4. Too Many Fairy Tales

(A UFO Story)

by Denise Felt 2011

Chapter 1

"Want to know what I think, Ed?"

Straker put the car in gear and headed for the front gate of the studio. "Not really."

Alec grinned at him, unoffended. "I think you're over-thinking things."

His friend raised a brow, but said nothing, instead rolling down the driver's window to speak to the security guard at the gate. "Good morning, Lance."

"Good morning, sir." The guard saluted slightly and waved the car on through the front gate, not finding it all that unusual for his commander to be leaving the complex in the morning. He'd obviously been at HQ all night, and Col. Freeman was seeing him home.

There was silence in the car for a few miles as the commander adjusted to a steering wheel and dashboard somewhat different from his own. The repair team had promised him that his car would be fixed by the end of the week, but until then he was left with a loaner. Newer than his own model and packing more state-of-the-art equipment under its hood, it was nonetheless not his car. Col. Freeman could tell by the set of his friend's lips that even if this car could fly, Straker wouldn't like it. He was nothing if not loyal. That – and the fact that he was a creature of habit and disliked change as much as the next man.

Finally the commander replied to Alec's comment. "And I think you're like a hen with one chick. Where does that leave us?"

Alec chuckled. "I let you drive, didn't I?"

He got a look that would have seared him if he hadn't been inured to it.

"Seriously, Ed. Why don't you just bed the girl?"

Straker's lips tightened, but he said evenly enough, "What girl?"

"Come on, Ed! I've met her, remember? She's gorgeous, thinks you're grand, and is ripe for the plucking. The question is: why aren't you having sex with her?"

"What makes you think I'm not?"

Freeman shook his head. "Easy. You don't have the look of a man who's getting regular sex." After a moment he frowned. "Actually, you've never looked like a man who got regular sex."

Lean hands clenched momentarily on the wheel. "You're about two seconds from getting thrown out of this car."

Alec hid a grimace in another smile. Even after all these years, Ed refused to say a word against his bitch of an exwife. The colonel shrugged. "I'm just saying. If you weren't spending all your time worrying the issue, you'd have gone ahead and slept with her by now."

Straker spared him a look. "Why do you care?"

Freeman gave the question a moment's thought. "Because it'd be nice to see you happy for a change. Relaxed."

His commander merely grunted.

"You do know what relaxed means, don't you?"

Straker ignored that. "First off, she's not a girl."

Alec's mouth fell open. "You can't seriously refuse to sleep with her because she's not human? Since when have you become the prejudiced type?"

"I'm not. But you're letting yourself be deceived by appearances, Alec. She's no girl. She's ancient. She's been alive for millennia."

The colonel frowned. "So, you have something against older women?"

The commander sighed and shook his head. "I can't discuss this with you. You wouldn't understand. There's a lot more at stake here than you're considering."

"Sounds simple enough to me. She wants you; you want her. Why go and complicate it?"

Straker suddenly pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. He turned to his friend and said tersely, "I said you wouldn't understand. Now, I'm done with this subject." At that, he opened the car door and got out.

Alec got out of the car as well, waving the all-clear to the security detail in the car behind them. The two men acknowledged his signal, but got out and leaned against the hood of their car, ready for any problems. Col. Freeman followed his old friend, wondering what the deal was now?

He didn't have long to wonder. As he approached, he could see that the commander stood just at the edge of a large bare spot of land in the clearing of some thick trees. Straker was studying the area carefully, and the colonel found his gaze going to it as well. There was just something – wrong – about the bare patch. No grass grew on it anywhere, the soil itself was dried and cracked, and the demarcation between the patch and the surrounding circle of turf showed signs of withering at the edges. Following his commander's glance to the trees that bordered the clearing, he could see that some of them displayed branches that looked as though they had been burnt off. In fact, you could almost make a bowl out of the shape left behind in the clearing.

"What the hell?"

Straker turned to him. "What do you make of it?"

Freeman shook his head. "I have no idea. Is this the place where the tear occurred?"

"Yes." The commander pointed to a spot in the sky overhead. "Right about there."

"So . . . is the tear worsening?"

"I'm not sure."

"Why not? It looks pretty obvious to me. Surely this bare patch wasn't here yesterday when Ginny took her readings?"

"No." The commander sighed. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that the tear is out of control. It may only mean that, even with all the keepers working to heal it, the tear is still able to cause a certain amount of damage. Nyt told me that it takes quite a while to heal such a breach."

Freeman's eyes tracked the diameter of the bare area. "Jesus," he said slowly. "Then it could destroy even more land before it's stopped?"

"It's possible." Straker looked over to where the road ran past the clearing. "We may even lose the road eventually. That will have to be watched. Perhaps it would be best to cordon off this entire area for the time being. Just until we have a better idea how much damage there will be."

"Right. I'll take care of it."

Straker's blue eyes searched the bare ground. "Interesting, isn't it?"

"What? It looks just like desert to me."

The commander turned to him with a nod. "Exactly. Kinda makes you rethink what you thought you knew about geology, doesn't it?"

Alec gaped at him for a moment. Sometimes the things his friend found intriguing made his brain hurt. "Say, Ed. I thought these fairies were all-powerful. Starting ice ages and all that."

"They have a great deal of power, yes. Especially when it deals with anything to do with Gaia itself. But this isn't from Earth, Alec. This tear was caused by alien technology. And in their own way, I think the keepers have as much trouble with the aliens as we do."

"Oh, that's just great!"

Deep in a glade unknown to any but the sun, in a crystal clear pool fed by a nearby tinkling waterfall, the keepers lounged on waterlily pads and held council.

"We cannot keep doing this!" announced Carapolista with a furious gesture. "All our energy and time is already required to undo what harm the humans cause to Gaia each day. How can we be expected to give even more of that energy to this new crisis?"

