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"The Captain will see you now," said the red-shirted flunky by the door. He lead me through stained and scratched glass doors and past empty ticket booths, their displays long since dark. Behind me, the thousands of glass panels that made up the outer walls of the building were covered in decades of particulate grime and pigeon shit, staining them a sickly tan. I had seen pictures of this place taken from long before the Exodus, showing clear glass gleaming in the sunlight. Many of the Earthborn backers of the Uplift Initiative had been fond of the place in their childhood; it was one of the reasons why I had been sent here first. Of course, there were other reasons; of all the thousands of subcult tribes eking out an existence on Manhattan Island, the one that made its home in the Hayden Planetarium was one of the oddest.

The once-shining hall was hung with painted spheres, sad static depictions of worlds these people had never really seen. I looked up at Jupiter as I passed beneath it -- the colors were much too bright; the painter had obviously taken them from a false-color image. Off to my left was a sphere labeled as Gliese 581 c, which as every child in the Consortium knows is predominantly grey, not brown, and has a small icecap at the southern pole.

But this was not the Consortium, and these people hadn't sent out automated survey ships that dropped an observatory seed a hundred AU out from every star that might support life within two hundred lightyears, or sent crewed starships on long excursions to bring back knowledge and wonders. If I really wanted, I could go to Gliese 581. Give it a week to boost out of Sol's gravity well, arcing high above the plane of the ecliptic, matching velocity with the target system along the way, take a few minutes to generate a wormhole, and a nothingth of an instant to blip the twenty lightyears from here to there. Not that I have any reason to bother; there's no people there -- and before you get on my case about being speciesist, "people" means "sentient beings", thanks.

Most of the men and women in the threadbare uniforms around me would never even leave this island.

The redshirt stopped at the foot of a long spiralling ramp that lead up to to the vast grey sphere that dominated the hall, the only one that didn't represent another world. It hung two full stories over our heads; an impressive sight even in its present state of advanced decay. Two more redshirts guarded the ramp, holding their ceremonial lirpas diagonally across their chests. In a concession to practicality, they also had dumb chemically fueled kinetic energy weapons holstered at their hips. My redshirt conferred with them briefly, and they stood aside, uncrossing their lirpas to allow us to pass.

Up the spiralling ramp we went. The thick sides of the ramp were lined with placards and dead LCD panels that once displayed astronomical information that the builders of this place thought visitors might find interesting. At the top, an impressive set of double doors gave us entrance to the center of the great sphere. I shuddered as I entered; the metal mesh of the sphere formed a passable Faraday cage, and I felt a pit in my stomach open up as my nic lost its connection to the jury-rigged datasphere we had set up to cover the city, seeding wanrouters and satlinks at the peaks of the tallest towers that still stood above ruined Manhattan. I'd trained for this; I'd experienced it before, but it was still intensely disconcerting to be really alone, off the grid and out of range. If there was trouble I wold have no way to call for help, or pull images of the area from one of our ships in orbit. Worse yet I wouldn't be able to call upon our kaybees and wikis for information. To be stuck with only what one can hold in one's headmeat and the ten-terabyte pittance in my nic... I shook myself to clear my head and followed the redshirt into the sphere.

The light inside was dim; I thought about flipping my eyes over to IR or night-vision mode to get a better view, but decided not to bother. There wasn't really much to see: a wide circular room with a domed roof, full of comfortable reclining chairs in ringed rows emanating from the center. The center had once held a pit where a projection device rested, and would lift itself on hydraulic stilts to portray the night sky for the wonder and edutainment of the audience.

Now, though, there was a jury-rigged platform over the pit bearing a boxy gray-plastic swivel chair. Its arms were decorated with bright, round, primary-colored plastic baubles; faux buttons and switches, unlabeled and utterly lacking in anything resembling ergonomics. The man in the chair rose stiffly, holding onto one arm of the chair for balance. He staggered slightly, as if he were drunk; one corner of his mouth drooping slackly. His face was lined and covered in white stubble that clashed horribly with his immaculate blonde toupee; the pale skin of his belly was visible below the hem of a gold shirt it had long since outgrown. To either side of him, a blue-shirted man stood. One had fake plastic ears. "Attention on deck!" announced the redshirt, his voice ringing in the excellent acoustics of the planetarium. "Captain, may I present William Latimer, representing the Centauri Consortium. He wishes to discuss the establishment of trade relations with the Federation."

The old man waved him into silence. "Mr. Latimer. I am Captain... Richard April, commanding the Federation starbase Hayden. My... officers tell me that you... represent an alien power," said the Captain. His speech was halting and slightly slurred. I felt a stab of pity for him; he was showing all the signs of late-stage Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, his brain a spongy thing rotted away from the inside by the weapon that had turned a hobby into a religion. I could only hope that he was still lucid enough to negotiate with.

