– What a day, exclaims Beth. She and the Major are finally alone on the day Lucia arrived at their home. What do you think about Nelly? She knows us, doesn’t she?
– Yes. I could feel the intensity of her look on us, answers the Major. A sort of admiration, mixed with some respect. She was putting a lot of effort into masking her enthusiasm to see us.
– Yeah, now that you mention it, it’s exactly what I felt. It was unclear to me. I couldn’t put it into words. Why do you think she admires us?
– I don’t know. Certainly, it’s something we’re going to do. It might even be related to the project I’m going to tell you about. Beth, I’d like us to take some time to discuss….
– Oh, I don’t like the formal tone you’re taking suddenly….
– Don’t worry. It’s just… It’s something we have to decide together, you and I…
The Major takes a deep breath.
– I’m listening.
– Beth, you know we shouldn’t be driven by what we know about the future. We have to act like we know nothing. And that’s hard.
– You said this is how time travellers live.
The Major smiles.
– I know. And that’s what we are. When I finally understood the life that our friends Sylvester and Paul have had, I started thinking about how to help them, how to help the almost-humans secure the right to become full humans. I owe those two my life. There wouldn’t be a David Crystal without them. And what you and I are experiencing together is so intense. I want them to be able to live that way too.
– That’s going to be the case, it seems.
– Yes, it’s what we just learned. But remember: what happens in the future is the sum of past actions. And we’re the past. We’ve to act as if we don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of time. We have yet to do what we will have done, knowing what we know about our friends’ life conditions, as they told us. Beth, I want to find out why things are changing for the almost-humans only now. I want to go back to Earth in the far future and investigate.
– Sorry, but isn’t it a little bit contradictory: you’re going to know more about the future…
The Major bursts out laughing.
– You’re perfectly right, Beth. My project is to be active in helping the almost-humans become full humans. My decision is clearly to be part of this future if I find it is necessary. I need to analyze the situation first, to find out what has changed today.
– You’re not planning to do all this alone, are you?
– No, absolutely not. It’s why I wanted us to talk about it. You’re aware that we might have to interfere in another world that, at least from our viewpoint, doesn’t exist yet?
– Almost-humans deserve to have the choice. If I can be among the ones that will improve their condition, I’m in.
– We could be in real trouble if we get caught….
– We’ll pull through.
– We’re going to be parents.
– Our children will have something to be proud of, then.
– Our children?
– Yes, er, nothing suggests to me we’ll have only one daughter.
– That’s right, answers the Major, smiling. Listen, before all this, I would like to go to Dalygaran… alone.
– I ought not to be the Chief Commander of their army anymore. I have to find my successor. I’m living here now. It is nonsense I still have this title. I’ve someone in mind and I am going to try to convince her…
– Yes, it’s why I have to go alone: I want her to try the female travel-body. She’s one of my former cadets. She’s an instructor today, on the other side of the planet. She commands a small time-travel investigation team.
– Investigating what?
– Past enigmas, in the fields of politics and diplomacy. Understanding is the way toward betterment. When we fail somewhere, for instance in negotiations with another world, understanding what really happened will help us to act with better judgment the next time. She’s a really good investigator, and she knows how to motivate her troops. She’s doing a really good job, with the discretion needed in that kind of mission. I know the High Command will never designate her as my successor of its own accord. But if I am the one who proposes her name, with my father’s support, we could speed things up. I wouldn’t be the Chief Commander anymore and she would be the Commander on probation. After one gold ring, the High Command would rule on her definitive nomination. Beth, I have to go. I need to be free of my Dalygaran military duties.
– And the archeological mission?
– Do you want us to give it up?
– No, of course not, protests Beth.
– So, we keep it. I don’t think this will cause any problem
– Ok. While you’re away, I’ll take care of Lucia. She’s new in this world and it would be unreasonable to leave her on her own now. Tomorrow, we’ll have a girls’ day.
– First thing tomorrow morning I’ll go and see Paul and Sylvester. The travel pills are at their place and their monitoring system will keep an eye on me while I’m away…. We should go to sleep now.
– What an excellent idea, answers Beth, embracing her partner. Let’s go to the bedroom….
– I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’ve to inform Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe of my arrival. I won’t be long.
– I’m counting on it.
The next morning, as soon as they are ready, the Major and Beth decide to go and see if anyone is awake at the two Smiths’. It is very early, but Beth thinks that Paul has already gotten up. The Major knocks softly at the kitchen door. He does not want to wake anybody up.
– Come in, answers Paul.
– Good morning, says the Major as he crosses the door.
– Good morning Maj…, David, answers Paul. Beth, did he pull you out of bed?
