The day dawned crisp and (too early) sweet.
September light dropped heavily
over the stretching acreage of the farm, drenching the quiet
world in the warm sepia of all the best nostalgia. For a breathless
second, even the birds and the insects seemed to share in
the gentle glory of the early autumn sunrise, too awed to
break the hush with the busy matter of attracting a mate.
It was, of course, promptly
shattered by Gwennie's shrill demand for breakfast. She was
always better when someone else did the waking, lazy eyed
and pillowy and pliable.
Mark mumbled into the comforter. He heaved himself upright.
I cracked a sandy eyelid in (gloating) sympathy. Dawn feedings
were Mark's responsibility. He had to get up to do the milking,
I winced as Mark ricocheted
off the corner of the solid wood dresser an heirloom
from his own grandfather's farm, if you could call such a
battered and abused piece of scuffed sturdy wood an 'heirloom'as
he struggled to pull on a pair of jeans that he'd left crumpled
on the foot of the bed the night before. Two years ago I would
have appreciated the flex of his biceps, the fact that he
'd neglected to put on anything else under the denim; that
meant he was feeling frisky and nothing but good things would
come of it when he got back in from the chores. Now it means
that he was too bleary to remember anything as banal as underwear.
The only thing Mark and I
were doing in this bed nowadays was cuddling the baby, failing
to sleep, and cultivating a lovely matched set of shiny purple
bruises under our eyes.
Awake now, I tracked the sound
of Mark stumbling downstairs, the clatterbang of the fridge
door opening and closing, the gurgle of the small pot being
filled with tap water and the bubble of it boiling on the
stove. Gwennie's cries subsided into desperate, miserable
sniffles and it took everything I had to stay in bed, denying
the itch in the marrow of my bones to go and gather her up
and soothe. Dawn was for Mark and Gwennie, special Daddy-Daughter
time. We'd agreed.
The stairs creaked as Mark
padded back up them, bare feet on bare wood, and finally Gwennie's
hitching wails wound down.
I unclenched my teeth, amazed
that even after so many months her discomfort could cause
such acute anxiety in me. I could make out the soft crooning
of Mark's nonsense soothings through the wall that separated
Gwennie's room from ours, repeated in surreal electronic stereo
on the other side of my head through the baby monitor.
Selfishly, I considered the
day ahead: tomatoes to rescue from the garden and re-pot for
a fall in the mudroom, vegetables to pick and preserve, weeds
to pull, and a garden to tuck in safe under a blanket of home-grown
fertilizer for the coming winter. All with a baby strapped
to my back. I snuck out of bed, chilly toes creeping along
hardwood floors to steal the first warm shower and a few moments
I love my husband. I love
But god, do I love hot showers,
* * *
We had a brand new cordless
It was top of the line, and
Mark had been very proud when he had installed it last month.
Very few people around us had cordless phones. Now I could
go up or down stairs while talking any time I liked. I could
keep the phone with me even when I was up in the nursery.
If I activated a feature on the base, it acted as a two-way
walkie-talkie. Mark took the handset out to the barn every
morning in case there was a call or an emergency with Gwennie.
Knowing Mark was just a button
push away, I spent the early morning cleaning and preparing
bottles, using the food processor to mash up some vegetables
into a glutinous mass soft enough for Gwennie to smear artfully
on every surface except her own tongue, and preparing lunch.
Waiting for Mark to come in to eat it, I passed far more time
than I'd like to admit playing a dish-towel enabled game of
peek-a-boo that Gwennie tired of before I did.
Mark appeared briefly for
a sandwich and some underwear, ("Zipper's rubbin'")
then struck out again to finish the repair of the rotting
beam under the hayloft before dark.
I moved Gwennie into her carrier
at noon and we spent the next hour shuttling pots, garden
tools, water pitchers, a soft, much-gummed plush frog, and
a wheelbarrow of fertilizer out to the garden at the bottom
of the backyard. It butted right up against the marching line
of golden corn stalks. The world smelled of clean dark soil,
the faint perfume of the apple orchard belonging to our neighbours
far upwind, and the crisp lingering afterscent of the morning's
brief hoary dew.
The buzzing sound was soft
enough that I didn't notice it right away. I flapped a glove-clad
hand at my ear, hoping it wasn't a late-season mosquito trying
to get in one last meal, or a fly bothering Gwennie. It grew
louder, too loud to be an insect, too large. I thought maybe
it was Gwennie, making sounds with her chubby baby lips and
craned my head around to smile at her.
What I saw was her looking
up, mouth open in awe, wide blue eyes reflecting the sky and...
The aircraft swooped down
so low that I couldn't deny the urge to duck. It buzzed the
top of the corn, turned in midair, belly up like a swimmer
at the end of a pool, then waggled and flipped upright with
a barrel roll straight out of the movies, sharp nose pointing
at us. What the hell kind of plane looked like that?
Could manoeuvre like that?
Something hard and sharp welled against the back of my throat.
I had flattened myself against
he ground, tugging desperately at the straps of the carrier,
wriggling to pull Gwennie around, shield her under my body
as the craft came at us again. Thoughts of sprays of bullets
and missiles pressed fervidly against my forehead (massacre),
and I felt my face get hot, heard Gwennie squeal. Blood pounded
against my skin, and I could taste my heart in the back of
What the hell was happening?
The world erupted in a bang.
I had my eyes squeezed shut,
but I could hear the skidding slide of the aircraft digging
into the turf of the backyard, some sort of scream, the protest
of metal being bent away. Suddenly I was flying through the
air. As soon as I had registered the cold pull of bare, dry
fingerstoo long, too thinon my arms they were
"Gwennie!" I shrieked,
then "oof!" as all of the air was driven out of
my lungs, my ribcage coming up hard against the ground.
Stars sparked against my eyelids.
Blackness swooped up but I pushed it away, desperately, everything
burning as I tried to suck in air, tried to flip over, to
Gwennie! Gone, gone.
My vision swirled into single
focus. The craft was... it... there was a flying saucer in
God, screamed and I
I reached out, up; I was still
on the ground, legs too shaky to support me. I pushed onto
scraped hands and knees, scrabbling to get close. It took
her, ripped her out of the carrier, a foot on the strap. I
rolled onto my side, arms up, and no, please, a knife,
it has a knife and
against her little throat, pale
her chest heaving, jerking, and it was holding Gwennie
by her arm, like it
That's not how you hold
I swallowed, trying to work
up the spit to speak, to scream, to beg, oh god, and
it tasted like ash. "Give her back! Please!"
Looked at me, only looked
at (through) me.
What the hell is it?
The short snout wrinkled,
the ears flattening against its head, like the barn cat's.
A flash of fangs and the knife and I screamed too because
you can'tsomeone can't cut out your heart without making
She's a miracle, look at
those little fingernails, Mark had said. Can you believe
we did that?
We didn't invent it,
I had replied. But it sure as hell feels like it.
"Please, please, no!"
and the knife flashed again, only it wasn't a knife flash,
it was an explosion, just a small one, and the air reeked
suddenly of cordite and fireworks and copper. "Mark!"
The head ceased to exist.
The long padded fingers spasmed
once, went limp, trailed behind the body as it slumped backwards.
I reached out, still kneeling, grabbed my daughter out of
the air where the thing's hands used to be.
She howled again and I tucked
her in close to my chest, running a hand over her shoulder,
her throat, looking for blood, for broken bones, just to feel
her skin (hot and tingling, whole, alive) against mine.
Something red and sticky on my fingers, but I couldn't see
where it was coming from. Hers or mine?
"Mark," I said again,
and stood up, turned to him, to bury myself in his arms, to
hold Gwennie between us and shelter her. "Call an ambulance!"
"Not Mark," said
the woman with the smoking gun.
How many clichés could
I live through (barely, god, Gwennie) in one afternoon?
"W-who," I managed
to stutter, and Gwennie was screaming still, furious and terrified
and unable to understand. "W-what?"
"The less you know, luv,
the better, innit?" another voice behind me added, and
I turned to face it. A man this time but dressed the same:
dark and durable, no loose hardware. Just tough pants, thick
boots, a vest with too many pockets and straps, a blank black
ball-cap. No badges. No emblems. No indication of rank. Only
empty Velcro fuzz where they might have sat on the top of
each arm. Wind- (explosion-) blown and militaristic. Guns
in hand, big and boxy. Official-looking, but without any insignia
that I knew; it reminded me of the Navy Seals or the Black
Something so (covert) dangerous
they had no need to advertise.
Their clothing freaked me
Dry and dusty horror swept
down me. I felt my cheeks get cold, the heat and adrenaline
of anger and fear sliding away. My joints seized and the bottoms
of my feet itched; I wanted to run, wanted to yell, wanted
to cry and all I could do was stand and shake, and shake,
I tightened my grip on Gwennie
and she didn't seem to notice.
He pointed at the plane-ship.
"Did you see where it
"N-no," I admitted,
because I hadn't; because I had been looking at the trowel
and the earthworms and the potted tomatoes, now smashed and
pulpy; red and gold innards sprayed all over the lawn.
And what the hell was it?
As if real life was a movie, but nothing I had ever seen before.
Like in the commercials for that new Spielberg film with the
A sudden whistling sound rent
the air, high and long. Silver, tinnish, dying. It hurt my
ears. They were wincing, the man and woman in black, but seemed
otherwise unaffected. More concerned with catching their breath
and arguing with one another than the shrill cry of the machine.
The sound made Gwennie wave
her fists and howl.
Not happy, Mom, her
squished face and watery blue eyes said. Seriously not
The air reeked in turns of
burnt plastic, churned turf, and the faint, sickening tang
of blood and raw meat as the wind shifted, blowing the smoke
first towards and then away from us. A long, thin line of
blood arched over Gwennie's smooth forehead, down her little
neck. I pulled her close, hiding her face. Covering her ears.
Maybe I should have been more
concerned about the ship, the twenty foot divot on the lawn,
the noise. Wasn't.
Big blue eyes and a squallSeriously,
Mom, not happy.
Jogged her once and thought,
Hush, sweetie. Let Mommy cope. We've nearly been killed
There's a flying saucer in
The word crashed around between
my ears, echoing and squealing like icy mice.
Gwennie went silent and white,
her little chest jerking with terrified gasps; something,
maybe, in the tenseness of my body as I clutched her close,
an instinct not to fuss, not to bring attention to herself
in a time of danger. They were both staring at her anyway.
The small gash on her forehead bled freely.
The man pulled a square of
gauze from the miniature first aid kit in his over-packed
vest pocket. He handed it to me. The kindness of the action
jolted me out of my paralyzed terror, out of the vacant numbness
of shock and sound.
I took the gauze. Pressed
it down. My daughter whined.
"Oh my god," the
woman breathed, looking down Gwennie, and why, why was I suddenly
struck with the thought that this woman looked familiar?
"I don't get it,"
the man beside the woman mused, without acknowledging that
she had said anything. He was on a rant. It didn't look like
that surprised her. "Why?"
Smile, I thought. Smile
so I know who you are. I'll know you if you just smile.
But that was terrifying too,
because who did I know that could do what (kill like) she
man repeated, hands zooming around like scared birds as he
tapped at something that looked like a palm-sized notebook,
but had a face like a television. He gestured at me, at the
divot, at the sky. "Why go to all that trouble to trigger
a flash, a temporal one no less, and who knew they
could do that, and, and then just... attack some random
family in the middle of Nowheresville the moment you get here?
