James R. Lane

 

James R. Lane

 

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"Last Dance of the Phoenix" by James R. Lane

 

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LAST DANCE OF THE PHOENIX

©2016 by James R. Lane

All Rights Reserved.

  

Chapter 1

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig 

 

“Well, are you going to attack me, or would you like to have a seat?”  I slowly turned in my seat to look over my left shoulder.  What I saw there was both expected---and yet a surprise.  She was what I expected---a Yularian female---but she was decidedly not the individual I’d been assured would be keeping tabs on me!

My head partly covered and my eyes shaded by a dark blue NRA ball cap, I’d been sitting facing a large window that overlooked the relatively new Jacksonville, Florida, spaceport landing field, my back to the service counter.  In time I’d heard a bit of commotion entering the room, followed shortly by muttered voices at the service counter.  Muted sounds hesitantly approached the small row of chairs where I was seated, but I remained quiet, apparently dozing.  The sounds stopped directly behind my chair, and after a few moments I’d broken the silence---with a surprising effect.

 

“Well, are you going to attack me, or would you like to have a seat?” I’d said, which obviously startled the creature.  Yularians, like the three other alien species we knew of to date, were (to our human-biased perceptions) distinctly humaniform beings that, for lack of a better description, resembled different species of animals that had human-like characteristics.  They walked upright on their rear legs/feet, had fully-functional hands with opposable thumbs, room in their skulls for ample brains---and they were quite intelligent.   Yularians were vulpine-like; they somewhat resembled the anthropomorphic red foxes of our human children’s stories, and (in my opinion, which meant nothing) looked suspiciously like the fox-people described in cliché Internet science fiction.  The females even had a single pair of small, human-type breasts, in the human-correct location, with slightly heavier arms and much sturdier legs and larger feet than the fox-people illustrations in children’s books.  Still, if you ignored the breasts, and overlooked the fact that they were bipedal---and human sized---you’d almost swear they were foxes.  Big foxes.  Foxes wearing featherweight, loose-weave shorts with bushy tails poking out the back, pocketed vests for the males (sometimes) and modest little halter tops for the females---but only when mixing with us prudish humans.  Foxes that spoke fairly good English, rotten German, pathetic Chinese and Japanese, and mediocre Russian.  Forget French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic or most other languages; they didn’t even bother.  Neither did the other three alien species.  English was what they all liked, and English was what they all spoke---when they weren’t chattering, barking, squealing, whistling and yowling in their own tongues, that is.

 

An hour earlier I’d come briskly striding into the small passenger terminal, fresh out of cold sleep from the relatively long (distance-wise) but short (time-wise) ride to Earth from the Yularian home world.  Ah, cold sleep.  Sounds benign; almost pleasant, even, and in popular science fiction stories and movies it often appears to be an ideal way to travel.  Trust me---it’s not.  Passengers don’t have staterooms or even postage-stamp-size cabins like in ocean cruise ships; they don’t even have rooms.  Like it had been correctly imagined in surprisingly few classic sci-fi books and movies, we’re sedated off-ship, then loaded into cryogenic cocoon-like drawers that both hold us in stasis---all metabolism halted---and protect us from the mind-twisting, soul-ripping effects of Faster Than Light travel.  Even the ship’s crew is “iced down” (as the snarky term implies) from shortly after liftoff---but before FTL travel is initiated---until shortly before landing once the ship is safely back into normal space.  If not for the supercomputers that handle the complicated FTL process, none of the alien worlds would know of each other, nor would we Earthlings know of them.

The other alien species were made up of Dralorians (a lot like really big river otters), the Eelon (beautiful, haughty felines resembling man-sized cheetahs) and---the ones that both excited and annoyed humans the most---the Ar’kaa.  Those creatures somewhat resembled arctic hares---beautiful rabbit-like creatures you could imagine happily taking to a nice restaurant, the theater...or home for the evening.  Wink-wink!

As stated, all four species were pretty much human sized and, like the Yularians, fully bipedal, but since they had ample fur for protection under normal climate conditions none of them, other than the Yularians, wore even modest clothing---except around humans.  The female otters and cats had no human-like breasts, so they always went “topless”, but the Ar’kaa females were like the Yularians; they had nice, firm little knockers, so they had to cover them or face the quite considerable ire of our human conservative modesty Nazis.  None of the aliens wore confining shoes over their non-human-like furry feet, but they wisely protected the soles or pads of their feet with sandals---really strange-looking sandals.

One all-out predator, two semi-omnivores and one herbivore species.  No bug-eyed monsters, no giant slugs, spiders, dragons, demons, birds---nothing else.  Aliens that didn’t seem so alien after all, apparently guaranteed not to terribly upset ape-based humanity’s rabid xenophobia.  To me and a lot of others it just seemed too damned pat.  Somebody---or something---had to have engineered all this.  Cute.  And just as cute, in her own fuzzy, disheveled way, was the young Yularian female standing uncomfortably before my guarded, surprised eyes.

 

“Well, are you going to attack me, or would you like to have a seat?” had been my first words to the young vixen, and they’d had the desired effect, throwing my new companion off-balance and placing me firmly in control of the moment.

“H-how---how did you know I was back here, Mr. Barnes?  I…thought you were sleeping and…I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“My dear, you were far from stealthy when you entered the room, and even though I don’t have big, furry ears like you do, I overheard you asking the woman at the service desk if I was ‘the human Thomas Barnes’.  I didn’t have to turn my head to see your reflection in the window---” I paused for a moment, studying her a bit more critically, “---and the ventilation system brought me your, uh, scent.”

There was good reason why I studied her closer.  Even though the Yularians don’t show age quite the same way we humans do, there was no way this young female was the one I was supposed to have shadowing me for the next few months.  My observer/companion was supposed to be the scientist/doctor who headed up this project, and I’d had a brief meeting with her before I went under the knife, as well as seeing her brusquely interrogate several technicians shortly after I regained consciousness.  The physician was anything but young, supposedly long past breeding age, a bit saggy-baggy in stature and with substantial gray in her red and white-furred muzzle.  This shapely female, however, looked barely older than an adolescent, and her fur was richly colored with no trace of gray.  Unfortunately, it was also somewhat matted and ill-kept.  She appeared to be somewhat ill, too.

And rather than being slinky, she was, quite frankly---stinky.

 

It felt wonderful to finally be home, even if “home” was going to be a whole new experience for me now.

            This old man was a far different person from the one who’d tottered through this terminal three months earlier, and while my humble estate had (I hoped!) been properly maintained in my absence, I’d now be seeing life from a whole new perspective.

Now.  As compared to before.  Lordy, but my now had become the stuff dreams---and sometimes nightmares---were made of.  Although…maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.  After all, I’d been winding my life down from eighty-six years of wine, women and song---OK, a little wine, fifty-five years of marriage to a wonderful woman (now nearly five years cold in her grave) and a voice that couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Who was I kidding?  I’d already had two heart attacks, six bypasses, an artificial hip, cataract surgery and dentures that never quite fit right despite all our fancy-schmancy dental “technology”.

Even with my modest success at writing science fiction novels, and the buckets of money I’d had dumped on me when two of my books were turned into blockbuster movies, old age had been creeping up on me at a dead(ly) run.  I’d long been on a first-name basis with the local funeral home owner, and I’d dutifully pre-paid the tab for a quiet, no-frills send off for when my clock ran out.

Funny thing is, neither of us had counted on my clock not running out.

 

Earlier, when I’d walked down the ramp from the Yularian starship, a beautiful, massive craft incongruously known as a “hopper”, Earth’s gravity had seemed far less cruel---pleasant, even, if you could believe the spring in my step.  Since the Yularians had developed the starships and the other three alien species copied their designs, all of them looked pretty much the same except for decorative paint and minor trim details; a classic “flying saucer” shape that, due to its enormous Faster Than Light engines, actually had very little room for passengers or cargo.  After landing, my ship had gently oozed itself under the cantilevered shelter of the terminal specially built to receive such vehicles, and cargo and a few passengers were unhurriedly moved in and out; the passengers routed through the small lounge/waiting room while the cargo was directed to and from a nearby mini-warehouse.

All my worldly travel goods were in the small Cordura wheeled bag I’d dragged behind me as I approached the service desk, and the lone human female attendant greeted me by name---which gave me a momentary tweak until I realized she had the passenger manifest on her computer screen.  As the last human passenger to leave the ship, it was a good chance I was the one-and-only Thomas D. Barnes she was expecting, although I certainly didn’t resemble the Thomas D. Barnes who had tottered through this very same terminal those incredible ninety days prior.  That Tom Barnes had been skating along on a proverbial banana peel, with his other foot already planted in a cold plot of dirt.  This Tom Barnes, however, was ready to kick ass and take names.  Well, as long as the asses weren’t too antagonistic and were reasonably willing to divulge their names.  I had a new lease on life, but I was far from a bad-boy head-knocker.  There was still a nice, dignified touch of gray at my temples, along with some “character lines” on my face---as per my request.  Actually, I most resembled my first author’s photo, taken many decades earlier.

