"Well, Kate, they're watching Alex again."
Col. Jack Harris jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and hunched his shoulders. A gray sky and a little drizzling rain would have matched his mood perfectly, standing here in the cemetery, but as usual he wasn't going to get what he wanted.
"You'd think this would be a great summer, Alex at home and working part-time at the base with me, instead of taking summer classes. I thought it was a great idea, I could keep an eye on her and shield her from Payne. He's had a bug up his butt ever since she found that miracle cure medicine..."
He shrugged and nearly turned away from his wife's grave. The early morning brilliance of sunrise on diamond-dew grass, the perfume of ripening apples from the orchard across the highway, the gold and rose and royal blue of the sky as sunrise faded to full daylight all combined to mock him for his worries. Col. Harris knew that if his wife were there with him, she would understand, even as she teased him for his worries.
"It's just that Alex is all I have left, honey. Sometimes I just want to pack up my desk in a cardboard box and leave my bars at the gate when I leave at night. But my work is my life, now that you're gone. I don't know what I'd do if I lost her, but maybe I'm losing her already." He tried to chuckle, and raked his long-fingered, scarred hands through his graying, almost-longer-than-regulation black mop of hair.
"I wake up nights thinking about what Andrea told us, just before she died. You didn't believe her, but with everything that's happened the last couple years...what if she was right? If I pack up and get out like my gut says, I won't have the power to protect Alex if something goes wrong." He hunched his shoulders a little more, then went down on one knee to look at the polished, blue-gray marble face of the marker set flush with the emerald lawn. "I really miss you, sweetheart. More than ever. I'd give up everything--our plane, my whole career, everything we worked for--if I could have you back with me and Alex."
He waited as the day slowly grew brighter and warmer. The rush-whizz of cars streaking down the highway just beyond the dwarf-pine fence around the cemetery made a soft counterpoint to the slowing spin of his thoughts.
A motorcycle grumbled up the one-lane blacktop path behind him. It stopped and rumbled a few seconds before turning off.
"How'd you know I was coming here?" Col. Harris got up and turned to meet Alex.
He smiled to see her lifting off her scarred blue helmet and rake her fingers through her dark, straight hair. They were father and daughter by adoption, but there were some things that didn't need a genetic link to be transferred. They both narrowed their eyes the same way when they concentrated, and raked their fingers through their hair the same way. They loved to tinker with the open cockpit, two-seater prop plane they had named the Old Lady. They wore jeans and sweatshirts like a uniform whenever possible. And last winter, during her Christmas break, they had the best time restoring that motorcycle, which they had found during a Thanksgiving weekend ramble when they had tried to avoid the start of the Christmas shopping season. If it weren't for the risk of Payne actually having authority over Alex, he would have encouraged her to pursue a career as an engineer in the Air Force, just like him.
"You always come here after we spend the night stargazing and you talk about how you stole Mom's telescope to get her to go out with you." She gave him the lopsided, pained smile she had learned from her mother, Kathryn Gregory-Harris.
Right that moment, Col. Harris wished Alex were a redhead like his wife and her sisters, Dr. Marissa Gregory and Andrea. Just a little fantasy that Alex really was his daughter, tied to him with blood. Just a little comfort, to fight off the fears.
"You think you've got me pegged, huh?" He advanced on her. "It's Saturday, kiddo. What are you doing out of bed so early?"
Her mouth twisted in that unreadable grimace she had picked up from her roommate, Jori Lawrence. Somewhere between a grin and an attempt to muffle pain. Col. Harris suspected she was having those dreams again, that woke her up sweating, to pace the living room in bad weather or go outside on the deck in good weather. The dreams she either wouldn't or couldn't talk about.
"You don't work for me anymore, remember? I set you free to goof off and have a break before the school year starts."
He had cut her loose as soon as his friends higher up in the chain of command sent warnings that Major Payne was making noises about Martin's Lake Air Force Base again, indicating he had found a new justification for visiting and looking over the shoulders of every officer at the base, starting with the commander. If he had to, Jack Harris would send Alex to another country to protect her from Payne's insinuations. One of these days, the paranoid cretin would slip up and Alex would know that he was involved in the death of Andrea Gregory, who had been her foster-mother before the Harrises adopted her.
"So, I'll sleep late on Monday." Alex shrugged and jerked a thumb up at the sky. "Great flying weather, huh?"
"Uh huh." He grinned and nodded. "I bet we have at least an hour of work on the Old Lady's engine before we can take her up."
"Then we'd better get it in gear, huh?" She clamped her helmet back on her head and gunned her motorcycle back into life, effectively killing the response he started to make. Not that Harris needed to say anything.
