Author: Denise Felt PM
It's just another day at Harlington-Straker Film Studios - or is it?Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Romance - Words: 8,546 - Reviews: 2 - Published: 04-23-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6930454
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
(A UFO Story)
by Denise Felt 2011
A SHADO Writers Guild Challenge Story
"All is fair in love and war." – from Frank Fairleigh (1850) by Francis Edward Smedley
Dedicated to the original white mouse, Amelia Rodgers.
Kardros could hear the screams of his personal guard long before the doors to his chamber were ripped off their hinges. The monster that entered filled the doorway even on all fours. Nostrils steaming, and emitting fearsome growls, it advanced toward where he sat on his throne. The creature's fiery eyes burned with a rage that nothing could assuage. Kardros swallowed, knowing the chances for his survival past the next moment depended on his ability to deflect that ferocious anger.
"Chimera!" he called as the monster advanced. "I am Kardros, and I have done you no harm. Why do you seek to destroy me?"
The chimera growled loud enough to shake the walls. Then she lowered her head close to his, her breath foul in his face, and hissed, "You killed my mate, human!"
He threw out his arms and said, "I did not! Scent me then, and tell me if it was I!"
Sense of smell was the chimera's greatest asset, allowing it to track its prey over hundreds of miles. But she had not needed it today, when she had returned from the hunt to find her cavern torn apart and her mate murdered. She'd known exactly where to look for the culprits. The human colony! Only they among all the creatures on Sereandevous had the audacity to come into the hills. Nonetheless, she considered. If this human had not killed her mate, perhaps he knew who had. Her vengeance was for that human, not the others.
She bared her teeth at him, then sniffed at the air, taking his scent into her nostrils. Then she sat back on her haunches, her powerful tail whipping about in frustration. "You are correct, human," she growled. "You are not the one who killed my mate. Tell me who did it, and I shall spare your life."
"He is not one of us," he said, glad to have her out of his face.
"You lie! He is human! I could smell him in the cavern!"
Kardros held up his hands in entreaty. "Yes, he is human. But he is our enemy. We had captured him, but he escaped and ran into the hills. We had no way of knowing what trouble he caused there. You cannot hold us to blame for his actions. He is a liar and a troublemaker. No doubt he killed your mate to bring your wrath down on us. He is cunning that way."
The chimera leaned in, baring her teeth as she hissed, "His name, human."
He swallowed. "Straker. His name is Straker. But he has since stolen one of our ships and returned to his homeworld. He is no longer here."
She stared into his eyes for a long moment, judging his veracity by the level of his fear. Finally, she sat back once more, her eyes flashing momentarily. "Tell me where he can be found."
Jimmy was whistling off-key as he headed along the path toward home. It wasn't full dark yet, but under the trees it seemed that way, and Jimmy didn't like the unfamiliar sounds of the woods even during the day. So he whistled the theme music to Star Wars, hoping he might eventually get it to sound good. And also hoping that it might drown out any sounds from the woods around him that he really didn't want to hear.
It wasn't that he was a coward. After all, every evening he fought with elves, dragons, giants, and sorcerers at his friend Mark's house. But that was make-believe, and it was easy to be brave when you were pretending. Reality was something very different. He'd seen those animal shows where tigers took down gazelles and ate them raw. Reality was a terrifying place, all considered. He'd take his D & D game over it any day. But the bravest thing he did in reality was to walk this path from Mark's house night after night when game time was over.
Suddenly there was a rustling in the underbrush close by. He stopped in his tracks, freezing for a minute, because it had been loud enough to reach his ears over his whistling. And that meant that whatever was moving about was big enough to make a lot of noise even when it was being quiet. He turned around, trying to see clearly in the gloom. But there was nothing to see.
He gulped and kept walking. Only he didn't try to whistle anymore. His ears were straining for the next sound. Was it a tiger? Did it think he was a gazelle? No, no! Tigers didn't live in Wisconsin. They lived in Africa. He was safe here. He was –
The sound came again, much louder and almost in his ear. He swung around with a cry, and saw enormous eyes staring at him from the trees. He was so shocked that he scrambled to back up – and ended up falling over his own feet onto the path. His backpack cushioned his fall somewhat, so he wasn't really winded. But he was finding it hard to breathe just the same. He couldn't take his eyes off the large pair in the trees. What could possibly be that big? Not even a tiger had eyes that huge!
"Don't eat me!" he begged.
"I am not hungry," came the deep reply.
His eyes widened at being answered, and his curiosity rose. He lowered his hands from his face and said, "Would you eat me if you were?"
"Perhaps," it answered, almost purring. "Do you taste good?"
He laughed, partly in relief that he wasn't going to be eaten immediately and partly because whatever it was, it had a sense of humor. And in Jimmy's book, that meant a lot. He sat up on the path and peered into the brush, trying to make the creature out better. But it was very dark in the trees, and he couldn't tell how much of that was the creature and how much was the night.