Call it ego, call it arrogance, call it whatever you wanted.  I could have had my physical appearance set at virtually any age, but had I looked too youthful I’d have wound up arguing with the counter folks at McDonald’s when ordering my “senior coffee”.  Couldn’t have that!

“I’m supposed to meet with a Yularian female passenger from the ship---” I offered after noticing that I was the only other occupant of the waiting area.

“You’re the last human I show departing the ship, Mr. Barnes,” the woman stated with raised mascara eyebrows, “but I’m sure your---“

“I had an experimental rejuvenation procedure done, and Doctor N’looma, the Yularian in question, is my assigned medical observer,” I explained, slightly annoyed at the woman’s apparent disapproval.  “If something goes wrong---” I grimaced theatrically, “---the scientists need to know ASAP.”

Bitch.

The attendant’s eyes widened and her face flushed hard under her makeup.  I could be a grouchy old fart when people pissed me off, and the rejuvenation hadn’t taken away that edge.  “I…I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes,” she sputtered.  “I…I didn’t connect the name and---honestly, I didn’t recognize you.  You look so---young!”  Struggling to recover her composure, she smiled nervously and added, “You’re welcome to relax in the chairs over by the window, and when your…observer…shows up I’ll let her know where you are.”

Right.  The entire passenger terminal wasn’t more than a couple of hundred square feet; like the Yularian couldn’t smell me even if her eyes hadn’t yet recovered from the effects of the cold sleep we passengers had to endure.

 

The aliens showed up in Earth orbit a mere two years ago, full of life, fun and wonder---for us humans, anyway---and offered a new direction for our stagnating billions.  After establishing “friendly” relations and setting up small embassies throughout the world, they soon zeroed in on me and made me an offer I damned sure couldn’t refuse:  A Heinlein-science-fiction-like rejuvenation treatment---obviously experimental since I would be the first human they’d tinkered with---that would “reboot” my worn-out body back to a healthy younger age.  They planned to offer this service to mankind---at an exorbitant price, of course---to help finance the outrageously expensive interstellar travel between our world and theirs.  Only pricy trade goods and services made the FTL trips economically feasible, and until a cheaper FTL process was developed, “Joe Sixpack” and most of the rest of Earth’s billions would remain outside the candy store, faces pressed against the window glass as the occasional starships came and went.  Even with my comfortable money cushion a trip to a distant star---not even counting the expensive rejuvenation process---would normally have strained my financial means.  Still, the aliens needed a guinea pig, and partly because of my particular notoriety due to the stories I’d written---and my advanced age---I’d managed to grab a free gold ring.

I just hoped it didn’t turn out to be a brass-colored noose around my neck.

 

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, I decided to bring matters to a head.  “Why not leave your baggage there and come sit down---” I motioned to a chair two seats over, “---and tell me who you are, and what happened to Dr. N’looma, the scientist who was supposed to be my observer.”  I was careful to smile with a closed mouth---showing no teeth---and to her credit she realized what I said was not a question.  She blinked woozily, then padded with noticeable effort around the end of the short row of chairs and dropped wearily into the indicated seat.  Her uncharacteristically strong musky odor had a rank, sour undertone, and it washed over me like second-hand cigarette smoke.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“Yes, Dr. N’looma was supposed to be your observer,” she primly informed me, “but her mate fell and broke his back shortly before the technicians were to put her into cold sleep.  Since we Yularians mate for life and are very devoted to our mates’ welfare, she elected not to make the trip.”  The young female shivered and tried to wrap her lush tail around herself for warmth in the air conditioning’s draft.  “She called an emergency meeting with her department heads, and based on your stated preferences for a female observer to avoid potential male-to-male conflict, they immediately looked for a female familiar enough with the basic rejuvenation process to be able to spot problems---”

“And they found you,” I stated, carefully keeping my face neutral.

She looked at me, blinked slowly, then said dully, “Yes, they found me.”

“And you are---?”

“I…my name is L’raan.  I’m a graduate student at Bin’Naigh University, working on a research degree at the clinic where you underwent your procedure.”  When I looked a bit surprised at this, she explained, “You may not remember having seen me, since much of your actual treatment time was spent unconscious, but I was assigned to the team doing endocrinology research under Dr. N’looma.  Since the other females on the project are either mated or otherwise high enough ranked to be able to refuse such an unusual off-world assignment, I was given the…honor.”  When I said nothing, she added (somewhat bitterly, I thought), “I have no mate, and as a mere student I have little status.”  She shivered, then sat a bit straighter in her chair, adding proudly, “But I do know enough about what was done to you to be a competent observer!”

Wow!  Feisty little thing, but--- “I’ll grant that you’re knowledgeable in your field, but---you look ill.”

“I am ill!” she barked.  “I’ve never been off the home world, and did not have the proper time to…to accommodate the necessary anti-infectives and antibiotics everybody who journeys to an alien world must have before such a trip.  They pumped me full of all this…stuff, then threw me into a cold sleep unit before my body could purge itself or adapt itself or…or simply get over it!  You went through this process several days before you left Earth, Mr. Barnes, so you had time to recover.  When the crew opened the capsule and revived me on the ship, my body revolted!”

Yeah, she was pretty revolting, all right.

“Had I refused this assignment it’s possible I could have lost my scholarship as well as my class score to this point,” she explained.  “By completing this…project, I will earn the equivalent in your scholastic system of a master’s degree in endocrinology.  My status will also improve, hopefully to the point of being able to pick and choose future study assignments.”  She coughed, sneezed and shivered even harder, then looked defiantly at me.  “And maybe I’ll even attract a mate!”

Great.  I send her back, she’s screwed; I keep her as my observer, and I’m branded as a pervert who likes young “foxy” females.  But lordy, did she stink!

“Can I take you to your embassy for medical help?”

One ear perked up a bit, and she explained, “The ship’s med techs gave me injections they claimed would alleviate the worst of the symptoms and effects---in a day or so.  They also gave me pills and supplements they emphasized I must take tonight, or the sickness will last longer.”  Her defiance seemed to lose some of its edge.

I sighed, then heaved myself to my feet and said, “Ready to earn your degree?”  Her head tilted sideways just like a dog’s and I could see the confusion in her weary eyes.  “C’mon, let’s go home, and we’ll see if we can get you cleaned up a bit.  Once we get some food into you, you might feel better, too.”

 

And that, my friends, is how I wound up with my very own young female Yularian “shadow”.  But on the ride home I kept my old Cadillac’s windows down.  This furry, red and black and white “shadow” stank!

 

Chapter 2

Peace and Tranquility – NOT! 

 

The ride home from the Jacksonville space port took a solid hour, during which time my new Yularian observer’s condition visibly deteriorated.  As prearranged, my car had been brought to the space port and the key left with the service desk attendant, so there was little delay in loading my one bag and L’raan’s trio of totes and a rolling duffel into the trunk, and then we hit the road.  Luckily, I’d also asked that my cell phone be charged and left in the car’s console, and before I’d cleared the nearby southbound on-ramp to I-95 I was calling the local Yularian embassy to get my passenger some help.

“From what you’re telling me, Mr. Thomas Barnes, your young observer is simply experiencing a reaction to cold sleep, compounded by the anti-infectives and antibiotics treatment she was given before she left our home world.  The ship’s medics would have given her any additional medications deemed necessary, and in a few days she should be recovered.”  The bastard sounded so smug I wanted to reach through the tiny handset and wring his snout off.  “Also, she will find all necessary personal care items awaiting her at your home.  We’re sorry Dr. N’looma couldn’t join you, but she had us provide everything a female Yularian---herself in this case---might desire, including a special bed and appropriate, er, clothing, all in her room.”  Now the bastard was being condescending, and I could feel my blood pressure beginning to climb.  “Should either of you find we have overlooked something, please feel free to contact us.  Goodbye!”

Goodbye, indeed.

I kept one eye on L’raan as I piloted the Caddy through the usual crush of traffic, prepared to duck over to the road’s shoulder should she start puking, but instead, she simply nodded off.  It wasn’t terribly hot on the road, so I eased her window up to lessen the wind blast on her and adjusted the other windows to keep a steady flow of air through the car. Had I run the air conditioner, I feared I’d never get the stink out of it.

 

Home.  It was a bigger tweak than I thought it would be to pull off the rural county road and up to my electric gate, which was obediently clattering open in response to the button press on the car’s HomeLink transmitter.  When I’d last passed through that portal it had been on the way to my very possible death.  Since I was to be the first human to undergo the aliens’ rejuvenation process, there were no guarantees that it would work---at all.  Actually there would never be a “guarantee” on the process since there was always the chance of a lethal snafu with any radical biomedical process, but the first subject under the knife was always the riskiest.  So far, however, that risk was paying off.  Other than my stinky little passenger, life was looking mighty damned fine.

