Of Breaking Waves

An inpouring of cerulean light, a chorus of lonely bells.  I stood in my own kitchen, every surface sparkling, white-painted woodwork gathering the sunlight that poured through gingham-curtained windows.  The room brought to my nostrils the faintest overlay of cinnamon and cocoa.  A lightning tour of the house showed all was in order.  Propane and oil tanks were nearly full; a few minutes restarted the water heater and reset the house heat from unoccupied to occupied level.  My bedroom, wood-panelled, queen-size bed with neat black-and-white quilts, black and grey checkerboard carpets, solid oak dresser and chair, and mahogany vanity table, were all as meticulously neat and clean as when I’d left them.  The sheaf of wheat, spreading out from a cream-white ceramic vase, had collected a spider web.  A furry stuffed cat, a fragment I’d saved from the home in which she’d grown up, hung from the bedboards.

I remembered the days before I left for Mars, spending hours and hours cleaning house, telling myself that work before I left meant tranquility on return.  I’d been right.  I drank in the order in the house, let it suffuse my flesh and restore my strength.  Doors and windows were closed. A lavender sachet had saturated my bedroom with its delicate scent. Floor to ceiling glass with frilly country drapes faced west and north, revealing acres and acres of well-fenced pastureland with the coastal hills beyond. 

My study and library, boards for built-in bookshelves cut to length and freshly stained, desk with Tempest-class computer and stacks of schoolbooks and CD-ROMs and self-study discs, reminded me of what I had not been doing these past weeks.  I told myself I’d have plenty of time now.  I was totally worn down.  For the next month, serious use of my gifts was strictly for saving my own life.  I might teleport to the barn, but someone else would have to save the world.  The thought of studying reminded me of home — my real home, the one I’d had to leave, the one in which Mom had always been there when she’d been needed, whether it was words of praise, a little firm encouragement to do what I knew I was supposed to do, or just the right question so I’d figure out everything for myself.  No matter.  That was over, and I knew in my head that it must be the best for me.  Even if I didn’t know why.  Sometimes my heart even agreed. 

Other rooms were carpeted and draped, but virtually bare of furniture.  A faked parental bedroom would convince prying eyes that my parents lived here, too; I had to remember to keep that room clean even though I never used it.  A few lamps and chairs, positioned before windows, were arranged to fool prying strangers.  One rocking chair sat by the front picture window.  The rolled hammock in the back closet waited for warmer spring.  I remembered the Fearsome Four’s estimate of my base: the Fortress of Evanescent Darkness, complete with hardened steel armor, atomic force-screen generators, subterranean caverns filled with scientific equipment, and the — no, Star had not been pulling my leg — the batteries of tesdri-controlled nuclear-shelled nineteen-inch-guns.  I burst into laughter.  I had to laugh; the alternative was to cry. 

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Of Breaking Waves

Eclipse gets home eventually

The High Cascades

The first light of dawn awakened me. I was bundled in a polar-grade sleeping bag, with a wool scarf covering my face.  This high in the Cascades nights could be bitter cold, but I was someplace where absolutely no one could find me.  In a few hours, I could safely teleport home, turn off the intrusion alarms, and enjoy living in my own house.

I’d been in my house three days ago.  I was real lucky.  I’d looked at a computer calendar to see how long I’d been away, local time.  I didn’t quite gasp in horror, but I was terrified.  Thanks to foamspace and travelling through the Tunnels, I had returned three days early, three days before I’d left. If I now met me, when I hadn’t done that before I left, the energy needed for paradox cancellation would come out of my hide, with surely fatal results.  Worse, I heard footsteps crossing the living room to the stairs. That had to be me, Eclipse, busy preparing for my trip across the universe.  I looked around, carefully, to be sure I hadn’t disturbed anything, and teleported out, my heart pounding.

I’d previously set up several caches of emergency supplies, not near the house, caches I checked like clockwork once a month.  I was sure I hadn’t checked them, before I left, to see that they were intact, so I could safely empty one of them and go hide for half a week.  The caches were perfectly adequate, including lots of things to read while I was hiding, and modern field rations. American, as it happens, those being the best available.  Three days of rest, even if the air was a bit cold, had repaired wear and tear from flying across the universe.

