Absolutely terrified, ten year old Rill watched the shuttle, which was leaving him on this planet, Baldwin, until it's rear thrusters were out of sight. He had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. The only thing he had left of his old life, was his personal enviro unit, and they could hardly take that back, since it was an implant. He looked around at the isolated emergency space port, looking for somewhere to hide, that could get him out of this frightening, open space.
Rill felt the dull ache in his mind increasing to panic. Finally unable to stay still, he scurried toward the shelter of a shed. There were lights on in a couple of the buildings, but he didn't want that, he wanted to be alone, to die alone. He flicked a command at the enviro unit. Twenty degrees below zero Celsius.
Plenty cold enough, he wouldn't live very long, once the enviro field was down. All he was wearing was the briefest and thinnest of shorts. a T shirt, the boots of his spacesuit, and his ID/Chrono bracelet. Rill huddled against the shed wall and flicked another command at his enviro unit, and it shut down. For the first time he could feel the freezing cold, and the heavy snow falling. As the cold began to cut through him and he knew that he wouldn't have to take this scary place for very long, his mind began to calm.
Rill began to get sleepy, and he knew that once he went to sleep he wouldn't wake up. He heard panting and warm breath on his face, and he opened his eyes with fright. In the light shed by the moon, he could see that it was a small Terran animal, a dog.
He was almost curious enough to turn his enviro unit back on, but the fear of the unknown that existed on a planet's surface, and his feeling of abandonment, overrode his curiosity. He closed his eyes again, ignoring the dog's whines and then a couple licks on the face. Then he couldn't hear it anymore.
The fact that he woke up certainly surprised Rill. The fact that the dog was sharing his bunk surprised him almost as much. Cautiously he began to reach out with his left hand, but drew it back quickly when the dog raised his head and barked twice. When the dog crawled a little closer and put his head on Rill's chest, he realized that the barks had been a signal to someone.
He put his hand on the dog's head and began petting him, and when Thom Riger entered the room, it was hard to tell who was enjoying it more, Alexander the dog, or Rill Coolidge the boy, both were showing ecstasy.
“If you like simple things like that kid, why did you try to kill yourself?” Thom asked.
Rill's eyelids flicked open, and he looked at the man with his large gray eyes. “I panicked,” he admitted. “Everything seemed so big and I felt so much alone and everything seemed hopeless. I'd been scaring myself by reading about what happened to others of my people who have been Exiled to a planetary surface.”
“So you don't intend to kill yourself now, Mr. Coolidge?” asked Thom.
Rill thought about it, telling him, “I don't believe so. But even the thought of all that sky, makes me shiver.”
Thom nodded, saying, “It makes me shiver too, kid. But that's because we just got fifteen inches of snow. If Alexander the Great hadn't been out wandering, you'd be buried under that stuff, and I might not have found you until it thawed, and since this is the beginning of winter, that could have been three or four months. Want to give me a hand while I clear the landing field? It's not used that often, but I prefer to clear it, after every storm.”
“Maybe,” said Rill, cautiously, “I'll have to see what it's like when I go outside.”
Thom said, “All right, we'll see. Here, kid, I put your clothes in the wash, what there was of them.” and he threw Rill his shorts and T shirt. “It's going to seem strange seeing you in those, in this type of weather. What are you going to do about the snowdrifts? I know the enviro unit will keep out snow and rain, but what do you do about stuff that's already on the ground.”
Rill grinned mischievously, saying, “Things aren't quite as they seem. Ta da. Magic.” as he grasped two tabs on either side of his boot and pulled, and as he did so, thin material the same color as his shorts, came out of the boot, and he drew it up to the hem of his shorts, and the materials bonded automatically. He did the same with the other leg, explaining, “Actually the field is so close to my skin that it would keep the snow out without any problems, but this saves wear and tear on the unit. It's rated for ten years and I've had it for two, but I won't be able to get any replacement parts, if it should happen to go wonky on me.”
Reaching up, Rill felt the release on the inside of his T shirt sleeve, and drew the material down over his hand, where it formed a glove. After doing the same to the other sleeve, he looked at the somewhat awestruck man. Now bonded to the other garments, his shorts and T shirt went automatically to the on position, now much less permeable than they had been. Rill grinned again, telling him, “It also makes a hood, with a filtered breathing mask and transparent eye pieces, but I don't think I need that today. What I'm wearing is rated for minus twenty degrees Celsius, so the enviro unit only has to make up the difference between the actual temperature and minus twenty, so it saves a lot of power.”
The clothing that Thom wore would have been recognized by any cold weather people of the twenty-first century and earlier. Hi-tech was nice, but as Rill had said, it wore out eventually, and furs were easier to replace. What he wore under the hood of the fur parka and on his hands was much different, much closer to what Rill wore. Unpowered but insulation rated for up to minus seventy-five degrees Celsius, the gloves and hood with its face mask, which Thom wasn't using at the moment, originally had cost more than the rest of the outfit did. They were already almost a century old and were expected to last for at least two additional centuries.
The cabin of the anti-grav melter was insulated but not heated, and there was only one seat so, Rill had to sit on Thom's lap. As an orphan who had lost his parents only a year before, it felt good to Rill to be held by a man's arms. The landing port was designed to withstand temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius, so the measly forty degrees that the melter put out wouldn't touch it, but it easily handled the snow and ice the storm had left.
The machine was almost quiet, only the hiss of the snow and ice as it turned to water, and flowed into the channels prepared for it when the port was first built, could be heard. “So Rill, how did you come to get Exiled?” He felt the boy tense up and then relax.
Rill told him, “When a ship's crew gets too big to handle the number of people on board, then the ship, actually it's usually two ships, acquires another ship, and the new crew is selected, and the ship is called an off-ship, because the ships off load their excess population. The adults have a choice, yes or no, but orphans like me are chosen randomly by the computer, and we have no say in the matter. Children aren't crew members exactly, but we do most of the electrical and scut work on the ships. We start training at four and by the time we're my age, ten, we're considered advanced trainees. But we're still under the supervision of the instructors, who have actual final responsibility.”
He explained, “When we were getting the new ship the Opal, ready, I was assigned to fix an airlock door. About two months before we reached here, two crew members were in the airlock and the door failed, luckily neither was hurt very badly. Unknown to the two ships, the captain and first two officers they chose, are Haters. That's what the fanatics who want to make things like they think they were when we first came into space, are called. That's all that are needed for an Exile hearing. They decided since the trainer was still in one of the other ships, that they would hold the person who actually did the repairs, responsible. That was supposed to have been me. They decided to Exile me, despite my age, to teach a lesson to the rest of the crew.”
“You said, supposed to have been you. It wasn't you?” asked Thom.
