The Human Equations

Originally published in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, November 2002

Reprinted in the collection THE HUMAN EQUATIONS

As many times as I'd been called upon to banish Volatile people to Earth, few of them had ever attacked me.

The final time it happened was within the New Lancaster Habitat, home to 10,000 New Order Mennonites, known as the "Habitat of the Gentle People."  Moments after I arrived at the farm of Bishop Anna Troyer and her son, Samuel, I knew it contained at least one exception. 

As I stepped onto the porch, I couldn't help thinking that the Troyer home looked like something out of history:  wooden structure, metal gutters, the porch sporting a swing and rocking chairs.  An even more primitive-looking building, the barn, stood in the rear.  Between them was an electric car, and a larger vehicle that probably harvested the crops.  In fields both adjacent to the Troyer home and directly overhead, I could see people working in the sprawling fields scattered throughout the habitat.

The heat and humidity of the habitat's interior washed over me.  It was only mid-morning and already conditions here were oppressive; why would people work in those fields all day?  I wished I could've come about a week later when the habitat was due to turn colder.  It was a practical measure; the apple, cherry, and pear trees needed that cold snap to blossom.

I knocked on the flimsy-looking door, which was a thin frame of wood surrounding a fine metal mesh.  Out of the shadows within the house, two figures resolved themselves.  Bishop Troyer was dressed in a gray one-piece dress beneath an apron of the same color, and wore her snow-white hair up, topped with a finely pleated white hat.  I knew she was only middle-aged, about sixty, but her deeply lined face made her look decades older.  Being a Mennonite, I thought, must be a rough life.  I knew it could even be deadly.  Bishop Troyer's husband Amos had died eight years earlier when a grain harvester rolled over on him -- not an uncommon fate for farmers here, apparently.

Samuel was twenty, broad-shouldered, and with skin burnished by countless hours beneath reflected sunlight.  He was wearing a farmer's overalls and thick-soled boots.

Bishop Troyer didn't speak, just glared at me, but she still opened the door -- Congregationalist courtesy, no doubt.  I stepped inside, grateful for the respite from the heat.  "I'm Triage Officer Leo Bakri.  I'm here to carry out the Order of Banishment on Samuel Troyer."

The only thing that saved me was that although Samuel was big, he wasn't a trained fighter, and that my New Human reflexes are faster than those of most Volatiles.  His right fist swung at my face, and I grabbed it with my right hand and twisted sharply, measuring my force so I wouldn't break his wrist.  Samuel yelped and sank to one knee.  I placed my hand on the butt of my stunner but didn't draw it.  

Bishop Troyer went to her son's side and held his shoulders.  I wondered if she was trying to comfort or restrain her son. 

I felt the chill of perspiration drying on my forehead.  The house wasn't climate-controlled, but it was cooler than the habitat's current outdoor setting.  Too much like a "natural" environment, too uncontrolled, I thought.  Why should any environment be uncomfortable for the Humans living in it?

Bishop Troyer said, "You realize that sending Samuel down there is a certain death sentence?" 

I said, "You know the seriousness of Samuel's crime."

"I still have trouble believing that Samuel would -- "

"Attack someone the way he just attacked me?"

Samuel looked up at me.  "You're taking me away from my mom, you bastard!"

"Samuel!" Bishop Troyer said.  "Even in such a time, you'll not use that kind of language."

"Mom, he's taking my life away."

I said, "Samuel, you know the law.  There are no appeals."

Bishop Troyer said, "Triage Officer Bakri, you must understand my son doesn't want to leave his home."

In my heart of hearts, I didn't think his home was anything to fight for.  The many shelves and a mantle above the fireplace (now there was a danger!) here in the living room were crowded with, I believed the term was, "knick-knacks."  They included small stylized figurines with vaguely Human form, tiny woven baskets of an unknown (at least to me) significance, and flat, unmoving pictures of loved ones.  The paintings on the walls seemed to be originals by talented but untrained artists.  The comp in one corner was a bulky console-and-monitor combination. 

