29 And Back to the Moon

When Jonephs entered in the morning, John was making bacon and eggs.

"I hope Anyari are not vegetarians, you in particular. If so, we'll have to change the plan for breakfast."

"There might be as many dietary traditions on Anyar as on Earth. Our meat products, for the most part, are cultured rather than grown and slaughtered, but we have not grown squeamish."

Zeke came in, his mood still somber, but he said good morning and sat down to eat.

"Eggs and bacon," he said. "The food on Anyar is surprisingly good, but nothing smells like frying bacon," and he almost smiled.

They sat down to eat and John asked, "So what is the plan today?"

Zeke didn't respond, so Jonephs answered, "That depends upon you and Zeke. Someone is waiting to meet you, but the situation has changed, and we came prepared to be flexible." He looked at Zeke.

Zeke didn't say anything for a minute. "I would like to visit Grandma's grave." He paused for a few moments. "That is all I need. We can go to see the general after that."

"You are sure?" Jonephs asked. "We understand this is difficult for you. It would be for any of us. Another day or two would not be unreasonable."

"A day or two won't make any difference. There are things to be done."

"Grandpa," he said, "I've thought a lot about how it would be to show you the things I've seen. I don't think it will be quite as I'd imagined it now, but my head knows what is important. My heart--I'm not so sure about."

"We will not want to leave until after dark unless it becomes urgent to do so. Our technology is good, but not good enough to leave during daylight," Jonephs said.

"Maybe we can show Jonephs the sites around Council Grove. We could take him to the Saddlerock for lunch," Zeke suggested.

John pointed out, "We could explain 'Jonas' being here, but it would not be so easy to explain you. We didn't really know if you'd left under duress, so we got the police involved. I think any attention is more than you want right now."

Zeke nodded agreement. "Is it safe to go to the cemetery?

"I think so, and I think it is important enough even if it were a little risky. It is a cold February day, I can't imagine anyone is out there today."

They finished breakfast. Zeke and Jonephs cleaned the table while John went to the shed to warm up the car.

The car crunched on the packed snow as his grandfather pulled up. The heater fan was on full as they opened the car doors. Zeke motioned Jonephs into the front seat, Zeke took the back.

"If we see someone, Zeke, I think you should duck down, I don't want to have to make explanations. I don't know how long we'd be delayed."

As they pulled onto the highway near town, Zeke noticed that Jonephs was uncharacteristically tense and he asked why.

"When you get to the paved road, the speed at which you travel will be much higher, maybe one hundred kilometers per hour?"

"Yes," John answered.

"There will be cars going the other way at a similar speed?"

"Probably," he agreed.

"With no divider separating the lanes, just a few meters of roadway separating the opposing lanes?"

"Well, yes. It does sound like a poorly designed system, doesn't it? I will be careful and attentive, and few will be on the road today."

That seemed to calm Jonephs a bit, but not completely.

The trip was short. The drive into the cemetery had not been cleared so John stopped the car just off the road and they got out. The cemetery had few trees to break the wind, so their faces were stung by the cold. John led the way across the brown grass that stuck out above the snow, with Zeke and Jonephs following.

The headstone of Anna Taylor was out away from the others. John brushed snow from the flat top and stood by Zeke as they looked at her grave. The stone had an empty place and the grave was offset from the marker, leaving an empty spot beside it. Zeke chose not to dwell on that. He had as much as he could deal with facing him now.

"She knew that I loved her? That I loved you both? That you were my parents?" he asked his grandfather. "I'm not sure I realized how much until now. I don't think I ever really told her."

John spoke softly to his grandson, "She knew. She never had any doubts. You know I didn't share her religious beliefs, but her memory still touches us. I think it always will. I choose to believe that something of her lives on in us."

Tears again filled Zeke's eyes. The cold wind made them uncomfortable and he had to cover his face with his hands.

Jonephs stood silently behind them. The traditions he knew were different, but today none of that mattered.

Zeke looked around, "Is my mother here? I know I never wanted to know before."

"Yes, her grave is right over here."

Zeke walked to where his grandfather pointed.

