A Stranger Thing
Chapter One In Which Our Heroine Is Licked by a Bear
“Everything’s okay, Elvs. Seriously, like, no worries.”
Easy enough for Cole to say—he didn’t just push a person the size of a watermelon out of his private parts. Nor does he currently find himself under the piercing gaze of several suddenly constipated-looking Alien McHotHotts.
Now, I know I was preoccupied and everything, but I am certain that there were only five people in the room as I grunted, strained, and (let’s be perfectly frank here) farted the Goober out of my womb and into the world. Besides me, there was Cole (my baby daddy), Dad (my dad), Ducky (world’s best bestie), and one smokin’ Almiri doctor. And baby makes six. Or so I thought. Now I realize that several others were either waiting in the wings the entire time, or standing elsewhere out of sight. And now that my little bundle of joy is lying in my arms, they have all stepped forward, each one looking grimmer than the last.
“It’s female?” one of the dudes asks the doc gravely.
The doctor nods, stunned. And everybody in the room—even my own father—is staring at me and my newborn like we just snuck a jumbo-size combo meal past the ticket guy into the movie theater.
“I’m confused,” Ducky says, scratching his head. “I thought Almiri were always male.”
“I was under a similar impression, Donald,” my father says beside him. “Fascinating.”
Maybe “fascinating” isn’t the word I would use, but yeah, I’m a little perplexed myself. From everything Cole’s told me about his race (or species, or whatever you want to call an extraterrestrial group that traveled to Earth thousands of years ago to use human women as hosts for their offspring), I took it as fact that the Almiri only have one gender—a gender that requires a dongle. And yet . . . looking down at the gooey infant in my arms, it’s hard to argue that she most definitely has a full array of girl parts.
“Take it,” one of the Almiri snaps. “And secure the host and the father for questioning.”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth than all of the Almiri burst into a flurry of panicky action. One of the fellows standing in my peripheral vision rushes forward and snatches the Baby-Formerly-Known-as-Goober away from me before I can even react.
“Hey!” I shout, reaching clumsily to grab my baby back, but the thief is already moving toward the exit. Another Almiri falls into step behind him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I hear Cole demand.
“Ibrida,” the baby-napper says . . . to which Cole (who, I should mention, can barely speak English most days, let alone whatever language that was) responds with a completely blank stare. “It’s a mule,” the guy says—as though that clarifies anything. His voice is even but strained. “Did you know about this?”
“Know about what?” Cole asks. “What are you talking about?”
“What’s going—ahhh!” I turn at the sudden sharp pain and see the doctor remove the syringe from my arm. “No, please, I . . . ,” I begin, but words are failing me. They have my baby. They took my baby.
I turn my head—which, holy crap, just got forty pounds heavier on my neck—to see if I can catch another glimpse of my daughter. Instead, I see only the second Almiri, who turns to Cole with a disgusted look on his face. “You just can’t help finding shit to step in, can you, Archer?”
“I don’t even . . . Hey, come back here with my kid!”
That’s when whatever night-night cocktail the doc has fed me begins to set in, so the Almiri at the door blocking Cole’s path and clasping him by the arms, trying to immobilize him, goes kinda fuzzy. Little swirlies dance in my field of vision, mixing in with the sight of Cole head-butting his restrainer—but that can’t be right, I think. The guy was his friend just moments ago, when they arrested the Jin’Kai heavies who chased us here in the first place. I’m pretty sure the head-buttee crashes to the floor, but there’s three more of him who take his place. And then I know the happy mommy juice is really starting to get to me, because I see two more Almiri move in beside Dad and
Ducky, and calmly but forcibly escort them out of the room. And that shit just doesn’t make any sense.
“It’s all right, Elvie!” I hear Cole call, his voice growing fainter. “Don’t worry about anything! I’m here!”
The rest is all purple unicorns and gold stars singing show tunes, until everything goes black.
• • •
The first thing I wonder, as I come to, is whether or not the handcuffs shackling me to the hospital bed will be covered by my health insurance. My second thought, obviously, is what the flip am I doing handcuffed to a hospital bed? And where in the hell am I? This certainly doesn’t look like a recovery room at Lankenau Medical Center.
