Leaving Earth

Leaving Earth

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Leaving Earth

Rescuing blue-leather alien, Eli, seemed a simple thing. But stranded far from Earth, Kate, Eli and sentient onboard, Honey, encounter the Entity-I and are forever changed. Kate becomes a pawn in a deadly confrontation with an alien race, and must answer questions deep within her Earth-born soul: What determines that one is Human? Who is one’s true family?

Sample Chapters for Leaving Earth:

Chapter 1

“There he is! Get him, Wakowski!”

But Wakowski fell, stunned by a blow to the chest and their prey suddenly disappeared into shadows. Captain Yohst swore under his breath, blaming government cutbacks in the electric grid for the minimal security lighting, inside and out. “Spread out. Find him. Seekers on stun.”

Two Enforcers split off from the squad down a back hallway, and barely visible themselves in their night uniforms, advanced slowly around a dimly lit corner. “Do you see him?” Terry, the lead Enforcer whispered.

“No. Where’d he go?” Joey, the nervous and younger of the two whispered back.

From behind, an arm snaked around Joey’s throat and quickly choked him into unconsciousness, lowering him silently to the carpeted floor.

“Hey, Joey–,” Terry turned back–

Eli-the-hunted lashed out with a sharp blow to the head, pulled the two unconscious Enforcers around the corner, then raced down the long hallway and out through the exit doors with his stolen security passkey. Staying to the shadows of tree clusters and tall shrubs until forced onto the open, groomed grass, Eli made a final desperate run for the fence and the safety of darkness.

* * *

“Captain! Here!” Enforcer Harry spoke into his wrist unit. “Northwest hallway. He took out Team Two.”

Yohst ran up and knelt to feel the pulses of the two unconscious men. “Stay with them Harry, and call in medical. The rest of you, with me,” he snapped and ran down the hall, leading the charge as he swiped his security card and burst out through the exit doors.

“There he is, Sir,” Willan pointed a moment later, spotting the intruder, “Over there! At the fence!”

“Release the dogs!” Yohst shouted angrily. “We’re not losing this one!”

* * *

Eli leapt up and using forward momentum he grabbed the ten-foot vertical support pole in the chain length fence to vault up and over the top of the razor wire. He sailed high, missing the wire by at least a foot, somersaulted and landed lightly on the other side, as if he’d been a gymnast. His long legs raced over the short stretch of flat open ground beyond the fence, straining to reach the woods, to put distance between him and certain death.

But everything seemed to work against him tonight. The bright white light from a rising moon chased away the deep shadows he needed for escape. Sharp briars and low hanging branches snagged and tore at his clothing, slowing him when he needed speed. Even the air on this planet–so thick and heavy with its fetid odor of decaying life–took enormous effort to drag in and out of his lungs. It was like breathing water, torturing him in ragged gasps. Definitely not the chilled, rarefied air his long thin body was accustomed to.

The sounding bay of the mecha-dogs and their armed owners thrashed suddenly closer. They’d made it to and through the back gate faster than he’d anticipated–and they’d already picked up his scent! An inexplicable fear suddenly overwhelmed his normally calm center, creating a space-cold dread that sent his two hearts pumping wildly in response.

“This is the last straw,” the onboard companion from his ship proclaimed through the implant, “When you actually begin to think and feel like one of them, take on their emotional characteristics, assimilation has begun and you’ve been here too long. It is imperative that you leave this planet. NOW!”

“Yeah, yeah. I hear you,” Eli muttered, “but not just this moment. I’m sort of busy.”

Behind him, an Enforcer’s seeker whined up to full power and shot a fiery iridescent ball out into the night. It arced wildly, seeking his scent trail of fear, then screamed straight for Eli, whipping around obstacles at astonishing speed. For the first time since the nightmare chase began, Eli’s instincts and training took over. He assessed, stopped instantly, stilled himself, and became the holo-image of an oak tree. He threw out fear and haste, permitting no thoughts to enter his mind but the complete utterness of being a tree, neutral, calm, imaging the slowing of his blood to the flow of sap, his skin to that of aged rough bark.

Too late! The odor of fear left hanging in the air guided the seeker directly to him, through the left shoulder-turned-faux-limb, and out the other side. It circled the tree several times, then fell, a glowing ember on the forest floor, and died.

The seeker had badly damaged him, but with Enforcers closing in only seconds away, Eli had no time to stop the rush of life-fluids streaming from the wound. With his energy field disrupted and broken, it took all of his strength and will to keep the tree projection going. It was a simple holo-projection and the amplifier implant continued to work well in spite of the trauma, giving the appearance, feel, and even the odor of an actual tree to the untrained observer. But he could not hope to hold the illusion for long. He already felt disorientation seeping in from the searing pain in his shoulder.

Enforcers whistled in the mecha-dogs to heel and closed in eagerly, their weapons on stun, readying for the capture. But as they entered the tiny clearing, the men uttered oaths of frustration at finding no one there.

“Well, I’ll be! Come look at this,” said Sgt. Yorel, anger and bafflement in his voice. “That stupid seeker shot a tree,” he exclaimed with disgust, lowering his weapon.

The other Enforcers were nearly invisible as they approached. Even under the bright light of a full moon, the material in their unadorned black uniforms, gloves and boots absorbed the ambient light without reflection, giving them the appearance of disembodied heads floating in the moonlit darkness. The unbelieving group surrounded the tree and stared at the green sappy stuff flowing down the trunk.

“What’s going on, Captain?” one of the new recruits dared ask, bewildered.

The Captain shook his head, forced his breathing to slow on a heavy exhalation in the humid, polluted night air. The three junior members of his team were hardly winded, the Captain noted, pleased with their stamina on their first sortie, while his Sargent wheezed, hard pressed to keep up.

Captain Yohst puzzled out loud for their benefit, “Now what the hey? A seeker never misses its target.” He double-checked the settings on his firearm, his men quickly following suit.

Finding nothing wrong with his weapon, the Captain swore another string of oaths, “Hell’s bells and Damn Dissident Bastards! The box induces fear and the seeker follows the scent. It’s NEVER missed a target in all my years on the force! Those rebels have come up with a defense against a seeker. Damn it to space and back! There’ll be the devil’s own come-uppin’s if we don’t find him and bring back somethin’ the tech’s can tear apart.”

Turning slowly to reassess, he carefully gathered up the charred remains of the seeker, scraped off some of the green sap from the tree and placed it all in a techie-bag.

Regrouping, he followed procedure and pointed back in the direction they had come, “May have doubled around on us. Sgt. Yorel–you, Burk, and Theo head back and search, slowly, in a fifty-meter perimeter, all the way to the fence if necessary. Check up in the trees with your scanners to make sure he didn’t rabbit up one on the sly. Turn your sensors up on full and listen close. I want to know if a June bug so much as flutters its wings. Willan, Corbit, you come with me on ahead. We’ll find that traitor before the night’s out!”

“C’mon lads! Whorreeet,” he whistled to the mecha-dogs. “Seek!”

As they separated and left the clearing, Captain Yohst glanced one last time at the tree, a southern live oak, he noted, and then out the corner of an eye, caught a faint blue-green glow pulsing around the base of the trunk where the sap slowly collected. Startled, he swung back around to face it full on but the glow disappeared, and after circling the tree and searching for life or movement in the branches with his scanner, his dark brows furrowed with a sense of disquiet.

