The past few weeks had been a whirl of activity for Zama. Once the starmen and A’laamans had returned to Erik’s planet, the military had quarantined her for three days of debriefing. One day, she'd had to endure a mind probe that had created little voices in her head and the naked humiliation of feeling strangers prowl around in her innermost thoughts. One official had even verbally asked about her intentions toward Erik, a question she found intrusive and one she felt was none of these people’s business. After being released, she learned that all the other natives of her planet had gone through similar experiences, minus the questions about any potential romance. The interrogation and the mind invasion had left her drained. For the next few days she felt angry, disoriented, violated.
Meanwhile, the public began to clamor for access to their new heroes. Once the leaders began to allow news coverage, the returnees were media sensations for weeks. The starmen made certain the e-press was aware of how the A’laamans had helped fight the aliens and had lost some of their own in battle. The City of Newhattan threw a parade in the honor of both groups. The festivities were broadcast all over the solar system and beamed to the stars.
Zama had had her share of media attention but the local political and military bosses had strict guidelines on what she could and couldn’t say. She found this disconcerting. Years ago, when she had been the ruler of A’laama she’d felt reasonably free to say what she wanted. She had begun to feel isolated and discouraged when she had been on the space station. Those feelings continued now that she was planetside. She was struggling to adapt to the local planet’s culture. It was so different than her home world. Newhattan was five times the size of her capital city and everything moved so fast.
She kept thinking of Nova. She still needed to pick a grave memorial. She thought the marker should include a 3-D of a sun that had gone nova and the saying: “Your light will burn brightly throughout all eternity.” She also wanted to compile some video of key moments of the departed’s life, a celebration of that life.
She ached to find a way to get her people back home. But that was one of the forbidden topics. It was not the right time to bring up the subject while the locals were still awaiting confirmation of how the aliens’ war had turned out. True, the star people now had a comprehensive data base about the other species but it remained to be seen how much they would continue to be a threat.
She was thinking about all of these things as she prepared for her next interview, just moments away. She was sitting on the hover couch in her living room, wearing a skirt suit and a blouse. She fiddled with her hair and waved her hand like the locals had shown her, creating a mirror a couple feet from her face. She waved her hand again to magnify and checked out her hair, face and teeth. She snapped her fingers and the mirror vanished. At exactly the appointed time down to the microsecond, a 3-D of a woman behind a desk appeared a few feet from her.
“Hello, everyone,” the image said, “This is Mindee Ferguson. I’m speaking with Zama Elle, former chiefexec of the planet A’laama in the Eta Cephai system. She’s one of our allies who fought for humanity on the alien planet and one of the survivors of the vessel that was shipwrecked in their star system. Good morning, Zama. I’d like to personally thank you for fighting to protect and defend our fellow humans, a battle in which you were wounded. How have you been doing since arriving here?”
“Thank you, Mindee,” she replied. “I’m doing well. I’m grateful for how generous everyone has been. We appreciate all that’s been given to us: money, living quarters, food, offers for job training. I’d like to thank my…dear friend, Captain Erik Houston for coordinating all the efforts to help us. Those of us who survived the A’laaman shipwreck escaped with virtually no possessions except the clothes we were wearing. I spent over three months with only one set of clothing. Now, thanks to your people I have a closet full of clothes and that alone makes me feel tremendously blessed.”
The interview lasted about ten minutes. It seemed to go well and Zama was careful not to wander into any questionable subjects. The interviewer had treated her decently but the interviewee sighed with relief when it was over and the 3-D of the reporter disappeared. The A’laaman sat there for a few minutes, lost her in her thoughts. Her v-screen startled her when it blipped with three new messages. She pulled up each one. Three different strangers were each asking her on a date. She bit her lip, wondering how they had gotten through the security apps to get her private comm code.
Two new zings and a glimmer came in. One was a request for yet another interview. The next one looked like some kind of advertisement. The third message was a request for her to give a speech. She arched her brow. Hmm. Interesting. But then she pictured her prepared text being blown to neutrinos by some government big wigs. She frowned.
