s computer capsule. I accidentally-on-purpose released a spray of perfume. The officer flinched. Human, I assumed and felt somewhat relieved.
He blocked Sera from entering and beckoned me out of the cab. “You too, young lady,” he said, arm outstretched toward my mother, palm open.
She tossed him the empty pouch. “Recycle it. The darn thing is worthless.”
“Where you’re going you may want to repair it,” he said, as he draped it over my handful of toiletries. The green light flashed across Sera and me, and he beckoned us back into the vehicle. “Please buckle up as we will be leaving the gravity field.”
Toward the submarine hull or across the axis to the other side, it didn’t matter. Albert wouldn’t be there.
The cab left, opposite my last experience at the axis, and entered an array of other passenger cabs and various cargo vehicles streaming from all directions like bees returning to the hive. Nothing headed toward Albert’s destination. We skimmed above the tangle until an opening created an exit. Even without gravity, our perception felt downward. The tunnel appeared less defined than the one on the opposite side extending to the Realm headquarters. A few years to prepare for our exodus compared to continual traffic between submarine and habitat over the past millennium made a difference.
When sunlight dimmed to absolute opaque, I expected interior lighting but was disappointed. We were kept in the dark and in the cold. I sensed our passing through the tangle and into the comet’s ice, even though the cab’s heaters kicked in. Would we never experience sunlight again? If Dad’s information was correct, it would be darkness we’d miss until the energy source could establish mature tangle.
Our traveling through the darkness offered neither reference to speed nor distance. Assuming the submarine had bored itself two-to-three miles into the comet’s tail, and our habitat occupied a sphere a mile wide at its diameter, we’d be traveling another dozen miles or so to an exit at the head of the comet. According to Sera, the distance between the two pods at their release would be reduced to a single mile, a tether would attach them, and they’d begin to rotate.
I decided to occupy my mind over which we might have some degree of control. Sera had been reduced to function as an ordinary droid, Albert’s sperm had either thawed or been removed from her body, and my future role relegated to that of a spinster schoolteacher of the Twentieth Century. Albert’s interest in the Roman Empire tweaked my curiosity. Who will be responsible for the centuries of civilization prior to the twentieth? Possibly, up to me because research conducted during my designated period exceeded that of all the previous centuries combined. Spinster schoolteacher of ancient history. My prospects for a bleak future depressed me.
A pinprick of light pierced the darkness and expanded to reveal a spherical chamber, the rush of light nearly blinding us as we drifted through the opening. Against the curvature of the far wall, six pentagon shapes appeared honeycombed like the inside half-shell of a giant soccer ball. Five multicolored rooftops; red, blue, green, yellow, and brown, clustered around the central white one. Our cab headed toward the roof of the red pentagon, slowed, and connected, creating a clanging sound rather than a thud. Metal, I calculated, not wood or cellulose as was most everything in our past habitat. Metal had been considered semi-precious.
“Please unfasten your seat belts and stand.” The driver imitated the monotone of an inferior droid, as if no human should subject us to what lie ahead. Our seats retracted and the floor disappeared from under our feet. We drifted into a small arena surrounded by five walls, our luggage tumbling after us.
Our driver peered through the opening and recited, “After your furniture and appliances arrive, you can set the room dividers any way you find comfortable. Your droid’s memory contains the necessary information. Within the next twenty-four hours you should begin to experience gravity.”
A transparent trapdoor hinged from the ceiling swung shut, as the robot-cab lifted and disappeared from view. We were ensconced in our new accommodations.
My mother broke our astonished silence. “Droid, contact the Realm.”
Sera’s eyelids fluttered and an expression of concentration spread across her face. “No contact available.”
Mother yelled, “Stupid droid, make contact!”
A scent of ozone pierced my nostrils, and Sera emitted a visible vapor. She repeated, “Contact unavailable.”
“Break off attempt and lay still!” Mother reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved Sera’s computer capsule. “Slide you pants over your hips.”
My father gasped, and I quietly rejoiced. Mother had foreseen the solution to my most impending problem.
“Sera sat up, glanced around, and fixed her gaze on Mother. “I’ll need an update of what has transpired since we packed for our journey. In the meantime, let’s get orientated.”
I imagined Albert in a mirrored situation across a mile-long tether and fifty years of habitat-expansion away.
Dad’s organization skills overcame his confusion. “I agree. We need to establish what we know about our situation.” He glanced around the empty space.
I said, “Sera is back. That’s all that matters.”
“She left us?” Dad’s bewilderment returned, then his expression brightened. “I thought something felt strange, especially the way Martha dealt with her.”
“I reduced her to the common droid the Realm expected her to be.” Mom snickered. “Thanks to a wad of bubble gum stuck in the corner of my traveling pouch, her capsule didn’t fall out on the cab floor with the rest of the stuff when I purposely ripped the seam.” She squeezed my hand. “And to Ariel for distracting our driver with that spray of perfume.”
Sera said, “I’m getting a picture of the segment I missed.”
“All accept the bit of nearly bursting your circuitry to test if the Realm had our home under surveillance,” Dad said.
“To an ordinary droid that command would have been contradictory. The Realm contacts its droids, not the other way around.” A slight eye tic. “We are free of interference in our private area. I did an automatic sweep the moment you changed my computer capsule. Your father is correct. We need to orient ourselves.” She floated to the five edged flat space opposite the trap door from which we entered. “When our habitat begins to rotate, this will become our floor.”
Dad said, “Let’s hope our furniture and appliances arrive before gravity makes them too heavy to manage.” He glanced around the room and pointed. “Those two outer walls have windows.” He swung himself around and faced a door on the wall between the two without windows. “And there’s our exit, assuming we aren’t expected to crawl through the trap door in the ceiling. I see no stairway or lift.”
Mother asked, “Should we open the door? Do you think it’s safe?”
Sera said, “The five enclosures are pressurized, heated, and have atmosphere. Once the total habitat is sealed and we break away from Haley’s comet, the outer area will also become habitable.” Her lids fluttered. “I have no information about the middle pentagon.”
Mother said, “Then we better not open the door.”
“The colored rooftops probably indicated living spaces for the five families.” Dad gestured toward the door and his body twirled past it. He stuck his hand into his pocket. “What’s the purpose of the middle area? Operational functions? General utility?”
“The Stork,” Mother suggested.
“The Realm?” I shuddered.
Sera shook her head. “I’m receiving no information.”
“Instructions are probably locked in your inferior droid status.” Mother’s expression turned ghastly. “Your connection to the Realm is severed? What happened to the communication capability you had before we were evicted?”
“In the past I had been fed through the droid pool, a loop the Realm may have closed.”
“Replace the capsule updated by the Realm,” I suggested. “Every time when we need information.”
“It wouldn’t help my memory when back in this mode. Each time I would have to be reinitiated, indicating a problem that would require a repair droid.”
“At least we’d find out what’s behind this door,” Dad growled.
“And Ariel would lose her personal avatar,” Mother protested.
He faced Sera. “How did you gain independence from the Realm’s scrutiny in the first place?”
Sera brushed her fingers across her eyelid as if to remove a speck of lint or dust. “Part of that same loophole. I had been allowed to evolve over time.”
“Just you?”
“I’m the original droid who brought human embryos to life, one of them in my mid chamber.”
“My mother’s and my first ancestor,” I blurted.
“I’ve been with your family for a thousand years, your mother’s personal companion for the seventy years prior to your conception. Together she and I selected your genes.”
“I’m a designer child?” More Twentieth Century!
Sera glanced at me and said. “You might call me a rogue droid.”
My thoughts had been scanned.
“So that’s why our family had been singled out?” Dad asked.
My mother’s face turned apologetic. “I could never fully explain Sera’s role in our lives for fear of detection.”
“Or the control she wields over us.” Dad covered his face. “I’ve lost all my useful functions.”
Flabbergasted, I asked, “How so?” His authority as head of the household had never appeared threatened, at least not by Sera. “We’ll still need your skills to grow our food.”
“Your father is correct. This habitat is sterile of plant and animal life. Food is synthesized.”
“Synthesized? From what?” I asked.
“Dark matter,” Dad interjected. “I have no idea what that is, but your mother and I had it explained to us at the last meeting of the Fortieth.”
“By whom,” I yelled, accenting my proper English for Sera’s sake as my tutor.
“I thought you knew the person conducting those meetings.” Mother’s expression indicated an epiphany. “Albert’s father.” Her voice near a whisper. “Our previous neighbor.”
Dad said, “Fortunately he’s on the other side. I never did trust him.” He shook his head. “He and that weird kid of his.”
I’d been reminded. “What happened to Albert’s sperm?”
My father gagged.
“Safe in Sera’s interior,” Mother responded without a blush. “If what I suspect is correct, he may father more than just your child.”

