Watching Jamie wear a trench in the floor, Mel found herself idly wondering if all Cirronians are in the habit of pacing when they become agitated. Jamie, however, was far more animated about it, far less self-contained and tightly wound than Cole ever was. She'd jumped up and begun pacing midway through her recounting of events and hadn't so much as paused yet.
"That doesn't ... I mean, you do realize that a Collector is a biomechanical device?"
Of course she knew, Mel affirmed. She'd once watched Cole construct a backup one for himself incorporating clones of his own living nerve cells into it. He'd explained that it was thus automatically keyed to Cirronian energies in general and his energy signature in particular, becoming an extension of himself.
"Well, all biomechanicals have a tendency to get a bit twitchy sometimes. It's in their nature. If you activated it, then it was probably due to nothing more than a ... a glitch, a simple malfunction."
"It wasn't a malfunction," Mel patiently explained. "Or a tic or a twitch or a glitch or the hole in the ozone layer or anything like that. Cole checked. And the second time I activated it I ... I Collected a Vardian."
Wide-eyed, Jamie stopped dead in her tracks. "YOU Collected a!?!... Activating it is one thing. It may be rare, but it isn't totally unheard of. But... No, the neural connections could not have been made! It simply isn't possible! And the Keepers' are only ancient myth!"
"Like the Brac is?" Mel shot back.
Jamie shook her head as she flopped gracelessly back on her stool, grumbled a Cirronian expletive, then switched back to English. "I don't understand any of this!"
"So what's to understand? It's as you said before: either a matter of a Cape Cod and a skyscraper or, more likely, a test tube and a pipette."
"That's ... No!" Jamie shook her head in horrified disbelief, refusing to even consider the possibility. "We wouldn't do that! We couldn't!"
"So, what, then?" Mel argued. "I'm supposed to be a figment of my own imagination?"
"No, of course not. But what you're suggesting goes against everything we..."
"Against everything you guys are supposed to believe in and stand for?" Mel felt the heat of anger starting to rise. "Grow up, Jamie! The Age of Innocence is long gone! Governments keep secrets; they hide things; they LIE! ALL of them! Even yours. And I'm the living proof of it. No ancient myth could've re-energized Cole's polarities. And neither could a full-blooded Human. You know that!"
"We're not capable of being that amoral!" Jamie stubbornly maintained.
"Oh? Do you know that for a fact? Or is that only what you want to believe?"
"But we've never, never altered the biology of any sentient species!"
"Really?" Mel sarcastically countered. "So what are Humans to you people, then? Chopped liver?"
"Prove it!"Jamie suddenly seized Mel's hand and placed it on her breast over her heart, firmly holding it in place. "Do it! Re-energize me!"
"I CAN'T!"Mel angrily wrenched her hand free, reclaiming it so suddenly that Jamie was nearly knocked over. "I don't know how I did it!" She stared at her palm, reliving again that split second jolt of raw power and the tingling sensation of a scorching yet painless rush, her anger abruptly defusing. "But even if I did, I don't know how to control it ... I ... I could hurt you. Or worse." She apologetically looked into Jamie's stunned face. "I'm sorry."
God!Mel knew that she had a temper and was very well aware that it sometimes got away from her. She wasn't proud of it, but there it was. How many times in her life had this dangerous power coiled within her, primed and ready but wholly unrealized? It was a damn good thing that she didn't know how to use it, that she didn't know how to unleash it!
"I'm sorry, too, Miss Porter," Jamie apologized in turn. "And I do believe you. I don't want to ... But I do."
"You know what this has been like for me the past few weeks, Jamie?" Mel dully asked, thinking aloud. "There was this woman I knew some years back in my sophomore English Lit class who went off the deep end after her parents were killed in an auto accident. It was hard enough that they died so tragically, but she could almost cope with it ... What she couldn't cope with at all was finding out that they weren't her real parents, that she'd been adopted – and that they'd never told her ... I didn't understand her reaction at the time. I mean, they were good people and she was deeply and truly loved ... I didn't see why it should matter so terribly much ... But I do now ... As dysfunctional as my family life and upbringing were, I ... I..."
"... You at least thought they were yours," Jamie gently finished, taking both her hands in hers to offer a reassuring squeeze. "And now you no longer know who or what you are or where you came from and nothing about your life makes any sense anymore. You've found that your mirror lies to you and you need to know what's real."
Mel nodded, somehow not at all surprised that she understood, a detached part of herself noting that somewhere along the line Jamie had become an adult to her eyes, no visage of the teenager remaining, although she couldn't say at what point that transformation had occurred.
"Now, all this explains your confusion. But why the fear?" Jamie pressed. "What are you so afraid of?"
"You have to look deep inside you, find that one thing you've always been afraid of..."
Mel looked askance. How could she possibly explain it without going into her convoluted personal history?
As one of the enduring legacies of her father abandoning her to his mother when he blithely went off to begin another family, all her life she'd always felt unwanted and only second-best, felt that her thoughts, her feelings, her wants, needs, hopes, dreams and desires didn't matter, that she herself didn't matter.