"So. What are you?" he asked.
"I am a chimera," came the deep reply from the dark.
"Really?" Jimmy grinned. "I play a game that has chimeras in it. They're pretty fierce, right?"
"We can be," was the calm answer. "Are there chimeras on this world? I have not scented any."
"Oh. Well, no, they're not real. They're a myth. You know, legends."
"Ah!" the creature said with a sigh. "We have been here at one time then. That may be useful to know." She turned to the boy and asked, "What is your designation?"
"Your name, human child. What is your name?"
"Oh!" He scrambled to his feet and dusted off his jeans. "Jimmy. Jimmy Geraldson. Well, it's James really, but no one calls me that unless I'm in trouble."
"What name do you prefer?"
"Jimmy. Just Jimmy. What's your name?"
"Whoa!" he said with a chuckle. "I don't know if I can say all that."
A purr that sounded suspiciously close to a chuckle came from the trees. "Some species cannot. To them, I am merely called Xen."
"Cool! I like that." He set his backpack more firmly on his thin shoulders and said, "So, Xen. What brings you to Earth?"
She sighed, managing to sound almost human when she did so. "I am on a quest."
"Wow! That is so neat!" he said. "I do quests all the time with my friend Mark. But they're just pretend quests. Still, maybe I could help you with yours?"
Suddenly the eyes disappeared back into the dark. But before Jimmy could ask where she went, he heard footsteps along the path.
"There you are!" said his sister when she saw him. "Mom wants to know why you're not home yet? Get a move on, slowpoke! I've got better things to do than run after you."
He gulped. "Uh, Shannon? I'm fine. Really. I'll be home in just a minute. You go on ahead."
She frowned at him suspiciously, then glanced around. "Okay, little brother. What's going on? Are you smoking weed out here or something?"
"No! Jeez, Sis! I'm only eleven! You know I don't do that!"
"Yeah, and I also know that you hate these woods, so why would you want to stay in them any longer than necessary? Do you have Playboy magazines hidden in your backpack that you want to look at in private?"
He was starting to get mad, so he tore off his backpack and opened it, pulling out the magazines that filled it. "See? Here's my naked girls!"
She grabbed a few from his hand and looked at them, then threw them on the ground in disgust. "That's even worse! Dungeons & Dragons! Why did I have to have such a geek for a brother?"
Whatever he might have come up with to answer her was drowned in a low growl that emanated from the trees.
Her eyes went wide, and she said, "What was that?"
"Nothing!" he said quickly, shoving his stuff back into his backpack and taking her arm. "Not a thing. Come on then! If Mom's worried about me, we'd best get moving."
She shrugged off his arm. "Whatever! Just hurry up, okay?"
As she took off ahead of him, he glanced back into the trees. He thought he saw an enormous pair of eyes watching him, and he gave the chimera a salute before following his sister. As much of a pain as she could be, he really didn't want her to be eaten.
After school the next day, he set off as usual for Mark's house through the woods that ran between their subdivisions. But he'd already told Mark he might not be there today, just in case Xen was still around. When he reached the spot where he'd talked with the chimera the night before, he took off his backpack and set it on the ground, then sat next to it on the path.
"Xen?" he called hesitantly. "Are you here?"
After a long minute of silence, he heard the rustling of underbrush that spoke of something large on the move, then he heard her reply.
"I am here, Jimmy."
He breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Oh, that's good! Sorry I had to leave last night, but my mom worries."
"Parents always worry about their young," she said calmly.
He was curious. "You got any kids?"
"Oh, yes. My mate and I had several litters. But he is gone now, and I have come here seeking the one who last saw him. This planet is so infested with humans that I cannot scent him among so many. I wondered if you might be able to help me locate him."
Jimmy said, "Well, I don't know that many people, unless he's from around here. But I can try."
Her large head emerged from between two trees and over the path toward him. "I would be so grateful for your assistance."
"Whoa! You're really big, aren't you?" he stammered, backing up slightly in surprise.
Instantly she disappeared from view, and a tortoiseshell cat sauntered out of the underbrush. It came over to him and sat on its haunches, staring at him as it licked its paw. Its large eyes twinkled at him.
Jimmy laughed, enchanted, and reached out to pet her. She allowed this, and even moved closer so that he could reach her better. "You know," he said after a minute as her purrs filled the air. "I didn't know that chimeras changed shape. The ones in my game don't."
"Perhaps that part of the legend was lost over time," she said, her voice not quite so deep as it came from a smaller throat.
"I guess. So, do you know this guy's name, by any chance? I can look him up in the phone book for you."
"Straker," she said, forcing all anger out of her tone as she said the name. "His name is Straker."
"For real?" He sat back in shock. "Like the movie producer?"
