Anthropomorphic Foxes In Space….
I spotted Chessec bounding across the back pasture toward the house, her red tail flowing out behind her. She was clearly in a good mood, diverting from her path slightly with each fresh scent. Hobo spotted her a hundred yards away, and dove under the fence to go meet her. They both raced back together, the dog winning only by repeating his shortcut while she stopped to climb the fence. I met her at the top of the stairs with a drink.
"Oh, it's a great day today." She panted and swallowed some tea. We sat on the deck chairs.
"What's got you so happy?"
"Just the weather, and the season. I've been in town shopping for some Christmas presents. Naomi and Gene agreed to open a few minutes early so that I could come in before the tourists got there." I eyed her curiously. I at first thought she was only wearing a dog collar, now I saw she had an inconspicuous carrying pouch attached to it, just big enough for money, and hopefully, her stunner. Since she had begun to meet and be accepted by a few locals, I was less worried about her safety. Still...
"I don't recognize either of those names. Do I know them? And how do they feel about aliens, now that they've met one?" I'm horrible with names and faces. They were always Marie's job. I felt a brief pang, wondering how Wife Number One was faring, alone on Chessec's home world.
"Oh just some shop owners in town. We met Gene at the pub, and he introduced me to Naomi." she barked happily. "They liked the challenge of keeping our little secret! A group of little old ladies came inside from an early tour bus, and I curled up under the counter and pretended to be a dog until they left."
"Christmas shopping, you said? I don't see you carrying anything."
"Silly. The delivery boy will bring the packages tonight after they close. Already wrapped, so no peeking." Another anxiety attack as I realized I now had to find her a gift. What do you give an anthropomorphic fox for her first Christmas present?
We ate an early supper before the nighttime chill drove us inside off the deck. Nothing interesting was on TV, so after the news our conversation came back around to the mission. She had been buoyed by her success relating to the people in our small town, and her online correspondents around the world, and determined to make another attempt at contact with our government. I was running out of reasons to delay. Finally, I trotted out my ace card.
"But if things go bad, we don't have a ship in orbit to bail us out."
"Dave, I'll confess, I kind of want to try this before they get back. We will really be in a stronger position if we can show a success." Her commander had ordered the abandonment of the mission, and only a last-minute swap between her and Marie had kept her on the planet. The Exploration Corps could not have been pleased when they found out we fooled them.
"How about the mayor? We could get him out here with his backhoe to do some landscaping work. He'd appreciate the work, and the money would put him in a good mood."
"No, that doesn't count. Its got to be somebody who can receive an ambassador. Since you don't really have an effective world government, it has to be your national one. Preferably the President or Secretary of State."
"There is no way I can get you close to either of them. Probably not anybody in the executive branch at cabinet level. No military above two-star, in all likelihood. Too much security around those kind of folks."
"We can do this, I'm sure they'll be reasonable once they hear me in person. How do ordinary people get to meet them?"
"They don't." I thought hard. I wanted this to work, but it was more important to me that she be safe. "We're not going to solve this one ourselves. Let's find an expert. We should ask Jim." Jim was another local political type- a perennial candidate and party organizer. Plus, he had already met Chessec. We called him at home, and outlined her problem and my concerns, without mentioning any specifics over the phone. He agreed to help, and started to describe to her how the federal government worked, rehashing some of our own earlier discussion. Chessec interrupted, more tactfully than I would have, I will admit.
"I know how your government is organized, we have studied it intensively. It has three branches which share powers, an execu-" Jim interrupted her back.
"No. I mean you have to understand how our government works. Who has power, and who controls access to that person. You need to talk to the Senator. He can explain better than me. He knows where the bodies are buried. I'll arrange it for tomorrow night or the next day."
It turned out to be the next evening. We arrived late at Sean's Pub, Dave entering the main door to check who was still there and to say hello to Sean himself. I waited by the back entrance until he let me inside. "Sean says no problem. Everybody here is local, most have seen you before. Jim and the Senator are sitting watching the folk singer, who's just doing her last set. When she's done, come on up from the cellar."
I slipped around the corner and down the rough hewn stairs and long passageway to the lowest level of the pub. The only paying customers were a couple groping each other in one corner, oblivious to the world. Angie, Sean's girlfriend, was tending the beer taps, bored, waiting for them to leave. She brightened immediately when I came in and sat nearby.
"Chessec! Hello, are you here alone?" She looked up the stairs. "Well, I guess it's safe enough tonight. Last time I went upstairs, there were six or seven customers. If these two would go find a room," She raised her voice slightly. "I'm planning to shut down the cellar and go up myself." We gossiped together for about half an hour, talking about local events, her classes, my recent experiences and impressions of the holiday season. "Sometimes I wish we could just barricade off main street until they all went home, but I guess the town would dry up and blow away without tourists."
She finally was comfortable enough to asked the inevitable question human women ask me when we're alone: Whether she could touch my fur. I let her, then she complimented me on its softness, color, and similar properties. She blushed, and as she sighed I knew she was having guilty thoughts about Sean buying her a fur coat. A puzzle: What evolutionary quirk made humans receive such tactile pleasure from fur? Especially before the invention of modern creme rinse and conditioners.
By that time the folk singer came downstairs to reclaim her music case and coat, and it was time for me to go upstairs. I promised to talk to Angie some more later. I stopped at the entrance to the main room to see if it was clear, and to spot Dave and the Senator.
The Senator was an elderly man who had been a giant in his youth, and now showed bones and angles everywhere. His riding clothes were pure stage-production English country gentleman. His face was dominated by a white handlebar mustache and a veined nose that proclaimed his current avocation. He sat beside Jim at the table with a pint of lager beside him and a scrimshaw-carved pipe in his hand. Dave caught my eye and gestured to come. I walked in on my hind legs and took the remaining chair. I could hear a slight rise in the level of conversation at other tables as regulars explained to their friends and guests who I was. I placed my paw in the Senator's hand as he offered me his much larger one. He waved it to gesture for me to sit beside Dave, laying on a thick brogue (purely an act, Dave assured me.)
"So you are real," he said softly. "I saw you sitting at the back table late one night last month, and thought you were a hallucination. Asked young Sean and he told me Dave here had brought in his dog, and I accepted that explanation. I used to bring my hounds until the health inspectors got so particular. Tell me about yourself. dear." I gave the five minute explanation for my presence on Earth, while he gave me a larger and larger smile. "Young Murphy here tells me you need some political advice. My advice is, don't go near it." Jim laughed politely as he continued. "But I think I know what you want from me. Tell me, why can't you just send them a letter?"
He was a devious old man, full of gossip and without illusions about the nature of politics and the motivations of politicians. His style reminded me of one of my adoptive grandmothers who had a reputation as a fixer. She seemed to know everyone who had anything she might need, and was either their friend or knew some dirt on them. She had been poisoned when I was very young.
Without notes, the Senator ticked off the strengths and weaknesses of the current state delegation to Washington. This in spite of not having held elective or party office for more than twenty years. Fortunately, a former state congressman and agribusiness millionaire had been appointed Secretary of Commerce by the administration. "He could be helpful, he appreciates shiny gifts. You'll never get into his office alone, but if one of the representatives were to recommend you, say, for instance, young Congressman Linley..." He actually spoke using ellipses. "That would be another matter."
