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Part 1 of 2

Marley was dead on her feet to begin with, but she still ran all the way from the underground parking lot up the stairs of the Wyndham-Mark hotel. Why had Curtis picked today, of all days, to end up in the principal's office? He'd already proven he could manage it any time.

The sight of the Lamar Ballroom doors gave her the energy for one last sprint, but a security guard grabbed her arm and yanked her to a stop. She cried out in frustration.

She tried to reach for her First Contact Team identification, but another guard helped the first hold her immobile. In the party room, a salsa band swung into a well-meaning attempt at "Hail to the Chief." A childish fury blazed through Marley. Her delinquent son's antics had cost her not only hours off work and her dinner, but her chance to see the President in RL.

The ballroom doors slammed open. More security scurried out, reminding Marley of the time Curtis poked a fire-ant hill with a stick. In the middle strode President David Fordham, hero of the Middle East war and protector of North America. Marley shrank against the wall and held her breath, as much to avoid his angry glare as to allow passage.

In seconds, Fordham and his swarm disappeared. Her arms freed, Marley displayed her credentials, but the guards had lost interest and waved her into the holiday party. Her heart pounding with the merengue beat of "White Christmas," Marley, suddenly weak, leaned against the door. She shouldn't have run. She hadn't regularly exercised in a year. For that matter, how long had it been since she'd eaten? She remembered only half a donut around dawn. Now that the anger, shame, and fear she'd been feeding on had seeped away, she became aware of her stomach, painfully constricted around a vast vacuum. She felt too wobbly to walk, but she had to eat immediately.

She set out towards the most likely location for solid refreshments: behind the biggest cluster of people at the far wall. The party looked like the inside of Curtis's anthill. Half the guests were streaming past Marley towards the door; the other half jiggled about in fierce Brownian motion, careening off each other and into the 12-foot Christmas tree.

The ballroom had shed its workday character as the FCT's conference room and blossomed into diversity-crazed holiday splendor. Marley tried not to laugh as she passed under Chinese wedding symbols hanging from Christmas lights looped around garlands of Hanukkah dreidels and Kwanzaa corn. Token Solstice moons and stars littered the ceiling.

As she struggled upstream through the crowd, she heard scraps of conversation like chittering insects on a Houston summer evening.

"Can you believe it?"

"Is it safe to stay?"

"You can't tell what they'll do."

Startled, Marley looked around for the Eridanians. The aliens stood, as serene as ever, exchanging greetings with the European Anschluss Ambassador at the opposite end of the room from the band. People seemed to be giving them a wide berth that had nothing to do with the military guard surrounding the festivities like a menacing Nutcracker army.

"Don't they look evil?"

"Just like bugs, aren't they? Great big carnivorous bugs."

Marley flinched. The Eridanians had been called "Bugs" since their first transmissions had arrived, nearly two years ago. Beings with six limbs, huge eyes, and flat, noseless faces could expect nothing else from humans. The individuals who arrived in May had been dubbed Red, Green, and Blue, based on slight tinges to the gray skin. Marley was embarrassed when the Eridanians adopted the names too, but she refused to call them Bugs. Naturally, Curtis did so when he was annoyed, which was whenever she saw him these days.

She couldn't see any of her First Contact Team co-workers among the politicos, glitterati, and others who'd cadged an invitation to the event. For some reason, the crowd's excitement over the Eridanians' first public reception had turned to fear, but since it didn't look like the Eridanians had suddenly started eating the guests, Marley continued her quest. She couldn't see the food tables, but as she approached the main cluster of people, the holiday smells strengthened into something nasty. The chatter around her crescendoed.

"What's the President going to do?"

"He ought to blow them back into space."

"Let's leave before they get violent."

Marley had just snagged a plate when the head of her department, the eminent and publication-encrusted Dr. Winthrop Scofield, appeared in front of her. "Where were you? We needed you."

Though she knew exactly how Dr. Scofield manipulated language to control the hired help, Marley became tongue-tied whenever he spoke to her. She always felt hardly more than a translator. "I had to . . . my son . . . I thought you were going to translate."

