Authors: Piers Anthony
Part 1: Learning Love
Part 2: Trillion Dollar Project
Part 3: Redemption
It was some storm. The news reports were full of the way it had devastated the landscape it crossed, and now it was orienting on Brom’s neighborhood. The weather station radar indicated that he had a window of opportunity to get in his exercise run now, before the winds intensified. He could make it to the park and back in half an hour if he kept moving.
He went out at dawn in his trunks, T-shirt, running shoes and head band—and paused. His new next door neighbor was standing before her house, looking perplexed. She was lovely, even in a baggy shirt and puffy trunks, with her dark hair bound under a kerchief. He paused. “Are you all right?”
“I correct thank you all,” she responded. “Companion waiting.”
Brom had not realized that she was foreign, not that it mattered. He walked over to her. He had seen her running the other day with a female companion. He had nodded to them in passing. “The winds are getting high. She’s probably stuck in traffic. If you wait for her, you may miss your chance to run before it gets too dangerous. The storm is closing in.”
“Daily must exercise,” she said. “Alone not allowed.”
Because it was not safe, even in the suburbs, for a young woman to run alone. “Why don’t you run with me, then? We’re neighbors, going to the same park, returning to the same place. You won’t be alone.”
She was uncertain. “Allowed this is?”
She had interesting speech patterns, confirming that English was not her native language. “A young woman shouldn’t go with a strange man. But you have seen me before. You know where I live. We’re not complete strangers, and I would be happy to get to know you better. The storm makes time of the essence. I think your companion would understand.”
“Then run we together,” she agreed.
They ran on into the deserted street. It was not yet properly light and few others were up and about, and the storm suppressed the rest. The woman ran well; she seemed to be a supremely healthy specimen. Brom liked that. “Let’s exchange introductions,” he said. They were merely jogging so that dialogue was feasible. “I am Brom Hudson, software consultant.”
“I—my name think is Alien,” she said. “Interface.”
He was surprised. “You do not know?”
“I—from distant world. Name original not pronounceable. They give me name new.”
Brom smiled. “You mean you are from a distant land, so you have a nickname here?”
“That be it must,” she agreed. “Learning language still.”
Clearly so. “You are from an alien country, so I will call you Aliena.”
“This good is name?”
Brom found himself becoming unusually talkative. He wanted to impress this intriguing young woman. “Oh, yes. I’m adapting from a song, Arianna or Oreanna, I forget exactly, only making it Aliena, in honor of your origin.”
“Song? What is?”
So he sang it crudely to the Arianna tune he remembered, vigorously because the jogging increased his wind. “Ali Ali-ena, Ali Ali-ena, Ali Ali Ali Ali Ali Ali-ena.”
Then she sang it too, surprising him. Her notes were bell-like and her pitch was perfect.
“You really can sing!” he exclaimed.
“My planet—my country,” she corrected herself. “Sing communicate by.”
“Ah, like an oriental language, where pitch counts as well as sound,” he said.
“Think I correct.”
They reached the neighborhood park, where numerous riding, running, and walking trails wound through the forest. The rising wind was fluttering leaves and swaying branches, but it was not dangerous, yet.
Two gruff-looking men were loitering beside their path. They started to move as if to block the way. Brom gave them a direct stare and made a motion as of reaching for a shoulder holster, and they backed off. It wasn’t entirely a bluff; he had no gun but did carry a sturdy knife that could do a lot of damage in a hurry. Regardless, a woman with a man was not likely to be the easy prey they evidently sought.
“Martha unknown men not trust,” Aliena said.
That would be her running companion. “She is right. Trust only men you know, and be cautious about them.”
“We together sing trust.”
“We have sung together,” he agreed. If that was her basis for trust, that was fine with him. Her phrasing was distinctly odd, but the more he talked with her the better he liked her. She had a certain fetching naivete, and she was a seriously attractive woman.
They circled the park and exited the way they had come, following the street home. Now the winds had some gale-strength gusts. “In case we don’t get to do this again, Aliena, I just want to say that I have enjoyed running with you.”
“This pleasant is exercise,” she agreed.
They reached their home block—just as the lights went out. All the houses dimmed together, and the streetlights. “Uh-oh.”
“Meaning I confuse.”
“It’s an exclamation of concern. We have just suffered a neighborhood power outage. Our electric equipment won’t work.”
“This bad is?”
“That depends on how long it lasts. Probably the storm brought a tree down on a power box. It may take them an hour to get it repaired.”
They stopped before her house. “I appreciation express running your with me,” she said. “Now must inside return.”
“You’re welcome.” Brom waited as she went to her front door. She tried to open it, but it remained closed.
“Uh-oh,” he repeated. Then, to her: “Electronic lock?”
“Then I fear you are locked out. Do you have a mechanical key?”
“I what is not know.”
“Martha handled the door?” he said, catching on.
“Martha everything yes.”
She was screwed. He was not wholly dismayed. “Why don’t you come into my house while you wait for Martha, or the power return? I can get in.”
“This acceptable is?”
“In the circumstances, yes. As soon as we see either Martha or power, you can return to your own house.”
“This do I will.” She walked with him to his front door. Brom keyed it open mechanically and ushered her in. It was dark inside, but passable.
They sat in his modest living room and talked. Brom cautiously advised her on odd phrasings, and she quickly corrected them. She was a quick study.
“Why did Martha leave you here alone?” he asked her. “I never saw you outside without company before.”
“Martha called away. She meant to return soon. I am supposed to be always with human company,” she said. “Because I am unfamiliar with the ways. I must learn human culture.”
Brom smiled. “You speak as if you are not human.”
She paused. “I spoke with error. I regret.”
“Don’t worry about it. You are obviously human.”
“In body,” she agreed.
“Not in mind?”
She paused again. “I say what not know allowed.”
She was garbling again, signaling her distress.
“Aliena, we have not known each other long, but we have sung together. You can speak freely to me and I will not be offended, nor will I try to get you in trouble. I just want to help you, if I can.”
She considered. “Need I advice what to do. Martha always told me before.”
“And you feel lost without .”
“I do.” She touched her head. Brom saw there was a trace of blood on her bandanna. She must have gotten scratched during the run, though he had not seen it happen.
“There is blood on your head,” he said. “Are you all right?”
She removed the bandanna. There was a light matting of blood beneath it, soaking through her hair. “I—sometimes it bleeds. Not serious.”
Brom fetched a washcloth and poured some bottled water on it. “Let me mop it up,” he said. He patted her head delicately, and wiped. There was not a lot of blood there. It welled from a line on her head. “Have you had surgery?”
“Is tell all right?” she asked somewhat plaintively.
“You can tell me,” he agreed.
“Surgery,” she said. “Brain exchange. Slow to heal. Martha bandages.”
Brom froze. “Oh, you mean you had brain surgery.”
“Yes. The body lost brain and would die. My brain transplanted. I learning to operate body, but connections not all operative yet.”
This was amazing. “Your brain was transplanted into this body,” he said, awed.
“Yes. I must take good care of the body. Eat well, exercise, medications. Incisions still healing.”
Brom was amazed, but had no reason to doubt her. “What happened to the brain of this person?”
“I not completely clear. Believe she suffered immune rejection. You understand this? I do not.”
“Immune rejection, yes,” he said. “Each person’s body has a ferociously protective attitude about its own cells, and rejects any intrusion. This is necessary to fight illness. But it interferes when there are transplants, such as of a kidney. The transplant is needed for the body to survive, yet its immune system fights the foreign organ. It’s a problem.”
“Yes. This body opposes my foreign brain. Medication protects me. But it did not protect the prior brain, which they learned about too late. Rare condition.”
“Her body mounted an immune defense against her own brain,” he said in wonder. “That’s an amazing foul-up.”
“Yes. But good for me, because I needed a host.”
“What happened to you? Some really bad accident that ruined your own body?”
“No accident. My body was healthy. But I needed to come here.”
“From your alien country,” he agreed. “To interface, I think you said.”
“Yes. To represent my kind before human people.”
There was that odd reference again, as if she did not think of herself as entirely human. “So you are really an envoy, learning the local culture.”
“Envoy,” she agreed.
“Isn’t that the hard way to do it? Leaving your body behind, instead of coming here personally?”
“Very hard,” she agreed. “But my own body could not live here.”
“I have trouble thinking of any place on Earth where an inhabitant could not survive here.”
“Any place on Earth,” she agreed.
This did not seem to be getting far. Brom got up and went to the door. “Let’s see if Martha is back yet.”
Aliena immediately joined him. He opened the door and was almost blown off his feet. The wind had risen to gale force and hard drops of rain peppered them like bullets. Nothing was visible outside except swirling vapors.
He pushed the door closed. “I think not,” he said. “It’s not fit for man nor beast out there. She can’t be safe driving. She must be waiting for the storm to abate. That may be a long wait; it’s a hurricane.”
“I know what do to not,” she said, garbling in her distress. “Martha guide me. Absent her from lost I am.”
Brom turned to her and put his arms about her reassuringly. “You can stay here until she returns. You’re safe here.”
Then he realized two things. First, that he had just put his hands on this strange, beautiful woman, a familiarity that their brief acquaintance did not justify. She was accepting it, trusting him.
Second, that he liked her, odd as she was. That was odd in its own way. He had not had any such inclination in the past year. Aliena was getting through to him in a manner no other woman had. He knew, because some had in effect offered, and he had politely but very firmly turned them down.
“What are we doing?” Aliena asked.
He took her question literally, knowing that she was not much for nuance. “We are embracing. It is a thing one person does for another, to ease distress. Closeness can make a person feel better, if she likes or trusts her companion. I know you fear being lost without Martha to guide you, and I am trying to reassure you. I will let you go if you prefer.”
“It is working. Please remain. My tension eases in your embrace. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He was privately amazed by how very nice she was to hold.
“I do like and trust you,” she continued. “You have shown me something I did not know. I think the body is signaling my mind to relax. This is an effect I have not experienced before.”
“You must come from very far away.”
“Most distant,” she agreed.
“When you were a child, and you got injured, didn’t your mother hold you?”
She considered. “Please, this term mother. I do not know it.”
“Oh, you were an orphan! A child without a family.”
“No family,” she agreed uncertainly.
Increasing familiarity was not diminishing her oddity. “Look, Aliena, I think Martha is unlikely to get here soon. Neither is the power going to be restored quickly, which means you’ll still be locked out of your house. We need to change out of our jogging clothes and settle in for the long haul. I believe I have some clothing that will fit you.”
Now at last she made as if to disengage, and he let her. They returned to their chairs. “I think I should not burden you.”
“It’s not a burden,” he reassured her. “In fact I like your company. I’ve been alone for a year.”
“I am alone. I thought you were not alone.”
He shrugged. “I have been questioning you. It’s only fair that you question me. I am alone because my girlfriend died a year ago. I—rejected other women because they weren’t her. You aren’t her either, but I like you as you are.”
“Girl friend? Martha is my friend.”
“Not the same. People can be friends, and that’s important. But a girlfriend or a boyfriend is a romantic relationship.”
“There are not romances among your people?”
“Not,” she agreed.
Again, he decided that literal was the best course. “A romance is when a man and a woman get together and fall in love.”
This was more than strange. “I will be happy to clarify any and all unfamiliar terms. But first we should change and get comfortable. Let’s see how Lucy’s clothing fits you.”
“She was my girlfriend. When she died, her things remained. I haven’t touched them. I’m sure she would have wanted them to be put to good use.”
“Good use,” she echoed uncertainly.
He showed her to Lucy’s room. Her dresses and shoes were in the closet. Brom pulled a red dress out on its hanger. “Try this one on. If you don’t like it, there are others.”
She just stood there. “Please, I know proceed not. Martha dressed me.”
