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Once More

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You see, I had this spaceship.


That's the wrong way to start. That's a Kip way to start, "you see," all chummy and hail-fellow-well-met.

You see, I had this job.

You see, I had this obsession.

You see, I had this father.

Nope, none of those are doing what I want. Doesn't matter. I'll edit it all out before the boys in blue - and they are boys, puppies with guns - get their greedy paws on it. I'd make some sarcastic remark about being surprised they know how to operate complicated equipment like this voice recorder, except that I'm not surprised. They're quite bright, for boys.

I was very lucky, growing up. I had a father who adored me, a thin intellectual skin and a near-absolute indifference to other children. If I hadn't ever hit puberty, I could have been happy forever.

What's that, you say? I'm not supposed to be exorcising my demons on government time? But my demons are my explanation for what happened, and that's what the government wants, so you're going to have to deal with the red skin and horns just like I do.


Trying again:

I think the name "Mother Thing" was a mistake. It left the men in the Space Force thinking that they'd need to be free of her in order to be grown-ups. Drs. Freud and Spock and their disciples were telling us all how to raise children to be independent, apron-stringless, and here Kip and I are babbling about "Mother Thing." They looked at her as if she were a set of training wheels, short pants, the height restriction on the better carnival rides.

They knew we couldn't beat her. Nobody except the truly ignorant blowhards thought our technology was anywhere close to parity. Her technology was to ours as a solar system is to a hydrogen atom. Even that may be giving us too much credit. What does an ant know about Plato's philosophy?

So how shall a baby race prove its maturity? If the race is human, it tries to find somebody its own size to beat, to show it's ready to move to the next level of galactic society. Never thinking that maybe the ideas of fighting, dominance and mastery are the very signs of immaturity that made the Mother Thing treat us like children.

Of course if you're listening to this, you're probably military, or at least your security clearance is high enough that you believe all the things that the Space Force believes. So maybe I should cut the pacifist rhetoric and get on with the song and dance.

I went to MIT when I was fifteen and flat-chested, Madame Pompadour in tow. (You should have seen the things the other students brought; I wasn't even a standard deviation away from average there, in that at least.) I displayed her on my desk, next to the big new computer allocated to me by the Engineering Department.

MIT was fine for me. What was best about it was that it wasn't Princeton, where Daddy was. Where Kip was, too, because Daddy wanted to work with him, though I never saw him while I was still in high school. Daddy kept him hard at work in the labs.

But because Daddy (and Kip) were at Princeton, Princeton was where the real space science was getting done. So once I had my PhD in hand and had some chance of being treated like a person instead of like Daddy's charming progeny, who does tricks for treats, it was back to Princeton I went.

This part is embarrassing, so if I leave something out, I ask your indulgence.

I always thought, in the back of my mind, that I'd marry Kip. That' I'd show up, his mouth would drop open, and he'd beg for the favor of my company.

I didn't expect him to look up from the innards of a laser, say, "Oh, hi, Peewee," and duck back down. I was the one with my mouth open, incapable of response. If I'd still been a kid, I would have thought of something, but apparently when I put away childish things my snappy comebacks went with them.

"'Peewee'?" Josh Chapin, who'd been showing me around the lab, repeated from behind me, and I knew that my name wasn't Patricia any more in the labs. My face felt both frozen and on fire.

"'Peewee'?" Josh repeated. "You folks know each other?"

Josh apparently hadn't heard the stories. It made sense; the government probably wanted as few people as possible knowing that humanity's first contact with aliens was two criminals and two kids. "We've met," I said.

If I couldn't have snappy comebacks, understatement would have to do.

Anyhow, I settled into the labs with not much more trauma than that awful nickname. We were trying to work out some of the principles in the data the Mother Thing had given us, a sort of jump-start for the space age. We thought it might contain the secret to faster-than-light travel. Or maybe the recipe for a really good crumb cake.

Just kidding.