I considered the hour of the day.  Down in the coastal hills, other-me, me before I flew off to someplace and came back three days before I left, was about to travel to Medford. So soon as other-me was in Medford, I could safely go home. I waited until the sun was high in the sky.  By now Comet had formally divorced her parents, the Wizard of Mars had entrusted the four of us with a starcompass, and I and my friends were on our way across the universe. I gathered up my belongings, made sure I’d left no trash behind, and summoned teleport.  To the warble of nesting songbirds, I faded into the pale blue of an early morning sky.

* * * * *

I hovered among pine trees, my toes not quite touching the ground, every sense operating at full stretch.  The day was brilliantly clear, sky an impossibly deep blue, snow on distant mountains burning white.  There was my home, rutted driveway leading from garage toward an ill-maintained gravel county road, a well-worn path stretching from house to barn.  None of the burglar alarms had been triggered.  More passive mechanical traps, hidden snares to warn me if there’d been intruders, were equally undisturbed.  “The Fortress of Evanescent Darkness” as Star had named it, was neither dark nor evanescent nor fortified. 

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Of Breaking Waves

Eclipse reached ahead, feeling through the space from which Pickering had vanished.  He was gone. He hadn’t given her a chance to say her farewells.  He hadn’t even let her thank him for his hospitality.  She stared at ceramic walls, fixing the place in her memory.  Her forehead tingled.  She hadn’t at all expected what he had done.  She executed a delicate pirouette and strode up the Tunnel, her own home her firmly set goal. 

THEY WANT HER TO REVIVE THE NAMESTONE. SHE WON’T and CAN’T

The Tunnels.  The Grand Portico, exit to the plane of Earth.  To my Earth, anyway, thought Eclipse, since it seems that there’s more than one.  Her trip through the Tunnels’ ever-shifting stony hollows had been short, the Guardian announcing Eclipse’s toll was paid in full and indicating the correct exit.  Just as well, she decided, that Comet had paid for all five of them.  The Guardian’s prices always benefited the payer more than the Guardian, but she was too tired to want an expensive reward.  Forcing her way to the Great Maze had been difficult, no matter how much she owed Pickering.  Beyond the Tunnels, on this her home plane, she had ten billion uncharted lightyears to go.  And Pickering? His assist, carrying her from the Great Maze to the Tunnels in a single step, had been entirely welcome.  His unexpected kiss still tingled on her forehead.  She wished she had had a chance to thank him for all he had done for her. 

She paced across the terrace, stretching her arms and legs.  A step, a skip, a gentle hop took her into a double cartwheel. Even if she had a ways to go, it felt so good to be bound for home at last.  She finished the wheel, feet solidly planted.  A figure loomed out of the dimness ahead of her. 

“You were clearly not in a hurry?” it asked.  The voice was that of a woman in her early twenties, the sound matched by her figure.   Her garb was unmistakeable, a mix of white and yellow fabrics cut so tight that she appeared about to spill out of her garb, though she never quite did so.  The face mask was a plate of burnished gold, far wider than the head behind it, edges fringed in solar corona pattern, bejewelled eyes and mouth etched in a fixed grin.   Eclipse shuddered at recognition of the source.  Solara. “I’m afraid I seem to be blocking the stairs,” the older woman mock-apologized.  Solara shifted her weight, now standing to obstruct the portico’s only physical exit. 

“Not in a hurry.  Not really.  After you.” Eclipse gestured at the outer stairs.  This could be a coincidence, couldn’t it?  It didn’t sound likely.  The Guardian’s words, that her passage through the Tunnels had already been paid, came to mind, too late to be a warning.  Perhaps the payer had not been Comet. “There’s nothing I can’t wait on, if you need the Tunnels.”

“Clever.”  Solara’s smile, barely seen between golden lips,  was that of the cat whose mouse is firmly trapped between its paws. “But I’m afraid you have something we want.” 

