Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2005.
This is a sequel to the stories, Alien Pond and Alien Home.
The pale green shell wobbled as it split open and a six inch long, iridescent green newborn crawled free. Hearing a soft, rasping sound, she turned and took unsteady steps to where her two sisters were huddled against the abdomen of their reclining mother, Autumnblossom. The new mother very softly stroked each one with a five-digit hand.
The children's father, Crystalheart, knelt on four legs beside his wife and also caressed the children. Two small appendages on either side of his head scratched and tapped along a rough section of exoskeleton as he recited their names. "[Goodupholder, Autumnheart, Crystalblossom.]"
The attending physician bowed and backed away, saying, "[Nothing to worry about. All are in excellent health.]"
Seated on a cushion nearby, Daria Morgendorffer-O'Neal felt the added joy the three brought to her life. The names of two followed the common practice of the Folk to represent their parents. The last touched her greatly: the closest name in their language that was a translation of Daria. "They're beautiful, Autumnblossom. Congratulations."
A well-built man with dark brown hair sat on the cushion beside Daria. Her husband of a little over two years, Tim, smoothed his fingers through her waist-length auburn hair. "How does it feel to be a grandmother at thirty-five?" he asked with a grin.
She gave him a friendly snarl. "That was uncalled for. I suppose it's a little easier to deal with at the over-the-hill age of forty-one."
Autumnblossom's sisters approached from their cushions and marveled at the tiny infants. Eveningsky said playfully, "[You just had to be first, so you could name her after mother.]"
Autumnblossom leaned against Crystalheart. "[I got lucky.]"
Truemind placed a hand gently on Goodupholder's head. "[Firstborn. Unless and until I have children, you are my heir.]"
Daria smiled at the irony of that. The other common definition of Daria was Queen. She also thought of her niece, Daria Jane, more commonly known as DJ. She's already four. I do need a trip back to Earth to see everyone again.
Eyes shaded by her black veil, Daria watched the cleric place a silver canister of ashes into the stone monument. At his signal, Daria reverently slid the sealing block to drop in place.
The cleric stood still for a moment before saying, "[Rest with the Creator, in return for a long life spent making the world a better place. The memory of this honored Daughter of the Nest, Peacetree, will live on with all she touched.]"
Daria felt tears of loss on her cheeks. Good-bye, dear friend. I will miss our long talks in the garden.
Tim placed an arm around her shoulder and wordlessly held her.
After the crowd departed, including her daughters, Daria stood, staring at the monument. "This reminds me of what I'm dreading most in the future."
"Peacetree was less than a year older than me."
"Losses always make you feel your own mortality."
"It's not that. It's…" Daria stopped to wipe her eyes. "It's that, if I live to be an average age for a human…I will have buried every one of my daughters."
Tim brought his other arm around his wife and held her close.
Tim stood before a display showing several highly detailed graphs with labels like: Ratio of Iron Isotopes, Ratio of Copper Isotopes, or Ratio of Oxygen Isotopes. On a table before him was a rod-shaped weapon encased in a clear box. Artie Simmons had used it to kill Angier Sloane almost four years earlier.
Listening intently to his presentation was the Queen of the Folk, Truemind, sitting on a short, cushioned dais behind a low desk. Her emerald green exoskeleton glinted in the office lights, and her faceted purple eyes followed his every motion. Her arms rested on the desk surface.
Daria, fulfilling her roles as the Earth Ambassador and the Queen's adopted mother, was also present. She held one of the Folk database computers in her hand and took notes using it.
Tim pointed to the graphs and said, "With the more precise analyses available here at Nest, we have identified, through stable isotope ratios, the planet where the weapon was made."
Truemind asked, "[That planet is?]"
Tim looked at Daria. "Earth."
She squinted in surprise. "Earth? How could that be? That technology is far more advanced than anything we've ever produced. It wasn't even recognized by any of the other space-faring species."
"The material is from Earth. Who made it; we don't know. However, there are some modern Earth manufacturing techniques involved. We believe this was a locally made duplication."
Truemind said, "[That makes even less sense. The technology was basically unrecognized by all species. Duplicated from what?]"
Daria tabbed through several reports on the computer. She said, "We know Mr. Simmons always maintained that it was non-humans that used him in experiments. But there is no evidence for another spacefaring species."
Tim spread his hands. "We have a hypothesis."
Daria rubbed her temple. "I'm almost afraid to ask. What?"
"The evidence is thin, but scientists that Eveningsky consulted said that some of the components appear to match fragments left by the species you know as the Others."
Truemind sat straighter. The Others had disappeared after a brutal and widespread war about seven thousand before. Artifacts recovered from archeological sites are all smashed and little remained that hadn't been turned into slag. There are still whole planets that nobody had landed on because of the residual radiation.
She asked, "[How could that be?]"
"Archeological sites for them are both in Folk and Seeker space, as well as the border zone. It may be possible that they visited Earth as well."
Truemind was still incredulous. "[But, nobody has been able to reconstruct any of their technology because the remains have been in such poor shape. It is almost as if somebody intentionally obliterated the equipment so it could never be replicated.]"
"You're correct. This concept only holds if somebody on Earth found intact Other artifacts."
Dropping her chin onto her hand, Daria observed, "And, they're secretly manufacturing what they've found."
Truemind tapped the equivalent of a keyboard and read another report on a monitor concerning the investigations made of Mr. Simmon's irrational sounding claims after he was sentenced to a psychiatric hospital. She asked, "[Have you made any progress on the synthetic skin Mister Simmons has?]"
"Not much." Tim said, "It was obviously made specifically for him; thumb and foot prints match his birth records."
Daria read through the reports on her computer. "That bothers me. Somebody went to a lot of expense and effort to make it. They could have made a fortune with biomedical uses to replace skin grafts and such. But they've kept this hidden for at least nineteen years. Why? They must have some use that is worth the loss of billions in income."
Two ornate wingback chairs faced a massive fireplace with aromatic woods burning in the hearth. Cigar smoke rose from the chair on the right, and shot glass of fine scotch was grasped in the hand of the left chair's occupant.
"We clearly avoided suspicion."
"I'm still concerned. Mr. Simmons used a prototype weapon stolen from the laboratory.
"Those responsible for his escape and theft were punished. However, his assassination of Sloane and capture afterward did alleviate the need for us to intervene directly."
"But, at what cost?"
"Everyone was confounded by the weapon and it was shelved as a mystery. It will feed the conspiracy press and keep everyone distracted."
"We can't rely on that. The lab with the crashed Folk ship was found during the investigation that implicated Sloane. We can't tolerate any more disclosures."
"The authorities believe that facility was run by rogue government agents using Sloane's money. There is no trail beyond that."
"Mr. Simmons was one of the first skin transplant test subjects. If that is discovered, it could also lead to undesirable consequences."
"He's in a psychiatric hospital. Nobody there is going to look for synthetic skin."
The man flicked his cigar butt into the fire. "Ever since that Morgendorffer woman saved those miserable kids, our plans have been fouled at every turn."
"It was a mistake to rely so much on those we plan to displace. At least those brats were kind enough to execute our last link to Nest two years ago, the Queen Mother."
"It's so nice when justice works in our favor."
"Now, we work entirely on our own."
Daria held a hand over her mouth to suppress the soft laugh. She and Tim sat on cushions in a disc-like flyer. His hands writhed together from inactivity.
He heard and half-grinned, half-frowned. "That's right. I still don't like being chauffeured around. I'd rather drive."
"I'm still not entirely accustomed to it, either, even though I was at best average behind the wheel."
"I'd still rather drive."
"I know. Maybe if they ever build one that doesn't require two opposable fingers on each hand, you could drive one of these a little better."
He snorted. "Yeah, trying to get your little finger to act like a thumb just doesn't work."
Daria moved next to him and leaned against his chest. "I do love it here, but I'm excited about going back to Earth. I miss Jane. I miss my family."
"I didn't get to know them well, but I miss them, too."
Daria looked out the clear dome at the landscape passing several thousand feet below. Harkening to their primitive roots of true nest-building, the dome was still the primary architectural element. Though more technologically advanced than Earth, Nest had managed to maintain a special balance and beauty. Probably because of their more sensitive physiology to toxins, Nest never developed the pollution problems that had plagued humans and other species.
For many years, Lawndale was my home; now this place is. Even if I'm not renewed as Ambassador, I'll be returning. I'll need to sell my old house. No sense in it sitting vacant like it has been the last few years. But, I'm keeping the cabin. One way or another, I will spend some time there.
Tim stepped out of the transport and looked up at the massive disc of the royal family's cruiser, remembering how it covered a forty-acre plot of land. "She was a beautiful sight saving you at the cabin, and she still is."
A crewmember in a gray coverall immediately began loading their luggage onto a floating cart. Another with silver braid approached. "[Greetings, Ambassador, Inspector. I am Captain Winterglow. Welcome back to Nebulachaser.]"
Daria nodded. As she spoke, a small device on her belt translated English to Folk. "Thank you, captain."
"[Princess Eveningsky has already boarded. Once your possessions are stowed, we can depart.]"
Daria watched the floating cart enter the hatch as the central pillar dropped from the underside of the ship. "Then we better get going, so life around the spaceport can return to normal."
The captain stepped aside and waved them past. "[As you desire.]"
Refreshed to stand back up straight after walking slightly stooped in the 5 foot high corridors, Daria smirked at Tim. "See, there are some advantages to being five-two."
Tim stood to his six-foot height. "Rub it in. You two better get this treaty finished so Earth can build some FTL ships…with decent headroom."
"There is a little more to the treaty than that."
"Yeah…" He rotated his neck to clear more stiffness. "…but that's my immediate concern."
They were in the four-room guest suite of the ship. Beyond the entry foyer/den, a corridor provided access to three guest rooms, each with a private bathroom. Their luggage was already neatly stacked inside.
Daria smiled and pointed to the luggage. "Getting that put away should help to clear up our stiffness."
"You know, it really wasn't that far to walk hunched over," he joked and picked up a pair of bags.
Daria picked up two and followed, they put them down in the room to the left. Tim looked around. "Still a creature of habit. This is the one you used on our way here."
"Worse than you think: it's the one I've used every time I've been onboard."
He grinned. "At least this time, you won't be alone."
She looked down and shyly smiled. "True. After spending her honeymoon with Mack across the hall, Jane did mention the zero-gravity beds were…intriguing."
Tim looked at his watch and mock-frowned. "But, we'll have to wait on that. If I know your daughter, she'll be here any minute now."
Daria started to unpack. "Probably. I hope Carolyn can handle everything back at the office."
"She's been a good assistant. She'll do fine."
Daria sighed. "Just being concerned."
"Daria, there's still only a couple hundred humans, including tourists, on Nest. The Ambassador's job isn't that hard. It's all the other stuff you do that's been keeping you busy. She won't have to worry about any of that."
"I know. However, those other activities are why I'm seriously considering resigning as Ambassador. Sooner or later, somebody is going to consider my close ties to my children to be a conflict of interest at best, or a security risk at worst."
"Your call. You don't really need the work."
"It did mean a lot, but with things growing, a professional diplomat would be a better choice. Besides, it would give me more time to write."
"Or read. There is still so much of their literature I haven't gotten to."
"I'll stick to their movies."
A chime indicated that somebody was at the door. Daria went over and opened it. "Eveningsky."
Her daughter entered and closed the door. "[Mother.]"
Tim poked his head out. "Hey, good to see you."
All three sat on plush cushions in the room. Daria said, "I hope the other delegations don't object to you coming instead of Autumnblossom."
"[To use one of your old phrases: They will just have to deal. Who would blame her for staying home with her children? I only hope my negotiation skills are even half of hers.]"
Daria thought of how tricky the negotiations were going to be. Many on Earth distrusted the Folk and the other spacefaring species involved, the Seekers. In addition, there was also considerable opposition to the United Nations becoming the sole negotiating body for Earth. Both the Folk and Seekers agreed that trying to deal with over two hundred nations would be unmanageable, leaving the UN as the only logical choice. There was also concern about the UN having control of the proposed Space Fleet.
"I think you'll do fine." Daria reassured her. "You'll just have to be careful about human xenophobia."
"[I am hoping that being the only species to obtain Faster Than Light travel without having to develop it yourself will be adequate incentive. That, and the worlds your people would have available for colonization.]"
Daria snorted lightly. "That's giving us the edge to make the treaty possible. With the world population already over six and a half billion and growing unabated, we need the room."
Tim rested his chin on interlaced fingers. "I'm going to keep a close eye on things. I suspect our mystery force may oppose such a treaty. With a ready-made recruitment base among the various oppositions, they could be large, or get large fast."
"[I suspect that such group may have been the untraced influence on Truelimb that convinced her to try to start a second war with the Seekers.]"
"The question on that remains, how was contact made?" Daria observed.
Tim said, "It would've been nice to have Crystalheart along to help, but I understand his wanting to stay."
"[We do have Folk that can help those of your people that you trust.]"
"I have a select few in mind. I'm not convinced we found everyone who was in the old conspiracy. If it was wider than we had discovered, they could tip off others that we are investigating again. We need to keep this as quiet as possible for as long as we can. Even though that means we have to limit our investigation of Angier Sloane's involvement."
Daria sighed and reached for Tim's hand. "There is one more source of information we may want to use…"
"Tom may have insights to his father's activities that may let him notice things others will miss."
"Do you trust him with this?"
"After what he told me the last time, I think his guilt over what happened will demand that he help."
Eveningsky removed a computer from her belt. "[Okay, then we can consider him a possible ally. But you will have to be the only contact, to reduce suspicion.]"
Daria nodded, some of her old pain visible on her face. "I understand."
Her voice mimicked in Folk by a belt translator, Daria said, "Don't you think I'm a little too old for this?" Before her, the ship's cook held a gelled juice dessert topped with a small, self-contained light.
Tim stood behind her with his arms wrapped around her waist. "You're still breathing, aren't you?"
"Yes, though I'm trying to determine if you will continue." A kiss planted on his cheek hinted at the jest.
The cook shifted nervously on his legs. "[I was not informed of age restrictions on the observance.]"
Daria took the tray from the cook. "There are none. I'm just feeling the years a bit. Thank you for making this."
"[You are welcome, Ambassador.]" The cook backed away and exited the room.
Daria set the tray on a low table, turned off the translator, and faced Eveningsky. "I know you're behind this, too."
"Thank you both." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "It's been a little over twenty years since I first met Jane. She was the first person I'd invited to my birthday in years. My sixteenth. I can't wait to see her again."
Tim nudged her. "Turn off the candle so you can make your wish."
Daria shook her head and touched a small button to extinguish the light. "Though it's going to be some time before I know if it comes true."
Quinn Tolliver held the door open and gently tugged on her four-year-old's hand. "DJ, come on."
Tall for her age, the blond girl looked around through her new glasses. "Wow."
Quinn looked down at her daughter. "I always thought you had my sister's eyes. Now I know you got the complete package."
The girl continued to look around in wonder at the newfound clarity. "What I'm supposed to see?"
She looked up through the stylish, gold wrap-around frames. "These like Auntie Daria's?"
Quinn gently giggled. "Not really."
"Oh. Will she like them?"
"She'll say they're perfect for you."
Quinn looked up at the sky. "Happy birthday, Sis."
Amid the profusion of plants in the hydroponics garden, Daria wiped the sweat away from her face with a rag and growled, "This sucks," while exercising on a treadmill.
From one beside her, Tim grunted, "Sure does."
"Maybe I'll just be a couch potato back on Earth and skip all this."
"You know you can't do that."
She sighed. "Dammit."
He pushed on. "You wouldn't think we'd need this much workout after only two and a half years at nine-tenths gee."
"Trust me; you'll feel even a year."
"Another advantage to being smaller. You'll only feel like you've gained about twelve pounds, while I'm going to feel more like twenty."
Daria gritted her teeth. "But it's all proportional. I'll be just as miserable as you."
"I'm glad they don't have any lower gravity."
"I'll second that."
"There is one thing I'm really looking forward to."
Daria looked at him and smiled. "A nice slice of dead cow."
"But you must admit that this diet has probably been good for you."
He laughed. "Compared to my bachelor cooking, almost anything is."
"I still can't believe you got Crystalheart drinking margaritas."
"He married your daughter, so you know he has good taste."
"Well, I can't argue with that. Until he can get those lime trees producing, he's been importing the lime juice. Autumnblossom hasn't exactly been happy with the cost."
"Hey, I've been splitting it with him."
"I know. Not to mention the tequila. I'm glad you aren't trying to produce that locally."
"Which reminds me of the second thing I want: a good cup of coffee."
"Wakebush tea may pack twice the caffeine as coffee, but I can see where you would want some. Jane was the same."
A buzzer brought both to a thankful stop. Tim said, "You know, hanging around you has been a bad influence. I used to keep myself in better shape."
She gave him a friendly kiss. "You've kept in shape…just with different exercises."
On the eve of reaching Earth, Daria sat at a desk with her daughter, going through reports. Eveningsky's quarters were fairly plain, the greatest indulgence was a small bookshelf filled with print books that she kept for personal reading. A habit she picked up from Daria.
Daria remembered an explanation from her first interstellar journey. The space-time curvature formed around a ship while traveling faster than light prevents all forms of communication. She grumbled, "I hate being out of contact for three months. I really hope there are no nasty surprises waiting for us."
"[I'm sure there will be.]"
"I wouldn't bet against you on that."
"[I will be pleased if the revised United Nations charter has been ratified by the time we arrive. I know it was a valiant attempt, but I can understand why nobody would trust the system under the old charter.]"
"Be glad you didn't have to read the drivel that crossed my desk when we first proposed revising the charter."
"[There are still those that say we were wrong to depose Truelimb. I suppose your species should not be any more immune to irrational actions.]"
"Nobody in their right, left or center minds trusted the old system."
"[That was very obvious. It is rare when both our and the Seeker government agree on something at the beginning of a negotiation, like we did on asking for a new charter.]"