Honorable Caleb J. Linley, Missouri's 17th Congressional District:
I spotted my closest friend in Washington (and apartment landlord) through the glass double doors ahead of me and pushed inside, hurrying to catch him.
"Robert! Wait a moment. I need to talk to you." The entrance to the House Office Building was freshly mopped, and I skidded across the polished marble, nearly hitting a pillar. Congressman Bob Hopkins looked up in time to see me careen toward him.
"Whoa. What's up, Jim? Careful, there now." He helped me regain my balance.
"Thanks." I pulled him aside, out of foot traffic. "While I was back home during recess, I had something strange happen. I've picked up a stalker, of sorts. She got into my hotel room."
"That's the price you pay for fame. Congratulations, you've become a celebrity! Was she pretty?"
"No, no. It's not like that. I need some private advice. I think this concerns your sub-committee's business, too." He raised an eyebrow.
"Sure. After the roll-call vote this afternoon, meet me in my office."
Later, Bob ushered me in the anteroom of his suite. None of his staff were there. Shutting the door behind me, he motioned me to a chair.
"Now, tell me what's got you so concerned, and why do you think it involves the Defense Science and Technology Sub-Committee?"
"You're going to think I'm crazy saying this, but I spoke to an alien in a hotel back in my home district." I held up my hand to prevent interruption. "She wasn't human, Bob. Short, covered with red hair, looked like a dog. Spoke good English. This is a true story, so help me. What do I do?" I spoke in a rush, leaving no time to interrupt.
"Jim, were there any other witnesses to your alien?"
"No. She met me in the hallway of my hotel, and followed me into my room. We talked for almost thirty minutes. No one else saw us. Afterwards, when she left, I tried to follow her. As I rounded the corner in the hall, I ran into a man and fell flat on the floor. She was nowhere to be found, and he said nobody had been past him. I was suspicious of him, because it felt like he had a gun under his coat when I hit him. I backed off pretty quick."
"You're sure she couldn't have been a person in disguise? A hoax?"
"Positive. Her limbs were no thicker than a dog's. She let me touch her clawed hand."
"What did she want?"
"That's the funny thing, or rather nothing funny at all: Peace, goodwill, favorable trade relations. Wanted help getting in touch with the administration. Nothing different than any Third World Ambassador says he wants. But without the bribe offer."
"I think you're serious. What if I told you to just pretend it never happened?"
"I can't do that. If I did, I'd have to believe I was going crazy. And I don't feel crazy." I looked Bob in the eyes for several long moments. "I came to you because I trust you, and of all the people I know in this town, you're the one who knows more people who know things. What do I do?" Bob pause a moment in turn, considering his response. Then he picked up his phone, talking to me as he dialed.
"Jim, you're not crazy. It would be easy enough to just let you think you were. What I'm going to tell you is a secret that would do, and I quote, 'untold harm to the national security' if it became public. You understand that once you become party to this, you risk severe penalties. And I have been directed by the Speaker himself to say it just like that. Do you understand?" Whoever was on the other end of the line must have answered, because he paused to say a few indistinct words into the handset. I felt relieved of at least one of my fears by his matter-of-fact tone.
"You mean it's true! Thank god!" I blurted this out, then realized he was waiting for an answer. "I mean, yes I understand. Go on."
"It's true. For at least a year, aliens have been visiting earth. We've seen and photographed their spacecraft, the Air Force even forced one down. The fox-like female you described was interrogated for several hours by our scientists before she escaped. You were very lucky. While they don't seem to be especially aggressive, they have been shown to be capable of violence." He spoke into the phone again.
"...right. The duty officer. See you in fifteen minutes." He hung up and looked back at me. "Let's go over to the Capitol and use one of the secure conference rooms. I want you to tell some people all about your encounter, and take a look at some pictures."
There was a Capitol policeman guarding the door, and a uniformed Navy Commander in the conference room with a laptop computer. He asked me questions for about five minutes, then showed me a slide and video presentation about the aliens, with pictures, video and sound from her interrogation. It was definitely her. He answered my questions, but did not elaborate much beyond what Bob had said already. After another secrecy warning, he handed me a business card.
"If you have any further contact, call this number. It is manned around the clock. And tell them: we really do want to talk to them again."
"Gotcha!" I turned off the radio receiver and recorder, folded down the miniature Yagi antenna that had been pointed over the passenger seat and out the windshield, and removed the headphones from my ears.. "Sometimes the old fashioned ways work best."
"What do you mean?" Chessec sat in the well between the front seats, periodically raising her head and scanning for suspicious walkers or cars. We were in a gray panel van, parked off 1st Street 500 yards from the Capitol building.
"No one looks for a bug on a person anymore. They assume it is in the room already." I held up one of the spares for her to see.
"How did you get the bug in there?"
"I put one in the collar of each of his spare suits when I broke into his motel room, before you had your heart-to-heart. A coded transmission activated them when we got here."
Chessec faced me across the back of her seat. "So. What are we hoping to accomplish, siting here in a rented van, illegally monitoring a private conversation? And where do you get these vans, anyway? Is there a rental agency just for snoops?" She laughed, and reached as if to pull the rental agreement off the dash. As I began to relay what I had just heard, our cell phone rang. Chessec picked it up, listened for a moment, then handed it to me. She said, "he asked for me by name, but I think you better talk to him." A young man's voice came through the phone.
"Don't say anything on this phone you don't want overheard, this is not secure."
"Well, obviously," I retorted. Somebody had found our number easily enough.
"I represent a group that is interested in your friend's welfare, and I think we should meet in person."
"You have the advantage. How do you want to set up the meet?"
"Get to Union Station in the next ten minutes. Go to the fifth outside pay phone, counting from the southeast corner of the building, and we'll call. Don't stay there past the hour, get away and we'll try again. Get moving, before someone else locates you both." He hung up. Chessec hopped up into the seat and started the van without questions, her sharp hearing having heard both sides of the conversation. I finished putting away my own intercept gear, and checked the MP-5 sub-machine gun hidden behind the seat. One of the advantage of driving instead of flying is that you can bring all your toys with you. And Chessec hadn't minded seeing the Midwest by car, either.
At Union Station, I went to the phone banks while she sat with the engine running. Within minutes, the phone rang. Putting on an old field jacket with the HK slung concealed beneath it, I put my back to the phone and answered.
"Good. Go to another pay phone at the Chinese place at I and New Jersey. We'll talk there." He hung up. As I started back to the van, a local pharmaceutical entrepreneur approached me, backing off as I 'accidentally' let my jacket hang open momentarily. Returning to Chessec, I was surprised to see her standing in the open sliding door with her stunner in hand. Another local businessman was lying on the parking lot nearby.
"Should we bring him along?" She asked.
