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“... it's going to remain hard for me if I have to keep looking at you, and thinking about you.” – Deborah Haddon

“I want to expand my world. I'm just not so sure how to do that.” – Doug Beckett

=/=



Chip Masterson sat up.

He couldn't believe how kind people had been. And they so didn't need to be. But they had been, and not only was he okay, but so were his wife and Beth and the others.

No one had hurt them. No one had ratted them out to the Empress. At least, they hadn't yet. He was always wondering, worrying, when the other shoe would drop. Not if, but when.

But at least, for now, they were all right.

And that doctor – what was her name? Miva? She had been so kind, and so professional. He had had nothing to pay her with until Charles and the others had returned. They had brought in a small elekai, and had shared the meat with the doctor. She had laughed a little, unused to bartering, but it was all that they had. Then she'd heard that Charles was a tinkerer – well, not a tinkerer, he was more skilled than that! And she'd asked him if he could, perhaps, take a look at her cooling unit when he had the time. He had promised, and so that's where he was now, and Jennifer had gone along with him.

And right now Chip, he was back in the cave, sitting with Lucy, who still was in some pain a bit from her leg fracture, but was going to be fine, it was obvious. The kids were pushing each other a little, and he'd had to struggle, sometimes, to get Charlie to stop pulling his daughter's hair, but they were okay and things were, at least for the time being, pretty good.

Maybe they'd be able to get some better clothes. Maybe the kids could finally get some shoes.

Shoes, dropping shoes. Chip's thoughts, as they often did, returned to the Empress and her legions and her ship and her conquests. He had been a conquest, too, as much as the Xyrillian home world had been. When she'd worked her wiles on him, he hadn't thought it all the way through, and she'd ended up pregnant and suddenly there were twins and he was somewhat tied down.

That, of course, had been her plan. She'd go after the higher up men, have a kid with them, and that would keep them around, assuming the men were even one-quarter of the way decent and actually gave a damn about the children they'd fathered. Torres hadn't cared one way or the other, and perhaps that had been better, but Chip wasn't cut from that cloth so, when the twins arrived, he had begun to plot how to, somehow, get them away from her.

And with Lucy, it was even more urgent, as he had fallen for her, hard, and she for him – at least that seemed to be the case – he was often questioning, but it was his insecurities rather than any indications on her part that were causing his doubts – and then they had really needed to leave.

The opportunity had arisen, very recently, and they had escaped. And there were no more birth control shots out in the wilds, so Lucy was expecting, and Beth was expecting again, and they'd end up with a dozen kids between them if they didn't watch it, and Miva had been kind and practical enough to suggest that maybe the next thing they should do, once those two kids were born, would be to get shots so that they could raise this generation without everyone starving.

It wasn't a great life. There was no art, no entertainment, no comfort, and no ease. He and his family were dressed in rags. When the hunt didn't come in, he and the other adults sometimes went without food. He had no idea how the kids would be educated, although Miva had said that they could be put into any of the area schools with no trouble.

But at least they were free, and he was more than grateful for that.

Living in a cave, and eating whatever had been brought down by his friends – brothers and sisters, he had to figure they kinda were – well, freedom was the most precious thing he had, after the family he could see next to him.

Now if he could only get Charlie to quit pulling Takara's hair.

=/=



“Well, don't lose yourself in the process.” – Pamela Hudson

“Easy to forget lots of things.” – Doug Beckett

=/=



“You're distant again,” she said.

“It's getting more complex,” Q replied.

“Well, do you really need to be here? I mean, drop off if you have to.”

“No,” he said, “This also affords some meager protection for me.”

“Oh,” she said, “But you're not endangering us in the process, are you?”

He didn't answer her, but she noticed a small red stain on the left side of his uniform, and it was spreading a bit. He groaned a little.

“Are you hurt? Is that even possible?” she asked, alarmed.

“I am and, of course, yes,” he said, a bit angrily.

“Take Miva out of molasses time. She can help you.”

“No. She cannot,” he said, “I will heal up soon enough.”

“Are you injured on that end, during Kathryn's time?”

“Yes, but in a different place,” he said.

“Huh. Are you in danger of being hit again?” she asked.

