The next few days combined the worst of holiday anticipation and stark terror. The anthropologists asked the Eridanians for more history, and all three described long-term wars and cruelties that made even the most hawkish humans blench. No one could help imagining what such beings might do when the President told them to leave.
Private unvoiced hells drove all departments to redouble efforts on their reports for the President. Everyone needed translation constantly. The linguists never had more than ten uninterrupted minutes to work on their own report. When Dr. Scofield pulled Marley off of High Eridanian qualifiers, she was sorry to be dropped back into the turf wars and shouting matches. Kevin ran about, clamping electrodes onto the combatants' heads to get good human readouts of strong emotion.
Even packed with multiple excursions for the Eridanians, the evenings brought Marley some relief. At least nobody shouted. They attended a Messiah singalong, hastily scheduled parades at military bases, a klezmer band playing the Nutcracker, a public Hanukkah candle lighting, and Carols on the Square.
They even visited the holiday display at the Space Center, where some impulse made her purchase a souvenir shuttle paperweight. It would probably elicit an "Oh, Mom" and rolling eyes, but Curtis as a small boy had loved rockets and spaceships. It might be his only present, with the bonus money still a theory. The cynical view held that the government hoped to delay paying it until they bombed Houston.
One night Curtis brought home a twisted pine spray. He said the nearby tree lot had given it to him. Looking at the brown-tipped needles drifting to the carpet, Marley believed him. She told him he was responsible for setting it up. "But not there!" she shouted when he filled the kitchen sink with water and stuffed his tree in the drain plug. When she came home the next night, she found it nailed, wildly askew, to the coffee table. Teenage accessories -- earrings and keychains -- dragged the drooping branches down further.
By Christmas Eve, Marley felt split, fried, and barbecued. Only last night the President had assured them:
"As I watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on themselves, I swore to end all terrorism on American soil. The attacks on our major cities over the next decade only strengthened my resolve. And I stand before you today as your President, the only President in fifty years to have served in the military, and I pledge to you that during my administration you will always walk in safety, no matter what the cost."
The media stories had tripled in hysteria afterwards, but their reaction seemed mild compared with FCT team's thrashings with their final reports. No one said out loud how final they might be.
After 3:00 p.m., Marley's eyes glazed over in after-school anxiety, relieved only when Curtis beeped her wrist phone in his afternoon check-in. She had hoped to leave early for some minor Christmas shopping, but Dr. Scofield planned for the linguists to outstay everyone else and work on their report then.
Someone brought in cold pitas for supper around 8:30. Marley tried to snag some minitubs of hummus, but two FCT staffers were standing in front of the tray and arguing over a letter from a Buddhist monastery thanking the Eridanians for their visit.
"They didn't go, did they?"
Marley tried to reach behind the smaller man, but he backed into her.
"How could they? They were here every day. Buncha cranks."
She snaked an arm between them to grab a handful of tubs. Then she searched for Kevin. She tracked him down in the hotel bar, where he was gulping Shiner Bocks faster than the bartender could clear them away.
"I've brought some food." She tripped over the door sill and muttered a private curse as she stumbled against the bar.
Kevin banged his mug on the counter. "What did you say?"
"You speak Arabic?" she asked, surprised.
"Shh! I can curse fluently in any number of languages, but that's not one I recommend admitting to. Particularly as authentic as you sound." He searched her face as though reading her DNA. "Where did you learn it?"
"From Sitti. It's been a long time." Marley set the containers down on the brassy bar.
"I thought your grandmother was Chinese."
Marley shoved the containers around and refused to meet his eyes. "Sitti was my friend Fariha's grandmother. She hardly spoke any English."
"She taught you to curse?"
"That was Fariha's big brother Ahmed. I used to stay with their family while my mother worked. Until 9-1-1-0-1. We watched the towers collapse. And the news. Fariha had to translate. She was only six and didn't understand most of it, but it made her cry. Us cry. And Sitti explained that no devout Muslim would take innocent life. My mother came home early to pick me up, and I tried to make her understand, but she wouldn't listen. I never saw Sitti again."
