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Chapter Three

Coda - despite being settled for over two centuries - had a population of only four million. And because its combination of agrarian, academic, and puterverse industries made for virtually no pollution, one could see nearly forever in the crystal clear, low humidity atmosphere. Coda was touted in the tourist brochures - another small but growing industry - as “the planet with fifty suns” because it was possible to see stars several hours after sunrise and several hours before sunset. Because of the nearly transparent atmosphere, spotting and identifying ships taking off or reentering was a common hobby, shared by many Codans. Today, though, interest exceeded several times that the planet’s entire population.

“THERE!!” someone shouted, causing the thousands physically present at the landing zone and the millions in attendance via the puterverse to raise their heads and look into the brilliant blue skies. Cathy saw nothing at first - being there in person, she had no puterverse interface to magnify her vision - but then caught the flash of light off a highly polished ship’s hull, followed by a long trail of ignited atmosphere as the Retriever made its way to port. She felt her throat go dry with anticipation and her heart flutter with excitement, as though she were being reunited with a loved one she hadn’t seen in many years.

Her husband Gary, the author of this day’s claim to history, was feeling much more than anticipation and excitement. As he stood beside Cathy, his arm firmly around her shoulder, he also had conflicting feelings of accomplishment, tinged with doubt. Was he doing the right thing?

He tore his eyes away from the streak in the sky and looked about him. Enthusiasm, mixed with a powerful sense of right, washed over everyone present, either physically or otherwise. It had been this way for six months now, since the day he had posted his findings, declaring that he had located the final ripe of the final soulner, Juanita Alvarez. People from all sixty-eight planets in The System had thrilled to the news, had celebrated his finding and heralded it as the event of the century. This was not as great an honor as it sounded, Gary reminded himself, since the century was less than a year old. Nevertheless, the thanks and grateful cheers of twenty-five billion people reminded him of the relief and sense of closure his efforts were bringing.

Because for all of humanity’s success, this gossamer pall had laid over every achievement for the past half millennia, a specter of constant unease amongst even the most spectacular advances. For all that they had done to improve themselves, one failure to themselves ran like a black burlap thread in a tapestry of white silk. Many billions had been helped by technology in the constant march of time, but there always remained this unpaid debt to the soulners. Now, because of a chance discovery ten years prior and Gary’s tenacious research since, that debt could now be fully paid.

The Retriever had shifted from thrusters to antigravity drive and was now descending slowly to its bay, a large dock in the harbor city of Hinman. The multitude of wildly exuberant and deliriously happy people pressed as close to the docking bay as was safely possible. The Retriever settled into the deep water, throwing up a huge cloud of steam, and every person watching sent up a loud cheer. Taking Cathy by the hand, Gary led the way to the hov waiting to take them to the secured gate where the satellite was to be unloaded. He helped his wife in, then seated himself beside the driver and nodded. The hov moved off without a whisper, though in the deafening cheering of the crowd, the hov could have been screaming like a banshee and it would have gone unheard.

They shot across the glassmac surface away from the Retriever’s bay and very quickly came to an access tunnel located in the salty sand dunes surrounding the harbor town. Dipping down, they approached the ghost barrier and passed through without resistance, the solid energy door having identified and cleared them. The hov slowly negotiated a corner and reached the main tunnel, where it accelerated smoothly, passing underneath the glassmac it had been floating over only moments before. Gary looked above them and could see through the three meter thick hardened glass the eerie blurs of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

The loading bay hatch had just finished lowering when the hov pulled into the large sunken hanger. Wasting no time, a team of specialists raced up the ramp into the hold to verify ripe integrity and secure the small satellite for transfer to the reconstruction facilities where Juanita’s new body was waiting. Why they were in such a hurry, Gary had no idea.

The hov came to a stop and Gary - still spry in his fifty-second year - hopped out and walked up the ramp. Cathy remained behind.

Captain Stillman was waiting for him at the top of the ramp. Seeing the strong, tall man with his military posture brought back the memories of his earlier service during the Seventh Conflict, and Gary saluted sharply.

“Permission to come aboard, sir?”

Surprised, the Captain returned the salute. “Permission not required, but granted, Mr. Marks.” He smiled wryly. “The old habits die hard, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Gary said. Then with a grin, he added, “Especially when I don’t make any effort to get rid of them. My four years on the Bulldog were rough, even harrowing at times, but they helped make me what I am.”

“The Bulldog?” Stillman nodded appreciatively. “She was a good ship. I was First Officer on the Harrier when the Bulldog went down on Terminian Five. Captain Franklin was a good friend.” His eyes sharpened at the memory. “The Bulldog had a very sharp, very pushy muser, as I recall.” He left the tone hanging, forcing Gary to laugh.

“That was thirty years ago, Captain. I’ve grown up a lot since then.” There was a low, steady hum and the satellite was carried into view of the hatch, causing both men to look toward it.

“This is one of the things that made me grow the most.”

The Captain nodded. “It is a very sobering sight, isn’t it? Both a monument to mankind’s tenacity and an accuser of our own cruelty to ourselves.” He swung his gaze back to Gary. “We turn her over to your capable hands, Mr. Marks. Take good care of her.”

“We intend to, Captain. We intend to.”

