Summary: Android bodies live for centuries and so do relativistic space travelers, but a thousand years is a long time.
Pairings: Rommie/Captain Metis, referenced Rommie/other
Disclaimer: Tribune owns all rights to Andromeda.
Spoilers: "The Lone and Level Sands," some events from the later seasons
Setting: Extremely post-series.
Feedback: Praise and constructive criticism welcome.
Archive: Ask first and I'll probably say yes.
Author's Note: The title is derived from the poem "Haunted Houses," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "We have no title-deeds to house or lands;/The owners and occupants of earlier dates/From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,/And hold in mortmain still their old estates."
Held in Mortmain Still
By B.L.A. the Mouse
The thought of home warmed his heart. The glow of that distant yellow star could never be more beautiful than at the end of a long voyage, and he rather fancied that he heard a faint sigh pass through his crew as they crossed the Kuiper Belt. Soon, soon they would be back within their own gravity well, after almost four thousand years.
"When will we see Earth?" he asked, his pacing leading him to behind the navigator. He was unable to sit, to sleep, buoyed by the anticipation of arrival.
"I'm… not sure, sir. It should be behind the sun from our location, but I'm getting some kind of interference."
He could have pressed, would have, but the comm sparked to life, clear and unexpected. "Bellerophon, this is the New Systems Commonwealth. We ask that you direct your ship to the primary shipyards over Mars for further instructions."
The navigator twisted to look to him for instructions. He smiled. Time enough for Earth. "You heard them. Let's go to Mars."
He stayed at his post until they reached the rotating collection of stations and ships and drydocks high above the terraformed surface of Mars. There a different but equally passive voice guided them through docking at the largest station. The shudder of the ship as the seal completed swayed him on his feet and sent him down through the corridors, collecting choice crew along the way. He was thrumming with the thrill of completion, of leaving even his beloved ship behind and returning to his own soil.
The airlock opened with a hiss, smelling of unfamiliar air, and revealed a large and brightly decorated docking space. It was crowded with individuals of all genders and sizes, of many species, most in what seemed to be a uniform. At the forefront of them all, in that same uniform, stood a familiar figure. Once found, he couldn't draw his gaze away, especially as she started to speak.
"Captain Metis, I have been authorized on behalf of the New Systems Commonwealth to greet you and the crew of the United Earthgoing Service ship Bellerophon upon your return to the Sol system. We wish to congratulate you on a successful voyage." She smiled, big and slightly lopsided, and finished, "Welcome home."
He remembered himself enough to step forward and extend a hand in response. "Thank you, Andromeda."
There were introductions and speeches, and his crew milling around, still in their uniforms among the more monochrome outfits of the strangers, sipping unfamiliar drinks and nibbling alien canapés. Only as many as were needed to maintain the ship stayed aboard, a mere skeleton crew here in dock. The rest were awed by the species they had at best only observed before.
He found himself standing with Rommie, having been introduced to everyone and remembering no one. She held an unsipped glass of champagne in a familiar grip, nodding and smiling to the dignitaries around them. He had so many questions that he was unsure of which to ask first, and settled on one he had been wondering about since she had last taken her leave of him. "Are you… the same?"
"I— Mostly. Physically I've changed somewhat. But otherwise, yes." She smiled at her champagne. "I even remember the music."
"How long has it been for you since that night?" They'd kept an official clock of the time of the rest of the universe, but he wanted to hear it from her.
"Nine hundred and ninety-eight years. Five months. Seven days." Her eyes met his. They were the same dark, liquid brown that he remembered. "You were early."
"We hurried, toward the end."
She acknowledged that. "How long was it for you?"
This number he knew by heart. "Nine years to the day since I last saw you." He gently pressed one finger to the tip of her nose and drew out her smile.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" She set down her full glass on a passing tray. "I imagine you'll want to know what happens next."
"The thought had crossed my mind, yes." He didn't tell her of what he had thought. Earth first, of course, and then exploring again, this time with her by his side, seeing again those things that could have changed in four thousand years, seeing in detail what he had glanced at in passing. "What will happen to my crew?"
"You can probably imagine. Quarantine immediately, of course. Inoculations and medical checks. Those will be ongoing while the Bellerophon is examined by engineers and your records are reviewed by a military board. Since the United Earthgoing Service was effectively absorbed into the original Systems Commonwealth, the New Systems Commonwealth will be conducting the investigation. Every member of your crew will be assigned a bunk and a… handler, is probably the best word… to help him or her adjust to the new millennium. All of that will begin tomorrow." Her gaze lingered over his crew before returning to him. "I thought you would appreciate one last night aboard."
And she would have some idea of the bond formed by a captain, his crew, his ship. "Thank you."
"It's the least I can do."
The reception drew to a close shortly after he informed his crew of the plan to move to the station the next day, news received with no small measure of apprehension. His own words were bolstering, trumpeting the conclusion of the voyage and the completion of their mission, but they felt empty to him as he walked the no longer humming decks to his own quarters.
He dreamed of fields that night, of shimmering stars and waving grasses.
The next morning began with strangers aboard his ship. Courteous, saluting, in odd black-and-grey uniforms, but strangers nonetheless, identifying their responsibilities and offering assistance in packing and moving, leading his crew away. One by one, their lives in cartons, they left the Bellerophon. The hole in his chest grew bigger as Patel and Gomez, Richardeaux and Wong, Simmons and Ojukwu filed off. At last he was standing in the echoing corridors after seeing Jennings out the airlock. Rommie was at his side, having been there since she stepped aboard at the head of the line of handlers, and now she stood silently until Jennings was out of sight.