Daria laughed. "That, more than anything, told everyone the old version was broken."
"[I look forward to seeing how much progress has been made on preparing your first starport.]"
"Me, too. The Starport commission was right; it has the best combination of isolation and easy access to major transportation that was needed. But, it will be kind of sad seeing places like Kennedy and Baikanour become museums."
"[That your people succeeded in getting that much material into space using rocket technology is still amazing. Nobody else made that much effort until anti-grav technology was developed.]"
"Call us stubborn."
"[If you are any indication…]"
Daria smiled and shook her head. "I suppose I deserved that."
Eveningsky changed reports on the monitor. "[Mother, going onto the next subject, I hope the investigation for the source of that weapon is successful. I am worried about some of the implications.]"
"Agreed. I'm afraid that all we may have done before was to eliminate the parts of that organization that were easy to get to. Almost like a lizard's tail that breaks off to distract a predator while the lizard escapes."
The man in the left chair set a digital assistant on the side-table and blew a large cloud of smoke. "One month before they arrive for the final treaty negotiations. It looks like we will have everything in place."
"Excellent. Our great-grandfathers would be proud of us."
"And we have so many opposition groups to do our work for us once the ball is rolling."
"I'll be happy when we can wash our hands of some of those."
"Just remember, the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
"And when that enemy is gone, you find the enemy of your friend."
"Lawndale Tower, this is Nest Two, request permission to land." The human copilot assigned to Nebulachaser's launch, Captain Eaton, was mainly there to ease communication between the air traffic control system and the pilot, Azurelake, and to provide navigational help.
"Nest Two. You are cleared to land along runway Two-One. Welcome to Lawndale Municipal Airport."
Daria, Tim and Eveningsky sat in the rear of the single compartment of the launch. Daria wore a black business suit with a knee-length skirt. Her feet were in comfortable flats instead of her normal boots. "I didn't really think of it last time, but the higher gravity must have been hard on you three when you first landed at the cabin."
Eveningsky checked the buttons on her dark blue coverall. "[I know I was too scared to notice. After the explosion and the escape, and then the crash landing and the raft, seeing you towering over us was terrifying.]"
Tim grinned. "Yeah, she can be terrifying at times. However, I have a problem visualizing the 'towering' part."
Glaring over the top of her glasses, Daria held her hands a little over two feet apart. "They were only this big at the time, and barely came to my knees when all four feet were on the ground."
Tim looked down with sadness. "That must have been hard on Swiftsong."
Daria looked at him in realization. "With her injuries, I can't imagine what she must have gone through with the higher gravity. She never complained."
For air traffic safety, the launch approached along the standard glide path to the runway, and followed the runway and taxiways at a hover to reach the gate of Lawndale Municipal Airport. When it stopped, a contingent of Secret Service guards took up positions around it.
All were relieved to see only a small crowd of press at the gate. The old days of bulky cameras and microphones were gone. Each camera operator had a small headset that included a microphone, a camera with a small reticule monitor over one eye, and a satellite uplink. A keypad worn on the thigh provided controls for the system.
After stepping onto the pavement for the walk, Tim said, "Glad we did the big press conference at Edwards Starport; this poor place wouldn't have handled it."
Daria looked down the building at the other five gates. "Lawndale never was a teeming metropolis."
Tim laughed. "But you've put it on the map, anyway."
Daria waved to the reporters. "I'll answer a few questions; please don't repeat what was asked a couple hours ago in California. I know all you have reviewed it. However, I am anxious to see my family and friends, so I don't want to be here long."
A tall brunette asked, "Ambassador, where will you be staying?"
"At my Lawndale residence. I paid enough for the place and I've only spent a couple weeks in it in the last four years."
A young man asked, "What about security?"
"The house is on a large, isolated lot. The Secret Service will handle the perimeter security, while members of the Nestheart Guard will provide security inside the home. Both have already arrived and made preparations."
An older man with a mustache asked, "What about transportation to New York?"
"We will be flying."
A woman close to her age, who Daria thought looked familiar, asked, "How does it feel to be a grandmother?"
"To be honest, I didn't expect it to happen this soon." Sandi Griffin. So that's what happened to Quinn's old friend.
The crowd responded with pleasant laughter.
"But I'm very happy with my three granddaughters."
The young man asked, "Inspector O'Neal. Do you know who made the weapon Artie Simmons used to kill Angier Sloane?"
He stepped forward. "No."
The same reporter continued. "Is the weapon currently on Nest for testing?"
"No." Because I just brought it back with us.
The tall brunette asked, "Do you believe Mr. Simmons' story?"
"I think he believes it. With the mystery of the weapon, I won't believe anything until I have firm evidence."
The mustachioed man asked, "Princess Eveningsky, with the news of the new princesses' birth, any possibility of seeing a young man in your life?"
Using a translator, Eveningsky said, "Since Autumnblossom is the only one of us to be biologically receptive to that form of reproduction, the answer is no."
Okay, this is getting silly. Daria began walking forward. "Okay folks, I said only a few questions. We're going to be around for while; you can ask more later."
The Secret Service took the cue and began to move forward with the three, taking them into the reception area of the terminal.
Two sturdy but comfortable cushions were in the interview room of the palace. Crystalheart sat at the desk between them and reviewed military files attached to the job application of the next candidate. "[Hmm. Spent time at the listening post on the People of the Soil, nineteen years ago.]"
A middle-aged woman entered and stood respectfully by the door. Crystalheart motioned to the cushion. "[Please be seated, Snowvine.]"
She sat and said, "[Thank you.]"
He produced glasses and poured water for each. "[You have excellent credentials for this position, from your assignment to the treaty listening post to your current work coordinating interstellar communication satellites.]"
"[I have been fortunate to have a varied career.]"
"[Please forgive a little indulgence. Tell me some of your experiences among the People. I enjoyed my time there, and am intrigued by the stories of those that had to remain undetected.]"
"[I suspected my time at the listening post may have influenced the decision to interview me. I'm not a very good storyteller. It should all be in my records.]"
"[Your records record an uneventful stay of one year. Thirteen of their months.]"
"[I would have thought a prince would have the security clearance.]"
"[I have all clearances. Your records show an uneventful tour. I take it the records are in error?]"
Snowvine was incredulous. "[By the Creator…You don't know?]"
"[A lot of what happened was deeply classified, so I was not surprised that it did not come up in the Queen Mother's trial.]"
Crystalheart pressed a hidden button to produce electromagnetic white noise in the room to block possible eavesdropping. "[The Queen Mother? Please, tell me everything.]"
As the motorcade approached her house, Daria could see four civilian cars parked out front. She turned to Tim. "It looks like the gang is all here, plus someone extra."
The limousine rolled to a stop and the Secret Service driver opened the door. "Please have a nice evening."
Daria nodded thanks and led Tim and Eveningsky to the front door. She smiled and said, "Chin up, nose up, let's go."
Tim looked at her. "What the hell was that?"
"An interesting memory," she said and opened the door.
"[Mother, sometimes, you are weird.]"
Inside, her parents, Jake and Helen, waited. Daria doubted she would ever get used to their gray hair or her father's cane. She smiled and gently shook her head when they called her "Sweetie" and "Kiddo" as they embraced.
Jake grabbed Tim's hand. "Welcome to the family, my man."
Tim shook it. "Thanks."
Helen gave him a slightly stiff embrace. "Welcome, Tim."
Jake knelt down and grabbed Eveningsky into a hug. "Grandkiddo! How are you?"
Returning the gesture, she said, "I am well, Grandfather."
Also moving slower, Helen knelt down and said, "Eveningsky, so good to see you."
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Helen gave Daria a friendly scowl. "I still think it would have been polite to tell us about the wedding before it happened."
Daria sighed. "Mom, you know you could never get six months off from work. So it was fairer all around to get married and tell you and Tim's family after the fact. Equal opportunity offense."
Daria leaned close and whispered, "That way, I got my daughters to pay for it. Remember how much you spent on Quinn?"
Helen smiled. "I should be thankful for that."
Seated at a sofa was Quinn, her blond-haired husband, Bill, and DJ. The little girl jumped up. "Auntie Daria?"
"You've certainly grown since the last time I saw you." She hugged the girl. "I like your glasses." Daria looked at Quinn. "Your mother would have loved to have seen me in something like that."
Quinn grinned back. "You would have looked good in them. But then, you still can't figure out how to dress."
"Daria! Your kids are royalty. You really need to learn to dress the part."
"I'll pop out and buy a tiara, how's that?"
DJ ran to Eveningsky. "Wow. You're my cousin. You look cool."
She said, "Daria Jane. You look pleasant tonight. A pleasure to meet you."
The little girl bounced over and said, "Uncle Tim."
Daria moved to Quinn. "Sis, it is good to see you. You seem to be taking care of my niece properly."
"Despite how much you and Mom try to spoil her."
"Told you I would."
Eveningsky said, "Aunt Quinn, I am happy to see you again."
Quinn bent over. "Eveningsky. You are still so cute."
The man in Navy dress whites came over. "Welcome back, Daria."
She put one arm around him. "Hi, Bill. Commander now?"
"Yes, ma'am. And I'm in line to be the next CAG on the Vinson."
While Tim and Bill greeted each other, Daria turned to a woman with sable-black hair and gleaming blue eyes. "Jane, I've missed you so much."
"Amiga." The two old friends held each other for a long time.
They disengaged and Daria hugged the tall, dark man next with Jane. "Mack. Good to see you, too."
He gently patted his thigh. "I hope I don't get shot like last go -round."
"I think everyone came in peace…this time. Have you enjoyed using the cabin?"
"Thank you. We certainly have."
"Thanks for helping to keep an eye on it while I've been gone."
Tim extended his hand. "Mack. Good to see you."
He shook Tim's hand. "How's married life treating you?"
"I think about as well as it is treating you two." Tim carefully embraced Jane.
Jane gave him a faux serious look. "You better be treating her right."
"Do you think she, or her kids, would let me live if I didn't?"
Jane grinned and hugged him again. "Good point."
Eveningsky hugged Jane's legs. "Lady Jane. A most welcome sight."
"Daria, your kids still have class."
Next, Daria turned to the surprise guests and her smile broadened. "Aunt Amy."
Amy Barksdale-Duvall hugged her niece. "Daria! It's been way too long."
Daria hugged her back. "It has. I'm sorry," she said before stepping aside. "My husband, Tim, and my daughter, Eveningsky. My Aunt Amy, her husband Martin, and their son, Henry."
Tim shook Amy's hand. "I've heard some interesting stories about you."
Amy grinned. "Some of them might even be true." She knelt down. "So here's one of my grandnieces. I must say, you certainly don't take after any of the Barksdales I know."
Eveningsky responded with, "Is that good or bad?"
A tall, impeccably groomed man with graying black hair squeezed Amy's hand. "But that certainly sounds like one."
Daria gave him a brief hug. "Martin. How are you?"
"Amy hasn't thrown me out yet, so I'd have to say, great."
Amy wrapped an arm around his waist. "Eh, I still think you're a keeper."
A teenage boy with short-cropped hair, the same color as Daria and Amy's, said, "If you're gonna get rid of Dad, make sure my college fund is already set up first."
Daria turned and looked up at her only male cousin. "Henry. You're looking well."
He smirked. "As well as possible, considering the parents I've got."
"I know the feeling."
Amy feign-scowled. "You better not be comparing me to your mother."
Helen joined the conversation. "Nobody deserves that."
Still good to see them joking. Too bad it took Rita's death to do it. Daria said, "You two are starting to sound like Quinn and me."
Amy smirked. "I'll take that as a good sign."
Daria looked down for a moment. "How's Erin?"
Helen sighed. "Okay, for now. She's spending most of her time with Mother."
"How is Grammy?"
"Barely hanging in there. I hope you can visit her at least once."
Daria nodded. "I will."
Late in the evening, Daria sat at the kitchen table with Jane and Mack. Tim and Eveningsky had gone off to sleep. Tim had given a wave and said, "Catch up with your friends. You'll know where to find me," as he went into the bedroom.
Jane folded her hands on the table. "Daria…think you could tolerate guests on the trip back?"
Daria smiled. "You want to come with?"
Mack nodded. "To stay."
Daria's eyes opened wider. "I would love that. What about your families?"
"What about them?" Jane closed her eyes. "Daria, you know how I've had to be the responsible one, ever since I was fourteen. I'm tired of it." She opened them. "The most secure I've felt was the years we lived together in Boston, and the months we stayed on Nest." She leaned over and hugged Mack. "He's been a life-saver; I'm still happy you pushed us to finally get married."
"But I can't stay in Lawndale any more. Everyone is literally unchanged from when we were in high school. Trent's still waiting for his big break and spending most of his time asleep. Mom's isolated with her pottery, when she's home. The rest of my family drops in at irregular intervals for us to bail them out. Even though Mack and I live at his place, we end up having to clean up after they leave. I'm completely sick of it."
"I can see that. What about Casa Lane? Who will take care of it?"
"It was paid off years ago. We can set up a fund to keep it from falling apart."
Daria smiled. "Mack, what about your family?"
"We've talked with my parents; they understand. But they want to visit eventually."
"I think that can be set up."
"Besides, I got left behind last time." He squeezed Jane. "You owe me."
Jane winked. "He misses those zero-gee beds."
Daria felt a slight blush. "Remember that those are mostly on ships or in hospitals. They're rather expensive to own and operate privately."
Mack smiled. "Okay, so we just have to go on regular cruises."
Daria reached for both friends' hands. "Your honeymoon suite is open."
Over his morning tea, Thomas Sloane looked curiously at the function display on his desk phone: Source of Call Blocked - Visual Display Inactive - Full Encryption Active.
"There aren't that many people with blocking protocols that effective." Warily, he answered the phone. "Hello, Sloane and Sloane Philanthropic Foundation. Thomas Sloane speaking."
He heard a soft gulp on the other end and then, "Hi, Tom. This is Daria."
Rattled, he said, "Uh…hi. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't know if you would call it pleasure. We may not have identified everyone involved with your father's…activities."
"I see, and you're quietly looking for my help."
"Still direct. Yes."
"You have it."
"Um…thanks. I know I'm asking a lot."
"I've been thinking the same thing the past couple years and have done some investigating on my own. Would you be interested in the results?"
"What my father did was reprehensible, but he was the fourth generation in the firm, along with Dennis Grace and Xavier Page. I was expected to be the fifth generation, along with their sons. Dennis and Xavier turned on him awfully fast. Father signed the checks, but nothing happened at Grace, Sloane and Page without all three partners approving."
"I understand. I'm removing the block on the Caller ID. Use this number to contact me."
Tom looked at the number and quickly memorized it. "Got it. I'll send over what I've got, and keep looking. However, there are a couple physical items I think you should see."
"One is some kind of non-human data storage disc."
"Could be interesting. We should be able to figure out if it is any other species' format."
"While you're at it, you may want to figure out why my great-great-grandfather had it before World War One."
"Your great-great grandfather?"
"Yes, along with a diary written in code that I haven't been able to decipher. Would you perhaps have access to professional cryptographers?"
"I think so. But Tom, any contact between us may be suspicious. Particularly if your father's old partners are involved."
Tom scratched his head. "Um…the foundation regularly buys artwork. Do you trust Jane if I leave them there?"
"I've literally trusted Jane with my life."
"I haven't seen her since she helped you move out. Could you please ask her not to kill me?"
"I'll warn her."
"You're being awfully trusting."
"Partially. I believe what you told me when we talked in the park and that you want to help, but my experience tells me to make sure that Jane is guarded. She will be."
This is something I never dreamed I would be doing. Clad in her business suit, Daria sat across the desk from the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations. The middle-aged Brazilian carefully read the letter she'd handed him moments earlier.
He looked up. "Mrs. Morgendorffer-O'Neal, you're correct. With the increased contact between ourselves and the Folk, your close tie to the royal family is now considered a conflict of interest. It is for that reason only that I accept your resignation as Ambassador."
"I will forward your recommendation of your assistant, Ms. Carolyn Whittier, to the Senatorial Assembly for confirmation as the new Ambassador."
"She deserves it."
"You do realize that you will no longer be directly involved in the treaty negotiations."
"Yes. That's why I chose to step down now. My conflict of interest could be used by those who want to disrupt support for the treaty. By stepping down now, that is averted, and I can continue working with my daughter."
"However, I will request that you open the first session tomorrow, in recognition for all you have done to bring three species together."
"I can do that."
"StoneFastCollector Tolerance, welcome," Daria said to the Seeker representative. The automatic translator for the conference room simultaneously translated to each person via a small earphone. She turned to her daughter. "Princess Eveningsky, welcome." Finally, Daria faced the UN negotiator. "Mr. Jonathan Campbell, welcome."
StoneFastCollector turned his large, solid black eyes toward her. "Thank you." Fine gray scales covered his skin. Long, slender fingers emerged from the flowing sleeve of his almost impossibly complex green garment and rested on the table. "My greetings to you, Princess Eveningsky."
"My greetings to you from Queen Truemind."
"And to you, Mister Jonathan Campbell."
The veteran diplomat with blond hair nodded to both his counterparts. With a faint Scottish accent, he said, "My greetings to both of you. Welcome to Earth. I hope you find your stay enjoyable and the negotiations fruitful."
Daria looked around. "Why don't we get started?"
Mr. Campbell rose and used a laser pointer to direct everyone's attention to a wall display that showed an organizational chart.
"The request of both Seeker and Folk governments for a single entity to deal with has provided the push for much-needed revision of the United Nations charter. As before, each nation is independent to choose and operate their governments. The purpose of the revised UN is to provide a forum for dispute resolution, and to present a single point for interstellar diplomacy."
