Marilynn Byerly

 

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Go to Part One

 

"Alone"

 

Part Two

 

Val eased the small flitter into the planet’s atmosphere. Wind rocked the ship, but he straightened it with familiar ease and studied the land below. Rock, brown rock, and even more brown rock with just enough green patches and water to keep the atmosphere breathable and absolutely no sign of civilization or a military base.

 

The sensors on the control panel told him little more than his own observation. Maybe the Appomattox's computers would make more sense of it, that is, if they were able to read his flitter’s data.

 

The intermittent microsecond data bursts he sent were meant to avoid detection by enemy equipment, but they had an unfortunate tendency of being garbled by planetary atmospheres like this one.

 

Even Smith’s transponder and the emergency beacon had been barely readable when they’d neared this planet. Only the fierce concentration and skill of his bridge crew had allowed them the miracle of this one clue to Adam and Smith’s disappearances.

 

Even now, so close to the ground, he still hadn’t picked up either signal.

 

Well, if the atmosphere made it rough for him and the Appomattox, it made it as rough for whoever had taken his two friends to spot this small craft.

 

Meeeeeee. Val jumped at the returning sound of the beacon echoing through the craft. The sound was sweet, but he lowered the volume and concentrated on his instruments. Changing direction and lowering his altitude, he aimed for the beacon’s location.

 

The terrain became mountainous slag heaps of broken rock and soil.

 

Another sensor sounded a warning. Kkkkaaaa kkkkaaaa.

 

Val blinked with disbelief. A Pandori life sign was just ahead, but the beacon location was several miles beyond. The Pandori was moving toward the beacon.

 

He slowed to a hover and studied the valley and the mountainside for a landing spot. Best not fly in too close to Smith. The flitter’s wash might knock her off the side of the mountain or bring these ancient piles of rock down on top of them both.

 

“Perfect,” he decided aloud and settled the flitter into a flat area in the center of the valley.

He hopped out, pulled on his jacket and his emergency pack, tucked his weapon into the jacket pocket holster, and began his climb up the mountain to the path that threaded high above. The brittle, broken rock provided plenty of foot and handholds so he made good speed up the slope.

 

With a grunt, he pulled himself onto the path. Rock crumbled beneath him, and he scrambled forward till he reached the mountain’s side.

 

Ahead, he could just see the slight figure of the Pandori who wore a dark cloak and hood which definitely weren’t standard military issue. Someone else must be on this desolate world as well, and Smith had made contact with them.

 

With careful haste, he started after her and soon was close enough to shout, “Smith.”

 

She spun around, the path crumbling beneath her, and she pitched over the edge.

 

Cursing his stupidity, he ran to the broken point in the path, threw himself down, and crawled forward until he could see below.

 

Her body lay twenty-five feet down on a wide ledge. The cloak covered her so completely that he couldn’t tell how injured she was.

 

Remembering the rope in his pack, he pulled it out, tied it to the biggest boulder in the area, then rappelled down to the ledge.

 

“Smith, I’m so sorry.” He knelt by her still body, rolled her over with infinite care and gentleness, and stared down into the face of a young Pandori. “Bloody hell.”

 

Val examined the boy, but except for bruises found only a broken left arm. With the medical kit he’d brought for Adam, he set it then covered the boy with a blanket and sat down, his back against the mountain, and cradled the boy against him to fight the shock Pandori were so prone to.

 

Late afternoon sun baked the sheltered ledge with warmth, and he had to fight to stay awake.

An angry humming and twittering filled the air around him. With a sudden start, he jerked himself awake again and covered his ears against the sound, but it roared in his head.

 

A balloon of light formed near him and then a second. The horrible din increased.

 

One of the balloons floated toward them. He eased the boy off his lap, stood, and swatted it. Stinging energy seared his hand, and he yelped. The second balloon neared. Val moved between it and the boy then stopped.

 

The first balloon floated gently and caressingly against the Pandori’s face like an affectionate cat. Val stepped away from the second balloon which came to the boy and softly rubbing against his body. They must be the boy’s pets.

 

With a sudden dart forward, one of the balloons slammed into Val’s chest stinging him and forcing him backwards. It twittered angrily at him. The second struck.

 

Covering his ears, Val tried to hold his ground as the first hit him again, but he was fast running out of ledge. He wouldn’t be as lucky as the boy. The rest of the mountain was sheer.

The balloons began to work in unison shoving him toward the ledge’s rim.

 

“Fluffy, Glow, stop that. He did not hurt me. I fell. He helped me.”