I mean, if they were going back in time to, I dunno, invade
the Earth or sommat before we had the technology to fight
back, why balls it up by attacking some random family? Why
not hide? Why not go back further? It doesn't
make sense. They're smarter than that, the little sons of
aKalp used to be smarter than"
"It's not random,"
the woman snapped off, interrupting. "And don't talk
to me about Kalp after
" She trailed off, sucking
in a breath. Scrubbed an eye with the palm of a fingerless
glove, fingertips brushing along her hairline. She stopped,
felt something there. Realization and cold horror made her
eyebrows caterpillar upwards. "They weren't after the
Like I was a mannequin, or
a chess piece.
"No?" Basil asked,
He frowned, studied me, his
own face pale and round-eyed, with spots of colour still high
on his cheeks from the exertion of shooting down the ship.
As if I were vaguely familiar too, and all he needed to place
me was to get a good look.
I know how you feel.
Mark was still in the house
on the phone. He had to be. He had the cordless, where was
he? Had he heard any of it? My scream? The shots? The engine,
now? Did he hear the grinding wail of the
There's a flying saucer
in my strawberries.
And finally, finally, the
wailing sound began to fade, like a fan blade just unplugged
still sluggishly exerting the last of its momentum. Thwip-thwip-thwip
thwip thwip... thwip... thwi...
Where was Mark?
Gwennie whimpered once, mashing
her face unhappily into my bicep.
"They were after the
baby, just the baby," Basil said, realizing the truth
behind what they had seen. The woman got whiter.
Basil tapped his notebook
television hard. "Why the baby? Why babies at all? Blimey,
do you think they're targeting babies?"
"No," she breathed.
She took off her ball-cap and crumpled it up in a white-knuckled
fist. Reddish brown hair, and a tumble of unmanageable pseudo-curlsnot
unlike mine when the summer humidity gets to themwere
pulled back hastily into a clip, scrambling for freedom in
all directions. She reached shaking fingers up, brushed the
thin white scar at the edge of her hairline. On her forehead.
"They're not going after random babies."
She ran her nails through
her hair, scratching her scalp lightly. When she hit the clip
she tugged it out, angry now. Tossed it at the flying saucer.
It made a sharp pinging sound where it hit the side. The engine
chugged once as if in reproach, an ugly thick sound. The high-pitched
whine cut out abruptly, and I felt the tension in my shoulders
ratchet down a notch, fall away from my ears.
"Dammit," the woman
hissed into the sudden, shocking silence. "They're going
"Us?" Basil repeated,
unsure. She jerked her chin at the wound on Gwennie's forehead,
and touched her scar again.
"They're going after
the Institute," she said softly. "That's not just
a random baby, Basil. That's me."
A snap somewhere in my chest,
sudden tightness in my throat because, yes, yes, of course.
That's who she was.
* * *
This sort of thing had never
been covered by the old etiquette books. What would Miss Manners
say about vanquished alien invaders? Meeting your own adult
children decades too early? Was I supposed to offer tea? Cookies?
"I'm calling the cops,"
Mark said from across the kitchen table.
"No." Basil held
out a hand. "We'll take care of it."
"Take care of it how?"
Mark demanded. "There's a u.f.o. in the back yard!"
"We'll bury it,"
the woman who was my baby offered. My fingers itched to touch
her, but I was occupied with baby Gwennie (too scared that
touch would make it real). "It's the country. You own
this land. You won't sell it. It flew in low, the neighbours
won't have seen it. We'll bury it."
"You reckon it's as simple
as that?" Mark shouted, red-faced with impotent fury.
"Simple as that,"
she said, unaffected by his anger. "I'll fetch it after
I go back."
I swallowed once. "Back?
Back to the..." I said softly, clutching baby Gwennie
close to my chest. She was sucking contentedly on my knuckle,
all right with the world now that she'd been hushed and patched.
I said the words, didn't quite believe them, even as they
came out of my own mouth. People didn't time travel. That
was not the way the world worked. Period. "Back to the
My grown-up Gwennie (my hair,
Mark's eyes, pale like his sister) and Basil exchanged a look
filled with raised eyebrows and half-hidden smirks. Had I
said something funny?
"Could say that,"
Basil conceded. He tapped a little more at the surface of
his strange notebook. If I craned my neck, I could see that
he was making something happen on the screen, like changing
the channel on a TV, but by touch and not with a remote. I'd
never seen anything like it outside of sci-fi afternoon creature
features. "Look, I expected there'd be a locational but
not a temporal divide between where we were and where we are."
His free hand made two chopping motions on 'were' and 'are'.
The woman groaned and pinched
the bridge of her nose. "Dammit, I didn't think of that.
There's no Array, is there? No just calling for a lift. Just
Basil pointed to a small piece
of black plastic wedged into the hole of his ear. "Glorified
decoration. Story of my bloody life," he said, as if
that explained everything.
To the grown-up Gwennie, it
"Can you use what's here?"
she asked, tapping her own piece of ear-plastic with a blunt
fingernail. They were speaking a different language. I understood
their words, but not the way they were using them. Is this
how my mother felt when she listed to my friends and
I conversing? "I'm getting nothing."
"Of course you're getting
nothing, you great git," Basil snapped.
I blinked at his condescending tone, felt like a Wimbledon
spectator, turned back to gauge grown-up-Gwennie's reaction.
She was merely watching him blandly, not at all stung, accustomed
to his sharp tongue. "That's because it's the year nineteen
eighty..." he trailed off, looked over at Mark in askance.
"Three," Mark supplied
with a tiny sputter, as shell-shocked by their brisk, intimate
efficiency and strange vocabulary as I was.
"Nineteen eighty three
and as such, I am only seven years old, and I have absolutely
no desire for you to see me in short pants and my hideous
"Bet you were hot."
"You're sick. So, though
I am a certifiable genius at any age, I had yet to
actually design and build the highly-advanced-even-for-two-thousand-and-twelve
Communications Array for the Institute. Hence." He lifted
a sharp finger to the ceiling in emphasis, then swivelled
his wrist and pointed at his earpiece. "Glorified decoration."
She sucked on her lips, amused,
and poked his arm slowly and deliberately. "Let's not
talk about stuff that's classified in front of the civvies,
sweetie," she said softly. Immediately Basil looked contrite
and ducked his head, the high spots of mottled pink on his
cheek bones sliding away. "So back to my original question:
think you can use what's here?"
Basil rocketed out of the
kitchen chair, happy to have a distraction, a task, and picked
up the phone hanging on the wall.
Basil shook it, listened to
it rattle slightly, then sneered at the handset critically
like it was a cockroach found swimming in the peanut butter.
"Use it nothing!"
Basil said irritably. "Blimey, do you see this phone?
I can't use this! It's a bloody beige brick, innit?
It'll never interface!"
"Why?" Mark asked.
"Are your telephones, what, bigger in the... the future?"
He tasted the word 'future', rolled it on his tongue, then
made a face suggesting it was nasty.
She pointed to the small black
piece of plastic fitted snugly inside the shell of her ear.
A tiny little microphone that I had missed the first time
was poking down along her jaw, delicate and as thin as a guitar
"Smaller," she corrected.
"And this? Is not small,"
Basil said, shaking the phone to make it rattle again. "It's
bigger than my head, Gwen."
I sucked in a breath, and
beside me Mark did the same. He sat down heavily on the kitchen
chair Basil had abandoned.
Gwen, not Gwennie, turned
her attention back to us. "Oh," she said softly,
as if just realizing now that we were still in the room with
her. "Oh, jeeze. I'm... I'm sorry. This has got to be
bizarre. I totally forgot that you have no idea
I mean, I'm used to bizarre, but you..."
"Who are you?"
Mark said softly, and I heard equal parts anger and confusion
in his voice. Warning perhaps, a little bit, as well.
Gwen sat up, straightened
her spine and smiled at us, but it wasn't the same easy smile
she'd employed in chiding Basil, the one that looked like
her Uncle Gareth's. This was regimented, precise, practical.
She slipped a black leather
square out of a pocket in her vest, flipped it open to reveal
an ID card with a postage-stamp sized picture. She held a
careful thumb over everything but her own face and name. "I'm
Specialist Gwendolyn Pierce. That's Specialist Doctor Basil
Grey. We work for... well, I can't tell you who we work for,"
she said with a rueful little head shake. With a practiced
wrist flick the ID and leather wallet vanished back into her
pocket. "We'll call it the Institute for now, because
you've heard that word already."
"An' you're from the
future?" Mark said, clearing his throat with a cough,
as if that could clear his head, too. He didn't look like
the taste of the word 'future' had gotten any sweeter.
Specialist Doctor Basil Grey,
already ripping our brand new telephone to pieces with a set
of miniature screwdrivers that he had pulled out of who-knows-where
on the vest, said: "Twenty nine years, give or take a
few months," he said.
"And you're... you can't
get back to the future?" I asked, trying to clarify,
to quantify, to (accept) understand. Gwen and Basil snorted
and giggled again, respectively, and Mark narrowed his eyes,
got that look in them like when he doesn't like the punks
in the fields tipping the cows and lets them know it. "What's
"The ... 'Back to the
Future'," Gwen began, then stopped, gasping in a breath
and floating it out in a chuckle. "Never mind. Classified.
"Sort of," Basil
agreed around the screwdriver in his mouth. He kept tapping
the screen of his hand-held television, pulling pieces out
of the phone and comparing them to the images on the machine.
"Blimey, my blackberry for a Flux Capacitor."
"And a swanky DeLorean."
Gwen grinned as if Basil hadn't just babbled something totally
incomprehensible about fruit. She made a motion with her hand,
a horizontal cutting through the air like describing the path
of an airplane.
"Can you tell us what
that thing was?" Mark asked, shaking his head at the
strange terms the two kept tossing at each other, trying to
pull them back into conversation that made senseas much
as a conversation about aliens and time travel could.
"The flying saucer in the garden?"
said again, with the practiced ease of someone who's used
the word a lot (too much). "Though the term 'flying saucer'
is considered derogatory."
the organization that classified it hasn't actually been started
yet," Basil pointed out, mimicking her flippant tone.
"Shut up, dear,"
Gwen said amiably.
"It was coming after...
you?" I asked, some of the clues slotting into place.
I looked at the scar on Gwen's forehead, then down to the
blood-spotted bandage on Gwennie's. "Her? To... I mean,
to stop whatever you do in the... then."
Basil frowned at the screen,
face suddenly stormy. "It don't seem right, does it?
That they'd come and get cozy just to... to do something like
"I agree that it's completely
unexpected, given their earlier behaviour," Gwen said
with a nod, and I blinked at the professionalism of it. "They
were warm and very
Gwen deflated a little, shutting
down on what she'd intended to say, tucking away an old can
of worms that had been about to be reopened. "But that's
based on us actually knowing them." So bitter.
They glared at each other
over the tablethe kind of silent battle that only an
intimate couple can have; the kind I've had with Mark. Basil
was the first to look away, turn his back, and return to dissecting
Gwen leaned over the table
to stare into the baby's face. For a long moment two pairs
of wide blue eyes regarded each other. Gwen reached across
the table and Gwennie lay perfectly still in my arms, completely
"Don't touch her,"
Basil said without looking up. "You'll make space-time
said. "What do you think this is, 'Doctor Who'?"
Gently she ran the very tips
of her fingers up the baby's soft, still arm. Tapped the pudgy
nose. Then she shivered all over once, and sat back, staring
at the tip of her finger like she was expecting the skin to
melt off, despite her own self-assurances.