“Something?  We?” asked Eclipse.  You managed, she noted, to voice that question without choking.  “What do you want?  I’m not a thief.  If it’s yours, I didn’t know it, and you can have it back.” “We.” Solara gestured at the plaza, dropping an invisibility field.  A really good field, thought Eclipse, one I completely missed, not that I was looking.  There stood Prince Mong-Ku, mandarin robes a silken scarlet shimmer; the Screaming Skull, a featureless black matte shape around which hovered the eldritch outline of a skinless, fleshless face; Plasmatrix-The-Desolation-of-the-Goddess, a female form marginally clad in bits of blindingly brilliant light; Starsmasher; and Corinne, Solara’s nominally teen-age daughter, the tiara of the Ambihelicon of Geyer at her brow. 

“Oh.  Hi.  Didn’t see you all there.”  Eclipse managed a weak smile.  You couldn’t, she thought, stand up to Plasmatrix, that when you were fresh and she’d just flown across half a universe.  Though you might have fooled her; she may think you stood up to her.  But now you’re facing five of them at once, you not rested at all, and Corinne with the Ambihelicon.  Be calm, she told herself, don’t start anything unless you’re positive other choices are worse.  “I said I’m not a thief, Solara,” Eclipse continued.  “If you were ungifted, wheelchair-bound, blind, if I had something of yours, no matter its value, no matter I needed it as much as life itself, you only had to ask for its return.  You didn’t need to bring a mob along.  Or are you too deep into playing games with minds?”

Solara recoiled at Eclipse’s accusation.  Some intuition told Eclipse that Solara’s response was important, important at a level that Eclipse didn’t understand. 

“Games?  No,” answered Solara.  “ Not at all.  But you have distracted the boys — the great captains. the ministers of state — from their important duties.  Duties to the form of the future.  I can’t permit that distraction to continue.  Not now.  Too much, too many important things, rest on their undistracted thinking.  So I must remove the distraction.” She pointed at Eclipse. 

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Of Breaking Waves

The one thing, he thought, that I could not remember except while she was here, and could not remember if I tried to tell her, was that she is my daughter, a detail that in a few moments I will forget permanently.

He looked around the room, then stared at his calendar. It seemed that the entire week had passed as if he had been in a dream, with nothing to remember, but the word count on his desk display showed that he had indeed been productively busy.  He’d had a trip this afternoon, hadn’t he?  He must have taken a walk, and passed it in thought, so there was nothing to remember of it.  So what had he been doing?  His routine must have been so humdrum that he could remember nothing of it.  For some reason, the gap bothered him.

“Telzey, my schedule, the last week?” he asked.

Searching. Telzey paused. I have no records of that.

“Surveillance camera records.  Search.  Where was I on Wednesday?”

House security records for the last week have been deleted.  There was no transfer to remote storage. There is no record of a reason for the deletion. I have a message from you. ‘All that was deleted was done in my name and by my direction, for a good and sufficient reason.’

How charming, Pickering thought.  Something has happened to my memory, and to Telzey’s records.  The memory trick – that was surely one of my five visitors, who I always trusted. He scanned his desk, finding a note in his own handwriting. 

I will not remember the week clearly, the note read, with my consent, to protect my five visitors from serious harm, however annoying I will later find the gaps in my memory.  Last week will be a dream, one from which you have now awakened.

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Of Breaking Waves

“The Maze gets you home?” she asked. “By yourself?  That’s fine.  I’ve got a long flight ahead of me.”

“As it happens,” Pickering announced, “the Rules allow me to take you along.  And if our path happens to pass the Tunnels, and you choose to depart the path there, that’s your privilege.” Eclipse stared at him, eyes widening.  “Under the rules, I’m obliged to carry you.” He leaned over and scooped her up, his arms forming a seat while she clung to his neck. 

“Fortunately,” he remarked, “from the Maze to home all paths are but a pair of strides.  One.” He took a step…

and they were elsewhere, a circular hole blasted into dark stone.

