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The Stars Blue Yonder
By Sandra McDonald
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Sandra McDonald
All rights reserved.
"Nana," Twig whispered, scared. "They're coming. The Roon." Commander Jodenny Scott was seventy damned years old. On days like today, crouched in her own living room closet, she felt closer to ninety. The closet was small and dusty, but it was the only viable hiding place they had. She tried to ignore the aching in her back.
"What should we do?" she asked her ten-year-old granddaughter.
Twig waved her finger, bidding her to be silent.
Heavy footsteps approached. Stopped. All else was quiet in the house. Jodenny couldn't bend down far enough to peer out the slit between the door and the floor, but Twig was still small and limber. She leaned close with her blond hair falling in her face.
The door swung open.
Jodenny's daughter Teresa, enormously pregnant and clearly annoyed, asked, "What are you two doing in there?"
Twig sat up with a frown. "Aunt Teresa! You ruined our game."
Teresa sighed. "You shouldn't go dragging Nana into closets, Twig."
"I volunteered." Jodenny steadied herself against the door frame as she rose on creaky knees. "Someone's got to fight off the hordes of dangerous aliens."
"Why don't you go meet the boys at the creek?" Teresa said to Twig. "They've been there all morning and I bet they haven't caught a fish yet. Show them how it's done."
Twig bounded to her feet and gave Jodenny a quick kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry. Next time I'll save you, Nana."
Jodenny tried not to envy her granddaughter's energy and youth as Twig dashed out the door. "Oh to be a kid again."
"Which you're not," Teresa said. "Come on outside in the breeze and sit down."
"I'm not an invalid," Jodenny grumbled, but she followed Teresa out onto the back porch anyway.
They both sat in the morning shade. Their rocking chairs creaked against the weathered planking. On days like these, under sunny skies and with the landscape so pretty, Jodenny could almost pretend that the planet Providence was home. The fauna, flora, animals, geography, and landscape were certainly just like Earth and her colonies. Gifts of the gods. Though, personally, she would cheerfully strangle the god Jungali, who had given them this gift and stranded them on the other side of the galaxy, cut off from civilization, doctors, hospitals, universities, armies —
"You've got that look on your face." Teresa put both her hands on her baby bump and made small soothing circles. "I knew Twig shouldn't be talking about the Roon."
"The Roon don't bother me," Jodenny said. Which was true. She hadn't seen one in forty years, and didn't expect to see any again. Not in this remote corner of the galaxy.
"Then what is it? You feeling ancient again?"
"I am ancient," Jodenny replied.
Teresa made a harrumphing noise. "Not if you can go crawling around in closets. But at least you're not turning seventy-six tomorrow. That's something to be happy about, isn't it?"
Farther down the sloping yard, where the gum trees met the stream, seven-year-old Alton emerged from the weeds. As usual, he'd managed to get himself covered with mud. He had a jar in one hand, in which he'd no doubt stashed the latest lizard, frog, insect, or other small creature unfortunate enough to be caught in his nets.
"Nana!" he yelled up to them. "Mom! Look what I found!"
"Who's turning seventy-six tomorrow?" Jodenny asked Teresa. Surely she hadn't forgotten someone's birthday again. It wasn't enough that her knees ached and her back hurt and when she looked in the mirror, she saw only a wrinkled sack of leathered skin. Now she was forgetting things. Soon she'd be a gibbering idiot, someone they'd have to park in the corner and feed through a straw.
Better to face an entire Roon army than the indignities of old age, she thought.
Teresa rubbed her belly some more. "How many candidates are there?"
Not many. Aside from some officers, some business travelers, and a few elderly immigrants, most of the crew and passengers on the Kamchatka had been under the age of thirty when they had been stranded here. Jodenny took a mental head count. Not old Captain Balandra; her birthday was in January. Not Baylou Owenstein. They'd just celebrated his birthday a few weeks ago. That left —
"Sam," Jodenny said unhappily.
"Yes," Teresa said. "Dad's birthday is tomorrow. I knew you'd remember. I'm making a cake."
"Mom!" Alton stomped his foot. "Come on! He's in the water!"
Jodenny said, "Watch your tone, young man."
Teresa made to stand up despite her swollen ankles. "I'll go see what he's going on about."
"You stay put. I'll do it." Even with her arthritis, Jodenny moved more quickly than her daughter. "But if this is another one of his frogs, I'm going to make him kiss it."
She limped down the stairs and past her vegetable garden. Four grandsons and one granddaughter, who would have expected that? Forty damn years spent stranded in this backwater wilderness with the rest of the crew and passengers. Sam, turning seventy-six. There'd be a cake and maybe a banner, lots of jokes about aging that were funny only to the young, and recycled or homemade presents he had no use for. Certainly he wouldn't want her there. She didn't think anyone except Teresa could seriously expect her to go.
Alton had turned and dashed back into the woods. "Hurry up! I think he's dead."
"If he's dead, I don't need to hurry," Jodenny said.
