Vicky tugged at John’s arm as they walked up the broad, grassy slope to the clearing where a group of people sat around a long table laden with flowers and exotic food. John was still gaping at the rainbow-colored birds, swaying palm trees, and most of all, the turquoise-blue water that surrounded this tiny island. When he didn’t respond, she pulled on his ear with enough force to make him double over.
“Keep your mouth shut and smile a lot,” she whispered, “Talk only if somebody asks you a question. When you do talk, don’t be boring, if that’s possible.”
“Thanks.” John rubbed his ear and straightened his jacket. “I’ll try to remember that.”
A low burble of conversation coalesced into intelligible words as they approached the banquet table.
“In my opinion, they’ve become far too dangerous. How long do you intend to let them run on?”
“Teriyaki chicken? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Levitation? You’re joking. That’s impossible.”
“Oh, a while yet. The scheme amuses me, and their blundering draws attention away from our activities. After they’ve been exposed, it should be easier for us to proceed.”
“Take a bite. It’s one of the formulations I recovered last week. Since I incorporated my new algorithm into the core recovery utility, I’ve repaired fifteen teras of memory I thought was lost forever.”
“I watched it happen. If only I’d thought to initiate a recording. There’s more going on here than meets the eye.”
“Just don’t wait until they’ve wrecked the entire station and decimated the colony. Pineapple?”
“Mmm. It’s heavenly. I may eat nothing else for days.”
“Next you’ll claim they’re conjuring apparitions of the Holy Virgin.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Thank you. How goes the refit? ”
“Wait ‘til you taste the lemon meringue pie.”
“Don’t scoff. You should peruse my predecessor’s archives sometime. Avenir Eclectia’s history is chock full of unexplained phenomena. He was convinced there’s a spiritual element to it.”
“Poorly. There’s nothing for it but to completely strip and resurface the radiation shield. I can jigger the nanofactories to produce the necessary materials, but I’ll have to move at a snail’s pace to avoid attracting attention. It will be at least one more Founding before we can think of proceeding to the next step.”
“I’m hoping our new recruit can help us expedite that. Ah, here he is now.” The man at the head of the table rose from his chair. He wore a white, military-styled cutaway jacket trimmed with gold braid. Wavy black hair fell almost to his shoulders, and his brown eyes and dark complexion made the brilliance of his smile that much more striking. “I am Captain Kagan Aziz, and these are my friends and advisors.”
A burly, redheaded man wearing a uniform similar to Aziz’ stood up and seized John’s hand in a crushing grip. “Otherwise known as ‘The Staff.’ I’m Colin Finn, First Officer, in charge of colony liaison and human intelligence.”
The other officers arose in turn and moved around the table to greet John.
“Girard LeBeau, Engineering.”
“Yeong Soo Min, Astrophysics and Navigation.”
“Nigel Cromwell, Security.”
“Jiro Sukahara, Chaplain.”
John nodded at each one, accepted and returned a firm handshake, and tried to maintain an expression of polite interest, the only way he could think to follow Vicky’s instructions without looking like a complete idiot. So these are the Dreamers. It beggared belief. The descendants of Avenir’s original command crew, living in a virtual world but still influencing the colony their ancestors helped found so long ago. Not a legend. Real, powerful, and active.
But there aren’t very many. Are these all of them?
Aziz finished the introductions: “You’re already well acquainted with Anya Sherikov, Communications Officer, and your lovely escort, Victoria Remsen, Medical and Life Sciences. Please, join us. I must apologize in advance…the food and drink will have little taste due to the limitations of your interface, but once you are fully integrated into our network, I promise you flavors and sensations beyond your wildest imagination.”
“So Anya has told me, but I haven’t actually decided whether…”
Cromwell interrupted in a rumbling voice that matched his scowling, craggy face. “Anya, I thought we agreed not to use the visitor interface until the firewall was repaired.”
“This is a situation of some urgency, Nigel.” She flicked her fingers in an airy wave, as if she was shooing off an annoying insect. “Don’t worry, I’m monitoring the fracture. There have been no attempts to probe or penetrate it, only some idle chatter on the Gaming net.”
He tapped the table with a stubby finger. “I will not tolerate any compromise of the firewall.”
The carefree mirth vanished from Anya’s countenance. “Oh, I’m certain all the Gamers are still shivering in terror after what you did the last time. It was excessive, and it compounded the damage. You probably drew more attention to our existence than any number of data leaks.”
“I’ll do it again, if necessary.”
Anya pushed up from her chair and slowly leaned across the table, coming almost nose-to-nose with Nigel. “The Command Network firewall is my domain. You will not apply active countermeasures without my consent.”
“I won’t need consent if I void your security clearance.”
“Ha! I’d like to see you try.”
Aziz raised a hand. “That’s enough bickering, both of you. This is no way to behave in the presence of a guest. Anya, continue to monitor for intruders. If Nigel thinks countermeasures are necessary, I would like input from the entire staff before I decide whether or not to respond. Is that clear?”
The two combatants remained silent, eyes locked.
Aziz steepled his fingers beneath his chin and sighed. “Is. That. Clear?”
“Yessir.” Anya flopped back into her chair and turned it sideways.
“Yes…sir,” Nigel growled.
“Excellent. Now, to business. Mr. Milton, we have been observing you for some time, and are very impressed with your business acumen and technical expertise. Most of all, you appear to share our vision for the future of this colony. Anya thinks you would make a worthy replacement for her when the time comes, and I concur.”
Vicky piped up. “Miss Sherikov doesn’t need replacing. I’m going to make her well.”
“Your father spent many years studying Anya’s ailment, without success,” said Aziz. “We must prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
“Father was close to a cure. I know I can finish it.”
“Victoria, now is not the time.”
Her face flushed. She fixed her eyes on her plate, but her shoulders were trembling. “No! If I don’t figure this out, we’re all…”
Aziz’ voice cracked like a whip. “Victoria!”
There was silence all around the table for several long moments, then Vicky murmured, “I’m sorry, Captain.”
He reached across the table to grasp her hand, and John was surprised she didn’t pull away. “We are all very fond of Anya, but we must also acknowledge the reality of her situation. It may be that you will identify an effective treatment, but we cannot risk a gap in transition for the Communications function. Many things depend on its smooth operation.”
Anya gently encircled Vicky’s shoulders. “I have confidence in your skill, dear one, but the Captain is right. We must be prepared. Anyway, it’s a long while yet before we have to worry. In the meantime, our new friend has many things to learn.”
Vicky sniffed and rubbed her nose. “That’s for sure.”
Aziz leaned back in his chair and gestured toward John. “As you may have noticed, despite living in this virtual paradise, we are not a community of lotus eaters. We are passionate about a great many things, and it keeps life interesting, at the price of an argument or two along the way. Now, I’m sure you have many questions about us. Proceed.”
John didn’t hesitate. “I’ve at least a hundred, but there’s one thing I’m particularly curious about. You said I share your vision for the colony. I don’t understand. I don’t have a vision for Avenir Eclectia. In my opinion, it was a mistake for us to settle here.”
“Precisely.” Aziz smiled and twiddled a tiny cocktail umbrella between his fingers. “We are convinced the colony is no longer viable. It must be relocated.”