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December 08, 2004

Chapter Nineteen

The response was immediate. Seconds after Van Doren's recounting of Michelle's last memory, the room erupted in a smell that can truly only be described as utterly fucking rank.

Somewhere in the smell processing centers of my brain, my olfactory nerves handed in their resignations; Miranda moaned, turned away, and threw up. Van Doren, still connected to Gwedif, appeared unaffected. Later I found out Gwedif had suppressed his olfactory sense. Lucky bastard.

"Uh oh," Joshua said. "Now we've done it."

I leaned over Miranda and tried to help her. "Jesus, Joshua," is said, perhaps redundantly. "What's happening?"

"Remember what Gwedif said about the vote not being unanimous?" Joshua asked.

"Yeah," I said. "So?"

"Well, actually, it was. The senior officers were all against having Gwedif probe Michelle. All of them."

"What? So why did we go ahead?" I said.

Gwedif piped in. "The ientcio overruled them, Tom. On the grounds that it was important to see how accurate Joshua's interpretation of the event was, not because of your arguments. He said he was confident that Joshua's version was the correct one, and that it would only be polite to fulfill your request, as you are our friend and partner."

"He did this as a favor?" I was suddenly and uncontrollably outraged. "Hey, fuck him. And fuck you for going along with it, Gwedif. I'm not interested in favors for the sake of appearances. I'm trying to offer your fucking people what you said you want."

"Tom, please," Gwedif said. He voice sounded strained; I wondered how much of it was actual strain he was allowing me to hear, and how much was play acting, since the voice was an artificial way for him to communicate. "You don't know what's been going on around here."

"Enlighten me," I said.

"The senior officers aren't the only ones who are opposed to the idea of allowing Joshua to take control of your friend's body. Nearly everyone on the ship is. The taboo against inhabiting a thinking being against its will is extremely strong for Yherajk. It's entrenched in our culture in ways you can't appreciate."

"It's worth about five or six of the Ten Commandments," Joshua said.

"That's a flip way of putting, but yes," Gwedif agreed. "And now you come and want us to throw aside all that entrenched thought, Tom. Frankly, there's a large group of Yherajk on this ship who think your request may be proof that humans aren't ethically developed enough for us to be involved with at all. They want to call this all off."

"But it's not as if Michelle is alive," I said. "She's brain dead. Dead."

"We don't have brains, Tom," Gwedif said. "'Brain dead' is not a concept that has a direct translation. It doesn't come across to us. For Yherajk, there is body death, which doesn't necessarily mean the death of the personality. And there's soul death, which doesn't necessarily mean the death of the body. But if a Yherajk inhabits the body of another Yherajk, its because he's caused the soul death of the other. Murder, Tom. This looks and feels like murder to us."

"But she's gone," I said, almost plaintively.

"It's a distinction without difference," Gwedif said, quietly. "At least, for most of us. That's why the ientcio had to say that he was being polite."

"Huh?" I said.

"Christ, Tom, you can be dense sometimes," Joshua said, irritably. "The only way that the ientcio could get the rest of the senior officers to go along was by saying that we ought to honor your request for the sake of politeness. The senior officers went along with it because they had expected my version of the events to play out. Now that it didn't they've got a whole new thing to think about. And you've got your foot in the proverbial door."

I took a minute to let what Joshua said sink in. "Wow," I said, finally. "They must not be very happy with you at the moment, Joshua."

"They're not," Joshua said. "Screw 'em. They were being provincial about it."

"But you were against it, too," I reminded him.

"Sure," Joshua said. "I'm still not entirely thrilled about the idea, to tell you the truth. But now I know that Michelle didn't really want to die. That helps. And also, you're right. This would probably be the best way for the Yherajk to meet humanity."

"I'm glad you've come around," I said.

"Don't get cocky," Joshua said. His tongue rolled out of his doggy mouth.

"What happens now?" I asked Gwedif.