– He is going to Dalygaran, alone. I want to be by his side until his mind escapes.
– Oh? Right. 12-hours pill? he asks.
– Yes, I think that will be enough, says the Major.
– I’ll bring one. I’ll meet you in the usual place.
When Paul arrives with the pill, Beth and the Major are sitting on one of the two couches, chatting. Paul holds the pill toward the Major as well as a glass of water. Beth stands up. The Major takes the pill, gives the glass back to Paul and lies down. His mind escapes quickly. Beth lays a kiss on his forehead. As she straightens, Paul takes her by the arm, and leads her to the kitchen.
– He’s going alone…
– Someone has to stay to take care of Lucia.
– Oh, come on, Beth. Sylvester and I are here, you know this. And he knows it too. There’s something else….
– He has private stuff to do, and… my travel-body is not available. He wants someone else to try it.
– Beth, I’m not an empathist like you, but I can feel this annoys you a bit.
– Sometimes he forgets I’m an empathist like him. And I know he didn’t tell me everything. I felt it.
– Beth, we’re talking about David, the Major. He forgets nothing, you know this. If he didn’t tell you everything, be sure he has good reasons.
– I know. I trust him, you know. But this bond that links us, it’s something so strong. It’s like a part of him is living inside me, and I felt such a bad wound in his heart.
– You worry.
– Yes. He and I are moving in opposite directions: I’m becoming more and more Dalygaran and he’s becoming more and more human. It helps us understand each other, but I know it destabilizes him.
– He’s come through this far, hasn’t he?
– You’re right. You see, it’s been five minutes since he went away, and I already miss him….
– I understand.
– Good morning, everybody! says Sylvester in a joyful tone. To what do we owe the honor of your visit, Madam?
– I came with David, who just went away to Dalygaran.
– Yes, answers Beth sighing.
– I see. An argument?
– What? No, of course not!
– He has unfinished business to take care of, specifies Paul.
– Boring stuff he wants to spare me, adds Beth.
– I’m slow but not stupid, answers Sylvester. What’s the problem?
– He’s going to have my travel-body tested by someone else.
– I see.
– He wants her to become Chief Commander in his place.
– Her? Is this the problem?
– Judging by your tone, this is the problem. You’re only human, Beth.
– What do you know about humanity, hey, Sylvester?
– Oh, that’s not very kind of you….
– I’m sorry Sylvester. I shouldn’t have answered like this. The problem is not with her, but with what he didn’t tell me before he left. For the first time since we reunited he hid me something. I felt it and that kills me. This is totally irrational, because I’m sure he has his reasons. But I hate not knowing, having felt something went wrong. Being an empathist is most of the time a great thing, but today, I live it like a curse. I really worry for him. And I… miss him.
– …I see, answers Sylvester. Love seems to be a strange and complicated thing, he mutters.
Then he adds out loud:
– All in all this position, Chief Commander, is not really a gift for anybody. He didn’t have any real life before meeting you.
– His work was his life.
– Right, Beth. And today, it’s you, underlines Paul.
– Yes guys, I know she answers smiling. I miss him. That’s all.
– Listen, how about a bit of drawing in my studio? It’ll take your mind off things. Have you ever tried pastels?
– No, what is it?
– I’m going to let you discover by yourself. I’ll pour myself a cup of tea, and I’ll show you.
– I can’t, Sylvester, David’s here and if I’m in your studio, Lucia will find our flat empty when she goes there.
– An empty flat? A real rarity for someone like me, says Paul.
– Oh, that’s true. This “Mister” is always complaining about the noise I supposedly make.
– Have you ever tried reading with someone whistling in the same room?
– You’re really two of a kind, you two, says Beth in a mocking tone. Would you mind going to our place, Paul?
– Surely not. I’ll take a book, and go. I already savor the silence….
– And don’t terrorize the kid, needles Sylvester.
– Who’s that? Lucia?
– Who else?
– Physiologically speaking, you’re not much older than her. And I don’t intend to terrorize anybody.
– Sylvester, stop teasing Paul and show me these pastecs instead.
With his reading tablet in hand, Paul heads to Beth and the Major’s flat. Meanwhile, Sylvester and Beth enter the studio.
– Did you sleep well here? she asks as she enters the room.
– Yeah, sure. As I said yesterday, it’s not the first time. I like to paint in the evenings and when I do, I prefer to sleep here. That way, the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning is what I did the night before. Often, I get right back into it for a little touching up.
– Did you paint something yesterday?
– Yes, with pastels as a matter of fact.
Sylvester goes to the easel, takes the canvas and shows it to Beth.
