Three Little Boys
Macross City roared as it died, its body crumbling and shattering in its throes. Inside the shelter, men and women cried out as lights flickered and ceiling panels buckled. A few began to sob, or to murmur messages and prayers.
Bron was the first person in his shelter to stand. He bolted for the heavy door before pausing right at its face. He stared at the designation number printed on it, hand frozen to grip the nonexistent knob.
Another tremor rocked the shelter, but Bron only swayed a little, sheer force keeping him up.
Two more also got on their feet, staggering towards Bron and standing just off to his right and left, forming a triangle.
"We...we don't know, if they...." Bron began, but couldn't finish.
Rico's fake glasses, already askew, fell off his nose. He bent slowly down to pick them up. All around them, the Micronians were staring, though most quickly turned away again.
Bron looked at Rico, thinking gratefully that Rico was the leader, Rico was the smart one. Sometimes it had been Bron or Konda who had been the first to take initiative, but it was Rico who gravitated to the role more often.
Konda grabbed Rico's arm. "You know what's going on, right, Rico? Tell us."
Rico shook his arm free. "I don't really know, okay? We just gotta, uh, wait."
"It was the SDF-1," Bron said. "It was probably Khyron, too. Um, I think. Maybe."
Rico: "Might not be."
The trio moved slowly back to their places, and almost seemed to creak as they sat down and wrapped their arms around their knees. Their poses were identical, and they sat facing each other.
Eventually the shelter door rattled open. The trio blinked at the sudden influx of natural light, and heard the rumble of trucks coming from outside. Some human asked what was going on, as they all began to stand.
A uniform man emerged and spoke. "Attention civilians: we've received word that SDFs 1 and 2 have been destroyed. The circumstances of such are classified; all that's important right now is getting you evacuated to another city as quickly as possible. So if you'll just form a line--"
Rico plunged through the crowd to grab the taller man's shoulders. He tried to shake him. "What about the personnel?" he growled. "What happ--"
The soldier whipped free, drew a baton, and smacked Rico's shoulders.
"This display will be overlooked, but further action will result in discipline. Now please get into line, Sir."
Rico scooted back to his friends and fell to it with silent compliance. He was vaguely aware that he might have lost face with the other two males, but didn't really care.
Rico, Bron, and Konda were put up in a different kind of shelter with many more others, humans and Zentraedi alike, though it was difficult to tell which was which, being that Rico, with his grey-shaded skin and corrugated jawline, was the most "exotic" specimen among them.
There were rows of beds, washrooms, and a communal kitchen, as well as a single small TV. The contents barely registered in the trio's minds, for they could not think of much but the girls.
The shelter had not yet settled into routine when the news reports came, but complete silence would always fall during the broadcasts, as everyone crowded at the nearest screen, waiting for anything.
Today, the aftermath of the SDF-1's destruction was finally discussed. "Confirmed deaths include Captain Henry Gloval, Claudia Grant, Vanessa Leeds, Samantha Porter, and Kim Young--"
There were more names named, but the three ex-spies heard it not at all. Their peculiar closeness had driven them to unconsciously wait until all three names had been read, but also to become deaf afterward.
A foreign sensation hit them simultaneously. Their chests felt hot, like they had just been shot, but there was also something like strangulation.
And it was really nothing like that, and their eyes hurt, too. What was it? What was wrong with their bodies? Why were their eyes leaking like bad pipes?
But it stopped mattering as they continued to cry for the first time in their lives.
"So how'd yours go?" Rico leaned against the wall and shoved his hands in his pockets.
"I dunno." Konda shrugged. "It's nice to hear some of the things they have to say, but a lot of it I didn't really understand."
"Yeah, me too."
They were waiting for Bron. Nearby was a line of humans, waiting for their turns with the grief counsellors, as if they were in a bank instead. Each counsellor could only take one person at a time, and for an entirely private talk.
They had been crying often, and had felt as if they were wandering in a blank void, having to feel their way about with their hands. Konda, Bron, and Rico hardly wished to die, but it seemed to them that they could not be happy again.
Still, the three ex-spies made sure they kept on bathing and eating, and went to the funeral without a hitch, sitting on their strange benches in their strange outfits at the back of the great building, with the civilian friends and relatives of the others who were being honoured. They had been given special permission to attend.
After the civilians were settled, the military personnel began entering and filing into the front rows. The trio turned their heads to follow the steps of Exedore Formo and Miriya Parino, separated between several others in the line.
Suddenly and as one they were jealous: Miriya still had her love, and Exedore was apart from all that. Yet they were also famous figures, legends among Zentraedi even before all this. The trio, despite all they had done to dress and act like Micronians, could not forget that.
Yet Konda stood up and walked to Exedore. He did not think about it, did not understand that he was feeling some blind need to turn to a figure of authority, to reclaim clarity through him.
All that could come out of Konda's mouth was "Your Excellency, Your Excellency," as he tugged at the white sleeve of Exedore's uniform. Breetai's adviser turned to him without expression, until one of the ensigns took Konda and gently led him back to his place.
The young man asked Konda, very quietly, if he needed to go to a special room for the grieving, but Konda shook his head and only sat back down.
Eventually everyone went back outside, chatting and starting to head off to smaller, more personal gatherings. Once freeing themselves from the crowd, the trio huddled together like kittens in a rainstorm.
"So what are we gonna do?" Bron asked nobody.
"I don't know, what do you want to do?" Rico added.
Konda mumbled something, then added more coherently, "Look." He pointed.
They looked. Miriya and Exedore were over there, talking. As the shock slowly traveled through their systems, Miriya turned to them, and began to walk in their direction.
They were past the point of shuddering at the approach of a female. But this was still Miriya. What did she want with them?
"Konda, Bron, Rico," she said, turning her head to each of them in turn. "I would like to--what I mean is, would you like to come over to our house for dinner tomorrow night?"
"Why?" Rico asked, and it came out gruffer than he wanted. "Sorry."
"I can't 'round up' all the rest of the males who defected with you--but I want there to be friendship with us. The Zentraedi who were important to all this. And you look like you need some friends, no matter what rank or gender they are."
Such words would once have been blasphemous. But:
"Sure, I'll come," Bron said.
"I will," Konda added.
"Me, too," Rico finished.