“Ms. Elle, you have a visitor,” said the automated door.
She jumped in her seat. “Who is it?”
“Let him in, please.”
She arose and walked toward the door.
“Good to see you,” he said.
She gave him a hug. They walked to the hover couch and each sat down.
“Great interview,” he said.
She nodded. “Things have been really busy since we’ve been back.”
“Non-stop. And…I’ve been needing to talk with you.”
She shot him an annoyed look. “What, more media guidelines?”
He chuckled. “No, I’m not here to nano manage you. This is personal.”
“Go on, captain.”
“It’s about you and me.”
She looked away. “Yes. You and me. What happens with you now that you’re back home?”
“I’ll have a couple months of shore leave. Time for R &R. I’ll have plenty of time to spend with you.”
“Well…unless I have any…other commitments, they’ll probably send me back into space on another mission.”
She turned back toward him. Their eyes met. “I..don't want to hurt you, but right now I’m not sure how I feel. When we were on your ship, you and I grew really close. I felt like I was falling in love with you all over again. But…we’ve gone through a lot. All the terrible things that happened on the return trip and it’s been chaotic since then. I’m kinda overwhelmed.”
He placed his hand on her arm. “What can I do to help?”
“For now…nothing. I just need some time. I’ve blocked out a few days on my calendar to catch my breath. And think.”
“I understand.” He stood up. “Should I leave you alone for a couple days?”
She nodded, her bangs falling into her eyes.
“Can I call you after that?”
“I’ll call you when I’m…ready.”
He turned to leave.
“Erik,” she called after him. He turned around. She walked over and hugged him. “Thank you.”
After he left she sat back down and returned to her thoughts. Then she spotted something on the floor. She leaned over and reached across the carpet. Her hand touched a grey, velvet box. Had it fallen out of his pocket? She opened the lid. The light from the chandelier caught the facets of the most beautiful gemstone ring she had ever seen.
Erik tried zinging her again. No answer. Four days without talking with her was more than he could take. He summoned an auto cab and flew over to her building. The vehicle hovered beside the gated patio that would allow him to step out of the cab to within a few yards of her door, which was more than a hundred stories above ground level in this apartment tower. He strode over to the door.
“Hello, Captain Houston,” the door greeted him.
“Hi. Is…Ms. Elle in?’’
“No, sir. I’m sorry, she’s out.”
He wrinkled his brow. “Where did she go?”
“She didn’t say.”
“Did she say when she’s returning?”
He turned to leave. He tried reaching her several more times that day but there was no answer. And she hadn’t returned any of his messages.
Doctors wondered if Luci Strong would ever be the same. She had fully recovered physically and looked as good as ever. The regrown flesh on her face, arm and eye socket held no trace of scar tissue. But her mind was a twisted maze of alien and human thought patterns and emotions. The experts had great difficulty making sense of it all.
She had seemed normal enough for the first several days after returning to her ship. But then the worm had kicked in. Once she had gotten back to regional base, she had remained in isolation. Specialists had analyzed her and micromapped her brain. When she was conscious, she was violent, making it impossible to run tests on her. When she was out, some of the readouts were so bizarre that the doctors sought permission to study parts of the classified alien database to try to make sense of Luci’s condition. The bug continued to run rampant in her mind as the input from the other species began to dominate, suppressing her remaining humanity.
Finally, a Dr. Simoa was able to isolate the worm and deprogram the intrusion from the patient’s mind. As soon as the foreign programming was gone, she went into convulsions then lapsed into a coma. Her vital signs declined and at one point it appeared she wouldn’t make it. But after several hours she stabilized.
After she had been in a coma for several days, the med and psych personnel summoned the other ship’s officers to her side. Erik, Montoya, Irv and Marji each took turns talking to her and holding her hand. The captain told her how much he appreciated her bravery and how she had remained strong despite the alien’s attacks. Montoya thanked her for being a loyal officer who had contributed much to the mission. Marji placed a vase with flowers on a table near the other lady. She told her how pretty she looked and how much she had valued her friendship over the years. The corners of Luci’s mouth appeared to turn up ever so slightly. Irv, the ship’s chaplain led the others in a prayer over their comrade. Her lips appeared to move slightly in response to his words.
