Authors: Tom O’Donnell
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
he red-furred alien stood with his back against the wall and performed the ritual. Carefully, he traced the top of his head with a strange and wondrous technological device from his home worldâa “pencil,” he called it.
Then he turned and regarded the measurement with satisfaction. To my eyes, it was indistinguishable from the previous mark, made just a few days earlier.
“I've grown a full four centimeters in the last three months,” he said. “I really think I could be called Medium Gus now.”
“It could just be the gravity on Gelo, Little Gus. It's a tad lower than Earth's,” said another human, this one a female named Nicole GarcÃa. “You're still only in the fifth percentile for boys your age, though.” She was comparing his height to a sloping human growth chart that shimmered in the air above her holodrive.
“Top five percent,” said Little Gus. “Not bad at all.”
“Dude,” said Rebecca GarcÃa, the perfect duplicate, er, “twin” of Nicole, “you're about as good at math as you are at piloting.”
“Thanks, Becky!” said Little Gus, failing to detect the insult.
“Do all humans
to be tall?” I asked them in their own language. I'd become quite fluent in human. These days, when I spoke to them, it no longer felt quite like I had a gul'orp full of rocksâat most, just one or two small pebbles.
“Nah,” said Becky, “but it's still nice when you're taller than your sister.”
“You are only two millimeters taller than me!” cried Nicki.
“Still counts,” said Becky.
These aliens had been living with my family since the great battle three months ago. They had helped to defeat the dark forces of the Vorem Dominion and save my civilization from certain destruction. By Xotonian standards, it was a pretty crazy weekend. The months since had been quiet, though, and a sense of normalcy had returned to the underground city of Core-of-Rock.
Just then, the fourth human arrived. Daniel Hollins, the oldest and largest of them, burst into my dwelling. He was accompanied by Hudka, my grand-originator, a wrinkled little old Xotonian barely taller than me (yet much crankier).
“Xotonian burritos!” cried Hollins, plopping a big sack of food down on the table. “Fresh from Sertor's stall in the market!” Burritos were one of the few Xotonian foods that the humans actually seemed to enjoy (though I had still neglected to tell them that they were actually fried cave slugs).
“So Hudka didn't help you order?” asked Nicki, taking her burrito out of the bag.
“Nope,” said Hollins. “I did it all by myself.”
“I heard my name,” whispered Hudka in Xotonian. “What did Becky say?” My grand-originator's human language proficiency was nowhere near mine. It had only managed to learn the two most important phrases: “Save game” and “Play again?”
“Not Becky,” I corrected. “That one's called Nicki. Remember the rule? Check the lenses.” I pointed to Becky: no glasses. I pointed to Nicki: glasses.
“Whatever,” said Hudka. “I get it right nearly half the time.”
Nicki frowned as she bit into the burrito. “Um, I don't mean to complain butÂ .Â .Â . mine seems to be full of rocks.”
“Mine too,” said Becky, shoving hers away. “I think I chipped a tooth.”
“Hang on,” said Hollins, “isn't âoitra'a'giv' the Xotonian word for âextra cheese'?”
“Nope,” sighed Nicki. “That's the word for âfull of rocks.' You should consider doing the vocabulary homework sometime.”
“Huh. No wonder Sertor was acting so weird when I ordered!” said Hollins. “I thought it was giving me the stinkeye because I didn't have the correct amount of x'yzoth crystal changeâ”
Suddenly the lights of my dwelling dimmed. An instant later, an earsplitting boom ripped through the air. The walls shook and wobbled, causing little cascades of dust to pour from the ceiling. A particularly ancientâand fortunately very uglyâvase fell from the mantle and shattered.
The humans and I stared at one another, startled. I poked a frib into one of my ringing ear cavities. I felt like my internal organs had been rearranged.
“If I wasn't deaf already, I am now,” said Hudka as the dust settled.
that?” asked Becky.