“This is not going to work, Gary.” The voice was calm, quiet, and final. Sai Lu was a petite woman, of slight frame and soft features. In all aspects of her peaceful, ordered academic life, there was no hint of her iron resolve, her absolute certainty of opinion. Though unassuming in the day to day campus activities, and a virtual nonentity in the normal transactions of everyday life, when it came to the advanced sciences of mental reconstruction and triggered persona modulation, she was no-one’s fool and quickly made a fool of anyone idiotic enough to cross her. She was not hard headed and could be swayed by a colleague’s structured presentation of the truth, but she also had a healthy enough evaluation of herself to understand that it was only in the rarest of circumstances that she was wrong.

Looking around the obsidian table at these colleagues now, she looked no larger than the young female body that lay in the room adjoining awaiting its first soul. Sai looked ready to weep almost, hoping someone could change her opinion of the night’s studies, but knowing that no one could.

Gary stood up with a deep sigh and faced his dear friend and momentary opponent. Relief was reflected in Sai’s face when he did so. She very very much wanted to be wrong.

“All right, Sai. I’ve heard your arguments against reconstruction and they are very compelling.” Tension swept across the table, touching each team member with a different yet equally harsh slap.

“I tell you now that I reject your conclusion.” At Sai’s surprised look, Gary shook his head emphatically. “Not because I doubt your proofs, Sai. You are without peer in the mental reconstruction sciences. I count myself unique in that I’m the only one who’s ever successfully debated you twice. I reject them because to accept your conclusion means failure.” He looked around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention. A superfluous gesture.

“We’ve heard Sai’s proofs. If we’re going to bring Juanita back, we have to either disprove each one, or find a way around the truth to arrive at a different truth. I’m sure Sai will be trying just as hard to find herself in the wrong.” Sai nodded once and seated herself. Gary nodded.

“Efwon, could we have an energy model of Juanita, please?”

“Certainly, Mr. Marks.” Gary had to bite his tongue to choke back a laugh, despite the less than festive atmosphere. Gary’s special relationship with Mike was also a private one; only Maureen and Vince knew of it. To maintain that privacy, Mike acted his normal, remote Efwon self when they were in mixed company.

The table gave a brief hum as it and each person around the table was partially accessed into the puterverse. Though their vision of reality did not alter, Efwon was able to project a flawless image of Juanita’s mind and soul onto the area above the table. It was viewed by each person in the optimum and controlled by each mentally as desired. It was a perfect overlay of six different solid images occupying the same space without overlapping.

“Thank-you. All right, people. Sai gave us three compelling reasons why mental reconstruction could not be performed on Juanita. Let’s work through them one at a time. Sai?”

“First reason,” she began without preamble, “Due to the number of personas - twenty-nine - ripe barrier integrity is at two percent. Any attempt at reconstruction on a subject with barrier integrity of less than eight percent will cause a massive sharding cascade. Result: Dissolution within minutes.” She smiled slightly. “Begin the attack. Please.”

“How proven is the eight percent barrier?” Randy Schiavone, the team psychiatrist, asked. “Are there any instances of a successful reconstruction at less than eight percent?”

“None.” Sai replied flatly. “In fact, the eight percent barrier is theoretical. The lowest barrier integrity that ever withstood a reintegration was thirteen percent, on the Nase soulner, in 2751. In all honesty, I suspect the eight percent barrier as being too optimistic. The Nase reintegration was a masterpiece from a professional point of view. That Derek Nase lived an additional eighty years was quite remarkable.”

“All right, my turn,” Maureen Adams spoke up. Maureen was the group’s muser. Though not as powerful a muser as Gary, she specialized in healing spells and surpassed Gary’s skill, variety and potency of spell in that field. “What if we were to strengthen the barriers?”

“How?” Sai asked bluntly.

“Well, perhaps with Pentrinsic code. Where did the Nase reconstruction take place?”

“On Earth.”

“There you are then, Sai,” Maureen said with a smile. “Earth is incapable of supporting Pentrinsic code, so they couldn’t use it. Neither Gary nor I are slouches, so perhaps we can strengthen the barriers. Raise the percentage.”

“Believe me, Maureen,” Sai responded, “Your magic was the first thing I thought of. But the eight percent theory is with Pentrinsic code taken into consideration. The problem is that the ripe barriers are artificial. Your power is all but useless on them, since they lie in a living organism. Magics used to ease pain and calm a persona during a sharding episode would be helpful, but they couldn’t - or shouldn’t - cross the barrier of the dominant ripe. To do so invites disaster. Your attempts to heal the organic effects of dissolution would only cause a more severe cascade, since the spell would attack the artificial barriers themselves, the very things holding the mind’s structure.”

“How about a mechanical spell, then?” This from the Prime Tech, Steven Faircloth, a short, rotund man with a head that seemed twice normal size due to an impressive amount of hair and an astounding beard. “Maureen could work a gearing spell on the barriers.”

“I can answer that one for Sai,” Maureen said. Normally the bubbly one, Maureen was uncharacteristically glum. “That won’t work either, Steve, because for a gearing spell to work, the receptor must be on the physical plane. Ripe barriers are applied to the mind, not the brain, and are as ethereal as the mind they corrupt.”

No one seemed to have anything to say after that. Gary looked around at the faces of the group and felt the touch of defeat. So close...