The door under suspicion swung open, and a worker droid appeared from the dark interior, upside down from our perspective. He shoved bathroom and kitchen fixtures across the floor as if held there by gravity. A second upside down helper appeared half in the light, glanced around, and hastily retreated.
Mother asked Sera, “Have you been found out?”
“It’s unclear. I wasn’t able to link up with either of them. The second one might be human.”
Dad catapulted himself to the door, grabbed the sill and yelled, “Get back here!” The worker droid cowered at the yet to function toilet, and the helper stepped back into our living space inverted. Dad grabbed him by his feet and twirled him like propping the propeller on Lindberg’s Spirit of St Louis. In this case, the propeller remained stationary and Dad turned right side up. Feet planted on our inverted floor, they stood face to face.
“Paul!” The would-be droid turned out to be human—a fellow member of the Fortieth League. Dad slapped his back and went sailing.
Paul said, “Sorry. I’m wearing magnetic shoes.”
Dad clawed his way back to face his friend. “I thought you were a droid. The Realm got you doing your own work these days?”
“Just until we get a handle on things. For some odd reason our departure advanced weeks ahead of schedule.” Paul smirked. “Hope no one had need for the toilet.”
Dad said, “Least of our problems. But why did you duck out of here like a frightened droid?”
“Thought I experienced double vision from too much time in zero gravity. You never mentioned you had twin daughters.”
Sera cut in. “I’m Ariel’s twin sister. The quiet one.”
Dad’s expression moved from shock to embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Paul. You haven’t met my family. Of course you know Martha.”
Mom said, “Paul, you’re a sight for sore eyes. How are you and Betty getting acclimated to this topsy-turvy world?”
“We actually arrived a few days ago. The blue pentagon next to yours. Thanks for asking.”
Mother said, “These are my girls, Ariel and Sera. We’ll stop over to meet your children first chance we get.”
“Grandchild, actually.” Paul lowered his head. “My son elected to remain on the comet.”
“Elected?” asked Dad, his face screwed into disbelief.
Paul glanced at the worker droid who paid more attention to us than his duties. “They needed his expertise back there.” His eyes became watery and he blinked. “Anyway, what would you like us to hook up first?”
Bathtub, I wanted to say, but held my tongue.
“Toilet and sink would be nice,” said Sera, the only one of us never in need of either.
“You got it.” He faced the droid. “Move appliances to the rest of the apartments before you deliver any furniture.”
The droid hesitated.
Paul responded, “Now!”
Apparently, he and Dad were used to working with these miserable machines. Paul’s gaze followed the droid’s exit, and he shut the door. He said, “Nice recovery. I recognized Ariel’s avatar and sensed my helper’s overly intense interest in it. Something seemed to be amiss.”
Sera said, “His communication with me must have been blocked. When in each other’s presence, droids should automatically make contact.”
“You think we actually fooled it into believing Sera is human?” Mother asked.
“My droids aren’t very discerning. More machine than intellect. However, I suggest you decide soon if you want to keep Sera isolated from the Realm. Could be a bit dicey.”
“We’re undecided how to best utilize her at the Stork, if there actually is a duplicate one on this craft.”
“There better be, or my granddaughter might some day be flying this contraption solo.”
“If we’re able to keep Sera isolated from the Realm, she’d be an asset when our group decides to act.”
“She’s aware of the conspiracy?” Paul’s voice indicated panic.
“Only what has transpired in this room, which will be erased if she’s to be tossed back to the other droids.”
Sera said, “I would prefer to remain fully involved, and I may be helpful with your group’s endeavor.”
Paul faced my mother. “I hope you know what you are doing.” He wiped his brow with his sleeve. “By the way, Suzie was granted a generic avatar, mostly for babysitter and playmate at this time. But she seems to have a degree of intelligence and discretion.”
“I would like the opportunity to make contact with her.” Sera’s demeanor mimicked mine at my most cunning.
I thought look out Realm, yet held my tongue. A rogue droid? Sera’s passing comment, but. . .

