Zoe's Tale (Chapter Two)

I climbed out onto the roof through my bedroom window and looked back at Hickory. "Hand me those binoculars," I said. It did – and then climbed out the window with me. Since you've probably never seen it I'll have you know it's a pretty impressive sight to watch an Obin unfold itself to get through a window. Very graceful, with no real analogue to any human movement you might want to describe. The universe, it has aliens in it. And they are.

(Obin: "it," not "he" or "she." Because they're hermaphrodites. That means male and female sex organs. Go ahead and have your giggle. I'll wait. Okay, done? Good.)

Hickory was on the roof with me; Dickory was outside the house, more or less spotting me in case I should trip or feel suddenly despondent, and then fall or leap off the roof. This is their standard practice when I climb out my window: one with me, one on the ground. And they're obvious about it; when I was a little kid Mom or Dad would see Dickory blow out the door and hang around just below the roof, and then yell up the stairs for me to get back into my room. Having paranoid alien pals has a downside.

For the record: I've never fallen off the roof.

Well, once. When I was ten. But there were extenuating circumstances. That doesn't count.

Anyway, I didn't have to worry about either John or Jane telling me to get back into the house this time. They stopped doing that when I became a teenager. Besides, they were the reason I was up on the roof in the first place.

"There they are," I said, and pointed for Hickory's benefit. Mom and Dad and my green friend were standing in the middle of our sorghum field, a few hundred meters out. I raised my binoculars and they went from being hash marks to being actual people. Green man had his back to me, but he was saying something, because both Jane and John were looking at him intently. There was a rustle at Jane's feet, and then Babar popped up his head. Mom reached down to scratch him.

"I wonder what he's talking to them about," I said.

"They're too far away," Hickory said. I turned to it to make a comment along the lines of no kidding, genius. Then I saw the consciousness collar around its neck and was reminded that in addition to providing Hickory and Dickory with sentience – with their idea of who they were – their collars also gave them expanded senses, which were mostly devoted to keeping me out of trouble.

I was also reminded that their consciousness collars were why they were here in the first place. My father – my biological father – created them for the Obin. I was also reminded that they were why I was here, too. Still here, I mean. Alive.

But I didn't go down that road of thought.

"I thought those things were useful," I said, pointing to the collar.

Hickory lightly touched the collar. "The collars do many things," it said. "Enabling us to hear a conversation hundreds of meters away, and in the middle of a grain field, is not one of them."

"So you're useless," I said.

Hickory nodded its head. "As you say," it said, in its noncommittal way.

"It's no fun mocking you," I said.

"I'm sorry," Hickory said.

And the thing of it was, Hickory really was sorry. It's not easy being a funny, sarcastic thing when most of who you were depended on a machine you wore around your neck. Generating one's own prosthetic identity takes more concentration than you might expect. Managing a well-balanced sense of sarcasm above and beyond that is a little much to ask for.

I reached over and gave Hickory a hug. It was a funny thing. Hickory and Dickory were here for me; to know me, to learn from me, to protect me, and if need be to die for me. And here I was, feeling protective of them, and feeling a little sad for them, too. My father – my biological father – gave them consciousness, something the Obin had lacked and had been searching for, for the entire history of their species.

But he didn't make consciousness easy for them.

Hickory accepted my hug and tentatively touched my head; it can be shy when I'm suddenly demonstrative. I took care not to lay it on too thick with the Obin. If I get too emotional it can mess up their consciousness. They're sensitive to when I get overwrought. So I backed up and then looked toward my parents again with the binoculars. Now John was saying something, with one of his patented half-cocked smiles. His smile erased when our visitor started talking again.

"I wonder who he is," I said.

"He is General Samuel Rybicki," Hickory said.

This got another glance back from me. "How do you know that?" I said.

"It is our business to know about who visits you and your family," Hickory said, and touched its collar again. "We queried him the moment he landed. Information about him is in our database. He is a liaison between your Civil Defense Forces and your Department of Colonization. He coordinates the protection of your new colonies."

"Huckleberry isn't a new colony," I said. It wasn't; it had been colonized for fifty or sixty years by the time we arrived. More than enough time to flatten out all the scary bumps new colonies face, and for the human population to become too big for invaders to scrape off the planet. Hopefully. "What do you think he wants from my parents?" I asked.

"We don't know," Hickory said.

"He didn't say anything to you while he was waiting for John and Jane to show up?" I said.

"No," Hickory said. "He kept to himself."

"Well, sure," I said. "Probably because you scared the crap out of him."