She did not even know how to dress herself? “I’m not sure this is something I should help you with, Aliena. It’s not appropriate.”
Now she was troubled. “Offend I meant not. Burden I regret.”
“No, Aliena, you did not offend me! It’s just that--” But what could he say? She must have been a princess, dressed by maids, and Martha did that job here She was evidently not conversant with the social conventions that provided a woman privacy. “I will help you change if you wish me to.”
She relaxed slightly. “Please, I will try to learn so as not to be a burden again.”
“I will take you through the process. Normally a person strips, washes, and changes. But with this power outage we don’t have proper light or water, so we’ll just change. Take off your sweatsuit.”
She just stood there.
“Like this,” he said. “Lift your arms up over your head.”
She obeyed. He took hold of her sweatshirt and drew it up off her body and from her arms. Her full bra, suddenly exposed, made him catch his breath.
“Now I recognize the process!” she said gladly. “I can do it.”
That was a relief. “I will go change myself in the other room. Come out when you’re done.” He exited, closing the door behind him.
He changed quickly to shirt and slacks, and to loafers. Fortunately he had not gotten sweaty in the windy morning run; he could get by without washing up. He returned to the living room. Soon Aliena joined him, changed. She wore the dress and sandals. Both seemed to fit her perfectly.
Brom’s breath caught again. “You’re beautiful!”
“The body was selected to be esthetic,” she said. “To make the interface easier.”
So they had chosen the prettiest host body they could obtain. That probably made sense, if she was to be a public figure.
But there was one detail. “Your hair,” he said. “We need to brush it out.”
She evidently hadn’t thought of it. “This I can do. Has your girlfriend a brush?”
Brom went and rummaged, finding a brush. Aliena brushed while they talked.
“Please, tell me about girlfriend, romance, and love.”
He thought the telling would be painful, but it was more of a relief, after a year suppressed. “Lucy was a petite blonde, just as you are a petite brunette. We seemed made for each other, and she moved in with me two years ago. We thought we would get married—that’s a formal union, the formation of a family—but then things started going wrong, and we seemed less right for each other. I was pondering whether to break up, that is, not to marry. Then she died in a car crash. I think she was distraught and committed suicide. They said she was texting while driving, and lost control, but I think it was suicide. The irony is that I did not realize how much I loved her until I lost her. I was to blame for her death, though I was never charged and no one accused me. I have been mourning her since then.”
“I do not comprehend all your references,” Aliena said. “But I think I understand that you liked this woman very much and grieved when you lost her.” Her brow furrowed. “I would like to learn love like this, for I see that it is important to you. How can I love?”
Brom shook his head. “It’s not something you learn to do, exactly. It just happens when you associate closely with someone, if the chemistry is right.”
“In this context, it means that you are compatible and mutually attracted. It grows if nothing interferes.”
She considered. “When we stood close together, and you comforted me, was that love?”
“Not by itself. But it could be the beginning of a feeling that grows into love as time passes.”
“Please, comfort me again.”
“Oh, I do not mean to take advantage!”
She winced. “Offense given again?”
“No! Aliena, you never offended me. It’s just that with your sex appeal--” He broke off at her blank look.
“Appeal sex,” she said. “This is something I have? That I should not?”
Brom gathered his mental resources and spoke as clearly and accurately as he could manage. “There are different kinds of emotions. Love is when two people genuinely like and need each other. But for a man it can be simpler. A man would like to have sex with any attractive woman regardless of love. That is, to breed her. To mate with her.”
“To mate. That I know. To reproduce.”
“Exactly. You are, that is your human body is, a remarkably fetching thing, and when I get close to it I feel like—like mating. That is your sex appeal. So I am careful, because that is not appropriate. We don’t know each other well enough.”
“How well must we know each other to mate?”
He spread his hands. “That is something that must come out of the situation. My point is that normally a man wants to mate, while a woman is more careful, because she is the one who gets pregnant and bears the baby. So she prefers a firm commitment first.”
“What leads to such a commitment?”
“Well, normally the two form a couple. They do things together. They embrace and kiss. And if--”
“They put their mouths together and suck a bit,” he said bluntly, thinking that would turn her off.
“Please, I would like to experience this, so that I can try to understand it.”
Brom knew he should try to dissuade her, but suddenly the idea of kissing her was overwhelmingly appealing. “If you really want to know, I will show you.”
“It starts with the, the comfort position.”
“Yes! I can do that.” She stood as he did, and approached him. Her hair, now brushed out, was long and lustrous, with a gentle curl. Beautiful? She was a knockout.
He took her in his arms. “Now lift your face, and I will lower mine, so that our mouths can touch.”
She lifted her face. He lowered his. Their mouths touched. Hers was mushy.
He drew back. “Firm your lips.” Then he tried again. This time she was firm.
He felt as if he were touching a little bit of heaven. He kissed her deeply, then drew back, surprised by the potency of what was supposed to be a demonstration.
“I felt it!” she said, amazed. “A warm rush of feeling!”
“That’s it,” he agreed. “You mind may not know it, but your body does, and it responded. That could be just a passing effect, or it could be the beginning of love.”
“The body,” she agreed. “It knows what I do not. That is surely an avenue.”
“An avenue,” he agreed.
“I’m not sure that’s wise. We don’t want to get carried away by the moment.”
“Please. I want to learn love.”
He was cut off as she rose on tiptoes and caught his mouth with hers. This time she was firm from the start. She pressed herself against him so that he could feel her breasts at his chest. What a dream she was!
She let him go. “It was stronger. I am learning.”
“You certainly are,” he agreed, his pulses racing.
“The body I think is made for love. I yield to it and learn.”
“Enough! I am trying to treat you with proper respect. Don’t make me lose control.”
“If you lose control, what will you do?”
“Breed you,” he said succinctly. “And we might both regret it.”
“Mating. You said pregnant. What is that?”
“Let’s return to the chairs, and I’ll explain.”
They sat down again. This time she crossed her legs. The hem of the dress snagged, exposing too much of her thigh.
“Pull your dress down,” he said.
“It is wrong?”
“You are showing your leg almost up to your panty line. That is provocative.”
“No. It’s another inducement for me to mate.”
She adjusted the hem. “I did not know. I apologize.”
“No need.” Then he plowed on. “When two human beings mate, and it takes, his seed is inside her. It meets with her egg, and it grows inside her.”
“Inside her!” she said, as if surprised.
“Yes. It grows for about nine months, until she births it. Then she has a baby. She suckles it—that it, it sucks on her breasts and they provide milk—and that is what feeds it. It is completely dependent on her. So unless she wants to have a baby, with the attendant responsibility, she is careful about mating.” He paused. “It is different in your culture?”
“Very different,” she agreed. “I agree, mating should be carefully considered. It is far more committing than I realized. Thank you for teaching me this.”
“Oh, you’re welcome,” he agreed bemused. What kind of culture kept girls ignorant of the mechanics and consequences of mating? This was over-protectiveness on steroids.
“The man is stimulated by the sight and proximity of the woman, and wishes to mate, and depart?”
“In essence, yes.”
“But the woman wishes the man to stay?”
“Yes, to help her take care of the child they make.”
“So she seeks commitment. What causes the man to commit?”
She pondered, working it out. “If I wish to be a part of this culture, and not to be alone, I must obtain the love of a man.”
“That’s a vast oversimplification, but in essence, yes.”
“But the mechanism of love seems similar to the mechanism for mating. How can they be separated?”
“Ideally, they go together.”
“But if the male and female preferences differ, how can they?”
Brom smiled. “This is the age-old problem, perhaps the basis for the so-called war between men and women. They have to find way to compromise.”
“Each gives somewhat, and obtains somewhat. They try to find a middle ground where they can interact that satisfies them both. It’s called dating.”
“This middle ground—where is it?”
Now he laughed, feeling more comfortable. “It is not a place but a convention. They agree to meet and do things together, like eating out or seeing a movie. They may hold hands and kiss, but mostly they talk about mutual interests.”
“Not mating but with the chance that it could occur. That is the lure that holds the man.”
“I would like to do these things, learning love. May I date with you?”
“At the moment, with the power outage, the movies and restaurants won’t be operating. But at such time as they are, I will be glad to do it, Aliena.”
“Still we can talk, and hold hands, and kiss.”
She was single-minded, plainly unaware of the suggestive nature of the process. Aliena was amazingly innocent. He was beginning to appreciate why Martha had kept her secluded. Yet the temptation to interact with this lovely creature was compelling. “We can do these things,” he agreed.
Now she gave him a straight look. “I have enormous things to learn of this body and this culture. You are generous in teaching me. I do know this much: a person should not take without giving something equivalent. How may I repay you for the burden I am to you?”
“I think we have discussed this before, Aliena. You are not a burden. This storm and power failure prevent me from working, and I am highly intrigued by you. I truly have nothing better to do today than be with you, and I am enjoying your company.”
“Because this body is esthetic and you would like to mate with it?”
Yet again Brom schooled himself to be literal. “That is true. I am a man and I react like a man. But also it is that the loss of Lucy left a void in my life, and you are filling it for the moment.”
“Lucy, your girlfriend whom you loved. Whose clothing I am wearing.”
“Whom you mated with.”
“Yes, though we did not have children. There are ways to do it without generating babies, so sex can become part of the interaction.”
She pounced on it. “If I utilize a way to prevent pregnancy, then I can mate with you without consequence and that will repay you for your kindness.”
Again, the temptation was becoming overwhelming. “That would abate the physical consequence but not the emotional consequence.”
“Love,” he agreed. “I know little about your background, Aliena, but I suspect that you are destined for greater things than having an affair with the likes of me. I’m just your neighbor, of no consequence. You don’t want to love me.”
She focused on him again with that disturbing intensity. “I am taking advantage of your kindness. You must be fully candid with me. Do you wish to avoid love with me?”
She was supremely ignorant but also intelligent and motivated. He had to make her understand. “Aliena, love is a joy to both parties. But when it ends it can be such pain as to cause a person to—to want to die. As Lucy did. I do not want to inflict that on you, or suffer it myself. I am afraid that your destiny does not include me, and I do not wish to compromise it. I am helping you now because you need help, knowing that our relationship is likely to end when your friends return. It’s nice associating with you, and I would like to have it continue on a personal basis, but love is no necessary part of it, nice as it might be.”
Her expression firmed. She was getting better at showing feelings. “If I learn love from you, I will not allow it to be broken. I will not do to you what Lucy did. The people I work with will not oppose it once I make my preference clear.” She paused briefly. “But when you know me better, you may not wish to have it. I am not the pretty girl you see. I am a foreign person you may not like. Then I will let you go, and I will suffer. But I understand the risk, and wish to take it. Please, do you wish to avoid it?”
What could he say? “No. I know you are foreign, from far away. What I am coming to know is your mind in this body. Both appeal to me.” He took a breath. “Strongly. I doubt that further revelations of your nature will change my mind. So I may be foolish, knowing so little about you, but I think I would like to love you, if you loved me in return.”
She smiled. “Then we can date. Hold me. Kiss me.”
Brom opened his mouth to protest, but was unable. This was crazy, but he wanted it. He stood, and she stood. They came together. He hugged her and kissed her, and she hugged and kissed him back. Her whole body was heavenly, and her enthusiasm was infectious. It did feel like dawning love.
“I am feeling more,” she said. “We must do this often, and I think I will get there. But I will give you sex now if you wish.”
“Not yet,” he said quickly. “No until you are sure you want it.”
“I am as yet unsure,” she agreed. “But I believe I will want it before long.”
“When it is your choice, I will be ready.”
“I do have emotions. They do not connect well with the expressions of the body, but I am trying to align them. Love is new to me; I must learn that whole. I think that with you that is possible.”