 

The balloons pulled away, returned to the boy, and danced a few feet above him as if on guard. The boy smiled at Val and motioned him forward. “Come here please. They will not hurt you.”

 

“Hello. I’m Val Grant. How do you feel?”

 

“Rocky.” The boy laughed. “A pun. I am Ari. Are you a friend of Adam’s?”

 

“Yes.” Val knelt by the boy. “Is he here? Is he safe?”

 

“Yes. I will take you to him. Can you pick me up?”

 

“Sure.” Val slipped his equipment pack back on then picked him up. “Now what? I can’t carry you off the side of this mountain.”

 

“But they can. Close your eyes. We take a fast trip to Adam.”

 

The world trembled under Val’s feet, and he opened his eyes. They were inside a large stone room, and the balloons had vanished.

 

The boy called out, “Adam, we have company. Come here.”

 

Adam walked out of one of the adjoining rooms. “Damn, Val. They got you, too.”

 

“No, I came in a flitter. I followed the...”

 

With a nod, Adam quickly changed the subject, “What happened to you, Ari?”

 

“I fell off a mountain. I think my arm is broken.”

 

“The kid's heavy, Adam. Where can I put him?”

 

“In here. This is his room.”

 

Val ducked through the low door frame and eased the Pandori onto the bed then shucked off his equipment pack and pulled out the medical kit. “For you, doctor.”

 

With a grin, Adam opened it up. “I feel like I’m missing a limb without one handy.” He began to examine the boy.

 

“Is Smith here?”

 

“Yes. She’s had a hard day and is asleep. We can see her later.” Adam told Val of what had happened to him since his disappearance, and Ari chimed in occasionally with details of his own history.

 

Adam helped Ari put his shirt back on. “The arm’s fractured, but Val set it correctly. A little time and tender care, and it will be as good as new.”

 

“About Smith,” Val asked again.

 

“The balloons brought Smith here yesterday afternoon.”

 

“Who is Smith?” Ari asked Adam.

 

“She’s a dear friend and first officer of our ship. She’s Pandori.”

 

“I wish to meet her now.” Ari sat up eagerly.

 

“Rest. She’s sleeping. You both need the rest.”

 

Val studied his friend’s strained face. “What’s wrong, Adam?”

 

Rubbed his temples as if they ached, he told them about what One had done to Smith.

 

In the long dead silence after Adam finished talking, Ari spoke, “Take me to her, please. I must see her. I can help, I think.”

 

When Adam nodded, Val picked Ari up and moved to the other bedroom. Stopping at the door, he took a deep, steadying breath then walked in and placed Ari by Smith who looked young and vulnerable curled in a ball asleep.

 

“I can join another’s thoughts by touching the temples,” Ari said. “It is similar to what I achieve with One. My father said that I have strengthened my telepathic gifts by constant use. We tested the limits of my power.” He smoothed the fur on Smith’s head tenderly then rested his fingers on her forehead.

 

“She has been hurt badly, but her last years have not been destroyed. They are only dammed up. Memory blocks. But the memories will be destroyed completely when One enters her mind again.

 

“It will be difficult and dangerous for us, but I will give her back what she has lost before One can finish the damage. I must go deeper than I have ever attempted. One will try to stop me, too.”

 

“How dangerous?” Adam asked.

 

“We may both die.”

 

“No!”

“I must. I have no choice.”

 

“Why?” Adam asked.

 

Ari’s face glowed with emotion as he recited his people’s one great rule. “We are Pandori, all Pandori are family, and the family is everything.”

 

#

 

Propped against a boulder outside Ari’s house, Adam watched Ari and Smith chattering together in the sunny garden.

 

From the moment Ari had claimed Smith’s kinship two days ago, they had become inseparable. In Ari’s presence, Smith seemed less terrified than in those first hours. No longer withdrawn, she was now a normal four year old, a normal four year old in an adult’s body.

Enjoying the ease between the two, Adam thanked the gods of space for the boy. His day spent alone with the child Smith had been hell. Between the physical agony and the emotional devastation of memory rape, she had been hysterical.

 

Never had he felt so totally inadequate. With a four year old’s mind, she had suffered a trauma an adult couldn’t handle. Only Ari with his love had eased the agony. All Ari’s years of pent-up love was now lavished on the child Smith.

 

The great pity was that Ari needed a mother, not a child in an adult’s body. The wistfulness in his eyes when he looked at Smith was heartbreaking and Smith, who had lost her children and her mate, had burned with maternal hunger when she’d heard about this orphan. One’s selfish choice to change her was as despicable for Ari as it was for Smith and the humans who loved her.

