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#9 No Place Like Home
"I need butter," Edward said.
"What's the magic word?" Olga asked.
"Please," Edward said automatically.
Jobs shook his head and smiled as he passed the butter to his brother. The scene was weird. Weird on many levels. Weird that Olga was teaching table manners to a kid who had taken on the coloration of his chair until he was almost invisible. Weird that they were eating "steak" and "spinach souffle" off fine china when they knew the Meanies could attack any second. Weird that a strangely two-dimensional maid was busy refilling their water glasses.
Violet had organized this dinner to cheer everyone up, but so far it was a gloomy affair.
Mo'Steel was out of sorts because Noyze and Dr. Cohen were AWOL. He'd been the first to notice that they were nowhere in The Zone. Everyone knew they must have gone off to talk to the Meanies about peace. Mo'Steel wasn't the type to worry, but Jobs had a feeling Mo'Steel was mad Noyze hadn't told him where she was going.
But they weren't talking about that.
"Your centerpiece is beautiful," Olga told Violet.
"Thank you," Violet said. "The shuttle's computer contains an unabridged botanical encyclopedia. I had some fun mixing summer and winter blossoms. An arrangement like this never could exist on Earth. What do you think, Jobs?"
"I was thinking about the Meanies," Jobs said. "Why do you think they're so opposed to heading toward Earth? Where do they want to go?"
Violet sighed. "I said what do you think not what are you thinking.
"Sorry," Jobs mumbled.
"No shop talk," Violet said. "You promised."
Jobs looked down at his plate. Trying to relax now was like trying to relax on a plummeting airplane. His mind couldn't let go of the fact he was facing death. Worries about the Meanies, Honey Roach, Dr. Cohen, and this Charlie guy kept popping up and demanding attention.
The silence stretched out until Jobs shifted nervously in his chair. He fished for some piece of inoffensive small talk. Came up empty.
"It's Amelia I don't understand," Olga finally said. "Sorry, Violet. But I just keep thinking she'd welcome a chance to check out Earth. Same as us. She's human, same as us."
"Well, not exactly," Mo'Steel said. "Not anymore. Amelia is more like the X-Men. Half human. Half something else. A mutant."
Olga smiled. "And I thought all that time you spent reading p-comics was a waste."
Violet sighed again and motioned for the maid to remove their plates. They were half full. The food Billy/Mother created was always slightly off. Strangely metallic tasting. Jobs didn't have much of an appetite anyway. He was too keyed up.
"Do you think Mother created Amelia?" Mo'Steel asked. "You know, the way she created Kubrick?"
"I don't think so, no," Jobs said. "Billy couldn't find a file on her. Also, remember when we saw her in the basement? She said she was evolving.
"One person doesn't evolve," Olga said. "A species evolves."
"Jobs told her that," Mo'Steel said. "It was like a tractor-pull for science geeks. Lots of heavy wrestling over terms."
"One person couldn't evolve on Earth," Violet said. She shot Jobs an unhappy look, acknowledging the fact that they were now talking shop. "But the same rules don't apply here. I'm not sure any rules apply."
"Don't forget Amelia said she had help from the greatest force in the universe," Jobs said. "Whatever that's supposed to mean."
"Maybe... The Shipwrights?" Olga suggested.
"You think the Shipwrights are the greatest force in the universe?" Jobs asked doubtfully.
"Stronger than the Riders or Meanies," Olga said. "Who else is around?"
She said it dismissively and everyone looked surprised when Jobs said, "Two possibilities. Either there's simply some condition about this vessel that causes mutations to occur -- something that acts a little like radiation, for example, or..."
"Or what?" Mo'Steel demanded.
Jobs glanced at Edward, but he seemed focused on the slices of blueberry cheesecake the maid was serving. "Or -- there's someone else on board Mother. Someone other than the Meanies and Riders and Shipwrights. Some other species or force."
"What do you mean, force?" Edward asked. So he was listening. Great.
Jobs considered dropping it. Edward didn't need to hear this. And Violet had made him promise to forget, or ignore, their worries for one evening.
But he couldn't seem to shut up. This was important. And he couldn't miss the opportunity to talk things over with the only people he still trusted. Besides, now they were all staring at him. Waiting to hear what he had to say. Even Violet.
