Fear and Aggression
Copyright © 2012 by Dane Bagley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission from the author. For information send request to email@example.com
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance or similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
ISBN 978-0-615-64122-5 (eBook)
ISBN 978-1-478-23960-4 (paperback)
Edited By Kayti Mayfield
Cover Design by Ronnell Porter
Author Photo by Kim Greenfield
my sweetheart, best friend, and eternal companion
Oh, how beautiful, she thought to herself, as they rounded the bend and looked out over the lake with the sunset reflecting off of the water. Jenna’s husband, Chip, was be-bopping to the oldies music that had been playing on the satellite radio for the past couple of hours. She glanced at him and he gave her a quick glance and a smile.
That glance brought back her train of thought. Why was that? Oh, that’s right, it’s his silly beard, she thought to herself. He hadn’t sported a beard since they were dating over twenty-five years ago. He really couldn’t grow a beard, with his light blond hair, but he decided to give it a whirl again anyway.
Jenna had been thinking about her name, and how much she hated it. She still hated it after all of these years; and seeing his attempt at a beard brought it to the forefront of her thoughts. Jenna Jenners, it just sounds sick—it’s a sick name. Why did the man I love have to have that horrible last name of Jenners, she thought. She really didn’t hate the name Jenners—it was the combination that she hated. Jenna Jenners, that just sounds awful.
Chip had thought of plenty of ways to fix the problem. He was happy with her keeping her maiden name, Rickson. But Jenna was a traditionalist; she didn’t even want a hyphenated last name, nor did she think that it would help. Chip loved her sandy blond hair, and had called her, ‘Sandy,’ just for fun. “Since you are changing your last name to Jenners, anyway, why don’t you just change your first name to Sandy?” he suggested. She liked the name Sandy—she even liked him calling her Sandy—but she was Jenna. She had always been Jenna, and always would be Jenna. There was no way around it: she was going to be Jenna Jenners. It made her cry at the time. Now, she could smile about it, but she still hated—really hated—her name.
The setting sun brought a brilliance of color to both the sky and the lake. She felt happy inside. If the worst thing about Chip is his last name, then I’m a pretty lucky woman. She really did love him, and that was the only thing about him that she really didn’t like. Sandy Jenners was no longer her pet name. Sandy was actually her nineteen-year-old daughter, with long, sandy blond hair, just like hers. That worked out perfectly, she thought. Her younger, fifteen-year-old daughter had a lighter shade of blond, more like Chip’s hair.
The girls were both sitting in the back seat, with Sandy sitting directly behind her mother; Megan was sitting behind Chip, who was driving. The girls had not said a word in hours. They must both be playing on their phones, she thought. Her daughters never had much to say or do with each other. They could be together in the same room—or car—for hours and have no interaction. It had always been that way. She couldn’t think of a time when they had fought with each other. They didn’t act angry or frustrated; they just never had much to do with each other. It’s funny, I love them both so much, she thought, why don’t they get along better? It really had always been this way, ever since they were little children.
Jenna turned around to look at her daughters. Megan looked up with a classic fifteen-year-old, ‘what?’ expression. She had headphones on, and didn’t look like she wanted to remove them. Reluctantly she pressed pause and looked back at her mother.
“Check out the sunset; it’s gorgeous!” said Jenna. Megan looked up briefly, nodded quickly, and then dropped her eyes back to her phone. “Tell Sandy,” said her mother. Jenna didn’t want to have to lean over to get Sandy’s attention.
Megan reached over and gave Sandy a gentle slap with the back of her hand on Sandy’s thigh. Sandy turned her head and gave Megan a dirty look. Megan bobbed her head towards her mother with a similar expression, as if to say, “I don’t want to talk with you, Mom made me do it.”
Once Sandy began to look out her passenger side window towards the lake and the setting sun, she lost interest in her phone. The beauty captivated her, and she just looked out and gazed—something was clearly on her mind.
Such beautiful, wonderful girls, who couldn’t care less about each other, Jenna thought as she turned back around to admire the view herself. They were riding alongside the lake now. It was just a few feet away from Jenna on the passenger’s side. With her boys it was entirely different. Even though they were fourteen years apart in age, they had been inseparable since her youngest was born. They both absolutely adored each other, and would be happy to spend all of their time together. That is why they were not with them right now. They were home hanging out together,—probably having the time of their lives, she thought pleasantly. I think I’ll text them and let them know when we’ll be home.
Jenna turned around to borrow Megan’s phone rather than fiddle in her purse for her own. As she turned around, she shrieked, “WATCH OUT!” But there was nothing that Chip could do. A car racing at over seventy miles per hour, along a side road, slammed into them squarely on the driver’s side, crushing and killing Chip and Megan instantly. Sandy and Jenna blacked out as both cars flew over the embankment and into the lake.
Jenna partially regained consciousness as the vehicles made impact with the water. She was aware of her husband and daughter’s deaths—it was obvious—but wondered about Sandy. She wanted to call her name, but could not as she blacked out again. Both cars sank quickly into the lake. The next time that Jenna regained consciousness was when she felt the cold water on her thighs. Again, she thought of Sandy, and again, she blacked out.
She briefly regained consciousness when she inhaled cold water, instead of air. She sputtered momentarily, but could not stay awake. Jenna Jenners had taken her final breath.
Einstein had been wrong. Not that he was far off; the universe did seem compelled to obey the rules according to the paradigm of relativity. And according to every experiment that was ever designed—beyond atomic physics—nature behaved just as relativity predicted. Space travel, to any great extent, appeared to be a practical impossibility because of the vast distance between heavenly bodies. The speed of light was the universal speed limit, and even if crafts were designed that could approach this speed in outer space, it would still take eons of time to move about from heavenly body to heavenly body (though it wouldn't seem to take so long to the space travelers themselves). Therefore, this was of no practical use to either governments, or corporations. And even if it were possible to design such crafts, the amount of energy required and the costs would be literally astronomical. So, governments played around with the moon, Mars, Venus, some comets, and asteroids, but nothing of much use or interest was gained by it.
It really was nothing more than a mathematical technicality, something very few people could comprehend to any degree, whatsoever, and fewer still could see the beauty in it. With human minds, and everything else in the universe, designed to experience reality in three dimensions, it is startling that it was ever discovered. Computers, however, had been employed to simply analyze logic and math itself; to take mathematic suppositions and see if anything intriguing would come up from it. It wasn’t that these machines were capable of free thought. They were just doing as they were commanded; throwing out or changing one rule or principal at a time and seeing what would happen. Very little had come from this and some of the brilliant yet skeptical minds wondered what could possibly be discovered by machines designed to work by a system of logic, questioning the system of logic itself. Nevertheless, the fruitless computations went on. The next step in the skeptic’s line of reasoning was that if something new, unusual, or intriguing was discovered in the calculations, how would the computers be able to assign it as such, flag it, and bring to the humans in charge an understanding of what was discovered? If the computers were using the logic they were designed to use, everything would simply make logical sense to them.
Contrary to the skeptics’ logically beautiful line of reasoning, computers, while logical, are not philosophical, nor do they see beauty in anything; they simply do as they are told, and that’s just what they did. The mathematics, of course, was unfathomable to comprehend by nearly everyone. Those who supposedly did understand the math relied heavily on the computers. But the bottom line was this: Anything traveling in the three dimensional universe, i.e. traveling in a straight line, is limited by not being able to exceed the velocity of light.
However, space was found not to be three dimensional at all. The fourth dimension had been discovered mathematically, as incomprehensible as this was. And, if traveling according to the mathematical paradigm of this fourth dimension, everything in the universe was exponentially closer together. The way that it was described to the average budding intellectual on the street was this: if you were able to look at the three dimensional universe from the perspective of the fourth dimension, the three-dimensional world would look like a sine wave with high peaks and valleys, but with extremely rapid frequency. So high was the frequency, that it was as though the three-dimensional universe was tightly folded up. Traveling in the three-dimensional world would be a-kin to having to climb up a steep mountain, traveling a much farther distance than the actual height because of the numerous and lengthy switchbacks. But, when traveling according to the fourth dimension, it would be like cutting straight across these switchbacks, and thus decreasing the length of the journey immensely. Of course, those in the know say that this analogy is not entirely correct, but for all practical purposes this is how everyone visualized it.
The actual length from the earth to the furthest reaches of the known universe was calculated to be approximately twenty light years, when traveling via this ‘fourth dimension.’ In theory, this made the entire universe accessible for space travel within an individual’s life time. Now, going back to Einstein, all of the great theorists wondered if the laws of relativity held up when traveling via the fourth dimension, as they did when traveling exclusively via the third dimension. Initial results of experiments were encouraging, but there were always discrepancies. Two camps ensued: those that held that relativity had failed relative to the fourth dimension, and those that held that the fourth dimension was incompletely understood, or slightly miscalculated.
Whether relativity was accurate or just a good estimate in speaking of the fourth dimension was a debate left up to the theorists, because in all practicality travel at velocities at or near the speed of light was still science fiction.
Speaking of practicalities, it may be wondered how traveling in this fourth dimension is possible at all. It may seem as though it would be one thing to prove the existence and form of a fourth dimension, but an entirely different thing to maneuver there-in. As it turns out, the engineers who went about tackling this problem didn’t find it to be much of a problem at all. Once the computers had a mathematical paradigm of it, all that had to be done was to let the computer direct the motion of a space craft according to the four-dimensional paths calculated. The fourth dimension had always been there, it was just so different from the third dimension that everyone was completely unaware of its existence. Traveling within it was simply a matter of knowing how it was shaped, and that was only possible by complex calculations.
The days and weeks prior to the launching of the first space craft designed to travel in four-dimensional space were quite a spectacle. While NASA maintained that what was going on was nothing more than a part of their routine space program, it was not a very well-kept secret. Experts from all over the world were sought after for assistance: mathematicians, engineers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, philosophers, et cetera. Too many of them lectured in too many halls to not have spilled too many beans for NASA’s liking. When the fourth dimension was nothing more than theory and complicated computer calculations, public interest was all but nonexistent. But when space ships, tax dollars, and journalists became involved, public interest became pandemonium.
One of the problems was that it was not a very well-leaked secret, either. What was known was that the rocket would release a spherical vessel once it had left the atmosphere. The spherical vessel would have rockets placed tangentially across its surface area, to enable the computers to move the ‘ball’ in any third dimensional direction possible, which would be, effectively, straight ahead in the fourth dimension. Where exactly straight ahead would be was not known for sure, but the best guesses were the moon, Mars, or Venus.
The skeptics were in full swing. They painted a picture in the minds of the average person of a very expensive ball being sent up to space that would simply gyrate all around; yet NASA thought that it would somehow arrive at its designed location faster than the speed of light. Some suggested that since the ball would be so close to the atmosphere, if the computers decided to rocket it in the direction of the earth, that it would reenter the atmosphere and potentially wreak havoc on the earth’s surface. Others wondered how much precious energy and resources would be wasted on all of these thousands of rockets firing off, seemingly randomly. They reasoned that by having so many rockets fire in so many directions, they would be fighting against one another, and probably, at best, cause the ball to spin uncontrollably.
It was possible that a very non-vocal minority may have been excited about the possibilities, but public opinion generally ranged from apathy to sarcasm to rage. By the time the big day arrived, it was widely considered likely to be the biggest, most expensive failure in NASA history. The President and members of Congress began to distance themselves from the event.
Until three days before the launch, it was still classified as top secret, though it was anything but that. With the mission so widely discussed, and pressure on NASA to make live satellite video of the event available for public viewing, the President made the decision to allow the event to be covered on live television. It was the first time in many decades that the public wanted to watch live anything that NASA had done; however, this time the public interest was in watching NASA fail.
The launch went off without a hitch; all the disengagements went perfectly. In a short period of time, the rocket, having left the atmosphere, released the ball. It was far less of a spectacle than what had been conjured up in the public’s imagination. Artists’ renditions of rumors are rarely very accurate. Far fewer rockets covered the surface of the ball than the general public though, and it seemed to be rather drab, via the satellite images that the viewers were witnessing.
The ball and the rocket distanced themselves from one another, but nothing else happened. It lasted two minutes and thirty-seven seconds, but most observers said it seemed much longer. From the angle that the satellite captured the event, one rocket could be seen igniting for a split-second, and then the ball was gone. Silence ensued across the planet. In the upper right-hand corner of the television was a view entitled ‘Moon Cam.’ It appeared to be a still shot of a section of the Moon’s surface. For seconds nothing appeared in either picture. Then, just as instantly as the ball had disappeared from the main camera angle, it reappeared in the Moon Cam as it slammed into the surface of the moon, exactly centered in the image. It had traveled at a velocity far in excess of the speed of light, or so it seemed based on the few seconds it took to reappear at the moon, and yet it barely scratched the moon’s surface. The ball was broken, to be sure; it looked like an egg that had been dropped on a hard floor. But that speed should have caused an impact that would have disintegrated the ball and caused an enormous crater to add to the moon’s copious collection.
But the ball had never reached a velocity worthy of being called a snail’s crawl. It hadn't traveled fast, just differently. The fourth dimensional distance between the spot that it began its journey and its final resting place was minute; considering how long it took, it had never reached much of a speed at all. Its crash was more akin to a fender bender than a serious collision.
So there it sat, while the unblinking eyes of the world stared at it in amazement. The world in unison had witnessed the impossible; forever the world would be different. But for anyone to conceptualize this new world, at that point, would be like Benjamin Franklin imagining Las Vegas at night just after he had flown his kite with the key in the rain storm.
Still, the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the world were one; perhaps unlike any other time in history. While most people had a very poor understanding of the physics of the three-dimensional world to begin with, still, everyone knew that things now were different—much different—and would never be the same again.
It had been a splendid afternoon. The temperature reached maximum a little after noon, yet there had been a cool and refreshing breeze. As the sun began to fall and the temperature drop, the breeze had stopped. It was neither warm nor cool, but just perfect. The sun was behind the young man and his father as they walked slowly and methodically down the path towards their home, so they could not see the radiant orange and pink sunset behind them.
For the past twenty minutes nothing had been spoken between the companions. They had had a day of talking, learning, and experiencing together; nothing could be spoken that would have added anything to the moment. The young man, of a little over thirteen years of age, had an air of goodness, confidence, and self-assurance about him. But at the same time he held his father in such high respect and esteem that he walked with his head bent slightly down, looking, as it were, at the ground several yards ahead. The older man held a staff in his right hand and walked on his son’s right. A close look at this man’s features revealed his age of fifty-two, but to look at him from a distance of only several feet he appeared younger. He had striking—penetrating—black eyes, and a full set of thick dark hair with a slight wave. His skin had a naturally light complexion, but was darkened somewhat because of the time he spent outdoors. He walked erectly, his gaze parallel to the ground, and with smooth steady strides, less than half a pace in front of his son. On his face could be seen a trace of fatigue, and yet with his eyes he expressed the smile of a very pleased and contented father.
“Caryell, I see your mother,” spoke the father firmly and pleasantly. Though still a long way off, their home had come into view, and the wife and mother of the two travelers could be seen doing some chores in the comfortable early evening.
Caryell raised his eyes and gazed towards his home and his mother for a few moments while a pleasant smile slowly transformed his face. A few seconds later he looked up and over towards his father, as his father simultaneously looked down and over towards him. They both smiled warmly and brightly at each other and then continued to smile as they turned their gaze back to home. “Father, I wonder what we shall be eating tonight," spoke Caryell resolutely though quietly.
“I will be content with anything tonight, but I am sure that your mother has prepared something special, my son.”
As they reached the clearing, Aspiria, having just noticed her husband and son, began to wave. Her gestures were mimicked by those approaching, and she felt perplexed momentarily as to whether she should walk in their direction to meet them, or to stay and watch as they approached. Aspiria was a beautiful woman of thirty-eight years of age. She was thin, but not frail. She was somewhat tall, with slightly broad shoulders. Though she was certainly strong and fit, she also had a delicate look about her. Her long, dark brown hair glistened in the sun.
Aspiria had spent the last couple of hours busy in the kitchen preparing a splendid feast. The fowl that was roasting was almost finished and a wonderful aroma filled her home. The table was set with vegetables, both steamed and raw, and fresh baked bread complimented the aroma of the fowl. She had a beautiful cake prepared and fruit juice to drink. The kitchen had become a little warm, and she had decided to enjoy a few minutes of the waning sunshine outdoors.
“You look lovely this evening, my dear,” said Roloff as he approached his wife and kissed her on the cheek. Aspiria smiled softly, and gazed at Roloff for a moment and then turned her attention to Caryell.
“Are you tired, Caryell?”
“No, only a little bit, mother. I can smell the bird cooking. Is dinner almost ready?”
“He must be hungry,” said Aspiria with a light chuckle.
“He is, and so am I,” said Roloff as the family walked into their home.
The Palador family lived in a fairly spacious one story home. As they entered the back door, the kitchen could be seen on the left; straight ahead was their living room. Aspiria had painted the walls a light yellow. The room was well lit with large bay windows on the side opposite of the door that they had entered, facing the front of the home. The windows were open, but the lacy-white curtains barely moved as there was no appreciable breeze.
Caryell entered the living room and sat on a large off-white couch that faced the stone mantel. He laid back a little and put his left leg on the couch while letting his shoe dangle off of the front. He closed his eyes for a moment, but then opened them and stared dreamily out in front of him.
Roloff disappeared for a little while in the direction of the master bedroom. When he returned he had changed cloths and cleaned up. Aspiria had just taken the roasted bird out of the oven when Roloff entered. He finished setting the table and then began to carve the bird while Aspiria completed some finishing touches.
“Caryell, change and clean up; we shall eat in a few moments,” called Aspiria as she undid her apron and began to walk towards the master bedroom herself. “How did everything go today?” she whispered, stopping short near her husband.
Roloff said nothing for a moment as he finished carving a piece. “He is a fine young man in every way,” he said slowly and methodically without looking up from the bird. “A father could not be more pleased.” Aspiria stood there for a moment, and looked at the bird, then walked to her bedroom.
Not more than two or three days after the ball had struck the moon, UFO mania had reached a new height. At first the media treated it with contempt as it had always done; however, the public’s attention was fixated on the possibilities of space travel—away from, and towards the earth. It didn't take more than a week before even the ‘reputable’ news sources were interviewing those who had been ‘abducted by aliens!’ Elaborate theories as to who among celebrities were really aliens or half-aliens were the talk of the town, whatever town one may be in. Even those who were ‘level-headed’ had a more difficult time dispelling such ideas, for if intelligent life did exist on other planets, there was no longer any practical reason why they couldn't have traveled to earth.
This was the big question: did intelligent life, or life of any sort, for that matter, exist outside of earth? The first backlash against the UFO mania came from some of the main stream religions. “If life existed outside of this planet, our holy books would have said so,” went the argument. The accounts of the creation seemed to imply that the universe had been created with the earth as the place for life. Of course not all religions held such limited and ego-centric views of the universe, but they seemed to smile quietly, rather than join the chaos. However, most people were not paying much attention to religious authorities at this time anyway.
Science was in two camps, both of which operated under the assumption that life on earth is a chance event that underwent a long, arduous, yet successful evolutionary process. But, the uniqueness of this event is where the opinions differed greatly, and the camps separated. One, affirming that the odds associated with such an event are so minuscule that even if many other planets were provided with similar circumstances, they would not likely bring forth life. The other camp looked at it from a separate angle: with a universe so expansive and having existed for so many eons of time, the odds that only one little planet ever sprouted life seemed unfathomable. Perhaps, if life didn't exist here, it would be feasible that it existed nowhere. But the possibility of life was unquestionable; could it have only happened once?
While the media and general public fascinated themselves with UFO’s and aliens, and the scientists and philosophers pondered the meaning of life and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, the capitalists had other things on their minds. Space travel no longer required vast amounts of energy because time and distance were no longer significant hurdles, so governments with enormous resources were no longer requisite for space exploration. Missions no longer had to be justified to the public in general. Only relatively small amounts of capital were now required to reach out into the universe. Within this universe there was undoubtedly a plethora of resources that were no longer out of grasp, and that would be very valuable. So while there was some public debate as to whether private companies or individuals could travel around the universe and do as they liked without government approval, it never became a real issue because it just happened. It became so pervasive and so successful that there was simply no stopping it.
Of course, while traveling around this vast universe became possible, finding valuable resources was like trying to find a needle in a hay-stack. But the initial investments were very profitable; all that had to be brought back was a rock from another solar system, or better yet, another galaxy, and it would be worth a fortune. Gold, silver, and gems such as diamonds, emeralds, and rubies were eventually discovered, brought back, and sold for enormous amounts; a ‘space diamond’ or ‘space gold’ at this time could be sold for one thousand times what the same quantity and weight of ‘earth gold’ or ‘earth diamonds’ could be sold for.
Those who undertook these ventures early on profited greatly. It became like the 1849 gold rush. Seemingly everyone wanted to strike it rich and became involved. In time supply met demand, and then quickly exceeded demand. ‘Space gold’ was available everywhere and the prices fell dramatically. While demand was floated to some degree by finding uses for common things now made of gold, overall gold’s value dropped exceedingly. At first ‘space gold’ and other raw materials were worth far more than ‘earth gold,’ but, soon these values reversed. Investors began to stock pile ‘earth gold,’ and while its value was far less than before the ‘space gold’ phenomenon, it still held some value. In particular, relics that had been crafted prior to ‘the ball’ remained quite valuable.
This quick shift in the availability of natural and precious resources won and lost fortunes for many individuals. The economics of the world were on a roller coaster ride during this time. Much worry, stress, and frustration resulted from this. Still, while the shifts in the economy were quite dramatic, overall things were going pretty well. Most people were employed, and doing just fine, but job and career changes were at an all-time high. Even though people had more stuff than ever before, lack of stability, greed, stress, and anxiety caused a general lack of happiness around the world. Often boundaries are considered obstacles to happiness. Yet, when those boundaries are dissolved, and people seek for happiness beyond those former boundaries, they find less happiness than they had had before. So, the universe was opened up to the world, but the people of the world were less satisfied than they had been before—in relative isolation.
With the table set to perfection and the individuals of the family cleaned and nicely dressed, Roloff Palador offered the blessing on the food. With his heart full of gratitude, humility, and joy, he offered a short, yet eloquent prayer; then the family began to divvy up their feast.
Aspiria took her portions first, as Caryell, not quite patiently, waited. He, and then Roloff filled their plates, and the family ate. Caryell wanted to thank his mother for the feast, and express how good everything was, but was unable to, as at the moment as he was not capable of stopping himself from filling his mouth with bite after bite. Aspiria, who had had a more relaxing and quiet day, was quite ready for dinner conversation, but politely acquiesced for a few minutes, as she could see that any attempt would, at this point, be fraught with failure.
Her patience lasted only a few minutes, and then she asked Caryell, “Are you enjoying the dinner?”
Realizing his mild rudeness, and recognizing that his mouth was still full, he looked up at his mother with his bright beaming eyes. What a strange concept it is, that an anatomical entity, such as a mouth, could be used for two such differing functions: eating and speaking. Be that as it may, when his mouth was clear he said, “Yes, Mother…it is wonderful, thank you very much.” And with that, his eyes returned to his plate and he began to work on his unfinished business.
Aspiria smiled slightly and glanced over at Roloff, who, incidentally, had his mouth full at the moment, as well. He, being more experienced and clever as to the subtleties of unspoken communication, communications with the opposite sex in general, and more particularly with his wife, deduced that it was time for dinner conversation.
“Taun Lake was teeming with fish this morning. Several flocks were catching their fill. If I'd gone to hunt, we would have brought a bounty of nice fowl like this.” Aspiria, who had just taken a bite, nodded approvingly, and then cast her gaze towards Caryell. “However, today was not a day for fishing or hunting,” Roloff continued as he sat back a little, put his right arm around his son, and squeezed his shoulder. “Caryell has begun his journey into manhood this day,” and pausing briefly, “so no more calling him your ‘lil’ papo.’” Aspiria gave a short sarcastic grin, while Caryell, looking down at his plate shook his head softly with a slight flush. Roloff smiled warmly and then chuckled lightly for a moment.
Indeed, the day that a boy begins his journey into manhood was a special time for the Paladors and their people. The feast that they were now enjoying was capping off a singular father and son experience. Traditionally, the father would spend the day with the young man teaching him of the world, elevating him physically, mentally, and spiritually into manhood, and Roloff believed strongly in tradition. In large measure, the father discussed the roles of man, and in particular, the relationships of men and women. Reproduction was described in detail; not simply the technicalities, but also as part of the pleasures and responsibilities of marriage. The emphasis was to be on the spiritual nature of love, family, and posterity, intermingled with work, responsibility, and patience. Roloff made a special point of explaining how women, especially one’s wife, should be treated with the upmost respect and admiration. Beyond this, much was spoken of civic duties, education, and the dangers and pitfalls of the world to avoid. Some was spoken of church and religion; much was shared about God, the purpose of and eternal nature of life—that birth and death, while important events, were neither the beginning nor ending of the soul and the family. All of this was brought full circle in describing the family as the basic unit of society, and as an essential element of the purpose and plan of life.
For Roloff and Caryell this was all accomplished with the backdrop of the beautiful woods and lakes surrounding their home. They talked as they walked, as they rested by the lake and skipped rocks, while they prepared and cooked meals, and as they explored in the woods. It was certainly not a lecture, and Roloff didn’t need to organize his presentation. It was all an intimate part of his being, and thus flowed naturally and conversationally. And conversation it was. All that was shared this day was not new to Caryell; the details of reproduction were very enlightening to the young man, but much of what was brought up had been talked about before in some sense or another. So Caryell shared his thoughts, asked many questions, and expressed his opinions in this detailed conversation. Still, never had so much, and in such great detail, been laid on this young man’s mind at one time. His silence at the dinner table was more than just the feeding of a famished body; his mind was overfilled, and subconsciously he was trying to put the pieces together.
“We are so very pleased with the young man you have become, Caryell,” Aspiria said smiling. “It is a special day for you, and a special time in your life. In only a short while you will begin your higher education. Do you think that you are ready?”
“Thank you, Mother, I hope so. I do feel grown up. Father said that no one is ever ready, but that you do your best and it all works out.”
“Your father knows what he is talking about. It is a credit to you that you listen to his counsel,” said Aspiria, wanting to add a little counsel of her own. But her thoughts, and the conversation in general, were cut short with a brisk knock at the door.
It is somewhat strange how the U.S. Government took the lead in utilizing the fourth dimension in space travel with ‘the ball’ experiment, but that for many years thereafter the private sector alone traveled significantly through space, while NASA remained, apparently, silent. In reality, NASA’s plan was to come up with a plan after the experiment; successful or unsuccessful. If the top minds could have been inquired into at the time, they would have expressed that the next stage would be to perfect or fix the problems from the first experiment. But the experiment went off without a hitch. Any and all directions that NASA would have gone in next were undertaken quickly by private industry. Elected officials were more concerned with the economy than with NASA. Scientists were occupied as part of many of the space endeavors that were already being conducted. It simply was not a priority, nor was it clear exactly what the federal government’s role should be in this new space age.
The environmentalists were putting a lot of pressure on the government to regulate what was being done to the ‘precious’ raw materials of the universe. It was a little difficult to get public sympathy for a now infinite supply of raw materials to be classified as precious. They also suggested that the explorers were destroying pristine places, and wreaking havoc on the beauty of the universe. A hard line of reasoning to follow, since beauty is a hard thing to gauge without being able to witness something in the first place. With this extensive space travel, people were able to behold many things of beauty in the universe. For those who were not able to go into space, the pictures that were brought back could be seen. The beauty was more apparent than ever before. As far as the taking of natural resources goes, literally the surface had not been scratched. From an earthly perspective, it seemed as though much was coming and going; truly, most of the universe had hardly been seen or touched. The earth was just a tiny grain of sand and the universe was a beach; after millennia of mining, the universe still had secrets to be discovered.
Still, the environmentalists had another concern: with all of this raw material being transported to earth, won’t the mass of the earth increase? This will change the gravitational relationships between the earth, sun, and moon. Disaster would be imminent. The reality was that just as much was going out, as was coming in. With all of the space crafts, and later space stations, that were being put in place, the earth would have lost a little mass if it hadn’t been replenished by the various cargo loads. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that there was ever enough coming or going to have made a difference. It wasn’t as though these companies were just bringing cargos of space dirt and dumping it en masse. In fact, for those that were truly concerned about the environment, the earth had never been in better condition. Minimal mining was occurring throughout the earth, the use of non-replenishable energy sources was not increased at all by the space traveling, as it didn’t take much energy at all, and as the ability to use replenishable energy was increasing. But the true colors of the ‘environmentalists’ were quickly becoming evident. They were anti-capitalism, anti-progress, anti-technology, and especially anti-freedom. So, as their arguments that the earth’s environment was being damaged were fleeting, their liberal socialistic agenda became more evident. As liberal policy, at its essence, requires the equal divvying up of a closed limited system; and as the world seemed closed or limited to almost no one, their ideas garnered support from very few people.
However, because the environmentalist lobby had been so strong in Washington for so long, they were largely responsible for convincing the Federal government that some sort of a presence would be needed in the last frontier. Part of the problem was deciding whether this presence should be U.S. alone, or ‘international.’ Those pushing for an international presence desired a policing regime funded primarily by the United States, but led equally by all nations involved, and whose purpose was primarily to limit the ability of U.S. corporations to profit from outer space ventures. This idea was quickly nixed. For those who preferred a national presence there was much debate as to whether NASA should simply expand and change into a stronger auxiliary, or if NASA should be dissolved and a new organization with a little more bite should be formed. Although the Federal government had never been afraid of redundancy, it never considered keeping NASA, and also creating a new agency.
Rumor was that the new agency that was being considered would be a new branch of the military; the ‘Space Force.’ The media labeled this debate, ‘Star Trek vs. Star Wars.’ Should we boldly go where no man has gone before, as scientists and ambassadors, or should we create an all-powerful space empire? NASA vs. Military in space cartoons were all over the political pages depicting goodly scientists on one side, and warmongers on the other side.
Either way, the public could not help but envision alien worlds that would need to be explored or conquered. Aliens were still on the forefront of many people’s minds. Of course, rumors abounded about all of these contacts with aliens, or evidence of life that had been found on all of these commercial voyages, but that were being covered up by the U.S. Government. There were a handful of vessels that had disappeared and had not been heard from, but no hard evidence had ever been shown; many people were beginning to wonder if life outside of this little sphere was non-existent.
Science had not given up on the possibility of intelligent life outside our planet. Though the general public may have esteemed the space explorations up to that point as profound, science realized that only the tiniest of samples had actually been analyzed. So, while the scientists had NASA's ear, they suggested that a more systematic approach needed to be undertaken in the search for life outside this planet, but they also had the attention of the military. Behind closed doors it was being considered that if intelligent life did exist outside of the earth’s atmosphere, a military presence would be prudent. So the environmentalists and liberal scientists were, in large measure, at least as a catalyst, responsible for a military presence in space: the Space Force.
Yes, the ire of the international community was raised when the announcement of the dissolution of NASA and the formation of the new branch of the military was made. And yes, damage control was already in full swing, in describing the Space Force, the new military agency, as merely a technicality. Its primary purpose would be to perform scientific experiments, to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and to monitor any suspicious activity of other earthly vessels in space. The bottom line is that it was formed and activated, and that was all there was to it. Those that didn’t like it had to deal with it. Drafting was not necessary in filling this new military branch. Volunteers for military service had not been so high since the twentieth century.
The family stopped and looked at each other momentarily. It was not unusual to have visitors, or other interruptions in the evening. But somehow, no one had envisioned this special family occasion being interrupted. Roloff arose and headed through the living room to the front door.
Caryell turned his attention back to his plate, while Aspiria picked up her fork and poked at her food, but couldn’t help but listen to what was happening in the other room.
Roloff was unable to hide his disappointment when he saw who was at the door. Seryen Olefften was a younger man than Roloff, a little over forty. He was tall and slender with a very dark complexion, more gray than olive. He did not have very attractive features. His eyes were also very dark, and inset deeply. His left eye and orbit were situated somewhat higher than the right giving his face an awkward, uncomfortable appearance. He wore no facial hair, though his face was scarred, likely from bad adolescent acne. His hair was dark and straight, and he kept it combed back and to the left.
