Layover by Karl Dandenell
by Karl Dandenell
Layover is a science fiction story that follows the journey of a vibrant and wealthy man faced with an incurable disease and nearly limitless resources. Cryogenics provides more time for a cure to be found, but what will life be like for him when he finds himself in the future?
First there was a voice. Peter. It was her voice, gentle and insistent. Peter. It fluttered like a moth against my ear. Can you hear me? It’s Norice. Peter, wake up.
I opened my eyes. The subdued lighting softened the harsh lines of my cryocapsule, making it appear more hospital bed than coffin. I shivered in the cold air, and rejoiced at the thought of seeing another day. The Grim Reaper, it seemed, had put aside his scythe and gone for coffee. The image made me smile. For a brief time, I would be allowed to breathe and walk and talk again as if I were a normal, healthy person.
With stiff fingers, I triggered the cryocapsule’s lid. Sensing this movement, Norice raised the room’s light panels to a warm 400 nm, a welcome facsimile of sunrise on Earth, some thirty-seven light-years distant. I stretched, then found my clothes in the locker where I had left them … how long ago? I asked the last part aloud, my voice rough and creaky.
“You’ve been asleep for eighteen years, Peter,” said Norice. The voice of my Caretaker station’s resident AI was warm and familiar, my best, and only, friend. I had outlived—or at least outlasted—all my organic acquaintances.
“Long stretch,” I said, pouring myself water. It tasted of lemons and bitter medicines, a not-so-subtle reminder of my illness.
“Longer than usual,” Norice said. “May I give you a status report?”
I sighed. “If you must.”
“It’s your programming; you can always change it,” Norice said. When I didn’t respond to the gentle barb, she continued. “Life support and the fusion plant are both nominal. Artificial gravity is steady at 99.5 percent as of an hour ago.”
I nodded, taking it in. If there had been any real issues, Norice would have warned me in the cryocapsule, or kept me asleep until they’d been resolved. “Is that all?”
“For now,” she said. “But we need to talk.”
“My five least favorite words.” I suspected what she wanted to say, and there was only so much I could handle coming out of coldsleep. Norice understood that better than either of my ex-wives. “Later,” I finally said. “I’m going upstairs to make a fire.”
When they had showed me the template for my Caretaker station, I had been impressed at its efficient design: a compact, self-contained world carved from an asteroid and cast into orbit around some distant star. Humanity had built hundreds of such oases, as the early decades of travel between Earth and its colonies had been protracted and somewhat hazardous. When trouble arose, the great, slow colony ships that followed the solar winds could find safe harbor at one of these Caretaker stations, which were equipped with food, repair ’bots, and healing machines. The early stations also had human crews to back up the automated systems, until improvements in AI systems and nanotech eventually made people unnecessary.
I’d known I couldn’t live in a sterile and impersonal environment, even if I spent most of my time in coldsleep. So I added a fireplace, built with layers of heavy stones fitted together with laser-cut perfection.
The engineers had insisted on expensive filters to remove the carcinogens, and additional fire safety equipment. I knew they were padding the bid, because who doesn’t? Eventually I decided to liquidate my holdings and buy the entire asteroid and living quarters outright. It spared me the threat of eviction should my company miss a lease payment.
Besides, I was dying. I wouldn’t need the money much longer.
The logs sat where I had left them years before. I split them and encouraged a cheery fire to chase away the last chill of coldsleep. It almost worked, but I felt lingering pain in my joints, and behind my eyes, a migraine certainly lurked.
Every time I woke from coldsleep, it took longer to wake up, to come back to myself. Few people survived more than three or four sessions in coldsleep, and I had completed more than a dozen.
Finally awake, I went to the kitchen and rummaged through the pantry for a small meal. The “pantry” was actually an entropy reduction box, a birthday present from Norice, who’d acquired it from a trading ship during my third stretch of coldsleep. The pantry prevented certain types of decay, but only with a limited range of foodstuffs, like coffee, tea, flour, and spices. Norice could grow milk and cheese from nano templates if necessary. All I lacked was meat; the re-creations never tasted quite right.
