Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot, copyright 2004, Richard J. Lobinske.
This story grew out of an idea from Lawndale Stalker at Paperpusher's Message Board, and augmented by comments and ideas from The Angst Guy.
"Old Henry David Thoreau probably would have called me soft for putting in an internet connection, but I think this can qualify as my twenty-first century Walden Pond," Daria Morgendorffer said as she brought a light, four wheel drive truck to a stop next to her isolated Montana cabin. She stepped out and viewed her new home. Though one-roomed, it was certainly more accommodating than Thoreau's home of two centuries earlier. Situated about 40 yards from a large, deep pond in the wilderness, it was a sturdy-built log design with double-pane windows, a solar-power electrical backup and a pre-cut stack of wood to last a winter.
She opened the door and removed two bags of groceries. After walking inside, she deposited them on a small dining table in a back corner that was the kitchen. The other back corner was occupied by a single bed, along with an open clothes rack and shelves that acted as closet and dresser. A fireplace occupied the wall between the bed and the toilet, shower and second sink that occupied a front corner. A curtain pulled to the side provided a small amount of privacy, on the long chance of her ever having guests. A work desk, with computer, occupied the last front corner, with a view out of two windows. A comfortable recliner dominated the center of the room. After putting away the groceries, she carefully marked the date on a wall calendar. "April Sixteenth. Start of one year of blissful solitude."
She took a seat at the work desk and booted up the computer, thinking back over the last two years. After graduation Magna Cum Laude from Raft, she had returned to Lawndale to stay with her parents while she decided on which graduate program offer to accept. Soon, she ran into Tom Sloane. The sometimes thoughtless, emotionally clumsy teen she had dated as a high school senior had been replaced by a romantic, confident man. Thoughts of grad school were put on hold during the whirlwind courtship. The October wedding seemed almost dreamlike.
It transformed into a nightmare in less than a year. Extensive tests after a miscarriage in May revealed heavy metal poisoning had caused irreparable harm, probably an aftermath of years drinking uranium-contaminated water in Highland. The extended family blamed her for her inability to produce a 'Sloane heir'. Tom's surrender in the face of such pressure led to Daria's acceptance of a divorce three months later, with a single payment settlement to escape the hurt and betrayal. Her mother, Helen, was furious over what she considered a pittance, even though Daria bitterly knew she would never have to work again.
Hurt and alone, Daria returned to her parent's home. In the aftermath of such a public divorce, her writing went unsold, even after she had her named legally changed back to Morgendorffer. One day, she found herself listlessly wandering around town, eventually ending up at Dega Street. On a whim, she went into Axel's Piercing Parlor, where she encountered her first crush, Trent Lane. An hour later, a red-faced Daria exited with Trent, promising not to remove the navel ring this time. Vulnerable after the previous year, her latent feelings for him returned with a vengeance. Within two weeks, she had moved into Casa Lane.
Daria's temporary happiness and wishful thinking held things together for six months. But it was not enough to deal with Trent's inherent slow roll through life. Daria finally had to accept that, more than eight years after their failed trip to Alternapalooza, Trent truly had not changed. He had no money and no future. Mystic Spiral would never be more than a local bar band, and Trent would never leave Casa Lane. His eyes were focused behind his eyelids, not on the prize, and not on the sad young woman in front of him.
Quietly, she located a remote cabin in Montana and arranged to purchase it with some settlement money. Local contractors were hired to get the place in good condition. One week ago, Daria purchased the light truck, packed her few important belongings, and headed for the cabin. She left a simple note on the Lane's kitchen table, the navel ring placed on top.
Trent, I'm sorry, but a long drawn-out schoolgirl crush is not enough to sustain a relationship. We simply were too different to make things work. I was wrong to start this; I just hope my ending it doesn't hurt you too much.
Jane, please don't take this personally, but I truly need to be alone for a long time to think. I've prepared my own cabin on Walden Pond and will be there for a year. I still have your email, and will maintain mine. I can probably stand written contact, but my ability to be near others has disappeared for now. Please try to understand.
She made sure not to rush on the drive, did a little sightseeing on the way, and ate leisurely meals. Upon her arrival that morning, she found the contractors had done an excellent job on the cabin. She wrote them the final check and picked up supplies.
Back to the present, she leaned back in her chair. Now I can relax. Limited outside contact. A large stash of music CDs and player. Plenty of paper and cartridges for my laser and color printers. One year to clear my mind of the pain. To think, and to write. To maybe be able to honestly say again, "I'm not a Misery Chick."
She opened her email program, kicking in the modem dialer. With a patient wait, she allowed things to connect and open. As she expected, there was an email from Jane.
Dammit!!! Why'd you have to leave like that? Couldn't you have waited just a few more minutes? The neighbor says you had been gone for less than ten minutes before I got home today. Dammit. I'm your friend. Couldn't you at least have said goodbye in person?
I already miss you. I'm going to kick my brother's ass across the county when he drags it in tonight. How could he do that to you?
I hope your pain goes away soon, and I hope I hear from you, too.
Daria typed a quick response.
I'm safe at my new Walden. Sorry for the departure, but if I had waited, I may not have had the nerve to make the trip after talking with you. I'm convinced now, more than ever, I made the right choice. Don't bother trying to call; I have a land line to the modem, but no actual telephone. I miss you, my friend. I promise. You will be the first person I call in a year.
Daria hit send with a tear in her eye. She closed the email and opened the word processor. After stretching, her fingers began a rapid dance over the keyboard.
Twelve hours later, she finally stood up and looked out the window at the post-midnight moon. Daria smiled in satisfaction at the night's work. As she walked to the toilet an uneven, staccato whine built outside. Curious, she opened the back door. Over the pond, a softly glowing disk haltingly descended to the water surface, a thin plume of smoke rising from one side. Abruptly, it fell the remaining feet, smacking the water with a loud report. The disk began to settle into the water by the side that had been smoking. In the dim light, she could see movement on the disk surface as several vague forms pushed an oval object into the water, and then climbed in. The disk rapidly tipped and dropped under the water. Daria cautiously moved toward the pond as the forms moved toward the shore near the cabin.
Daria could discern four figures in the raft, one possibly four feet and hunched over, the others half that size. The moonlight glinted and reflected off portions of them as if they wore some kind of iridescent, crystalline armor plate. Daria stopped short of the shoreline by ten feet. The raft slowly approached, the larger form paddling, the other three seeming to crouch as low as possible. A few feet from shore, the figure stopped paddling. Daria could see four legs and two arms on each. All wore dark garments over their bodies. They had narrow, conical heads with what looked like a long, thin spiked nose that swept under toward the throat. Multifaceted eyes were on the sides of the head, giving an almost complete circle view around and overhead.
The larger figure held two separate objects in what functioned as hands. From the look of the open tube pointed at her, Daria surmised one was a weapon. The other was a nondescript oblong with a faint glow on the side facing the figure. Odd clicking and scraping noises emanated from the figure. More sounds originated from the oblong. It sounded like a mix of several languages. Daria thought she may have recognized French, Chinese and Russian.
They're scared. I'm scared. Make no sudden moves. Either they're friendly, or I'm dead. She held her hands well out to the side. "Hello. I carry no weapons. Do you need help?"
A few moments later, similar clicking and scraping noises came from the device. The figure responded and the box produced an artificial sounding voice. "We...help...need. Self...hurt."
Daria was surprised. Some kind of translator. Must have monitored our radio/television to get at least enough for that. "I have a first..." Keep the concepts simple. "A medical kit."
The figure placed the translator in a pocket on a belt, and used a paddle to test the water depth. Satisfied, it carefully stepped out of the raft and pulled it ashore. Daria could clearly see the insect-like body form of the stranger. The glittering reflections were some kind of exoskeleton. The body was about four feet long, and aligned more horizontally. In front of the four slender legs, the body angled slightly upward to give the arms freedom to move. Behind the legs, an abdomen expanded and contracted with breathing. A series of tailored openings in the dark gray coverall revealed apertures along the abdomen. Daria estimated it was probably about the same weight as her. The other three were smaller versions of the adult, with softer edges to the exoskeleton plates.
The figure removed the translator from its pocket and spoke. "May...help. Is...near?"
Daria slowly moved one hand to point to the cabin. "Inside."
"We...here...wait. Please...obtain." The figure slowly crouched down and the three smaller ones hid behind.
Daria backed away and quickly walked to the cabin. Inside, she grabbed a flashlight and a large first aid kit. Okay, sometimes paranoia is good. She also slid a canister of bear repellent spray into her pocket.
She walked back to where the strangers waited by the shoreline. Nervously holding the kit in front, she placed it on the ground and slowly opened the lid. The adult shifted position to look in. Daria held the flashlight over the kit and turned it on to provide illumination.
Daria was aware of a chorus of loud clicks before her vision turned gray. She felt numbness in her chest as she slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Daria looked up into a morning sky through dew-covered glasses. She felt cold, stiff, and slightly numb as she tried to move. Fumbling, she sat up and wiped away most of the dew with a dry section of shirt tail.
Clicking, followed by the translator monotone, greeted her. "No expect...lamp...panic. Apology...give."
Daria managed to focus on the figure. She could now see that the alien was a rich forest green color under the crystalline exoskeleton, the faceted eyes purple. The clicking and scraping sounds of its language came from small palps on both sides of the thin proboscis, which tapped and rubbed against textured patches of exoskeleton. The events of the night rushed back and she started to back away in fear. Damn. I scared it with the flashlight. Should be glad it used a non-lethal weapon. She noticed the alien only carried the translator; the weapon was holstered on a belt. The arms ended in five digits; the two end fingers looked opposable.
Daria forced down her fear. "Apology accepted. I scared you, mistakes happen."
"Kind...you. Trained...not...primary contact."
Daria also remembered why she had the flashlight. She could see that the coverall garment the alien wore was stained around a rough hole, through which a red-soaked bandage could be seen.
"I hope the medical kit helped."
Crap. Daria pointed to her truck. "I can transport you to a hospital."
Great. You're in some kind of trouble. "Can you contact anyone?"
"Some kind of distress signal?"
"Why are you hiding?"
Some kind of prime directive or something. I hope. Or maybe frightened, with our wars, humans probably don't look too friendly. But, there has to be something else. Daria shook her head in frustration. "Your ship was damaged. That looks like some kind of puncture wound. Are you hiding from something else?"
The alien looked side to side. "Yes."
Daria slowly stood up. She noticed the bear repellent can was no longer in her pocket. She could feel the fear beginning to rise inside her again. "You're scaring me. We're in the middle of the wilderness. You took my only defense." She opened her jacket pocket to demonstrate. "I can't take you to a hospital, and you're hiding from something or someone who probably caused your injury."
"Apology...repeat. Scare...additional...us." The alien slowly opened a pocket, removed the bear spray can, and presented it to Daria. "Return."
Daria took the can and placed it in her pocket. "I understand. We're all scared. Where are the other three? Children?"
"Nymphs...my...responsibility...are...feeding." He motioned toward the forest. Daria noticed the three smaller aliens were partially up three different trees. What she had though were long, thin noses were inserted into the trees.
Daria relaxed a little. Plant feeders. Good. Didn't want to be lunch.
The adult staggered slightly. "Water?"
Daria motioned for it to follow. "Inside the cabin."
Though shorter and injured, the alien had no problem keeping up with Daria. Inside, it curiously looked around, but clearly avoided touching anything. Daria filled two glasses with water from the sink. She drank from one as she handed the other over. Wow. I needed that. Hope it sees that as a sign that the water is safe. The alien took the glass, its grip showing that they did have two opposable fingers. The thin proboscis rotated forward from the throat and the alien inserted the tip into the water glass.
Daria watched with fascination as the water level in the glass dropped. She also noticed a tremor in its hand.
"You're acting like your injuries are severe."
Dammit! What am I going to do with one dead alien and three alien children? "Will the help you sent for get here soon?"
Daria felt her stomach sink. "You won't live that long."
Daria sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. "What about the children out there?"
Do I know what I'm getting myself in for? "You better start telling what I need to know."
Daria learned from the alien as she came up with breakfast. Toast and coffee contented her morning appetite. The alien found fruit juice was the most palatable. The three young aliens returned from the forest and called out in loud clicks. They were shown in and quieted with a cup of juice each as they played with a pile of pine cones they'd brought back from the forest edge.
With use, the translation was improving. Daria learned that the vehicle at the bottom of the pond was a lifeboat. The faster-than-light capable ship they had been on was now an expanding cloud of debris somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, the result of sabotage. The alien was explaining their escape. "Traitor dead. I serious injury. Place nymphs lifeboat. Not time wait. Distance insufficient. Lifeboat damage. I not train pilot. Atlas, Planet Three food, water, atmosphere, low population places. Industry early space capacity. Only electromagnetic echo senses. Attempt land. Water hide lifeboat."
Daria was intrigued and frightened by the story. "I think that you're still not telling me everything. Are you a parent to the children?"
"Some kind of caregiver?"
"Parent or parents, where? Hope that wasn't insulting. Don't know anything about their family structure. They could be a hive with one queen for all I know.
No, no. Please, no. "Any special reason they are not safe?"
This is either just getting worse all the time, or it's pulling my leg. "Could those that want to harm the children respond to your message?"
"Were they responsible for the sabotage?"
I came up here to find some peace and quiet. This is only getting worse. Daria noticed that the alien's blood stain was glistening wet. "Let me take a look at that."
"I can bind."
"But, I can see it better, and have more freedom to work than you."
She had to run down to the pond to retrieve the first aid kit. Glad I was concerned enough about being alone that I picked up the jumbo sized one. She set the kit on a chair and made a quick jog to the sink to wash her hands. When she returned, she knelt by the alien. The garment opened easily to reveal a large, unevenly applied and bloody bandage. Daria carefully removed it to show a jagged hole in the exoskeleton. The edges looked akin to broken glass. She used a paper towel to blot away the slowly seeping blood. Warm. Much warmer than room temperature. Must be some kind of endotherm. The exoskeleton was paper-thin, but didn't flex in the least. Daria's hand brushed against a broken edge, resulting in a clean cut, as if a razor had been drawn across the side of her little finger.
"Nothing big." She quickly poured disinfectant on the wound and wrapped a bandage around it. "This'll hold until I have you done."
Returning to her guest, she more carefully cleaned the wound. "I wish I knew if any of these disinfectants were safe to use on you. To bad your raft didn't have a medic kit."
Daria shook her head. Figures. She carefully placed fresh gauze and tape over the wound. "Done. Best I know how to do."
Daria began working on a better treatment of her cut finger. "I'd guessed your exoskeleton was light and strong for you to be so large. Land animals here with exoskeletons are not much larger than my hand. I didn't expect it to be so thin and sharp. Not chitin or bone; do you know what it's made of?"
Daria nodded slightly, and then her eyes grew wide. "Diamond?"