Two more days passed. The parade of visitors grew to include some of the other crew members. Whenever the visitors left the room, they would frequently be accosted by human or android reporters seeking an update on Lt. Strong’s condition.
That afternoon with the officers present, Luci opened her eyes. They grew wide as she saw the others staring down at her as she lay covered with a blanket. She looked alert. She reached toward Marji, who gave her a hug. Each of the others took a turn doing the same.
“You look good,” said Montoya.
“I feel like hell,” she replied.
“Welcome back,” said the captain.
Her eyes narrowed. “Are we still in space?”
Marji shook her head. “We’re home. We completed the mission and you’re a big hero.”
“You’ve been awarded the Spiral Galaxy medal and a platinum battlestar,” said Houston. “The brass will have a special ceremony once the docs have cleared you for discharge.”
“Hero, huh? I’m just glad that junk in my mind is gone.”
“Anything we can get you?” asked Marji.
“A frozen redberry twist, low cal. I’ve been getting fat in this sick bay. I need to get to a workout room. And Marjibelle, we still need to set up that double date. I promise not to show up as an alien.”
She walked along the beach, the wind blowing her hair across the face. She had created a long, meandering line of footprints in the sand, a line that reached all the way back to the small, white cottage behind a dune hundreds of yards away. The surf lapped at her bare feet, the chilly water sending shivers up her spine. Her hair was wet and starting to frizz. She licked the salt spray from her lips. Some large cotton ball clouds broke the blueness of the sky. She pulled the small water bottle from her shorts pocket and took a swig. She wiped her lips with her hand. She reached down and picked up a sea shell, adding it to the collection in the small bag that was tied to a belt loop. Overhead, a sea bird cried. No one else was around as far as they eye could see. She looked further down the beach, her feet sinking a little into the moist sand. There was a dot off in the distance. As she continued her stroll, the dot became a figure. Another human ‘way out here, miles from nowhere. As the other person grew closer, she squinted. Surely she was imagining this. She had to know for sure. She began to jog then broke into a run. The figure began to run as well. She was right, but how…? Her long legs rapidly closed the distance. She felt strong arms encircle her waist, hoist her up and swing her around. He continued to hold her in the air.
Wide-eyed, she looked down at his smiling face. “How did you ever find me?” she asked. He eased her down until her feet touched the sand.
“A long time ago, when you needed to get away, you had me take you to a beach in an uninhabited part of your planet.”
“But there must be thousands of miles of beach on this planet. How…?”
He grinned even wider. “We can spot a specific grain of sand, a given sub-atomic particle from space. If you want to find someone badly enough you’ll find them.”
“I’m glad you found me.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it.
“Is there someplace to sit down around here?”
“Do you see any furniture?”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a light blue handkerchief and shook it. It opened up into a soft blanket. He held it over the sand and eased it to the ground. She smiled and sat down. He did likewise. “I brought something for you.” He handed her an object the size and shape of an ancient pen. “Here, point this at that big cloud and push this button.”
“Are you going to make it rain?” she laughed.
“No. This is some video shot through the gravitational lens at the outer reaches of this solar system. We’ve talked before about how each solar system has its own grav lens caused by gravity warping space. It’s like a natural magnifying glass that allows astronomers to get some extreme closeups of a planet. You can pick up details just a few dozen yards across.”
She nodded. “ I remember. That’s how you found out A’laama was inhabited so they sent your ship to visit us.”
“That’s right. We were shocked to find a colony when there was no record one had ever been started. Well, speaking of A’laama…”
A 3-D image projected out from the cloud. She gasped for breath. It was the planet as seen from space. “This is a recent live feed through the grav lens,” he said. “Of course, this is how your planet looked five years ago due to the speed of light…”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, waving her hand because he was stating the obvious. “Do you know how old I am in planet years? I’m really getting up there.”
