No one had ever seen Tatter D’MaLeon’s face. Even those who thought she was just a legend agreed that she was always masked. That was about all anyone agreed upon. Although the female pronoun was usually applied to “her,” even Tatter’s sex was in doubt, as was her humanity, her age, and whether or not she existed.
But believe or not, there was scarce a one who didn’t love the stories. Anthropologists had tried to pin down exactly when the first Tatter D’MaLeon stories had been told, but the stories seemed to be as old as Cat Station—older even—since putting a precise date on that hodgepodge, multi-dimensional edifice was even harder than pinning down Tatter D’MaLeon.
Politicians giving speeches used the date when the station’s great keel ring had been linked end to end, but what then of the ships that had been cannibalized into the station, becoming labs, gunnery batteries, hospitals, and more? Or what of the still older structures that had been towed over and grafted to some part of the evolving edifice?
Politicians could use whatever date they chose, but everyone else knew in their guts that the station had no one date of origin. And that Tatter D’MaLeon had haunted the frames and spires, underdecks and conduits, forgotten compartments and storage holds, since the earliest days, whenever those might be.
• • • •
“Is this Tatter a ghost then?” asked Jurgen Haines, a newly arrived merchant engineer who had come to trade himself for the riches one could sometimes make aboard Cat Station, especially if one’s skills matched the station’s need of the moment.
He was not a particularly handsome man, but then, when anyone who cared could have their physical appearance tailored, such things had come to matter less. What Jurgen Haines possessed was passionate intensity, enough and to spare, so that he’d easily attracted company even here in one of the station’s most cliquish bars.
“Oh, no!” protested Sera Mina, a hydroponics expert who had come to tend plants in vats for a season and had taken root in the soilless ground that was the station’s life. “Tatter’s as real and solid as this table.”
Jurgen was too polite, too aware of his newness to openly scoff, but his doubt showed nonetheless. Aloud, he settled for a middle course, never a bad thing in the polyfaceted community of Concatenation “Cat” Station. The station had an official name, of course, “The John Glenn Memorial Extraplanetary Habitat,” but the nickname had replaced it before the keel ring was finished, and even the politicians rarely used the official tag.
“I first heard of Tatter D’MaLeon,” Jurgen offered, “when my crew chief cursed, saying that we had a problem only Tatter D’MaLeon could solve—and to the void with her price.”
“You thought Tatter was some service you could call,” the hydroponicist said with a sly grin, “like ExtendaReach or RamOut. Figured you’d check if they had a tech or team available, just in case your chief decided she wanted to contract with them.”
Jurgen was instantly defensive. “And what’s wrong with taking a little initiative?”
“Nothing at all,” replied Beau Fourz, the cyborg pilot who’d been half-listening while he groomed grit from his peripherals. “What did you find when you looked up Tatter D’MaLeon?”
“What sounds like some sort of hazing gimmick to me,” Jurgen said. “Like sending a new tech to find a left-wheeled fly anchor. I figured that any moment I’d be told to fetch this D’MaLeon person. I was figuring out what I’d do if the chief did. I mean, sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too sharp.”
“But no one ever sent you,” Beau said, rubbing a bit of micrograin polish on his chromed fingers. “And you were left wondering.”
“And like the smart and willing fellow you are,” Sera said, smiling to prune down the newbie’s prickly temper, “you did a bit more research. What did you find?”
“It wasn’t so much what I found as that I found too much, and none of it made the least bit of sense.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Beau said, setting up a force box so he could continue his manicure without scattering unwelcome nanobots around. “There are always a few things that agree—like how no one has ever seen Tatter D’MaLeon’s face.”
“She always wears a mask?” Jurgen not quite scoffed, for beneath his assumed mockery was an element of unholy fascination. “Sounds like some sort of superhero story: The Lone Spacer.”
“Well, there’s no one who will say they’ve seen her face,” Beau replied mildly.
“Oh, there are those who will say,” corrected Sera Mina, “but since no two accounts ever agree, I’ll go with the ‘Never seen her face’ bit. There is one constant, though: the three charms.”
“Charms?” Jurgen had read something, but decided to play dumb in case he’d learn more. “Like magic or like on a bracelet?”