"I told you, you shoulda finished that doctorate."
"I was five!"
"Always an excuse. But switch languages, okay? The war hasn't been over long enough." Kevin tugged his already-wild hair. "And now we're gonna have another one. I wish these gov'mint folks would give us time to study. They think science is like a Vegas show." He raised his glass for another deep draught.
"What's wrong, Kevin?"
"I've got information that could get somebody killed. Maybe us. Or them." He took another swig with one hand and handed her his PDA with the other. "Tap through this slide show."
"It looks like brains. What am I supposed to see?"
"I've got yours and Red's on split screen. See? Yours is an excellent example of mad as hell."
"Thank you. I was thinking about my son and his efforts to pitch his life down the tubes. And his father."
"Now look at Red's as of this week. Eridanian parts aren't quite the same -- some things in different places, some different sizes, some I haven't identified -- but you can see the similarities. They've got an enormous limbic system--"
"Right. Look under this basal ganglion. If she were a human, she'd be flaming furious, and I'd be ducking." He punched through the scans. "Makes you look like Mary Sunshine."
A thump behind them made Kevin and Marley jump. Stephen stood at the door, clutching several liters of pop, his face as green as the bottles. Another bottle rolled on the floor against the bar. "The President has to hear about this," Stephen whispered.
Kevin held up a hand and almost fell off the bar stool. "Whoa. Wait a minute. You can't condemn a whole race because one of them is in a snit. Maybe they had a fight over who gets the media control."
"I'm not condemning them, but I have to give the President any available data and warn him of possible ramifications."
"Then you have to give him everything we've got. The linguists don't think they're violent, do they, Marley?"
She hesitated. "Dr. Scofield hasn't finalized the wording of the report, but he doesn't feel that their language structure shows . . ." A glance at Stephen's face told her that language structures weren't going to cut it.
Kevin grabbed his arm. "Jeez, Steve. What do you want? We're trying to give definite answers on stuff that'll take years to sort through. Our best evidence that they're friendly is that they are. They cooperate with whatever we ask. Don't throw away this chance -- and possibly our lives --over paranoia."
"We can't make ourselves vulnerable to anybody, no matter where they're from," Stephen said. "The President is responsible not just for the safety of Houston and North America, but the whole world. If the Eridanians are as friendly as you say, they'll leave quietly."
"Will you evacuate Houston before you ask them? Do you have defenses in place?"
Marley dropped her gaze to hide a film of sudden tears. So this was how it ended, with the door slammed on visitors from the stars, like so many other doors slammed. She was surprised at how much even the best-case scenario hurt, with the Eridanians leaving quietly, never to return. The other possibilities tore her heart like a serrated knife. No rosy future with better jobs and more chances for Curtis, maybe not even the chance to grow up.
Stephen didn't flinch. "I'm willing to listen to any case you can muster. I don't want to make a mistake any more than you do. The future of the human race could depend on what we do."
In the silence Marley wiped a tear off her cheek.
Stephen's voice softened. "Maybe you could get some data together and meet me for lunch tomorrow. We could do Chinese."
Marley tucked her head even more to hide her flushed cheeks. In the midst of disaster, a small present. She raised her head to say that tomorrow was Christmas and why didn't he come over. The words choked off when she saw that no one was looking at her. Kevin still gripped Stephen's arm, but tenderly; Stephen had covered Kevin's hand with his own. The gaze between them would have melted an ice cap. Marley stepped back and turned away.
A commotion at the elevator just outside the bar grabbed her attention. At first she saw just a surging crowd of security, but she gasped in recognition when the shouts penetrated to the bar. She lurched forward.
Kevin grabbed at her sleeve. "Marley, that's not something you run towards."
As the guards parted, she faced her last nightmare: Curtis held between them as he raged, thrashing from side to side in handcuffs.
Something inside Marley shattered and strengthened her in the breaking. She'd listened too long to verbal attacks and suspicion. It would not happen to her son. She would not permit it. Her stumbling steps turned into a march; her shoes slapped the tile.