 

The boy began to tell Smith something with exaggerated voices and gestures. Wide-eyed and solemn but with an occasional giggle, she watched him.

 

Adam leaned forward and listened intently.

 

“Hi, darling, I’m home.” Val plopped down beside him.

 

Adam looked at him with surprise then realized he was joking. “Welcome back.”

 

“How’s our two little Pandori?”

 

“Ari’s a lot better, and Smith’s regaining her strength.”

 

“We won’t be able to keep One away from her soon. The damn balloons will finish destroying every last bit of Smith’s past.”

 

“One’s only holding back now to mollify Ari. He’s still furious with it for what it did.”

 

”Ari’s a good kid,” Val said. “What in the world is he telling her?”

 

“‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’” Adam stretched back wearily. “Should we try to bring her past back? What if she’s too badly damaged? At least she can function as a four year old, and she is happy.”

 

“I don’t think she’s been truly happy since she lost her mate and two children, but she deserves those memories. She would rather grieve over them than not remember. Even with the pain of Astrid’s death with me always, I don’t want to forget her.”

 

Adam winced. One had told the boy that it would regress Val as soon as Smith’s regression proved a success. It couldn’t resist another chance at conversation. “Any luck with your flitter?”

 

“None. Everything’s dead. Fried by those damn balloons. The communication equipment Ari dropped when he fell off the mountain is a pile of rubble. Just as well. By now, since I’ve not contacted them, the Appomattox has left this area at flank speed.”

 

“You really think they’ll follow orders?”

 

“They damned well better have. Wajda raised hell when I decided to come by myself.”

 

“Bodyguards tend to do that when their captain decides to do such a foolhardy thing.” Adam grinned. “It’s their job.”

 

“And it’s mine to bring our people home safely. Hell, without you and Smith, there is no Appomattox mission. You two geniuses were the mission, and the only reason I was in the service anymore. I knew I could rot here just as well as on Earth.” Val shrugged tiredly. “And Wajda is the only officer with combat experience so I wanted him to have the helm.”

 

“We’re on our own then.”

 

‘‘I’m afraid so.”

#

“I must try to restore Smith’s memory tonight,” Ari said.

Adam glanced at Val sitting beside him on the living area’s floor than back at Ari who sat on one of the tiny chairs. “Her mind and health are still fragile.”

“We run out of time,” Ari replied. “One grows impatient. If it touches her mind again, the damage will be complete. I will not be able to help her after that.”

“What will prevent them from doing the same thing again?” Adam asked. “They can just regress Smith again.”

“I will stop them if I must. I doubt if they could succeed a second time. A second attempt would fail or kill Smith. The mind is too delicate to survive more than one such maiming. One would not risk killing her like that.”

“You have more faith in those balloons than I do,” Val said.

“One understands death in others. It is virtually immortal, but it saw my mother’s death and my father’s. It understands nonexistence and the end of thought. It felt my pain and grief. It will not kill.”

“It tried to kill me,” Val said.

“Only to protect me. It believed you had and would hurt me.”

“It will try to stop you,” Adam said.

“I’ve thought of that,” Val said. “We need a diversion, but that’s almost impossible since those balloons can be everywhere at once.” He paused. “I’ve got the solution. I want you to call One. Tell it I want to be regressed tonight. I’ll keep it busy while you work with Smith.”

“Val!” Adam exclaimed.

“Don’t worry, Adam. After a bit, Ari can bring me back. I trust in Ari's skills. After that Smith and I will be useless to One. It will free us all in disgust, even Ari. He will be a constant deterrent to One’s plans if he stays here. One will be happy to see him go with us.”

“You have more faith in me than I do,” Ari said. “I do not know that I can help her. She may be beyond my aid, or may be mentally damaged beyond repair. One was not skillful in Smith’s regression. And if I do save her, I may not be able to save you. You do not have a Pandori mind.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Val said. “I’ll just be giving up a few days as I am if you fail.” He smiled. “Smith and I have fought and lived side by side, soon we may be playing ball together and listening to Ari’s stories. Hardly the old age I had in mind.”

Adam laughed with effort. “Well, just call me Daddy.”

#

Adam walked into Ari's bedroom later that evening. “One is with Val. You can go now.”

Ari sat on the bed with Smith huddled fearfully against him. He embraced her comfortingly. “Do not be afraid. I will not let it hurt you. One will never hurt you again, I promise.” He looked up at Adam. “Just One’s physical nearness gives her pain and increases the mental damage. I must go now or her past will be totally destroyed.”