The sun did not instantly break through the clouds, but the trio all felt better after that first evening, and wanted more. They wanted to talk with Max and Miriya and those humans that knew them. Even Exedore, so unapproachable, had been invited by Miriya to that dinner party, and they found themselves wanting to see him, too.
The next time the trio were the ones who sought the Sterlings out, and asked for the way to communicate with them. For a second they thought it looked like Max and Miriya were going to balk, but they offered a phone number and a mailing address.
Access to Exedore was harder to get, and it came much later, a request sent through Miriya herself, but it was a request granted.
So the trio began to talk to them. It started with home visits, but slowly their moves became bolder. They suggested leisure activities, and often were turned down because the others had military duties to fulfill, but sometimes they agreed, and there were joinings in various combinations.
People began to notice. They noticed them at the restaurants and at the park at and at that one Minmei concert (where the trio had been hooting and shouting from their seats, while Exedore and Miriya had been almost totally silent and still). They began to ask questions, which were almost always directed at Miriya and Exedore, because they were important.
And Bron, Konda, and Rico knew that something had changed. They began to call Miriya and Exedore by their names, and express potentially insolent opinions, whether pressing Exedore to try something new (he usually declined), or loudly agreeing or disagreeing with anything either of the two formerly high-ranked Zentraedi said.
Miriya Parino particularly fascinated them, because she had made this child. Konda, Rico, and Bron had had the process explained to them before, in the sex-segregated briefings given to all Zentraedi "immigrants" after the Rain of Death, but that didn't quite cover the concept, the idea of something that was half mother and half father but also completely its own, something that began life as so helpless and tiny.
It made them all quiver with awe and the fear of such a huge responsibility. Miriya had then told them that she had felt the same way at first, that those feelings were common to males and females alike. But eventually something deeper had made her put her reservations to the side. According to Max, that was how the process went for a lot of Micronians.
Exedore didn't seem to share their enthralment. Sometimes he would seem to flinch, turning slightly away, whenever Dana was near.
"Come on, Your Excellency, are you sure you don't want to hold her?" Bron was gently bouncing Dana on his knee, the way Miriya had shown him to.
"I am quite sure. Please do not persist in asking me."
He picked Dana off his knee and held her out. "But look at her. She--"
Dana, who had been staring at the floor with apparent concentration, glanced up, and started to wail and kick. Exedore jumped a little, and Bron complacently passed her to the nearby Miriya. Dana stopped crying instantly, leaving her mother to stare at her in bewilderment, before Miriya bobbed Dana in her arms and said, "Minister Exedore is a very important person and you mustn't keep making noise around him, all right?" She gently poked at her daughter's nose.
But when she was very young, Dana seemed to cry a lot whenever she saw Exedore. The trio guessed Dana was scared of the way he looked, and Exedore never did anything one way or the other about that. By the time Exedore changed his face, Dana had long ago stopped being scared of him.
"Does Breetai know about us?"
All the five of them were out walking (Max was taking Dana to the doctor's), when Rico popped this question.
It was winter, and they all were dressed for it, even Exedore in a puffed purple jacket and a blue scarf and earmuffs. They were still picking up stares as they walked.
"Yes, he is very much aware," Exedore answered.
"Sounds ominous," rumbled Rico.
Konda stopped walking and looked down at Rico. "You're joking, right? Why should Breetai ca--oof!"
Bron had elbowed Konda; Exedore ignored them. "I have been making reports to our commander about the doings of our people on Earth. He knows our entire story."
"And what's he think?" It was Rico again.
"Would you not rather inquire yourselves?"
Everyone stopped. True to form, there was no hint of teasing or irony in Exedore's tone. But he kept moving, turned to stand facing the rest of the group.
"I thought it best to wait until one of you expressed interest in meeting him, but I am able to make it happen if you wish it."
"I-It doesn't really matter, does it?" Konda asked. "I mean, it's not impacting the a-lli-ance." His tongue stumbled over the unfamiliar word.
"On the contrary. We are experiencing an unprecedented state for Zentraedi, one that is nothing less than proof that we can develop beyond our parameters. That is of great importance to the Micronians, who are concerned about our ability to coexist with them."
"But it's not just for the papers, right?" Bron asked it slowly. "We all really, uh...."
"I have no doubt that this all is genuine, but it is equally true that the significance is larger. The two aspects do not detract from each other."
Catching their blank looks, Exedore specified: "What we have is both important to the Micronian media, and is also specific to us. Both things can exist at the same time."
"We're getting off track," Rico observed. "Can we meet Breetai or not?"
"Not literally, but by our next meeting, I shall have arranged contact via a video feed from the factory satellite. Is that what you would prefer?"
The trio all grunted and nodded.
She had just been watching. "I'll come, too."
Right up to very last second before the meeting with Breetai, the trio couldn't able to shake the feeling of dread. It was nothing they could explain, but it refused to go away.
"I dunno why," Bron had finally confessed. "But I'm still kind of scared of the idea."
"It's not surprising," Miriya had told them. "Part of you still sees this as a transgression."
"But it's not," Rico insisted. "It's a very, very good thing."
"But you still remember," was Miriya's answer.
"We know. But why can't we help it?" came Konda's words.
"Maybe, uh, maybe things like this just happen. And we're still going to go ahead with it, so it doesn't matter if we can't control it?" Bron volunteered.
"Yes, that is quite true," Exedore had said, and the younger Zentraedi had tingled with praise, indirect though he knew it was.
But, despite their renewed confidence, it was still Exedore who opened up the conversation once the video transmission had been secured.
"...and these are my friends. You remember them all, of course."
"Indeed," Breetai rumbled. "It is a sight I would have never expected to see.
Breetai, an aquamarine-skinned, cyborg-faced giant among giants, was sitting in his command chair, one leg crossed.
The image came through a giant monitor in an otherwise empty room.
"Is that good?" Konda asked him. All three of them were trembling a bit.
"I suppose all of us will have to adapt eventually," was the only reply. "And you five seem to be...enjoying yourselves."
"Oh, very much, Sir," Bron replied. "It's good."
"And what is it that you do?" Breetai's good eyebrow raised.
Rico "took the floor", even though he guessed (correctly) that Exedore had already told Breetai everything. "Well, sometimes Exedore or Miriya are busy, but when they're not, we go to each other's places and talk, or we go out walking and, um, they tell us about things. Oh, and once we saw a Minmei concert."