He scowled at her. Wondering what had gone wrong, she bit her lip. Party amenities should have been within the scope of Dr. Scofield's skills, even with the Southern drawl that lay over all his speech.

"First thing tomorrow, I'm putting you on High Eridanian." He didn't wait for an answer.

"Merde, not High Eridanian." They'd only begun to crack Blue and Green's native language. The grammatical structures seemed totally different and the words layered with extra meanings. Marley felt sick as the odors threatened to overwhelm her. She lunged towards the food.

"Hey, Marley, you missed the fireworks." Kevin Bates, Army xenobiologist, blocked her way to the meatballs. He carried his omnipresent camcorder under one arm to leave his hands free for macaroons.

Marley didn't even like coconut, but she eyed the cookies longingly. She shifted in her long-unused party shoes, now pinching like a vise. "What happened?"

He tossed one handful of sweets into his mouth and pulled out the camcorder. "Not real sure," he mumbled around the macaroons. "I mean, it's all here--" He handed her an earphone and pointed to the viewer, where a tiny President Fordham, still recognizable by his granite chin, stumbled through a greeting in Eridanian. The Eridanians chittered together.

Marley covered her eyes.

Kevin asked, "What are they saying, word wizard?"

"They're trying to understand why our leader would address them in half obscenity, half nonsense," she snapped.

Red used the Eridanian language that Marley knew best. "I will speak to him. I have heard such speech at our lodgings by those who attend our comfort." The alien switched to AmStandard and said, "And the same thing with your mother!"

Kevin shook his head. "That went over big. So how come you understood so quickly? Took the others fifteen minutes to come up with anything."

Marley flushed. "The language the Eridanians chose to teach us is tonal. It helps to have a tonal native language, like Chinese."

Kevin glanced at her face. "Regular melting pot, aren't you? Funny, you don't look . . ."

"More of a gumbo, actually, since my father's family comes from all over the Caribbean. My mother's from Ohio, but her mother was the daughter of a missionary and one of his Chinese converts. Grandmother always spoke Chinese with me."

"We need you on the front line. Should have finished that doctorate, baby girl."

"I was a single mother with a young child to raise," retorted Marley. Finishing a terminal degree in communication science had seemed a pointless mockery when Josh left her for a woman who really understood him. "What else happened? We have translation snafus all the time."

"Usually not with the whole world watching. Look at Fordham, ready to burst. Then old Blue steps out . . ."

The largest alien stretched out his arms and declared in fluted AmStandard, "I am Blue, child of they who smote their enemies with such force that they never lived again, but lie buried, children and adults, in the sands of Eridan."

Marley gasped. Even through the party din, she could hear the swell of voices on the recording.

The President drew himself straighter. He put on his Commander-in-Chief look and glared at the aliens for a long moment. Then he said, "I am David, he who drove back the terrorists that now lie buried in the Eastern sands." As usual, he worked in having seen the World Trade Center collapse with his brother inside, his subsequent change of college plans to include West Point, his Middle Eastern war record, and his vow to defend America against all threats.

"All threats," he repeated as he glared at each alien. "No matter where they originate."

"It kept going downhill from there." Kevin sighed. "He never did want the Eridanians here."

"But he did! He insisted! He's tried to keep other countries off the FCT!"

"Only because he's Colonel Fordham, defender of North America, and he wouldn't trust anybody else to save us. Remember those first transmissions? Everybody's all excited about the first interstellar visitors on their way, and they start putting the First Contact Team together?"

"Yes." Marley felt tingly, remembering her thrill at being chosen.

"Well, they formed the Planetary Defense Team at the same time. Why do you think they based FCT in Houston?"

"NASA. Right? They'd been preparing for interstellar contact for years." Marley's voice wobbled under Kevin's derisive smile.

"Also, it would be easy to blast Houston into the Gulf if the visitors weren't friendly. It's a long way from the capital and all the important people. After all, they just got it rebuilt from the Aughties attacks."

