Hitchcock was awake. Starlight filtered through the forest canopy and dappled the walls of the cabin he shared with Lester. A trio of Clytemnestra’s beetle bots was resting in Lester's sleep-crumpled dreads, occasionally flicking their wings in response to dreams. Sometimes he forgot that he was in microgravity on a self-aware ship orbiting far from Earth. This quiet morning, snuggled in with his sleeping lover and their intelligent ship, he knew that he was home.

When Hitchcock's watch read 0500, he slowly slid his arm from behind Lester's head and slipped out of the sleeping bag that was their floating bed. As he pushed out of the cabin door he snagged his neatly packed gym bag, put together the night before in hopes of a quiet morning.

From the cabin's porch, Hitchcock listened and looked out over the forest while he performed the stretching routine that he had learned from his ROTC squad leader and then modified for microgravity. He warmed up his muscles and stretched his tendons to the sounds of insects enjoying easy flights, oblivious to their distance from Earth's biome. He looked over the curving canopies that grew wild without gravity’s pull.

Sensing nothing out of the ordinary, Hitchcock pushed to the outer wall of the forest module. He clipped himself into a waist belt with cables that connected to two loops poking out of a track on the floor. Once the belt was secure, the loops moved away from each other until the tension in the cables pulled Hitchcock's feet securely to the floor. He shifted forward and back to test that the tension was steady, then began his morning run around the forest.

A quarter of the way around the dome, he ran past the clearing where Clytemnestra's beetles covered the trunk of a dogwood tree. He noted that the buds that appeared a few days ago were almost ready to bloom. The beetles noticed his passing and buzzed their wings to play a short burst of Reveille. He smiled and waved.

As he approached the halfway mark most distant from his and Lester's cabin, he heard voices coming from above the trees where Elizabeth Stinton spent most of her time on the ship. She was exchanging heated words with the chief operating office of the company she operated back on Earth, no doubt because of the legal takeover attempt of her company by Monk Industries. Not wanting to intrude, he picked up his pace and focused on his breathing until he was out of earshot.

At three-quarters around the forest he could look through a break in the canopy and out through the transparent dome to see the object whose mystery had brought them here. Little more than a black spot against the stars, its matte surface appeared unchanged since 78 hours ago when their alien guide, Sphere, had disappeared inside. Despite Sphere's assurances beforehand, Hitchcock was uneasy that they had seen no movement.

After 10 kilometers and an unsatisfying sponge bath, Hitchcock put on the coveralls that had replaced the Air Force uniform he loved but could no longer wear. He missed being a Lieutenant Colonel, but the messages he received from the Air Force made it clear that stealing the ship had ended his career. Still, the ship's coveralls were designed for function and comfort in space and he kept them neatly pressed with the hot iron that Clytemnestra fabricated for him.

“Walking” a security round in an orbiting space ship was a new experience for Hitchcock. Instead of a brisk, rhythmic inspection punctuated by his footfalls, he simply pushed off at the end of a corridor and inspected each doorway as he floated past. In many ways it was easier than the rounds he’d walked during his tours of duty in the Middle East, but it took more discipline to keep his mind and senses alert instead of enjoying the long flights.

He noticed that more walls had moved overnight. The impersonal esthetic of Monk Industries was gradually being replaced by the exuberant decorations of Clytemnestra, a newly born intelligence who took pleasure in world history and the capabilities of her continuously self-improving fabricators. This morning Hitchcock was impressed by a corridor that began with the rough materials of pre-historic East Africa, then smoothly transitioned through different eras and locations to end with modern Italian mosaics and textiles.

When he finished his rounds, he found that the ship's mess hall now looked like a Moroccan lounge from 1967, a year he gathered from the dates of the framed magazine covers that hung above the massive espresso machine. When he found a natty fez with his name stitched into the lining, his gruff laughter filled the surrounding corridors.

Just ahead in orbit, the dark object slipped silently through the void while it absorbed signals across wide swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unlike the vibrant and verdant forest, the object's surface was matte and gave no hint as to its composition. Clytemnestra practiced patience (a new skill for her new consciousness) while she stitched together images from her exterior cameras and watched for movement.