"So," she said at last, "shall we do the same for you?"
"Yes. One of the privileges of being the head of the Bellerophon program." She smiled at him.
"The Bellerophon program?"
"Yes. Designed to do… all this, really. I'll explain while we walk."
A whole program just for his ship in this bright new age. Doubtless nowhere near the size of the one for its launch, but to be remembered for so long… Her hand on his arm reminded him of the rooms he had yet to pack, and he let her direct him. "The head of the program?"
"Yes. Fifty years ago, there were some reports that seemed to verify your ship's location in the Milky Way. I approached the triumvirs— the three heads of government— with a proposal. They accepted, for the good press, of course, and authorized the funds for repurposing this station and a small staff."
"And appointed you?"
"I appointed myself. The advantage of having seniority over most of the organization is that very few people argue with your whims as long as you don't exercise them too frequently. We've been collecting reports and chasing any rumor for years. As soon as you seemed to be nearing the system, we started getting everything operational and recruiting a full staff." She looked around at his quarters— tidy, contained, his home for years now— as they entered, and took a box in hand.
It took far less time than he would have thought to pack everything away. Years' worth of uniforms; a lifetime of knickknacks and momentos too precious to leave behind the first time, let alone the second; well-thumbed books; and all of it consigned to boxes and stacked on a pallet. With every box packed, his rooms looked larger, the scuffs and wear from years of use obvious. Rommie waited as he walked the floor, inspecting every drawer and corner. She only spoke when he paused at his computer terminal, to assure him that any files in his personal directory would be copied over for him. Otherwise she let him have time to say one final goodbye, having already paced the larger corners of his ship late into the previous night.
At long last, knowing that if he didn't immediately then he never would, he turned to the door. Without a word, Rommie turned on the anti-grav pallet and slaved it to them, leading him out of the ship. There were already guards waiting at the door, saluting them as they sealed his ship against him.
His new quarters on the station were small and sterile, with all the personality ever imbued in a room by the military. The boxes themselves took up most of the floor not already occupied by the furniture: worn, barely-matching, utilitarian desk and chair, metal-frame bed, and battered dresser.
"It's only temporary. The last member of the military board is due to arrive tonight, and the review will start tomorrow. As soon as they've finished, it's up to you where you want to go." Before he could tell her, she went on, almost shyly. "The rest of your crew is in double bunks all along this level, rooming with their handlers. I would have given you the opportunity to room with me on my shuttle, but given our respective positions and past history I thought that might be inappropriate, at least until the review is concluded."
He smiled, one of his few moments of true humor of late. "Perhaps. So if I need you?" He took pleasure in her own smile at the double entendre.
"Everyone will be given a map with crew rooms and the areas you're authorized for. In your case, that includes my shuttle, if you need me for whatever reason. There will be a packet distributed to the crew with it, including a schedule of proceedings and a condensed history of the last four thousand years."
Light reading, of four thousand years of human— and android, and alien— history. All that time he'd been alive, with years and governments passing him by. "And if I want something else to do with my time?"
"What do you want?" She sat primly at the desk chair, making it clear that it was not meant flirtatiously. He hadn't intended it as such.
"Earth. Harper and Dylan, they told me it had been devastated, but I want to see for myself. There must be some areas I remember, maybe more restored, if the Commonwealth is in this system?"
He knew before she said it, or at least he suspected. His navigator's uncertainty, her own neat sidesteps when he'd made references to the planet the night before during the reception, the way her face changed now, full of sadness and pain, before she answered.
"I wondered if you might have been able to tell, aboard the Bellerophon. I'm not sure how to say this, but… Earth's gone."
His medical review was the next morning. They assured him that it wouldn't take long, that his crew's reviews would themselves be finished the next day. He did not notice the assurances. They drew his blood and exclaimed over his immunities and lack thereof, and he submitted to the first of a promised set of inoculations. They tested his reflexes, scanned his internal organs, took pictures of his brain, and flashed lights in his eyes. He was pushed out the door with copies of his medical records still in hand and only recognized that fact when Rommie waited in front of him.
"I passed," he told her wryly.
She didn't take the comment as the lure it was, instead searching his eyes. She was concerned, he realized, and he felt a pang at the knowledge that he may have distressed her. "I went to your quarters to escort you here. You— I didn't know where you were, at first. I had to tap into the mainframe."
"I am sorry," and he meant it fully. "I've been navigating space for many years. I thought I should be able to find my way through a space station."
"Yes. Of course." They stepped aside, nodding to Knox as he entered the medical bay with his handler. She still seemed unsettled, and in the next few seconds he knew why. "I had a captain once lose his home city in an attack. I was… concerned that you might do something drastic."
He wondered, briefly, whether it had been the captain or someone else in that instance, but didn't want to know. Neither was a course he intended to take. The loss of Earth hurt him but not, he had realized over the long course of the preceding night, as badly as it might once have. Earth had been lost to him long since, after his ship had launched and the first few hundred years had fallen away. Everyone and everything he had loved he had given up before even meeting Rommie for the first time.
She was still waiting for a response of some kind. "I wouldn't," he said quietly. "At the very least I have the review to go through first, correct?"
"Correct." She smiled, faintly, and her posture eased. "But I believe you may want something to eat before anything else."
