Cooperative: The Destination
First Contact Again
“Cory, are you getting my feed?” James banked the ultralight as he circled the castle. “It looks worse from up here.”
“Yeah. Man, I can see where their ship crashed into the west wall.”
“Brutal.” James shook his head sadly. “They come here and fight their war on our world and destroy our heritage.” He glanced at the distant horizon at one of the vast destroyer ships hovering ominously in the haze. “And they’re still here.”
“Focus, James. I want more of the east wall.”
“Cory, I’m the one flying up here.”
“There. No, I can’t turn the camera any more. Bank some.”
James sighed as he turned the ultralight a little more. “I’m still getting into position. You know, it kinda looks like Tel’range from up here.”
“Whatever, space-boy. Bank some more. It’s a good shot. Morning sun really brings out the details.” Cory squinted at the screen. “There’s still debris embedded in the wall.”
“Must be why they’re not letting us on the grounds,” James grumbled. “It’s just wreckage.”
“Spaceship wreckage. Could be radioactive.”
“Yeah, and there could be swamp gas too.” James banked more. “I’ve been on one of those and it was just fine.”
“I heard you screamed like a child when they made the floor transparent,” Cory said, laughing. “Hey, what are you doing? I had a good shot there.”
“I’m turning to make another pass. This castle is toast, man. Just breaks my heart.”
“I don’t know. Just a couple of walls damaged. I think it can be restored,” Cory said thoughtfully.
“Hmph. Looks worse than the castle ruins I explored on Tel’range.” James banked again as he rubbed the back of his head. The headache was back. He sighed as he remembered his recent trip offworld. “I remember that castle when it was like new too. Actually looks kinda like this one.”
“Yeah yeah. You got to see an alien castle on an alien world and do some weird time travel thingie. Let’s bring it back to Earth, James. I need…Hey, wiggle the connectors on the camera, willya?”
“I miss it. There are answers there. I know it. Aris was there. We were there. Thousands of years ago. But they won’t let me go back there because of this stupid war.” James glanced down at the camera mount in the floor of the aircraft. “Wires look good.”
“Tell it to someone who hasn’t heard you whine about it a thousand times. James, I’m losing it. Signal is falling apart. Just wiggle the…it’s gone. Crap,”
“Here.” James reached down and checked the connections. “They seem tight to me.” He wiggled them again. “Are you getting anything?”
“Cory?” James looked up at the radio settings. The display was still lit.
Sighing, James sat up, then flinched. A spacecraft zoomed by, chased by another that was firing on it. “Crap!” James banked sharply. “Cory! Take cover man. It’s happening again!”
Still no answer.
James looked down out his window at the landscape. He didn’t recognize anything. “Cory?” He banked the aircraft hard as he tried to find the castle again. But there was nothing but forest below him. “Cory!” He rapped his knuckles on the radio.
A bright flash momentarily blinded him and his aircraft lurched. James saw wreckage from one of the spacecraft impacting the ground below, and noticed that part of his wing was torn off. “Cory, I’ve been hit.” James cut the engine and pulled the parachute.
A metallic pod fell past him, and another bright flash dazzled him. When his sight returned, he saw the second spacecraft flying up out of sight. The pod was in pieces as it crashed into the trees below and scattered across a clearing. James couldn’t help but grimace, imagining the state of the pilot in that pod.
“Okay, I’m about to touch down. Cory? My GPS is blank. I have no idea where I am.” James fiddled with the radio again as he glanced up at the sky. He blinked. “Oh, crap.” He gaped at the gas giant that dominated part of the sky. “It happened again.”
The landing was jarring. The ultralight crashed through the branches of trees close to the wreckage of the spacecraft. A sapling strained under the weight of the aircraft as the parachute settled in the trees beside it. James took in a deep breath, then looked up at the sky again. “I’m really here. I actually gated again.” He pulled out his cellphone and tried to dial Cory. But he had no bars. “The gate here amplifies the signal. I should have five bars” James mumbled as he looked at it. “Maybe I’m too far away. And…talking to myself. Again.”
He closed his eyes and tried to envision where he was from what he remembered. The gas giant seemed lower on the horizon, which meant he was closer to the southern hemisphere, at least according to the season. He looked out at the trees. Fresh growth. Spring. “I’m on the correct half of the planet. Maybe just the wrong side.”