Samuel Troyer said, "You didn't prove anything -- "

I told him, "We have cubes.  They show you inside a shop within the Shosha Habitat, assaulting its manager, Saburo Endo."

Bishop Troyer stood.  She held her hand out to Samuel, who took his place beside her and said, "That's not evidence to us.  My people don't use that kind of technology."

"With all respect to your beliefs, the Shosha authorities do make decisions based upon that technology.  We also have nearly a half-dozen witnesses to the assault against Mr. Endo.  You know the penalty for traveling to another habitat to commit violence."

Samuel Troyer tilted his head and squeezed his eyes shut.  "I didn't go there to commit violence."  Then he looked me right in the eye.  "I just wanted to see what it was like somewhere you don't have to get up in the middle of the night to milk cows.  Or spend half your days just growing food.  Where you have time to read and to think -- "

Bishop Troyer shook her head.  "It looks as if you've spent too much time thinking already, and it's allowed ungodly ideas to get into your head.  I never should've agreed to that trip.  You're too young.  You don't understand why our way of life is so important to us."

Samuel's voice held a bitterness I guessed he'd been nurturing for some time.  "You always said these places were so evil.  I wanted to decide for myself.  I always expected to come back here.  And I did.  I wanted to find a way to make a different kind of life for myself here, with you."

I said, "You knew you were here only on probation, awaiting your sentence."

"On something that wasn't a crime.  I just wanted something nice for my mother."

"A gold necklace worth six months pay on Shosha."

Bishop Troyer said, "My son had never been to another habitat.  He had no concept of a market economy."

"You should have taught him, then.  To let a Volatile -- "

"I am so sick of hearing Samuel referred to by that term.  I suppose you're what they call a New Human?"

"I am."  I allowed a little pride to come through in my tone of voice.  Nothing wrong with faster reflexes, added strength, or more immunity to disease.  Not to mention the moral improvements.  Less prone to violence.  More inclined to find peaceful solutions.  "I'm from Newton Habitat."  Customarily, Banishment Orders were carried out by Triage Officers from habitats other than those involved in the original crime.  The Earth-circling habitats have two common rules -- live as you wish, but anyone can leave whenever they want.  And anyone who commits the slightest physical assault is immediately banished.

Samuel shook his head.  "Great.  Not just a New Human, but a scientist.  You think you're better than I am."

I shifted my weight from one foot to another.  No one seemed likely to offer me a seat.  And I wasn't sure I'd accept it -- the Troyers' living room chairs were wooden, some upholstered with actual cloth, everything apparently hand-crafted.  I supposed that was fine if you liked that kind of thing, but it all seemed unnatural and wasteful of time and resources to me.  "Statistics show a Volatile is more likely to act inappropriately.  A point you helped prove on Shosha."

Samuel wiggled his fingers in front of my face.  "They were so upset that these hands touched their precious property."

"In Shosha, it's called stealing."

"And the shopkeeper --

" -- Mr. Endo -- "

" -- was rude.  He yelled at me in front of all those people in the market square.  And he grabbed my arm so hard it hurt."

"You wouldn't let go of the necklace."

Samuel shook his head.  "It was mine.  I'd picked it up.  I tried to tell them I'd send them something in trade later."

"That's when the real crime happened.  When you struck Mr. Endo."

"He wouldn't let go of my arm.  He started it."

I said, "And I'm finishing it.  Get your things."

Samuel pointed to one of the upholstered chairs.  "There's my bag."  His shoulders slumped, as if having prepared the bag also meant acknowledging his crime.  He picked the bag up and stood passively, his attention focused on his mother. 

I told him, "You can see that I'm accustomed to dealing with Volatiles.  If you try to assault me or anyone else again, I'm stunning you and carrying you to the port.  If you give me your word you won't be violent, I'll let your mother come along."

Bishop Troyer folded her hands in front of her.  "Thank you, Triage Officer."  She looked meaningfully at her son.  "We may be plain unaltered Humans, but we won't be any trouble."

