Star Child
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The girl had always been called Taya. She propped her elbows on the sill below the window and rested her chin in her hands while she stared out at the stars. Her eyes, wide with a nine-year-old's wonder, mirrored a million jewels spilling endlessly across black infinity, and carpets of glowing nebulas painted by brushes softer than the yellow hair framing her face.

It was a pretty face, with clear skin and an upturned nose, and a mouth that could push itself out into a pout when she frowned, or pull itself back into dimples when she smiled. She was wearing just a simple dress of pale blue, which tightened as she leaned forward across the sill, outlining the curves just beginning to form on her body. And as she gazed out at the stars, she wriggled her toes in the soft pile covering the floor, and she wondered. . . .

She wondered why everything she could see beyond the window that looked out of Merkon was so different from the things inside. That was one of the things she often wondered about. She liked wondering things . . . such as why the stars never changed, as they should have if Merkon was really moving the way Kort said it was. Kort said it was moving toward a particular star that he called Vaxis. He had pointed it out to her in the sky, and shown it to her on the star pictures that they could make on the screens--as if there were something special about it. But it always looked the same as all the other stars to her.

Kort said that Merkon had always been moving toward Vaxis. But if that were true, why didn't Vaxis ever get any bigger? Outside the rooms in which Taya lived was a long corridor that led to the place where capsules ran in one of the tubes connecting to other parts of Merkon. When Taya walked along the corridor, the far end of it would at first be smaller than her thumb; but as she carried on walking it would grow, until by the time she got there it was bigger even than Kort. Kort said that Vaxis didn't seem to get any bigger because it was much farther away than the end of the corridor. But he also said that Merkon had been moving for years and years--longer than Taya could remember--and that it was moving even faster than the capsules did through the tubes. How could anything be so far away that it never got any bigger?

Kort didn't know why Merkon was moving toward Vaxis, which was strange because Kort knew everything. He just said that was the way things had always been, just as there had always been stars outside. When Taya asked him why there were stars outside, he always talked about gas clouds, gravitation, densities, and other "machine things" that had nothing to do with what she meant. She didn't want to know how the stars came to be out there, but why anything should be out there at all--or for that matter, why there should be an "out there" in the first place for anything to be in. He just didn't seem to share her kind of curiosity about things.

"We know what we mean, don't we, Rassie," Taya said aloud, turning her head toward the doll sitting on the sill, staring outward to share her contemplation of the universe. "Kort knows so many things. . . . But there are some things you just can't make him understand."

Rassie was a miniature version of herself, with long golden hair, light green eyes, and soft arms and legs that were the same color as hers. Rassie, too, wore a pale blue dress--Taya always dressed Rassie in the same things as she herself felt like wearing on any particular day. She didn't know why; it was just something she had always done.

Kort had made Rassie for her--he often made things that he said it wasn't worth setting up the machines to make. He had made Rassie a long time ago now, when Taya was much smaller. He had been teaching her how to draw shapes and colors on one of the screens, and soon she had learned to make pictures of the things in the rooms where she lived, and pictures of Kort. Her favorite pictures had been ones of herself, whom she could see reflected in the window when the lights inside were turned up high. That was when Kort had made her a mirror. But the mirror had made her sad because she could never pick up the little girl that she saw in it, or touch her the way she could all her other things. So Kort had gone away, and later he'd come back with Rassie.

At one time, before she'd learned that Rassie wasn't really the same as her, she had taken Rassie everywhere and talked to her all the time. She didn't talk to her so much now . . . but when Kort was away, there was nobody else to talk to. "Kort said he couldn't think of a reason why anyone would ask questions like that. How can anyone be as clever as Kort, yet never think of asking a question like that?" Taya studied the doll's immobile features, then sighed. "You can't tell me, can you? You can only tell me the things I pretend you say, and this time I don't know what to pretend." Taya moved the doll to stare in a different direction. "There. You stay here and watch Vaxis. Tell me if it starts to get any bigger."