"Would you prefer that the breach not be sealed, Carapolista?" asked the quiet voice of Elisaria. "Have you so soon forgotten Fodden-Marike?"

Dismayed murmurs ran throughout the fairies at the mention of this place, for none would ever forget the horror of that disaster and the extreme measures they had been forced to implement in order to stop the destruction.

Carapolista drew a deep breath and said more calmly, "Of course, I remember Fodden-Marike, my sister. But tell me how we can handle this drain of our energies from two fronts? It is nigh impossible! And since it takes so long to heal a tear, this strain on all of us shall continue for some time. How are we to bear it?"

That question seemed unanswerable. Murmurs broke out once more as the fairies debated the issue among those on neighboring lily pads. Then a soft voice said, "It may be possible to shorten the time needed to heal the breach."

All eyes turned to Arianythra. "How so, sister?" asked Deborneara, often considered one of the wisest of the keepers.

Arianythra sat up. "We can create a pond beneath the tear."

"A pond?" Several voices spoke at once; some in wonder, some in doubt.

"But that will destroy a great deal of the plantlife in the area," said one keeper, shaking her head. Many other fairies nodded agreement. Such a plan was counter-productive and therefore unviable.

"The plants are already being destroyed," Arianythra explained patiently. "At least with this method, the necessary water molecules will be there to seal the breach before more damage to the surrounding plants can be done. We will not have to bring the water ourselves any longer. The pond can work through evaporation and do the sealing for us, freeing our energies for those tasks that already burden us, as our sister has pointed out."

There was silence in the pool as the keepers thought on these words. Finally, Deborneara spoke. "This plan has merit, sister. It is not without pain, since we will be forced to lose many plants. But by bringing a pond to the area, a new water source for animals will have been created, and in the future that spot may flourish as never before. In the meantime, having a water source there to take the burden off our shoulders of healing the tear molecule by molecule would be quite welcome. We praise you, Arianythra, for this daring and innovative solution to our problem."

Applause broke out all over the pool as keepers joined in to praise their sister for her solution. Arianythra blushed and held up a slender hand to silence them. "Indeed, it is a wondrous plan," she agreed. "Bold, too. But the praise is not mine, because the plan was not mine."

"Whose was it then?" asked Plisketania curiously.

"Commander Straker's. The human in charge of protecting Gaia from the invaders."

Abruptly the pool broke out in cries of shock and surprise. "A human? How could a human devise such a plan? Why would they even know about it in the first place?"

Arianythra waited them out, and eventually their comments died down. Then Seriptamina spoke. "You told this human about the tear? What could you have been thinking, sister?"

"He already knew that some plot of the invaders was at work. Why should I not tell him? That breach was made to get to him, after all! Why should he not be informed of the way in which his enemies were attacking? He nearly died, sister, as you know. And that cannot be allowed. We need him! Gaia needs him! Have you so soon forgotten the council meeting where the decision was made to contact him?"

Deborneara said quietly, "Nonetheless, Arianythra. It is not wisdom to inform the humans too much on things beyond their capacity. They have great difficulty grasping concepts beyond what their minds can fathom. You know how fragile they are."

Arianythra drew herself up straighter on the lily pad. "His mind is not weak. He has proven this to us over and over. First by accepting our presence without crumbling. Then by listening to our words and heeding them. By trusting those words over those of his own men. And finally, by allowing us to save him when he was nearly killed by the invaders." She threw out her hands to them. "You just gave praise to the one who came up with a workable solution to a major problem for Gaia! How can we not trust this man?"

Many keepers remained frowning, but it was obvious that she had given them much food for thought. She knew that several of the keepers thought of humanity as an unwelcome nuisance on Gaia, especially in the past few hundred years once communications had broken down between them. But it had not always been so. If nothing else, Commander Straker was a reminder to them of why they had accepted the humans from the first.

Seriptamina spoke. "Still, sister. It was not wisdom to bring him to a sacred meadow."

Arianythra pressed her lips tightly together to keep from making a sharp comment. Trust Seriptamina to bring that up when opinions were still unsettled about the commander! Fresh gasps were heard around the pool as other keepers became aware of the what Arianythra had done.

But before she could say anything in her defense, Elisaria said, "Shame on you, Seriptamina! You saw the shape he was in when Arianythra brought him to the meadow! He would have died without our intervention, and you know it!"

"I do not deny it," replied the fairy. "But I still see no purpose in Arianythra revealing one of our secret places to a human! It is unheard of! And I cannot think it right."

"He would have died," Arianythra said softly. "Would you have preferred me to let him die, Seriptamina?"

Deborneara lifted a hand for silence. When all eyes were on her, she sighed and said, "Seriptamina is correct, Arianythra. It was not wise for you to bring a human into a sacred meadow." As Seriptamina tossed her dark hair in a gesture of victory, the wise keeper continued. "However, as we discussed in council before – and I urge you all to bring the words we said back to your remembrance! – Commander Straker is unique in the human world because of his role as protector of Gaia. In a life-or-death case, therefore, it was just and right for Arianythra to bring him to a place of safety that he not die – no matter how sacred a place that may be!"

Gasps were heard around the pool, but no one challenged the keeper's words. Too many of them remembered the prior discussion about this unusual human, who took the weight of the entire planet on his own shoulders. His valor had given even those keepers who wished to rid Gaia of all humans pause, because they could not help but remember a time when keepers had first witnessed this wonderful trait in the alien race that had been dropped into their midst. It had stayed their hand then, and it stayed their hand now. Courage was a trait for which there was no price. No one was aware of this more than the keepers, who daily gave their energy, and indeed, their very existence, for the good of Gaia.

Floraminda spoke. "I am a witness that the commander was next to death when Arianythra brought him to the meadow. I helped her tend to him and brought him food."

Elisaria added, "I am a witness that the commander was nearly dead when Arianythra brought him to the meadow. I helped her heal him."