“Like one of the encrypted quotes games in the newspaper,” he said. “Every letter is false, but with insight and patience you can find the pattern and correct the alignments. As for love, it is new to everyone, the first time. I’m not sure it even is an emotion by itself; it’s more like a combination of emotions, with the whole being more than the sum of its parts.”
“I do not know this game, but it may be a suitable analogy. Please, show it to me.”
Brom fetched the day’s newspaper and opened it to the games page. “This is a sentence, but as you can see it is garbled.”
“I do not see. These marks are significant?”
He glanced at her, surprised. “You can’t read?”
“I have not yet been taught that. I am still learning language and other things.”
He was taken aback, but it did make sense. First she had to learn to speak and understand English, then how to translate it into the written word. “Then it is a bad analogy. I did not mean to embarrass you.”
“Please, teach me reading.”
“Aliena, that is a long, slow, difficult process that takes years to master.”
“I am a fast learner.”
He would have to show her. “I will read this headline aloud while I point out the words.” He spread the newspaper flat and pointed with his forefinger. “HURRICANE BLOWS TOWARD CITY. SCHOOLS CLOSED. POWER OUTAGES EXPECTED.”
Aliena smiled. “Marvelous! Speech is recorded in symbols. I must learn this. Please read more.”
He read the full article to her, and she followed his moving finger raptly. Then when he stopped, she looked at another article, and read out those words that duplicated the ones in the first. She was getting it!
“Aliena, I am amazed! I identify a given word once, and you have it.”
“Is this not how it is learned?”
He laughed. “It took me years to learn, and then it was by a different system. Instant sight recognition is something else.”
“Read me more.”
They went through several pages together, and soon she was able to read most of new articles by herself. Overwhelmed by her instant proficiency, he leaned close and kissed her on the cheek. In this respect, she was a genius!
“This is favor?” she asked.
“Yes. I am pleased by your progress and just had to express myself.”
“I like this expression.”
Brom got up and went to the door again. The winds remained high, and there was no sign of the return of anyone next door. “It seems it’s a long haul. We had better eat something.”
“Eat,” she agreed. “I was distracted. Now I know I feel hunger.”
He rummaged in the defunct refrigerator. “We can have milk, and bread and jam. And there’s some ice cream that’s melting; we had better eat that first. It’s not much, but without power we have to scramble.”
“I prefer to do this with you than to have an elaborate meal by myself.”
“I echo the sentiment,” he said, gratified. They smiled at each other, and hers seemed increasingly genuine.
“I am curious,” he said as they ate. “Your language syntax obviously differs from mine. When you get disturbed, you revert to it. I am not objecting; I think it’s cute. But I wonder: how would you say something like ‘Honey I shrunk the kids’?”
“Flying insect vomit, self diminished the young goats,” she said immediately.
Brom laughed so hard he spewed jam on the table. “I love it!” he gasped.
“It does not annoy you?”
“Not at all. It’syou.But I agree that you should speak like us ordinarily, so as not to attract attention.”
“I will do that,” she agreed.
“Your toothbrush is locked in your house,” he said as they finished. “I think Lucy had a clean one.”
“I will use that.”
“And there’s another problem. With no running water, we also have no drainage. We can’t use the sink or the toilets. We will have to use buckets for natural functions, and dump them in the garden out back. Do you understand?”
“Can I sit on a bucket?”
“Maybe we can frame it with a toilet seat. Will that do?”
“Um, suppose I pantomime it in my clothing?”
“Seeing me do this would disturb you?”
“Yes. It would be a phenomenal violation of your personal privacy. As a general rule, men can do such things in the company of men, and women with women. But only long-married couples do them together, and many don’t then.”
“Pantomime,” she agreed.
He fetched a bucket, set his spare toilet seat on it, and carefully sat on it in his pants. “Bare your ass. Shit and piss as in a toilet.”
“Ass? Shit and piss?”
“Your posterior portion. Defecate and urinate. I used vulgar terms that people do in private. I thought they would be clearer.”
“I will learn vulgar terms.”
“I will tell you all of them. But do not use them to others.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
“Now I will set up my own bucket in another room, and leave you to yours.”
In due course they accomplished their missions, and Brom dug a hole in the garden and buried the deposits. The winds remained fierce, buttressed by fits of rain, and he was glad to get back inside.
“You are wet,” Aliena said solicitously. “May I dry you?”
Brom discovered that he was soaked through, and cold. “You really don’t need to. I can strip down, dry off and put on new clothing on my own.”
“You have done much for me. I would like to do things for you.”
She meant well, and he did not want to reject her. “Here is the problem: if I were to strip naked in your presence, I would suffer the masculine reaction, embarrassing us both.”
“I do not understand.”
“I would show my readiness to mate with you.”
“But I am not yet ready to mate.”
“Exactly. Naturally I would not force you, but you would not want to see my state of arousal.”
“Please, I want to see. I do not know this state.”
What the hell. “I fear I am doing the wrong thing, but I will show you.”
They went to his bedroom, where he stripped off all his wet clothing. Sure enough he had a full erection on display.
“This is different from my body,” she said, seeming curious rather than repulsed.
“Men do differ from women. To mate, the man inserts his stiffened member into the woman. At other times it is not stiff, and he urinates through it.”
“Where in her body does he put it?”
“She has a hole called the vagina—cunt in the forbidden vernacular--between where she defecates and where she urinates. He puts it in there. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it, ‘Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.’”
Now she laughed. “I think that poet knew my language.”
Brom washed with a damp washcloth, and put on dry clothing. “I am decent again. Please do not speak of this elsewhere.”
“I will not. Thank you for showing me. Now when I am ready to mate with you, I will know what to expect.”
“Please, read to me more. I have many written words yet to learn.”
This time he fetched a paperback novel and read her the first chapter.
“This happened?” she asked.
“Not really. It’s fiction. Pretend narrative. A romance. But it is meant to simulate real life, so that the reader can vicariously experience the story.”
“It gives you the feeling that you are doing it, even though you know you are not. That extends your horizon, at least emotionally.”
“Feeling. I must learn feeling.”
“I’m sure you will get there.”
The day passed. The storm did not abate, the power did not return, and neither did Martha. “I what do to not know.”
He tried to reassure her. “You can stay here tonight. You can use Lucy’s room. I promise not to molest you.”
“Here is the problem,” she said, emulating him. “At my house there is always light, and a person nearby. I am a stranger here. I fear being alone in darkness.”
“You don’t want to sleep alone,” he said.
“May I sleep with you?”
Like a child, she feared the unfamiliar dark. He could not turn her down. “In our idiom, sleeping together often means mating. But we can sleep without mating.”
“Thank you,” she said, relieved.
As night closed in, there was nothing to do by turn in. They went to his bedroom, changed to pajamas in the darkness, and lay down side by side. Brom pulled the covers over them. “Sweet dreams, Aliena.”
“Please. May I hold your hand?”
He found her hand and held it.
She dropped off to sleep almost instantly. Brom lay for a while, holding her hand, pondering. Aliena was a strange woman, and not just because of the brain transplant, but he liked her very well. Tomorrow things would probably return to normal and she would depart. So this was temporary. But it was marvelous.
In the morning they got up at dawn, washed with the damp cloths, and dressed in work clothes. The storm had eased somewhat, but the power had not returned. Neither had Martha. They had breakfast, then went out to check the neighborhood.
Branches were down everywhere. They hauled them to a pile at the edge of Brom’s yard, then knocked on his neighbor’s door. Mrs. Green was old and retired, and surely in need of help.
“Mrs. Green,” he said when she answered the door. “I am your neighbor Brom, and this is my friend. Please let us clean up your yard.”
“You dear boy,” the woman answered, gratified. “I have some cupcakes that will spoil if not eaten soon.”
“This is usual?” Aliena asked as they worked.
“Neighbors take care of neighbors, just as friends take care of friends,” Brom said. “This is usual in a crisis, such as this storm.”
When they had the yard cleared, they joined Mrs. Green inside her house to eat the cupcakes. “I am so glad to see you have a friend, Brom,” she said. “I know you have suffered.” She looked at Aliena. “My dear, you are adorable.”
“Thank you,” Aliena said. Brom was relieved, having feared she might say something inappropriate. But of course thank you was her standard response.
“She is my neighbor on the other side,” Brom said. “She got locked out of her house by the power outage.”
“It’s awful,” Mrs. Green agreed. “I am missing all my programs.”
After that they went on to the next neighbor, the Roberts, a middle aged couple. They had cleaned up their yard but were uncertain what to do about a smashed-in front window. “I have a leftover piece of plywood,” Brom said. He fetched it, and they propped it over the window. They thanked him for his help.
“This is nice,” Aliena said as they returned to his house.
“It’s a nice neighborhood. Very little crime here. That may be why your friends put you in your house.”
“Yes. They want me embedded in a good place so that I seem ordinary. So that I will be accepted.”
“You should have no problem.”
“Brom, please tell me: what is it you do, whe there is no storm?”
“That’s tricky to explain. Do you know what movies are? Television?”
“That’s what I thought. A movie is a projection, usually on a big screen, that shows a story, like the one we were reading. Television, or TV as it is abbreviated, is a small screen people watch in their houses, showing similar things.”
“I would like to see this.”
“When the power returns, I will show you. I’m surprised that your friends did not turn on your TV.”
“They said there is so much to learn, I could not take time for entertainment.”
“But entertainment is part of life! We need to play as well as to work.”
“Oh, Aliena, there is a whole world of things I want to show you when I can! Play is something you do for fun, just because you want to.”
“Like holding hands?” she asked, taking his hand in hers.
He laughed. “That, too. But it’s more like the reading. You may be doing it to learn the words, but ideally it should be because you enjoy it.”
“I enjoy it with you.”
He let that pass. “At any rate, I work in the entertainment industry. A significant part of it is cartoons, which are funny caricatures of people and animals who do funny things to make people laugh.”
“Because laughing is generally fun. It makes people feel good.”
“I want to laugh.”
Brom realized that he had never heard her laugh. “That happens when a person is pleasantly surprised, or amused, or relieved. I laughed when you translated ‘Honey I shrank the kids,’ because it was funny.”
“This is like an emotion. You are not yet tracked into it. But maybe by chance we’ll find something that makes you laugh. It has to come naturally.”
“Naturally,” she agreed.
“Anyway, although cartoons are not intended to be taken seriously, it helps if they are realistic enough to help a viewer forget that, to get into their mood. So I take existing cartoons and modify them slightly, not enough for the average viewer to notice, to make them more realistic. To subtly encourage belief. It’s one of those generally unknown specialties; I work under the radar.” Then, before she could ask, he clarified it. “Radar is a form of radio wave that detects airplanes in flight. To be under it is to be beneath notice. That’s important, for me: to have the viewer not realize that that he’s being managed, so he doesn’t react against it. I’m good at it, and have regular work. But I can’t work while the power is off. I do get an incidental benefit from my work: reading people. I pick up on nuances, on whether folk are happy or sad, excited or bored, telling the truth or lying. You intrigue me because your reactions are not normal.” Again he forestalled her question. “That is not bad. It’s just that you don’t react the way I would expect. As if, if I tickled you, you would not laugh.”
“That’s a very light touch in a sensitive spot that incites a reaction that is not pain, not unpleasant. Some folk love tickling; some don’t.”
“Okay. Stand before me.”
She did. He reached out and touched her ribs on either side, stroking to evoke ticklishness. She suddenly stepped forward and kissed him. Surprised, he put his arms around her, savoring it.
“Is that normal?” she asked after a moment.
“No. That was your reaction to being tickled?”
“Yes. I had an urge to kiss.”