"You're taking this very
well," she said abruptly, dropping her hand to her lap.
"No, I ain't," Mark
admitted. He ran a hand through his hair, making the already
over-stimulated tufts stand up in all directions. "I'm
in shock." His eyes widened a bit. "An'... an' don't
swear, young lady."
Gwen chuckled. "Yes,
Mark's stern expression melted
into something akin to wonder. "Dad," he repeated
breathily. Neither of us had expected to hear that word quite
so soon. The exhalation was his way of bumping back down to
Earth, the truth of what was happening starting to settle.
I wasn't far behind.
it well, at least," Gwen said, her words aimed at me.
"How could I not?"
I asked, because it had landed in me the same time as it had
in my husband. I knew, I knew that this woman was my
child, mine, felt it down in the same place I felt
Gwennie. "You have Mark's eyes. My hair. Gareth's smile."
Gwen lifted a hand and covered
her mouth. "Uncle Gareth died in" Her eyes
were drawn back to the bandage on the baby's head. "You
told me I fell down the basement stairs."
"You what?" I repeated,
thrown by the non sequitur and the horrible thought
that my brother Gareth was going to... no, she hadn't finished
that sentence. It could have been anything. Could be years
from now (tomorrow).
"The scar. You told me
I fell down the stairs."
Basil craned his head around
the wall, to the small flight of steps that led to the basement
family room. The basement was just a sub-level sunk a little
lower than the kitchen, entirely visible through the white
metal railings that separated it. I could stand beside the
sofa and see the table we were seated at now. Basil frowned,
crooked mouth arching down, eyebrows following.
"What? A scar like that?"
he asked, pointing at his forehead to the place where Gwen(nie)'s
mark was with the tip of his screwdriver. "It's four
steps. Oh, my god, Gwen, look at that telly! It's so fat.
Is that a betamax?"
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Trust
Basil to geekgasm all over the eighties."
* * *
I didn't have much in the
way of things to make up a meal in my house. The nearest store
was more than a fifteen minute drive up the country road,
and even that was just a glorified family-run market stand.
Neither Mark nor I wanted to leave the other alone with Gwennie
and these two. Just in case.
Aliens and spacecraft and
time travel aside, they were just hard to understand. Trying
to hold a conversation with two people who know you better
than you do, who spoke in strange half-idioms and references
to things you were unfamiliar with, while cheerfully ripping
apart every piece of technology you owned was... tedious,
to say the least.
So I pulled Hi-liner fish
sticks and McCain French Fries out of the freezer, and Basil
muttered mutinously about how that was not real fish
and chips, but Gwen clipped his ear and he ate everything
she put on his plate, and more besides.
I was starting to see how
he may have gained his slightly soft middle.
Was this really the man that
my daughter, my Gwennie, was (going to be) with? Brilliant,
acerbic, nerdy, pudgy, rude, back-peddling hairline? I had
envisioned a farmer with dirty blue jeans and a lazy smile
that he flashed at me whenever he asked for more apple pie,
or a cop with bright white teeth and a penchant for bringing
home flowers, or the manager of a supermarket with dependable
hours and a good benefits package. Instead she had found a
squirrelly, potty-mouthed mech-head.
They were easy around each
other, touched casually and insulted affectionately, but I
couldn't be certain they were together. If they were,
then what was wrong? They weren't even engaged yet, if her
bare fingers were anything to go by. She was nearly thirty!
And Gwen herself
Specialist? (Nerd?) I wanted her to be a ballerina.
A nurse. The prettiest girl in school, all the boys after
her but smart enough to know that a man won't marry used goods.
Instead she was single, childless, her social life lost in
the secret bunkers of a covert military operation. That was
not the life I had in mind for my daughter. She was supposed
to be the Fall Fair Queen, not a
Killer, I said again
to myself, to be sure that it was the word I meant. Yes. Gwen
had looked at the knife so precariously close to Gwennie's
tiny throat, and shot that thing point blank in the face.
In the face. No warning shot, no demands for surrender.
Just a pulled trigger and
the spray of stuff (brains) all over the grass.
For a split second, empty.
This was my daughter.
The fishsticks make a bid
for freedom and I swallowed once, heavily.
The milk glass clutched in
my hand groaned, and the eyes of everyone at the tablesave
for Gwennie, who was solemnly massaging her ketchup into her
hairturned to me. Mark cleared his throat, which he
only ever did when he was nervous, and said, "Evvie?
Honey? You okay?"
"Yes," I lied. I
set down the glass carefully. "I'm not
I stood, cleared away my dishes, scraped the half eaten fries
into the garbage and dropped the plate into the sink.
Your daughter is a killer.
Gwen's mouth went tight around
the edges, her eyes blue marble.
Unable to resist the motherly
impulse, I grabbed Gwennie up out of her highchair, pulled
her close, sucked in the scent of starchy sugar and processed
tomatoes and baby. "I'll give her a bath," I said
to no one, and fled upstairs before anyone could protest or
see the way my hands shook.
* * *
The sound of the water running
to fill the bathroom sink drowned out the conversation downstairs.
I hated abandoning Mark to a room filled with strange words,
but I couldn't, couldn't stay in that kitchen with
that uncanny woman. Unnatural.
That stranger who was my
Gwennie blew contented snot
bubbles until the water was ready, fingers grasping alternately
my shirt or more of the ketchup, turning my clothing into
a palette of red and green smears. An artist maybe?
I thought, smiling down at her.
With a jolt of startled horror,
I realized that no, no, of course Gwennie wasn't going to
grow up to be an artist. She was going to be a soldier. A
Specialist. She was going to wear black and bullet proof vests
and telephones in her ear. She was going to carry a boxy gun
on her hip. She was going to use it.
I began shaking hard all over,
and if weren't for fear of hurting or startling Gwennie, I
probably would have collapsed to the floor and had a self-indulgent
good screaming fit. As it was, I sank down and sat on the
toilet lid and cried quietly, miserably into her little neck.
Gwennie patted my cheek with
sticky, saucy fingers; a small, soft comfort. It's okay,
Mom. It'll be okay. And then she smiled at me with my
brother's (dead) smile.
What will happen to Gareth?
"I love you," I
whispered into Gwennie's reddened wisps of ketchup-matted
hair. "I love you and even though I want you to do what
makes you happiest, don't be like her." The words stopped
up my throat, felt disingenuous and unfair and tasted horrible
but only because they were true, true, true. I sobbed
harder, hiccoughing against Gwennie's shoulder. "Please,
please, please, don't be like her. Be better. Be good."
And that was a stupid thing
to say because nobody ever was, not as easy as that, but it
was unfair, so unfair that I had to see it, so totally,
so perfectly, so soon.
Beside me, the water in the
sink began to overflow, pattering a syncopated staccato against
the floor, and I stood up quickly, yanking on the taps before
the bathroom rug got too soaked. Gwennie looked torn between
confusion and amusement. The back of my eyes burning with
the rest of the tears that I didn't let fall, I set Gwennie
down on the damp countertop and stripped her quickly of her
onesie with shivering hands. I dropped it into the trash.
I never wanted to look at it again. I didn't want to remember.
Even if I did ever get the blood stains out of it, every time
I saw the little elephants on the cotton candy clouds, all
I would think of would be aliens and knives and how Gwennie
had almost... almost...
I removed her diaper as well,
soiled but not too dirty, and then the gauze bandage on her
forehead. She squealed when the tape came away with some of
her hair and I gathered her back close, whispering soothing
nothings against her head. She sniffled miserably, not entirely
sure if the pain was worth full-blown tears. I talked her
out of them and pulled back again to take stock of the cut.
It was longer than I thought
it would be, judging by the scar on Gwen's forehead. It arched
back into her hairthat same hair covered it on grown-up
Gwen, but Gwennie's was still baby fine. The cut was a little
deeper than I thought at first glance, too. The tip of the
knife had done more than nick her. So close. It wasn't
bleeding any more, and clotting just fine, but I wondered
if perhaps we should go into the hospital for some stitches
after all. The thought of having to try to explain to the
doctor that an alien from twenty nine years in the future
had been trying to cut my baby daughter's throat to prevent
her from growing up and blowing its face off was too much,
and I scrubbed at my eyes with the heels of my hands.
No, I knew how to take care
of cuts. My brothers had gotten hurt enough around the farm
when we were children, and with my father out in the fields
all the time and my mother sometimes in town running errands,
it was up to me to patch them up. Some gauze, some tape, and
a careful eye to avoid infections, and Gwennie would be none
the worse for wear.
Save for the puffing white
scar that would mar her perfect little forehead for the rest
of her life.
Gwen wore her hair long on
the right side of her face. She kept patting it down. I hoped
fervently that wasn't the result of some sort of bullying
or a complex about her appearance that she had developed during
her childhood. I wasn't sure how to even think about
Gwennie at school, much less Gwennie at school getting bullied.
I didn't want to dwell on it, but with all the technobabble
she and Basil spouted at each other, there was a distinct
possibility that my (prom queen) daughter would turn out a
Picked on. Loser. Outcast.
Was that why she was in some
name-less military branch, involved with such a... horrible,
rude man? Was she hiding? Did she feel she didn't deserve
Testing the temperature of
the water in the wide bathroom sink and deeming it cool enough,
I set Gwennie down to sit in it. Immediately she began slapping
the surface of the water joyously with the palms of her hands,
splashing the mirror, the wall, and me. Tenderly, I worked
the mild shampoo into her hair, avoiding the cut carefully,
and rinsed it off with a scooped hand.
The water turned ketchup-red.
I stared at it for an unmoving
second, then I pulled Gwennie out. I had just enough time
to pull her dripping wet against my side and flip open the
toilet lid before I puked.
It tasted like fishsticks
and ketchup and disappointment and I hated, hated that
this was happening to me. Gwennie was completely still against
my body, clinging with curled fingers like a sloth. I flushed,
unplugged the sink drain, and set Gwennie down on a thick
towel on the floor of the tub before I cast about for the
dusty bottle of mouthwash that was jammed against the back
of the cupboard under the sink.
Just as I spat the lumpy,
sticky green liquid out of my mouth, for once happy for the
overpowering medicine, the sweet alcoholic burn at the back
of my teeth, I heard a voice float up through the half-open
window. With a glance at Gwennie, who was happily mouthing
her big toe, eyes getting droopy already, I went to the window,
folded my hands over my fluttering stomach, and looked down.
The lower half of Basil was
poking up out of the ruined cockpit of the spaceship, and
he was tossing electrical components up into the air, over
his shoulders to fall with a distant thud against the turf
like in a cartoon. He was complainingloudlyabout
how he was a scientist and not a grunt and the
hiding of evidence was not supposed to be his job.
It was hardly eavesdropping
if he was speaking so loudly.
"Well, whose job is it
supposed to be?" Gwen asked, rubbing her hands on the
thighs of her pants as she emerged from between the rows of
corn. A quick glance at where the alien's body used to be
told me what she had been doing out there.
said. "She's our clean up man." Then, "Oh,
"I'm stuck. Mybollocksmy
bloody sleeve! Grab my trousers."
Gwen snorted. "What now?
said happily. "Pull me out."
With a mighty tug, Gwen had
Basil out of the spaceship and sprawled half on the lawn and
half on her. His left sleeve was in complete tatters, revealing
more pale skin beneath. He rolled over, took advantage of
their position, and kissed her thoroughly. I felt like a voyeur,
more because this was my daughter and herwhat, lover?
