Draft 6/4/2018

3 Return

Zeke watched as familiar landmarks drifted by below. Danil piloted the shuttle. Dev and Sephen, sitting beside him, looked out as they descended towards the small town just now visible in the distance.

The landscape here wasn't as barren of structures as Anyar, but it was different from the cities he'd spent the last weeks visiting. From above the landmarks were familiar: the lakes he'd fished with his grandfather, the home he'd known his entire life. Now they were faintly surreal as they flew over them, Zeke pointing out the places he fished and played as a kid.

He was eager and anxious about returning to his hometown, his old friends. He'd grown accustomed to being the center of attention, but this was a place with memories, mostly happy ones, of a quiet and simpler life.

He wondered what everyone would think. He'd felt resentment of the popular people at school. Now, he could see that for what it was, as much as he'd denied it then.

Mostly, he wondered what Suzanne would think.

They circled as they descended towards the gravel lot by the track, the only place the shuttle's thrusters wouldn't damage anything. Zeke could see a crowd gathered in the grass lot south of the school. The whole school --and most of the town--must be there.

He'd gotten used to many things, but he never tired of seeing the wonder on the faces of people seeing an Anyari ship for the first time.

The shuttle's thrusters kicked up dust and rocks as it landed. Danil killed the thrusters. It was suddenly quiet. The crowd, a hundred feet away, was still.

The side hatch of the shuttle lowered, and Zeke stepped out into the sunshine of a clear, blue, fall day. He was, for once, dressed in the blue and grey uniform he'd become accustomed to instead of the earth clothing he'd worn lately. Normally, he'd wanted to emphasize his connection with Earth, but now he felt the need to show his connection with his friends.

Mr. Thompson led the crowd, followed closely by Rick Sanders. Zeke and Rick had, he realized, spent too many nights playing Counterstrike.

As they got closer, he looked at Rick, who broke into a trot, jumped over the low stone wall that separated the gravel lot from the drive, and reached him first.

"Holy shit, Zeke! Where's your space helmet?"

Left it in the trunk," Zeke came back quickly as they clasped hands and gently bumped chests.

"It is good to see you again Rick...really good."

"Until a few weeks ago..." Rick replied, his meaning clear. Zeke had disappeared without a trace and everyone believed him gone for good, probably dead.

Mr. Thompson strode up and Zeke extended his hand, "It's good to be back, Mr. Thompson, if only for a little while. I've seen a lot, as you can imagine, but not enough where I don't miss home."

"I'm glad to hear it, Zeke. You've put Council Grove on the map. You were a good kid, and I can see you've become a good man--earlier than I expected. After you get a chance to talk with your friends, we've planned an assembly in the gym. I expect you have some stories to tell, and we'd all like to hear them."

Zeke nodded, then turned around to Danil, Dev, and Sephen waiting on the shuttle's ramp. As he did, they walked forward to join them.

"Mr. Thompson, Rick, I've spent a lot of time with these three since I've been gone." He introduced each of them. The rest of the crowd moved closer and around them and Zeke again introduced his three companions to the group.

"It's not every day you get to meet aliens from another planet," Zeke raised his voice so all could hear. Don't waste your chance today. They haven't eaten anyone."

After a moment he added, "That I know of."

The Anyari were a perplexed by this, but the crowd laughed.

"Mr. Thompson told us, yesterday, that you'd be visiting, but he didn't say why," Rick said.

Suzanne walked toward them as he answered Rick, "To visit home, to show some of my new friends where I'm from, and mostly, to tell you about what's coming."

She was close enough to hear the last, and her eyebrows rose as she bent forward to hug him. Something that had never happened before.

"I've missed my lab partner," she said sincerely. "And I didn't expect to see you again."

"To be honest, neither did I. It's been a little complicated."

"Yeah, it is quite a story. Not what we expected from someone we all knew and ...liked," she paused at the end.

"I hope I haven't changed too much," he responded. "It's the events that have been amazing, I'm still the same old Zeke."

"After landing in that," she said, pointing to the shuttle, "that line won't work anymore."

Melissa, afflicted with the shyness that only the very bright must bear, stood back behind a group of kids talking to Dev.

She wasn't the prettiest girl in the school, but she was the smartest and, probably, the nicest. Zeke found and hugged her, something he'd not had the confidence to do before.

"I'm glad you're back," she said, her face bright.

"It is good to see you," he replied. "I didn't realize how much I missed this place til now."

Zeke knew that Melissa liked him. And he liked her, too--just not in the way he knew she wanted. But she is who he'd have asked to prom. Suzanne, as friendly as she'd always been, was, in the social hierarchy, out of his league. Things had changed, and it wouldn't matter anyway, but he was determined to be the same guy he'd always been. He had enough complications with girls anyway.

As they walked back towards to school, he shook hands with the guys he'd known. Mrs. Johnson was waiting by the entrance to the gym, her arms extended to hug him.

