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Weredragons of Mars

Written by Carl Frederick
Illustrated by Dan Skinner


In a small, out-of-the-way cabin of the generational ship Trans Global Hope, three students sat around a table planning mayhem. Their clothing, stereotypical of upper-class, fifteenth-century England, included weapons; Jeffrey and Rolf wore broadswords while Claire's attire embraced a rapier. The three weapons had the generic feel of almost anything produced by the Everything Factory. But then again, they only had to last a year.

"I've had it," said Jeffrey. "Weredragons of Mars! That's the last straw." A jerkin, arrayed seemingly by accident, obscured the cabin comfort-camera and, from a boomvid player, a classic neo-VisiGoth music vid blared loud, the speaker pointing conveniently toward the comfort-cam's microphone.

"The CAD," said Jeffrey, softly under the music. "He's the real authority on the ship." He put both palms flat on the table and leaned in toward Claire. "I say we kidnap him."

"I'm with Jeffery," said Rolf, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

Claire glowered at him, then turned to Jeffrey. " I think we should kidnap the sheriff. Going after the CAD is a stupid idea." Jeffrey raised his head and looked down his nose at her. "Fine," she said after a moment of silence. "It's a stupid idea, my lord." She shook her head. "Will you ever grow up? You get your title in a lottery and then act like you were born to royalty."

"That," said Jeffrey, pointing a finger, "is the point. We're required to act as they tell us. They decide a trope every year, make the rules, and we have to follow them." He rubbed a hand along his thigh to smooth out a wrinkle in his tights.

Rolf scowled. "And we can't even do that," he said. "The trope's already a week old and the handbook isn't even out yet."

"It's all phony," said Claire, her voice raised. She stared down at the hilt of her rapier. "Fiction! Where's the realism? We're all titled. Where are the serfs?"

"If you want serfs," said Rolf, nodding toward the boomvid, "just keep shouting into the comfort-cam until we all get arrested." He partially withdrew his sword, then slammed it back into its scabbard. "I doubt if the brig, um . . . the dungeon, is any fun at all. But it'll probably be serfy."

Jeffrey made "down" motions with his hands. "We mustn't lose our focus," he said almost at whisper. "When this ship arrives at Earth Prime— "

"In another gazillion years, maybe," said Rolf.

"They say it'll be soon," said Jeffrey.

"Yeah, sure."

"The shipquake last month," said Claire. "They said it means we're almost there."

"Look." Jeffrey hit the table softly with his fist. "When we get to Earth Prime, I don't want to be one of the . . . one of Claire's serfs."

"If the terraforming ship didn't succeed," said Rolf with a grim smile, "it won't matter. We'll all just die."

"You're always so cheerful," said Claire.

"Come on, guys. Cool it." Jeffrey stood and turned to Claire. "Are you in or out?"

Claire sighed. "In."

"You know," said Rolf, thoughtfully, "maybe this is wrong. Maybe we should try to find the Oracle and plead our cause to him."

Jeffrey cocked his head; this was a new aspect of Rolf's personality. "You believe in the Oracle," he said. "Don't you?"

"Yeah," said Rolf. "Do you a have a problem with that?"

"Well, maybe I do."

"I wonder," said Claire, "if there are both Phobos weredragons as well as Deimos weredragons."

Rolf turned on her. "What?"

"Were-things change during the full moon. And on Mars there are two moons."

Jeffrey looked on with admiration. Yet again, Claire had defused a potential quarrel.

Just then, the door flew open and three men with drawn swords surged into the cabin. Then a fourth sauntered in. He was paunchy, past middle-age, and his sword remained in its scabbard.

Jeffrey jumped to his feet and started to draw his weapon. But when the intruders made menacing motions with their own cutlery, he changed his mind and extended a hand instead.

"I'm, ur, Baron Von Jeffrey." He smiled at the middle-aged man. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure."

"I am the sheriff." The man ignored Jeffrey's proffered hand and pointed at the boomvid player. "And turn off that damned noise."

As Claire switched off the player, the sheriff turned to one of his compatriots, a man looking to be in his mid twenties. "Last year," said the sheriff, "I was the sheriff. What am I called now?"

"You still are the sheriff, sir . . . I mean sire."