"He left no feces," Hickory said.

I snorted. "I sometimes question your alleged lack of humor," I said. "I meant he was too intimidated by you to say anything."

"We assumed that was why you had us stay with him," Hickory said.

"Well, yeah," I said. "But if I knew he was a general, maybe I wouldn't have given him such a hard time." I pointed to my parents. "I don't want them getting any grief because I thought it would be fun to mess with this guy's head."

"I think someone of his rank would not come all this way to be deterred by you," Hickory said.

A list of snappy retorts popped in my head, begging to be used. I ignored them all. "You think he's here on some serious mission?" I asked.

"He is a general," Hickory said. "And he is here."

I looked back through the binoculars again. General Rybicki – as I now knew him – had turned just a bit, and I could see his face a little more clearly. He was talking to Jane, but then turned a bit to say something to Dad. I lingered on Mom for a minute. Her face was locked up tight; whatever was going on, she wasn't very happy about it.

Mom turned her head a bit and suddenly she was looking directly at me, like she knew I was watching her.

"How does she do that?" I said. When Jane was Special Forces, she had a body that was even more genetically modified than the ones regular soldiers got. But like Dad, when she left the service, she got put into a normal human body. She's not superhuman anymore. She's just scary observant. Which is close to the same thing. I didn't get away with much of anything growing up.

Her attention turned back to General Rybicki, who was addressing her again. I looked up at Hickory. "What I want to know is why they're talking in the sorghum field," I said.

"General Rybicki asked your parents if there was someplace they could speak in private," Hickory said. "He indicated in particular that he wanted to speak away from Dickory and me."

"Were you recording when you were with him?" I asked. Hickory and Dickory had recording devices in their collars that recorded sounds, images and emotional data. Those recordings were sent back to other Obin, so they could experience what it's like to have quality time with me. Odd? Yes. Intrusive? Sometimes, but not usually. Unless I start thinking about it, and then I focus on the fact that, why yes, an entire alien race got to experience my puberty through the eyes of Hickory and Dickory. There's nothing like sharing menarche with a billion hermaphrodites. I think it was everyone's first time.

"We were not recording with him," Hickory said.

"Okay, good," I said.

"I'm recording now," Hickory said.

"Oh. Well, I'm not sure you should be," I said, waving out toward my parents. "I don't want them getting in trouble."

"This is allowed under our treaty with your government," Hickory said. "We're allowed to record all you allow us to record, and to report everything that we experience. My government knew that General Rybicki had visited the moment Dickory and I sent our data query. If General Rybicki wanted his visit to remain secret, he should have met your parents elsewhere."

I chose not to dwell on the fact that significant portions of my life were subject to treaty negotiation. "I don't think he knew you were here," I said. "He seemed surprised when I sicced you on him."

"His ignorance of us or of the Obin treaty with the Colonial Union is not our problem," Hickory said.

"I guess not," I said, a little out of sorts.

"Would you like me to stop recording?" Hickory asked. I could hear the tremble on the edge of its voice. If I wasn't careful about how I showed my annoyance I could send Hickory into an emotional cascade. Then it'd have what amounted to a temporary nervous breakdown right there on the roof. That'd be no good. He could fall off and snap his snaky little neck.

"It's fine," I said, and I tried to sound more conciliatory than I really felt. "It's too late now anyway." Hickory visibly relaxed; I held in a sigh and gazed down at my shoes.

"They're coming back to the house," Hickory said, and motioned toward my parents. I followed its hand; my parents and General Rybicki were indeed heading back our way. I thought about going back into the house but then I saw Mom look directly at me, again. Yup, she'd seen me earlier. The chances were pretty good she knew we had been up there all that time.

Dad didn't look up the entire walk back. He was already lost in thought. When that happened it was like the world collapsing in around him; he didn't see anything else until he was done dealing with what he was dealing with. I suspected I wouldn't see much of him tonight.

As they cleared the sorghum field, General Rybicki stopped and shook Dad's hand; Mom kept herself out of handshaking distance. Then he headed back toward his floater. Babar, who had followed the three of them into the field, broke off toward the general to get in one last petting. He got it after the general got to the floater, then padded back to the house. The floater opened its door to let the general in.

The general stopped, looked directly at me, and waved. Before I could think what I was doing, I waved right back.

"That was smart," I said to myself. The floater, General Rybicki inside, winged off, taking him back where he came from.

What do you want with us, General? I thought, and surprised myself by thinking "us." But it only made sense. Whatever he wanted with my parents, I was part of it too.