Book 2 - Stand Against The Night

Chapter 1 - Long Days

Midday sunlight warmed Myron Kenichi Watson as he straightened his back, knocked garden soil off his hands and rocked back to sit on his heels. Just five months ago, shortly after the family’s return from visiting Home Station, he’d planted these five rose bushes in the south-east corner of his family’s back yard in Belmont, California, and installed their drip watering system. They were part of a memorial to crewmembers lost in a freak accident aboard a research craft operating at high altitude late the previous December. Now on Wednesday, June 8, 2005, the bushes were in full bloom, and he had diligently performed the regular chores of maintaining this corner of the yard through today, just before his scheduled return to Home Station in the next few days. Taking care of these rose bushes had provided a calming contrast to his hectic post-graduate studies at Stanford University, including last night’s last final exam of his school year. On Friday the regular lawn and garden service crew would assume the weekly maintenance of this little memorial, the true significance of which they could never know.

The memorial had grown bit at a time: in addition to the five rose bushes, now there was a small fountain and waterfall in the corner, the raised soil to either side and behind it covered with low grass and kept from eroding into the downhill neighbor’s yard by a slight heightening of the cinder-block retaining wall that had originally been there, and from spilling into the yard by carefully positioned granite rocks and mortar. A stone meditation bench faced this memorial, rust-colored volcanic cinder gravel forming a walking surface around the bench, extending from the sinuous concrete border separating the memorial from the rest of the yard, to another such border behind the bench, between the cinders and the grass of the lawn.

Carefully wiping clean a set of old Swiss pruning shears, Myron put them back into the holster on his belt, then reaching for the paper bag containing trimmings, weeds, leaves and petals he had just removed from the memorial, he easily came to his feet. His studies at Stanford demanded absolutely no physical effort, so he had established a routine of one-hour workouts every day, with calculated periods of strenuous weightlifting, cardio exercises, running on a flat track, and fast hill runs distributed through the week to bring himself into by far the best physical condition of his life. It showed: he had gained almost 40 pounds since December, all of it lean hard muscle, and his at-rest pulse rate had dropped from 72 to 58. The exercise had also helped sharpen his thinking as his brain chemistry changed with the increased physical activity; sometimes he was tempted to wonder how, before this self-imposed, rigorous physical training regimen, he’d been smart enough to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. He went to the compost bin, emptied the contents of the bag into it, then folding the bag for its next use he turned toward the downstairs back door of the house.

His Ph.D. dissertation proposal concerning false-color infrared, or IR, image generation and calibration systems had cleared the committee with no objections or difficult questions, and an anonymous grant had provided funding for custom equipment. A DARPA grant scheduled for the coming fall would pay his tuition for the coming school year and support further research into the definition and refinement of various products to be proposed for possible military and civilian applications; part of that grant specifically provided for living expenses. Taking off his work boots at the door before going into the house, Myron smiled at that thought. Still living at home with his parents as he approached his 25th birthday, ethically and legally he could properly use that stipend to contribute to the family budget, and he would do just that; it was completely unnecessary for him to rent an apartment for himself at this time, as doing so would impact the time available for his studies.

He let his mind flash back to that fateful night in late December, when he had been demonstrating two of his early-generation IR cameras and localization software to a representative of the California Department of Forestry, for possible use in wildfire detection. He had been using the upstairs conference / lunchroom at Stimson’s Aero, a small general-aviation-related business at the San Carlos Airport, just a few minutes’ drive from where he now stood in his family’s home, and where he did custom electrical work for light aircraft under the careful tutelage of owner Gene Stimson. An incoming meteor had struck an alien spacecraft making a routine atmospheric-monitoring run; he and his sister Alice had seen the impact both with their eyes and, more importantly for his studies, with those IR cameras. A few minutes later they had watched in shocked silence as that spacecraft – a roughly discus-shaped vessel just over 350 feet in diameter by almost 90 feet at its maximum thickness – made a perfectly-controlled, utterly soundless final approach and feather-light touchdown right behind the shop.

That vessel had turned out to be operated by a fully human crew whose ancestors had been taken off Earth some 33,000 years before by real aliens, just before the central-European mountain valley they called home was obliterated by a collapsing glacier that not only scoured their valley clean, but also eroded its surrounding cliffs, destroying even the caves in which those ancestors had established a small but thriving community. Now the descendants of those long-ago people formed a mature, spacefaring race occupying planets in seven different solar systems and exploring several others, loosely organized into what they called the Refuge Confederation. They had named the planet to which the aliens had transported them “Refuge,” but had continued to refer to Earth as “Home.” They had begun construction of a large port-of-entry space station in our solar system some 4,000 years ago; that station was located deep inside a large nickel-iron asteroid in solar orbit well out beyond Saturn, and was named Home Station.

