Lost Worlds

An Earth 2 fan fiction

by

Douglas Neman

"Mr. Blalock will see you now."

Blalock's secretary hadn't even paused from the letter she was typing, much less smiled or looked up. This didn't bother Sarah Wallen a bit – they were both highly efficient professionals, after all. She rose out of her chair and stood in front of the retinal imager at Blalock's door.

Keeping her eye open, she waited for the laser to confirm her identity. She wasn't absolutely positive, but she was willing to bet that Blalock's secretary would trigger a defensive mechanism to kill her on the spot if the retinal scan failed – and she probably wouldn't pause from her typing to do that, either.

The light flashed green, and there was a soft click as the door unlocked for a few seconds. She walked into a lavishly decorated office, one wall of which was a bay window looking out into space. Every few hours, Earth drifted past.

"Sarah," Blalock said with that polite smile of his. "Glad you could make it! Sit down. Coffee?"

"No thank you, sir." She sat in one of the two plush chairs in front of his desk.

"Sure? It's the real stuff. Might be your only chance for a long time."

"I'm sure."

He poured himself a cup, plopped a file folder on the desk in front of her, and sat down.

The file folder was an amazingly old-fashioned way of keeping information. But in the late 22nd century, keeping classified data on a piece of paper was the only way of totally ensuring no computer hacker could ever touch it. She opened the file and glanced through it. "Adair? Eden Project?" she asked. "Sick children? What, is some bitter parent blaming you and threatening to blow you up?"

"Metaphorically – that's exactly what's going on. Devon Adair is really causing a lot of trouble."

He sighed. "A few children have gotten sick with some mysterious disease, and the whole thing wouldn't be worth a fart in the wind if it weren't for the fact that one of those children is hers. Because she's a celebrity, she has the power to raise a stink about it, and she's blaming us for her child's sickness."

Sarah looked up in surprise.

"She says it has to do with the fact that we're not on Earth any more," Blalock continued. "She says the stations are killing her son."

Sarah was incredulous. "Her family built the stations! What's her problem?"

"The problem is that she wants to leave for another system, and we don't want her to."

"Why not?"

"Because when the human race expands outward to take our rightful ownership of the stars, it will be on our agenda, on our terms. We found the planet Adair wants to colonize, and we have plans for it – big plans. And they don't involve her. We have such great ideas, such incredible possibilities before us, and she's going to ruin everything by pushing colonization before we're ready to tackle it!

"She's acting like a stubborn Earthowner. You know the type – the one who's the only one in the whole area who won't sell to the air-purification realtors, even though it would benefit everyone? She's single-handedly standing in the way of so much progress – and there's a lot of people who don't like it."

"What do you want me to do?"

"First and foremost, I want you to keep tabs on Eden Project, and investigate and report anything which will be of interest. Second, I want you to actively sabotage their ship or equipment if they actually show signs of departure. Cause a malfunction in a row of cold-sleep chambers, or rupture a part of their engines – something which will force them to delay launch in order to repair.

"Devon Adair is really whacked out about this whole affair – just between you and me, I think her son being sick has sent her over the edge and she's desperately looking for someone to blame instead of looking for a solution. The woman hates me, and considers me her enemy. Normally, I'd trust her, but with the way she's been behaving lately, I wouldn't put it past her to try something."

"Something like what?"

"I don't know," he smiled. "That's your job – to find out what and prevent it.

"One other thing." He pulled out another folder and handed it to her. "I also want you to keep tabs on this woman."

The file read "Dr. Julia Heller." Sarah opened it up, and saw photographs and HOLIDs of a thin, blonde woman, who evidently never smiled, by the look of things.

"She's an agent two grades lower than yourself, attached to Dr. Vasquez's team. I'm worried about her. She was assigned to Eden Project because we felt it was something she could handle, and her medical background made her the perfect choice. But if push comes to shove, I'm not sure she can shove back. Her psych-eval reveals a weakness in her resolve – there's a chance she'll become emotionally attached to the people she's assigned to cover. We can't risk that. This is her first assignment, and you are to keep tabs on her as much as you are Eden Project. You'll be her performance evaluator. Under no conditions is Julia to know that you are also a Council agent – just watch her."

"How do I get in?"

"You're going to become a mother."

Sarah raised a sardonic eyebrow.

"A number of these sick children were understandably abandoned by their parents when they were found to have the Syndrome. One of these was Alex Williams." Blalock handed her a third file. "You, Ms. Williams, are going to show up with a horrible conscience, crying about how you abandoned Alex, begging to be reunited with him, apologizing all over for leaving him in the first place. You'll cause a stir, I'm sure, and attract the attention of Devon herself. Once you're one on one with her, you can earn her friendship – and her trust. Go from there."

"Sounds like a plan. Start immediately?"

"Absolutely. Do you need any more time?

"No. I'm ready." She handed all three files back, having already memorized them. "I'll head straight for the hospital from here."

