This story is posted for the exclusive enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. While you are free to make a personal copy, no copy of this manuscript may be published, copied, posted to another web site, or otherwise disseminated without express permission from the author, who retains copyright.
The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to living or lived persons is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.
Chapter IX - Dancers
While Bill and Rob were gone, Cary and me worked on the Deere, just to get him familiar with the Diag Unit. He learned pretty quick, but it was obvious he'd not be able to use it on his own for a long time. I think he has a problem with spatial conceptualization, and can't twist the readings from the Unit in his mind to correspond to the mechanical problem. I was gentle when I tried to tell him it would take him some time to figure out, but he knew right away what I was saying.
"I know I'm not as 'telligent as some," he said in a soft voice, looking at me with his big puppydog eyes. "But I'll learn it, Graham. I will. I'm just not quick like Rob."
"Nothing to do with intelligence, son." I put my hand on his shoulder, to show him I cared, wasn't just spouting words. "God gives out his gifts to all his creatures in equal total, but the measures are different for each of us. I ain't all that strong in the thinking department, neither. But He gave me other things to make up for it. I gotta feel for what makes things work, like it was in my fingertips, and I can add columns of numbers in my head, but I can't read too good. Can't sing, neither."
"You can't read?"
"Not really good," I said. "The words sorta get mixed around into nonsense unless I read them one at a time, so I read so slow it takes a hour to get through a page, sometimes."
"That has been corrected," Groth said. Just to me.
"I know that!" I said back without it being out loud. "He needs buildin' up right now. I'm not going to see him hurting if I can help it. Butt out."
"Will you help me? Learn it?" Cary said. "I don't want to look bad for Rob."
"Of course, Cary. You'll do fine. You just don't worry about it," I said, taking my hand from his shoulder. I had the insight, finally. I can be pretty dense sometimes. "He means a lot to you, Rob does." I turned back to the Diag Unit.
"I . . .we . . ."
"It's okay son." I said softly. "God didn't put us here to hate each other. He put us here to love, one the other. Sometimes loving someone that society says we shouldn't. He decided whether you two should love each other, not nobody else, and they ain't nobody else gotta say in it."
"Acourse," I lied - but only a little, Lord, only to make it easier for him, I swear. "It don't matter to me. Maybe it did, though - a guy what has a partner is gen'rally more reliable than one that ain't."
'He's not . . . I mean we haven't really got that far. I mean, not yet. Not really partners . . . not yet. I don't . . . "
"Us neither," I said without thinking, without hesitating.
"You and Bill?"
"But he's . . . I thought he was . . . was your son, or maybe your . . . nephew or . . . "
"He's my man," I said so bluntly it made me cringe inside.
"Don't you worry that maybe . . . I mean, like your ages are so different, what happens to him when you . . . uh . . ."
"Well," he stammered, "That, or get sick, or . . . I don't know."
"God will decide that. I just have one job to do. Make him happy for as long as I can, till Death do us part, if that's His will, if He gives us that long, if Bill wants it - and leave him feeling better for loving me than if he had maybe loved someone else."
I didn't want to get involved in a long conversation about it - wasn't completely comfortable just spitting it out, and all, so I got back to instructing him on the Diag, trying to keep things as simple as I could without sounding like I was talkin' down at him. He seemed to follow okay.
I lost his attention entirely when he heard Rob's truck coming up the approach road. Thing has a loose tailgate from when Rob got hit by somebody last year - have to remember to remind Rob to solder the top bar of the frame bracket on the rear bumper before we leave.
We ate Charlene's hearty Dinner like starved men, leaving nary a crumb, except the broccoli. Bill and me et more than our shares of it, but the lads didn't touch it. Habits die hard.
I told Rob and Cary they could knock off at three as we were throwing the rubbish into the plastic sacks, as we was making good progress on the tractors. I expected them to be pleased, but of course I mistook them, still.
"We can help you in the Hangar, if you like," said Cary, after glancing at Rob. "We know you're under a lot of pressure, just now."
"I wouldn't quite put it that way," I said. "We've got a lot to do, but the Garage will be up and running in another week or so. You lads take a little time for yourselves, now. There'll be plenty of work tomorrow."
In a flash of insight, I recognized (or figured I had) their worry. "Don't worry about the wages - I'll punch you out at five, like always."
"Thanks, Graham," said Rob. "We're a little strapped, what with saving up for . . . well, what with having to save up."
It wasn't the enthusiastic response I'd expected. I wondered what they were saving up for, of course.
Bill went back to the Ship to learn more, and I worked with Rob and Cory until almost three, then shooed them on home. It was a gorgeous day, and the heat wasn't as intense as the weekend had been, so they could laze in the sun for a while. Or make love. I felt a twinge of envy. That they could, but not us. But I didn't think it. Wrong to do.
As soon as they left, laughing and waving at me as I watched them leave, I closed the door tight and went into the Ship, to the Control Room. Bill was standing at the Learning console, oblivious to my kiss on the back of his neck, as he absorbed more information from the Ship on hooking up the control panels. Taking a pair of rods on the learning center in my hands, I was soon doing about the same, except I was concentrating more on the inner neural circuitry links than the external connections.
"Enough for now," said Groth, after I'd understood the method of fusing the links with a tiny laser-guided (but an electron 'aser,' or elaser, I guess) tool, focused to a tolerance of no more than half a micron, mounted on a frame which attached onto an inside or outside track of the outer "donut" of the Drive. I would only determine when and where the fusing would be done, Groth would control the length and intensity of the "burns." Fusing biochemical circuits is no task for a living mechanic - the tolerances are just too small.
Bill came off his lessons at the same time as I did, and after a quick trip through the Optimizer emptied my bowels and my bladder, we donned the sterile gloves and manhandled the third control panel into the Drive, in really good time - no more than an hour. As before, we talked little, the effort of moving and controlling the panel sapping our strength.
"Shall we do the last one before we leave for Supper?" I asked Bill.