"And you...enjoy this."
He didn't say it like a question, but did Breetai seem uncertain, somehow? Breetai? Rico shook off that thought. "It's great. I mean, sure, we're all pretty different, and sometimes Exedore gets annoyed with us, but it feels good."
Konda: "Like we're putting something together. It's like being in love, but it's not as strong, but it's only different, not weaker. Kind of like being comrades, but warmer, kind of. Uh."
"I know the meaning of this term 'friendship'. It is a subset of 'love'. And I can see that you are committed."
"Yeah," Rico said. "But it's bigger than that. It's not about looking good for the Micronian communicators. It's just something we like doing."
"The future's gonna leave him behind," Bron said, when they were back outside.
Miriya was the first to respond. "And what do you mean by that?"
"I mean we're all down here changing and he's just always up there in that chair, not doing anything," Bron told Rico. "He's in the government and everything, but it's just all business to him."
Exedore seemed slightly annoyed. "Your concern is understandable. But Breetai has made his choice, as have several others. Perhaps this life is simply not for them."
"That's right," Miriya added. "Not everything's for everyone."
"Well, why not Breetai?", Bron offered.
"It may simply not be in his character. Yet he is what Micronians would call decent, and amicable."
"But doesn't it bother you at all? Aren't you happier now?" Bron asked Exedore.
"Yet it is not my place to direct Breetai. I can only relate my experiences to others, and it is their choice if they wish to replicate them."
"But you're his friend, aren't you?" Bron knew the word was theoretically foreign, but couldn't stop himself.
"I...yes. But friend or ambassador, I cannot direct his course."
"What are we, anyway?" Rico asked. "Are we Zentraedi or what?"
"Zentraedi, of course." Miriya grumbled it. "You can't say that because you're someplace else, you're not Zentraedi."
Rico: "Well, you're the expert."
"And what does that mean?"
"You had that marriage. And when people talk about you on the TV, it's always never as if you're Zentraedi."
Miriya frowned. "That's right. But you all know the truth, don't you?
Rico, Bron, and Konda all nodded and mumbled affirmations, seeing that they were heading into dangerous territory.
"But it's like this," Bron ventured. "Whose authority are we under now? We're Zentraedi, but we're always here on Earth, doing Micronian things. And you guys--you do all your work for the UEG. Are you always going to?"
"I consider it but a temporary engagement," Exedore said. "There are many matters of peace yet to attend to, and I have the skills necessary to be a liaison, but in the future, I will be resized and return to Breetai's side."
"I chose the Earth," was Miriya's answer. "I'm never going to wear that badge again. But I am Zentraedi born."
"Neither am I," Rico asserted. "About that badge. It's gonna be years and years before Zentraedi can get all this great stuff."
"Then me too."
"Me again." Konda finished. "But, uh, Exedore, we're not going to forget you when you leave."
For this, they gained his bewildered stare, but Exedore quickly recovered and nodded his head once, sharply.
Rico suddenly wondered if Breetai had looked that way specifically because it was Exedore who was getting in on human culture.
Months passed like this, spent in comfortable stability and deepening friendship. The five still had little in common, but they still stayed together.
But in the wider world, rot was setting in, and bad things had begun happening. Miriya and Exedore became much, much busier, and Rico, Bron, and Konda all but stopped seeing them.
Instead, the three of them now relied on the outside world for their information: they collected newspapers and watched the news every day, crowded around the television in the house they shared.
The main thing was that there was trouble in the Southlands, a faraway hot place where the trio had never been. Zentraedi were angry, and so were humans. It was a lot more complicated than the battles the trio had used to fight--people had to worry about "politics" and "diplomacy", which to the ex-spies, sounded a lot like saying things you didn't mean, and wasting a lot of time talking.
Whenever their phone rang, they stampeded into the kitchen and sometimes fought over the receiver. Other times, they stopped just short of trying to reach for it all at once, and the first man to step forward was the one who got it.
When it was being picked up, they would wonder simultaneously, for a moment: Had they killed Miriya? Exedore? Max? Maybe they had even kidnapped little Dana.
For the trio had been increasingly starting to imagine Malcontents as bogeymen, black shadows coming to destroy everything they loved. Rico, Bron, and Konda hadn't yet heard the phrase "gone native", but they would have agreed with having it applied to them. They felt more kinship with the scared and angry humans than their own backbiting people.
Today, Rico picked up the receiver. "...Hello?"
Max was on the other end. "Hey, guys? Listen, we're having a couple of friends over for drinks, and were wondering if you'd like to come along."
Rico grimaced, then looked over at his "brothers". "I dunno. Maybe...."
"It's not a military thing," Max added quickly. "No uniforms, no formal gathering. It's not official, just to give everybody a little break."
"I'd be up for it," Bron said. "I'd be nice to see him again."
Konda trailed behind. "Uhh...I guess I'm outvoted. Okay."
They did not have the luxury of military escorts, and so decided to chance going outside. There was public transportation, but that might be an even bigger risk, and anyway, the Sterlings' house wasn't far.
So the trio took their bicycles, which Max had helped them figure out how to ride.
"I don't get it," Konda was saying as he pedalled, repeating an old argument they had had. "Humans gave us all these things; why'd they turn against them? What's the point?"
"They're jerks," Rico growled. "The real traitors, if you ask me. 'Cause the way I see it, this is how we're gonna live from now on, how we should. They're fighting for something they've already lost."
None of them acknowledged that some of their fellow members of the "Minmei Cult" could be among the rebels.
"But maybe we're not going to end up living this way," Bron added.
Rico didn't say anything else. For his part, Konda thought of the stories he'd recently taken to reading, stories of armoured heroes battling monsters reptilian and insectoid, taking them down with the might of conviction, of desire. Everything turned out all right in the end: Konda hated any type of fantastical story that didn't.
It was Miriya who greeted them at the door. She looked messy and kept moving her eyes away from them, as if guilty about something.
"I see you guys biked here," Rick Hunter ended up saying to them. "When did you learn to do that?"
"Max taught us," Konda said.
Rick glanced over at Max, who was standing nearby. "It's like getting three extra kids, huh, Max?"
Max just grinned. The trio thought he looked a little nervous, too.
Not much long after that, the door opened. Everyone in the room, the Sterlings and the Grants and the future Hunters and the trio themselves and all the rest all paused.