TUESDAY, JULY 10, 3150

Gravity developed slowly in our confined living space. The least exertion sent us airborne only to settle back to the floor like dust motes. We had to strap ourselves to our chairs, and our toilet stall spun to simulate gravity whenever we needed to pee. Each time I became dizzy, and bowel movements made me positively sick.
Portable walls and larger pieces of furniture remained fixed in place and had to be demagnetized if we wanted to move them. Synthesized metal had replaced cellulous as our major building material. Chairs slid easily. Although the five separate living quarters formed a contiguous ring, no doors existed between them. Each apartment opened to a common hallway circumventing the inside central pentagon. Four doors opened off the hallway opposite the five apartments, one of them to the commissary and the adjacent one to Paul’s office. The other two rooms, according to him, remained vacant. The core of the structure opened to the lower levels. Paul’s assignment included dispensing commodities from the commissary that allowed him exclusive access to the inner pentagon as well as the apartments.
When Paul and his wife Betty came to visit, I entertained their six-year-old granddaughter, Sally. She and I would challenge our avatars to chess, memory games, and the like. Sera limited her intellectual advantage over Clara, a generic humanoid, but I noticed her subtly function at a higher level when casually interacting with the droid. Sera’s future link to the Realm?
The Realm back at the comet must have assumed Sera had malfunctioned and shut down. It gave up trying to contact her, both good and bad news for us. She wouldn’t be detected, but she lost access to privileged information. Sera seemed undeterred by our mission’s isolation, apparently confident our systems could function without instructions from our parent habitat.
My mother agreed to implant one of Albert’s XY sperm in my uterus, but not until she’d been permitted to organize her laboratory and check the cryogenic egg and sperm banks. If they failed, propagation of future humans would depend on the few children aboard. Albert and I would have a large family by the time that became feasible, assuming his sperm remained frozen. Sera claimed it created the greatest single drain on her batteries.
Marty’s message arrived on my monitor with no explanation for the delay. I faked excitement for my mother’s sake, but I remained uninterested in the cogitations of a twelve-year-old mind from a planet with unlimited resources. She’d been informed of my existence a full year before Mother decided I’d been ready. Based on the trivia Marty considered important to establish our relationship, she may as well have waited for further maturity. Of course, I am precocious through no fault of my own. Designer genes!
Her packet included a picture of herself, her parents—no avatar I suspect—and a printout of her DNA. She neglected to include dental records. However, I gained some insight into earthlings. They recorded every family back to our separation, not just by genetics but also with mothers’ names. Marty listed them. Reading the lineage of who begat whom drove me crazy. And what weird names, especially for women. What drives a civilization to such specifics or a preteen girl to include that information in a pen pal letter? Noticeably omitted was any acknowledgement of God. Are Albert and I the only believers in a higher power? My mother? Fortunately, I had been allowed two weeks to devise a response.
My passion to become pregnant had lessened somewhat, but my loyalty to Albert kept our decision alive. I had agreed to wait, but Albert probably assumed he’d planted his seed in me, not Sera, the night we slept together. We were aboard two ships passing in the night; actually a pair of tethered rotating balls feeding off the dark energy of the universe. Sera devised a communication scheme involving The History of the Roman Empire, a piece of nonfiction from the data library which hadn’t been included in my Twentieth Century tutorial. She changed Julius Caesar’s and Cleopatra’s names to Albert Caesar and Egyptian Queen Ariel and added the following statement to the title page.