"You never said much about my mother. I never really wanted to know---the truth that is."

John Taylor's shoulders slumped as he answered. "She loved you as best she could. Even loving someone is not always enough. I was angry and full of guilt that I could have done more... something. Now the years have passed. There are memories I should share. There were good times you should know about."

They stood in silence, growing cold in the bitter wind. John embraced Zeke, but said nothing.

"Thank you, Grandpa. Thank you for bringing me... for all you've done. I understand so much more, now. And, I am so, so sorry..."

"You should not... you need not feel guilt. When you do the best you can, when you do what you think is best for unselfish reasons, that is all that anyone can expect."

"I am not so sure my reasons were unselfish. It was an adventure that called to me."

"Some carry the burden of doubt. Too little or too much...both cause problems, but it's difficult to know when to be confident and when to be cautious. Many people who have achieved tremendous success made bad choices but were lucky. Some made good choices but were not.

"We play our cards. We take our chances. That is pretty much all the wisdom I have."

Zeke turned around. The weight was not gone, but he felt that maybe he'd gathered enough strength to go on.

They got back in the car and drove back to the farm. Jonephs was visibly relieved when they pulled into the drive.

The house had gotten cold while they were gone. Zeke brought in some wood, and the stove was soon warming up the room. John prepared more cups of hot chocolate, and they sat in the living room planning.

"You want me to meet the general, he is nearby? You don't think it is safe for him to come here?"

"He would come. He could be here in a few hours, or you could go with us to meet him. I think you would enjoy that more. It was my suggestion," Zeke told him. "Do you have anything that you can't cancel?"

"I still do a few contract jobs, but I haven't anything waiting right now. How long will I be gone? I'll have to call the Millers and make arrangements for one of the boys to feed the cattle."

"A day?" Jonephs answered, "maybe two."

"I will do it." He called the Miller family who'd done work for him when he'd had to travel on business before. They had a couple of teenage sons who were familiar with the farm and animals.

"Anything I need to take?"

Zeke had been quiet since their return from the cemetery, but he brightened, just a little, at the chance to be useful. "You can take a change of clothes. Do you take anything besides your arthritis medicine?"

"No, not anymore."

"Someday, you might not need it anymore. I can't promise, but it is possible." He looked at Jonephs who nodded his head in agreement.

"Anything else you need to do?" Jonephs asked.

"No, Anna was my link to the community. She was the social one, so I haven't been into town very much in the last few months."

John thought to turn on the TV and a question occurred to him, "Zeke, where were you when you sent me the first email?"

"On Anyar at first, on the way here I wasn't able to get or send anything. Why?"

"How far away is Anyar?"

"About 30 light years."

"You can travel that in a few weeks?"

"Larger, manned craft take that long or longer," Jonephs volunteered. "We sent small drones controlled by MI's. They could make the trip in a few hours. A probe at the L4 point listens for signals from Earth, the data is then transferred back to Anyar by these small, autonomous couriers. They also relayed Zeke's emails, which have established a link with your Internet.

"Two questions: MI's?"

"Machine Intelligence. Pretty much the same as AI."

"Who are the masters and who are the servants?"

"We are the inventors, although we have copied from... other sources. We still fear the results of allowing them too much autonomy. We don't really know what the risks are, nor what we would do if we saw signs of trouble."

John had not forgotten his second question. "OK. Here is my second question, what was the purpose of putting a probe at the L4 point?"

"The Anyari want... need to learn about Earth, in preparation for this trip, and for other things that you will, hopefully, be able to give us insight on."

Concern showed on John's face. "Are you planning an invasion? With Zeke's help?"

"The general should be the one to answer this, maybe the king, but I'll give it my best shot. We are considering introducing ourselves to Earth. Before we choose to take that drastic step, we have to have some confidence that it will be worthwhile. That it be more beneficial, to both worlds, than it will be harmful.

Zeke interjected, "The Anyari will be our friends, if that is possible. I hope it is, but it may be a tough road."

Zeke turned on the news while his grandfather absorbed all that had been said. The news was dominated by fighting, bombings, and political rancor in Washington. John watched with a new perspective, wondering how Jonephs would react to this unflattering view of the country... and of the planet.