Exedore was dressed in black, making him look like a bohemian zombie. His face was placid. "Hello."
"Uh, hi, uh, Exedore," Bron volunteered, wondering why everybody was still staring after they'd confirmed who was coming in the door.
Exedore nodded in the trio's direction but did not smile.
Rick came closer, moving with a tight, defensive walk that the trio mistook for a swagger. "Hey, Exedore, tell these guys what you said at the last meeting."
Lisa hissed, "Rick, don't start this."
Exedore turned to Rick and answered without pause. "'If I were in your position, I would have all Zentraedi executed'"
Silence, before, "You said what?"
The trio had never heard Max raise his voice before.
He then tried to speak several times, but only managed to spit out syllables, before reaching, "Exedore...you...."
Exedore went on. "That would have been the best solution. And these times seem to offer nothing else easy."
"But you don't say it," Max finally got out. "You don't admit that you basically think genocide...suicide's the best solution."
"Do you mistake my pronouncements for advocacy? I assure you that I am not ready to abandon my duties just yet."
Max put one hand to his head.
"I think he's right, Max," said Miriya, from the couch. She had her daughter on her lap, Dana playing with a toy. "They're just words. We've got a lot more to worry about."
Max looked between the both of them, making strange noises.
"How could you say that?" Bron asked, softly, like a child. "You're supposed to be our friend."
"This is bigger than that, though," Konda added. "He's saying all that we're doing, it should just stop right now. I can't....th-there's got to be more to it,"
They turned swiftly to Exedore. Rico's lip curled.
"If you find my presence distasteful," Exedore said, evenly. "Perhaps I should not have been invited."
"Are you volunteering to excuse yourself?" That was Rick. "Again?" He paused. "You know what really gets to me is that you wanted to give up. When it came to the final battle with Dolza, you were ready to start fighting right away, but with the Uprisings, all you want to do is badmouth everything without offering one solution. Some diplomat you turned out to be; you're about as good at that as you are at being a friend."
Exedore looked at the trio again. "Have there been any individual difficulties?"
By reflex, Konda answered, "No, Exedore. Everything's...fine. They don't treat us any different."
Why was he pretending, was what the trio wanted to know. He'd just been talking about....
Max looked confused, too. "Hey, you're--"
"Because I am capable of handling complexities. I do not actively wish to see my colleagues harmed."
"We're not oblivious," Konda put in. "We know where to go if the trouble gets far enough to reach us."
"D-Don't worry, you guys," Max replied. "It'll blow over soon, and things will be back to normal, you'll see."
"I dunno." Bron shrugged. "Everything's a mess. I'm...I guess this is what being scared really feels like."
"Forget scared, I'm angry," Rico growled. "I know all the reasons, but it's still stupid."
"We've just...gotta keep safe," Konda finished.
They all ended up looking silent and forlorn.
Bron spoke up again. "Hey! I guess Dana likes the toys we gave her, huh?"
He had made Dana a few other toys for her by hand, using the shapes he knew the most, and ended up with wooden Zentraedi soldiers and what could only be described as a stuffed Battlepod.
"Oh, she's never without them," Miriya replied. "Thank you." She glanced down at her playing child and smiled. "You've been so good with her; you're almost like her godfathers."
Before the contact with the Sterlings had petered out, the trio had taken Dana for appointments, picked her up from school, played with her while her parents were gone, thinking all the while of being a child themselves: careless, unquestioning, just living in the moment.
But now the trio all exchanged looks. "What's that mean?" Rico asked.
"When a couple has offspring, sometimes they will say that a friend is the offspring's 'godparent'. It's like someone who will help take care of the offspring if the parents die."
"And...us? We don't really have any kind of experience with raising kids." Konda looked around, as if trying to find out who'd suggested that they did.
"Neither did I." Miriya's smile was small and perhaps secret. "But you've been taking care of her while we were busy, and we wanted to show our appreciation."
"Can you even have three godfathers?"
"If we want," Miriya answered Bron.
"Okay." That was Konda.
"Uh-huh." And Rico.
That bestowal calmed them somewhat, made it easier for them to retreat back into normal life while the "adults" kept dealing with the Uprisings. But when news of the plague got out, Rico, Bron, and Konda were angry all over again.
But it hadn't really gone away. Just like when they had been in mourning for the female bridge crew, the three had slept poorly, and ate little, unable to banish the effects of the previous months from their minds.
So when the Uprisings were declared over, they went to see Exedore, to put at least one ghost to rest.
Konda, Bron, and Rico of course knew where he worked. Few did, and Exedore had been moved several times during the Uprisings, but it had been established that Rico, Bron, and Konda were trustworthy, and they had been furnished with clearance passes and knowledge of every change in location the emissary experienced. (or perhaps Exedore's human handlers had agreed to the request to keep the trio informed because they considered them too stupid to ever be assassins).
They were underdressed, moving in jeans and t-shirts among all the uniformed personnel. But they put that out of their minds. Bron was worried, Rico was glaring ahead, as if daring any obstacle to appear, and Konda wasn't sure how to feel.
But at his door, they squeezed together up to the peephole, and called, "Good morning, Your Excellency!" in singsong unison, grinning. The instinct for honorifics couldn't entirely go away, but on this occasion, it was calculated.
Exedore opened the door. He had on his white-and-gold dignitary's uniform, and one brow was raised in speculation. "What is it that you three want?"
"Can we come in?" Rico mumbled.
"You may." And he waved them in.
"We wanna talk to you," Bron added, redundantly, as Exedore closed the door behind them. "Why did you call for the extinction of all Zentraedi?"
Exedore's form showed the faintest traces of refined exasperation, and maybe annoyance that they hadn't finished this all at the party. "I have explained that that was not meant in all seriousness."
"It still bothers us, though." Konda fidgeted in place. "And you looked very angry when you read out those orders today."
He was talking about Marla Stenik and Jinas Treng. The Malcontent betrayers had been sentenced to execution, and the scowling Exedore had read the sentence off in English, and then repeated it in the harsh Zentraedi tongue, snapping out the words and causing the female judge to briefly glance at him, her expression not changing.
"I was." Exedore said.
His voice was toneless. There was silence, stillness in the room before the small, cadaverous Zentraedi walked behind his new desk and sat down.