“Wake up, kiddo,” I gently called as we rolled to a stop near the garage.  When that didn’t rouse her I repeated it, adding a couple of gentle shoulder nudges that caused her head to wobble like a bobble head doll’s.  Her vertical-pupiled eyes slowly creaked open, but didn’t seem at first to be focusing on much.  Then they snapped open wide and for a moment she appeared to be terrified; no doubt waking suddenly to an alien environment can have that effect.  “We’re home, L’raan,” I carefully offered, hoping to avoid a full-blown panic attack.  After all, her kind had fangs and claws, and even ill she could no doubt be a handful.

“Let’s get you settled in,” I stated, “and let you eat some food.  After a good night’s sleep, you’ll feel better.”  What else was I going to say?  The truth? Your embassy doesn’t give a shit about your problem, kiddo, so lotsa luck!  I didn’t think it wise to gift her with that bit of information just yet.

A quick dash around the car and I got her door open, then offered her a steadying arm to lean on as she wobbled to her feet.  I’d seen half-dead dogs that looked and acted more energetic, and certainly smelled better.  At least she hadn’t pooped, peed or puked on my poor Caddy’s leather seats.

 

The house was by no means new, having been built a good half-century earlier, but it was roomy, comfortable and fully contained on one floor.  I hated stairs in my youth, and swore that, if possible, I’d never live in a multi-story house.  The guest bedroom, which in earlier decades had been the older of my two daughter’s room, was in one corner of the back, while my bedroom was at the other rear corner.  The renovations to accommodate Dr. N’Looma had been performed while I was away having my body rebuilt, so I was looking forward to seeing what was new.

We bumbled down the hallway past my long-gone younger daughter’s room---now used as a library/study/computer room---and the adjoining bathroom---now supposedly renovated, like the bedroom, to accommodate a Yularian houseguest.  “And here is your own personal hideaway, young lady,” I began as we entered her room---

Of course that’s when everything seemed to cut loose at once.  She convulsed, hacked and barked a time or two, then puked a great deal of a thin, vile something that smelled long dead and looked worse.  Then she went noodle-limp and if I hadn’t caught her and eased her to the floor---trying not to settle her in her pool of vomit---she’d have dropped like a furry sack of potatoes.  L’raan’s lower gut rumbled like thunder, both her bowels and bladder cut loose, and there was no way her thin little modesty shorts could contain it.  She was moaning and writhing with cramps, but I was more worried about her getting choked on a fresh stream of vomit so I held her head to the side and tried to keep her airway clear.  A couple of more spasms produced a bit more from each end, then the worst seemed to be over.  I hoped.

Then the poor thing started crying.

At least that’s what it looked and sounded like, although it was a bit different from how humans do it.  Ah, what’s an old man to do in a case like this?  Panic?  Get mad?  Have a stroke?  Naahhh…  I’d raised two daughters and cared for a beloved wife in her final years of life.  Plus, I’d raised, housebroken and lived with two German Shepherd dogs until their deaths of old age, meaning I’d dealt with horrible, disgusting messes like this many times.  That’s one reason I’d bought and worn out several steam-vac units, and unless someone had moved it while I was gone, I had one stored in the utility room; I just hoped it still worked!

“Shhh…  Hush, now.  You’re going to be all right.  Just relax,” I soothed, brushing her disheveled head hair/fur back out of her eyes.  Yularian males and females had long scalp hair like we humans did, but it was more the consistency of fur, and both sexes usually gathered it into modest ponytails---foxytails? ---rather than cut it short or style it.  L’raan’s was black, like the fur on her lower arms/wrists/hands/lower legs/feet, but it also had a streak of purest white running through it, like what I could see of her belly fur and the fur on her lower face/muzzle and throat.

She whimpered and moaned for a few minutes, but it was evident that the worst of her spasm had passed, and in time she began to struggle to sit up.  That’s when she realized just what she’d done, and she began to cry again, this time in obvious embarrassment.  I wasn’t having any of that, either.

“Hush, L’raan,” I said not unkindly.  “Knock off the tears and apologies, dear; they’re not needed.  You’re sick, and sickness like this requires no excuses; it only asks that you get better.”  She looked mortified---at least that’s what I read of the expression on her vulpine features---and I smiled as I said, “Remember, I’m a lot older than you, and believe me when I say that I’ve dealt with far worse in my long life.”  She still looked shattered, so I helped prop her to somewhat of a sitting position---unpleasant for her considering what she’d blasted out her nether end---and said, “If you think you can stand, let’s get you to the bathroom and into the shower.  If you don’t think you can stand, I’ll pick you up and carry you.  Either way, you’re going to have a good, hot shower!”

After sniffling and whimpering a bit more, she let me help her to her feet, but she was so wobbly I still wound up pretty much carrying her to the connecting bathroom that both girls’ adjoining bedrooms had shared.  And oh yes, the Yularian renovators had made some changes!  The old bathtub-shower had been replaced with a glass-fronted walk-in shower, complete with both built-in and hand-wand shower heads.  There was a heavy-duty fur dryer setup next to the shower stall, complete with multiple hot-air jets and a hand-held air wand.  Even the toilet had been changed to one like was used on the Yularian home world.  After all, when we humans perched on the crapper we didn’t need to accommodate a big, bushy tail.

Thankfully the shower stall had several wall-mounted hand rails, as well as a molded-in seat; from what I'd seen of her, Dr. N’looma was apparently old-sliding-towards-really-old, and no doubt wanted the extra security.  I had L’raan hold onto them while I quickly peeled off my own clothes down to my boxer shorts, then I told the now-wide-eyed female, “You’re in no shape to do this by yourself, and I know for a fact that your people don’t have the nudity taboos many of us humans do, so I don’t want to hear you squawk when I get those filthy clothes off you, and I also don’t want any backtalk from you while I help you get cleaned up.  Understand?”

Evidently she was still so upset about losing all control of herself that her natural Yularian arrogance didn’t assert itself.  She simply nodded, embarrassed, and allowed me to get busy, and for the next thirty minutes I became a cleaning machine.  To me she was a subject to be totally washed, dried and folded---well, she did fold into my arms toward the end, exhausted.  Still, I washed the vomit, crap and piss out of her fur---of course letting her deal with the most-personal areas---and her entire pelt got a thorough scrubbing with the Yularian-specific, fur-friendly soap Dr. N’looma had ordered; then, while the fur was still wet, we worked a Yularian-specific conditioner into it before drying it with towels and then the warm-air fur dryer.  By the time we were done she was virtually asleep in my arms, and she smelled a whole lot better---with one exception.  Yularians sported a light vulpine-like musky scent, and to us humans it normally wasn’t at all objectionable.  But when she’d gotten off the ship, this poor female---  Gaahhh!

I bodily picked her up in my rejuvenated arms---she weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds---and carried her to her bed, careful to avoid the stinking horror on the floor.  Carefully balancing her on one arm while stripping back the duvet bed cover and top sheet, I deposited her on the overly-soft bed and turned to go get the steam-vac from the utility room.  “M-mr. B-b-barnes?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I-I’m s-s-sorry about---”

“I told you,” I rumbled gently, “that there was no need for apologies.  You can’t help being sick like that.  Remember, I had to undergo the same anti-infectives and antibiotics that you did before I could journey to your world; I just didn’t have as bad a reaction to them, probably because I didn’t have to go directly into cold sleep.  I did have to spend some time crapping my guts out, though, so I can certainly sympathize with you.  It’s not an easy process.”  Nodding toward the mess on the floor, “I’m going to get a machine to clean that up, and I’m also going to bring back a bucket for you to use if you get sick again and can’t make it to the toilet.  OK?”  She nodded weakly, so I added, “I’ll be back in about ten minutes, unless you want me to get you something warm to wrap up in, or some bed clothes to wear before I leave.”  She shook her head so I ducked back into the bathroom and picked up hers and my clothes---bleah!---then left through the adjoining former bedroom, now office.  The clothes washer and dryer were also in the utility room, so I made one efficient trip, returning in the promised time with the old steam-vac and a well-used plastic five-gallon pail.

“L’raan,” I called, then had to touch her on the shoulder to wake her, “I’ve got to run the cleaning machine for a while, and it’s noisy.  I didn’t want to scare you when I turned it on.”  She muttered ascent, so I plugged it in and got to work.  It’s amazing how well those things work, but having my carpets regularly cleaned and treated with a Teflon-based stain repellant also helped, and after a couple of hot detergent passes, followed by plain hot water-steam passes, the carpet looked---and smelled---like it had never been assaulted by an alien female’s innermost guts.