Taya straightened up from the sill and walked into the room behind the window room. This was where, when she was smaller, she had spent most of her time playing with the things that Kort made for her. These days she didn't play with things so much--she preferred making things instead. Making things was easy for Kort because he could do anything, but it had taken her a long time to learn--and she still wasn't very good at some of the things he'd shown her. She liked forming shapes from the colored plastic that set hard and shiny like glass. Often, she made things she could use, such as vases to put things in, or plates to eat from, but at other times she enjoyed making shapes that just looked nice. Kort couldn't understand what it meant for something to "just look nice" . . . but that was because he only thought "machine things."

Then there were pictures that she drew--not on the screens, but with her hands, using the colored pens that Kort had made for her when she'd explained what she wanted. He had never understood why she thought the pictures that she drew were anything like the things she said they were like. He had told her that the machines could make much better pictures in an instant. But Kort hadn't been able to see that her pictures were supposed to look the way they did. They were supposed to look like what she felt about things, not like the things really were, exactly. Kort had tried drawing with pens, too. He could draw much faster than she could, and his pictures always looked exactly like the things they were supposed to be . . . but she still didn't like them as much as her pictures. They were always "machine pictures."

And she made clothes. Kort had made her clothes for her when she was smaller, but later, when he found that she liked to think up her own, he had made her some needles and other tools and shown her how to use them. She liked her clothes better than the ones that Kort made, which were never pretty but just hung like the covers on some of the machines in other parts of Merkon. Once--not very long ago because she could still remember it--she had tried not wearing any clothes at all. But she'd found that she got dusty and itchy and kept touching cold things, and sometimes she scratched herself. Kort had told her that was why he'd started making clothes for her in the first place, when she was very small, and she had soon started using them again.

There were lots of half-finished things lying around the workroom, but she didn't feel like doing anything with them. She toyed for a while with one of the mosaics that she sometimes made to hang on the walls, but grew restless and went on through to the screen room and sat down at the console with its rows of buttons. But she didn't feel like playing any games, or learning about anything, or asking any questions, or practicing words and math, or any of the other things that the machines could let her do. She had to practice things like words and math, because if she didn't she forgot how to do them. Kort never forgot anything and never had to practice. He could multiply the biggest numbers she could think of before she could even begin, and he had never gotten a single one wrong. . . . But he couldn't tell a pretty dress from one that wasn't, or a nice shape from one that was just silly. Taya giggled to herself as she thought of the funny shapes that Kort had made sometimes when he'd tried to find out what a "nice" one was, and how she had laughed at them. Then, when he discovered that she enjoyed laughing, he had started doing silly things just to make her laugh.

She decided that she wanted to talk to Kort, and touched the buttons to spell out the sign that would connect a speaking channel to him. His voice answered immediately from a grille above the blank screen. "Hello, little Gazer-at-Stars."

"How did you know I'd been looking at the stars?" Taya said to the console.

"I know everything."

Kort's voice was much deeper than hers. Sometimes she tried to speak the way he did, but she had to make the sounds way down at the back of her throat, and it always made her cough. "Where are you?" she asked.

"I went to fix something in one of the machinery compartments while you were asleep."

"Will you be long?"

"I'm almost finished. Why?"

"I just wanted to talk to you."

"We can still talk."

"It's not the same as talking to you when you're here."

"Why don't you talk to Rassie?"

"Oh, that's an old game now. I don't really think Rassie listens--not any more."

"You change faster every day," Kort's voice said. "We'll have to find more interesting things for you to do."

"Do you think I could learn to do the things you do?" Taya asked.

"Maybe. We'll have to wait and see what happens as you grow bigger."

"How big will I get?"

"I don't know."

"Oh, Kort you know everything. Will I grow as big as you?"


A few seconds of silence followed, while Taya thought to herself. "What are you doing now?" she asked at last.

"There's a fault in the optical circuits of one of the machines. The service machines could fix it, but they'd need to have new parts made in another place. I can fix it more quickly, so I've told them not to bother. I'm almost done now."

"Can I see?" Taya asked.

The screen above the buttons came to life to show what Kort could see through his eyes. He was looking at a metal-framed plate of crystal that he had removed from a slot in one of many banks of such plates. It could have been the inside of any machine. They all looked much the same to Taya, and not especially interesting. The ones she liked best were the maintenance machines that fixed other machines, because they at least moved around and did something.