“The tunnels,” she recognized. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” He lowered her to the obsidian paving of the entrance plaza.   She stared, unsure how she might thank him. 

“I regret I can bring you no happiness, only a shortcut homewards.  May your journey prove well-fortuned,” he said matter-of-factly.  Then, to her utter astonishment, he leaned over, kissed her gently on the forehead, and took a second stride…

to his library.  It was late afternoon, sunlight cascading from white-painted wood onto the magnificent carpet and drapes.  Pickering was utterly alone, his house empty again.

The one thing, he thought, that I could not remember except while she was here, and could not remember if I tried to tell her, was that she is my daughter, a detail that in a few moments I will forget permanently.

He looked around the room, then stared at his calendar. It seemed that the entire week had passed as if he had been in a dream, with nothing to remember, but the word count on his desk display showed that he had indeed been productively busy.

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Of Breaking Waves

Moments later, Pickering stepped from behind one of the columns.  He looked empty, drained of his usual humor and energy.  Eclipse sprang to her feet.  What was he doing here?  Or was this some trick of the Great Maze, some reminder that she had crossed an unmarked boundary and was subject to its whims?   

“All my life,”he said.  “All my life.”He stared across the vast piazza, not seeing her.  “All my life, I have been pursuing a dream. Always convinced  I had made small mistakes, correction of which would solve everything.  Mistakes, I thought, I could have corrected, if I had been a bit more clever, a little sooner.  It didn’t matter.  Nothing I might have done would have worked.  Not and gained me what I wanted.  Even this cyclopean edifice,” he gestured at the squat pile of stone behind him, “for all its command of time and space, cannot help me.  All it did was find alternate failures. Failures.”

“Failures?” she asked.  “But you’re alive!”

“Of course I’m alive,”answered Pickering. “The Maze only kills those it defeats.  But it didn’t matter.”

“But it was only moments!” she protested. “You weren’t gone long enough to win.”

“The Maze lies beyond space and time.  It was hours.  Or was it days?  Long enough to solve a variety of interesting albeit trivial puzzles.  But that’s over.  It didn’t matter.” Pickering shrugged. 

“You walked the Great Maze?  And it doesn’t matter?” she asked. 

“I walked the Maze, stood at the Arch of Time, where the tapestry of fate may be woven and rewoven.  And found that no matter how the threads are arranged, my dream was not to be.  Either she found another, or the finding changed her, so she was not what she was to have been, or … many things.  All failures.  It all didn’t matter.” Pickering’s voice was devoid of all emotion. 

“Even the Great Maze couldn’t help you?  That’s awful.” Eclipse wondered for what Pickering had actually searched, what impossible goal defied even the Great Maze’s supposedly infinite power.  She knew it was all grownup romantic nonsense, but it made absolutely positively no sense whatsoever. 

“Now we have each walked a Maze, mine less challenging to me than yours to you.  And neither of us gained great reward thereby.” Pickering looked over the embankment, down into the starry void, a darkness without matched by his darkness within. 

“But wait!”she exclaimed.  “From the Arch.  From the Arch of Time, no mortal may leave dissatisfied.  That’s the promise.”

“True,”said Pickering.  “So you may be satisfied, or you may be not allowed to leave.  Or, as I explained to the MazeMaster, you may leave behind mortality.  He shared the remarkable assertion that no mortal would believe my observation.  Do you disbelieve me, or are you immortal?”

“No.  No to both.  I think.  Sure I believe you.  That can’t be right—you’re not allowed to, said the Mazemaster.  The Maze’s Master is an immortal.  Sometimes answers of immortals demand exceedingly convoluted interpretation,” a puzzled Eclipse responded. 

“I found the last of these alternatives appealing. Curiously, of those who have stood astride the Arch and seen the flux of temporal possibility, almost none agree with me.”

“You gave up dying?” Eclipse asked. 