"No, he won't say anything, I suspect." We left. It was only a few blocks to the next stop, but we had now left the tourist part of Washington behind. The Chinese restaurant was in a small run-down strip mall. It was still fairly busy. I approached the single pay phone, observing when I got closer that the hand set was missing. Looking around for another phone, I saw a well-dressed oriental male in his twenties walking toward me. Holding both hands visible with fingers spread, he said my name in an unidentified accent.
"I'm not armed. Let's go someplace else and talk. It's your call." I motioned him into the van. He smiled broadly when he saw Chessec.
"I suggest we just drive around the Beltway while we talk. And that you shut off your cell phone completely. That is how we first knew you were in town." I gave Chessec directions and settled into the back across from our guest. I placed the weapon in plain sight across my knees. He darted his eyes at it initially, but his fascination with watching Chessec drive kept his attention in front. Once we were on the Interstate, I spoke to him again.
"Well, Mr. ..." I inserted a lengthily pause. He turned back to me and shook his head. "...Smith. Tell me how you found us, and what you want to talk about."
"Remember, I never said this: My government has an extensive agreement with yours regarding sharing SIGINT information. Because of certain, let's say, legal considerations, I was a part of a team of analysts searching for the whereabouts of your friend in the front seat. We started by intercepting her communications with the mother ship. When those stopped, we were not having much luck finding you, and I had about decided the whole project was ludicrous. We would probably never have found you, but as it turns out, we both share a mutual acquaintance. While I was complaining to him about the ridiculous make-work your Agency was wasting my time with, he confessed that he had not only seen your vixen, but kept regular correspondence with her via email. I redirected my search to tracing his mail traffic. That gave me your server, and through them, your credit card account and the fact you owned that particular cell phone number. I placed a watch on your roaming connections and waited for you to leave home. Fortunately, you came here. I called because in a few more minutes the transmitter you were monitoring might have been detected and your van located." He stopped for breath before continuing.
"Anyway, I spoke to my government. They have told me they are willing to negotiate a separate treaty with you, regardless of what the United States decides. Would you be willing to come meet with us?" This he said to Chessec. She changed lanes before she took her eyes off the road.
"Certainly. We would gladly negotiate with any of the Earth governments. We want nothing but peace with you all. We greatly desire trade too." She turned back to the road, jerking the wheel and snarling as another car cut her off.
I asked the young man, "I'll confess, I can plainly see that you are Asian, but I don't recognize from which country. Your English is excellent. Where are you from?"
We dropped our mysterious Mr. 'Smith' at the National Airport metro station, and lost sight of him as he climbed the stairs onto the platform. Then we got back on the highway heading west. It was almost midnight before I turned from the Georgetown Pike into a driveway leading to the cottage had Dave rented. I saw that the loose paper trash we had left on the ground had no tire tracks, indicating we hadn't had any visitors. Still, he checked inside while I sat with the engine running.
"Come on inside, the water's fine," he joked.
"You may have part of an idea there. Does that hot tub in the back work?" I was absolutely rigid with tension from my longest period behind the wheel to date. My tail felt permanently kinked from sitting in the front seat.
"I'll check." While he removed the cover and stated the jets, I went into the kitchenette and threw some smoked meat, celery sticks and cheese on a plate, grabbed two beers from the 'fridge and joined him on the patio.
"Get out of those clothes and climb in. Supper is served, and I'm dining in the pool. And no shop talk until I say it's OK." He undressed, removing his .45 from the pancake holster in the small of his back, and laying it on top of his clothes, within easy reach of the tub. Catching my significant look, he smiled a small grin and dropped his boxer shorts over the pistol, concealing it.
"Can't be too-" I placed a finger against my mouth for silence. We climbed into the tub and settled into the swirling bubbles. I didn't say a word, and he was not about to start until I did. We gave each other back, feet, and in my case, a tail massage, with exaggerated gestures and expressions of pleasure to indicate when the right spot had been found. Then I offered him a piece of meat, and we took turns feeding each other. Finally, I waved a celery stalk at him and broke silence.
"Ahhh. We should do this more often. We need one of these at home. Now eat your celery, and we'll decide what to do about our surprise passenger." I crunched into my own stalk.
"Why the celery?"
"I don't want to taste any of that sausage on your breath when I kiss you later."
"Oh." Dave took another swallow of his beer. "Then we better get our work out of the way now. I am both encouraged and worried at the same time by this latest development. It scares me that somebody knows who we are and where we live. Especially an intelligence agency. What one group knows, another might find out. We might have to go into hiding after this. On the other hand, it is good that both sides claim to want to talk."
"At least one faction of the US government wants to talk, anyway. Remember my friends in Colorado. We'll have to be careful." I changed subjects. "Now, tell me about Canadians."
"What can I say. They are up there, just over the border, and we just never even think about them. It's almost like some kind of collective amnesia. And they are invisible. You can talk to one for years, even live right beside him, and all of a sudden you discover he is a foreigner. Ask somebody about them and the word 'pleasant' usually creeps into the conversation."
"But what about the country? Are they rich, poor, what?"
"Big country, but not many people. Rich even by first world standards, high technology. But a small military. Somebody once said, 'Nobody fears Canada.' It was a joke, but nonetheless true."
"What about their space program? I remember the media going on something about a 'manipulating arm,' or some such. Could they meet us in orbit to trade?"
"Probably not. They piggyback satellite launches on other people's boosters, and they have some mission specialists in our shuttle program. They had an aerospace industry a generation ago, but it's just about gone now."
"Can we buy computers from them? That's the important question."
"Chessec, you could buy computers from Ghana, Chad or K-Mart if the money was right. That's not a problem. The good thing about having two countries interested is that we might get a better price. We might be able to play them off against each other."
"Well, then. Let's figure out how to pull down this rabbit. Us foxes are supposed to be clever." We worked out a scenario, and Dave suggested several locations for our meetings. We decided to see the Canadian Ambassador first, and then try to get Congressman Linley to set up a meeting with somebody (who?) from the US government. We soaked until my fingers wrinkled. (They do! You just can't see under the fur.) He toweled me off, and I said one more thing before the blow-dryer drowned my voice out. "We should probably rehearse tomorrow afternoon, after I wake up!"
I woke up entirely too early to Dave slowly pulling a wire brush through my fur. (Dog brush, indeed! Marital aid is a better description.) I sprawled at full length until he finished. He pointed meaningfully at the pile of red and white hairs on the bed beside him.
"Are you getting enough protein in your diet?" In response, I worried his ankle with my teeth until I drew blood, then licked him to clean it. "I'm sorry I asked," he protested.
"What's on the agenda today, assuming you get out of this bed alive?"
"Let's drive up north into Maryland. I want to show you what the spot I have in mind looks like. And while we're up there, I'll show you where the famous Camp David is. Heck, we might even meet the Prez."
"You'd just gripe the whole time, accuse him of looking down my shirt or something. And no, I don't want to debate politics with you, so change the subject." He shrugged, then shook the brush significantly, so I rolled over on my back.
Later, we went on our reconnaissance drive. The mountains in western Maryland were far smaller and more rounded than the Rockies, but large enough that their slopes were still mostly free from settlement. We picked three rendezvous points in case we were separated, plus what he called an "objective rally point" where we would hide the van. We drove all the roads around our meeting place. For that, we finally settled on one of the group picnic shelters on the Appalachian trail, about a quarter mile from the highway.