"Might as well," said Bill. "Groth, you all right with that?"
"Affirmative," said Groth. "It is now five fifteen. You can be done by six thirty if there are no problems."
"You watched 'Forbidden Planet,' didn't you Robbie/" said Bill playfully as we went into the Optimizer on our Ship. "Or was it 'The Terminator?" I can't tell."
"I do not understand the motivation for the question," said Groth. "Nor the reason why you addressed me as 'Robbie,' unless to incite at the comparison of myself to a theatrical stage prop rather badly representing a mobility unit.'
"You talk like Robbie." Bill said.
"I used the word 'affirmative' to ensure your understanding," said Groth.
"Did I detect a very slight, almost defensive petulance there?" I asked, winking at Bill as we lay on the "beds" of the Optimizer.
"There is nothing about which to be defensive," Groth said.
"Try just saying 'yes' on occasion," one of us said just before we drifted off.
He outgunned us on that one. But we made our point.
We awoke a few minutes later, laughing at his smartass answer, refreshed and ready for bear.
"I can't believe we got your goat," said Bill as we donned the gloves, already walking towards the Fourth Ship's stairway, where the last power panel awaited us.
"You did not 'get my goat,' as you put it."
"Then why did you use sardonic irony in answering our last question?" Bill asked.
"It seemed the human response best suited to the situation," Groth said aloud. "It is the response a subordinate would give to a commander issuing simplistic orders."
"Only to one he did not respect," I said.
"I see," said Groth, as we pulled the panel away from the Stairway. "The English language is more complex in its usage of terms than other languages. The vocabulary is more convoluted. Push slightly harder on the rear starboard, at the handle, please."
We lost our train of thought in the mechanics of shifting the unit.
Halfway between the two Ships, things got very complicated.
"Your employees are returning," said Groth aloud. "They are 47 meters from the Shop door."
"Oh, shit," I said. "We can't stop now! Groth, can you cloak us?"
"Not while you are wearing the gloves. And you can not release the power panel until it is inside the Drive's Sphere."
"What do we do?" Bill called out to me. "I can stay with the unit, while you head them off."
"No!," said Groth. "Graham alone can not stop the panel before it collides with the Drive."
"Stop the panel!" I hollered at Bill. "As soon as we do, I'll stop them!"
We heaved against the panel, gradually slowing it. My leg and thigh muscles burned from the effort, my arms were on the verge of a cramp.
"Groth, where are they?" I yelled. I didn't need to yell out loud, of course, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. The panel was moving too fast still, I could tell.
"Getting out of their vehicle."
I hunched harder against the handle, sweat pouring from me, my breath ragged. The panel was moving slower. It was maybe ten, fifteen yards from the Drive.
"Bill, you got it?"
"Yeah. Go! Go!"
I let go of my end and ran for the doors to the Shop, barely able to get my breath.
"They are inside the Shop, at the Hangar Door," said Groth.
"Graham! The gloves!"
Too late, I realized I still had on the Decontaminant gloves. I stopped and tried to peel them off, but my perspiration made them stick to my body, my shirt sleeves..
The door opened before I got the first one off.
"We saw the light and . . . " Rob started to say, just as he saw me. Cary stood slightly behind Rob, his eyes as wide as saucers.
"Oh shit!" Rob yelled, looking right at me. "Where's Graham? Graham!" he yelled out. "Graham!" He was almost screaming. Neither of them moved. Just stared at me, eyes wide as dinner plates, mouths open.
"Right here," I said as calmly as I could. The first Glove came off. I started to pull off the second.
"Where!" Rob yelled. "Graham!" he called out.
"Here," I said, as the Glove passed my elbow. I could see the light around me fading.
"Here!" I said again, as the glove came off and the Light haze around me collapsed completely. It probably looked like I just "popped into existence."
"Oh, shit!" said Cary. "You're an Alien!"
"No," I said, still calm despite myself. "A Mechanic. A man!"
"I saw you!" Cary said, looking over my shoulder at Bill. He had a dazed look on his face. "You're an . . . Oh, shit! Shit! Another . . . one!" His voice was on the verge of hysteria. Only on the verge.
"No, I said. "They're just overalls. White light overalls."
"What is that?" Rob said, gesturing at Bill and the panel.
"That's Bill. He's wearing the same type of overall. We're trying to catch up."
"To who?" said Rob. At least he wasn't shouting. Maybe . . .
"We're rebuilding an engine," I said calmly, turning to look at Bill. Just your everyday Alien in bright white light, pushing against a tall rectangular square of bright light, looking like a futuristic Rodin statue. "Our friends need our help. We're late."
"I . . . " Rob started, then just stopped, his eyes getting even wider.
"Faced with the choice of eliminating or converting." Groth said in a steely voice. "I have immobilized them, and am explaining our position."
"NO!" I yelled. "You will not harm them!"
"I would only eliminate the memories. We do not exterminate."
"What's their . . . "
"They are frightened. For themselves. For you. They are not . . . unfriendly. Return to the panel. Hurry!"
"Graham!" yelled Bill. "I can't hold it! Too . . . "
I was already running.
"The gloves. On!" said Groth in my head, urgently.
I tried getting them on as I ran, looking at the panel, moving inexorably towards the Drive, slowly but visibly. I had to stop, finally getting the left one on.
"Do it slowly," said Groth. "Stay calm. Help is possible."
"Rob! Cary! Help us!" I shouted. Groth made me say that. Not made. Asked me to. In a way I couldn't say no.
A stairway "materialized" next to me, it flowed out so fast. Made me jump. Never saw one from this side before. It was steep, almost vertical. Something on it. No time to look. Oh shit, the panel was only six feet from the Drive. The right glove was finally on. I ran like a demon. Bill was almost parallel to the ground, pushing desperately at the gravity platform, his feet only a foot from the Drive.
I got to the panel front, grabbing the side handle at the bottom, pulling back as hard as I could, feeling the ground slip under my feet, pulling me, showing no sign of slowing. I dug in, praying to Him for help, my back straining. I would be sore - I felt a muscle rip.