Norice chimed in while I was brewing tea. “There is a ship approaching, Peter,” she said. “It will arrive in an hour or less.”
“What’s its condition?” I asked, spreading honey on toast. I really wanted some butter, but that would take too long to prepare.
“It has not signaled an emergency,” Norice answered. “The ship’s crew manifest lists three passengers, two men and a woman, although it is a rather large vessel.”
Interesting. I mulled that over for the space of a cup, thinking of the last shipload of tourists who had joyfully invaded my little asteroid. Twenty Germans on their way to some place in 51 Pegasus had avoided the docking cradle and set their ship down on the opposite side of the asteroid. Then, with my permission, they hiked in through the forest dome because they wanted to smell leaves and feel dirt under their feet. They carried great satchels of food, inflatable guitars, and some new strains of yeast. Norice had turned that into beautiful, malty beer and sweet wines that we drank into the small hours of the night.
The tourists were loud, pushy, and demanding, and I loved every minute of it. Their layover kept me out of the coldsleep for 10 days, and transformed Norice into a nagging mother, worried that I might collapse in the middle of a venison pie and expire before they could hustle me back into my cryocapsule.
She’d never let me forget the one seizure that’d caught me on the wrong side of an airlock. Some people just like to worry.
Before the tourists left, their ship’s physician, Hans Segur, had agreed to examine me and consult with Norice on my condition. Dr. Segur was a dour fellow who favored long hair braided with leather, the ends clipped together with antique pins fashioned from silver and nano-grown elk horn. “It’s a pity you don’t speak your mother tongue, Herr Klaus,” he said as he thumped my chest. “World Standard is well and good for most people, but it lacks präzision in certain matters.” He passed an instrument over my eyes, nodding to himself. “You have noticed our navigator, Ava,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. Ava was a short, plump woman with a lopsided smile who delighted in puns so bad that they seemed to cause actual pain to her audience.
“We tell people she is foolish or rude,” Segur continued, “but such words are insufficient.” He opened his hands, showing emptiness, or perhaps confusion. “I think she suffers from Witzelsucht.” He laughed, and after Norice whispered a translation in my ear, I joined him.
“I love the idea that brain lesions cause inappropriate humor,” I said. It might explain some of my romantic relationships. Of course, it hadn’t helped that I had worked sixty hours a week building my fortune.
“Now to business,” Segur said. The physician placed a small cube of heavy glass on the table next to his right hand. He tapped it once with the edge of his interface ring, and the cube pulsed with a soft green light. He closed his eyes for a moment, reading data as it flowed over his virtuals. “I need your hausintelligenz.”
I spoke to the room, giving Segur limited access to Norice. The cube’s light glowed brighter for a moment, shifted to cerulean, then to argent as he read my medical history.
“You grew up in America, I see,” Segur said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Then you know the story of Rip Van Winkle.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“There is a similar folktale I learned from my grandfather,” Segur said. “There was once a goatherd who was looking for an animal lost in the forest. He stumbled upon some gnomes in a clearing, singing and dancing. They gave him potent wine to drink, and the goatherd fell into a deep sleep. When he woke up, he found twenty years had passed.”
The cube shifted to gold. “Sounds familiar,” I said.
“The goatherd’s name was Peter Klaus.” The doctor opened his eyes, blinked away his virtuals, and gave me a sad smile. “Nichts. I must tell you that your body is no longer responding well to the current treatment protocols for Joon-Perrson encephalopathy. Nor have there been any new protocols registered in public records.” The cube faded to clear glass again.
I nodded, feeling the weight of his answer dragging me back to my cryocapsule.
Segur pocketed the cube. “So! Time to drink the wine and sleep some more.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “But there is always hope for tomorrow, ja?”
“Yes.” Too much hope, I had learned, was a subtle poison, more dangerous than the prions that waited inside my brain. Hope might drive me mad, while the disease would merely kill me.
