Sunday, August 20, 2017

Monkey Flip: NOVA 2017

It's 2017 and Alex Helton's world is changed forever.  Colt Carson has a talk with him early, admitting that he's been a dick, and that he's booked them in a match together...in November.  For the NOVA title, and Alex will be...the defender.  Alex doesn't believe it for a minute.  "Bullshit," he says.  "Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit."  Carson likes the reaction so much he has Alex repeat this in the arena, and it's the exact character catalyst he needs to once and finally get over, become a vocally supported, uniquely supported competitor.

But he's booked to lose his match at Idolwild, against Hector Luna, one of the most respected indy wrestlers of his generation.  Luna is booked in March to do the honors for Carson, a month before Carson challenges for the title, which Dixon Wolfe is holding.  Dixon's been champion since last October.  In fact, Dixon will remain the longest-reigning NOVA champion for the foreseeable future (I won't tell you what that means just yet, son).  Alex is booked to lose again in February, and the fans chant "Bullshit!" right along with him.  Little do they know...He loses in March, and the fans chant "Bullshit!" 

In April, he picks up his first win of the year.  It's against Anton Jericho, and yes that's significant, as even Carson has realized that Anton's a Helton guy, making that two active competitors on the roster, including Alex's old friend Scott Peavy, and two departed, slipped-through-Carson's-fingers superstars, Koba and Bronson, both of whom were positively giddy about Alex's future prospects.  Alex wins again in May.  In June, he beats Damian Goch, and Goch makes it clear to the fans, at the end of the match, that he's passing the torch, mouthing "Bullshit!" after taking the pin, and they return it back to him, loudly. 

Finally, finally, in July, at the Warrior card, Alex battles Dixon for the title.  It's the best match of the year.  Everyone says so.  If Dixon's epic reign is to finally end, three months short of a year, it will have to end spectacularly.  They brawl all over the arena.  And this never happens at a NOVA show, except in stretcher matches, which at this point are a thing of the past.  Alex breaks out the kendo stick, which fans haven't seen him use since the match with Koba, last March.  The fans know what this means.  They know immediately.  He didn't even have to argue with Carson about it.  He couldn't believe it then, and he doesn't believe it as he's using it on Dixon, clubbing the champion as he's never clobbered anyone with it before, letting savagery fly, knowing that once again, as Koba helped him realize, that expectations are a funny thing, and that if he's going to make history he's going to have to break his own rules, play to what the fans want, what he's long denied them, what he's long been denied himself.  And Dixon's smiling.  He's smiling from ear to ear.  The fans can't believe it.  They've never seen anything like it.  They know what Dixon knows, that finally, he's being given the fight of his life, and it's from Alex Helton, who having the fight of his life...And just like that, it's over.  One, two, three.  Alex is champion.

Three Rules, in August, is designed to replicate this without duplicating it.  For the first time ever, not only will one man compete in each of the "three rules," but two of them: Alex and Dixon.  First, they have a tornado match.  Scott can't be his partner.  Neither can Anton.  Scott's injured.  In he suffers a stinger against Jull Marias.  It's basically the end of Marias, who sticks around a couple more months (a decisive loss to Carson in February sends a clear enough single).  The immediate concern is that Scott is paralyzed for life.  He remains motionless in the ring for several minutes, and the whole locker room panics.  Alex fights back tears.  Carson gives him the okay to break kayfabe and be there for Scott on the way to the back.  It won't be until October next year that Scott is up to competing again, and that's for the "Beast" program that will establish the persona WPW use to great effect.  He becomes more limited, but emphasizing his power becomes a huge draw.  It would never have worked in NOVA, except fans realize at this precise moment how much Alex and Scott mean to each other, and on that note, embrace Scott's "Beast" for reasons other than the storyline, because he's their last link to one of their all-time favorites at that point.

Anton defeated Steve Williams on the Warrior card; at Three Rules he's Dixon's tornado partner, and at Unleashed VI in September, he's Alex's challenger in the main event.  Alex has Jason Donovan beside him at in the tornado match.  Donovan is a solid indy competitor who'll never break the main event in NOVA, much less WPW or NWW.  Alex gets the win and the pin, on Anton, leaving the fans to anticipate their next encounter, and eager for Dixon to grab the spotlight in the night's next match, under kendo rules.  Everyone knows what this means, and so Alex and Dixon play against expectations.  Alex lets Dixon do the monkey flip.  It draws a decent pop.  He unveils a corkscrew flip from the turnbuckle, with the stick.  It's something he's practiced a thousand times, and half the time been thoroughly dissatisfied with.  The momentum of the move makes it hard to stick the landing, so it's always a matter of the flashiness overcoming the execution.  With the kendo stick?  It's enough not the get tangled up and completely botch it.  Somehow he pulls it off.  He calls it the Hell on Earth, which helps WPW come up with the "Hell Town" gimmick when his name is switched to Alex Dane next year, and the company still wants a nod to his given name.  Somewhat more intimidating than the monkey flip.  Tricky as, well, hell to pull off, so he'll only ever do it sparingly.

The final match of the evening is the stretcher match.  This is the one where they allow themselves to duplicate what they did at Warrior.  They fight all over the arena.  They go into the stands, right among the fans themselves, which never happens at a NOVA show, so that there's no mistake how special a moment this really is.  It creates the right amount of illusion about how personal this is, how desperate they are to end the feud, two matches on the night later.  Alex gets his third and final pin.  He remains champion.  The whole idea was to sell this as an impossibility.  He scaled the mountain after years of futility, only to lose, definitely lose, the night of his first defense, against the man who had proved to be the most dominant champion the company had ever seen, in three grueling matches in more than an hour of wrestling...But he does it.  He comes out with the belt still in his possession.  If someone had told him back in 2012...

At Unleashed, the anniversary card, he beats Anton.  In October, he beats Luna.  In November...the card he dreaded more than any other...he beats Carson.  Easily.  It's such a lopsided contest, he feels guilty the whole time.  He wallops on Carson for twenty minutes.  Carson just keeps taking it, rallying just long enough to be beaten down all over again.  Alex enjoys every minute of it.  He doesn't care for a minute that he already knows the ride ends in December, against Oliver Pine, against a guy who overstays his NOVA welcome after a lengthy title reign to become irrelevant, and it's not just because WPW has come calling with the most unbelievable deal imaginable, the chance to headline World Famous just a few months later, in a sensational battle of indy darlings, against the one-and-only BM Pro...The match with Pine is brutal in ways he hasn't experienced before.  He suspects it's Carson's passive-aggressive parting shot.  Pine works stiff, and Alex's back is screaming out in pain by the end of it, and he's wondering if he'll even be able to wrestle again in a few months, much less live up to the hype...But what the hell, right?  He screams "Bullshit!" at the end of it, and the fans scream it right back at him, and they know what happens next, too, and for a change, they aren't bitter about it.  Not one bit.  They love their fortunate son.  They know he'll deliver there, too.  He's experienced far too much.  As he's walking out of the arena, Scott's there waiting for him, and it's the most emotional moment NOVA has ever experienced.  Pine's moment is completely overshadowed.  He stands ignored in the ring.  (Ah.  Maybe that's why that happens.)  Alex and Scott embrace, and Alex shouts "Bullshit!" one more time, and he's behind the curtain, the deadening curtain, before he can hear it repeated back at him one last time. 

Scott pulls him close, and says, "I love you, brother."  The pain is there on his face as he says it.  His neck will never be the same, and in that moment, he doesn't care.  Alex blows off Carson, still congratulating himself for having engineered all of this, and Alex is suddenly pissed off.  He feels full of ingratitude all of a sudden.  This year has been magical, but...so many things could've been different.  He wonders if it would've been better.  He fears what tomorrow will bring, if he's going to fail on the bigger stage, if he's been set up to fail...Is it just one big cruel joke?  That's why he blows Carson off, when he should be thanking him, thanking him for the years of opportunity, and, yeah, for putting all this past year together, for sticking with him when other wrestlers fell by the wayside, a lot of much bigger names, the ones everyone already knew, the ones who came in and made huge splashes and walked away as soon as they'd been given these same opportunities without so much as...He turns around and gives Carson a hug, scowling the whole time.  Carson is totally bewildered, and Alex begins to laugh. 

