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Voyage from Yesteryear
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Mrs. Crayford, the plump, extravagantly dressed wife of Vice-Admiral Crayford, Slessor’s second-in-command of the Mayflower II’s crew, closed the box containing her new set of Chironian silver cutlery and added it to the pile of boxes on the table by her chair. Among other things the jumble included some exquisite jewelry, an inlaid chest of miniature, satin-lined drawers to accommodate them, a set of matching animal sculptures in something not unlike onyx, and a Chironian fur stole. "Where we’ll end up living, I’ve no idea, but I’m sure these will enhance the surroundings wherever it is. Don’t you think the silver is delightful? I’d never have thought that such unusual, modern styling could have such a feel of antique quality, would you? I must return to that place the next time I go down to Franklin. Some of the tableware there went with it perfectly."

It’s all very nice," Veronica agreed, getting up from her chair in the living room of the Kalenses’ Columbia District home. "I’m sure you’ll find somewhere wonderful." Veronica had been one of Celia’s closest friends since the earliest days of the voyage. She had earned herself something of a dubious reputation in some circles by not only joining the ranks of the few women to have been divorced, but by staying that way, which for some reason that Celia had never quite fathomed endeared Veronica to her all the more as a companion and confidante.

"They’re priceless," Celia commented dryly from her chair. They had been, literally, but the irony was lost on Mrs. Crayford. Veronica caught Celia’s eye with a warning look.

"They must be, mustn’t they," Mrs. Crayford agreed blissfully. She shook her head. "In some ways it seems almost criminal to take them, but . . ." she sighed, "I’m sure they’d just be wasted otherwise. After all, those people are obviously incapable of appreciating the true value of anything." Celia’s throat tightened, but she managed to remain quiet. Mrs. Crayford fussed with her pile of boxes. "Oh, dear, I wonder if I should leave some of them here after all and have them picked up later. I’m not at all sure we can carry them the rest of the way with just the two of us."

"That would be quite all right," Celia said.

"We’ll manage," Veronica promised. "They’re more awkward than heavy. You worry too much."

Mrs. Crayford glanced at the clock display on the room’s companel. "Well, then, I really must be getting along. I did so enjoy the trip and the company. We must do it again soon." She heaved herself to her feet and looked around. "Now, where did I leave my coat?"

"I hung it in the hallway," Veronica said, getting up. She walked ahead and out the door while Mrs. Crayford waddled a few feet behind. "Don’t bother bringing anything out, Celia," Veronica’s voice called back. "I’ll come back in for the things."

Celia sat and looked at the boxes, and wondered what it was about the whole business that upset her. It wasn’t so much the spectacle of Mrs. Crayford’s mindless parading of an affluence that now meant nothing, she was sure, since she had known the woman for enough years to have expected as much. Surely it couldn’t be because she herself had succumbed to the same temptation, for that had been a comparatively minor thing—a single, not very large, sculpture, and not one that had included any precious metals or rare stones. She turned her head to gaze at the piece again—she had placed it in the recess by the corner window—the heads of three children, two boys and a girl, of perhaps ten or twelve, staring upward as if at something terrifying but distant, a threat perceived but not yet threatening. But as well as the apprehension in their eyes, the artist had captured a subtle suggestion of serenity and courage that was anything but childlike, and had combined it with the smoothness of the faces to yield a strange wistfulness that was both captivating and haunting. The piece was fifteen years old, the dealer in Franklin had told them, and had been made by one of the Founders. Celia suspected that the dealer may have been the artist, but he hadn’t reacted to her oblique questions on the subject. Were the expressions on those faces affecting her for some reason? Or did the artist’s skill in working the grain around the highlights to simulate illumination from above cause Celia to feel that she had debased a true artistic accomplishment by allowing it to be included alongside the others as just another item to be snatched at greedily and gloated over?

Veronica came back into the room and began picking up Mrs. Crayford’s boxes. "It’s all right. You stay there, Celia. I can manage." She saw the expression on Celia’s face and smiled. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I know—awful, isn’t it. It’s just a phase. She’ll get over it."

"I hope so," Celia murmured.

Veronica paused as she was about to turn toward the door. "I’m beginning to miss being thrown out in the middle of the night. How’s your handsome sergeant these days? You haven’t finished with him, have you?"

Celia gave her a reproachful look. "Oh, come on . . . you know that was just a diversion. I haven’t seen him for a while now, but then, everyone has been so busy. Finished? Not really . . . who knows?" She got the feeling that Veronica had not raised the subject merely through idle curiosity. She was right.