"Damn." The sheriff let out a breath. "What's holding up that handbook?" Returning his attention to Jeffrey, he said, "These gentlemen are my duly authorized deputies."

"Constables," said the younger man.

The sheriff rolled his eyes. "I must inform you that you are all under arrest." He spoke in a tired voice. "Please come with us."

"Arrested on what charges?" said Claire.

"Crimes against the ship. Undermining the ship of state." He took a parchment held out to him by a constable. "In particular," said the sheriff, his eyes on the document, "Vandalism. Willful destruction of a comfort-cam."

"So the surveillance cameras found us," said Jeffrey.

"The comfort-cams?" said the sheriff "You know better than that. You went to school."

Jeffrey folded his arms over his chest. "You don't really expect us to believe that nonsense they teach us in school?"

"Nonsense?" The sheriff shook his head. "What's wrong with kids these days?"

"Is it a crime to want lives with meaning?" said Jeffrey, talking not so much to the sheriff as to the constables. "How can there be meaning when nothing's real? Nothing's solid. Nothing's important." He made eye contact with the nearest constable. "Our education is useless. All we have are these stupid yearly tropes." He returned his gaze to the sheriff. "And this one's more stupid than most."

The sheriff scowled. "This education of yours." He gave a grunt of disdain. "Didn't they teach you how important it is to keep Earth's culture —our culture— alive?"

"Culture?" said Claire, her eyes bright with revolutionary zeal. "You call Weredragons of Mars, culture?"

"Horror, fantasy, science fiction. We get it all out of the way in just a single year." The sheriff shrugged. "Then we can get back to real literature."

"What?" Jeffrey turned on the man. "I like science fiction. I was looking forward to a year of it. But this isn't SF. This is junk!"

"SF would have been great," said Rolf, "especially after last year. Forbidden Love in the Saddle."

" 'The Old West,' if you don't mind," said the sheriff, "But before that, we had Caesar's Rome, the Russian Revolution, the Year of the Pharaohs, the Wizard of Oz. Good stuff."

"But all phony!" Jeffrey shouted.

"Tell it to the judge." The sheriff glanced over to his closest constable. "Are judges still called judges?"

"I don't know, sir— sire."

"Thank you." The sheriff pointed toward the door. "Okay, let's go." He threw a glance to a constable. "Victor. You take the lead." He gestured at the students. "And you three next. We'll bring up the rear."

The constables lowered their swords out of the way as Jeffrey, Rolf, and Claire moved to the door. "God, but swords are awkward in confined spaces," said a constable.

"Give me six-shooters any time," said another.

Just as they'd all passed through the cabin door, an announcement rang through the corridors. "Red weredragon alert." The voice was loud and crisp. "Weredragon alert status, red." Then a siren sounded.

"What the hell does that mean?" a constable bellowed over the noise.

"Run," shouted Jeffrey, seizing the opportunity. He sprinted down the corridor. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Claire and Rolf running close behind. And farther back, he saw the constables running clumsily with swords brandished.

They ran down corridors where the walls and ceilings, holo-active displays, showed the reds of the Martian desert landscape. Scattered on occasional rocky promontories, medieval castles stood replete with turrets, ramparts with crenulations, and drawbridges over waterless moats. In the deepening twilight, Phobos and Deimos blazed full near one horizon, while at the other, the small disk of the sun sank to its setting.

"Very convenient," Rolf called out between heavy breaths, "this sudden weredragon alert."

Jeffrey took a few more steps, then stopped, his fists clenched, his mood dark and defiant.

"What?" said Rolf, almost running into him.

" Too convenient," said Jeffrey. "They're playing with us. I don't like being manipulated." He turned to watch as the constables closed on them. "Anyway, it's a long time to the end of the trope-year. We can't hide out that long."

When the sheriff had sidled up, Jeffrey said, "Go ahead. Lock us up." He held his hands together, pretending to be handcuffed like a movie bad-guy. Then, conscious that his gesture was out of trope, quickly separated them. Not that it mattered; in the transition period, he couldn't be fined for a maltropism.

"Drop the melodrama," said the sheriff. "Just hand over your swords— slowly, please."

"At least," said Jeffrey, as he presented his sword, hilt first, "we'll get good coverage in the Herald."