Rill shook his head, saying, “No. It's quite common, with the instructor's permission for advanced trainees to change jobs, if there's a good reason. My friend wasn't feeling well, and he was assigned to work on the outside of the hull. I offered to take his place, and he accepted, and the instructor agreed.”
“Couldn't you just tell that you didn't do the repairs?” asked Thom.
Rill told him, “No, that could have put both my friend and the instructor's life in danger. Haters don't often get control of a ship, so their usual tactics are to create terror. It's very likely they would have sent word to have both the instructor and my friend killed, and without any warning they would have no chance.” Rill said, matter-of-factly. “I couldn't allow that.”
Thom asked with anger in his voice, “What about the hearing? Won't the recording tell others that there was something wrong?”
Rill said forlornly, “Possibly, except that normally the only ones who are allowed to see recordings are captains and first officers. From what I've heard in most cases they probably wouldn't even look at it.”
“Jeez, kid, you're up the creek, without a paddle.” Thom said with sympathy, giving the boy a little squeeze, to comfort him.
It hadn't seemed like they were outside, yesterday when they got the melter out, the garage containing a ground car and the melter was attached directly to the main building. Once inside the melter Rill had almost forgotten that he was actually outside, it was so dark and overcast. Today was different, it was a bright sunny day, and the enormous blue sky terrified him, as he clenched his hands. He backed away from the open door, breathing hard, on the verge of uncontrollable panic.
Thom took hold of the boy and found that he was shivering. He asked, “Hey kid, you told me yesterday, that you went out onto the hull of your ship, surely that must be pretty scary?”
Rill shook his head, as he said, “No, you can see forever but that's a lot of nothing, it's different here, the color of the sky tells you there's a lot of something out there, and it's scary.” voice trembling. “That's why Exiles seldom survive, especially out here on the fringe worlds. We tend to be agoraphobic, and at the same time, we can't bear to be cooped up. I know it must seem strange, when we're cooped up in spaceships our whole lives, but being cooped up on the ground is different. Here feel.” and taking Thom's hand, Rill put it over his pounding heart, which was beating two or three times it's normal rate. He explained tensely, “Stress tends to kill us within a year. That's why Exile is considered a death sentence. Only one in ten Exiles lives more than a year. Only one in one hundred is able to live a full life.”
Thom closed the door and led the way back into the small living room, Rill following him. Sitting down, he asked, “What if I get you up to one of the space stations?”
Rill ruefully shook his head, saying ruefully, “If you had one large one, that might be possible, but you have three small ones. Ninety percent of cargo this far out in this sector, is carried by Gypsies and no Gypsy will deal with anyone that houses me, or employs me, unless they can't avoid it. Since that's the case, none of the stations will even allow me on board. The same problem applies to leaving this system. You're so far out that the only ships you see other than Gypsies are tramps. They rely on the Gypsies even more heavily than the stations, so there's no way out of the system either. If I was in one of the other sectors where ninety percent of ships are Free Traders I'd be fine.”
“It sounds like they deliberately marooned you here so that you'd have no way off.” Thom said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.
Rill nodded seriously, as he said, “They did. The accident happened two months ago, and I've been locked in my quarters since then. There were two other systems which are heavily industrialized for this far out, who could have employed me in deep space industry. Normally they get you off at the first available port. Instead, they kept me on board until they came to a planet with just this type of situation.” Rill said soberly. “I won't try to kill myself again, but from the record of what happened to other Exiles, it's unlikely I'll live very long in any case. If you do any dealing with the Gypsies you won't be able to keep me with you.”
“Oh, we deal with them, but those who Exiled you here made a mistake.” Thom said, getting up and walking over to a picture he pulled on the side and it swung out on a hinge. He grinned at Rill, “A very old hiding place, but the safe would be hard to get into.” He pushed half a dozen numbers on a keypad, and swung the safe door open and then lifting out a tray from one of the shelves, he brought it over and set it on the coffee table in front of Rill.
Rill looked at the skyblue gemstones with awe. He'd only seen pictures of them before. “Mind stones.” he breathed so low that it was almost inaudible.
“Mind stones.” confirmed Thom. “Gypsies can't control us because we're too important to the Federation. As you may or may not know they were originally artificial and they were incredibly expensive to make. The first ones cost twice what the ships that used them cost. But they're the only thing that allows ships to navigate in hyper space. For a hundred years after we had hyper space capability when a ship entered it, they didn't know where they were going. That's why there are so many lost colonies. Because for a while people just wanted to get off Terra, they didn't really care where they went, if they got lost, so be it, they were quite happy to lose contact with a planet they didn't like anyway.”
Thom explained, “Even today a synthetic mind stone can cost as much as the ship it's in. The ones we find, we sell for about a hundredth of that cost. However they have other uses as well. These are rejects. We sell them for about a hundred credits apiece. They are very useful for people who have uncontrollable fears, and for mental patients. They can be used as they are, or they can be cut into gemstones which seems to increase their power and allows a much smaller gem to have the same affect as one of these does.”
Rill looked up at him soberly, saying, “It may help but not as much as you're thinking. The majority of people score between 1.5 and 2.5 on the scale they use to test for navigators, while a navigator would test seven or higher. On the same scale I only test .25 of 1.”
Rill picked up one of the gemstones, and he could feel an immediate calming of his mind, though his heart was still beating harder than it should. He considered his feelings. The fear was still there, and he knew it, yet at the same time it was like there was a thick pane of glass between his fear and the rest of his mind. However the pane had cracks in it and little bits of fear and panic kept getting through and he continually had to push them back down.
Thom asked, “How about the Federation, kid? You apply to your local representative and they usually can get lost people home.”
Rill shook his head again, explaining, “Gypsies have no home, and in fact we have a special status that recognizes us as a separate political entity. When we're Exiled we're removed from the records and therefore lose our special status as Gypsies. You would think it would be automatic that I would be given full citizenship, since I did have partial citizenship, but it isn't. Under longstanding agreement I automatically lose that partial citizenship as well, and I only turned ten a couple of weeks ago, so I'm not old enough to apply for Federation citizenship. Even if I was old enough, there's an automatic two year wait before an Exiled Gypsy can be given citizenship.”
Rill looked at the angry man, saying, “It's deliberate. As I said ninety percent of us die within a year, while its true, seven out of ten die in the first two or three months, only a couple live long enough to extend the statistics to the full year.” He looked sad but not angry. “They want to give us long enough to die.”
Thom pushed down his anger. He was still boiling at the way Rill had been treated, but there was nothing he could do at the moment and probably not at all, because it actually sounded like the Federation was conspiring to help kill off any Exiled Gypsies.
Probably they didn't deliberately want to harm a child but from what he had heard of Exiles, they usually deserved what they got, and there was no room on most colony planets for screwups. Letting them die quietly was probably considered the best way to deal with them. Before he met Rill he would have agreed, now he was wondering how many other Exiles were actually scapegoats.
