Robert Nowall

Second First Chances

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Second First Chances, by Robert Nowall
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A Raft, by Robert Nowall

 

SECOND FIRST CHANCES

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

            If his eye pressed up against the one small port in front of him, he would not see it.   Invisible.  But it showed up on his color-adjusted secondary screen; a bright purple bolt that crossed to his left.  Plasma cannon, short range.

            Alarm bells right and left went off.  He made a short and silent curse and switched them off.  The base plasma cannon must be active.  Automated?  Somebody at the base, firing at anybody who came by?

            He fed the right protocol programs into the base over the radio; a simple verbal warning should have come.  Shots should not be fired until he came closer, if at all.  So somebody must be at the base, overriding the program.

            His finger stabbed at the screen, enough to hurt.  “Damnit!” he said.

            A voice crackled out of his speaker.  Neutral, computer generated.  “Approaching craft.  Identify yourself.”

            “This is Walter Mello,” he said.  “Forces Exploration Craft Double L Three Five Nine, returning from patrol.”

            A pause---he must be at least four light-seconds away---and another voice, female, human, came on.  “Walter?  Is that you?”

            “Who is this?”

            “It’s Jenny.”  Another pause, then the voice said, “Your wife.”

            Walter paused for several seconds, feeling blood flow to his face.   Then he switched on the visual.  “Jenny?  It’s me, Walter.”

            After a second, a picture built up in his main screen.  A head and shoulders shot, with a background that told him she sat in a room in a base.   She said, “I never expected to meet you out here, Walter.”

            “I’m surprised, too.  Why did you shoot at me?”

            Jenny looked down.  “Change in procedure.   Duplicate activity.”  She looked up, then said, “Transmitting landing coordinates.  Make a second pass and come in slow.”

            “It’s good to see you, too, Jenny,” he said, but Jenny cut contact.

            He altered his flight pattern, putting the craft in a parabola around the base asteroid that take it close to the surface, out a million klicks or so, then back; he could come in then.  The craft vibrated as it gripped the fabric of space.  Twenty minutes.

            It gave him some time to think.  He told Jenny he was Walter, but, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t true.  He was Walter Mello Mark Two, a Duplicate.

#

            He didn’t know much about Duplicate origins; no Duplicate knew.  They might be some alien life form, they might be some biowar experiment escaped from the lab.  But ever since the first Duplicate came to be, they tried their level best to stay away from humans.  Fear of destruction.

            Unwarranted fear.  Humans destroyed Duplicates where they found them.  Walter Mello Mark One was a pilot in the Forces, one of the battle fleets that went out looking for Duplicate colonies in order to destroy them.

            Walter Mello Mark One died, a rock fragment passing through his skull like a bullet.  If he didn’t show up, others would come looking for him.  So they copied his physical form and moved his memories into a Duplicate voted Most Likely to Pass For Human.  Walter Mello Mark Two climbed into the craft and headed back to base and rendezvous.  Once he submitted a report about lack of Duplicate activity in this asteroid belt, he would carry on as Walter Mello for as long as possible.

            A suicide mission, but he understood the stakes.  Walter Mello’s memories lingered in his brain, along with lots of data on Duplicates and their history.  He was not Walter Mello and he could not forget that.

            He felt confident of his ability to fool humans who didn’t know him well.  But what about his wife?

#

            The coordinates did not lead to the small landing platform attached to the base, but a good two klicks away from it.  The base itself lay on the horizon in front of him; a square brick of a building with all sorts of gear attached to it.

            Two plasma cannon stuck out of this base, pointed straight at his craft.

            The radio crackled.  No video signal, but Jenny’s voice said, “Climb out of your craft, Walter, and come over to the base.”

            He already wore his suit---Walter’s suit, taken from his body.  No helmet, just a bit of soft-hard plastic pulled over his head.  “You’re the boss,” he said, wrapped the plastic around his head to make a round bubble, and reached up to open the hatch.

            But Jenny said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            He felt the annoyance that Walter would have felt, and spoke how he thought Walter would.  “What are you talking about?  You change procedure, you make me land halfway across this asteroid from you and the base, and now you complain about what I say?”

            “Don’t blame me for following procedures, Walter.   Depower your craft and climb out.”

            Walter cut the connection.  He flipped several switches and screens and lights went off all around him.  The sounds died down to just the life-support system, and then that shut down.  Powering his craft down should be done through connecting links to the base---if he landed at the proper landing platform on the building.