“Adara’s people make a habit of it,” Pickering answered. “Giving up dying, I mean.  And they seem to do reasonably well, for a group of slave-holding sword-wielding barbarians overrun by overaged mafiosi. But now, dear, we must not overstay our welcome.  The rules allow me a choice of paths home.”

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Of Breaking Waves

Several Bits in Between

Eclipse Goodby to the Kosters

Spring had reached the Koster’s back yard.  Crocuses, gold and white and purple, filled side flower beds.  Massed green sword points of daffodil shoots rose between them, their first white and pink and button-red blooms opening to the morning sun.  It was a Sunday morning.  Eclipse could hear the thoughts of four Koster children, breakfast completed, sitting on their back sunporch, doing their homework.  Their parents were still upstairs, enjoying a final cup of coffee.

“No time like the present,” Eclipse said to herself.  She strode across the lawn, surrounded by blades of grass and grape hyacinth leaves just turning green after a winter’s sleep. 

Heather Koster looked up from her homework, stared, and ran to the door.   “You’re dead,” she announced as she pulled it open.  With those words brothers and sister looked up from their own work.

“I’m tougher than I look,” Elipse explained.  “I just came to say good-bye.”

“Mom!  Dad!”  Peter shouted.  “Eclipse is here!”

~~~~~

A gloomy Victoria Wilson sat on her favorite perch above Thornberry pond, her feet not quite touching the water. A brisk breeze blew across the water, raising tiny waves that lapped against the stone wall below her.  She should be cold, she thought, but her magic, no, her gifts, the gifts Eclipse had given her as a safety precaution, were keeping her warm.  She had to be careful with using them, though.  Telling mom and dad about Adara had been challenging enough, even with Eclipse at her shoulder.  Telling them that she could now fly, catch bullets in her bare hands, and punch holes in reinforced concrete walls would be too much.  She’d done the right thing, she told herself, accepting Eclipse’s gifts, even if they came with a price she hadn’t considered.  Her gifts, she thought, did offer her a job opportunity, or would if she were a better actor.  All those silly superheroine TV shows needed stuntwomen.  She would be perfect, if she had any idea how to get to first base as a candidate.

“Victoria?”  Someone had come up behind her, without her hearing a thing.  She looked over her shoulder, and sprang to her feet.

“Eclipse?  You’re dead?” she managed.

“In the flesh,” Eclipse answered. 

Victoria reached out, confirming Eclipse was solid, not an illusion.  Touch turned into hug. 

“I’m here to say good-bye,” Eclipse said.  “Our universes are parallel.  I’m going home. My pets will miss me.”

“Thank you,” Victoria said.  “Thank you for helping me with my parents.  And for saving everyone in the world.”

“You’re welcome,” Eclipse said.  “For me it’s always ‘Life, lighter than atoms.  Duty, heavier than worlds.’  Don’t copy me.  It’s a great way to get yourself killed.”

“Sounds good to me,” Victoria said.  “Perhaps you should change?

“Please don’t tell anyone I’m alive,” Eclipse asked. “But I had to come back to see you.  Because the memory of me dying…it might turn you away from using your gifts, when you absolutely had to.”

“I, oh, you’re right,” Victoria said.   “I was getting depressed.  Having these gifts, not being able to tell anyone, getting my parents really mad at me…but you being alive, at least I don’t have to be so afraid of the gifts.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Eclipse said, “and was afraid I wouldn’t.”

“Will you ever be back?” Victoria asked.

“Never say never,” Eclipse answered.  “But not likely.  It’s an incredibly long trip.”

“Well, then, good-bye.”

“Yes, good-bye.”  Eclipse faded into the blue of a bouquet of bachelor’s buttons, the jingle of sleigh bells ringing softly in the cold air of early spring.

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Of Breaking Waves

You are seeing fragments, some of which are not consistent with others. But slight progress is being made.