The few other keepers who had been there at the time and had seen also added their testimonies. None of them had felt the trespass worthy of report, because it had been obvious to all that the commander was near death. Certainly Arianythra had acted in the best interests of Gaia by saving his life?

When the testimonies ceased, all eyes turned to Seriptamina. She pouted, but said, "I was there when Arianythra brought the commander to the sacred meadow. I spoke to her about it and admonished her for not thinking of the possible consequences of her rash actions."

"Did you offer to assist me in healing him?" asked Arianythra quietly.

The keeper's pout deepened. "No." As gasps went up around the pool, she added with a shrug, "I had my own work to do. We all did."

There was silence momentarily as the other fairies were forced to acknowledge that they had been too busy to offer to help as well. Finally, Arianythra said, "We all do that which we must to keep Gaia safe. It was not necessary for every keeper to assist me in healing the commander. He is strong and healed quickly. In gratitude for our help, he has provided us with a plan that may enable us to seal the breach quickly and efficiently. In response, we should be grateful to him instead of treating him as a troublemaker."

Deborneara said, "It is time to vote on the plan. All in favor, express it. All opposed, express it."

There were no dissenters.

Chapter 2

Over the long epochs of time, Arianythra had come to understand excitement. The first small stirrings in her heart as she coaxed the buds on the trees to flower each spring, signaling winter's end. The overwhelming thrill of helping a fledgling leave its nest for the first time and fly. And all the myriad daily pleasures in between. But she felt something now that she did not recognize – a shivery excitement that was all-encompassing and seemed to want to burst out through her skin. And she could not discern its cause.

Bewildered, she flew to the cloud-covered summit where she often found a refreshing after a difficult day serving Gaia. Sitting on the ancient rock that jutted from the mountaintop and placing her hands on its weathered surface, she once more felt connected to all the ages and grounded in their wisdom. After hours of silence, she opened her eyes and surveyed the world around her. Tiny rainbows danced over the cloud bank as the sun teased the water within into reflecting its light. Tufts of colorful cloud stretched as far as the horizon, a fluffy playground should she be tempted to leave her rock and enjoy. She smiled in contentment, but stayed where she was.

Tentatively, she allowed her feelings to emerge – slowly, so that she could identify them. First of all, there was joy that she was a servant of Gaia, an evanescence so intrinsic to her being that she wasn't often even aware of it. Then, there was hope for tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come. There was pleasure that the council meeting had gone well . . .

There! Flooding from that thought came the excitement, almost crowding out every other emotion. She isolated it and considered it from every angle. Yes, she was pleased that the other keepers had listened to her words. Yes, it was wonderful that they were going to implement the plan to seal the breach in the air. Ah! There it was. She was thrilled out of all measure by the fact that it had been his plan the keepers had agreed to use. Her arms came around her updrawn knees as a smile lit up her face. Of course! These days so many of her emotions seemed to be tied to him in some way. She should have known as soon as this one threatened to overwhelm her that it was somehow connected with him. She was excited for Ed.

She jumped to her feet and flew from the mountaintop, galvanized by the understanding. She had to tell him about the council decision right away!

"Well, John? What'd you find out?"

Lt. Masters handed Col. Freeman his report. "Since there were only three on the security detail that logged when Commander Straker left that night, it was fairly easy to reconstruct his movements and find out who would have had opportunity to watch him leave. The chart's at the back of the report."

Alec pulled it out and looked it over. Then he looked up. "So, unless it was an actor or a member of the film crew that just happened to be in the aliens' pockets, it doesn't seem as if anyone else could have seen him go other than those three."

Masters nodded. "That's the conclusion we reached."

Freeman sat back in the commander's chair. "So that narrows it down for us then."

"Yes, sir. We've already done preliminary work on the three guards for you. That's also included in the report."

The colonel raised his brows at the lieutenant. He wasn't a man who trusted in reports and computer printouts like his boss. He preferred a more elemental approach. "What's your gut telling you, John?"

Masters' expression tightened. "Drawing from actions both before and after the attack on the commander, and taking into account the timing of it all . . ." He paused a moment, then burst out, "It has to be Pritchard, Colonel! He's the only operative who fits all the parameters of the situation."

"Pritchard?" Freeman understood the security man's hesitation. Sgt. Pritchard had been at the front gate of the studio for years, entrusted with the safety and security of their facility because of his spotless record. "Jesus, John!"

Masters swallowed painfully. "I know, sir. I'm sorry. But it's all there in the report. And his behavior since the attack has been equally suspicious."

"Is he being watched?"

The lieutenant nodded. "As we speak."

Alec sighed, feeling old all of a sudden. "Alright. Bring him in."

Nyt was surprised to find the commander at home. At least until she remembered that he had been in his underground office very late last night when she had visited him. Just released from confinement, he'd clearly wanted to spend some time reestablishing his leadership. She applauded him for his patience in dealing with the annoyance and his subsequent humility in victory. He seemed to possess every laudable trait she'd ever witnessed among humans. He was almost like a keeper at times.

Perhaps that was why she'd forgotten that he would need sleep.

She watched him as he slept, marveling afresh at how the mere sight of him made her smile. In repose, he wasn't as dynamic as she normally saw him. She supposed it was because those vibrant blue eyes were hidden that he seemed for a moment almost like any other human on Gaia. But he also seemed even more intriguing now that her gaze was not drawn to his eyes. Nyt came closer to the bed, her head tilting slightly as she examined him. He had a pleasing face and form, lean and strong, unlike many of the humans in his culture who tended toward obesity. His skin should have been pale from so much time spent underground, but wasn't. Instead it was a lovely sun-kissed gold that had been a legacy from his mother. However, he did not have her dark hair, but his father's – so blonde it was nearly white. The contrast it made against that golden skin did something odd to her heart rate that she didn't understand.