"You'll find your kit assembled and waiting outside," Blalock smiled.

Sarah smiled back and left.

Sitting on the countertop which surrounded Blalock's secretary was a bag, resembling overnight luggage. Sarah smoothly picked it up on her way out without breaking stride.

The secretary did not look up.

 

"That's wonderful!" Devon exclaimed.

"What is?" O'Neill asked as he entered the room, looking between her and Dr. Vasquez.

"The mother of one of the abandoned children has returned!" she said. "Four years after just leaving him in the hospital corridor in front of his office!"

"Oh, yeah?" O'Neill asked. "Did you shoot her, doc?"

"Ha!" Vasquez laughed. "I didn't know whether to shoot her or pin a medal on her!"

"Yeah, well, in today's world, you could probably do both. It wouldn't even matter which one you did first." O'Neill sat down. "Why'd she leave the kid, and why come back?"

Vasquez shrugged. "She didn't elaborate. She just said it had always bothered her, and she finally couldn't stand it any more."

"Who is it?" Devon asked.

"Angela Williams. Says Alex is her son. We've always known who the child was because of station records, but the parents disappeared, and couldn't be traced. I asked her about him, and everything she says rings true. A DNA test confirms she's his mother. I also asked her about the boy's father, but he died about a year ago."

"Do you think she might be mentally impaired in some way?" Devon asked. "The fact that she left him anonymously and then returned so suddenly might mean she has an emotional disorder of some sort."

"She might," Vasquez shrugged, "but what can you do? I'm not her doctor, just Alex's. As time goes on, I can only intervene if I think she's harmful to the boy in some way, which is my main concern."

He sighed heavily. "Alex himself is pretty quiet about all this, which worries me. He won't even talk to me about it. This sudden reappearance of his mother has really shaken him."

"Well, I imagine it would," Devon said. "What's Ms. Williams's situation? Will she be able to help out around here with any time or money?"

"She certainly owes it," O'Neill muttered.

"Not my department," Vasquez smiled and stood up. "I just tend the sick. Management's your bailiwick, and I'm outta here. I've got to get to the lab."

"Is she still here?"

"She's down in the ward," he nodded in one direction as he pushed open the door and left.

"Well – I would very much like to meet her," Devon said to O'Neill. "Just don't bite her head off."

"I don't even want to lay eyes on the woman," O'Neill said. "I gotta check up on the colony ships, see why those work crews are lagging behind again."

 

Devon pushed open the doors to the ward, but found no adults there. Two of the children were talking quietly on the far side of the room, and one was actually sitting up in bed reading, but most were asleep, including her own son, Ulysses. She didn't try to wake him.

She smiled brightly at the ones who looked up at her, and waved her fingers at them. All of them were terminally ill, and she'd gotten to know them all during her years planning the Eden Project with Dr. Vasquez. Every day, seeing them and being with them taught her so much, touched her so deeply, and challenged her so much more than the day before. Even though she was an adult, she was the one who felt small and inadequate every time she was in their presence – dwarfed by their courage, their wisdom, their friendship.

Their very lives.

She sometimes wondered how the universe could be so paradoxical. She would give anything – her entire fortune, her life, her dignity, her freedom, anything – for Ulysses to be free of the disease which wanted to claim his life before his tenth birthday, which no Syndrome child had ever reached.

But if Ulysses hadn't developed the Syndrome, she would never have met Dr. Vasquez, or become a part of all that she had found here. And she knew perfectly well she would forever have remained someone who heard about the Syndrome children every now and then on the news, and dismissed them as nobodies who didn't matter.

She would have missed out on so much.

Halfway down the left side of the room she found Alex, awake but staring nowhere.

"Hey, there!" she sat down beside his bed and took his hand. "A lot of attention surrounding you today!"

"Yeah, I guess," he said.

"Must be pretty exciting to have your mother back, hmm?"

He just shrugged.

"You wanna tell me what's wrong?"

"I don't know," he said. "It just...doesn't seem real."

Devon paid close attention. Working with these children, she had learned that kids picked up a damned sight more than most people ever gave them credit for, sometimes more than the adults around them, who were rushing around with busy thoughts cluttering their brains. They just sometimes couldn't put their feelings into words, or sort out the important ones from the trivial ones.

She had also learned that the Syndrome children usually spoke their minds freely. It wasn't just the way children say whatever comes to their minds with brutal honesty because they don't know any better – it was more than that. It was as if, forced to look death in the face at six years old, nothing else frightened them, and not much slipped past their sharp minds.

They were wise before their time.

And Devon had learned fast, and she had learned hard, not to be fake around them – they wouldn't put up with it. They demanded total respect.

"Alex," Devon said, "if there's anything you want to tell me, anything at all, I will listen, and I will believe you. We care about you very deeply, and if you have any misgivings about your mother-"

"She's not my mother," he said.

Devon looked at him softly. "Now why do you say that?"

"Because she doesn't act like you."

"What do you mean?"

