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Being Human

Peter David

  “ The Excalibur . . .”

  Si Cwan went on: “ . . . has a wider mission of not only altruism but also exploration, discovery . . . things that I have little to no use for. The Danteri, on the other hand, are quite focused. They don’t care about seeking out new life and new civilizations . . . boldly going where no one has gone before. They care about power. So do I. In that sense, our goals are mutual and beneficial to one another. It is . . .” He paused, figuring the best way to say it. “. . . it is a better fit . . . than the one that currently exists. On the Excalibur I am, and will continue to be—what is the phrase you use . . . ?”

  “A square peg in a round hole,” she suggested tonelessly.

  “Yes! Yes, that is it. That is it exactly,” he told her. “But on Danter, I will be a square peg in a square hole.” He stood and spread wide his arms, his eyes glistening with anticipation. “Don’t you see, Robin? The majesty of the Thallonian Empire need not be limited to a nostalgic, hollow re-creation of the past. It can, instead, be the future. . . .”


  Peter David

  Based upon STAR TREK ®

  created by Gene Roddenberry


  New York London Toronto Sydney Singapore

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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  THEN . . .

  THEY WERE FOUR WORDS, four innocuous words which—considered individually—were not especially alarming. But they had become personal nightmares for George, especially when uttered together and sequentially. When he saw Sheila approaching him that afternoon, he knew before she even opened her mouth to speak that they were going to come leaping, unwanted, from her lips. He was sitting in his favorite chair in their rather unassuming living room, reading a text about his new favorite obsession: ancient mythologies. This particular text had been produced by a twentieth-century scholar, Joseph Campbell. For a man who had lived several hundred years ago, this Campbell fellow seemed to know what he was going on about, and George considered the text far more sweeping and interesting than, say, Bullfinch’s Mythology.

  As for George, he himself was about as unassuming as his living room was. There was nothing particularly memorable about him, and he prided himself on that. He had an ordinary face, not particularly interesting sandy hair, and a nondescript face, all of which suited him just fine. He would leave for his job at the research project in the mornings, spend the day not being noticed, and come home to where his wife paid attention to him on occasion while their offspring seemed to live in his own world anyway. To a degree, George was in absentia from his own life. That suited him just fine.

  Sheila, his wife, had found this irritating, once upon a time. She had known she was marrying an unambitious man, and had labored under the belief that she could change him. She had quickly learned otherwise, and had spent much of her subsequent married years in denial over her own failure. “He has potential,” she would say to her mother whenever the subject was brought up. As to whether that potential would ever be met or addressed, that was another question entirely and one that seemed something of a mystery. Every day, Sheila would look into the mirror in the morning, and every day would find yet another gray hair, or a crow’s-foot or a wrinkle that she was certain had not been there the previous morning. She wasn’t sure whether it was George who was causing them, or the simple passage of time. If it was the former, it angered her. If the latter, then she was watching a mute condemnation of the time that she was wasting as her life passed her by.

  Not that she didn’t have her own work, as an anthropologist teaching at Starfleet Academy right there in San Francisco. But she felt a growing frustration over her union with George, and found herself wondering every day if she wasn’t investing time in a project that was never going to come to fruition. Sheila was, if nothing else, goal-oriented, and she felt as if she was losing sight as to what the goal for George was. She tended to wear her frustration like a shroud, and she knew that he must have sensed it. Furthermore, she knew that she wasn’t doing their marriage any good by feeling that way, but how could she be less than honest with him? What good would that have done?

  Nevertheless, she stayed with him because they had promised one another they would do so. Also, there was the matter of Sandy.

  “Sandy” was not his given name. He had acquired it somewhere around the age of three, when his grandparents had commented that he seemed to spend the day in a dreamlike haze. He would stare off into space for long periods of time, fixating on blank spots on the wall. “That child,” opined his grandmother, “lives his life as if he’s in a dream.” This prompted his grandfather to call him “Sandman,” which eventually got shortened to “Sandy.” The name stuck, if for no other reason than that he seemed to answer to it as readily as he did anything else.

  Although his name changed, his behavior did not. He would always sit around, apparently oblivious of the world around him, his dark eyes seeming to look at everything and nothing at the same time. He would always bring his knees up to his chin, resting it there, giving his mother looks of vague disinterest when she would tell him to go outside. On occasion, apparently to satisfy her, he would do so . . . and then sit around outside. His father would watch in fascination as flies would alight on his nose.

  “You need friends, Sandy!” said Sheila, despairing, convinced that her son was developing strange and frightening antisocial attitudes.

  Somewhere around the age of five, he acquired a friend.

  That made things worse.