“Another three and a half centuries or so and you’ll catch up with me.”
She dug her elbow into his ribs. “Old man.”
“Watch it, mister.” She play-slapped him on the arm.
“Now, this should really get interesting for you,” he said. He waved his hand and the shot zoomed in on the City of A’laama, the planet’s capital and her former hometown. She felt her stomach drop. She could recognize many of the buildings, although the smaller ones looked a little fuzzy. This was almost as a close a look at the city as when she had floated over it with John in the Zep years earlier. Erik panned the view to look down on the mirror-walled Crystal Mansion, which had been her residence as chiefexec. The view swept over networks of criss-crossing lines and clusters of small dots. She assumed she was looking at networks of streets and houses out in the suburbs. She knew that somewhere down there were her children and grandkids. She saw a small comm tower, perhaps the audio and video scope her Tanna had wanted to built. Right at this moment she might be tuning into broadcasts from other star systems. Zama got an overview of the new satellite towns, vast swatches of jungle, the Great Waterfall in the outback where the Batu tribe and other Non-techs lived. She ooh and awed at the new towns that had been established hundreds of miles from the capital, which had once been an isolated city-state. At the end of the tour, Zama’s heart was pounding rapidly, her auto meds quickly responding before there was trouble.
“That was amazing.” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a nicer gift.”
“There’s more,” he said. “I’d rather you stand for this.”
“Okay.” He stood up and offered his hand to help her to her feet. He got down on one knee. “Zama Elle, I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’ve never stopped thinking about you since I left A’laama. Will you marry me?”
She felt faint. “I-I…”
“Take your time.”
She eased back into a sitting position. He joined her. “This isn’t easy,” she said. She clasped both his hands and looked into his eyes. “I love you.” Time seemed to stop. She had used the A’laaman word for love, not the starman word. Her word meant an intimate embrace, a deep union of two souls. Being completely at one with the other person. The look in his eyes made her certain he understood the meaning.
“I love you,” she said, again using he A’Iaaman term. “I…was unable to admit that the last time I saw you.”
She looked down at the sand. “I’m scared.”
He squeezed her hands and waited until she finally met his gaze. His next words were so tender they moved her deep inside. “You’re the one of the bravest women I know. Why are you afraid?”
She swallowed. Her mouth was dry. “I…I’m just wondering if our love is big enough. I’m an independent woman. I have strong opinions. That side of me has been suppressed lately due to your people's overseeing my every word.”
He nodded. “We've been heavy-handed in dealing with you and your people. And I feel bad about that. It's not my idea and I'm only following orders. But soon the public and the media will find some other obsession. Then you can start building a more normal life.”
“But for me normal means being outspoken and involved and calling the shots. I don't apologize for who I am. Can you and I really form a partnership for the rest of our lives? Do you really think we can make a marriage work?”
He stroked her face with the back of his hand. “You’re spirited. Your own woman. Those are some of the things I love about you. I don’t know how we’ll make this work. But what I want most is to make you happy.”
She swallowed hard and seemed incapable of speaking. He continued: “You know what my career has been like…”
“I don’t want to lose you. Not again.” He put his arm around her. She laid her head on his shoulder.
For the next several minutes, the only sound was the gentle pounding of the surf. She sat up and looked out at the sea. She said: “The last time my life was at this big of a crossroads is the time you offered take me into the wilderness. I was afraid to leave my little cocoon and go explore the outback. But I was also curious to see what was there. And I definitely wanted to spend more time alone with you. If you hadn’t pushed me to go, if you had just gone back into space and I’d remained content to stay in my own little city-state and not explore other parts of the world, if that had happened I never would have developed the boldness to build the starship and you and I would have never run into one other in that foreign solar system.”
“So what are you saying?” he asked.
She pulled the bluestone ring out of her shorts pocket and slipped it onto her finger. His eyes looked like they would pop out of their sockets.
“Lose something, mister?” she asked.
“S-so…are we engaged?” he asked.
“Shut up and kiss me.”
He was glad to oblige.