Nightskyman Hope

by Lisa Shapter

This work takes place in the same world as the author’s previous work, Life on Earth (Jan. 2015).

Second Lieutenant Steven Michaels lay face down in bed in his quarters in his farspace ship, the Spes, too tired to cry.  His colony was a level field of brick-hard mud with three graves–two graves and one memorial–and a sole last piece of equipment left to broadcast the colony’s fate and the identities of the dead.  His commander was dead, the two crewmen who outranked him were dead, the farspace colony they had been sent to found had been obliterated by floods and hostile local conditions.  Their fields of crops washed away, their buildings swept away, nothing left.

Two of them had lived, at first: himself and Second Lieutenant Gale Worth.  Their Captain, June Malvin, was dead, and so was Second Lieutenant Maude Price.  Steven thought, again, that he should get up and write their families.  June had held a Ph.D., but instead of taking a safe job teaching on Earth–or even in nearspace–he had joined the Farspace Exploratory Corps determined to make a world his fellow citizens could settle.  He had been an intelligent man, friendly, trustworthy, a leader, a consensus builder, the thoughtful voice that took in all of their opinions and made the best, the most sensible suggestion.  He had thought out their little cluster of fields and buildings, and had repaired their heavy building and construction equipment.  He had been so trustworthy, friendly and smart about people, and knowledgeable about farspace, that it had been natural to accept him as commander.

They had found him dead in the morning from a hazard they had not guessed existed.  June had a sensitivity to a local toxin the rest of them did not share.  It had been hard to know what to do without him; all three remaining men were intelligent, opinionated, too prone to think from their own points of view.  Their commander had made them a team.  He had died too soon, long before the common life on their distant, empty world made them one without him.

Second Lieutenant Maude Price had been strong for his compact, medium-framed build.  He could push a stalled diesel mover until in started on its own, he could weed crops, doubled over, all afternoon (once their agricultural equipment began to fail), without complaining.  But he had not been an enlisted man, a grunt; Maude had a Master’s degree.  He could learn a new subject like crop irrigation and apply it immediately.  He could solve problems after their guiding ship’s computer–their consultant and planner for everything–began to fail, and he had a brusque comradeship Steven had found himself liking.

The four men had met for the very first time on their deployment day, their team put together by shrinks on base.  While Steven had spent a long cautious time on their trip out wondering how these men would get along on their decade-long assignment, alone on an empty world, Maude had accepted him promptly, both as a teammate and as a coworker, had trusted his judgement and training before he had any reason to, had made him a friend from the first.  Maude’s acceptance had made Steven feel at home.

Stephen decided that Maude’s family should know he had died in an act of bravery and drowned in the last flood.  Steven had found his body–or at least his arm–in the cold, thigh-deep, debris-filled water, but it had been lost when a rising surge forced him back to the ship before he could do more than tell the wrist had no pulse and the skin was the temperature of the water around it.  Maude was buried, somewhere, the service marker for him was only a memorial: perhaps a later Corps with faster ships or closer bases could give the lieutenant the fitting and honorable burial he deserved.

Then there was Second Lieutenant Gale Worth.  Steven began to sob.  There were so many things he could not tell that man’s family.  He had loved Gale; he should not have, the shrinks’ careful planning and the chemical suppressive in their shipboard rations had tried to rule out that possibility, but he had loved Gale and thought to return home with him.  On Earth they could retire from the service, marry, settle back on the safe, carefully regulated, largely semi-rural planet they had left from, with its easy travel and plentiful opportunities.  Gale had also had his Master’s degree, as did Steven, they had been a scientific team as well as the world’s founding colonists.  Back on Earth they could have both found work wherever both of them wanted to live.  Civilian life had nothing against couples or group marriages at field research posts or universities.  Gale had loved him.  Steven would ask the Corps to undo his changes (he made himself stop crying); he did not know what he would do, now.

Steven loved children.  He had wanted children:  his only options on Earth had been a clone (he was not that vain) or an egg donor plus a surrogate mother or an artificial womb.  He had been glad to undergo a year of tests and hormones; of scans, microsurgeries and experimental procedures.  He had been willing to keep the Corps’ a secret under the euphemism of ‘colonial service preparation’, although his time at the hospital did include the specialized training given to his three teammates for their unusual posts onworld.  He had accepted that he would raise children with these men, he looked forward to it, they would all be good fathers.