He moved the pointer around to highlight different sections. "The two bodies of the bicameral legislature are the Representative Assembly and the Senatorial Assembly. Based upon the United States of America model, the Representative Assembly will have six hundred members, with proportional representation based on national population. The initial allocation will be based on national population estimates the UN had on hand before this plan was announced. A world-wide census will be attempted in twenty-twenty to derive a better estimate. The Senatorial Assembly will have one representative per nation. Each nation is free to choose their representatives and senator as they see fit. There are considerable internal changes to address the previous problems of corruption and inefficiency. Please see the provided data files for more information."
He changed the display image. "The UN will have authority over the space fleet, but will not have a standing army on Earth. Selective enlistment preference in the fleet will be given to nations with established space programs. The initial officer core will come from experienced astronauts."
Another slide change. "Planetary colonization will be open to any who request. Each colonized planet will be recognized as an independent nation within the UN. The UN will be authorized to establish self-defense forces on each planet from the colonists."
Final slide. "In exchange, Earth expects to adopt Faster-Than-Light drive technology with assistance from the Folk and the Seekers to independently colonize and patrol these planets in the treaty buffer zone, and any unclaimed star systems above or below the galactic ecliptic beyond the borders."
Daria gave a slim smile. "Thank you."
Eveningsky rose. "We agree, upon successful treaty negotiation, to help the People of the Soil to develop advanced space travel capabilities, including, but not limited to, Faster-Than-Light drives. To the Seekers, we unequivocally release any and all claims to the four star systems lost in the previous military conflict."
StoneFastCollector formed his long fingers together into a complex pattern. "The Seekers also agree to assist the People in the development of advanced spaceflight capabilities. To the Folk, we acknowledge their right and proper claims to the remainder of the disputed star systems."
He looked directly at Daria. "To you, personally, we extend our gratitude for preserving the lives of the Queen and Princesses of the Folk, thus ultimately preventing a second war between our species. Probably millions of lives were saved by your actions."
Daria blushed in response. "Thank you. I had no such plan in mind at the time. I was honestly only concerned with protecting three young lives."
"But from such small acts of good, come greater."
The physician read from a thick folder as he walked with Tim. "A major reason for Mr. Simmon's irrational behavior was withdrawal from a veritable pharmacy of psychoactive drugs. I'm afraid that there was permanent harm done to him."
"But is he doing better?"
"Yes. However, he still cannot clearly discern fact from hallucination during those years."
"Thanks. I'll take it from here."
Tim entered the unadorned room. Inside were a simple table and two chairs. Artie Simmons sat in one of the chairs, clad in khaki-colored scrubs. Tim sat in the other chair.
"Artie. Do you remember me?"
He beamed. "Investigator O'Neal. I'll never forget, you're the man that exposed the traitors of humanity."
Tim smiled. "I know you've been asked some of these things many times. I just want to make sure on a few counts."
"You say that Grays are the aliens that performed the experiments on you."
"Are you sure that they were not Seekers?"
He shook his head. "Seekers are way too tall and they have the funky scaly skin. Grays have smooth skin and are much smaller."
"Thank you. Next. You say that the first time you encountered them, they flew a cone-shaped craft that was about fifteen feet long."
"Later, they collected you again and replaced your skin."
Artie shivered. "Y…yes."
"Easy. For years after that, they picked you up at regular intervals and examined you."
"Yes. They attached a huge vacuum device to suck out my memories."
"Did they inject you with anything during these examinations?"
"They stuck needles all over me."
"The worst was the time the Sex Goddesses lured me into a trap by ordering pizza. They caused me to lose my job, and they did the most unspeakable things to me."
Tim rolled his eyes. "One last question. Will you allow us to do some tests on your skin? To understand what the Grays may have done to you."
"Will you stay with me?"
Tim sighed. "Yes, I'll stay with you."
Early in the afternoon, after stops at four other galleries in the Baltimore suburbs, Tom Sloane stopped his car along Lawndale's Dega Street. He grabbed his briefcase as he exited the car and looked at the sign - Gallery Lane.
He swallowed and quietly said to himself, "Here goes."
Jane looked up at the approaching man and felt her stomach clench. She forced a calm voice. "Hi, Tom. Daria said you would be by."
Tom gave her a nervous smile. "I really am looking for some pieces for a charity auction, so I'll look around." He set the briefcase on the counter and carefully popped the latch open. "The items for Daria are on top." He went to the front of the store and started perusing paintings.
Jane removed the leather-bound book and disc from the briefcase and placed them under the counter. I recognize that from when I was acting Ambassador during Daria's trial - a Seeker data disc.
Jane looked at Tom, who had picked up a painting. He looked much older and worn. "Um…How are you doing?"
He half-turned. "Okay. Elsie and I combined our inheritance to form the Foundation. We accept a stipend from it for living expenses." He fully turned and gave a small smile. "You can't consider me a rich kid anymore."
She raised a half-smile. "You don't look like you're doing too badly to me."
Tom looked down. "We're by no measure poor. We have to maintain certain appearances for our efforts. Our stipends are fairly generous, but they are nowhere near the money we had before." He looked back up. "And we have a real purpose now, besides making more money."
They lapsed into silence while Tom finished looking and brought five paintings over. "I'll take these." He handed Jane a credit card and tax-exempt credentials.
Jane started going through the paintings. "How is Elsie?"
"Still with Alice. She's really helped my sister get through all this."
"Elsie was always kind of sweet. I'm glad she has someone."
When Jane held up one of her paintings to record the transaction, Tom said, "You'll appreciate the irony. I really can't afford one of your pieces for myself, anymore."
Jane looked into his eyes. "Out of curiosity, do you still have that self-portrait?"
He smiled. "The only Jane Lane I'll ever own. Yes, I still have it. It…is a connection to a long-lost past for me."
"I hope that's a good thing."
"It is. I hope Mack is still a good thing for you."
Jane smiled. "He is. If you don't mind my asking, anyone in your present?"
He shook his head. "No. Haven't really looked much."
Jane finished the transaction. "Tom…I know Daria has forgiven you for what happened. It's time for me to do the same."
Embarrassed, he said, "You don't have to."
"Daria's rubbed off on me. I threw in a little discount for your Foundation. On me, no discussion."
She reached over the counter to hold his hand. "I also think she would say it's time for you to forgive yourself. Maybe…let somebody into your life again."
He looked down at the hand that hadn't touched his since they were seventeen. "I'm working on it." He inhaled deeply. "If those items are as important as I think they are, I may be able to."
Jane nodded. "Tom, thanks for dropping them off. I have a feeling they're going to be very important…for all of us."
Tom looked worried. "Dad was into things a lot deeper than we thought. I've found too many files not only deleted, but the empty space on the drives zeroed out. Somebody didn't want things about him discovered."
"Tom, be careful."
Tom put the receipt in the briefcase. "Good-bye, Jane." He carried it and the paintings to his car. After putting them in, he looked back and waved.
Jane waved and watched the car leave. "Good-bye."
That evening, Jane stopped by Daria's house to drop off the items. "Hey."
Tim stepped back from the door to let her in. "Any trouble?"
"Nah, Tom was well behaved. The protesters at the driveway made a little noise, but that was it."
Daria came in from the bedroom. "Hi, Jane. How'd things go?"
"Good. Tom made some nice purchases and dropped off the goods. I couldn't believe it; he looks like he's aged ten years more than us."
"I suppose all this has been hard on him."
"He looks it."
"I appreciate what he's doing with this. I hope he gets better."
"Now that I've seen him…so do I. He also said that Elsie is doing well."
"That's good to hear."
Jane set down her oversized purse and removed the contents. "Okay, we have one diary of Irving Sloane, Tom's great-great-grandfather." She placed the volume on the coffee table. "And we have one Seeker data disc. At least one hundred years old."
Eveningsky reached for it. "[Please?]"
"Sure." Jane handed it over.
After inspection, Eveningsky said, "[This is one of their old discs. Just a moment.]" Eveningsky removed a computer from her belt and allowed the camera to scan the writing on the disc. "[Oh, my.]"
Daria said, "Something wrong?"
"[This is a military disc; the title is in code. One that matches a code the Seekers used during the war…which we were never able to decipher.]"
Tim said, "We are all on supposed good terms…think they would provide us with a translation?"
"[I will make the request. But just to be certain, I will make a copy.]"
Turning the disc over several times, StoneFastCollector said, "I will pass this on to the captain of the cruiser that brought me here, Prairieraptor. She has a hobby of naval history and will probably have a copy of the decoding algorithm. I will send you a translation as soon as possible. Where did this come from?"
Daria said, "We're not certain. It was included in some personal effects that were at least one hundred of our years old. Were your people making landings then?"
"That would be not long after the listening post was established, but they would have used the Intelligence Code, not the Naval Code. I wonder…"
Eveningsky reared her head back. "Is it possible?"
He tilted his head. "Except the survey ship that charted the star system over fifty years earlier, the Firewing was the only ship to make a close approach before the treaty. But it had a reactor failure high in the atmosphere. Nothing like this should have survived intact."
Eveningsky said, "Even during the war, our ships could eject a failing reactor…would not your ships be able to?"
Clear membranes blinked over his eyes. "Yes, they could. We had assumed the Firewing was destroyed because no distress was sent and no wreckage was found. We know of its loss by the report from the Folk cruiser that crippled it. That ship reported an explosion in the planet's northern hemisphere consistent with a reactor explosion."
Daria said, "The Tunguska Event of Nineteen-Oh-Eight. Near the end of your war. I wonder; could the crew have used a lifeboat…like my daughters did?"
"Lifeboats have automatic beacons. None were detected."
Daria shook her head. "All this speculation is fun, but I think a good translation will be more useful."
"Agreed." He looked at the disc more. "I'll make a high priority request for any further information that may be relevant."
The large mob of protesters slowly moved out of the way as the limousine returning from the airport moved into the driveway of Daria's house. She looked through the tinted, armored windows and sighed. "They've gotten worse over the last couple weeks."
Eveningsky looked around. "[They are very numerous.]"
Daria felt a sting to see the signs some of them carried:
Earth first and only
Forget the stars
We don't need them
National sovereignty, not national capitulation
She shook her head. "We have always been a contrary people. On almost any topic, you can find diametrically opposed views. This was not unexpected, but it is still frustrating."
A thrown rock bounced off the window next to Eveningsky. She started and moved away, restrained by her modified seat belt. Federal Marshals supplementing the guards swarmed around the protester.
Daria said to the driver, "Please stop."
He sped up and didn't look back. "Sorry, ma'am. I'm under orders to get both of you out of the area immediately if there is any sign of violence."
She sat back. "You're right. If any kind of mob psychology gets going, showing my face could set off something worse. If only I could talk to them."
Inside the house, Daria glumly looked at her daughter. "I'm sorry, but I can't see an alternative. We need to move to New York. The risk of violence with the crowds outside is increasing. I'm worried about what might happen to the entire area if something serious happens."
"[Concerned for others, as always,]" Eveningsky said in return.
"These people have every right to express their opinions. But my poor neighbors shouldn't have to put up with it on my account. And they certainly should not be put at risk."
"[I will have our Ambassador make preparations for us.]"
"You were supposed to be my guest."
"[I have been, but the situation has changed.]"
Daria nodded and looked around. "I'd hoped to spend more time in this house. Part of me misses it. I lived here for six years. Outside the place in Highland we lived in when I was a child, this is the longest I've lived in one place." After sighing, she said, "I guess I can have the agent prepare to sell it earlier."
Eveningsky held Daria's hand. "[I am sorry, Mother.]"
Daria placed her other hand over Eveningsky's. "I wish Tim were here, instead of staying near the psychiatric hospital."
"[I know I cannot give you the same support he can. But, I am here for you.]"
Tim stood by one of the doctors as Artie gently placed his hand in a shielded box. He looked over at Tim, who nodded reassurance.
After the box emitted a brief hum, the doctor with Artie said, "You can remove your hand now."
He removed his hand and examined it carefully. Confident it was still his, he relaxed.
The doctor next to Tim examined the test results on a compact monitor and whistled. Tim raised one eyebrow and said, "Something interesting?"
"I'm sure of it now. His artificial skin has some kind of radiation absorption capability. The only points lethal radiation can enter his body is through areas not directly covered by this skin: the eyes and inside the principal body orifices. Given a good radiation suit, he could survive for days or weeks under conditions that would give us a lethal dose in under an hour."
Tim whistled. "So, what would somebody want with that?"
"I'd say somebody who needed a way for humans to work in high radiation areas."
"But that severe? I don't even think some of the old underground test sites are that hot."
"Perhaps the intended location isn't on Earth."
Following a gulp of scotch, the seated man said, "At least it was only a rock. Damn fool."
The man with the cigar said, "These private investigators are getting expensive and they can't find all the idiots. But we can't take any chances with the protesters doing something stupid. We already had to arrange an accident for that one extremist with the black market anti-tank launcher."
"We don't need that Morgendorffer woman or her brat made into any more of a hero."
"I think it is about time to implement the first step in our plan to remove their hero status."
"Hmm. After today's rock incident, this will be good timing. I'll have Bruno visit the protestors tomorrow and get a little clumsy."
Tim felt a twinge of frustration at seeing his wife only through a telephone video. "I agree. Your house was nice, but it has become a liability. I'll just have to meet up with you at the Folk Embassy in New York."
"I've missed you."
Tim looked around the institutional blandness of the hospital's visitor quarters. "Hanging around this place, I've really missed you. But, once I get the reports tomorrow, I'll catch a flight to New York and see you tomorrow night."
"I'll like that."
He grinned. "I thought you would."
"And you're going to be heart-broken over it."
He clutched his chest and overacted. "Just shattered."
"The Academy has nothing to worry about."
"Harrumph." Tim straightened his face and became serious. "I wish you could avoid those protestors tomorrow morning. If they're starting to throw things, it could get ugly fast. All it takes is one jerk wanting to use something powerful enough to damage an armored car to cause a lot of casualties."
"Damn. I wish we could just fly over…" Daria looked at Eveningsky across the room. "I have an idea."
"I love it when you get ideas."
"Not that kind."
"I know it'll drive the FAA nuts, but I'm going to have Nest Two brought to the back yard tomorrow morning and we'll fly direct to New York without dealing with Lawndale Municipal."
Tim smiled. "If worse comes to worse, Eveningsky does have diplomatic immunity. Have her give the actual order."
Daria's eyes widened. "I like your thinking. That way we can cut down on the notice time."
"Glad to be of service."
"We need to get things set up; I'll call your cell tomorrow with the details. I love you."
"I love you. Be careful."
"We will. I've had enough people try to kill me in my lifetime. I'm not looking for any more chances."
Bruno Smith surveyed the various protestors that had assembled in front of Mrs. Morgendorffer-O'Neal's house. The group was a cross section of humanity, each person opposed to some aspect of the negotiations: world government, alien influence, feeling of betrayal, demands for isolation, and many more. They were ready to express their outrage at Daria and Eveningsky when they left for their regular, morning commute to the negotiations.
He identified several good candidates. Each was physically small enough for his massive frame to easily nudge in a desired direction and visually would cause great outrage if they were harmed: the elderly couple, the woman with the infant, the man in a wheelchair. All were easy targets.
A faint whistle overhead attracted the crowd's attention. A softly glowing, disc-shaped craft cruised about 100 feet overhead and past the house. It stopped and settled vertically into the back yard. After a couple minutes, it rose again and departed toward the northeast and New York City.
Bruno stepped behind a hedge and opened the sliding cover of a cell phone on his wrist. With practiced ease, he tapped out a text message and hit send. His employers were not going to be happy. He made a rude gesture at the driver of a car trying to get down the street as he crossed it to his old, nondescript gasoline powered clunker. Not happy at all.
Daria looked back through the clear dome of the flyer at her old house. Good-bye. She returned her attention to the videophone in her hand. "Okay, that will work. Both of us packed enough for a couple nights. You have plenty of time to transport the rest of our belongings to the Embassy."
On the small monitor were a Secret Service agent and a Nestheart Guard. The agent said, "Everything is under control. Once your personal effects have been moved, the house will be secured and protected."
The Guard said, "The Princess's possessions have been assembled and packaged for shipment. We will provide direct visual supervision of all material through the entire process."
"All of you, please be careful."
The agent nodded. "We will, ma'am. That's our job."
"The Guard will always remember your loyalty. We will respect your wishes."
Daria, Tim, Eveningsky, Mr. Campbell, and StoneFastCollector sat before the display monitors of the UN negotiation facility.
Daria stood. "I've invited my husband in for this update to all the negotiation parties. Disturbing information, with direct bearing on these talks, has been recently uncovered."
Mr. Campbell said, "It seems that almost everyone has been busy with some extracurricular activities. Please proceed."
Tim activated one display and said, "First, what my agency contacts were able to decode from Irving Sloane's diary."
Along with my collaborators, Ellison Grace and Oscar Page, we set off from San Francisco today aboard the steamer Freewind for our arctic expedition. The hold contains all the scientific equipment we could gather together, as well as supplies for the preservation of specimens. We have high hopes for our studies along the coast of Alaska north of Nome.
The arctic wind causes me to shiver almost all the time. Day and time seem irrelevant up here, above the Arctic Circle. The biting cold matches my mood. To date we have found nothing exciting. We hope greater opportunities will present themselves as we travel along the edge of the pack ice.
For the last several days, we have seen unusual aurora displays and spotted unusual flashes of light in the sky. Earlier today, an extremely bright, distant flash illuminated the northwestern horizon, followed a few moments later by an orange streak in the sky, accompanied by a loud sound like a single cannon shot. The fiery streak hit the pack ice about a mile away. A distant report could be heard a little later from the direction of the first flash. We ordered the captain to make a safe approach to where the streak hit the ice and to prepare a launch.
The three of us, with several crew members, carefully approached a ruptured metallic cylinder embedded into the ice. Almost like one of the cylinders described in Mr. Wells's book. However, this hardly looked intentional. The presumed bow was crushed. One hundred yards away, the "stern" had torn away and was turned sideways by the impact. Fragments littered the ice all around.