By this time the Yularian had curled up in the middle of the bed somewhat like a woman-size fox, her snout buried in her lush tail-tip, and had quit reacting to the noise I was making.  I took the steam-vac out of the room, and soon returned with a pitcher of cool water and a small bowl which I put on the night stand, and I left a folded sheet-blanket on the foot of the bed.  With “blackout” drapes pulled, a dim nightlight burning in the bedroom and another one burning in the bathroom, its door pulled mostly shut, I left her sleeping and pulled the bedroom door shut.  I made a quick pass through my own shower---a real luxury now that my body wasn’t falling apart---and once done with that, and with fresh clothes and a welcome glass of malt Scotch whiskey to warm my innards safely in-hand, I made my way to a very special piece of Yularian equipment sitting on the desk in my office.  I had an extremely long-distance call to make, and I didn’t expect it to be a polite conversation.

One thing that often came with old age was the ability to verbally rip somebody a new asshole, and in my dotage I’d become quite adept at the art.  The Yularians were arrogant, elitist bastards, but I’d also had time to get a good mad on---and it was showtime.

 

Chapter 3

A Scent of Danger 

 

The Yularian interstellar videophone was a marvel of alien engineering; compact, self-powered, easy to use.  The ease-of-use factor was a feature I’m sure the aliens regretted, especially once I warmed up to my task.

“Hello from Earth; Tom Barnes speaking.  With whom am I conversing?”  Before my rejuvenation the fox on the other end always knew damned well who was calling, but I always started a videophone conversation politely, carefully observing my alien benefactors’ social courtesies and conventions.  Of course that was subject to change rather quickly if the fuzzy bastards on the other end of the unknown light year span copped an attitude---which they were all too prone to do.

“Greetings, Tom Barnes,” the fox (of undetermined sex) answered civilly.  “I am called S’naat, technician third under Dr. N’looma.  Is there a problem?”  So far, so good.  Now to drop the dirty turd.

“Greetings to you, S’naat.  Unfortunately, there is indeed a problem, and with all due respect for your exceptional knowledge and high authority, I fear I must immediately place the problem at Dr. N’looma’s feet.”  When the fox began to bristle at the professional slight, I took an unusual-for-me diplomatic approach.  “This of course could be routed through normal protocol, S’naat, but please understand that I’m trying to both save time---this is a very sensitive matter, you see---and…”  I dropped my voice conspiratorially and looked the technician directly in his/her eyes, both a gesture of challenge and, in some cases, a mark of peer respect.  “…I’m trying to hold down the number of Yularians who will get their tails shaved.  The fewer who know of this, the better.”

Hot damn, but that got the fox’s attention!  “T-tails---shaved?” it stated.  (Sadly I couldn’t tell their sexes apart from a small-screen image unless I got a better look, preferably at tits or lack thereof.)  Shaving a Yularian’s tail was done as punishment for a major criminal offense that did not require physical incarceration, and a shaved-tail Yularian was both a sad sight and an ostracized one, even if he/she were still working.  The rat-like tail had to be maintained fully nude of fur for the duration of the sentence, which could be up to ten planetary years.  If the crime demanded worse punishment, the offender was exiled to a prison planet.  Few returned.

“Now,” I prompted, not letting the technician think too long on the subject, “is Dr. N’looma currently working, or is she at least available through a secure video link?  I really cannot afford to delay talking with her.”  Here was the make-or-break point.  Would S’naat pass the apparent hot potato up to its immediate supervisor, or would it --- damn but I wished I could have determined its sex! --- make the leap (out of fear) and bounce me directly to Dr. N’looma?  I could almost hear the Final Jeopardy countdown music in my head.

After what seemed an eternity of contemplation (I still couldn’t read their expressions all that well) S’naat looked directly at me and said, “Let me see what can be done,” and the screen switched to an eye-wrenching on-hold pattern I’d seen all too often.

“Okay,” I muttered around a smoky sip of Scotch, then settled in to wait.  Five minutes passed, seeming like five hours, and then the screen flickered several times before clearing to show---

“Dr. N’looma!” I acknowledged.  “Greetings!  How is your mate’s broken back?”

She wasn’t impressed with my false warmth, almost snarling, “Thomas Barnes, how did you manage to frighten my technician to the point she (I felt a slight pang of guilt over scaring a young female) literally shoved me into my office, babbling something about dire consequences and shaved tails?”  Oh, she was pissed.  Good!

“Let’s get one thing straight, Doctor---” I snarled, my false warmth instantly traded for obvious rage, “you and your people may be a helluva lot smarter than we dumb humans, but there’s something to be said about our long history of dealing with con jobs, fraud and political intrigue.  This whole ‘we’re gonna help the poor ignorant hairless apes get healthy’ operation of yours is crap, and it stinks even more than the young female you bullied into accompanying me on my long ride home.”  That was the last thing she expected to hear, and as expected, it knocked her somewhat off balance.

“W-what are you babbling about, Mr. Barnes?” she sputtered, trying to regain control of the conversation.  She never realized that she was way out of her league.

“Deny it if you dare, Doctor,” I growled, “but I’ll wager your mate’s back was never in distress.  In fact, the real reason you stayed home appears to be due to the unauthorized, highly immoral test you’re running!  On me!”  Her vertical pupils noticeably dilated in shocked guilt.  “You not only restored me to health and a vitality I’d not known for decades, you also made my sense of smell highly receptive to your females’ estrus musk, although that’s the only response I have to it.  It damned sure doesn’t get me all hot and bothered, since to me she smells like rotten fish!”

She sputtered indignantly for a few moments, then almost yelled, “That’s preposterous!  Why would---”

But that’s as far as I let her rant, interrupting her with, “No, Doctor, that’s a cold, cruel fact.  I noticed it when I awoke from my last major surgery; one of your female technicians was, to my human nose, stinking to high heaven, and I recognized that the extra attention she was receiving from the male techs was heavily sexual in nature.  I made a discrete inquiry and was told that the female had entered her every-sixty-day estrus cycle, and would be ‘attractive’ for at least another couple of days.”  Dr. N’looma had grown quiet, although her upper lips quivered and threatened to lift in a threatening snarl.  “But what brought all this to a head was when the young female technician you sent in your place---a technician who claims to have had no prior off-world experience, and obviously had not been properly prepared ahead of time for the journey---was brought out of cold sleep here on Earth, then pumped full of drugs to supposedly counter her terrible illness brought on by the irresponsible treatment there on your home world.  She not only looked like hell, she smelled worse---because she was in heat!”  I didn’t have to put on an act to appear outraged; I was outraged.  “It took me a few moments to realize that she didn’t realize her condition, but as sick as she was, it didn’t really surprise me.  I brought her home anyway, just as you planned, although your embassy here was of no help whatsoever when I told them just how sick she was.  When I took her into my house and led her back to what was supposed to be your room, Doctor, she suddenly collapsed on the floor, spewing foulness from every opening!”

Oh yeah!  The good doctor was not happy with my report, but before she could inject some sort of bullshit denial, I continued.  “It took a while to get her calmed down, and then I had to carry her into the bathroom and place her in the shower---and then join her, against all of my kind’s moral standards and codes, to help clean her enough so she could be placed in bed to hopefully rest and begin recovering from her horrible ordeal.  Then I had to procure cleaning equipment to try and remove the results of your people’s incredibly criminal procedures that almost killed her!”  I was so outraged I was nearly jumping up and down in my chair, and the doctor’s eyes had widened so much I thought they would pop out of her head.

“But that’s not all, Doctor--- Oh no, there’s more.”  I dropped my voice back down to a more-sane level.  “This absurd little move by you and your staff brought a lot of seemingly-unrelated things into focus; things that my government probably needs to be aware of---and address.”

This time Dr. N’looma managed to get a word in edgewise, and I began to sense that she was not only scared, but slightly confused.  Even better!

“I…I don’t understand--- No, I simply can’t believe the…the terrible things you’re saying, Mr. Barnes.  I would never endanger my gran---I mean, one of my students by---”

That was enough; I cut her off.  “Oh, you know full well what I’m talking about, Doctor.  Nothing done to me escaped your keen eye and tight controls.  You knew my sense of smell had been altered---and why.  I just can’t imagine why you’d risk killing your student by forcing her into estrus, instead of allowing her to experience it during her three-month stay here on Earth.  You and your people are cold, Doctor, but I didn’t think you were so callus in regards to your people’s lives.”