Marley shuddered, remembering those fearful days. "But they've never made an aggressive move. They seem to like us."

"That's what Captain Cook's men thought when they met the New Zealanders. Had to send another group to clean up leftover body parts after the barbecue."

"That was a misunderstanding." Marley pushed forward close enough to see the tables, loaded with holiday bounty. Her mouth watered.

"I'll say. The natives asked for Crispy with Extra Spices." Kevin snapped the viewer closed and finished the last of his macaroons. "Anyway, if you can do something to help us get to the new year, better do it quick."


"Oh, and that liaison guy from Washington wants to see you. He's running around trying to put Band-Aids on the situation."

"Stephen Grimsky? He wants to see me?"

"Yeah, he was over by the Bugs. You know what he said? The President wants to see the results of my 'mind-reading' experiments. Mind-reading! I told him we're mapping brain functions and exploring emotional perception, so then he wanted to know if the Bugs ever get angry. I told him, 'Initial preliminary emotional data looks promising for correlation but must be confirmed by empirical analysis.' And this is how these people make decisions? About our lives, I might add."

Finally they had a clear shot at the food. Marley could almost taste the meatballs. She fumbled with silver tongs as she said, "At least your bosses don't want you to kill the aliens to get a closer look, like Martin Frobisher did with the Inuits."

"Yes, they do, but the President said to talk to them first." Kevin scooped up the meatball Marley was aiming for and waved to her as he slid back into the crowd.

A server swooped through and collected the meatball tray.

Marley slammed the tongs on the table and looked around. The other food lines snaked most of the way across the room. Her lip quivered. She moved away in the only direction without competition: towards the Eridanians. She understood the comments around her better now.

"They're probably bringing their army."

"You think we'll attack them on their planet?"

"The President must have been planning for this."

She smiled at Red, Green, and Blue, and they solemnly nodded back. They'd been drilled on nodding. An eddy in the crowd brought Marley a sight to gladden her heart: Stephen Grimsky, Special Attaché to the President. A worried frown cut into his delectable brow, but he still managed to smile. Looking into his Caribbean-blue eyes, Marley forgot to breathe. It was amazing, too, how much better her legs felt, like warm honey soothing the veins. She wiggled her toes, happy to feel them again.

Stephen touched her arm to bring her aside. "The President is extremely disturbed. He's been cautious all along, but that hostile display earlier . . ." He ran his hair through his sculpted black curls. "He's never been completely convinced that those deaths during the landing were an accident, you know. And that speech . . . they've never talked like that before."

"I'm sure . . ." Marley stopped. She wasn't at all sure.

"The media's full of dire predictions and the usual conspiracy stories. They're wondering what the government's doing to protect us. Yesterday I saw a tabloid shot of Blue with the Pope, with the headline 'Can the Pope Save Us?' The President feels his responsibility keenly; he's the one who let them land. After Christmas, if they remain peaceful until then, he's going to insist that they leave unless he has some clear evidence of their good will. We're depending on all of you on the FCT for that. In the meantime, we're going to show them our strength and our good intentions. I understand they're interested in our 'winter festival.'"

Marley glanced at the trio. "Ever since they saw the decorations in August."

"I'm arranging trips to some traditional activities, starting tomorrow night. The Bugs have asked for you as interpreter."

"Why me?"

"They say you most nearly reproduce their language. Quite an honor, wouldn't you say?"

Marley's voice squeaked. "But my son's in a Living Nativity tomorrow night."

Stephen nodded. "That's a good holiday function. We'll put it first on the schedule." He clapped a hand on her shoulder and flashed a smile before he escaped into the masses.

A server passed by with several trays, and Marley grabbed an egg roll. She munched to "Deck the Halls Cha Cha Cha," as grease dripped down her fingers and onto her only silk blouse. "Happy Humbug," she muttered toward Stephen's broad back. The end of the world was coming, and she had to work overtime.