Suddenly, another pair of legs in the Decontam light running by me, to the other side, grabbing the bottom handle on the other side. It was Cory, popping out of the Light as soon as he touched the handle. I didn't have the extra energy to say anything, except "Pull!" Groth told me to push a little more to the left.
I felt the pressure ease a little. Groth gave directions all the while. I was drenched with sweat, it poured over my eyes, the salt stinging. I heard the others breathing, panting, puffing, grunting, wheezing from the effort. The panel slowed, slowed, and finally stopped. Truth told, it started to move a little in the opposite direction. I felt elated, like we had just won the World Series and the Super Bowl, all at once.
"You can stop for a minute," said Groth. Aloud.
I stood, wiping my face with the shoulder of my sleeve, my shirt already sodden. I was heaving, trying to get my breath. The others, too.
"Did it!" Cory said, standing, still holding onto the handle, his face flushed, beaded with sweat. He let go of the handle and turned into an Alien, then grabbed back at the handle. His face registering sudden surprise on top of the not-yet-faded grin of triumph.
"What is . . . this thing?" he yelled the first two words, just spoke the last, as he half deafened himself in the silence.
"Bill, you all right? Rob?"
"Almost got squished like a bug, back here!" Bill said, not quite laughing. "Thanks, guys!"
"All okay,' said Rob.
"Let's guide this into the slot - we'll explain it all in a minute," I said. "Groth will help you know when to push and pull. Don't worry about it. When you let go of the panel, it will be in the Light again - it's just a wrapper."
We worked it together, and the Drive reached out a little to incorporate the panel in its Decontam Light. We got the panel into position in just a few minutes. It was a lot easier than with two. Smooth. But we were still whipped once it clicked into place.
"You have done well," said Groth. "All of you. I am grateful not to have needed to destroy the panel to protect the drive."
"Who is that?" Rob said, stepping back from the Drive, no longer visible in the Light.
"Rob!" Cary said, lunging after him.
The two "Aliens" touched, stood back from one another, touched again, repeated the sequence.
"Cool!" laughed Cary. "So cool!"
"I am Groth," said the figure that suddenly appeared behind them. He was different from what I had seen at first. He looked more like . . . he looked like a man I've never seen before.
"I appear to all of you the same, now." Groth said in my head. "It is
more efficient to appear as a hybrid of all your acquaintances
than as a separate image to each of you."
We all turned to him, moving together a little, as if for comfort.
"I will explain briefly what we are doing," said Groth.
And he went through a capsule of what had happened, of the Mission to gather our History for preservation, the need to leave quickly, because they could not reach their destination at all unless they departed within ten days, at the most. The work Bill and I were doing, the Ships.
"What ships?" asked Cary, looking around the Hangar. I realized that the lads hadn't yet seen the Ships behind their cloak, only the light of the Drive, the Probe, the tools.
"You're going to love this," said Bill. He was right next to me, peeling off his gloves. Mine were already off, somehow. My shirtsleeves were soaked.
"Please sit on the Hangar floor for a moment," said Groth. "I will show them to you gradually."
"To soften the blow," Groth said in my head. Bill grinned like a Cheshire, so he heard that, too.
Groth 'turned the Ships off' to us as well, hiding them before he started his little show.
There was suddenly a shimmer in the air above us, just a little heat wave, that gradually expanded, widened, took up the whole Hangar above us, took on substance, like a huge long transparent balloon, pinched at the center where the two Ships were joined, and gradually became opaque, then more solid, and finally both Ships came into view, ghostly at first, more rapidly becoming solid, and then they were completely visible, hanging twenty feet over our heads.
They didn't say a word. They just held hands, watching, staring up at the huge Ship above, probably not even noticing the other Ship, their faces like kids under a Christmas tree, huge smiles replacing the tight-lipped masks.
"Groth, you're a show-off," Bill laughed.
"We need them to adjust to the idea," said Groth - a little defensively, it seemed to me. "If they agree to help, we can accomplish the repairs far more quickly."
"Yes," I said in my head. "They are good men."
"They are not . . . as potent as you or Bill," Groth told me. "Nonetheless, you are right. They feel much in their hearts for each other - and for you. They are not sure yet if what I am showing, what I am saying, is true."
"Let me talk to them."
Bill and I walked over to where Cary and Rob were sitting. They looked up at us, then got quickly to their feet.
"It's real," said Cary. "Isn't it?"
"Yes," Bill said. "We need to go inside to clean up."
"Into . . . ?" Rob said, looking up.
"Yes," I said. "The Ship will refresh us, clean us. It won't hurt us at all."
"That's right, isn't it Groth?" I thought.
"Yes - we will make only minor adjustments. Their . . . life spans will not be adjusted, but their organisms will be optimized. They will feel little, except the teeth will be replaced."
"Why always the teeth?"
"Sugar, acid and bacteria. You have not developed the correct hygienic tools as yet." was the only response he gave me.
"Let's go guys," I said. "I need to get out of these clothes." Groth guided us to the bottom of the staircase, waiting for us.
Bill and I sort of herded them to the staircase. It wasn't the one we usually used. It was wider than before, to accommodate the four of us. Didn't seem to be in the same place on the side of the Ship. When we went into the first chamber, the Optimizer flared briefly, so we had to close our eyes, but only for a moment. The chamber was larger - there were four slabs instead of two. No doors, no Groth behind us.
"Where's the . . . other guy?" Rob asked looking down behind us. Groth was no longer there.
"He isn't a real guy," Bill said. "He's sort of a hologram."
"What's that?" Cary said.
"Like the projection of the Princess from the little Robot in Star Wars," said Bill, looking at me. "But not as visible between the projector and the image."
"Oh," they both said.
"We need to lay down on these platforms for a minute," I said to them. "The Ship uses them to give us a rest."
"It won't . . . do anything?"
"Nothing you won't like," Bill said as he lay on the platform closest at hand.
