“She wanted me to clean her teeth,” Steven said. He made a face and grimaced.
“Elves help each other clean and groom,” Sirel said sourly as she worked. She tried not to sound impatient, but Steven’s chatter was distracting her for some reason.
“Well, I know that. We help each other in the shower…” Steven winced. “I mean I help her with her fur,” Steven said quickly, hoping he didn’t cross a line by discussing that. But it wasn’t like anything else was happening. Nor was there any pressure to do anything. He found that enormously perplexing. But it seemed normal to her. He shook his head, hoping to push on. “But teeth? Never in a million years did I think that would be expected of me.”
“You are a peculiar creature, Steven Crow,” Sirel said, noticing his embarrassment. She shook her head, bemused, as she brought up another data display.
“What is that? Is that mine?” Steven squinted at the data that floated around her, eager to change the topic. He poked at an interface and Sirel zapped his hand, making him yelp.
“Your stroke of luck has been difficult to replicate,” Sirel grumbled as she moved the interface back. She glanced at him and took in a deep breath, trying to quell her annoyance.
“Luck? Really? I call it inspiration,” Steven grinned. “You’re tapping into my flash drive wrong. Watch.” He moved the interface back and twisted it. Neighboring interfaces lit up. Sirel scowled as she looked at what he did. “That’s not going to be enough. We cannot depend on your flash drives. They simply do not have enough capacity.” Sirel moved one of the interfaces, cutting the connection it had made with the Sadari network.
“You sent my stuff off to the Ordan, didn’t you? Shouldn’t our new computers be here by now?” Steven glanced around at the floating crates of supplies that were being guided to their barn.
“The Rosteran mills are exhaustive in their reverse engineering, Steven. It does not happen overnight.”
“‘Superior beings’ my butt,” Steven smirked.
Sirel bopped him on the back of the head, causing sparks to fly. Steven laughed, leaning on the table as he rubbed his hair back down, then sobered as a Keratian set a case down on the table in front of Sirel. He gave Steven a chilly sideways glance as he walked back to the shipment.
“I wish they didn’t hate me,” Steven sighed. He looked at Sirel for a moment. While the Faerie was usually effervescent, he could tell she was subdued when around him. “Do you hate me?”
“I tolerate you,” Sirel said absentmindedly as she opened the crate.
“I’ll take that. Better than being chased and shot at,” Steven said glumly. He poked around the crate and pulled out a small brass cylinder, then pulled out more. “The prototypes made it! We were just talking about these!”
“Astute observation,” Sirel said sarcastically as she grabbed one that he placed on the table while she shut the displays from her old computer down.
“Now you sound like Lohet,” Steven mumbled as he rolled one of the computers on the picnic table.
Sirel frowned as she closed the last of her displays down. She glanced at Steven, feeling a little guilty for her shortness with him.
“Still find it hard to believe that these computers are alive.” Steven held one up to the sun and squinted at it. “Little brains embedded in an itty bitty life support system.” He wrapped his palm around it. “Can’t tell it from the old ones.”
“Make sure you return the old computer for recycling,” Sirel said as she finalized the data transfer and put her old computer in the crate. “These are not prototypes.”
“You know, I never really paid these much attention when I was helping Asherah with her homework.” He shook his head. “It’s kinda like my flash drives.” They were a little bigger than the flash drives, but he could still easily put one in his pocket.
“With an order of magnitude more power, sweetie,” Sirel giggled as she activated the new computer. She pulled up a holographic display and familiarized herself with changes in the system. As she worked the computer she noticed that Steven was grinning at her.
“You don’t have to touch the new units to activate them,” Steven said, smirking.
Sirel looked at him sourly for a long moment, and Steven shifted in his seat nervously as he looked away. They had been stuck with twenty year old technology while he had been able to play with the latest computers while helping Asherah with her homework. Sirel shook her head. “There was a time many centuries ago when we had to actually press a button to activate them.” She leaned towards Steven, squinting. “And even before that when we actually used physical screens.”
Steven shrugged and looked at his hands. “Sorry.” Even their older computers were miles beyond anything they had on Earth. Terra. Steven made a mental note to try to think of Earth as the Cooperative thought of it. Terra.
Sighing, he fiddled with the computer and looked for a way to open it. He found the removable core that was identical to the one he had helped Asherah with. Virtually nothing externally had changed with the new computers. Even so, the core was still hermetically sealed and Steven sighed as he squinted at it, looking for a way in. “Very tight. How do they work on these?”