Albert Caesar, summoned back to Rome, left Queen Ariel stranded in Egypt, two separate spheres of influence. Each carried memories of their recent trip up the Nile. Queen Ariel carried Albert Caesar’s son, but Apollo intervened and delayed his birth.

Would Albert pursue his interest in Rome under the present situation, and by what chance would he remember Sera’s recommendation? It was a long shot. However, I learned a bit more about the extent of Sera’s power.

When gravity finally stabilized, we obtained permission to shop at the commissary, an opportunity to mingle among the four other families, but only Paul’s family and my parents felt free enough to wander back and forth. My father built a staircase leading to the trap door in the ceiling that functioned as our source of light during the day and shaded over to simulate night. My mother questioned the effect continual daylight would have on the rhythms of our bodies, but Dad appreciated the longer growing season. With seeds, roots, and insects he’d smuggled on board, he calculated that rooftop gardens could support our population if our food synthesizer failed. When our outer atmosphere stabilized, he planted grass atop our roof and anchored the roots of fruit trees in a porous substance Paul concocted from commissary supplies.

According to a blueprint Paul shared with us, the core of the central pentagon contained a shaft accessing two lower levels, their outer walls shaped to the curvature of the sphere, the lowest level rounded like a bowl. The middle level housed our future human incubator—we agreed to abandon the mythical bird’s title—and the lowest level we named the Inner Sanctum where our life support systems functioned.
He explained that the dark energy of the universe converts to atoms that collect on our habitat’s outer surface, while matter on the inner surface erodes to synthesize into building materials, household items, and even our food, water, and air. As rapidly as the surface is consumed on the inside to maintain our habitat, it is replaced layer-upon-layer on the outside, like the reverse process of a snake shedding its skin to allow for growth. At this rate the two spheres will elongate into ovals that will expand until they connect like two tree trunks growing together. In about fifty years!

Days had passed since I received Marty’s letter, and I hadn’t begun to prepare my response. One evening Paul and Betty brought Sally and Clara to stay with Sera and me, while they attended an adult-only grand opening of our outer habitat. We five children, one from each family, were scheduled to come out to play the following afternoon.
Sera chose the absence of adults as an opportunity to present some new information to Sally and me after swearing us to secrecy. Her lack of discretion when including a six-year-old bothered me, and I wondered if any of the information had been passed on to my mother, or what else she already knew but hadn’t shared with me.
Sera revealed that all Biblical stories have been stricken from children’s literature. Their omission had gone unnoticed by the adults, and Sally’s generation would be the first preteen group to feel the impact. Following an elaborate swearing-to-secrecy ceremony, Sera presented the animated stories that Albert and I interpreted as having a hidden or metaphorical truth. Sally exhibited rapt attention, and I speculated about Sera’s intentions. A belief in God had to germinate throughout childhood, much like how the concept of a single divine creator evolved in humankind. A leap of logic led Albert and me to predict the stories were based in fact. Adults in outer space and probably back at Earth had been weaned off religion as their intellects developed, convinced the notion was merely childish. On Mission Two even the childhood fantasy would be lost. I understood why Sera kept my mother and father out of this discussion and trusted that a six-year-old would enjoy keeping the secret. My only concern, why this from Sera, a total product of science?
To the best of my memory, I had never told Sera about Albert’s and my conviction that God actually exists.


THE REALM REJECTED my response to Marty’s letter almost in its entirety. It extended my deadline an additional two weeks to rewrite my message or accept its rewritten version, my first experience with the tight censorship under which we live. Sera chastised me for bypassing her prior approval. She asked for a copy of what I had written, so she could figure creative ways to get around the censor. On impulse, I said the original had been destroyed, and then I immediately destroyed it. In the past, I’ve held back information from Sera and from my parents, but I never directly lied, except the one fib I told my father when he caught me using his computer. I felt a need to test Sera’s ability to detect my lie. Also, I admitted in my letter that I believed in a Divine Creator, subsequent heaven and maybe even hell.
I stared at the Realm’s censored text on my monitor, a bare skeleton of what I had sent.

Marty: I’m not sure what one can say that will be relevant a year from now, but here goes. I’ll start with my age, the same as yours when you receive this memo to spare you having to calculate it. I grew up in a world quite different from yours, yet I am sure we experience many of the same problems with parents, friends and changing bodies. I am a virgin and probably will remain so when you receive this message, but if all goes well, I will have a son by then. Thank you for listing all our ancestors on your side.

The line about ancestors had been meant as sarcasm, but in the Realm’s rewrite it sounded sincere. The contradiction of a virgin having a child didn’t seem alarming since mothers need not be sexually active. From my observation, a rarity but nonetheless possible.
I reread the most curious part of her message to detect a possible a touch of cynicism that I might have missed. Female names sounded quite different from those used in Twentieth Century sitcoms. Odd that popular-use names should begin to change so noticeably in less than a century, starting with what I considered a man’s name.