I said, "My car's waiting." 

I insisted that both Bishop Troyer and Samuel ride in the rear of my borrowed police cruiser.  The car mostly drove itself, which let me keep an eye on them on a heads-up vid display.

As we drove off her property, Bishop Troyer said, "All this for a trinket I wouldn't have wanted anyway."

Samuel said, "The gold was from what you call the good Earth.  I know you miss it there, even if you never want to go back.  The shopkeeper said it was hand-crafted, not replicated."

I said, "They just say that, Samuel.  That's a typical ploy to get a little extra money out of a tourist."

Samuel's mouth gaped open.  "He'd lie?"

"Plenty of shopkeepers in plenty of habitats will do the same thing."

Bishop Troyer said, "It's one reason we chose a different path in this place."

New Lancaster Habitat was a typical kilometer-long cylinder, its homes mostly single-family dwellings scattered across a broad landscape of furrowed fields.  Most Human colonists brought workbots, nanotech, and grav pallets, along with virtualities and newsnets.  They desired the conveniences of Earthly existence even while they sought more living space or the opportunity to form a unique societal structure.

Not here.  Workers harvested timothy and clover in the countless fields that curved upward and met two-tenths of a kilometer overhead.  I didn't understand the pull of such an existence.  The repetitive toil, the eternal cycle of artificially-generated seasons with the rituals of planting and harvesting, and all for what? 

I supposed that was why we have dozens of habitats circling the homeworld.  Live as you want, without anyone abridging your freedoms.

But that was just what Samuel Troyer had tried to do to Mr. Endo in Shosha.

I said, "If Samuel had struck someone here in New Lancaster, it would've been a purely internal matter.  But it's gone inter-habitat.  It's the equivalent of a diplomatic incident on Earth."

Samuel sat with his hands in his lap, as if waiting for his mother and me to settle this between ourselves.  I had to wonder if the anger he'd shown just moments ago had been only momentarily suppressed. 

Bishop Troyer asked, "Can't you give Samuel some leniency?  He's never been in trouble before."

"Could I suggest you render unto Caesar that which is -- "

"That is an inappropriate context for that reference, Triage Officer.  And you will not use my religious beliefs as a pretext for taking my son from me."

I took a deep breath.  "I apologize."

Samuel rolled his eyes at that, which I pointed out to Bishop Troyer.  "You see his attitude?  Haven't you glimpsed that before?"

Bishop Troyer cast a hard look at her son.  "Only...aimed at me."

"With all respect," I said, "Perhaps Samuel found it all too easy in Shosha, a place where no one knew him, that he could intimidate anyone who challenged him as he committed his mischief.  Add to that, not realizing his actions were being recorded in holographic vid and immersion sound."

Samuel said, "Perhaps you should take me away.  I might finally find respect down there on Earth."

Bishop Troyer said, "Don't even pretend to feel that way.  I'm still your mother, I'll always care for you the way no one else can."

I said, "You can still care about your son, Bishop Troyer.  He just can't continue to live here."

Bishop Troyer turned a stern visage toward the vid input.  "We're talking about a 20 year old boy who committed an inadvertent theft, and who struck a shopkeeper.  Meanwhile, we don't seem concerned that we're about to send Samuel down to a planet where some countries still mandate the death penalty for non-violent crimes.  The PacFed doesn't believe you have a soul, Triage Officer, or even that Samuel or I do, and it wouldn't be illegal to kill us for no reason.  The Eastern Sword chops the hands off of thieves.  Do you need more examples?"

I said, "A condition of establishing Human habitats in Earth orbit was that we could only ship back malcontents or criminals if a government agreed to take responsibility for them.  That makes it difficult for us, but if Samuel doesn't go to Earth, that would mean someone who committed violence wouldn't be dealt with.  Our entire system will fall apart, in every habitat.  Samuel will leave.  But he goes somewhere he's wanted." 

"What kind of place will have me?  What kind of people can I live near?"

I said, "Most of the world falls into two major categories, culturally."