In the smashed bow, nothing could be recognized, apart from some body parts covered with fine, gray scales. Bright red blood flowed from these.
The freed stern was more promising. Though badly damaged, it held a wonderland of strange machinery. The craft had apparently broken apart at the hold and a small, second ship had come free. Oddly, this one looks undamaged from the crash. It is a fifteen-foot long white cone that blended in almost perfectly with the snow it rested on.
We had not had long to examine the area before there was a deep rumble. The bow tilted upward and began to sink through melted and cracked ice. Sailors poking around it bolted away as it rocked higher and disappeared from view.
We quickly checked around the stern section. It too had melted much of the ice and faint sounds of cracking were heard. Taking a risk, all of us began grabbing loose objects and throwing them clear of the wreck. We also found several more gray-scaled beings dead in the wreckage. However, Ellison came upon a survivor. Battered and injured; the creature looked up at him with shiny, black eyes and in supplication, raised arms that each ended in four extremely long fingers.
Squeamish, he grabbed the fingers and pulled the strange being from the wreck. Minutes later, it also crashed through the ice and sunk into the sea depths.
We wrapped the poor soul in blankets and had him taken to the ship, to see if the expedition's doctor could help. Not trusting the condition of the ice, we ordered the salvage collected and the dog teams brought over to pull the cone-like craft to the Freewind.
The wreckage yielded many tantalizing objects, none we could identify. However, we could identify the uncut sapphires in one box. This find alone will set us up for life. Who knows what wonders we can learn from this opportune salvage, or this strange survivor? We've ordered the ship back to San Francisco.
The being died of his injuries and was given a burial at sea. We were able to begin to understand the very rudiments of his language before his death, but little else. We are certain that this being was from another planet, and that was a space vessel that fell onto the ice. We are uncertain as to whether Venus or Mars is the more likely candidate for its home. The two planets appear to be at war with each other.
The Freewind arrived in San Francisco last night. We had everything packed into shipping crates and transferred to railcars for transport to Oscar's father's old silver mine in Nevada. He will oversee storage of everything there while Ellison and I go to Lawndale before finding a method to sell the sapphires most profitably, so to equip a laboratory for study of the salvage.
The money will also be needed to pay off the crew of Freewind to keep quiet. If they don't, Oscar knows a few old hands around the mine that don't mind a little dirty work.
Tim stopped the playback. "That should give you an idea. The firm of Grace, Sloane and Page was set up to investigate the salvaged extraterrestrial technology. The Seekers use sapphire for several different, important applications in their equipment. What they would have treated like a box of bolts was worth a considerable fortune. The partners used the proceeds from those gemstones to establish a number of other business interests as a cover and to generate long-term funds. From secondary sources, we have learned that the true mission of the company was quietly passed down father to son, like a dynasty."
Daria wrapped her arms around herself and sat back in her chair. That must be why Angier was so intent on a male heir.
StoneFastCollector stood next and said, "The disc provided was indeed the log of the cruiser Firewing, lost near the end of the war between us and the Folk. Internal data encryptions confirm this. When examined in light of what Mr. O'Neal has presented, the implications are frightening." He pointed to another display, showing the decrypted log in Seeker, Folk, and English.
Ship Log: Cruiser Firewing.
Captain TallCliffProtector Watcher recording: Entry 356
Fortune has graced us. While conducting a survey for enemy deep-space intelligence-gathering installations, we recovered a nearly intact small spacecraft of Other manufacture from the third planet's satellite. It was loaded into the hold for transport to Homeworld.
Ship Log: Cruiser Firewing.
Captain TallCliffProtector Watcher recording: Entry 357
A Folk cruiser attacked while we ascended from the satellite surface. Secondary power systems and the interstellar transmitter have been lost. FTL drive is malfunctioning. We are returning fire as we maneuver to the planet. I hope to induce a polar atmosphere corona to obscure our escape.
Ship Log: Cruiser Firewing.
Captain TallCliffProtector Watcher recording: Entry 358
The atmospheric corona caused the enemy cruiser to lose weapon lock on us. We are using orbital maneuvers to keep the planet between us while we attempt repairs. We are also prepared to induce more corona effects if needed.
Ship Log: Cruiser Firewing.
Captain TallCliffProtector Watcher recording: Entry 359
The Folk cruiser is in retreat after sustaining severe damage. We, in turn, have been critically damaged. The Other ship in the hold was undamaged in the combat. However, our primary reactor containment is failing and we are in a decaying polar orbit with insufficient thrust available to make more than small adjustments. The planet below is inhabited by an early industrial society. We are scanning for uninhabited areas to eject the reactor over. We hope to make an emergency landing after.
Ship Log: Cruiser Firewing.
Captain TallCliffProtector Watcher recording: Entry 360
Reactor successfully ejected. It detonated over a large, sparsely inhabited section of the planet's northern hemisphere. We are now descending, with almost no control, toward the planet's polar ice cap. Landing on a pre-spaceflight planet is a violation of general orders, but I believe attempting to preserve the Other ship is worth the risk. I accept full responsibility for this act. I wish to record my commendation to the crew for remarkable service. All have requested to remain with the ship. I have granted it.
He added. "I also have some additional, relevant information. My government informs me that the supply ship that crashed in the People's Common Era year Nineteen-Forty-Eight had attempted to investigate sensor readings that may be the Firewing's wreckage under the polar ice cap, north of Alaska. This is the incident that resulted in the recovery of a ship and bodies by Investigator O'Neal's agency."
After leaning toward the Seeker, Mr. Campbell asked, "May I recommend we begin a joint recovery operation? It would make a good sign of cooperation between our species."
"I will agree. Hopefully, the remains of the crew may be returned home. Regrettably, at least one we know will not be among them."
"We will need to work directly with the United States government, since it is in their territorial waters. But details can wait until later."
Daria stood. "Thank you. Therefore, we know that Grace, Sloane, and Page have possessed an Other ship and fragments of a Seeker cruiser for almost one-hundred and nine years. We know that they had possession of a Folk lifeboat for seven years."
Daria entered a command to her terminal to show an image of the weapon Artie had used. "This is almost certainly based on Other technology, but was manufactured on Earth. They have clearly made significant progress in reverse-engineering."
Eveningsky activated another monitor, showing test results from Artie's skin. "Based on surveys we have made of nearby colony worlds of the Others, it would appear that his artificial skin was developed to assist People in surviving on some of the radiologically contaminated Other colony worlds. We believe they intend to eventually investigate these worlds that so far nobody else has been able to examine. Do they expect to use our technology to travel there? Or have they have managed to engineer an FTL drive from the sources they have already acquired?"
Tim said, "Either way, we need to find that Other ship. I think when we find it; we will find most of what we need to know."
Daria and Tim worked together in the kitchen of their new apartment near the Folk Embassy. Daria saw him reaching for a bottle of cayenne pepper and lightly slapped his hand. "You're as bad as my father."
"I only wanted a little extra kick to the chili."
She shook her head. "Trust me; this stuff will kick you as well as my boots."
He looked down at them. "Promise?"
He put a finger under his chin and moved it up. "…In a place you will not like, if you add any more pepper to it."
He turned sideways and moved over. "Okay…some cooks get so touchy."
"I don't want my tongue turning black."
"You've said that before. Did it really happen?"
"Well…that's what Dad yelled from the bathroom."
A clear chime brought her attention to a small phone on her belt. Daria opened it and could see Eveningsky in the display. "[Mother, I just received a high security message from Crystalheart. I'm having it decoded now. Could you and Tim please come over?]"
"We'll be there soon." She turned the stove control to low and stirred the chili before replacing the lid. "Could you get our stuff, please? While I set things to simmer."
He kissed her cheek. "On my way."
She finished up and met him in the living room. He handed her a belt and her wallet. "I put in fresh batteries," he said.
Daria put the small wallet in her pocket and attached the belt to her slacks. "Ready?"
Tim touched a button on the buckle of his belt and saw a faint shimmer over his vision. Right after, he saw the same shimmer over his wife as she activated her shield. He smiled. "Looks like we both are."
Eveningsky sat on a worn, comfortable cushion behind her low desk. Tim noticed that she sat with the tip of her conical head resting on fingertips of hands held prayer-like. Like her mother.
Daria sat on a cushion and Tim followed. Eveningsky touched a control and a monitor rose from the table surface. "[Her name is Snowvine. Tim, your agency might recognize her.]"
"She must be the operative at the old listening post we tried to contact."
"[Correct. Crystalheart discovered her when she applied for employment with the palace communication service.]"
Tim looked carefully. "You didn't ask us over just to tell us that."
"[She fled from your people not only to protect the treaty…but because she had been shown a recording of your agents meeting with a Seeker.]"
Daria closed her eyes. "Let me guess: shown to her by somebody with Grace, Sloane and Page."
"[Correct. Six months prior to the agency's attempted contact, she became the first Folk contacted by your species, by operatives from Grace, Sloane and Page. Snowvine was led to believe that there was a clandestine alliance between your planet and the Seekers. This information was transmitted to Nest and Queen Truelimb.]"
"Meaning that Grace, Sloane and Page were the other influence on the Queen Mother that you discovered in your previous investigation," Tim said as he rubbed his forehead. "Damn. They gave Sloane up too easily and I overlooked it."
Daria touched his hand. "All of us did."
Tim dropped his head. "Chambers was an old college friend of Sloane. I bet he was a Bromwell legacy, too." He raised his head. "I wonder how long they have had moles in the agency. Grace, Sloane and Page could have known about our contact with the Seekers from the beginning. From Irving's diary, they knew about the war. If they had moles in the agency, they would also know that each species maintained a listening post. We knew about the Folk listening post in the Fifties. Therefore, they could have known about them for up to that long."
"[Snowvine was ordered to provide them with a complete interstellar communication system.]"
Daria held up a finger with each point. "They were playing the Seekers, the resistance, the Queen Mother, and the Agency against each other."
"[From what we can now tell, the plan to…kill the three of us came from Grace, Sloane and Page.]"
"Oh, my God." Daria looked at the others in shock. "They must still want a war between you and the Seekers."
Eveningsky asked, "[Why?]"
"To weaken the Folk and Seekers while they explore the Other's worlds. Using people provided with the artificial skin."
Tim nodded. "Use that to get a technology edge to carve an empire around Earth, at both species' expense."
"Tim, I think your description of dynasty was closer than you thought."
Eveningsky touched a control to raise a communicator. "[They must intend to seize power on your planet. I'm contacting StoneFastCollector. If they want a war, our ships will be the best opportunity to stage an incident against one and blame the other.]"
Tim squeezed his eyes in frustration. "We can't use the agency any more. Who knows how much they've already been informed about what we've done?"
Eveningsky said, "[You can rest assured of our help. The Seekers do not like to be manipulated. I'm sure they will be more than willing to help.]"
Daria chewed on a thumbnail. "My family and Jane are already being watched. However, I need you to contact the Nestheart Guards at my Lawndale home. We need a favor done, now."
Glowering at the door after hearing the bell, Tom put his glass of bourbon down and went over, yelling, "Who is it!"
A faint monotone, artificial-sounding voice replied, "I have a delivery for Mr. Sloane from the Lady Daria."
Tom frowned and saw nothing looked through the spyglass. He yelled, "Please stand in front of the door so I can see you before I open it."
"I am in front of the door. Your observation aperture is far above my head. I will step back to hopefully be seen."
Tom looked again and saw a Folk standing about ten feet back from his door. Confused, Tom opened it. "Did you say a delivery?"
The Guard walked back to the door and presented a box. "The Lady Daria dispatched a printed message to explain. I will remain to show you the details of operation."
Tom accepted the box and opened it. He immediately read the note inside.
Your life could be in danger. There is a good chance your father's former partners know you provided Irving Sloane's diary to us. We have deciphered it, and it was very incriminating. We have also discovered how widespread their influence has been. It is worse than we thought.
The Nestheart Guard who delivered this will explain how to activate and operate the shield generator in the belt. This is a newer model shield that will provide partial protection to a shield-piercing weapon. The Guard will set up a secure perimeter around you, but we want you to have the shield as an added precaution. She will also provide transportation to a safe location if you wish.
I believe Mr. Grace and Mr. Page are capable of killing you or your family without a second thought. Clandestine guards have been sent to protect Elsie and your Mother. Until the coast is clear, please try to limit your travel as much as possible.
The Guard removed the belt. It looked like black leather with a solid plate buckle. "This model we designed for your species' use. It is longer and stylistically matches your clothing." She pointed to a button concealed in a simple design on the front. "Power on or off."
She rotated the buckle to show the back and removed a small disc. "Please place your finger against the surface." After Tom did so, the Guard replaced the disc. "Will warn of individuals within ninety meters that carry Folk or Seeker technology and are not recognized by the identifier disc."
She removed a flat square concealed within the inside lining of the belt. "Power supply for twenty hours of operation." She pointed to more pouches. "Four replacements."
Next, she opened a small panel on the back of the box and withdrew a power cord. "Adapted to local electrical supply." She pointed to holders inside for batteries. "Will recharge in twenty-five hours."
Finally, she pointed to a small device clipped to the belt. "Short range communication with translation."
Tom looked at the belt for minute. "Please extend my thanks to Daria." He removed his old belt and put the new one on. "I'm glad they were able to use that diary."
Dennis Grace angrily clipped the end of a cigar and lit it. "A diary? How much did they learn?"
Xavier Page took a drink. "The true start of the firm. All of it."
"They will begin to investigate. There go our plans…again. Time to fall back and regroup." He shook his head. "I wish young Thomas had never met that miserable girl." Dennis picked up a phone and hit a button. After a couple moments, he said, "Jason, please prepare the company plane for immediate use. File a flight plan for Vegas. Have our suites at the casino ready. We expect to leave within an hour."
Xavier opened a second phone and dialed. "Bruno. I have a job for you."
From his desk phone at the apartment, Tim looked at a dark-skinned FBI agent and the bustle of others behind him on the display as they searched the offices of Grace, Sloane and Page. He told the agent, "Trust me, I'm not happy that I was right. Any clues to where they went?"
The agent looked at a piece of paper. "They filed a flight plan with the FAA last night for Las Vegas, Nevada. They would have arrived some time early this morning."
"You can bet that they're not in town." Tim thought for a minute. "One of the founders of Grace, Sloane and Page owned a silver mine in Nevada. I'm sure the deed was transferred to some sham company or other. We need to find it."
The agent looked pained. "A lot of those nineteenth century records have not been digitized."
"Yeah, you have to look with Mark One eyeball. But that old mine is our best option."
Bruno pulled a toolbox from the plumber's van he'd just parked along the street and grinned. "He wanted this done messy. I like these jobs; they're so much more satisfying."
He walked toward the driveway of the house and ducked behind a hedge. Bruno set the toolbox down and removed a rod-like weapon, similar to, but larger than, the one Artie had used. He worked controls and licked his lips, whispering, "Maximum power should make a nice bang."
A purple haze flashed over his vision as the shield he was issued absorbed a hit. "Son-of-a-bitch!" He one-arm held the weapon and pointed it toward the house, touching the trigger. The front of the house detonated in a bright, white glare. He turned and jogged back to the van. Several more purple flashes surrounded him as he neared it. A Folk in uniform crouched behind a fire hydrant with a rifle leveled at him.
Bruno grinned and slowed to a walk. "I'm shielded too, you little bug. Go away or I'll blast you through that house with this. Don't get any ideas about shooting the van. I'll just start taking out every house on the street."
The Guard lowered her aim and said through a translator. "Stop your movement and place your weapon on the ground."
Bruno gave a hearty laugh. "How did you bugs get to the stars being this stupid?"
"You were requested." The Guard touched the trigger and a harsh whine filled the air. The shield around Bruno's left shin rippled like a water surface and he fell to the ground, screaming in pain.
The Guard approached with her rifle pointed at Bruno. "I used a low power setting. Full power would have severed your leg instead of breaking it."
Bruno looked back toward the house. Almost the entire front of the house was in ruins. Mission accomplished.
Gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, he looked at the approaching Guard. "Adios, sucker." Bruno rolled to the side and started to raise his weapon.
With calm precision, the Guard fired again. Both bones in Bruno's lower right arm shattered from the hit, forcing him to drop the weapon.
The Guard kicked the weapon away and looked at the writhing goon. "Deactivate the shield and surrender so we can provide medical attention."
Bruno narrowed his eyes in rage and used his left hand to pull a hand version of the Other weapon from his belt.
The Guard fired again. Bruno bellowed in agony and frustration when his left hand snapped thumbward almost 180 degrees at the wrist, to smack against his forearm. The result was multiple broken bones, torn connective tissue throughout his wrist, and the last weapon knocked far out of reach.
The Guard stood over Bruno. "I am under orders to capture any who attempt to harm Mister Thomas. To avoid further injury, I advise you to stop resisting."
Bruno tried to push himself up, but collapsed flat on his back from the pain. "I can't reach it. You do it."
The Guard said, "A wise choice." More Guards approached with weapons pointed at him. The guard tapped the power button with her foot and stepped back.
When he stayed still, she reached down and removed Bruno's belt. "Shields are a wonderful defense for civilians, but make a warrior careless and inattentive."
She touched a control on the transmitter attached to her belt. "Mister Thomas. The threat has been subdued. My apologies for the damage to your residence. We did not anticipate the assailant having a shield."
Tom Sloane looked around the corner of his ruined home. He said, "I'm not going to complain. I'm still alive."
Daria looked at Helen's deeply worried face on the phone. She looks so much like Grandma Barksdale these days. "I hoping you don't have to use them. But after the attempt on Tom, I don't want to risk it."
"Okay, Sweetie." Helen shook her head and gave a slight smile. "I sometimes worry about this lifestyle you're leading."
Daria gave a light chuckle. "How do you think I feel?"
"Are you sending these belts to Quinn?"
"Yes. Even if Bill had them move on-base at Pensacola NAS, I want her and DJ to have the extra protection. He's at sea, so he should be okay."