"I see the way you play with Uly sometimes, and the way you hold him, and take him for walks, and read to him, and the way you look at him. She just came in here, asking me to forgive her, crying over her lost child." He was silent for a moment. "I just wanted to tell her that she was the one who was lost. Not me."

He toyed with her fingers in his hand. "But I didn't tell her. I don't know why."

Devon said, "It's not easy when someone who abandoned you comes back into your life. Sometimes courage comes slowly, and you've been given an opportunity that not everybody here has. She hasn't been a good mother so far – I won't deny that. But she's probably not going to turn into a wonderful one overnight. You're still here with us, and we all love you very, very much. She hurt you by leaving you. You can bet if she tries to hurt you again, in any way, we'll protect you, and we will give her a piece of our minds. You can count on that!"

"I wish you were my mom."

She smiled and stroked his hair. "That is so sweet of you. You know, in a way, I've been your mother all this time. And we're still going to get you to New Pacifica, and you won't have to worry about being laid up in this bed any more. In the meantime, why don't you give your real mom a chance, okay? She may not be as bad as you think."

Alex managed a weak smile. "Okay, I'll try. But only if you still come by and tell me you love me."

"Of course!" she said. "Of course I will."

"Because she never said that. She didn't say she loved me. She cried a lot, and said she was sorry – but she never said, 'I love you.'" He started to cry. "I kept waiting for her to say it – but she never did!"

Devon squeezed his hand and stroked his head some more, but her face hardened, just the tiniest bit. "Where is she now?"

"She went with Julia, just before you got here. I think they're in her office."

She leaned forward and hugged him. "Well, I love you. We all do. And I'm sure she does, too, even if she didn't say it in so many words, or she wouldn't have come back to you. You just rest for a while, okay?" She pulled back and smiled at him. "You've had a lot of excitement today, and it's not even lunchtime yet. Things may not feel good now, but everything will turn out fine. Okay?"

"Okay," he smiled. His eyes closed and his body relaxed, more at peace. His head rested on the pillow. He still clutched her hand tightly in his.

Devon gently laid it on the bed next to him and kissed him on the forehead. Then she stood up and quietly left the ward.

By the time the doors swung shut behind her, she was halfway down the hall.

 

Devon had only met Julia once. The new intern had just joined Dr. Vasquez's staff over the weekend. She found the tiny office Vasquez had given her. It consisted of one bare desk, a chair in front of it, and a chair in back of it. Crates were stacked in one corner. Apparently, she was just moving in that morning and hadn't even had a chance to unpack yet.

Julia was awkwardly digging through the second crate, saying, "I'm so sorry for the delay, Ms. Williams, it's here somewhere."

"That's quite all right, I understand," a woman replied. "And please call me Angela." She was sitting in one of the chairs, and she'd obviously been crying. She looked up at Devon in the doorway.

"You must be Alex's mother," Devon smiled, extending a hand, specifically using the word mother instead of her name. Julia turned from her searching just long enough to give a quick smile in greeting.

"Yes." She shook her hand.

"I'm Devon Adair, co-founder of Eden Project."

"Yes, I know. I've heard so much about you!"

"Most of it good, I hope." They laughed, and Devon leaned back on the desk.

"I just wanted to tell you how excited I was when I heard the news," she said. "We have so many Syndrome children who were left by their parents. We track them down sometimes, but you're the first one who's ever showed back up on her own, and I think it's a really beautiful and courageous thing you've done."

"Oh, thank you." She started to cry again, just a little bit. "I just felt so guilty. It's been tearing away at me for years, and I finally couldn't stand it any more."

"Were you afraid that money would be an issue four years ago?"

She shook her head. "No, but that was still part of the problem. My husband and I were very well off, and in the social circles we lived in, we were too ashamed to have a child with the Syndrome. We were afraid of what people would say, of what they'd think of us."

"I do understand, even if I can't condone the fact that you left him," Devon said. "When Ulysses was diagnosed with the Syndrome, I found out who my real friends were, and I found they weren't many. It was a huge awakening. But I have to say, I'm not sorry they're gone."

Angela smiled. "No. I expect I won't be either."

Julia found the datapad she'd been looking for and blew dust off of it, sitting down in the other chair.

"Tell me, what do you do for a living, Angela?" Devon asked.

"Nothing. Donald was a structural engineer, and we were married for quite a while. When he died, he left me everything."

"Well, do you have any hobbies? Interests?"

"Not really," she said, slightly embarrassed. "I now know that my life has been very empty and meaningless of late. I always loved getting together with friends to go to the art gallery, or fashion shows, or to the hollies, or shop. I love to shop." She smiled weakly. "But that's all we did. Every day. We'd gossip and have fun, like a bunch of schoolchildren. But I've never really had any hobbies, no."

"Has Dr. Vasquez explained to you about the Eden Project, and the colony we're going to start in the G8 system?"

"Yes, he has," Angela replied. "It sounds so...drastic. Are you sure you need to go?"

