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 Post subject: Kathy W-Shapeshifters Series-Books 1 & 2
PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:20 pm 
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TITLE: And the Stars Fell From the Sky, Book 1 in the Shapeshifters Series

AUTHOR: Kathy W

RATING: YTEEN

LENGTH: 10 parts

CATEGORY: Backstory/Prequel. No couples. Unless you consider Nasedo and Langley a couple. :wink:

PERSPECTIVE: Those responsible for making it happen—the shapeshifters.

SUMMARY: I’ve always been fascinated with what happened before the pod squad hatched, and I’ve had a million questions. Why don’t the hybrids remember more? Why was the Destiny Book in the library instead of in the pod chamber? Why did the Dupes wind up in a sewer in New York City? Was Nasedo really working for the Skins? And so on and so forth.

This is the story from the viewpoint of the shapeshifters, my own little fantasy about what happened, why it happened, and what went wrong. It will probably wind up being six to eight separate fics, each a sequel to the other. They will closely track the show; my intention is not to rewrite Roswell, but to fill in some of the blanks. The story starts on the ship headed to Earth, and will likely end with Max’s encounter with Langley, many years in the future. This particular fic covers the journey to Earth.

DISCLAIMER: I own nothing. Nothing anyone wants, anyway. :mrgreen: I’m just borrowing these wonderful characters to amuse myself. And hopefully you.

Some of the events in this story are taken from Roswell episodes, and some are taken from eyewitness accounts of the “crash”. In addition to characters from the show, there are a few real people in this story. I know precisely none of these people, and am borrowing them strictly for this little tale.



PRONUNCIATION AND CHARACTER GUIDE:

Brivari—Zan’s Warder: “var” rhymes with “far”
Jaddo—Rath’s Warder: “a” as in “ah”, soft “J”
Valeris—Ava’s Warder: “ler” sounds like “lair”
Urza—Vilandra’s Warder: sounds like it looks
Riall—Zan’s father: Ree-all
Covari—The name of the shapeshifters’ race: Rhymes with “Brivari”
Argilians—The name of Khivar’s race: “g” is soft, like “j”


The shifters refer to each other by their Antarian names. See if you can figure out which of the four is Langley and which is Nasedo. :D






And the Stars Fell From the Sky





PART ONE




The small figure slumped against the console stirred ever so slightly.

Brivari regained consciousness slowly. His vision was blurry; sounds were muffled. Even the dim light in the control center hurt his eyes. And for a split second, he did not remember where he was.

He suddenly jerked upright, panic coursing through every fiber, his breathing coming in ragged gasps. Blinking furiously, he forced himself to focus his eyes.

Soft light. The whispering hum of the engines. The hard floor beneath him. And the stars, flying by at impossible speeds outside the viewports.

Brivari shuddered and leaned heavily back against the console. For a moment there, he thought he was……somewhere else.

****Shouting. Running feet. Orders barked. Glass shattering. The shock and terror on the faces of the imperial troops. And the blood….so much blood.****

He pulled himself to his feet slowly, clutching the edge of the console for support. A wave of dizziness overtook him as he became fully upright, and he slumped over the console for support. Ouch! Staying in one position for so long definitely had its disadvantages.

He rested for a moment, letting his head clear. No surprise, this. He hadn’t had anything to eat for at least a day. Not to mention the strain of loading the ship, making certain they had everything they could possibly imagine needing. After all, they couldn’t just turn around and go back if they forgot something.

****And the bodies. They needed the bodies. Not just fresh genetic samples, but the bodies themselves. The Argilians must never find them if this was to work.****

Brivari looked down at his hands. His long, thin fingers looked darker than usual; in the dim light from the control consoles he couldn’t tell why. Moving slowly so as not to set his head spinning again, he inched closer to the light source on the console. And froze.

His hands were covered with blood. Dried blood. Old blood.

The King’s blood.

****The body had been heavy, and he had been exhausted. But it was imperative that he get the body to the ship without anyone seeing him. The people mustn’t know the King was dead. ****

Brivari straightened up slowly, testing his balance. The dizziness did not return. He moved slowly to a nearby panel and examined the information it gave him. Good. They were still on course. At least something had gone right.

He sank into a nearby chair, breathless already from just this little bit of exertion. He really should talk to the others. He should go to the laboratory and see how Valeris was doing. There were a million things to do; but first things first.

His hands need washing.

He picked his way carefully to the sink. Turning on one small light, he started the water running and held his hands underneath. He reached for the cleanser and started rubbing. The blood wouldn’t come off. It had dried to a thick crust, impervious to cleanser. He sighed, turned off the water, and started to pick it off, piece by piece.

“Master?”

Brivari whirled around, ready to lash out at whoever had so stealthily come up behind him. He stopped when he saw Urza’s surprised face.

“Urza,” he breathed, leaning back against the sink. “I’m….I’m sorry. You were so quiet. I’m still……jumpy, I suppose. Forgive me.”

“Forgiven and forgotten, Master,” Urza said firmly. Brivari smiled. Urza insisted on referring to him with the honorific, “Master”, even though it was not necessary. They all served the royal family; there were technically no titles amongst the four of them. But Urza argued it was only fitting to show such respect to the one who warded the King.

Brivari turned back to the sink and resumed scraping off the blood on his hands. “Does Valeris have everything he needs?” he asked quietly. Not that it mattered now.

“He believes he does,” Urza answered. “The bodies were fresh enough to acquire several samples, and he has an ample supply of donor material and gandarium. He must have made some progress by now. Shall we go and see?”

“In a moment,” Brivari answered. “I’d like to finish washing first.”

Urza moved in closer and gazed at Brivari’s hands. He dropped his eyes and looked away, clearly disturbed by what he saw.
“It took me several minutes to wash it all away,” he whispered.

“Oh?” Brivari paused; he wasn’t certain if it was wise to ask his next question. Urza had been devoted to Vilandra. His assignment as her Warder had been the high point of his life. Brivari could still see him, cradling the infant princess in his arms, smiling a smile that could have blotted out the sun. “This is what I live for,” that smile had said. “To protect. To serve.

His grief when he and Jaddo had found her had been so great that it took all of their powers of persuasion to convince him of what he must do. That his task as protector was not yet over; indeed, in many ways, it had only just begun.

Brivari had finished scraping off the blood; now the cleanser could do its work. “Do you think it was a quick death?” he asked quietly, not looking at his friend.

Urza was silent for so long that by the time Brivari had finished washing, he still had not answered. Brivari dried his hands on a towel and waited.

“Yes,” Urza answered finally, whispering, as if he were afraid of what his voice would do if he tried to raise it. “She appears to have died instantly.”

“That’s one blessing,” Brivari said. The King had not been so fortunate. According to Jaddo, Rath had not been so fortunate either. He had not yet had the chance to question Valeris about the Queen’s condition when she was found.

Urza turned to go. “If you need me, I will be in the laboratory,” he said.

“Wait.”

Urza paused. “Something else, Master?”

Brivari chose his words carefully. “Urza, do you have any idea—any at all—how the Argilians managed to breach our defenses?”

“What do you mean?” Urza asked slowly.

“Khivar’s forces were not to the point where they could overwhelm us so easily. How did they get in?”

“I have no idea, Master,” Urza said.

“None? None at all?” Brivari watched Urza carefully. If the reports he had heard were true, then…… “It occurs to me that information may have been leaked, or perhaps someone let them in. A spy, or a disgruntled servant. Not you, of course,” Brivari added hastily, as Urza’s eyes flashed. “I was just wondering if you’d heard or seen anything—anything—that could shed some light on all this.”

Urza was silent for a moment. “Nothing, Master,” he said finally.

“You realize, don’t you,” Brivari said slowly, “that if some information was leaked, then possibly more information was leaked. The Argilians may know that we have reached the point where what we are attempting is actually feasible.”

Urza paused. A spasm of emotions crossed his face. Doubt? Fear? Guilt? Finally his face cleared; he seemed to have come to a decision.

“I know nothing, Master. I have not heard or seen anything that could shed any light on what happened. I’m sorry.”

“Of course,” Brivari said.

“I live to serve and protect,” Urza insisted

“Of course you do,” Brivari said gently, placing his hand on Urza’s back. “Now, go see how Valeris is doing. Hopefully he will have made some progress. I will join you momentarily.”

Urza bowed, and left.

Brivari watched him go with a sense of uneasiness. He could feel in his gut—whatever passed for a gut in his current form—that Urza wasn’t telling him everything. His devotion to Vilandra was total; if what his informants had told him were true, it was quite possible that Urza would lie to protect her.

Brivari sighed. Did it really make any difference now? He wanted to know, but knowing would not change what had happened. There was no way to undo what had been done. They had chosen their path, for good or ill, and now had no choice but to follow it.


Last edited by Kathy W 2200 on Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:21 pm 
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PART TWO



Valeris shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He had been sitting in this position for hours, working carefully. He was almost finished.

A final nudge, and…..there. That was the last.

Swinging aside the bright overhead lamp, Valeris carried his latest creation over to the incubator and carefully placed it inside. The gandarium glowed blue in the dim room light. Under other circumstances, he thought wryly, he might even think it was beautiful.

Under their present circumstances, however, beauty was the furthest thing from his mind. He sat down heavily in a chair, allowing his mind to wander for the first time into areas he had so far managed to resist. It was never wise to succumb to pessimism while trying to be creative.

Valeris poured himself a cup of hot jero. He should have eaten long ago, but there had been no time. The samples must be as fresh as possible in order to have the greatest chance of success. And, he reflected grimly, they needed all the odds they could muster to be on their side in this unforgiving universe.

“Valeris?”

Valeris turned to find Urza standing in the doorway of the lab. “Urza,” he said kindly, motioning to a nearby seat. “Come in. Is Brivari awake yet?”

Urza nodded, his gaze fixed on the incubator. “He awakened a short time ago. He was asleep on the floor; I didn’t try to move him. Do you think I should have?”

Valeris shook his head. “No. He was so exhausted I doubt he cared where he was. Is he with you?” Valeris asked, looking past Urza to the passageway.

“He will be coming soon to examine your progress. He is……..washing,” Urza said, dropping his eyes and falling silent.

Valeris nodded silently and sipped his jero. The hot liquid felt good in his dry throat. As he set the cup down, his hand shook a little.

“Was the Queen……I mean, was she…….very…….” Urza stopped, unable to continue the thought.

“She appears to have died quickly,” Valeris said quietly.

“Ah. Good.” Urza’s gaze shifted to the incubator once more.

“Would you like to see them?” Valeris asked.

Urza’s eyes grew wide. “May I?” he breathed, clearly not believing his good fortune.

“Of course,” Valeris smiled. He rose, crossed to the incubator, and lifted the lid.

Urza gazed down at the tiny cell samples with a mixture of hope, admiration, and doubt. “Do you really think this will work?” he asked Valeris.

Valeris sighed. Jaddo had asked him the same question only a short while ago, and the answer was no different now. No doubt Brivari would ask also, but being Brivari, he would want a mathematical estimation of the likelihood of success. I can’t give them that, Valeris thought. This has never been tried before. The Project had been underway for years, but what they were attempting here had never been its goal. It was sheer luck that they even knew of this theoretical possibility.

But Urza stood waiting expectantly for an answer, and Urza was one who thrived on hope and crumpled in the face of doubt. The others would get straight answers; for Urza, the truth had best be masked.

“I think we have a very good chance of success,” he said, to Urza’s obvious relief. “Our preliminary experiments with lower life forms were very promising. And,” he added, “our Wards will emerge stronger than before. They will have all our capabilities, plus new abilities we do not have. They will surely put them to good use when they return.”

Urza shifted uneasily. He had never been entirely comfortable with the way they had all been….altered. Still, Valeris thought, it had been necessary. Even Brivari had seen the sense in that, though he had made no secret of his misgivings about how their kind were treated. Valeris doubted that Urza had even begun to explore his new abilities. Although he had certainly used them to great effect just recently, blasting away those around Vilandra’s body, and making certain that none who had seen her dead would live to tell of it.

Valeris closed the lid of the incubator gently. Urza lingered, looking through the window, obviously nursing more questions. Valeris waited.

“Will it take long?” Urza asked finally. “How long must we wait for them to be born?”

Valeris ran his long, gray fingers over his smooth head. “About twenty earth years,” he answered. “And it is crucial that they not be disturbed until they reach a more stable state,” he added quickly, moving Urza’s hands away from the lid.

“And what will we do during all this time?” Urza asked. Valeris smiled. Poor Urza. He had served one mistress for so long he did not know anything else. It had been different for Valeris; he had served many masters before being chosen as Warder for the King’s new bride.

Valeris put his arm around Urza’s shoulders. “We will watch. And wait. And make certain nothing interferes with their development. We will protect them like we always do. Like we always have.”

“Like we always have,” Urza echoed softly. “Then….why are they dead?”

Valeris sighed, and sank heavily into a chair. He really must get something to eat. “We had no warning,” he said to Urza. “We did our best. That is all we can do.”

Urza nodded, apparently satisfied with this answer. He turned to go, then hesitated. “I have one more question, if you don’t mind.” he said. Valeris nodded.

“What……what will she……look like?” Urza asked haltingly. “Will she be……beautiful?”

Valeris hesitated. Urza had not been present on previous trips to Earth, nor had he seen the donors. He had probably never laid eyes on a human. But there was certainly no point in keeping that information from him. He would need to learn to take their form, either male or female, very shortly.

Valeris rummaged in a drawer and brought out four images. Shuffling through them, he set one in front of Urza.

Urza blinked. He studied the image for several minutes without speaking, without touching it. Valeris watched a dozen different emotions crossed his face: Interest? Revulsion? Disbelief? Finally, Urza asked, “Is this form considered……beautiful?”

Valeris nodded. “She will be quite a beauty by human standards.”

“They are so……tall,” Urza noted uncomfortably. “Their fingers are so short, and their eyes are so small.”

Valeris nodded again. “They are different from us,” he agreed . “But no more different than some of the other races we’ve had to duplicate,” he added.

“May I see the others?” Urza asked, in a tone that suggested he wanted to get it over with.

“Of course.” Valeris arranged the other three images with the first, and Urza studied them all carefully and with less shock this time.

“Will Ava be considered beautiful as well?” Urza questioned. “And the King? And Rath?”

“They will all be regarded as attractive by humans,” Valeris answered. “Our pool of suitable donors was small; many humans do not respond well to gandarium. But we were careful to choose attractive humans from those who were eligible. Attractive people fare better in the human world.”

“And we must take these forms as well?” Urza asked in a clearly unhappy voice. “For so long? Won’t we ever be able to revert to a more comfortable shape?”

“You will grow accustomed to it,” Valeris said soothingly. “We cannot risk being found in our native shape, and we will be much more comfortable with human lungs in their atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is considerably thinner than ours.”

“Not only thinner, but impossible for the Argilians to breathe,” Urza noted.

Valeris nodded. “They will be unable to follow us.”

“Unless they have found a way around that problem,” Urza said off-handedly, still staring at the hybrids.

Valeris looked up sharply. “Why? Are they trying to find a way around it?”

Urza froze. He started backing away, shaking his head as he did so. “I…..I don’t know. I suppose I was just…..assuming….that they would try to find a way around it.”

Valeris studied Urza carefully. The Argilians had never been anywhere near Earth; it’s atmosphere was hostile to their physiology. The Royals, with their human DNA, would be unaffected, as would the four of them, since they could shift their internal organs to accommodate almost any atmosphere. What was Urza talking about?

Urza had backed all the way to the door. “I will tell Brivari you are finished,” he said hastily, and fled before Valeris could answer.

Valeris sat, puzzled, for several long moments. Argilians had been involved in the project years ago when it first began, but none had been involved for quite some time, an absence no doubt fueled by the growing tension between the races. This was probably nothing…..but still. The thought of Urza as a spy or a traitor was ridiculous, but if he had overheard something, he needed to tell them.

Another mystery to solve, Valeris thought, rising and crossing to the incubator. He was tired of mysteries. A few facts would be welcomed, for a change.

Valeris checked the gauge on the incubator carefully. This first stage was critical; temperature, humidity, atmosphere must all be strictly controlled if union was to take place. He looked through the window and was delighted to see that most of the clusters had formed blastocysts. Some were still in the earliest stages of cell division and union, and some did not appear to be progressing at all.

He had expected that. That was why he had made so many, to offset the ones that would not survive. Soon it would be time to cull the dormant ones. Anything that wasn’t a blastocyst within the next hour would go.

Valeris checked the gauges one more time and closed the lid on his handiwork; two hundred Antarian-Human hybrids, fifty of each royal. Fifty sets of the Royal Four.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:21 pm 
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PART THREE





Brivari stood in the doorway, silhouetted against the light of the hallway. The door closed behind him as he entered, and he adjusted the light level upward with a thought. But not too high. He needed light, but he did not think he could bear what he would see in the full intensity of the lamps.

He had meant to go straight to Valeris and inspect his progress. But he had decided he’d rather have the bad news first, and the good news, assuming there was any, after that.

The stasis units in use glowed in the dim light, while the rest of the room was shrouded in darkness. Twelve units, in two neat rows of six, left over from the days when space travel took longer than it did now. The constant, automatic adjustment of atmosphere within the units made a hissing noise, the only sound to break the silence of this chamber-turned-graveyard. Then, these preserved life, Brivari thought. Now, they preserve death.

Vilandra lay in the first unit, beautiful as always, as though she were simply asleep. Brivari had always liked Vilandra. True, she could be thoughtless, and her fondness for having a good time was well known. But he had always found her heart to be in the right place, and her upcoming marriage to Rath was of great interest to the kingdom. Everyone looked forward to seeing the glamorous and popular princess wedded to the trusted leader of the King’s armies. This may well turn out to be one of the longest engagements in history, Brivari thought sadly.

Brivari moved to the next unit, where Ava lay just as peacefully as Vilandra. Clearly, these two had not been the targets. Brivari touched the unit with his hand, remembering….

**** “Brivari!” the old King had cried, with all the enthusiasm his dying body could muster. “Zan is getting married! Isn’t that wonderful news?”

“Yes, Your Highness, wonderful news indeed! When will the wedding take place?”

“Soon, I hope,” Riall had answered, coughing. “These old bones won’t last much longer.”
****

Those old bones had lasted long enough, just barely. Riall had lived to see the heir to the throne wed to the woman he loved, then died peacefully in his sleep soon after. Brivari could still see them: The overjoyed King at the end of his life, his son, so handsome and loved, and the beautiful bride, so young and full of life, promising hope to a world that had known war for so long, they were almost afraid to believe this newfound peace would last.

He loved you, Brivari thought as he looked at Ava, thinking not only of Zan, but of his father as well. They both did.

Brivari moved more slowly toward the next stasis unit. He knew this unit contained his failure as a protector, the demise of a sacred trust. He held his breath as Zan’s body became visible in the gloom. This would not be a pretty sight.

Valeris had put him back together as well as he could, Brivari mused. At least he was recognizable. The former King of the Antarians looked up at him, his eyes wide and staring. I failed you, Riall, Brivari thought sadly. I promised to protect your son, and I failed.

Brivari thought back to that day when Riall had told him that he would be reassigned to Zan. Brivari had not been pleased; he had protected the old King all his life, since Riall was a boy, and he fully expected to protect him until he died. “I won’t make you do this,” Riall had said, although clearly he had the means to do so. “I beg you to do this. Will you do this… for me?” And Brivari had consented; glad, at least, to make the old King happy, and enormously grateful that Riall had given him the choice. But Riall had always treated the Covari as trusted associates, rather than slaves.

**** “You must guide him,” Riall had said to Brivari with a sense of urgency no doubt brought on by his failing health. “He is young, impatient….things take time. People take time to change. We are well on our way, but we must be careful. You could help him understand this, help him to see that he must be patient.”****

And he tried, Brivari thought. Patience was not one of Zan’s strongest traits, but he had convinced Zan to scale back some of his more provocative reforms, reminded him of his father’s warnings again and again. And Zan had listened, for the most part. He had slowed down, pulled back, while still moving inexorably forward. So what had gone wrong?

Brivari placed his hand gently on the stasis unit that held the remains of the son of the man he had loved so much. Riall, the first Antarian king to take the throne bloodlessly in centuries. Zan, his son, the first crown prince to ascend the throne in peaceful succession in even more centuries. When Zan had married, the people’s hopes had soared; surely the handsome couple would produce an heir, and their world’s newfound stability would be assured for many years to come. I have failed you, Riall, Brivari thought again. Now your people have only the memory to sustain them. Let us hope that will be enough.

Brivari turned toward the last unit, bracing himself against what he knew he would find. As the leader of the King’s armies, Rath would have borne the brunt of the invasion. Even so, Brivari was not prepared for what he saw.

Rath was unrecognizable. The twisted pile of flesh in the stasis unit bore little resemblance to any form Brivari had ever taken. These were not mere war wounds; this was deliberate savagery,

“Animals,” breathed a voice from the gloom.

Startled, Brivari peered into the darkness. He directed his mind at the lights and brought them up to full intensity.

On the far side of Rath’s stasis unit sat a figure, a male human figure. It took Brivari a moment to realize it was Jaddo.

“Athenor did this to him,” Jaddo said, rising. His human form was too tall to stand upright; he had to stoop. “It wasn’t enough just to kill him; he had to tear him to pieces like an animal.” His eyes flashed a hatred that was almost palpable. “No doubt he’s running around at this very moment, regaling one and all with tales of how he killed the King’s general.”

“He lived? He knows,” Brivari said, leaning heavily against the unit. “He will tell everyone.”

“He will get nowhere,” Jaddo said grimly. “Athenor is the only one left who witnessed the murder of one of the Royals—we exterminated the rest. Let him babble. He has no bodies to back up his claim.”

“Why have you taken that form?” Brivari asked, looking Jaddo up and down.

“I’m practicing—and the rest of you should as well,” Jaddo said. “Very shortly, our lives and the lives of our Wards will depend on our ability to assume these shapes.”

Jaddo looked down at Rath, or rather, at what was left of him, with sorrow. Ward and Warder were very much alike: Impatient, fiery-tempered, suspicious. “Perhaps he should have taken the deal,” Jaddo said softly. “Maybe then none of this would have happened.”

After a split second of stunned silence, Brivari launched himself at Jaddo and threw him to the ground. Jaddo crashed to the floor of the chamber with a sickening thud, and Brivari pinned his arms to the floor.

“It was Rath, wasn’t it!” Brivari spat, breathing heavily as Jaddo struggled against him. “He did it! He let them in! He betrayed all of us!”

“How dare you!” Jaddo cried, struggling under Brivari’s grasp. “Rath would never betray Zan! And maybe he should have. Maybe that was his downfall. Our downfall.”

Brivari dragged Jaddo off the floor and slammed him against the wall, pinning him there with his mind. Jaddo hung there, struggling, but helpless against Brivari’s superior abilities.

“Someone let them in,” Brivari said, panting. “Someone betrayed us. It’s the only explanation. And now you say he was offered a deal. Talk fast,” Brivari ordered grimly.

“Put me down!” Jaddo ordered, straining against the mental bonds that held him.

“Talk first,” Brivari answered, “and maybe—just maybe—I’ll put you down.”

Jaddo resisted for several more seconds before slumping against the wall, exhausted. The two Warders regarded each other with knives in their eyes. Of the two, Brivari was unquestionably the stronger; even in his weakened state, he could keep Jaddo pinned to that wall for a very long time indeed. Finally, Jaddo relented.

“There is a splinter group of Argilians who believe that Rath would make the stronger king,” he said. “They offered Rath the throne if he would help them overthrow Zan and Khivar.”

“And he took them up on it,” Brivari said through his teeth, tightening his mental grip.

“NO!” Jaddo protested. “Rath turned them down! He remained loyal to his king—and look what he got for it! Perhaps he should have taken them up on it.”

“And just why, exactly, should I believe he didn’t?” Brivari whispered in a dangerous voice.

“Because he’s dead, you idiot!” Jaddo shouted. “Why would they kill him if he had accepted?”

“You’re forgetting something, Jaddo,” Brivari said, coming closer until their noses almost touched. “You said it was a ‘splinter group’ that made Rath that offer. But it was Khivar’s army that swept through the capital, not some splinter group. It was Khivar’s own general who killed Rath. It’s entirely possible that Rath did pave the way for the so-called ‘splinter group’, not realizing that there was no ‘splinter group’—it was all just a ruse to get inside.”

Jaddo slumped against the wall, exhausted. Like the rest of them he had had nothing to eat and little sleep for days. His stamina was running out.

“Brivari, I swear to you, Rath said ‘No’,” Jaddo said in a ragged voice. “He considered it; I won’t deny that. But in the end, he was loyal to Zan. He was loyal to Vilandra. He did not betray us.”

Brivari studied the figure on the wall. Jaddo had always been ambitious, just like his Ward. He had always bristled at being in the shadow of the King’s Warder. He and Brivari had locked horns often. But there had never been cause to question his loyalty. If his loyalty to Rath had always been unquestionable, so too was his loyalty to his King. Still, Brivari thought, I have to be sure.

Brivari slowly released his mental grip on his colleague, and Jaddo slumped to the floor. Brivari crouched down beside him, looking him in the eye.

“Then how did they get in?” he asked, studying Jaddo’s face for any sign of dissembling, any clue. “Obviously someone let them in. Someone lowered our defenses, and the enemy walked right in the front door. Who, Jaddo? Who did it? Who better to do it than the King’s own general?”

Jaddo sat up stiffly and met Brivari’s gaze. “I don’t know,” he said, breathing heavily. “But I do know it wasn’t Rath. He turned them down; I swear to it.”

“Perhaps,” Brivari said. “But tell me this: What if he hadn’t turned them down? Would you have warned Zan? Where do your loyalties lie? With the rightful King, or the man who could have elevated you to the status of a King’s Warder?”

Jaddo glared at Brivari, not answering. A minute passed, then two, as Brivari waited for an answer. Finally, getting none, Brivari stood up.

“What is that earth saying?” he asked, almost to himself. “There was a ‘fox in the henhouse’ –and I don’t know who it was. But I will find out,” he said quietly, leaning in toward Jaddo again, “and when I do, pray I do not discover it is you.”

Brivari turned and strode out of the room, leaving Jaddo slumped against the wall, eyes glittering.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:21 pm 
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PART FOUR




Valeris hummed as he prepared the food. He was starving. He carefully set the hot dish between the two plates, wondering absentmindedly why he was always so careful with hot things. It would take a great deal of heat indeed to harm him or any of his colleagues. But burning was a danger to their Wards, so they had long ago adopted the precautions that ordinary people must always use to avoid injury. There are some advantages to not being ordinary, he mused, as he set cups on the table.

Valeris heard him before he saw him. “There you are,” he said, pouring hot jero and not bothering to look up as Brivari came in. “I was expecting you.”

Brivari looked haggard—and troubled. “How did you know I was coming?” he asked.

Valeris smiled. “This is a small ship, Brivari. One can hear shouting quite easily.” He set down the pot of jero and motioned to a chair. “Sit. You must be hungry. I certainly am.”

“I should check your work first,” Brivari said, heading toward the incubator. “I haven’t even been down here since you started.”

“They will wait,” Valeris said firmly, steering Brivari to a chair. “I will be culling them soon; you may watch, if you wish.” He held out a cup of hot jero in a gesture that brooked no argument.

Brivari sank down into the chair. “Thank you,” he said simply, accepting the cup.

Valeris dug into his food with gusto, pausing only to take gulps of jero now and then. Brivari ate with less relish, but he was clearly hungry too.

After Valeris had finished, he sat back with a satisfied sigh, and eyed Brivari. “So,” he began, “are you going to tell me what all the noise was about?”

Brivari didn’t answer. He was staring at his plate as though seeing it for the first time. Valeris waited.

“How did you feel,” Brivari began slowly, “about Riall’s edict allowing us to eat regular food?”

“I take it you don’t want to talk about your fight with Jaddo just yet?” Valeris said, with a sympathetic look. Brivari looked away. “Very well,” Valeris continued. “I was delighted with the old King’s edict. I realize it meant little to us in practice. It was a symbolic gesture, meant to elevate us in the eyes of others. A mark of his respect for us. And respect,” Valeris noted, “is worth more to me than any particular food.”

Brivari nodded. “I agree. But I always thought the detractors had a point. Why waste perfectly good food on a race that can’t even taste it?”

“I may not be able to taste,” Valeris said, “but I can discern differences in texture. The nutritional supplements we always ate before Riall’s kindness were always the same: Same texture, same temperature, same color. Eating has become much more pleasurable for me. And to sit at table and be served the same food as everyone else—I was surprised at my reaction to that. It was wonderful to share meals with Ava and eat the same dishes. She would describe each one to me and sometimes, if I tried very hard, I could almost imagine I could taste them.” Valeris smiled at the memory.

Brivari set down his empty cup. He glanced over at the incubator, clearly troubled by something. Finally, he spoke.

“Jaddo informed me that a splinter group of Argilians offered to put Rath on the throne,” Brivari said. “He claims Rath turned them down.”

Valeris poured another cupful of jero. “He did turn them down.”

“You knew?” Brivari said incredulously.

Valeris nodded. “I overheard the King and Rath discussing it.”

Discussing it? What was there to discuss? Whether or not to accept?” Brivari said, stunned.

“Of course not,” Valeris chided. “They were discussing whether or not this splinter group could be brought to the bargaining table. Matters had reached a point where Khivar would not come, and Zan thought that perhaps those who approached Rath would agree to negotiate on behalf of the Argilians.”

“Khivar would never accept that,” Brivari said. “He doesn’t want to negotiate; he wants to rule. He has a score to settle with the house of Riall.”