“I checked.  Your world and mine have the same essay.  Yours is hard to find.  Ours is the most read book in the world.  Cloud and Comet and all the guys, they’ve already memorized bits in second and fourth and sixth grade; they’ll read it in ninth and twelfth grade, and likely twice again in college.  My mom made me read it in Latin, well, she said I should.  And I’ve always trusted her completely.  So I did.  After I learned Latin.  I read it a month before we left each other.  So I have a community.  It’s only Cicero is dead, so he can’t answer my questions, so I have to figure out myself what he meant.” She turned her attention to the meal. 

Far later, main courses having been followed by apple pie and ice cream, Pickering began a fresh question.  “That leads me to my other inquiry, the one I’d hesitated to ask before, hesitating until the opportunity seemed lost.  You once mentioned the Great Maze, where past and future may be woven and rewoven.  Where is it?”

“You want to see the Great Maze?  It’s not far at all, allowing it’s where it belongs, here in your world.  But why?”she asked. 

“Eclipse, I don’t want to see the Great Maze.  Comet explained its rules.  I want to walk the Maze, understanding that failure and death are one and the same there.” Pickering sounded totally serious. 

“Walk the Great Maze?  You?  It tests people relative to their limits.  I guess with its rules you’d have the same chance as anyone else.  Not very good.  I wouldn’t dare try it,”she said. 

“I do not ask you to go for me.  I’m asking you where it is, so I can get there myself.  There’s something I need to correct,”he explained. “Something I can’t correct here, for all my genius, my scientific pre-eminence, my untold millions, Telzey’s computational skills.  Something in the past, done forever, locked away by the passage of time.”

“It’s not quite suicide to try the Maze.  It’s been done.  Not by a human being, not that I know.  If you really want to go, I’ll take you.  Tomorrow morning.  It’s not much out of my way.  And that Maze lets people back out, if they want to turn and run.   So if you find it’s insoluble, I’ll just bring you home again.”

“Agreed.  What should I wear?  Armor?  A space-suit?”inquired Pickering. 

“Its puzzles are mental, not physical.  Whatever gives you confidence.  But why?”she asked. 

“Let us say that Telzey’s image is that of a real person. One who kept to her original course.”

“Oh. Got it”  Grownup romantic silliness, she thought.  But what was wrong with Telzey, whatever her name really was, that she didn’t like Pickering?  He had to be one of the nicest people she had ever met.  Perhaps her guess was completely misplaced.  Perhaps Telzey had met someone else first.  Or was his judgement that bad? 

He looked wistfully into the trees, no longer seeing his own breakfast room.  Eclipse decided that she did not want to see a sad Pickering face to face. 

“I’ll take you.  I owe you more than that.  I wish you wouldn’t.  I’ll, I’ll be sad to remember you, if you fail.  One thing: it lets you back away.  You can quit and turn around,”she repeated. 

“Eclipse, there is no more wonderful thing that you can ever do for me.  Unless I mistake what I see, though,  it is far past your bedtime.”

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Of Breaking Waves — continued

 

Now on sale: Practical Exercise

“He knew.  I’m not infinitely strong.  I’ve had gifts longer.  That helps.  Their gifts limit themselves.   If they want extra power, it’s a real struggle for them.  I know how to call power, all I want.   If I don’t mind wrecking myself up.  I get attritted calling my gifts.  My limit is that attrition kills me if I go too far.”

“Attrition?”

“Star could spend all day slicing tanks to ribbons, no sweat.  When Comet crashed out, when you met us, she’d done thirty hours without sleep and twenty billion lightyears, carrying more weight than she should, in twenty hours.  But me?  Anything I do hurts me, a bit.   Luminosa wiped me out, enough so I was half-conscious for a day.  And there’s long-term damage: When I get home, I forget using gifts for a couple weeks.  Or I’m in real trouble.”

“You’d be welcome to stay here permanently,”Pickering exuded total sincerity. 

Eclipse shook her head. “My pets wouldn’t like that.  Ponies get lonely.  The cats would start to get wild.  Besides, I want to go home.  Sleep in my own bed.  No matter that you gave me the most wonderful bedroom I could ever imagine.  Lots nicer than mine.  It’s just not home.”  She returned to her original conversation.  “I said I came to apologize.  I haven’t.  We promised we’d go away.  But I haven’t.  I don’t have an excuse.  I, I just couldn’t face the trip, not twice across the universe, not until I’d healed up a bit.”