Sirel waved at him impatiently as she worked, and Steven continued to play with the computer. He sorely wished he could open one up further to get a closer look. He put it back together and looked at the ornately decorated brass-like tube in the sun. The craftsmanship was immaculate in both function and appearance. “Like little pieces of art, right in your…”
“Are you really that fascinated by these?” Sirel turned to face him, exasperated. “You’ve been using one for five years.”
“Yeah. Well, I really didn’t know it then,” Steven stammered, startled by Sirel’s outburst.
“Where’s Asherah? Usually you two are glued to each other.” Sirel returned her attention to her data exchange.
“Um, she’s helping Mom and Migalo,” Steven fidgeted and nodded towards the house, “over there.”
“Go bother her then,” Sirel quipped.
Steven slumped and rubbed his neck, deflated. Sirel looked around then at him. “What? Why are you pestering me?”
“It’s quiet here,” Steven said timidly.
“It’s quiet over with Lohet, too. Or…”
Steven shook his head. “No. And he’s off helping Tor’eng with something anyway. And Dad left for Syagria with some Elf. Ambri’a, I think.” Steven shrugged. He looked at the gate he had created in their neighboring pasture. It was much closer and more convenient than the meadow gate.
“You don’t have training yet?” Sirel asked, shaking her head. She knew the answer but hoped that maybe he had some sort of pre-training duties.
“No. I think Lohet’s working on the curriculum.” Steven rubbed his hands on his pants. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just, when I’m around you and not the others, it’s quiet. My headache is gone and the buzzing noise is almost gone. That’s all. I’ll stop talking, I promise.”
Sirel glared at Steven for a long, uncomfortable moment, then turned back to her displays. “Entering into the Sadari network is very dangerous, Steven. I need to concentrate.”
Steven fidgeted again and looked around, not sure if he should just leave. He could go to his tree house, but even there it wasn’t as quiet. Somehow, Sirel’s presence seemed to dull his constant annoying headache and buzzing. He opened up a new display and put it to work parsing the Ordan version of his Sadari network access.
As the computer worked, he glanced at Sirel while she worked and got the impression that she was actively ignoring him. After several minutes, he picked up the computer again and traced the ornate design with his finger. “These were made in the Rosteran mills, huh? I have got to meet these people. The Ordan. Cool name.” Steven stopped when he noticed Sirel fidgeting.
Sirel glanced at him and sighed. She had no idea why he was getting on her nerves. In spite of being a deviant, representing a constant reminder of the loss of her homeworld, Steven was still very much a kid, and annoyingly likable at that.
“Yes. Very clever people. They would be the source of the dwarf legends here on Terra.” She leaned over. “But I’m small, and you’ve seen what I can do.” She reached out and touched Steven and suddenly his hair stood straight up and he zapped everything he touched.
“Hey, I’ve got a computer here!” Steven brushed his hair down again. He looked at his interfaces, worried the programs he had running were corrupted.
“Not to worry, sweetie.” Sirel giggled at him mischievously and winked. “They’re Faerie proof.”
Steven got quiet as he looked through the blocks of data that floated around him at the aliens bringing supplies through the gate. “They think I’m a monster. You do, too. I can sense it.”
“It will take time to overcome ancient prejudices, Steven.” Sirel looked at her fingers, remembering she had touched him. He no doubt read her through that touch. She wondered if he picked up on her inner conflict. “You know the trouble we have had with deviants. Penipe showed you.”
“Yeah. That’s me.” Steven slumped. “How many are homeless because of me?”
Sirel pursed her lips, unsure of what direction to take the conversation. Steven did cause the quake, after all.
He looked down at his hands as he absentmindedly played with the computer. “I see them in my dreams. The orphans. I want to fix it. I need to. They didn’t deserve that.”
“Steven,” Sirel shook her head, “what can you do to fix that? Take them figs?”
Steven shrugged. “It was all I had. We did have a bumper crop this season.”
“I didn’t mean that literally,” Sirel frowned.
He scratched his nose and sighed. “A few weeks ago I was just some kid everyone wanted to chase. Now…”
“You’re still the same person. Just a kid,” Sirel said, looking at Steven sternly.
Steven shrugged noncommittally. “Asherah wants to go home. They hate me there, too. Just a kid, right? Not.”
Sirel turned to manage her displays. “One day they might not hate you. Perhaps they’ll see the same annoying kid that I do.” She glanced at him sideways.
“This is the only place that feels like home. I don’t really…” Steven sighed and shrugged. He looked at her. He wanted to tell someone that he didn’t want to leave, but hesitated to come right out and say it.