Bron took it as a signal to speak. "So you were just like us, right? You were sad and angry."
"I am not like you."
"Oh, yeah, you are!" Rico slapped his hands down on the desk and leaned into Exedore's face. "You're one of us. You've been out there, with us, doing things you probably never thought of doing. You can't tell me that didn't change you at all."
"And what is it that you believe has occurred?"
Bron: "That you're mad...angry is what I mean. About how things have turned out. You would've liked it better if the Uprisings never happened, and, and because of us, and because of Miriya, it got personal. That's why you were acting that way."
"All that I had said was in the name of pragmatism. They are the harsh truths of existence."
Rico exploded again. "Hey, don't lecture us! You got no right anymore. You brought yourself down to our level, and you're not the Domillan anymore."
Konda: "And there's no way that going around saying things like this is in the name of puh...pragmatism. Face it, you were angry or stressed out."
Bron: "Look, I know people are going around saying that scientists can't feel emotions, but that's not true. So don't worry like you have this cold image to keep up."
"I do not require your pity, nor request it."
Bron answered, "But it's no problem if you're head's not always clear. It happens to everybody, and it's going on in all of us, real, right now. Why're you exempt?"
Konda added, "You know, Rick was right. You wanted to give up. No matter how you put it, that's all it really amounted to."
"Is that all that you wish to say?"
Rico held up his hands in a warding-off gesture. "Okay, you know what? Just forget it. Forget it. If you're not gonna listen to us, we're gonna leave."
"I would ask that you do," Exedore replied. His expression was as inscrutable as ever. "But only to allow me to give the matter some thought."
"Uh...sure." Rico replied, bravado suddenly punctured by his older instincts.
The trio all moved off, closing the door carefully behind them.
When they met Exedore again, he had changed.
They saw him at a park on a chilly and foggy morning. Several weeks had passed since they had confronted him in his office, and this was the trio's first meeting with Exedore since then.
The three all knew what they would see, since they had watched the news. But Konda still reached out a hand, then drew it back, Bron still stuffed his fist into his mouth, and Rico still stared.
The head above the collar of Exedore's trench coat had been completely remoulded. His eyes and nose were smaller, his face smoother. His tiny pupils were ringed with blue, and his skin was a light greyish-brown.
"Jeez," Konda went.
"Is that...real?" Even though Bron knew it was.
"Plastic surgery," Rico declared, adjusting his glasses. He'd heard about it, and that was what the TV had said, anyway.
"As you know, I was told it might make some more at ease with me."
Bron still didn't quite get it. "Your eyes...."
"They are called 'contact lenses'," Exedore supplied. "I shall not need them on the voyage to Tirol or afterward, which I am thankful for, given that they hurt abominably."
Konda snickered, then asked about Exedore's hair, which was now just a point in the centre of his bulging forehead, but still long at the back.
"I am not losing it, if that is your implication. It has merely been cut and styled this way."
They all turned to see the Sterlings coming up, Dana swinging between them.
"Hey," Max grinned. "How's everyone?"
"Hey," Bron blurted back. "Now you guys have cut your hair."
"That's right. It means a lot of things," Miriya said. "But I am Zentraedi. Never forget that."
Rico cocked his head to one side. "So, are we still friends?"
"Well, of course we are," Max answered, with a grin that the trio couldn't recognize as boyish. "But, listen, we wanted to tell you guys that we're also going to be on the mission."
"But why?" Konda asked.
Miriya answered for her husband. "We decided we couldn't live with ourselves if we didn't take an active hand in helping make a future for our children.
The trio all warmed at the thought, the word "our". It was too soon to think about other females, but maybe someday.
"We'll look after Dana," Konda suddenly vowed.
"Uh-huh," added Bron.
"That's right." Rico looked over at Konda, as if annoyed that his placement had been usurped.
Max and Miriya exchanged glances. "Guys...."
"We could learn," Rico blurted.
They were crushed when Max told them that the family had already chosen the Emersons, but then perked up when he added, "But we want you to look in on her, and we told the Emersons they could count on your help if they needed it."
Bron nodded. "Of course; we're her godfathers, after all."
They looked eagerly at Exedore, but noticed that he was frowning. Before they could ask him what it was, Miriya did.
"This world will hardly be a utopia for any Zentraedi who chooses to remain behind. Distrust sown during the Uprisings shall not be easily uprooted. Life will be quite hard for any who choose to remain."
Konda was the first to recover. "Well, it looks like somebody cares about us after all."
Exedore just frowned more deeply. The trio thought that maybe he had finally admitted there was a reason to doubt himself.
And then he said, "Then let us at least make the most of what we have," surprising all of them.
Even if the three of them could be easily distracted, nervousness about the mission plagued their thoughts. But the trio put their all into acting normally, treating things casually.
As an example, Konda, Rico, and Bron insulted, swayed at, and mocked the film that was made chronicling their struggles. It gave them something else to put their focus on, and to play out the role of jesters once again.
Minmei had been sought out to play herself in the film, but had refused, going on television to publicly condemn the project, and someone named Rebecca Forstandt had been commandeered.
"I can't believe it, Bron had said, after they'd gotten the news. "Nobody else can sing Minmei's songs."
They had been at an outdoor cafe, the Sterlings absent, but Exedore was there, and declining to intervene on the conversation. It seemed to the trio that Exedore was spending more time with them, but now he was just slightly lowering his newspaper and moving his eyes from Bron to Konda, saying nothing.
"The songs were going to be all-new, anyway. Except for 'My Boyfriend's a Pilot.'"
Their reaction to the final product was even less subdued.
"Is...is that supposed to be Exedore?"
"Well, that's got to be Breetai. Look, he's got the faceplate."
"Ew....is that ship alive?"
Of all the Earth holidays, Halloween was the strangest. When Exedore tentatively asked to participate in the officers' Halloween party, and for them to help dress him as his representation from that movie, it got even weirder. But if it was a dream, well, Rico, Bron, and Konda decided to go along with it until their alarm clocks went off.
It did feel like some kind of rebuilding, as they remade Exedore in a different way than had already been done. But underneath the cloak and green paint, though, Exedore seemed to be the same person as always. At the party, he just stood around, watching everyone, not drinking, speaking only when spoken to, usually not smiling.
"He looks kind of dazed," Bron observed. He was dressed as a cowboy.