She sighed as she sat beside him on the bed. She had always thought that humanity was rather simple to comprehend, since they were driven by such obvious needs, but she had been forced to change her mind about that since speaking to the commander that first night. Now she admitted to herself that there were far too many things about him and about the way he made her feel that made no sense to her at all.

"What is it that you do to me?" she asked softly.

His eyelids fluttered and opened, revealing the intense blue gaze that never failed to arouse her senses.

"Nyt?" he murmured drowsily, still caught in dreams of her.

"Every thought seems to spin around you. Every smile has your name behind it. Somehow you have filled my senses to the point where I do not even know my own emotions anymore. All I know is that I want to be near you."

His hand slid into her curls as he brought her face closer. "Me too," he said, then kissed her. It was better – even better than he imagined – to hold her again in his dreams. To draw her down onto the bed with him and mold her delicate body to his. To bury his hands in her luxurious hair and feed on those delightful lips until he was seeped in passion. To hear her excited murmurs and gasps of pleasure as he kissed her neck and throat. His hands caressed her through her dress, while his lips seared a path down her shoulder.

Caught up in feelings too powerful to either analyze or define, Nyt pressed closer to him, aware that the only safety in this maelstrom of emotion was in clinging to him. Her skin felt far too hot, almost burning wherever he touched. Surely she would burst into flames at any moment now? But she found it hard to care when it felt so good.

"Ed! Ah, Ed!" she pleaded, unaware that she spoke aloud.

"God, Nyt!" he murmured, sliding the silk from her shoulders. "I need you so much!"

Her dress parted at the touch of his hands, eager to allow him access to the aching flesh beneath. But when his mouth touched her breast, a fierce stab of pleasure so strong it felt like pain went through her, and she cried out in surprise.

Straker stilled suddenly, meeting her eyes in shock as his cleared. God! He was awake! All the dangers of their situation slammed down upon his mind, which was still reeling from the sensory overload of holding her in his arms. He abruptly pushed away from her, dropping his head to his hands while shudders racked his frame as he tried to force his feelings back under some kind of control.

Nyt stared at him in bewilderment, still quivering from head to toe and unable to find her balance. "Ed?" she asked tentatively, unsure why he was rejecting her.

"Damn it, Nyt! Damn it!" he exploded, glaring at her from the opposite side of the bed, all the passion built from the past several minutes finding an outlet in rage. "You can't keep doing this to me! You don't seem to have any concept of invasion of privacy! Have you even considered the consequences of your actions?"

It almost seemed as if he hated her by the fierceness of his expression and voice. Nyt's emotions had undergone too many extremes too quickly for her to handle one more. "I do not understand you at all!" she scowled, heart and body both aching because of him. In defense she disappeared, the fairy sparkles she left behind flashing angrily.

His hands ran shakily through his hair. "I know," he sighed in defeat.

Chapter 3

When Straker entered his HQ office an hour later, Alec took one look at his stormy countenance and decided he had work to do elsewhere. Gathering up his papers without a word, he left the office to his commander, not even asking why he'd come back so soon after leaving it. The colonel doubted that he'd get an answer that didn't blister his ears.

So it wasn't until several hours later that Col. Freeman told him about their findings. Straker read through the report without speaking, then fixed his icy gaze upon him. "Was he subjugated?"

Alec knew what he was really asking: had Pritchard chosen to go over to the aliens, or was he being controlled? "We don't know."

The commander's eyes hardened further. "Why not?"

"Because he killed the security operative that was tailing him and took off. We haven't found him yet."

"Damn it, Alec!"

"Listen, Ed. We'll find him. It's just a matter of time."

"Time we may not have if the aliens are planning another surprise for us," Straker reminded him tersely.

Alec shrugged philosophically. He knew Security was moving heaven and earth to find the man. Sooner or later he'd turn up. What else could they do? He poured himself a drink from the dispenser in the corner. "If you're worried about it, maybe you should ask Nyt to find him for us. She doesn't seem to have any trouble locating things."

It was the wrong thing to say. The commander's brow darkened ominously, and his hand clenched on the report he held, crumpling the page. "It's not her job, is it? It's yours. Find him. Now!"

"Right." Alec sighed, set down the untouched drink, and left the office.

When he returned to Straker's office later, the commander was more gracious.

"Well done, Alec!" he said, gesturing for the colonel to make himself at home.

Freeman wasted no time getting himself a drink. "I'd have been happier if we'd been able to take him alive."

Straker shrugged. "I doubt if it would have made any difference. We never have been able to get those in the aliens' power to tell us anything useful. Do we know yet?"

The colonel had seated himself in the chair in front of the desk. "You mean, was he being controlled by the aliens? Yes. They were doing the autopsy when I left the Medical Centre. The entire front half of his brain was missing."

The commander relaxed slightly. "I see. Well, as terrible as that may seem, I'm relieved to hear it."

Alec nodded. "You thought he might be another Joe Kelly, didn't you?"

"Yes." Straker sighed. "Or a Turner," he added with distaste.

At the mention of the operative who had almost succeeded in handing SHADO HQ over to the aliens in that time freeze incident, Freeman scowled. Even now, years after the man's death, he would have liked to dig up his corpse and kill him all over again. The bastard had managed to nearly murder his commander. Certainly he'd traumatized him, leaving him in a catatonic state in the aftermath of that horrifying day. Alec had special tortures set aside for those who made his friend's life hell. It still irked him that he'd never gotten the chance to use them on Turner.

"We've given the rest of Pritchard's hours this week to Lance. I've got John Masters working on a revised schedule for next week to take up the slack."

Straker nodded. "Lance will do well, I'm sure. He's young enough to still be earnest about his job. You should find out if he would consider additional training for a possible promotion."

Alec grinned. "Already on it," he said, saluting his commander's insight with his glass.

"Good."