Rill, walking behind him, was feeling somewhat better, the mind stone, while not perfect, allowed him to feel almost normal, though every once in a while he had to push down the anxiety that pushed through the shield that it was giving him.
In his anger the man was moving along faster than he realized, but luckily Rill was in good shape. While he'd never been on a planetary surface before and had been confined to his cabin for two months, Gypsy ships kept a period of 1.5 Terran gravity for eight hours each day, so that forced them to stay in shape even though they might be in sedentary occupations or, like Rill, prisoners.
Thom and Rill looked upward as they heard the thunder of a shuttle. It wasn't an enormous cargo shuttle but a smaller passenger shuttle. It stopped about five hundred feet above and hovered for about thirty seconds, and then standing on it's tail it just seemed to vanish as it accelerated out of sight.
after it shaking his head when a groan came from Rill and he spun around
as the boy suddenly dizzy and nauseous went to his knees. Not knowing
what was wrong Thom, scooped the boy into his arms and headed for the
mind stone mine they had been heading for which was less than a quarter
of a mile ahead. He had a first aid kit there. The small space-port
was three miles away. While he could have used the ground car, he preferred
to walk when he wasn’t in a hurry, which was most of the time.
Thom laid the boy down on the bed. He got out the med-scanner and flipped the switch to turn it on. The scanner's lights went on and flickered for about thirty seconds. Then it showed on it's screen, 'Patient has received a lethal dose of radiation. Ninety-five percent was accumulated over the last two month, and a further ten percent within the last ten minutes. We do not have anything in our medical supplies which will help.'
Thom reached into his jacket and taking out his com, he hit the emergency button on it. The light should have gone green immediately indicating connection but it went red. He hit the small button for diagnostics and it went green showing that the unit was fine. He hit the emergency button again, and again the red light showing inability to connect came on.
Rill with effort said, “My right boot, there's a sensor in it. Push on the heel and the toe at the same time and a panel will show on the side. There's four lights. If the left one is red then someone's using a nullifier or suppressor of some kind.”
Thom did as the boy said and the light was red. He looked at the boy and there was no surprise on that small face and large gray eyes. Rill closed his eyes, saying wearily, “They switched my cabin. I wasn't surprised, the one I was in was made for four and they wanted to separate me from the crew entirely. But the cabin I was moved to was one close to the outer hull. Those cabins are always exposed to radiation. They counter it by putting radiation damping chemicals in the food and water the occupants of those cabins get. All they had to do was leave them out, and by the time they got here I'd have an almost lethal dose of radiation.”
Thom didn't doubt the boy was right. He asked, “Why didn't they just keep you on board until you had a lethal dose?”
“Because this is the end of the line.” Rill said, “From here they basically turn around and retrace their course. They have to report my hearing, and when I was put off of the ship. Even my people would have been suspicious if they didn't put me off at the end of the route. Bringing the shuttle down and giving a couple of bursts of radiation wouldn't have increased the area's natural radiation by more than ten percent, but that was enough to make what I had gotten fatal. The com nullifier will have no markings, no way to trace it back to them, and I imagine they've sabotaged the ground car as well. I just don't know why they bothered?”
Thom said, “You said you weren't the one who worked on the airlock door. Perhaps they already knew that before the hearing. Do your people keep a work log?”
“Of course.” said Rill, and then his eyes widened, as he realized, “Trainees don't get to see them but they would have been included with my records, with duplicates kept in my former ship. If the instructors record the fact that we often swap jobs and my instructor did so for the airlock job, then while normally an Exile isn't questioned, in this case it might be.”
“Especially if your instructor happened to be the new first officer of your old ship. Would that be possible?” Thom asked.
Rill's eyes lit up with excitement, as he said, “Very possible. The first officer of my original ship was close to retirement age, perhaps even over it. My instructor was a senior officer. A reorganization would have been required of both originating ships. My instructor could easily have been picked as the new first officer. Except for the captain and first officer, they all spend time as instructors.”
Thom said thoughtfully, “The officers of your new crew probably knew that fact, that's why they want to make sure that you're dead. Having met a few Gypsies in my time I'm aware that while your word would be important, they would pretty well ignore someone like me passing on information learned from you with nothing to back it up.”
Rill nodded, saying sadly, “You're right. I've always thought it was dumb, and studying our history I know that it's caused problems on a least a dozen occasions. Twice the problem came close to getting Gypsies outlawed, but my people don't seem to have learned from those problems, if anything it's hardened their stance against outsiders. Unless you have recording equipment with you, I imagine that any such equipment was sabotaged as well, so it's no use going back to the port.”
Thom said ruefully, “If I was going to do any digging today, normally I would have brought a recorder with me. Once it's been exposed to the air a mind stone alters slightly after about fifteen minutes. We record mind stones before that happens, and to sell one you have to have that recording. No one would accept a stone not recorded before it alters. The recorder is keyed to me, and anything it records is automatically stamped with my identification marks, which makes it almost impossible to do any stealing. There are obviously ways around it, but we've closed most of the loopholes over the last four hundred years.”
It had been six hours and Rill was rapidly getting worse. According to the first aid scanner he had only another six to eight hours to live. Rill opened his eyes, and spoke with some difficulty. “You were going to show me your diggings. I'd really like to see them before I die. To see where mind stones come from.”
Thom, knowing that nothing he could do would make Rill better or worse, nodded his head sadly. He had only known this little boy for a day, but he felt a sadness that was much deeper than he would have expected. Perhaps the last six hours of watching him die had brought him much closer than would normally be the case. He was curious about one thing. He picked up the boy carefully, saying, “You said you've been exposed to radiation for the last two months, why hasn't your hair fallen out, and why haven't you shown any effects from radiation poisoning?”
Rill looked at him with his big gray eyes, “There are chemicals which can prevent that from happening. They were required to look in on me at least once a day, and it would have been suspicious if a high ranking officer did so. I wasn't that important. If my hair had started to fall out or I had gotten ill then it would have been reported to a Med-Tech and I would have been treated for radiation poisoning. That's a mandatory regulation, which can't be overridden, even by the captain of a ship. Once you get a lethal dose then only immediate treatment can save your life.”
Thom swore vehemently and Rill smiled with amusement despite the way he was feeling. Thom asked heatedly, “How the hell did they organize all of that!!? I know how careful you have to be in space!! Shouldn't it have been flagged by the computer for someone's attention?!!”
Rill said, “The second officer is in charge of environmental matters. If he put a command into the computer to report anything to do with my cabin or me to him, then he's the only one who would have seen it. Gypsy ships aren't military ships. The military automatically provides security against sabotage and three or four officers would get the information. While there are some provisions against sabotage on our ships, that presupposes that the three top officers aren't the ones doing it.”