I laid down on mine, watching out of the corner of my eye as Rob and Cary sat on the two platforms I pointed them at, then laid themselves gingerly down.
We were all out at once, and I woke a couple of minutes later, completely refreshed as usual, my clothes clean and dry, no muscle ache, even in my back.
"You strained two muscle groups, but they have been repaired," said Groth.
"Thanks," I muttered, as I watched the others get up.
"Wow!" said Cary. "I feel like I just had a shower! Like I . . . " he walked over to Rob and held his man's hand in both of his.
"You still smell good," Rob said quietly. He looked up at me and blushed. "I mean, not bad . . . I mean he doesn't . . ."
"We know what you mean," laughed Bill, kissing my shoulder.
Groth appeared in a doorway behind Rob and Cary. He never used that side of the chamber before. "There will be a surge of very bright light in a moment. Please cover your eyes, and hold one another."
I needed no excuse, and Bill either. I saw the lads look at us, a little aghast, then they followed suit, almost tentatively. They looked good, together.
The Optimizer light came on, bright as ever, and I prepared myself for the sharp pains. For the first time, I felt almost nothing, just a little twinge in my stomach somewhere.
"Just a small adjustment in the abdominal wall," said Graham. "To help you accommodate . . . to adjust to your love-making."
That meant . . .
"It is important that you feel no pain," Groth said, cutting me off. "Your reconstruction requires more of his genetic material than you have as yet ingested."
I didn't think out loud my reaction to that. I felt that he - Groth - was getting a little too involved in our love life. I don't think he noticed.
The light was only on a few seconds. I wondered why it didn't remain on longer, since there were more of us, and the lads had never been in it before.
"They are in relatively good condition," Groth said. "Their life spans have been extended somewhat by the repairs we have made, to about the human optimum, but we will not need to rebuild their organisms entirely. Several organs have been damaged, and they will be replaced in the next few days if they stay with us. The older one's heart is incorrectly grown, and the younger's pancreas is atrophied."
"Let's go get some Supper," I said. "I've got chicken fixings, plenty of vegetables, potatoes and iced tea. You can help me with a few chores while Bill goes to his place and does his'n."
"But what about . . . " Rob looked at the Ships as we went down the staircase. "What about the repairs?"
"No questions just yet," I said. "We need to sit down and talk it over quiet-like, away from the Ships."
"Ships?" Cary said, looking around. "Oh . . . shit." came out after he realized there was another Ship besides ours. "Oh, shit."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," said Rob, in a sort of wheeze-whisper..
Groth turned off the view in a split second, blowing them away again. Rob just laughed, clapping on Cary's back, as Cary bubbled with pleasure - I'm not sure if it was because he enjoyed the show, or Rob's touch. No matter.
"I'm starving," said Bill.
"Me, too!" said Rob. "Let's go!"
It was like we'd just had an ordinary day, four guys at the garage, except the other two were bubbling with comments on the events of the day. Things like "can you believe how heavy that sucker is!" and "damned gloves only had three fingers," "almost pulled my back, thought I had, but it's okay."
We locked up the Hangar, shut down the lights, and went out. Any time they started asking, we stopped them, telling them we'd explain all over dinner. Once the doors were locked, the two of them jumped in Rob's pickup and tailed the Jeep back to my place. We took the back road, and I saw the dust of Gil Carver's tractor, as well as Ted's. I wondered if he was having trouble keeping up with his parcels. It ain't easy, even for a man as loving of the land as Gil.
Once we go to my place, Bill went to his place to do his chores, at least leaving me a ten-dollar kiss to savor while he was gone. I fed the cat, turned on the oven and got the vegetables and stuff ready for supper, and Rob and Cary pitched right in, after I lit the boiler - feeding the chickens, then plucking a roaster once the boiler was hot. I found the napkins - the wash and wear ones - underneath the big platter when I got it out from under the counter. Had to wash the damned thing - it was all dusty.
I called Elva - Jerry wasn't home yet. We talked a little about the fine weather, how my garage was shaping up, all that. Then the important stuff. Jerry was having some bad spells, she had to ask me not to give him any more bourbon, he couldn't keep for what down mornings, ate only a little at Dinner, managed to get through some of his supper, but not too much.
"He's . . . shrinking inside, Graham," she said. "His clothes just hang on him, more and more. I'm powerful worried on him making Christmas. I don't want him hurting any more."
"Now Elva, take His gifts at a day a time. Doc won't let him hurt. You talk to him?
"We was there yesterday. He gave me some morphia to give him if it gets any worse."
"I'm stuck at the Garage a couple of days and things, Elva. I'll try and come by as soon as I get a hour free."
"He loves you Graham, like you was brethren. He knows you got a power of work, just now. You take care you don't run yerself inta the soil."
"I won't Elva, promise. Young Bill Taggert's helpin' me wi' things. Powerful help. Good man, like his Dad."
"Oh? I wouldn't a thought . . . Well, I'm glad you have help. Jerry would, you know, but he's . . . he's . . .
She dissolved in tears, and my heart ached for her so bad, I felt so helpless, hangin' on the end of my old dial 'phone, holding the base and mouthpiece up to my chest for a second to keep my voice from breaking.
"I'll come by, Elva. Right soon."
"I know," she said. "I'm sorry I . . . "
"Now Elva, you got a right to let it go once in a while. You know I'm with you on this. The Lord will watch over you."
"Thanks, Grammie. I better go. Supper's a-fixing."
"Love you, Sis. Love to Jer."
She hadn't called me Grammie in years. Not since I married.
I stood in the hall at the telephone table for a while, getting through the feelings.
It had been a long while since I had other than Jerry and Elva to my table. They were so precious to me. I shoulda treated them a little more like honored guests than like casual visitors. We don't appreciate how lucky we are to have people we love around us - leasthows, I didn't.
Now I had guest other than family at my table for the first time since my Mary went, and I thought on how lucky I was, how more fortunate than so many. Next time . . .