“No. Kathryn has gotten me to a safe camp.”

“All right, that was good of her.”

“Yes,” he admitted, “I should have been the one doing that, not the vulnerable one.”

“But you were. You've got, I think, a few conceptions of how things should be. But they're being challenged.”

“By you.”

“And by events, too. I think you need to let go of some of your ideas, as much as you need to let go of your fellow, uh, Q. In order to move on, that is, and really do this, really be together yet apart, and become individuals.”

He was distant for a second, “Another main event,” he said, “It would be safer.”

“This friendly camp – it's composed of other Q? The ones on your side?”

“Some of them, yes.”

“But you're still in some danger?”

“Yes. So we'd best go. In this one, he,” Q indicated the baby “is living with two women.”

“But it's negative, right?”

He nodded, she picked up Declan and off they went.

=/=



“Maybe we're not meant to, to fix everything. … Maybe you're just supposed to be with her, even if you cannot make it all go away.” – Malcolm Reed

=/=



It was a kitchen, with blue walls and a large dining table. There were a few pans hanging from hooks from the ceiling, and a few small paintings of still lifes – mainly varying-colored olowa, but also some pears and the like. Lili looked at the pictures and they were signed DR or D. Reed, “He's very good,” she said.

There was a PADD on the table, and it scrolled, again, through the familiar and the not so familiar. There was a picture of a young Malcolm, with Mark Latrelle, horsing around at school. Another was of Tommy being promoted to Major. Another was of Joss and Jia with their two children. Yet another was of Melissa, pregnant, probably with Tommy. Then there was a short movie, of a young Marie Patrice kicking a goal at a soccer game. Another picture was of herself, pregnant with Joss.

Two people walked in, from separate areas of the house, “Is she up yet?” asked Declan, who was one of the two people.

“Not yet,” said Norri, who was the other.

He set about making coffee, and Lili looked at the clock on the wall, as it cycled through the time – oh nine hundred hours and then the date – March twenty-seven of 2209.

“I, this is one hundred years since my birth,” Lili said.

“You know,” Declan said, also looking at the clock, “my mother would have been one hundred today,” he looked and sounded so much like Malcolm, even down to the accent. Lili did a quick calculation and realized he was the same age that Malcolm currently was, so far as she was concerned.

“I miss her, too,” Norri said, “It's been almost seven years and it doesn't matter.”

“Too true,” he said, “I still have the last shopping list she wrote – she used to write them out by hand. I think she would improvise, thinking about whatever was in season, and then would write out her list and go. She needed brown rice.”

“No wonder you always seem to have it,” Norri replied.

“I guess I want to show her that I can take care of things,” he said.

“Dec, we should talk,” she said.

He poured the coffee, and they sat down together, “What's on your mind?”

“I think that Yifep should come here more often,” Norri ventured.

“I see.”

“Look, I know you want to take care of everything, Dec, but it's getting to be too much. I, well, it's harder for me to physically handle her, particularly when she gets frustrated.”

“Well, tell me when she gets frustrated, Norri.”

“It's not just that,” she said, “She gets frustrated all the time now, or at least it seems that way. And, and, I can't handle, uh, I hate saying this, but it's getting tougher and tougher for me to handle the messiest of the chores.”

“Ah,” he said, “Changing her. I can do that.”

“I – please understand. This is my great love. I still, God help me, sometimes see her as a sexual being. And she makes advances, you know. And I usually refuse her, but I sometimes don't. I mean, I love her. But I always feel terrible afterwards, like I've just violated a child. And, and then having to deal with changing her, well, it's the same body parts. It's hard to reconcile in my head, from desire to being her parent to just being, well, just being tired of it all.”

“Let me do it,” he said, “I mean, you do understand that I love seeing naked women. But I don't look at her that way. Not even when she, uh, she's made advances to me, too.”

“You?”

“Yes. She gets me confused with my father more and more now. I don't know if she did anything, for real, and is reenacting it. Maybe after, after Doug died. I don't know. My father, I know, he would've been mortified. He was so devoted to my mother. So I doubt that she tried when she had all her wits about her. But now, she doesn't have the inhibitions.”