Seryen could tell that his intrusion was not received with joy this evening. Seryen had been by to interrupt Roloff in the evening several times before. He knew that it was Roloff’s custom to open his door widely, and then quickly and warmly invite his visitors in. Tonight however, he opened the door just enough to see whom it was and was dressed much nicer that he usually would be for an evening at home. The greatest indication of Roloff's displeasure was that he wore an expression on his face which seemed to say, “I do hope that this is not important, and that it will not take long.”
Mr. Olefften was a very serious man, and as Roloff opened the door to greet him, he had a characteristic stoic expression on his face. Seryen had always felt awkward when he went into the Palador home; his demeanor did not match the warm and friendly atmosphere there. Subconsciously it caused him some stress as he knocked on the door, trying to prepare himself for the transition he would have to make. It was, however, doubly awkward this evening, as he saw Roloff with his serious demeanor and was unsure how to proceed.
Roloff recovered more quickly; as he opened the door a little more and smiled, he said, “Come in, my friend.” Seryen truly was a friend, but his unexpected presence always indicated a problem or concern. Seryen was a part of the town council of which Roloff was the head and was dedicated to this position to the utmost degree. Seryen was the first person thought of whenever anyone in town had a problem, because he would take it upon himself willingly and dutifully to help in whatever way possible. Ironically, he and his wife Prianna were typically the last people considered when the people in town made invitations for social occasions.
“I am sorry for my intrusion this evening, Mayor Palador,” he said as he entered the door with his head bent down, his eyes making contact with the floor. “I would not be here except that…I am afraid that this matter will require your attention this evening.”
Roloff's heart sank as he heard those words. He had already resigned himself to this reality, but somehow hearing it expressed destroyed any hopes left that an evening at home with his family was possible.
“Leave the matter a bit; you must be hungry by now and Aspiria has prepared a marvelous feast. Come in and share some with us,” said Roloff, not yet wanting to hear the details of this matter of concern.
The aroma in the air left little doubt as to the exquisiteness of the feast in the next room. Seryen was hungry, and even if he were not, he knew from past experience that it would be futile to refuse Roloff. “Thank you,” he said, and followed Roloff into the dining area.
As Roloff went to get a plate, cup, and utensils, Seryen walked over towards the table. Aspiria stood and with the best smile she could muster and gave Seryen her hand. Caryell stayed sitting, chewing his most recent bite, but turned toward Mr. Olefften with a bright smile in his eyes.
“Mrs. Palador, Caryell, good evening,” he said formally. Suddenly a look of horror transformed his face; looking at the table and then at the family members a terrible realization hit him. “Tonight is Caryell's special feast! I should have known. I am so sorry to disturb you this evening,” he said with despair.
Perhaps he should have known that all the young men Caryell's age were having their special feast this day in honor of the beginning of their journey into manhood. He had plenty of time to think as he walked for about twenty minutes in route to the Paladors’ home. But family matters where not on his mind. He and Prianna had been married for nearly twenty years. In the early years of their marriage having children was on the forefront of their minds. But as time went on, and it looked increasingly impossible that they would be blessed with children, he kept his mind off the subject as much as possible, it being too painful to consider. Rather, he occupied himself and his thoughts chiefly with civic duties, and kept himself thus so absorbed as to avoid most reminders of this unpleasant reality. His wife Prianna, on the other hand, had a much more difficult time keeping this, her deepest regret, off of her mind. But she also engaged herself primarily in public service, and did her best to appear content. If Prianna had been with me this afternoon, she would have reminded me, he thought as he searched for a way to rectify the situation. “Perhaps, if you could advise me on the matter, I could take care of this myself,” he said hopefully, but even as he said it, he knew this was impossible.
“Perhaps, if you told me what this is all about first, then we could decide what needs to be done,” Roloff said cheerfully. “But unless the town is burning to the ground, we have a few moments to eat.” Roloff handed Aspiria the plate, and sat down, motioning for Seryen to do the same. Caryell held out his hand and shook it vigorously. Aspiria handed him a plate filled generously with the feast, and Seryen reluctantly took his place.
For a few minutes there was silence around the table as Seryen began to eat. Aspiria, like most people in town, found the Olefftens, particularly Seryen, difficult to associate with. Still, she treated them well, and Aspiria was one of Prianna’s closest friends. In part this was because the Paladors were good to everyone, but it was also because she felt more understood by Aspiria than other women. The Paladors too had a difficult time in having children, and Caryell was considered a great blessing.
Mr. Olefften was not Caryell's favorite of his father’s visitors. Primarily this was because he paid Caryell very little attention, but also because Caryell could sense his awkwardness. Even so, Caryell liked him well enough.
“Thank you, this feast is delicious,” Seryen said quietly, but still breaking the silence. He grabbed his drink, and washed down his most recent bite and sat back a little. “The Lodophins had quite a scare today. Alleff, Mrs. Lodophin’s youngest son, put a letter opener, all steel, into their electrical socket. The safeties blew, but not before it gave him quite a shock. He has pretty good burns on his right hand and leg, apparently where the charges entered and exited.”
“Oh, that’s terrible, is the child alright?” Aspiria interjected with a look of concern on her face.
“Alleff has been under Dr. Benren’s care all afternoon, and he should be just fine. It seems to have calmed him down, so perhaps he won’t be up to so much mischief, at least for a little while,” Seryen said with a hint of a grin.
Bellerie Lodophin was a heavy-set woman in her mid-thirties. She had five boys, and no girls. Alleff, the youngest, was four, and the oldest was fourteen. The Lodophin boys were a wild bunch. If any boys needed a father around, it was these boys, though they were not much different before their father’s untimely death three years prior. Mrs. Lodophin was a very eccentric woman. People in town would say that handling those boys would drive anyone nuts. She did not hesitate to call on the school, church, and civic leaders for help whenever the need arose, and it arose often. Seryen, naturally, was called on quite often, but unlike others in town, she did not seem to be as concerned as to whether those whom she called upon for assistance were as desirous to give that assistance. Her pleas went in every direction. She was as powerful and manipulative with the leaders of the community in getting what she wanted as she was inept in controlling her boys.
Bellerie Lodophin had been left with a very generous inheritance by her late husband, for which people in town were generally grateful. She took many trips to the city, unlike most people in their town of Arkasia. A much-needed respite, by most accounts. There, she gained an appreciation for the modern conveniences of life for which electrical power was required, and which was not available in Arkasia.
She was the first to petition the town council for electrical power a couple of years ago. Though most people in town were intrigued by the idea, cost was the major obstacle. Bellerie offered to donate a section of her land for the electrical substation to be built upon. Actually, the arrangement turned out to be more like a leasing of the property. The city’s electrical company would pay for the line to the substation, and for half of the cost of the substation. The members of the town then would only be required to pay for half of the substation, and the lines to each individual residence.
Ordinarily the council would have simply decided such matters, as they had the authority to do so, but because of the cost and radical nature of the endeavor, they chose to put this issue to a vote of the people. With just over two thousand adults in the town of Arkasia and the surrounding area, the vote was 1,604 in favor, and 208 opposed. Within a year the town was electrified.
Sensing where this discussion was going, Roloff asked, “How is Mrs. Lodophin doing?”
“That's just it; she is threatening to have the substation removed from her property. She says that she must speak with you immediately. I assured her that you had not been by because you knew nothing of the incident. I believe that when she sees that Alleff is alright, and has calmed down, that she will change her mind. I could go back and tell her that it is Caryell’s special day, and that you will be by in the morning.”
“No, I am sure that she will be expecting me soon. We had better get going,” Roloff said while getting up from the table.
Aspiria also arose and said, “Let Mrs. Lodophin know that I will be by to check on Alleff in the morning.” She walked over to kiss Roloff goodbye.
“I will try to not be gone too long; I hope to be back in time to share some of that cake,” Roloff said reassuringly. “Caryell, I am sorry to have to leave. I hope you know what a wonderful son you are, and what a special day I have enjoyed with you.”
Caryell came and gave his father a hug. “I do, Father, I love you. Thank you for everything.”
Seryen finished a few remaining morsels in the meantime. Then he thanked and apologized to Aspiria again, while getting up in preparation to return again to the Lodophins.
Mark Jenners’ room was a disaster area. After shuffling his junk around for about fifteen minutes, he found the object of his search, the latest issue of the ‘Space Patrol’ comic book, under a pile of dirty clothes. The thirteen-year-old boy then hopped onto his bed, grabbed a handful of Doritos from a half-filled bag on the floor, and began to scan the pages.
Space Patrol comic books came out soon after the announcement of the Space Force. Essentially, the Space Patrol was the comic book version of the Space Force. Their mission was to protect the earth from all of the evil aliens. Each issue featured a grotesque alien race that the Space Patrol had to annihilate, and of course each time they did just that. The Space Patrol consisted of young, powerful, energetic men and women in tight-fitting black uniforms. The men were good-looking, muscular, and fearless. The women were beautiful, full-figured, and aggressive, wearing uniforms that covered little more than a bikini would. All were equipped with powerful laser guns. Their ships, too, were loaded with laser guns, missiles, and nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons was, of course, acceptable when destroying aliens and their worlds. This issue was about the Zoracks, a hideous group of aliens that came to the earth’s moon and stole the remnant of ‘the ball,’ from the experiment several years earlier. The shattered pieces of the ball were practically sacred relics, at least according to this comic, and therefore those aliens needed to be obliterated. These particular creatures were so revolting that they looked like they had it coming, whether they stole anything or not. This was entertainment at its finest, at least according to Mark and his generation.
Mark closed the book over his thumb, holding his place, grabbed another handful of chips, and sat up a little. I can’t believe school starts already tomorrow. This summer was so boring, I didn’t get to do anything fun, Mark thought as he munched on his Doritos. MTV, now actually music television, was blaring from the living room; an upbeat song that Mark enjoyed had just begun. He tried to settle back into his story as he tapped his feet to the beat. Soon the comic book was sitting on his chest, and Mark was jamming to the beat with both hands, and nodding his head as much as he could with it lying on the pillow.
As the song ended and the commercials began Mark felt a wave of boredom coming over him. He chucked the comic book across the room, having already reread it twice this week, and got up and went to the window. Several boys were riding bikes around the apartment complex parking lot. It did look fun riding bikes around, but the boys were younger, and Mark thought, I feel like I’d get a headache out there in that bright sun.
Mark had slept in until after 10:30 AM, and now that it was nearly 1:00 PM, he had still not had anything decent to eat. After kicking around the junk in his room for a few moments, he headed into the kitchen and filled himself a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. He moseyed into the living room and plopped on the couch.
“Ah, I hate that song!” he squawked out loud as soon as the next video came on, and he fumbled for the remote. He settled on a talk show while flipping around the channels. Some dude was describing his being abducted by aliens. They tortured him, experimented on him, and then explained to him that they were going to destroy the earth. It was not clear whether he learned to speak their alien tongue, or whether they just told him this in English. Then they let him go so that he could warn everyone. As fascinated as Mark was in aliens, somehow this story just wasn’t jiving. Besides, Steve, Marks older brother who happened to be a Captain in the Space Force, had told him that the Space Force was watching earth so closely that there was no chance any alien ships had come to earth. Gramps says these people are a bunch of idiots, Mark thought as he began flipping the channels again.
“Is it true that credible evidence has been found that there is intelligent life out there? asked a reporter to some government official on a news channel Mark had paused on. The channel had been showing a video clip of Stardust 20, the space station where Steve Jenners, Mark’s older brother, was awaiting his next voyage.
“No, there has not been any evidence of intelligent life discovered.”
“But isn’t it true that the ZX-120’s, the Space Force’s newest vessels, are equipped with full laboratories that could make a detailed analysis of any life forms?”
“Like most of our missions, the new ZX-120’s will be headed into completely unknown areas. Some of these areas we believe have planetary systems; we want to be prepared for anything. These ships are by far the most impressive ships in the Space Force.”
Back to the anchor: “The new ZX-120’s are all stationed on Stardust 20 awaiting their maiden voyages. Many are questioning the cost of these new ships, when the government claims that there has been no evidence of life…”
I hate the news! They spend half their time reporting rumors about aliens, and the other half of the time saying what a waste of money the Space Force is. Mark picked up the remote again and switched the channel, although this time more deliberately back to MTV. The video on was much more palatable to him, so he took a couple more bites of his ice cream, and settled himself comfortably for an afternoon in front of the tube.
“So they’ve given you your own ship, huh? What’s this place coming to, anyway?” said Mike West, one of the top-notch mechanics on Stardust 20.
“They’re letting the Captain and pilot each handpicks one crew member,” replied Steve Jenners, the recently-promoted Captain of the ‘Galaxy Charger,’ one of the new ZX-120’s.
“So how did you and Spearman get hooked up?”
“I don’ know; assigned, I guess. You know him, don’t you?”
“A little; he’s a good pilot, takes his job real seriously. He’s well-liked for an older guy. Probably not a bad idea putting a young punk like you with older, experienced, and more mature guys,” Mike remarked, only halfway joking.
Mike West was a little older than Steve, thirty-four, while Steve was twenty-seven. Mike was of average looks, with brown, straight hair and light brown eyes. He was about six feet tall and very slender. He did not look very strong, though that was deceiving. He was by far one of the best mechanics, or engine specialists, in the Space Force; indispensable in that capacity. He was very much a perfectionist in everything he did. But he also had a very witty and dry sense of humor, and he was a very loyal friend once his trust was gained.
Steve Jenners, on the other hand, was more reckless and ambitious. He was a natural-born leader. Steve was good-looking, tall, and well-built. He had blond hair, with a light wave, and bright blue eyes.
“I seem to detect a bit of jealousy here.”
“I did think that I was up for a Captain promotion. I don't think it was so much a lack of qualification, as them not wanting to lose their best mechanic,” Mike commented as he put his tools down and faced Steve. Mike had been playing with a full scale model of the ZX-120 engine. The engines were new, and he didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
“I can't disagree with you there; you don't think I picked you because you are such a pleasant person to be around, do you?” They both chuckled and Steve put his right hand on Mike’s shoulder. In reality, Steve would have picked Mike even if his technical skills were not so extraordinary. They had both been on the same crew for their last mission. Mike was the engine specialist, and Steve was the pilot. They had developed a deep friendship and respect for one another. Although Steve was thrilled to be a Captain, he did feel somewhat intimidated. He knew that he was one of the youngest Captains ever promoted, and that his performance would be watched closely. He wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by those he was familiar with and trusted; skill and technical prowess were also greatly appreciated. Although a little nervous, his ambition was no less intense, and he wanted to do well.
“So who’s Kenny picking, his navigator?”
“I suppose so; we'll find out soon enough,” Steve replied, not thinking much of the question. Kenny Spearman was a forty-one-year-old pilot. He’d had a late start on his career, but was one of the best on the force. He, too, was up for a Captain promotion, and was likely to get it next time. But the powers that be thought that he would be the perfect counterpart to their new, less experienced Captain. Kenny was very much a team player, and was more than happy to serve wherever requested. He was serious and level-headed, but good-natured and approachable.
“The four of us are having dinner in Captains dining, in an hour. We'll find out who else is assigned on the crew tomorrow.” This would be Steve’s first official meeting with crew members as the Captain. He was excited, a little giddy, and he was anxious to get a few things done before dinner. “See you in a bit.”
“Aye, Aye, Cap’n,” Mike replied with a wink and a smile.
Steve headed down the corridor towards his living quarters. The main corridor ran in a complete circle around the middle of the spherical main body of the space station. Rooms were to his left towards center, and the living quarters were to his right on the surface of the main body, so that each room had one window looking out into space. The station rotated around about every two hours, and the sights were marvelous to behold. The station was in orbit around the moon of a large gas giant planet in a galaxy far from the Milky Way. The planet had a large horizontally situated ring from the perspective of Stardust 20, and another smaller, vertical ring whose orbit was much closer to the surface of the planet. The moon had no atmosphere, and was about sixty percent of the size of earth’s moon, dark brown in color. It did not have any craters, but rather lines of mountain ranges. They looked like the swirls on the top of a large piece of a boxed chocolate. Though officially it, like its planet, had a large technical name with letters and numbers like all of the heavenly bodies discovered, it was lovingly referred to as the dark chocolate moon by everyone on the space station. The planet had a pale green appearance with white cloud like whorls. However, depending on its orientation relative to the distant star it was orbiting, it sometimes had a lighter yellow or darker blue hue. So, throughout the station’s two-hour rotation, the scene through one’s window would change from views of the moon, to views of the planet with a glimpse of its star, to a full, spellbinding star-scape against a pitch black sky. It was breathtaking, to say the least.
Coming around the corridor, one of the civilian girls was walking in the direction towards Steve. He had noticed her around a couple of times before, as she was very beautiful. She had long, curly, red hair, and strikingly blue eyes. Her head was slightly down, and she was looking away from him, so he looked directly at her nametag—Tammy Rogers, Medical and Research. She looked up and over at Steve, and smiled as they passed. She was even prettier than he thought. I wonder if it’s too late to change my mind about Mike; Tammy Rogers would make a perfect handpicked member of my crew, he joked to himself as he headed to his quarters.
Captain’s quarters were tiny, but single occupancy, rather than dual occupancy like the lower-ranked quarters. It consisted of a fold-down bed that doubled as a desk, a couple of drawers, and a tiny closet. With the bed up, it was conceivable to change one’s clothes, but not comfortably. With the bed up, the desk revealed a small built-in computer. Steve sat on his small stool and turned his computer on. He wrote an email, and filed a couple of reports. The Internet was not complete to the space station yet. It would still be a while before a fully-functional, nearly instantaneous Internet would be available in space; the technology was incomplete. Sending electrical signals at the speed of light through fourth-dimensional space was possible, effectively making communications from anywhere for all intents and purposes without delay. But the ability to do this was new, and at the moment expensive, so it was fairly limited in capacity. The space station sent and received signals constantly, but sometimes it would be hours before something, like an email, got to the front of the queue. They would receive portions of the Internet daily, and then make those pages immediately accessible on space station computers. It was even possible to have telephone conversations with earth, but because of bandwidth limitations, it was not ordinarily done. The Captains were told earlier that day that they would each be permitted one fifteen-minute phone call, and were given a schedule for their call. As the bandwidth increased, it was expected that every room would have a useable phone, and instantaneous Internet, email, and television.
After checking the latest news on the L.A. Dodgers, Steve changed into his formal Captain’s attire, and headed out to Captain’s dining for dinner. Showing up a little early, and expecting to be the first there, he was taken aback by seeing, already seated, Kenny Spearman and another man whom he was not familiar with. He headed towards the table and before he knew it, the two men stood to attention and saluted him.
“Captain Jenners, this is James Smith,” spoke Kenny.
“Pleased to meet you, Captain Jenners,” replied James. James was a thirty-two-year-old black man. He had moderately dark skin, very short hair, and two small vertical scars on his left check. His head was somewhat big and long, and he had a very sober expression on his face. Kenny, on the other hand, had a warmer expression on his face. Kenny had light brown, curly hair that was now more gray than brown. He wore a full beard, about half an inch long, that had the exact same coloration as his hair. He had a large build, and a large head with particularly large hands, but he was neither overweight nor very tall, about 5'11".
“Pleased to meet you, too,” Steve replied. Just then Mike walked up. “Hey, Mike, this is James Smith, and you know Kenny Spearman.”
Mike shook both of their hands. “I sure do. How’re you doing? I know James, too, but I thought you were a computer guy?”
“He sure is, the best in the business,” interjected Kenny. “I jumped at the chance to have James on board with me,” he said, obviously wanting Steve to be pleased with his selection.
“Let’s sit down,” said Steve, and the four men settled down to a bit of ice-breaking, and some jockeying for position. John Carryman, one of the most experienced and celebrated Captains on the Space Force, walked in the room and headed over to Steve’s table.
“Captain Jenners, looks like your first crew’s shaping up. Well, I wish you the best on your maiden voyage.” He scanned the table for a moment, and then with a look of concern stated, “Looks like you've surrounded yourself with the best; but where is your navigator?”
“We’ll be assigned one tomorrow,” Steve answered beginning to feel uncomfortable both in Captain Carryman’s presence, and by this recurring theme and concern.
“There aren’t many left to choose from; most everyone has been assigned already. I’d hate to think who’s left,” he said matter-of-factly, and yet condescendingly.
Steve, feeling a bit belittled, embarrassed, and now defensive, wanted to explain himself. At first he wanted to tell why Mike was so invaluable, then how he would have expected Kenny to get a navigator—which he almost did—but realizing how Kenny was so pleased to have James on board, and seeing that it would be insulting to both Kenny and James, and further knowing how making excuses would make him look weak in front of his subordinates, he sat silent for a moment. He then replied, “We may not get the most experienced navigator, but we have good navigational experience between us; I think we’ll be fine. Thank you for your concern.”
“You do have some great expertise here. Captain Jenners, men: best of luck to you.”
“Thank you’s”, and “best of luck to you, also” rang from the table as Captain Carryman went to the other end of the dining hall. The dining hall was like a glorified school cafeteria. Attempts were made to give it an upper echelon appearance, but eating there made one feel more like they were in grade school, then having a fine dining experience.
For a few minutes the conversation that had not really began, was already quenched. James, who had a good sense about him, and a delightful social tact, punctured the silence. “Captain Jenners, I'm real proud to be a part of your crew. I've heard real good things about you, and I plan on makin’ you proud. I think there is a good chance that one of these missions will be successful.”
“Let me tell you a little about James, Captain,” Kenny followed. “James is a large part of the reason that these ZX-120’s were designed the way that they are. They’re designed to analyze living cultures; aliens. James has been very successful in analyzing the readouts, and he has found several potential spots to investigate; systems that have planets, likely with the characteristics to support life. He’s presented convincing enough evidence that before sending a ship out there, they wanted to be ready for the event that we find what we are looking for. This planet and moon we’re orbiting, James found.”
“There are some systems out there that I've caught some weak signals from that don’t seem random. I’m hoping that we get assigned to one of those systems.” The excitement was obviously boiling within him. Here was a man that was doing what he was doing for the pure love of it. He was not looking for promotion, or even recognition; just accomplishment.
“The man’s got a nose for this type of thing; if there is intelligent life out there—James is going to find it.”
The computer specialist, besides helping the pilot and navigator in getting to the right place, and keeping the systems running, was responsible for the research astronomy. The computer specialist was to analyze the raw data that was constantly being gathered. Considered a very technical job by most, James somehow was able to read between the lines, and see patterns beyond the formulas. He made predictions that were not possible based on the level of accuracy of the measurements he would make, and then they would pan out to be true. He too was indispensable in his position, but he had no desire to be promoted to something else. He was doing what he loved, and was well-respected for it.
Steve and Mike had been silent, listening. Both of them were feeling a tinge of remorse. Mike’s motivation was to execute his assignment with flawless perfection, and he wanted the personal recognition. Steve was seeking personal success: advanced ranks, praise, and glory. Neither Steve nor Mike had thought much of the ultimate success of the mission: finding intelligent alien life. Steve had thought it would be his job to motivate the crew to a successful mission, doing what was expected. But here he was confronted by two men who wanted the ultimate goal of the missions realized. He was already beginning to feel that he was the student here, and not the teacher. Besides this, he was starting to feel unsettled about the situation without a navigator.
Mike knew a little more of James and Kenny, and their passion for their work. But he was taken aback by the expectation that first, alien life existed, and second, that we were close to finding it. “So you really think they are out there?”
“Yeah, I don’t see why not. We’re only just beginning to narrow in on places that have potential, but we are going to find something out there. Whether it’s advanced or intelligent, I don’t know, but those signals I’ve seen are uncanny.”
“James has shown me some of his stuff,” interrupted Kenny. “The Space Force is real serious about it too—with these ZX-120’s.”
Steve was starting to feel excited. He had initially joined the Space Force hoping in the back of his mind that he would be a part of something exciting like this. But in the daily routine, he had lost sight of it until now. The dinner arrived, and it looked good. Better than normal rations.
“Eat up gentlemen, thrilling times are ahead,” Steve exclaimed with an air of confidence. He wanted to re-assert his role of leader, and not follower. Plus, he, too, was feeling a renewed sense of destiny. Lighter conversation followed, and as they began to wind up the meal Steve gave his first orders, “Meet me in the sky dome at 5:30 AM, dressed and ready to go. I will have a printout of the rest of our crew assignments, and our mission. I’m sure each of you wants the info as soon as it’s available. Plus, I want the remainder of the crew to understand how seriously we take our work. We’re going to get this off on the right foot.”
Steve had trouble sleeping. He tried closing his eyes for a while, but his mind was racing too quickly. So he laid and stared out his window for a very long time. With new eyes he gazed at the planet, the moon, and the stars. A boyhood excitement filled him, and he thought about what he was about to embark on. Not the particulars that had recently so encumbered his mind, but rather the big picture. He thought about what he was doing in the same way that his little brother Mark thought of it. He began to think of Mark, and was excited to talk to him tomorrow. He knew that he was bigger than life in that boys mind, and he wanted his little brother to be so proud of him. Slowly the melatonin overcame the rapid synaptic firings, and he drifted into a peaceful, though shallow, sleep.
The alarm blasted at 4:45 AM and it felt as if his eyes had just shut. At the same time his heart raced with excitement. His full crew, mission, and all the details he desired would be on his email in fifteen minutes. He hurried and showered, then got dressed. Overall, things seemed quiet around him, and he figured that he was just getting an earlier start than most of the Captains. At 5:00 AM the email had not yet arrived, so he finished his hair, shaved, and made sure that he was all together. 5:07 AM, it arrived and he sent it directly to the printer. His grandpa had returned his email from yesterday, and they were awaiting his phone call later. The reports were printed for each crew member, and he grabbed the stack and headed to the Skylab. He certainly wanted to be early, and was hoping to beat everyone there this time.
He was out of luck again. He arrived at 5:20 AM, and everyone was there in full uniform, sitting on some sofas near the back observation window. The planet and moon were not in sight through the large window, but instead, the most perfect star-scape imaginable was in full view. The men stood to greet him, and he quickened his pace to hand them each a packet with the details.
“How does it look?” asked Kenny with a smile and some enthusiasm.
“I just got it printed and headed up here; I haven’t had a chance to look,” he said as he handed Kenny, then Mike, and finally James their papers.
James raced past the crew information, and started to read the details of their mission. Steve went right to the crew info: Steve Jenners, Captain, okay, skip, Kenny Spearman, Pilot, uh-huh, skip, third ranking officer, Navigator - Bob Merick, never heard of him. Promoted to Navigator date—today?—three previous missions as Secretary? Well-liked, no Navigational experience, twenty-six years old. He looked up to see what the other men thought of their navigator, but they were much more concerned with where they were going, than who they were going with. James had what appeared to be a look of despair on his face.
Kenny, the consummate team player, said as cheery as possible, “Looks like were headed to an uncharted region.”
“Not analyzed, either,” interjected James, trying to sound unaffected. “It looks like they want my skills put to the test again. I thought I might get to take it to the next level this time.”
“With this distance, it sounds like they want to put my engine to the test, also,” Mike said with some excitement.
“What do you think of our Navigator; new guy we're training?” asked Steve.
Kenny rummaged through the papers and then got a concerned expression on his face, “Bob Merick, huh?”
“Do you know him?” Steve inquired.
“Yeah, I know Bob. He was Secretary on a mission of mine, six…seven months ago,” he answered.
“What’s he like?”
“Oh, he’s a real nice guy. I’m just surprised to see he’s a navigator.”
“He may be surprised, as well,” said Mike. “He just got promoted today, and he may not be up yet.” Mike continued to scour the papers.
“Do you think he will be alright?” asked Steve wanting the full story, not just the abstract.
“He’ll have to be. It’s just that he didn’t seem interested in that sort of thing. He was so excited to be in the Space Force, and on a mission; but he was never interested in the technical details.”
“It’s not easy navigating in areas that haven’t been analyzed. You have to watch what’s going on almost without blinking,” stated James. “We’ll all have to be on our toes.”
“Looks like you are going to have your strange life form to analyze, James. We’ve got a civilian on board,” said Mike.
“I can see that. And it’s a female of the species. So this could be interesting—a Ms. Tammy Rogers, of the medical and research division. She’ll probably be running the lab, but without some specimens, she’ll not be very busy,” retorted James.
“Maybe she can cook. We’ve got a brand new guy for secretary, Danny Wang. He’s only twenty-three, and it’s his first mission,” Kenny commented. Kenny always appreciated having a good cook, which fell under the secretary’s duties.
Steve, who was having a hard time getting past his navigator woes, hardly noticed when James mentioned Tammy’s name; but the brain cells that held this audible message in memory successfully brought it to consciousness. Tammy Rogers, that’s the pretty girl I've been noticing around here! he thought to himself, and he felt excited again; allowing his concerns about the navigator, temporarily, to leave him.
For the next forty-five minutes they continued to pore over their mission notes, and discuss the details. James’ spirits were lifted as they joked and commented together. A feeling of camaraderie was there, and a general sense that this crew would work well together seemed to be felt by all.
“Well, it's about 6:30, so I think I will go introduce myself to the rest of the crew and give them their papers,” Steve said, getting up.
“You’d better go see Bob and Danny first,” said Kenny. “Civilians don’t have to be up so early, and a young lady might not appreciate the first interview with her Captain if it’s before she’s made herself up for the day.”
“Alright, well, we’ll see you all at 4:00 for our crew meeting.”
“Sounds good Captain” and “See you later” rang the chorus.
“Aren’t you the lucky one? Captain comes by first thing in the morning to let you know you’re in his crew. And wow, is he cute! All I get is some papers in the slot saying be here at such-and-such time,” exclaimed Mary, Tammy’s roommate.
“I saw him in the corridor yesterday, and it looked like he was checking me out,” Tammy returned.
“This is getting good; do you think our young Captain pulled some strings to get you on his crew?”
“I hope not, look where we’re going. It’s uncharted and unanalyzed. We’re basically heading out into the middle of nowhere. What are the chances that we’ll run into some little green men out there?”
“Who cares about little green men when you’re out there with a man like that?”
“He is cute, isn’t he? I guess that’s the consolation for being sent on an analyzing mission instead of an exploring mission. I just feel that my extraordinary talents are being wasted,” Tammy quipped and both women started giggling.
“It’s so weird, we get all of this elaborate training, get all of this expensive equipment, and go on an amazing adventure to the far reaches of the universe; they spend all of this money, and for all we know it may all just be rocks, and burning gas except on little ol’ planet earth," Mary said, feeling enlightened and philosophical. “And where are you, Ms. Rogers? Here we are on stardust 20, but your eyes are even farther away.”
Tammy’s beautiful sapphire eyes were focused a million miles away, outside the window. She stayed there, silent and wondering for a moment; then the gleam came back into her eyes and a smile transformed her countenance. She looked over at Mary, and then back away with the dreamy look again. “I really want there to be something out there. And I want to find it. I’ve always had this—I don’t know—dream, or hope, that I would be the first to discover something. You know, me in the lab, and here’s something new—completely new. And no one in the world knows it at all, but me. And for those few seconds, or minutes, or hours, I have it alone. To know something that no one else knows. Can’t you imagine that feeling, that realization? Some life form, with characteristics, different, and unimagined; and me there—unraveling the mysteries of existence.” She turned to Mary with a big smile, looking directly in her eyes, and then widening her own as if to say, “Cool, huh!”
“Wow, Tammy, that does sound cool. I’ve never thought of that before. I’d probably just scream, and then spill the beans to the first person I see,” Mary said, looking up at the ceiling, and then with a laugh, “I can see it now. You discover the secret of alien life, and then you go up to that cute Captain of yours, and say, ‘I know something you don’t know, na na na na na na,’ and you've got him wrapped around your finger.” They both started laughing boisterously; both of them lying on their backs on their beds, they stared out their window with wonderment and some nervous anticipation about their upcoming adventures. Tammy, feeling disappointed and excited all at once, allowed her emotions to multitask for a while. Mary was feeling excited for her friend, and jealous. But that combination of feelings was not so incompatible, nor singular. They both lay there in silence, in their own little worlds, but in some sense bonding. It could be a long time before either of them would be able to bond with another member of the same sex, in this same way.