Life is good.  His fortunes just took a cosmic monkey flip forward. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Monkey Flip: NOVA 2016

It's 2016, a year away from destiny, and Alex Helton begins it by telling himself the same nonsense he's been telling himself all along, and he keeps getting the same results.  He drops the tornado championship at Idolwild, giving Cairo Brown the rub, and then in February working yet another program with best friend and long-time enabler Scott Peavy.

Things get interesting in March.  The Russian Koba, the monster of a machine who is only just beginning to steamroll the sport of professional wrestling, lobbies hard to work with Alex.  Colt Carson, the perennial prig who succeeds with the cult promotion NOVA despite himself but will never admit it, is dead-set against it.  He won't budge.  It's actually the first crack in his grip on Koba, but he doesn't know it.  Koba knows what he wants, and he's already important enough in the company despite having arrived only last September where Carson is forced to take his demands seriously.  But not without a price.  This is a fight Koba has been waging on Alex's behalf for months.  While Scott had headlined a couple cards over NOVA's three-year existence, Alex never has, despite being one of its most dependable performers.  But in Alex's case, it's made him easy to take for granted. 

Koba, though, knows what he sees, and he threatens to walk away if Carson doesn't give him what he wants.  Carson's retaliation is swift and brutal: Koba's forced to drop the NOVA title to Oz Hedges at Idolwild.  The backlash from fans effectively tanks Oz's popular career, even though he'll go on to certain success in WPW, just nowhere near where he might have if he hadn't been branded a stooge backstage.  Koba will walk away after July, and end up with the same impactful career he'd left behind, taking his eternal fight with Bronson into NWW and perhaps one day even beyond, once Bronson's made his transition to WPW.  Time will tell.  Bronson is a guy who realizes Koba has been given a raw deal, and talks his way into NOVA merely to help point it out, but he has bite behind his bark, and he becomes more successful than even Koba, and in a shorter length of time, and leaves even sooner, just as fed up with Carson's bullshit.

They're the first chinks in the company's armor, but because guys like Alex stay, it survives.  Actually, it's because guys like Alex stay that it survives, because they stick around precisely to prove it's endurable.  But even Alex leaves as soon as he hits it big, a year later...

The match with Koba, at the Pink Mist card in March, becomes Alex's signature, the match that makes his career, solidifies it, makes everyone really sit up and pay attention.  He breaks all his rules.  For one night he embodies everything he'd previously feared.  Koba knows as well as he does that his reigns with the kendo championship didn't mean what his reputation became because of them, but that he'll have to use brutality in order to sell his ability to keep up in this clash.  He in fact uses a kendo stick at various points, never with the signature monkey flip, never again, but every other thrilling variation he can imagine.  It's enough to give Koba his longest match to that point in the company.  Alex loses the match, and the next month is given a complete throwaway match with the eternally overwhelmed Gabe Parkman.  Koba keeps the title a few more months before dropping it permanently, to "Stunner" Steve Williams, who makes it seem credible while Koba works his greatest, and career-defining, NOVA match with Bronson in July's Warrior card, just a few months before Bronson repeats history, claiming the NOVA title and quickly walking out on the company...

Alex is nowhere to be seen the next two months, after the pointless Parkman match.  He resurfaces on the same Warrior card, once again battling Scott.  His pal is well on his way to solidifying the slow burn "Beast" character he'll one day elevate to WPW in the Helton/Peavy feud to end them all, their names changed but their chemistry once and forever intact.  This is all Koba needs to tell Bronson he needs to work with Alex, too, and the lobbying to make that happen...But it does.  At Three Rules in August, Alex and Bronson compete in a stretcher match.  The company had actually ditched the gimmick championships by this point, hoping to legitimize its business to mainstream fans, but this is the card where they will always live on, year after year.  By being placed in one of the eponymous "rules" matches (including a NOVA title match) on the card, Alex is being given the begrudging nod he's earned, and against the company's would-be replacement prospect.  Bronson wins the title at the fifth Unleashed card the next month, and then...yeah.  Where is Alex on that card?  In a losing effort to Damian Goch, an indy star well on his way to accepting that NOVA would be someone else's spotlight..

Carson's become desperate, though.  Now, he's always telling Alex that.  He's confiding in Alex as never before.  In the biggest irony of the whole company, the man Carson has tried so hard to bury over the years by keeping him always just on the cusp of a breakthrough is suddenly desperately needed to keep everything together.  Alex is booked in October to help launch another would-be hot prospect, Tupra, who will dance as Alex has danced over the years, perhaps forever, perhaps never to realize his full potential.  Alex realizes too late that Carson has actually used him, that he used Alex to bury another potential Koba, another potential Bronson, because looking back, he sees that Tupra had exactly that potential, but in being clipped off at the knees...

Still, he doesn't have too much time to feel bad, as he helps launch Anton Jericho into the next level in November.  Jericho is part of the emerging next generation of NOVA stars, and he's just found himself, one of the first stars NOVA has genuinely created.  The experience of working with him at this point in Anton's career is enough for Alex and Scott to remember him later, when they've been granted permission by WPW to write their own checks, so to speak. 

It's important to remember, too, that this is the period where NOVA undergoes a drastic format change that sweeps the rest of the wrestling landscape before long.  Having been exposed years ago as scripted, wrestling had struggled to find a way to reclaim a semblance of credibility.  NOVA's solution is to give real value to wins and losses.  The idea is that a win will advance you further up the card, until you've earned a shot in the main event.  Everyone has a fair chance now, and fresh matchups are guaranteed every month, the spirit of NOVA's competition-based mentality.  Those who rack up a lot of wins will deserve competing for and winning championships, and holding on to them for long stretches at a time (even if NOVA itself will never quite figure out how to keep someone champion for very long). 

In theory, it's the greatest thing to ever happen to professional wrestling.  In practice...it's frustrating.  The gods truly must smile on you.  When they do everything's great, and you instantly look like a million bucks.  But if they don't...And Alex fears that once and for all Carson has actually devised the perfect system to justify keeping him down, where hotter fresher names will find Alex low on the card, even if they have less real talent...Case in point, a loss to Oliver Pine, another guy who will never live up to his potential, in December...

But again, all this changes in 2017...!

Elsewhere, Steve Williams begins his campaign for greatness in RoG, which has suddenly lit up hotter than NOVA, thanks to realizing just how far behind it'd fallen in recent years.  Names like Williams, Nero, Bobby Brisco, Gorilla Graham, and Freddie Hammond emerge as the futures of WPW and NWW.  In NWW, meanwhile, Andy Lethal begins to emerge as a breakout star, years before he and Iron Henry join NOVA.  And who's that in October?  Bronson!  But much, much more on in in 2017.  And 2018.  And 2019...And...In WPW, Paul Tugend continues to prove that he's the face of the company for the foreseeable future.  And least, until Alex arrives...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Monkey Flip: NOVA 2015

It's 2015, and Alex is still two years away from destiny, two years away from feeling like he's actually accomplished something, two years away from feeling like he's got any real worth...

For January's annual Idolwild card, the one NOVA always uses to introduce its latest acquisitions, Alex learns that he's working against Mistico, a wrestler who's adopted a famous moniker but who will never, like Sin Cara in another reality, amount to much as a commodity in the United States.  Still, Colt Carson loves Mistico, and so he's booked to have a strong initial push, and that means a win over Alex, which means Alex has to work overtime to get him over, whatever he has to do, which because Mistico has virtually no experience outside of Mexico, basically everything.  This one match puts so much psychological strain on Alex, he questions all over again whether he really wants to continue pushing this dream forward.  What fans typically refer to as botches, happen practically once a minute.  He's a mess once he reaches backstage, a sparsely catered ghost corridor, and throws up.