And yes, he was hungry, the medical procedures having taken a while despite the staff's protestations, and he followed her to the mess, noting her stiff-legged step— not quite a limp. He asked, when they had sat down at the table with a plate of military rations, the question phrased as carefully as possible to avoid giving offense.
She took none. "A joint wore out and the repair isn't something I can do myself. The nearest engineers don't have the necessary knowledge of Old Commonwealth technology, let alone technology altered by Harper. One who does should arrive within days."
"That is… a long time to wait." He tested a gelatinous cube, aware of the irony of a week or two of waiting being long to those of their age.
"He's doing me a favor. He rearranged some of his appointments so he could reach me sooner. Engineers that specialize in antique androids are in high demand."
He despaired of the cube. "Antique androids?"
"They're not as high in demand." She smiled, self-deprecating, and he wondered at her acceptance of the designation and the situation both. Rather than disrupt her new ease, though, he returned the smile.
"I wonder, then, about the demand for antique captains."
It took four days for the review board to call him up. It was a grim-faced panel of human variants from different disciplines, primarily wearing insignia that Rommie had explained to him as being from engineering and command. They grilled him. Command decisions, points of interest on the voyage, his meetings with those throughout the galaxy over thousands of years, all were questioned and held up to scrutiny and second-guessed. On the third day, they analyzed his decision to let those who mutinied leave with the Andromeda.
Exhausted and wrung-dry as he felt, as frustrated as he was, he insisted on going to the mess that night against Rommie's wishes. She had offered to bring him something to his room, but he refused. His crew needed to see him standing proud, especially now.
"Even if you're actually slumped on your elbow?" she'd asked, with a touch of asperity, but had accompanied him nonetheless. He did manage to stay upright at the table, nodding to the various members of his crew that were dining at the same time. Between pleasantries and snatches of conversation with the others, he and Rommie discussed the proceedings; she'd sat in, her right both as his handler and as the head of the program.
When he'd realized that she could give him no more of an estimate of days than he could himself, he groaned. "The item missing from every command manual ever written: the level of bureaucracy attendant on your every decision."
"At least you're not actually a bureaucrat," she told him, watching his forkfuls critically. "That's even worse."
He paused at the bitter tone in her voice. "Personal experience?"
"Several hundred years' worth. In order to maintain my positions, there are duties I need to fulfill on a regular basis. Even before that I was an aide to several officers and individuals, including Dylan."
Now he lowered his hand entirely. "You were an aide to Dylan, as well as his ship?"
"Yes. With the growth of the Commonwealth it was easier to assign me another title rather than allot another crewmember to do what I was already doing." She nodded at his hand. "You should eat that. You need the calcium."
"I assume you reminded Dylan of his calcium, as well?" He smiled faintly and resumed eating.
The conversation eased into silence between them as he ate. It wasn't until she was walking with him to his rooms again that the topic resumed. "What did happen to Dylan? Or Harper or Tyr?"
She took the abrupt questions in stride. "Tyr died relatively shortly after our encounter with you. He'd left the Andromeda to pursue his own interests." She hesitated, as if there was more to the story, but did not explain further. "Harper continued to work with the Commonwealth. His children did as well, and his grandchildren. He never did believe he'd die of old age until it happened, and I assume that if there is in fact an afterlife he was quite surprised that he did. Dylan…" She took a breath. "He remained my captain for many years, but he… became slow, with age. Someone eventually was faster in a fight. He won, of course, but the price…"
He nodded. Dylan would not be one to age gracefully and pass silver-haired in his sleep. They had reached his rooms now, and he closed the door behind them and took advantage of the relative solitude to ask what had been weighing on his mind all day. "While we're discussing old friends, what became of my people, those that left with you?" He couldn't prevent the slight twist he gave to the word "friends".
She detailed their lives. He was pleased with most of them, and gratified to hear of Kemp's many years of service with the High Guard, some of them spent working with Harper. To hear of Nadya leaving the service was not surprising, but the depth of grief he felt for the woman who had been a thorn in his side for so long was, when Rommie told him of her short life afterward.
She waited, patiently sitting at his desk, while he absorbed the news. At last he looked to her. "How many times have you lost your crew like this?"
The question made her dispassionate expression slip, and for a moment he saw raw grief of her own. Her mask was restored quickly, but there was still a trace of it in her voice. "Many times. And no, it doesn't get easier."
"I wouldn't want it to." He tried to smile, but he expected that it was more of a grimace.
To that, she said nothing, but stood to leave, stopping only to grip his shoulder in reassurance.
After four more days, the head of the review board fell silent at the table and studied him critically. "So," he said finally, "we still have to interview several more of your crew before we decide on a full course of action. We may call you in at times from here on out to clarify certain matters. Other than that, you will hear from us when we tell you of our decision. Until that time, you have full run of the station, with the exception of control and classified areas. If you want to leave the station, you may do so only with Andromeda as company, and then for no longer than a day."
"Thank you." He stood when they did. Rommie came up beside him seconds later. "I'm surprised that they would allow me to leave."
"You would be under my supervision. It is intended, I believe, to discourage you completely." She took his arm and led him out.
He submitted. "Obviously."
"I would be willing to wait to go with you, but only if you can wait until after tomorrow. The engineer arrived today, so in the morning he'll start work." She smiled. "Where do you want to go?"
He hesitated for only a few seconds before saying, "Somewhere I can stand on the ground," thinking of his dream of a few nights before, of vegetation and fresh air.
She nodded. "Mars is terraformed. It's not perfect, but it's close."