Around mid-day, the shape began to shift, triggering alerts for everyone on board. The object's solid ovoid core sprouted seven trunks that each sprouted seven more branches. This recursive, sevenfold branching repeated past Clytemnestra's ability to resolve details. By the time it finished, she measured the outer edge of the branches at almost twenty meters from the core.

Back in the forest, Lester pushed a circuitous path between three large rocks, the closest he could get to pacing in microgravity. He inspected the object's emerging pattern through his ship glass. Though the glass was shaped like normal eyeglasses, it held a complex display and sensors that Lester had modified to keep pace with his unique style of tutting. "It's a bush robot! Shoot, the Moravec apologists will be so smug."

Hitchcock looked up from the security-monitoring clouds that flickered through his customized glass. It was constructed of sturdier materials than Lester's and it was strapped to his large head like protective goggles. "I'm worried that we're so close to the object. We don't know whether it can move or what it will do when it comes in contact with Sphere. This is a slow ship." He turned towards the beetles that swarmed the dogwood tree, "No offense, Clytemnestra."

A few of the fist-sized robots took flight and the sound of their wings unified to produce the rich voice of the ship's consciousness. "None taken, Hitch. Let's all join Elizabeth above the trees. Something is emerging from the object."

Elizabeth curtly nodded to Hitchcock and Lester as they floated up to touch the transparent dome over the forest. She kept her distance as they watched several of the object's branches quickly move over a section of the ovoid center. Something white and spherical was being pushed out. "Here comes Sphere," she said.

But as more of the alien emerged, they could make out human facial features and multi-colored hair. As the branches' movements and the emergence gained speed, a neck and shoulders appeared, then a body and legs slipped free. Everyone under the dome watched in awe as Sphere moved each joint. After a moment of stretching, she turned her face towards the ship, waved, and then proceeded to fly playful spirals around the dome. Everyone inside gaped in amazement as the once spherical alien flexed her new limbs.

Elizabeth finally regained her composure enough to point towards the airlock. After a brief look of regret, Sphere straightened her flight path and disappeared from view.

Hitchcock and Lester raced ahead to the airlock. Clytemnestra had fashioned it after a Middle Eastern desert, with the inner door made to look like a large round stone that blocked a cave entrance.

Lester used his glass to look through cameras inside the airlock. He said, "She still has the same translucent white skin as before, but the moving shapes underneath are darker!" His face broadcast his impatience.

Hitchcock simply captured a few pictures for posterity.

Elizabeth and the beetles arrived just as the seal on the stone door popped. Hitchcock rolled it to the side with little effort and revealed a normal airlock instead of a cave.

Sphere entered the ship, floated over to Elizabeth, and gave her a long, warm hug. Elizabeth looked uncertain whether this new form was still the alien who arrived with the beam, but she relaxed when Sphere said, "That is the hug I would have given you when we first met, had I the arms to do so." The dark shapes under Sphere's skin came closer to the surface and settled around her hands and chest. Her hair flowed back and wove itself into a braid, shifting hue as it settled into place.

The beetles flew in close orbit around Sphere's new body, inspecting the smooth white skin of her shoulders, then traveling down to capture the elegant-but-stylized curves that evoked hints of all genders but settled on none.

Sphere waited until the inspection was complete, and then said, "My friends, I am pleased to say that I was able to initialize the object and I may now tell you its purpose. Let us not stay in this barren air lock, but retire to the forest so that we may be comfortable while I tell you a story."

Elizabeth, Hitchcock, and a fidgety Lester floated in a circle with Sphere at the center, occasionally nudging against branches to keep from drifting apart.

“Spacetime is vast,” began Sphere.

“Intelligence is miniscule, using such a small percentage of the available matter in the universe that no culture will ever create an artifact with the capacity to accurately store a number that tiny.

“Intelligence is new, having had effectively no time with which to effect change over the vast expanse and duration of spacetime.

“Intelligence is fleeting, holding most ideas for less than the lifetime of a biological being whose arrival and passing are almost the same moment relative to all of time.

“In a quiet green drop orbiting an unremarkable yellow star, we gather to change the course of your system, and perhaps the universe.

