by J. M. Frey

Now a full-length novel coming soon from Dragon Moon Press!

Evvie, who doesn't believe in aliens, time travel, or any of that other sci-fi shtick, is about to get a crash course on the importance of an open mind.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



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.

"S'comin', s'comin'," 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, anyway.

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 of privacy.

I love my husband. I love our daughter.

But god, do I love hot showers, too.

* * *

We had a brand new cordless telephone.

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 my throat.

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 fingers—too long, too thin—on my arms they were gone.

"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 crawl...

Gwennie! Gone, gone.

My vision swirled into single focus. The craft was... it... there was a flying saucer in my strawberries.

Gwennie screamed.

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 and… her chest heaving, jerking, and it was holding Gwennie by her arm, like it…

That's not how you hold a baby!

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't—someone can't cut out your heart without making you scream.

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 Ops.

Something so (covert) dangerous they had no need to advertise.

Their clothing freaked me out.

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, 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 came from?"

"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 bicycles.

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 happy.

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 squall—Seriously, Mom, not happy.

Jogged her once and thought, Hush, sweetie. Let Mommy cope. We've nearly been killed by aliens.


There's a flying saucer in my strawberries.

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 just had?

"Basil—" she said softly.

"Why?" the 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 a—Kalp 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 mother."

The mother.

Like I was a mannequin, or a chess piece.


"No?" Basil asked, unsure.

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-curls—not unlike mine when the summer humidity gets to them—were 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 after us."

"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 future?"

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 us."

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 did.

"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 school jumper—"

"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 string.

"Smaller," she corrected. "Much."

"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.

Her name.

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. Regulation.

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 so funny?"

"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."

"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 sense—as much as a conversation about aliens and time travel could. "The flying saucer in the garden?"

"Classified," Gwen 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."

"Though technically 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 this."

"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… very open."

"Gwen," Basil said warningly.

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.

"Unfair," Basil whispered.

They glared at each other over the table—the 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 our telephone.

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 unconcerned.

"Don't touch her," Basil said without looking up. "You'll make space-time go kablewie."

"Bullshit," Gwen 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, Dad."

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.

"You're taking 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…? Soldier? 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… a killer.

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. Cold.

Just a pulled trigger and the spray of stuff (brains) all over the grass.

For a split second, empty.

This was my daughter.

Trained killer.

My baby.

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 table—save for Gwennie, who was solemnly massaging her ketchup into her hair—turned 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… hungry." 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 child.

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 hair—that 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 geek.

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 better?

(Ran away?)

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 complaining—loudly—about 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.

"Wood's," Basil said. "She's our clean up man." Then, "Oh, bugger."


"I'm stuck. My—bollocks—my bloody sleeve! Grab my trousers."

Gwen snorted. "What now? Here?"

"Perv," Basil 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 her—what, 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 of here."

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 HDTV—one 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 wanted.

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 trait?

"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 fuzzy towel.

"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 chest.

"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?" he said.

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."

Isn't a…

"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 to.

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 clichés."

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 think—"

"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 was Kalp—"

"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—"

"No, Gwen."

"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 scar.

"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 said.

"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 with—teased 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 Gwen anyway.

Had to love her because I couldn't hate her.

"Who," Basil corrected glumly. "He… he was killed by, uh… another 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 Agl—a 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 thing..."

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 ask.

"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... Too much.

"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't—I 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 here?"

"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 tea?"

"Lots—in… in 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 left—her 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 its warmth.

"That's what I drink," I offered, "when I can't sleep."

"I know."

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 him?

Were you happy?

Are you?

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 right now.

"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.

"Well, something—an asteroid, meteor, whatever, space junk—crashed 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 seven."

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 went black."

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'. Just '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 get—linguists, mechanics, engineers, cultural anthropologists, biologists, physiologists, social workers, botanists, sci-fi geeks. We became a force. The Specialists."

"The Institute."

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 you..."

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 past?

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 easy—they 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 threat—a 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 and—and 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 Kalp—he was an engineer, too—and 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?

Oh, god.

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 change—change 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 changed."

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.

"What happened?" 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. "Why you?"

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 worked—we'd recovered one from a … 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… They 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… but Kalp. After he… 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… go. It wasn't finished, wasn't safe, but he was determined. I talked him into waiting long enough to suit up, grab our gear… 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 Institute—we 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 not clever."

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 our roof.

"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 share—I 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…"

"Their… friend?" 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… common. 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… now they're 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 tonight.

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?"

"Nightmares," Gwen admitted straightforwardly, and something hitched at the back of my throat.

"Want to talk about it?" I asked.

"Not particularly." 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 strawberries."

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 her. "Who?"

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.

"Answering back!"

"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 eye—Annalise 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 the TV."

"Mmm, this song makes me want to dance," Basil said.

Gwen's laugh was light, but melancholy. "You haven't danced since… hm."

"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 fists.

"I'm not sad," Gwen said.

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 and… 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, Gwen?"

"Basil, please. 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 misery.

"Nothing," 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… I have 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. Sheltering.

"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."

"Stubborn," Basil 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, too?"

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.

"Mixed breeding?" 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."

"Hell, yes."


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… betrayed you?"

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 way before.

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 Razor—the 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 easily. Unless…"

"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 adjust do?"

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 future—I 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 side—Raquel Winkelaar: Live From Montréal.

"She's hurting. We've lost friends."

"And Kalp."

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 grieving Aglunates."

I frowned, something tickling the back of my mind. "Wait," I said. "All of them had Aglunates? Is it that … accepted… then?"

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 gaining… 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?"

A beat.

All the colour slid off Basil's face, and he shot to his feet. "Why didn't I… why? 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 shouting.

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 is wrong—"

"The pilot!"

"—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 them—their technology—to sneak around the Institute? All of 'em not wanting us mixing."

"What? How do you—?"

"The pilot was listening to Raquel!"

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 look—plastic surgery maybe? Think about it—it's only human Specialists who've been Aglunated have been targeted, yeah?"

"What about Drex?"

"With Barnowski."

"What about…" she trailed off, swallowed once, "Kalp?"

By now I was close enough to join the conversation. "He was a set up—a 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.

"Oh," she 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."

"That's horrible," 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—"

"—exactly. So it was all—"

"—and they would have to have targeted people we knew, people they thought were the worst offenders—"

"—like us, like Kalp—"

"—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 ear.

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. Yes. Shower."

Basil wrinkled his nose. "Oh, yes please."

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 properly.

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 benefits package.

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," I said.

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.

"Unwelcome," he said softly.

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 lost enough?"

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) stupid.

"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 me."

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.

Revenge, maybe?

No, it wasn't enough of an answer. But it was all I was going to get for the next thirty years.


I wondered if (hoped) she got it.

And waited for the phone to ring.




Copyright © 2008 J. M. Frey

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

J. M. Frey: I am a graduate student at Ryerson University, living in Toronto and working towards becoming a professional writer. I have recently received the award for the Best Short Story of the Year 2007 in the Stargate Offworld FanZine, and have had both short stories and articles published a handful of times in local and school papers and newsletters. Among these was an article for Fukuoka Now magazine in Fukuoka, Japan, titled 'Speak American, Dammit!' (an editorial on the Japanese school system's insistence on American spelling and the frustration that creates in Canadian and other non-American foreign educators,) and an interview/article in the Reader's Digest's Our Canada magazine October 2006 edition titled 'Living and Teaching in the Land of the Rising Sun.'

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