After their buildings and crops were set, after their little hamlet had taken shape and they were eating local food they had grown, gathered, or caught, they were to start having children from the ship lab’s stock of genetic samples.  They were supposed to begin early in the colony’s history.  Their ship’s computer had given out, locking all of its computer-controlled surgical equipment and supplies behind contamination-proof panels; but at the time their buildings, crops and equipment were still intact with no known predators or hazards on the world.  Their colony was stable, their world was going well, they were fixing the computer (not a quick process), but even without its guidance month after routine month went by, and by guidelines they were supposed to start giving the colony a population.

It had not been what anyone might imagine.  The other men had drawn straws on successive nights and approached Steven, one by one, at a distant camp site, to give the two of them what privacy could be had in their tiny hamlet.

He and Captain June could not: neither of them could stomach the idea, even for the sake of the colony’s future.  Steven liked and admired the man, but even after his changes this could not be a sexless act.  They parted after a quiet talk.

Maude had approached him determined to go through with it, but once he saw Steven’s modified body in the firelight it took all the grim willingness from him.  Steven had been with men, on Earth, who had never been with another man.  He had supposed he could do something similar with Maude, slowly coax and teach him, but certainly not in one night, and not that night.  Steven had been afraid, at first, worried the man would force this; then he felt touched at Maude’s courage.  He doubted the lieutenant liked men any more than the commander had: but he had been determined to go through with this, anyway.  Steven assured him it did not have to be tonight, or him: neither of them would make the other do this, not even for all the world’s future.  They went to bed early well apart from each other.

Gale, he loved Gale.  Steven had loved Gale since before he could feel attraction, during their trip out, when both of them were thoroughly doped with shipboard suppressive.  It stopped sex, but not love, and Steven had loved Gale then and vice-versa.  The night with Gale had been beautiful, the first of many, and when Gale had lived through the last flood they had taken the ship to a distant safe and stable landing place, repaired the ship’s computer, written and sent their reports to Command explaining they were returning home early (and why) and asked that no colonists should be sent to the world after them.

Gale had died of a contaminated wound received during the flood.  Steven had flown the ship back to their original colony site, buried him next to the markers for the other two, made a final report and pointed the empty ship back towards home.

The ship’s medical lab had sputtered back to life long enough to free him from any local contamination or infections, had nursed him through a miscarriage after Gale’s death.  The ship had a plentiful stock of food and water, a stable and plentiful power and atmosphere supply, its engines and automated navigation were in good working order and, the computer repaired, it could fly itself back to Earth.

The trip would take months.  From a planet where a trip from Boston to Beijing was an easy day’s excursion, being alone this long was a hardship.  Steven was out of touch with everyone: base shrinks, his base commander, his doctors, his family, his friends and colleagues, his lost teammates’ families.  There was no live communication in farspace; his flight path did not go near any settled worlds or supply routes, nor any scientific stations, not any manned ones.

He could not eat, he was not hungry.  He could not sleep, he was not tired.  He was exhausted but not sleepy.  Urgent thoughts came to Lieutenant Michaels to check on the ship, look at navigational charts, write another report, write his or a teammates’ families, to check if he was well after months of stress in an alien environment, to eat… he felt heavy in ship’s normal gravity, he could not get up.  He could cry or not cry, that was all.

He had to get back to base, but he did not know what he would do, there.  There would be an investigation, perhaps he would be held at fault.  An incalculable taxpayers’ sum had gone into their lost equipment, their eaten rations, their washed-away supplies, his own changed body–which had now miscarried three times, even though before he left base it had checked out as being fit to carry to term.  Some local factor, some overlooked detail, some nutritional deficit… or the whole program of changes had been a painful, embarrassing waste of time.

His body would never be normal again; whatever had gone wrong, the changes could not be reversed.  He would have to keep that secret on Earth, never let anyone but a cleared military doctor see him naked or give him a medical scan.  He rested his head on his arm and wondered what he would do.

“This is…”  A soft friendly voice said from his datatablet.  The signal ghosted and drifted as in an ancient film with analogue radios.  Static.

Steven rolled over and sat up, charmed; he had never heard static.

“This is…”  A fragment of what sounded like the designation number of a nearby unmanned research station on an airless chunk of rock.  “Are you out there?” a friendly pleased voice asked, the voice of a tinkerer who had clicked a last component into an evening’s diversion.