By three o'clock we were finished. As we drove back down toward Washington, we stopped at a roadside pay phone on highway 1 and made three calls: One to the number our Mr. Smith had given us, the second to Congressman Linley's office. We arranged a meeting with the Canadians for the next day, and gave the legislator three days to work on getting us a cabinet-level representative of the US government. The final call was to a seafood restaurant in Annapolis for two orders of garlic sautéed scallops to go.
"And you are absolutely certain this is not a hoax?" The Ambassador was not in a good mood. He folded his paper and placed it to one side of his desktop. That meant whatever I had to say, I had better wrap it up inside two minutes.
"Yes, your Excellency. The source is anonymous, but is supposed to be a member of our DERA signals research staff, with the highest clearances. We had a separate team of intelligence analysts go back and review the raw radar intercepts from NORAD, plus this current tape from our liaison at Fort Meade. The UFOs from last summer were no swamp gas or fraternity pranks. They are certain that the Americans have been visited by alien spacecraft on at least three occasions in the past year. And, that the person the ministry wants you to meet is probably one of them." He eyed me with his usual dubious expression.
This briefing was unusual but by no means a unique part of my duties as Second Assistant Cultural Attaché. As the embassy's covert counterintelligence representative, I never get to tell him any good news, and I see more botched espionage than bad ballet, in fact, little culture of any type. A more typical briefing to his Excellency would be informing him that yet another embassy contract cleaning crew was made up entirely of former East German spies, or that the groundskeeper was running a drug ring from the greenhouse. Today, I was telling him that he was now our country's point man in a new type of foreign relations; but even worse, one that he would have to keep a secret. The Ambassador hated secrets.
"Why can't we just ask the Americans to confirm the story? We have mutual defense, mutual trade, mutual god-knows-what-else treaties with them. One of those must apply in this case, too.
"Again, the Minister gave specific instructions. We are not to involve the Americans in any way. Are you certain you wouldn't like to read them yourself?" Treading on dangerous ground here: His Excellency was more a 'concept' than a 'details' man. And he didn't believe in personal email. In his own words, "If that party hack wanted to tell me himself, he would have called me on the phone."
"Just set it up, and make sure we don't look foolish with this one. I want no newspaper story about the Canadian Embassy and little green men."
"Very well, Sir." He picked up his paper as I left his office.
I stopped in the anteroom to talk to Janice, his secretary. She pretended she hadn't been trying to eavesdrop, in spite of the white noise generator I had activated when I entered his inner office.
"Hello, Colin. Not arresting the copier repairman this time, I hope. We need him to fix the color one today." She laughed.
"No. I need the old man's appointment book for tomorrow cleared of anybody important enough that you can't reschedule them on short notice without a serious publicity incident. I need him here in the building, or where I can get my hands on him within a few minutes. It's a security thing, so don't tell anyone."
"Oh, you mean like the Cubans last fall. I can do that." She was referring to a series of 'unofficial' meetings we had hosted between Castro's government and the Americans. I decided to let her believe that was it.
"Yeah, just like that."
"Sure. I'll just schedule him with a few trade association reps. They're easy to palm off on, say, the Second Assistant Cultural Attaché."
"Don't you dare." She laughed as she busily lined through entries in his appointment book. She was making phone calls as I left he room.
Waiting in my office with the two 'experts' from Ottawa was the RCMP Inspector who headed the Ambassador's personal security detail. We had overlapping jurisdiction in this case, but had long-ago figured out who had responsibility for what. He was disgusted with something one of them had just said, because he rolled his eyes at me as I sat down.
"I say we just let the aliens suck these two's brains out. Leave 'em at the meet." He grimaced and picked his teeth with his tongue as he shook his head in disgust. "We're going to a blind rendezvous in the murder capitol of this whole damned country, and these two want to do an hour's worth of medical testing on a possibly unwilling alien, who we know is guarded by at least one American gun nut, maybe more. I'm not bringing the Ambassador anyplace near that mix. You talk to them." He dramatically turned away.
I sighed, and studied my two experts. Both were academics, one an astrophysicist, and the other allegedly a xenobiologist, however you got qualified in that particular field. They were supposed to make a final check for a hoax before His Excellency arrived. I would have been happier with a good make-up artist or movie special effects man. But, I suppose some committee picked them.
"What is it, exactly, that you want to do?"
The biologist explained, "I would like some blood tests, maybe a skin sample, simple tests to tell us what the alien is, maybe figure out where it comes from. We may never get another chance." Where do we get people like this? I considered just telling him 'no,' but decided to try a different approach.
"I'll tell you what. You can plan any test you can complete in two minutes. Write down the procedure, plan it out carefully, then we'll test them. Your associate here will perform the procedure on you, and if you enjoy it, then I'm sure the alien emissary will, too. Otherwise, you only get to check for a rubber mask and ask a few questions. Then I want a high sign whether or not I can bring the Ambassador in." To the physicist, who had already begun to grin, I asked, "What are you supposed to be here for anyway? I think she's probably made of normal matter, just like anybody else."
"I thought I'd ask how she got to Earth. It's unlikely she's from anyplace close by. We're curious how far away, and how long it took for their ship to get here. I was hoping to see whether she had any artifacts with her that were obviously not of terrestrial origin."
The intercom buzzed. "Communications watch officer here, Mr. McOwen. A fax just arrived for you, it's marked time-sensitive. There's no name or return address on it. Should I send a runner, or put it in your distribution box?" I told him to send it up immediately. The fax was a detailed aerial photo of the District, marked as a strip map with an arrow pointing to our rendezvous point on the botanical gardens nature loop drive. Four words were typed on it: Meet at 1415 local. Two hours from now.
"We had better get moving."
With the near-freezing weather and the slight drizzle, traffic was light, and out small motorcade got there in quickly. Two small traffic cones blocked the drive. We drove around them, and per our arrangement, the other two vehicles stopped to wait while I investigated. I made a final radio check with the security detail and motioned my driver to turn onto the one-lane, one-way macadam trail. The bushes and ornamental grasses formed a thick underbrush that limited our view to a single bend of the road, perhaps fifty meters at a stretch. As soon as we passed under a thick tree tunnel of weeping willows, there was a gravel service road leading off to the right. A stake supported a piece of paper with a small maple leaf flag and an arrow pointed down it. I directed the driver to turn.
No sooner did the gravel road leave the main loop, but that it turned sharply around a row of two meter tall pampas grass clumps. There, a padlocked cable blocked further vehicular progress. Fifteen meters beyond the cable was a grey panel van with smoked windows, as described by our agent. The side sliding door was open, but I could tell the van was still running from the visible exhaust. Gesturing for the driver to stop, I gave my instructions.
"Corporal, leave the engine running, but crack your door open. I want you to be ready to cover us, if need be." He nodded. "You two. Nobody gets out of the vehicle until I call you over. And you stay on the passenger side." Both scientists agreed.
I walked slowly up to the van, keeping my hands visible and down at my sides. A female voice spoke from inside the van as I approached. "Say something Canadian."