Samuel frowned.  "Yes, Euro-American and Afro-Asian.  I've been to college, thank you."

"Your culture here most closely resembles Euro-American.  I've gotten you a good job on the English Strait.  Reclamation duty.  They're desperate for manpower there."

Samuel asked, "Manpower?  What's that?"

"People who perform physical labor, or sometimes skilled tasks."

"Why would anyone perform physical labor back on Earth?"

"Some societies there also reject nanotech, just as your own does."

"What if I refused to work?  What could they do to me?"

"You wouldn't get paid.  You wouldn't be able to buy food or clothes or shelter."

"Oh, I see, these are places like Shosha."

"Much worse than Shosha.  Hard work, very little pay.  Hard to get ahead.  Harder still to save for old age."

"They don't even take care of old people?"

"You have to save enough so you can get by when you're too old to work."

We'd arrived at the habitat's southern cap.  I flashed my Triage Services shield at the nearest lift, asking the civilians gathered there to take the next one.  I didn't think Samuel would become violent again, but I wanted to keep things simple.

Aboard the lift, we all grabbed handrails as the habitat's floor, and the pseudo-gravity of its rotation, fell away.  Looking across the 1-kilometer distance to the northern cap, I saw people who had donned wings and were flying along the cylinder's center.  "That surprises me," I muttered, and when Samuel tilted his head in a questioning look I pointed out the fliers.

"It's simple tech," Samuel said.  "As natural as the flight of birds."

Then it was off the lift, in zero-G conditions now, and into the passenger waiting area.  Both Bishop Troyer and Samuel glided awkwardly through the broad tube that led from the revolving cylinder of New Lancaster to its stationary hub.  I'd made sure we arrived only minutes before departure; I didn't want to draw this out.  I'd only allowed Bishop Troyer to come along because I thought her presence would help me deal with Samuel until I got him aboard the shuttle.

We reached the broad waiting area.  About three dozen other passengers were also waiting to board the shuttle down to Earth.  I'm sure my sigh of relief was audible.  Gone were the organic smells and too-warm, too-moist air that had assaulted me when I first entered New Lancaster proper.  I marveled at the small comforts I found in filtered air, smooth white surfaces, and decorative cube images of planets and galaxies that were the same in any such chamber. 

Another flash of the shield, this time toward a customs officer.  He said, "Don't worry, Triage Officer, we'll get you seated first, in just a moment.

As we all moved to one side and grabbed handrails, I sneaked a glance at Bishop Troyer.  Her mouth had tightened into a narrow line that emphasized the wrinkles in her face.  I'd seen similar expressions before, on dozens of frustrated parents' faces -- she was coming to grips with the reality that she was about to lose Samuel.  She couldn't prevent me physically from taking him, and they'd had no legal options or I wouldn't have arrived at their doorstep.  "I know this is difficult," I said, "But look at the broader view -- "

Bishop Troyer said, "I don't have a broader view.  I only know I'm losing my son."

Samuel was grinning.  "Let him spin his fairy tales, Mom."

Bishop Troyer's lips pursed and she looked at me.  "Have your say."

"Human history, from the 19th Century onward.  Conflicts between empires give way to the superpowers, whose disputes dominate the 20th Century.  Some of those disputes involve intermediaries, often on the Asian continent.  But after two global conflicts, wars became localized or internal.  The world's countries were learning to live in peace.  But in the very first year of this century, Humanity sees war waged by individuals."

Bishop Troyer lowered her gaze.  "We're a sinful race." 

"This is where it starts.  With a simple assault, and the most basic disrespect for another person."

Bishop Troyer said, "You spout your theories of history and how Human society evolves as if they're as certain as the laws of physics you worship."

I said, "That's a good analogy.  The laws of physics have been called the 'cold equations.'  My job is to make sure legal consequences approach that same certainty."

"Then you, Mr. Bakri, are even colder than the laws of physics.  Perhaps you embody the human equations.  And if I refuse to let Samuel go?"

"I can take you into custody, too."