There was a delay in translation. "Yes."
Damn. If word gets out, these guys will be hunted to extinction.
Daria rested in the recliner that afternoon. The alien translator was more properly a handheld computer with a number of built-in sensors. She had her copy of the Modern Language Association Handbook in her lap and was almost finished allowing the computer to scan each page. Hopefully, between the dictionary I scanned earlier for a better vocabulary, and with this, the translation will improve.
All of the aliens were asleep on the floor, legs folded under their bodies and heads cradled on crossed arms. The children were clustered against the adult. I don't even know if they have names. How am I going to be a mother to them for the next year? Mother...Damn. She set the book and computer down and hugged herself. Why couldn't the Sloanes understand? They acted like it was my fault. Losing their heir. I lost my child, and it didn't mean a thing to them. And Tom, I still don't understand how he could give up on me and go along with that. Daria continued to hug herself and let the quiet sobs roll through.
She was startled by a touch to her hand. After wiping the tears away, she saw one of the children next to her, looking up. Daria picked up the computer. A display filled one side of the oblong. The lower half was a series of alien letters, constituting an on-screen keyboard. Numerous larger symbols were arranged in the upper display. She touched the one she had been shown to activate the translation program. The graphic user interface seems to be a universal concept. She looked down at the child. "Do you need something?"
"I need to excrete."
Nothing like jumping in with both feet. She led it to the toilet and gave a simple explanation of how it worked, closed the curtain and stood aside. At least I don't have to deal with diapers.
A minute later, the toilet flushed and the child pulled back the curtain. It held its hands toward Daria. "Wash?"
Daria was beginning to realize how out of scale her house was to them. The child was about two feet long, and about eighteen inches high. Even stretching on its hindmost legs, it couldn't reach the sink. "Wait here." She pulled a step stool over from the kitchen and placed it in front of the sink. "Step up." After the child did, she showed it how the faucet worked, the soap and towel.
When it was done, it looked up at Daria. "I like you."
She smiled and squatted down close. "My name is Daria. What's yours?"
Literal translation. I don't get the actual name, but what it means. "What about the others?"
"My sisters Eveningsky and Autumnblossom. Our Guardian, Swiftsong."
Daria shifted to sit cross-legged. "You're going to be here for a while."
"Swiftsong told us. She hurt badly."
Daria nodded. "Yes."
Truemind looked at her. "She will die."
Daria rested a hand lightly on Truemind's arm and sadly said, "Yes."
"We stay with you?"
"Yes, until the help she sent for arrives."
Truemind folded her legs underneath and leaned against Daria. "Thank you."
Daria eased her truck onto the faint track that was the road to her cabin. The back bumper scraped the ground as the overloaded vehicle dropped off the edge of the paved road. The passenger seat and floorboard were covered with grocery bags of fruits, succulent vegetables, and juices. The bed was filled with bags of concrete mix, perforated septic drain pipe, plywood, oak planks, and some woodworking tools. Already having a reputation as an eccentric writer was useful. Everyone in town just kind of shrugged off my odd purchases. I hope it doesn't take too long to dig the septic expansion, or this could get real messy. The last two days had seemed almost unreal. Daria spent much of the time with Swiftsong, working through the handheld computer to learn as much as possible on raising three young aliens. She also spent time trying to learn as much about their biology as she could to help Swiftsong. I wish the dunking it took in the raft hadn't damaged the database. Guess it wasn't made for all-weather use.
Daria drove the truck around to the side of the cabin, and parked near the rectangle of lush, green grass that clearly indicated the septic tank. Daria began to ferry food supplies into the cabin. Three sets of clicks greeted her as she opened the door. Daria set the bag down in the kitchen and picked up the computer. She turned it on and pressed the translate icon. I think I'm starting to recognize some of what they said, but I better confirm. "Let's try this again, what did you say?"
"We are hungry."
"Go on out." Should hold them until I can start preparing something a little more balanced. The three young aliens ran to the forest edge to eat. She walked over to Swiftsong, resting on a folded blanket. Her color had dulled to an olive. Since the day before, she had been unable to rise. "I'm back. How are you doing?"
"I am resting. The pain remains."
"I picked up some powdered aspirin. I'll dissolve a dose in juice for you." At least I was able to match one human painkiller to the alien database. She checked a note she had left on the table, read the label on a packet, and then added one to a glass of juice. "It's a little more than the database recommended dose. I think you may need it." Good thing the metric system has a weigh unit based on a known volume of water. She handed the glass to Swiftsong.
"Thank you." She drank the juice quickly. "Allow time for the drug to work."
Daria nodded, and went back to bringing in the food supplies. Soon, the refrigerator was almost overflowing with produce. Daria removed a new juicer from its box and placed it on the counter. A stack of seed packages were placed on the table, along with a small home garden guide from the State Agriculture Service. After checking again on Swiftsong, Daria went outside and began unloading other supplies from the back of the truck. She left the concrete mix in the truck bed and spread a tarp over the bags. She picked up a book and went back inside to read. "Home Despot Guide to Do-It-Yourself Septic Tank Repair, you really can find any kind of how-to guide nowadays," Daria muttered as she sat down to read.
Half an hour later, the three children were waiting at the door. Daria rose to let them in. Need to lower the doorknobs or something for them. All three rushed toward the toilet, overlapping clicks confusing the translator. Daria shook her head. "One at a time." I hope I can get the addition added to the septic tank before I have an overflow. That plant sap they eat goes right through them. And they go through a lot of it.
Daria wearily shoveled soil near the septic tank. Glad April afternoons are still cool around here, even if the locals have considered the mornings to be unseasonably warm. I'm not cut out to be a manual laborer. She looked at the setting sun and breathed a sigh of relief. "Think I'll pack it in for the day." She set the shovel against the side of the cabin next to the tarp-covered plywood. After a quick shower, she set about preparing dinner: a portion of stir-fried chicken, vegetables and brown rice for her; juiced fresh veggies and fruit juice for her guests. These people have definitely investigated Earth in the past; that computer had a damn good database on terrestrial plants good for them to eat and basic dietary information. At least the little ones won't be malnourished. She set the children's meal down on a tray-table. They noisily sat down around it on a blanket spread on the floor. She had pulled her small coffee table next to Swiftsong, and placed the two adult's meals there.
Daria watched her guest's slow movements, knowing she was in terrible pain. "I wish there were more I could do for you."
"You taking care of the nymphs is much. I knew the risk."
"Royal bodyguard." Daria nodded. "Did you really think the risk included a slow, painful death in what you consider a technological backwater?"
That elicited a short laugh. "Not specifically."
Daria checked her watch. "Still another hour before the guide says I can give you more aspirin. How are you holding up?"
"Pain is worse. Breathing now difficult."
"Damn. I'm still willing to try to swim into the lifeboat for..."
"No. Security system. Dangerous. Protect nymphs more important."
"I hate just watching you like this."
"You make this less painful. I feared dying without friend."
Daria was slightly taken aback. Friend? "Um...sure."
"Please, bring my belt?"
"Sure." Daria got up and retrieved the equipment belt Swiftsong had worn. Besides the holstered weapon, there were four small square pouches and a larger pouch for the computer. Swiftsong removed a quarter-sized disk from a concealed pocket on the back. She pressed one finger hard against one disk face, and then tapped a sequence of flat buttons on the other face. "Will identify you as friend. Please place finger on side." Daria pressed her thumb against the disk. Swiftsong returned the disk to the pocket. "Will alarm if enemy in range." She unholstered the weapon and demonstrated components as she talked. "Pistol. Electric pulse disrupt nerves. Trigger. Power control. Low disable. Used on you. High kill. Power gauge." Next, she removed a square metal object. "Battery." Then pointed to the four pouches. "Replacements. Four uses high, twelve uses low for each." She replaced the battery and holstered the pistol. Pointing to a small side button on the buckle, she said, "Shield trigger. Will protect against many weapons. Including pistol. Power gauge. Nearly six earth hours of use remain. Hope you will not need." The belt was held out to Daria.
Daria took it. "You're close, aren't you?"
"I will miss you, friend."
By mid-morning the next day, Daria was chest-deep in the squared-off hole she was digging for the septic tank. Autumnblossom ran up to the edge. "Please come in, Swiftsong ask."
"Damn." Daria pulled herself out of the damp, cold hole. She was streaked and stained, sweaty and chilled. She ran into the house as Autumnblossom followed as fast as she could. Inside, Swiftsong's color had dulled further to an almost brown. I've never been good at things like this. Daria knelt beside her. "I'm here."
"Thank you. Brave to accept my responsibility."
"I'll do my best."
"I know. Goodbye." The alien slowly slumped to the floor.
"Goodbye." Daria sat in silence for several minutes.
Truemind approached her. "Your eyes secrete like before. Why?"
Daria turned. "I mourn Swiftsong's death."
"Oh. Were you mourning before?"
"Yes." Daria rose and wiped her face. "All of you come here." When all three were arrived, Daria pulled them close. "I'm sorry Swiftsong is gone. But, I will stay here for you." My children.
Daria fashioned a simple coffin from the oak planks she had purchased, wishing she was anything close to a skilled carpenter. Daria found it painfully difficult to move Swiftsong's body. She had to overcome her natural revulsion at handling a body, her sadness at the loss, and the limit of her physical strength. She lined the coffin with a sheet that she neatly folded over the body. Nailing the coffin closed, she dragged it to the grave she'd dug between the cabin and the lake. She fashioned a simple pulley on a wood frame to gently lower the coffin into the grave.
With forced effort, Daria made sure the grave was filled by evening, and then sprayed bear repellent around the fresh soil. "Sorry for the smell, but I don't want a bear to disturb you." To finish, she carefully replaced the sod to help conceal the grave. Excess soil she moved to the septic soil pile by wheelbarrow. She spread the last soil over the grass, and hosed everything smooth. Looking down silently, Daria turned and walked back to the cabin.
Daria knelt and leaned over the edge of the existing septic tank to look at the roughly poured concrete extension tank she'd put together. "Ugly as sin, and certainly not up to code. But it'll have to do." More than a week and a half of hard physical labor had gone into the project. Muscles she never knew existed had hurt for days. Her hands were spotted with blisters.
Daria was looking down at four squares sliced partway down the tank side with a circular saw fitted with a concrete cutting blade. A sledge hammer was balanced in her hands. "This is going to be the icky part." She raised the hammer and brought it down on a square, cracking it. A second blow broke through, and the contents of the first tank began to flow into the extension. Holding her breath as much as possible, Daria broke through each of the other three.
She set the hammer aside and dropped a sheet of plywood in place over the extension tank. A wheelbarrow full of concrete mix was brought over and the contents dumped on top. Working quickly, she spread the mix in a somewhat uniform layer. "I hope the extension will be enough." Grabbing the hammer, she tossed it into the wheelbarrow and pushed it to the side a short distance before grabbing a hose and spraying everything down.
Setting those tools aside to dry, she looked past the cabin, toward the garden. The children were busy planting. It was fairly large; to hopefully provide much of the vegetables they would need for fall and winter. To help keep her children busy and away from the work hazards, Daria had made preparing the garden their project. Using the Ag Agency guides, she gave them instructions each morning through the alien computer. They were bright and enthusiastic, and fully children. Though still recovering from the shock of their arrival and Swiftsong's death, they'd started to behave more like Daria expected. Curious, rebellious, dependent, and carefree. They played and fought with equal abandon.
Daria walked over to observe, turning on the alien computer and activating the translation program. Autumnblossom nudged Truemind and pointed. Both stopped their planting and observed something on the ground. Eveningsky noticed and curiously scampered over. Better go see what they found. A ground beetle sluggishly moved between them, presenting an entrancing sight for the sisters.
Eveningsky looked up. "Daria, what is that?"
Daria squatted down. "A beetle. One kind of animal in a group we call insects. You'll see many more as the temperature warms up."
Autumnblossom touched it. "Kind of like strange-shaped little people."
Daria picked it up. "They have some similarities to you. Like the exoskeleton. But, they have things you might wish you had." Daria gently pulled the hard, protective forewing up to show the delicately folded hind wing. "They can fly."
Eveningsky said, "I wish I could fly."
Daria smiled. "A wish probably shared by all intelligent life without wings."
Autumnblossom touched her knee. "Could you teach us more?"
"I suppose I could." Been a long time since I filled in for Mr. O'Neill. "I'll need to figure out what to teach."
Truemind bounced up and down. "Can you teach us about your planet?"
Their people already know a lot. "Sure."
Daria set the beetle on the ground. "Okay, time for you three to get busy again." Disappointed clicks greeted her statement. Kids. Oh, boy. Now I get to teach them.
Daria got up early on Sunday morning and started her computer. She made an internet connection and opened her email. Ignoring the inbox, she immediately started a new message.
Happy Mother's Day.
I know you miss not having me visit or call this year. I apologize, but I am still in need of my Walden. I've only occasionally said it before, but really need to say it now. I love you. I know I wasn't an easy child to raise, and probably caused more pain than you will ever let on. I've come to appreciate some of what you went through. Please accept my gratitude.
This is also my first Mother's Day of "What-if?" A year ago I was anticipating motherhood, only to miscarry a little over a week later. Another reason I'm where I am. You can understand my loss. I hope Quinn never has to go through what I did. Please make sure she gets checked, so she doesn't. I hope she realizes that if she has any children, they are going to be spoiled between you and me.
Remind Dad to give you a big bouquet of flowers. Mine should've arrived by the time you get this.
Daria clicked 'send' and sighed. "Mom, I really could use your help now. Three kids is certainly a handful. I've wondered why you didn't just strangle both of us." Daria stopped and smiled. "But, I'm also starting to understand why you didn't."
Daria opened her word processor and began a second letter.
I just sent your Mother's Day email and decided to write this in case something happens to me. The lawyer in town has been very good about keeping things confidential; he handled all my transactions to purchase this place. So, this will be left with him, with instructions to mail it to you if I don't pick it up in a year. You may wonder, why not Jane? This is something I need to share with my mother, not my best friend.
Three weeks ago, I found myself responsible for three children. This will sound unbelievable and you will think this is part of a story. It is true. As close as I can tell, they're from a planet about 300 light-years away.
Daria typed through the morning, writing the events as clearly and as detailed as possible.
I don't understand the alien's politics or why they're having a civil war. I can't even figure out a name for them. The translation program uses "people". I've found no mention of other species involved in their government, so this is clearly an internal affair. They have apparently made contact with other intelligent species, though details are slim. The history that I've read seemed heavily sanitized. That makes me suspicious. Rebellions against monarchies are usually well founded, either in response to poverty, corruption or abuse. I feel little sympathy for their parents. However, Truemind, Eveningsky and Autumnblossom are no guiltier than Alexei, Anastasia, Olga, Tatiana, or Maria Romanov. They're children threatened by the idiocy of their elders. In the end, my loyalty is to them, not their parents, and not the rebels. Mom, I'm frightened about what might happen. I'm alone here, and there's not much I can do to defend us. And I'm not sure of who to trust, when somebody does arrive.