He stretched out on the bed and settled Smith against his side. “I am going to make you sleep now. When you wake up, you will feel better.”

Thanking the gods of space that the kid was on their side, Adam watched Smith relax trustingly into sleep in Ari's arms. With his telepathic skills, he’d be almost as dangerous an enemy as the balloon creature.

Ari smiled warmly up at him. “I may not see you again. If not, I was honored to know you and Val. Take care. Farewell.” His body went limp.

Pressing his hands over his ears, Adam sat down beside Ari and Smith. In the next bedroom One twittered and hummed with increasing volume as it worked on Val.

With growing apprehension for the safety of his three friends, Adam waited.

#

Propelled from the darkness into the light, Ari floated on a current of thought. Random sense memories touched him fleetingly-- the taste of milk, the odor of growing earth, the sound of strangers’ voices.

Strangers to me, not to Smith, Ari reminded himself. He was in Smith’s early memory now, that part of Smith that One wished to retain. He had to find the memory block and make her whole again.

Memories grew and solidified as age increased. Brief scenes, flashes of memory fragmented and whole, flowed past or he passed them. He was unsure which.

The current eddied and slowed. A pet caythin rubbed its furry body against his ankle and whirred with pleasure then loped away.

His mother, no, Smith’s mother held him in her arms and sang to him. His father knelt on the floor in front of him and rolled a ball to him. A bigger sister danced around the room with him.

Reminding himself that his one chance to find family again was not with these memory ghosts but with the adult Smith, he trudged onward until he came to a great stone wall that stretched to both ends of the horizon--the memory block between Smith’s childhood and the rest of her life.

He scaled it and started to search for the adult Smith. It would take both of them to clear a path through the wall so the two parts could be joined.

Sensing the weakness around him, Ari ran forward with renewed urgency. The adult Smith was losing strength and vitality. Soon it would be too late.

Memories of a life Ari could only wish to have touched and caressed him as he moved forward. Seducing him with bittersweet poignancy, memories impeded him, but he ran on.

Playmates his own age raced around him with happy shrieks. His own people surrounded him with love and respect. Smith’s people, Ari reminded himself. Smith’s people and Smith’s memories. He was alone. He had only One.

Loneliness smote Ari harder. Wilson, Smith’s mate. Their two little ones growing up. Life within a whole family.

Their senseless, accidental death filled him with anger and desolation.

New memories came, but the desolation remained.

The Appomattox explodes around him. Smith and Adam are pinned by debris. Val pulls a beam off Smith who begs him, “Never mind me. Help Adam.”

Enemy soldiers marching toward them, Val and Smith stand side by side, their energy weapons drawn, while behind them Adam ushers several family groups of Adrin refugees. Val shouts to Adam, “Get them to the flitter, we’ll hold the Dron back as long as we can.”

Ari paused in thought as he remembered Val saying, “I want you to call One. Tell it I want to be regressed tonight. I’ll keep it busy while you work with Smith.”

The one great truth that One did not understand but must understand stood stark and pure and beautiful before him.

He forced himself forward.

Just beyond, Smith lay silent upon a catafalque in their people’s ceremonial robe for the dead. Ari gave a cry of despair. “No, you cannot be dead.”

He pressed his ear to her chest. A faint heartbeat. But so cold, so terribly cold.

Shivering, he lifted her at the shoulders and embraced her to warm her with his own body heat. “Do not leave me. Please do not leave me. I need you. Take my life force. Share my life force. I give it freely. Do not die. I need you so much.”

As his warmth flowed to Smith, color returned to her face, her heartbeat strengthened, and her breathing deepened.

How could he wake her?

Fairy tales are the keys to the consciousness his father had once said. They would be the key now. But what fairy tale? Sleeping Beauty? No, they would never be mates.

Magic. The naming of names. He must say Smith’s true name, and she must awaken. But what was her true name? All her names were true.

“Daughter, sister, wife, scholar, warrior, Pandori kin, Mother.” He repeated the names again slowly with wistfulness touching the last name. Smith stirred.

No longer holding her, Ari was now held. Comforted, he wept against her chest sharing his long loneliness and his past with her as he had shared her past.

After peace touched him, Smith spoke, “Son.”

He straightened and wiped away his tears. “I am Ari. I am not your son.”

“Whoever you are, you are my son,” Smith insisted gently.