“Like on a bracelet, though Tatter’s are usually somewhere on her tunic. There are three: a thin crescent moon, adorned with weird green gems—”
“Too pale to be emeralds, too blue to be peridots,” Beau added.
“More like the color of stagnant water filmed with algae or duck weed.”
“Trust a biologist . . .” Beau began.
“Whatever. I’ve heard the crescent moon’s gems described as sea green jade cut into tiny irregularly faceted crystals that give back the light in erratic sparkles.”
“Have it your way.” Sera rolled her dark brown eyes. She turned her full attention to Jurgen. “Tatter D’MaLeon’s remaining charms are called the Two Eights. One is an eight-pointed star that fans out around a center shaped like a human eye. The pupil of the eye is an opaque, rose-colored gem.”
“I like the other one better,” Beau cut in. “It’s a compass rose, silver upon gold, but—although the points are clearly indicated—the compass is completely useless, for it lacks a needle.”
“What, no gems on that one?” asked Jurgen, still trying to scoff but failing miserably.
“None,” replied Beau solemnly, removing his brightly shining chromed hand from the force box and finding it good.
Jurgen decided he could contribute without seeming too foolish. “My crew chief did say something about this Tatter D’MaLeon solving problems, so I cross-referenced. I found some incredibly far-fetched stories. What was almost as odd was that no one ever says what this Tatter charges. From what my chief said, I had the impression that the cost was a real issue.”
For the first time, the cyberpilot and the hydroponics expert looked uncomfortable. They traded glances, quick as breath and thought. Jurgen waited in expectant silence.
“Ah, the price,” said Beau, when it became clear that Jurgen wasn’t going to have the good taste to drop the topic. “Well, these are just stories. Obviously, the price would change according to the teller.”
“I really don’t know anything about prices,” added Sera, “but I have heard that what Tatter asks for varies from person to person.”
“A sliding scale,” Jurgen said. “Makes sense, I suppose, although I’ve always found it easier to find work if one provides a clear listing of what one will charge for a job.”
“Oh, I agree!” said Beau with more enthusiasm than such a banal statement merited. If from there the conversation drifted to the vagaries of the job market and away from the vagaries of a person who might, in fact, not even exist, and if two of the three involved were unreasonably relieved, well, what of it?
• • • •
The problem, when it surfaced, was a girl, as it will be as long as there are girls and boys and boys and girls and girls and girls and all the combinations that prosthetic aids and surgical rigs can create. But in this case the girl was a girl, just a girl. Her name was Marguerite, but she was usually called Rita.
Jurgen Haines, no longer merely a merchant engineer, but classified as an engineer proper, for he had found work that used his talents well and lined his pockets even better, first saw Rita at the Idle Hour. He was sitting at the same table where he had chatted about Tatter D’MaLeon with Beau and Sera—neither of whom he had seen since, and who had been all but forgotten, as is the way with such passing encounters.
He had come to the Idle Hour with an associate from work. They’d just ordered drinks when Jurgen caught his first glimpse of Rita.
That she was beautiful was open to debate, for beauty is a matter for both personal taste and the fashions of the age. That Rita was striking is not open to question. It was not that her skin was particularly light or dark, or the shape of her head or the angle of her brows in any way astonishing. It was how all the elements that made up the whole woman came together that made Jurgen Haines, Engineer (Structural) Second Class, with very good prospects for First, shift in his seat without even realizing that he was doing so in order that he could watch the still nameless woman as she inspected data files (or so he assumed) on a palm screen.
As soon as was polite and even a bit sooner than that, Jurgen excused himself, ostensibly to use the head (which he did use) but in reality so that he could make an excuse to talk to the girl who in a few minutes he would know as Rita Lathrop.
Rita was a geologist with a strong interest in paleontology and astrobiology. She worked for an asteroid mining group to pay the bills, while she looked for evidence of extraterrestrial life. In short, she was a dreamer and an idealist who, at the same time, was firmly enough grounded in reality to have earned three interlocking PhDs. Within a half hour of light chat, Jurgen Haines was smitten. If you remember that “to smite” is another way of saying “to wound,” “to strike,” and “to injure,” you’ll have a good sense of what he’d gotten himself into.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Rita Lathrop, rather that while she loved very well, in the way Jurgen Haines wanted her to love, she was incapable. Although she was capable of enjoying intimacy with men or women or any mixture of the types, her burning passion was reserved for her quest.