He tried to visualize the gate area, by the old castle ruins, but his head hurt again, and his vision blurred. “Oh, this gating thing sucks.” He rubbed his temples and tried to relax, taking deep breaths. “Steven said to just see it and be there. Just…make it real. Maybe back home.” He tried to mentally see the damaged castle he was just surveying with Cory. He furrowed his eyebrows as he struggled to focus. “I can do this. I know I can!” He hit the console angrily, then gripped the chair as the aircraft shifted. “I should get out of this thing.”
James looked around and found a flare gun as he unhooked his harness. He wasn’t aware of any conflict on Tel’range, but after seeing what he did on Earth, he wasn’t taking any chances. He reached back behind him and grabbed his survival backpack and jumped the few feet to the ground.
The ultralight shifted in the sapling and James had to jump back as it fell to the ground in a crumpled heap. “Well, you’re not flying again.” He sighed. “Cory is going to be ticked.”
He looked at the smoke coming from the neighboring crash site and gripped the flare gun. “Don’t go towards the evil spaceship, James. Nothing good will happen. Just walk away.” He squinted. “I’m not walking away. Why am I not walking away?” He frowned as he set off towards it.
The wreckage of the spacecraft was still smoking when James stumbled out of the underbrush. He kept the flare gun out in front of him as he tried to sneak past the various pieces of the wreckage. He heard a cough and crouched as he snuck up on the source.
The pilot of the spacecraft lay on the ground, with what looked like a rod of metal impaling his leg. James grimaced again, trying his best not the empathize with the pain. For all he knew, he was looking at the enemy. As he approached, the pilot sat up and looked at him. James couldn’t see through the pilot’s visor, however. The pilot seemed to look around frantically, then tried to scoot back as James kept him covered with his flare gun.
The rod caught on something and the pilot screamed in agony. James blinked. That was the scream of a woman. He squinted and noticed hints of a feminine shape under the flight-suit. He glanced back at the rod and couldn’t stand it anymore. His own leg almost hurt as he looked at it. “Wait. Wait!” James lowered his flare gun and held up a hand. “See? Look, I’m lowering my gun.”
The pilot held her leg as James walked closer to her. She looked around again, and James noticed a short sword near the wreckage of the pod. It was too far away for her to reach, however, and she returned her attention on him, then lay back, as if resigned to her fate.
James knelt down beside her as he tucked the flare gun into his backpack. “See? Not going to shoot you.” He looked at her leg. “That’s going to have to come out, though.”
She did not respond. James reached into his pack and pulled out his first aid kit. “Just be happy I have this.” He pulled his knife from his pocket and carefully grabbed her leg. “I’m going to have to cut your pants…hey, stop.”
The pilot tried to pull away and James had to grab her leg tightly. She gasped in agony. James made a face. “I’m sorry, but you’re making it worse.”
He looked at her then pointed to the rod with his knife. “I’m going to cut your pants away.” He made a motion with his knife and pulled at her pants a little. The pilot seemed frozen. After a brief moment, James carefully cut her pants where the rod impaled her leg. “Okay. It’s through the side of your thigh, and…you have fur.”
The pilot remained motionless as James inspected the wound. “It’s mostly under your skin. Probably not much muscle damage even. No arteries.” He shook his head as he grabbed an antiseptic spray and applied it to the entry and exit wounds and part of the rod. He looked at the pilot then pointed at the section of rod below her leg. “I’m going to grab that and pull it straight out.” He made a pulling motion with his hand. “Please tell me you understand my Common.”
The pilot did not move.
“Right. Okay.” James sprayed the rod on the upper part of her leg again. “This will make it go through faster and disinfect the wound as I pull it through. It’s a clean rod, so it should be quick and easy.” He glanced at her as she remained frozen. “Okay, I am going to put your leg up on my shoulder to elevate it.”
Still no response.
James tenderly lifted her leg until he had it secured on his shoulder. The pilot squirmed a little from the pain and he held up a hand. “On three, okay?” He held up three fingers, then folded one finger at a time as he counted down. After the last finger, he gripped her leg tightly and yanked the rod out. The pilot screamed, but he held her leg tightly as he dropped the rod and put his hand on the wound. “See? It’s not even bleeding that much.” He looked at the leg again and shook his head. “Your fur looks Elvish.” He looked up at the pilot who was frozen again, seemingly staring at him. He wondered how she could see through what looked like an opaque visor. “Are you an Elf?” He hoped his Elvish was understandable.
The pilot reached up and disengaged her helmet and threw it to the side as she stared at him, her already large eyes opened wide. “You…you know me?”
James gaped and almost dropped her leg. “Aris?”
Aris returned his stunned look.
“But…” James looked around. “I’m back. Not just back, but back back.” He laughed a little as he looked up at the sky. “I made it back. I’m really here. I can’t tell you how long I have been trying.”