The door opened and a tired older man walked into the room. He had on jeans, a rugged button-up collared shirt, and an old baseball cap. He’d spent most of his life as a bread truck delivery driver, so 3:30 AM was nothing new, but 2:30 PM was now a time of exhaustion for this sixty-eight-year-old formerly retired man.
“Hey, Markey, you mind turnin’ that down some?”
“Hey, Gramps,” Mark mustered lazily as he barely turned the volume down.
“What you been up to; last day of summer, ain’t it?”
“D’you check email?”
“No, not yet.”
The older man disappeared for a while in the direction of his bedroom, while Mark continued to brain drain in front of the tube.
Ryan Rickson, Mark’s maternal grandfather, had been his caretaker for the past four years. He had lost his wife to cancer about twenty years ago, and had lived alone for a long time. About five years ago he went into retirement with no clear objective, other than not working. It had been a painfully boring year—primarily occupying himself with television—but would become only painful when the accident happened. Mark’s parents and two older sisters were returning from a day trip in the evening. A car with an extremely intoxicated driver hit them squarely on the driver’s side and both cars went off of the embankment into a lake. It was in a very rural area, and there were apparently no witnesses to the accident. In addition the road was in terrible repair, so that the effects of the accident were not obvious to anyone casually driving down the road. The drunken man and the four family members were all killed; no one was found for three days. Mark’s father and one of his sisters likely died instantly on impact. His mother and other sister may have lived for a short while, but were not likely conscious, as there was no apparent attempt of escape.
Mark had been with his older brother Steve at the time. Steve had been away for a while for his Space Force training, and had returned that summer for a short while. Mark looked up to Steve immensely, so Steve had planned an entire day together. Fishing and boating, and a little bit of basketball mixed in. They had been up watching movies, and were very concerned that the family had not shown up from the trip. At three AM Steve had called the police, and then everyone he could think of. For three days they had no answers, until a phone call detailing the accident came from the police.
Steve had to arrange with the Space Force for an extended leave while he made preparations for Mark. Grandpa Rickson quickly volunteered to be Mark’s caretaker, and within the week had come out of retirement to increase his means, as he knew his retirement would not be sufficient to raise a growing boy.
Mark’s memory of the time was about as bitter-sweet as possible. He had spent what seemed to the best day of his life with his older brother, and then the state of confusion for several days, followed by moving away and in with his grandpa. Although he loved his grandpa, he felt a terrible loneliness, and longing to be with his sisters and parents.
Grandpa Rickson also felt the terrible pangs of losing his only child. But after the acute phase of grief passed, he felt happier than he had in years with Mark in his home, and being back at work. He had felt a great concern of inadequacy, but he was a man with a sense of duty. Still, there was a lot of adjusting for two people thrown together amidst dreadful grief. Grandpa Rickson, unlike Mark’s father, was not a man of many words, nor was he affectionate like Mark’s mother. He was not fun-loving like Mark’s sisters, and indeed did not have much of a concept of life outside of working and television. He did like baseball, and he had always wanted a boy to throw the ball around with. So for a little while he would take Mark out in the apartment parking lot and throw a ball. This was past him now, as his body was not up to it, and he used the excuse that he was afraid they may break something in the parking lot.
Although Mark didn’t think on his circumstances much, being the last day of summer, he was reminded of the limited experience he was having; no trips, no siblings around, very few activities, and his sense of emptiness and loneliness was evident in the melancholy state he was in.
“Hey, Markey,” Grandpa shouted in an unusually enthusiastic manner from his room. “Come ‘ere, look’t this.”
Mark, feeling the fatigue of inactivity, and being zoned out with music and daydreaming, almost answered back, “Come here and tell me,” but since Grandpa sounded unusually excited, he decided to drag his tired body into Grandpa’s room.
“What’s up, Gramps?”
“Steve’s got his mission and all.”
“Where to?” Mark interrupted.
“Dunno, but he’s callin’ us...I think this afternoon, lookee ‘ere.”
“What? Oh, cool! Yeah, he’s gonna call any minute. Wow, they let Captains do anything.” Adrenaline began to seep into his veins, and he could feel a touch of lightheadedness. He sat on the bed and just smiled while Grandpa, feeling excited himself, continued to go through email.
“I’ll answer and talk for just a couple of minutes, then’ll let ya finish up his fifteen minutes. All right, Markey?” No answer followed, as both of them pricked their ears in anticipation of the phone ringing.
After a few minutes of silent anticipation the phone rang, and Mark got up instinctively—like a track runner to the sound of a gun—and answered the phone. “Hello? Hey, Steve!” As he saw his Grandpa’s irritated look, he remembered the deal. “Gramps wants to say hi for a minute,” and he handed him the phone.
“Hi, Steve, good ta ‘ere from ya. You doin’ alright up ther’?”
“I'm doing great, Grandpa. How are you and Mark getting along?”
“Just fine. Just fine. So what’s yer mission gonna be, eh?”
“We’re going into an unanalyzed region. I’ve got a great crew. I'm real excited.”
“We’re shore proud’ve ya, Steve. You'll do real well now. ‘Ere’s Markey, so goodbye now.” Ryan would have loved to talk to Steve for a little while longer, but he knew that Mark was dying for the phone, and fifteen minutes is nothing on a phone call to a loved one that hasn’t been seen by his family for a while.
“Hey, Steve, man, you’re a Captain. What’s it like?”
“It’s great, I’m pretty excited. How are you doing?”
“Alright, I start back at school tomorrow. So that bites.”
“I hear you. Did you have a good summer?”
“No, I didn’t do anything. So, what’s your crew like? Do you have any babes on board?”
Chuckling, Steve replied, “We’ve got one woman on board. She’s in charge of medical and research.”
“So she’s your alien dissector; cool. But is she a babe? The chick that’s the alien dissector in the Space Patrol is pretty hot!”
Steve grinned. “Oh, Mark, you make me laugh. Last time I talked with you, you didn’t even know what girls were.”
“I can see you’re ducking the question,” Mark stated, feeling grown-up.
“Yeah, she’s a babe. I think I’ve got a great crew—probably the best pilot, and engine specialist, and computer specialist around. This girl is supposed to be top-notch in research, too.”
“Awesome. You’ve got one of those new ships, don’t you? Everyone here says they’re designed to really study aliens.”
“We’ve got to find some aliens first. This mission we're being sent to is an area that’s completely unknown. We’ll be really starting from scratch. But who knows, if there is something out there, I’ve got the crew to find it. It’s pretty exciting just to be a part of this. I’ve seen some amazing things out here. But after all we’ve seen, and all the places we’ve been, so far, there’s nothing to indicate other life out here. Some guys really think we’ll find something soon. I just don’t know. It’s so quiet out here, you know? I'll tell you one thing though; if there is intelligent life out there and we don’t find them, if they ever go looking for us, they won’t have any trouble. All the things we’re looking for them with, electromagnetic signals, or just signs of being around and doing things, well, we’ve left our mark,” Steve said contemplating.
“Whoa, that’s a scary thought.”
“I don’t mean it that way. I’m just saying that if some other intelligent beings were out patrolling the universe, you would think that there would be some evidence. It seems that either there is no one else running around out here, or else they are keeping themselves well-hidden.”
“Man, that’s a scary thought, too.” Mark uttered in all seriousness. To him and many other people, the idea of interacting with other worlds did not seem too farfetched. In Mark’s mind, it was when, not if. Visions of space battles often raged in his head. For a moment, things seemed so clear, and a dichotomy of excitement and vulnerability emerged from his limbic neurons. “I can’t wait until I’m out there, too. I just hope that you don’t destroy all the aliens before I have a crack at them.”
“I'll see what I can do,” Steve said, chuckling again. “So you think that you want to do this too, huh?”
“Oh yeah, of course.”
“You got to get those grades, man.”
“Oh, I forgot about that,” Mark said, mostly sarcastically.
“Don’t forget about that.”
“I know, I know.”
“Are you doing alright? I mean, it’s got to be hard, missing Mom, and Dad, and the girls,” said Steve softly.
Mark was quiet for a moment. “It’s hard,” he said quietly.
“I miss them, too. I'm here for you, you know,” Steve remarked sincerely.
Mark was getting a bit teary-eyed, but forced a little laugh, and then said in a slightly shaky voice, “You’re on the other end of the universe!”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know; I do. You’re a great big brother. You’re going to do awesome as a Captain!”
“Thanks, Mark. My time’s about up. I love you, and I’ll talk with you again soon.”
“I love you, too, Steve. Bye.”
The connection discontinued and both parties hung up. Mark felt full, but within moments that feeling transformed into a feeling of a larger void than he had even felt before. The one thing that could have picked him up was the chance to talk with Steve. But he hadn’t even had an opportunity to anticipate it. It had just happened, and as wonderful as it was, it was now over with not even the hope of something else to anticipate. All he had now was an evening at home with Grandpa, likely watching television, and then the sick feeling of starting school the next day. It wasn’t that school was so awful, it was just that getting some momentum after being stationary for so long felt overwhelming. Mark stood by the phone for a few seconds, taking the conversation in, and savoring every bit of it. Then he started to feel overcome, and tears once again entered his eyes. He quickly wiped the overflow, and then headed into the living room to join his grandpa watching the TV.
Bellerie Lodophin was calmed down and actually in a rather good mood. Alleff, although somewhat subdued, was in rather good spirits and was feeling much better. The electrical safeties had been repaired, the lights were on, and everything was working. The boys were running around and creating all sorts of mischief (sort of their way of expressing how relieved they were that Alleff was okay, and glad to be getting things back to normal, not to mention catching up on all the trouble that they had surprisingly not caused during the stressful afternoon) of which Mrs. Lodophin was nearly oblivious to. So, when Mayor Palador and Mr. Olefften arrived at the door, Bellerie had to think for a moment why they were at her door at all, not to mention transforming her mindset back to the victim and disgruntled citizen, which in this instant was emotionally too draining for her to give a full effort to. But, not being one to give anyone, especially male authority figures, the upper hand, she did half-heartedly address the Mayor in a like state to that which she had approached her earlier visitors that day: “Mayor Palador, I’m surprised you had not been by earlier today.” She of course had been informed that Mayor Palador was unaware of her calamity, by Seryen himself, and that he had left, only an hour or so ago, to inform the Mayor and, although not actually spoken, to retrieve him; but this, though somewhat annoying to Seryen, was of no consequence.
“Seryen has told me of the traumatic afternoon you and your family have been through,” he said sincerely and with a serious enough tone, though with a cheerful expression in his eyes. Roloff had a way of calming those around him. In this case Mrs. Lodophin was already calmed internally. But he also had a way of reading people through and through; he knew, almost instantly, that he was here on ceremony, and that quickly all of their designs (Both Mrs. Lodophin’s and his and Seryen’s) would be accomplished, and that he would likely get home before the evening was too late. But he also understood that he would have to play the part for a while, which he settled into comfortably. Seryen, on the other hand, was more ill at ease, and Roloff suspected that he had not yet grasped the situation.
Bellerie typically wore long loose dresses, of which she had a brown and yellow, fairly light-toned, one on this evening. She, having always been obese, carried her weight naturally. She had light brown hair, neither long nor short, that tonight was worn down straight. She had glasses that were rather large, but not so much that they overshadowed her plump rounded face. Her green eyes were somewhat magnified by her hyperopic lenses, giving her glances an added punctuation, yet adding to her largeness in an unattractive way. Ordinarily, she was always pleased to have important visitors in her home, but tonight she felt too relieved to be effectively manipulative, and was eager to get back to her comfortable and relaxed state of mind. Still, they were here, and it wasn’t like she wasn’t going to take advantage of the situation; plus, she liked Roloff’s company well enough.
“Is Alleff well enough that we may see him?”
“Alleff? Oh, he, well, he has had a terribly bad day. Um, I think you can see him, that is, I’m sure you will see him. He’s been running around...his brothers have him riled up, and they’ll probably be in and out. But you should have seen him this afternoon, how his face was so white and he was so scared. I was beside myself with fear, and I wanted—well, I’m not sure I want to have the substation on my property. My boys are the most precious things in the world to me, and...” The sound of things falling to the floor was heard with a crash, and almost instantly a boy’s voice was heard crying. Bellerie, subconsciously, rolled her eyes, and was about to go on explaining how precious her boys are to her when Seryen volunteered to see what was happening with the boys; and then got up without waiting for a reply.
Roloff continued to listen while Bellerie continued on, “This electricity is so powerful, and dangerous for my boys, I am afraid that something awful may happen. Oh, dear, it has been hot today, I’m glad they were able to fix the power so quickly. I don’t know what I would do without it.” Bellerie sat back, more relaxed, not even remotely aware of the mistake she had just made in consistency. Seryen walked back into the room carrying Alleff, who had tears in his eyes, but was no longer crying aloud.
Roloff arose and walked to Alleff. “Ah, Alleff, how are you, lad? I hear you had a rough day.” Alleff stared at him with a sober expression, as if to say, ‘not someone else to check me out again.’ “Are you still ticklish?” Roloff queried with his eye brows raised, and then lowering his brows smiled warmly. Alleff’s eyes brightened as Roloff spoke, and Roloff reached over and tickled his ribs lightly. Alleff giggled and squirmed a little. Roloff reached over to pick him up, “My boy I am so glad you are well,” he said as he lifted him up from under his armpits and bringing him to his chest gave him a warm embrace.
Bellerie smiled and stood up. “It takes more than a little shock to knock out a Lodophin boy. They’re tough as can be,” she called out as more crashing sounds could be heard from the down the hall. “And about as wild as electricity itself,” she commented and the group shared a hardy laugh. “I suppose it will be best to keep the substation here. They couldn’t have repaired it so quickly, if it happens again, without it being here. Besides, my boys are even more likely to wind up in trouble if it’s where I can’t keep my eye on them.”
“I’m pleased to see that all is well here. I’m glad to see that you are back to your mischief,” Roloff said, turning to Alleff with a smile that was returned by the boy. “We were very concerned to learn of all this. Aspiria will be coming by tomorrow to see how you are doing.”
“Oh, it will be good to see her. Well, Mayor, it is getting late and I must get Alleff to bed,” she said, not hiding her desire to get rid of her guests so that she could relax.
“Get some good rest, Alleff. You as well, Bellerie,” Roloff spoke with a cheery smile as he made his exit.
“Goodnight, ma’am, Alleff,” Seryen said with a serious expression.
The two late travelers walked silently down the road until they were well out of earshot. Seryen was obviously pleased that everything had gone so well. In fact, it was just what he had hoped for. But for some reason he had a sick feeling in his gut that was gnawing at him. His first thought was that it was because this visit was unnecessary, and he had ruined the Palador family’s special evening. Things could have waited until morning, or he could have gone himself this evening and patched things over. But as he tried to justify himself to this line of reasoning, his gut feeling would not subside. That was the problem; if he had gone on his own this evening, he could not have patched things up. Was he jealous because Mayor Palador was so good and effective? No, he genuinely admired Roloff’s powers and the esteem with which he was affectionately showered. It was his own inadequacy that was weighing him down. He may have done all the right things, and been in all the right places, yet he did not have the power of persuasion, nor the ability to penetrate and affect people emotionally. Mrs. Lodophin had nothing against Seryen, as far as he could tell. She seemed to genuinely appreciate his service rendered to her this evening, and in times past; yet, she had shown, without any intention at all, how meaningless Seryen’s hours were to her, and how meaningful Roloff’s moments had been. Seryen felt no anger, for no one had offended him, yet he felt bitterly disappointed with himself, who he was, and where he was going. Perhaps a part of his pain was the further realization that Roloff was returning to his son to share what was left of a special day, and he was returning to a home barren of children.
“Well, I suppose we won’t have to worry about the electrical supply for now.”
“Yes, it does appear to be solved. I’m truly sorry that I had to drag you out this evening.”
“Don’t be. It was a necessary step.” It stung Seryen to hear him say that, but he was only too aware of that statements truth at that moment.
“So what made her change so rapidly?”
“She’d already changed her mind when we’d gotten there. But if I hadn't gone there this evening, she may have just as easily changed her mind back.”
Yes, that was true. But there was more to it than that. Roloff was being humble. It was not simply his position that made the visit effective. It was his own inward power as well that made her soften so quickly and completely. Now that Seryen understood his own internal distress, he felt a bit relieved, though not completely. They had reached the point in their journey where Roloff was to return home one direction, and Seryen the other. “Mayor, thank you once again.”
“Thank you, Seryen. Goodnight.”
The night had grown dark, and a little cooler, though not uncomfortably so. But the moonlight was bright, and the path clear as Roloff made his way home. He had spent the day walking, and was perhaps a touch fatigued, but was not aware of it at the moment. He was at peace with himself, and enjoying these few moments of solitude. Though this excursion had taken away from his valuable family time, it had not taken more than an hour. Aspiria and Caryell had undoubtedly spent some nice time together. He felt grateful to his wife and son for their understanding and patience as he performed his civic duties. In the distance he could begin to see the shadowy outline of the exterior of his home; the front windows ablaze from the light within. Subconsciously he quickened his pace towards home.
“What’s Bob doing?” Kenny asked Steve. Steve was staring straight ahead with a faraway look. After a second or two a smile began to creep over his face and he looked over towards Kenny about the same time that Kenny looked at him. Steve shook his head slowly, and reached toward the console, pressing a button.
“Merick, report on deck.” Releasing the button both men chuckled lightly.
With the mission underway for just a few short days, the unofficial, unspoken, unwritten roles of each crewmember were beginning to take shape. Bob brought a special comic relief to the ship. It was neither overt, nor subtle, and it seemed to flow naturally and effortlessly. His was not the sharp-witted, dry, perfectly timed comment, surgically placed within a group discussion or conversation—that was the domain of Mike West, the engine specialist. Somehow the way Bob said and did things was just funny. Rarely did it seem that he had meant to evoke humor intentionally, yet when he brought a chuckle, smile, giggle, or deep-bellied laugh, he would just smile brightly and bask in the light-heartedness of the moment. It never felt like anyone was laughing at him, it was always with him.
“Captain, do you need me on deck right now?” came the reply over the intercom.
“Bob, we’re flying through outer space at a pace faster than light can go in the third dimension. We need our navigator on deck.”
“I’m sorry, I just got hungry, and I was thinking about this casserole that Mom makes. So, I was showing Danny how to make it.”
“Are you with Merick, Danny?” Steve asked.
“Yes sir, Captain Jenners.”
“Does this casserole sound like it will be good enough to justify Kenny flying without a navigator for another half hour?”
“If it’s good eating it will be worth it!” Kenny interjected.
“I don’t know, sir, I...”
“Oh, it will be great, Kenny, Captain, you’ll love it,” expressed Bob.
“You’ve got a half-hour, and I need you up here.”
“Thanks, Captain...hey—don't cut it too small...” Both men laughed a little.
Steve looked at his watch. “When’s James due back up here?” asked Steve.
“Not for a couple of hours. He put in a long shift, and was pretty tired. I want to let him sleep as long as he needs.”
“Are you alright on your own for a little bit?”
“Sure,” said Kenny reassuringly.
“Call Mike if you need him, I'm going to check on Tammy.”
One of the primary problems with space travel, in the past, was how much energy it took to move large ships such long distances. Now that the energy required was quite minimal, it didn’t make sense to skimp on the proportions of the ship. For a seven-person crew, the galaxy charger was very large. Each crew member had comfortable quarters. The galley was particularly nice, with food a-plenty. Freezers were filled with all of the delicacies. There was even an internal greenhouse with fresh vegetables growing. The research lab was of particular stature. It was immense and filled with state-of-the-art equipment, all organized such that one individual could effectively run it smoothly.
While the entire ship and crew were under the direction of Captain Jenners, the lab and research specialist had a somewhat different relationship. Tammy, their research specialist, was a civilian. As a member of the crew she took orders from the Captain, but in regards to her daily role and mission, she received her direction from Central Command. It wasn’t as though the Captain wasn’t privy to what was going on in the lab; it was just that the orders didn’t come from him. This all made sense, considering that everything else going on, aboard the ship he had knowledge and understanding of; in fact, he had served in most of the capacities and positions before. He had no experience or expertise in medical or research, nor did any of the other fleet Captains, so it made sense that they were under a different chain of command.
It’s unlikely that this would have presented him any concern, or much thought, if the research specialist would have been some guy who kept mostly to himself and his work. But Tammy was the most beautiful, attractive, and intriguing woman he had been near before. Though, to be fair, he had been in space, on missions, for quite some time, and there were very few young attractive females around. But Tammy was something special, independent of the immediate scarcity of beautiful women. As he made his way down the final corridor towards the research lab, he thought about his relationship to her. I wish I completely understood our professional relationship—it would help in understanding a personal relationship...were his final thoughts as he reached the door to the lab.
Tammy was standing at the other side of the room with her back to him. She was wearing dark green shorts that went down about mid-thigh, a tan shirt, and a pair of brown open-toe sandals. Her skin tone was a lovely olive which gave her exceptionally shapely legs a tan appearance. Whatever was occupying her attention had her sufficiently engrossed, such that she was unaware of Steve’s approach to the door. He stole a couple of moments admiring the view before he made a quick sharp rap at the door frame.
“Hi, Captain Jenners,” Tammy replied with a genuinely bright smile as she turn to see who knocked, “I was wondering when you would stop by to inspect the lab.” This she said with a pleasant tone, and a bit of anticipation which gave Steve a feeling of both calm and excitement all at once. She started towards him, but he didn’t move. Her sapphire eyes and illuminating smile had captured him; no, she wasn’t the most beautiful women he’d seen in some time, she was more beautiful than anything he had laid eyes on before.
“Come in, come in, no aliens in here to cause concern; at least not yet,” she said with a smile. Steve stepped in, meeting her just inside the door. It was true that this lab, like all of the labs in the new ZX-120’s, was built with the intent to examine extraterrestrial life, the existence of which still lay undetermined before them. This mission seemed particularly unlikely to yield alien life forms, as they were headed into uncharted and unanalyzed domains.
“I’m sure you were disappointed to learn the nature of our mission,” Steve commented trying not to sound too apologetic.
“Well,” she said cocking her head toward her left shoulder, “I’m sure I’ll be able to make the most of my time. This lab is a dream come true. I’d love to tap out all of its resources, but I'll just have to be patient.” In reality she was not the least bit disappointed to be on this mission, simply because this was where Captain Jenners was. But she didn’t need to make that too apparent just yet. Yes, she was itching to find and discover alien life. But that was not likely to happen on this particular round of missions anyway. And, if that did occur on any mission, she had assurances from her higher-ups that she would be brought in immediately, Tammy being the best and the brightest in her field, not to mention always enjoying favors from those around her.
“I’m pleased to have you here. Anyway, you’ve brought a breath of fresh air to the crew,” Steve said kindly, blushing a bit.
“Do you have some time? I could show you around the lab.”
“That’s what I was hoping you would do.”
“Assuming no little green men appear,” Tammy grinned, “this lab will serve as a very expensive mobile continuation of my research into genetic testing. Ideally, we want to be able to genetically analyze any life form within hours or days at the most. Of course, this assumes that these life forms are based on genetics, at least something like earth life genetics. That’s where the heart of my research lies. I’m trying to come up with algorithms that could look for patterns similar to what DNA accomplishes without necessarily coming from DNA.”
“So life doesn’t have to have DNA in its cellular structure?”
“On earth it does. In fact, viruses and prions that do have some properties of life are considered non-living entities because they don’t have DNA and RNA. What constitutes a living being is a debatable question. Some of my colleagues hold strictly to the view that life and the DNA/RNA structure are inseparable. I have to admit that I lean in that direction myself. But what, if anything, we find out there may challenge our assumptions in ways we can’t imagine. My job is to imagine the unimaginable, and try to set up the programs to not be based on human bias that may not be correct.”
“So that we don’t discover what appears to be a living creature, only to have our lab useless in analyzing and understanding its makeup.”
“Exactly,” she said with a charming smile.
“How is it coming so far?”
“I’ve figured out how to turn most of these machines on,” she said dryly, and they both chuckled.
Tammy led Steve into the lab and around the corner to the left. “This is where all of the rumors are coming from on earth—that we have already discovered alien life.” She pointed to an area that looked almost like a prison cell. “If they built this lab just to analyze plantlike or fungus-like life forms, or even small animal-like creatures they wouldn’t need that.”
Steve looked at it curiously for a few seconds. He had already inspected the ship top to bottom before its departure, and had seen the large caged area before. But the way Tammy was talking gave it new meaning. “I suppose that even if we find some type of alien life form, the chances of it being large and intelligent are very remote.”
“So it would seem. But from a scientific standpoint, it would be marvelous, whatever was found and analyzed. Either, the powers that be, know more than they are letting on, or they are not as interested in life in general as they are in intelligent life.”
“James, our computer specialist, has been very critical in analyzing some of the planetary systems discovered. It was his impression that some of them had real potential for harboring life. But, beyond that, what he was analyzing would be signs of intelligence: radio signals, et cetera.”
“So, rather than waste his skills in going to those areas that he’s already analyzed, just to see what, in fact, is there, he’s being used to his utmost in analyzing this area here, wherever we are,” Tammy replied contemplatively. “Captain, if you don’t mind me asking, how fast are we heading in the direction we are going?—I mean, relative to the ship’s capacity?”
“Very slowly; I would think less than ten percent. Our job is not to get to a destination so much as it is to chart and analyze this area.”
“Then if anything of interest was discovered, the Space Force could have as many ships as are in the fleet there with in a matter of days.”
“I suppose that’s true; maybe I ought to mention that to James,” Steve muttered rhetorically.
“I wouldn’t,” Tammy said, out of place, “no sense in in distracting him.” To which Steve made no reply.
Realizing that this conversation had gotten too deep, too quickly, she motioned her Captain over towards the large, prison-like specimen chamber. This lab could be open to the ship’s air, or it could be sealed off from it entirely. Large canisters nearby could be used to gather up an alien atmosphere and then keep that atmosphere, correctly pressurized, in the lab. It was built such that one could observe everything that went on inside of the chamber from the outside, and also it had been built for whatever might be inside to communicate with those in the lab. The assumptions made in it being built as it was were mind-boggling.
It had bothered Steve a little, a few moments ago, when Tammy had suggested how he do his job. That was not how one addressed a Captain. She was a civilian, he reasoned, and the last thing he wanted with her was a power struggle. Nothing, he felt, needed to be said. She had softened her demeanor noticeably after that comment, and she seemed to take in his unspoken communication and body language perfectly. As he watched and listened to her explain this large specimen cage, he could not help but notice her pretty features, and graceful movements. Her explanations were spoken with a confidence that was unquestionable; so much so, that it was not overdone, and she seemed comfortable exposing whatever weakness and vulnerability she may have, too. His momentary tightness quickly loosened, and he began to feel as soft as butter as she continued to demonstrate her domain.
Tammy had felt non-verbally chastened a few moments ago, and worried that Steve had become Captain Jenners for good. His blond hair, dark blue eyes, and strong yet approachable demeanor had attracted her to him. But now she saw a coldness and a stiffness that she had never before seen in him. She had no desire to be in control of him, and reflexively displayed submissiveness to him while still carrying on with her natural confidence. What impressed her most was how quickly he softened. His response had been appropriate, yet as soon as he felt his message was understood and respected, he could loosen up and be approachable again. A rare quality indeed, she determined later that evening when she lay in bed and contemplated the delicious events of the day.
Steve was given a thorough tour of the specimen area, and the research area. He did grow tired of all the detailed scientific descriptions of each piece of equipment, but never did he grow tired of her voice and presence.
“Now, Captain, seeing that I have no alien, I shall need a sample of your blood,” she said with a smile, and held up a finger-sticking device. Steve forced a smile, and headed with Tammy to the portion of the lab that would serve as a sick bay, should it be needed. A shot in the arm never caused him a second thought, but a finger prick…now that was a different story. His first thought was to act tough, but then thought better of it. She was so genuine; she deserved nothing less than his honesty. Besides, I can’t pull that off. He sat in the chair that she motioned to and instinctively looked at the floor. His color was now several shades paler. She gathered her things and then headed towards him. Steve looked up at her.
“Captain, you’ve grown very quiet,” she said as she sat down beside him and grabbed his left hand. “And your hand seems awfully cold and sweaty,” she said as she looked at him knowingly.
“I loathe finger-sticks,” he said truthfully, while trying to sound humorous, and gave a pitiful smile. She smiled and looked down at his hand in hers. Steve looked down as well. She began to rub his hand in an attempt to bring the blood to his fingertips. Her hands felt warm and soft, her touch gentle and magical. Her spell had been cast upon him, and the fear left him. Suddenly this finger-stick experience was heaven on...well, heaven wherever they were. It was at this moment that Steve felt his feelings for Tammy were beyond attraction and infatuation.
The stick came, the collection accomplished, and a piece of cotton was pressed to the finger tip. “Not bad, Captain; if I had a sticker I’d give it to you.”
“Ms. Rogers, dinner is ready in the galley,” came Danny’s voice from the intercom. “Is Captain Jenners there, also?”
“Yes, Danny, I’m here.”
“Dinner is ready in the galley, Captain Jenners.”
“Thank you, Danny, I’ll be there shortly.”
The crew lived a twenty-five hour day, broken up into five five-hour sections. Only during one of the sections were all seven members of the crew generally awake. This was when dinner was scheduled. It made it easier for the ships secretary to prepare the meal, plus it allowed time for crew bonding. One person would be left on the pilot’s deck, and that duty was shifted around the Captain, pilot, computer specialist, navigator, and engine specialist. The secretary and research specialist were not trained to fly. Bob, the navigator, hadn’t earned his wings yet, either. That would be accomplished on this mission, if he could stay out of the galley long enough to get his training in on the flight deck.
Steve felt rudely awaken back into reality. The idea of leaving the lab gave him a sick feeling in his stomach. But, he had been shown the entire lab, and could not think of any other legitimate reason for sticking around. So perhaps the timing was not so bad. “Are you heading up to the galley?”
“Shortly, I need to get this sample taken care of. I want to test the speed and reproducibility of my genetic analyzer.”
“So you’re going to crack my genetic code while I eat dinner? Let me know if there’s any bad news,” he said as he got up to leave.
“Thank you, Steve,” she said as she turned and looked at him in the eyes, penetrating, as it were, to the core. “I’ll see you up there in a few minutes.”
“Tammy, it was a treat. I’m glad to have you on the crew,” he said in his Captains voice and demeanor. Then, pausing a second, "I’m really glad that you’re here.”
She smiled sweetly and knowingly, again. He left, feeling it would be impossible to eat when he was so full.
“Danny, what is this mess? It smells awful,” said Mike as he entered the galley.
Danny looked annoyed. He was irritated and embarrassed by Mike’s comment, but mostly he was annoyed by Bob. “This is Bob Merick’s creation,” he said, trying to transfer blame without sounding taken advantage of. Bob had been the ship’s secretary on his past several missions, and was used to doing the cooking. This was Danny’s first mission, and he had made the mistake of asking Bob some questions. Now Bob seemed to feel that it was his right to take over cooking dinner on a whim. Danny may not know all about space travel, but he did take pride in his cooking. “If it is not to your liking, I could heat up something I’m preparing for tomorrow.”
“Nonsense, Mike will love it,” said Bob as he entered the galley.
“I sure hope this is worth waking up for,” noted James as he came in yawning. Danny looked less than convinced, but Bob seemed pleased as can be. “I don’t think it smells too bad.”
“Where’s Captain Jenners?” asked Bob, obviously getting anxious to dive into his dish.
“I called him; he said that he would be here soon.” Danny replied.
Mike sat down at the table and leaned his chair back seemingly very relaxed. James sat down by him a moment later. “You look like you could sleep for another week.”
“I’ll be alright, just stayin’ busy.”
“Any interesting reads?” asked Mike, now sounding like he wanted a more stimulating discussion than small talk would give him.
James gave a grimace, then licked his lips, and then rubbed his eyes. By the time he was finished waking himself up enough to answer the question, Mike wondered if he would even remember the question. James sat back a little, and said contemplatively, “The short answer is no.”
“Is there a long answer?”