“Thank you. Are you well enough to travel? We must return to the wall. If we do not breach it soon, One will destroy you completely.”

Smith swung off the catafalque and stood up. Ari noticed with a start that she now wore her Confederation uniform instead of the burial robe.

“I am weak, but with your help...”

She placed her arm over Ari's shoulder, and he steadied her by wrapping his arm around her waist. “We had better hurry. We run out of the time your friend Val paid so dearly for.”

Drawing upon the strength Ari shared, Smith traveled backwards through her past. Only her memories of her mate and children slowed and finally stopped her.

Ari tugged her ineffectually. “Come on. We cannot stop. We do not have the time.”

“But my family,” Smith said wistfully. “So real, so alive here.”

“If your adult self dies, they will die again. All of your memories of them will be erased. It will be as if they never existed, never loved you.”

She closed her eyes and turned away reluctantly. “Lead me on.”

When they reached the wall, they stopped, and she stared at the enormous stones. “What do we do now?”

“I am not certain. I hoped you would be the key to make the wall fall, but nothing happens. Try saying ‘Open Sesame’ to the wall.”

“Ah, human fairy tales. Yes, of course.” She spoke to the wall, “Open Sesame.” The wall remained whole.

“Well, it was worth a try. Let us climb over. If we reunite you with your past self, the two of you may be joined again. I will help you climb.”

As they neared the wall, Smith fell heavily to her knees pulling him down with her and slumped against him. “My strength is gone.”

Ari moaned in despair. They had been so close, but One had come.

Humming and twittering angrily, One blocked their path to the wall.

Smith’s life force began to fade.

Hatred for One touched Ari for the first time. “No,” he screamed. “You cannot have Smith. I will die first.”

He began to give Smith his own life force as One’s presence drained hers. Lightheaded, no longer having the strength to hold her upright, he let her sink to the ground.

Her eyes fluttered open, and she gazed up at him. “Ari, let me die. Please do not do this. Let me die. Go back and help my friends. They need you. Please, Son, help my friends. Let me die. Save yourself.”

Ari drooped above her. “No. I hold my ground. If One sees I am determined to die with you, it may give up. It does not want me to die.”

“It does not understand what is happening. Please.” She caressed Ari's face with her last strength.

“I learned something from you and your friends. I learned that there are some things and some people more valuable than your own desires and even your own life. You are more important to me than life. That is one thing One has never learned. I will not give in. This is as good a way to die as any. At least I am not alone.”

Smith’s hand dropped, and she fainted.

He lay down weakly against her savoring her closeness.

“Ari,” whispered a voice like hundreds of wind chimes. Until now the voice had always been beautiful.

“Yes, One.”

“Do not die.”

“I have no choice.”

“I am lonely, Ari. I am alone.”

“I have always been alone. You never understood that.”

“I understand now. Your words/thoughts to your mother have touched me. I free you. Your mother and her friend are whole now. I free all of you. Farewell.” One was gone.

Ari looked up. The wall had disappeared.

Slumping against Smith, he laughed weakly. He’d won but too late. His life force and Smith’s were almost gone. Blackness touched him, and he collapsed.

#

Val and Adam walked slowly toward Appomattox's Sick Bay. Adam watched Val with concern. “Are you certain you’re up to this visit, Val? This is your first day out of bed.”

“Fatherhood’s gone to your head, Adam. It’s been over a week since those balloons tap danced across my brain. I’m fine.”

“You’re certainly in better shape than Smith and especially Ari. In a deep coma for four days.”

“What about the balloon?”

“It’s still there. It just hangs over Ari without a hum or twitter. My team believes the way it phases in and out during transfers allows it to travel vast distances to Ari as long as their psychic connection remains, and the kid can talk as comfortably with it now as he did on the planet.” Adam shrugged. “If we ever get out of range, it would surprise me.”

“I guess he’s stuck with the damn thing, then. My head twinges just thinking about that creature. I don’t remember much about my journey to the fountain of youth except enormous pain.”

“I’m almost sorry I never met your younger self. Smith was a sweet little girl. What were you like?”

“Mom said I was a real brat. Hard to believe since I turned out so well.”

“Yes, it is hard to believe.”

Val looked surprised at his easy agreement. “You must be humoring the invalid.”

“Yes, I am.” Adam grinned. “Smith and Ari have really perked up since the Pandori Council gave her kin right to the boy.”

“And that means?”

“About the same as human adoption. And they aren’t required to return to Dori to establish a home as would normally be the case. Smith’s too important here, and I don’t think they’d admit it, but they are more than a little cautious about allowing that balloon access to Dori and all those babies.”