"I do not know."
"Oh. Well, it's not a very common name, so it could be him. He does these really radical horror movies. Mark and I have watched them all. They're really bloody and gross and full of gore. We love them!"
She thought that sounded very much like the scene she had found in her cavern. "Is he near here?"
He shook his head. "No. I have an e-mail pal that I talk to all the time, and he lives in England. He's been to the studio where Mr. Straker works. He even met him once! He couldn't stop talking about that tour for weeks! And England's a long way from here. Wait! I can look it up. There's an article about his latest movie in one of my magazines." He pulled several magazines from his backpack and rifled through them. "Here it is!" he said as he found the one he sought. Opening it, he turned the pages until he came to one in particular. "This is the article on Zombie Night, which promises to be even gorier than their last one."
The cat came closer and sat on the page he was reading. He giggled and shifted her slightly so that he could read. "It says here that Ed Straker is the producer. Is the guy you're looking for an Ed?"
"I do not know."
"Hmmm. Well, it doesn't say anything . . . wait! Here it is. Harlington-Straker Film Studios. It's in Wessex, England."
"How far is that from here?"
"A long ways," he said, sitting back and meeting her eyes. "It's halfway around the world. I think it might even be an island or something." He shrugged. "I'm not very good at geography."
"Can you show me how to get there?"
He thought for a minute. "Yeah! My dad has a world atlas in his study." He stood up and said, "Wait right here, and I'll get it. Be right back!" And he tore off back to his house.
When he returned several minutes later, the cat was still on his magazine, only now she was curled up in a ball, licking her paws as she waited for him. He grinned, amazed anew at meeting such a unique and interesting creature in his woods. How had he gotten so lucky?
"I got it," he told her as he sat on the path next to her. He opened the atlas and found the world map. "See?" he told her. "This is us. We're in Wisconsin, and that's in the United States. Our country's really big." His finger moved across the page onto the other one. "And here's England. Yep, it's on an island. It's not a very big country. A lot of history seems to have happened there, though. Kinda weird, huh?"
"Size isn't everything," she said.
He chuckled. "Now that's something, coming from you!"
She gave a cough that sounded very much like a laugh, and her eyes twinkled for a moment. "You may be right about that." She peered closer at the pages. "Is this a flat map showing the placement of countries around your world?"
"Yeah. See? If you look here at the edge, this part of Russia meets over here on this page where Alaska starts. Get it?"
"Yes." She sighed. "It does look as though it is a great distance from us. But I don't think I shall have any difficulty finding it. You have been most helpful, Jimmy."
"Well," he said, blushing. "I can't guarantee that he's the Straker you're looking for, but at least you've got somewhere to search now, right?"
He heaved a great sigh. "I sure wish I was going with you. It would be so cool to see the sets for Zombie Night in person. And to maybe meet Mr. Straker for myself."
Her head tilted slightly. "You would like that?"
"Oh, yeah! Billy – that's my e-mail friend – he says that he's really neat! See, the tour he was on was kinda boring and they weren't going to any of the places that Billy wanted to see, so he was sketching in his notebook and not really paying attention. But Mr. Straker came by and saw him drawing and asked him about the rocket he was making. He sounded really interested in all the details too – you know, propulsion, fuel, and stuff like that. He gave Billy his card and told him he'd be interested in seeing the finished design. I mean, how cool is that? A big studio guy like him interested in some kid's drawings!"
"It certainly sounds intriguing," she agreed, wondering if this could actually be the same person she was searching for, after all. She laid a paw on his knee. "Would you like to accompany me to England, Jimmy? And maybe meet Mr. Straker?"
"For real?" he squealed. "Oh, man! I would so love that!" Then he deflated. "But I can't. I don't have a passport. And a flight there costs lots of money. I know, because I looked it up once when I thought I might visit Billy."
She gave that cough again. "You wouldn't need to worry about taking a vehicle there. All you'd need would be a heavy coat, a hat, and some gloves for your hands. It gets cold at high altitudes."
His eyes got round. "You'd fly there? Oh, wow! That is so radical!" He paused for a moment, then said hesitantly, "You wouldn't go too high, would you? The air gets really thin high up, and I wouldn't be able to breathe."
"I will be careful," she promised. "Can it be done? Can you leave for a time without your mother worrying?"
"No. But . . . !" He looked at her with a sly grin. "I can tell her I'm spending the weekend with Mark. We've been wanting to do a D & D-athon where we game all weekend without stop. I could tell her I'm going to his house to do that, and she won't worry. But I'd have to be back by Sunday night, because I'll have school the next day."
"That sounds fine," she told him. "When can you leave?"
"Um, today's Thursday, so I'd have to wait until tomorrow after school. I'll clear it with Mark in the meantime. He'll cover for me if I tell him it's important. He's my best friend."