"We're 90 per cent sure," Devon said. "We have every reason to believe that once the children come into contact with a natural environment instead of an artificial one, the Syndrome will vanish. What I'd like to know is, could you donate your time and effort here at the hospital on a regular basis? We really need all the help we can get."

"Sure, sure," Angela said. "Although I don't know what I could do."

"Anything will help, whether it's reading to the children, helping us build the colony ship, or trying to drum up public support and make people listen. Every warm body who helps us out is invaluable."

Angela sighed, almost relieved. "I will do anything you ask me to do."

"Great, great," Devon said.

"Angela, do you have any other children?" Julia asked. "Even step-children?" Devon noticed that she'd turned the recorder on, and realized the reason they were in Julia's office in the first place was to collect the medical and family history for Alex.

"No," she shook her head. "I've only had the one marriage, and Alex was the only child for both of us. We – we were afraid to have another."

Devon quickly glanced at Julia and realized she needed to let this interview be private. "Well – I'll let you visit with Doc- um, Julia – for a while." Damn! She couldn't remember the new intern's last name. "I've, uh, got a few things to attend to. Can you come meet me in the cafeteria for lunch? Say at 12:00?"

"Sure. Sure, I'll be there."

"All right. See you there. Bye," she said to Julia, and left them to their interview.

 

Later that afternoon, Sarah thoughtfully made her way back to the ward.

Devon had used their private meeting at lunch to ask for money. It wasn't that she really needed it – the Adair family was one of the wealthiest in human history. Devon Adair could have funded every penny of Eden Project from beginning to end, if she had to. But building a colony ship and an advance ship for over a thousand people, plus paying the complete medical costs of any child in the ward whose family couldn't afford it or couldn't be found (which was almost all of them), meant that it was going to be a close thing. And it was her philosophy that others who would be going on the trip should try to pay for some of it, too, if they could possibly spare any. It wasn't a demand, just a request.

The whole assignment was ridiculously easy. Injecting the hormones and neurochemicals into herself to induce depression, sothat she could cry at the drop of a hat, was an old trick, as was the fake DNA sample. If it weren't for the fact that she was there to rate Heller, as well, she'd have been disgusted at having her talent so wasted with this entire trivial assignment.

She had briefly toyed with the idea of dropping a bomb on Devon by saying that she didn't believe in Eden Project, and probably wouldn't let Alex go. But Blalock's orders had specifically been, "Earn her trust." So for now, she pretended to enthusiastically support everything about Eden Project.

And to earn that trust, she'd made a pretty hefty money transfer, right there in the cafeteria. It was ironic that the Council was now actually funding Eden Project, but certain sacrifices were necessary, as everyone in her trade knew quite well.

Then Devon, quite to her surprise, had started giving her advice on how to be a mother! She'd been very casual and subtle about it, but she'd stressed to her that she needed to tell Alex she loved him, and she needed to tell it to him every day. She said it was so important for people to hear it, whether one assumed they knew it or not, and Alex hadn't heard it from her in a long time. She had nodded in agreement, saying again how much time she wanted to spend with him, but wondered really what Devon had been talking about. She'd spent time with Alex that morning already, and would spend more time with him before the day was out. What more could the woman want?

She'd visited some more with Alex, playing with him, doting on him, and had met a few of the parents of some of the other children. Word got around fast, and some of them had treated her pretty coldly, which was to be expected.

Spending time with the kid was the part of her assignment she hated most, especially since he seemed so withdrawn and unresponsive. Dr. Vasquez had pulled her away for a bit – "to let him rest," he'd said – and given her a tour of his lab.

And it was there in Dr. Vasquez's lab that the first bomb was dropped – on her. Vasquez had explained to her the history of the Syndrome, and their efforts to understand it. He'd shown her the results of his studies, and thousands upon thousands of hours of research. She observed DNA, and scanned through reports of autopsies, and blood samples, and white cell counts – and was shocked.

He was right. They were right. Eden Project was right. The evidence Dr. Vasquez had in his lab was damned hard to ignore. She memorized it all, knowing Blalock would need to take it into consideration.

Now, walking back to the ward, she thought and thought about all she'd just seen in the lab. It didn't change anything, of course. Not for her personally. She wondered if she should tell Blalock anything, yet, or sit back and let Julia do her stuff. After all, how else was she going to rate her?

She pushed her way through the double doors and found Alex. A second later she smiled at him, and noticed how he seemed to freeze up, and shrink back underneath his covers some. A couple of the other children were looking at her. Their faces were blank.

She sat down next to Alex. "Hi!" she said. "How's my little boy?"

He gave the tiniest shrug. He did not look at her.

She swallowed hard. She hadn't imagined when she started her job that morning that not only would she have to earn the trust of Devon and Dr. Vasquez, but an eight-year-old boy, too. And she became acutely aware that no on-the-spot money transfer would help her here.

She'd never exactly been trained for this.