Thom opened the door on the mine workings and went inside, shutting the door behind him he turned on the light and Rill sighed at the beautiful sight that met his eyes. The rock was multicolor and actually sparkled a little in the light. Thom said, “The rock has about ten percent of material which makes up mind-crystals. They're very, very small, the largest only about 1/100 of an inch in size, but they catch the light and sparkle in a way that makes them look much bigger than they really are.”
He explained, “Here the vein goes straight back angling about a ten degree downgrade. I'm at about seventy feet into the mountain, and my instruments say I have about two hundred feet to go before the vein plays out. In a few places on our world where there's enough of the stones to have open pit mining, the tiny mind stones catch the light and they sparkle to such an extent that heavy goggles are required to work the pit during the day.”
As they went into the tunnel itself it was far from being the claustrophobic place Rill had envisaged. It was seven feet high and varied between six and eight feet wide. Thom commented, “With laser cutting tools it's just as easy to make it a little more comfortable rather than just following the vein. This stone is very stable and doesn't need any shoring up, though other miners aren't as lucky.”
They reached the end of the tunnel, and Thom set Rill down so he could lean against the tunnel wall, and flicked on the heater. As deep as it was it wasn't very cold to start with and within a few minutes it was quite warm.
Rill started to say something when a sudden blaze of pain went through him, and he clenched his hands hard and his breath was whistling through his teeth. Thom put his hand on Rill's shoulder feeling his helplessness. After about three or four minutes the pain subsided but Rill's face was shining from sweat.
He asked in a whisper, “How do you actually find the stones?” Thom gave one final squeeze and Rill put his sweaty hand on top of it.
Thom collected himself, telling him, “The stones are inactive, and while the survey instruments can tell me how large the vein is, they can't locate the stones themselves. While mind stones can be cut by lasers it takes a high intensity laser to do the job. The cutting laser I use doesn't have the power to harm a mind stone. The stone absorbs energy from the laser, and then it shows up on the sensor built into the tool. I just melt the rock around the stone and it just falls to the ground. After about five minutes it's cool enough so that it can be handled and it's at that point that I record it.”
I could feel two electrical fields just above me that I had learned to associate with human beings. Normally there was only one, and I recognized it as one I usually felt at least once each cycle of the planet's rotation, which human's called a day. Occasionally it didn't appear, and sometimes it might not for as much as two or three weeks. I recognized that there was something wrong with the second field, it was weaker than it should be and was getting weaker.
From personal experience I recognized that the human the second electrical field represented, was dying. With excitement I wondered if this was the one I had been looking for since humans had first landed on my world. I had tried half a dozen times in the past, with humans who were dying, and I had become intimately acquainted with their bodies and what I had to do to make them my representative. Unfortunately their minds were simply too sensitive, and the communication between us had killed them.
I regretted their deaths, but I was aware at the same time that their deaths were inevitable without my help, so I didn't consider myself personally responsible. I had at least offered them a chance at life. So, once again I sent a tendril upward to make contact.
Thom was just sitting with his arms around the dying boy in his lap, feeling a deep sense of loss, not only because he had come to like the child in the brief time they had been acquainted, but because of the waste of a young life deliberately cut short.
Suddenly a deep voice came out of his com, “Hello, I am Bale. I would like to talk to you.”
Thom reached into his pocket to pull out his com and almost dropped it when he realized that there was something connected to it. It looked like a thin line of material made up of a mind stone. He was aware of Rill moving on his lap, coming out of the semi-stupor he had been in.
Thom pressed the emergency button, and was depressed when it turned red. The nullifier was still operating, and somehow he knew that the tendril had conveyed the message to the communicator. He said, “Yes, Bale. I am Thom Riger, who or what are you?'
Bale told them, “I am made up of the same material that you hunt, mind stones, but I am alive, and I was born when this planet was born.” A pause. “I think, though in fact I may be older than that. The first four billion years or so are somewhat vague, and though I was semi-aware, I didn't become fully aware until about a billion years ago. My time scale was very different from what it is now, so to me it didn't seem like a very long time period. The past few hundred years since humans landed has seemed much longer to me than the rest of my long life combined.”
He explained, “If you wonder why I can speak your language, I have full access to your planetary database through terminals which are connected to it and they're easy to find even out here, although I have been somewhat wary of revealing myself to you humans by using computers. Not only might your people think it was a hoax, it also required a fixed location for at least a short length of time and from what I have learned from your history, your relations with alien species haven't always been very good. While I can move anywhere inside the planet, it takes me time to do so. Days at least. If you have a starting point, you can find me, and you have the ability to destroy me. Out of simple self-preservation I was unwilling to risk my life.”
Thom asked, “Why have you revealed yourself to us?”
Bale said sympathetically, “I know it may be a distasteful subject but I can feel that one of you is dying. On several occasions in the past I have come across isolated humans who were also dying. I gave them the choice of becoming a willing host to part of me, and they could have become my representative among humans. I enter the body through a person's nerve endings, and once begun, I cannot control how I follow the pathways, and I end up in the brain, which allows me direct communication.”
He said unhappily, “Unfortunately all of them had minds that were too sensitive. When I joined minds with them, their minds began to burn out. They all chose to let me stay even though I was killing them. They were dying anyway and that way they wouldn't die alone.”
Rill said with difficulty but with excitement in his voice. “My mind is much less sensitive to mind stones. Perhaps our minds can join without killing me.”
Thom said somberly, “Perhaps, but Bale should know that you're not simply hurt, you've been irradiated, and that's affecting your whole body. Can he help in a situation like that?”
Thom felt Rill slump in his lap, as he realized the truth in what Thom was saying. Bale said hesitantly, “I can probably help, though I can't guarantee it. Soon after humans landed, I came upon a herd of one of the animals that your people released. An animal that you call deer. Three of them were suffering from radiation poisoning. Since they were not intelligent beings, I had no reluctance in trying to help them, and I entered their bodies. What was required after I was in their minds and that part of the process was complete, was to spread myself into every cell of their body and absorb the radiation into my own body, which can actually use it as fuel. Doing this, I found was permanent. To exit from the cell would kill it. However I was successful in only saving one of the animals.”
He explained, “The first one lived and the other two died. I do not know why I succeeded with one or why I failed with the other two. They aren't the only animals I have tried to help that way, there have been over one hundred in the last six hundred years. All of them except the buck, lived a normal lifespan. The buck is still alive after just over five hundred years. He was not quite fully grown and since that time he has not aged, and obviously he never became fully adult. Two of the animals that I helped were cats, with one I simply needed to enter his nervous system and brain and repair an injury, the other, like the deer and your human companion, suffered from radiation poisoning.”
