James R. Lane

 

James R. Lane

 

Short Story - The Toaster

 

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THE TOASTER

©2010 by James R. Lane

All Rights Reserved.

 

1 - Honey, I’m home… 

It was a dark and story night.  Well, not quite.  Dark it certainly was, since it was nighttime.  Stormy---  No.  It had snowed that day---a lot---but the storm was over and I’d ventured out in the clear early evening to pick up supplies and mail from the town down the mountain.  When you lived alone in the wintertime in lesser-traveled areas of the Smokey Mountains, you took advantage of breaks in the weather to restock the pantry.  When you were as old as I was, you either lived smart up there---or you didn’t live very long.

As I pulled up to my gate and hit HomeLink button number one on my little SUV’s rear-view mirror to open the electric gate, my high-beams picked out fallen tree limbs just before my winding, half-mile-long drive turned its first corner fifty feet away.  Once past the gate and closer to the problem I saw I could navigate around the limbs, and resigned myself to a bit of chainsaw work once the weather warmed up.

But not in the dark, and not until the weather warmed up a bit.

Once around the corner and out of sight of the highway I found even more limbs down, and stopping and climbing out of the truck with a powerful flashlight I saw that a literal path had been carved in the trees, apparently by a large object falling at an angle.  “Airplane?” I thought with a cold rat skittering up my spine, but I didn’t see any of the expected aircraft debris, nor did I see, hear or smell evidence of a fire---just an angular, downward-sloping hole in the branches that seemed to lead into the woods.

A hole the size a flying single-rear-axle box truck might make coming in for a hard landing.

I reached back into the truck and grabbed my old Smith & Wesson .357Magnum revolver.  Modern semi-auto pistols may be fancier and carry more bullets, but I figured if I couldn’t deal with a threat by the time I’d fired six times, I was probably in way over my head anyway.  Tucking the old six-shooter in my pants with its belt-clip holster, I killed the truck’s engine and set off through the sparse underbrush in the direction of what I figured must be a crashed airplane.  My cell phone didn’t work on this side of the mountain, so I figured I’d better see just what I was dealing with before I trekked up to my house and called for help.

I might simply be calling for the coroner.

Ten minutes of huffing and puffing (my seventy-plus years on this mudball had taken their toll on my heart, lungs and legs) through the underbrush and over broken limbs and I could see a definite golden glow up ahead.  Still, there were no sounds of burning, and no smell of smoke or aviation fuel.  “What the hell is going on up there?” I muttered, annoyed, as I continued towards the steady light.  It was one of those crisp, still mountain winter nights that were all too rare, and I couldn’t even hear the usual animal sounds one would expect under those conditions.  Perhaps, I mused, they’d been too frightened by whatever crashed while I was down the mountain getting groceries.

Another five minutes of grunting and grumbling brought me into a small pocket of space---and to something that obviously came from space.  “Shit!” I whispered, looking at a truck-sized oval something glowing softly in the frigid air.  It had no visible features; no doors, no windows, no exhaust holes, ports or protrusions---just a slightly golden glowing metallic surface.  There was no heat coming from it, and no smoke or steam, either.  The only smells were of the insulted foliage, and it didn’t even hum.  My skin didn’t tingle or burn like it should have had the object been heavily radioactive---which of course meant nothing if the radiation was lower-level, or even something we didn’t normally experience on Earth.

As I carefully made my way around the object---I couldn’t as of yet call it a “craft”, since it had no discernable nose, tail or defining vehicle details---I also noticed it didn’t have any visible damage from its violent journey through the trees and (suspiciously) soft impact with the ground.  Yeah.  It hadn’t plowed a deep furrow or dug itself an impact crater; it just barely made a dimple in the ground.  This told me it probably was slowing down as it approached the ground, and probably didn’t even jar its occupants---whatever they might be---all that much.

Once I’d made a full circuit of the object I simply stood there trying to decide what to do next.  If I’d have run---  Well, things might have turned out differently, but then again…maybe not all that differently.  The thing is, I didn’t run---and a few moments later it was too late to run. 

 

2 - Unreality Becomes Her 

“Please…help me,” I heard coming from somewhere behind me.  I clumsily spun, swinging the flashlight around to illuminate---

Trees.  Bushes. Broken limbs.  Oh yeah, a shadowy figure hiding behind a tree, too.  The voice sounded---strange.  It was speaking English, but there was an accent, an almost-lisping lilt unlike anything I’d ever heard.  That earlier plane-crash chill that had run down my spine returned.  Then the voice spoke again.

“I…mean you no harm,” it said, “and I do not want to frighten you---“  Yeah?  Despite its stated intentions, it was certainly giving me the willies, and I finally found my own voice.

“If you don’t want to frighten me, quit hiding behind that tree.  I’m armed, but I promise I won’t shoot you if you don’t threaten me.”

“Agreed,” the voice replied, and…and a huge fox stepped out into the harsh beam from my flashlight!

“If you say ‘take me to your leader’ I’m going to simply walk away, go home and get drunk,” I quipped after a pregnant moment’s pause.  The creature/figure/alien was no more than twenty feet away, and was roughly man-sized and standing on its hind legs, blinking into my light’s glare.

“That…hurts,” it said, blinking and shielding its eyes with a human-like hand.  In response I lowered the beam a bit.

“Sorry, but I can’t see in the darkness without it.  Better?”

“Yes,” it replied, moving a bit farther from the scant protection of the tree.  “May…I approach you?  I have no weapon, and I am…truthful…when I say I mean you no harm.”

“Sure,” I replied after a moment’s hesitation.  “Just stay at least a body length away for now.”  It seemed happy to comply, and a few moments later I was face-to-face with a fox-like creature that I damned well knew didn’t grow up under ol’ Sol.

When I say “fox-like” I don’t mean it was simply a big fox standing on its hind legs.  Oh hell no!  My intruder had proportionally heavier legs and thicker arms, much like a human---and black-fur-covered hands instead of paws, with black-claw-tipped fingers.  The black-furred feet…were different.  Larger than a proportionally larger vulpine’s feet should be, they seemed sturdy enough to easily bear the weight of the creature, and were shod in the strangest little sandals I’d ever seen.

Other than sandals and a harness for small objects like tools and knick-knacks, the creature wore only its red, black and white fur.  And a really bushy white-tipped tail.  Strange, green-iris eyes with vulpine-vertical pupils, too.  I tried not to stare impolitely, but in the amber glow of the ship---I’d stopped blinding the creature with my flashlight---I couldn’t tell if it was male or female.  No obvious breasts, and I didn’t notice the usual male “equipment” peering out of its thick fur, but vulpine males weren’t normally quite as well-hung as their canid cousins, and a regular vixen’s snatch was almost invisible, so…

“Can I assume that this…thing…is yours?” I asked, gesturing to the softly glowing object.

“Yes,” the creature replied.  “It…my ship…developed a propulsion system fault, and I had to look for a place to land.”  Sure, right.  “Is this your…property?”

“Yeah, I own this part of the mountain, and you’re fairly well isolated and secure from observation.”  I looked back at the glowing ship.  “You plan on making repairs, or do you have friends coming to rescue you?”  Or is this gonna get real ugly, real fast?

The creature made a nondescript gesture toward its ship, saying, “It has self-correcting…capabilities, and should have the…problem repaired within two of your days.”  Convenient, but---  “Since this is no more than a…a shuttle, it has no food or water.”  The alien looked at me with an unreadable expression, its head tilted to one side.  “I wish no…imposition on you, but---“

“---But you’d like food and water, and probably a warm place to sleep,” I finished dryly.  Its ears perked up and it bowed its head slightly.

“If it would be no trouble---yes, please.  The…shuttle has few comforts and little room.”

“Water here probably won’t hurt you, especially if I boil it first,” I stated.  “Food, however, might be a problem, since your system may find our foods poisonous, or at least not nutritious.  Also, your body’s normal microbe population might be lethal to us humans, and ours---both mine and the environment’s---might sicken you…or worse.”  The creature blinked.  “Still want to chance my hospitality?”

“My…biological system is different enough from your human one,” it replied, “that there should be no…no cross-contamination.  We---I studied samples retrieved by robot devices before attempting to land my shuttle.  Your water will not need…boiling, and for a short time at least your foods should provide me nourishment.”

More and more interesting.  “If I may ask,” I began, “where were you trying to land---when your shuttle developed problems?”  This should be good, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The creature blinked its strange green eyes several times in apparent distress, and its ears drooped a bit.  Finally, “I…I was heading for a…a meeting with one of your government officials.”  Right.  “The…navigation computer---how do you say it?---faulted…crashed, then the propulsion and guidance systems failed.”  Sure they did.  “I did not want to…ground the shuttle on a roadway, but I also did not want to wind up in total wilderness…in case I needed help.”  Actually…that made sense.  “The only habitation in this area was…apparently yours, and with no time left to look elsewhere I brought the ship down here.”  Not bad, but I still didn’t buy it.  Still, I had a living, breathing alien and its ship to deal with, and besides being nighttime---it was damned cold.

“Grab what you need for now from your ship,” I told it, “and let’s get us both to someplace warm and dry.”  The alien’s ears stood to attention and its lower jaw dropped---I guessed in a smile.  It yipped excitedly, then trotted to the far side of the glowing ship, touched a spot on the hull, and a doorway sunk in, then slid to the side.  Less than a minute passed before the creature returned, and the doorway sealed itself shut.  The alien had a few more items hung on its harness, as well as a small tote bag slung around its neck and over one shoulder.  Still no clothes.  Great.  Butt-stains on my upholstery…

We trudged back along the path I’d taken, and in a short while we were back to my SUV.  The alien seemed a bit surprised at seeing the trucklet, but I said, “Our technology isn’t on a level with yours, but if you think this is primitive---just wait.  It gets worse.”  I opened the front passenger door and motioned for the creature to get in, then I huffed around and climbed in the drivers side and cranked the engine.  “The snow’s too deep and the road up to my house is too slippery, so we won’t go much farther before we switch to something more capable of climbing.”  Even though the little SUV had all-wheel-drive, during the harsh winter snows and ice it couldn’t negotiate the steepest part of the winding road up the mountain.

A hundred yards around the corner we came to a small double-door garage.  I touched one of the HomeLink buttons on the mirror and the left-side door pivoted open to let us drive in.  Lights had switched on when I hit the button, and once inside I hit the button again and the door closed behind us.  “Out,” I commanded, and we both exited the vehicle.  I went around to the back and opened the tailgate, then began transferring grocery bags to the enclosed back of the small rubber-treaded utility crawler parked next to the SUV.  “Food and supplies,” I explained as the alien kept politely out of my way.  “Although it’s not fancy, we’ll ride the rest of the way in this.”

Done, I closed up the SUV and we climbed into the crawler’s cramped canvas-skinned cab.  I touched a button on the dash and the door behind us pivoted open, then I hit the starter button and the little v-twin gas engine growled to life.  Gotta love fuel injection and electronic ignition’s migration to small utility vehicles!  We backed out of the garage, I touched the door button again, and as the garage door began closing we headed up the mountain, my alien passenger wide-eyed and looking at times like it wanted to jump out and run for its life.