But then again, she thought, no one ever really was.

Not knowing what else to do, she decided to try the simple approach.

"Alex," she said softly, and got down on her knees, resting her chin on her hands, palms down on the bedside. "What will it take for you to trust me, hmm? I want to earn your trust. I want it more than anything else in the whole world."

Alex looked her in the eyes for the very first time. His eyes seemed so deep, so calm.

So unshakable.

"Why did you leave me?" he asked.

Sarah wet her lips nervously. This was not the happy-that-you're-finally-here welcome she'd expected.

"Well," she said, "I, um, I don't know. I was stupid, I guess. Stupid and scared."

Was she crying?

The depressants she'd taken earlier were short-lived so they wouldn't impede her ability to function – in fact, she'd already felt them wear off earlier. So why was she crying?

"I was ashamed. Ashamed of you, because you were sick, and I couldn't bear that. I thought you would be a burden to me. I thought you would, um," she licked her lips again, "I just didn't think that I could take care of you, and," she swallowed hard, and wiped her tears away. "And it was wrong, and I'm – I'm sorry," she said. "So sorry. It was my fault, and I realize I should never have been ashamed of you. I-In fact...I'm quite proud of you. So proud of you. And I'm ashamed of myself."

Alex just stared at her, his face unreadable. It was maddening. Sarah wished he would do something, say something!

"Do you love me?" he finally asked.

"Yes," she whispered. "Yes, absolutely."

Alex's eyes were wet, and he blinked. "I don't believe you," he said.

Sarah was stunned. "Why not?"

"I don't know," he said, and wiped away a tear. "It's like a dream." He cried softly, openly. "I used to wonder why some of the other kids had moms and dads to come see them and play with them, but not me. I thought that's how things were. I thought that sometimes people don't have parents, that only some kids do.

"But then they told me one day that everyone had a mom and dad, that it had to be that way. I said, 'No, I don't,' and Dr. Vasquez told me that my mom and dad had left me. He said they'd left me and would never come back, but that he was my father, and he would take care of me. And it hurt so much."

His face twisted in pain, and he sobbed as he lay with his head on the pillow, his left arm covering his face and his tears, covering his shame. "They left me," he said again, and buried his face in his pillow and bawled.

Sarah wasn't even aware of the other children in the ward witnessing this. Her entire attention was on Alex, and nothing could have taken it away. Nothing.

"I always dreamed," he said, his voice muffled by the pillow, "I always dreamed they'd come back. I always dreamed they'd come back for me and pick me up, and tell me it was all a mistake and that they really loved me."

Sarah just sat there. She truly did not know what to do. She wanted to reach out a hand and touch him, and say, "Honey, I'm finally here," but her arm wouldn't move. Her tongue wouldn't move. And she couldn't have made them move for either duty or money. She wasn't the boy's real mother. She was a sham. And when she was finished with this assignment, she would disappear out of his life forever to go back to her own, until the next assignment came along.

Her mouth moved, trembling. "Sweetheart," she breathed. "I – I don't know what to say. I don't know...what I can do, to make it all right." She felt so desperate, so mixed-up inside, so lost. Suddenly, everything seemed so out of perspective and distorted.

He cried on, all his grief and shame washing out of him onto the pillow, clutched tightly in his tiny arms. After several minutes, during which Sarah could only stare in helpless horror, he looked up.

"I wish you'd never come back," he said.

She jolted back as if she'd been slapped, biting back more tears of her own. She fumbled for her purse, gathered it into her arms, and ran from the ward.

The other Syndrome children silently watched her leave, and were left with the task of consoling their friend.

 

All day long, Sarah had been intending to report back to Blalock that night. She didn't have to, but she'd been anticipating it, fantasizing about telling him with cool competence how far she'd gotten in just the first day.

But when she let herself into her flat that evening, she wanted to do no such thing. She was shaken and hurt, and for the life of her, she couldn't understand why.

She poured herself a drink. She took comfort in the solitude of her apartment, how fancy and upscale it was. How neat it was. How beautiful it was. Here, she could forget about hospitals, full of sick people and smells of medicine.

Or at least, she tried to comfort herself. She tried to relax after a hard day's work, just like it was any other. Just so long as she could ignore the feelings and confusion the boy had stirred up. Just so long as she could leave them behind at the hospital, where they belonged.

She plopped herself on the couch, turned off her communicator, and engaged the holovid.

A ring about five feet across descended out of the ceiling directly above her. Images streamed down from the ring all around her, like a smooth waterfall, and she was carried away into another world, surrounded on all sides by the moving holograms, the laugh-bang-shout visual extravaganza of glitter and effects.

She didn't pay attention to any of it. She just curled up on the couch, and watched without watching whatever the stations wanted to show her.

She stayed there the whole night.

 

The next morning, she steeled herself as she returned to the hospital. But what she was steeling herself for, she didn't know.