The haze quickly lifts, and I shuffle through a few blurry memories, mostly overheard snippets of conversation.
“. . . did we have any indication . . . ?”
“. . . Archer doesn’t seem to have a clue . . .”
“. . . never met a bigger numbskull . . .”
“. . . wreck was not salvageable . . .”
“. . . decrypted full records from the ship . . .”
“. . . last time this happened . . .”
“. . . what Byron has to say when we get there . . .”
“. . . have you seen my lip balm . . . ?”
None of which is helping me solve Elvie Nara and the Case of the Mystery Room. There are no monitors, nursebots, or any other medical gear keeping track of vitals or anything like that. As far as I can tell, the room consists of four white walls, a door, and a bed.
And me, of course.
“Hello?” I call out. There is no response for, like, a while, and I start to worry that I’m in some sort of soundproof room, or that maybe I’m just hallucinating the whole weird scene. Creepy dead silence, that’s all I get. But right when I’m really about to panic, the door slides open and in walks the same doctor from the delivery room, carrying a slender lap-pad and a scowl.
“Hey, are you my OB/GYN?” He scrolls through something on his lap-pad and does not respond. “What’s with the cuffs?” I try again. “You guys afraid that I’ll Hulk out on you?” I’m trying to play it light, hoping my gay spirits will take the edge off the fact that they’re treating me like a Jin’Kai POW, instead of, you know, their old pal Elvie. But the doc doesn’t seem to want to play along. “How long have I been here?” By the way my stomach’s growling I’m guessing it’s been at least a day, if not longer.
At last the doc looks up. “You’re feeling normal? No discomfort or odd sensations?”
“I’m hungry.” Understatement of the millennium. “Where is every—”
“I’ll see about getting you some food. In the meantime, Alan here is going to take you upstairs for a little while.”
Before I can ask if Alan is the doc’s imaginary six-foot white rabbit, the dude comes walking through the door.
Most of the Almiri are young-looking, but this guy’s stiff demeanor makes him look even younger, like he’s fresh out of the Almiri Acadamy for Impregnating Unsuspecting Earth Girls. He’s bland as toast, too. Standard-issue haircut, no scars or wacky tattoos to help place him in a lineup. As Ducky might
put it, if Alan were on Star Trek, he’d be wearing a red shirt and an expiration date.
Alan glances at me. “Uh, what am I supposed to do, wheel her?” he asks.
“She can walk,” the doc replies. “We can undo the cuffs for now, I think.”
The doc strolls over and jabs a code into the handcuffs, quickly ridding me of my shackles. I rub my wrists like they’re terribly sore, but it’s mainly just an effort to garner a smidgen of sympathy.
My captors do not seem to notice.
“Hey, guys?” I say as they help me to my feet. “Two questions for you. First, where’s my baby? And second, could I get something to wear besides this gown? My butt’s, like, flapping in the wind.”
“There’s a robe in the closet,” the doc replies. And with that, he walks out the door, leaving me alone with Alan.
“He didn’t answer my first question,” I say. “That was kind of the important one.”
“Come on,” Alan says, clearly anxious to be rid of me. “Byron’s waiting.”
• • •
I sit quietly in the middle of the room where Alan has deposited me, tugging nervously at the trim of my not-quite-long-enough terrycloth robe. It solves the butt-on-display-to-the-world problem I was having, but I’m still flaunting enough leg to make a burlesque dancer blush. If I was feeling particularly whimsical, I might enjoy conjuring the image of the Almiri prancing around in these robes that, at best, are going to cover them to mid-thigh.
I can hear several voices coming through the adjoining side door keep rising and falling—some sort of group powwow. The volume occasionally reaches a decibel that indicates that nobody inside is feeling very polite.