Bale told us, “In this case their owners left the solar system taking the animals with them. I felt the cat who I had cured of radiation poisoning die just as the ship it was on entered hyper-space. It couldn't survive away from me. The other during its brief lifespan returned to this solar system twice, so I know those I simply helped survive can live away from this system. That means the human with you will be trapped here for the rest of his/her life, which will probably be a very long one, judging from the way the buck has reacted.”
Rill said hoarsely, “At least I would still be alive. I find that despite what I did when I first landed, I really don't want to die.” Then he asked with apprehension, “Will it hurt?”
Bale said, ruefully, “I'm sorry, but I'm afraid it will be very painful. You must realize that I'm going through your nerves, which transmit your sensations to your brain whether they're painful feelings or good feelings, and while my strands are only two molecules thick there is an energy field surrounding them that causes the pain. How much do you weigh?”
Rill said, “Sixty-five pounds.”
Bale said thoughtfully, “You're a child then. Well those I tried to help in the past were all adults, and they ranged from one hundred and forty to two hundred and ninety-eight pounds, and it took about five minutes with the lightest person to almost ten minutes with the heaviest. So it will be two to three minutes of pure hell, as one of them said. He told me he had been in a war on his world and had been captured and tortured, and what I did to him was as bad as anything he went through during that time period. When we contact each other mind to mind, that will also give you an atrocious headache as well. If you survive our minds coming into contact, moving into the rest of the body won't cause you any additional pain.”
Strangely that reassured Rill and Thom. Bale being completely honest did that. Thom said, “While I don't have anything that can help Rill, I do have medication which can put him in a deep sleep.” He took a small ampoule out of his pocket. Rill looked at him questioningly. Thom explained, “I got this out of the first aid kit. If the pain had gotten unbearable I would have sedated you if you wanted me to.” and Rill nodded.
As I released the com and brought the tendril to the boy's wrist, and began to enter his body, I really hoped it would work this time. I knew how most humans felt about children, though I was also aware of the abuses that could be done to them either inadvertently or on purpose. I felt no superiority to humans because of it. I was the only one of my kind, I simply had no idea of what a race of beings like myself might be capable of doing to each other. The fact that I had a code of ethics which had developed over time through contact with their computer systems and those dying humans, didn't mean another of my kind might not reject such a code as being beneath him.
I was surprised how fast I moved along his nervous system. Perhaps it was because of his youth, and I felt a moment of regret that I was locking him into this body and this age for the rest of his life, however long it might be, but it didn't last long. Like the others he would have died without my aid.
Then I was in his brain, and I was very apprehensive as we began to come into complete contact, though of course his conscious mind was asleep. I was relieved when the sensitivity of his brain increased with no sign of the surge of power that had destroyed the other human minds I had entered.
I began examining his memories as the rest of me completed the entrance into his nervous system. I saw his trial and his Exile and the fact that he had simply been a pawn in some type of power play. I was surprised at the depth of my hatred for those who had been at his hearing, who had manipulated it to in effect kill a child. Then they had come back to take even the brief time that he could be expected to live away from him.
I realized that my emotions had become deeper in the brief time I had been in his mind, and as I examined my own mind I realized that it was going to continue. Rill had awakened something in me that over time would cause both tremendous joy and at the same time tremendous pain. But I did not regret it, as I took a deeper look at Rill's mind. The death of his parents had caused him immense anguish, yet the warmth of the memories of his life with them made even that a trifling thing and he would not have traded his life with anyone.
Fully integrated with his mind and nervous system now, I began to move into the rest of his body, moving into every cell except for those that were already dead and as I did so, I pulled the radiation energy out of his body and into my own. I could feed on almost any type of energy, to provide me with what I needed to live.
It had taken me almost an hour so far, and I was startled when I realized that I had gained a sense of time from Rill. As I had said to Thom, the last few hundred years had seemed much longer than all of my previous life, and while I had known intellectually what a second and an hour a day, and a week, and all of the other periods of time were, this was the first time I had ever understood them.
It took about two hours in total to complete my task and when I had done so, I severed the tendril just under the skin of his wrist and withdrew it. But now I was in complete contact with a sentient being and I looked forward to what I hoped would be a deep friendship.
I stretched luxuriously as for the first time in a long time I woke up feeling good. I had assumed that the fact that I wasn't feeling well was because I was confined to my cabin. I was disgusted that what my people had done to me was allowed to happen. *I agree,* and it almost gave me a heart attach until I remembered about Bale. *If we find any way to right the wrong you have suffered, you have my full cooperation. I have done what I could so far, I've blocked the fear that you feel about wide-open spaces so you will no longer get agoraphobia. I haven't removed the fear, that wouldn't be right, but now it's simply a minor fear, more like a mild superstition, like the fact that some of your people are wary of the number 13 for some reason.*
I giggled, saying, *My people tend to be superstitious anyway, though I could never see why. I only believe in luck, good and bad. People have times when everything they do goes well, and then they have streaks where everything goes wrong, but I could never see it being connected to the number 13 for instance. My people refuse to keep black cats on our ships. They don't kill them, that's considered bad luck as well, but they make sure that they trade them away to stations and planets or ships that don't think black cats are bad luck.*
Alexander barked a couple of times and opening my eyes, I realized that I was in the same bed I had been the morning after I had woken up after being landed. I saw my shorts and T shirt on a chair, and flipping off the covers, I started getting dressed. Thom showed up in the doorway as I was pulling on my T shirt and he smiled, saying, “I gather you're feeling much better.”
I nodded vigorously, telling him, “I feel better than I have in a long time. I wasn't feeling well for the last few weeks on Opal, but I thought it was because I was locked up. Of course now I know that I was suffering from radiation sickness.” I sat down to pull on my boots.
Thom said, “The Baldwin Planetary Police came for a look when nobody could contact me and they located the nullifier and turned it off, and called in a Med-tech.” He sighed, “Unfortunately they can't do anything about the Opal, even though they're still in orbit. The Federation in effect said GET LOST, so obviously they're going to ignore what happened.”
I nodded soberly, saying, “As I said, Gypsies have a political status of their own, and they deal with criminals and others in their own way. The Federation can't get involved, unless they want to revoke the Gypsies' special political status.” I realized with a shock that I was thinking of Gypsies as they not my. They were no longer my people. I thought they had forfeited that right when they unjustly Exiled me, not for my Exile, though I was steamed at that, but for allowing such a system to exist. A system, which allowed no appeals and provided absolutely no protection for the innocent.
I know I was frowning fiercely. Thom laughed, and said soothingly, “Take it easy, Rill. It's time for breakfast, and you don't want to put food into a sour stomach.”
I giggled at that, and my spirit rose for a minute and then it fell and it plummeted right down to my shoes as the shock hit me and I had to sit down as I began to tremble.