“A Vorem attack?” said Nicki. “Or another asteroid colliding with Gelo? Maybe this system's sun just went supernova!”
Her comrades frowned at her.
“Sorry,” she said, “just thinking out loud here.”
“Maybe these terrible rock burritos have angered the food gods,” shuddered Little Gus as he threw his into the garbage.
“Whatever it is, it sounded like an explosion,” said Nicki. “We shouldâ”
“Follow me!” cried Hollins.
In an instant we were outside, racing through the streets of Core-of-Rock. Whole sections of the city were totally dark.
Another explosion flashed in the distance! Away to the east, a plume of sparks rose thirty meters above the city. For a moment, the blast lit Core-of-Rock in angry red. This time, we covered our ears before the thunderous boom reached us.
“This way!” I cried.
We passed the Hall of Wonok, formerly the seat of Xotonian government and now the most heavily guarded building in the city. Dozens of city guards stood outside, their usk-lizards snorting and stamping in agitation. The guards wanted to help too, but they couldn't. They couldn't leave the hall unattended, even for a moment.
The Hall of Wonok was now a prison. The thirty-two Vorem legionaries who had been captured during the epic battle were all locked inside. The city guards watched them day and night.
In the past few months, we had learned much about our Vorem prisoners. To our surprise, we found that beneath their scaly black battle armor, the Vorem were very human in shape. Nicki suggested this may have been an example of “convergent evolution” in which two unrelated species gradually evolve similar traits.
In any case, the Vorem did have two arms, two legs, and two eyes. They even had humanlike fur on the top of their heads (incredibly disturbing to the average Xotonian). But unlike humans, their skin was a pale shade of purple, and their eyes were red. Their hands were clawed, and their mouths were full of sharp white teeth.
I recognized a guard captain standing outside the hall. “Eromu,” I called out, “do you know what's happening? Have any of the Vorem escaped?” It was hard for me to imagine that our ancient enemies didn't have something to do with the explosions rocking the city.
“Absolutely not,” it said. “All thirty-two prisoners are accounted for!”
“Thanks, captain,” I said.
“Whatever's happening,” said Becky, “at least it's not the Vorem.”
We hurried through Core-of-Rock toward the site of the explosions. At the edge of the city, near an exit to the Unclaimed Tunnels, we came to a dense jumble of dwellings. This neighborhood was called the Farrago, and it was on fire.
Soot-stained Xotonians led their offspring from smoky buildings. Others watched in a daze as their homes burned. A few guards, those not on Wonok duty, stood by helplessly. I heard sobs and coughs and the roaring of flames.
“Does Core-of-Rock have, like, a fire department or something?” asked Little Gus.
I shook my head. I'd never heard of an uncontrolled fire in our city. It is a damp place, and most of our buildings are made of stone. Mold problems? Sure. We knew how to deal with those. But not a fire.
“Well, is there at least any running water nearby?” asked Nicki.
“Yes, there's a fountain two blocks from here!” I pointed the way.
Nicki stepped forward to address the crowd, but Hollins cleared his throat and spoke first. In the Xotonian language, he said, “Hello. Water peopleÂ .Â .Â . runsÂ .Â .Â . does running. House people! Does eatÂ .Â .Â . sandal. Water.” The crowd stared back in confusion.
Gently, Nicki placed a hand on his arm. Then she spoke to them in slow yet comprehensible Xotonian. “Quickly, we must carry water from the fountain to put out the flames.”
Several members of the crowd nodded and ran off toward the fountain. Becky and Little Gus followed close behind them.
Before I could join, someone grabbed my thol'graz. It was Linod, my best friend (in the nonhuman category). Its thin face was covered in soot.
“Chork-a-zoid,” it rasped. Its silly nickname for me sounded doubly silly in the midst of a crisis. “Please. My originatorÂ .Â .Â .” Linod descended into a coughing fit and pointed toward its home.
“Okay, don't worry, Linod-tron,” I said. “We can help.”