Alan didn’t leave anyone to guard me while I wait. Well, I should say, he didn’t leave any person. I am currently surrounded by a literal menagerie of assorted animals. And we’re not just talking goldfish and kittens and parakeets, your typical household pets. Oh no. There are two large flamingos crowding me on the faux leather chair that’s busy sticking to my thighs. Seated across from me on the ornate stone desk are the three smallest monkeys I’ve ever seen, fighting over a banana that’s bigger than they are. Behind me, two foxes and a badger are wrestling with one another, and a peacock fans its feathers in a defensive stance as it tries to convince the meerkat to look elsewhere for a playmate.
And then, of course, there’s the bear.
It’s probably not a real big one, by bear standards, but honestly, when you’re sitting three feet away from a bear—any bear—it seems like the most gigundous thing in the entire universe. This particular Ursus whateverus has been blocking the main doorway, licking its own cinnamon fur, for the past ten minutes, oblivious to anything else in the room.
I look away (because everyone knows it’s rude to stare at animals that can eat you) and find myself studying an oddly familiar oil painting hanging over the mantel of the fireplace. I know I’ve seen the thing before somewhere, but I can’t place it. Old-school mustachioed dude with a chin dimple, sporting a seriously ugly orange-and-green headscarf.
Lots of terrible thoughts are running through my mind at the moment, and only a few of them are bear-related. Obviously, my Almiri hosts are not quite as benevolent as they once appeared. The fact that my baby turned out to be a girl must either have them confused, scared, or both. They’ve done something with the baby, something with Cole, something with my dad and Ducky. And they’re clearly planning something for me. A sane person would sit quietly and pray to come out of this whole situation in one piece.
I have never been accused of being a particularly sane person.
I rise to my feet with thoughts of bursting into the side room, all bravado and bluster, and shouting that I’m tired of being shoved around by different factions of extraterrestrials who think they’re entitled to mess with my reproductive organs, and that I’m sick of waiting in this zoo, and if they’re going to interrogate me or torture me or whatever, could they please just get it over with already? But I don’t get that far, because that’s when Cinnamon finally realizes I’m in the room. He flops forward onto all fours with a harrumph and plods toward me.
“Okay, okay!” I shout. My mind is racing. Which are the sorts of bears you’re supposed to try to scare off, and which are the ones you’re supposed to play dead with? Shit. “I’m sitting,” I tell it, more gently. And I plop back down on the chair. “See how well I’m sitting? Like nobody’s business. So heel. Or mush. Or . . . go away.”
Cinnamon does not go away. He shuffles over to me, and I realize with a great amount of uneasiness that even on all fours he’s looking down on me. He starts nuzzling my shoulder,
and his head is so huge that he practically pushes me off the chair into a pile of something one of the birds has left behind. His fur is rough and scratchy, prickling my neck. Less “teddy bear” and more “roadhouse creeper.” I want to grab the thing’s jumbo noggin and shove him away, but I have this overwhelming desire to keep all my limbs attached to my body, so I just grip the edge of the seat until my fingers turn white, and try to look nonchalant. Like I get nuzzled by bears all the time.
“I’m just sitting,” I mutter. Cinnamon continues to get his nuzzle on. The giant furball is now licking my neck and the side of my face, long leathery slurps that leave trails of sticky bear saliva on my skin. “Not going to let a big-ass bear licking half my face off get in the way of a good sit,” I squeak out in between slurps. “Why don’t you try sitting too?”
The door to the side room opens up, and the muffled voices from within are suddenly clear.
“You cannot expect us to go along with this,” comes a strident voice. It’s angry. Pissed, even. “It goes against every protocol!”
Then I hear another voice, calmer and steadier than the rest.
“I’ve made my decision, gentlemen.” I look past the furball assaulting my personal space to see a tall, slender figure in a red jacket standing with his back to me in the doorway. “I do not make it lightly, nor should you take it as a point of debate.”
That’s when another angry voice chimes in. “The Council will never stand for such a blatant disregard for procedure!”
The figure in the doorway shifts casually. “The Council
will have their say, of course. But so long as I’m the commander of this station, I will make the call.”
“Thank you, gentlemen, that will be all for now,” the man in the doorway interrupts. “Alan, please see that the arrangements are being made. There’s a good lad.” And with that, he turns and steps inside to join me, closing the door behind him. And the moment he enters the room, he owns it.