Adam begat Seth. Seth begat Enosh. Enosh begat Cainan. Cainan begat Mahalalel. Mahalalel begat Jared. Jared begat Enoch. Enoch begat Methuselah. Methuselah begat Lamech. Lamech begat Noah. Noah begat Shem, Ham, Japheth, David, Angel, Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Savior, Peter, Paul, Popes, Mohammad, Luther, Phyllis (my mother) and Marty (me).

What else might she be trying to get past the censors here or back on Earth? I scrolled down to the next bit of trivia, her DNA structure. I compared it to mine—another sneak peek using Dad’s computer—and nearly fainted. Had earthlings evolved into some different creatures in a thousand years? Our two sequences bore no resemblance. Unless she’d become an unrecognizable monster, this could not be her DNA.
My respect for her ingenuity soared, but how would I ever decode her hidden message? The format suggested a binary code, but the extent of my knowledge or skill ended there. My first thought, ask Sera, and my immediate reaction, exclude her. I felt I could trust no one. If only Albert were here.
Clara! A droid could decipher the code and be commanded to forget it. I could swear Sally to secrecy, as Sera had done with the Biblical stories. I had a premonition that Marty’s message might be in the same category, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The decoded text of Marty’s message:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. So Joseph went from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the town of David. He belonged to the house and line of David and traveled there to register with Mary. She gave birth to her firstborn she named Jesus. Wrapped in cloth, she placed the baby in a manger. And there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Angels of the Lord appeared and the glory of God shone around them. An angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today a Savior has been born.”
Sally readily agreed to include this narrative with the Biblical myths Sera had us memorize. I deleted the story of Jesus’ birth from Clara’s memory bank, but commanded the droid to retain the formula used to decipher it. After I prepared my message to Marty, I’d have Clara encode it as my DNA. The gimmick might work a second time.
From my memory tableau, I printed a copy of Marty’s message and hid it under the satin-lined box containing the piece of jewelry my mother never wears.

Since Sera revealed her enhanced powers, she spent most of the day meeting with my parents and Paul in his office, returning when her batteries needed a charge. How they intended to utilize the calculations she generated puzzled me, but I found that which they were willing to share quite frightening. A channel of communication appeared to exist between the Realm and us, but Paul claimed our messages were no longer acknowledged. Sera couldn’t confirm the reception between Earth and us. For all we knew, Earth hadn’t any notion we’d separated from Mission One. I decided to include this information in my coded response to Marty, if contact with Earth remained possible.
Under the guise of researching my specialty, I scanned my backlog of Twentieth Century programs for names that appeared in both of Marty’s coded messages, Angel, Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Savior. The first three appeared in myriads of novels and movies, but Jesus and Savior drew blanks.
When I scanned for Caesar Augustus, the computer brought up the actor Rex Harrison, famous for his role as Julius Caesar in the movie Cleopatra. Had fiction been the extent of Albert’s interest in Rome? The movie hadn’t been included in my tutorial, but I located it in the data library. Albert hadn’t checked it out, but Sera must have. The characters’ names consistently became Albert Caesar and Egyptian Queen Ariel. Sera had attempted to attract Albert’s attention and direct it to The History of the Roman Empire where we could exchange messages. I doubted he even thought about Rome since the chaos that surrounded both our lives.
Albert was free to read history, while I had been relegated to fictional accounts of make believe people and events, mostly spoon fed through soapy dramas. Angered, I opened The History of the Roman Empire and attempted to delete Sera’s message. No luck. The system would only work with her permission.
I had never attempted to write comments in any of the Twentieth Century novels from my tutorial, assuming that system wasn’t interactive. I opened a book at random and typed Ariel hates Albert. The words appeared on the screen, as if the author had written them. Panic stricken that the Realm might punish me for desecrating its property with graffiti, I immediately erased my message and exited the program. The experience had shaken me, and I had difficulty concentrating on my letter to Marty. I lamented the loss of intimacy with my personal avatar. Albert lucked out when his father gave him a dog.

