Machines III

DISCLAIMER: Paramount owns the Star Trek universe and everything in it. Far be it from me to dispute that fact; I'm merely having fun. No infringement intended. The term multiverse is copyright Michael Moorcock.

COMMENT: I wrote this story in March and April, 1996. Due to my chronic lack of time, it has only now been forced into a shape remotely fit for posting. On the other hand, there's something to be said for not editing a story until you've forgotten its contents. :) This is the third volume of my Machines trilogy and it follows directly upon vol. II. As most of it takes place in an alternate timeline, it's a bit tricky to determine exactly when, but the point of exit from the 'normal' timeline is probably sometime after events in GENERATIONS. The previous two parts of the trilogy can be found in the archive. Anyone who has difficulties picking them up there, can email me for them.

RATING: Let's give it an R, just like the other two. There's no explicit sex, but the violence is a little unsavoury at times. It's possible that all three are rather overrated at R, but better safe..

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my main page.


MACHINES vol. III

by Eliann SleepingCat



Sometimes one isn't even allowed to die in peace. Well, I suppose it wouldn't have been all that peaceful, since I was in fact patiently waiting to go off in a devastating explosion that would lay low most of the frozen vegetation in the area where I was sitting - I was sorry about that - but nevertheless, the least I expected was for a deus ex machina to show up. Or ex-whatever, considering that I was the machine, not he.

I'm not quite sure what he was, but I quickly discarded human although he looked like one. He was wearing only a beautifully frilled shirt and black, tight-fitting pants that could not have been very thick. It was late on a winter evening, and the temperature was dropping. Also, he seemed inordinately tall for a human, though he was probably not out of range - there are many breeds of humans.

Of course, the fact that he had appeared out of nowhere, leaving no footprints in the snow, might have been a clue.

"Just in the nick of time", he said, sounding extremely pleased with himself. He made a quick gesture I could not quite follow - insanely, I suspected part of it had briefly weaved into a fifth or tenth dimension - and I felt my timer stop. Involuntarily, I closed my eyes, expecting the detonation to happen then and there, but it didn't. Instead, I was pretty sure both my timer and my weapons systems had just simply - dissolved.

I tested my hypothesis by trying to protrude a few blades and phasers; it didn't work. I had never been good at triggering them consciously, but now it seemed as if they were really not there anymore. I looked up, questioning.

"You're quite safe", he beamed. "There's nothing left of either your weapons systems or your booby trap. Of course", he added as an afterthought, "I could put them back just as easily if you prefer, but.."

"Thank you - I suppose", I said. "No, I don't want them back. I'm just trying to get used to having the option."

"You should adapt to new possibilities instantly", he said, pouting like a child, clearly annoyed.

"Sorry", I said, "My circuits must be freezing."

"Pah", he said - or something to that effect. "You have survived in space and been none the worse for wear. There's just still too much of the human in you. Maybe I can't use you after all.."

Use me? Well, it figured. "You're a god", I said. It was not really a question.

He looked annoyed still, but only a little. "Gods are in the minds of the beholders. It all depends on your definition. Each culture has its own - though each individual should have, and hang the culture. Some things a person must decide for a'self, or nobody will be going anywhere."

"Well, I've known gods with considerably less power than yours", I said. "But if you don't like the term, I won't use it. It's just a term though; it doesn't mean I have to grovel before you."

"Midgard!" he said, snapping his fingers in delight, though managing to avoid any effects coming of it. "You always were a practical lot. No feudal traditions, which helps. However, since you were half Celedonian.."

"Half what? Not to my knowledge."

"But to mine", he beamed.

Well, I had to believe him. Not that it mattered much now - if it ever had. "All right", I said. "So - if you don't want to be called a god, what should I call you?"

"My best enemies call me Q."

Of course. I should have made that connection earlier.

"Then I think I've heard of you", I said. "If you're the right particle of them, that is. If so, you're indeed just like a god. Fickle, deceitful.."

"Do you want your booby trap back?"

"..and charming", I covered, quickly enough to make him laugh as hard as he had just been scowling.

"You know, I think I like you", he said. "I knew it would be better to use you than either of your android friends. Not that they are any too available at the moment."

"Data is back in Starfleet", I told him - though it was probably redundant information; he must have known - "but Lore should be at his Keep; it's not far from here."

Q frowned impatiently. "I didn't mean available in that sense - that's purely spatial, and on the same plane at that. Of course I could pluck either one out of their present context if I needed to. But you were to be dead by now -" incongruously, he looked at his watch. I had not seen the gadget earlier, and though I suppose the frills might have covered it, I had a strong suspicion that he had just made it appear on his wrist out of a whim, unable to resist the effect. "- and in the spacetime where I'm about to put you, you never existed at all. Yet. So, since at the moment you really exist neither here nor there, you might be considered available."

I had feared something like that. Anyone knows what gods are. "I see. And what is it you need me for?"

"It's very simple. I need you to right a certain timeline for me by saving a person who would otherwise die too soon."

"Oh, is that all?" I asked, not without a hint of sarcasm. "Then why don't you do it yourself?"

"Oh no, I can't intervene directly; that would be cheating."

There's no accounting for the humour of the gods. "So you're busy intervening indirectly. Still, you saved me."

"That's different. You don't exist."

"Thank you."

"You're quite welcome."

"This is bound to backfire.. whom do you want me to save?"

"Dr Noonian Soong sound familiar?"

Something lurched inside me. Data's creator - and Lore's. I had often wished I could have met him. It seemed I was about to.

"I suppose he might well constitute a pivot in time as it were. As far as I know, he was past 100 when he died here, though not by much - 120 maybe. How does he die in that other place?"

"By violence. I'm not sure how much I should tell you, so I'll settle for that. You must act on your own, once you're there."

"Violence. Maybe you should have let me keep my weapons systems."

"I think not. They would only have made things worse."

"What about software? Did you remove that as well?"

"What do you take me for - a simple programmer?" he bristled.

Great. I only hoped some left-over triggering effect would not hang me because it suddenly found itself without anything to control. "Well, at least I know I won't have to fear disease", I said.

He seemed genuinely puzzled - but then I thought I had noticed that he was not really good at reading minds. "Of course not - you can't take ill."

"I meant him. Dr Soong. If he catches anything, I'll know that won't be the end of him. That's some foreknowledge at any rate."

Q laughed delightedly. "Oh, but you don't know that at all! Once you've gone in, you start disrupting the timeline. Anything might change, anything might happen.. that too."

Great. Just great.

*  *  *  *

He dumped me in the middle of a street and was gone in a flash - literally. I had no way of knowing where I was or how I was supposed to make contact with Soong, but there's no point in cursing the gods. It seemed to be night, and it had rained; the streets were slick and there was little traffic, though I saw ground cars in a side street and a flyer overhead. It appeared to be on patrol.

I got out of the road and stood for a moment on the corner of the nearest building, wondering which way to go. Perhaps I had better just wait for someone to ask - ask about what? Q had not told me how old Soong was in this spacetime; was he sufficiently well known yet that people would know where he lived?

Aimlessly, I turned the corner - and was attacked. There were eight of them, humanoid; six of them actually human, the other two a Bajoran and a Cardassian - an unlikely combination where I came from, but maybe not here. The three fiercest species in the galaxy - they should be well matched. I never counted Klingons or Romulans among the truly fierce - the former have too much honour, the latter too much style. And the Borg are not fierce; they're simply - efficient. Still, all my frames of reference might be worth so much water in this place. In fact, water might be worth.. I gave up and simply fought them.

At first, I think they were merely trying to hold me, but that of course did not work, and when they found out they turned vicious. The Bajoran seemed to be in charge - she kicked me in the stomach and nearly broke her ankle. A Soong-type android would have caused me considerable harm that way, but humanoids were no match for me. I think the resilience of my skin made things worse, causing her to twist her ankle before abruptly stopping the blow.

Some more of this, as her companions joined their efforts to hers - and my special program cut in. Somewhere I was glad I no longer had the weaponry to back it up, for it compensated only too well. I broke a few kneecaps and elbows before someone went to fetch clubs and vibroblades. Streetfighters then; no phasers.

The clubs caused quite a few dents since there was force behind them; and after the Cardassian caught me by the hair and slashed my throat with a vibroblade, I found it rather difficult to move normally. He let go quickly enough though; I suspected I had come close to electrocuting him.

"Damn - it's one of Soong's toys!" the Bajoran said. "No wonder.. I thought she was Zenaran; then we could have held her for ransom or something. Or sold her to the Ferengi."

"I knew she wasn't a Zenaran tourist", one of the humans pointed out, almost proudly. "Her face is shaped differently, and her skin is mauve, not blue. Though I admit it's hard to see in this poor light."

"Anyway, she's artificial", said another one. "Is she any use to us?"

The Bajoran seemed to hesitate. "I can't think of any way she might be."

"Unless she can be persuaded to join us.." said a third human, but the Bajoran shook her head.

"How good a programmer are you?" When she did not receive an answer, her eyes silently passed on the question to the rest of them. To no avail. "Then we can't trust her", she summarized. "And she has seen us together. Destroy her."

The Cardassian nodded to one of the others. "Get the hatchet. That might do the trick."

Something was definitely wrong with my motoric system by now. I flailed out uncontrollably a couple of times, but without doing any real damage - at least not as much as I might have wanted to. The two individuals I had put out of commission before were groaning in the background, but nobody seemed to have the time or resources to do anything for them. Which actually pleased me. Well, it was Lore's programme; if it was immoral, I could always blame him.

Someone struck the 'hatchet' into me, setting up a rain of sparks and spilling lubricants and nutrient fluids on to the street. The thing looked more like a pickaxe than a hatchet, pointed as well as sharp. I wondered how many of them I could manage to electrocute before passing out.

I had just maneuvered the Cardassian into a puddle of my fluids and was attempting to reach him with the live end of a cut wire, when a voice said, "What are you all still doing here - want to get caught? The first explosions have already started; the place will be swarming with militia in a few seconds." Someone I couldn't see clearly had appeared on the fringes of the gang. "Will you stop playing and get out of here? The patrol flyer will be back any time."

"But we've got to destroy this gadget", the Bajoran said. "She's seen us together."

"So did half a dozen people at the centre when you placed the bombs", said the newcomer dismissively. That won't matter now - just get out of here, before.."

"But what about.."

"Oh, send someone to dump her in Soong's yard", said the newcomer. "She's obviously his. Let him scrap her, it's the best way all around."

"Scrap her? What if he repairs her?"

"Unlikely. She doesn't seem very reparable to me."

"Don't be too sure", said the Cardassian suddenly. "He's very good."

"He's a crackpot. And besides, he doesn't care about politics. Dump her in his yard, but by all blistering dogs, be quick about it!"

That was the last thing I heard, as the live wire finally made contact. I don't know whether I got the Cardassian, but I certainly got me.

*  *  *  *

I awoke to the touch of long, slender, gentle hands. Making a few connections, then, surprisingly, stroking my cheek. I opened my eyes at that, before I had really intended to.

"Oh good, you're awake", he said. "I thought you might be." He went on fixing something I could not see, because I was flat on my back, as yet unable to move anything besides my face.

I could see him though. The same basic features as Data's and Lore's - it was easy to see where he had got the mould; his build was much the same as theirs all over. I had never asked them, but it was apparent now that they had both been cast, not wrought. He had not even trimmed that nose for them.. well, why should he? An individual feature like that would certainly make them seem less - artificial than if they had both been built with the uniform beauty of showroom dummies.

All the same, it was strange to see their features with a human tint - and human motions. I had never thought of either Data or Lore as stiff before, their movements were fluid enough, but I realized now that they did not move like humans. A moment, and then I caught on. Precision. That was it. Not even Lore, for all his wider gestures would repeat a movement unnecessarily, nor would either of them think twice, abort a movement in the middle and do something else instead. Odd. What would have been a sign of malfunction in them, actually seemed graceful in a human. In this human at any rate.

He had what I came to think of as a sort of sloppy grace. His tousled hair was roughly the same colour as that of his two androids, for he was still young - not in his first youth, but hardly out of his second; he could not have accomplished very much as yet, not if his achievements would hold the same chronology here as in my own spacetime.

He seemed to be wearing what he had found to hand that morning; a loose, wide-sleeved shirt nevertheless tight at the neck - or at least buttoned up, and held in by a sort of quilted vest that looked like it might be his favourite piece of clothing, for it seemed to have been with him for a while. Wide pants - illfitting but probably comfortable - and house slippers.

I noticed I had raised my head to see that. Movement was certainly returning, and so was sensation in most parts. He noticed me looking at him but did not seem to mind. Now and then as he worked, he would give me a quick, checking glance and a smile. Always a smile. For all their multitasking capabilities, his two androids had not done that when they had had occasion to work on me.

His eyes were blue and seemed to glow with a joy of life that probably never quite left him. Perhaps that was the secret of his longevity - or his potential for it.

"Dr Noonian Soong, I presume?" I said, when my vocal chords were back online.

He looked at me with that same smile, and nodded. I tried to rise up on one elbow, but he was there right away, placing a slender hand on my shoulder as if to hold me back, though he must have known he could not have, had I insisted. "Please", he said. "I don't want you to see this quite yet - there's still some extensive damage."

That was so incongruous I nearly laughed - why would he want to protect me from shock; did he think I would lose my mind so easily? I could only conclude he was being courteous - his bedside manner as it were. Sweet, but not really necessary. "I know", I said. "They took a pickaxe to me."

He looked pained, but nodded understanding. "Terrorists?"

"I would assume so. They talked of bombs they had planted in the city, and the need for haste. Also, they were a mixed lot and did not seem any too organized."

He listened, but his blue eyes were intently checking my functions the while. I suspected he was listening more to my methods of deduction than to what I was actually saying. "I was wondering how you wound up in my backyard", he said. "Not an illogical choice as such, but there was nobody around to explain."

"They thought I was one of your experiments. I heard them decide to dump me here - I had the impression they could not afford the time to make sure they had finished me, but they hoped they had. Apparently they were afraid I would expose them somehow. Not that I could have - I didn't know any of them."

"Paranoid", he said disgustedly. "The terrorists and the authorities alike. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a local virus. Well, fortunately it's not as easy to destroy an artificial lifeform as they think. There's really only one way - and your skull is admirably well protected."

"You mean destroying the brain? I would say even that is not a surefire method - if you've made a backup first."

He smiled at that. "And had you?"

"No", I admitted. "But I've been there before.." I cut off, unsure of how much to tell him. He looked at me searchingly, as if he would have a lot of questions for me later, but for now he did not push it. Instead, he went on working in silence. I lay watching his movements. He turned to his left to pick up a small screwdriver from a table of tools which was just within my line of sight when lying down. He changed his mind, put the screwdriver down and picked up a pair of pliers instead.

"You're lefthanded", I observed, finding this truly intriguing. I wondered whether he always was, in other parts of the multiverse also. Nobody had ever told me.

"Yes", he said in amused surprise that I had paid attention to it. "You're ambidextrous of course?"

"Yes", I said. "More practical that way."

He grinned. "Easier too."

"In construction you mean?" I asked interestedly.

"Exactly. You just duplicate the motoric system for one side, mirror the controls to avoid parallellism, and put it in for the other. Putting in subtle variations to induce preference would be much more complicated, and since it would not enhance functionality but rather detract from it, there's no point."

"You sound like you've done it often."

"Occasionally - nothing fullscale though. Humanoid appearance but only third size models." His eyes turned sad. "I had to shut them down. Cascade failure was imminent."

"You're going for positronics. Why?"

He shrugged. "Ambition has always been my main failing. But there is a practical reason. A duotronic system might be sturdier, but if I can swing it, a positronic one ought to be more flexible. No offence.."

So he had checked. Well, he would have had to.

"None taken. Am I right in assuming that the flexibility of a positronic brain would be both its primary strength and its main weakness?"

"Something like that, yes. Theoretically."

"Sounds more human. Aren't many human qualities both strengths and weaknesses at the same time, depending on how and in what circumstances they are applied?"

He broke into a wide smile. "You understand that? I think it's the first time anyone has.. You know, I'm quite impressed with your powers of reasoning - I wouldn't have thought it possible in a duotronic system - who made you?"

I had known he would start asking questions. Scientist and artist both - there was no way he would lack for curiosity.

"An alien race", I said, not knowing if there were any Lobelians around in this universe, nor if they had bothered to develop their technology. "Please let it go at that for now", I added, rather unwisely.

He nodded, but came back again from another angle. "Did they make you in their own image? Your exterior, I mean?"

"Partly", I said, "by mistake. Their instructions were for a human form, but somehow they got their own skin colour on to me, probably realized too late, and compensated for their own red eyes by making mine seaweed green."

"Instructions?" he asked, "Who from?"

