While driving home during a snowstorm, Serge Kosygin witnesses a meteor plummeting to Earth. When he reaches the strike location, he finds a horrific crash site instead of a meteor crater, with two aliens dead and one survivor barely alive. His deeply ingrained mistrust of the government prompts him to rescue the alien before the authorities arrive.
Een has lost his life mates in a desperate effort to reach safety. With their deaths, he may be the last Aalana in the galaxy. He finds himself in the care of a strange alien being, which both frightens and intrigues him. Though communication issues, biology, and grief impede him, Een is determined to learn all he can about this new world and his rescuer.
Music and the natural world bring them together, creating a bond stronger than culture shock, but government interference and Een's failing health threaten their budding relationship. Only their combined ingenuity and their determination to stay together will give them any chance of saving the last living Aalana.
Smoke rose from the damaged pod. Difficult to say how much, since it was obscured by the windswept snow. This was supposed to be a mild season in this hemisphere. The instruments had only given them general data, not enough to take elevation and local weather patterns into account.
"Field release," Een whispered. A last sliver of hope insisted that the AI functions might have survived the crash. No response. He fumbled with the manual release, fingers clumsy and swollen, difficult to maneuver with all his faiina still upright in hard spikes from fear and pain.
Perhaps his containment field failed as well, since it shut down suddenly, leaving him free to crawl from his command bowl out of the ruined pod. Grief jostled with frustration in his jumbled thoughts. Almost. They had been so close. On the outer rim of the escaping fleet, their small asteroid pod had escaped the worst of the damage from the failure of the fleet's field generators. Even so, they suffered localized instrument failures and the loss of outbound communications. They could only listen in horror as other pod crews cried out for assistance, desperate emergency calls in a dozen languages cut off in mid-word, lives suddenly extinguished, missing lives the AI registered only as a blank space in the data.
Dragging his burned and uncooperative body one-armed, he reached Aal. Flat and dark, once shining silver eyes stared sightless at an alien sky. Forcibly ejected when the pod crashed, Aal's neck had snapped. Perhaps it was kinder that way. Laiin's remains lay farther on, twisted, burned, no remnant now of that quick, bright laugh, the graceful shadow dancer. They had been all Een had left, the last of his home--this world had chosen cruelty over mercy and taken them.
So close, they had come so close to safety. The outer hull had burned off on entry, following its design, most likely leaving a bright trail of fire in its wake as they plummeted into the gravity well. They had held on, singing the patterns, joyful that they had reached sanctuary. Then on approach, the EM fields failed, transforming what should have been a hard landing into a catastrophic crash.
Somewhere out in the vast bowl of stars, there might be more Aalana. But here, beneath this chill sky, gray as death, he was the last. I welcome you, Light-Singer. Gather me into your arms.
But death turned her back and refused his embrace, leaving him bereft and in agony in this terrible, barren place.
* * *
This is a stupid idea. The truck tires skidded again, almost taking Serge off the road this time. Really stupid.
Late spring snow hadn't been in the forecast, damn it. Though that happened this time of year, turning the thaw from the previous week into ice sheets lurking under the soft powder. Not for the first time, he cussed up enough heat to melt Everest as he fought the wheel and thought about turning back for home. It had to be coming up soon, though. He'd tracked the asteroid's path. He'd seen it hit. Not land as he'd been watching some of the others do on the news channels over the past weeks, but hurtle down in a bright burst of orange and red.
If it was just a meteor, fine. He'd make a note of the location and call it in to the authorities. Get the astronomical team from University of Pittsburgh out here. But if it wasn't? If it was one of the inhabited pods touching down across the globe, he couldn't turn his back and say, oh, well, not my problem. Some poor sod might need help. A shifting glow painted the snow up ahead and only when he spotted it did a thought hit him. Maybe there was so much hush-hush going on about the nature of the aliens landing because some of them weren't peaceful sorts. Maybe this was Serge being the idiot at the start of a horror movie, the one who gets killed in the first five minutes.
Yeah, and if you turn back now, Josh is gonna... Serge pulled his thoughts up short. Josh wasn't going to say anything when he got home. He wasn't coming home, not that night or the next. No more coming home.
The back tires slipped again and Serge eased the wheel over to compensate. Not the time to wallow. He had to concentrate on the road or this trip would end up killing him. When he could see the flames jumping and skittering in the wind, he pulled onto the shoulder, grabbed the flashlight from under the seat, and jumped out. The snow wasn't deep, but the footing was treacherous, so he stepped carefully, edging out into the field where the asteroid or craft had landed.
"Mother of God," he breathed out as his eyes adjusted. His brain lagged a few seconds behind as he took in the tragic scene scattered across the snow.
It had been a craft of some sort, an oblong shape resembling a seedpod, if he could extrapolate from what remained. Three occupants had been ejected from the craft. If there were more, those poor bastards were trapped in the conflagration devouring the vehicle. There was no help for them.