What Daddy and the rest of his team had managed to figure out before I arrived had already created the field of computer science. Computers are going to change everything, pretty soon, even if they're mostly confined to space and military applications today. That was only five percent or so of the stuff from the Mother Thing's sphere, but it was going to be integral to puzzling out the remainder. It was like having a detailed curriculum for the first grade through the twelfth, except we were just learning how to read.

Kip had demonstrated a talent for engineering, building the computers and keeping them running. (One time the lab was shut down for half a day before Kip found the dead mouse that had been gumming up the works. And when I say "gumming," I'm unfortunately not speaking metaphorically at all.) As a result, I saw him every day. At least out of the corners of my eyes, because I couldn't really bear to look at him straight on. This was my weakness entirely, and surely drew more attention to how I felt about him than acting normally would have done, but I wasn't rational where Kip was concerned.

It's not normal to fall in love with someone you met for a few days when you were eleven, is it? No, I didn't think so. Maybe I don't even know what love is, since I never gave anyone else a chance.

I worked on the possibility of an FTL drive, something that Daddy was incredibly excited about but that he hadn't been able to devote many resources to, because the military applications were less than completely apparent. Oh, there are things you could do to a sun, possibly, but they'd also require more advanced energy handling than we were capable of, with our still-crude fission and fusion. I didn't care about that - I just wanted to go fast.

Being a girl was helpful in that sense - nobody military cared what I did. Kip didn't get those outdated social attitudes from nowhere; his dad had been part of that world long before Kip was born. So I buried myself in math, equations like snowflakes, each different but frustratingly hard to tell apart, melting just when I thought I'd captured them. I saw Kip only as much as you'd see someone who worked in the same small building but were trying diligently to avoid.

He looked disgustingly good. Space Forces insisted that he and the others on his team be prepared to go to the Moon on a moment's notice, so there was a robust physical conditioning regime. I, of course, was not asked to participate, though I was occasionally called upon to play doubles tennis with Daddy, Mama, and some promising-seeming young man who invariably was discomfited when I explained that I planned to continue at the labs for as many years as they'd have me. Daddy didn't care about the match-making; it was Mama's little entertainment, and I tolerated it but didn't encourage it.

Also, I was seeing Charles Levy, a boy from Brooklyn who'd worked his way through Princeton, a scholarship kid. Some people looked down at him, and he'd responded by pretending not to care, so we had many things in common. He was working on the new spaceships, the ones that were going to go to the asteroid belt and harvest all the raw materials we needed to expand further. He'd helped carry in the new computer equipment that replaced the old punch-cards, and he'd stayed to help me set it up. When he asked me to go for a soda, I said yes, and all of a sudden we were dating.

By "dating," I mean that we spent a lot of time in the back seat of his old car. I didn't have any girlfriends to tell me how much I should be doing with him, and Daddy's medical encyclopedias weren't any help either, but it wasn't serious. He'd told me that his parents expected him to marry a Jewish girl, and I'd told him that I just wanted to have some fun, and between us we'd negotiated just how far I was willing to go. Every few weeks, that was a little further. Nobody else was paying attention, and it felt good. The only problem was that he tended to show up in the lab when I was trying to work and tempt me with the thought of hamburgers and shakes at the local diner.

Which is what he probably meant to do, that day. I'd been up too late the night before, first with Charles and then writing and erasing numbers. I was so close - I could feel the equations just out of sight, a barrier as thin as a soap bubble in between me and them. My neck ached from perching on my government-issue chair and my eyes hurt from the too-bright lights and lack of sleep. I stretched, lacing my fingers and turning my hands palm-side out - and my elbow knocked over my long-cold cup of coffee, sending streamers of creamy brown all over the papers.

"Oh -- feathers!" I yelled, pushing the mess away from the computer. Coffee pooled and dripped, making the ink run on my useless scribbles. Drops gathered on the edge of the desk, stretching and falling into spatters on the floor.

I stared at the liquid, my mouth falling open, as the universe wheeled and realigned around me.