She had never seen how anyone could really understand how the machines worked. Kort had told her about things like electrons and currents, and shown her how to find out more for herself from the screens . . . but she had never quite followed what all that had to do with building new parts of Merkon, changing old parts, finding out what the stars were made of, or all the other things that the machines did. Every time she learned something, she discovered two more things she didn't know, which she hadn't thought of before. Learning things was like trying to count the stars: There were always two more for every one she counted.

Then Kort's hands moved into the view on the screen. They were huge, silver-gray hands with fingers almost as thick as Taya's wrists, and joints that flexed by sliding metal surfaces over each other--not like her little "bendy" hands at all. One of the hands was holding a piece of machine while the other hand tightened a fastening, using one of the tools that Kort took with him when he went away to fix something. Taya watched, fascinated, as the hands restored the connections, and then replaced a metal cover over the top. Then the view moved away and showed Kort's hands collecting more tools from a ledge and putting them into the box that he used to carry them.

"Do you think I'd ever be able to do things like that?" Taya asked in an awed voice.

"Well, there isn't any air here where I am, and the temperature would be too low for your jelly body," Kort told her, "But apart from that, yes, maybe you could . . . in time."

"But how do you know what to do?"

"By learning things."

"But I'm not sure I could ever learn those things. I'm just not very good at learning `machine things.'"

"Perhaps it's only because I've been learning things longer than you have," Kort suggested. "You have to learn easy things before you can expect to understand harder things, and that takes time." On the screen, a doorway enlarged as Kort moved toward it. Beyond it was a larger space, crammed with machines, cabinets, cables, and ducting. It could have been anywhere in Merkon. Only the machines could live in most parts of it. Just the part that Taya lived in was different from the rest.

"But I've already been learning things for years and years," she protested. "And I still don't really know how pressing buttons makes shapes appear on the screens, or how I can still talk to you when you're not here. Have you been learning things for longer than years and years?"

"Much longer," Kort replied. "And besides that, I talk to the machines faster."

The mass of machinery moving by on the screen gave way to a dark tunnel, lined with pipes and cables. The colors changed as Kort entered, which meant he had switched his vision to its infrared range. Kort could see things by their heat. Taya had tried practicing it herself in the dark, but she'd never been able to make it work.

"How fast can you talk to the machines, Kort?" Taya asked.

"Very fast. Much faster than you can."

"What . . . evenifItakeabigbreathandtalkasfastasthis?"

Kort laughed--that was something he had learned from Taya. "Much faster, little Asker-of-Endless-Questions. I'll show you. Tell me, what is the three hundred twenty-fifth word in the dictionary that starts with a B?"

"Is this a game?"

"If you like."

Taya frowned and thought about the question. "I don't know," she said finally.

"Then you'll have to find out." Kort emerged from the tunnel and passed between rows of machines that were moving round and round and up and down.

Taya activated a second screen, and then entered a command to access the dictionary of the language that she and Kort had been inventing for as long as she could remember. Whenever they made up a new word they added it to the dictionary, so Taya could always remind herself of words she forgot. She found the "B" section and composed a request for the 325th entry in it. "Busy," she announced as the screen returned its answer.

"Correct," Kort confirmed. "That took you eleven point two seconds. Now ask me one."

"A word, just like you asked me?"


Taya chewed her lip and looked back at the first screen while she thought. Kort had just passed through an airlock and was emerging into the long corridor that led to where Taya lived. The walls flowed off the sides of the image as Kort's strides ate up the distance. Taya had counted that it took more than two of her steps to match one of his . . . if she didn't cheat and jump a bit. "Tell me," she said at last, ". . . the two hundred first word beginning with Z."

"There aren't that many that begin with Z," Kort answered at once.

Taya sighed. "Oh that was supposed to be a trick. I didn't really think there were. All right then, E."

"Empty," Kort returned instantly. "That took less than a thousandth of a second, not including the time it took me to say it."

Taya gasped in amazement. "Did you really talk to the machines in that time?"

"Of course. They keep the dictionary."