Steven reached over and found the pressure switch for voice on his datatablet. It had fallen to the floor by his bed in quarters meant to house ten men.

“This is Second Lieutenant Steven Michaels of the Pisces-class ship #2456.”  He replied, his voice thin in the bare room full of empty beds.  He listened: this was not a formal transmission so there was no protocol.  The man did not sound like he was in any danger or requesting evacuation or supplies.

“Lieutenant Michaels, this is Nightskyman Hope…”  The signal warbled and fluttered but Steven felt sure he heard the identification of the closest research station.  “Nightskyman” just meant ‘serviceman’ but there was no need for rank in a casual conversation.

“Call me Steven,” he replied and searched his memory for the history of voice transmission, offering the man suggestions on strengthening his signal.  They talked a bit about ancient radios.  Steven was no expert, he had seen radios when they appeared in ancient films, had been to a few museum exhibits, had taken Corps required courses on low tech, but he had never built or used an analogue radio of any description.

The man’s voice was full of comfort and safety but Steven asked if he had any trouble or needed anything, the ancient protocol of passing friendly ships, even at sea.  No, Hope was in a comfortable chair in a triple-sealed field facility, with a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich.  He asked Steven to pardon him while he ate, and so talked up his own recipe for a BLT (or the best approximation one could make from standard rations) that Steven carried the datatablet into the ship’s kitchen and made one himself.  So, separated by hundreds of clicks, they had dinner in each others’ company.  Hope suggested he put an extra supplement tablet in his coffee and he did; he had alluded to the fact he was evacuating a colony.

Once they had talked over a few days Steven let the whole story tumble out, omitting the changes made to him and his relationship with Gale.  The changes were secret even within the Corps, and he might as well push his career out an airlock if he told any Corpsman that he had loved any man in the service.  Hope sympathized with what he did say and said regretfully there was nothing he could do, he was sealed in his station and it would take a new class of ship equipped with specialized docking equipment to get him out.  He was perfectly safe, but there was no way to talk face to face without lasering open an expensive taxpayer investment.  Steven smiled and said if Hope was safe he saw no reason to divert.

They talked nearly every day, at unexpected times.  Hope always initiated the conversation; Steven did not have the equipment to transmit to him.  Steven’s navigational equipment could not pinpoint the tiny distant signal from the man’s tinkered equipment, not in the noise of open farspace.  At this distance not even a reliable medical computer could locate Hope’s biosigns or his DNA, though the ship did give the position of his unmanned station on its navchart.  Hope kept tinkering (the signal got better, or worse) his voice was clearer some nights and difficult to hear on others, but he managed to strengthen the transmission as Steven got further out, running it through ever-increasing grades of military equipment and cackling at his own ingenuity.

Hope never sounded lonely or romantically inclined.  He always sounded safe and comfortable, wanting to ask a fellow Corpsman a bit of advice about a common class of equipment, or swap stories about the service, or just pass the time.  Steven came to trust him as Hope dropped oblique references to the Colonial service and even to the Experimental Viviparous Extrapolation (E.V.E.) program itself, and they slowly established they both knew about it.  Hope would not, and could not, say much.  Steven looked up the man’s service record and read between the lines: Nightskyman Hope had not been changed, but he had been stationed in town on a successful colony world where men were.  Living in such a place it would be impossible to escape the fact that power supplies went out from technical mishaps and local weather, there was no cleanroom facility for cloning or artificial wombs and no specialized medical staff to monitor them … but there were terribly modified men who waddled about their duties for nine months until a new baby appeared.

Hope talked about the men he had served with, clearly respectful and admiring of the ones who had undergone the dangerous experimental procedure.  He groused about the politics that kept women out of farspace (when they had full equality on Earth and within the solar system) and listened gently when Steven confided in him fully, no longer caring if Hope was a secrecy enforcement officer.  He did not tell him about Gale: he was depressed but he was not stupid.  Hope alluded to the fact that pregnant men sometimes became attached to their donors, heck even men in farspace service became close to the team they spent ten to fifteen years alone with, but Steven did not bite (or expose any of the couples or groups he had met during his service).