"Now we argue," Gwedif said. "We have to see if the senior officers can wrap their minds around the concept of human death. Once we've done that, we might get them to see the wisdom of having Joshua inhabit this body. It could take some time."

"Hope you brought a good book with you," Joshua said.

Miranda, who had been slumped at my side, moved. "Do we need to be here for this?" she said. "If they yell anymore, I may have to barf up a lung."

"I'm sorry," Gwedif said. "You're right. No, you don't have to be here. This is something the officers will have to hash out for themselves. I can take you back to your car, if you like."

"I have to pee," Van Doren said, coming out of his daze. Gwedif disconnected; Van Doren's nose immediately scrunched up in disgust.

"I thought I told you to go before we left," Joshua said. "Now you're just going to have to hold it."

"Really?" Van Doren said.

"No, not really," Joshua said. "Hmmmm. We don't really have bathrooms, though. Let's go see if we can go find you a secluded corner or something."

Joshua and Van Doren went off to find a bathroom substitute; Gwedif, Miranda and I headed back to the ambulance. Miranda opened the back and crawled onto the stretcher there. Gwedif took his leave of us, promising news as soon as it happened.

I got into the back of the ambulance with Miranda and started rummaging around. "I thought I saw water around here somewhere," I said. "Though it might have been plasma. I'm not sure."

"If you find it, give me some," Miranda said. "I've got the great taste of vomit in my mouth and I want it out."

"Water or plasma?" I asked.

"At this point I really don't care," she said. She rolled on her back and covered her eyes with her arm. "God. What a bizarre day."

"So what do you think of the Yherajk?" I said. "Everything you ever wanted in an alien civilization and more?"

"They're fascinating," Miranda said, languidly. "An entire people, amazingly technologically and ethically advanced, all in desperate need of Dr. Scholl's foot deodorizers. Where's that water?"

"Here," I said, handing her the bottle I found. "This is clear, at the very least."

"Good enough," she said. She propped herself up on her elbow and took a slug. Then she offered the bottle to me. "Want some?"

"What, after you put your vomit-coated mouth on it? I don't think so," I said. "Besides, I don't know where you've been."

"Yes you do."

"Well, over the last twenty four hours or so, yes," I said. "But before that, it's all one big, scary, dangerous blank. Twenty seven years worth of blank. Yikes."

"You're silly," Miranda said. "All my time is spent at work. When I'm not at work, I'm at home. No mystery there." She patted the stretcher. "Come take a nap with me."

"I think I should stay awake," I said. "Gwedif might come back."

"Tom, it smelled so bad in there that I threw up," Miranda said. "I think it will be a while."

"There's not enough room on that stretcher for both of us," I said.

"Don't be a baby," Miranda said. "I don't bite."

"I'm bitterly disappointed to hear that."

"Get me sometime when I'm not so tired," Miranda said.

I maneuvered onto the stretcher.

"See," Miranda said. "That wasn't so bad."

"I've got a metal rail in my back," I said.

"It builds character," Miranda said.

"Just what I need now," I said. "Character. Oh, great. I've got the extra arm."

"What?" Miranda said.

"When two people are in the same bed together, there's always an arm that gets in the way. It's this one."

"We're not in bed," Miranda said. "We're in a stretcher."

"Same concept," I said. "Even more so, in fact."

"Well, move it."



"Here? That doesn't help."

"Here, then."

"If I keep it here, my entire arm will fall asleep. Ouch. No."

"You are a baby," Miranda. "How about here?"

"Wow," I said. "That is comfortable. How did you do that?"

"Hush," Miranda said. "I should have some secrets."

We were asleep in seconds.


We woke when Van Doren pulled open the doors of the ambulance. "Rise and shine, sleepy heads," he said, rather too cheerily.

Miranda grabbed at the water bottle and chucked it half-heartedly at Van Doren. "Die screaming," she said.

"Remind me not to be around you in the morning," Van Doren said.

"I don't think you'll need to worry about that one," Miranda said.