“You said your connections are imperfect. That must be an example. Unless the clothing somehow changed it.”
Aliena pulled off her heavy shirt and stood in her bra. “Do it again.”
He tickled her bare ribs. She virtually leaped into him with another kiss.
“I love this,” he said. “But it’s definitely a misconnection. Tickling make you amorous. I wonder.”
“How you would react to a love stroke.”
“It was just a passing notion. I don’t think that would be proper to actually do.”
“Please. I want to know.”
“Well, I could kiss your bare breasts. But this is something that should not--”
He broke off, because she was unsnapping her bra, exposing her beautiful breasts.
“All right, Aliena. But tell me to stop the moment you feel at all uncomfortable. Sit on the couch.”
She sat, and he kneeled before her. He kissed the evocative fullness of her left breast. His passion soared, but he battened it down. This was science, not sex.
“Oh!” she cried, flinching away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--”
“I was surprised, not pained. Do it again.”
“I felt something different. Odd. I want to define it. I will not retreat again.”
So he approached her and kissed her breast again. She remained still until he reached the nipple and licked it. Then she burst out laughing. She grabbed his head and mashed his face against the breast.
Then they both paused. “You laughed!” he said as she released his head.
“I laughed,” she agreed. “It was ticklish.”
“I think we have proved the case. Your tickle and love stroke reflexes are reversed.”
She nodded. “You would want to mate, and I would laugh.”
“That would be awkward, yes.” He stood.
She put her shirt back on. “I must change that.”
“You forgot your bra.”
“I did not forget. I want to try another time, soon, the tickle and the kiss, to get them straight. I think there was a little tickle in the tickle, and mating in the kiss. Not enough.”
“Aliena, it may not be safe to try it again. Your bare breasts are one hell of a turn on.”
“But your tickle turnsmeon. That is not safe either.”
Brom pondered it. Probably it would be better for her to react sexually only to sexual stimuli, not to others. She did need to zero in her reflexes, if she could. He should have the self control to help her without molesting her. “We can try it.”
He changed the subject. “Maybe we should shop for supplies. This seems to be a prolonged siege.”
And she had never been shopping? “I’ll show you. We’ll take the car. There should be somewhere with its own power generator.”
Riding in a car was evidently another new experience for Aliena. Had they drugged her to bring her to the house? He preferred not to inquire. He instructed her about using the seat belt, and explained what he was doing as he put it in Drive and slowly pulled out onto the street.
They had to go some distance before he spied an active supermarket. He parked in the lot, and they walked to the store. It was quite busy; many other people, stranded without power, had the same idea.
Alien’s amazement was plain as they entered the store and walked along its aisles. At last that connection was correct. “I have not seen a place like this.”
“It’s a standard supermarket. Next time ask Martha to take you along when she shops for groceries.”
“I will do this.”
He bought bread, cheese, milk, and crackers: things that needed neither cooking nor refrigeration. He paid for them with cash. He saw Aliena looking, and knew there was more explaining to do, about the monetary system.
They returned to the car, and he put his bag in back.
“I can do this,” Aliena said.
“Drive the car.”
He remembered when a quick study she had been on reading words. He made a spot and probably foolish decision. “Do it. But be very careful; a car is dangerous when mishandled.”
She got into the driver’s seat and buckled up. He gave her the key, and she used it correctly. “The car will go forward, but the way is not clear,” she said.
He explained how to get Reverse. She did it, and eased the car out of the parking slot. Then she put it in Drive and drove forward. Sure enough, she had gotten it just from observing him on the way here. She obeyed the lights and signs.
In due course they pulled up before his house and parked. She had performed perfectly.
“Aliena, I am amazed and gratified. Let me kiss you.”
She opened her shirt. “Kiss me here.”
He didn’t argue. He leaned across and down and kissed her breast.
Her quick intake of breath pushed the breast against his face. “Oh, it tickles! But not so much.”
He drew back. “Cover yourself so we can go to the house.”
She did, and they did. He set the staples on the table, ready for the next meal. “Tickle me,” she said, removing her shirt.
He tickled her ribs. She leaned toward him, but this time did not kiss him. She was slowly getting it right.
She fetched the novel. This time she read it to him, pausing only on words she had not encountered before, which he happily provided. Her learning ability was simply fantastic.
Then she paused. “Oh.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I feel wet.”
She stood and drew down her skirt. “Here. Am I sick?”
There was blood on her panties. “No, Aliena,” he reassured her. “It is your period. Don’t you remember? It comes every month.”
“One month ago I was transplanted,” she said. “Three weeks ago I obtained awareness in the new body. They taught me to walk and eat and urina—to pee. One week ago they brought me to the house. Sometimes my head bleeds, from the healing incision, but not my body. This is new.”
“Aliena, a normal human woman has a period about every month. Her—her uterus bleeds, slowly. It lasts for several days and then passes. The body’s last period must have been while you were unconscious. There is nothing wrong with you.”
“But what should I do? This is staining my clothing, and it is uncomfortable.”
“Cramps, probably. They will pass.” He considered. “Lucy surely left sanitary equipment.” He went to her room and rummaged until he found a box of tampons. “Take off your pants, wash the area with the cloth, and put one of these in your vagina. That will soak up the blood. In a few hours you can change it.” Seeing her expression, he held up a hand in a stop signal. “No, I can’t do it for you. Martha could, but not me. There are instructions in the box. Read them. Follow them. You will be all right.”
She took the box and went to the bathroom. “And put on new panties!” he called after her.
Before long she returned, looking entirely normal. “I have done it. Thank you.”
“Oh, you are welcome, Aliena. You are learning what you need to. Maybe we should celebrate.”
“Do something fun. Maybe drive somewhere interesting. Where would you like to go?”
She considered. “Do you have a sea?”
Surprised, he answered bluntly. “The nearest shore is about two hours’ drive away. We could go there. But swimming is not recommended for a woman during her period. Well, maybe it’s okay, I’m not really knowledgeable about such personal details, but--”
“You have a sea,” she said.
“Yes. When your period is finished, we can go there, if the power has not yet returned. We can swim. You do know how to swim?”
“No. Not in this host. But you will teach me.”
She loved the sea, but could not swim? “I will teach you,” he agreed.
She opened her shirt again. “Kiss me.”
He was becoming accustomed to her single-mindedness. He kissed her breast and licked the nipple. “Oh, I am starting to feel the mating urge,” she said.
“Then maybe we have done enough of this.”
“No. There is farther to go. But I am learning.”
“You are learning,” he agreed.
At night they slept together again, holding hands. Brom did not say so, but he knew that he was falling in love with this strange, smart woman. Who would surely leave him once her associates returned. He cursed his own folly, to no avail.
They continued their routine of running in the early morning, shopping and reading and talking in the day, and helping the neighbors, who seemed quite taken with Aliena. There was no power, no running water, no proper sewage, but it was actually a rather pleasant time. Because they liked each other’s company.
It seemed like only an instant before Aliena announced that she was free of the period and ready to see the sea. In the interim she had learned to use his credit card, and had bought several books to read. She had also finally zeroed in her tickle and love stroke reflexes. He had taught her about as much as he could; she was taking over her own training. She really didn’t need him any more. He braced himself yet again for her departure, once the power returned, and with it, her people, Martha and Sam. He was pretty sure they would not approve his association with Aliena. She was destined to be an important foreign envoy, not a common local girl.
“Tomorrow early we will drive there,” he agreed. “I’ll pack the swimsuits and towels.”
“We will go there,” she agreed raptly.
In the morning they drove through the still-dark suburbs, but the lighted area was closer than it had been, and Brom judged that power would be restored to his area by the end of the day. That meant, ironically, that his association with Aliena was probably about to end. He hated that, despite the advantage that the restoration of power would bring them all.
Aliena was resplendent in shorts and halter, in vibrant health. She had kept up her exercise routine, showing rare discipline, and it showed. He was getting physically fitter than he had been, too, because of running with her. His exercise had been intermittent; now it was regular.
“You asked once about mating in my kind,” she said as the wind from her open window tousled her hair. “I said it was different from yours. We do not use the looks and words and strokes. Instead we sing.”
“You sing,” he repeated.
“I understand enough of your way now so that I know I can do it. I have been learning love, and now I think I love you, and am ready. But there is one thing I need, for this: to sing.”
“You mean the way we sing ‘Aliena’?”
“Not exactly, but it will do. When we reach the sea, I will sing. If you want to mate with me, you can sing that.”
“Oh, Aliena, I admit it: I have fallen in love with you and I want to have sex with you. But is it right?”
“It is right when I want it, when I am ready, and now I am. I am ready to sing.”
She continued to surprise him. “Can you tell me more about this mating song?”
“It is like this.” Then she sang a single note, like a resonant bell. It stirred him powerfully. There was just something about it.
“And if I sing ‘Aliena,’ I can join you?”
“Oh, yes.” Then she paused, the way she sometimes did. “But when we return, and the power returns, and Martha and Sam return, and you learn the rest of me, it may be over. That will be my sorrow.”
“What is it about you that you fear will turn me off?”
“I may not tell you. But I can warn you again: I am not a pretty girl. That is just my host. I wish I could be, for you, but I can’t change what I am. I can only love you, today, and hope you will love me.”
Her original form might have been ugly. But her mind was marvelous. “I have difficulty imagining anything that would turn me off you. You’re not a murderer or a changed male?”
She laughed, as she could do now. “I am neither! I am an innocent female. A virgin.” She had picked up that term from their reading.
He did not press her further. Whatever it was, he would learn all too soon. Meanwhile, they had this time together, and he wanted to make the most of it.
They came to the sea. The shore was there, and the sandy beach, but no people; the cleanup following the storm must be keeping them busy. They had it to themselves, on a sunny warm day.
“Oh!” she cried as she saw the expanse of it. She scrambled out of her clothes as he parked the car, and ran toward the water.
“Aliena!” he called. “Your swim suit!” but she was beyond caring as she ran naked to the surf. “You don’t know how to swim yet!”
“I will learn!” she called back.
What could he do? He couldn’t let her go alone, lest she get in over her head, literally. He scrambled out of his own clothing and ran after her, naked. There was no one else to see.
She splashed into the water, then threw herself down in it. She lay in the shallows, facing the sky. “Mate me! Mate me!” she cried.
She was ready at last, and he was more than ready. It was time for love.
Then, as he approached, she sang. It was the single note, vibrating again like a bell, marvelously pure and resonant; it was hard to imagine that it issued from a human throat.
She had told him to sing if he wanted to mate. He took a deep breath and sang. “Ali ali ena! Ali ali ena! Ali ali ali ali ali ali ena!”
She followed with another note, sustained and pure and compelling. It reached inside him, stirring his gut with its remarkable urgency. It hauled him to her, lying as she was half masked by the waves, water washing past her provocative thighs and breasts, her dark wet hair spreading in the surf, the loveliest creature he could imagine.
Still she sang the note, and he sang too, having no choice. Overwhelmed by the passion of the moment he flung himself down on her, and in a moment he was clasping her, inside her, unable to kiss her because they were both still singing. And there in the shallow water, compelled by the song, they surged into a joint climax. It was the wildest, most intense fulfillment he had ever had.
“Oh Aliena, I love you!” he gasped as the song finally expired.
“I love you, Brom!” Then, as an afterthought. “We have mated.”
“We have mated,” he agreed.
Then they kissed long and passionately as the waves continued to wash across them both.
He did give her some swimming instruction, and she caught on rapidly. Her joyous love of the water helped; she had absolutely no fear of it. Yet how was it that she had such joy of water, yet never before swum?
In due course they left the sea, and walked hand in hand to the outdoor shower, then back to the car, where they dressed. They had, it seemed, come here not really to swim but to sing and mate. It was enough.