Love can make the most rational person irrational. Remember this. It is important.
When Jurgen was not at work or able to spend time with Rita, he took to wandering Cat Station. The more deserted the area, the better he liked it. Was he seeking Tatter D’MaLeon? If asked, he would not have admitted doing so but, whether he sought her or not, he found her.
He first glimpsed Tatter as a glimmer of motion at the end of a long corridor, otherwise empty of anything but bank after bank of conduits. Her upper body was covered by a long tunic of pale golden Chinese brocade embellished with delicate wind-swayed flowers and swallows in flight. The highly inappropriate tunic’s ragged hem dropped below the knee, but was slit so that metallic bronze trousers and fringed leather moccasin boots could be glimpsed. These boots were laced with a silvery grey cord that gleamed palely in the uncertain light from the equipment.
But the mask could only belong to Tatter D’MaLeon. Now masks, or the seeming of such, are not at all uncommon on space stations. Many people like to be sure of respiratory support. Others hold jobs that involve virtual displays, so that hands are free to manipulate tools. Others still—like the cyberpilot Jurgen had forgotten—had implants that enabled them to better perform some task. With enough of these, planned or not, the person comes to wear a mask.
Tatter’s mask was no such hybrid construct. It was a full-face creation, originally white as snow or bone or crisp unused paper, molded after a stylized female face. The large teardrop ovals that served as eyeholes were the only obvious interruptions in the smooth surface, but closer examination showed that additional holes—perhaps to facilitate breathing—had been drilled near the nose and mouth.
The mask’s foundation may have once been solely white, but that had not lasted. The eyes were encircled by mismatched curves and arcs in bright colors set down in no apparent pattern, accented—also with no recognizable system—in silver, gold, and bronze. The mask’s high forehead and one cheek bore a storm of asymmetrical, jagged lines that might have been clashing lightning bolts or the stripes of a very peculiar multi-colored tiger.
The mask’s lips were pale orange. On the remaining cheek were neatly drawn the three emblems that rumor swore were the only constant in Tatter D’MaLeon’s ever-shifting attire. Each was perfectly recognizable and embellished with tiny glittering specks that might have been gems. Here and there on the mask, faceted dewdrops caught the light, giving it back accented by the dominant colors of the area. As this nearly deserted deck was furnished in the whites and greys that are no color at all, the dewdrops took nothing and gave it back disguised as treasure.
“Tatter D’MaLeon?” Jurgen’s voice broke with astonishment as he transformed in a few syllables from a doubter to a want-to-believer.
In reply, the masked figure dipped a gloved hand (lavender with pearl buttons at the wrist, fabric smudged with iridescent trails of oil) into one of the brocade tunic’s pockets and came out with an octagonal data card. With a flourish, she handed the card to Jurgen.
“Tatter D’MaLeon, Interstellar Vagabond,” read the first line. “Your problem is not my problem—unless you want me to make it so.”
As Jurgen re-read the card, the mask spoke. The voice was oddly pitched, high but not squeaky, resonant in the range of a mezzo-soprano, but with peculiar inflections that made it sound as if English was not the speaker’s first language—that, in fact, raised the question as to whether any terrestrial language could claim that honor.
“So? You tell what you brings here? Not all who wander here are lost, but you seem so very unlost that Tatter is amazed.”
Jurgen only hesitated briefly before plunging in to the tale of his obsession with Rita Lathrop. He ended by stating with desperate intensity. “I can’t live without her.”
“Is she dying then?” came the oddly modulated voice. “Your other words seem to indicate that this is not.”
“Oh, Rita’s alive, very alive, but she can’t see me for her quest. I told you about her quest.”
“For the alien, proof thereof, her great passion. For this she lives, but you do not find this enough?”
“I want her to live, but I want her to live for me, too. She can look for aliens all she wants, but I want her to do it with me or to be aware of me, to care for me as I do her. Is that too much?”
Behind the mask, the almost-seen eyes . . . Were they brown? Green? Some mixture of the two? Or, like the gems on the mask, none of the above? Whatever their color, there was a flutter as if the eyes blinked.
“It is not too much,” Tatter agreed. “But it is not my problem—unless you wish me to make it so. Do you so wish?”