He shook it off. He would not give up yet.

“Okay, let’s table the first proof and tackle the second.” He shifted the group view of Juanita’s mind until the soft glowing blue of the polarized barrier could be seen.

“According to Sai, even if we could overcome the barrier stability problem, we’d run into this one. The original ripe was done by DPR, which we all know from our psych history classes performed their ripes using depolarized barriers. Even if we could somehow stabilize the barriers, as soon as we reached the DPR ripe, itsbarriers would shatter the moment the incompatible fields touched. It was that incompatibility that caused three abbreviated ripes and four restabilization ripes.”

“Can’t we at least perform a restabilization ripe?” Vince Fiebert, media liaison and an accomplished psychiatrist in his own right. At the horrified looks of the others, he hurried on. “Hey! Don’t stare. We’ve got an impossible problem and as much as we each abhor the thought of riping, if we can ripe once more to restore the soulner, why not try it?”

“You open up a very unusual route, Vince.” Sai said, a look of respect and excitement in her eyes. Clearly, Vince had stumbled on a contingency even Sai hadn’t considered. “We don’t have the equipment to perform a ripe, but what we have could be modified, couldn’t it, Steve?”

“Yeah,” Steve said with a flat tone, his gaze looking off into the distance as he began working out the solution. “It’d be a challenge, but I don’t see why not. The equipment’s already designed to work inside ripes to reinitialize the soulner’s persona. It should be able to pocket out another restabilization ripe.”

“No.” Gary’s voice was also flat, not with deep thought but with finality.

“Why not, Gary?” Sai asked. She was excited at exploring a prospect she hadn’t considered. “If we can achieve the end, certainly the means...”

“No, it’s not that, Sai, although I’d be willing to argue from that point as well. It was the idea that the ends justified the means that made riping so rampant to begin with. The reason I say no is that it’s impossible to perform another ripe. Juanita had twenty-nine ripes performed on her and that is her maximum.”

“Maximum?” Randy questioned. “Twenty-nine is high, but the Potolofsky ripe had...”

“Had forty-one, I know,” Gary interrupted. “But both the Potolofsky and Milcorp Complex soulners were fully developed. Because of Juanita’s extreme need over her short life, both her physical and mental facilities were below norms for that time. Coupled with the initial DPR ripe’s inherent problems, I’m surprised they were able to do more than fifteen, let alone twenty-nine. Finally, none of us has the skills required to perform a ripe, especially such a high risk one. No, twenty-nine is all.”

“Do you have access to any other resources, Gary?” Vince asked in a low voice, causing both Maureen and Gary to look at him sharply. Only they knew he was speaking of Mike. The twinge of irritation Gary felt at Vince’s near breach of faith was eased by the genuinely sincere look on his face. It had been Vince who, ten years ago, had come upon the thread of the pleasure ripe who’d been stabbed and partially skinned and had been unable to find the soulner attached to it. Under these conditions, Gary could forgive his friend his forwardness.

“No, Vince.” Gary replied. “I’ve exhausted every avenue open me.” And he had, too. He’d been up until late the previous night, even before Sai had reached her conclusion, talking it through with Mike. Mike had focused his vast abilities to working on the problem. Such was Mike’s intensity that Gary wondered if perhaps Mike had at one time been personally affected by a ripe or soulner. Despite his nearly unlimited resources, however, no solution had been found.

“Then what do we do, Gary?” Maureen asked softly. “We can’t strengthen the existing barriers, and we can’t create new ones with an additional ripe. And even if we did, the DPR incompatibilities would cause a cascade. So what do we do?”

“I just don’t know, Maureen. But it has to be something else. A thirtieth ripe would kill her.”

“Wait a second.” Steve still had his far off look. He had begun flicking a finger against his teeth, the nail giving a soft click. To the other five, this meant he’d slipped into his don’t-interrupt-my-line-of-thinking mode that almost always ended with a solution. The silence continued - accented only by Steve’s clicking fingernail - for an interminable period of time, at least four years by Gary’s reckoning. Finally, still clicking his teeth, Steve cleared his throat.

“We can’t perform a thirtieth ripe, right?”

“Correct,” Sai replied succinctly. No one, not even Sai, dared impede Steve when he was in this mode.

“Because of the strain on the existing barriers?”

“Yes.”

“And because her mind is at capacity?”

“Yes.”

Steve looked at Gary, while also looking through him.

“The DPR ripe is non-polarized.”

“It is,” Gary replied, wondering where his line of thinking was going.

“Contact with the other barriers would cause a cascade? Because of incompatibility?”

Gary nodded.

Steve leaned back and smiled. “Then there’s your answer. Ripe the DPR ripe.”

“What!?” Randy said sharply, not sure whether Steve had a crude humor or was just ignorant of riping. “Steve, you can’t ripe a ripe. It’s never been done!”

“That only means it hasn’t been done. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, Randy.”

Maureen was nodding her head slowly in growing understanding. Sai looked stunned.