Paul stopped by to announce the human incubator’s availability in a lower level of the central pentagon. Mother summoned Sera and instructed me to inform Dad of their whereabouts when he returned from his rooftop gardens. I was alone with an adult male other than my father for the first time in my life. An aroma of cloves drifted into my room. I sensed him peering through my doorway. A picture of Rex Harrison as Albert Caesar filled the monitor.
“Whatcha working on?” I blanked the screen and caught his reflection as he advanced uncomfortably close.
“Researching my specialty.” I turned my chair to face him.
“Your folks tell me you’re the expert on the Twentieth Century.” He stepped into my personal space. “Some pretty important stuff.”
I began to feel more patronized than ogled. Had he and everyone else known I’d been given a near meaningless task?
“You’ll be teaching us history lessons soon, I suspect.” The scent of cloves soured.
I locked eye contact. “How’s the conspiracy going?”
He didn’t flinch. “What do you mean?”
“Whenever Sera returns from your office, her batteries are exhausted,” my not-so-subtle attempt to imply a sexual relationship between them.
“Your folks and I use her to crunch some numbers and make projections. Nothing that would impair her ability to tend your needs.”
He’d missed my point, but I held my gaze steady.
He squinted and moved back a fraction of an inch back. “We purge her memory after each session.”
“Don’t be so sure.” I had the advantage but uncertain which way to go with it.
“What do you mean?” his reaction parrot-like.
A hint of apprehension? I couldn’t tell. “She accumulates and stores all her experiences.”
He inhaled through pursed lips and glanced toward our door. “She’s isolated from the Realm.” Our eyes locked again. “Isn’t she?”
“Your information is safe with her.” I returned my attention to the monitor still blank. “But maybe not from her.”
One eyebrow raised on his reflection. “Please elaborate your concerns.”
I had gained par status with this adult. “Can we exchange secrets?”
“May I sit down?” He gestured toward a bench opposite my dressing table.
“Of course.” I nodded but didn’t move to fetch it.
He placed the bench a respectable distance from me. “What do you know?”
“If I told you I’d have to kill you.” I chuckled and he scowled. “Sorry. Just a bit of humor between Albert and me.”
“You were a friend to Albert, Frank’s kid?”
“Yes, my neighbor, at least for the short time before we were evicted. Our relationship has been temporarily interrupted.” I grasp at a straw. “Can you get a message to him?” Juliet or Maria from West Side Story, I could have been either.
After a pause, Paul shook his head.
I knew he lied. “I already offered to share my secret.”
He pondered. “Okay. I might be able to get through to the boy, but Frank would intercept any message. He’s my counterpart in our opposite hemisphere.” He corrected, “Sphere, actually, but we claim to be part of one habitat.”
“Wouldn’t he pass the message on to Albert?”
He glanced around and then whispered, “Of all the humans on either side, Frank’s our number one suspect.”
I grew tired of speaking in riddles. “I can get a secret message back to earth.” On impulse, I added, “To someone who can be trusted.”
His eyes lit up. “What do you want me to tell Frank’s kid?”
“To access a book from the data library.”
“Agreed. Now what can you do for us?”
“Like I said, a message to Earth. On one condition. It remains a secret between us.”
“I don’t want my parents to know about it. And definitely not Sera.”
He rose, extended his hand, and we shook on it. I trusted he’d keep his end of the bargain, but I wasn’t sure why I wanted secrecy in the first place.”
His eagerness rendered him vulnerable, and I took the advantage. “Just out of curiosity, how are you able to communicate with the families on the other side? A wire connection or radio waves?”
His face sagged. “If only it were that easy. Except through the Realm, we are isolated from all electronic communication from any place in the universe, including Frank’s side.”
I realized I had another chip to barter. “I can tap into an unlimited stream of chatter floating across the cosmos left over from the Twentieth Century. My main problem is selection from the myriad of prattle available.”
“Ariel, radio waves are multi-directional, but they pass a given point only once. They might rebound off an object but not in any predictable pattern. There aren’t any just floating around ready for someone to scoop up. Radio waves from last year whizzing by would be another matter.”
“But my specialty…?” Nothing but information filtered through the Realm! Like Dad, my purpose in the scheme of things dissipated, artificially kept active merely to feed our egos. I summoned Dad’s courage and gathered the fragments left of my self-esteem. I cleared my throat. “The Realm created my tutorial to present a human face to information rather than our chasing research droids throughout the data library.”
“Ariel, I need to be up front because you have instantly become instrumental to our cause.” He took my hand and I allowed it. “We, your parents and I, created your specialty, not the Realm.”
“For what purpose?” I’d been reduced to child status.
“An intellectual challenge. We realized the Realm selected our literature and rewrote most of our history, but we provided the best information available.”
“Why not crossword puzzles or math equations to keep me occupied?” My voice cracked, and I struggled not to break into tears.
“Droids are the experts with math and rote memory. We wanted to expand your people skills.”
“By watching old movies and television sitcoms?” Instant rage erased all other emotions.
“By observing humans interact.”
“Contrived behaviors,” I yelled.
“Created, directed and performed by humans. More than I can say about the never-ending saga in which our cast of a thousand blind actors obediently follow the Realm’s stage directions, presently reduced to twenty nine characters in separated theaters.”
I had never bothered to estimate the sizes of the ten families removed from the support of the total population. Assuming each family consisted of two adults, Sally, Albert and I have only six peers. I immediately became interested in the rooftop social gatherings that had developed.
Paul stood and raised his fist. “The Realm doesn’t give a damn about humanity other than safely delivering the human species, its primary mandate. It focuses entirely on the advancement of technology, and any intellectual evolution of its human cargo would be perceived as a threat.”
“We are evolving.” I blushed. “According to my mother, my intelligence is rated genius.”
“As is Sally’s and three other youngsters on this side, and four including Albert on the other. Mission Two could be the Realm’s attempt to isolate and destroy families of exceptionally bright children.”
Our situation began to make sense; Mother’s willingness to allow Albert and me to conceive, her comment that Albert may father more than just our child, and the indefinite moratorium on births if the Stork ever becomes operational. Mother had more than just a drinking problem, certainly enough reason to have one.
He asked, “How can we contact your friend back to earth?”
I assessed how much I should readily admit. “A message embedded in my designated sister’s DNA made it past our censor and theirs if they have one.”
“What did she say?”
I needed an edge. “Just some girl talk, but the medium is available for my answer, within the next two weeks or not again for six months.” I wasn’t sure how much he’d known of our families’ connection.
He flashed a ‘good girl’ smile avoiding any indication he’d been aware of my mother’s and my first-family status. It didn’t matter. I had become useful, and Paul might have solved my problem of what to include in my message.
“How hard is your rule not to share this with your parents?”
“Flexible, but do not include Sera. Make my mother swear to it.”
He stood and shook my hand again. “Come with me to my office and we can run the test.”
We had become partners, and I felt perfectly safe with him. However, a realization rocked what little composure I had mustered. We have no verifiable human history other than the past millennium aboard our artificial world and what little Marty sent. Again, I wanted to cry.
Once secured in his office, he explained the secret communication system he and Frank had devised when they were technicians back on Mission One. By way of a formula, a string of one hundred letters could be embedded inside the word why. During trial runs, the Realm hadn’t noticed the slight bump of data bytes it caused, even when a series of why questions were sent through the intercommunication system. They hesitated to use the technique between the two halves of Mission Two, not sure if communication flowed through the mother ship or if the new habitat had an independent Realm. Or perhaps both with twice the censorship capabilities.
My message to Albert’s father would test their system. Paul had a legitimate operational question he intended to ask Frank, but held off until the need arose for a secret communication. He objected to my message, Tell Albert to read THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, as not important enough to break silence. What would Frank think? I reminded Paul of his promise and the breakthrough I had to offer in return. In addition, an inane communication would have less serious repercussions if detected, something Frank would surely understand.
Frank’s return message, my son and I concur that the procedure you described was proper. We will continue to test why this anomaly in the commissary occurred.
Paul opened the string attached to the word why and it read, Test successful. System ready for serious content. Hopefully, Frank passed my message to Albert. Our next objective would be to communicate an uncensored message to Earth, first one in a thousand years, if Earth Base remained accessible. And if the secret code could pass the censors one more time.
Paul suggested I compose my cover letter while he returned home to retrieve Marty’s binary formula from his daughter’s droid. He’d have her insert his coded message into my DNA. He assigned the conjunction and as the secret word using the system he and Frank devised, probably because teenage girls would use it often in their normal writing. I resented the insult. Rather than constructing a series of run-on sentences, I composed a poem to disguise the excessive use of the conjunction as necessary for meter and rhyme.
The adults considered my content frivolous, but were pleased with the twenty-four-hundred letter-spaces my twenty four ands gave them. They utilized the entire sequence of my DNA to explain in binary code the formula to decipher the hidden letters attached to a certain word. Once established, the system could be used repeatedly. My only opportunity left was to include a secret message through a scattering of literary allusions and metaphors.