  Sandy had reached the ripe old age of eight on this particular afternoon, when George discovered that he was about to have his peaceful reading ruined by his clearly agitated wife. It had rained the previous day, cooling off the San Francisco humidity, and George had been briefly considering the possibility of getting out for some air. When he saw the way Sheila was approaching him, with something clearly on her mind, he regretted that he hadn’t departed while it was still possible to do so.

  Then came the four words, the words he’d been dreading.

  “Talk to your son,” said Sheila, pointing upstairs. Red shag carpeting lined the stairs that led to the upstairs bedrooms, similar to the carpeting throughout the rest of the house. George hated it. It was like living on the surface of Mars, only fuzzier.

  George s
ighed and put down his reader, folding his hands on his lap in what he hoped was an avuncular manner. “He’s your son, too,” George pointed out. This was self-evident. He was just stalling for time, hoping that Sheila would become so annoyed with him that she would go off and handle whatever the infraction was herself. If Sandy had misbehaved, George had no real desire to be the disciplinarian. He had too much desire to be liked. Besides, he didn’t get worked up all that much. Things that Sandy did that annoyed the hell out of Sheila barely registered on George’s personal radar.

  “What’s the problem?” George asked tentatively.

  “He’s doing it again,” Sheila told him, sending an annoyed glance up the stairs.

  “It?” He had the feeling he knew what “it” was, but he reasoned that if he delayed long enough, some sort of reprieve might present itself . . . such as, for instance, the sun going nova.

  The sun, however, seemed disinclined to explode in the near future, and Sheila wasn’t being put off. “It,” she said with affirmation. “He’s talking to her again.”

  George moaned softly and rubbed the bridge of his nose by pressing both his thumbs against it, looking as if he was worried that it would fall off unless he tended to it right then. “Are you sure?”

  “Of course I’m sure,” said Sheila, hands on her hips. Once upon a time, he’d admired the hell out of those hips. Now they were spreading. He didn’t like to dwell upon what they’d look like in a few years. “I walked past his room and heard him chatting with her. On and on and on . . .” When George didn’t seem properly exercised about it, she waved her hands about as if they were about to flop off her wrist and said, “He’s eight years old, George! This is getting ridiculous!”

  Crossing his legs delicately at the knees, George did his best to affect a reasonable, mannered tone with his wife. “As you say yourself, Sheila, he is eight. Imaginary friends aren’t exactly out of line for—”

  “They’re out of line for someone as intelligent as Sandy is,” she said firmly. “You saw what his charts said.”

  Indeed he had. Sandy’s aptitude scores had practically been off the scale. The most impressive thing had been that, after he’d taken the initial tests, the proctor had sadly informed them that he’d been watching the boy, and it seemed as if he was barely paying attention to any of the questions. He simply chose answers in what appeared to be an utterly haphazard manner. They had despaired upon hearing that . . . until the aptitude tests came back, showing that Sandy was bright enough and displayed enough potential to write his ticket . . . well, practically anywhere.

  George had tried to parlay that score into the boy’s mother easing up on him a bit. No go. Instead she’d wanted to step up the pressure on him to learn, feeling that he should be “maximized to his full potential.” This was not an expression that George was especially fond of. In any event, Sandy hadn’t seemed overly cooperative with the maximizing philosophy, and that resistance had only caused matters to deteriorate further.

  “It doesn’t matter how intelligent Sandy is,” George told her, and when she tried to interrupt with shocked indignation, he continued right over her, “He’s still only eight, for crying out loud. Let the boy be a boy, why can’t we?”

  “Talk. To him,” she told him quite firmly, and George really didn’t see any way around it. With a sigh that was as heavy as his heart, George hauled himself wistfully out of his favorite chair and walked with heavy footfall, thump thump thump, up the stairs. Normally the annoying shag carpet absorbed all noise, but George made a point of producing an extra racket, just so Sheila would be aware of how annoyed he was. She didn’t seem to care especially, which naturally annoyed George all the more.

  The door to Sandy’s room was open, and George stood outside a moment, reminding himself that he was simply trying to act on behalf of the boy’s own good. Imagination was fine as far as it went, but, well . . . enough was enough. (Or was that Sheila’s voice in his head? George was beginning to wonder how much of the person he was was actually left in him, and how much was Sheila’s personality having insinuated itself into his.)