Boyfriend? Fiancé? I didn't even know, anymore.
Basil sat up, and waved something
in her face that was silverish and sprouting wires like feathers.
"Got it," he said triumphantly. "Now
we can go back inside and I can murder your father's overcompensating
excuse for a video player, and get us the bloody hell out
Gwen's grin was wide and twinkling
and oh-so-much like Gareth's and at the same time baby Gwennie's
that my stomach lurched sideways and I thought maybe I was
going to be sick again.
"Look," Basil added,
digging into his breast pocket and coming up with a small
shining disk. I was too far away to be able to tell, but it
looked like it was made out of some sort of multicoloured,
shining plastic or steel. "They even left us music to
work by." Basil snorted and shoved it in his pocket without
looking at it again. "What would I play it in, anyway?"
"Certainly not the betamax.
You know, when we get back, Dad will make you pay for it."
"With interest. Balls."
Basil scratched the side of his nose, leaving a long smear
of rainbow-slick engine fluid along his cheek. "I'll
buy him an HDTVone of the posh ones that go flat against
the wall, yeah?"
Gwen pulled a tissue from
her pocket and scrubbed at the smear, and though he winced,
Basil suffered manfully.
"I can't wait to see
the look on his face when he sees us again," Gwen said,
eyes on his cheek.
"On both their
faces," Basil added happily.
And as quickly as that, the
laughter was murdered.
"I can't do this,"
Gwen admitted brokenly, in a rush, and that was when the shaking
started. She buried her face into Basil's neck, her back hitching
with visible, wrenching dry sobbing gasps that struck me,
made my heart hurt and the back of my throat close up.
I was torn.
I wanted to go down, hold
her, touch her and soothe, but this woman was not my child
and I wanted nothing (everything) to do with her and her misery.
She was (mine) not what I
Her eyes were wet, but I saw
no tears on her cheeks, and she was blinking furiously, refusing
to let them fall as much as I had moments earlier. A family
"Shhh, shhh," Basil
said, running his fingers through the hair at the back of
her head, toying with the small curls that were really my
curls, flipping them across fingernails etched with the guts
of electronics and the mechanical oils (blood) of the spaceship.
He nudged her forehead gently with his nose, murmuring things
too soft and intimate for me to hear directly into her ear.
He raised his chin, kissed her scar once, kissed each dry
eyelid, then her mouth, comforting and crooked and so filled
with want that I had to look away, at the floor, at
the rug, at Gwennie dozing, snuffling haplessly against the
"Right then," I
finally heard Basil murmur. "What can't you do?"
"I can't go back in there.
I can't..." and the sucking of breath started again,
a bit slower, and bit quieter. When I turned back to look
again her face was pale, sheeted with cold sweat, but there
were still no tears on her cheeks. "I can't face her."
"Who, your mother?"
It felt like a punch in the
"Did you see the way
she looked at me? Basil... she hates me."
A tidal surge of guilt, grief,
wishing the words would wink out of existence because as much
as they had hurt her they were right, right, right, and that's
what pained most of all.
"I didn't choose this!"
Gwen hissed, her shoulders hunched up by her ears, defensive,
angry, spitting. "I only translate stuff! No one told
me when I signed that confidentiality form that they were
going to split apart my world and then hand me the
puzzle and tell me to reassemble it with a gun."
"None of us did, Gwen,
be fair," Basil said softly.
"I'll be fair when she's
fair! Fuck." I blinked at the cuss, wondered idly
which one of us she learned it from, because I couldn't, didn't
want to see the rage that it translated instead. "The
way she... I didn't want to be a... a soldier. I didn't
want any of this!" She threw her arms out, gestured
at the back yard, the hole in the ground, the place where
the corn bordered the grass. "I am in the past,
my past, where I caused the scar on my own forehead
by blowing off the head of an assassin from another
planet and my mother hates me, and this is just
way too freaking 'StarGate' for my comfort level!"
Didn't want to?
I saw the half smile try to
slide into the corner of Basil's mouth. "Does that make
me McKay? I most definitely am the engineering geek. And you
could be Sam. 'Cause Amanda Tapping? Hot."
Wasn't a soldier.
Gwen punched his arm. "Kinda
having an existential crisis here!"
"Ow," Basil muttered
morosely, and instead of hitting back, wrapped his arms around
her shoulders, reeling her in, holding her against his chest
and kissing the top of her head, the shell of her ear, the
line of her neck. "I love you," he said. "And
I'm here with you, and for now, that's good enough, innit?"
Saved my life.
"I miss..." she
whispered into his shoulder.
Saved her own.
Basil's breath hitched. "I
miss him, too. I wish he was here."
"That wasn't what I was
going to say. I don't. I can't believe... the least he could
have done was admit to it. Let me hate him all the
way, instead of playing fucking innocent up until the moment
they blew out his"
"You don't mean
that, Gwen," Basil said, his voice high and a little
desperate. He pulled her close, buried her face in his neck,
rocking her. "Yeah? You don't mean that."
Only doing what she has
Basil pressed his cheek against
her hair, swaying them back and forth, one hand around her
head, one arm tight around her neck. His own breaths were
short and uneven, panicked. "You don't really mean that,
you can't, you loved him."
What she has to.
Gwen pushed him away, enough
to look up into his face, head craned like a furious, puce-faced
Scarlet O'Hara. "Just rig up a damn flasher. Get me the
hell out of here." She sniffled once, then hiccoughed
out something that would have been a laugh if it hadn't been
so wet sounding. "Before we descend into more bad sci-fi
Basil snorted out a little
puff of laughter, which ruined the Rhett Butler pose, but
still tilted his head so their noses wouldn't bump, kissed
her long and slow and sad.
"They just shot him,"
Basil said against Gwen's lips, shaking like an addict, pulling
back just a fraction to give his mouth just enough mobility
to form words. "There was nothing I could do. Aitken
panicked and just... just shot him."
"Kalp sold us out,"
Gwen said back, a bitter, chiding reminder.
"He didn't, you can't
"Can't think what?"
Gwen hissed. "They knew that we started training
the microsecond after the first assassination. Somebody
told them what kind of training we were doing. Somebody
was selling them information."
"That doesn't mean it
"Well who else?"
Gwen snarled. She pressed her hands against his shoulders,
trying to push him away, but he wouldn't let go, fisted his
hands in the fabric of her shirt. "He was found with
the keycard. All that time he was with us"
"All that time he was
in our bed"
"All that time he talked
about units and 'it's the person, not the plumbing'.
He made us look like fools." Basil kissed her
temple, the top of her head, her cheek, pleading her to stop,
silently, desperately. "The Institute stood up on international
fucking television and condemned the protesters for being
such racists, such goddamned homophobes, for him, defended
what we had for him, and he... he..."
She buried her face in his
neck again, and her shuddering grief was palatable in the
night air. I imagined I could taste the salt of her unshed
tears, feel her shaking against my own hands. Basil reached
up, brushed the pad of his thumb across her forehead, the
"He did that to me. It's
his fault," she said, trying viciously to squash
whatever affection Basil still clung to.
I left the window, gathered
Gwennie up, put on a new bandage and some antiseptic cream
which she protested with a dozy whimper, and went to put her
down in the nursery. Mark was already there, standing beside
Gwennie's open window, staring at the back yard, the teddy
bear he had bought Gwennie before he had ever met her clutched
in his arms.
"I don't hate her,"
I confessed, quietly, as I set Gwennie down in her crib. "It's
not hate, it's..." How could I hate her when she was
suffering just as much (more) as I was? "But I'm scared
of her. What she's brought with her."
"Reckon she's scared,
too," Mark replied.
* * *
Twilight, and Mark went out
to the barn to do the last of the day's milking. I went upstairs
to check on Gwennie and wake her for her feeding. I didn't
expect that either of us were going to sleep any time soon,
but the little rituals of the world didn't stop just because
two people had dropped out of the sky. I found Basil standing
in the dark at the foot of Gwennie's crib, staring. I shifted
from foot to foot in the doorway, then made a decision.
"Do you want to hold
her?" I asked.
He raised his head slightly,
not surprised by my sudden question, and I realized that he
had probably known I was there the whole time. He was (scary)
special ops trained. "Don't want to wake her," he
"She's going to wake
herself in about five minutes." I padded across the wooden
floor to stand beside him and stare down at my child. I held
out the bottle. "I've discovered that if I do the waking,
she's less cranky than if she does it on her own."
Basil took the bottle with
another small, crooked grin. "That's truth for the next
twenty nine years, too," he admitted.
I reached down into the crib,
rubbed Gwennie's tummy gently until she cracked a sleepy,
hopeful eye at me. Food time, Mom?
Basil chuckled. "I know
that face. That's the where's my damn coffee face."
Gwennie suffered me scooping
her up, offering nothing more than a gummy yawn when I transferred
her to Basil's arms.
"Mind her head,"
I said softly, and obviously needlessly, because Basil already
had a large, gun-calloused palm cradling her expertly.
He lifted the bottle to her
mouth, hummed a bit when she took the nipple without protest,
and smiled. "She looks like a tennis ball. Just like
my sister's kids," he said.
"You have a sister?"
I asked, seizing on the tidbit of information. Wanting desperately
to make (it right) conversation.
"Mm," he said, nodding
once, slowly. His eyes never left Gwennie's face, mesmerized,
probably looking for the woman he loved in the baby fat and
button nose. I had done the opposite earlier. "Two. Older.
Right horrors to grow up withteased me for years. We
got close after they both got married, and I realized how...
empty my life is. Was." He smiled softly, and I knew
he was seeing things, people behind his eyes, that I could
never know. "Used to be."
Another question danced around
the room, and I ignored it, even as I felt it crawl into my
mouth. "What's a Kalp?" I asked instead, frantic
to keep the sound of voices in the semi-dark, or I might forget
that he was human, might forget that they saved me, might
forget that he was hurting, might forget everything but my
own irrational fear and that these people were strange.
And that I (pitied) loved
Had to love her because I
couldn't hate her.
"Who," Basil corrected
he was killed by, uh
Specialist. He was
he was smart. He was
Basil swallowed hard. "He used to mean a lot to Gwen
and me. Before... well, before."
He looked up, eyes finding
the silhouette of the corn against he darkening sky, seeing
people and shadows and things that made the corner of his
crooked mouth pull down. "Kalp lived with us. We were
a... an Agla team," he said, correcting himself
before he actually made the verbal slip, mindful of his audience.
He gave a little huffing chuckle. "Kalp wanted to get
chickens, 'cause the people in the movies always have chickens.
He devoured movies, liked the way the hum of the electronics
felt against his skin. Never mind that we only had a small
garden. A fox got one, and Gwen had to strangle it with her
bare hands. I couldn't bear to watch, but the sound was enough.
Kalp made mushroom sauce and I refused to go into the kitchen
until its eyes were gone. Gwen thought it was the funniest
He frowned again, trailed
off, closed his eyes.
Basil seemed disinclined to
say anything more. The other question weighed heavily on my
tongue, pressing until I would suffocate from it if I didn't
"How can you love her?"
Basil looked up, really looked
me in the face for the first time, and stared at me with cold,
firm eyes. "Do you think I would still be with Gwen if
I didn't? Especially after Kalp?"
"I didn't mean"
"Yes. You did."