“She calls Joss Doug, too, and sometimes Neil as well. Do you think she's, uh, trying anything with them?”

“Not that I know of,” Declan said, “I, um, I can see why this is so hard for you.”

=/=



“You do love her. Even if it's only a little bit. You do. There's one day, when you're fine. And you're minding your own business. And then, suddenly, the next day, you're in love. And you didn't plan it and maybe didn't want it. But it's happened.” – Lili Beckett

“But, well, these are the kinds of things that people who love each other say, and these are the kinds of things that they, that they do.” – Malcolm Reed

“I don't want some icky boy in the bed I share with Norri. Well, I don't. You guys have germs and stuff.” – Melissa Madden

=/=



“Did she ever hook up with Malcolm?” Lili asked, shifting the baby Declan in her arms a little.

Q was briefly distant, “No,” he said.

“So this is just wishful thinking on her part?”

“And it's the disease. She forgets not only names and dates and places, but also decorum, and how to interact with people,” Q replied, “Watch.”

“What bothers me the most,” Norri said, “is that I said forever to her. I said it more than once. And now that it really is coming down to forever, I can't handle it. Dec, I changed plenty of diapers in my life. Yours, even. Why are hers so impossible for me?”

“To change a one-year-old's diaper is normal,” he replied, “And it's not so horrible because it's hopeful, you know. You just, you know they won't be like that forever. With a seventy-five-year old, well, it's a different story.”

She was about to reply when a voice came from the next room, “Special thing! Special thing!”

“That's Melissa,” Lili said, following the sound of the voice.

Melissa was in a bedroom, nearly completely dressed. Her clothing was mismatched, but it was at least appropriate. She had selected bright colors – a child's ensemble. She was standing in front of a small video cutout, watching the slide show as it passed. There was a picture of herself, much younger, wearing Doug's bracelet. And another, of Malcolm, with a beard. And another, of Lili wearing a lacy top that showed a little of her calloo. Melissa smiled at the pictures, and clapped with delight when the short movie of a dancing Malcolm and Lili flashed by, and then when the movie of Marie Patrice kicking the goal played. She then opened up a jewelry box and took out a small item which Lili couldn't see, “Very special thing,” Melissa whispered, and then put it back and shut the box. Then she walked into the kitchen, and Lili followed.

“Good morning!” Norri enthused.

“H-hello,” Melissa said a bit tentative, “Belinda?” Melissa was grey and her face was lined. Her neck was a bit loose but her eyes were those of a child.

“Belinda?” Declan asked.

“No. I'm Norri,” Norri said, “Dec, Belinda was my mother's name.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Malcolm!” Melissa enthused, “Have you brought presents?”

“No, I'm afraid I haven't,” Declan said, “And I'm Declan. But I can make you breakfast. What would you like?”

“Pancakes!”

“All right. This will take a little while. Sit, sit down and we'll get you some juice,” he nodded at Norri, who got up to do just that.

“Where's Doug?” Melissa asked.

“He's ... not here,” Declan said as he set about mixing up the ingredients for pancakes.

“Lili told me he could come over. I mean, you're here, Malcolm. So it's only fair,” Melissa said.

“Here's your orange juice,” Norri said.

“Thank you, Belinda. Is Norri around?”

“Yes. Right here,” Norri said.

There was a flash of recognition, “Norri!” Melissa exclaimed, hugging her, “Sit and have a sandwich with me. Malcolm's making sandwiches.”

Declan continued making pancakes.

“You know, this is a very important glass,” Melissa said, “It was brought here by my ancestors. They came over in big, big ships and they were very rich and they got here and they had to sell all of their glasses because they were made of diamonds. Except for this one.”

“Yes, Melissa,” Norri said wearily, taking an identical glass from the shelf and pouring herself some juice, “It's very special.”

“Oh! Special thing! Special thing!” Melissa enthused, and ran out of the room. She passed the cheery yellow hallway and returned to the bedroom, and Lili followed. Again, Melissa opened up the jewelry box and took something out, and then put it back. Then she returned to the kitchen.

“What is the special thing?” Declan asked.

“Spec –” Melissa began, and tried to get up. Norri put a hand on her arm.

“Tell us. Please?” Norri asked.