Jurgen froze, suddenly silent. Since that first mention so long ago—in those days Before Rita—he had done research regarding Tatter D’MaLeon. The research had not been simple or routine. The material in the databanks had an unsettling tendency to change. He’d read an entry one day and sometimes he couldn’t find it again or, if he did, it would have altered in some subtle, undefinable fashion.
It wasn’t only open-source materials that changed, but material he stored in his private files. Printing never seemed to work. Only partial bits of text would transfer onto the expensive hard copy. And even those fragments that did print had a disturbing tendency to go missing. But, even within the limits of faulty human memory, Jurgen constructed a tentative edifice of what he thought were facts.
Tatter D’MaLeon always found a solution for the problems she made her own, but those solutions could be peculiar. Therefore, it was always a good idea to carefully explain what you wanted from her—and it was a good idea to make sure you understood the price for her services before making an agreement. Apparently, once she accepted a problem, Tatter D’MaLeon did not stop until she found a solution.
So, when Tatter asked if he wished her to make his problem her own, Jurgen paused but heard himself impulsively saying, “Yes, I do.” He continued more carefully. “Maybe, maybe, I do want you to make my problem your problem. Do you understand ‘maybe’?”
“‘Perhaps,’” came the prompt reply, trilled out so the word sounded more like “purr-haps,” “I do. ‘Maybe’ is conditional on a term or terms being fulfilled. It is akin to ‘might be,’ ‘perhaps,’ an indication of how complex the problem is.”
“That’s right,” Jurgen said. “So let me explain. When I say I don’t want to live without Rita, I don’t mean I want to die. I don’t want her to die, either. I want us both to live. Together. Inseparable. Till death do us part. I’d like that death to be a long time from now.”
“Mortality is not a problem Tatter can solve,” Tatter replied seriously. “Even suns in time do die. Definitely, though, I can make certain that if I take on your problem (with the understanding that you wish me to do so in order that it cease to be a problem), then I will endeavor to find a solution that will draw you and Rita together without risking a diminution of the duration of either of your lives.”
For a brief instant, Jurgen thought about asking Tatter D’MaLeon if she could assure that he and Rita would be happy together, but he suspected that was like asking for an assured lifespan.
Instead he said, “And I’d like us to have a chance at being happy together. I don’t want a solution that will end up with her hating me.”
“Careful. Full of care,” came Tatter D’MaLeon’s reply in a tone that might have been affectionate, although the modulations of her voice were so peculiar that it was really hard to be sure. “I accept these provisions as limitations if I should make your problem my own. Now, hold for a moment while Tatter collects some information to assist.”
She touched the breast of her brocade tunic. For the first time, Jurgen noticed that the charms depicted on her mask were fastened to the frayed fabric. She pulled the compass free and then the eight-pointed star. Spreading her gloved palm flat, she laid the latter upon the former.
“What are those for?” Jurgen asked suspiciously.
“Compasses have a long tradition as aids in divination,” came the not-quite reply. “Breathe on these,” Tatter commanded raising her hand to the level of his mouth, “so that they spin.”
Feeling not so much foolish as possessed of a nebulous fear, Jurgen obeyed. Now that the charms were raised closer to his eyes, he could see that the tiny rose crystal served as a pivot on which the eight-pointed star could turn. Vague memories of birthday cakes with tiny candles flitted through his mind and he exhaled hard, as if by doing so he could make his wish come true. He expected the two charms to separate, but instead the eight-pointed star spun wildly, blurring almost into invisibility.
Tatter watched, her eyes shadowed behind the mask. “Interesting,” she said, folding her fingers around the charms. “This is definitely also a green moon problem.”
She detached the crescent moon with her free hand, then gently pressed it against Jurgen’s lower lip, beneath his nostrils, above his right eye, and in the curve of his left ear. Finally, she added the moon to the charms already concealed within her gloved palm.
“If I need more, I shall contact you,” she said, beginning to turn away.
“Wait!” Jurgen said, raising his hand as if to physically restrain the weird masked figure who stood suspended in mid-move before him. “The price! What is the fee for your taking on my problem and hopefully finding a solution?”
Her reply was a seeming non sequitur.
“Can you tell me what it is to be human? Can you tell me why humans exist?”
Jurgen blinked. His engineer’s temperament had long ago rejected such speculation as a waste of thinking capacity.