"Does this concern you? Are you sure you want to ally with a planet with so much turmoil?" John asked.

"We've seen all this. The first time, I must admit, it was more than a little upsetting, to myself and all of those involved closely with this plan. Hearing of the strife from Zeke did not have the impact of seeing it. However, our history has not been tranquil, either. I know more than most Anyari, it is what I study. Some might give up hope, but I think we might be an influence that encourages stability. We have many questions, we hope that you will help us answer them."

John was doubtful, "I don't know if anyone has the answers. Even if your planet made it past these problems, it is difficult to believe there is a way to sort out the tangle of hate and fear here. I don't know if I have any insights more valuable than thousands of others."

"That may be true," was Jonephs' honest answer, "but the right course won't be known until after it has been taken. The responsibility is ours. In the end, the decision will be made by the king and his council, some of whom don't yet know of this plan. We look wherever we can for ideas and information that will help us choose wisely."

"I'll do what I can and, for now at least, I'll trust your intentions. It seems we have much more to gain than we have to lose. Any advice I can give would be of more use to help us than hurt us."

"I think your reasoning is sound. If we wanted to dominate your planet, we wouldn't need any help. I don't mean to be arrogant, but we have the resources. Such a strategy, though, would not help us. We need your earnest and willing cooperation."

They continued to watch and discuss a variety of news and documentaries, partly to pass the time, and partly to give Jonephs a deeper understanding of Earth.

They made another simple meal as dusk approached. John put a bottle of his arthritis medication in his pocket.

"We should walk, I think. Leaving the car parked on the road for a day or two would raise questions, and it might be towed before we return," John suggested.

It was fully dark, and John bundled up warmly for the long walk. The moon was still out and full, but he grabbed a flashlight.

"It seems odd to be going on such a long trip with nothing but clothes and a flashlight," he smiled at Zeke.

Zeke's smile in response was only slightly forced, as he tried to make a joke, "At least you have a flashlight!"

John had not been out at night like this for a long time. The quiet and the beauty of a winter scene were a big part of why he'd moved out away from the city. It was an eerie feeling to be doing this. Even eerier, he thought, to believe such an incredible story and that he would soon be leaving the planet.

Crazy as it was, believe it he did.

They had to cross the barbed wire fence on the edge of John's farm and then the gravel road with ditches on each side. Zeke was at his side to help him on the steep sides of the ditches and to hold the fence apart for him to step through. Their roles had subtly shifted, Zeke assisting him now rather than the reverse.

They walked back into the woods. He could tell they were getting close by the eagerness in Zeke's stride, though he politely slowed down to wait for him.

Then, in the shadows of a stand of trees, he saw it. Dark, almost black, the craft was different than he'd imagined. Different than anything from a science fiction movie; it was simpler yet elegantly sculpted. A hatch swung up and he could see the inside, dimly lit.

Someone was waiting in the opening, dressed much like he was.

"I was expecting space suits."

"I'm sure we can find one your size," Jonephs answered in an amused tone.

The man in the opening extended his hand to John.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, sir. We are grateful you've chosen to come."

"It was an offer that I didn't think I could refuse, not without regretting it for the rest of my life."

"There is a third seat, up behind us. We thought you'd enjoy the view through the canopy more than the viewscreens in the back."

"Thank you, indeed I would!"

It took only a few moments for him to be strapped in. They pointed out a few other screens with views from infrared and other sensors. He was surprised, it all seemed simple and uncomplicated. Their controls and instruments were simpler than he'd expected, but they must be adequate for the task.

He could hear a quiet hum and felt the ship move, swaying gently.

"How loud is this ship? Will people be able to hear us take off?"

"We're using the minimum thrust we can, to keep the noise down. It will take us longer that way, but noise is the one thing we can't suppress very well. Anyone within a few hundred yards will hear the whoosh, and a little crackling, but no one is within a half mile, so we'll be up and out of here, without anyone being the wiser.

The ship rose slowly and the pilots turned it to the left. John's house and buildings were magnified and the image brightened in one of the screens. They kept that view as they rose until the house finally dropped out of sight.