I find myself caring for them more and more every day. This arrangement may only be temporary, but they are my children. I'm including a digital photo of them, so you can at least see your granddaughters.
I don't know what I'll do when the time comes for them to leave.
Daria printed the file and photo. She sealed them in an envelope addressed to her mother. "Guess I'm making a trip into town Monday." Leaving the envelope on her desk, Daria began to prepare lunch. She looked over at the children reading something on the computer. "What am I going to do?"
Clearing the tree line and seeing a deputy sheriff's SUV parked in front of the cabin caused Daria's heart to pound and a lump to appear in her throat. Damn, damn, damn. What the hell is he doing here? Was getting the letter to the lawyer that important? Somebody report my purchases as strange? Report a UFO? Somebody actually see the kids? She slowed her approach and made herself breathe evenly and smoothly. She noticed someone wearing a broad-brimmed hat sitting in the truck. Good, in the truck. I hope whoever it is stayed there. Daria lightly tapped the horn to announce her presence.
The deputy turned, opened the door and stepped out. He was in his mid-forties, had slightly graying brown hair and wore dark sunglasses. He tipped his hat as Daria came to a stop. "Good morning. Are you Miss Morgendorffer?"
Daria opened her door slowly and stepped toward the back of the truck, looking over the bed. "Yes, I am. Is there a problem?"
"No, miss. I'm Deputy O'Neal. I stop by these isolated cabins about every month or so to check up on things. Make sure no squatters take over, check for vandalism, or make sure the year-round residents are okay. Stuff like that."
"Oh, thank you. I just got back from an errand in town. Any particular reason you were waiting?"
"Well, I was using the chance to catch up on some paperwork. I was also hoping to see the pretty lady I was told was staying up here."
"I'm sure such lines have worked wonders for you in the past. If you will excuse me." Daria said coldly as she lifted a grocery bag. She pushed the truck door closed with her hip and walked to the cabin. That was bad. Calm down. Be nice; don't make him suspicious, Morgendorffer. Just before the door, she turned to face O'Neal. "Sorry to snap at you like that. You probably didn't mean that as a pick-up line."
O'Neal had climbed back into his SUV. He leaned his head out of the window and smiled. "If that was a pick-up line, my wife would skin me alive. Sorry to offend: I won't do it again."
"Oh. Look...I'm kind of sensitive to things like that. Bad relationships are a big reason I'm up here alone."
O'Neal nodded. "I've seen it before. Some people end up not dealing well with the solitude. That's part of why I make these checks. Try to see the residents to make sure they're okay. It's what I'm paid to do."
"Wouldn't want you to not do your job. Tell you what; I'll put you down on my calendar for a visit, one month from today. Twelve, noon."
"Sounds good. I'll be here. Please have a good day." He started the truck and backed away.
Daria watched him leave before opening the door. That was too close. Once inside, she was able to breathe easier. The children were crawling out from under the bed, nervous clicks coming from each. Daria immediately retrieved the alien computer from a desk drawer and activated the translation. She turned to the three. "It's okay now. He's gone."
Autumnblossom spoke first. "Why was someone waiting for you out there? We hid like you told us to. We were scared."
"You did what you were supposed to. Very good. He's one of the police, just checking that things were okay. He's gone now."
Truemind asked, "Why was he checking?"
"That's what he's supposed to do. There are several remote cabins along this side of the county. The closest one to here is two miles away. He'll stop by again in a month to check again. I don't think he's suspicious. He hadn't met me before and wanted to get an idea of who lived here."
"What if we had been outside? He might have seen us."
"Good question. You can see the garden from the driveway." Daria looked out the window toward the driveway. "We need an alarm."
The late spring sun warmed the cabin nicely, and the windows were open to allow the forest breeze to pass through. Daria sat on the floor, legs drawn under and leaning to the left against the coffee table. She was haltingly writing in the alien script. The children sat facing her, each with a bed table in front, writing slowly in English. Stretching, Daria noticed the wall clock read noon. "Lunch time. You can work on your essays after." All three nodded. Picking up human mannerisms. Daria turned on the alien computer. "Truemind. Repeat what I just said."
The alien haltingly clicked, and the translator said, "Lunch time. You could...work on...your ...essays...after."
"Very good. Almost got it: the second word of the second sentence was can, not could. Now, you get to quiz me." Daria switched off the translator program.
Truemind spoke a series of chicks. Autumnblossom and Eveningsky both produced short laughs.
Daria reactivated the translation. "You talk strangely."
Truemind nodded. "That's right. You're so smart, Daria. I wish we could learn as fast as you."
"I've had a little more practice at it than you have. Now, let's get some lunch."
She led the three to the kitchen. Eveningsky and Truemind removed bottles of juice from the refrigerator and carried them to the table, using the chairs as a boost to set the bottles on top. Autumnblossom removed a bundle of fresh vegetables and began to wash them in the sink. Daria prepared the juicer and started on her lunch. She completed making her ham sandwich and started processing the washed vegetables.
Abruptly, a bell sounded near the front door. Something had triggered the motion sensors at the end of the driveway. "Dammit. I forgot." Daria ran to the window to see the deputy sheriff SUV approaching. "Okay, just stay low and away from the windows. Looks like Deputy O'Neal." Daria walked out the front door, carefully closing it behind her. She waited as O'Neal drove up. Stay calm and friendly.
He turned the truck so he would directly face Daria. He tipped his hat and said, "Good morning, Miss Morgendorffer."
Daria looked at her watch. "Running a bit slow, but not enough to worry about. Nice to see you're a man who can keep his appointments."
He looked at his watch. "Oops; good afternoon it is then. Looks like your garden's beginning to take shape."
"Thanks. So far, so good. My first real try at a garden like this."
"Looks like a fine job. By the way, you may get some visitors up here in the next couple of days. Some reporter and crew have been asking around about flying saucers and some nonsense. From the really weird TV show, Sick, Sad World."
Daria felt her throat tighten. "You don't say. Why are they poking around here?"
"Claim they have some top secret documents that say one landed out here back in April. Picked up on some new anti-stealth radar system."
Daria shook her head. "I remember that show. Watched it in high school and college. The documents are probably somebody's laundry list."
O'Neal snickered. "Good one. Anyway, don't be surprised if they show up. Please, don't take pot shots at them like Old Man Garson. I don't need the headache."
"Don't worry, no firearms. How about bear spray?"
"They might deserve it, but please resist. The paperwork is...I don't want to go there."
"Thanks for the heads up. I promise to behave."
"Welcome. Have a nice day." He nodded and drove back down the driveway.
Damn. All I need.
Daria went back inside and busied through lunch in silence. After lunch, she told the children to return to work on their writing while she cleaned up.
Eveningsky quietly spoke. "[Did we do something wrong?]"
Truemind shook her head. "[I don't think so. She was talking outside for a long time.]"
Autumnblossom added, "[Maybe he said something wrong?]"
Truemind looked at Daria briefly, and then at the other two. "[I think Daria is worried. Deputy O'Neal said something that upset her.]"
Eveningsky also looked at Daria, but spoke to Truemind. "[I'm scared.]"
Truemind touched Eveningsky's arm. "[We don't need to be frightened yet. We should be careful, though.]"
After an hour, Daria stooped down to collect their writing. She sighed and sat down on the coffee table. "Swiftsong may have been wrong about landing undetected. There could be some people coming around here, looking for the lifeboat, or looking for you. For the time being, we need to keep things looking like I'm alone in the house. Keep your tables and blankets under the bed. If I tell you to, use your door to go out the back and hide in the forest."
Autumnblossom asked, "Are these bad people?"
"Not necessarily, but they will be very curious. Telling others about you being here will be more important to them. That's what they do. Usually, theirs is a good job, but at times like this, it can cause problems."
Eveningsky was worried. "Problems?"
"If the government learns about you, it is almost certain that you will be taken away."
Truemind looked straight at Daria. "How could they do that? Swiftsong left us in your care."
Something that has no legal standing. "Legally, they could take you away with the excuse to protect you while they determine if I'm properly your guardian, and if I'm fit to be one."
Eveningsky inquired, "Would they bring us back to you?"
"They could use procedure to delay as long as they want. By the time I could even mount a legal challenge, you three would metamorphose into adults. Then, they could probably hold you on immigration violations."
Autumnblossom rested her head on hands braced on the table. "They are bad people."
"Some of them, I'm afraid so. Okay you three, get things put away while I grade your essays."
Despite the pleasant summer breezes, Daria had closed the windows and pulled the curtains. The small air conditioner kept the house at a manageable temperature. She allowed the children out only in the early evening. She was maintaining the garden unaided, while still trying to continue schooling them and herself. Today, she, along with the children, was learning more about alien anatomy and physiology.
"Six-chambered heart." Daria smiled. "Doctors must have a lot of fun with that. Closed circulation." Makes sense. "Tracheal system ending in respiratory organs in each abdominal segment." Sixteen lungs. That's a lot of redundancy. Daria picked up one of her college biology books. "They look a lot like human lungs. Convergent evolution, different lineages producing a similar end structure."
Daria sighed with pleasure as she looked at the three clustered around her, reading from the alien computer. I swear they've all grown several inches in length since they got here. Talk about growing up fast. By human reckoning, they're only about three years old, but they'll be adults in about eight months. The ringing bell warned of an approaching vehicle. Really glad I set up that motion detector now. Leave it to wildlife biologists to have the things in camouflage. "Okay everybody, get everything put up quickly and wait for my signal."
The three youngsters picked up their things and moved them to under Daria's bed. She watched them curiously. Truemind seems to assuming more and more of a leadership role with them. I wonder if she's the first in succession?
She peeked out of the window to see a bright yellow van moving down the driveway, the Sick, Sad World logo on the side and a folded satellite uplink on the roof. "Okay, out the back and move directly to the trees. Keep the cabin between you and the van. Go." They obeyed without hesitation, exiting through a pet door installed low on the back door of the cabin. Daria scanned the house quickly for any sign of their presence. All clear.
On an impulse, she pulled Swiftsong's belt from the dresser drawer she stored it in and put it on. The belt barely fit around her slim waist. She unsnapped the computer pouch and returned it to the drawer. She rotated the belt so that the pistol was held at the small of her back. Be easier to use since she was left-handed and I'm right-handed. Daria pulled the green plaid shirt she wore out from her waistline and let the tail hang loose, hiding the presence of the belt.
She sat down on the recliner and began to read from her copy of Walden.
Though prepared, she still jumped when she heard the knock on her door. She walked to the door and rose onto the balls of her feet to properly look through the peephole. She recognized the red-headed lead reporter that had done Sick, Sad World interviews for years. Behind her were a camera operator and a sound technician.
Daria opened the door cautiously. "Can I help you?"
"Good afternoon..." The woman looked down at a note card. "...Ms. Morgendorffer?"
"Yes, that's me."
The reporter looked at Daria a little quizzically. "Hi. I'm with the television news program, Sick, Sad World. Could I ask you a few questions?"
Easy, you can do this. "Sure."
"Odd, you seem vaguely familiar."
Crap. Okay, face it directly. Daria smiled. "Do you remember Artie? Several years ago, the skin-replacement guy."
Daria deadpanned, "Hi, I'm an Alien Love Goddess."
The woman looked surprised, then rested her forehead on one hand and shook it. "He never was the most reliable. You must have been a teenager then."
"Did wonders for my social life."
The reporter tried a smile. "I'm sure being able to say you were declared a love goddess on national television can do things for your social life now."
Daria narrowed her eyes. "Lady, I'm up here now because I don't want a social life."
"Oh. So, what are you doing up here?"
"Writing. After a couple of bad relationships and slump in my writing, I decided to come up here to concentrate for a while. I'm sure you're not trying to track down old stories or pathetic burnouts. What brings you up to these parts?"
"Direct, I like that. Did you notice any strange lights in the sky on the night of April sixteenth and seventeenth?"
"Let's see, that was right around the weekend I moved in. Daria opened the door and walked to the wall calendar. Stay calm. Act like this is a natural conversation. She flipped back to April. "Yep. Day I moved in."
The reporter and crew followed her in and looked around the cabin.
The reporter waved her hand. "Nice place, but a little Spartan."
"Trying for a kind of twenty-first century Walden Pond look. No television, no phone."
"Oh, how interesting."
Daria looked at her conspiratorially. "To be honest, I've spent more time with the garden than writing."
The reporter chuckled. "Back to the question, did you see or hear anything strange that night?"
"Well, as I remember, I got stuff settled in. As you can tell, that didn't take long. I started writing." She gestured toward the computer. "As I wrote, I got to thinking about stuff. The more I thought, the more pissed off I got at my ex and the slacker I lived with after. I think at about eight or nine, I had a glass of wine. Then another, and another. Finally, I was drinking straight from the bottle. Killed that one off and started a second." Daria shook her head. "Ever try to use a corkscrew when you're ripped? Those things should have a Surgeon General's warning. Anyway, I was probably about halfway through that bottle when I passed out." Daria looked embarrassed. "Felt like hell the next morning, between the ralphing and the headache. Ugh. And cleaning up. Recycled red wine and cheddar fries are not the best things to see first thing in the morning. Glad I don't do that very often."
The reporter looked a little uncertain.
Daria looked at all three. "Hey, where's my manners. You guys thirsty?"
The reporter backed up a step. "Um. No thanks. We have other places to check. Thank you very much for your time."
Daria nodded. "Glad to be of help. Too bad you can't stay. Bye."
The reporter motioned the crew to follow and made a fast walk to the van. The crew loaded up and within a few seconds, the van was heading back down the driveway.
After the van passed out of sight, Daria let out a huge sigh of relief. "Who would have thought that Introduction to Theatre course I took would be so useful?" Daria closed the door and waited about fifteen minutes. Wouldn't want them to make a surprise repeat visit. Feeling more confident, Daria marched toward the edge of the forest. By the time she was halfway there, she saw two small figures running toward her. Two? Daria started to run. Soon she saw Truemind and Eveningsky.
Daria realized she had left the translator in the cabin. "Where's Autumnblossom?"
The explosion of clicks was too fast for Daria to follow. She motioned with her hands, "Slow down. What happened?"
Truemind pointed toward the trees. "[Large brown carnivore you warned us about. Autumnblossom trapped in tree.]"
Daria said sternly, "Go to the cabin."
She ran into the forest in the direction indicated. She reached behind her back and drew the alien pistol. She set the power level as she approached the trees: Full.
Leaves and branches slapped against Daria's face as she ran. Ahead, she could see a grizzly bear huffing at the base of a tree. Daria's face turned white in terror as she approached. That thing is probably ten times my weight. She began to loudly stamp her feet and yelled at the bear. "Go away! Shoo!" Switching the pistol to her left hand, she picked up a pine cone and threw it, striking the animal's flank. The bear turned and looked at her, growled, and stretched up the tree, peeling away bark as it slid back down.