He begs Carson to let him work with Scott again.  This will always be Alex's go-to solution.  He's scheduled to work against Damian Goch, in yet another grueling kendo championship program, but Carson is tiring of Alex and gives in without much fuss, so the spot and the title go to Idan Judd, an upstart former Olympian who will never live up to his potential, who Alex will wrestle in April for the title, Idan's last match with the promotion, an unmitigated disaster of a match that further erodes Alex's self-esteem.  To the paying fans he seems better than fine, but privately he's falling apart.  For March's card, he's booked in a tornado title match where all he needs to do is put over the increasingly popular Cairo Brown, who has definitely been paying his dues, which will show when WPW comes calling for him, just like Alex.

In May, Alex shepherds the green Lloyd Cole, who will never amount to anything, in a basic and unsatisfying kendo match, before transitioning back to Brown in June, in a match Alex finally feels ready to cut loose.  It's the end of his third and final run with the title, but Alex is more than ready to move on.  Even if his preferred use of kendo sticks is graceful, contrary to the familiar brutality of the weapon, fans more often than not prefer Carson into delivering the expected.  Of course there was a reason Alex never went with that style, because it's brutal and destroys the body.  He can name plenty of colleagues who perform in constant pain because of these expectations, and he desperately wants to avoid becoming one of them.  Brown obliges, and they spend half the match performing Alex's signature kendo stick monkey flip.  When the bell finally rings, and he's tapped out to Brown's River Song, Alex does one last flip, of the kendo stick into the crowd, a symbolic ending to this phase of his career.

In July, he teams with Scott in another tornado title match, and they become one of the rare duos to compete on successive cards together in NOVA's variation of tag team matches, winning both times.  As one of four matches at Three Rules in August, it's a testament to Alex's emerging job security with the company.  Even Carson can no longer deny his significance to the company.  Alex and Scott work a third tornado title match at Unleashed IV, the annual card celebrating NOVA's inception, this time on opposing teams.

Because he continues to win these matches, Alex is blindsided when he's left off December's card.  NOVA holds one card a month where the whole roster might be expected to appear; their one hour weekly shows, because in the grand scheme of things they're a small company that makes sporadic house show dates, only have so much space to spotlight the roster.  He spends a lot of time in an unfulfilling real estate career, hoping one day to put it behind him.  The last thing he wants is to be showing houses during the last show of the year. 

He also has to admit to a certain amount of professional jealousy: NOVA has signed one of the hottest prospects wrestling will see for the next half-dozen years, the Russian Koba, who makes his debut at Unleashed IV.  Koba is pushed all the way to the top almost instantly, a fighting machine the lacks of which have rarely been seen, who so thoroughly dominates everyone he meets that he fairly decimates them.  Unlike a lot of monsters who are monsters simply because they're limited workers, Koba understands the business so well it's virtually impossible to keep up with him.  Alex realizes for the first time that perhaps his limited growth is a product of his limited skills, that if he wants to be seen as the best he has to be the best.  He watches Koba and he wonders...In a few years time he'll have figured it all out.

Elsewhere in 2015, "Hustle" Paul Tugend emerges as the new face of WPW, the very man Alex is destined to succeed.  In NWW, Iron Henry becomes the third generation in his family to ascend that company's ladder of success.  He'll later compete in NOVA at the same level and help revitalize the company, what some will call an evolution.  In RoG, BM Pro completes his transformation by winning the Super 8 a second time (this time against some true future standouts, including "Stunner" Steve Williams and Tommy Hart), and then winning the company's heavyweight title before abruptly jumping ship to WPW, where he will quickly dominate its ACW brand, foreshadowing his emergence as a superstar who will one day compete against Alex at World Famous under very similar circumstances...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Brothers, at the Last (Monster/Frankenstein) Chapter 4

They're seated at dinner, enjoying each other's company, and Henry can't believe his luck.  The most beautiful woman he's ever seen is in love with him.  She keeps grabbing his hands across the table.  She calls herself Olive.  He doesn't think twice about it.  They're waiting for the food, but the food doesn't matter, does it?  Nothing else is real anymore.  This is everything, Henry's whole world.  He's forgotten the rest of it.

There's a toddler seated near them, part of a large party of people obviously enjoying themselves, even while the toddler pitches a fit.  Henry can't tell why and he doesn't care about that, either.  It's strange, he think vaguely, that he doesn't care.  He wonders that the man seated next to the toddler looks familiar, but he's so distracted, he doesn't care about that, either.  His whole world is Olive, and it surely always will be.  She's laughing at something, and he pretends he understands, but really he doesn't understand anything anymore, and doesn't care about that, either.  When love finds you, that's all that matters.

The toddler won't stop its tantrum.  Henry finally takes a closer look, and sees that it's a girl, and then he looks at the man, and he's startled to see that it's Sabin.  How is that even possible?  They've been sharing more and more of their secrets.  He's completed his genealogy, and now he knows the truth, that he's descended from a mad scientist named Victor Frankenstein, and that Sabin was created by this ancestor, and...Last week they found out that Sabin lost his tenure.  Last week they found out that everything they'd taken for granted was over.  Last week he saw Sabin angry, truly angry, for the first time, and it was...it was terrifying.  There is no greater anger than the kind generated by intelligent minds, and Sabin is easily the smartest man Henry ever knew.

He panicked. He didn't even think twice of abandoning the man.  After all, he suddenly had something far better in his life. 

Sabin doesn't look in his direction at all.  He's finding ways of calming the toddler, and they're working.  Henry suddenly wonders if he's the only one who even noticed, who cared, and he's shocked at the irony. 

The food arrives, and Olive winks at him, because for her this is truly a special occasion, indulging herself in her favorite food, which she never eats, because life in the modern age is about denial, because there's no greater sin than being true to yourself, but rather conforming to hideous standards that look great on the surface but are...

He steals another glance at Sabin, and he feels awful.  They'd come to mean so much to each other.  He doesn't understand what happened, none of it.  He still has the books, and he feels like a coward because of it.  He should have returned them.  He really should have.  He doesn't know what to do with them, and it's been bothering him for weeks, the one niggling problem in his otherwise obscene good fortune of late, the miracle of Olive, who...

Wait.  Sabin just winked at him, too.  Of course he would know Henry was there the whole time.  That's Sabin in a nutshell.  Too smart for this world. 

It makes him think...Olive?  He remembers, like an idiot, the Row identity.  Olive...Olive is Olivia Row, the latest in a long line.  Sworn enemies of Sabin, employed from a long time ago to hound him to the grave.  Again.  By his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

Of course Sabin knew right away who she was, too.  Henry feels her pulling at his hands again, and he fights the instinct to recoil.  He instead excuses himself, making some brief comment about everything he's been drinking this evening.  He nearly stumbles getting up, and again fights himself as he desperately wants to run out of there.  He heads to the restroom.  He's not surprised when Sabin enters moments later.  He's standing in front of the sink, staring blankly into the mirror, and Sabin is there behind his left shoulder. 

"We need to talk," the monster says.

"Certainly," Henry replies.

"She and her kind have stalked me all my life," the monster says.   "Time for it to end.  Nothing personal."

"Listen, I feel terrible...," Henry stammers.  "About everything."

"The one thing I want you to understand," the monster says, "is that none of this matters.  But you already knew that."

"You're in danger," Henry says.

"Story of my life," the monster says.  "You never asked who I was before all this."

"His brother," Henry says.  It's not something he'd discovered in his research. 

"His brother," the monster says.  "Somehow I think that makes all of this better.  I was Victor's brother.  I can't account for his thought process.  He brought me back from the dead.  I still managed to disappoint him.  You always fear family most of all."

"Listen...," Henry says.  "That makes me your brother, too."

"Yes," the monster says, and then walks back out of the restroom.  Henry never sees him again. 

When he emerges, Olive's gone, too.  He's relieved, somehow.  The whole party Sabin had been with is still there, except for Sabin and the toddler.  Henry wonders.  Is the child Sabin's? 

He's somehow okay with the uncertainty of it.  But then, he's still got the rest of his life to figure out, too.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rue the Day (original version)


2195

 

“Your life is not what you imagined it to be.”