The loud sucking pop of Gwennie
smacking her lips off the nipple startled me, and I bundled
her close when he passed her back, lifting her over my shoulder
to rub her back. I wanted to run, out of the room, out of
the house, out of this strange 'Twilight Zone' episode, but
Gwennie needed burping, needed tucking in, and Mark would
want to wash up, I had dishes to do, bottles to prepare...
"I should be working,"
Basil said. "We need to get back. Fix this."
"What about the other
people?" I asked. Already Gwennie's eyes were getting
heavy, but I wouldn't put her down until she had belched.
I patted her back encouragingly, perhaps a bit too vigorously.
"What about them?"
Basil asked coldly.
"Aren't you worried that
other people are ceasing to exist all over the place?"
Basil sighed, rubbed his eyes
with the thick pads of his fingers. "Not to be callous,
but the only people I'm worried about right now is me and
Gwen. The other people, the babies being murdered? Well, I
don't know them. They never grew up, never became Specialists.
The world shifted and someone else took their place, and those
someone elses are my friends, aren't they? I never knew them,
so if they die I don'tI won't care."
"That is callous,"
I said angrily, pulling Gwennie tight against my chest. She
responded with a little urp! in my ear. "You may
not know them, but they're still someone's child."
Basil looked at the floor.
"Look, the machines only have enough power to flash every
few days, which doesn't really mean a lot when it comes to
time travel, but it's a better hope than anything else. So
if we can get back there before they go off again, then we'll
do what we can, okay? I don't want people dying any more than
you do, but I also have a duty to the Institute. "
I stared at him, tasted my
heartbeat on the back of my tongue. "Will they come back
"They probably know that
their assassin failed by now. So yeah, might do. Which,"
he ploughed on, interrupting my next question, "is why
I must go and make shiny, complicated things now. You have
the cupboard next to the fridge. Six kinds."
"Lovely. Really. Another
sleepless night for the amazing Doctor Basil Grey." The
corners of his bright eyes crinkled slightly with a small
grin. "I tend to do the not-sleeping thing a lot. Lots
of close deadlines. Sort of come to live on the adrenaline
rush. Drives Kalp and Gwen mad when I crawl into bed
at dawn" He made a sour, choking face. "Drove.
Bollocks." He shook his head once, viciously.
Then he sighed, low and long, like a tire leaking. "There's
just me, and they literally have time on their side."
"I don't hate her,"
I blurted, apropos of nothing. "I just don't understand."
Basil didn't even blink. "So
go talk to her," he said. "God knows what
she needs is more trust issues right now."
* * *
Gwen was sitting at the kitchen
table in the dark.
She was leaning back in her
chair, the front two feet raised above the linoleum, wavering
with each indrawn breath. Her knees were braced against the
edge of the wooden table, and in her hand was a mug of milky
tea. Her jacket and her heavy vest were piled artlessly on
the end of the table, leaving her in a black tee-shirt that
revealed well toned arms.
Did the musculature come from
lifting books or bullets?
Her feet were bare, and I
could see that under her military tightness she still had
a bit of girl lefther toenails were a fun but elegant
purple. Her hair was down, half flattened in the back where
she had presumably been lying on it, unsuccessful in her attempt
to sleep, and she still wore her little black piece of plastic
in her ear.
Is it permanent? I
wondered. Can it even come out?
She heard me walk in. I didn't
make a secret of it, didn't want to be spying on her in the
night. She looked down at her mug, the remnants of a wistful
smile ghosting across her mouth before it flattened again.
"Chamomile tea, with a splash of hot milk," she
said, holding the mug up slightly before letting it drop back
into her lap, and wrapped both hands around it to leech on
"That's what I drink,"
I offered, "when I can't sleep."
Slowly, out of respect for
her bone-deep weariness and her high-strung paranoia, I moved
gently and deliberately around the kitchen to fix myself a
matching mug. When I had tea of my own, I sat in the chair
opposite her and sipped.
I had questions. Of course
I had questions. Hundreds. Millions. What was your first word,
who was your best friend, when was your first kiss? What were
your grades like? Did I buy you the prom dress you wanted?
Do you get on with your Dad? How long have you been with Basil?
Have I met him already? Do you love (hate) me?
Did I like Kalp?
Did I (approve) ever meet
Were you happy?
I wasn't going to ask them,
because then where would the little joyful surprises of her
life come from? I had already hurt her (myself) enough with
my carelessness and curiosity, and judging by what Basil had
said, someone else hating her was the last thing Gwen needed
"You know..." she
said slowly, and almost so softly that I didn't hear it. I
stilled, let her chew on her thoughts like she was chewing
on the bottom of her lip, peeling at a little flake of dry
skin with her teeth. "You know," she said again,
"those movies where the aliens come to Earth, and they...
I dunno, they try to steal our natural resources, or create
a nuclear winter so they can turn the Earth into slag, or
they melt the polar ice caps and New York is under fathoms
of water, or they clone us for slaves, or create terrifying
bioweapons and wipe us all out and use our cities for farmland,
or... all that stuff?"
My heart trembled. I could
taste my pulse and my fear, thready and metallic on the back
of my tongue. "Yes," I said softly. (Please no.)
She looked up. "It was
nothing like that."
I let out a breath I didn't
realize I'd been holding, forced my shoulders down, away from
my ears, exhaling the (terror) stale air.
She sat forward, and the legs
of her chair landed with a soft thump, set her mug down with
a muted thock. She looked up, eyes I'd known for only
eight months meeting mine, eyes that she had known for twenty-nine
years. She folded her fingers on the table top, stretched
them out like a fan, curled them in again. I waited.
"They were refugees,"
Gwen went on softly, out of deference for Basil toiling so
diligently down in the sub-basement with his clinking tools
and muted cusses. "Their world, it had gone out of whack.
You know about centrifugal force?" I shook my head slightly.
She reached out; fingers splayed along the rim of the cup,
turned it slowly clockwise. "Planets spin like this,
right? That's what keeps them... together. That's part of
what makes gravity, like... like when you swing a bucket of
water up over your head."
I nodded, yes, I understood.
asteroid, meteor, whatever, space junkcrashed
into the planet, big enough to change the speed of their revolutions."
She jerked her mug to the side, let it spin and bounce wildly
for a second, but caught it before it crashed to the linoleum.
"Oh," I said.
"Part of their world
suffered from the debris cloud, no sunlight, little air. So
many of them suffocated, and those who didn't starved to death.
Like the dinosaurs. It was cracking apart, tectonic plates
rupturing, magma thrown into the air, pieces of mountains
just cracking off and going spinning into space. The force
was too great, the gravity became crushing, and the dust cloud
was spreading. They escaped. Just one small ship. A population
of billions reduced to one thousand, three hundred and thirty
She traced a circle in the
small spot of tea that had been jostled out of her mug, drew
something that could have been a smiley face, could have been
an alien refugee vessel. I waited.
"They found the Voyager
probe out past... uh, you still call it an actual planet,
don't you? Huh. Well, past Pluto. The probe it... it had the
coordinates of Earth, a message of peace, samples of music
and plants and atmosphere. They learned about Earth and just...
showed up. I remember that day. You remember days like that.
The day Chernobyl went up, the day Princess Di died, the day
the Twin Towers fell, S.A.R.S., the day the eastern seaboard
I sucked in a breath at that
list, and couldn't decide if I should commit it to memory
or try to forget it entirely. Gwen didn't seem to notice.
"The day they came, I
was eye-ball deep in the library, chasing some obscure translation
out of the Welsh for my PhD thesis. I yelled at my best friend
for running in and shutting the book on my fingers. She dragged
me to the window and pointed up and said... 'Look'.
She stopped playing with the
spilled tea, glanced back up at me, shrugged elegantly and
sort of sideways. "An international committee was formed,
the U.N. ran it, and they started recruiting as many people
as they could getlinguists, mechanics, engineers, cultural
anthropologists, biologists, physiologists, social workers,
botanists, sci-fi geeks. We became a force. The Specialists."
Gwen smiled once, warm. "The
something-something Institute of blahdity-blah-blah, actually.
We just say 'The Institute' for short. I was so proud when
they tapped me. Specialist Pierce. Has a nice ring to it,
doesn't it? So happy to be human, to be representing
us. It was all very top secret of course, didn't want mobs
freaking out or anything, so I told you that I had been given
a study grant to do an extra few years of my PhD at some university
in Europe..." She looked back at the empty mug by her
hand, at the sad damp teabag in the bottom. "We fought.
You didn't want me to go. We haven't spoken since. I thought
I was trying to protect
you, I wanted to say. I knew that's why; I knew what was
going to happen. That she would end up (miserable) here.
Is that what time was? Basil
said that other people would have stepped in to take the place
in the Institute of the babies who were murdered. If there
were any others. Would time and the universe and whatever
else make sure that no matter what I did or what I tried to
do, Gwen would still end up here, hurting and alone, in the
Could I actually change anything?
Silently, she stood, took
up her mug, went back to the kettle and refilled it, placed
it on the hob, and waited for it to boil. She said nothing,
and neither did I, both of us paused like a video. When she
came back to the table, her mug steaming again, she took a
sip and contemplated what to say next.
She settled on: "We were
doing good work." It looked like she wanted to
say more, say something else, say something (personal) important.
Instead she went on with her story. "There weren't many
of them, see, so it was easythey settled in Canada mostly,
or in European countries; communities used to people who are
different. To immigration. We taught them how to use zippers,
which side of the road to drive on, social etiquette, street
slang. We taught them that baring your teeth is considered
polite, not a threata smile. Kalp thought I was doing
some strange tuneless singing the first time he heard me laugh.
It gave him goose bumps because... oh, you know, they hear
with their skin, sort of like... uh, echo locations andand
it's actually kinda thrilling when they touch you and... you
know what? Never mind."
She pinked a bit, shy and
feminine under the military shell.
"They taught us
how to build vehicles that run on solar power, how to predict
major earthquakes up to seven months before they're going
to hit, the best way to throw a curveball and shoot a slapshot.
How to form a cohesive family unit. How to get over our piddling
gender issue bullshit; the countries that hadn't legalized
same-gender marriages wised up fast. " Another quick
and guilty eye flick. "But the Institute, that's where
I met Basil. He was trying to reverse engineer a sort of mechanical
wind-surfer and kept futzing the directions because he couldn't
read all of the alphabet. They sent him to my office and...
God, he was an asshole. I actually dreaded the
days he was scheduled with me. Then one day he asked me to
translate this really dirty poem he'd found and
She blushed again, the same
shy pink that let me know that there was a woman under the
academic patter, the regimented brusqueness. I sipped my tea,
said nothing, afraid that whatever came out of my mouth would
be (prejudiced) ridiculous. So much I couldn't follow.
"Then we met Kalphe
was an engineer, tooand me and Basil, we all met at
the Institute. They made us into a research team, but Kalp
thought it was... like, some cultural arranged marriage thing...
so he kept... It was a huge disaster." The corners of
her eyes crinkled a bit. "Kalp couldn't understand why
I was so angry that he was trying to dance with Basil.
On their planet it's in threes. Makes it easier, because how
can two people possibly raise a child alone without sleep
deprivation and going broke or nuts? He didn't quite understand
that here we... he was so
innocent. So sincere.
He was so good for us." Her pale eyes flashed with sudden
bleak fire. "I'm such an idiot."
She trailed off, and I tried
to swallow my heart. Her gaze roamed up the wall opposite,
dark and shaded and once again unreadable. No, not unreadable;
just used to being judged.