“What Khivar wants and what others of his race want may well be two different things,” Valeris said. “If the leaders of the splinter group had come to the table, both the King and Rath felt that the rest of the Argilians would at least wait to see what would happen—and let Khivar seethe. It was worth a try.” He set down his empty cup. “I have heard that this business between Khivar and Zan is not so much political as it is personal. Is that true?”

“Khivar wishes to avenge his father,” Brivari answered wearily. “A poor reason to bring war upon a planet, if you ask me.”

“This was before my emergence,” Valeris mused. “Educate me?”

Brivari smiled. “You slept through your history lessons, I take it?”

“I am a scientist,” Valeris pointed out. “History was never my specialty.” He shot Brivari a look of genuine affection. “It is good to see you smile, old friend, even in the midst of all this.”

“You do have that effect on me,” Brivari said, still smiling. “You always have.” He poured another cup of jero and leaned back in his seat. “Very well, then. A history lesson. Antarian kingships have rarely passed peacefully from ruler to ruler, certainly not in the last several hundred years. Bloody wars marked each succession. Until Riall.”

“You protected Riall since childhood, did you not?” Valeris asked.

Brivari nodded. “I watched this happen. Riall’s uncle was king at the time, and when he finally passed away, the usual mad scramble for the throne began. Khivar’s father was mere inches from claiming the crown when Riall swept in with an alliance comprised of most of the other contenders, who had agreed to set Riall on the throne if he shared power with them.”

“I’m certain that went over well with Khivar’s father,” Valeris remarked.

“Khivar’s father had no choice,” Brivari said. “The alliance was too strong, the promise of peace too alluring—and everyone’s mistrust of the Argilians too intense. He hated Riall until the day he died, and opposed him at every opportunity, but he was never strong enough to topple him.”

“And then Riall died,” Valeris murmured, “and now the process repeats itself.”

“I warned him,” Brivari said, shaking his head at the memory. “Riall was barely cold in his grave when Khivar pulled the Argilians out of the council and demanded they renegotiate the terms of their inclusion. I told Zan that Khivar would never bargain in anything even vaguely resembling good faith. To him, Zan represents the man who stole his father’s throne, and who now wears the crown that is rightfully his.”

“Khivar’s people don’t necessarily see things that way,” Valeris noted. “They’ve enjoyed decades of peace under the council, and some are loathe to give that up. They seem to feel he is stirring the pot for no good reason. I believe the leaders of the splinter faction had agreed to meet with Zan—and then this happened.” He inclined his head in the direction of the incubator. “Perhaps that agreement was what set this off. I would imagine Khivar fears that history will repeat itself.”

“History should have repeated itself,” Brivari said irritably. “Khivar wasn’t even close to being strong enough to formally oppose Zan, just like his father before him wasn’t able to oppose Riall. So what happened?” He pushed his cup away. “No doubt Zan did not bother to inform me of this business with the splinter group because he thought I would object. He was doing that more and more—leaving me in the dark. It was maddening.”

“You are awfully hard on him,” Valeris noted. “I’ll grant he is stubborn and impatient. I’m willing to bet Riall was too, when he was that age.” He paused, smiling. “Well? Am I right?”

Brivari opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Valeris leaned in closer. “Brivari, I know how you feel about Riall. But Zan is not Riall. You cannot expect him to be. Or take him to task if he isn’t. He must make his own way, and I honestly do not believe this tragedy was his doing. Something else was going on here, something Riall did not have to face. Find out what that something is before passing judgment on Zan. Or yourself,” he added pointedly, with a meaningful look.

“I take it you have added mind reading to your impressive list of talents,” Brivari said dryly. “Not to mention psychiatry.” Valeris shrugged. Brivari leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. “You’re sure Rath turned them down?”

Valeris nodded. “Quite sure.”

Brivari sighed. “I see I have an apology to make.”

“To whom?” Valeris asked.

“Jaddo. I all but accused him of cheering Rath on so that he could become a King’s Warder.”

Valeris shook his head. “It’s true that Jaddo is ambitious, and he can be ruthless. And brilliant,” he added with a twinkle. “A most annoying combination at times, I’ll allow. But he is no traitor.” When Brivari did not respond, Valeris continued. “You were rightfully suspicious. You didn’t know. Explain it to him. Jaddo is a military man, like Rath. He will understand. Here,” he said, passing a plate to Brivari. “Have some more.”

“Not yet,” Brivari said, rising from his seat. “There are people missing from the table. Let me fetch them, and we’ll continue.”



******************************************************



Once again, Brivari stood in the open doorway of the stasis chamber, peering through the gloom. Jaddo was still there. He had resumed his usual shape, and was standing motionless at the head of Rath’s unit, hands placed flat on top, head downcast.

Brivari entered the room and positioned himself a little to one side, so Jaddo could see him. The soft lights glowed. The stasis units hummed. Jaddo stood motionless, as if in prayer or meditation. Brivari waited.

“Have you ever seen a human cry?”

It was question spoken in barely more than a whisper, and Brivari was surprised. He had expected anger, disgust, righteous rage, any number of things, but not this simple, whispered question.

Brivari shifted his feet. “Once,” he replied. “One of the donors woke from their sedation, and became very upset when they saw where they were.” He winced at the memory. After all that had been done to his own race, it had been hard to watch what had happened to the human donors.

“I saw one cry once too,” Jaddo said, still in that barely-above-a-whisper voice. “There are times I wish I could cry like that.” He paused. “This is one of those times.”

Brivari didn’t know what to say. For Jaddo, always so strong and controlled, to admit such a thing was nothing short of incredible.

“I loved him,” Jaddo whispered.

“I know you did,” Brivari answered gently.

“Do you?” Jaddo asked, turning suddenly to face him. “You who think I’m a traitor, who thinks my Ward is a traitor?”

“Jaddo, I’m sorry,” Brivari said. “Valeris explained what happened. I’m sorry I suspected you.”

“So. My word is not enough,” Jaddo said softly. “His word you will take, but not mine.”

“Jaddo, I’m sorry,” Brivari said again, moving closer. I can’t make sense of this. I know they must have had help, but I don’t know who did it. There is a part of me that will not rest until I figure out how this happened. And I’m willing to bet there is a part of you that feels the same way.”

Jaddo stared at him for several long moments, as if assessing his sincerity. Finally, he nodded.

“Come,” Brivari said, holding out his hand. “We are having a meal in the lab, all of us. We must stay together now. For our Wards. For our world. For ourselves. We are all we have. We mustn’t let anything divide us.”

Jaddo stood silently, seemingly unwilling to leave Rath’s unit.

Brivari took him by the arm. “You can come back later,” he said gently.

Jaddo looked at Brivari, as if considering how to respond. Then he shook his head. “I will be there momentarily,” he replied. “I want a few more moments. Alone.”

Brivari nodded. “Then we’ll see you shortly.” He turned and left the chamber, the door sliding closed behind him.

Jaddo remained motionless, looking down at Rath through the lid of the stasis unit, thinking of what he had not said to Brivari. What he had considered revealing, but then decided against it. Not now. Not yet.

“How did you know?” he whispered softly to the body in the unit, as though Rath could actually hear him. “You were down there at the palace gates, waiting to meet them. No one else knew they were coming. How did you know they would be there?”

Jaddo leaned closer to the lid and whispered so softly he could barely hear himself. “Did you betray us?”


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:22 pm 
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PART FIVE




Urza stood amongst the hissing stasis units, still unable to believe this had happened. They were dead. All of them. And it’s my fault, Urza thought miserably. His failure to act was directly responsible for the carnage in this room and on his planet.

He moved to Vilandra’s stasis unit, gazing through the cover at something he never thought he’d have to see. She looked virtually untouched, arranged in such a natural position that Urza would swear he need only take her hand and she would wake, and tell him this was all just an awful mistake. Which it was, of course. The entire saga, from start to finish, was nothing but one, huge mistake.

How could they have killed you? he wondered, caressing the clear cover of the unit. You, I thought were safe. This could not have been Khivar’s doing. She was too important to lose; having her at his side would have lent him validity. Not to mention the effect on Zan. It was not enough to covet his throne, Urza thought bitterly. You had to have his sister as well.

Urza bent down and released the mechanism for the cover. He had to touch her one last time, if only to convince himself that she really was dead, that this was not merely some bad dream from which he could expect to awaken. The atmosphere inside the unit escaped with a hissing noise, and the cover swung silently upward. Cautiously, he touched her hand. It was cold, so cold that he withdrew his own hand, shrinking from the touch of death.

You were too trusting, Urza thought sadly, and he lied too well. A bad combination, that. Khivar understood the first rule of constructing a believable lie: All good lies contain some truth. Enough truth to convince the gullible, or leave shadows of doubt in the minds of the less easily convinced. Vilandra had fallen into the former category until the very end, when it was too late to change anything.

“I should not have left you at the end,” he whispered, taking her hand in spite of the chill. “We should have gone together.” His eyes spied the pendant around her neck. The swirling symbol of their galaxy was engraved upon it, with Antar at the center, gleaming in the dim light. He reached for it with a shaking hand.

“Urza, what are you doing?”

Urza spun around to see Valeris framed in the doorway, a quizzical expression on his face. He drew back his hand as Valeris came forward and peered into the stasis unit.

Valeris’s face softened. “Take it,” he said gently to Urza. “She doesn’t need it anymore.” When Urza did not move, Valeris reached down and removed the pendant from Vilandra’s neck. “Rath gave this to her, didn’t he?” he asked, studying it. Urza nodded.

Valeris handed the pendant to Urza. “Keep it. I have Ava’s wedding bracelet, and I know Brivari has Zan’s. You take this,” he said, pressing the pendant into Urza’s hand. “No doubt she will be glad to see something of her own when she returns.”

Urza took the pendant and left the room without a word. Valeris closed the lid of Vilandra’s unit, and looked across to the next, where Ava lay. Everyone keeps vigil, he thought. He hesitated, then shook his head, and moved to the door.

Not here. He preferred to keep his vigil over the living.



******************************************************



Valeris entered the lab to find Jaddo standing over the incubator, peering inside, apparently so lost in thought that he did not even hear Valeris enter. Another vigil, he thought. “Well, this is a surprise,” he said to Jaddo, who jumped. “I can’t remember ever seeing you darken the door of a laboratory.”

“Meaning what, exactly?” Jaddo challenged.

“Meaning you are the last person I would expect to find lost in thought over a bunch of cell clusters.”

“I came here to ask you a question, not to look at these,” Jaddo said stiffly.

“Of course not. That’s why you’re standing over them, meditating…right?” Valeris ignored the scathing look Jaddo shot his way. A great many people found Jaddo extremely intimidating. Valeris wasn’t one of them.

“I fail to understand how one could joke at a time like this.”

“We all handle our grief in different ways,” Valeris observed. “I choose to handle mine with humor. I find it far preferable to standing around, blaming myself.”

“You think I blame myself?” Jaddo asked.

“Don’t we all?” Valeris sat down wearily and stretched his legs. “We just express it differently.”

“Your attitude is irritating.”

“As is yours,” Valeris answered calmly. “Now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries and irritated one another…. you had a question?”

Jaddo came around the incubator to look at him more closely. “You look exhausted,” he announced. “I sincerely hope your fatigue has not affected your work.”

“Your concern for my well-being is touching, to say the least,” Valeris said dryly. “I assure you I have done my very best. That is precisely why I am so exhausted.”

The tiniest flicker of regret crossed Jaddo’s face. “Of course you did your best,” he allowed, in a more conciliatory tone. “I meant no offense.”

“None taken,” Valeris said quietly. “Now…your question?”

“It concerns the engineering process,” Jaddo began.

“A bioengineering question? From you? Surprises abound,” Valeris said in an amused tone, and quickly held up his hand when he saw the look on Jaddo’s face. “Sorry. Sorry. I shall do my best to curb my irritating humor for the duration of our discussion. Call it a reprieve.”

“I would appreciate that,” Jaddo said darkly, while Valeris suppressed a smile. Jaddo had very little in the way of a sense of humor, and typically couldn’t abide that trait in others. It made him an easy target if one wished to needle him.

“I do not understand why we cannot create clones directly from the bodies. Given all that we are capable of, why must their DNA be mixed with alien DNA?”

“Some of the best minds in bioscience have worked on that dilemma for quite some time,” Valeris answered. “For some reason, Antarian DNA cannot be directly cloned. They tried for ages, and the results were always the same: Deformities, usually so severe that the clones did not live long. The few that lived longer usually developed anomalies which drastically shortened their lives. The research was finally abandoned, and attention was turned to other things.”

“ ‘Usually’? Does that mean some did not develop anomalies?”

“It is said that our own race is a result of those first experiments,” Valeris said quietly. “That could very well be, given the number of our kind who do not survive their emergence, and the further number who do not survive their first shift. Whatever happened, the results of that research terrified our first bioengineers, and direct cloning has not been attempted since. Instead, we combine our DNA with that of other races and manipulate the process as they join.”

“So we have no choice but to make use of the DNA of inferior races,” Jaddo said resignedly.

“The human race may be inferior technologically, but that does not mean their DNA is inferior,” Valeris noted. “Quite the opposite. That was the reason the project began in the first place. You have some human DNA yourself. We all do.”

“Don’t remind me,” Jaddo said, clearly not pleased. He paused. “I gather I have you to thank for smoothing over this latest conflict between myself and Brivari.”

Valeris shrugged. “I merely told him what I’d heard.”

“Valeris the facilitator,” Jaddo said softly, almost smiling. “I have always wondered if that was why Riall chose you to be Ava’s Warder. You have a talent for smoothing things over. You and your….humor.”

“A complement?” Valeris teased. “Next you’ll be telling jokes, and we’ll all die of shock.” He ignored Jaddo’s withering look, and continued. “Joining a new family can be difficult, but Ava didn’t need much help in that regard. Nevertheless, I have always wondered why Riall pulled me away from my work to make me a Warder. Now, I think I know why.”

“Oh?”

“I think he suspected something like this might happen. And given my research—he may have deliberately put me in the right place to do something about it. He was a shrewd old man.” He rose, and moved to the incubator. “It’s about time to pull the defective ones,” Valeris said, looking through the lid. “I’ll go fetch the others. I know they wanted to watch. You’re welcome to stay too,” he added , “if you think you can tolerate my irritating attitude.”

Jaddo sighed. “I take it my humor reprieve is over?”

“Give it a try sometime, Jaddo,” Valeris said, smiling, as he walked out the door. “You might find humor wears well on you.”



******************************************************



A short while later, the four gathered around the incubator and peered inside.

Dozens of tiny embryos, with shapes so vague they could have been either Antarian or human, sat in neat rows. Some of the cell clusters had not advanced; Valeris started to pull those out.

“How many do we have now?” Brivari asked.

“Approximately thirty-eight of each hybrid,” Valeris answered.

“How many will we keep?” Urza asked, looking faintly ill as Valeris tossed out the defective Vilandra hybrids.

“As many as we can,” Valeris answered. “The more we have, the better. We don’t know what we’re going to run into while we wait for them to grow to maturity. Better to have as many as possible in case something goes wrong.”

“Will all of these have the mark?” Jaddo asked, looking at the Zan hybrids.

“No,” Valeris answered. “The Zan hybrid which reaches a certain stage of development first will develop the mark.”

“Incredible,” Urza whispered. “And…..they will remember us?”

“Assuming they grow to maturity, yes,” Valeris answered.

“Is it absolutely necessary that they remember everything?” Jaddo asked. “Because there are a few things I wouldn’t mind Rath forgetting.”

Brivari and Urza stared. Valeris looked momentarily taken aback, then dropped his head to hide the smile on his face. “A joke,” Jaddo said, in a slightly offended tone. “I have been known to joke occasionally, haven’t I?”

“Not really,” Valeris noted with amusement. “But one has to start somewhere.”

Brivari looked back and forth from Valeris to Jaddo. He had no idea where this sudden burst of good humor had come from, but it was good to see Jaddo relaxing a little. He may be impatient and a notorious perfectionist, but he was a huge asset. Brivari depended on him heavily.

A chiming sound abruptly filled the air.

“We are being contacted?” Jaddo said, surprised. “We were supposed to initiate contact once we reached Earth. Who would contact us now?”

“Let’s find out,” Brivari said, heading for the door. “This could be very good news—or very bad news.”

Several minutes later, all four Warders gathered in the control room. Jaddo placed a communicator on the table in front of them. All four raised their hands and pointed them at the communicator, which started to glow. A beam of light shot from the symbol inscribed on the center of the device, and within that beam a shape began to coalesce. It swirled for several seconds, finally taking the form of a familiar figure.

“Balor!” Brivari said, delighted to see that the Queen Mother’s Warder lived. “It is good to see you! But why have you contacted us now?”

“Greetings, fellow Covari,” Balor responded formally. “I have good news. It is safe to come home!”


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:22 pm 
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PART SIX




After a brief silence, everyone began talking at once.

“Wonderful!” Urza cried.

“Thank goodness,” sighed Valeris.

“Why?” asked Jaddo with typical suspicion.

Brivari held up his hand for silence. “Balor, if this is true, this is very good news indeed. But how is this possible?”

“The Argilian forces were routed by the King’s army,” Balor explained. “They have been driven from the capital. Many have been taken prisoner, and many more are on the run. The King’s uncle, Lord Durash, will assume the throne as Regent until the King is able to resume the throne himself.”

Urza and Valeris exclaimed happily at this news, but Brivari remained silent, pondering. Jaddo was downright skeptical.

“I don’t understand,” Jaddo said sharply. “When we left, Khivar’s forces had overwhelmed the capital, taken the palace, and killed thousands. We were totally unprepared. And now you tell us that all of this has been turned around in little over a few days?”

“The King’s army is very efficient,” Balor replied somewhat stiffly. “Even without Rath at its head, it performed its duties admirably. I would think,” he added, “that you would receive this as good news.”

“Of course we do,” Brivari answered. “We are just—surprised, that’s all. Tell me, has anyone discovered how the Argilians managed to surprise us?”

“We have determined that Talwyn was responsible,” Balor replied. “He has been charged with high treason, and will no doubt be executed by the Regent.”

“Talwyn!” Jaddo exploded advancing on Balor’s image so quickly that Balor, wherever he was, drew back in surprise. “Talwyn was Rath’s most trusted general! There must be some mistake.”

“There was no mistake,” Balor replied firmly. “There are witnesses. Rath trusted the wrong man.”

Brivari looked from one to the other, a thousand thoughts swirling through his head. Balor had been the Queen Mother’s Warder even when she was Queen with Riall. He knew Talwyn well, knew that Talwyn was absolutely one of the least likely people to defect. Balor’s apparent easy acceptance of this charge was troubling.

“Is there a problem?” Balor asked. “Your orders are to return to Antar at once. You have the hybrids and the Granolith, correct?”

Three uncomprehending faces stared at Balor, and then turned slowly toward Brivari.

Brivari stood silent, unmoving, gazing at Balor’s image with an unreadable expression on his face. Several long moments passed while no one said anything.

“We will return at once, of course,” Brivari finally answered. “We will contact you when we reach orbit.”

“Excellent,” Balor answered. Then his face softened, and he added, “I know this news was difficult for you to hear. But what is most important is that we have found the traitor, and driven back the invading forces. I look forward to seeing you all again, my friends.” Balor bowed, and his image flickered and vanished.

Brivari stared at the three expectant faces gathered around him. “I don’t suppose,” Valeris said dryly, “that it would be too much to ask what exactly a ‘Granolith’ is?”

Brivari didn’t answer. He moved to a control panel and reset the coordinates to bring them back to Antar. When he was finished, he turned to face them.

“Follow me,” he said.



******************************************************



The four stood clustered around the cone-shaped device, which glowed softly and hummed loudly in the little cargo hold at the end of the corridor.

“What does it do?” Urza wondered.

“Why was I not told of its existence?” Jaddo asked.

“I’m not surprised I didn’t know about it,” Valeris remarked mildly. “This clearly isn’t my line of work. However, I would be interested in knowing what it’s doing here. I’m quite sure I didn’t see this hanging out of your suitcase when we took off.”

“It’s a ship, for the most part,” Brivari said, “a prototype of a new type of transport meant to bring us to a new level of interstellar travel. It’s also our insurance policy. Bringing it to Earth with us ensures that our Wards will have a way home, even if something happens to us or our ship. It also ensures no one else will get their hands on it.”

“It’s awfully small,” Urza said doubtfully.

“It can hold five times what this ship holds, in only a fraction of the space,” Brivari noted.

“Impressive,” Jaddo murmured, “but I’m still wondering why I’ve never heard of it.”

Brivari circled the cone-shaped device, weighing his words. “Given the complex negotiations going on, Zan felt it best that as few as possible know about this. None of the various factions know, nor do our neighbors. Even Rath did not know. Rath commanded the King’s armies. He was not involved with the research and development of experimental technologies. If and when the time came to actually use this, he would have been told.”

“Rath was not merely the commander of the King’s armies,” Jaddo argued. “He was the King’s second, the heir to the throne should anything happen to Zan before he and Ava had a child. He would be Regent to a child too young to assume the throne. He should have been told.”

“It was Zan’s decision to keep this as quiet as possible,” Brivari said, “and to keep it here. A brilliant decision, if you ask me. Who would look for an experimental space transport on an old cargo ship?”

“A ship on a ship,” Valeris mused. “I wondered why you headed for this particular vessel.”

“It’s a good thing we left with it, whatever it is,” Jaddo commented. “No doubt it would have been used against our own world, if not our neighbors as well. And while I’m not thrilled Zan kept this from Rath, at least he had the sense to keep it from everyone else.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we have a treaty with our neighbors that mandates the sharing of new technologies?” Valeris asked.

“We do,” Brivari answered, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

“You’re telling me Zan violated his own treaty?” Valeris asked incredulously.

“The treaty called for the sharing of ‘new’ technologies,” Brivari said. “This project was begun under Riall, and is therefore not ‘new’.”

“Semantics, Brivari?” Valeris said skeptically. “You’re saying it’s acceptable to violate the spirit of the treaty by observing it to the letter?”

“I am saying,” Brivari said carefully, “that what is right sometimes conflicts with what is necessary.”

“I agree. We were not ready to share power the way Zan envisioned,” Jaddo said, shaking his head. “He grew up in a peaceful world courtesy of his father, but there are still many people from his father’s generation who remember life before Riall only too well. They operate on a different set of principles. Zan’s goals were sound, but he was reluctant to admit that not everyone had followed him into his brave new world. He and Rath argued about that often.” Jaddo looked up at the Granolith, its cone pulsing. “Apparently, Rath got through to him, at least on this subject. He was right to keep this secret.”

“Not entirely secret,” Valeris pointed out. “Balor knows.”

Jaddo looked at Brivari. “Would Balor have known of this?”

“No,” Brivari said slowly, “and that is what worries me.”

“You suspect Balor is lying to us,” Valeris said calmly.

“That would seem unthinkable,” Brivari allowed. “But I must consider that possibility.”

“Perhaps that was not Balor,” Urza offered. “Perhaps that was someone else?”

Valeris leaned against the wall of the hold. “I don’t see how it could have been. Everyone knows Covari can recognize other Covari on sight, regardless of form. And we don’t take each other’s shapes. Who else could it be?”

“Oh, it’s him, all right,” Jaddo said grimly. “And I do not like this at all. We cannot simply land this ship and settle this later. If Khivar is still in control he will destroy the hybrids and take this—thing, whatever it is. And what is this nonsense about Talwyn? The idea that Talwyn would betray his commanding officer and his King is laughable. Balor is lying to us. This is a ruse.”

“Slow down,” Valeris countered. “We have known Balor for years; he is a trusted friend, a loyal Warder. Why would he suddenly abandon us for the Argilians? What could he possibly hope to gain? No one has treated us better than Riall and Zan. They began the process of changing the way we are treated, the way we are perceived. They passed laws to protect us. I simply cannot believe that Balor would betray them.”

Valeris turned to Brivari, who was still gazing at the Granolith as if deep in meditation. “I feel we must assume that Balor and his message are genuine unless we learn differently,” Valeris said. Think of how much better it would be for the hybrids to incubate in a controlled environment among their own people, instead of on an alien planet where they will always be in danger. If this news is true, then the odds of bringing our Wards back have greatly increased. We owe it to them to investigate this carefully, and not give up too soon.”

“Be careful,” Jaddo warned. “Earth is a backward world, with paltry technology and a species which doesn’t even believe there is life on other planets. But I would rather take our chances with Earth than walk right into an enemy’s waiting hands.”

Brivari stared at the Granolith’s cone silently. “We will remain on course for Antar,” he said finally. “But I don’t feel right about this either,” he added, looking at Jaddo, who nodded. “Talwyn as betrayer? Balor as betrayer? Neither makes sense to me. Let me think awhile.”

Brivari remained as the rest filed out, trying to balance what he wanted with what he sensed. Something was wrong here, yet the thought of going home…I would love to go home, he thought wearily. To put this whole mess behind us, and regain the stability we fought so hard to build. But he must be cautious. If he called this one wrong, they would lose their last chance to repair the damage, and it would undeniably be his fault.

Brivari left the cargo hold, closing the door behind him. As he passed the stasis chamber he paused. He looked at the door for a moment, then went inside. He approached Zan’s unit, staring at the body for a moment.

“So,” he said softly, to a king who could not hear him. “This is what it feels like to have the weight of a world on your shoulders. How did you do it? How did you live with it?” He paused. “This is fitting, I suppose. Most likely I deserve it, for all those times I swore I knew better than you.” He smiled, and shook his head. “Ironic, isn’t it? The time finally comes when I need your advice, and you are not here to savor it.”

Brivari turned around, leaned against the unit, and slid to the floor. “You drove me crazy sometimes,” he whispered. “But I would give anything to be able to talk to you right now.”

Brivari sat there in silence, with his back against the unit, thinking. He didn’t see Urza, standing just out of sight beyond the open door, watching him with a troubled expression on his face.


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PART SEVEN




Brivari sat in the control room looking out the viewport, deep in thought. They would reach Antar shortly. He must make his decision—and his move—very soon.

A sound behind him caused him to turn. Urza had come up behind him almost noiselessly.

“I thought you would be asleep,” Brivari said, surprised to see him there. “Go back to bed, Urza. I will wake you when the time comes.”

“I could not sleep, Master,” Urza replied. He was clearly troubled, shifting from one foot to the other, looking very uncomfortable indeed.

“Master, I…,” he began, then stopped. “I believe…..,” he began again, only to stop once more, clearly at a loss for words.

“What’s wrong?” Brivari asked gently.

Still Urza hesitated. Whether he was struggling with what to say or whether to say it at all, Brivari could not tell. Finally, Urza drew himself up and spoke in such a rush that Brivari had trouble following.

“Master, I believe that Balor is lying. I feel we should turn this ship around at once and proceed to Earth as originally planned.”

Brivari blinked. Such declarations were unusual from one who was usually so timid. “And why, exactly, do you feel he was lying?” Brivari asked.

“I…..I can’t tell you that,” Urza replied, looking at his feet. “I….I just know he is. Something he said……was wrong. At first, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood, or that he had misunderstood, but no matter how I work it out ….and given other misgivings about that message……he is lying. I know he is.”

“Urza, you have to do better than that,” Brivari objected. “I can’t just turn this ship around based on a feeling. If I were willing to do that, I would have turned around already.”

“This is not just a feeling,” Urza said with uncharacteristic sharpness. “He is wrong. That’s not what happened. I was there.”

“You were where?” Brivari asked. “That’s not what happened when? If you have specific information that contradicts what Balor said, you must share it. We could be walking into a trap.”

“I can’t tell you,” Urza repeated miserably.

“And why not?” Brivari asked, his ire rising.

“I promised I wouldn’t,” Urza said, almost in a whisper. “I gave my word. I can’t go back on that. But I can tell you that Balor’s information was in error.”

“And what information would that be?” Brivari asked, exasperated. But Urza was silent, clearly unwilling to divulge any more than he already had.

“Urza, do you realize what you ask of me? You insist Balor is lying, but you won’t say what about. You want me to ignore the word of a trusted friend, but you won’t tell me why. I can’t do that.” Brivari made a dismissive gesture and started to get up.

Urza gripped Brivari’s arm, hard. Brivari looked at him in surprise. Urza’s eyes were wide, his face set. Brivari had never seen him this way.

“Listen to me,” he hissed, gripping Brivari’s arm even harder. “Have I ever lied to you?” Brivari slowly shook his head. “Then trust me now,” Urza said, coming in closer. “The details are irrelevant; what is relevant is that his details don’t match mine. I know what happened; I was there. Balor is lying; I don’t know why. But I am positive he is lying. And until we find out why he is lying, it is not safe to return our Wards to Antar.”

Brivari looked down at the hand gripping his arm, then back at Urza’s intense expression. Urza, who never laid a hand on anybody. Who was frequently afraid to speak up in the company of others. He must be very sure of himself to act this way.

Urza followed Brivari’s gaze, and released his grip with an embarrassed look. He shifted uneasily, and looked up at Brivari. “Please,” he whispered, “you have always trusted me before. I have never given you reason not to. You must trust me now.”

“Balor, too, has never given me reason to distrust him,” Brivari pointed out.

“Until now,” Urza said firmly. “Assuming that is Balor; and if I were you, I would give serious thought to the notion that it might not be.”

As Urza left the control room, Brivari stared after him, a troubled expression on his face. A very troubled expression, indeed.



******************************************************



Brivari stood in front of the navigation console. In the distance Antar glowed red, growing larger every second. It was time.

Brivari turned as he heard the others file in behind him, in answer to his summons. He placed the communicator on the table and examined the faces before him. Jaddo looked wary, Valeris merely curious, and Urza……Urza’s face was a mixture of fear and determination. Brivari met Urza’s gaze, daring him without words to look away, but Urza did not. He answered Brivari’s stare with a stare of his own, which was clearly a challenge. A challenge Brivari was about to accept.