     These were words spoken by a subordinate to her superior officer, Captain Dar of the Osprey, a Space Corps ship of the line stationed at the border of Danab space.  The speaker was Porto, Dar’s first officer, an Omoxian who like all Omoxians lacked humility.  She felt free to speak her mind, besides, at the request of her captain, who encouraged such candor, and sat amused listening to another of Porto’s diatribes as a result.  They were debating the merit of a being of apparent limitless power, calling itself Tenru, which had appeared in the command center of the Osprey earlier that day, proclaiming that it was in fact the very reason Dar was captain of the ship.  Dar was a Danab, a true rarity of the Space Corps, as the Danab were traditionally enemies of the organization, but she didn’t wear the traditional helm of her people, and so her rueful expression was plain for Porto to see.  They both understood that Porto was in essence agreeing with this being’s claims.

     “Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of believing such things,” Dar said.  She relaxed against a terminal other captains would’ve outfitted as a desk.  The Osprey, like other Space Corps ships, sat idle amidst the stars, waiting for orders that never seemed to come, its crew ever anxious for something to do, except fight in a war of course.  That was why most of its complement had other assignments, such as Belano, the human who specialized as a cultural analyst, and who stood off to the side of this exchange, equally bemused as his captain.  His fondest ambition was to be a writer.

     “I’m sure no one is arguing that you ought to, Captain,” he said. 

     To Belano’s right stood the perennially anxious Sidel, another human, a security officer who was there mostly to keep tabs on the ship’s more official guest, the Tikanni ambassador Lord Phan, who was presently resting in his quarters.    Sidel was known to harbor ulterior motives, and wasn’t generally trusted by anyone, but his role was also essential and so he had to be humored at all times.

     “Porto isn’t suggesting that we accept Tenru’s assertions at face value,” he said. 

     Across the room stood Madam Nordica, a Puck whose role as science officer didn’t necessarily require her more elaborate side projects, most of which made everyone nervous, especially the ones some of them thought intersected only too well with the kind of power Tenru had so casually demonstrated earlier, projects like studying time and space itself.

     “I think he’s pretty interesting,” she said. 

     Also absent from the room was Stuart Everest, the crewman doing the piloting, but everyone knew he had a huge crush on Madam Nordica, and so what he would’ve said would have come as no surprise, had he been present.

     “I didn’t ask for comments,” Porto continued.  “Captain, this is a dangerous situation.  We know from the ship’s records that this being has appeared before, seventy years ago, aboard the Virox.  We all know what happened to that ship’s crew.  We have to take this threat seriously.  We have to formulate a response, a decisive one, and unfortunately I think it begins by limiting your role in events.  You are already a wildcard.  Tenru suggests that if it weren’t for him, you wouldn’t even be captain.  Since we all have memories of our service under you, we have to operate under the assumption that either he’s lying or this is already an alternate reality, and if that’s the case, that he may have done what he did for a reason, one that is potentially a threat to the whole Space Corps.”

     “I’m afraid she’s right about that,” said Belano.  Of the crew he was Dar’s closest ally, or at least the one she trusted the most.  “This puts us all in a tough spot.”

     “I don’t have the luxury of basing my decisions on guesswork,” Dar said.  “That wasn’t why I was given command of a starship.  We can’t exactly take everyone we encounter at face value.  Our first duty is to uphold our ideals, which we’ve often found to clash with those of others.  He obviously has an ulterior motive, but it’s my job to make sure we don’t play into it.  I’m not stepping down, not today and not tomorrow.  Sorry, Porto.  You know I value your council, but not on this one.”

     Everyone in that room was thinking the same thing, and Dar knew it: she was a Danab in a world where the Danab were the bad guys, and she was asking them to forget that. 

     “You’ll understand if we hesitate,” Sidel said.

     “Of course,” Dar said.  “I’d hardly respect you if you didn’t.  A good captain expects her crew to do nothing less.”

     “I for one am glad you’re captain,” Madam Nordica said.  She let out a slight chuckle, but no one much paid attention, because Puck were known for that sort of behavior. 

     “None of us mean to suggest anything less,” Belano said. 

     “Certainly not,” Sidel said, though few in the room found the words convincing. 

     “Captain,” Porto said, hesitating before continuing, knowing how the room had shifted against her in the last few minutes.  “Captain, you know I support you.  I hope you don’t consider this a personal attack, but I don’t think the best of intentions are important at the moment.  We all saw what he could do.  We know he made some of the crew disappear and then appear again, and for a moment every one of us forgot they ever existed.  I know it’s difficult for me to reconcile such an experience, knowing I had memories ripped from me, and then returned, knowing they were taken.  This isn’t something I can just forget.  Omoxians have long memories, too long sometimes.  We value them.  Fifty years from now I will remember that moment, that void, as clearly as I remember it now.  That’s frightening.  To anyone who didn’t experience it, who’ll just hear about it as just some adventure, it won’t mean anything, but it means a great deal to me.  How am I supposed to reconcile that with what Tenru says about you?  That’s what I’m saying, Captain.  Even if it’s not for my own peace of mind, I contend that your stepping down, even if ceremoniously, is the right call.”

     “How do we know you aren’t the agent of this being’s mischief?” Dar asked.  “I don’t for a moment believe that, but that’s your argument, isn’t it?  Doubt?  That’s what Tenru has really introduced, isn’t it?  Doubt.  I don’t believe that’s Space Corps policy.”

     “But a minute ago that’s exactly what you said,” Porto said.  “You insisted that Space Corps exists to uphold its ideals.  But what is that but a case for doubt?  Aren’t ideals something we put forward when we don’t really have anything better to say?  Isn’t that working doubt?  It’s such a nebulous mandate.  It can mean anything.  Which is to say, doubt.”

     “You’re becoming a philosopher,” Dar said.

     “Hold on,” Belano said.  “I want to write some of that down…”  If anyone else had made that remark, it would’ve been taken as a joke.

     “I appreciate your stance, Porto, but I can’t run a ship that way,” Dar said.  “It’d be downright reckless of me.  I’d be stripped of my command first chance brass got.”

     “Maybe so,” Porto said.  “As I said, it wouldn’t even have to be official, just something we did for show, for Tenru’s benefit.”

     “Not acceptable,” Dar said.  The way she said it made everyone in the room aware that it was the final word in the discussion.  They began filing out, until it was just Dar and Porto, and then even Porto left, reluctantly.  That was when Tenru appeared again, right in front of the captain.

 

***

 

“I’ve just taken your pawn off the board,” Tenru said.  Physically, he looked like any other humanoid, actually much like any other human, as did the Danab, which meant as did Captain Dar.

     “I beg your pardon?” she said, practically choking.

     “Belano, the would-be-writer,” Tenru said, lacing the last few words with sarcasm.  “You’ll find he’s quite indisposed at the moment.  Ask your pet Puck if you don’t believe me.  She’ll say he’s fallen into an inexplicable coma state, but I can assure you I’ve placed him into deep meditation.  He’ll emerge with more than a few good ideas for stories.  Pity he’ll only spoil them.”

     Dar, still leaning against her command terminal, tapped the communications link and called for Madam Nordica to confirm.

     “Fascinating,” Nordica replied.  “Whatever he’s done, he’s once again appearing to tell the truth.”

     Appearing,” Tenru said, sounding hurt.  Appearing.  I’ll show her.  Want to know her real name?  I can make it so that you’ll never have known anything different.”

     “So you said about the captain of the Virox,” Dar said.  “So you say about me as well, it seems, in a manner of speaking.”

     “I suppose that’s true,” Tenru said.  “It never pays to do the same trick twice.  Lesson learned.  I’m proud of you, Captain!”

     “Save it,” Dar said.  “What do you really want?”

     “I want what gods have always wanted,” Tenru said.  “I want unquestioning devotion.  No, that’s not right.  I want to screw around with the insignificant lives of mortals, of course!”

     “You may think sarcasm suits you,” Dar said.  “You’d be wrong.”

     “Everything suits me, Captain,” Tenru said.  “That’s kind of the point.  I truly have unlimited potential.  Modesty, however, is not my best virtue, although I doubt I can be blamed for it.”

     “You think you’re clever,” Dar said.  “You think you’re singular.  I’ve known people like you my whole life.”

     “Real or imagined?” Tenru said.