"Something Canadian." I looked inside. Sitting on the floor was the alien, looking just as described. A giant red fox, she was dressed loosely in a hooded sweat suit top, and nothing else. There was no one else in the van. "We're here. I have two scientists who want very badly to talk to you. I've given them two minutes apiece for questions, then we'll bring the Ambassador in the other car. Is that satisfactory?"
She smiled at the snappy comeback, showing her canines. "That's fine. Whenever you feel comfortable, call him in to park behind your car. My husband is sitting over in the woods, and he'll watch from where he is. Ask your scientists to take their shirts off before they walk over here, and I'll be happy to talk. You can keep your pistol, just leave it in your pocket. You can keep your shirt, too. It's cold tonight."
I gestured for the two of them to come forward. They grumbled when I told them about the dress code, but finally up they came, shivering and rubbing their forearms. I stood outside and watched my charges work their way though several awkward moments of staring, half-completed questions and general dithering. Finally, she had had enough. She leaned forward and grabbed one of them by the belt buckle and pulled him into the van.
"Look. See these teeth? See this tongue? Here, take my hand. Come on, feel the pad, these claws. It's obvious I'm not a midget wearing a dog suit, and we don't have time to play 'animal, vegetable, mineral'. Let's bring the Ambassador around, and quit wasting time." She caught my eye, and I shrugged. She told them, "don't tell me, tell your keeper over there."
I picked up my radio and broke squelch, one long, and one short. I got two short clicks in response. "He's on the way. I would feel safer if I could see your partner first."
"Whatever. It makes my security folks nervous to have an unknown sniper around His Excellency."
"All right. Look over to your left, about twenty meters." I did. He was sitting cross-legged, almost completely buried in the heart of one of the pampas grass clumps. He raised a rifle barrel slightly, then settled back into cover. I could hear the sound of the approaching limo as it crunched onto the gravel and stopped. The Ambassador walked over, escorted by one guard. I met him halfway, and briefed them both as we walked back to the van. Out two experts were now seated across the back bench seat, talking quietly with her, draped in an old blanket. She grinned, a very human, un-canine expression. "They got cold."
I made introductions, and the Ambassador did that statecraft thing he gets paid the big bucks for. He gave the usual 'On behalf of my government', and 'I offer my assurances' and the like. She responded in kind, with a much less flowery style. She was not an amateur, with a gifted technique. Nothing she said flagged my 'bullshit meter', but neither of them committed to anything more concrete than another meeting later on our home soil. After five minutes, my radio came to life. It was our lookout at the park entrance.
"Break it up! Somebody just blew past me fast in a blue Suburban. Five guys. They're turning into the loop, and I don't think they are nature lovers. Gotta go! Here comes another one, and it's stopping behind my car."
"Someone's coming!" I shouted so everyone could hear, then told the Ambassador in a quieter tone, "Sir, we'll walk back to the car. No hurry for us." I turned back to the fox. "You two had better go now." Her husband was already running for the driver's side door. I had a thought. "Take my two men with you. They're not immune. The worst thing they can do to us is declare us PNG, but those two are illegals. Go!"
He jammed the van into gear and sped off, throwing gravel. Door still open, they quickly vanished down the blocked access road. The RCMP detail, meanwhile had hurried the Ambassador into his armored limo and assumed a security perimeter. When the Suburban arrived, they each had an SA-80 assault rifle very prominently displayed. After a tense moment, an American in black battledress, wearing a flak vest climbed slowly out of the passenger seat. I walked toward him, my diplomatic passport prominently displayed in my hand.
"His Excellency was just admiring the natural beauty of this wonderful Botanical Garden. I'm sure you would hate to disturb him."
"I can see that. Enjoy your visit." He climbed back in, closed the door, and was engaged in a heated cell phone conversation that finally concluded with him gesturing for his driver to back up. I climbed back into my own vehicle, noting in passing that both my scientists' shirts were still on the seat.
The gravel road ended behind a small caretaker's cottage near Rock Creek. Our van blasted out of the park through the back yard, smashing a flimsy wooden picket gate. We turned out of the driveway back onto a public road and slowed to legal speed. We seemed to have eluded our pursuers, so I resumed my conversation with our two half-clothed guests, who were looking a bit uneasy by this point. To break the ice, and stop their teeth from chattering, I hopped up on the seat between them and put an arm around each, draping my tail across our laps. Dave tilted the mirror to keep an eye on us while he drove.
"So, tell me, boys...."
I think I'll write a course for beginning first contact specialists, on how helpful aliens with strong nudity taboos can become when you take them far away from their clothing. Assuming the Corps ever lets me teach. Anyway, my two now-shivering scientists quickly lost their rather standoffish interrogation style, and I actually got them to have a conversation with me, rather than ask just questions to defend whatever preconceived thesis they had before they came to our original meeting. They even answered a few of my own questions. All in all, a good, productive session. Dave drove randomly through the Maryland suburbs for about two hours while we talked. Finally, we dropped them off at their hotel and returned to our cabin.
"Do you want to cancel the second meeting?" Dave asked, as we ate a working supper. He was going through his own notes while I checked and replied to email. "Call me paranoid, but when grey, faceless men have been chasing you, you tend to be suspicious of unsolicited offers of help. Congressman Linley's support seems too half-hearted to be sincere. We could just cut our losses, make a deal with the Canadians, and thumb our noses at my own, rather pig-headed country. Eventually, once you have a D'yimyi Embassy up north, they'll look rather foolish if they still pretend you don't exist."
"No. I still want to go through with it. What if we set up our meeting in a public place? They wouldn't dare shoot up The Mall, or just a mall, for that matter." I said, while spooning up some leftover carryout glop. Since this was our last night in the cabin, we hadn't bought any fresh food. I took a bite of MSG-laden Chinese, while Dave resumed his argument.
"Yeah, but they could just arrest us for littering, or something. Then we're at their mercy. We need someplace where we can control the exits. And with just you and me, that means someplace pretty inaccessible. Big operations like the gang in Colorado, or this morning's need support vehicles and plenty of access by road or by helicopter. I'd like to prevent that, like we did today. But at the same time, we need an easy way in for the bigwigs. They tend either to be old, or hate to get too far from their cars. If we do this, I still want to use the place we scoped out yesterday. I feel better in rough country."
"It didn't go too well in Colorado, up there in the mountains. You just don't like cities, especially this one. I don't blame you too much, but you did overreact at Union Station. He would have probably settled for just a 'no.'"
"Hey, I'm not the one that left a body in the parking lot."
"It was his fault. He tried to take advantage of an out-of-towner."
"Point. Well, if we're going to do this..." I opened a cryptic email from Chris. "You better try to make some sense of this one." I pushed the notebook toward him. He read it, then nodded to himself.
"Hey, here's a possibility. Let's see if we can find out a little more background on our own personal 'Men in Black.'" He grabbed up the folded map, spreading it across his plate. "So we need to take some precautions, have at least one escape route. While I still have a few friends active in the intelligence business, I couldn't think of anybody in the DC area who is either reliable enough or secure enough to contact. But, heck, it's a networking kind of world these days, so while you reheating the chow mien, I got a hold of Chris out in Nebraska and put the question to him. He just came up with a possible information source and maybe a bolt-hole, in the form of a gentleman farmer on the lower Shenandoah River."