The colonel sipped his drink as Straker returned to reading reports. After a while, he said, "Aren't you curious how we managed to find him so fast?"

Straker looked up from the report he was signing. "You've always been an excellent bloodhound, Alec," he said with a wry smile.

The colonel's rakish grin flashed. "Yeah, well. My skills weren't needed this time."

"Oh?"

Freeman pulled a map out of his pocket. "When I got back to my office after talking to you earlier, this was on my desk."

The commander took the map from him and spread it out. A large circle marked in red surrounded the farm where they'd found the sergeant. A red arrow pointed to the exact location inside the circle. He looked up at Alec in surprise.

The colonel grinned. "I checked it out first. Made sure no one had been in my office while I was out." He shrugged. "Who else could it have been?"

Straker sat back, considering it. Then he said, "I suppose we should be grateful that she was willing to help us."

"I sure am," agreed his friend. "So . . . does she always listen in on our conversations?"

"It's hard to say. The keepers have different perceptions of privacy than ours, for one thing. Anything's possible."

Alec got up to refill his glass. "What'd you do to piss her off?"

"What makes you so sure I did?"

Freeman waved a hand at the map. "I would have thought it was obvious. She didn't come to you and tell you where he was. She didn't even come to me. She just left a note. And when a woman only leaves a note, you can bet she's pissed off about something."

"Your powers of deduction leave me speechless."

The colonel grinned at his sarcasm. "Of course, it helped that I'd already seen you and knew just how bent out of shape you were. It wasn't that hard to figure, you know."

Straker sighed. "I fucked up."

The whiskey glass stopped on its way to Freeman's lips. Those were words he wasn't used to hearing coming out of his old friend's mouth. "What happened?" he asked in concern.

The commander shrugged unhappily. "She blindsided me. Caught me just waking up." He paused for a while, remembering. "I thought I was still asleep – still dreaming."

Alec shook his head. "Women! They always know just where our weaknesses are, don't they?"

"It wasn't like that," Straker said unexpectedly. "She simply didn't realize what she was doing. As I said, their views on privacy aren't the same as ours. She had no idea she was catching me at a vulnerable moment. And I made it all ten times worse by yelling at her about it. But – God! I nearly lost all control!"

"Would that have been so bad?"

The commander gave him a look. "You can't possibly be that naive, Alec! Of course, it would!"

Freeman frowned. "I don't get it, Ed. Where's the problem? Hell, a little sex might be just what you both need!"

"Yes, I know. It's your cure for anything that might ail you. But you haven't considered the repercussions. The consequences of such a relationship."

"You mean, because you can't marry her? Because no one else can see her?"

"No. Nothing that simple. It isn't our world that would be affected, Alec. It's hers. Think about it. They're all women with no men in their society. Virgins. How do you think they'd react when they found out she had sex with a human? We're hardly on the same level."

"You think it's a class issue?"

"Put it this way. How would you feel if a friend told you they'd had sex with an animal?"

Whiskey sprayed as the colonel choked. As he brushed off his jacket, he said, "Jesus, Ed! It's hardly the same! We're at least the same species."

"Are we? Since when did you sprout wings?"

"Come on! It's not that big a difference."

Straker sighed. "You're getting thrown off by appearances again. We're not immortal, Alec. They are. That puts them several steps above us on the evolutionary scale, wouldn't you say?"

Freeman brooded a moment. "And you think they might throw her out if she has sex with a pitiful human?"

"Something like that. It's hard to know for sure."

Suddenly Alec grinned. "Maybe they wouldn't be so upset. Maybe instead they'd be knocking down your door for their share of the pie."

Straker's lips twitched. "I'll send them over to your place."

"Really? Thanks!"

His friend merely shook his head at Alec's excitement. "There are other possible scenarios, other ways they might handle such a situation. Most of them would be unpleasant for Nyt."

"That doesn't mean you can't beat the odds."

The commander sighed. "I wish it were possible, believe me. Because even that level of trouble pales into nothing next to what could happen if she got pregnant."

Alec gaped at him, speechless.

Straker nodded. "I know. And that's not even the worst of it. What about the child of that sort of union? Where would they grow up? How would they be treated? Neither one nor the other, but some unpredictable combination of both. Who would be selfish enough to subject their own child to that level of ostracism? It would be criminal."

"You've obviously given this a lot of thought."

"I have," his friend agreed, glad that he was finally understanding.

"Well, I still say you over-think things."

"I've done my research."

Alec looked up in surprise. "Research? How in the hell did you do research?"

Straker's wry smile appeared. "Fairy tales, of course."

"Good grief!"

"Seriously, Alec. Some of those tales have been handed down for centuries."

"So what?"

"That means they date from a time when humans were still in contact with fairies on a day to day basis."

"Okay. I get that. But most of those stories are just stupid."

"Perhaps. They were written as morality tales for the most part. But the thing is, they contain some truth. Glimpses of the way humans and keepers interacted back then. And I have to tell you, none of them give a happy ending to a human-fairy relationship. Not only are such liaisons usually forbidden, but they all end badly."

"All of them?"

"All of them."

"Damn!"

Straker's smile held no humor. "My sentiments exactly."

Chapter 4

When Straker got out of the car at the roadblock detour, he waved away the security detail in the following car. Resigned, they stayed put, awaiting orders.

Major Coles came running up to him. "That was fast!" he said by way of greeting.

"Oh?" the commander asked in surprise.

Now the major looked flustered. "You didn't get the report then?"

"No. I left Alec reading the newest batch of reports. What's happened?"

"I'd be happy to show you, Commander." Coles led him away from the road. "We had some activity about an hour ago. A seismic event lasting approximately 26 seconds and measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale. I can tell you, it scared the hell out of us!"

"Was anyone hurt?"

"No, sir. And oddly enough, there have been no aftershocks."