“Special,” Melissa said, as if that answered things.

“What is it?” Lili asked.

Q just directed her back.

“I have got pancakes for you, Miss,” Declan said, presenting a plate with two on it.

Melissa grinned, “Malcolm, you make good pancakes. Doug's are better. And Lili's are best of all. But yours are good.”

“You wouldn't kick my pancakes off your plate, then?” he asked, then went back to make more.

“Why isn't Doug making pancakes? Lili said he was coming over. She promised.”

“What do you want to do today?” Norri asked, changing the subject and pouring a little maple syrup for Melissa.

“Football,” Melissa said, mouth full.

“All right,” Declan said, “I bet Neil would like to play.”

“Ah, good idea,” Norri said, opening her communicator, “Neil,” she said, once the connection was made, “can you come over and toss around a football a few times today?”

“Uh, sure. But I need to get to work in about an hour. Be right over. Neil out.”

“Neil's coming,” Norri said, “He's going to play catch with you.”

“Who's Neil?”

=/=



“And thank God I walked in first.” – Leonora Digiorno

=/=



In the cellar, in 2161, things were a bit different.

“How do you think we should do this?” Norri asked.

“No kids,” Doug said softly, as the children began to awake.

“I dreamt of playing soccer,” Marie Patrice said, yawning.

“Did you win?” Malcolm asked.

“No,” she said, “But I did kick a goal.”

“Well, that's still good,” he replied, “You don't win every time.”

“Hang on, kids. We grownups have to talk a little,” Melissa said. She shepherded the other three to a corner, “So, what are we doing?”

“I figure, we can throw or kick Dino here into the funnel, perhaps past it,” Malcolm said, “Can't say as it will do anything but, if the toy is shredded, no one will be harmed by shrapnel.”

“Huh. Good thinkin', Reed,” Doug said, “We should film that, too.”

“Let's not involve the kids at all. Too many distractions,” Norri said.

“All right,” Melissa thought for a moment, “Here's my idea. You three go up. I'll stay here and, uh, I'll tell them a story or something. But you need to toss, film and the third one will be there in case things really go bad – that one will be by the door. Make sense?”

“Sure,” Doug said, “Everybody about ready?”

“Stay safe,” Melissa said, kissing him. Then she kissed Norri.

“I figure I'll be on door detail,” Norri said.

“I can film,” Malcolm said.

“Uh, no,” Doug said, “I think kicking will be better than tossing. I'll film. Okay?”

“All right,” Malcolm said, “Shall we?”

They left. On the front porch, it was odd. The area was calm. Except for the fact that there was a huge, misshapen funnel cloud around the house and all its contents, there was no reason to think it was anything other than a perfectly lovely day. The swirling snow would occasionally break slightly, and you could see blue skies beyond, and the neighbor's house. Workmen seemed to be covering it with something – plywood, perhaps – it was tough to tell. The workmen did not appear to be working with any sense of urgency. It didn't seem as if the plywood was being added to protect that house in any way. The workmen seemed oblivious.

The three of them positioned themselves. Norri stood within the opened doorway. Doug stood off to the side, and started up the PADD's video mode. Malcolm was at the edge of the porch, holding the green stuffed dinosaur toy, “Are we all ready?” he asked.

Doug nodded, “Ready,” Norri said.

Malcolm dropped the toy down and kicked it straight at the funnel cloud.

It was a magnificent kick, but the toy ricocheted off and Norri ended up catching it in both hands, “Ungh!” she exclaimed, air leaving rapidly from the force of the ricochet.

Doug stopped filming. He and Malcolm came over, “You okay?” Doug asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “And so's Dino.”

“It's as if the toy just hit a wall,” Malcolm said, “Any damage to it that you can tell?”

“No,” said Norri, “Let's go back to the cellar.”

=/=



“This is what you get for falling in love with someone who's bi. Temptation is all around.” – Melissa Madden

=/=



Neil arrived soon and, as promised, he and Melissa went into the back yard and began throwing the football back and forth. After a few rounds of this, she got bored. Lili walked out to watch.

“Doug! Let's play something else,” Melissa said.

“Uh, no, thanks, Ma. I gotta go to Reversal now,” Neil said.