"Typical. For a psychopathic, gun-toting loner, you sure know a lot of people." He tapped the map, soaking grease through a spot about twenty miles further up the Potomac from our cabin. He leaned back a little in his chair, and looked off in the distance in thought, in a theatrical pose. I mentally rolled up my nonexistent hip-waders.
"Chris reminded me of a name of a fellow who left the company for better-paying consulting work nearer the beltway. Most of my work associates tend to be retired armor and infantry-types who spent the best years of their youth looking across the Tann Pocket from a GDP east of Fulda, or slogging through various Asian rice paddies. Good for planning anything from a small ambush to a decent-sized war, but not spooks. John, though, was an old Army Security Agency guy. He claims he did some weird stuff back in the seventies, and if only a few of the stories are true, he'll probably be open-minded to your particular situation and might even be willing to help."
"And where is this Jedi, this Obi-wan? Do we have time to drive up there? We're still scheduled to meet tomorrow afternoon." Dave perked up at the "Star Wars" reference, as I knew he would. A spouse has to learn what buttons to push. The Empire didn't stand a chance, now.
"We will if we get moving now." He wiped sauce off the map and folded it. As we packed the van to leave, I kept an eye out for storm troopers.
Dave phoned from a convenience store in Manassas, confirming that John was at home and getting more detailed directions. It was fully dark, and the rain had changed over to sleet mixed with snow before we finally turned into his driveway. Half a mile of white rail fence-lined pastures later, we arrived at the house and it's outbuildings.
"Maybe I should wait in the car," I began.
"No. We might as well find out what kind of reception we're going to get right away."
We climbed out of the van and walked through the thickening slush to the front door of a modest half-million dollar farmhouse, small compared to my family estate, but enormous beside our current home. The work must pay considerably better. Dave knocked. An older oriental woman, white-haired, and not much over my own height answered the door. She greeted Dave warmly in what she later said was a mixed Okinawa-West Texas accent, and turned to welcome me. Major surprise. John must have neglected to mention my appearance. Her mouth opened, but nothing escaped. I watched her eyes travel the length of my body. She seemed fascinated by me, more specifically by something behind me.
Dave observed conversationally, "Just the one tail on this one. I keep thinking she'll grow another later. May we come in out of this slush?" She made several apologies as she bustled to perform her duties as hostess, but her eyes never left me as he made introductions and she took our coats. Dave told her about me (the short version), and asked if John was available.
"He's out in the barn, and will be there most of the night. One of our girls is in labor. He said to bring you out. We have built a weather passage from the house to the barn, and we can pick up some coveralls and boots when we get there. You can leave your street shoes here at the door." She looked speculatively at my bare feet. Passing through a neat house filled with a combination of oriental lacquer furniture, porcelain pottery and silk hangings, we arrived in the weather passage. She handed us each a sweatshirt and we entered a short hallway, which opened into the lower level of a massive stone barn. A single light shone out of a box stall halfway down.
John was sitting on an upended bale of straw just inside the entrance. He was white-haired, with weathered features. He was dressed as a working farmer, in rough clothes, rubber boots and a bill cap. Beyond him was the largest horse I have ever seen, a massively pregnant mare as big as a moose. She was standing, but even I, with my limited knowledge of things equine, could tell she was close to giving birth. John took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a towel, cocked an eyebrow at me, and opened his mouth to greet. His wife beat him to it.
"Why isn't she down? She was ready an hour ago."
"She doesn't think so. She stood back up, and has been thinking about it, but won't lie down again. So here I sit." He looked back at us. "Hi, Dave. Been a while, friend, and it looks like you've been busy since we last saw each other. I see what you meant about your new family. Chessec," He looked at me. "I think you have some relatives up here in the valley. I saw someone very similar to you sitting on top of one of my round bales last week." He gestured for us to sit on a bench, over which his wife had just thrown a saddle blanket. As we settled, Dave gave him a quick summary of our situation.
"So, I was wondering if you could help us figure out what's going on, why these people keep trying to capture Chessec, and where they come from. Should we cut our losses, and leave town, or is there somebody who we can ask to call off the dogs?"
"I'm kind of tied up tonight, but lets talk out here until that mare decides to give it another go. Eventually, I can probably find something out that will help. The problem is, things in the community have really changed since you left the business, the demise of the 'evil empire' has a lot of folks scrambling for work. Dave, you remember when we got the green light to go after the overseas drug cartels, under Reagan? Everybody started forming special programs, task forces, interagency groups and the like. The money seemed to always be there if your project was classified highly enough. Well, everybody in HUMINT works like that now. You said you've had Air force and Navy people involved. Doesn't necessarily mean a thing. Could be run out of Justice, or could be the Agency. Might even be DOD."
"We've set up a meet north of here. They know the vicinity, but I'm going to phone in a last minute change to the location. We've got a congressman, and maybe an assistant SecState, or Commerce. What do you think I can expect besides?" The mare exhaled sharply, blowing several deep breaths. John motioned for quiet. She awkwardly lowered herself into the thick straw, and he watched her with concern, but made no move to approach. He continued in a softer tone, "Maybe she's decided it's past time for that baby, and we can get some sleep tonight. Dave, I know you're a city boy, and don't have any kids. Chessec, have you ever seen anything like this before?"
I confessed my ignorance. On my world, we don't really have domesticated animals as such, just barely tame, free-ranging cattle, sheep and the like. Certainly no enormous draft horses like her. As a fellow sometimes-quadruped, though, the posture was familiar. I had some sympathy twinges, even. As her contractions became more frequent, I compared her expression and posture unflatteringly to that of my adoptive mother's youngest co-wife during her last delivery. I remembered a comment to her at the time, and her reply that I'd get my chance. As she gave birth, with all the associated fluids and similar phenomena, I marveled at what a miracle; and what an effective argument in favor of contraception this all was. Dave would be lucky to get close to me for a week, even though we were mutually infertile.
Otherwise, it was a routine delivery. She did her part without any assistance, and after, we helped clean her and the foal. Eventually John's mare was left in her stall for the night with her comparatively tiny, (though still twice my own weight) newborn. When we returned to the house, it was two a.m.
"I'm tired out. Why don't you two take the guest room, and we'll talk some more in the morning." John looked every one of his actual seventy years. His wife showed us to our room, and we took a brief, shared shower. As Dave brushed out my fur, I was on the edge of sleep. His last words before I awoke the next morning were:
"We won't have time to discuss this with them tomorrow. We need to be there early." We left the farm before dawn, after I had managed less than three hours sleep. I don't know if Dave slept at all.
The older couple was in no condition to be up that early, so we said our goodbyes, to John's promise to do some additional investigation. His wife touched me on the chin, murmuring something in Japanese that she did not offer to translate. The storm had ended during the night, covering the roads with ice and the fields with four inches of wet, sloppy snow. The sun was just rising as we crossed the Potomac and headed into the mountains. The weather and the twisting narrow back roads further reduced our speed. We encountered fewer than a dozen cars, and a few sand trucks. By eight, we reached a parking spot we had previously picked to leave the van at, near a forest trailhead. The snow at this higher elevation was deeper and dryer, and Dave was concerned about the lack of other tracks to disguise our own.