Just before the latest visitors arrived, I asked Norice to temporarily synchronize the Caretaker station’s clocks to the incoming ship, which informed me that its crew were in their midafternoon cycle. The station’s lights and clock shifted accordingly. It was a small courtesy; it saved people the trouble of adapting to my rhythms for their brief stay.
Day or night didn’t really matter to me; I could stay awake for at least a full standard day after a stretch in coldsleep. In fact, I preferred it. I was in no hurry to close my eyes again. As the ship made its final approach, I took a quick shower and dressed in what I considered my working clothes: a worn jumpsuit bearing the logo of my former company and a pair of ship slippers. I pulled my hair into a ponytail and trimmed my beard, although it hadn’t grown at all during the coldsleep.
I used to shave my head for convenience, but early exploratory surgeries had left enough scars that I found I didn’t like my reflection. Anyway, how many times did I want to explain the seams on my head? Better to let the hair grow and be done with it.
My new visitors brought their ship to rest gently in the docking cradle. A moment later, they strode into the reception area, and right past me. The first man, shorter than me with piercing blue eyes and a hairless skull, snapped his eyes around the room as if searching for a buzzing insect. I turned to the next arrival, who appeared nearly identical, save that his eyes were brown. The last person to enter the room, a woman who might have been sister to the others, had short, spiky white hair and eyes of jade green. All three wore gauzy shirts and short kilts that revealed young, strong bodies. Their feet were bare, with dancers’ calluses.
After perusing the room, the blue-eyed man flashed quick looks and hand signals to the others. They responded with arcane gestures that reminded me of the mudras of sacred Hindu dances. Their moving fingers hinted at a deeper, more complex language. I could almost feel their conversation, like the brush of a warm breeze across the nape of my neck. Finally, the brown-eyed man stepped close to me, looked me up and down, and said, “I don’t think you understand us. Do you require special protocols?”
“Words have always sufficed,” I said with a smile. “I’m Peter, the Caretaker. Welcome to my station.”
The blue-eyed man stepped forward. “I am the Pilot.” His hands flicked at the other, who moved aside. “Our ship requires repairs. See to it.” Before I could respond, the Pilot stalked off to the main living area.
“Anything else?” I asked the pair of brown eyes staring at me. “There are refreshments, and a small pool if you’d like a swim.”
“Perhaps later,” he said. “My title is Advocate. I will join the Pilot now.”
“As you wish.” I indicated the corridor. “Make yourself at home, Advocate. Should you require anything, let me know, or ask the station AI. Her name is Norice.”
The Advocate nodded and turned to go, his movements both graceful and dismissive. I felt a wave of irritation, then chided myself for my reaction. I was here to assist these people, not judge them. Perhaps this passed for polite discourse where they came from.
I had almost forgotten the other person in the room. “Yes, madam?”
She smiled in a disarming manner. “I am the journey Artist. You may call me Mira, if you prefer.” She tilted her head back and sniffed gently. “Have you been drinking tea?”
I returned her smile. “Assam, with honey. Would you like some?”
“What I would like, Caretaker Peter, is a swim. Then tea.”
I led her down gently sloping passageways to the grotto. It was artificial, of course, though the designers had taken their inspiration from the existing contours of one of the larger open pockets in the asteroid. The grotto’s original purpose was to store and filter the water for the station. Adding a fine webbing of gold to capture the waste heat from the fusion plant had turned the reservoir into a tropical pool. I had added my own touches as well: finely milled sand, orchids, and colorful vines that clung to the rough walls. All it lacked was birds.
Mira laughed when she saw the grotto. Without another word, she doffed her clothes and dove in. Her splash echoed through the chamber. I put her clothes on a bench and pulled a towel from a nearby storage cabinet. Then I raised the grotto’s lights, nano-grown blue diamonds set at regular intervals across the ceiling and walls, and watched Mira as she moved dolphin-like through the water. After five minutes of vigorous laps, she eased onto her back, closed her eyes, and slipped under the surface.
I looked up at the ceiling. “Yes, Norice.”