"That will have to do, then."
She let go of his arm; he'd forgotten that she was holding it still. "I'll get you in the morning then, the day after tomorrow. I should meet with the engineer."
The faint stab of irritation he ignored. He'd been anticipating spending the rest of the afternoon with her, but she did after all have other concerns. She had been extremely gracious at putting her life on hold to shepherd him and his ship, irrespective of any relationship, and so he simply agreed before parting ways.
The next day and a half passed slowly. He spent it in his quarters, reading through more of the compiled history, and in the common areas, sitting in on games of chance and meals with his crew and their handlers. He even fell into conversation with the head of station maintenance, a cheerful woman who freely admitted that Rommie intimidated her and offered to help him with any technological questions. She even went so far as to promise a complete tour of the station before he left.
All of this he appreciated, but he hadn't realized how quickly he had come to rely on Rommie's steady presence. It was a disappointment to not hear a quiet example of her sardonic humor during the card games when he most expected it. He was relieved to go to bed the second day, knowing that she would be at his door early in the morning.
And she was. Bright, cheerful, and with an actual spring in her step when she came in, waiting for him to finish fastening the capelet of his uniform around his shoulders. "Are you… feeling better?" He rather thought the question was unnecessary, but observed it anyway.
"Oh, much. He also replaced some worn parts. I haven't felt this maintained in years." She gestured to the door as she said, "We can go whenever you're ready. I already notified the station that I'd be taking my shuttle out today, and I compiled a list of reasonably isolated areas we can visit."
"Thank you." He let her lead him to the shuttle.
The airlock her shuttle was docked at was next to a station window, and he could see the sleek outline of the craft. It was small, especially compared to the oversize bulk of the ships of his day, including his own beloved Bellerophon. "Is it capable of travel outside of the system?"
Rommie was startled from her task of opening the airlock. "Of course. It took a lot of modification before I could pilot it, because of the limitations of androids in slipstream, but we did eventually succeed."
"We?" He followed her in.
"D'Mion. Artist with an engineer background. I worked with him closely for a decade on Commonwealth and private contracts. The shuttle was a gift."
That concept arrested his attention. "A gift? This?"
"Yes." Rommie smiled briefly and sadly. "He was very rich, and very influential, and very sick, with no heirs. In his last year he gave everyone expensive gifts. We were… good friends." She affectionately stroked her fingers down a section of wall.
He could have pursued it, but instead took in his surroundings. There were two curtained alcoves, one to either side of the airlock— one a closet, he thought at first, but the walls were lined with access panels when he looked. The other was a small bathroom, something that he wasn't sure an android needed but would not want to question. A small cockpit, with two chairs and many more lit panels, filled the nose; the walls from there to the airlock were lined with cupboards and shelves, with a neatly-made bunk fixed to one side and a table and chairs secured to the floor and wall opposite it. Everything was scrupulously clean and exceedingly tidy.
The whole interior stood at a direct contrast to the shelves themselves. They were filled with dozens of items, books and picture frames and statuettes and more, albeit all neatly set on the shelves and completely dust-free. He wondered at the number and variety, as well as the apparently loose and breakable nature of so many on a starship.
"They're all fastened down, don't worry. One roll and everything would be everywhere otherwise." The comment startled him out of his contemplation. Rommie had sat down in one of the forward seats and was watching him and his interest.
"That comforts me." He turned away from the display and moved to sit in the other chair, observing as she pressed buttons and started the unmistakable hum of engines.
Finally she tapped a control and he heard a faint sound, presumably a channel opening up. "This is the Glorious Heritage leaving the station, no estimated return time."
"Understood, Glorious Heritage. Have a safe trip."
"Thank you." She cut the connection and took up two… joysticks? "You might want to fasten your seatbelt."
The impish smile that accompanied the suggestion convinced him to do so, clicking it closed when they cleared the station, and not a moment too soon as Rommie spun into a barrel roll.
True to her word, nothing fell behind them, but he was gripping the armrests when she leveled out. "Sorry about that. I always do it when I'm leaving," she explained. "The dockmaster hates me to. He keeps predicting I'll destroy my ship or the station, computer reflexes or not." She didn't seem particularly sorry.
"I see." He warily relaxed his grip. He did not lift his hands away, though. "Where are you taking me?"
"Where do you want to go?" She stopped them at a point where they could watch the slow roll of the station. The Bellerophon was rotating with it, incongruously large. He wondered what would happen to it. The thought of his ship, now lost to him, reminded him of other since-gone things.
"Perhaps… we could see where Earth was," he suggested finally. The spin of the station did not afford him that sight.
Rommie seemed to think about it for a minute, studying him as she did. At last she nodded and took up the controls again, this time the ride far smoother.
"Where Earth was" had become an asteroid belt. Glittering ice crystals, pieces of rock larger than the station, and the detritus of Earth's greatest cultures, all trapped in a vast circle around the sun. Doubtless there were human remains, too, floating eternally in a sea of black, sailors on a ship long since lost to storms greater than itself. The ruins of the planet sparkled in the light of the distant sun.
"The moon was destroyed as well," Rommie volunteered quietly, otherwise having been silent since they'd come into view.
He let her voice ripple into the stillness. After watching the bitter ballet a few minutes longer, he quietly said, "Thank you, Andromeda."
She turned them away from what he had spent four thousand years waiting to see again. This time they exchanged no words as they turned toward Mars. It was only after she contacted the planetary landing authority that he spoke again.