I wanted them all to feel like I held them a little special at my table. Now was the time to start.
I hauled up another jug of cider from the cellar, and when the lads came in, Rob gutted the hen and dug out the gland, while we started to talk about Groth and the Ships. Cary stuffed the bird with celery and herbs from the little rock herb garden my Mary had first planted when we was just newleweds, then trussed it while Rob watched like a hawk. I don't think Rob knows about cookin.'
I just told them about how I got myself fired that day last week (God! Is that all it was?) by running after the Ship, how I'd been met well by Groth, and how he'd asked for my help to fix a little problem with a water filter.
I threw the hen in the oven along with some scrubbed and pricked russets, and we went out on the porch with four glasses and the jug to wait on Bill, all the time talkin' through things.
I told them 'bout everything from then on, leastways as far as the Ships was concerned, right up to the time our Ship come into the Hangar. I told a little fib about the Drive - I said it had been damaged by a piece of interstellar gravel, traveling real fast, and said nothing about the Ship that was destroyed. I figured it'd be hard for them to understand a Singularity or a Black Hole small as a pea. Just said all the robots had got destroyed in the collision. Not all that much to tell, actually. They was full of questions and things of course, but they at least accepted that they wasn't about to be molested, there was no invasion underway, and I knew no more than I told them about the Mission. By the time Bill got back, I was tired of being grilled, but at least the questions was movin' from the Ship to other things.
"Groth, what time do we need to be back at the Ship?" I asked while Bill was explaining how him and me knew each other. I was amused how he skirted around the fact that I went to school with his grandfathers. He just said he'd known me as a kid, and I was already growed up.
"There are only forty-seven control cards fully fabricated by the Ship, with another one hundred and three in various degrees of maturity, none ready for installation until tomorrow at the earliest. The fourth Ship has thirty-three ready for installation, and eighty-seven more will be ready by the time it leaves tomorrow night. I do not expect it will take more than six hours to install all of the eighty cards now ready, now that there are four of you. Midnight will be early enough, if you wish to relax."
"Would it be possible to come out right after dinner, then knock off when we're done, come back here and get some real sleep?"
"It is not a problem."
" . . . so then I said 'yes' to Groth, and we got started right away," said Bill, his hands finally coming to rest. I swear the man is part Italian. I love it when he talks to me in bed.
"What was the panel we moved today?" asked Rob. Cory was kinda memorizing Rob's face. "That thing weighed more than a slab of lead."
"A whole lot more, you're right. It's super dense," Bill launched in. "It's the last of the four main power panels we had to replace. The rest of the panels are a lot smaller - only weigh about fifty pounds apiece. They're the controls for the Ship's main drive."
"Made of the same stuff? Heavy and all?"
"No - they're mostly light organic. Sort of like circuit boards, but with a lot smaller . . . chips."
"Are you guys gonna live together?" Cary asked out of the blue as I got up to get the vegetables into the microwave, the others following. We could smell the chicken from the porch.
"We haven't got that far yet," Bill said quietly, looking at me for some reason. "But I think we don't have any choice."
"Mean you're not gonna? Keep things on the sly?" Rob said, almost as if he wanted to hear a positive answer.
"Nope." I said. "Means we're not gonna be able to live apart."
Bill looked at me with an expression I couldn't quite make out. Not surprise as much as relief, I think.
"We live together now, but the neighbors are gonna talk after a while," Rob said.
"Who you gonna live your life for?" said Bill. "Them? Or you?"
"Him," said Rob, real quiet. "I don't want Cory gettin' hurt by waggin' tongues."
"I ain't complaining," Cary said. Not loud, but not soft.
"We ain't talked much on it," Rob said.
"That's cause you won't," Cary said, as he helped Bill set out the table. Rob watched me carving the bird as the microwave worked its magic.
"It's not . . . easy," Rob said in a sighing voice.
"Why not?" I asked Rob.
He looked up at me, and I could see mist in his eyes. "I ain't . . . I don't got . . . I don't know."
"He's afraid it won't last," I thought.
"His parents were divorced when he was six," Groth told me. "His father never came back to see him. His mother remarried, then divorced again when he was thirteen. Married again a year later, divorced two years later. Four live-in boyfriends since."
Bill looked at me. I knew he heard what Groth was saying, as well.
"I thought you wouldn't tell a man's secrets to another man."
"The two of you are no longer 'just another man' as far as these two are concerned, or for that matter, any other man. Or as far as I am concerned. As for secrets, I tell you only facts, verified in your public records."
"You already have our public records?"
"All of them have been copied. They are in the Ship memory, alongside the biological data, which is backed up for the Second Ship."
"Not yours? I mean, not your own memory?"
"The Ship memory is a large filing cabinet, with 9.3 x 1038 gigabytes storage capacity, more than adequate to store all information required, but with a slower response time than my memory circuits, on a factor of about eighteen thousand to one."
"But you got the information in less than a second."
"Point zero two seconds."
I had an idea of what Groth was capable. Scary.
"How far do your records go back?"
"Everything your civilization has generated, whether on computer, microfilm, paper, wood, stone or papyrus - or for that matter, any other medium, including radio and television - that has survived and been maintained."
"That must have taken forever!"
"It is a fairly large portion of the overall project, but by no means the largest. It took this Ship several decades, all told, assisted by the others when physical proximty to the data sources was needed."
I was stunned. They had been here for decades?
"How long have you been here?"
"What! Why so long?"
"We were on our way to another possible life bearing system when your planetary gravitic well registered non-natural bursts of atomic fission. We immediately diverted here, as short-duration fission is a definitive sign of sentient behavior. Your race has a complexity that provides much enrichment."
"And you've been gathering information on us all that time?"
"Yes. It was very slow at first. It was difficult to determine the best method of data collection at first. The period when we arrived was one of War, as well. We are not permitted to establish official direct contact - ours is not a diplomatic mission."