“I have sent a remote into their ship. The transfer valve for their reaction mass tank failed, and they had to tap into emergency reserves to use their maneuvering jets. Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong.”
“Okay,” I said, and turned my attention to the grotto. The surface of the water lay glass smooth. “Anything else?”
“Nothing so far. We can easily replace the valve and top off their tanks.”
“Thanks. I’ll let them know.” I took a step closer to the water, looking for Mira, but couldn’t see anything. How long had she been under? “If they require something more, I’m sure the Pilot will mention it. He doesn’t appear to be shy.”
“I’d have to agree with you on that,” Norice said.
Mira chose that moment to slip out of the water. She stood before me, wearing a large grin and a cloak of steam. I handed her a towel, and her clothes.
“I’ll put on water for tea,” Norice said.
The Pilot and Advocate were in the kitchen when we arrived. They paused in their snack and traded a flurry of hand mudras with Mira, who responded in kind, adding a brief nod. “How soon will our ship be repaired, Caretaker?” asked the Pilot.
“Not very long,” I said. “We can replace the valve in short order. After that, all you need is some reaction mass, and you can be on your way.”
“We could have continued on to our destination, you understand,” said the Advocate, “but we voted to interrupt our schedule here.” He glanced at Mira and raised an eyebrow a few millimeters. Again, I felt the hints of a deeper conversation.
“Would you mind giving us a copy of your ship’s log for our archives?” I asked. “We like to keep records of everyone who stops.”
“That must be an interesting historical document,” said the Advocate. He touched a thumb and pinkie together. “There. I have copied the public files to your AI.”
“Appreciate it,” I said.
Mira opened the pantry and located my stash of tea. She opened the tin, took a long inhalation, then rinsed out my teapot and spooned a generous dollop of leaves inside. “Tell me, Caretaker, how many ships have stopped here?” Then she poured water and set the tea to steeping.
“I’ve personally greeted sixteen ships—counting yours—since the station was commissioned,” I said. The Pilot and Advocate both stared at me, their hands moving, fingers dancing as if working virtual keyboards. “We had a doubleheader once when a pair of cargo ships suffered the same glitch in their navigation and ended up here. They thought this was Harrison’s World. Boy, were they surprised.”
“That doesn’t seem like many ships, given the age of the station,” Mira said.
“Oh, I don’t know. It all depends on the route. Norice has handled several transactions without waking me.”
“How curious,” said the Advocate.
“Not really. My presence isn’t always necessary, and at my age, I need a lot of sleep.”
Mira offered up a small laugh. “You’re not that old,” she said, pouring tea into her cup.
“Subjectively, I’m about forty-five. If you look at the calendar, though, I’m old enough to be your great-grandfather.” Then I quickly added, “Although my grandmother always said you’re only as old as you feel.”
“And how do you feel?” said the Advocate.
“Well enough, thanks,” I replied.
“Good,” said the Pilot. “I expect you to fulfill your function, then.” He stood, and the Advocate immediately pushed back his own chair. They exchanged a few signs with Mira, then left the room.
“They’ve gone swimming,” Mira explained, taking one of the available chairs. “It’s been a very long trip,” she continued, “and they haven’t had much time alone.”
“Oh.” I perched myself on a chair. “I see.”
“The Pilot questioned the necessity of this stop, but we came to a consensus. His duty is to the ship,” Mira said.
“Speaking of your ship,” I said, “when you’re finished with that tea, I’d like to have a look. Keep an eye on the repairs.”
“I would be delighted to show you.”
Though Mira’s vessel appeared quite large on the outside, most of its interior volume was given over to a huge cargo hold, machine shops, and an extensive laboratory, filled with complex, organic-looking instruments. What remained for the living quarters was claustrophobic, at least by my standards. Bulkheads curved in crazy angles, and I glimpsed wild clashes of color through the open cabin doors.