That was it! I'd been treating the numbers as if they were static, when really they described a transitional state, a point in the middle of a flow, like the coffee sagging down until it separated into a drop and fell and the process began all over again. The traveler was inside the liquid, carried through space-time and deposited at the endpoint, here represented by the sticky floor of the lab. The secret was in manipulating the surface tension, which would let you control the size of the drop -

This is all Greek to you, isn't it?

Suffice it to say that I, at that moment, was the only human alive who knew how to make a rocket ship - or a truck, for that matter -- go faster than light.

Ignoring the coffee, I rushed to the blackboard and began writing in the pink chalk they ordered specially for me. I didn't even bother to erase the equations underneath, just wrote over them, my hands steady even as the rest of me shook with the thrill of it. I could almost feel it already, the rush through deep space, the thousand thousand worlds opening up to us.

The amazing thing was how easy it would be. The mini-reactor in the lab next door could power it. The chalk snapped in my hand and I kept on writing with the stub.

At last, it was finished. Michelangelo couldn't have felt more accomplishment when he put the last stroke on the Sistine Chapel. These equations were talking to God, in the truest language there is.

The nub of chalk fell from my cramped hand. I was panting, trembling with excitement.

I screeched like a banshee when I felt the hand fall on my shoulder.

Charles was backing away, his hands in the air, even as I spun. "Hey, Trish, shh!" (What can I say? It was better than Peewee, and Charles was willing to avoid the hideous nickname in order to obtain the other pleasures of my company.) "What is going on? You were in another world there."

"Not yet!" I said, and hurried into his arms, hugging him tight as he struggled to follow my rapid mood change. "I did it," I said into his neck.

"Did what?" he asked, before my mouth found his.

I don't want you to think I'm that kind of girl. I'm a good girl, the kind nice guys take dancing and dining, the kind who would have gotten pinned if I'd ever pulled my head out of my books long enough. But that afternoon - I was higher than the moon. I was a genius, I was a demigod, I could see through time.

Charles wasn't one to ignore an opportunity. (That's how he got to Princeton, after all.) His hands were going places they'd never been, and I was kissing him and ready for much more, pressed up against the hard black surface of the long counter at the side of the room. Buttons were sliding out of holes, zippers edging down, skin previously unseen being bared to the world.


Kip's voice was half surprise, half horror.

Charles stumbled back, leaving me to grab the edges of my shirt and hold them closed with one hand. I stared at the lab door, where Kip was standing, turning brighter red with each passing moment.

"What are you doing?" I asked crankily.

"I should be asking you that! Except that it's easy to see!" His eyes refused to dip down below the level of my nose.

I left the shirt buttons half-done and just crossed my arms over my chest. "Oh, you're so high and mighty, do you think the entire lab doesn't know about you and that girl from the commissary? At least Charles can read!"

Yes, I did follow the lab gossip. Only out of a sort of horrified awe at what Kip's upbringing had led him to seek in girls, mind you.

"Becca can -- Does your father know about this?" Kip's gesture could have encompassed the equations on the blackboard as well as the human tableau in front of it.

"Why, are you going to tell him?"

When Kip started stalking towards me, Charles gulped and moved in a perfect parabolic arc, away from both of us. "I'm just going to leave the two of you to work this out," he said and rabbited out of the room.

Neither of us paid him any mind.

"I can't believe you'd do this, in his own lab! Think of what people will say!" Kip was handsome, all right, in that Boy Scout way of his, sandy-haired and square-jawed like something out of a Space Forces recruiting poster. Unfortunately, that very cleanliness made him look like a horrible prude when he was lecturing.

"This is my lab, and I'll thank you to remember that. Anyway," I said, feeling the triumph resume flowing through my veins, "I've got the design for an FTL drive here, and I think that will be good enough to get my father's approval." When I flapped a hand at the chalk-covered blackboard, my shirt flapped loose in response, and I hurried to fix it up properly.