"A customer", I said. "They do these things to order. Now please stop asking me these questions - I might tell you in time, but I.." I tried to decide whether to tell him I was still confused or that I was not yet up to it - but in the end I just left it hanging.

"Just checking to see if you could lie", he said lightly. "I noticed your reluctance to speak of your past before. Well, it can wait. Now that I'm sure I'll get the truth eventually.." he added, teasingly.

"Of course I can lie!" I protested. "I just don't want to. To you.." It was out before I had realized that was how I felt, and he seemed as surprised as I was. "Same difference, I suppose.." I amended.

He put his tools down and looked at me. "I'm going to shut you off", he said. "Does that bother you?"

I thought about it. Nobody had ever asked me that before. "It might help if you tell me why", I said.

He smiled a little. "How's your internal chronometer? I thought I had fixed it."

I checked. "Oh. It's late? How long have you been working?"

"Today I've been at it since dawn - with breaks of course."

I had not noticed him taking any breaks since I woke up.

"I set your clock about five hours ago - I hope I got it right; it's a somewhat strange design. But I'm almost finished - I should be able to get you up and walking about in the morning."

I was moved by his dedication - but I also realized that it was probably nothing personal. I must have seemed like an odd windfall in his research. "And you'd feel safer if I'm out cold while you are?" I asked innocently.

He actually looked hurt at that. "My thought was that you would be safer. I'd rather not have you spoil any of your functionality by trying to apply it too soon. And I just had a feeling you would."

He had a point there. "All right", I said. "But if I have a choice, I'd prefer to shut myself down to standby first, then you can throw the switch. The standby will be overridden at startup, so I'll come up at once. Did you find the switch by the way?"

He smiled again. "I found it. Don't worry. See you in the morning."

But I was not quite through my shutdown sequence, when I felt his long fingers on my lips. "I really must learn more of that alien race with their commercial technology", he said in a low voice as though he thought I was asleep. "The colour of your lips alone is exquisite - so subtle.. instead of just making them dark blue or something.."

Damn him - did he have to touch me like that?

Then my shutdown completed.

*  *  *  *

"Good morning".

I looked up into his face, instantly awake. He smiled. "And thanks for trusting me", he added lightly.

It only struck me then that I had, in letting him shut me off for the night. "It wasn't that hard", I said, by way of returning a compliment. I could have pointed out that since he was putting me back together again, he would not be likely to take me apart, but I said nothing further. I saw that he noted my omission; he must have thought of it too.

"Glad to hear it", he said, looking as if he really meant it. "Then you won't mind my doing a reboot after I've connected your legs. They are all that remain now; the rest is finished. Do you have any sensation in them at all?"

I concentrated - and briefly lost orientation. It felt once more as if I were trying to reactivate a malfunctioning stabilizer before entering atmosphere. "I - don't think so", I said.

He gave me a sharp look out of those blue eyes. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know - was I supposed to have?" I countered.

"Not yet", he admitted. "I just thought for a moment.. but I suppose I must check out your software too, eventually. So far, I've only had the time to examine your routines for hardware control." He made the connections - and I cried out, which surprised him. "You all right?" he asked solicitously, "I'm sorry, I didn't know you could feel pain."

"I don't very often. It takes - quite a lot. But perhaps the neural connections to my legs are just large or vital enough."

"Well, I'm glad I did most of my work yesterday before waking you up. I had no idea - then that pickaxe must have hurt too.." he said as if it had just dawned on him.

I made a face. "It did, rather. I don't have an endorphine system. Pain serves me as a warning, and only that. Meaning that the deeper and more lifethreatening the injury, the more painful it is. Not an altogether useful setup; I believe that in most biological lifeforms it has already been abolished by evolution."

"Maybe I can change it for you", he said, with evident compassion. I shook my head.

"It doesn't matter. I know I'm a cheap model - but functional. That is, most of the time.."

"If you're a cheap model, I'd love to see the luxury version", he said. "I had no idea until now that it was possible to achieve such sophistication with mere duotronics."

I did not answer that, though I could have. After all, it wasn't a question. Instead I lay watching him. When he turned, I noticed that a stray curl of his hair had the most endearing habit of getting caught on his ear. For some reason I memorized that little fact.

"Well", he said, "that's that then. All systems online - now I'll just reboot you, and they'll be properly synched too. Better do it cold - do you want to run your own shutdown first?"

"No", I said, "just throw the switch and be done with it."

"All right", he said, "but be sure to run a POST immediately you're coming up."

"Always", I said. I could not tell him who had always been after me to run my self-checks regularly. After all, he had not met the crown of his creation yet.. Not that I had neglected those checks before - knowing one's status is rather essential to a ship..

He bent over me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. "Good night for a moment", he said, and threw the switch.

"And what was that about - checking for last minute memory glitches?" I asked, as soon as I was back on and had run my selftest without errors.

He grinned. "No, just thought it would make you feel better. Disperse possible traumas as it were."

I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the workbench I had been lying on. "No dizziness", I joked. Then I stood, tried to walk - and it worked. Everything seemed to be fine; all systems back to normal. I felt my throat where it had been cut, and I saw him wince - it must have been fairly obvious how that particular damage had come about. But I felt no trace of it - any seams must have been fused closed afterwards. Quality work - better than I would have bothered with, had I had to effect any repairs myself.

"Would you mind putting this on?" he said, his voice oddly strained as he handed me a robe. I took it, but I was admittedly confused.

"Why? I'm not cold. I can feel levels of temperature, but they don't bother me."

He smiled, but I could tell there was something disturbing him. "Just put it on."

The robe was red and so did not clash too badly with my mauve skin. It might have been worse. "Is this about modesty?" I asked. "Are you expecting visitors?"

"Yes, it is", he said. "And no, I'm not expecting anyone. Not that all visitors are expected, these days.." he muttered.

"Then I fail to understand", I said. "You've been working on me for a day and a half now - perhaps longer for all I know. Why should you suddenly.."

"It's different when you're whole and walking around", he said, actually blushing faintly.

"Oh", I said. "Sorry. I was just curious." I was rather pleased at his reaction. I did not think much of my Lobelian design myself, but I supposed this was human instinct, and if so, the poor quality of Lobelian artwork did not really enter into it, as long as it was convincing.

"Your clothes were beyond repair", he stated apologetically. "And I don't have a replicator yet - couldn't afford one. Also, despite having constructed things all my life, I'm a lousy tailor."

"No matter", I said, suddenly glad I never had a Starfleet uniform. That would really have made him wonder. Especially if the design was different here - if indeed there was a Starfleet.. "I'm happy enough that I was not beyond repair.."

I was interrupted by a forceful knock on the door. Soong was startled, but motioned for me to be quiet and stay out of sight. I dived behind a curtain into the next room, which proved to be his bedroom. He was not in the habit of making his bed in the morning. But then, why should he? It was obvious that he lived here alone, and visitors would hardly come further than the all-purpose room outside, largely taken up by his workshop.

I heard him open the door, and a voice that seemed well matched to the authoritative knock greeted him. I managed to position myself so that I could peek past the edge of the curtain where it met the wall. Hopefully I could not be seen from the outer area; I did not think I could.

The visitor was a tall, yet squarish man with such a grey-hued face that at first I took him for another Cardassian. But he was fully human, though he had in all likelihood grown up under a less than benevolent sun. He was wearing a uniform I had never seen on my end of things; it was black and did not do a thing for his complexion. His hair was equally lacklustre; the colour of withered and long-dried wheat.

"I hope I'm not intruding.." he said as he more or less pushed his way in, his eyes darting about the small cabin, blatantly belying his words.

"Do you really want me to answer that?" Soong said.

"Come now, Doctor, there's no need for belligerence", said the visitor in an all too reasonable voice. "You know the Party wants you to be their friend."

"I'll believe that when I get my first grant out of you", Soong retorted with, to my meaning, reckless courage. "And you are in fact disrupting my work."

"Your work", said the other derisively, kicking at something on the floor which I recognized with a shock. It had to be parts of a disassembled one-third high mechanical being. "Are you really content with this so-called work? A grown man playing with dolls? We could offer you.."

"You could offer me my grants back for a start", Soong said. "You said everything would get better once you were in power. Well, I didn't believe you then, and I don't believe you now. You'll have to prove it to me."

"We have saved the people from the oligarchic chaos this world used to be", said the visitor with a touch of steel in his voice. "The chaos the terrorists want to bring back. Perhaps that is your wish too?" he added threateningly. "Perhaps you think life was better then? When a person's worth was measured in assets and his words were subject to the censorship of Money? Perhaps you're a collaborator?"

Soong threw up his eloquent hands, carelessly turning his back on his adversary - for such the man clearly was. "I don't care any more for terrorists than you do, you know that or you wouldn't bother to accuse me. And no, I didn't like being unable to speak my mind without a respectable sum to back me up - but can I speak up any better now? In the old days I did not have enough money to vote - today, there is no vote. I was not respected under the old regime - but at least I was left alone. I could even get the occasional grant for my research - now I don't get a pebble, and I can't even afford a replicator. Hence the chickens outside, in case you wondered. I tell you, I'm getting tired of omelettes. I know the old system stank - unavoidable with all that corruption, you might say - but frankly, I don't see much difference."

I knew he had gone too far - and it amazed me that he did not see it himself. His visitor's face froze - and it had not been any too mobile to begin with. "Research, you say? But what kind of research is it you do? Trying to build yourself artificial children? Hardly a healthy pastime, is it? You are ablebodied, aren't you?"

"Yes", Soong answered out of sheer surprise, "What's that got to do with.."

"Of course, that could all change.." the visitor said, looking at his own fingernails. "but as long as it hasn't, why don't you choose a more natural means of procreation?"

I could tell by his slight emphasis, that natural was a word charged - not to say overloaded - with positive value among those whom he represented. I decided I had just received my cue. Loosening my robe just a little, I slid out from behind the curtain with as sinuous a walk as I could muster. "Well, Captain", I said - going by Starfleet rank in a whole other universe, he was only a commander, but of course, my frame of reference was decidedly shaky - "if you'll just leave us alone long enough, we might take your advice.."

For the first time during this encounter, Soong looked frightened; luckily, the uniformed fellow didn't notice - he was busy bowing to me. "Ah, a Zenaran!" he said as he came up again. "My congratulations, Doctor. I'm sorry, I didn't know you were busy. We'll have to talk further some other time. M'Dyn'a", he saluted me, and I nodded regally as he backed out the door.

Soong closed it after him and turned to me, his blue eyes wild with worry. "Why did you do that? I told you to stay quiet and in hiding."

"Perhaps I should have told you that my programming frequently overrides ex- or implicit commands if I get a better idea. It occurred to me that this could very well get ugly unless the creep suddenly realized there was a witness around."

"Dammit, you shouldn't have. You were extremely lucky he took you for a Zenaran and not one of my 'gadgets'. If he thought my work had progressed that far.."

"It wasn't just luck. I heard at least one of the terrorists mistake me for a Zenaran also. Whatever they are. But I figured the odds were quite good that this fellow might make the same mistake. I didn't think it would be a good idea to let on I was artificial - but mainly to keep that little trump well up my sleeve. What would happen if he thought you had created me?"

"I don't know", he said, running a few long fingers through his hair, upsetting whatever style it might have had. "Either he would capture us both and take you apart for study - or more likely, he'd simply call you an aberration and kill us both." He took me by the shoulders - hard, but of course he wasn't hurting me any. "You don't know the danger you're in - those terrorists who brought you here, they know what you are. How long do you think it will be before the authorities find out also?"

"I rather had the impression both sides would die before they talked to each other", I pointed out.

He shook his head sadly. "Torture", he said. "Sooner or later they will capture a terrorist and it will all come out - it always does."

I must admit I hadn't thought of that. There were significant flaws in Lore's programme. Variables of failure had not received nearly as much address space as those dealing with the possibilities of success. I would have to try and optimize whenever I got the time.. "Sorry", I said. "I suppose I just wanted to save your life."

He put his arms around me and held me close, my head against his throat. I already knew he held no bias at all against artificial lifeforms - not that I had ever expected any - and yet his gesture took me by surprise. It was a brief moment before I pulled myself together enough to hug him back - carefully of course. Somehow he felt very much like Data - the same build naturally - but also intriguingly - nonsynthetic..

Mainly out of curiosity - mainly, but not entirely - I reached up and kissed him. He seemed as surprised as I had been when he embraced me, but then he smiled, his eyes glittering like sunlight on a lake. So I swept him up and carried him into the bedroom. After all, the other way around was pretty much out of the question.

He really had no bias at all.

*  *  *  *

We were left alone for two days - just long enough to induce a false sense of security, I thought later. Then, on the morning of the third, Noonian went out and found all the chickens dead. Their last batch of eggs were untouched - or seemed so. I ran an analysis on them to make sure they hadn't been poisoned. I froze a few for him for later - and I did not eat any, as I did not need to.

But I knew it wasn't just the food with him. He had had those chickens a long time, and he was ever delighted with all kinds of lifeforms; a trait he had passed on - I mean would pass on - to both of his 'sons'. It was always the most evident in Data, but I had seen Lore with Spot, with his wolf and his eagle - not to mention the little marmoset he himself built - and I knew they both had it. Even if Lore was rather disenchanted with one particular lifeform; humans.

Now, I knew Noonian cried when he thought I wasn't looking. I was pretty sad about those chickens myself. Sad - and angry. Lore once told me that revenge was a fully understandable goal. Being from Midgard, I did not need his programming to agree. To me it is an ethical cause - a moral right. Which made it even more frustrating not to know for certain where to strike.

"It has to be the terrorists", Noonian said. "They are the only ones who would strike so madly, so senselessly."

"They would have smashed the eggs too", I said. "Or stolen them. This seems just sadistic enough to be the work of the authorities. Besides - whom did you tell you were tired of omelettes? If I'm any judge of character, this might well be that uniformed shithead's sense of humour."

For some reason, he almost smiled at that.

"And why should you be a judge of human character?"

"Well, I used to be one", I said before I thought. "It helps."

I can't say he paled exactly, but he looked as if he might have intended to.

"So you see, I'm not as sophisticated as you thought", I added quickly, trying to shove his attention off the subject. "It was more a matter of download.."

I was spared further explanation, for right then we both heard a crash outside, then the deep boom of an explosion. Noonian looked out the window, carefully so as not to be seen.

"The barn's on fire!" he shouted, all caution dropping off him like a discarded blanket. "I have a fire extinguisher somewhere, I'll just.."

I held him back, firmly. "Oh no, you don't. I won't have you risking your life - what's in that barn anyway; you're no farmer."

"Mostly spare parts and my summer workshop. And an old hovercar but that's of no consequence."

Not the car perhaps, but the parts must be worth a good deal. The shop too; it would probably set his research back considerably if he lost it. "All right", I said. "Give me the extinguisher and tell me where I can find a hose while you're at it - I'll put out the fire." He must have seen the wisdom of that, for he did as I asked, and I hoisted the 50 kg fire extinguisher on to my shoulder - wondering how in the universe he had figured he would get it outside on his own.

I had not been outside the house before - not while conscious that is. I was momentarily bewildered to find the surroundings mismatched to the cognitive map I had made myself of them. I had thought he lived in town though with a large backyard. But evidently his house - with a small yard - was just outside the town limits. I could see tall buildings in the distance - through the smoke - but I was standing in a small, moderately well kept farmyard rather than a city style backyard. There was even a pump and a trough in the middle - I hoped there was water in them both, should I need it.

I rushed up to the barn and aimed the extinguisher - it didn't work. I looked at it; the due date was long past, and the pressure all gone. Belatedly, I began to realize that a careful builder capable of detailed constructions isn't necessarily very practical-minded in other respects.

I flung the thing down and rushed over to the east wall where he had said I could find a hose.

I did find it. Neatly cut up in fifteen pieces. They had been thorough; more so than I believed any terrorists capable of.

I snatched up two buckets and ran for the pump and trough, half expecting to find them sabotaged too, but apparently they had not thought anyone would be able to make much use of them. They could be right. However, I filled the buckets and ran to pour them on the fire as fast as I could, several times, till the water was coming too slowly to be of any use. The back of the barn was still burning - this was professional arson.

I threw down the buckets. There wasn't much I could do any longer. I hoped I had put the fire far enough back that it would not spread again. And that most of the spare parts were fire resistant. For the moment, the shop area was out of danger and only the car in trouble; I could only hope things would stay that way.

That's when a fellow dressed up as a terrorist came out of the burning area, aiming a phaser at me. Obviously he had hidden when I came but had to come out when things became too hot for him. The underground fighters I had met had not had phasers. I had no doubt that this particular weapon was at its maximum setting.

I could feel my special programme click in - involuntarily as it was meant to. Quickly dodging his first beam, I picked up the extinguisher and hurled it with the same accuracy as though it had been a part of my own lost arsenal.

It flattened him. Or at least his head, which was the main idea. Then, suddenly worried, I ran back to the house.