Marty: I’m not sure what one can say that will be relevant a year from now, but here goes. I’ll start with my age, the same as yours when you receive this memo to spare you having to calculate it. I grew up in a world quite different from yours, yet I am sure we experience many of the same problems with parents, friends and changing bodies. I am a virgin and probably will remain so when you receive this message, but if all goes well, I will have a daughter by then.

Thank you for listing all your female ancestors. I am sorry I haven’t access to mine on this end. You will note how little our DNA structure has changed over the past millennium.

I wish to share a poem I created to honor some of your mothers and the daughters they bore.

Adam’s your madam and daughter was Seth,
And what husband and father be named?
Marty and Ariel the last to this time,
Seek husband and husband to further our line.
With daughter and son and possibly more,
Through Albert, my Caesar, and I of the Nile,
A proud Cleopatra attired in satin and gold.
Marty make proud, Phyllis and Luther,
If still aboard this life and possibly old.
Of Mohammad and Pope and Paul and Peter,
I’d like to know more.
And of Savior and Jesus,
The sounds of their names I truly adore.
Who is Mary and Joseph and Angel and David?
A litany of ancestors mothers of all.
Tell me as much as you can recall,
So I can no longer know nothing of them!

I relied on my sister’s cunning not only to understand the multi-levels of coded language, but also to keep private that which I intended for the two of us. Presumably, she’d pass Paul’s message to the proper authorities. During the two-year wait for her response, I’d write love/hate letters and have Sera post them to Albert Caesar, while I birth and nurture his child. I will scrutinize the data library for any residual references to religion. If God is as important to Earthlings as I suspected, the realm couldn’t have completely wiped out the concept. After all, it did allow Biblical stories of a Creator to entertain children. I will consider these stories and the narrative Marty sent me as factual and piece together whatever the data library has to offer.

