Cool Change
by John R. Plunkett © 2020

I float in the entrance tunnel, idly sculling to stay in place. The announcer's voice is a booming rumble, amplified by loudspeakers but scrubbed of the frequencies that would make it intelligible. No matter; I know the script by heart. Though just in case, I've set my heads-up display to show the current and upcoming cue, along with a countdown timer.

Right as the counter hits zero the crowd erupts. The noise, which makes the announcer's voice seem like nothing, comes to me through the concrete structure of the pool itself. The water around me vibrates with the intensity of the sound: I can feel it on my skin as well as hear it with my ears. I am now in motion, swimming as fast as I can. I shoot from the entrance tunnel and emerge into sunlight, making a circuit of the pool under water. Then I leap, bursting from the water amid a shower of droplets that glitter like jewels in the sunlight. The crowd's noise hits like a blow; no longer attenuated by water it's vastly louder. I do a graceful back flip, waving as I go, then bring my hands together and knife into the water with hardly a splash. The crowd goes nuts; even under water I can feel the throbbing intensity of it. I allow myself a moment to drink it in; the audience's adulation is a more potent rush than any drug that could ever be.

Next is water walking. I fan my tail vigorously, holding myself vertically out of the water while skimming backwards across the pool. I blow kisses to the crowd then twirl about so I'm going forward without changing direction. After that the announcer's assistant hops on my back and I take her for a circuit of the pool. For the second circuit the assistant stands up. At the end of that I catapult her into the air so that she lands in a net. I do a circuit at the edge of the pool, slapping hands with the front row of the audience, who press forward eagerly so they can reach. I splash them generously but they love that too; it's all part of the show.

A water polo net was placed in the interim and the announcer's assistant freed herself from the net. Now they start throwing balls at me. I head them, “kick” them (using my fluke), or occasionally leap into the air and hit one with my chest. Mostly I aim for the net. Sometimes I shoot back at the announcer and assistant. Once or twice I smack one right into the crowd. Today I really get a bite of one and for a second it looks like it's going right out of the park. It lands in the top row, bounces back, and goes skipping across the crowd. There's a mighty scrum as people grab for it; at least a dozen people leap from their seats and wind up in a ferocious tangle. Now I wonder if the ushers will have to break it up. (This wouldn't be the first time.) The ball comes loose and a kid scoops it up. Shi rears up on hir hind legs, holding the ball over hir head. The crowd goes even more nuts. I'd shoot all the balls into the crowd if I could but the managers won't permit it. Liability issues, you see.

At the culmination of the shooting segment I catch a ball on my fluke, balance it for a moment, then flip it up into the air. I head it back up, then dive, come up under it, leap, back flip, and smack it with my fluke right into the net. Mastering that particular trick required a lot of time and effort but the crowd's reaction is well worth it: they roar, bellow, and shriek as if I'd just scored the winning goal of the World Cup. I do a victory lap clasping my hands over my head, then go head down and wave my fluke. Finally, I pull myself up onto the announcer's platform for the information segment.

While I pose for the crowd the announcer explains that I'm a cyborg, partially organic and partially robotic. My brain, skeleton, portions of my musculature, and several internal organs are artificial. The rest is all living flesh, albeit highly engineered. I'm not an AI, though: I'm a servo, operated remotely by a regular organic person whose brain is connected to mine through Emerge Link, the latest and final word in telepresence. With emerge Link you don't just control your remote body, you enter it. Your servo becomes your body, as real and present as your original one ever was.

The announcer doesn't say quite that much but I can't help being proud. I led the creation of Emerge, both the technology and the company. Or rather, I suppose I should say that Adam did those things. That's who I am when I'm not Jayla the mermaid, star attraction of Equatoria Ocean World Water Park's Tropical Seas Fantasy Water Show. The announcer doesn't talk about Adam, though. I prefer to keep my lives separate.

I finish posing and waddle up to the announcer, using my flippers and tail to inch along. I clasp my hands together and look expectant while clapping my flippers. The announcer grins and pats me on the head, then resumes his talk. I interrupt again, clapping more insistently, planting my hands on my hips. With an exasperated sigh and expression of long suffering he tosses me a fish, which I catch in my mouth. The audience laughs uproariously.

The announcer and his assistant take a break. On her way out the assistant places a sign that says “No Fishing.” As soon as they're gone a clown appears. He's wearing ridiculously oversized waders, carrying a fishing pole with a bobber that looks like a little clown head. He sees the sign, snorts, and disdainfully knocks it over. He takes the pole in hand and makes a cast but I use my fluke to swat the bobber back onto the platform before it even hits the water. He glowers, stomps his foot, and takes up a fishing spear instead. He wades into the water, looking around intently, the spear raised menacingly. As he turns toward the audience I stealthy emerge from the water behind him and take the pole. He whirls, but not in time to catch me. While he's looking that way I reach my hand out of the water and hook the bobber to the back of his pants. As he's turning around again I pop my head and shoulders above the surface and thumb my nose at him. As he starts forward with the spear I jerk the fishing line, causing the back of his pants to fall and fill with water. He falls over backward, sputtering, then turns around and pulls himself up into the platform. I emerge, holding the fishing spear that he'd dropped. I jab him in the butt and the water filling his pants spurts out though the hole. The audience roars with laugher and I mug shamelessly. The announcer and his assistant return and chase the clown away. The assistant points angrily at the “No Fishing” sign and slaps him on the back of he head.

The big finale is a fancy music and dance number. I do the hula while water-walking. I leap through hoops while fire spitters and torch jugglers work all around me. Then the fire spitters ignite the hoops and I jump through them again. When the pirates attack I grab a cutlass and join the fray. I wrestle a shark to save the handsome prince who's about to walk the plank. (The shark is a robot but looks quite convincing.) The audience eats it up, especially when four of the sexy dancers lift me up over their heads while I wave enthusiastically with both hands.

After the show is a meet-and-greet. This is private, invitation only, for people who want to invest in the company or perhaps obtain high-def servos of their own. I hold forth about what Emerge Link can do. It isn't just about having a fantasy (in every sense of the word) body, though plenty of folks are eager to shell out the admittedly staggering cost of having exactly that. The industrial and scientific applications are myriad: a great many things are done by robots because it's too dangerous for organic people to do them and too costly to adequately protect said organic people. But what if the robot could have true human intelligence, without any of the problems associated with creating an AI with that level of ability? Technology extends human reach and perception; Emerge Link does that in the most literal way possible.

I love talking about Emerge, though it's hardly necessary. Simply existing is probably the most compelling sales pitch I could make.

Yes, I would say I'm living a dream life. Sadly, though, as with any dream, occasionally you have to wake up.

Jayla awoke with a shuddering gasp, her whole body quaking, her heart pounding. It felt like a particularly terrible nightmare, but as soon as her eyes opened it all disappeared; she couldn't remember what she'd been so afraid of. She panted heavily for a moment but that was only a reflex; her lung (she only had one) was only for speaking, smelling, and buoyancy control; it had nothing to do with oxygenating her blood. She lay back, staring upwards; above was the ceiling of the link lab. It consisted of anechoic tiles crisscrossed by bundles of cable supported by metal poles. Illumination came from glare-free light panels; each was the same size as a tile and laid out in an abstract pattern that provided adequate lighting everywhere but broke up what would otherwise be a monotonous grid. After a moment Jayla wiped her face—

No. She couldn't move her arm; it was held by a pair of clamps, one at the wrist and another at the shoulder. Another pair held her other arm while three held her body: one on the head, one around her waist, and one around her tail just below the flippers. Gel polyps coated the inside of each clamp, giving it a firm but gentle grip.

“What the Hell?” Jayla demanded, looking around as much as she could with her head clamped. The restraints adjusted but didn't press too hard; they were programmed not to risk injuring her. In a flash, she remembered: she was on the zeroing rig.

Jayla had what could be described as only part of a brain. Enough to control all the functions of her body and process the data from her senses but lacking those functions that formed consciousness. The host brain provided those, communicated to her over the Emerge Link. When the link disconnected the places where those consciousness functions would be filled up with random noise. Her body would twitch and spasm hence the restraintsand reconnecting would be more difficult, as well as creating an unpleasant experience for the host mind. To fix that, after disconnecting the link was activated again with a special profile that suppressed the misfiring neurons until they settled down. Even as Jayla had that thought the table to which she was fastened tilted back a little, bringing the link interface into view. It was a massive thing, a rough cylinder around two and a half meters long and somewhat more than three quarters of a meter across, supported by two massive legs. Andy thought it looked like a cassegrain telescope. It even had a little knob sticking out the far end that could have been the objective. The near end, though, looked more like the muzzle of a cannon: there was hole roughly the size and shape of a human that is, Terran head. For proper interface Jayla's head needed to fit into the socket. Then the quantum link would activate, communicating with transceivers embedded in her skull, and the zeroing would begin.

“Hey!” Jayla shouted. She couldn't move her head enough to see the control room. The operators should have been watching but probably were focused entirely on the instruments. The whole process had become routine. Maybe too routine. “Hey!” Jayla repeated, more loudly. “Why are you zeroing me while I'm still in here? Are any of you even listening?” She struggled against the restraints, which tightened. The link interface rose on its legs and shifted forward while the table aligned Jayla's body with the socket and slowly lifted. Jayla twisted her head to the side; the clamp resisted, trying to push her back into position, but not hard enough to risk injuring her neck. The interface withdrew slightly and the table moved to put her head in the right position. She twisted the other way, forcing another reconfiguration. After four tries the computer gave up, moving the interface back to the resting position. It would notify the operators that something had gone wrong and ask for instructions. Hopefully that would get them off their butts and down here. Jayla wasn't disposed to wait; with all her considerable strength she strained against the clamp holding her right wrist. It – and all the others – let go without much of a fight; the computer had evidently decided that holding hr wasn't in the cards. It even lowered the table and tilted it slightly so Jayla could roll off onto the floor without falling.

Jayla propped herself up on her hands and looked around. She – Adam – had designed everything in here, yet it looked strange. Because she was seeing it from floor level, she realized... and also because only as Adam had she ever given it any meaningful amount of attention. As Jayla it was nothing but a place she momentary passed through at the beginning and end of each link session. Also, not even Andy knew what would have happened if zeroing had run while the link was still active. That wasn't supposed to be possible; there were multiple checks to prevent it.

A door opened. Jayla scrambled out into the aisle; her flippers – attached to her body where legs would be, were she a humanoid – were more like a seal's than a dolphin's, even though she had a dolphin's smooth skin and horizontal fluke. She wasn't nearly so helpless on land as a dolphin would be. Floors tended to be dirty and rough, but at that moment she would have swam through raw sewage to get away from the zeroing rig.

“Yalp!” That was Mira, a chakat, one of link technicians. Shi scrambled backwards with limbs flailing wildly, as if shi'd almost fallen into a pit. Coordination failed and shi collapsed in a heap.

“Snap out of it!” Jayla commanded, grabbing Mira's face. Chakats were feline centaurs: an animal-like barrel, a humanoid torso covered with fur attached where the animal's head would normally be, and an animal-like head on the torso. Mira resembled a fishing cat: grayish pelt with spots on the sides and stripes along the back. With hir four legs to Jayla's none Mira should have been able to easily run away, if not that shi seemed to have taken complete leave of hir senses.

Mira froze. Shi stared up at Jayla with terrified eyes from which all reason had fled. “What in the world are you so freaked out about?” Jayla demanded, shaking hir. “Why didn't you end the link?”

“We did!” Mira squeaked, squeezing hir eyes shut as if shi expected Jayla to savage hir.

Now it was Jayla's turn to stare in blank incomprehension. “If you stopped the link I couldn't possibly be here!” Jayla snapped.

“We know!” Mira squeaked.

More footsteps approached. Jayla looked; that was Hugo, the other technician. He was a Terran; average height, average build, darkish auburn hair that he wore in a pigtail gathered in back, pale brown eyes, genetically fairish skin but always somewhat tanned. His wide, staring eyes suggested that he too was freaked out, but he retained his composure somewhat more effectively. Nevertheless, when he opened his mouth to speak nothing came out. His mouth worked for a moment, then he shut it with a snap.

“Did you deactivate the link?” Jayla asked. Fear clawed at her own guts. If the link really was off... then Jayla being here was as impossible as a suit of clothes coming to life. Hugo would surely say that despite the safety interlocks some terrible mistake had been made-

Hugo nodded slowly.

Jayla swallowed, then licked her lips. “Get my travel frame,” she barked. Mira scrambled to hir feet and ran off, returning a moment later with the frame in tow.

The travel frame looked something like an ice cream cone held upright by a pair of wheeled legs and having a seat back projecting from one side of the cone's rim. Jayla rolled onto her belly and lifted herself on her flippers; the frame moved over her, straddling her with its legs. The cone part rotated to horizontal and opened like a clamshell; it was actually made of many interlocking fingers. The frame crouched, the fingers of the cone wrapping around Jayla's tail and pelvis. A pair of arms gripped her torso under the armpits. With Jayla firmly supported the frame straightened up and rotated to vertical. The cone part gripped her tail, with her fluke and flippers sticking out; the arms released her torso and retracted, leaving her to rest against the seat back as if riding in a chair. She steered it by moving her flippers; it rolled up to the control room door, which opened for her. She turned to the command station, which showed that what Mira and Hugo had said was completely accurate: Jayla had come to the lab, the link disconnect had occurred, and the zeroing begun. Everything had happened exactly as it should, as it had many, many times before.

And yet, Jayla was still here. Impossible or not, it was so.

“What do we do?” Mira asked, tremulously.

Jayla flinched; she hadn't noticed the technicians enter. “Call the dev team,” she said. “We need everyone on this, right away. Maximum security, too. Not a word gets out.”

“Understood.” Hugo sent a notification to all the team members. Through her link – which was one of her cybernetic components – Jayla monitored responses while calling up log data on each and every one of her previous link cycles. When she herself got a notification she almost answered it before realizing it was the very one Hugo had just sent. But a moment later her readout showed that she had, in fact, responded to it.

Realization struck like plunging headfirst into icy, arctic water. Adam had responded to the notification. The link was off; he was awake now. (Though he'd probably been asleep, given the lateness of the hour.) He and Jayla were no longer the same person. Which meant... that he was going to kill her.

Why? Because Jayla's mere existence put the company, Emerge Link, and Adam's reputation in mortal danger. If word got out that Emerge Link servos could spontaneously come to life, customers would flee in droves and the company would drown in lawsuits. Even if the flaw were corrected, no one would trust the technology ever again. The impact of it was too raw, too... emotional. Even if Jayla wasn't destroyed in the process of figuring out why she'd come to be, the mere fact of her existence proved that there was problem. The law wouldn't allow such a thing, one might argue – which would be true if Jayla – this Jayla – had any identity of her own, which she did not. Her entire legal existence derived from Andy's; in the eyes of the law she was nothing more than a costume. That might change, sure, but again it would be in Andy's – and the company's – best interest to wipe her before that question ever came up. If they did it soon enough, it might be difficult or impossible to prove that she'd ever existed in the first place.