"Where did the name come from? Glorious Heritage?"
"It was my class when I was a High Guard ship of the line." If she was surprised at either the abrupt comment or the lack of one regarding Earth, she didn't show it. "I had several sister ships, but only two survived the Fall itself, and one was irreparably damaged by the time we found her again. When D'Mion gave me this shuttle, he researched all of my history that he could access and decided to give it a name befitting my former status." She started to descend into the atmosphere. "There are other aspects he drew from, as well. These chairs are replicas of the pilot's station on my original Command deck."
"Original Command deck?" He gripped the armrests again as they were buffeted by high winds.
"I went through several overhauls during my career." She sounded matter-of-fact about it, but the ship dropping like a rock through a cloud gave him pause. "The first was under the Old Commonwealth, but the second was masterminded by Harper. That's when the chair was removed."
"You seem to have spent a great deal of time under the same name, one way or another," he commented when her speech lapsed.
She pulled up to slow their descent. "Haven't you?" The ground was coming into better focus below them. "I haven't had the same name the whole time. This shuttle has several different registrations under different names, with possible outer hulls I can generate to mask it. The name 'Glorious Heritage' and this appearance is just the one the Commonwealth knows." In the quick look she leveled at him, she seemed to understand his confusion. She immediately went back to watching the landing field below them, but went on to explain, her voice and hands both steady despite the subject. "Prejudice against AIs goes in cycles, and I've been through periods of it in the last thousand years. After the first time you're nearly seized and broken down for scrap, you learn to have an escape plan in place."
"Prejudice? Against you? Such an incredible creation— an incredible person— and you're disliked simply for being as remarkable as you are?" He stuttered the last few words, not just because they gently bumped to ground.
She stood, looking down at him, and then so carefully laid her hand on his shoulder, the touch feather-light. "Perhaps I should have stayed with you all those years ago."
"Perhaps." He took her hand and kissed her fingertips before letting go and rising to walk to the airlock with her.
The sky was so close in color, but not quite there, a tinge of purple in the blue. They'd landed in an unpopulated area, but the world around them was green and lush, leaves emerald and flowers vibrant, insects buzzing thickly in the warm air. The grass was even springy underfoot. He turned slowly, taking it all in, even if he did have to blink at the bright sun.
"It's summer in this hemisphere," Rommie told him. She was perched on a bench among the greenery, her plain uniform out of place against the wild colors. A controlled wilderness area was the closest she could give him to real open land.
"How long does it last?" He wandered over to a flower he vaguely recognized from Earth all those years ago and breathed deeply, enjoying the smell.
"Summer? Six months here." She came over to him, her hand ghosting over the flower's bell. "Hibiscus. Trance used to grow this in Hydroponics."
"On the Andromeda?"
She nodded. "And it makes an excellent tea. Tesla used to drink it."
"The Russian inventor?" He was surprised by her laughter.
"The singer. Tesla Barana. I was her bodyguard for a while, after I retired from the Commonwealth the first time. She always drank hibiscus tea to relax. She was born on a planet where it grew wild." Rommie looked wistful for a moment.
Wanting to pull her away from the memories, knowing how much of a trap they could be, he snapped off the flower and turned to present it to her. She eyed it, and him, strangely. "You need a great deal more than that to make tea, and there are rules against picking things."
"It's not for tea." She had a small pin on the breast of her black-and-grey High Guard jumpsuit. Careful not to press the bounds of propriety, he maneuvered the stem into the points and loops of the design until it was secure, the color almost supernaturally bright against the uniform. "For you."
"I—thank you." The suddenness of the crooked smile was almost as warm as the sun. "But you weren't supposed to pick any."
"I suspect we can get away with one flower." She was still smiling up at him, eyes bright, and it was a sudden impulse that led him to bend to press his lips against hers.
It felt familiar, comfortable, and she had let him proceed willingly enough. When he looked down at her again, though, she was solemn, the flower seeming garish now. "You shouldn't have done that. Not while you're under review and I'm responsible for you."
"I know." She nodded and turned, presumably to go back to her bench, but stopped when he asked, "And after I've gone through the review and you're no longer responsible for me?"
He almost thought he would get no answer, she waited so long to respond. As he began to despair, she said quietly, "Then, but not before."
The rest of their stay on Mars was limited in terms of their interaction. Rommie gave him basic information as was needed or he asked and she occasionally questioned as to his preferences for the rest of their itinerary, but that was it. He began to regret his impulsive actions if it brought this level of frostiness to his relationship. It was with relief that, after the long day on the surface, he settled into the copilot seat of the shuttle. "Back home. Temporary home, anyway."
That elicited a tiny smile. "Temporary. Have you given any thought to what you want to do after this?"
He breathed a small, quiet sigh of relief at the thaw. It might, however, be best not to enlighten her as to his daydream of traveling with her. Instead he stared out to the stars appearing in the darkening sky. "Antique captains, I suspect, have limited career options."
"Well, anyone who the review board deems suitable— which should be most of your crew, from what I understand— will be receiving a pension from the Commonwealth, assuming they choose not to stay with the service. If they do, they will be offered one or more positions, although additional training may be required. This arrangement should hold true for you, as well." She glanced over at him. "Either way, you won't have to concern yourself with finances, within reason."
"What is the currency now?" Dylan had mentioned thrones, there had been the international currency of his time, but he wasn't up to the newest economy in the potted history in his small room.
"The ruling currency is the corona. It's more than complicated than that, but it's detailed in the history you were given."
