When Nat Holcomb's radio alarm wakes him up, he listens to it blearily for a while, thinking the news of an alien invasion must be a dream. But eventually he realizes: Hey, I'm awake. There really are aliens invading Earth. One of their landing craft is north of Rutledge. They've got a bunch of rover craft heading for Atlanta.
Nat Holcomb lives in Jonesboro, far enough off at the rate the aliens are travelling, but he is a forward-looking person. He's packing a few things to go visit his brother in Milledgeville when his cellphone rings. The caller ID says: GSPA. The Georgia State Patrol Auxiliary. Yeah, superheroes are needed in a time of crisis like this, but why him? He calls in.
"What? Do you think my power will work on the aliens? I don't see why it would, but, then, I don't understand how it works with humans... But I generally have to see someone up close to do them. You haven't actually seen them yet, have you?... Oh..."
Parvati Chalasani, the GSPA's receptionist, tells him to wait for his pickup. A teleporter is going to come after him.
Nat reminds her that he's moved to a new apartment recently; Fernspringer hasn't been here before and won't be able to teleport directly into it.
"No, this is another guy, a reservist like you. Zach Johnson; I don't think you've met him? Hang on a minute..." Nat is about to ask why, if this guy can teleport to his apartment without ever having been there, he's just a reservist, but he realizes he's already on hold. A moment later a sleepy voice says: "Hello?"
"Zach, we need you to transport someone to the front line. He's on the phone now, get the information you need from him."
"Hi, I'm Nat Holcomb..." Nat begins, but the other fellow interrupts him. "Where are you? Describe what it looks like, the layout of the furniture in the room, if you're inside, where you're standing... and if you're wearing anything breakable, like a nice watch or glasses, go ahead and take it off." Nat complies, describing the interior of his apartment with the precision of an architecture student. He takes off his watch and sets it in the bag he was packing.
"OK, I've got it. Stand close by the table, you can hang up now." Dead line.
Nat still hasn't hung up the phone when he hears a "Hi," from behind him. He turns, and there's a young black guy, about his own age but a few inches taller, with no clothes on. "Hi, I'm Zach Johnson. Do you have any coffee? Oh, and you can take your clothes off now, if you like things neat, or just pick them up off the floor when you get back. If you get back."
Nat wants to help out against the ravaging aliens, but he's not in a great hurry to face them either, and not a little perturbed by the sudden appearance of this prolix nude guy. He's grateful for the mundane process of brewing a pot of coffee to calm his nerves, probably more than for the coffee itself. He's had plenty of weirdness in his life since he discovered his power a few years ago, but not of this particular species.
"I really need to wake up more before we jump into anything dangerous. The coffee will help, thanks a lot. -- I guess you've figured out I can't handle people's clothes," Zach goes on, taking a seat at Nat's kitchen table while Nat gets out the coffee fixings. "That's actually an asset sometimes. Once I got called in to help against this terrorist guy, he had a bunch of armor and weaponry, but it didn't cover every inch of him. I teleported right behind him and touched a bit of exposed skin for a moment, and teleported him out of his armor."
Nat sets the coffee on to brew and sits at the table across from his guest. "Wow," he says politely.
"It was pretty cool. But I expect we'd better talk about today. I'm supposed to take you to the front lines; what are you supposed to do against these creatures? They told me one of their precognitives thinks you can take them down."
Nat wonders if a demonstration would be better than an explanation, but decides to save his energy. Energy reminds him of calories, and he gets up and starts fixing some buttered toast so that he can turn his back while he explains:
"I change people's sex. -- Maybe aliens as well, I haven't had occasion to try."
"Whoa, that's powerful." Long pause. "Why have I never heard of you?"
"Probably same reason I've never heard of you. I reckon it would be bad publicity for them to call us in too often, if the cases got reported in the papers. Or filmed for television news. But there's a problem. I have to see people up close to change them. As far as I've heard nobody's seen these aliens yet, or been able to get one of their vehicles open."