“You’re not human?”
James felt a hand on his as he kept pressure on her wound. He pursed his lips, remembering what the Younger had told him. She wouldn’t know him. “No. Yes, but no. Not what you know as human. I’m from Earth…Terra. I’m Terran.” He looked at his backpack. “I don’t have anything for your pain. Nothing that’ll work on Elves anyway.”
“Why are you helping me?” Aris asked quietly. “You’re…not us.”
“Because we are…” James stopped as he inspected the wound. They were apparently not life-mates yet. “You are injured. What am I supposed to do?”
Aris squinted at him. “James?”
James looked at her, startled. Did she remember him? But, according to the Younger, they had not even met yet. Maybe he didn’t go back far enough? He found the differences in the timeline discombobulating. What he knew of her was after she had known him for years. They were married. But now, they were meeting for the first time, again. He sighed as he looked at her. The last time he had met her was confusing for him. This time was turning out little better. “Is it actually happening? Finally? I’ve looked for you since the last time. Is it really a hundred thousand years ago?”
“Your memories…I am having trouble making sense of them.”
“Oh, that.” James looked at her hand, disappointed. No, she did not know him after all. “Well, we’re not enemies, if you’re worried about that.” He looked up in the sky. “But, why would you think I was your enemy?”
“You don’t know about the war?” Aris shifted a little, wincing as she did.
“Keep that leg elevated.” James held it on his shoulder. “There was a war on Terra. Between the Sadari and the Cooperative. Made a real mess. That’s the only one I know of.”
Aris shook her head. “I’m not familiar with Terra.”
James opened his mouth, then shut it. He didn’t know much about the universe Aris lived in. The Cooperative he knew was over a hundred thousand years old and did not seem to exist yet. “Well, it’s a planet in another galaxy far away, a long time from now.” He smirked as he remembered a similar statement from a movie.
He felt a hand on his cheek. “You seem to know me. But not know me.”
“Yeah. It’s been a pretty weird year.” James smiled wanly. He reached into the medical kit and pulled out a couple of bandages. “I think it’s just oozing now.” He looked and gave the entry and exit points another spray of the antiseptic, then placed the bandages over the wounds. “I hope your fur doesn’t screw things up.”
“Who is the Younger?”
James glanced up. “Well, I guess we haven’t met her yet in this timeline. But we will. I certainly have a lot of questions for her.” He wrapped gauze around her leg to hold the bandages tight to the wounds. “We really need to get you to a doctor. I wish Enos’rel were here.”
“I see him in your memories, but I don’t understand,” Aris said.
“He’s an Elf. Like you. Steven introduced me to him. Sort of.” James sat back as something dawned on him. “Are you fighting humans?”
“This planet is in contention.” Aris said.
“I thought Tel’range was under Elvish jurisdiction?” James looked around. “But this is ancient history, I guess. Oh God, I’m really here.” He shook his head. “Where I come from, you guys are all friends. Family even. Steven’s father is human. Mother is an Elf. But he has fur. Like you. You guys were at war with the Sadari. Not each other.”
Aris just looked at him, confused.
“An ancient enemy that is probably not so ancient to you yet,” James mumbled. “There was a gate on this side of the planet. I was going to look at the stars tonight to figure out where it is.”
“You know…created by Gatekeepers. Lets us travel to other planets.” James waved a hand. He looked down. “You really haven’t met the Younger yet, have you?”
“There is a portal over this planet that we use.” Aris said, looking up. “We don’t know who created it, but it’s impossibly old. The humans use another portal. There are several more portals too but the humans guard them.”
James looked up thoughtfully. “Which would be why this planet is in contention.” He sighed. “This is so different from what I imagined.”
“You’ve been here before?” Aris kept her hand on his as he pulled the cut parts of her pants over the gauze to help keep it in place.
James sighed as he looked at her hand. “Elves.” He rubbed his eyes. “You can see it. Why ask?”
“Because I don’t understand what I’m seeing,” Aris said.
“Yeah, well, I don’t much understand it either.” James sat down next to her and inspected the rest of her. “I’m stunned you survived that attack.”
Aris glanced at the debris that was scattered across the clearing. “I should not have.”
James regarded her for a long moment. “We need to find the Younger.”
“Who is that?”
“You introduced me to her. I guess a few years from now.” He looked around. “There’s a cave we can shelter in for the night. Is anyone going to come looking for you?”
Aris pursed her lips.
“I was not supposed to come. It has been forbidden.”
“I wonder why,” James said sarcastically as he looked at the wreckage.