I was too late. Noonian was lying in the hall, just inside the door. His vest was torn, and his shirt was soaked in blood. Whoever had been here, had not had a phaser. Maybe that one had actually been a terrorist.

I sat down beside him, fighting back the tears that for some obscure reason I was capable of. I felt his throat for a pulse - and found it. It was very weak; it was only a matter of time now. Those intense blue eyes opened, and he touched my arm, smiling a little - apologetically, I thought. He couldn't speak though.

I put my other arm around him, careful not to move him too much. Then I just sat there, holding him till the light went out of his eyes and his hand fell back from my arm. I sat for a minute longer, watching that long, elegant hand lying so still on the coarse wooden floor. Then I closed his eyes. It's not a Midgard custom, but I thought that maybe it was his. I kissed his lips lightly - equally meaningless - and eased his head gently back down on the floor.

I realized then that I knew nothing of his culture; least of all its funereal rites - nor whether or not he had agreed with them. I would have to resort to my own. Half Celedonian? That would mean interment, standing up. Which would require perfect timing, or he would not be able to stand. And it seemed a little too - confining. I knew I was being silly, his so recently lovely body was just so much empty hardware now, but I still didn't like the idea. The Midgard notions were better; I didn't have enough rocks to throw up a cairn, but right outside I did have the makings of a pyre.

I would have to build one though; I did not want to drag him over to the barn, it seemed unceremonious, nor did I want to torch the house as it would be such a waste of precious tools and materials - in case anyone would ever come along who could make proper use of them. I went out into the yard to see about a good place for a pyre. The garage part of the barn was still burning, but it had not caught in the other part again; at least not yet.

A movement in the corner of my eye. A man running across the yard, perhaps in search of a pickup team that had not arrived. There was blood on his hands, and I did not think it was his own.

My special programme had not shut down. It had merely been on hold while there was no call for it. And a call had just been issued. I stepped out and caught him as he passed me; it was easier than I had thought, but I had noticed before that the programme enhanced my reflexes, among other things.

He was dressed like a terrorist, but he had a rather incongruous hairstyle - what they call a crewcut in some cultures. I dragged him over to the barn, shoved him inside the burning part of it, shut down my audio input so my hearing would not be impaired, and stood in his way till it was over.

Then I made my way back to the house. I felt as though the ground had dropped out from under me.

I realized it was because it had. I was literally standing on nothing, empty space all around me. All darkness - not even stars. Black - except for a momentary, theatrical flash, and then a sourceless spotlight on the one who had just appeared in it.

"Sorry to interrupt", said Q in a voice dripping with acid, "but I couldn't see you were doing anything useful; merely indulging yourself."

I didn't bother to ask how he could make himself heard in space. Gods are a nuisance everywhere. "Revenge is a valid cause", I said. As I had half expected, I was fully audible too. So he was at least interested in my answers. Enough to suspend the laws of nature for a little while.

He dismissed my words with an impatient flurry of his sleeve - he was still wearing that frilled shirt - in midspace. "Revenge is a human preoccupation. Rather tiresome, if you ask me. The fact remains, you failed."

"Don't you think I know that? I loved the man and I just lost him - in the most horrible way too. The very least you could do is show some compassion!"

To my exasperation, he grinned. I suppose it must please the gods to be talked back to once in a while. If so, Midgard gods ought to be pleased all the time. Though perhaps they would rather change conditions with - the Q for instance.

"For a machine, you love far too easily", he said with unwarranted lightness. "But then, that is your quest, isn't it? You need to love - but unlike humans, you don't necessarily need to be loved."

Of course, he would know that too. Most likely, he had counted on it to work in his favour. "So", he resumed, serious now and accusing, "why did you not stay with him? You were supposed to protect his life, not his petty property."

"I thought I was. If I hadn't gone out, he would have."

"Oh, he would, would he? If you had held him back?"

"He would have resented that. I didn't want to use force against his will. Nor did I want to just stand by while he lost everything."

"Isn't that precisely what you just did?"

I hadn't thought it would be possible to squirt any more venom into that voice. He sounded like a Calamitian mountain snake. I almost expected him to turn into one. My damned tears started up, brimmed over, and evapourated instantly into space. If I ever got back to the Lobelia of my own universe, I'd have that unusually ill-conceived function removed. Wonder why they put it in in the first place - simply because they could, no doubt. "I didn't expect it to happen so soon", I sobbed.

Tears have never moved the gods. Probably never will. "You were told to expect anything!" he whipped back.

"I know", I said. "So I fouled up, and I failed. But since you consider revenge a tiresome human preoccupation, I suppose you won't mind if I just walk off and spend the rest of my time drifting in space, thinking about it. You see, I'm fully capable of exacting my own punishment."

I turned away, but some force held me firmly back, and then he appeared in front of me. "You're going where I decide - and when I decide."

"By the frozen gates of hell - I just lost someone very important to me! Can't you at least leave me alone?"

"Certainly not. Since I lost him too, and that's what I sent you in to prevent. So what are you going to do about it?"

"Do about it? There's nothing to be done about it now.. oh no!" I tried to back off from him, irrationally as well as futilely. "Oh no, you wouldn't!"

His moods shifting as quickly as ever, he beamed at me, pleased that I had understood. "And why not? You now know exactly what you did wrong, don't you? You've been over again and again what you should have done differently? Well, I shall magnanimously grant you that second chance which humans tend to wish for all their lives in these circumstances. Really, I think you ought to be grateful."

"And what if I fail again?" I asked, though I feared I knew the answer.

"I'm feeling very magnanimous today.." he gloated. "I might be quite willing to let you learn from your mistakes."

I groaned. Yes, he would be cruel enough. He would let me watch Noonian die over and over again, then send me back in with the memory. Repeatedly, as many times as it took, until I failed no longer.

"You see, I do not intend to fail", he said, rubbing it in.

"Why is this so important to you?" I asked. "Why do you need this particular timeline righted? What will happen where if it isn't?"

"Don't concern yourself with that which goes above your head", he said sharply.

"Very well, but isn't it already another timeline, now that I've been meddling in it?" I asked.

"Not exactly", he said. "Since I'll be sending you back in at the same point as last time. It's still the same timeline; it won't have split - but you're right to some extent; it will have changed. You can never meddle with a timeline from anywhere outside it without affecting it in some way. But you can keep it from splitting in two, if you're careful."

"You mean I'll be sort of overwriting it?"

"Aptly put. You already have, and you'll be doing it again. Watch for the changes you've already wrought; try to make use of them rather than letting them trip you up."

"If you throw me back in at the same spot, how can I have effected any changes?" I asked. "I'll be trying to cancel changes I made later and effect others, but at the point where I'm going in.."

He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Must you be so linear? I suppose I shouldn't have used the termtimeline, but I thought it would be easier for you to understand. It is however quite misleading."

"Oh all right - to each a's own perspective.."

"Exactly. Now, are you ready to go back in?"

I shrugged. "Would it make a difference if I said no?"

*  *  *  *

Obviously not. I found myself in the same glistening street as before - if before was really the word for it - wondering if I would have to be smashed up by terrorists this time around also. Probably, because it seemed the best way to get close to Noonian.. Dr Soong. I would have to remember he had not met me before - again. This might well get confusing, and it was only my second attempt..

Apprehensively, I searched the shadows among the buildings opposite, before making my way there. I hoped they wouldn't be using the pickaxe this time..

I had dawdled too long. Before I knew what happened, something came silently down and hit me in the back. Whatever it was, it shut me down solidly.

*  *  *  *

The workbench felt familiar. I could hear his slippers shuffling around, and the sound of them caused a surge of relief to stream through me, although I knew it was misplaced; of course he would be alive at this point. I kept my eyes closed, waiting for his touch. It seemed to take a while this time, so I ran a diagnostics. Basically, I was in two pieces; otherwise there was little wrong. One tremendous blow this time, not as much wilful damage as when I had last wound up on his working table.

He was not alone this time. I heard other footsteps, as of boots. Then suddenly I tensed - hearing the voice of the commander from my last visit here. "Think you can repair her?"

"I should think so", Noonian said lightly. "There's not much damage - apart from where your flyer hit her, that is. Why did you come down so low?"

"Monitoring the streets. Orders from our secret HQ. If you ask me, we're ready to strike soon - of course, that's just my personal opinion."

"Don't tell me - I don't want to know."

"Doesn't matter. You're considered harmless. And as I said, I'm not told anything either. Just making my guesses."

They were quiet for a while, I could feel Noonian's tools doing something to me, so I supposed he was working, with the commander looking on. I felt decidedly uneasy, although I had not been able to detect any threat in the commander's voice.

"You shouldn't let them out in the streets alone like that", the military man said after a while. I thought Noonian would protest that he had not, but for some reason he didn't.

"They'll have to learn to move about on their own sometime", he said instead. "After all, they're supposed to be able to take care of themselves. I send them on simple errands first, then on missions that require a little more thinking. This one was merely supposed to pick up a few things for me - apparently she didn't get very far."

I marvelled at the ease with which he lied. Or didn't he? Did I really belong to him this time? But how could I - I knew for a fact that I could not be his creation, unless I had somehow really managed to tie this timeline into a knot..

"Hm. Well, I'm sorry about that", said the visitor. A pause, then, "Tell me, Soong, why do you do it? Build yourself children, as it were? It's what it amounts to, isn't it? I mean, forgive me for asking, but you are ablebodied, aren't you?"

I tensed, remembering those words from my last visit. Yet they had sounded different now - no menace implied, just idle conversation.

"Sure", Noonian said. "I suppose I do it.. well, because I can." He sounded as if he had just surprised himself, but I could also hear both joy and a touch of reckless pride in his voice.

"You're crazy", said the commander, without malice. A touch of condescension maybe, no more. "Well, I'd better be going. Leave you to it then - and I'd advise you not to press charges for the damage."

"I know", Noonian sighed. "I'd be entangled in the legality maze for years, and in the end they'd decide it was all my fault in the first place."

"Not only that", said the commander, the first thin edge of steel creeping into his voice. "Our flyer was nowhere near those streets. And you haven't seen me here tonight. Nothing happened, got it?"

"Yes, I know, I know. Just leave me out of it, is all I ask."

"As long as you remember. Well, I'll leave you to play with your dolls then. Goodnight."

His boots creaked out of the door - which did not fall shut immediately. Someone caught it and entered, exchanging muttered greetings with the departing commander before closing the door on him.

"So what was he doing here?" I heard Lore's voice. Inexplicably and disorientating, yet there was no mistaking it. As clear and harmonious as Data's, with the slight addition of what I usually thought of as - more colour. But Lore shouldn't be here now.. and if he was, was Data around somewhere also? I was sorely tempted to open my eyes, but felt I might learn more if I did not.

"Ssshhh", Noonian said. "He just wanted to hand this little lady in for repairs. Seems his flyer came in too low and ran her down in the street. She broke in two, that's how he found out she was artificial. Naturally, he thought she was mine. Not my style at all, but he wasn't to know that."

I heard Lore's boots approaching. "Quite pretty though", he said. "I can understand why you didn't put him right. You did lie to him, didn't you?"

"If you mean: did I let him go on believing she was of my manufacture, yes, I saw no reason to tell him differently. I knew if I had, he would have confiscated her for experiments. I didn't want that."

"No, you'd rather carry out those experiments yourself, wouldn't you?"

"You know, Sometimes I resent your crudeness, Lore", Noonian said. So I was not mistaken. It really was Lore, already constructed, a couple of decades before his time..

"I'm right though, aren't I?" Lore chuckled. He received no answer. Everything was quiet for a while, apart from the small sounds of Noonian's tinkering. Then I suddenly felt a pair of slightly synthetic lips on mine, and not lightly either but hard and demanding. More or less in shock, I opened my eyes, remembering all too well another time like this.

"Now cut that out, will you?" Noonian said angrily. It occurred to me that I had never heard him angry before. "I can see you're taken with her, but that's no excuse.."

Lore had already stepped back a pace, but now he reached out to touch my face. His long fingers gripped my chin, turning my head towards him.

"I thought you were awake", he said, ignoring his maker. "Just pretending not to be. It's what I would have done."

"You're artificial too", I said. Stating it, not asking. It seemed the best thing to say - I had to be careful not to let either of them know I had seen them before. As for Lore, I wasn't sure I really had. He seemed entirely identical to the Lore I knew in my own spacetime, but there were bound to be differences, weren't there?

"Takes one to know one", he joked. Then, with a sudden edge of suspicion, "Who made you?"

Noonian looked up, obviously interested too. Damn. I knew one question would lead to another, and all I could hope for was to put those two off until I knew how much I could tell them. Not that I knew how to find that out. Ask Q? He wouldn't be around as long as things were running smoothly - I was pretty sure of that. "An alien race", I said, as I had last time.

"Oh?" was Lore's reaction. "Humanoid, I take it?"

"Somewhat, yes."

"Mauve-skinned?"

I was relieved at this turning of the conversation. "Now, how could you guess?" I retorted.

"Marvellous", Noonian commented. "She has the same sophisticated sense of sarcasm as you, Lore." To me, he added, "And yet you're a duotronic model - how is that possible?"

"Oh, I wouldn't pay it any mind", I continued in the same light vein. "It's just that your son brings out the worst in me."

Which happened to be quite true, because I knew I shouldn't have said that, and yet I could not resist. Noonian looked quite bewildered, as if he did not know what to ask next; why I had called Lore his son, or why my sudden display of familiarity. And Lore looked only too pleased.

But to my surprise, he did not comment on it. The Lore I knew would definitely have taken my quip as an invitation - especially if he guessed that such was not my intent. "This alien race", he said instead, "does it have a name?"

"Several", I hedged. "I'm not sure what they'd be called in these parts."

"Try one."

I think Noonian noticed my reluctance to answer. "Manners again, Lore", he interrupted smoothly. "Stop questioning her like that - an inquisition this isn't."

Lore shot him a look of smoldering sulphur. "It's for your own safety, father. What better way to gain your trust than by an artificial being you haven't made yourself? Even if you suspected a trap, you wouldn't be able to curb your curiosity. She could be booby-trapped - I think that's the way I would've done it -" How it iced my heart to hear him say that. "- or set up to record everything you say and do.."

Noonian sighed. "I don't know whence you have your paranoia, Lore. Certainly not from me. I've been all through her, and there's no trace of any devices unaccounted for by her own needs." Lore opened his mouth, but his father held up a hand to silence him. "Nor of any with dual purposes", he emphasized. "You see, I do know how to think for myself, once in a while.. Not that I know of any alien race that would be sufficiently interested in me to.."

"Exactly", Lore cut in. "Which is why I asked her to name it. Now, may I proceed?"

"Not while she's still in two pieces. At least let me reconnect.."

I screamed. The shock of suddenly regaining my legs was just as painful this time. Only this time I had Lore gloating over me too. "You can feel pain?" he asked, almost purring.

I glared up at him, daring him to make use of the information. "What of it?"

"Oh, nothing.." he crooned. I caught Noonian's sharp glance in his direction and realized I had better stay close to the scientist this time, as much for my own sake as for his.

Lore glanced swiftly over towards my legs to check that I was fully connected. "The name", he said.

"Lobelians?" I tried. The best I could hope for was that they'd never heard of them. I was not so lucky. Lore burst out laughing.

"Lobelians? They've just recently passed beyond their amphibian stage of evolution - at least that's the impression one gets. They can hardly use tools, let alone.." His hand shot out to grip my chin again. "I don't know why you picked such an inane subterfuge - unless your creators wanted you to reveal yourself. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were made on this planet, by one of the two warring factions. The government people aren't organized enough to pull off such a project without funds running out in the middle of it and never getting renewed, so that leaves the revolutionaries. Underground manufacture, aren't you?"

"Ease up, Lore, you might dent her", Noonian admonished him, just as I told the android, "You're wrong. Please stand corrected."

Without letting go of my chin, he raised his other hand to hit me.

"Lore!" Noonian cried out, sharply but not as far as I could tell, apprehensively. Lore lowered his hand.

"I wasn't going to hurt her. Not badly anyway. I wouldn't want to sabotage your work with her."

"You might have. She's a weaker model. I built you to last; I don't know what she was built for, but she's much more fragile."

"Look who's talking", I muttered, causing them both to laugh, which actually surprised me.

Noonian went around the workbench, came up on my left. "You're right", he said, running his long fingers through my hair, almost affectionately - incidentally sending a shiver down my spine that I at first took for a discharge of static electricity. Then again, perhaps it was. There was no real knowing, these days. "I should have said - for a non-biological lifeform."

"Look", I said, "I admit that I'm not entirely what I seem to be, but I was sent here to help, nothing else. Can't you let that suffice for now? I'll tell you as much as I can later, when I find out - more."

"Sent by whom?" Lore insisted.