"I see," Straker said, unsure whether this earthquake had been caused by the aliens trying to come through their temporal hole once more, or whether the keepers were responsible. "Did it affect the area anywhere near the tear?"

"Yes, sir," the major said, gesturing with a hand as they reached the spot. "As you can see."

Straker gasped. In the moonlight, the scene looked almost surreal. Gone was the desert-like barren ground and burned trees. A fault had opened and swallowed up – not only the damaged soil – but the damaged trees as well. The entire area was now filled with water bubbling up from some deep underground source, and ripples flowed over the surface of the newly created pond. A small steep bank ran the circumference of it, with healthy trees standing sentinel around the perimeter.

It was as if it was another place altogether.

"Thank you, Major," Straker said absently as he walked to the edge of the embankment.

"Yes, sir," Coles said, knowing a dismissal when he heard one. He retreated back to the road to monitor the operatives manning the detour.

Straker bent down and ran his hand through the water. It was deliciously cool and clear; not at all as if it had recently poured violently up from under the ground. He found himself smiling as he looked around. No, the aliens had nothing to do with this. This was the work of the keepers.

A soft voice spoke from behind him. "I wanted to tell you."

He glanced back. Nyt stood a few yards away, achingly lovely in the moonlight. His throat closed, leaving him without words.

When he said nothing, she took a step nearer. "Today. When I came to see you. I wanted to let you know that the Council had approved your plan. But you were asleep."

At that, he stood. "I'm sorry, Nyt. I wish I'd been awake to hear it from you."

Her hand fluttered nervously. "I did not realize that sleep made you so vulnerable. It is not a problem I have ever encountered myself."

He smiled, sure now that she had listened to his conversation with Alec. "No doubt. I hope you don't hate me for overreacting."

"No, of course not." She came a step closer, as tentative as any wild creature, and finally met his eyes. "Do you hate me?"

"No," he said, holding out a hand to her. "Of course not."

She took his hand, smiling in relief. "I was afraid that you suddenly found me repulsive."

"Nyt!" He stared at her in shock. "No! No, I don't find you repulsive at all." He looked at their joined hands a moment, then admitted, "I find you above my touch."

"But that's absurd. Gaia accepted your race. You are as much a part of Gaia as we are now. There is no above and below."

He sighed. "Is that how all the keepers see it, Nyt? Or just you?"

She looked pensive. "It's not just me, Ed. Many keepers value your race – have always valued it for the wonderful creativity and innovation that is a hallmark of your brilliance. Like this pond," she added with a gesture. "What a beautiful idea this was!"

He kissed her fingers. "And beautifully executed."

She smiled demurely. "This is how Gaia wants us to function – human and keeper working together for the good of all. It's just that . . ."

"I know. We've forgotten what's important. Gone chasing after dreams of riches and power and lost sight of how much smarter it is to take care of our world than to exploit it for whatever we can get from it. Is it any wonder that I see you as above us in so many ways? The keepers haven't forgotten. They stayed true to the planet. It's the humans who failed."

"But not all! Truly, Ed. Not all humans have forgotten, just as not all keepers have lost the remembrance that humans were once our friends. I believe that you and I working together can remind them. Indeed, some have already altered their stand after the meeting today. A human gave us the solution to a tear in time. A human!"

He saw her eyes drawn to the sky above them, and he asked, "Can you see it?"

"Yes."

"Is it smaller than before? Or larger?"

She smiled and met his gaze. "Smaller. Already it is smaller. By the end of the week it should be gone altogether. You have done a great thing here, Ed. You have no idea the amount of damage a tear like this can do to Gaia."

"Actually, I have a glimmer of an idea," he said quietly. "Tell me, does Gaia naturally form deserts? Or are they the product of something else? A tear, perhaps?"

She shook her head at him. "And they thought your mind weak," she said cryptically. "You see Gaia very clearly for a human, you know."

"I can't take all the credit," he said. "It's only been since meeting you that I've been thinking of things in a different light."

"Well, keep thinking that way," she encouraged. "Gaia appreciates the way your mind works."

"Will you explain 'invasion of privacy' to me?" she asked, suddenly appearing on his bed as he donned his pajamas.

Straker sighed, but finished buttoning his top before he turned and met her eyes. "Humans have many unwritten laws about their personal space, Nyt. Laws other humans instinctively know, because they too operate within that culture."

"Personal space?"

He gestured to the room at large. "Like this bedroom, for instance. A bedroom to a human is rather like a sacred meadow to a keeper. No one enters without an invitation."

She looked around. "This is a bedroom?"

"Yes." He came over and pressed down on the mattress. "It's called that because of the bed."

She looked down, then quickly got to her feet. "So, that is a bed? I see. Where you sleep is sacred to you. That makes sense, since you are most vulnerable there." She paused, then said, "It bothered you today to wake and find me here, didn't it? In your bedroom and on your bed?"

He grimaced slightly. "Bother isn't quite the right word. But yes, it was a surprise."

"Should we go elsewhere to talk? To some room not so sacred to you?"

He touched her cheek. "You are welcome in my bedroom, Nyt. It would be churlish to deny you access when you've allowed me to visit your sacred meadow. It's just that this room more than any other makes me forget that you are not simply a very desirable woman."

"Why is that?" she asked curiously.

He smiled wryly. "Because most humans couple on a bed, Nyt. It's the most common place for sex."

"Oh."

He took her arm and led her to the living area, grabbing his robe off its hook as they left the bedroom and donning it.

As he joined her on the couch, she asked, "What is this room called?"

"The living room." He watched as she looked around with interest, then disappointment. "The name can be misleading," he explained. "It doesn't necessarily mean that anything in it is alive."

"Then what does it mean?"

"It refers to the fact that humans tend to do most of their activities in this room. It's large enough to accommodate the entire family and any friends that drop by."

"This is quite fascinating!" she told him with a smile. "What other rooms are there?"