“What’s interesting is that I am not finding anything interesting at all.” He paused momentarily. “When you are doing the same thing day in and day out...looking at data, you wonder if you are really finding somethin’ or if you are just wantin’ to find it so bad that you think you are." He paused again, looking out into space, so to speak. "Last mission, I was looking at things that were just...I dunno...uncanny. This area is empty—very few stars that are appropriate to sustain life; really, very few stars in general. But, still, those that are, don’t show anything. The planetary systems are useless—gas giants for the most part, or big chunks of rock that are burning up, or big chunks of ice. No hope. Still, last night we passed by and analyzed two stellar systems that had planets with some potential. Everything was random. If life exists on them, it can’t be advanced intelligent life. No hint of electromagnetic radiation, other than that which would be expected from a similar dead planet.”
“So you’re disappointed; nothing valuable in this area.”
“I’m not disappointed. I feel like I’m not crazy.”
Mike frowned, anticipating some explanation.
“There were a number of stellar systems with appropriate planets on my last mission that I found. Most of these are getting a second look at on this round of missions. Some of them are actually going to be mission destinations; the ones that most appropriately fit our understanding of what would be hospitable for life. It was like a gold mine that I had entered. I got some readings that weren’t random, at least I thought. I spent the last several days looking at that, and I kept thinking, it’s not random, it’s not random. So, headquarters gets all of my data and analysis and I get sent on my next mission to the middle of nowhere. I mean, people can play tricks on their own minds. When you look intently enough for something, you may find it, even if it’s not there. Finding shapes in clouds, or on the ceiling. The patterns are random, but the brain tries to construct meaning out of something that’s meaningless.”
Mike was wondering where this was going, and starting to feel responsible for opening up this meaningless, random discussion. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he muttered with a tone of disinterest.
“So now I’m looking at it all again, and it’s just random.”
“So you’ve regained your sanity.”
James smiled slightly, realizing how this conversation may be sounding. “I never lost it. What I was observing wasn't random.”
“You really think you found life?” Mike asked, a little surprised by the apparent conclusion of James’ rambling.
“The only way we will find life, is if we go to the planet and look. What I think I saw was evidence of intelligence. I can only imagine intelligence coming from life. It’s one thing to find some watery planet with algae or bacteria, of some sort. But intelligent life, now that’s something.”
Captain Jenners had just entered the galley and had heard the last part of the conversation. “Sounds like you have had some interesting readings, James.”
James sat up and turned around, surprised at the Captain’s voice. “Oh, well, not recently—not on our mission yet, sir.”
Mike took the opportunity to get up and moved over by Bob and Danny. Bob looked pleased, while Danny looked annoyed. Both were busy trying to get the food out as quickly as possible. “Kenny’s got the reins tonight?” Mike interjected. Danny looked up, but did not answer immediately.
Bob kept on with the preparations, and then a moment later said, “Um, yeah, must be Kenny.”
Mike, having worked with Bob before, liked him well enough. He had felt a degree of surprise at Bob’s promotion to Navigator. So far, the promotion was in name only. Bob was acting the part of secretary, and Danny was stuck feeling shoved aside with nowhere to go. “Bob, why don’t you bring Kenny his meal? It’ll be the perfect time to learn some navigation from one of the best. I’ll help Danny get this out to the rest of us.” Mike had no intention of helping Danny with anything, other than by getting Bob out of his way.
He headed up immediately, without much to say. Technically Bob was the third ranking officer, so he certainly didn’t have to obey. He did feel annoyed at this suggestion that he leave and go up to Kenny. But it had more to do with him not being able to survey everyone’s delight in the fine meal he had made. Kenny was good company, though, and he was happy to see how he liked the meal. As far as his being the ship’s navigator, Bob was pleased. He didn’t have any passion for technical work, but he felt good about the promotion. Bob wasn’t worried about learning it anytime soon. He figured that he would get the hang of it, whenever the time came around. As far as Bob could tell, everything was under control on the mission. The only thing that needed help was meals, and he was happy to help there.
Aspiria arose early, as she was accustomed to do. After picking some fresh vegetables and putting them in a basket, she got herself ready for a visit with Mrs. Lodophin. Roloff and Caryell would be gone until late in the evening. The young men turning of age and their fathers were enjoying a day together. Aspiria thought that she may go into town, and perhaps make a few other visits this day, as she had no other pressures on her time. She was a natural beauty, and did not require any special adornments to look radiant. But, with a visit to Mrs. Lodophin, and whatever else her day might bring, she thought she would make herself up particularly nicely. She wore a loose yellow flower-patterned skirt, a white top, and a yellow flower in her hair. She looked and felt like she could take on the world. Sometimes, a visit with Mrs. Lodophin required that demeanor.
The morning was only slightly brisk, but it was sunny. Aspiria felt very relaxed as she walked to the Lodophin’s. Hers was a happy life. She was content in nearly everything. In younger years she had hoped for three or four children, but with several years of not getting pregnant, and then a few miscarriages mixed in, she had been over joyed with the birth of Caryell. She was the mother of a healthy boy, and the wife of a loving father and husband. From the time Caryell was born she had never yearned for another child.
Aspiria enjoyed her family, home, and garden. She also enjoyed peaceful relations with the members of her town. Roloff, as the town mayor, had to put out fires from time to time, and sometimes was caught in the middle, though never for long. But even when the town had issues, Aspiria was never a part of any bad feelings. She was filled with goodness, kindness, and contentment. All of these characteristics, blended with her pleasant and natural demeanor, kept her always in good graces.
As she approached the Lodophins’, the sound of boys playing could be heard. She knocked at the door, and Mrs. Lodophin answered. She was not alone. Prianna Olefften was seated in the living room. Prianna had on a long reddish-maroon dress. She looked up and smiled awkwardly at Aspiria. Mrs. Lodophin smiled warmly, rolled her eyes when Aspiria noticed Prianna, and invited Aspiria in. Aspiria was not too surprised to see Prianna. Prianna was well aware of the Lodophins’ crisis yesterday. She had a great heart, and always went were she thought that she would be needed. The three ladies sat down together.
Aspiria could tell that Mrs. Lodophin was very pleased to see her. She knew that she was getting wearied of Prianna. Prianna had a way of asking questions in such an annoying way. Aspiria could almost see the conversation that preceded her visit. Mrs. Lodophin would start to talk, and Prianna would interrupt by asking about some detail just mentioned. Then, Mrs. Lodophin would begin to answer that question, only to be interrupted again. Prianna was concerned and interested, but so unable to actually be helpful. Everyone would get tired of conversations with Prianna fairly quickly, but no one as much so as Bellerie Lodophin. Bellerie loved to talk of herself, and generally was impossible to interrupt. But Prianna had interrupting down to an art, so that even Bellerie was bested. On the other hand, Aspiria was a perfect listener. Mrs. Lodophin enjoyed visits with Aspiria more than with anyone else. Mrs. Lodophin could express, explain, and indulge herself, as much as she desired, and Aspiria would listen—truly listen, for the entirety. Aspiria would join in the conversation when Bellerie was ready, and would allow Bellerie to get all of her words out, and not feel as though she had wearied and overwhelmed her listener. No one but her late husband had been able to allow her this. Aspiria knew that this was something that Mrs. Lodophin would appreciate today, after the accident yesterday. But, she may appreciate more, me helping to take away Prianna, she thought. Prianna had already brought on such stress and fatigue for Bellerie.
Knowing that Alleff was doing fine, and that Prianna had likely ruined that topic of conversation, Aspiria chose to begin the visit’s conversation in a new direction. “Bellerie, you gave such a beautiful lesson at church this week. I’ve had it on my mind throughout this week. It is both exhilarating and heart-wrenching to think of our Savior’s life and atonement. I struggle to imagine a people like His people; a people that could witness His example, His miracles, and of whom His Apostles were, yet, at the same time, a people that could take the life of our God.”
“Horrific, horrific how they killed Him, nailing him up on a cross, and letting him hang there,” interjected Prianna while shaking her head.
“Yes, but that is not to be dwelt upon. We must consider his resurrection, and his paying the full price of sin and our infirmities,” added Bellerie, wanting to both cut off Prianna, and begin talking herself. “I don’t know how one could witness it, but we must consider it, and sometimes even think on the unpleasant portions.” With a degree of emotion beginning to be apparent, she continued, “I know that I will see my Laytoin again, and that he will live again. I feel so appreciative that I will be able to be with him and my boys forever. That incomprehensible event had to occur, and I am so thankful for it.”
“How long has it been since Laytoin died? Do you think of him and miss him every day?” Prianna’s interviewing began again.
Bellerie had some soft tears falling, and did not begin an immediate answer. Aspiria began again to move the conversation away. “I brought some fresh vegetables from my garden. I didn’t think that you had a chance to go to the market yesterday. “
Prianna was a bit irritated in being ignored, but not for long. She too was pleased to have Aspiria present, and enjoyed her conversation. She considered Aspiria one of her dearest friends. Bellerie and Aspiria began looking at the vegetables, and Prianna took a few deep breaths and relaxed. She was listening to the children playing outside, and felt a little pang in her heart. She loved children, and struggled deeply inside that she did not have any of her own. Listening to the Lodophin children play did indeed cause a pang in her heart, but it also brought joy. She enjoyed those hearty and rambunctious children. Sometimes pleasure and pain are simultaneous, like listening to a beautiful yet haunting song in a minor key. Prianna’s life had been lived in a minor key, but she had learned to be happy and appreciate the subtle discord. Still, she longed for children, to rear and to love. Her husband also longed for children, and she sensed this with a lingering uneasiness. They loved each other, but both felt an emptiness and piece of life that was missing.
Aspiria and Bellerie were laughing and enjoying a light conversation. Aspiria began to sense that Prianna was alienated, and knew that she would be hurt. She glanced over, and saw a melancholy look in Prianna’s eyes. “Prianna, I’ll be going to market in a bit. I’d love your company, if you can come.” Prianna was disengaged, but not actually alienated from the conversation. It took her a moment to take in the invitation.
“That sounds nice,” she said with a smile. Aspiria knew that she was alright, and decided to linger a bit longer with Bellerie. For Prianna’s part, she did not want to leave directly. The sound of the children’s voices was temporarily satiating a hunger inside of her. About a quarter of an hour later, Aspiria and Prianna were hugging and saying their goodbyes to Bellerie. Bellerie was fine, and so were Aspiria and Prianna. “I was worried sick that anything may have happened to Alleff,” began Prianna. “He is so adorable.”
“Those boys are tough,” laughed Aspiria. Prianna was not in the laughing mood. She continued to chatter about the boys. Aspiria just listened. She could tell that Prianna loved those boys. She knew of Prianna’s desire for children, and knew how that longing felt. The two ladies walked, and Prianna talked. For Prianna, it seemed a short walk to the market. For Aspiria, it felt a bit longer, but she knew that she was doing what her friends needed her to do that day.
“Oh—hi, Steve. Who’s flying this thing?” Tammy asked, concerned.
“Merick; it’s his first time flying solo,” Steve replied confidently. Tammy was not so convinced. For a few moments there was an awkward silence. In this shift, only three crew members were awake: Tammy, Steve, and Bob. Up until today, Bob and Steve were always on the deck together as Bob finished his navigator and flight training. It had taken longer than was typical for a new navigator, but Bob progressed in his training, and Steve never expected him to be his star student. Steve inspected the lab, and brought communications as often as possible to Tammy. Spending time alone together was rare, and short—official business only. Their relationship was simmering, but it had not been possible, up until this point, to bring it to a boil. Now, for the first time, they could be alone for several hours and there was no reason to expect an interruption.
Steve did not enter the lab with any pretext of inspections or official communications. Neither he nor Tammy knew how to begin the conversation. She instinctively came up close, and leaned into Steve’s shoulder. Steve put his arm around her shoulder, and whispered that he was happy to have some time with her. She smiled, gently snuggling up closer to him. Her long, red, curly hair had a lovely scent from her perfumed shampoo. He breathed in deeply, and felt both a peace and excitement in her warmth and softness. Tammy looked up into his eyes, with a serious but gently expression. Steve stared back, and then leaned in for the kiss. It was soft, but lingering. Tammy’s expression turned to a smile.
Steve caught her glancing over to the side of the lab. He first thought that he may have interrupted something important in her work. Then he saw where she had glanced. It was at the only decent chair in the lab. Tammy would have loved to sit on a couch with him, but none existed. Steve took Tammy by the hand towards the chair. He sat down, and helped her onto his lap. She sat sideways and rested her head on his left shoulder, turning her head so that they could peer into each other’s eyes. For a long while they sat and look at each other, noticing every expression and contour of each other’s faces. Steve brought his right hand up to her left cheek and touched her gently with the back of his fingers. He allowed his hand to go back into her hair, and gently ran his fingers through it. They were each mesmerized in each other’s beauty and uniqueness.
Tammy loved Steve’s eyes. They were the brightest blue, and shined particularly brightly against his light complexion and blond hair. His face showed both youth and innocence, mixed with boldness and confidence. She felt fully supported in his muscular build; his strength made her feel both light and delicate. She was conscious of how much he adored her at this instance. She felt completely beautiful. She wanted to kiss him, but didn’t want to lose the sight of his handsome face for an instant. She felt his hand go around the back of her head, and gently pull her head towards his. Both of their eyes instinctively closed as they kissed.
“Where is Captain Jenners?” injected James into the peaceful silence that Bob had been enjoying for the past several hours. James seemed excited, almost panting as he walked in and began looking around like he had misplaced something.
“I don’t know, James, what’s up?” he asked smiling.
“Where are we?”
“On the deck,” Bob said sarcastically.
“Where is this ship? I mean right now, where exactly is this ship?” James continued looking around frantically, practically vibrating with excitement.
“Where is Captain Jenners? How long ago did he leave the deck?”
“I haven’t seen him since the start of the shift,” Bob said as casually as he could. He felt a little bit of pride swell within him as he said it. He hadn’t really caught on to the level of James’ concern. Bob knew that James would know it was his first time flying. He hoped the conversation would turn to this subject and lighten up significantly.
“What, you’ve been flying it these past several hours?”
“Yep.” He could feel the pride swelling. Here comes the ‘congratulations’, and ‘how was it?’
“Then where are we? Where is this ship right now?” James almost shouted. Bob didn’t even get an, “Um,” out. “Where is Captain Jenners? He needs to be on deck right now! Call him!”
Bob felt deflated, irritated, and disrespected. He was the third in command. But he picked up the intercom and called, “Captain Jenners, you are wanted on the flight deck,” in a calm and annoyed tone.
James was frustrated in the lack of urgency with which the call went out. He almost went to the intercom to redo the call, with the appropriate level of urgency and franticness, but thought better of it. Instead he went to the instruments, and began reading and typing. Mike walked in. “Hey guys, what’s going on?”
Bob opened his mouth, hoping to find someone more interested in his accomplishment. Before the words could come out, James interjected, “Merick’s been flying these past few hours, and I don’t know where the Captain is.” James was obviously distracted, and did not turn around to look at Mike. Mike lifted his eyebrows and turned to look at Bob. He, too, was ready to say something to Bob, when James started up again. “Somethin’s wrong. I don’t know where we are. We are not on course. I saw somethin’. I heard somethin.” Footsteps could be heard approaching. “Is that Captain Jenners?”
“No, it’s me,” Kenny said as he entered the deck.
“We are not on course. We need to figure out where we are.” Both Mike and Kenny looked concerned and headed over to James. Bob was turning red. Whether it was from embarrassment or anger even he couldn’t tell. Ironically, the navigator, who had been flying the ship, was not being consulted as to where they were, or how they had gotten there. “I saw somethin’ and it just isn’t right. We passed by a star and a planet—way too close; we weren’t supposed to go that near to anythin’. I put my readings on the planet, and I saw somethin’.”
Everyone’s ears perked up. Even Bob began to understand. Just then Steve entered the deck. He walked in quietly, while everyone’s attention was diverted.
“What’s all the fuss up here?”
Everyone turned towards their Captain. Steve had a look of annoyance on his face that was unknown to any of the crew. Mike, who knew him the longest, had never seen that look on Steve’s face. He was unkempt, like he had just gotten up from a nap.
“Captain Jenners, we are off-course,” James began.
“Merick, what’s going on?” Steve said more sternly than was his way. Bob did not want the discussion going his way just yet. He didn’t answer immediately, hoping that James would keep going on with the message that he was relaying before the Captain came in.
But all eyes were now on Bob. “Captain, James says we are off course, but as far as I know, I have flown just right.” The Captains and the crew’s eyes turned towards James.
“Captain, we just passed by—I mean close by—a star and a planet.”
“We are not charted to go close by anything!” Steve exclaimed.
“Yes, sir, that is what I’m sayin’. But we did; so, I knew we were off course,” James explained
“Kenny, we’ve got to get on course. Figure out what is going on. Who knows what we could be heading towards? Mike, you take over navigation, and make sure that nothing is in our way, imminently.” Kenny and Mike began directly. Steve turned towards Bob, but was interrupted by James.
“Captain, there’s more.” He waited a moment for Steve’s attention to turn towards him. “I got some readin’s of the planet. It was lucky, and I didn’t have much time. But I saw somethin’. It’s goin’ to sound crazy, but it was there.“ Steve continued his eye contact but did not say anything or show any expression.
“Captain, that planet had AC.”
“You can get readings on air conditioning,” Bob spoke up.
“Alternating current, sir; that planet had alternating current. I know it sounds crazy. I wouldn’t make it up.”
“How long ago was this James?” It was clear that Captain Jenners’ wheels were turning. His demeanor was noticeably different. It’s one thing to be the Captain; it’s another thing to be in ‘uncharted waters’ and facing unaccountable circumstances.
“Maybe ten or fifteen minutes, sir. As soon as I was out of range, I came running up here looking for you. I didn’t know why we were off-course, and I knew we could be in danger. But I also knew that I had found what we were looking for.”
“Are we off-course, Kenny?” asked Steve.
“Yes, I believe so. Yes, we are off-course, but I’m not sure how long or how far we have gotten, yet. I’ll give you an update ASAP.”
“Are we in any imminent danger, Mike?”
“At our speed, I have a window of about five minutes for large objects—maybe sixty seconds for smaller objects. We will have to watch closely until we are back on our charted course.”
“Sir, are we heading back on-course, or back to that planet?” James asked with a degree of desperation.
Steve did not answer. Kenny looked around as if to say, “Where am I charting towards?”
“Do you know what is going on now, Kenny?” asked Steve.
“No, still working on it,” he replied as he turned back to his work.
“Let’s go back to the planet,” exclaimed Bob. “We can check it out, and then get back on track. Rev up the speed a bit, and we’ll be right back to where we need to be.”
“We went off about four hours ago,”stated Kenny. “We’re lucky to be alive. It looks like we headed into as open of a region as we could have. How close to that planet did we come, James?”
“Real close, Kenny—real, real close—nearly orbit range. We could have easily been goners.”
“What happened, Kenny?” asked Steve.
“Merick punched in a 9 instead of a 6,” explained Kenny.
“Let me see that,” Bob said as he headed towards Kenny. He looked at the readout and uttered, “oops.”
“What’s the reverse course time frame?” asked Steve.
“I’m working on that now.” Kenny was the best pilot in the fleet, and he was showing his worth right now. “It’s not looking good, though.”
“Fourth dimensional travel doesn’t work like 3D travel,” Mike started in. “It might take half an hour to go one way, but to stop, turn around and head back, it could take weeks. Plus our destination is not exact. We only know generally when James got the readings.”
“We are in very open space, sir. We should be able to set a re-course back towards that planet. If James’ readings are correct, we may have found exactly what we are looking for,” Kenny explained.
“Captain, Kenny’s right. Even if the planet turns out to be nothing, at least we will have a safe orbit to re-chart our course and get back to where we are supposed to be. If there is something there, then we won’t have so much explaining to do when it gets out that we were this far out of our way,” said Mike. Mike had Steve’s ear more than anyone else. James did not have any reason to argue with any of the logic, so he looked eagerly at the Captain. Bob was careful not to bring any more attention to himself, so he just sat there and looked on.
“Re-chart our course back to that planet, Kenny.”
“Yes, sir. There is only one likely star, and I’ve already got a re-course charted. We can adjust for planetary orbit as we get closer.”
“Less than a day, sir.”
Roloff sat in his easy chair with a book. He looked as relaxed and content as possible. In truth, though, he was longing for Aspiria to return. Caryell had gone to his room, and was taking a nap. It had been a busy few days, and Roloff was anxious to relax and unwind with Aspiria. He wanted to take her on a walk, and enjoy her company and conversation. They had both been out and walking that day, and he knew that she may come home too tired for a walk. That was why he was reading. If Aspiria was tired, then she might at least sit next to him, while he read. Then he could put the book down, and talk with her. If she came home with energy, then he could easily suggest that they go on a walk.
The book was not engaging him, and his mind frequently wandered. A portrait of Aspiria kept catching his eye. She was always beautiful, but in this portrait, her beauty had been captured to perfection. Aspiria had the unique quality of being both an early and late bloomer. She was pretty and attractive as a young girl—the prettiest of all the young girls her age—but, she had grown more beautiful over time. Roloff believed that this was a fact, and not merely the opinion of the man who loved her then, and loved her even more now. In addition to her physical beauty, she had a grace and a way that she carried herself that seemed to grow in charm as the years went by. She was as a dark red rose that was beautiful and perfect before it opened. Then, as it opened, its beauty and features continued to unfold and increase. Aspiria charmed everyone she met, man, woman, and child. Her beauty was not merely his opinion, it was apparent to him, and to everyone she knew.
Aspiria had grown up poor, but not excessively so. Her father was hard-working, and her mother was a charmer, also. They farmed, and Aspiria was comfortable working on it. Aspiria was the youngest of four children, the older three being boys. The boys were hard-working and good students. Each of them left the country as they completed their schooling, and went to the city. They were successful in their careers, and would occasionally send some money their parents’ way. But Aspiria did not have much in the way of fancy clothing, or entertainment. She, however, never considered herself unfortunate. Roloff had known her oldest brother from school. They were not close friends, but were good acquaintances. Aspiria had not caught his eye when he was in school—she was too young—but later he would see her occasionally in town, and she began to attract his attention. When he became aware of some of her families struggles, he offered to help. The youngest boy was getting set to leave home, and Aspiria, with her mother and father alone, would struggle to keep up with the farm.
Roloff had good opportunities, but saw to it that he could help her family on the farm. It was likely that he would have done this anyway, even if a beautiful young woman would not have been there. But it didn’t hurt his urgency and motivation. He spent hours each week on the farm, earning a meager wage. He often ate dinner with Aspiria and her parents. There was not much time for flirting and courting during the work, but their love for each other grew and grew. Almost in unison, both of Aspiria’s parents’ health began to fade. Aspiria took to more and more nursing and Roloff took on more of the farming duties. His other occupations were suffering, and it was too much work for one man alone.
Aspiria, one day, came out to where he was working. She brought him a fruit drink, and they sat down to talk. She told him how much all that he did for her family meant to her. She knew that he was suffering in his other endeavors. She clearly did not have a plan for herself, or her parents, but she loved Roloff, and wanted the best for him. She told him that she did not know how they would continue to pay him. Aspiria was beginning to take over her parent’s finances, and was only recently aware of the meager salary that Roloff was receiving.
Roloff inquired about her parent’s condition. Aspiria began to talk, and as she did, she shed a few tears, though her emotions were never completely unchecked. Roloff gently brought his hand to her cheek and wiped away a tear. He had never touched Aspiria before. Aspiria was conscious of this, and was briefly taken aback. Roloff noticed that this had affected her. His love for her burned within him. He reached down to hold her hand, which she made available to him. They held hands, and she talked. They looked at each other, as only those who are deeply in love with each other do. Roloff asked if he could take her on a walk that evening, after her parents had retired. Aspiria was slightly taken back again, and hesitated, not knowing how to respond. Yet her love and confidence grew as she looked into Roloff’s eyes. She felt safe, loved, and protected by him. He told her that he would not have dinner with her this evening, but that he would return at 7:30 to take her on a walk.
Aspiria had been accustomed to attention by young men. Whether at church, community socials, dances, or just on visits into town, she had been shown interest by nearly all the young men in town. She was only kept from more social activity by the labors of her family farm. She was neither awkward nor uncomfortable in the company of the young men. But with Roloff, it was not the flirtation of a young man. She felt a deep love from him, and she shared that love in return. Until this afternoon, it had been left unexpressed. But touching her cheek, and hands, and asking her on an evening walk, brought her feelings to the surface. She had a number of duties to perform that evening, but she also wanted to look her best. She fretted, perhaps for the first time, about what her wardrobe held. Roloff had seen her in most of her outfits either at the farm, or at church. She settled on a simple pretty blue dress that she could also wear appropriate shoes for walking. She spent some time on her hair, and put in a beautiful blue flower.
Roloff showed up promptly at the door. He carried a bouquet of red flowers. He too, had spent some time on his appearance. As she presented herself, she could tell that he approved, thoroughly approved. It was Roloff now that was taken aback by the impression her beauty made on him. She asked him in, and explained that she had a few things left to attend to for her parents. They really were not well, and she was concerned about leaving them for the evening, but she did not share this with Roloff. He sat down, and then got up and wandered around. He had been in the home nearly every day for months, and had become accustomed to eating dinner here regularly. But, somehow, he felt a little awkward and uncomfortable, waiting for her for this date; his first date with Aspiria.
She returned within ten minutes, and smiled that she was ready. Again, he was taken aback, and felt that he was looking at the most beautiful woman in the world. They walked, at first side by side without holding hands. The conversation was more choppy and awkward than it had ever been between the two of them. They both settled momentarily and Roloff took Aspiria’s hand. She was no longer uncomfortable with his touch. They walked in the direction of a small hill, not far from Aspiria’s farm. The top provided a nice look out, with a beautiful view of the city in the distance. Roloff sometimes came here on his own, when he wanted time to ponder, and was looking for inspiration. As they reached the top, Roloff was relieved that they were alone. Dusk had begun, but they could still see the city, with a gorgeous sunset on the horizon. Roloff told Aspiria of some of his adventures in the city. Aspiria laughed. She had a beautiful laugh. Had he ever heard her laugh before? He longed for something to say to evoke more laughter, but it wouldn’t come. Still, she was smiling, and he was melting inside. They had not stopped holding hands. Roloff reached for her other hand and she gave it to him. The breeze blew softly, and her long, dark brown hair moved gently in the breeze.
“I love you, Aspiria,” was all he said. Neither he, nor she said anything for quite some time. The sun was setting, and the breeze brought a slight chill to the air. Roloff put his arm around her shoulder, and brought Aspiria in. They looked at the sunset, and the fading image of the city off in the distance.
“I should be very happy, if you would marry me, Aspiria. I would be happy to live with you and your parents and take care of the farm.” Roloff had no thought of taking her from her parents in this time of need.
Aspiria let the words distill upon her. She did not feel any inclination to utter her thoughts verbally. She had accepted his offer in her heart, and that was all that mattered to her. She felt close to Roloff, physically, emotionally and spiritually. She had no plan when she had gone to him this afternoon on the farm. Yet, somehow, everything at this moment felt like it was according to plan. It felt right, and she felt joy swelling within her. She did not utter any words, but leaned her head back on his shoulder. She began to dream of their life together, and of the family that they would raise. It was nearly completely dark. Stars had begun to make their entrance on the clear night sky. Both sets of eyes moved slowly from the horizon to the star sprinkled sky.
“You shall be the perfect father, Roloff,” she said sweetly, and dreamily. She looked at him, and smiled more prettily than ever before. Roloff smiled too.
“Then we are to be married, Aspiria?”
Once again, she did not answer immediately. She had forgotten that she had not yet answered him. But she peered into his loving eyes, with her loving eyes. “Yes, we are my love!”
Roloff leaned in and gave her a soft, gentle kiss. They held each other and watched the stars. A shooting star came across the sky. They looked at each other as if to ask if the other had seen it, but instead kissed again. It was dark, and a little brisk. They held hands and walked back towards Aspiria’s farm.
Roloff’s book had become an afterthought as he lingered on this sweet memory. Aspiria walked in the door. She was even more beautiful now than she was then.
“Ah, dear, how are you?”
“I am well,” Aspiria said as she walked over to the couch and sat beside Roloff. She leaned up close and laid her head on his shoulder, as they held hands instinctively.
“Are you tired?”
“No, I’ve walked a bit today. I’m ready to get off my feet for a few minutes. Is Caryell home?”
“Yes, he’s in his room. Several of the boys are getting together tonight. I’m okay with him going.” Aspiria listen and nodded mechanically. “I’ve been thinking about you this afternoon. I’m looking forward to spending the evening with you. If you are feeling up to it, I would like to go on a walk with you.”
“In a little while, perhaps when Caryell goes out.”
“It’s quite a walk from here, but I was hoping to go to the hill by the farm where you grew up.”
“You really are feeling romantic tonight.”
“Ah, yes. I am madly in love with you!”
“And I with you, Roloff.” They sat together in silence for a quarter of an hour. “I am going to see Caryell for a little while before he goes out.”
As Aspiria left the room, Roloff followed her with his eyes. She walked down the hall and entered Caryell’s room.
“Hi, Mother,” Caryell beamed, clearly excited to see her.
“I hear you are going out tonight.”
“Yes, we are all going to Sten Field. There should be enough boys to play some sports.” Caryell was reasonably athletic, and loved sports. “What are you and Father doing tonight?”
“We are going on a long walk. I’m sure that we will not be home until after dark. Will you be alright if you get home before us?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “We are going to stay out late, and play in the forest after dark. I might not beat you home. Is that okay?”
“You are quite grown up now, aren’t you?” Caryell smiled. He felt grown up when he was with his father. When he was with his mother, he still felt like a little boy. He loved his mother deeply. She made him feel secure and at peace. “I want to share a scripture with you.”
Caryell pulled his copy of the scriptures from a book shelf above his bed. He loved it when his mother did that, and she did it frequently. He loved the spirit that he felt when his mother shared a scripture and spoke to him about her feelings. His father also talked about the scriptures with him, and taught him much, but it was from these times with his mother that he felt this feeling inside. Caryell was very comfortable with his spiritual sensibilities.
After talking for several minutes, Aspiria kissed her son on the forehead. He was growing into the young man that she hoped that he would be. She left the room, and began to prepare dinner for the family.
“May I go now to Sten Field?”
“Enjoy your evening, my son; remember that we will be out late this evening, too,” Aspiria cautioned.
“Okay. Love you.”
“We love you too, Caryell,”answered Roloff. Caryell ran out the door, and Roloff got up to take care of the table and dishes. “Go get yourself ready, my dear.” Aspiria left, and returned just as Roloff finished the kitchen cleanup.
She was wearing a beautiful blue dress, and smiled and curtsied as she presented herself. “You are feeling romantic tonight too, I see,” Roloff said with a mild chuckle.
“It’s been a while since we have visited our spot. I was thinking, the city will look beautiful all lit up. I don’t think we have been to the hill since it has been electrified,” Aspiria said with some excitement.
“Yes, and it should be a clear night. I want to look at the stars with you.” The couple held hands and began their journey. The evening was comfortable. “It has been a wonderful week with Caryell. But it has been a difficult week being the Mayor. Do you still think that I should run for re-election?”
“You are a very good Mayor. I don’t think that anyone wants to take your place.”
“Perhaps not, but do you want me to continue those responsibilities? It interrupted our special dinner with Caryell. We have had many family activities postponed or interrupted over the years. Sometimes, like today, you have to help with the smoothing over of problems. I love to help our town. I love to do good things for our neighbors. But I feel like it affects you and Caryell greatly. I don’t want to do this if you don’t want me to.”
“Do you feel like I am not as supportive of you, or am bothered by your duties?” asked Aspiria with some concern.
“No, my dear, I could not ask for more support than you willingly give. You and Caryell are as supportive as can be. It has just been some time since we have talked about it. I want to know your thoughts. We have enjoyed an amazing life so far. I want the rest of our life together to be just as wonderful.”
Aspiria placed her left arm around his right arm, and pressed up against his shoulder. She felt so secure when she was next to Roloff. Aspiria enjoyed Roloff as the Mayor of the town. She could not imagine a better town leader. Roloff was a natural, and she sensed that the town was as secure in his presiding presence as she was. Occasional interruptions and inconveniences did crop up, but they were of no real consequence to her.