As they rose and headed west, he could see the lights of Topeka and then Kansas City. They gained still more attitude. As they flew above western Kansas, the cities and lights became fewer and farther apart. Finally, he could feel the nose point up as they started to accelerate forward. It sounded like being in an airliner with the whoosh of air moving rapidly past. It wasn't long before they were high enough that the cabin became quiet. He could see the Earth moving beneath them. The nose pointed upward and towards... the moon.

"Is that where the general is waiting? That's where we're going?"

"I thought you would like it. I apologize for not telling you, I wanted to surprise and impress you."

"It is going to be hard to top this for your birthday," he smiled.

After a while, he noticed that the moon was growing larger at a surprising rate.

"I don't feel much acceleration, considering how quickly the moon appears to be growing nearer."

"We can compensate for part of the acceleration. We're actually accelerating at about two gravities."

John nodded and returned his gaze to the quickly approaching moon. He knew enough about physics to realize the ability to control or simulate gravity required pretty advanced technology, even more advanced than he would have guessed from what he had seen so far.

John looked around, not wanting to miss anything from this experience. He could see Earth behind them in the viewscreens. The moon, bright and crystal clear, lay directly ahead.

At one point the slight acceleration that pushed him back in his seat eased up, and he realized that the force of gravity had gradually diminished. He felt the uncomfortable feeling of falling. In a moment the thrust changed, without the ship's orientation changing, and it pushed him forward into the straps.

As the shuttle neared the moon, he could see that it was headed for the left edge of the illuminated crescent. Soon it rotated so the moon was "down", and the surface of the moon rose up to meet him.

He looked back behind him into the cabin. Zeke was watching as intently as he. "You're not bored with this by now?" he asked.

"You'd be surprised how difficult it is to get used to landing on the moon," Zeke answered.

The lightness was still gone from his voice. John saw the grimness that had darkened it since he'd given him the news of Anna's death. This was a special event to be shared. There was still a hint of joy, somehow forcing its way through the pain.

The terrain became rougher as they got lower. They were slowing down. The crescent Earth in one of the viewscreens had been growing smaller. It was difficult to judge their height, but the craters were getting larger and they moved underneath more slowly.

Finally, he could see a larger version of the craft they were in. The view, clear without the distortion of an atmosphere, made it look like a toy model. They approached and slowed, dust kicked up around them. A hatch, large enough to accommodate the entire shuttle they were in, folded open, and their smaller craft maneuvered deftly into the bay.

He heard a slight clank a few seconds later and Zeke told him, "The bay is pressurizing now, it will only be a minute."

He could tell that they were really on the moon. The gravity had not increased to what he instinctively expected. He undid the straps and rose, and the difference was even more obvious.

The hatch opened and he followed Zeke and Jonephs. A stocky man, with close-cropped hair, waited for them. His uniform had small gold insignia on the shoulders. Aside from that, the uniform was simple. His face was lit by a welcoming smile.

Zeke made the introductions, "Grandpa, this is General Yalt. Sir, my grandfather, John Taylor."

The general reached out to shake hands, "Mr. Taylor, I'm glad our long trip to meet you has worked out. Thank you for coming."

The general's English was almost impeccable and his tone was sincere.

"Thank you, General. For anyone from Earth, this was the chance of a lifetime. I hope that I will be worth the trouble."

"There is much to tell you and even more to ask. The situation is more complex than we have yet had time to explain."

They sat at a small meeting table in the corner of the main bay living quarters. That first session lasted for many hours. The general explained the situation with the Rogue and the motivation behind their contact with Earth.

"If these Rogue attacked you, with no way to know or understand their motives or plans, it would be foolish to assume that Earth is not also in danger," John agreed.

The general spent an hour giving an overview of Anyari history, emphasizing the tragedies as well as the triumphs. He listed the options they were considering for initial contact and the problems that they anticipated.

"If we are stronger by enlisting Earth's aid then we must attempt to do so. We know that there are risks. It surely will not be a simple undertaking, but we believe it is necessary for both our worlds."