We soon caught up with Norice’s remote. The repair ’bot was small, only a meter high, with dozens of tools and manipulators folded flat across its back, and dragged a bright yellow hose behind it. One tool detached itself from the rest and tapped on the bulkhead, gently opening what appeared to be an input port. After comparing the hose to the port, the ’bot extruded a length of rubbery fabric from its guts and used its soft manipulators to form an adapter to seal the hose. A moment later, the hose gurgled as Norice began pumping water into the ship’s tank.
As we waited, I looked around and saw dozens of translucent bubbles of some glass-like substance. Each bubble was about the size of Mira’s head, and they were embedded in the bulkheads at irregular intervals. Inside the bubbles I saw schools of tiny fish that flashed silver and red, or swarms of beetles, or jeweled spiders that spun webs in Möbius strips.
“Interesting decoration,” I said, watching something like a ferret run through a tube above our heads.
“They are all originals,” Mira said. “I have one hundred ninety-nine registered original genomes.”
“Not really,” she replied. “I know people who have edited thousands of species, but much of that work is derivative, or merely commercial. I prefer unusual commissions.
“This is my main reason for this trip,” she continued. “There’s been so much modification to the human gene pool since the Diaspora, I wanted to meet people closer to the twenty-first century genome standard.” She lowered her voice. “Many in the Artist community believed all the old Caretaker stations were either abandoned or haunted. I’m pleased to see they were wrong.”
“Happy to prove you wrong,” I said.
“Our ship’s breakdown may turn out to be fortunate after all,” Mira said. She gave me a long, appraising look and smiled. “I’m curious, Caretaker Peter. Did your parents have any augmentations done to you as an embryo?”
That was a rather personal question, I thought, but again, it was hard to judge social mores with these people. “Such things were illegal when I was born,” I said.
“I suspect that didn’t stop people, especially those with wealth,” she said.
“It didn’t,” I admitted. In my business dealings, I had run into plenty of other children of privilege who seemed to share suspiciously well-developed physiques and mental talents such as eidetic memory and polyglotism. “But my parents were pretty conservative; I’m your basic boring old Homo sapiens.”
“I’d hoped as much,” she said and took my hand. “I’d like to get a DNA sample, if it’s all right with you.”
“You’re not planning on starting a family or anything, are you?”
She laughed. “This is strictly research, I assure you.”
We walked to her lab. Mira took samples of skin from inside my cheek, a tiny draw of blood, and even swabs of tears. Then she favored me with an impish grin. “When you saw me in the grotto, Peter, did you like what you saw?”
“Very much,” I said, feeling my pulse quicken.
“Then come with me,” she said, and pulled me to her cabin.
Half an hour later, we lay covered by a soft blanket and a fine sheen of perspiration. There was a pleasant ache in the muscles of my lower back. Mira nestled in the crook of my arm, her eyes open and bright. “Lovely,” she said.
“I agree.” In subjective time, it had not been that long since I’d had a brief encounter with a passenger of one of the visiting ships. But Mira had an intensity about her that was different from other women I’d known, even before I fell sick. I reached out to stroke her face. As my thumb drifted down her cheeks, her eyes closed, and a thought occurred to me. “Tell me something.”
“What would you like to know?” she asked, her eyes still closed.
“I couldn’t help but notice that the Pilot and the Advocate are identical twins, and you could easily pass for their sister. Are you all related?”
“Not in the traditional sense,” Mira said, her eyes opening. “Mundo Del Mar has seven official gene-sibling groupings. We happen to belong to the same one.”
“Seems like a pretty thin gene pool,” I commented.
“Not really,” Mira said. “There are a lot of differences under the skin.” She laughed. “In any event, all of our offspring are conceived in vitro to avoid any genetic disorders.” Viable embryos, she explained, were normally brought to term in standardized environments similar to my coldsleep capsule.
“Who the hell settled Mundo Del Mar? Aldous Huxley fans?”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It’s from a book I read back in college.” As I described the novel, my hand began to tremble. I closed my fingers into a tight fist, willing the spasm away, and finished what I was saying, wincing through a growing headache.
Mira asked, “Are you in pain, Peter?”