Kip, drawing breath for more pompousness, stopped. And stared.

No, I wasn't upset that he was more entranced by the writing on the board than by my less intellectual features.

He huffed and hurried over to the side of the board, where the equations began, and started to follow them with his finger.

"Oh look, it reads without moving its lips," I sniped. No, not upset in the least.

Kip didn't even twitch. He grabbed a piece of white chalk and drew an arrow away from one of the more complicated transformations and drew a series of figures I quickly recognized as a formula for energy conversions.

"You could power a city that way," I whispered, entranced. I joined him, and we began to work out whole new branches of science. When we ran out of chalkboard, I dug out some permanent markers, and he stood on a stool writing on the wall above as I knelt and scribbled, ruining my nice black skirt.

They found us the next morning, me with my forehead covered with black marker where I'd slept against the wall, Kip facedown on the floor - I suspect he meant to rest his eyes for a moment.

Then things got a lot busier.

Kip, naturally, got half the credit, at least. If I hadn't been Daddy's daughter, he might have been held responsible for the whole thing. So Kip was put in charge of building the prototype drive - more like a gate, really, or a gun, if you can imagine a gun shooting closed bubbles of space-time through six dimensions. No? Let's just call it a gate.

I can be a brat sometimes - I can hear you rolling your eyes, O listener mine. But I admit it. It can be remarkably effective. That's how I got to the moon, and so my assertive character is really responsible for changing the course of human history. So try to have a little respect. In this instance, the brattiness was directed at getting me on the team building the gate. That did mean working with Kip, but there was nothing to be done about that.

Not that Kip and I were talking. Every time he looked at me, he'd open his mouth to say something (nasty, I'm sure), then look around and close it again.

Charles wasn't on the gate team. He'd been transferred to another department entirely three days after Kip walked in on us. Not coincidentally, he was reassigned on the first day Kip was given control of the lab personnel.

I admit it: I smirked at Kip a lot. He might not have wanted to go out with me the way I'd planned, but he didn't want anyone else doing so either. Of course, that might just be because he thought I was still little Peewee and it horrified him to think of me all grown up, but I liked my interpretation and I stuck to it.

The gate was an ugly thing, half old-style circuitry and half new-fangled Mother Thing-legacy electronics. Wires stuck out everywhere, duct-taped to keep people from tripping on them, and jagged edges ruined more than a few pairs of my stockings as I wriggled underneath it, making adjustments. (I halfway think Kip agreed to put me on the team just because I was small enough to get into the innards of the thing.) They'd put more knobs and dials on the thing than you'd find in your average nuclear reactor control room, but there were only two that really counted: the one that said "ready" and the one that said "active." When no one else was around, I occasionally went and ran my fingers over the red and green glass, wishing.

Our radio telescopes had been searching for habitable planets for years, and there were ten likely candidates within range of our first gate. (We all said "first," out of a mix of superstition and optimism. Scientists can be as superstitious as the rest of the world, maybe more so when we're dealing with technology that works more like divine will.) First we sent probes through, collecting samples of air and soil and anything else in range.

One of the planets was almost Earth-normal, as far as we could tell. More helium in the air than Earth, but otherwise pretty much like the old homestead.

Kicking and screaming, for once, had very little effect. I wasn't on the first exploration team. I was supposed to stay behind and monitor, in case they needed a good gate mechanic Earthside. I could have died with frustration. Kip talked about the disappointment of thinking he'd won a trip to the moon and then finding out otherwise - this was disappointment like that, factorial.

"Don't worry, dear, the planet will still be there once we've made sure it's safe," Daddy said. He pretended not to understand that I wanted to be in danger, if there was danger. How else do you know you're alive? Let's face it, sitting in a classroom is not exactly comparable to being on trial for your species' existence in terms of excitement, or even to flying an alien spaceship. Even pointing out that I'd already been farther away from Earth than any human being besides Kip didn't help.