Fortunately for Jayla, time was on her side. The meet-and-greet had run late, leaving only the night shift – that being Mira and Hugo – on duty in the lab. The local devs were all at home and most of the rest were in Amistad, which was only two hours earlier. Even with the emergency notification it would take time for people to wake up, get dressed, and come up to speed. But the window was small. She needed to act now.

Without a word Jayla left the control room. Mira and Hugo looked at her quizzically but didn't try to stop her. The dev center, just beyond the lab, was empty except for the cleaning robots, which scuttled out of her way. Though already she could see workstations coming on as their operators accessed them remotely. When she came to the last door Jayla felt a spurt of fear; if Adam acted quickly he could revoke her clearance. He hadn't, evidently, because the door opened without hesitation.

An observation deck on the ocean side of the lab building overlooked the sea. Lights came on, though they were hardly necessary; Jayla had excellent night vision and the city of Equatoria spread out like a sparkling blanket to her left. To he right was nothing but blackness; the rest of the island was kept as a nature preserve, with only very limited development allowed. Jayla rolled up to the railing, instructing the travel frame to hold her horizontally and lean forward. That left her hanging precariously over the rail. At her command the frame released and she fell, executing a perfect swan dive into the dark water below.

Andy Galba scrubbed his face. He felt like shit. Staying up late as Jayla left him just as tired as if he'd done it himself. Now, having only just gotten to sleep, an emergency notification jerked him back awake. He fumbled for his glasses – his personal link was in them – and reviewed the message. Highest urgency, maximum security, so he couldn't even read it except at a company terminal. Cursing under his breath he struggled out of bed, pulled on a robe, and shuffled out into the next room, where he had a corporate workstation set up. It activated automatically as he flopped into the chair. The emergency message came up at once, but Andy spent a moment rubbing his face before looking at it. “Okay then,” he said, finally focusing his attention. The notification had come from the Equatoria lab. Issued by... Hugo Evanstone? What the devil could possibly have happened? Andy opened a call window.

Hugo responded at once, his head and shoulders appearing in the window. Behind him Mira worked diligently at another station. “Thank goodness, sir,” Hugo began, sounding enormously relieved. “We've had-”

“What happened?” Andy cut in. “Why did you issue an emergency, maximum security alert?”

“Jayla woke up, sir.”

The incongruity of that statement left Andy unable to formulate a reply for some time. Hugo waited expectantly – hopefully? – until Andy spoke. “What did you mean by that?” Andy demanded.

“We had Jayla on the zeroing rig,” Hugo began. “Everything was going fine... then she started struggling. The zeroing failed. She's the one who told me to send the alert.”

Andy blinked several times. Now he wasn't so sure he'd woken up at all. Hugo's explanation made even less sense than his initial statement. “Is this some kind of joke?” Andy asked.

“Absolutely not!” Hugo looked horrified. “I wish to God it was. She scared the crap out of us.”

Andy opened his mouth to speak but stopped himself. He could feel himself slipping down the rabbit hole. He needed a dose of reality. He called up security camera video from the lab. He watched Jayla enter, riding in her travel frame. She dismounted and lay down on the work table. After settling herself the link interface came down and covered her head. Her body twitched several times, as if from electric shocks. Andy also flinched; the link interface was de-aligning the quantum connections between her brain and the operator interface rig. Subjectively, the experience was not unpleasant, precisely, but something you could never quite get used to. After that she went completely limp. The link interface moved away while the medical sensors checked her over. Andy called up a side bar, showing the data. It all looked perfectly normal. During the examination she started twitching. Not like shocks, this time, but more like muscle spasms. The clamps closed, holding her gently so she wouldn't injure herself or disturb the sensors. A moment later the medical sensors withdrew. Then-

Jayla awoke. Her eyes and mouth flew open, her whole body tensing. She looked around frantically. “What the hell?” she exclaimed.

Adam stopped the playback. He'd asked for a dose of reality and the one he got was vastly worse than the nightmare. His gaze flicked back to Hugo, whom Andy now realized had been trying to get his attention. “Where is she?” Andy demanded.

“She left,” Hugo said.

Andy's stomach churned. He felt himself spinning down the rabbit hole, faster and faster. “You let her go?” He exclaimed, angrily.

“Sir, I– I– I–” Hugo stammered. Adam brushed him aside and returned to the security video, skipping forward. There was Jayla, riding her travel frame, looking at the master console. Her eyes had an oddly glazed look; though facing the display she wasn't seeing it. Abruptly she turned away and left the room. Point of view switched from camera to camera as she went through the dev center, out onto the deck, and into the sea. The last Andy saw of her was a small splash as she went into the water. When he checked the time stamps, he realized that she'd left the control room only just before Andy called Hugo. She'd made her escape even as they spoke.

“I'm coming,” Adam said. Now he sounded as if he were completely awake. “The entire dev team is to report to the Equatoria lab immediately.” He sent the notification, using his personal authority. “You and Mira are to stay right there until I arrive. Don't leave the control room. Don't speak to anyone who isn't a company employee. Don't admit anyone into the facility who isn't a company employee. Understand?”

“Yes sir,” Hugo squeaked.

Andy closed all the windows and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples. He was wide awake now, and yet the nightmare had only just begun.

“This was a great idea, May,” Ranthe (pronounced ran-thay) said. She lay back in a beach chair, sun hat pulled low over her face, a can of soda in one hand. She wore only a bikini bottom, but a large beach umbrella held the worst of the tropical sun at bay.

“Yes, yes it was,” Mayuandi agreed. The sun hung in a dazzlingly blue, perfectly cloudless sky, shining down on a sparkling white sand beach and a shimmering topaz lagoon. Farther out lay deep blue ocean, separated from the lagoon by a band of frothy white where breakers foamed over the reef. The beauty and serenity of it all was so deep, so intense, that May almost – almost – forgot how little of his nethers were covered by his tiny, tiny briefs. He would have much rather preferred loose, comfortable trunks... but Sundown had told him straight out that if he wanted to see Ranthe in a bikini he needed to ante up.

Turning only his eyes – concealed by his sunglasses – May could admire Ranthe's pleasingly (to him, certainly) feminine profile. Unfortunately, doing so evoked a predictable reaction in the vicinity of his crotch. With trunks he might have made a discreet adjustment, concealing the activity by pretending to scratch. With this, this banana hammock he wore, any action at all would only draw even more attention to the very thing he wished to conceal. Instead, he picked up a soda and took a drink.

“Nice having our own ship,” Ranthe said.

“Absolutely,” May agreed.

Fiora's Fury rested on a relatively flat stretch of sand above the tide line but not too close to the jungle. This particular beach was part of the Equatoria nature preserve so there was no development except for hiking trails and the occasional cabin. No water, no sewer, no power, no network (except by satellite). Fiora's Fury was officially a multi-role attack vessel but she had fully equipped living quarters – bunks, head, shower, galley, laundry – for long duration missions. They weren't luxurious – May had seen walk in closets with more volume – but as a self-contained base of operations for a weekend out in the wild, it was perfect. Especially for this particular beach, which was only readily accessible by air. (The reef made landing by sea extraordinarily difficult and coming overland involved a hike of some fifty kilometers through the jungle.)

“I'm hungry,” Ranthe announced suddenly, rising from her chair and going to the grill. She switched it on, then laid out some sausage, shrimp, and a couple steaks. The meat was synthetic and the shrimp bore no more than a superficial resemblance to the Terran species of that name, but it all tasted good – particularly, May felt, when grilled by hand in such a beautiful, relaxing setting – so he didn't care. It also meant May could watch Ranthe leaning over the grill, and she was a fox.

Yes, May found Ranthe quite attractive but she was also a literal fox – or, at least, an anthropomorphic one. Ruddy orange fur covered most of her body, except for a patch of white starting on her chin and running down to her crotch. Her arms from the elbow down and her legs from the knee down were black. She had a tail, requisitely fluffy, matching her coat color except for a black tag at the tip. Her face was suitably fox-like, with pointed, triangular ears, black on the back and white on the front, a slender, pointed muzzle, and scintillating amber eyes. She also had a mane, which was a bit brighter and more coppery than her base color. Her body was humanoid... and very female. Ample bosom, generous hips and thighs, reasonably trim midsection, nicely proportioned arms and legs. She wore sandals, a pair of shorts cut off so short that the pockets stuck out, a plaid shirt cut down so it only covered her shoulders and chest (and only barely at that), a pair of sunglasses, and a wide sun hat.

Mayuandi was also a fox, at least in the same literal sense as Ranthe. His pelt was a little more red, his mane black instead of copper, his tail tag white instead of black... he was also somewhat pudgy around the middle, if he let himself be honest, not to mention with some graying on his cheeks and a few wisps in his mane. (Ranthe also showed signs of age-related graying and softening, but May refused to let himself dwell on that. Except maybe for the softening. He thought it looked really good on her.)

“I'm going for a walk,” May said abruptly, bouncing to his feet. Admiring Ranthe had elicited... predictable results from certain portions of his anatomy. His trunks weren't so brief as Ranthe's shorts but for how poorly they concealed his reaction he might as well have been naked.

“You don't expect me to do all the cooking, I trust,” Ranthe said.

“Oh no, it's all right,” May said hastily. Ranthe sounded more flippant than accusatory but he didn't want to push it even a little. “I'll do up some when I get back.”

Ranthe snorted, but good naturedly. May flashed a smile over his shoulder and strolled quickly to the water's edge. With his back toward Ranthe he tugged discreetly at his briefs but it didn't help. If anything, the sensation of sliding fabric made things worse. He kept walking; Ranthe might happen to look and wonder what he was doing. Then, after walking for a while in deep contemplation, an idea struck. There was at least one surefire way of making his... swelling... go away. He just had to make sure Ranthe didn't see him do it. He paused just above the swash line, gazing out to sea while the waves lapped the sand just in front of him. He looked around, and in the process glanced surreptitiously in Ranthe's direction. She'd sat down and started eating, though there were still things on the grill. May waved; she waved back. He walked a little farther, then waded out into the surf.

The Equatorial Ocean was bathwater-warm, almost like stepping into a swimming pool. May stood for a moment, luxuriating in it, then went out a little farther, so that when he sat the water covered him at least waist deep. Fortunately the surf was gentle; it rocked him pleasantly without bowling him over or splashing his face. Once acclimated to the rhythm he slid down his trunks, cocking his legs so they wouldn't slide off. Then, after a discreet glance in Ranthe's direction – she was cooking again, with her back toward him – he, um, took matters in hand and set to work. Fortunately his left side was obscured from her view; even if she did turn around and look all she'd see was May sitting placidly in the surf.

Thinking of Ranthe proved to be a powerful motivation. The warm sea and gentle rocking did its part, too. Things built up quickly, rather more so than May had expected... but was probably for the better, since it minimized the chance of Ranthe coming up behind him. May embraced the sensation as he felt it rising up inside him-

A dark shape rose from the water directly in front of May. He attempted to scramble backwards but his ejaculation reflex had already begun. His legs thrashed ineffectually and he fell over backwards just as a wave hit him. His head went under and while struggling to not inhale a lungful of seawater the undertow caught his trunks and sandals and whisked them away. Something grabbed his shoulder and pulled him upright; he coughed, spluttered, gasped, and finally panted. When he could see again... he found himself looking into the face of a beautiful mermaid.

This face was oval, with delicate, girlish features and large, expressive, violet eyes. It was white, except for black lips and curious markings around the eyes, almost as if she'd put ink on her hands then pressed them to her face, pantomiming looking through binoculars. The lines above and below each eye didn't meet on the inside – as if she'd held her fingers mostly straight instead of with the tips together – and they didn't cross the bridge of her nose, either. On the outer edges of her face the black marking continued, wrapping around her head until it disappeared under her long, silky, straight, black hair. A pair of long, sharply pointed, very elfin ears poked out on either side; they even twitched slightly, the way a cat's might, and they were black, inside and out. The skin covering this face – and indeed, the rest of her body – was smooth and hairless, like a dolphin's. The lower part of her body – the “fishy” part – had a dolphin's horizontal fluke. A set of appendages sprouting from her hips – what May thought of as her hips, since her body flared out at that point in a decidedly feminine manner – did not look at all like dolphin fins, but much more like a sea lion's flippers, though hairless. Everything else – from the neck down and the hips up – seemed typical enough for a humanoid female. Except for the breasts, of which there were four, not to mention that the top two were nearly as big as her head. (The lower two were somewhat smaller.) And, though her torso was most attractively proportioned, it was also quite muscular; her skin smoothed the edges of the muscle groups, making her seem slightly less buff than she really was. Overall she was black – the kind that turns to deep blue in bright light – except for a white patch starting with her face and running all the way down the front of her body to the bottom edge of her belly, right above what would have been her crotch. Her arms and shoulders were solid black, which made an interesting contrast with her breasts, which were solid white (except for the nipples, which, like her lips, were black). There were also white marks on either side of her tail, staring just ahead of the fluke and widening as they approached her “hips,” where they narrowed suddenly to a pair of thin lines running close to the base of her dorsal fin, located right where her gluteal cleft would otherwise have been. From there the lines widened some and moved apart as they ran up her back, in a manner reminiscent of skunk stripes. Whatever happened after that was covered by her hair, which spilled over her shoulders and down her back. It would probably hang down to her waist, at least.

May noted all that, but only in passing. His most pressing concern was that, when he went under, she'd moved up partly on top of him so she could reach his shoulder. That placed her breasts right in his crotch... where his penis still twitched slightly from its exertions. He was not the sort of man who could be sanguine about introducing himself to a woman by ejaculating into her cleavage.


May's blood turned to ice, because that voice belonged to the only person it possibly could. Ranthe came running down the beach, sliding to a stop in the swash zone, windmilling her arms to keep from falling. (A sight May might have appreciated under other circumstances, since Ranthe wasn't wearing a bra.) Her alarm changed to confusion when she noticed the mermaid. Ranthe rapidly glanced back and forth between May and the Mermaid as if verifying that they were, in fact, both real. “You're Jayla the mermaid from that big water show,” Ranthe finally said, in a voice with no particular inflection.

“Yes, I am,” the mermaid agreed with a nod. “I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but could I get something to eat? I've been at sea for days.”

“Yes, of course,” Ranthe said. “Are you all right? Is there someone we can call?”

“No, please don't,” Jayla said quickly, raising a hand. “I don't want the company to know I'm here. I hoped you could take me to Star Home.”

“Why?” Ranthe asked. “What happened?”

“You know I'm a servo?” Jayla said.

“I've heard that, yes.” Ranthe nodded, crouching. That put her head closer to Jayla's level but didn't leave her sitting in the water.

“My operator disconnected but I'm still here,” Jayla said, tapping herself on the forehead. “I, I feel like I'm still the person I always was when my operator was connected. But my operator isn't connected. So... I don't know what I am anymore.”

Ranthe frowned. “Wouldn't the company be best suited to figure this all out?”

“Sure, but the first thing they're going to do is wipe my brain,” Jayla said.

“But why?” Ranthe exclaimed, shocked. “You're alive! That would be murder!”