Daria marched forward, still yelling. "Get away from there dammit!" She threw a stick at the bear, again hitting its side. "Get moving you stupid beast!" Trembling, she continued her advance. Another stick followed. "I want your sorry ass away from that tree!" She stopped about twenty feet away from the bear. Wide-eyed in fear and anger, she raised the pistol in both hands. "Get away!"
The bear sniffed the air. Almost confused, it looked at Daria, up the tree, and back to Daria. The bear rose up fully on hind legs before heavily dropping down with a thud. The bear made two more ground thumps and grunted. Daria's shaking hand made aiming difficult.
The bear let out a somewhat mournful sound, turned, and advanced toward Daria. Keeping the pistol pointed at the advancing bear, she held firm. At about ten feet distance, she noticed a quick tension in the bear's legs. At the moment it started to lunge, Daria pressed the trigger. She saw a faint purple flash and the bear collapsed.
Gulping for air, Daria moved around the bear toward the tree, noticing shallow breathing from the carnivore. Better not hang around. From the base of the tree, she called up, "Autumnblossom."
The bear remained immobile. Daria lowered the pistol and holstered it. "Come down."
Autumnblossom crawled down the tree headfirst. Daria scooped her off the tree and held her. "It's okay." Daria carried her youngster toward the cabin. Near the clearing, she softly let Autumnblossom down. "You're getting heavy, you know that?" Daria gave a nervous laugh as she leaned against a tree. She felt weak and dizzy as the adrenaline surge began to leave her system. Have I gone insane? I just stared down and shot a bear.
Autumnblossom looked on with concern. "[Daria? Are you well?]"
But, I had a good reason. Daria nodded. "Yes. You?"
She pushed herself up from the tree and continued to walk back, Autumnblossom close behind. Eveningsky and Truemind sprinted toward them as they approached the cabin, their calls clearly showing relief. Daria tiredly looked at all three. "Let's go." Autumnblossom gave her sisters a quick, if somewhat exaggerated, account of what happened as they entered the cabin.
Once inside, Daria retrieved the computer and started the translator. "Okay everybody, settle down. I got the reporters to leave, at least for now." Hopefully they think I'm just a burned out writer out here for an extended drinking binge. "I want to be careful for another few days, though."
All three showed signs of relief.
Daria eyed Autumnblossom. "Now. How did you end up that far into the woods?
Autumnblossom nervously rubbed her hands together. "I saw a bee and followed it. I was hoping to find the hive. I think I startled that bear; it was digging around in a bush. It made some loud noises and moved toward me. I got scared and climbed the tree."
Eveningsky continued. "We heard her and came to see. It was so big; we did not know what to do."
Truemind added, "We went back to the forest edge to watch for you. You would know what to do."
"I was damn lucky out there. I didn't think or plan, I reacted." As a mother protecting her child. "If that pistol shot hadn't worked...." Daria shook her head. "Enough of that." Her gaze again fell upon Autumnblossom. "Okay. I should be mad at you for going off into the woods like that. You know better. Right now, I'm too relieved that you're safe. But, I don't want you ever putting me through that again. You understand?"
"Good. Now, go get your school gear. Time to get back to class."
They pulled their blankets and tables from under the bed and set up. Daria resumed the data playback on alien anatomy that had been interrupted. "Go on and read to the end of the chapter." After making sure they were paying attention, Daria sat in the recliner and leaned it back.
Daria stared in fascination at the wood grain of the ceiling for quite a long time. Her body continued to come down from the excitement. She could feel the beginning of soreness in her legs and arms. I'm going to feel this in the morning. I don't believe I carried her that far. Finally, she allowed herself to think about the actual events. Daria shivered at recalling the fear. I was stupidly lucky. The full setting only stunned something that big. If I had left it on low power...No, don't think about that. Okay, everything's over. Relax yourself. They're all okay now. She allowed the fear to pass and concentrated on relaxing. The tension eased away as she drifted off to sleep.
The recliner moving to an upright position woke Daria. Truemind was to her right, pushing against the control lever to complete the move. In front of her, Autumnblossom and Eveningsky held a tray table between them, with a salad and glass of juice on it. Daria reached down and picked up the tray, setting it down over her lap. "Thank you."
The Sick, Sad World reporters didn't return. After a couple weeks, Daria again began to relax more, but not completely. She wore Swiftsong's belt on a daily basis, the pistol safely tucked into the small of her back.
The garden continued to grow surprisingly well. While releasing lacewing larvae to eat aphids, Daria snorted at herself, "I never pictured myself doing organic gardening. But then, I never pictured myself trying to feed three young aliens off a garden, with no way of knowing what kind of effects common products might have." Looking around, all three of her charges were busy in the garden, weeding, inspecting and watering. "Having good help does make a difference."
Curling her legs underneath her, Daria got comfortable in her desk chair. She checked through her email. "Spam, spam, spam - Starting to sound like an old Monty Python skit - Scam, phishing - I think I would need one before I could enlarge it - Oh, something from Jane." Daria opened the message.
Still glad you're at least keeping this communication open, and happy to hear you're getting some good from your trip.
The big news here is that I finally got fed up with trying to get my stuff into galleries. Not rich enough to bribe, and not sleazy enough to put out. Even pulling a major nod at the Mt. Dora Art Festival this year didn't seem to help. So, get this, I'm opening my own gallery. Think I have a good shot at talking the owner into displaying my work. Mack (Remember? Jodie's old boyfriend) helped me get the business plan together. Your dad is also helping me with the advertising and marketing. I rented a storefront on Dega Street, a couple slots down from The Funky Doodle. I wasn't feeling horribly original though, I'm calling it Gallery Lane. So far, things are a little slow. Both Jake and Mack say that it will pick up in the fall after customers stop spending money on vacations and start worrying about Christmas presents. Anyway, that's the news from sunny Lawndale.
Daria clicked respond and began typing.
Starting your own gallery is great. Please tell Mack I said, hi. Yes, I still remember him. Weird thinking of you as a business associate of Dad. I'm going to keep an eye out for any more signs of the Apocalypse.
Life here is still incredibly exciting. I've started to harvest some of the early crops from the garden. Can you picture me canning vegetables? Just don't mention that to Dad, he might want to try it. Old Henry David was right in one thing, simplifying your life will help you to appreciate the good in it. Rest assured, I still think you are one of the good things in my life. It helps to fill the emptiness from the rest of it. Well, that's all the news that's fit to print from Walden.
Daria sent the message and looked out into the summer night. "I wish I could tell you what my life was really like. You would appreciate the irony."
The opening notes of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 mixed poorly with the alarm bell. Daria looked at her watch and smiled. Turning to upturned faces, she said, "Looks like our regular visit from Deputy O'Neal. Just keep low and quiet. Finish listening to the concerto; we'll talk about Bach when I'm done." Daria walked out the door and leaned against her truck, with one eye on her watch. The first scents of fall drifted by on the September wind as Deputy O'Neal drove up. Daria tapped her watch. "Ten minutes late."
O'Neal stepped out and withdrew a large package from the passenger seat. "Sorry for the delay, but I saw this out by your mailbox and thought I'd haul it down. Don't tell the mail carrier; they get all grumpy when I do this."
Walking toward O'Neal, she said, "Well, it is a federal crime to interfere with the mail. But, I'll let it pass. I hope that's what I think it is." He tipped the box so she could see the shipping label, Books by the Ton Online. "Cool. Just what the doctor ordered." She relieved him of the somewhat heavy burden and placed the box on her truck hood. "Thanks for bringing them down from the mailbox."
"Beginning to stock up for winter?"
"Yeah. Don't want to get snowed in with nothing to read."
O'Neal laughed. "Writers."
"Yeah, just not myself until I've had my first book of the day."
"I'm going to quit while you're ahead."
"So, things going okay for you?"
"Rolling along pretty good. Garden, relaxing, writing. I could get used to this."
"Sounds like you're in good shape. Need to get going to check on the next isolated nutjob. See you next month."
Daria slid the box off the hood and carried it inside. Using a small pocket knife, she cut open the tape and began pulling out books. After a check against the invoice, she carried them to her bookshelf. "Well, school will definitely stay in session for a while now."
"Ouch! Dammit, dammit, dammit!" The words echoed through the cabin as Daria brought the punctured finger to her mouth. She directed a withering glare at the sewing machine on her dining table. "Evil construct from the bowels of hell. You will not win." Heavyweight fabric was spread across the table.
On the floor, Eveningsky was carefully cutting more pieces using a tracing paper pattern pinned to fabric. Autumnblossom was organizing the cut fabric into separate piles, carefully placed in relation to each other when used for the final garment. Truemind was pinning sections of cloth together in preparation for sewing. All three looked at Daria, shook their heads, and went back to their business.
Watching her finger for a few seconds to make sure the bleeding had stopped, Daria said, "I hope you kids appreciate the real blood and sweat going into these winter clothes. Not to mention having something to wear after your metamorphosis to adults."
Truemind looked up again. "[Only if you don't kill yourself in the process.]"
"I'll try not to. It's certainly not in my date book."
Autumnblossom gave a sideways glance. "[I still think we should have gone for the leather frontier look.]"
Daria rolled her eyes. "Sewing this stuff is bad enough. That actually would kill me."
Autumnblossom replied, "[Okay, but it still would have looked good.]"
Eveningsky whispered to Autumnblossom, "[You know she's going to take pictures of us wearing these.]"
Daria leaned down and whispered, "You've got that right."
Eveningsky pouted, "[I always look awkward in pictures.]"
"I don't think so. Besides, if I had to live through it, you do, too."
Truemind interjected. "[So you claim, but we haven't seen any of these.]"
A smile spread on Daria's face. "Very good. I'll have to ask Mom to scan a couple and email them to me."
Autumnblossom chuckled, "[I can't wait to see them.]"
The cool air felt good as Daria worked with the rest to finish the garden harvest. Ringing from the motion sensor alarm startled everyone. Daria looked around in concern for a fast place to hide her children. "Behind the corn stalks; grab your baskets and crouch down." After she watched them get behind cover, Daria forced herself to go back to work harvesting onions. Soon, a Sick, Sad World van drove down the path. Daria rose and brushed her hands on her work pants. Waving at the van, she started to walk toward it. Without thinking, her hand went to a buzzing sensation on her right waist. As she touched the belt, she realized the ID disk was vibrating.
"Will alarm if enemy in range."
Daria stopped cold.
The van changed directions and moved directly toward her. Bringing her left hand up, she adopted a hands on hips pose. This allowed her to feel the belt buckle shifted to her left waist, she found and pressed the button for the shield. Her vision momentarily distorted and she felt a mild tingle over her body. She waited for the van to stop about fifteen feet away. A different reporter and crew stepped from the van, while the satellite tower began to rise. The camera operator pointed his rig at Daria and began filming. The sound tech had a boom microphone ready and in-place as they approached Daria. A fourth person sat on the floor edge at the side door, adjusting scuba gear and wetsuit.
Raising an eyebrow, Daria asked, "May I help you?"
"Good afternoon, Ms. Morgendorffer. We're from Sick, Sad World and would like to conduct a follow-up to your interview a couple months ago."
"You said that you were...incapacitated on the night of April sixteenth. Would you mind if our diver examined that pond behind your house?"
Daria gave them a curious look. "Why would you want to do that?"
"We have reason to believe that an alien spacecraft landed there that night."
She crossed her arms. "I always assumed your stories were some kind of entertainment. Don't tell me you take this seriously."
"Miss Morgendorffer, we do take our work seriously. May we examine your pond?"
"Look, I came up here for peace and rest. Having a camera crew from a tabloid TV show wander around and slog through the pond is not my idea of rest. No, you may not look. And yes, you may leave now."
"Do you have something to hide?"
"Then you shouldn't mind if we look."
"This is my property and I certainly do mind. I am close to considering you four trespassers. Please leave."
"Miss, the public has a right to know about what may be hidden in that pond."
"Ooh, you may find the champion bullfrogs I've been growing in there. This is ridiculous and I am ordering you off my property, now."
The diver stood up and slung a tank over his shoulder. "Or do what? We know you don't have a telephone up here."
Daria marched over and placed herself between the diver and the pond. The vibration was stronger close to the van. Proximity? "You will have to push past me to reach the pond. Any attempt to physically move me will be considered an assault, which will result in charges being filed."
The diver stopped in front of her. His solid, six-foot frame towered over her. "I think those claims will be ignored once we show what you have hidden in there."
Daria could feel a shiver, as adrenaline began moving through her veins in reaction to her fear and anger. They know it's there. Keep your head; they're not bears. "Won't your show look ridiculous using a six foot meat-wall to intimidate a woman half your size?"
The man used his thumb to crack one knuckle at a time. "Well, that is the reason they hired me. The diver gig is just icing on the cake."
A rebel must be in the van. "You really shouldn't go into that pond. It's dangerous."
"Dangerous? Right. Did the aliens booby-trap the ship?"
The diver looked surprised. "Hunh?"
"Security system. Or didn't they warn you?" Daria suddenly stepped to one side and ran to the van. The move surprised the diver, who dropped the tank and fins before turning to give chase. Still rolling video, the other three remained in place.
Daria reached the van and jumped in the open side door, pulling it closed behind her and locking it. A quick look revealed the keys hanging in the ignition, so Daria stepped between the seats and reached over to lock both front doors. A loud thump and rattle indicated the diver's arrival at the locked side door.
A familiar computer monotone voice came from behind her. "That was an interesting tactic. One would assume you knew I was here." Turning with her hands held in the open, Daria saw an alien at the back of the van. It wore a tan coverall and held a similar type of alien pistol.
"As much as one would assume that you know there is a lifeboat in the pond. I came here to talk. Please put down the pistol; it won't do you much good." Daria carefully raised a corner of her shirt to show the belt.
"Interesting, I assume you are armed, too."
Daria reached behind and showed the pistol, before holstering it again. "I assume you're shielded also. Therefore, we can't harm each other, for now."
Pounding on the passenger door interrupted them. After glancing in that direction, Daria said, "Excuse me." Leaning back and cracking the window open, she said to the reporters, "This is a private conversation, if you don't mind." They looked surprised, but backed away. After closing the window, Daria faced the alien. "Where were we?"
"You wanted to negotiate."
"I wanted to talk. My name is Daria, what is yours?"
"Nice to meet you. I assume you're from the rebel faction within the people."
"We prefer patriots."
"I'm not concerned with the particular semantics. You're with the group opposing the monarchy."
"I want to hear your side of the story."
"I am aware of the hereditary monarchy and that it generates a high degree of loyalty among some. I want to know why you and your faction oppose it."