“If you still love me when you know,” she said as she drove them back, “I will marry you and bear your children.” It had not occurred to her to wait for him to ask her to marry him; their love was enough.
There it was again, her chronic doubt.Ifhe still loved her? “I will love that. There is no one else I want to be with, the rest of my life.” And that, it seemed was their engagement to marry. It was not an ordinary proposal and acceptance, but nothing about their relationship was ordinary.
“When we mated, the body pulsed and delivered intense physical pleasure, apart from the emotional joy of mating,” she said. “I enjoyed it, but do not understand it.”
“That was the orgasm,” he explained. “It is, as you found, intense physical pleasure, the body’s way of encouraging mating when folk might not otherwise be interested. It is actually independent of conception. With men especially, this pleasure becomes an end in itself; they seek sex for the sake of sex, not to reproduce. Procreation becomes recreation, as it is said.”
“Now I know I have the feeling of lust aligned. The other feelings will fall into place more readily now, as did the tickle.” She smiled. “But I would like to feel that orgasm again, even though I no longer need to, to learn the way of it.”
“We can do it again, as often as you wish. In fact I will always want it, whenever you are willing to accommodate me.”
“I will always be willing.”
“But the pleasures of flirtation and interest do not have to lead to immediate sex,” he said. “Just as I like to see your lovely body, I like to interact with you suggestively without expecting to have sex at the moment. To sing without mating, merely reaffirming our camaraderie, our love.”
“I can do that, now that I understand.” Then she sang her note, and he joined in with “Aliena.”
Farther along they heard a siren. “Pull over to the side,” he told her. “Slow down, stop if necessary. That sound means there is an emergency vehicle that needs to have the right of way. It is one of the rules of the road.”
“Rules of the road,” she repeated, slowing as she drew to the side. In moments the ambulance passed rapidly, going the other way.
“Now resume,” he said. “We have been good citizens.”
“I am learning so much from you,” she said appreciatively.
The lights were on in the city and in the suburbs as they arrived. Their block was bright. And sure enough, there was a car parked before Aliena’s house. Her people had returned.
“Please, kiss me, this one time,” she said as she brought the car to a halt.
Brom didn’t argue. He put his face to hers and kissed her on the mouth. This time there seemed to be a kind of desperation in her response. She really was afraid of what was coming. So was he, possibly for different reason.
There were a man and a woman by the house: Sam and Martha. They turned as the car stopped, and forged toward them. Martha was at this moment one grim woman, and Sam looked like death supercharged. Brom could tell just by looking at the man that he was more than capable of murder.
Aliena got out on her side of the car and faced them. Brom did the same on his side. “Alice! Where have you been?” Martha demanded.
“I took her to the beach,” Brom replied for her.
“We swam naked,” Aliena added helpfully as Brom winced.
“That will be enough of that,” Sam said.
“Did he hurt you?” Martha asked.
“He mated me.”
Both people froze in place. Then Sam spoke. “Get out of here, man, and don’t look back. You have no idea what you’re messing into.”
“No!” Aliena said. “Brom stays.”
“Dear, Sam will handle it,” Martha said. “The man won’t bother you again. Come inside. We must check you for damage.” Sam endorsed her words by slamming a massive fist into his palm. This was obviously serious mischief.
“I damaged not am! You are whom with associate to self tell who may?” Alien demanded angrily, garbling her words as she did when disturbed. There was an imperative tone Brom had not heard from her before. As if she were a princess, and these her servants.
They stared at her, evidently taken aback. They had probably never seen her so angry before, and neither had Brom.
“If I may translate,” Brom said, emboldened by Aliena’s distress, “she is telling you to fuck off, asshole.”
“Endorsement!” Aliena agreed. “Copulate distantly, colon terminus!”
Martha glanced at Sam. “It seems he is in the picture. You had better brief him.”
“I’d better,” Sam agreed grimly.
Aliena faced Sam, her whole body shaking. “Talk only will you. Touch not. Him tell all.” She glared, and Sam actually paled as if rebuked by a superior. She was definitely a princess.
“Understood,” Sam said.
Now Aliena turned to Brom, her hauteur melting into concern. “Go with him, beloved. Listen to what he says. When, if, if you return, I will welcome you.”
If? There it was again: her doubt that he would still want her, once he learned more about her. It was past time to find out what this was all about.
“Beloved?” Martha repeated questioningly.
“We can talk in my house,” Brom told Sam, as Martha possessively guided Aliena to her house. “I can tell you’d as soon kill me as look at me, and are more than capable of it, but I can tell you this at the outset: I love her, and she loves me.”
“You don’t know her, and she is incapable of love as we know it,” Sam said.
“I know her well enough to know that now she can love, and does. Ask her; she’ll tell you.”
“We shall see.”
They entered the house and sat down at the table. “So what’s the big secret?” Brom asked.
“Alice Nye is not a person as we know it. She’s an alien creature.”
“You are speaking of the woman I love. What are you trying to do, goad me into trying something foolish so you can off me and call it self defense?”
Sam, surprisingly, smiled. “I admit the temptation. But this is business, not pleasure. Tell me what you know of Alice.”
“Not so fast, Sam. What has passed between Aliena and me is our business. I will not betray her confidence.”
Sam looked as if he were considering how best to handle a child who was misbehaving in public. “Perhaps you have questions.”
“Why are you here? Did you intimidate the president, then the secret service banished you to the sticks?”
“I trained in my replacement and moved on to more important work.”
What got Brom was not only the implied confirmation that this man was a highly trained secret service agent of the kind that protected top political figures. It was that he was not joking. Brom’s profession enabled him to read the subtle signs.
“This woman is more important?”
“Far more. She represents the news event of the millennium. Her welfare is paramount.”
Again, the man was not joking. That was profoundly unsettling. What foreign princess would be that important?
“Then why the hell did you desert her for a week? If I had not helped her she would have been in serious trouble.”
“That is correct, and we shall reimburse you for your trouble. This project is beyond top secret, to the extent that there is no official recognition of it. I am trusting you to maintain that confidence because it is clear that Alice trusts you. Martha, myself, and the others are technically assigned to other departments, TDY to an unnamed assignment. When the storm crisis came we were recalled for emergency relief, and were unable to protest without revealing the true nature of our work. The power outage prevented us from getting through to our superior. It was a royal snafu.”
“Situation normal: all fucked up,” Brom said. “That is the kind of idiom I have been explaining to Aliena.”
“It was of course not supposed to happen,” Sam said. “Heads are rolling already. It will not happen again. We are immeasurably relieved to find Alice in good health.” He angled his head slightly. “You call her Aliena?”
“It’s a private personal thing. She’s alien, that is, from a far country, so I call her that with no affront to her intended.”
“You did help her. We can see that she has not suffered from our involuntary neglect. We acknowledge that, and are duly appreciative. That did not give you license to rape her.”
Was the man baiting him? Brom suppressed his temper. “We had sex. It was mutually consensual. We are in love.”
Sam digested that as he might foul tasting medicine. “I have been candid with you. Now please be candid with me. Exactly what do you know of Aliena?”
This did seem legitimate. It was time to answer. “She comes from far away, maybe a warm Pacific island with fine sandy beaches. She does have a thing about sea water. English is not her native language, she’s unfamiliar with Western culture, has been raised in an extraordinarily protective society, kept ignorant of all but the most basic personal hygiene. Of sex, indeed of normal human emotions. She is from a tribe perhaps unknown to the outside world. They even have a legend of coming from a distant planet where things are different. She is a genius of an order beyond anything we have seen before. Her island must have some natural resource of incredible value, maybe even the secret of enhancing an ordinary brain to genius level, that the government wants to exploit. So she is being trained as an envoy, an interface between her folk and ours.”
“She is far more than that,” Sam said. “Did she mention her brain?”
“Her brain, in what must have been a historic first, was transplanted into the body of a woman who lost her own brain to a rare auto-immune malfunction, maybe like your snafu. She has been laboring to align the connections, which did not fit perfectly at first. She is getting there. She is a very smart, determined woman.”
Sam nodded. “This is a good assessment, as far as it goes.”
“She seems to feel that I will no longer love her if I know more about her. Why is that?”
“Because, as I said, she is not human. She is an alien creature. That legend is true; her species exists on a planet a hundred light years from ours. They are underwater creatures somewhat resembling starfish. They are incapable of living on land in our atmosphere with our biology. Her brain has had to adapt from a sea environment to a land environment. It is a considerable challenge, but she is, as you surmised, a genius. She is learning it all and coping quite well, considering. But she is not the pretty girl you see. Not inside.”
His words rang true. Numerous perplexing hints wore falling into place. Aliena was literally alien, a creature from the sea of another planet. It was amazing, but it made sense.
“That’s what she said,” Brom said after a moment. “That she was not a pretty girl. I thought she meant she was ugly or old or ill in her original body.”
“Not so. I understand she was an esthetic starfish. She gave up her body in order to perform this surpassingly important role of liaison between our two technological species.” Sam gave him a straight look. “Now how do you feel about her?”
“I still love her,” Brom said without hesitation. “Her human body is lovely, but so is her alien mind, her personality. She has qualities of character I deeply respect. This is the way I came to know her, and I would not have her change.” He took a breath. “I will marry her if I can. I realize that first alien contact may have no place for an ordinary Joe like me, but if she wants me, I am hers.”
Sam merely sat there with no visible reaction.
“Look,” Brom said after a moment. “I see now why you may not want me in the picture. I’m just the next door neighbor who got involved when she needed it. I don’t want you for an enemy. Please, give me your candid opinion, off the record. Should I continue to associate with Aliena?”
“Off the record,” Sam agreed. “I thought they were going about her training all wrong, and were in danger of messing up the greatest breakthrough this world has ever seen. Hell, she’s a living creature, not a loaf of bread! A genius, but not a machine. She has needs beyond information. But I’m just a foot soldier, here to protect her body; I don’t make policy. But via sheer blind luck you entered the picture, and you have evoked more in her in a few days than we with all our information and technology did in a month. You are exactly what she needs: a man who loves her as a person, not a headline, regardless of her origin.” He smiled. “Welcome to the Project, friend.” He offered his hand.
Bemused, Brom took it. This was much better than he had feared.
“We will of course compensate your for your work. Shall we say a thousand dollars?”
“I haven’t spent that much on her, and it wasn’t work. Let it go.”
“You have learned too much about the project. We need to put you on the payroll, officially secure your loyalty.”
“I have a decent job. You can’t buy my loyalty for a thousand bucks.”
Brom took stock. “For what? My week with her?”
“Indefinitely. Retroactive to your first direct contact with Aliena.”
Brom stared at him. “The Project pays that?”
“Yes, to start. You are important to Aliena. That’s what counts.”
“You guys don’t pussyfoot!”
“But do you have the authority to admit me to the Project?” Brom asked. “I mean, you being a foot soldier?”
“I don’t,” Sam said. “Butshedoes. Anything she wants, she gets, if it’s physically possible. There really aren’t limits, ultimately.”
Brom spread his hands. “If that’s the price of her, I’ll take it. But I would do it for nothing. I just want to be with her. I do believe she needs me, and I need her.”
“That’s what makes you right for her. You don’t care about money or notoriety, just her.”
They exited the house. There were Martha and Aliena waiting before their house, facing Brom’s house. Aliena was standing stiffly, her face expressionless. She was in mortal fear of rejection.
Brom strode toward her, smiling. He sang. “Ali ali ena!”
She sounded her note, so clear and resonant that it filled the neighborhood. They came together, singing. Then they kissed passionately. Then she laughed, and burst into tears, clinging to him. Her relief was busting out all over.
Sam and Martha were staring. “They never heard me sing,” Aliena explained. “Or laugh. Or cry.”