"I mean, a force. Someone or something that lacks the power to act directly but has the power to manipulate others," Jobs said. "The power to change others, mutate them."
"Why?" Mo'Steel asked.
"Yeah," Violet said impatiently. "Why would anyone want to cause mutations?"
Jobs licked his lips. This was the kind of problem he liked best. The simple act of thinking about it soothed him. "Look at the mutations," he said. "What do we know?"
Edward was listening intently now, cheesecake forgotten. "We know I turned into a chameleon."
"Right," Jobs said. Of course Edward was interested. They were talking about him. "We also know Yago has somehow developed -- talents that make the Meanies think he's a god. And Billy has a whole bunch of strange powers --"
"There's also the Baby and Tamara," Olga put in.
"And Amelia," Mo'Steel said. "And Kubrick."
"But it's obvious not all of these changes happened the same way," Olga said. "Edward has changed gradually, seemingly spontaneously. Painlessly. That supports your environmental hypothesis. But Kubrick was altered by Mother physically. Totally different story."
"True," Jobs said. "Just thinking out loud."
"And didn't you tell me Billy had psychic dreams back on Earth?" Violet asked, her irritation clear in her voice. Jobs could tell she didn't want to be having this conversation. "You said he saw the blimps and Rider Ocean before we even got on the shuttle."
"True," Jobs said. "It doesn't add up to a neat sequence of causation." Mo'Steel raised an eyebrow. "Translation."
"I'm puzzled," Jobs said with a shrug. "It's a mystery."
"The Baby and Tamara don't fit into any pattern, either," Olga said. "The Baby was born something during our journey. Presumably he was already partly a Shipwright before the shuttle encountered Mother. Another mutant."
"Maybe there is no connection," Jobs said. "It's just -- only a handful of people exists here and a good proportion of them have been altered. That may be totally random or not. I just think it's worth looking for connections.
"Yago changed the same way I did," Edward said. "I mean, nobody noticed."
A connection clicked inside Jobs' mind and he smiled. "Here's an interesting observation. Yago's and Edward's mutations are similar in another way. They mirror their personalities. Edward is a quiet kid" -- Edward was more than quiet; he was practically invisible. Even back on Earth he had made few demands and gotten little attention -- "and his mutation heightens that personality trait. Same with Yago."
"He was always the center of the universe in his own mind," Violet said with a strange smile. "And now he's like a pop star walking through a junior high cafeteria. Only instead of being surrounded by twelve-year-old girls, his fans are aliens."
Jobs nodded. "Amelia might be the same way. we don't know anything about her. It's possible she was -- diseased, back on Earth."
"I still wouldn't call it a mutation," Olga said. "What Amelia can do -- turning the bacteria and fungi in herbody into a weapon -- that's just too far out. Human DNA can only be twisted so far."
"Jobs nodded thoughtfully. "Olga's right. DNA is analog. You can twist it only so many ways. Some person or force is treating human beings as if they were digital -- just so many databits to be subtracted or recombined."
"That's not evolution," Olga said.
"So, forget the word evolution," Jobs said easily. "Forget the word mutation. Call it a redesign or a reimagining. The important thing is to understand what's happening. Someone or something is manipulating at least some of our bodies. And maybe all of them."
"And you're saying these... these rewrites, the fundamental changes -- may reflect some preexisting characater trait?" Violet said.
Jobs shrugged. "Sure, maybe, I don't know."
"You're speculating?" Violet demanded.
"Absolutely," Jobs said.
"Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I've had enough speculation for one evening," Violet said, her tone icy.
"Violet --" Jobs started. He was beginning to regret breaking his promise to her. They were all tired and worried. Maybe Violet needed a break more than he realized.
Violet waved him off. "You relax by examining things, trying to explain them. Not everyone is the same way."
"I know," Jobs said miserably.
"Well." Olga stood up and smiled bravely. "Thanks for a lovely evening, Violet. And thank you, Jobs, for a provocative conversation. I'd better be going now."
Violet got up, too. "I think I'll come with you," she said.
Jobs tried to catch Violet's eye, to send her a look that said he was sorry. But Violet was careful not to look in his direction.