"We are very, very proud of you," she beamed.

Zeke just smiled and wrapped his arms around her, not knowing how to answer.

"Thank you, Mrs. Johnson," he finally managed to say.

His three companions had strayed far and were each in friendly discussions with large groups. As they entered the gym, they joined Zeke who was standing by the stage. He was, despite his inclination, not a part of the school anymore.

The students filled the bleachers along one side. Mr. Thompson walked over to him.

"I could introduce you, but why? he said smiling. "When everyone is seated, just go and tell them what you've come to say."

Zeke nodded and waited.

When they were seated, he walked out into the gym. The soft, Anyari shoes were almost silent on the hardwood floor. His classmates--his former classmates--grew quiet as he stopped in front of them.

He stood, facing the gathering, and took a visibly deep breath, slowly letting it out.

"Anything new going on I should know about?"

His confident demeanor and deadpan delivery brought laughter that broke any ice that remained.

"You weren't that funny before," someone yelled from the stands.

"Trust us," Danil said loudly enough for all to hear, "he's still not that funny."

Zeke's smiled as everyone laughed. He waited until the crowd, again, quieted.

"We know each other pretty well. I won't pretend to be anyone, anything more than I was. Sometimes a chance comes along to do something important. That's what it was, chance. People tell me I didn't screw things up too badly and I'm trying to keep that streak alive.

"I'm here to tell you about what's going on, about Anyar. I'm sure most of you have read a lot about them, about the Rogue, even about me. It's not surprising that many have doubts. It's a story I'd have trouble believing.

"What you think, what you choose to believe is important. If you don't believe me then why should anyone? I hope you'll believe me. I hope you'll convince your parents. I hope that some of you will apply to the new Academies.

"And, I hope, that one day I'll see some of you on Anyar."

He was silent for a moment, letting that image sink in.

"Yes," he said slowly and deliberately. "I'm serious.

"You know I came back for my grandfather, and he has been there, too. Hard as it is to believe, you too can go there."

"It is incredible to think about, but it's not all roses and sunshine. I have seen the Rogue. I've seen what they can do. I'm not frightened, but I am determined.

"Well, sometimes when I stop to think, I am a little frightened."

"So much has happened, I'd love to take the time to tell you about all of it, but I'm better at answering questions, so hit me with your best."

Kirk Wheeler, a burly kid who was on the wrestling team and a lineman on the football team declared, "My old man said that it's funny the Anyari, just now decided to stop trying to hide from the Rogue. Why are they all hot to go after them now?"

Sephen walked towards Zeke, holding his palm toward Zeke to ask him to hold.

"Zeke would do his best to answer that, but he wasn't born on Anyar, as well as he understands us, I think you should hear the answer from one of us.

"The first time they attacked was long ago. Many died. We were just barely able to defeat them, even though their force was small. For a long time, we didn't have a way to go after them.

"Then, we learned enough to build spacecraft and ships to give us the means to defend ourselves. But after we rebuilt, well, it was easier to believe it wouldn't happen again. You've read our history. Maybe you would have done the same. Perhaps not.

"Even after the last attack, the one Danil and Zeke helped win by bringing back the Redun, our thoughts were on building our defenses, not going back out into the galaxy to look for them."

His serious expression lightened.

"Zeke likes to believe that the idea to put out probes was reached by everyone in our flight. We've let him continue to believe that. I think most in our flight believe it. But those of us who know him best," he paused for a moment to look over at Danil and Dev for confirmation, "know that he was the guiding force behind that idea." Zeke shook his head but remained silent.

"Zeke," Sephen continued, "Zeke is the reason we are going out to look for the Rogue. If he had not come to Anyar, we would be building our defenses, but we would still be 'hiding' on Anyar," he finished, looking directly at Kirk.

Zeke remained quiet, not wanting to disagree openly with his friend.

"Well, you can believe whatever you like. I disagree. We have plenty of time and I like to talk, so I hope there are more questions."

Several politely raised their hands, Melissa was one of them and Zeke called her name.

"I've read a lot of the information on the Anyari, but, not to be rude, but they wrote it. What are they like from the perspective of a Kansas boy?"

"That," Zeke began, "is easy to answer."

"They are like us in a lot of ways--in most ways. At least, they are like those of us who prefer to get along and not cause unnecessary trouble. They aren't without fault. For them, it is more important to be respected than to have a lot of stuff.

"With MI's and robots, no one goes without food or medical care. There are some I like better than others. They don't have the problems we do. Let's face it, we have a lot. But they have problems, but they try to recognize and admit them.

"And, I trust them. I trust the King, he takes his responsibility very seriously. I've met him and had much more time to talk to him than I deserve. You may dislike idea of a king. I've come to feel that if there is someone I trust, I'll follow him.

"He is very wise. He believed me when I told him that I didn't know enough about Earth to help plan our first contact. The Anyari rely a lot on trust. There were others we could have come to ask for help besides my grandpa, but I knew him and trusted him.