“It’s not as fancy as your shuttle, but it’s never crashed and left me stranded, either,” I quipped over the clattering roar of the crawler’s engine.  In the close confines of the crawler I detected a definite vulpine musk wafting from my passenger, but thankfully it wasn’t all that objectionable.  I figured the mechanical stinks of the crawler, along with my “old man” human scent, probably bothered the alien more than its scent did me.

In time we finished the long crawl up to my modest little house, more of a cabin, really.  I parked near the side door, since it was easier to unload and carry the grocery bags in there (and almost directly into the kitchen/pantry) than up the front steps onto the porch, then half-way through the house.  When I began carrying the bags in, my “guest” made itself useful and helped me with the chore, making it quick work.

“Thanks,” I said once we had everything inside and on the kitchen counter.  “In a few moments I’ll put the perishables away, and the rest can wait until morning.”  Moving quickly, I began switching on lights in the main parts of the compact house, pointing out the various rooms and their functions.  I figured the bathroom would be of the most immediate interest, and I wasn’t wrong.  Excusing itself, the alien quickly ducked in to use the toilet almost before I’d finished explaining the details.  Modesty obviously wasn’t high on the creature’s social skill-set, and since it squatted on the commode to audibly pee, I began to suspect it was female---if, in fact, it was part of a conventional two-sex biology.

Moments later I heard the toilet paper roll rattle, and then the gurgle of the elderly plumbing.  At least it seemed to understand basic hygiene.

Rejoining me in the kitchen it said, “Thank you.  Cold weather---“

“Yeah,” I interrupted, “it affects us that way, too.  Now…wash your hands at the sink and tell me what you want to eat.  I drew you a glass of water from the tap, but if you’d rather have it in a bowl---“  The alien looked at me with a tilted head for a moment, then slightly dropped its jaw and chittered.  It was laughing!

“If you have a little tube---I believe you call it a straw---I can drink from any kind of container,” it finally said, its tail wagging like a dog’s.  Whenever I ate at the town’s one fast-food emporium, I always made it a habit to snag an extra straw.  They came in handy for far more than drinking sodas, and I had a good supply.  Reaching into a drawer I produced one still wrapped in clown-print paper.  The creature looked momentarily puzzled, so I deftly peeled off the paper, exposing a clear plastic tube.  It carefully accepted it from my weather-worn fingers, then proceeded to suck up the entire glass of water before thanked me.

“Plenty more where that came from,” I said pointing to the faucet, then said, “but before we see about fixing you something to eat, I’d like to know if you have a name.”  Or was it known by a scent, or a goofy gesture---

“Apologies, kind human,” it said after a moment’s pause.  “Please call me Eyanna.  I have…there is…more to my name, including my…title, but that is not important now.  May I be honored to know what you are called?”

“Eyanna, huh.  At least that’s easy enough for me to say and remember.  My name is Bart, which isn’t elegant or regal, but it suits me well enough.  Do your people have a name I can pronounce?”

The creature’s disconcerting eyes widened a bit, then it said, “In your speech we would be called…Sar’nali.  It means…‘forest people’.”  It seemed to hesitate a moment before adding, “Bart, am I correct in guessing that you are…male?”

At first I didn’t think I’d heard the creature correctly, but then I realized that I was heavily clothed, relatively clean-shaven but had fairly long, curly gray hair---what the alien could see of it spilling out from under my old wool watch cap, that is.  “Heh!  Yeah, I’m male, and also quite old as my species goes.”  I peered at the alien, deciding to be as direct in questioning as it had been.  “And you are---?”

It blinked and tilted its head in what I determined was puzzlement, then it chittered that silly laugh again before saying, “Apologies, friend Bart.  Apparently I was wrong to assume you knew I am female by my scent.”

“Without a male Sar’nali to compare you to---  No.  Sorry.”

Its---her---ears suddenly drooped, along with her tail.  “Apologies again, friend Bart.  Does my…lack of body covering offend you?  We have no social body…taboos that demand---“

Shaking my head, I interrupted with, “Forget it, Eyanna.  You have a beautiful fur coat, and anyway, I’m too old to be offended even if your skin was bare.  Besides, you’re an entirely different species from me.”  Changing the subject, I said, “Tell me, what would you like to try eating?  Since you know my language and apparently a good bit about Earth, you should know at least something of our food.  I have beef in both steaks and hamburger, chicken and turkey, ham and several kinds of fish.  You can eat them raw, or I can cook them---or just warm them---to most any level of ‘doneness’, and I also have various vegetables---something you probably wouldn’t like---and a small selection of mostly canned and frozen fruit.  I even have fresh bread, but I can’t imagine you wanting that, either.”

“I would like to try ‘chicken’, since it appears to be a type of avian most humans claim to enjoy.”

“You’re in luck,” I said, pointing to a familiar red and white container in a big plastic bag.  “It’s probably cold, but it’ll only take a moment to heat it in the microwave oven.”

We dined, courtesy of The Colonel.  The chicken’s spicy, crispy coating didn’t appeal to her, but she seemed to relish the tender, juicy meat itself.  I was glad I’d gotten a large bucket. 

 

3 - Too Good To Be True 

Watching her eat, it was obvious she was a true carnivore.  Several times I saw flashes of impressive fangs, and while she seemed to savor the meat’s flavor, she spent little time actually chewing it before swallowing.  Surprisingly, she did try several spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and baked beans, but didn’t like the coleslaw at all.  However, when I fixed her a biscuit with honey---  Heaven!  “This…!” she enthused, “I have never tasted…anything like this!”

“The biscuits aren’t bad for store-bought,” I explained, “but the orange blossom honey comes straight from a supplier I know in Florida.  None better.”  I bit into my own honey-laden treat, savoring every morsel.

And then we were finished, and if I read her canid-like expression correctly, Eyanna suddenly looked a bit guilty.  “Something wrong?” I quietly asked.

After a moment she said, “You have been so…kind to me---“

My gut suddenly tightened.  Was she about to do something I’d regret?

“Friend Bart, I…I fear I have nothing with which to repay your kindness.”

Whew! I thought, my guts slowly relaxing.  I’d feared she was going to produce a weapon, or tell me her people were going to take over Earth, or---  Hell, when dealing with the unknown, one’s never certain just what to expect.

“I’ve traveled much of the world in my long life, Eyanna, and I’ve found most human cultures treat strangers in distress with similar courtesies.  It’s just how we are.”

She tilted her head, peering at me before saying, “But you must admit, friend Bart, I am more than a…a normal stranger.”

I chuckled, smiling as I replied, “Very true, my dear, but nevertheless, I wasn’t going to leave you out in the cold without food or water.  It’s just not in my nature.”

She hesitantly reached a black-furred hand across the small wooden table and touched my arm.  “Thank you, friend Bart.”  I noticed her tail wagging out behind her chair, and the expression on her vulpine face seemed to be a “happy canine” smile.  I nodded.

*****

After I cleared away the meal scraps---she’d wanted to gnaw the chicken bones, but I firmly cautioned her against it---I excused myself to take a shower.  I’d been busy that day, and could smell myself more than I liked.  I cautioned Eyanna not to mess with anything “technical-looking” until I was out of the shower, since there were devices and features of my little house that were a bit out of the ordinary.  I especially warned her not to “go plundering”, as some things I had hidden away were potentially lethal.

It didn’t take long for me to scrub my elderly hide, and I changed back into the clothes I’d worn that day---except for donning fresh underwear.  The alien was intent on inspecting a few dusty mementoes that graced my fireplace mantle, and apparently hadn’t bothered anything of any consequence.  “Most of the people in that photo,” I stated, referring to an old photo of an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, “are dead.  I’m second from the right.”

Her ears perked up and her tail stopped its lazy back-and-forth movement.  “You---flew this…machine?”

“Briefly,” I replied, nodding.  “Long time ago, and most of my time was spent doing…other things.  It was a different world…in many ways.”  She looked at me with those strange eyes, and got the feeling that she knew more about me than she should.

Spreading my hands, I changed the subject, saying, “Unfortunately, while the couch there is quite comfortable, my aging bones won’t allow me to sleep anywhere but in my own bed, so the couch is the best I can offer you for the night.”  She looked surprised and started to say something, but I added, “I have warm blankets and a pillow for you, and if you need anything else, just ask.”  I quickly dug into a storage chest in my room and produced the promised bedding, which she claimed was more than adequate.  “The house is locked tight, and after I go to bed do not try to go outside.”  She looked surprised.  “You’ll trigger an alarm system that’ll bring me out of my room half-asleep but ready to fight a war,” I said, laughing---but she also saw that I was dead serious.

“May…may I use the toilet or get water?” she hesitantly asked.

“Of course!” I responded over my shoulder as I headed for my bedroom.  “Just don’t try opening a door or window---the windows are tightly covered from the outside, as you may have seen---or all hell will break loose.  You know how to works the lights, so leave as many on---or not---as you like, but I’d suggest leaving at least the range hood light on to serve as a night light.  And with that said, I bid you good night.”

I closed my bedroom door and clicked the deadbolt latch, something I never thought I’d need, but was happy I’d installed it decades earlier.

While Eyanna was a charming creature---person---in her own way, there was something about her---about this whole situation---that just didn’t ring true.

*****

And several hours later I awoke to an insistent ringing---but it wasn’t my phone.  My security system was doing its damndest to awaken me quietly, and from the sequence of rings I knew my earlier hunch had, unfortunately, been correct.

The house was not only weather-sealed, it was virtually hermetically sealed, which made it a hundred percent light-tight---and armored.  It had been carefully built many years earlier with technology provided me by grateful “friends in high places”, for services rendered far above and beyond expectations.  My past wasn’t wasn’t lilly-white, and I had the scars and bullet holes in my wrinkled old body to prove it.

“Alarm---OFF!” I said in a low tone, then, “Lights---dim red!”  The coded ringing stopped, and low, vision-friendly red light suddenly bathed the interior of my bedroom---and I knew the rest of the house---in a hellish glow.  Moments later I was frantically climbing into warm clothing while trying to watch a flat-panel monitor screen that had been hidden behind a wall panel.  It showed ghostly figures slowly slogging up the long serpentine road from my gate at the highway, which they had foolishly breached, setting off the alarm.  “Morons,” I muttered, quickly directing my Artificial Intelligence security system to scan for intruders anywhere else on my property.  “Nothing,” I mused.  “These clowns must be run-of-the-mill mercenaries; real soldiers aren’t that damned dumb.”

Reaching into the cavity that housed the control panel and video screen, I withdrew several nasty---and civilian-illegal---weapons, including a full-auto assault rifle and two .45 caliber auto pistols---with “silencers”.  Several handfuls of loaded magazines for each went into pockets, and I strapped on a complicated nylon harness that had clips, holsters and attachments for numerous knives and other hurtful items.  “Never thought I’d have to wear this shit again,” I muttered, disgusted, “but sometimes we can’t pick our fights; they pick us.”