"Sorry to wake you guys up, but the senior officers have come to a decision and they want you guys to come," Van Doren said.

"A decision?" I said. "How long have we been asleep?"

"About six hours," Van Doren said.

"Six hours? Jesus, Jim," I struggled to get up without putting an elbow into Miranda. "Michelle's portable respirator only had a quarter charge in it."

"Relax," Van Doren said. "They recharged the battery."

"How did they do that?" I asked.

"These people use their technology to travel trillions of miles, and you ask how they can recharge a battery," Van Doren said. "Sometimes you're just not too bright."

"What have you been doing all this time?" Miranda asked Van Doren.

Van Doren puffed himself up, mock pridefully. "While you two were wasting time sleeping, I wandered around this place. Not bad. Although I have to say if we ever plan any joint human-Yherajk spaceship, they're going to have to come up with taller passageways. The top of my head is bruised. Enough chatter. I was sent to get you. They'll be annoyed with me if I show up by myself."

"Go on without me," Miranda said. "I'll just stay here and nap a little longer."

"No can do," Van Doren said. "They specifically asked for you to come, Miranda."

Miranda sat up when she heard this. "Why?"

"Do I look like I can interpret their smell language?" Van Doren said. "They didn't give me reasons. They just asked for both of you. Now, as Tom once said to me, less talk. More walk. Get up."

When we got to the meeting room, it was much less stench-filled than when we left it. Still, the residue of the hours-long debate wafted in the air of the room, like the echoes after a rally; it smelled like the lion cage at the zoo after a particularly large meal had been consumed.

"Tom, Miranda, Jim," Gwedif said, as we entered. "Welcome back."

"Thank you, Gwedif," I said. "It smells much better in here now."

"It got worse before it got better," Gwedif confided. "At some points it was so thick in here that we had to stop to clear the air."

"We use that expression, too," I said.

"Yes, but you don't mean it literally," Gwedif said.

Joshua, who had been conferring with one of the Yherajk, trotted over and spoke to Gwedif. "Got the last-minute objection ironed out," he said. "We're ready."

"Very well," Gwedif said. "Should you speak or should I?"

"It's your show, big man," Joshua said. "Far be it from me to steal your thunder."

"All right, then," Gwedif said, and wafted out a not-too-obnoxious odor. The Yherajk on the risers, who had been clustered in groups, broke out of the groups and arrayed themselves in their formal positions. When they had gotten to their places, Gwedif spoke to us.

"The ientcio wishes me to inform you that after much debate, the senior officers have decided, at this juncture, to withdraw all opposition on moral ground to Joshua's inhabitation of your friend's body," he said. "Be aware that this does not mean that the senior officers have fully resolved the overarching philosophical and ethical issues at hand. Far from it, in fact. Be that as it may, the senior officers have come to agree that what is moral and ethical for Yherajk may not have an exact analogue for humanity, and that this is likely to be one of those issues where the analogue does not exist. If nothing else comes of this, you may at least have the consolation that you've introduced a new philosophical issue for the Yherajk to argue about for at least a century or two."

"I didn't mean to cause trouble," I said, looking at the Yherajk that I assumed was the ientcio. "You have to believe that I meant well."

"The ientcio says he understands that you humans have a phrase -- 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.' He suggests that this may be a case where that phrase might apply."

"Possibly," I said. "But we also have another phrase, 'You have to go through Hell before you get to Heaven.' It might also apply."

"The ientcio agrees that it might indeed," Gwedif said.

"I can't believe you just quoted a Steve Miller tune to the leader of an alien race," Van Doren, standing next to me, muttered under his breath.

"Shut up," I muttered back. "It worked."

"With the ethical issues in this case tabled at least for the moment, we have one final issue to confront," Gwedif said. "But there is a complication. It involves one of you."

"Which one?" I asked.