            Why did Jenny make it tough?  Did she suspect something?

            He pulled the lever for the hatch.  The cabin depressurized; his suit bulged out in the now-vacuum.   Sound disappeared, except for his own breathing.  The suit, without oxygen cylinders, held about ten or fifteen minutes of breathable air, depending on variables; more than enough to get inside the base.

            He stuck his head out.  The low gravity made him sail out the hatch, but he caught himself with one hand on the rim.  He looked around.  It looked different than the screen.  Dim lights around the flat patch of land his craft sat on.  Beyond that, right in front of him, faint lights on the base itself.

           

            He touched a patch on his suit.  Static crackled inside his helmet as the suit radio came on.  “Can you hear me, Jenny?”

            After a moment, a tinny voice said, “I can.  Come over to the base and we can scan you.”

            Was Jenny alone?  He held back from answering; if more people around he would need to be twice as careful about discovery.  Instead, he said, “Gravity is kind of light here, Jenny.”  He looked around at the ground.  Too dark to see anything.  “No ladder or handholds?”

            “Stand by,” Jenny said.

            A flash came from the base building.  A white line came into the lights of the area, slow moving as it passed by his helmet.  A rope cord; it fell to the ground in a slow-motion descent.  He said, “You almost hit me with that, Jenny.”

            “If I wanted to hit you, Walter,” Jenny replied, “you and I wouldn’t be talking.  Now clip the line to you and let me bring you in.”

            He climbed out and stood over the hatch.  He closed it with care, and felt the vibration through his gloved hands and the soles of his boots.  Then he grabbed the rope, pulled it back until he found the end, just a few meters on.  He clipped the end onto the loop on his belt, then said, “Ready,” and jumped up with as little force as he could manage.  The line tightened and tugged him along.

#

            She reeled him in through the airlock without trouble.  A small room lay beyond.  Control panels and screens spread over two walls.  A small desk and a stool.  In the other, opposite corner, a cot mattress bed stretched almost to the other wall; a toilet-sink combo lay at its foot.

            A large white cone antenna, with several smaller cones around it, hung over his head.  A scanner sensor device.

            Jenny stood in the middle.  Blonde hair a little longer than regulation.  A baggy gray shirt and pants; standard no-insignia issue.  She looked a little thinner than when his memories of her ended.  Thinner, but healthy.

            More to the point, she held a small blaster pistol on him.

            “Don’t move,” she said.

            He looked at the pistol, coughed, and said, “Jenny.  What gives?”

            “Standard procedure, Walter,” she said.  “You are being scanned.”

            He looked at her---seeing the airlock door enclosed in some kind of near-invisible plastic cover, one that ended beyond the edge of his helmet, enough room to stand up in.  Some kind of screen, to isolate him.  He said, “Jenny.  You’d fire that blaster through this plastic thing?”

            “I can replace it from stores,” Jenny replied.  “After you’re dead.”

            “Can I open my helmet?”

            “Not till I say.”

            He stood.   Neither he with Walter Mello’s memories, nor the Duplicates back at the base, knew all means tried to detect a Duplicate.  He could defeat all known tests.  But new wrinkles, new ideas, or some unforeseen factor, could trip him up.  Did anything new come about?   Walter Mello should reach the base by such-and-such time.  Neither Mark One nor Mark Two stopped there before.

            It started to get stuffy inside his helmet.  The air in his suit ran out.  A Duplicate needed air as much any human.  After what seemed like eternity, a screen behind Jenny flashed green and a pleasant bell tone sounded.   Jenny turned and relaxed.  She lowered the gun.  “The scans say you’re human, Walter.  And don’t say there wasn’t any doubt.”

            He reached up to his helmet, and said, “Is it okay with you if I open up now?”

            “Go ahead.  I don’t think I’ll catch anything from you.”

            He cracked the seal; fresher air came in.  It still smelled of steel and dust, and he smelled the sweat on Jenny, but oxygen content made it good and breathable.  He collapsed his helmet and threw it back.  “That’s better.  Now, you.”

            “What?”  She raised the gun again.  “What do you mean?”

            “You checked me out.  Now I will check you out.  You could be a Duplicate.”

            She chuckled.  “All right, all right, I’ll step in under the scanners.”

            “No, no, no, maybe you tampered with the equipment.”  He tapped one of the packs on the belt of his suit.  “I’ll do it myself.  But open this---”  He tapped on the plastic with his knuckles.