“I think that you are the best and most wonderful Mayor. You have my vote. I will support you for as long as you have any desire to serve the town in this capacity.”
“…and Caryell? Does he mind the interruptions? I want to be there for him. I have enjoyed this time I have spent with him, these past few days. He will want to spend more time with his friends, but I want to share with him as much time as I can.”
“Caryell is very proud of you, my dear. I think he considers interruptions a part of our family’s civic duties. This family is together in this.” The two strode in silence for a while and enjoyed watching two large birds glide effortlessly high in the sky. They seemed to be enjoying the beautiful day as much as the Paladors were. The sun was somewhat low in the sky, but behind them. The day still seemed bright, but if they had looked down, they would have perceived the shadows growing longer. “Do you think that Caryell will stay in town, or go to the city?”
“I don’t think that Caryell has considered such things much at all. He enjoys visiting his family in the city. There is much to do for a young man, and there are many good educational opportunities. Still, he seems very happy in our town. I think that he enjoys the outdoors as much as we do,” Roloff mused.
“I was sad when my brothers each left for the city. They each seemed very happy, though. It was hard on my parents, but they tried not to show it—even to me. I felt their concern as I was getting older. I would not have considered leaving them. If it had not been for you, I don’t know what I would have done. I would have stayed, but I could not have managed it. There should be no burden on Caryell. It would be no trouble to us if he went to the city. I should love to have him always near us in town. Yet, if he found his happiness in the city, I would be very content also. We may want to make more trips.”
“We could live in the city, if that is where Caryell chose to go.”
“I suppose…no, he won’t need us following him. I don’t want to live anywhere but in our home. I should want to spend the rest of my days there.” Aspiria spoke with assertion, and it was pleasing to Roloff. He, too, preferred to spend the rest of his days in the town and in his own home. But he was fully open to the city, should Aspiria feel differently in the future. The hill was in view, and the sun was starting to set. Roloff unconsciously quickened the pace from conversational to a let’s-get-there speed.
As they reached the top of the hill, dusk was in full bloom. Aspiria looked out towards the city, and some lights were in view. “The city will be beautiful tonight,” she said with a touch of excitement.
“I was hoping to have this dance with you.”
She looked at him with a quizzical expression, “But, we don’t have any music.”
Roloff began to sing one of her favorite songs. Roloff had a beautiful, deep singing voice. He could sing effortlessly, beautifully, and sweetly. Aspiria smiled, and curtsied again. They took each other’s hands and began to dance. It had been many years since they had danced much, but they quickly found their feet. He sang alone, the first song, while she looked in his eyes, smiling widely, and at other times more gently. As the song came to a close, Roloff began another tune. This one was a duet. Aspiria had a lovely voice also, and she was game. They sang and danced their duet. Their voices never harmonized well, but only they were listening. To them, it was blissful and fun. They did not feel their age, nor any fatigue. Quite the contrary, they both felt bursts of energy flowing through them. Their feet moved effortlessly and in unison. The dancing took them over a wider range of the hill-top. Aspiria enjoyed watching the city light up, as the sky darkened. Roloff was more interested in the growing field of stars.
As they hit their final notes, they both started breathing just a bit deeply, but smiling widely and looking at each other with love and tenderness. “Would you mind singing our song?” Roloff asked apologetically. Aspiria would have been uncomfortable if he had asked her to start off the evening in this way. But she was warmed up and loving the moment.
She began to sing a very soft and very slow ballad. Roloff held her differently this time—much closer and tighter. He had to consciously give her enough space to sing. She sounded like an angel. They moved slightly back and forth, but mostly just embraced. His view was of the city, and they were not really rotating. As he listened, he thought on how beautiful and magical this city was, shining like the stars above. Aspiria had mentioned coming here to see the view before. The thought had not impressed him enough before to make it happen. Life was busy, and time evaporates invisibly. Now that he was beholding the view, he felt sorry that this night had not come sooner. This light sorrow, though, was easily soothed with her soft voice, and her loving embrace. As her song ended, their embrace grew closer. Their love was tightly sealed and they were one in each other’s arms.
It was pitch dark now, and Roloff was anxious to give Aspiria the view that he was enjoying. Aspiria gasped slightly as she turned and beheld the city. Joy crept up in her, as she gazed. She had imagined the splendor, but was overwhelmed by the reality of it. “Oh, it is beautiful. This has been the loveliest of evenings.” The couple stood side-by-side, hand-in-hand, and looked over the view. In time his gaze moved to the stars. He never wearied of gazing at the clear night sky. It was his way of reaching into a more spiritual mood. It moved him to ponder the creations of his Maker and though this was not on his mind tonight, it had always brought him a sense of wonderment.
“I love you with all my heart,” Aspiria said as she turned to him. They kissed and embraced with their eyes closed. Breaking the silence, Aspiria gasped, and Roloff’s eyes opened quickly. “A shooting star!” she cried. Roloff turned and looked.
“What are the odds of that?” he said with a smile and a laugh. He had not seen a shooting star since the night of their engagement. This shooting star’s illumination seemed to linger longer than he had remembered them lasting before.
“Tammy, we are in 3D orbit around the planet,” Danny stated as he walked into the lab.
“Has James confirmed his readings?”
“Yes, he’s getting his readings, and we have a visual.”
“A visual? Of what?” Tammy asked, excited.
“A civilization,” Danny stated somberly. His manner was very serious, but Tammy could perceive a little anticipation on his face. Tammy was generally not expected to be on the deck, being a civilian. But she was expected to have the lab in order for whatever would be discovered. She, however, wanted desperately to be a part of the current excitement on the deck.
“I’m calling to see if I can join in on deck,” she stated assertively. Just then Kenny called on the intercom.
“Staff meeting on deck now. Mike, Danny, and Tammy please report on deck immediately.” Tammy didn’t respond; she was out of the lab door before Danny could even turn around.
“We’ve found what we are looking for. We are currently orbiting an inhabited planet. There are intelligent beings on this planet. We have a visual on a civilization, and they have technology. The seven individuals in this room are currently the only ones with this knowledge. We have completed our initial report and will be contacting Central Command as soon as this briefing is over.” Steve delivered his report with command and confidence. He seemed to understand his place in this historic event, and appeared to be relishing the moment.
Bob had a look of pure and utter relief all over his face. He knew that the reports would show that he had made a serious and potentially fatal error in navigation. But without this error, the complete success of the mission may not have occurred. Errors that ultimately lead to great success are easily forgiven, forgotten, and overlooked. Steve would have some explaining to do at the outset, but once the news of their discovery had been received, it was doubtful that the mistakes in the details would be the focus of attention. Additionally, these seven individuals were very likely to come home to a hero’s welcome. The last thing that the Space Force would want is to report that they discovered life in the universe, outside of the planet earth—but it was all due to a navigation mistake by Bob. No, they’d want to show that the space command had set out to accomplish this goal, and achieve it they did. A public hero’s welcome and a private slap on the wrist was Bob’s future—he was relieved as could be.
James also felt relief. He had put himself on the line, and it had paid off. His readings were correct, and he was going to get credit for potentially saving his and the crew’s life. He had been ultra-focused—going through an adrenaline rush—as he was taking his measurements in trying to find the correct planet. If they had found the planet, and then realized that he had made an error, (no AC on the planet), it would have hurt Captain Jenners. Captain Jenners had put his trust in James. If the Captain had to explain that they had deviated off course on accident, and then again on purpose, with nothing to show for it, both he and the Captain would be thoroughly embarrassed.
Something else was eating at James. It was a feeling that, so far, no rational thought had been recruited to explain. James felt a little hole—a little deflated, a little empty. His entire focus of his life had been devoted to making a discovery such as this. It was his passion. Now, instead of a life devoted to this passion, this mission, this quest, he, as a very young man, had now completed his purpose. Sure, this mission would still require much of his expertise. But, what would happen after returning home from this mission? Go on other missions, and continue to search for intelligent alien life. Sure, he could do that. But the passion would be gone—he had already discovered alien life. Finding still another world would be exciting, but it could never compare to the discovery of this first world. It would be a job that he was good at, but it could never be his passion again.
Mike was focused on practicalities. There really was no protocol for this situation. 3D orbit was really the only way to stay in place, and observe, study, or do whatever they would need to do. But 3D orbit made them vulnerable—potentially visible. The level of these creatures’ intelligence and technology was not yet known. He might have to leap into multi-dimensional travel quickly and at any time, and he knew that they would have to stay as invisible as possible. He also knew that this crew, Space Command, and the rest of the earth would not be satisfied knowing that there was life out here. This world would have to be spied on, studied, and understood. The only practical way to do this would be through 3D orbit. But, oh, it was very dangerous. Mike knew that he and Steve would be discussing these problems shortly. He wanted Steve to have thought through this before Space Command questioned their tactics. He had a nagging feeling inside that something about all of this was not good.
Kenny was deep in thought. He had successfully maneuvered this planet discovery and entered into 3D orbit. He was not wrapping his thoughts around the practicalities of the scenario that they were all in. No, his thoughts were deeper. For as long as intelligent life existed on the earth, it was clear that intelligent life was possible; they had a priori knowledge of themselves. The fact that it was possible meant that it was possible that it existed elsewhere. Now there was firsthand knowledge of intelligent life existing in two separate places in the Universe. The chances of intelligent life existing in these two spheres—and only in these two spheres—were improbable at best. Intelligent life must be everywhere. The search had literally just begun. And we found it! At this rate, discoveries such as this would be cropping up all of the time in the near future. Kenny’s mind was filled with fascination and awe. He saw this moment as pivotal, and yet, likely to be swallowed up in the rush of discoveries that would soon follow.
Danny’s face was impossible to read. His was a chiseled, stoic expression. Underneath it, though, he had some nagging feelings that were starting to take shape into thoughts. Danny was a Christian—a believer. He kept his faith, generally, beneath the surface. He was struggling with his concept of God, the creation, and the purpose of life. He did not know how this miraculous discovery could fit with his faith. He believed that human beings were the centerpiece of creation—that they were the children of God. So how would these intelligent alien creatures fit in with this doctrine? He was not at the point that he felt his faith to be shaken, but he did feel confused and was somewhat irritable.
Tammy was at a different place than the rest of the crew. While Steve, Bob, Mike, Kenny, and especially James were already feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment, she felt that her moment to shine was just on the precipice. Indeed, all that had been accomplished, so far, was to put the mission in place for her work to begin. She was ready to begin.
“When are we getting our planetary sample, Captain?” she asked.
The question came like a fiery dart attacking them in the dark. The mission was about discovery, and it felt to the rest of the crew that this mission had been accomplished. Now, the concept that this mission was just beginning, and had a completely different flavor, was upon them. The rest of the crew’s concept was of studying an alien world from a distance and not getting caught; that seemed to be appropriate. But here was Tammy suggesting that they go down to the surface and take a biological sample! Would it be dirt filled with microbiology? Would it be a plant-like species? Some type of an animal-like species? No. Here was the epiphany, the realization: this ship, and Tammy’s lab, had always been designed for the eventuality that they would be able to study an alien intelligence. Now it was possible, and Tammy was ready to begin in earnest.
Steve was the only one who did not have a change in facial expression at Tammy’s question. “As soon as we get word, we will begin the biological study phase of our mission. In the meantime, Kenny and James, I want you to devote all of your effort towards a plan to extract a planetary sample. We will need to do so without compromising our position. We are to take this sample without the alien world knowing of our existence in the universe.”
Mike sat back in his chair with a look of frustration, concern, and irritation all rolled into one. “We may have already given ourselves away, Captain.” Steve looked at Mike, and narrowed his eyes. “We are in 3D orbit. We may be visible to them by the naked eye. If they are looking for us, we could easily be seen. We are getting readings on them; they could be getting readings on us.” Mike expressed himself soberly, concern etching his face.
Steve now looked a touch shaken for the first time in the meeting. He had been feeling like Columbus, the discoverer of a new world. Now he considered that his success in discovery could be jeopardized by a failure to keep them from being discovered.
“What is the nature of the planetary sample you want, Tammy?” asked Danny.
Tammy looked at Danny without answering for a moment. This part of the mission was not to be discussed with the crew, unless the need arose. It looked like now was the time, but she wasn’t sure if it was her place to explain. She looked at Steve, and he nodded at her reassuringly. “If we can do so without compromising ourselves, we are to collect a single sample of the intelligent alien species. If it is not deemed possible, we are to collect what we can. We don’t know what type of life forms exist on this planet. I’ll take what we can get, but I’m hoping for more than just alien bacteria or some leaves.”
“I’ve heard of alien abductions my whole life, but I never thought I would be a part of one!” expressed Bob. A slight smile crept across Tammy’s face, and Kenny chuckled. Bob was glad that he could help lighten the mood, just a bit.
“The way to get a sample is to plot a multi-dimensional course to the planet’s surface, for a landing,” James explained, his mind focused like a laser. “We would also need to have a multi-dimensional course ready to re-enter 3D orbit. Once plotted, we should be able to get to the planet’s surface almost instantly, and then return to orbit instantly when we have the sample. If something saw us below, it would look like our ship appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared into thin air. We would need to land, collect the sample, get the sample and ourselves stabilized on the ship, and then zip back into orbit. Plotting the courses will be easy, once we decide the best place to land. We will need to find a place that is hidden so that we are not likely to be discovered, but have a reasonable likelihood of obtaining an appropriate sample in a fairly short period of time.”
“I’ll work with James and Kenny to find the best location to land,” Tammy said, looking at Steve.
“We are going to just go down and get one of the aliens? What about disease? Didn’t you read War of the Worlds? We don’t have any atmospheric data yet. Are we trying to keep this intelligent creature alive, or are we just going to kill it, and study it? If we are keeping it alive, how do we feed it? I think that we will have to go down on multiple occasions and study the situation for months before we can successfully pull this off.” Mikes concern was clearly increasing. “The longer we are here, and the more studying we do, the higher the likelihood is of us getting found out by them!”
“We don’t have months,” Tammy replied, “and you’re right, we need to do this quickly so that we minimize the possibility of compromising ourselves. So we will need to collect the sample as soon as possible. We intend to keep the creature alive, if possible, with our atmosphere and nourishment. We have the capability of isolating the creature atmospherically such that we will not be exposed to each other’s diseases. The lab was made for this exact situation. This is the reason that I’m here. This is why the ship was designed how it was. The fact that non-earth life exists is in and of itself an amazing discovery. The fact that it is intelligent is even more so. But we need to understand and know this alien race, well before they know us. It is an essential risk that we take, now that we know of this species’ existence.”
“Do we know that there is just one intelligent alien species?” Kenny piped in. “Just because on earth only humans have reached the high-level state of intelligence, doesn’t mean there couldn’t be more than one intelligent species on this planet.”
“We are equipped for one sample. If additional samples and studies are needed, then they will be accomplished by further missions,” Tammy explained.
“Captain, Central Command is contacting us,” said Danny.
“Kenny and James, come with me,” said Steve. Tammy looked a little bit miffed. Steve noticed, but did not respond. If they wanted Tammy, she would be called in shortly. Bob could have been called in at this point, but he wasn’t miffed at his exclusion at all. He was relieved at not being brought into this initial discussion with Central Command.
“Let’s go make some grub,” said Bob as he turned to Danny. Danny didn’t keep his stoic expression, but with a look of irritation got up and left the room with Bob.
Tammy and Mike both sat there, across from each other. Some tension could be sensed between them. It wasn’t personal, but they had very different ideas as to how things should proceed. Tammy was in the know, and Mike was just getting brought up to speed. But Mike had been around a long time, and he knew the commanders at Central Command. He was an asset on the mission, and he would be brought into the inner circle with Steve as the mission proceeded. Tammy sensed this, and didn’t want to engage in any further discussions with Mike at this point. Mike turned to her and saw this by her expression.
“Well, Tammy, do you mind showing me the lab and minimizing some of my concerns?” he said in a serious, but kind, tone.
“Sure, you’ll be impressed,” she said with some of her charm returning.
“I’m just hoping to not be depressed,” he said with a smile.
“We look like a bunch of space aliens,” said Bob through his helmet.
“You sound like a space alien in that helmet, too,” said Danny. Danny was very glad that he was not getting into that suit and going out onto the planet. He was staying with Kenny and Tammy on the ship, while Captain Jenners took Mike, James, and Bob to collect their specimen.
Tammy was helping everyone get their suits on. She had been a rollercoaster of emotions over the past week since they had been in 3D orbit around the planet. Steve and Tammy had spent a lot of time together over that week. It made sense that the ship’s Captain and the lab specialist would be making arrangements for this specimen collection. However, it was starting to become apparent to the crew, that there was more to these meetings than just official business. At first Tammy was steamed about the fact that Central Command wanted to wait for the specimen collection. She’d been pressing Steve to get them to move things along. Steve didn’t seem to get the urgency, at least as far as was her perspective. So, at first she was irked with Steve. Tammy was a woman that knew how to get what she wanted, but she seemed to be much more personally offended than would be appropriate.
A couple of days later something happened behind closed doors, and she was floating like a butterfly and smiling from ear to ear. At times she was so excited, she was almost giddy. At other times she seemed stressed and overwhelmed, and she snapped at everyone who got in her way. The last two days she was being sweet to everyone, and at times she could be caught singing to herself. She was giving very sweet, personal attention to everyone as she helped them put on the space suits. When it was time for Captain Jenners to finish getting suited up, she was smiling so brightly with both her mouth and her eyes that sunglasses were almost necessary. Before she put his helmet on she reached up and kissed him. It was done instinctively and happened quickly, but was noticed by everyone. Fortunately, everyone’s attention was quickly distracted from it by the event just about to begin.
“Is everyone set?” Kenny’s voice could be heard over the speaker and in the four men’s helmets. “We’ll be landing on the surface in five minutes.”
While Kenny talked over the intercom, Tammy continued to help with the finishing touches. James paced around the room from the moment his helmet was secured. Mike sat by the side, and although his face was not visible through the helmet, he seemed to be in deep thought. Bob kept checking himself in the mirror, with his suit on. The suits were jet-black. The helmet was black on the back, and silver on the face of the helmet. “You guys look seriously scary,” said Danny.
“I’d say sexy,” Tammy countered.
“Sixty seconds and were on the planet,” Danny said.
“Get me a good one!” Tammy said as she left the room with Danny, for air lock purposes.
“Green lights on, we’re on the planet,” said Steve through his helmet’s microphone.
“Confirmed, we are on the planet,” said Kenny. “I’ll have the doors open in about a minute.”
“Gentlemen, let’s get this done. The sooner we have our specimen, the sooner we get back and in orbit,” Captain Jenners said with confidence and assurance.
The assurance was what sent a chill down Bob’s spine. He began to feel his heart beat and started to feel himself sweat in the suit. James and Mike had been ominously quiet since they started getting ready to go out. Bob, for the first time, noticed that he could hear them breathing deeply. Only Steve seemed to be at least somewhat calm. The doors started to open, and the four men in suits walked out into the darkness of the alien world’s night.
The ship was black but it was not shiny. The night’s cloak of darkness was selected to minimize the chance of the ship being seen. They were in black suits for the same reason. They had picked for their landing, a spot about three quarters of a mile from the outskirts of a small, alien occupied area. As it turned out, there were civilizations throughout the planet. However, it was only this one area that had any evidence of electrical technology. Other civilizations had the markings of more primitive dwellings. The area picked to land was just outside of the least populated area where there was evidence of technology.
The men walked out of their ship onto the surface of the planet. They had all been on the surface of a planet besides the earth before. In every case, these previous planets had no evidence or trace of life. Now, for the first time, they were on a planet—not the earth—that was clearly alive! There were trees, or at least they looked like trees. Their suits had microphones tuned in such that they could hear the minutest sounds. Danny was monitoring frequencies outside of the range of human hearing. What sounded like a coyote could be heard in the distance.
“Did you pick up anything with that Danny?” asked Steve.
“It sounded just like a coyote,” said Danny.
“It’s eerie how earthlike it seems out here,” were the first words from James. A humming sound could be heard surrounding them. They all listened closely. As they walked towards the aliens dwelling, the sound waxed and waned. It was like the sound of night insects in the trees. About fifty yards in front of them, something moved—just a foot or so, and then stopped. Steve spotted it first, pointed, and then ducked down. The men followed; watching with the keenest attention. They couldn’t see anything, so they began to walk again. Whatever it was, it scurried away quickly into the trees of a nearby forest.
“We don’t have any idea what the shape or size of the intelligent creatures is,” Mike stated. “How do we know, that whatever just took off, wasn’t one of them?”
“What did you see?” asked Tammy.
“We’re not sure. It looked like a small animal, maybe the size of a rabbit, and it took off into the forest,” answered Steve.
“The readings that we have on the creatures’ dwellings indicate that they would be larger. But it’s really an estimate at best,” informed Tammy.
“Larger than what?” asked Mike.
“Size is only going to get us so far. What characteristics should we look for, in assuring we are getting the right creature?” asked James.
“We really don’t know,” she responded.
The men approached the forest with some internal trepidation. They would have to go through a small wooded area before they would approach the known dwelling place of the creatures that they were after. The helmets provided some night vision, but it was going to be difficult to see in the forest. Clearly there were creatures all around them and they were hunting for something that they had never heard nor seen before. The men carried weapons of various capacities: bullet guns, laser guns, and tranquilizers. The hope was that a tranquilizer would work, and that it would cause no permanent harm to the creature they would be bringing in as a sample. But they had no idea what they were up against, and wanted to be ready for anything. Even a dead creature would provide for Tammy much to research. Steve told Bob to have his tranquilizer ready. Steve carried the bullet gun. James held his laser gun. Mike was the only one weaponless; he carried the netting for capturing and carrying the sample.
As they entered the forest, it became eerily silent. The hum dropped off completely. Bob stepped on a branch and it broke loudly. The other three men turned quickly, and Steve and James had their weapons pointed momentarily at Bob. “Sorry,” he muttered. The four men turned again and kept moving slowly through the trees.
Up ahead, some rustling could be heard, but at first nothing could be seen. They each stood motionless and gazed up ahead, and then again they heard some rustling. Mike put down his netting, and grabbed a weapon. The men stopped and listened. Again some rustling, and then a whitish creature could be seen. Before anyone had a chance to think, Bob fired the tranquilizer. The creature was hit. It continued for a short distance, and then fell in a heap. The men stood silently.
“A tranq. went off! What’s going on?” asked Tammy.
“Bob shot a large white creature. It is four legged, and it went down with the tranquilizer. It’s about seventy-five yards in front of us,” explained Steve. “We’re going in. Mike, bring the netting.”
The men approached cautiously, and as they neared the creature, they were taken aback by its beauty. It looked like a deer, with almost perfect whiteness. It was somewhat larger than an earthly deer, and there were no antlers. Its face was beautiful and peaceful as it slept. “Tammy, it looks like a white deer. It’s rather large, but I think that the four of us can handle it. I don’t know that this is the intelligent creature. It looks just like an animal from home,” explained Steve.
Bob walked up closer and said, “Nice shot, eh?” while he reached down to collect his dart.
“No don’t!” shouted Steve. But it was too late. Bob touched the creature, and its legs kicked. Bob jumped backwards and fell on his backside. All of the men were startled, and Steve aimed the bullet gun at the creatures head. The creature did not come to, and seemed to be asleep once again.
“Keep the dart in until we get it back to the ship,” commanded Steve. “Let’s get this thing netted.”
The men began to net up the creature, and were preparing to hoist it when James noticed a light in the distance. “Look at that.”
“It’s a light,” uttered Mike.
“Bob, stay here with the sample.” Steve motioned for the others to walk towards the light. Bob felt completely spooked: both by the creature in front of him, and the fact that he was now alone. Actually, the men were only fifty yards in front of him.
The men hid behind the trees and peered towards the light. “I see a dwelling,” said Steve. “It’s almost like a cottage, and there is a light shining through a window.”
“I think that the light just came on,” said James.
The men stared towards the cottage and the light. Bob, slunk behind a tree, where he could see the creature, and the light, but he thought he might be able to hide from whatever was in that dwelling.
“I see something,” whispered James. All the men looked, and sure enough something was moving in the dwelling. “The creature looks to be a biped. I don’t think we netted the right creature.”
“There is another one in there, too,” said Mike. The two creatures appeared to be communicating briefly, and then disappeared from sight. The men watched, hardly able to blink or breathe.
“I don’t think that we can go in. We know that there are at least two creatures in that dwelling,” Steve explained. After a few more moments the door to the dwelling opened and one of the creatures stepped out of the dwelling and into the night air. The creature carried a light, almost like a lantern. “There is one creature out of the dwelling. The creature is carrying a lantern of sorts, and is walking in our direction. Bob, get another tranq ready—Mike, you too.”
The creature was a biped, and appeared almost humanoid from a distance, in size, shape, and gait. As the creature continued to approach them, they could begin to make out more details. “It’s wearing some clothing,” said James.
“Do you want me to tranq. it?” asked Mike as the creature came within range.
“No, I don’t want to do anything in sight of the dwelling. It looks like the creature will be in the forest soon.”
Sure enough the creature moved into the forest. Mike did not have a clear shot, but they could see the light from the lantern. “Don’t lose it!” The men kept their eyes peered but did not move, in fear of making a sound. The creature was still moving, and did not show any sign of having detected them.
The creature came into view for Bob. He got his finger on the tranquillizer and prepared to fire. He hesitated, as the creature came closer into view. Something about the creature mesmerized him. The creature continued closer and then stopped abruptly and looked in Bob’s direction. He’d been spotted. He froze, afraid to move a finger, or take a breath.
“It’s stopped,” said Steve. “Can you see it, Bob?”
Bob didn’t speak, even though no audible sound could have been heard through his helmet. The creature began towards Bob directly. As it got closer, Bob could see that the creature was actually heading towards the deer-like creature that he had just shot. The creature continued towards the deer, and seemed to hurry up. “She’s found the deer,” whispered Bob.
Steve and Mike began instinctively towards Bob. They came into view of the deer, just as the creature approached it. The creature stooped, and then turned towards the dwelling that it had come out of. The creature made a loud audible sound, almost like a shout. Mike fired his tranquilizer, and it hit the creature in its leg just as the shout terminated. The creature dropped, but seemed to be conscious for a few moments in a sitting position, then fell backwards with its head resting on the body of the deer.
“I see something coming out of the dwelling,” James exclaimed. “I think it heard the shout. It doesn’t have a light.” The men could hear this second creature shout in the distance.
Steve ran towards the creatures. He picked up the creature with the lamp, and cradled it in his arms. “Let’s go,” he shouted, and started to run towards his ship. Mike hurriedly grabbed the net off of the deer and removed the tranquilizer dart, as James came up to him. James took the lamp off the ground and threw it in the opposite direction from what they were heading. Bob’s paralyzed body finally returned to functionality and he, too, began to run. The other men caught up quickly to Steve, as Steve was weighed down with the creature. They could hear the other creature shouting in the distance. It was not possible to tell if they were being pursued. Fear caused adrenaline to pulse through their veins. Steve was strong and fit, but he was running with a strength even he had never known before.
He kept his head up, and watched what was in front of him; afraid to look down at the creature in his arms. The creature was dead weight, but seemed gentle to him. Sooner than they imagined the ship was in view. Tammy and Danny were scurrying to prepare for the men and their catch. Kenny was ready to enter 3D orbit the instant that the men and sample were secured.
The door opened and the men ran with what strength they had left. They entered the empty air lock and placed the creature in its own isolated chamber. The doors closed, and the ship zipped back into 3D orbit around the planet.
“Tammy, you look exhausted,” Kenny commented as she walked into the mess hall. Steve, Mike, and James were sitting at the table with Kenny as Tammy walked in.
Tammy rolled her eyes, and murmured, “I’m more hungry than tired right now.”
“Bob and Danny are watching guard?” Steve asked as he got up to give her his seat.
“Yeah, I think they’ll be fine,” she said as she sat down. She slunk into the chair, like she hadn’t been off of her feet in ages. “The creature has come to. It is stable, and seems to have recovered fine from the tranquilizer. It doesn’t seem to be aggressive at all.”
“From what we’ve seen, this ‘creature’ looks very human,” interjected Mike. “What are its alien characteristics?”
Tammy shrugged. She was feeling exhausted and hungry, so she was a bit snippy. But Mike had verbalized the thing that she was most frustrated about. “So far, I have not found a single characteristic about this creature that would make it distinguishable from a human.”
“You’ve given her a full body examination?” asked James.
“Every square inch. I’ve done full body MRI’s, too. Simple blood tests also reveal normal human levels on everything. Under the microscope, the histology is as human as it gets—even forty-six chromosomes. I keep looking at it from a distance, to see if I can detect something about its facial characteristics that indicate alien, but I can’t see a thing. If this creature were walking down the street in New York City, it would blend in perfectly. There is nothing about this creature that would stand out—that would give anyone pause.” She betrayed a little of her disappointment with this final statement.
“I beg to differ,” said Mike. “If I saw her walking down the street, she would give me pause. She is gorgeous.”
“Seriously, she is super-model material,” said James with a smile.
An exhausted smile crept over Tammy’s face. Steve returned to the table with a generous helping of the meal for Tammy. “Typical. I ask you guys to fetch me a fascinating alien creature for me to study, and you come back with a super-model!” She directed her glare and words at Steve. He shrugged sheepishly, and everyone gave a good chuckle.
“So, I’m finding this aspect interesting,” Kenny began. “On earth, we have multiple races of people. If we compared European descendants to African, Asian, or islanders, we would find an extremely wide range of appearances. There are humans—earthlings—that look more alien to me than she does. We travel several hundred miles on earth, and humans have a wide range of looks and appearances. We travel across the universe and the first alien we meet looks like a European descended super-model. Even if the creature is humanoid, shouldn’t there be some variation?”
Kenny had just verbalized the concern that everyone was feeling. Nods could be seen around the table. “Is it possible, that we just traveled across space to discover and abduct a human—an earthling, a woman?” asked James.
Tammy shrugged once again. “Her language, which I’ve recorded a bit of, is not from the earth. I’ve run it against every language we know, and it is one hundred percent isolated.”
“You said that she has forty-six chromosomes. Is it DNA?” asked James.
“Yeah, it’s DNA, all right. I don’t have the genetic map yet. That will still be several hours. But, it is definitely DNA.”
“What are the possibilities?” asked Steve.
“Clearly, it is possible for humans—earthlings—to travel through space and get from earth to here; we have just done that. So, though we have no records of this technology being known of or used before, it is possible that at some time in the past humans left and settled this world here,” explained Kenny.
“The language that she speaks requires that it must have been a very long time ago. This world has civilizations all over it. It appears ancient, not recently settled,” said James. “But the lack of variation in features would indicate a more recent settlement. Could it be that humans advanced a long time ago and then left the earth to the less advanced civilizations?”
“What about the opposite? Why couldn’t it be this world that produced the humans, and then sent some to earth to settle it? Maybe this is where life began,” said Mike.
“Why would they seem so much more primitive than us? We only found one small area with electricity. It appears recent. The rest of the world seems to be living in the before electricity phase. If they were advanced enough to travel, either to the earth, or from the earth, why do they seem to be just figuring out the light bulb?” asked Steve.
“We now know of two inhabited planets, this one and earth. Who’s to say that this is it? There may be many inhabited planets out there. Perhaps both of our worlds were populated from some third source. Maybe, it was an Australian type of thing. Send in criminals, or uncivilized, or uneducated people, and let them figure technology out, over a period of thousands of years. Maybe we just got there first, a few hundred years before this colonization,” Kenny explained.
“Maybe earth got the smart ones, and this planet got the hot ones,” Mike quipped, and everyone laughed.
“She looks scared. I feel bad for her,” said Bob. Bob and Danny were standing guard in their black space suits, in full helmet. “We must look very scary to her.” The creature looked in their direction, and Bob waved to her. The creature, who was sitting in her cell, in her dress that she had been captured in, looked away and down at her feet. She was wearing an olive green dress that went down nearly to her ankles. She sat on the examining table in her room with her left side facing them. Her legs were bent up at the knees and she had her arms around her shins.
“She is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen,” muttered Danny.
“I know. That’s why I couldn’t shoot her with the tranquilizer. I had a clear shot, but then as she was coming up, she looked like a gorgeous woman. And I thought, ‘I can’t shoot a beautiful woman.’ Man, I completely froze. I was both scared to death, and mesmerized by her. It was surreal—the strangest feeling I have ever had before.”