Both of them?
I wanted to say no,
and that's disgusting, I wanted to, but I could see
the pain in her eyes, see that she loved him, missed him,
even as she hated him. Can the world stay the same, after
aliens show up and your best friend tells you to 'look'?
"He was... it
was... it was nice, really nice. Our time together. The three
of us. There was opposition, of course, there's always opposition.
But it's the Institute's job to spearhead changechange
on Earth when it's better, change among them when it wasn't.
They had to get used to new things too, but then... it
I wrapped my hands tightly
around my own mug, white-knuckled, because otherwise I would
get up and go around the table and wrap her in my arms, and
I wasn't sure if she'd want (need) my pity or comfort. My
sudden aching guilt. Regret.
I asked instead.
She shrugged again, looking
more helpless this time. "I don't actually know."
The downward slope of her shoulders matched the small miserable
curve of her mouth. "One minute I'm translating alien
blueprints and the next I'm in an underground bunker being
initiated into a covert black ops squad. Kalp was put under
house arrest. I went from practicing how to use alien dining
utensils to being taught how to shoot a gun, how to disassemble
and clean it, how to pull a pin with my teeth, the best place
to aim if you're trying to... to k-kill..."
She grimaced at the tremor
in her own voice, swallowed the scalding tea and grimaced
again at the heat of it. She pulled her lips inwards until
they were a frustrated white knife-slice, her eyes bright
and wet but her cheeks pale and dry.
The swell of motherly desperation
surprised me, but didn't. Its intensity but not its existence.
She coughed once, sipped more
tea, but slowly this time. "We knew them best. We're
the Specialists." She spat the word, ran a hand
through her hair, and I knew it was to disguise the way it
was shaking, so I didn't look. "Thought we knew
them best. We heard about the flashing, but we thought it
was locational. Kalp and Basil and I, our team was assigned
to figuring out how they workedwe'd recovered one from
an averted assassination." She bit at her bottom
lip, looked down at her cup, then back up to the surface of
the table. "But then Kalp got caught with
came to our house, came to arrest him and one of the... Kalp
was reaching for m-me and Aitken panicked and then..."
She shook her head vigorously, scrubbed at her eyes with her
sleeve again. "It was too easy, the way that they
knew we were coming, the way that they toyed with our Specialists.
We knew there had to be a mole, we knew. But
well, after, Basil kept working on the flasher.
It was all he'd do. He wouldn't
he never came home.
He stopped eating chicken. He just
he'd just work.
When we traced another flash Basil just decided to
It wasn't finished, wasn't safe, but he was determined.
I talked him into waiting long enough to suit up, grab our
He wanted to find out who made Kalp do that to
us. We thought we'd go somewhere. But, but not somewhen.
We didn't theorize that it was temporal until... well, until
I saw you screaming in the strawberries."
That made my throat tighten
and I tried to open it again with more tea. "So they're...
they're coming back in time to... get rid of you?"
"The Specialists' personnel
records would have been easy enough to liberate from any office
in the Institutewe don't exactly keep our identities
secret from each other."
"But why do that?"
"So we're not there when
they go back." She stopped, thought for a moment, chewing
on her thumbnail. "That's sort of stupid, though, isn't
it? I mean, if it's not me it'll just be someone else. And
that means they must have something that keeps them free of
the regular flow of time, something so that their memories
aren't altered to account for the missing people. It's just
I watched the horror spread
through her posture before the realization swelled into her
face. "We'll just pop out of existence, one by one,"
she whispered softly and this time she didn't seem to be clamping
down on the shakiness of her voice. "We'll just be gone.
Maybe the Institute, hell, maybe everyone. And we won't
disappear because we won't ever have existed. No one will
remember us and no one will know we're missing, because no
one ever met us." She shook once, all over, convulsive
and revolted, then went tense and white and blank-faced; I
thought for a panic-stricken moment that she was going into
a seizure. She reigned herself back in, and her unwanted military
training took over, breathing slowing and regular again.
The weariness that was before
merely bone-deep now seemed to stretch all the way into her
soul. The tenseness melted and with it seemed to go her rigid
posture. She sagged back against the chair, tipped her head
up and rested her skull, neck bare in the moonlight coming
through the window over the sink. There was a small purple
hickey peeking out of the collar of her tee-shirt, mostly-faded.
"How many friends have
I lost? How many people have winked out of existence around
me, how many people couldn't I save because I had no memory
of them? What if I'm next?" She raised her head, looked
down the stairs at Basil's broad back, bent over a large piece
of circuitry which he seemed to be stabbing repeatedly with
a screwdriver. "God, what if he is?"
* * *
I left Gwen to her thoughts
and her misery.
I took my confusion, my worry,
my shuddering heart upstairs. Needed quiet, needed space to
(freak out) think. To process it.
Mark was already in the shower,
washing off the sweat and grime and dirt of a day's worth
of dusty work in the barn. The room held the faint hint of
barnyard and sweat and next spring's harvest. His clothes
were draped over the wicker chair in the corner. I suspected
that he had helped Basil and Gwen bury the spaceship: there
were long dark streaks of soil that ran up the shins of the
jeans. Keeping one ear open for Gwennie, I tidied up the bedroom,
putting Mark's clothes into the laundry hamper, turning down
the sheets; refolded the laundry on the foot of the bed, put
it all away, dusted the top of the dresser with a sock destined
for the wash.
Anything to keep my hands
busy and my brain occupied.
I didn't change into my pyjamas.
When I'd run out of things to do, I just sat on the edge of
the bed and waited. When Mark came out of the bathroom he
was in a fresh tee-shirt and jeans. Neither of us wanted to
drop into unconsciousness yet.
Not with strangers (soldiers)
in the house.
Not with this new world under
"How you feeling?"
Mark asked, sitting on the end of the bed. He smelled like
soap and cheap shampoo. I locked my hand with his, grateful
for the warmth and support and solidity of him, the blunt
fingers, the rough bitten-down nails. He didn't seem ruffled
at all, which I knew was mostly just the stoic farmer act.
Inside he was churning just as much as me.
"I don't know anymore,"
I admitted softly. "Aliens? Time travel?"
"It's a hell of a lot
to swallow," Mark agreed.
I licked my lips, debated
telling Mark what I had learned. I decided to shareI
needed to. Whatever we spoke of would stay between
us. I felt like it was building, words like pressure behind
my Adam's apple that could strangle me.
"Gwen talked about what
happened," I blurted.
Mark said, "Yeah?"
and there was a world of curiosity in that one syllable.
"Said it was nothing
like those B movies with the guys in rubber suits. That they
were running. Needed help and shelter." I pressed my
face into his shoulder. Took a shaking breath. Then I told
him everything: about Gwen's team and the way Specialists
were suddenly being assassinated, and their covert training,
and the mole.
I left out the parts about
Gwen and Basil and Kalp's relationship, about same-gender
marriages, about proper alien family units. If I didn't talk
about, I wouldn't have to deal. Mark's lazy drawl masked
a keen mind. He had to have inferred at least as much from
Gwen's sobbing confession on the back lawn as me.
"Imagine that, Evvie,"
Mark said, bypassing the elephant sitting on the tips of each
of our tongues. "Can you imagine waking up in the morning,
seein' one of those things, all spaghetti limbs and furry
faces, walkin' its kid to catch the school bus at the end
of the lane? An' it'll be normal?"
"One of 'those things'
betrayed them," I whispered. "That's why this is
happening. I think
Mark asked, not comfortable with the concept himself.
What about STDs? I
thought suddenly, absurdly. Have they cured it in two thousand
twelve? What if the aliens brought something new with them?
What about that gay disease? All these fags, allowed to marry,
allowed to take more than one lover
is that where the
world is going? 'Wise up', Gwen said. Like this is the dark
ages. I chewed my bottom lip for a second, tried to see
it from Gwen's perspective. She'd grown up in a world where
men could marry men, where women could marry women, where
AIDs and gays and those sorts of things sounded
Here I was reacting like my mother when I had told her that
pre-marital sex was okay, and she had
Mark narrowed his eyes at
me but said nothing. I wrenched my mind back onto the conversation.
"'Those things'," I repeated. "I just don't
get it, I guess. I mean, the Specialists and everything, I
understand that. But not the
not the assassinations.
If they wanted to take over the planet or, or something like
that, then why kill only the Specialists? We gave them
our trust, opened our arms to them, and they
doing this." I didn't have to explain what this
meant, we both knew.
"I dunno," Mark
said, "That don't seem right. Like Basil said."
Mark pronounced it Bay-zil. "Why go to all that
trouble? Especially if they knew that the Institute could
follow them. They had to have known Basil had a flasher doohickey.
`Less they don't know that it won't work?"
"I know," I agreed.
"Like me pushin' that
tractor into a pond and then hollerin' to people to come see.
It don't do anything in the end but get you in trouble."
"I thought you said that
it was the McKinnion boys that did that," I said suspiciously.
"And that they framed you."
Mark shifted in his jeans,
which suddenly seemed to be too tight. He turned his head
to stare at the baby monitor on the bedside table. "Hear
that? Gonna go check on Gwennie," he said, and bolted
out of the room.
The only sound coming over
the little speaker were Gwennie's soft, even breaths.
* * *
Sleep was coming to no one
I gave Mark a head start and
some thinking room, then went back downstairs to fetch another
bottle. Gwennie would be waking soon, hungry and soiled. Gwen
was on her knees on the floor of the sub-basement, talking
in low murmurs with Basil, handing him a tool occasionally.
Basil made little head jerks, grunts of understanding, but
his eyes never left the device in his hands. A little tip
of a moist pink tongue poked out of the corner of his lips.
I went over to the fridge,
pulled out the bottle I had prepared before dinner, set it
in the little pot of water we left on the stove for the purpose
of heating it.
The rustling sound of clothing,
the padding of socked feet across the kitchen floor, and "Why
aren't you asleep?" Gwen asked from over my shoulder.
I felt a smile wanting to
tug at my lips. "Why aren't you?"
admitted straightforwardly, and something hitched at the back
of my throat.
"Want to talk about it?"
I heard rather than saw her lean back against the kitchen
counter across from me. "You know, I've always wondered
why you never planted anything in the dead patch above the
I chuckled. "I won't
be able to rotor-till there without breaking the tines."
"But the grass never
grew back. High foreign metal content, maybe?" I heard
her snort, partially a laugh, partially hysteria. "In
advance, I apologize for the stupid lie about the Europe scholarship.
I should have thought of something better. You knew the whole
time. I must have sounded like an idiot."
"I already forgive you,"
I said. I meant it.
"And... and the fight
too. The... the last thing you said to me was, 'I have something
to tell you', but I hung up. I cancelled my cell, moved
away. And all you wanted to do was warn me about this."
She made another strange sound, gestured up at the house,
at me, at 'this'. "I suddenly have so much more sympathy
for Marty McFly."
I turned off the hob, put
the bottle on the counter to cool a bit, and turned to face
She shook her head. "Never
mind." Her eyes went huge. "That's why you
always laugh so hard at the breakfast scene!" She clapped
her hands to the side of her head and said, "Ow. I think
I just got a mini-stroke."
I felt a smile trying to slide
across my lips and let it come. "I can't understand half
of what you say."
She dropped her hands to her
sides with a shrug. "Be thankful I'm not speaking in
Welsh. I do that when I'm tired."
I chuckled, and the exhalation
of humour felt good (a relief).