Washing his hands in the work basin near the back door, Myron lightly touched on the highlights of the several days of whirlwind activity the family had experienced starting that night. Together with his sister and Carole Williams, a young woman pilot from the spacecraft, Myron had ridden as a passenger in his father’s helicopter to the site of the meteorite impact on the ground generally northeast of San Jose in sparsely-populated hills, there photographing the meteorite and reporting it to his geology professor at Stanford. While there, they had met Refugees from other ships, arriving to do recovery of material that had been torn from the spacecraft in its collision with the meteor, as well as the sad but far more important task of locating and retrieving remains of crewmembers who had been blown out of that spacecraft. So many things had happened that night, culminating for him and his sister hours later when they boarded the adequately-repaired spaceship for a flight out to its base aboard Home Station. Their parents had followed half a day later on another ship, meeting them on the station; there they had met a few hundred of their distant “alien” cousins, learned a little of the events that had led to their ancestors being taken off Earth, made good friends aboard that station – and Myron and Carole had found themselves in a strong mutual attraction, such that now they were unofficially but most definitely engaged.

Drying his hands and then locking and bolting the back door, Myron put the pruning shears on a shelf, stripped off his dirty socks, jeans and work shirt and tossed them into hampers in the laundry room, then started up the stairs to the main floor of the house, his mind still on the events of that incredible week. It seemed that these long-absent members of humanity had many representatives assigned to duty right here on Earth – even at Stanford, as well as scattered around the Bay Area and all across the globe, all observing the behavior of Earth’s people in hopes of finding signs of the kind of dawning societal maturity that would allow Earth to be accepted into the Refuge Confederation, even if only on a probationary basis for the time being, and thus into the far larger interstellar community. But while all that was quite interesting, what had made the most profound impression upon Myron, other than his unannounced but totally committed engagement, was the presence of numerous, genuine high-level artificial intelligences, or AIs, operating in and from Home Station.

The main AI at the station was called Home Station Prime, or usually just Prime; each of the numerous major spacecraft operating from that station was built around its own AI, and those machines were all accorded full membership in the Refuge Confederation – and in Myron's opinion they quite deserved it! They were all fully conversant in American English as well as many other of Earth’s languages, were quite easy to talk with, demonstrated deep knowledge and true understanding of many topics, were sensitive to human emotions and insecurities, and in Myron’s hearing had never once said or done anything to belittle or to portray humans – including him – as being at all inferior to themselves. While they could do many things faster and better than could humans, they valued their human fellow citizens of their Confederation, both species – machine and human – doing whatever they could to help their entire community move towards its unknown best potential. In Myron’s opinion, those artificial intelligences he had met were far better people than quite a few humans he had met during his life.

And somehow a combination of those machines’ simple, unassuming presence, plus thoughts that had been lurking in his mind since his relatively early childhood had come into sharp focus, coalescing into a personal determination to examine, carefully, seriously and in detail, some of the most basic operational imperatives to include when humanity on Earth began developing its own version of true artificial intelligence. He had learned that at one time it seemed that a society had neglected to properly implement critically important operational safety procedures and safeguards, and so had created an AI that had been destructively insane from shortly after the moment of its first awakening into conscious self-awareness. The struggle to shut down that monstrosity had eventually resulted in the total loss of life on three different planets, and had inflicted serious damage on several others. With that knowledge, Myron felt obligated to do whatever he could to ensure that nothing similar happened on Earth! Or Home; he was quite comfortable calling our world by either name, both being quite appropriate in his opinion.

Continuing up the stairs past the main floor to the second level, he went to his bedroom to select fresh clothing, then to the adjoining bathroom, where he quickly showered. He still had something to accomplish this afternoon; he had to go to a local clinic for a final checkup to be sure he was physically ready for the Alaskan survival training he was to start in another week. He was looking forward to it; its early phases would be taught aboard Home Station, to be followed by a field training phase and final certification exercise to be held in a very remote area of northern Alaska. If time and his physical conditioning permitted, he was also to take advanced pilot training concurrently with his survival training on the station. He anticipated being quite tired at the end of every day, hoping his recent physical training had adequately prepared him for the coming exertions, and being completely unaware of the actual extent of the improvements his body had made. He knew he was both faster and far stronger than he had ever been, but at Carole’s urging had carefully not kept records of his actual performance gains, so he was constantly pushing himself to do more, or better. He was, however, aware that his free weights were now several times heavier than what he had started with.