"The what?" said the sheriff.

"The former Dodge City Gazette," said a constable.

"I wouldn't count on it," said the sheriff with a malevolent smile. "The CAD wants to see the three of you."

Claire gasped.

* * *

Through e-snooping, Jeffrey had long ago discovered the address of the CAD's Council. But he'd never been inside that unmarked cabin. He knew of no one who had. Now, he and his two friends stood facing a table in that very place. Sitting, were three middle-aged men, one of whom wore something resembling a hearing aid. They were flanked by two younger men who were standing— obviously guards since they carried, not swords, but nasty-looking Z-bec stunners. The cabin, barely large enough to hold everyone, was typically nondescript and, like all cabins Jeffrey knew of, had a ceiling-mounted comfort-cam.

Jeffrey gazed at the cam; it didn't seem logical that there'd be a cam here, at the seat of the metagovernment. Could it be that the comfort-cams really were automatic and just documenting the trip?

The man seated in the middle, the one wearing the hearing aid, leaned back, put his hands behind his neck, and stared at Jeffrey with a wry smile. "You, Jeffrey," he said, "are beginning to be more of a problem than a solution."

"Who are you, please?"

"Ah." The man moved his hands to lie flat on the table. "I am Sebastian."

"The CAD," said Jeffrey, standing proud and erect. "I'm honored." He'd been caught, but he wouldn't let them think he was cowed.

Sebastian chuckled. "The CAD. Yes. Boffin to the faithful. But my title is simply coordinating secretary. Boring, isn't it?" He indicated the man on his right. "Wolfgang, chief of Ship Engineering" —and then the man on the left— "and Neville, our tropemaster."

"In other words," said Jeffrey, "the secret power ruling the ship."

"Secret?" said Sebastian. "My dear boy, secretary by no means implies secret."

"Well, maybe not secret," said Jeffrey. "But certainly the power."

"Do you know what CAD stands for?" said Sebastian.

Jeffrey shook his head.

"It stands for cruise activity director." He gave a self-effacing smile. "A whimsical, but perhaps accurate description of what I do." He leaned forward. "We're the bureaucracy. The nominal government changes every year, but we keep soldiering on— keeping the ship running smoothly."

"And doing a good job of it, if I may say," said the engineer. "There's only one blight on our existence."

Jeffrey, feeling smug, glanced at his companions. "He means us."

"No!" The engineer slammed a fist on the table. "I mean boredom— oppressive, mind-numbing boredom."

"You are far from a blight," said Sebastian. "You're program."

"We're what?"

"But now," said the Tropemaster, "your actions have crossed the line." He sounded calm and reasonable, but Jeffrey could see anger in his eyes.

"It seems that there's been a rise in youth vandalism lately," said the engineer.

"You mean smashing some comfort-cams?" said Rolf, with a grin.

The tropemaster sprang to his feet. "Look," he said to Sebastian, "he's proud of it."

"My team has to repair those cams," said the engineer in a low, deliberate voice. He turned his head in Sebastion's direction. "A public flogging on Gallery Deck might be interesting, don't you think?"

Jeffrey stiffened.

Sebastian's lips stretched in a tight smile. "Is that in the criminal code this year?"

The tropemaster sat down and faced the engineer, eye-to-eye. "I'm not sure if you're serious," he said. "But I think a flogging very appropriate for the ringleader. And it would be very memorable program."

Claire, who had been watching silently, scrunched up her nose. "I don't understand this," she said. "What do you mean, program?"

"With three thousand people," said Sebastian, "and with machines doing almost everything for us, we have to keep things interesting so we don't all simply turn into vegetables." He nodded. "So yes, program. Your little mutiny is program. Elections are program. The yearly tropes are program— the most successful program." He shot a finger at Jeffrey. "And your beloved university is program."

"Excuse me?"

"The university is the perfect program," said Sebastian. "Young people fill their time learning a narrow specialty, spend more time getting a doctorate in it, then fill up more time teaching it so others can fill up their time." He clapped a hand to the table. "So yes," he said. "You're doing the ship's business."

"Does this mean," said Rolf, "that you're not going to punish us?"

"Punish you?" Sebastian paused, steepling his fingers and gazing up toward the comfort-cam. "For providing program, no." He leaned forward. "But vandalism," he said, his brow furrowed and grim, "is not considered program."