     “I’m not going to play your games,” Dar said.  “I’m Danab.  Regardless of what you’ve attempted to insinuate, I earned my place in the Corps, and it wasn’t easy, and by that virtue I can assure you that I know what I’m talking about.  Even if it were conjured from your bag of parlor tricks, the results still speak for themselves.  Reality however gained must still be reconciled by each observer.  My crew respects me even when they disagree with me.  How do you explain that?”

     “You play by rules you fashion on the spot,” Tenru said.  “Whoever said your perceptions have any merit?  A dream is still a dream.  Your thoughts may be the plaything of some celestial child you’ve never even conceived, let alone the likes of me.”

     “And just what are you?” Dar said.  “A madman with delusions of grandeur, as far as I can tell.  I don’t fear you.  You’ve already played your hand.  If my life is a lie, then the lie speaks for itself, too.  Isn’t that so?”

     “That’s in truth why I do this sort of thing, every now and again,” Tenru said.  “The humanoid predilection for unearned hubris.  I assure you, it’s amusing.  But I don’t have to stand here listening to this.  Let your Mister Belano explain it himself.”

     Tenru vanished as easily as he’d appeared, and in his place stood a visibly befuddled Belano.  “I’m sorry, Captain, what just happened?” he asked.

     “I was hoping you could answer that for me,” Dar said.  “That’s what our guest was just telling me.  But first, can you explain what you just experienced?  I was told you were in some sort of trance?”

     “It was like nothing I had experienced before, honestly,” Belano said.  “It’s hard to describe.  One minute I was leaving an incredibly frustrating and to be frank downright mutinous officers meeting, and the next…I’ve never taken recreational drugs, but I’m given to understand that maybe what I saw is something users might know well enough.  I became a writer because I was able to access that feeling all on my own, thank you very much.  I hated every second of it.  I lost all control.  It’s one thing when a story does it, but another when there’s no obvious agent, no obvious point, nothing obvious at all.  Just a bad trip.  I wish I could explain it better.  It was as if my mind were stuck on a single thought, and that thought was utter nonsense.”

     “That’s all right,” Dar said.  “I can sympathize.  One conversation with Tenru is a thousand, and they’re all the same.  Just a lot of preposterous posturing.  I don’t need that in my life.  I have enough headaches as it is.  Did you know that a traditional Danab helm actually serves partially as an environmental purifier?  It helps you breathe.  There are days I sorely regret giving mine up.  Not for the reasons some would assume.  All this business about what Tenru supposedly did…I can’t abide it.  All my instincts rebel against it.  It’s my duty.  Yet I still can’t help think…”

     “That Porto was right,” Belano said.  “Damn.  Right.”

     “To lose everything I’ve achieved based on some idiot prank,” Dar said.  “Only yesterday it would’ve been unthinkable.  The trouble we ask for…They don’t prepare you for this.  You’d think they would, but they don’t.  Doesn’t any of the experience of our predecessors count for anything?”

     “They say that only fools fail to learn from history,” Belano said.  “The truth is, I think, everyone necessarily makes history themselves.”

     “Damn,” Dar said.  “Ever write something this screwed up?”

     “I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” Belano said. 

     “You think this is all about chaos?” Dar said.

     “It wouldn’t surprise me,” Belano said.  “The more power someone has, the more they’re willing to abuse it.  History says that much.”

     “He said you’d be able to explain it,” Dar said.

     “Think it’s over?” Belano asked. 

     “Not by a long shot,” Dar said.  “Unfortunately.”

     “I’d love to know what our Tikanni guest thinks about all this,” Belano said.  “They’re all so mysterious.  I’m almost afraid to know.”

     “That man hasn’t spoken a word to me since he came aboard,” Dar said.  “That should tell you something.  Doubtless he’s not even curious.  But something about the previous encounter with Tenru intrigued me, when I researched it.  Lord Phan was present then, too.”

     “Think there’s a connection?” Belano said.

     “Only one way to find out,” Dar said.

 

***

 

Stuart Everest was keenly aware of the fact that in the grand scheme of things, he was a more or less inessential presence aboard the Osprey.  He’d enlisted into the Corps, which meant that whatever responsibilities he’d ever get, it would always be over things and not people.  Some people are okay with that.  Stuart wasn’t.  He was embarrassed about how things had turned out for him, and yet he was hard-pressed to come up with a way for his life to have been any better.  His parents and their parents and so on and so forth had never left Earth.  His was one of the very few families that could say that in the 22nd century, with a new one clear on the horizon, a long distance off from first contact with aliens and the subsequent rapid advancement in technology and prospects…for everyone else, anyway.  Stuart was keenly aware of the fact that he grew up with gadgets several generations old.  When his peers in school were playing their favorite games using the latest holography, he had to force a grin when he unpacked actual boards on camping trips.  He knew he was the laughing stock of the class, and that was the worst part, the absolute certainty of a life that was meaningless before it had even had a chance to become established.  He paid little attention to those who attempted to convince him otherwise.  He knew what it was like to have been left behind in the steady forward march of civilization, and to have had no one really care. 

     So he enlisted in the Corps, which was really his only option, the same as countless others before him.  At least he wasn’t risking himself in some godforsaken military outpost, as his forebears had.  The Space Corps was not a military organization, even though basic training encompassed readiness to act as such, because space had been revealed as another untamed wilderness, in which the hunters were rampant and the prey ripe for the picking.  Earth knew all about that, thanks to the Danab.  Allies were few and tenuous at best, whether or not a whole Galactic Alliance could be taken at face value.  Stuart considered himself a studied cynic, and with good reason.

     So when he heard about what the officers had been discussing about the terrifying entity that had invaded the ship, how they were talking about Captain Dar stepping down, Stuart immediately started to worry.  People like him were always the ones to lose in a power struggle.  Norda, that is Madam Nordica (she never seemed to mind his horrible attempts at wooing her), had been the one to tell him; of course she was.  He’d been manning the navigation post as usual (all but automated, of course), when he became aware that she was standing behind him.  Her short stature, even when viewed from a seated position, nearly made him overlook her for the hundredth time as Stuart swiveled round to see who was there.

     “It’s okay, Stu,” Nordica said.  “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

     “Oh, you’re fine,” Stuart said.  “Just on edge, I guess.”

     “You have every right to be,” she said.  “I suppose you’re hardly the first person to find out what goes on around here.  Must be particularly unsettling with something like Tenru making the news.  Listen, I wanted to tell you, there’s been chatter, about our other guest.  Lord Phan.  The Tikanni.”

     Stuart could hardly keep all the aliens straight.  Aliens had been on Earth for generations, too, of course, but he’d hardly ever seen any, which he was forced to admit was probably why he had a crush on the pixyish Puck standing beside him now.  The Tikanni…they were supposed to be one of the big shots of the early Alliance days, he vaguely remembered.  Beyond that, he knew what everyone knew about them, that they were the physical pattern the Danab had modeled their armor after.  That meant one thing to someone like Stuart, and that was that he associated the Tikanni with Captain Dar, who had always made him vaguely uneasy.  She looked basically like just another human, except she wasn’t.  He would’ve wanted to die before admitting how much he was attracted to her.  He practically died of embarrassment every time she looked at him, much less addressed him…The Danab were sort of perfect human specimens, weren’t they?  Thank god they usually wore the armor…

     “Anyway, that’s not the worst of it,” Nordica continued, before lowering her voice, keenly aware that they were not alone, and that the person she was about to talk about was not ten feet away, even if Porto were distracted with other matters, discussing things with Sidel, the same things.  “Our Omoxian thinks the captain and Lord Phan are in league with one another.  She not only wants Dar to relinquish command, but for the Tikanni ambassador to be thrown off the ship.  But you didn’t hear it from me.”

     Stuart felt his cheeks grow flush, for a change not because of how he felt about Norda but because he’d been having the same thoughts, apparently, as Porto, and it was infrequent enough that their thoughts overlapped.  “You don’t say,” he managed.

     “Can you just imagine what they’re talking about?” Nordica said, apparently ignoring Stuart’s reaction.  “I can’t stand them.”

     Stuart said nothing in reply.  For the second time in the span of minutes, he’d been taken unawares by the sudden presence of an interloper, the being Tenru himself, who appeared between a startled Porto and Sidel.