Marley drove home as fast as she dared, anxious to hold Curtis close. She turned on the radio in hopes of soothing music, but all channels were covering the President's first meeting with the Eridanians and his abrupt departure. The commentators had even less material than the party guests, but they had plenty to offer in past coverage of Colonel, later President, Fordham. His war record. His ending the war -- on American terms. The background of violence on home ground, shifting borders and allies, and a loss of faith in the West's supreme technology. The clamor for a forbidden third term.

Not electing President Fordham would be like firing your father. As a small boy, Curtis had come home from an encounter with a school bully and sobbed, "I'm telling President Fordham!"

Fordham's mighty declarations -- "I renew the pledge I made to you when I took office: you will be safe in your home, safe in your work, safe in your play from any who dare to oppose us. Wherever Americans walk, they'll walk in safety" -- had the opposite effect on Marley, and she urged the old car faster. If the world were going up in smoke, she wanted to go out holding the only family she had.

Curtis wasn't home. Marley substituted the cat instead, clutching the old tabby in a vociferously unappreciated hug. In the ensuing struggle, she noticed her wrist phone glowing softly with a recorded message that she'd missed at the fear-soaked party. Her most dependable terror -- a call from the police -- flared. She held her breath until she heard, "Mom, where are you? If you're not here by the time the last parent's gone, Bob Chang will bring me in the church van."

She slapped her forehead. How could she have forgotten to pick up Curtis after the Living Nativity rehearsal?

When he'd announced last summer that he wanted to attend the Church of Light and Harmony with his friends, she'd rejoiced because (1) he had friends; (2) they went to church; and (3) though it was a far cry from St. Agnes Catholic Church, where she'd been terrorized into morality, at least it wasn't Church of the Satanic Vampires.

Deep in her conditioning lay the notion that families went to church together, so she went too, when she didn't have to work. The first week she'd heard a sermon on miracles being a shift in perception. When she'd asked Curtis the topic of his Sunday School lesson, he'd said, "The Force." In her mind, Saints Teresa, Francis, and Pio, their sweet stigmata dripping as they pointed accusing fingers, declared her a bad mother when she didn't ask again.

She made herself a cup of tea and forced her mind to things that had seemed important a few hours ago.

Christmas: Forget decorations. She hadn't been able to find them since the move, which seemed incredible, considering the tiny apartment's closets.

Presents: not a happy thought either. With credit cards still maxed out from the move and Curtis's various emergencies, she'd have to postpone shopping until the Christmas bonus showed up.

She hadn't written her court-required progress letter to Josh either. Maybe the Living Nativity would be something positive to mention. She didn't have much good to say. "Grades in tank. Attitude same. Prospects worse" about summed it up. She resented the effort she put into the probably-unread reports -- after all, Josh found writing a check too taxing -- but she kept hoping that something she wrote might make him want to know his son.

She collapsed in the once-velour-striped rocking recliner that Josh had given her on Mother's Day when Curtis was a week old. She pressed the hot mug against her forehead. She had been so sure that their lives would turn for the better with the move to Houston and her new job. Curtis had shared her excitement about meeting the first interstellar visitors, despite leaving the friends she was glad to get him away from. But what did it matter now, when her own country planned to scrub them off like a cosmetic blemish?

A shot rang out and she vaulted out of the chair. Tea poured into her lap. She tried to dance away from her dripping pants and peer through the vertical blinds at the same time. In the parking lot, Curtis climbed out of an ancient VW-e hybrid van with tie-dye colors splotched over rust stains.

Marley ran outside and threw her arms around him.

"Hey! Mom!" He shucked her off in embarrassment, looking back at the van.

A harassed man climbed out of the driver's seat and started to explain, but a bare spring from the car seat hooked into his jacket. The seat back fell into the parking lot. He scrambled to replace it.

Marley stared from the van to Curtis. "You're riding in that?"

The man pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Hello, Ms. Richardson. I'm Bob Chang, one of the youth counselors. The van's not too bad as long as you take left turns gently because of the axle. The internal alert signal never stops while you're driving, but it's just a short."