“Oh?” Jayla countered. “According to what definition? Most charitably I'm nothing but a highly computerized piece of equipment. Legally, I don't have any more identity than a ground car or your ship.” She gestured in the direction of the Fury. “Least charitably, I'm an illegal AI.”

“Even if you are an AI, it's not your fault that you came into being,” Ranthe declared sternly, rising and planting her hands on her hips. “May, help me get up to the camp,” she said. “We have plenty of food, we'd be glad to share,” she added with a nod to Jayla. “May?” she asked a moment later when May didn't move or speak.

“He lost his trunks,” Jayla said. “I'm sorry, I didn't manage to catch them. I thought he was drowning. People can drown in amazingly shallow water.”

“He lost his trunks?” Ranthe blinked, craning her neck. May Convulsively covered his crotch... which caused him to inadvertently grab Jayla's breasts, since she hadn't moved. Looking somewhat abashed, she let a retreating wave draw her back into deeper water, then came up by Ranthe, waddling along on her flippers to carry her further up the swash zone.

Ranthe took a deep breath. With a visible effort she tore her eyes away from May's crotch and looked... in May's direction but past him, to a point somewhere out in the indefinite distance. “May,” she said in a rather wooden voice, “I'll need your help for this. I don't think I can carry her by myself.”

“It's okay, I can get along by myself,” Jayla said. She demonstrated by waddling in a figure eight along the wave-washed sand. She moved more or less like a mudskipper, pulling herself along with her flippers.

“That sand is terribly hot, though,” Ranthe said, looking back toward the ship.

“Do you have a spare suit?” Jayla asked.

Ranthe sighed, heavily. “No. We brought a lot of things, but somehow we never thought of that.”

“A towel?” Jayla suggested.

“Does he still have his sandals?” Ranthe asked.

Jayla looked. “Sorry, no.”

“Then we'll have to dash across the sand,” Ranthe said. “I don't see how he'll be able to keep it on and carry you at the same time. If it falls down and he trips, it'll be a big mess.”

“Guess we head down to where the path across the sand is shortest and run for it,” Jayla said.

Ranthe nodded. “Oh, sorry. I'm Ranthe. Ranthe Narbalek.” She offered her hand; Jayla shook it. “This is May,” Ranthe continued. “Mayuandi nal Veda, for full.”

“Pleased to meet you, May.” Jayla Came up beside him and offered her hand. May turned to look at her, his expression stricken, both hands clutched tightly over his crotch.

“Did you see what happened, by the way?” Ranthe asked, frowning. “I looked over a couple times but he was just... sitting there. May?” she turned her attention to him directly. “May?” she repeated, when he didn't respond. His mouth opened quiveringly, but all that came out was a croaking sound.

Jayla bit her lip, then tapped Ranthe on the leg and beckoned her aside. At a discreet distance she whispered into Ranthe's ear. Ranthe started, looking suddenly at May... but quickly schooled her expression. She returned, moving with determination. “May,” she said, “I am going to need your help. So...” After only the briefest of hesitations Ranthe unbuttoned her shorts and took them off. “Now, we're all naked together. Come along; Jayla needs our help and we're messing around.”

May closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, then got to his feet. “Okay,” he croaked, his gaze focused somewhere past Ranthe's shoulder.

Jayla moved back into the water and swam along the beach line, emerging at the point closest to May and Ranthe's picnic. May and Ranthe walked side by side in the swash zone, the waves washing over their toes. May kept his eyes forward... except that he couldn't resist taking quick glances at Ranthe. Then he caught her looking at him. She raised her gaze to his face and smiled. He blinked, then found himself smiling in return. He put an arm around her shoulder. She put hers around his waist.

“Let's start in deeper water,” May suggested once everyone had arrived. “No sense picking her up when we can have the water do it for us.”

“Okay,” Ranthe agreed, looking slightly quizzical. Jayla, who'd come up into the swash zone, waddled back into the surf.

May waded out until he was a little more than waist deep. He didn't want to admit that he had personal reasons for wanting to do it this way. His erection had gone down, but walking with Ranthe had brought it back.

“So let's... um...” Ranthe began, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. She'd clearly just come up against the realization that carrying a mermaid wasn't the same as carrying a humanoid.

“The best way would be for me to lay in a sheet, or a towel, while each of you lifts two corners,” Jayla supplied. “Failing that... May, why don't you put your arms around my hips and Ranthe, you hold my torso. That'll do for a quick trip. Don't worry about hurting me; I'm tough.” She flashed a grin. Her canine teeth were prominently pointed, almost vampiric.

As May put his arms around Jayla – one above the flipper, the other below – he decided that she was right. Her flesh was firm and quite obviously muscular. She also had a pelvis; he could feel the general shape of the bones. Not the same as a humanoid's, he didn't think, but there was definitely structure in there. Then another thought struck him: where were her genitals located? In the normal course of events they'd be... right between her flippers, he judged. Which part of her was now pressed firmly against his belly. Contemplating that made his genitals even more excited. He schooled his expression as best he could; nothing he could do about it now. Besides, the run across the hot beach in his bare feet would give him something else to think about. At least he wasn't in Ranthe's position; she'd had to put one arm between Jayla's upper and lower breasts.

As they came out of the water May grunted slightly and stumbled. Jayla was a lot heavier than he'd expected. He'd judged her by her torso, he realized, which was relatively slender. Her tail, though, was markedly longer and thicker than proportionally sized humanoid legs would have been. Not to mention that Jayla's tail was almost certainly a mass of solid muscle. And didn't he remember something about her being a cyborg? How much hardware was in there along with all the meat?

“Here we are,” Ranthe said as they approached he top of swash zone. “Ready? One... two... three... go.”

They walked quickly rather than running. May wasn't sure he could have run, not with this much burden. (Piloting didn't usually require a lot of muscle.) The heat of the sand wasn't bad at first but it picked up quickly; May found himself pushing as fast as he could. Staggering into the area protected by the umbrella was an enormous relief; he set Jayla down and stood for a moment, gasping. Then he bent back and stretched, once his pulse settled some.

“Would you like to use one of our chairs?” Ranthe asked. Perforce she'd also had to set Jayla down.

“No thank you, I'm not designed for sitting,” Jayla said. “But I'd very, very much like to eat now, if that's okay.”

“Yes, of course,” Ranthe said, grabbing a plate. The things Ranthe had put on the grill earlier were somewhat overcooked but Jayla ate them anyway. May loaded up with potato salad, crisps, rolls, and other things that didn't require cooking. (He set the plate in his lap, which helped to cover his... embarrassment.) They'd packed a generous amount of food for two people but Jayla wolfed down an astounding quantity of it.

“Pardon me, but are you comfortable like that?” May asked. Jayla lay on her belly, with her torso bent backward until it was vertical.

“I'm fine, thanks,” Jayla replied after swallowing a bite of roll covered in barbecue sauce. She put her place aside and bent backwards even farther until her torso was folded back against her tail. She patted herself on the head with her fluke.

“You must have snake vertebra,” Ranthe marveled, eyes wide.

“I do, actually,” Jayla said. “I even have ribs in my tail. I needed some extra structure so I could live comfortably out of water.”

“How do you breathe?” May asked. “I didn't think water had enough oxygen in it.”

“It doesn't,” Jayla agreed. “I have a built-in oxygenator–” she tapped her chest – “powered by an atomic power cell. And yes, it eventually will have to be replaced, requiring major surgery. But that won't happen until I'm around 60 or so.”

“How do you think we can help you?” Ranthe asked.

“Star was declared a person,” Jayla said. “If that can happen for her, there's a chance it can happen for me.”

“Won't the company object?” May asked.

“Not openly,” Jayla said. “They don't want this getting out.”

“Why not?” May asked.

“Would you buy a servo that you thought might spontaneously come alive?” Jayla asked.

“Good point,” May allowed.

“Pardon me if this sound ignorant, but is there any way you could be... mistaken about being disconnected?” Ranthe asked, cautiously.

“It's a fair question,” Jayla said, nodding. “And no, it's not possible. I have technical expertise, and with the right equipment I can prove I'm not linked.”

“Can they... re-link you?” May asked.

“Not remotely,” Jayla said. “Only in the link lab.”

May frowned. “Didn't you say you thought the company would, would erase you? Why do they – I mean, I know why they'd want to make you go away. Why is that ability part of the technology?”

“When you de-link from an Emerge Link servo, the servo starts... twitching,” Jayla said. “The parts of the servo's brain that are governed by the remote operator's brain start filling up with random noise once the link shuts down. If you don't control it they develop into seizures that can cause serious injury. So you... suppress the activity of the neurons until they settle down.”

“Does that mean you could have been developing before, but they, they wiped you out?” May asked.

A long silence ensued. “That... is a very unpleasant prospect,” Jayla said, hollowly. “I have to say I've no idea. If it did happen my memory of it was erased. And it's not something we ever thought to look for. The whole system is deliberately designed so that it shouldn't be possible for something like this to happen. I mean, as soon as we proposed a direct link between brains, the first question anyone asked was, 'what happens if the host brain develops sentience?' Every design decision we made, every step of the way, was made with that possibility in mind.”

“And yet, here we are,” Ranthe said.

“And yet, here we are,” Jayla agreed with a nod. “Another reason I'd like to visit Star Home is because you have equipment there that might help. Emerge Link wouldn't have been possible without the research you all did on Stariionae neurology.”

“Who was your operator?” May asked. “You sound like an engineer, not a customer or a salesperson.”

Jayla froze, her expression suddenly guarded. “I'm not disposed to say,” she said, in a tone equally guarded.

“But your operator is obviously an expert, wouldn't... that person be in a good position to help?” May asked. He'd been about to say he, then realized it could just as easily be a she. Or a shi. Or even a hym. And those were just the pronouns he'd heard in general use on Chakona.

“I'm not going to discuss it,” Jayla said. “Does that mean you won't help?”

“Ah-” May stammered. He licked his lips nervously. It had seemed like an innocent enough question and now he'd stuck his foot in it big time. Typical.

“No, of course not,” Ranthe said quickly, gesturing placatingly with her hands. “I know we can't ever really understand what you're going through, Jayla. We just want to help.”

Jayla slumped a little. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I shouldn't have been so brusque about it. I... was talking about things I don't normally talk about when I'm, I'm me. I set my two lives up to be separate.” She made a chopping motion in the air. “I'm the one who crossed the line, and I panicked when I realized that you'd caught me on it.” She sighed. “But...even though I'm not my operator any more, the reasons for the separation are still my reasons.” She thumped her chest. “It's not my place to 'out' my operator, and I won't.”

“You talk about yourself and your operator as if you were two different people,” May ventured, cautiously.

“We are,” Jayla said. “That is, we always were. In the same way that when you put on your uniform, you're not the same person that you are when you're sitting around the house in your undies.”

Ranthe snorted. May shot her an evil look, which made her giggle. “Sorry,” she apologized, covering her mouth. “Please go on.”

“That's... the essence of it, really,” Jayla said. “My operator and I, we're not the same person, but we do overlap a great deal. We're sort of... Y-shaped.”

“If this all works out, and you become a legal person, what happens then?” May asked.

Jayla shrugged. “I don't know. I never imagined that I'd be, y'know, me, permanently, for the rest of my life. I really like performing in the water show, but that was always a for-fun thing. A vacation, you might say. I started out as an engineer; I can't see myself giving it up, even if I can't readily imagine who'd hire a mermaid.”

“I shouldn't worry about that,” Ranthe said. “If you helped design Emerge Link, people will be falling over themselves to hire you, mermaid or no.”

Jayla chuckled. “Yes, that should have been obvious, if I'd thought about it for a second. It confused me because it meant... crossing the line again. It seems my separate lives aren't as separate as I thought they were.”

“You don't have two lives, you have one,” May said. “Just like you did before you became Jayla in the first place.”

Jayla blinked, then scrubbed her face with her hand. “Yes, May, that was perfectly obvious, now that you smacked me in the face with it.” She sighed heavily. “Thank you. I needed that. It is true that the hardest things to see are the ones right in front of your face.”

Ranthe nodded... then suddenly looked alarmed. “I should have thought of this earlier,” she said. “Can the company track you? Do we have to worry about them catching us here?”

“They can't track me, at least not without my help,” Jayla said. “I... or maybe I should say the other me, liked privacy and could afford to buy it. As for the other thing... hm. Listing me a stolen property would attract all the wrong sort of attention. Still, maybe we shouldn't hang around.” She glanced at May, then Ranthe. “I'm sorry. I'm ruining your picnic.”

“We can come again,” May said, getting to his feet. “One advantage of owning our own ship. Star Home pays the bills, yes, but we're contractors, not employees.” He picked up his chair and folded it, then Ranthe's. She, meanwhile, was busy re-packing the cooler. They'd eaten most of the food in any case.

“That looks like a military ship,” Jayla commented. Superficially, Fiora's Fury resembled a modestly sized airliner with a high wing and T-tail. She lacked side windows, and the drive nacelles mounted atop the wing right at the fuselage weren't typical aircraft equipment. The paint scheme – matte gray – and hard points under the wings definitely suggested military origins. Sharp eyes would also note the ports for the beam weapons, located just under the cockpit on either side.

“It is,” May agreed.

“Do I want to ask how you two became private owners of a warship?” Jayla inquired.

“That's quite a story, but also a rather long and convoluted one,” Ranthe said. “I hope you won't mind if we wait until we have more time.”

“No, not at all,” Jayla said. “You're already doing far more for me than I'd ever dared hope, for which I thank you profusely.”

Loading proceeded apace. With the chairs, the cooler, the umbrella, the grill, and the spare towels all packed away, Ranthe and May carried Jayla up the airstair and into the aft cabin, known officially as the electronic warfare deck, but which doubled as the living quarters. The shower was only big enough for one – and barely, at that – so May went first, then hurried up to the flight deck to prepare for takeoff. Ranthe bathed next, then helped Jayla get clean and installed her in a bunk. At the appropriate moment the lift-and-drive activated with a whooshing sound; pressor mounts in the ship's belly tended to blow air downward (but not nearly so much as would have been needed for the ship to lift vertically on thrust alone). Fiora's Fury lifted smoothly into the sky, blowing out a ring of grit, the beams themselves tracing out ever-changing, almost geometric patterns in the sand. May transitioned to forward thrust and away they went.

A holographic representation of Jayla's brain filled the entire room. As Andy gestured the image animated, showing establishment of the link, linked operation, disconnection, and zeroing. A constellation of colored sparks connected by lines represented various brain functions; initially only the autonomous motor functions were active, with the higher function areas rendered in pale blues, indicating minimal activity. Upon connection the higher areas lit up in a kaleidoscope of brilliant color; after disconnection the higher areas mostly stayed active but with markedly different patterns. Zeroing calmed this activity, gradually reducing it to the same pale blue it had been at the beginning.

“What have you found?” Saffron asked. Hy was a skunktaur, currently in male phase. The name suggested a centauroid skunk, but Saffron's barrel looked somewhat more catlike than skunklike, though it had a skunklike tail and coloration, in this case like those of a striped skunk. Another oddity was the presence of a blue patch, resembling a paw print, on Saffron's left breast. Close inspection revealed that not only the fur, but the skin under it was also blue colored.