– That’s splendid. It’s the view from the Great Terrace, isn’t it?
– Yes, at sunset.
– It’s a hit! Pastels seem to be nice tools…
– They’re over there, says Sylvester pointing with his chin to a bunch of colored sticks. Don’t you want to try?
– Yeah, I’d appreciate it. But I don’t have any… paper.
– There’s some just beside the pastels. Help yourself. Have you already an idea of what you want to draw?
– It’s a surprise.
Beth takes a sheet of paper and a single pastel and gets on with her drawing.
– Don’t come close to me, she adds, as long as I’m not finished.
Sylvester knows it is useless to protest.
– I’m going to the kitchen to have a bite. I didn’t have my breakfast yet this morning.
– See you soon, Sylvester.
When Sylvester comes back a good half-hour later, Beth is smiling.
– I’ve finished, she says in a joyful tone. Get ready… Tadaaaa!
– It seems to be…
– Lucia. In the foreground, it’s the adult Lucia as she appeared to us yesterday, and in the background, baby Lucia, the one we just left on Frigellya.
– There is no denying it; it’s her.
– It’s very nice of you to have given your room to her.
– David and you, as a young couple, need intimacy….
– You gave up your room to allow David and me to be alone?
– Yeah, what did you think?
– You found Lucia on the landing…
– Yes, and…?
– You were very kind with her.
– I’m kind with everybody.
– Ok, but you gave her your room….
– To protect my friends’ intimacy.
– Do you want to give it to her?
– The portrait. Do you want to give it to Lucia?
– Maybe we could send it to Christopher?
– Excellent idea. We’ll manage to get it to him. We can take a photo of your drawing and send it as well.
– Do you have the equipment for this?
– An inter-temporal tablet, yes. I have one. I’ll go get it.
Sylvester goes to the back of the studio. Beth can hear him rummaging in a box.
– Here it is, he says triumphantly as he comes back to Beth.
– That’s an inter-temporal tablet? But it’s as small as a payment card.
– It can take high definition pictures and transcribe every message you dictate.
– Oh, it also has vocal technology. Great. Love it. Can you show me how it works?
To dictate a message is easy. The green button at the bottom center is to record your voice. One click and you can start speaking. Another click, and the recording stops.
– Yeah, that looks simple. Let me try.
And Beth takes the inter-temporal tablet from Sylvester’s hands.
– Beth, it’s not a toy.
Beth looks at him with mischief, pushes the green button and says:
– The person who will give you your full humanity is an anomaly of the 25th century. Find this person and give her or him protection.
Then she pushes on the green button again and says,
– Oh, come on, Sylvester, I’m just teasing you.
– Can you give me the tablet back, please?
– What’s that: “S220”?
S220 flashes three times on the tablet.
– … touch it.
– The flash, does it mean something?
Sylvester looks at Beth with stupor. He finally answers:
– It means it has been sent.
– What? To whom?
– To my last contact. At the top right corner, it’s the last contact.
– And who is it?
– Yes, me, before I left my world. “S220 stands for Sylvester 220. We’re not given a family name as almost-humans, just a number.
– You’re your last recipient? You sent a message to yourself before leaving the end of time?
– Yes. But every message is anonymized. It’s an old habit Paul and I picked up while underground.
– And what did you send to yourself?
– “Paul451 is the right person.” That’s the message I sent to myself. I knew only him in my world. I needed to know if I could rely on him. And do you know when I sent this message? The day you encouraged me to talk with him on Frigellya and then he came to see me. I had a suspicion it was me when I received this message. But as my relationship with Paul remained very strained for a long time, I ended up thinking that it was a bad joke from I don’t know whom. The day Paul and I had that explanation, it seemed clear to me I had to send this message. And I did. The one about the anomaly of the 25th century arrived a few moments later. I never ever have suspected, the mysterious messenger was… you.
– You mean, all this is my fault?
– I mean, all this is thanks to you. Almost-humans’ lives are about to change because this message led us to offer a body to a lost mind, to become a kind of bodyguard. Your bodyguard. And this mind in a new body has been revealed to be the clue of our problems since. Over the years, almost-humans obtained nothing at all. Thanks to you, we have today for all our people something priceless: hope.
– Are you going to tell Paul I am the messenger? asks Beth, worried.
– What do you think?
– He doesn’t necessarily need to know….
– And David?
– We have other topics of conversation. If one day he asks, he’ll have the answer.
– All right.
– All right what?
– I won’t talk about this as long as nobody talks about this to me. Let’s say that’s the deal. Unless you change your mind.
– We’ll see.