Around the corner, flames bloomed from the windows of its dwelling. If Linod's originator, Lhoy, was still inside, its life was in grave danger.
“It looks like it's burning too hot,” said Nicki. “I'm not sure we canâ”
“Nicki, you go get some water,” ordered Hollins. She stared at him for a moment and left.
“Chorkle, stay behind me,” he said. “My clothes probably won't burn.”
Like the other humans, Hollins wore a formfitting utility suit. Becky said the silvery unisex outfits made them look like they were all part of a French Canadian circus troupe. But apparently, they were useful.
“Uh, what do you mean
won't burn?” I asked.
“I mean if Mission Control didn't cheap out on the fire-resistant coating,” said Hollins, and he burst through the front door. Inside, the place was an inferno. Everything that wasn't made of stone was on fire. Furniture, clothing, support beams, even several masks and old costumesâLhoy was an actor by tradeâburned around us. The choking smoke made it impossible to see more than a meter ahead.
Apparently Mission Control didn't “cheap out.” Hollins was able to pass through the fire unharmed, and by sticking close behind him I was able to follow without getting burned. We found Lhoy, unconscious but breathing, in its sleeping-veth upstairs. Together, we carried it past the licking flames and out onto the street.
Lhoy coughed for a minute and slowly blinked its eyes. “Hello. Good day,” it croaked in human when it realized that one of the aliens had helped to save it. This was its way of saying thank you.
“Hat meal,” said Hollins back in Xotonian. Lhoy looked baffled.
The other residents of the neighborhoodâunder the orderly direction of Nicki and Beckyâwere now carrying water back and forth from the fountain and throwing it onto the flames. Each bucketful made a loud hiss as it helped to put out the fire. While we were rescuing Lhoy, it looked like they had gotten things under control.
“Where's Little Gus?” I asked. The twins gave each other a panicked look.
As the fire finally died, we went door to door, house to house, searching for Gus. A haze of smoke and steam had settled over the Farrago. It swirled behind us as we passed.
We found Little Gus standing just inside the shimmering Stealth Shield. He was silently staring out into the Unclaimed Tunnels.
“Dude, we thought you were barbecue,” said Becky.
“Where did you go?” I asked. “Were you looking for privacy to eliminate your human waste?”
“No,” said Little Gus, turning toward us. His face was terrified. “I saw someone.”
“Who did you see?” asked Nicki.
“A Vorem,” he said, “running through the fire. I saw a Vorem. His eyes were glowing red.”
Nicki spoke gently. “Gus, all the Vorem on Gelo are captured or dead. You don't have to worry about them anymore.”
Gus shook his head. “No, there's one of them still out there. I saw him. He left the city.”
Hollins frowned and gave Nicki and Becky a look. I stared out into the Unclaimed Tunnels, past the glowing purple shield and into the darkness. I saw nothing.
“Gus, the city guards spent weeks scouring the tunnels for any survivors of the battle,” said Hollins. “After the first two days, they didn't find a single one.”
“I know, but they found that legate guy a month later,” said Gus. “The one who led the invasion.”
“Yeah, but he was dead,” said Becky. “He'd been dead since the battle. We all saw his body when they buried him. Remember, he had the cloak and the fancy armor on? That was the last of the Vorem. The ones who are alive are all locked up.”
“I know what I saw,” said Little Gus.
He sounded so sure of himself that I wanted to believe him, but it wasn't very likely. The chances of a legionary still hiding out thereâsomehow surviving undetected for monthsâwere virtually nil. The guards still patrolled the tunnels outside the city every day.
“Come on, buddy,” said Hollins to Little Gus, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We should take a rest. I think maybe you breathed in a little too much smoke when we were fighting theâ”
“Chorkle!” cried Kalac. I turned to see my originator running toward us. “I was in a council meeting. I came as soon as I heard what happened. Thank Jalasu Jhuk you're safe. All of you.” Kalac hugged me tight.