That’s what the Almiri call him. Their leader. I’ve seen him before, of course—on the communication view screen back on the Echidna, when we were trying to avoid being blown to smithereens. But I’ve seen him elsewhere, too. East of Eden. Giant. Rebel Without a Cause. No matter what the leader of this group of parasitic alien life-forms chooses to call himself, I will always think of him as James Dean, my mother’s favorite 1950s flat-pic dreamboat.
“Drusilla!” he booms to the gargantuan mound of fluff that’s currently using my face as a tasting menu. “Get down off of Elvie, please. That’s a good girl.” And just like that, the licking stops. Drusilla backs away from me, giving me one last sneeze as a parting gift before retreating to her master.
I’ve got to say the guy looks pretty good for a dude who’s supposedly been dead for 120 years. He pets Drusilla on the head as he makes his way over to his desk. He’s followed by two dogs, a black-and-white long-haired Newfoundland and a large husky. Drusilla grumbles at the dogs as they pass, and the husky scurries away, tail between its legs. The Newfoundland, though, despite weighing approximately as much as one bear
poop, defiantly nips at Drusilla before wandering right up to me and putting his head in my lap.
“Boatswain likes you,” Byron says as he flops down in his big swivel chair. “That’s a good sign. Poor Thunder here”—he rubs the timid husky under the chin—“has always been a little shier with new people. Haven’t you, girl?”
I scratch Boatswain behind the ear, because it seems like the most normal thing I can do. Bears, peacocks, James Dean talking to me about his pets—those are the things that I’m not quite ready to process yet. “Dogs seem to have a thing for me,” I say, kneading the bed of Boatswain’s floppy ears a little harder, until he lets out a satisfied whine.
“Amazing creatures, aren’t they?” Byron replies, putting his feet up on the desk. He looks very much like he did when he was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, perhaps a bit older but not by much. He’s even wearing a red windbreaker and some antique-looking jeans, which should seem ridiculous and sad, but somehow he pulls it off effortlessly. Utterly assured of himself, cool, and in charge of the whole room without even trying—that’s James Dean, all right. “The poor dog,” he goes on, leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, as though reciting words he’s said many times before. “In life the firmest friend, the first to welcome, foremost to defend.”
“Uh,” I say. “Yeah. Sure.”
Byron’s eyes pop open, and he smiles warmly. “It’s nice to meet you at last, Elvie Nara.” He seems awfully friendly for someone who’s kidnapped me and taken my newborn child. “I’ve heard only good things.”
I nod and clear my throat. “Look,” I start, as much of an edge
to my voice as I dare use with a guy who has a pet bear, “you’re a very busy alien, I’m sure.” His smile shifts sideways a little, amused. “So I’m not going to waste your time with the totally appropriate amount of indignation that I should feel right now.”
“That’s awfully understanding of you.”
I fold my arms across my chest, ignoring Boatswain’s whines for more scratching. “Why don’t you just cut to the chase and tell me what the hell is going on?”
Byron’s eyes brighten, like I just complimented his haircut. I cannot detect even an ounce of the cruelty that someone like, say, Dr. Marsden had when he had me at gunpoint back on the Echidna. By contrast, this Byron guy doesn’t seem to find the whole situation all that serious. Like hospital bed abductions are as common as artificial grass.
“Elvie, everything’s going to be fine, don’t worry. You haven’t done anything wrong. Your baby is in perfect health, and your father and friend are safe and in our care.”
It’s his casual tone that’s more disconcerting to me than anything else. I was kind of expecting a villainous speech. Boatswain starts licking the sweat from my palm. As interrogations go, I have to admit, this is all pretty chill. Everything, as Byron says, seems to be going fine.
“What was all that shouting about? Me?”
Byron waves me off dismissively. “Don’t worry about all that. Some of the lads have their knickers in a bunch over this whole Ares mess.”