And of course none of his better clothing from just six months ago still fit him. He knew he had to get his current measurements sent up to Home Station so the wardrobe shop there could either re-work or, more likely, replace his on-station clothing before his arrival. Well, that could be taken care of during the same excursion out of the house, right after he had a light lunch. Maybe not so light; he’d done an extra five miles during this morning’s hill run, for a total of ten, carrying a 35-pound backpack, and had averaged just under eight and a half minutes per mile. Maybe he’d be able to keep up with Carole when next they ran the track on the station. But for now, he was thinking more of food – the instructions for this afternoon’s checkup specifically said he was to have eaten lunch no more than one hour before the exam. He knew a place on his way that made an excellent BLTA. . .

* * *

Signing in at the clinic about an hour later, Myron casually scanned the waiting room. Only three other people were there, two young Asian women and a middle-aged Hispanic man; he didn’t recognize any of them. This clinic was operated by Refuge personnel who had not only earned medical degrees here on Earth – two of them from Universities right here in California, the remaining three doctors had degrees from other States – they also had full Refuge Confederation medical training, so they were quite aware of Myron’s having been given his own full boosters in December. While actually established to serve the Refuge personnel in the area, this clinic also served ordinary local people, and was considered an approved, superior provider by several major insurance carriers.

Well, Carole had told him that the boosters would help him manage the weight gain if he did the work, and he most definitely had been doing that! Not to impress her or anyone else, but because he felt better and more alert as he became used to the physical training, and was now far more able to do just about anything physical that might be needed than he had been just six short months ago. He’d researched the physical requirements that seemed appropriate for the kind of work he anticipated doing later this summer; gold mining in Alaska using mostly hand tools is extremely demanding physical work. However, if he was reasonably successful at it he might be able to help pay off some of his own education more easily; he had no wish to use much of the family’s financial resources! At six feet, two inches and 237 pounds he now had what he considered a fair build, with a 31-inch waist and 48-inch shoulders. He was able to do all the power moves required of male gymnasts, but had deliberately built his physique for more endurance at high sustained effort levels than was required of them, so he thought he probably didn’t have quite the same maximum strength as they did. But he could continue doing physically strenuous work long after most male gymnasts doing exactly the same things would tire and have to rest, and because he expected that kind of endurance to be essential, he was quite pleased with what he had accomplished.

Finding off-the-shelf clothing to fit, though, was becoming a major pain! Fortunately as a college student it was acceptable for him to wear jeans and sweatshirts much of the time, but summer on the mid San Francisco Peninsula could get very warm where he lived in Belmont; as the days grew warmer his normal midday attire when he wasn’t working at Stimson’s was becoming camouflage cargo shorts, loose gray T-shirts and inexpensive walking shoes with white socks, so that was how he was dressed today.

He settled comfortably into one of the chairs in the waiting room, opening a paperback book he’d picked up a couple of days before but hadn’t started reading yet. As quiet settled on the waiting area, he heard one of the other waiting patients talking to her neighbor. He was surprised when he realized she wasn’t speaking English, but Vietnamese, in the manner of people from the Haiphong district, and that he could understand it without effort. Well, Vietnamese – together with all its current major variants – was one of the languages in the “language pack” he’d completed a couple of weeks before in the computer-run deep-hypnosis education he was still receiving from the Refugees. The young woman thought he might be one of Stanford’s gymnasts, but her neighbor disagreed, claiming she’d recognize him if he was on that team. Myron looked up from his book, and in polite Vietnamese said that no, he was sorry to disappoint her, but he wasn’t a gymnast at all, just a grad student. He was glad when the receptionist called her name almost immediately after their little exchange, and both she and her neighbor went to see the doctor together; he’d had to become skilled at inoffensively deflecting increasingly frequent interest by young women as he’d developed his body over the past six months. He wished men wore engagement rings!

Predictably, the receptionist called his name just as Myron got himself properly oriented in the book he was reading. He placed the bookmark, got up and went to the indicated treatment room, remembering that his wait to see the doctor should be short. Since this clinic was set up mostly to deal with Refuge Confederation personnel, but also accepted ordinary patients, he supposed the man and the two Vietnamese girls were some of those “ordinary” patients. Leaning back and relaxing, he turned off his cell phone and re-opened the book.

Two minutes later someone tapped at the door of the room, and the door opened to admit a man he’d never seen before.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Watson, I’m Surgeon General Hiram Dawkes, Home Station, glad to finally meet you,” said the man, extending his right hand for a firm shake. “We’ve gone over your initial and interim scans, kept track of some of your training routines, and have no difficulties with any of it. I’m curious as to why you didn’t use one of our local gyms, though, where your progress could have been monitored and perhaps tailored for what you’re scheduled to be doing this summer, but we’ll find out in a while whether you’ve been on the right track. I’m glad you're here for our kind of physical exam, though I doubt you will be.