“I couldn’t have shot her, either. I feel like we’ve kidnapped her. Tammy says that she can’t find anything alien about her at all. This is weird.”
“Does she look hungry to you?” asked Bob.
“I can’t tell.”
“Tammy said that it looks like she can eat human food. She said we could give her some, if she looked like she was hungry. What’s for grub right now?”
“Chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and carrots.”
“Let’s give her a plate. If she’s hungry then eating will help her to feel better. At least, maybe, she won’t be so scared of us after that.” Food always made Bob feel better.
The men in space suits got the food, and put it into the creatures’ cell. Bob motioned with his hand that it was to eat by pointing to it and putting his hand up to his face shield where his mouth would be. The creature coiled as the men approached, but then relaxed as she saw that they were bringing her something. She did not move at first, but looked down at the plate. After a few moments, she cautiously got off the table, and reached down to pick up the plate and utensils.
“I told you she was hungry,” said Bob.
The creature sat back on her table, and held her plate. She was examining it visually first. She then leaned over to sniff the food. Bob was smiling widely, though no one could have seen it inside his space helmet. He enjoyed watching someone else enjoy a meal, as much as he enjoyed a meal himself; feeding this beautiful creature made him feel very happy inside, indeed. She sniffed the chicken first and then the potatoes. She glanced back over at the men in space suits, and then back at the plate. She didn’t seem to move for a while. Then she cautiously sniffed the carrots. She leaned back quickly and put her hand over her mouth. She looked like she was gagging.
“I don’t think she likes the carrots,” said Danny. Bob was just a tad bit offended, but it only lasted a moment.
The creature picked up the knife and then the spoon. She used the spoon to hold the chicken down, as she cut the chicken into pieces. She did so slowly and methodically, periodically leaned down to inspect and smell. Once the chicken had been carved into small bite-size pieces, she put the utensils down and stared at the men. Bob motioned with his hand to his helmet, trying to tell her it was food. The creature looked away again and back at her food. She picked up a small piece of chicken with her fingers, and lifted it up to smell. She looked at it again, and then put it in her mouth. There was a slight grimace as she began to chew. After chewing for what seemed like a long time, she swallowed. She put her plate down, just past her feet, and then turned her body around on the table to face the men. She allowed her feet to hang down over the edge of the table. She motioned towards Bob, and then lifted up both hands to her mouth in a cupping fashion, and lifted up her head.
Bob, who was once again mesmerized by this creature, had no idea what she was doing—nor did he care. He was just glad that she was looking in his direction. “I think she wants something to drink,” said Danny.
Bob, snapping back to reality, practically jumped into action to get her a glass of water. The sudden movement caused the creature to recoil again, but once she saw Bob filling a glass with water, she seemed to relax. This time as he approached with the glass, the creature stood up to meet him. He reached the cup through her cell, and she reached to grab it. “Careful,” said Danny as he saw that the creature was reaching towards Bob. But the creature grasped the glass, and then headed back towards the table. She smelled the water, and then took a careful sip. After a couple more careful sips, she began to drink it down. She finished the glass, and looked over at Bob. She smiled very gently, and got back up and walked over to him. Bob had not moved from his place near her cell. “Careful,” said Danny again. The creature gently reached the glass to him, and Bob grabbed it. The creature, motioned again that she wanted to drink. Bob just stood there and didn’t move. He was looking the creature in the eyes, though the creature could only see his silver helmet. “I think she wants another drink, Bob.”
“Oh—yeah.” Bob filled up the glass and brought it back to the cell. The creature was still standing there, and the exchange went much more comfortably this time. She also uttered some expression in her language with a sweet smile. She headed back to her table, and continued to eat each piece of chicken one at a time, by picking it up with her fingers and putting them in her mouth. She did require one more glass of water, about the time that she finished her chicken. She went back to her plate and sniffed the potatoes again. She picked up her spoon, and put a small amount in her mouth. She grimaced more with the potatoes than she did with the chicken. Slowly, she spooned off the gravy and ate the gravy. She seemed to like the gravy very much. She then worked on the mashed potatoes slowly, and swallowing hard with each bit. She seemed to rely on the water, to get the potatoes down at first. Little by little, she seemed to become more comfortable with the taste.
Once the potatoes were finished, and she had finished her third cup of water, she turned to look at the men again. She stood up to give the men the plate, glass, and utensils. She didn’t attempt to eat the carrots. Bob came up again, and Danny stayed back. She uttered something in her tongue, pointed to the carrots, and shook her head and then smiled. She seemed to be apologizing that she wouldn’t eat the carrots.
No sooner had Bob taken her plate, than Tammy could be heard in the Helmets. “Danny, Bob, I’m going to sleep, is everything alright?”
“Hey Tammy, we just fed the alien,” said Bob with delight.
“Did you feed it, or did it feed itself?”
“Well, we gave her the food, and she fed herself.”
“How is it doing?”
“Great! She loved the chicken, and the gravy. I don’t know if she really liked the potatoes, but she ate them. I can tell you this much, she wouldn’t even try the carrots.”
“Yeah, she gagged when she smelled them. I thought she was going to puke,” informed Danny.
“Is it OK?—is it acting sick?”
“No, I think that she’s fine. She doesn’t seem so scared of us anymore and she seems better after eating,” said Bob.
“Alright, so carrots are off its menu. Write a report on its eating; that will be real important.”
“I’ll make sure Danny gets you a full report,” said Bob.
“Great. Now if she starts acting sick, or if any other problems come up, let me know. Otherwise, I desperately need some sleep.”
“Sounds great, Tammy. I’ll get you that report. We’ll take good care of her,” said Danny, and then Tammy was gone.
The creature was not privy to the conversation, as it took place within their helmets, and the helmets were sound-proof. The helmets also did not allow her to have any access to seeing their faces. She continued to look at her captors. After a few minutes, she turned again so that her side faced them. She grabbed her shins again, and bowed her head down, so that her forehead touched her knees. Soon her eyes were closed, and it looked like she may be going to sleep. Her eyes were closed, but Danny noticed that her lips were moving, almost like she was talking to herself, as no sound was audible.
Roloff was glad for his solitary evening walk after his meeting. It was very dark outside, which was soothing to him. He had found the agenda irritating this night. There was a small feud between two families in town, regarding fence repairs. Roloff found these things the least appealing aspect of his mayoral duties. He knew that he would be spending countless hours talking to the families. If it was really all about the fence, it would be easier to just go and repair it himself. But, he suspected that this was just the manifestation—the tip of the iceberg.
Rapid footsteps up ahead interrupted his thoughts. “Hello?” he called.
“Father!—is that you, Father?”
“Father, Mother is in trouble!” Caryell was running, and had just come into view.
“What’s wrong?—where is she?”
“I don’t know! You must come at once, she’s missing! I’ve been looking for her—for the past hour—but she is missing!”
“Perhaps she has been on a visit.”
“No, Father; we were both at home, Mother heard something in the woods; she went out to the woods with the lantern. I heard her yell my name from the woods. I went out to see her. I could see her lantern light in the woods. I called after her, but didn’t hear anything. The next thing I saw was the lantern getting thrown. So I started to run. I found the lantern on the ground, and I picked it up. I kept calling for mother, but I didn’t hear anything. As I was looking around I found a deer down. It didn’t look hurt. But it was sleeping, and wouldn’t wake up—even when I nudged it. Father, I looked everywhere that I could think, and I kept calling for her, but nothing. So that is when I ran to find you. I am so sorry!”
“Caryell, go to Seryen now. Tell him what you have told me, and ask him to get a search party together. I will meet you and the party in the woods near our home.”
The boy ran down the path, and soon disappeared from sight. Roloff wanted to run and get to Aspiria as quickly as possible. But first he dropped to his knees. He began to pray. He prayed harder than he had ever prayed in his life. Roloff prayed regularly. He led his family in prayer. He prayed for his family, his friends, and neighbors. He prayed for his community. But now his prayer was filled with deep humility. He put this in God’s hands. He knew that something had happened to Aspiria, and he feared that he would not be able to help her on his own. He then got up and ran.
He first stopped at his home and ran inside.
“Aspiria!” he shouted. No answer. He looked in the room. He quickly ran through every room. He then went into the woods. The deer was still down. He felt the animal. It was alive, but in a deep sleep. There was no visible wound, or injury. But he could see by the deer’s tracks—through his lantern’s illumination—that the animal had been running and then fell abruptly. He quickly found other tracks. Aspiria’s footprints were not hard to discover. They led up to the deer, and then she had fallen herself. There were other tracks, also. Perhaps they were men’s footprints. There were several of them; the evidence showed that they had been near the deer. A few indentations lead up to some trees that were nearest to his home. They may have been watching his home. Many tracks indicated walking, but then four sets led away—clearly at a run. One set was deeper, it was from someone heavier—perhaps this one was carrying something—perhaps carrying Aspiria. Caryell’s footprints were everywhere. The poor boy, he didn’t know what to do, but he was trying desperately to help his mother.
Roloff knew that he needed to follow the running footprints that let away into the dark. But he didn’t want to be too far away when the search party came. He didn’t want them worrying about him. He wanted all efforts to be on Aspiria. But he was concerned that the town would be coming to help, and he would be showing them the tracks of the men that had taken Aspiria. He worried about what a panic could be created by this. This town had been as safe from harm as any place could be. When bad things happened, they were mistakes, or acts of God. Malicious behavior was heard about from the city, occasionally, but it had never been seen in this town before. Roloff knelt by the deer, and offered another prayer, this time for inspiration. He wanted to know if he should follow the tracks, likely well over an hour old, or if he should meet the party and follow the trail together with the search party. He felt that he should wait for the party.
The wait was not long; he began to see lights and heard voices coming towards his home. He walked towards the search party. He was both the townsman in need of assistance, and, being the Mayor, the leader of the party. His leadership would be critical, but he also knew that the people would want to help and comfort him. Seryen must be in charge of the group, he decided. It made more sense. He would guide Seryen.
“Roloff, is that you?” he heard Seryen shout in the distance.
“Yes, come quickly. Thank you all for coming.”
Perhaps thirty to forty men were coming up behind Seryen. Many brought lanterns, and those with older boys had their sons with them, too.
“Have you found Aspiria?”
“No. But I’ve just found tracks, and I would love help in following them. I’m afraid that this doesn’t appear to be an accident. I see multiple sets of prints, and I think that someone is up to no good. I can only hope that it is a prank. Seryen, I will show you what I’ve found, and you lead these men. I will assist where I can. Is Caryell with you?”
“I’m here, Father.”
The boy was behind the pack and out of breath. He had been running frantically for about an hour and a half. “Come here, Caryell.” His father embraced him closely, and looked at him in the eyes. “You must pray, Caryell. Your Mother needs your prayers right now.”
“Yes, Father, I have been praying.”
“Come with me and Seryen.”
Roloff, Seryen and Caryell walked a little ahead of the group, and towards the fallen deer. Roloff explained his findings to Seryen as they walked. When they got to the deer, Roloff showed him some of the tracks, and pointed to the trail that was running off from the spot. As the men behind them came up, a murmur could be heard.
“What is going on with that deer?” asked Bastian from behind them. Bastian was a strong and portly man. He had been athletic in his youth, but now had a large pot belly and a fat face with a double chin. He had light brown hair, and a confident—almost conceited—way about him.
“The deer is not dead. It is neither hurt nor injured. It is sleeping, and it cannot be woken. It must be drugged. Aspiria’s tracks lead to this spot, and then her tracks are gone. Other tracks lead that way,” he pointed in the direction of the fleeing tracks. “One set of tracks are deeper, and I suspect that whosevers prints they are, was carrying Aspiria. Seryen, please lead this search party in pursuit of those who left these footprints.”
“Let’s go, men,” said Seryen.
The men followed, but whispers and concerned conversation could be heard among the group. The town loved Aspiria, and would do anything for her. But the men began to be concerned that they had left their women and children alone in the town and that foul play was at hand here. “I think that we need to send a party back, to protect the town,” called Bastian.
“No,” called back Seryen. “The town is fine, and we must help Aspiria.”
Roloff whispered to Seryen, “Perhaps we have more men than we need. Sending a party back could add protection for all of our families.”
Seryen did not answer back. He kept walking for a few paces in silence. Roloff was his boss, at least under normal circumstances. But Seryen was leading this party, and he needed to make the decisions. Seryen struggled with Bastian. Bastian never showed respect to Seryen. He was feeling undermined by Bastian and wanted to show his strength and leadership. Seryen finally stopped, and walked up to Bastian. “Bastian, you are right. This is an unusual event. You take back with you fifteen men. I will take the rest to find Aspiria.”
Bastian ended up with over half of the men returning with him. Seryen was about to protest, but thought better of it. We will still have a good number with us, he thought. They will be the most willing and helpful anyway. The men continued on their track, and came to the other edge of the woods. The ground was much harder, and all but one set of tracks seemed to disappear. The deepest tracks could be followed somewhat, with difficulty. They led to a clear rocky area. The tracks were gone, and nothing else appeared to give the men a clue.
“Let’s spread out and search.”
The men searched for several hours, but nothing could be found. Seryen called off the search until morning, when there would be light. Sorrow and concern filled the hearts of all the men present. Roloff returned home with Caryell. The two men walked in silence. Caryell had the look of exhaustion and exasperation. Roloff had tears welled up in his eyes. He knew that he would not be able to sleep, and he feared that neither would Caryell. But he hoped that at least some rest—some shut-eye—would help them when they began the search again the next morning. The father embraced his son, and told him to rest. They knelt together and Roloff offered a prayer of pleading, then the Paladors went to try and rest.
Aspiria finished her meal before she realized that she had not prayed over it. It was the first time in her life that she had eaten without a blessing being offered first. She got back up on the table, and asked a blessing. She had been so scared—so overwhelmed—but now she felt a little better. She offered her prayer, and asked for a blessing of protection on her family. She knew that Roloff and Caryell would be worried sick, and she asked that they would receive comfort.
Aspiria did not know who her captors were, but she sensed some kindness; at least from the two that were with her now. It was the worst meal that she had ever eaten in her life, but she still expressed gratitude for it. She worried, a little, that they might be offended that she didn’t eat all of it. She worried even more that they might force her to eat those horrific orange things again. Aspiria had never been a picky eater, but she had never had such horrible smelling and tasting food put in front of her. The meat wasn’t too bad. She had never heard of orange food, and she had never smelled something so rancid in all of her life.
She felt tired, but not sleepy. Her head ached, worse than ever before. She didn’t know how long she had been away from home; in a way it felt like minutes and in other ways it felt like days. She wanted to look at her right thigh, where she had been shot with the dart, but was not comfortable lifting her dress up high enough to see it with these people looking on. She felt like she had been seen and inspected. She could see small injuries on her arm, and she suspected that she had been examined while she was out. Her underclothing had felt just a little off when she had woken up. It was not a pleasant thought, but she did think that she had already been undressed in front of them. She couldn’t tell if they were men, or women. So far, she had not heard a sound from them, and she had only seen them in their strange suits. When she spoke, they did not seem to understand, but when she gestured, they seemed to be very interested.
What do they want with me? she thought. Maybe I interrupted something that they were doing in the woods. Perhaps I got in their way. Maybe I was shot with the drugged dart on accident. This seems like a medical clinic of sorts. Perhaps I was brought here to recover from the drugged dart. Did they save my life? Those suits seem like they are trying to protect themselves from me. No, they were wearing them when I got shot. I remember seeing that before I went out. I’ve been awake for at least a few hours, why don’t they let me know what’s going on?
As she pondered her extraordinary circumstances, she began to feel a sensation. It was the first indication of the need to urinate. It was not initially alarming to her, but it lead to a new train of thought. She knew that she was dehydrated until she had had all of those glasses of water. But she had not had any need to urinate for the hours that she had been awake. She then noticed tenderness in her rectum. She was aware that her bowels felt entirely empty. That was not her state before she had been taken captive. The thought of what had transpired during the time she was out made her shudder. She tried to think on other matters, but that fourth glass of water had kicked her kidneys into gear. The initial sensation to urinate was strengthening, quickly.
The people that were standing guard had been very helpful to her with her glasses of water and her meal. How do I communicate to them that I need to use the facilities? she thought. The cell that she was in was small, completely visible to the outsiders, and with nothing that resembled a toilet facility. Aspiria waited as she pondered, but the urgency was coming on quickly. She got off the table, and walked to the bars at the front of her cell. She tried to make eye contact, with the silver helmets, and the people seemed to be paying attention to her. She put her hand on her belly and gave a facial expression of discomfort. The people in suits looked at her, and then glanced at each other. She could tell that they were somehow speaking with each other, as she could see that their body language indicated conversation.
They looked back at her, and didn’t move. This time she spoke out loud. “I need to use the facilities. I think that I drank too much water, too quickly.” The people could hear her, she thought, as they seemed to be listening. They looked at each other and began to show evidence of communication again. The one that had brought her the meal and water stepped forward, and began to walk towards her. He stopped short of the bars, and appeared to glare at her, though she could see no eyes. She again placed her hand on her belly and tried to show discomfort and urgency on her face. The suited person looked on at her for a moment and then turned to the other suited person again.
“I think that she has a stomach ache,” Bob said as he turned to Danny.
“It looks like it. I think that we should tell Tammy.”
“Tammy was exhausted, and she wanted us to take care of things,” Bob explained.
“Yes, but she will be furious if something happens to her ‘specimen.’”
“I’m more worried about her; she looks really uncomfortable,” said Bob genuinely.
The woman in cell had turned away from them slightly, and was looking in the air, as if she didn’t know what to do. She started to bend her knees up and down a little, almost unconsciously. She turned back to the men, and gave them the same gesture when she wanted a glass of water. Bob thought, “Oh that might help with a stomach ache, I’ll get her another glass of water. I wonder if there are any Tums in here.” He started to go for another glass of water, but he saw her shake her head at him in a strange way. He stopped and looked on again. She showed him the glass of water gesture again, and then the hand on the stomach and the grimace of the face expression.
Finally she lifted up her eyebrows and looked at him as though to say, “Get it?”
Bob didn’t get it. The woman started bouncing again, and this time with a little more urgently.
“I think that she has to pee,” said Danny.
“Oh, I think you’re right. Oh, oh. That’s not good.”
“What do we do?” asked Danny. “We can’t take her out of her cell. That was our most important instruction.”
“Do we have a bottle or container or something?” asked Bob.
“Will that beaker fit through the bars? It looks like it’s big enough to hold it.”
“Hand it to me, I’ll try.” Bob walked with the beaker towards the cell. The alien woman looked at him with a very concerned expression on her face. He reached it up to the bar, and saw that it fit—barely. He then pulled it back and gestured to the woman by holding it in position and gently squatting. The woman looked at him in utter dismay. First her face whitened, and then it turned a bright crimson. Bob tried to hand it to her, but she did not reach for it. Instead she wrinkled her eyebrows, and shook her head adamantly. “She definitely has got to pee. But I don’t think she wants to do it in front of us.”
“Maybe if we turn our backs,” offered Danny. The two men turned their backs to her momentarily and then Bob reached up the beaker again. The woman lowered her head and looked up at Bob, with her dark eyes penetrating. She shook her head slowly but assertively. Bob was mesmerized again. They clearly understood each other. He was communicating with this beautiful alien woman. Even though she was the captive and she was in the cell, she had him in the palm of her hand.
“We have to get her to a bathroom. She’s got to go, and she isn’t going to do it like some kind of animal,” expressed Bob.
“I am not going to disobey orders.”
“I’m calling Captain Jenners,” said Bob.
Steve and Mike were talking together when Bob interrupted them over the intercom. “We’ve got a situation in the lab…with the woman—the alien.” Steve and Mike looked at each other alarmed, and sat up straight.
“What’s going on, Bob?” asked Steve directly.
“Uh…this woman, uh…she has to go.”
“What! Go where? She’s not going anywhere. Are you talking with her?”
“No, Captain, she’s trying to talk, but I can’t understand her. I mean she has to go, as in, she’s got to pee.”
Mike’s face turned into an instant smile, and he bowed his head and started to chuckle. Steve smiled from ear to ear as he and Mike exchanged a look.
“Bob, this alien is not leaving the cell. Remember, this is an intelligent creature. That is the oldest trick in the book. Even they know that trick out here.”
“No Captain, she really does have to go. I gave her four glasses of water, and I can tell it’s for real,” said Bob in all seriousness.
“Captain,” Danny came on, “I think it’s the real thing.”
“Well, give her something to go in. She’s not getting out of the cell.”
“Yeah, um, we tried that. But she said that she wouldn’t.”
“I thought that you couldn’t understand her?”
“I can’t understand her words, but I understood that.”
Mike was starting to laugh uncontrollably.
“Captain Jenners,” Danny was still speaking with as much seriousness as possible. “She understands that we wanted her to pee in the beaker, but she won’t. I think that we are going to have to do something.”
Steve looked at Mike, and rolled his eyes. “What are we going to do?” he asked Mike.
“If she has to go bad enough, she’ll go in the beaker, I suppose,” suggested Mike.
Something inside of Steve began to eat at him. “Look, we captured her, and she didn’t put up any fight. We have weapons and more tranquilizing darts. We’ve got plenty of us. Maybe we could give her an armed escort to the bathroom. We could be like the Secret Service.”
Mike shook his head and chuckled slightly. “If she really has to go, she’ll go in the beaker.”
“Come on, Mike, let’s go. We’ll bring all the arms, and make sure there is no funny business. There is a bathroom in the lab, so we won’t have to compromise the air lock.”
Aspiria was mortified. She really was aching in her bladder, and the pressure was increasing. The only hope that she had was that the people were not offering her the beaker. Instead, they seemed to be busy doing something. It wasn’t clear what it was, but they were both fiddling with something. One of the suited people walked to the far end of the room, and opened a door. Aspiria looked at it. It was dark in the just opened room, and she couldn’t make out what was inside. A light came on, and she noticed strange facilities that looked like they could be a bathroom. A feeling of relief came over her. Not complete relief, of course, that would require her being in that room—but relief none the less.
The next thing she knew, the people were both brandishing weapons! They were not pointing them at her, but they were pointed in the air. From the side, two other suited people entered the room. She was startled when she first saw them, and was lucky to be able to continue to hold herself. They too were brandishing weapons. One of them was clearly in charge. He was pointing and positioning the other people. He never looked in her direction. The one in charge had two of the other people point their weapons at her. She began to fear that they would put her out again—or worse. The one who didn’t have the weapon pointed at her walked towards her.
The suited person opened up her cell. She stood motionless. The person put his hand around the top of her arm, and began to pull her firmly, but gently out of the cell. Aspiria walked slowly, at the pace that her captors seemed to indicate. As she walked out of the cell she stared from one armed captor to another. They moved their weapons keeping them locked on her as she walked towards the recently opened door. She realized that they were afraid of her. What a strange thought. She had never seen anyone show that body language towards her. Why are they afraid of me? she wondered. She had plenty of reason to be afraid of them, but oddly she started to feel some pity towards these strange individuals.
Her urgency to urinate intensified as the bathroom approached. She instantly grew concerned that she would not be allowed to do this alone. But as she went through the door and into the room, the person holding her arm loosened and allowed her to walk in alone. She looked around and saw that they were all facing her—two of them with weapons pointing towards her. She slowly began to shut the door, but just a few inches. She looked at them for approval. No one seemed concerned. She continued to shut the door, and they seemed to accept that.
With the door shut, she looked at the contraption that appeared to be the appropriate facility. She lifted up her dress, pulled down her underclothing, and sat down. The urgency was intense, but the awkwardness and fear made it difficult to start. She remembered her thigh, and took a look at it. There was a mark, from the dart, but it was not too tender or bruised. She was relieved that it still looked fresh. She couldn’t have been under too long. She was now able to urinate, and as she did she felt a burning.
Steve had just sat down on his bed when he heard a knock on his door. He was a little irritated, but got up to answer the door. Tammy was there, and she looked beautiful, her red hair had a beautiful curl and shine. She had not just come over after finishing her lab work, but had taken some time to freshen up. Steve glanced in the hall before welcoming her into his chambers.
“No one’s around,” she said with a smile as she walked in. As soon as the door was shut, she put her arms around him tightly. They enjoyed a prolonged embrace. Steve leaned in for the kiss, and they both poured out their affection.
Steve looked at Tammy, who had been apparently very happy just a few minutes ago. He saw a look of concern on her face. She began to get a little misty-eyed, and then forced a smile again. “What’s wrong?” he asked tenderly.
“I’ve missed you,” she said as she forced another smile. They both sat down on his bed, close to each other, and Steve grabbed her left hand in both of his and rested them on her lap.
“You must be exhausted. I know that you haven’t taken many of your rest periods. You’ve been working tirelessly. I’ve missed you, too.”
Tammy looked up at him, and smiled more genuinely this time. “I’m living my dream right now.”
Steve smiled tenderly at her now. Her physical attraction to him was growing into something deeper, and he felt it now more than ever. Steve was beginning to view his future life with her in it. She appealed to him on so many levels. Tammy was so beautiful that she would always be a compliment to him. She was extraordinarily intelligent. She was driven, as driven as he had ever seen. His ship was filled with people with drive, and yet Tammy outpaced them all. Tammy was meticulous and detail-oriented, but still she kept her personality. She could laugh at herself, and was not so self-absorbed that she couldn’t see others’ points of view. She was witty and funny. She was very self-confident and comfortable in anyone’s presence.
The other major attraction he had not completely formulated in his mind—he and she were destined to be in the history books. They were going to be household names. They were both heroes’. Their destinies had been meshed together through this mission and its attendant success. The name Steve Jenners was going to be spoken for hundreds of years to come, and Tammy Rogers was good enough for him. She would not be eclipsed by him or in his shadows. She would shine by his side. They would both be the elite of the world.
Besides all of this, he loved her. He felt a pure tenderness towards her. In fact, he felt that everything else was just an excuse for his feelings. He felt as though even if everything else were not true, he would still feel just as much love for her. He began to hope for her happiness above his own. Her eyes welled up again, and a solitary tear began to roll down her cheek. He reached up and gently caught it on his index finger. She sniffled softly, and then smiled again. He put his arm around her shoulder, and tucked her into his chest. Gentle tears ran down her cheeks. He didn’t ask her why. He didn’t try to give her any words of comfort. He just held her—and let her cry.
“Tammy’s pulling the report right now,” explained James to Kenny in the dining area. “What’s your vote, human or alien?”
“Now that’s a loaded question. She’s definitely an alien. I mean, she’s not from earth—so she’s an alien. But as to whether or not she’s human, now that’s the question,” replied Kenny.
Tammy walked into the dining area and straight over to counter without so much as acknowledging the two men. She grabbed a mug, and then dropped it on the counter. It didn’t break, but she hit her fist on the counter anyway, in a show of complete frustration.
“Hey Tammy, what’s the word on the report?” inquired Kenny.
She waited a second, before turning towards them. As she shook her head she said, “There is no word. The genetic analyzer messed it up. It came out as nonsense—complete and utter nonsense. I don’t know if the thing is broken, or if I did something wrong. It’s been working fine the whole time; then when I need it, it goes out.”
“So it ran through the whole thing, instead of letting you know that something was wrong?” asked James.
“Yeah, I had no clue at all. It showed everything as fine at the end, too. I’m going to be livid if they have to send in another ship and crew because we can’t gather our most important data.”
“Have you already reported the failure to Central Command?” asked Kenny with some concern.
“No, I’d rather test it again. I’ve been trusted with the most important scientific report ever. I intend to get it right, as long as the stupid equipment doesn’t fail me!” And with that, she kicked the counter.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” asked Steve, as he and Mike entered the room. He wanted to go up to her, and put his hands on her shoulders and rub them, but knew that he could not.
“The genetic analysis didn’t run right. I can’t tell if the machine failed, or I did something wrong. I’ve got to start all over again.”
“It worked fine, when you ran my DNA,” said Steve.
Tammy didn’t answer, but looked like she was deep in thought. In a matter of minutes everyone was at the table eating.
“So, the atmosphere on this world is identical to the atmosphere on the earth. It looks like the only reason to continue with the air lock is to keep the two species from sharing germs, and making each other sick,” stated James to break the silence.
“This is strange,” said Kenny between bites.
“I think that we may need to break the air lock,” said Tammy without looking up from her plate.
Mike looked up though. He looked right at Tammy. “What? We can’t break the air lock, not with her on board.”
“I’ve isolated all of her flora. I’ve got all of her skin flora, her fecal flora, her genital flora, oral flora, ocular flora—I’ve got it all. It is bacteria. It looks like bacteria, it acts like bacteria, it’s not identical to earth’s bacteria, but it’s a lot like it. It can definitely infect human tissue. I’ve tested her strains on human cells, and they cause infections. But they are so susceptible to our antibiotics. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. They must not be using anything like our antibiotics, because these bugs have no resistance whatsoever. I’ve tested our specimens’ tissue with our bacteria also. Its tissue is equally susceptible to infection from our bacteria. It’s a little harder to kill, because our bacteria have a lot of resistance against our antibiotics. But it’s doable. Actually, I think that it has a minor infection already. The lab was ‘sterilized’ before the air lock, and before we acquired the specimen, but I don’t think that it was one hundred percent sterilized. I think that it has caught a bug—one of our germs. It’s respiratory and the specimen has a bit of a runny nose. I gave it a broad spectrum antibiotic injection, and I’m culturing its sputum and nasal mucus now. I’ll know soon if it is from an earth born bacterial infection. If the antibiotic shot works, then I don’t think we have to worry about contaminating it. At least we can clear up the infection.” Tammy explained all of this with ease. She was feeling a little better, as she explained some of her successes.
“So you want to break the air lock to test how we do with each other’s bacteria?” asked James.
“No. I’m just saying that I don’t think that it will present as big of a problem as it could. If neither species gets any serious sickness from breaking the air lock, then it won’t be such a big deal.”
“Then why do you want to break the air lock?” asked Kenny.
Tammy hesitated a bit. “I want to re-run the genetic test. I could just get another sample from the specimen and re-run it. But, I would prefer to get samples from each of you, and run them along with the specimen’s sample. If the machine is broken, or out of calibration, I may be able to see where it is going wrong. I can see how your DNA stacks up against your baseline tests. I really don’t want to lose this report. In order to get your samples, I will have to expose each of you, and that pretty much destroys the value of the air lock.”
“What about viruses, prions, et cetera?” asked Mike.
“I haven’t isolated any viruses from the specimen. I have exposed its tissue samples to our viruses, but I won’t have results for a couple of days. Our specimen appears to be in great health, minus a little infection that we have given it. I think that if we all received antibiotics prophylactically, that we would be fine. There is some risk, and I think everyone should know that, but I really do think the risk is minimal. I’m willing to take the risk. I want the data. I think that we can handle any infections.”
“How soon would you want all of our DNA samples?” asked Steve, with Mike looking and glaring at him.
“Yesterday,” said Tammy, in all seriousness.
“I trust you. This mission has been anything but conventional—both from our deviating from protocol, to the ultimate successes. I don’t think that it is possible to break our barriers of success, by sticking to protocol. I’ll tell Danny and Bob about the risk. Does anyone have any major objections?” Steve asked with a look that seemed to say, “And there better not be any major objections!”
“I hear what you are saying Captain,” said James. “We have to take risks, if we want the whole enchilada. They got to be calculated risks though. I think Tammy has calculated them. I’m in.”
“Captain, the risks we are talking about are both to our own health, and to the success of the mission. We are going for it on 4th and 10 in our own territory. Tammy’s a good quarterback, though. Tammy, if you say you’ve got it, I’m with you,” explained Kenny.
“Captain Jenners, you’re the Captain. I don’t like it. But, I’m not going to fight you on it,” Mike said. He was clearly not very happy about this. But that was Mike. He wasn’t ever happy about anything. Mike, however, had a lot more bark than bite.
Tammy looked around, with a look in her eyes that said, “thank you.” Everything did not feel better. She was still so frustrated inside. But at least she felt like she could proceed. She and Steve exchanged a look. He was doing her a big favor. The look told him that she knew it and appreciated it. He didn’t want to compromise the mission in any way, but he felt that he needed to keep this mission on this ship. If other ships came in, it could become a turf war very quickly.