Trillion Dollar Project
The next few days were busy. Brom moved into Aliena’s surprisingly capacious house, because it was secure and her safety was paramount; they couldn’t risk her in his comparative shack. It was a marvel of electronics with unobtrusive closed circuit television covering every portion including the toilet; Aliena had not had sufficient awareness of human privacy to protest. Every door was like a bank vault, closeable with an airtight seal, operable only by coded combination. But by similar token it would have been a death trap had she been caught inside during the power failure. In hours a generator was installed in the capacious basement so that there would never be another failure. They knew how close a call it had been.
There was also, it turned out, an underground access that had somehow been constructed without the neighbors knowing. Most of the supplies were delivered via this, because it would have been suspicious to have constant trucks coming to the front door. Only enough for Aliena and Martha were handled the conventional way.
“But why put her here anyway?” Brom asked. “Instead of locked in the Pentagon or somewhere?”
“Because she needs to become an ordinary citizen,” Sam answered. “To be embedded in a community like any other person, showing that she is really one of us. She insisted on it. This is practice for that.”
“I think that’s the hard way.”
“Welcome to put a note in the suggestion box and be ignored, as I was.” They laughed together. Sam was okay, now that they were on the same team.
Brom was assigned his own bedroom, but it was meaningless, as he shared Aliena’s room, by her demand. A doctor came in the first hours and thoroughly checked Brom, pronouncing him fit and clean; he was not about to contaminate her. They made singing love the first night, though Brom knew that the cameras were recording everything. Well, that was just another part of the price of her; he did not make an issue. In the morning they showered together; she was delighted to make him react in the masculine manner, and encouraged him to mate her again in the flowing water.
“I felt odd, before, in the shower,” she confided. “Now I know why: I wanted company, but had none. It was just water. Not even salt.”
That reminded him. “That note you sing when we make love. What is it? I want to understand it better, having had so much joy of it.”
“It is joy. Of mating, of companionship, of discovery, or the sheer delight of a situation. I felt all of these when we were at the beach.”
“So its not just sexual.”
“It is not,” she agreed. “But mating may accompany it, and is hard to do without it, for me.”
Every second morning they dressed out and ran to the park for exercise. She had run with Martha before; now she ran with Brom. Brom knew that Sam was always nearby, tracking them electronically; should there be any hint of anything dangerous, Sam would be there, guns blazing if necessary. It was all part of the natural person presentation; obviously Aliena was a pretty girl who had found a boyfriend to exercise with.
Sam did some spot training of Brom, teaching him the easier throws and blows of judo and other martial arts, as well as equipping him with a deadly double-edged knife in a masked shoulder hostler and a small but similarly deadly gun under the other shoulder. Aliena herself was unarmed, left innocent of such things. Until she braced Brom about the matter, and had him show her their operation. Before long she could handle the knife with disturbing finesse, and became an accurate shot. Sam and Martha were both nervous about this, but could not directly oppose her.
Nor in this: “Please, Brom, marry me now.”
“Aliena, we haven’t known each other long. It would seem sudden.”
“Not as sudden as the baby that will grow within me.”
It was a valid concern. She now knew about contraception, but eschewed it; they were having frequent unprotected sex. Her period had passed and she was coming into her fertile time. Now he realized that she fully intended to conceive and bear his baby as early as possible; it was not just passion that caused her to mate with him daily.
“Normally there’s a ceremony,” he said. “People bring gifts.”
“Gifts? As of personal talent?”
“Not in this case. Friends may share gifts, which are things they give to each other because they like each other. They can be large or small. For example, I might give you a box of candy, if I thought you would like it.”
“That would not be kind to this body, which I must keep fit.”
“Or a kerchief to wear on your head, to make you even prettier than you are. The point is in the attitude of the giver. It’s a social convention. We would miss all that in a private wedding.”
“I will try to understand it,” she promised. “I do not need gifts from others.”
They got married in a small private ceremony, with Martha and Sam as witnesses. He gave her a modest but nice gold ring, and she gave him a similar ring. “We have exchanged gifts,” she said, delighted. It sufficed, and they were both pleased to wear their rings thereafter.
Their honeymoon was a global tour, somehow afforded by pooling their resources (theoretically), visiting the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu in South America, and the Great Wall of China in rapid order. They spent a lot of time in the air, and Aliena adored it, constantly holding his hand and humming her note faintly as she rapidly read ebooks. In hotels she clasped him closely, demanding mating before sleeping. She was obviously a woman in love. Brom wasn’t certain how Sam and Martha kept up, as they were not in evidence, but he knew they were close at hand, on and off the planes. Aliena went nowhere unguarded.
In China there was a snafu that got them stuck in a fancy hotel for several days, doubtless hardly noticing the delay in their haze of love. But it was not so. “Take her down to the main lobby and lose yourselves in the crowd of tourists,” Sam’s voice came in Brom’s ear. Brom, startled, obeyed; he had not realized that the spy wiring was two way. In the lobby Sam’s invisible hand took firm hold of Brom’s elbow and guided him silently to an empty elevator. They entered, and there was Martha. Then the elevator went down, not up. Where were they headed?
“What’s going on?” Brom asked somewhat querulously. “This is supposed to be our honeymoon.”
Aliena smiled. “Beloved, this is better.”
“You know about it? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Surprise,” she said.
“She was not allowed to tell,” Martha said. “Lest you inadvertently mention it outside.” By outside she meant the regular world.
“So what is it?”
“Not yet,” Sam murmured. “Wait till we board the train; that is secure.”
With that he had to be satisfied.
They exited the elevator in a basement and walked to a subterranean garage where a limousine with darkened windows waited. They got in, and it glided to the surface and moved quietly through the city.
It stopped, and they got out and entered what appeared to be a train station. Martha walked ahead to an intersection of passages, looked both ways, and nodded: the way was clear. Sam then touched a panel on the wall, in a pattern. In a moment the panel slid aside to reveal an opening to a stairway down. Martha rejoined them and that panel slid shut behind her.
Two flights below was a waiting train. They entered the nearest car, which they seemed to have to themselves. It was plush, more like a recreation room than a transportation vehicle, with couches, TV sets, and even a pool table.
The train moved out, slowly but smoothly. It accelerated until its speed as indicated by the passing pillars of the wall was alarming. Brom remembered that they had faster trains in China than in America; this one seemed almost supersonic.
“We can watch what we want,” Sam said, turning on a TV. “Anything from kiddie cartoons to porn.”
“Nature,” Martha said.
Immediately a competent nature program came on, this one about koala bears, which it quickly explained were not bears at all, but marsupials. Aliena watched, fascinated, holding Brom’s hand.
“Now we can talk,” Sam said on Brom’s other side. “We are participating in what we nickname the Trillion Dollar Project, vital to every major nation on Earth but unknown to the general populace. There are no headlines about it, no articles. We do not risk discussing it anywhere but in secure facilities, and even then we are careful, as you can see. Keep that in mind.”
“This relates to Aliena?” Brom asked.
“Very much so. It came into being for her, and serves her; without her it would dissipate.”
“A trillion dollars. That is hyperbole?”
“No. It is impossible to put a dollar value on every aspect of it, considering that global currencies differ and some are extremely closed mouthed about their contributions. The Chinese, for example, had built this underground rail system for other purposes, but adapted it for this goal. That trillion may be conservative, but it gives a notion of the Project’s importance.”
“This is a secret Chinese railroad, that they just gave away for our use?”
“And theirs. The Project is of preemptive importance to us all.”
“The project centered around Aliena?”
“Exactly. She is the most important person on Earth, for all that she is and must remain unknown.”
Brom was feeling a bit dizzy. “And this train is going where?”
“To the space station in the Gobi Desert.”
“Surely you didn’t think she just walked up to a corner cop and said ‘Hello, sir, I am an alien brain transplanted into a human woman. Please take me to your leader.’”
Aliena squeezed his hand without looking at him. “I did not.”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about how she came here,” Brom admitted. “She’s been keeping me pretty distracted.”
“It’s called sex,” she said. “Can you wait until this show is done? I am learning much.”
“Yes, of course,” Brom said, faintly nettled as he saw both Martha and Sam suppress knowing smirks.
She turned and kissed him on the ear. “I am teasing. Did I do it well?”
“Very well, thank you.”
She squeezed his hand again and refocused on the show.
“How did she get in touch?” Brom asked Sam.
“The alien space vessel radioed our prime computers with a message intended to be readily translatable. After a week they managed to work it out.”
“Supercomputers took a week for an easy message?”
“The starfish are significantly ahead of us technologically. Good thing they choked it down to our level, or we might never have translated it. At any rate, it was a greeting and a coding table so that we could zero in on further messages and establish direct communication.”
“This happened when?”
“About a decade ago, as I understand it. The ensuing dialogue took time, and organizing our resources took more time. But now we are moving on it well enough.”
“You said her planet is a hundred light years away. How could there be a back and forth dialogue?”
“It is that far. It took the space vessel three centuries to get here, which is incidentally much faster travel than we are capable of. As I said, they are more advanced. It was the vessel that sent the message.”
“And there are live starfish aboard it?”
“Not exactly. They were stored in suspended animation for the duration, and are only now being reanimated individually as necessary. Aliena is the first.”
Brom suffered a siege of horror. “You were frozen for three centuries?” he asked Aliena. “That must have been horrible.”
“It was an eye-blink,” she said. “One moment I settled in my tank. The next moment I was awake in the ship.”
“And you had to sacrifice your natural body to be transplanted to this alien-to-you host?”
“It was necessary. I knew it would not be fun when I volunteered.”
“But to lose your—to do that—I don’t think I could stand it.”
She turned her head to face him. “Brom, I found you. I love you. It is worthwhile, apart from my mission.”
“You have more courage than I do.”
“It was necessary,” she repeated, and returned to the show.
“What was it like, to be in a human body?”
“Weird. My rays, my radial limbs had become feet and arms, and my mind was on the end of the fifth limb. There was the constant oppression of gravity. I had to breathe air without stopping. I had to wear clothing, do my hair. Things were different, like breeding, and love.” She smiled. “But I came to like them.”
“What happened to your own body?”
“It remains, in stasis. That is a field that suspends the passage of time, so the body can exist without the brain. If some other starfish loses the use of her body, her brain might be moved to my body, to restore her. We do not waste things.”
He was morbidly fascinated. “You were selected because of your intelligence?”
She laughed. “Not at all! I am of only average intellect for a starfish.”
“All your people are as smart as you?” He had assumed she was a genius among her own kind.
“Not all. Many are smarter.”
He was taken aback. “So we humans are comparatively dull.”
“It is not your fault, Brom,” she said comfortingly. “You have other values.”
“Feeling. Your creatures feel. Your brains process feelings for memories when you sleep. Feeling is everything. Youcare.”
“So why were you selected?”
“I had the best potential for feeling. It was not easy, but I learned it, thanks to you. Others of my kind might have found that more difficult.”
“Starfish are very straightforward,” Sam said. “They study what works best, and implement it without compunction. That makes them very smart, but they don’t generally make good friends.”
“Aliena is a good friend!”
“I am learning that from you,” she said. “Come, the nature show is over. Let’s mate.”
“You’re managing me!” Brom said. “Diverting me from awkward questions.”
“That is true. I prefer that you think of me as a loving wife, rather as the calculating creature I am.”
“Are you pulling my leg?”
She was perplexed. “Do you wish me to yank on an extremity?”
He had to laugh. “It’s more idiom. I mean, are you teasing me?”
She considered. “I did not think so. I want to be feeling with you, and mating tends to evoke that.”
“But actually you are constantly calculating?”
“I am. But please, how may I best impress you?”