Many of the more primitive memetic weapons deployed in the early stages of the Second Culture War had manifested progressive spongiform encephalopathy in their hosts after a few years. The biological component of the weapons had been based on prions, infectious proteinoid particles that would destroy neural tissue. The first-generation memetics were supposed to affect only those parts of the brain associated with skepticism and critical thinking, leaving the target mind vulnerable to the associated semiotic payload that was delivered through propaganda and spin. Those early memetic weapons had deadly consequences for their hosts, the prions eventually moving out of their target areas and colonizing the rest of the brain, building amyloid plaques over the neural tissue, tearing it apart until the host succumbed to convulsions, tremors, dementia and finally death. Later generations were far more sophisticated, using tailored virii to edit synaptic connections directly, spawning false memories and inducing specific opinions and beliefs, but the first generation was in many ways the most insidious.

"That's right, Captain. I'm an explorer of sorts, much like you and your people," I said. "I came here to learn about you. To offer an exchange of culture and knowledge... among other things."

The Captain nodded stiffly. "What we really need... are weapons. Our phasers have... long since run out... and we have to make do with... what we can scrounge." Not that they ever had phasers in the first place, the poor delusional old man, I thought. "And those Picardite heretics... mincing about in their little jumpsuits... are just asking for a beating. They can take the... Prime Directive and shove it right up their bald..."

I cleared my throat, interrupting him. "I cannot offer weapons, Captain, or any form of technology that will give you too much of an edge over the other peoples who live here. I'm afraid we have our own form of the, ah, Prime Directive." I raised a hand to forestall his protests. "But what I can do is offer you medical assistance. Tell me, Captain, do your hands shake? Do you have trouble remembering things? Difficulty walking, perhaps?"

"I... yes." He shares a look with one of the blue-shirted officers standing behind him. "Many of my crew are... afflicted with these... symptoms. We wondered if... there was a disease... on this planet that caused it. But so far my... science officer has not been able... to determine a cause."

I nodded. "Your hypothesis is correct, captain. You and your, uh, crew, have been infected with a biological-informational weapon that was used in a war here, long ago. You must have noticed that this city is a wreck, its towers rusting, its infrastructure destroyed. That's why. I can cure you. You just have to be willing to trust me."

The Captain frowned suspiciously. "There ain't... no such thing... as a free lunch." He collapsed back in his command chair, exhausted by the effort of standing for so long on wobbly legs. "What's the catch?"

"No catch, Captain. We offer the cure as a gift." More like a salve for our conscience, I thought. To make up for having abandoned Earth all those centuries ago. "Though if you would be willing to let me scan and copy your records and archives, we would very much appreciate it."

The Captain nods. "The Federation is always... happy to share its cultural wealth... with other civilizations. We will accept your aid... on the condition that the cure be administered to me first... and that we wait before giving it to my crew. I will not... ask them to take... an untested cure... delivered by a stranger. I hope... you understand."

I nodded. "Of course. I will remain with you until you are satisfied. It will take about a month for the cure to run its course." I stepped forward, pulling a pneumatic injector from the inside pocket of my coat. "If you'll permit me to approach, Captain," I said. He nodded, and I pressed the injector against his neck. It hissed as it forced the cure into his bloodstream; millions of nanomachines unfolding themselves as they hit rich, warm living plasma, preparing to slip through the blood-brain barrier and begin to heal the horrendous damage that had been wreaked upon the poor man's brain. They would leave his body harmlessly when their work was done; they were not designed to be self-sustaining like the ones that keep Consortium citizens young and healthy, theoretically immortal. "All done."

"Very well." The Captain looked at the redshirt. "Lieutenant, see to it that... Mr. Latimer is given quarters... on the habitation deck. After he's situated... take him to the mess... I'm sure he's hungry."

I stepped down from the platform and nodded. "I am indeed. Thank you, Captain."

The redshirt led me out, and as we walked down the ramp that spiraled from the planetarium sphere I looked up at those badly-painted planets again, and smiled. Earth's prodigal sons and daughters had come home from the stars to heal her wounds, and give her people hope. In a few weeks the Captain would awaken as if from a decades-long dream, able to think clearly perhaps for the first time in his life, the unknowing butt of a three-hundred-year old practical joke gone horribly awry at last becoming aware of what had been done to him. With my help, and that of the others like me, this world will one day be freed of the mad dreams of dictators, the cruel pranks of long-dead biotech hackers, and the neural stigmata of demagogues. And then perhaps the people of Earth could join us out among the stars, and could see those worlds with their own eyes, and know that the universe is even bigger and more full of wonder than they had ever dreamed.

Another submission for SciFiQuest 2107!

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