She came up close to him and Lili heard her whisper, “Tonight, then, Doug. Everybody will be sleeping. And then you and me, we can do it.”

Neil reddened, “I'm Neil, Ma.”

“Neil?” she asked, “I like that name.”

“Norri!” he called, “I gotta get back to Fep City and go to work.”

Norri came out, “Thanks for coming. I know it's not easy.”

“It's okay when we're just playing catch,” he said, “I can almost believe that she's okay. Or I can justify it; it's like playing catch with Marty or Jenny.”

Declan came out, “Thank you. Our best to everyone.”

Neil nodded and left.

“Where did Doug go?” Melissa asked.

“Doug's gone,” Norri said absently.

“No! Doug is fine,” Melissa insisted, “He's not dead.”

Norri turned white, “What did you say?”

“I want pancakes. Or, no, no, I want a sandwich. Can I have a sandwich?” Melissa asked.

Declan held onto Norri's arm, “She doesn't know. Explaining doesn't do any good.”

“I need to get a very special thing,” Melissa said, starting to walk back into the house.

“Find out what that is,” Norri said to Declan.

He followed her, and so did Lili. Again, Melissa opened up the jewelry box, took something out and then put it back. She then left the bedroom. This time, Declan opened the box and took out the item.

Norri got Melissa into the parlor where there was a view screen, “Lemme see. Would you like to watch something with people dancing in it?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. How about Grease? Let me put it on for you,” The music started up and Norri was able to join Declan in the kitchen, “Have you got it?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, “Look,” It was a tablet. On one side, it was stamped with the letters Tri-C, “I looked it up on my PADD. Have a look.”

Norri scrolled through, “My God. Do you think she remembers why she has this?”

“Probably not,” Declan said, “Tricoulamine. A nerve toxin,” he sighed and put his head in his hands, “She's, well, at some point, she meant to kill herself.”

“And now she's forgotten what it's for,” Norri said.

As if in response, Melissa began chanting, “Special thing! Special thing!” again, and got up and went into the bedroom. Once again, she opened up the jewelry box. But now the tablet was no longer in there, so she began to wail.

Declan and Norri ran in, “What's the matter?” Norri asked.

“Spec –, spec –” was all that Melissa could stammer out, between sobs. Finally, she whined, “Belinda, where is it?”

“Come into the kitchen,” Declan said, “C'mon.”

“Okay, Malcolm.”

The two women sat down, and he brought the tablet over, “Melissa, do you know what this is?”

“Special thing!” she was excited to see it again.

“Yes, but what does it do?”

“It's ... special.”

“Yes. But what do you think it does?” he asked, insistent.

She thought for a while, “Sleep. Forever. I can see Doug again.”

“How does it do that?” Norri asked, voice trembling a little.

“I wouldn't breathe. Not anymore,” Melissa said.

“I see,” Norri said, “When did you get it?”

“Can I watch my movie?”

“Sure,” Declan said, leading her back to the parlor. They spoke a bit, but it was tough to hear them clearly. When he returned to the kitchen, he said, “You know, it's funny. She has these moments of clarity. Like just now. She told me that she knew how the movie turns out. And she's right. So there are some things she still knows.”

“Are you thinking of giving her the tablet?” Norri asked.

“I don't know. A minute or so of clarity – it's really not a lot,” he said, “But we can't get anything more than that out of her these days.”

“Understood,” Norri said. “I'm of two minds about this. I know that assisted – I can't even say the word – but I know it's legal. But only if the person knows what's going to happen to them. We can't just give it to her if she doesn't know. It would be like, well, like her believing that your plain old cheap juice glasses are somehow unique and made from diamonds.”

“It would be like killing a child,” Declan said, “But I don't think she wants to go on.”

“I can't tell,” Norri said, “And I don't want to promote my own agenda. And, at the same time, huh, I figure I will feel guilty either way.”

“We need to make sure. If she understands, then we can let her have it, right?” Declan asked.

“Yeah,” Norri said, “I don't wanna do this. I don't want to be responsible for the end of her, her existence,” she started to cry.

Declan held her for a while, and then walked back into the parlor, “Come with me,” he said to Melissa.

