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by Barry Tomkins
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Jennifer Prothero lives happily in the valley of New Garth, where she has been adopted by a group living off the land in self-imposed exile from civilization. Then, their rural peace is destroyed when ships carrying two species of alien, one friendly, the other hostile, crash nearby--the horrid Watermen, whose perverse, child-stealing ways are well-known on Earth. Jennifer and her companions must choose: defend themselves, or leave their hard work behind to begin new lives far from the odious Watermen. And Jennifer is faced with a very surprising choice about her future.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [595 KB]
Reading time: 373-523 min.
Jennifer followed Orlando along the path, Mole right behind her, Charity bringing up the rear. A red-tailed hawk screamed overhead. In the bamboo grove, the parrots were waking up; they were late sleepers, a habit of the engineered genes long ago spliced into their real ones.
They chucked and cawed and cooed themselves awake, and Jennifer laughed to herself. The parrots were daft creatures, really, bright black-tongued oddities in this ecologue. The local fauna seemed to tolerate them, either afraid of them or not even recognizing them as animals. Since moving here, following the Parvati exodus, like Jennifer herself they seemed more content than during their park-dwelling days in Deem, where they had tended to harass the citizens with rude words and the occasional dive-bombing and brown-bag-lunch theft.
Now the parrots were happy to hang about much of the day in the bamboo grove, perching on the ancient walnut tree that grew in its middle, making forays abroad in search of food, cracking nuts in season. They loved to repeat words they overheard, and had a yen for learning more, so they'd sometimes come and sit, all seventeen of them, on the roof of Darshan when the family was meeting, and often on the fence poles when folks were tending the garden.
Jennifer liked the parrots--their odd hybrid nature, their spotty intelligence and their bright plumage, not to mention the rude words, now less harassment than entertainment.
Most of all she liked the parrots' happiness in their out-of-placeness. Her word for that was epilocation. "To be in a place but not of it," she explained, when asked for a definition of her latest coinage. She had taught the parrots to say it, as if they could learn something of their nature that way, and they said it in unison at her command, marching on the roof, as if it were a mantra.
"Scraawk! Epilocation! Scraawk! Epilocation! Scraawk!"
She studied Orlando from the rear. He was a bit out of place, too, though he was beginning to fit in. He had lost his roly-polyness almost completely. The first time she had met him, after her sister Jasmine's death in the mass suicide bombing before they left Deem, he had still been quite plump. His balding pate and shortish stature had made him seem more like a caricature of a poet than the poet he really was--or tried to be, between farming and working with the others on the compound and playing with his new baby and his fairly new wife.
She found Orlando a bit comical. In fact, Jennifer found all adults a bit comical--grave when they should be light, irritated when they should laugh, never taking the right things seriously. Still, they were more interesting than Narayan, a child, full of crazy energy and moods expressed in jumps, fits and sulks, or the messy baby Ananda, whom she could tolerate if she had to but only just, though the girl was beginning to improve now that she could crawl. They had potential, she agreed on that, but they could not read, or not do much at all. Her best words were lost on them. In fact, the parrots were better at words then either of them.
Orlando sauntered, that was the word for it. He sauntered, leading the file along, his body rocking slightly at the hips. She decided he had a funny way of walking, and began to imitate him, swaying deliberately from side to side. Mole caught on, and started to do the same thing, and then Charity, and soon the three were rolling from port to starboard as if they were on the deck of a ship.
Mole tapped Jennifer's shoulder, and she looked back and saw what the two were doing. They all burst out laughing and fell out of line on the path. Orlando stopped and turned around and looked quizzical.
"What on earth?" he asked as Mole picked burrs off her trousers.
They were almost up at the end of the valley now. The mist had gone except for a few lingering shreds hanging on a lone cypress. They noticed a buzzing noise in the air, as if it were full of small insects. The center of the valley here was empty of tall vegetation, and they could see across to the other party, who had also stopped. The air was charged, had a slightly odd flavor--a vinegary, sour odor. It felt heavy, full of something invisible.
"The smell of space," said Morgan quietly to her group.
"You would know," said Seth. "A first for me, though." He sniffed the air and grimaced. "It's not an attractive smell. Does all space smell of it, do you think?"
"Maybe it's something to do with the ships themselves," said Reymundo. "How they travel through space, their engines, or the by-products."
"Or the smell of another universe," said Candy. "Another universe could not smell the same as ours. Everything would have to be a bit different, wouldn't it. The physics, the chemistry."
"The biology," said Reymundo.
Everyone thought of the Walking Frogs, more politely known as the Watermen--their bad habits, their crudeness, their ugliness, their apparent amphibious roots or natures, no one was sure which.
The two groups walked a little further and met up on the top field where Charity had seen the ghost ship. Nothing unusual was visible, just the empty valley with its everyday vegetation and the homestead and the waterfall in the distance. The air continued to smell odd, and seemed thicker than normal, more like a thin liquid. Jennifer began to feel slightly nauseous.