            The screen folded up like an accordion and stacked against the wall.  Smells hit him hard; the dust of the asteroid, the oil of machinery.  Most of all he could smell Jenny’s unwashed body.  A familiar smell.  Memories of good times with Jenny came into his mind.

            But those were Walter’s memories.  First things first.  He pulled out a small black box device from his belt.  It fit inside his hand.  He touched it with a finger.  A small screen lit up.  He disconnected a silver attachment and held it out to Jenny.  “Take this.”

            She shrugged, took it in her hand, and clenched it tight.  The screen changed colors.  He kept his eye on it as several numbers scrolled through.  Every so often the screen blinked green.  He did not understanding of it, even with Walter’s memories.  A simple test for Duplicates---one he himself could beat, he knew---but Walter Mello Mark One would do it, should do it.

            The small screen turned green and stayed green.  “I guess that’s all,” he said, and grinned.  “You’re a convincing Duplicate, Jenny.”

            “I might say the same of you,” Jenny replied.  She pointed to a chair in front of the controls.  “Sit down.  Tell me what you’re up to.”

            He sat down, and swung the back of the chair around so he could lean on it and cross his arms on its top.  Jenny took a seat on the rumpled bed.  She crossed her legs.

            “So what brings you here, Jenny?” he asked.  “Your patrol route didn’t come near here.”

            “Ah, something clipped one of my fuel pods a week out.  Not enemy action.  Meteor or something.”  She grimaced.  “This base was nearest.  I made it here and sent a distress call.  My air held out.”

            “Your craft?”

            “Over on the other side.  Total wreck.  I could get it spaceborne but pickup is in a couple of days, right?”

            “Tomorrow or the next.  Say, can I move my craft over to the base?  I counted on staying in it while I waited for pickup.”

            “No can do, Walter.  New wrinkle in standard operating procedure.  If second pilot arrives at base after first pilot, craft must be landed a kilometer or more from the base.”

            He blinked.  “I don’t recall that.”

            “You should read your manuals while you were out.”  Jenny leaned back on the bed and lay down.  She looked up at the ceiling.  “So what did you do on patrol, Walter?  Find any Duplicates?”

            Now he could try out the story.  “Well, I think I found remains of a big Duplicate base.  Remains of something.  Empty.  I scanned it.  If I read right, Jenny, looks like the Duplicates pulled out of this belt.”  Kind of true, he thought, if he added “will be pulling” and “inhabited.”  It would be empty by the time anyone else checked it out.

            “I didn’t see any sign of them in the short time I was out,” Jenny replied.  “I suppose it was a waste of time, our patrols.”

            “Nothing’s a waste if you look at it right,” he said.

            Jenny smiled.  “Getting philosophical in your time out here, Walter?”

            “No more so than before,” he replied.  “You used to say you found it interesting.”

            “That was before it became irritating.  Here.”  She stood up again.  “I’d’ve let you stay out in your craft, Walter, but you’re too far for hookup.  You’ll just have to stay in the base.”

            “Okay.”  He stood up.  “Where are the other quarters?  Round the other side?”

            “’fraid not, Walter.  You didn’t do your homework.”

            He blinked.  And remembered.  These bases---ninety-nine percent supplies; fuel, food, air, a few other things.   No one intended to man them for more than a short time.  One cabin alone for living quarters.

            “I didn’t not do my homework, Jenny.  I just…forgot, that’s all.”  Memories of Walter’s studies and training came up.  Just this cabin.  Rations, nothing fancy, came from a slot near the controls.  No way to wash up, even.  In theory, the cabin could hold two dozen---but, looking it over, he did not know how.

            He licked his lips, feeling nervous.  Jenny laughed.  “You’ll just have to stay here with me.”   She laughed again and said, “Turn around, Walter.  You better get your official report in order and send it off.”

            “Hmph,” he grunted, and swung the chair around.  Walter’s training came back to him; he knew how to activate the base computer and its report-processing programs.  Once he did, he began typing.

#

            Composing his report proved difficult.  He knew what he needed to say---tissue of lies---but his mind kept going to Walter’s relationship with Jenny.  Details, important details.

            They married on impulse two standard-years ago.  Friends who tumbled into bed together.  Both were part of the Forces, both were pilots.

            After their one-day honeymoon they filled holes in a Forces squadron, Double L, sent to patrol through a series of systems, looking for Duplicate activity.   No surprise, a long-expected assignment, but no way to build a marriage.