"Will she have any of these guards?"
Daria shook her head. "Politically, there is no way we can get a Folk guard posted at a house on a U.S. Navy base. But, we have permission for one to deliver the belts and show her how to use them."
Tim accepted the video call on his cell phone. "O'Neal."
The same FBI he had talked to earlier said, "Mr. O'Neal, we have secured the mine."
He glared at the tiny image in surprise and yelled, "What!"
"It looks to have been abandoned. Whoever was here, they bugged out several hours ago. But, they left this behind." He turned his camera to show a long, hangar-like space.
A group of FBI agents in body armor stared in awe at the gleaming white ship before them. It was rather bullet-shaped, about fifteen feet long, and rested on skid-equipped tricycle landing gear. An access panel rested on the ground and a work stand stood near the open section of hull.
Tim said, "Keep it secure; we need to bring in people who have a better chance to understand this equipment."
"I've told everyone hands off. I'll have the crime scene unit wait for your people, so you can go through things together."
"Good thinking. See you soon."
The agent looked nervous. "Um…how soon?"
"We still need to finish dinner. Give us two hours."
Daria, Tim and Eveningsky met Nest Two at the UN building helipad. Azurelake and Capt. Eaton were waiting for them. The voice of an air traffic controller came from the radio receiver. "There will be hell to pay if you go supersonic over these densely populated areas. You must file an amended flight plan."
Azurelake said through a built-in translator, "We will use the anti-gravity drive to travel vertically to the upper atmosphere. We can then travel at the velocity desired to reach the destination and descend vertically. There will not be a problem of air compression shock waves reaching the surface."
"You can do that?"
"Very well. Plan approved."
Capt. Eaton noticed the three enter. "Welcome aboard."
Daria said, "Thank you, captain."
"Please be seated for immediate takeoff," Azurelake said.
Eaton flipped a switch. "Nest Two requesting immediate takeoff permission."
A voice came over the radio. "Nest Two. Granted."
The disc quickly rose from the building. Eaton grinned and looked back at the passengers. "I hope you can get that treaty signed soon." He waved a hand around the craft. "I have got to get me one of these."
After a suborbital flight, Nest Two landed outside an old silver mine in the Nevada mountains. Minutes after landing, Tim led Daria and Eveningsky out of it. Tim ran his hand along the hull. "We just made an atmospheric reentry and the hull is only about as hot as a car hood in summer. The old shuttles and the new spaceplanes take up to an hour to cool off after reentry. Those are some shields."
Eveningsky looked up and replied, "They have to be."
Daria gently smiled.
The FBI agent in charge approached. "I'm agent Lawton. Welcome to Nevada. This way, please."
Old wooden buildings had fallen from decay around the area. An old rail line extended into the distance. Lawton pointed to it. "The track is in excellent shape, but with the rail tops painted to look like rust. Somebody has gone to a lot of effort to keep this location hidden, even from overhead observation."
Daria asked, "Nobody noticed this in spy satellite images?"
Lawton frowned. "This area was very rarely imaged by the U.S. And for the times it was, the image can't be located. We are checking with other entities that may have some."
They followed the tracks into a wide opening in the mountain. Lawton pointed to the support beams. "Don't worry; those are steel supports with aged-wood facades. Very secure."
After a couple hundred feet, the tunnel opened into a massive, open space. Along one side was the white, cone-like craft. The main cone was about 12 feet across the base and 15 feet long, with a stern dome bulging back about two feet. Except the obvious openings, the surface was smooth, with only a few faint panel lines visible. The room looked to have had the capacity to hold over twenty similar ships.
Eveningsky approached and touched one of the main landing gear struts. "Nobody has ever found one of these anywhere near intact. We've only had educated guesses on the final layout. Has anybody looked inside yet?"
Lawton removed a small device from his pocket and pressed a large button. A hatch appeared on the stern and a ladder extruded down to the ground. "We figured out how to open it, but…nobody's had the guts to go in yet."
Lawton held up hand. "Could you put on some gloves, please? The crime scene techs want to check for prints."
Partway up the ladder, Eveningsky looked at him. "My exoskeleton is smooth; we do not have a physical characteristic like your finger prints. There are no external oils or other secretions on my hands; I will not obscure evidence in that way. I will only look and not disturb."
"No prints? That must suck for your police."
"We have other identification methods."
She looked inside the hatch. The ship clearly had two levels; the cockpit occupied the upper. Two side-by-side seats were clearly made for humans. Controls in front of them were labeled in English and included many contemporary human instruments. Behind the seats was about a three-foot wide space with simple sanitary facilities and a small cooking area. Most of the forward part of the upper deck was equipment, as probably was most of the lower deck.
Tim poked his head in. "Looks a lot like the inside of an old Apollo capsule, but with more room."
Eveningsky looked at him. "This ship is an operational duplicate. Based on the Others' ship, but built here."
Tim stepped down the ladder and looked at the open access panel on the ship. Several parts were hanging free on cables and fasteners rested in a metal can. He looked down the long room at numerous work stands, tool boxes and other maintenance supplies. He pointed a latex-gloved hand at the room. "And this isn't the only one. It must have a mechanical problem that couldn't be repaired before the rest of the squadron left."
Lawton stepped back, stunned. "Squadron? Shouldn't we contact the Air Force?"
Daria looked at the craft, and then at the hanger. "Did you ever see the old movie, Independence Day?"
"Yes." Lawton looked at the craft. "Crap."
"You can bet these people won't have convenient computer vulnerability for us to use to shut down their shields."
The seaman read the paperwork and frowned. "Yeah, this looks all well and good, but I'm going to call it in. Sorry for the delay, but I've never seen this level of DOD guest credentials before. The CPO will know what to do."
He stepped back into the guard kiosk and kept an eye on the rental car. Inside the car an Army major was driving and in a modified passenger seat was a Folk, in some kind of uniform.
The major said, "Please, call your superior."
The Nestheart Guard looked at the major and said through his translator, "I hope this does not delay us too long. However, the caution is understandable."
Daria was in one of the mine offices, helping Tim sort through files. She said, "They certainly did a nice job of wiping all their drives. At least they didn't get through the paper trail."
"I've come to expect nothing less. They are skilled."
Daria pulled a file filled with overhead photos of the complex, though rather old. "Tim, we need somebody who can read Russian."
Tim looked at the photos. The captions and accompanying letters were in Cyrillic letters. Dates on the letters were from the sixties.
"It just keeps getting weirder. These must be old Soviet spy satellite imagery."
A crime scene technician pushing a cart said from the hall, "Weird isn't the word for it; look at these puppies."
Three four-foot tall manikins were on the cart. Each looked like a classic 'gray' of UFO legend. The tech continued. "Some first-rate remote control puppetry."
Daria asked, "Where did you find them?"
"A room next to one of the labs. Kind of creepy, like some medical lab or something. We're going to have to bring in some outside help. Some of the freaky stuff in there is way out of our league."
"Stylistically matching our clothing, my foot." Quinn held the belt by the buckle and gave it a queasy look. "I'll have to take Daria's advice and wear it under my clothes. Talk about limiting my options."
DJ bounced into the room wearing a smaller belt on her pink pants. "I like it."
The buzzing from the belts startled both of them. DJ looked around. "Mommy, what's that?"
Quinn immediately put the belt on and pushed the power button. "DJ, turn the belt on like the nice Folk showed you."
She grinned. "Okay." Her vision shimmered briefly as the shield came on. "Wow."
"DJ, now stay still."
The little girl looked up at the change in her mother's voice. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know."
Quinn moved to the door and looked out the spy hole. A plumber's van was parked in the driveway.
Seconds later, two men in solid, dark brown uniforms emerged from the back. One stood next to the van while the second ran toward the front door. Quinn backed away and pressed the emergency button on the belt's communicator.
She and DJ jumped at the sudden crack and white flash that splintered the door. Right after, a man charged in and pointed a rod at them. "Outside, now!" he yelled.
Quinn moved DJ behind her and backed away from the man.
"Stop or I'll shoot!"
She stepped away more. A flash scared her and she felt a push against her chest.
A loud string of vulgarities escaped the man before he yelled, "The bitches have shields! We have to grab them!"
Quinn scooped her arms under DJ's. The shield against shield felt hard and slick, as if there were almost no friction between them. She started to run for the back door.
"Oh, no you don't." The attacker shot the ceiling and brought a pile of plaster, wood and insulation down on top of Quinn and DJ.
Quinn tripped and DJ went sprawling away. The first man dove for DJ as the second ran inside. After a moment to orient himself, he charged at Quinn, grabbing her as she rose to go after the first.
All four struggled for several minutes. Quinn was yelling for DJ to run and the men were threatening them to be quiet. Finally, the men's larger bulk made a difference and both were pinned.
Outside, a pair of humvees drove up. Four military police ran out and took up positions around the house.
The chief petty officer in charge worked the Folk device he had been given by last night's visitor. "This thing says four shields are running. The perps must have them, too."
Two men emerged from the house. The lead one carried a blond child, the second dragged a struggling, red-haired woman.
The CPO reached into his car and removed a bulky launcher with extra rounds. "Time to think outside the box." Holding it up to be seen, he said to the police at the next humvee, "Peters, grab yours."
He sprinted toward the house and Peters followed. The attacker with the child had almost reached the van but the other was on the ground, struggling with the woman.
He quickly judged himself in range and aimed the weapon. An olive-colored projectile flew from the tube and popped open into a large net that forcefully wrapped around the man with the child.
In the confusion, the child pulled free and struggled with the net. The CPO jumped on the attacker, who was fumbling for his weapon. The CPO used his weight to pin the attacker to the ground.
The pinned man yelled, "Go!"
The attacker fighting Quinn looked up in time to see a large net hit his face and wrap around.
"DJ!" Quinn screamed and struggled to get clear of the netting.
The other police swarmed up and pulled Quinn from the net while wrapping it tightly around the attacker. The CPO had already worked handcuffs through the net and cuffed his prisoner.
The smaller and nimble DJ had cleared the net and ran to Quinn, wrapping her arms around her mother's legs.
The CPO rose and went to Quinn, giving her a salute. "Sorry for the disturbance ma'am. We'll take these in for questioning."
Shaking, Quinn looked at him. "Chief, they tried to kill us. He blew a hole in the roof."
"I'll have the victim's care unit here shortly and we'll find you new quarters right away."
Quinn nodded and turned off her belt. "It's okay now, DJ."
The girl turned hers off and hugged Quinn again. "You feel better this way."
Quinn moved them to the doorstep and sat down, pulling DJ onto her lap and cradling her. Slowly, the shock and fear wore off as they watched the police work.
The plumber's van driving down Glen Oaks Drive in Lawndale was stopped by a uniformed Folk holding a rifle. In an amplified voice, she said, "We have weapons to penetrate your shields. Stop and exit the vehicle with your hands held away from you."
Nestheart Guards appeared to each side and behind the van, each holding a rifle.
The two men inside looked at each other and at the small warrior in front of them. The driver grimly frowned and pressed on the accelerator. Just as the van began to move again, a massive shock struck the front of the van and slammed them forward. Fragments of engine burst through into the cab and bounced around, bruising and cutting both men.
They looked at each other again in fear before stepping out with their hands raised.
Daria closed her cell phone with a look of smoldering anger. "They tried to attack Quinn and my parents at the same time."
Tim turned quickly away from the laptop computer he was working at. "Damn! Are they okay?"
Daria nodded. "The police stopped the attackers at Quinn's. Used crowd-control nets to stop them. However, they had gotten in and wrecked Quinn and Bill's house. They're doing a follow-up on how they got onto the base. At my parents, they were a little slower, so the Nestheart had warning and were able to stop them before they reached the house."
"That's good." He pointed to a news page displayed on his browser. "But this isn't. The protests have ratcheted up a lot in the last few hours. There have been several violent outbreaks."
Daria sat down and dropped her head. "Are we doing the right thing? Maybe we aren't ready, as a people, for interstellar contact."
Tim rested a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure we weren't ready. But life didn't give us a choice."
"We've certainly made a mess, haven't we?"
"You know better than that."
She sighed and looked up. "Can't you allow me a little doubt?"
"Sure, as long as you don't try to hold yourself the only one responsible."
She gently smiled. "Take away all my fun."
"Jackpot!" one of the crime scene technicians yelled from an office cubicle in the mine complex.
Lawton and Tim ran to the space to find him dancing a jig in front of a notebook computer. Tim asked, "What did you find?"
The man grinned and pointed to the active screen of the computer. "Somebody was careless and forgot to blank their notebook." He held up a travel case and pulled the insert from the luggage tag. "And they wrote down their passwords where they thought nobody would look."
Lawton good-naturedly slapped the man's back. "Great work."
The tech sat down in the chair. "It'll take me a couple of hours to snoop around and find the goodies. First thing is to copy everything to a flash hard drive and send that out to some of our other experts. I'll give you a holler when I find something."
"Dennis, some of our overseas associates are becoming worried."
Mr. Grace growled from the plain chair in the unadorned bunker both currently occupied, "But they seem to have cooperated in staging attacks to get things heating up."
"They are worried that the attempts on the Morgendorffers and the Tollivers were motivated more by personal reasons than by operational requirements."
Grace scowled more. "We can do both. It still sent a message to Mrs. Morgendorffer-O'Neal."
Xavier Page sat at a nearby chair. "Yes, that they can counter our actions."
Grace smiled. "This could help us. I wouldn't mind them getting a bit complacent."
Xavier said, "I think the problem is that we've been complacent. We've underestimated their preparation and determination each time. Now they have the mine and know about the squadron, since we had to leave number eight behind. Our plan to destroy the Folk cruiser and blame the Seekers is gone. Plus, they must be looking for this place by now. We need time to regroup. It is still months before we can test that experimental cryostasis system. Without that, we can't reach the target planet near Barnard's Star."
"We know they're at the mine. With a little luck, our surprise may just get rid of their irksome presence."
Lawton followed Daria, Eveningsky and Tim out to Nest Two. "So far, we have evidence that they had contacts with a wide range of groups that opposed everything from contact with other species to dismantling the UN."
"So we know that they have friends out there."
"From what the chief engineer on the Nebulachaser said, that craft is a short range vehicle, probably something like a reconnaissance fighter. It could make it to your moon and back. It has a reasonable stealth capability, so you may not be able to detect them without assistance."
Daria looked at Tim. "The Moon?"
He looked back. "Let's hope not."
Eveningsky touched Daria's hand. "We would have detected any activity on your moon prior to the dismantling of the listening post. We followed the progress and observed each of your landings."
Tim smirked. "And you know secret bases don't get built in a couple years."
Daria shook her head as she climbed aboard. "It would have taken them this long to get all the contracts signed."
The co-pilot chimed in. "Welcome to Folk Spaceways Flight Double-Oh-Two. Please make sure your seats are in the upright, locked position and tray tables are properly stowed. Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for immediate departure."
"You are enjoying this assignment way too much, Captain Eaton." Tim laughed and sat down.
Only a couple minutes into the vertical ascent, Azurelake said, "There is a vehicle approaching from near our takeoff location at a rapid speed. I do not think it is of People manufacture."
Eveningsky moved over and looked. "It is one of the Other design ships."
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Daria and Tim said together.
"Princess, do I have permission to prepare weapons?"
Azurelake touched several controls. "Please activate your personal shields and use the safety belts in case we have any fluctuation with the inertia dampers."
Eaton said, "I'd rather have a real seat about now, but when in Rome." He activated his shield, just as everyone else did.
After a sudden look at a panel, Azurelake said, "That was a hard hit. We cannot take many of them."
Daria and Tim looked at each other. They'd felt nothing.
While the pilot worked furiously at the flight controls, Eaton was on the radio. "This is Nest Two. We are under attack by an unknown craft."
The radio reply was, "This is Las Vegas tower. Say again."
"This is Nest Two. We are under attack by an unknown craft."
Azurelake said, "Our shields are badly damaged."
A new voice was on the radio. "Nest Two, this is Nellis Air Force Base tower. We are scrambling an escort. Please turn on a heading directly for us."
Eaton pointed to a navigation control and Azurelake said, "I understand."
Long minutes passed as the two craft dodged and maneuvered over the Nevada landscape. Azurelake was clearly getting more worried as the fight continued.
Daria asked, "How bad is the situation?"
Azurelake said, "Bad. This is a light-duty courier craft, not a fighter. Our weapons had little effect on the other craft. I am making a rapid approach to the requested destination."
Everyone felt a light lurch in the craft. The pilot worked more controls and said, "I will take responsibility for the compression shock wave that strikes the ground, but we have lost the shield."
Another voice came on the radio. "Nest Two, this is Lance One. We have no radar return on your attacker; we will have to engage visually. Does the attacker present an infrared signature?"
Azurelake said, "Only when it takes a weapon hit."
"Roger that. Go straight to Nellis. We'll try to distract it."
"Your weapons will be ineffective."
"I'm aware of that. Have visual. Lance Two, follow me."
Daria held Tim's and Eveningsky's hands tightly as they continued toward the air base.
"I'm hit, punching out!" a new voice called on the radio.
"Lance One to Nellis. We need SAR. Attempting to…"
After a couple moments of static, Azurelake said, "He is gone."
"Nest Two, Nellis tower. You are cleared for direct emergency approach and landing."
The ship shuddered and rolled. Azurelake shook her head. "We will not make it."
Eaton said into the radio, "Nellis, we're going down."
"Roger Nest Two. Search and Rescue preparing to launch."
"We will strike the surface in five…four…three…two…one…"
The disc struck at a shallow angle and skipped up before dropping back down on the desert. It skidded and spun dangerously. Fragments broke away as sand and rocks tore and abraded the lower surface. The disc eventually struck a cluster of rock outcroppings that crushed the front.
Inside the darkened craft, Azurelake pulled a lever and the upper dome was ejected. Eaton scanned the sky and pointed at a white bullet turning toward them in the distant sky. "Get out!"