“Ares?” I ask, confused. “The Ares Project?” The Ares Project is the multitrillion-dollar government program whose purpose is the wide-scale terraforming of the surface of Mars for
human habitation, the first such attempt of its kind. The idea that the Almiri are behind it in some way probably shouldn’t shock me as much as it does—since I’m well aware of how technologically advanced they are, and how they’ve made a habit of getting their hands into every major scientific breakthrough of the past several thousand years. It’s more of the fact that Byron’s dropping the information so nonchalantly that has me baffled. After all, aren’t I some sort of prisoner here?
“A bit of an issue with some cyberterrorism, nothing that should slow matters down terribly, but enough of a breach that some folks are nervous.” Byron leans forward in his chair. “Cole told me how keen you were on being a part of the project someday. You don’t know how happy that would make—”
“Cole,” I say. “What have you done with Cole?”
Byron’s face turns slightly more serious, but it’s undercut by his tickling one of the miniature monkeys with his index finger. Seriously, the thing is the size of a Ping-Pong ball.
“Cole has broken our cardinal law,” he says simply, “and will have to be dealt with accordingly.”
I can feel the color leave my face. “What do you mean, ‘dealt with’?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not—”
“Don’t worry?” I screech out. He might as well tell me not to blink. “Don’t WORRY?” Drusilla lurches to her feet at my sudden outcry, like there’s some threat she needs to deal with, but one low growl from Boatswain and she backs off. “Please don’t hurt him.” My voice is shaky, and I am this close to crying, but I use every ounce of strength to hold it together. Boatswain drops his head into my lap.
Again, Byron’s pretty chillaxed about the whole scene. “Ah,” he says calmly. “The drama of young love.” And he closes his eyes once more. “I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep, or else this heavy heart will burst; for it hath been by sorrow nursed, and ached in sleepless silence.” He opens his eyes once more and gives me a bittersweet smile.
“Cole told me all about your Code, or whatever,” I say, petting Boatswain with both hands in an effort to calm myself. “I know that what he did was bad. I mean, I know you guys think it was bad.” Cole was not supposed to sleep with me. The Almiri have superstrict rules about which human ladies are meant to be knocked up and how frequently an Almiri can do the deed, in order to avoid overpopulation and the eventual destruction of both our species, since Almiri pregnancies lead to sterility in their human hosts. Cole was originally sent to Ardmore, PA, to knock up übercheerleader-mega-skank Britta McVicker, but he disobeyed orders because, as he put it, he “fell for me.”
Also, he’s sort of a chromer.
“But it wasn’t his fault,” I go on. “I, like, totally seduced him. He tried to resist, but . . . what’s going to happen to him?” I whisper around the lump forming in my throat.
“You’ve learned quite a bit about us the past few weeks, Elvie,” Byron says. And perhaps I’m misreading things, but there seems to be some sympathy in his voice. “And seeing that this is the case, I hope that you can appreciate the reason for the Code, and why our adherence to it is so important. I can’t overemphasize what a big deal it is.” The monkey lets out a miniature cheep of insistence until Byron returns to tickling him. “Like, humongous big.”
“But Cole didn’t mean—”
Byron cuts me off. “I’ve tried to shield Cole from repercussions with regards to your situation, as best I could. It was no easy task, mind you. The fact that Cole violated protocol and had relations with a second host—someone who clearly had not been vetted for hosting—was not only foolish but dangerous. For both our species.” He clears his throat. “However, in light of the heroism Cole displayed on the Echidna, I felt compelled to petition for some degree of leniency for the boy. It was not the most popular sentiment, I can assure you, but I was able to arrange a sort of . . . tenuous probation for young Mr. Archer. Which might have been the end of it, were it not for his unfortunate behavior at the hospital. At this point, my hands are tied. One simply does not head-butt a superior and walk away, even under the cheeriest of circumstances.”
So Cole did head-butt that dude. At least I wasn’t hallucinating.
Byron shakes his head in a mannered gesture of regret. “He will be punished, Elvie, but I swear on my life, he will not be harmed.”