Straker bit back a smile and told her. After a while, he was able to steer the conversation into more important channels.

"Nyt, I'm not sure it's a good idea for us to continue a physical relationship. If you overheard me talking to Alec, then you know the dangers of having our kisses get out of hand."

She clasped her hands together. "Ed, I cannot bear a child. I have no womb. Keepers do not have wombs."

He stared at her for a moment before he recovered. "Do you know why?" he asked gently.

She smiled at his tone. "You do not need to speak softly. It is not a tender topic for me. Once it was, but that was many, many millennia ago."

"Will you tell me?"

She met his eyes. "You want to know?"

"Very much."

She took the hand he offered and held it. "When Gaia was new, we keepers too were new. Everything was wondrous and exciting! It was not many years before I found myself thinking about the cycle of life that I worked with every day. Animals had litters each spring. Saplings grew from tiny seeds dropped from tall trees each fall. Everywhere I looked, life flourished. And I began to wonder if I too would flourish. If I would reproduce."

"It's a logical assumption," he agreed.

"Yes. For a time I anticipated spring with an exuberance all out of proportion to the season, wondering if this would be the year that I would have a little me." She laughed quietly. "I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what she might look like. But as the years turned into decades into centuries, it became clear that I was not going to be like the animals or the trees. That none of us were. The other keepers never had litters or children either. Obviously, that was not going to be a part of our nature."

She stopped talking and stared into the distance for a moment, lost in another time. He waited her out, knowing there was more to the story. Eventually, she shook herself out of the memories and continued.

"I fell into a decline. You must understand. Keepers do not get sick. Even injuries incurred while doing a task heal quickly enough that most of us have no real concept of pain. But this was different. This pain came from everywhere and nowhere. It was inside me, yet I could not pinpoint it to heal it."

"Humans call it heartbreak," he murmured.

"That is a very apt description," she decided. "For there in my heart was the seat of my pain. And no amount of communion with Gaia made me better. Keepers call it the wasting sickness. Some take centuries to recover from it. But even those who return to work in a short amount of time – a decade or two – are never quite the same afterward."

"I'm sorry, Nyt."

"For what?" she asked in surprise.

"For bringing the subject up. For making you remember your sadness."

She shook her head. "It will never completely leave me, I think. But it does not trouble me any longer."

"Why not?"

"Because I found a truth that I had not discerned before. There was a calamity, a fire. The trees could not be saved, but perhaps the animals might. There were so many small ones at stake. For the first time in many years, I was galvanized into action. I managed to save them – all of them – by hiding them in the shelter of my wings. And once the fire passed over, I watched them return to their burrows and warrens in safety. For the first time in a very long time, my heart was light. And I understood that I didn't need a womb. I didn't need a child of my own to nurture and cherish. That was not my purpose. All of Gaia was my womb, and all her creatures were my children."

He ran a hand down her long curls, then drew her into his arms for a kiss. "Nyt," he murmured when he came up for air. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?"

Her pale eyes searched his blue ones. "What is love? What does it mean?"

"That you are the most incredible person I have ever known and I can no longer imagine my life without you in it."

Her smile was radiant. "How odd."

"Is it?" he asked in surprise.

"Yes." She laid a slender hand on his face. "For that is just how I think of you."

Chapter 5

Arianythra reclined against the maple tree in the secret meadow, her eyes closed as she drank in its strength, her fingers idly running through the lush grass, a soft smile making her cheeks glow.

"You're in love with him."

She opened her eyes in surprise to find that she was no longer alone. Seriptamina sat nearby on the grass, frowning at her. "What?" Arianythra asked, shocked to hear that word from a keeper.

"The human," Seriptamina said with a huff. "Commander Straker. You're in love with him, aren't you? Don't bother to deny it. It's written all over your face."

"You're talking like a human, sister," Arianythra said quietly. "Why would you speak so to me?"

Seriptamina looked away for a moment. When she met Arianythra's eyes once more, she said, "Because someone should warn you."

"About what?"

"About human frailties. They seem brave and honorable, steadfast and just. But these are keeper traits we assume they possess. In actual fact, they are none of those things."

"You are too harsh, sister!" said Arianythra. "Why must you always complain? Can you not see that there are humans that excel above the rest?"

The dark-haired fairy pouted. "I did not always complain, my sister. Once I had eyes as bright as yours." She sat forward earnestly. "You are special, even among keepers, Arianythra. There is a clarity to your vision, a unique way you have of looking at things, that is a great asset to Gaia. Other fairies look to you for insight and watch what you do. You need to be careful not to lead them down paths that will only cause them harm."

Arianythra stiffened. "This is because I brought his plan to the Council, isn't it? You are angry that we accepted a human's idea! How can you be so prejudicial against humans? How can you treat them as if they don't matter to Gaia? Gaia accepted them! We accepted them!"

"Yes, we did. Because we thought we saw in them the same noble virtues that we have. But we were wrong, sister! They are not noble or brave or steadfast! Their minds are as flighty as a breeze! They change on a whim! They should never have been received as a part of Gaia. They cannot be trusted!"

Arianythra sighed. "You are correct, my sister," she said gently. "There are many among the humans who cannot be trusted, whose hearts and minds are so full of their own desires that there is no room for the needs of Gaia. But you have met this human. Commander Straker is not just another human name to you. You have seen him here in this meadow. You saw how well he conducted himself here. His gratitude. His humility. His bravery. Do not try to tell me now that he does not possess those traits. We both know better."

Seriptamina shook her head. "You say that now, my sister, while he smiles at you, clouding your mind to his weaknesses. But there will come a time, I assure you, when you can no longer hide from reality. Then you will know that I spoke true words to you. My only wish is that it comes sooner rather than later. Gaia needs your wisdom, and it would be a terrible waste for you to pine away for centuries mourning your commander and the love you thought was real."