There was something not right in this clearing, something he couldn’t quite pin down, more than the rising moon reflecting off the bark. His gut told him something was off, and there was a tingling at the back of his neck that brought the hackles up in wariness and distrust, but he couldn’t latch on to it.

Hell, he thought, “imagination is going to be the death of you, Yohst, and you’re wasting time. Have to catch up with your men.” But he left the clearing reluctantly, against instinct, and silently vowed to be back at first light and take a closer look at the tree that bled–on his own time.

 

Chapter 2

Eli wanted off this merry blue, watery planet. Marooned here by an anomaly, a failure in his meson-drive nearly a full Earth-year past, half of one of his own solar cycles, he felt a desperate need to be back among his own, among familiar things and beings that made sense. Culture shock didn’t come close to describing the alienation he’d felt here among this earth-bound race. He didn’t understand them any better now than the day he’d arrived. And he was so close to leaving, to repairing his transport drive and claiming those elusive words: Escape and Freedom!

While he waited for the Enforcers to clear the area, his mind went back for the plus thousandth time to ‘the moment’. There had been a bright flare off this system’s sun, not unusual of itself, but ‘something’ huge had appeared out of nowhere, overtaken his small craft and siphoned off most of its power in a matter of seconds, even corrupting it’s ability to regenerate.

He’d reviewed his use of standard protocol for the ‘sling-shot’ procedure off this out-of-the-way sun to his next target–over and over–but could discover no error. But, no matter now. His craft was still disabled and in a deteriorating orbit around this Ona-forsaken planet with its tawdry, dreary Earth-humans. And no matter how often he’d calculated, the ship still had sufficient energy only to send him the one trip down to the surface, and then hopefully enough for the one trip back aboard. It had taken him all this long year to devise a new power nodule from the primitive tools and materials available on Earth.

He’d worked his way into various Mother Company plants, never staying long, probing, acquiring, spending late hours fabricating substitutions, hiding behind his illusion projector with the look and feel of an Earth-human, changing his appearance with each infiltration.

Frustrated constantly in his attempts to obtain what he needed, time had finally run out. The ship’s energy reserves, and his own energy-barrier-packs against earth-born pathogens that he had no resistance to, were all critically low. The year’s collection of parts was stored in a bag under a smaller illusion projector in a shallow cave he’d hollowed out by the fence. He’d lacked only the large synthetic crystal now tucked safely into his uniform pouch.

Awaiting cover of darkness, he’d accessed a restricted area of the plant this final night, purloined the crystal, and been on his way out to safety and a return to his ship when the alarms had sounded. A full company of Enforcers had appeared suddenly out of shadows in the entry hall and onto his trail. Forced to render several of the guards unconscious, he’d broken yet another Keiratus rule of non-intervention and non-violence and run for his life and cover of the woods, his precious cache abandoned in the cave, untouched. If he could only survive long enough–

These thoughts raced through Eli’s mind at third level until he felt it safe to relax the tree projection. The noise of Enforcers grew ever fainter as he listened. He sniffed and not sensing their immediate presence in the air, he released the tree-holo from his mind. He allowed his more normal planetary human-projection-appearance to return and quickly pulled a bandage from his pack. It was entirely too small to cover the large open wound still leaking his life-force onto the ground, but better than nothing. He stilled his mind, sent healing energy to the area and managed to close the outer surface, though he knew it was a temporary measure at best, then wrapped the bandage tightly over the hole. Listening intently, he moved painfully into shadows at the edge of the clearing.

Eli took a solitary step toward the fence line and his hidden supplies, but the quiet calm in his center stopped him. It wasn’t safe to go there, not now. Giving in to his inner guide, his connective tie with the Universe and all that had brought him to this point, Eli, this-young-blue-Lorind-being-of-light-becoming-pure-knowledge, became a shadow, melting from tree to rock to tree in the wrong direction.

* * *

Eli stumbled, wracked with pain.

“You must stay focused,” the onboard spoke to him, encouraging. “Center. Find your center.”

He pushed on, his shoulder burning like fire. “Forgive me, Icrypz, but I’ve never been wounded before, and I don’t much care for it.”

His thoughts began to wander from his discipline and mission, to the past year of surviving amongst such a primitive, regressed people. How could a race of beings once bound for the stars have stifled all imagination and creativity for the opiates of entertainment and an enforced peace? There were better ways. You didn’t have to toss the meson-drive out with the garbage!

The illusion of being Earthian for a year had required enormous energy to maintain, in fact had weakened him. He yearned to use his energy for more important pursuits, all he had been on quest for when his ship’s energy had been siphoned off by what he had come to think of as ‘the thing’. There were higher life-forms to discover, mysteries to solve, especially the mystery of the FRAN. But his first mission was just a quoram vision if he couldn’t repair his meson-drive. And what would the Ona say about his prolonged absence, of his abject failure on his first solo assignment and pilgrimage? He hoped he would actually return to find out. Even punishment by the Ona was better than this.

Eli stopped abruptly, his hearts beating rapidly again in fear. Enforcers had doubled back and were flailing about noisily in his direction. Turning to run, he bumped into a tree branch and a shooting bolt of pain threatened to overwhelm him. Struggling to stay conscious, panting, Eli angled to the right and pushed on into the night.

* * *

Kate came up slowly from deep meditation, troubled in spirit. She sat staring out the open window of her upstairs bedroom, trying to find gratitude and joy in the crisp fall air, in the glorious play of colors from the suns rays filtering through the early morning mist on fallen leaves; in the lush green grass of her small lawn; and in the heavy scent of fall flowers in her tiny flower beds, at their zenith of beauty. She listened to the soft melodious sounds of a new day, the beginning of bird song and life stirring in the nearby forest, seeking peace–and failed, wishing more than ever she were somewhere else.

Kate yearned with all her heart to be away from the mediocrity and daily death of this mundane life. People didn’t laugh at simple things, in fact they hardly laughed at all, unless it was at some crude, mindless tri-D. Imagination and creativity had been replaced by entertainment geared for the lowest common denominators of society, dragging all of humanity down into the morass of endless games and programmed activities.

Even language and vocabulary had become dull, limited to a mere few thousand acceptable words, with conversations rare, shallow and meaningless so the Mother couldn’t read sedition into them–and punish. The world had been scrubbed clean of magic–and worse, individuality. It had room no more for heroes or heroines, only for technicians and technocrats, rules and regulations, and the Mother Company. The Mother controlled everything from birth to death, and all that existed in between.

Kate chastised herself out loud, “Look, you were chosen for the most flexible, independent, and isolated station available by being an artist and sculptor. You already have the greatest degree of freedom allowed any individual in the society. What do you have to complain about? There’s a world government, common world language, world peace, no more wars.” The Great Conversion accomplished all this and more, she thought, reciting her early video-lessons silently. Good things, in and of themselves. But why did the Company not allow for the occasional rebel or creative thinker?