“I am going to contact Balor,” Brivari said, indicating the communicator. “I will activate the communicator alone, so he will not be able to see or hear the rest of you. I am deliberately not waiting until we reach orbit because I am uncertain of the outcome of this conversation. We may need to leave in a hurry.”

“So you really think Balor is lying?” Valeris said.

“No,” Brivari answered. “I don’t.”

“Then….why would we need to run?” Jaddo asked.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Brivari said grimly. “But if I’m not…..be prepared.”

Everyone silently stationed themselves at various consoles. Brivari raised his hand to the communicator, which glowed.

Several seconds passed. The communicator continued to glow, Brivari continued to concentrate, and the others continued to wait.

Suddenly a beam of light shot ceilingward from the communicator, and Balor’s form took shape within it.

“You have returned,” he said pleasantly. “You are in orbit?”

“Not quite,” Brivari said. “We anticipate arriving shortly. In the meantime, we have been discussing preparations for the funeral. We, of course, must arrange this, as it is our Wards who will lie in state.”

“Of course,” Balor replied. “Is there anything I can do prior to your arrival?”

“We would like the bodies ready for us so that we may attend them as soon as we arrive,” Brivari replied. “Where are they now?”

“They lie in the palace hospital,” Balor answered. “We will take you there immediately upon your return.”

Brivari and Jaddo exchanged glances. Valeris’s eyes grew wide. Urza stared, stony-faced, at the holographic image of the man who had just proven him right.

Brivari walked slowly toward the pulsing column of light, coming to a stop just inches from the face of the apparition that gazed placidly back at him. “They lie where?” he asked.

“In the palace hospital,” Balor repeated. “The bodies were recovered not long after we regained control of the palace and taken to the hospital immediately.”

“No. They weren’t,” Brivari replied.

“Why do you say that?” Balor asked.

“Because we have the bodies,” Brivari answered in a tone of deadly calm.

Balor’s face adopted an expression of surprise. “We have worked together for years. You can’t possibly think that I would lie to you.”

“No,” Brivari answered. “Balor would not lie to me. But you are not Balor.”

The image of Balor looked dismayed. “Whatever are you saying, Brivari?”

“Who are you?” demanded Brivari, his hands beginning to twitch at his sides. “Tell me who you are, or I swear I will make you pay for this deception!”

Balor’s image developed a conciliatory tone. “I know all of you are tired. Events have been very confusing of late. But you know as well as I do that it violates our most sacred law for a Covari to take the shape of another Covari. Surely you don’t mean what you are saying.”

By way of answer, Brivari raised his hand and directed a blast of energy at the image.

“What are you doing?” Jaddo asked, bewildered.

“Testing a theory,” Brivari answered grimly with a glance at Urza, who nodded as if in agreement.

The holographic figure began to writhe. It had taken a few seconds for Brivari’s energy blast to travel through the communicator to the source, but the results were spectacular. The figure twisted, its face a mask of agony, until finally, with one last howl, Balor’s form disappeared, replaced by another.

Brivari dropped his hand. The new holographic figure was on its knees panting. It looked up at Brivari, and their eyes locked.

You,” Brivari whispered, clearly not believing what he saw. “About our ‘sacred laws’—you were saying?”

The figure sank into a sitting position, too weak to rise. “Yes, me,” it said. “It has been awhile, has it not?” The figure shifted painfully. “I’m afraid our sacred laws are changing, Brivari. As are a number of things.”

Urza, Valeris, and Jaddo looked from one to the other, their questioning glances making it clear they did not know this individual.

Brivari’s gaze was fixed on the false Covari; he circled the holographic image as if still trying to convince himself that what he saw was true. “What did he promise you?” he asked the figure, which was still slumped on the floor of wherever it was. “Position? Power?”

“Something more valuable than that,” answered the figure. “My life.”

Brivari continued his slow circling of the image. “So. You would rather live in the service of a traitor than die in the service of a benevolent king? A strange choice. I would rather die than serve a traitor. I am sorry you feel differently. Sorry, but not surprised. This is not the first time we have had this argument, is it?”

The figure’s face twisted, whether from pain or in disgust at Brivari’s words it was hard to tell. “You would martyr yourself,” it said sarcastically. “How noble. How loyal. How ineffably stupid.”

Brivari’s hand shot out; the figure recoiled, and held up its own hand. “Think, Brivari!” it argued hurriedly. “If we all throw ourselves on our swords, who will be left to bring down that traitor? If we all do that, than our race dies. Our royalty dies. There will be no one left to fight, no one who remembers how it used to be. Khivar hunts us. He fears us. He means to destroy all of us who have not sworn loyalty to him, and even those who have sworn such loyalty, he does not trust. We can hide from ordinary men, but you know very well we cannot hide from each other.”

“You’re telling me you are a double agent, then? A spy in Zan’s service?” Brivari asked.

The figure hesitated. Brivari moved so close to the image that his face was almost touching it. “Exactly whose side are you on? This time,” he added darkly.

My side,” answered the figure passionately. “And yours. I’m trying to save you.”

“Save me? By luring me back under false pretenses? Taking the form of a trusted associate? Admitting you’re working for the enemy? Explain exactly how this is ‘saving me’,” Brivari spat.

“You will not succeed,” the figure replied tiredly. “Your only hope—our only hope—is to hide the hybrids here and lay low, pretending to cooperate. Khivar is too powerful now. There will be another time.”

“That time is now,” Brivari argued.

“You will fail,” the figure stated flatly.

“I would rather try and fail than never make the attempt,” Brivari said firmly.

“The issue is not whether you try, but where and when,” the figure said impatiently. “We can hide you. Here you will be surrounded by those who will protect you.”

“And those who lie to me, who claim to be working for neither side, only themselves, and who violate one of the most sacred trusts a Covari could have!” Brivari shouted at the image, which recoiled. “You have given me no reason to trust you. You would have done better to contact me yourself with this tale, rather than attempting the impersonation of a friend.” Brivari turned his back on the image, “I will take my chances with the humans.”

“You will be followed,” the figure warned.

Brivari glanced at Valeris, who shook his head. “Earth’s atmosphere is hostile to the Argilians. They cannot follow us.”

“Let them try,” Brivari said to the image. Then, to the others, “Resume course for Earth.”

The figure struggled to its feet. “Then we each fight this battle in our own way—again. Good luck, Brivari. You will need it.”

Brivari answered with another energy blast, which hurled the figure to the holographic floor of the image. He held the blast for several minutes, until, exhausted, he slumped to the floor, while the ship arced a graceful turn and headed once more in the direction of Earth.



******************************************************



Urza entered the control room to find Brivari gazing out a viewport, much the way he had been earlier. Only now his expression was not puzzled, but set, determined. Urza hesitated a long moment before speaking. “You wanted to see me?”

Brivari gave a small nod without turning to look at him. Several moments passed, the silence growing ever more oppressive. Finally, Brivari spoke. “You asked me a question earlier, Urza.”

“I…I did?”

“You asked, ‘Have I ever lied to you?’ And at the time, I said ‘no’.” Brivari paused. “I now realize I was in error.”

Silence. Urza said nothing, but merely stood there, looking miserable.

“You did lie to me,” Brivari continued quietly, still looking out the viewport. “I asked you specifically if you knew anything about the invasion, and you said ‘no’.” He swung around suddenly in his seat, making Urza jump. “You lied to me then. Why?”

“Nothing I knew had any bearing on events as they stood at the time,” Urza answered in a shaky voice.

“But that was not what I asked,” Brivari said softly, dangerously. “I asked if you knew anything. I did not qualify my request.”

“No. I qualified my answer,” Urza replied. “I gave my word, Brivari. I intend to keep it.”

“Even if it places our Wards in danger?”

“No,” Urza protested, “which is why I warned you. I told you only what you needed to know to affect the situation at hand. I tried to strike a balance between my promise and the guidance you needed.”

“Guidance,” Brivari echoed. “I wonder how you came by this ‘guidance’, Urza. How did you know that Covari was false?”

“I did not know. I suspected,” Urza corrected.

“But why?” Brivari asked. “For as long as our race has existed, the one thing no Covari would do was be false to another. It was a point of pride in a world that feared and used us. Others we would deceive, but not each other. As long as I have lived, I have never seen that rule broken.”

“Not everyone lives by your rules, Master,” Urza said softly.

Brivari stood up and came face to face with Urza. “Whose rules do you live by?” he challenged.

“Yours, Master,” Urza said firmly. “Which is precisely why I warned you.”

“Yes,” Brivari murmured, “you did. But what if I hadn’t believed you? Or did believe you, but failed to figure it out? What then? Would you have taken your secret to our respective graves, secure in the knowledge you had kept your word?”

“No. I would have done whatever was required to protect us,” Urza replied steadily. “If there had been no other way, I would have broken my word.”

After staring hard at Urza for several seconds, Brivari nodded, and moved away to stand beside the viewport. “I am preoccupied with other matters at present, so I will accept that—for the moment. You very likely saved our lives today, Urza. Keep your secret, if you must. But when the time comes that I deem it necessary you reveal what you know, you will reveal it.”

“If it becomes necessary, of course I will,” Urza said, nodding.

Brivari turned to look at him, his stare so intense that Urza took a step backwards. “Let me make myself perfectly clear,” he said quietly, menacingly. “I will decide what constitutes ‘necessary’. I will decide when it becomes ‘necessary’, and if you defy me, I will hold you as traitor—and I will kill you myself.”

Their eyes locked, a silent battle of wills, with Brivari the victor. Urza dropped his gaze, and nodded. “I walk a razor’s edge,” he whispered. “I will not break my word lightly. Do not ask me to.”

Urza turned to leave, then stopped. “You may find my desire to keep my word inconvenient,” he said quietly, his back to Brivari, “but I am no traitor. Do not think of me that way.”

Do not make me, Brivari thought as he watched Urza walk away.


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PART EIGHT




“There,” Jaddo said, pointing to a spot on the shimmering, holographic projection of earth suspended in midair. “That is a vast, uninhabited region. A perfect hiding place.”

The four Warders were gathered round the small table in the control room, gazing intently at the hologram and consulting the information that had been collected from previous visits to Earth.

“That is an area known as ‘Siberia’,” Valeris said, studying the screens of information with Urza at his side. “It is not heavily inhabited.”

“And very cold, according to this,” Urza added, shivering at the thought.

Valeris smiled. Antar did not have Earth’s extreme swings of climate; all of them, no doubt, would need time to adjust.

Brivari was leaning against a nearby console, arms folded, pondering the place Jaddo had indicated. “Do we need to be selective as to climate?” he asked Valeris. “Do the hybrids need a particular temperature or environment in which to grow?”

Valeris shook his head. “The hybrids are only delicate in this first stage of development. After that, they can safely be removed from the incubators, as long as they’re sheltered from weather and discovery, of course. They should reach that stage within a month of our arrival.”

“Then this is the perfect place,” Jaddo said. “They can be hidden underground, and there are no humans for miles.”

“And therein lies the problem,” Brivari replied. “We will be hiding on this planet for many years. We need to be in a place where we can blend in and keep an eye out for enemies, while guarding the hybrids at the same time. If we were discovered there, we would be easy targets.”

“Discovered by whom?” Valeris asked. “Do you really think the Argilians will follow us? How, when they cannot survive in Earth’s atmosphere? The most they could do would be to send some of our own people after us, and we will recognize those immediately. What are the odds we will have anything other than human enemies to worry about?”

Brivari circled the table, still looking at the hologram. “I think we must prepare ourselves for any possibility,” he said. “Now that we know that Orlon is possibly working for them, we can’t assume anything. We don’t know how many of us turned. Hopefully just a few, but there is no way to know for sure. We are safest if we prepare for the worst and hope it doesn’t come.”

“You have told us Orlon’s name, but not how you know him,” Jaddo said. “You two were obviously well acquainted. Why?”

Brivari sat down in a nearby chair and was silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was to Valeris. “Do you remember what I told you about how Riall gained the throne?” Valeris nodded.

“As I recall, he formed an alliance with others vying for the crown,” Jaddo broke in. “by promising them more autonomy then they would typically have.”

“Yes,” Brivari agreed. “But that was not the only factor which influenced their decision to support him. Before the alliance, Riall gained the support of one key race—ours.”

“How?” Urza asked.

“By promising us greater protection than we had ever had in the past, and a better standing in society.” Brivari rose and began circling the table again. “When Riall approached the other contenders, he had a virtual army of Covari behind him. Never before had our race supported one contender so completely. The others feared us—and fell in line behind Riall.”

“And where does Orlon fit into all this?” Jaddo wondered.

“Not all Covari supported Riall,” Brivari noted. “Most, but not all. Those that did not felt we were merely trading one cage for another, albeit a gilded one. They wanted complete freedom for our people.”

“Our world is not ready for that,” Valeris commented. “Not now, and I would imagine even less so then.”

“I agree,” Brivari said. “Orlon did not. I felt Riall’s offer was a huge step forward, and worth taking. As I have often noted to his impatient son, these things take time.”

“His impatient son expanded his father’s reforms,” Valeris pointed out.

Brivari sighed. “I know he did. And I was grateful for that, just as I was grateful for Riall’s reforms. But Riall did require certain…concessions, which I, and most of our race, felt were reasonable under the circumstances. Orlon and some others did not.”

“Whose side was he on?” Jaddo asked.

“The same side he claims to be on now,” Brivari said. “His own.”

“Then he is not to be trusted,” Jaddo said firmly.

“Perhaps,” Brivari said. “Orlon is extremely intelligent, very persistent, a natural leader. He will find Khivar far less accommodating than Riall. It is possible he will wind up on our side in this particular situation.” Brivari rubbed a hand over his smooth head. “I have not seen him for many years. We parted badly, which no doubt contributed to the way I reacted.”

“I must admit I was surprised that you were able to affect him from that distance,” Jaddo said, sounding genuinely impressed. “How did you know you could do that?”

“I didn’t,” Brivari answered. He shrugged. “What we produce is basically electrical energy; I gambled that energy could be transmitted over the same frequency as the holograms.”

“Do you think you may have permanently damaged him?” Urza asked.

“I doubt it,” said Brivari. “We were a considerable distance away. Most likely I just weakened him for awhile.”

“You haven’t told us how you knew he wasn’t Balor,” Jaddo pointed out.

“No, I haven’t,” Brivari answered. Jaddo looked as though he meant to press further, but thought better of it when he saw the look on Brivari’s face. Better to save that one for later.

Brivari glanced at Urza, who looked away. He genuinely did not believe that Urza was a traitor; that was every bit as unbelievable as Balor being a traitor. And Urza had come forward when needed. Hopefully he would voluntarily reveal what he knew, and Brivari would not find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to force the issue.

“So,” Valeris said, glad to change the subject. “Where do you think we should land, Brivari?”

“Here,” Brivari responded, pointing to a northern continent. “The land on Earth is divided into sections known as ‘countries’. That country is called ‘the United States of America’.”

“That is a heavily populated region,” Jaddo said, clearly unhappy.

“Not all parts are heavily populated,” Brivari said. “Besides, I have another reason for wanting to land here. And for avoiding the area you selected.” Brivari pulled up a chair and sat down with the others at the table. “Have any of you studied recent events on Earth?”

“Why?” Jaddo asked.

“I have,” Urza said. I found their recent conflict …… interesting.”

“Conflict?” Valeris asked. “I see I have some studying to do.”

“Many Earth countries recently fought a war, a huge war,” Brivari explained. This began when a dictator rose near the place Jaddo selected. He was determined to destroy one of the Earth races, which he deemed inferior. And he might have succeeded, had not others intervened.”

“So, this whole area is war-ravaged,” Valeris said, indicating a portion of the map with this hand. “That explains why you want to avoid it. But why choose this ‘America’?”

“It is a large country; there are several uninhabited regions in which we could hide,” Brivari said. “Its people hail from many different places; that will make it easier for us to hide, to not appear so different that we will attract attention. It also accords its citizens great freedom as to what they may do and where they may go. We need that mobility and flexibility; it is essential to remaining undetected. And who knows? We may learn something useful from their conflict.”

“Honestly, Brivari,” Jaddo said with disbelief, “these humans are a primitive species. The only reason they were selected for the project is that, for some unfathomable reason, their DNA is sometimes compatible with ours. They haven’t even learned how to leave their own planet. What can you possibly expect to learn from them?”

Perhaps what Zan failed to learn, Brivari thought, remembering.

**** “We should crush him now, Your Highness, while we have the chance,” Brivari said. “There may never be a better time.”

“My father believed in negotiation,” Zan replied. “He believed that it is possible for people to settle their differences peacefully. We have to try.”

“You can only reach a peaceful settlement with someone who desires peace, and Khivar does not want peace,” Brivari argued. “You may be willing to compromise, but that does not mean that he is.”

“Are you saying he wants war?” Zan asked.

“I’m saying that he doesn’t want anything you want. And as long as you both want different things, there will be no settlement.”

“Would you have me plunge us into a war without even trying to avoid it?” Zan asked. “That is irresponsible.”

“Is it responsible to allow an aggressive enemy to manipulate your people?”
****

Brivari shook his head. If his information was correct, the various Earth leaders had attempted peace with their tyrant. Their efforts at conciliation had only postponed the inevitable. Finally they crushed him; utterly, completely, but at the cost of many lives. If they had moved to stop him earlier, that might not have been the case. Sometimes there was value in the pre-emptive strike.

Zan had not understood this. His father had brought peace to Antar, and Zan was determined that he would not be the one to break that peace. But you did anyway, didn’t you? Brivari thought. You didn’t learn until too late that sometimes, the price of peace is just too high.

“The humans responded the way we should have responded to Khivar before it ever got this far,” Brivari said. “They responded with force, the only language such people understand. We should learn all we can from their conflict, and this is a good place to start. America was a member of the coalition that defeated their tyrant.”

Jaddo sighed impatiently. “May we at least set down in an unpopulated area? Or were you thinking of landing right in the middle of one of their largest cities and asking for military advice?”

“Right here,” Brivari replied, ignoring Jaddo’s sarcasm. He pointed to a chain of mountains in the southwestern part of the country. “Sparsely populated, but close enough to settlements. We’ve been near that area before. We can construct an underground chamber, or simply bury the ship and its contents. Both the Granolith and the hybrids will be safe there, and difficult to locate.”

“Fine,” Jaddo said shortly. “Moving right along, we need to scan Earth’s various languages into our memories. We never know which one we will need.”

“There are so many,” Urza said, bewildered, looking at the screens.

“Indeed,” Jaddo agreed. “It’s a wonder they can communicate at all amidst such a babble of different tongues.” He adjusted the screens again. “These are the various fauna indigenous to Earth. Make certain you scan not only the shape, but where the animal is usually found. We don’t want elephants wandering down city streets.”

“I shall endeavor to be careful when shifting into an elephant—whatever that is,” Valeris said, smiling.

“Now, we must all practice taking human form,” Jaddo continued, ignoring Valeris. “I’ve selected four composite forms. All are Caucasian, one of the dominant races on Earth and the race from which the donors came. All are male, since they are the dominant sex in most Earth cultures. See for yourself.” He worked the controls, and the hologram of Earth faded, replaced by four human figures which slowly revolved.

Urza’s face twisted as he looked at the figures. “Male? Why do I have to be male? Vilandra often preferred me as a female.”

“Vilandra is not around to prefer you one way or the other,” Jaddo said sharply. Seeing the warning glances coming from Valeris and Brivari, he relented—slightly. “Like I said, Urza, males are the dominant gender in most Earth cultures. If we encounter a situation where it is more advantageous to be female, we can, of course, do that.”

Urza studied the rotating figures unhappily. “They are so large and gangly,” he said.

“Will you find your princess to be large and gangly when she emerges?” Jaddo asked.

Urza looked even more unhappy at the mention of Vilandra and her new human form. “I suppose I shall have a while to get used to it,” he said doubtfully. “What is all that?” he asked, pointing to a spot midway on one of the figures.

“Those are their sex organs,” Valeris answered calmly.

“On the outside?” Urza gasped, astonished. “Where they could easily be damaged, or lost altogether? How foolish!”

Valeris managed to keep a straight face, while Brivari had to look away to hide his laughter. “I understand their females have their sex organs inside,” Valeris observed.

“Let me see,” Urza demanded. Jaddo sighed, and produced an image of a human female.

“Ah. Yes. Sensible,” Urza said approvingly. “Much better to be females, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t,” Jaddo said with exasperation. “You’re not going to use them, of course,” he continued, as Urza adopted a stubborn expression. “Think of them as merely a …. disguise.”

“Why don’t you show us one of these forms, Jaddo?” Brivari said. “You’ve already practiced; you will be able to do it more quickly.”

Jaddo rose from his seat. The others watched, Brivari and Valeris with interest, Urza with trepidation.

Jaddo began to grow. He grew taller and taller, to the point where he had to stoop as the ceiling became too low for him. His head shrank, his limbs lengthened, his eyes grew tiny. In a few seconds, he stood before them as a human male.

“Very good,” Valeris said approvingly. Brivari nodded. Urza looked vaguely ill.

“You next,” Jaddo said to Brivari. “You are the only other one of us who has assumed human form.”

Brivari obliged, shifting efficiently to a similar form.

“My turn,” Valeris said. He studied the holographic figures one last time, and then began to shift. It took him a few seconds longer because he had never shifted to human form before, but after some minor adjustments, he, too, stood in human form.

“Now you,” Jaddo said firmly to Urza, who sighed resignedly.

Urza, for all his reluctance, was a practiced shifter. Keeping up with Vilandra and her appetites made this a necessity. In mere seconds, he had joined the others in human form.

Brivari, Valeris, and Jaddo stared at Urza, then at one another.

“What?” Urza asked.

“Ah…..don’t you think you’re forgetting something?” Valeris asked diplomatically.

Urza looked down. “I don’t need them,” he argued. “Like Jaddo said, I’m not going to use them.”

“I see. And the first time someone sees you without clothing, they simply won’t notice a few things missing,” Jaddo said sarcastically. “This is a disguise, Urza. In order to work it must be complete.”

“Jaddo’s right,” Brivari agreed. “You need to finish the job.”

Urza hesitated a moment, then unhappily complied.

“They dangle,” he complained a moment later. “This is worse than the tentacles I had to grow on Arhaus.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Jaddo said shortly. “We should all practice assuming these forms so that it becomes faster to shift. We will need to…… what?” He stopped, looking at Brivari and Valeris, who were both looking at Urza and trying, but failing, to hold in their laughter.

Jaddo turned and jumped, startled, at the sight of a human female, long hair, large breasts, sex organs safely tucked inside. “I much prefer this form,” Urza said.

Brivari and Valeris collapsed, laughing, on the table. Jaddo fumed for a moment and then stormed off, nearly smacking his large, tall frame against the doorway, which brought more gales of laughter from the others.

“Oh, dear. Now he’s mad at me,” Urza said, looking unrepentant.

“He’ll get over it,” Brivari said, smiling. It felt good to laugh. It seemed like ages since they had had a reason to. Still chuckling, he moved to the viewport and gazed out at the stars flying by.

They were almost there. Soon, this part of the nightmare would be over, the hybrids would be safely hidden, and the rest of them would need to figure out what they would do with themselves for twenty, long years. Brivari had given little thought to that. On previous visits to Earth, his time had been spent selecting donors. He had no idea what Earth had to offer in any other respect.

Twenty years, he mused. Would they even want to go back after spending that much time away? In twenty years, anything could happen.

Anything.



******************************************************



July 2, 1947, 9 a.m.

Corona, New Mexico, Earth.




The warm summer sun gently woke Dee Proctor, urging her awake with it’s heat. The little girl stretched and yawned, blinking in the early summer sunshine. She climbed sleepily out of bed and headed for the bedroom window.

Leaning over the sill, she could see the summertime bustle below. Children happy to be out of school ran in and out of houses, pursued by mothers reminding them to wipe their feet. Dogs barked, happy to have someone to play with during the day. Sprinklers waved merrily back and forth in a vain attempt to keep the grass green.

It was already pushing ninety degrees outside, but Dee didn’t care. She loved summertime: Staying up late, sleeping in late, no homework to do, no schedules to keep. The days stretched before her like so many blank canvasses, just waiting to be painted. Summertime banished her usually predictable, mundane life and turned it into something new and unexpected every day. That’s what Dee loved best about summer. In the summertime, anything could happen.

Anything.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:23 pm 
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PART NINE



July 2, 1947, 11 a.m.

Roswell, New Mexico, Earth




George Wilcox parked his car smack dab in front of the Roswell Sheriff’s office, in the VIP spot. Being a Sheriff himself had it’s advantages.

Wilcox pushed opened the office door, grateful for the marginally cooler air that greeted him after sweltering in his car. Every little bit helped.

“Help you?” asked an eager young man with a name tag that read “Deputy Valenti”.

“I’m here to see the Sheriff,” Wilcox announced. “George Wilcox, Chaves County Sheriff. He’s expecting me.”

As the deputy scurried off, Wilcox leaned over the counter, the better to catch the breeze of a nearby desk fan. Damned heat. He hated summertime. Everything got worse in the summertime. More robberies. More vandalism, usually by kids who had nothing better to do. More complaints from everyone. And the heat just made it all worse. He couldn’t wait for fall.

With any luck, today would be a nice, boring day. With any luck everyone in Chaves County would behave themselves for awhile, while he poured some iced tea and sat in the shade. With any luck, nothing the least bit special would happen, nothing that required his attention in this sweltering heat.

With any luck.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Deputy Valenti leaned over the counter as Sheriff Wilcox headed down the hallway to see Roswell Sheriff Hemming, watching until he rounded the corner. Someday he’ll be asking for me, he thought determinedly. Valenti had his life all planned out: Find a wife, get the house with the white picket fence, have four or five kids, and eventually become Sheriff of Roswell.

He moved back to his desk, sitting down in front of his typewriter. He had a dozen reports to finish, most of it routine stuff like petty theft and vandalism. But there were a few doozies in there too. There was a lady on the east side who swore she saw Jesus in her bathtub; her carrying on at all hours had prompted her neighbors to call the Sheriff’s office. Then there was the guy out on the edge of town who claimed he had a vampire living in his outhouse; he wanted deputies out there that night to catch it. Valenti wondered absentmindedly why a vampire would choose to lurk in an outhouse. Granted it would be guaranteed visitors, but it would always be looking at the wrong end.

Valenti pushed away from the desk, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes for a moment. The heat was oppressive; even the basement was warm. And the heat seemed to have brought out more than the usual number of nutcases. The frightening part was that these people truly believed they’d seen this stuff. Jesus and vampires—Sheesh! What next? Honestly, did these people have any idea how crazy they sounded?

The phone rang. Valenti sighed as he rocked forward in his chair and reached for the phone. “Sheriff’s office, Deputy Valenti speaking,” he intoned.

On the other end of the line was an elderly gentleman who insisted that a spaceship had flown over his house that very morning. Valenti groaned. Oh, no. Spaceships? What kind of a moron believed in spaceships? Must be senility, Valenti decided. If I ever get like that—shoot me.



******************************************************



Urza peered anxiously at the ill-fated hybrid, watching helplessly as it writhed and twisted in what looked disturbingly like agony. “Isn’t there anything you can do for it?” he asked Valeris.

Valeris shook his head. “I’m afraid not,” he said sadly.

Brivari appeared in the doorway, glancing up at the door frame before cautiously entering the room. He had resumed his usual form, but he had already bumped into enough of the ship while in human form to make him wary of tight spaces. “How are they coming along?” he asked.

“We are down to about twenty-five of each hybrid,” Valeris answered. “I’ve taken the most robust ones so far and placed them in their sacs, if you’d like to see.”

Brivari nodded and followed Valeris to the nearest incubator. Passing by Urza, he followed Urza’s gaze. He paused for a moment, staring at the twisted creature that resembled neither human nor Antarian. “Kill it,” Brivari said to Valeris.

As Valeris moved to comply, Urza put his arms protectively around the hybrid. “No,” he said firmly to Brivari.

“It is suffering,” Brivari said gently. “Let Valeris put it out of its misery.”

“They don’t all survive the joining process,” Valeris added. “Very much like we don’t all survive our first attempt at shifting.”

“What difference does it make to either of you?” said Urza miserably. “It is dying anyway. It consumes no resources; it occupies no space another should have. What difference will it make if we allow it to die naturally?”

Brivari looked at Valeris, who shrugged. Urza picked up the pathetic little creature and headed out the door with a somber expression on his face.

“Let me guess—that was a Vilandra hybrid,” Brivari said. “I thought they died before reaching that point.”

“Most hybrids do,” Valeris answered. “But every now and then, there is one that winds up like that.

Brivari inspected the rows of sacs. Each contained four hybrids, one of each royal. Each sac pulsed with four tiny heartbeats, a motion so tiny at this stage that it was little more than a mere quiver. “Where do we go from here?”

“They will need to stay in their incubators for probably the next two or three standard Earth weeks,” Valeris answered. “Eventually, each sac of four will split into four separate pods.”

“A hundred pods,” Brivari murmured. “You’re going to keep track of a hundred pods?”

“There won’t be a hundred pods, Brivari,” Valeris said quietly. “A number of these won’t make it, for one reason or another. We’ll have to keep weeding them out. The Zan hybrid that develops the mark first, along with the healthiest of the other three, will become our prime set. The rest are insurance.”

“That’s something of a relief. A hundred Zans is a frightening thought,” Brivari said, as Valeris smiled. “There is something I will need you to do shortly after landing,” Brivari added, glancing toward the door as if to see if anyone were listening. He placed a diagram on the table. “I want the Granolith’s ignition sequence altered. Can you do it?”

Valeris studied the diagram, then raised troubled eyes to Brivari. “I can. Although I’m not certain how wise of a move this would be. What if something goes wrong?”