Three other fifteen-year-olds stuck their heads out the windows and sang, "Siii--"

"Beep!" chirped Curtis as the warning signal.

"--elent Niii--



Bob frowned. "Keep it down, guys. People are trying to--" The scream of an ambulance cut him off. He tried to ignore the adolescent laughter. "And the brakes haven't hit metal yet. The backfire's annoying, but it doesn't --"

"But . . . so late . . ." Guilt of the forgetful mother froze her tongue. She muttered an obscenity in her private language.

"But, Mom, we had to stop by Quik Mart for Tina to get some diapers for her baby. Then the van wouldn't start and we had to push it until -- I gotta call Tina and tell her we made it." Curtis loped through the apartment door.

"Ooooooo, Teeeeeeenaaaaaa," shouted his friends.

Bob looked at his feet. "Do you want to pick up Curtis from now on?"

"Yes. Well . . . I'll try." Marley looked away. "I don't always know when I'll get off work. I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. I'd feel the same way if it were my boys." He whirled around to make a quick exit, but the door handle stuck.

Equally humiliated, Marley watched him drive away, his passengers caroling and beeping, this time to "We Three Kings." She looked up at the night sky as she went back inside. Where was a guiding star when you needed one?

Buried under street lights, business neon, airport signals, and the glow from the SuperAstroDome. She shook her head as she shoved the front door open.

Curtis emerged from the kitchen with his hands full. "Can we go to Bubba's All-You-Can-Eat Barn tomorrow night? You said I could pick."

Marley ran a hand through her hair. "Oh -- we can't. They changed my schedule."

"You promised! You said you'd come to opening night."

"Yes, I know . . . and I will. It's just that they'll come pick us up and take us, so we can't go out to eat, unless I can get off early . . ." She shook her head, not wanting to break another promise. Curtis snorted in agreement. "And I can't stay all evening. I'll have to go with the aliens to some holiday shows. I should be back in time to pick you up." Again her voice rose uncertainly.

"It's sure not like Christmas used to be," Curtis muttered through a chicken leg. "I'll get my own ride home."

"Not in that . . ." Her voice trailed off helplessly. She blinked away visions of toddler Curtis cooing, clapping at the Christmas tree while she and Josh . . . She reached for something, anything, to say.

Curtis was gazing at her pants. "Have an accident, Mom?"

The mature discussion Marley intended to have with Curtis the next morning dissolved into a scattershot of grievances, ending with Curtis's theme song about things not being like they used to be (with door slam accompaniment). Wondering what right she had to call herself a communicator, Marley slouched through the work day, watching the team try to explain holiday customs to politely uncomprehending Eridanians. Asked about their own celebrations, the aliens recounted the days set aside to mark the devastation of the southern continent by their northern enemies and the remembrance of those who died in religious wars. It was a long list. Human faces grew pinched. Marley began to panic, more from the human reaction than the Eridanian stories. She tried to point out that Earth had plenty of bloody occasions that most people took lightly, but no one heard her. She vowed to talk to the Eridanians when she had them to herself that evening.

As it turned out, she had them to herself and three vans worth of military personnel. Curtis, his earrings swinging, affected an indifferent slouch as he climbed into Marley's van. She tried not to be embarrassed. He looked like any other teen. Introduced to the van's occupants -- two security guards, Kevin as driver, and three Eridanians -- he rasped and yipped what he thought was the traditional greeting. He came closer than the President had.

The Eridanians graciously replied. Curtis hunched down in standard sullen boredom, but his eyes kept darting towards the extraterrestrials. Saving up bragging details, Marley was sure.

On the drive to the strip mall, Marley explained the Living Nativity, skimming over religious elements while Kevin chuckled under his breath. She glared at the back of his head as she said, "The church youth have volunteered to present this pageant to raise money for a church building."

Curtis added, "Yeah, and the angels are gonna wear their nightgowns, and Tina Salera is back from having her baby, so they're going to be Mary and Jesus. She already looked pretty fine before, and now she's got boobs. And Keanu Jardine moved to the Lower Territories to get out of child support."