“As you may have guessed, I have succeeded in awakening the object. I am a fragment of the inventor of the beam that brought me to Earth; a small piece of a team whose goal is to save our stagnating networked culture by reaching out to cultures like yours."

Lester started to interrupt but Hitchcock silenced him with a firm hand-squeeze.

"The object outside the ship, the final result of the gravity lensing that caused the beam, the reason we are fugitives, is what we call a Link. When it is fully active, it will fractally tunnel deep into the quantum foam and tune itself to a sort of…the closest word in English is 'frequency.' At that point it will connect to the Links in other star systems and it will instantaneously pass information across vast distances. My journey is complete when your culture is connected to my culture."

Lester took a breath to speak, but Elizabeth beat him to it. "Where are these other Links?"

"They are spread through the volume of space that has been reachable by gravity waves since we began our project, a little more than 20,000 Earth years ago. When I last had contact, there were almost 600 active Links connecting us to somewhere around 54 billion sentient beings. Though that last number depends on how you count the group minds."

Lester shook off Hitchcock’s hand, glared at Elizabeth, and said, "How do I talk to aliens? Can Clytemnestra connect to the Link? What sort of routing protocols does it use? Is there spam? Can we call it the Interstellar Internet? The II? I like that it is an acronym and also the Roman two, like this is the turning point between our culture's part I and II."

Sphere nodded approvingly. "In order to ensure that the Links do not become the playthings of the powerful, they do not fully activate until every sentient being in the star system has been given the opportunity to connect. For your solar system, all intelligence resides on Earth. You have fabricators, so the process will not be as hard as it has been for star systems where intelligence has spread far beyond the planets of origin and matter printing is forbidden or undiscovered. I have schematics for a small device that will interface with your electronics and create an instantaneous channel to the Link and each other using a simplified version of the quantum foam tunneling of the larger network, or," she smiled, "the 'II'."

Elizabeth released her connection to the group and floated toward the dome as she quickly tutted commands to her glass. She muttered, "Ok, so I need to compile a reference design for an II access unit that can connect to Earth's networks, then coordinate with the various parties on Earth to market and distribute the devices, and figure out how to involve the open source community..."

Sphere pushed after Elizabeth and grasped her shoulders. The shapes underneath the skin of Sphere's face pulsed and moved in patterns that calmed Elizabeth once she looked beyond her glass. "There is another aspect to the Link, and to our project," she said.

"Traditionally, one of the people tested by the beam becomes an ambassador. They join with the Link and then beam to new star systems as I have traveled to yours. One of the functions of each beam is to find a person like myself who is willing to journey out and find new cultures. Elizabeth, the Link chose you."

Alone between the trees and stars, Elizabeth floated in the mists and flows of data in her glass. Her tired, tutting fingers, tickled by radar panels in the glass's frame, wound forward and backward through simulated time in her market models.

An incoming call rang, again. She ignored it, again. The press of her bladder, her oily hair, her grumbling stomach, she ignored them all. She also ignored the incoming tide of emotions about giving up her body, joining with the Link, and becoming some sort of interstellar ambassador.

After 21 hours of this, Hitchcock and Clytemnestra sent Lester up through the trees to bring her back. "Hey, Elizabeth," said Lester as he pushed through the uppermost leaves, "I'm finished with the initial scans of the Link and have some time to kill. Would you like another pair of eyes on the slate design or the rollout plan?"

Elizabeth continued to look at her models. "I have it, thanks."

"Hitchcock fabricated a toaster oven and found a stock of English muffins. How about you and I go get a cup of coffee and some food. A few minutes away from work will probably be good for you." He grinned. "Hey, you can help me put together a résumé. No university will touch me now that I'm a space pirate, but maybe El Printer will hire me."

Elizabeth cleared her glass displays with a quick slash of her hands and whipped around to glare at Lester. "It should be really obvious that I'm busy here, so why don't you go back to your boyfriend and pet computer and live it up with your happy threesome."

Elizabeth turned back towards the dome and with a quick tut brought up her models. She didn't see the hurt on Lester's face as he pulled away through the trees.

A tendril of radio reached over the great distance between the ship and Earth. It silently wound through the networks of Elizabeth's company and then used an onion router to reach El Printer. A text chat connected Elizabeth to the mysterious fabricator.

