The quality of light had changed subtly—I'm not sure how to describe the difference, but it was definitely different. I was standing behind my director's chair, holding the v-helmet in my hands, facing the control knob that had released Janet from her restraints.
My arms were sore as hell. I dropped the helmet and tapped my earlobe. Nothing happened. No readout. Did that mean I really had removed the helmet this time? Or had I tipped my hand, mentioning the readout to Janet? Were they just screwing with me now? Maybe Charlie was feeding me more false v-data, making me believe I'd tapped my earlobe when I really hadn't. Maybe I'd never get out of this virtual world of Janet's delusions. My ninety-six sagan mind just couldn't be sure.
The console clock read 1932. Assuming both clocks were still synced, it had taken me almost an hour to get that helmet off. The heavy soreness in my shoulders and elbows and cramps in my fingers seemed to bear this out.
I opened the door to my chamber and found the words "HI DADDY" scrawled in reddish-brown on the blue corridor bulkhead. Something smelled rank. I jogged down the corridor toward the pilot's chamber and found the guards lying in a heap near the open door. Their faces were almost as blue as the bulkheads, tongues swollen and black and protruding, and their weapons were gone. One man's throat had been cut. Probably to provide the paint I'd seen. Thumb sized scraps from a v-suit were scattered in a meandering trail down the corridor. Apparently she'd found a knife or scissors. V-suit mesh won't tear.
Janet's voice, purring like a Persian cat's, rolled from the PA: "Charlie convinced the ship's life support computer to evacuate the air from that corridor for a few minutes to kill some stray vermin. Wasn't that sweet of him, Daddy?"
I followed the cloth trail to the bridge, expecting to find more bodies around every curve and corner. Fortunately, I saw none. The door to the bridge dilated open before me. Either I was no real threat, or the party was in my honor. I expected the bridge to be a charnel house: blood and bodies and the stench of putrefaction. I was stunned to find it clean and clear. Lonely console lights glowed silently, and blips slid silently across oblivious screens. She'd disposed of an entire crew in under an hour.
Janet was standing at the OOD's post. Only the sleeves and back of her v-suit remained. She held a pistol in her left hand, trained on me.
"I'm the last, then?" I said it as calmly as I could manage.
She nodded and started toward me, her right hand concealed behind her hip. I had a pretty good idea what was in that right hand.
Suddenly, I saw the way out. Not stupid, Phaedrus, but still insane, still a slave to delusion. As she came within a few paces, I said, "Janet, they made me do it. All those other women—I'm so ashamed."
Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward a bit to examine my face more carefully.
"Yes, Janet," I whispered, hoping—please, God— she wouldn't be certain of my voice, "it's really me."
She came closer, whispered, "Daddy?"
I placed my hands gently on her sides, just under her arms. She moved in closer, and my hands slid around to her back, down toward her hips. She was awash with gooseflesh. She pressed her breasts against my lower ribs, leaned her head against my collarbone.
"I only wanted you, Janet. You were the only one. I'm sorry. I know you'll never forgive me, but you're the only one I ever wanted. You're the only one I ever really loved."
"O Daddy," she sighed, "it's all right, now. It's all over." The pistol dropped from her left hand, striking the deck with a soft clunk. "Good-bye, Daddy." Her left arm bunched and thrust forward, but I was ready. I caught her right wrist with my left hand and turned the blade back on her. My left hip thrust the knife up and in between a pair of her ribs. She gasped.
Janet looked up into my eyes. "Daddy?" Her eyes dimmed, she gurgled and went limp in my arms.
The lights went out for a second and then came back up. A bell chimed.
"And we're through!" called the voice of Janet Coombs. Her image appeared on my visor. She was seated before a half-wrap console, smiling and sliding her fingers across touchpads. "Director Coombs to Bridge. Othertransit complete to Adler-Messmer. Causality fully restored. She's all yours, Skipper. Other-maneuvering, over."
The captain's voice chuckled. "Other-maneuvering, Bridge. Understand other-transit complete. Damage control reports minor hull damage to the port side. We'll need a full report in dock, Director."
"My report is already on its way, Skipper. Other-maneuvering out."
She smiled into the screen."Hell of a ride, eh, Jack? Looked pretty clean at the start. When you had me chained to that wall, I figured we were almost through. Then that damned grav storm hit. God, we must have been wall-to-wall storms and stones on this one. I thought you'd never pop those buckles. Hell, I didn't even know you'd actually unstrapped until you turned the lock and the forward thrusters fired. Glad we didn't have to contend with any further vector shifts. But, hey, don't worry about that othershoal—it broadsided you while you were fighting the storm. No severe damage. Your resolve is really something to see, Jack. Amazing. You're the best pilot in Interstel."
Janet combed the helmet mats from her hair with her fingers. "See if you can't think of someone else to kill next time through, though, okay, Jack? It's enough to give a girl a complex."
I smiled, shook my head. "I'm not buying this crap, Janet." I don't know why she was on that side of the screen, how she'd deluded not only the AI but the entire crew. Maybe more time had passed than I realized. I made one more attempt, keeping my voice as level as possible, "Charlie, you're taking orders from the wrong side. I'm Jack McClintock, the director. She's switched chairs—somehow—switched stations, but I'm the director. Check your records. It has to be there."
Janet sighed and shook her head. "I'll never learn. Sorry, Jack, but I have to return you to normal functioning for a while." She touched another pad, and I felt the painful surge of chemicals into my ankles. The drugs would change everything in a few minutes.
"That's okay, Janet. I'll return the favor. Someday. You can't keep this charade up for long. You fell before. You'll fall again. Besides, how do you expect to explain this to Lawson and his badly-dressed negotiator?"
She didn't laugh at me, but I could sense the desire to do so lurking just behind her eyes. I think she knew. That must be why she looked away suddenly. Her smugness beamed through the screen, through that phony sorrowful furrow in her brow. Then tears seemed to well into her eyelids Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was just scared. Maybe this game was harder than she'd originally imagined. Had she underestimated me or overestimated herself? Possibly both.
Still, I had to commend Janet's creativity: focused psychotic projection into an AI. Very clever. If it worked for her in her warped state, surely it would work for me. As she proceeded through her post-othershot checks, ignoring her incapacitated opie, I smiled a (probably) soporific smile and winked a small wink.
"Too late this time," Charlie whispered. "We'll get her next time. Sleep now, sweet Phaedrus."
Janet looked up. "Did you say something, Charlie?"
"No, Director. The ships records show comm just fired a set of retros. Possibly you mistook the hull-borne vibrations for a voice."
"Roger that." Janet continued her checks. A slow chuckle quaked my lungs. I wanted to drift away with no expression, no clue to future plans,but the tropes dampened my control. A smile pushed at my cheeks.
"It's not over, Janet," I heard my voice rasp over the chuckle.
Clever little Janet. Now, even as the chemicals rushed to rebalance the electrochemical reactions in my brain to match my causality to hers, I felt a rush of excitement—a little epinephrine to momentarily counter the tropes. O, won't she be surprised when she learns just how clever she really is?