She licked his cheek, her rough cat's tongue tickling. "Thank you, Jimmy. Quests are much more enjoyable with a friend along."
He blushed. "I know. Thanks for taking me! Maybe we could even look up Billy in England and have him show us around the studio. What do you think?"
"I think that would be a grand idea."
Straker walked into his outer studio office and accepted his mail from Miss Ealand, rifling through it as he stood in front of her desk.
"So, what's my schedule like for today?"
"You have the department head meeting at nine."
"That's right. I wonder if we'll get out of there before noon this time?"
"I couldn't say, sir." Although she knew that particular meeting always ran over. She held up a note. "You also got a call from Billy Fairchild, who said to tell you that he is finished with the rocket design and would like to show it to you when he visits the studio today."
Straker, who had frowned slightly at the name, found his brow clearing when rockets were mentioned. "Ah, yes! The little genius. Mark my words, Miss Ealand. That boy will be building ships for SHADO before he hits twenty."
"Yes, sir. Do you want me to schedule him in while he's here today? It will interfere with your other meeting."
"By how much?"
"A good hour, I'd say. He plans to come at eleven."
"Right. Add him in. I'll see him at eleven."
He headed for his inner office, but turned back with a wry grin. "Oh, and Miss Ealand? I can pretty much guarantee that the department head meeting will end on time today."
She almost smiled. "Yes, sir."
Promptly at eleven, Straker returned to his office and found two young boys waiting to see him. He shook hands with both of them while Miss Ealand took care of the introductions, then ushered them into his studio office with a smile. He waved them to the chairs in front of his desk, then took his seat behind it.
"Well, gentlemen. We're grateful to have you visiting our studio today. Billy, I understand that you've finished the design for the interesting rocketship that I saw when you were last here."
"Yes, sir," said Billy, squirming excitedly in the chair. "I brought it with me."
"Excellent! Shall we take a look at it then?"
Billy took out his sketch pad and opened it to a certain page, then laid it on the desk facing the studio head. "This is it, and you can see that I've added some hydraulics to the initial sketch to make propulsion easier."
"Yes, I do see that," Straker said as he looked over the design carefully. It was crude, of course. Very crude. But the idea behind the design was brilliant, and even in its current form, was something that R & D would jump at the chance to work on. He glanced back up at the boy. "Well, Billy. This is exactly the kind of rocket that we've been needing for our latest science fiction film, Monsters from the Planet Mongo. If you're willing to let me make a copy of this sketch and keep it, we'll be happy to pay you a hundred pounds for your idea."
"A hundred pounds!" Billy gaped at him in shock.
"So, you don't need his sketch – just a copy of it?" asked his friend curiously.
Straker turned to the other boy and explained. "Well, Jimmy. His original sketch is a work of art and should remain in his hands. We only need to duplicate the shape of the rocket for our movie, so a copy is good enough for us."
"Wow, Billy! Your rocket's going to be in a movie!"
Billy swallowed and said, "Do I have to sign something, Mr. Straker? My mom said sometimes people who work in a studio have to sign papers."
"Your mother is correct." Straker got on his phone and requested that his secretary bring in the contract for him to sign. "Now, Billy," he said as she brought it in. "This is a very simple contract, but I want you to read it over carefully and ask if something doesn't make sense to you. What it says is that we are buying your rocket idea for the sum of a hundred pounds, and that you agree that this is a fair amount for allowing your design to be used by the studio for its film."
Billy did as he was asked and looked over the piece of paper, but he was far too excited to pay attention to what was written there. A hundred pounds was a fortune! And all for a rocket that he had designed! He was on top of the world! He accepted the pen from Mr. Straker eagerly and signed his name on the line. Then he sat back and grinned at Jimmy, who grinned back. This was a day unlike any other!
As Miss Ealand left the office with the paperwork, Straker sat back in his chair and surveyed the boys. "It seems to me that this is cause for a celebration," he told them. "If you'll go to our cafeteria and tell them your names, they'll give you each an enormous ice cream sundae. What do you say to that?"
They assured him that they were quite in agreement with such a plan, talking over each other in their excitement. And as he smiled slightly back at them, Straker noticed a small nose emerging from the one boy's shirt pocket.
"What's that, Jimmy?" he asked, pointing.
Jimmy started in surprise, then said, "Oh! That's Xen, my pet mouse. She's just curious. She doesn't mean any harm."
"May I?" Straker asked him, holding out a hand. "I used to have a pet mouse when I was your age," he said. "He was white like this one, in fact."
Xen hopped out of Jimmy's pocket onto the desk and went right into Straker's hand. The commander lifted her close to his face and petted her fur. "Well, now. Aren't you a tame little thing?" he murmured. "I can tell that you take good care of your mouse," he told Jimmy. "She's not nervous or scared of being held, which means that you're gentle with her. It's important to be kind to those who are smaller than we are, isn't it? In fact, they depend on us to be."