"The air feels full," she said.
"Full of what?" asked Morgan.
She was leaning on her stick, tired from her second walk of the day. Her lean brown body was sheathed in one of her usual warm-weather garments, a simple straight-up-and-down shift made from a bolt of faux cotton brought from Deem. This one had been dyed deep red with a root she had known in her youth and discovered again in this valley. She'd steeped the fabric in a big ceramic pot she'd made herself and fired in her kiln.
She was standing next to Mole, who wore her inevitable black cotton trousers and collarless shirt and was still picking at light-green burrs dotted all over.
"Full of something that should not be there," said Charity, "like an alien ship. That's the last thing we need out here."
"Following us, then," said Orlando.
"Let's not get paranoid," said Candy.
"Or paranormal," said Jennifer.
"Well," said Orlando, "I should think we've established that the normal is out of the question. I should think that everything is paranormal now, at least since the Watermen visited this planet, which they may have been doing for a long time. In fact, it seems likely that everything has always been paranormal."
"So, if the normal is paranormal, then what's normal?" asked Jennifer, grinning into his face.
"You," said Orlando.
She punched him in the chest, and then his face became serious. She thought she had hurt him, and was about to say she was sorry when he grabbed her arm and swung her around and held her against him so she was facing into the valley and she could see what he could see.
"There it is again. No, it's a different ship, look," said Charity.
Three oval iridescent blue pods linked together by fat tubes gleamed through a patch of thickened mist, the pod nearest them smaller than the one behind, and behind that a longer one, giving the whole thing the appearance of a giant insect. Below the central pod hung something like an undercarriage. Otherwise, the pods were blank, shiny blue surfaces with no hint of windows or antennas or any other of the usual equipment.
The ship hung just below them in the valley, a long stone's-throw away. They began stepping backwards, reaching for each other as the closeness and hugeness of the thing made them fearful.
But it still did not seem to be actually there. Like the different ship Charity had seen before, it had an unreal look about it, as if they were glimpsing it through murky glass.
The smell of space was strong now, even sharper than before.
They all huddled into the shelter of one of the cedar families. Orlando tried to get Jennifer to hide behind a larger trunk at the back, but she would have nothing of it and stayed at the front of the group, holding onto Charity's arm and looking out from behind one of the smaller trunks. The trees gave off a sharp resinous fragrance.
Jennifer's whole body was humming with excitement. She could not believe she was seeing something so interesting and frightening and mysterious. The alien ship had come here from some other universe, certainly somewhere very far away, maybe even another dimension or parallel world. It faded in and out of vision, sometimes seeming quite solid and real, then becoming misty and insubstantial and dreamy again, then slowly opaquing back to its shiny blue insect-like presence.
These were not the aliens that had visited earth before--everyone was saying that, whispering to each other as they touched arms and held hands and stared intently at the craft. Those aliens rode in elongated eggs made of some kind of thick, translucent material, like the one Charity had seen earlier that morning. They had all seen that kind of craft before, hovering over Deem, though never this close, except for Morgan, of course, who had been in Garth when they seized the village.
This ship was quite different. Unless the scale was distorted, it was too small to carry the giant Walking Frogs.
Jennifer thought, This new spaceship changes everything. The amphibians--the frogg, (one half-joking, half-satirical popular name); the Walking Frogs, in common parlance; Watermen, the newish, more serious label--were known to have collected, stolen things from other aliens; and Candy and others had been working for years on the video archives they had left behind, which proved they had terrorized other species. No one had imagined other alien ships might be visiting earth.
Jennifer felt changed by knowing this, intensely curious and excited. Somehow, it opened up her mind and made her feel as if she were no longer standing at the end of a terrestrial valley but at the edge of a cliff overlooking a vast bubbly mass of universes, all occupied by different kinds of being.
Later, she remembered this epiphany as herself saying over and over again in her mind Other species can visit earth, other species can visit earth, other species can visit earth.
Was there some kind of highway through space leading here? This idea took over her mind completely for a few minutes as they all stood in the shelter of the trees, feeling scared and not a little stupid, gawking at the appearing and disappearing ship.
A loud popping sound made them all start. Everyone agreed later that the air emptied. One minute it was full and heavy, a thick, charged fluid. Then, suddenly, it was normal again, its usual thin, barely noticeable self, mixed with the spicy odor of the cedar trees and the damp smell of the still-dewy grass and the scent from a tangle of honeysuckle in a nearby clump of privet.
Everyone saw the same thing--a streak of blue, a fat blue line like a thick crayon mark shooting up the valley and disappearing over the escarpment at the head. The ship flew so fast they only knew it was a moving object because they had seen it standing still a second before. In the distance, over the next valley, the blue line scrambled in the air, a child scribbling.
The smell was gone, the ship was gone, everything was back to normal. The warmth of the day was beginning to build. The sun was well over the eastern ridge, and the heating ground began to pump out water soaked up during the recent rains.