     “I’m sorry,” the being said.  “I seem to have come at a bad time.  It’s bad form to show your head when everyone’s talking about you.  If it makes you feel any better, I confess to have implanted the ideas you’ve been entertaining.  I know, I know.  As I’ve been told recently, I keep playing the same hand, and what’s worse, it’s becoming all too obvious.”

     At this, Tenru gave Stuart a meaningful look, or at least that was how Stuart took it, although he had no idea how to interpret it.  Actually, as he thought more about it, the being seemed more sad than cunning in that moment, but no one else seemed to notice.  Sidel actually raised a blaster at Tenru, but it quickly disappeared from his hand.  Porto raised both hands in some gesture Stuart was equally incapable of interpreting, perhaps some Omoxian signal of which he was entirely ignorant.  Or perhaps some ability?  He’d never even considered the possibility.  He read comic books as a kid; somehow he’d never really thought about any of those aliens possessing…superpowers.  Tenru certainly, unequivocally, had powers, and Stuart found himself terrified more than anything.  He backed away, left his post, left the command center, didn’t even think twice about it…He never even gave Norda a second thought. 

     As he made his way through the corridors, Stuart tried to clear his thoughts, and at any rate wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings, and so for a third time within a span of minutes he was surprised by someone.  By the Tikanni, Lord Phan.  The man was imposing, all right.  Stuart had assumed he was without having been given a single clue about his appearance, aside from the obvious.  Somehow he gave off an aged impression, but Stuart couldn’t even begin to guess how old the Tikanni might be.

     “Pardon,” was all the Tikanni said.

     “Where the hell are you going?” Stuart found himself yelling, before he could help it.  “The god thing is in that direction.  If you have any sense at all you’ll get as far away from it as you can, like I am.”

     “Child, I have experience with such things,” Lord Phan said.  And Stuart believed him.

     The Tikanni continued on his way to the command center, and Stuart continued hurriedly in the opposite direction.  He didn’t even care anymore.  He was ready to quit the Space Corps.  He couldn’t imagine what Captain Dar might be thinking, defying a being like Tenru.  He never thought he’d side with Porto, much less Sidel.  He hated them both. 

     A fourth time…Stuart turned around and saw Belano, the would-be writer, the cultural analyst, whatever he wanted to be called, and was immediately aware, and surprised, to find that they were headed in the same direction.  How had Belano caught up with him? 

     “Sorry, sir,” Stuart said, an apology the first thing on his lips, thinking he was in Belano’s way.  He had traveled so far past panic at this point he had lapped himself. 

     “Actually, you were just the man I was looking for,” Belano said.

     “I am?”  Stuart started to sweat.

     “We have a lot to discuss,” Belano continued. 

     “Do you mind if I faint first?”

 

***

 

2121

 

It was late in the night when Melody May realized that her name was no longer her own.  This she understood, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember what it had once been.  That…thing had warned them that it would do something like this.  What was its name? 

     Tenru.  He’d accompanied the Tikanni ambassador, Lord Phan, on a supposedly innocent diplomatic mission on behalf of the Bith-mari.  Melody was captain of the Virox, a Space Corps ship of the line.  The Bith-mari had good standing in the Alliance, and even had some of its kind serving in the Corps.  Melody was aware of one particular officer in good standing, working alongside Jacques Mendez.  Mendez didn’t have to worry about the likes of Tenru, Melody found herself thinking, not for the first time that night.  She ordered the lights in her cabin on, half expecting to find the being sitting there watching her.  She suppressed a shudder, not for the first time that day. 

     Tenru and Lord Phan had met them at Riva, where the crew was to conduct a survey mission as a mere formality.  No one expected to find anything of note there, except their forthcoming visitors, who had business of their own there.  Melody supposed that she should’ve known what that business was ahead of time, but that was hindsight.  There was nothing on Riva to see, except the two strange individuals the Tikanni later claimed had gone there for the very isolated nature of the planet that otherwise made it so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, except as a battlefield in one of the Vendaran wars no one particularly found to be of any note, as there were so many Vendaran wars even the Vendarans probably lost count a long time ago.  Supposedly Tenru had wanted a place he could really let loose, which was how Lord Phan had described it.  Again, no one bothered to find out exactly what that meant until it was too late. 

     Melody had gone to the planet’s surface along with Eddo, her Omoxian first officer, and one of the crewmen.  Before they left, Melody hadn’t even bothered to learn his name, which was to become her life’s greatest regret.  His was the first life she ever lost under her command.  The name became emblazoned into her memory from that point forward.  Somehow she’d placed more emphasis on Eddo’s kid sister, Porto, who had been shadowing her for the past few weeks, still unsure as to whether or not the Corps was for her.  The first thought Melody had had, when it happened, was that thank god it hadn’t been her.  To her everlasting shame.

     Melody and her team exited their shuttlepod to a bleak landscape only dreamers would’ve loved.  At first they weren’t sure that they had landed at the right coordinates.  There was nothing around for miles, or so it seemed.  Eddo was the first to spot Tenru and Lord Phan, tiny specks on the horizon.  She suggested it was good enough for the purposes of their survey, and so they all took out their scanners.  The crewman seemed nervous; he was the only one brave enough to show it.  They could hear loud cracks reverberate in the atmosphere, which were easy to dismiss as some form of local weather that only needed later examining.  Melody took another look in the direction of their forthcoming guests, and thought that perhaps they were fighting.  She could see the distinctive glow of a psiglaive, projected out of the hand of the Tikanni.  It was common knowledge that their species had mastered the art of that unique blade.  That should have been her first warning.  Instead, she nodded at Eddo, and together they continued their scans.  The crewman held back behind them.

     Her communications patch beeped.  It was her security officer, Slone.  “Anything wrong down there?” his voice called out.  “We’re reading some nasty stuff going on.  Just flared out before you touched down.  Mister Homage says there’s the real possibility of a fight.  Northup concurs.  I really wish you’d taken me with you.”

     Homage was their Puck science officer, who was directing the survey from the ship, where he could analyze the data in real-time.  Northup was their cultural analyst.

     “Captain, I think one of our guests has powers we didn’t know about,” Northup’s voice chimed in.  “Could be god-level.  The only thing that could prove a real challenge for a Tikanni.”

     “There was nothing about that in the briefing,” Melody said.

     “Such details are often omitted,” Eddo said.

     “Yeah,” the crewman added.  “The important stuff.”

     Melody tried to hide her annoyance.  She’d always believed that crewmen were the most expendable personnel aboard starships.  Another thing she’d regret.  “Let’s…move forward.  They’re still our guests for the next few weeks, aren’t they?”

     “Captain, I won’t let harm come to you,” Eddo said.  Omoxians were so far along the evolutionary ladder, Melody had no doubt her first officer had a few tricks up her sleeve, too.  Suddenly she was keen to find them out.

     As they got closer, it was apparent that Tenru was winning the fight, although it wasn’t clear how, since unlike Lord Phan he was unarmed.  That didn’t stop him from parrying all of the Tikanni’s sword thrusts.  The effect was mesmerizing, like watching a pantomime with real stakes.  There was no reason to believe either combatant was taking it easy on their opponent.  They expected a victor.  In all her life, Melody had never seen a Tikanni so vulnerable.  That was when she began to feel fear, or at least allow herself to acknowledge it.  Her hand hovered over the communications patch, almost willing it to contact Slone for her.  She closed the gap between herself and Eddo.

     The instant Tenru became aware of their presence, he quit the contest, and Lord Phan followed suit in short order.  They each bowed toward Melody, and that was the first time anyone had done that to her, let alone two people.  Her anxiety became bafflement. 

     That was, in hindsight, the exact moment her name changed forever.  “Captain May,” Tenru said in greeting.  “Melody.  So glad to meet you.”

     If anyone had been surprised by the name, they didn’t let it register.  She herself had a moment, a split instant of confusion, but then accepted it as fact.  “My crew was impressed with your display,” she said in reply.

     “You haven’t seen anything yet,” Tenru said.  “Lord Phan here has been a worthy foe, but I’m looking for a new challenge.”

     “I’ll do it,” Eddo said, immediately stepping in.  “No weapons necessary, thank you.”