When the general had finished, John spoke, "I've had little time to consider. Since this is an unprecedented event, it is hard to anticipate how people will react, but from the horrendous things that have happened in our history and the resilience that humans demonstrate, I think that it will not be the mass panic that has been depicted in some of our fiction. If something doesn't directly, physically affect people, I think they will adjust to it quickly. Of course, I could be wrong."

He continued, "However, I think you will have two basic problems.

"First, you won't be able to deal with a single world government. How should you deal with the major world powers? One of our leaders once said, 'Speak softly, but carry a big stick.'

"Second, to help we will need access to your technology. Some will surely seek to use it for their own ends and have no concern for others. Some groups would do anything to achieve their goals. Can you keep these groups from acquiring the means to do harm?"

The general pondered what John had said.

"We had considered the first problem, the second we have not really considered yet." He looked at Zeke, "You were right again, I think I can see where some of the way you analyze things comes from."

They spent another hour as John described what he knew about the various oppressive governments and terrorist groups. "I know what most people who follow world events know. I'm sure you could gather far more information than what I or any average citizen could."

The general looked puzzled and Zeke explained. "I think my grandfather is suggesting that you penetrate the government's security to gather information that is being kept secret. The three world powers, the United States, Russia, and China, would be the place to start."

The general was unable to completely suppress his surprise. "You're suggesting we break into your computer systems? Would the governments trust us if we did that?"

"They will not trust you in any case," John replied. "The more important question will be: do they respect you? It is not a suggestion I make lightly. I think it is information you must have and it is in everyone's best interest that you have it. It may be that I should not trust you, but it is clear that these governments have given their citizens, and the rest of the world, reason to distrust them. Analyze the information you gather and tell me if you disagree."

They had scarcely taken breaks before, but now a rather lavish feast was brought to the table.

"This is what you serve on all your ships?" John asked.

The general smiled, "This is a little more ostentatious than usual. Normally small ships don't make trips like this, and we've been away from Anyar for more than a week. I think we all deserve it."

After they'd eaten, they talked about the future.

"We would like your help, Mr. Taylor. The king has given me the authority to make this request, if I saw it advisable to do so. I think you can represent your planet and help us to act wisely. Will you come back to Anyar with us?"

John looked at Zeke, who waited expectantly. "That is not a decision one should make without consideration. The one who would have kept me bound to Earth is gone, the other important thing in my life is already here with you. I was thinking I am too old for adventures, but I think my choice is easy."

"Excellent," the general replied, "is there anything you need to do on Earth? Zeke left suddenly and I know he regrets the pain he caused you. If you need to do anything, we will make arrangements."

John thought out loud, "We do not have close family, but some would not understand if I just disappeared, especially after what happened with Zeke. I have animals that need to be cared for and probably other matters that will occur to me."

"How long will you need?"

"A couple of days, less than a week."

The general thought for a moment, then said, "I must return to Anyar. What if Zeke flew you back? We'll figure out a way to hide the shuttle. Another shuttle large enough to bring you to Anyar will take almost two weeks to get here. That is a little longer than you need, but I feel I must return. Will that work? Will Zeke's return cause a problem?"

"I think we can work it out, and it would give him a chance to say goodbye to some of his friends. We'll just need to make up a reason for his disappearance. If we can't, he'll just have to stay around the house."

"Good, I'm sure we will have details to work out and plans may change. Zeke can communicate with us via the probe. Messages may take a day to reach us and be answered, but I think that will be acceptable."

They shook hands and the general made one more suggestion.

"Since you're here, I think we have one more adventure to offer, if you're interested."

Zeke opened up a cabinet where a couple of space suits were stored, "What do you think, Grandpa?"

In a few minutes, Zeke and his grandfather were alone in the small shuttle bay as the door opened and a brilliantly lit moonscape waited before them.

"One small step for each of us," Zeke joked as they walked down the short ramp to the surface.

The reality of where they stood was not lost on Zeke, in spite of the many experiences he'd had in these last few months. They walked around the small crater the shuttle had landed in. When they climbed to the rim, Earth was visible, just touching the horizon.