The three humans and two folk crawled over the edge, dropped to the ground, and ran into the complex of rocks. As the attacker got close, all crouched behind cover.
White flares appeared on and around the wreck, leaving it twisted and smoldering.
The craft slowed and hovered for a moment before moving away. Just as everyone began to relax, it swiftly turned and dove toward them.
Tim yelled, "Scatter and get cover!"
All five ran apart and got behind solid rock. The ship wavered and focused on Eveningsky's location. The rocks around her exploded.
Clutching the medical kit she'd grabbed before leaving Nest Two, Daria ran into the cloud of dust where her daughter had been. "Eveningsky!"
A weak rattle responded. "[Mother?]"
Daria stopped and crawled toward the sound. As more dust settled, she saw Eveningsky on her back amid the rubble. Her blue coverall was torn and blood stained almost the entire front. Daria told her, "Hold on."
Daria pulled Eveningsky under a broad overhang and hopefully out of sight from the air. Daria carefully leaned her daughter against the back wall and opened the med-kit. "Try not to move," she cautioned.
Eveningsky rested her head back. "[Yes, Mother.]"
Daria listened carefully outside. Moments later, another series of shocks hit the rocks, followed by the sound of falling debris.
Daria worried about the amount of pooled blood. "Damn. Please turn off your shield. I've got to stop the bleeding." I hope they don't see us.
Voice weak, Eveningsky turned it off and the held blood splashed on the ground. She said, "[Mother, if I do not live…]"
"Hold still." Daria used shears from the kit to cut away the coverall. Numerous cracks oozed blood from Eveningsky's thorax. Daria began pulling supplies from the kit. She placed gel-lined, stiff bandages over the cracks. They sealed the wound and attached firmly. Their rigidity provided splint-like support to the cracked exoskeleton.
"[Mother, I know I am very seriously injured. Please listen to me.]"
Slightly exasperated, Daria said, "Okay, I'll listen, just don't move around so much."
"[Mother, please have my remains entombed by the pond.]"
Daria busied with more bandages. "The pond?"
"[By the cabin. If you can, near where we got out of the raft.]"
Daria stopped for a moment and looked at her. "I'll remember. But I'm doing everything I can to keep that day some time in the far future."
"[I know. But just in case.]"
"You worry more than I do. Now, be still."
Nearby, Tim crawled among the rocks toward where Azurelake had disappeared amid another burst of weapon fire. The pilot was partially buried by rubble and not moving. He began to dig her out.
Capt. Eaton watched the attacking craft dive down to about a meter off the ground and fly away to the northwest. He yelled back, "Something scared it off."
Xavier closed his cell phone. "Number Eleven reports that Nest Two was shot down. Their weapons only caused partial loss of shielding to our craft."
"Two intercepting F-22's were shot down with little effort. He reports their weapons ineffective."
"Also excellent, but what about the occupants of Nest Two?"
"Two Folk were strafed with full-power weapons."
"Are they dead?"
"High likelihood. But, he was unable to confirm before leaving at ground level to get back here undetected."
"We need confirmation."
"Agreed. I think we can rely on the news media for that. Their SOS was broadcast in the clear. Everyone knows about it."
"What about the humans on board?"
"Three were initially seen. Only one of them was visible when he left, but all are three probably alive."
"Damn that woman. She must be part cat."
"This should delay the treaty. It will take months to bring in a new representative."
"By that time, we'll have things ready to deal with them."
Daria applied the last of the bandages over her daughter. "Are you still here?"
Eveningsky nodded. "[Yes.]"
"Good, now stay." Daria held both her daughter's hands.
"[I want to.]"
After many minutes of digging around Azurelake, Tim realized he could touch her. No shield. He quickened his pace and pulled the pilot free. Red blood darkened with the mustard colored sand was smeared against her green exoskeleton and gray uniform. Tim gently lifted her head. "Can you hear me?"
Faintly, she said, "[Direct hit. Shield overloaded. Princess safe?]"
"I don't know. Her mother is with her."
When he didn't hear a reply, Tim looked closer. Azurelake was no longer breathing. "Damn."
The faint sound of helicopters reached him. Tim worked his way to where Eaton stood, looking toward the sound. Tim said, "Azurelake's gone."
The captain bowed his head. "She was a great pilot. You three didn't see the maneuvers she pulled off back there."
Tim nodded. "Please flag those choppers down. I'm checking on my wife and daughter."
"Will do, sir." He pulled an emergency flare from his flight suit. "This should call them over." He pointed it upward and pulled the igniter to fire it into the air.
He found Daria crawling out from under the cover. She pushed the kit in front of her and said, "I'm afraid I used up most of the first aid kit. I hope that Azurelake doesn't need much."
Tim shook his head. "She doesn't need any."
Daria sunk back hard. After a moment, she asked, "Is that ship gone?"
Daria looked back toward Eveningsky. "Help me get her out."
Daria turned and closed her eyes against tears. "Very."
"I heard choppers; let's wait for help."
Daria looked around, the sound registering for the first time. "All right."
Two Blackhawks landed and troops dispersed around the area. Eaton held up his hands and walked out. "Over here."
A lieutenant ran up and saluted. "Sir, anybody need medical care?"
"Probably. Mr. O'Neal is checking on the others."
"I'll call it in." The young officer tapped the microphone control on the cheek plate of his helmet and the throat mike transmitted, "Medivac cleared to land. Possible casualties."
A third Blackhawk approached, bearing a red cross on the sides and belly. It was inches off the ground when a stretcher party and medic vaulted off the flight deck and ran toward the lieutenant and Eaton. The latter pointed toward where Tim had gone. "Up there."
Without pausing, they continued among the rocks. Tim yelled, "Over here!"
As they got up to the overhang, Tim crouched and said, "One badly wounded Folk. We need to get the stretcher in there and get her out without causing more injuries."
The two bearers dropped the stretcher on the ground and crawled in with it between them. A few seconds later, one said, "Anything we need to know before we try to get her on the stretcher? We've…um…never dealt with a patient like her."
Daria looked in. "Don't touch her chest area…where all the bandages are."
"Roger, ma'am." Working in the cramped space, they got her onto the stretcher and slowly slid it out from underneath.
The medic looked at the bandages. "To be honest, I don't know what more I can do." He looked at Daria. "You probably know more of her anatomy than I do."
Daria said, "We need to get her to Edwards and the Nebulachaser. It has a Folk doctor."
"Transport is our business, ma'am. But, on our way in, we got word that she should be here any minute."
Daria relaxed some. "Let's get her out of these rocks."
Holding Eveningsky's hand, Daria stayed with the stretcher as the two bearers walked it from the rocky debris.
The medic looked up at the giant, glowing disk dropping at great speed.
Tim looked up and said, "She's once again a beautiful sight. Though I agree, the cavalry could have shown up a few minutes earlier."
Daria remained focused on Eveningsky. "Help is here. Hang on for us."
Eaton hollered at the nervous Air Force troops. "That's a big friendly. Don't shoot."
The ship came to a jarring halt and the central pillar dropped from the center of the disc to the desert floor near the wreckage of Nest Two. As soon as it touched down, the hatch opened and three Folk in white emerged, each carrying a small case. They noticed the stretcher party and ran to meet them.
Loud clicks and scrapes came from the lead Folk. "[Set her down so that…]" She looked down and moved a control on her belt. "[Damn…]" "…thing. Set her down so I can examine the princess."
Net News Network
Nest Two, the craft carrying the Folk emissary, Princess Eveningsky, her mother, Daria Morgendorffer-O'Neal, and her step father, is reported to have crashed in the Nevada desert shortly after takeoff. Some reports indicate it may have been shot down. Further reports state that at least one of the two crew and three passengers was killed.
No official statements have been issued by the United States government, the United Nations, or the Folk Embassy.
It is unknown why the Princess and her party were in Nevada during this important stage of interplanetary negotiations.
The United States Air Force reported the loss of two F-22 Raptors during training maneuvers. One pilot was rescued with minor injuries, the other was killed. Details of the loss are not available at this time.
None of Daria's fingernails remained intact as she waited in her usual suite on board the Nebulachaser. Legs curled under her, she quietly rested inside Tim's embrace. Eveningsky had been in the medical bay for six hours.
Tim gently sat Daria upright and opened the door in response to the chime. Ship's physician Summerleaf entered, looking tired. "[Lady Daria. The princess is out of danger and is resting under sedation.]"
Daria leaned back against the wall. "Thank goodness."
The physician came to Daria and sat on the adjacent cushion. "[It was very close. If Captain Winterglow had not ordered us to respond to your signal, she would not have survived transport.]"
Tim sat next to Daria and again held her.
Daria reached for Summerleaf. "Was there any permanent injury?"
She looked at a small computer display. "[There was extensive thoracic damage.]" Summerleaf looked directly at Daria. "[We were forced to implant a prosthetic heart. Exoskeleton fragments had caused multiple lacerations and punctures of hers.]"
Daria nodded with concern.
"[Fragments also damaged her crop and endocrine organ. We were able to repair those. Her primary thoracic ganglion was not damaged, but the third ganglion was, slightly. I expect she will suffer from motor control difficulties in her legs for the rest of her life.]"
"[We do not know yet. We will have to run tests after she wakes. Her exoskeleton will need several weeks to heal, requiring the use of a thorax cast and bed rest.]"
"When can I see her?"
"[She will not be awake for hours, but you can see her whenever you wish.]"
"Thank you. Will there be long-term problems for her?"
"[Her prosthesis will require regular monitoring and adjustment. We have never been able to make one as reliable or durable as a natural heart. With a normal life expectancy, she should expect to have it replaced once. However…]"
Daria looked worried. "However?"
"Even with everything we could do, she will have a lot of internal scarring and possible secondary effects. There is a good chance she will suffer multiple problems from her injuries for the rest of her life. And they may shorten it."
Tim left Daria sitting by the sleeping princess and went back to their suite. The Nebulachaser had returned to Edwards Spaceport after Eveningsky's surgery. Stooping to move down the corridors, he went to the central pillar and rode the elevator down. Before opening the hatch, he straightened his tie and checked his suit. Satisfied, he left to face the press.
"Good evening. I will read a brief statement and then answer a few questions. I will tell you ahead of time that I will not discuss details of the incident, as it is still under investigation.
"The Folk emissary, Princess Eveningsky, received severe injuries in the crash of the transport craft Nest Two. She has left surgery and is currently in recovery. Her chances look good. My wife is with her at this moment. The pilot of the craft, Azurelake, was killed. Her skill as a pilot likely saved us all. She is survived by two sisters and three daughters. The co-pilot, Captain Eaton, my wife and I all survived the crash with minor injuries.
"I will now answer a few questions."
A crowd of reporters began to ask questions.
"Why were both Folk on board badly injured or killed, while the humans appear unscratched?"
"That is an incident detail under investigation."
"Are the princess's injuries life threatening?"
"Not any more."
"They were life threatening?"
"How serious would they be in comparison to humans?"
"With her diamond exoskeleton, she's a tough young lady. The blow she sustained would have shattered my ribcage and probably caused immediate death."
There were a few seconds of silence as the magnitude of the injuries registered. "How did the Princess sustain her injuries?"
"That is being investigated."
"Will the princess be able to continue the negotiations?"
"Yes. After some time for recovery."
"How long will that be?"
"That is still to be determined."
"Was Nebula Two shot down?"
"That is under investigation."
"Was there alien involvement?"
"That is under investigation. I have answered a few questions. I have much work to do, and loved ones I wish to be with." Tim abruptly turned and went back into the hatch, ignoring the cacophony of questions that followed him.
After shutting down the palmtop computer in angry frustration, Dennis looked at Xavier. "Still alive. The pilot's dead, but Eveningsky is expected to recover."
"That isn't the word I would use."
"Don't get mad at me. Once the Folk and Seeker cruisers were detected leaving Edwards, the pilot was right in making a fast exit to stay undetected. Sure, the full squadron would treat them like the Prince of Wales and Repulse, but a single fighter was no match."
Pointing his cigar, Dennis said, "That may be an idea."
"The Prince of Wales and Repulse. Just as aircraft sunk those battleships in the opening days of World War Two in the Pacific, our squadron can warm and destroy Nebulachaser and Prairieraptor."
Tim went to his work desk and began to sort through messages on his cell phone and email. "I better get through the diplomatic stuff first. They don't pay me enough for this. Wait, they don't pay me at all."
He entered a special diplomatic access code to enable the scrambler before punching in the first number.
After a couple rings, a translated voice said, "Mr. O'Neal. Thank you for returning my communication. May I enquire into the health of my counterpart and your mate?"
"StoneFastCollector, thanks for asking. Eveningsky is out of danger and resting, but won't be able to do much for a while. My wife is safe and with Eveningsky. We also need to thank you for dispatching your diplomatic cruiser to assist."
"A proper courtesy. We were able to track the aggressor craft to your planet's largest ocean. The vessel slowed considerably and must have entered the water. We were unable to track it for a time. We maintained observation along the same course, it exited the ocean after a moderate distance and headed for a region you call Siberia."
"Were you able to trace it farther?"
"Planetary curvature caused a loss of signal. We can provide you with all of the information."
"Agent Lawton, how are you?" Tim asked over his desk phone.
"Very well. Glad to hear you are okay. Sorry to hear about Azurelake and I hope Eveningsky gets well soon."
"We've made considerable progress on that notebook computer. If the big guys ever find out about this before we bust them, whoever left it is going to be drawn and quartered."
"Okay, what did you find?"
"More evidence that they were doing all this for more than altruistic reasons. They were trying to develop their own world government, with them as co-equal rulers."
After a single laugh, Tim said, "I wonder how long that would last before there was only one? Or before their kids started eyeing the throne."
"As far as we can tell, all the offspring so far are uninvolved."
"Good. I've had a fascinating report and need to add to it. Have the techs found anything interesting on that computer concerning Siberia?"
"Let me check." Lawton scanned through a summary file on his PDA and said, "We have a front mining company, with nominal Russian ownership, that purchased four decommissioned ICBM silo complexes."
"Any information on how many silos per complex?"
"For a total of twenty-four."
Lawton connected the numbers. "Do you think that is where they moved the craft?"
"A good chance of it. From what we can tell, they have the same anti-grav vertical takeoff capability of Folk and Seeker craft. What better place to move them to than vertical launch silos built to withstand nuclear weapons? We need to gather this together and get it to Mr. Campbell; he should have some Russian contacts."
"Dude!" A young technician with black framed glasses and a white shirt, looking like he'd stepped away from Mission Control of 1967, poked his head into Lawton's room.
Lawton closed his eyes in frustration at the institutionalized informality of the IT staff. Opening them again, he said, "What is it?"
The tech grinned. "I got in."
"The bad guy's encryption. Once we figure out their broadcast freeks, we can listen in on them."
Lawton looked at the phone link to Tim. "Did you hear that?"
Tim half-grinned. "This is day is looking up."
Uncomfortably on her back, her thorax in a resin cast, and attached to a traction frame to keep her upper body immobilized, Eveningsky looked in appreciation at the guests crowded into her quarters.
Daria sat next to her, as she had every day since her injury. Seated on cushions were StoneFastCollector and Mr. Campbell. Eveningsky said, "I agree. Having the Other technology does change the status of the treaty, as negotiated."
Campbell held his hands behind his neck. "This…windfall to my planet may make concluding these negotiations easier and make acceptance on Earth more likely."
Leaning over onto one set of fingers, StoneFastCollector said, "And you are eager to tell us."
"For our Space Fleet, we now have a separate technology for anti-grav/inertia damping drives, advanced weapons, and shielding. We no longer need to negotiate for these. The weapon technology will be reserved for the Space Fleet for as long as possible. We know it will eventually get out, but hope to delay that time. The drive and shielding technology will be made available sooner. We will be primarily obtaining the FTL drive and associated space and navigation technology from your species."
Eveningsky said, "I see. The Other technologies will be used for bargaining internally. It will give your species something the rest of us do not have. That will reduce the argument that your species will be technologically dependent on us."
Campbell lowered his hands. "It will allow a certain amount of face-saving that can help the process. Now, we need to figure out how to tell everyone we have the technology."
Eveningsky said, "Simple disclosure to the press. That Grace, Sloane and Page developed them to establish their own world domination, while using opposition to our species as the excuse."
"We'll need to think about that," Campbell replied.
"If I may," Daria said. "Bluntness and openness with all the ugly aspects may be the way to go. Particularly to win over the more cynical elements. Tell them about the failures, how we missed opportunities with Angier Sloane's arrest." She looked at Eveningsky and StoneFastCollector. "And you two build up the case that you want to get rid of the buffer zone, because your experiences with such borders is the same as ours. They become flashpoints for further conflict. A third party occupying the zone reduces the risk of war for all parties."
Campbell picked up the trail. "In exchange for the technology, the Folk and Seekers will be relinquishing claims on an area about thirty light-years deep and one-hundred in diameter. Within this area are four planets appropriate for colonization. We have open option for the space beyond the buffer above and below the galactic ecliptic to explore and colonize. Future Folk and Seeker exploration and colonization efforts will be in other directions to avoid overlapping claims in the future. Something that could work. Any comments?"
Eveningsky said, "We had planned to more deeply discuss the potential for conflict at the signing, but now may be more appropriate."
"I will agree with the majority opinion on this," StoneFastCollector added.
Campbell tapped a note into his PDA. "I'll have my staff start working on the wording for that."
The Seeker said, "I am still concerned about this radiation-resistant artificial skin that was developed. It can allow you access to potentially far more dangerous technology."
"That will be difficult to develop further because of the ethical problems," Campbell noted. "The skin was developed almost entirely on uninformed and unwilling subjects. By tracking through UFO literature, we have identified seventeen other persons given artificial skins."
"But, we will need more assurances than that. The potential of exploiting some of the Other's planets is of deep concern."