"Many have willingly helped us, misled only in thinking that we were gathering information for a museum, or a private collection. In Germany, there were many who wanted to preserve the records, especially when the tides turned against Hitler. In Russia, it was often too late, as many records had been burned in the Revolution. There is little in Africa.
"Newspapers, magazines and book and record companies deliver to any address; television and radio - like print media - think nothing of exposing almost all secrets of states or persons of repute, Credit bureaux, marketing, governmental, telephone, industrial, business, data storage, as well as personal computers are all totally transparent to sophisticated interrogation. Many people gladly provide information in return for payment, often for as little as a few tens or hundreds or thousands of grams of gold or silver or copper. We did not in any way interfere, but the invention of the telephone, facsimile machine, copying machine, and internet have dramatically improved our data collection abilities."
"You can hear telephone conversations?"
"Every word ever spoken is recorded in the Data Base."
All that in the blink of an eye while I stood looking at Rob.
"You won't know if you can make it last together until you both decide to start working to make sure it does," Bill said. He gave Cary a bowl of vegetables to carry out, and I handed the potatoes to Rob, while Bill took the salad. Rob said not a word. He looked haunted.
I said Grace. I don't remember what I said, but we held hands as I said it - no mean feat, that dining table being so big and all, even with the four leaves taken out. I looked into Bill's eyes as I said it, is why I forgot. It's the first time we had company for dinner with us. It felt nice. Family-like.
I felt like an old Daddy for the rest of the meal while we worked gingerly around Rob's fear of commitment, Cary's need for confirmation - no easy feat. We made a tiny bit of progress, but not as much as I'd a liked. Rob's a strong-willed sort of guy, hard to change. Cary's just as bad, but more subtle about it.
We changed the subject as we cleared the table of skeleton and half the broccoli (Bill and I love it, the lads hated it) - even managed to talk a little about farming as we ate lemon ice and home-canned "Peaches by Elva," after the things was loaded in the dishwasher. Rob was keen to have his own farm, and Cary has farm in his blood. That's what they was saving for - enough to sharecrop for a couple of years, save some more, then buy a place outright - or at least enough to put a payment down and carry a big mortgage, like everyone does.
I told them I thought like that sounded like a pretty big commitment they had to each other already, what the heck was the problem in just coming out and saying so to each other. Rob was biting his lip, trying to screw up the words he wanted to say but couldn't find, I guess.
"Rob don't want nobody thinking on him as being weak," Cary said. "He's strong as any two regular guys, but he can't let nobody think on him as being that way. Being Gay, I mean."
"That ain't it at all, Jackass!" Rob spat out, red with - frustration, I think - startling everybody but me. I seen men go over the edge before. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad, but at least it generally clears up a lotta questions. "I don't wanna end up like my Mom, going from one father - husband - to another, all the rest of my life!"
"Why would you?" asked Bill.
"Gay guys don't stay together," Rob was almost on the verge of tears out of frustration. "They do for a while, then they all just gets up and goes on to the next piece of meat! I seen it!"
"True for some," Bill said. "Not for others."
"Gay relationships are too easy to get into," Bill said. "Guys meet, have sex, think they have a lot in common, move in together, decide they can't stand the way the other person holds his knife and fork, and bail. All in the time most straight couples are still debating about whether or not to have sex with the other person. If they're seriously thinking along the lines of marriage, I mean."
This out of the man I love who's never had a gay relationship before in his life?
"That's psycho-babble," Rob said back. Not that convincingly, in my mind.
"How long you two known each other?" I asked Cary. Not Rob.
"Two years," Cary said. "My dad used Sweeney's all the time. I was there with him when I saw Rob for the first time. I asked him to show me where was the outhouse. He . . . he was so good-looking, I couldn't breathe. I had to concentrate just to pee. He waited on me outside, didn't try nothin' at all, but I knew he sorta took a little long lookin' at me. He come out to the farm to do the harvester, and I helped. I probably got in the way more than anything else, but he never paid no mind. Took time to explain me what he was doin' and why, an' things. I liked him more than anybody, just after the first time I met him. It just got stronger.
"I started to find 'scuses ta go up to town, just happening to stop by Sweeney's for one thing or another, always lookin' for him, not nothin' else, really. He took forever to ask me if I wanted to go to a movie with him. I was about ready to ask him out, myself, by then. I asked if I could stay at his place after the movie, so we could maybe have a beer after, and after I moved out of Mom and Dad's place last Fall, he said I could room with him. For a while."
"You in love with him?" Bill asked.
"Yeah." he sort of blushed, looking up at Rob.
"Now, how in hell do you know that?" said Rob. "How can you always be so damned sure of things?"
The voice was strong, but the eyes weren't. Neither was his lip.
"Just am," Cary said. "God made me that way. I see you, I don't see nobody else. I dream you, asleep or awake. I look up at you when we . . . when we're together, and I pray to God I'm good for you, wonder if I'll be good enough for you the next time, wish I could make you really happy, not just feel good down there. When I'm beside you, I feel like we could beat the world together. You make me feel strong. I wish there was some way I could find that you could be really happy, even if . . . even if it isn't with me."
That was it for me. I had to get out of there before I hauled back and pounded Rob on the head to wake him up. He had an absolutely wonderful - and handsome - guy head over heels in love with him, for well gone a year, what with he's saving up to buy a farm together because they both love the land, farming, gardening, country, each other - and he's so thick he can't feel the heat of a blowtorch on his heart. He's scared to death Bill will tell Cary he got a little relief a long while back from Rob's mouth up to the rest stop, scared he's gonna lose the best thing what ever happened to him, and don't just come out and say it. No prize for pinning the tail on the jackass at this party!
I made some noise about coffee, and took a few things to the kitchen, closed the doors, ground up some beans, started the coffee machine, wiped the counter, put a cup in the dishwasher. There was loud voices on the otherside of the door for a minute. Sounded like Rob.
Before I ran out of excuses not to go back into the dining room, Bill came out with a big shit-eater on his face, closing the doors behind him. There were stars in his eyes where too much water was gathered..