The figure closest to him was twisted into an agonized fetal position, most of its clothing burned away, the body underneath black with char. The close-fitting helmet, he assumed it was a helmet and not the being's head, was cracked and the face shield had melted. Serge couldn't bring himself to look any closer. He trudged on to the other two, lying close together, one on its back and the other with a hand on the supine being's chest, as if trying to offer comfort before they died. He didn't know them, didn't even know what they were, but still the backs of his eyes stung at that last moment of...devotion, love, loyalty? Just as sad, no matter what the motivation.
He was going to have to call the police and have them come up here. Do whatever they did in these situations. But his feet kept moving forward instead of returning to the truck. Damn snow kept blowing around too much. He had to make sure, but the one with the hand placed so tenderly... Serge was sure he'd seen that one move. Yes. The helmeted head lifted. A crooning note drifted to him through the snow, a sound so heart wrenchingly sad, Serge teared up again.
"You're still alive, you poor bugger," Serge murmured. Police? Ambulance? Shouldn't he get this visitor to some help? But some things he'd heard made him question what was really happening to the refugees who'd managed to land here. Were the world's governments really welcoming them or were they isolating them for "study," holding them captive and traumatizing them in the name of either science or global security?
What would Josh have done? Probably held up his middle finger and waved it at the authorities in one way or another. Think, Kosygin. You don't have much medical training. You don't even have supplies to start an IV. Of course, the alien might not have veins. An IV might kill him. In that regard, he wasn't any worse as a caretaker than hospital staff would be. If this was a new species, and every landed craft so far had been different, they'd all be starting from scratch on the physiology and anatomy front.
He shouldn't get involved. Why should he even care? It had nothing to do with him.
And right there, that stopped him short. When did it get so bad that he didn't care? He'd withdrawn from the world, from his job and his friends, but that didn't mean he'd drive by a person stranded by the side of the road, did it? Had he changed that much?
To leave an alien visitor to the authorities when he was helpless, unable to speak for himself, to defend himself if necessary--it felt horribly wrong.
His feet moved, his body convinced of his decision before he'd been able to make one. The night took on a strange, dreamlike quality as he rolled the survivor over and lifted the unresponsive body into his arms. Once Serge had his passenger settled and covered in blankets from the back seat, he called in the crash and reported two bodies, saying he couldn't wait any longer out in the storm if he expected to get home.
His passenger's dirge or hymn or whatever the song was quieted to occasional murmurs of single notes and short phrases, the alien's head rolling with the truck's movements.
"Stay with me, buddy," Serge said as he took the last turn up the long hill to his house. "Don't die in my damn truck."
No reason at all for the location of death to make a bit of difference, but some part of Serge was determined that if his guest was in his last moments, the dying would be done in a warm, comfortable bed. The truck slipped more than once going up the hill, tires spinning in a desperate bid for traction. Finally, they reached the drive and Serge could shut off the engine and jog around to the passenger side. His impromptu guest was rangy, probably a good half foot taller than Serge, but he couldn't have weighed more than the average twelve-year-old. He as opposed to she or them or another gender label entirely might not have been remotely correct. No way to tell. He would do until he knew better.
The two steps onto the porch nearly ended in disaster as Serge's foot slipped. Should've salted when the snow started. Then he had to juggle his passenger to his left arm, supported on one knee, while he dealt with the sticky screen door and got the front door unlocked. He needed to fix that and the whole front of the house needed painting. So many things he'd been neglecting.
The guest room was an embarrassment too, used as storage the past several years. Serge used an elbow to flick the light switch, kicked boxes off the bed, and eased his alien guest onto the comforter. In the soft lamplight, Serge took a moment to see what he'd gotten himself into. Bipedal, bilateral symmetry, two arms, fingers, a head, all familiar things, at least. His guest didn't appear to have extra appendages like wings or a tail. So far, so good. Parts of the alien's coverall had burned and Serge leaned in closer to puzzle out fastenings to start peeling him (her?) out of the smoke-infused material.
There. A seam along the side came apart when pressed on either edge. Carefully, Serge started to fold the coverall back and it finally hit him that despite the human number of limbs, this being was entirely alien. The unburned dermal covering was...feathers? No, not quite, but that was the closest analogous covering Serge could come up with. Triangular points overlapping in a sort of scale arrangement, they were soft and, under lamplight at least, a pearlescent lavender. The hands had six digits--five fingers of nearly equal length and a thumb, all tipped with pale, smooth pads.
He tugged gently when he got to the burned shoulder, wincing when the damn coverall stuck and ripped off one of the feather scales.
"Sorry...sorry. I'll be right back," Serge whispered and hurried to the kitchen for a sponge.
Wetting the material with the sponge on the underside as he lifted allowed him to remove the coverall bit by painstaking bit. The water didn't cause any more damage as far as Serge could tell, so one possible Earth hurdle down, at any rate. Burned feather scales crumbled off as black ash as he progressed down the alien's side, leaving bare, pale skin underneath.