It was a perfect day for flying, as Alex had said. They had each other. They could put Martin's Lake Air Force Base behind them for the weekend. What more could they want?
"Aren't you up a little early?" Col. Harris asked, as Alex stumbled into the kitchen Monday morning. He paused to take one last sip of his coffee, then dumped the remainder of the cup down the drain.
"What's early?" Alex caught up his uniform jacket from the back of his chair and held it out for him. "It's nearly seven." She grinned as he slid his arms into the sleeves. "Hard to break the habit. Usually I'm on my way to work by now."
"You're on break. Avoid the tyranny of the clock as long as you can." He tucked his briefcase under his arm and leaned back to brush a kiss across her forehead. "Afraid your old dad can't get off to work without your help?"
"Hardly." She sank down into the chair he had just vacated and pushed the backwards folded newspaper out of the way. "I just couldn't sleep."
"How about packing a picnic dinner and meeting me at the hangar tonight? We'll finish that overhaul of the Old Lady's brakes and take her up until it's too dark to fly." He tugged the kitchen door open and paused, waiting for an answer.
"That sounds good. Be there by five or I'm starting without you." Alex held the grin on her face until he chuckled and closed the door. Then she rested her head in her hands and closed her eyes.
Last summer and the year before, she hadn't taken any vacation. Who needed summer vacation when her best friends were there, and all the attendant excitement of their secret lives? With all the danger and prophecies and civil wars, she and Jori and Bree had stuck together. This last year, while Jori took over running Old Solar's Shoppe, and Bree settled into married life and motherhood, they had still attended classes together. Jori and Alex had shared a dorm room and studied at Bree's little house in Logon at least twice a week. This summer, Bree had obligations in the other-dimensional world of Rehdonna as her family began rebuilding in the wake of the civil war. Jori opted not to take college classes so she could spend more time in Unipuri and the Midworld. So it had made sense for Alex to go home for the summer. The truth was, she felt guilty, leaving her father so much on his own since her mother died. She had enjoyed spending more time with him, earning money working at the Air Force R&D base, re-establishing her friendship with the test pilots and the engineers. She enjoyed taking time off from school, after going at college full-tilt for two straight years. Anticipating the coming school year, though, suddenly felt like putting on dirty, wet clothes that might have shrunk since the last time she put them on. The awful part in all this was that while it was easy to blame the dreams that tormented her again, she couldn't blame all her discontent on them.
"Straighten up," Alex growled at herself.
She slouched back into her chair. What right did she have to feel sorry for herself? Except for her continuing dreams about the starship and the captain who seemed to know her very soul, her life was boring and ordinary. Especially taking her best friends' problems and responsibilities into consideration. Honestly, Alex wanted to stay boring and ordinary for the rest of her life.
She looked around the kitchen. It was immaculate, as always. Much of her summer had focused on ensuring the house stayed neat and clean and well-organized.
"A clean house is a sign of a sick mind." She laughed and pushed herself up to her feet and out of the kitchen. If she didn't find something to do, she would start eating. Not good.
By eight-thirty, she had showered, shaved her legs, washed her hair, neatened her room and pulled out the crates of her college gear to sort through it, even though she had a month until classes started. Jori was living at Old Solar's now, and wanted Alex to move in with her, since Lew had left Willowood to live in the Midworld. Alex was still debating whether to accept or try to live by herself in the dormitory. She had promised to have an answer for Jori when they met at Bree's house at nine.
Bree came to the door of the little house she and Aravin had bought last March, holding Jimmy in the crook of one arm, when Alex drove up on her motorcycle. Her long, dark brown hair was pulled back and up in two ponytails, and the little boy was having a good time grabbing at the ribbons dangling from his mother's hair. Mother and son were dressed in as little as possible--shorts and T-shirt, and a blue pinstripe diaper.
"Thank goodness you're here. I need to look through a few storage boxes for my old sketch books and my arms are currently full," Bree said by way of greeting. She held out Jimmy. "Hold the wiggleworm while I navigate the mess downstairs, would you?"
"Uh--" Alex swallowed hard and took the boy. She loved black, curly hair and big green eyes, but usually on something at least twenty years older. Jimmy giggled and kicked and reached for her single braid, tied with a bright green sparkle cord.
She followed Bree through the tiny living room, down the hall and into the basement. The musty cool of cement block was a welcome relief from the threat of stifling humidity in the air. Even riding the motorcycle without a jacket hadn't helped dissipate the sweat threatening to paste her T-shirt to her back.