“Oh, well, if you swear on your life,” I reply. Still, I am relieved by the news. But . . . “That doesn’t explain why you’ve taken me or my dad. Or Ducky. And where is my baby girl?” I shove Boatswain away, suddenly very frustrated. The dog whines piteously.
Byron stands up, and Boatswain and Thunder snap to attention and move into flanking position beside him as he walks to the front of the desk. He sits on the edge and looks down on me, much like a hip teacher from a bad sitcom about
to dole out “serious life lessons.” Byron temples his fingers in front of his mouth and considers me with an intense gaze.
“Elvie, do you know how incredible your baby is?” he begins. “I mean, all babies are incredible. Life, I mean, wow, right? Whether it’s human or Almiri or, I dunno, whales . . . it’s just a miracle. But your baby . . . she’s even more special.”
“Because she’s a chick,” I say.
“Because she’s a chick,” he confirms. “Almiri do not have baby girls.” He reaches across his desk for a round red tin and pops open the top. “Biscuit?”
I seem to have lost my appetite. “So, my daughter’s, like, a miracle squared?”
Byron sets the tin on the desk and rests one hand on each of the heads of his two dogs. It’s a measured and self-conscious pose. I can totally picture him practicing in front of the mirror for dramatic situations just like this. Then he lapses into that annoying closed-eye reciting thing again. “What a whirlwind is her head, and what a whirlpool full of depth and danger is all the rest about her.” He opens his eyes again. “No,” he says, and the ice that’s suddenly in his voice startles me a bit. “Not a miracle. On the contrary, the child is a great danger.”
“A danger?” I ask, baffled. “To who?”
“All of us,” Byron says. And just as quickly he snaps back into levity. “Seriously, you should try one of these biscuits.” He plucks one from the tin. “They’re delish.”
I’m not even sure I manage to shake my head. Dangerous? How can one baby girl be a danger to anyone, let alone a guy who’s well over a hundred years old and has two Academy Award nominations on his résumé?
“What’s an ibrida?” I ask. Byron chokes on his biscuit, trying his best to hide a double take.
“Where’d you hear that word?” he asks pointedly.
“At the hospital, when your goons decided to go all batshit crazy on me.”
Byron tries to smile casually. “That’s not really important at the moment,” he says, and it’s the first time I don’t buy the acting job. His eyes shift to the biscuit tin for a split second, before he looks back up at me. “I know you are somewhat aware of the history of the Almiri, Elvie, but let me explain it to you a little more fully, so that you’ll understand.” He nudges Thunder’s nose away from the biscuit tin. “We came to the Earth nearly five thousand years ago. Humans were one of six viable host species in the entire galaxy, and they were remarkable creatures. We sought to make them more remarkable. You are familiar, to some extent, with Greek mythology?”
“Sure,” I say, bracing myself for yet another history lesson. The Almiri seem to love them. “Zeus, Athena, all that crap.”
“Exactly,” Byron says. “Those were us.”
“Excuse me?” I say, eyebrows up. “Sorry, but not for one second do I believe that you guys are gods.”
“No, of course not,” Byron replies. “You misunderstood my meaning.” Beside him, Boatswain manages to sneak a biscuit from the tin unnoticed, but I decide to let this go unmentioned. “When we first arrived on Earth, we couldn’t blend in as we do now, so of course our appearance was strange to humans. They had stories of deities already in their society, and whenever anyone happened to spy one of us, they simply slotted us into those appointed roles. Burning bushes, talking
clouds, showers of gold, these were ways for them to describe what was beyond their understanding. Thunder, no. You just ate.” Thunder glares at Boatswain, who’s licking the crumbs stealthily off his doggy gums. “Soon,” Byron continues, oblivious, “we Almiri had our first children, and they appeared to be human. Their abilities, however, made them stand out.”
“Lemme guess,” I interject. I’m wondering when this is going to lead to a smidgen of information about my baby. About my dad and Ducky. About Cole. “Achilles, Hercules, Perseus . . .”