Samuel said to me, "I'll go to Earth."

Bishop Troyer said, "Samuel, no!"

"Mom, what kind of choice do I have?  I'm young, I can adapt."

Like you adapted on Shosha? I thought, but wasn't about to say aloud. 

Bishop Troyer asked her son, "Do you know the danger's you'll face there?"

Samuel said, "Radiation.  Marauders.  Leftover nanoweapons."

"We have to find you something somewhere else."

I said, "Most countries aren't interested in taking a Volatile.  They don't want our -- "

"Castoffs?  Rejects?"

"I believe you're both good people.  It's just that Samuel did something that can't be tolerated in this community."

Bishop Troyer offered me a sad smile.  "I have my own beliefs about what can be tolerated and what cannot.  As does everyone who has received our undeserved gift -- God's love.  We reciprocate that gift by building a community filled with Christ's attributes.  Forgiveness is one of those attributes."

I didn't have anything to say to that.

"Don't worry," Bishop Troyer said.  "I'm not a proselytizer.  I'm willing to speak in the limited terms of everyday life.  Did it ever occur to you that maybe Samuel thought he was in the right?"

"You've seen the vid?"

"I have.  I don't approve of what he did, but I don't believe it's worth banishment."

Both of Samuel's eyebrows raised and his jaw dropped open.  "How did you see it?"

"The farm's comp.  It has HabNet access."

"But you never allowed me to -- "

"To fritter away your time on foolishness -- games and useless knowledge disguised as revealed truths or wisdom?  No, I never did.  But this is different.  I had to see for myself what happened."

I kept quiet.  I thought letting this little drama play out might be the best thing for me.

Samuel said, "You had no right -- "

"I have every right to know about my son's actions.  It was foolish to let you go there.  I can only ask the Lord's forgiveness.  If only your father had lived -- "

Samuel wagged his finger before his mother's face.  "It always comes back to that, doesn't it?  The sacred Amos Troyer, who could do no wrong -- "

Bishop Troyer knocked Samuel's hand aside, and by his reaction, you would've thought she'd slapped him full in the face.  "You will respect your father."

Samuel recovered quickly, and his features hardened into an expression that belied his youth.  "I've always respected my father.  It's your attitude toward him that wears me down."

Bishop Troyer extended her hand toward Samuel's face.  He flinched, then seemed to realize his mother's touch would be gentle this time.  Anna Troyer caressed her son's face.  "I'll always love you despite how you treat me."

Samuel said, "I know, Mom.  It's just...I have to make my own decisions now."

The customs officer caught my eye and waved me toward the embarcation sleeve.  I told Bishop Troyer, "I have to accompany Samuel down to the surface."

Bishop Troyer told me, "My son didn't understand."

"We don't care whether he understood.  We care only that he not repeat his actions, whether in Shosha or here in New Lancaster."

"He wouldn't have.  I'd have made sure of it."

"He's a Volatile.  We couldn't be sure.  Now we will be."

Mother and son embraced, held on tight, cried.  I started to touch Bishop Troyer on her shoulder but couldn't bring myself to.  I coughed softly.  The Troyers took the hint and said their final goodbyes.  Bishop Troyer told me, "I'll pray for him.  And for you, and those who create our laws."

I thought it only appropriate to say, "Thank you."  Then Samuel and I left.  I didn't dare look back at the grieving mother. 

Samuel sat next to me quietly during the entire half-hour trip.  I wondered how many of the other passengers might also be Volatiles, though I didn't recognize any Triage Officers from other habitats. 

We'd be landing in the desert linking the sloping plain that was once England's Shakespeare Cliff to the ruins of the French village of Sangatte.  It was only during the shuttle's final approach that Samuel said, "Tell my mother everything will be all right.  Even if it won't."

This Volatile's concern for his mother stole at my heart in a way I hadn't anticipated.  I could almost forgive Samuel for attacking me back in the New Lancaster Habitat. 

Almost.  I didn't respond to his request, and Samuel didn't make it again.