She knew she’d been identified early as a spontaneous, free spirit, and encouraged, pampered even, to keep her work, moods, and temperament light, always reflecting a child-like approach to life. Mrl Darin had sponsored both her and her art from a young age, creating a protective cocoon around her, and it had paid off royally for him as her patron. Not that she wasn’t grateful. She loved what she did. Her art was color-filled, powerful, and sought after because her gift of natural spontaneity carried through into her work, bringing special life in stories and myth to her creations.

Mrl Darin had wanted her to continue her education after her initial training, but she regarded the rigid methodologies and formulas of advanced university degrees as something to be avoided, a threat to her very nature and she’d refused, something no one ever did, setting her apart even from other artists.

The soft chime of the tel-alert interrupted her thoughts. Annoyed, Kate turned away from the myriad hues of deep green forest, the perfect manicured lawn that never needed tending, and depressed the speaker-com by the single bed, knowing it could only be Mrl Abbot from the Artist’s Board of Inquiry at this early hour. She pulled her long honey-colored hair quickly through a squiggle to trail down her back, and put on the bland look of an obedient citizen, then pressed for visual, “Good morning, K.O. Lightfeather speaking.”

“Mrl Lightfeather,” the oily voice said, “Mrl Abbot here,” his pasty, unpleasant, heavily lined face shimmering onto her view screen, the drab beige background of his government office matching his skin tone and persona. “I hope I didn’t disturb your meditation-time?”

Kate knew that was exactly why he’d called so early. She didn’t answer immediately, keeping her oval face schooled to passive, knowing he was watching for even a miniscule reaction on his own oversized screen. Letting the silent seconds tick away long past polite etiquette, she finally spoke quietly, “Not at all. How may I be of help to you this morning, Mrl Abbot?”

He cleared his throat with a wheezing ‘hhhhummphezz’ sound, disappointment showing in the smoky grey eyes and quivering weak chin. “We’ve reached a consensus on your latest work, the “Phoenix Rising”. The Board rejects your third defense and gives you three days for a final revision or withdrawal. I’m afraid such seditious and controversial material cannot be allowed to reach the public eye without major modifications. You will submit revisions in triplicate as usual for us to review, or be reprimanded with a copy in your permanent record. Do you have any questions?”

Kate shook her head slightly, but maintained her silence, her features immobile, tawny brown eyes flat.

“You can’t simply ignore us, Mrl Kate,” he rumbled, working up to a snit, using her first name as an insult and sign of disrespect. “We ARE here for a reason,” Mrl Abbott seethed, seeing no response on her visage. His bloated face flushed an angry red, at disagreeable odds with the flat dung-colored uniform of the technocrat. A gleam of cold decisive superiority came into the resentful grey eyes and he slashed out at her with an icy control, “And that reason is to keep rebellious souls like you in line. You are always pushing, always at the outer edges of acceptability. You’ve enjoyed favor up till now merely because you have a friend on the board. But Mrl Darin is old and won’t live forever. And then I will break you, Mrl Lightfeather, as surely as the sun rises, I will bring you to your knees. Your work won’t be shown even in a public toilet, and I will see to it that you are outcast in disgrace for your lifelong sedition and impudence,” he raged.

Kate’s face and tone remained bland, as she’d been schooled to deflect such tirades. “Thank you Mrl Abbot, I shall certainly keep that in mind.”

A look of pure hatred flashed across Abbot’s features, but he quickly covered it with the passive mask most citizens wore in public and modulated his voice to a constrained wheeze, lest he be charged with harassment or coercion and lose his privileged position. His quivering chin was the only remaining sign of barely suppressed rage, “Three days, Mrl Lightfeather. No questions, then? I thought not. Good day!”

Kate kept her facial muscles relaxed and the insolent defiance in her mind only until he rang off, but a rare anger boiled up in her as the smug image disappeared. How could they have refused her defense? She’d already revised the sculpture three times! Hateful accusations that her art contained seditious material were an affront, an attack on her character. Defense takes all the joy from work and life, she thought furiously. Why can’t they just accept my art without proof or critique, just once! And what could possibly be seditious about a hero rising from the ashes of destruction when it’s a myth from our past?

Kate felt her stomach knot in protest and forced her thoughts away from censorship and the jealousy behind it.

From her infrequent contacts with other state-supported artists at showings, she knew that they too, worked under such harassment and within the same narrow limitations, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow this morning. She mentally shrugged off the rare bad mood, trying to return to the bit of the joy she’d found in the meditation this morning, and focused on the muted browns of the bare walls before her.

Breathing deeply, Kate stretched through a Tai Chi-An sequence then concentrated on the new canvas project. Work always made her feel better and she directed her energy and thoughts back to it, turning an idea over in her mind, smiling to herself at the images playing in her head. She wondered if the colors would blend well, glancing down at the ancient illustrated manuscript on lease from the Great Library that lay open on her soft, hand-made blue-green bed-cover. The material contained in the manuscript had cost her half a month’s salary to procure, but it had been worth it. The exquisite illustrations and colors never failed to draw up a sense of joyous wonder and calm from her center each time she studied it.

But resentment at the Board’s stifling repression kept sneaking back in, past her defenses, festering, growing, threatening to ruin what peace she could find in the day. Why had the rich tapestries of religion, myth and art been replaced with colorless devotion to the Company?

To still her thoughts before they had her too churned up to work, she returned to a meditative Qi Gong stance, imaging the negative thoughts as a cup of water being poured into a wide river, clear and pristine, absorbed, cleansed, carried away.

Uncharacteristically, the cool water and the peaceful river turned into a fiery red haze of anger and the errant thoughts refused to leave, flooding back in the moment the meditation ended, overwhelming her until she felt tears well in her eyes. Opting for a different tack, she tried to reason her way out of the strange mood.

Obscene over-population had brought about this one-world government and the Mother Company, she reflected. Greed and unwillingness to honor the natural laws of carrying capacity had seen her race withdraw from space exploration, from educational and spiritual advancement and the untapped worlds of quantum energy.

Instead, the World Government of the Mother had poured its energy into regulating all life from birth to death. Human Law was now everything. Kate recited the tenants of “The LAW” bitterly which applied to her specifically: “Communal relationships interfere with the creative spirit. Thus, artists, clergy, musicians and healers, and a few select other professions which require great periods of concentration for their work and to be defined by the Mother, are not allowed relationship or intercourse, to marry or have children. They are to be identified and isolated as children, and are decreed to live solitary, protected lives. For this self-sacrifice to the state, they are compensated with special privileges, the privacy of a personal house away from the lights and distractions of the cities, a degree of travel freedom, study and autonomy away from public scrutiny, and an independent income.”

But Kate knew from personal experience that one was allowed to be creative only within a narrowly defined band, and even that came with a great price. Due to this segregation from the masses, she and others like her had grown in the minds of the general populace to represent forbidden fruits. An image of innocence, separate from society, a myth to fantasize about, but never consummate or fulfill. One who had been sanctified, celibatized, and isolated by The Mother was both alluring and fascinating, as her training had warned. She’d been taught how to deflect advances, defend against them, yet still, she felt violated at showings of her work, when the eyes of men and women dwelt too long upon her. They surrounded and clung to her as if they owned her, probing her mind, body and spirit with their intrusive questions and stares, curiosity and desire buffeting her in tangible waves, living off her ideas and energy instead of their own.