“It’ll pass.” After a moment, the headache subsided enough that it could be ignored, at least for the moment.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Not unless you have a cure for Joon-Perrson’s floating in one of your fish tanks.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “My apologies.”
“No apology necessary.” I took a deep breath, inhaling her wonderfully exotic fragrance. “It’s just something I ask everyone who stops here. It’s the Sisyphean part of my job description.” Mira didn’t understand that reference either, so I explained it to her.
“Ah. Thank you. That will make a lovely backstory to my project.” She kissed my nose. “Now! I have work to do.” She slid out from under the blanket and dressed quickly.
I found my own clothes. “Will we have time for dinner before you leave?” I asked.
“I will need a few hours to sequence your genome,” she replied. She headed to her lab.
I took that as agreement and made my way back to the station, pausing to check on the repair ’bot. It had finished replacing the defective valve and was putting away its tools. “How does everything look, Norice?”
“Fine,” she said through the ’bot’s speakers. “I have tested the tank’s integrity and the other system valves. Everything is working perfectly now.”
I gave the ’bot an affectionate pat on the head. “The Pilot will be pleased to hear that,” I responded. “At least, I think he will be,” I added. “It’s hard to tell with these people.”
“They do have a complex etiquette system,” Norice said. “Although it’s clear that Mira enjoys your company.”
I felt myself blushing. “Yes, well, I like her, too.”
“Good!” Norice said. “I’m glad she’s staying for dinner. How about some nice pasta?”
“Sure. I’ll need some eggs. And Romano cheese.” I watched the ’bot coil up the hose and work its way down the corridor. We walked and rolled our way, respectively, through the docking cradle.
“Now,” Norice said, “we need to talk. And you should do your exercises.”
“Ouch,” I said. “Can’t it wait until they leave?”
Norice ignored my weak protest, so I went to my practice room, which was really only an empty storage chamber with a padded floor. I sat in the middle of the floor and tucked my ankles under me.
“How are you feeling?” she said.
“Fine,” I replied. “A little stiff, a bit tired, but nothing serious.”
Norice was quiet for a moment. “Peter, it’s not helpful when you lie to me.”
“It was nothing,” I said, and stood up. But my thigh muscles spasmed and I fell to the floor. The headache returned from wherever it had been hiding and seized the back of my neck. I groaned and massaged the area.
“I was going to ask you about muscle tremors, but I guess I don’t have to,” she said, letting her disappointment show. The remote rolled over to me and extended a soft manipulator. “Here.”
“Thanks.” I grasped it and pulled myself up.
“I’m only trying to help,” Norice said.
“I know, and I appreciate it. Really.”
“Then listen to me, Peter. Your symptoms are getting worse. Dr. Segur confirmed that the medications aren’t working anymore. You’re going to have to go back into coldsleep as soon as possible.”
I knew she was telling the truth, but didn’t want to think about it. “And what happens when I can’t wake up?”
The remote squeezed my hand gently, then rolled away.
I spent a few minutes stretching my aching legs and breathing deeply, until I felt steady again. Then I headed down to the “wine cellar”—a heavily insulated chamber below the kitchen—and found two bottles of red wine that I had put down years ago. Before I left the chamber, I trailed my fingers across the lid of a wooden box that contained a magnum of Cognac that I had brought with me from Earth. I was saving it for the day someone found a cure for Joon-Perrson’s.
The first bottle of wine I opened had turned into a particularly nasty vinegar, but the second bottle yielded a lovely bouquet. I set that bottle on the table to breathe, then paid a visit to the garden to see what had sprouted in my absence. Norice tried to mimic a regular growing season in my environment, but the remotes couldn’t handle anything delicate. I found basil, lettuce, some tomatoes, and a few kilos of squash. I gathered everything into a basket, and Norice delivered the egg and Pecorino Romano analogs.
Though the kitchen could have created the pasta directly, I enjoyed mixing the dough myself.
I put on an apron and set myself to work, assembling the pasta machine, then washing and cutting the vegetables while the dough rested. I wished for some portobello mushrooms. I had tried to grow them one time, but the original spores from Earth hadn’t survived the trip out here, and no visiting ship ever seemed to carry them. Perhaps they weren’t popular anymore.
