Long ago, Virginia had wondered what it would be like if she ever really succeeded…if ever she fooled them all, and actually made a machine that could think.

How would awareness seem to the new entity? Would it appear suddenly, as great Athena was supposed to have come into her wisdom, springing self-aware from the brow of Zeus?

Would it be like a child growing up? A long, slow, tedious/thrilling process of rote and extrapolation? Of trial and error and skinned knees?

Or would it happen as humanity had done it—evolving by quirk and happenstance from the feral reflexes of microbes, all the way up to the hubris to challenge gods?

Most often of all, she had imagined that it would be like this. A slow gathering of scattered threads. A learning anew of what was already known.

An awakening.

All the blurry images came together into a single shape that swam in front of her eyes—a complete mystery. A blob.

Then, with no transition at all, she knew it as a face… one that ought to be familiar.

“Carl?” she tried to ask. But her facial muscles would only twitch a little, a promise of returning volition, but not much more.

The figure overhead blurred, unfocused, and finally went away. Virginia slept. And for the first time in a long while, she dreamed.

The white walls were sharp and clear when next she opened her eyes.

Recuperation room, she thought. I wonder how long it’s been.

There was a rustling tap tap tap of a databoard nearby. Virginia laboriously turned her head, and saw a man in a faded, threadbare hospital gown perched crosslegged on a webbing, looking intently into a portable display and rubbing his chin slowly with one hand. His eyelids were slot-blue and he looked so thin.

“Saul,” she whispered.

He looked up quickly. In a single motion he put aside the databoard and was by her side, bringing a squeeze bottle to her lips.

She sipped until he drew it away. Then she worked her mouth. “H… h-how… ?”

“How long?” Saul took her hand. “About thirty years. We’re getting near aphelion. Carl told me you left little watchdog programs throughout the data systems that kept popping up, promising bloody hell if you were awakened before me.”

Virginia smiled weakly. “I told you…I’d…m-manage it.”

He laughed. “And I’m so very proud of you.’

The richness of his voice made her blink. Saul was still only partially recovered from his own slotting, and yet something else was different about him.

Her preslotting memories were coming back clearly. There was a little more gray at Saul’s temples, maybe, and yet could it be an illusion that he actually looked younger than before?

Oh, I must be a mess, she thought. Ihad better do some hard eating to put some meat back on, after three decades.

But if slotting drops years off you, I must learn to conquer my fear of it!

“How am… I… doing?”

“A doctor’s joy.” He grinned. “A marvelous piece of womanly engineering. Recovering nicely, and soon to be put to work, by orders of his Grand Poobah-dom, Commander Osborn.”

Virginia shook her head.

“C-commander… ?”

Saul nodded. “Lieutenant Commander, actually. Commission from Earth. They had to. Only two officers left alive, and they hardly count. Ensign Calciano’s in the slots after a ten-year shift in which he seems to have become convinced he was the Flying Dutchman. Ould-Harrad’s resigned his commission and gone off to join the Revisionist-Arcists over in Gehenna…”

At Virginia’s puzzled expression, Saul squeezed her hand.

“It’s a different world, Virginia. So much has changed. Back on Earth, things have gone from very bad to better to incomprehensible. And out here they’re… well…” He shrugged. “Outs here they’re just plain weird.”

“But Carl… ?” She started to rise, but he pushed her gently back against the pillow. Even Halley gravity was a weight for her.

“Enough talk. Now you rest. Later I’ll explain what I’ve been able to discover. We’ll try to figure out a place for ourselves in this strange new world.”

Virginia let herself relax.

We… she thought, liking the way the word sounded in his voice. Yes, we will.

She was starting to drift off when she felt Saul gently pull his hand away. Virginia looked up and saw that he was fumbling with a handkerchief and staring into space with a screwed up, half-orgasmic squint. It ended deep inside the square of cloth in a muffled sneeze.

“Oh, darling,” she sighed. “Out of the slots only a few days, and already you have a cold!”

He looked at her sheepishly, then he smiled.

“So nu? What else is new?”