With a final glance at the security display screen, I opened my bedroom door and stepped into the living room.  My alien house guest was peacefully sleeping on the couch, curled into a near-fetal position with her nose tucked under the tip of her bushy tail.  I hated to disturb such an idyllic scene, but survival preempted courtesy.

“Eyanna,” I called gently.  No need to scare her out of her furry pelt---not just yet, anyway.  “Wake up, dear.  Eternity’s calling, and we have to answer---or else.”  Her strange eyes blinked open in obvious confusion, and I softly said, “I need you to wake up now, Eyanna.  We’re in mortal danger, and there’s no time to waste.  If we want to live, we’ve got to go, and go now.”

She quickly sat up, confusion obvious on her unhuman face.  She yipped, whined and yowled what must have been words in her language, then quickly switched to English.  “What---  What is…problem?”

“There are armed paramilitary intruders advancing up the drive toward us, and we only have minutes to get out before they get here.”  She tilted her head in question, and I explained, “People like that don’t drop in for a friendly visit, especially at night, and especially not carrying assault weapons.”  I hefted my rifle.  “We have a special way out of here that they probably don’t know about, but we have to go now---or we probably won’t live to see the sunrise.”  She got to her oversized foxy feet and quickly strapped on her strange sandals, then slipped into her utility harness and hung the little tote bag around her neck and over one shoulder.  I was impressed!  It had taken me far longer to get my act together, although I admit I did have to dress for the weather.  Her cold-weather gear, on the other hand, was “home-grown”.

“Leave nothing of yours behind,” I cautioned her, leading her into my bedroom where my AI station’s display was still showing various micro-camera views of the white-clad intruders slogging up the roadway.  Pushing the concealing panel back farther, I uncovered a dim-lit steep stairway leading down---way down.  “After you,” I said, “since I have to close and seal this, or they’ll soon be following us.”  When she hesitated, I urged, “If they don’t kill you right now, they’ll probably vivisect you---just to see what’s under all that beautiful fur, so if you don’t want that…I suggest you get your butt moving.”

She dropped down the stairs faster and more agilely than I expected, and it only took moments for me to shut down the display, kill all the house lights and seal the wall openings, hopefully good enough that the intruders wouldn’t figure it out before we’d made our getaway.

Once down the stairs we were in a cold, damp, downward-sloping tunnel that would ultimately emerge in my vehicle garage less than four hundred feet from the driveway gate.  I had a small radio earplug/microphone in one ear, linking me to the security AI.  “So far,” I said softly as we started hurrying down the tunnel, “the intruders haven’t breached the tunnel opening in the garage.  They broke through one of the outside doors, but when they didn’t find anybody there they abandoned it.”  She asked the obvious question, one I didn’t want to think about.

“What…what if they left somebody guarding it?”  At least she wasn’t dumb.

“If there’s a guard,” I said, already panting from having to hurry, “I’ll have to kill him---quietly, if possible.  He’ll probably have a radio---the security AI’s already managed to tap into their system and I’m listening to some of their chatter---but I’ll need to eliminate him before he squawks to the others.”

“But…what if there are several guards?”  Yeah, what if---?

“Then…I may not be successful.”  I looked over my shoulder at an obviously terrified alien.  “Sorry, but I’m only one worn-out old man, and while these nitwits don’t appear to be all that well-trained…”  I wheezed and coughed.  “They’re a helluva lot younger, stronger and faster than I am.”

We hurried on in near silence for another hundred yards before I asked, “Just who have you been in contact with?  I need to know names and agencies---“

Surprisingly, there was no reply, and eventually I stopped, turning around to confront her.  “I need answers, young lady, and I need them now!” I snarled softly.  We were well below ground, but I didn’t trust the intruders not to have listening devices, although the radio chatter hadn’t mentioned them---yet.

I’d never imagined that a fox could cry, but here was a fox-like creature about to show me what it looked like---and we just didn’t have time for it!  “Eyanna!” I hissed, “Pull yourself together---now!  I need to know what’s really going on, not this…this ‘fairy tale’ bullshit you’ve been feeding me!  Talk, or we’re gonna die real soon!”

She whined and softly yipped, then spilled everything, and I’d been right on that count; she’d been bullshitting me from the very beginning.  “My…my ship did not crash; I was told to make it look that way,” she explained sorrowfully.  “I am…leader of a first-contact group from my people.  I have a…base on your moon, and we have been…observing and studying humans for over one of your years.  Language, culture, society---we learned as much as possible, then made contact with your American government because it…looked like the most powerful and most reasonable.”

“Who did you talk to?” I interrupted.  A name, I needed a damned name---

“We sent signals from a tiny relay satellite in orbit around your world, and a man named Henry Johnson replied, and has been our only contact for the past…month.”

Johnson!  “Eyanna!  Henry Johnson doesn’t work for my government; he works for himself!”  She looked even more upset.  “I used to be his boss, back when we both worked in…in special projects.  These were projects that all governments need done, but no government dares admit responsibility for.  They’re often dirty, underhanded and very illegal by the laws of the land, and especially international laws, but every government has people like us---like me---and we perform a necessary service.”  I paused to catch my breath.  This was bad, very bad indeed.  “Johnson, however, did things that…that nobody in our organization could stomach, and I kicked him out and had him ‘blacklisted’---“  She didn’t understand the term.  “It means nobody in my country would hire him for clandestine work, and the last I’d heard of him, he’d been working for some banana drug dictatorship south of the equator.  I honestly thought he’d been killed, and I hadn’t even thought of him in over a decade.

“But…he said he represented your government,” she quietly wailed.  “He sounded so…so nice, so sincere!”  I shook my head in disgust.

“Johnson is a monster, Eyanna.  He’s anything but ‘nice’ or ‘sincere’.”  I turned and we continued heading down the tunnel.  “What did he tell you, and why did you contact me?”

Oh great!  He’d filled her head full of happy horseshit nonsense about how I would be the perfect liaison between her world and humanity, and that our two species would have a wonderful future trading goods and technology.  Eyanna wasn’t dumb, far from it, but she didn’t understand human intrigue and deception, not by a long shot.  Johnson no doubt wanted total control over the alien technology, and once he had that he probably planned to sell it to the highest bidder.

But first he had to eliminate me.

“My dear,” I stated as gently as my gasping would allow, “I can guarantee that he never intended for me to be anything other than a delaying tactic to put you off your guard long enough for his people to capture---or kill---you and steal your technology.  Your ship is a major prize, and whatever’s in it---and that you might be carrying---is just more treasure for him to sell to the highest bidder.”  We were getting close to the garage, and my security AI was still reporting no activity inside.  Outside---was a different story.  At least two guards were milling around the building, apparently freezing their asses off.

“Is your ship secure against their tampering, or can they simply open it up and walk in?”

“N-no…” she stammered.  “It will only open to a Sar’nali’s touch.”

“Do you think they can cut their way in, say, with a hot flame or a laser?”

“No!  The hull is #@$%*(!!---  It would take them days, weeks to breach it!”

I chuckled humorlessly.  “Whatever you said, it didn’t translate, but I’ll take your word for it being tough.  Now---  If we can reach it alive, how long will it take to get us out of here?  And…”  Here came the sixty-four-dollar question:  “Does your ship have any offensive weapons?”  When she looked at me like I’d sprouted horns, I said, “We may have to fight our way free of Johnson’s forces, Eyanna.  Your ship may be tough, but I’ll wager it’s not invincible.”

“It…it can lift within…ten of your minutes after we gain entry.”  That wasn’t great, but it was better than I’d feared---but she still hadn’t fully answered my questions.  I glared at her, and eventually she wilted, replying, “Our main ship on your moon has modest…weapons, but this shuttle only has a…a #%$&*((_!”  When I looked at her askance, she sputtered a moment and said, “Apologies, friend Bart.  It can…stun living creatures out to a range of…about a kilometer.”

“Stun them?  Just numb them, confuse them or render them unconscious?”

“Oh, it can do any or all of that, depending on how…intense I make the beam,” she answered.  I nodded.

“If you have to use it, set it for full intensity and don’t be afraid to use it.  If it comes down to it, we’ll probably be fighting for our lives.”  She didn’t like that at all.

And then we were at the bottom of a steep stairway that led up to a hidden panel in the garage.  “The security AI reports the same two are still outside, freezing their asses off.  The others are almost to the house, and while it’s pretty solid, it’s not a fortress, and they’ll no doubt break in within minutes.  When they find we’re not there---“  I was still breathing hard from exertion.  “Well, we damned sure won’t have long to get to the ship before all hell breaks loose.” 

 

4 - Goodbye Cool World 

It broke loose quicker than I thought.

I eased the hidden door open; luckily it was designed to be silent, even in the bitter cold.  The two guards were standing around in the snow like louts, smoking cigarettes and cursing the cold instead of watching for---well, for us.  I head-shot both of them with a silenced .45 pistol, the reports of the heavy sub-sonic hollow-point rounds sounding no louder than small tree limbs snapping from the weight of snow.  Both men hit the ground without triggering their radios, and Eyanna and I quickly hurried toward the wooded area where her shuttle rested.  Unfortunately, while my gunshots hadn’t been loud, another intruder was stationed at the driveway gate, and he’d heard the sharp snapping of the weapon.  My earplug told me the gate guard was calling the two at the garage, and when they didn’t answer he notified the group leader, who was at that moment breaking into my house.

“Shit!” I whispered.  “They know something’s wrong!”  I was huffing along as best I could, but the cold air was like knives in my lungs, and my flabby old heart was pounding like a worn-out engine about to throw a rod.  Then a bullet zinged by my head, and I knew the game was on.  A moment later I heard the loud crack from the thug’s rifle, but I’d already seen the muzzle flash and was taking aim at him.  My full-auto assault rifle burped and the intruder collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, then we continued hustling toward the shuttle.  I could hear orders flying over the radio, and figured we’d have company soon---but not as soon as we got it!

Several more bullets zinged by us, and I felt several tugs on my clothing and thumps against my lightweight body armor.  I pulled Eyanna down into the snow and crouched in front of her, hoping to make a harder-to-hit target as I returned fire in controlled bursts.  The firefight didn’t take long, since the nitwits weren’t well-trained marksmen, and didn’t really know what---or who---they were fighting.  In my younger years I’d been a deadly shot, and I’d survived being shot in firefights more times than I wanted to remember.  When we stopped taking incoming rounds I motioned the alien to her feet and we resumed our shambling run toward her ship.

That was when another intruder stepped out into the road and tagged me several times at close range, two of his rifle rounds breaching my body armor.  I still managed to drop him before collapsing to my knees, but Eyanna, yipping and yowling in panic, dragged me mostly to my feet and half-carried me into the woods.  A seemingly eternal time later we approached the ship, and damned if there wasn’t yet another two-legged roach guarding it.  He snapped several rounds our way, but the amber glow from the ship didn’t carry far down the trail, and I managed to nail him with a brief rifle burst.