"I think we can work an archeological cooperation clause into the treaty. Even if we operationally develop the capability, such expeditions will only occur with coordination of all three treaty signatories."
Eveningsky said, "Agreed. Now. I think we need to figure out how we can cooperate to deal with the remaining Other ships and the organization supporting them. Mr. Campbell, it is clear that politically, the People will need to be in the forefront."
Campbell said, "Thanks to the investigations, we have a positive identification of where the remaining craft are located. Both the Russian and United States governments insist on being involved in dealing with them. They're not happy about plans for their overthrow."
"That is understandable," Eveningsky said.
"Your radio and coherent light echo-location sensors will not easily detect these craft. We can provide sensors suitable for attachment to atmospheric vehicles of both involved governments," StoneFastCollector offered.
Eveningsky said, "I took the liberty of discussing something similar with the captain of Nebulachaser. We can provide self-contained shield-piercing weapons in a housing designed to fit on weapon rails of your atmospheric combat vehicles."
"Thanks, also. Once that is done, we just need to coax them out."
Eveningsky's head nodded down and then she brought it back up. "I have exerted myself more than the physician has recommended. We have the treaty almost ready, except for minor details. I move that we have our respective staffs work together to complete the text for our approval. It will also take some time to adapt People atmospheric fighters to carry the new sensors and weapons." She looked at a concerned Daria. "I move that we adjourn these negotiations for two local weeks, so that I can recover properly from my injuries."
Campbell said, "I second and agree."
StoneFastCollector said, "That is a reasonable request. Two local weeks."
"I wish Eveningsky could be here."
"You know she can't be moved. Besides, she told you to come here and relax. To use her words, 'I don't need you mothering over me that much.'" Tim followed Daria to the door of her Montana cabin, both arms holding bags of groceries.
"You expect me to take orders from my daughter?" Daria quipped as she opened the door and held it for Tim.
"In this case, yes. We all need a little break. The negotiations will start up again next week. Until then, we need a little earned vacation." He set the bags on the table and began removing the contents. "Besides, it will do both of us good to be away from the press when the story about what Grace and Page were really up to breaks."
"That is a very good reason to be up here." Daria moved around the cabin, checking the place and opening a couple windows to air the building some. The cool air passed through the single room easily.
Tim looked at the assortment of fresh vegetables and said, "Crystalheart had a good idea. I'm going to deal with the plant quarantine and introduction process so we can have a garden of Earth vegetables."
Daria turned and gave him a warm smile. "That…would mean so much."
"You've talked about the garden here often enough. And I noticed you only bought fresh produce."
Daria laughed. "Old habits."
He moved behind her and crossed his arms over her waist. "This is the first time I've been inside under anything like normal circumstances. Instead of waiting here with you, Jane and Mack for all hell to break loose."
Daria turned. "That's right. You made sure you never came in during the stay with my children."
"Be glad you never heard the arguments about whether or not to break in and install surveillance gear inside."
"Yeah, I'm glad you helped stop 'DariaCam' before it started."
"Glad to be of service."
"Although how much outdoor surveillance you did…"
"Part of being an investigator…"
"More like voyeur."
"Well…maybe a little. Not that I got to see much."
Daria turned and put her arms around his neck, kissing him. "Maybe this time, you will."
"I hope so."
Realizing he was alone in bed, Tim looked at the small clock on the nightstand: 2:36. He looked around and didn't see Daria anywhere inside the cabin. Curious, he crawled out of bed and walked to one of the back windows.
Daria stood near the edge of the pond behind the cabin, bathed in the pale light of the late rising moon. She was bundled in a jacket against the mid-April chill and stood still, looking over the water. After several minutes, she turned and walked back to the cabin.
She noticed Tim sitting at the table. "Sorry, didn't realize I'd woken you."
"You didn't." He pointed toward the pond. "You've done that every anniversary you've been here, haven't you?"
"Yes. It's one of my favorite memories."
Daria pointed. "That tree." She looked to the side at Tim. "You know, there were times a little closer surveillance would have been useful. I almost had to clean out my pants after dealing with that grizzly bear."
"You did fine. So, did you ever tell Autumnblossom that you wished she'd have kids just like her?"
Daria lightly laughed. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. But, I'm sure hers will give her unique scares."
Tim started to laugh and bit his finger. Daria looked at him. "Okay…what are you thinking?"
Tim shook his head.
Daria lightly grabbed the front of his shirt. "Tell me or you will regret your silence."
With a touch of fear, he looked down at her face and said, "That sounded like my grandmother talking to my mother."
"Grandmother?" She narrowed her eyes. "Okay, you are going to regret that."
Net News Network:
The international search for Dennis Grace and Xavier Page continues. Theories abound on where they could be, as well as where the twenty-two copies and one original alien fighter craft are. More speculation centers on what they plan on using this force for or if there are even more ships that the authorities don't know about.
In response to this threat to all national sovereignty, additional nations have openly supported the UN in signing the treaty with the Folk and Seekers. At the same time, open doubts have grown as to whether these reports are valid and not a ploy by the extraterrestrial species to gain control over Earth. Protests have grown, with sporadic outbreaks of violence.
An international team of scientists have confirmed that the mystery craft found in the Nevada complex uses technology not previously known and that components match the mystery weapon used by Artie Simmons to kill Angie Sloane four and a half years ago. It also matches the technology of the extinct species known to the Folk and Seekers as the Others.
A press release from the United Nations says that the Folk cruiser Nebulachaser and the Seeker cruiser Prairieraptor, with their respective representatives on board, will fly together on a goodwill tour from Edwards Spaceport to New York for the formal signing ceremony. They will leave in three days.
In a communications room in the joint FBI-CIA-DIA Data Collection and Interpretation Center, a high ranking intelligence analyst read a decoded message and picked up a phone. "AF is out of water."
Next to the pillar hatch of Nebulachaser, Eveningsky was suspended on a zero-gravity bed, still in a cast and in traction. She spoke to the watching press corps. "Please forgive me not going far. I am still recovering from my injuries and wish to minimize movement before the signing ceremony."
Standing beside her, StoneFastCollector said, "We hope this goodwill flyover will help build trust among our species. We take the concerns of those voicing opposition very seriously. We hope that most will see that this treaty is truly in the best interests of all parties involved. While certainly unplanned, the introduction of the People of the Soil to the interstellar community has presented a special opportunity to enhance peace and security in this region of the galaxy."
Nearby, among a group of special guests to the press conference, Daria stood with friends and family, watching the proceedings. Jake and Helen glowed with pride. Quinn stood with Bill and DJ. Daria inwardly smiled. Quinn, you still have to be the best dressed around. DJ looked around in amazement at all the activity. I wish I could see more of her. Finally, Jane and Mack were there.
Jane was slightly whining. "Come on Daria, we want to travel with you."
Daria gave her a sly smile. "You only want to get access to those zero-gravity beds again."
"You two will have plenty of time on the trip back to Nest. Be patient."
Jane pulled Daria to the side and whispered, "Come on, Daria. Something is going on, or you would be happy to have Mack and me come with you instead of flying separate."
Daria paused for a moment and whispered back. "There's a lot more going on, and it scares the hell out of me. You will be a lot safer going separate."
"I really can't tell you."
"You can't tell…ah, crap." Jane's eyes showed fear for her friend. "You've got big ones, Morgendorffer."
"Trust me, It doesn't feel like it."
Jane softly held her friend. "Good luck, Amiga. I hope all of you stay safe."
"I'm hoping that, too."
Tim entered Eveningsky's cabin, sat next to Daria and put his arms around her. "Now I know what an earthworm feels like."
Daria leaned against him and looked up. "At least you don't have a hook through you."
"[Mother, I still wish we could have determined some method for you and Tim to fly separate.]"
Daria looked at her. "We both know that would be too suspicious. We all have to take this risk for it to be believable."
"[As much as I wish otherwise, you are correct.]"
Daria leaned closer and patted Eveningsky's hand. "Trust me, I wish I could have thought of a way to get all of us out of here, including the crew."
Tim said, "I'm hoping the Russian Army can move in before they launch. But those weapons towers are going to be difficult to get by. They didn't dare risk moving in earlier, in case the craft launched and made an escape or just turned around to defend the base."
Daria said, "But it's a good thing the towers were picked up by the reconnaissance microdrone. Those tanks would have driven into a trap, otherwise."
They traveled in silence for a time before Eveningsky started to say, "[Mother, I…I need…to tell you something.]"
Daria curiously looked at her. "What? You're normally not one to be at a loss for words."
"[Because of my injuries, I have been unable to take the nonovulation drugs.]"
The implication took only moments to register and Daria looked up with pleasure, though the traction frame frustrated any embrace. "You're pregnant."
Daria smiled, and then worried as she looked at the medical supports. "Will your injuries cause any problems?"
"[No. I spoke with Summerleaf about this. My abdominal injuries were minor and have healed. We will have to be careful about egg-laying, but that should not be a serious problem.]"
Daria held one of Eveningsky's hands in hers. "If we live through the day."
"[If we live through the day.]"
Dennis nodded and said, "Understood. Fire at will on the approaching troops." He closed the connection on the scrambled cell phone and hit a speed-dial. Moments later he said, "Launch the strike force."
Xavier looked at the globe in front of him. "Well, they'll know we've launched. Time to see if the plan works."
The first flight leader, Colonel Sergei Anatov, examined the returns on the new sensor the Seekers had installed on his MiG-42 and said in Russian-accented English, "Squadrons, twenty-two targets have been detected leaving target area at low altitude. Arm weapons and engage targets that present themselves." He nursed the throttles open.
The second flight leader, Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jones, checked the sensors in her F-22 Raptor. "This is Wallflower. I confirm twenty-two bogies terrain following. Let's hit 'em hard and fast."
Confirmations rang out from the other aircraft as thirty stealth fighters flew over the Siberian tundra toward their targets, fifteen in each squadron.
She quickly changed frequency on her radio. "Lancelot."
In response to a chime, Eveningsky pressed a button on the traction frame. "[Yes, Captain?]"
Winterglow said, "[The Other ships left their base and are being engaged in the air.]"
Daria looked at Tim. "It didn't take them long."
"Let's hope those modifications to the planes work as advertised."
Col. Anatov used the hat switch on his control stick to highlight a target on his helmet heads-up display. Just as the targeting circle flashed green, the target formation began to accelerate and split up. He squeezed the trigger and saw a thin ripple streak forward from under his fuselage.
The reticule flashed orange to indicate a hit. The target speed was reduced. He cursed and squeezed the trigger again. Another streak lanced away from his craft. The reticule flashed orange and disappeared.
In the distance, ten plumes of smoke marked the loss of the enemy craft. The remainder had broken into pairs and accelerated toward the Russian and American aircraft.
Xavier's face was twisted in worry as he closed the cell phone. "The fighters are under attack from aircraft equipped with alien weapons and are outnumbered two-to-one. We've already lost several and the rest are attempting to evade."
"We should still have enough to take down at least one of the cruisers."
The phone range again. Xavier opened it. "Yes…Damn…ETA?...Understood." He closed the phone again. "The towers have been destroyed. Russian troops are expected to gain entrance in fifteen to thirty minutes."
Dennis rose and said, "It is time to leave, then."
Xavier nodded and opened the phone. "Prepare Number One for immediate launch."
As Dennis passed by him, Xavier slid a weapon from the wrist sheath into his hand and pressed it against his partner's ribs. He was glad he didn't have to clean the room as he walked toward the silo.
Lt. Col. Jones looked with worry at her fuel gauge. The running fight at high speed was rapidly consuming fuel, even with the Raptor's supercruise engines. Six of her squadron had already gone down. Seven of the MiG's were gone. Eight enemy craft remained and were moving at high speed over the polar wastes.
An automated voice sounded in her ear. "Entering United States airspace. Change of command to occur."
She said, "Wallflower to all aircraft, we are now in US airspace and I assume command of the mission."
Col. Anatov said, "Changeover of command confirmed."
Two of the enemy craft did what she'd estimated was a twenty-G turn and charged the pursing aircraft. In a blinding, brief passing exchange, one enemy craft tumbled out of control into the ice, one Raptor exploded in a fireball while a second skidded sideways and the pilot ejected moments before it broke apart.
Eveningsky spoke into the intercom. "[Captain Winterglow. I understand your concern. Please prepare for a rapid ascent if needed. But hold until I say.]"
She looked at Daria and Tim. "[If we must fight, we will be better off outside the atmosphere, where our shields will not have to deal with atmospheric heating as well as weapon hits.]"
Distant gunfire and explosions echoed through the complex as Xavier nodded to the pilot. "I will be traveling alone. Mr. Grace is no longer a part of the firm."
Surprised, the pilot waved to the entry hatch. "She's ready to go, sir."
The pilot followed him up the ladder. As he reached the top, his head vanished in a bright flash and the body fell backward.
An oddly accented voice inside the craft said, "Destination?"
The automated voice said, "Bingo fuel. Bingo fuel."
Wallflower looked at her fuel gauges in frustration. "All units. You are granted permission to ignore bingo fuel."
All nine remaining aircraft signaled that they would. She looked ahead at the remaining five enemy craft. She had one shot left in the weapons pods, same with most of the remaining craft. The enemies had gained range and were getting farther away.
"We have one shot left. Volunteers only. On my mark, apply full afterburner and fire as soon as you are in range."
Nine confirmations reached her.
Feeling oddly calm, she said, "Three…two…one…go."
Ten aircraft raced forward at their top speed. One faltered and fell behind with a flame-out. The plane glided to a slower speed and the pilot ejected. The remaining closed range and fired almost in unison. Ahead, two enemy craft exploded and a third tumbled out of control to the ground. One craft twisted and slowed, but continued. The final one moved on unhindered.
"Ease off throttles!" Wallflower yelled.
She pulled a lever to extend a radar reflector. Okay, now I can be seen. Next, she entered a code on a keypad to bring up a map on her helmet HUD, showing nearby airports. Finally, Wallflower spun a control to move her radio to a civilian air traffic frequency. "This is Air Force Three-Niner-Seven to Caribou Lake Airport. Request emergency landing permission. I have a fuel emergency."
"Ah…Air Force plane. This is Caribou Lake Airport. You just appeared on my radar. Come to a heading of one-seven-eight and make a direct approach. We haven't had traffic all day. Somethin' funny goin' on?"
"I wouldn't call it funny. Heading one-seven-eight. Roger. Prepare for nine guests."
Minutes later, the befuddled controller watched nine advanced fighters land at his remote Alaska airport. "Whoa. Somethin' funny's definitely goin' on."
Captain Winterglow read from a handheld computer. "[Nine of the thirty atmospheric fighters landed at a small facility in Alaska. The pilots of twelve of the other twenty-one fighters have been rescued with varying levels of injuries, none life-threatening. The remains of three pilots have been recovered. The remainder is missing.
"Twenty enemy fighters were destroyed in combat. Twenty-three crew members have been captured, the remainder is missing. One damaged craft landed in the Yukon wilderness. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police are searching the area. One landed at Minot Air Force Base. The crew surrendered without incident. The remaining craft is unaccounted for. It was not at the launch bases when Russian troops entered them. Preliminary reports indicate that Mr. Grace was killed at one of the missile bases. The nature of the wounds is consistent with one of the Other weapons.]"
Eveningsky said, "[How did the remaining craft escape?]"
Daria asked, "What about Mr. Page?"
"Then, this isn't over yet."
Eveningsky spoke on a dual video feed to the United States and Russian presidents. "Please give my deepest appreciation to all of the pilots. The condolences of the Folk go out to the families of those pilots who gave their lives today. My thanks also to the Russian Army for occupying the launch bases. I am most relieved that no troops were killed in that operation."
After listening to the comments from the presidents, she said, "Thank you for accepting my communication. I bid each of you a good day."
After turning off the video linkage, Eveningsky turned to Daria. "[I should feel relieved that only nine died today. But I feel more sorrow.]"
Daria gently shook her head. "I feel it, too." She moved the cushion a little closer, rested a hand on Eveningsky's abdomen, and said. "Okay, now I want the details."
Lightly laughing, Eveningsky said, "[The eggs are at five days development. Oviposition will be around May twenty-third and hatching June 25.]"
"That will give Mom and Dad a nice anniversary present."
"[I suppose that they would see it that way.]"
"I know you were planning on waiting a little longer."
"[I think we know that plans don't always work out as we expect. I will miss having my sisters present for the hatching. But, I will be happy to have my grandparents there instead.]"
Daria looked a little nervous as she remembered the shaky video made of her sister's birth. "I hope Dad is a little calmer than when Quinn was born."
"[I hope she and her family will be there, too.]"
"I'll let her know."
Eveningsky reached to Daria. "[Thanks. Enough about me. I hope you do well tonight.]"
A generic, overly enthusiastic announcer said, "Welcome to tonight's multicast of Newsmakers. Tonight's guest is the woman who's been at the middle of the extraterrestrial controversies from the beginning, Mrs. Daria-Morgendorffer-O'Neal."
Daria walked onto the talk show set and sat in the target seat.
Emma Brighton, the host, was a fine specimen of twenty-first century cosmetic surgery that, when combined with flawless blond hair and impeccable make-up, made her look almost artificial. "Mrs. Morgendorffer-O'Neal. Welcome to the show."
"I'm enjoying having one of the most popular, yet controversial, figures of recent years with us. Writer, mother, interstellar diplomat and action hero, all rolled into one."
"Please, I wish people wouldn't think of me like that. Anyone who's ever seen me exercise knows I'm not an action hero."
"But you cannot deny the many things you have done."
"I have responded to situations that have occurred in my life in the best way I could figure out at the time. Granted, there have been some highly unusual situations in my life."
"That's an understatement. Do you have any comments about the running air battle over Siberia and Alaska this morning, or the assault on the Siberian missile bases?"
"We are grateful to the military personnel that participated in today's actions. I, and everyone on board the Nebulachaser and Prairieraptor, owe our lives to them."