She saw the dangerous young man, out of control, tall and powerful as his captors. But other images overlaid the present like a kaleidoscope: Curtis at all ages, wide eyes embracing the world, ready to give, ready to join, until biology and the move to Houston twisted him into something more complex.
She halted in front of the struggling procession, stopping it cold as she glared up into the ranking officer's eyes. Capturing his attention against his will, she demanded in a voice that silenced the lobby, "What is the meaning of this? What are you doing to my son?"
"Quiet, Curtis." To the guard, she said, "Explain yourself."
The guard blinked. The others stiffened in place. "Your son was apprehended in a restricted area, heading for the aliens' quarters."
"And why wouldn't he be if he were looking for me? I work with the Eridanians, sometimes in their rooms." She shoved her badge in the man's face, so close he had to cross his eyes to see the dancing authorization symbols.
"No one is allowed in that area, and we have orders to treat any trespassing as an act of aggression."
"Aggression! A fifteen-year-old boy looking for his mother on Christmas Eve?" Finally she looked at Curtis.
"Mom, they stole Tina's baby!" His eyes pleaded with her to make it all right.
"We have to take him--"
"You'll take him nowhere. I don't know the time in Europe; his father may still be in International Court, but we'll have him pulled out if necessary." Court had adjourned for the holidays and Josh had been on the beach for a week with the latest Little Ms. Understanding. He'd probably say, "Curtis who?", but there was no point calling yourself a communications specialist if you couldn't lie when necessary.
A hand pressed Marley's shoulder. She flinched.
"I'm Stephen Grimsky, Special Attaché to the President. Does this concern the First Contact Project?"
The guards attempted to repeat their orders and their story. Marley interrupted. "Stephen, this is ridiculous. What harm do they imagine a child could do?" Before the guards could respond, she snapped at them, "Was he armed? Did he have anything on him that could possibly harm anyone?" She looked at Curtis again, willing him innocent.
"He didn't have--"
"You searched him without my permission? Without his attorney and his doctor?"
"Not a cavity search, ma'am."
"Stephen, if we are not allowed to leave immediately--"
"I think this incident has been blown out of proportion," Stephen said. "We're all a bit nervous these days. I'll take responsibility for the boy's release, and we know how to contact Marley if the need arises." He looked at each guard. "There seem to be quite a few of you here. I trust you haven't neglected to lock down the area. That was also part of your orders, I believe."
Marley threw an arm around Curtis's shoulder and marched him to the parking lot stairs. By the time they reached level ground again, she was leaning heavily on him; her legs trembled.
"Mom, could you come talk to my English teacher like that? She is so wicked unfair."
Marley unlocked the car with shaking hands. She slid in and leaned against the steering wheel while Curtis pulled on the door that always stuck. Rubbing her forehead, she tried to organize the rest of the night. She'd have to drive him home and get back to help with the report.
"Mom, are you okay? We have to go see Tina, to see if they found her baby yet. Please, Mom, it's not far."
"Tina's baby? You said somebody stole her."
"When Tina went inside to the bathroom. Amy Burzak was supposed to watch Carissa. But Amy started talking to Jabar and when Tina got back, the baby was gone. Bob called the police, but they acted like Tina did something to the baby. The Bugs were there, Mom. It had to be them. I was going to pretend to be from the cleaning staff and see if they had her."
"Oh, Curtis, you can't get in at this time of night as cleaning staff. You'd need a badge and a uniform--"
"Wow, Mom! You know how to break into a hotel?"
Marley coughed -- with dignity, she hoped. "I've certainly heard. But you must be wrong about the Eridanians, Curtis."
"It couldn't be anybody else!"
"Curtis, the guards are there to keep them in as much as to keep people out. They weren't scheduled to go anywhere tonight. You're accusing them just as unfairly as the guards accused you."
"Mom, we've got to do something." His voice cracked.