**** Connection established ****

El Printer >> Hola, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth >> Hello, I'm sorry to interrupt you like this and normally I would bring a design to your shop, but I'm out of town. Far, far out of town.

El Printer >> Understandable. We see you on the streams, making trouble for that space nerd. Its good laffs.

Elizabeth >> Ah, crap. I didn't realize that was public.

El Printer >> Do you have designz for us?

Elizabeth >> I will soon, and this one you'll like, but it's not a one-off. It's a communications device that will be open source and needs to be configured so that every fabricator shop on the planet can turn them out on whatever equipment they have at hand.

El Printer >> ... Ok... So, just post it on the net and call it good?

Elizabeth >> Trust me when I say that everyone will want this design when they learn what it does, but we need to make sure that everyone learns about it at roughly the same time.

El Printer >> What you need is the ear of the Fabricatoria. They have a line to the best DRM cracks and pretty much every fab shop is subscribed to their stream.

**** Protocol violation ** Man in the Middle Attack Detected ****

Elton Monk >> Hello, Elizabeth. Hello, El Printer, or should I call you Carlos?

El Printer >> Don't call me that! I'm El Printer and who the hell are you?

Elizabeth >> That's Elton Monk, the head of Monk Industries and he should really get out of this chat!

Elton Monk >> Hey, I'm not here to argue. I'm here to deal.

Elizabeth >> You don't understand how important it is that you let me work.

Elton Monk >> Spare me the drama.

El Printer >> I'm out of here.

**** El Printer has left the chat ****

Elton Monk >> Elizabeth, before you leave you should know what lies before you. Until today, I underestimated you and I won't make that mistake again. I'm willing to reward you for returning the ship that you stole from me. My PR team has figured out a way to spin this so that Monk Industries and your company will look like they were always partners in space travel. They can make the world believe that all of this scandal has been fabricated by reporters and disgruntled employees. Bring back my ship and, instead of buying and dismantling your company, I will turn your starving startup into a booming business that manufactures air sinters for all Monk Industries spacecraft.

Elizabeth >> This is bigger than just our companies now.

Elton Monk >> This offer is not only for you, but also for your crew. All will be forgiven if you return now. William Hitchcock will be reinstated into the Air Force. Lester Marcos can pick a tenure position from any of the Ivy League schools that Monk Industries funds. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your people.

Elizabeth >> I'm sorry, this is beyond us now.

Elton Monk >> So be it. Just remember that you had a choice.

**** Elton Monk has left the chat ****

Lester looked through the smoked viewport of the fabrication vats, watching as bubbles broke the surface of viscous source liquid and were immediately welded onto the printed form by the flicker of lasers. As the shape emerged from the liquid, lines of bubbled metal were lased and then cooled into precise lines and elegant swirls. "The conduction grid on the test run looks like it's printing as expected. The lithographic effects that Sphere predicted are giving us amazing resolution. I think that we can move on to the production hull."

Hitchcock secured the last shelf into its new position along the edges of the fabrication module, which looked suspiciously like Leonardo da Vinci's woodworking shop. Clytemnestra's beetles ferried in blocks of source metals, pushing them into shoots on the sides of the quietly humming fabricators.

Sphere floated near the ceiling as she tightened the final screw onto an overhead projector. "Clytemnestra, could you please render the skiff design onto the scaffolding? The registration needs to be tight enough for us to ensure sub-millimeter tolerances."

Hitchcock looked over the braces where the hull would be secured after it came out of the fabricators. "Are you sure that a ship this small will be safe? Most aircraft keep the propulsion system far away from the pilot, but in this little thing it'll be about six inches away from the back of the seat!"

Sphere moved closer to Hitchcock, pushing away from the ceiling with her new legs in a movement that seemed to give her pleasure. "Most of the force will be created by the hull itself, which is surrounding the entire skiff. The internal systems will simply hold the energy and maintain the environment. It has none of the dangers of explosive propellants or radiation that will harm your bodies."

Hitchcock cocked an eyebrow.