“First, we have to be sure how well your body’s handling the sugar load from your meal, so we’ll get a blood sample right off. Then we’re interested in your actual lung and metabolic functions during that, so you’re going to be wearing a breathing mask for the duration; that’s why the request for you to bring an interesting book. After that we’ll start you out real easy on a stationary bicycle, watching your breathing and waste gases as well as monitoring your vital signs and boosters. We’ll be modifying your air mixture to take you up to an equivalent of about 7,000 feet of altitude, where you’ll be riding for a couple of hours. We’ll supply you with clothing to use during the exam; you’re going to be wringing wet even before you get to the swim test. We’ll also have you on a rowing machine for a while, and running on a treadmill. Somewhere in there you’ll also be on various weight machines; exactly when will depend on what we observe from the monitors during the various test phases.

“Obviously this is going to be a really tough conditioning baseline determination. It’s intended to be. But from what I can see, you’re probably fairly well trained up already; your fiancée hinted you were working at it. So if you're ready, let's go on down to the dungeons and start the torture, shall we?”

Myron couldn’t complain; he’d known this was coming, so as they left the small treatment room and headed down the corridor he said, “Lead on, Doctor, I guess I’m about as ready as I can be. You know, of course, that I haven’t been able to train at anything like that test altitude; our local hills just aren’t that high.”

“Of course,” said the doctor, “but we know where you do your hill runs; had you stayed on the flats down here virtually at sea level the test would emulate only about 5,000 feet of altitude. Had you been on the station these past several months and trained as you have here, the altitude equivalent would have been about 10,000 feet. The test is designed to stress your cardiovascular and pulmonary systems in specific ways; it’s intentionally hard on you. However, I’d guess that you’re probably going to be pretty well prepared for our advanced conditioning course on the station. Most of our applicants have a hard time with the basic course, but you demonstrated considerably better than average conditioning during that run in the park your first afternoon aboard the station. As Karl said, that was – impressive. Oh, by the way,” here his eyes twinkled good-naturedly, “Pilot Williams has been training too, so she’ll be in somewhat better condition than she was that day. I suppose we’ll have to ask you both to try not to terrorize too many of the normal people on the track when you feel like running off a little excess energy.

“Please understand that I don’t make a habit of personally observing or monitoring the testing of candidates for the training you’re about to start aboard the station. In your case, though, it seems there is unusual interest in your performance, and emphasis that the results of your testing be evaluated as carefully as possible before you leave Home for training. I have no idea why there’s such emphasis on your results; Prime will not elaborate, but it does not originate with your fiancée or your sister, both of whom seem quite pleased with whatever you may have accomplished to date.

“There will also be witnesses present to observe the testing, as well as two individuals who will be trying to duplicate your actual performance. I don’t personally know either one, but one is from our planet Rimnal, the other person is from Éhofen. The Rimmer’s a professional hunter and guide who’s never been to Home before; he’s scheduled to be a bear guard at the mine and should do fairly well. The Elf is one of the rare ones who eat meat; I gather he’s also scheduled to be at the mine you’re training for. Strange folks, those Elves – please try not to let his presence bother you too much; they tend to make most people rather uneasy."

They had gone down one level in the building using stairs, and were now passing through a wide unmarked doorway. Myron noticed the door was metal-clad and that there was a metal gasket all the way around the door frame. “Ah – Doctor, this looks like the door to a Faraday-shielded room or test cell. Is that to minimize electronic interference with your monitoring equipment?”

“Yes, as is the next door we go through,” said the doctor. “Some of our test instruments are a little more sensitive than is appropriate for our local open environment, so this area of our clinic is set up for its best use. In this neighborhood there’s a simply incredible amount of loose radio-frequency electrical energy floating around, and that could interfere with our readings, so we set up this electrically shielded facility. It’s cramped, but not as badly as it could be; I hope you won’t feel too claustrophobic. At any rate, here’s your reading room; please make yourself comfortable, and your test administrator will be along shortly. Oh, and if you haven’t already done so, please turn off your cell phone.”

Myron entered a small room, little bigger than the powered recliner within it. The chair was of fairly minimalist design, but adjusted itself as Myron sat down, turning out to be quite comfortable in spite of its rather Spartan appearance. He was surprised by who soon entered the room to draw blood and connect his breathing mask, though – it was Dr. Samantha Hyde, whom he’d first met aboard Survey ’21 during his initial trip out to Home Station. Getting out of the chair, he shook hands with her. “Dr. Hyde, it’s so good to see you again! I hoped I might see you on Home Station; what brings you down here?”

