Crashing for Piper

Zuke Gevv was dead again, burned up in the atmosphere just like the last six tries. “Reset and try again,” came his instructor’s voice from just behind him. “Try to remember your descent vector formuli. Keep them in mind as you make your adjustments.”

Zuke’s claws flew over the controls as he cleared the current program on the simulator panel. He had that part down, anyway. “Why am I even doing this?” he asked.

The instructor peered at Zuke’s head like it was missing a spine. “How should I know? We didn’t recruit you for this crazy trip; you came to us.”

Zuke looked up. “Not the trip, the crash landing. Why are you teaching me to crash land? I’m not going into battle; I’m doing a survey mission.” He turned back to the controls again, programming another simulation.

“A survey mission with a little unauthorized surface time, isn’t that it?”

“Yes. A regular landing, not a crash landing.”

“It could be a crash landing; you never know. You want to die out there? It’s my job to teach you how to crash land in case anything goes wrong.”

“I thought it was your job to teach me to fly this thing. You haven’t even told me how to lift off yet.”

The instructor shrugged. “You want to learn how to fly, you take the lessons in order. Or you could find another teacher."

Zuke sighed. “Right.” If there had been any other teacher, he wouldn’t be risking everything by taking lessons from the Chaos Brotherhood.

“Come on,” said the instructor, “the sooner you learn this, the sooner you’ll be living your dream life with your captive exotic alien wife.”

“Is that what they told you?”

The instructor wagged his head, looking over one shoulder and then the other, his eyes absurdly wide. “Is that what who told me?”

“The Brotherhood!” Zuke hissed, trying to keep a lid on his patience. “When the Brotherhood sent you to teach me how to fly, is that what they told you, that I wanted to learn so I could kidnap an alien to be my wife?”

“No!” the instructor bellowed, the word coming out in a thunderous guffaw. “They only said it had something to do with a woman. I filled in the blanks.”

“The woman is my sister.”

“Your sister?” The instructor balked, unconsciously backing up a step and bumping one of his cranial spines on the simulated bulkhead. “What does your sister have to do with some little unexplored planet? She wanted by the Organization? You helping her hide?”

“No, she comes from there. I’m taking her home.”

The instructor gave his head a quick shake, like he was trying to get the dust off. “She comes from there? She’s your sister, but she comes from some wild planet?”

Zuke took a moment to collect his thoughts; this wasn’t something he talked about much. “Have you ever heard of the Gogue Quantum Research Station?”

“Didn’t they shut that down about three dozen years ago?”

“Nineteen years. They shut it down because the artificial singularity trials they were doing were pulling stuff in from elsewhere in the galaxy.”

“I heard rumors it was abducting people,” said the instructor. “But I guess all they admitted to was a fruit tree and a mammal of some kind. Doesn’t sound like anything to shut down a research station for. I always thought there was more to it.”

“There is more to it. That mammal is sentient.”

“Sentient! I knew it! I knew there had to be something.” The instructor folded his arms and began to settle his back against the bulkhead, then checked himself. “Wait, that’s not who you’re calling your sister, is it? You come from the Gogue, don’t you?”

“Her name is Piper,” Zuke said in a soft voice. “She’s from a species of industrialized apes. Cute little things with fur on their heads and pretty much just this membrane everywhere else, like larvae. No sun tolerance.” He touched his chest. “Piper only comes up to here on me. My parents found her in the desert one day, back when I was a nymph. She was dying of exposure, and they took her home.”

“So, your parents found this sentient ape baby, and they just took her home? They didn’t take her to a doctor and call the Alien Command?”

“Well, first of all, she wasn’t a baby. She was twenty years old, but Humans mature quickly, so twenty is full-grown for them. And what my parents actually did was run for the vet. They’re convinced to this day that Piper’s an animal. As far as they’re concerned, I don’t have a sister; we just have a household pet.”

“But the Alien Command must have—” The instructor cut himself off at the sound of a soft bump coming from outside the simulator.

Both men stood frozen for a long four seconds until the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps confirmed their fears. For a moment, they locked gazes, eyes wide, sharing the doomed awareness that the simulator, unlike the craft it resembled, had no escape hatch. Then in one rapid practiced move, the instructor drew a standard-issue combat weapon from his uniform and aimed it at Zuke’s head. A brief nod from the icy eyes behind the weapon told Zuke this was not a joke or a bluff. The instants stretched toward infinity as he stood, still frozen, staring into the barrel of the weapon, listening to the footsteps closing in.

“Degg!” the instructor hissed, releasing Zuke’s head from his firing line with an exasperated flourish of his hand. “What possessed you to show up here without warning me? You almost made me kill my student.”