For the first time, Aspiria was completely alone in the room. She had been stuck in her cell for the past week, and was feeling very caged-in. She was only allowed to leave for showering and bathroom privileges. She had been given alternative clothing to wear, and she wore it, but it was very strange. Today, they had brought her back her own clothing and it was clean. She was glad to have her own clothing back on. Over the past week, her escorts had become more comfortable with her leaving for her bathroom breaks. They still carried weapons, but did not point them directly at her.
She had watched them closely and could tell by body language that there were at least seven different people that had been in her room. One of them was clearly in charge of her room. This person was in here most of the time. This person had put several needles in her—sometimes putting in, and sometimes taking out. Aspiria felt that although she spent the most time with this particular person, this person was very distant with her. Others, like the person who had first fed her, were very kind and interested in her. One person never looked at her and seemed to be the leader of the group. Everyone seemed to follow this person’s command, except the person with whom she spent the most time. That person seemed to have a certain command over the person in charge. Those two seemed fond of each other.
They always guarded over her night and day, as it were. But now she was alone. It was both comforting and disconcerting. Now she could hear sounds, and she felt a change in the air. Something was going on, and she sat up straight and listened intensely. For several minutes it was quiet again; then she heard a voice for the first time. It was a very strange voice—a woman’s voice. The language was foreign. It was very nasal and it grated on her. However, she was thrilled to hear a voice. She had heard nothing but the hum of machines and her own voice for the past week. Now another voice could be heard. This was a man’s voice. They were getting closer. She listened carefully, but could not make out anything familiar, neither in word, tone, nor inflection.
Two people entered the room; a woman and a man. The woman looked over at her briefly, seemingly to just check and make sure that she was in her cell. The man did not look over. It took a few minutes watching these unsuited people, without helmets, to tell if she recognized them. It was the woman who was always there. Aspiria felt some relief. She suspected that she had been examined by this person before she had come to. It was a relief that it was a woman. The man was the man in charge. The woman proceeded to inject him, and took out rather than put in. The man did not particularly like it, but they clearly were fond of each other. The woman generally seemed cold, except when he was around.
Aspiria was staring at them. Perhaps this was rude, but she had nothing else to look at. She also needed to figure out what was going on. She needed to find a way to communicate with them. She missed her family terribly. She was feeling a little sick, though that seemed to be getting better with what she suspected to be medicine that she had been injected with. She was cooped up, and had never been cooped up in her life. Aspiria walked miles every day and could not stand to be sitting or lying all day long. She felt physically, mentally, and emotionally uncomfortable. As she stared at the two people in the room, the man looked up at her. She was used to being looked at by these people, but not by him. She smiled slightly and unconsciously at him. He was young, blond, blue-eyed, and very handsome. The man did not look away, but he kept staring at her. It seemed as though he was talking with the woman and with her; as he gestured she could tell that he was taking an interest in her—seemingly for the first time.
The woman seemed to be preoccupied, but carried on the conversation politely, though disinterestedly. When the woman finished with him the man got up and walked over to Aspiria. Aspiria felt a little nervous. For the first time she could see eyes, up close. Those eyes were looking at her as though there was something unusual about her. The man spoke again, but this time he seemed to be speaking to Aspiria, not to the other woman. The words and the sound were strange. It was not a pleasant sound, but she was thrilled to hear these people speak. Where could they be from? she thought. The man gestured to himself as he spoke, and smiled at her.
Aspiria spoke back to him. She told him that she was Aspiria, and pointed to herself. The man screwed up his eyes, but kept smiling. In the background Aspiria could see that another man had entered the lab and had gone over to the woman. He too was getting an injection. Aspiria wanted to watch and see which person it was by the body language, but the man in front of her didn’t seem to want to lose her attention. They continued to try and interact with each other but their languages were alien to each other. She felt frustrated, but at the same time, he was so pleasant and brought himself to laugh so easily that Aspiria, too, allowed her frustration to turn to laughter.
The other man getting an injection left the room, and a third man entered. This time, Aspiria’s attention was turned. This man had very dark skin. She had never seen, or heard of a man with such dark skin. The man in charge turned to see what was so interesting going on behind him. He turned back towards her and looked at her questioningly. Aspiria, looked back at the man in front of her, and reached up to her face. She waved her hand over her face, and then over her arms. That was the only exposed skin of the dark-colored man. Then she pointed at the man. The man in front of her, looked at her quizzically for a moment, and then showed a smile of understanding. He turned to the other man and spoke to him. The dark-skinned man looked up and smiled. Then they both laughed. Even the woman joined in the laughter for a moment.
When the dark-skinned man was done with his injection, he too walked up to Aspiria’s cell. Aspiria walked up to the bars at the edge of her cell. She wanted to look at this man as closely as she could. The dark-skinned man looked at the blond man, and then walked up closer. Aspiria reached her hand out through the cage very slowly. The dark-skinned man walked up closer, and Aspiria touched his arm. She gently caressed it, and then reached towards his cheek. She caressed them as well. The dark skin man smiled and spoke in the strange tongue of her captors. Aspiria smiled deeply.
Other men also came in and got their injections. One was her friend that liked to give her food. He waved at her, when he came in. The next one was his companion. He had darker skin too, but not as dark as the other man. The last one to come in wore facial hair, and was clearly older than everyone else. She laughed briefly when she saw the man with facial hair but put her hand over her mouth and stopped herself. A man wearing facial hair, at least where she was from, was unheard of. She had never seen that before. The blond man signaled for the hairy man to come over, when he was done. He brought the hairy man up close to the cell, and signaled for Aspiria to touch this facial hair. The idea was revolting to her, and she withdrew herself slightly and shook her head. Everyone in the room laughed boisterously, while the hairy man turned a little red. She worried that she had offended him. But he laughed and smiled at her. He put his own hand up to his facial hair and rubbed it and then shrugged. Aspiria smiled, but did not want to come up closer to the bars.
She felt much better now that she could see their faces. She was glad for the interaction with them. But she also felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Who are they, and where are they from? she kept thinking. I knew that they were strange, but they must be from very far away. They couldn’t be from the city. But,…she didn’t think that anywhere except the city had electricity. These people seemed to know a lot about electricity and medicine. More than anything she had seen before. Where else could they be from? These thoughts and feelings began to weigh heavily on her mind. The only hope was that they seemed less afraid of her now. They were out of their suits and helmets. They had let her touch one of them. They smiled and seemed kind. But she was still in this little cell. She wanted to go for a walk. She wanted to be with her family. She wanted to feel the sunshine on her skin and the breeze in her hair.
How can I communicate with them? she thought. Suddenly, an idea came to her.
“She likes you, James,” said Steve.
“Hey, I can’t help it if I’m the most amazing guy she has ever seen. Besides, I’m used to it. I always have this effect on beautiful women—especially supermodels.”
“All I’ve got to do is shave—then I’ll be her favorite,” Kenny asserted.
“What? Are you kidding me? She can’t stand you. If you shave, maybe she won’t back off when you come near! No, I’m definitely her favorite.” James was clearly enjoying the attention.
“Look, she’s trying to tell us something. What is she doing?” asked Steve. The woman was holding out her left hand and pointing to it with her right index finger. Now she was dragging her finger on the hand. They looked at her curiously.
“I think she wants something to write on,” said Danny coming up from behind them.
“You’re right,” said Steve. “Hey Tammy, do you have a tablet close by?”
“Yeah, what’s it for?”
“She looks like she wants to write or draw something.”
“You want me to let it have one of our tablets?”
“We’re right here, we’re watching her,” said Steve.
“Aren’t we supposed to be studying her?” said James. “This is pretty interesting. Do you want to come over here, Tammy?”
“I am studying it, and in fact I need a blood sample so that we can figure out the genetics. Let me get the sample, and then you guys can play with your new toy.”
“James, get a tranq. gun. We are going to escort her for her blood work.”
“Hey, she likes me. She can’t stand Kenny. Let Kenny hold the gun.”
Steve stared at James and James dropped his protest. James looked at the woman and shrugged. He went and got the gun. Steve let her out and the woman looked over at James. Then she went over to where Tammy was prepped for her. The procedure was done in a few moments and the tablet was procured. They turned on a drawing app and handed the tablet to the woman who was still sitting at the counter. The woman looked up at the men curiously. Steve reached down and dragged his finger across the surface. The tablet picked up his finger stroke in a black color. Then he touched the color pallet, on the red. He then stroked his finger again on the tablet, and this time a new red stroke was there. He hit the clear button and looked at the woman. The woman looked down at the tablet and touched the surface quickly, and then withdrew her finger. A red spot was now in the area that she had touched. She looked back up to the men and then tried it again. She then touched the color pallet, and hit blue. She did a streak, and then a circular pattern. She looked back up again and took a deep breath.
She hit the clear button, and then stared at the tablet for a few moments. Her eyes squinted and then she looked up at Steve. She made a drawing motion with her hand, like she was holding an instrument. “Give her a stylus,” said James.
Steve almost asked Tammy, but looking over at her, he knew that he would be pushing his luck. He rummaged through her instruments and found a piece that would work. He gave it to the woman and changed the stroke size on the app. to approximate the small stroke size of her makeshift stylus. The woman was pleased, and she started to draw. She was very good; it only took a few minutes for her to have a small and colorful, full bodied self-portrait, drawn with the same green as her dress that she had on. “It’s her,” said Steve.
She then wrote several symbols. They were typical shapes: circles, triangles, squares, etc. The shapes were variously sized and some also had lines or dots next to, on top, or within the shapes. She underlined the whole of them and then spoke while pointing to herself. All of the men looked at her curiously. She then pointed to her self-portrait and then back at herself again. She then spoke the same way again, while indicating the shapes. The sound of this woman’s voice was angelic. Her tones and inflections were unlike any voice these men had ever heard before. To say that it was beautiful would be a severe injustice. It truly was the voice of an angel.
The woman continued to repeat her vocalization and gestures. Danny was the first to attempt a copy of her vocalization. “anzzaa.” The woman looked up at Danny with some excitement, and then repeated her word. Danny tried again, “azzamppa.” The woman smiled, giggled a little, and then repeated the word.
James, still enjoying his favored status, decided to jump in, “azzpppra.” She smiled encouragingly, and then repeated. “azzpprya,” was met with an approving nod, and then another repeat.
“aspprya,” stated Steve. This time she gave a smile and an approving nod, while repeating the word and pointing to herself.
“Aspiria,” said Kenny. She looked at him and uttered a new word.
“Aspiria,” she said in her angelic voice, and worked with the other men until they could all adequately pronounce it. Kenny was still the best at pronouncing it, and she indicated the stylus to him. He came over, and picked up the stylus. She indicated a space under the shape characters that she had written. Kenny looked at her with some confusion. The woman indicated the same space. Then she said, “Aspiria,” while indicating her characters. She then said the word again, and indicated the space under her characters.
“She wants you to write, ‘Aspiria,’” said Danny.
Kenny leaned in to write, and the woman leaned back uncomfortably. She was clearly, still, uncomfortable with Kenny. He wrote, ‘aspiria,’ and handed her back the stylus. The woman pointed to herself and repeated the word. Then she pointed at her characters and repeated the word, and finally she pointed at the word that Kenny had written, repeating the word again.
James pointed at himself and said, “aspiria.” The woman drew her head back, and shook her head and then smiled. She then pointed with emphasis at herself and repeated, “Aspiria.” James felt a little embarrassed. The woman looked down at the tablet, and indicated that she wanted to draw more, but didn’t seem to want to change what was already there.
“Save that drawing,” commanded Steve. “That may be real important.” Kenny was still close at hand, and he saved the drawing. Then he cleared the page, so that she could draw again.
The woman gasped, and looked up at Kenny and then at the rest of the men with alarm. “It’s still there,” said Kenny and he pulled up her drawing. She looked relieved, and then indicated that she wanted to write again. Kenny showed her how to clear the page again.
The woman took a good look at James, and then began to draw. She was clearly drawing James. It wasn’t quite as good as her self-portrait, but it was easy to tell who she was drawing. The darkness of his skin was over-emphasized, but she clearly had some talent.
“It’s James,” said Danny.
“issjmnnnzz,” said the woman with a very different sounding voice. It actually sounded horrible, and was exceptionally nasal. She pointed to James and said it again. Then she pointed to herself and said, “Aspiria.”
“James,” said James and pointed to himself.
“Jmnnnzz,” said the woman and smiled while indicating him.
“James,” he said again.
This went on for several moments, until she was getting closer. She then wrote in her shape characters next to the picture and said, “James.” James and the other men continued to repeat the name “James,” and as they did so she continued to reformulate her characters. Sometimes she would change the shape. Then she might change a shape’s size. Sometimes she would change the lines or dots near the shapes. Finally the men were satisfied with her ability to repeat, “James,” and she was satisfied with her characters. She then indicated to James to write his name under her characters. He did this, and then saved the file. She smiled up at him and said, “James.”
He pointed at himself and said, “James,” and then pointed towards her and said, “Aspiria.” To which the woman did the same. James was feeling very proud, and was pleased that he was still her favorite. She pointed at the clear button, and looked at James for approval. He nodded with a smile, and she cleared the page.
Steve’s drawing was next. The same episode was repeated. His name took her a little longer to get, and she said it with such a nasal emphasis, that it didn’t sound very good at all when the group indicated success. “Why does her voice always sound so beautiful, except when she tries to say our names?” asked James.
“I think that we must sound like that to her,” said Kenny. “Think about how we sound when we say, ‘Aspiria,’ compared to how she sounds.”
She drew Danny and then Kenny next. Danny’s skin tone was also over-emphasized. Kenny’s beard was really exaggerated. Everyone laughed when she did that, except Aspiria—she seemed a little embarrassed. The pictures of the men took on almost the appearance of caricatures. Their features were somewhat over-emphasized, but the effect was not comical—except Kenny’s, of course. Everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. They were captured by the moment, and the time was flying by. This woman, who had already cast a spell on them by her beauty and elegance, was now drawing them in further with her personality and talents. Each of them, like Bob before, was mesmerized by her. ‘Enchanting,’ would only begin to describe her persona.
It was Tammy’s turn next, and she drew her beautifully, although Tammy’s back was turned. She had obviously studied Tammy’s face that afternoon. She actually enhanced Tammy’s beauty in the picture, and Steve felt very proud. “Tammy,” said Steve.
“Yeah, what?” came Tammy’s voice from across the lab.
“No, Tammy. I didn’t call you. She’s trying to learn our names. You should see this picture that she drew of you.”
Tammy turned around, and looked a bit irritated.
“It’s beautiful,” said Steve. Tammy shook her head and turned back to her work.
Aspiria then attempted, “Tammy.” Again, it was very nasally, but she seemed to work extra hard. It seemed extraordinarily important to her that she get Tammy’s name right. Upon completion, she hurriedly drew two more people. The faces though were left without any detail. She shrugged.
“It must be Mike and Bob,” said Danny.
Aspiria had not gotten a good look at either of their faces, and they had left after their blood work. The men were starting the process of teaching her Mike’s name, when Tammy interrupted. “Guys, I need some space. I’ve got a lot to do. It’s time to put your pet back in its cage. You can play with it later.”
Steve looked up, and thought about protesting, but as he saw the look in her eyes, he realized that this was not a request, and it was not negotiable. “Let’s clear out,” he said. James had put the tranq. down a long time ago, without realizing it. Danny went up to Aspiria and indicated the cell. Aspiria looked hurt, but only momentarily. She got up and began to walk toward her cell. Danny escorted her, but did not put his hand around her arm. Steve realized that they were treating her with much less security. He felt torn. Part of him wanted to get the men back into military form, but part of him wanted to treat Aspiria with greater respect. He let her enter herself into the cell, and did not ask James to pick up the tranquilizer.
Danny locked her in. He felt—different—doing so this time. Aspiria looked at Danny and smiled. “Danny,” she said in her nasally tone. He smiled, and walked away.
Soon the room was empty, except for Tammy. Tammy did not look over at her, but kept at her work for hours. Aspiria wanted to have the drawing device. She wanted to study their writing. Instead she lay down and closed her eyes. She tried to picture the sounds and characters in her head. Communication was going to be difficult, but she had to try. Her thoughts soon turned to Roloff and Caryell. Soft tears began to roll down her cheeks. She didn’t want to show her emotions to Tammy, so she kept the sounds and sniffles quiet.
Over the next several days, Steve spent a lot of time in the lab. He had always been careful to not go to the lab too much. He didn’t want to show undue impropriety. Now, he had an entirely new motivation to be in the lab; he wanted to understand Aspiria. Because his desire to be in the lab was completely justified, he had no hesitation in spending as much time there as he desired. Tammy was thoroughly involved in her studies, and Steve was enjoying completely the time that he was spending with Aspiria. Still, he and Tammy also found time to spend together each day. She did not seem uncomfortable with the idea of sharing affection with Steve when they were alone. Steve was less comfortable, because he did not feel alone; Aspiria was there, too.
Aspiria was more foreign than alien to him now. Both he and Aspiria worked tirelessly each day trying to understand each other. They would often laugh playfully with each other. Steve felt like he was slaughtering her language, and the looks that she would give him sometimes said the same. For her part, she was not quite as nasally now, but still he could tell that, to her, his voice and language must sound awful. Sometimes when they would laugh hard, Tammy would turn around with irritation. At other times, she would give Steve jobs to do. He would feel a little annoyed about having his important work interrupted, but he felt that Tammy was on the whole being very patient.
On the first day, they passed the tablet through the bars on Aspiria’s cell back and forth. Steve would let her out for bathroom breaks, and escorted her without a weapon, or any other security. The next day, he let Aspiria out, and they sat next to each other at a work table. Tammy gave him a look of concern, but Steve smiled at her reassuringly. Steve was very strong, and this alien woman neither showed signs of hostility, nor did anything to indicate that she could out run or overpower him. Besides all of this, she seemed just as interested in getting to know him and his language as he was in getting to know hers. Cooperation was the working relationship, and he felt no concern as he got to know her.
During their work, Tammy chimed in, “I don’t understand.” Steve turned around and looked at her. “Not one of our viruses has infected any of its cells. I tested them against my own cells, and every one of the viruses is virulent. But they have had no effect on its cells at all. Weird.”
“I thought that you said that you had infected her cells, and that she had a cold.”
“Bacteria, Steve. The bacteria caused infection in vivo, and she did get a bacterial respiratory infection. It cultured as earth bacteria, and it cleared up quickly with antibiotics. But the viruses don’t seem to be able to infect its cells.” Tammy was back to work, and didn’t seem interested in any further conversation.
As fascinated as Steve was with Aspiria’s spoken language, he was even more fascinated by her written language. At first it seemed so simple: circles, triangles, and squares. But as he watched her try and write the words that he spoke to her, he began to notice subtleties. There were three relative sizes to each of the shapes: large, medium and small. The large shapes seemed to be in a line. The medium shapes could be squared to the top of the large shapes, or the bottom of the large shapes. The small, had this relationship to the medium shapes. The small to the large could be either squared to the top middle or bottom of the large shapes. She wrote from left to right, and the size of the shape seemed to be relative to the shape directly to the left of it. Accents were also clearly important. There seemed to be so many accents. Shapes might get a back slash through them, or they could get underlined or over-lined—sometimes, just a vertical line in the center of the shape. Occasionally the whole shape would get circled, and at other times the whole ‘word’ would get circled. The other accent that was common was two dots. They appeared horizontally over the shape, vertically to the right of the shape, or horizontally within the shape. Sometimes a shape would have multiple accents.
As Aspiria would work to pronounce a word, she would change the shapes, relative sizes, positioning, and accents feverishly. The slightest sound difference would produce significant differences in how she formulated the word in her written language. At this stage, Steve was lost, but he still found it fascinating. Aspiria was equally lost on Arabic characters. At one point he wrote out the alphabet, in lower and capital letters. Aspiria gasped as she looked at it. She was lost, and he felt a little better by this fact. Her spoken English vocabulary was improving quickly. She had a fantastic memory and was clearly focusing. It may have been easier to have just one teaching the other, but they took turns: each trying to teach each other one another’s language. By the fifth day, rudimentary conversation was occurring, and they both felt exhausted and exhilarated.
Aspiria was working on asking questions. She was learning the tone of questions, as opposed to the tone of statements. All of the questions were simple, and asked just for the sake of practice. That is, until she asked if they could walk around. At first Steve just encouraged her that she had asked correctly. But Aspiria looked at him in such a way, that he realized that she was making an actual request. She repeated, but differently this time, “May we go on walk?” and she indicated the door by which Steve always entered and exited.
Steve was taken aback. He really thought of her as a person, and a partner since they had been working together on language. But he was also the ship’s Captain, and he wasn’t sure that letting her out of the lab was a good idea. He hesitated, and then said, “Not today.” Aspiria looked disappointed, but then nodded and said, “Okay.”
Tammy had been out of the lab for a little while and came rushing in. “It’s done! The genetic reports are ready. Oh, it better not mess up again, or we’ll get replaced—quick.”
Steve knew that she would want some space, and he was a little concerned about the fact that Aspiria had gotten comfortable enough to make a request. “I’ll meet you for dinner in a little while. I’m excited to hear your report.” He got up from the table, and walked over to Tammy. This time he initiated and gave her a hug and a kiss. “Good luck, for both of us.”
Tammy put up her hand and crossed her fingers. She turned back to her work and Steve walked back towards Aspiria. Her countenance had fallen a bit. “You’ll go now?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Steve.
Aspiria got up and walked herself over to her cell. She got in and Steve came and locked the door. He turned to walk away, and heard from behind, “goodbye.” He turned and Aspiria gave him a sweet smile.
He nodded and said, “Goodbye, Aspiria;—great job today!”
“Tammy, what’s the word?” Kenny was quick to the punch as Tammy walked into the dining area.
Tammy raised her eyebrows. She looked white in the face. “It worked. The machine’s fine. We’ve got perfect results. Everyone had an exact match.”
“Is Aspiria human?” asked James.
“James, even the specimen’s report was an exact match.”
“But you said that…” began Steve.
“I said that it was nonsense—I thought that it was. It had no similarity, in pattern, to any genetic code in all of our libraries. Humans and, say, earthworms, have a lot of differences in genetic code; but compared to this creature they are very similar. Everything on earth has a high percentage of similar genetic material. The little genetic differences make for huge differences among the various species. I figured that this creature, which looks and acts so much like a human, would only have small genetic differences. For instance, like a human and a Neanderthal. We could determine, if it was a human, how long we had been separated—or, if not a human, how closely we were related. But this creature is pure alien. It is not human, and it is not even remotely related to us. Humans are more closely related to some of the strange creatures that have been dragged up from the bottom of the ocean than we are to that specimen in my lab.”
“Tammy, are you sure that something else isn’t going on? Aspiria is so human-like. She is exactly like a human on every level. Are you sure it is not a mistake?” asked Mike.
“I thought that for a second too—but an exact match—I mean, an exact match—from the first test to the second, and everyone else had an exact match, as well. The machine is working marvelously. Plus, it makes sense now about the viruses. Viruses only work on species that are closely related to them, genetically. In fact, they rely on the genetic code within the cell that they infect to reproduce. Viruses that infect human cells require human DNA. This creature does not have human DNA, or anything even remotely similar; therefore, our viruses can have no effect on its cells. Bacteria, on the other hand, don’t require a specific DNA: they are working on the next level of the cell; the phonotypical level. If the phenotype is within range, they can infect it. This creature is phenotypically human, or as human-like as can be. It is genetically alien, and phenotypically human.”
“How is this possible?” asked Steve
Blank stares surrounded him. “Aspiria’s an alien,” said Bob somberly and broke the silence. This thought seemed to occur to him for the first time since he first saw her and feared to tranquilize her. “How can she eat our food? Won’t it make her sick?”
“This specimen requires the same things that we do in its nutrition: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It doesn’t matter what the genetic makeup of the food we eat is. The creature is doing just fine on our food sources.”
“I don’t see how it is possible that she is just like us, but doesn’t have our genes. I thought that our genes make us how we are. If she doesn’t have our genes, how can she be like us? Something is not right here.” Kenny actually sounded irritated as he said this, and that was not typical for Kenny. But, he was astounded, and he felt like the carpet had been pulled from under his feet.
“I think I get it!” said James. “It’s like a book. What if you had two copies of a book—one in English, and the other in, say, French? It’s the same book; if you could read both English and French, and you read both books, they would be the same story. The story is the phenotype. The phenotype is the same. The letters on the page are the DNA. Both English and French have the same letters, the same DNA. But the language itself is completely different, the genes. However, the story is the same, the phenotype. If you didn’t know French, and only knew English, they would look like completely different books. But if you knew how to read both, the story would be exactly the same.”
“Are you saying that Aspiria is a human, just a different genetic translation of a human?” asked Mike.
“I don’t know about that. I know she is human-like. I mean she is completely human-like. But, as far as I’m concerned, she can’t be human without human genes,” said James.
“Tammy, could her species breed with humans—with earthlings?” asked Kenny.
“No, I checked for the possibility of fertilization, as well. The two genetic codes are completely incompatible. This is a completely alien species, and there can be no interbreeding between them and humans.” She glanced at Steve and gave him a dirty look. Tammy had been extremely occupied over the past couple of weeks, but it had not gone unnoticed: all of the time that Steve was spending with Aspiria—not to mention how much they both seemed to be enjoying themselves. She had also noticed, in general, that she was not the female that was getting the most attention on this ship. Aspiria had turned every man’s head, and because of that and her workload she was not getting the attention that she had been used to. Still, she was not truly jealous. She was not uncomfortable in her relationship with Steve—but he deserved, at least, a dirty look.
No reaction from Steve, though. He looked lost in thought. She turned back to the rest, who were beginning to debate and consider the new revelation. Danny walked in, and said, “I think Aspiria is getting used to my cooking. I think she likes the meatloaf.” The others began to inform Danny about Aspiria’s genetics.
Steve felt a tinge of concern. They were all, that is all the humans, in the dining area. The alien was left alone. Security measures had been relaxed greatly over the past few days. It was his fault. He had begun to feel very unconcerned in regards to that. He almost told Danny to go back and stand guard, but thought better of it. If, with the new information, he jumped back into high security mode, the others might become alarmed. They might also question his choices over the past week. Steve had been feeling bothered inside ever since he had left Aspiria a few hours previously. He had been debating as to whether or not he would let her go on a walk outside of the lab. He was concerned that she had made that request—partly because he felt it represented a new attitude on her part—She doesn’t know her place—and partly, because he had not offered this, and other comforts to her. She had been completely compliant with everything. She had never posed the slightest bad attitude or brought any concern. She was even becoming his friend.
Steve didn’t have feelings for Aspiria that were similar to the feelings that he had for Tammy. Sure, she was beautiful, but over the past few days, he was seeing her for the person that she was, and not her external beauty. Person?—but she’s not a person, he thought. Still, he did have feelings for her. The closest that he could compare them to, was the way he felt for his departed mother. Aspiria reminded him of his mother, especially as she tried to teach him her language. It was both her way, and the loving kindness that simply emanated from her being.
He had already decided that he would take her for a walk around the ship the next day. But now this news, as to how genetically alien she was, had cut him to the core. He began to distaste the good feelings that he had felt for her. In fact, a feeling of enmity was beginning to swell within his breast. He started to see everything in a new light and from a different perspective. She sure is curious about our language. She’s dedicated to learning everything. Yeah, she’s sharing information, too. But that may be so that she can learn more. She has everyone, including me, wrapped around her finger. She gets whatever she wants. We’ve already let down most of our guards. She pays so much attention. Sometimes I’m shocked at what she has discovered about us. I think she knows more about us, than we know of her.
Beyond this, he was concerned about Central Command. He had been in talk with his superiors daily. So far, they were giving him a lot of rope. They had been pleased about everything, except the failure of the initial genetic testing. The prevailing thought was that this was a human or near-human colony. Far-flung space travel, though new to earth, had always been possible; and so, although unsuspected up until this point, it appeared to have been going on from before. Because Aspiria had been willing to share so much, they were okay with the guard being let down to some extent. Trust often brought more than force or torture did. But when the genetic results became known, it would be clear that this was a completely alien species. They were not connected with earth or humans in any way. The ground rules would be different. Not only would they have to be more careful, but in all likelihood additional ships would be dispatched. As interesting as a colony of humans on a distant planet was, it would now be more interesting that they were actually unrelated aliens. Steve was very concerned about his place in history, and how his handling of this mission would be perceived.
Whether or not to take Aspiria on a walk around the ship seemed pretty small compared to his other worries. No, she, or it, won’t be going on any walks around this ship. I’m going to tighten the guard. We’ll continue to get as much information as we can, but we will have to minimize how much info we give to her, he resolved.
Steve stopped short as he walked into the lab. Tammy was at work, as expected. But Aspiria was standing next to her, and not in her cell. Plus, Aspiria was wearing a dress—but not her dress. Her hair was styled, he could see from the back. The woman turned around as he walked into the room. Aspiria looked stunning!—even compared to her usual beauty.
“I let Aspiria borrow my cosmetics and hair dryer, and I let her borrow my dress. How does she look?” said Tammy with pleasure.
Aspiria smiled—she was actually glowing. “She looks… uh, great—really great.” Steve looked at Tammy in amazement. What is going on here? he thought. Tammy has never treated Aspiria as more than a subject in her experiment. She treats Aspiria as a caged animal. I’ve never even heard Tammy refer to Aspiria by anything other than: it, or that creature, or that specimen. Now she is hanging out with her, letting her use her make-up and her dress? And this, after we just got the results. This is an alien creature. Now she’s treating her like a lady?
“Aspiria and I were talking last night. She said that she was hoping to go on a walk, out of the lab. She told me that she asked you yesterday, but that you told her, ‘not today.’ I told Aspiria that you were probably too busy yesterday, but that you might let her today. She was excited, and I thought that we should get her dressed up for her tour.” As Tammy explained, Aspiria looked on, still beaming.
Steve was dumbfounded, to put it mildly. Tammy was conscious of the change in her demeanor towards Aspiria, but not fully. She had dreamed of the moment of discovering an alien life form, and was beside herself when the moment of examination began. However, when this creature, from an alien world, seemingly turned out to be no more than a highly attractive woman, she felt threatened. Not directly by the ‘woman’, but more by the situation. Discovering an alien world and examining an inhabitant would certainly seal her place in scientific history. But the degree to which it that would be lessened—by the fact that the alien was a human—was beyond devastating to her.
Deep inside, she could not allow herself to project anything other than inhuman respect towards this creature. Subconsciously she was holding on to her alien, no matter what the physical findings had shown. If she treated it, and discussed it as an alien, perhaps it would be so.
In addition to this, Tammy had enjoyed all of the attentions of being a very attractive woman on a crew of men. Sure, she was only in a relationship with Steve, but she still enjoyed her favored status. From the moment that Aspiria had gained consciousness, it was clear that she had been relegated to second place. Now, of course, any alien would have been the most interesting creature on board, and she accepted that. But this alien was getting the attention for more than the fact she was an alien. The men were mesmerized by her. She did not doubt Steve’s devotion and affection towards her, nor did she disagree with the value of him learning to communicate with Aspiria; but she didn’t appreciate just how much he was enjoying himself. Tammy was not overtly jealous, but she had some jealous feelings, and it added to her need to treat Aspiria with coldness. Add to this the stress of her supposed equipment malfunction, the countless hours of work, and just feeling emotionally off—she had no reason to become girlfriends with Aspiria.
Everything changed yesterday with the results of the test. Aspiria was a bona fide alien! She was the real deal! Tammy had everything that she could have ever wanted. Her place in scientific history was secure. She was likely to be world-renowned—beyond the scientific community. At first blush it might’ve seemed that a strange—non-humanoid—alien creature would garner more worldwide attention. But, as she considered it, Aspiria could not be improved upon. One hundred percent human-like, and yet completely alien—beautiful beyond measure—as beautiful as the most beautiful human being. And, this alien’s personality—it was magnetic. Aspiria would be the most intriguing thing that could possibly be brought back from outer space. The world would love Aspiria, and Aspiria was hers. Every bit of love and adoration that the world would show to Aspiria, Tammy could call her own.