Even as she walked through the front door, she really didn't know what she was going to do. In order to carry out her assignment, all she needed to do today was make a few cursory attempts to make peace with Alex while simultaneously probing Devon for information on anything she might have up her sleeve.

Yes, she thought. That's all I need to do.

She bought a little board game in the gift shop, something the two of them could play. Her hands trembled as she ran her card through the scanner to pay for it. Then she headed for the ward.

She paused before the double doors, took a deep breath, and entered.

Alex's bed was empty.

She stared at it for a second, uncomprehending. She nervously eyed the other children. She looked down at the one nearest her. It was a little girl.

"Where's – um – where's Alex?" she asked her.

"He's sick," she whispered. She was obviously too weak even to sit up, much less talk very much.

Sarah quickly licked her lips, her heart racing. "Yes, I know he's sick. But, where exactly is he?"

"He's sicker," she breathed. "Dr. Vasquez took him away." She closed her eyes and breathed shallowly.

"He started coughing real bad about 5:00 this morning," the boy next to her said. Sarah recognized him as Ulysses Adair. "They took him away to be operated on. He probably won't make it."

He said it so matter-of-factly.

Sarah stared at him for a moment in horror, then turned and raced down the hall. A second later she slammed into a full stop at the nurses' station.

"Where are the operating rooms? Where's Dr. Vasquez?"

Two nurses were sitting there. One blinked at her. "Dr. Vasquez is in surgery."

"Yes I know he's in surgery! Where the hell is that? And why didn't anyone call me?"

"Ma'am, we realize you're upset-"

"Too right, I'm upset! My son is being operated on, and I want to see him!"

One of the nurses activated a gear channel. The other said, "I take it you are the mother of Alex Williams?"

"Yes," she breathed.

She keyed something on her computer. "Alex is still in surgery with Dr. Vasquez. He's still in critical condition, life signs fluctuating. We've made several attempts throughout the morning to call you, Ms. Williams, but no one answered your holophone. We couldn't even leave a message.

Sarah's mouth just twitched with emotion. Of course – she'd turned the holophone off the night before.

The other nurse finished speaking to someone, and an orderly appeared from down the hall. "Ma'am, if you want, I can take you there," he said.

She nodded quickly, and allowed herself to be led down the hall – it actually wasn't very far. Her professional training told her that the orderly's presence was more to keep her subdued if she went into more hysterics than to actually lead her somewhere. But she didn't care.

He showed her into a waiting room, where she learned that she could do absolutely nothing but sit there and wait.

So she sat. And waited. And prayed. She'd never been a religious person in her entire life – not even for a second – yet she rocked back and forth, clutching the game to her chest, whispering, "Please, God, don't let him die, please, please," over and over. After a while, Devon found her there, and sat with her.

Two excruciating hours later, Dr. Vasquez walked in, his mask dangling from his hand. He wearily plopped into another chair and rubbed his unshaven face. Neither Devon nor Sarah could bring themselves to ask.

"I've managed to stabilize his condition," Dr. Vasquez breathed. "But I don't know for how long." He looked at Devon. "Devon – we've got to get these kids to G889. We can't have any more delays."

Devon sighed. "Blalock won't give us clearance. He says it's not his decision, and that it's for safety's sake, but I-" she just shrugged, frustrated. "I don't know what else I can do. Any outburst on my part will simply be used as an excuse to keep us here, because I'm not behaving."

"When is the departure date currently set?" Sarah asked.

"Six weeks from yesterday."

She looked at Dr. Vasquez. "Will my son last that long?"

He started to say something, then just shook his head.

Sarah nodded, and with both a horror and an eerie calm, she knew her destiny was now carved in stone.

"Can I see him?"

"Only for a little while. Right now he's drifting in and out of conciousness."

They let her into the room he was lying in, and left her alone. Trembling, she approached him.

He was lying so still, his eyes closed. A breath mask was around his mouth and nose, giving him the purest oxygen possible. Several tubes led into his arm. She knew that underneath his shirt, a scar would just be healing from where Dr. Vasquez had opened his chest to remove the fluid filling up his lungs.

She breathed. "Alex? Alex, I wanted to talk to you. I want to talk to you so badly." Her lip trembled. She tentatively reached out a hand, touching him gently. "You were right, not to trust me. I'm not your mother. I never was. And what I realized in the waiting room out there, waiting for you to live, was that even if I was the woman who gave birth to you, I still wouldn't be your mother."

Tears ran down both her cheeks.

"She left you. And you know what? I would have left you, too." She paused to take a deep breath. "I'm not any better than she is. So you see – it makes sense in a weird kind of way. She left, and I arrived. If I come to you, and tell you I'm your mother, and tell you I'm sorry, and tell you I love you, and pick you up when you fall, and hold you when you cry – would you turn me away? Would you deny yourself that?

"Alex, I don't know where the woman who gave birth to you is. But if you were to ask where your mother was, I would give anything to be able to say that she's right here beside you." She leaned over him, close. "Oh, God, please give me a chance," she whispered. "Please. I love you so much."