Of late, Kate found herself longing for a revolution, a spark of insurrection and a way out. Where were the rebels? Where had all the causes gone? Where was the awareness of life outside mediocrity, of other worlds, or even of the perpetual enemy, the antagonist which man had used for so many eons to overcome weaknesses in himself, to push his boundaries ever farther along the path of knowledge and enlightenment to freedom. Where were the myths, the heroic tales, the adventurers themselves? She alternately wept for her race and raged at them for making visionaries and freethinkers the villains.

Kate glanced in the mirror and laughed at the frown on her face. “Careful, Katie girl,” she wagged a finger at the woman laughing back, “You’ll make those lines permanent. Besides,” she chided, “you turned thirty this year, a bit over the hill for a heroine,” at least from what the forbidden texts she’d discovered in the bowels of the Great Library had described.

She appraised her reflection with a hypercritical eye. She had an ordinary, lanky body, not heavily muscled, not gaunt, or blonde, or fair-skinned or anything like the tri-D models. Not short or tall, she was average everything and her tawny brown eyes, dark-honey hair and olive skin weren’t exactly heroine material. She tugged at the baggy white T-shirt and black Qi Gong pants, at least grateful she didn’t have to wear a Company uniform.

“Well, I am what I am and so be it,” she sighed again, remembering a time not so long ago when enthusiasm and hope had pervaded her thoughts and work instead of this vague discontent with all of life. Not enough exercise. “I need to plan a rock-climb soon to dispel this melancholy”, she said fiercely to the walls. “A BIG ONE! One that will require all my concentration and drive these negative imaginings from my mind and soul.”

Kate turned back to the window with its privacy screen turned off and stared out at her beloved forest, her refuge from humanity. Her eyes caught suddenly on an odd shadow emerging from the mist-covered dark woods and a chill ran down her spine, raising bumps along her skin. She shook her head and blinked her eyes several times, but still, she saw a tree moving slowly across the thick green lawn, its trunk acting like legs, its branches sweeping low, obliterating the trail it left behind.

Her head tilted momentarily in a look of bewildered shock, then awe, wondering if she’d tipped over the line into insanity. Then, with a short burst of laughter, in an instant of quicksilver delight, of embracing the absurd as an answer to prayers, the child’s wonder that was the very heart of her soul, rushed down the white staircase and out the door to join this magic wonderful thing on her lawn. If it was illusion or insanity, she wanted to join in the play and never come back. If it was real, Hooray!

The ‘tree thing’ dragged its trunk slowly along the ground, pulsing with an eerie luminescence. Kate stopped a few feet away and shook her head, her mind filled with anticipation. She peered into the early dawn mist and blinked rapidly again to confirm the vision once more and was startled to hear the tree “gasping” for breath, its center pumping blue-green life too quickly out a ragged hole she only now saw. The sudden distant shouts of Enforcers with their mecha-dogs assailed her ears, and wonderment turned to the chill of abject fear.

Perhaps her own terror broke through the illusion, or perhaps the thing was growing weaker, because out the corner of her eye she saw not a tree, but a strange, humanoid-like being in a loose-fitting light blue-grey uniform.

He, she could only think of it as a he, was a tall blue, beautiful bi-ped, a slender luminescent creature of–of ‘grace’–was the only word that came to her artist’s mind. Fluid, not born of muscle, bone and sinew or bred of earth’s gravity, certainly. And he appeared on the verge of collapse. Realizing he must be what the Enforcers were seeking, she looked around furtively, at odds with herself, her duty as a citizen warring with her rebel’s heart, the blood pounding in her ears.

The rebel heart won, siding with this injured tree-being or illusion, or whatever he was. His plight dredged up visions of the illicit ‘science-fiction’ heroes she’d discovered deep in the Great Library. Decision made, she approached the thing quickly and swept her arms under it just as it gave out a low moan and began a slow collapse. Kate took a deep breath and struggled to stop his fall, picking the creature up and feeling to her surprise, a human-like body in her arms.

Groaning under the weight of the being that was a good half-meter taller than she, Kate staggered back across the lawn and into the house. The being’s lower limbs rapped sharply against the double-door frame and he groaned in pain in a surprisingly human-like voice.

“Sorry,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t hold it against her.

Panting, Kate took a discouraging look at the stairs and opted for the ground-floor study. The illusion of tree was completely dispelled and the creature himself seemed to be withering, growing a paler blue by the second. In the study, she lowered the long willowy legs to the floor, balanced the half-conscious body next to hers and punched the button for the Murphy bed. It floated slowly to the deck from its wall recess and she eased the creature’s body onto the mint-green sheets, tugging and pushing until his head rested near the foot of the bed. Next, came the feet, propped up on pillows at the wall end. The noise of Enforcers and mecha-dogs thundered louder through the open entry and she ran to the adjacent studio-room to grab bungee straps and towels. Racing breathlessly back, she placed towels over the prone figure, covered him with the hand-made blue and green patch-work quilt snatched off its stand, and pulled the straps across the chest and torso snugly, hooking them securely inside the frame onto the springs.

Grabbing the manual pull, Kate jerked the Murphy back into its recess, hoping there was enough room, that it didn’t mush the creature too severely. She whispered urgently to the wall, “Whoever and whatever you are, if you can understand me, please, just be still and quiet until I can misdirect the Enforcers and get back to you, or we’re both dead.” She hoped he understood.

But Eli had already released his mind to the oblivion and darkness of unconsciousness.

Swiping urgently at the wet spots on the floor from the being’s wounds, Kate smeared them into innocuous circles back to the entry. At the door, she punched the lawn sprinkler control system to FULL ON and tossed the wiping towel into the incinerator.

She turned, glancing quickly down the hallway to the study, one last assurance that everything was in order. Tearing outside to erase any hint of the stranger’s presence she smoothed away the few remaining imprints from the lush hybrid grass as it sprung back to its original shape, just as the holo-ads claimed it would. Sensing imminent danger, she took in a deep breath of crisp morning air and quickly knelt under the cold spray of water to groom the lawn of its small fresh crop of dandelion buds, getting soaked in the process.

Enforcers broke suddenly through the clearing and drew down on her, weapons armed and aimed, staying just at the perimeter of the cycling sprinkler’s reach, their black uniforms and large muscled bodies an imposing sight. The mecha-dogs snarled and growled in confusion, trying to pick up the rapidly disappearing scent, their metal jaws snapping, electronic muzzles sampling the air.

She jumped up, not having to act at being frightened as she saw all eyes staring through the over-large T-shirt plastered to the hard points on her breasts. Embarrassed, she turned away only to stumble against the tall, tough-bodied Enforcer Captain approaching quietly from behind. Kate gasped, suddenly terrified, as his predatory dark eyes seemed to devour her.

Close-cropped dark brown hair framed a strong square face and it loomed in much too close, consuming her vision and attention as he barked out, “I.D, now! Who are you and what are you doing here?” his full lips drawn into a taut line.

Shivering involuntarily, her teeth suddenly chattering with cold and fear, water dripping down into her eyes, Kate backed away defensively into the spray, preferring it to proximity with the Enforcer. “I–I– live here. I don’t carry I.D. into my yard, my private space. I am Mrl Kate O’Shaughnessy Lightfeather,”the words came tumbling out, “and I was just harvesting dandelions for my ar–t wor–k,” she stammered, truly undone by his aggressive disrespectful stare.