            They might have opted out, taken available ground assignments together and made a go of their marriage.  Walter hesitated, and when Jenny demanded a decision, he said they should stick it out and complete the assignment---some five years of it.

            Walter thought Jenny took it the wrong way.  One argument led to another---and, by mutual consent, they dissolved their marriage, less than a month after hooking up.  They saw little of each other since then.

            What could he do to keep Jenny from figuring out?  Right now, Jenny still seemed tense, irritable.  At the moment, that seemed the bigger threat.

            “Jenny,” he said.

            Jenny lounged on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.  Did she look at him?  “What is it, Walter?”

            “We didn’t talk much after, well, since you know.”   He swung around in the chair.  “You know I think you took what I said the wrong way.”

            “You didn’t want to stay with me when there was a chance.”

            He felt some irritation, but kept it down.  “Can I explain myself?”

            “I’m not sure you can.”

            He turned back to his report, but still couldn’t concentrate on it.  His fingers touched the keyboard, but he couldn’t think of what to write.  The human brain is so limited, he thought; though he didn’t work through one before this.   Without turning around, he said, “I didn’t say I didn’t want to stay with you, Jenny.  I just wanted to finish this assignment.”

            “Which didn’t involve staying with me.”

            Saying something gave him trouble.  All Walter’s memories lay before him; he knew Walter loved Jenny.   If he didn’t convince Jenny that Walter was here with her, and that he loved her, that might be it.  So he phrased a question.  “Did you want to stay with me, Jenny?  I wanted to stay with you.”

            She leapt off the bed.  “Then why did you turn down planet duty?”

            Could he say it?  He knew it was true of Walter.  But, with Walter’s memories, he loved Jenny as Walter did.  If he didn’t know that before he knew it now.  He turned around in his chair, and said, “Jenny.  I love you.  I can’t say it any better.”

            “You’ve got strange ways of showing it.”

            “I can’t help it.  It’s who I am.  We should finish assignments.”

            She shook her head.  “You know, when my craft blew an engine, I could have died out here.  Putting me out here risked my life.”

            “I can’t help that, either.”  He sighed.  “Either of us, both of us, can be killed out here.  We---“

            Just then the control panel put out soft beeps.  He turned around.  Jenny leaned forward next to him.  “What is it?” she asked.

            “Incoming recovery ship,” he said, glancing at the screen.  “Won’t be here for a day but it’s in radio range.”  He looked around.  “The base must send messages on its own.”

            “We better make contact.”

            He put his finger on a line of data on the screen.  “Two hours forty-five minutes delay.  Report and acknowledgment.”

            “They’re a little early,” Jenny said.  “A day early.”  She furrowed her brow.  “Send the acknowl---no, let me take care of it.”

            She crowded him over and pressed a couple of buttons, then a couple more.  “Hey, watch it,” he said.

            “Sorry.”

            A smaller screen lit.  She smiled.  “There.  That sends acknowledgment and my report.  The mother ship will be here in a day.  You better get your report together, Walter.”

            “When did you find time to---”

            “It’s been ready since the day after I got here.”  She nudged his shoulder with her elbow, then moved away.

            He nodded to her as she moved back to sit down on the edge of the bed.  He glanced back at the screen, then put his fingers up on the keyboard.

            His fingers knew what to do.  He brought up Jenny’s report.  A glance at it told him what she told him.  Her craft took damage; in the time it took to get to base she found nothing.  She added a late note about his arrival and his pending report.  He nodded.  The mother ship should pick up them and their craft, pick up others, then go to the next planet on their itinerary.  No patrol till refit and resupply.

            He found his report.  The words didn’t come easy but he got them onto the screen and, after a look-over, pressed the send button.   He leaned back.   “That takes care of that.   I’m hungry, Jenny.  What’s for dinner?”

            “Iron rations and more iron rations.”

            He grimaced.  “You would think they’d stock a few luxury items.”

            “You’d be wrong.”

            He turned his chair around.  “Jenny.  Look.  We’ll be here together for a day, day and a half.  Can’t we be civil to each other?”

            She looked at him, a look of innocence---feigned innocence, mocked innocence---in her eyes.  “Why, Walter, I’m never anything but civil to you.”

            He sighed.  The memories belonged to Walter, but the annoyance felt too real.  He stood up.  “I’ll go back to my craft now.   I shouldn’t spend more time here.”