"Before I can answer that, I have to request something," Gwedif said. "We have to ask something of one of you. That person must answer a question, and that answer must be truthful, arrived at without coercion from the other two of you. There's a number of ways that we could do this, but the most convenient would simply be that the one of you asked the question to answer it without conferring with others."

"How would you do that?" I asked.

"We'd ask the other two of you to step away and turn around."

"Kind of low-tech, isn't it?" Van Doren asked.

"You'd prefer electrodes or something?" Gwedif said, breaking formality for just a second.

"Well, no," Van Doren admitted.

"Then I suggest we do it my way," Gwedif said. "Will you all agree to this?"

We all nodded our assent.

"The person is Miranda," Gwedif said.

"Crap," Miranda sighed. "It figures."

"Tom, Jim, please turn around and step back," Gwedif said. "Please listen, but do nothing else."

We did as we were told.

"Now, Miranda," we heard Gwedif said. "As I'm sure you know, your friend Michelle's mind is severely damaged. Even if Joshua were to attempt to inhabit the body, he would not be able to control it, because of the severity of the brain damage."

"I understand that," I heard Miranda say.

"Normally, this would be the end of the issue," Gwedif said. "But Joshua has suggested another avenue that we have never explored. Simply put, it involves removing Michelle's remaining personal memories, then replacing the damaged brain, and using a template of another, similar brain to control Michelle's body."

"My brain," Miranda said.

"That's right," Gwedif said. "By examining how your brain functions and handles body operation, it's possible that Joshua might be able to train his own body to mimic your total brain function, and then use those functions to handle Michelle."

"Will that really work?" Miranda asked.

"We don't know. There are several issues that complicate matters. The first, of course, is whether Joshua can successfully map your brain at all, well enough to have that map control a human body. The second issue is whether the way your brain handles your body is at all similar to the way Michelle's brain handled hers. There are bound to be subtle differences, and possibly some that are not so subtle. The advantage would be that it would help give Joshua an even better idea of what it is to be human. It's also the only idea we've come up with that has a chance, however small, of succeeding."

"Why can't you use Tom's brain or Jim's brain as a model?" Miranda asked. "They're human, too."

"Yes, but they're men," Gwedif said. "On the level of bodily function, this presents obvious problems, since men and women are physically sexually differentiated. Tom's brain or Jim's brain aren't prepared, for example, to handle something like menstruation."

"There's a comment that works on a whole bunch of levels," Miranda said.

"I'll bet," Gwedif said. "Beyond the physical issues, men and women also have different cognitive structure to their brains -- they use different parts of their brains to handle the same tasks. They're different enough that it would just make sense to use a woman's brain if we can. In a way, it's very lucky that you found out about Joshua; otherwise the chances of success for this idea would be even lower than they already are."

"How would you make a template of my brain?" Miranda asked. "Would you do what you did with Jim?"

"It's going to be quite a bit more involved than that, I'm afraid," Gwedif said. "Joshua would literally have to go swimming in your brain, examining each part of it, discovering how it functions and how it relates to every other part. He did this to some extent with Ralph, the dog whose body he inhabited, but in that case he had a couple of weeks to do it, and it was a fairly organic process. This will be much quicker and more invasive. There is some potential for injury on your part. We feel that it is small, but we would be remiss not to bring it up."

"What happens to Michelle's brain?" Miranda said. "I mean, the one that's in there right now?"

"I suppose we'd get rid of it," Gwedif said. "It serves no further purpose at that point. It's already terribly damaged, and if we can't get this to work, your friend Michelle will be dead regardless."

"That's terrible," Miranda said, and I could hear a trace of bitterness in her voice. "She deserves better than to have her brain, or any part of her, just thrown in the trash. Any of us do."

"I understand," Gwedif said. "And we're all very aware of your opposition to having Joshua inhabit the body. That's why we need to ask you, without input from Tom or Jim, whether you would do this. You will possibly be risking your own life and your own brain for something that is not likely to work. If it does not, your friend will certainly die. If it does, your friend is still dead and another person will have taken her place. This is your decision, Miranda. It can be made by no one but you."

