by Cardaniel

Chapter 1

"The answer remains no, Major. And you're treading perilously close to insubordination."

Major Megan Duchain bit her lip. Every professional instinct told her it was time to salute and withdraw, but that persistent inner need pushed her onward. "Colonel, the experimental tracking device needs to be tested anyway. What better test could there be?"

Colonel Sandrine Foster's glare foreshadowed the eruption of a supernova of anger which Megan knew would leave her in shreds. "There is no possibility we would risk a pilot, senior scientist, vehicle, and the prototype of the device on a mission from which all were unlikely to return. Space travel is dangerous enough anyway without throwing away good women on a likely suicide mission."

"But my sister could still be alive..."

"Major Duchain," snapped Colonel Foster, "Aurora disappeared thirty years ago, with your sister and the rest of the crew, in a wormhole accident. No signal has been received since then." She seemed to loosen up the tiniest bit. "Major, I know this is personal with you. I admired your sister and her abilities. I'm sure you knew her better than I..." The colonel winced slightly as if slightly embarrassed by the degree of understatement in her last remark. "But you have to let go and move on. You know she is surely dead." She fixed Megan with a look that the major could not possibly misinterpret. "Dismissed."

Megan suppressed a growl of frustration. Saluting, she turned and left the colonel's office, raking her fingers through her short light blonde hair in the corridor to keep from banging her fist against the wall.

She looked again, as she looked so often, at the plaque honoring the crew of Aurora:

We honor the women of Aurora who served bravely
and are tragically lost to us:

Maj. Tanisha Ologwu, Mission Commander
Maj. Sabrina Marion, First Officer
Capt. Polina Grishova, Mission Pilot
Lt. Janica Duchain, Science Officer
Lt. Heather Lopez, Astrogation Officer
2Lt. Gretel Schweiz, Communications Officer
Spec. Aoife O'Lonigan, Technician

Megan put her fingers lightly on the plaque, brushing her fingers across Janica's name as though her spirit might be there. I will find you, Janny, she thought. Despite all buttheads trying to prevent me.

Lost in angry thought on the way back to her quarters, she nearly steered her hoverbike into a trench being dug by a squad of enlisted men. Only her almost supernatural balance managed to keep the bike on an even keel, though it did stall out. She glared at one of the men, a private, who was smirking at her embarrassment. She snapped at him, "Attention, soldier!"

The man straightened instantly and stood uncomfortably, his eyes unable to meet hers. It wasn't that she was physically intimidating to him -- while she was as tall as he was, his well-muscled body probably weighed at least a Megan and a half. But her eyes, at this moment, gave off such light and heat that it was natural to avoid meeting them, in the way one avoids looking directly at the sun. He found that his eyes were now fixed on the bulge of her breasts under her uniform blouse, and he flicked them quickly to the side, his face reddening. Megan was familiar enough with that, both the look and the look-away. She said through gritted teeth, "Maybe you'd like a permanent assignment to latrine duty, soldier?"

He gulped and stood rigidly. "No ma'am!"

She looked away dismissively, restarting the bike smoothly. "As you were." She didn't look back as she sailed away. She smiled at the thought of the man's flushed face. It always braced her to put a man in his place.

As Megan continued towards her quarters, she speculated, as she occasionally did, on why she hated men so much. Most of the other officers were casually tolerant of males, as long as they served well. A few of them had even married, and extolled the merits of having a man to come home to, someone who kept their quarters clean, had dinner ready for their wives after a long day, and kept their beds warm at night. Megan couldn't imagine the attraction, especially the bed part. Her sexual needs were low-key, and were satisfied on the rare occasions when they flared up by her female friends. She wasn't even really sure why men were needed at all -- machines could probably handle a lot of the work they did, and the fact that centuries ago they were indispensable for reproduction certainly wasn't relevant in the modern day. Megan knew that men had actually run the world as recently as five hundred years ago. She shuddered at the stories of the mess they'd made of the task.

She shook her head, unconsciously, recalling her history lessons in school, the pictures of female "homemakers," the swollen bellies of women actually bearing children like animals! She couldn't imagine how they stood for it.

She was glad to be alive in the twenty-sixth century. Pity her poor ancestors who had had to live through the Dark Ages.