So not a complete thaw, then. Accepting the consequences of his own actions, he nodded. "I'll look it up." When no more comments were forthcoming, he stood carefully, as they seemed to have leveled out in their course. At her questioning look, he said, "I don't feel like sitting." She went back to her controls and, with nothing more said, he moved back through the cabin to study the teeming shelves.
It was a surprise to realize just how full they were. Some of the items were also not what he would have suspected: a chain with two smooth rings of different sizes strung on it; a child's stuffed bear; a leather-bound set of Greek myths, in English rather than the strange symbolic text they used now. He paused at a red curl of hair, suspended in a clear block, and then his attention was arrested by a photograph of Rommie standing arm-in-arm with another woman and a man, the captured scene also including a couple with a toddler. The opposite shelf was much the same, a slim volume of what seemed to be poetry next to what was probably a mouth instrument near a slim silver bracelet. The volume was staggering, and each new picture frame revealed new groups or individuals, not even all human. He finally rested his eyes on one shot where he recognized more than just Rommie in a group. Dylan, Tyr, and Harper stood near her, as well as two other women, a tall blonde in black and a redhead with a golden gleam to her skin. More photographs were wedged into the frame, single shots of a man with odd protrusions on his forearms, another blonde but in pink, and a hairy being that some of his reading suggested was a Magog. This last was puzzling, as that same reading indicated that the Magog were to be feared rather than allies. Of course, not only did the history sum up a great deal rather than detailing everything, but he was nowhere near the period of the Andromeda yet.
Rommie's voice broke his reverie. "We're nearing the station. You may want to sit again."
"Another barrel roll?" That teased out another faint smile, and he felt ever so slightly more contented as he sat down.
"I wouldn't want to overstress you."
The panel in front of her beeped an arpeggio as the docking port drew closer, and he could feel the end of their uninterrupted time together doing the same. He couldn't wait. "I'm curious about your collection—"
Rommie's hands faltered on the controls, the smooth approach interrupted, and he saw her lips press tightly together. After she regained control of the shuttle, she told him, "Memories. People. And none I wish to discuss right now." The communications unit sparked to life, and the conversation was over.
Over the next several days he saw little of Rommie. She left him to his reading, to his crew, and the mercy of the panel. He finished the potted history and requested more. It was a strange sort of limbo, living out of boxes and with anyone summoned at any moment according to the whim of their cadre of questioners.
For they were indeed working through everyone. Some of his people were processed by the council and spit out again in a matter of hours, others longer, some going back for many short rounds of interviewing. One whom he had always suspected of aiding Nadya in her failed mutiny took more than a day, and when he was returned he was pale and refused to look his captain in the eye. More than once he himself was interrupted for another round of questioning, the board true to its word, by an official appearing deferentially but decidedly at his elbow in the common areas and bringing him in for five or ten or fifty more questions. Each time he wondered— hoped— if Rommie would be there, but she proved elusive. If she came at all, it was slipping in after the questions started and out before they finished.
Some hours he simply walked the halls of the station, going anywhere he could gain access to, watching the surface of Mars turn below the windows. None of the areas he could access allowed him to see his ship, and the guards still stood at the airlock. Each time he reached the airlock for the Glorious Heritage he considered seeing if Rommie was there, but while the symbols were beginning to look familiar he had no way to know which to press to gain the attention of anyone inside. Inevitably he would return to either his room for the next section of a history text or to one of the common rooms for yet another bland meal or card game with his crew and their handlers.
If this was to be his fate, he would far rather be traveling the stars again in the Bellerophon.
After a week of silence from Rommie, he received word that the board had finished all necessary reviews and begin deliberations. On what, he wondered, would they deliberate? The fact that the crew of the Bellerophon had traveled for four thousand years? Whether they had created adequate documentation? Or perhaps if they had portioned and dispensed their food supplies appropriately? There were few things that the board's deliberations could affect now.
He was considering that, musing if there would have been any effect on their mission if they had rationed their spices slightly longer, when someone requested admission. After so many days of silence, it was a surprise to find Rommie on the other side. "I was beginning to suspect you had forgotten me so easily."
"Never." She stepped through the doorway. "I did, however, have many other things to do. Station matters, some Commonwealth business, and I was sitting in on some of the review board's questioning and deliberations." She looked somber now, any amusement at his comment fleeting. "Some of the conclusions are not favorable for certain individuals." He thought of Nadya's supporter and said nothing. "For now, I'm not needed, so I thought I'd stop and see if there was anything I could do for you."
He gestured to his growing pile of histories and texts. One on the printed language had been added just that morning, trying to decipher the airlock having convinced him that grasping Common would be advantageous. "I have more than adequate reading, I believe, but I wouldn't object to your company."
"I thought you wouldn't." She moved to sit on the narrow bed. "I can't tell you much more about the deliberations, you know."
"I wasn't expecting you to. I suspect that they're not going to come up with anything particularly noteworthy for most of us, at any rate."
"Probably not, no. Options of retirement or continued service seem to be the forerunning decisions for most of you."
He toyed with the corner of one of those thin texts— a flexi, he was told. "I suspect I'll be offered retirement. Be told to go somewhere and write my memoirs."
"Probably. Antique captains, as you said." She looked down at her own hands, suddenly seeming embarrassed. "When the decision's been made, if it's an option, I'd be willing to offer you space on my shuttle. I'm used to both writers and captains, if not antique ones." While he tried to order his thoughts, she continued, the soft words stunning to him after their trip to Mars and the subsequent distance. "I've been on this station almost constantly for forty-three years. I'm ready for something else. After waiting for a thousand years, I believe I can share my space. Or we could find somewhere else."