"They're practically ready to book the church. Kiss me."
So I did. Almost swallowed ourselves whole. Bill can be damned persuasive.
"What was the problem?"
"Rob doesn't trust himself."
"He says he's had sex with a lot of guys, a few girls. Liked it. Afraid he would get the urge to do it again, to hurt Cary."
"Cary said if that's what he needs to make him happy, then Cary could handle letting him do it. And Rob just blew up - said he didn't want it that way. He wanted Cary to put his foot down, tell him he couldn't be that way, tell him he was too important to Cary to share with nobody else, tell him he'd beat the shit outta him if he never caught him wasting his sex and his love on somebody else."
"Cary said he would."
"Beat the shit out of him if he ever betrayed his word."
We stood together in the kitchen, holding, kissing, for maybe ten minutes, then Bill tapped on the doors to the dining room and called out that we were going to leave in a few minutes, could they bring in the rest of the plates and things.
A few minutes later, two hunks with red eyes came through the doors with a few dishes and some silver, and it got loaded in while I poured coffee.
We headed on out to the Hangar around eight something, drinking mugs of hot coffee, them following us. Cary sat right up close to Rob as he drove, and I saw in my rear view mirror a couple of quick pecks as they went. When I was occupied opening the gate, Bill says they got their tongues all twisted up, and I saw it for myself when we got down off the Jeep and walked to the Shop door - they took their time finding the door handles. Not lip-locked though. Talking to each other in between dives. Good sign, I figure.
Groth let us all get inside before he uncloaked the Ships in half the blink of an eye - both of the lads just sucked wind until they got used to it.
"It's so beautiful," said Cary. "It's a dream made real."
The outer "donut" of the Drive had been lowered - but not to the ground. Some of the cards had to be installed from the inside, so there was a five foot gap between it and the floor. The central unit was no longer on the Hangar floor, and the grav platform had done some evolving - there was a pie-wedge space for us to walk the cards through, and the center of the Donut was completely open, so we could install the cards that inserted from the inside.
The center of the Donut was back up inside the Ship in its normal position. I looked up at it, some forty feet from the floor. There were thousands of tiny flickerings on all the visible surfaces - not quite light. Something . . . mesmerizing.
"The installation was successful," Groth said aloud, interrupting my concentration, breaking the spell. "All power circuits are at optimum." The flickerings stopped. "The effects you notice are the contact points for the control panels on the inner side of the control ring of the drive."
"But there are millions of them!" I said. Someone said.
"No. Only seven hundred twenty-one thousand three hundred six."
"Oh - is that all," I know it was my smart mouth said it. "Piece of cake."
"I do not understand the colloquialism."
"Means it's easy."
"Only for a Mechanic," Groth said back to me.
He either missed the sarcasm entirely, had a lot more faith in me than was warranted, or was being sardonic. I didn't think that out loud. He apparently didn't hear me as he continued.
"The eight hundred forty-two control units we are replacing represent approximately two point three eight percent of all control units, but there are only five thousand seven hundred sixty-one contact points for the replacement units, as only the inner cards of the control ring make direct link to the Drive core, and there are more contact point in the upper units - the converter units - than in the lower, field control units. Of the inner three thousand six units, one hundred forty-seven were damaged by the impact and have to be replaced. All are in the lower bank of the Ring. There is one upper-tier panel on the outer ring which needs replacement for reasons unrelated to the impact."
I looked through my memory for the path of the Singularity (what Groth had at first termed the "Black Diamond" because I didn't yet understand anything at all about quantum physics, and so could not conceive of a Black Hole smaller than a BB, traveling at nearly the speed of light.)
It had entered the Ship from just off the vertical on a slightly off-center slant, passing through the Drive about three feet off center, just winging four of the thirteen power modules surrounding the Core. Three feet to the left, and the Drive Core would have been holed - and the Ship a new Singularity, the size of an atom. Which, of course, is what happened to the doomed companion Ship, about to "dock" to our Ship from underneath, lined up perfectly for the singularity to go right through that ship's Drive Core.
"I thought the Singularity passed through the Drive on the vertical."
"The Drive was stored in its normal operating position, the center on the main axis of the ship. It is moved forward and into the horizontal position for maintenance."
"How much does the Drive weigh?"
"Seven million, four hundred thousand, six hundred seventeen metric tons."
"How much is that in American?"
"A little more than sixteen and a quarter billion pounds, or eight point one four million tons."
And the Ship moved through the air with the grace of a feather. They moved the Drive around like a chinese checker.
"Why doesn't it crack the concrete floor?"
"The gravitic force is not surface-dependent. All matter within several hundred kilometers impacts the position of the Ship while it is on low power setting. On full-power setting, all matter exercising gravitic draw has an impact, irrespective of distance. The platform is less penetrating, having a range of only ten or twelve kilometers."
There was no damage to the top inner or outer tier of control units, only to the lower tier, but because the path was off center, a lot of the lower units were holed. In the outer rings of units, none of the upper tier panels had been damaged, as the Singularity was only very slightly off the "horizontal" of the Ship, gradually rising as it went through the Ship, but not enough to notice.
That reminded me. "Where is the other Singularity? The other ship that was destroyed?"
"I accelerated it out of the ecliptic towards the Core, so it can do no further damage."
"And the first one?"
"Is far beyond the gravity well of the Sun, and is headed out of the ecliptic in the general direction of what you term M358, another spiral galaxy several hundred million lightyears distant."
"Ready, guys?" Bill's voice pulled me out of my reverie. I guess me and Groth had somehow slipped into thinking instead of talking.
Bill got us organized. Him and me showed the lads where the second ship would have the boards waiting for them, how they was to 1be handled. Bill would guide them into their slots as Groth identified them, and I would handle the . . . the soldering frame, first on the inside of the donut, then the outside.
The inner ring was the trickiest - we had a lot less workspace between units. They're only something like a centimeter thick, separated by just half that. Fortunately, most of the neural soldering to be done was from edge to edge, although a few hundred were three or four millimeters from the lips that would slot into the power points on the inner ring.