She blinked and sputtered, momentarily at a loss for words.  Eventually, “Mr. Barnes, please believe me when I say I would never risk the life of a student, or even a paid staff member, for any such reason.”  And strange as it seemed, I was beginning to believe her.  Then, after a few damning moments of silence, she continued, “But yes, we…we did alter your sense of smell---and we hoped your sensitivity to our females’ estrus pheromones---in the name of both scientific experimentation and…and convenience.  We thought it would help bond the two of you, in hopes that you both would better tolerate each other throughout the three-month observation period.  We chose L’raan for the job because she not only was qualified, but that her normal two-month estrus cycle would bring her into season around the fourth week of her stay with you, which is about the time we thought you both would be reaching your tolerance limits.  We certainly didn’t intend for her to come out of cold sleep deathly ill, and especially not already in estrus!  I have absolutely no idea why that happened!”

I glared at her for a pregnant moment, and she actually squirmed a bit.  Another notch in my gun!  “Maybe you didn’t intend for her to arrive in full sexual song,” I stated ominously, “but somebody did.  Either that, or in trying to arrange for her timely death, their preparations royally screwed things up.”  The doctor’s mouth dropped open in outright shock; real, I firmly believed.  “I’m well familiar with the preparation procedures,” I continued, “and while they’re supposed to be done a day or so prior to departure, even hurrying the process shouldn’t make a subject ill; only uncomfortable.  L’raan complained that the meds and injections given her prior to departure made her very sick, and upon arrival she was given additional injections and a collection of pills and supplements by the med techs on the ship---injections, pills and substances that I believe were to ensure that she would sicken further and die once I got her home, an ‘unfortunate incident brought on by the dangers of space travel’.  Lucky for her, she became violently ill before she took the rest of her meds, or their little plan would probably have worked.”

Dr. N’looma’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, then she managed to say, “B-but---why?  Why would someone want to hurt---to kill my---I mean L’raan?  It just doesn’t---”

“Oh, but it does, Doctor!  With my observer out of the way, it would be easy for somebody in your embassy to arrange for my demise, brought on by ‘an unforeseen complication with the rejuvenation process’.  You see, Doctor, somebody has apparently realized that I know---or at least suspect---that your little altruistic venture in rejuvenation has a darker purpose, that this whole ‘let’s help the poor, backward humans’ program is a front for something far more important.

“Important to Yularians, that is.”

While I couldn’t read all of her body language with certainty, I could tell I hit a nerve.  Several times she started to respond, and each time she caught herself before saying a word.  I simply waited for her to sort it out.  There was plenty of time.  If I could keep the Yularians from killing me, I might even live another thirty-forty years.

Finally, she managed to push some thoughts out in words.  “I’m a scientist and a physician, Mr. Barnes, not a politician,” she began with just a trace of her natural elitism.  “I concern myself with helping people, not hurting them, and I would never stoop to killing my patients, my students or my staff---nor would I allow them to be killed!  You must be wrong---you have to be wrong---in your evaluation of this unfortunate incident.”  Oh no, she wasn’t going to get away with that!

“Sorry, Doctor,” I interrupted, almost snarling, “but I think I’m absolutely correct, and here’s why:  With me out of the way, your government could pick another human, one that hopefully wouldn’t connect the puzzle pieces.  My theory is that someone in your government got nervous, realizing that they’d made a big mistake in selecting me for the project, and they wanted to…to ‘reboot’ the whole thing, to start over fresh with someone who they hoped wouldn’t figure out what they were actually working on.”

“But what do you think we’re working on?” she injected.

“Dr. N’looma,” I said, dropping my outraged tone back to a modicum of civility, “I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with making fundamental changes in humankind itself.  Once those behind this are sure your processes will work on humans, I think it’ll be implemented on a much larger scale---maybe not on the entire world’s population, but on at least enough humans to serve their purpose.  Why else offer us an expensive, time-consuming procedure that is not economically feasible!  Interstellar trade is horribly expensive, and the small amount of luxury and exotic goods your ships, and even the ships of the other three-star faring species, can carry can’t show enough profit to make the trips worthwhile.  Even having paying clients for the rejuvenation process won’t make it profitable enough!

“It only took a little bit of digging to realize that you four species don’t like each other.  Your people boast that Yularians are more intelligent than humans---and everybody else, for that matter.  The Eelon are arrogant and aloof, and look down their feline noses at everybody else, claiming to be the only true predators in the bunch.  The Dralorians really don’t give a shit about making friends and making money, preferring to live and play and not be bothered with the details.  And then we come to the Ar’kaa---the big bunnies!  As the only strict herbivores in the bunch, they’re terrified of the bloodthirsty cats---who make no bones about liking to eat them---and they’re not all that comfortable around Yularians---who I’m told also have a fondness for tender Ar’kaa cutlets.  Since the Dralorians are omnivores like Yularians and humans, their meat-eating habits make the bunnies understandably nervous as well.

“And the Ar’kaa absolutely hate us humans.”

“They---w-hat?  Why?” she asked, obviously surprised at my statement.

“It’s a short, ugly story, but it’s not pertinent to the problem at hand,” I said dismissively.  “What’s important is, the bunnies aren’t all that bright; hell, they were barely above a primitive cave-dweller level of civilization when your people stumbled across them, and you uplifted them by force---shoved your brand of civilization down their throats, really---which no doubt created social upheavals that we humans can’t even imagine.  They’re fairly ‘modern’ now---but they’re still not all that bright.  They don’t create, they don’t innovate, they don’t invent, nor do they explore.  They really don’t want anything to do with humanity, and I’ll wager that, given a choice, they’d be happy not to have anything to do with any other species, either.  Especially the Eelon.”

Her ears had drooped, her fizzing elitism now flatter than stale beer.  “Do…do you think L’raan will recover?” she asked, seemingly-honest concern on her face.

I nodded.  “Yeah, she’s young and strong, and after she expelled some of that---stuff they’d pumped into her, she began to perk up a bit.  She’s sleeping now, but in a little while I’ll wake her and try to get her to drink something and eat some Yularian-safe food.”  When the Doctor tried to inject something I added, “And no, I’ll make damned sure she doesn’t take any of the so-called ‘meds’ those bastards on the ship gave her.  In fact, I’ll save them for evidence---if you decide you want them.”

Dr. N’looma was quiet for several moments, then said, “Yes, Mr. Barnes, I do want them.”  She seemed to sigh, then continued, “Please make note of the following code.  It’s in your alphabet and numeric notation, and can be entered on the touch screen after you touch the ‘star’ icon on the lower right:  ANBR549.  This will connect you through a secure link to this private videophone, and if I’m not available when you call it will allow you to record a message, including video images.  The camera on your unit is quite sophisticated, and can be adjusted to take magnified images.  While recording, touch the ‘circle-star’ icon and you will access both an inset image of what the camera sees, and several self-explanatory controls.  I want to see the pills and any other medications given to L’raan as soon as she’s able to give them to you.  They may tell me nothing, but then again---”

This was encouraging.  The good doctor appeared to be quite pissed.  “You have given me much to think about, Mr. Barnes, and for that I thank you.”  She hung her head momentarily, then added, “And I thank you most sincerely for taking care of L’raan.  She…she is a good student, and I hope to see her become a fine physician, perhaps even a scientist.”

And with that she broke the connection.

 

I stared at the blank screen for a moment, then finished my Scotch.  “So what do you think of our Dr. N’looma, young lady?” I tossed into the air without looking around.  A soft gasp answered my question.  “You hear enough to understand what’s going on?”  When no answer was made I slowly spun my high-backed computer desk chair around, and confronted L’raan, who was standing unsteadily in the connecting bathroom’s doorway, having come through from her bedroom.  Her expression was one of total confusion.

“H-how did---?”

“I saw a slight change in the room’s light when you opened the door, there was a tiny reflection in the videophone screen, and while your fur is clean now, I’m sorry to say that your estrus scent is noticeable all the way across the room.”  She looked horrified.  “And while it may be the hot romance ticket to a young male Yularian, it really doesn’t do a thing to excite me.”

“I…I’m sorry that---” she began, then faltered, lost for words.

“Don’t apologize, my dear,” I offered, smiling gently.  “As you probably heard me tell the good doctor, I don’t think any of this was your fault.  The main thing is, you apparently got enough of the poison out of your system in time, and didn’t take any of the crap those med techs on board the ship gave you.  Otherwise---” and I shook my head.

“They…they tried to kill me,” she whispered, her eyes wide in disbelief.  “They really did!”

Nodding, I said, “Yeah, I’m afraid so.”  Then, smiling encouragingly, I offered, “But you puked, pooped and peed it out, and they failed, so let’s celebrate by getting some much-needed fluids into your system now, and when you feel up to it we’ll get some solid food into you, too.”  As if on cue her stomached rumbled, and her ears perked up.  “I think I have some chicken broth I can warm up, as well as some grape-flavored Gatorade, both of which will give you some quick calories as well as replenish some of the electrolytes your body is screaming for.”  I slowly approached her as she stood in the bathroom doorway.  “But first,” and she looked at me, her head tilted sideways like my old German Shepherd often did, “you need to put on a pair of shorts.”

She frowned, asking, “But---this is a private residence.  Must I wear---?”