“They were the first Earthborn Almiri,” Byron confirms. “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind, to render with thy precepts less the sum of human wretchedness, and strengthen Man with his own mind.” He’s doing that closed-eye thing again. Boatswain sneaks another cookie. I clear my throat, and Byron’s eyes fly open. “Where was I? Oh yes. Over time, successive generations appeared as human, and it became easier and easier to simply disappear into human society.”
“This is all fascinating, really,” I lie. “But can we skip along? You were explaining how my baby was going to bring about the apocalypse.”
Byron smiles again and starts pacing around the room. The dogs follow obediently at his heels, with the husky staying as far from the bear as possible. On the wall next to the oil painting of the dude in the headscarf is one of Boatswain, though the picture appears to be very, very old, and the pooch couldn’t be more than six. Byron considers it for a moment in silence, then turns back to me.
“Elvie, we have always been a very small, discreet society.
We took to heart the mistakes of our ancestors, and were careful to never endanger mankind with reckless propagation. Basically, we tried not to be dicks about it. And along the way, we’ve pushed the humans toward advances that would have taken eons for them to come up with on their own. I mean, take jazzercise.”
“My apocalypse baby,” I remind him.
“We need human females to breed, Elvie. We have no alternative. Without you there would be no Almiri. Human female, Almiri baby. That’s the way it’s always been. Then suddenly you come along, and young Mr. Archer . . . and somehow your child is not Almiri.”
“What do you mean she’s not an Almiri?” I say. “Sure, she’s an anomaly, I get that. But she’s Cole’s kid. I’m not some wanton slut-bag, if that’s what you’re imply—”
“The child is not Almiri,” Byron repeats. “The child—your child, Archer’s child—is somehow something else. An ‘anomaly,’ as you put it. But not a benign one. If left unchecked, this anomaly could be the end of the Almiri . . . and of humans, too.”
An icy ball is beginning to form in my stomach. “What are you going to do to my baby?” I ask slowly.
Byron examines me curiously, as if he’s honest-to-goodness confused, before realization breaks across his face. “Oh, poor child, what monsters we must seem right now! As I said, nothing that is happening is your fault, nor your child’s. We will not harm either of you, I promise.”
“So, then what? We’re free to go?”
He looks at me sadly. And maybe I’m just overreading his
superdramatic facial expressions, but I swear I see something there. Something that tells me it pains him, deeply and personally, to say what he’s about to. “The situation is not your fault, but it is still the situation at hand. I’m afraid we’re going to have to . . . contain the threat.”
I shift uneasily in my chair. “And here I thought the only threat was the Jin’Kai.”
Byron reaches for the tin again, then thinks better of it. Suddenly he seems to be avoiding my gaze. “Keeping you out of their hands is paramount as well. You and your child will be sent to a secure facility. For the time being. Until we can straighten this whole mess out.”
“What about Dad? Ducky?” I ask, rising to my feet. Drusilla rises as well, but this time I don’t back down. Being bear food is suddenly the least freaky thing I’m facing.
“We wouldn’t want to risk your father and friend falling into Jin’Kai hands either. So they will accompany you.” He’s trying to make this sound like some sort of temporary vacation or something, but I’m getting the strong vibe that wherever he’s sending us, it’s not going to be pleasant.
“So where is this Almiri Alcatraz you’re shipping me off to?” I ask. “Outer space again?”
“I think you’ve had enough adventures out there for a while, don’t you?” he says, jovial once more. “No, you’ll be stationed at a secret facility near Cape Crozier.”
It’s not a place on the planet most people would probably know. But I happen to have a deceased mother with a passion for travel and a detailed book of maps.
“ANTARCTICA?” I screech. What. Da. Fuh.
“The camp is home to a number of Almiri. A sort of . . . ‘time-out’ zone for brothers who have broken the Code.”
I drop my head so that my chin is practically digging into my chest, but my glower shoots directly into Byron’s pretty eyes.
“And you really think the safest place you could put me is in the middle of the frozen tundra with a whole bunch of superbuff aliens who you already know can’t keep it in their pants?” I ask in disbelief.
“Come now, Elvie.” Byron scrunches up his face and gives me a quick headshake, as if I have a filthy mind for even thinking what I’m thinking. He walks back over to his desk and hits a button on his intercom. A voice crackles in response.