He glanced over at the engineer. "I like your idea of a public flogging. But perhaps we can reserve it for any future acts of vandalism."

The engineer nodded. "Fine by me."

"If you ask me," said the tropemaster. "I think we should make an immediate example of these rabble rousers."

The engineer shushed him and pointed to Sebastian.

Holding a hand over the ear with the hearing aid, Sebastian gazed distractedly at the ceiling.

"The Oracle?" said the tropemaster, in an awed whisper.

Sebastian stood. "Excuse me." He strode toward the door.

When he'd gone, the engineer leaned toward the tropemaster. "What do you think's wrong?" he said in a nervous voice. "The Oracle doesn't usually interrupt meetings."

"I don't know." The tropemaster looked worried.

"Excuse me," said Jeffrey. "Are you saying the Oracle's real?"

The tropemaster shifted his gaze from the cabin door to Jeffrey. "Of course it's real, you moron."

Jeffrey didn't have to look; he could almost feel Rolf smirking beside him.

"I've got to say," the tropemaster went on, "I'm quickly running out of patience with you."

"Why?" said Jeffrey. "Because we think your Weredragons of Mars theme stinks? Because we think you stink?"

"How dare you— "

"We were due for a science fiction year," said Jeffrey. "And you give us this drivel."

The engineer waved him quiet, then turned to the tropemaster. "Let's hold it until Sebastian comes back."

For the next few minutes, Jeffrey and the tropemaster glared at each other in silence.

Abruptly, accompanied by the sound of groaning metal, the ship shook, violently. To keep from falling, Jeffrey had to steady himself against the table.

"Damn it." The engineer half rose to his feet then settled back in his chair. "Not again."

"What's your problem?" said the tropemaster. "The Oracle says it means we're nearing Earth Prime."

"The ship's old. I don't know if it can take much more of this."

"Trust the Oracle!"

"I think," said the engineer, glancing over at Jeffrey and his friends, "that we should continue this little disciplinary matter later." He turned back to the tropemaster. "We can have them picked up at any time."

The tropemaster nodded.

"Okay," said the engineer. He made shooing motions toward the students. "You may go now."

Jeffrey moved a hand toward the pommel of his sword, then remembered his weapon had been impounded. He gave a hint of a bow. "As you wish, sire."

The three started for the door, Claire in the lead.

"Boredom and infantilism," said the engineer, under his breath. "Our two eternal problems. One seems to engender the other."

As Claire neared the door, it swung open. She jumped back to avoid being hit by it. Sebastian walked in and, pointedly, closed the door behind him, keeping Jeffrey and friends inside. His expression was somber.

"What's wrong?" said the tropemaster. "Is the ship all right?"

"The Oracle wants Jeffrey," Sebastian whispered.

"Now?" asked the engineer softly.

Sebastian nodded then looked to Jeffrey. "Your two friends will have to leave."

"We're not leaving," said Rolf.

Sebastian kept his eyes on Jeffrey as he said, "This is not a request, I'm afraid."

The guards raised their stunners.

"You'd better go," said Jeffrey.

Claire looked hard at Jeffrey for a moment, then nudged Rolf toward the door. "Okay," she said in a cheerful voice, clearly forced. "We'll catch you later." She threw an angry glance at Sebastian before leaving with Rolf.

"I'm sorry," said Sebastian, quietly, after the two had closed the door behind them.

"Sorry for what?" Jeffrey didn't like Sebastian's sudden niceness. Something was seriously wrong. "Is it something to do with the shipquake?"

Sebastian shook his head. "Please sit down, son." A guard moved a chair up to the table. Jeffrey sat.

Sebastian took his seat, then looked over at the tropemaster. "I owe it to Jeffrey to have a talk with him. I should have it in private."

"Alone with this troublemaker? I'm not sure— "

Sebastian waved him quiet. "I'll be fine. If Jeffrey weren't a good and righteous person, the Oracle wouldn't have called him home." He gestured at his colleagues and the guards. "Please, all of you— leave us."

Jeffrey, baffled and a little scared, watched as they left. He wished he were going with them.

"Tell me," said Sebastian in a friendly voice. "How old are you?"