Kevin laughed. "Translate that, Mom."

As the government van slipped, sleek and silent, into a parking place, Curtis jumped out. Even unmarked, the vehicle radiated power. Next to it the tie-dyed van pulled up. It backfired with a lurch.

"Van fart!" shouted its adolescent passengers, streaming out into anarchy.

Besides the church, the strip held a Mexican restaurant, a thrift shop, a used media store, and a gym. The Nativity had been consigned to the far end of the lot to grant peace and parking to the other enterprises, but it was spilling over.

Nightgown-clad angels ran shrieking, throwing handfuls of hay at their pursuers, shepherds reaching with papier-mâché crooks. Their neglected flock, goats with white bath mats tied around their middles, milled about moodily, terrorizing customers. An aerobics bunny from the gym screamed as the goats surrounded her. An adult who'd been nailing the beams of the stable together ran to help. His carpentry collapsed, to the cheers of the youthful congregation.

A Virgin Mary, looking more like Circe, stood apart, baby in arms. She nudged the manger with her foot and looked askance at the goats nibbling the hay. Despite her shapeless robe, every move emphasized the curves Curtis had admired. Marley shut her eyes in pain.

A family van pulled to the lot. Teen girls bounced out, carrying pizza boxes and waving pop bottles. A pro mom in uniform -- denim skirt and perky red Christmas sweater -- barreled out, bawling, "All right, settle down, round up these goats, get back on our side of the lot."

"This is winter festival?" asked Red.

"I'm afraid so." Marley sighed.

Dressed in traditional magi costumes handed down through the ages -- velour bathrobes with gold piping and paper crowns from a fast-food restaurant --Curtis and his fellow wise men erupted from the church. Marley noted cynically that the most exotic boys had been selected, to give the magi a foreign appearance. They King-Tutted to their "camel," a pony with a brown bolster pillow.

With a royal flourish, Curtis offered the pony a slice of pizza. "Whoa!" shouted his companions, laughing as the pony lipped off the toppings. "Let's try anchovy and onion on him!"

Blue asked, "Significance?"

"It's the pageant we spoke of."


"Um, play."


"No. Um, they're acting out a religious story of a baby, a star--"

"And many animals," said Green, examining the piebald goat sniffing his robe.

Blue pointed. "Sitting on animals?"

Marley sighed. The Sri Lankan magus was trying to mount the bolstered pony. Curtis and his African counterpart helped. The pony ducked his head in apology but backed up in a definite negative. "Those are the wise men."

"We seek these." Red waddled toward them. Blue and Green followed after a few hoots that Marley didn't understand.

"Wait. They're not really--"

"Ms. Richardson, I still don't have permission slips from you." Bob appeared at her side.

"What? Oh." Marley squinted after the Eridanians. Bundled in coats, scarves, and hats, they could pass for humans. But could Curtis be trusted? What were the boys telling them? She looked for the security men; they were circling the area. Kevin was entering the Mexican restaurant.

The shepherds thundered by again.

"Are they all like this?" Marley covered her ears.

"I just started as a youth counselor, so I can't say. But my eldest was just getting to that stage when my ex-wife moved." Embarrassed, Bob ducked his head. "That's why I volunteered. Rev. Boehm thought it would help me stop feeling sorry for myself."

"Did it?" asked Marley, feeling the same need.

"Now I feel sorry for myself because I'm a youth counselor." Bob shoved some papers and a pen into her hands. She signed as best she could as the pen sputtered. "This is a permission slip for me to drive him home, if you still want me to, and one for him to take part in the activity. An information form with his medical and insurance information, a hold-harmless agreement between you and the church and any church volunteer, a personal commitment form agreeing to have him here at the designated times, an agreement to support any disciplinary action that might be necessary (not to include corporal punishment), and--"

"Just for a Christmas pageant?" Rising on her toes, Marley tried to see the Eridanians.

"We have a lawyer on the executive board," Bob apologized. "And a goat rancher." He grabbed a runaway goat.