“No one here would fault you,”answered Pickering.  “Indeed, if you promised to let us work our own justice under our own laws, in our own terribly inefficient way, no one would be upset if you remained here forever.  Certainly no one, except a few politicians afraid for their necks,  minds if you spend the night.”

She smiled shyly. “If you put it that way.  But in the morning I’ll go.  I have two other good-byes to make.  I left some things to do back at home.”

Pickering set out dinner.  Eclipse was girlishly polite, ready to make conversation, but obviously ravenously hungry. 

 “I hear.  I accept your apology.  Say no more.   Tell me, though.  What is your community, to which you are gift-true?” he asked. 

“My community?” She seemed taken aback, sampling the food to postpone answering his question. “My community is the one you always have to live with.  The one you carry with you.  It’s — all the hero tales and books you read, everything your mom tells you.  They’re in your mind.  You have to live with them.  You can’t ever leave them.”  She finished another mouthful of cous-cous.  “I’m alone.  Alone as you can get, in my world.  My community is me.  And my past.   Did you ever read Cicero’s {\em On Duty}? “

“A fine, inspirational work, scarcely read in these unfortunate and decadent times,”responded Pickering. 

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Of Breaking Waves Continued

Now Published — Practical Exercise

“Limited?  Nonexistent?  Publishable?”Eclipse burst into giggles, paled, and clutched her side.  “Sorry.  My joints still hurt if I move fast.  No, that’s real kind of you, me not having insurance or anything.  But you don’t need to.  Besides, what could your people do?  You can’t even X-ray me; I’m, like, totally opaque to x-rays.  It’s not that I haven’t been banged up before.  I found a quiet place.  Spending a few days lying there, healing, fixed everything serious.”

“Did you have enough food with you?  Are you hungry now?” Pickering asked.

“I had water and survival rations.  I don’t have to eat, in a pinch, though that trick is really not good for a growing girl.  But I hate to impose on you.  I came here to apologize, not to mooch another meal,”she explained. 

“I am entirely capable of directing unwelcome freeloaders to the door,”responded Pickering. “You, on the other hand, saved my world from great misfortune and are a welcome guest.  You are surely welcome in almost any home in these United States, save for a few occupied by judges and congressmen.  I fear that my references to hanging corrupt political officials frightened them.  Would steak and salad do?  I have a cous-cous, a bit hot with curry and ginger, and imam bialdi — eggplant and tomatoes and olive oil.”  Her eyes lit up. 

“It sounds great!  But me?  Welcome?”Eclipse was utterly astonished. 

“Of course.  You’re a hero.  If you hadn’t done —  what you did — the Star Demons would have killed us all.”

“Your people?” Eclipse wondered.  “Yeah, the Tibetan  Empire was just setting up its production lines.  And force walls and antimatter bombs were a lot more effective against a single target — Comet and me – not that it did them any good — than against flocks of aircraft.  So you would’ve won against the Tibetans, I guess, at least if they didn’t summon the Star Demons, but lots of your people would’ve died.”

“We know,” Pickering said. “My whole country knows, now.  I said you would be a beloved heroine, welcome in any home in the land, except for the minor detail that we gave you a state funeral.”

“Me?  Welcome?” Suddenly she produced a handkerchief from her cloak.  Pickering turned his back, making busy with cooking, letting the steak grill until her tears subsided.  She continued.  “Sorry.  It’s so different, having people who like me.  It’s not that way at home.  Not at all.  No matter I saved a lot more people there, from something far worse, than I saved here.  They don’t understand, so they all hate me.”

“I understand why you did what you did. And Comet and Aurora said they understood.”  Pickering produced a cup of warm milk, slightly flavored with cocoa and cinnamon, from the microwave.  “Cloud hoped you had died.  His reaction was unforgivable.  Unless your world is incomprehensibly different than mine.”

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