“Of course,” Sai whispered. Her delicate face broke into a wide smile of wonder. “Of course! Everybody, look!” she continued excitedly, directing everyone to the model. “Here’s the DPR ripe. It’s a non-polarized ripe and required a polarization field to keep the other ripes from touching it.” The blue haze coating Juanita and the DPR ripe from the surrounding ripe began pulsing. “The area of the mind that contains the polarization field was never riped. It couldn’t be. That means that there is an area between the DPR ripe and the succeeding ripes. If we were to remove the field and insert a simple reinitialization ripe in that area, we could strengthen the barriers, then begin reconstruction!”

“But what about the DPR incompatibilities, Sai?” Vince asked, wanting to believe her and Steve, but afraid to.

“That’s where I got the idea from, Vince,” Steve said. “As far as the other ripes are concerned, the DPR ripe is unmapped mind. We just ripe it along with the polarization field.”

“So why couldn’t they do that earlier, Steve?” Randy asked.

“They could. But to do it, they’d have to use only the most simple of ripes. Not only that, there would be a risk of sharding. Since they still had so much more mind left to ripe, they just threw up a field and ignored it.”

Everyone began talking excitedly, like a group of young children who’d just found out it had snowed overnight. Gary allowed them their moment, but soon calmed them down enough to speak.

“Good work, Steve. Sai? Do you think we’ve got a viable path?”

“I do, Gary.”

“When can we begin? And how long to restoration?”

“Strategy mapping will require at least sixteen hours. The riping time is more difficult to estimate, but I’d guess another sixteen hours. Provided it holds, I’ll wait four more hours to prove stability, then begin reconstruction and transference, which will take thirty-six to forty-two hours. Total, seventy-two to seventy-eight hours.”

“Four days, then,” Gary said, his voice clearly not as joyful as the others. “Excellent. That leaves us with just the final proof. Probability of sharding is at least eighty percent.”

The group, so buoyant moments before, fell very silent, everyone looking away from everyone else. Gary understood their sudden unease and shared in it. That one could achieve an end didn’t always mean one should.

“I’m sorry to rain on your access, people, but we knew coming in that we’d be facing a high probability of sharding. Not this high, I’ll grant you, but still well above tolerable levels. So I put it to you: Do we have the right to put this young girl through the ordeal of dissolution if she begins sharding? Do we want to see Juanita go through thirty separate deaths if the time comes?”

The silence remained heavy over the table, so thick that it was physically felt. No one had ever witnessed a dissolution - the last occurred long before any of them had even been born. But the chilling terror of the experience lived on in their cultural folklore. It was the stuff of nightmares and ghost stories; passed on by children who tried to frighten each other on dark, windy nights.

The silence continued until Maureen finally stood.

“It was so much easier to think about when we didn’t have a name to put to her, wasn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. “So much easier to think of it as a process, and not an experience.

“I’ve watched the ancient holo files of dissolution. It’s horrible. To see each false persona die, one after the other, until only the soulner is left, and then seeing the final death come. I’ve thought a lot about this over my career as a healer, especially in the past two years, when Gary asked me to be on the reconstruction team. How could I put a person through that? Knowing it would be so much easier to let them die unknowing, trapped as whatever ripe they were.” She pointed toward the ghost door that led into the reconstruction facility where the satellite was secured.

“Last night, I walked into that room and stared at the flashing red light on the satellite. I stared at it for ten minutes, maybe longer, and I asked myself over and over: If I was unwilling to risk putting the soulner through sharding and dissolution, then was I willing to turn off the power source of that satellite, and let the riped core fail? Was I willing to let Juanita die as a machine instead of a little girl? For if I could not do one, I had to do the other.”

She looked at each of them in turn. “I couldn’t. I could not switch off the power, and bury little Juanita in that metal body. And I ask each of you now; right here: Who will go into that room and turn off her life?”

There was no answer other than silence, but it was a different, less intrusive silence than had been weighing on them. With thoughtful gazes, they stared into the model floating on the table, into the magnificently delicate patterns of white soul mist that surrounded and moved in and out of the universe of a mind that was Juanita, and asked themselves the question. At last Gary stood up slowly, drawing all eyes to him.

“Thank-you, Maureen. You’ve reminded us we are not God. The decision of life or death is not ours to make. Sai? If you would begin preparations, please? I’d very much like to meet little Juanita.”

“Buenos Noches, Señorita. ¿Como esta Usted?”

Juanita’s eyes fluttered and opened at the gentle sound of the woman’s voice. Where was she? Shielding her eyes with her hand, she raised her head slowly.

“Who is there? Who is that?” she asked in Spanish. The lighting was very low and indirect and she still had trouble seeing. A dark shape leaned close to her and took her hand.

“My name is Maureen Adams, little Juanita. I am a doctor.”

“You... you know who I am?” Juanita asked with a tinge of fear coming to her voice. People you didn’t know who in turn knew you were people to be feared.

“Yes, I know your name. I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing you, though.” Maureen smiled warmly. “I hope that will change. In fact, let us start now. How are you feeling this evening?”

Juanita, feeling reassured by the caring voice, sat up carefully. Her clothes felt very soft and comfortable, and she looked down at them and gasped.

“Who’s clothes are these?”

“They are yours, Juanita,” Maureen said with a small laugh, allowing Juanita to take the conversation where she wished. “Why else would you be wearing them?”