“Just be a little more subtle.”
“Make me think it’s my idea to have sex. That I am diverting you, rather than you me. I may know better, but it’s a willing self deception.”
“I must learn this. But in matters of feeling, I am not smart. How may I make you think it is your idea?”
“Oh, you might let me see some of your body by seeming accident, as you did during the power outage before I clued you in about that. You might evince a need for comfort, maybe even forcing a tear as you look me in the face. I’m bound to pick up on the hints.”
She faced him, leaning forward with a tear in her eye. Her breasts showed seemingly coincidentally, her deep cleavage heaving. “Please, Brom.”
She could be a frighteningly swift study! “I have an idea,” he said.
“This way, beloved.” She led him to a chamber he had not noticed before. It was a sleeping compartment. In moments they were making almost savage love.
“Did I do it correctly?” she asked as they lay in the aftermath.
“Aliena, you’re always a perfect sex partner.”
“I mean the diversion technique.”
“I will remember.”
“Now what were you diverting me from?”
“My calculating nature. I am learning how to mask it.”
“Keep practicing. You can also use it on people when sex is not an issue. Sometimes they need to be persuaded, and subtlety can accomplish what direct argument won’t. That’s similar to the way I make cartoons seem real.”
“But for the record, I’m not turned off by the signs of your intelligence and decision making ability. I know you will need them for your role as envoy, and I want you to be as good at it as you can be.”
“I wonder whether I can seduce you again, already.”
“Because I love you.”
“Aliena, I’m amenable. But I am slowly coming to know you. Is there other reason?”
“I am nervous about the coming examinations, and need comfort.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“That would not have been subtle.”
He laughed, and she laughed with him, enjoying the art of mirth. Then she set about seducing him again, as the train continued its charge toward the desert space station.
In due course they rejoined Sam and Martha, who were watching erotic play. Sam turned if off as Brom and Aliena approached.
“No, let me see that,” Aliena said.
“Doll, it’s pornography,” Sam said. “Not your kind of thing.”
Aliena took the remote and turned it on. “This is interesting,” she said. “I have not been moaning with pleasure when I perform.”
“It’s fake,” Sam said. “The sex is real, but for them it’s business rather than pleasure. It’s to turn men on. Real woman don’t act like that.”
Aliena continued to watch, evidently making mental notes. “It is for men? Why were you watching, Martha?”
Martha hesitated momentarily, then answered. “This is a long dull ride, with no need of our alertness, as the train is secure. We’ve been on duty a long time. The porn is dreary for me, but if it turns Sam on, things might get interesting for a while. Is that sufficiently candid?”
“I’ll be damned,” Sam said. “I thought you were just tolerating it.”
“I was. Play acting is a poor shadow of the real thing.”
“True. But when on duty, that is all that is available.”
She merely looked at him.
“We are through with the bedroom, for now,” Aliena said, her eyes still on the video.
Sam smiled. “Madame?” he said to Martha.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
They departed. “Maybe she was a shade too subtle,” Brom said.
“She likes him, but it’s a business association.”
“You are learning to read people.”
“I am trying, but they can be devious and not always logical.”
He returned to what she had diverted him from. “Why are you nervous about what’s coming, Aliena? I am in the dark about this whole thing.”
“I will have my first examinations since I came to the house. If anything is wrong with me, this will reveal it.”
“Oh, your brain transplant? What problem could there be?”
“My brain is alien not merely to this body, but to your species. To this world. They use strenuous medications to suppress the body’s immune response, but these were interrupted during the snafu. There might be mischief.”
He put his arms around her. “Oh, Aliena! I hope not!”
“Your comfort sustains me. I am reassured.”
That was good. But now it gnawed at Brom. Her body had rejected its own brain; what of hers? It was a real and present danger.
They had a catered meal from the dining car, then slept as the journey continued. The whole of it was underground; there was no scenery to be seen. Brom was amazed by the expense this tunnel must have incurred. All to conceal the access to the space station? All for Aliena? So it seemed.
Eventually the train slowed and halted. They were at the station. Brom’s watch indicated it was early evening. What now?
They exited the train and followed a lighted passage to a pleasant room. Two Chinese men stood there awaiting them.
“Dr. Ching!” Aliena exclaimed, and ran to the older one. She hugged him, to his evident surprise.
“Aliena,” he said. Evidently that had become her name throughout. “It is good to see you so active.”
She let him go and turned to the others. “This is Doctor Ching, who did my transplant.”
“Under the supervision of the Starfish Machine,” Dr. Ching said. “I could not have done it alone. That brain is truly alien.”
“Dr. Ching,” Martha murmured, impressed. “World’s foremost neurosurgeon.”
Aliena indicated her companions. “These are my husband Brom, and my associates Sam and Martha.”
Ching stepped forward to shake Sam’s hand. “I see they got the best, to protect her.”
Sam shrugged. “Whatever.”
So the world’s foremost neural surgeon knew Sam by reputation.
Ching turned to Aliena. “My associate and I must examine you before you board the shuttle, to be sure you are in health for the trip. You understand.”
“Yes. My husband will remain with me.”
Ching looked as if he were about to protest, but Aliena gave him a look and he stifled it. The two doctors showed them into an examination room, where Aliena obliging stripped naked and lay on the table, unconcerned about modesty. The associate poked and prodded her and took her blood pressure while Ching examined her head, evidently taking brain wave readings.
“All looks good. We will need blood and urine,” the associate said.
Aliena held out her arm for the needle, then held a flanged vial to her cleft and urinated. They took the offerings and fed them into machine orifices, while Aliena dressed. The associate quickly checked Brom in a far more cursory manner.
In moments they had results; this was evidently a top notch facility.
“My dear, you are in excellent health,” Ching announced. “With a single complication: you are pregnant.”
Aliena clapped her hands like a joyous child, then hugged Brom. “Already!” That echoed Brom’s surprise. There had been plenty of sex, yes, but hardly enough time following her period. Could it have been that first time, in the surf?
“The machine may not approve,” Ching said.
“I will deal with the machine,” Aliena said. “Oh, I am so happy!” She kissed Brom. “You mated me!”
They exited the chamber and rejoined Sam and Martha. They knew immediately that something was up.
“What is it?” Martha asked.
“I’m pregnant!” Aliena said joyously.
Sam and Martha exchanged a glance. “Congratulations,” Sam said cautiously.
“Is the shuttle wise?” Martha asked.
“She is fit for that,” Ching said without other expression. Brom could tell he had a reservation, but clearly Aliena had none.
They went to the shuttle, which seemed to be another chamber. Brom and Aliena strapped down, and Sam and Martha joined them.
“There may be a flicker,” Sam said. “It is routine.”
There was a small jerk, as of something connecting to their door. Then it opened and they unstrapped and stepped out.
Onto a space station. Brom could tell by the trace gravity. Actually it had become trace at the time of the jerk, he realized belatedly.
“We’ll recover normal weight when we enter the Wheel,” Sam said.
“The Wheel turns, generating centrifugal force,” Martha explained.
Sure enough, the passage led downward, and as they went, gravity increased. They were coming into the rim of the Wheel.
“No space personnel?” Brom asked.
“No human personnel,” Sam said. “The Wheel is alien.”
“We didn’t build this?”
“It is an outlier of the starfish vessel, placed as an interface.”
“How did we get here so suddenly? There was no blast of jets, no acceleration, no multi-gee.”
“There was, but we were in stasis. That makes it easier.”
“How did that happen? There was no warning.”
“It is a field,” Sam said patiently. “It encloses the whole residential section of the rocket. We strapped down only as an archaic precaution.”
“I told you about stasis, dear,” Aliena said.
“That was you on the voyage from your home planet. I had no idea we had anything like that.”
“We didn’t, until recently,” Sam said. “It is starfish science that they are bequeathing to us. One of many significant gifts, such as star travel and antigravity.”
“It is not antigravity, technically,” Aliena said. “What you call gravity is actually a deformation of space in the vicinity of mass. That can’t be nulled, only countered.”
“A moon in orbit about a planet is in the spacial deformation surrounding the planet, but the diversion from its state of rest generates the seeming centrifugal force that exactly balances its fall toward the planet, so it remains in free fall. Thus the deformation is countered.”
“Seemingcentrifugal force?” Sam asked. “We use it all the time.”
“There is no such force, merely resistance to diversion from rest.”
“This is too technical for me,” Sam said.
“How do you seem to counter gravity when it is not a moon in orbit?” Brom asked, interested though he did not understand it any better than Sam did.
“Magnetic repulsion, mainly, when on the surface of a planet. Higgs field modification when accelerating in space.”
“Mass is an effect of passage through the Higgs field. Some objects interact more strongly than others, as with your lead versus feathers. We put an object, such as a spaceship, into stasis, then shift its substance to something that impinges on the field less, in effect diminishing its mass. That makes it easier to accelerate.”
Brom exchanged a glance with Sam. Both of them were baffled. “Is it okay if we just call it antigravity?” Sam asked.
“Perhaps I am not phrasing it well.”
“You’re doing fine. We simply are not physicists.”
“I apologize for forgetting,” she said contritely.
“Why are the starfish so generous?” Brom asked.
That one Sam could answer. “They believe, and we agree, that there is more profit in trade than in war.”
“What are they getting from us?”
“Biology,” Aliena said. “Earth is robustly diverse, far more so than Starfish world, and the intricacy of life is a magnitude more complicated than that of any machine. We will make better machines when we better understand the diversity of life. We are studying your viruses and bacteria, and will progress to plants and animals and fungi. It is marvelous information.”
“But they could make a virus to destroy all life on Earth!”
“They could,” Sam agreed soberly. “But they won’t, because that would ruin the prospect of mutually profitable trade.”
“You’re very trusting!”
“Please, beloved, you must trust me,” Aliena said. “I would never try to harm you.”
“You I trust. But not necessarily your species. We need more reassurance than just their word.”
“He echoes the paranoia of the masses,” Martha told Aliena. “This is why your presentation must be perfect. We don’t want to stir latent hostility.”
“I see,” Aliena agreed, disturbed. “I thought that when he accepted me, he accepted my role.”
Brom saw that he was caught on the wrong side of the issue. “I will take your word, Aliena. If you tell me the starfish mean us no harm, I will accept it.”
“We mean you no harm,” she said immediately.
“Then that is that.” He was simply unable to believe that she would deceive him in any such manner.
They reached the base of the descent. They were now in the full-gravity rim of the wheel, standing before a lighted panel. “I am here,” Aliena said simply. “With my husband, caretaker, and guardian. I am now called Aliena.”
“Acknowledgment, all,” a speaker said as a light played briefly over them. “Enter, Aliena.” A panel slid aside to reveal a person-sized chamber.
Aliena stepped nervously into it. Brom knew this was not from any fear of the machine, but of what its examination might reveal. The panel closed behind her.
“That is the Machine that supervised Dr. Ching,” Martha said. “It informed him of the necessary connections.”
In a moment the panel slid aside again, and Aliena stepped out. “You are in health,” the Machine said. “You are with child. Female, early in gestation. That must end.”
And there it was: the negative verdict. Brom was amazed that the Machine was even able to tell the gender of a fetus that must have formed only days before.
“No,” Aliena said firmly. “She will grow and be birthed in the normal human manner.”
“It is necessary. That condition is hazardous to the balance of your body that protects your brain.”
Aliena pursed her lips and whistled a note. Then she sang another note. There was something imperative about the sounds.
“Copulate distantly,” Sam murmured with a straight face.
“I am overruled,” the Machine said. “I record my objection for the home world authority.” It was clearly a threat.
“Now we go home,” Aliena said, and led the way back up the slope to the shuttle. It seemed their business here was done.