"I’ve got one too," Veronica whispered, bringing her face close to Celia’s ear.

"What?"

"A new lover. What do you think?"

"Anyone I know?"

Veronica had to bite her lip to suppress the beginnings of a giggle. "A Chironian."

Celia’s eyes opened wide. "You’re kidding!"

"I’m not. He’s an architect. . . and gorgeous! I met him in Franklin yesterday and stayed last night. It’s so easy—they act as if it’s perfectly natural . . . And they’re so uninhibited!" Celia just gaped at her. Veronica winked and nodded. "Really. I’ll tell you about it later. I’d better go."

"You bitch!" Celia protested. "I want to hear about it now."

Veronica laughed. "You’ll have to eat your heart out wondering. Take care. I’ll call you tonight"

When the others had gone, Celia sank back in her chair and started brooding again. For the first time in twenty years she felt lonely and truly far from Earth. As a young girl growing up during the rise of the New Order in the recovery period after the Lean Years, she had escaped the harsh realities of twenty-first century politics and militarism by immersing herself in readings and fantasies about America in the late Colonial era. Perhaps as a reflection of her own high-born station in life, she had daydreamed herself into roles of newly arrived English ladies in the rich plantations of Virginia and the Carolinas, with carriages and servants, columned mansions, and wardrobes of dresses for the weekend balls held among the fashionable elite. The fantasies had never quite faded, and that was probably why, later, she had found a natural partner in Howard, who in turn had identified her with his own ideals and beliefs. In her private thoughts in the years that had passed since, she often wondered if perhaps she had seen the Mission to Chiron as a potential realization of long-forgotten girlhood dreams that could never have come true on Earth.

Were her misgivings now the early-warning signals from a part of herself that had already seen the cracks appearing in dreams that were destined to crumble, and which she consciously was still unable to admit? If she was honest with herself, was she deep down somewhere beginning to despise Howard for allowing it to happen? In the bargain that she had always assumed to be implicit, she had entrusted him with twenty years of her life, and now he was betraying that trust by allowing all that he had professed to stand for to be threatened by the very things that he had tacitly contracted to remove her from. Everywhere Terrans were rushing to throw off all that they had fought and struggled to preserve and carry with them across four light-years of space, and hurl themselves into Chironian ways. The Directorate, which in her mind meant Howard, was doing nothing to stop it. She had once read a quotation by a British visitor, Janet Schaw, to the Thirteen Colonies in 1763, who had remarked with some disapproval on the "most disgusting equality" that she had observed prevailing on all sides. It suited the present situation well.

She swallowed as she traced through her thoughts and checked herself. She was rationalizing or hiding something from herself, she knew. Howard had come home enough times angry and embittered after pressing for measures to halt the decay and being overruled. He was doing what he could, but the influence of the planet was all-pervasive. She was merely projecting into him and personifying something else—something that stemmed from inside herself. Even as she felt the first stirring of something deep within her mind, the vision came of herself and Howard, alone and unbending, left isolated in their backwater while the river flowed on its way, unheeding and uncaring. After twenty years, nothing lay ahead but emptiness and oblivion. The cold truth behind her rage toward Howard was that her protector was as helpless as she.

Now she knew why Earth seemed so far away. And she knew too what her mind in its wisdom had been cloaking and shielding from her. It was fear.

Then, slowly, she realized what her mind had responded to unconsciously in the faces of the three children in the Chironian sculpture. The artist had been not merely an expert, but a master. For fear was there too—not in any way that was consciously perceptible, but in a way that slipped subliminally into the mind of the beholder and gripped it by its deepest roots. That was why she had felt disturbed all the way back from Franklin. But there was still something else. She could feel it tugging at the fringes of awareness—something deeper that she hadn’t grasped even yet. She turned her eyes to the sculpture again.

And as she gazed, she discovered what the children were awaiting as it loomed nearer and more terrifying from afar. The realization tightened her stomach. Even from fifteen years ago. . . it was she—for she had come with the Mayflower II. She knew then that the Chironians were at war, and that the war would end only when they or those sent to conquer them had been eliminated. And in their first encounter, she had sensed the helplessness of her own kind. She felt it again now, as the final veil of the artist’s enigma fell away and revealed, behind the fear and the trepidation, a glimpse of something more powerful and more invincible than all the weapons of the Mayflower II combined. She was staring at her own extinction.

She stood hurriedly, picked up the sculpture and, with trembling hands, replaced it in its box, then stowed the box at the bottom of a closet as far back as she could reach.

 
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