Degg shrugged, his lips curling up into a smirk as he stepped into the simulator and brushed by the instructor. “I brought something that will make your student a little safer.” He had a package in his hands, and he thrust it at Zuke. “Here, take this; put it on.”

Zuke took the package and just held it.

“I told them to call me as soon as his new uniform was ready,” Degg said. “I wanted to bring it to him right away because if he’s wearing it, he’ll look like he’s authorized to use the simulator, and if anyone does happen to come by, the two of you won’t be arrested.”

“I wouldn’t have been arrested,” the instructor grumbled. “I would have killed him. But I see your point.” He turned to Zuke. “Well, don’t just stand there. Put it on.”

Zuke tore open the package and began to unfasten his coveralls—the coveralls he had been wearing for almost twelve years now, with the Education Command insignia and the indication of his student rank.

“And the Organization probably would have promoted you for neutralizing such a dangerous terrorist,” Degg laughed.

“That’s how I would have spun it,” said the instructor.

“It wouldn’t have taken any spinning,” Degg disagreed. “Bringing that little ape back to her planet will be a direct violation of a high-level directive from the Counter-Intelligence Command.”

“Counter-intel?” the instructor repeated. “What is that all about?”

Degg shrugged. “I would love to know. So would a lot of people. There’s talk of backroom deals with the Empires, some silly story about the Doyenne that I don’t believe, but nothing our people can confirm.”

“They’re just drunk on power,” said the instructor. “Who knows why they do anything?”

“You’re overcomplicating it,” Zuke said. “Returning Piper means admitting we took her in the first place.”

Degg shrugged, and the instructor said, “So?”

“So, what have we been telling both the Empires for dozens of years now?”

Degg’s eyebrows went up. “That they’re crazy to say we’re remotely abducting people from their territories because we don’t even have the technology to do that.”

“So, you’re doing the Organization a favor,” the instructor observed, “returning the ape like they should be doing, without them getting caught in a lie.”

“Or caught in a war on two fronts,” Zuke agreed. “But I’m sure they’d still be willing to make an example of me if they knew what I was doing.”

“What I don’t understand is why you’re so impatient,” said Degg. “A few dozen years and you’ll be a Zeed, anyway. Why not just sneak her home then? It’ll be a lot less risky.”

Zuke fastened the breastplate straps of his new uniform. “Piper’s species only lives around eighty-four years or so, and that’s in ideal conditions. The desert is aging her fast, and I don’t think she’s got a lot of time left. And besides, she’s miserable. Hates every minute she has to spend on this rock, as she calls it.”

“Well, you have to make your own choices, I guess,” said the instructor. “But anyway, congratulations. Now you’re a Zeed.”

Zuke wished the simulator had a mirror so he could see how the counterfeit rank insignia looked gleaming on his own chest. Instead, he just stood and modeled the uniform for his new friends, the only friends he had anymore, the one who had just been about to kill him and the one who had laughed about it.

“How does it feel to get promoted three ranks just by changing your clothes?” Degg laughed.

The instructor slapped the simulator’s control panel. “Now you have to learn all the knowledge that goes with the rank so you don’t blow your own cover. Let’s get back to work.”

Zuke scoffed but turned back to the control panel. “Thirty-six years of learning? Just teach me what I need to know so I can complete my mission.”

“Oh, shut up, both of you,” Degg burst out. “I insisted on being the one to deliver your uniform because I wanted to show you what I did.”

Zuke looked up. “What are you talking about?”

“You got your personal device?”

“Of course.” Zuke pulled the small green object back out of the hip pocket he had just slipped it into.

“Look yourself up. Check your personnel file.”

Zuke did as he was told. “You hacked the system. The computer thinks I’m a Zeed now, too.”

“You are a Zeed,” the instructor reminded him. “You can’t afford to think like it’s a game or something anymore. You wear Zeed uniforms; you’re a Zeed in the system. The only one who can expose you as a fake now is you.”

“There’s more,” prompted Degg. “Look at your orders.”

“What do you mean, my orders?”

“Your orders. Your duty. What the Organization has you doing.”

“They’ve got me studying at Hee…” Zuke let his sentence trail off as the words on his personal device soaked into his brain.

“You’re not a student anymore,” said Degg. “And like my friend said, you need to believe that. I fixed the computer for you. You’re under orders to survey some blue planet out in the wilderness, third from its star with one moon.”

Zuke smiled. “You guys are the best.”

“It’s not like we’re doing you a favor,” Degg shrugged. “When we’re ready to take payment, you’ll be contacted.”