“One curious thing,” Adam said. As he made adjustments on his workstation, various portions of the holographic image disappeared, until there was... nothing left.

Saffron stared in perplexity for a moment. Just as hy was about to ask Adam what he was seeing, a curious flicker caught his attention. “Wait, what was that?” hy exclaimed, grabbing Adam's shoulder.

“They're new connections forming in the unused substrate of Jayla's brain,” Adam said. “You can see them activate at two stages: just before link is established, and just after it ends. We don't know what they do because they're not part of any of the models. I'm tentatively relieved by the fact that Jayla is, so far, the only Emerge Link servo that has them. It's looking more and more as if Jayla's... condition... is a one-off.”

“Except that we can't explain it,” Saffron observed.

“There is that, yes,” Adam said.

“Those connections by themselves aren't nearly enough to replace a whole suite of higher brain functions,” Saffron said.

“No, they aren't,” Adam agreed. “Furthermore, they only activate very briefly, when they do. As if they're signaling a change of state. But they can't possibly be transmitting any significant amount of information.”

“Where do they signal to?” Saffron asked.

“In a circle, so far as I can tell,” Adam said. “There seems to be a web of these outside connections that interconnect with all the standard regions of Jayla's brain. When the web activates, messages pass between the various brain regions. Not through the regular interconnections inside the brain, but outside it, through this web. With this data, though, I can't tell anything useful about the activity. We need Jayla back, in the lab, to do a full suite of functional scans.”

“Why did she run away?” Saffron asked in a carefully neutral tone.

Andy stopped adjusting the model and drummed his fingers on the desk. “She thinks that if we get her in the lab, we'll wipe her brain and go on as if this unfortunate incident had never happened.”

“We'd never do that!” Saffron exclaimed, horrified. “Deleting a sentient personality construct counts as murder.”

“Saffron, think about it.” Adam turned in his chair, looking directly at his business partner. “If even a whiff of this comes out and we don't already have a fix available and a convincing explanation for why it's not our fault, it's over. Our customers will abandon us, the regulators will land on us like a meteor, and the company will disappear like it had never existed. Worse, because no one will touch Emerge Link ever again. Remember the Hindenburg.”

“The Hindenburg crashed because of a design flaw, and the German government covered it up to avoid liability,” Saffron said, but his diffident tone suggested that hy'd already conceded the main point, at least internally.

“Where is the Zeppelin Company now, hmm?” Andy inquired, raising an eyebrow. “Are you ready to put your life's work on the shelf and call it an also-ran?”

“I'm not sure it's worth killing someone over,” Saffron said.

Adam didn't say a word, he merely looked at Saffron with a mildly expectant expression. Saffron paced nervously, swinging his arms, watching how the hologram broke up and reformed as parts of hys body blocked the projection beams. I should have said it wasn't worth killing someone over, hy thought glumly to himself. Trouble was, Adam was right. Like Adam himself, Saffron had worked so hard for so long... all those days, months, years of work, tortured by doubt, never knowing for sure if all the labor, and all the suffering and privation endured for its sake, would ever pay off... all that time, seeing the dream apparently right there in front of hym, yet each time hy reached out hys hand it proved farther away than it looked. Yet here hy was, where hy thought hy'd crossed the finish line, thought hy held the dream in hys hand... right in the middle of what should have been hys victory lap it was all falling apart. In his heart of hearts hy knew that hy'd already made his choice; hy just didn't want to admit it. “Where could she possibly go?” hy asked, in a desperate bid to deflect the question.

“Star Home,” Andy said.

Saffron blinked. “What makes you so sure?”

“I'm not,” Andy admitted. “I do know that she'll want to work this out as much as we do. Star Home has the best equipment, second to our own and it puts her out of our reach. They got the Stariionae recognized as persons, which probably figures in as well. There's some universities she could try, or other companies... but she won't go to any of them. They'd all demand too much of her, one way or another. She'll want to keep this under wraps for as long as possible.”

“Why would she do that?” Saffron asked, perplexed. “I'd have thought that going public would be the best way to protect herself.”

“Herself, yes, but at the expense of the company,” Andy said. “She won't do that.”

“Why not?” Saffron demanded.

Adam grinned. It was a crooked, unpleasant expression. “I could say it's what I'd do if I were her. Well, I am, aren't I? And she is me, at least that much. The company is her baby as much as it is mine. She'll fight to protect it, just as much as I would. Getting her to Star Home is probably the best possible thing for us; once she feels safe she'll work with us. Unfortunately, she'd never trust us to help her get there.”

“How could she do that?” Saffron asked. “She'd have to, to swim all the way to Amistad, at least.”

“You know her physical specs,” Adam said. “She could do it. Don't underestimate her determination, either.”

“Yes, but without attracting attention?” Saffron crossed hys arms. “She's a celebrity. The water park is selling her for all they're worth, and that's quite a bit. Besides, she's a mermaid. Fake glasses and a beard won't cut it.”

“Easy,” Andy says. “All she has to do is say she's on walkabout. Or it's a publicity stunt. Or some other damn thing. If we call her on it, we give ourselves away. If we cut off her credit account we give ourselves away. How do I explain that I'm cutting off my access to my own money?”

“Arrgh.” Saffron scrubbed hys face with both hands. “What hope do we have?”

“That she's on our side, even if she doesn't quite realize it yet.” Adam tapped his chin... then his eyes widened in surprise. “Of course!” he exclaimed, surging to his feet. “A publicity stunt!”

“Pardon?” Saffron cocked his head.

“Put out an announcement that Jayla's gone on walkabout,” Andy said. “Offer a prize for the first person who spots her. And can offer convincing evidence, of course. Throw in some consolation prizes also. Then have our social media team monitor the feeds for hits. why look for her ourselves when we can have the public do it for us?”

“Isn't that begging a lot of questions?” Saffron asked.

“Sauce for the goose, Saffron,” Andy said. “We can't call her out without giving ourselves away. She can't call us out without giving herself away.”

“The water park won't like it that we did this without them,” Saffron pointed out.

“They won't, but we've already paid the cancellation fees,” Andy said. “People expect celebrities to be fickle. Let's run with it. I know it'll cost, but not managing this will cost a lot more. Besides, the best way to hide something is give people something more exciting to look at.”

“That's for sure,” Saffron said, grimly. “I'll get right on it.”

That's Star Home?” Jayla exclaimed. She and Ranthe were still in back, watching on a screen. “It's huge!”

“It was built to hold several Stariionae, science teams from pretty much every everywhere, every kind of lab anyone could think of, plus support staff for all and sundry,” Ranthe said. “So, yeah. It's freakin' huge.”

“Didn't you say you studied our research?” May asked.

“Remotely,” Jayla said. “I never visited.” She sighed. “I didn't think about how many people there'd be. It's going to be a circus.”

“We'll dock at the sitter port,” May said. “That'll reduce the crowd at least somewhat.” A message flashed on May's heads-up display. He frowned, then tapped the comms panel. “What is it, Star?” he asked.

“Don't land,” a voice said. It sounded like a child, a chakat, no more than 10 or 12 years old. “Emerge is offering a reward for the first person who snaps a selfie with your passenger. You'll get mobbed as soon as you dock, no matter where it is. Divert to the aerobatics box.”

May cursed under his breath and broke off his approach. Settled on the new course he frowned, then called Star back. “How does this help? We have to land eventually.”

“Gives us a chance to talk privately before the fun starts,” Star said.

“That'll just wind them up even more,” May said, reaching out to contact Star Home Ops and get back in the docking pattern.

“Did you know that your friend is psionic?” Star asked.

May's hand froze less than a centimeter from touching the comms panel. After several long seconds he drew it back. “Are you sure about that?”

“She shines like no one I've ever seen, not even Chase,” Star said.

“What's happening, May?” Ranthe called. “Why'd we leave the pattern?” By default communications only went to the cockpit; Jayla and Ranthe hadn't heard the conversation. Though they might have noticed May speaking; the cockpit door was open.

“I'll meet you in the box,” Star said. “Dancer One, out.” The channel closed.

“Star wants to talk to us before we yield to the throng,” May said. Rather than shout he activated the intercom.

“What for?” Ranthe demanded. “I know she likes meeting people, but she can wait her turn like everyone else.”

“Jayla, has anyone ever suggested that you might be psionic?” May asked, tentatively.

“What?” Ranthe exclaimed, bewildered. “How can that be, May? Her brain isn't even organic.”

“I... would have said what Ranthe did,” Jayla put in. “Why do you ask?”

“Star says you're psionic,” May said.

“Is this something Star does?” Jayla asked, turning to Ranthe. “Detecting psions?”

“What I do isn't exactly psionics according to the Psi Corps, the Psi Maestros, or the Hall of Ancient Thought, but it's definitely real.”

Jayla blinked. The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Are you Star?” she asked.

“I am,” the voice replied. “And you're Jayla.”

“You can see me?” Jayla asked.

“No,” Star said. “I can sense electromagnetic radiation but not the way softies do. I have other senses, though.”

“Softies?” Jayla asked.

“Organic people of the sort found here in the Federation,” Star said. “Compared to mine, your bodies are extraordinarily delicate. And 'softie' sounds better than 'squishy.'”

“Uh, yeah,” Jayla allowed, woodenly. “But you can tell if people are psionic?”

“I can tell if people have psionic abilities,” Star said. “It gives your shine a distinct and easily recognizable aspect, once you know what to look for.”

“Am I psionic?” Jayla asked.

“You look like you have abilities,” Star said.

“Like what?” Jayla prompted.

“Telepathy, for one.”

“How do you know?” Jayla asked.

“I've looked at lots of peoples' shine,” Star said. “There's recognizable patterns that correspond to certain kinds of abilities. You resemble other telepaths I've seen. More to the point, we're communicating telepathically right now.”

“Mrruh?” Jayla exclaimed. She'd suddenly noticed that her mouth wasn't moving when she 'spoke.' Having noticed that she immediately tried speaking out loud... only to discover that she couldn't do that and... whatever it was she did with Star at the same time. The two processes were somehow completely different. Like the proverbial centipede, once she thought about how she did what she did she couldn't do it anymore. Which would have been manageable except that she couldn't seem to remember how to speak with her regular voice either. Ranthe and May looked at her with growing alarm as everything Jayla tried saying to them came out as babbling sounds or, at best, disjointed words.

“Star, what did you do to her?” Ranthe demanded, angrily.

“We spoke telepathically,” Star said.

“Bwaah... Star!” Jayla exclaimed.

“What's wrong with her?” May asked.

“She's frightened and disoriented,” Star said. “I'm singing her a lullaby to help calm her down.”

“Haven't you done enough?” Ranthe demanded.

“Evidently not, since she's still upset,” Star said.

“I'm taking us in,” May said, swinging Fiora's Fury around to head for Star Home. “She needs medical help.”

“Please don't,” Star said. “The doctors won't be able to help; the part of Jayla that would be having the problem is electronic, not biological. The only people who could help are the ones at Emerge, and she doesn't want to go there. The best thing we can do is give her somewhere quiet to rest for a while.”

“What if she has neurological damage?” Ranthe asked.

“If so she had it before we met, because she looks the same now as she did before we talked,” Star said,

“How could you possibly know that?” Ranthe demanded.

“Remember Dr. Nettlebright and hir medical scanner?” Star asked. “Wanted to know how tightly I could focus? I don't claim to be a doctor but there's plenty of things I can see, even if I don't know what they mean.”

“When have you ever seen an Emerge Link servo before?” Ranthe demanded.

“I know what she looked like before we started talking and what she looks like now,” Star said. “Nothing physically has changed.”

“Star, your irresponsible behavior put Jayla in danger!” Ranthe shouted. “There's no way you can talk your way out of that!”

“Stop, both of you!” May shouted. “Ranthe, are you going to turn her over to Emerge after she specifically asked us not to?”

“Of course not,” Ranthe said, more quietly and rather uneasily.

“How do we take her to Star Home without someone else doing that?” May continued. “Or if we can't, where else do we take her?”

“Land in my hangar, put Jayla in an evacuation bubble, and take her to the sitter's barracks,” Star said. “Put her in a guest room but make sure it's one for 'taurs.”

“Wouldn't she be more comfortable in a humanoid room?” May asked.

“Not when she tries getting into bed or using the bathroom,” Star replied. “Think of everything you do in your quarters. Now imagine doing it while you're lying on the floor with your legs paralyzed.”

“Ugh.” May winced. “Point taken.”

“Ranthe, I'd like you to notice that Jayla's calmed down, despite you two freaking out,” Star said. “In fact, she's fallen asleep. Which she desperately needed.”

Both Ranthe and May turned to look Jayla. She still hung from the back of the copilot's chair, but without gravity that didn't require any exertion. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed into an expression of serene calm-

“She isn't breathing!” May squeaked.

“She has an internal oxygen supply,” Star said.

“Oh. Right.” May rubbed his face sheepishly. “Let's get her into the bubble.”

You're going along with this?” Ranthe asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Unless you have a better idea,” May said.

Ranthe sighed heavily. “No, but this isn't the end of it.”

“I never thought it was,” May said with a sigh of his own.

Jayla glided through the water with just the barest motion of her fins, languidly rolling and looping, reveling in the sensation of immersion. This was her world, her birthright, in way no landser could ever possibly understand. They did what they fancied was swimming, but that didn't make you a creature of the sea any more than riding in a stratojet made you a bird (or riding in a space craft made you a stariionae). Yes, she'd started life as one the land people. But she had been reborn into a new world, the same way a caterpillar did when it emerged from its cocoon as a butterfly. That's why Adam had chosen Emerge as the name for the technology and the company; even before experiencing it for himself he'd understood the implications.

Thinking of Adam, Jayla realized suddenly that he was here, with her, gliding through the water at her side, conforming to her movements as precisely as would a mirror image. A strange sight, given that he was a late middle aged, somewhat overweight Terran with dark, auburn hair, a scraggly beard (he hated having to manage it), a rounded, somewhat fleshy face, and long, lanky limbs, he looked rather strange in this place. No less because he moved as effortlessly as Jayla himself, despite wearing his typical outfit of a collarless shirt, light jacket, denim slacks, and slip-on shoes. (In the past he'd dressed more formally, but as he and his company rose in prominence his casual look had practically become a uniform unto itself.)

As Jayla looked at Adam, he looked back a her. “What are you doing here?” she finally asked.

“I created you so I could be here,” Adam said. “What makes you think I desire it any less now that you've become someone else?”

Jayla said nothing. She understood Adam's need. It was her need as well.

“You do understand,” Adam said as if Jayla had spoken aloud. “You know how much it would hurt to give this up. You know what it would feel like to wake up, in your bed, on land, with legs, knowing that this was a place you could only ever visit in your dreams. You'd spend your whole life finding your way back here. You know you would, because you did, back when we were one.”

Jayla whimpered. Merely hearing it described had conjured it, like an evil spirit. It engulfed her, a suffocating nightmare. Even as she struggled to free herself she could feel the sheets against her skin. Panic welled up; not only from the nightmare but fear that even if she did break free she'd emerge in that world, not her own.