“That is precisely why I want it changed,” Brivari said. “I wish to remove that option from the list. But wait until we are safely settled.”

“Are you sure you want me to do this?” Valeris asked skeptically. “Jaddo will have a fit.”

“If all goes well, no one else will ever know,” Brivari pointed out.

“ ‘If all goes well’,” Valeris repeated wryly. “Things haven’t been going very well for us lately, have they?”

“Then we’re due for a change of luck. Overdue, if you ask me. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Brivari said, heading for the door, “I have a funeral to arrange. With one more body than we originally planned for, it seems.”

Valeris watched him leave with a look of concern on his face. He turned back to the incubators, watching the tiny jumps of each sac as each tiny heart beat.

Some, probably most, of the hybrids would not survive. Even making it past the most critical stage was no guarantee of survival. He understood how Urza felt. Each time one of Ava’s hybrids had failed, it was like watching her die all over again. And he would have to watch her die many more times before he would finally see her again.

Slowly, he walked to a small stasis unit in the back corner of the lab and opened the lid. He peered down at the tiny creature within, noticeably different than the hybrids in spite of its early stage of development. He had told no one about this. It made no difference now, would serve no purpose but to depress. He would explain later, after they were settled and out of danger.

He closed the lid, letting the sadness wash over himself for the first time. He had been too busy, too preoccupied prior to this moment, and frankly, he had preferred it that way. Such promise. Such a waste.

He would send them out together, he decided. They could not be together in life; let them be together in death.



******************************************************



July 2, 1947, 12 p.m.

Corona, New Mexico, Earth



David Proctor pulled his car into the driveway of his house. He didn’t usually make it home for lunch, but schedules were a bit more relaxed in the summertime. No one was inside, but looking through the back porch windows, he saw his wife and daughter in a neighbor’s yard. Dee was running through the sprinklers with the neighbor’s children, and Emily was sitting in the shade with their neighbor, fanning herself slowly against the muggy heat.

David felt his throat catch as he looked at this quintessential scene. Who would have thought he’d find himself here now? Three years ago he was stuck in a foxhole, expecting every minute to be his last. In his pocket he’d carried a torn, dog-eared photograph of his wife and young daughter. He still had that photo, tucked away upstairs in his trunk, along with his medals, his uniform, and the other accoutrements of a time he didn’t want to remember. Fortunately, VJ Day had come soon enough for him. He’d missed two year’s of his family’s life, but he’d come home. Others had not been so lucky.

He glanced down at the photo of his brother, brushing his hand over the ornate frame softly, like a caress. James had come home in body, but not in spirit. Less than a year after he returned, his spirit had given up. He was a casualty of war every bit as much as those who had never come home, but history would wrongly look upon him as a survivor.

David looked out the window again, watching his 8 year-old daughter playing. He and Emily had sheltered her from the war as much as possible, going to some lengths to keep the newspapers away from her, and being very careful what was said in her presence. Deep down inside he questioned whether that was the right way to handle things. But he had seen too much over there, had left too much of himself on the battlefield. He didn’t want her to know, didn’t want to squash her optimistic view of the world with reality.

David Proctor’s daughter was still innocent, and he meant to keep her that way as long as humanly possible.



******************************************************



The four Warders stood in the control room looking out the tiny viewport windows. They had just passed the outer edge of Earth’s solar system. This was their last task before reaching Earth, the task no one wanted to do.

“Are you ready?” Brivari asked all of them. Everyone nodded.

“You will start,” Brivari said to Jaddo. His Ward was engaged to royalty but not yet married, and not royalty himself. Rath was the lowest in rank, and therefore went first.

Jaddo touched a crystal on the control panel in front of him. A sleek tube shot out from the ship, visible through the viewport.

Jaddo raised his hand toward the window. “Rath, Leader of the King’s armies and the betrothed of Princess Vilandra,” he said. He directed his energy toward the tube, and the tube exploded in a spectacular burst of light.

Brivari watched as Urza came forward. He had seen Urza place the failed Vilandra hybrid in Vilandra’s tube, after sitting with it in the stasis chamber until it finally died. For him, there was one more death to mourn today.

Urza stepped up to the panel and placed his hand on the crystal. “The Princess Vilandra, daughter of Riall” he said in a surprisingly steady voice. He raised his hand, causing Vilandra’s tube to explode like Rath’s before her.

Valeris stepped forward. Brivari regarded him curiously. Shortly after Urza had left the stasis chamber, Valeris had unexpectedly shown up and placed something in Ava’s tube. A failed hybrid, most likely. But it was not like Valeris to grow attached. Urza he could understand; he had always been a sensitive soul. But Valeris….Valeris was a scientist, first and foremost. It was odd that he would choose to gift what was essentially a failed lab experiment with a royal funeral.

“Her Highness, Queen Ava,” Valeris said quietly, releasing the tube and dispatching it like the others.

Everyone looked to Brivari. It was time for the King to go to his final resting place. Unfortunately, this was not the first king Brivari had seen sent to his grave.

****Riall’s funeral, a splendid, state affair. Hundreds of thousands of people had turned out to bid the beloved old King goodbye. The burial tube had paraded through the streets, followed by his grieving widow, his young son with his new bride, and his daughter. Flags flew, music played, and there was a sense almost of peace in the air. The first peaceful transfer of the throne in centuries. A young king with a young queen, and all the promise they held for the future. A time for hope amid the tears.****

Brivari bowed his head sadly. Despite the hope represented by those tiny heartbeats in the lab, it seemed that hope died here, in the blackness of space. This was not how it should be. Zan should not be dead. And if he were dead he should not be buried this way, in the cold of space, the anonymity of nothingness. This felt wrong.

Wrong or no, it was. Brivari touched the crystal on the panel. “His Highness, King Zan, son of Riall,” he whispered. Zan’s tube appeared outside the viewport. Brivari raised his hand and the tube exploded in a crescendo of sparks.

Khivar would claim that he had killed them, but he would never be able to produce the bodies. The people would be suspicious. The Covari who remained faithful would spread the story of the young king and his queen, the beautiful princess and her husband-to-be, who would return one day, more powerful than ever, and take out the usurper. The legend would grow, and with it, the people’s hope.

That legend, the four of them, and the tiny heartbeats in the lab might be the only things keeping that hope alive.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:24 pm 
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PART TEN



July 2, 1947, 2 p.m.

Corona, New Mexico, Earth




William Brazel headed for the truck parked in his driveway. On the way he looked over to the neighbor’s yard, where eight year-old Dee was laughing as she ran through the sprinkler. She saw him watching and waved gaily. “Hi, Mac!” she called.

“Hi, Dee,” Brazel said, smiling as the wet child ran up to him, shaking water off herself like a puppy. “I bet you’re one of the few in town enjoying this heat.”

“I love summertime,” Dee beamed, looking like she meant it. “Can I walk the ranch with you again sometime? Mommy and Daddy said it was okay.”

“Sure,” Brazel said, patting the little girl on her wet head. “I’ll talk to your parents about it. Not today, though. Storm’s coming. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Okay. Bye Mac!” Dee ran back to her sprinkler, her wet hair flying out behind her as she ran.

Brazel chuckled as he got into his truck. Sweet kid, that little girl. He enjoyed her company when she walked the ranch with him. She always saw things he would have missed. Oh, to be eight again.

As he started the truck, Brazel looked up at the sky. Dark clouds were gathering, huge dark clouds. There was indeed a storm coming, and it looked to be a big one.



******************************************************



“We are approaching Earth,” Urza said, looking up at Brivari. “Are we still landing on the coordinates previously chosen?”

Brivari nodded. “Wait a bit, though. I want that side of the planet in darkness before we land.”

Urza nodded. Brivari stared out the viewport at the blue-green planet, so different from Antar, its lone moon visible in the distance. From space Antar glowed red and gold, fiery looking. He remembered his first glimpse of Earth through just such a viewport years ago, and how strange it had been to see the blues and greens of this alien world. He hadn’t been happy about coming here then. Now, Earth was sanctuary.

Time passed, and darkness enshrouded the Western Hemisphere. “Now,” Brivari said to Urza. “Take us in.”



******************************************************



9:30 p.m.

Corona, New Mexico
.



Sheriff Wilcox stood in the pouring rain, scowling. The damaged car was wrapped like a twist tie around the tree. It’s former occupant had been thrown twenty feet, and was now being loaded into an ambulance.

The Sheriff surveyed the wreckage as well as he could, what with the poor visibility. It usually wasn’t this dark at this time during the summer, but the clouds overhead made it look like midnight. The rain was coming down in sheets, getting heavier all the time. Damned reckless drivers. Wasn’t it obvious you had to slow down in weather like this?

Wilcox pulled the hood of his raincoat closer as he walked back to his car. Hopefully this would be the only such accident that would happen on this awful night.



******************************************************



“We’re close,” Brivari said, carefully checking the navigational controls. “Start slowing down, Urza.”

Urza looked at Brivari, concerned. “I’ve been trying to slow down for the past five minutes. The braking thrusters aren’t responding.”

“Not responding?” Brivari echoed. “What do you mean, ‘not responding’?”

“I mean we can’t slow our descent,” Urza replied. “I don’t know what’s wrong; I only know it’s not working. Unless we figure it out quickly, we won’t be able to stop.”

Brivari stared at him. No. Not now. Not after all they’d been through, to get this close, and have it all end like this. “Jaddo! Valeris!” he shouted. “Control room, now!”



******************************************************



Proctor residence,

Corona, New Mexico




Dee Proctor set down her toothbrush and went to the bathroom window. Sheets of rain splashed against the glass. Lightning flashed; thunder pounded. This was one of the worst storms she’d ever seen.

Too bad it was raining. On clear nights she liked to look out the window, watching for shooting stars. “They’re called meteors, pieces of rock from space,” Mac had told her, but she didn’t care. She liked to think of them as stars, stars that fell from the sky. That sounded much better than just “space rocks.”

Occasionally when she walked the ranch with Mac, she would find pieces of those stars. These were lovingly displayed on the shelf in her bedroom, the one right near her bed. Sometimes at night when she couldn’t sleep, she would look up at those fragments and wonder where they’d been, and if she would ever be able to go there too.

Dee moved away from the window and turned off the bathroom light. With a storm this bad, she wouldn’t be able to see any stars falling tonight.



******************************************************



“Anything?” Brivari asked Jaddo, who was tucked under a console attempting a repair.

“Try it now,” Jaddo ordered Urza. Urza paused for a moment, working the control crystals.

“We’ve slowed slightly, but not much,” Urza said, shaking his head.

“What happened?” Valeris asked. “Was this sabotage?”

“We left in such haste we had no time to do the usual preflight checks,” Urza said apologetically. “I don’t know when this ship was last used. It could be that it wasn’t flight ready.”

“What difference does that make now?” Jaddo snapped impatiently. “It happened. Why it happened is beside the point at the moment.” He headed over to Urza, who was helplessly trying the controls. “Sharp descent,” he ordered. “The mountain range is coming up quickly.”

“No,” Brivari said firmly. “The mountains are out of the question now. We need to find a long, level stretch of land where we can skid.”

“Are you crazy?” Jaddo said, astonished. “We’re going to crash one way or another. The crash will likely go unnoticed in the mountains.”

“It may go unnoticed, but we will not survive it, nor will the hybrids,” Brivari argued. “At this angle of descent nothing will survive. Overshoot, find a level stretch, and we might make it.”

Jaddo moved to stand in front of Brivari, fire in his eyes. “What do you know about landing ships? I was Rath’s Warder. I am the soldier here. I should be giving the orders!”

Brivari stepped forward, until the bulge over his forehead almost touched Jaddo’s. “You picked a poor time to challenge my authority,” Brivari said in a dangerous voice. “Step aside, or I will make you step aside.”



******************************************************



Roswell, New Mexico



Deputy Valenti headed for his car, holding the tarp he’d swiped from the storeroom over his head. Typical. Such a beautiful day earlier, even if it had been a sauna, and now they had a deluge of practically biblical proportions.

He ran through the rain, barely able to see where he was going. Only the frequent flashes of lightning allowed him to find his car. Ironic, he thought grimly. There were numerous power outages, phone lines were down because of the strong winds, and lightning strikes were being reported all over the area, but lightning was the only way he could locate his car.

Was that it? Jesus, it was hard to even tell if that was his car. He peered down at the license plate through the pouring rain. Fumbling with his keys, he unlocked the door and threw himself inside, managing to drench the entire front bench in the process.

Valenti wiped his dripping hands on the seat of the car. He sincerely hoped this weather would keep would-be criminals at bay. He wasn’t certain they’d be able to reach anyone in this mess. With rain this heavy, it was hard to see your hand in front of your face.

He crossed his fingers as he started his car. The engine coughed and sputtered a bit but it started, albeit reluctantly. As he pulled out onto the road, Valenti smiled to himself. There was one good thing about this storm: It should make the nutcases happy for a little while, at least. The Jesus in the bathtub should be right at home with all this rain. The vampire in the outhouse would likely be lonely tonight. And any aliens intelligent enough to master interstellar travel would also know better than to fly through a storm like this one.



******************************************************



A long moment passed. Urza and Valeris waited. Brivari and Jaddo stood face to face, unyielding.

Finally, Valeris broke the silence. “Brivari decides. He Wards the King.”

“I have located a level stretch of land just east of our original landing site,” Urza said helpfully. “There are no buildings in close proximity, and there is a severe rainstorm in the area at the moment. That would help mask our landing.”

Still silence. No one moved.

“Valeris, go to the lab and stay with the hybrids,” Brivari said. We will save as many of them as we can. Urza—take us down.”

Jaddo continued to stand unmoving. “You’d better find something to hang onto,” Brivari said to him. “It’s likely to be a rough ride.”

Jaddo gave him one last long look before heading for a seat.



******************************************************



Proctor residence



A deafening thunderclap startled Dee Proctor awake. She blinked sleepily out her window at a night sky that was lit up like daylight.

She climbed out of bed and knelt on the little bench by her window, propping her head on her hands. If she couldn’t watch stars fall tonight, at least she could watch the lightning flash.

As she looked out at the storm-wracked sky, a glowing object caught her eye even through all the rain. It was huge. It curved downward in the direction of Mac’s ranch and disappeared behind the trees. A split second later thunder crashed with a force that sent the ground quaking. And quaking. The thunder continued to rumble, much longer than it should have. Dee looked around her room in alarm, at the books shaking on their shelves, her star pieces rattling, every piece of furniture shaking slightly. What on earth was that?

Then Dee gave a squeal of delight and started jumping up and down. What luck! That had been no mere thunderclap. Who would have thought she’d get to see something like that in this storm!

“Dee? Is that you? Are you all right?” David Proctor opened the door to his daughter’s bedroom and peered inside, waiting a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. “Did you have a nightmare, honey? Is the storm keeping you awake?”

“Daddy, Daddy, guess what!” Dee cried excitedly, hopping off the bench and running to her father. “I just saw a star fall! Well, not a star really, Mac calls them meteors, but I call them stars because I like to think of them that way, and I just saw one fall! A big one! Huge! The biggest I’ve ever seen!”

“Whoa,” her father said, sitting down on her bed. “Start over. What fell out of the sky?”

“A star, Daddy, a star! It must have been huge! Didn’t you hear it? Didn’t you feel it? It made the whole house shake!”

David smiled. His daughter had one hell of an imagination. “That was just thunder, sweetheart. Probably a lightning strike. There’s a mess of lightning out there tonight.”

Dee shook her head vigorously. “It was not lightning, Daddy. I saw it. And I heard it. Lightning doesn’t look like that, and thunder sounds different.”

“The storm is playing tricks on you, Dee,” her father said. “You wouldn’t be able to see a meteor tonight; the rain’s too heavy.” He stopped, seeing the stubborn look on his daughter’s face. He wasn’t going to win this one, so he might as well quit while he was behind.

“Into bed,” he ordered. Dee sighed, and climbed in. As her father bent down to kiss her goodnight—again—she muttered, “It was a star. I saw it.”

“OK, it was a star,” her father said good-naturedly. No sense arguing. “Why don’t you go look for it tomorrow? Rain’s supposed to stop by morning.”

Dee smiled as her father left her bedroom. She would do just that. I’ll bet it’s on Mac’s ranch. And tomorrow, Mac and I can go look for it. There had to be something left of a star that big. She glanced over at her shelf with her star pieces. Tomorrow she would have something to add to her collection. Maybe something different, something she’d never seen before. Something she could bring to school next fall for show-and-tell and dazzle everyone in the fourth grade.

Dreaming of stars, Dee drifted off to sleep.



******************************************************



July 2, 1947, 11:30 p.m.

Pohlman Ranch, New Mexico, Earth
.




If anyone had been there, they would likely have missed it. It was huge lying in the field, but the rain was so heavy that it would have been difficult to see, even with the help of the lightning. The storm had masked its fall; it was as yet undiscovered. There was still time.

Inside, four small figures were lying in various places. One of them had fallen at the base of one of several large vessels whose lights, one by one, winked out.

Within the vessels, twenty-five sacs glowed, and one hundred tiny heartbeats jumped in rhythm. The sacs twitched slightly with each collective heartbeat, creating a glowing, shivering spectacle against the cacophony of the storm outside.

Time passed. Some of the tiny heartbeats slowed, then slowed a bit more. Eventually some stopped beating altogether. The rest, a bit more stubborn perhaps, beat on, in defiance of the hand fate had just dealt them.

Miles away, the child who would prove to be their savior stirred in her sleep and smiled. And dreamed. Dreamed of stars falling from the sky.




THE END


TO BE CONTINUED in Alien Sky.


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:26 pm 
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TITLE: Alien Sky, Book 2 in the Shapeshifters Series

AUTHOR: Kathy W

RATING: YTEEN

LENGTH: 78 Parts

CATEGORY: Backstory/Prequel. No couples. Unless you consider Nasedo and Langley a couple. :wink:

PERSPECTIVE: Those responsible for making it happen—the shapeshifters.

SEQUEL TO: Part 1 of this tale is And the Stars Fell From the Sky, which chronicles the shapeshifters journey to Earth and the creation of the hybrids. Alien Sky deals with the aftermath of the crash.

SUMMARY: I’ve always been fascinated with what happened before the pod squad hatched, and I’ve had a million questions. Why don’t the hybrids remember more? Why was the Destiny Book in the library instead of in the pod chamber? Why did the Dupes wind up in a sewer in New York City? Was Nasedo really working for the Skins? And so on and so forth.

This is the story from the viewpoint of the shapeshifters; my own little fantasy about what happened, why it happened, and what went wrong. It will probably wind up being six to eight separate fics, each a sequel to the other. They will closely track the show; my intention is not to rewrite Roswell, but to fill in some of the blanks. The story starts on the ship headed to Earth, and will likely end with Max’s encounter with Langley many years in the future. This particular fic covers the period of time from the crash to the capture of the surviving shapeshifters by the U.S. military.

DISCLAIMER: I own nothing. Nothing anyone wants, anyway. :mrgreen: I’m just borrowing these wonderful characters to amuse myself. And hopefully you.

Some of the events in this story are taken from Roswell episodes, and some are taken from eyewitness accounts of the “crash”. In addition to characters from the show, there are a few real people in this story. I know precisely none of these people, and am borrowing them strictly for this little tale.


Pronunciation and Character Guide:

Brivari—Zan’s Warder: “var” rhymes with “far”
Jaddo—Rath’s Warder: “a” as in “ah”, soft “J”
Valeris—Ava’s Warder: “ler” sounds like “lair”
Urza—Vilandra’s Warder: sounds like it looks
Riall—Zan’s father: Ree-all
Covari—The name of the shapeshifters’ race: Rhymes with “Brivari”
Argilians—The name of Khivar’s race: “g” is soft, like “j”


The shifters refer to each other by their Antarian names. See if you can figure out which of the four is Langley and which is Nasedo. :D



ALIEN SKY


PART ONE


July 3, 1947, 2 a.m.

Pohlman Ranch, New Mexico, Earth.




Brivari felt wind across his face. He smiled; the breeze was warm and wet, a good feeling. He lay face up, letting the breeze wash over him, enjoying it.

“Brivari, wake up! Wake up!” Hands shook him. He ignored them; he did not want to wake up. Here, it was peaceful.

“Master, are you all right? Is he all right?” an anxious voice asked.

Master? Only one person called him “Master”. And that person was with him on a spaceship, heading toward……wait. Why was he feeling a breeze on a spaceship?

Brivari slowly opened his eyes. Two faces peered down at him, one dark and grim, the other anxious and solicitous. Looking past the faces he could see a gaping hole in the ceiling, and through it was a sky, with constellations he did not recognize. An alien sky.

He sat up so suddenly that he made himself dizzy, and they had to steady him. Looking around, he found himself on the floor of the control center…..or what was left of it. The place was a mess. Consoles had torn loose and landed on the other side of the room, their inner workings exposed and tangled. The emergency lights were on, creating an eerie glow. And everything was wet, dripping wet. Once again I awaken on the floor, he thought wryly. Consistent, aren’t I?

“Did Valeris survive?” he asked Urza and Jaddo in an unsteady voice, as the world continued to spin around him.

“We don’t know yet; we only just regained consciousness ourselves,” Jaddo replied.

“Have we been discovered?” Brivari asked.

“We do not believe so.” Urza this time. “The storm appears to have masked our landing, and we are in an isolated place; no buildings are visible. We have seen no humans. Hopefully we still have a little time before we are found.”

“How much damage did we sustain?” Brivari asked, trying to stand and failing.

“Too much,” Jaddo replied, pushing him firmly back to the floor. “This ship will not fly again.”

“It doesn’t need to,” said Brivari. “The Granolith will transport all of us back to Antar when the time comes. Is anything still working? Sensors? Navigation? Anything that will tell us where we are?”

“I will investigate,” Urza said, and scurried off.

Brivari looked up through the hole in the hull. Bright stars glowed, and he could feel the water in the wind. “The storm has passed,” he noted to Jaddo. “How long have we been down?”

“Impossible to tell without our instruments,” Jaddo replied. “I should check on Valeris and the hybrids. Wait here.”

“No, I’m coming with you,” Brivari said stubbornly, and tried once again to stand. A sharp pain pierced his leg, and he sank back to the floor.

“The bone looks broken,” Jaddo observed, peering at the injury. “Can you fix it?”

Brivari nodded. “I think so. Give me a moment.”

Jaddo nodded and stepped back. Brivari closed his eyes and concentrated on his leg. After a moment he could see the break, could see the splintered ends of the bone resting near each other. Eyes still closed, he began to shift the ends of the bone, smoothing the splintered ends and knitting the two pieces back together. He worked for several seconds, eyes closed all the while, while Jaddo waited patiently beside him.

When Brivari was finished, he opened his eyes and tentatively stretched his leg. Feeling no pain, he experimentally put weight on it. Still nothing. He took a few steps, and nodded to Jaddo, satisfied. “Let’s go.”

The two Warders picked their way carefully through the corridors of the broken ship, sloshing through the pools of water that covered the floor. Doorways were askew, one of the stasis pods was in the hallway, and Earth’s strange sky was visible through more than one hull breach. Brivari’s concerns escalated as they neared the lab. All was lost if that had not survived.

When they reached the door to the lab, it was jammed. Attempts to open it proved futile. Brivari and Jaddo looked at one another and nodded. Both raised their hands to the door, sending blasts of energy toward it that burned a gaping hole in the middle.

Climbing through, they found the lab in shambles and Valeris hunched sadly over one of the incubators, peering inside as though his heart would break.

Brivari stared at Valeris for a long time before mustering the nerve to ask the question to which he was not certain he wanted to know the answer. “Did we lose them?”

Valeris shook his head. “Some, but not all,” he said in a shaky voice. There were cuts and scratches all over him; he had not taken the time to repair his injuries. “We will lose many more if we do not repower the incubators.”

“The emergency power should be feeding those,” Jaddo said, confused. “I know it’s on—all the emergency lights are on. Why aren’t the incubators powered?”

“I don’t know,” Valeris answered. “I do know that if they’re not repaired the hybrids will continue to die. They were not yet ready to be removed.”

Brivari turned to Jaddo. “You and Urza work on that right away. This is more important than sensors.”

As Jaddo turned to go Urza appeared in the doorway, stepping through the hole, “Master, I’ve managed to get our navigation console working again. Would you like to see?”

“In a moment,” Brivari replied. “First we need you and Jaddo to find out why the emergency power isn’t feeding the incubators. We’ve lost some of the hybrids, and we’ll lose more if these aren’t repaired.”

Urza walked slowly toward the nearest incubator and peered through the lid. Some of the tiny fetuses still had rapidly beating hearts; in others the heartbeat was painfully slow. Many—too many—were motionless, their miniscule hearts visible through their transparent skin, unmoving. Human hearts. Dead human hearts.

Valeris crossed the room to stand at Urza’s side. He limped painfully; another injury he had not repaired. “It’s not your fault, Urza,” he said. “You are not responsible for what happened.”

“How do you know that?” Urza asked, his face a mask of guilt. “I did not realize the braking thrusters were not working. If I had discovered that, I might have been able to repair them in time.”

“ ‘Might’ being the key word there,” Jaddo said. “We don’t know why the thrusters didn’t operate properly. It could have been sabotage. Or just bad luck. It could have been a failure that didn’t show up in diagnostics. We don’t know what caused it.”

“But we don’t know that it wasn’t my fault”, Urza said miserably. “I recommended landing in the storm. I piloted the ship down. I act, and the ship crashes. I fail to act, and Khivar invades the capital. No matter what I do……” He stopped, suddenly aware that he had said too much.

Valeris and Brivari exchanged glances. Only Jaddo looked confused.

“What are you going on about?” Jaddo said with exasperation. He took Urza by the arm and firmly propelled him toward the door. “This is no time for self-indulgent whining! Move!”

After they had left, Jaddo practically chasing after Urza, Brivari heaved a sigh of relief. Fortunately Jaddo had not taken Urza seriously; if he had, they simply did not have time for the resulting confrontation. Later. But not now.

“What was all that about?” Valeris asked, leaning against an incubator for support. “He knows more than he’s telling. But he couldn’t possibly be a traitor.”

“I don’t think he is,” Brivari replied. “But one way or another, before this is all through, he will tell me what he knows.”



******************************************************



“Try it now!” Urza called to Valeris. “Anything?”

Valeris heaved a sigh of relief as power surged through the incubators, and the familiar, comforting hum once again permeated the lab. Thank goodness. They had already lost twenty-eight hybrids, and would undoubtedly lose more before this was through. At least this would minimize the damage.

“It’s working!” Valeris shouted back. “I…..wait. Something’s wrong. All the gauges are shifting….they won’t stay put.”

Urza came through the blasted door and inspected one of the units. He fiddled with the controls for several moments, and then shook his head unhappily. “This is a temporary repair at best. The relays were completely incinerated. It looks like lightning may have struck the ship after we crashed, when the hull was breached and it could find it’s way inside.”

“We will need these units for several more weeks at least, perhaps longer,” Valeris worried. “We’re going to have to come up with a permanent repair.”

Urza nodded. “I will see if there is any usable material left that we can adapt to our needs. In the meantime, it looks like you will be able to manually adjust the controls to the settings you want.”

“I shall stay then,” Valeris sighed, “and keep the units as close to the right temperature as possible. You run along and see what you can do about fixing the problem.” He turned to another unit, and nearly fell, his leg buckling under him. Urza caught him just in time.

“You have not repaired your injuries,” he said gently as he helped Valeris to a seat. “You should do that at once.”

“Later,” Valeris said shortly. “I don’t have time for that now.”

“Of course you do,” Urza said. “I will stay and watch the units until you are finished. Just tell me how you want them set.”

“They are set correctly at the moment, but I need you to fix this,” Valeris said, more insistently this time. “As soon as possible.”

“And I shall,” Urza said. “But my temporary repair will hold more than long enough for you to repair your injuries while I see to the hybrids.”

“Urza—they’re dying,” Valeris whispered, his voice breaking. Looking at him, it was hard for Urza to believe that this was a great scientist, a Royal Warder. At this moment he bore more of a resemblance to a grief-stricken, broken old man.

Urza knelt beside him, and spoke as one would to a child. “They are depending on us, now more than ever. We are of no use to our Wards injured. I will watch them,” he said gently, but firmly. “Tell me how you want the units set, and I promise you I will keep them there until you are ready to do so yourself.” He paused. “Do you have the strength to do this yourself, or should I assist you with the stones?”

Valeris shook his head irritably and limped off to a corner, the better to concentrate in privacy. Urza turned back to the units, carefully checking them. He looked through the lids and noted with sorrow that several hybrids were nearly dead. No wonder Valeris was so upset. It had been bad enough to watch their Wards die once, but to watch them die over and over was a special kind of hell. And so it is fitting that I am here now, in this hell, Urza thought wearily, caressing the lid with his long, thin fingers. It was my lack of foresight, my lack of vigilance, that sent us here in the first place.



******************************************************



Jaddo entered the ruined control center to find Brivari poring over the one working console. Navigation, from the looks of it. Wonderful. Now they could see exactly where they would likely be captured.

“I have good news and bad news,” Jaddo said. “Which do you want first?”

“The good news,” Brivari said, without looking up.

“The Granolith appears undamaged, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.”

“The Granolith will be fine,” Brivari replied, still not looking up. “It is protected by its own forcefield—that would have to be deactivated or severely damaged before any harm would come to it. I am more concerned about the hybrids. Have you and Urza managed to get the incubators working again?”

Jaddo sat on a nearby stool and turned piercing eyes on his companion. “When are you going to tell me more about this Granolith?” he demanded. “What else do I not know about it?”

“Plenty,” Brivari said shortly. “How are the incubators?” Jaddo did not respond, and Brivari finally looked up. “Incubators, Jaddo. The hybrids?”