"An admirable trait among some of your people, the desire to understand opposing positions. I will comply. The ruling family of recent generations has become increasingly isolated from reality. They associate primarily with high government officials and commercial oligarchs. They have no contact, and apparently no concern, for most people. Poverty is rampant and has been for many years. Tensions are rising and the opposition is growing. We intend to remove the monarchy."
"What are your plans for after you remove the monarchy?"
"None of your concern."
Daria raised an eyebrow. "Why does that tell me you don't have a plan, or can't agree on one?"
"How familiar are you with our history?"
"I have acquainted myself with it some while stationed here."
Stationed? "Heard of the Russian Revolution? French Revolution? Cambodia? Rwanda?"
"Can you read English?"
"I am conversant."
"I have some things you may want to read. I'm hearing translation; can I assume you have a database computer with you?"
"I would like to read up some more on your situation. The version I have is a bit...one-sided."
Leafweaver dropped a computer into a pouch on her belt. "That can be arranged."
"Then school is in session." Daria opened the side door of the van and stepped out. "Okay, everybody, we're heading inside." Daria found it hard not to glance toward the brown corn stalks. Please, stay put.
Autumnblossom watched Daria lead the others into the cabin. "[We have to do something. She is putting herself at risk again while we sit around like spoiled brats.]"
Truemind carefully looked. "[Agreed, but we need to plan.]"
Eveningsky eyed the van. "[Maybe we could check inside the transport while the others are inside.]"
Nodding toward the van, Truemind said, "[Good idea. You two go search it. Grab anything that looks like our people's equipment. I'm going down next to the cabin to listen in. I'll check the garden tools for possible weapons. Meet me there when you're done. We will make further plans then. Try to stay out of sight as much as possible. Understand?]"
Autumnblossom nodded, Eveningsky said, "[Got it.]"
"You four use the dining chairs; there's plenty to read around here. As you can guess, I hadn't planned on a lot of visitors. I'll start a pot of coffee, plus I have a wide selection of juices. Don't have sugar; use the honey on the table, no milk. Plenty of fresh veggies and fruit in the fridge; help yourself. Leafweaver, we'll be over here at the coffee table."
The Sick, Sad World crew sat at the dining table, still in a mutual shock at Daria conversing with Leafweaver while leaving them completely out.
Daria brought over a small stack of books. "Our history has seen a lot of rebellions against monarchs or dictators. Some have been very successful; others have led to chaos and ruin. I want you to get a good idea of what can happen if the latter occurs. Meanwhile, I want to catch up on a little more of the real history of your people."
Leafweaver asked. "I cannot believe that you are doing this for truly altruistic motives. Why?"
"Suffice it to say that it supports my interests."
"By convincing me to not support the rebellion?"
"I don't think I could do that. However, I may get you to think things through more, and maybe pass the ideas along."
They both settled down to read.
Autumnblossom and Eveningsky reached the van and climbed in through the open door. Eveningsky began to carefully search the front while Autumnblossom eagerly started in on the back. Several minutes later, she found a communication device and exclaimed, "[This doesn't look good.]" A map of the immediate vicinity was shown on the display, with a pulsing cursor centered on the pond.
Eveningsky looked over the seatback. "[What is it?]"
"[A communicator. Tracking the lifeboat beacon.]"
"[That's how they knew. Anything else back there? The front is only resident equipment.]"
"[Still looking...two battery packs, a medical kit, computer cables...and three bottles of crowntree sap.]"
"Eveningsky crawled over the seats to look. "[Now, that's a find. I can't wait to get into it.]"
"[I think that is all. We better head over to Truemind.]"
Moving carefully, they reached the back of the cabin. Truemind was near the door. A small machete was on the ground beside her. Autumnblossom whispered, "[We found something important.]"
Truemind looked at the communicator. "[Excellent. So far, I've only heard the reporter and crew talking. I haven't heard anything about us; they seem to only have been after the lifeboat. It also sounds like they were told nothing about the rebellion.]"
"[Plus a few more things, and these,]" Eveningsky displayed the bottles.
"[Tempting, but later.]"
Autumnblossom nodded her head. "[What now?]"
Truemind listened at the door again. "[We wait.]"
The camera operator leaned over to the reporter. "Well, Ms. Phelps, I think your plan to become the top reporter just tanked."
She glanced at Daria and Leafweaver. "We still have a chance to pull a great story from this. This sounds like something even bigger than a crashed spaceship and an alien trying to go home."
"If we get to say anything."
"How could they stop us?"
"With the weird crap going on around here, who knows? After all, they're talking about governments and rebellions, not care and maintenance of spaceships. They could make us disappear for all we know."
The diver chimed in. "I'm worried about the woman's comment about a security system on the spaceship; the little guy didn't say anything about one."
Ms. Phelps held her hands up. "Okay. I'm sorry; it looks like I got us into one big mess. Let's stay calm and try to ride this out. I wish this lady was the lush she pretended to be. I could really use a drink about now."
Leafweaver looked up from the books. "These accounts are frightening. Do you really think something like this could happen?"
"If your people are like mine, yes. It doesn't take much for a rebellion to go out of control."
"I'm sure you had a reason for showing me these. What is it?"
"To propose an alternative. If our history is any guide, monarchies and dictatorships do not survive indefinitely. Assuming the same for your people, yours, or a future rebellion, will succeed. Then you face the risks I showed you."
"You said alternative."
"Negotiate a peaceful change of government before you reach that point. Perhaps to some kind of constitutional monarchy. The queen would maintain some power, but most would be transferred to a legislative body."
"One problem. The Queen will not negotiate."
"Negotiations rarely begin at the top. I think I could get the heir to begin talking to you."
"That explains your actions more. At least one survived. Why would she talk to me?"
"Because I asked."
"What could we accomplish?"
"Get to know each other. See that you are not that different. Make the first steps toward understanding that can lead to true negotiation."
"Interesting proposal, but why? Why do you care about what happens to us?
Daria's voice was quiet. "I want a real future for my daughters."
Ms. Phelps looked over and smiled. "You've adopted some of them. That's why you were so willing to stand up to someone twice your size. This is going to make a great story. 'Hermit writer adopts alien princesses'."
Daria sighed heavily and glanced at Ms. Phelps. "Please, we'll worry about your story later." She turned back to Leafweaver. "Your move."
"You are showing a great amount of trust. If that is their Guardian's shield belt, it's the only one you have."
"Negotiations call for good faith." Daria pulled up her shirt tail and openly turned off the shield. She unbuckled the belt, and set it on the table.
"I could shoot you where you sit."
"I think you're decent enough not to shoot, and to set your belt aside."
Leafweaver watched her closely for almost a minute. Carefully, she removed her belt and set it on the table next to Daria's. She held the hilt of her pistol toward Daria, and removed the battery pack from the weapon. Daria nodded and repeated the procedure on her pistol. After setting the pack down, she said over her shoulder, "Ms. Phelps, could you please go to my computer desk, you will find a translator in the top, left drawer."
"Okay." Ms. Phelps walked over and lifted the computer. "Got it."
"Press the gold colored button. When the display appears, press the third icon from the top on the left side of the screen. That will get you into translate mode."
"My children were behind the dead corn in the garden; please ask them to come here. Though, knowing them, they may be a lot closer by now."
Phelps opened the door and gave a short cry of surprise.
Daria smirked. "They're closer." She spoke louder, "Okay, you kids, come on in. Things are okay."
Autumnblossom carefully came in. "Hope you don't mind the precaution." She walked over to Daria and saw the belts on the table. Loudly, she called out, "All clear."
Eveningsky came in next, followed by Truemind. Daria motioned them over. "Leafweaver, this is Autumnblossom, Eveningsky, and Truemind. This is your chance to bridge the gap that isolates the royal family. You three, this is Leafweaver. Your chance to meet the face of the rebellion."
Truemind looked at Daria. "You want me to start the negotiations?"
Daria shook her head. "You were listening. I thought I told you to say put."
"We couldn't let you deal with things alone again. Leafweaver, we searched your transport and have your communicator, spare batteries, cables, and your crowntree sap." She set the equipment on the table also. "Please, may we keep the bottles? It has been a very long time."
Leafweaver looked at the three in surprise. "Not the pampered children I expected. I have more; you can keep them."
Daria looked at one of the cable ends and noticed a matching fitting on Leafweaver's computer, identical to one on hers. She held up the other end of the cable. "USB." She smiled. "Mind if I keep one?"
"They are standard issue. We can discuss it later."
Daria motioned to Ms. Phelps to hand the computer back. "Please?" When Phelps returned it, Daria turned the computer off and looked at Leafweaver. "I have a good understanding of your language, just to let you know. But, I think you should have a private conversation." Daria reached over and turned off the other computer.
Phelps looked frustrated. "Why'd you do that?"
"Like I said, this should be a private conversation. I'm still their mother, so I get to be involved. You're not."
The sun was low in the west when the camera operator and the sound tech brought in the baskets from the garden. Daria had them placed on the floor next the sink. "Thanks for going out."
After quickly washing hands, she removed four mini-pizzas from the oven and placed the tray on a folded towel in the center of the table. "I know it's not much, but I hope you enjoy."
Ms. Phelps and crew muttered a few thanks and started eating.
Daria carried a tray of juiced vegetables and a salad to the coffee table, sitting on the floor afterward. "Leafweaver, I hope you'll find this acceptable."
She tasted the offered meal, and then looked at the other three. "[I can tell you've had practice.]"
Everyone began to consume their respective meals while continuing the conversation.
Truemind placed a hand on Daria's arm. "[We do not know how effective this will be, but we have agreed to stay in contact with each other after we leave this planet.]"
Leafweaver folded her hands together. "[I am alone at this posting. If I report a sunken wreck in a remote wilderness and no sign of bodies or survivors, no one will be wiser. I am scheduled to be rotated out in ten of your months.]"
Truemind nodded toward Leafweaver. "[We will be taking a great risk; execution is likely if we are discovered prematurely.]"
Autumnblossom spoke up. "[In practice, I will be the direct contact. That gives Truemind deniability if things go wrong.]"
"[With me as a backup, just in case. Otherwise, I want to work on ideas of what a constitution will look like,]" Eveningsky added.
Daria scanned all four of the aliens. "Are you sure? I was only hoping to get you thinking about things and get everyone out alive. Not set up your own conspiracy."
Truemind nodded. "[You already had too much of an influence on us. Learning your history had me thinking about things. Mother...the Queen...has lost touch with the reality of the realm. I don't know how much I can influence her, but once I become Queen, I can make a difference.]"
Leafweaver said, "[Either you have taught them to be very effective liars, or you have changed the attitudes of the entire next generation of royals. I'm taking a risk on the latter. I am not a violent person; that is why I am at a remote station doing signal intelligence. Being seen by history as the person who spared a life to make a better future sounds nicer to me than that of assassin. I was ordered to find and kill them by one of the operatives on their transport, before it was destroyed.]"
Daria looked carefully at her. "And since you were alone, you had to do it in person. How did you find us?"
"[I searched through your planet's signals to get an idea of where to look.]"
"So, the stealth wasn't effective?"
"[To your military, yes it was. However, if you knew what to look for, you could find it. The lifeboat was probably damaged, but I could only track it to a square about 100 kilometers per side.]"
"Why the charade with reporters if you could pick up the beacon?"
"[Because the beacon is directional, toward our planet. Unless you are in the direct path, or very close, my receiver could not detect it.]"
"Then you manipulated the first Sick, Sad World search to get a better idea of where to look."
"[I passed on the rough location to them disguised as a Defense Department leak. As you can tell, I cannot go around freely investigating. Several people in this county did report strange lights consistent with a lifeboat, so I was able to narrow the search.]"
"And to get a ride out here, you scammed this crew."
"Hey!" exclaimed the camera operator.
"[I said I was looking for a crashed spaceship in hopes of repairing it to go home. In return for an exclusive, they agreed to help. I was redirecting their satellite uplink to my work location and sending decoy signals back. Once we found the ship and anyone with it, I was going to stun them and destroy the videotapes. Use a chameleon blanket to hide the ship until my associates could retrieve it. They would have an improbable story and no evidence.]"
"But, now we have a problem of a peaceful solution, and four reporters with full knowledge of what is here. You can hide the ship, but not us."
Ms. Phelps rose from the table and walked over. "Excuse me. Now you're talking about my crew. Care to share the conversation?"
Daria reached over and started the translation program on her computer.
Eveningsky said, "I may have an idea. How about a small piece of evidence that generates a lot of discussion?"
All eyes turned expectantly toward Eveningsky. Ms. Phelps cocked her head. "I'm listening."
Tapping a bottle of crowntree sap, Eveningsky said, "Three empty bottles with a non-native residue."
Laughter from the sound technician shifted attention. "Alien litter-bugs hold beer bash in Montana wilderness."
Nodding, the camera operator added, "Sounds good to me. Still be one cool story, and it might keep the chick and the bug with the guns calm."
Autumnblossom held onto one bottle. "You did say empty, right?"
Truemind patted her hand. "Yes. No sense in letting it go to waste."
Daria narrowed her eyes a bit at the three. "Okay, is this stuff alcoholic?"
"It is mildly intoxicating, but normally acceptable for nymphs of their age," Leafweaver stated.
"I suppose it's no worse than a single beer." Daria looked at Ms. Phelps. "Does this sound agreeable? You get to bring back three alien drink bottles, with a residue that will test as something nobody on this planet has seen before. You also don't get stunned and your van wrecked. In exchange, I destroy every videotape you have, and you stay quiet about what happened today."
The diver licked pizza sauce from his fingers. "Lady, you're scary. Remind me not to get on your bad side."
Ms. Phelps rubbed her chin. "One more thing, and you have a deal." She knelt down beside Truemind. "If you decide to make official contact with Earth, give me the first interview."
Truemind extended a hand. "Deal." The two shook.
Holding up a now-open bottle, Autumnblossom said, "That calls for a celebration.'
Sliding the USB end of the cable into place, Daria smiled. "Probably the first trade of fresh vegetable juice for computer hardware. It would've been nice if it was a full interface cable and not a video feed, but I can still save and print screen caps this way."
Pleased the cable worked as advertised, Daria started to clean up after the day's summit meeting. "Hey, I can use some help in here." Soon, the family had the remains cleaned up and everyone had gone off to individual pursuits.
Leaning against the back of her recliner, Daria watched the three for a long time. Damn, they really are growing fast, more like teens now than children. And, half the time I probably will have with them is already gone. I hope I did the right thing. Trusting is so hard to do. At least Ms. Phelps realizes that if this story breaks, she can't report it. She'll be so much part of it that her career will be ruined. I hope Leafweaver's sense of decency holds. But, what alternative was there?