"Well, whaddaya expect?" Rico asked. He was dressed as a cat, and it looked incongruously cute, with a pointed-eared headband and a round black nose with whiskers. "He just...."
"You think maybe we did something?" Konda was a knight (and it seemed, attracting the most female attention out of all of them, though it was hardly the costume that did that. Recently Konda had discovered that most humans found him quite beautiful, especially when he wasn't wearing sloppy clothes and brushed his hair better, and he had never been the same since). "Like...."
"Nah," Rico waved one paw-gloved hand. "He can handle it. We just might've gotten through to him."
"Maybe," Bron mused. "He never said he was sorry, though."
They pressed together and moved as one towards Exedore, who was standing in the corner. He saw them coming and smiled slightly. "And how are you three now?"
"We're, uh, fine," Konda replied. "So...did we do anything to you?"
"I'm afraid that I do not understand."
Konda's visor fell down and he pushed it back up, wishing the moment hadn't been spoiled. "Well, it's just that we never expected you to do something like this."
"Nor did I. But do not mistake it for a complete change in character, though I myself do not fully understand the reasons."
"What do you think some of them are?" Bron asked.
Exedore scratched at his hair, which had been pinned and tucked under the foam cap which represented the creature's bloated head. "Ah, well, perhaps this is a show of 'good faith', to demonstrate that I can be, metaphorically, 'human' despite my perceived harshness. Or perhaps I have yet to become entirely comfortable with the fact that I have just been represented fictionally. You are to consider it a minor lapse, and not to tell Breetai or Dr. Lang, even if they will likely find out eventually."
The trio all looked at each other.
Exedore continued. "But perhaps I am not as immune as I had believed. Something may have shifted within me, something I did not fully understand and may have feared. And I must admit that even I...can state things in the moment's heat. Which I, ah, feel some degree of regret for, and realize that I had been passive rather than strong."
Exedore probably didn't expect to be mobbed, hugged three ways and lifted up off the ground, but that was what happened.
"P-Put me down! This is most unseemly!"
"So are a lot of things," Rico retorted, and knocked on the headpiece of Exedore's costume.
Max had thoroughly explained to them that they were too old to go "Trick or Treating", but hanging around with friends, having fun was enough. Maybe things would be all right.
Rico scraped the brush through his hair again, tugging hard. He slapped more water into it with his other hand, but it still refused to behave.
Konda hovered behind him, a bottle in one hand. "Rico, listen, if you'd just let me--"
"No, no way. I told you, I don't want that gunk in my hair!"
Konda grunted, and put it back. "Well, then hurry up. We're going to be late."
Rico scoffed, and tried brushing his hair again. Finally, he slapped the brush down by the sink. "Forget it." He picked up his glasses and put them on. "All right, let's go."
Konda followed him out, to where Bron was already waiting, grimacing slightly. They wore identical black tuxedos, with bow ties, and started down the stairs in single file.
At the bottom was Exedore, also dressed for the occasion, but in a form-fitting uniform in various shades of purple. They'd asked him why Max and Miriya weren't there, and Exedore had replied that they were already with Rick and Lisa.
It still struck the trio as funny; it was almost like the Sterling family was living in two worlds, one with them and Exedore, the other with Rick and Lisa and their friends.
Exedore was promptly out the door, and the trio followed, Konda bringing up the rear and locking the door behind them.
After they'd boarded the back of the limousine, the three of them sitting across from Exedore, Rico remembered how much like Halloween this was, in more ways than one.
Once again, he thought, Exedore seemed to be trying to apologize to them, in his own off-to-the-side kind of way. He'd come right to their door with a couple of escorts and said right away, "I have been invited to the Hayes-Hunter wedding, and have been permitted to invite guests. Since the rest of my acquaintances shall already be present, I would ask you three to come."
And from the pocket of his uniform he had withdrawn three invitations, spread slightly in a fan. The trio, all of them having crammed themselves into the doorframe, had taken them slowly, feeling confused.
Now Exedore held up one finger and said, "I am certain that you three will behave yourselves at the reception. However, I must tell you that you are not to mock Breetai's new appearance."
"Breetai?" Bron asked. "Why would we do that?"
Exedore frowned. Each of the trio had entertained private thoughts that their former Domillan's tight uniform did look kind of silly, but there was no way they would say it.
And when the trio did see Breetai, wearing the same odd kind of uniform that Exedore was, but also with the addition of a bucket-shaped helmet that covered nearly his entire head, they suddenly had to suck in their mouths to block the laughter that was bubbling up.
Exedore gestured to them and said, "Commander, you remember these three."
"Yes, I do. Greetings". Breetai folded his arms and nodded in the trio's direction. He was smiling, too, though a speculative eye gleamed through one of the grey lenses in his bucket-helmet.
Quickly the trio got control of themselves, enough to exchange polite greetings with him. The sudden onset of laughter had confused them: Breetai was still Breetai after all, though maybe the loosening of standards with Exedore and Miriya really had spread to include him.
And Breetai was standing easily, as if completely unaware of how bizarre he looked. Konda thought that maybe the fact that he was, even now, a lot taller than the average human, would make sure he got very few comments tonight.
The Hayes-Hunter wedding was a grand affair. Rico, Bron, and Konda again had to sit at the back of the room with the other unimportant civilians, while the important figures sat up front, mostly in uniform, but a few dressed for the occasion.
As the three listened to Minmei and Janice sing, they finally let out the tears that had been waiting all evening. Though they were still not ready for anyone new, and had even heard that usually people went through many mates before finding their chosen one, it made them think of Vanessa, Kim, and Sammie. It would have been so nice to have them there.
And normally they would have gotten bored, being that a wedding reception wasn't for the childlike of mind. But it was the last time they would get to see their friends for a very long while, and they were determined to make the best of it.
At one point they wandered over to Exedore, who was talking with Minmei and Janice. Breetai was with him, still looking like he didn't care at all about the way he looked.
Maybe it made Exedore happy, to finally stand by his commander's side again.
After the two women had left, the trio went up to Exedore.
"Oh, hello," the short ambassador said, moving to acknowledge them.
Breetai smiled at them.
Konda suddenly thought of an unfathomable question, then decided to ask it anyway. "Do you think you might like a mate someday, Exedore?"