“Yes, dear,” I stated.  “Your nudity doesn’t offend me, but for the sake of hygiene and sanitation we don’t sit or lounge on the furniture without crotch covers.” 

 

Chapter 4

Well-Healed 

 

Thankfully, L’raan held true-to-form.  Wild foxes love raiding chicken coops, and my little “domesticated” Yularian vixen slurped, lapped and sucked down warm chicken broth---and a short time later, part of the can of “heavy duty” chicken noodle soup I fixed for myself---with the same gusto her apparent ancestors scarfed down farmyard poultry.  Then, too, grape-flavored Gatorade from my pantry also went down with little problem, and with the help of both kinds of nourishment L’raan quickly began throwing off the debilitating effects of the poisons.

“Go easy on all that,” I eventually cautioned, “since your belly and guts are totally empty and no doubt highly insulted by what you’ve been through.  We don’t need you overdoing things and barfing all that good stuff back up.”  She wasn’t pencil-thin like so many young human women liked to be, which probably helped her resiliency.  “You want something more substantial to eat later, there’ll be plenty of Yularian-friendly food here you’ll like.”

After tossing the bowls and utensils in the dishwasher we moved into my combination library/den/TV room, a far more comfortable and casual environment than the large formal living room.  Just the short period of time we spent at the breakfast bar in the kitchen showed an increase in her strength, and she no longer had to cling to my arm for support.  Nothing like “Jewish penicillin” and supercharged sugar-salt-mineral water to bring a body back from the brink, my wife used to say.  God, I missed her.

L’raan curled up at the end of an overstuffed micro fiber-upholstered couch, while I kicked back in my old La-Z-Boy leather recliner, which welcomed my rejuvenated body like an old friend.  Once settled, I could see that the Yularian was far more alert---and visibly nervous---as she sat with her oversized vulpine feet tucked under her legs and her long, thick tail curled around her like a security blanket.  “Are you too cool?” I asked.  “I can either warm the house a bit, or get you a light cover.”

“No---thanks,” she replied, settling a bit deeper in the nest she’d made.  “You have been very...kind.”  Her ears drooped.  “I…I certainly didn’t expect---”

“I don’t think either of us expected what happened today,” I soothed, “but the main thing is you survived, and after a good night’s sleep and some more food I think you’ll be feeling a lot better tomorrow.”  I sighed, shaking my head, then said, “I’m sorry, too, for sounding a bit unkind and unfriendly about your…well, your current female condition.  Human females go through estrus cycles every twenty-eight days, but the only indication we males usually have of it is monthly mood swings in our mates.  I don’t believe this---smell---that I’m picking up is real, and under normal circumstances I don’t think I’d find your natural scent offensive, if I even noticed it at all.  In fact, from what I inferred from talking with Dr. N’looma this afternoon, I’m convinced my unnatural sensory response is the result of a terribly botched experiment.  When you were to normally come into estrus, in about a month from now according to Dr. N’looma, I was supposed to suddenly find you ‘attractive’, which---they hoped---would help offset the animosity they predicted we’d both be experiencing about that time in the observation period.”

She blinked and her ears drooped again.  “It’s not fair, Mr. Barnes.  We didn’t---we didn’t even get to know each other before---”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling gently, “it’s a mess, all right.  Good intentions got sidetracked by a murder plot, and your body’s natural timing---and my poor carpet---wound up the victims.”  Her face drooped to match her ears, and I quickly added, “But you’re young and strong so you’ll recover, and I was able to clean the carpet---and our clothes are chugging along on the ‘super-clean’ setting in the washer.  Things really are looking up!”  After a moment or two of thought she looked slightly sideways at me, her head tilted, ears up, and the tip of her tail flipped a few times.  I knew that, in her kind’s body language, she was smiling.

“And now, young lady, we need to take a look at the nutritional supplements you brought, as well as those that were stockpiled here when the room was set up for Dr. N’looma---and we also need to separate any potential poisons the damned ship’s med techs gave you.  I want to send the good doctor pictures of them, so maybe she can find out just what they are---and possibly trace who’s behind this.”  Her eyes widened.  “Do you feel strong enough to deal with this tonight, or do you want to wait until tomorrow?”

She yawned and stretched---cute, and decidedly female---and said, “The supplements should be no problem, but I, too, want to look closer at the pills.  I have some pharmaceutical training, and perhaps I can recognize them.”  But once she dug the package with the half-dozen tablets out of her luggage in her bedroom it proved to be a mystery to her.  “These pills have no markings that I recognize; some have no markings at all.  The directions are hand-written, and only say to take all of them at once before sleeping.”

“I’ll carefully photograph them all, along with the instructions.  Do you remember anything about the injections you received, both before you left and when you were brought out of stasis?  The way they were given and your reactions to them might hold clues to what they were.”

After a moment of thought she said, “Along with the usual colonic cleanser pills, which you should have received a day before leaving for our world,” I nodded, “I was given three injections---”

I held up a hand to stop her, shaking my head.  “I only got two injections; one to kill any ‘bad bugs’ I might be carrying, and another to immunize me against anything I might pick up in your world’s environment.  Other than a little momentary flushing and tingling from the shots---and spending a day in the toilet---I had no adverse reactions.”

“I should have received the same basic formulas, adjusted for my Yularian biology, of course, but I also received a third injection that immediately made me feel---ill.”  I frowned and she continued, “And once the med techs revived me after the ship landed here, they immediately gave me two more injections, which they claimed would help offset my illness.”  She looked at me and I thought she was going to cry.  “But…but I kept feeling worse and worse, and---” Yep, here came the tears.

What to do was never in question.  Quickly moving to her side I carefully enfolded her into my arms---God, there was that damned smell! ---and let her cry on my shoulder, while being very careful what I did with my hands.  I always kept a small roll of fabric-soft paper towels in each of my bathrooms, and once she’d gotten herself mostly cried out I left her sitting on the edge of her bed and fetched a couple of sheets for her to dry her eyes and blow her snout on.  Despite their cultural air of elitist superiority, this young female Yularian was a long way from home, still somewhat sick and very frightened.

“Look,” I said after perching on the edge of the bed next to her, “you’re safe for now.  This house has a very special security system, and I’ll wager there are elements of it that even those who made the upgrades for Dr. N’looma don’t know about.  I turned the ‘special’ stuff off before I left to keep it secret, since it’s not yet available to the general public.”  She looked at me with a puzzled expression, but all I’d say was, “I’ve made some good friends in unusual places over the years, and they occasionally do favors for me.”  That answer seemed to satisfy her, so I added, “There are also weapons in the house, and now that I’m in much better physical condition I shouldn’t have any problem using them should it come down to that.”  I patted her hand in a human-style gesture.  “But I’m betting it’s not going to come down to that, at least not tonight, so the thing you need to do now is to get some sleep.  Tomorrow will be a much better day.”

Standing, I pointed out a small water bowl---Yularians couldn’t really drink out of glasses without using straws---and the intercom button near the bed.  “You need me during the night, just hit the red button and it’ll activate every unit, so no matter where I am in the house I’ll hear you.  The windows are armored, locked and electronically guarded, and the drapes are light-proof so nobody can see in.  Both the bathroom door and the main bedroom door have inside locks, so if it makes you more comfortable you can lock yourself in for the night.  Just consider that, if you get sick and need me, it’ll take me extra time to bypass the locks.”  Her eyes widened.  “My bedroom is at the other end of the hall and I have my own bathroom, so I shouldn’t disturb you.”  I glanced at the clock on the night stand, then at my trusty Rolex, an extravagance I’d treated myself to decades earlier.  “It’s only eight p.m., but you’ll probably sleep until at least mid-morning, so I won’t disturb you unless I haven’t heard you stirring by ten a.m.”

She nodded, then glanced at her luggage.  “Why don’t I move them to my office?” I said.  “We can go through them in the morning and see if there’s anything in them that you didn’t pack.  Personally, I don’t think they’d risk anything stupid like that, but right now I don’t trust as many people as I did when I walked off the ship this morning.  OK?”  L’raan was happy with that plan, and moments later her bags were secure in the other room, and the connecting door in the bathroom was locked from inside the bathroom and secured with an old-fashioned friction wedge under it, so even if the lock was defeated---say by a small robot hidden in the luggage---it would have a tough time forcing the door open.  “When I leave the office I’ll secure the hallway door, too, so that if anything nasty even tries to break out of the room, I’ll know about it immediately.”

I took the pills and the note and headed for the door, adding, “If you get hungry during the night you know where the food is in the kitchen, and I think you can figure out my human-primitive appliances.”  She yipped a small laugh; a good sign that her spirit was improving.  “I’ll be up a few more hours, then I’m turning in.”  I suddenly yawned, and it felt good.  “Even though this freshened body is a lot better than it was three months ago it’s been a long day, and I’m looking forward to the best night’s sleep I’ve had since before you were born.  With no more prostate trouble, I shouldn’t have to get up every hour or so to pee.”  She yipped laughter again as I left the room, closing the door behind me.