“Right,” Zuke said again, trying to make it sound nonchalant this time. The fear was so strong it felt like a thing, like ice in his blood. His lips twitched.

Degg punched him in the back, a playful gesture with the fist half closed and the thumb tucked in to avoid any possibility of clawing accidents. “What are you going to do afterward? Turn yourself in?”

“No, I’m not going to get caught.” Zuke turned to the instructor. “So teach me well so I won’t get caught.”

The instructor lazed against the bulkhead. “And then you’ll do what? Keep pretending to be a Zeed? Keep on surveying planets?”

“Yeah, why not? I’ll just let my subordinates educate me.”

It was the instructor’s turn to laugh. “By exposing your ignorance you’ll be exposing your crime.”

“No, I’ll do it in support meetings, when they come to me for mentoring.”

“Support? They’ll be supporting you.”

“They won’t know that. Socratic method.”

Degg moved to get a better view of Zuke’s face. “What method?”

“Something I learned from my sister. I’ll ask them questions, but I’ll make them think I already know the answers and I’m trying to make sure they know. Helping them think through the logic of the situation.”

“Good strategy,” said the instructor. “Now, what can you do differently in the next simulation that might help you stay alive?”

Like a dot on the black-and-green vastness of the Gogue desert, perched on the cliffs overlooking the creeping field of lava that had already stolen its aquafer and continued to steal its land, the village of Dabooldagad persisted. The Gogue was famous for its exotic sandfruit and its handcrafted bone knives, for its traditional artisans and its ancient customs, but to Zuke, it was just home.

He got up early, put his student uniform back on and hitched a ride to the village on the water truck. It was important not to change the ritual, not to give anyone a reason to think this visit was different from all the others.

He stepped out of the truck and took the familiar cobbled path through the village, the one they had walked so many times together after dark, him talking and her mumbling, back when old Magistrate Gebb used to sweep the stones. He exchanged greetings with the gardener who had given them their first classes in biology, which he had passed and she had failed . . . with the animal keeper who had drawn on his knowledge of primate diets to come up with the combination of bland broth and rotten fruit that had saved her from starvation . . . with the new magistrate, sweeping the cobblestones just as her grandfather had done and keeping a watchful eye on Zuke’s front door.

He found his parents on their rounds, looking out for stray animals or adventurous children who might otherwise become lost in the desert or fall into the volcano, just as they had been doing when they had found her, half dead from exposure at the edge of the desert.

He walked up to his house and crossed the threshold where she had embarrassed him countless times with her crudeness. He slid open the well-worn door latch and stepped into the familiar dim coolness.

“About time you came home,” Piper called from the kitchen, where she knelt on the floor minding a roasting basket lined with the smelly cakes she usually made for breakfast. She didn’t bother to get up, but her smile said she was glad to see him. “How’s school?”

“I’m all done.”

Piper shook her head and pierced one of the cakes with a skewer to be sure it was cooked through. “You can’t fool me. You have four months left.” She turned the flame off, grabbed one of the blackened mitts his father had made for her and dumped the foul-smelling cakes onto a plate.

“Pyte,” Zuke said, using his special name for her, “put that down and look at me.”

She stood up and dropped the basket back into the firepit but held her plate under her nose, defying him.

“We’re ready to get you out of here. I came back to take you home.”

She put the plate down. “Don’t be mean, Zuke. That’s not fair.”

“I’m totally serious. Everything’s arranged. I have a pod waiting. We just have to get you in it.”

“You really mean it? You really did it?” Her eyes seemed to grow wider for two seconds, and then she threw herself into him, bodyslamming him with such an exuberant embrace that he feared she might break.

He hugged her back, taking care as always not to crack her narrow bones or rip the delicate membrane that sufficed for her skin. “We leave tonight.”

He spent most of the day visiting his parents, accompanying them on their rounds, listening to the latest gossip and the latest plans for keeping the village one step ahead of the volcano. Then when the sun went down, he went back for his sister.

For the last time, they stepped across the threshold, and he reminded her how when he had been small, she had liked to pretend it was a toilet.

She punched him in the side. “I’ve told you a hundred times I wasn’t pretending anything. It’s called ‘sitting.’ It’s what Humans do.”

“It’s what everyone does,” he shot back. “But some of us don’t do it in public.”

They walked along the cobbled path, greeting the neighbors one by one.

“When I came home this morning,” he told her, “I was walking right here and thinking about how you never used to talk, how all you did was mumble.”