Even though it wasn't meant as a prank, Konda expected Exedore to choke. But he was instead expressionless. "I am indifferent to the process."
"But what about that girl, at the gala event, the papers talked about it...Marjory Prix?"
"That was something undertaken upon Mr. Minucci's insistence, in order to make me appear more 'normal' in light of my harsh appearance to the public. I was not at all interested in such a creature, and in any event, she found me repulsive."
"Penny Mirman?" She was one of the enormous group of humans that had once been assigned to question and study Exedore, gauging his reactions to Micronian culture, and the name that stood out most in their minds.
Exedore frowned. "Not ever. She was a most vicious, suspicious person when under trying circumstances."
Konda put up a sheepish grin, and rubbed the back of his neck. "W-Well, you never know."
Exedore didn't say anything.
It was much later in the evening when Miriya came into the reception area, back from taking away the actual children to go to sleep.
The trio surrounded her. "M-Miriya," was Rico's first venture. "Uh...."
She tilted her head to the side and smiled.
"Thank you. I mean, thanks a lot," Rico went on.
"There's no reason to thank me." She grinned wider. "I just started it. You did all the rest yourselves. And I...I'm not perfect either." She looked down at the floor. "These past few years, sometimes I've felt ashamed of being Zentraedi."
Bron shook his head. "But that's all done now. And you were the one who came up with the idea. Without you we might not have even thought about something like that. We're not gonna forget you."
"You and Exedore," Konda added. "Even if he can be a jerk sometimes. Uh...can we hug you good-bye? I mean, being that you're gonna go soon."
"You idiots," she replied, but with affection. "Of course you can."
Even though they had laid up most of the night, they rose in the early morning to see the SDF-3 launch from the planet in preparation for the space fold. Any tiredness that they felt (and it was a small amount, given what their bodies had been bred for), was washed away by the brilliant flare of the fortress's takeoff.
"'Bye," Bron murmured softly.
"I just kinda wish that we could do more. But I guess we're not grown up enough."
"Oh, come on, Konda." Bron put his hands in his pockets. "We can make Dana happy for a little while, and that's good enough."
"But doesn't it feel like we should be able to do more? To help teach her stuff, and really understand...oh, I don't know. What do you think, Rico?"
"I think you need to stop worrying so much." He grunted, then let out a breath. "But they shouldn't have gone and left Dana behind. If I had kids, I wouldn't leave 'em behind."
"They did it to help her," Bron replied. "And we said we'd help take care of Dana. Just 'cause they have kids, doesn't mean they don't have other duties."
Rico scoffed. He had thought that he was all right with Miriya and Max's choice, thought he could see past the hero-worship of her and think clearly, but seeing Dana sometimes left him feeling sour and wishing he could have said more against the Sterlings' going.
The trio had just come off shift from working the latest of their odd jobs. Max had helped them learn to behave more maturely, and as a result they could keep working at the same job instead of bouncing from one to the other.
They were not in possession of much ambition; a job was just incidental, something to pay for living in this fun new world.
The sky picked that moment to start raining again. Konda swore and covered his head, while Rico grunted, "Prettyboy," though with affection.
Fortunately it wasn't much of a walk from there to the small house that the three of them currently shared. None of them could even think of moving into their own individual dwellings. It had taken everything just to stand working different jobs, when it had become too hard to find anyone who would hire three people simultaneously.
They worked together putting the groceries away, pausing to stare out at the rain, which was already coming fast and thick.
"I wonder what they're doing right now," Bron mused.
"Probably some boring political thing." Rico scoffed again.
"Mm," was all Konda said. But he started to walk towards the sink, looking out the window above it. "Hey...what's that thing?"
They all crowded up, leaning on the counter. The view of the small backyard was runny through the trails of rain, but it was easy to see the white thing that was zipping in perpetual figure eights in the middle of the lawn.
"It's some kind of animal," Rico observed, needlessly.
It was only a few steps from the sink to the back door niche and the coats and umbrellas that were in there. But in their haste, they only put boots on, though Konda had the frame of mind to take one umbrella with him, which he opened over their heads.
Rico tucked his glasses into his jeans pocket so he could see in the rain, and they all descended the rotting porch steps to see what their visitor was.
They had all guessed that it was someone's pet, but as it stopped its panicked run and its long, pointed ears pricked up, along with its overlong tail, they understood what it was, though only recently had they been able to put a name to it.
The animal ran toward them, stopped, and then sat on its haunches, staring up at them. One of its jewel-like, almost insectile eyes briefly gleamed behind its bangs.
"What did Exedore say those things were called again?" Konda asked nobody.
"Poll-in-ators," Bron sounded it out, for his benefit as well as Konda's own. He crouched down slowly to look better at it. "I bet it came from one of those downed ships."
Human seaships had rats; Zentraedi spaceships occasionally had Pollinators. Of course, being that they were but specks to the crewmembers, most of the time the white creatures were ignored. They were almost impossible to destroy, anyway; try to squash one beneath your fingertip, and it disappeared, or seemed to transport itself to the other side of the room.
Konda: "Why did it come here?"
Bron guessed that it might have smelled them, but then admitted he had no idea what might have attracted the Pollinator to them.
In truth, the Pollinator was drawn to the Protoculture it had sensed in their bodies. This single Pollinator, who had survived the crash of a Zentraedi ship, was able to sustain itself on the foreign flora and small fauna, but the scent of the Flower derivative always made its species excited, curious, compliant, and intrigued, all at once.
The ex-spies stared down at the animal again. The creature seemed to stare back.
"Well, let's bring it inside."
Konda and Bron looked at Rico. They'd been entertaining such thoughts, too. Bron, still crouched down, was the one who opened his arms to invite the creature in.
The Pollinator coiled and sprang, a damp ball of fur that splashed onto the front of Bron's sweater. He really didn't mind, though, and gladly carried it back into the house.
Though a wild animal, the Pollinator didn't seem
scared or angry at all, wasn't shaking, except when Bron put it on the counter and it dried itself that way.
Rico went to the bathroom and came back with a hair dryer and a bundle of towels. This time the Pollinator did struggle a bit as it was wrapped and rubbed, held by Bron as Konda used the hair dryer and Rico provided assistance with his own hand.
"Though I guess if he really didn't like it," Konda mused, "He could just disappear."