It did comfort him that Hope understood, or at least would not be shocked.  The man had a gentleness, a common sense–“Why don’t you turn in, Steven, it’s late ship’s time and you have an early nav check.  I’ve got nothing to turn out for, but I’m not piloting the cost of the first fifty years of manned space travel…”–“Isn’t it time for a bit of lunch?  I’m getting hungry out here.  Do you stock those hexagonal green packets?  They are my favorites, I’ve got a case of them… you’ve got to try mixing half of one–just half…”–“Gosh, I’d get that medscanned if I were you, if it turns purple and drops off how will you pilot the ship to dock?  I’ll talk you through keeping your medical computer on line, give it a scan and see what it thinks…”

Hope’s signal got fainter as Steven approached the base hospital he had left from.  The Nightskyman had persuaded him it would be best to go there:  it was the closest with the best resources on that route, and there they would patch Steven back up and give him the enviable length of leave he had earned during his long and dangerous colonial service.  The serviceman reminded Steven his doctors and commander would be gratified to see him return safely with the ship and that his friends and family must be frantic for news after the notices that his teammates had died.  Even while talking about base and leave, Hope sounded content as a cat in cream and Steven seldom worried the way he ordinarily would for a Corpsman on an isolated, dangerous assignment.  The man always sounded alert and interested, occupied in some new project, happy with his work and relaxed in his surroundings.

As Steven approached base Hope asked him to say hello to old buddies and comrades, the people they knew in common were always one step out (the friend of a friend, the colleague of a colleague) or not in communication range: old basics instructors, a teammate’s friend from a prior mission, a technician or trainer at the base hospital who had left about the time Steven arrived, an officer serving at a nearspace base, a retired captain who now piloted a home system civilian liner, etc.

Steven smiled at the idea of taking a ridiculously safe (and short) homespace luxury cruise after having survived a hazardous assignment in farspace, it made him laugh.  It made him laugh at his utilitarian service bed, at the narrow drab corridors of his ship (compared to a palatial cruise liner), at his bare living quarters, his efficient close-packing ration containers, at having sole responsibility for flying this ship built for a crew of 20 all the way back though empty farspace.

Hope signed off in a last faint transmission after Steven had a lock on the base hospital’s navbeacon and after he had turned piloting of the Spes over to their local control.  It was not a sad goodbye, he would be able to write Hope through base channels once he docked, although voice communication would be out.  (Not over that distance: not without Hope’s modified equipment and knowledge of analogue voice transmission.)  So Steven would be back in touch with the Nightskyman within a day.  Hope offered him comfort, encouragement, and reassurance and wished him the best.  He signed out and his signal became a wash of static.  Steven was certain the man would be fine but he put in for a supply vessel to look in on him.  He had never heard of a class of ship with specialized docking equipment but he had been away from central Corps resources long enough, he supposed, for changes or improvements to be made.

Second Lieutenant Steven Michaels went through the docking checklist, went through final decontamination procedures, disembarked, making his last reports, wrote his letters, and reported to officers, doctors, and shrinks for debriefings, examinations, and questions.

He was not demoted or docked pay:  he was promoted one rank as a hero for trying to save and maintain the colony, for staying to bury and memorialize his teammates, and for his constancy in making final reports and leaving the broadcast beacon to warn other ships away from the planet’s hazards.  He was given no new assignment, immediately; the Corps wanted him to recover from his terrible loss and they needed to evaluate what he was suitable for.  This was not the man they had sent out and, understandably, Steven did not want another colonial assignment as another world’s male mother.  He did not think he could carry and after three miscarriages he damn well did not want to try any more.

He did his allotment of medical appointments but his changes were left as they were.  They could be rendered stable, neutral, and infertile but the Corps evidently decided against it.  First Lieutenant Michaels could not object.

Life on base was so regimented and so scheduled that he had no opportunity to think or ask about Nightskyman Hope until after he had been counseled and debriefed on everything else.  The older shrink, an officer, looked up at him from his datatablet when he asked.

“Nightskyman Hope is fine.  You don’t need to worry about him.”

“I wrote him and didn’t get a reply… why is he at an unmanned station?  Is it safe to seal him in?  There’s no way out if…”

“Don’t worry about him, lieutenant.”

“Don’t stonewall me, Hope saved my life…”

The shrink sighed, resigned.