"Oh, that might not be a big problem. I think I could go inside one of their land rovers if I could see the outside clearly. Could be dangerous, though. I don't know how crowded the inside is liable to be. Obviously I've never teleported into a wall or table before, 'cause I'm still walking around, but there's a first time for everything. You game?"
"I guess so."
"If you'll let me use your phone, I'll call headquarters to get a fix on where we're going. Yell when the coffee's done."
Nat hands over his cellphone; Zach steps back into the small living room to make his call. Nat eats his toast, and, thinking he'd better get used to it, starts taking off his clothes.
When Zach gets off the phone and gives it back, Nat goes into his bedroom to call his brother.
"I won't be coming today. The GSPA think my power will help against the aliens for some reason, so I'll be in on some of the fighting... Yes, of course it's dangerous, but I think I ought to do it... Yes, I'll be careful... Um, if anything happens to me, you can tell Mom and Dad as little or as much as you think would be good for them to know. I love you... Goodbye."
He hangs up the phone and goes back to the kitchen. Zach is halfway through with a large mug of coffee and devouring a third (or fourth?) piece of toast.
"Are you ready?"
"I should eat a bit more. Using my power several times in a day wears me out."
"Do that, then..."
So Nat goes on with his breakfast. Zach tells a couple of more stories about his adventures with the GSPA, then about some practical jokes he'd played on his older brothers and a bully at school when he had first discovered his powers.
When Nat is full, he tells Zach he's ready.
"All right, then, let's stand up; take my hand, here..."
Now they're standing in a cornfield near a dilapidated barn. "See Rock City" is painted on its roof, but faded; it's been awhile since the state highway from which it's visible was a main route from Atlanta to Augusta. More eye-catching is the alien landing craft squatting on someone's new corn, about three times the length of the barn.
"Get down," whispers Zach, and pulls Nat to his hands and knees in the corn.
I'm going to have a lot of chigger bites if I live through this, Nat thinks.
"Parvati said the World Guardians have an observation post in that barn there. The ship's been quiet since the last time they saw a rover come out of it, but I think we'd better be cautious till we're ready to go inside."
So they crawl around to the other side of the barn, then stand up and knock on the door.
A costumed person answers. He looks distastefully at the two naked guys standing there.
"So you're the teleport and the mystery power?" he asked. "The Patrol said one of their precogs claims you reservists could do something to the aliens. I'll believe it when I see it. But sit down. Anything you need from us? We haven't any pictures of the inside of the ship, you know."
"I don't need any pictures to teleport into it," said Zach. The costumed guy who still hasn't introduced himself looks momentarily impressed, then controls his expression. "Some general idea about where the walls and hollow spaces might be would help, though."
"OK, I'll see if I can get that for you. I'm the Blue Knight, by the way. And you are...?"
"Have birthday suit, will travel," says Zach.
"Reserve Officer Holcomb," says Nat.
The Blue Knight looks disaproving again at their silly and nonexistent codenames, then points to a bench that looks a bit splintery for naked people to sit on, but anyway... He goes over to the other side of the barn where several costumed heroes and Army Corps of Engineer guys are working on equipment of various kinds.
Zach and Nat don't have to sit on the bench long before another costumed person comes to talk to them.
"I can show you some scans we've done if you'll come over here," she says, trying hard not to look at them close. She turns her back and returns to the bank of screens, expecting them to follow, which they do.
Zach studies the scans for a few minutes, picks out a place that looks hollow consistently on several of them, and asks Nat if he's ready.
"I guess so."
"Wait, what are you supposed to be doing to them?" the Blue Knight asks.
"Trying my power on them, seeing if it hurts them any," says Nat, not wanting to take time to explain or demonstrate. Zach notices this and decides it's time to go.
Their eyes had adjusted to the dim light in the barn, and suddenly they're in much brighter light. They close their eyes in reaction. The air is warm, as is the smooth surface their bare feet are standing on. Not much noise, some quietly humming machinery. Nat is holding Zach's left hand with his right.