"Can we take a picture?" John asked.

A voice in their suits answered. "Just turn and face the front of the shuttle."

The suits were surprisingly flexible, but putting his hand on Zeke's shoulder was the most they could manage. After about twenty minutes of hopping around, they headed back to the ship.

When they returned, General Yalt had a decision and a plan for the next few weeks.

"We've come to the conclusion that hiding the shuttle is not practical. It seems that we have another situation that argues for expanding the autonomy of MI's. When you land, the shuttle MI will take the small shuttle back into space, far beyond detection. When the next shuttle arrives to take you to Anyar, the Harrier will return to pick you up and ferry you to meet it."

Zeke nodded agreement. It was an obvious solution to John, but he got the sense that more was involved than he understood. The general explained that they were developing a plan for his duties when he reached Anyar. He also showed John a comm bracelet.

"I think you should wear this. Zeke can start explaining how it is used, and we'll send a couple of portable terminals with you, so you can learn more about us." He handed John a flat device that had a small screen, but could be unfolded to reveal a surprisingly large screen, with no traces of seams at the fold points. Zeke placed the comm bracelet on his grandfathers forearm.

They had another ten hours to wait to allow darkness to cover their return. Zeke, Jonephs, and John had been up for almost a full twenty-four hours, and were able to sleep in the small cabins.

The next morning, though it was late afternoon back at their destination in Kansas, they had breakfast and finalized their plans with the general. They shook hands and Zeke and John entered the shuttle. In a few minutes they were outside, skimming over the surface, on their way back to Earth.

"I should introduce you, Grandpa, to the MI that is in control of this craft. I don't know all the technical details yet, but 'she' is...well... a 'she'. Ran, this is my grandfather, John Taylor."

"I am pleased to meet you, sir," she replied in a politely warm tone.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Ran," he responded. "Excuse me if I'm a bit awkward at first, you are the first non-organic intelligence I've ever spoken with."

"I understand, you can converse with me in the same manner as you would anyone else, although my primary function is flying this ship, or helping Zeke to do so."

"Understood, I'm sure I'll have a lot of questions at some point, and you may be a good person to ask."

"I would be delighted. If you'd like company or information, please ask me. I'll always be available through the console or your comm."

As Zeke pointed the little shuttle towards Earth he asked, "Ran, we're going to take the return trip kind of slow so we have time to talk, can you give me a course and speed that will take about two hours before we enter the atmosphere?"

"Done, info is on the HUD."

"Thanks, and please record our conversation until we reach the atmosphere."

He turned to face his grandfather, "So, Grandpa, I'm guessing you have a lot of questions."

"Where do I start? Is there something I can read about Anyar, its political system, etc.?"

"It has already been prepared for you and will be waiting in your inbox."

"Got it. Second, what do you think of Anyar, and the Anyari?"

"Well, I am probably biased. Danil, the person who was unconscious by the creek is my best friend. He is the son of the king, which is not the same as a prince, but it does give him status. For that, among other reasons, I've become something of a celebrity on Anyar. Mostly through blind, dumb luck. It is a lot different from the nobody I was in Council Grove."

"You weren't a nobody. Jonephs told me something like that."

"I think we both know I was. If you count the number of dates I had, it is hard to argue with that statistic. It is a long story, but I guess that is why I wanted to take this trip back slowly, so we could talk and enjoy the view."

Zeke explained the highlights of his return with Danil into the Anyar system and how they'd managed to turn the tide against the Rogue. He started to explain how he'd gotten to know the king's family and eventually spoke before the Grand Council, but he paused to go back and get things in an understandable order.

"I trained in their military academy. That's a whole story in itself. One of the early traditions is a simulator mission that re-enacts a famous mission to re-supply a colony. The original mission was not successful, and each new cadet runs the simulation and tries to get a convoy of freighters past a Rogue patrol. They've been doing it for almost two hundred years without anyone ever being successful."

Zeke paused. After a moment John guessed, "You were the first to complete it?"

"I just tried to think of something no one else would have dared try. Among other things, I persuaded Ran to bend the rules."