  He heard his son’s voice from within. He sounded as if he was talking to someone. Well, no mystery there: He knew perfectly well with whom Sandy was conversing, just the same as he’d been for the last two years. Okay, there was something to be said for just how badly it was getting on Sheila’s nerves, and he had to admit, there was a certain degree of embarrassment involved. If they had friends over, Sandy would invariably wander in, chatting with thin air and barely noticing the company standing around and staring at him. A number of them thought it was cute. But there were always those few who regarded him with suspicion or even pity, and that attitude would then be reflected in the looks they gave George and Sheila. George would force a smile and Sheila would get extremely uncomfortable, as if he wasn’t being a good enough father somehow.

  Perhaps enough was enough at that.

  He cleared his throat to serve as warning to Sandy that he was entering the room, and then he walked in. Sandy was seated cross-legged on the bed. The bed was neatly made, top smooth, corners folded, as per Sheila’s insistence and long years of discipline. The rest of his room was likewise immaculate; Sheila would simply have it no other way. His stuffed animals sat neatly lined up on shelves, under assorted star maps that he had mounted on his wall, not being satisfied with the ones that he was able to call up on his computer screen. The carpet was that same annoying shag red. By the one window in his room, there was a telescope that he used to observe the stars for what seemed hours on end. It was the only other thing he tended to do other than look at nothing at all.

  He was wearing a simple white crewneck pullover shirt, and blue shorts. His face, with a row of freckles arranged on his cheeks and his questioning eyes opened wide, was turned upward toward his father in what seemed passive curiosity. He said nothing, having halted his chat the moment he became aware of his father’s presence.

  George ruffled his son’s hair. Sandy didn’t budge as the strands settled back down onto his scalp. “How you doing, Sandy?” George asked.

  Sandy tilted his head in a manner that looked vaguely like a shrug. The question didn’t seem to interest him much.

  Feeling as if he was uncomfortable in his own body, George sat on the edge of the bed. Sandy waited patiently, his hands resting, neatly folded, in his lap.

  “We need to talk, Sandy,” he said finally.

  “ ’Kay.”

  Unsure of how to start, George finally said, “When a boy reaches a certain age . . . there are some things that just, well . . . just aren’t appropriate . . .”

  “Is this about when I walked in on Mom in the shower? ’Cause she already yelled at me.”

  George stifled a laugh at that. “No. No, it’s not about that at all.”

  “Good.” Sandy seemed visibly relieved at that.

  “No, it’s . . .” He shifted on the bed, which seemed extremely small to him at that point. “It’s about things that you do as a little boy that aren’t, well . . . appropriate when you get older. You see what I’m saying?”

  “Yes. You’re saying the same thing you said before.”

  There was no hint of arrogance or snottiness in the way Sandy informed him of the fact that he was repeating himself. It was more in the nature of an “FYI.” He just wanted his dad to know that he was not moving forward in the conversation. George had to admit that that much was true.

  “Okay, well . . .” He slapped his thighs a couple of times and rocked slightly, as if preparing to launch himself off a high dive. “Well, here’s the thing: It’s about Missy.”

  Sandy turned his head and addressed the empty air to his immediate left. “You were right,” he said, and then turned back to his father. “Missy said she thought it was going to be about her. I wasn’t sure, ’cause she always thinks everything is about her. So it’s kind of hard to tell.”

  “Well, that’s Missy for you,” George said, and then realized that ackno
wledging quirks in the imaginary friend’s behavior was probably not the best way to proceed. “Look, Sandy, the thing is . . . here’s the thing, it’s . . . well, I don’t think you should be talking to Missy anymore.”

  The child blinked once, very slowly. “Why not?” he asked.

  “Because it’s not . . . well . . . appropriate.”

  “Why not?”

  “Well, there are certain things that are all right for small children, but not for bigger children. And you’re getting to be a very big boy. You know that, right?”

  Sandy nodded absently. “But . . . I like talking to Missy.”

  “I know that, but . . .”

  “I’m not hurting anybody.”

  Letting out another, even heavier sigh and feeling much older than he had when he’d come into the room, George drew closer to his son and draped an arm commiseratingly around the boy’s shoulders. “I know you’re not hurting anybody, Sandy, but . . .”

  “Missy says you’re an idiot.”

  The words, coming out of the boy’s mouth in so matterof-fact a fashion, caught George completely off guard. “Wh-what . . . ?”

  “Unh-hunh,” Sandy said, his head bobbing up and down as if it were mounted on a spring. “She says you’re an idiot, and a fool, and you don’t understand anything.”

  “Now wait just one minute, young man,” George said heatedly. He’d removed the arm from the boy’s shoulder. Suddenly there was no sense of empathy for his son. Instead he was beginning to wonder whether Sheila hadn’t been more correct than she’d known. Perhaps what they were seeing was, in fact, a hint of a deeper problem, and this imaginary friend business was only an outward manifestation of it. “You are not allowed to talk to me in that manner.”