Thom knelt beside me, asking, “What's wrong Rill?”
I blurted out, “I have nowhere to go. I was thinking as a Gypsy and orphans always have a place, I just made an automatic assumption that I'd stay with you. But you have no reason to keep me. I'm not related to you, and you have no responsibility for me. Why should you even bother when my people just threw me away?” I felt the hot tears trickling down my cheeks, and I hung my head, as sorrow grabbed me.
He put his hand under my chin and raised my head, and I couldn't bear to look at him and closed my eyes. He gave me an order and he expected to be obeyed, “Look at me, Rill!”
Reluctantly I opened them and stared into his gray eyes, almost the same color as mine, blond hair a little darker than mine. Thom told me soberly, “I'm older than I look Rill. I'm almost one hundred and fifty years old, but I can expect to live another one or two hundred years. I have children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on. In that time aside from my own children, I've raised close to a dozen children for various reasons. I've never turned away a child who needed me. From what Bale and the shocked Med-Tech said, you can expect to live a very long time, but as long as I'm alive, you have a place with me, and I never throw children away. Understand?!”
I nodded and threw my arms around his neck and gave him a fierce hug.
Thom smiled, telling me, “Now wash your face and come to breakfast.” Still feeling somewhat subdued, though feeling much better, I did as I was told.
After breakfast, Thom put the port on automatic, and we left. He didn't have to tell me why. My former people had tried to kill me once. In fact had gone to considerable trouble to arrange my death. Since they were still in orbit, once they found out I was alive they could very well try again.
The people from the Opal had just taken the power batteries for the car and hadn't done any physical damage, and the police had left Thom a couple of batteries. The road we took wasn't very good. If the ground car we had been using had wheels instead of anti-grav we probably wouldn't have made it. About fifty miles south he turned left onto a paved road, and we headed west towards the mountains, which by driving straight south we had actually been going away from.
After about an hour, we turned north again and traveled about ten minutes, until we got to a guard post and a gate. Thom stopped at the gate and two men came out. Despite the fact that they obviously knew Thom, they didn’t take anything for granted. One of them stayed back, his hand on his weapon while the other one approached the window which Thom had rolled down.
He looked at us and said, “Hello, sir. Rear-Admiral Thom Riger, and Rill Coolidge,” and he smiled, “and of course Alexander requesting entrance. I'll just confirm your identities, sir.” Taking a scanner he directed it at Thom's eyes and then mine, confirming our retinal patterns.
After doing so he nodded at the other guard who relaxed and waving, a third guard inside the post hit a switch to open the gate. Thom said, “Thank you sergeant, and I'm glad to see you're still on full alert.”
The guard nodded soberly, saying, “Those were your instructions, sir. Besides which I think we learned our lesson, when you stripped a master sergeant down to private for slacking off on security.” and he saluted as we drove ahead.
I asked with curiosity. “What is this place, and that soldier?”
Thom grinned, saying, “Marine, Rill, you have to get the services right, or you might hurt their feelings. This is the Planetary Defense Headquarters. I retired as a Commodore from the Federation Navy fifty years ago and I got the usual courtesy step up to Rear-Admiral. The Colonial Government of Baldwin gave me a supervisory role, which puts me in overall command, though in reality Captain January Markin is in day-to-day command. I asked her if she could put us up for a few days until the Opal leaves. She got you security clearance so you could enter, though there isn't anything secret about it. Everybody knows it's here.”
Thom had just finished telling the full story to Jan Markin and she looked at Rill, saying speculatively, “Now why in heavens name do they want you dead, Rill, and if they were so anxious to have you dead, why not just kill you?”
Rill shrugged his small shoulders, telling her, “I don't know the answer to the first part of the question, but I know the reason for the second part. If I was killed on board ship then an investigation would have taken place. They can control Exile hearings but not hearings that deal with accidents causing death. That's done by an independent Gypsy Tribunal.”
She nodded, saying “Well, we can at least keep you safe, while they're still here, Rill. Nothing fancy but then again, you're used to that aren't you? I inspected the occasional Gypsy craft when I was a lowly Ensign assigned to customs duty. I didn't see much luxury.”
Rill nodded, explaining, “Most ships can afford it, but ships like the Opal just starting out, don't have the cash to do it. But even with older ships there seems to be a reluctance to spend for anything that smacks of luxury. But then again you don't miss what you've never had or never even seen, and most Gypsies are like me they never get off their ship except at a space station and they're pretty bare as well.”
“All right let's give you the guided tour.” she told him, “Now remember you've got to keep your eyes shut tight all the time. If you actually see anything we'll have to kill you.” she said solemnly.
saying, “That one was old even when Thom was a kid.” And he skittered
out the open door when the man made a move in his direction. He stuck
his head around the door jamb, saying, “Are you coming?”
Rill was actually humming under his breath, and holding Thom's hand felt completely natural. They entered a huge room and with the screens around the room obviously a tracking station, and looking at the screens, he easily interpreted much of what he could see, since it used the same conventions as a Gypsy ship would.
One was showing the entire solar system, and it was probably being taken from a deep space probe, which was above the plane of the ecliptic since Rill could see the positions of all of the planets. They had a small ring of green light around them to show where they were in their orbits, and a yellow light showing their actual orbital path.
He looked at the screen that showed Baldwin and its moon, and he could see seven orange lights representing interstellar space craft. Bale had been quiet for the most part, but he suddenly spoke and Rill could hear the worry in his mind-voice, *Rill, there's something wrong! Please tell Thom, and if you take his com in your hand I can use the loudspeaker mode to tell the Captain what it is!*
Rill gave a tug on Thom's arm and when the man looked down at him, he said, “Bale says there's a problem. Could I have your com?”
Thom reached into his pocket and handed it to the boy. He moved over to the Captain who was discussing something with another officer. She looked down at him and said, “Yes, Rill?”
“Bale says there's a problem.” Rill said and held up the com.
A deep voice came out of the com, “Captain, your main tracking screen, which shows the planet and the moon, is showing only seven interstellar vessels. I detect four additional mind stone matrixes plus two more at the periphery of the solar system.”
Jan Markin looked at the com and the boy for a second as if she thought he was playing a practical joke on her, but she remembered the conversation that she'd had with Thom and she trusted him absolutely. She decided to take it at face value for the moment anyway, “How can you tell?” she asked.
Bale explained, “Like you can feel pain, or pleasure, I can feel mind stones once they became active, which occurs when they're in a mind stone matrix used in navigation, anywhere in the solar system, even if they're presently inactive. I am somewhat baffled by one, but the other five I have absolutely no doubt about. In the same orbit as your moon there are three ships following it at approximately two hundred and fifty thousand miles, which puts them about the same distance from Baldwin.”