Sphere came to a rest next to him and looked at the scaffolding, watching as Clytemnestra’s projection refined and focused. "This first skiff will be a proof of concept. Once you and Lester have run it through its paces and are satisfied that it is a good design, we will print several more of them so that we can intercept incoming ships before they physically interfere with the Link. The entire II has the ability to protect itself, but human lives will be saved if the Link does not need to activate those systems."

Lester pulled the first piece of the hull from its fabricator and then gently nudged it into place in the scaffolding, lining it up with Clytemnestra's projection. "I've been thinking about security, too. We're sitting pretty blind out here and Clytemnestra has a metric boatload of capacity that we could put to good use. It seems like we could launch a wide area sensor net and connect it using the same channels as the II slates will use to communicate. With enough time and source material, we could cover a fair chunk of the solar system as well as keep a close eye on this orbit."

Sphere lifted her hands and smiled. "Usually, I need to nudge new Link cultures to think about these details, but you are a step ahead. I can't think of a better trio to secure and administer the area around the Link."

Elizabeth's shoulders ached as she framed herself in her slate's camera and touched up her hair. These days of solitude and code, with only brief breaks for naps and nutritional shakes, had come at a price. Lester never came back after their last tiff and Hitchcock stopped visiting after the third time that she refused to look at him as he delivered her meals.

Now it was just her and her mission.

**** Connection established ****

El Printer >> Hey, Elizabeth. Long time no scary corporate nerd interruption.

Elizabeth >> Yeah, he's something. I have a design for you to review but

El Printer >> Hold on, there's something that you need to know. As of this morning, we're not taking on new work. We have a single client.

Elizabeth >> What?

El Printer >> You won't like it. We work for Elton Monk now.

Elizabeth >> WHAT?

El Printer >> And we're not the only ones. The Fabricatoria stream is filled with rumors of fab shops being bought or fully booked. Sometimes it's Monk Industries and sometimes it's other companies that seem to be related to Elton.

Elizabeth >> Damn, damn, DAMN.

El Printer >> Elton gave me a message for you in case you reconnected. He says, "Your move."

**** Elizabeth has left the chat ****

The insects of the forest were silenced by the force of her curses.

The skiff's control surfaces felt smooth and cold to the touch, its single seat too firm against Elizabeth’s exhausted legs and back. The quiet of the shop was only disturbed by the hum of the fabricators as they created the last panels for the small ship's hull. She rested her head against the controls and closed her eyes.

After what seemed like just a moment, Elizabeth opened her eyes to see that a dozen of Clytemnestra's beetles were now perched on the inside of the cockpit. Through them, Clytemnestra said, "Elizabeth, I am happy to see you take a break."

"This isn't a break. I'm done. I tried to do what Sphere wanted but I failed. As soon as the skiff is ready, I'm going back to Earth to salvage what I can of my company."

Clytemnestra's beetles took flight and formed a tight orbit around Elizabeth. Their wings settled into a unified rhythm, singing, "But we need you."

Elizabeth looked down. "Nobody on this ship needs me. You and Lester can take the II slate design and figure out how to get it to Earth. Hitchcock can secure the Link. Sphere can find another ambassador. Maybe someone who can actually handle this kind of pressure."

The beetles moved aside as the overhead projector lit the space in front of Elizabeth. A video showed Lester in tears after Elizabeth snapped at him, then Hitchcock throwing a slate and cursing after Elizabeth refused to accept his call. Finally, it showed Sphere comforting them both, bringing them food and drinks and distracting them by doing tricks with the shapes underneath her skin.

Clytemnestra's beetles began to knock into Elizabeth as their wings thrummed in unison, "You think you're a failure because you can't solve these problems by yourself? You're a failure because you push us away. Even on Earth you lived like a monk. You gave up on dating and you over-scheduled at work so that you’d have an excuse to not talk to the people who love you! You've driven yourself into a zombie state because you won't listen to the very people who can help."

More beetles poured into the fabrication module and joined their sisters. Elizabeth batted frantically at them as they swarmed her. "Leave me alone!" She tried to get out of the skiff but they knocked her back into the seat.

"Alone, alone, alone," yelled Clytemnestra. "You want to be alone so badly, here you go!"

The beetles fetched the last of the hull components from the fabricators and attached them to the skiff. They closed the cockpit hatch while Elizabeth pounded on the windows with her fists. The door between the module and the main ship slid shut and the air was pumped from the room.