Then, remembering she was there to misdirect him, she asked quizzically, “Is that against The Law now?” She didn’t have to work at putting a small amount of helplessness, fear, and uncertainty in her voice. Kate could see she was diverting their minds from their original quarry, but worried she might be crossing the boundaries of propriety, even inviting disaster. The Law was tricky about un-sponsored conversations with the general populace, even inquiries by Enforcers. As the sprinkler cycled away, Captain Yohst squared his broad shoulders and stepped around close, too close, blocking her frontal view from the others and continued to invade her space. Kate was suddenly and keenly aware of his scent, the aggressive ‘maleness’ of him and she fought the urge to run, to get away.

“No, Mrl Kate, it’s not against the law” he said huskily, his eyes raking up and down her slender form, betraying his thoughts. “But then we weren’t looking for you. We’re looking for a rebel and a thief, a man who infiltrated the power plant last night.” He’d intended to watch those tawny golden eyes closely for any reaction, but found his own straying down to the two hardened points of her femaleness sticking out resolutely toward his chest, heaving slightly with each breath, riding high and firm and highly visible thanks to the cold wash of the sprinkler. Unaccustomed to being around females, he felt his manhood rising involuntarily in response and let out a harsh oath that had Kate stepping away in fear. The cycling sprinkler swung round just then to hit him full force, dousing him, and another stream of invectives followed.

Her eyes grew round at the language. “Well, as you can see, I’m not a he,” she stammered, then flushed, embarrassed to have drawn more attention to that fact, her eyes lowering in shame, feeling the color creep up her neck to heat her face. She crossed her arms defensively over her chest, dandelions buds still clutched in one hand. “Nor have I seen anyone at this hour of the morning. I’ve been about my own business like a good and productive citizen.”

Grateful to the cold water for bringing him back to reality and duty, but angry for the dousing, Captain Yohst broke regs by grabbing her arm and retreated to dryer ground, dragging the artist with him. “And just what might that business be? Harboring fugitives and rebels? I ask again, what are you DOING out at this hour of the morning? And why is your door left standing open? An invitation perhaps, or a place of safety for criminals?” he demanded, his voice louder and harsher, his fingers bruising ruthlessly into her flesh.

“I most certainly am not harboring criminals or rebels. Had I seen or suspected any of those awful people, I would have reported them immediately,” she said with too much defiance, berating herself even as the words and tone escaped her lips. Kate could see her self-control and freedom both disappearing in a heartbeat if he decided to report her. She took another deep breath of the crisp air, trying to settle. She sensed violence in this man’s nature and it made her uncomfortable.

As he squeezed her arm tighter, however, she panicked, her mind whirling from being ‘handled’ by a male, and she responded with the first wild tale that entered her mind.

“I am an artist, protected by the Mother, and I was out collecting dandelions in the bud to use in a color extraction, for a painting. It’s very important to gather the virgin buds just before the flowers open, while they’re still wet and full, when they yield the greatest intensity of color and feeling.”

Her mind snapped down on the words just uttered, suddenly aware of how provocative they sounded, and she bit her lip. The Captain watched her flush with embarrassment again, and the hint of possible seduction grew in his mind, already seeking a way to keep it secret from the Company.

Flustered and digging a deeper hole, but unable to stop herself Kate rattled on. “What does this criminal look like? I will certainly keep an eye out for him, and if I see him I can call you?” Her voice trailed off in misery as she realized the question would seem a further invitation, reinforcing what she could already see was a growing desire in his dark eyes.

“We didn’t get a good look at him,” the Captain replied softly, the hint of a smile flashing across his hawk-like face at her continued self-consciousness, now enjoying the game with this innocent. “But from his footprints, I’d say he was tall and of medium weight.” He yearned to prolong both the conversation and the natural heat radiating from this celibate female’s arm into his fingers and into his mind.

“But his footprints couldn’t have led here,” she stated emphatically, “or I would have seen him.”

“No,” Yohst admitted, “they disappeared several hundred meters back in the woods. We were combing the area to close the net and we’ve wasted enough time with dandelion harvesting and you already, Mrl Lightfeather,” he asserted flatly, grudgingly releasing her.

“Willan”, he barked over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off Kate, “you go check out m’lady’s house. With that door standin’ wide open, he coulda’ doubled back behind her and slipped in unnoticed, and we wouldn’t want a protected artist–a private citizen’s domicile to be invaded– now would we, missy?”

Yohst let the intent and the nuance wash over her, pleased that he saw panic in those golden eyes and that her perfect golden skin paled under his threats. Because he wanted to, his hand moved down to grasp her wrist and felt the pulse there quicken, thrumming stronger against his probing fingers. Satisfied, he released her, and flashing a wicked grin at his men, moved aside to give them a full view of the wet feminine body.

“Yes, Sir!” Willan responded belatedly, his eyes and mind locked onto her breasts. He blinked, grinned a bit too enthusiastically, and trotted off to invade Kate’s sacred domain.

Kate stiffened noticeably at this perversion and invasion of her guaranteed privacy, knowing she couldn’t, wouldn’t complain, and gave Yohst the satisfaction of knowing he’d more than repaid her in kind for the sprinkler dousing.

* * *

Willan was a tall, raw-boned, red-haired, freckle-faced powerhouse, more accustomed and comfortable with things ‘outside’ than he’d ever been inside. In truth, he’d never been in a private domicile. In fact he’d also never been around many women. Raised in a communal hall for boys and joining the Enforcers at age fifteen, the barracks and multi-occupant, all-male apartments were all he’d ever known. As his round green eyes tried to take in everything at once, the waste and opulence of even this spartan house flooded his hungry senses. The colors of the walls were awash in varying hues of fading pastels, like the sky in a late summer sunset or a misty spring morning, and the furniture looked soft and comfortable. He glanced quickly in at the cluttered study filled with more book-vids lining the floor-to-ceiling-shelves than he’d ever seen, and various sized view screens. He advanced to the studio with its boxes and tables filled with supplies and tools, and saw what he assumed were ‘works in progress’, a phrase he’d heard on the view-screen once.

Seeing nothing untoward, and no place for an intruder to hide, yet wondering what all these wonderful tools were for, his eyes roved over sculptures and pottery, then caught on two completed paintings that captured his imagination; children, playing and laughing in a field and at the ocean, the colors and details so vibrant and clear he could nearly hear the joy-filled high-pitched sounds of their young voices and the laughter of the parents in the distance. Parents, he thought. Something he’d never had.

Tearing himself away, Willan assaulted the small kitchen, finding it empty of the enemy. He checked the pantry closet, turned, smiled, and quickly crossed the swirling blue-green tiled floor that made him feel as if he were walking across the very sky itself. He yanked open the pristine clear door to the cold box, and dared dip his fingers into some green and yellow exotic-looking vegetable dish, delighting in the forbidden taste of someone else’s food. Smacking his lips, the young Enforcer re-entered the hallway and leapt up the sky-lighted, white-painted stairs two steps at a time, careful not to touch the railing and wondering how she kept the white so clean. He landed at the head of the stairs with a solid jump, legs apart and set, his arms sweeping with the seeker, ready to draw a bead on any intruder.