"Too bright," says Zach, squinting a bit and closing his eye again immediately. "Let's turn... see if it's less bright the other way..." They start to turn and peek through cracked eyelids, but before they've made a half-turn, they hear a quavery whistling sound, and something reaches and touches them... dry, soft, papery, a few degrees hotter than a human body. A moment later it's wrapped around Nat's legs, gripping hard.
Nat exercises his power toward the thing, hoping something will happen. Something does happen: the grip on his legs relaxes and lets go, and the whistling turns into a screech: he hopes what he's hearing is panic. He squeezes Zach's hand twice, saying "Let's go," but they're already back in the barn. Their eyes having started to adjust to the bright lights in the ship, they're nearly blind here.
The Blue Knight is talking at once: "What did you see? Were you able to do anything?"
"It's way too bright in there," Zach says; "we couldn't see anything. Nat?"
"Um." says Nat. Then: "Something grabbed me, I think one of the aliens, I tried my power on it and it let go and started screeching. Can I have some water? And a blanket?"
Zach reports a bit more of what he felt and heard, and fills in the Blue Knight on what Nat's power is. Nat scarcely hears them. Someone brings him a bottle of water and a field blanket; he can't tell who, still blinded by the bright light.
A few minutes later, as he's starting to see things again, Zach comes and talks to him. "Hey Nat, are you all right? Do you think you can try that again? I just mean changing the aliens, you won't have to go in with me. I figure if I teleport in again, one of them may grab me as they did just now, and I can jump out again taking it with me. I'll be in the field behind the barn. You can see it in daylight and try your power on it, and we can get photos and stuff even if we can't capture it alive."
Meanwhile the soldiers and World Guardians set up in the field, taking positions in a circle around where Zach plans to come out with his captive, or captor, or whatever. Nat joins them.
"OK, be back in a minute, I hope..." says Zach, and he's gone.
In far less than a minute, there he is again, with company. Something blue-black with a few red spots at each end, about four feet long and two feet high with at least six appendages, has two of those appendages wrapped around Zach's legs.
As soon as he sees it, Nat reacts.
It's now about three and a half feet long, but thicker around the middle, still mostly blue-black but with complex patterns of bright red, green and yellow stripes at each end. It has the same number of visible appendages. Predictably, it's letting go of Zach's legs. Zach vanishes, reappearing at Nat's side.
Soldiers and superheroes move in with a net. They quickly subdue the creature, or so it seems; but it doesn't struggle long. They soon realize it's dead. Suicide? Shock? Something in the atmosphere? The World Guardians take custody of the body to be autopsied.
"Like an angler fish, maybe." Nat comments. "Or a bee, or something like that. I wonder which way I changed it?"
"Maybe we'll find out from the autopsy. Maybe not. Do you think you can do that again several times today?"
"I need to eat something first."
"Let's go eat, then. I'll excuse us."
Zach returns them to Nat's apartment. Nat gets dressed first thing.
"There's a bathrobe in yonder," he says, gesturing toward his bedroom, "hanging on a rack on the back of the door. Or you can borrow some of my other clothes if you want, if you can find anything that fits."
While Zach is getting dressed, Nat finds a couple of clean bowls and opens a large can of beef stew, then starts to spoon some out. Then, belatedly thinking of something: "Hey, are you a vegetarian?" he calls. "No," comes Zach's answer. Nat fixes two bowls of stew and puts the first one in the microwave to heat.
Zach returns wearing Nat's bathrobe and a pair of loose flannel pajamas while the stew is still heating. "That was pretty good," Zach said, "at least one alien dead, and I expect another one is pretty messed up and might not be much use for a while. Hey, can you change several at once, do you think?"