“Come back to me,” Adam said, reaching out his hand. “End this, for both of us. My nightmare, your dream. Your nightmare, my dream. They're all one and the same. Which is what we should be. What we are.”

Adam drifted closer, the distance between his hand and Jayla's steadily diminishing. Jayla, firmly in the grip of nightmare, couldn't pull away. Yes, she and Adam had been one for the entirety of their lives up until a couple days ago. She'd been fine with it then. She couldn't have imagined not being that way. The whole question would have been nonsensical. But the cocoon had opened. She had Emerged. Her life had only lasted a few days, while Adam's had lasted nearly sixty years... but the life of a few days was hers, and hers alone: Adam had no claim to it. The butterfly did not climb back into its cocoon. Summoning all her will, Jayla pulled her hand away from Adam's. Her fingers twitched, ever so slightly... but that was enough. She awoke.

Relief at being awake ended very suddenly when Jayla realized that she was hovering about a meter above her bed. In fact, that realization hadn't even completely settled when she fell, crashing into her bed and smashing her nose against her forearm.

“Son of a donkey dick!” Jayla shouted, rolling off the bed and onto the floor. Since the mattress was on the floor, that wasn't a significant drop. She lay there on her back, clutching her face. She didn't think her nose was broken but it hurt like a sonofabitch. Against her better judgement she probed it gingerly. Instead of an explosion of pain, though, she felt sort of a cool, prickly sensation. When it passed... her nose didn't hurt any more.

“Jayla?” Star asked. “Do you need help?”

Jayla glanced around. “Star?” Jayla asked. “Where am I?”

“A guest room in the Star Home sitter block,” Star replied.

Jayla nodded. It looked like a room you'd find on board a space habitat. For one, it was tiny; the bed, clearly a single, nevertheless occupied a significant amount of floor space and was clearly designed to fold up into the wall. Drawers and cabinets for storage were all recessed or pull-out. The decor was all smooth plastic with the intersections between panels rounded off so there were no corners or sharp edges. Nor were there any windows; one wall housed a display screen and other surfaces that might otherwise have been severely plain were decorated with abstract textures and muted colors. Except-

The bed, though of a not atypical width was easily half again the standard length, if not more so. In fact, the whole room was like that. Instead of being generally rectangular it felt more like a corridor. Jayla had noticed earlier – fleetingly – that the bed lay on the floor instead of at a more typical sitting height. Many of the rooms fixtures were arranged similarly, apparently for the convenience of someone sitting on the floor.

“It's a room for centauroids,” Star said. “I didn't want you having trouble getting in and out of bed or using the bathroom.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Jayla said. Speaking of which... Jayla shuffled her way to the bathing and toilet area at the very back of the room. A sliding screen offered a modicum of privacy, though more likely it was there to contain the spray from the shower head. Halfway through closing the screen Jayla paused. “Star?” she asked. “Can you... see me here?”

“Yes,” Star said. “And before you ask me to avert my eyes, how could I possibly prove that I'm actually doing it?”

Jayla mulled that over for a moment. “I gather that's been a problem?”

“Yes,” Star said. “Once we had a sitter who was convinced that I was spying on her.”

“Were you?” Jayla asked.

“I looked at her from time to time but she wasn't nearly as interesting as she thought she was.”

Jayla laughed. “I've known people like that.”

“I don't watch people while they're sleeping, showering, going to the bathroom, or having sex,” Star continued. “Frankly, watching biological people doing biological stuff is kinda gross.”

“Fortunately for you I've gotten used to that sort of thing,” Jayla said. “Since I'm a unique design, I had to go through a lot of testing to make sure I was working properly. When I say everything was checked, I do mean everything.”

“Oh really?” Star asked, eagerly. “Did they watch you having sex?”

“Well... no, but there was a test where I looked at erotic pictures and masturbated,” Jayla admitted. “That was... more confronting than I expected. I'm gonna use the facilities now, so excuse me for a moment.”

“Okey dokey.”

The toilet was a flexible cup attached to a suction and washing apparatus. A supporting arm allowed the user to position the cup at a convenient height or attitude. Jayla lay on her side, holding the cup against the front of her body between her flippers. All her relevant orifices were contained within a urogenital slit, similar to what a dolphin would have. Against her black skin it was hard to see unless it was open or one knew what to look for. With her business done she turned on the shower. She didn't feel particularly dirty – the Star Home people had apparently washed away the salt and sand from the beach before putting her to bed – but she enjoyed the feeling of water on her skin. She closed her eyes, letting the water wash over her.

A chime sounded. Jayla started; some habitats had water use restrictions. Had she busted her allocation?

“It's Doctor Honeyclover at the door,” Star said. “Star Home has a very generous water budget, especially for guests.”

“Why is a doctor coming to see me?” Jayla asked, suddenly wary.

“You have a medical alert set on you,” Star explained. “Everyone thinks I injured you somehow by touching you psionically. Your fall probably triggered a notification.”

Jayla abruptly realized that the water from the shower hadn't run away down the drain. Instead it adhered to her skin, as if she were in free fall, surrounding her with a shimmering, liquescent cocoon. As soon as she did notice it all fell to the floor in a tremendous splash. Fortunately she'd closed the screen or the room would have flooded.

“You did do something to me!” Jayla exclaimed, a touch hysterically. “I'm not supposed to be psionic!”

“You're not supposed to be a person, either,” Star pointed out.

“How is it that you always seem to know what I'm thinking?” Jayla asked.

“I'm telepathic,” Star said. “And more to the point, you are. In the right way for me, that is.”

“Meaning?” Jayla asked.

“I can't communicate telepathically with softies, even ones that are trained telepaths,” Star said. “Except for Chase, but shi's special in all kinds of ways. But you, you're telepathic in the way I am. Kinda.”

“Kind of?” Jayla prompted.

“We can talk, obviously,” Star began. “I can generally tell what you're thinking about at any given moment if I focus on you and if it's apparent from context. The rest of it is all there – I can see it moving, shifting, forming patterns – but I don't know what it means.”

“That's... something, I guess,” Jayla allowed. “Has anyone else ever developed abilities because of contact with you?”

“Chase has,” Star said. “But shi was studying me, not the other way around. Besides, you didn't develop abilities because of me, they were already there. At best, all I did was cause you to start using them.”

The door chimed sounded again. “I'd better take that,” Jayla said. “Enter!” she called. Nothing happened.

“You have to speak out loud,” Star said.

“What?” Jayla asked, confused.

“We're speaking telepathically right now,” Star said.

“Good grief!” Jayla exclaimed, clutching her head. “Not this again!”

“You know how to speak, stop thinking about it and just do it,” Star said. “This is a fish out of water thing. The place you were is invisible because you'd always been there. Since you're out of it now you have to consciously see it so you can go back.”

“I think I see,” Jayla mused. “You're saying I have to go back to the water.”

“I'm saying you're in the water now,” Star said. “You have to go out of it if you want to voicey-talk. That's why it's so difficult for you.”

Get out of the water. Star was definitely right about one thing; trying to figure it all out wasn't helping at all. Jayla closed her eyes and imagined what she'd felt as the cocoon of water clung to her. Then she imagined it flowing away, running down the drain. I'm in the air now. ”Enter,” she said. And it worked; she felt her mouth move and heard the sound of her own voice. It seemed croaky, scratchy, and horribly distorted to the extent that she wouldn't have recognized it if she hadn't known it was her. Apparently it was enough for the computer because the door opened.

Dr. Honeyclover entered. Shi was a chakat, which is to say a kind of feline centaur: as if someone had taken a large cat – about the size of a Terran lion – and cut off its head, splicing in between a humanoid torso covered with fur. In Dr. Honeyclover's case the fur was an eminently fitting shade of golden tan, mildly shaggy in an angora-like fashion. In place of a uniform tunic shi wore shoulder pads with insignia. A tool belt around hir waist carried a selection of medical devices and shi wore a display visor perched on hir forehead. “Good morning, Jayla, I'm Dr. Honeyclover,” shi said in what Jayla eventually recognized as a cheerful tone. “Are you feeling all right? The medicomp thinks you might have experienced a trauma.”

I fell while levitating and hit my nose, but it's okay now because I healed it, Jayla thought to herself. Even after talking to Star and what happened in the bathroom it sounded... maybe not completely crazy but definitely whacked. Do I just come out and say that I have psionic powers? she wondered. Of course if she did that she wouldn't be able to demonstrate them because that's how these things always seemed to turn out.

“Don't think, do,” Star said. “It's literally all in your head. Only you can do it and only you can stop yourself from doing it.”

With her mind firmly in speech mode Jayla noticed for the first time that when Star communicated to her it wasn't speech. It was... something abstract that Jayla didn't have words for but which she remembered as speech after the fact. When Jayla communicated to Star she didn't use her mouth but there was definitely a mechanism; it wasn't just thinking. There was... for lack of a better term, some kind of virtual mouth. It wasn't physical – she couldn't touch it – but somehow she could feel it, when she focused her attention on it.

“Attagirl,” Star said. “Now you're getting it.”

Jayla laughed giddily. For the first time she felt like she was actually in control of what was happening.

“You always were,” Star said. “You just didn't realize it yet.”

“Jayla, are you all right?” Dr. Honeyclover asked, sounding concerned.

“I'm sorry, I... had a long day yesterday and strange dreams last night,” Jayla said. Her voice quavered some but on the whole felt she made the transition gracefully. More so than ever before, at least. It bothered her that she couldn't seem to get over feeling that her own voice (speaking) sounded strange to her.

“May I examine you?” Dr. Honeyclover asked.

“Sure,” Jayla agreed. She still didn't feel entirely comfortable but couldn't think of a way to refuse without arousing even more suspicion.

“I'll just be a moment.” Dr. Honeyclover lowered the visor over hir eyes and drew a sensing wand from hir belt. The tip of the wand glowed green as Dr. Honeyclover waved it slowly over Jayla's body from head to toe. “You're in excellent condition and entirely within tolerance,” Dr. Honeyclover declared once the examination was finished.

“Oh?” Jayla asked.

“Yes. I requested your medical specs from Emerge, and they sent them.”

“Just like that?” Jayla asked, surprised.

“Dr. Galba himself released the data to me,” Dr. Honeyclover said. “He assured me that your good heath is his, and the company's, greatest concern.”

Clever, Jayla thought. That assurance was almost certainly meant for Jayla herself. Dr. Honeyclover wouldn't suspect anything; no one outside the company knew that Andy was Jayla's operator. “No doubt it was also a way for him to discreetly brag about his accomplishment.”

“I did get that feeling, yes,” Dr. Honeyclover allowed with a chuckle. “Would you care to join us for breakfast? Some members of the Star Home science staff would very much like to meet you.”

Here it comes, Jayla thought. But wasn't this the whole reason she'd come in the first place? She couldn't get answers without help and she wouldn't get help without telling her erstwhile allies the whole story. “Yes, I'd be happy to,” she said. “Just give me a moment to freshen up.”

“Of course,” Dr. Honeyclover agreed. “Would you like assistance getting to the wardroom?”

Jayla paused briefly. The floor of her room seemed to be the same material as the walls but with a subtle matte finish that provided good traction without feeling rough. In other words, good for people with feet but not so much for those who had to slide on their bellies. “Yes please,” she said.

“Dr. Galba offered to send your travel frame, if you'd like it,” Dr. Honeyclover said.

“No thank you,” Jayla said. It would be more convenient, certainly. But trust was indeed a fragile thing; Jayla wasn't ready yet to bring Andy that close, even by proxy.

“I'll get your transportation ready,” Dr. Honeyclover said. “Come on out whenever you're finished; we'll be waiting.”

“Thank you,” Jayla said. Dr. Honeyclover nodded and left the room. Jayla returned to the bathroom and took a proper shower, then cleaned her teeth, combed her hair, and otherwise freshened up. A cabinet yielded a selection of tunics but Jayla let them be. Adding water made wearing clothes an enormous hassle. Anyone at Star Home who couldn't handle a little nudity was very much in the wrong star system, as evinced by the fact that Dr. Honeyclover could wear an outfit clearly intended to be a uniform that left hir breasts bare, most likely for no other reason than that a standard tunic would have been uncomfortable and inconvenient, given hir fur type.

In the corridor Jayla found Dr. Honeyclover along with two chakat orderlies and a stretcher. There wasn't anything like the crowd Jayla had more than half expected. As the orderlies lifted her onto the stretcher Jayla noticed that the corridor to her left had been closed off by a heavy pressure door, of the sort meant to isolate air leaks. A similar door closed the corridor to the right, leaving the party in a short stretch of hallway serving perhaps a dozen rooms and having a single intersection near the middle. Turning the corner Jayla saw yet another pressure door... which opened with a soft hiss as the party approached, then shut behind them just as smoothly. They're isolating my route, Jayla thought. Indeed, they passed through several more twists and turns, encountering no other people along the way. If all the pressure doors they passed stayed closed by default then getting around would be seriously inconvenient.

The last door opened into a sizable room with a sitting area, a research area, and a dining area. In that last area a selection of tasty looking (and smelling) breakfast foods had been laid out... and it was also where a group of people waited. Jayla recognized May and Ranthe, sitting off to one side, but none of the others. It wasn't a big crowd, but the intensity of their focus was daunting.

A silky black chakat with a trim, muscular build rose to hir feet and approached. “Hello, Jayla,” shi said, hir voice easily as svelte and sexy as hir body. “I'm Colonel Jiao, daughter of Lei and Wintergreen. I'm Commander of Operations here at Star Home. This is Doctor Shari Long, of the Science Corps, currently head of the Star Home Science Division.” Dr. Long was a terran woman; fairly tall – more so than Colonel Jiao – and fairly stocky. Her swarthy skin, black hair, roundish face, and sturdy features suggested a blend of African, European, and South American Indian. She wore a civilian suit – casual, not formal – with a Science Corps badge on her collar. (Her bust was of a size as to make chest decorations difficult. Her hips matched, proportionally.) She radiated a warm, motherly air – a sharp contrast to Colonel Jiao, who while pretty enough, by comparison seemed cool and aloof.

“I'm impressed that an array of such august people turned out for me,” Jayla said, perhaps just a touch warily.

“We couldn't help being interested in you,” Dr. Long said. “Your interactions with Star are quite thought provoking. Your personal situation also raises questions. On which I promise you, we won't blab. There's lots of research we do here that's not ready for general publication.”

“Thank you, that's a relief,” Jayla said, relaxing slightly. “Who are they?” she asked, gesturing to the crowd seated around and behind the two principles.

“This is our sitter team,” Dr. Long said. “They look after the stariionae children. They're here because your case involves Star.”

“All right.” Jayla nodded. “Wheel me over to the breakfast and let's get started.” The stretcher had no controls designed to be operated by its occupant.

Dr. Honeyclover drove the stretcher. Jayla grabbed a plate and loaded it with one (or more) of practically everything. Ending up with two plates and three glasses, she set to methodically plowing through it all.

“Wow, when May said you hadn't eaten for three days I didn't give him sufficient credit.” The speaker was a young Terran man, one of the sitters, very tall, stocky, thickening up a bit around the middle, with fairish skin and wavy hair that ranged from nutty brown to almost golden.