Once he'd worked the coverall down to his guest's waist, the burns laid bare weren't as bad as he'd thought. Pressure suit, flame retardant, whatever the nature of the alien material, it had offered more protection than seemed likely for such a thin barrier. Serge hauled ice out of the freezer chest, packing it around the burned arm and side. He bundled the rest of his visitor in heavy blankets from the closet since the unburned skin was frigid.
The helmet worried him, with its cracked faceplate and unfamiliar catches, but he managed to flip the right paddles and ease the bulbous thing off. When he set the helmet aside, the alienness only increased. Instead of hair, finger-thick fronds covered the alien's head, the strange twitching appendages a few shades of lavender darker than the bare skin of the face. The eyelids were rounder, though not much larger than human eyes. Two small nostrils were in roughly the usual place, but set flush as a seal's would be. Mouth and ears were both recognizable, but just different enough to be uncanny. Pulse...yes, there was a sluggish pulse, but Serge reminded himself that he had no idea what was normal, and respirations seemed unhindered, so at least Earth's oxygen level seemed to be compatible.
Niggles of guilt prodded at him again, the ones that said he should take the alien to the authorities and medical staff. This species hadn't been in any of the previous meteor landing news coverage, though. The medical staff wouldn't know any more than he did, and the stress of a hospital might kill the alien quicker. Horrible places. Better to let his visitor rest quietly overnight, wait for the storm to die down, and see how he was doing in the morning.
The damn hospital would be the last resort.
* * *
Both warmth and cold surrounded Een, so he must have been suffering hallucinations or possible neural damage. Whatever the cause of the strange temperature dysphoria, at least his location was quiet and relatively comfortable. He opened his eyes to darkness, unable to focus. The quality of sound as he shifted suggested that he was inside a structure of some sort, but that seemed unlikely.
Perhaps one of the native sentients had recovered him despite the atmospheric storm? If only there had been more data on the planet's dominant builder species. If one of them had scooped him up, he was perhaps as likely to be eaten as he was to be cared for, and if they had shut him inside without access to photon emissions, their intent would hardly matter.
He would die, perhaps the last of his kind. Without long range communication at his fingertips, he had no way to know. While the Aalana had delighted in exploring the stars for centuries, they had been naÃ¯ve, and their belief in a benevolent universe had proved deadly.
When the gray ships had first appeared at the outer rim, Aalana system stations had attempted contact and assumed that the lack of response was due to a need to acquire language first. They had established contact with several other spacefaring people by that time, and had experienced this hesitance before, waiting to speak with the Aalana until they could do so and be understood.
But these ships, sleek and fast, had hurtled through the system, arrowing toward the Aalana homeworld with dreadful purpose. Een and his mates had been working as deep space listeners on one of the far-orbiting stations closest to the system's edge. When the horrifying songs of warning had come from their home, telling of slaughter and devastation, of an alien species who had no compassion and no desire to communicate, the station director acted to save what was left of the Aalana.
She sent beacons out, aimed along the trajectory of every known deep-space Aalana ship and to all the surviving in-system stations. Flee. Scatter. Take your mates and your offspring and run. We must survive.
Almost the last to leave, Een and his station colleagues barely escaped in their single jump ship as the gray war vessels began to sweep the system for remaining Aalana. From the viewports they watched, clinging together as the hostile ships fired upon the poor little station that had been their home.
They ran silent, unwilling to give the gray ships transmissions to trace, songs their scattered people might feel compelled to answer and thus betray their own locations as well. No why emerged in their time of flight, no reason an alien race would wish to annihilate a peaceful people. While some of the youngest Aalana speculated and agonized over motives and how the disaster might have been averted, most of them knew there could be no adequate reason, no justification for genocide.
Rumors and whispers led them to Sanctuary 69, an ingenious, multi-species station populated mainly by those who had fled the invaders, each from their own doomed home planets. Hollowed out asteroids connected in strings and clusters by force fields served as habitats and common spaces, brimming with races both familiar and new to the Aalana refugees.
The gray ships would come. No one doubted that eventually, the enemy would track their prey. The various races combined their knowledge and technologies in a two-pronged effort: find a planet in a far-flung arm of the galaxy on which to make a stand and invent a way to allow the entire station to make the jump. Many of the jump ships had arrived damaged and the sanctuary no longer had a fleet large enough to accommodate all the refugees.
Too soon, outlier scouts sent out the alarm. The gray ships were coming. The new field emitter configuration wasn't ready, but they had no time. With the enemy closing on them, they were forced to make the jump, damaging the field generator and the emitter array. In the catastrophic field generator failure, the explosion had destroyed all the central habitats and sent the surviving asteroids hurtling away from each other. Those who remained set course for a last, harried attempt to reach the target planet. From all the grief-stricken, frightened messages back and forth, Een's pod had been the only Aalana vessel remaining after the generator explosion.
In the desperate flight here, how many species had been lost? How many songs had died?
* * *