“Why won’t you answer me?” Jaddo said accusingly.

“I did answer you,” Brivari responded coldly. “I pointed to what was most important—our Wards. I’d appreciate it if you kept your priorities straight.”

Jaddo dropped his eyes, looking slightly abashed. “Urza managed to restore power, but it is fluctuating. Valeris is staying in the lab making adjustments as needed, while Urza attempts a more permanent repair. And we have another problem,” Jaddo added, gesturing toward the hole in the ceiling where the night sky was looking noticeably less dark. “I don’t know how much longer we can stay here. And we’re too far away from the mountains we were heading for.”

“I know,” Brivari said. “This is where we’re going.” He pointed to the screen he had been examining.

Jaddo came closer, peering at the readout. “That’s the old laboratory chamber. Do you think it’s still there?”

“It should be,” Brivari said. “It was carved out of solid rock in the middle of a desert. We need to take a look—at where we are, and where we’re going.”

Jaddo stepped back. As Brivari watched he began to change, his proportions shifting. In a matter of seconds he had assumed a completely different form.

Brivari smiled. “Excellent choice.”


Last edited by Kathy W 2200 on Thu Jul 21, 2005 10:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:14 pm 
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PART TWO


July 3, 1947, 3 a.m.

Pohlman Ranch




“Any luck?” Brivari asked, watching Valeris move from incubator to incubator, adjusting controls.

“Not much, I’m afraid,” Valeris responded. “Power is intermittent and weak. I don’t know how much longer we can keep these running.”

Brivari looked through the lid of a nearby unit. The hybrids it contained, though tiny, had rapidly beating hearts; a sight for sore eyes at the moment. “How many will we lose if we can’t restore power?” he asked quietly.

Valeris started to answer, then stopped as Brivari held up a warning hand. “The truth, please. No sugarcoating.”

“Am I noted for sugarcoating? To you, I mean,” Valeris added.

Brivari shook his head. “How do you do it?” he wondered. “Our ship crashed on an alien, and very likely hostile planet, war raging at home, our Wards dead and their hybrids dying, and you still have your sense of humor.”

“Sometimes that is all we have left,” Valeris said simply. “This is one of those times.” He smiled at the look on Brivari’s face as he reflected that that was not quite true. Physically, he was feeling much better since Urza had insisted he repair his injuries; otherwise…..well, he was still working on that.

“How many?” Brivari pressed.

Valeris stretched his legs. His left leg seemed to still need convincing that he had actually repaired it. “It is not as bad as I originally feared,” he said to Brivari. “Not all the hybrids are dying. Some seem completely unfazed by all that has happened. And to specifically answer your question, I have no idea. What I know led me to believe the hybrids needed further time in the incubators. Yet some seem completely unaffected by their time outside them. It could be that the hybrids that have already died or will die soon had other flaws, and would have died in any case. The only way to know for certain how the surviving hybrids will turn out is to let them grow and see what shape they’re in when they emerge.”

“Which will take about twenty years,” Brivari said.

“Which should take about twenty years,” Valeris corrected. “We are firmly in the realm of theory. It’s impossible to tell for sure.”

“Theory,” Brivari said wearily. He gazed through the lid of the nearest incubator at an obviously unlucky hybrid whose heartbeat had slowed to a crawl. “We know so little about this process. We could be going through all this for nothing. It could be completely hopeless.”

“Or not,” Valeris said firmly. “We know a great deal about the individual processes at work here. We have just never combined them in this fashion. The fact that we don’t have all the answers does not mean the answers are bad. We must continue. We must believe this will work. And act on that belief.”

“Even if we’re only pretending to believe it?” Brivari said doubtfully.

Valeris smiled. “Pretending is what we do best, is it not?”

“We may need to become even better at it very shortly,” Brivari said.

“Meaning….?”

“Meaning we may need your particular skills in the near future. Jaddo and I have just returned from scouting the area. The ship is lying against a rise in an uninhabited area, but there are habitations not terribly far away. The storm has apparently damaged much of the humans’ power grid; hopefully that will keep them busy for a couple of days. But we may need more time than that.”

“What are you proposing?”

“There is an old laboratory chamber nearby that Jaddo says appears to be intact. He and I are going to investigate. If it is still sound we can move the Granolith and the hybrids there, but moving everything will be cumbersome. We will need transportation devices and time.”

“Transportation devices should be easy enough to acquire,” Valeris said, “Time, I would imagine, is in short supply.”

“Jaddo and I will inspect the chamber and make whatever preparations are necessary,” Brivari said. “We can work there during the daylight hours because its location is remote. We will begin moving during the night when we are less likely to attract attention. Hopefully we will be able to accomplish this before we are discovered, as we are bound to be eventually. And if that happens before we are finished…..do you think you are capable of shielding this ship from prying eyes?”

Valeris considered this in silence for a moment. “I could,” he said, sitting down wearily in a nearby seat, “depending on how many minds I must affect. I can affect many minds a little, or few minds a lot. I don’t know for how long.”

“With luck you won’t need to,” Brivari said. “Do your best. If all else fails and Jaddo and I are not here, you and Urza take the hybrids, board the Granolith and return home.”

Valeris stared. “I studied the ignition sequence; it needs time to reach full power.”

“True, but you can board it at any time after activation,” Brivari answered. “Once you are on board they cannot touch you. Humans do not yet possess the technology to break through the Granolith’s forcefield. You will be safe until it lifts off.”

“And when we reach Antar? Will we be safe then?” Valeris asked.

Brivari put a hand on Valeris’s shoulder. “If it comes to that, it won’t matter,” he said gently. “That will be your only remaining option. If that happens you must take it. As someone recently told me, we must believe this will work. And we must act on that belief.”

“That will strand the two of you here,” Valeris whispered.

Brivari walked to the door. “Yes,” he said. “It would.”



******************************************************



Jaddo shoved aside wires, rooting through the bowels of a console in the control center. He had not had time to do a thorough inspection while in the midst of the crisis; now he had time, but the damage was so severe that it was impossible to answer the question. There were no answers to be found in this mess.

He sat back for a moment, letting a wave of exhaustion wash over him. He had been out for hours covering the path of the ship’s slide. The ground was soft and muddy after the deluge last night, so pushing the ship fragments into the dirt had been easy. But there had been so many, and the larger pieces had to be disintegrated. He was tired already, and the work was only just beginning.

He pulled himself to his feet. As he had said to Urza earlier, this was no time for self-indulgent whining. He would just have to make do. He moved to the navigation console and began to remove the top. One thing to retrieve, then he had done all he could here.

“Jaddo? Is something wrong?”

“Brivari,” Jaddo answered, removing his hands casually from the console. “I didn’t hear you. No, nothing is wrong. I was trying to figure out if the ship was sabotaged or if we were just the victims of bad luck—more back luck than usual, that is,” he added ruefully.

Brivari looked around the ruined control center. “Did you find anything?”

“No. There is too much damage to learn anything useful.”

“Who would have known what ship we would take?” Brivari wondered.

“The same people who know the Granolith exists,” Jaddo answered quietly. Brivari pondered that for a moment, then nodded.

“We should go,” Brivari said. “You said the chamber looked intact?”

“The rock formation is still intact. I didn’t enter the chamber, but it looked untouched. I spent most of my time burying or destroying debris from the ship. The debris will be more visible once the ground dries out, but that should buy us a few days at least.”

“Good work,” Brivari said approvingly. “Let’s go.”

As they moved to the door, Jaddo glanced back at the navigation console. He was not quite finished here, but no matter. It would wait.



******************************************************




The alien sun was just beginning to peep over the horizon when Jaddo and Brivari reached the rock formation that housed the laboratory chamber, deep inside the rock and away from prying human eyes. Brivari had forgotten how huge Earth’s sun was. On prior visits they had emerged from the chamber mostly at night, using the dark to avoid detection. Moving in daylight here was not something he was accustomed to.

“These are located all over this world, are they not?” Jaddo asked, studying the door.

Brivari nodded. “There are dozens of them on this planet. This is the closest.” He raised his hand to unlock the door, then hesitated.

He hated these places. They reminded him of things he would rather forget. The suffering the human subjects had endured was second only to the suffering of his own race. True, they had not killed many. But there were things worse than death, and Antarian bioengineers were nothing if not ruthless. He knew that himself. From personal experience.

“Is something wrong?” Jaddo asked.

“No. Nothing,” Brivari answered. He passed his hand over the door, and a shimmering silver handprint appeared. Placing his hand on the handprint, he was greeted with a grinding sound, stone on stone, the groaning of mechanisms that had not been used in years. The door lumbered open, exposing a blackness so total even Covari vision had trouble penetrating it.

He took a deep breath of Earth’s thin atmosphere. Why did he seem to be having trouble breathing? He shifted his human lungs slightly, and the tightness eased. A little.

He looked at Jaddo, nodded, and stepped through the door.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:15 pm 
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PART THREE


July 3, 1947, 6:30 a.m.

Corona, New Mexico.




Mac Brazel plunked some cream in his coffee, causing it to splash all over the kitchen counter. Damn! He grabbed a dishcloth and mopped up the spill, cursing under his breath. He was already late. He didn’t need anything else slowing him down.

Mac grabbed the cup and headed for the front door, moving as fast as he dared while still managing to not spill the coffee. He was going to have to drive with one hand and hold the coffee with the other, but he simply couldn’t get by without his morning coffee. Funny how one still craved a boiling hot beverage even in this sweltering heat. Maybe one of these days auto makers would invent a cup holder for trucks. Now that would be a gift.

He barreled out the front door—and nearly fell headfirst over the small form sitting on the front step.

“Jesus H. Christ! What the hell are you……Dee? My God, Dee, what are you doing on my front step at this hour?” Mac stopped, carefully holding the precious, somehow unspilled coffee, and blushing furiously that he had just cursed like a sailor in front of a child.

“I’m sorry Mac,” Dee said, looking genuinely contrite. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to go the ranch with you today, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss you.”

“Well, why didn’t you knock? Why sit here and wait? I’ll have to go ask your parents, and I just don’t have the time today; I’m running late as it is. Maybe tomorrow, sweetheart.”

“Daddy’s left for work already, and Mommy’s gone into Roswell to do some marketing,” Dee said, looking down at her feet and circling the toe of her sneaker on the front step. “But they said I could go, and I told them I had asked you yesterday and you said it was all right.”

“Oh. I see,” Mac said, as Dee looked up at him hopefully. “So…your parents have already left, and I can’t exactly just leave you here on my front step with nowhere to go, now can I?” He tried hard to look irritated; he really did. But, truth was, it was hard to be irritated with Dee.

“I won’t be a bother,” the little girl stated confidently. “I brought my own lunch,” she added, holding up a metal lunchbox that looked as though it had seen better days. “And I’ll hold your coffee cup for you in the truck.”

Mac smiled. “You’ve got a deal.”



******************************************************


Pohlman Ranch



Urza picked his way carefully though the mess in the ship’s hallways as he made his way toward the lab. He hoped nothing else had gone wrong in his absence. It seemed he always made such a mess of things. “Valeris,” he called as he stepped through the blasted doorway.

Valeris had fallen fast asleep, head down on one of the little tables. And the gauges on the incubators had drifted dangerously awry.

Urza rushed from one to the other, resetting them. He had shut down the no-longer-needed navigation console and rerouted power to the incubators. He had only been able to find one viable fuel cell, but hopefully that would be enough to power the incubators as long as Valeris needed them.

Urza leaned against one of the incubators and slid down to sit on the floor. He was exhausted too, as they all were, no doubt. But he would let Valeris sleep for awhile. He had seen no one on his scouting expedition, and there were no dwellings for miles. Jaddo had done a good job of burying debris from their ship in the ground, made soft and muddy by the rainstorm. They were safe, for the moment at least. Safe from the results of his failure to act. I didn’t see it, he thought miserably, head in his hands. Why didn’t I see it?

It had all been so innocuous at first, so typical. Most likely no one had noticed or given it more than a passing thought if they had, least of all him. Vilandra was a beauty; she turned heads wherever she went. So it was no great surprise when one of those heads sat upon the shoulders of the King’s greatest rival.

Urza thought back to the first day he remembered anything unusual. An official function with all council members present, along with their various retinues. Political gossip, small talk, the usual boring minutiae of such gatherings had reigned until the Princess had swept in, effectively ending all conversation.

Urza had been behind her that day, in the guise of a lady-in-waiting. He was accustomed to the silence and the stares; Vilandra had a presence that drove men mad, and women madder. More than one male at that gathering had likely been upbraided by a female companion for gaping openly at the King’s sister. Urza was certain that whenever Vilandra emerged in human form, she would likely have the same effect on humans as she had had upon her own people.

But he had not gaped. He was standing off to one side, smiling a little, with a hungry expression like a beast stalking its prey. His stare had made Urza uncomfortable, and he had shifted his gaze to his mistress to see how she was reacting to this insolence.

Urza knew Vilandra well; he had guarded her from infancy. She should have been annoyed at Khivar’s penetrating stare. She usually preferred to be the aggressor. But instead of the expected annoyance Urza saw something quite different pass between the two, and looking past her to the King, he thought Zan had seen it too.

Then their eyes had dropped, both had moved along, and Urza had relaxed. Khivar was known for his cheek, Vilandra for her wandering eye. It was well known that she had been promised to Rath, although it wasn’t official at that point. He had brushed it off as a passing flirtation, both then and later, when he had discovered the two of them talking by themselves in the garden.

**** “Stay away from him, Lady. He is dangerous,” Urza had said, realizing even as he spoke that that was exactly why she found him attractive.

“Urza, you fret too much. I was merely toying with him.”

“You’re wrong, Lady. He was toying with you.”
****

Vilandra was renowned for toying with men. Not cruelly, more teasingly, but toying nonetheless. This time she was out of her league. She had met her match in the toying department, but was too naïve to realize it.

But Urza had realized it. And extracted from her a promise to stay away from Khivar. A promise she promptly gave, along with apologies for worrying him, both of which he readily accepted.

And that, he thought bitterly, was my first mistake.



******************************************************




The inside of the old chamber was inky black, the air it contained close and heavy. Jaddo and Brivari raised their hands and produced a soft glow which only managed to illuminate a few feet in front of them.

The chamber was a mess. Leftover instruments and containers littered the floor. And clothing. Human clothing.

“It appears they left in a hurry,” Jaddo commented. “Did something go wrong?”

Brivari walked slowly around the chamber. “One of the test subjects was beginning to remember. He had developed something of a resistance to the drugs we used to make him forget, and he was beginning to talk to others. It was decided that leaving immediately was the wisest course of action, just in case anyone believed him.”

“Who would have believed a story like that?” Jaddo asked.

Brivari turned to look at him. “But it was a true story, wasn’t it?”

Jaddo rummaged through a nearby packing container. “Why do you sympathize with them so much? We didn’t damage most of them. Not permanently, anyway.”

“Some of them died, Jaddo. I call that ‘permanently damaging’ them.”

“There are always unfortunate accidents in scientific research,” Jaddo said. “You know that. Accidents happen. That can’t be helped.”

“Like accidents happened with us?”

Jaddo stopped going through the leftover refuse and stood to face his fellow Warder. “That was different.”

“How?” Brivari demanded.

“They are lower life forms,” Jaddo argued. “They are expendable.”

“You realize, of course,” Brivari said quietly, “that that is exactly how we were regarded? And still are, in some quarters?”

Jaddo was silent for a moment. He looked away. When he finally spoke, he would not look at Brivari.

“There are two chambers here. The back chamber is more suitable for the Granolith, but we will need to enlarge it considerably, and that will take time. And energy. I suggest we get started.”

Jaddo did not wait for an answer. He walked away, leaving Brivari staring after him.



******************************************************


Pohlman Ranch




“Can we head over that way?” Dee asked Mac, hanging out the window of the truck like a puppy with its tail wagging.

Mac put down the now empty coffee cup and followed Dee’s pointing finger. “Why? What’s over there?”

“My star!” she said bouncing up and down on the truck’s seat. “Another star fell last night in the storm, a big one! There must be something to see. It was huge!”

“You saw a meteor fall during all that mess last night?” Mac asked, incredulous. “Not likely, Dee. Probably just a tree hit by lightning.”

“It was a star,” Dee said stubbornly. “A big one. And it must have left something behind. Please?” she added, seeing the skeptical look on Mac’s face. “I want to add to my star collection. This could be the biggest piece yet!”

Mac smiled. Dee insisted on referring to meteors as stars. A romantic notion if ever there was one, considering that her “star collection” was nothing but a bunch of rocks.

“OK, kiddo,” Mac said obligingly, steering the truck in the direction she had indicated. “That pasture isn’t being used for grazing this year, but we can drive through and around to where I’m going. We made good time on the way here, so I’m not late anymore. Must be I can drive faster while not holding a coffee cup.”

Dee smiled and hung her head out the window again. They rode in companionable silence for several more minutes when Dee suddenly called, “Stop! I see something!”

“Already?” Mac replied, not slowing down.

“No, really, there’s something out there! Something shiny! Please, Mac, please?”

Mac sighed, and brought the truck to a halt. Dee scampered out, eyes scanning the ground for whatever it was she had seen.

Mac waited, tapping his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. It was still early morning, and it was already sweltering. He liked to get as much work done as possible before the sun rose too high. He twisted in his seat, meaning to call Dee back, but his eyes fell on something on the ground about twenty feet away. Something shiny. Something that looked like…..metal.

Metal? This far out on the ranch? What on earth could that be?

Mac got out of the truck, slipping in the soft, rain-soaked earth, and walked toward the object. It was flat, whatever it was, reflecting the already fierce glare of the New Mexico sun. He hoped some idiot hadn’t been on the ranch riding his dirt bike, scaring all the animals. That’s all he needed.

When he reached the approximate spot where he’d seen the strange object, Mac had to hunt for it. Turned out it was partially covered with wet dirt, and apparently only visible from certain angles. It was sheer luck he’d seen it from the truck.

He picked up the roughly square, flat piece of….something…..and examined it closely. It was about two inches square, and silver like aluminum foil. It was certainly as lightweight as foil. But it was perfectly flat, like foil that had been carefully removed from the box. What would a perfectly flat piece of foil be doing out here?

“Mac, look!” Dee shouted, running up to him. Mac turned to see the little girl running toward him, holding a similar piece of shiny stuff. “You have one too! Isn’t it wonderful? Did you see what it does?” While Mac watched, Dee crumpled her piece of shiny stuff into a little ball that looked very much like a ball of aluminum foil.

But not for long. As the two of them watched, one with amazement and one with sheer joy, the piece swiftly straightened out, all the wrinkles disappearing as though they had never existed, leaving in her hand what looked for all the world like a perfectly flat piece of foil. And clearly wasn’t.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Dee asked breathlessly. She cradled the fragment carefully, cupping it in her hands like a treasure.

Mac shook his head slowly. “No. No, I haven’t ever seen anything like that at all.” He scanned the horizon, looking for anything else even remotely shiny. “What say we hop back in the truck and look around to see if we can find anything else like this.”

“Whoopee!” Dee yelled, and raced for the truck. This was better than she had even dared to hope. She had thought she would need to coax a little in order to get Mac to let her look around. Now he was looking too. All the better.

As Mac started the truck, Dee looked out her window and watched a hawk circling in the sky overhead. It had been flying in neat circles above them ever since they had stopped. Now it appeared to follow them, a ways off to the side, but tracking them nonetheless.

As if it were watching.




******************************************************




Urza flew down the broken hallway toward the lab, deftly avoiding the debris strewn about. “Valeris!” he called before he even reached the door. “Valeris! You may need to hide us!”

Valeris looked up as Urza entered, all agitated and breathless. “What’s happened? Is something wrong? More wrong than usual, I mean,” he added wryly.

“There are two humans nearby,” Urza replied, too upset for the moment to even slightly appreciate Valeris’s attempt at humor. “I think they’re moving away from us, but that could change. Can you do it?”

“Two humans,” Valeris mused. He set down the instrument he was using. Urza moved in closer to see what he was working on. It looked like some sort of book; Valeris had been etching images on its pages. “Are they adults?” Valeris asked.

“One adult, male. One child, female I think. Why?”

Valeris rubbed his head thoughtfully. He had tried this particular ability only a few times, but that had been enough to learn that the mind must be receptive to deceit. For that was what he must do: Deceive the other creature’s mind into thinking they saw something they did not. If the other mind fought back, if its owner truly believed it was seeing what was actually there, or very much wanted to believe that, it became very difficult to convince that mind otherwise.

Children were especially difficult to deceive. Children did not have such a long list of things that could not…..or should not…..be possible. They would believe something no adult would ever believe. They were much harder to fool.

But there are only two, Valeris thought. And once they see nothing they will quickly move on. I hope.

Valeris nodded to Urza. “I will need a few minutes to prepare.”



******************************************************




Mac and Dee were scanning the ground about a mile from where Mac had last stopped the truck. They had found a couple of fragments of the shiny silver stuff, but nothing as large as the pieces they had first discovered.

“Let’s walk up that way,” Mac said, tucking the pieces safely in his pocket along with the first one he had found. Dee still had her piece. Wild horses couldn’t make her give that up.

Dee looked up at the sky as Mac started off north. The hawk was still there, circling overhead, flying off occasionally but always returning within a minute or two. She trudged after Mac, growing a little discouraged. It was getting really hot out here, and they hadn’t found anything more to speak of. But at least she still had her star piece. She patted her pocket and looked toward the sky again to see if the hawk was still there.

It wasn’t. Dee scanned the sky in all directions and spotted the bird flying away. In the opposite direction.

Dee looked back at Mac. He had stopped, and was once again carefully examining the ground. He looked like he’d be busy for a few minutes at least. She sat down on the ground and waited, facing the direction the bird had taken.

It didn’t come back.

Dee pondered this for a moment in her eight year-old mind. And abruptly reached a decision.

“Mac, I want to walk a ways down that way,” she told him, pointing in the bird’s direction. “Down by that ridge.”

Mac followed her pointing finger. The ridge was a small hill no more than a quarter mile away. The land was flat; he’d still be able to see and hear her. “Go ahead,” he told Dee. “But no further than the ridge, and not over the ridge—I need to be able to see you. When I’m ready to go, I’ll holler.”

“Gotcha!” Dee ran off at good speed. She was a fast runner; she could beat all the boys at recess. Even if it wasn’t ladylike, as her Aunt Emma kept telling her.

She neared the ridge, scanning the sky for the hawk as she ran. Still no sign of it. No doubt any grown-up would tell her it was crazy to chase a bird, that there were birds all over Corona. But this one was different. This one was watching her. She could feel it.

She reached the ridge and took the climb at a run. She crested the top, breathless, and looked eagerly over the horizon.

Nothing. Just the field as always. Disappointed, Dee started walking across the top of the ridge toward the other side. Drat. She had been so certain that something was here…..

She reached the edge of the other side and looked down. And froze.

Oh my.

It was jammed into the other side of the ridge, completely invisible from the side Dee had climbed. Saucer-shaped, battered, and clearly made out of the same shiny silver stuff that she and Mac had found. It was the strangest, most beautiful thing she had ever seen. This was better than all the stars she had seen fall from the sky; this was a spaceship, a genuine spaceship. She was sure of it.

She scrambled down the far side of the ridge, hardly daring to breathe. As she drew closer to the shiny vessel she slowed. Now she noticed the holes: A small one in the top, a couple of larger ones in the sides. There were shiny pieces all around on the ground nearby. Dee retrieved a good-sized one, crumpled it up, and stowed it in her pocket. She knew it would flatten out beautifully later.

She walked cautiously toward the nearest hole and peeped inside. It was too dark inside to see anything, and the bright sun behind her didn’t help. Was it possible there was someone in there? Could they be hurt? Should she go inside, or go back and get Mac? She crept closer; she was about a yard away from the nearest opening. She leaned in, trying to adjust her eyes to the dark.

Two fierce eyes glared back at her.

Dee yelped in surprise as a hawk came swooping out of the hole, soaring up into the sky, screeching as it flew.

“Valeris!” Urza yelled. “NOW!


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:16 pm 
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PART FOUR


July 3, 1947, 7:10 a.m.

Pohlman Ranch




“Mac! Come quick! You won’t believe this! MAC!”

Dee flew up the hill and went skittering down the other side of the ridge, stumbling on the loose rocks and dirt. Mac had heard her initial cry and was already almost halfway to her when she reached the bottom and ran to catch up with him.

“Are you okay?” Mac shouted, feeling his stomach knot as he ran. God, he was too old for this. Still, if anything happened to that little girl on his watch……

“I’m fine!” she shouted, finally catching up with him and grabbing him by the arm, pulling him toward the ridge. As if that were necessary. He was heading for it pell-mell anyway.

“What’s wrong? Why did you yell? Did you get hurt?” Mac pelted the child with questions as reached the base of the hill.

“You have GOT to see this! You won’t believe it! Something did fall out of the sky last night! I was right! But it wasn’t a star, it was a……close your eyes!”

“What?!” Mac said in exasperation. They had reached the top of the ridge now and were walking toward the other side, Mac seriously out of breath, Dee barely panting.

“I want it to be a surprise. Close your eyes, please?” Dee pleaded.

Mac bent over with his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t believe it; he’d run all this way just because she wanted to show him something? He glanced up at Dee with a look that made it clear he was not amused.

“You won’t be sorry. It’s really neat!” Dee smiled.

“On one condition,” Mac said, still huffing. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again.”

“Sorry,” Dee said, trying to sound contrite in spite of her excitement. “And it’s a deal. Now—close your eyes.”

Mac obediently closed his eyes. Dee positioned herself behind him and slowly guided him forward till he stood near the edge of the ridge. “Okay—open up!”

Mac opened his eyes, expecting to see……what? What makes an eight year-old girl go all loopy in the middle of a ranch? He scanned the area for several seconds before looking down at the grinning elf behind him.

“Dee, there isn’t anything here. What on earth are you talking about?”

Dee’s smile vanished. She stepped around Mac to the edge of the ridge and stared.

At nothing. Absolutely nothing. The ship was gone; no trace of it remained. No impressions in the grass, no debris, nothing. Well, not nothing, not exactly. There was something. There was a hawk, sitting on a large rock that had not been there a minute ago.

Dee looked helplessly at Mac, who appeared even less amused than before. “It was here,” she whispered. “It was huge, and round, and made out of this stuff.” She took the shiny fragment from her pocket, as if to reassure herself that it was not a dream.

What was here?” Mac asked. “What did you see?”

“A spaceship,” Dee answered, and rushed on before Mac could protest. “It was a spaceship. I swear I’m not making this up. Do I do that? Do I make things up?” Mac shook his head, but still couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “It was right there,” Dee went on, pointing to the side of the ridge. “It was big and round, like a saucer, and it was broken. There were holes in it, and that bird came flying out of one of the holes when I walked up to it.”

Mac took off his hat and mopped his forehead. It was boiling already, and he didn’t have time for this nonsense. But the kid seemed genuinely certain that she’d seen something.

“Are you sure you didn’t just see the bird fly out of a hole in the ground, or something like that?” Mac asked her. Dee shook her head vehemently, and Mac sighed. “Okay, so there was a spaceship here. Where’d it go? Why didn’t we hear it leave? Hard to miss something like that.”

He did it,” Dee said suddenly, pointing to the hawk, who had been sitting placidly on the rock throughout this entire conversation. “He’s one of them. He doesn’t want us to see it. Or…..maybe he just doesn’t want you to see it.”

Mac threw back his head and laughed. Normally Dee liked to hear Mac laugh, but not this time. Now it was as if he thought she were silly. Or stupid.

“Dee, I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for stories today. A disappearing spaceship? That a bird took away? He plopped his hat back on his head and started to head back for the truck. “I’m almost done looking by the truck. I want you back there in five minutes. I’ve got a lot to do today; I can’t spend all day watching birds tow away spaceships.” Dee nodded wordlessly as he headed down the slope, chuckling to himself and shaking his head.

Dee turned back to look at the hawk, still sitting calmly on the brand new rock. She couldn’t believe this. I know it was there, I know it! she thought fiercely. She wouldn’t just imagine something like that. Not something she’d never seen before, something that big. And it couldn’t have moved that quickly. Where had it gone?

As she stared, frowning, the air started to shimmer. The scene in front of her, the field, the bird on the rock, began to ripple. For a split second Dee saw a flash of the ship right where she had seen it before, with the bird sitting not on a rock, but on its outer hull. Then it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.

Dee scrambled down the side of the ridge and approached the hawk. It watched her closely, but made no move to fly away. She walked toward it slowly until she was about four feet away, expecting it to take flight at any moment. It didn’t.

She squatted in front of the bird and examined it closely. It was a hawk, all right. She couldn’t find anything unusual about it except for the fact that it was not afraid of her. That alone was weird. And enough to convince her she was right.

“It’s your ship, isn’t it?” she asked the bird, dead certain now that this was so. “You don’t want him to know about it because you’re afraid of what he’ll do, of who he’ll tell. I’ll bet you didn’t want me to know either.”

The bird sat impassively, giving not the slightest impression of understanding.

Dee knelt down on the grass and leaned forward, hands on her knees. The hawk watched with that fierce hawk stare that always made them look angry. She had obviously made a huge mistake by trying to tell Mac about the ship, and she meant to correct it. “I have to go now, but I want you to know something before I leave. I won’t tell anyone about you. I’ll keep your secret. I promise.”

She meant it too. Dee knew how to keep a secret. There was no better currency among children than secrets. Your true friends kept your secrets, and the best way to make a new friend was to keep that person’s secrets. Doing each other’s homework, sharing your dessert at lunchtime, walking to school together—those were all fine things that friends did, but keeping each other’s secrets was the most important thing of all.

Dee stood up and brushed the dirt off her legs. As she started to walk away she muttered, “Mac better not tell anyone else. They’ll think I’m stupid.”