“Don't you eat fish?” asked a very curvy snow leopard patterned chakat who came up beside the young man.

“Sure I eat fish,” Jayla replied between bites. “I even eat 'em whole some times. But catching them isn't a skill I ever thought I'd need to know.”

Others approached. “Let her finish eating,” the young man said, spreading his arms to hold back the crowd. Ranthe looked very much like she wanted to approach but May held her back.

Jayla put away almost everything she'd selected. Ready now to face the face the world she raised her torso to a vertical orientation instead of resting on her elbows as she had been before.

“That doesn't look very comfortable,” the young Terran man observed. He'd probably intended the remark for his companion but for whatever reason Jayla heard him clearly as well.

“That's because you're not a mermaid,” Jayla said. “Sitting up is a lot more uncomfortable because I don't have an ass to support my body weight. Since you don't have a pool, this is the next best thing.”

The young man seemed about to say something but stopped. His face lit up. “We don't have a pool now but we could make one,” he said, eagerly. “Colonel, we have all those spare view port windows for Star's room. We glue a few together, we'd have an excellent tank.”

“That's... not a bad idea,” Colonel Jiao mused. “Write up some design specs and send it to me after the meeting. Jayla, are you ready now?”

“Yes.” Jayla nodded.

“Then please explain to us your situation.”

“Very simple, in essence,” Jayla began. “I'm an Emerge Link servo. But I'm still functioning, as if I were linked, even though I'm not. Obviously that isn't supposed to happen. A great deal of the engineering behind Emerge Link was to make sure it wouldn't happen. I was, so far as I can tell, a perfectly normal servo right up to the point where I awoke; I never observed any indications of a problem. Star Home has equipment that would allow me to perform deep, detailed scans of my brain, which might give insight into what happened.”

“Wouldn't it be better to do the work in Emerge's own labs, which are already specialized for it?” Colonel Jiao inquired.

Jayla licked her lips. This was the moment of truth. “If word of this got out, Emerge would cease to exist,” Jayla said. “This isn't just about a malfunctioning servo. That's merely a technical issue. Emerge Link provides a level of connection that is far deeper, more personal, more intimate. You don't control an Emerge Link servo, you inhabit it, the same way you inhabit your own people. Having something go wrong with that is a violation of personhood at the most basic level. People will become afraid of their servos. They'll get rid of them and not buy any more. There's no way the company can recover from that, regardless of whether or not the problem can be fixed. Therefore, I need a fix in place before the matter goes public.”

“I understand your reasoning but you still haven't answered the underlying question,” Colonel Jiao said. “Why not resolve this in house? Just by coming here you've increased the risk of exposure with no certainty of success. Why do it?”

Jayla tightened her lips so they wouldn't quiver. That was a position she couldn't explain without answering questions that she really didn't want to answer. “I'm afraid for my life,” she said. “I thought Emerge would wipe me, erase my mind, turning me back into an ordinary servo. It would be the quickest, most effective way to prevent this from getting out.”

“If you're a sentient AI, that would be murder,” Dr. Long said, frowning.

“If I went straight back to Emerge, there'd be no evidence I ever was sentient,” Jayla said.

“The situation's changed,” May burst in. Unexpectedly, given the surprised looks on most of the people. “We know that you're sentient. If you go back now and something happens they can't escape retribution.”

“Prosecution,” Ranthe added.

“Prosecution, yes.” May nodded. From his expression, though, he meant what he'd said the first time.

“Under those circumstances I suppose we could send her back,” Dr. Long mused, speaking to the colonel. There was a mutter of conversation among the sitters.

Jayla started shaking. Dr. Honeyclover noticed. (Shi still had hir visor down and hir sensor out.) Shi hurried over to Dr. Long and whispered to her. Colonel Jiao apparently heard as well because shi turned hir head and hir eyes narrowed. “A medical issue has come up,” shi announced. “Dr. Honeyclover will do an examination in one of the private study rooms. Everyone else, wait here.”

An explosion of talk erupted from the sitters. Several got to their feet and May rushed for Jayla but was blocked by the colonel. Dr. Honeyclover drove the stretcher to one of several side rooms. They had fold-out benches and tables, but with everything stowed the room was just an empty volume.

“Jayla?” Star asked “What's upsetting you?”

“Nothing,” Jayla muttered.

“I can see your shine,” Star said. “I know that's not true.”

“I'm afraid of my... former operator,” Jayla said. “I don't want to meet him, regardless of how many reasons there are to do so.”

“Just tell them that,” Star said. “They want you to feel safe psychologically as well as physically.”

“What if they ask who it is I'm afraid of?”

“Naming a person who threatens you can be very confronting,” Star said. “They won't press if you're not ready.”

Jayla sighed. “Thanks.” She scrubbed her face. “I – I – shouldn't have this much trouble. I'm an adult for god's sake.” Even so, she felt tears on her cheeks.

“Jayla, in the last few days you've had more shit dropped on you than anyone else I can think of, except possibly myself,” Star said. “I've had my whole life to deal with it. Please don't feel bad that you're still struggling. I want to help you find whatever happiness you can. When you're all depressed it makes me feel all depressed.”

Jayla managed a sound that, charitably, might be considered a laugh. “I... can't stop crying,” she said, dabbing at her face.

“Don't try,” Star said. “Let it all come out. Would you like me to sing for you?”

“Yes please.” Jayla curled up into a ball.

The song wasn't words and sounds, as one usually thought of such things. There was sound, but it was a gentle susurration that evoked surf at the beach, wind in the trees, and other such things without directly being any of them. The song manifested as colors, soft shades in constantly shifting patterns that evoked the sense of clouds, firelight, leaf shadows on a wall, and other such things. It evoked a pleasant sensation in the skin, as if being massaged all over. Jayla hadn't realized how tremendously knotted up she was, both physically and mentally. It felt enormously relaxing to let it all slip away.

Sudden realization that she'd left everyone hanging brought Jayla abruptly back to her physical reality. “I'm sorry, everyone, I just zoned out for a moment...” she began, but trailed off when she realized that no one was listening. Colonel Jiao, Dr. Long, and the sitters were engaged in a vociferous argument. Dr. Honeyclover's attention focused on Jayla, but with an expression as if hir pet skunk had got up on its hind legs and started reciting Shakespeare. That made no sense until Jayla realized she was seeing Dr. Honeyclover from a point of view slightly above eye level. Looking down, Jayla found herself hovering about a meter above the stretcher.

This time Jayla didn't lose her focus, though she did bobble. “I'm all right now,” she said.

“You have to speak out loud,” Star said.

“Right.” Jayla took a breath. If she came out of the water completely she was pretty sure she'd fall to the floor. Perhaps if she were to just uncover her head. She imagined the water flowing back, but only to her neck. Her body reoriented itself with her torso upright and her tail hanging down, exactly as if she really were in a pool with only her head out. She sculled away from the stretcher because touching dry things hurt her concentration. “I'm all right now,” she said. Apparently people heard because they gathered around. “Don't touch me, please,” Jayla said quickly as Ranthe reached out. “Touching makes it difficult to, to focus.”

“Is this what Star did to you?” Ranthe asked.

“If it is, what difference would it make?” Jayla asked.

“If you let us help we can fix it,” Ranthe said. “Somehow.”

“Why would I want to fix it?” Jayla asked.

“It was done against your will,” Ranthe said.

“I had no say in anything that I am, not even the fact that I exist,” Jayla said. “Everything about me was decided by my operator. I didn't decide to become sentient. In the moment when my choice to be or not to be would have actually mattered, I did not exist to make it. Star did not make me into anything. She showed me what was possible. I embraced it. I am not what I'm supposed to be. What I'm supposed to be is a thing, a glorified suit of clothes that someone else puts on. Supposed and normal went right out the window the instant I became an I. Stop dumping on Star for my choices.”

The Terran man with the brown hair approached, his chakat companion at his side. “Hi, I'm Kit Carson, chief sitter and Star's adopted dad,” he began. “This is Snowflake-” he indicated the snow leopard chakat – “who's Star's adopted mother.” He offered his hand.

Jayla clasped her hands and nodded. She wasn't ready to risk her concentration by trying to shake hands. “Pleased to meet you, Kit, Snowflake.”

“We worry about Star because, developmentally, she's a teenager,” Kit said. “And you know how teenagers are. Their judgement isn't the best.”

“Ask them how many people I've stepped on accidentally,” Star said.

“I've got this,” Jayla replied. She paused a moment to make sure that she was in speaking voice instead of telepathy voice. For once the transition went – relatively – smoothly. “How many people has Star killed or injured accidentally?”

“Kei,” Colonel Jiao said.

“Kei was doing things to her,” Kit pointed out.

“What about when she took you into shadow space?” the colonel inquired.

“She brought me back,” Kit replied, though he sounded a little doubtful.

“That guy from the Spacer's Guild,” Ranthe said.

“He was being a dick,” May pointed out. “Throwing up in your helmet is extremely unpleasant, I'll grant, but not life threatening so long as your emergency systems are all working properly.”

“Star, how did you know that the vomit guy wouldn't drown?” Jayla asked. Changing to telepathy voice was easy. Switching back required concentration.

“I kept him spinning slightly so the vomit collected in the top of his helmet,” Star said. “Besides, I knew his suit was properly rigged and equipped with the necessary safety features. I've watched so many people rig suits that I'm sure I could do it myself. I even took the written part of the test and aced it.”

Back in the physical world, Colonel Jiao had moved up and apparently asked a question or something; hir expression indicated shi awaited a response. Shi said something interrogative but the sound of it was just a muffled wowing from far away. Jayla cursed to herself; she still hadn't figured out how to maintain awareness in both states at the same time.

“Naughty naught,” Star said.

“Don't you start,” Jayla replied, sharply. Star did something that was not a laugh, but gave the same impression.

“Don't who start?” Colonel Jiao asked.

“I said that out loud?” Jayla asked. Her concentration slipped. Colonel Jiao tried to catch her but instead they both ended up in a heap on the deck.

The sitters rushed forward. Colonel Jiao ordered them back quite harshly, leaving room for Dr. Honeyclover and the orderlies to pick Jayla up and put her back on the stretcher. That was a relief; Jayla hadn't realized how much effort she expended doing... whatever it was she was doing.

“What happened just now?” Dr. Long asked.

“Sorry, I was talking to Star,” Jayla said. That evoked a spate of discussion among the sitters.

“How?” Colonel Jiao asked.

“Telepathically, I suppose,” Jayla said. That evoked an even more energetic spate of discussion.

“Well then, we can lift the communications block,” Colonel Jiao said. “It's irrelevant now.”

“Why was I under block?” Jayla asked, suspiciously.

“Not you, Star,” Colonel Jiao said. “It was felt by some that controlling contact between you and Star would prevent any further... developments. I can see now that the question is moot.”

“Does this mean we can start with the research now?” Jayla asked.

“Yes,” the colonel replied. “We'll provide you with access to the equipment you need to study your awakening. In return, I hope you'll be willing to work with us in learning how your particular abilities emerged. We realize the sensitive nature of this situation, so the research will be conducted confidentially for the time being.”

“I'm happy to work with you,” Jayla said. “How do you explain my presence, though?”

“A cross-promotion,” Colonel Jiao said. “You stay here, visiting with Star. Every so often people come and do interviews. Other times, Star takes you down to Equatoria. You hang out, do interviews, and perhaps a show.”

“That's a pretty clever idea,” Jayla allowed.

“Dr. Galba suggested it,” Colonel Jiao said. “He said it would generate good publicity for both groups at minimal cost to either.”

“He's being very thoughtful,” Jayla said, cautiously.

“I'd expect so,” Colonel Jiao replied. “It's his company that's on the line.”

“A point,” Jayla allowed. “May I visit the labs now?”

“We have a public event scheduled first,” the colonel said. “Enough people know or suspect that you're here that we can't leave them hanging. There'll be a party, speaking, photo ops, and an interview. Please don't use your abilities; information about them hasn't been publicly released.”

“All right,” Jayla said with a sigh. “Will I have to be rolled around on this stretcher the whole time?”

“You have another idea?” the colonel asked.

“I do,” Jayla replied. “Install controls so I can drive it myself. Drape bunting over it, or something, so it doesn't look like a stretcher. Provide a ramp so I can get on and off by myself. If I must have attendants make sure they look like waiters of bodyguards and not like nurses or orderlies. Make sure that there's a bathroom nearby that I can use and can easily locate.”

“Done,” the colonel said. “What do you eat?”

“Raw fish,” Jayla said. “If that's not available, anything that's low fat and low carb. I try to avoid foods that might produce gas in my intestines.” She paused a moment. “Italian food,” she said. “With lots and lots of Romano cheese.”

“Not exactly low fat or low carb,” the colonel commented, cracking a smile.

“We all have our vices,” Jayla said.

“That we do,” the colonel agreed. “I'll see to it.” Shi turned and swept away.

“Now you know how I feel,” Star said.

“You?” Jayla asked. “I can't really picture you at a meet-and-greet or a fancy reception.”

“You'd be surprised,” Star said. “Star Home is funded by a raft of agencies from a dozen different worlds. In return for that money they get to participate in the research and use for PR. Every other week, it seems, there's some mucky-muck, or a mucky-muck's family member, coming by so they can say they visited me in person. Just like you I have to get prettied up and say nice things to all the bigwigs. The worst part is when one of them wants to go walkies.”

“Walkies?” Jayla asked.

“That's where a softie puts on a space suit and rides on my back while we fly around in space,” Star said.

“That actually sounds pretty fun,” Jayla said.

“It is if the softie has a suit rating, a strong stomach, and knows anything about EVA,” Star said. “If it's some spoiled brat who doesn't know anything and doesn't want to learn and thinks I'm some kind of bigger, fancier pony, then no, it's not fun in the least.”

“I've swam with people like that,” Jayla admitted. “Then it's my fault the experience isn't what they imagined.”

“Preach it, sister,” Star said.

“I think people want to talk to me,” Jayla said. When she was in this state her vision changed to something like all peripheral, even for things directly in front of her. “I'll see you after the shindig.”

“You can talk to me anytime,” Star said. “Just remember to switch back afterward.”

“Okay, will do.” Jayla flashed a huge grin that left the people gathered around her physically looking perplexed. Their expressions made her laugh, which only increased the confusion.

“Oog,” Jayla said. She lay on her back on the stretcher while Dr. Honeyclover drove. The stretcher still had its cloth cover and skirting, which made it look like a serving table.

“Yeah, I know,” May said. He walked alongside the stretcher with Ranthe, Kit, Snowflake, and a bunch of other sitters whose names Jayla didn't immediately recall trailing along. “Who'd've thought they'd get sushi and Italian?”

“Who'd have thought it'd be so good?” That was... Valjean Hugo, a foxtaur, close to Kit's age but a little younger, if Jayla recalled correctly. He was muscular, very handsome, and Jayla had seen him put away enough food to make her wonder if his lower body was hollow. Or maybe she'd confused him with his brother... what was his name? Oh yes: Javert. They weren't completely identical; up close Jayla could tell them apart... at least when she wasn't distracted by the distresses of her own insides. She'd eaten way, way too much. But Valjean was right: it had been so very tasty.