Piper stopped walking, put her hands on her hips and glared upwards as though her conversation were with the emerging stars and not with him. “Will you stop staying that! I don’t mumble, and I never have. I once won an award for my clear and well-modulated speech.”

Zuke shrugged. “Sounds like where you come from, it’s considered polite to mumble.”

“I wish you would stop saying that.”

They made their way beyond the village into the desert to the spot where the uprooted sapling with its round, green fruit had appeared, which the villagers called ‘sandfruit’ and Piper called ‘orange’ . . . where years after that she herself had appeared, the little sunburned Human in her brand-new pajamas.

“At least I’ve had one thing from home all these years,” she said. “I’m glad it was an orange tree the experiment picked up and not something useless like pine. Maybe you could eat pinecones, but I can’t.”

“I’m glad it picked you up,” he told her sincerely. “I know it’s been awful for you, and I’m sorry for your sake. But I’m glad I got to grow up with you here.”

“You’re a good kid,” she said, looking up at him.

They stood staring at the featureless sand for a minute, lost in their own thoughts, until she broke the silence. “I still have nightmares about this spot. I’m not going to miss it.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s get you back home.”

He drove her out of the village in a neighbor’s van on the understanding that its owner would ride the water truck into town in the morning to bring the van and Piper back home. As far as the village was concerned, Zuke was just taking his beloved pet out again, spoiling her in a restaurant or taking her shopping, imitating the noises she made and fancying they had meaning.

“He’s going to worry when he comes to pick up the van and I’m not there,” said Piper.

“Stop pacing,” Zuke said from the driver’s station. “You’re going to get hurt. He’s not likely to notice you’re missing. I’ve been telling people you like to sleep in the nymph tanks. He’ll just assume you’re in the nymph tank and drive home.”

She stopped pacing long enough to check out the empty tank in the middle of the van, made for transporting children who were too young to breathe air yet. She lifted the lid and put it down again. “Won’t he check?”

“Not him. He’ll be too worried about waking you.”

“So that’s why you chose this van,” she nodded, moving on again. “Most of them have tanks you can see through. How big is the suitcase?”

“I don’t know that word,” said Zuke. “What is a suitcase? And would you stop pacing? People with such delicate bones shouldn’t be pacing in a moving land vehicle. If you have to go to the vet and get your bones set, you’ll miss the launch.”

Piper adjusted the station to Zuke’s left and knelt in it. “The box, or whatever it is, that I have to get into.”

“Don’t worry; it’s big enough. You’ll have no trouble fitting inside. And it’ll only be for a little while, until I’ve cleared the orbital patrols.”

“Whatever it takes,” said Piper. “I’m just glad we’re finally doing it. When you came up with the plan, I didn’t think it would take this long. I still think we should have done it right away.”

“We couldn’t have done it right away. First, I had to get vetted, and then they had to come up with all the specialists: a flight instructor, a hacker, a tailor and all the other people.”

“They? You mean the Brothers of Chaotica, or whatever they call themselves? You should have ditched them when they started stalling and hired somebody else. That’s how we do business on Earth.”

“Pyte, Pyte,” said Zuke. “We’re not doing business on Earth, in case you haven’t noticed. The Chaos Brotherhood is the ‘somebody else.’ There’s the Organization, and there are the people who oppose the Organization. That’s it. You’re either in or you’re out, except the Organization doesn’t let anybody out, so the Brotherhood has to try to sabotage it from the inside. I don’t know where you think I could have found somebody to hire who was neither in nor out of the Organization. It sounds like that nonsense you were telling me about the cat in the box.”

“Okay,” said Piper. “I’m just glad we’re finally doing it.”

An hour after sunrise, Zuke walked up to one of the hundred or so pods that dotted the launchpad of the Alien Command’s sprawling complex outside Yote City, pulling behind him the type of plain black case in which an officer of his rank traditionally kept his personal belongings. He had just grasped arms with all his direct subordinates, twelve strangers, all much older than himself, and listened to half of them give status reports he couldn’t follow. “Great work,” he told them. “I look forward to becoming better acquainted when I return.”

He entered the pod, secured the case in its holder and began to prepare for takeoff.

“Finally!” the case whined as soon as the main hatch had closed with a soft thunk. “Now, hurry up and get me out of this hole.”

“Pyte!” Zuke replied in an intense whisper. “I haven’t even lifted off, yet. Hold on a few more minutes. I’ll let you out as soon as we get past the orbital patrols.”

Tricia Craven Bennett wiped down her vacuum cleaner and began winding up the cord as she had done every Saturday morning for more years than she cared to count.