"Yes, sir," replied Jimmy, who wanted to laugh at the thought of what Mr. Straker would think if he knew Xen's true size.
Billy had the hopes of a giant sundae in front of him, so he broke into their conversation to ask, "So, is that it then, Mr. Straker? We can go and get the sundaes now?"
"Yes, of course," the commander replied, handing the mouse back to Jimmy. "Please get your sketch back from Miss Ealand as you leave, as well as your copy of the contract and your check. Tell your mother that if she has any questions, she can call me here and I'll answer them for her. Understand?"
Straker ushered them both out of his office and left them in his secretary's hands. He knew she would direct them to the cafeteria without any trouble. He returned to his office and closed the door, sitting behind his desk and opening the silver cigar case that sat on one end.
"Straker," he said absently, smiling slightly as he remembered his own boyhood, complete with a small furry friend of his own. The boys' visit had brought it all back to him. He'd been so heartbroken when his pet had died, not realizing until too late that mice did not have long lifespans. He'd never gotten another pet after that. But his mousy friend Reepicheep had never been forgotten.
When he entered the Control room, Lt. Ford looked up from his station at communications and said, "Col. Freeman is in your office, Commander."
"Right. Thank you, Lieutenant."
He entered the office and found his second-in-command enjoying a whiskey in his chair behind his desk. He stopped just inside the doorway and said with a raised brow, "So this is how you conduct yourself when I'm not here!"
Col. Freeman jumped, but to his credit did not spill his drink. "Ed! Jesus, Ed! You could warn a guy!"
Straker chuckled as the colonel moved to the chair in front of the desk. The commander grinned at his old friend as he took his seat behind the desk. "It's good to see you, Alec! You've been missed while you were gone. The thing is, I wasn't expecting you back until tomorrow. What brings you back early?"
Freeman sighed and settled into the chair. "I thought you'd want the report on the inspections." He pointed to a folder on the commander's desk. "So I brought it along personally."
Straker frowned as he picked up the report. "Why, Alec? What will I find when I read this report? Did something occur on the Skydivers that wasn't in your daily messages?"
"No." Freeman calmly sipped his whiskey, enjoying his moment. In his own way, he could be as ornery as his old friend.
The commander's frown turned into a glare. He knew that tone. "Spit it out, Alec!" he demanded. "What brought you back early?"
Freeman leaned back in his chair nonchalantly, unperturbed by his superior's glare. "Technically, I'm not early at all. The ship docked at its normal time this morning."
"Yes, but you're not scheduled to work until tomorrow."
The colonel gave a heavy sigh, giving up the game. "I was worried about you, you idiot!"
Straker relaxed, understanding at last. "You shouldn't have been. I'm fine."
Freeman leaned forward in the chair to emphasize his words. "Listen, Ed! That last attempt nearly killed you! The aliens have been escalating their attacks on you these past months, and it really worries me. They know how important you are to SHADO. What would we do if something happened to you? What would Earth do?"
"Earth will be fine, Alec," his friend assured him. "Because SHADO will be fine. The aliens are short-sighted when they spend their efforts going after me. SHADO will continue long after I'm gone. It has to. Too much is at stake to even consider any other option."
Alec sighed again. This was an old argument. Somehow, he never could get his friend to see how much his presence meant to all of them at SHADO. If the aliens ever managed to take him out, morale would instantly sink to the floor – a situation the commander wouldn't imagine, because he didn't see himself the way others saw him. He was their last bastion of hope in a battle they could not win.
"The aliens are craftier than you know," the colonel said. "Because they see what you don't."
"And what is that?"
"How vital you are to keeping our planet safe."
Straker sat back, wishing he could deny the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. "What would you have me do, Alec? Surround myself with security? Assign bodyguards?"
Freeman grimaced, knowing that his friend would hate such a scenario. "I just wish you'd be more careful. You don't take enough precautions."
The commander's brow raised arrogantly. "Such as?"
"Look, Ed! I don't think you should be sending me off on inspection tours for a while. Just until this latest game of the aliens ends. You could use a little added protection right now, and I seem to be the only bodyguard you can tolerate for any length of time."
Straker's lips twitched. "That's because you resist all my efforts to get you to go away."
Alec grinned and saluted his friend with his glass. "Thanks! I'll take that as a compliment."
The commander sat back, acknowledging the worth of his second-in-command's argument. "Very well, Alec. I'll . . ." He broke off as the door to his office opened. Lt. Ford stood in the doorway, a team of two men behind him.
"Yes, Lieutenant? What is it?"
The lieutenant stepped forward. "Sorry to interrupt you, Commander," he said. "But when you entered your office a bit ago, a mouse followed you in. I took the liberty of calling a team to capture it and deal with it for you."
"A mouse?" Freeman squeaked, jumping up from his chair. "Where?"