Taya's stare changed to a disbelieving frown. "No you didn't!" she accused. "You don't have to use the dictionary because you never forget anything. Now you're playing tricks. You only pretend to talk to the machines."

"That's where you're wrong, little Player-of-Tricks," Kort told her. "I don't carry everything around inside me all the time. Whenever I need information that I don't have, I ask the machines for it, just as you do. But I can do it a lot faster because I don't need a screen and I don't have to press buttons."

"So, how do you do it?" Taya asked incredulously.

"Well, how do you and I talk to each other?"

Taya wrinkled up her face and shrugged. "We just . . . talk. I'm not sure what you mean. . . Oh, do you mean with sound waves?"

"Exactly. I use a different kind of wave, which talks much faster than sound waves can."

"What kind of wave?" Taya asked.

"You tell me. What kind of wave can travel without air--even outside Merkon?"

"Outside?" Taya frowned and thought about it. "It could only be light," she said finally. "Light comes all the way from the stars."


"But if you talk to the machines with light, why can't I see it coming out of your mouth?"

"The waves I use are like light, but they're not light. `Light' is just what we decided to call the kind that your eyes can see."

"So is that how you can see the radio stars and X-ray stars?. . . . No, wait. You told me you see those through the machines, without having to look at the screens. How do you see them?"

"The machines have more powerful eyes than I have," Kort replied. "Enormous eyes, built on the outside of Merkon."

"So the machines can see the radio stars, and you can talk to the machines so fast that you can see what they see. Is it like that?"

"That's near enough," Kort said. "Anyway, I'm home now." The screen showed the door that led into the rooms where Taya lived starting to open. At the same time, she heard a whine from the room beyond the screen room. A moment later, Kort's towering figure appeared in the doorway, highlights glinting from the metal curves of his head and shoulders. As he tilted his head down toward her, she caught a glimpse of herself on the screen, turning in the chair and starting to get up. Two powerful arms lifted her from the floor, and she found herself looking into the black, ovoid, compound-lens matrixes that formed Kort's eyes. Taya hugged the metal head fondly and ran her fingers across the grille of his mouth.

"So you've finished your new blue dress," Kort observed. "It looks pretty."

"You're just saying that," Taya reproached. "See if you can tell me what there is that makes it pretty. I bet you don't know."

Kort lowered her to the floor and stepped a pace back. Taya lifted her arms and twirled through a circle while the robot watched dutifully. "Well. . ." Kort rubbed his chin with a steel finger, "it has a belt around the middle that divides it into two parts. The ratio between the lengths of the top part and the bottom part is exactly zero point six-six. That's a pretty ratio."

"See, your just guessing! You really don't know, do you?

"Do you like it?" Kort asked.

"Of course. If I didn't, I wouldn't be wearing it. I'd be altering it."

"Then that's all that matters."

"Rassie likes hers, too. Come and see." Taya clasped Kort's hand and led him through her workroom to the window room, where the doll was still keeping its silent vigil. Taya picked the doll up to show. "See, Kort--it's just like mine."

"Pretty," Kort obliged.

Taya turned to place the doll back on the sill. As she did so, her eyes strayed upward to take in again the panorama of the distant stars. She fell silent for a while. When she spoke, she didn't turn her head. Her voice sounded far away. "Kort . . . I was wondering something while you were gone. Why is everything outside Merkon so different from everything inside?"

"You've asked me that before," the robot said. "It is just the way things have always been."

"But why? There has to be a reason. You told me once that everything has to have a reason."

"I did. There must be a reason. . . . But I don't know what it is."

Taya continued to stare out of the window. Perhaps the stars were windows in other Merkons, she thought to herself--maybe with other Taya's looking out of them. . . . But no, that couldn't be right. If they were as far away as Kort said they were, the windows would be too small to see at all. Anyhow, Kort had told her what the stars were made of, and they didn't sound anything like Merkon.

"Merkon is the way it is because the machines made it the way it is. That's the reason it is like it is, isn't it?" she said at last.

"Yes," Kort replied.

"And the machines were made by other machines that were made by other machines that were made by other machines."

"It has always been so."