Anger welled up in her, as it always did, as her thoughts led her to the Hercules cult. Megan avoided imagining their twisted "experiments," the lives they had ruined. Her only thought about them, on which all her anger focused, was that if it hadn't been for them, her sister Janica would still be here.

Those men, those evil men...

A century ago, a small band of men had withdrawn from the world, migrating to a small, fertile island in the Pacific. There had been hints that the departed men had wanted to establish a world in which they could be in charge of their lives. Their flight, though illegal, since a number of them had been under servitude contracts, was regarded with shrugs by the authorities, who felt that as long as they "did no damage," they could have their little world. There was certainly no shortage of men to replace them. No one noticed, through the years, the occasional disappearance of a young woman here and there, or at least no one connected it with the male cult.

It wasn't until seventy years later that an oceanic island survey had stumbled upon the cult, the members of which now called themselves "Hercules" after the mythical symbol of male strength. And the women, those poor women...

Megan remembered the news reports, the tri-D images showing what those men had done. All the world was electrified and outraged, many women demanding the reinstitution of capital punishment, centuries after it had been abolished -- how could these men be allowed to live? Cooler heads, or perhaps just softer ones, had prevailed. The President herself had announced the sentence of banishment that would be applied to the cult members. In recognition of their "humanity," though many disputed whether the term should apply, they would be allowed to live -- but not on Earth. An uninhabited planet would be found for them, on which they could live, taking with them everything they would need to tame the wilderness, even, to the consternation of many, computer records of their work in the Pacific -- what did it matter, the President pointed out, if they had records of all of their studies, as long as there were no women on whom they could perform their evil experiments? Imagine, the President had said, how frustrating it would be for them to have the know-how to repeat the horrors they had inflicted on those poor women, and now to have no one on whom they could use their knowledge? She asserted that that might well be more painful to them than any more terminal punishment.

Brave explorers, traveling the mysterious wormholes of underspace, had soon located a suitable planet. The Hercules cult, its members safely ensconced in sleeper pods, all the equipment they had chosen to take stowed in the cargo hold, had embarked on a trip to their new home in the starship Aurora, guided by a female crew of seven, including Lieutenant Janica Duchain, Megan's sister, as science officer, an expert in the physics of wormholes.

It wasn't in any sense a suicide mission, of course. Janica and the rest of the crew had every intention of returning within a few weeks -- wormholes, those surprising kinks in space that connected far distant stars and made it possible to travel light years in a few hours, had reduced the galaxy to a very compact "world" indeed.

But Aurora had disappeared, its underspace-borne signal vanishing a few days after entering the wormhole. Expert opinion was divided on interpreting the length of time the signal had lasted after wormhole entry -- some said that the ship must have cleared the wormhole before the signal disappeared, so that the cause of the disappearance was something other than wormhole collapse, but others insisted that the ship might well have stayed in the wormhole longer than one would normally expect: wormholes themselves caused unpredictable time distortions, and there were still major gaps in the scientific theories of the whole phenomenon. In any case, Aurora's disappearance was taken as sufficient evidence of wormhole instability, implying that it would be suicidal to try to track the ship and stage a rescue mission. By the time a number of months had gone by, it was impossible anyway: wormholes shift to such an extent that it was no longer possible even to determine exactly which one the ship had used. If Aurora had still been broadcasting a signal, that could have been followed, but as it was, no rescue was possible.

Megan had been sixteen years old when her big sister had vanished. Cube videos of Janica were all Megan had left, that and the memories of the sister she had worshipped.

As she entered her quarters, Megan lost herself in those memories of Janica. Her sister Janny. Megan sighed and brushed away a tear. She felt positive, as an article of faith, that Janica was still alive out there somewhere, on the planet that had been their destination, surviving on fresh fruits and whatever else it was that people ate out in the wilds. Janica would look, Megan knew, exactly the way she had thirty years ago, so there was no trouble maintaining a believable mental image of her. Aging had been conquered centuries ago, and people today looked with disbelief at the ancient "photographs" of historical figures, many of them gray, wrinkled, wizened. Children always asked why people would let themselves look like that. In the modern world, there was no telling the age of any adult, whether twenty years old, eighty like Megan's and Janica's mother, or even a hundred-eighty. About two hundred years from now, Megan knew, her central nervous system would suddenly give out. But until it did, she would believe with all her heart that Janica was still alive.

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