I blinked several times, my head buzzing and my chest hurting like a sonofabitch---I couldn’t seem to breathe---and I focused my eyes to see that I was inside the ship.  Cool!  All my life I’d dreamed of seeing the inside of an alien space ship, and now that I was about to die…I’d finally gotten my wish---and was pouring my blood out on its floor.

“We will lift off soon, Bart!” the alien said, but my head was so fuzzy at that point I was having problems connecting her words with our situation.  Besides, my chest  was hurting and burning and cold, all at the same time.  At one point I noticed her yipping, barking and snarling apparently at nothing, then I heard the same kinds of sounds coming out of thin air.  Oh, I eventually thought, she’s in contact with her friends.  How nice.  Then I faded, only to come around again with her crouched over me, apparently getting ready to inject me with something.

“Gonna shoot me full o’ happy juice?” I drawled, trying to keep my eyes open.

“With luck this will keep you alive, friend Bart, until I can…secure you,” she said, and then she jabbed a BIG needle in the side of my chest.  Damn, but that hurt as much as getting shot by one of the shithead intruders!

And, I wondered fuzzily, what did she mean by “secure”?

*****

It only took moments for a soothing, numbing coolness to start replacing the pain in my chest, and it quickly began spreading to my extremities.  The last time I’d felt anything like that…my body had been shutting down.  Dying.  That had been in the jungle of some God-forsaken South American country, and my compatriots had (obviously) managed to get me to help before the process completed itself.  This time…I guessed that I wouldn’t be so lucky, since if my feeble brain remembered right, we were heading for the moon, not a hospital, and I seriously doubted I’d survive such a lengthy trip.

Strange, I thought, but I wasn’t feeling any acceleration or movement, although when I finally got around to asking Eyanna about it she said we were already out of Earth’s atmosphere.  “Did the bastards shoot at the ship?” I managed to ask.

At that point she was doing things to my body, but I couldn’t feel anything other than a strange pressure on my chest, and I couldn’t move my head to see anything below my nose.  It was harder and harder to breathe.  Finally she said, “They fired their puny weapons at the ship, which of course did no damage, but as we were beginning to clear the trees a flying machine---a helicopter, I think it is called---came near and it fired several small rockets at us.”  She yikked a small laugh.  “The rockets did no damage, either.  My ship is strong!  Then…then I did as you instructed and beamed them with the…stunner.  The helicopter quit firing rockets at us, and moments later began turning around and around, eventually crashing into the trees.  It…it exploded---“  At that point I groggily realized she wasn’t laughing; she was crying.  “I…I think all the humans in it---died.”

I struggled to take a large enough breath, then husked, “Welcome…to war, my dear.  It’s…not pretty.  Ever.  Never pretty.  Lotsa people…die.  Th’ goal is…is t’ make more of th’ enemy die than…your people.  Then---  Then…you hope…you win.”  For a long moment I didn’t think I’d be able to suck in another breath, but I finally did.  “I--- I’m sorry…you had t’ kill ‘em, but…if you hadn’t…they might have hit a…a vital spot on your…your s-s-strong little ship.  BOOM!  No more Eyanna, no more ol’ Bart…although ol’ Bart isss about t’ go fizzle…instead o’ goin’ boom---“

She yipped, barked and growled with an unseen voice for a time, then she left me, moving to a wall panel and unfolding a strange looking piece of equipment mounted on a cantilevered arm and extending it over me.  “I did not want to have to do this, friend Bart, but you are failing too fast.  I will have to secure you now, instead of waiting until we reach our base.  This device works, but unlike the bigger one at the base, I am told this one is very…unpleasant.”  She stepped stepped away from me and flipped a switch.

“Wha---?  Wha’s gonna---?”

I met Jesus, Satan and Santa Claus, and we all sat around and played strip poker with Elvis, Hitler and Mother Theresa while Tinkerbell kept spreading pixie dust over the table.  John Lennon and the Vienna Boys Choir sang “Hey Jude”, which never quite ended.  It seemed the game went on forever, too, and nobody seemed to care.

Much less me.

I was dead.

 

5 - Who’s That Knocking On My Front Door? 

I had the strangest dream!

It’s said that if you dream that you’re falling---off a cliff, off a building, etc.---and you hit a hard surface with a splat

You not only die in the dream, but in reality, too.

My dream wasn’t quite like that, however.  I dreamed I was dead, and people kept trying to bring me back to life.  The thing is, they weren’t quite people; they were animals acting like people, and they were working really hard at it---

And I’d begin to come back to life…but then something would happen…something would go wrong---

And I’d go back to being dead again.  Over and over.  Such a strange dream!

*****

But then it wasn’t a dream, and somehow I knew it wasn’t a dream---

Because this time I woke up.  All the way up.

*****

It was like waking from a deep, incredibly restful sleep, only to find that your bedroom lights are on so bright you don’t dare open your eyes, and that somebody must have filled the room with a pack of yipping, yapping dogs---that smelled

I took a deep breath---man, somebody needed to give the damned dogs a bath---and scrunched my eyes tightly closed, which didn’t help dim the miserable glare all that much.  Incredibly, I was beginning to pick out coherent words in the cacophony of dog racket, and the heavy sea of dog smells was beginning to separate into…  Well, something was tickling the back of my mind, spider-whispering that each separate scent was a…a person!  Imagine that!

Then I licked my chops, and---  It was like a screeching halt at a stop sign.  When the hell did I ever “lick my chops”?  People don’t have “chops”; dogs have “chops”!  Then I licked ‘em again---yep, still “chops”---and I got the feeling of ice water in my gut.  The tempo of my breathing picked up, and I vaguely noticed the intensity of yipping, yowling, talking picked up to match, and it didn’t sound all that happy, either.  Whoa, mule! I thought.  This activity is connected to me, and something’s going on I need to get a handle on---and fast.

Making a concerted effort, I slowed my breathing and forced myself to relax.  I could feel a slightly padded surface under my back, so I figured I was lying on a gurney or table or something similar---and then I noticed with a start that my chest didn’t hurt!  I was breathing easily, freely and…and my chest didn’t hurt!  There was a reason that was really important, yet that information was just out of reach---

And then it wasn’t.  I suddenly knew why my chest was supposed to be hurting, and why I wasn’t supposed to be breathing all that good, either---if at all.

The last thing I remembered was---I was shot all to shit, and I was dying.  Then…then Eyanna (and a scent memory popped up to match the name, along with a vision of a…a vixen…who wasn’t quite a vixen vixen) stabbed my chest with a huge fuckin’ hypo---that hurt!---and…and---

And then she turned on a machine that REALLY made me hurt, and…

The next thing I knew, I was playing strip poker with dead people---and Satan---and Jesus---and weird shit was going on---

All because I was dead.

*****

“Bart, please wake up!” came an insistent voice, and I automatically turned my ears toward the source.  Turned my ears?  Whoa!  When did I get that talent?

When you died and woke up in a different body, bonehead! came the reply from my subconscious, which seemed to be somewhat pissed that I was being so dense.  OK, wise ass, my conscious mind asked it, how did all this come to pass?  Why don’t you open your eyes, doofus, and ask the good folks who’ve done the deed! my subconscious snarled.  Oh.  OK.  So I cracked my eyelids and greeted my brave new world.

*****

Holy shit!  There was a roomful of…of fox-people gathered around looking down at me---and my eyes were also seeing something that they’d never seen before, either:  I had a muzzle!  Something clicked in the back of my mind and I suddenly felt a sense of…of wonder.  All the science fiction stories, all the fantastic “what if” speculation, all the long hours of seemingly-fruitless discussion of somehow waking up in a different form---  Here it was, and I was “livin’ the dream”.  My mouth was no longer “my” mouth (with its dental crowns, chipped and broken teeth and perpetual coffee-flavored tongue).  My teeth---and there were a lot of ‘em---were mostly sharp and narrow, and some in the front were long, outright fangs!  Also, my mouth was long and pointed, which gave me a muzzle/snout---with a black nose on the tip.  Yikes!  There was out-of-focus reddish fur on my muzzle, too!

I made an effort to raise my arms; they responded, and I realized I was lying on my back---but my arms weren’t my arms; they were red and black-furred---and had claw-tipped fingers---like the arms of the fox-people surrounding me, all of them making concerned-sounding noises that I kept hearing as words.

“Yip-yap-grrrr-oooyip-yap!” I suddenly heard, then realized that I had made those doggie noises---and my mind instantly translated them to be, “What the hell’s going on?”  You’d have thought I’d recited the Gettysburg Address, based on all the commotion that ensued.

Out of all the racket---which was sounding more and more like a jumble of people speaking---I distinctly heard a voice I placed with Eyanna say, “We are so glad you are finally with us, friend Bart!”

*****

And that’s how I woke up to a new life, in a new body.  During the rest of the day the tiny medical staff in Eyanna’s moon base checked me out thoroughly---embarrassingly thoroughly---but as the day wore on I came to understand why they were so particular.  “We burned through two of our clone rescue bodies trying to imprint and settle your human brain pattern onto our Sar’nali brain physiology,” Birella, the head med-tech explained.  “The first went into lethal convulsions when we began bringing it---you---up to consciousness, and the body temperature soared to horrible heights, then plummeted uncontrollably.  The body’s blood chemistry became toxic, and soon suffered terminal damage.”  What she told me was horrifying, but it got worse.  “When we tried the second rescue body we first tried imprinting a Sar’nali language overlay on the brain before imprinting your brain pattern on it, but the body experienced the same out-of-control reaction; then it, too, died.”  My god, two people died terribly as they tried to resurrect me.  “Then, on the third try,” she continued, oblivious to my horror, “we realized you also needed scent identification to bring everything together, and we added that information to your blank brain before we imprinted your human pattern on it---and that was the key!”  She seemed so happy, so pleased, her whole body was wriggling like a tickled puppy.

“You’re saying,” I muttered, “that two other male Sar’nali died horrible deaths before you got the…the formula right?  Two poor souls were sacrificed---“

Birella laughed---the Sar’nali laughed much like dogs; their entire bodies exuded happy movements and gestures---and said, “No, friend Bart.  No ‘souls’ were killed.  The bodies are identical mindless clones grown and stored to be used if any of our people suffer terminal injuries.  Every facility such as ours is supplied with six rescue bodies when it becomes operational; three males and three females.  They are all identical clones of the same genetic source, with the exception of their gender, and once the critically ill or injured male or female subject has undergone securing, that person’s DNA is harvested from the now-deceased body and implanted into the recipient clone, where it will quickly modify the individual scent to that of the donor person.  The mental pattern is then imprinted on the selected clone…and we are done.”

I had a thought, and it gave me a new chill.  “There’s no way human DNA would be compatible with Sar’nali biology, so…I won’t have a…a proper individual, unique Sar’nali scent.  Right?”

She blinked, tilting her head in confused thought.  Eventually she ventured, “I had not given the matter any thought, but---no, the clone would simply smell like all other unused rescue bodies.”  Her  chipper mood seemed to evaporate.

“And I would expect,” I added, “that most Sar’nali know the…the scent of these clones---“

“Yes,” she said, probably guessing where the conversation was heading.