Happy Thanksgiving. Give my regards to Mom and Quinn. Also, tell Mom thanks for scanning my old childhood and high school photos. In a way, they're helping. The garden has been completely harvested and everything is put away for the winter. Eating a Thanksgiving dinner made from a real fall harvest gives the whole event new meaning. Next year, I'm cooking for everybody.
Sending the email and pushing away from the computer, Daria looked out at the light snow falling outside. All three of her daughters were gathered around a pile of printed photos, chatting among themselves. It felt good to show them some of my history. They really want to meet Jane now.
Eveningsky brought over a photo. "[Seems so different to see so many males in your culture.]"
Daria smiled. "Well, since we can't reproduce parthenogenically like you, they're kind of needed. I find producing haploid males on demand to be odd."
"[Why are those two dressed so strangely?]" The photo showed two young teen boys dressed in bikinis and covered in mud.
Beavis and Butthead. Mom, nobody can accuse you of not having a sense of humor. "Those two were a good argument for selective production of males. They're two boys I knew in Highland. There's no real way to explain why they were dressed like that, except that they were...no, there is no real explanation, sorry."
"[Oh.]" Looking up at Daria curiously, she asked, "[Why are there none of you with a male?]"
"Because Mom wouldn't do that to me. I've had...some very bad experiences. It wouldn't be good to see reminders."
"[I am sorry. I hope you have some better experiences in the future.]"
Daria sadly looked at the ground. "Someday, I may be able to hope that again."
A cloudless, blue sky arched over the snow-covered landscape as Daria collected firewood from the pile. Just like a Christmas postcard, Daria thought as she walked back to the cabin.
Balancing the wood in the crook of one arm as she closed the door, Daria shook her head and smiled to see a fourth package under the small Christmas tree. "I see you miscreants have been busy." She placed the wood in a rack and sat on the floor next to the tree. Daria gave a pleasant sigh as she looked at all three before passing out presents. Each found a worn, but well cared-for book: Autumnblossom a copy of The Three Musketeers, Eveningsky a copy of The Tempest, and Truemind, The Time Machine.
"I hope you enjoy them. Each is a copy that has kept me company since high school, and hold special memories." I hope Mom, Dad and Quinn enjoy the gifts I sent them. I wish they could be here now.
Nudging the last present forward, Autumnblossom said, "[Now, yours.]"
Daria read the tag on the clumsily wrapped gift:
To Mom, with Love, Autumnblossom, Eveningsky and Truemind.
She stared at all three in turn. "I...I know I've been calling myself your mother, but...I never expected this. I'm just a slightly crazy woman acting out her maternal issues after a nasty miscarriage."
"Truemind set her hand on Daria's. "[You cared for us more in one month than our biological mother has shown us our entire lives. Even as her heir, I have not spent more than month in the same building with her. We have been shuttled around for education and our safety from court intrigues and rebellion. It had been over six months since we last saw her when we landed here. To her, we are replacements. To you, we are daughters.]"
Daria slowly opened the paper. Inside, she found a printed image of them, signed in their native script and in English. The page was framed with dried, woven vines from the forest. Silently, she gazed at it for a couple of minutes before softly saying, "Thank you."
Daria briefly looked at the peanut butter-coated carrot before consuming it. I haven't eaten combinations like this since I was pregnant. Or grazed as often. Oh, well. At least I know that's not the problem. She entered a query into the alien computer to get more information on the metamorphosis the children were expected to go through in a month or so.
Abruptly, she pounded her knee in frustration. "Damn data corruption!" She set the computer on the recliner arm and stared at it for a while. Something looks familiar. She worked the small keyboard again, pulling up previous subjects with lost data. Twenty minutes later, she took the computer over to her desk and connected the interface to her desktop. After she saved a screen capture, she entered the request that had frustrated her earlier. Soon, the two digital images were on the desktop monitor as she sat back, wide-eyed. "The same. This isn't data loss; this is some kind of encryption to look like it."
The next week was spent in frustration and anger as she tried to learn encryption methods and apply them to the alien database. "Who am I kidding? Like I'm going to learn enough to break an advanced culture's encryption in a week." Looks like I have to face their change blind. What the hell could be so important that it had to be hidden?
Daria walked to a kitchen window and looked out over the frozen ground to where Swiftsong lay buried. Did you put the encryption in place? If so, why? Daria scratched her hip and looked down. "Damn, I have packed on some weight. Don't know why I seem to have the munchies so much, lately." Yawning, she turned back to her desk. "Been drowsy too. I wonder if it is some kind of Seasonal Affected Depression. I have been cooped up indoors for most of the last couple months."
The sisters spent the week avoiding Daria and her bad mood, with growing concern. Eveningsky fidgeted. "[I'm worried. Mother hasn't found anything to be a host yet. I do not want her to be one. I know Swiftsong wouldn't have hesitated, but...]"
Autumnblossom nervously tapped a foot. "[Same here. What can she be thinking about?]"
Eveningky pulled a biology book from the shelf and settled down to read. "[Maybe they handle metamorphosis hosts differently.]"
Half an hour later, Eveningsky closed the biology book in shock. "[Their species does not undergo a metamorphosis. No host is needed.]"
Horror filled Trueminds's voice. "[So she does not know?]"
"[Probably not, unless Swiftsong told her.]"
Autumnblossom asked, "[What if she also assumed they metamorphosed?]"
Truemind was quiet. "[We need to find out.]" She led her sisters over to where Daria sat at the work desk, the alien computer connected to her desktop. Truemind softly touched Daria's thigh to get her attention.
"[Mother, Eveningsky was reading in one of your books that your species does not undergo a metamorphosis to become an adult.]"
"No, we don't."
"[Did you know we needed a host to complete the process?]"
Daria looked down at them. "A host?"
Eveningsky continued the explanation. "[When we begin to transform, we will require a dormant animal as a food and protein source.]"
"It would have been a good idea for somebody to have mentioned it sooner."
Truemind explained, "[We thought you knew, and it is something we were taught not to talk about in polite company.]"
"Do you have any idea about the size needed? I should be able to get a pig or calf."
Embarrassed, Eveningsky said, "[About fifty kilograms. Though...I am not certain...but it may be too late.]"
"What do you mean, too late?"
"[We did not learn a lot about this before we got here. Too young. I think that we emit pheromones to trigger the dormancy in the host. We may have started, and it may be affecting you.]"
"The food cravings. Dammit, I need more information. If I drop unconscious, who's going to take care of things?"
"[If I remember properly...the host going dormant...will trigger the transformation in us.]"
"Great, as soon as I drop out is when you will need someone watching over you the most."
"[Our...conscious minds will fall asleep. Our bodies will react by...instinct...to find the dormant host.]"
Dread filled Daria's eyes. "You mean, if I don't find some kind of alternative before I fall unconscious, I will become the host?"
Truemind nodded. "[That is why we are so worried.]"
"Well, you've got me worried too. It's too late to try to go out for something today; the farm store will be closed before I can get into town." Daria started to concentrate on the alien computer again. "Bet everything I need is in here. If I can just get to it."
Long after midnight, Daria set aside the alien computer and stretched. Maybe a little surfing will help me relax enough to go to bed. She dialed up her internet connection, and opened up the Sick, Sad World website. Ms. Phelps story, Montana Beer Bash - Alien Style, was still one of the highest rated after two months. Certainly appears to have given her career a bump.
Afterward, she checked the weather, news, and a few places for fun. Rising for a drink, she looked over at her daughters. If necessary, I will do it. It will be so easy. She shook her head. Where did that come from? I am not giving up that fast. After filling a glass with water, she sat down at her desk. A new icon was present on the alien computer display. What the hell? She pressed the icon and a message appeared in alien script, translated to English.
My heartfelt thanks for taking care of Truemind, Eveningsky and Autumnblossom. It is rare in this universe to find such goodness. I personally, and our people, are in debt to you. I will rest easier knowing you will care for them.
Now, I must confess to deceiving you. This database was never damaged or corrupted. I placed an encryption onto sensitive parts. That encryption is now released. Partially, this was protection in case this fell into the wrong hands, and partially to hide the truth from you. My oath was to protect my charges to the full extent of my abilities. If I calculated this properly, for the last two of your weeks, you have been affected by the first of two pheromones nymphs secrete before metamorphosis. It triggered your hunger response so that you consumed more food than normal. You are now being affected by the second pheromone. The combined effect will produce a dormant state in approximately twelve of your days. When you fall into that state, the combined pheromones will release a third that triggers the nymphs to complete metamorphosis. They will instinctively attach to you and will draw sustenance until they complete the process in six of your days. This will result in your death. Regrettable, but that will also mean no witnesses on your planet. Once the second pheromone has become active, it alters brain chemistry so that you will be incapable of harming the nymphs. In a better world, I would be in your place instead. If need arises, all Guardians vow to become hosts for their charges. I deeply regret having to deceive you; your kindness and friendship deserve much more. But, my duty to protect my charges comes first.
Morning found Daria still at her desk, trying to come to grips with what Swiftsong had done. Swiftsong's message was correct; the encryption was gone. Daria brought up information on the nymph's metamorphosis and found a more detailed, but basically identical, explanation. I can respect her dedication to duty. I'm sure she really was motivated by her concern for the children. Still, that doesn't make a death sentence any easier. "Twelve days. Twelve days to find an answer." She let her eyes wander over to the three sleeping forms near her bed. "Or I have to choose, them or...me." Moving as quietly as she could, Daria crawled into her bed. I'm not giving up, but I'm going to need a clear head to get through this.
Eveningsky waited until she heard Daria's soft snore before sneaking over to the computer desk. She started the database computer and found the new icon. After reading, she slumped down on the floor. "[Damn. We were too late.]"
Weary, Daria heard sounds in the kitchen. She sat up and looked over to see her children cleaning up from breakfast. Might as well tell them right away. They deserve to know. She got out of bed and walked over. As she began moving, Autumnblossom started the coffee machine.
Eveningsky faced her. "[I woke up before you came to bed. I was curious, so I got up and read the message from Swiftsong.]"
"Then you know that I'm stuck as the host unless I can come up with some kind of alternative."
Truemind came forward. "[We are sorry for what Swiftsong did. If we had any idea, we would have said something sooner. We do not...]"
Daria held up a hand. "I know you are not responsible. Swiftsong did what she thought was best for you."
Truemind said, "[We don't want you to die.]"
"I don't either. I'm going to spend the remaining time looking for some kind of alternative. I don't give up easily. But, if the time comes, I want you three to live. No discussion."
"No discussion. I'm going to need to spend every effort on this. I'm asking all of you to completely take over running the house. Cleaning, cooking and keeping the fire going. Everything. Got it?"
Three positive responses gave Daria some cheer.
Four days later, Daria called them to her desk. "I may have an alternative, but I need to run it by you."
Autumnblossom excitedly asked, "[What alternative? You found a way to break the pheromones?]"
Daria was uncertain. "No. I found something about the Non-host Heresy."
Truemind stepped back. "[I thought they were a myth, from years ago.]"
"The information is sketchy, but I think it was a real movement. It does make sense that someone would try to find an alternative to hosts, especially after you became capable of interstellar travel, when hosts may not be available."
Autumnblossom was worried. "[The old legends also say that supporters were tortured and executed.]"
"Who's going to tell them?"
Truemind nodded. "[None of us will.]"
"But, this could be a risk. I'm going to have to come up with something to feed you while you are dormant. The database has a lot of information on your nutritional needs. I'll need to figure out the local equivalents."
Eveningsky rubbed her hands together. "[We want to help.]"
Six days later, Daria found it increasingly difficult to stay awake. Twelve days was probably an estimate. Without previous experience, Swiftsong would not know the exact time it would take a human to be affected. Damn. Can't allow myself to fall asleep any more. Daria walked over to the coffee maker and added grounds. After a little thought, she added an extra scoop. Filling the back with water, she muttered, "Now, my future depends on how long before I run out of coffee."
She turned back to her children. "I'm going to need even more help. Please keep the coffee going. And somebody kick me, hard, if I start to nod off. I'm getting close to a metamorphosis diet for you. I just need a little more time."
Truemind quietly maneuvered Autumnblossom and Eveningsky into the far corner of the cabin from Daria. She whispered, "[I've made a decision. Mother has risked herself for us repeatedly. She has given without fail. After all she has done, I cannot let her be my host. If she goes into dormancy, we have maybe half an hour before our transition is triggered. I'm going out into the forest before then.]"
Eveningsky nodded her head. "[You will die, but not alone.]"
Autumnblossom placed a hand on each. "[All for one and one for all. I was hoping to use that under better circumstances.]"
Truemind covered Autumnblossom's hand. "[I wish it were. But, are we agreed?]"
Eveningsky held Autumnblossom's other hand. "[Agreed.]"
Autumnblossom looked at both. "[Agreed.]"
On the third day after, Daria rubbed her tired eyes. She looked at the detailed list displayed on her desktop monitor. "It should work, but I can't leave it out for six days, spoilage could kill them. Preservatives will disrupt their development. And I'm not going to be awake to change the food every day. I have to get help that I can explicitly trust."
She saved her work and reopened her web browser. After half an hour, she was satisfied with her purchases. After a quick email, she connected a small computer microphone, and opened an unused internet-telephone utility. "I think this will count as an emergency." Carefully, she entered a number and clicked the 'connect' button.
On the fifth ring, Jane answered. "Gallery Lane."
"Jane, Daria. Go check your email."
"Whoa, hey Daria. Nice to hear from you finally. Could I at least get a hello?"
Daria sighed. "Hello. Jane, please. I need your help. Can you get away for a couple of weeks?"
"Daria, you sound horrible, and like you're in big trouble."
"More than I ever imagined."
"Why do I have the feeling you can't tell me what it is?"
"I can't. But I won't lie to you. It could be dangerous."
"I don't care. I've been worried sick since you left. I was planning on being gone later this month to an art festival; I'll just say I'm leaving early. My part-time help will love the chance to get a couple weeks of full-time pay. I can set it up with the accountant."
"Thank you. I forwarded an electronic plane ticket to Montana. You have about three hours and forty-five minutes to get to the airport. There's a rental car reserved for you at this end. With the way the roads are, it's four wheel drive. I attached a map to the email; use that to get to my cabin. There's also a list of things to pick up. Don't ask, just get them."
"I'll be on my way as soon as you let me get off the phone."
"Thanks. Hope to see you tomorrow."
"I'm on my way."
When the rental SUV came to a stop, Jane looked at the snow covered cabin nestled in the Montana wilderness. "She always wanted one." Jane quickly got out and ran to the cabin door, which opened on her approach. "Hey! Long time, no...Oh my God! What the hell happened to you?"
Barely standing, her hair unruly and flat, Daria held the door open. Swiftsong's pistol was loosely held in one shaking hand. Most disturbing, her normally piercing eyes vacantly stared out from dark circles of fatigue, like matching bruises. "I'm so glad to see you. I haven't slept in four days."