“What it is to be human? Well, isn’t that a matter of biology? How certain bits of DNA link up? Genes. The ones we have that chimpanzees don’t? Like that?”
From the slump of those golden brocade-clad shoulders, Jurgen could tell his reply was a disappointment. He tried again.
“As to why humans exist, well, that’s a question for a philosopher. I’m just a merchant engineer. Not very good at that sort of thing. I suppose humans exist to perpetuate the species, just like any other sort of animal.”
Tatter tilted her masked face inquiringly. “Then those humans who do not have offspring are not human? They should not exist?”
“Dammit, I’m not saying that at all . . . You’ve got me all fuddled. And what does any of this have to do with your fee?”
But Tatter’s reaction was an audible exhalation, a sigh that, for the first time made Jurgen feel certain there was a living person behind the mask. “If you cannot answer, you cannot. Tatter also accepts more common currency. Look at the card I gave you. Is the figure upon it acceptable? A small deposit now. I will expect the rest in full when you accept my solution for this problem of ours.”
Jurgen glanced down at the card. The initial lettering had vanished, replaced by a sum that struck him as amazingly low.
He was already thumbing agreement to the deposit when Tatter D’MaLeon went on. “Expenses will be yours to pay, but all will be approved in advance.”
“Then we have a deal?” Jurgen asked, unable to believe this change in his luck.
“We will if I find an acceptable solution for you,” Tatter clarified. “Keep the card. It will tell you where and when you will be able to meet me again. Oh, as you value your Rita, do come alone. I am, as you may have heard, very shy . . .”
“Wait!” Jurgen called, moving to where the figure in its worn finery was about to turn down a shadowed service corridor. “You’ll contact me soon, right? This isn’t going to be one of those problems where the only solution is lots and lots of time, right?”
Tatter wheeled about to face Jurgen, suddenly so close that the mask filled his entire range of vision. The eyes within oval apertures were coldly compassionate. The air they both breathed was rippled by eddies from the small holes cut in the mask.
“Waiting might be wisest, but an unwillingness to wait is part of the problem you gave me. Correct? Fear not, I will not forget time. Now cease following me. We do not yet have an agreement and if you further grieve me, we shall never.”
Jurgen backpedaled, feet alternately sliding and catching on the aged deck plates. “I’ll check the card!” he called, but Tatter D’MaLeon was gone.
• • • •
Jurgen had plenty of time to wonder at the wisdom of making his problem Tatter D’MaLeon’s. It didn’t help that Rita, to this point willing to meet him for dinner or evening drinks—if for no other reason than that Jurgen was always willing to listen to her talk about the latest developments in her quest—was unavailable. A new asteroid had been hauled to Concatenation Station and she was working terrifically long hours lest she be off-shift and miss some possibly crucial discovery.
This was the intensity that made Jurgen love her—even as it drove him to paroxysm of frustration because she applied it to such slim hopes. Surely there were better ways to . . . But they had already had that discussion and it had gotten him nowhere or less than nowhere, since some very hard words had been exchanged.
He checked the data card at such regular intervals that his teammates noticed and asked if someone back home was ill. When he told them in all honesty, “I’m waiting for a message from Tatter D’MaLeon,” the response was laughter or, in one case, a look of pity.
The message, when it came, was brief, a series of coordinates indicating a point of rendezvous and a time. That the one was obscure and the other dead in the middle of a shift—and thus a time when the chance of interruptions would be reduced—did not surprise him at all.
Jurgen had almost been hoping that the meeting would be set for a time when he would need to cancel a date with Rita. He’d imagined himself saying something mysterious, maybe even making her jealous, but no such subterfuge was necessary. A new section of the asteroid was being accessed and Rita, eyes smoke-rimmed with fatigue, graceful form jittering from too many stimulants, probably didn’t even notice that he hadn’t come to watch her as he so often did.
When he went to the assigned rendezvous, Jurgen thought no one was there. Then what had seemed golden light resolved into a shimmer of golden brocade, a bit of white he’d taken for the bulkhead glinted as Tatter slowly turned her masked face to him, enigmatic smile on those unmoving pale orange lips.