The shuttle settled to the barren ground and Samuel and I followed the other passengers, about six or seven, who were getting off. 

Bright light and blowing dust made me squeeze my eyes to slits as I followed Samuel out of the shuttle and stepped onto dusty ground.  Close to the horizon, I saw the reclamation facility that fought the losing battle to reclaim this strait as fertile ground.  Nanotech conflicts had left the land full of unwanted surprises, from transformation mines to death-tech.  The suggestion had already been made in some quarters to let it return to its "natural" state, to become the English Channel again.  As if natural meant static, unchanging, safe.

A tall man in a crisp uniform and wearing a breathing mask walked up to us and introduced himself as StraitForce Lieutenant Phillipe Cassell.  "I'll take the boy now," Cassell said, his voice stern and metallic through the mask.

"Where's my mask?" Samuel demanded.

"You'll get one when you earn one," Cassell said.  He pulled Samuel toward a waiting personnel carrier.  Samuel looked back at me and said, "Goodbye."

My mouth was dry and I choked back words.  By the time I raised my hand to wave, it was to Samuel's retreating back.

That's when a sharp crack came from overhead and I was knocked to the ground.  I lifted my head from the dust just in time to see the rear of the personnel carrier blasted away.  Armed men and women were popping up from beneath the ground.  They were  aiming weapons and squeezing triggers, but I didn't hear discharges and didn't see flashes of light.

I got up and ran toward Samuel Troyer and Lieutenant Cassell, who were lying next to the carrier's wreckage.  I pulled my stunner and got off a few shots, without hitting anyone. 

Samuel pulled me down next to him, clearly glad to see a familiar face, even mine.  He seemed unhurt; Cassell's chest and face were ruins.  Before we could say anything to each other, Samuel slumped to the ground.  Whether unconscious or dead, I didn't know.

A scuffling sound to my right, and I raised my weapon at a gunner advancing toward me.

Some New Human I was.  The gunner was quicker and even though I still didn't hear a discharge or see a flash I slumped to the ground next to Samuel.

I found out what happened when I woke up in the reclamation facility's hospital.  A Channel Separatist raid on the reclamation facility had ended with nine raiders dead, but 52 workers killed and 142 others, including Samuel, suffering nano-infestation.

The Separatists had sprayed destructive nanotech over much of the facility.  I was lucky; being a New Human gave me some resistance to such intruders, and my status as a Triage Officer meant I was one of the first attended to.  Yes, I'm aware of the irony.  The doctors flushed out my system successfully, and I was out of the hospital within hours.

Samuel, though, wasn't so lucky.  The tiny disassemblers roamed through his bloodstream and throughout his nervous system, altering his body with an excruciating slowness.

I went to see him every few hours over a period of three days after the attack.  Samuel's body was literally turning to dust.  His feet crumbled away within hours of the infestation, and his legs were gone in a day.  The nanotech made sure Samuel's skin closed around the parts of his body that remained, but did nothing to relieve his pain.  "I'm bearing it," he told me through gritted teeth, "because I want to live."  Once when I found him sobbing uncontrollably, he said, "I'm not crying for myself.  It's my mother.  I have to get better.  I don't want her to know I'm suffering."

Doctors pumped him full of reconstruction nanotech and implanted temporary artificial organs as his intestines, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, and other organs failed, then became dust.

69 hours into his agony, doctors had given up on saving Samuel and were issuing frantic petitions to London and Paris for permission to euthenize him.  The reply never came.  He was, after all, only a Volatile.

The separatist attack told me no one was safe, and that it didn't matter who you were.  Lieutenant Cassell had only been doing his duty.  Samuel Troyer was a mixed-up young man who hadn't done anything that deserved a death sentence  -- something I'd realized in the final moments of Samuel's life. 

All that remained of him was a head and an upper torso.  He was breathing through artificial lungs and could still manage halting speech.  Moments before he died, Samuel said he felt a comforting presence nearby, someone other than myself or the doctors.  I knew he was a spiritual man, and I was glad that he'd received this vision in his final moments.  But then Samuel's demeanor changed.  His face contorted, and not from pain; his nerves couldn't transmit pain anymore.  He forced one word out before he died:  "Abandoned."