They returned to the shuttle, and immediately (it seemed, thanks to the stasis field) were back on Earth. They exited and rejoined Dr. Ching and his assistant.
“The machine objected,” Aliena told them. “I overruled it.”
“Your word is law,” Ching agreed, though he did not seem enthusiastic. “We will meet again in a month.”
“True,” she said.
“They treat you as if you are a queen,” Brom said as they returned to the waiting train.
“She is queen of queens,” Sam said. “Everything hinges on her.”
Aliena was silent. They entered the train, and it got in motion.
Brom realized that Aliena had not spoken to him directly since the issue with the alien machine. “Are you all right?” he asked her, concerned.
“I am well.” But her coolness was manifest. Brom was out of sorts.
“Brom, couples can fight, over even trivial things,” Martha said. “It is very painful because of the intensity of their feelings; they are super-sensitive to each other. But it is normal, and they usually make up soon.”
“Did we fight?” Brom asked, baffled. Aliena sat beside him, ignoring the dialogue.
“Oh, yes,” Martha said. “You doubted her. You hurt her feelings.”
“But I told her I accepted her word.”
“That is not enough. You should not have required her to give it. You are so focused on her being alien that you forget she is a woman.”
Evidently so. “How do I make it up?”
Brom glanced at Sam. “Utter abject capitulation,” Sam said.
Brom turned to Aliena. “I am sorry I was insensitive. I just wasn’t thinking. I would never hurt you deliberately by word or deed, and I know you feel the same about me. I blundered. I was so wrong.” He felt unmanly tears welling. “Aliena, I beg your forgiveness. Please, please.”
Now she looked at him. “It is not just that. It is that I fear I have done the wrong thing in saving the baby. The Machine Doctor has reason.”
“But that’s proof of your commitment! You would not bear a human baby if you knew it was doomed by alien malice.” Then he froze, afraid that he had said the wrong thing, blundering again.
Aliena looked at Martha. Her shirt had managed to fall open to his view, and her skirt had ridden up on her thigh. Neither could have been by accident; she hardly ever had clothing malfunctions any more.“Is sex permissible once pregnancy is established?”
“It is,” Martha reassured her. “Provided it is gentle. But watch it in sea water.”
“Beds only,” she agreed with seeming regret.
Aliena took Brom’s hand and led him to the bedroom chamber. He accompanied her gladly. She had forgiven him.
Later, back with the others, Aliena was thoughtful. “This child—she will need a family. It is the human way.”
“She will have us,” Brom said.
“Grandparents also. I have not asked about your parents. We must contact them.”
“We can’t,” Brom said. Then, seeing that she wanted more, he explained. “They got religion when I was in college. They joined a minor Christian sect called the Holy Order of Vision, went to Uganda as missionaries, and disappeared.” He paused, then forced himself to continue. “It was a repressive regime hostile to any suggestion of reform. I think they didn’t trust do-gooders from America, and quietly disappeared them.”
Aliena looked perplexed.
“Secret arrest and execution,” Sam said. “Used by rogue governments to get rid of troublemakers.”
“Oh. But this is merely supposition.”
“Efforts to track them met with resistance,” Brom concluded. “That is the way of such things. Such governments never admit what they do. I fear they are dead.”
“This is painful for you?”
“Then I apologize to you for reminding you. I did not mean to bring you pain.”
“Not your fault,” he said quickly. “You didn’t know. I would have had to tell you sometime.”
“Then I must approach the other side,” she decided. “The parents of this body.”
“That’s not wise,” Martha said. “The body is a donated host, as you know. The parents do not want to be reminded.”
“They will reconsider if I explain to them.”
“The record forbids us from contacting them. We don’t even know who they are, officially.”
“Then we must find them,” Aliena said firmly. “How may this be accomplished?”
“Well, there’s the Internet,” Sam said. “The big search engines can locate almost anything, if properly used.”
She eyed him cannily. “You know how to use them.”
“It’s my business. But it would be an abuse of my position to use them for this purpose.”
“But not of mine.”
“Teach me how to use them.”
Sam glanced at Martha, “Is this legitimate?”
Martha laughed. “Have you tried telling Aliena no recently?”
Now Sam glanced at Aliena. She was leaning forward, shirt loose, eyes focused on him. He shrugged. “Less cleavage. More eye. I’m your bodyguard, not a boyfriend or credulous bystander. Look eager for knowledge.”
She quickly adapted, resembling a pleading puppy.
“I will show you how to make an Internet search, purely as a skill you may need to use some day. I am not inquiring what you might wish to search for. That is not my business.”
“Do not inquire,” she agreed.
They went to a computer terminal at the rear of the car, leaving Brom with Martha. “And I thought she was shy and innocent,” Brom remarked.
“She was, until her week with you. You transformed her. You taught her emotions, and the real world, and unleashed her phenomenal potential. All we can do now is support and protect her, and maybe enjoy the ride.”
“I love the ride.”
They completed the train trip, and resumed their honeymoon travels, returning home two weeks after starting. But Aliena was not about to relax. “The grandparents,” she said.
“This body is the child of two people who surely care about her welfare. I must meet with them.”
He had forgotten for the moment. He tried, suspecting it was futile. “Aliena, that may not be wise. They probably regard their daughter as dead.”
“But not their grandchild.”
Brom was dubious, as were Sam and Martha, but Aliena was determined. The records had the information, and she had aptly researched them, and the parents turned out to live within a few hundred miles. They were contacted by message and told that the person inhabiting their daughter’s body wanted to meet them. They refused absolutely.
Aliena phoned them. “I am the person your daughter enabled to live. I want to meet--” She broke off, looking at the phone in perplexity. Grandfather had hung up on her.
“We must go there personally,” she decided.
“Aliena--” Brom started, knowing that his position was tacitly supported by Sam and Martha.
“Copulate distantly,” she snapped. “Must I go alone?”
They went with her. Martha called ahead. “She is determined to meet you,” said to the other party. “We are unable to stop her. With luck you can make the encounter brief.”
The limo pulled up in front of the house, which was a handsome stucco residence in the suburb. Martha hurried ahead and rang the bell. She gesticulated as she talked to the man.
They were admitted to the Smythe residence. The man was of middle age, handsome in his solidity. The woman was portly, with long dark hair, bearing a distinct resemblance to Aliena’s body.
“Be seated,” Johnson Smythe said brusquely. “I am stating on the record that this encounter is occurring under duress. We lost our daughter and do not wish to see her body used elsewhere. Your presence here is unkind. Please say your say and depart promptly.”
They left it to Aliena. This was her show. She could be phenomenally persuasive when she set her mind to it, as they had discovered.
“Mister Smythe, I am an alien brain in your daughter’s body, though I ask you not to reveal this elsewhere. You may be repelled by me, but there are three things I must ask of you, and if you refuse I will not bother you further.”
Brom hoped that they took her reference to alien figuratively: a human brain from elsewhere.
“You have the nerve to ask favors?” Johnson asked angrily.
“You may hate me if you choose,” Aliena said evenly. “But I owe you enormously, for donating your daughter’s wonderful body to be my host.”
“We don’t hate you,” Rebecca Smythe said. “We just don’t want to associate with you. The memory of our dear daughter torments us enough already. To see her body animated by another person is agonizing.”
“It’s as if she returns as a zombie,” Johnson said.
Aliena looked at Brom. “Zombie?”
“A dead body reanimated but still dead,” he said. “A thing of horror.”
“That is fair,” Aliena said, nodding. “I myself am nothing to you, Mister and Misses Smythe. But I am pregnant with your granddaughter. She is of your blood, as I am not. She must have grandparents.”
The two were plainly taken aback. They had not thought of this aspect, and of course had not known of her pregnancy.
“Don’t you have competent help?” Johnson asked after a moment. “Doctor, nurse, babysitting? If you are important enough to rate a caretaker and a bodyguard, and have a husband, you can surely afford such details.”
“An alien mother is not enough. I have no experience of this nature. The child must be among those who will love her, as I know you will. She is your daughter’s child,” Aliena said, her voice quivering. There was a tear in her eye. How much of this was art Brom couldn’t tell, but it was devastatingly effective. Aliena learned all lessons well.
Brom saw the man’s granite facade begin to crack. The woman’s icy reserve started to melt.
“What do you want of us?” Johnson asked.
“Please, I want you to name her.”
It was like a hammer blow, knocking them both back emotionally. Names were potent.
“What else?” Rebecca asked.
“To let her be with you, when I must be away from her. To take care of her, as you did your daughter. To make her be like your daughter, to share her background, her religion, her heritage. As your daughter would have raised her. She deserves that.”
They were both shaken, visibly weakening. “And?” Johnson asked.
“And to teach me to sing. Your daughter’s fine voice should not be wasted. I want to do justice by her, too, to the extent I am able. To thank her in my fashion for the gift she gave me. Please, help me.”
It was as if the man slowly crumbled into sand, and the woman dissolved into jelly. Rebecca got up and came to Aliena, putting her arms around her. Johnson followed, and put his arms around them both. The three wept together.
After that it was simply a matter of ironing out the details.
Next day Aliena visited them again, for her first singing lesson. She knew how to sing, of course, but wanted to do it their way. She learned to read music instantly, amazing Rebecca. Her voice was perfect.
“I think the body knows,” she said. “Maybe it is in the bran stem, enabling me to follow where it leads.”
“Oh, I wish you could sing in our choir, as Becky did.” The host had been named after her mother, then renamed after the transplant. “She even soloed on occasion. Music was her life.”
“I will do that.” No one made any objection; this continued to be Aliena’s show. They took hotel rooms and remained in the area.
Two days later Aliena accompanied the Smiths to their local church. Rebecca drew the pastor aside as Sam, Martha, and Brom took inconspicuous seats at the rear.
The pastor had been briefed, with no reference to alien creatures. “We have a special guest in the choir, today,” he announced. “She may look familiar to you, but she is not. As many of you remember, Becky’s brain was lost, and her body was donated for use by another person. This is that person, visiting us this one time, honoring Becky’s memory.”
There was curiosity and evident nervousness in the small congregation. Many were not at all sure about this, and some seemed revolted. But Aliena took her place in the choir, lovely in her conservative uniform, and sang in the soprano section, her bell-like tone audible among the voices.
Later in the service she soloed, singing the selection for the day.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saves a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
It was absolutely, compellingly beautiful, and seemed highly relevant. If she had not won them over before, she did so now. There was a low murmur of appreciation. It was as if Becky was back.
After the service she stood with the pastor and thanked the church members for their tolerance for the stranger among them that she was. The parishioners were gratified and moved. Now they knew that Becky had not completely died.
“I think that’s a rehearsal for her coming out,” Sam murmured to Brom.
“She’ll pass,” Brom agreed.
They returned to their town. In due course the Smythes pulled up stakes and moved, so as to be closer to their coming granddaughter. It was clear that they had not only been won over, but smitten. Aliena welcomed them, seeming genuinely glad for their company. Brom doubted it was an act. Once she learned feeling, she practiced it fully.
A month after the first visit to the space station, they went again, theoretically for Aliena’s routine checkup. But there was more on the docket.
“This time we contact my home planet,” she told them. “I am now established in my native host, and it is time to tell my people.”
This was news to Brom. “But your home planet is a hundred light years away!” he protested. “You can’t talk with them.”
“Our technology is further progressed than yours,” she reminded him gently. “There is instant contact I can evoke. I need to do this, because only the home world can release the secrets of the ship for your use.”
“Like one third light speed travel. Advanced machines. And the history of our species.”
“And you will share such things with us?”
“Of course. But my people will need reassurance that your people are worthy of the information. I will assure them. But it has been three centuries, and they may have changed their minds. I do not know whether any of their other space missions have reported back. We might be the first one.”