Alton's discovery wasn't a drowned turtle or half-crushed snake or any other morbid find. Instead it was a man lying half in and half out of the stream. He wore Team Space trousers ripped at the seams and a black T-shirt. His feet were bare but he didn't appear injured in any significant way. With her bad eyesight she couldn't tell if he was breathing. If she moved a step or two to the left she might be able to see his face, but her legs wouldn't obey her.
"Did he come from away?" Alton picked up a stick. "What's he doing here?"
"I don't know." Jodenny's voice sounded small in her own ears. Her head filled with a buzzing and her knees went weak. Certainly the man wasn't one of their own. No one these days dressed in a Team Space uniform, or would wander down to this stream to take a nap. He might be from one of the splinter groups that had gone off on their own shortly after their arrival here on Providence, but again, where had he gotten the clothes?
Alton crept closer to the stranger. The buzzing in Jodenny's ears grew worse. The green of the forest was blurring at the edges. She'd fainted only a few times in her life, but the warning signs were clear.
"Run and get the sheriff," Jodenny said.
Alton poked at the man's arm. No reaction. He was probably dead.
"Go get the sheriff!" Jodenny snapped, fear and anger all mixed into it, because the child never listened and here she was going to faint like an old lady. She knew the man in the creek, knew the shape of his head and shoulders, knew him down to the withered fibers of her fading heart. Wasn't it bitter and horrible that he'd returned from death just as she was getting ready to embrace it?
Alton dashed off up the hill, yelling at the top of his lungs.
Jodenny's world grayed out and went silent.
Myell woke in a soft bed without anyone shouting at him, which sure beat most of the other ways he'd been waking up lately.
He blinked at the plastisteel ceiling and pinkish gray walls. Bright sunlight spilled past gauzy curtains over what looked like portholes from a Team Space ship. The furniture seemed like ship salvage as well — the narrow bed, a metal dresser, a round mirror. But there were touches of domesticity in the bright yellow bedspread and the daisies in a blue vase on a shelf. A smell like bitter coffee hung in the air.
"Caffeine would be nice," he said aloud.
His voice was rusty but otherwise fine. He couldn't say the same about his legs, which were shaky as he swung them out to the floor. The brown rug on the metal floor tickled his toes. He checked his arms and torso. Just a few bruises and scars, and a place on his right arm where someone had recently given him an injection.
He tried to stand up and the room spun out from under him. The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back and a woman was talking to him.
"That was a dumb thing to do," she said. "Come on, wake up again. Don't make me get the smelling salts."
He forced his eyes open. A woman with the same color hair and eyes as Jodenny Scott smiled down at him.
"I'm Lisa," she said. "You're in my house."
Myell nodded, his mouth gone dry. Lisa was as pretty as Jodenny but with wider shoulders and a longer nose. He knew that nose. Had seen it in the mirror all these years. She was in her late thirties or early forties and had an old-fashioned stethoscope around her neck.
"You patched me up?" he asked.
Her cool hand touched the inside of his wrist. "You weren't too bad off. A bump on the head, a few bruises. You've got some burn scars. Not too old, from the look of them, but someone took care of them. Someone with better medical equipment than mine, but not enough to get rid of the scars."
He shrugged. A few scars didn't bother him.
Lisa said, "Can you tell me how you feel now?"
"Good. We do what we can, though the ship's infirmary has been stripped out for years now. How'd you come to be in the creek, anyway? It's not like we ever get any strangers here."
He said, "You haven't asked my name."
"I don't have to." Lisa's smile faded. "I know your name. You still have a dog tag embedded in your collarbone. And my mother's the one who found you. Jodenny."
He felt for his wedding ring, which was still firmly affixed to his finger. If Lisa was about forty, that would make Jodenny nearly seventy. Wrinkled and arthritic and probably hating every moment of it.
"I need to ..." he said, and gestured toward what he hoped was the bathroom.
"That's the fluids I ran into you," Lisa said. "Come on. Up you go."
She helped him upright and shouldered him to a bathroom equipped with a Team Space toilet. He scrubbed at his face and peered at the bloodshot lines in his eyes and the stubble on his chin. Vanity was a luxury he hadn't had in a while. When he felt steadier, he emerged to find three men sitting in his room on chairs that had been pulled in from elsewhere. Lisa was straightening the pillows on the bed.
"That's Baylou Owenstein," she said, nodding toward a man with white hair and long gray beard. Beside him was a much younger man. "And that's my brother-in-law Brian Romero. And over there is —"
"Commander Osherman," Myell said. There was enough military left in him to nod respectfully. "Sir."
The years had not been kind to Osherman. His face was deeply cracked with wrinkles. His arthritic hands were wrapped around a cane. His eyes were rheumy, his posture hunched. He stared at Myell but didn't nod or smile or give any indication that he'd even heard him.
"Chief Myell," Brian said, leaning forward. "You knew my father, Putty."
"And your mother," Myell said. "We met at Supply School."