I suddenly felt my hand taken up by Miranda's. "It's funny," she said. "I understand why you don't want me to ask Tom or Jim about it. I know how much this means to Tom. I don't know what it means to Jim, but if I had to guess, I'd say that he'd agree with Tom. But I think that either of them would tell me to make up my own mind. I'm sure of it, in fact."

I squeezed Miranda's hand fiercely. She squeezed it back briefly, and then let it go.

"I have a few more questions," Miranda said.

"Of course," Gwedif said.

"If Joshua goes into my brain, will he be making a copy of me?"

"I'll answer that," I heard Joshua said. "Miranda, no. I don't have any interest in things like your memories, just the way your brain handles your body."

"But who I am isn't just my memories, it's how I see the world," Miranda said. "Part of that's got to be how my brain works."

"Well, yes," Joshua said. "But, remember that your brain pattern is going to be overlaid onto my personality as it is now, and that Michelle's memories will also be in a mix. The end result is going to be something that's part you, part me, and part Michelle. And part Ralph the dog, now that I think about it. It's going to be a wild time inside that skull, let me tell you."

"How much of Michelle is going to be in there?" Miranda asked.

"I haven't decided yet," Joshua said. "I have to see what works and what doesn't."

"You have to promise me that you have as much of Michelle in there as possible," Miranda said. "And not just memories, Joshua. Anything of her that can be salvaged."

"I don't know if I can do that," Joshua said. "It may make it more difficult to inhabit the body."

"I don't care," Miranda said. "If you need me to do this, you have to live with my conditions. That's my condition. You and I don't belong in that body, Joshua. She does. I want as much of her in there as can be there. Or we have no deal."

"You understand that what you're asking may put you yourself at additional risk," Gwedif said. "Joshua will have to spend more time integrating your brain with what remains of her brain. The longer he has to be in your brain, the more dangerous it is for you."

"I figured as much," Miranda said. "But it's important to me. And it's the only way I'll do it."

"Are you sure?" Joshua asked.

"I am," Miranda said.

"All right," Joshua said. "I'll do it your way."

"Then I'll do it," Miranda.

It was only after I relaxed that I realized I was tense. I turned around.

"When do we start?" Miranda asked Joshua

"As soon as you're ready," Joshua said. "You might want to have that extra stretcher from the ambulance to rest on, though. It's going to be a long, drawn out process."

"I'll make arrangements," Gwedif said, and slid away to do so. Joshua stepped back to the risers, apparently to confer with the senior officers. I went to Miranda, who stood there, looking drained.

"You're a star," I told her.

She smiled wanly. "I bet you say that to all the girls," she said.

"Sure," I said. "But I really mean it this time."

Miranda laughed a little, and then rested her head on my shoulder and cried just a little bit as well. Van Doren, who had been watching us, decided this was a good time to stare at a far wall. "Oh, Tom," Miranda said, finally. "I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing."

"You'll be fine," I said. "You'll be just fine. I'll stay with you, if you want."

"And have you see me with aliens digging into my skull?" Miranda smiled more widely and wiped her eyes, clearing away the film of tears. "I don't think so, Tom. I don't think we're at that point in our relationship yet."

"I guess that's true," I said. "Most couples would save the alien probe scene until at least the tenth anniversary. You know, to add some zip to a stale relationship. We're just way ahead on that curve."

Miranda placed her hand on my cheek. "Tom," she said, not unkindly. "Right now, that's nowhere as funny as you think it is."


Miranda, Michelle and Joshua wheeled away towards the Yherajk medical area, shapeless Yherjak pooling on the sides of the stretchers, pulling it along. Van Doren and I looked at each other. We had no idea what to do with ourselves now. Gwedif, who remained with us, offered a full tour. I accepted, and Van Doren tagged along, apparently excited at the idea of actually understanding what it was he was looking at this time.