Marley put her arms around him and stroked his hair, like she did when he was six. She hated this part of parenting, when you couldn't make things better. That's when they turned to you, of course. They never said, "Mom, if you don't translate this passage of Virgil into Eridanian, my whole life will be ruined." Always the unfixable. "Make my kitten live again." "Make Daddy come home." And now, "Find my girlfriend's baby."
You did what you could. Marley started the car. To hell with the report. If the world were to end next week, she knew how she wanted to spend the time left. "Where does Tina live?"
Curtis jumped out of the car as soon as it pulled into the driveway. Tina stood in the doorway, a man behind her. Marley recognized Bob as she picked her way along the crumbled path.
Relief flooded Bob's face. "Ms. Richardson, I'm so glad to see you."
Tina huddled on the couch with Curtis, whispering. Her puffy eyes leaked tears; her swollen breasts, milk, splotching the faded "Happy Holidays" on her T-shirt.
Bob jerked his head toward the kitchen.
Taking the hint, Marley followed him, saying loudly, "I'll fix some tea."
"Not for me," said Tina. "The caffeine's not good for the baby." She began to cry again. Curtis put his arm around her.
Bob said in a low voice, "She wasn't gone five minutes. There were lots of people around; I looked over at the wise men for a minute, thinking I'd seen the, the people who were with you the other night."
"They were really there? That's impossible!"
"I thought I saw someone bundled up like they were, but it was so crowded. And then Tina was screaming that Carissa was gone. I called the police, but they didn't find a trace. I brought her back here, but her father's in rehab, and her older sister left this morning on a Christmas cruise with her boyfriend."
Marley went back into the front room.
Tina was sobbing, "I prayed and prayed before she was born. My whole family said get an abortion, but I thought God told me to have her, and I promised to be a good mother, so why--" She gulped. "My sister said I was so stupid."
Marley sat down on the other side of Tina and for the second time that night held an almost-grown child close. Maybe the first comfort was the only one life could offer. Wondering how she'd ever seen the girl as anything but desperate, Marley pushed back Tina's tear-soaked black hair.
Curtis tugged Marley's sleeve. "Mom, I told Tina she could come home with us."
Marley drew in a breath. "Of course she can." She turned to Bob. "We won't be having much of a Christmas, but why don't you join us tomorrow, if you don't have other plans?"
Bob flushed and looked at his feet. "Thanks. I don't, no. My boys aren't coming to visit. Janet . . . my ex-wife . . . I hope she lets me see them again someday."
Marley reached out a hand, but didn't quite dare touch his arm.
Curtis tugged again. "Mom, can we have Christmas like we used to?"
Marley tried to smile. "I don't have the presents you asked for."
He shrugged. "Sure, I want the stuff, but that's not really Christmas."
Curtis led Tina down the hall to gather her things. "Me and my mom used to have the best Christmases when I was little. We'd clean the cages at the animal shelter and walk the dogs. Then we'd have our presents and fix dinner just for us and go see my granddad at the nursing home, sing with the old people and all. You shoulda heard Gran do his reggae Jingle Bells."
Marley stared after him. "I always thought he meant the wonderful Christmases when his father lived with us." She smiled at Bob. "Maybe they're right about miracles."
Marley gently shepherded the teens home and to bed, though Tina proclaimed she was going to pray all night.
Some hours later, Marley started awake. The thin window shade glowed bright, but when she pushed the shade aside, she saw lights from the kind of businesses that never sleep: Memorial Hospital, Dell-Digital, Amalgamated Microchip. Exhausted, anxious, disgusted, she flopped back on her pillow. A rare morning to sleep in, and she was up before dawn.
At least she had time to think, or at least run thoughts in a mental squirrel cage. Should she evacuate? When? Where? Back to Colorado? Marley rubbed her forehead as though to scrub out the worries. Now, she thought, was the right time to sneak in with the hotel staff. For centuries, the wee small hours had belonged to those who stood and waited on others.
She stiffened, as though struck. After all, she already had a badge.
Silently, she crept out of bed. Tina, despite her brave intentions, didn't stir from her place in Marley's bed. In sleep, with her hair spilling over her candy-striped nightshirt, she looked even younger.