Straker stood up and waved a calming hand at his friend. But he spoke to Ford. "Was it a white mouse, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir," answered Ford, amazed as always by his commander's perspicacity.
"Then your team is unnecessary," the commander said. "The mouse belongs to a young boy who was just in my studio office. Somehow it must have gotten away from him when he left and followed me down here."
He looked around the floor and finally saw a small white nose peeking out from under the conference table. He stepped forward and hunched down, saying quietly, "I see her. Don't move!" This was to Alec, who was trying to get as far away as possible.
"Let the team get it, Ed," his friend urged. "It could bite you."
"Nonsense!" Straker said, holding out his hand toward the creature. "She's quite tame, I assure you. Here, Xen! Come on then."
After a moment, the tiny mouse came out from its hiding place and approached him. In the doorway, the team readied themselves if the mouse made a break for it. Lt. Ford held his breath, marveling at the commander's way with animals as the small white mouse went onto the commander's outstretched palm.
Straker held it close, petting it soothingly as he stood up and addressed his friend with a twinkle in his blue eyes. "You're safe now, Alec. The monster's caught."
"Very funny, Ed!" said the colonel sarcastically. But then he grinned and said, "What were you doing with kids in your office anyway? Did they tear up the place?"
Straker turned from dismissing Ford and the team and said to his friend, "Of course not. You remember me telling you about Billy Fairchild, don't you?"
"The boy I saw on the lots a few months ago drawing rocketships?"
"Oh! Rocket boy. Yeah, I remember. He came to see you? He's done with his rocket?"
"Yes," Straker said, smiling and petting the small white mouse in his hand. "And he allowed me to use his rocket design for one of our films."
Alec grinned as he poured himself another drink. "Clever you."
"We got the rights to it for the price of a hundred pounds, Alec."
The colonel's eyebrows rose. "Very clever you!"
Straker turned pensive. "I wish I could have given him more. His remarkable design is going to help Earth in ways he can't even imagine. R & D already have the copy and can't wait to get to work on what he's come up with. His design could make all the difference in this war, Alec. It felt almost like stealing to give him so little for it."
"Look, Ed. If you'd given him more than that, it would have made people suspicious. That was a fair price for a studio design. More than fair, in fact. Don't worry about it. Besides, I know you, and you're not going to let that boy out of your sights, are you? I see scholarships coming his way in the future. Grants. Inheritances from obscure relatives."
Straker bit back a wry smile. "Shut up, Alec," he said fondly.
His friend just grinned at him.
"Well, I'd better take this intrepid little mouse back to its owner," the commander said. "Just think, Alec. She infiltrated Earth's most secret defense organization. She should either get a medal for bravery or be court-martialed."
"I'll just be happy to see it gone," said his friend with a dark glance at the mouse in Straker's hand. "Will Rocket boy still be on the premises?"
"He should be. He and his buddy were going for ice cream at the cafeteria when they left my office."
"Two boys in your office?" Freeman exclaimed. "Are you sure they didn't tear the place up?"
"They were quite well behaved," his friend told him. "Unlike some other people I could name."
Freeman snickered, knowing that comment was directed at him.
"I'll get back with you once I've taken care of this little problem, Alec."
"I'll be here," his friend said, saluting with his glass as the commander left the office with his small burden.
The security guard at the door of his studio office was curious about the mouse, but the commander assured him that HQ had not been infested with vermin. This was a pet mouse from the studio above.
He entered his office and sat in his chair, idly pushing the button to take the room back to the surface as he stroked the mouse's fur. He lifted her until he could look into her tiny face. "I once had a mouse who looked very much like you when I was a boy," he told her. "He was my best friend for a long time." Then he sighed. "I didn't know how much I missed him until today. It's a shame mice don't live longer. You almost convince me to get another one, but I just can't handle it when they die." He smiled wryly at it, then sat back in his chair.
She squirmed out of his hand and jumped onto the desktop, then onto the floor.
"Hey!" he said, surprised. Then he blinked and went very still as the tiny rodent changed before his eyes into a beautiful woman with dark hair and eyes.
Who was also quite naked.
He may have been terrified down to his patent leathers by being confronted with a shapeshifter, he may have paled slightly at the implications of having had such a creature loose in HQ, and he may have wished he'd listened a little better to Alec's warnings to take precautions seriously. But none of that showed in his face or his voice when he said blandly, "Xen, I presume?"
"Just so, Commander. I am Xen."
"What do you want?" he asked, forcing himself to relax against the back of his chair. After all, if she'd wanted him dead, she could have killed him easily in HQ.
"I wish to ask you a question."
He sighed and got up, removing his jacket and handing it to her across the desk. "If we're going to have a conversation, I'd feel much better if you were clothed."