“Listen, ‘Nightskyman Hope’ is the name of a crisis program in your ship’s own computer.  There is a legacy analog transmitter on the ship’s skin so your really were getting external signals–but not from as far away as you thought.  There is no personnel named ‘Hope’, or not at the station on your chart.  It is unmanned and sealed.  Hope existed to talk you through the worst of your depression when no base intervention could be made and when there were no surviving teammates to help you.  Hope was a computer program triggered by your activity level, mess access pattern, and medical scans.  He could have been different based on your personnel file, psych profile, mission reports, location, and medical and mental condition.  There is no man named Hope, he existed to bring out what is best in you:  your will to survive and succeed, your sense of mission, your Corp loyalty, your training, your resilience.  If you must thank anything, lieutenant, thank yourself, that’s all Hope is.”

First Lieutenant Michael Stevens stared at him.  He went back to his base quarters and checked the up-to-date central farspace database: there were men named “Hope” in the service, but not near his flight path.  A thorough station history (and maintenance records with monitoring video) showed there was no one in the unmanned station, and there could not be: almost every centimeter of it was taken up by computer-controlled equipment with no room for so much as a cup of coffee–never mind a man, a chair, a table, and a rig cobbled together of spare equipment and replacement parts, none of which could be spared at such an outpost.  Steven checked the building and supply records: there was no spare equipment.  All repairs on the station had been done by bringing in external supplies and cutting into it from vacuum. There was not enough room between the station’s equipment housings and its outer skin for a spacesuited hand, never mind an entire Corpsman.

The shrink was right:  there was no Nightskyman Hope.  Steven punched a setting on his datapad, clearing away service records and database enquiries and the maintenance video he had been watching, and he began to draft a letter of resignation.  The Corps had killed three good men, Jane, Maude, and Gale.  They had nearly killed him, three innocent little babies, mutilated his body, stolen the man he loved–and the Corps had lied him all the way home.  They did not need him, no one else would have him, everyone who had and could know the truth about him was dead.  Now that he was back on base, alive, all he could do was resign and put together some life outside the Corps.

At just that moment written note came to his ‘tablet and the indicator light came on.  He opened it up and immediately wrote Hope back that he did not exist:  Steven had been told the secret.  He ended with a program shutdown code.

A wry reply came right back to him over the station’s strong communication network:

“Steven, have you ever heard of the word ‘classified’?”

He could imagine the amused drawl in Hope’s voice, he had heard it many times as the man described tinkering with proprietary Corps equipment.

“Yes.”  He wrote back, shortly.

“Of course they’d feed you that line–‘mate, I can’t tell you where, or who, I am but think a minute–can any Corps computer talk like I do, figure things out like I do?  We don’t have A.I. like that.”

“Maybe that’s classified.”  Steven argued back, his letter set aside.  “There is no instantaneous communication in farspace, written or audio, and it would be impossible to send analogue signals over interstellar distances with no delay.”

“See, ‘classified’!”  Hope wrote back in the mein of a Boston cabbie who had figured out how the world worked.  “The censors would be overwhelmed if every Nightskyman could write home, not just about the things we’re not supposed to tell home about, but every little colonial mishap and setback, every mistake, the months of boredom, the idiot commanders. Recruiting would go down the drain.  You and I both know the Corps can do things that it won’t talk about to everyone.  Maybe this is one of those things–certainly the 2-4 isn’t writing this, she’s being cold-sterilized in vacuum, all systems off.”

Steven checked the base’s externals until he spotted the Spes, opened to vacuum and being readied for her next assignment by spacesuited techs.  There were, he supposed, ways to fake such video but he did not have the energy to suspect everything as a lie.  He could imagine Hope’s dry chuckle at this very conversation, like many hackers and hobbyist Nightskyman Hope tended to think he had figured out certain secrets.

“Maybe the A.I. that’s running you is classified.” Steven wrote back irritably, ready to sign out of the conversation.

“Steven.”  He knew the man’s dropped voice and comforting tone from many long conversations.  “I exist.  I am a man at a microphone and a keypad.  I can’t tell you more but I am real, although my name isn’t Hope.”

“You’re a shrink?  The man I just talked to?”

“No.”  Steven could all-but hear the gentle amusement in the written word.  The reply went on: “I’m fine, you don’t need to worry about my safety, I’m as safe as you are.  Think of volunteer suicide counselors on Earth, I’m something like that.  I can’t tell you anything more but don’t worry about Nightskyman Hope.”

“I’ve spent months talking to you, how would I know you?”

“You won’t and shouldn’t.  This is the last time you will hear from Corpsman Hope, his mission is done.  You’re on base, you’re safe, you’re debriefed.  You’ll be fine, old friend.”