“Correct me if I am wrong---but I would think that without a person’s unique identifying scent, that person is not…legally…a person at all.  Right?”

“N-no…I mean, yes…but---“

“And since DNA can even be…harvested…from a cadaver, there has never been an issue of not being able to…to tweak these clones to give them the restored person’s identifying scent.”  Her ears were drooping, and so was her tail.  “Right?” I softly prompted.

“You must understand,” she finally replied, obviously distressed, “we have never restored an…an---“

“An alien,” I finished for her.  “A non-Sar’nali creature that is now animating a Sar’nali body, but inside---“ I tapped my head, “---is something definitely not Sar’nali.”

Oh, she was unhappy.  Her expression, her whole demeanor, kept shifting from fright to anger to frustration to---  Well, I didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t ever understand---because regardless of what I looked like, I wasn’t really a Sar’nali.

Eventually, “This is a matter only the princess can address, friend Bart, but I do not doubt---“

“Hold it!” I interrupted.  “As I’ve begun using your language, I’ve caught that reference before.  Who is this ‘princess’ you are talking about?  Eyanna never said what kind of government the Sar’nali have, but if you have a princess, it stands to reason you have a monarchy.  Is it symbolic or constitutional, where the monarchy has little real authority, or absolute, where the monarchy is the law?”  What she said in reply shook me to the tip of my new tail.

“Our monarchy,” Birella replied, brightening a bit, “is heredity, and rules our entire empire.  Eyanna is the eldest princess, and is in line to assume the throne when her mother steps down or dies.”  Her ears perked up and her tail began wagging.  “We all love her, and support her fully on her quest!”

“Eyanna is…is your princess?” I husked.

“Oh yes!” she yipped, virtually beaming now.  “She personally chose all of us to accompany her on her quest, which---“

“H-hold it,” I interrupted.  “What ‘quest’?  Contacting and setting up trade with mankind?  Why?  Why her?”

“All potential heirs to the throne must prove themselves worthy,” the med tech explained patiently, “and successfully completing a major quest, especially one that enriches the empire, assures the citizens that the new ruler is fit to lead us.  Our scout ships found your world years ago, and when choosing a quest Eyanna decided making official contact with humanity would be a perfect task.”

I was aghast.  These people had no idea what they were getting into!  “But---“ I began, “Your princess---Eyanna---almost died!  Humans are vicious, conniving monsters, and they almost captured her---or worse!”

“But you, friend Bart, kept that from happening,” Birella chirped, “and we all love you for your brave sacrifice!”

During the last of the conversation a male med-tech named Dennos had entered the clinic, and had busied himself cleaning and storing away equipment.  He suddenly piped up.  “I hear you are in for a treat, friend Bart.”  When I looked at him I noticed Birella nodding, her tail still wagging.  “Eyanna came into estrus while we were trying to restore you, and she held off partnering with any of us until we knew if you would again live.”  Partnering?  “Since you are restored, she has chosen you to share her quarters for at least the next three sleeps!”

Me?” I yipped, horrified.  “I…I am nothing more than a clone---and an alien at that!  What---what about…well…fertility---?”  What the hell have I fallen into? I thought.

Dennos laughed, saying, “We are all temporarily sterile, since a pregnancy on a long space assignment would be a dangerous complication.  Females, however, are permitted their estrus cycles for health and morale reasons.  It also helps bond us into a tight-knit unit.  Pairing with the princess is an honor we males cherish.”

The thought of that seemed to make my crotch tingle and my furry little balls itch, and that was something this male did not cherish. 

 

6 - Command Performance 

I didn’t quite have free run of the place, at least not yet.  That wasn’t because they were concerned about me as a security risk; I simply hadn’t been alive long enough to know the layout of their little moon base.  That concept further drove home the fact that I had, indeed, been dead.  That little detail helped explain the strange strip-poker-with-celebrities dream that was the last thing I remembered before awakening as…as an anthropomorphic fox.  It’s said the dying brain will often construct strange fantasies as its systems shut down or “go off-line”, and for those who experience Near Death Experiences, it’s often a “tunnel toward a mystic, holy light”.  I hadn’t seen a tunnel; I’d only been involved in an endless, surreal poker game.

Whatever.  That was then, and for the moment I was once again animate, living and breathing in a non-human body created for rescuing critically injured non-humans.  I seriously wondered if this was an improvement over simply dying.

*****

My first meal took place that “evening”.  I say “evening” because the base, located on the moon’s nearside so it could face Earth, operated on Earth’s twenty-four-hour cycle, and we were ending the activity part of the cycle and heading towards the resting portion.  Food was tasty, mysterious and actually fresh, brought in by periodic robotic supply ships sent from the aliens’ home world.  At least it was cooked.  The thought of tackling raw meat, or even food animals still alive, had give me an unpleasant tweak, but thankfully I was spared that indignity.

Once mealtime was past (I’d eaten in an almost-human-familiar dining room with most of the staff---minus the princess) the staff adjourned to either their sleeping quarters (private rooms for each, although the beds were roomy enough for two-up sleeping---or other activities) or to a commons room that was used for relaxation and (of all things) board games!  I’d been assigned my own sleeping room, a sterile cubicle that had none of the personalization the staff had bestowed on their rooms.  Made sense; I was “new”, and hadn’t even spent one night in my new “home”.

One thing surprised me, though.  Gravity was pretty close to Earth-normal, supplied by a base-wide gridwork under the floor.  Go outside and the moon’s normal one-sixth Earth-normal gravity ruled, but inside the base the Sar’nali-normal gravity helped keep the occupants healthy.

After watching a few of the staff playing incomprehensible games in the commons room I retired to my cubicle to contemplate my navel.  I’d already explored my body while in the toilet; pretty much routine male vulpine, with heavy-duty arms, legs, feet---and hands.  I saw in reasonably accurate color (I guessed) and had an incredible sense of smell---and I stank like the other males in the base, while the females stank a bit more “pleasantly”.  They’d provided me with a pair of their goofy little sandals for my goofy canid feet, as well as a tiny fanny pack for anything I might want to carry---which consisted of the few personal items (wristwatch, keys, wallet and a beat-up man’s onyx ring) that I (as Bart) had on me when Eyanna and I had made our fateful escape.  The ring didn’t fit my fingers; neither did the old wristwatch.  Keys---yeah, right.  Wallet---  Useless, since the owner was now quite dead---regardless of the alien form carrying his mind.  Crap.  (I’d done that, too.  Damn, but it stank!)

I stretched out on the surprisingly comfortable bed and discovered I didn’t need a pillow, or even a blanket.  My fur automatically fluffed up a bit to regulate my body temperature and the most comfortable sleeping position was curled up in a fetal-like position, with my snout tucked under the (thankfully non-stinky) end of my poofy tail.  Even with my head spinning over all the insanity that I’d experienced since waking up in my new form, sleep came quickly.

Then at the door there came a knock---or more accurately, a loud scratching.

*****

“Friend Bart!” came med-tech Dennos’ voice from the other side of the thin sliding panel.  “It is time for you to go to Princess Eyanna’s quarters!”  Oh shit! I thought, He wasn’t kidding!  Uncurling from bed, I stepped to the door and slid it open.

“Please tell me you are kidding,” I said, blinking into the hallway glare.  Nope, he wasn’t kidding.  In fact, he seemed quite happy, his tail wagging like crazy and his jaw hanging open in a vulpine grin.

“Over time all of us males here have enjoyed Eyanna’s favors,” Dennos stated cheerfully, “and she is quite pleasurable to be with when she is in estrus.  She has been in her quarters since right after you awakened, and has only just now sent word to have you brought to her.  Come!”  He grabbed an arm and literally dragged me down the hall to a part of the base I’d not yet seen.  Moments later we stood before a nondescript door very much like mine, and Dennos raked his finger claws over a rough patch on the wall.

“Enter!” came a voice within the room, and my escort slid the door open and literally pushed me in ahead of him.  Eyanna’s scent hit me like a shovel across the face; no doubt magnified by both her estrus and her being in the room much of the day.  And what a room!  Unlike my bare-bones cubicle, the princess had a virtual palatial suite complete with food preparation facilities, a private bathroom and office space---and a bed chamber, I noted with dread.

“Enjoy!” he said, then ducked back into the hallway and closed the door.

*****

Oh, this did not look good---at all.  On closer inspection---from across the room---Princess Eyanna looked like hell.  Her lush fur was unkempt and matted, the whites of her green eyes were bloodshot, and her temperament seemed to match her appearance.  “Friend Bart, it is good to see you, to have at least one friend not slavishly devoted to me who can listen to my woes.”  Uh oh! I thought.  This doesn’t look at all like an enjoyable time.

“How can I be…of service, Your Highness?” I yip-whine-growled, wishing I could simply slide back through the door and retreat to my little cubicle.

“Oh, please do not take that…that servile tone, friend Bart,” she almost snarled, “not with me!  You gave your life to save mine, not knowing or caring who I was.  I can never treat you like a…a subject; not after what you have done.”  Somehow that didn’t set my feeble mind at ease, and what followed made me sick to my soul.  She stood and began pacing, and for a moment she looked frightfully like a poor fox that had been harried by hounds and “glorious” hunters all day.  Finally she pointed to a now-blank video screen on the wall.  “My ‘loving parents’ have informed me that due to the incredible treachery of the human Henry Johnson, my quest has failed, that all the hard work and danger that I endured was for nothing!  Nothing!  And---because of my…failure…my position in line as the next ruler of our empire has been given to my younger sister, who, when she comes of age, will no doubt succeed in her quest---whatever it may be.  It has…all been for naught!”  With that bit of overplayed female drama, Eyanna collapsed into a desk chair, her head cradled in her arms as they lay on the desk, weeping in an all-too-familiar way.

Damn me, but my heart bled for her.  Losing such a specialized position in the political/social hierarchy had to suck beyond belief, and to do so as a young female had to be absolutely devastating.  Then I let my heart override my good sense, and I approached the sobbing creature.  “Princess,” I called as I carefully approached.  “Eyanna, dear, I’m so sorry---“  Really bad move.

Springing from her seat at the desk like a child’s pop-up toy, the alien lunged at me, eyes blazing, clawed hands extended, jaws wide open and fangs bared as they reached hungrily for my throat.  I threw my arms up in reflexive self-defense, and her jaws closed on my left forearm, slashing through my flesh like proverbial knives through butter.  A split-moment after mauling my left arm she chowed down on my right, her fangs grinding on the bones in a chilling manner.

And then she lurched away, letting me drop to the floor, her mouth dripping my blood like a bad horror movie, and bad ol’ me trying to scrabble away from the lethal monster I had struggle to save like a child trying to escape an angry parent wielding a punishing leather belt.

Gaaahhh---!” she screamed.  “NO!” came next, even louder.  Then, “I…I did not…not mean to---“

By this time I’d managed to kick myself toward the door, and scrambling to my feet with the limited use of my hands, shredded arms pouring blood, I scrabbled for the pull latch to make my escape.  The door slid open enough for me to squeeze through, then I lurched down the hall toward the infirmary, dripping blood all the way.  Behind me I heard sobs coming from Eyanna’s quarters, but at this point I really didn’t care how distraught she was; I needed help or I figured I’d soon bleed to death.