"This is a mess?" Alex looked around the long basement room; open to the supports for the floor above, three bare bulbs, carpet remnants laid out in one corner to designate Aravin's office, furnished with a battered desk, phone and four filing cabinets, and a long, double-thick stack of boxes and crates lining the opposite wall.
"I was spoiled at Ari's home, that's all. Servants and rooms that make Buckingham Palace look shabby." Bree tugged the lid off a box that once held copier paper. "Ah ha!" She pulled out three sketch pads. "Upstairs. I decided that--" She paused and grinned as the doorbell rang. "The third Musketeer. Most of this is her fault."
"Between her calling to make sure we were still meeting, and asking me if I'd been having any dreams about you--" Bree shrugged and gestured up the stairs. "I paid more attention to my dreams and they say I'll need my old sketchbooks. Remember how we used to wake up in the middle of the night and I'd sketch all the things you told me about in your dreams?"
"Yeah." Alex smiled. It morphed into a frown a moment later. "Why dreams about me?"
"I have no idea. Ask her when she gets here."
As usual, Jori had visibly changed since the last time the three friends were together. Today her hair was chopped off at her shoulders, when it had been nearly to her waist a week before. The dark brown mass had red and golden streaks from strong sun exposure, and a few spots on her bare arms looked glossy from burn and peeling. Her dreamstone almost glowed with a light of its own today.
"Okay, what's up with the dreams and playing high and mysterious master solar?" Alex demanded almost before their "third Musketeer" came through the door.
"This." Jori held out a box, a little bigger than a deluxe video tape box, wrapped in brown paper. Prominent in dark green ink was Alex's name, in care of Old Solar's Shoppe.
"Why would somebody send something to you at the shop?" Bree murmured. She took her son from Alex.
"Because they know..." Alex forgot how to breathe a moment. She felt caught somewhere between nausea and dizziness.
"They know what?" Jori caught hold of her arm and guided her down the hall to the kitchen. "I hope you made a pot of crystal vein, Bree. Something tells me we're going to need it."
"I heard Dad talking with his pal in Colorado Springs. Payne the Pain is on the warpath again, and Dad is his favorite target. When he's scraping to find something, he gets on my back, for some reason." She felt her face twist into a teeth-baring grimace. Her fingers dug harder into the package. It felt like metal underneath, hard and unyielding, but didn't seem to weigh much. What was it?
"Somebody wants you to have this without the military knowing." Jori guided Alex into the closest chair. "This is getting serious. This is someone who knows us well enough to know I'd give it to you without opening it, first."
"What's really crazy," Alex whispered, "is that I think I dreamed about this last night. It's all such a blurry jumble, just impressions."
"What have I told you two about listening to your dreams?" She grinned and settled down in a chair after turning it around to straddle its ladderback.
For several long moments, Alex looked at her two friends, her best friends, with whom she had gone through so much in the last few years. Why had so many odd things happened to them and yet nothing to her? Maybe now it was her turn. Maybe the universe was fair after all. Or, considering the dreams that had plagued her for years, maybe the weird things had been happening all along, finally building up to a breaking point.
She nodded and bent to examine the package. She ran her fingernail along the torn edge, searching for a weak spot. Silently, Bree reached back and tugged on a kitchen drawer and brought out a tiny paring knife, which she handed to Alex. She took it equally silently and carefully slit one long side of the wrapping.
The package was wrapped in a double layer of the brown paper, then foil. Alex frowned and paused a moment. Why would someone need to wrap foil around it?
Not aluminum foil. This felt thicker. Heavier, too, when she picked it up. It bent softly, if that was the proper way to describe it.
"Lead, I think," Jori said when Alex passed it to her. She bent it a little and squeezed it between her fingers.
"Are you sure?" Bree slid Jimmy into his high chair and freed up her hands so she could take the sheet of lead foil next and bend it.
"With all the things I come in contact with, as a Solar and running Lew's store... yep."
"To protect it from x-ray machines," Alex whispered. Then a moment later she wondered where that thought had come from.
"Makes sense," Bree said, nodding. "If you know the military is watching someone, and you want them to get something, and you know enough to send it to a friend, you'd take precautions against the Post Office or someone who can get into the Post Office, using x-ray machines. Just in case someone is more paranoid than you expected."
Alex nodded and took off the next layer of brown paper. Her dreams from restless nights hovered and whispered at the edges of her memory, irritating, like whispering juvenile delinquents in a movie theater after the lights went down. Next was a layer of bubble wrap, leaving the package thinner than she had thought. Slightly smaller than a video tape box. Alex looked at the glossy black surface, the sliding compartment covers, and realized she was looking at the back of the unit. There was no note, no letter, nothing to identify who had sent it to her.