He told her, “Two of them are four-ply matrixes; the other is a three-ply matrix, as are the two at the boundary of the solar system. That makes them Naval units of some type. The one that baffles me is one that is orbiting the planet at about twenty-two thousand miles. It has a one-ply matrix, but it also has a four-ply matrix. They are so close that they must be on the same ship.” Bale finished.
She thought for several minutes and then leaning on the rail she spoke to one of the officers. She asked, “Jerry, this is your specialty. Can we go active looking for stealthed ships without revealing that we're doing so?”
“Yes, Ma'am,” Jerry Richamond, who had been listening open mouthed to the com, told her, “we simply chop off half of what we're presently using and the scans that look for stealthed ships just nicely fills the void and the switching time is something under one millionth of a second. Even if you're looking for it, it would be almost impossible to detect.”
“Do it.” she ordered.
He nodded his head and said, “Yes Ma'am.” and he worked at his instrument panel for about thirty seconds, and flicking one final switch he looked up at the screen, “We're now scanning for stealthed ships.” and he tensed as three additional ships showed up on his screen. “I don't know who Bale is Ma'am, but he's hit it right on the nose. Three ships. If there are two more ships far out in the solar system, they're simply too far from us to pick them up if they're in stealth. It'll take about two or three minutes to build up enough information to identify them.”
The screen was now the focus of everyone's attention. After three minutes Richamond said calmly, but with undercurrents of tension in his voice, “I don't like what I'm seeing ma'am. The computer identifies them all as Jakar. One of those with a four-ply matrix is a superdreadnought. The missiles tubes facing Baldwin are open and the birds are hot. The other is an armed courier. The last is a fast troop carrier.”
Captain Markin her voice very cold as she said, “How the hell did they get in so close? While we're obviously not as sensitive as Bale is, we track interstellar ships by their mind stone matrix as well when they approach us in hyper-space.”
Rill said thoughtfully, “The Opal has been trying really hard to kill me for some reason. What if that extra four-ply matrix is on the Opal? Gypsy ships quite often do experimentation on mind stones. What if they tried to kill me because they were planning to commit treason? With an active matrix of that size, the Jakar ships could home right in on it without needing to have their own matrixes on line and follow it right into this system.”
She nodded slowly then turned to Thom, telling him, “Since you're here, sir, this is your responsibility.” and smiled wryly, in a way she wished he wasn't but at the same time she was just as glad.
He nodded accepting the responsibility, as he said, “First we've got to decide why they're here and why the force is made up as it is.”
Jan said, “Mind stones I assume, sir. The Jakar Empire is clear across the Federation, it must have taken them almost a year to get here with a superdreadnought. It's not one of the fastest ships for this type of mission, and of course they’re much slower than a Federation ship of the same class, would be.”
“Agreed,” Thom said nodding his head, “They wanted the firepower, so they were willing to accept the slow speed. The Federation buys all of the mind stones, no one else is allowed to do so, though we set the price. However, they only ship between five and twenty thousand a year, and the rest are stored. I know that they have at least one hundred thousand stored in a vault that rivals the legendary status of Fort Knox from old Terra.”
Captain Markin said thoughtfully, “The troopship to drop troops to take the mind stones, the courier to bring them back to the Jakar Empire and the SD, to make sure that the Federation can't get anymore cheap mind stones. In a way it's too bad they don't know what we've got, that might have kept them away.”
Richamond said, “They've been officially at war with the Federation for almost fifty years, but they've never dared do more than cause a few border incidents. They can produce artificial mind stones, but they're not as good as the real thing or the ones that the Federation can make. If they get the ones that the Federation has here, and they can get away without leaving witnesses, or any sign who did it then they can build a fleet to cause the Federation some problems.”
Thom said, “If their birds are hot, we can't take a chance on asking them to surrender. They're too damn close. How long for a launch from both the moon and Baldwin and how long from the SD to Baldwin?”
Richamond tapped his teeth with a stylus, saying, “We don't know who supplied the missiles, sir, but they won't be using their own, that would be like attaching their signature to the attack. Even our birds small enough to fit into a superdreadnought would take 6 seconds to cover that distance. Launching from the moon with bigger missiles and higher accel our birds would take 4 seconds, and even launching from Baldwin the gravity well of the planet only adds a quarter of a second to that so 4.25 seconds for our planet launched missiles. They'll have 3.64 seconds to flush their birds. Making the assumption that they'll be under computer control, that's plenty of time.”
Thom shook his head and smiled sadly, saying, “It almost seems silly to use missiles of that size as counter-missiles but we'll have to task Baldwin's missiles for that duty. It was always assumed that if an enemy had gotten as close as the Jakar have that it wouldn't matter. Luckily, all Federation missiles, no matter what size they are, were designed with that capability. How do our missiles look, Jerry?” he asked.
Jerry Richamond said solemnly, “Both the moon based and planetary missiles will take about a minute to spin up sir. Unlike a superdreadnought we have enough shielding to hide them as they power up.”
“Power them up and hope to hell they don't detect it.” Thom ordered, absently taking Rill's small hand in his.
“Aye, aye, sir!” Jerry said, flipping a dozen switches each directing the power to twelve missiles and then lifting a plastic shield pushed a red button and the tension mounted as the missiles began to power up. Some eyes watching the power bars of the missiles turning from red to green others glued to the superdreadnought wondering if they'd be detected before they could defend themselves.
Thom's fingers tightened on Rill's hand, and the boy bit his lip at the pain, but he didn't protest his eyes intent like everyone else's on the power bars and the screen, moving back and forth from one to the other. A sigh of relief swept through the room as the light at the top of each power bar began flashing green, indicating that all of the missiles were ready to go. Thom asked, “What type of weaponry do the other two Jakar ships have?”
Jerry said, “The courier has missiles, they're mostly counter missiles, but they could still do a hell of a lot of damage if they hit the planet, the troop ship only has laser canon.”
Thom ordered, “Target the superdreadnought and the courier. Leave the troop ship. If they're foolish enough to try to anything, at this distance they're an awful big target and won't be hard to destroy. Flush the moon missiles first, twenty-four at the SD and twelve at the courier, and then twenty-four of the ground based ones 1.3 seconds later, that gives theirs a little more time to accelerate but should put them far enough away from the SD that our missiles won't be distracted by debris. I know I'm a couple generations out of date but I've seen it happen.”
“Aye, sir.” Jerry said, and after typing commands into the computer, he selected which missiles would be fired, since he had a total of seventy-two on the moon on the side facing the Jakar ships and the same number on the planet in the western hemisphere where they were.
He flipped up a second plastic shield and pushed the three buttons in sequence, red, orange and green. “Missiles fired, sir. 1.3 seconds before the moon based missiles launch, and 2.6 seconds for the planetary missiles.”
