Mrs. Crayford, the plump, extravagantly dressed wife of Vice-Admiral
Crayford, Slessors second-in-command of the Mayflower IIs 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 well end up living, Ive no idea, but Im sure these will
enhance the surroundings wherever it is. Dont you think the silver is delightful?
Id 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."
Its all very nice," Veronica agreed, getting up from her
chair in the living room of the Kalenses Columbia District home. "Im sure
youll find somewhere wonderful." Veronica had been one of Celias 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.
"Theyre priceless," Celia commented dryly from her
chair. They had been, literally, but the irony was lost on Mrs. Crayford. Veronica caught
Celias eye with a warning look.
"They must be, mustnt they," Mrs. Crayford agreed
blissfully. She shook her head. "In some ways it seems almost criminal to take them,
but . . ." she sighed, "Im sure theyd just be wasted otherwise.
After all, those people are obviously incapable of appreciating the true value of
anything." Celias 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. Im 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.
"Well manage," Veronica promised. "Theyre
more awkward than heavy. You worry too much."
Mrs. Crayford glanced at the clock display on the rooms
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.
"Dont bother bringing anything out, Celia," Veronicas voice called
back. "Ill 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 wasnt so much the spectacle of Mrs.
Crayfords 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
couldnt be because she herself had succumbed to the same temptation, for that had
been a comparatively minor thinga 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 againshe had placed it in the recess by the corner windowthe 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 hadnt
reacted to her oblique questions on the subject. Were the expressions on those faces
affecting her for some reason? Or did the artists 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.
Crayfords boxes. "Its all right. You stay there, Celia. I can
manage." She saw the expression on Celias face and smiled. Her voice dropped to
a whisper. "I knowawful, isnt it. Its just a phase. Shell get
"I hope so," Celia murmured.
Veronica paused as she was about to turn toward the door.
"Im beginning to miss being thrown out in the middle of the night. Hows
your handsome sergeant these days? You havent finished with him, have you?"
Celia gave her a reproachful look. "Oh, come on . . . you know
that was just a diversion. I havent 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.
"Ive got one too," Veronica whispered, bringing her
face close to Celias ear.
"A new lover. What do you think?"
"Anyone I know?"
Veronica had to bite her lip to suppress the beginnings of a giggle.
Celias eyes opened wide. "Youre kidding!"
"Im not. Hes an architect. . . and gorgeous! I met
him in Franklin yesterday and stayed last night. Its so easythey act as if
its perfectly natural . . . And theyre so uninhibited!" Celia just
gaped at her. Veronica winked and nodded. "Really. Ill tell you about it later.
Id better go."
"You bitch!" Celia protested. "I want to hear about
Veronica laughed. "Youll have to eat your heart out
wondering. Take care. Ill 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
elsesomething 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 toonot 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 awarenesssomething deeper that she hadnt 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 shefor 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
artists 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.