Luckily, Birella was in the infirmary, working late on the inevitable bureaucratic paperwork that seems to bedevil all medical professionals.  “Help!” I gasped as I stumbled through the open door.  “The princess…attacked me---“ I yip-whined, then collapsed on her clean floor.

Yeek!” she literally screamed, then had the presence of mind to slap a button on the wall, barking for Dennos to report to the infirmary post-haste.  Then she grabbed towels and knelt at my side.  “What happened?” she yowled.

Gasping in pain, I could only whimper.  She quickly grabbed a hypo---damned those big needles!---and jabbed it in one upper arm, then grabbed another and nailed the other arm.  Within moments the agonizing pain from the terrible mauling…simply turned off.  I’d been gasping and panting like a winded dog (yeah, funny---not!) “Oh God, those are wonderful drugs!” I husked as Birella began exploring the wreckage of my forearms.  About that time Dennos came trotting in the door and gasped at the scene, then like the professional he was, immediately began helping his boss tend to my wounds.  They worked as a skilled team, and within a half-hour had both arms sutured and bandaged, and assured me there’d be no permanent damage.

Well, perhaps not physically; psychologically…was a different story.

During their work I related exactly what had happened from the time Dennos had turned me over to the princess, until the moment I stumbled into the infirmary.  The two med-techs were horrified to know that the princess’ quest had been shot down by her royal parents, and (to my surprise) seemed to understand her terrifying reaction to my offer of comfort.

“Being in estrus,” Birella explained, “her emotions were already…raw.  It is simply how our biology works.  It makes us females more…energetic…when coupling, and helps intensify both partners’ pleasure.”  Yeah, pleasure.  “We obviously had no idea that she’d been in conference with her parents,” she continued, “and we certainly did not know they had…had rated her ‘failed’ on her quest.  The shock of such a ruling must have temporarily cost her her sanity, which would explain her attack on you, the very person to whom she owed her life.”  Both med-techs seemed heartbroken, both at their princess’ misfortune and at my predicament.

“Please believe me, friend Bart,” Dennos offered, “I would never have taken you to her had I known---“

“Hey, buddy,” I soothed, “I do not blame you; hell, I blame no one---other than that damned monster Henry Johnson, who deceived Eyanna.  In time---“  I held up my bandaged arms, “this can heal.”  Wearily hanging my head, “The injury to Eyanna, both to her future and to her…psyche---  Who knows if that will ever heal.”

Struggling to my feet, I said, “You may want to clean up the blood I dribbled in the hallway, before someone else finds it and starts licking the floor.”  Strange, but they didn’t find that one bit funny.

*****

Returning to my cubicle with promises that the pain shots would not wear off anytime soon, I again curled up on my bed, but due to my bandaged arms, I couldn’t get comfortable in this body’s “natural” sleeping position.  Flopping over on my back (mindful of the tail on the end of my spine) I got as comfortable as possible and tried unsuccessfully to turn off the cacophony in my mind.  What Eyanna had done to me was, I had to admit, probably fully understandable in the light of her culture and biology; it just wasn’t part of my human culture and understanding, and probably never would be.  “She’s pretty, she’s charming…and she damned near killed me,” I muttered.  “My life ended once, and her life is now in a shambles---all because of one bleeding asshole human.”  I chewed on that thought for a while, then mused, “I can’t let him get entirely away with his crimes, and there’s only one way I know to seal his fate.”

With that, I drifted off to a restless sleep, my new cloned body working overtime to heal itself. 

 

7 - Will You Respect Me In The Morning? 

“Morning” at the moon base came far too soon, and despite the med-techs’ promises of long-lasting freedom from pain…my arms hurt like flaming hell.  Luckily (I guess) my hands still worked, so with considerable effort I was able to at least use the toilet down the hall without making too much of a mess.  My piss stank to high heaven, but I knew that was considered normal for Sar’nali.  Next on the agenda was snagging something to drink, along with a bite (I cringed at the thought) of food.

That accomplished, I wandered back to the infirmary where I once again found Birella working on her seemingly endless paperwork.  Sticking my snout through the doorway, I softly barked, “G’mornin’, sunshine.”  Of course it scared her silly, which was not my intent.  She yelped, dropping her stylus and datapad (it bounced; the Sar’nali built rugged equipment), then called me in so she could check my wounds.

“Perhaps you should call security,” I said from the doorway, “so they can guard you from…from whatever it was that led up to this.”  I held out my arms, laughing hollowly in the aliens’ manner.

To her credit, she wasn’t amused.  To my genuine surprise, she approached me, leaned forward and affectionately licked my nose.  “Foolish male,” she said, leading me to a human-familiar utility stool and planting my furry ass on it so she could begin examining my wounds.  “The news of Eyanna’s failure, and of her terrible rage at you is on every mind this morning.  We all mourn her loss, and were it possible, any of us would have endured the…attack you suffered in your place.”  When my jaw dropped in shock she added, “You saved the life of our princess.  We are all in your debt.”

“That is absurd, dear.  You cannot be…indebted to an…an artifact.”  When she looked at me, head tilted in confusion, I explained, “The human who helped your princess to safety is dead.  What you are talking to right now is an artificial…person---I guess---a constructed body inhabited by an alien intellect---if you can call me that---copied from the dead human’s brain.”  It was her turn to stare with a dropped jaw.  “Think about it, Birella; I am nothing more than a walking, talking---bleeding---science experiment.”  Before she could voice the indignant reply I could see brewing in her expression another figure appeared at the door.

Eyanna.

Instead of jumping from my stool and cowering in a corner, something the med-tech seemed to expect, I simply remained seated and politely greeted the princess.  “Good morning, your highness.  Please excuse me for remaining seated, but the good doctor has not finished with her examination.”

The princess  looked like yesterday’s cheap date, her fur still matted and unkempt, her eyes bloodshot and hollow.  Thankfully she’d at least washed---or licked---my blood from the fur around her jaws.  I had a strong constitution, but seeing her mouth heavily stained with my blood this soon after the attack might have broken my resolve to remain calm.

She hesitantly entered the infirmary, then slowly approached us.  Stopping short of the physical work area, she tried to speak.  “I…last night…you were…I hurt you---“

“Please, your highness,” I quietly injected, “do not trouble yourself over---this.”  I nodded to the wreck of my arms.  “Mistakes were made and a tool was damaged, but with your permission, this tool may still have a use.”

“Wha---?  What do you mean---tool?” Eyanna said.  Birella’s ears were flat, and she silently continued working on my arms.  “I do not understand what---?”

“Unfortunately,” I explained, “I cannot undo the damage the human Henry Johnson caused, but I believe I can offer you a bit of justice.  You may call it revenge if it pleases you, but with a bit of help I believe I can put an end to the monster.”  And I waited.

Both Eyanna and Birella looked at me, then at each other before the princess said, “We…have much to discuss, friend Bart---but tell me more about your plan.”

I did. 

 

8 - Testing-Testing.  Is This Thing On? 

It didn’t take long for the aliens to set the stage.  It seemed that Johnson had been trying to contact Eyanna for some time, perhaps to try and convince her “it was all a mistake”, and for her to “come on down so we can work it out”.  Shit-eating bastard.  We were going to “work it out”, all right, but if things went according to plan, he wasn’t going to like the ending.

Early that afternoon (moon base time) we were ready, and I had Eyanna make the initial contact.  It didn’t take long before Johnson’s scarred, bloated and all-too-familiar face flickered into view on a video screen in the princess’ office, and I stayed just to the side out of camera range.

“Ambassador Johnson,” she said, addressing the image.  I cringed.  Johnson was no more an ambassador than I was the Pope---but at least now Eyanna knew it.  “I believe you have been trying to contact me?”  Eyanna looked much better---and far different---now that her fur was in order, her eyes cleared (by eye drops Birella provided) and a bit of “theater dressing” had taken place.  She now wore a beautiful golden cape with a fake-fur collar, and an impressive fake tiara “crown”.  Johnson was visibly shocked.

“Eyanna!” he said (the communication link provided by a tiny satellite in stationary orbit over the US, and an instantaneous ultrawave link between it and the moon base), no doubt surprised at her appearance.  “I’ve…not seen you dressed like this!  What---?”

Looking haughtily at him she stated, “The proper address is Princess Eyanna, Henry Johnson.  I am sure you are surprised to see me alive at all, considering the type of ‘reception’ you arranged for me.”

Ever the con artist, Johnson tried to mollify her with, “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, princess.  There was a terrible terrible mistake---“  That was my cue to butt into the conversation, but I did so still carefully out of camera range.

“Yeah, Henry,” I said, carefully pitching my voice to sound as much like my old human self as possible---and when he heard me Johnson about lost it.  Apparently I was convincing enough.

“Bart!  Is that you?  Nobody found---“

“Yeah, Henry, it’s me, and there’s a good reason none of your thugs found my body.  I left on the ship with the princess---after, I might add, we took care of a goodly number of your well-armed mercenaries.”  Johnson’s normally-swarthy skin took on a pasty pallor plainly visible on the screen, and I thought he would have a heart attack.  No such luck.  “Your little scheme to capture or kill the princess and steal whatever technology you could salvage from her ship was really shitty, you know.  I’m just curious how many banana republics you planned to sell the Sar’nali technology to, and for how much.  You must have had good financing for your little paramilitary operation, since a crew of mercenary thugs like that, along with weapons and even a helicopter---I’m impressed!---couldn’t have come cheap.”

Johnson did the expected sputtering and denying, but in time I shut him down.  “Cut the comedy, asshole.  We know what you were up to, and it didn’t work.  Thanks to you…humanity won’t benefit from contact with the Sar’nali Empire.  Princess Eyanna is going to pack up her operation and go home---and she’s going to spread the word about just how treacherous and evil humankind is.  None of the other alien species out there will bother with humanity, Johnson; they’ll know better than to try.  No cures for cancer and the countless other diseases and ailments that plague Earth’s billions; no economic boon from interstellar trade with countless trillions of aliens; no pollution-free solutions to the poisoning of the planet’s land, water and air.  Nothing.  And it’s ALL YOUR FAULT!” I ended up shouting.

Johnson was still sputtering denials and alibis, but I wasn’t quite finished.  There were two more items on the agenda.  “You’ll no doubt be happy to know that your hoodlums ultimately did manage to kill your old former boss, ‘Black’ Bart Dennison.  Yes, I died---“  His ineffectual sputtering tapered off to silence, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.  “But it seems the Sar’nali have one final bit of technology that Earth will miss out on.”  Eyanna moved aside and I stepped into camera view.  Johnson’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head.  “They harvested my human mind and imprinted it on a cloned Sar’nali ‘medical rescue’ body---so while Bart Dennison, the human, died, Bart the alien-in-a-Sar’nali-body lives on, at least for now.”  The look on his ugly face was priceless.  He really didn’t know how to respond, and was back to sputtering.