It had been a long and uphill battle to claim validation for herself, to finally believe she had true meaning and worth. Finding out that she was but a replaceable, pre-designed cog in a design she couldn't fully comprehend had thrown her back to the very beginning, back to no longer being in control of her life.
And she badly needed that control. Without it she felt just as she had for most of her childhood: weak, fearful and vulnerable, at the whim and mercy of others, a helpless victim.
And how else could she explain the inexplicable, from being unable to leave Cole by the side of the road to blindly driving nearly 400 miles from home only to end up here, at the very place where Jamie was, other than to think that her life was well beyond her control, that she was being manipulated, that her free will, her autonomy, her very Humanity had somehow been stripped from her?
"I won't allow myself be used," she finally chose to say, tersely holding her despair in check. "I can't accept it. I won't accept it! Not by the Cirronians, not by anyone! Not for any reason!"
"And what is it you want to know?" Jamie continued to probe.
"I ... I want to know what the Cirronians did to me and when they began doing it. I want to know exactly how they did it and why they did it ... And I want to know where the hell they get off doing any of it, expecting Humans to pay for their own screw-ups in dealing with the Brac! That's what I want to know!"
"Then let me help you."
"Help?" Mel echoed. For some unaccountable reason her brain functioning had gone sluggish. "That's sweet of you, Jamie ... Really ... But I ... I don't know if it's such a good idea. I shouldn't have even told you about this, shouldn't have burdened you. You have a new life and I..."
"Miss Porter. Please." She reached over to push one of Mel's stray curls out of her eyes and tuck it behind her ear. "Daggon owes you a very great debt. Permit me to pay some of it for him."
"A debt?" she echoed again. "Oh no. No, I never asked for..."
"... I know you haven't. And that's why he owes it. And I certainly owe him. But it's more than just that. It's ... I had no idea my people would ever do such things. It angers me and it deeply shames me. And I have to know how far they took it and exactly what they did and for what purpose. Just as you do. Don't you see? We both need to know who we are and where we come from and what we've now become. I think we can help each other."
"Really? You think so?"
"Yeah. Don't you?"
"Mmm. Maybe," Mel doubtfully said, uncertain of how Jamie or anyone could possibly help. "I'm sure Cole didn't know such things were happening, either. He was totally dumfounded."
"Well, how did he try to explain it? What exactly did he tell you?"
"What he told me was ... Oh, what does it matter? It isn't true what he said. That much I know."
Jamie's brow furrowed. "He told you that ... Cirronians came here and paired up with Humans?"
"Something like that..." she admitted.
Or maybe I just heard it that way because I wanted to,she thought, a part of her still needing to give Cole the benefit of her doubts and trying to ignore the little voice in her head snidely asking how else should she have interpreted the word mated'.
"He might have told you that because that's what you needed to hear," Jamie thoughtfully said. "Or perhaps he just didn't know what else to say. Perhaps both."
"I don't know!" Mel nearly sobbed. "I don't know anything anymore!"
"Listen to me!" Jamie took Mel by her shoulders and nearly shook her, forcing her to meet her eyes. "You are still exactly who and what you were a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, twenty years ago. What has changed – the only thing that has changed – are your reference points. All we have to do is determine the new coordinates. Understand? Everything else will follow from there."
Mel dumbly nodded and pulled away. "Just ... What do your stories ... legends ... myths ... whatever ... say about the creation of bloodlines?"
"Look, forget the myths and legends!" Jamie told her, impatiently waving a dismissive hand. "They're irrelevant and of little or no help here. In order to do what you did, something of you certainly has to be Cirronian. I must agree with Daggon on that. There's no other rational explanation. Yet while a Human-morphed Cirronian and a Human could probably mate if they chose to, it's a biological impossibility for them..."
"... For them to have kids? And you're absolutely positive about that?"
"Yes!"Jamie flatly stated as she turned to resume her agitated pacing. "The Human genetic code bears a far greater similarity to that of a ... a lobster. A mosquito. A crocodile. Or to any other lifeform on your planet than it does to that of a Cirronian. We have nearly three times the chromosomes that Humans do, our gene counts, their pairings, their sequencings, their loci, even the structure of the helix itself are all completely different because we are completely different, another species of another order of life entirely. It couldn't possibly happen."
"Yeah, well, I guess I kind of had that one figured out already," Mel grimly muttered, resigning herself to the realm of freakdom. "Just double-checking. And could you please stop with the pacing? I'm spraining my neck just watching you!"
As if not hearing, Jamie continued pacing back and forth, talking to herself in her own language.
"Jamie, please! If you have any thoughts just spit them out!"
"Oh, believe me, I could hazard any number of guesses, most of which wouldn't make any sense to you and would be near impossible to explain. There are entire realms of things your science knows nothing about yet, some they likely won't know about for centuries ... Anyway, they'd only be guesses. So, why should we bother with speculation when I can find out what was done for certain?"