 

The instructions Dr. N’looma had given me about how to securely send her information were easy enough for even a dumb human to follow, and it didn’t take me more than fifteen minutes to detail the pills and the note, along with an update on how the patients---both of us---were doing.  I was tired but feeling better than I’d felt in more years than I’d like to admit; while I now looked to be in my fifties, I actually had the physique and health of a man of thirty.  L’raan had quickly secured her room and killed all but her night light, and from the “snoop” switch on the master intercom in my room, all I could hear was her soft, regular breathing as she slept.

As promised, after shutting down everything in the office I secured the door with a little electronic gadget that would literally raise the dead if somebody---or something---tried to exit the room.  I didn’t think our unknown Yularian thugs would try anything as stupid as planting any robotic tricks in her luggage---and I made a mental note to check my lone bag over carefully before going to bed! ---but I also didn’t trust them not to try something, just in case their little stunt with the poison didn’t work.  Trying to kill an innocent young female---and then no doubt offing me---was cold and cruel, but it also told me that the bad guys were serious, and I had to be just as serious in my counter-measures.

From the sophisticated house security control station behind a side-hinged painting in my bedroom I activated the enhanced security system, not the readily visible simple one in the entrance foyer the property caretakers had used in my absence.  This one was advanced-military grade, using a smart AI with both manual and voice controls.  It only took a moment to “train” it to my new voice print, then I said, “Bertha, you’re now on full alert.  Monitor the entire property out to fifty feet beyond the fence and gate, as well as every room in the house.  Note that I have a female Yularian house guest in the remodeled bedroom, and that my office is secured with locks and a ‘screamer’ alarm on the hall door.  The house guest is ill, and may get up during the night and leave her room, possibly to get food or look outside through a window if she’s restless.  You are to awaken me quietly if she leaves her room other than to use the attached bathroom, and if she attempts to go outside make no overt alarm and allow her to exit the house.  If she quickly reenters, secure the door.  By that time, I’ll be up and monitoring the screen in here, or will be otherwise investigating.  Unless we have a major intrusion she is not to know you exist until I make your presence known to her, probably tomorrow.  For all other minor alerts, including animals that appear to be snooping around the house, awaken me as per prior instructions.  Acknowledge.”

“Understood, Tom,” the no-nonsense contralto voice responded, and a status display on the ten-inch screen quickly showed me that all systems were green.

“I’m going to bed now,” and I swung the painting back in place.  “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Tom,” the AI said, “and welcome home.”

“Thanks, Bertha.  It’s good to be back.”

As I said, the AI was smart.  I’d helped develop the programming algorithms it used, and had been promised distribution rights if the system was ever made available to the public.  For now, though, I kind of enjoyed having ‘her’ all to myself.

 

Chapter 5

Night Moves 

 

“Tom, wake up!  Tom, wake up!” came the low but insistent voice, interrupting the most wonderful night’s sleep I’d had in ages.  “You need to be awake now, Tom!  This is not a drill or a false alarm; wake up now!”  Old habits die hard, and the old habit of paying attention to Bertha’s “emergency” voice bounced me awake almost immediately.

“I’m up, Bertha,” I croaked as I swung out of bed, several of the nightstand and small lights coming on dimly under the AI’s control.  Moving over to the hidden control panel I swung the painting to the side and said, “Show me.”  Bertha did, and what I saw on the little security screen brought instant, hard chills to my nearly naked body, and a single, faint click that seemed to come from deep inside my head.

Scurrying across the grass between my security fence and the house were a half-dozen things the size of cats---but they weren’t cats.  They didn’t move like cats; they didn’t move like anything I’d ever seen.  “Detail image,” I said, and a light-amplified close-up of one of the things sprang into fairly sharp detail.  No, it wasn’t a cat; it wasn’t even an animal.

“The house is also being scanned by a low-power laser snoop-beam on the windows, apparently searching for any sound.  As soon as the beam started I initiated sub-audio frequency ‘white noise’ throughout the entire house, which should defeat such technology.”  Moments later the mechanical intruders reached the house and Bertha said, “The devices are apparently probing for openings to the house.  Instructions?”

“Do not let them gain access!” I almost shouted.  “Kill them as quickly as possible, and show me where that snoop-beam is coming from.”  The monitor screen instantly switched to a grainy, light-amplified telephoto view showing an unmarked panel van parked just outside the main gate, then the AI switched the screen’s view to something entirely different; a vantage point just under the front porch eve, and it was moving.

“This is taken from one of my security spiders.  I have one moving to engage each of the intruders.”  The heavily-amplified image was jerky, but quickly moved down a roof post to the ground, then scuttled toward one of the things that seemed to be studying the concrete foundation near the front porch, probably trying to see if it could drill into it.  The security spider, a woods rat-sized multi-legged robot straight out of a scary science fiction movie, paused for five long seconds about two feet from the intruder, then spat a high-energy laser pulse aimed at the rear quarter of the thing.  A sharp, overwhelming flash followed, and I could faintly hear numerous sharp staccato reports from outside.  Moments later the video feed from the spider cleared to show the intruder’s “butt” to be a twisted, smoking mass, with the machine apparently totally disabled.  “The spiders reached attack positions almost simultaneously,” Bertha stated, “and the intruders’ power sources---apparently non-nuclear---were located by radar and infrared, then all spiders disabled the intruders at the same time.  The intruders never reacted to the presence of the spiders, so we may assume those responsible for them have no idea why they’ve failed.  I detected ultra-wave radio signals apparently linking the intruders to the van, but since I disabled the machines those signals have stopped.”

“Good job, Bertha,” I said, finally allowing myself to release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.  “Keep watching for further activity while I go wake our guest.  She needs to be aware of what’s going on.”

Moving quickly to the intercom controls, I keyed the alien’s room and listened for a moment; quiet breathing.  She was still asleep.  “L’raan!” I called, then called several more times until I heard her stirring.  “You need to wake up fast, dear.  Unfortunately, I was wrong; our ‘friends’ are attacking tonight.  I’m coming to your door now, and I need you to come with me.”  I threw open my bedroom door and hurried down the hall to her door, where I tapped on it and called her name again.

To her credit she didn’t waste time, fumbling it open almost immediately.  I didn’t waste time, either, gesturing for her to follow me as I hurried back toward my bedroom.  Once we were both inside I motioned her over to the security screen and said, “Bertha, show L’raan what just transpired.”  The AI did, and again to her credit the Yularian didn’t cower or run screaming back to the security of her room.  Still, she was obviously upset.

“Bertha is---?” she asked once the brief video report was finished.

“Bertha is the security AI that I hinted at earlier.  ‘She’ spotted the van, detected a laser audio snoop-beam and countered it, then woke me in time for us to watch the intruders approach the house.  Bertha has a great deal of monitoring and defensive capabilities, but I want you to take a good look at those intruders and tell me what you think.”

L’raan glanced momentarily at a still image of one of the things on the screen, then looked at me.  “There is no need for opinion, Mr. Barnes.  I’ve seen those before.  Our military use them for infiltration and…and neutralization of enemy positions.  They can climb, dig and cut their way through almost any kind of building, even through steel doors if given enough time.  Your Bertha was fortunate to be able to disable them as quickly as she did.”  The Yularian glanced back at the screen where the image of the intruder was still displayed, and she finally began to tremble.  “Had even one of them gotten inside, we…we probably would not be having this conversation.”

I gently drew her again-nude form close for comfort---for hers or mine I couldn’t say---and said, “I think it’s time I raised the bar, and raised it high.”  When she looked at me, puzzled, I simply said, “Stay close to me.”

After retrieving a small .45ACP autopistol from my nightstand, we hurried back down the hall to my office, where I first disabled the screamer attached to the latch, then spoke into the air, “Bertha, are you sure there’s been absolutely no activity from inside the office?”

“No motion or signs of energy, Tom.”

“OK, we’re going inside and I’m going to make a phone call while at the same time I’ll be doing a videophone transmission.  Be sure you monitor L’raan’s luggage for any kind of sudden activity, and alert me instantly should you detect any kind of unusual movement or energy there, or anywhere else.  Understood?”

“Understood, Tom.”

We entered the room, switched on the lights and I quickly keyed in the special security code on the Yularian videophone.  It went into record mode on the other end, unknown light years away, which signified Dr. N’looma wasn’t available.  No problem.  She’d eventually see and hear what transpired next.  I swung and adjusted the video pickup to a wide-angle setting that covered enough of the room to show both L’raan standing nearby and me as I sat at the desk, then I touched the speaker phone button on my hard-wired house phone base and keyed in a number.