The lights on the freight airlock clicked from green to red. The outer door opened into vacuum.

Lester rested outside the cabin that he shared with Hitchcock and Clytemnestra. After a day of assembling the skiff and carrying the weight of Elizabeth's anger, it felt good to simply float among the trees and look at the stars. He daydreamed about what he would find through the Link and occasionally sipped from a bulb of peppermint tea that Hitchcock had left with a sweet note.

A bit of reflected light caught his attention, and he wondered whether a bit of the ship had broken away. He tutted open a channel. "Clytemnestra, did we lose anything off of the ship? I see something above the forest dome."

"Lester, I need you to stay calm when I tell you something."

The muscles down Lester's back immediately began to spasm and his legs stiffened. "You know that kind of warning only makes it worse for me. Did we lose a thruster? Is that part of the Link? What is that?"

"That's the skiff. Elizabeth is leaving for Earth."

Lester floated, still and speechless.

Elizabeth stopped trying to use the controls when it became obvious that Clytemnestra had disabled them. She watched as the swirls and scrolls of exotic materials in the hull began to glow. She settled back into her seat as the thrust built and the skiff moved away from the only other life within millions of kilometers, aimed towards where Earth would be in three days.

She found a pad of paper, of all things, tucked into the seatback. For two hours she ignored her roaring headache and made list after list of meetings to arrange and emails to send to get her old life back together.

Towards the back of the pad, she found a page where Lester had doodled pictures from around the ship: a beetle, the dogwood tree, Hitchcock jogging under the forest dome. She was surprised when she noticed that she couldn't see her lists through the tears.

The crying came and went. Then the incoherent shouting about injustice blew through.

An hour later when she was finally spent, Elizabeth sat up straight, wiped her eyes, and with a steady voice said, "Clytemnestra, you were right. Please bring me home."

Elizabeth floated in the branches of the dogwood tree, tracing her fingertips along the soft petals of its new, bone-white blooms. Below her, Lester and Hitchcock held hands and braced themselves against the trunk as they acted as the landing site for dozens of beetles. Sphere arrived last and took up a position next to them. They all looked expectantly up at Elizabeth.

Pushing down to join them, she began, "The first time I heard Hitchcock's voice, I was alone. He broke me away from an all night work session and took me to the desert to solve a mystery. I had no idea that we would end up here.

“You each have done so much for me.

“Lester, you helped me see so clearly that every moment is filled with questions worth answering. You loaned me your energy when mine gave way.

“Hitchcock, your sense of duty and responsibility has shown me not only that I need to look for the bigger picture but that it's printed with ink made of love.

“Clytemnestra, not only have you made this ship a home where we can revel in history and culture, but you held up a mirror when I couldn't see myself.

“And Sphere, as if giving up so much of yourself to bring the II to humanity isn't enough, you've given me the opportunity to share your journey to the stars.

“It has never been easy for me to rely on others. Being a startup CEO and a woman isn't for the faint of heart, so over the years I got used to carrying everything on my shoulders. That works well up to a point, but clearly we're past that. At a time when the stakes for everyone on Earth could not be higher, I haven't been much of a leader and I've been a terrible friend.

“I made mistakes and I hurt you. I am sorry. Will you forgive me?"

Lester gathered Hitchcock, Clytemnestra, and Sphere into a huddle. After a quiet conversation, during which Elizabeth squeezed the blood from her fists, Lester spoke for the group. "It's true that you hurt us. It's true that we've fallen apart as a team."

Elizabeth held her breath.

"It's also true that we can forgive you. But I have a few questions."

She unclenched her hands and laughed with relief. "I thought you might."

Elizabeth held up her slate and made the face she used when she was scolding a negligent employee. "Elton, for the third time we're not going to return this ship to the station. You need to listen to me because what I'm offering you will be the biggest deal you'll ever make. Bigger than any deal on Earth!"

Elizabeth's words traveled at light speed across empty space for almost a minute before it reached Elton, who was gripping dents into his stationmaster's desk. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and considered for a moment. "Why should I believe a thief's fantasy?"