She kissed him on his forehead, and stood there, her head touching his, eyes closed, silently wishing to anyone who might hear for a chance to set things right.

"I love you so much," she whispered again as the door opened. "And I would die for you."

Dr. Vasquez appeared at her side. "Come on," he said, taking her arm. "We need to leave him be."

She nodded, and gently laid the game she had bought earlier on the table beside him. Then she shuffled out of the room, realizing she might very well end up making her last statement come true.

Out in the hall, she said, "Dr. Vasquez, what if we put Alex in a cold sleep chamber now? Why do we have to wait for boarding? We're talking 22 years – an extra six weeks won't mean anything, will it?"

"Believe me – we've already thought of that. But the way ships are constructed, cold sleep chambers are one of the last items to be installed – something to do with the design, they tell me. It has to be that way. It's just a race against the clock."

"Yes, I understand," she said.

"Ms. Williams?" a nurse called to her from the end of the hallway. It was the same nurse she'd yelled at earlier. "There's a message for you."

She numbly walked down the hall and took it, wondering what they wanted. Only one entity knew where she was. Her heart beat faster. Could they somehow already know of her affection for Alex, of all the confusion going on inside her? No, they couldn't possibly know.

She took the message. It read, "Frank's shuttle has been delayed two hours, so don't uncork that champagne bottle yet!" There was no signature.

It was a code phrase from Blalock. It meant, "Pull out and disappear. Your assignment has been canceled." Sarah silently crumpled the message and put it in her purse.

She left the hospital without another word, and without looking back.

 

"Mr. Blalock will see you now."

Sarah stood up and let the retinal imager scan her eye. The door clicked softly, and she entered.

"Why, Sarah," Blalock said. "What brings you here? I haven't ordered a debriefing – there's no need."

She sat down. "I want to know why my assignment was terminated a mere 24 hours after its inception."

Blalock snorted, jerking his head back in surprise. "Well – I wasn't under the impression that I owed you an explanation," he said. "The last I knew, it was not your place to reason why."

"No, it's not my place to reason why," she said. "But I'd still like to know."

Blalock leaned back in his chair. "Go home, Sarah. We'll call you if we need you."

Sarah started to protest, and as she did, she squeezed her purse ever so slightly in just the right place, activating a communications relay inside it. It bounced through the internet satellite and caused a gear channel to open up right to Blalock's office.

Almost immediately, his intercom buzzed.

"James Schneider wishes to speak with you," his secretary said.

"I don't know any James Schneider," Blalock said.

"He must know you. He's contacting you direct."

Blalock glanced at Sarah for a moment, who was dutifully examining a painting on the wall.

"Send it through," he ordered, putting on his headset for privacy.

Sarah couldn't hear what the mysterious Mr. Schneider said, but she didn't need to – it was a responsive cybernetic program, the most sophisiticated one on the market. And it would say what she'd programmed it to say.

"Mr. Blalock?" a thick German accent asked. "Do you remember me?"

"No, and I don't like jokes. Who is this?"

"Oh, I assure you, sir, this is no joke. We have met before. I've sat in your office before. How are the two potted ferns doing that you brought up from Earth? Have you managed to kill them off yet?"

Blalock whipped around to look at the bookshelf behind his desk. His two ferns were there, just as the caller had described.

"How did you know that? Who are you?"

"I'm someone in trouble; someone who needs your help. You will have difficulty tracing this call, but so will the people who are almost certainly listening in. I have a desperate message for you. Right now, I'm in a shuttle. If you look out your bay window, off to the far right, you will see the message."

Blalock stood up and went to the window. "Look, whoever you are, if this is an assassination attempt, it's a pretty poor one. The only things that can come through this window are so powerful that it wouldn't matter where I was standing anyway, so what exactly is your little game?"

"This is no assassination attempt. This is the only way I know of getting a message to you. Are you familiar with the old Morse Code?"

As Blalock was facing out the window, Sarah quietly slipped out of her chair. On her index finger was a synthskin overlay of Blalock's print – something she'd lifted long ago, in preparation for any eventuality. The drawers of his desk could only be opened by his fingerprint, with the warmth of body heat behind it.

She placed her finger on the pad of the lower right drawer, then quickly took out the file on Eden Project. It took two seconds to thumb through everything which hadn't been there before and place it in her photographic memory. She replaced the file, closed the drawer, and darted back to her chair lightning-quick. She reached inside her purse and terminated the relay.

"Yes, I'm familiar with Morse Code. Why?" Blalock asked.

"Because in just a few seconds, a high-intensity blue light will begin flashing. You will only have one chance to read it- No! No, they found me! How-"

Then the message broke off in deadly static.

"Schneider? Schneider!" Blalock snapped. "Aaahhh," he snarled, tearing off the headset, looking out into space. "Now what the hell was that all about?"

He thoughtfully returned to his desk. Sarah was where he'd left her.