<Believe me, I understand.>

Dee whirled around and stared at the bird, who had not budged. “What did you say?” she asked incredulously.


******************************************************



Brivari surveyed the work thus far. The chambers were cleared, and the long work of enlarging the back chamber could begin. He turned to speak to Jaddo and was surprised to see him place something on the floor in front of him.

A communicator.

“What are you doing?” Brivari asked, alarmed.

“Contacting home,” Jaddo said, holding his hand over the swirling symbol on top of the communicator. “We were supposed to make contact when we reached Earth, but we have not yet had the time.” The orb started to glow, activated by the energy Jaddo was sending it.

Stop!” Brivari commanded, whisking the device out from under Jaddo’s outstretched hand. “We contact no one. No one.”

Jaddo looked up at Brivari with amazement. “Why not?”

“Because we don’t know who will answer,” Brivari replied, “or who they’re working for. No one can know where we are. Maintain communication silence.”

“Whatever for?” Jaddo wondered. “Obviously Khivar knows we are here. So what? They can’t follow us.”

“Are you absolutely certain of that?” Brivari asked.

Jaddo’s face darkened. “Aren’t you?” he asked suspiciously.

“If you contact Antar, you have no idea who will answer. Now that some Covari are false there is no way to identify anyone. It is absolutely imperative that our landing site remain a secret.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Jaddo said pointedly, “although I’m getting used to that. And once again I ask, what harm will it do? The Argilians know we were headed to Earth, and why. Even if they could follow us, they won’t be able to pinpoint our location from this distance.

“They can’t pinpoint it, but they can narrow the possibilities. It’s too risky,” Brivari countered.

“I don’t think so,” Jaddo argued. “The benefits outweigh the risks—at least the known risks,” he added darkly. “Even if I do wind up contacting a spy, word will still get back to the loyalists that we have landed safely. Just think what good news that will be. Think what that information will mean to those who thought there was no hope. Boosting the morale of the people and our fellow Covari will bolster their efforts to fight Khivar, and fighting Khivar will eventually help our Wards when they return. We owe it to everyone to tell them of our safe landing.”

“We are not safe yet,” Brivari said firmly, “and no one is to contact Antar. Is that clear?”

Jaddo regarded his companion silently for a moment. “It is clear,” he confirmed. “What is also clear is that you have been lying to me.”

“I have not been lying,” Brivari objected. “Everything I’ve told you is true. I just haven’t told you everything.”

Jaddo’s eyes narrowed at this admission, but he said nothing.

Brivari set the communicator aside. “We have work to do. Shall we?” He gestured toward the back chamber.

“After you,” Jaddo said. “Master,” he added under his breath.

Brivari paused, obviously having heard the sarcasm in Jaddo’s voice. But he elected not to challenge it. Partly because he knew that such a confrontation would use up too much precious energy when they needed every drop for the work ahead. And partly because he knew Jaddo had a point. It was risky keeping information from the others.

But it’s not information, Brivari argued with himself. Merely a long-held suspicion that was never verified. It was pointless to worry everyone when he had no proof. Activating the communicator might very well produce said proof, but if it did, they were in no shape to deal with the resulting consequences.

They would do that experiment later, when they were safely hidden and better prepared to defend themselves.



******************************************************



Dee moved closer to the bird, studying it carefully. Had it just said something? She would have sworn she had just heard it talk. No, not “talk”. Not exactly. She had heard something, but not with her ears. It had been more like a buzzing inside her head, a buzzing that somehow made sense.

She watched the bird for several more seconds, debating whether or not to go closer. Finally she decided against it. Wherever it came from, those talons were still mighty sharp.

“I’ll try to come back later,” she said to the bird. “I’ll…..I’ll bring you something to eat.” The next best thing to sharing secrets was sharing food. “I’ll save some of my lunch, and I’ll ask Mac to stop here on the way out. Will you be here?”

The bird stared. Dee waited. Finally, she gave up. “Goodbye till later,” she called, and turned and walked away. This time no voice whispered, in her ear or anywhere else.

She walked back to the truck where Mac was waiting for her. The hawk followed her, high up in the sky. It was still circling as they drove off.

<Valeris? They’re gone. Are you all right?>

<Thank goodness! That was exhausting. That child was very hard to convince. I lost her for a second there. I’m not certain how much longer I could have held her.>

<Didn’t you tell me that humans don’t communicate telepathically?>

<That’s right. They use physical speech.>

<This one is different.>

<How so, Urza?>

<She heard me.>


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:17 pm 
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PART FIVE


July 3, 1947, 8 a.m.

Pohlman Ranch





“How could she hear me?” Urza asked Valeris. “She wasn’t supposed to hear me! Not only did she see the ship, she heard me! Could this get any worse?” Urza asked miserably, as he and Valeris sat together in the lab.

Valeris rubbed his aching head. He had a massive headache from the deception, much worse than he’d ever had the few times he’d tried it before. But then again, he’d never had to hold it so long. Or had such a reluctant target.

“It might have something to do with the fact that she’s a child,” Valeris said. “Children are harder to deceive because they believe more easily. That same trait could make them more receptive to things an adult could not accept. The human mind is capable of much more than they realize.”

Valeris rose and headed for the food storage unit in the corner. Perhaps if he had something to eat, he would feel better. “The potential of the human brain was the whole reason we started the project in the first place. Humans have no idea what they can do. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because areas of their brains are truly closed off to them, or if it’s because they become conditioned in childhood to think that certain things are just not possible. Their lack of knowledge might be learned behavior, not biological.”

Urza slumped disconsolately, brushing aside the offer of food that Valeris made. He was neither a philosopher nor a scientist, so none of this was very interesting to him. What was interesting was that he had very likely messed things up. Again. “Wait until Jaddo hears about this,” he mumbled. “He’ll have a fit.”

“Watch for her return, and tell me if and when she comes back so I can deceive her again,” Valeris said. “She doubts herself now; the second time should be easier. I hope,” he added, cradling his sore head in his hands.

“Poor Valeris,” Urza said, pouring a cup of hot jero for his friend and pushing it across the table. “Here I sit whining, and you’re in pain. I’m sorry I didn’t get to you in time. If she hadn’t see the ship, she wouldn’t have been so difficult to convince. I thought they were heading in the opposite direction.”

Valeris shook his head. “No matter, Urza. It would have been hard to accomplish in any case. I’m not proficient, you know. We haven’t fully explored this particular trait. But we do know enough that I was able to induce it in one of the hybrids.”

“Which one?” Urza asked.

“My Ward, of course,” Valeris said, eyes twinkling. “I induced our respective special characteristics into each of our respective Wards. It will be easier to teach them how to use them; we will have had personal experience. And our Wards should develop abilities we know nothing about because the science has advanced since we were altered. We know how to stimulate parts of the brain that were previously unreachable. I shall be curious to see what our Wards can do after they emerge,” Valeris finished, sounding exactly like the scientist he was.

“Fascinating,” Urza said glumly. “But none of that helps me now. How am I going to explain what happened?”

“Why not just…..explain what happened?” Valeris asked sensibly. “Although you might want to hold off on telling them until they’ve had a chance to rest.”

“Hold off on telling us what?” Jaddo asked, as he and Brivari entered the lab. They looked terrible; exhausted, filthy, completely disheveled. And definitely not in the mood for nosy little girls.

Urza sat transfixed as Jaddo and Brivari stared, waiting for an answer. Valeris sighed. Talk about bad timing.

“I said, hold off on telling us what?” Jaddo repeated with irritation, eyes fixed on Urza.

Urza looked helplessly at Valeris, who shrugged.

“Two humans approached this area today,” said Valeris. “We did not want to worry you, so I was advising Urza to not raise the subject immediately upon your arrival.”

“Where are these humans now?” Brivari asked.

“Miles away,” Urza answered in a tentative voice.

“You let them go?” Jaddo asked incredulously. “Two humans approached this vessel, and you let them go? Just exactly how stupid could you be?!” Jaddo said, advancing on Urza.

Brivari stepped between Jaddo and Urza, giving Jaddo a warning glance. He turned to Urza, with Jaddo fuming behind him, and said, “Who were they? What did they see?”

Urza looked from Brivari, with his penetrating gaze, to Jaddo, obviously annoyed, to Valeris, who gave him an encouraging nod.

“It was a male adult and a female child,” Urza said in a shaky voice. “The child briefly saw the ship, but then Valeris disguised us. The male saw nothing.”

Brivari looked to Valeris for confirmation. “It was difficult,” Valeris allowed. “Children are not as easy to deceive as adults are, but I managed. We are safe for the moment.”

“These humans should be removed at once,” Jaddo said flatly. All of you should know that.”

“It is my opinion that having a child out there with what will sound like a fanciful tale is markedly preferable to having a couple of bodies lying around,” Valeris said dryly. “Or missing. The last thing we need are more humans looking for those two at their last known location.”

Jaddo started to argue, but Brivari held up his hand for silence. “For now we do nothing,” he said, looking back and forth from Jaddo to Valeris. “Missing people cause inconvenient questions. And it is doubtful anyone would believe her if she told what she saw. At the moment, she is a greater liability to us dead than alive.”

“I should go out at once and made certain there are no humans anywhere nearby,” Jaddo said, heading for the door.

“No,” Brivari said firmly. “You are exhausted. We both are. We spent the entire day tunneling through rock. Get some rest. Urza will keep an eye out for anyone approaching the ship.”

“As I understand it, Urza supposedly was keeping an eye out, and the ship was approached anyway,” Jaddo said angrily. “He has proven himself incompetent to perform that task.”

“No,” Urza said quietly, surprising them all. He looked frightened and his voice was not entirely steady, but he stood his ground. “I am not incompetent. I alerted Valeris, and he shielded the ship. I did the best I could. Unlike you, I do not hold myself to an unattainable standard of perfection.”

Jaddo advanced on Urza so quickly and with such rage that Urza backed up until he bumped into the wall. “You,” Jaddo seethed, absolutely furious now. “I am so sick of you! I have had to put up with you ever since our Wards were betrothed, all because Rath insisted I tolerate you for Vilandra’s sake. She loved you. She wanted you well-treated. I cannot imagine how she survived as long as she did with a Warder as inept as you!”

Urza remained flat against the wall during this barrage of abuse, eyes growing wider with each additional insult. He had known Jaddo hated him, of course; everyone knew that. His opinion of Vilandra was not much better. But even Urza had not expected this.

Brivari stepped forward into the subsequent heavy silence and put a hand on Jaddo’s arm. “We need to rest. We will deal with the humans if and when we need to.”

“May we at least expect him to do his duty if the humans return?” Jaddo said acidly. “Or is that asking too much of Vilandra’s pet?”

Urza winced at the epithet. Valeris shook his head sadly. “Urza did do his duty,” Brivari argued. “Dead bodies are a liability. People start looking for what killed them. Now go,” he said to Jaddo. “You’ve said enough for now, don’t you think?”

“Missing people may cause inconvenient questions, but they do have one redeeming feature—they cannot speak.” Jaddo glared at each of them in turn before striding through the blasted lab doorway and noisily down the hall.

“He is frightened and exhausted,” Brivari said gently to Urza. “And he’s taking it out on you. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know that,” Urza replied. “But he meant what he said. He hates me.”

“He does not hate you,” Valeris said, “difficult as that may be for you to believe. As you noted he is a perfectionist, impatient and unforgiving, with himself as much as others. Give him some time to rest, and I’m sure he will see the sense in our decision.”

Urza slowly straightened up. “I should scan the area again. Unless you would prefer to do that yourself?” he asked, looking at Brivari.

“Of course not,” Brivari answered. “I do not share Jaddo’s opinion of you, Urza. The two of you are very different, that’s true. You told me you live by our rules, and I believe you. You will do what is best for our Wards.”

A look of surprise crossed Urza’s face. “I will certainly try, Master.” He turned and left.

“He told you something,” Valeris said, watching Urza’s retreating figure.

“Not exactly,” Brivari answered. “But he did admit he knows more than he is willing to tell.”

“That’s how you knew ‘Balor’ was lying?” Valeris asked. Brivari nodded.

Valeris gazed at the door through which Urza had just left. “And you trust him?” Brivari hesitated this time, but nodded again. “Is that wise?” Valeris asked.

“He claims he can tell me what he knows only if necessary, as it was when Orlon contacted us. He says he gave his word that he would keep his knowledge to himself.”

Valeris’s eyes narrowed. “To whom?”

“He didn’t say.”

“So you’re just going to let this go?”

“For the moment,” Brivari answered. “We have other concerns now, and I believe he will break his word if need be. But what I said earlier still holds: Before this is over, he will tell me what he knows.”



******************************************************



Jaddo collapsed on the sleeping platform, almost too exhausted to move. Blasting through tons of rock had been hard enough; shifting again and inspecting the nearby town had been harder. He had barely had enough energy left when they returned to shift to his normal form. For a few minutes there, he thought he would have to rest as a bird.

At least the news from the town had been good. The storm last night had knocked down trees and power lines, and caused all manner of other damage. The humans were scrambling to fix it, all the more so because tomorrow appeared to be some sort of holiday. They were satisfactorily preoccupied, too busy with their own affairs to notice anything out of the ordinary.

But now he learned that the ship had been approached by humans on the very first day, and allowed to live by that idiot Urza. “Unattainable perfection” indeed. The concept of perfection was lost on Urza. He obviously did not realize the danger they were in. And why should he? Until recently his Ward was never in danger. Rath and the King lived constantly with the threats which accompanied their positions, while the Queen and Vilandra did not make such interesting targets. He really couldn’t expect either Valeris or Urza to understand the peril of their current situation.

He could see why Vilandra liked Urza. She found him amusing, and tolerant of her fickle tastes. Urza was content to stand around while Vilandra was the life of the party, whatever party she was attending at the moment. Thank God he was Rath’s warder and not hers. She would have driven him crazy.

Not that Rath didn’t have his moments. His final instructions remained a mystery.

****“Wait here,” Rath had ordered him. “You will be needed here if I do not return.”

“Return from where?” Jaddo had queried, mystified. “I should be at your side, as I always am.”

“You cannot help me this time,” Rath had replied. And Jaddo had had no choice but to watch from an upper palace window, as Rath had gone to the gate with whatever soldiers he could muster to meet an army that should not have been there.
****

The thought of Rath deliberately leaving him behind while heading out to meet an enemy no one knew was coming tortured Jaddo day and night. There was only one logical conclusion for Rath’s behavior: He knew. Rath knew they were coming, and he also knew what would happen to Jaddo if he were caught betraying the King. When a traitor was executed, his Warder, if he had one, was executed too. By leaving him behind, Rath had bought him time. Time to flee, if flight proved wise.

Were you trying to save me? Jaddo wondered for the millionth time. Were to trying to ensure my survival in case you were caught? Or were you afraid I would discover your treachery? If so, why not just kill me and be done with it?

Jaddo rolled over on the sleeping platform, suddenly no longer sleepy. This was his worst nightmare, the one that could keep him awake even through profound exhaustion: The image of Rath standing at the gate without his guardian. Alone. Unprotected. While his Warder watched from the relative safety of an upstairs window.



******************************************************



Dee climbed the ridge with her lunchbox in her hand, puffing a little as she scrambled up. It was late afternoon, blazing hot, and she was tired. Mac was waiting for her in the truck, put out by her insistence on leaving some food for the bird they had seen earlier. “Birds feed themselves,” he had grumbled.

Dee held her breath as the walked across the top of the ridge. Would he be there? Was she right, or was she completely losing her mind?

She smiled as she looked down the other side. The hawk was there, sitting on the fake rock just as before. She scrambled down the other side, not even bothering to try and see the ship. She already knew it was there.

She walked right up to the hawk, confident it would not fly away. It didn’t. She set her lunchbox on the ground and opened it.

“I don’t know what you eat,” she said, “but I thought you might like to try some of our food. You know, Earth food.” She took out a bologna sandwich, one of two she had made that morning, an apple, and a bottle of Coca-Cola, and placed them on the ground. “I don’t have a bottle opener,” she said apologetically, “but seeing as how you’re from outer space, I’m sure you’ll find a way to get that bottle open.”

Dee shut the lunchbox and looked at the hawk, who had not moved a muscle from his fake perch. “I won’t tell,” she said firmly. “I promise. I won’t tell anyone.” She waited to see if this would break the ice, and listened carefully to see if she would hear those words in her mind again. Nothing.

Time to try something else. She’d promised to keep a secret and offered food. The next item on her “how to be a friend” list was the party invitation.

“You might want to come into town tomorrow. It’s a big holiday here, the birthday of our country. There’ll be a parade downtown at noon, and tomorrow night they’ll shoot off fireworks after it gets dark. If you’ve come here to watch us, you might want to see that.” She stood up. “If you come tomorrow, look for me. I’ll be at the parade and the fireworks.” She began to walk away.

“One more thing,” she said, turning around. “If you need any help, come get me. My name is Dee Proctor, and I live on Baldwin Street. I know you’re a good outer space person because if you were bad, you would have tried to hurt me. But you haven’t. And I won’t hurt you either. Because I’m a good Earth person.” She smiled, pleased with her ‘welcome to the planet’ speech, and scrambled up the ridge.

Urza waited until he heard the truck drive away.

<They’re gone, Valeris.>

<I know, Urza. Their minds are out of range now.>

<She brought us food.>

<Human food? I’ve never seen any. Bring it in.>

<Soon. I want to be certain they have gone. And Valeris?>

<Hmm?>

<What are “fireworks”?>

<I have no idea.>

Urza followed the truck at a distance for several miles. When he was satisfied they had gone, he headed back for the ship. He liked the child. She reminded him of happier times, simpler times. So much like her when she was that age. So very much like Vilandra.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:18 pm 
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PART SIX


July 4, 1947, 10 a.m.

Corona, New Mexico.




Urza soared over the town on his hawk’s wings, delighting in the warm thermals that allowed him to hang in the air while the current carried him upward. Flying had always been a joy; flying in Earth’s thinner atmosphere was beyond joy. He could go so much faster, so much higher, all with little effort.

He dropped lower to get a better look at a crowd of humans gathering at the end of the long road that cut through the center of the town. Curious. They didn’t seem to be doing anything. Many were dressed in matching clothing, while others wore garments so outlandish it was amazing they were out in public. Urza wondered if this was the “parade” the child had spoken of yesterday. The child who called herself “Dee Proctor”.

No time for that now; he was on a mission. They had two pressing needs: Transportation for the Granolith and the hybrids, and food for themselves. Virtually all of their food storage units, which hadn’t been full to begin with due to the hasty nature of their exit, had been damaged in the crash, and their contents contaminated or spoiled. They would need to rely on this planet’s resources to sustain themselves from now on.

And what odd resources those were. Valeris and Urza had puzzled over the child’s offering of food while Brivari and Jaddo slept.

Valeris had gingerly unwrapped the soft, stacked square from the shiny, thin metal in which it was wrapped, and placed it on the table in the lab. The shiny metal looked remarkably like the material their ship was composed of, minus the strength and the memory—when crumpled, it did not spring back. Urza passed the hard, round, red object from hand to hand inquiringly. The bottle of brown liquid sat unopened.

Valeris peeled apart the soft square to reveal something pink, something yellow, and something red on the inside.

“What do you suppose the colors mean?” Urza asked. “Is it some sort of decoration meant to make their food look better?”

“Perhaps,” Valeris replied, “although it could be meant to make it taste better. Something we wouldn’t know about.”

Valeris reassembled the square and took a small bite. Urza watched him closely. “Well?”

Valeris swallowed, and shrugged. “Would you like to try some?” Urza shook his head, turning his attention instead to the liquid.

There was a metal cap on the bottle of liquid which refused to budge. This must be what the child had meant about needing a “bottle opener”. Humans, of course, would not be able to remove the cap the same way he could. Urza passed his hand over the cap, dislodging it—and scrambled backward as foam erupted from the bottle, spewing all over the table and dripping onto the floor.

Valeris set down the square and inspected the liquid closely. “There is gas in this beverage,” he said finally.

“Why would they put gas in their beverages?” Urza wondered. He stepped sideways and landed in a puddle of the brown stuff. It was sticky.

“I have no idea,” Valeris replied. “I’m not the least bit familiar with Earth food.” He picked up the bottle and took a sip of the liquid. “Odd,” he said, passing the bottle to Urza. “Very odd.”

Urza gingerly took a sip. His very first Earth food, and it had exploded all over the lab and made a mess. He rolled the strange liquid around in his mouth. It tingled, creating almost a burning sensation. This beverage exploded inside the bottle and the mouth. Still, it was not entirely unpleasant, and he was hungry. Urza drank the bottle of brown liquid while Valeris finished the food square. Then both turned their attention to the red ball.

It was very hard and shiny, and had a small stick coming out of the top. A plant, by the looks of it. Urza attempted unsuccessfully to open it with his hands. He dropped it on the tabletop to no avail. Finally Valeris passed his hand over it, neatly slicing the ball in half to reveal a hard, white interior.

“I wonder how humans consume this,” Urza mused.

“With their teeth,” Valeris commented.

“They have teeth large enough to eat this?” Urza asked.

“Humans have quite large teeth,” Valeris replied. “In the back of their mouths, I mean. For chewing. Perhaps this is an indigenous plant which requires large teeth to consume.” He looked thoughtful. “There is one way to find out.” Urza watched while Valeris shifted to human form, which forced him to squat on the floor now that he was all out of proportion to his surroundings. He experimentally ran his newly shifted tongue over his newly formed set of human teeth. He picked up one half of he red ball and bit into it, sending a shower of liquid into the air. Urza watched closely.

“Not bad,” Valeris said finally. “A great deal of work to consume, but quite filling. Try it.”

Urza sighed. He did not like human form; he felt so huge and gangly. Besides, there was no need to shift entirely. Urza shifted only his head into human form, and sank his human teeth into the other half of the red ball.

Valeris burst out laughing at the sight of a human head on an Antarian body. “My goodness,” he chuckled. “Don’t let that child see you like that. That, my friend, is the stuff nightmares are made of.”

That had been Urza’s last meal. Brivari and Jaddo had eaten the last of their remaining food when they had awakened, ravenous, several hours after they had fallen asleep. Neither had been pleased that the child had approached the ship a second time, but Urza was able to assure both of them that this time the child had seen absolutely nothing.

There was some good news. Their one remaining fuel cell was holding, stabilizing the incubators. Brivari and Jaddo reported that the laboratory chamber was suitable for their purposes, although the effort to make it large enough had temporarily depleted their abilities. Last night both had been so weak it was frightening. They were better this morning, though, and planned to start evacuating the ship that very night. And they needed a transport vessel.

There were several large vessels located a short ways from the town, but too many people were milling around for Urza to get a good look. So he had returned to town, hoping to find a similar vessel to inspect while the inhabitants were busy with their "parade.”

There! Behind that building. It was not quite as big as the others he had seen, but it would serve to answer some questions. Urza flew carefully around the area, checking for any sign of humans. No one was there. He landed next to the vehicle, and sighed. In order to look at it he would have to shift. After taking one last, furtive look around, he began to shift to human form.

He shot skyward, wings lengthening into arms, spindly legs bulging, talons growing into feet. He felt like a giant. Humans were so tall compared to Antarians, it was almost like walking on….what was that word he had learned in the database? “Stilts.” After seeing what the humans in the town had been wearing, Urza wasn’t certain what type of clothing would be appropriate. He hazarded a guess, and began to inspect the vessel.

Urza tried the back door of the transport vessel; it was locked. Passing his huge human hand over the latch, he heard a “click”, and the door swung open.

Yes, this would do nicely. This particular vessel was small, but there were larger ones available close by. They would need to make several trips, but a device such as this was serviceable.

Now…..how to operate the thing? Humans were still using fossil fuels, so it must have an engine and a holding tank for the fuel. Urza opened the door at the front of the vessel and climbed up into the seat. A circular wheel was in front of him—directional controls, he supposed. But how did one start and stop? He leaned over to examine the pedals he found on the floor.

“There you are!” said a sharp voice. Urza jerked upright. “I’ve been looking all over for you! You’re late! Get in here and get to work.”

Urza stared, open-mouthed, at the large, chubby human standing outside the nearest window. This was not good. Not good.

“Let’s move!” the man said, walking away. When Urza did not follow, he turned, exasperated. “Look. I’ve waited around for you all morning. I’m not waiting any longer. No job, no pay. Now get in here, and stop wasting my time.” The man indicated the back door of the building in front of them. “We have to get the food down to the festival organizers before the parade starts. I want you to load this truck and drive it downtown. Move it!”

Food? Truck? Urza watched the man walk away. A chance to operate this….this “truck”, and obtain food.

He got out of the truck, and followed the man inside.




******************************************************



“Here we are,” Mac said cheerfully, as he and Dee approached Chambers Grocery Store. “We’ll just pick up a few things for the block party tonight, and then get down to the parade.”

“Are they open?” Dee asked. “There’s no one around.”

“I saw Bill Chambers a little while ago,” said Mac. “Said he was heading back here because the food never got delivered downtown, and he suspected the new hired hand never showed up. I told him I needed a few last minute things, and he said to come on down. Ah, there he is. Bill!” Mac called as he opened the door to the store.

Dee liked Mr. Chambers. He was a big, beefy man, just like a grocer should be. Bill shook Mac’s hand and gave Dee an affectionate pat. “Pick out whatever you need, Mac. I’ll put it on your bill. I need to stay out back and supervise this nitwit,” he said, indicating a man stooping to pick up a box several feet away. “Get a load of that business suit. He must think he’s some hotshot. Showed up two hours late, can you believe it? Found him sitting in the cab of the truck, looking like he had no idea what he was doing there. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I get anything done around here with help this bad. Last one I hired just up and left without even telling me. Took me a week to figure out he wasn’t coming back. You there!” he called to the man, who had just come back into the store after taking out the box. “There’s a stack over here that needs to go too. On the double!”

Dee watched as the man obediently headed for the stack of boxes Mr. Chambers had indicated. But he paused along the way to look at the loaves of bread, the trays of sausages, and the hunks of cheese displayed in the case by the cash register. “I think he’s hungry,” Dee whispered to Mr. Chambers. She kept her voice very low so as not to embarrass the man. The war might have vanquished the Great Depression that her parents talked about like it happened yesterday, but there were still an awful lot of hungry, out-of-work people out there who were too proud to admit it.

The man turned at the sound of her voice. He stared at her, a penetrating stare that made her uncomfortable. How had he heard her? She had whispered so softly, and he was at least 15 feet away.

Mr. Chambers looked abashed. “Is that true?” he asked. “Are you hungry?” The man nodded wordlessly.

The grocer sighed. Things were supposed to be getting better, but hungry people still seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. “Tell you what,” he said to the man, who was still staring at Dee. “Load these up and deliver them on time, and I’ll let you take some food along with your pay.”

The man nodded silently, and headed toward the stack of boxes that still needed loading.

A bell tinkled. Corona Sheriff George Wilcox came in, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. It was blazing hot outside, as usual. “Mac, I got your message,” George said. What’s so all-fired important it couldn’t wait ‘till tomorrow?”

“George!” Mac exclaimed. “What luck seeing you here! You have got to see what Dee and I found on the ranch yesterday. It’s just amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it! Can I bring it by your office today?”

Dee’s ears pricked. Apparently so did the handyman’s. He slowed his packing, and half turned to look.

George sighed. “Mac, I’m not in my office today. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s July 4th. My day and night will be spent trying to keep petty thieves out of Corona’s businesses and rounding up teenagers drunk on cheap booze. And trying to make sure no one loses a hand or a leg to a firecracker. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Whatcha got, anyway?”

“We found some pieces of the most wonderful stuff, George! It looks like metal, but it’s not. You can fold it, or squish it, and it springs right back. It is truly amazing!”

George stared. “Bits of metal? This is all about bits of metal? From what? Did a car, or a truck, or a dirt bike crash out there?”

Mac shook his head. “We didn’t see any wreckage. Although Dee thought she saw a wrecked spaceship,” he added with a smile.

Dee’s heart leapt to her throat. No one could find out. She’d promised. The handyman had taken a step forward, and was looking at her intently. He looked upset.

George smiled as he looked at Dee. “A spaceship? Is that right?”

Dee shrugged her shoulders and tried to look nonchalant. “I was just teasing Mac,” she said casually.

“What?” Mac protested. “You swore up and down you’d seen a spaceship. You even told me that bird was from outer space!”

“A bird?” George said, still smiling. Dee relaxed a bit. This would be much easier if they all thought she was crazy, galling as that might be. She shrugged again, and tried to look embarrassed. Which wasn’t difficult, as everyone was staring at her now, including the new handyman. Especially the new handyman.

“I guess she was pulling my leg,” Mac said affectionately, tugging a lock of Dee’s hair. “Did a good job too. For a moment there I almost saw a spaceship.” Dee kept smiling. The handyman took another step forward.

“Well, George, I’ve got some things to pick up for the block party tonight,” said Mac. “Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll be sure to bring those pieces I found for you to look at.”

“I’m sure it’ll be the highlight of my week,” George deadpanned, as Mac walked away.

George turned to Dee. “So. A spaceship. Say, whereabouts did you see it?”

<Don’t answer that.>

Dee whirled around, looking frantically from side to side. She had heard that voice before, just a whisper inside her head. Now it was stronger—but where was the hawk?

“Dee? I asked where you saw the spaceship,” George tried again.

<Please. Do not reveal us. We mean you no harm.>

Dee looked up into the eyes of the handyman, who was still just standing there and had yet to speak a word—out loud.

“It’s you,” she whispered.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 13, 2005 4:19 pm 
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PART SEVEN


July 4, 1947, 10:25 a.m.

Chamber's Grocery, Corona, New Mexico





“What do you mean, ‘It’s you’? It’s who?” Sheriff Wilcox asked, confused.