“While I won’t be coming back to Earth---since I don’t relish the idea of being vivisected by human scientists hungry to know what makes me ‘tick’---I will leave you this one parting ‘gift’:” I stated.  “This entire video conversation is being simultaneously beamed to the major governments of Earth, as well as to many of the banana republics you profess to love so much.  I’m sure you’ll have a rather large group of unhappy people looking for you, probably in the next hour or so---especially since we’re including the exact coordinates of your base of operations in Virginia’s mountains.”  Johnson’s screams of outrage were quite spectacular, but our technicians muted them to the squeaking of an outraged rat.

“Goodbye, Henry,” I added just before we broke the connection.  “Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame.  I sincerely hope they’re painful.”

*****

“That was…incredible,” Eyanna said to me in Sar’nali once the production was over.  “You really believe that he---?”

“Johnson will probably be captured within the day; a week at most,” I replied, the alien language easier on my throat than the English it wasn’t designed for.  “Even if he runs, no government will dare shelter him, and with the additional information on his past that we appended to the transmission, mankind won’t suffer him to live.  He’s toast.”

“It still shocks me,” she said, “to realize how…foolish I was---“

“Stop it, Eyanna!” I snarled.  “Johnson was just one of millions of human monsters, and I do not doubt that the universe is full of creatures like him, even worse.”  I looked at her, my heart heavy with her loss.  Finally, “And now, as per the other half of my request, it is time for you to get me an audience with your parents.  I do not know if I can help, but I intend to try.”

*****

It took a full day to arrange the video conference, but the next afternoon found me standing in front of the large wall screen and tiny camera in Eyanna’s office---alone, and facing her parents.  Her royal parents.  The rulers of the Sar’nali empire.

I suddenly needed to pee.

“Our daughter tells us you wish to speak to us,” Leallia, the queen mother stated.

I bowed slightly at the waist, then replied, “Thank you, your majesties, for this opportunity.  As you know, the intellect within this Sar’nali form was harvested from a dying alien, a human, and while I have no social or legal status within your empire, I ask you as the person who fought to save your daughter’s life---please reconsider your decision to punish her for failing to establish friendly relations with Earth’s native species.  While I have no personal knowledge of the numerous species comprising your empire, as a former warrior I have extensive experience battling my…well, what used to be my kind, and I can speak with assurance in saying that humans are savage, predatory xenophobes unlike any your people have ever experienced.  I personally knew the human who misled your daughter; at one time I commanded him in the clandestine operations we specialized in, but I soon had to remove him from service, banishing him due to his defective personality.  Sadly, there are countless others like him throughout the human population, and at this point in mankind’s evolution their kind often rules.”

The king was second-in-command in the Sar’nali monarchy, but Eyanna had told me her father’s opinion carried weight with his mate.  “I would like to speak to this…person in private, my dear,” he told the queen, and after frowning at me, then at him, she surprised me by licking him lightly on his muzzle, then moving out of camera range.  The king apparently watched her depart, nodding once, then I heard a faint thump as (I assumed) the door to the conference room closed.  He looked at me through the camera, and my need to pee relaxed---a little.

“You are---or were---known by the human name ‘Bart’; is that correct?” he asked.

“Yes, your highness.  It is a shortened version of a longer name, but it served me well for my professional career, and beyond.”

The king’s expression softened a bit and he said, “Please---friend Bart, we are speaking privately, so I would ask you to address me by my given name, Lyrkos.”

I nodded, “As you wish, Lyrkos.”

He seemed to study me for a time, then asked, “My daughter tells me you are---were---old.  Yet you also claim to have been a warrior.”  I nodded.  “How is it that you survived to an advance age?  Most true warriors I have known generally die in their youth.”

I shrugged my shoulders in a human gesture, which made my arms hurt.  “After a period of time in my country’s regular army,” I explained, “I was selected for additional training.  As I tried to convey earlier, humans are incredibly vicious predators; they rest at the top of what you would call the ‘food chain’.  While humans have puny teeth, no claws, limited strength and seemingly-poor physical stamina, humans innovate, designing weapons and methods to augment their strength and abilities.  Humans never rest in their desire to create more efficient ways to kill, and unleashed on an unsuspecting universe, and augmented by even modest technology, humans would be a terrible force among the stars.

“As for my former human self’s survival---“  I bowed my head slightly.  “Apparently I was skilled, or talented enough to always defeat my enemies.  Over the long, ugly years I participated in, and eventually led, many covert operations that resulted in scores of deaths, and even upheavals of governments.  When I grew too old to physically lead, I bowed out and let the younger blood take over.”

Lyrkos tilted his head slightly.  “Did you ever personally kill any heads of state?” he carefully asked.

Nodding, I replied, “Twice.  They needed to be removed to save their subjects from certain annihilation by their enemies.  We made sure their successors understood that if they tried to follow their predecessors’ paths, they, too, would meet untimely deaths.  I am proud of the many lives I helped save.”

“Did…do you enjoy killing your fellow beings?” he said after a pause.

“No, Lyrkos.  Only a monster enjoys killing people.  Every death is a tragedy, since had that person taken a different path, it is possible he would not have died in such a manner.  I killed because it was necessary.  I did not even hunt animals for sport, as many humans do.  In my---Bart’s society, there was always ample meat that had been commercially raised, so I had no need to hunt for food.”  I looked him directly, coldly eye to eye.  “The men I killed died because they opposed my and my country’s safety, and recently, those I killed were trying to kill your daughter.  They made their decision, and they died for it.”

He seemed to reach a decision.  I hoped I hadn’t made an enemy.

“I, too, have served my time as a warrior,” Lyrkos finally stated, “although I admit that I was never required to take another Sar’nali’s life.”  He stood, then bowed to me.  “I salute you, friend Bart, one warrior to another.  It is good that our respective species have such as us.”  I bowed again, this time much deeper.

“Now,” he said, and I sensed he was changing the subject---and I was right.  “I see that you have…encountered my daughter’s estrus and stress-fueled rage.”  I presented my bandaged arms toward the camera/screen, nodding.  Then he shocked me by pushing up the sleeves of his lightweight ceremonial robe.  Although furred, his arms bore unmistakable ripples and discolorations that could only be scars---like what I would have once my wounds healed!  My jaw dropped.

“Yes, friend Bart,” he said, his eyes showing wry amusement.  “I, too, have felt the wrath of a female’s teeth.  Eyanna gets her temper honestly, and early in our relationship, even before I became her mate and was crowned her king, she made for my throat.  It happens, but if the male survives---as I did and most others do, too---we usually find our mates to be more conciliatory in times of stress.  They remember what allowing their hormone-fueled emotions too much…authority…can do.  It often makes them wiser, and in the case of Leallia, it tempered her judgment with reason.  It was well worth the pain.  When your arms heal, I believe you will feel the same about Eyanna.”

Uh oh.

“Lyrkos,” I carefully began, “your majesty, with utmost respect for you as a monarch, warrior and person, I fear you are forgetting something.”  His amused vulpine smile fell away, and his head tilted in confusion.

“Friend Bart, I do not understand.”

“What you see before you…is not a person.  What stands before you---at the other end of a long video link, of course---is an artifact, a construct, a…a thing.  This body is a ‘rescue’ clone, and if I understand your laws, it has no status as a citizen unless its brain has the imprint of a Sar’nali citizen who was fatally injured; then it would also have an implant of his or her DNA…to give it the original Sar’nali’s scent.”  My ears and tail drooped without me even noticing.  “My…this body’s imprinted intellect is that of an alien, not a Sar’nali, and human DNA is not compatible with the clone’s physiology, so the clone’s scent can never be personalized.  Your majesty, by your laws---by the empire’s laws---I am an…appliance, a device created for a purpose, and once that purpose is satisfied, the device is discarded.”

The king’s vertically-pupiled eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped.  “We…we can issue a royal decree; there is no reason for you to be branded as---“

Shaking my head, I interrupted with, “Your majesty…Lyrkos.  You cannot, you dare not do such a thing.  It would create a precedent that could ultimately create social, even cultural upheaval.  Humans absolutely forbid cloning of people, and for good reason.  Your carefully-controlled use of them sidesteps the horror of having countless duplicate people intermixing with ‘normal’ people.  Allowing even one non-Sar’nali clone into your society could fuel such outrage, it might threaten your very rule.”

“But---“

“Sire, when a created device has served its purpose, it is discarded.  I---have served my purpose, both to my people, and to yours in keeping your daughter out of the hands of a monster.  While my body is relatively young, the…the person inside it is far older than you.”  I hung my head.  “Friend Lyrkos…I’m tired.  My time is done.  I beg of you, please rescind your ruling denying Eyanna the throne.  She learned a bitter, hard lesson with her experience meeting humans.  I believe with her knowledge of mankind, she will be able to convince the others in your empire to have nothing whatsoever to do with humanity.  Observe it, monitor it, but do not allow it access to other intelligent species until---and only if---it greatly moderates its xenophobic, murderous ways.  Eyanna has seen, first-hand, what humans can do.  She will not forget.”

Lyrkos seemed to wilt.  “You will not reconsider, friend Bart?  You would be most welcome here.”

Shaking my head, I said, “I cannot leave, my friend, and I also cannot allow the well-meaning people here to simply impress my intellect on another clone, in hopes of changing ‘my’ mind.  I trust you will not share our conversation with Eyanna until after she returns home.”  The king nodded sadly.

“I have known you such a short time, friend Bart, but I feel I must respect your decision.”

My ears perked up a bit and my bushy tail wagged.  “A beloved fictional character had a parting wish I always admired:  Live long and prosper.  Goodbye, Lyrkos.”

I reached out and touched a switch, breaking the connection. 

 

9 - Crumbs And Tatters 

Another step in the journey; just a few more and I could rest.

Due to her status, Eyanna’s chambers were soundproof, so none outside her door could have eavesdropped, even had they wanted to.  I exited the suite to find not only the princess, but several others gathered in the narrow hallway.  All looked anxious, although none more so than the princess herself.  Nodding and vulpine-smiling to the group, I told Eyanna, “Your parents are, as expected, both cultured and kind.  Your mother is quite regal, and if they rescind their order---and I think it stands a good chance of happening---I believe you will make a fine queen when that time arrives.  Your father and I…have common interests and concerns, and I respect his wisdom and outstanding quality of character.”

The staff seemed thrilled at my pronouncements, and Eyanna appeared slightly shocked at my choice of words.  “You…were in there much longer than I expected, friend Bart,” she ventured.  “Were there…problems?”

Shaking my head slowly, I replied, “The three of us conversed, and I stated my objections and concerns, then your mother left the room (I hoped!) and your father and I continued our conversation at length.  As former warriors, we had more common points of interest than I had expected.  I respect him immensely.”  Other than saying that I felt she might regain eventual ascendancy to the throne, I’d really told her very little.  The staff, however, took my words as gospel from on high, and left the area in the best of spirits.

And then we were alone in the hallway.

Eyanna looked intensely at me, finally asking, “Do you speak the truth?  Do you actually believe they may reverse their ruling?”