“Hello Mr. Watson. ’21 wanted me to conduct your testing, since it prepared your initial boosters and has kept track of their subsequent activity and upgrades, and I’m here about to go on vacation. After today I’ll be off to see the Grand Canyon with some friends, then go back to the station in about a week. ’21 will read the data stream from your testing as it arrives at the station. I’ll get your first blood sample now, before a trainee applies all your monitors, then leave so you can change into this test clothing.” She smiled at him while getting the blood sample. “Please change into these boxer shorts, then the trainee will come in to start wiring you up, after which you can don the outer shorts and T shirt – or not, your choice. I notice you brought your own running shoes and socks, so you’ll use those during that part of the test. If you’re comfortable in them you might as well use them for the stationary bicycle too, so go ahead and put them on after changing. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She left the room, and almost as soon as Myron had changed into the issue boxers, and sat down to read again, a very businesslike young woman entered, leaving a cart laden with a very elaborate wiring harness outside the room.

“Good afternoon, are you in fact Myron Kenichi Watson, born of Home, recipient of an unlimited booster treatment while aboard Survey ’21 in late December of last year?” this woman asked.

“I am,” said Myron.

“Very well, please examine the identification number on this wiring harness, here, and verify whether in fact it matches the identification number indicated on this notepad, here. If you are satisfied it does, then please sign and thumb-print the form, here and here,” she said.

The number was a long one, broken down into groups of four numbers and letters each. Myron checked the entire 48 groups three times to be sure there were no mistakes, then signed and thumbed the notepad while the trainee held a DNA monitor over the arm of the hand he used to sign. She thanked him for being so careful, then started applying the monitor pick-ups to his body. There were a lot of them, plus a headset that required that his head be shaved. He lost count as she proceeded with obvious care, referring to a numbered chart as she went and using a hand-held instrument to verify the exact location for each pick-up. This went on for almost an hour, after which he was festooned with more numbered and colored wires and pick-ups than he could ever have imagined necessary – and as he had been breathing through the monitored mask the entire time he figured he was probably giving off chemical markers for mild irritation, curiosity and fatigue all at the same time. The trainee finished up by carefully taping the wiring harness down so it wouldn’t flop around or become snagged on anything as Myron moved, then she called for Dr. Hyde to enter the room and verify her work. Dr. Hyde checked the location and attachment of the more than 130 sensors, complimented the trainee for a job perfectly done, then signed the notepad and dismissed the trainee, who took the cart with her as she left.

“I have to apologize to you, Myron; I have absolutely no idea why you’re being instrumented so heavily. The most complicated setup I’ve ever seen was for a patient following spinal-cord reconstruction, and it didn’t approach what you’re wearing. But Maya’s a really talented tech and a dedicated trainee; you’re supposed to be able to move without any of those cables binding or inconveniencing you. If you could. . .” She had him go through a wide selection of moves to ensure that the harness did indeed allow him a totally free and full range of movement. It did, so finally she said “I’m sorry that took so long. You still have a few minutes to rest, and then we’ll start you on your bicycle ride. It’s a short one, only about 35 miles or so.” She gave him an evil but commiserating grin.

Myron started to put on the issued T shirt, but found it tended to bind on the wiring harness. “That’s not surprising,” said Dr. Hyde. “Even though that T-shirt’s three sizes larger than you’d normally use, that harness was never really intended to be covered. Which is one reason you were issued the boxer shorts; they’re usually used by themselves by candidates during this testing, though some of the minimally-instrumented candidates can opt for the T shirt and outer shorts. That setup you’re wearing, together with your current physique, will tend to make the other two people testing with you today just a bit nervous, so please just try to be friendly.

“Oh, and use the boxers as swim trunks during that test, they’re intended for that. If you have no other concerns just now, I’ll go verify the setups on the other two subjects. Nothing? Okay, I'll see you in a few more minutes.” Dr. Hyde made one last check of the pickups along Myron’s spine and the back of his head, then picked up her notepad and left the room.

Myron sat forward on the recliner for a little while, reading, then when called to begin the bicycle ride he first used the restroom, then headed for the first test area, a small room with five stationary bicycles mounted in it. A technician adjusted the center bicycle to fit him, and he mounted it; his harness was connected to a cart-mounted system, he was shown how to drink a water/electrolyte solution through a tube that entered his breathing mask through a special seal, and he was told to try not to breathe while using the straw. “Oh well, no problem, just stuff to remember,” he thought.

Shortly after he mounted the bicycle, another man entered the room behind him, and was quickly set up on the end machine to Myron’s left. As they waited for the third test subject, Myron turned to look him over. He seemed to be a perfectly ordinary middle-aged Caucasian, appearing to be a little more heavily muscled than Myron though about the same height; he was also carrying rather more body fat, but still seemed to move easily enough. His wiring harness was nowhere nearly as complicated as the one Myron was wearing.

“Good afternoon,” said Myron. “My name’s Myron; I understand there are three of us undergoing torture today.” He extended his hand for a handshake.