As far as the men on the ship went, let them be mesmerized by her. Tammy could now own that as well. Aspiria was not a woman, she was an alien. So whatever attention or adoration that was bestowed upon Aspiria didn’t count. Tammy was still the woman on this ship that was getting the most attention. Of course, the ship would be fascinated by the alien; that was bound to be the case. Let them be fascinated—even Steve—what was wrong with that? There was no one here to be threatened by. The more the men were intrigued by Aspiria, the more this case study showed how the world would also be fascinated by her.
Tammy was overjoyed. She felt a profound sense of relief as she had walked back to the lab the night before. Aspiria was the most prized possession in the entire universe, and Tammy was swelling with this newfound affection towards her. As she walked into the lab, she walked over towards Aspiria. She had not focused on Aspiria’s countenance in the past, but she had gleamed enough to know that Aspiria was down. She had begun to talk with her, something that she had not attempted in the past—other than short commands. She was amazed at how well Aspiria was already communicating in English. Aspiria warmed up to her rather quickly as she tried to acquaint herself with her. She discovered that Aspiria loved to go on walks, and that Steve had told her no.
Tammy looked at this beautiful creature, and saw that she, though clean, was not being allowed to keep herself. She was showing some signs of her captivity. She was wearing this on her face, though her beauty disguised it to a large extent. It was time to help Aspiria get her glow back. A make-over couldn’t change the fact that she was in captivity, but it couldn’t hurt, either. Aspiria enjoyed the make-over as much as any woman could. They laughed, and talked, and had fun together. The first dress that Tammy had brought for Aspiria was short, cut low on top, and with skinny straps. She learned quickly that this alien had, what Tammy considered, fairly antiquated ideas of modesty. But, she found a nice gray dress that Aspiria, not only found acceptable, but that she was in love with. Aspiria had been ready for only a few minutes, when Steve walked in.
“Is it okay if we all go on a walk together?” Tammy asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes,” was the only word he could muster. He had been over powered by this one—two punch. Aspiria smiled angelically, but with an increased air of submission. Tammy caught Aspiria’s arm, in a friendly and not in a controlling manor, and they began to walk towards the door. Steve turned to go also, and he led the way to the door. “Are you excited to see the ship?” he asked, trying to pull his chin from off of the floor.
Aspiria’s command of the English language was amazing, for how short of a time that she had been working on it. But, she did not seem to comprehend the word, ‘ship.’ “Ship?” she said and looked towards Tammy.
“You’ll see,” said Tammy smiling.
The threesome walked out into the corridor and turned to the left. Steve fell in line with the two women, such that Aspiria was in the middle and on his right. He was still not feeling conversational, so the group walked for several steps in silence. Footsteps could be heard coming towards them. In a few moments Mike could be seen walking into the corridor.
Mike stopped short when he saw them, and stared at Aspiria. Steve couldn’t tell if he was shocked by the obvious security breach, or if he was taken away by Aspiria’s beauty.
“What do you think?” asked Tammy indicating Aspiria.
“Wow!” he exclaimed.
Aspiria smiled and gave a little curtsey. It is shocking how easy it is to forget that she isn’t human, thought Steve. The way that she carries herself, even that little curtsey—it’s not modern, but it is somehow timeless. If I hadn’t picked her up on an alien world, and seen her genetic report, I’d never believe that she is anything other than a classic woman. Aspiria is pure class!
Mike didn’t say anything else, but he gave the group room to pass by. As they passed, he turned his head and continued to watch. He lifted his eyebrows and slowly shook his head as they left his view. “Wow is all I’ve got to say!” he muttered under his breath. No, Mike, at least for the moment, didn’t have security on his mind at all.
The group turned to the right and entered a darker hall. Aspiria was all eyes. She was engaged by everything she saw. Her spirits had truly been lifted by the opportunity to get made up today. Her heart continued to be heavy, but her spirit was definitely lifted. She felt a hope that she had not felt before. She felt that, although Steve was the Captain, her fate was in Tammy’s hands. Until last night she had not had anything other than cool or cold interaction with Tammy. For the first time, Tammy was warm and kind. The idea that Tammy would give her so many things—things she could not have even wished for—was unbelievable. Maybe Tammy had gotten what she needed, and she was now going to be open to what Aspiria needed: to get back to her family. At least, this kindness showed that there was an opening— some hope. The strangeness of her surroundings began to give Aspiria the impression that they were underground. Aspiria was trying to figure out how to ask this, when a scene so shocking befell her eyes that all she could do was gasp.
Both Steve and Tammy looked at Aspiria in wonderment. Aspiria had gasped and then stopped. Her hands went over her mouth, and all of the color left her face. Steve could see her start to shake. As he looked to where she was looking, he noticed the large observation window. It was lit up with the most glorious view of the planet that they were orbiting—Aspiria’s home world. Aspiria began to walk forward towards it, in a trancelike motion. She stopped a few feet from the large window, where the view of her world filled her entire field of vision. Tammy and Steve advanced some, but stopped several feet behind her.
Slowly, Aspiria walked up to the window, put her hands on the pane, and leaned in, carrying some of her weight by her hands. She did not appear to blink. The expression on her face was complete awe. Steve thought, She has probably never seen a view like this before. Even though I had seen pictures, I remember how amazing it was when I first looked at the earth from space. After what seemed like a long time she turned towards Steve and Tammy. The look on her face was something entirely different. It was the look of fear mingled with disillusion—and anger.
“This is my world?” she asked.
Steve nodded his head. A sickening feeling began to develop within him. Aspiria turned back to the window, and slowly sunk to her knees, with her hands still on the window. It had never occurred to Steve that she did not know where she was. She knew that she had been captured, but she was unconscious as she was brought onto the ship. For the first few days she had seen the crew in space suits every day. But she didn’t know what space suits were. There were no windows in the lab. The ship was exceedingly quiet; there was no hum from the engines. There had been no feeling of motion. Aspiria thought that she was on her world. Someone strange had taken her, but not someone from another world. To her they were foreign, not alien.
He sensed a convergence with her feelings now, a convergence with the feelings that he had felt the night before. The look in her eye told him so much. He and Aspiria had built a rapport over the past several days, yet when he knew that she was an alien, his good feelings had turned completely sour. Love had turned to hatred; friendship to enmity. He wanted to rid himself from anything that resembled kinship with her. She was not what she seemed; he was not going to be sucked into this perception that she was like him.
Now he sensed what she was feeling. She could know nothing about other worlds, or the ability of beings from other worlds to travel between them. She could not even comprehend being in a ship—orbiting a planet. Yet she was staring out of the window of a spacecraft at her own world. Did she think that we are from her world too? No, she asked if, ‘This is my world,’ not ‘our world.’ Everything she could imagine was changing at this very instant. There were beings from another world that could travel in space, and they had found her, her world, and her people. The sickness inside of him increased exponentially as she realized that these space travelers had come to take her, to test her, to experiment on her, and to learn all that they could from her, about her world and her people. They did not have any of her interests at heart. They were using her to get what they wanted. And he was they. He had drugged her and taken her away. He allowed any and every experiment to be done to her. He had allowed her to be exposed to his antibiotic-resistant bacteria. He had never asked if she had a family, or friends, or a husband, or children. Now she knew what he was and what he had done to her.
Whatever she had thought before, it was infinitely worse now. Somehow he thought that she understood before, but she did not know the half of it. She had overcome her fears, and had tried to communicate—to understand her circumstances. She had cooperated and been kind. She had brought life, charm, and excitement to the ship and crew. She was giving humankind the greatest of gifts of knowledge. She had dealt with her circumstances with dignity and strength. The look that she had given to him and Tammy told so much. “You are not who you seemed to be,” it seemed to say. “I am in a much worse situation than I could have possibly imagined. I have given you so much—in hopes that I may be returned to my home; in so doing I have compromised my home and my people. If this is how you treat me—take me and tell me nothing—what will you do to my world? What more are you going to do to me?—to take from me? Why is all of this happening?” she must be thinking.
Steve began to feel a deep sense of remorse. He had never really allowed himself to consider that his actions were anything other than noble, up to this point. He was a discoverer and was doing as discoverers do. He was protecting his home, his people, and his way of life. Aspiria and her people were a possible threat. Shouldn’t he do what he could to protect all that was his? If there was a world of intelligent beings out there, and we discover them first, then shouldn’t we be on the offense? Shouldn’t we find out all that we can about them, before they discover us? Shouldn’t we win? But now he was staring at the object of his quest. He was also staring at beauty, innocence, purity, elegance, and everything good. Aspiria did not represent a threat to his people or to his world. She represented hope. Yet, he felt inside that he did not represent that to her. He did not represent goodness, or any of it. He represented cowardice, evil, and thievery. He felt ashamed, and he began to feel the pain that she was feeling.
He looked over at Tammy, and tried to read her expression. Tammy looked concerned, but not overly so. Aspiria was starting to sob now, and she was not making any attempt to hold it back. Her head had dropped and was leaning against the window. She slowly turned, and sat up with her back against the window. She seemed to have lost all of her strength and all of her control. What could he do to console her? What she was feeling was not exaggerated. Tammy walked up and sat by Aspiria. She slowly put her arm around her shoulder and held her. “You didn’t know where you were, did you?”
Aspiria shook her head and continued to sob. “You didn’t know who we were.” Aspiria continued to sob, but she allowed Tammy to hold her and accepted the comfort that she tried to give. Over a period of several minutes her sobbing began to soften. She had looked so beautiful only minutes before, and now she was tear stained—her make-up was running, her nose running, and her eyes were swollen. Her face had the wearied look of someone who had been through the worst of a war. Yet, through it all, she accepted Tammy’s attempt at consolation. She did not lash out, and she did not try to distance herself from them, as Steve had wanted to do the day before. She was still an angel in every way, but now an angel who had been abused, and was showing the effects of her battering.
The only consolation for Steve was that Tammy had witnessed this too, and that she too seemed to understand. Together, they could solve the dilemma that was in front of him. What he had just witnessed, he did not know how to put into a report. How could he describe a people that were good, and presented no harm to him or to his world? Perhaps, not everyone was like her. But the only sample he had, indicated the best that a creature could be.
“When do I return?” Aspiria muttered when she had composed herself enough to speak. She looked at Tammy, and then at Steve.
“In time,” Steve replied with hesitation.
She took him at his word; what else could she do? She nodded, as she tried to take deep breaths and regain her composure. Tammy did not look at Steve, nor acknowledge his reply. She continued to hold her, and rub her shoulders. Steve wanted to leave, and let the women sort this out together. But he thought that it would be unsafe for Tammy. He couldn’t believe Aspiria capable of any violence, yet he couldn’t justify not accepting the possibility of it, especially in her current state. As Aspiria began to regain her presence, he felt some peace returning to his soul. He also felt his love for Tammy deepen. He had never witnessed her loving nature, except when expressed to him. He admired her more, and appreciated this aspect of her feminine charm. His world really was better with Tammy. Even these difficulties that lied in front of him, could be worked through with Tammy by his side. It would all be okay.
For the next two days, Tammy suggested that Steve only come in periodically to check on things in the lab. She didn’t think that Aspiria, or he, would be up to their regular exercises. Tammy continued to let Aspiria take time to make herself up, and she continued to share her cosmetics and clothes with her. Tammy and Aspiria talked, but Aspiria was not as open as she had been before. Tammy did not pry, and instead opened up more with Aspiria. She told her about the earth and many things about her culture. She talked about her family. Aspiria listened, with particular interest, when Tammy discussed her family. Towards the end of the second day, Aspiria shared, for the first time, that she had a husband and a son. Tears came to her eyes again as she talked of her love and concern for them. She asked if there were other ships, and if others had been taken. Tammy assured her that her family was fine, and that this was the only ship.
Aspiria had many questions, but she was careful to not share, or ask too much. Still, to the extent that she had cooperated with these people from another world, they had been more open with her. She was living much more comfortably among them now. She still slept in her cell, and certainly she did not have free reign throughout the ship, but she was no longer under constant surveillance. Instead, she was treated with respect and kindness. She still felt that her welfare and destiny was controlled by Tammy, even more than by Steve. She wanted to bond with Tammy as much as possible. Aspiria genuinely liked her, though she felt very concerned about some of Tammy’s cultural norms. When Aspiria expressed some shock or concern, Tammy seemed to smile at her condescendingly.
The next day, Steve decided to return to the lab and continue working with her on their languages. He came in and grabbed the tablet. Aspiria’s language had improved over the past two days which she had spent talking with Tammy. Aspiria was back in her own dress, but she had spent time on her hair and make-up; her countenance had improved significantly. They worked together for a couple of hours. Neither Steve, nor Aspiria, worked as intensely as they had before. Still, progress was made. Steve worked on her language. She was a little guarded at first, but slowly opened up. Steve asked her to teach to him her family’s member’s names. He wanted to be able to speak their names, as clearly in her language as possible. The inflections and tones were extremely difficult, but he made some progress. Aspiria appreciated the interest that he was taking in her family. Danny let Steve know that lunch was ready, over the intercom. “Bring Aspiria’s and my lunch here,” he said back. He had never shared a meal with Aspiria before, but he didn’t want to stop.
“Four minutes until the bell,” Mark observed to himself. It seemed like an eternity. What was he so anxious for? The only thing that the bell represented was that he would have to go to English class. He hated English even more than history. His grades had been slipping the last couple of weeks. Sheer boredom was the only reason. Nothing in school intrigued him. Home life was boring. And Steve hadn’t sent him any word in a couple of months. He had expected to hear something from his brother. Finally he had given up hoping, but now he had nothing to anticipate in life. Gramps was going to sleep earlier, and Mark just watched whatever stupid show was on TV.
Finally the bell rang and he could at least walk outside for a few minutes. The weather was starting to get crisp, and he only wore a tee-shirt, but he actually enjoyed the sensation. It wakened him a bit, and gave him a touch of life for the day. The only thing good about English was Tess. She was a very pretty brunette, who loved pink. She always had something pink on. Today it was a pink flower in her hair. Mark and Tess hadn’t really hit it off yet, but she was at least nice to him.
That was about it for today, but it was better than nothing. Class dragged on. Tess sat in front of Mark, and all he could do today was stare at her hair and the pink flower. He loved those soft brown curls.
“You are going to have a book report due by the end of the semester,” Mark’s teacher droned. Mark only half-listened. ”It will be on H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. It’s one of the first books written about earthlings and aliens. Both this book, and a later radio show taken from it, have caused quite a stir at times. Today, the world is focused on alien contact again. I’m sure that a lot of you have been following the news about the Space Force. So, I hope that you will find this book interesting.”
Once Mark heard the words ‘alien’, and ‘Space Force,’ his consciousness to reality returned. He hadn’t actually heard what this was all about.
“Hey, Tess,” he whispered. “What’s this about aliens and the Space Force?”
“Boys,” she whispered back.
“No, really—I wasn’t listening.”
“What were you doing?”
“Checking out the flower in your hair.”
She turned briefly and scrunched her nose at him. He shrugged and gave a half smile.
“We’ve got to read a war book about aliens, and do a book report by the end of the semester,” Tess explained.
“It’s an old book, though.”
The next thing he knew, the teacher was passing out copies of the book. They were hardback, and very worn. Tess got one that was practically falling apart in her hands. She had passed back a newer one to him. “Eeeww,” she said, holding the book like it would cause her some kind of a disease.
“Here, give it to me. I’ll trade you.”
She agreed readily, and they swapped books. Marks book was pretty disgusting, but he didn’t care—especially since he got to make a trade with Tess. I think that I’m going to like this book, Mark thought. His life was currently so dull, that even this assignment was a significant pick-up. Plus, Tess was being cool today.
School ended, and he walked home with a little spring in his step. The cool air added to his brisk pace. He actually considered opening the book and starting to read it as he walked in the door. Gramps was already home, and looked like he was just settling in for some news. “Hey, Gramps.”
“Hey’ya, Markey. School a’right?”
“Yeah, it’s cool. We get to read an alien book. But we have to do a report, too.” Mark walked into the kitchen and grabbed a soda and some chips, then sat down on the couch. Commercials were on, but they had said that the next story was about the Space Force, so he decided to stay and listen.
“Speculation has been rampant for weeks about the Space Force finding something. Officials have been on high alert, and have been extra quiet with reporters. Today the Vice President said that they are monitoring a life form very closely, in a speech to supporters. It was an apparent slip of the tongue, and the White House has been dialing those comments back all afternoon,” said the talking head on TV.
“This ‘ere guy—he’s worse’n that idiot Joe Biden, back when I were a kid.” Ryan said to no one in particular, as he shook his head and put a bite of his burrito in his mouth.
“I’m hearing that the White House is putting together a press conference for tomorrow morning. We are getting reports of much interest and concern, both from the scientific community and the general public.”
“I’d don’t think they’ve got nothin’,” said Ryan out loud, but not necessarily towards Mark.
“What if they did, Gramps? What if it’s Steve! Steve will take them out!”
“If they’d got anythin’, it’s probably some mold growing on some rock.”
“—maybe some kind of killer alien mold.”
“Na—j’st mold—nothin’ more.”
Mark was feeling excited inside. He continued to watch the news. They had no clue. They were talking to experts that had no clue. Then they brought in analyzers to analyze the experts who also had no clue. It was all entertaining anyway. Alien fascination was always simmering these days. Sometimes it would bubble up, and today was one of those days.
“The crews of the ZX-120’s seem to be on a communication lock down. We are yet to talk with any families of crew members that have received any communication in weeks. Space Force command is giving out ‘no comments,’ like trick-or-treat candy. Whatever is going on, we can expect some answers tomorrow,” said someone on the TV.
“Ya w’nt a burrito, Markey?” asked his gramps.
He was still a little hungry, but another burrito sounded awful to him. “No. I’ll get something later.” The news was starting to get on his nerves, so he got up and went to his room. He thought about starting his book, and even pulled it out of his pack. But it really was gross, and there were a lot of words—and no pictures. Instead he reached for his new Space Patrol comic book. Micro aliens were getting sprayed by the Space Patrol on the front cover. It wasn’t that great the first time, but he was much more in the mood right now. As he thumbed through the pages, his thoughts turned to Steve.
Eventually, he found himself lying on the bed with the comic book on his chest. He was gazing at the texture on the ceiling. His eyes were open, but his mind’s eye was deep in space. Steve had told him that he had to get good grades to be in the Space Force. He could feel motivation oozing back into his veins. There was something out there. He knew it. Steve might be right in the middle of it. Steve was probably the top commander out there. So he was running everything from space. As soon as he could, he would join him out there.
“Who’s running against you?” Roloff asked Seryen.
“Oh,” said Roloff, trying to show some interest in the conversation. Roloff was not running for re-election anymore. He wasn’t even acting in his office of Mayor, though he hadn’t resigned. Seryen was acting as Mayor, and counseling with Roloff. Seryen would have never run as Mayor, as long as Roloff was running. Not because he could never defeat Roloff, though he certainly could not have, but because of his great love and respect for him. Bastian would have never run against Roloff either, but that was simply because he would not win against Roloff. Bastian would not consider doing anything that he was not certain to succeed in.
“Is there anything that I can get for you, or do for you, Roloff?”
“No. We are making do.”
“Prianna wanted me to ask you and Caryell to come over for dinner tonight.”
“She is so kind. You both are. Caryell will be staying with a friend tonight. I will be going on a walk. I need some time alone. I appreciate all that you and the great people here have done for me—the meals, the friendship, the company, all of the search teams—especially the prayers. I can feel the love and support. But tonight I need to be alone. I may be back very late. Please tell Prianna how much I do appreciate her.”
“I will. If you change your mind, we will set out an extra plate. Prianna loves Aspiria very much; we both do. She would do anything for her. If we can be of service to you and Caryell, please don’t hesitate to ask. How is Caryell doing?”
Roloff bowed and shook his head. “He’s a strength to me. I know that he thinks it’s his fault…it is not his fault. He just misses her so much. If he had been with her, they may both be gone. He is doing better, though. He has not lost faith. I know that he carries out his own searches.”
Seryen bade his friend farewell.
Roloff sat in silent contemplation. His hurt had not lessened at all. He missed his wife deeply. The pain was so strong, that sometimes he felt numbness come over him. Today he felt numb. He had barely left the house, except to go on searches. He attended church, and went to various members of the community when invited for meals. He had not gone on a walk, a real walk, since the time he had gone to the hill with Aspiria. Tonight he wanted to go up there alone. He needed to reflect, to pray, and perhaps to cry. It was good for Caryell to be with friends. They made his life seem normal. Roloff tried to show Caryell strength, but it was forced, and Caryell could see through it. Roloff felt that Caryell was being brought down by him. Tonight, perhaps, he could just be a boy.
After some time, Roloff set off on his lonely walk. The joys that he usually felt on his walks would not come to him. Still, he plodded along. Perhaps at least some of that peace would come with time. He felt more tired than he usually did. His physical strength and endurance had weakened. He was not the presence that he had once been, such a short time ago. The hole in his life that Aspiria had filled was bigger than even he could have imagined. His longing increased as he walked along. Momentarily, he reconsidered his journey that evening. Perhaps he was not up to it, physically or emotionally. No, he would go forward. He would only feel worse going back home to an empty house. The sun was setting earlier now, and to him the blanket of darkness was a comfort. He could avoid looking at himself in his mind’s eye.
The air was not quite chilly, but a quick breeze caused him to shudder. He wandered along the path, and began to see the silhouette of the hill in the distance. He shuddered again, but this time from his bitter sweet memories. He never went to the hill alone anymore. He always had his choice companion by his side. A brief but unrealistic hope, perhaps a fantasy, allowed him to consider that she would be up there. He would find her there. She was fine, and all was well again. The thoughts brightened his mood momentarily, but then the ridiculousness of them brought a greater sickening to his already dreadful mood. Still, she was there. She would always be there. Some of his choicest moments with her were spent on that hill, and she would always be there.
As he reached the top of the hill, he could see the bright lights of the city off in the distance. The air had now become chilly, and another small breeze could be felt. The coolness of the air and the darkness of the night helped him feel more alive, and less numb. I’m so glad that she got to see this view, he thought, or perhaps even said out loud. He gazed for a long time, folding his arms around his chest both to offer some protection from the chill, and to comfort himself.
His eyes caught hold of a vision of her. It was their last time together. He could see her eyes, her hair, and her smile. Even the vision could not match her real beauty, though. He began to hear her voice as she sweetly sang. He could almost feel her touch as he danced with her in his mind. It was so real, and so memorable. It was his last significant memory with her. He began to shudder more, and the cool air was only the catalyst. Roloff never cried. But tonight he did. He did not hold back, and he did not want to hold back. He began to cry harder and harder. It was a strange sensation to him. At first it made his hurt increase. The more he cried, the worse he felt and the harder he cried. He felt like he was digging himself into an emotional hole that he would never have the power to be uplifted from. The bottom was reached, however, and eventually he felt with bitterness some relief from his sting. He felt angry at the bit of comfort he felt. These tears were doing nothing for her, so why should he feel any better? At least his eyes burned, and his head ached. At least the crying brought some physical pain to make up for the emotional relief.
He had never prayed so much in his life, since the moment he first learned of Aspiria’s disappearance. He saw manifestation after manifestation of the prayers being answered. The help of the community was even more than he would have imagined. But the one prayer; the singular prayer: that Aspiria was well—he had not received the answer to. Yes, he wanted her back, but more than anything he wanted her to be well. He needed to know: is she alive?—is she safe? He kneeled down, and prayed vocally for a time. He did not feel that the words of his prayer were ascending on high. He felt that they were somehow tethered to him and that the further that he cast them, the harder they came back at him and hit him. He felt no peace, no reassurance, and no hope. But he continued to pray. The vocalization slowly became a whisper, and then he only mouthed the words. Monumental minutes passed by. He became aware that his prayer was bringing a soothing sensation to his being. He wanted to fight this, but could not. He was feeling soothed. He did not know if he was feeling God’s love for him, or if he was being given a reassurance; he prayed on. He felt a touch of eloquence to the words of his prayer, and he felt that his thoughts were being guided. This strengthened him and his resolve as he prayed. For the first time since Aspiria was gone, he felt connected with heaven. Gratitude began to fill his being. The hole that was in him, that was an open wound, was being given balm. The healing was not complete, but it was beginning. God loved him, this much he knew. But he still did not know if his dear Aspiria was well.
Throughout the prayer, the words were only traveling in one direction; they were emanating from him. The communication that he was receiving was spiritual comfort only. But, he was interrupted. Words were addressed to him. What were they? He quieted his mind, “Open your eyes.” It was soft; did he hear it or feel it? Then again, “Open your eyes.” He opened his eyes without closing his prayer. They were blurry from the tears, and from them being closed so tight. Then he saw it: the star—the shooting star again. What was this?—a sign? He blinked and continued to look on. That can’t be a shooting star. It is still crossing the sky. Then a feeling came over him. Aspiria! She’s there! The feeling overcame him. His mind was the clearest it had been in weeks. His heart began to race. He felt a spiritual assurance. She’s alive! She’s in that light racing across the sky. He knew in his heart this truth, as much as he knew that he was alive.
He watched until the light disappeared, and a pang entered his heart that was swelling. Still, his heart burned. He felt hope, excitement, wonderment, and amazement all building within him. As he continued to gaze at the sky, the how and the why began to plague him. It’s a vessel of some sort. It’s been there for a while; Aspiria and I saw it the last time we were here. It was only a few days after we first saw it that she was taken. The clarity of his mind was in overdrive. All of the tracks led to and from that hard rocky clearing. What if this vessel had landed on that spot? There were some strange tracks that could have been from a vessel of some sort. It would explain how everything seemed to emanate and disappear from that spot. Whoever is on that vessel could have landed, taken my Aspiria, and then gone back to encircling this planet. They were here before, they are here now. I know that Aspiria is there! Yes, they were going to take the deer, but then she came over. Maybe when they drugged her, they were afraid to leave her. Whatever the reason, I know where my Aspiria is. She is alive, I can feel it! Hope and understanding filled his breast. He bowed his head and uttered these words: “I thank thee; I thank thee with all my heart. I thank thee; please let me know what to do now.”
His strength had returned. He did not feel any fatigue or any fear. He felt excitement and joy. At first he wanted to broadcast his enlightenment to the world. He nearly ran, but realized that the town would be sleeping; there was nothing that he could do about all of this tonight. Eventually he settled into a brisk walk. The reality of the situation began to condensate upon him. Who has such a vessel? His world was fairly primitive. The city to which he had looked over this evening was the only place in the world that currently had electrical power—there, and the few towns near it, like his own. We don’t have the power or understanding to send a craft into space. This world does not possess that capacity. These must be travelers from another world. They were men—that much was sure; he could tell just from the footprints. But they must be men from another world. Why are they here? What do they want with us? What do they want with Aspiria? Why won’t they bring her back now? I’m sure the drug has worn off. They are still here though, and they have not traveled back to their world. That much was certain. There was plenty of hope.
But how will we contact them? How do we communicate with them? If they need to have someone from our world with them, they can have me. They need to bring Aspiria back; I will take her place if I must. A feeling a dread began to enter his heart. They have not mistreated her! They would not hurt her, would they? Perhaps they are from that world! It’s impossible to know what the men of that world would do. After all, look at what they did to God’s Son—they killed Him. Of all the men in the universe, only the men from that world scared Roloff. There were good men from that world, too. Oh, I hope that they are not from that world! His mind began to be a blizzard. It had been filled with such clarity, but now the excitement, the relief, followed by the dread, and the concern, gave him an overwhelming confusion.
Still, he trudged along at a quick pace. How would he contact them? What were his next moves? Should he go home and sleep, or go to Seryen? What proof did he have? Would the people think that he was crazy, or incapacitated? His home came into view, and he slowed his pace. What should he do? He couldn’t sleep, but he didn’t know what else to do. He needed rest. Perhaps the morning would bring a new perspective, and additional clarity of thought. He was given the knowledge that he had. Additional inspiration might come soon. There was nothing that he could do tonight. He would rest. He would let Caryell rest. Tomorrow’s dawn would truly be a new day. Aspiria was alive, and he had seen where she was. He knew something about her whereabouts, and that was everything in the world to him now.
“Did you start the book yet?” asked Tess.
“No, did you?” Mark replied
“Yeah, it’s funny; the aliens are from Mars.”
“Mars? That’s almost as bad as having aliens from the moon.”
“My Dad says that in those days they thought that the only planets were the ones around the sun. They didn’t think that the other stars had planets. So, if there were going to be aliens they would have to be from planets like Mars and Venus.”
“Oh. So why are we reading it, then?
“Would you rather read Space Patrol comics for English?” she asked ironically, and gave him a sarcastic look. She was wearing a pink sweater today. Mark thought pink was a good color for her.
“Anyways, my Dad says that in those days they didn’t think that anything could travel from one star to another. So if they wanted to have an alien book, I guess they would have to be from Mars.”
“Do you like the book?”
“It’s okay. You need to read it…so we can talk about it. My mom says that when you talk about a book with someone else that’s reading it, that it helps you understand it better.”
The conversation was becoming bitter-sweet. He loved the idea that Tess wanted to talk with him about the book. But he was feeling a little sad hearing all of this ‘Dad says’ and ‘Mom says’ business. Gramps never said anything, except about what was on TV, and he didn’t like being reminded that he didn’t have Mom and Dad around to talk to.
“Cool, I’ll start it tonight. If it doesn’t disintegrate in my hands, that is. I took it out of my backpack, and was going to read last night, but it was so disgusting.”
“Yeah, thanks for letting me have the nice one.”
“So your big brother is on the new ships, right?”
“Yep, he’s a Captain of one. I’ll bet he’s the Captain of the ship that found the mold.”
“Oh, that’s what my gramps said. We were watching TV last night, and the Vice President said they found some life. Gramps said if they found anything, it was just some mold.”
“Dad says that we might find out today. That would be pretty weird if they sent all those ships out to just find mold.”
“Hey, if there is mold, then there is life out there. So, even mold would be pretty cool.”
Their English teacher didn’t mind them talking the last ten minutes of class. She said that talking time was just as important as reading time and listening time for the development of English skills. Tess liked to talk, and she was smart. The other guys in the class were pretty rough, and Tess didn’t appreciate that quality. Mark, was rough in form, but not content. He didn’t dress or groom all that well, but he was intelligent. He was gentle, and behind that unkempt hair was a good-looking young man. He had a great smile and a nice demeanor. There was no crush from Tess, but she liked him well enough. She certainly liked him better than all the other rough boys around her. The other girls in the class were ‘cliquey.’ They didn’t dislike Tess, they just hardly knew that she existed. Tess had her own circle of friends, and was popular enough in her other classes. So, Mark was in luck with English. She liked him better, in that class, than anyone else. Mark overall, liked her best of anyone in any of his classes. She was easily the coolest person to him. She treated him like he was normal and worthwhile.
As the bell rang, Mark had a renewed motivation to plow through that old book at his home. He was excited to hear about the mold—or whatever else that the Space Force had found. A little TV with Gramps and some dinner, then a night with his book sounded pretty good at this point. Best yet, some conversation with Tess tomorrow. Things were looking up, at least a little bit. As he walked up to the apartment, he noticed that the door was open. He could hear the TV inside. “That’s weird,” he thought. “Why’s the door open?”
“Markey! Hey, Markey, get in ‘ere. Hurry up!”
Mark picked up the pace and came in.
“List’n up!” The TV was so loud that he would be listening even if he didn’t want to.
“I’ll repeat. Captain Jenners of the Space Force has discovered an inhabited world. There are intelligent beings on this world. They have been to the planet’s surface, and have one of these intelligent aliens on board in the research lab. This has been confirmed by the White House.”
Marks eyes were wide open, and his mouth was gaped. He could feel chills running down his spine. Gramps was pointing at the TV with a huge smile and looking at Mark.
“It’s Steve, he found it. Steve’s got ‘im an alien. That’s our Steve. He’s got it!” Mark looked at Gramps and smiled. He was speechless. He had a million questions, but he couldn’t think through any of them at the moment. It was too much. The Space Force had done it, and it was his big brother!
“Wow. I can’t believe it. Oh, wow!” he repeated. Gramps wasn’t too affectionate, but he walked over and gave Mark a hug.
“I’m orderin’ pizza. We’re celebratin’ tonight!”
Mark tried to listen to the news. But, bet