"You'll have to go in on all fours. I'll hike down the road about a quarter mile, and then cut cross-country to the pay phone by that tavern. Once I make the call, I'll pick out a spot under a fir tree or something to hide me until they arrive. They might use a thermal camera from a helicopter, but if you light a fire in the fire pit at the picnic shelter, they should just see that. Have you got all the stuff?" I held up my haversack. "Good. I'll see you later. Love you." He gave me a hug (and humans can give a big, warm hug, too) and started off down the road. I made sure I knew where he had left the car keys, and then trotted up the trail.
We deliberately chose the farthest, most inconvenient place to stash the van, in order that no one else would accidentally park there, too. I had a two-hour walk through the woods to the public picnic area. I left the marked nature trail halfway there, then cut through the woods for a mile, making sure to carefully skirt the firebreak and tall razor wire topped, chain-link fence that bordered the adjacent property. It, and its tenants, was the real reason for selecting this particular site. I dropped part of my equipment bundle behind a conspicuous dead tree at the fence's closest point to our picnic shelter, then continued into the woods. By this time, Dave should have called in the time and a fake location, and started to lay false trails of human footprints into the woods. I carefully scouted the clearing, the picnic tables, shelter and other buildings at the correct location. A little work with some heavy fishing line, plus the rest of my bag's contents, and I was as ready as I could be. By noon, it was time to sit and trade insults with the squirrels.
An hour before the rendezvous, I lit campfires in each fire pit. Twenty minutes before, I turned on my radio and made contact with Dave.
"They just got out of their cars. Looks like two principals, and three security. No heavy artillery in sight, and no time to get it here by land, so watch out for a helicopter. I'm going to follow them in, now." He shut off his radio, and I placed mine inconspicuously on the mantelpiece.
The squirrels' and birds' insults told me they were coming five minutes before they arrived. I propped open the doors and window shutters, stepping outside onto the porch. The shelter was built as a log cabin, with a long picnic table down the center of the room. The front faced the trail we had chosen for their approach. I stood in the opening where the approaching humans would be certain to see me. Congressman Linley and a woman, both in unsuitable winter city clothes, escorted by TWO men in dark blue parkas, entered the clearing. Hopefully, Dave was tracking number three. I let them approach within fifty feet, then called out: "That's close enough. Your bodyguards can wait right there in the cold, while you come in with me. I'm alone in here."
A guard answered. "We have to check ourselves, before the undersecretary goes in."
"Very well. One of you, and he just looks in this door, then goes back where you are now." He nodded, and came slowly towards me. I stood to one side as he examined the room, and I think he had his eyes on me more than the room. I could have hidden a dozen ninja warriors in the exposed rafters, because he never looked up. "Satisfied, honey?" I smiled sweetly. He didn't.
Finally, the guards were outside, and the politicians inside. I sat with my back to the fireplace, where I could see the two guards warming their hands over one of the fire pits. "Hello. I'll assume you've been briefed about what I've already told Mr. Linley, and you've gotten past the whole 'My god, she's an alien' thing. Who might you be, and are you empowered to negotiate a trade relationship between our peoples?" 'Who' turned out to be an Assistant Undersecretary of Commerce, and no, she wasn't, but she was able to pass along whatever I said to someone else who had enough authority. Like me, a flunky, but yet a senior flunky.
We talked for half an hour. She seemed professional, sincere, and interested, and the congressman was certainly enthusiastic, but they were both still nervous about something, and it wasn't me. Several times, when I was talking with one of them, I would catch the other glancing out the window or door. Toward the end of our discussion, her cell phone rang. She listened to the caller in silence, then thanked him and hung up. I looked at her inquiringly.
"The Secretary's office. They feel like they know enough about you to meet directly. Would you care to come with us?" I demurred, and she didn't press, just stood up.
"We'll contact you for another meeting time. Tell him I would be happy to meet him." I shook her hand, and the congressman quickly stood to join us. "You've both been very helpful, and I hope this is the first of many fruitful encounters. They both left. As they walked back to their escort, I heard bells ring. I looked again. Only one guard was visible, the other must have stepped on one of the tripwires I laid around the building. Looking around, I spotted him rolling and regaining his feet, fifty feet behind the shelter. I scrambled back inside, observing in passing that both negotiators had been pushed behind cover near the fire pit. I snatched up the radio.
"Dave! Something's going on here, I have to run!" Hoping he heard me, I shoved it into my pocket and drew my tranquilizer gun. I threw myself against the wall next to the rear door, and froze, listening. On the other side of the doorway, I could hear someone breathing hard. The rear wall was entirely filled with the massive fieldstone fireplace, but the far wall had an open window. I grabbed the red smoke grenade from my haversack and pulled the pin, dropping it on the floor. As soon as the smoke was thick enough to conceal me, I scrambled through the window.
The other guard was smart. He had moved to be able to see that side of the cabin, while still protecting his charges. He yelled my location to his companion. I decided I had been there too long. Cinching the strap tight on my bag, I shoved my gun into a pocket, dropped to all fours, and ran. No shots followed, but I could hear a single man chasing me. I was halfway to the tree line when I heard a pop like a shotgun misfiring. Rounding the first tree, I looked back as I pulled the pin on the grenade I had earlier tied to it's trunk. My pursuer was face down in the snow, a red-feathered tranquilizer dart protruding from his buttocks. I could hear the gradually increasing volume of two sets of helicopter rotors, and I poured on speed.
Seven seconds later, the white phosphorous grenade on the tree burst, spreading burning incendiary over a ten meter circle, in all likelihood setting the fir tree on fire, hopefully distracting the pursuing helicopter. I ran a zigzag course, crossing and re-crossing my old tracks hoping the fleeting glimpses of me from above would each show a different course. Half a mile into the forest, I paused for breath under the limbs of another fir tree. A burst of automatic weapons fire came from the clearing. I stayed low, and watched for the helicopter. It was moving more slowly now, quartering the woods behind me, and occasionally making a speed run ahead of me. I could smell the wood smoke from the tree I had set on fire. The aircraft masked any sound of pursuit, but I was sure the second bird carried reinforcements. The tranquilizer had me puzzled. Maybe Dave had a friend?
When my breath was back to normal, I took off again, heading for the fence. The helicopter spotted me as I broke out into the cleared strip, and someone standing in the door let loose a burst of automatic fire into the snow ten feet in front of me. I dodged left, and slammed against the fence, diving behind the downed log for slight cover. I grabbing for the last of the supplies I had cached. I had just pulled the pin on another smoke grenade, when a tranquilizer dart smacked into my exposed shoulder. I let the grenade roll down against the fence, spewing acrid, purple smoke. I felt the dart beginning to take effect. Pulling my gun with my still functioning paw, I triggered the antidote stimulant from our own tranquilizer, hoping the active ingredient in the dart could be counteracted. My eyes were becoming blurred, as I struggled to use the last gimmick Dave had furnished me. Aiming the silver canister, I attempted to fire a star cluster signal directly into the open door of the hovering helicopter. It missed, but the glowing fragments passed harmlessly through the rotors. The pilot saw it and aborted his landing, clawing forward, trying to put altitude between himself, and whatever alien weapon I might have.