"Tea!" Basil shouted
from the sub-basement, his voice sudden and plaintive. "Teeeeaaaa!
Get us more tea, love?"
"What'd your last servant
die of?" Gwen shouted in return. The acerbity was still
there, but now I could see the affection underneath it.
"Har, har," Gwen
deadpanned, even as she moved to the sink and began to wash
up one of the dirty mugs. "Damned Basil and his tea.
I never drank this much tea before I... Oh!" Gwen said,
standing up straight suddenly, craning her head around to
look me in the face. "In grade four, when I come home
with a black eyeAnnalise McNeil really did start
it, and I didn't mean to rip my new jeans in grade seven,
oh, and I totally hated that froufrou thing you wanted me
to wear when I was the Fall Fair Queen and if you have any
love for me at all, you'll burn it the minute Esther Grace
shows it to you."
I sucked in a little breath.
"You were the Fall Fair Queen?"
She grinned. "Yeah. I
was the first one they let wear jeans to the social."
She blinked, something just
occurring to her, and lowered the sudsy mug. It clinked against
the edge of the sink. Her grin turned mega-watt (real). "You
accidentally set fire to the dress."
* * *
I padded upstairs to give
Gwennie her bottle and Gwen and Basil their privacy. I wasn't
quite sure what I expected the privacy to lead to. Surely
they wouldn't make out in our basement, especially not with
their respective exhaustion and the tenseness that the urgency
of the situation brought. For all of our sitting and talking,
they were still on a time limit.
Mark stayed upstairs to give
Gwennie her feeding, needing something to anchor him, something
solid and meaningful, something familiar, something to hold
on to. For a while, I sat in the rocking chair by the window
and just watched. When the bottle was empty, Mark began to
whisper soft, crooning things to Gwennie and I felt a little
like an interloper.
I took the empty bottle back
downstairs to the kitchen. I had no intention of eavesdropping
any further on Gwen and Basil, but the soft sound of the cassette
player in the sub-basement breathing out a tinny rendition
of Chicago's 'Hard to Say I'm Sorry' piqued my interest enough
for me to stand at the sink with my ears open.
"Where did you find that?"
Basil's voice murmured softly, above the tell-tale clinks
of his mechanical debris.
Gwen's reply was just as soft.
"Dad always kept his mix tapes in the cupboard under
"Mmm, this song makes
me want to dance," Basil said.
Gwen's laugh was light, but
melancholy. "You haven't danced since
"About time, then, innit?"
The click of tools being set
down into his little tin toolbox, the shuffle of socks against
carpet, the soft fap of hands in hands. Palm to palm.
No sound but their soft, deep breaths, the slow susurration
of an intimate, slow sway. A long, low sigh.
"You never cried for
him," Basil whispered, so low that I almost didn't catch
it. I let my hands rest gently on the edge of the counter,
noticed absently that they were balled into white-knuckled
"I'm not sad," Gwen
Basil chuckled again. I could
imagine his soft belly, warm and pillowing, bouncing slightly
against hers. "You're a horrible liar. You cried for
Lalonde, and Ogivly, and Derx. You even cried for Barnowski,
and he used to drive you up the wall. You sat there and did
the Ceremony of Mourning with their Aglunated. You and Kalp
oh. You won't do it for him, will you?"
"Why should I? The others
lost their Aglunates. I only lost a traitor."
"What if he wasn't,
I don't want to talk about it any more."
"But what if he"
Feet moving away from each
other, the cassette suddenly snapped off. An angry crash of
tools being hurled into the wall. "And you wonder why
I don't sodding come home!"
I took a step back, shoved
my hands into my pockets, gasping for the air that suddenly
evacuated my lungs.
"We are seriously not
having a domestic in my parent's basement!"
"Why not? Seems as good
a place and time as any!"
"I don't want to talk
about it any more."
A sharp wail from above our
heads put an abrupt end to their argument.
"What the hell is going
on down there?" Mark called down the stairs over Gwennie's
Gwen called back, mutinous and petulant.
When she stormed up the short
flight of stairs, and towards the back of the house, I shrank
back into the shadows and hoped she wouldn't notice. I heard
the stomp of boots being jammed on feet, the crash of the
screen door slamming against the cement wall of the mud room,
and frustrated litany of multi-lingual cussing that seemed
to reach the stars.
* * *
The old axiom was true, and
the kettle was taking its sweet time.
It seemed an eternity passed,
one long, endless night of muted, damp suffering before the
little whistle cut through the thick air. Carefully, I poured
out two cups of soothing Earl Grey tea, let them steep, and
carried them downstairs. Tea seemed to be the tool of comfort
and confession tonight, and who was I to break tradition?
This house was turning into a Hemingway story.
"Time to take a break
yet?" I asked softly, knowing that Basil had probably
heard the kettle, heard me come down the stairs.
He sighed, rubbed his eyes
with broad, calloused thumbs, and set down his screwdriver.
"Yeah," he said. His eyes slid sideways to the new
black scuff on the formerly cream wall, and he winced. "Sorry."
"Nothing a little paint
can't fix," I assured, handing him one of the cups. He
already had quite a collection of dirtied mugs peppering the
carpet around him, including Gwennie's pink elephant sippy
cup, and I wondered if I should have fixed something stronger,
like black coffee. Or a double of whiskey.
Basil seemed content though,
taking it with a muted "Cheers," and holding the
cup under his face, drinking in the warmth, the steam, the
sweet, thin, spicy scent. He shuffled on his bum over to the
couch and propped himself back against one of the arms. I
sat in the loveseat nearby and let him savour the tea, the
silence, the moment of respite.
"Suppose you heard all
that," he said, half way through his cup.
"Hard to miss,"
I answered, equally soothingly.
"She's wound up,"
he explained softly. "She's
she hasn't grieved.
Any of it. It's not
healthy. Doesn't help, me barricading
myself in my lab as I do, but I have to
to fix this, before someone else loses their
"Aglunate?" I tried
warily, tongue fumbling on the unfamiliar word.
He cut a calculating glance
at me, but decided to let the evidence that I had heard more
than just the fight slide. "Someone is trying to wipe
out the Institute," Basil offered. "We've trained
as best we can to defend ourselves, each other, but
I think they're going back in time, getting rid of those of
us that they can't assassinate, perhaps the ones that took
to the training better."
"Gwen is one of those?"
Basil nodded, mouth curled
on the edge of the mug. His upper lip was smooth, as if no
scruff had ever grown there, and I was struck for a surreal
moment by the gentleness, the kindness and intelligence that
he radiated. Not exactly the most manly of men, but his shoulders
were broad and his arms (comforting) strong, his mind keen.
"So maybe they came back
here to get rid of her that way." He touched the rim
of the cup to the centre of his forehead, held it there, using
the heat to soothe away what appeared to be a concentration-headache.
He had been squinting at his little electrical components
for hours. Too long. "Only it's a rather silly thing,
innit? Time fixes wounds like that, seals 'em back up. People
go missing, someone else will always step up, fill the role,
so they achieve nothing. Nothing 'cept, you know... dead babies."
"I suppose I should be
proud," I said, allowing myself a light chuckle, trying
to raise his spirits. "My daughter is a strong woman."
corrected. "Belligerent, obstinate, god. Really mulish
when she puts her mind to something. Couldn't kill her
unless she wanted killed."
"You really do love her."
His grin was brilliant but
brief, damp with strain and sorrow.
"And you loved Kalp,
Again, the narrowed eyes,
the quick and calculating gaze. "I loved Kalp just as
much as I love Gwen," he said a mite forcefully. Like
he'd had this argument many times before. He probably had.
"Different but just as intense. People are capable of
loving more than one person at a time."
"I'm not disputing that,"
I said softly.
He swallowed the sharp retort
he'd been planning, all the angry tension on his face falling
away, rigid posture melting to a languid sprawl.
"You're one of the few,
then," he said, just as soft.
"I don't see how it's
my business, telling people where to fall in love," I
said tightly, because I was 'wising up fast.' If I wanted
to be able to accept, to love my daughter, I would have to
also accept that this was how she chose to live her life and
there was, clearly, literally nothing I could do about
it. "Though, I wonder about..." I trailed off, looking
down at my hands.
Basil supplied and he sounded like he'd had this argument
before, too. "We're not genetically compatible, so don't
worry about that. Any child would have been mine and Gwen's,
but Kalp... K-Kalp would h-have been... I'm sorry." He
wiped his wet cheeks on the arm of his tattered sleeve.
"You miss him."
Then, "Actually, I wondered
about the wedding rings."
Basil looked up, the mottled
flush back. "Uh, Kalp's fingers... it kept slipping off.
We just, uh, didn't bother."
"And Gwen's sure
it was Kalp who
Basil set aside his tea, suddenly
not interested in it anymore. He crooked his legs, wrapped
his arms around them, rested a sharp chin on his knees. Alone.
For a moment he sat perfectly
still. Then he reached into his pants pocket, took out the
round piece of palm-sized plastic/metal from the cockpit of
the space ship, and began to flip it over the backs of his
fingers and down his hand. I'd seen people juggle coins that
After a minute of disc-flipping
Basil answered my question: "The evidence seems to say
so, but it's too
neat. Too perfect, yeah? Just one more
Specialist out of the way. Occam's Razorthe simplest
answer is probably the most correct, but the simplest answer
makes them all seem so daft."
"But Kalp wasn't a Specialist,"
I said, trying to understand it myself.
Basil made a small, frustrated
sound in the back of his throat. "That's what I mean,
innit? It makes no sense. They're not a stupid race.
Kalp was too damn smart to
to get caught that
"Unless he was framed,"
I said, voicing the thought that Basil seemed reluctant to
put into (reality) words. "And Gwen's hurting too much
to consider it. She needs someone to be angry with."
Basil nodded silently.
"Why kill Specialists?
That's what I don't understand," I admitted. "What
good would getting rid of the people who were helping them
Basil made the frustrated
sound again. "We're just the tip of the iceberg, see?
What happens below the water line, we don't know. They don't
tell us. 'Help them,' we're told. 'Learn from them,' and 'teach
them', and now 'kill them'. Only they don't tell us why. They
put Kalp under house arrest, like all of the Institute employees,
so how did the keycard get in his office? But we're all so
scared, so wound up, so strung out and our fingers are all
on the triggers and just like that, here's the traitor? Bam?
No." He picked up his tea again without looking, a long-ingrained
habit. The small disc dropped to the carpet, forgotten.
"It's too perfect."
Basil smiled wryly against
the side of his mug, lips still on the rim. "Innit?"
"Gwen doesn't see it
that way, does she, though?"
I reached out and picked up
the abandoned disc. It was lighter than I thought it would
be, like holding a piece of hard feather; plastic but too
smooth to be plastic. The futureI was holding a piece
of the future in my hands. I turned it side to side so the
rainbow refracted in the surface skittered along the edges,
then flipped it over to read the writing etched onto the other
sideRaquel Winkelaar: Live From Montréal.
"She's hurting. We've
He sighed, heavily. "And
Kalp." He counted off on his fingers: "A linguist,
a pop culture specialist, an anthropologist, a security guard,
a biologist, two of Kalp's colleagues
there's no connection.
They're not even all human. All that's left is questions and
I frowned, something tickling
the back of my mind. "Wait," I said. "All
of them had Aglunates? Is it that
Basil frowned, shook his head.