"Seventeen. Why?"

"So young." Sebastian sighed.

"So young for what, please?"

"Why did you think you needed to vandalize the ship? What do you want?"

"Want?" Here, the CAD himself was asking him what he wanted, but Jeffrey found he was too filled with trepidation to think coherently. "We think privilege is wrong and corrupting," he said, quoting from his manifesto.

"What privilege, for instance?" asked Sebastian in an inquisitive but not hostile voice.

"Well. . . ." Jeffrey thought hard. "Well, you get served first in the dining hall."

"Children," said Sebastian, looking down at his hands.

"I'm getting tired of being called a child," said Jeffrey.

"Getting served first isn't privilege," said Sebastian. "It's courtesy. We're older than you."

"Older than us children, you mean."

Sebastian spread his hands. "I'm sorry."

"You keep saying that." Jeffrey almost shouted from the exasperation. "What are you sorry about?"

"You're right." Sebastian gave an unconvincing smile. "I shouldn't be sorry. You're going to a better place."

"What?" Jeffrey squeaked. "What are you talking about, please?"

"Very soon, you must go to the Chapel of the Oracle."

"That doesn't sound all that bad," said Jeffrey, "does it?" From Sebastian's expression, he realized it was bad. "Who exactly is this Oracle?" he asked.

"Through the centuries," said Sebastian, "that's the one question the Oracle has never answered. We think he's . . ." Sebastian took a great breath. "We think he's God."

Jeffrey laughed. "Come on." He forced another laugh. "God communicating via comlink?"

"In space," said Sebastian, solemnly, "the age of miracles may not have ended."

Jeffrey shuddered; as long as the CAD seemed rational, Jeffrey believed he had the advantage; he was in the right and, according to Claire, he was a very good debater. But now Sebastian's eyes held the wild intensity of the true believer. Jeffrey knew reasoned debate was out of the question. "What's going to happen to me?" he said, hoping his fear wasn't obvious in his voice.

"I can't say, exactly. It has never happened during my tenure." Sebastian looked down at his hands. "You will be left in the Chapel of the Oracle for two hours."


"In the past, when the chapel was opened afterwards, it was always found empty."

"What do you mean?"

"Just that," said Sebastian. "The Oracle, we suppose, just . . ." Sebastian spread his hands.

"That's barbaric!" Jeffrey stood. "It's human sacrifice."

"Don't be silly." Sebastian sounded offended. "You should feel honored. The Oracle is calling you home."

"Not my home!" Wildly, Jeffrey looked around the cabin. He could possibly overpower the CAD— but then what? He couldn't hold out forever. There was no escape. He fought down a twinge of panic and, as a defense against fear, withdrew into his royal persona. I am Baron Von Jeffrey— the brave, resourceful Baron Von Jeffrey. Bowing curtly to Sebastian, he said, "As you wish. I shall be pleased to converse with this oracle of yours." Jeffrey took satisfaction that his voice did not crack.

* * *

The Chapel of the Oracle had no adornments, not even holo-active murals. The walls, metal and cool to the touch, exuded a stark efficiency. There were no chairs and, save for the uniform white illumination from the ceiling, no apparent accommodation to the needs of people. Jeffrey noticed a comfort-cam pointing down at him— a single item of familiarity in the spare environment.

The rear wall showed a slight curvature indicating it might be the actual hull of the ship. Recessed into that wall, Jeffrey noticed a disk of blackness. He walked to it, peered in, and saw what he deduced were stars. He knew about portholes but had never encountered one. He stared into the white-pricked void and shivered. Space did not look friendly. It was frightening to think that just a few inches of metal separated him from the cold emptiness. He backed away and leaned against the closed, and locked, hatchway. There was nothing to do but wait— and think.

Maybe, he thought, they were just trying to scare him. If so, they're doing a pretty good job of it. He consoled himself with the thought that it, whatever it was, would be over in two hours. He looked for a time-display but, unlike any other cabin he'd ever been in, there wasn't one. This would be a very long two hours. Jeffrey decided to count aloud. There were 3600 seconds in an hour. When his count reached 7200, it would be over.