She followed, and they sat back down in the kitchen.

“Tell me what the special thing is,” he said, holding the tablet so that she could see it.

“Medicine,” she said, “Make me, uh, to make me die.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“Yes. I need to do this before I forget everyone, and everything. Help me, Dec,” she said.

“Are we in agreement?” he asked.

“Yes,” Norri said, “I'll, I'll get a glass.”

He started to fill it with water, but Norri stopped him, “No. Give her orange juice. Let the last thing that she ever tastes be something she really likes,” Norri started to cry again, and was startled that Melissa put her hand on her arm to comfort her.

Declan hugged Melissa and told her that he loved her. Then Norri kissed her lover and told her the same thing, “Forever. Really.”

Declan gave Melissa the tablet and the glass of juice, and she took the pill. There was just one little gasp. He then put his hand on her neck, “It's done,” he said.

=/=


“I am riddled with imperfections, through and through.” – Pamela Hudson

“You are a worthwhile person. With or without imperfections.” – Malcolm Reed

=/=



They were back in the hospital room.

“You turned out well,” Lili said to the baby, and kissed his forehead, “A good, decent man.”

“He ended her life,” Q said.

“Yes, he did. Such as her life was,” Lili said, “She wasn't going to get any better. And all that would have happened, if they had waited a day, or a week, or a month, would have been that her consent and her knowledge would have gotten more and more suspect. At least, by doing it then, they had a fighting chance of her understanding what could happen.”

“So they saved their skins, at least according to the human and Calafan justice systems.”

“It's more than that, and you know it, Q. It's about her knowing what was happening. Otherwise, well, Joss becomes a veterinarian, right?”

“Yes.”

“And he has to euthanize animals sometimes. I'm sure it's difficult. And the animals usually don't know anything that's happening. That's mainly their own limited reasoning capacities, but it's also how it's done. The animal is given a sedative. If it thinks at all, it thinks it's going to sleep. It probably knows that any pain it's got disappears when it sleeps. So it may even think that it's going to stop feeling pain, at least temporarily. But that's it.”

“That's an awful lot of anthropomorphizing.”

“I know. Melissa, even in her condition, was presumably, at least some of the time, more intelligent than that. Certainly she was capable of higher reasoning, but only in small doses.”

“Dose. An interesting choice of words.”

“Yes, I know. But she knew she was getting worse. She was confusing everyone with those who were already gone. She must have missed Doug. And I suppose she missed Malcolm, too.”

“And Leonora's mother, as well.”

“I guess so. This is the very essence of letting go. They gave her the thing she wanted and needed more than anything. She left on her own terms, as well as she could. It was bad enough. Were they supposed to wait until she had no mind at all, and then it would be machines pumping air into her lungs? You say our medical care is primitive, yet we can abuse people with it just fine, just like pros sometimes. They will live with that, you know. But they also know that they did the right thing.”

“Letting go,” Q said.

“Yes. And they had to respect her choice as an individual. For Joy, and for you, people have to let you do what you think you need to – even if it's not the most wonderful thing. If you're competent – or, at least, in this case, transitively competent – you should be allowed to trip and fall if that happens. With my children, I've watched them learn to walk. And it sometimes takes a lot out of me to keep from putting my hand out and guiding them or catching them. But I can't, always. And I try not to. Of course, if they are in any real danger, I'll protect them. But they need to fall a bit, and learn what that's like. The world isn't all soft landings. I wish it was, but it's not. And they need to get it that some landings aren't so nice. But they still have to be able to try new things, and without my interference. Because I don't always know best. Are you staying together in the Continuum because, maybe, just maybe, you all can't bear to see the others fail?”

=/=



“I never did that with a guy before.” – Melissa Madden

“I'm committed. Really, committed. In love, happy, the whole nine yards. And then, suddenly, I've been unfaithful. And then again, and again. And it makes me wonder – because I couldn't resist it – what's really going on. And I figured, yanno, I should totally hate myself, and hate the person I'd been unfaithful with. To my mind, that's what all made sense. And then, heh, suddenly I realized that that person isn't awful at all. And I don't hate myself. And I don't hate that person.” – Doug Beckett



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