At last he found his voice again, the words he pushed out confused but all he could think of. "Are they that close to forcing me out?" She didn't respond for a moment and he answered his own question. "You can't tell me. Of course." He considered, searching her eyes. "I don't know yet where I'll go. Whatever my choice is, I would be glad to be with you."
The room was so small that he could see her shoulders relax, and he reached out to touch her lips. "Why," he said, "are you asking me this now? You had said not until after this was settled." He realized even as he formed the words.
"The board's completed their decisions. The crew of the Bellerophon and their handlers are to report to the primary meeting hall tomorrow morning."
Rommie escorted him to the hall, but rather than usher him into the crush of his crew, many of whom were pale, ashy, or slightly green, she led him onto the dais where the members of the board stood. He balked unconsciously at the first step, feeling that he should be with his people one last time, but her firm hand on his elbow urged him up.
The sea of faces—the familiar ones of his crew and the almost-familiar ones of their handlers—looked back at him. They were fewer than they should have been; those who had left on the Andromeda, one who had gone AWOL in their third year, four who had died of illnesses their medical technology had been unable to cure, two lost in an accidental rupture, the absence of all these thinned their ranks and were palpably gone. But for those who stood proudly in the uniforms that matched his, the men and women with whom he had been through so much, he felt the impact and the sting of impending parting.
Next to him the head of the board nodded to Rommie. He barely heard the words that followed: superlative praise, effusive promises of historical record, expansive offers of careers in the Commonwealth. They flowed over him, leaving him only too aware of the faces before him that he would likely never see again. Too soon there was a smattering of applause, the half-heard sound pulling him from his reverie, and the board congratulating him, glad-handing him, telling him that he had done well and had the full confidence of the Commonwealth behind him.
Those thin flexis were being circulated through the crowd. The head of the board handed him his own, and he looked down to see several positions listed.
This was the end.
"You don't have to decide immediately, of course." Rommie looked up from her seat in the shuttle's cockpit. She had been doing something with the controls when he asked for entry, having deciphered the symbols enough to do so, but now watched him as he paced through the compartment. "You have several days. Most of your crew still hasn't decided."
And three of them had not been given a choice. He had not been surprised by this development. Two of them had been quietly handed the Commonwealth equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, and one more had been pulled aside as they left the hall to await a full court martial. Those that had the option were joining the Commonwealth, were leaving, were as undecided as he. He'd already been given verbal invitations to more than one wedding, mostly crew that had been together for years but also a crewman and his friend's handler.
But he was torn. He had spent so many years fixed at his goals, first to explore and then to go home again, and now to see this through with his crew, and suddenly he was purposeless. When he'd said this, she'd been quick to reassure him, but reassurance was not what he wanted. He wanted a reason to go forward, and that was not provided by the list of desk jobs, ceremonial functions, and menial captaining chores granted him. With no new challenges to conquer, he may as well wither away, lay down upon his bed and know that he should die. "How am I to decide at all? None of them are what I want to do, what I can do."
"So don't do them." He stared. She shrugged and went on, frank words delivered calmly. "Human lives are far too short. I've lived enough of them to know. If you don't want to work with the Commonwealth, don't. What would you rather do?"
"I want…" He hesitated, considered the starfield through the front window and her quiet wait for him to continue, considered the tidy shuttle and the shelves full of the human lives she'd lived, and pushed on. "I want to explore again. To be autonomous, rather than shackled by those who never see beyond their own desks." He had reached her again in his pacing, and when she looked up at him, he finished, in a voice barely audible to his ears but doubtless clear to hers, "To be with someone I've been thinking of for centuries."
"That can all be arranged." She stood, still forced to look up at him even on her feet. "I have room for you aboard or we can find a larger ship. Where would you like to go?"
It was not that simple, of course. While he could so easily give his refusal and take his final disposition, Rommie's business on the station was not so easily concluded. Over the next weeks, his crew left by ones and twos and threes, some in new uniforms and others in civilian clothing. He was not the only one staying with the individual assigned to guide him in this brave new world, but he was the only one staying on the station even temporarily.
While he waited and watched his former life fall away from him, he moved gradually into Rommie's shuttle, box by box. By the second, half his crew was gone. By the fourth, restoration engineers had arrived to convert his ship into a museum piece. With the final box coming to rest in her storage area, the trial of Nadya's compatriot was set to proceed within days, a trial that he was expected to attend and testify at. He fancied that his steps echoed through the corridors as he walked. More than once Rommie granted his request to take him out in the shuttle and fly by the Bellerophon, decades of spaceflight disappearing as pockmarks were covered or hammered out and new paint appeared, the ship's emblems gleaming fresh in the station's reflected lights. She hadn't looked this new since before she was launched.
When he mused on this to Rommie, she looked mournful. "No ship ever does. By the time I was finally destroyed, I looked all five hundred years old."
He had been taken off-guard by the revelation. Over the previous weeks the tidbits of information he had teased from her had been generally cheerful anecdotes of old captains and crews, never anything so obviously personally sad. "You were destroyed? Not retired?"