“But I don’t have such fine clothing! I have only my dress and my sleeping robe. And my shoes.” She looked down at her feet and frowned. Even in the dim lighting, and lying in bed under sheets that were as white and clean as any she’d ever seen, it was clear she was taller than she had been. She looked at her hand and stared at it, a sense of fear coming over her. It wasn’t her hand! Or was it? It seemed like... but it was larger and.. and... Juanita looked quickly at Maureen, who could see the sudden, growing terror engulfing her.

“Be calm, child! I know you do not believe what you are seeing. It is very difficult for you, but I am here to help you.” Maureen took her hand, but Juanita pulled it free.

“What have you done to me?” She felt her face with trembling hands, then noticed her more mature figure. “What’s happened?” Memories came flooding back. “My mother! What have you done with my mother? Where is she?”

“Juanita! Child! Please, be calm.” Maureen again took her hand and held it tightly, then closed her eyes. Juanita stared in fascination as Maureen shifted her free hand while speaking in a foreign tongue. Her eyes came open and looked into Juanita’s and Juanita felt a sudden surge of warmth and calm covering her body like a favorite blanket. She lay down and looked up at Maureen.

“Are you a witch?” Juanita asked in a soft voice.

“No, child,” Maureen smiled warmly again and stroked Juanita’s black hair. “I’m a doctor. Doctors now have very special ways to treat the sick and injured.”

“Am I sick?”

“You were. You were very sick. But now you are getting better.”

“What’s happened to my body? Am I older? Did I go to sleep for a long time?”

“You are very intelligent, Señorita. As intelligent as you are pretty. Yes, you’ve been asleep for a long time. That is why you look so different.”

“What of my mother?”

Maureen’s eyes glistened with sadness. “I’m sorry, child. We could not save your mother.”

“You are not DPR, then? They are the ones who took her away. They said she had no one to support her, but I did.”

“And what did you do, Juanita?” Maureen asked, immediately hating herself for fear of causing the girl pain in answering.

“I danced,” Juanita said with a quiet sigh and a small smile as the healing spell eased her into a peaceful slumber. “I danced for the people at the city gate.”

“And you will dance again,” Maureen whispered, nearly overcome, “but not because you have to. Now you will dance because you want to.”

“Good morning, Juanita!” Maureen’s cheerful, bubbly voice fell true and welcome on Juanita’s ears. Juanita was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking around her room in stunned pleasure. Set along the coast of the Halivonian Sea, the entire seaward wall of the comfortable home was utterly transparent and the rich sparkling of the deep blue water set shimmers of dancing lights along the ceiling. The room itself was large and warm, with dozens and dozens of flowers decorating it.

“Where am I?” she asked, wonder in her tone. “Am I in a palace? I’ve never seen such beauty! Why am I being treated this way? I am a poor girl.”

“Not anymore, Juanita,” Maureen said happily, coming up and hugging the girl. “Much has happened while you were sick, and I will explain it all to you. But slowly. Tell me, have you had breakfast yet?”

“Yes, Doctor, I have.” She pointed to the room’s small table, on which the remains of an ample breakfast sat. “A woman came in about an hour ago and gave me all this food. I ate what I could, but had to stop.” She looked at Maureen with curious eyes. “She didn’t speak my language. And forgive me, Doctor, but you speak it differently than I am used to hearing.”

“Please, call me Maureen. I apologize for my poor Spanish. And for Melanie not speaking any. The truth is, Spanish is no longer spoken by anyone. At least, not the Spanish you would know. And I can speak your tongue only because of a language spell. It allows me to speak archaic Spanish, but I’m afraid it’s not too good with dialects and accents.”

“What?” Juanita again looked stunned.

Maureen smiled and picked up a hair brush. “You have such lovely hair! So long and black and thick! Here, let me brush it out for you, and we’ll talk, okay?”

“Maureen!” Juanita called out, splashing in the waves, her wild red, yellow and black swimsuit tight and wet against her healthy form.

Maureen looked up from her tabinal and smiled at the girl as she ran in and out of the surf, giggling and laughing and shouting. Juanita waved and beckoned her to come in. Maureen held up her tabinal, indicating she still had plenty of work to do. Juanita playfully stuck out her tongue, then dove into the water, leaving Maureen to her work.

“You really should go in, Maureen.” Gary’s voice, right behind her, made her stomach tighten slightly with surprise. She tilted her head back and looked up at him.

“Hey! What’s the idea, sneaking up on me?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Gary laughed, sitting down beside her in the sand. From the ocean, Juanita called out Gary’s name and waved. Gary waved back, shouting out a hello, about the only Spanish he’d learned. He chuckled at her childish abandon, then leaned over Maureen’s shoulder to see the tabinal.

“Your daily report on our little lady?”

“Uh-huh. Lady’s the word, too. I’ve never seen an adolescent so polite, proper, and respectful.”

“Different times,” Gary answered with a shrug. “Kids were a lot more obedient eight hundred years ago.”

Maureen laughed. “I don’t think so. I think it’s Juanita. She’s a joy, Gary.”

“I know that firsthand. How’s the adjustment coming?”

“Smoothly,” Maureen said with a nod. “She’s adapting well to the truth as I’ve been sharing it, and seems to be content with believing me.”

“How much of your healing spell are you maintaining on her?”

“Less than quarter strength. She still needs it. Especially at night. That’s why I’ve been staying with her the past week. She misses her mother sorely, though she doesn’t speak of her very much.”