The Pollinator didn't, and its stringy fur was gradually dried to a cotton fluff. It opened its mouth, revealing fangs and a long tongue that it rapidly curled away; it didn't pant like an Earth dog.
"Wonder what it eats."
"Rico, we can't keep him. We're on shifts too much."
"Pollinators can take care of themselves, though." That was Bron.
They all looked at the creature again.
"We never got any diseases from the Pollinators," Bron said. "And we're supposed to be just the same as humans, right?"
"Well, that doesn't matter." Konda slicked back his wet hair with one hand. "If the government finds out we've got an alien lifeform, they'll take it away from us anyway and do experiments on it."
"That's just in the movies."
"It's true!" The purple-haired Zentraedi shouted back. "You're not supposed to take un-owned animals across countries. I heard it somewhere. It probably means the same for space."
They talked together about it, but Rico had to make the final decision. "Let's keep it for a few days, see if it stays, or if it tries to be dangerous."
The Pollinator did disappear, but it always reappeared a few days or hours afterwards, perhaps having fed itself on something, for it didn't take any of the food the trio tried to give it: no table scraps, no grass, no Earth dog food. It never left any messes behind, either.
A few weekends later, Dana was dropped off to be babysat. She grinned up at them a little, but her smile was even wider when the Pollinator came bounding down the stairs to the front door.
The trio had originally drawn straws to decide who would present her with the creature, but the Pollinator seemed to have made up its own mind. It had teleported from the blanket-filled box in the kitchen where they had left it, and reappeared at the top of the stairs, taking the rest of the way on foot.
"Hey--!" Rico grunted, as it brushed past his legs to sit at Dana's feet.
Dana went down on her hands and knees to look closer. "Is that a dog?"
"It's a Pollinator," Bron offered.
Dana giggled as the creature suddenly licked her face. She raised a small hand and petted it between its ears, which went up and down once.
"Scoot over," Rico said, gently, and Dana moved aside so he could close the front door.
She stood up and put her hands behind her back. "Is it a Zentraedi pet?"
"Not exactly," Bron said. "But we're thinking of letting you have it for one."
"It's got a collar," Dana observed, smoothing back the white fur around its neck, revealing a simple red band that the trio had purchased from a pet store.
"Yeah, but listen, we're gonna keep the Pollinator for a while, but you can play with it whenever you come, and when we're sure that it's not having any diseases and is okay with you, then you can have it."
Dana looked up at Konda.
Rico crouched down to be level with her. "But listen, kiddo, a Pollinator's not like an Earth dog." He reached out and scratched it with one grey hand. "It'll keep disappearing and reappearing whenever it wants to, but it always comes back. It seems that you don't have to feed it, too, because it never ate anything we gave it but it was still always fine. It doesn't leave any messes, either."
"Where'd you get it from?"
The trio all exchanged worried glances, thinking of what Konda had said earlier, and of the hell they'd get from any human who discovered that they'd given an animal they found literally in their backyard to a young child.
"We'll, uh, tell you someday," Rico supplied, "But, listen, because the Pollinator's a strange animal who's not even from Earth, if people know about it, they might try to take it away. So, uh, try to keep it a secret."
Dana straightened up and saluted. After her arm went down, she said, "Needs a name, though. Uh..." She thought for a second. "Polly! Polly for Pollinator. Sounds good, right?"
"Yeah, it sure does."
Dana scooped Polly up, and giggled as it licked her again. Polly smelled the Protoculture in Dana, too, and was drawn to her strange mix of scents.
The three men smiled slowly. We did good, was what was on their collective mind.
"Rico! Get the door!"
"I'm not gonna get it, you get it."
Bron only groaned instead of adding onto the conversation.
At the moment, none of them remembered that this was a hospital room, and people could come and go as they pleased. It was hard to, maybe, when this one's door was closed and locked instead.
The three Zentraedi had slowly been getting sicker and sicker, the doctors seemingly unable to find out what was wrong with them, though they had been keeping them under indefinite observation at the local hospital for a long while.
Rico, Bron, and Konda had all forgotten their being bitten by some microscopic flying thing at different times. It was summer, after all, and there were mosquitoes.
Before the trio had gone to the hospital, Polly had disappeared and never come back, and Dana hadn't come by, meaning they couldn't tell her where they were going. They had tried to phone the Emersons, but had gotten no response to the messages they left.
Now, Konda, Rico, and Bron watched with unfocused eyes as the men came into the room. None of them were sure if these people were real or a dream. The past few days, one or several of them had hallucinated other people in the room, including creatures they couldn't recognize.
"Rico Docel, Konda Blomco, and Bron Mantes: we're here to take you to a safe place, where you will be taken care of and a cure to your illness found."
Rico was the first out of his bed. He tried to stagger over to the government men, before collapsing.
The nearest human caught him, using a rough push to get Rico back into a standing position before he could crash over the bedside table.
Konda and Bron slowly made their way out of their own beds, while the human talked into a handset.
Konda's head suddenly jerked up. "Dana Sterling!"
All of the agents looked at him.
Konda repeated the name in a less forceful tone, then staggered, but did not fall. "You have to tell her where we're going," he managed to get out. "We're her godfathers."
"All right now, we'll tell her. Now come on."
Konda, Bron, and Rico died in government custody. Their incarceration (a comfortable one, but still the same thing) had been because of the public fear that the trio carried some unforeseen disease that could have spread to the human populace; gradually the government had bowed to the demand and had taken them away.
Fortunately, the mysterious illness was found not to be contagious. News bulletins were released to reassure the public that there was no danger that would come from these deaths, that the cause had in fact been discovered to be related to their Micronization, though no plans for immunizing the workers on the Factory Satellite was proposed.
The officials were true to their word and Dana's guardians, the Emersons, who then passed it on to Dana. Polly also found its way to Dana's side, when she was nearly inconsolable. Dr. Lazlo Zand, meanwhile, watched his success unfold on national television without expression.
The trio did not know much about him; Zand's actions had been one of the secrets kept from them.
Many years would pass before Miriya Parino and Exedore Formo would hear of their deaths, and even longer before Exedore accidentally discovered the true perpetrator; by then the mystery would have long been forgotten.
But, though it was a cold comfort, the trio would not be. Generations of Zentraedi children would learn about their roles as unwitting revolutionaries, unconventional heroes whom no one would take as their role models, but whose existence still was worthy of note.