"I changed two dozen people at a time, once, when the GSPA were measuring my powers," Nat replies, as the microwave timer pings. "But it tired me out -- I couldn't lift a paperclip afterward, could hardly stand up. And I hadn't any control, either; I changed everyone within ten yards of me, including myself, not just the ones I was aiming at. That was the end of that day of testing." He puts on a mitt and takes Zach's bowl out of the microwave, setting it on the table, then puts his own bowl in to heat. Zach falls to with great appetite, but doesn't let that stop him from talking.
"But if we jump into another alien ship, you could change all of them within range, and then I could take you back out -- maybe we'd better go straight to the Grady emergency room, just in case."
"Did you hear what I just said? If I do that, I'll change you and me too. And I'll be too tired to change you back until tomorrow, at the earliest. Is that OK? And do you think you'll be able to jump right after changing sex? It can be a shock."
Zach pauses while he takes another bite.
"Maybe we'd better try it now," he says, hesitantly. "Change me into a girl and I'll jump home as soon as I recover from the shock -- instantly, if I can. Do you have a stopwatch around here? Then I'll jump back here and you can make me a guy again."
"That might be a good idea. But we'd better finish eating first."
After a brief pause Zach asks: "So, have they ever called you in on a mission before? Or is this the first time?"
Nat hesitates. "There were a couple of jobs where they thought the shock of being changed would break somebody's concentration, let the GSPA get the upper hand in a fight. One time it worked, another time it didn't. Then there was the time they wanted me to trap a rapist. It worked -- after I spent several nights hanging out as a woman in this area where he'd raped several women in the last few weeks, he jumped me, and I changed him. But she was still too strong for me to overpower her by myself, and by the time the police responded to my call, she'd gotten away. We put up ads in that neighborhood saying if she would turn herself in I'd change her back, but never heard anything." He doesn't see fit to say anything in detail about the other job.
When they've both finished eating, Zach says: "OK, I guess I'm ready." He stands up. "Go ahead."
"Let me go find my stopwatch," Nat says, going to his bedroom. He returns with it after a couple of minutes of rummaging through drawers. He presses the start button and exerts his power.
Zach sways a moment and recovers her balance. She looks down at herself, dumbfounded in spite of being forewarned. It takes eight seconds by Nat's stopwatch before she vanishes; the unoccupied bathrobe and pajamas collapse to the floor.
She doesn't return right away. After waiting for three or four mintutes, Nat picks up his cellphone, then realizes he doesn't have Zach's home phone number -- she did say she was going home, right? Where else would she go?
He is just about to speed-dial the GSPA so he can ask for Zach's phone number when Zach emerges from the bathroom with a large towel wrapped around herself.
"OK, you can change me back now," she says. "Sorry I took so long."
"I understand. But are you sure you want to change back now? If we go into another alien ship and I exert my power full force, I'll change you then. It's probably better if you wait -- else, you'll be female for as long as it takes me to recover from the effort of changing a couple of dozen aliens and both of us."
"Are we ready to do that, then? Hey, how long did it take me to jump out after --?"
"Eight seconds. But it will probably be less next time, especially if you've just changed back into a guy."
Zach pauses. "I guess that makes sense," she says. "I should use your phone to talk to the Police and ask them where they want us to hit next."
"Go ahead," Nat says, handing the phone to her. She takes it and tries to dial one-handed while keeping hold of the towel with the other hand. Nat turns his back and says, "It's speed-dial number three," then goes to his bedroom leaving Zach alone in the kitchen. He can still hear her talking.
"Yeah, I know it doesn't sound like me, but it is... That's right, Nat changed me. No, not for fun, I'll explain why later. Be serious. OK, where should we go next? He says he's going to go all out this time, change everything within range... Should we go back and hit that same ship near Rutledge, or hit some other ship next?... OK, give me a description. I'll hold, sure..."
A few minutes later Zach enters the bedroom, wearing the bathrobe and pajama bottoms. "Ready to go?" she asks. "They connected me to somebody at the World Guardians' headquarters, and gave me a description of another landing site, the one up near Ithaca, New York." Nat stands up and holds out his hand. Zach takes it in hers and they go.