The night before the mission was scheduled to begin, I was in the lab late, tidying up and double-checking all the equipment. Loads of supplies and machines had already been sent through to the landing site, to be ready when the team arrived. Every time the gate cycled open, it would bring the strange scents of the alien world - dubbed Prime by Daddy - with it, something like oranges mixed with burning grass, half lovely, half nauseating, and all tantalizing.

The probes had cameras, and they'd shown things that looked like trees, heavy with purpled vine-type growths, but nothing that moved like an animal.

Kip was in the machine-crowded gate room too, double-checking. He was Mr. Failsafe - if he'd had his way, there would have been twice as much equipment awaiting the team as there actually was, and that was about four times more than Space Forces had initially approved. We didn't say anything as he looked over instruments I'd just tuned and I examined wires he'd just checked for breaks.

Suddenly I heard it - the low hum of the gate powering up. Our heads snapped up, and we looked over the control console to where the deformed egg-shape of the gate was blinking and beginning to vibrate.

"Did you turn it on?" Kip asked me.


There was a return mechanism on the other side, for the team members to use in case they needed to get home fast.

We looked at each other. I hurried over to the intercom, paging the MPs who guarded the entrance to the facility. I'd laughed at the military ridiculousness before, but now it seemed wholly insufficient to protect our vulnerable planet. "Something's gone wrong in the gate room," I said, proud that my voice wasn't shaking. "Hurry."

The gate was whining now, the sound signalling it was ready to transmit. Kip had picked up a length of extra pipe that had been tossed in a corner. It looked silly, like he was pretending to play baseball, but at least it was something.

"Get out of here, Peewee."

I shook my head and picked up the small welding torch we kept around for quick fixes.

With an electronic scream, the gate opened. I didn't mention what it's like, did I? Black beyond black, black the color that black would bleed if cut. Infinitely deep, it looks so cold that you have to shiver, even though it doesn't change the temperature at all.

There was a "phut," and something rolled out of the gate. I could tell immediately it was nothing humans had made. A strange silvery pink, it looked like someone had taken a stack of shoeboxes, thrown together higgledy-piggledy, and frozen them. Underneath the outer shell, oblong lights pulsed in a rhythm that immediately began to hurt my eyes.

When the gate closed with the strange jolt that I felt in my bones, we could tell that the machine was making a noise.

It sounded like a countdown.

"I don't think this is good," I said, like a hapless heroine watching the approaching train.

"We've got to push it back through," Kip said, and rounded the console to get close to the alien thing.

I unfroze and began punching in the instructions. The gate wasn't designed to power up and down so quickly; I had to override about ten subsystems, including three Kip had insisted on for safety's sake.

The gate twitched, actually shifting on its moorings. I heard the snap of metal as bolts tore loose from the floor. But the power was on, and the cycles were spinning up quickly.

Kip was struggling with the alien machine. It had something like treads, though they were covered with rubbery, pink-blue wormlike strands that were leaving moist trails on the floor as Kip pushed it back towards the maw of the gate.

The noise was speeding up now.

With one last glance at the console to make sure it was working, I hurried to Kip's side and helped him push. My feet skidded on the tile floor until I repositioned myself, ending up actually putting my back against the machine. It was warm and damp, like rubbing up against a sweaty person. Up close, the smell of burning grass was powerful enough to make me want to gag.

The gate groaned and opened. My hair was blowing around my head so I could barely see; of course, I was going backwards, so seeing wouldn't have helped any. The noise was faster, the pulses coming so close together that they were almost indistinguishable.

"One ... last ... push -" Kip gasped, and I obeyed.

The machine crossed the threshold and instantly began to move on its treads again. Unbalanced with the sudden absence, Kip and I tumbled into the gate after it.

I bet you wonder what the gate is like.

Sorry to disappoint, but it's not like anything. In a very real sense, it isn't anything. At least, you're not in it the way you're in the world. It doesn't take any time to go halfway across the universe, and so you don't hear, smell, see or touch anything on your way.