"When I took my grandfather back to Anyar, these guys, he pointed to his Anyari companions, piloted the shuttle across the light-years to come get us. They were the logical people. They knew the most about Earth, and they knew me. The King trusted me and my judgment, and he trusted them to make a long voyage. Young people there are trusted. They don't have to rebel against their parents.

"Wouldn't you like that much responsibility? Do you think you could ever be ready for it?"

From the crowd, an anonymous voice called out, "We hear you've met the King's daughter!"

Several in the crowd laughed. Zeke's flushed. He would have left it alone. He should have left it alone, but hearing Danil laugh increased the amusement of the crowd.

Zeke stammered, "She's just another girl I've met."

To which Danil responded, "And when I get a chance to tell her that, she will be just another girl you've met."

The caused the crowd to roar with laughter. Zeke stood, trying to maintain his composure, waiting for the group to quiet enough for him to speak.

"Well," Zeke replied with mock seriousness, "I also need to tell you that the Anyari are not as funny as they think they are."

"What will it be like in these military academies?" a young boy, probably a freshman, asked.

"It is different than on Earth--what you see in the movies. That may have to change. Anyari are very orderly people, accustomed to following rules. That's just what's expected. There isn't the yelling and strict discipline that you might expect.

"However, you're expected to keep up, or you'll be transferred to a different assignment. I started with the most elite group in the service. I don't know why. Well actually I do understand why, but I was not sure I could keep up. Somehow I did.

"So, in general, the harder you work and the better you do, the more opportunities you'll have. The Anyari can't afford to do things any other way.

"You have some influence on your assignment. I don't think there are any terrible or menial jobs. Robots do that kind of stuff. The worst that can happen is that you'll be allowed to leave, or given an opportunity in another area you don't care for.

"The good news is that you'll be starting at the same level as everyone else from Earth. Most of what you need to know, you will be taught, or given a chance to learn. Anyari view education a lot differently than we do. You'll have the resources to learn. It's your responsibility to make use of them. You're only limited by your efforts and ability.

"I had some good friends here," he looked at Rick and the other people he knew best.

"Going through what I did has made me closer to these guys than anyone I've known, except, maybe, my family. You shouldn't envy the Anyari for their technology. I do think you should desire that same closeness and sense of purpose they have, and now, that I have. It is a good feeling to be part of something important."

"Everyone I know is excited and afraid at the same time," Suzanne asked. "Should we be afraid?"

"Things will change, unless all of Earth decides they don't want us here. We knew there would be disruption. It's worse than we thought, especially the stock market, but not as bad as we feared. Those that want nothing to do with any of this will be able, for the most part, to avoid any of the changes we bring. Medical tech will be hard to avoid, unless you want to suffer or die from something the Anyari can treat or cure. Most of you know my grandfather. His arthritis is gone, and won't be back."

He looked at Jason Grimes, a student in a wheelchair on the floor in front of the bleachers.

"Jason, I've asked about conditions like yours. If you choose, you will walk again. Muscular dystrophy is one of the many things Anyari technology can treat. It won't be overnight, but it will, eventually, eliminate all the damage. I checked on our way here...and I know one of their doctors."

Dev and Sephen smiled at that.

"If you want," he went on, "you can apply and compete for assignments just like anyone else. I can't tell you how all of this is going to work out, but some things are going to be good. I'm sure of that."

With that Mr. Thompson stepped up beside Zeke.

"All of the local restaurants have been working to make lunch for all of us. If you head into the cafeteria and see how our cuisine meets Anyari tastes."

Zeke and his friends mixed with students, moving from table to table after a few minutes. Food was laid out and Zeke let Danil, Sephen, and Dev take their chances with food he suspected they would find a little bland compared to the spicy Anyari dishes they were accustomed too. They remained the hit of the event and appeared to enjoy the questions and discussion. As they finished, Zeke's comm buzzed. General Yalt called and suggested he find somewhere private.

When he returned from an empty hallway, the Anyari were already up and moving to join him. Zeke sought out principal Thompson. The room had grown quiet.

"We have to leave--now. Something has come up," he told him.

Zeke faced the assembled students.

"Something has happened. We have to leave. I had hoped to stay longer. I would tell you more, but I don't know much yet. You will, I'm afraid, be hearing it on the news soon.

"Thank you for your warm welcome. I hope," and he paused, "I hope that I can make it back again soon."

With that, the group quickly strode out of the building. They started to trot, the student body trailing out of the building after them.

They reached the shuttle and the door quickly closed. Within a few seconds the crackle of thrusters could be heard and the shuttle carefully lifted up. It turned and headed due east, quickly gaining altitude and speed.

Everyone on the ground watched as the crackle grew to a roar. In contrast to the leisurely approach, the shuttle accelerated dramatically, incredibly faster than any plane they'd ever seen.

In a few seconds it was just a spot against the blue sky and was gone.