“The dreams would not stop. I was losing my mind. I had to be here,” Aris said quietly. “And, now I am sharing this secret with you. You are not even us. Who are you?”
James smiled sadly. “A pawn in someone else’s game, apparently. When I first met you, we…had known each other for a very long time. Or you knew me, at least. I was just a guy at an art market in Seattle until I ended up…here. You even had that sword.” He nodded to the weapon. “Now it appears to be the other way around. I know you, but you don’t know me.”
“We have never met. But your memories are so clear,” Aris said quietly. “You are an anomaly, James. And you have no fur.”
“No. I’ve met an anomaly. I don’t remotely compare to him.” James grinned as he self-consciously rubbed his arms. He had always thought he was on the furry side for a Terran.
Aris just looked at him.
“I guess you had to be there.” James looked down. He shook his head. “You’re not going to walk, so I’m going to pick you up, okay?”
No answer. James took that as confirmation. He carefully lowered her leg off his shoulder and stood up. “It might hurt a little, but I’ll be careful.”
Aris continued to stare at him. James knelt down and put an arm under her shoulder, with her arm wrapped around his back, and another arm under her leg above the wound, then with a grunt, stood up. He was surprised and almost tripped backwards. She was much lighter than he would have imagined.
“Please don’t drop me,” Aris asked as her grip on his back tightened.
“Forgot that Elves were very light.” James smiled sheepishly. He picked his way carefully towards the cave and ducked in under the tree roots that mostly covered the entrance. “I can’t see in here. Anyone home?”
Aris shook her head. “I don’t sense anything close. But the cave is deep.”
“I wish I had your eyes,” James said as his vision slowly adapted to the dark interior. “Okay, setting you down here.” He knelt down and tenderly set her down. “You okay?”
Aris didn’t answer. She stared at him as he adjusted her.
“I need to grab my backpack. Is there anything I should look for out there?” James waited. But he still didn’t get an answer. “Okay then.” He jogged back to the crash site and packed up the first-aid kit back into the backpack. He glanced and noticed the sword. He shouldered the backpack and grabbed the weapon and looked around again. Nothing presented itself as anything that resembled useful technology. Most of it was scorched or fragmented. “I really can’t believe she survived.”
He looked up at the darkening sky, then trudged back to the cave. “Here. You seemed attached to this.” James put the sword down next to Aris. She looked at it, then back at him, a confused look on her face. James sighed. “I know you don’t believe me…”
“I don’t understand you,” Aris interrupted as she put the sword in her lap.
James shrugged. “Neither do I.” He looked outside the cave. “You’re at war with people who look like me.”
“They look like you?” Aris sat up straighter.
“You’ve never seen a human?” James blinked, surprised.
Aris shook her head.
“How did you know to be afraid of me?”
“You don’t have fur.”
James slumped. “Yes. Humans look like me. Which is interesting, because on Terra, we refer to ourselves as humans. But we’re Terrans.” James scratched his arm, thinking for a moment. “Where…when I came from, you’re not enemies. I just can’t understand how this is happening.”
“When?” Aris shifted.
James knelt down and dug in the soil of the cave with his hands. “We need a fire.”
“You’re avoiding my question.”
“I guess I am.” James pulled some dead roots from the entrance of the cave and broke them up and set up a little pile in the shallow pit. He sat back and rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a lighter. “Aris, I don’t really understand it myself.” He lit some bark and shoved it under the pile of wood.
“You must try.” Aris shifted then winced.
“Careful there,” James said. He took in a breath. “The Younger said I was not…attached to time. Where I come from is over a hundred thousand years from now. None of you are fighting each other. And there are a lot more of you. Many worlds.” He took another breath as he collected his thoughts. “And she said that I was a Gatekeeper, though currently I’m not in control. At all.”
“Gatekeeper?” Aris cocked her head.
“Those portals you were talking about?” James looked out the entrance of the cave into the sky. “People like me created those.”
“You’re the Portal Master?” Aris’s eyes widened.
“No.” James held up his hands, laughing nervously. “Those are not mine. People like me can create a gate but we have to consciously maintain it.” James looked down and poked at the fire with a stick. “Steven Crow, he can create a gate and it just stays there. I think someone like him created those.”
“You read my mind.” James grinned. Then he frowned. “I guess you did, didn’t you?”
“You are still a mystery to me, James.”
“Yeah, well, that’s part of my mystique.” James grinned as he sat back, waggling his eyebrows. “I’m a mystery.”
Aris giggled. It was music to his ears and he smiled widely. He was finally home.