The man looked at Myron, eyes flicking over Myron’s harness-covered physique. Myron remembered he was wearing only the boxers, socks and shoes; he had become accustomed to riding without a T-shirt along the Coast Highway along San Francisco’s oceanfront, and had tanned to a medium golden brown. The man’s expression was somewhat thoughtful, but then he looked at Myron’s face and his slightly florid complexion visibly paled. “O mashna’kne Ého – wait, you’re not Éhofen. Damned if I know which variety of human you are, though – oh, you must be the kid from Home, here,” said the man in oddly-accented English, finally reaching over to shake Myron’s hand. “Glad to meet you, folks call me Stoner. Gave me a fright, you did, Éhofen with a build like yours haven’t been seen around the Confederation for a thousand years, and you look like you’re at least half Elf. You be careful if you ever meet any of them; they’re just not quite like us. What sort of human are you, anyway?”

Myron, rather surprised at this man’s comments, said “I'm from Home; what we around here call Hapa – half Caucasian, half Japanese. Got my booster about six months back; I’m scheduled to be taking the Alaskan survival course up at Home Station starting next week. My sister’s up there; I haven’t seen her in a few months. By the way, our third today is Éhofen, in case you didn’t know. Not too many of them on the station, and I wasn’t aware of any here on Home, but I’ve met this one before. Good afternoon, Inspector!”

Inspector Endewine Ooo had entered the room while Myron was speaking. Standing just over five feet, ten inches tall and wired up in much the same manner as was Stoner, he came around to the end bicycle to Myron’s right side, solemnly looked him up and down, and somewhat hesitantly held out his hand. Myron took it, and being aware of his own new strength gave the Inspector’s hand a careful grip as he shook it. Visibly relieved, the Inspector smiled and said “Good afternoon, Mr. Watson. It’s good to see you in such vigorous health. Your sister and Pilot Williams are doing very well indeed, though I believe they might be somewhat slow to recognize you; your overall appearance has changed significantly. I gather you’ve not sent them a recent photograph of yourself; my employer believes they have received no such images. She is doing well, by the way, and sends you her regards. As does the rest of her team.”

“Thank you, Inspector, and please convey my respects to them all. I didn’t know whether it would have been appropriate for me to initiate correspondence with her, and have to admit I’ve relied on Sis and Carole to keep everyone more or less up to date. I trust they’ve done so.”

The Inspector’s laugh started with his eyes. “Oh yes, indeed they have,” he said. “Those three have become affectionately known around the station as the Three Musketeers; unless one or another is on duty, at her studies or asleep they’re almost always together, thick as thieves. If I didn’t know better I’d swear they were sisters – ask one of them something when they’re all together and you never know which one will start or finish the answer.”

Myron smiled at the thought. “Yeah, I can imagine Sis and Carole having that effect on her. That girl’s quick, but she seemed in desperate need of a couple of rowdies like them for sisters or close friends. Good solid morals and values all the way through those two, though Sis will look as if she’s completely unaware of anything you’re saying if it isn’t directed specifically to her, then be able to quote it back to you verbatim a month later, complete with all the inflections, nuances and implications you put into whatever you were saying. Especially anything you were trying to hide; that’s a little game we came up with as kids and it’s been useful ever since. I trust they’re irreparably corrupting her that way.”

“They are that!” laughed the Inspector. “About time, too, but I’ll have to fill you in on the gory details later. It’s time to start our little ride, and you’re point man – the gentleman on your far side and I are supposed to see if we can keep up with you. What’s the phrase – oh yes: ‘Lay on, MacDuff!’”

“‘And cursed be him who first cries, Hold! Enough!’ Riiiiight,” muttered Myron, starting the ride at an easy pace, gradually working up through the gears until he was satisfied that his speed and effort should let him finish the virtual ride on this bike in minimal time while allowing him maximum energy for subsequent exertions. He was thankful for the fan blowing cool air on him from in front; it delivered airflow roughly proportional to the ground speed he’d have been making good on a flat road on a real bicycle, and the pedal resistance also changed to reflect his virtual speed. As the virtual miles clicked past, he noticed Stoner beginning to perspire a little early, but giving no other indication of exertion. Myron noted the odometer reading, took a few sips of water, checked that the Inspector was breathing easily, and picked up the pace a little.

Some time later, he noticed Stoner’s skin color beginning to change and his breathing start to become labored, while the Inspector seemed almost as comfortable as Myron. All three drank some water from time to time, and every few minutes Myron picked up the pace just a bit more.