"Finished?" she asked.

He looked up at her, clearly preoccupied. "Was there something more you wanted, Ms. Wallen?"

She started to speak, then appeared to hesitate and change her mind. She needed to continue the part of acting like a good little agent.

"No, sir. No, I just wanted to apologize for any temerity I showed a few minutes ago. I was just upset at being yanked off a mission, that's all."

"Apology accepted. Now get out."

"Yes, sir," she said, and slinked out of his office.

 

"I don't believe it!" Vasquez looked at the machinery which sat in his lab. "Where did you find it?"

"An old friend of my husband's," Sarah said. "I figured he would have something like this lying around."

Devon slowly walked around the cold sleep chamber that Sarah had somehow – somehow – managed to scrounge up. "Does it work?" she asked.

"All systems on this baby are operational!" O'Neill said. "I got my best man – guy named Danziger – to check it out this morning. We can put Alex in it right away, and keep him alive until we reach New Pacifica."

She just shook her head, looking at Sarah in wonder. "You are something else, you know that?"

Sarah just smiled. "Some would say so."

 

Alex lay on the white slab, ready to be cyrogenically frozen. He was trembling, but trying not to show how scared he was. Devon, Dr. Vasquez, Julia, and Sarah were there. Sarah held his hand.

"That's right," Vasquez told him. "This lady here just saved your life. She loves you very much, you know. You're lucky you found her."

"We both are," Sarah said, and looked at Alex. "In a way, you've saved my life, too."

"After I was coughing, and everything, and I could tell I'd been operated on, I thought I was dying. I had that dream again. I dreamed you came back and told me you loved me."

"That wasn't a dream, sweetie," Sarah whispered. "That was real." She kissed him. "We're going to put you to sleep now, okay?"

"When I wake up on the other planet, will you be there?"

"Absolutely," she said. "I'll be the first person you see when you wake up."

Dr. Vasquez made the injection. Alex's eyes closed, and the slab pulled into the chamber. The lid swung down.

Sarah rested her hand on the top of it, knowing she was only half finished with saving all their lives. And when she was finally done with that, then...then, it was only the beginning.

Devon laid a hand on her shoulder. "When you see him again, we'll be in a whole new world."

Sarah smiled. "That almost sounds like what a preacher would say at a funeral."

They all laughed.

"Are you ever afraid, Devon?" she asked. "Setting out for a new world means losing an old one. Are you afraid to lose the world you know?"

Devon wasn't sure if she really understood the question. She sensed Angela was asking for some reason she couldn't fathom.

"Yes. Yes, I get scared all the time. But I remember something George Bernard Shaw once said – 'Whenever you've found something, it always feels at first as if you've lost something.'"

Sarah thought about this.

"We are all going to leave behind the world we know and have become familiar with. We're going to lose this one, personally. But I'm not all that sure it's worth hanging on to."

She squeezed her shoulder. Sarah stood up, and they all left, O'Neill guiding the cold sleep chamber out the door.

 

In the darkness of cyberspace, two people appeared facing each other.

"Well?" Blalock asked. "Did she ever realize that you were really evaluating her, instead of the other way around?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Julia said. "You were correct to suspect her. Sarah Wallen did indeed show a weakness, and she became emotionally attached to the boy. In my opinion, she's no good to the Council as an agent. I'd say just let her go. She's not worth being sent anywhere. Just leave her be. She can't harm you."

"Is that your official review of agent Sarah Wallen's performance?"

"Yes, it is. It was pretty dismal. However, if it's any consolation, I think she'll make a good mother." She smiled.

"Was that meant to be funny, citizen?" Blalock asked.

"No, sir," Julia answered.

Blalock sighed. "All right, she's not a problem. We won't take any action against her, we'll just let her go her way. We've still got you attached to the project, and at least I can trust that you will never become too emotionally attached to the people you're assigned to cover. Right?"

"You can count on that, sir."

Blalock nodded. "Keep me informed." And with that, he disappeared.

 

Six weeks later, after hours of carefully poking around the internet satellite, Angela Williams finally found what she was looking for.

The file on Eden Project had confirmed her fears – she had been pulled from her assignment because the Council had decided to eliminate Eden Project. They were going to do it with a bomb upon departure.

Evidently, they weren't even going to tell Julia.

Sarah had kept up her role as a Council agent, but she had acted sick and depressed, so they wouldn't choose her for any more assignments, which, thankfully, they hadn't. This left her free to start her new life as Angela Williams.

Now, eight hours before departure, she had found the fake newscast she knew would be made beforehand.

She locked it in and, with a deep breath, sent it up to the bridge of the advance ship, anonymously. There it would be received by Commander O'Neill. It would cause quite a commotion when they saw that, but if anyone knew what to do, he would.

She sighed with genuine relief for the first time in six weeks. Then she closed up her terminal, saying goodbye to the lost world behind her, and made her way forward to prep for cold sleep.

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