He cleared the fence at fifty feet, reaching two hundred feet and a respectable forward speed, when a Secret Service gunner alarmed by our little smoke, flame and noise show, placed a Stinger missile into his right engine exhaust. I gave my self another shot of stimulant, plucked out the dart, and stumbled into the woods, away from the wrecked helicopter and the Camp David perimeter.
My shoulder felt stiff and possibly damaged by the impact of the dart, fired at such a close range. My arm hung useless at my side. Remaining upright, I regained the woods, moving at a slow walk back toward the van. I hoped my inevitable pursuers would tangle with the Secret Service, but it was not beyond the possibility that they would reach an understanding and come after me. I stayed in among the trees, matching other game tracks whenever possible, re-crossing my original trail when not. I detoured once to climb a rock pile and look back toward the clearing. Three distinct plumes of smoke rose behind me, one the helicopter, another clearly the fir tree, and the last unidentified. No immediate sign of pursuit, but I could hear wheeled vehicles driving in low gear range.
I cautiously approached the turnout where the van had been parked. As I feared, Dave had already driven off. It was too conspicuous to leave it there, once the search began in earnest. Our rehearsal had a contingency plan for this, so I crossed the road and continued through the forest. This trail would cross another highway four miles further on, and Dave would drive past every thirty minutes for two hours. I was still mobile, if slow: The conflicting drugs in my system were making me sweat, dulling my senses, and affecting my balance. I struggled up the intervening ridge.
The crest allowed me to see into both adjacent valleys. The flashing red lights of emergency vehicles seemed to indicate a roadblock between the picnic area and the last town we had driven through. Another helicopter was circling the patch of woods I had left behind, presumably with appropriate flight clearance from the Secret Service. Ahead, the highway was an indistinguishable white cut across the next ridge over. I started down the trail. The woods were quiet, except for the noises I was responsible for: The sound of aircraft, occasional vehicles, and shouts of searchers. Ahead, all was quiet. At the bottom of the hill, I crossed a small river on a fallen log, skirted a bare-limbed fruit tree orchard, and climbed the next ridge toward the road. I covered the last hundred yards cautiously. The road had perhaps half a dozen sets of tire tracks in the fresh snow. I climbed down into a culvert opening to wait for Dave. Five minutes later, I could hear a vehicle approach. Peering over the lip of the culvert, I ducked hurriedly as a plain sedan with two men in it drove slowly past.
No sooner did that car vanish around the bend, than our van appeared. Dave slowed, but did not stop as I jumped aboard. I told him about the car.
"I saw them. We're turning off as soon as we can. Meanwhile stay low, and hope they don't try to stop us." Dave was driving with the MP-5 across his lap. I crouched behind his seat.
"What happened on your end?"
"The third escort had a rifle with tranquilizer darts. I took it away from him while you were running across the field. When that helicopter landed, I waited until everybody besides the pilot climbed out, then put another one into him. I pulled him out of the bird, then dropped the other WP grenade behind the flight controls. Between the noise that caused, and whatever you did to the second bird, nobody was paying much attention when I jogged back to the van." I told him about the Secret Service.
"I hoped that might happen. That probably explains why their ground search has taken so long to get organized. I imagine their boss had to make a personal call to the White House."
"Is that good, or bad? I wonder if there has actually been an official policy about us, up until now."
"They might have been operating independently, that's true. Well, somebody for sure knows something. What do you want to do next?"
"Let's go home."
"I'll second that." And we did. Dave drove nonstop for the next eight hours, never getting on an Interstate or major through road until we reached Kentucky border. We stopped for a few hours sleep, and then drove all the way home the next day. Then we slept for almost twenty-four more hours.
By the next day we were starting to feel human (and D'yimyi?) again. We were sitting together in the living room, where less than two years ago I first met Dave and Marie. Thinking her name made me close my eyes, experimentally testing to see if I could sense her. Still too far away. I wished her well, or at least better luck coping with my world than I was having with hers. The time I have spent here has exposed a paradox. Humans seem quite willing, individually, to embrace a stranger, even an alien. In groups, or especially in bureaucracies, they react with fear and violence against anything that disrupts the established order. It must be something to do with human pack interaction.
Speaking of packs... I realized my ears had been pointed toward the window for the past few minutes. It finally trickled into my brain what I had been hearing over the television. I laughed, and sprung up. This pack dynamic was well within my ability to solve.
Chessec suddenly jumped from the couch, and ran out of the living room down the hall. I heard her open the back door and go out onto the deck. As I watched her leave from my position on my recliner, I idly considered following. A high pitched, keening howl rose from outside, and curiosity got the better of me. I climbed out of my chair and threw on my robe, then stepped outside and stood beside her.
It was a cold night, with a full moon surrounded by ice crystals lighting the frost-covered yard. Chessec was sitting beside the deck rail, looking out into the darkness. A tentative, short howl rose from the nearby woods, which was quickly picked up by about half a dozen coyotes. She laughed and replied, howling and yipping counterpoint, ending with "You wish, runt!" in her native D'yimyi. Several farm dogs picked up the cry as the sounds reached them in the distance.
"That's right, tell 'em whose yards they've been running through." She was chuckling softly, "Damn coyotes."
I caught a movement in my peripheral vision. Hobo, our own dog, was unexpectedly silent in the face of the activity. He silently crouched in the yard, his body facing the woods, but his head turned to watch Chessec. She howled again, and the sound of a body crashing through the underbrush could be heard from down by the creek. Hobo half raised up and let out a whine. She spoke to him in English,
"OK, I'll stop now. You can have your yard back." Another laugh. "Sick, 'em boy!" He launched towards the woods in a flurry of barks. I heard sounds of animals running up the creek. He stopped short at the edge of the yard and paced back and forth, barking, defending his territory.
I was loosing all sensation in my toes from the cold. I suggested, "Why not go inside, and you can give me a translation?"
"You should have dressed for the weather." She replied. I pointedly looked her up and down.
"I don't come equipped with a fur coat, like some people." She followed me inside.
"Want to explain that little interlude?"
"It's a canid thing. Perfect moonlight, perfect echoes, crisp air: Just a great night to make a little noise."
"But they are coyotes, you are a fox."
"So. You heard Hobo and the neighbor dogs. It felt right. But you can't let a pack of 'yotes think they can stake out a territory. You have to draw a line, send them on their way."
"Hobo was acting strange. He usually goes berserk when they come around."
"He was just showing me a little respect. If you'd go out and do your duty as his alpha, make a little noise, mark the pack's territory, he'd never have to bark for you."
"Is that an invitation?"
"I thought you'd never take the hint."
I opened the door again. "Woof!" I yelled, then shut the door. As I turned to face her, she pulled out the concealed snowball she held and smacked me with it.