"Yes. That was my ship self, obviously. Lost in battle almost exactly ninety-five years after I met you. Captain Kimet was aboard, but everyone else, including this body, made it to safety." Rommie had been watching the work crews on the Bellerophon with him, but was assuredly not seeing them now, the tenor of her voice a rote recitation. "That was the last time I was a ship's AI. They tried to reintegrate me with a new ship, but I'd been the Andromeda Ascendant for so long that the procedure failed and I and the mainframe were nearly corrupted beyond repair. I never let them try it again. Harper had rebuilt my android body once, but he'd been gone for twenty years by then and none of them were up to his standard." As if closing the matter, she turned them away from his ship. "That was the first time I left the High Guard."
He didn't consider it closed. "They tried integrating you with another ship? Why?"
"AIs…" She seemed to struggle. "Intelligent, competent, sane ship's AIs are hard to program and develop, and it takes time to let one achieve full ability in its ship. It's extremely rare for an AI to survive the destruction of his or her ship, and when it does happen it's usually a much younger AI and therefore more adaptable." She'd achieved a clinical tone on the last sentence, but now she dropped again into the mournful one. "Harper was the one who pioneered it, but only with New Commonwealth ships and AIs, never Old Commonwealth."
She started to turn them back to the station for docking, but stopped when he spoke again, that sadness pulling at him. She kept her eyes forward as he spoke, her body tensing visibly. "You don't like telling me about your past, do you?"
Short, blunt, edged with pain, and he hesitated, but only for a moment. He had never been afraid of the risks of exploration, and while these risks loomed very large indeed he wanted to know. "Why?"
She was silent for a long time, steering them into the dock, but he was willing to wait. He had, for so very long. She stood once they'd connected with the airlock, made her way over to the shelves, and hovered her fingers over some of the items— the bear, a picture frame, the lock of hair. She picked up the chain with the rings, stringing it between her hands and rubbing the metal bands, letting one slide onto her finger. It fit. Still playing with the jewelry, she came back and sat down. Not meeting his eyes, she spoke.
"If I tell you about these, I don't tell you everything. I tell you where they came from, who I associate them with, why I kept them. But when I remember them, I remember everything: how I met him, what he looked and acted like, when he gave me these. Every time you ask me something, I pull up every single file associated with it. If I talk about Harper, I remember every conversation, every health scare he ever had." She looked up at him now, her voice firm. "I have a perfect memory, Fehdman. If I think about Harper, then every single time I feel again how it felt when he overdosed on his medication, every time he nearly died, crying when he did die. I don't like reliving my body or my shipself or my programming being torn apart. I don't like experiencing my captains sacrificing themselves, my fights with my spouses, or outliving my children again and again. It gets old. It hurts more every time I replay being called a corrupted piece of software by the Commonwealth triumvirs. I can't tell you about most of my life without feeling everything again, just like the first time."
She stood abruptly, as if unable to contain her frustration, but not before he saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes. She put the rings back where they had been and he pretended to miss her other hand wiping at her cheeks. When she came back and sat to power down the ship, he let it rest.
The trial was brief, the crewman confessing his culpability and sentenced for treasonous activities. They gave him leniency, under the circumstances, but he would not be out of a Commonwealth facility for many years. He would have felt sorry for the man, but he had his chances, could have refused to do it or left with Nadya, so he ignored the pleading looks from across the makeshift courtroom.
The trial concluded the last of his obligations to the New Commonwealth and the United Spacegoing Service. He was done, the constraints of the services no longer weighing on him as he made his way to Rommie's shuttle, and his only business with them collecting a pension commensurate with his years under those constraints. He would still be at the station, however, Rommie's obligations and his acceptance of the engineer's offer yet outstanding, and the promise of a tour of his refurbished ship prior to the installation of museum displays had been extended and accepted.
That night he stood looking over the shelves when she boarded the shuttle, bureaucratic chores from the trial having kept her back. He heard her come to a stop just inside, her light words about his next meal trailing off as she saw his post. Before she came up with something else to say, he asked what had been bothering him for days. "Why do you keep things to remind you of what you don't want to remember?"
She walked to stand at his side, likewise considering the objects in from of him. "I'm not sure I follow."
"If you don't want to remember, why do you keep items designed to do just that? It would seem a more reasonable thing to do than to be held in grip to a past you don't want to recall."
"Because I don't want to forget." She took his hand and pulled him to sit down on the bed with her, rendering the items above their heads invisible through the shelving. He waited more as she studied their fingers; he was fairly sure that they were not what captured her attention before she spoke again. "I forgot something important before. It was erased, locked away from me by the Commonwealth, and that nearly killed me and my crew. As much as I may not want to remember, forgetting is worse. If I forget anybody or anything from the last thousand years, I have these to remind me."
Now she looked him in the eyes, that soft brown now almost pleading. "You must know. You remember Earth from before you left, and while it must hurt you to keep so many things to remind you of it you do it anyway."
This was true. And he had, after all, kept a picture of her, culled from cameras aboard, for the time between their parting and his return to the Sol system, as much as seeing her and yet lacking her presence tore at him. So yes, he understood her reasoning, and the seductive call of what was no longer there, and said so.
She smiled at him, that bright, abashed smile. "I think you'd be hard to forget," she told him.
"I know it would be impossible to forget you." He returned the smile, tapping her nose with one finger. She laughed, a sparkling peal, and moved to kiss him.
They made love, for the first time in ten years and a thousand, and afterward they lay together, quiet, for the moment at peace. Even with her in his arms, though, he couldn't help but wonder whether he would be as hard to forget in another thousand years, and what place he would occupy on her shelves long after his body was dust.