At four hundred, he gave up; counting was hard. After an additional indeterminate amount of time, he decided that uncertainty was worse, and he resumed counting. He'd barely started when he heard the thrum of machinery. A moment later, on the far wall, he saw a door-shaped, thin, white outline appear. With an uncontrollable shudder, he understood his fate. He was in an airlock, and the white outline was a door about to open— a portal opening on the emptiness of space. All this talk of the Oracle was garbage. They were going to kill him; he was a threat and they'd just blow him out into space.

Knowing it was senseless, he nonetheless looked for something to grab on to. He grasped the hatchway handle and watched as the outline grew wider. He wondered how long it would take him to die.

There came a hiss from the curved wall and Jeffrey took his presumed last breath of air.

The door pulled out then swung open to reveal, not the vacuum of space, but a woman standing on some sort of platform.

Jeffrey let out his breath and took a few quick open-mouthed gasps. He pressed himself hard against the bulkhead and gazed— his mind contradicting his eyes.

High above the woman, lights, not stars, cast down a stark white illumination. The woman looked to be about thirty-five or forty. With an expression of bemusement, she stared at him.

Fighting for sanity, Jeffrey calmed his breathing and forced a veneer of rationality. "Is this . . . This must be Earth Prime. Terraformed."

"No." She laughed, warmly and with inclusive humor. "Well, maybe yes. Earth, terraformed. Or maybe you could call it reformed Terra."

Jeffrey caught sight of the porthole. It still showed the starry blackness. "Wait!" He wrinkled his nose. "This doesn't make any sense."

"High-res graphics." She smiled and walked toward him. "And, of course, you're my Jeffrey."

Jeffrey balled his fists; he felt used, abused, and angry. " Your Jeffrey?" he said. "Baron Von Jeffrey to you, lady. Geez. Here I am, preparing to die and you waltz in and talk as if we're the best of friends."

She gave him a hurt look and, suddenly he was struck with the humor of the situation. He giggled. "Hey. I'm not dead," he said, brightly. Then he had another thought. "I'm not, am I?"

"No," she said, her eyes sparkling, "you're the spunky, lovable Jeffrey we all adore."

"What are you talking about, please?" He looked into those eager eyes and, with a start, noticed they were changing color. Her suit changed color as well— keeping a match to her eyes. It was unusual clothing: a one-piece suit including the shoes. Jeffrey looked without success for buttons, zippers, or any other mechanism that would allow her to undress. He noticed her studying him and, feeling she was reading his mind, he blushed.

"Sorry for staring," she said. "But I can't believe I'm seeing you in person— after watching you all these years."

"Watching me?" Jeffrey more mouthed the words than spoke them.

"For years," she said. "Loved you in 'Life in Valhalla.' You were just a little boy then— blond, blue eyes and simply adorable. And you were brilliant in 'The Curse of the Pharaohs.'"

Jeffrey canted his head and scrunched his nose.

She laughed. "You are so appealing when you're confused." She brought an arm to chest level and the cuff of her suit lit up with a digital time display. She glanced at it, then gestured with the same arm. "Come," she said. "We've less than two hours. I'll explain as we go. By the way, my name is Tanya Loy."

"You have two names?"

Tanya chuckled and again gestured Jeffrey toward the hatchway. "Most everyone does."

She set foot onto the platform outside the ship. "Come on. This should be fun."

Walking tentatively to the hatchway, Jeffrey looked out upon what, by all rights, should be the cold vacuum of space. "Where are we?" he asked.

"At the bottom of a diamond mine."

"What?" Taking a big breath, Jeffrey stepped onto the platform. "This air smells," he said.

"Does it really?" Tanya took a deep sniff. "I don't notice it. A few years ago though, it was almost unbreathable."

Jeffrey looked back at the ship. "I'd never thought I'd see it from the outside. It looks— smaller than I'd imagined."

Tanya patted him on the shoulder.

Jeffrey turned to gaze at the woman. "What's going on, please?" he said, his voice plaintive, even to his own ears. "Tanya Loy, please tell me."

"Soon. But just call me Tanya." She pointed to a wooden staircase and the two of them padded down to a rough stone floor. "I'm a professor of near-archaic English. And my grandfather was a crew member on the ship."


"He got sent to the Oracle for guessing too much." She steered Jeffrey toward an elevator. The shaft was exposed.