"Stupid," she muttered.
Just two months ago, someone had tried to send a bomb into her father's office at the base. There had been no return address on that package, either, and the very alert corporal in the mail room had suspected trouble. It had taken weeks of careful watching and asking questions. They had tracked down the very foul-mouthed old man who had sent the bomb, thanks to the man's curiosity. After all, he had heard nothing about an explosion on the base, and he wanted to know what was going on. When someone started asking not-quite-discrete questions about a cover-up at the base, the security team knew they had their man. He had a record of trying to halt or destroy anything having to do with military research.
That didn't help Alex now, though. She had torn into the package without considering the absence of the return address. She turned over the unit. Fragments of memories of seeing someone using this flashed through her head. She thought she could run it without thinking, as naturally as breathing--even though she had never touched this before in her life.
At least, she thought she had never touched it before.
Alex knew she was breathing; she could hear her gasping inhalations, feel her chest moving, but nothing seemed to be getting to her brain.
Think, she scolded herself. Don't act like those brainless twits in the movies. Handle it. You can't just sit here and stare at it until Dad comes home.
Dream fragments solidified into an image of what her father, the Air Force colonel, the head of the research base at Martin's Lake, would do if he saw what sat in her limp hands. Alex knew what kind of trouble she would be in with military security if they found out about this.
"What is it?" Jori asked quietly.
"Oh--heck," Bree said. "I've seen it, from your dreams."
"What?" she demanded. "Alex, do you know what it is?"
"Yeah." Alex waited while Bree shuffled through her sketchpads from the last few years of college. Her stomach twisted as she recalled those quiet, companionable nights when she woke from her dreams of the starship and told Bree about the things she saw, and her roommate sketched them. Accurately. Almost as if she took the images directly from Alex's mind.
"Got it, I think," Bree whispered. She looked to Alex, who nodded and hefted the gizmo so both her roommates could see it.
"This is a datapad. I can record things on it and use it to identify things for me, kind of like a walking encyclopedia, and it can tell me where I am and scan my medical condition and I can talk to my ship with it." She swallowed hard and felt slightly out of breath. "If it's real."
"It looks real enough," Bree said. "Here it is, in living color." She turned the sketchbook around so the other two could see it.
From the two pale silver-blue screens, the tiny speaker grid mesh, the rows of emerald buttons along two sides, the retractable scanner wand and the five input slots for data crystals, it was exactly the same as the real thing that now sat on the tiny kitchen table, between the empty baby bottles and the wilting flowers and the turntable with sugar and creamer, salt and pepper and napkin holder.
"You've been having your dreams about a starship again, haven't you?" Jori gently stroked along the edge of the datapad with one finger.
"Forget about my dreams--this is real. Someone wanted me to have it pretty badly, to send it to you instead of my house. They knew about Payne the Pain," Alex added on a whisper.
"But you dreamed this, a long time ago. You had a lot of dreams about a starship and the people on board and the equipment you used," she pressed. "You told us once that you wouldn't need lessons if you ever got to fly a real Dart ship, because you had spent so much dreamtime flying one."
"Listen to her," Bree said. She caught hold of Alex's hand, squeezing hard to punctuate her words. "Dreams aren't just your subconscious speaking to you, no matter what Dr. Matkin said in all those psychology classes we suffered through." She tried to grin. "Dreams are warnings. They're communication. They're doorways into other worlds, other layers of reality."
"If anybody else had just said that to me, I'd be running for my life." Alex didn't know if she wanted to laugh or scream.
"We're speaking from experience," Jori said. "Alex, you've been the best friend either of us could ever ask for. You helped us out of some tight spots in the last few years, and you never asked questions when we told you not to. You were there for us. You were someone we could depend on. Bree and I both know from experience that dreams are very important. And dangerous. They happen for a reason. Didn't you ever wonder why your dreams about the ship were so consistent?"
"What do you mean, consistent?" Alex found her hands wrapped around the datapad. Like a security blanket. She almost dropped it back onto the table.
"Real dreams--just dreams, you know?--change in midstream. You're dreaming about Disneyland, and suddenly you're heading into your first class of the semester without any pants on. That kind of dream." Jori shrugged and grinned. Alex surprised herself by grinning back. "Your dreams about the ship, every one you ever told us about, stayed just about the ship and the crew and whatever adventure you were on. Never changing. Always consistent. Always finishing the story, I guess you'd say."