“Your name?  Wh–”

“One letter off.”  His ‘tablet read.  The conversation ended.  His datapad reminded him he was scheduled for dinner.  He went to the officers’ mess hall, ‘tablet still under his arm, hoping irrationally for a followup message.

He knew no one here.  The doctors and medical technicians, the shrinks and officers he had spoken with ate separately and none of the men who had gone through the E.V.E. program with him were here now.  They had all been sent out on no doubt successful assignments.  Their children would be about school age if he had calculated correctly.  No doubt their colonies had been closer, easier to set up, more stable… The Corps was stupid, he was stupid.  God, what was he going to do?

He selected of tray of food suitable to his modified body, ignored the other newly changed men with their talk of hope and new worlds and sat alone.  He thought about finishing his resignation letter.  If he returned to Earth he would just run into his ex, Edward.  It had been Steven who wanted to see the stars and have an adventure: Edward stayed safe on Earth.  Steven put the ‘tablet on the table and watched it for a message, shading the indicator light with his hands.  None.  There would be none, he knew that.  He cursed his body, the hormones made him ravenously hungry and made him want to cry.  He had been tricked, it was all useless, what the hell was he going to do?  He would be a freak at home, even if he looked normal enough, dressed, and where the hell could he serve, out here?

“Nightskyman?”  A voice asked.

A man with a cup of coffee rather than a full meal sat down across from him and squinted a little at his name patch and the color of the single bar of his rank insignia.

“Lieutenant.”  He said in a friendly voice, splitting the difference between the gold bar of one rank and the silver of the next.  “Lieutenant Michaels.”  He said in the same tone, trying to get Steven’s attention.

Still looking at his datatablet, Steven reflected Hope’s voice had probably been disguised.  There would be no way to recognize the peer counselor’s voice and maybe it had never been human to begin with.  Maybe it was a computer-produced voice triggered by typing, down to the indrawn breaths, the chuckles, the small coughs.  Microphone, indeed.

He glanced at the man across from him.  Same service drab as he was wearing with a Corps’ sergeant’s insignia: an enlisted man who had wandered into the wrong mess hall on the wrong level.  Lower in rank than he was, probably came up as a grunt, the name patch was doubled over by a fold in the cloth.  Steven did not care.  This was a volunteer with the colonial service but, Steven knew with a glance, not one modified to bear children.  As a grunt this man would have a basic education from Earth and no advanced degree.  A man here for his hardiness, his physical strength, and few other redeeming features.  Good stock for a genetic donor, probably tired of pulling construction duty on the developing fringes of colonized worlds, not someone Steven needed to pay attention to and no one he would ever meet again.  He was done with the colonial service.

“Lieutenant Michaels.”  The man repeated, extending his hand.  “Garnett,” he added (when by protocol he should have given his rank and last name), “Garnett Dorman.  I’ve only been here a few months.”  He said in the eager manner of a ‘wetsuit’ new to farspace.  “You look like you need company.”  There was something else in his tone, something more experienced or serious.

Steven ignored him but the man’s presence stopped him, shamed him out of finishing the resignation letter.  The man bristled with a fresh recruit’s optimism and Steven could not bear to answer the followup question: ‘What are you writing?’  He remembered the friends he had had here before deploying, the ones whose children he had looked after.  He should write two of them a letter.  Olaf and Pursell  knew about the E.V.E. program, had been a part of it together; he could tell them everything, even about Gale (if he was careful how he worded it).  They would understand.

He looked up at the man, saw he was too old be a raw recruit (and older than most sergeants), and opened his mouth to make a reply.  He was about to tell the fellow to buzz off, when someone across the room apparently noticed an out-of-place sergeant talking to a man whose body was full of classified changes:

“Sergeant Dorman!”  A voice snapped from the entry side of the mess hall and the man crisply got up without another word, leaving his coffee cup across from Steven.

First Lieutenant Steven Michaels stared at it for a long moment, finding it a forgetful gesture by a disciplined, experienced grunt.  He picked it up to see if there was somehow any kind of message in it or something wrong with it, but it was an empty, still warm, service standard coffee cup.  Steven shrugged, got himself a cup of coffee since he would not be pregnant any time soon, and erased the resignation letter to write two of his old friends.  They had made things work out in bad times: he could too.

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