“And how has the idea that she’s on a different planet affected her?”

“If anything, Gary, I think it’s helped. She was quick enough to spot the clues on her own. Our day being eighteen hours instead of twenty-four, the brightness of the stars, the smaller size and whiter color of our sun relative to Earth’s. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but when it came time to tell her, she adjusted quickly and easily.”

“And her own physical changes?”

“Again, she adjusted nicely. She was distraught at first, but not because she was now a fairly well developed thirteen year old, She was upset because she thought she had displaced the person who’s body it had originally been. She was relieved beyond words when I managed to convey the notion - and truth - that her body had never had a soul or mind, that it had been grown centuries earlier and put into stasis when our society finally realized the inherent moral dangers that came with breeding husks. Since then, I think she’s enjoyed being ‘older’ than she should be.”

“It’s difficult to imagine you telling her all that, Maureen.”

“It was even more difficult actually doing it. I’ve pushed my language spell to the limit, finding the right vocabulary. Not only is this time and technology foreign to her, even the technology of her day was foreign to her. She led a very squalid life, each day taken up by her dancing for money so she could buy minimal food, her care for her mother, and her visits to the local mission.”

“Yes, her faith. You’ve mentioned that frequently in your reports. Do you think that is what’s kept her strong enough to adapt?”

“Absolutely,” Maureen nodded firmly. “She’s given me what she calls her confession and it points to her belief in a loving God and merciful Savior who cares for her regardless of what happens. She is certain that whatever good happens is due to her God and whatever bad that happens will not be beyond the strength her God has given her. She trusts Him totally, and looks past this life as being only a temporary thing.”

“With such strong convictions in such a benevolent God, I can see why she’d do well no matter the circumstances. To her, this must seem like heaven.”

“No, not heaven,” Maureen smiled, “A foretaste perhaps.”

“Juanita?” Maureen took the girl’s trembling hand in hers. She was tempted to soothe her with a calming spell, but chose not to. “Are you all right? We don’t have to do this today if you are not up to it.”

“No, Señora,” she shook her head and took a deep breath. “This is a debt I owe, and I pay it gladly. Please, be seated with the others.”

Giving her one more comforting squeeze, Maureen passed through the ghost door into the darkened room where the rest of the team and their spouses were sitting on cushions laid out in a semi circle on the floor. Seeing them in such a soothing, relaxed atmosphere was almost laughable - Sai looked uniquely out of place, curled up on a floor cushion nearly her size - but this was what Juanita wanted. What she had insisted on. Almost feeling guilty, she lowered herself to the floor and arranged her dress modestly, then leaned back on a large cushion.

The room lighting dimmed, then darkened. It stayed pitch black for a few seconds, then a single soft, white light illuminated the area in front of them, and there was Juanita, lying on the floor, her white dress spread in a circle around her lithe form. Her face was pressed against the floor.

She remained that way for several seconds, then slowly rose up, her smooth, rounded shoulders floating up effortlessly, her back looking feline in its grace and flow. Her head came up and everyone could see in her large, dark eyes the music that played in her soul as she began her dance.

Coming to her feet in a single, fluid motion, the dress collapsed around her long legs with a silent swirl and a gentle caress. The dress was not pure white, but had an earthy tone to it; the comfortable white of the peasant festival. Slashes of vermilion and green crossed from right shoulder to left breast, each blaze decorated with small yellow tassels that tossed and twirled at the wish of their owner.

Her bare feet began a gentle gliding, never stopping, never hurrying, always in a perfect unheard tempo. Her long, thick, raven black hair, loose and flowing save for a single braid along her right temple, whirled and undulated with a magic of its own, a living thing that, like the tassels, gladly obeyed the young girl’s spirit.

As an artist working with paints, or a sculptor carefully manipulating her clay, Juanita created her dance for them. She added to it only when needed, then crafted the new motion into her work, until it was an indelible part of the whole. In turn, each person watching knew when a piece was being added for them specifically. Her face was intent and her gaze focused as she moved, yet the gleam of her eyes and the small smile on her lips revealed clearly her love for the art.

Slowly, yet in unstoppable beauty, the individual elements of girl, dress and hair came together and the dance itself came to life, a breathing, vibrant creation of joy that entranced all. Bereft of ill suggestion and devoid of base innuendo, it existed in parallel to and intermingled with the girl’s innocence. Her arms lifted serenely above her head, holding in check the thrill of her body’s motion and the muted frenzy of her twirling, billowing dress. Her legs, now visible to the knee but no more, flashed in a blurred pattern of ceaseless perfection.

Juanita seemed to have reached a pinnacle of energy, and those enthralled by her dance felt a gentle release as her dance slowed. What they had just seen could never be described to someone who had not witnessed this tangible portrayal of the incomprehensible.

The easing of emotion changed suddenly, as Juanita, knowing her audience with uncanny wisdom and gifted intuition, seized their attention and brought them headlong toward the true climax of her performance. Her undulating body relaxed and flowed serenely even as she increased the tempo, creating an impossible blend and balance of the aggressively primitive and the majestically sublime. The silence deepened and intensified as she held captive with her burning eyes those she loved, craving to convey her pure desire of humble gratitude.