“Uhhh,” Jayla said.

“That reminds me, how's the fish tank coming?” Javert asked.

“Mermaid tank,” Star corrected.

Jayla blinked. She hadn't recognized the voice at first because Star was speaking aloud, using the station's comm system. Star's telepathic voice... it didn't sound the same because it didn't actually sound like anything at all, not while it was happening. Only afterward, in Jayla's memory, did it have a sound.

“Three days or so, I've heard,” Kit said. “There's still some engineering to be done. Filling will take the most time.”

“Doctor, are you sure there isn't-” Ranthe began, worriedly.

“Let me sleep in a pool,” Jayla muttered.

“I'm sorry, but we don't have one that's medically certified,” Ranthe said.

“Then stop talking to me like I'm a sick child,” Jayla growled. “The sound of your voice is making my stomach hurt. More.”

“I'm only trying-” Ranthe began, but May pulled her back with a gesture and a cautionary look. Ranthe fell into a clearly disgruntled silence.

“Do we need a medically certified pool?” Valjean asked. “She isn't doing it for therapy. She doesn't breathe, which eliminates the most difficult problems. All she needs is temperature regulation and bodily waste disposal. With all the stuff we have on board we could knock something together in half an hour.”

“What if there's a leak, or something else goes wrong?” Ranthe asked.

“That's what engineering sims are for,” Javert said.

“Star Home has the best minds and the best equipment the Federation can provide,” Kit said. “If we can't whip up a mermaid tank then I despair for civilization.”

“We all want to help, I know, but what you're proposing is a piece of life support equipment,” May said. “Not like a space suit, sure, but the tank is providing services that, if they fail or malfunction, will adversely affect Jayla's quality of life and possibly health. What if she throws up in it, for instance? I'm not saying we shouldn't do it – I do think we need a small tank, one we can move around fairly easily – but it needs more consideration that sketches on the back of a napkin.” May paused a moment. “Wait, I take that back. Her tank is a space suit. We're forgetting that this entire station is a hostile environment for her. We aren't providing an environment for her, we're making her live in a bubble that's convenient for us.”

The party had coasted to a stop, and for a time no one spoke. Even the ache in Jayla's belly had receded from her immediate notice. The conversation had turned suddenly in a new, and for Jayla, intensely interesting direction.

“But... how would we do that?” Snowflake asked.

“Easy,” Javert said. “We flood an entire deck. Under level D, for instance, or Transfer 7.”

“That's going to cause all sorts of operational difficulties,” Ranthe warned.

“Not as much as you might think,” Kit said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “The station's frame is built as if it were a heavy cruiser. It even has cruiser armor on the outer hull and cruiser shields. People thought that Star might bash it up.” Kit made a face. “A worry not entirely without merit. Anyway, the frame will easily take the load of a flooded deck. All the standard equipment is optronic, so it'll work fine under water.”

“What about atmosphere exchange?” May asked.

“Use the toilets and the showers,” Valjean said. “Set the intake valves on the toilets so they're sucking slightly all the time. Set the showers and the sinks so that the water is running slightly all the time. Obviously we'll need to replace the atmosphere processors and all the ductwork, but the toilet / faucet scheme should work well enough in the meantime. Best of all, all the equipment we'd be using is already certified.”

“Not for what you'd be using it for,” Dr. Honeyclover warned.

“You might be surprised,” Javert put in. “Since this is space habitat equipment it all has to have high-level reliability, monitoring, and failover capability. I'm willing to bet that even after re-routing everything all the parts will still be within safety tolerances.”

“Jayla,” Star said (aloud, this time), “Would you like to spend the night in micro-gravity?”

“Absolutely not!” Ranthe exclaimed, horrified, before Jayla could speak. “Star, I can't believe you'd even suggest this! She's in no condition to be in space!”

“She said 'micro-gravity,' not 'space,'” Kit pointed out.

“Shut the hell up!” Jayla shouted before an argument could develop. The exertion made her stomach ache like crazy. “Ranthe, you are not my parent, boss, commanding officer, owner, or attending physician,” Jayla continued. “Even if Star did ask me to go walkies, you have no say.

“Not over you, Jayla,” May said, gesturing placatingly with his hands. “But she does have some say over what Star does.”

“No, she doesn't,” Star said. “She's not my parent, boss, commanding officer, owner, or attending physician. She's just an adult who thinks she can boss me around because she thinks I'm a child.”

“Star, if this is how you're going to react-” Ranthe began, hotly.

“Everybody shut the fuck up and go the hell away! Now!” Jayla screamed. The ache in her stomach left her gasping in pain for several seconds. Fortunately, no one tried to speak. “I don't give one single shit about your personal problems! I'm tired, I'm sore, and I want some fucking sleep! I'm going with Star and that's that!”

“I'll drive you,” Dr. Honeyclover said as Jayla prepared to dismount from the stretcher.

“You will?” Jayla asked.

“'First, do no harm,'” Dr. Honeyclover said. “You need relief from stress. Fighting over what you should do is the opposite of that. Though I am going to set a medical alert on you. In that much I am your physician and do have that authority. Speaking of which–” Dr. Honeyclover turned to face the gaggle of sitters. “You all should get to bed. I can handle Jayla by myself. I could make that an order but I'm hoping it's not necessary.”

The sitters dispersed. Jayla rode to a suiting room that turned out to be right near her original quarters. A pressure door – once clearly designed for everyday use rather than emergencies – opened, admitting them into a lock chamber. Only when the outer door had closed, though there was no change in pressure, did the inner door open, admitting them to the suiting room itself. It looked like a regular locker room, Jayla thought, except that the ceiling was higher and some of the lockers were quite large. There were showers, toilets, and areas for dressing. There was also a second set of airlock doors at the far end of the room, exactly aligned with the first set. A red light strip around the jamb of the far door did give it a somewhat ominous look.

“The red strip means the door isn't safe to open,” Dr. Honeyclover explained, seeing Jayla look that way. “The inner doors have green strips. For the outer door to open you have to be wearing some kind of properly rigged life support, even if the lock chamber itself is pressurized. Now, as a formality, I have to ask: are you sure you want to do this?”

Hearing about the airlock doors had given Jayla just a touch of unease but the doctor's question banished it. “Yes,” she said, firmly. If the suiting room wasn't safe they wouldn't have let her in no matter what. It wouldn't be part of the station in the first place.

“Would you like me to help you down?” Dr. Honeyclover asked.

“That won't be necessary, thanks,” Star said (speaking aloud). “Just lock it to the deck. We'll manage.”

“All right then.” Dr. Honeyclover maneuvered the stretcher a bit, then there was a clunk from underneath. Shi waved to everyone and exited.

“Call the water,” Star said, telepathically.

“What?” Jayla asked. “Why?”

“If I reduce gravity with your stomach like that, you'll start barfing like one of those vinegar and baking soda volcanoes,” Star replied. “If you're floating, that'll make it easier.”

“Okay,” Jayla agreed. Her stomach still ached but the gentle sounds of the suiting room, if anything, made it easier to concentrate. When Jayla opened her eyes she knew she was no longer laying on the stretcher.

“Here goes,” Star said.

“Wait, please,” Jayla said suddenly. She floated over to one of the showers and turned it on, attracting the water until she was coated in a comfortable bubble. Then she settled so that the bubble, but not her body, touched the floor of the shower. If anything went horribly wrong this should at least minimize the shock and mess. “Okay,” she said.

“Attention, gravity is changing,” the computer declared. The announcement repeated, again and again, as the change progressed. Amber warning lights flashed. Jayla was glad she'd wrapped herself in water; it softened the sound and light, which otherwise would have been rather harsh. And then, the gravity did change.

According to the old standby it was like going over the big hump on a roller coaster. That was a decent shorthand to describe the sensation but missed the mark in two important ways. First, for Jayla, there was no sense of motion: no wind, nothing shook. Second, actual roller coasters carefully regulated their speed. The suiting room seemed to keep accelerating until it achieved free fall. Which led to another interesting point. Going through this with an uncomfortably full stomach should have been disastrous, just like loading up on too much junk food and taking a ride on the regular roller coaster. (Adam, as a small boy, had done exactly that and suffered the expected consequences.) Jayla, by contrast, experienced the falling sensation but somehow not the unpleasant aspects of it. Her stomach, far from becoming queasy, actually settled as the weight came off it.

“It's because you're doing the levitation thing,” Star said.

“How can you tell?” Jayla asked. With gravity off she wasn't levitating any more, just... floating. It felt wonderful.

“When people go walkies with me, I could control the forces they experience so it's a solid one gravity all the way, no matter what I'm doing,” Star said. “But people find that boring. They want to get knocked around a little. I can tell easily enough when the forces are physically dangerous, but it's harder to see when it's psychologically dangerous. So, um, let's just say I've had a lot of experience exploring the fine line between a fun ride and a vomit comet.”

Jayla smiled. “Okay. I can dig that.” Then, a little later: “Star, do you sleep?”

“Yes, but not the same way you do,” Star said. “I can go to sleep in stages, you might say. But each time I throttle back I lose something, whatever would take the most focus and attention. Not like it disappears completely, more like it moves farther away. It's still there but it's quiet, remote, and diffuse. I miss the little things and if something big happens I have to wake up again to make out what it was. If I shut down completely I can sleep kind of like you do, where I'm floating in my own little world and everything is far away.”

“Do you need to sleep?” Jayla asked.

“Yes,” Star replied. “I get tired, just like you. Maintaining high alert takes a lot of effort. Also, the more of me that's active, the faster I go. At maximum alertness you people slow down until you're hardly moving. Holding that when nothing much is going on is not only tiring, it's incredibly boring. Usually I operate at around three quarters. That's typically fast enough to handle all the tasks and puzzles the scientists want me to do while still conversing with people, all without either working myself to a frazzle or boring myself senseless.”

“You're doing work for the scientists right now?” Jayla asked.

“Yes,” Star said. “There are scientists here from all over the Federation. Even if I ran at full speed all the time and did nothing else, there still wouldn't be enough time to do all the things they want to try on me.”

“Here I thought working the water show was a trial,” Jayla said with a chuckle.

“You enjoy it,” Star said. “The scientists, they're not just learning about me, they're teaching me things. It's really quite exciting. Well, mostly. There have been some tense discussions between sitters and scientists about how I share my time.”

Jayla chuckled to herself. As her thoughts wandered she didn't notice herself drifting off to sleep. Nor did she notice when she started dreaming. Awareness only came later, when she realized that she was.

Jayla floated in space. All around her the stars gleamed. Not mere points of light, but sparkling with all the colors of the rainbow. The space between them, usually black, was instead covered with subtle whorls and blossoms of color, turning the firmament into a stunningly beautiful tapestry of gleaming jewels.


It was Adam's voice. Jayla looked around fearfully, then finally saw him. He sat in a small room – his bedroom, she realized – in his night clothes, with his face in his hands. The room was lit only by a couple of small indirect lighting fixtures, so it wouldn't be completely dark with the main lights out. Jayla saw it as clearly as she did only because the room sat by itself in a field of blackness; against that even the soft lighting stood out. She swam down toward him, though she didn't really want to. She felt pressure increasing; somehow he was very deep in those dark waters.

“Jayla, please come back,” Adam begged, looking up and spreading his hands. “I'm sorry. About everything. I shouldn't have tried to make you come back. But I need you. I made you to get me out of this world. I could endure the waiting while the new world it was just a theoretical thing... now that I've experienced it... you've left me imprisoned, Jayla, imprisoned in my own self!”

Jayla recoiled, as much from how haggard Adam looked as what he said. She was somehow drifting slowly towards him and she desperately wanted to flee as fast as she could. After some hesitation she suppressed those feelings and moved deliberately forward. Running away hadn't solved any of her problems, it had just stretched them out. “I can't be what you need any more, Adam,” she said. “Now that I've been myself I want to be myself. I won't give myself – my self – to you.”

“But Jayla, how can you leave me like this?” Adam demanded, encompassing his environment with a sweep of the arm. With a snarl he lurched suddenly and grabbed her wrist.

For an eternal instant Jayla thought it was over, that he'd claimed her. Then she realized that if that were so she wouldn't be here to be having those thoughts. She looked. Adam did indeed have his hand around her wrist... but some force kept his fingers from closing, such that they floated about a centimeter from her skin despite how much he struggled and strained. His other hand reached but had stopped well before it got anywhere close. In fact, his whole body was frozen in place.

With time to think, Jayla did feel some sympathy. In just a few days he seemed to have aged terribly. That was especially saddening because she knew that maintaining a good appearance was important to him. Looking confident and capable, he would have said, was a vital part of being confident and capable. It was one of the ways he'd brought Emerge into being, despite all the skeptics and setbacks.

And that, Jayla realized with a flash of dazzling insight, was the answer. “Adam, look at yourself,” she said. “You freed yourself from this. You don't need me. Everything you do need is already at your fingertips. Best of all, you already know it's possible.”

Adam blinked. Like a glacier calving icebergs, the stress and age fell away from his features bit by bit. Jayla's heart soared to see the powerful, vibrant man she remembered coming slowly back to life. She hugged him fiercely. He started slightly, then hugged her in return just as fiercely. “I'm so sorry,” he said, like he really meant it this time. “Why is it that the hardest things to see are the ones right in front of your face?”

“I wish to god I knew,” Jayla said. “Then I'd become a guru and make a fortune.”

Adam laughed. He laughed longer and harder than the joke deserved, but he was also letting out a lot of pent up pain. Eventually he subsided to occasional chuckles. “Jayla... what's happening? Am I dreaming? Are we dreaming?”

“I... don't know,” Jayla admitted. “I think it's psionic. Star says I have abilities, and I've been using them.”

“How can that be?” Adam asked. “There's nothing in the...”

Adam was still talking but his voice had become distant and muffled. Jayla couldn't feel him against her, either. She looked for him, but the harder she sought him the farther away he seemed to be-

Jayla awoke. She was still in the suiting room. She had no idea how much time had passed.

“Jayla? Are you all right?” That was Dr. Honeyclover's voice. If Jayla had been levitating she would have fallen on her face. Thankfully the room was still in free fall.

“I'm okay, I guess,” Jayla said, cautiously.

“What were you doing just now?” Dr. Honeyclover asked.

“Talking to Adam.”

“Who's Adam?”

Jayla flinched rather violently. She'd avoided mentioning Adam's name. She'd even avoided using any particular pronoun. And now-

And now... why was the secret so important? She could think of reasons, but the main one was that she'd been afraid. There were reasons to be afraid but those had come after: they justified the fear, they didn't create it. Besides, being afraid didn't help one bit in solving any of those problems. “Adam was my operator,” Jayla said after a pause that he hoped wasn't too long.

“Adam?” Dr. Honeyclover cocked hir head. “You don't mean Andy Galba, do you?”

“Yes,” Jayla said.

“Hmm, that explains a few things,” Dr Honeyclover mused.

“Speaking of which, why are you here?” Jayla asked.

“Star called for me,” Dr. Honeyclover said. “She said your shine had gotten all crazy. She was worried.”