“This is all you’re familiar with, Steven,” Sirel said. She smiled and poked him, causing little bolts of static electricity to jump from his fingers. Steven squirmed and tried not to grin. He looked at the data again. A faint, almost imperceptible rumble distracted him and he looked around, then up.
“Oh, snap! Is that a gunship?”
Sirel looked at him then up. “You can see it? It’s cloaked.”
Steven cocked his head. “I see the cloaking, too. Kinda shimmery. But that thing is easy to see. Big, mean looking.”
Steven closed his eyes and grinned, “Oh, freaky. I can see it that way too.” He opened his eyes and squinted up at the gunship. “But, I can also see it with my eyes.” Steven looked around at the Keratians that had been quietly working on the property, then back up at the ship hovering overhead. “Are they here because of me?”
“We are about to access the Sadari network.” Sirel looked nervous as she regarded him. “They might not appreciate that.”
“They never gave me any problems when I was hacking them.” Steven frowned as he glanced at her then looked back up at the gunship. “These guys think I’m going to crack and break the Earth, don’t they?”
“They…you didn’t… I think you didn’t have problems because…” Sirel shut her mouth and looked down. “You actually see through the cloak. That might be a problem.”
“What else do you see?” Sirel looked up.
“I see everything. Stars, planets. Dust mites. I ignore it, mostly. But, it’s all right there, and so much smaller than I thought it would be, but still, there is just so much out there,” Steven said, sober. “It scares me. And it’s so noisy all the time. I mean, it’s like I live right next to an airport or something.”
“No, Steven. I meant, the Sadari. Have you seen one of their golem ships?”
Steven looked at her blankly.
Sirel shook her head. “They have cloaking, too. If you can see them, they might not appreciate that either.”
“And that would be…bad?” Steven queried.
“I do not know about your noise problem, but Gatekeepers experience something similar, being able to see through the Fracture. The cloaking isn’t as effective over in the Cooperative because they can see right through it, if, you know…” Sirel pointed at her temple, “if Gatekeepers look with their inner eye.” She frowned, looking up at what appeared like clear sky. “But, here they are largely blinded by the Sadari blocking. They can’t even see our own gunships, much less the Sadari golem ships.” Sirel took in a breath and looked at Steven. “You, you are special,” she said hesitantly.
Steven looked at her and saw that she was uncomfortable telling him about what he was. A change in subject could help. He looked around, then back at her. “Ordan are Dwarves, huh? What about others? Elves, Faeries, Trolls, Selkies, even our vampire stories?” Steven moved the data around him so he could see her better between the networks the computer was scanning.
Sirel looked at him shrewdly, recognizing a diversion, but she didn’t press the issue. She took another breath, glanced at her displays then relaxed a little. “Terrans have seen us before. In very, very ancient times. Our own legends tell of a time when there was no need for Gatekeepers. When all of the worlds were joined and we traveled freely,” She closed her eyes as she remembered. “They called it flat. The world was flat.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Steven tried not to gape. How could such advanced creatures ever believe that?
She peeked at Steven with an eye, then opened both her eyes and grinned. “It wasn’t really flat, silly. That was just how we referred to it. Something happened that shook the universe to the core and suddenly we were cut off. The gates disappeared and the worlds were lost. A goddess called the Younger returned the gates to us, but with limits. Only a few of us were able to manipulate them, and we had to actively keep them open. Then we started finding those lost worlds again. That is the Cooperative.”
Sirel returned her attention to her new computer when one of the displays changed color. She started several diagnostic tests on it, pursing her lips as she worked. Steven shook his head, sighing as he looked at her. Sirel glanced at him and Steven suddenly realized he was staring. “Sorry. I’m just…well, you’re an…” Steven looked down.
“An alien?” Sirel said, looking at him coyly and batting her eyes.
“Yeah. I’m still having trouble with that, too,” Steven stammered. “But it all feels so normal. That drives me nuts. Everything, aliens in my head, flying over us, zapping me. And it’s all just normal.”
Sirel shook her head. “That’s because you’ve been playing with an alien since you were ten years old, silly.” She leaned closer to him. “And you’ve been bonded with her for three of those years.”
Steven nodded. “That’s different. I never saw her as an alien. I still don’t.” Steven sighed and Sirel mussed his hair before she got back to work.
She glanced at him as he continued to stare. “Aliens are supposed to be creepy insect-like creatures?”