Elizabeth double-checked that the connection was encrypted and then beckoned for someone to come into the camera's view. A reed-thin woman with translucent skin and color-shifting hair appeared on Elton's screen. As Elton gaped, dark shapes surfaced from deep within her body, pressed out against the inside of her skin, and then submerged.

With an accent that he couldn't quite place, she said, "Hello, Mr. Monk. It is good to finally meet you. Please call me Sphere."

Elton asked them to wait while he cleared the room, then sat quietly and took notes while Sphere told him the story of her project, the beam, and the Link. Elizabeth wondered how it would be to work with Elton, if he was this unfazed by proof of interstellar intelligence and communication.

After a brief pause, during which he stood looking out of the stationmaster's window towards the stars, he sat down in front of the camera. "Ok, let's deal."

Elizabeth laughed. "Welcome to the big league, Elton. Here's what I have in mind."

In every fabrication shop and enthusiast group across the face of the Earth, Fabricatoria's latest post sparked alarm and amazement. Every running print was canceled and discarded to make way for the open-source slate design. News of the instantaneous and decentralized communication network was but a minor shockwave before the story of its interstellar origin. Pundits with even the most tenuous link to extraterrestrial life were rousted from bed, pulled from their dinners, or otherwise interrupted and put in front of cameras to react to this news.

As the first II slates came online and their network abilities were confirmed, people began to believe that soon they would be connected to an Interstellar Internet. A press release from Monk Industries began to propagate, telling the story of how it partnered with the three heroes of the beam to bring the slates to Earth. It announced the creation of a not-for-profit foundation to provide an open exchange for information in preparation for the connection to the interstellar Link network.

Immediately following this news, there arrived reports the hundreds of linguists, exobiologists, and data miners taking generous job offers from Monk Industries.

The entire world waited for Link activation.

Clytemnestra’s fabrication module had a recent addition: an orrery that appeared to be made of wood and cast iron. Along with the system's planets, Clytemnestra had created a miniature ship and Link that traveled together in orbit around Sol.

Everyone floated around the orrery, holding hands to stay connected. A beetle perched on each person’s shoulder. The shapes under Sphere's skin were quiet, her hair a muted blue. She said, "Before the Link reaches out to the rest of the II, I'd like to thank you for welcoming me into your life. The beam that drew us together set off a series of changes that weren't always easy, but you each became who you needed to be."

She looked at Lester and the beetles around him. "Lester and Clytemnestra, I can't imagine a better pair to administer your solar system's sensor mesh."

"And you, Hitchcock," said Sphere, "are clearly the best person to save careless or malicious people from the Link's defenses."

Turning to Elizabeth, Sphere said, "Elizabeth, you have come so far and yet it is nothing compared to this next step. I have seen you struggle with your role as the ambassador. Now, just when you have found strength through connection, you are finally ready to join with the Link, like I did before you. Though you will leave your body behind, you will ride the beam to new cultures and become the person that they need to reach beyond themselves."

Elizabeth pulled everyone into a long, teary hug, and then stepped into her vacuum suit. Lester and Hitchcock looked on as she pushed into the airlock with Sphere and then asked Clytemnestra to start the exit cycle.

The fractal branches of the Link welcomed Elizabeth in a gentle embrace.

Sphere held her gloved hand until Elizabeth was pulled into contact with the ovoid center of the Link, then she let go and slowly moved away. Elizabeth's breath came fast as the Link began to spin. First her arms and legs joined with the Link, disappearing into its center as they were converted from matter into information. As the stars became streaks of light whipping past and more of her was converted, she felt herself become lighter and larger. As her head disappeared into the Link, nearby space began to waver. She and the Link reached together into the unbearably small scale of the quantum foam and listened for the other Links. Elizabeth wondered whether she would find more people as lovely as the friends she met because of the beam.

Sphere watched as the Link lit from within with spectra from other stars. After a moment to appreciate the beauty of the scene, she stretched her shoulders and headed towards Earth.  

Author’s note:

Thank you for reading Sphere! I enjoyed writing it and I hope that you enjoyed reading it.

This is the last story in the Beam series, but head to trevor.smith.name to find out what new stories I've put together for you.

Trevor F. Smith Seattle, Washington October 2015

@TrevorFSmith on Twitter