We donned our gloves and got to work. We all carried two of the units apiece, and slotted them into the places Groth indicated with a laser from inside the Ship, snaking down on a cable to hover just over our heads. It took me three minutes to line up the first series of soldering points with the lasers, but each time it got better.
By the time we ran out of inner units to install, I was down to no more than a few seconds per setup, five or six minutes per unit. I was still behind the pace, and had four to do when they started on the outer ring. Just as well - they got in the way every time they put in a new unit.
At one point, when we were getting close to the end, I actually got caught up, and watched Rob and Cary walk over to the second ship for the next two units. It was like watching two fluorescent dancers, walking side-by-side in the dark fog under a spotlight, like as if one of those French Impressionist pictures - Degas, I think - had come to life.
Thank goodness most all the cards were on the lower tier - working in the upper tier (there was only the one to be done) meant scrambling up a "ladder" made by the grav platform, reversing the soldering frame, manhandling the cards into place. Royal pain. Once I finished the last "inside" unit, Groth moved the Donut down closer to the floor, which helped a lot for the "outside" units.
"Next time, build the Drive with an eye to maintenance," I grumbled when I skinned my knuckle on the Drive while re-jigging the little frame from a top unit on the inside.
"This is the last in the series," Groth said. "I do not believe there is a replacement. Your suggestion is a good one, and has been noted."
Sounds like a damned computer again, I thought under my . . . breath? thoughts? I don't know where those thoughts are, the ones that I keep to myself.
"I can not read the thought you apparently just had," said Groth.
"Not meant to."
"I mean, I am not capable of penetrating your . . . blockage," he went on.
"So? I want some things just for me," I thought in a bit of a huff.
"That is new."
"You have exceeded expectations."
"I'm full of surprises."
"Yes, you are."
And then there were none left. We'd installed all eighty units, and as I finished the soldering with Groth, the others watched, peeling off the gloves - which make your arms feel like they're in a sauna - apparently fascinated by the tiny bursts of energy from the guidance lasers, not knowing that the actual soldering was being done at a molecular level, invisibly.
We'd done it all in just four hours. It was only half midnight, quarter to one. I ached from stooping, stretching, pushing, pulling.
Groth sent us all to the Optimizer, but only gave us six hours' sleep, so we would get a little natural sleep, too. I felt a few pretty heavy twinges as we went through the Optimizer's light after sleeping. I asked Groth why.
"There are significant anatomical changes being made, prior to the cell component, the DNA and RNA replacement. You have a number of errors in your body provoked by environmental conditions. These are being gradually repaired, so that you do not experience excessive discomfort. Repairs have been made on a priority basis for life threatening conditions, we are now addressing the more cosmetic ones."
I had to ask. When will I learn?
None of my bones - none of our bones - are the same. The calcium carbonates have been partially replaced with metallic/organic alloys that are somewhat stronger, lighter and definitely less fragile. Our teeth are still alive, but their composition is a metallic/carbon compound which will not wear out for quite a long time, and is not subject to acidic bacterial attack. The spinal cord is being re-woven, eliminating several kinks, and the cartilage in the lower spine is being restored to the thickness specified in the complete genetic code, unaffected by some rogue gene that appeared in the human species sometime in the Dawn. The cochleas (cochleae?) in my ears is being reconstructed. The fluid in our eyes is being replaced. There was a lot more, but I stopped him.
"Am I becoming a . . . machine?"
"No. There can be no . . . It is forbidden. Only improvements which do not impact the personna or reproduction of the entity are authorized."
"You mean, if my children - if I have children, they would have metal alloy bones?"
"Your genetic code will be so altered."
"To preserve the species."
I said nothing. I had no intention of . . .
He came back on line to us all:
"The Ships will have 133 more remaining units ready for installation tomorrow. The first units will not be ready until after your normal working day begins, and the last will be ready before you leave for the day."
"Can't you increase the manufacturing rate?" asked Bill as we walked through the Hangar. "We can install more than that in just a single shift."
"The units are grown in incubators. The process can not be speeded."
"Like babies?" asked Rob.
"Somewhat," came the response. "The control units are not biologically alive, but use biological processes to function, and thus the cell structure needs to be grown rather than built, so as to have the correct circulatory and sensory systems, with appropriate response characteristics."
"Why can't you grow all the units in the Ship?" Bill said.
"The genetic material and instructional matrixes are not contained completely on all ships, nor all on one or two, but at least two sevenths on all but this Ship, which carries only one tenth. Four other ships carry the power board matrices, to ensure redundancy."
When we got to the Shop doors, we turned to watch the ship blink out, but Groth had other ideas. He made the ship fade out slowly, wavering a little in its gradual transparency, finally just a heat wave in the air, then nothing. I had to admit, it was impressive. Rob and Cary were spellbound again, like kids must look when they see Disneyland for the first time. Bill and me held hands, like kids as well, I guess. I felt a little sleepy.
As we were closing up the Shop, I wasn't thinking so much of sleep, as of what we - Bill and me - might do before drifting off.
"High time you gave him your virginity," I said to myself, looking at that beautiful face, the man I loved, as we said good-night to Rob and Cary. That felt incredibly weird - still a virgin at sixty-five, and I was about to lose it at the age of twenty-something, all the same.
Rob and Cary sped off towards the front gate, and the way they looked at each other said there was darned little sleep planned for their immediate future. My butt hole tingled - even before we jumped into Jeep. I wondered again if it would hurt a lot. Not that it mattered - what mattered was whether he found it half as worthwhile as what I found with him the night before. I said a prayer to Him, and proceeded to start getting nervous about whether or not I would be able to please him.
When I got out to lock the front gate, I had a fleeting thought, just a silly little question. Why hadn't they immediately started all the units on the other Ships, then transferred them here all in one go for completion of the growing?
I'd have to discuss it with Groth in the morning. Right now, we had
more important things to do.