"Not really, no. Only the Specialists have formed proper
Aglunates, because you know, we've known them longer, understand
their culture. It's more accepted at the Institute, but it's
well, people are getting used to the idea. You
can't just disallow an entire part of someone's culture because
it doesn't fit into your tidy world view. The rest of the
planet will get there slowly."
The tickly something twitched
again. "So, the Specialists being killed are all Aglunated."
Basil reached out and plucked
the disc from my hand. He read the label, then sneered. "This
was an awful concert. Gwen hates Raquel, and it made Kalp's
skin ache. He squeezed my arm hard enough to make bruises."
"His skin?" Right,
yes, Gwen had said something about Kalp and the television,
him feeling with his skin, like... like a bat, maybe?
"Raquel in particular
is horrible for them. She's got this synth thing in all her
music that's all syncopated and grinding, and it just rubs
the wrong way. Drives them loony. I haven't met one of 'em
that can stand to be around her music without trying to scratch
off their own fur."
I frowned. "So why would
the pilot of the ship have her album in the cockpit player?"
All the colour slid off Basil's
face, and he shot to his feet. "Why didn't I
And I'm supposed to be a genius! I see where Gwen gets it."
He bent down, pecked a kiss to my cheek, and vanished up the
stairs in a flurry of black uniform and flashing eyes.
His mug sat abandoned on the
arm of the couch, a slow amber drop of cold tea sliding down
the pristine white side until it bloomed against the fabric.
* * *
I followed the sound of the
screen door slamming back, feet pounding across turf, the
Gwen was sitting in the lowest
branch of a gnarled apple tree on the edge of the property
between my garden and the corn. Basil tugged her leg, pulling
her to the ground, catching her against his chest.
"What the hell
"with you, what?
What pilot? Huh?"
I slipped on my garden boots,
folded my arms to fend off the chill night breeze, and crossed
the dark lawn towards them.
Basil flashed an excited,
white toothed smile. "Jesus, Gwen, the protesters.
You saw the riots when the first Aglunate was government sanctioned.
It was violent. Those people were determined."
"What's that got to do
with us? They were disbanded. Arrested!"
"All of them? Are you
sure? What I mean is... what if it's someone else?
Humans? Someone using themtheir technologyto sneak
around the Institute? All of 'em not wanting us mixing."
"What? How do you?"
"The pilot was listening
Gwen's eyes got wide. Basil
cocked his head to the side, a yes yes, you see? expression
on his face. "He was human?"
Basil nodded. "I think.
I mean, I didn't get a good lookplastic surgery maybe?
Think about itit's only human Specialists who've been
Aglunated have been targeted, yeah?"
"What about Drex?"
she trailed off, swallowed once, "Kalp?"
By now I was close enough
to join the conversation. "He was a set upa dummy,"
I said softly. "To get you to turn against your own teams.
Get the Institute fighting itself. To kill the trust between
our people and theirs."
Gwen pressed her forehead
against Basil's shoulder, and I resisted the urge to reach
out, to rub her back in soothing circles.
whispered, voice weak and shaking.
Basil was whispering quickly,
excitedly into her ear. "There are enough people who
don't want them around. Enough politics. This is just
one way to get the world's attention. Get their voices heard
without causing any actual genocide."
I said. Felt misery, anger sliding cold in my gut.
Basil snapped his fingers,
pointed at me. "Of course, The Institute is the shining
beacon of integration. Of accepting new ways. That's
gotta go, too."
Gwen frowned, looked back
up. Her cheeks were dry, and Basil's words on her stubbornness
flooded back. She still refused to mourn for Kalp.
"They picked Kalp because
of us. Because we were"
So it was all"
"and they would
have to have targeted people we knew, people they thought
were the worst offenders"
"like us, like
"set him up and
put him in a position to be murdered, the bastards"
Gwen and Basil started gap-mouthed
at each other for a moment.
Basil reached down, fingers
shaking, and wound them around Gwen's hand tightly.
Gwen sniffed, her chin shaking.
"I never cried for him," she said, eyes shining.
"I hated him and I never, I never cried
Basil pulled her flush against
his chest, buried his nose in the curls at the bottom of her
She wept, and all I could
think was finally, finally, finally.
* * *
We returned to the house,
Basil buzzing with caffeine and new purpose. Gwen retreated
to my bedroom to have some time alone, her eyes red and puffy,
her face blotched, exhaustion and weariness and grief pulling
at her shoulders.
Eventually Gwennie woke and
fussed for breakfast, disturbing Gwen in the next room over.
She stumbled out into the hall, bleary and looking no more
rested than she had when she'd gone to lay down. Mark had
gone to do the dawn milking, so that left me to juggle Gwennie
and her bottle. Gwen was willing enough to help, held her
squirming self at the kitchen table, watching the red face,
the chubby fingers, the bandage on her head.
Basil came up the stairs sometime
after Gwennie settled. He had a piece of metal, roughly a
box, cradled in his arms, three empty mugs clutched awkwardly
in one hand and his strange flat, unbelievably small computer
in the other one.
"Cheers," he said,
when I swooped in and took the mugs from him.
"Basil," Gwen said,
looking up from where she was holding the bottle to her younger
self's lips. "It has a big red button."
"Yeah, I know,"
he said with the excited grin of a child with the best shiny
new bike ever. He was practically vibrating with geeky (endearing)
excitement. "Cool, innit?"
Now, if only I could get him
to wear tight jeans and ask for a second helping of apple
pie. I had no pie to offer, so instead I said, "Shower?
Breakfast before you go?"
Gwen nodded, looking down
at herself, sniffing surreptitiously. Then she said, "Ehg.
Basil wrinkled his nose. "Oh,
I gestured at the stairs,
then held out my arms for Gwennie. "I assume you know
where the towels are?"
Gwen flashed Gareth's twinkling
smile at me. It was real and it was a relief, felt like it
melted a burden (guilt) away. Gwennie changed hands with nothing
more perturbed than a blink.
"I'll leave fresh clothes
out on my bed," I said after them as they walked up the
stairs wearily, and tried very hard not to think about the
fact that I could distinctly hear both sets of footfalls walk
into the washroom together.
I busied myself with dishes
and laundry and Gwennie.
When they came back downstairs,
Gwen was wearing the dark jeans and bright teal sweater I
had laid out for her. She was shifting her shoulders around,
grimacing. "Shoulder pads?" She asked me, gesturing
at them. "They're hideous."
"Lady Di has shoulder
pads," I said, reaching out and adjusting them to sit
Basil made an unflattering
sound in the back of this throat. He was wearing his uniform
pants, as none of Mark's were big enough, but a clean, machine
faded tee-shirt that stretched across work-sculpted pecs,
and he actually looked quite dependable. I already knew that
he worked unreasonable hours, but I wondered if he had a good
Did he bring home flowers?
* * *
Breakfast was a rather subdued
affair: runny scrambled eggs that I couldn't cook properly
because Basil had taken a piece out of our microwave without
telling us, and toast that was slightly burnt for the same
reason. The tea was hot because he'd had the good sense to
have left the stove and kettle alone.
It had taken some convincing
to get them to sit down for one last meal with us, and I had
a feeling that Gwen knew I had ulterior motives. Motives that
were harder to talk about than I had assumed they would be.
They sat there like a sixth diner in the corner, and hulked
until I just couldn't take the tiptoeing around it any longer.
"I want to apologize,"
Mark didn't look surprised,
nor did Basil. Gwennie was calmly and with great dignity giving
herself an egg facial, and Gwen didn't look up from her mug.
"I didn't mean to make
you feel..." I looked at Mark, trying to search for the
correct word in his face. He found it first in mine.
Gwen put her mug down on the
table and waited.
"I don't hate you,"
I confessed. "You saved my baby's life. You're saving
other people's lives. You are doing work that's helping people."
Gwen snorted, and said into
her mug, "Rocks and hard places have nothing on this."
"I'm proud of
you," I said softly. She jerked her eyes up, and they
were wide and suspiciously wet. I gave her my biggest, warmest
grin, the one that matched Gareth's. And hers. "I want
you to do what makes you happiest, even if I don't understand
it. Even if I don't get half of what comes out of your mouth."
Gwen said nothing, ducked
her head, butted it up against Basil's shoulder. He wrapped
an arm around her shoulders, kissed her scar again, and went
back to eating.
When the dishes were soaking
in the sink and Mark was bouncing Gwennie on his knee, I managed
to talk them into one last cup of black, bitter coffee; nearly
twenty-four hours without sleep began to tug at our eyelids
and I gave up on tea having enough caffeine to keep us all
on our feet. Basil tapped away on his TV-notepad-computer
and when Mark asked what he was doing, he said something like,
"Detailed mission report. Best to do it as it's happening,
then you don't forget anything."
And before I wanted it to
end, it was over. The kettle was empty, the day had fully
dawned, and Gwen and Basil were cooing goodbyes to Gwennie
in her highchair, shaking our hands with grins and a soft,
genial "so long" from Basil.
"What, 'so long'?"
Mark repeated, startled. "That's it? No advice? Not gonna
tell me which stocks to play?"
"Can't go changing the
timeline," Basil said with a cheeky grin. "That's
the Temporal Prime Directive, innit?"
"That's 'Star Trek',"
Mark crowed, triumphant. "I knew that one!"
Gwen punched Basil's arm again.
Basil conceded and added: "I'll see you in twenty nine
years, maybe? Come for a proper family dinner, yeah? Uh, pay
you back for the betamax."
I felt the panic rise, surprising
and sudden. "That's not... that's not enough!" I
said without thinking. "I want to know... you have to...
Gwen stopped, looked at me,
expression a cross between amusement, puzzlement, and perhaps
the slightest hint of anger. "What?"
"Just tell me... tell
my why," I asked a little desperate. "Why
can't you quit? Why don't you just walk away? Haven't you
Oh, that look of shock on
her face. Of course I knew what she had lost. I was a mother.
I may have been the product of a time before aliens and openness
and the perfect slapshot, but I was not (obliviousbigotedhardhearted)
"I don't want to have
this fight again," she said softly. "I've already
had it with you once."
"Well, it's the first
time for me," I said. "So explain it. Why does it
have to be you? My Gwennie?" I gave in to temptation,
reached out, cupped her cheeks in my palms. It was the first
time I had touched her. Her skin was soft, smooth, warm. And
above all that, familiar. I knew this face, this skin, I had
touched it before, caressed it, bathed it, soothed it.
This really was my baby.
The corners of her eyes crinkled
with a soft, sad smile, and she turned her head to press a
gentle kiss into my hand. "You haven't called me that
since I was fifteen."
"Why?" I repeated
miserably, not letting her change the subject. "Answer
She sighed, sort of shrugging
all over at once. "Because... who else is there? If not
me, then who?"
Gwen looked down at her feet.
"Revenge, maybe?" And with a last, sad smile, she
stepped back, took Basil's outstretched hand, squeezed his
fingers once. "I hope that's enough of an answer."
"Call me," I said,
desperate. "Please, call me when you get back. I don't
want to fight."
"I... yeah, okay."
Basil leaned over, murmured
something soothing into her ear, kissed her cheek. Then he
levelled one last calculating, quantifying stare at me, as
if I were some complex equation he could decipher by study
alone. Basil depressed the red button on the surface of the
device. There was a flash of light so bright it left spots
in my vision.
When they cleared and I opened
my eyes, Basil and Gwen were gone.
No, it wasn't enough of an
answer. But it was all I was going to get for the next thirty
I wondered if (hoped) she
And waited for the phone to