That brought Mel up short. "You ... You can do that?"
"Of course I can! What, did you think that Daggon is the only capable Cirronian in this galaxy?" She slapped a hand on top of her stack of textbooks. "Jamie Swenson, budding geneticist, at your service."
"But you haven't even begun your classes yet!" Mel reminded her.
"Miss Porter, one of the more difficult things about playing the role of a Human – especially that of a teenage Human – is having to dumb myself down. Although genetics certainly wasn't my field, I happen know a great deal. It's still a relatively new science to your species and your knowledge of it – if these texts are any indication – is full of uncertainties and misunderstandings. To us, it's very ancient history and a well-understood fact of life. And I do know how to properly conduct research."
"And knowing these ... um ... new coordinates' will help point out the answers to my other questions?" Mel timidly asked, almost afraid to hope.
"Exactly! The what' will answer most of the how'. The why' will probably require more digging, but we just might learn what directions to look. Got it?"
"So, do you know if Daggon's computer array is still operational? He certainly must have Cirronian genome mappings among his files. But just to be on the safe side, I want you to save his hairbrush as a backup. Do you know if his programs and files are still functional and accessible?"
Mel thought about that a moment, her spirits rising for the first time in weeks. "Um ... I think so. I don't think he turned anything off or trashed anything, if that's what you mean. You've seen his ... War Room?"
"About two months back. I was in town and stopped by to ask him something. I missed meeting you then. I think he said that you were out on a date, so..." Jamie began to mumble to herself again, becoming distracted as she worked out problems and procedures in her head. "Hmm. Unfortunately, I don't have my energies and won't be able to go through his inaja'ma'ag... That could be a problem, but I can at least read all the languages..."
"Inaja'ma'ag'?" Mel repeated. The word had a ring of familiarity.
"His ... You know..." Jamie danced the fingers of one hand in the air. "What he used instead of a keyboard."
"Oh!" Mel said, the pantomime motion allowing her to make the connection. "The thingamajig."
"Thingamajig?" Jamie grinned. "Really? Is that what you call it?"
Mel laughed. "Well, it's easier to pronounce and it's sure not any kind of keyboard I've ever seen!"
"Well, of course it isn't. It's another biomechanical. I guess I'll just have to manage with a regular Human-style keyboard ... Far more ponderous but not impossible."
"With some adjustments?" Mel couldn't resist asking with teasing amusement. In her own way, Jamie was every bit as single-mindedly intense as Cole was when hot on a Track.
"Probably. But I'll manage," Jamie replied, missing Mel's wry reference. "I'm going to have to do a protein and amino acid study, an RNA breakdown and a complete DNA analysis of... Wait a second. Didn't Daggon at least start on some of this?"
Mel shook her head. "No. He wanted to but I ... I pushed him away. I didn't know we were running out of time and I was still too afraid to face..."
Once again the bell above the front door tinkled, announcing company.
"Yoo hoo! Miss Swenson! We're here!"
A gaggle of excited children – several dozen second and third graders strong – were disembarking from a yellow school bus parked just outside and nosily filing into the pet shop two by two.
"Great, Mrs. Martin," Jamie called out to the stout woman holding the door open for them. "I'll be with you in a few minutes." She turned back to Mel, leaning in and raising her voice slightly to be heard above the growing volume of strident children's voices. "The local elementary schools have arranged with my' aunt to use the store for some of their science field trips," she explained. "These children are so young that they still have short attention spans so this lesson shouldn't take more than an hour or so. If you could wait until..."
"Sure, but would it accomplish anything if I did?" Mel anxiously glanced at the assembling children and checked her watch. Her few moments' detour into this pet shop had turned into nearly two hours. It was now almost eleven. "I mean, um, could we really begin this today without Cole's computer? I do have a long drive home..."
"No, you're right," Jamie sighed with frustration. "It wouldn't be worth your while. Or mine. I really can't accomplish very much at all without that computer setup of his to work from."
"Then how should we do this?"
Jamie thought a moment, her expression becoming troubled. "Tell you what," she slowly said. "I'll be returning to Saginaw Falls in just a few weeks, three weeks at the outside. I'll call you as soon as I'm back and we'll make arrangements then. Okay? Can you hold on for answers until then?"
"Are you kidding me!? Until a few minutes ago I didn't think I'd ever have any answers at all!" She impulsively hugged her. "Oh, thank you, Jamie! Thank you!"
"Don't thank me just yet, Miss Porter," Jamie warned, drawing back. "Some of these answers might not be anything that you'd ... want to know. Understand?"
"Yeah," Mel slowly acknowledged, sobering. "I do."
"No. You only think that you do," Jamie told her, making direct eye contact to drive home her point. "This delay is probably for the good. It gives you time to reconsider."
"Why should I be reconsidering?" Mel asked, holding her gaze.
Jamie faintly smiled, but the smile didn't extend to her eyes.
"That's something only you can decide."
Meanwhile, 100.3 light years away in the Migar Solar System...
To be continued in Beneath It All, Part 3.