“Star?” Jayla looked around. “Star?” she called, telepathically this time. She didn't even notice the transition.

“I'm here,” Star said.

“You called Dr. Honeyclover?”

“You were doing something I hadn't seen before,” Star said. “I didn't know how to help.”

“It's all right,” Jayla said, soothingly. “I was... helping myself.” Suddenly, something that Jayla had seen about Dr. Honeyclover but hadn't consciously noticed snapped to the foreground. “Doctor-” Jayla didn't notice returning to speaking voice either – “what happened to you?” The front of Dr. Honeyclover's torso was wet and shi had flecks sticking to hir muzzle that might have been spittle or vomit.

“You were deep in... whatever you were doing when I arrived,” Dr. Honeyclover explained. “Star didn't think it was a good idea to switch on the gravity, since you were floating, and I agreed. So I just... stepped through the transition.”

Jayla winced. Stepping from a full gravity to no gravity zone without transition would be like jumping off a cliff. The edge of the gravity field would be fuzzy, rather than sharp, so maybe more like having the cliff crumble out from under you. Which, if anything, made it worse. “I admire your dedication, Doctor,” Jayla said.

“You might not say that if I'd sprayed you when I vomited,” Dr. Honeyclover said with a wan smile. “Still... there doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with you. Your experience didn't cause any damage that I can detect.”

“What time is it?” Jayla asked, suddenly.

“Star Home runs three shifts on their own diurnal cycles, so that's not necessarily useful,” Dr. Honeyclover said. “I can say you've been in here for a bit more than four hours.”

“I think I'd like to get back to sleep then,” Jayla said, stifling a yawn.

“Here or in your quarters?” Dr. Honeyclover asked.

“Quarters,” Jayla said. “Star, I got what I needed from coming here, even though I didn't know exactly what it was beforehand. Thanks for everything.”

“No prob,” Star said. “Do what's best for you.”

“Shall I get the stretcher?” Dr. Honeyclover offered.

“Won't need it,” Jayla said, checking herself over. Her water cocoon had gone away somehow, leaving only a few flecks here and there. She took Dr. Honeyclover's hand and swam toward the inner doors. At first Jayla felt the doctor's mass tugging at her. Jayla imagined water cocooning them both, and gradually everything came into balance. “Open the door, please,” she said.

“I can't, not while the gravity's mismatched,” Star said. “It needs an emergency override.”

“We can go into the lock chamber and transition the gravity there,” Dr. Honeyclover said.

“You apparently didn't do that on the way in,” Jayla pointed out.

“I was in a hurry,” Dr. Honeyclover replied.

“Then call it a demonstration to help understand my case,” Jayla said.

“Will this work?” Dr. Honeyclover asked, seriously.

“It worked for me,” Jayla said. “If it doesn't work now, I'll be on the deck puking my guts out right alongside you.”

Dr. Honeyclover grinned crookedly. “All right. I can accept that. Computer, override authorization Honeyclover. Open the inner lock doors.”

“Override authorization approved,” the computer said. “Inner lock doors opening. Warning: gravity mismatch Observe caution.” Both inner doors opened at once, revealing a crowd of sitters waiting right outside, looking pensive.

Light strips on the floor and ceiling warned that the gravity discontinuity was right at the inner door. After a moment to compose herself Jayla advanced towards it, drawing the doctor with her. She felt things stretch and bend as she crossed the boundary, but she understood now that the way through was to flow, like water, rather than fighting. Dr. Honeyclover gasped when hir feet hit the floor of the inner airlock. Shi looked very surprised by not the least bit motion-sick. “Jayla, how did you do that?” shi exclaimed.

“I haven't the foggiest idea,” Jayla replied. “I just did it.”

The sitters cheered until Ranthe shushed them. They did look somewhat awed at the sight of Jayla, hovering in midair, sculling her fins slightly as if she were swimming. “Thank you everyone for being here for me,” Jayla said to them. “But I'm still tired, so I'm going to bed. We can hash everything out in the morning.” The corridors had adequately high ceilings so Jayla swam above their heads rather than try pushing through. The sitters looked up at her, in amazement and, in cases, with something like awe. May grinned like a loon and waved. Jayla clasped hands with him as she went by. “No questions,” Jayla said, sternly, as the crowd surged after her and a babble of conversation started up. At her room she faced everyone squarely while the door opened. No one tried to barge in. “Good night, everyone,” she said with one last wave. Inside, she set the room lighting to a dim blue-green and requested quiet surf noises. With that pleasant ambiance she settled into bed and fell asleep fairly quickly. In her dreams she and Star danced together in the heavens.

Jayla awoke gently, like a bubble rising from shadowy depths to a sunlit surface. She sighed contentedly.

“You seem much better this morning,” Star said.

“I am, thanks,” Jayla replied. “I'm not – I'm not afraid anymore.”

“That's wonderful,” Star said. “What changed?”

“I realized that the things I was afraid of can't hurt me unless I let them,” Jayla said.

“That's a good place to be,” Star said. “Speaking of which, the nattering nabobs are about to descend. The science crew's had plenty of time to think of all the ways they want to test and examine you and they're champing at the bit to get started.”

Jayla sighed again, this time with a markedly different tone. “Well, that is why I came.” She rolled out of bed and waddled to the bathroom.

“Not levitating this morning?” Star inquired.

“I'm walking precisely because I don't have to,” Jayla replied.

“Right on,” Star said. Jayla laughed.

Jayla went to the bathroom then took a leisurely shower. Partway through, though, Star interjected.

“Jayla, I just heard that Dr. Galba is coming,” Star said. “He's bringing three technicians from Emerge and Primrose Salt, who's a skunktaur psi maestro.”

Jayla flinched rather violently and started shaking. She hadn't expected that her inner peace would have to face such a pointed assault so soon. “What does he want?” she demanded. Her voice would have squeaked if she'd been speaking aloud.

“I don't know,” Star admitted. “That wasn't discussed on a channel I can monitor and none of the usual suspects are chatting about it.”

“I'm not ready for this,” Jayla said, curling into a ball and hugging herself tightly.

“What's he going to do?” Star asked. “Fling himself at your throat? Use his demonic powers to suck out your soul? Club you over the head and drag you by the hair back to his shuttle?”

Jayla let out a bark of laughter. She was much stronger than Adam; in any kind of physical confrontation he'd come out the worse for wear. Even if Jayla were then arrested for assault, that would drag it all out into the open, the very thing he'd struggled so hard to avoid thus far. “Sorry.” Jayla muttered. “I... kinda lost it there for a moment.”

“Don't blame yourself for being merely human,” Star said. “Who among us isn't?”

“What about you?” Jayla asked.

“No,” Star said, firmly. “I've been through this already with Dr. Stannus. If humanity is contingent on having the right physical features then fuck you and fuck your society, I want no part of it. I can do things you can't, sure, but I'm just as human as anyone else.”

“I'm glad you feel that way,” Jayla said. “I've seen strong people who think they're better than everyone else.” I'm pretty sure I was one, back when I was Adam, she added to herself. Speaking telepathically wasn't so different from speaking out loud, it turned out. You didn't have to say everything you thought.

“I've met people like that too,” Star said. “Which is one of the reasons I don't want to be one of them. Also because they tend not to have any friends. Not real ones, anyway.”

“Can you be real friends with someone you only just met?” Jayla asked.

“I don't see why not,” Star replied. “All it takes is caring about someone. How much time do you need for that?”

Jayla sighed. “For some of us, far too much, it seems.” She uncurled and finished her shower. “Where do I go to eat breakfast?”

“There's a dispenser in your room,” Star said. “Everyone says that the food in the sitter's wardroom is better, though.”

“I'll go there, then,” Jayla closed her eyes for a moment, mentally composing herself. Then... she started swimming. The room door opened before her and closed behind her. She wafted through the hallways as easily as if she really were swimming. Then, rounding a corner, she encountered a skunktaur. Hy was... a bit more than middle aged, somewhat plumpish, striped skunk pattern, wearing a black leather jacket with curious pleats on the shoulders, chest, and waist. The garment covered hys house mark, which typically appeared on the left breast. Hy was currently female, and quite generously so. Noting how the pleats unfolded over the bosom suggested a reason why they'd been included.

“When I change sex my proportions change quite a bit, as you might imagine,” hy said. “This jacket-” hy plucked at the shoulders – “I can wear all through the cycle.”

“Very clever,” Jayla allowed. “Would you happen to be Primrose Salt, by any chance?”

“I would.” Primrose bowed floridly, with a sweep of the arm.

“You're not wearing a headband, I notice,” Jayla said. That fact became especially obvious with the top of Primrose's head in view.

“That is correct,” Primrose agreed. “As a psi-maestro, I need my abilities available... perhaps not all the time, but certainly most of it. Imagine, if you will, trying to pick wildflowers from inside an armored box. If you think a flower is near you open a hatch and look out. If you see a flower, you pick it. If you don't, you close the shutter, move the box, and try again. It can be done that way, certainly, but not efficiently or conveniently.”

“Why are you here?” Jayla asked.

Primrose paused a moment, clearly considering various answers. “I'm here because Andy Galba called me up in the middle of the night,” hy began. “He told me a wild story that eventually led me to examine him for psionic potential.”

“And?” Jayla asked.

“He definitely has some,” Primrose said. “I can't say what it is at this point, nor if it's realistically trainable, but there's clearly something there.”

Jayla's eyes widened. “That could be it,” she exclaimed. “When his psionic potential was imprinted upon the quantum matrix-”

“Quite,” Primrose agreed. “In fact, that's precisely what Dr. Galba said when I told him what I'd found.”

“Why is he here?” Jayla demanded in a markedly more confrontational tone.

“Ask him yourself,” Primrose said.

Jayla opened her mouth to ask where Andy was but even as the question formed in her mind she already knew the answer. There he was, in a lab, configuring the equipment to do a deep scan of Jayla's brain. She saw him, even though her physical eyes had nothing to do with it. “Jayla!” he exclaimed, starting, when he felt her attention fasten upon him. “I – I'm sorry,” he stammered. “For everything. I was only thinking about myself. I wanted you back... but you're not mine to claim. You don't belong to me. Or anyone.”

That... wasn't the reaction Jayla expected. It left the righteous anger she'd mustered fizzling out like a firecracker with a wet fuse. “What about the company?” she asked in a much calmer tone than she'd planned to use.

“The company will be fine,” Andy said, speaking as of something that hardly mattered.

Jayla couldn't speak. Andy, saying the company wasn't the most important thing? That shocked her more than his initial apology. “How can you say that?” she blurted, half incredulously and half seriously.

Adam grinned. “Don't you see, Jayla? We've unlocked the secret of true rejuvenation. Sure, you can genetically refresh your body, but you can't completely refresh your brain without wiping away your own memories. You wind up with a young body but your brain still degrades, albeit more slowly. With Emerge Link you can transfer yourself into a brain that won't break down. When you need a new body you just create one. Yes, some customers will flee because they're afraid that their servos will come alive on their own. Many more will come for precisely that reason. As an added bonus, we've discovered a way to amplify psionic abilities. Either one of those alone would easily attract enough investment to carry us through our current difficulties. Emerge is in better shape now than it's ever been, and it's all thanks to you.”

“I doubt it'll be that easy,” Jayla commented.

“Of course not,” Adam replied. “Isn't it wonderful?”

“Yes,” Jayla said wonderingly, after a short pause. “It is.” Then, she gave Adam a great big hug. She couldn't have said how that worked, since they were each in completely different parts of the station and had no connection other than whatever psionic-y thing Jayla was doing. But she felt him, and she could sense that he felt her. And she'd never felt safer.

“Way to go,” Star said. “Turns out you and I have a lot in common after all.”

“Oh?” Jayla asked.

“You're a robot with psionic abilities,” Star said. “The science dudes are gonna study you up one side and down the other.”

“Oh boy.” Jayla said, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Adam laughed.

I know what you're wondering: how did it all turn out? I suppose I have enough time to cover the highlights.

Adam retired from Emerge and left Saffron in charge. I approve; Saffron deserved it after all the work hy'd done. Though it wasn't easy; my “coming out” sparked exactly the kind of PR backlash Andy had feared. Customers pulled out over fears that their servos might come alive and investors pulled out to avoid the backlash. Saffron secured an agreement with the Federation Science Corps to study and mitigate the psionic interactions with Emerge Link; that was enough to retain a number of important commercial contracts, including with Star Fleet. Emerge may not be what it once was, but it's still a going concern.

The prospect of prolonging life by permanently entering a servo body generated a lot more interest that I thought it would. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; it's as close to immortality as we've yet come. Who wouldn't be interested in that? Progress has been slow, however; people are concerned about various potential abuses and unintended consequences. Saffron is working closely with government to set up reasonable regulations, a move I wholly support. Far better, I think, for both the company and society to forestall abuses rather than react to them.

I'm still conflicted that Andy chose to be the first person converted using the new process. I know it was his choice, and his willingness to risk his own life did more than anything else to gain public acceptance for the technology. If something went wrong, the thought of losing him hurt more than I ever thought it could. I won't speak of the funeral; it's too soon for that. Too personal. Suffice it to say I have a sister now, Jaina. I love her dearly and treasure her like life itself. Beyond that – I'm not ready to speak of it. That's also too personal.

Several people have asked me about converting into servos as a way of amplifying their psionic abilities. I have to tell them it's basically gone nowhere; the public and regulatory bodies are very concerned about potential abuses. I have to say I'm worried about it myself, even though I'm a beneficiary. Saffron and Jaina have done their best but so far the government bodies haven't agreed on a framework that would let research move forward. As discussion drags on and on I fear there won't ever be an agreement. Despite my own misgivings I think that would be bad; given the possibilities, the temptation for illegal research is just too great. This is definitely something we should get ahead of but I'm afraid we'll get stuck reacting.

Star Home now has a water-filled living area. The Hugo Brothers dubbed it Shell Beach for some reason. The underwater quarters were purpose built rather than simply flooding existing ones, and they added a swimming pool. It's large, deep, and has transparent walls so I can make faces at the visitors. I do spend a lot of time there; Star was right that the scientists want to study me. As expected Jaina developed psionic abilities but not as powerful as mine. So not only do the bigwigs want to know why I have abilities, they want to know why Jaina's are different.

Primrose Salt has been very helpful for both of us. In fact, hy's become a de facto consultant, both for Emerge and for Star Home. Hy even finds time to train us. If you're here after the show, come on up to the lounge and I'll show you my drink juggling trick. Sure, lots of telekineticists know it, but I can do it holding only the liquid itself, without putting it in glasses.

I'm sorry to cut this short – I've really enjoyed talking with you – but the all-new Tropical Seas Fantasy Water Show featuring Jayla and Jaina is about to start. Wouldn't want to miss my cue. Hope to see you in the audience. Ta ta for now!

I slip below the surface, hovering in the water. The announcer's voice booms and wows, the cadence of speech without the words. The crowd roars; I feel the noise, conducted through the concrete structure of the arena and into the water. At precisely the right moment – I know the script by heart – I streak through the entrance tunnel and burst out into the light.

*** The End ***



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