Taya turned away from the window and spread her hands appealingly. "But there must have been a first machine, mustn't there? What made the first machine, before there were other machines to make it?"

Kort hesitated for an unusually long time before he answered. "I don't know," was all he said.

"Something must have made it," Taya insisted. "I am being logical, aren't I?"

"You are," Kort agreed. "Something must have. But nobody in Merkon knows what did."

Taya found his choice of words strange. She slipped onto the chair by the table near the window and looked at him quizzically. "Why did you say 'nobody'?" she asked. "I don't know, because I asked the question. You've already said you don't know . . . and I'm sure you don't mean Rassie. Who else is there?"

"There are the machines," Kort said.

"Do they wonder about things like that too?"

"Why shouldn't they? For them it's a very important question."

Taya drew an imaginary shape on the table with her finger. "Oh, I don't know. . . . I suppose it was when you said 'nobody.' I never really think of them as people." She looked up. "Well they're not, are they, Kort? They're not people like you and me . . . with arms and legs, that move around and do things that people do. . . . Well, I suppose some of them do move around, but it's still not the same as being people."

For a small fraction of the time that Taya was speaking, the entity that formed Kort's thinking parts communicated to the other entities that coexisted with him in the network. "She changes more rapidly as the days go by. Her mind grows stronger. There can be no doubt now. The experiment may be resumed without risk. I propose that we continue."

The other entities in the network debated the matter at some length. Fully two seconds passed before their consensus poured back into the circuits that held Kort's mind. "We agree, Resuscitation is therefore being commenced."

"Taya should know," Kort sent back.

"Would that be wise?" Came the reply. "She changes, but her mind still has much to comprehend. She needs more time."

"Her questions tell me that the time is now. I have lived with her. I know her better. You have trusted my judgment before."

Another half second went by. "Very well. But be careful with her."

Kort squatted down and looked at Taya's face. "You say we are the same," he said. His tone sounded unusually serious.

Taya's brow furrowed. She straightened up in the chair. "Of course we are. . . . Well, you know what I mean--we're not exactly the same, but then you're a lot older. . . ." She cocked her head to one side as a new thought struck her. "Were you ever as small as me . . . and pink and bendy like me?" For once Kort ignored her question, but remained staring at her for what seemed like a long time. "Is something the matter?" Taya asked.

"There's something you should see," Kort said, straightening up.

"Something new that you've made?"

"No, nothing like that. It's far away in another part of Merkon. We have to go on a journey."

"Oh good!" Taya exclaimed, jumping up from the chair. "Will we walk there or can we go in a capsule?"

"We'll have to go in a capsule," Kort said. "It's a long way. The floor might be cold there, and the air is cool. You should put on some shoes and take a warm cloak."

"I'll be all right."

"I'll take them anyway." Kort went through to her sleeping room and took a pair of shoes and her red cloak from a closet. Then he came back out, stooped, and extended a forearm. Taya perched herself on it and slipped an arm around the robot's neck as he straightened up. He carried through the room beyond the screen room, and out into the long corridor.

"Which place are we going to?" Taya asked him as he began walking.

"None of the ones you've been to before. This is a new place."

Taya looked surprised. "I didn't think there were any more places I could go in than the ones I've already been to," she said.

"The machines have been changing more places so that you can go into them. There was a time, once, when you couldn't go anywhere and had to stay in those rooms all the time."

"Didn't I get bored?"

"When you were smaller, you didn't need to be doing things all the time."

At the far end of the long corridor, a capsule was already waiting for them behind an open door. They entered, and the door closed silently behind them. Taya felt the capsule starting to move. "What are we going to see?" she asked in Kort's ear.

"If I tell you, it won't be a surprise," the robot answered.

"Give me a clue, then. Is it the eyes that can see the radio stars?"

"No. I'm going to show you where I live."

"But that's silly, Kort. You live in the same place I do. This is a riddle, isn't it?"

"No, it's not a riddle. It's something you ought to know, now that your bigger. You wouldn't have understood it before, but I think you can now."

"Tell me."

"Patience. We'll soon be there."

Content © The Estate of James P. Hogan, 1998-2014. All rights reserved.

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