We sprawled, coughing, on spongy ground, sucking in great gulps of air that tasted like the inside of a rubber glove. The machine rolled forward. I pushed myself up and looked around for whoever - whatever -sent the machine.

Kip, already halfway on his feet, grabbed my arm. "We've got to get away," he suggested. His voice was so squeaky from helium that I almost laughed, despite the circumstances.

From what I could see in my hasty perusal, we were on a hill, mostly covered in vegetation that, for the sake of convenience, I'll call "grass." Looking down, I could see a number of things the same color and general shape as the machine that came through the gate, and a few shapes that looked more like living beings.

Our equipment was still mostly in place. I guess they didn't want to tip their hand until it was too late for us.

Kip dragged me up, over dark brown rocks that crumbled away when we put our weight on them.

Before we were fifty feet away, the thing blew up. The shockwave slammed us into the ground, and the whole hill roared like a bull elephant and slumped down. Kip - oh, Kip - threw himself on top of me, while rocks crashed down on his back and hit my limbs.

I think I passed out then.

When I woke up, we were half-buried under the rubble. The strange metallic taste in the back of my throat was the least of my worries.

"Kip? Kip? Wake up, please!" I was squeakier than he'd been, since I was female and terrified as well as breathing helium.

Kip groaned, and I tasted my own blood from my bitten-through lip. "Kip, it's Peewee. You've got to get up now." He pushed weakly against me - if we'd been this close back home, we'd have needed to get engaged - and then coughed out a truly impressive mouthful of phlegm, directly onto my blouse.

"You're alive," I said, not entirely thrilled. "Come on, we've got to see what's left."

Wriggling, brushing against parts Charles Levy never got around to, Kip and I pushed rocks aside until we were free. We lay there, gasping, looking at the new landscape. There were no pink machines in sight. We were surrounded by the remains of the big hill on which we'd landed, rocks of various shapes and sizes pouring out for hundreds of yards around us. In the distance, those purple trees waited, looking delightfully shady now that we were exposed to the Sol-like sun.

"Peewee," Kip said. I turned to him.

I hadn't heard the strain in his voice through the helium, but I could see that his leg was bending in a way it shouldn't have bent. He was still holding on to the pipe he'd grabbed back on Earth.

"Oh dear," I said. "Do you think calling for the Mother Thing would help?"

Kip chuckled, though I could tell it was an effort. "Somehow, I don't think so."

I helped him get to a rock big enough that he could lie in the shade while I looked for any surviving equipment. If we ever meet, listener, please remind me never to mock Kip's overpreparedness again. I found a pack of emergency rations, a smushed radio transmitter, and - most important - a nearly intact medikit.

Kip had to explain to me how to splint his leg with the collapsible splint in the kit. He looked at me reproachfully when I said I didn't know how, and I snapped at him that I was no Florence Nightingale. He was equally snippy about how obvious that was.

"Do you think whoever sent that bomb through is coming back?" I asked. "Maybe we scared them off. Maybe they think we'll call it a draw since we sent their bomb back."

Kip grunted as I helped him hop to his feet - well, his foot. "It's a nice thought. Let's head for those tree-things while we plan what to do next." The pipe wasn't long enough to use as a crutch, so we hobbled over the rocks like the last team in a three-legged race. I nearly turned my ankle at least ten times on the rough ground.

The forest smelled like a forest, almost, since I was getting used to the overlay of alienness. The trees had rough bark like Earth oaks, and we settled Kip with his back to a big one with roots rising on either side of him like some enormous armchair.

"Okay," I said, looking at the tiny stack of food cubes in the ration kit, "now what?"

Kip was fiddling with the radio receiver. "This isn't totally destroyed. If we could find another one to strip for parts, we could send a signal."

"To whom?" I asked. "I'm not sure we want to be talking to the guys who wanted to blow up the gate."