“You have reached the Yularian embassy in Jacksonville, Florida,” the alien voice answered after only one ring.  “We’re sorry, but the embassy is closed for the day.  We open at nine a.m. every day, and welcome your inquiries and visits by appointment.  If you would like to leave a message, please speak after the tone.  Goodbye.”  The phone beeped.

“This is Thomas Barnes, although you probably already know that, and I’m sure you also know that I know you monitor this phone line even when the embassy is closed.  That’s of no concern of mine, however, since this will not be a two-way conversation.”  I glanced at L’raan and winked.  “I suggest you listen closely, because I’ll only say this once:  You have attacked my house with various highly illegal devices, for the obvious purpose of killing both my Yularian medical observer and no doubt myself; this after a botched attempt at killing my observer shortly after her arrival here on Earth.  These attacks will no longer be tolerated, and I have transmitted this information---through means you can neither intercept nor defeat---to the appropriate Earth governmental officials.  We were aware of much of your covert actions to date, and will remain on alert for further illegal activity by you or agents under your control.

“Should any further attempts to harm my Yularian observer or me occur, whatever or however it may happen, Earth will immediately expel all Yularian interests from the planet, by force if necessary.  Make no mistake; you will be gone, your assets here will be seized, and you will not be invited back.  This matter is not open to discussion or negotiation.  I repeat: If any further hostility is detected, these actions will be implemented.”

I broke the telephone connection, then noticed L’raan was standing with her mouth hanging open in shock, her eyes wide.  I motioned for her to say nothing, then spoke to the air, “Bertha, please feed your audio and video records of the current incident to the TV screen in here, beginning when I give the signal.”

“Acknowledged,” came the reply, seemingly out of mid-air.

I quickly swung the thirty-two-inch LCD TV screen around to face the Yularian videophone’s camera, then turned it on.  Moments later I told Bertha, “Begin playback.”  Over the next few minutes the video Bertha’s various cameras recorded were displayed on the TV, and both her running audio commentary and my comments and instructions were replayed.  When it was done I switched the TV off and faced the videophone’s camera with L’raan by my side.  “In case we don’t survive the night, or even the next few days, Dr. N’looma, I felt you needed to know this.  I sincerely hope you can get some answers.  Goodbye.”  Reaching over, I cut the connection.

I gave L’raan a brief one-armed hug, then sighed.  “Lordy, I hope it was worth it, ‘cause we don’t have much else to help us at this time.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Barnes?” she asked, confusion obvious in her expression.  “You told the embassy-”  I quickly silenced her by gently clamping her muzzle shut with a finger and thumb, while doing the childish “Shhh!” thing with a finger in front of my own lips.  Her eyes got really big, then she nodded.  She was still trembling, and I was beginning to shake a bit myself now that the initial surge of adrenalin was wearing off.  “C’mon,” I said, “let’s head back to the security panel in my room.  I’m cold; I need to put a robe on---”  I’d bounced out of bed wearing only my boxer shorts, and the cool house air was actually beginning to chill me.  “---and see if our friends are up to anything else.”

Once the office was once again locked and secured with the screamer, we hustled back to my room, and once inside I shut the door.  Turning to face her head-tilted, puzzled frown, “I told the embassy a lie, a big-ass bluff,” I explained with a wry smile.  “I haven’t told anybody anything---yet.  That’s coming, and trust me, if I’m allowed the time to do so I’m planning to sing like a canary.”  She still didn’t understand.  “I had to buy us some breathing room, my dear.  Your buddies at the embassy are well aware of what’s going on outside, but what I hope they don’t know is what I’ve been up to inside, who I might have contacted, and what I’ve told them.  I didn’t want to say anything about this in the vicinity of your luggage, in case they have some sort of listing or recording device hidden in there that Bertha can’t detect.”  Her head tilted the other way and her mouth opened just a bit, dawning understanding evident in her eyes.  “Yeah,” I added, “I’m just a big old liar, and I’m hoping my lies will keep us alive until I can get some help.”

 

After pulling on an old flannel robe I picked from my closet, I glanced at the security panel and asked, “Bertha, what do our ‘friends’ appear to be up to?”

“The van is still parked outside the gate, but I can see no activity through the front windows, nor does there appear to be any activity around it.  The laser snoop-beam is still---no, correction; the snoop-beam has just switched off.  I just intercepted an ultrabeam radio burst, content unknown, that appears to have been directed--- Wait!  Now I’m picking up strange electronic activity apparently coming from within the garage.”  I’d left my Caddy sitting out front of the house, windows down, to help air it out.  Bertha mentioning the garage sent a strange chill down my spine.  “The electronic activity is increasing,” the AI calmly reported, “and from composite radar images generated by several of my security spiders on that side of the house I’m seeing motion inside the garage.  Understand that I have no direct sensors in the building.  Since it is a structure separate from the house, it was not deemed necessary to add monitors there when I was installed.  That may have been a mistake.”  No shit!  “I’m putting the radar composite image on-screen.  Perhaps you can better understand what it represents.”

What the image “represented” appeared to be something out of a dark nightmare.  The shadow seemed to be the size of a big horse in length---but flat, no more than a half-foot thick and undulating, and supported by at least six to eight long tentacle-like legs.  The thing was moving around near the closed garage door, and suddenly the door swung up and open, and the thing moved out and into the open.  The image on the security screen suddenly switched to an enhanced night-vision picture, and my spinal chill grew legs that began a tap-dance all over my back.  Another click faintly sounded inside my head, but I didn’t pay it any attention.

Kill that…that thing, Bertha!” I yelled.  “Kill it fast, kill it now, use anything and everything you have---but KILL it!”  L’raan began yowling and latched onto me like a terrified child hugging her daddy.  The screen image suddenly began to bounce and vibrate as the spider providing the image began scuttling toward the dark horror that was slither-skittering toward the distant gate.  Intense pencil-beams of light started poking and prodding the undulating figure, and it was instantly apparent those laser beams from the mob of spiders weren’t going unnoticed.  The thing seemed to stumble, and several of its tentacle-legs appeared to fall out of synchronization with the others, causing the whole snake-like nest to become tangled.  This brought the monstrosity to a grinding, nearly-tumbling halt no more than fifty feet from the front of the garage, the spiders converging on it like wolves, their tiny lasers relentlessly probing to find a lethal weakness.

And the thing wasn’t without offensive weaponry of its own!  Suddenly a white-hot pulse of energy spat from the front of the horror, and first one, then another spider exploded like they’d been hit by grenades.  But because the spiders were actually a single, multi-faceted device controlled by the AI, there was no fumbling or scrambling of one unit over another as they jockeyed for optimum positions; they all functioned as one mechanical organism, and while the intruder’s attention was focused on killing the two spiders it blasted, two others managed to scramble up its rear legs and gain the high ground on its back.  Once there, both concentrated their lasers on one spot about two feet in front of its tail end.  A second later there was a powerful explosion---unfortunately lethal to the two attacking spiders---that blew apart the back third of the monstrosity.

Game over.  It instantly froze, then finished toppling onto the grass at the edge of the paver brick driveway.  Moments later the van’s engine started, and it hurriedly moved away from the vicinity of the gate and onto the paved road, then sped away into the night.  The machine vs. apparent machine battle had taken no more than thirty seconds, but it was the most intense half-minute I’d experienced in…well, ages.

“I detect no further activity from the large intruder,” Bertha stated, “and I’ve found no additional electronic signals emitting from anywhere on the property or even nearby.”  The spiders began dispersing, with one remaining behind to watch for latent activity in the intruder’s carcass, while the others divided their numbers; half heading to inspect the garage while the other half returned to guard the house.

L’raan was trembling so hard she was actually shaking me, and appeared to be so frightened she was actually having problems breathing.  “It’s all right, dear,” I soothed, stroking her head and upper shoulders.  “It’s over.  We won.  Our spiders disabled all the intruders and the bad guys have left.  Something tells me they won’t be back, at least not tonight.”  She gasped several breaths and finally began to get herself under control, looking up at me and trying unsuccessfully to speak.  “I think the embassy called off the dogs,” I explained, “and they’re running home with their tails between their legs.”

Her jaw suddenly dropped open and her eyes widened even more.  “T-t-tails---b-between t-their…legs?” she managed to sputter.  I nodded, smiling and hugging her again.  Suddenly she took a deep, shuddering breath, then let it out in a series of loud staccato barks, almost collapsing into a heap on the floor.  At first I didn’t realize what was happening, but then it hit me:  She was literally going into hysterics---laughing!  Apparently I’d touched on a favorite bit of Yularian humor, and I had to admit, her laughter was infectious.

Shared danger often forges bonds of friendship faster and stronger than by any other method.  Maybe---just maybe, I thought, once all this dust settles we might stand a chance of actually getting along.  I sure hoped so!

 

End of Sample


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