I couldn't speculate on what it was Samuel saw or heard, or who had abandoned him, though I had my own ideas.

Within a day of Samuel's death I was standing on Bishop Troyer's porch on another sweltering morning, knocking on her door again.  I considered it a mercy that she hadn't been allowed down to the Strait to see her son, because of the continuing separatist danger.  I peered through the door's wire mesh, and saw a long wooden table set up in the living room, with plates and casserole dishes full of food spread across it. 

The door opened halfway, and Bishop Troyer stood there, dressed in a white dress with a white cape.  I'd expected her to look withered and worn, but she stood upright and sturdy.  I wondered how long her newfound energy would last once the other mourners were gone.  I wondered how long she might live. 

The soft background conversations filtering through the doorway stopped one by one as guests noticed my presence.

"I know I'm probably not welcome here," I said.

Bishop Troyer's eyes seemed to perceive every wrong I'd ever perpetuated in my life, every broken promise, every petty insult.  Every time I thought of myself as morally superior to a Volatile, because I was a New Human.

Never mind taking her only child to his undeserved death.

"Of course you're welcome here, Triage Officer."

"I'm not a Triage Officer any longer."  At Bishop Troyer's questioning look, I said, "I've resigned.  I won't be banishing any more Vol...any more citizens."

Bishop Troyer opened the door further.  "Enter in the spirit of forgiveness."

I stepped inside, aware of all the eyes upon me.  Mourners, most of whom would have known Samuel Troyer at his best as well as his worst.  Bishop Troyer and I moved into one corner of the room and spoke quietly as other conversations rose again.

I told her, "I realized being a Triage Officer had only been my way of dealing with my own fears.  I told myself others were responsible for them.  Eliminate those others from my life, and I'd be secure.  The fact that I operated with the habitats' laws on my side was only an excuse."

"And your new job?"

"Within a month, I'll be joining the Earth Alliance light cruiser Solar Eagle as chief security officer."

"Are you so eager to head out to the stars?  Or are you leaving your past behind?"

"I don't think I'll know for awhile."

Bishop Troyer looked thoughtful, not as haunted.  "Then my son's death served some small purpose.  Tell me how he died."

I hesitated, and Bishop Troyer said, "I'm sure he asked you to spare me the details.  He always wanted to protect me."

I felt the corners of my mouth turn up just a little.  "It was all he said to me on the way down to Earth.  Tell you everything was all right, even if it wasn't."

"And as he was dying?"

"He didn't want you to know he was suffering."

"His suffering has ended, and he's with the Lord.  You know you failed him."

I lowered my head.  "Yes, I do."

I started at the touch of Bishop Troyer's fingers beneath my chin.  "Then you mustn't fail me.  I want to believe that the more he suffered, the more heroic he became."

"He did."

"Then don't give me the peaceful, sanitized version of his death."

So I told her, and she listened and didn't say anything, but her eyes closed tightly halfway through my description of Samuel's suffering and death.  By the time I'd finished my tale she had one hand over her eyes and her chin was quivering.  When she started to sob, her hand moved to cover her mouth, and she turned her back toward the friends and relatives who'd come to grieve with her.

Eventually Bishop Troyer composed herself.  "I can't provide your forgiveness, Leo Bakri, and you won't find it out among the stars.  It'll only be within your own heart.  A lesson I've learned."  Her mouth quivered, and she raised her hand to it again.  I could hear her muffled voice.  "Oh, Samuel, why was I so foolish?"  Anna Troyer looked at me.  "He promised he'd be a better, more respectful son.  Just let him do this one thing, he said.  It's all I'd ever wanted.  That's why I let him go.  Because of what I wanted."

She turned away from me then, and joined the other mourners.  As I was leaving I paused in the doorway, aware that Bishop Troyer and I were embarking on a shared journey.