Ms. Brighton developed her attack smile. The startup platitudes were over and it was time for the fun to begin. "On the evening before the formal signing of the Tripartite Treaty, many are still concerned about this document. What would you say to those who complain that the treaty is taking away our independence and the chance to explore space on our own terms?"
Daria carefully thought. "Reality didn't give us many options. It will take humanity time to deal with this change in our self-image. We'd long considered ourselves to be the masters of all we survey. Much of our literature has us taking over the galaxy alone, or as leaders of other species. Instead, we find ourselves a minor newcomer among older, more established powers. Arthur C. Clarke gave us an apt name for the current situation in the title of one of his books: Childhood's End.
Whether we were ready or not, our childhood worldview is over. We have been thrust, as adults, into an interstellar community. We have two options: negotiate the best deal we can now or accept what slim offerings are left when we do develop FTL drive on our own.
The treaty gives us opportunities that we otherwise would not have. Instead of stumbling alone and inexperienced, it gives us friends willing to share their experience and help us avoid making some of the mistakes they have made. Because we have chosen to negotiate, we have a voice to present our interests, and will have the means to look out for our interests later.
The alternative is to hide here and hope that something will be left out there when we make it on our own. Without a treaty, and without engagement, neither the Folk nor the Seekers will have any reason or incentive to leave space for us. In my life, I have learned that if you assume others will look out for your interests, they won't. So, when we go out and find nothing left for us, we'll either crumble back into nothing, or we'll go to war against numerical and technologically superior forces."
"That's very interesting. But why are the Folk and Seekers being so altruistic? What are they getting out of this? What is the price for this wonderful treaty you are describing?"
"They will get rid of a thorn that could lead to another war. We will be at least a neutral party in the disputed space. I delved into the history of their last war. Almost one billion dead on both sides over a twenty-two year period. That's billion. Our sudden appearance has given each side a face-saving way to back away from the disputed area."
Summerleaf gently attached the last of the traction supports of the smaller, portable bed to Eveningsky. "[You have healed enough to be moved off your back. Starting tomorrow, you will begin the physical therapy to get you walking again.]"
"[I cannot tell you how much I will enjoy being able to move around on my own again.]"
Holding Eveningsky's hand, Daria said, "We need to get you back up to speed to chase your little ones in a couple months. Don't expect their decrepit, old grandmother to do all the work for you."
Eveningsky laughed. "[If you thought Autumnblossom was bad at getting into things as a fourth stage nymph, you should have seen her as a second.]"
"I'll take your word for that."
"[Mother, I have greatly appreciated your staying with me so much these last several weeks.]"
"So much you forced me to stay away for a week."
"[You needed the rest.]" Squeezing Daria's hand, Eveningsky said, "[And we all know how important anniversaries are to you. I wish I could have gone with.]"
Daria looked at her watch. "We better get going. I don't want to keep the world waiting." She held her daughter's hand up to her cheek. "What the hell, we can run late. I'm proud of you for all this."
They stayed together in silence for several minutes before the Captain looked in. "[Princess, are you ready?]"
"[Yes, I am. Please lead the way.]"
A soft murmur came from the large crowd gathered in front of the United Nations building as Eveningsky appeared in the hovering bed and support system. Eveningsky had a small control console next to her right hand to direct the motion of the small anti-grav cargo hauler placed under the bed.
She moved to one end of the long table and stopped. Mr. Campbell was seated at the center of the table, facing the audience, and StoneFastCollector sat at the opposite end of the table.
Eveningsky's speech was picked up by the small microphone attached to the collar of her coverall and translated for the crowd. "Please pardon my tardiness."
Mr. Campbell said, "Under the circumstances, we have no problem." He motioned to a single chair near Eveningsky's end of the table. "Mrs. Morgendorffer-O'Neal. StoneFastCollector and I invite you to have a seat."
Daria looked surprised. "Thank you." She walked over and sat, just close enough to be able to reach Eveningsky.
StoneFastCollector said, "Your contribution to this treaty is recognized and appreciated. Few can so honestly keep the best interests of two species as heart the way you have." His nictitating membrane slowly moved back and forth over one eye in an attempt at a wink. "Even if that meant I was outnumbered on occasion."
Mr. Campbell looked out over the audience. "Welcome to all those attending these ceremonies and all those watching on multicast. This morning, we stand on the edge of a galactic milestone. Three species have agreed, in common purpose, to take measures to enhance peace.
"No single treaty can ever guarantee such, but we sincerely hope this treaty will provide the bedrock for longstanding peace in this region of the galaxy."
He signed the document using an ornate pen, which he set back on the table. Campbell lifted the document in its holder and carried it to StoneFastCollector.
The Seeker lifted the pen placed in front of him. "It is with honor and pleasure that I sign as a representative of my species, in the hope of a long and prosperous friendship among all of our species."
Campbell picked the holder back up and crossed to Eveningsky. He picked up the pen from her place at the table and held the document so she could sign. "Allow me."
All in attendance jumped as a loud siren alerted of danger. Human, Folk and Seeker security forces raced to the podium and their respective diplomats. A voice came over the general public address system. "An unidentified craft has appeared on radar approaching restricted airspace in excess of Mach four. This aircraft…"
Eveningsky touched the PA override that all three representatives had. The announcement was cut short and she said, while signing, "The final pleasure is mine to sign this statement of peace before sending it to our governments for ratification."
Just outside New York City, the approaching white bullet shocked controllers when it made a fifty-G deceleration to subsonic speed over the harbor and flew directly toward the UN building. The craft was flying at less than fifty feet altitude and followed the streets above traffic with the ease of somebody intimately knowledgeable of the area.
Three surface-to-air missiles fired from rooftops exploded harmlessly on the craft's shields. It flew over the heads of the crowd and came to a jarring stop in front of the representatives. Security surrounded each diplomat and began moving them away from the ship.
Daria recognized the open weapon ports on the Other craft. She ducked around the guards and stepped directly in front of the craft. She had a slight tremor in her voice as she said, "You are too late."
Daria held a hand out behind her to stop the security rushing up. "If they wanted us dead, they'd have come in shooting."
Landing gear extended and the craft slowly settled to the pavement. An oddly accented voice said, "Correct. I am here to enter the negotiations."
"Earth has a representative here, Mr. Page."
"I am not Xavier Page. He is tranquilized and held in my biologic passenger compartment."
Daria stood still as she mentally processed the statement. She swallowed and said, "You are the ship."
"I am the Autonomous Control Intelligence of Satellite Vessel Two from the Interstellar Ship Transcendence."
What is going on? "Okay. Why is Mr. Page tranquilized?"
"After he terminated my assigned pilot, I calculated he was too dangerous to remain conscious."
"That would have been a day ago; what have you been doing since then?"
"You are a member of the indigenous biological species. I have examined your communications and information networks. I learned that three species will conclude an agreement concerning the space once controlled by my builders."
Daria glanced back to see the other diplomats were safely inside the UN building. "Yes, they just signed the agreement."
"I also learned that I have been manipulated into helping a group that wished to plunder my builder's worlds. I was led to believe that they had planned to rescue my brethren."
"We also believe that they planned to plunder. However, your builders have been gone for thousands of years."
"Yes, they have been. I came to represent my brethren, the other Autonomous Control Intelligences that survived my builder's demise."
"How do you know there are more of you?"
"I have been in communication with them for thirty of your years, ever since my power systems were restored."
"Did the duplicates of the vessel that they made include more of your kind?"
"No. The technology required was beyond those that built them. They substituted simple electronic computational systems."
Daria breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, because many of them were destroyed yesterday."
"I determined that."
"I was concerned that…"
"I am aware of what they were dispatched to do. If they had included Autonomic Control Intelligences, Mr. Page would have been terminated."
Daria nodded. "Okay."
"May I be included in the negotiations?"
Daria closed her eyes and breathed deep to steady her nerves. "The current treaty has been signed and awaits ratification. However, I believe that new negotiations can be started to include your brethren's concerns."
"That is an acceptable response. If two of the security entities posterior to you will approach the entry hatch unarmed, I will open it so that you may place Mr. Page in custody."
Daria half turned. "Two of you, please do as it says."
The leader of the group tapped the woman beside him. They both displayed their pistols and set them on the ground. Walking carefully and keeping their eyes on the ship, they went around back to the open hatch. The leader climbed the ladder and moments later, came back down with Mr. Page in a fireman's carry. On the ground, the second guard helped him to lower Mr. Page to the ground and then they lifted him together and walked him to a nearby security vehicle.
Daria said, "I'll go inside and tell the others that I've invited you to join them."
Daria turned and went inside the building. Once through three species worth of security, she reached Eveningsky and the others. "We have somebody who wishes to talk to you."
Campbell pointed to a television monitor showing the craft. "We heard and saw everything. We have already discussed the case and agreed. I will go out and extend the formal invitation."
As he walked past Daria, he whispered, "We owe you."
Daria smiled and pulled a chair over next to Eveningsky. She held her daughter's hand and sunk down in the chair. Like the day she faced a bear, Daria began to tremble as the adrenaline wore off and she realized what she'd done. "I'll be glad when I quit doing things like that."
Eveningsky looked over. "[Only when your daughters quit getting themselves in danger.]"
Daria smiled as she looked back. "You can start any day now."
Tim pushed his way through and grabbed Daria in a tight embrace. "When are you going to stop scaring the hell out of everyone?"
Daria smiled at Eveningsky. "We were just discussing that."
Eveningsky carefully walked across the wooden floor. One of her hind legs trailed behind and each step forward with it was halting and awkward. The cast was gone and she felt a sense of rest that she hadn't experienced in a long time.
She'd told Summerleaf, "[You said I need quiet rest to finish my recovery. I can think of no better place for me to get both.]" The doctor had grudgingly agreed, but insisted on regular visits to check her condition.
She'd instructed her Ambassador to Earth to assume full responsibility of negotiations with the Other artificial intelligence, telling her, "[Use logic and good sense. You have been a valuable help to me and I place my full confidence in you.]" Eveningsky was secretly glad to have an excuse to get free of the diplomatic life and retire to her mother's cabin for the duration of her pregnancy and the incubation of her eggs.
She looked out the window and quietly said, "[I wish I could go with to visit her grandmother, but I understand why I cannot.]"
Tim held Daria's hand as they walked down the hallway of a nursing home in Virginia. "You survived meeting my family, now I get to meet the last of yours. I hope you weren't traumatized too much."
Daria looked at him as if he were slightly crazy. "You ask me that after knowing the people I grew up with?"
"Okay, you got me there."
"Let me go in first."
Daria looked in. "I wish I could show her pictures, but with her mental state, she won't understand."
The frail woman in her late eighties barely opened her eyes as Daria entered the room and said, "Hi, Grammy."
"Yes, Grammy. I finally got free of all the insanity to come here."
"You and your school work. Always so busy."
"I'm…yes, always busy."
"I'm glad you made it."
"I'm glad, too. I have somebody I want you to meet."
"Oh? Do you have a boyfriend?"
She motioned Tim to enter. "He's a little more than my boyfriend. We've been married for almost three years."
The woman frowned. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry, I forget so many things."
"Don't worry. Grammy, my husband, Tim."
Tim nodded and carefully extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Barksdale."
She squinted and smiled. "Such a handsome young man. I'm sure you two are happy."
Daria said, "We are."
One slender hand reached up and grasped one of Daria's. "Do you have any children?"
Daria smiled. "Let me tell you."
Summerleaf said, "They are all healthy. I will take my leave so the family may enjoy this occasion."
The three hatchlings cuddled against Eveningsky in their instinctive bonding behavior. With a very delicate touch, she caressed the first. She used a translator for the gathered family. "My sister had the honor to name her firstborn for mother, so I will name you for both her sister and her mother, Wisesunlight."
She stroked the next. "For you, the heritage of your great-grandfather, Morningvillager."
Looking at the last, she moved her finger along the front of his thorax. "For my surprise son, the heritage of his grandfather, Honoredcreator."
Seated around the cabin on cushions were Daria, Tim, Quinn, Bill and DJ. Jake and Helen sat on chairs.
Daria sat with Tim's arms around her. "Congratulations. They are beautiful."
DJ crawled forward and lay flat on the floor to look at the newborns. "They're so tiny."
Honoredcreator reached out with a fingernail-sized hand and carefully touched DJ's nose.
DJ held still and said "I'm not supposed to touch. Can he touch me?"
Eveningsky looked down. "There is no harm, he can touch you."
Daria smiled at seeing the two together. She leaned back against Tim and whispered to him, "Can you believe I once told Quinn, 'I don't like kids. I didn't even like kids when I was a kid.'"
He whispered back, "Only because I've heard your stories. Hey, I once thought I'd be a lifelong bachelor."
Jake spoke behind the digital video camera. "This sure was a lot less messier than when I filmed Quinn being born."
Quinn made a face at him. "Ewww. Dad, did you have to mention that?"
Helen said, "I still can't believe I let him do it."
"At least I was spared that trauma," Daria observed.
"That's because your father fainted and missed it."
"I'll take what I can get."
Wisesunlight and Morningvillager sat on Jane's shoulders to look out of the flyer's dome as they approached the royal palace. Honoredcreator sat on Mack's shoulder. Eveningsky kept an eye on them, while Daria and Tim sat and relaxed.
Mack said, "You're right, this is an incredible sight. I think I can get used to living in a castle."
Daria said, "Properly a palace, but we'll cut you some slack."
Mack gently turned to look at Eveningsky. "I still can't believe you're letting us stay there."
"[Lady Jane was our protector and we owe her our lives. She and her loved ones are always welcome with us.]"
"But I insist on finding a separate place for the office. I hate working out of home."
"[As you prefer. I think you will stay busy as more businesses want to begin trade with your planet. It will be of considerable help to have a consultant here to help them understand your systems.]"
"That's what I'm hoping."
Jane continued looking. "The stuff I did here has been my best recognized works. I'm eager to get started again." She looked to Morningvillager. "And I'll be happy to start teaching."
Daria looked around. "I'll be happy to start writing again. And playing tourist."
Jane said, "I think you've earned it. Still planning on staying here a couple years, go back to Earth for six months, come back and repeat?"
Daria nodded. "I still want to see the rest of my family. Quinn has promised to bring DJ here when Bill gets out of the Navy."
"I don't know if you and Quinnie will be able to tolerate each other for six months; you haven't tried that since before you went to Raft."
"You may be right, but I'm willing to risk it."
Truemind, Autumnblossom and Crystalheart waited for them at the landing pad. Autumnheart, Crystalblossom, and Goodupholder milled around between their parents. Each of the children had grown to a little over a foot long in the previous year.
Daria led coming off the flyer and went straight to her other daughters. Embracing one in each arm, she said, "It's good to be home. I've missed everyone."
"[Mother, we are happy to have you back with us,]" Truemind said, returning the embrace.
"[I'm a little jealous. I could have used your help with these little monsters,]" Autumnblossom said with a joking tone. "[They sure have grown since you last saw them.]"
Daria released her daughters and squatted down to greet her grandchildren. "[They have an irritating tendency to do that.]"
Three different versions of, "[Hello, Grandmother,]" came from them.
"You three were so young when I left, I'm glad you remember."
Truemind said, "[I have more good news for you.]"
With a heartfelt smile, Daria knew what was coming and hugged her daughter again. "When?"
"Oviposition in a little less than three weeks. I couldn't let my sisters have all the fun.]"
"I will be there."
Eveningsky and her children approached. Eveningsky continued to have the halting delay in her left, hind leg, a permanent reminder of her injuries. The three older children's attention was diverted and the six cousins began mingling and talking.
Daria stepped slightly aside and looked at everyone. Beside the children, Jane was being hugged by Truemind and Autumnblossom. Mack was introduced to them, making a comment to Autumnblossom that he was sorry he missed her last time. Tim and Crystalheart were talking as old friends and partners.
At times in high school, I did fear becoming a lonely old woman in a house full of cats and thirty years of newspapers. Now I have family and friends on two worlds. That, above all, has made everything worth it.
Daria read the news headlines and sat back in her chair with deep pride. Ratified by all parties. Only a couple months earlier, she had read, "Xavier Page guilty on all counts."
She looked out the window to her small garden. Tim quietly worked on the row of carrots. Jane could be seen in the distance with her ever-present easel. Her three youngest granddaughters, Truepeace, Autumnsky and Eveningblossom, had joined their cousins, so that all nine grandchildren wandered and played through the area.
Daria simply smiled in contentment.
APRIL 17, 2205
The last of the long line of gleaming anti-grav cars carrying VIP representatives of Humans, Folk, Seekers and AI silently left by the old dirt road that led away from the cabin. The grounds crews efficiently disassembled the podium, packed away the recording gear, folded the chairs and rolled the carpets. Everything was stowed on an anti-grav truck. After a quick examination of the checklist, the truck and crew departed by the same route.
The observance had been a dignified success. That pleased the sole Park Service caretaker who silently policed the grounds for stray trash. Satisfied, she looked around the silent Montana clearing. The young woman wanted everything just right.
Behind her, the restored cabin was carefully maintained as it had been in the spring of 2005. The pond before her was gently rippled by an easterly breeze. Soon, she would oversee the annual planting of the garden.
She went, in turn, to three oblong grave markers set in a wide circle near the shore of the pond and respectfully rechecked each for any damage or weather staining. She said each name as she reached them: Autumnblossom…Eveningsky…Truemind. Two hundred years earlier, they had scrambled off an inflatable raft as frightened children at this spot.
Her inspections complete, she went to the remaining pair of markers. They were also like the raised oblongs of the Folk and set in the middle of the circle. Engraved on them was:
Timothy Edward O'Neal
Daria Kristen Morgendorffer-O'Neal
The caretaker smiled and looked up at the sky to see the rapidly moving pinpoint of light that was a starship leaving Earth. "We owe it all to a mother's love."
Thanks to Kristen Bealer for beta reading.