He picked up a fallen twig and began sketching on the loamy ground. Shiny beetle-things (okay, from now on it's just Earth analogues, I promise) skittered away from the tip of his makeshift stylus. "These are the parts of the gate mechanism that were best-protected, and might not have gotten crushed in the rockslide. If we can get to them, I can probably hook it up to let a signal through."

I looked. He was optimistic, but under the circumstances optimism was probably the right attitude.

"I'd better get started," I said and stood up.

"Wait -"

I stared down at his broken leg. He followed my gaze and sighed.

"At least take this." He handed me the pipe. I put it over my shoulder like a musket, and tipped an imaginary cap to him.

That was ten days ago. I found this recorder, amazingly intact, on the third day, and I've been recording my story in bits and pieces, while we wait for water to boil or while Kip rearranges wires with his bare hands, using words he doesn't want me to hear when he cuts his fingers.

If you're hearing this, listener, you know that Kip's plan worked. What you don't know is what happened to the aliens, which we're still unclear on ourselves. At night, we can see a glow like light pollution from a small city, what seems to be about fifty miles away, though we might be mistaking the distance. A few times, I've heard the whir of machinery, and ducked down into a hidey-hole that was the first thing I dug out of the ex-hill. They haven't come to dig out our equipment; maybe they're afraid we have tamper-proofing as nasty as their own surprise package.

That bomb brought down half a mountain. Daddy was still in his office that night; I can't help thinking about what would have happened if we hadn't -

We were so stupid. Who puts a return button on a gate to a strange planet and doesn't even have a key or a code? We left the door open to anything that wanted to visit.

We can eat the food in the forest, or at least it hasn't killed us yet, though Kip couldn't keep the spider down and I didn't want to. Apparently our biology is compatible with that of the inhabitants of this planet, just as it was with what Kip called the Wormfaces. I wonder if that means we're all descended from some fantastically advanced progenitors, seeding the stars with all kinds of people. Maybe that's what the myths of Genesis and the Flood really mean; maybe the Tower of Babel was a gate between the worlds.

I'm getting silly. See, the thing about compatible biology -

Kip's been sick for at least seven days. He tried to hide it, but I have to help him use the bathroom, and there's not much you can hide under those circumstances. It's the leg. The antibiotics in the medikit were useless, even at double doses, and they're gone now. I'd take the risk of an amputation, even, with the infection sending red and purple claws up his thigh, but I don't have a sharp enough knife.

This is what I wonder: If the aliens wanted to kill us so badly, why aren't they exploring the site? Are they letting me dig like some frightened fox, waiting to see what we'll do? Waiting to see if we'll open another gate that they can use better this time?

Daddy, if you're the one listening - Please, please send somebody through. The gate we rebuilt is only large enough to carry this recording through. It's not big enough for a person. You have to build another big one and send the return apparatus through. You have to do it quick.

Kip just spit up the last of the water from the emergency kits. I've been drinking stuff from the forest for a few days now. He's talking nonsense. He drifts in and out, and I think it's a mercy when he's incoherent. His face is so tight and drawn, and he makes these little gasps whenever he has to move.

I told him once that he'd be begging me for a dance in a few years. Just now, he begged me to make it stop. The pain, I mean. I think he thought I was his mother, or the Mother Thing.

Last night, I told him I planned to marry him. He laughed and said he wasn't much of a catch any more. I told him that I didn't think I looked - or more to the point, smelled - all that gorgeous myself. He laughed again. He's laughing pretty easily these last few days, like he's trying to get in all the enjoyment he can before -


And if you can't, if you won't - you Space Force types are supposed to be brave and heedless of danger, aren't you? You've got to come through. You wouldn't leave us to die under an alien sun.

But if you do -

Just send a message back, so I'll know. I'm going to destroy the mini-gate when this goes through, so that if the whatevers do come back there won't be anything they can use. I'll wait here, at these coordinates, until - until it doesn't matter any more, and then I'll move on into the forest.

I love you, Daddy.

I love you, Kip.

Message ends.