Unemotionally he read off from his computer screen. “Moon based missiles launched, .. planetary missiles launched. .. The SD has flushed their birds. Point to point laser active on the SD, but it's ineffective. All thirty-six missiles hit their targets, waiting, waiting, waiting, ten seconds have gone by sir, the planetary missiles must have destroyed their counterparts or we would have known it by now.” Jerry said. “Launchers reloading.” Everybody looked up at the tracking screen and where there had been three ships clustered there was now only one.
Thom said, “And we weep for the fallen in the deep silence of space.” with a feeling of sorrow at the lives they had taken, echoed by most of the other people in the room.
He turned to Captain Markin. “Jan have the customs cutters round up the Opal. She's not allowed to leave orbit. However there are women and children on board, so tell them to use tractor beams. They are not authorized to fire on the Opal.”
Rill said, “If they were planning treason, Thom, then they know the Jakar ships have been destroyed. Haters won't let themselves be taken alive. Luckily, they still consider themselves Gypsies so they don't normally take their anger out on fellow Gypsies, so it's unlikely that they'll have the Opal self-destruct.
Thom was on the com to the president of the Colonial Council, explaining what had happened. The troop ship had fired forward thrusters and backed away from the planet before turning and heading outward to join the two other ships and head back for Jakar.
The captain had Jerry Richamond pull up a view of the Jakar for Rill. He looked intently at it for a couple of minutes, and then said, “Two weeks before the failure of the airlock door, we were at a space station in the Regar system. I had liberty time coming from my previous ship, and I decided to use it, but I was about the only one. If you don't know anything about a station, it's easy to get lost if you're just wandering around. I saw the captain and his first officer in an out of the way bar and they were meeting with two Jakar and they saw me.”
“I'm sorry Rill, obviously they didn't want an eyewitness who could connect them with the Jakar remaining alive.” Jan said.
“At least now I know why they were so intent on killing me.” Rill said. “It's so dumb. About three centuries ago, a man named Par Stevenson wrote a book. It claimed that Gypsies developed the mind stones, and Terra stole them from us, and therefore stole the Federation from us. You only have to read a little bit of it to tell that he was completely crazy, but there was a fringe group who were just looking for something to latch onto, and they swallowed his garbage completely. They've come to call themselves Haters and they will do anything in their power to reclaim the Federation for the Gypsies.”
with disgust, saying, “As if three thousand ships with a total population
of three or four hundred thousand people could take back three thousand
odd planets from the Federation. Since they have no loyalty to the Federation,
they wouldn't even have considered what they did treason.”
As Rill had told them all of the Haters on board the Opal had committed suicide. There were a total of nine men and women, and the rest of the crew, who had had known nothing about what the Haters were doing, were shocked by what they had taken place.
In the two months since Rill had dropped out of the sky Thom had come to know the little boy very well and when Rill stalked out of the hearing room Thom could tell he was blazing mad.
Calmly, Thom asked, “What happened?”
Rill spat out, “They used big words and they didn't do anything.” He parodied in a squeaky voice, “In spite of extenuating circumstances, we feel that we can not override the Exile hearing, because that would set a dangerous precedent for future hearings.”
Rill's face crumpled and he threw his arms around Thom, burying his head in the man's shirt. Thom held the crying boy, stroking the back of his neck. After a few minutes, he looked up at Thom and wiped his still tearing eyes. “It's not that it matters much to me. I can't leave this system anyway, but it means the Gypsies aren't going to hear about this, and know how bad the system has gotten.”
He sighed, saying, “It was mainly that prune faced Tribunal President. It was his decision, and the others are, what do you call them, rubber stamps. They don't have any authority to do anything. Under Gypsy law his vote means more than all the others combined, so once he spoke they didn't even bother to vote.”
Thom chuckled when Rill mangled the old saying, and the boy frowned at him, not sure why. Thom rubbed the back of his head hard. Thom sat down on the bench where he had been sitting waiting for Rill. He said, humor evident in his voice, “It's just that it sounded a little funny when you called them rubber stamps. It really should be they rubber stamped his decision. Or they gave it the rubber stamp treatment. Once upon a time when a piece of paper that had to go through different departments what they did was stamp it with a stamp made of rubber which had the word APPROVED on it. You got ink on the word and then stamped the paper. It got to the point where people often didn't even bother to read what it said.”
“I heard a story when I was going to the Naval Academy. I don't know if it's true or not, but in the early twenty-first century, somebody submitted an official document in the Pentagon, which was the military headquarters for one of the countries. A purchase order for one thousand brains for the Pentagon bureaucracy. It went through a dozen different departments and finally ended up on the desk of the head of the Navy in that time period, with all sorts of stamps saying approved in various ways. I gather the Naval chief was not amused.”
Rill giggled. Thom took a clean handkerchief and wiped his face. He said with compassion in his voice, “Gypsies are dinosaurs, Rill, and they're on the way to being wiped out, unless they change drastically in the next century, just as if they were going to be destroyed by the original asteroid that wiped dinosaurs out on Terra. When I went to the Academy one hundred and thirty-seven years ago, there were five thousand Gypsy ships registered, today there are only three thousand. How many off-ships such as you went to, have you heard about?”
Rill thought about that, before saying, “Only one that I can remember, and when we heard about it the adults held a celebration, so it must have been really unusual” He looked at Thom, putting one knee on the bench, “What's happening to them?”
Thom said, “They're becoming Free Traders, Rill. Like me and many others they see the Gypsies have no future the way they are now, they know they're on the path of self-destruction, and they don't plan to be part of it when it happens, because towards the end it could get violent, though I hope not.”
He grinned, saying, “Something a little more cheerful. I saw the President of the Colonial Council and he wants to send his thanks to you and especially to Bale. That is the only thing that the Colonial Government will say about the incident. They want to keep Bale a secret, because they don't want anyone to know how we detected the Jakar ships. It'll happen eventually, but they want to keep him a secret as long as possible.”
Rill nodded with understanding. Thom continued, “The Federation on the other hand, has done a couple things. First they've rescinded the rule that Gypsy Exiles have to wait two years to apply for Federation citizenship. Gypsies for the moment will keep their special political status, but any Gypsy who wishes can claim citizenship anytime he/she wishes, no matter how old they are. Both you and Bale, now named Bale Baldwin, have been given immediate Federation citizenship.”
Rill said with excitement, “Did you hear that Bale, you've got a last name.”
Bale's voice came though the tiny com on the amulet around Rill's neck. “Oh joy, I went five billion years with no name, and now I've got two of them. If I was human I think I'd cry.” Bale said sarcastically.
Rill giggled again. Thom said, “The final thing. The Federation has waived the normal adoption procedures and you are now my son.” Rill looked stunned and the man lifted him onto his lap and the boy leaned back contentedly against the man's shoulder.