     Melody was grateful, nodding her approval, aware of how eager her first officer seemed.  But the fight never happened.  Tenru scoffed at Eddo, and instead turned his attention on the crewman, who immediately vanished from the face of the planet.

     “Penalty,” was all Tenru said, at first.  Then he shook hands with Lord Phan, who did not offer his assent to what had just occurred, before turning back to Melody.  “Bring me to your ship.”

     It must have been something he did with his mind, making her overlook the disappearance of the crewman, what she understood even then to have been his death, because that was exactly what she did.  Eddo was visibly upset, but that was her prerogative, right?  It was Melody’s to make command decisions, surely.  They all entered the shuttlepod minutes later, minus the crewman, and Tenru insisted on being shown his quarters when they returned to the Virox. 

     Hours later, only beginning to realize how much Tenru had already violated the basic rules of reality, she sat awake in the middle of the night, and remembered something much more important, the name of the crewman, and shuddered violently.

     Stuart Everest.

 

***

 

What had and hadn’t happened, what had and hadn’t been said, had already become a problem to keep straight.  Melody fought through the mental fog and reached for her communications link beside the bed.  “Captain May to Slone,” she began.  “I need to know what you and Northup have come up with concerning our guest.”

     “Captain?” Slone’s voice called out, filled with uncertainty Melody had never heard from it.  “I’m sorry, what were you asking?”

     “Our guest,” she said, agitation creeping in.  “What have you found out?”

     But Slone’s voice didn’t respond again.  She tried Northup directly.  Then Mister Homage.  Then Eddo, although she knew her first officer was in deep meditation at that hour.  No responses from anyone.

     “Captain May,” the voice of Lord Phan called out.  Now Melody was becoming frightened.  “I’ve taken the liberty of inspecting your ship this evening, and I believe I may have some unpleasant answers for you.  For one, you may look out your port window.”

     She did as requested.  The stars were spiraling.  The ship was spiraling.  There was no one at navigation.  Now she was becoming perturbed.  She quickly slipped into a uniform and went to investigate.  Someone was going to be in trouble.  Her mind drifted to the crewman she’d lost.  The last job he’d done aboard ship was acting as pilot, a job no one took seriously.  It was far too routine in a starship as sophisticated as the Virox. 

     Along the way, she encountered Mister Homage, who seemed to be in a daze.  Melody walked right past him.  When she reached the command center, Melody saw Slone staring blankly ahead, apparently worse off than the Puck.  Although he wasn’t looking at anything, in front of him was Lord Phan, and Tenru.  Lord Phan had his psiglaive extended, although it wasn’t pointed at the man he had been dueling earlier on Riva.  It rested absently at his side.

     “Everyone onboard, except for myself and you, has had their intelligence reduced to nil by Tenru,” he said, calmly.  “I expect he knew he couldn’t affect me.  You, on the other hand.”

     “Damn,” Melody said.  She noticed that Tenru seemed mesmerized by the empty navigation station, as if he’d overheard her thoughts about the suddenly absent pilot, Stuart Everest. 

     “It never occurred to me,” he said.  For a while he didn’t continue the thought.  “That man might have been something important.  This was going to be nothing but fun and games, you understand, and it was, for a brief moment, and then I thought, that man might have been something important.  I heard you think it, and then I looked back and saw that man’s whole life.  I mean, I really looked.  Do you know what I mean?”

     For a split instant, Melody could swear that she wasn’t looking at Tenru at all, but Stuart Everest.  She no longer knew what was real and what wasn’t. 

     “I would advise you to leave the command center at once,” Lord Phan said.  “I will deal with Tenru myself.”

     “No,” Melody said, absently.  “That’s okay.  I’m the captain of this ship.  For what other reason but situations like this?  No, I’m not leaving.”

     The Tikanni offered no further reply.  He switched off the psiglaive.  It vanished from his hand completely.  Melody found fury building within her.

     “Get off my ship,” she found herself saying to Tenru, a being of limitless power, who had already ably demonstrated it.  Had she lost her mind?  

     “I think I will, actually,” Tenru said.  And then he vanished, too.  Not like Stuart Everest, but all the same he was gone, just like that.  Melody and Lord Phan exchanged looks, and then she started sobbing.  The Tikanni said nothing.

     Slone sparked back to life the next instant, and then a minute or two later, Eddo entered the command center, followed somewhat irregularly by her sister Porto, who seemed to have been crying, too.

     “What just happened?” Eddo demanded.

     “I don’t understand…” Porto said, to no one in particular, still sobbing lightly.  There was no clear way to know what she was talking about.  She didn’t even seem to be aware that her older sister was still there beside her.

     “She’ll have to go,” Melody said, softly.  Eddo assented, and nodded to her sister.  Only Slone seemed not to notice the dagger in the room. 

     “Whatever it was,” he said, “He’s really gone.  I’ll write up a full report.  I think that’s the only thing that’s going to happen next.”

     Melody watched as Lord Phan left the command center.  She felt vaguely that she should stop him, but knew with certainty that he had had nothing to do with Tenru’s actions, that he was likely the only reason things hadn’t been worse, and sooner.  Wasn’t he just an ambassador?  She made a mental note to look up his profile later, but never did. 

     “Sounds good,” she said.  “I’ll…go back to my quarters.  Eddo, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you to stay.”

     “Not at all, Captain,” her first officer replied.

     “Slone,” Melody said, before heading off.  “Make sure someone takes navigation.”

     As she settled back into bed, later, Melody again felt the nagging suspicion, about her name, about what had been lost so easily.  No, not just about her name.  About Stuart Everest.  And whatever it was that had happened to him, and to Tenru.  She suspected that it was Tenru who had lost the most in this encounter…

 

***

 

2195

 

“I don’t understand,” Stuart said. 

     After their talk, Belano had brought him to see Captain Dar, who by then had fully briefed herself on Melody May’s encounter with Tenru.  Stuart had never had a conversation with the captain, naturally, and felt vaguely that it was wrong under any circumstances for that to change now. 

     “What does this mean?” he continued.  “Am I the same man?  Am I the Stuart Everest who served under Captain May?”

     “I believe I can answer that,” Tenru said, blinking back into existence before the little group.  None of them seemed surprised anymore.  Just prior to this, the being had encountered Lord Phan one more time.  Again the Tikanni raised his weapon at Tenru, and again they clashed, and Tenru was astonished.  “Just how long do you expect to live, anyway?”

     “Long enough,” Lord Phan had replied.  His opponent sensing the futility of the encounter, vanished again, only to appear before Dar once more.  Then he whisked her away, along with Stuart Everest.

     At first Dar was confused, unable to comprehend her surroundings.  Then Stuart piped up.  “This is Apogee,” he said, nervously.  “An Omoxian colony claimed by the Danab during the Correlian War.  A lot of lives were lost here.  I was always told it was cursed.  I don’t like being here, Captain.”

     “I don’t understand,” Dar said.

     “Naturally,” Tenru said.  “You don’t remember ever being here, of course.  That was your old life.  The one I took away from you.  The least you could’ve showed me was a little gratitude, but I suppose it’s my lot in life.  Such as it were.  Do someone a favor…”

     “I’m afraid that’s not good enough,” Dar said, crossing her arms.  “I don’t abide riddles.  You’re going to have to explain exactly what you mean.”

     “Look around you,” Tenru said.  “What do you see?”

     “The same as on any other world conquered by the Danab,” Dar said.  “The bones of a previous civilization crudely covered over.  All plant life gone.  Military barracks as far as the eye can see.  A scorched earth.  A bad place to live.”

     “Precisely,” Tenru said.  “A very thorough analysis indeed.  That’s the kind of thinking that won you command of a starship, my good lady.”

     “But more importantly,” Dar said slowly, trying to maintain her cool, “what does it have to do with me?”

     “Everything,” Tenru said.  “Everything!  If not for me, you would’ve lived here.  Died here.  A thoroughly unremarkable existence.  Sad.  A tragic loss for the universe.”

     “I don’t believe you,” Dar said.

     “A bee does not require the belief of a fish to pollinate,” Tenru said.  “All I can do is show you; the rest is up to you.”