"And that made you a hero?"

"No, not at first. In fact, I was greatly resented. It seemed like forever. I don't think I can blame them. But things turned around eventually and worked out far better than I ever thought. The guys in my flight have become like brothers to me. I have a sense of purpose and people I can rely on. Like you and Grandma, only different."

"I think I can understand. That is what we all strive for, and if you've found it, or are finding it, that is explanation enough."

"So to get back to my question, what do you think of Anyari? What are they like?"

"In some ways they remind me of what I know about Asian culture. Very earnest, a strong sense of community and tradition--doing things for the greater good. They have their limitations, but they seem to have solved some of the most difficult problems we face on Earth. They have social classes, but they're mostly based on social status that is earned by accomplishments and being productive. I still don't understand it all, but I think I'm getting the idea."

"Why do they want Earth's help?"

"Anyar is not very populous, only a few hundred million on a planet that is about the size of Earth. I don't really understand why, if it is by choice, or if they have some other reason. They believe that they are not as creative and inventive as we are. I've heard that from a few different people. I've been pretty busy in the time I've been gone. There is a lot I don't know, and some things I know but don't understand."

"Don't understand, like what?"

"Well, I think I have three girlfriends. I was not the pursuer, though to be honest neither were they, exactly, it just sort of happened. One is a doctor who treated me for a couple of injuries at the Academy--no that isn't normal, the other is a lieutenant that I've worked with on a project, and the third, I guess, is Danil's sister, the king's daughter. Don't ask me how it happened, I don't know, or understand. I haven't really had a chance to see how relationships work.

"All of them are nice, sincere, intelligent people who I have a lot of respect for. They admit that my celebrity has given me an allure, but I believe their interest is genuine. I had a crush on Enne, Danil's sister. I can't honestly say that her status didn't affect me."

"The king's daughter?"

"It's complicated, and a little hard to say no---and saying no to any of them would be crazy. I think it is me that they like, and not the reputation. I've been lucky and the ideas I've had, the things I've suggested, have often worked out well. It's a long story and I'm sure you can find out whatever you'd like to know. In fact, if you ever talk to one or more of them, you can explain it to me!"

"Girlfriends... have you kissed any of them?"

Zeke's face turned red, causing John to smile, "Well, one of them I've... yeah... kissed."

John couldn't help but smile. It was so much to take in. It has been a busy two days, and maybe after a night in his own bed, it would make more sense tomorrow.

"Their culture is different. I didn't see anything that was bad or disturbing, but maybe I didn't see everything. They've been open with me about conflicts and wars in their history, at least as far as I know. Looking back over the last few months, and now seeing Earth again, they are subtly ordered, or regimented. Like I said, a little like the Japanese, but they don't strike me as reserved in the same way. It's more like they have a lot of boundaries that they stay within so comfortably that you don't even notice.

"Not always, though," he finished with a laugh. "Not always."


"Something happened, a dispute with one of the people in my training flight. It all worked out in the end, though."

They spoke for another hour as the Earth grew slowly larger.

"How long will it take?" Zeke asked Ran.

"Thirty to forty-five minutes. We'll follow the same course as last time and land in the same grove."

It was snowing. Zeke couldn't see any lights on the ground as they descended. They were soon settling quietly, in the same place they'd started from the day before.

"It's dark to be wandering in the woods. Will we have trouble making it to the house by ourselves?"

"My comm, and yours, too, will guide us to the house, and we have your flashlight."

They stepped out, bidding Ran goodbye. She seemed human and it was the natural thing to do. When they were about twenty-five yards away, John could hear a hum rising to a louder crackling whir. They stopped and turned around and watched the shuttle lift up. In a moment it disappeared into the snow and the whir faded just after that.

They trudged through the falling snow. With no moonlight, John's flashlight was helpful as they negotiated the fences and ditches on either side of the road. In a little while the light on the back deck became faintly visible.

It was late, and they were tired, so John turned up the heat and left the wood stove for tomorrow. For a while, John lay in his bed, again aware of the empty half, trying to decide if he really believed the day's events. He decided that he did and hoped he would still believe it in the morning.