“Hmmm. Smart Pandori.” Val fingered his mustache. “And I imagine Earth and its colonies would have the same reservations. At least until the balloon shows it will behave itself.”

“And your thoughts as captain of this ship?”

“Reservations, hell, yes, but I don’t want to lose Smith, and I like the kid. And since this is a research vessel, not a fighting vessel, I have leeway about members of my crew not being military so the boy can stay.”

Arriving in the Sick Bay, Val and Adam entered a small isolation chamber. Smith sat in a chair by Ari’s bed talking quietly to Ari who lay in bed. One of the balloon creatures floated silently above the younger Pandori.

After the greetings died down, Adam forced a not unwilling Val into a chair and sat down himself at the edge of Ari's bed. Keeping an uneasy eye upon the balloon, he examined his friends. “You all look much better. I think you’ll live.”

“I did not believe that I would ever waken, especially not to a whole new world.” Grinning, Ari motioned around him.

Val chuckled. “You’ve only seen the Sick Bay. When you get your strength, Smith, Adam, and I will show you the Appomattox and more planets than you can possibly imagine.”

“I look forward to that. You promised me, Adam, that you would tell me what happened with One when I was recovered. I am recovered enough.”

“There is little to tell. About half an hour after you went after Smith, One came from Val to you and Smith. It was very angry and more than a little frightened for you, I think. It forced me from the room. I checked on Val who was still unconscious. After a bit, One just disappeared. You and Smith were nearly dead. I could do nothing to help you.”

Adam paused remembering his grief and helplessness. “I heard a strange humming and went outside to investigate. One had returned Val’s flitter, and it was operative so I called the Appomattox for medical help and rescue. The ship came soon after. We got you three aboard and left the planet at flank speed.

“After hearing about One, Wajda was more than happy to put a lot of space between us and that planet. We were afraid One would change its mind and bring us back. We were upset when the balloon appeared above you a day after we thought we were out of range.”

Val gazed at the balloon warily. “Is it sick?”

“No,” Ari said, “it conserves energy. It has some difficulty being so far away from the rest of itself. One sent Fluffy to check on me. It was worried.”

“You are recovering,” Smith said. “Why does it not leave?”

The boy lowered his eyes guiltily. “One is lonely. It wants to stay. I did not have the heart to send it away. It will cause no harm. Please help me convince the humans to let it stay. It is so lonely. You and both know what a horrible thing loneliness is.”

Smith clasped Ari’s hand. “You and I both know loneliness. If it does no harm, I will help you.”

Ari smiled happily. “Glow will replace Fluffy at times, but only one will be here at a time. It will stay with me and guard me. It will not harm our friends.”

Adam wondered aloud, “Is it a good idea to let it know so much about us? It will learn our planets, our peoples, and our strengths.”

“If it wished to conquer, the ship would have been taken by now,” Smith said. “The more it learns of others, the less we need fear One. Just by knowing Ari, One has matured remarkably.”

Ari gazed at Smith with open adoration. “Just by knowing you and your friends, Ari has matured remarkably. One proved that it was worthy of a place with other peoples when it freed us. My father said that the mark of a mature society or individual was an act of great self-sacrifice. I did not understand that and neither did One. Now we both do.”

“My science team is quite eager to study One,” Adam said. “We hope to create a mechanical translator in place of training infants.”

“One’s balloon and Ari are now valuable new ship’s company. The captain has spoken.” Val grinned.

“Thank you,” Ari said shyly. “I don’t want to leave Smith.”

Smith spoke quietly but with deep feeling, “Smith will never leave Ari.”

Adam gazed at his friends who were all exhausted just from conversation. “I think you all should get some rest now. Sit back quietly for a bit. We can talk later.”

“A perfect idea,” Val said. “How about a bedtime story, Ari. ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears?’ Do you remember it, Smith?”

With a chitter of embarrassment, Smith gazed at Adam. “I remember my second youth vaguely. I was happy and well-cared-for.”

“We lesser species do what we can,” Adam said drily.

“About the story, Ari.”

“Certainly, Val. But one thing first. What is a bear?”

 

THE END

 

Be sure to check out

 

The Once and Future Queen

 

Another adventure with Val Grant, Adam Dane, Smith,

 

and the crew of the Appomattox

 

To save a human colony of royalty, castles, and courtly lifestyle, Col. Val Grant and his Confederation crew face an alien enemy who cannot be beaten.

 

Excerpt

 

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