“We’re just about finished in here,” Byron replies. He takes his hand off the intercom.
“Elvie, I realize that right now I must seem like a terrible villain—well, let’s be honest—an asshole. I’m sure I can’t blame you for thinking as much. Hopefully, someday sooner than later, you will understand that I have no choice. For the time being, Cape Crozier is our only option, however imperfect.”
The main door slides open, and my new buddy Alan is on the other side. Byron leans in to me and whispers so that Alan can’t hear. “Just remember that I won’t stop trying to help you, dearheart.” I flinch at the sound of the pet name that I’ve only ever heard my father call me.
Just how much does this guy actually know about us, anyway?
“Are the preparations made?” Byron asks Alan.
Alan, already at attention in the doorway, stiffens at his commander’s voice. “Nearly, sir, another hour at most,” he says.
“Please lead Miss Nara to the holding area, until then,” Byron says. “And for God’s sake, get the girl some clothes.”
• • •
I walk down the long, sterile corridor with Alan beside me, my slippers sliding across the slick linoleum floor. The rooms along the corridor do not have normal doors. Rather, the doors are thick, heavy, and mechanized, like the kind you might find in a factory, or a cargo ship.
Or a prison.
“How long are you going to ‘hold’ me here before I get started on that all-expenses-paid trip to the Earth’s rectum?” I ask Alan.
“Not long, Miss,” Alan says, and I can’t tell if he’s being polite or condescending.
Each door has a small, circular window about the size of a dinner plate. As we pass by one such window, I think I catch a shadow standing at the door, peering out at me, but in a flash the shadow disappears.
“Hey, what’s that?” I wonder, pausing. I try to look inside, but whatever was just there has disappeared. Alan takes my arm and gives it a slight tug, and my feet slide away from the door.
“This way, Miss,” Alan says.
I pull against Alan’s grip to crane my neck and look inside. I make out a tall, willowy figure and a very familiar-looking long blond ponytail.
“This way, now.”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that the Almiri were keeping my arch-nemesis, Britta McVicker, under lock and key.
But no, I think. That wouldn’t make any sense.
We come to the final door along the corridor, and Alan slides a card over the side sensor. Immediately the locking mechanism springs to life and the door slides open. The inside of the room is even more drab than the one I woke up in. It’s gray, with nothing but a couch built into two sides of the wall. Like a karaoke room without the karaoke.
I step inside, and without another word, Alan closes the door behind me. My options are pretty much stand or sit, so after a few moments of pacing, I decide to sit.
I’m not sure how long I’m sitting there—five minutes? ten?—when I hear the door sensor beep and the locking mechanism disengage. The door slides open, and in steps Byron, carrying something in his arms.
“I thought you might want a little company,” he says. I look down at the bundle he’s balancing so delicately in the crook of his elbow.
He is cradling my baby.
The Goober is tiny and pink and wrinkly, cooing softly as Byron bobs her gently up and down.
“We’ve made arrangements for your journey,” he tells me as he nears with my daughter. “You’ll leave on the Fountain. It will only take a few hours to get to the continent, although from there I’m afraid you’ll have to travel by dogsled. Technology is great, but it can’t trump Mother Nature.
Still, it’s a relatively easy journey, at least to the base.”
But I’m hardly listening. In the instant he hands me the Goober, the whole world seems to drop away.
I am a mother.
This wrinkled pink raisin is my daughter.
She finally opens her eyes, and blinks up at me, and that’s when I start to cry. Huge, blubbering sobs. Worse than when Christian was killed off in season three of Martian Law.
Byron takes in the scene quietly. Almost as if he were ashamed. I can only hope.
“I never did ask,” he asks softly. “What are you going to name her?”
I rub my daughter’s left cheek, where, curiously, her constellation of freckles seems ten times lighter than the last time I saw her. “Olivia,” I say through my sobs. I hold her close, feeling the rise and fall of her perfect, tiny breaths. “After my mother. Her name is Olivia.”