She hadn’t always called herself Tricia. But Patty had become an old-person name, and she didn’t feel like an old person. It wasn’t that girls weren’t named Patricia anymore; they just didn’t go by Patty. And besides, she didn’t want her grandchildren asking why she was named after a hamburger.

Maybe it would have been different if her husband and sister had been alive. Then they would still be Tom and Patty growing old together; they would still be Patty and Piper taking on the world together, and it wouldn’t matter if the kids thought she was a hamburger.

But real life wasn’t like that. Real life was finding a way to somehow go on after losing Piper to a psychopath at twenty and Tom to lung cancer at thirty-four. The official papers said “unsolved missing-person case” and “mesothelioma,” but that didn’t make losing them any easier.

The doorbell rang, and she wrapped the rest of the cord in a rapid motion, tucked the plug between the loops and stowed the vacuum in the closet before going to the door.

She hadn’t stopped to think about what the visitor would look like, but all the same, she hadn’t been expecting this. The shock of white exploding from the visitor’s head was so damaged and neglected that it looked more like some kind of fungus than human hair. The leathery, wrinkled face made Tricia think of twenty years on the beach without sunscreen.

“Patty!” the visitor shouted, a drop of spittle flying from her lips and hitting Tricia on the chin.

Tricia backed up half a step and just looked at the apparition on her doorstep.

“It’s Piper!” the visitor spat, still shouting. “Don’t you recognize me?”

“Piper.” Tricia repeated the name, trying it on. It felt odd in her mouth after all these years. “Did you know my sister?”

“I am your sister!” the stranger shouted.

“My sister would be thirty-nine this year, hon,” said Tricia. “I think you might be mistaken. Do you have someone who takes care of you? Someone I can call for you?”

“You’re not listening!” the visitor spat back, still loud as ever. “I am your sister! I’m Piper! I turned thirty-nine on April twenty-first! Aren’t you going to let me in?”

Tricia held the door for this apparition that was somehow her sister and led the way through the dining room toward the den. “Have a seat. Please make yourself at home. Can I get you a pop? I have Diet Coke in the fridge.”

“Coke!” the visitor shouted, stopping at the nearest chair and pulling it out from the table. “Coke, yes!”

Tricia shrugged. “Okay, we can sit out here. I’ll be right back with your Diet Coke.” She hesitated, waiting to see the poor woman seated before turning her back.

But the woman didn’t sit. She turned the chair around and planted her knees on the seat, her hands grasping the back of the chair. “Coke, Patty! I haven’t had Coke in nineteen years!”

In that instant, Tricia knew. Something familiar flashed across that haggard face, something unmistakably Piper. Tricia’s legs closed the distance between them, two pairs of arms opened, and without another word they were locked in an embrace as old as their sisterhood.

“They put me in a cage,” Piper spat into Tricia’s shoulder.

“Who put you in a cage? We’ll tell the police, and they’ll arrest them.”

“The lizard people.”

“The lizard people?” Tears welled up in Tricia’s eyes as she patted her sister’s back. “It’s over, Piper. You’re home now. The lizard people can’t get you here.”

Zuke checked the pod’s readouts again: course, altitude, engine status, telemetry, containment, fuel. His claws flew over the controls with practiced ease, but then there was nothing else to do besides repeat the ritual.

The job was done now, the impossible accomplished. His beloved sister was home, reunited with her real family, and he would never see her again. Now there was only a primitive planet to survey, and after that, countless more. Always standing in a survey pod orbiting some remote planet on autopilot, with nothing but the readouts to keep him company.

But he had done it. With a lot of study and a little help from criminals, he had pulled it off. Piper Craven was back on her own world among her own people, and he, Zuke Gevv, would be rewarded for his daring. People would see the gold circles on his uniform and feel respect. He would walk into a room and take command.

He pulled out the knee rest and settled into it before switching the view to the mapping visual. Nothing but featureless sand under saltwater with schools of fish and a couple of marine mammals but not even a single amphibian. He would need to find some way to pass the time.

When he first heard the alarm, he welcomed the sound. Some minor indicator must have moved out of peak efficiency range. Slight corrections, a few typed commands, would put it right again, but at least it would be something to do.

Only it wasn’t one minor indicator. Engine output, fuel supply, speed . . . there were over a dozen metrics in the red zone. His orbit was decaying fast, and it wouldn’t be long before he hit Earth’s atmosphere.

“Remember your descent vector formuli,” he recited aloud. “Keep them in mind as you make your adjustments.” His claws flew over the controls, finessing them, adjusting for the erratic changes in output from the crippled engine, forcing the falling craft to keep going long enough to reach the ground.