Jeffrey stared upward. "Geez. Look how far it goes. What's at the top?"

"The Earth." Tanya opened the door to the open-frame elevator car and they got in. "What do you actually know about the Trans Global Hope?" she said.

"Apparently, a lot less than I thought."

She pushed a button and the car began to rise.

Jeffrey fixed his eyes on the ship receding below. "I was taught that the United Federated Nations built the ship to send humanity to the stars— as insurance."

"Life insurance for the planet." Tanya nodded. "That part is correct. It looked as if the Earth might no longer be able to sustain human life and that the gene pool might be corrupted by radiation. But instead of sending humanity spaceborne, the idea was to insulate a few thousand people from genetic damage, creating a self-sufficient little world that we could keep isolated until Earth recovered."

"But how . . . Wait! Has the CAD been keeping this from us?"

"No." Tanya smiled. "Along with everyone else, they think they're on a starship."

"What about the first crew? They would have told their kids. How can you keep a secret like this?"

"They were all neural memory conditioned. It was a condition for acceptance."

"Why? What was wrong with letting everyone know the truth?"

"If they'd known the truth," —Tanya shrugged— "then eventually, some might have decided to leave."

* * *

About ten minutes later, as the elevator neared the surface, Jeffrey had absorbed the information and had managed to believe it.

"Now that Earth has recovered," —Jeffrey still struggled with the concept— "the ship isn't needed anymore."

Tanya nodded. "And, of course, the ratings have gone down."


"Oh, not your fault." Tanya touched his arm. "Everyone loves your work. But you see, on the ship, the language hasn't evolved. And even though historical themes make archaic speech more tolerable to the viewers, the series doesn't have universal appeal any more."

"Excuse me?" said Jeffrey. "I think I'm missing something."

"Oh, don't get me wrong." She patted him on the arm. "The show's still very popular in India and Australia. It's not an expensive series; TGM amortized the capital expenses long ago. And the fans will pay to keep the show going if they have to."

"The show?"

"The real problem though," she said, softly, as if to herself, "is the ship itself. I'm afraid the show's being cancelled at the end of the season."

Jeffrey stood open-mouthed.

She looked at him with an expression saying she expected him to understand. "The ship was indeed a project of the United Federation," she said, "but it was co-sponsored by Trans Global Media."

Still, Jeffrey stood mute.

After a few seconds, she said, "Do you know the term, reality TV?"

Jeffrey shook his head.

Tanya explained the concept.

The elevator clunked to a stop and Tanya led the way to a glass-paneled door. Jeffrey looked through and then took a few quick steps back. From behind barriers, there were throngs of people looking toward him. But worse, there were no walls, nothing on which to rest his eyes. Jeffrey took yet another step back.

"Agoraphobia," said Tanya. "It's nothing to worry about— quite natural after generations of living on the ship." She urged him forward and then pushed open the door. A roar of noise greeted him.

"Who are those people?"

"Your fans," she said. "Wave to them. You're quite a media star, you know. Go ahead. Don't be rude."

Feeling dazed, Jeffrey waved. The roar grew louder.

Tanya tapped her cuff and the noise dulled.

"Noise-canceling clothing." She pointed to what looked like a small spacecraft, and urged him toward it.

"Where are we going?"

"Up. The junior program coordinator wants to see you. And airborne meetings are trendy these days."

"Junior program coordinator." Jeffrey played with the term. "Is that by any chance, the Oracle?"

She laughed. "The Oracle? That's just some text-to-speech software."

Jeffrey, feeling more saddened than vindicated, thought of Rolf.

They walked toward the craft. "Oh," said Tanya. "The people you meet will be speaking modern English. It'll be a problem but I'll translate for you."

* * *

"I'm glad you comed," said the program coordinator. "The star of the show in the bod. Imo, you're the dingy-how best we've ever haved."

"Tanya tells me I have you to thank for that well-timed weredragon alert," said Jeffrey. "So, thanks." He cast a smiling glance to Tanya. Problem? What problem?

"Lol," said the coordinator. "Love your dialect." He gave Jeffrey a pat on the back. "We never used to intrude like that, but, where's the hay! It's the last season. And what a season. Wait'll you hear about it." He guided Jeffrey toward a wall of glass and pointed down at the scene below. "The ren on the street. Our public." He let out a long breath. "Been with the show a long time. Sad to see it end. But the Global Hope is fritzing. No way it'll last for more'n another season."