"I never realized... But Master Ambri said something about that before, didn't he?" She nodded and sat back in the chair, cradling the datapad between her hands. "So all this time, someone was showing me real things, instead of just using images to get through to me?"
"They were certainly telling you something. You knew what the datapad was and what it could do, before you got it."
"I bet you know how to use it, too," Bree added.
"Use it?" Alex nearly laughed. "It's not just a stupid Hollywood prop, is it? It could really work, couldn't it?"
"Try it," Jori urged.
"Jori, is that smart?" Bree glanced at Jimmy, who played contentedly with the squeeze toys attached to the tray of his high chair.
"It's not a bomb, if that's what you're afraid of." She turned her wristband so they both could see her dreamstone. The stripes of color moved slowly, almost lazily.
"What is it supposed to do? Tell you when a nuclear bomb is supposed to go off?" Alex felt the joke fall flat almost before it left her lips.
"It tells me when danger is near, yes." She reached out and pressed Alex's hands tighter around the datapad. "Someone wanted you to have this. I don't think it's just a big, elaborate paperweight. Nobody gives you anything without a reason. If you know how to use it, use it."
"Easy for you to say." Still, Alex knew her friend was right.
Jori had changed since they were freshmen, grown somewhat mysterious, somewhat idealistic, with a heavy dose of bitter reality and courage thrown in.
Nodding, Alex cradled the datapad in one hand and rested her fingers along the row of buttons on the short end. She held her breath and let her fingers press a sequence of buttons without trying to tell them what to do.
"What are you doing?" Bree asked on a half-whisper.
"I'm calling--" Alex choked back a nervous giggle. "I'm calling the ship, I guess." She wondered why she had chosen to do that, instead of asking the datapad for information on something.
"Nothing's happening." Jori sounded almost disappointed.
"Maybe nobody's listening at the other end."
"Maybe." Bree stood and turned in the tiny kitchen, snatched up the tea kettle and went to the sink to fill it. "How about grapes and chocolate grahams with our tea?"
"How can you talk about food at a time like this?" Alex said with a more real laugh.
"I'm a mommy now. I have to be sensible."
"I'm a little disappointed," Jori said. "You'd think with the effort expended--"
"Hello, Alex," a woman said, her voice coming soft and distortion-free from the tiny speaker grid, which lit up with a soft green light.
Alex slowly put the datapad down on the table, in case she lost her grip on it--along with her sliding grip on reality.
"I'm glad we can finally talk. It would be better if it were face to face," the woman continued. "I've chosen to contact you now because...well, time is running short for both of us."
Alex nodded. Yes, her dreams had been telling her such things. Maybe for years.
"The Estal'es'cai is ready to go home," she whispered.
"Very ready. It all depends on you, my dear Alex." The woman sounded caught somewhere between laughter and tears, her voice thick. There was a pause. "Alex, sensors show there are three other people in the room with you. Was this wise?"
"You bet it was wise." Jori leaned closer to the datapad and looked directly into one of the tiny silver screens. "We're Alex's friends. She needs us."
"Indeed she does. Records identify your voice as Jori Lawrence. Thank you for delivering the package to Alex. We didn't have anyone else we could trust."
"Who are you?" Bree said.
"Alex knows," the woman said. "I suspect this won't even begin to be fully real to her until she says it." Another pause. "Will you, Alex?"
"Herin K'veer. Captain of the Leaper ship, Estal'es'cai. In the old tongue, it means 'starsong'. You've been waiting... " Alex choked. Both her friends got up from their chairs, as if to leap to catch her. She held up her hands to stop them. "You're my--my real--my birth mother," she finally said, after struggling for the words.
Jori stared. Bree reached for Jimmy and lifted him out of his high chair, cuddling him close, as if she thought someone would come snatch away her son.
"I'm not here to disrupt your life, Alex," Herin said, when the silence in the room had begun to ring. "We need your help."
"Who are 'we'?" Jori demanded.
"Me, and the survivors of my crew. An accident brought us to your universe and damaged my ship, stranding us, killing most of us, and separating me from Alex. My daughter. We want to go home, and it is far beyond time to go home. We need Alex's help to do that."
"When?" Alex whispered.
"Soon. When you've learned more than I could show you in your dreams." A choked laugh escaped Herin. "It will take some time to assimilate, Alex. Please, give me time to tell you the whole story. Then you can decide what to do. If you wish, I will leave you alone and never bother you again."
"What, here and now?" Alex looked around the tiny kitchen, her two friends watching her and the baby boy chewing on his rattle with drooly, happy absorption.