Baylou slapped his hand against his thigh. "Never met you, no I didn't. Met your wife, though. She's one of my best friends. You scared the hell out of her, showing up in her creek like that."
Lisa handed Myell a glass of water. His fingers tightened on it. "I didn't mean to."
"We're a tiny bit confused," Brian said. "About how you got there. About how you can be here at all. And why you haven't aged a single day."
Myell wished this part would get easier.
"I don't know," he lied. "It's all blank to me."
Osherman continued to stare at him silently. Baylou scratched his jaw, and Brian angled himself toward Lisa.
"Amnesia?" Brian asked.
Lisa gave Myell a considering look. "It's possible."
Baylou said, "Mark Sweeney lost his memory for a while. After he fell down that mountainside."
"The only thing Uncle Mark forgot was how much poker money he owed people," Brian said. "I never did get my four million yuros."
"What's the last thing you remember?" Lisa asked.
Myell was feeling unnerved by Osherman's stare but he didn't want to show it, so he drank the water and kept his gaze on the others. "I was living on Fortune with your mother. We were married. She wasn't pregnant."
Lisa's chin lifted. "Nothing after that?"
He shook his head. Lying.
"How about the Roon?" Baylou asked. "Big ugly aliens that look like lizards. Ring a bell?"
Myell gazed helplessly at them. No matter what he said, they wouldn't believe him. The water twisted in his stomach and he put the glass down before he spilled it into his lap.
"No," he said. "I don't remember. I don't remember what happened to me."
Baylou and Brian sat back in their chairs. Osherman's cane scraped on the floor as he shifted his weight. He lifted himself from the chair with the stiff, cramped movements of a man burdened by age. His face was still unreadable, but there was no missing the certainty in his voice.
"Terry Myell died back on Earth," he said. "We buried him here. Whoever you are, you aren't him."
On the other side of town, Teresa said, "I think you should stay in bed."
Jodenny already had her feet on the floor. "I want to see him."
"He's resting. As you should be. That was quite a faint. You're lucky you didn't crack your head open on a rock."
One of the Taylor boys bicycled past the window, shouting something to his brother. Jodenny's bedroom wasn't much to look at — some furniture, bare walls, a few clothes on pegs — and Teresa was sitting in the only chair. Jodenny reached for her sandals.
"My head's perfectly fine," she said.
The front door to the cottage opened. A moment later Lisa came down the hall, looking thoughtful. She asked, "How are things here?"
"Mom's being stubborn," Teresa reported.
"How is he?" Jodenny asked.
Lisa leaned against the door frame. Though she was several years older than Teresa, and they were only half sisters, sometimes the resemblance between them was startling. "Not so bad. He's back to sleep now. No major injuries, just some bumps and bruises and dehydration. But he says he doesn't remember where he's been or how he got here."
Teresa asked, "You believe him?"
"I don't have any reason to disbelieve him."
"Doesn't mean you have to trust him," Jodenny said. "Don't hurt Sam over this."
The other Taylor boy rode by, casting shadows into the room. Lisa and Teresa exchanged looks. Jodenny knew exactly what her daughters were thinking. The one who'd hurt Sam the most was the one who'd kicked him out of their bed and home.
Briskly she reached for her other shoe. "You're sure he's not carrying a million different diseases?"
"I wouldn't have let him into my house if the scanners hadn't okayed him," Lisa said.
"Scanners that are forty years out of date," Jodenny said.
Lisa shrugged. "If that's the case, you better not visit him. It took you months to get over last winter's flu. Your immune system's not what it used to be."
"I'll take that into consideration, Doctor." Jodenny brushed past Lisa to splash cold water on her face. There wasn't much she could do about the bird's nest her hair had become — gray and stiff, unruly in the humidity — so she pulled on a hat, then took it off again. Forty years, and she was supposed to look good for some impostor who couldn't possibly be her dead husband? Whoever he was, he could damn well take her in her ruined elderly state.
When she came out of the bathroom, Lisa and Teresa had moved to the living room, with its solitary sofa and two flanking chairs. Brian Romero and his sister Alice, the town sheriff, had joined them. Brian was sitting with Teresa's feet in his lap, massaging them for her. Alice was leaning against the front door, frowning.
"Well?" Jodenny asked.
Alice scratched at her sunburned nose. She was a tall woman with long blond hair and broad, dusty hands. "I went up there and checked myself. There's still a body in the grave. No sign that it's been disturbed recently. Or ever."
"So the man didn't crawl out of a grave," Lisa said. "You only have to look at him to know that's true."
"He got into that creek somehow," Brian said.
Brian was a good man, sensible, popular enough to be elected mayor and smart enough to not abuse the position. Jodenny was happy to have him as a son-in-law. But she missed Lisa's husband, Eric, who'd gone on a hunting trip and wouldn't be back for two days. He was more likely to talk sense into Lisa than anyone else.
Excerpted from The Stars Blue Yonder by Sandra McDonald. Copyright © 2009 Sandra McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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