I had most of the cheese grated when the Pilot, the Advocate, and Mira entered the kitchen. Vegetables sizzled in olive oil. “Hope you’re in the mood for Italian food,” I said. “I made plenty for everyone.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said the Pilot.
The Advocate exchanged gestures with the Pilot, then turned to me. “This is a traditional departure ritual, is that correct?”
“Traditional and tasty, if I say so myself,” I said.
“Then we will participate,” the Pilot replied. “Tell us what to do.”
“It’s pretty straightforward. The pasta goes on the plate, followed by the vegetables, and then sprinkle some cheese on top.”
The Pilot fixed himself a plate and sat down, and the others followed his lead.
Mira poured herself a glass of wine and offered the bottle to the Advocate, who shook his head. She took a sip, then pursed her lips. “It’s very … unusual. Complex.”
“We normally avoid central nervous system depressants,” added the Advocate. “Except for special occasions.” He made a particularly complex mudra at the Pilot, who grinned slightly.
“Do you like it?” I asked Mira.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. She finished her glass and poured some more. “I could get used to it.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
We ate in silence for a few moments. I enjoyed the sight of Mira as she attempted to twirl fettuccine around her fork without losing the noodles.
A bit later, Norice brewed up some coffee. I cleared the table and set out a small plate of biscotti. My guests took one each, but didn’t eat them right away.
I raised my cup. “Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed it.”
Mira took a small sip. “So did I, Caretaker Peter.”
The designated Pilot stood gracefully and stretched his arms. “I will initiate the preflight.”
I stood and offered a hand to the Pilot. “Safe landfall.”
He shook my hand stiffly. “Caretaker.” He left.
“Have you told him yet?” said the Advocate to Mira.
“Told me what?” I said.
“I’ve sequenced your genome and identified the cause of the Joon-Perrson encephalopathy,” Mira said.
I felt my breath catch. “What?”
“I used a standard technique from the reproduction blacklist,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Mundo Del Mar was settled on the principles of genetic purity,” the Advocate said. “We routinely edit the parents’ genes and suppress anything that’s on the blacklist.”
“So it isn’t a treatment, then,” I said, feeling my hopes crumble.
“Why treat something when you can prevent it?” asked Mira. “You can see the logic of that, can’t you?”
I could. But it didn’t help me.
“The information I gathered from your genome will allow us to stop the disease before it starts,” she continued. “No one else will ever have to suffer from Joon-Perrson encephalopathy.”
The Advocate tried to change the mood. “It’s good news,” he said. “Really, it is. Now that Mira has identified the source of your problem, someone will certainly devise better treatments. It’s not unreasonable to expect that a cure may be found as well.”
I sat down and poured myself another glass of wine. No sense in wasting it. “Norice, how many people are currently diagnosed with Joon-Perrson’s?”
“As of my last database update, there were two hundred eighty people with the disease,” she said.
“Forgive me if I don’t share your enthusiasm,” I told the Advocate. “I’ve owned enough pharmaceutical company stock to know there’s no profit in a customer base that size.” In the back of my mind, I heard the Grim Reaper putting down his coffee cup and asking for a check.
“I appreciate the effort, though,” I said, trying to cover my disappointment. “Your Pilot is probably waiting.” I put out my hand. “Safe journey.”
The Advocate gripped my hand tightly for a moment. “Hear us out, Caretaker,” he said. “We are required to compensate you.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Mira caught the Advocate’s eye and they exchanged agitated mudras. He nodded slightly. She turned to me and said, “I could program medical nanos to remove certain prions in your brain.”
“It would be a great challenge,” Mira said. “The diseased prions are comprised of proteins, and healthy versions of those proteins are found throughout your body. However, the protein in Joon-Perrson’s has a different structure. Let me show you.” She took her napkin from her lap. “Healthy tissue might look like this.” She made a triangle with her napkin. “The diseased prions in your brain have a different shape.” She turned the napkins into a rectangle. “This altered shape not only causes them to promote the infection, it makes them resistant to denaturation by the usual treatments.”