Marley almost escaped, but the professional mom accosted her.

"Marley Richardson? I'm Samantha Jacoby, your Prayer Angel."

"Prayer Angel?" Marley craned her head to look around Samantha. Curtis was making wide gestures for the Eridanians, and a couple of security men had discreetly closed in.

"I drew your name, and I'll be praying for you. At the New Year's Luncheon we'll talk about our blessings." Her face lost some of its brightness. "If we're still here on New Year's. With aliens roaming the earth, I mean. Did you hear the President's speech?"

"Roaming?" asked Marley in a feeble gasp. The aliens had hardly set foot out of the Wyndham-Mark until this week, and never without heavy security.

"Is there anything you'd like me to pray for? Any way you'd like your life to change?" Samantha hooked her bright smile on with an effort.

Wild desires tumbled through Marley's heart, including model sons and men with Caribbean-blue eyes, but as she made a break, she said only, "Just a miracle or two."

"You know what Rev. Boehm says about miracles," Samantha called.

The Eridanians waddled back. "Useful," chirped Red.

Bob came back with the bucking goat, and his eyes widened in recognition. Panicked, Marley herded the Eridanians aside. "It's about to begin. Let's go where we can see better."

The pageant's static nature gave Marley plenty of time to struggle with translating abstract and religious concepts into a language where she'd barely mastered concrete nouns and action verbs. Finally Kevin ambled back from El Periquito with a bag, adding fried grease to the animal stench. "Special holiday praline taco, anyone?" he asked between munches.

"Can we just get out of here while we're all alive?" Marley snapped. "Remember what happened to Captain Cook in Hawaii?"

"That was an accident. They weren't aiming at him."


The rest of the evening's schedule called for a performance of "A Christmas Carol," a family version cut beyond the bone in deference to early bedtimes. Then they drove through the Candlelight Festival, since it was convenient to the new Hermann Park Theatre. During the drive, Kevin tuned in to a replay of the President's speech, a rework of one of his first campaign addresses.

President Fordham's deep voice flowed like black molasses. "I personally am monitoring all activity and negotiations with our interstellar visitors. We will not let the quest for knowledge override our first duty. You may continue with your daily tasks, your preparations for the holidays, secure in the knowledge that your defense from any menace, from this world or the stars, is my only priority. I pledge to you that this administration will never sleep, never relax its vigilance, never flinch from a hard decision when the safety of our nation is at stake. Wherever Americans walk--"

"--They walk in safety," chorused the men. Kevin mumbled a codetta: "Except possibly in Houston if we have to blow it up."

Marley's stomach twisted in knots.

At the Galleria they heard special music from local high schools and saw the Santa Claus village. Marley hustled them by a media store, where the wall screens displayed clips of the President's speech and party footage of the Eridanians. Hearing murmurs like "Blow them back where they came from," she worried about people recognizing the aliens as Bob had, but the shoppers plowed through everyone in a self-centered whirlwind. After the third body slam, Green asked, "What religion does this activity represent?" Marley thought it a fair question. Fortunately they were walking by Digital Dream, and the fleet of computers playing "Silver Bells" slightly out of phase made answering impossible.

Back in the van, free of the cacophony and rancid odors of Christmas bliss, she said with some anxiety, "Much of what we saw tonight is pretending. Not real. You understand that?"

"We perceive," said Blue. "People pretend happiness."

Marley's head had been pounding cruelly since Bellaire High School's rendition of "Little Drummer Boy," which they'd misread as "Little Drum and Bugle Corps with a Few Riffs from the Jazz Band." The headache dissolved on the soporific return journey, but the scent of roses and new car leather lulled her close to sleep. Maybe she could try again tomorrow. If they had a tomorrow.

Read part 2 here.

A former Texan, Madeleine Rose Reardon Dimond is now freezing in New England. A veteran of Clarion '98, Viable Paradise '99, and several Turkey City workshops, she has sold several stories, including to Strange Horizons. For more about her, see her Web site.

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