            She sat up straight, but did not seem surprised.  “If you think so.  It is too crowded.”

            “That’s not it, Jenny.  Not at all.”  He checked the seals on the suit he still wore, then slammed his hand down on the back of the chair.  “Damnit, Jenny, you’ve made things unpleasant as possible.”

            She shrugged, and leaned back on the bed.  “If you feel that way I won’t tell you any different.  Don’t bother calling because I won’t answer.”

            “Be that way.”  He put his hand on the airlock control panel.  “I’ll be out in my craft if you need to talk to.  But don’t call me, either.”  The airlock door opened and he stepped in before Jenny could say another word.  He took a last look at Jenny’s angry face before it closed.  Did he look angry?

            As he stepped into the light gravity and grabbed a guide rope, he remembered his mission, his real mission.  Would this affect that?  He tried to dismiss it from his mind, but it worked on his thoughts as he made his way to his craft.

            When the rendezvous ship showed up, would they think this kind of argument strange?  Or would it look like a squabbling married couple in the middle of another squabble?

            But…though he might not be Walter, though he knew he wasn’t Walter, he knew he loved Jenny as much or more than Walter did.  Curse his borrowed memories.

#

            He couldn’t see a thing out the depowered craft’s single tiny unshuttered window; it pointed the wrong way and no light glowed to show things.  He could bring the craft up to full power and use all its systems, but it wouldn’t last a day on the ground, three days spaceborne.    Instead, he powered up just enough to sustain life, two weeks with care.  He hooked up and let the craft filter his air; he didn’t pressurize and he didn’t take off his suit.  The craft carried enough emergency rations for a month or more, chewing exercises without power to cook, but more than enough.  But the cold penetrated.

            Within an hour of climbing back in, the radio monitor chimed---personal communication from the base.   He ignored it.  He said he wouldn’t answer.  And he didn’t call her.

            When an official communication from the base came, he pondered it for a while, watching the blinking light and listening to the soft bell tone.  But he decided to risk not responding.  If she answered, she misused official communication channels.  But if it was a relay, well, he would deal with it when the rendezvous ship came.

            He set the radio controls to listen for direct communication.  The feed from the rendezvous ship came in clear, but held no messages within it to decode.

            Boring, boring, boring.   Nothing to watch, no games to play, no entertainments to see.  Once he calmed his anger, all he could do was brood on his relationship with Jenny, his own relationship with Walter Mello, and his mission.

            He knew, sooner or later, he would be caught out and killed.  That his group of Duplicates meant no harm didn’t matter.   The Forces and the human government saw all Duplicates as a danger.  It scared him.

            Walter Mello was scared; scared to go out on these missions, scared of what he would find, scared of death.  But he could do it despite his fears.  Sure, it led to his death.  But it led to his resurrection.

            And should he even try to carry out his own mission?  He sent a message reporting finding nothing.  Did he need to do more?  He could power up, leave this behind, try to rejoin the Duplicates who sent him out---always an option, it wasn’t a suicide mission and he could leave it at the appropriate time.  But it felt incomplete not to take it further.

#

            A couple of bangs on the hatch woke him up.  He jumped, startled…then forced himself to stop being startled.  He knew who it was.  A rapid one-two-three banging, a pause of several seconds, then another one-two-three.  He still didn’t want to talk to her.  He ignored them.

            But then the bangs changed from one-to-three to one-a-second, a steady beat.  The hatch, the hull, could take a pounding from a fist, or a sledgehammer.  Walter’s hatch lay open when the fragment got him.  But, he knew, tools stored at the base open an uncooperative hatch.  Jenny might go and get them.  Giving in to the inevitable, he raised the hatch.

            After a few seconds, Jenny stuck her head in through the opening; she wore the same kind of suit and portable helmet he wore.  Her head hung right in front of his.  He crossed his arms and glared at her.

            She lowered herself until her helmet touched his.  She hung almost vertical; her legs must be sticking up straight into the vacuum; a tight grip kept her from falling into his lap.  Then he could hear her talk through vibrations, faint but clear.  She said, “Are you going to stay out here till the rendezvous ship gets here?”

            He glared at her, but said nothing.  She smiled at him.  “Aw, c’mon.  It must be hard for you.”

            “Nothing to say, Jenny” he said.

            She hesitated, then said, “Okay, okay.  I’m sorry I said what I said.”