“Yeah. Something like that. Or evil robots or lizards or something. Blobs of plasma. You look like a regular girl even. Until you smile. Or you float up or zap something.” Steven pulled his hair out of his eyes. “I’m surprised you’re not in the house sitting on the ceiling.”
“I will be as soon as I finish running checks on these new computers,” Sirel said.
“You know what I’m talking about. You all look like…just different versions of humans. Or something.”
Sirel giggled, shaking her head. “You’ve only seen a scant few of us, child. We were chosen because we were better able to assimilate into Terran society.” She leaned towards Steven conspiratorially. “Have you noticed that Migalo shaved? His fur is coming back, though.” She grinned as she returned her attention to her displays. “If you look just a little further, you’ll see your aliens.”
Steven blinked. The computer had given him a mental alert. He looked up at the data and found that the application he had initiated had located the Sadari network and was already starting to parse the millions of data threads the network contained.
“I’m on.” Steven looked at the Sadari network as it expanded around him like a giant mass of pulsating threads. “Oh, this is fantastic!”
He looked at Sirel who was organizing her own representation of the Sadari network. “Do you think they know we’re on?”
“We won’t know until I get into their security infrastructure.” Sirel worked feverishly, digging deeper into their network while Steven hesitated. She had quickly and seamlessly joined the resources of both of their computers and they both shared the same interface and data hanging around them. Steven poked at one, and Sirel slapped his hand and continued working.
Sirel looked at him sideways. “You’re bored and thinking too much. It’s making you depressed. So, parse this. I need you to map these threads and figure out why they kept getting cut. You’re good at algorithms.” She moved a representation of a collection of data towards him. “Here are the patterns I need you to look for.” She pointed. Steven nodded and got to work, finally feeling useful.
It wasn’t long before Asherah ran out of the house and looked down the drive. Steven sat up straight and followed her gaze. He got the impression that someone was soon to arrive. “What’s up?”
She smiled, hopping with excitement. “Moringa’s on her way here.”
“Really? How can you tell?” Steven scratched his head.
Asherah glanced at him. “She’s a Selkie. They broadcast. I can see the road she’s on.”
Steven looked at her blankly. Asherah rolled her eyes then closed them. Suddenly Steven saw what Asherah was referring to in his mind’s eye, the view from the passenger side of Brandon’s Mustang as if he was sitting in the bucket seat himself. It was like he was looking out the window, then looking back to his childhood friend.
“Wow. That’s really weird,” Steven said.
Asherah just grinned and looked down the driveway expectantly. Moringa had been her best friend on Endard throughout her childhood and she was always delighted to see her. Steven was starting to pick up on the broadcast on his own now that he knew about it and watched as they turned off the highway, completely amazed. He was already familiar with seeing like that through Asherah, Lorei, and Penipe. But it felt different with Moringa..
“I can almost… she did that? That’s her? I think they’re arguing about something,” Steven said. Asherah nodded. It didn’t seem like a heated argument, but Brandon was clearly confused and her responses weren’t helping any. Steven felt for him. Brandon had been his best friend for as long as he could remember, but he had been thrust into the alien environment quite suddenly and was no doubt still shell shocked from it all. At the same time, Brandon grew up on science fiction, absorbing it while his nerdy friend kept his face in his computers and only watched peripherally. Steven grinned, finding it ironic that Brandon might actually adjust to aliens better than himself.
They pulled up the drive and Brandon got out of the car, waving at them. Moringa jumped out and ran to Asherah, giving her an enthusiastic embrace. Steven couldn’t help but be transfixed by the vivid hues that covered her skin. Noticing his rapt attention, she winked at him with both eyes and gave him a lingering hug.
“I missed you. Both of you,” she said, looking back over at Asherah. In English, but with a thick accent that Steven couldn’t quite place. Baltic perhaps? Brandon was a better teacher than he would have guessed. It had only been a few days. Moringa grinned. “I can hear his thoughts when I touch him. It made it a lot easier to learn,” she thought to him.
Steven flinched and gaped at her. “You, too? Is everyone in everyone’s mind?”
Moringa giggled, looking at Steven with a big smile. “You’re funny. I like you.”
“That’s what she said when we first met. I’m thinking I need to be less funny,” Steven said ruefully, nodding at Asherah. She kicked him and he winced, grinning mischievously.
Moringa gave him another hug, then stepped back. “I’m glad you turned out to be real. And safe.” Moringa cocked her head. “You don’t seem like a monster to me.”
“Well, thank you?” Steven grimaced.