“Radiation,” I said, counting on my fingers. “Surgery, heat, enzyme therapy, and chemotherapy. I’ve tried them all, and nothing’s worked.”
“This approach is different,” Mira said. “My nanos would map out your brain and compare the protein in each cell against a known healthy template. When they encounter defective cells, they will … remove them. It’s been successful, with other diseases.”
I nodded. “I get where this is going,” I said, “but to be honest, this is more than a little scary.” If too much of my brain were infected, I might end up with large holes in my head, or something to that effect.
“There is another consideration,” said the Advocate. “Long-term memory function is keyed to protein structures. You might emerge from the procedure unable to remember certain things, or people.” He glanced at Mira, then back at me. “You should understand the risks before making a decision.”
“I’ll need to think about this,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “I will ask the designated Pilot to delay our departure.” He stood, offered a short bow, and left.
“Have you discussed this with Norice?” I asked Mira.
Norice’s voice emerged from the ceiling. “The journey Artist offered me her experimental data and asked me to review some of her earlier designs,” she said. “While she has more experience with modifying existing genomes, I think Mira’s methods could be applied to nanotech arbiters as well.” Then she added, “Don’t worry, Peter, we didn’t talk about anything personal. I would never do that without your permission.”
I responded with a nervous laugh. “Thanks for that.” I stood up. “If you ladies will excuse me, I need to stretch my legs.”
“Do you want some company?” Mira asked.
“I think Peter wants to be alone right now,” Norice said.
“Yeah, I do,” I said.
I let myself wander toward the heart of the asteroid, down dimly lit passages that brightened as I entered them and darkened as I left. As I passed a maintenance panel for the fusion plant, I whispered, “Norice?”
“I’m here, Peter.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you should do it,” she said, with hesitation.
“It seems risky.”
“The procedure carries significant risk,” she said. “But I don’t see any real alternative. At this point, coldsleep may be worse than the disease.” She paused. “The only way to avoid it is to test Mira’s designs.”
I looked around at the walls. “You know, when I first came here, I figured that I’d have a couple of years in coldsleep, maybe a decade at most, before they cured my disease and I could go back. But it didn’t work out that way.”
“No, it didn’t,” Norice said. “I’m sorry for that. And now you have to make a decision. You can stay here for a few more years, or take a chance in a strange new world. I can only imagine what that must feel like.”
“It’s frightening,” I said.
“More frightening than dying?”
I shook my head. “No, not really. Not even close.”
“Then I wish you well, Peter,” Norice said. “I’ll miss you.”
I rubbed my hand roughly against my eyes, catching the tears before they began. “And I’ll miss you, old friend.”
Mira met me outside the living quarters. She stood balanced on the balls of her feet, alert, but not nervous. “The Pilot wishes to leave,” she said, “so we need your decision now. If you agree, I can begin the treatment while we’re en route, and be finished by the time we reach our destination.”
“That’s up to you,” Mira said. “I think you could earn a good living working with our historians. Many records were lost in the Diaspora.”
“And if I lose my memory?”
She looked at me, and her eyes softened. “You’re young; you can start over. I’ll help.”
I stepped close to her, but didn’t touch her.
Mira said, “What shall I tell the Pilot?”
I took a deep breath, then released it, feeling the tension fall from my shoulders. “Tell him Rip Van Winkle is staying awake.”
She put a hand on my arm. “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means I’m willing to give it a chance. May I have ten minutes to pack a few things?”
“I’m sure the Pilot will wait that long.”
I squeezed her hand and went to my room. As I was throwing some favorite books and clothes into a bag, Norice spoke. “Peter?”
“Don’t forget your Cognac.”
“I was hoping you could keep an eye on it for me.” I closed my bag and lifted it up to my shoulder. “When I’m feeling better, we’ll open it together.”
“I’d like that,” she said.
“Then it’s a date.”
Mira and I walked to the docking cradle, and into her ship.