"The gods?" I suggested truthfully, knowing he would not accept it.

Noonian smiled - a curious, lopsided smile that not only pointed up at one corner of his mouth side but also down at the other. "Very well", he said, starting to gather up his tools. "I admit I'm curious, but we'll let you be our mystery lady for now. That goes for you too, Lore - I've decided she's no threat to either of us, and you stop pestering her about her past, you hear? In time, she'll tell us - or not, but that's her prerogative, understood?"

Lore nodded sullenly. I was reminded then of something Data had said, about Lore having always obeyed Dr Soong, despite calling him names and pretending to look down on him. Always, until the drastic malfunction he suffered as a result of incompatibility between the stolen emotions chip and his system. I had given it no thought before, but his obedience to his creator seemed to be a constant in this universe also. And there was no chip, no incompatibility, no malfunction - as yet, anyway. Perhaps there would not have to be. Where I came from, one of Lore's early memories was of being taken apart by his father whose will he had always done, and abandoned on a quickly dying world. This Lore had not yet been betrayed.. I dearly hoped that he would not need to be. His suspicious nature could only be aggravated by such an experience.

In all likelihood irreparably so.

*  *  *  *

After an eventless week in the company of the scientist and his creation, I was beginning to wonder whether there really was any danger around for me to prevent this time. I was far from displeased with the prospect - the week might have been eventless from an objective point of view, but it had been very interesting for me. I took part in all chores around the little place just outside the city; I fed the chickens - for some idiotic reason I was inordinately pleased to see them alive again, though I kept wondering what harsh fate might befall them this time. Still, this time around there were three of us to keep watch - two of whom needed no sleep..

I even helped out with some of Noonian's experiments - not the actual cybernetics involved, more on the order of holding things steady and fetching tools, but it was extremely interesting even so. Besides, I liked being around him. I still called him by his first name in my thoughts, though I was careful not to use it to his face. He did not seem to notice me in the same way this time - I wondered if he would have, had we been on our own.

One day I was watching as he worked on smartening up a simple cleaning robot. He was testing a routine he had written to let it decide what to pick up and put out of the way before it started its vacuum function. He was tired of going through its contents for missing resistance circuits afterwards, he said.

I noticed an unexpected power surge building up in the unit and quickly snatched him out of the way, just as the light arc formed to where he had been standing. I wondered if that was it, this time. Not exactly violence.. but perhaps even that had changed.

I held him tightly for a moment, waiting for the ground to drop out from under me, but nothing happened. Perhaps Q had found other interests..

"Thanks", Noonian said, "that was close.. but I think it's safe to let me breathe again now."

I let go hastily, but he was grinning. That was another thing I liked about him; no fear at all, and yet I was not of his own making. Before I could step away from him, he caught me quickly and hugged me in return. "Thanks again", he said. "I'm glad you were around. In fact, I'm always glad to have you around.." Then he let go, as quickly as that, and resumed his work. I was not sure whether the incident mirrored anything at all in the first parallel - except that it wasn't even a parallel.

I felt relieved when he closed up the hardware and sat down at a temporarily connected terminal to enter the selection algorithms. I watched his long, beautiful hands as much as the screen, but I had ample time to note the complexity of those algorithms. He could not go by size of objects, or the robot would pick up everything and store it somewhere, rather than leaving anything to vacuum off. Store it somewhere..

"What size log capacity does that thing have?" I asked.

Noonian looked up at me, his blue gaze completely bewildered. "Log capacity? For logging what?"

"Where it puts the things you've littered the floor with but which it identifies as something you want excluded from the cleaning process. You could have shelves full of rescued microparts and never know it, because you didn't know where it put them."

"Oops", he said, "you're right, I'd better add that.. there should be about two gigs I could use for a log - it isn't much, considering this thing's capacity for running long without a recharge, but it'll do for now.."

"Nearly slipped up there, OftenWrong?" said Lore's voice from the doorway. So he was using that idiotic nickname here too. In my universe, he had always claimed he got it from the colonists of Omicron Theta; I doubted that was true here. Then again, maybe it hadn't been true back there either..

"You know, when he makes mistakes like that, I usually let him", Lore confided in me. "Keeps his mind agile, having to learn for himself."

Knowing the Lore of my own universe, I found those words harsh and insulting. But Noonian did not seem unduly bothered. "Just you wait, Lore", he said goodnaturedly. "It's your turn next - you might appreciate Llin being around to point things out to me by then."

"What are you going to do to him?" I asked. I could see by the slightly worried look in Lore's topaze eyes that he had been about to ask the same question.

Apparently Noonian had caught it too. "Don't worry, Lore", he said. "I'll just improve your handling of your memory space. I thought of a few routines the other day that I'd like to try out."

"Are you sure they'll be an improvement?" Lore asked nervously.

"If they're not, I'll just put you back the way you were", Noonian said cheerfully. "But I'm quite confident they will be." He finished his work with the cleaning unit, disconnected the terminal, and walked over to the android. "You worry too much", he said, marking a playful punch to Lore's side but stopping short of completing it, presumably so as not to injure himself. "Or else you've been calling me by that silly name so frequently you're beginning to believe in it. I built you, remember? Would I do a sloppy job?"

Lore relaxed a little and allowed himself to be connected to the display. His head had the same type of interface as Data's. I wondered lightly if the standard was Noonian's own. Whatever it was, it wasn't Lobelian.

Noonian looked at him carefully while typing something on the keyboard, and I saw Lore's eyes go blank. Or perhaps I should say go dim, for that was what it looked like by comparison with the golden spark I was used to see in them. I didn't like the sight.

"Doesn't he have an off button?" I asked. "Why didn't you switch him off first?"

"It's not necessary", Noonian explained patiently. "Besides, I'll need to test a few memory functions in the process; I can't shut them all down. Don't worry, I can't hurt him - he's in a sort of hibernation stage, you might say."

"Hm. Sort of standby?"

"Deeper than that. He's not conscious on any level, but I can still run most of his lower function routines."

I looked up at Lore's face, examining it closely though I was leery of actually touching it. In repose, it looked more like Data's than ever when Lore was awake.

"Why gold?" I asked.

"Hmm?" Noonian asked distractedly, watching the readout.

I didn't want to disturb him, but since I had started.. "Why the gold finish? If you were going for an all-human look, I mean."

"Oh that.. I wanted him endurable. Gold is still one of the best materials around for that - in the right proportion to the other minerals involved, that is." He moved away from the terminal and came over to adjust something among Lore's open circuitry. "Besides, who're you to talk? There aren't many purple humans around, you know."

"Mauve. My 'alien race' were not that sure what a human looked like, I suppose. Or else they were colourblind in some odd sort of way. Besides, I'm told I could pass for a Zenaran quite easily. Not human, but as near as makes no difference, probably. But gold.. you mean this is real gold?"

He nodded proudly. "Quite genuine. I tested it before I used it."

"How could you afford it? Or isn't it expensive - in these parts?" I added quickly, realizing that things might be different - again.

"Very. But I've helped the Ferengi traders out with their intelligent navigation systems now and then - they always pay me in gold."

Of course. They would. Gold, or gold-plated latinum. But intellgent navigation systems? I knew that it probably did not mean sentient, or I didn't think Noonian would have taken on the work, but I could not help thinking back on all my years as a sentient ship - the better part of my life actually, perhaps in more ways than the merely numerically.

Noonian misinterpreted my silence - small wonder, how could he have known? "What have you got against gold?" he asked lightly. "Don't you think he's handsome?"

I looked up at that still face, so indistinguishable from Data's. "Very..", I said.

Too late I noticed that the golden spark was back. I could swear Noonian had purposely chosen that moment to ask his question.

"I was only built that way", said Lore with a grin.

Great. So they had had Roger Rabbit in this continuum too. Idly I wondered in what century.

*  *  *  *

One thing Lore would not let me do was go into town alone. In his company yes, but not on my own. This made things a bit awkward for me, as I was determined that Noonian should not be left alone in the house this time, and with both of us gone he would be, unless he happened to have a visitor we trusted. Not that I had any important business in the city, but I would like to see more than just our immediate surroundings, to try and find out what direction was the most likely for any danger to come from. I wished Lore could trust me as easily as his father apparently did.

One day however, our next-door neighbour came over. Noonian used to call him that in jest, because this man lived outside the city too, and he was next door only by countryside measures. Consequently, we did not see that much of him, but Noonian had known him a long time and taught us to trust him. He was an elderly, jovial man - a writer, not a professional farmer, living much the same way as Noonian did while composing the text matter for various stories and sending it off to his teammates on half a dozen other worlds for editing and adding imagery, sound, and occasionally acted sequences too, not just holographic ones.

When he showed up this time, I was the one answering the door - very cautiously as always, and the old man did his usual mock flirting number as always when he met me, then kidded me about loose screws - he knew perfectly well what Lore and I were; the only thing he did not know, the only thing no one outside our household knew was that I was not of Noonian's making.

I decided to make use of his visit. I told Noonian I had planned to go into town, and wondered if there was anything he needed. As usual there was. 40 metres of ribbon steel, 2 cms wide - the gods know what he wanted that for - a recharge for the fire extinguisher - now that chilled me, but I did not let on of course - five sacks of chicken feed, seven different chemicals that I recognized as possible bases for android nutrients, three packs of soldering pewter.. I memorized it all, thinking it was just as well I had all these errands for him, because I had none of my own, except for looking around.

I almost thought I'd be able to slip away, that I would not really have to rely only on the neighbour to keep Noonian company, but that Lore would be there too. Somewhere among my background processes I knew it was as foolish to trust Lore as Noonian's bodyguard as it was to trust anyone else but myself, but for some reason I did anyway, if only for that small fact that he had as yet no reason to be bitter.

I got as far as the garage. As I approached the little hovercar, there he suddenly was, blocking my way. He had been working on something in the lab area; all he had to do was step over to the opposite end of the barn. I jumped; he must have noticed. I often did when Lore turned up unexpectedly - I wished I could have wiped the memories from another time and place which made me secretly fear him - then again, I might need those memories if I ever got back to my own spacetime.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Into town. Move aside, Dr Soong said I could use the car."

"You probably can. It's easy enough to drive. Your only real problem is how to get past me."

"Lore, don't be like that. I have a shopping list of things to get for Dr Soong; I really do have his permission - and anyway, I'm not a prisoner here, am I? Now please let me pass, will you?"

He caught my arms in a duranium grip. "No, you're not a prisoner", he said blithely, "and you can go into town any time you like - but I'm coming with you. Now if you don't like that, you're not going."

I sighed. Once again. Oh well.. "All right", I said, "you can come. I guess I'm not likely to stop you."

"Quite correct", he said calmly, then hoisted me off my feet and deposited me inside the hovercar. Behind the controls to be sure, but I felt none too sure of my dignity at the moment anyway. I wished he would stop reminding me that I was an inferior model.

*  *  *  *

I hadn't been in town for almost two weeks, and things were always changing. I had expected red tape, but this was ridiculous. The ironmonger would not accept vouchers from the grocer any more, and the grocer would not accept his own vouchers from my last visit. I tried to pay cash, but both were adamantly against that, for some reason. Afraid of robberies, no doubt.

"So what do you suggest I do?" I asked the grocer, a delicately turquoise-skinned Almorian.

"The Ferengi have set up exchange booths on almost every corner", he said. "You must have seen them. Step over to Zoarl's place, it's the nearest one. He takes most vouchers as long as they are reasonably common - if not, he might want some cash on the side."

I was about to promise him I'd go to a different grocer in the future, but thought better of it. If I did, I'd probably have to see their pet Ferengi on their street corner first. If non-competing businesses no longer took each other's vouchers, I could not see competitors doing it. I wondered how Lore was doing. He had gone off in the car to take care of some business of his own and was to meet me at the chemist's later - at this rate I'd be lucky if I got there before nightfall. No matter, I probably didn't have any vouchers they would take anyway..

I was on my way to Zoarl's exchange booth, when the sirens started. Their howling nearly overloaded my audio input ports and I had to compensate, so missed large parts of the message that went with them, booming out over the streets by loudspeaker. But I caught the words martial law and curfew.

So they had finally moved. Whatever side the visiting commander belonged to, the one opposing the increasingly inefficient and desorganized government. From what I had seen last time, we might well have been thrown out of the frying pan into the fire, not that I had found the pan very cosy either.

Then the flyers came in, sweeping low over the streets, strafing them at random. As a warning no doubt, for I saw no one hit - not then.

Shortly after came hovercars; the phaser fire from one of them casually obliterated Zoarl's booth in passing. I don't know if he had been in. All I knew was that I almost had. At that moment I actually wished I had still had my built-in arsenal. As it was, they had triggered my programme, but there was nothing I could do. As the flyers moved on up the street, I saw them pick off other booths along the way. There was no way all of those booths could have been empty. Still, I could not really fault the revolutionaries with a bad choice in targets; I even heard a few cheers from people who must have felt they were well rid of the Ferengi parasites.

I shoved my way back into the grocer's shop, to see if my currency would suddenly be acceptable now. But the shopkeeper had disappeared, and those closest to his wares were busy looting. I left in disgust; I knew it would only be a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds, before the revolutionary militia turned up to keep things in a different semblance of a mess - which they would call order.

I had to get back home - to Noonian's place. If the totalitarians had seized power, that could mean his life was finally in danger. I could not quite see how, for his dealings with them had not seemed antagonistic this time; they appeared to respect his neutrality. Nor had we had more than the occasional juvenile prank from the other side - to date. But I had a distinct feeling that this could change. If nothing else, those loyal to a chaotic government would probably respond to the coup with fullblown terrorism - creating the situation that had met me - and nearly killed me - last time I was here.

I headed for the chemist's - if Lore did not turn up there soon, I would have to steal a vehicle of some kind; I had to get back to Noonian's side before this situation spread beyond the city limits.

I only got halfway, before I ran into a roadblock. Literally, which was all the worse for the roadblock. I did not see it in time, because crowds were everywhere, blocking my sight. So I ran it down. As the damage was done, I did not bother to apologize to the militiaman standing guard, but simply slowed down to a walk and moved on, trying to look as if nothing unusual had happened.

The guard caught my arm. "Where do you think you're going, lady?"

"It's really none of your business", I said - against my better judgment, but my special programme had taken over once and for all; I could feel the glee of destructivity rising in me, though I tried hard to keep it down.

"No one's allowed in the city kernel", he said. "Didn't you hear?"

"I couldn't care less", I said. "I have business there. Move aside, or you'll share the fate of your flimsy roadblock."

He raised a phaser, so I broke his arm before checking the setting of the weapon. I did not really care what it was set to. Then I walked through the crowd. I did not have to trample anyone - which was something of a disappointment - they had seen enough to move aside willingly.

The next block was not as easy; it consisted of plascrete 'pigs' waist high to me, and the two guards were prepared; their colleague had signalled ahead. They were both aiming phasers at me from a distance, but one of them lowered hers and called to the other to do the same.

"I recognize her", she called out. "It's one of Soong's robots - we'd better report this - maybe the fool has been constructing a weapon."

"If so, hadn't we better destroy her?" the other one - a male Tevarian - suggested. I had wisely drawn to a halt but was holding myself prepared for anything.

"A weapon for us, you idiot", said the woman. "Though I bet he hasn't thought of it that way. I have a feeling this one could be worth something to our cause. Let's capture her, we might get promoted on the spot."

"Capture her?" asked the Tevarian who seemed to have a better grasp of reality, if not exactly of his intellect. "Lena, I'd be glad to hear any plan you might have for.."

The one called Lena raised her weapon again, presumably on some kind of high stun setting.

It was the last thing she did. I had the time to see the low sun glint off a golden surface - then she was flying through the air. She landed hard on the plascrete barrier, head first. Lore had arrived.

The Tevarian guard was busy reporting over commlink when Lore caught him. The android tore the device away from the guard, but I knew it was too late. "It's no use", I said as I ran to help Lore, "they already knew we were here. You might as well let go of him."

He turned to me with that characteristic smile - the one I had seen so often in my own continuum, though never yet here. "Would you?" he asked.

I watched the guard's fear, a part of me feeling sorry for him - the rest of me in the firm grip of my special programme.

"No", I admitted. "I would not."

Lore calmly and efficiently broke the man's neck.

*  *  *  *

"Don't tell OftenWrong", he said suddenly, as we were sitting in the car on our way home. "He doesn't want me to kill."

He was sounding more like the Lore I knew by the minute. I wondered what else he saw fit to hide from his creator. "Are you afraid he'd disassemble you if he knew?" I asked, unable to think of any other reason. But the surprise in those yellow eyes seemed genuine.

"I never thought of that. No, I don't think he would. He knows I'm capable of killing; he programmed me so I'd be able to defend myself - and him, if it came to that - at any cost. Only, I improved a little on his ideas. His ethics are fine, but they can come too expensively in a world like this."