Again, Jurgen’s script for the moment, which would have begun with him saying something sly and cutting about how Tatter had kept him waiting, was wasted, for Tatter D’MaLeon did not bother with anything as normal as greetings. Instead she raised a gloved finger and pointed out a porthole—remnant of some luxury cruiser of the past that had sacrificed hull integrity for offering a “real, naked-eye” view of the stars.
“There,” came the voice from within the mask. “Buy that. It will make you as appealing to Rita as you wish to be and bring about the joining you desire.”
“Buy what?” Jurgen replied, momentarily wondering if she meant the porthole.
“That,” Tatter D’MaLeon repeated, wiggling the tip of her finger slightly. Jurgen saw that she was indicating a chunk of debris embedded in the exterior hull, not far from the porthole.
“That bit of space junk?” Jurgen asked, disbelieving.
“That. It is not ‘space junk,’ except in the most general sense of the term. It is a portion of a comet whose course took it through much void space. More interesting than an asteroid, yes?”
There was something almost wicked in the twinkle of those eyes—today more green than brown—behind oval apertures, something that told Jurgen that Tatter D’MaLeon had been aware of his recent frustrations.
“You will need proof, of course,” Tatter D’MaLeon continued. “I provide documentation as part of my elimination of your problem. It is a curious history having to do with how this liner came to cease being a liner and instead became incorporated into the station.”
Jurgen was astonished by the neatness of this solution. He’d never considered supplying Rita with an extraterrestrial artifact. He understood why he needed to buy it. If he did not, it would remain part of the station’s property and access would be administered by official, doubtless restrictive, regulations that governed such matters.
“I’ll need a salvage permit,” he said, half to himself. “Then there’s the problem of making sure provenience is absolutely clear. Rita’s a stickler for that sort of thing. I’ll need to make sure I have a full visual record of my retrieving the comet fragment. Or better, we could excavate it ourselves . . .”
He trailed off, aware of the masked figure waiting in perfect quietude. “Oh, your fee . . .”
“You do not know if this will truly solve your problem,” Tatter protested. “Have you perhaps thought further on my question? Do you have any thoughts as to what it is to be human?”
Jurgen pulled a data card from his pocket. “Here’s some of what various philosophers have said. I weeded out some of the worst twaddle, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really certain if it’s what you want. For that reason, I have a pre-paid data card here for you in the amount you requested.”
With great solemnity, Tatter accepted both forms of payment. In turn, she handed over the promised documentation. Jurgen glanced out the porthole, superstitiously reassuring himself that his treasure was still there. He was not entirely surprised when he turned back to find that Tatter D’MaLeon was gone.
• • • •
Jurgen was not a merchant engineer for nothing. He knew all there was to know about securing permits, permissions, and property rights. Although impatient, Jurgen waited until Rita’s asteroid had proven to be yet another disappointment. Then, shyly, he sprung the news of his newly acquired extraterrestrial object on her. She did not fall all over him in gushing glee, but, when she had finished reviewing the documentation supplied by Tatter D’MaLeon, she looked at him, excitement replacing the dull disappointment in her lovely eyes.
“Oh, Jurgen, this is marvelous! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“You were absorbed in your other project,” he reminded her, adding a trace tartly, “I didn’t think I could get you to take the time to review what I had.”
“Well, I have now, and I can’t wait to get to it. A comet fragment . . . Who would have thought!”
“I’ve arranged for excavation equipment,” Jurgen said. “Between us, our training should be sufficient to handle removing the fragment. No need to let anyone else in on the secret.”
Rita agreed with such pathetic eagerness that Jurgen wondered if she was aware that she was becoming a bit of a laughingstock in some circles.
When they had completed their work some weeks later, for Rita insisted on documenting every stage, no matter how miniscule, they had a chunk of material that was remarkable to Jurgen only by virtue of being so unremarkable. He even entertained a fleeting thought that Tatter D’MaLeon had taken advantage of him but, when he considered that the excavation had gained him several weeks of Rita’s spare time for a price far less than the expensive dinners he would have paid for without question, he decided to let the suspicion slide. True, the salvage rights hadn’t been cheap, and at least he could have eaten his share of an elegant dinner rather than stifling in an EVA suit, but . . .
Then Rita found the first indication that buried within the heat-fused material was something anomalous. Jurgen only understood half of her rattling on about chains of organic molecules and patterns that didn’t match up with anything in the extensive database she’d assembled over years of research. He did understand that she was excited. He was delighted when that excitement was expressed with kisses that tumbled into embraces and these into something very unscientific but extremely satisfying.