Marley wrote a note in case Curtis and Tina awakened and tiptoed out the front door.
She was so busy rehearsing stories to tell the guards that she almost didn't see the lone figure in the outdoor parking lot. She slammed the brakes and zoomed backwards to take a good look.
"Blue?" It couldn't be.
He faced her. "Greetings, Marley. I wondered how to call for your assistance."
"And I wanted to ask you a question. But what are you doing out here?"
"Your stories mention following stars. How do you accomplish that?"
"The custom has fallen into disuse lately. But I meant the guards; how did you get around them?"
"It is one step only. Tell, Marley, what do human babies eat? How?"
Trembling with confirmed fear, Marley gestured to her chest. "Females provide nourishment."
Blue nodded. "Will you come nourish an infant?"
"I can't, not any longer." She licked her lips and swallowed, trying to force moisture into her dry mouth. "May we return the infant to its parent, who is capable?"
"We would do so, if we were sure of its safety. Your sages informed us that the infant now celebrated will be sacrificed next season. Green and I reflected what this might mean, but Red, who is too young for reflection, became angry at your crime. She returned by subterfuge and removed the infant. She sought only to save it from its fate, and we to protect her and our mission here, but we are forced to conclude that, despite research, we do not understand the infant's needs."
"Is -- is she well?"
"Judging from the volume of her language, which we do not understand, I believe so, though I do not know how to interpret her odor. Will you come?"
"Yes, but--" She thought of trying to get past the guards, of the political ramifications.
She punched Kevin's number into her wrist phone. "Kevin, do you know how to find Stephen?"
A different voice came on, mumbling through a yawn. "Grimsky here."
"Get down to the hotel. Now. I need your authorization to get into their quarters. We have to resolve an incident."
"I'll meet you in the FCT rooms."
They had just arrived in the FCT conference rooms when Green raced in, so fast that he seemed to fly. The two aliens consulted in high Eridanian. Marley gave up trying to understand and let her gaze wander. When she looked down, she saw Green's feet dangling several inches above the floor. She blinked in surprise.
The door opened, admitting Stephen and Kevin, the latter fumbling his camera into action.
Marley blinked again. Nothing made sense tonight. "That was quick."
"I'm staying at the hotel," said Stephen. "We went to the penthouse first, to make sure the Bu -- Eridanians were all right." He stared at Green. "We were just talking to you there. You said--"
Kevin whisked in to settle his electrodes on Blue's skull. "We don't have any scans of you, just Red."
"That doesn't matter now," Marley objected.
"Science always matters." He tapped at the controls. After a moment, he whistled. "This can't be right."
Blue sat down in the chair Red normally took. "I will do science while you return to our rooms with Green."
"What's wrong?" Stephen asked Marley.
Kevin responded before she could frame a statement. "It's so different from the other one. If this were your brain, you'd be seeing God and talking to angels."
"Angels!" gasped Marley. "Roses. Levitation. Healing. Bilocation -- they did visit the Pope and the monastery -- that's how they get around so fast. They're not warriors; they're saints!"
"Saints." Stephen gulped. "The Pope sent a Christmas message, calling for peace. He sounded like he'd talked to them. I thought it was a bad translation."
"Maybe we ought to take them to the Dalai Lama," said Kevin.
"Maybe they've already been," retorted Marley. "And we've got more problems than that. Acting on . . . a misunderstanding, they . . . rescued a baby."
Stephen sat down and clutched his forehead. "Stealing babies. This kind of publicity could--"
"Save us, if it's publicity our way," said Marley. "Right, Kevin?"
Red was desperate enough to climb into the van with only a little reassurance from Marley, who changed Carissa's diaper and poured a few sips of formula into her mouth. Everyone sighed when the van gently rocked the child to sleep. Kevin drove slowly to counter the lack of an infant seat.
"In the pageant, the young people were acting out a story from long ago," said Marley. "This baby isn't the same one in the story."