Her movement gathered intensity without urgency, and then the spellbound watchers themselves became part of the dance, caught up in Juanita’s happiness and singleness of purpose. Their hearts beat as one as they were transported into the soul of the dance, as much a piece of it as the girl herself. One by one, they gasped in wonder as they began to hear the music that played so clearly in the mind and soul of the young Hispanic girl who thanked them in the only way she knew how.

“Get her on the table, NOW!!”

Juanita gave out a whimper as the horrid voice of centuries past echoed through her shattered mind. She felt herself being lifted carefully but quickly onto a soft, warm surface. Maureen - or was it an uncaring nurse? - stepped close, clasping her hand.

“Hold on, Juanita!” Relief mixed with pain washed over Juanita. Though she hurt, she knew Maureen was there.

“What’s... what’s happening, Señora?” she cried, trying hard to hold back her fear. “Why do I have these memories? Why do I feel so dirty?”

“It’s not your fault, Juanita! Don’t let it take you away, child!” Maureen’s voice, shaking with fear and emotion, comforted and distressed Juanita.

Juanita’s body suddenly jerked and a slicing pain cut through her stomach.

“It hurts, Señora! It hurts!” she wailed, no longer able to hold back the agony. The burning suddenly faded as she felt Maureen’s magic soothing her skin, curing her wounds. Another wave passed over her and she felt herself slipping into a peaceful sleep, taking her to a place where she was clean.

“Hold her down!” Gary leaned over her legs and felt the hard strength of a creature not the young girl resist. Randy, who had been speaking with Juanita only moments earlier, stepped up and held her feet while Maureen pressed herself against Juanita’s upper body. Gary twisted his head toward the door, where Sai had just come through. “Sai! Hurry! She’s gone mechanical on us! We need a psych barrier, quick!”

Sai ripped open the case she was carrying and yanked out a small rod and turned it on. The end glowed briefly, then flashed. A low hum filled the room.

“Randy!” Sai shouted, “Let Gary handle her legs! You take her chest and arms. Maureen, I need a full restoration spell with life replenishment.” Maureen nodded and released Juanita. Randy stepped up and threw his body across Juanita’s stiff, twisting body. Sai pressed the rod against Juanita’s right temple. At her left temple, Maureen drew two interlocking circles with her first and third fingers. She envisioned a yellow and gold ellipse with foci at each intersection, then rotated it on the existing time axis. In her mind’s eye, the symbol glowed and sang. She began coding the spell of replenishment in a low voice, the cue for Sai to activate the barrier rod.

“It’s not happening!” Sai pulled the barrier rod away from Juanita’s right temple for the fourth time in three days and set the recharge. Maureen was on the floor, weak and dazed from excessive use of Pentrinsic code. Sai looked to Gary, who was just securing the shielding over Juanita’s torso and legs. He saw her look and nodded.

“Access! Medical scenario eight!” Sai called out firmly. The lights blinked and the room shifted from physical reality to the puterverse. Efwon stood there.

“What can I do, Gary?” he asked quickly.

“We need the immediate area flooded with a polarized aura, Mike!” Gary yelled, forgetting - or not caring - to hide their relationship from Sai. “She’s gone to her omega ripe and we’re losing her! Draw whatever power you need from Coda’s main core. Just get it on line now!”

“Done,” he said simply. The room, still looking much as it did in normal reality, took on a hazy, soft blue tint. The effect on Juanita was immediate and welcome. She shifted from a straining, near animal into the peaceful child she was.

“How long?” Gary’s voice, strained and rough, carried the failure of the entire team in its tone. Juanita was again sleeping peacefully, but the cost was mounting.

“A week,” Sai replied. Her petite features had an edge to them, and she looked a caricature of her earlier tender beauty. Her voice, too, carried the certainty of defeat. “Maybe two. No more.”

There seemed nothing more to say, and the silence thickened.

“Señora?” Juanita’s voice, weak yet still hopeful, called into the cool evening.

“I’m here, child.” Maureen was at her side instantly, squeezing her hand and caressing the girl’s smooth cheek. “What can I do for you, Juanita?”

“Nothing, Señora,” she whispered. “It is enough that you are here. This is what you feared, isn’t it? I am... how do you say? sharding?”

“Yes,” Maureen replied. They had discussed whether or not to tell Juanita the truth, but in the end there was no choice. She had been told.

“Then I am to die?” she asked quietly. At Maureen’s stricken look, Juanita smiled. “I thank you for this chance, Señora. I thank God I was allowed to know you. And I am happy I could dance for you.”

“We haven’t given up yet, Juanita,” Maureen said, wiping a tear. “You’ll dance for us again.”

“I beg your pardon?” Juanita said in flawless ancient English. “I apologize that I do not understand you. Are you one of Diane honey’s friends?”

“So what would like to do, Juanita?” Maureen asked, seeing she’d finished reading her Bible and set it aside. Juanita had been reading for over an hour and was drifting off, but at Maureen’s question turned her head toward her.

“Nothing, Señora, gracias. You have been more than kind.” Her eyes drifted off and for a moment Maureen thought she had sharded again. But she smiled and looked back at Maureen.

“What were you just thinking about, Juanita?”

“I was thinking about my piñata. It was a llama, and I purchased it the day they took my mother away. I bought it for ten pesos from a kind merchant who treated me like a real customer.”