The rest of the ship was as visually unappealing as what we had already seen: corridor and rooms carved out of the stone of the asteroid, smoothed over and filled with the Yherajks' equipment. For all intents and purposes, we could have been at a science lab anywhere on the planet -- everything functional, none of it esthetically pleasing.

Gwedif, who was trying to keep us distracted from our concern about Miranda and Michelle, acknowledged that for us the ship might not be tremendously exciting to look at. That's the problem with our species having different primary sensory organs, he said. It's really fascinating to smell, he assured us. Of course, most of the smells on the ship would make us pass out from their potency if we didn't have noseplugs. Which Gwedif also admitted put a damper on the wonder of the ship.

The one area of the ship that I found the most interesting was what Gwedif labeled as the art gallery, with the tivis that Gwedif described to Carl. Like everything else on the ship, the tivis weren't much to look at -- they looked like shallow bowls left on the floor, with blackened crusts of something surrounded by wires. Gwedif steered us to one, suggested we sit down to get closer to the tivis, and then slid a tendril into a slot on the floor near the tivis.

The tivis immediately started to warm up; the wires were apparently heating elements. Through my noseplugs, I smelled something acrid, but I was also immediately overwhelmed by a sense of wistfulness, with overtones of happiness but the slightest bit of regret. It was the feeling you get when you see an old girlfriend, realize that she's a wonderful person, and that you were kind of an idiot to let her go, even if you're happily married now. I mentioned this (without the drama) to Gwedif.

"It worked, then," Gwedif said. "Tivis work by stimulating certain emotions through smells. This one," he pointed to the one we were at, "is actually fairly crude -- it's just one primary emotion with only a couple of emotional harmonics. Any of us could have made it, actually. It's the tivis equivalent of a paint-by-numbers. Some of our tivis masters can create works of incredible emotional depth, layering emotion on emotion in unexpected combinations. You can get really worked up over a good tivis."

"I'll bet," I said. "These could go over real big on earth. You need to introduce me to some of the Yherajk who make these."

"Looking for clients already?" Gwedif said.

"I've already got all of you as clients, Gwedif," I said. "Now I just need to find out which ones of you need individual attention."

We sampled a few more tivis before I got restless and wanted to return to the ambulance. If I was going to be worried, I wanted to be worried near something familiar. Van Doren came with me. We hung around the ambulance for an hour before Van Doren fished through the glove compartment and unearthed a pack of cards. We played gin. Van Doren kicked my ass; he apparently didn't believe or understand the concept of a friendly game of cards. After I got sick of cards, I grabbed a blanket out of the ambulance, spread it out on the floor of the hangar and willed myself into another nap.

I awakened this time by someone sticking their toe in my side. I swatted at the leg. It jabbed, harder.

"Wake up," Someone said. It was Michelle's voice.

I spun up, whacking my head on the ambulance as I struggled to get up. Michelle stood before me, naked. There was a crooked and slightly sardonic grin on her face. Never in all the years that I knew her had she ever had an expression like that. Sardonicism would have been a little much to ask out of Michelle.

"Joshua?" I asked.

"You were expecting maybe Winston Churchill?" Joshua said. "By the way, I think you might as well start calling me Michelle. There are very few people who look like this," she motioned to her body, "That would be called Joshua."

"All right....Michelle," I said.

Van Doren came over and frankly stared at Michelle's naked form. "Wow," he said. "I may have to revise that comment about taking you off my list of women to date."

"Back off, jerky," Michelle said.

"I just can't win," Van Doren complained.

"I guess we can say the transfer was a success," I said.

"It was easier than I thought," Michelle said. "It helped that Gwedif had rummaged around through a human brain before. When I first suggested the idea of going into Miranda's brain, he shared his knowledge with me so I didn't have to fly completely blind. And Miranda was very open as well. Between the two of them, we made some remarkable progress."

"Where is Miranda?" I asked.