The solitary upper loft with its twelve-foot lofted ceiling looked huge to the Enforcer. It harbored only a single synthetic bed with a mound of soft blue-green spread, an open Library Book, a hand-woven brightly colored rug, a small chest of drawers and a wardrobe of the synthalon variety, done in rich and muted tones of brown–and a bathroom, a private bathroom!

His imagination working overtime, Willan peered cautiously under the bed, then reached out and unlatched the large ornately carved, rich brown faux-antique wardrobe, letting the doors fall open. He’d never felt a woman’s clothes before, and the sight of the few nice gowns, soft pants and over-blouses, were almost too much for him, the memory of those wonderful small breasts heaving back into his mind.

He ran his hands through the folds of material hanging in the closet, wondering what it would be like to watch her put these things on. The faint odor of some wonderful fragrance assailed his nostrils as his hand passed over them, the scent invading his senses, his mind equating it with the smell of woman. Unable to stop himself, he turned resolutely and opened the top chest of drawers.

Silky, see-through women’s underwear greeted him, and his fingers ran involuntarily through them, the male roughness snagging on the soft material. His breath caught, his mind whirled and he felt himself go wet.

“Well–damn!” he said, and rushed into the bathroom to clean up before it soaked through to the outside of his uniform, grateful for once that it was black.

The Captain, impatient to be off, yelled into his communicator, “Willan, Report!”

Willan grabbed at his com, “Clear here, Captain, on my way out,” and lurched out of the bathroom, taking the stairs down three at a time, forgetting to check the studio further or close the wardrobe and drawer. The young Enforcer emerged, flushed from other than the exercise and Yohst looked smugly at the once-defiant female as his soldier saluted and stood to. Kate’s head bent low in humiliation as she waited in silence for them to go. Unable to resist one last contact, the Captain grasped her wrist again firmly and pulled her toward the house.

Kate paled as she struggled ineffectively against the iron-fisted grip and was half-dragged up to the entry, the words of The Law pounding fiercely in her mind. “If the vow of celibacy is broken, even in the case of force, the individual as well as the perpetrator will be branded. They shall lose all rights in society and both shall be ‘cast out’ as homeless vagrants to starve, or be “used” by the Enforcers if they so choose.”

Yohst’s fingers cut cruelly into the flesh of her wrist, interrupting her thoughts.

“Now seeing how this is a dangerous criminal, Mrl Lightfeather, and we wouldn’t want any defenseless citizen to go around gettin’ themselves hurt, you get back in that house, lock up, and don’t come out until you hear on the Tri-D that he’s been caught! Do you understand?” he snapped, as if at a raw recruit.

Tears of gratitude that they hadn’t found the tree-man threatened to spill out onto her face, and Kate drew meekly away from the man, then said quietly, “Yes, Sir”.

“That’s better. And see you show a little more respect to this uniform the next time you see it, understand? Or I’ll have you up on disloyalty charges,” Yohst metered out the words, his full mouth pulled into a stern thin line.

“Yes, Sir,” she repeated quietly.

The Enforcer turned sharply on his heel and he and his men fast-disappeared into the trees.

Kate stood still for a full thirty seconds, listening for them to be away and gone, then turned and ran into the house, locking the door behind her.

Watching from cover of the woods, Yohst smiled thinly, satisfied with the encounter, knowing he would remember the pulse, scent and feel of the female long after this day had done. He pushed down the desire even the thought of her churned in him and turned to follow his men.

* * *

Kate didn’t trust the Captain any more than she suspected he trusted her, and starting with the kitchen, she quickly ran through the house, shuttering the auto-blinds for maximum security on the lower level, punching off the sprinkler and engaging the locks. Repulsed at sight of the open drawer and wardrobe upstairs, she stifled a cry of anger, reminding herself she could clean up later, and shuttered the room to darkness, pausing only long enough to whip off the wet shirt and pants and hurriedly tug on a clean, dry pair of jeans, her favorite worn-to-softness T and tennies. A living, breathing “something” downstairs needed help right now and she was going to give it or die trying.

Back in the study, her hands trembling violently from the mixture of fear, anger, and excitement of the last half hour, more than she’d experienced in an entire lifetime, Kate grasped the pull on the Murphy and tugged gently.

A terrifying sight awaited her as the bed floated softly to the floor. The creature’s life had soaked the sheets, towels and her hand-made patchwork quilt with a dark greenish-blue stain. A sickly sweet odor arose, forcing Kate to back momentarily away. His luminescence was very weak, his blue skin barely pulsating in the dim light of the shuttered study. She stared at the gaping hole in his upper torso, tissue wrecked and torn asunder, and for the first time had the uneasy feeling he might die. She hadn’t had time to think about it till now, but the knowing made her stomach queasy.

She loosened the bungee cords, knelt close to his head, and whispered, “Please. Wake up and tell me what to do. Don’t die! Not now. You’ve almost made your escape!”

* * *

Eli swam in an angry sea of blue on his home planet. The water was warm, but unfriendly. Enormous waves built into towers that engulfed and swept him with a rush down into furious, churning troughs. The sea whispered to him in a curious voice, trying to draw him further away from the safety of oblivion, ever more incessant. “Please, tell me what to do,” it pleaded in a strange tongue. Wait, he thought, struggling to make sense of the roar in his head, “What’s the sea doing asking me for advice? No, there it is again, that voice. It’s clearer now, where is it?”

Eli slowly opened his blue-green eyes and the room spun crazily at an odd angle. He tried to focus on the whisper by the right side of his head, a sound bursting a million light-years away. All he could see was a blurred figure beside him, a figure suddenly become silent at his movement and regained consciousness. Eli struggled to remember what had happened, where he was, and why he was there, but it hurt too much. Survival mode kicked in and he rolled his tongue and said thickly in the stranger’s language, “Help meeee–”

Kate grabbed the bed in relief as her words came tumbling out, “Oh, yes. I will. But you must tell me what to do. How can I help you? I’m not a healer. You’ve been shot by a seeker and the Enforcers may be back at any moment,” she pleaded, racing past panic and straight to irrational. “Talk to me!”

Eli struggled to assimilate and make sense of the information. Vague shadows of memories streaked through his head on screaming engines of pain. One thing only he knew. He had to get back to the Stla II. The bio-unit would mend and heal him, but he had to return, and soon.

“My transport, the Stla II, get me back to my transport,” he mumbled.

“Yes, I will, but where is it?” she beseeched, afraid of losing him to unconsciousness forever. “How do I get you to it?”

Eli tore angrily at the mists shrouding his thoughts. In a final desperate grasp for life, he remembered his training, pressed back against the pain and pressure loss and stilled himself to the quiet innermost reaches of his being, calling upon the guide for help. All of his purpose and will were focused on relaying the message, clearly and calmly.

Kate thought at first that he had died, so suddenly inert did he become, then jumped as the sound of his voice rang out strong and clear into the silence of the shuttered, darkened house.

“I must return to my transport. Please take me there and place me into the bio-unit. It will treat and heal my injury. Take the T-pack located in my pocket. It is the rectangular box with four lighted buttons and a communicator switch. Get it now.”