As she got up to leave, Arianythra said softly, "Who was he, Seriptamina? Who was this human who made you mourn?"

The dark-haired fairy swung around angrily. "How dare you! How dare you suggest that I . . . !" Her tirade halted at the sympathy she saw in her sister fairy's eyes, and she choked on the rest of her words. Tears blurred her vision as she slumped back onto the grass. A long silence filled the meadow before she spoke again.

"His name was Aeden."

"What was he like?"

Seriptamina looked out over the flowers as she said, "Fair and beautiful, sister. Hair as red as the finest sunset. Eyes like green fire. And a voice . . . !" She swallowed and continued. "His words were like a song the way he said them." She brushed her hair back from her cheek and met Arianythra's eyes. "Where he lived they now call Ireland, but back then humans called it by another name. He was a great warrior, like your commander, and fought valiantly in many wars."

"People from that region still keep a place in their remembrance for us," Arianythra said.

"Yes. But this was back when everyone knew who we were. He found me cavorting in a stream in the heat of the day, and the fire in his eyes kindled one deep inside me."

Arianythra's hand went to her breast, where the commander's lips had seared her flesh and set her body on fire. Seriptamina saw the movement and smiled mirthlessly.

"You know of what I speak then. I had hoped things had not progressed that far between you. If you have coupled with him, nothing I say will sway you. You are lost to all sense of reason and will have to deal with the consequences of your foolishness after the glamour has fallen from your eyes."

"Please." Arianythra swallowed a constriction in her throat. "Please tell me what happened with him. With Aeden."

Seriptamina shrugged. "We loved," she said simply. "We laughed. We romped. We played. He was a wonderful companion and a tender lover. I have never in my existence felt as alive – inside and out – as I did during those years with him. Everything I did for Gaia took on a new shimmer, as if there was a special magic wrought in our union that only I could see. I was euphoric. Did you never notice?" She didn't wait for an answer, but instead shook her head. "Perhaps not. Only those who have felt such things seem to notice them in others. Everyone else just assumes that you've had a good day."

"Did you have many good days, sister?"

Seriptamina's eyes darkened. "Does that even matter? I was a fool! I thought he was so brave and just and kind. I was certain that he was just like me, except that he knew of pleasures I'd never experienced before. And I was so willing to learn!" She huffed in self-disgust. "But humans change, my sister. And that is the one thing a keeper does not expect. We never change. We are ever constant. But humans – with their short lifespans and fickle hearts – do not even comprehend such a concept!"

"What changed?" Arianythra asked, not really wanting to know more, but aware that she needed to hear the end of the story.

"His father died during a battle, and he suddenly became a landowner." She fluttered her fingers in a vague gesture. "All at once, he had responsibilities and a position in society. He took a wife."

"No!"

The dark-haired fairy grimaced. "Oh, he explained it all to me. Swore his love was only for me. Told me it was just so that he could have an heir. These things were important, you see, and had to be done. She meant nothing to him. How could she, when he had me?" Her eyes fell after a moment. "I believed him. Why should I not? He sounded so sincere. And I wanted to believe him. I couldn't bear the thought that there might come a day when I would have to be without him."

"Oh, sister!" Arianythra ached for the despair she saw in Seriptamina's face. Now she knew she did not want to hear the end of this story.

Seriptamina straightened and said, "For a while, all was as he had told me. He was careful not to show her off in public, and I was careful not to intrude on his private times. We could ignore the fact that everything was changing, and had in fact changed from the day he wed her. But as is the way with all lower creatures, she got pregnant. By and by she presented him with an heir. And it was then that I learned the true nature of humans – their duplicity and inconstancy. Because I saw his face when he held his heir. I saw the way he looked at his wife." Her small hand covered her mouth for a moment.

"He had never once looked at me that way!" she stormed, tears drenching her eyes as she rocked back and forth. "And I knew then that he never would. I wasn't his only love! I was merely a lover. And that was a very different thing."

Arianythra laid a slender hand on her shoulder. "What did you do?"

Seriptamina laughed bitterly. "What do you think I did? I cried! I went off alone and cried until there was nothing left inside me. Then I curled into a ball and wished for the first time that I was not immortal! That I had a hope of someday ceasing to exist and escaping this pain!" She showed a wretched face to her sister fairy. "But as you can see, I am still here. Centuries have come and gone, but I remain. Aeden is long gone and his seed long since died out in other wars. But I have not forgotten what he taught me.

"Humans lie, Arianythra. Even when they think they are telling you the truth."

Dr. Jackson sat in his study and turned the page of a musty volume. He paused, looking closely at the illustration on the new page. A winged fairy, dressed in windblown gossamer strips, stood in a clearing of trees, surrounded by small woodland animals. Her hair was a golden blonde and fell in waves to her waist. Her wide slanted eyes were a pale grey that shone with a curious mixture of intelligence and compassion. The caption read: "A keeper of Gaia. One of many such whose sole responsibility is for the care of flora and fauna."

A keeper of Gaia. That is where he had seen the term before. Beneath this print of an obscure painting in an old volume of folklore handed down to him from his grandmother's family. He studied the print. She seemed human except for the wings – and perhaps the face, which was too exotic to be from any race he recognized. Were these the creatures the commander had met? How had they come to be on Earth? How long had they been here and what was their true purpose? It was obvious from this reference that they had been here during the greater part of recorded history at least. Fairies had been spoken of even before the written word, discussed around ancient campfires and deified in all the old minstrel ballads. How much about them was truth and how much fiction?

He sat back in his comfortable chair and pondered the real question. What did they want with SHADO?

After Nyt had left him that night, Straker took all the books of fairytales down from his shelves, some of them rare illustrated volumes he had hunted for at great expense, and packed them in a box to donate to a local orphanage.

It was time to go beyond what all the accumulated knowledge suggested – and forge his own path.