Grabbing Daria in a tight hug, Jane asked, "Why the hell not?" Behind Daria, Jane saw the three youths watching. "What the hell are those things?"
Half disengaging and keeping an arm around Jane's shoulder, Daria ushered her inside. "My adopted daughters. Autumnblossom, Eveningsky, and Truemind. You three, this is my dear friend, Jane."
Jane turned in surprise. "Daughters?"
"It is a long story. For now, a...situation...left them in my care to raise. I adopted them."
Jane looked into Daria's eyes. Damn, she looks bad. I hope a little humor will help. She nudged her friend. "Remember Link? When I said; any kid who looks to you for nurturing is more than just lost."
Daria looked pained. "Jane, that is not even remotely funny."
Daria and Jane sat at the dining table talking. Between them were a stack of printouts and the remains of lunch. Daria shook her head. "Can't use anesthesia either."
"How about some hibernating animal, there must be some out there?"
"Do you have any idea of where to look?"
"Me, either. Besides, what would happen if it woke up?"
"Oooh, yeah. Pissed-off, hungry critter and everyone asleep. Has it been too cold to sleep in the truck to avoid exposure to the pheromone? Try to get more working time?"
"The overnight lows have been between ten and twenty degrees Fahrenheit for the last couple weeks. I couldn't risk hypothermia, especially with how drowsy all this was making me feel, even early on. And there was no way I was sending them out into that cold, the risk was greater."
"Damn, you really do care about them."
"As much as I would have..." Daria's hand went to her stomach.
"I was wondering if that had anything to do with it."
"I'm certain it did to start. Now, I do love them for who they are, not as substitutes for who I lost."
"Okay, back to immediate matters, what's left for you to do?"
"I have one remaining chance. Their religion considers it a heresy, but non-host diets have been used before. Thus, the roasts and vitamin supplements I had you pick up. I've pulled the nutritional requirements off the alien computer, found our closest matches, and estimated a daily schedule. I've printed it out. You'll need to mix up the supplements and use the cooking syringe to inject the roasts. We can't allow the meat to spoil, so you will have to give them fresh cuts every day. We'll need to keep the temperature inside the cabin low, sorry."
Jane perused the directions. "Looks damn complete. I'll take care of them."
"Don't forget to rub the meat against me first. They need the third pheromone to trigger the feeding response. Otherwise, they won't stop until they get to me."
"Icky, but I got it."
"You're also going to need to keep an eye on me. There is no way of knowing how far my body functions will slow down. It could get...messy."
"That's why you had me get the adult diapers?"
"Um, yeah. Trust me; I'm not looking forward to them."
"I'm going to owe you for this, aren't I?"
"You will have one visitor for certain. Deputy O'Neal will be here for his regular visit in four days, at noon, or pretty close.
"Is he cute?"
"Yes, and married."
Daria chuckled. "Though he might flirt for a while. He's going to insist on seeing me. Find some way to keep the kids out of sight, and let him see me, briefly. Tell him I have the flu and finally fell asleep. Whisper and do the 'don't-wake-her' routine. Give him this note; it tells him that I'm feeling under the weather and that you're here as my guest."
"Do I need to have coffee and donuts for him?"
"No. You might have a second visitor, another alien. Named Leafweaver. I'm hoping we convinced her to not do anything, but if she decides we'll be an easy target, you'll have to deal with her." Daria showed Jane how the pistol and shield belt worked.
"Wouldn't that stun pistol work to stun some animal as host?"
"The low setting knocked me out for about six hours, so any host would need to be hit four times per day. The problem is, with my children attached, the shot could affect them. Not an acceptable risk."
"Right." Jane handled the belt. "If this Leafweaver has a shield on, can I grab the little bugger?"
"I don't know." Daria put the belt on an activated it. "Try."
Jane reached over and gripped Daria's arm. "It feels like grabbing wet glass. But, it gives me an option, especially if I throw a blanket on her first."
"Wish I'd thought of that." Daria's head nodded and she jerked it back up violently. "Get the first set of roasts out and finish getting them ready. I can't keep this up." Very unsteady, she stood, but her legs failed after a couple steps.
Jane barely caught her before she hit the floor. "Okay, you're going to bed." Jane lifted Daria and carried her. "Good thing I'm still running."
Daria looked up without focusing. "Good luck." Her eyes closed and her breathing quickly slowed.
Jane looked down in concern. "Daria...Daria...Crap." Jane looked across the room. "Okay kids, times up." She rushed to the kitchen to prepare starter meals for the three. "Your coveralls will probably get ruined if you leave them on. Don't worry about getting undressed in front of me. I'm an artist; I work with nudes on a regular basis."
Working feverishly, she injected the vitamin supplements into the roasts. "I'm giving warning, if any of you move toward Daria looking hungry, I'm kicking you right in the face, hard."
All three watched Jane nervously. Truemind said, "We understand."
"Hey, can you gals give me any clues of what to expect?"
Eveningsky answered, "We haven't seen this before. It is considered inappropriate for nymphs."
"While we videotape births."
"However, if the instinct has started, we will not be capable of responding verbally."
"Great, I feed you when you stop talking."
Jane had three meals prepared and was looking for a tray when she noticed them slowly moving toward Daria. "Crap! Hey! Talk to me!"
Scooping up meals in her arms, she sprinted to Daria's side. She rubbed one roast on each arm, and then one on her face. Scooping and spinning, Jane saw the children were only about six feet away. "This better work or I'm using the stun gun." Jane dropped a roast directly in front of each. "Bon appetit." Each stopped and felt around the roast, as if expecting something larger. Within a minute, each had grasped a roast with their hands and impaled their straw-like beaks into them. The legs on each child curled up tightly underneath them, before each went still.
Roughly sitting down on the floor, Jane realized she had been holding her breath. Releasing it in a slow, controlled fashion, she forced herself to relax. "That was close." Hearing that translated into alien, Jane got up and went to the database computer. "Okay, third from top on left." She pressed the icon, and its color shifted. "Testing." No translation. "Good, hearing that clicking for a week would have driven me crazy."
Noticing beef blood on her arms and shirt, Jane groaned. "Better clean my butt up, then finish getting Daria ready."
Over the next couple hours, she cleaned and prepared Daria, and moved the three changing aliens against one wall near Daria's bed. I can hide them with piled clothes and it will look my old room.
Settling down into the recliner and pulling on a comforter, Jane looked over at her friend. "Wow. This is going to be weird. How has Daria survived this long without watching Sick, Sad World." Jane's mouth widened to a grin. "I wonder if she knows anything about a beer bash?"
By the next morning, each of the children was encased in a chrysalis, with only a short section of the proboscis protruding into a shriveled, dry roast. After fixing fresh meals for them, Jane tested wiping one of Daria's fingers over one side to transfer pheromone. She was relieved to get a positive feeding response from the three. "I was not looking forward to cleaning a bunch of blood off her every morning."
Checking on Daria resulted in Jane saying, "Yep, she'd been drinking a lot of coffee." After cleaning her up and eating breakfast, Jane found Daria's digital camera. "I'll bet she wants pictures of the little ladies changing."
Jane was able to establish a rhythm to keep things going, while busying herself with sketches of the local scenery, cabin, and inhabitants. She found complete silence disturbing, so the radio or CD player ran continuously at a low level.
For Deputy O'Neal's visit, Jane carefully moved Daria to the recliner and covered her with the comforter. "Please, don't have an accident before he arrives. I don't want to explain any smells." Jane tossed loose clothes over the chrysalises to look like an unruly pile of laundry. She made coffee and waited at the kitchen table.
A little after noon, Jane heard the motion sensor alarm. She patiently waited to answer the knock at the door. "Hello?"
O'Neal stood back from the door about five feet, right hand resting on his sidearm. "Good afternoon, miss. I'm Deputy O'Neal. May I see Miss Morgendorffer, please?"
Jane put a finger to her lips. "Sssh. She has the flu and only got to sleep an hour ago. I don't want to wake her." Jane opened the door to let O'Neal see the recliner. "Daria said you were rather protective of the local hermits, and to give you this when you stopped by today if she wasn't awake."
O'Neal accepted and read the note. After a brief chuckle, he said, "Okay, Miss Lane. Take good care of her; she's one of my favorite residents. The fact that she hasn't taken a pot shot at me yet may have something to do with it." O'Neal smirked. "Tell her I hope she feels better soon, and I'll see her next month." He tipped his hat and returned to his SUV. "Nice to meet you." The SUV backed away and quickly departed up the driveway.
That night, Jane was in the recliner, still trying to find that 'just right' position to fall asleep. Her eyes opened fully at the sound of the small pet door the children used rattling. After a sharp snap, she heard a faint creak as it opened. In the faint light, she saw what she surmised was an adult alien crawling through the door. Possibly, it carried a pistol in one hand.
Jane slowly grabbed her blanket in both hands and waited. The alien moved toward the center of the room a little before turning toward the helpless sisters. At its closest approach, Jane leapt onto the alien's back, holding the blanket in front of her. Her weight caused the alien to stumble and drop the pistol. Jane used the blanket to entangle and trap it. You feel awfully slippery; bet you have one of those shields on.
They wrestled for a while before Jane managed to use her stronger legs to pin the alien's arms. With hands free, Jane was able to get the blanket securely tied around it. Jane picked up the pistol; it was clearly different from the one Daria had shown her.
Keeping the pistol pointed at the intruder, Jane flipped on the light and activated the translator. "Who the hell are you?"
The alien stared at her.
"Talk to me."
"Then we wait. I know that shield has to run down eventually."
Moving suddenly, the alien cut itself clear of the blanket with a knife and charged Jane, who reflexively pulled the trigger. A sharp whine struck her ears and she saw a distortion on the alien's head, somewhat like a shimmering mirage. It staggered and fell with a hole shattered just in front of the eyes. Blood pooled inside the shield.
Still keeping the pistol pointed at it, she advanced and shoved the body with her foot. She leaned forward to touch the wound; the shield prevented her from making contact. Jane looked at the pistol in shock, swallowing hard. "It shot straight through the shield."
After watching the body for a minute, Jane lowered the pistol and leaned back against the arm of the recliner. Shaking with residual fear and leftover adrenaline, she sank to the floor crying.
Jane awoke sitting on the floor, with her back to the recliner. The dead alien was in front of her, in the middle of a wide pool of blood. She scrambled away from the body in shock. Breathing heavily, she looked at it for many minutes, trying to comprehend the night before.
Finally, she roused enough to prepare food for the sisters and check on Daria. "No messes today. Good. I hope that means she's just stable and not in trouble. She better be right about her body slowing down; she could be badly dehydrated after five days without water."
When Jane had recovered from another bout of nerves, she managed to carry the body out the back door. After covering it with a tarp from the garden shed, she saw the alien's tracks leading away. After retrieving the new pistol and the shield belt from inside, she followed them along a trail that entered the forest about 30 feet from the driveway. A dark lump was visible near where the trail met the woods edge.
Reaching it, Jane found another dead alien, hands bound together and shot from behind. "I better get this one out of sight, too. These bastards play nasty." With some effort, she dragged it behind the cabin and put it under the same tarp.
Back inside, she cleaned up the blood as well as she could, but a dark stain remained on the unsealed wood. That last job completed, she went to the toilet and crouched over, violently ill.
Daria gave a dry moan as she tried to get up. Jane scrambled across the room to the bedside. "Don't move too fast; you probably feel like hell."
Settling for half-sitting, Daria croaked out, "Water." Jane quickly retrieved a glass. Daria managed to maintain enough control to sip the water instead of gulping. "Thanks. How are my kids?"
Jane smiled. "They've gotten bigger while you were gone, but they still haven't come out of their cocoons."
Jane shuddered. "One of those aliens tried to sneak in last night."
Daria's eyes widened.
Jane held up the second pistol. "I threw a blanket on it and we wrestled. I got this away from it. I thought I had it tied up, but it got free. I shot it."
"Are you okay?"
"Physically, yes. Emotionally, not at all. Daria, this gun shot through the shield the alien was wearing."
"Like it wasn't there, but the shield was still up. I killed it."
"Damn. I hope she didn't have any friends with her."
"There was another, but I don't think it was a friend. I found it tied-up and executed."
Daria could see a body-wide tremor in her friend. "I...I'm sorry I got you into this." Daria tried to rise, but fell back again. "I'll try to check later. Please get me some juice? Any kind."
Daria slowly recovered through the afternoon, while doing her best to help Jane deal with her emotional trauma. When Daria felt capable of going outside, she told Jane. "Stay here, you don't need to see any more. But, I need to know."
She returned a couple of minutes later. "The one you found executed was Leafweaver. I guess her replacement showed up early and didn't believe her. Or she turned us in, and was double-crossed for her trouble." Jane came over and escorted her to the kitchen table. They sat down and held each other for a long time.
Just as darkness was falling, Daria sprayed a circle of bear repellent around the tarp. "I don't give a damn about the assassin, but I'm willing to give Leafweaver the benefit of the doubt. If she was forced, she doesn't deserve to be bear food."
After dinner, Daria faced Jane. "Use the bed and get some real sleep. You need it."
"But, what if..."
"I'm fine, and I won't do anything more taxing than 'net surfing. I can rest in the recliner, but you need real sleep."
Jane nodded. "Okay, deal. I'll try, but I don't know if I can."
"Good enough. Now go."
After making sure Jane was snoring, Daria started her computer and pulled up her email program. One message caught her attention. There was no return address displayed, and the subject line was: Daria Warning. The timestamp was four days before. She checked that her antivirus software was active, and opened the message.
I was just contacted by a resistance survivor of the transport your charges were on, the one that ordered me to find the heirs. I have not completed forging records to cover my efforts, and do not think I can eliminate all evidence of you before she arrives. Please relocate or prepare for a hostile visit. I will do what I can.
"Damn. I'm sorry Leafweaver."
Mindlessly going through other messages, Daria realized something. "Damn, how did they get here? Leafweaver had to con a ride with Sick, Sad World last time. We have to look around tomorrow."
Daria's vision dimmed when she rose too fast from the chair. "Wooo. Slow down there." She walked over to her daughters. "I hope you are all right. I don't know if I could live with myself if I screwed things up." Grabbing a blanket and pillow, she curled up beside them and drifted off to sleep.
A loud, glass-like crack woke Daria. Fumbling her glasses on, she saw broad, open seams on each chrysalis. She scrambled up and checked each, all three appeared to be well and working their way out of the chrysalis. Crawling over to the bed, Daria shoved Jane. "Wake up. They're coming out."
"Jane, get up."
"Hmm. Oh, Daria. You want the bed back?"
"It's morning. I want you to get up to help, they're coming out."
"Morning! You let me sleep all night?"
"Figured you deserved it. But I need your help in case anything happens."
Jane rubbed her eyes. "Then we need some coffee." Noticing the blanket and pillow, Jane eyed Daria. "Did you sleep on the floor?"