The odometer in the bicycle Myron rode had two displays; one reading miles (and hundredths) completed, the other reading miles (and hundredths) remaining. The digital speedometer was calibrated in miles (and hundredths) per hour, and Myron had deliberately been gradually increasing their speed throughout the ride as he warmed to the exertion and got used to his air mixture. When his count-down odometer showed only three miles to go, Myron changed his mind and started a pre-sprint, calling on the reserves he’d been hoarding since the ride had started. He glanced over to Stoner and felt sorry for him; the man was obviously hurting and Myron was certain he’d stop in a very few more moments. The Inspector, though, while also in obvious discomfort, caught Myron’s eye, nodded and smiled, then indicated he wanted Myron to push even harder. At one mile remaining, Myron did exactly that, putting everything he had into a blazing finish sprint that he knew would leave him barely enough energy to climb off the bicycle and walk a few steps without falling. As he did so, he noticed three medical technicians hastily converge on Stoner to get him off his bicycle and onto a gurney. His color was very bad, his breathing labored, but he looked at Myron and between gasps for air said, “Don’t mind me, boy, just finish hard. You’re a better man than I am, glad to have met you!” He was quickly taken out of the room; Myron saw an oxygen bottle hooked up to his mask, and that two IVs had been set up for Stoner and were running wide open.

Finishing the 35 indicated miles, Myron eased off on his pace, continuing to pedal to pump wastes from his muscles while he just breathed deeply. Inspector Ooo started his own cool-down almost a minute later, obviously glad for the fan-forced breeze, breathing much harder than was Myron. They continued this way for several minutes, not exerting at all, slowing their pace, taking occasional sips of water, and the Inspector finally said, “That was a pretty good pace – you finished nearly a mile ahead of me. Oh, while we’re here, may I please call you Myron? I’d be honored if you’d call me Enzo; no point being formal here, though that will change once we board ship for the run out to the station.

“Your time wasn’t quite good enough to win the circuit race on the station, but you’d be in the lead five or so – and you did that at a higher altitude equivalent. You’ll do all right if you ever try the circuit race. And don’t be too worried about Stoner, the medical staff here’s first-rate and they’ll fix him up. I think he’ll be going with you to work the mine; even though your support and security really are supposed to at least be able to keep up with you, that’s not likely. When we finish this rest and cool-down period, we’ll getto see just how pathetic we look on rowing machines. But before we get there, they’ll let us get a couple of energy bars. Eat ’em while we’re still doing this cool-down, that way by the time we get to rowing they'll have replenished our energy. We’ll row for 16 wa – sorry, for a bit more than 16 miles, but you don’t have to try to kill me, please. Stoner was working at an altitude equivalent of only 5,000 feet here on Home, while you were at about 7000 and I was at 10,000. He’s used to being near sea level on Rimnal, with its air pressure of about 16.02 pounds per square inch, and while he can jog all day at that altitude there, he seldom goes into the hills at all and hasn’t been on a real bicycle in years. The bears there are bigger than your Kodiak or polar bears; a variety of what used to be called cave bears here. Mean beasts, utterly fearless, and he specializes in hunting the ones that endanger commercial operations on his planet. He’s the most skilled at that job there is out there; if he’s cleared he'll just be doing bear-guard duty at the mine.

“Ah, here come our snacks. Nibble on them slowly; we still have about another 15 minutes of recovery time. Thankfully our water has electrolytes in it or we’d be in serious trouble; I don’t know about you but I haven’t sweated so hard in years. Noticed you didn’t seem too badly effected, but I know you ride your bike on weekends even though you haven’t reported that as part of your training routine. Why not?”

“That’s because I don’t consider it part of my training,” said Myron. “I enjoy the ride, and while I know it’s exercise, I only do the ride to decompress on weekends. There are some bike paths I know that require really serious effort, and sometimes I’ll take one or another of them, but mostly I just take the easier scenic routes. Somewhere between 30 to 50 miles is usually plenty for me in an afternoon, but they’re not flat the way this virtual course was, and half the time I’m riding it’s into a headwind anyway – that’s no fun at all, but it’s just another thing to deal with when living on a planet. All in all, I kind of appreciate it even though I’ll whine about headwinds often as not.”

As afternoon wore into evening, Myron and Inspector Ooo continued with the brutal testing. It soon became obvious that Myron was in far better condition than was the Inspector, as well as being considerably stronger, but when he started backing off in his testing both Enzo and Dr. Hyde told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t giving his full effort, so he started applying himself in earnest to find out how much he really could do.

The rowing wasn’t Myron’s favorite exercise, but he managed a decent showing, Enzo almost keeping pace for a while but obviously hurting well before they finished their five miles. The weight machines revealed Myron to have significantly greater strength than the Éhofen; when Myron asked about that during the next break the Inspector said, “Originally our genes were designed to give us a significant strength, speed and stamina advantage per weight and size compared to other humans, in addition to great longevity.