"Then why don't you want him to know?"

"Let's say.. I don't want to disappoint him." The tone was light, jocular to the point of sarcasm - but I shall never forget the expression in his golden eyes. It seemed to say that he would literally rather have died than hurt Noonian so - and that he knew it was far too late now. Had been for a long time.

I didn't know what to say. I had never seen him look like that in my world - if ever he had once been capable of it, the betrayals he had suffered and handed back in kind, had taken such feelings away. I wondered if the same thing could one day happen to Data. But no - this was one instance where the emotions chip could not work alone. Data cast too little Shadow - if any. And the expression on Lore's face told of experience - the experience of suffering.

Finally I said, "Amazing how not even a creation in one's own image ever becomes a clone.." I hoped vaguely that he would feel my words had no real bearing on the subject, but he caught on. After all, he was a positronic model.

"Yes, why couldn't he have just cloned me from himself?" he burst out in evident annoyance. "With his degrees in biology and biochemistry, medical sciences - he could have, quite easily. But no, that wasn't interesting enough - he had to collect just as many degrees in cybernetics, computer design, programming techniques.. and he had to pour the results of the whole mess into me! Wanted to improve on the human design, he once said - as if there weren't enough biological beings already improving it by sheer genetical accident!"

I smiled. "Would you really have preferred being biological?"

He sighed. "No. But - I sometimes wish I had come out a little more.." His uncharacteristic search for words reminded me very much of Data. They both looked equally at a loss whenever they had to run a search for any noticeable length of time. ".. like him", he finished, looking as if he had just surprised himself.

"Then cloning is not the answer", I said, carefully avoiding the question of what had caused the widest deviation - Noonian's original programming or Lore's own modifications of it. "Clones have an identical personality only up to the point of the cloning process itself. Once different experiences begin to take their toll.."

"I know, I know", he said, as of course he did. Then he surprised me. "But I can dream, can't I?"

I came very close to telling him about his brother's all-absorbing, perhaps all-consuming, dream of becoming human. But there was one thing I had promised myself that I would never tell this Lore - not if I could help it. And if I could not, then it would be much too late. For everything.

As we were swinging in towards the little farm, I said, "Well, you're not wholly unlike him."

"You mean my overall design? Yes, he cast the mold from himself; I suppose you noticed. It's a fact that's hard to miss", he said with a wry smile.

"He's a bit of a narcissist, isn't he? But I was thinking of your ambition. It shines through in everything you do - right down to modifying your own programming. I think you got the matrix for that kind of ambition from him. He wants to learn all there is to know - delighting in the fact that there will always be more to learn."

In fact, that particular slant on ambition - attaining knowledge - was something Noonian had passed on to Data as well, perhaps to an even higher degree, though I was not about to mention that. "But what's the cast of your ambition, Lore? What do you want for yourself?"

To my surprise, he took my question very badly. Impatiently jabbing at the controls to the point of upsetting the little vehicle and almost botching our 'landing', he spat, "That's just it! What am I supposed to do? Be something any human could be - any 10 000 humans could be would be more like it, but where's the point? Or mosey around here like some sort of glorified - very glorified - household robot? He gave me everything - why couldn't he have given me a purpose too?"

He had finally brought the car to a somewhat undignified halt. I stepped out. "Well", I said, "let's hope that he has at least made you into something more than the sum of his parts."

At the pleasantly highpitched reaction I had inadvertently provoked, I abruptly realized that I had never heard Lore laugh quite like that in my own timeline. Not so - unguardedly. There was always the note of contempt and derision lurking underneath, causing a dissonance that should not have needed to be there.

The neighbour had left. Called home by his wife who had just returned from the city. News, as always, travelled fast.

Noonian was at his supper. He had heard about the coup, and absurdly enough he had been worried about us, but so far he had not learnt anything about our part in the events, so we did not say much, besides reporting what we knew of the coup itself, and being duly regretful that we had not been able to get all the things he had requested, but he casually dismissed that.

"Just as long as you're both safe. I was afraid that in the resultant anarchy, someone would try to steal you, or even destroy you."

"They'd be welcome to try", said Lore.

Noonian scrutinized him. "I don't think I like the sound of that. I don't want any trouble - with either side. They'd both be a disruptive influence in my work. Perhaps you'd better work on your attitude, Lore. Or - shall I?"

It was a humourous suggestion, not a threat, but I could see that Lore resented it all the same.

Later that night, I was sitting alone in the dark after Noonian had gone to bed. It was entirely my own idea to keep watch - mine and Q's, for after all it was what I was there for. Lore was out in the garage lab.

I heard the door creak and fall to behind him - the sound did not startle me, I had come to recognize Lore's bootsteps. In fact, anything clearly heavier than a human sounded somehow reassuring. I would have to watch that - there were countless species who were heavier than the average human of the same size, and whatever else revolutionaries and government rabble might do, they did not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of sex, race, creed, competence, or the colour of money.

I felt spent - and knew by that sensation that my special programme had run to its end for now. I hoped it would not be triggered again any time soon.

Lore came up to me without turning on the light. I had never asked if either of the two Soong models had infrared vision, but somehow I did not think so. On the other hand, I could see no reason for not installing it. Considering that cost was not an issue, as it was with Lobelian orders.

He tossed something into my hands, and I caught it. It was a ring of sorts, I could see that much by the faint light from the windows. "What is it?" I asked. I could feel that it was not ornamental; at least not exclusively; there seemed to be something built into it.

"Locating device. Put it on." He held up a gadget that was in all likelihood a sensor of some kind. "Here's the other part. I don't want to lose track of you in the riots again."

I was about to point out that he was the one who had gone off briefly, but thought better of it. I had been glad enough at the time, to get that moment to myself. I tried the ring on. It slipped off any finger easily. "It's too big", I said. "It won't stay on unless I rivet it to a finger. Should I?"

He pondered that - for a whole tenth of a second. "I don't think it'll be necessary. The ring was made for me - so Oft.. Soong could trace me in the beginning, before he was certain I could handle myself on my own." He did something to the sensor, then took the ring back, flipped open its large dark stone, and did something to the circuitry beneath. Closing the stone again, he pressed down on the sensor. The ring promptly emitted a supersonic wail, then a howl in a lower register as it began to resonate off the sensor waves. I covered my ears by ancient reflex, too startled to compensate.

Lore shut off the sound. "Sorry. I was holding them too close to each other. Normally, all the ring gives off will be a supersonic alarm. Which means only you and I, a few dogs and cats, and various assorted species will hear it, but I felt it was better than alerting everybody who's not deaf." He put the ring on his right middle finger, then tossed the sensor to me. "Better this way? I can't trace you, but you can call me, any time you need me. Just see that you hold on to that sensor - and that you use it."

"Seems like a good idea. Not easy to hold on to a loose part though - I'd better build it into me in some place where I can still trigger it."

He nodded. "I'll do it. Where do you want it?"

"Well.. not in my hands I think, or I might trigger it inadvertently when handling something. What about my throat?"

"Good thinking", he said. He reached out to pass a tentative finger along the curve of my vocal apparatus, then to the depression beneath. "We could place it subcutaneously here. Thin enough skin that you would still be able to feel the trigger. And if anyone tries to cut your throat, they'd probably trigger the device themselves. Yes, it's a good idea."

He turned to the workbench, switching on the light. "See a knife around here?"

I looked briefly towards Noonian's bedroom, but there was no sound. Perhaps the light did not shine in very far. I wondered why Lore had turned it on, perhaps he didn't have IR vision after all? Or perhaps he still felt that light in the normal human range was easier to work in? As he rummaged around on the workbench, I saw the ring glint on his hand. Its stone was a bright, yet sated green. I don't know why I had expected it to be black.

He found a laserblade and came back to me with it. I tried hard not to flinch. He was sufficiently different here that I did not often think of his counterpart in my own world, but having him work on me again triggered memories I had just as soon seen removed altogether.

He stopped in front of me. I think he must have seen something in my eyes, for he asked, "Would you rather do it yourself? I could hold a mirror for you."

I forced myself to shake my head. "I trust you, Lore", I lied. I did nothing of the kind, at least not yet, but somehow I felt I ought to. Perhaps I was trying to teach myself that trust.

He slid in the laser carefully - it did not hurt at all. He put in the tracking device tentatively, to see how it could fit, then took it back out and went looking for a soldering pen. Having found one, he affixed the sensor to some of my minor leads, trigger turned outward where I would be able to feel it using very little pressure. He applied his long fingers with the same delicacy as Noonian always did, working carefully and efficiently; no excess movement and only the most delicate touch. Now that I thought about it, I could not say that Lore had ever been sloppy, back in my spacetime either.

Using a tool vaguely resembling what they would use to treat skis on Midgard, he sealed my skin shut by heat; that was the only part of the procedure that actually hurt, but I did not tell him.

He ran a long thumb over where the slit had been, to see that no seam was evident. But he kept his hand there, longer than necessary. Yet he was not testing the sensor - since he could not have forgotten, I realized he had postponed the test run. His thumb continued to caress my throat, lightly but insistently. "I was worried about you today", he said in a low voice.

Worried. Not concerned. This one had never had cause to doubt his feelings, never been fooled by human opinion stating he could not have any. On the whole, Lore wasn't fooled by much - in either universe. Certainly he could never be deceived regarding his own functions. But perhaps I was being hard on Data - after all, he had had no frame of reference, in those days before the chip. And the effect of the chip had taken him by surprise to put it mildly. All the same, I could not think of someone s oclearly capable of curiosity, concern, courage, and loyalty as being altogether lacking emotion. It didn't add up. Did not compute..

"Thanks", I told Lore simply. "I'm not sure there was any call for it, but thanks all the same. Next time there might be."

"Next time you'll have this", he said, pressing down his thumb on the sensor, finally testing it. The ring went off immediately. It was still too close. I shut off the device.

"Seems to be still working", I said, trying to slide off the table I'd been sitting on.

He caught me - and held me. "Will you use it?" he asked. "Will you call me?"

"If I can.." I said, trying to wriggle free despite knowing that it was doomed to fail. I'm no match for a Soong model - never was.

I've been thinking that if I had given him a direct order to let me go, it might have worked. But I did not. Perhaps I was still thinking in human pathways, after all these years. Or perhaps it was something else. Anyway, he held on, leaning over me till his golden lips brushed mine.

That's when I panicked. A thousandth of a second before, I had not known I would do it, but something cross-referenced my memory of being raped by his counterpart, suddenly bringing that memory to the front of my consciousness, and in full force as though it had just happened - was just happening.

Had I not surprised him, I would never have got free, but my foot lashed out, kicking him away at the same time as I vaulted backwards over the table in a movement I had not known I was capable of. But primarily, I screamed. A shrill wail that started on a frequency and amplitude suitable to most decent sirens and went on up into the supersonic. Somewhere a glass shattered, but the sound was obscured by the crash as the table fell, its balance upset by my vault.

Of course Noonian woke up. Being on all fours behind the overturned table, I did not see him come out; suddenly he was just standing there, blinking against the light, in a nightshirt that would have looked ridiculous on anyone but him. I quickly shut off my shriek - unfortunately it had to pass through the human audible spectrum on its way down as well. I saw him wince.

"Can't you two be quiet at night?" he asked, but he did not sound really annoyed - in fact I rather suspect he was secretly amused, perhaps even pleased by our humanly wayward behaviour. "You non-sleeping beings should show the rest of us the common courtesy of not waking us up. What happened?"

For some reason we both hesitated. Not a good reaction, coming from a machine. Or two.

Noonian sat down on a chair, obviously prepared to wait us out. Lore righted the table, perhaps to make a good impression - or simply because he saw it as his job.

"Well?" Noonian said. "Can't decide which one of you should answer? All right, you first, Lore. What was this all about?"

"I don't know", Lore said. "I merely tried to kiss her, and.."

"After I told you not to force yourself on her?" Noonian cut in angrily.

"But I wasn't going to!" Lore protested, looking half sheepish and half wrongfully accused. "It was just an offer, nothing else.."

"It never occurred to you that she might be afraid of you?" Noonian said. "Of your greater strength, if nothing else - though I daresay your personality can be quite intimidating too, to those who don't know you well."

"She didn't act afraid", Lore pointed out. "In fact, she had just told me she trusted me. How was I to know..?"

Noonian held up a hand, silencing him. "All right. Llin, I think you may have some explanations for us."

"What, because I did not accept his advances?" I tried, though I should have known that playing the put-upon female would not work.

"Noo", he said reasonably, "Because your behaviour might have been erratic just now. Apparently, you gave him no warning at all."

"I think it's about time you told us something of your background, Llin", Lore chimed in. "Or at least give us any reason at all why we should trust you."

Rejection yes, but that was only a small part of it. I had managed to reawaken his old suspicions by my behaviour. If he were anything like the Lore I had known, they had never slept, not even while he was worried about me.

"That wasn't my first thought", Noonian said with a glare at Lore, "though it might be a valid one", he conceded. "But if you were indeed malfunctioning, Llin, you might need help. I'd be willing to do whatever it takes to straighten you out. And if you were not - then I'd like to know why. Just to be sure."

I sighed. "It's a long story. A very long story, and not extremely believable either. To begin with, I've been here before. Though neither of you knows that, particularly not Lore.. damn, perhaps I should begin somewhere else. With what I am, for instance. Dr Soong, you have already noticed that I possess some functions that are really too sophisticated for a duotronic model. That's because they were already there - they were not built in. My consciousness was downloaded, it was not written. I used to be human."

I shall never forget their eyes. The golden ones still suspicious but clearly intrigued. The blue ones - startled. Only for a moment, but it was there. To my surprise, that cut me. On behalf of my present self, of Lore, of Data, of anyone like us. Would Noonian really consider such a transfer a crime? I could not believe it - he would be the last person in at least two universes to think such a thing. All the same, I was glad Lore had not caught that fleeting expression.

"It's not as bad as it sounds", I said drily. "That was a long long time ago - for the better part of my life, I was actually a sentient ship. Now, that first transfer might have been a touch on the dubious side, but circumstances were special, and I did agree to it. Maybe not fully knowing all implications, but - none the worse for it in the end, as you can see. Being human isn't everything", I added caustically.

Noonian shook his head, a soft curl falling into his face at the movement. "No need to be so sensitive about it then. Sorry if somehow I gave you the impression I was shocked - I think you misunderstood. It's just that I've done some extensive research - I'm sure you can believe that - and I never knew such transfers were possible. It's not that I don't believe you - but it seems that I should have known about it if someone had accomplished it."

"If you had, would you have tried it?" Lore wanted to know. "Would you have downloaded a copy of your own mind into my positronic brain, rather than writing my software yourself?" He seemed tense, but there was no telling which answer he would prefer.

Noonian thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think so. Apart from not knowing what subtle things might go wrong, it would seem like - too much of a shortcut. I did not cut any corners with you, Lore."

It looked as if that answer would do, if only for its qualification. Not cut any corners.. had he ever told Lore that in my continuum? Would it have helped if he had? Would that Lore have believed it?

"Dr Ira Graves knew it was possible", I said. Blank stares.

"Dr Who?"

Noonian's question almost set me laughing, but I caught myself. "You haven't met him? He claimed to be your teacher - and I've seen no reason to doubt it." The time had come. "What do you know of parallel spacetime continua?"

I told them everything - or so I thought. Fortunately, neither of them was opposed to the parallels idea, but then I doubted that Noonian would really be opposed to any idea. He was well read on this subject too, although Lore held more readily available information on it. When it came to Q's part in all this, Lore was distinctly sceptic, but Noonian accepted it readily enough. To me, the Q are gods - because to my Midgard mind that is the easiest way to understand them. Noonian preferred to interpret them as beings sufficiently advanced over humans to seem like gods to them - because for some obscure reason he personally found that detour easier to grasp. And so did Lore, once Noonian had spelled it out. Put like that, he too could accept the existence of Q. To each a's own, but I wondered how far that explanation would go towards shedding any light on Q's capricious attitude to things. Which was perfectly reasonable to me - gods are supposed to be like that.

Everything - and yet not. In the end, I found that I had omitted almost all personal things. I had told them of my transfers - including the ones initiated by our first encounter with the Enterprise.Interestingly, the name did not seem to trigger any reaction in either of them. They did know of a Starfleet and a Federation, but it seemed that their world was not part of the latter. It figured; it had far from solved its internal problems yet. The planet was unified - more so than Midgard had been - but that was it. I saw as I told them of my transfer back into human form that I had indeed misjudged Noonian before. By the unguarded compassion in those blue eyes, I could see that he understood perfectly which transfer had been the worst crime and the worst violation of my integrity.