     Dar and Stuart Everest then began to watch time unfold, at first rewind and then move forward, so that nothing was omitted.  They saw everything.  They saw the Omoxians come to Apogee, already at the apex of their evolution, bringing their light to a dim world.  They saw plants spring forth from the ground, a miracle of terraforming.  They saw magnificent architecture rise into the very atmosphere.  They saw Tikanni, Vanadi, and Vitell come here, the Welborn, the Bith-mari, all of them, even the Puck, taking their little recording devices and stealing as much inspiration as possible, as they always did.  They saw the Hesslans come, they saw the Vendarans.  They saw the first Danab troops.  They saw hellish fighting.  They saw the Omoxians leave Apogee behind forever.  They saw the Danab carve themselves into the planet.  They saw a young mother walking idly, a look of worry on her face.  They saw a little girl walking alongside the same woman.  They saw the girl grow, until she unmistakably resembled Dar.  They saw Dar in utter isolation from the rest of her people, the Danab.  They saw the look of defeat on her face.  They saw what no one in recorded history had ever seen: they saw a Danab cry.  They saw her, when she thought no one was watching, rage in utter impotence against the universe.  They saw her growing older.  They saw her utterly defeated.  They saw a lonely grave.

     And Dar was convinced.  But the show had not yet ended.  They saw Tenru visit the grave, the one visitor ever.  They saw Tenru raise the other Dar from the grave.  They saw Tenru and the other Dar converse, but they did not hear what was said.  They saw the other Dar fall to the scarred earth again.  And they saw Tenru vanish.

     “What happened to Stuart?” Dar demanded.  She was angry now.

     “Nothing,” Tenru said.  “Everything.  I confess I don’t know.  When he was taken off the board, as it were, when he was still just a lowly crewman on a ship called the Virox, I transplanted him, body and soul, to a new life, as a lowly crewman on a ship called the Osprey.  All I did was convince everyone that he belonged, and he was accepted, just as he was.  Accepted, should I say, as a nothing.  Which is to say, nothing at all.  I never understood how you claimed to value life, but let life be neglected so easily.  Humanoids.”

     “I recognize no claim on your part that allows you to judge us,” Dar said.

     “Typical,” Tenru said.  “I expected better of you.  That’s why I gave you a second chance.”

     “I believe you’re nothing but a liar,” Dar said.

     “Said the fish to the bee,” Tenru said.

     “Stop the ride,” Stuart said.  “I want to get off.”

     “What did you say?” Tenru asked, astonishment in his voice.

     “I said…” Stuart begin.

     “Yes, yes, yes,” Tenru said.  “I know what you said.  But you finally said it!  I’ve been waiting a very long time for those words.  You’ve no idea!”

 

***

 

“I think I know what’s going on here,” Dar said. 

     “Pray tell,” Tenru said.

     “You don’t understand us at all,” Dar said.

     “I believe I just said that,” Tenru replied.

     “What I mean is,” Dar said, “all this, all your nonsense, whether you yourself believe, whether you expect us to believe it, it’s all because you don’t understand us, but you want to.  This is some kind of test.  I never did abide unethical behavior in the sciences, and this takes it to a whole new level.”

     “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Tenru said.  “You don’t even know where to begin!  I’ll have to show you, again.”

     They were transported, all three of them, one more time.  When they materialized again, there were only two, Dar and Tenru.  The captain thought to herself, that’s about right.

     But then she saw where they were, and it was on Earth, in Copenhagen, on the grounds of the Space Corps Academy, where she herself had studied what now seemed a lifetime ago.  A lifetime ago…There was another mother, a human one this time, walking the grounds, pregnant and about ready to give birth, by the looks of her.  Dar couldn’t be sure; she’d never studied human birth.  There was still much to her that was purely Danab.  There was so much that was the same, but they were also worlds apart.  At any rate, the mother-to-be was talking to herself, but more likely to her unborn baby.  Dar wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard her say…Stuart?

     “I’ll make things right,” she was saying.  “You’ll have the life I never did.  You’ll make something of yourself.  You’ll be here as a cadet, not just a visitor.  You’ll…”

     There was just time to see her begin to cry when time accelerated to a hospital room.  A doctor was standing beside the woman, looking grim.

     “I’m sorry,” he was saying.  “We did everything we could.  Please accept my deepest condolences.”

     Later, alone, the woman was crying again when she suddenly felt something move within her.  Just above her, although she herself didn’t see it, hovered Tenru, a separate Tenru.  The other was still standing beside Dar; she checked, twice, to make sure.  A deep glow emitted from the woman in that moment, and then the second Tenru vanished.  Dar watched as the woman gave birth, and then saw as the child, Stuart Everest, grew.  There were instances when she thought she saw Tenru instead of Stuart.  And then she understood.

     They were alone again, back in Dar’s quarters.  She fought back tears.  “I don’t understand,” she said.

     “I had to know,” Tenru said.  “There was only one way to find out.”

     “He was you,” Dar said.  “All along.”

     “Something like that,” Tenru said.  “Don’t look at me like that!”

     “Like what?” Dar asked.

     “Like I’m a child,” Tenru said.  “As if I need your pity.  I assure you that I do not.  Nothing of the kind.  Nothing human.”

     A chime rang and Dar realized they had a visitor waiting to be seen.  “Open,” she said.  Porto entered.  She looked angry. 

     “I don’t understand,” Porto said.

     “Poor thing,” Tenru said.  “I suppose I inadvertently ruined your life, didn’t I?  Omnipotence doesn’t really cover everything, does it?  You don’t just have to know everything, you have to be paying attention, too, don’t you?  You’ve caught me.  Guilty as charged!”

     “Porto, as much as it pains me,” Dar said.  “Now is not the time.  We’ll discuss it later.”

     “If there is a later,” Porto said.  “No offense, Captain.”

     “None taken,” Dar said.

     “I don’t understand,” Tenru said.  “How you can still act so casual about it.”

     “Then you really didn’t learn anything,” Dar said.  “To be humanoid, it’s to accept that even the bad things are worth it.  Those who give in to despair have lost their ability to appreciate that.  They’ve lost themselves.  We embrace the bad with the good.  There’s a balance somewhere in there.  It’s tricky to find, but it’s there.  Doesn’t make life any easier.  And it shouldn’t.”

     “Even if I made you that girl,” Tenru said.

     “I doubt you would,” Dar said.  “If I’ve learned anything at all about you.”

     “I walk away,” Tenru said.  “That’s what I’d do.  I’d just walk away.  Wouldn’t I?  Leave everything as I found it.  So to speak.”

     “I don’t understand,” Porto said.

     “The Omoxians call it attaining hope,” Dar said.  “But then, your people haven’t had any in a long time, have they?”

     Porto didn’t say anything. 

     Dar turned back to Tenru, but he was no longer there, and somehow she knew she wasn’t going to see him again.  “Rue the day,” she said to herself.

     “Sorry, Captain?” Porto said.

     “Something my mother used to say,” Dar said.  “Nothing.  Never mind.  I honestly don’t know what to say about all this.  Except maybe, you were right all along.  I’ve lost perspective.  I don’t deserve command of a starship.  He had to explain everything…And I almost didn’t believe him.  What a fool I’ve been…”

     “No,” Porto said.

     “The universe needs more people like you, Porto,” Dar said.  “Those who challenge.  Those who don’t back down.  You were knocked down.  But you got back up.  Not because of what anyone did for you.  You just did.  I always admired that about you.  I hope you knew that.  I want you to know that I’ll be recommending you take command of the ship.”

     “Captain…” Porto said.

     “I already made up my mind,” Dar said.  “I saw something…I can’t turn my back on that.  Somehow I’ve got to find the strength.  I’ve got to be better than this.”

     “Captain, you were the finest officer I ever served with,” Porto said.  “I mean that.  My sister would have been proud of you.”

     “Maybe a good officer,” Dar said.  “But a lousy humanoid.  I can’t believe…”

     Belano entered the quarters.  “Captain?” he said, and then he understood, without needing anything explained.  He now knew everything.  He gave his friend a salute, and then he and Porto walked away, leaving Dar alone, crying.