His dry manner made her laugh. "Humans are such sorry creatures," she said as she shrugged into the jacket. "No fur. No scales. No feathers. Just this pathetic pink skin."
"Well, in this case," he said with a mingled sigh of relief and disappointment when she closed the jacket. "Skin is the issue. Humans prefer to be dressed."
"I'd noticed that," she said, feeling the difference it made to have his jacket covering her body. "And I can see why. It adds a layer of protection, doesn't it?"
"It does," he agreed, folding his hands. "What is your question, Xen?"
She blinked at him, recalled to the reason she'd come here. "Ah, yes. Have you ever seen a chimera, Commander?"
"No," he said, glad that it was an easy question to answer. "They don't exist. They're mythological creatures."
"Do you know what they look like?"
"Typically, they're depicted as a large lion with the tail of a snake – that is, having a snake's head on the end of their tail. They also have a ram's head coming out of their back."
"How unimaginative," she commented to the room at large. "I wonder whose idea that was?" She turned back to him and said, "Are you certain that you have never seen a chimera?"
Her eyes flashed, and suddenly the room was filled with a creature of enormous proportions. Its huge head lowered to his eye level, its large eyes fierce as they gazed at him, while its powerful body lounged on the floor, covering the entire surface almost to the opposite wall. Her tail whipped about in a vaguely dissatisfied way, conveying her emotions quite clearly. Her face came closer to his over the desktop as she purred menacingly, "Still certain?"
He swallowed. "I take it that you are a chimera?"
"Answer the question. Have you ever seen one of my kind before?"
She sighed and returned to her human form, picking up his jacket and donning it before moving a chair from where it had been pushed up next to the desk by her previous form. She sat on it and said wearily, "I was getting that impression. It seems as though I have been deceived. And yet, I do not see how."
"I don't understand. Why would someone tell you I'd seen you?"
"Not me," she said. "My mate. My Gran. He was the best and noblest of our kind."
"His name was Gran?" he asked quietly, wondering how much she would tell him.
"Actually, it was Granthendorianysus," she replied. "But I am aware that humans find our names unpronounceable."
"It doesn't sound that difficult," he said, and tried it out.
She had to smile. "That was a very fair attempt. Perhaps you're not such lazy creatures after all."
"What happened to your mate, Xen?"
"He was murdered, and I am beginning to think for no better reason than to incite my rage."
"Why?" he asked, still confused.
"To make me come after you," she said with a fierce look. "And kill you before I'd had a chance to think it through."
He blinked in shock. Then he said as calmly as he could, "I see." Even though he didn't.
She laid her cheek on her hand, her elbow on the arm of the chair. "I'm fairly certain I was being used as a weapon to destroy you by a race who considers you a powerful enemy. One they evidently haven't been successful in killing on their own."
He stiffened at that, beginning to understand at last. "The aliens?"
She shrugged without changing her position. "Alien implies that there is a difference between you, and they are human like you. Although perhaps there is a difference after all, since they do not seem to have other similarities besides their appearance to the humans on this world. For example, I did not know that humans could be kind until I came here. Nor that they could be gentle to those weaker than themselves, even sometimes keeping them as treasured pets."
He flushed as he remembered what he'd said to her when he'd thought she was a mouse. "Where are you from, Xen?"
"Sereandevous," she answered. "It is the chimera homeworld. The hilly landscape is especially desirable to our species, since it provides numerous caves and intersecting caverns for shelter all over the planet."
"And there are humans there? Humans who hate me?"
"Apparently," she said with a twist to her lips. "The human colony actually arrived less than fifty eclipses ago. They live on the plains and have been forbidden to enter our hills, but occasionally one will venture near, thinking to test our strength against their own." She huffed in disdain, but her eyes glittered. "They do not make a tasteful meal."
"I'm sure they don't," he said, swallowing again. His mind was reeling, but he couldn't help but be intrigued by this glimpse into life on the alien planet.
"And yet . . ." she said quietly. "I cannot figure out how they managed to get your scent in my cavern. I smelled you there. But I can tell from watching you this past hour that you would never have done what was done there. It is not in your nature."
He thought about it for a minute. "It's possible that they used some of my blood to create my scent," he said finally.
She frowned. "How did they get your blood?"
"We've had a few of our medical staff be taken over by them in the past. It wouldn't have been all that difficult for them to steal a vial or two when I had an exam."
"Kardros has much to answer for," she growled, her eyes flashing momentarily.
"Xen, I am sorry for the death of your mate. I am especially sorry to have been the underlying reason he was killed. I cannot imagine anyone destroying such a magnificent creature as you are for any reason. Why haven't they tried to work with your species? Don't they have any idea how much stronger they'd be with your assistance?"
She smiled. "You said it yourself, Commander. They are short-sighted. They do not think beyond the next battle. Beyond the next argument."
"They fight with your people?" he asked, amazed that the aliens would dare.