Dee was staring at the handyman, completely ignoring the Sheriff. Was this a different……er……visitor than the bird? But then how would he know about her?

“Dee?” the Sheriff prompted.

Dee turned around to face the Sheriff. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. This is a little embarrassing. I was just having fun with Mac. Telling a tall tale. Sounds like he bought it,” she added, doing her level best to look sheepish.

Sheriff Wilcox smiled. “Sounds like you did a very good job,” he chuckled. He plopped his hat back on his head. “I’ll be curious to see what’s got him so worked up. It’ll be something different anyway. You enjoy the parade now, you hear? And the fireworks too.”

Dee nodded, and waved as the Sheriff left the store. Mr. Chambers reappeared from a back room. “Aren’t you finished yet?” he asked the still staring handyman. When the handyman did not reply, Dee stepped between him and the rapidly reddening Mr. Chambers.

“It’s my fault, Mr. Chambers,” Dee said contritely. “Sheriff Wilcox and I were talking with this….man, and we distracted him from his work. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Chambers looked the handyman up and down. “Talking, eh? Haven’t heard him say ‘Boo’ since he got here.” He turned to Dee. “Mac asked me to take you downtown with me. Let’s go.”

“I’ll go with the handyman,” Dee said. When Mr. Chambers turned a skeptical eye on her, she added quickly, “He’s new in town, and doesn’t know his way around.”

Mr. Chambers sighed. “I didn’t realize you were new here. You probably got lost on the way here, didn’t you? Is that why you were late?” When the handyman nodded again, Mr. Chambers held out his hand. “Well, why didn’t you say so? I would have understood. I should properly welcome you.” He extended his hand. “Welcome to Corona, sir.”

Dee bit her lip. The handyman stood there looking blankly at Mr. Chamber’s hand. Of course he would have no idea what a handshake was.

Before Mr. Chambers could get angry about his handshake being refused, Dee sidled up to him and whispered in his ear, “He’s really shy, Mr. Chambers. And really embarrassed he was so late. He probably thinks he doesn’t deserve that handshake.”

Chambers nodded and lowered his hand. “Ah, well, that’s all right son,” he said clapping the man on the shoulder. The man flinched. “Now, now, don’t be so touchy. I’m not sore. Just pack this all up and deliver it, and I’ll make sure you get a nice ‘Welcome to Corona’ gift basket when you get back. Okay?”

The handyman was watching Dee, who was standing behind Mr. Chambers. Dee nodded her head. The handyman nodded his head.

“Good, good,” Mr. Chambers said, obviously pleased with his own largesse. He picked up his hat. “Nice of you to show the newcomer around, Dee. See you downtown. You take good care of her, mind you,” he added to the handyman. “She’s one of our favorites.” He patted Dee on the shoulder and left.

Dee whirled on the handyman. “What are you doing here? Do you have any idea how dangerous this is?”

<We were hungry. And we need transportation.>

Transportation? That must have been why he was sitting in the truck when Mr. Chambers found him. “Why do you need transportation?”

<We need to move some things off our ship before we are discovered.>

“What…..wait a minute.” Dee had not yet asked the most obvious questions. “Are you the same….person I talked to yesterday?”

<Yes.>

“Why aren’t you a bird?”

<I can take many forms.>

Whoa. She had not been expecting this. She took a deep breath. “Okay. Are you a boy or a girl?”

<Neither.>

“Neither?”

<I am whatever I am at the moment.>

“Oh.” Next question. “Why do I hear your voice in my head?”

The man paused, as if considering his words. <We are not certain.>

“We? There are more of you?”

<Yes.>

Well, that was kind of exciting. Maybe there was an entire delegation here from another planet! “Can you talk? I mean, like we talk?”

<We are capable of physical speech.>

Physical speech. That must mean talking with your mouth, instead of the in-your-head type of talking. “If you can talk, I mean, out loud, then why don’t you? It’s going to look weird if you never, ever say anything.”

The man looked at his feet. Dee would have sworn he looked embarrassed. <I scanned your language. But I am afraid of making a mistake and drawing attention to myself.>

Dee had no idea what “scanned” meant, but she understood the drawing attention to yourself bit. “Okay,” she said, deciding that someone needed to take charge. “First things first. Finish loading the boxes while I look for some good clothes for you. Mr. Chambers probably has some extra work clothes in the back. Then I’ll show you how to get downtown.”

The man looked at his clothing. <Is this not suitable?>

Dee shook her head. “It’s all wrong. You look like you’re on the way to the office.” When the man looked unconvinced, Dee said, “You’ll definitely attract attention if you wear that downtown.”

The man seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded. <Show me what proper clothing would look like.>

Dee walked over to the window and motioned for the man to follow her. She pointed to a man standing across the street. “There. See? Like that. Overalls. A short-sleeved shirt because it’s hot out. Work boots. Like that.”

<Turn around.>

“What?”

<I would prefer you not watch.>

Watch? Watch what? What did he intend to do—strip, and swipe the clothes off the back of the man across the street? Nevertheless, Dee turned around, all the while keeping her ears pricked for the slightest sound behind her.

She heard nothing. Mere seconds later, the man said <Is this better?>

Dee turned around. And gaped. He was wearing an exact copy of what the man across the street was wearing, right down to the pattern on the shirt. “How did you do that?” she whispered.

<The same way I am no longer a bird,> he said simply.

Dee shook her head. “It still won’t work. People might stare if you’re wearing exactly the same thing. Make the shirt a different color. Yes, I know,” she added. “I’m turning around.”

A few seconds later the man had changed the color of his shirt to a bright blue. “Very nice,” Dee said approvingly. “I like the color.”

<It is the color of your eyes.>

Dee stared at the stranger a moment, and then smiled. She was beginning to like this silent, funny little man. “Do you have a name? What shall I call you?” He didn’t reply. “Everyone has a name,” Dee pointed out. “People will ask you what your name is. You’d better have one ready.”

<Why don’t you think of one for me.>

Dee shoved her hands in her pockets. “I don’t supposed you’d tell me your name? I’d love to hear a name from another planet.” The man stood silently, waiting. Not today, it seemed.

She considered. Her grandfather’s name? No, too old-fashioned. Her father’s name? Too confusing. What about her uncle’s name?

Dee thought about her uncle, the wonderful man who had gone to war and come back only a shell, and even that had not lasted long. She missed him; her father missed him terribly. And this funny, quiet man reminded her of him just a little.

“Okay, then. If I get to pick, then I will call you……James.”

The man nodded, picked up a box, and headed out the door. Dee sighed and followed him. So much for her grand gesture of naming Earth’s first visitor from another planet.



******************************************************


Pohlman Ranch



Brivari walked into the lab to find Valeris closing the lid of an incubator with disturbing finality. “How many are left?” he asked quietly.

“Only six complete sets in good shape,” Valeris replied heavily, “plus a few extras that don’t look as if they’ll make it.” His tone made it clear this was not good news. He had not expected an attrition rate so high. Then again, he hadn’t expected to crash into an Earth field either.

Brivari sank into a chair. “I suppose we should be grateful we have any left at all, after what happened,” he said sadly. “Where is Urza? I didn’t see him on my way here.”

“I sent him out to locate transportation and hopefully some food,” Valeris replied. “With any luck he’ll have found something by the time night falls.”

“Good,” Brivari replied. Reaching for the pot of jero, he emptied the contents into a cup. He took a sip and grimaced. Cold. He hated cold beverages.

“At least I saved you the last cup,” Valeris said, smiling at the look on Brivari’s face. “Urza did manage to repair one of the fuel cells. The incubators are now stable; that should help. Allow me,” he added, pushing aside Brivari’s hand and placing his own over Brivari’s cup, using his own energy to heat the contents. “You shouldn’t be using your energy on anything you don’t have to. Your abilities were severely diminished yesterday.”

“Am I so bad off that I can’t heat my own beverage?” Brivari asked teasingly. “I have largely recovered,” he added to an obviously concerned Valeris. “We’ll move the hybrids tonight.”

Valeris took a deep breath. He had been anticipating this conversation. Dreading it, actually. He disliked admitting his weaknesses. But his experience with the humans who had approached the ship had convinced him he was right.

“I don’t think you should move them right away,” Valeris said carefully. “You should move the Granolith first.”

Brivari blinked. Once. Then twice. He sat back in his chair and studied Valeris for a moment, as if he thought perhaps his friend were crazy. Finally he decided to forgo all the objections that immediately came to mind, and simply asked, “Why?”

Valeris smiled. “You think I’m unstable, don’t you? Are you afraid this thinner atmosphere is affecting my judgment?”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Brivari said dryly. “But we’ll set that aside for the moment. Why would you, a scientist, put your creations in jeopardy for one moment longer than necessary?”

“Leaving them here a bit longer does not place them in any more jeopardy than they are already in,” Valeris replied. “In fact, I would argue they would be in less jeopardy by waiting.”

“What if we are discovered?” Brivari asked.

“We have already been discovered,” Valeris pointed out. “Which is precisely what led me to this conclusion.”

Brivari looked confused. “Explain.”

Valeris pulled up a chair and leaned forward across from Brivari. “When I needed to deceive the human man and child yesterday, I realized anew just how difficult it is to convince someone that something they want to see is not there. It is so much easier to hide something that someone is not expecting to see in the first place."

“I’m not following,” Brivari said tiredly.

“Who do you think will come for us if we are truly discovered?” Valeris asked.

“The military,” Brivari answered promptly. “Soldiers.”

“Exactly,” Valeris said triumphantly, as though his point were made. When Brivari continued to look blank, Valeris continued, “And when those soldiers arrive, what will be the first thing on their minds when they see a crashed alien ship?”

“They’ll be looking for aliens,” Brivari said, “especially alien technology.”

“Yes,” Valeris agreed. “They will be looking for technology. They will want to see technology. And it will be very hard to convince them that technology is not there. Not to mention the fact that the Granolith has a huge power signature which is very difficult to hide.”

“And the hybrids?” Brivari asked.

“Soldiers will not be expecting to see human-appearing fetuses. That will be the last thing they expect to see. Hiding the hybrids will be relatively easy. If it comes to that, I can hide only the hybrids and myself and let them pick apart the rest of the ship. That will keep them very busy and buy us time. I should be able to convince them that the lab door is really a solid wall with nothing behind it. If it comes to that,” he concluded.

Brivari shook his head. “We aren’t talking about just a few soldiers. If and when we are found, there will be dozens of them. You said it was difficult to affect so many minds at the same time.”

“I said I could fool many minds a little, or few minds a lot,” Valeris corrected. “This would fall into the ‘many minds a little’ category. Fooling that many people into thinking something as large and powerful as the Granolith is not there would be next to impossible. I’m simply not that skilled,” he added, looking genuinely upset that he did not have more to offer.

Brivari smiled. The thought of Valeris being unskilled was amusing. “Moving the Granolith may take a couple of days. Are you sure you want us to do it this way?”

“I’m sure,” Valeris said firmly. “Moving the hybrids last will also delay the disconnecting of the incubators until the last possible minute. I know they will reconnected to the fuel cell that Urza repaired, but there will still be at least a few hours while they are not connected. Delaying that for even two days may help.

“Very well, then,” Brivari sighed. “I can’t say I’m thrilled about it, but we’ll do it your way.”

Valeris put his hand on Brivari’s shoulder. “Thank you, old friend,” he said warmly. “I appreciate your trust in me.” And then, with that characteristic twinkle in his eye, “What do you think Jaddo will say?”

Brivari closed his eyes. “Let’s not go into that right now, shall we?”



******************************************************


Chamber's Grocery



Dee followed “James” out to the truck and watched as he loaded the remaining boxes. “Close the latch,” she told him, as he started to walk away with the back doors gaping wide open. He closed the doors and slid the latch firmly shut. And then just stood here, like he had no idea what to do next.

“You get in there,” Dee said indicating the driver’s seat. “I get in on the other side.” She climbed in the passenger seat and turned sideways to face him. She had made up her mind that some education was in order before James hit downtown.

“Listen. You need to know some things before you talk to any more humans. First of all, when we meet each other we say, ‘Hello’. And when we leave each other, we say ‘Goodbye’.”

<I know that.>

“But you can’t just think it. You have to say it. Out loud. What you call ‘physical speech’. Humans don’t do……thought speech,” Dee said, leaving aside for the moment the obvious fact that she did “do” thought speech for some reason. “Now, repeat after me: ‘Hello’.”

James just sat there, silent as always. “James,” Dee said in exasperation. “You said you didn’t want to call attention to yourself. Well, not talking—I mean our way of talking—is definitely going to call attention to yourself. Is that what you want?”

James shook his head. “Okay, then. We should practice a few things you need to know so you don’t call attention to yourself. Say ‘Hello’.”

“Hello,” James said, in such a perfectly normal voice that Dee was surprised. She wasn’t certain what she’d been expecting, but a completely normal voice wasn’t it. “Very good,” she said approvingly. “Now, say ‘Goodbye’.”

“Goodbye,” James responded obediently. Dee nodded. “Now, when someone holds their hand out like Mr. Chambers did, you’re supposed to shake it. Like this.” She extended her hand. When James did not extend his, she reached over, picked up his hand, and placed it in hers, pumping his hand up and down. His hand felt like any other hand, warm and dry. Nothing to make you think you were shaking the hand of someone from another planet.

<What is the purpose of this ritual?>

“It’s how we say ‘Hello’.”

<Didn’t I already say ‘Hello’?>

“We don’t always shake hands when we say ‘Hello’. Just sometimes.”

<When?>

Dee opened her mouth to answer, then closed it. Explaining your customs to a spaceman was hard. “Just ‘Hello’ is fine,” she finally told James. “But if someone sticks their hand out, you shake it like this. Got it?” James nodded.

“Good. Now, I’ll show you how to get downtown. Start the truck.” James looked at her blankly. Dee’s heart sank. “You don’t know how to drive, do you?”

<Don’t you?>

“Of course not! I’m only eight! Well, almost nine, but that’s still way too young to drive. Take the key and start the engine.”

<Key?>

Dee stared at the ignition. There was no key. And Mr. Chambers hadn’t handed James a key when he had left. She smacked her hand to her forehead. “No key? Great. Just great.”

<Is that bad?>

“Yes, it’s bad! We need the key to start the truck.”

<Start it doing what?>

Dee rolled her eyes. “The engine, James. We need the key to start the engine. You must know what an engine is. There must be one on your spaceship. You know—the part that makes it ‘go’?”

<I know what an engine is,> James said, sounding slightly offended. <Where does the key go?>

“You stick it in there,” Dee said, indicating the ignition, “and turn it.”

James smiled, the first time he had smiled since Dee met him. And then he did something extraordinary. He held his hand over the ignition for a moment. His hand seemed to glow, and to her astonishment, the engine roared to life.

James placed his hands on the steering wheel and looked very pleased with himself. <Is that better?>

Dee nodded, staring. She really didn’t understand why she was so surprised. After all, if a bird could turn into a man and change his clothes without…..well, without changing them, why shouldn’t he be able to start a truck with his hand?

Time to move on. Pointing at the floor, she said, “See those two pedals?” James nodded. “The one on the right—my side—makes the truck go. The one in the middle makes it stop. The one way over on the left—your side—is what you press when you shift the shifter lever.” Dee paused; this was going to be hard. She’d watched her Mom and Dad and Mac drive countless times, but she still wasn’t quite certain exactly how it was done.

James was looking from one pedal to another and back with obvious confusion. “Okay. Step one,” Dee said. God, she hoped she got this right. “Push in the pedal way over on the left. That’s the ‘clutch’.” James obeyed. She shifted the shift lever into reverse. “Now, slowly take your foot off the clutch.” James took his foot off the clutch and the engine promptly stalled.

Dee sighed. “No, you have to let it out slower.” She shifted back into park. “Try again.” She watched, agog, while James started the engine again with his glowy hand. He depressed the clutch, she shifted into reverse, and James slowly removed his foot from the clutch. So far so good.

“Now, gently press the pedal on the right,” Dee instructed. James pressed—and the truck shot backward.

“Push the brake—I mean the middle pedal. No! Wait! Push the clutch, then the brake.” But it was too late. James had pressed the brake first and stalled the motor.

Dee slumped in her seat. She had seen it done enough times that she might be able to do it herself—if her legs had been long enough to reach the pedals, which they weren’t. What were they going to do? “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I’m not a very good teacher.”

James smiled at her. It was a nice smile; a warm smile. A very human smile. <You are a very good teacher. You have taught me enough that I can now do it my way.>

“Your way”? What was he talking about?

James shifted back into park, restarted the motor, and bent over in his seat. He passed his hand first over the pedals on the floor, then over the shift lever. As she watched, fascinated, the pedals and the lever began to move. All by themselves. In perfect synchrony the clutch depressed, the shifter shifted, the clutch released slowly, and the accelerator went down. They backed smoothly away from the building, James turning the wheel expertly. Apparently he didn’t have any trouble with steering wheels.

Dee’s jaw was in her lap. “How….,” she began.

<The controls now respond to my thoughts. It is better this way. I am not yet used to this form.>

Form? Of course. He had been a bird only yesterday. And birds didn’t drive cars. Quite unexpectedly, Dee began to giggle.

<Is something funny?>

“Oh, only the idea of me trying to teach a space alien who was a bird yesterday and a human today about how to drive a truck,” Dee said, giggling even more.

James smiled his nice smile again. It was good to know that people on other planets found things funny too. He drove the truck to the edge of the parking lot.

“Turn left,” Dee instructed. “Whenever you turn, you need to flip that lever by the steering wheel. It blinks a light and tells the people behind you which way you’re turning.” James nodded, and passed his hand over the turn signal lever, which promptly joined the list of controls which responded to his thoughts.

Dee smiled as they pulled out onto the road. This was kind of fun. Imagine, going to the Fourth of July parade with an alien. The only bad thing about all of this was that she couldn’t tell anybody.

Well, maybe not the only bad thing.

“That’s a red light, James! Stop! STOP!”


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PART EIGHT


July 4, 1947, 10:40 a.m.

Corona, New Mexico




The truck screeched to a halt, throwing Dee and the alien forward. Dee sat, panting, looking out at the other drivers scowling at them. James merely looked confused.

“Okay. Traffic law lesson,” Dee said firmly. “See those things hanging up there?” She pointed. James nodded. “Those are traffic lights. Red means stop. Yellow means it’s going to turn red, so slow down. Green means go. Do you see that red sign a ways down the road?” She could only just barely see the stop sign in the distance, but James nodded. <Yes. It says, ‘Stop’.>

“Right. You have to stop at stop signs, just like at red lights.”

<If the red light had said, ‘Stop’, I would have known to stop.>

Dee sighed. “The light just turned green. You can go now. See that yellow line in the middle of the road? Stay on the right side of it.”

They drove along in silence without further incident. James might be clueless when it came to driving, but he certainly learned fast. She studied him in detail for the first time, looking sideways at him so he wouldn’t feel she was staring. He looked about average height, brown hair, brown eyes. He looked…..well, he looked like anyone. No one would ever have picked him out of a crowd as the least bit weird or unusual. Not based on his looks, at least.

“You’ll drive straight down this road for awhile. Stopping at red lights and stop signs, of course,” she added. James nodded. Dee decided to try the conversation thing again.

“You haven’t told me why you’re here. What are you doing here?”

<Hiding.>

“Hiding from what?”

<Our enemies.>

“What do your enemies want?”

<To kill us.>

Dee fell silent, looking out the window. She knew about enemies who wanted to kill you. So did her father. Her uncle did too. Or, rather, he had.

“So, what do you do? I mean, what’s your job? Back on your planet, that is.”

A pause. Then, <I protect.>

“Protect what?”

<Not what. Who.>

“Okay, protect who?”

<My Ward.>

“Ward? Is that like a prisoner? Are you a jail warden?”

James smiled unexpectedly, the largest smile Dee had yet seen him wear. He seemed to find her question funny.

<No. My Ward is not a prisoner.> Then his face darkened, as though another, less amusing thought had occurred to him.

“Turn left here,” Dee said, pointing. “You can pull over by the side of the road like those other cars did.”

James obediently parked the truck, and both of them got out. Townspeople running the various food stalls were already lining up, happy that the food shipment had finally arrived. James unlocked the back door of the truck, and there was a brief flurry of activity as the boxes were distributed. Dee sat on the back of the truck, swinging her legs and chatting with everyone. Corona was a small town, and she knew basically everybody.

Including the bad news at the end of the line. Dee stiffened as Denny Miltnor and his band of thugs swaggered toward her, eyeing the last boxes of food. Denny was bad news when he was all by himself, and he had four other pieces of trash with him.

She looked around for someone to call to, but they had parked on a side street. There was a good deal of noise because all of the bands were practicing, making a cacophony which would drown out any cries for help. Denny followed her gaze and smirked. Obviously he’d already thought of that.

“No one around, DeeDee,” Miltnor said in a singsong voice. His cronies smiled. “Now why don’t you fork over some of that food. Who wants to pay when you don’t have to, right guys?” he called back over his shoulder. Each piece of trash obediently bobbed his head up and down. Always best to agree with Denny Miltnor. Bad things happened to those who didn’t.

But Dee Proctor had a stubborn streak that ran a mile wide. Which was not necessarily a good thing in a situation like this. She hopped down off the truck bed to face him down. Or rather, face him up. Denny was easily twice as tall as she was, and twice as big around.

“Get lost, Denny,” she announced, in the biggest voice she could muster. This had a curious effect on Miltnor’s band. All of them, every single one, doubled over in laughter.

“And just what exactly are you going to do to stop me?” Miltnor asked, between spasms of laughter. “Are you gonna stick your tongue out at me, or something horrible like that?”

James suddenly appeared around the end of the truck. Every head swiveled to look at him. Miltnor spent a scant few seconds appraising the newcomer, and apparently decided he didn’t present much of a threat.

“This your boyfriend?” he jeered at Dee. “Kinda scrawny, don’cha think?” He tittered again, sending his cronies into more fits of laughter.

But Dee was looking at James. He looked different. He no longer had that kindly look in his eyes, or a confused look, or even a blank look. He looked…..dangerous. Not angry, exactly. Just dangerous. Looking at him, Dee found herself feeling uncomfortable for the first time since she had met him, either as a bird or a human.

“Leave,” James ordered Miltnor, in perfect physical speech.

Miltnor gaped for a moment at this thin, not very tall man, who had committed the incredible stupidity of challenging his territory. He walked up to James and stood nose to nose with him. That was his trademark: Get in their faces, intimidate them. That was what Denny did best. “Are you talking to me?” he inquired of James in a tone of mock amazement. “No, that can’t be, could it guys?” His friends behind him smirked and shook their heads. “Because no one—no one—would be so stupid as to tell me to leave,” Denny said confidently. “So you couldn’t be talking to me, could you?”

James’s eyes looked cold, so cold Dee could have sworn they were made of ice. He took a step closer—no easy task since Denny was practically on top of him already—and said in a tone that would have frozen boiling water, “I told you to leave. I will not warn you again.”

Miltnor hesitated. This was unfamiliar ground for him, the undisputed bully of Corona. Who did this jerk-off think he was, anyway? There were five of them and only one of him. And that twit of a girl. But no one challenged Denny Miltnor and got away with it. No one.

Miltnor tried to stand a little taller. “You. Get lost, or we will pound the living daylights out of you. Go on! Scram!” Miltnor waited. James did not move.

Dee was starting to get worried. She did not like the look in James’s eyes, and Denny was too cocky to even consider the idea that he could be in real danger. “I wouldn’t bother him, if I were you,” she said to Miltnor. “He’s a lot stronger than he looks.”

Miltnor looked at her in disbelief. “Him?” he asked incredulously, pointing at James. He looked back at James, and suddenly Dee just knew Denny was going to do something idiotic. “NO!” she yelled.

Too late. Miltnor launched himself at James while his pals laughed.

It happened so fast that afterward, Dee could never quite sort it all out. She remembered seeing Denny lunge toward James, and then Denny flew backward for no apparent reason. James had his hand up, palm out. It was the same hand that had started the engine and magicked the pedals in the truck, only now it was somehow holding Denny Miltnor against the wall of a nearby building. Because that’s where he was, pinned to the brick, hanging like a rag doll about six feet off the ground. And James was standing several yards in front of him, palm outstretched, completely calm and unfazed. In direct contrast to Denny, who was trying to say something and wasn’t able to get the words out. He seemed to be having trouble breathing.

For a few seconds, no one moved. Dee’s hand was clapped over her mouth. Miltnor’s friends gaped. Then, as one, the four fellow thugs charged at James.

They never made it. James casually flung his free hand—his non-pinning-Denny-to-the-wall hand—over his shoulder. Four thugs launched into the air, flying gracefully back about ten feet, landing in a heap in the middle of the road. They sat there for a moment, disoriented, then rose as a unit and ran off howling in the direction of the parade stands.

Dee found her voice. “Let him go, James,” she said shakily. “He won’t bother you now.”

<He threatened you.> Pause. <He threatens us.>

Dee heard shouts and the sound of running feet. The thugs were bringing help. “James, you have to put him down. People will see. Humans can’t do things like this.” The running feet were getting closer. “James, if anyone sees you, they will know you’re different. You didn’t want to attract attention, right? Do you hear that? People are coming. You have to put him down.”

James appeared to cock an ear. The crowd was almost upon them. James slowly lowered his hand and Denny slid down, landing heavily at the base of the wall. His hand flew to his throat and he gasped for breath.

Around the corner came his buddies, followed by Mr. Chambers and about thirty other people. Such a turnout for Denny Miltnor, Dee thought wryly. The thugs’ story must have been good.

Bill Chambers skidded to a halt in front of them, his eyes darting from Dee to James to Denny, and back to Dee again. “What’s going on here?” he barked. Then, to Dee, “Are you all right, sweetheart? Did someone try to hurt you?”

Miltnor got there first. He had apparently relocated his voice. “He,” Miltnor croaked, pointing a shaky finger at James, “he tried to kill me!” He coughed, unable to say more. His chums took up the chant. “Yeah, that man of yours tried to kill Denny! He was choking him, holding him up on that wall there from all the way back here!”

A murmur rippled through the crowd. Dee held her breath. Hopefully no one would pay much attention to the boys’ wilder claims. They told so many tall tales; this one was most likely no stranger.

As expected, Mr. Chambers completely ignored Denny’s buddies. “What happened here,” he said sternly to James.

“They threatened the child,” James replied.

“He tried to kill me!” Denny managed to croak again as his buddies nodded vigorous agreement.

“Is that true?” Chambers asked, although he didn’t sound very unhappy. Nobody liked Denny Miltnor or his posse.

“I never touched him,” James replied. And Dee realized that was true. James had not laid a finger on Denny. He hadn’t needed to.

Chambers walked over to Miltnor and pulled him to his feet. He looked him up and down and, apparently satisfied that Denny wasn’t injured, said, “Go home, Miltnor. And take your trash heap with you. You must be going soft if you have to pick on little girls to mark your turf.” He shoved Miltnor toward his buddies, who looked as though they were going to protest. But after looking around at the stony faces surrounding them, they apparently thought better of it. They surrounded Denny and slunk off.

Chambers turned to James. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate you looking out for the girl. And my merchandise. That lot of ruffians causes no end of trouble all over town.” He paused. “Just exactly what did you do that sent them all into such a tizzy?”

“I protect,” James answered simply. “That’s what I do.”

Chambers nodded slowly. “I see,” he said, in the tone of one who does not see at all. He looked at Dee, who stood silently off to one side. No way was she telling what happened here. Not that anyone would believe her anyway.

“We’ll take these last boxes,” Chambers said to James. “Drive the truck back to the store and load up a box of food for yourself. Make that two boxes,” he added, patting James on the back. “For a job well done. And here’s your pay.” Dee gaped as he handed James a crisp, one dollar bill, and stood waiting for James to thank him. But James merely took the money, nodded, and headed for the driver’s seat. Chambers watched him go, baffled.

“Thank you, Mr. Chambers,” Dee said, filling in the silence. “I know he appreciates it. He’s just not very talkative.”

“Humph,” Mr. Chambers said. “Well, at least I got to hear him say something. I was beginning to wonder if he could talk at all.”

“I’m going back with him,” Dee said as casually as possible. “I’m not certain he knows his way back. The parade ends right near the store, so I’ll just catch it at the end.”

“Are you sure?” Mr. Chambers asked.

“I’m sure.” Dee turned to make her way to the passenger’s side. Bystanders drifted away, the excitement over. Dee put her hand on the door handle, and was stopped by Mr. Chambers’ voice.

“Dee? I just remembered something. How did you get down here? The key to the truck is in my pocket.”

Dee swallowed. She wasn’t used to lying. “There was a key in the truck, Mr. Chambers.”

Mr. Chambers looked doubtful. “Really?” he asked. He took a few steps toward the truck. Please don’t look, Dee thought fiercely, knowing full well there was no key. How would she ever explain?

Mr. Chambers was still walking toward the truck, patting his pocket. “How can that be?” he asked. “I’ve got both keys right here in my pocket.” He pulled the keys out as he spoke.

Dee was quietly panicking. She looked frantically at James, who, as usual, seemed unperturbed by any of this. “Gold keys,” she babbled, half to Mr. Chambers, half to James. Did James even know what color gold was?

Chambers reached the window. Dee smiled at him and didn’t move aside. She looked at James; his hand was over the keyhole. Oh my God. Is he going to start the truck and drive away?

Mr. Chambers leaned in the window, forcing her to move a little aside. “What key have you got there?” Dee held her breath. James still held his hand over the keyhole, staring intently at the keys in Mr. Chambers’s hand. She frantically searched her mind for an explanation. Any explanation. Even a lame explanation would be better than none at this point.