"She's sleeping," Michelle said. "The experience took a lot out of her."

"Is she all right?" I said. "I mean, no damage to her?"

"Other than fatigue, no, none," Michelle said. "Though you might give her a few days off when we get back. Let her rest up."

"She can take the rest of the year off," I said.

"Give her a raise, too," Michelle said. "Hazard pay."

"Pretty soon she'll be making more than I do," I said.

"And about time, don't you think," Michelle said.

"How much of you is you?" Van Doren asked Michelle.

"Which me are you talking about?" Michelle said. "Joshua, Michelle or Miranda?"

"Michelle, for starters."

"There's actually quite a bit of who Michelle was in here," Michelle said. "Miranda's insistence on that matter made me take a look at the whole picture again. It took more time to get it all in, but now I agree with Miranda. It was the right thing to do. Now, I did do some judicious editing. Miranda's natively smarter and has more common sense than Michelle. In those matters, I had a tendency to model the template towards Miranda than Michelle. And at the end of it, everything that was Joshua is in here too, although a lot of it is being subsumed by the parts from Miranda and Michelle. I'm much more human than I was before. And yet I retain all my endearing qualities from before. Truly, a perfect being."

"And modest, too," Van Doren said.

"Feh on you," Michelle said. "I'm going to remember that comment when the revolution comes."

The door to the hangar opened and a stretcher wheeled out, pulled along by Yherajk. Miranda lay on it. She smiled and waved as her stretcher was pulled up to where we stood.

"You ought to be sleeping," Michelle said, severely.

"You ought to be dressed," Miranda said.

"That hospital gown was so not me," Michelle said. "I've retained Michelle's fashion sense."

"I urged her to rest, but she insisted on coming back here," Gwedif said. He was one of the Yherajk pulling the stretcher.

"How are you?" I asked.

"I'm fine," Miranda insisted. "I feel like my sinuses were used as a bypass for the 405, but that's over with. Now I want to go home. It's been fun having an alien probe, really, but I have plants to water and a cat to feed. I've already missed two feedings. I miss one more, and I get classified as food myself."

"Is she well enough to move?" I asked Michelle.

"She's fine," Michelle said. "But I still think she needs some more rest."

"I can sleep on the way down," Miranda said.

"Good luck with that," Michelle said.

"Don't make me get huffy," Miranda threatened. "Besides, we have to go back. You need to be outfitted, Michelle."

"That's true," Michelle admitted. "There is much shopping to be done. We should head back immediately. Stores are about to open."

"Do we all have to go back?" Van Doren said. We all turned to him. He shifted, slightly uncomfortable. "If no one minds, I'd like to stay here for a while."

"Why?" I asked.

"If my job is to be the storyteller for this little venture of ours, then it stands to reason that I should spend time getting to know the Yherajk," Van Doren said. "I think Gwedif and I could stand to spend a little more time together. I want to get this story right, Tom. Besides, it's not like I have anything going on back on earth. I don't even have a cat. And this way you're guaranteed that I'm out of your hair."

"Gwedif?" Michelle asked.

"I don't mind," Gwedif said. "It could be valuable, in fact. It could be helpful in figuring out what we need to do to make the Ionar more friendly to humans."

"Start with air freshener," Van Doren suggested.

"Watch it," Gwedif said.

We said our goodbyes to Van Doren and Gwedif. Miranda, still in her stretcher, lay in the back; Michelle, still naked, stayed in back with her. Two Yherajk pilots arrived and positioned themselves; in a moment a platform formed beneath them and a transport cube began taking shape. Behind the wheel, I waved again at Gwedif and Van Doren. Then the cube wall slid higher, obscuring the view.

Michelle poked her head up to the front. "Well, you did it," she said. "You got me into this body. You've made me a human. What are we going to do now?"

"It depends," I said. "How well do you think you can act?"

Michelle snorted. "Better than I could before, that's for sure."

"Well, then," I said. "I have a plan."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:50 PM