That incident was as close as I got to telling them anything personal. I told them of my first attempt to rescue Noonian - he took the tale of his death quite calmly - and that Lore had not yet been constructed then; but I said nothing of what mine and Noonian's relationship had been, only that I was devastated about having failed my mission. He could take that any way he wished. Somehow I did not think it fair to tell him; it would have seemed too much like making claims. Perhaps he guessed anyway - knowing himself maybe. But if he did, he said nothing of it.

I told them that I had met Lore in my own continuum, but that he was built much later in Noonian's life, and so I had never met him there. Again, Noonian did not seem any too disturbed at hearing about his demise - if anything, he looked rather pleased that it had come so late, that he had been allowed by time and circumstance to continue his work and his learning process for so long.

Then he caught me unawares. "How many artificial beings did I build over there?" he asked.

"I - don't rightly know", I said. "I think you made a lot of prototypes before Lore."

"But Lore was the last one? The crown of my achievement, as it were?"

Lore managed to look pleased and decidedly worried at the same time. I knew I had hesitated too long in answering the first question.

"I don't think I should tell you all you did there", I said. "Certainly it can be of no use to you. It's not like knowing the future. What you did or did not do in that continuum may have no bearing at all on what you're about to do here."

"Precisely", he said, eagerly. "So where's the harm in telling me? It won't disrupt anything, and I might still learn from it."

"Actually, I never read up on all the details of your life", I said. "But if you ever find your wife on this side of things, she might be able to give you a few ideas. You were married late in life - sometime around fifty, I think. Of course, you were absorbed in your work as usual, and she left you eventually, but for quite a few years she took part in everything you did, so she must have had some influence."

"It seems I did everything late over there.." he muttered, flashing me a penetrating, ice-blue look. He knew I was hedging, hoping to distract him. But he could also see I was desperately trying not to lie to him; desperately enough that I would if pressed. Wise beyond his years, he decided not to force the issue.

I told them of the Lobelians in my universe - first version, not the parallel Data and I had fallen into, but then that was not my universe anyway - and of how Garth, with my permission this time, had commissioned my transfer into a newly built gynoid form when the Hwyfar was finally giving out after long years of service.

But in all my careful avoidance of things too close for comfort, I had omitted too much.

"I'm still waiting for an explanation", Lore said, when I finished.

No use playing dumb. He knew I knew what he meant. Nevertheless, I found no words. I was worried that if I got into that part too, it might carry too far.

I had not considered the fact that Noonian must have quite a few degrees in robot psychology on top of everything else. Coupled with a rarely erring intuition. "Perhaps it's not important", he said. "I don't think you're malfunctioning. But let me just ask you this; are you really afraid of Lore?"

"No", I said, surprising myself. "Not here, I'm not."

"You said you trusted me", Lore pointed out.

"Most of the time", I said. "Maybe not always. You - or rather your counterpart - treated me quite badly once or twice. You.. are not a very nice person there, Lore. I'm sorry", I added with a glance at his creator.

"What went wrong?" Noonian immediately wanted to know.

"What did I do?" Lore asked at the same time. His question was the easier to answer.

"Rape me for one thing", I said, watching their reactions.

This time Noonian did look shocked. And pained, as if suddenly confronted with an old nightmare. Lore turned away briefly, and I could not see his face. When he turned towards me again, he was very composed. Possibly a little too composed. "You have to tell me why", he said calmly. "I must have had a reason. Or was I malfunctioning?"

"No", I said. You didn't know at the time that I was a weaker model. You assumed that I was as strong as you, and that I would stop you."

"Then why did he persist, when you didn't?" Noonian almost screamed. I had never seen him so upset, and it bothered me deeply.

"Then why did I even try?" Lore wanted to know - again speaking at the same time as his creator.

This time I answered them both. "You were testing me. You hoped your attack would trigger the special weapons systems programming you had had installed in me", I told Lore. "Remember when you two were discussing the possibility I might be booby-trapped? You said that's the way you would have done it. Well, you did. In another time and place."

I had given up. I told them all that Lore had done, the secret modifications he had had the Lobelians do to me, when Garth could not pay his debt to them. How he had tried to use me as a weapon against the Federation, and in the long run probably against all biological lifeforms advanced enough to be a nuisance - though I told him he was always kind to animals, at least so long as their ambitions did not collide with his own, as those of human animals did.

Noonian sat with his face buried in his long hands. As I finished my gruesome tale, he stood, walked over to me and took me by the shoulders. His nightshirt fell open a little, distracting me. He did not notice. "Please tell me what went wrong with him", he said. "Was it anything I did? If so, I must know; surely you see that. I must know, to avoid anything like that ever happening here."

But this time Lore intervened. "It's too late, father", he said, and though I had heard him call Noonian that before, I knew he did not do so often. "I know that I could become like that; I can feel it. Only, I'm not going to. There may be nothing you can do about it now, but I can. And I too have derived some insight from Llin's story. I know now what to avoid; it wasn't all that clear to me before."

"The risk is too great", Noonian said sadly. "I must modify you. To some extent anyway. I won't change any important aspects of your personality, but.."

"Only take away my capacity for making ethically wrong choices?" Lore asked lightly. "No, you did not say that, I did, and frankly I would never have believed it of you. Please don't disappoint me. Anyway, let it go, father. It's out of your hands - I am out of your hands."

He was right of course. He was fully sentient. Any choice he made would have to be his own. Anything else was unthinkable.

I knew Noonian saw that too. Must have seen it from the start, hoped for it, that he would one day reach the point where such ethics would apply. And yet he pleaded with me again, "Llin, tell me what went wrong. I have to know."

"I'm sorry", I said. "But if you are to stand a chance of avoiding the same disaster here, you must not know. Neither must Lore. I can't tell you."

I didn't want to see the agony in those blue eyes. Yet I truly believed I had best not let him know how he had treated Lore in my universe. Here, I could not see him discard his only son as so much scrap metal. Not if he never knew he might be capable of it. Or did he know? His only son.. yes, that was the catch, wasn't it? He must never make another - yet how was I or anyone to thwart his life-long ambition, which must be to make ever more of them, and better? For a fleeting millisecond I almost wished I'd not be able to save him this time either - and that Q would let me off after that. But of course, Q had the greater picture.. I saw only what would be best for Lore - for the universe in regard to Lore. I suppose there had to be other aspects. Such as are known to gods.

*  *  *  *

They came in the morning. Noonian didn't get much sleep that night, for they were early, in the time-honoured tradition of dictatorship bullies, police, and tax-collectors everywhere. Lore was out feeding the chickens, so I answered the door, before they could break it down.

"Freeze her!" the commander said, and I felt the strangest stun effect I had ever been in the way of - not that I've known that many, I'm happy to say, but this was different. It left me standing and fully conscious, but immobilized.

'As easy as that..', I thought with a sinking feeling that I would fail this time also.

"Guarn, get her out of the way", the commander ordered. The Tevarian who leapt to follow his orders shoved and groaned but did not accomplish much. I smiled inwardly, since I could not move my face. The commander gestured impatiently for one of the others to help him - a human this time. They dragged me away from the door and rushed in, two of them to take up positions within the house, two more to fetch Noonian out of bed.

He looked sleepier now than he had in the night, but he still reacted strongly to the sight of me standing motionless by the door. "What have you done to her?" he asked anxiously, but also with a touch of futile menace that I was glad to note, though I never would have expected it from him.

"Oh, only stunned her", the commander told him carelessly. "It'll wear off in time." Well, I was glad to hear that. I wondered in how long a time, but thought it unlikely he would provide me with that information also.

"Stunned her?" Noonian said. "It rather looks as if you had shorted her out. If you've fused anything.."

"Don't worry, we wouldn't harm her", the commander said. "Not until we understand her workings at any rate. It's a new effect", he explained, holding up a strange weapon for inspection. "With a higher efficiency than the old stun settings which never quite fitted their various targets except by approximation. It's also quite painless - leaves no 'stun hangover' in its wake, even on Andorians. Intrigued?"

Noonian glared at him, but I could see his curiosity had been aroused again. I knew he sometimes took a theoretical interest in weapons because so much intricate engineering and artistry had gone into their design - if his interest ever went beyond a mere fascination with structure, I suppose he would work on countering their effect.

"How can you use the same effect on a delicate Andorian and a wellbuilt gynoid?" he could not refrain from asking.

The commander smiled proudly. "This little gadget is highly adaptable. It also has a built-in sensor for motoric activity. It starts out by just freezing all neural impulses very lightly, then, if it still detects motoric activity - which by then should be no longer visible to most biological eyes - the effect increases until sufficient. All this is of course very quick. Recovery is slower - gradual enough for this thing to give off an alarm once it detects motoric activity again. Ample warning to let us decide whether to stun again, or to let recovery run its course."

"What method does it use for transceiving the signal?" Noonian asked.

Probably at a loss for an answer, the commander said, "I thought you'd be interested. It was developed in our weapons lab. We already have a considerable group of prominent scientists working for us. Care to join them?"

"Is that why you woke me up before even my rooster got to his feet - to ask me that?" Noonian wanted to know.

The commander spread his hands, the weapon still in one of them. "You know how it is. Nothing like early hours for adding a - touch of drama."

"A touch of intimidation, you mean", Noonian said calmly. "As well as one of uncouth cavemanship. Well, it won't work on me. I'll never go to work for either side, you know that. Especially not in a weapons lab. Whatever made you think I'd be any use to you there?"

"Oh, but you have already created two formidable weapons.." the commander said lightly. In view of their little demo in town yesterday, I'd say they could be the first two members of an elite army - or militia, in case the forces of the old government grow out of hand. I hear their mafia is already rallying, and we only took over yesterday."

Noonian looked like a man bewildered yet adamantly set against asking any more questions. But the commander knew. "Oh, so they haven't told you about their little stunt? That's not so good.. you'll have to be able to control them better than that, if they're to be any use to us.. Well, I see I shall have to enlighten you then. Your android deliberately killed two of our soldiers guarding a roadblock yesterday. This one was not seen actually killing anyone herself, but she seemed to give him permission to do so, and she did run down the roadblock - or maybe the one before it; doesn't matter. They are both highly sophisticated weapons, with a great potential for controlled destruction, and they do not balk at killing. We would very much want them on our side - as you can imagine.." he concluded with a wink.

It hurt me to see the agony in Noonian's eyes. He knew better than to disbelieve the commander's report. He knew Lore was perfectly capable of something like this - and that he had said nothing last night of having already acted on that capability. Nor had I. I wished I could have explained - then again, what was there to explain? Lore had killed - for my protection, but it had not been strictly necessary for all that. I had done it for revenge - though not in this kink of the timeline.

Yet I wished I could speak. To say something, anything, to offer Noonian some consolation for what he must now see as the failure of his life. I had gradually come to know what great hopes he had had for Lore. I tried to move - and noticed that the stun effect had lessened. I did not yet have movement or speech, but I could feel my motorics soften up, as it were. Not that it would do much good if those weapons did give off an alarm - but at least they had not yet.

"I can't come work for you", Noonian said, his lips set in a way I did not care for. Then he said it. "I'd rather take them both apart."

The commander grinned. "Afraid we can't allow that. If you won't come, we shall have to requisition them. They are too valuable to us. It would be better if we had you too, but if not, we shall have to try and replicate them on our own."

Noonian actually laughed, though there was no mirth in it. That hurt me too; he was usually so full of the sheer joy of life.

"In a replicator? Did anyone ever try to replicate you, commander?"

The commander looked annoyed. "I didn't mean in a replicator. I meant we shall have to duplicate your work, Dr Soong."

"Good luck", said Noonian with a touch of his old pride.

"Don't be so confident. There are other outstanding cyberneticists in the galaxy. I'm sure some of them will prove more reasonable than you. Of course, as I said, we'd rather have you. But, if we can't, we can't. However, we cannot run the risk of you being coerced to work for the other side."

I could tell what was coming. It was still difficult to move, but the stun effect was clearly wearing off. Checking first to see that nobody was watching me, I managed to fight it off just enough to reach up and press the sensor in my throat. One of the weapons gave a short beep immediately before I set the sensor off, then it fell silent. The soldier holding it started to look it over in some surprise, but apparently did not connect the abortive beep with an alert signal.

"If you couldn't coerce me, how come you think they could?" Noonian asked, a touch of disdain in his voice that I felt did not belong there either. I deeply regretted what we had done to him - the present authorities and us two artificials between us.

"Let's say, their persuasive methods are a little - more sophisticated than ours", said the commander.

"Common propaganda", Noonian surmised, just as the door flew open - inward though it was not hinged that way - to admit Lore. One glance, and he had the situation. They never even got the time to raise their elaborate weapons. Lore cracked the skulls of them in turn as they got ready to fire, not in order of proximity. I admit I was impressed; I had forgotten the optional speed variation of the Soong models - a feature that was not built into me. Oh, I'm faster than a human when I need to be, but my only margin is based on greater precision and a lack of need to repeat my movements. I have no turbo mode, as it were.

Perhaps figuring that Noonian might want to discuss a few things with the commander, Lore spared the officer, merely disarming him in passing. Thus recklessly proving to his creator that he could have used this more peaceful method on the others also. Then he stepped over to me, concern evident in his golden eyes. "What did they do to you?"

I forced my hand away from my throat - it had been easier to let it remain there after triggering the sensor. I tried to speak but only got out a grinding croak like an unoiled, ancient gate.

Lore spun round, catching the commander by the scruff of the neck - at least that's what it looked like. The commander was the taller by a decimetre or so, but this did not help him any; he still looked rather limp in the android's grasp. "What have you done to her?" Lore asked quietly.

"Relax, Lore, she's just stunned - by some fancy method of theirs", Noonian said. "Now let him go - haven't you done enough harm already?"

"For your safety, father", Lore said coldly. "And I don't think I should release this one either. So if you're through with him.."

"Lore, let him go!" Noonian said sharply. "Or are you refusing direct orders now?"

Finding my voice at last, I rasped, "Lore, he knows. He knew already before this. The commander told him", I added with some viciousness.

But Lore did let go - with a disgusted shove that sent the commander on his behind against a wall amid a heap of spare parts, yet he did let go. I didn't think he had to obey Noonian's direct orders any more - but I also had a feeling he always would. With deep regret, I knew I would have to take care of this. Lore was right; we should not let the commander run - not now.

While Noonian was helping the commander to his feet, Lore came over to me. He said nothing, just held me close - but taking care not to squeeze too tightly. Then - perhaps against his better judgment - he kissed me, and this time I responded in kind. I could feel his surprise but I did not explain. I was on the verge of tears; I could sense our world beginning to crumble around us. Le commencement de la fin, as Captain Picard would have put it.. in another lifetime.

"You can see they need modification", Noonian said to the commander. "After all, they are prototypes. I'm truly sorry about what happened. Best not bother us again", he added, somehow avoiding it coming out a threat. He did not have to threaten.

"I know all about prototypes", the commander spat. "She summoned him somehow, didn't she? And our weapons were supposed to give off an alarm. Prototypes.."

"I think one did, though a bit late", I said helpfully, just to rub it in. "My signal must have interfered with its alarm function. I don't know about the others though.." I stepped up to a fallen soldier and picked up his weapon, examining it. Then the others. I giggled. "They forgot to set them to alarm mode", I said. "Or else they didn't know they'd have to. There's a trigger for it - presumably so as to be able to avoid an alarm in situations where you might not want it. And they did not activate it. Well, that's biological life forms for you.." I tossed the weapons back down on the floor. I didn't care what I told him. I was going to kill him anyway. As soon as he was out of Noonian's sight.

Noonian motioned him towards the crashed-in door. "Better leave while you can. I hope your vehicle is still intact." The commander hurried out - presumably to check. I doubted that Lore would have given himself time to damage the transport. Pity.

I took two steps toward the doorway, then I felt Noonian's slender hand on my shoulder. "Llin, don't."

I paused, though I did not have to. "We can't let him leave. He'll be back with reinforcements."

"They'll come anyway - whether he returns or not. I'm just asking you not to make things worse than they already are."

"Can I? Really?" I glanced at Lore who was busy carrying the bodies outside. "I don't have to obey you, you know."

Noonian smiled a little, a touch of his usual cheerful confidence temporarily returned. Perhaps it was never that far away. "But you're going to, aren't you?"

His long hand was still on my shoulder, so inadequate to hold me back physically, yet so powerful to make me stay. I think he knew. I stood there, wordlessly, until I heard the commander's hovercraft take off.

"I suppose I just did", I said.

*  *  *  *

I had wondered what to do with the bodies, but we were saved the trouble. Within the hour, a group of revolutionaries were back with a large vehicle to pick them up. Somehow I had not expected them to be so conscientious; then again, perhaps they were merely gathering evidence against us - or a combat profile on Lore, whichever they found the more interesting. In any case, those who made the pickup clearly had orders not to approach us - they never went near the house.