"Um, yeah. I wanted to be close to them."
Jane shook her head. "Fine. I'll get some breakfast ready all the way around. You keep an eye on your kids. Your camera is on the mantle. I've been taking photos, figured you'd want them."
Moving to pick up the camera, Daria said, "Thanks, I appreciate you thinking of it."
Over the next hour, the three new adults pushed and squirmed for release. More logs were placed on the fire to warm the cabin. Daria stayed on the floor next to them through the process, greeting Eveningsky, Autumnblossom, and finally Truemind as they pulled free. Gently, she hugged each, careful not to injure their still-soft exoskeletons. Jane brought in fresh juice for each, and passed them around. The young adults hungrily consumed them.
Daria looked at them. "Rest easy until your exoskeleton hardens. I'm doing fine, so don't worry. Jane did a spectacular job of taking care of us. We need to check on some things outside, but we will be back soon."
Once outside, Daria pulled the shield belt and pistols from under her jacket. Donning the belt and the newer pistol, she handed Jane the older. "Stay well behind me. I don't want you to go through that again if I can help it."
Jane still looked uneasy. "Thanks, I think."
"But I would like someone covering my back. Good thing we didn't get any snow: the tracks are still clear."
They followed the tracks through the trees, parallel to the driveway. Along the side of the paved road was a small sedan with darkly tinted windows all around. The tracks went directly to the car. Finding the doors locked, Daria used a tree branch to break a back window.
Inside, she found a database computer on the seat. She quickly squeezed it into a large jacket pocket. The driver's seat was fitted with a set of extension controls. "Jane, we need to get this driving rig out of here before the cops investigate this as an abandoned vehicle." Checking the extensions, she found them attached by wing nuts. In a matter of minutes, it was out. "Stomp around the car and up and down the road; make it look like we did a quick search for a driver."
Meeting back at the car, Daria had Jane travel back along the alien track, making sure to drag her feet through the snow to obscure the alien prints. Daria checked the mail and walked back along the driveway.
Back at the cabin, Jane used her cell phone to report an abandoned car. Daria checked on the sisters, finding them still resting, but with hardened, fully-formed exoskeletons. Daria quietly spoke to them. "Jane had a major problem while we were out." Daria produced the assassin's pistol. "It looks like Leafweaver was forced to lead an assassin here, armed with this. Jane was able to subdue the assassin, but was later forced to kill her. She also found that Leafweaver was executed outside by the assassin. Jane's not dealing very well. Take it easy on her."
Truemind stared at the pistol. "[One of those is what Swiftsong was hit with.]"
"Leafweaver sent a message after I'd become dormant. One of the other rebels on the ship also survived and tracked her down."
"[I had started to like her.]"
"I respected her also. I recovered a database computer from the car they used to get here. Hopefully we can get some information from it."
Eveningsky approached. "[I would like to help with the computer.]"
Daria handed it over. "Thanks. I'm still a little weak. You three got to eat regularly, and I didn't. Besides, I doubt if that has a translation set up, and you still read your native language faster than I do. Autumnblossom, can you use some of the wood in the shed to make a coffin for Leafweaver? The ground is frozen, but I still don't want to leave her out for a bear to find."
Autumnblossom answered, "[I will.]"
Turning to Jane, Daria asked, "Can you run to town and pick up one of those big plastic storage totes?" Not that I have any respect for the assassin, but I don't want to pick up scattered body parts after the spring thaw. "While you're out, please get some pizza."
"Will do, just hold down the fort."
Truemind scratched her head. "[What about me?]"
"For now, get all signs of your presence cleared from the room. With the police coming, we don't need to take any chances."
"I'm going to get some more rest. Somebody wake me when they get here if the motion alarm doesn't"
"You're still looking pale, but it's good to see you up and around," O'Neal told Daria as they stood outside the cabin, "Thanks for the note, very polite of you."
"I didn't want you to worry," Daria replied.
"Sorry about how long it took to get out here. I was in the middle of something when the call came in. We ran the plates on that car; it was stolen in Arizona two months ago. Probably used for some kind of criminal activity and abandoned. The driver likely got in a second car. Miss Lane, just to make sure, you didn't hear anything the other night that was unusual?"
"Nope. Quiet evening drawing and making sure Ms. Daria didn't drool on herself too much."
Daria narrowed her eyes, "Jane."
O'Neal shook his head. "You two sound as bad as my kids. Okay, we should have a tow truck out here for the car in about half an hour. Now get inside before this cold makes you sick again."
Daria said, "Yes, sir."
Everyone was gathered around Jane's rental SUV. Her luggage was packed and she stood by the door.
"Good luck, Daria. You take good care of yourself, and your kids."
Daria hugged Jane tightly. "Thank you so much for coming out. You were literally a life-saver."
"I guess I was, so you owe me. Actually, you owe me more for changing diapers."
"I'll take your word for it. How are you holding up?"
"I'm probably going to have a hard time sleeping for a while."
"You were protecting yourself. You didn't have a choice."
"And I was protecting you and your kids. Those have been the only things that kept me going."
"For that part, I'm sorry I pulled you into this."
"Who else could you call?"
"Right. Plus, you did warn me it could be dangerous. You've been risking a lot more for longer. So don't punish yourself, either."
"I'll try not to."
"One more thing: you haven't brought it up before, but I think it needs to be gotten out of the way." Jane looked at the ground. "I'm sorry, but your leaving affected Trent about as much as any other breakup. Trent may be my brother, but you're my best friend. Find somebody else."
"Jane...I know that was hard for you to say. You've wanted us together for so long. I don't blame him; my trying to revive a high school crush was foolish. But, thanks for saying that."
"Okay, then. I hate these long goodbyes."
Truemind touched Jane's hand. "Your courage will not be forgotten by us. We cannot do anything now, but we will repay you."
Jane bent over. "The best way you can pay me back is to learn from your mother. Let her sense of right and wrong guide you when you become Queen."
"I was planning to do that; you give me more reason to."
"Great. You three, please give your mother a reason to be proud."
Truemind nodded. "We plan on it."
Jane looked back at Daria. "You never explained to me, what do they call themselves? Does their planet have a name?
"Well, we can't really make the sounds properly. The closest translation of what they call themselves is 'people' or 'folk'."
"That helps a lot."
"Not surprising. They're like us; the name for the home planet translates as 'nest'. So, best I can figure is 'People of the Nest'."
"It's something, anyway." Jane got into the vehicle. "I've dawdled enough; I need to get going to make sure I catch my flight. Daria, I'll email when I get home. Don't forget to use that net-phone of yours; I expect to hear from you on occasion now."
"Yes, ma'am. Drive careful and have a safe flight. Thanks again."
Jane started the truck and started to back up. "You're welcome, Amiga. Bye, for now. And keep in touch, dammit."
"I promise. Good bye."
After three weeks of investigation, Eveningsky looked up from the assassin's computer and called out, "[Mother, I found something.]"
Daria joined her daughter. "What is it?"
"[The assassin was named Streamrider. I found her reports. She intercepted Swiftsong's message for help. She suspected Leafweaver after the Sick, Sad World story on the bottles. Took her several months to locate Leafweaver, modify a car, and learn how to operate it. She stunned station operators to steal fuel. She forced Leafweaver to cooperate.]"
"What kind of, cooperate?"
"[Streamrider was...very cruel to her.]"
"Damn. Was there anybody else with Streamrider?"
"[No. She barely was aboard a lifeboat and free before the ship exploded. Her lifeboat was also damaged, crashing in the desert south of here. She used a self-destruct to eliminate any evidence.]"
"Good, hopefully that means we won't have any more visitors until your rescue shows up."
"[I also discovered something on the database Swiftsong provided you. The deception to use you as a host was a standard contingency method Guardians are trained for if they don't expect to survive. It will be dangerous for you to be seen by the rescue ship. They will be expecting us to be alone.]"
"So much for big goodbyes. I won't put you three at risk about not using a host. As much as I hate to, I'll stay out of sight."
A pulsing whine outside the cabin startled Daria from her sleep. This was more uniform, but the sound was the same she had heard almost a year earlier. She reached to the floor beside the bed and grabbed the shield belt: no vibration from the ID disk. Nervous, Daria leapt from her bed and roused Truemind. "A ship is here. The ID unit hasn't tagged it as an enemy."
They woke up Autumnblossom and Eveningsky. Everyone dressed as quickly as possible. Autumnblossom moved to the front door. "[I'll go out first, just in case.]" She went to Daria, giving her a hug. "[I love you, mother.]"
Daria returned the embrace. "I love you, Autumnblossom." Autumnblossom went out the door.
Daria exchanged hugs and expressions of love with Eveningsky and Truemind before crawling under the bed and pulling the blanket edge down. I hate this. Hiding like a frightened cat under a bed while my children prepare to leave home for good.
Truemind crouched beside the bed and whispered, "[I am a princess and successor to the throne. The crew members will obey my directives. I will make sure we get a little private time for a proper farewell before we leave.]"
Autumnblossom came back in with a uniformed crewman. The crewman gave a formal salute. "[The Queen sends greetings of great joy that her heirs have survived such tragedy and grown to their adulthood. We are to transport you home to her gracious welcome.]"
"[I am Princess Truemind. We thank you for the greeting and hope to return our greeting to the Queen in person. We have much work to do before we can leave. The lifeboat is hidden within the body of water nearby. It, and all associated evidence, must be recovered. There are three persons buried outside. Two in plant fiber coffins are to be treated with the utmost respect and courtesy. They are heroes of the realm. The last is in a petroleum-polymer container and is to be treated as the traitor she was.]"
The crewman saluted, "[As you direct, Princess.]"
"[My sisters and I will take care of everything within this dwelling. Until we leave, this is to be considered a royal residence and nobody is to be admitted.]"
"[Please take my directions to the crew so that they may get started.]"
"[Immediately.]" The crewman turned and exited the cabin.
The next hour was a whirlwind of activity. The ship crew safely recovered the lifeboat. Swiftsong and Leafweaver's remains were exhumed and moved to the ship with a full honor guard, while the body of Streamrider was tossed into the cargo hold.
Inside, behind closed curtains, Autumnblossom, Eveningsky, and Truemind prepared to leave. Daria sat on the floor next to the bed, watching with a sad heart.
As a group, they embraced Daria. When they stepped back, Truemind spoke. "[Truelimb is our Queen, but in our hearts, you are our mother. We can never match the risk to life and happiness you took to care for us. We will never forget the lessons were learned in your school. And we will never forget the love given each of us.]"
Daria eyes were wet. "Thank you, all. You have been the most wonderful children a mother could wish for. I'm going to miss each of you. I had Jane prepare something for you during your metamorphosis." Daria pulled two photo albums from under her mattress. "I had her print copies of my childhood photos in this one. In the other, there are photos of you around here."
Truemind took them. "[Like I said, we will not forget the love you have given us. Someday, when things are safe, we promise you can visit our home, for as long as you wish.]"
"I'll like that." Daria sniffed back tears. "Better get going. You don't want any suspicions. And I don't want you to see me lose it. Please, keep yourselves safe."
All three gave a formal salute like the one the crewman used earlier. "[Farewell, Mother. When we can, we will leave messages here of how we are doing, on the anniversaries of our arrival.]"
Each slowly departed, Truemind the last, turning off the light as she left.
From the darkened window, Daria watched the ship rise and fade from view as it climbed away. Tears rolled down her face in silence as she watched the sky until the first light of dawn broke her concentration. She looked around the cabin. Memories of the last year flooded her mind. At a whisper, she said, "My stay is here is over."
Visiting the cabin on April 16th became a yearly ritual for Daria. Ostensibly, it was her "After Taxes" retreat. She would stay, alone, for a couple of days each time. On the five-year anniversary, Daria found a simply wrapped, flat package on the doorstep of the cabin. "Daria Morgendorffer" was written on the top, in Truemind's hand. Inside the cabin, she carefully opened the package. Enclosed was a thin metal sheet, with alien script, encased in a crystalline frame. In addition, there was a note, also in Truemind's written English.
We thought this should be yours. It is the first distribution copy of the new constitution. Yes, we succeeded. It took years of hard work, and there were many times we wished you were here for advice. Word of Leafweaver's choice to listen, and of her ruthless execution by Streamrider, split the rebellion, giving us the chance to do our work. There was a faction that wished to negotiate. Finding truly impartial judges was difficult, but the Reconciliation Commission has begun work to identify crimes committed by both sides of the civil war. All those not indicted by the commission will be granted amnesty. Legislative elections will be held in the coming year. Planetary Legislatures will begin work soon after, the Interplanetary Legislature will begin later, after all the delegates have traveled to the capitol.
Your people may not know about it for some years to come, but you are already called the Mother of the New Era. We all wish we could have given you this in person, but our duties cannot be abandoned for the time required.
We haven't forgotten our promise for you to visit as our guest. On each anniversary, we will send a ship to the cabin. Just let the pilot know you are ready to depart. Please tell Jane that she is welcome, too. We miss you and hope we can see you again soon.
"You have made your mother proud." Daria gently placed the plaque in her suitcase, along with the letter. She settled into the old recliner with one of her photo albums. She listened to the Brandenburg Concertos and pleasantly, slowly looked through the pages. A knock at the door startled her. Setting the album aside, she went to the door and looked through the peephole. Sighing with relief, she opened it. "Deputy O'Neal. What a pleasant surprise. Still keeping an eye on me?"
He tipped his hat and smiled. "Don't tell my wife. I'd heard you were back for your annual stay, and decided to drop by to say hello."
"Um, thanks. You know, after all this time, I've never even invited you in for coffee."
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm not supposed to accept any gifts from the public." He blushed a little and showed Daria that he was holding a copy of her recently published book, 21st Century Walden. "However, I could make one exception if you want to sign this."
Daria gave him a short laugh. "I think that can be arranged. Got a pen?"
"Oops." He removed a pen from his pocket and handed it to her.
She signed and handed both back. "Hope you like it."
"Oh, I read it on first release. Had a laugh at your comments about my punctuality."
"Well, that was something I could depend on."
As he walked back, O'Neal said over his shoulder, "Thanks for signing. You're still one of the classiest hermits we've had in these parts."
O'Neal started the truck, backed up a bit and turned toward the driveway. Stopping briefly, he looked out the window and winked at Daria. "You know, those were three fine daughters you raised." He put on dark sunglasses and left without another word.
Many thanks for support, comments and suggestions from members of PPMB during the long serialization of this story: Mahna Mahna, Isa Yo-Jo, Kristen Bealer, Decelaraptor, Mike Nassour, Ranger Thorne, nmorgendorffer, Steven Galloway, Dervish, Parker-man, Dave the Insane, Greystar, MrMagnum, mistress thea zara, Bootstrapper, et alia, and nullset.
Thanks to Galen Hardesty and Kristen Bealer for Beta reading.
Revised January 2005