The clarity and strength of his voice faded. Kate looked quickly for pockets, and not finding any on the smooth uniform, grabbed at the slim frontal pouch, her hands fumbling around in it for the “T-pack”. What she found was a tiny box of a cool black metal, about five centimeters by eight.

“Here it is,” she said urgently, “I’ve found it.”

The voice became almost mechanical as it lapsed fainter with each word, “Good. Now press the communicator switch to the open position. A red light will come on above it.”

Kate pressed things until the red light flickered on. “OK. Now what?”

“Hold the communicator to my mouth,” the being directed.

Kate held the communicator up to the parched thin blue line and heard the whisper of an unintelligible language issuing from his mouth. As the sound of his voice died away, something began to happen. Kate clutched at the being, holding on as she experienced a lightheaded-ness, a perception of mistiness and coming apart at the seams.

And she “saw”, not physically, but in her mind’s eye, the two of them floating above the house for a fraction of an instant as separate billions of light particles and then all went dark and scary. For a split second she was conscious of trying to cling to the alien, then all feeling and sense were taken away. The sucking void that entered her mind was a black chasm pressing her personality out of existence, and for that minuscule instant, more terrifying than any nightmare had ever been.

Chapter 3

Reassembling slowly, Kate found herself unable to even scream, the shock of the transfer too intense to assimilate. As she felt the last of ‘herself’ literally ‘fall back into place’, she and her weakened charge tumbled suddenly and unceremoniously onto the floor of a small rounded cream-colored chamber; Eli, because he was too weak to attain the proper stance, and Kate, because she was too disoriented and sick to keep her balance.

Kate immediately began gasping for breath, the oxygen level in the chamber much too low for comfort. It smelled stale and very cold, as of an old empty vintage house she’d once toured, but with a metallic or plastic undertone, and she shuddered violently, trying to shake the eeriness of the transfer from her system as her lungs screamed for air. A voice intruded upon her thoughts, emanating from the walls of the chamber, but it was in a strange language and she didn’t understand.

Eli, roused momentarily from unconsciousness by the painful landing, muttered something to the walls, and abundant air flowed in.

A panel slid open and a voice spoke to Kate. “How are you called Earthian?” a melodious voice asked in perfect English.

Kate took in great heaving gulps of air, trying to re-oxygenate, slow her spinning head, and calm her center, trying to understand what had just happened. A voice just outside her head warned her she was hyperventilating and to please put her head between her knees and breathe slowly. Kate obeyed, and many seconds later dared to look up and around as the disembodied voice asked, once more, “How are you called, Earthian?”

“I am called Kate. Who are you?” she replied, surprised at hearing English within what she could only assume was an alien machine. She forced her blurry vision to focus beyond the empty doorway to see who was there, but the room beyond, though filled with hundreds of dim lights on what looked like control consoles and panels, appeared to be empty.

Ignoring her question, the voice said, “Kate, you must lift up the being you call Eli and bring him to the bio-unit. I will light your way so you may know the path.”

So that’s his name, mused Kate, kneeling beside the now still figure. “Well, Eli, I hope it’s not far, because you’re a lot heavier than you look.” Kate grunted under the strain as she tried to hoist the limp, dead weight of his body to her knees.

The voice interrupted her efforts with a soft rebuke, “Kate, Eli is severely injured and you must take greater care and hurry,” apparently unaware of the opposing directives.

Kate gritted her teeth and with one Herculean push, stood on shaky legs with Eli in her arms. Steering and staggering through the portal, she peered through the dim illumination, searching for a clue to the bio-unit.

A string of lights flashed faintly at head-height just in front of her along the wall of a narrow beige corridor with shiny floors. Ignoring the silhouettes in the shadows of what appeared to be the main cabin, Kate bent her head and will to the task at hand. She struggled to follow the lights a short distance down the shadowed passageway until they ceased in front of an open portal.

The voice spoke from the walls again, “Step inside Kate, and place Eli into the bio-unit. Shut and lock the door to the unit and leave. The unit will take care of him from that point on.”

Kate eased the long lean body of the alien into the small space and struggled toward a large oblong, whitish bullet-shaped tube in the center of the all-white dimly lit cabin. There was a clear dome covering the tube joining in an invisible seam with the metal. She looked around desperately for a button or switch to open the dome, but saw none.

The voice interrupted her survey, “Kate, what are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know how to open it,” she gasped, her strength ebbing fast from the heavy burden.

“Pass your hand over the center of the bio-unit at the seam below the dome,” the voice said pleasantly, no recrimination detectable in the musical timbre.

Kate braced herself, wondering why the voice couldn’t just open it for her, and breathing hard, squatted a few inches so that her hand passed over the indicated spot. The dome slid open with a soft “whoosh” into a recess on the opposite side, disappearing into the underbelly of the bullet. Taking a deep breath, Kate straightened slowly, her legs quivering, threatening to give way under the strain.

“Which way does he go in?” she dared to ask unprompted.

“Place him on his back with his head to your–right,” the voice urged, pausing only to search for the correct word. “Disrobe him and re-seal the unit.”

Kate pressed up against the bio-unit for support and lowered Eli onto the spongy blue mat inside, noting it was nearly the same color as his pale leathery skin. She pulled her arms free, quickly shaking out the cramps and numbness, then tugged at his disheveled clothing and boots until they came away, noting that he didn’t look anything like a human, her artist’s mind memorizing the strange anatomy without putting names to the differences.

Kate passed her hand over the center of the unit as before. The clear dome appeared from its hiding place, slid over the top of the unit and shut into place, sealing Eli away from her and the outside world. Immediately, lights glowed and began to pulse regularly from the interior of the dome while a clear tube snaked out to encircle one of his long arms, then filled with fluid.

Kate stood staring down at the alien creature, so beautiful and luminous just hours ago, reduced now to a blue-gray limp shadow. He was tall, well over two meters; slender, and “fluid”, she thought again, if that’s a description. As if every part of himself knew every other part and would “flow” from one movement to another, instead of using joints, muscle, and sinew as humans did, her artist’s mind delighting in the image it painted in her head. His thin “hands” had six digits and an opposable thumb, though it was as slender and long as the other digits.

The long limbs attached approximately in the same proportion to the body as an Earthian’s, but the arms seemed to be a bit longer, reaching halfway to where the knees would have been on a human. His head was large and elongated, and pulses of blue-white light arced weakly beneath the blue-gray skin. There were two medium-sized orbs for eyes, closed now. The nose was a flattened narrow slit running horizontally across the center of his face, and the mouth was straight and almost Earth-human size. Kate had no idea whether he had teeth, but she thought he must, as the oval shape of his head was strong, the overall profile smooth and unbroken. If looks translated to human equivalents, she thought he must be quite young, noting the taut unlined derma.

The skin itself was mostly opaque and even in near-death had a cool, old-leather smoothness to it. The chest and lower torso were uniform and unremarkable with no apparent sex-appendages and Kate wondered what a female would look like by comparison, or if they all looked the same, or even if they were androgynous. She would like to have stayed and watched this miracle machine do its thing, but the voice interrupted her wanderings.