Moringa giggled and poked Steven in the ribs. She sighed, looking at both of them. “Terra isn’t what I had expected.”
Asherah shook her head. “It’s been,” she glanced sideways at Steven, “something to get used to.”
Steven knew exactly what she meant and he grew up there, albeit out in the rural sticks. The city was another realm altogether.
“Their shuttles scare me,” Moringa said quietly. “They use wheels and Terrans have ripped up nature to make paths for them. It’s horrible.”
Steven cocked his head. “Shuttles? You mean cars?”
Moringa shrugged, looking down. “They also re-enact violent acts. Wars. Murders. For entertainment.” She shifted her weight, subdued.
Steven squinted at her. “Re-enact…are you talking about movies? They’re just movies. Pretend.”
Brandon caught up with Moringa before she could respond, grinning. “Okay, finally. Someone who understands.”
Steven looked at him quizzically.
“Could you please explain to Moringa why we wear swimsuits when we swim?” Brandon threw up his hands.
“What?” Steven wasn’t expecting that.
“Okay, we clean up the pool at our cabin. Filled it up. Salt water system instead of chlorine, just for my sweetie.” He waggled his eyebrows at Moringa, who elbowed him. “Big pool party. Parents. Business associates. We get out there to go for our very first swim and what does she do? Strips down nekkid and dives in!” He looked at Moringa up and down. She was very shapely and covered from head to toe with exotic, colorful patterns that had passed for extreme tattoos or body paint there on Earth. “That hotness! Naked! In front of my parents and their guests!”
Steven looked at Moringa who shrugged, then at Asherah, who raised her eyebrows, perplexed. Asherah looked at Brandon, confused. “What’s wrong with that? Who wears clothing when they swim?”
“Wait, you’re serious?” Steven got the impression from her of just how weird it seemed to her and he gaped at her, surprised and a little embarrassed.
“Really? Really? You, too? Okay, it gets worse. Now my parents are swimming like that!” Brandon blushed and shook his head.
“I think you like it, Brandon,” Steven grinned.
“That’s the problem. Looking at her, I really, really like it.” Brandon blushed even redder and hip-bumped Moringa, who giggled. He went off to the picnic table as Steven’s adoptive mother brought out refreshments. “Hello, Sally,” Brandon helped her put the bowls down, looking in each one for a snack.
“You know, not too long ago Jonah and I used to skinny dip at a quarry pond down in California. I really miss those days,” Sally said innocently as she arranged the bowls.
“Oh, not you, too! Really?” Brandon exclaimed as he sat down at the table. “I’m still trying to unsee my parents!” He sighed, shaking his head. “And their friends.”
“Terrans,” Steven said to Moringa, rolling his eyes.
“He’s cute when he’s annoyed. And he changes colors more than anyone I’ve seen!” Moringa said, beaming at Brandon as he found the bowl of honey-dipped figs. Skipping over to him, she sat in his lap and nibbled a fig from his hand as he grinned.
Asherah put her arm under Steven’s and leaned against him as he looked down at his life-mate.
“You and me. We need to go swimming sometime,” Steven said, grinning as he waggled his eyebrows. Asherah winked at him and walked off to help Sally. Steven got an image from her of a hot spring on her home planet and felt her get excited over the prospect of swimming there. Of course, with their bond, there were no longer any secrets or any illusion of modesty. But Steven still found the idea tantalizing.
Sirel poked Steven. “We need to get back to work.”
“What? You actually want me around now?” Steven glanced back at his family and friends, then followed Sirel back to their table where she was working on filtering the Sadari network.
“I want to see that algorithm in action,” Sirel said, pointing at what Steven had been working on.
He rubbed his eyes as he changed his focus to the task at hand. “Okay, I have some ideas about trapping streams so they don’t get cut on us. I think it’s not that we’re getting booted, but my hardware was suffering from some buffering limitations. They all seem to cut out after about the same duration.” He sat down next to Sirel and she put her elbows on his shoulders as she hovered up behind him, floating weightlessly as she watched Steven manipulate the threads of data and how their computers interpreted them. “Their network is ingenious. We need to duplicate it for our own needs.”
“The Ordan are already working to glean anything useful from it,” Sirel said as she reached out and adjusted one of the settings Steven implemented. Steven slapped her hand playfully and she bopped him on the back of the head again, making his hair stand up straight.
“You guys have the best toys,” Steven said absentmindedly as he dug deep into the Sadari network, already concocting new search algorithms to resume his hunt for his parents.