“Was it a colorful piñata?”

“Oh, si! It was glorious! It was red and orange and green and white and blue and oh so many colors! And the way it danced! How I wished I had the freedom to dance to the wind the way it did!” she laid a gentle hand on her Bible. “But I know I will soon have that freedom. My release is coming soon, and then I’ll be able to dance for my Savior for all eternity. I will be like my piñata, Señora! Colorful and tireless and beautiful! I had bought the piñata with my dirty money, but Pastor Montoya said it would...”

Her voice trailed off and her eyes dulled and they were both alone again.

Gary stepped through the doorway and into the meeting room where the rest of the team was resting, slumped in chairs or collapsed on the cushions scattered about the floor. He looked at his loyal friends, uncomplaining in their exhaustive efforts. Not one had stopped searching for a solution in over two weeks, and the toll would be exacted for years to come. He wished they could be rewarded properly for their work, wished that they could be paid in the coin they so desperately craved.

Something in the way he held himself touched them all. Sai gave out a sob and lowered her head onto her forearms. Vince had the shattered look of a man who had lost his reason for living. Gathering himself, Gary stood straight.

“It’s begun.”

“...Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The soft wind whipped off the ocean and blew a soft blanket of air across the small cemetery. The pastor stepped back and Juanita’s friends came forward. Quietly, and with a tenderness that spoke to the hope she too had, Maureen placed the Bible under Juanita’s cold hand, then laid a piñata beside the still form. Its tassels, brilliant in the morning sun, fluttered once, then fell still as the coffin was closed. With little physical effort, the weight instead carried on their hearts, Gary, Steve, Vince and Randy lifted the light gray coffin from its bier and laid it on the temporary field over the grave. The field held the burden aloft for several minutes before gradually fading and allowing the coffin to slowly lower into its grave.

Epilogue

It was a fantastically clear morning. The sea breeze was coming off the water as it did nearly every morning. As is did that morning just over four years prior. The thought made Gary look up from Hinman’s town square to the low bluff just south of the town, to the cemetery where Juanita lay. The wind that played through the town and danced in the streets made him think of the night Juanita had danced for them. She’d been so alive! And so willing to share that life with others. The final two weeks had mercifully faded, and the most vivid memory that remained was that unforgettable dance. He would always be able to close his eyes and see her flashing movements, her compelling grace, her...

He turned back toward the expectant crowd looking up at him, then suddenly remembered he was in the middle of a sentence. With the realization came the instant forgetfulness of what he’d been saying. He looked down at the heavy sledge and thick iron spike in his hand, then over at the veiled monument that lay beside him. Two meters by three, it was a sharp rectangle covered by a silk cloth of pure white.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, running a hand across his eyes. “I lost my thought.” He lifted the hammer and spike.

“This is not Juanita’s day, though we mark it on her eight hundredth birthday. Today isn’t for the soulners, either, though with this monument we acknowledge our wrong against them.

“Today is for us. Today we gather here - and on every planet in The System - to mark the end of a terrible failure to ourselves. Today, we gather here to make a reminder to all humanity that we are responsible for our failures as well as our successes. A reminder that, whenever we are wrong, we must struggle to make aright. For without that struggle, without that need to make aright, others will be forced to pay for our crimes of arrogance.”

He stepped back and nodded to the two men near the platform. They approached slowly and solemnly shifted the covered monument to standing. Once seated in its base, they detached the grips that held it in an antigravity field. One of the men snatched the loose corner of the covering and pulled it. There was a whisper of sound followed by a pop as the silk snapped free and fluttered to the ground.

There, encased in clear aligned titanium, was a large, priceless sheet of pure diamond crystal. A collective gasp went up as the crystal caught the sunlight, magnified it through the aligned titanium, and cast it back out as a vibrant rainbow of color, splashing its glory for hundreds of meters. The wind brushed the solid monument, causing it to move less than one billionth of a meter. It was more than enough, however, to start the crystal to vibrating, causing the colors to rotate and scatter in a constantly moving display of multi-hued ribbons of light.

Gary looked over the waves of color, dancing and twisting, playing with the wind and dazzling the crowd. Dancing and twisting like.. his heart tightened and he felt a hot surge of grief... like a piñata on a string.

Without a word, Gary stepped up to the monument and inserted it into a hole that was set over the very center of the crystal. His hand shook as he set the spike, and the shaking was translated into even more vibration. The colors went into a dervish of activity, splitting into hundreds, then thousands of brilliant, living rainbows. Slowly, as the crowd looked on, he drew back the sledge with both hands. Then, with all his strength and sorrow, he slammed it into the spike.

Instantly, the crystal shattered. Held in place by the titanium, it became a confusion of thousands of cracks, slivers, and shards. As quickly as the rainbows had appeared, they vanished, and the shattered diamond crystal faded to a flat translucence, the ugly iron spike having punched through it completely, its sharp point protruding a dozen centimeters from the hole in the back of the monument.

Dropping the sledge, Gary turned his back and stumbled down the platform stairs to his wife. A small piece of crystal, located on the top corner of the sheet, cast a final shiver of vermilion and green, then faded and winked out.

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A Piñata For Juanita

Copyright ©1997 by Peter W. Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.