            He kept his glare steady.  “I can’t believe it.  Look, Jenny, once we get picked up and dropped off we should maybe never see each other again.”

            “Just like that, you’re going to cast me off?”

            “I don’t want to, but I think that’s what you want.”

            She pouted---he could see, even though her helmet and with her face upside down---and it looked like tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.  “No, that’s not what I want at all.”

            It brought up at lot of Walter’s memories.   “Look, Jenny, I wanted us to be together---at the end of our mission---for our own sakes.”

            “I just wanted it.  And you---“

            Something flashed bright outside the hatch.  Reflexes kicked in.  He pulled her in and slammed the hatch shut, while hitting a button to power up the craft systems.  Jenny landed head first in his lap.  She said something.  She could see her lips, but without contact with her helmet, he couldn’t hear what she said.

            The screen came on.  A view of the base---the sparks and expanding cloud where the base lay.  He opened his mouth. “Oh, my,” he said.  “Lookitthat.”

            Jenny righted herself and looked at the screen.  She said something he couldn’t hear, then looked at him.  Her face drained of blood.  But she picked up something from her belt, a wire attached to the suit, and pointed to the communications board.  He nodded, and pulled a similar wire from his own belt.  They plugged the jacks on the ends of their wires into the communications board, and he flipped a switch.  Something crackled and then Jenny said, “Can you hear me now?”  Her voice shook.

            “I can hear you.”  His own voice shook, too.  They both looked at the screen.  The sparks within the cloud of dust faded, but the dust still rose in the air, reaching as far as the craft, obscuring the view.

            “What was that?”

            “I don’t know?  Did the base just explode---?”

            Other screens came on.   The main computer kicked in.  Not much information to go on, with all systems powered down, and data gathering just begun, but one screen displayed a clear pattern analysis.  He looked at Jenny, and said, “Someone fired on us.  That’s a missile strike.”

            “But who?  The Dup---they wouldn’t---they aren’t armed.”

            “Right.”

            Another screen displayed a track.  The white smear of the asteroid occupied most of it---but a large blip paralleled it.  In an instant the screen identified the blip---a Forces rendezvous ship.  A tag identified it as from the Double L squadron.

            “They attacked us!” Jenny said.

            He thought for a second, running through several scenarios.  Then he reached a decision.  “We’re getting out of here, before they fire on us again.  Hold on.”

            It took a moment to bring up the engines and controls.  Once the engines came on he kicked them in.  The craft didn’t lift, it just gripped space-and-time and took off straight out.  The images in the screens blurred but the asteroid-and-ship track froze.  No change.  Their own projected path appeared, a straight line leading away.  He expanded the field, looking for anything that would help.

            “We’ll be out of range in two minutes,” he said.  “But we can’t keep this up if they chase us.”

            Jenny crouched on the floor and pointed.  “Missile!” she said and pointed.  Another track appeared, intercepting theirs.  Ten seconds.  Small blips came onto the screen as the range expanded.  One of them might help---

            “Interceptor launched,” he said as he stabbed at buttons.  Then he cut drive and exterior power and zero gee hit them.

            The screens went blank but the communications board still worked.  “What are you doing?”

            “Hoping beyond hope.  We---“

            A bright light shined in through the tiny hole of a window.  He pounded the keys; the ship’s power came on.  No time to lay in a course or wait for the screens to come on; dead reckoning alone guided him.  He put his eye on the small window, glare or not; he could see the white of the explosion as the craft turned away from it.  He looked, then saw what he wanted.

            “Asteroid ahead,” he said.  “Stand by.”

            “Hide-in-the-asteroid routine?” she asked.

            “You got it.”

            The asteroid lay ahead, a greater dark against the dark of the stars.  The screen came on with the original track.  The groove lay right where he wanted it, between two asteroids---with the rendezvous ship on the same axis more than three million klicks behind.  No further data; he didn’t dare scan for any.  But there were no pulses on the craft, either.

            The second asteroid showed an irregular disk---he smiled at that---as he brought the craft in.  He cut acceleration and brought the craft in.  No crack or hole large enough to hide the craft in, so he set it down in the shadow of a large crater. 

            Jenny looked at the screen.  “I’m not seeing anything,” Jenny said.  “So our best bet now is to wait a little while, then get out of here and go---where?”

            “One place.”  He looked at the charts.  “We’ll hop from asteroid to asteroid, we’ll keep our heads down.  We’ll start right now, but be prepared to dodge.”