I stood watching them from a distance, letting them see I was. They worked huddled and hurriedly, staying on the spot some distance from the barn where Lore had dumped the bodies, possibly with plans for a pyre later. Now and then they shot me a nervous glance. And yet they were all armed. They certainly did not look like dedicated soldiers of a victorious revolutionary army. I concluded they had not been so for long. Neither victorious nor soldiers.

I stood there intimidating them till they were done hauling bodies. I watched them take off. The unwieldy vehicle was not really built for hovering, but some hopefull engineer had apparently installed the feature. Good thing we had no fence - I don't think they could have cleared it.

As I walked back, I could hear the sounds of a father-son argument at quite some distance from the door, so I did not go in. I went around the house to a back window where I could see as well as listen. The window was right by the chicken coop, so there was some suspicious and agitated clucking at my appearance. I positioned myself and held still. Very still. It was not a freeze in the sense that I could not have cancelled it without external help - I could - but it kept me motionless enough for the chickens to decide I was not alive. Chickens are hatched paranoid - they consider anything living a threat. The universe usually bears them out.

The window was never quite closed - I doubt it could be; I think it had been warped some winter and never repaired. The voices came very clear through it, sounding eerily alike, as if Noonian had been talking to a recording of his own voice - which in a sense he was. There was that open-throated effect to Lore's voice as well as Data's - a feature I knew many humans thought of as slightly mechanical - but other than that Lore's voice came disturbingly close to Noonian's. I never thought of it when I could see them as well as hear them, so I glanced in - careful not to move anything except my eyeballs.

Strange - I was used to seeing Lore pacing, throwing up his hands, generally doing quite a lot of fidgeting for an android whenever he was arguing with anyone. Perhaps because he was usually in the wrong and feeling it somewhere.

This time Noonian was doing the pacing, though I had never known him to be much of a pacer. Lore was standing quietly, almost serenely, watching him. "I'm merely asking you one very simple question", he said. "Are you going to take us apart?"

"Lore", Noonian said, almost beseechingly, "You know I'd.."

"You said you would", Lore insisted calmly. "You said you'd rather take us apart than go to work for either side."

Noonian nodded. "If it came to that, I suppose I would have to. I can't let you fall into their hands."

"Then you'd have to destroy us as well", Lore said, his voice so dispassionate that only I and Noonian could hear the underlying despair. "If they got their hands on our parts, it would only be a matter of time before they had their mechanical armies. But a positronic brain.. they might not be able to accomplish that, at least not within the probably quite limited span of their regency. Of course, that would mean you needn't destroy Llin. Were you going to? She's not of your making."

"They might settle for an army of duotronics", Noonian said tiredly. "But I'm not going to destroy either of you. Whether you're of my making or not, I don't have the right - though I know you've been trying often enough to trap me into saying I have. I might have to take you apart - for your own safety as well as that of the planet - but I'll hide the parts, not destroy them. I'll hide them where they'll never find them."

"Unless you tell them", Lore said. "I hear both sides can be quite persuasive when they so choose."

"I can destroy myself. To that, I do have the right."

I felt my tears rising. What was wrong with this time and place anyway, that a man with such potential for enjoying life to the fullest would have to throw it all away to thwart some petty power struggle? Q was right; there was definitely something amiss with this universe.

Lore was less sentimental though. "Great. Then nobody would ever find us, to put us together again."

"Only by the freak of chance", Noonian admitted. "Which however does happen. And quite often at that."

"I can't gamble my existence, my considerable future, on a freak of chance", Lore said. "And Llin's even less. I'm sorry, father - I can't give you permission."

So he would have, if the terms had been to his liking? For me too, and behind my back? Well, it told me nothing I did not know, but somehow I had hoped I did not know him that well any more.

Noonian nodded. "Understandable. Well, let's hope it won't come to that. With your help, I should be able to stay out of their clutches - at least until the power shifts again. But I won't have you roaming about as killing machines - I must modify you. Both. Surely you see the wisdom of that? If you're no longer mechanical elite soldiers.."

"The factions might lose interest in us? For a bit of programming? Hardly."

"I was going to say that your value to them would at least not be so conspicuous - but maybe you're right."

"If we are to protect you from them, we shall need to be dangerous. This is not a cosy world."

"I won't have any more killings. No matter what, that's final."

"I really don't think that's for you to decide, any more."

I could hear the duranium creeping into Lore's voice. Was it possible that Noonian did not? "No, a direct order won't do it any longer", he admitted. "Which is why I must modify you."

Lore shook his head. "Sorry father - but you're never going to shut me down again."

"I'll always leave one of you awake, if that makes you feel better", Noonian said.

"I think you heard me. You're not going to shut me down. Or Llin either."

Noonian sighed. "I had hoped you wouldn't go into your unreasonable mode. You haven't turned out the way you were intended. At least let me try to find what I did wrong, and right it."

"I told your before - it's too late for that. From now on you must let me make my own choices. And what about Llin? She's a killer model too. If there's been a mistake, it wasn't yours."

"No", Noonian said drily, "If I remember correctly, that one was yours - though made by another you, one that also went wrong. Even farther wrong, from what she told us."

"It seems you're Often Wrong.." Lore said, though less acidly than he might have.

"Then grant me the chance to right it!" Noonian whipped back.

"No. I'm quite content with the way I am. Think of me as a wayward child if you must, but like all wayward children, the only thing I lack is a purpose. I shall always regard it as your main failing that you did not give me that."

"A purpose? Each of us has to find a's own. It's the burden of sentience."

"How easily you shrug off the responsibility. You have all the answers, don't you? Same as any successful parent."

"I thought you did not consider me very successful."

"Pardon me - I suppose I meant favoured. Intellectually, if not exactly economically. And the children of favoured parents invariably run wild."

"I wouldn't say invariably", Noonian muttered, "but I take it you have an explanation?"

"I do. Do you know what happens when the parents have all the answers? The child must go to great lengths to find new questions. It will need to look elsewhere - sometimes in extreme directions."

"There you go. You feel that need - to find your own purpose. Yet you accuse me of not handing it to you. Of not providing you with the ultimate answer."

"All I'm saying is that you can't complain now. Where I choose to look is no longer your concern."

Noonian shook his head. "That's not what you said. You said it was my main failing that I did not give you a purpose."

"It's not a contradiction. You could have saved me a lot of grief by planning your work a little better. Why create a unique individual with unique abilities and a potential at least far beyond that of humanity - and then just turn him loose and hope for the best? The need I feel to find a purpose is only because I was not given one. I'm a Galaxy class starship with nowhere to go. If you wanted to improve on human design, what was the reason? You created me just because you could - with no thought, no hopes.."

"Oh, I had great hopes for you, Lore", Noonian interrupted. "Many and varied hopes."

"Such as? I have nothing to strive for that I did not come already fully equipped with."

"Well, at one point I did hope you might strive to become truly human. To achieve those human qualities I could not build into you."

Lore laughed, pleasantly if disdainfully. "Why? Would you strive to become a fish in order to swim better?"

Noonian smiled slightly. "Are you saying I underestimated my own work? Perhaps. But so do you. Underestimate yourself, I mean. You are clearly making very little of your abilities if you think you have already attained all there is to attain."

"Oh?" Lore interjected. "Then what do you suggest I strive for?"

"I don't know", Noonian said. Then, before Lore could come up with a retort to that, he added impishly, "So you see - I do not have all the answers.."

I felt it was time to make my presence known. I moved, and the chickens obligingly panicked, setting up a satisfactory racket. I walked around the house and in at the door. They knew I had been listening, but neither of them chose to comment.

*  *  *  *

We got till evening before the next visit. Lore and I both made a point of staying around the house that day, every moment expecting the current authorities back.

But those who finally came, about the time Noonian was about to get ready for bed, were not the authorities.

At their insistent knocking on the door - which Lore had found time to repair after breaking it down before - Noonian signed for us to keep out of the way, but neither of us did. Instead, Lore almost shoved him aside to answer the door himself.

Two Cardassians and a Herul glared back at him. The latter, fierce-looking and sporting the burnished helmet much favoured by his people, stared directly into Lore's topaz eyes; the other two towered above him. But I saw the slight relaxation in the android's shoulders and knew he had been expecting a modified phaser or worse. I realized then that Lore had been fully prepared to die for his creator.

I wondered if Noonian knew.

The face-off lasted only a moment. Then the three shoved their way past Lore, and, seeing no weapons, he let them. Any weapon they might carry concealed they would first have to draw. And any weapon they had to draw, Lore would have the time to snatch away, or at least block.

"So you set your mechanical watchdogs on us now?" one of the Cardassians addressed Noonian.

"They ought to be more reliable than yours", Noonian retorted. That was another thing I loved about him - that he never berated us or excused us in front of others. We both knew how he felt about the way we had developed - yet I do think we were the only ones who knew.

The other Cardassian dismissed that with a wave of his long hand. "Enough pleasantries. Dr Soong, we heard about your little run-in with the self-styled authorities. We've come to help. Hopefully, you will see the wisdom of accepting our help - and to do so while there's still time. You do realize they'll be back in the morning, if not before?"

Noonian nodded. "I have no doubt they will return as soon as you've relayed my answer to whomever among you keeps an open channel to the enemy. My answer is still no. To you as well as to them."

"Come now, Dr Soong, I've always heard you were a sensible man."

"Sensible enough to know your kind of help always comes too costly. Sorry, Grand-Don, but I cannot afford it."

The Herul bristled at the title, but the Cardassian just smiled. I'm not sure whether it was to his credit or not - I suppose it was a good thing he was not short-tempered; on the other hand he did not seem to refute the accusation. "In a chaotic world, organized crime might be the only form of order to hold on to", he said lightly. "But shouldn't you at least hear our terms before you refuse us out of hand?"

Noonian sat down on the workbench, offering the Cardassian to do the same, since there were not enough chairs to go around. There was one, but the Cardassian tactfully remained standing. "You're right of course, Doctor", he said reasonably. "Everything has a price. And yes, we would have you come working for us." He held up a hand as Noonian jumped off the workbench. "Please hear me out. I take it that so far our offer matches the one you refused from the other side. But the details are quite different. Knowing my enemy well, I assume that they would put you on their weapons research workforce with next to no funds, check on everything you did, and if you did not perform to their satisfaction, they'd have you killed or imprisoned, confiscate your - products and take them apart in an effort to carry on your research with more loyal personnel. No, you don't have to confirm that; I'm really not that interested.

"Now, if you come to work with us, we'll set you up in a lab of your own, and you can name your own funding, pick your own assistants, in all essentials carry out your work quite undisturbed; all we ask is regular reports on your progress. Also, our aim is a little different from that of the present - authorities; knowing their way of thinking I suppose they want you to improve on and replicate these models as quickly as possible, to create an elite army for them. We on the other hand have never found much efficiency in hierarchic thought or rigid armies. What we want are guerilla soldiers, preferably with as much diversity of personalities as you can bring about. They should be able to get in anywhere, deal with any situation - in so far as that is at all possible, and they must also be great learners."

"Still killing machines", said Noonian bitterly. "Only a more varied design. Sorry, I can't do that. Neither to them nor to the world - including you, Grand-Don."

The Cardassian sighed. "You already have, Doctor. You must admit that these two are eminent weapons. It's too late. You can't back out of evolution."

"I plan to modify them. Into something more peace- and useful."

"But you will still want them capable of defending themselves. And of modifying themselves, to go on when you are no longer around? You're caught in a loop here, Dr Soong - whatever you do, you'll end up with the same killing machines."

That sounded convincing enough to me, but Noonian just smiled and shook his head. "I never paid enough attention to their ethics before", he said. "I can see that now. This time I will. And I know just how to go about it too. They can retain all the accomplishments they have - with the addition of judgment in how best to apply them. And that judgment will never work in your interest - nor in that of the current government. It will work in the interest of life."

It sounded great - but I saw the stark agony in Lore's golden eyes, and I knew what he was thinking. He wanted to improve himself, not be improved upon. And his view of improvement was not necessarily that of his creator. Not for the first time, I felt there was a streak of irresponsibility in Noonian.

"To alter someone's personality is considered highly unethical in most medical circles", I said, not knowing if it was true here. But I was rewarded by a grateful look from out of those topaz eyes.

The Cardassian groupleader smiled. "It seems your mannikins do not agree with you, Doctor", he said. "Perhaps I should make them an offer too. What do you say, little lady?" he turned to me, "Wouldn't you find it exciting to be one of our specially trained soldiers? Action, loyalty, comradeship with others of your kind - that sort of thing?"

I couldn't help laughing. "If I told you where my loyalties lie, you would never believe it", I said. Catching two startled expressions out of the corner of my eye, I felt I had better amend that. "But for now, let's say I'm loyal to these two - " I nodded towards Lore and Noonian "- or to none at all. Certainly not to any totalitarian organization - or your own lack thereof."

For the first time, the Cardassian looked slightly annoyed. Then he passed the question on to Lore. "And you? You look like you might become a fine warrior. Don't you feel you're wasted here?"

Vicious, that. As if he had guessed at Lore's grievance. But if he had, he had misjudged its extent.

"A leader of warriors perhaps", Lore said arrogantly. "But I work only for myself. I see no gain in supporting your petty schemes. You want to rule this planet? Be my guest. Why should I care? I could rule galaxies."

I saw Noonian's eyes close briefly, and I knew that Lore had definitely blown his chances of getting out of an ethical refit - and yet I was glad, proud even, that he had said it. In that moment he reminded me very much of the Lore I used to know - but of the one side I could not help but admire. The defiance of a splendid being, deserving of better than he was dealt.

The Cardassian sighed. "I had hoped it would not come to this", he said. "But I see that I shall have to remind you all that you really do not have much choice. Dr Soong, we can't risk you going to work for the other side. I know you say you never would, and I believe you, but we cannot run the risk that you might be coerced."

"So now it's time for the threats?" Noonian said lightly. "Go ahead, the authorities have already promised to kill me."

"Oh, we would not go that far..", the groupleader said. "There are other ways to ensure you will not duplicate any of your work. For instance, on many planets there have been outstanding civilizations who nevertheless practised the custom of having an artists hands cut off so he would not duplicate his greatest works of art for another employer."

His words - now spoken with a distinct touch of the Cardassian sibilance that he had somehow managed to largely keep out of his speech eariler - chilled me in a way I had not thought possible in my current body. I thought of Noonian's beautiful hands and I knew that I would kill anyone who even came close to them with harmful intent. But Noonian himself only laughed. Taking Lore's slender left hand, a golden replica of his own, yet even more perfect in its exquisitely careful design, he held it up for the Cardassian to see. Lore did not snatch it back; I think he took some pleasure in the demonstration.

"I made this..", Noonian said. "Do you honestly think I could not fashion adequate prosthetics for myself?"

"I was merely stating an example", the Cardassian said. "Naturally, we would have to come up with something else. Some of our mindprobes are quite efficient.. Though if you're irreparably harmed, I'm afraid we can't afford hospital care for you. Funds for your work is one thing, but if you're no longer productive, well.." He shook his head sadly. Abruptly, he made a sign for the other two to join him by the door. "Think about it, Doctor", he said. "But don't take too long. I'm sorry you won't get much sleep tonight, but you must think before morning. You can expect the authorites at first light. We'll try to beat them to it. Just see that you have an answer for us by then. A good one."

He strode out the door, and the other two followed wordlessly. The Herul shot us a glare over his shoulder for good measure.

"Right", Noonian said with a sigh as soon as they were gone. "I've had a good time here, all things considered. But even I can see when it's time to leave. And I never settle in a place without a back door exit. There's a shuttle buried under the potato patch in back of the house. It's the one I originally arrived here in, five years ago. It's fully stocked and fuelled; I've kept it as an escape route in case I should ever need one. I must say that this time I had hoped I would not, but there it is. Lore, can you dig it out? It shouldn't take you long; it's actually not deep. Hardly more than topsoil over it. Llin, you help me pack - there is some stuff already aboard; enough to let me start anew somewhere else, but I'd like to salvage as much as I can from my two shops here anyway - to keep it out of the clutches of both factions if nothing else."

Lore for once took his orders without question and set to work in the backyard. Me, I smiled and shook my head. "I'd love to hear the stories of your escape routes, Noo.. Dr Soong", I said. "Especially the reasons for them. You must have led a colourful life - though I would not have expected it at your current age. Pity there is no time. Give me a list of what you want to take, then go to sleep. You'll need to catch what few hours of it you can. I'll wake you well before dawn."

He saw the wisdom of that. "Thank you. I'll tell you all you want to know once we're underways. There'll be many long hours while we're waiting to be picked up. Now what I need is.."

"Just a minute", I said, "Waiting to be picked up? By whom?"

He shrugged sheepishly. "Anyone who happens by. The shuttle is modified to manage one warp jump - which will hopefully take her out of sensor range of this planet and into the nearest well-trafficked lanes as it were. It isn't much, but neither is the local sensor capacity these days. Both sides have concentrated their paranoia internally; they haven't been looking outward for some time."