"You mean the shipquakes?" said Jeffrey.

"Zat what you call it?" The coordinator smiled sadly. "Metal fatigue. Even on its own, the ship will crack like an egg." He looked away from the window. "But we've taked a hand and arranged that it happen near the end of the season. And you'll be onboard, managing the chaos."

He glanced at Tanya. "The promotion have already started, yes?"

"Yes," she said. "Afaik."


"Crack like an . . . egg?" said Jeffrey, in a puzzled voice.

The coordinator glanced at Jeffrey and then to Tanya. "You doedn't prep him?"

"Wasn't time."

Turning back to Jeffrey, the coordinator said, "The ship is old. It can't be saved." He furrowed his brow. "Ruok?"


"He asked if you are okay," said Tanya.

"I don't want to go back to the ship," said Jeffrey quietly.

"What?" The coordinator jerked back as if he'd been hit. He swiveled to Tanya. "Doed he say what I thinked he sayed?"

She nodded.

"Do he mean it?"


The program coordinator threw up his hands and glowered at Jeffrey. " Why don't you want to go back?"

"You're just using and manipulating people."

"Your point?"

"It's all playacting. I need some meaning in my life." Jeffrey pawed the ground with a foot. "Anyway," he said, haltingly. "I'm not going back. None of it is real."

Tanya walked over and took him by the hand. "The people on the ship are real," she said in a soft voice. "And for them, the destruction of the ship will be traumatic. We need to prepare them. We need you and your friends to get people used to the idea."

"They'd never believe us."

"Not at first, perhaps, but after a while, they will. If advertising's taught me anything, it's taught me that" She looked into his eyes. "Please. We need you."

"Well . . ."

The coordinator's eyes narrowed. He gave Jeffrey a long, analytical stare. "Imo, you are not telling me something."

Jeffrey looked down at his feet. "I have some issues with the tropemaster."

"Oh," said the coordinator, "is that all? No problem! Slice of cake!" He turned to Tanya. "Just picture it. This youth leading his people back to Earth— to the real Earth Prime. What a great finale!"

* * *

Jeffrey, leaning casually against the rear wall of the chapel, watched as the inner hatch swung open. Sebastian walked in, his eyes cast down, his face somber. Behind him, sauntered the tropemaster. The man was smiling.

Sebastian took a few steps, looked up— and froze. "You're still here," he gasped. The tropemaster froze as well, his smile replaced with wide-eyed astonishment.

"Apparently." Jeffrey took a step forward.

"Praise be to the Oracle," said Sebastian. He gazed on Jeffrey with a look of awe.

The tropemaster stepped forward and pointed an accusatory finger. "The Oracle rejected him," he said in a righteous tone. His face showed fury. "It is our solemn duty to give him the punishment he deserves— in the name of the Oracle."

"Oh, I believe you'll be hearing from your oracle before long," said Jeffrey, calmly, "in just a couple of minutes, I would think."

Just then, Claire and Rolf ran into the cabin. "Are you okay?" said Rolf breathlessly. "We've been keeping an eye on this place, and . . ." He gave Jeffrey a quizzical look. "What is that you're wearing?"

"It's neat, isn't it?" Jeffrey rubbed his hands down his sleek, new suit. "And my eyes change color, too."

Claire stepped forward and took his hand. "We were so worried."

Jeffrey covered her hand with his, and gave a quick squeeze. "We've got real work to do, now." He glanced from Claire to Rolf. "Important work."

Claire narrowed her eyes. "You're more serious," she said. "It looks good on you, Jeffrey."

Jeffrey drew himself to mock attention. "Tropemaster Jeffrey, if you please."

The current tropemaster jerked his head around and glared with angry eyes.

Jeffrey looked away at the porthole filled with imitation stars. "We'll each be our own tropemasters," he said, quietly. "Free to dream our own dreams and work to make them happen." He chuckled, softy, laughing at himself— his former self. Then he gazed up at the comfort-cam and smiled for it.

* * *

A bibliography of Carl Frederick's short fiction may be found at The Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

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