I nodded.  “Your mother obviously did not like me, but she did listen to my request.  Your father---  Well, we seemed to get along quite well, and after your mother left we talked at length on several subjects.  I wish we could have met under different circumstances; as it was, I believe we parted as friends.”

She seemed slightly confused, tilting her head in the vulpine questioning way and saying, “You will have plenty of time to get to know both of my parents after we arrive home, friend Bart.  I will personally see to it!”  Sighing, she added, “For now, however, the stress of the past days has taken a toll---and I desire rest and…companionship.”  She inched closer to me in an unmistakable way, and I figured I’d better do something fast.

“While the day still has a few hours left until sleep-time, I, too, am bone weary, and my arms need tending,” I stated.  “You appear to like Dennos, so if you would like, I will ask him to ‘stand in’ for me, at least until tomorrow.”  Her expression was unreadable, and I didn’t know if she would attack me again.  “Two high-stress video conferences in two days---in my weakened state---have left me drained.  I need a bit of food and then rest now more than ever.”

The gambit worked, and she nodded, her ears perking up and her tail once again beginning to wag.  She reached over and licked me gently on my muzzle---as a human I’d hated dogs licking me, but this was actually quite…pleasant---and only said, “Please ask him to bring a container of wine; he will know the type.”  Then she entered her suite and closed the door.

Dennos was more than happy to comply with his princess’ wishes, and gave me a friendly, non-sexual “thank you” lick on the side of my head as he hurried out the door of the infirmary just before mealtime.  Birella began checking my bandages, but I stopped her, saying it really wasn’t necessary.  She looked terribly sad, then looked away and nodded.

“If I remember correctly, my old human form is being ‘stored’ in a room nearby.”  She nodded again, still not looking at me.  “Can I gain access to the room?”  Again she nodded.  “Take me?”  She took a deep breath, then headed out the door and down the hall a short way.  Opening an unlocked door she led me inside, where a battered, bullet-riddled old man lay on a table, a strange-looking lamp-like device on an articulated arm extending from the wall beaming an almost ultra-violet light onto his head.

Seeing him---me---like this gave me the damndest feeling, almost a deja-vu sensation, along with memory flashes of the surrealistic strip poker dream.  “He---it---is not quite…dead, correct?” I asked, and after a moment she replied that, no, as long as the “securing” beam bathed the body, it would live.  That was how they had repeatedly “harvested” my mind for the failed imprinting efforts, and as long as the body was maintained this way---basically in suspended animation---more copies of my dreaming mind could be “harvested”.  That gave me a deep, horrifying chill, and I had to ask, “Once turned off, how long---?”

“The body would irrecoverably die---the mind as well---in perhaps ten of your minutes.  Were it extremely cold, the mind would retain at least part of its pattern for four or more hours.”  In answer to an unasked question she added, “After a short while the mind cannot be revived; only memories can be retrieved, and in time those…dissipate.”

Back in the infirmary, both of us standing around awkwardly, I finally asked, “Is there a…a pill form of that strong pain reliever you injected into my arms?  I…I would like some to take…to my room, should they begin hurting during the night.”  Yeah, right.  It was a bullshit question and she knew it, but we were both playing a grim game called “plausible deniability”, and I didn’t want to cause her more trouble than necessary.

Reaching into an unlocked cabinet, she removed a bottle and shook out four small objects into the thick palm of my left hand.  “One of these will bring you relief in around ten minutes.  Do not take more than two if you want to be coherent the next day.”  She paused, looking forlornly into my eyes.  “Three at once would render you unconscious in fifteen minutes…and all four would…would kill you shortly after that.”

Taking a deep breath, I forced my ears up and wagged my tail slowly.  Leaning forward, I carefully gave her muzzle a long, sensuous lick, then stepped back.  You have been a good friend, Birella.  I honestly wish…that things had worked out differently.”  I thought she was going to break down and cry so I quickly tried to bring matters to a close.  “Get a good night’s sleep, dear, and remember:  Things will look different come morning; they always do.  Life goes on, and I think your princess will eventually make you a fine queen.”  Tears were beginning to leak into the fur around her eyes, so I gave her another quick caress and took my four little gems with me, heading for my room.

Once there, I parked them on a corner of my bed and finalized my plans.  It was mealtime, and it would still take several hours before the base settled down for the “night”.  Outside, it had been lunar “night” for some time, and would be that way a bit longer before the day/night terminator moved over us.  The previous afternoon, once the video conference with Johnson was over, I’d scoped out the sleek pressure suits the Sar’nali used when they ventured onto the airless lunar surface.  I’d even had a technician show me how to quickly put one on, should the base suffer a meteorite puncture, and---even with limited use of my injured arms---I could slip into a suit and seal it in less than a minute.

*****

I hadn’t lied when I said I was tired, so I set the room’s clock to awaken me around midnight.  A yipping “wake up!” voice roused me from a restless sleep, and I padded down the hall to the room where my human body lay sleeping.  Luckily, other than private sleeping quarters, none of the doors in the base were ever locked, and this one, too, was unsecured.  I opened it, stepped inside, then closed it behind me.

I’d never killed myself before---an absurd concept if ever there was one---but it only took a moment to switch off the machine that held the body in suspended animation;  “secured”, as the aliens liked to call it.  Once I threw the switch I again received an incredible “double-image” of the surrealistic strip poker game, only this time the game players stopped play---thankfully both Jesus and Mother Theresa still had their clothes on---and turned as one toward a doorway that opened in a far wall.  One by one they stood from the table---Tinkerbell still flittering around like an annoying housefly---and moved toward the doorway, which was glowing brighter and brighter with the purest white light.  Jesus was first through the opening, and seemed to move toward an incredibly bright vanishing point without really walking.  Mother Theresa was next, then the rest of the crew including Hitler, Elvis and the entire Vienna Boys Choir.  Finally, Tinkerbell made a few quick circles over the poker table, then she, too dived through the doorway---and was gone into the vanishing point.  The door slowly swung closed, and the vision faded away.  I blinked a few times, and realized I was standing next to the cooling body I’d inhabited for over seventy years, my right hand on its forehead.

“Goodbye old friend,” I whispered. “All in all, it was an incredible life, but I’m nothing more than a useless appliance now, a…a worn-out toaster, and it’s time I pulled the plug.”

*****

Quickly back in my room I made sure things were arranged as I wanted them, then I palmed my little pills and headed down the hall to the pressure suit room.  Once inside I closed the hall door and hurriedly slipped into a suit.  Leaving the helmet open I moved through a heavy door and into a large airlock.  Cycling that room would, I’d been told, sound an alarm through the base, but to the side, near the large main door, was a small, two-person auxiliary airlock---that one was not alarmed.  I stepped into it, dogged the door behind me and popped the pills into my mouth before sealing the helmet.  With time now precious I cycled the airlock, and for the first time in either of my “lives” I stepped out onto the surface of the moon.  Gravity was no longer augmented by the under-floor system, and my weight suddenly lightened to less than thirty pounds.  I was free!

Clumsily trying to bounce-walk like I’d seen human astronauts do in old video footage, I managed to scuttle almost to a crater wall nearly a quarter-mile away before the first effects of the pills hit me.  Damn but those things packed a wallop!  I got a rush like a hit from high-octane moonshine whiskey---then I giggled at the “moonshine” thought, since here I was, finally basking in real “moonshine”.

I staggered to the wall of the crater and plopped down on my butt in the dust, my back resting against the slim, contoured air tank, itself resting against the hard rock of the crater wall.  My bushy tail had its own sleeve in the pressure suit, and was poking out to one side as I rested most of my miniscule weight on my right butt-cheek.  I clumsily switched off the suit’s air supply and heaters as I remembered a character in a science fiction story doing a lifetime ago. The Earth was shining above me in all its magnificent glory, and the sight of it suddenly seemed to make it hard for me to breathe.

Or perhaps, I dimly thought as wave after wave of cold, numbing fuzziness began washing over me, the pills were finally moving me toward my final rest.  “Nohw I layee mee dounn…t’ ssleeeep---“ I muttered, my words slurring into oblivion, and the lovely jewel of Earth dimmed…to…

 

10 - Departing Shots 

“I am sorry, but that is the end of the recording, Eyanna,” the technician said, switching off the small playback unit.  It had been a strange two days, first recovering the dead, frozen clone form that had once held the mind/personality of an elderly human, and then delicately salvaging the shadow thoughts from its brain.  Sorting through and finally playing back the thoughts from the time he first met the alien princess until his death had occupied the Sar’nali almost round the clock the final day, but when the last ghostly words had echoed from the playback’s speaker the entire staff simply remained where they sat or lay, more in shock than in exhaustion.

Only one staffer had even come close to understanding the hybrid creature’s deep, crushing despair, and Birella lay curled up in a fetal position by herself in a corner of the room, sobbing uncontrollably.

Eyanna had awakened suddenly in the middle of the sleep period, her body’s physical and emotional needs finally satiated by the softly snoring med-tech curled up in bed next to her.  “Bart!” she whisper-yipped, a horrible fear suddenly gripping her throat with cold talons, and she leapt for the door, not bothering to slip into her sandals.  Hurrying down the hallways of the sprawling moon base, she glanced into the empty infirmary, then moved toward the dining area.  Empty as well.  She sprinted past the vacant commons area and into one of the hallways that held the personal sleeping rooms.  She slid open the unlocked door to the former human’s room:  Empty, a small, lonely pile of personal items sitting in the middle of his bed.

“No!” she barked, then hurried back in the direction of the infirmary, stopping at the closed door to the room where the “stored” human body lay.  After a moment of trembling fear she slid the door open, then howled in anguish at seeing the body no longer bathed in the eerie light that had preserved it.  Then she noticed that the body’s hands were clasped and folded over its bullet-riddled, bloody stomach, the man’s battered onyx ring prominent on the third finger of its right hand.  “Yiiii!” she screamed, now almost certain of what would eventually be found.

Still, once the entire base’s personnel had been rudely awakened, it still took nearly ten minutes before someone thought to count the pressure suits.  It took another ten minutes to organize a search party, get them suited up, then send them bouncing and scurrying out onto the unforgiving lunar surface.  Due to the abundance of Sar’nali bootprints in the unchanging lunar dust, another half-hour passed before one of the searchers spotted the lone figure reclined against the distant crater wall, and by that time it was not only thoroughly dead, it was thoroughly frozen stiff as well.

They hurriedly carried it back to the base and into the infirmary, but when they stripped off the dusty pressure suit they realized there was absolutely no hope in reviving the corpse.  Snapping and snarling commands, the alien princess ordered a neuro scanner hooked up to the clone’s head, and the technicians managed to harvest a faint memory recording of the hybrid creature’s final, chaotic days, and his rapid spiral into death.

*****

They left both bodies in shallow graves near the crater wall where the clone had died.  Not really knowing or understanding the man’s religious beliefs---if any---they simply marked the graves with one small headstone of ragged lunar rock, Bart’s name laser-etched in English on a smoothed area.  Under his name they wrote, “Warrior At Rest”.

 


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