            As he put his hands on the keyboard controls, Jenny put her hands on his wrists.  With firm pressure, she pulled them back.  He let her do it.  “Where are we going?” she asked.

            This was the moment to tell the truth.   Walter felt proud of his desire to tell the truth.  That carried over to him.  It was time for the truth, after a ton of lies.  How would Jenny take it?   “A Duplicate base.  They won’t be there now, but we can resupply and move on.”

            “To where?  You’re not answering my question.”

            He sighed again.  “I didn’t want to tell you, but, well…I’m a Duplicate.  I’m not who you think I am.”

            Jenny fell silent for a moment.   Her hands were still on his wrists.  He said, “I’m sorry, Jenny.”

            “I don’t know what to say.  You’re impersonating Walter?”

            “Not quite that.  You know how Duplicates work.  I remember everything that he would remember.  There’s no break between him and me, but I’m just a month or so old.”

            “What happened to…the real Walter?”

            “Dead.  Accident.  Rock fragment through his skull.”  He shook his head.  “I know more than he knew, of course.  I know Duplicates are harmless.  I am sent to convey information, false information while the others moved to a new location.  Then I am just to go as far as I could before anyone realized a Duplicate---”  He grimaced.  “I didn’t forward to living a lie, I can tell you that.”

            “But the missile strike on the base?”

            “They must know.  Something I said, well, they figured it out from something.  They didn’t care about you if it killed me.”  He hesitated, then said, “He loved you, you know.”

            “What about you?”

            He let things fall silent for a long time, as the screens blinked and data displays ran through cycles.  “I…love you, Jenny.”

            “If I could kiss you through this helmet, Walter, I would.”

            “What?”

            “I thought you could be a Duplicate all along.  Just suspicion.  Everything you did or said fit.  But something in me made me suspicious.”

            “You were going to let me go on, knowing I’m a Duplicate?”

            “For a time.  Till I could be sure, one way or another.”

            “You took an awful risk.  You might have died that missile strike.”

            “Maybe they wanted us both dead.”

            Jenny fell silent for a moment; he looked over at her, and she did not at him; she looked down, her eyes almost closed.  “Jenny?” he said.

            He nudged her with his elbow.  She roused and spoke.  “Uh, Walter…there’s something about me you need to know.”

            What she planned to tell him came up in his mind.  “You’re a Duplicate?”

            She nodded.  “My---Jenny’s---craft spun and wrecked about a day away, searching out a possible Duplicate colony.”

            “More than a possible colony,” he said, “a real one.”

            “’Fraid so.”  She kept her head turned away from him as she spoke.  “Jenny’s body was crushed, but her memories were salvageable.  I’m the result.”

            “And you took a week to get back to base in the wreckage.”  He hesitated, then said, “Jenny---well, I never suspected at all.”

            “I don’t think I could pass the tests.  I’m glad I got there first.”  She hesitated, then said, “You never were the brightest bulb on the tree, Walter.”

            He thought better of saying something raw, but said, instead, “I suppose I shouldn’t go on calling you Jenny, any more than you should be calling me Walter.”

            “I suppose not.

            “And we’re not the people we might think we are, despite memories.”

            She nodded.

            “Well, it may not be much, and it may not be for long.  But I’d like to know you better, whoever you are.  And we should head for one of the Duplicate colonies in the meantime.”

            “You mean you---and me?  You accept that I’m a Duplicate, just like that?”

            “Just like that.  Duplicate, human…it doesn’t matter.  They tried to kill both of us, Jenny.”

            She shrugged.  “I guess you’re right.”

            “But if you’re a Duplicate, Jenny, well…”

            “What, Walter?”

            He lowered his voice, as if someone could listen in.  “That means we’ve got a lot in common.   It could be a, a second first chance, for both of us.  Now…let’s go.”  He shook her hands off his wrists, and plotted an asteroid-hopping course.  Maybe a day before power failure, but that should put them near to something that could be of help.

            The woman who wasn’t Jenny slipped her arm around his neck.  “I’d kiss you if our helmets didn’t get in the way.”

            “We can’t afford pressure.  Just hang on tight, and if nothing interferes, we’ll take it up later.  Right?”  He looked at her and grinned.

            She didn’t grin.  “We don’t have much of a chance this way.”

            “We don’t have any chance any other way.  Agreed?”

            “Right.”  She grinned back.  He hit the keys.  The craft powered up, then grabbed the fabric of space and headed into the dark.

 

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