And then James moved his hand. In the keyhole was a gold key. Mr. Chambers squinted at it suspiciously. Dee stared at it, hoping her extreme surprise wasn’t too awfully noticeable.

“Let me see that,” Mr. Chambers demanded. Oh no, Dee groaned. James might have magicked up a fake key, but it would probably not stand up to close scrutiny. James obediently removed the key and handed it over.

Mr. Chambers held James’s key next to his own. It was a perfect match, right down to the lettering. “Well, I’ll be darned,” he said in an awed voice. “I had no idea I had a third key. When the hell did I have that made? Oh. Sorry, dear,” he said to Dee, ashamed at having sworn in front of a child. Mr. Chambers handed the key back to James. “Leave that on the counter at the store, will you?” James nodded. Mr. Chambers opened the door to the truck. “In you go,” he said to Dee, who gratefully climbed in. The sooner she was out of here the better.

“Bye now. You take good care of her, you hear?” Mr. Chambers said. James nodded, put his hand over the key, started the truck, and pulled out onto the road.

Dee sat silently, staring at James. The new gold key was still in the ignition, but Dee knew very well that key was not what had started that engine. James stared calmly ahead, seemingly unaffected by all the hullabaloo. He looked harmless again, even vaguely friendly.

But Dee had seen the look in his eyes when she was threatened. He had told her his job was to protect someone, and she had no doubt that James was very good at what he did. So good, in fact, she had the uncomfortable feeling that if Mr. Chambers had not stopped him, James might have killed Denny Miltnor.

I protect. That’s what I do.


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PART NINE


July 4, 1947, 11:15 a.m.

Corona, New Mexico





Urza steered the truck back toward the food store in silence. It was not necessary to ask for directions; he had memorized the route on the way there. He was quite pleased with most events so far. He had located a source of transportation, learned how to operate it, and found a source of food. Even Jaddo might have been pleased with him. Emphasis on the might. There was that one little problem that had come to light, but he meant to correct that before he left.

He glanced at the human child sitting next to him. Whereas before she had been friendly and talkative, now she seemed uncomfortable. She kept slipping sideways glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking. But Covari peripheral vision was excellent, and he wondered what was bothering her. She was sitting so close to the door that he got the distinct impression she wanted to be as far away from him as possible. Was she frightened? Why would she be? He had made no move to harm her. Indeed, he had protected her from harm. <Is something wrong?>

She was silent for a moment. “Where’d you get that key, James?”

<I fashioned it from the metal supporting the steering device,> he answered, hoping that would settle whatever was bothering her.

It didn’t. Her face remained troubled. <You are angry?>

The child shook her head. “No, I’m not angry. I’m……I’m a little scared.”

<Of what?>

“Of you, that’s what,” she said forcefully.

Now it was Urza’s turn to be troubled. <Why would I frighten you?>

The child looked at him incredulously. “You almost killed someone back there!”

<You are frightened because of what I did to the boy?>

“No. He had that coming. I’m frightened of what I think you would have done if someone hadn’t stopped you.”

<The boy is a friend of yours?>

“Who…Denny? No way! He’s the biggest bully in town. He’s always beating people up, and threatening everyone, and messing up all their stuff. He’s no friend of mine.”

<Then why does my stopping him upset you?>

“I’m not upset that you stopped him; I’m glad you stopped him. I was afraid you were going to kill him. He’s a jerk, but he doesn’t deserve to die because of it.”

Urza sighed. The cry of, “Don’t hurt him!” was familiar. The last time he had pinned someone to a wall like that, it had been Khivar. Urza had discovered them meeting in the garden after realizing that Vilandra was not where she had told him she would be.

**** “Stop it! You’ll hurt him!” she had cried. As if that were a bad thing.

“Go ahead,” Khivar had said—or rather, squeaked—as Urza held him pinned to the wall with his mind, invisible hands squeezing his throat. “Kill me. Let Zan try to explain how I died in his palace.”

Urza would have dearly loved to snap his neck right then and there. But Khivar was right; his dying in that manner would prove problematic for the King. So Urza had released him suddenly, letting him crash to floor with that maddening look of triumph on his face, although he had continued to struggle for air for several long, satisfying seconds.

Triumphant or no, Khivar wasn’t taking any chances. He knew what Royal Covari were capable of. He beat a hasty retreat, while Urza turned to face down his frantic mistress.
****

“Just tell me one thing,” the child was asking. “Were you trying to kill him?”

<No.>

They had arrived at the food store, and Urza steered the vehicle back into the place where he had found it. The girl had visibly relaxed. This was apparently the answer she had been looking for, and he was glad to see her mood improve immediately. <I am not familiar with Earth’s food. Would you help me pick out something we could eat?>

The child smiled. She clearly enjoyed being needed. She had proven her worth today by shielding his identity and helping him obtain the things they needed. She was a useful ally, even though she didn’t understand Royal Warders. “Were you trying to kill him?” Warders did not “try” to kill—they either killed, or they did not.

If I had wanted him dead, he would be dead.



******************************************************



Dee led James into the store and pointed to the counter. “Put the key there,” she instructed. James obediently set the key down, then paused to inspect the cash register. <What purpose does this device serve?>

“It holds the money.”

<Money? Do you mean currency?>

“Well, that’s a fancier word, but yes, that’s it. You know, like the dollar bill Mr. Chambers handed you. Lucky!” she added. What she wouldn’t give for a whole dollar of her own.

James removed the bill from his pocket. <Is this a lot of money?>

“For driving one truckload of food downtown? You bet it is!”

<How can you tell?> James asked, examining the piece of paper closely.

“By the numbers in the corners. The bigger the number, the more it’s worth. That’s a one dollar bill. The number in the corner tells you how many dollars it’s worth. That has a ‘1’, so it’s worth one dollar.”

James continued to look blank, so Dee tried again. “We use money to buy things. You give Mr. Chambers money, and he gives you food. Don’t you have money on your planet?”

<No.> James turned his attention to the aisles of food.

“Okay.” Dee grabbed a couple of boxes that were leaning against a wall, plopped them on the counter, and tried to imagine a world without money. “Did you or……your friends like anything from the lunch I left yesterday?”

<Lunch? Oh, yes. The food. We appreciated your kindness.>

“You’re welcome,” Dee said proudly.

<I’m welcome to what?>

“That’s just what you say when someone says, ‘Thank you’, which means they’re grateful for something. They say, ‘Thank you’, and you say, ‘You’re welcome’.” Working with James reminded her of babysitting her two year-old cousin.

<Oh. Well, then….Thank you.>

“You’re welcome,” Dee repeated, feeling like a broken record. “Now—the lunch?”

<We liked the soft square, but not the hard, red food. I liked the beverage. Though I do wonder why you put gas in your beverages.>

Dee smiled. The aliens liked Coca Cola. Now why did that not surprise her? “So….sandwiches, yes. Raw fruit, no. And some bottles of Cocoa Cola. Coming right up.” James wandered off, poking at packages. She grabbed some bread, and some peanut butter and jelly—that was soft. Some coffee too, because everyone knew grown-ups liked coffee, for some odd reason. Personally she thought it tasted awful. Her mother had laughed when Dee had spit out her one and only sip of coffee, saying, “It’s an acquired taste.” Perhaps, but Dee had made up her mind never to acquire it. She had resolved then and there to become a tea drinker.

What else? She packed a few more soft foods into the boxes and paused at the soup. Hefting a can of Campbell’s Vegetable Beef, she considered—soup was relatively soft, wasn’t it?

<What is this?>

Turning around, Dee saw James standing at the meat counter. “That’s meat. Some of that is soft. Would you like some?”

James was looking at her wide-eyed. <Meat? Do you mean…. flesh?>

“Well…..yes,” Dee answered uncertainly. James looked shocked. “Is something wrong?”

James shook his head gravely. <No. I understand this is a primitive planet.>

Primitive? Because they ate meat? Dee opened her mouth to point out that at least one of them had eaten her bologna sandwich yesterday, then thought better of it. She hastily exchanged the vegetable beef soup for plain vegetable and changed the subject. “So, tell me—why do you like soft food?”

<We do not have teeth like yours.>

That would make it hard to eat apples. “Don’t you have any teeth?”

<Yes. But they are smaller and fewer in number.>

“But you have human teeth now,” Dee said, packing as she talked and sidestepping the issue of James earlier having been a hawk with no teeth at all. “Why not just use your human teeth?”

James looked wistful for a moment. <We could. We did. It is a matter of……what we are used to.>

He’s homesick, Dee realized. And who wouldn’t be, God knows how far from home? She double-checked the contents of the boxes, making certain that all the food was soft. When she turned around again, James was behind her.

<There is one more thing I need before I go.>

“What?”

<I need to know where the one you call ‘Mac’ lives.>

Dee went cold. This didn’t sound good. “Why do you need to know that?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

James took a step closer. <He has pieces of our ship that he intends to show to enforcers. I must retrieve those pieces. We must not be discovered.>

Dee squirmed. She had a piece of their ship too, a rather large one she was loathe to give up. “Why don’t you just leave the ship? You said you came here to hide. Your ship doesn’t seem to be the best place to hide.”

<We will leave the ship when we are finished removing what we brought with us. Until then, we must not be discovered.>

“What did you bring with you, James?” Dee asked slowly. “Something that could hurt us?”

<No.>

“Is it…..is it a bomb?” Dee had read all about the bombs dropped on Japan a couple of years ago. She sneaked the newspapers out of the trash when her parents weren’t looking.

<We did not bring weapons. We did not come to hurt you. We only mean to hide.>

Dee boosted herself up on the counter and swung her legs back and forth. “James, did you ever think that maybe you’re going about this all wrong?”

James cocked his head as if puzzled. <Explain.>

“Okay, say you get the pieces of your ship that Mac has. He’ll just go out looking for more. And he’ll probably find more. You can’t crash something as big as your ship and not leave pieces behind.”

<Perhaps. But taking what he now has will slow him down.>

“Why don’t you just go to the sheriff and tell him who you are and where you’re from? Tell him you need to hide here, and that you aren’t going to hurt anyone. Won’t that be better than slinking around and worrying about getting caught?”

James smiled, the same kind of smile that Dee found maddening on her parents’ faces whenever one of them thought she was just too young to understand. <They would not understand. They would fear us.>

“Well, sure. At first. But I bet they’d come around. Look how nice Mr. Chambers was to you today.”

<He was kind because he thought I was human. He thought I was like him. If he knew the truth, things would have been different.>

“How will you know if you don’t try? If you don’t give us the chance?”

James was silent for a moment. Then he completely changed the subject.

<There was a war on this planet recently, was there not?>

“Yes……World War II. But what does that have to do with anything?”

<An evil man did horrible things to people because they were different.>

Dee shuddered. She had read accounts of what Adolf Hitler had done to people. Live people. Maybe she should stop digging up those newspapers. “He was nasty, James. The people here aren’t like that.”

<Are you sure?>

His tone—even his “inside-her-head” tone—made her uncomfortable. What was he getting at? “I’m sure,” she said with all the finality she could muster. “The people here in Corona aren’t like Hitler. They would never do things like that. But what does all this have to do with telling the sheriff the truth?”

James leaned in closer and looked her directly in the eyes, as if he wanted to make very certain she understood. <If we are caught, those who catch us will do exactly the same things to us.>

“Of course they wouldn’t,” Dee protested, laughing a little at the thought that anyone she knew could ever be so wicked. “And anyway, how could they even if they wanted to? You’re obviously from a place that knows more than us. They couldn’t do that to you if they tried.”

<We are stronger, true. But not invincible.>

“I know that no one here would treat you that way,” Dee said, starting to become annoyed.

<Perhaps not. But those they would tell would treat us that way. People fear what they do not understand. They fear that which is more powerful than they are. That is true of all people. Your people….and my people.>

Dee hesitated, considering this. She knew what she wanted to believe, but she really had no idea what would happen if an alien ship was discovered parked out on Pohlman Ranch.

James was still looking at her intently. <I need to know where Mac lives. If you won’t tell me, I’ll have to find out myself.>

“I’ll get the pieces for you,” Dee said slowly. “It will be safer if I do it. If I get caught, I’ll just say I was looking at them. But I still think you’re worrying about nothing. I still think that if you asked for help, they’d help you.” She sighed. “Where should I bring them after I have them?”

James smiled again. <I have been wondering what ‘fireworks’ are. Will you show me tonight?>

“Fireworks are like big, colorful explosions in the sky. They start at 10 o’clock tonight at the carnival in the field by the school.”

<What is a ‘carnival’?>

“It’s…it’s….well, there are rides, and games, and food.” James looked blank, and Dee struggled for a better explanation. “It’s a celebration,” she said finally. “That’s the best way to describe it. We celebrate by getting together and doing things that are fun.”

<So humans celebrate and have fun by….setting off explosions?>

“Just come and see,” Dee replied, shaking her head and smiling. She had to admit that when he put it that way, it did sound weird. “How will I find you?”


<You won’t. I’ll find you.>

James picked up the boxes of food and headed for the door. He paused when he reached it and turned around. <The word was ‘goodbye’, was it not?> She nodded.

< ‘Goodbye’, then.> He pushed his way through the door without waiting for an answer.

Dee watched him go, thinking about how she was ever going to explain what James was going to see at the carnival. And about how he was going to get all of that food back to the ranch. And about the other reason she had offered to get the ship fragments from Mac’s house.

She was afraid of what James might do to Mac if Mac found him there.



******************************************************



Urza walked away, wondering what ironic twist of fate always found him arguing the nature of evil with young women. At least the human girl was a child; she could not be expected to understand completely. But Vilandra had not been a child, and she also had failed to understand.

After Khivar had left, still clutching his throat in that oh-so-satisfying fashion, Urza had whirled upon his mistress with fury. Their argument had been long and loud. He insisted Khivar was up to no good, that he was using her; she insisted that deep down he was a good person, that he really loved her. Half truths, Urza thought bitterly. He was always adept at half truths. Oh, Khivar really loved her all right. He loved her for the access she gave him, for the pain it would cause Zan to see his sister fall in love with his rival. But Vilandra, awash in the glow of her crush, could not see that. And finally Urza had marched straight upstairs, inviting himself into the King’s bedchamber in the middle of the night to inform him that something had to be done about his sister.

And that was my second mistake.


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PART TEN


July 4, 1947, 8 p.m.

Corona, New Mexico.




Dee and her friend Rachel squealed as the Ferris wheel whipped toward the sky, the ground seeming to fall away from them. As they crested the top, for one brief moment they could see the entire town before plunging downward, almost becoming airborne as they dropped. The ride operator had this wheel going really fast, and Dee loved it.

Rachel, however, was looking a bit worse for the wear. After a few speed-of-light revolutions, she had started to look a bit queasy. Dee was desperately hoping Rachel wasn’t going to throw up all that cotton candy and soda pop they’d had not too long ago. She’d seen someone throw up on a Ferris wheel once, and it hadn’t been pretty.

The wheel finally slowed and came to a halt, cars swinging, as the operator started to unload the ride. Dee cast a nervous glance at Rachel, who was turning an interesting shade of green. “Are you okay?”

“My stomach feels awful,” Rachel complained.

“We’ll be down soon,” Dee said comfortingly. To herself, she thought, Over the side, Rachel. If you have to barf, do it over the side.

The wheel gave a lurch, and Rachel moaned. They moved forward a few cars, then stopped again, right at the top. Perfect. Dee ignored her groaning friend and scanned the area from this wonderful vantage point.

The school’s yard had been transformed into the annual Fourth of July festival complete with the Ferris wheel, a pony ride, numerous games, and enough food vendors to feed an army. Or perhaps she should say the army. Airmen from the nearby base in Roswell were here in force, buying up soda pop by the bucket and trying to best each other at darts. From the way some of them were staggering around, Dee suspected they’d had more to drink than just soda pop.

She anxiously scanned the festival grounds, the tiny midway, the vendors. Where would James be? He had said he’d find her, but Dee was too excited to just hang around and wait for him to show up.

Despairing of finding James on the ground, Dee shifted her search to the rooftops. He may have decided to show up as a hawk, although that had its problems too. Hawks usually didn’t fly at night. Some people might find a hawk out at night to be odd, but not odd enough that they would reach the conclusion that the hawk was really an alien from another planet. Or perhaps he would come as something or someone completely different. Dee really had no idea just how many different ways James could make himself look.

There! On the school roof. A red-tail hawk, looking like it wanted to join the party. He probably does, Dee thought. She definitely got the impression James didn’t get out much.

Now for the hard part. How to get up to the roof? The school was locked, so the usual methods wouldn’t do. Dee couldn’t see any way of getting up to the roof from the outside. James would have to come to her.

The wheel lurched forward again. They were almost down, and judging from the look on Rachel’s face, that was very good news indeed. Dee leaned over the edge of the car and saw Rachel’s father looking concerned. “Rachel’s not feeling well,” she called down to him. “I think she might be sick from all that food we ate.”

Rachel’s father scurried over to the ride operator and had a hurried, whispered conversation with him. The operator promptly advanced the ride so that Dee and Rachel’s car could be unloaded. Smart move, thought Dee. He doesn’t want to have to clean up a messy, smelly car.

Rachel stumbled out into her father’s waiting arms. “Go lay down, Rachel, and you’ll feel better. I’m going to see my folks for a minute. I’ll catch up with you later,” Dee said, putting a hand on her shoulder. Rachel, still green, nodded listlessly, and her father led her away.

Dee turned and headed for the school. She was sorry her friend had gotten sick, but there was a silver lining to this cloud. She had already planned it all out so that her parents would think she was with Rachel’s family; the only fly in the ointment had been how to give Rachel and her family the slip. Now they were all too preoccupied to ask questions, allowing Dee to slip away to do something she was quite certain no one in town had ever done. No one on Earth, for that matter. She was going to meet an alien. Dee smiled. Having secrets was fun.

She slipped her hand into her pocket, and the smile slid from her face. Having secrets had its downsides too, she had learned.

Earlier that day she had casually wandered into Mac’s house. She was such a frequent visitor there that no one had commented on that, neither Mac nor his wife. It hadn’t taken any time at all to find out where they were. Her heart had been pounding so hard when she had scooped them into her pocket that she was certain that everyone could hear it miles away. Any minute she had expected someone to come exploding through the door of Mac’s study and yell, “Thief!” But no one had heard her, and she had escaped uninterrupted, her booty safely in her pocket. She had gotten away with it. She had been a good thief. The prospect was not appetizing.

Later she had tried to console herself by telling herself that the fragments really weren’t Mac’s at all, that they really belonged to James and whoever else was on his ship, and she was merely returning their property. That had worked for a little while. But as the day wore on and her conscience clamored for attention, she sought out her father for advice on something that had been bothering her ever since her conversation with James in the grocery store that morning.

“Daddy, I need to ask you something,” she had said to her father, who was comfortably ensconced on the porch with a glass of iced tea, reading the newspaper on this fine, holiday afternoon.

“What’s up, kiddo?” her father asked, peering around his paper.

“You’re going to want to put the paper down for this one,” Dee said seriously.

David Proctor smiled. “I see,” he replied good-naturedly, neatly folding his paper and setting it down on the nearby table. “Okay. I’m all ears.”

Dee took a deep breath. “All those terrible things that Hitler person did to people. Would anyone in our country ever do something like that?”

David Proctor stopped smiling. “What on earth would make you ask a thing like that?”

What on earth. If only he knew how appropriate that expression was. “Please, Daddy, don’t quiz me. I need to know. The people here would never do anything like that, would they?”

Dee had expected her father to immediately say “No, of course not. How could you ever think such a thing?”. But he didn’t. He looked away, across the street, past the neighbor’s houses lined up in neat rows with their neat lawns and neat window boxes full of flowers. Dee knew what he was really looking at. Her father had served in the war, and he had seen things he did not like to talk about.

Sometimes late at night, Dee heard her Mama and Daddy talking downstairs. She would creep from her bed, silent as a cat, and sit quietly at the top of the front staircase. Their living room was just to one side at the base of the staircase, and her parents voices floated straight up to her. She loved sitting there in the dark, hearing them talk and learning all sorts of things she wouldn’t otherwise know. When they had company over it was even better. Who knew that the mailman was a secret gambler? Or that Mrs. Tildon had lost all of her hair and was wearing a wig? It was a good feeling to lean against the stair railings, warm and sleepy, her parents voices drifting up to her. Most of the time it made her feel safe, like all was right with the world.

But sometimes what she heard was unsettling, if not downright upsetting. She had first learned that Uncle James had died by listening at the top of the stairs. And then there were the times when her father told her mother the things he had seen in the war. His voice would shake, he would start to cry, and Dee would grip the stair railings hard, listening. She had never seen her father cry except at Uncle James’s funeral.

He had never said a word to Dee about what had happened over there. The war was a frequent topic of discussion with her friends, and she continued to sneak the newspapers that were so carefully stashed away, but she never raised the subject with her parents. Now she had to—she had to know what would happen to James and the rest of them if anyone found out they were there. She just couldn’t believe that anyone in America would do things like that. Yet here was her father not saying that they wouldn’t, not saying anything at all.

“Daddy?”

David Proctor looked at his daughter as if he had forgotten she was there. “What would make you ask such a thing?” he repeated.

“That’s not important. Suppose, just suppose, that someone different showed up. Someone who was different from all of us. Do you think people would help them? Or would they try to hurt them because they were different?”

“Different how?” her father asked. “Do you mean they’re black? Or Asian? Or—or German?” Her father hesitated on that last one. Anti-German sentiment was still running high.

Dee shook her head. “More different. Much more. Say—someone from another planet. Someone who isn’t human.” She paused, holding her breath, just waiting for her father to burst out laughing or accuse her of teasing him.

But David Proctor was used to “what if” questions from his daughter, and the look on her face made it clear she wasn’t teasing. He had no idea what she was getting at, but no matter. She deserved a straight answer. And that was the hard part. David didn’t believe in lying to children. He didn’t tell his child things she didn’t need to know, but he didn’t lie to her either. Call it judicious revelation. Or parental guidance.

“All right,” her father said. “Let’s say there was an alien here from another planet.” Dee was relieved to see her father was at least pretending to take her seriously. “If I knew this alien, I would tell them to high-tail it out of here as fast as their feet would carry them. Or tentacles. Or whatever. Because I wouldn’t want to know what they would do to someone like that if they caught them.”

Dee sat back and stared, wide-eyed. “But…..this is America, Daddy! We don’t do things like that here! Wouldn’t people help them? What if they were just here to hide? Not to take over the earth, or anything like that, but just to hide? Do you really think people would want to hurt them?”

David Proctor rubbed his hand through his hair. God, this was hard. How did you explain to your eight year-old daughter that monsters are everywhere, in every country? That “things like that” don’t just happen “over there”?

David sat forward in his chair and took his daughter’s hands. “Dee, listen to me. I love this country. I fought for it once, and I’d fight for it again. But I’ve seen what people do when they get scared. People everywhere. Even people here. When people get scared, they do all sorts of things they would normally never do. They justify it by telling themselves that they’re really just protecting themselves, or their families, or their countries. That’s what Hitler did. He convinced the German people that he was trying to protect them, and in his own twisted way, he was. He truly believed that what he was doing was right. People can convince themselves that just about anything is right if they try hard enough.”

Dee’s father dropped her hands and gazed at her sadly. “I wish I could tell you that it couldn’t happen here, but I can’t say that. I can say it’s less likely to happen here. Or that if it does happen, that someone is more likely to find out about it and put a stop to it. But I can’t promise you it will never happen in this country. I wish I could.”

Dee’s father reached up to touch her cheek. “But it’s over now, kiddo. The war’s over and Hitler’s dead. The world rose up and stopped him. That’s the important part to remember.”

Dee had nodded, hugged her father, and thanked him for listening. Then she wandered back into the house, leaving her father to muse on the strange way that children had of expressing their fears. Imagine presenting such a question in terms of an alien coming to earth. Damned inventive of her, if you asked him.

And Dee had patted the fragments in her pocket then, as she did now, feeling less guilty about having taken them. Because her father had said essentially the same thing that James had said: People fear what they do not understand. Which meant that James really was in danger of discovery, she had done the right thing by retrieving the fragments, and she was doing the right thing now by bringing them to him. She still didn’t really believe that anyone in Corona would react the way James thought they would, but if there was even a small chance that they wouldn’t be welcomed, then it was best to help them get off their ship as soon as possible. Then they could work on convincing people that there was no reason to be afraid.

She reached the school building and gazed up at the roof, two stories above her. She couldn’t get up there, so he would have to come down to her. This side of the building was hidden from the crowds, so thankfully no one would see her talking to a bird. “James!” she called up. “You have to come down here. I can’t get up there.”

She jumped as James appeared out of the shadows in human form.

<Do you have the ship fragments?>



******************************************************




Urza inwardly sighed with relief as Dee pulled a cloth out of her pocket and handed it to him. He unwrapped the fragments and inspected them closely. There were several. None very large, but large enough to prompt questions.

Urza rewrapped the fragments and pushed them into his own pocket. The child had done well. He had seen the one called “Mac” at this communal gathering, so with luck it would be several hours before he missed his treasure. Automatically, from habit developed over long years of practice, he bowed to the girl.

<I extend to you the King’s gratitude.>

The child blinked. “King? What King?” she asked. Then her eyes grew large, and she started to get excited. “Do you mean to tell me that one of those…those people you protect is a King? A real King?”

Urza nodded. <My Ward is the sister of the King, what I believe you refer to as a ‘princess’.>

“A princess? Wow!” The girl’s eyes were shining. Urza was confused. What was making her so happy? <Surely you have people of similar rank here?>

She shook her head. “Nope. We have a president. No kings or princesses. Wow!” she said again. “This is the first time I’ve ever met anyone who actually works for a king! Or a princess. This is so cool! Wait till everyone hears about…..”. She stopped, suddenly realizing that telling people about her momentous discovery was impossible. “Oh. I can’t tell anyone about it, can I?” She shrugged. “Oh, well. Can I meet them?”

<I’m afraid not. But we are their representatives. Meeting us is an honor in itself.> That was certainly true on Antar. Covari were both feared and respected, but Royal Covari had an aura all their own.

“Did the King and the princess eat the food I helped pick out?”

Urza smiled. <No. They do not eat…..quite the way we do. But we enjoyed it. We do have a question to ask.>

“What’s that?”

<Why is the food on this world so colorful?>

“I…..I don’t know. Is that bad?”

Urza shook his head. <Not bad. Just different.>

The child looked perplexed. Certainly all of them had been perplexed a few hours earlier, as they had gathered around something the box proclaimed to be “macaroni and cheese”.

Valeris had carefully followed the instructions on the package that shouted “Kraft!”, wondering aloud just how big of a cup of water a “cup” was. When he was finished they had gingerly sampled the gooey, chewy food, and mused on its bright color.

“Perhaps humans find monochromatic food boring?” Valeris had suggested.

“Wouldn’t it be just like humans to waste time and energy making their food look pretty,” had been Jaddo’s contribution to the discussion.

“It is visually appealing,” Brivari had commented. “Even this ‘soup’ has bits and pieces that are different colors. Apparently that is important here.”

“I like the colors,” Urza had added, causing Jaddo to roll his eyes.

They had all been suitably impressed with Urza’s food delivery, and his description of available transportation devices and how to operate them. Brivari had been very pleased. Even Jaddo managed to look vaguely impressed. Vaguely.

The conversation about the fragments that must be retrieved had not gone as smoothly, with Jaddo arguing forcefully that they should not be relying on a human child for their protection, and Urza arguing just as forcefully that the dramatics which might be necessary to find and retrieve the fragments themselves would likely alarm the humans to the point where movement around the area would be compromised. This had gone on for several minutes, until finally Brivari had stepped in.

“Urza will go to the gathering planned for tonight to see if the child has been able to retrieve the fragments. It would be preferable for her to obtain them for us. If she does not,” he said, turning to Urza, “you will retrieve them yourself immediately. By any means necessary.”

And Urza had bowed, smiling, while Jaddo scowled. For this meant that Brivari was giving Urza a chance to do things his way, and that for some reason, he did not feel that Urza’s trust in the human child was entirely misplaced.

And so Urza had come to this place and perched on the roof, watching with fascination as the humans arrived and engaged in all manner of odd activities. He was heady with the excitement of a freedom such as he had never known, combined with a newfound sense of power among his peers. He had been the first to forge a relationship with a human, a human who was proving to be very helpful indeed. He had never felt so strong, so respected, so useful. His Ward would be proud if she were here.

Urza looked down at the quizzical child, still puzzling over his comment about their food. <I have a great many questions about what is happening here tonight. Would you answer them for me?>

The girl smiled. “We have a little while before the fireworks start. Come on. Oh, and James?”

<Yes?>

“If we’re going to walk around together, you can’t talk in my head. I can’t answer you like that, and if I talk to you out loud while you’re not saying anything, they’re going to lock me up.”

<Lock you up? Why? Would you have broken a law?>

“No, no,” the child said. “That’s not what I meant. I meant….oh, never mind what I meant. It’s just that you have to talk with your mouth if we’re going out there. Okay?”

Urza assumed that “Okay” meant “yes”. <Okay.> Then, as the girl looked at him skeptically, he caught himself. “Okay,” he said out loud.

The girl looked exasperated. “You know what the worst of it is? I’m so used to you talking in my head that I’ll probably just go ahead and answer you anyway. It’s funny how something I didn’t even know was possible just a couple of days ago is something I think is perfectly normal now.” She took Urza’s hand. “Come on. If you like colorful food, I’ve got some things to show you.” She closed one eyelid but not the other, a gesture that was lost on Urza. But he let her take his hand and guide him toward the bright lights, strange sounds, and odd contraptions that made up this fascinating, confusing human gathering.

Neither of them noticed the figure hidden in the shadows, silent, immobile. It waited until they had moved a ways away, then crept silently from its hiding place and followed them.


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