“Kate, you must leave now. You carry pathogens harmful to Eli’s recovery, and the room must be sterilized before he can exit the dome,” the voice urged.

Naturally neat and organized, Kate quickly picked up Eli’s belongings from the polished neutral beige flooring and flung them across her arm. A large clear box containing a sharply-faceted red crystal shot from the folds of material and arced outward toward the floor. Her reflexes, honed to perfection in the practice of Qi Gong and Tai-Chi-An, responded automatically as she leapt across the decking and rolled, catching the box lightly just before it hit.

The voice uttered an unintelligible sound as scanners picked up the image, then exclaimed, “Kate! You’ve brought a crystal for the power source. How wonderful!”

Kate responded truthfully, “Not me. Eli had it in his uniform. Is it important?”

The voice responded good-naturedly and a bit patronizingly, as if with a child. “Oh, yes, Kate, very. It’s only THE very thing we need. Please press the white button over that panel on your left. Yes, that’s the one. Place the crystal on the tray and I will deliver it to the engine room. You may deposit Eli’s clothing on the floor beneath the panel. Thank you, Kate. You may leave now.”

Kate stepped backward out of the cabin and a white door panel slid silently shut. “How long will it take,” she asked tentatively, “I mean, before he’s well?”

The voice took a long time to answer. “If he lives, it will be at least three of your days.”

“Three days!” Kate gasped. “What am I to do for three days in here?” the enormity of where she was and what she’d done finally coming to bear on her consciousness.

The voice answered, “Well, since Eli was unable to leave instructions as to your disposition, I’m afraid you will have to stay. And to do that, you must first be decontaminated, rid of the pathogens you carry from your planet. This level of the ship will then be sterilized to assure none may grow to escape on some future landfall. I will, of course, aid you in the decon-procedure and answer any questions you may have. I’m afraid I don’t have enough energy reserves to send you back at the moment, even if you so chose. But if it has bearing upon your decision, I believe Eli and I will have further need of your services.”

Kate thought of her life on Earth, of her wish to be out of the dreary humdrum of it all, though she hadn’t hoped for, hadn’t imagined anything quite so drastic. But it was too late to turn back the moment you decided to help him, she thought. Unwilling to face the possibility of discovery, branding or death if she returned to Earth, Kate took a quantum leap into the unknown, “I’ll stay, at least until he wakes up.”

“Good,” the voice said, as if approving of the choice.

“WHO ARE YOU, anyway?” queried Kate, growing bolder now that the emergency was out of her hands, her eyes taking in the feel, smell and structure of the vessel, cataloguing everything she could into memory.

“I am the companion of the one you call Eli,” the voice answered.

“Oh,” Kate said, somehow disappointed by all the earth-bound connotations that implied. “But WHERE are you?”

“I am the transport,” the voice replied cryptically. “The transport is I. I am the integral controlling component which makes things work, finds answers, solves problems, plots courses, and best of all, keeps Eli company on his journey.”

A dawning suspicion invaded Kate’s mind and she asked timidly, lest she offend, “Are you a computer, or part computer, and do you have a name?”

“Well, yes, in a way, I am part computer, of sorts,” the half-machine admitted. “But I’m a little more advanced than what your technology is accustomed to,” it said vaguely, not wanting to reveal more until Eli could fully explain this being’s presence and status. I am called Icrypz in Eli’s language. It translates into your’s as–uhm–the closest I can come with my limited knowledge of your language, is–Honey.”

Kate smiled at this, “Well, since I can’t pronounce your name in Eli’s language, I hope you won’t mind if I call you Honey?”

“Not at all, Kate. Welcome aboard.”

Funny, Kate mused, she had thought of the voice as being feminine, though it could be of any gender from the low timbre and quality, just as she had known Eli would be a he. Thinking of Eli brought her out of her short reverie. “You said if he lives. Is there a chance he won’t?” she asked anxiously.

“Yes. The bio-unit tells me he is in very unstable condition and has less than a thirty-three point seven-seven percent chance of recovery,” Honey stated precisely, no emotion or concern evident in her tone. “It is not so much the wound itself or the loss of fluids; those are being taken care of. It is that he is young and has been under enormous stress for a long period on your planet. His resistance has been diminished and his energy field broken, allowing the natural pathogens of your world to enter into his system, un-stemmed for too long. He has been attacked, his life endangered. This is his first ‘real’ battle, if you will, and he must meet the challenge or die. If he is to live, it will be because he wills it, not because the bio-unit has cured him, though it will do its part. The next three days will present a tremendous test to him, and only time will tell if he has the strength to endure it. Now, you must adjourn to the decon-chamber, and I will talk you through the procedure,” Honey insisted, lights flashing dimly down the corridor

“Will it hurt?” Kate asked, suddenly concerned for her own welfare. “Just what exactly will it do?”

“You will feel very little. It will require approximately six coras time, and you will be subjected to something I can only best describe as an ‘imager’. The imager will view every part of your being down to the last atom and slowly reorganize it into a perfect and pathogen-free new organism. You will basically remain unchanged by the process, except that you will be rendered harmless to alternate life forms such as Eli, as a source of disease,” the voice explained patiently.

“What’s a coras, Honey?”

“Forgive me. A coras corresponds to–a measurement of time akin to one of your ‘hours’, though it is measured against our stellar cycle, not yours. Six coras would approximate twelve Earth hours. Coras, haplos, and rios are approximate to your hours, minutes, and seconds, only double. Decats and orads correspond to your weeks and days, a cycle to your month–relatively.”

“How long has Eli been here? On my planet, I mean?” asked Kate, her curiosity overshadowing a gnawing fear at what she’d done and what she faced.

“One of your planetary years, or half of our stellar cycle.”

“But one year would have killed him, if what you say is true,” said Kate, suddenly suspicious. “Unless that’s what you meant about his energy field being broken?”

“Very good, Kate. You comprehend quickly for one of your kind. But come, we must adjourn to the decon-chamber. I will answer what questions I can,” Honey said.

That last sting about “one of her kind” left Kate a little annoyed at her newly adopted companion. It was one thing for her to criticize her own race, but take care that any one else should do it. She started back the way she’d come in, but the voice stopped her, “No, Kate, this way.”

Kate complied, but continued asking the many questions racing through her mind as she tried to take in the shadowy surroundings. “Just how old is Eli and what was he doing on Earth?”

“In terms of your planetary time he would have approximately 27 years in age, but that has little to do with the Universe. Now Kate, please step inside, remove your clothing and place it on the floor. You will need to lie down on the table provided.” Honey coaxed softly, again as to a child.

The lights led Kate to another small dimly lit cabin, filled almost completely by a large grey sphere with an open portal. As she stepped gingerly over the threshold into the sphere, Kate saw it was empty but for a long, padded table that slid out from a hidey-hole. Shivering from the chill air, she had a last trembling dread of the unknown. Why was she so trusting of this machine-voice? Was it telling her the truth? In a last flee toward panic, Kate changed her mind and turned to exit the sphere. Too late! The panel slid shut in her face, and the ambient pressure altered abruptly as Honey rapidly siphoned air from the chamber.

* * *

I hope you enjoy my books and become friends with their characters as they have become mine.
Thanks for visiting and come back soon!

Cooper Hill