Blue looked at Red, then back at Marley. "Teaching story. You tell it to remind that such things must not happen again. As we do with stories of our ancestors. Even after our peace of ten thousand years, we must not forget what we are capable of."
"Ten -- ten thousand?" said Stephen. "You never mentioned it."
"You requested our stories of shame," Green said.
Marley shook her head. "You told us your worst; we misunderstood why and showed you a lot of faked merriment. But the sages were not real sages. They were young boys, pretending."
"Wisdom must first be pretended," said Blue. "We ask indulgence for our young."
Green said, "Naturally children do not perceive as adults. They have not the same abilities. Releasing dimensions is long and painful, though necessary for maturity. We hope to see Red move lightly through the universe, with every place step away."
"She can't . . . move like you do? How did she get to the church?" Kevin called back. "And past the guards?"
"Watch the road," snapped Marley. "Not you," she told the obedient Blue and Green. Red stayed slouched down, and Marley noted that some body language crossed cultural boundaries.
Blue answered, "She used subterfuge to escape and 'call a cab,' I think you say. Many youth now say they will not mature. They wish to avoid pain. In seeking you, so like our young, we sought to better understand them. We need to know if cultures of those not matured can succeed."
As they crowded through her door, Marley worried about so many people in the tiny rooms. But when the Christmas cooking aromas -- apple cider, baking cookies, and stuffed turkey -- brought smiles to the human faces, she knew everything would be fine.
Bob was leaning over the oven. "Hi, I hope you're ready for an early lunch. It'll be done in an hour."
"Already?" asked Marley.
"It's tofu," he said. "I'm vegetarian."
Curtis and Tina sat by the gnarled excuse for a tree, listing farther off-center than ever with new burdens of hair ornaments and beads. Curtis was setting a foil star on top. He'd tried to twist it so that "Big Tex Burger" didn't show.
Tina looked up and burst into tears. She sprang to her feet, tripping over the offended cat. "Carissa!" she sobbed, cradling the baby against her cheek.
Curtis's eyes widened as he took in the Eridanians, Kevin, Stephen, and security guards. "Better get out the SPAM too."
They weren't reduced to that, though probably everybody would have an early supper. Kevin recorded the happy meal and presents under the tree as the Eridanians gathered close. Marley nearly cried over the bubble bath Curtis gave her. "You need to relax, Mom."
He exclaimed over the space shuttle. "Mom! You remembered!" He was still reciting space statistics when Kevin herded them into one last group shot.
"Just wait till they see this one," Kevin muttered as he posed Tina kneeling by her baby's makeshift catfood-box crib. Curtis stood proudly over them. "Trust me, it's traditional," he assured the visitors. The humans stood close, with the adult Eridanians hovering slightly above. Red knelt in front of the crib to place the diapers and formula she'd bought. The cat moved in to sniff the formula.
Stephen smiled, relieved. "This should just about fix everything."
Kevin murmured as he packed his camera, "You know, Drake and the natives of Nova Albion got on famously when they met."
Marley smiled. "Paul Gauguin lived over ten years in Tahiti, his longest stint anywhere. And you know what an idiot he was."
"Now that is a miracle."
The next day, Marley sat at the kitchen table, remembering. They'd taken the Eridanians to the animal shelter and then to a nursing home to sing carols, with Kevin duly recording.
Later, Bob had offered the teens his car and babysitting if they wanted to go to a movie. Curtis and Tina protested, "Not on Christmas!" and made all of them sit down on the couch to watch a suitable family movie, about miracles and angels. The President interrupted the broadcast with soothing holiday greetings. He forecast the dawn of a new era of "peace on earth and beyond." Some of Kevin's clips and stills followed.
Now Marley smiled, remembering Bob's leg pressing against hers. He was coming over soon, Curtis and Tina having accepted today's offer of a car. Tina had insisted on taking Carissa; Bob was bringing his son's old car seat.
Tina and Curtis had their heads together by the window, carrying on a low-voiced discussion about the best film for a six-month-old infant.
Marley smiled and turned to her PDA. "Dear Josh," she entered, "I'm so proud of Curtis . . ."