“Unfortunately, on our world we don’t use boosters as do people throughout the rest of the Confederation, and for a long time there were very few of us. I’m sure you can figure the rest; we’re excessively inbred, and have built up a lot of what would otherwise be recessive genes that have significantly weakened us physically. There are other unfortunate things happening in my society too, that’s why my employer’s team is aboard Home Station – the Royal Family has recognized that while traditions are all very well, our people have seriously deteriorated over time. The Family’s duty to our people includes assuring that we remain at our peak as a branch of humanity, but it was only in this generation that this duty has been taken at all seriously. That’s not a popular realization, so for the time being it’s better for my employer’s team to be on Home Station than in our own system, plus of course here we can do research on humanity’s baseline as it exists on Home today as well as evaluate the Refugee personnel for its current status. Also of course, out here we have unlimited access to the station’s library and a really competent AI to do comparison studies without political interference.

“I have to tell you it’s because of our research that you’re wired up like a walking Christmas tree. Your sister is going through somewhat similar testing today on the station, but didn’t have to have her head shaved; the two of you are our only Home baseline test subjects who have received comprehensive boosters. As such we need to compare your results with those of untreated people here on Home who’ve never heard of us but understand only that there’s a particularly detailed study going on. Of course, they get paid for their pains, whereas you as one of us will have to dig your pay out of the ground this summer.” His expression became a bit mischievous, “If you want to complain, you’ll have to go beat up on the head of our delegation. I’ll carefully ignore it while you do.”

“Ah – but I’m not Éhofen, Enzo.”

“No, you're not. However, aboard the station you and your family are pretty much regarded as Citizens of the Confederation, and that’s what I thought I was referring to. Oh well –

“But seriously, we’re all very glad indeed that we were aboard the station back in December; your sister is still alive and thriving because of that timing. However, I must also tell you that I’m beginning to think she might find it difficult to come back to Home: she’s grown so much as a person in just the last six months that many people here would already find hers to be far too imposing a presence to be comfortable around her. That might be just my own personal impression, though; until this week I’ve been in her presence almost daily as your sister or your fiancée, or both, visit my principal, or she them. But even she is growing concerned; in another two and a half years, if your sister continues at anything like her current rate of development, the concern is that she may have less in common with your people here in the Bay Area than those do with chimpanzees. And of course she’s not been allowed to go anywhere near information that’s not already published on your world – yet she’s already mapped out the actual process for the sustained, commercially viable hydrogen fusion reaction!”

Surprised, Myron said “So – what’s so extreme about that? Everybody who’s really looked into that problem understands that what we’ve been doing over at Livermore is limited by the time we can keep suitable temperatures, energy densities and pressures contained, and that’s one reason there are so many undesirable byproducts from our current attempts. Now, if she’s come up with a practical way of containing the plasma at those energy and pressure levels to sustain proper fusion into stable helium without all the glass contamination and the undesirable, unstable isotopes and particles we get now, plus extract the helium waste while injecting appropriate hydrogen isotopes and slow neutrons, it’ll be an instant world-changer. But at least when she left here she didn’t have the necessary knowledge or background in plasma physics and process control, to say nothing of mechanical engineering or productizing or materials science – those are each significant areas of study on their own. Are you telling me she’s done all that?”

“In a word? Yes. This is one reason I like dealing with you two – you can get straight to the point and understand the ramifications. She understood what was needed, and because it didn’t involve anything not already known about on your world, Prime opened the whole book. Your sister got about seven Ph.D. equivalents in the last three months, and has produced from scratch a basic design it took our mentors several hundred years to develop. Worse, when she finishes refining it over the next year or so it’ll be even better than what the Confederation’s using now; we’re going to have to find some way to pay her for the production rights, licensing fees and ongoing royalties as we adopt and optimize her design for specific applications. Your family will be financially set for life, even before your people get over their shock and look at it for their own use. If they ever do. And she’s just barely getting started.

“You know that kind of faraway look she used to get when thinking really hard and fast? It’s gone. What we see now is the look of someone utterly focused on and clearly seeing things we usually can’t, and some people on the station find that more than a little unsettling, especially when she carries on a perfectly normal conversation at the same time.

“I don’t have any idea what triggered this development in her thinking, but I think she’s just beginning to bloom, sort of like the springtime desert after a particularly wet winter. I really don’t want her to burn out; somehow we all have to find a way to kind of moderate her development so she doesn’t run out of challenges and wither away like those desert flowers!

“But now it’s time for the next phase of our torture. Oh, don’t worry about getting home late; we’ve already let your family know that should be around 2:30 or 3 AM, maybe a little later, and you’ll have a driver to make sure you actually get there all in one piece. Track time, five miles carrying a twenty-kilo pack, target’s less than twelve minutes per mile. Bring it!”