Even better, since Rita didn’t want to risk anyone else co-opting her secret before she had everything ready for publication, she drafted Jurgen as her lab assistant. He pretended more reluctance than he felt and this, combined with Rita’s growing awareness that the discovery she’d longed for all her life rested in a bit of space debris that actually belonged to someone else, made her treat Jurgen very well.
Several times, Rita hinted that she’d be happy to buy the artifact from Jurgen, but he always shrugged the offers off, making excuses about how he didn’t want to take her money when she needed it for all this expensive research. And it was expensive, which in turn led to some cutting of corners—never where it would matter for the quality of the results, but where doing some process by hand would save on the need for some expensive piece of equipment. Rita even began to argue that working by hand was preferable, because no one would be able to argue that her results were due to trace materials in shared equipment or a factory calibration error. Her own work and Jurgen’s was rigorously documented in anticipation of claims of human error.
Was it during one of these meticulous procedures that the contamination happened or was Tatter D’MaLeon still working on “my problem” even then?
Whatever the cause, the result was rapid and irreversible. Within hours of the first symptom—a roughness of skin—it was already too late. Rough skin toughened and spread, sealing eyes, ears, and mouth. But this was not fatal, for the mutation permitted breathing through surface cells. Moreover, extra limbs formed, perhaps to increase available surface area.
These extra limbs in turn—as documented by the liberal array of visual recording devices in Rita’s lab—generated numerous small but efficient peripherals that captured light and moisture, thereby supplying the now sealed bodily systems possessed by both Rita and Jurgen with most immediately necessary nutrients.
By the time Rita and Jurgen were missed—and this was after a full series of shifts had gone by, since neither of them had been interacting much with anyone else—the transformation was complete.
• • • •
A panel of four were meeting in a small, secure office in the keel ring.
“Based on the records Dr. Lathrop left,” reported Yoshiko Shandeigh, the senior investigative staffer assigned to the case, “she was certain that the artifact found by Engineer Haines was of actual alien—as opposed to merely extraterrestrial—origin. Whether this will be upheld by further investigation is up to those who will continue her research. For now, preliminary checks seem to indicate that whatever triggered the mutation is not likely to spread elsewhere in the station—although necessary precautions are, of course, being taken.”
“Then they are still in there? Under that growth?” asked Abdul Bameer, the administrator to whom the report was being given. “They’re not dead?”
“Absolutely not!” said Imogene Crow, the medical expert. “Indeed, based on how efficiently they are processing light, air, water, and minimal additional resources, they may outlive all of us.”
“But are they aware? Are they ‘in there’?” persisted Administrator Bameer.
“They are definitely at least somewhat aware—especially of each other,” Dr. Crow replied. “Their limbs are intertwined and when an attempt was made to separate them, they kept twisting back so that we could not part them without causing injury.”
“The limbs of Jurgen Haines were particularly protective of the bond,” added Sera Mina, the hydroponics expert who had been enlisted because of the probable type of care the newly mutated pair would need. “I met him soon after he came up to Cat Station, you know. We swapped tales one evening in the Idle Hour, but I never got to know him well. So, what’s their legal status? Is there funding for their care?”
“The question of Dr. Lathrop and Engineer Haines’ legal status was difficult to resolve,” said Abdul Bameer. “After consultation with various legal experts, the decision has been made to declare them incompetent, and make them wards of Concatenation Station. Their personal resources will be confiscated, used both for their care and for research into this malady with the firm hope of finding a cure.”
Sera Mina shoved back her chair and rose. “Well, if that’s all settled, I’d better see what I can do about setting up a greenhouse for them. Later!”
• • • •
Far away, somewhere in the bowels of Concatenation Station, Tatter D’MaLeon knew that Jurgen’s problem was no longer either his or hers. The solution had been difficult to manufacture but, as Jurgen had desired, Jurgen and Rita would be together for the rest of their lives.
There was even a human cultural precedent for the solution Tatter had arrived upon. As she closed the file in which she’d found the old Roman tale of Baucis and Philemon, she felt with great satisfaction that, at long last, perhaps she really was coming to understand what it meant to be human.