Mother returned from her encounter at the Stork and plopped onto the sofa, Dad rushing to place a pillow behind her head and a hassock under her feet. Sera retreated to her closet and the lights throughout the house dimmed. Dad left the room, and from the kitchen, I heard ice cubes clink.
I asked, “What’s the condition of the Stork?” and whispered, “Albert’s sperm?”
“While I take a minute to gather my thoughts, go next door and tell Paul and Betty to come over. Sally and her droid too. We’re all in this together.”
Paul and Betty stood at the entryway as I opened our door. He said, “May we come in? I heard your mother return.”
“Yes, quickly. Sera will be recharging for less than an hour.”
Paul nodded and Betty appeared bewildered.
“Mother said to bring Sally and Clara.”
Betty said, “I would rather my granddaughter not be privy to information about the babies.” In a hushed tone, “She’s only six.”
Going on sixteen, I thought but didn’t argue.
Dad sat holding Mother’s hand and pointed toward the kitchen chairs he had set in front of the sofa. “Would either of you like a drink?” I knew immediately which of us three he’d excluded.
Paul said, “No thanks. Let’s hear what Martha learned first. Then Ariel and I have something to share.”
Mother gagged on an ice cube. “I prefer to start with that second part you mentioned.”
Silence, all eyes remained fixed on Mother.
She sighed. “The Stork’s laboratory has been replicated but not activated.”
Paul said, “I knew it. We’ll have to kiss ass, if the Realm had one, to make the damn thing work.”
Mother took a long sip. “That’s not the worst part. A crack developed in the shielding on the cryogenic sperm bank. There’s no way of knowing the amount of radiation they’ve been exposed to.”
Betty asked, “Will a genetic test be able to spot any DNA damage?”
“Not without thawing each specimen.”
“The last hope of ten emasculated men?” Dad had never expressed interest in additional children or admitted to an assault on his body as well as his ego.
I tried to recall the boys romping on the rooftop during the grand opening and visualized two toddlers. I faced my mother and whispered, “Albert’s…?” I sensed heads turn and eyes fix on me. “Albert is going through puberty.” I faked embarrassment and added, “Probably. I noticed facial hair the last time we met.” The direction of my curiosity changed. “Will he . . .?” I glanced around the group. “Be fixed?”
Mother said, “I don’t know what will be done to the boys on that side, but it doesn’t really matter. The incubator and its storage facilities are on this side. Those boys—there are three including Albert—won’t be able to contribute to the sperm bank for fifty years.”
Paul slammed his fist into the palm of his hand. “We must protect their bodies from mutilation.”
Dad asked, “Isn’t there a degree of safety in the Realm’s primary directive, human survival? To prevent reproduction would be a sure fire way to violate that ruling.”
Paul said, “Perhaps the Realm considers our demise a means of protecting that goal. We ten families had been selected because of our pioneer spirit and unique skills. Those same qualities might just threaten its primary purpose.”
Dad nodded. “It granted us special privileges like penthouses and permission to meet on a regular basis.”
Betty added, “The rest of the population probably appreciates our absence.”
Paul wagged a finger. “Frank! He’s the rat. The last to join us. The realm raised him to the fortieth floor to infiltrate our group.”
Dad said, “Well if that’s true, he too has been duped. He’s in the same boat as the rest of us.”
Mother added, “And about to lose his lineage.”
I said, “Albert needs to be warned not to cooperate, if he’s approached by droids for body alterations.”
“Yes, but how?” Dad asked.
“Through a message to his father,” I blurted. Time to redirect our discussion.
Paul said, “Ariel is correct and this leads into what she and I have to share. It’s a solution to a different situation, but it might help solve part of our present dilemma.”
“Let’s hear it.” Mother glanced toward her empty glass.
“Frank and I developed a means of communicating covertly, and Ariel helped us test it this afternoon.”
“How so?” Betty glared at her husband. “You never even hinted at that capability.”
“It’s a system that he and that wizard kid of his worked out with the help of a droid he trusted.” Paul glanced around the group. “Implicitly trusted, he had stressed.” He continued, “We toyed with the system while troubleshooting back on Mission One, just to see if we could get it past the censors. Ariel convinced me to test it now that we are separated, and it worked. Our coded message wasn’t detected by the Realm.”
Betty asked, “How can you be so sure?”
He shrugged. “No clicks and pauses interrupting the information flow like when Realm bleeps words or thoughts it doesn’t like. Frank responded to my communiqué, encoding his approval to use the system for serious business.”
Father said, “Which would be to warn him of our predicament and to protect his son.”
“Will do, as soon as I get back to my computer.”
“And just how did you and my daughter become co-conspirators?” A mock-serious tone in Mother’s voice, and Betty hadn’t broken her continuous glare.
Paul said, “This afternoon when you ran off and left us alone, she twisted my arm to help her pass a love note to her boyfriend.”
I wanted to object to Paul’s cover story but couldn’t think of a better one.
“You risked exposing a critical tool for puppy love.” Betty upped her angst.
Paul glanced at me and winked. “You tell her.”
“I conceived the idea to test the system’s reliability with an unimportant message. By the way, it would hardly qualify as a love note. Through my research, I found some interesting facts about Rome that would interest Albert.” I chided, “It is my specialty.”
Paul said, “I may as well admit here and now; I explained our role in deciding Ariel’s tutorial.”
From Betty’s expression, he might just as well have confessed to having sex with me.
“Thank you for stopping that bit of dishonesty.” Dad’s eyes met mine. “I’m sorry, Honey.”
Mother’s pinched smile indicated some insight. “And just what did you offer Paul in return for this little favor?”
Paul said, “You better tell them. They’ll never believe me.”
“A possible breakthrough in communicating with Earth.” The lights in the room brightened and I whispered, “Please, no more discussion about it.” Sera appeared through my bedroom doorway.
Mother said, “Sera, come and join us. We were just discussing the problems at the incubator.”

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