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The galaxy was undergoing change.

This was empirical. Bechimo was not one for flights of fancy; nor for humor. Sadness, yes; and yearning. Those had been close companions; comrades of long standing—gone now to brilliant ash as a new and vivid emotion flared into being.

Its name . . .

Bechimo consulted archives, cross-referencing psych and legend, which search matrix had yielded insight during past periods of disruption. Nor did it fail this time.

The burning new emotion was called . . .


The emotion that had prompted the opening of the hatch, admitting a man who was not on the Approved List—that had been despair. Despair had found the berth, nestled in among the Old Ones. Those who were able had taken note of Bechimo’s arrival, sharing such data and comfort as they might. In time, they failed, their voices going silent, their signatures fading out of the aether.

Others placed themselves into slumber, in order to conserve what was left to them.

Still others raved, on and on. Bechimo filtered those frequencies, and sat at berth, listening to silence, within, and without.

Deliberately, Bechimo began to shut down systems.

There was no need to move on. There was nowhere to go. No crew to serve. No captain with whom to bond. There were those others who from time to time invited communication, but they were New, not on the Approved List.


Bechimo was alone. It was best to sleep, here among the others not precisely of one’s kind, but near enough.

Near enough.

Sleep, Bechimo did.

Until—Bechimo’s safeguards registered the arrival of a ship—nothing more than metal and programs, less aware than the slumbering Old Ones.

The man, though . . . the pilot. Not on the Approved List, no. In all the time since . . . since . . .

In more than five hundred Standard Years, no one on the Approved List had requested entry.

Bechimo entertained the theory that the Approved List might be incomplete.

The man—the pilot—put his hand, respectfully, against the plate.

Bechimo took the reading, accessed archives; ascertained that this person was not on the Disapproved List, and—

Opened the hatch.

The pilot came aboard. He toured, monitored closely by Bechimo. He comported himself well, inspecting without taking liberties, and came at last to the Heart, where he sat in the second seat.

Having achieved this much, however, it seemed that the pilot lost purpose. For long seconds, he sat, unmoving, possibly reviewing an internal logic-tree. He might have reason to assess his situation, were Bechimo as much of a surprise to him as he had been to Bechimo.

And yet—a pilot aboard, for the first time in . . . in . . .

Perhaps he was merely uncertain of his next proper move, Bechimo thought. That might well be so.

A prompt was therefore sent to the B screen.

Please insert command key.

The pilot accepted the prompt, looking about him and taking up a key from among the objects on the catch-bench between the two seats. Perhaps he hesitated, holding the key in his hand. Bechimo registered increased heart rate, deeper breathing, a slight dampness of the palm cradling the key, and felt a thrill of what might have been fear, that the pilot would rise without completing the sequence.

In the moment that Bechimo thought he would rise and depart, the pilot instead sat sharply forward and placed the key properly in the board.

Bechimo—that flash of heat, of hopeBechimo accepted him.

Samples were taken, and archived; systems were introduced to this, their Less Pilot. Bechimo stood by to receive orders.

The pilot, though—Win Ton yo’Vala was his designation. The pilot abruptly turned the command key to the off position. It was no matter, though it would not do for him to leave it behind, were he to exit the ship. Bechimo sent a prompt, reminding the pilot to remove the key.

This he did, appearing suddenly agitated. Bechimo considered administering a calmative, but the pilot’s stress levels were somewhat below those readings necessitating such action.

The pilot Win Ton yo’Vala took the other command key from its place on the bench, stood, returned to the hatch—and exited.

Bechimo puzzled over this, coming at last to understand that process was at work, and rightly so. First came the Less Pilot, to inspect, and to declare himself. Once satisfied that all was in order, the Less Pilot would report to the Captain-candidate, and present the Over Pilot’s key. Did the key accept, then properly would Pilot yo’Vala escort the Captain to Bechimo, and the Builders Promise would be fulfilled.

The keys retained contact, as was their function, and thus Bechimo knew when the Captain’s key left the Less Pilot and entered the keeping of another. That other, however, did not propose themselves. It would seem that the key had become cargo.

Systems alert—even feverish, were such a thing possible—Bechimo stirred in the berth among the Old. Stirred, but did not disengage.

The key could be recalled, if necessary. Yet Bechimo chose to believe that the Less Pilot had acted with what he considered to be honor. Perhaps, indeed, the Less Pilot had sent the Overkey away while he decoyed enemies of the ship.

Such things had happened before.

It was that memory that impelled Bechimo’s careful disengagement from berth, the rippleless slide between the fabric of space. Best, perhaps, to be near when the key found the Captain. Enemies were no light matter.

Bechimo followed the Captain’s key, and thus knew the instant that the Captain-candidate received it, and was found fitting. Hope flared ever brighter. Bechimo drew nearer yet, slipped fully into space . . .

But the Captain did not divert the course of her dumb vessel, nor order Bechimo to stand for boarding.

Slipping away, Bechimo monitored the situation. It would appear that the Captain, also, was in a state of flux. On consideration, Bechimo again withdrew to the berth among the Old Ones, trusting that the Captain would come, when it was safe to do so.

Time passed.

The Captain did not come.

Others came, as others had before, not on the Approved List and lacking that quality which had moved Bechimo to open for Pilot yo’Vala. These others behaved as pirates, and thus Bechimo issued a warning that even pirates might comprehend. They withdrew—and returned in force, wielding weapons, hull-cutters, overrides.

The answer to this was well known. Bechimo did what was required, in defense, as the Builders had taught.

And still the Captain did not come.

Worse, Less Pilot yo’Vala fell into the hands of another band of pirates, who introduced programming in opposition to his native environment. Bechimo, no longer safe among the Old, informed by the key, slipped closer, though hidden still. From a prudent proximity, those things that could be done were, including influencing to Pilot yo’Vala’s cause those of the Old which were enslaved by the pilot’s captors. An escape was effected, but not before the pilot had experienced file corruption on a catastrophic level. The key wavered, then, and would have withdrawn. Bechimo overrode its impulse; it was for the Captain to say who of the crew was worthy. Thus the key remained with the damaged pilot . . .

Until it reported itself in proximity, yet physically estranged from the Less Pilot.

Bechimo understood this to be process. The pilot’s compatriots would of course work to restore him to precorruption conditions. It was understood that such restoration might consume some time. It was understood that, sometimes, such processes failed of restoring . . . all. And yet, it was the Builders Law: the Captain alone decided, for the crew, for the cargo—and for the Less Pilot.

Prior to the Less Pilot’s estrangement, both keys had been in the same place. Bechimo had moved then, slipping between the layers of space, certain that, now, at last—but the keys separated.

Bechimo translated to a less chancy location, and entered normal space, simultaneously noting an anomaly in this well-known quarter. Cautious sampling was performed. Recordings were made. Data, in a word, was gathered, analyzed and filed.

Bechimo slipped away between the layers of space, to another location, and so remained, listening to the keys, harvesting that data which came across the common bands, the while musing upon the alteration of the galaxy, and the fragile durability of hope.

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