Her smile widened into a grin. "No. We would utterly destroy them. They fight amongst themselves."
"Why? Surely there aren't enough of them to support that kind of wanton destruction?"
Once more, she shrugged. "That fact does not seem to disturb them greatly. They are markedly foolish in their warlike tendencies. Many of us have been taking wagers as to how long they shall last on Sereandevous. I have been surprised to see that they have lasted this long, and had to recast my bet." Her wry smile turned sour. "But none of us expected this kind of treachery. What they did to my Gran will not go unpunished."
"I'm glad to hear it," he said. "I hope you make them pay dearly for what they did."
"You may trust me on that, Commander." She got to her feet.
"Good," he said, rising as well. "But perhaps you might wish to return to Earth someday, Xen. If you ever do, please be assured that I would be very happy to see you. And would welcome the chance to hear more about your world."
"You are an unusual human," she said. Then her lips curved. "And that, in case you didn't realize it, is a compliment."
"Then I'll take it as such," he said, coming around his desk. He glanced at the door to his office, then back to her. "As much as I like how you look in this form, Xen, perhaps it would be less troublesome for me if you return to mouse form for a bit. Just until I get you back to Jimmy, that is."
"By the way," he said, struck by a thought. "He does know you're not a mouse, doesn't he?"
"Of course." She patted his arm. "Although you are the most unusual human I have met, you were not the first kind one I encountered."
He smiled in relief that she considered the boy a friend. "I think I can handle that."
She removed his jacket and handed it back to him. He accepted it graciously, keeping his eyes firmly on her face as she thanked him for its use.
"You're welcome, Xen. Anytime."
Then he bent down and picked up the tiny white mouse she became, slowly stroking her fur as he carried her from his office.
Jimmy cried when they parted in the woods near his house, sniffling into her chest feathers as he hugged the griffin. "I don't want you to go!" he sobbed. "D & D isn't nearly as much fun as spending time with you! And their chimeras don't even change shapes! Promise me you'll come back. Promise!"
She sighed and nudged his shoulder with her powerful beak. "Very well. I promise to visit you again. After all, I owe you greatly for helping me on my quest. I could not have accomplished it nearly as well without you."
"Really?" he asked, forgetting his tears in his surprise.
"Really truly," she assured him, deciding not to tell him that his planet might have ended up being overrun by hostile human forces from another world if he hadn't been with her when she met Straker. Heavy matters like those were not for such young shoulders as his.
"Tell your friend Mark how grateful I am for his part in our quest," she said with a wink.
"I will," he said sadly as she backed up, readying her large wings for flight. "Bye, Xen!"
Her deep voice floated down to him as she flew away. "Good-bye, Jimmy!"
Billy sent him an e-mail thanking him for his visit. He also told him what he'd done with his check from Harlington-Straker Film Studios. His mom had insisted that three-fourths of his windfall go into his savings, but he'd spent the rest on subscriptions to various rocketry magazines. He was eagerly awaiting his first issues in the mail, he told his friend in the States, and had already begun work on another rocket design.
In due course, he asked how Jimmy's mouse was doing, and Jimmy sighed before hitting the reply button on his computer. He still missed Xen and looked for her every time he passed through the woods. But the only animal he'd seen so far had been a stray dog who licked his face when he'd asked if it was Xen. His mother had okayed keeping the dog as long as he took care of it himself, but Shannon threw up her hands in disgust and stomped off to her room, unable to believe he would bring home such an ugly mongrel. Jimmy just hugged the dog closer, deciding to call him Griffin in honor of his memorable trip with Xen.
Straker was awakened from a sound sleep by the feel of tiny feet running up his blanket. He opened his eyes to see a tiny white nose sniffing inquisitively at his pajama shirt. He couldn't hold back the chuckle, but said as sternly as he could, "Listen, you! You're supposed to be in your habitat. How did you get out?"
Suddenly his arms were full of woman as the mouse morphed into something quite different than a pet. Her dark eyes laughed at him as she folded her arms on his chest and purred, "Hello, Commander."
He laid back with a wry grin. "I should have known. Chimera's quick, but I didn't think he could figure out how to get out of his habitat – at least not yet."
"Chimera?" she asked with a raised brow. "Now that's an intriguing name."
He flushed slightly. "It's good to see you again, Xen. Shall I get you a robe?"
"No," she said, smiling slyly. "I'm quite comfortable just as I am."
"I see." He didn't seem to know what to say to that – and wasn't quite sure where to look either. "Um, coffee?"
She laughed, but shook her head. "Tell me, Commander. Am I making you nervous?"
"Absolutely." Not that he was complaining.
She leaned in close. "You've never had interspecies sex before?"
He swallowed. What kind of question was that? "No."
Her smile was quite wicked as she began to unbutton his silk pajama shirt. "Then I'll go easy on you. This time."