I groaned. "Have you any idea of the distances of space? How long will your supplies last?"

He grinned. "One has to be optimistic about something. Now get to work. In order of priority, here's what you should take.."

*  *  *  *

Half an hour before first light, I woke him as I had promised. We were all set, everything packed, Lore on guard by the sleek shuttle in the back yard. Noonian got dressed in three minutes, then closed the door with no regret that I could discern.

They came in the grey of dawn. I had expected them any minute - either side, but for some reason I had not expected both. The government flyer strafed the ground in our path, while the rebellion's hovercars tried to get close enough to wound us and snatch us up. Lore was waiting on the landing ramp of the shuttle, and I managed to shield Noonian long enough to get him across the ramp and on board. I knew however that he was far from safe; as long as the shuttle was still open, its shields were not operative. Lore dived in after us, and I pounced on the controls - to no avail; the ramp would not close.

I glanced back out; until then I had had the impression that both factions were for once working together on this, but now it was obvious it was not so. What had saved us so far, was the fact that the flyer had discovered the hovercars and was now aiming its fire at them rather than moving directly on the shuttle. But the fire was drawing too close for comfort even so, and an inadvertently well-directed beam had sabotaged the controls for the ramp.

"Lore..", I began, but I did not have to say it; he had taken in the situation, and most likely well ahead of me. Rushing out to remove the struts and close the ramp by hand - a humanly impossible task but easy enough for him - he had one moment of exposure at the edge of the ramp. One moment of vulnerability. One. And they got him. Modified phasers stabbed out from the flyer and cut straight through him, leaving the pieces strewn on the ramp.

I jumped from the controls and ran to complete his work. The struts were already removed; all I had to do was pull the ramp shut. And I did - but not until I had first dragged Lore's remnants safely aboard. The shuttle's weapons systems were far from sophisticated, but they were up to the task I set them. I used them to take the flyer out of our path so we could leave safely.

This time, Noonian did not question my decision.

*  *  *  *

Once we had made our jump and were drifting peacefully for a while, Noonian went aft to check on the damage Lore had sustained.

"His head is intact", he said as he returned to the co-pilot's seat. "As is most of the rest of him, apart from some rather vital circuitry in his chest cavity."

"Like his heart?" I asked.

Noonian smiled a little. "In a way. The power supply is damaged, among other things."

"But you think he can be repaired?"

"Of course. Once I get hold of the proper parts and I've set up at a place where I can work in peace. Question is whether I ought to."

"What?" I nearly screamed. "Why not? He's your greatest achievement, isn't he?"

Noonian nodded. "So far. Yet I think I can do better. And while it would offer me a good opportunity to try out my new ethics programme, I've been thinking about what he said - perhaps it isn't right to change his personality."

"Is it more right to leave him for dead?" I shot back. "Or were you planning to cannibalize him?" I went on mercilessly.

"I don't think I should", Noonian said absently. "Much of his circuitry is substandard - I couldn't afford the best. I had intended to replace it eventually, but now.." His voice caught a little.

I shook my head. "I'm sorry, but you never struck me as being callous before. Reckless yes, irresponsible yes, but never callous. I see I was mistaken."

He turned to me then, and his blue eyes were full of tears silently brimming over. "It's not an easy decision", he said. "And please don't think I'll abandon him. I'll get back to him in time, it's just that I wonder if I had not better keep him disassembled for now while I start a new model from scratch, one that has my ethics programme incorporated from the start. Then, once I see how that works out, I could better decide how to approach Lore."

That's when I said it. The words I had not thought would ever pass my lips. "Whatever you do", I said steadily, "you must never make another."

Somewhat to my surprise, Noonian said nothing but turned and fixed me with those blue eyes, calm in his certainty that I finally owed him an explanation long overdue.

"Or if you do", I amended, "see to it that it's truly a different model - very different. Don't copy Lore. But repair him first; ethics or no, see to it that he is fully restored to the best possible quality, then let him share in all your future constructions. Do nothing new until you've repaired him."

Noonian turned back to look out at the stars. "What exactly did happen, over in your continuum?" he asked. "I take it I made a replica of Lore and it was not very successful?"

"On the contrary", I said. "It - he was very successful. In fact, I think he earned you most of your fame. Ethical programme and all. Everybody liked him - in at least 2000 star systems with their untold different cultures I can't think of one he did not charm. But you had deactivated Lore, pending your decision about the ethics no doubt, and not knowing his past history, and with you nowhere around to ask, this - younger brother reactivated him. I hope you can imagine what all this did to Lore. I wouldn't tell you before, but now that you're already thinking along those lines - well, I just don't want to see it all happen to him again. So far, he's never been betrayed here. See that you're not the one to change that."

Noonian was silent for a long while, then he brought out some of his food supply - the shuttle not being equipped with a replicator - and started in on it while figuring what to say. His next question seemed almost inconsequential. "This - younger brother, does he have a name?"

"Yes, but I'm not about to tell you. Anything I can do to keep things different.."

"I understand", he said. As probably he did, for he did not offer to avoid any name I might mention. Then, "You said everybody liked him - with yourself as the sole exception, I take it?"

I debated with myself, then decided he had better know what my piece of advice had cost me. That way he would not think I had been acting somehow in my own interest.

"On the contrary", I said. "I loved him. With all my being.."

We talked no more of it after that. Noonian made me no promises, yet I think he understood. On the other fist, there was a lot I did not know about him. Once as I stood to walk aft, I noted a plaque on the bulkhead, stating the designation of the shuttle as XXI-CD and the name of its mother ship as the Trimnaestra or something to that effect - the plaque was much worn. I pointed to it. "How did you come to keep the shuttle?" I asked. "It seems to have belonged to someone at one time."

"Most things have", Noonian chuckled. "But yes, it was an indefinite loan from the ship I came in on."

"Did you steal it?" I asked frankly.

"Not exactly", he smiled. "Though I'm not certain how the term would apply in this case - the ship was a Romulan pirate. An independent one - not state employed."

I shook my head and continued aft. There was definitely a lot I did not know about him.

One moment I was bending over what remained of Lore, trying to form my own opinion of how bad the damage might be - the next I was kneeling in empty space with a glaring blue sun too close for comfort. In view of the proximity and the type of star, it would normally have burnt out my optics at once, and probably the rest of me also, but here it was just hanging around as if for effect; too bright, but not intolerably so. I stood - on nothing - and looked around. "What took you?" I addressed the open space. "I was beginning to think something must have gone wrong."

The characteristic flash appeared - as a rift in the blue sun. It looked as if he stepped right out of the star itself. Very dramatic.

"Why did you have to tell him that?" he asked crossly.

"Tell him what?"

"Not to create Data." I shrugged. "You were nowhere around to stop me. After all, you said I was on my own in there."

"I was detained", he said impatiently. "I never said you could go on disrupting things once your mission was complete."

"Have I? How should I know? For that matter, how should I know my mission was complete? I expected you to pick me up immediately after we made our escape. When you did not, I assumed there was something still left unfinished."

Another rift appeared on the sun - and a woman stepped through. Tall and stately, yet no more obviously godlike than Q - the Q who was already with me. "I think I've heard enough", she said. "So you were cheating after all? I can't say it came as a complete surprise, but I had credited you with more subtlety, Q."

"And just how would you know I cheated unless you did so yourself?" he retorted. "The rules are, nobody looks into the other's moves. If we do, how can we have a game at all?"

She shrugged, obviously making little of that. "You took so long to complete your move, I became suspicious. Knowing you, of course. Multiversal chess isn't your strongest game, and since I'd won five times straight, I thought it highly probable you would resort to some trick or other to even the score."

"I did not interfere directly, Q - you can't say I did."

"No, you sent someone in to do it for you."

"Someone who had no other place and time to be", he pointed out.

"Granted. Well, since you have not-quite-cheated, and I found out by peeking, I'd say this game is forfeit. Care for another?"

"Wait a minute", I addressed the first Q. "You mean this is all it was - a game? My important mission to right a certain timeline - but you were the only one who needed it 'righted', weren't you? You put me through all this just so I could help you cheat in a game?"

"Multiversal chess", he stated shamelessly. "Really quite intriguing. As the number of parallel continua you're handling grows, it becomes exquisitely complicated. And somehow, I couldn't see any other way to bring this particular parallel back into alignment with the others. But since you're looking at it from the ant's point of view, why not look on the bright side? After all, you saved Soong's life. He now has his full life expectancy back - which means he might easily grow to be as old in the continuum you tampered with as in the one you came from."

Far be it from me to attack the gods - especially when they have a point. Still..

"I think you owe her, Q", said the female one. "You did put her through a great deal."

"Yeah, not to mention leaving Noonian alone in a drifting shuttle", I said. "Or is that merely the ant's point of view and hence of no consequence?"

"Exactly", said Q - the male one - "nor is it the first time he's been in that situation - but all right. I'm open to suggestions. Q?"

"Restore Lore to him", she said resolutely. "The autopilot of that shuttle being what it is, a functional android is clearly needed. As well as for expert navigation and monitoring. That way Dr Soong will stand an honest chance of being picked up well before his supplies run out. And you will have remedied some small part of your tampering - Lore was not supposed to be damaged when he was. Granted, he was not supposed to be there at all, but now that he was, he was not supposed to be damaged. Or else that which Llin feared, might indeed come true. Since we've decided to throw this game anyway, I might as well clean up your side of it.."

Another quick flash, and I seemed to see into the shuttle, now controlled by a fully intact Lore. Noonian, at his side, showed no sign of surprise. "Of course, now they won't remember you", the female Q told me. "I thought it best that way. Too many memories always complicate things."

"Thank you", I said. "I think." Having had my entire first attempt at saving Noonian wiped from everybody's memories but my own, I suppose I was getting used to it. We are all playthings, and the gods are known to play rough. "What about me?" I asked, conversationally. "Do I exist again?"

The female Q glared at the other. "You owe her."

"I can't very well put her back in her own continuum", the male Q protested. "She was done with it."

"You had no scruples about putting her someplace she never had any business to be at all", the female pointed out. "Of course you can put her back."

"I'd be ignoring one of my own rules.."

"Then ignore it. You must put her somewhere - she's been active for too long after she was supposed to cease to exist; there's a buildup of continual overflow. You can't remove her now."

"Never heard of that rule. One of yours?"

"Of course", she said proudly. "Just made it. Don't worry; I'll get rid of it again if it complicates our games too much. But for now, it's on."

Q sighed. "Very well. But I leave no guarantees; everything might not be exactly as before.." There was a flurry of frills, a flash, and I was back where he had picked me up, in front of the cave where I had sat waiting to die. Only, it was no longer winter, but I suppose you can't have everything.

I ran a quick diagnostic; I was as before, my special programme still present, no hardware to back it up. I stood. I had a long walk ahead of me.

I walked through mild spring days and the stark monochrome of moonlit darkness on frosty nights. I never paused, yet I took my time, for I had much to think about.

Finally, one clear morning, I stood in front of the Keep. The main gate was open on the spring air. Good, I would not have to force it.

I found him in the computer centre down in the basement. I had expected him to notice me right away, even to have monitored my arrival, but he was busy with his schemes as usual, studying the screens so intently that I could probably have touched him before he noticed.

I chose not to. "How's your early warning system, Lore?" I asked from the doorway.

He spun around, snatching up a phaser that had been lying on the console beside him. Seeing who it was, he tossed it aside again. "I thought I had seen the last of you. How is this possible?"

I shrugged. "Intervention by the gods."

He looked as if he did not believe that. Well, I could hardly blame him.

"Deus ex machina?" he asked, as if to draw me out.

"Just 'pro machina' in this case. I had nothing to do with it. It's a long story - longer if you've never heard of the Q."

"I've heard of them", he said, still warily but less disbelieving now. So I told him the basics of it all - not forgetting Q's reason for saving me in the first place, but skipping lightly over the details of my sojourn in the parallel.

"Q must get bored once in a while", Lore mused. "Nothing much to gain when you already have it all."

Somehow it sounded like an echo of his other self.

"If you have no limits, you may be forced to invent them", I said. "Like trying to be human when you're so much more."

He glared at me. "I prefer discovering my limits to self-imposing them. So, you're all right now? I mean, you will live?"

"No thanks to you", I stated bluntly. He ignored that.

"Why did you come here? What do you want? Revenge?"

I shook my head. "No. I thought I made that clear as we said goodbye in the cave. Somehow I think you've been punished enough. We both have. A feud would only make things worse."

"Then what? Passage off the planet? I could help you with that."

I smiled. "Uneasy, aren't you? I didn't think you'd be that eager to get rid of me."

He made a little snorting laugh. "All right, I'm watching my back. It's become a habit. But mainly I just wanted you to know you're not my project any more. I won't do anything like that again. You're free to leave."

"Good to hear", I said, sitting down on a disused console beside him, one foot on the floor, hugging my other knee, trying to look settled. "But perhaps I'm not in that much of a hurry. Lore, I've been doing a lot of thinking on my way here - not the least in view of a few things that happened to me on the other side, as it were. Tell me one thing, are you capable of keeping a promise?"

He looked startled at that. "Why shouldn't I be? The limitation lies in having to keep it. I don't have that limitation, but of course I can keep a promise if I want to. Why do you ask?"

I ignored his question. "And have you ever? Kept one?"

"Every revenge I've sworn to take, I have also exacted", he said.

"Perhaps that's enough. I suppose I just wanted to know how far to trust you when you said you would not do anything drastic to me again."

He spread a long hand, a sort of one-sided shrug as he was still partly occupied at the terminal. "I meant it", he said simply. "I feel like you, we've both been punished enough. I have no wish to start that all over again. I have better plans now."

I nodded. "That comes into it. What if I promise not to interfere with your feud on the Federation - would you believe me?"

"No", he said frankly. "Once you knew of my plans you would have to oppose them."

"I suppose so", I sighed. "Well. I could always try to stay ignorant.."

He laughed. "And how long could you keep that up? What is it you're saying anyway - that you'd like to stay here?"

I nodded. "For the time being. I'm hardly back into existence. It isn't as if there were any place I'm in a hurry to be."

"No? What about my brother?"

I took a deep breath. "Les absents ont toujours tort", I said. Those not present, are always in the wrong.

He stood very still for a moment. His left hand seemed to have lost interest in the terminal. "You mean - you not only want to stay here at the Keep, you want to stay here - with me? After all I've done to you?"

I did not answer that. Perhaps because it was the part I could not yet put into words.

He threw his head back slightly, in a sigh that sounded more like a gasp. Then he spun around to face me directly, fixing me with those topaz eyes. "This isn't a trick, is it? A way to get your own back at him, for some reason?"

"Believe me, I have nothing to get back at him for", I said.

"Neither have I", he said simply. "Does that surprise you? The fact is, I do love my brother. Though I may have spent the better part of my life deceiving him, even as to that little fact."

"Not to mention trying to kill him", I said.

He dismissed that with a wave of his eloquent hand. "The thing was on high stun. I was only trying to stage something for the Borg; I knew by then we would have to leave. I wanted him to come with me - in fact I had gone through a lot of trouble to bring him to my side. I knew he was dangerous - the ethical programme left him with less flexibility than I have. Too bad I had not counted on howdangerous.." He looked down at the console for a moment; there was no way I could have called his sadness less than genuine. "Anyway, now he's gone again, back into his precious Starfleet. I could not hold him. Never could."

"Same here", I said. "If your memory circuits serve. And now he thinks I'm dead. So what do you say, we let him go on believing that?"

He smiled a little, reaching out to stroke back my hair from my ear. "There's no way we could trust each other. We'd drive each other crazy."

"I know", I said. "I would never really believe you wouldn't use me for some ghastly scheme again, once you saw a new way to further your ends - and you would expect me to try and thwart your plans at every turn. It'll make for an interesting life. But there still might be a way - as long as we don't make any complicated promises. How about just this one: let's promise that whatever we're up to, we'll never try to trick each other. Just that. It's one I know I could keep - I hope you can too."

I would have to keep it - or my efforts at helping him realize his true potential would crash in the blackest betrayal he had had to suffer yet. He nodded. "I promise. If ever I want to use you for my own ends, I'll ask you first." He said nothing of what he would do if I said no, but I decided not to mention that.

"And though I may still oppose your plans, I'll never do anything behind your back", I said. "No tricks. Agreed?"

"Agreed", he said, holding out his right hand in confirmation. I took it, and stiffened at the sight of the large, green-stoned ring on his slender middle finger. "How long have you had that?"

He looked at it in some surprise. "Only since this morning, as a matter of fact. I found it in the attic when I was up to feed the eagle. Why?"

"Nothing", I said. "Remarkable colour, that's all.."

But as I kissed him, I surreptitiously touched the implant in my throat - just to check.

Of course, the ring did not respond. 


*** The End ***