Afterward, Nat can't remember anything about the landing site itself. Zach, so casual at the other site, is in a big hurry here; she looks at the ship and, as it seems to be the same shape as the other one, takes them into it, pausing just long enough to tell Nat to close his eyes.
Even with his eyes closed, the bright light seeps through. He doesn't waste any time exerting his power full strength: more than he's ever done before, he thinks, even that time at the GSPA training camp in Toccoa. She collapses to her knees on the warm, smooth deck, losing her grip on Zach's hand. But it's not long before Zach leans down and, just touching her shoulder, takes them out again -- not right outside the ship, but back to Atlanta, into the emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital. It's a good thing, too, because Nat is already losing consciousness. She is vaguely aware of Zach yelling something about a superhero injured in the line of duty, and wants to object to the imprecision of his terms, but can't make her voice do anything.
Later, she wakes up in a hospital bed, and is aware of an IV dripping lipids into a vein in her left arm, and a catheter going up into her urethra; she wants to ask someone about the invasion, but there's no one around at the moment. She falls asleep again moments later.
Later, she wakes up more fully. She fumbles around for a nurse call button and presses it.
"What's going on with the invasion?" she demands when the nurse arrives. "Have we beaten them off, or made contact with them?"
"Their land rovers turned around and went back to the ships," the nurse tells her, "two days ago, not long after you were admitted. And some of the ships have taken off and docked with the mother ship in orbit, but others are still sitting wherever they landed."
"How's Zach -- the guy who brought me in?"
"He's fine. He's been here to see you several times -- we had to assign him a storage closet he could teleport into and get dressed in."
Several times? Two days ago? "So it's... Monday? I've been unconscious for two days?" Nat asks.
"Yes. How are you feeling now? I'll check your vital signs -- it's about two hours since I last checked you."
Nat feels fairly OK now, and says so. She waits until the nurse is finished measuring her pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and so forth to ask if she can go yet.
"You'll have to ask your doctor," the nurse says. "Is there anything I can get for you?"
"Water," Nat says.
The nurse returns with a cup of ice water with a straw in it, and Zach. He restrains himself until the nurse has left, then bursts out: "Are you ready to go again?"
"Oh. Maybe not instantly, but probably pretty soon. She said she was going to ask my doctor if I could go yet."
"With me here you don't need a doctor to get out of here."
"It would probably make things easier later if I checked out properly. And if I teleport with this IV in my arm, it will probably be bleeding all over the place when we arrive wherever we're going. Oh -- what did you tell them when I arrived? I know I didn't have my insurance card on me..."
"You're here on the Patrol's insurance. And I'm serious about going as soon as possible. The World Guardians have asked us to hit their mother ship in orbit next. I've already been up to our space station, looking at the alien ship. I also practiced jumping into vacuum and right back into the space station a moment later; if I miss the alien ship on the first try we won't suffocate."
Space. Free fall. Teleporting into vacuum. Sounds like fun.
"I really should get a little more rest before I try that stunt again," Nat says, after thinking a bit. "I haven't even stood up yet since I woke a few minutes ago."
"You want to try it now? Stand up, I mean."
Nat tries to do so, but between the catheter and the IV she's on too short a tether to do more than swing her legs round off the side of the bed. The nurse returns just then.
"You should have called me first," she says reprovingly.
"I want to try to stand up," Nat says. "Is that OK? And can you remove this catheter, please?"
"We should make sure you're strong enough to stand and walk to the bathroom, first," the nurse tells her. She shoos Zach out of the room before helping Nat untangle the tubes enough to stand up.
Nat is a little wobbly at first, but manages to stand up straight, and then walk two paces, as far as the IV tube and catheter allow. The nurse (Nat can read her nametag now: Sherry) picks up the bag the catheter feeds into, and carries it while pushing the IV pole closer so Nat can take another couple of steps.
"I think I'll be ready to go pretty soon," Nat says after she sits on the bed again.
"Let's see what your doctor says," Sherry replies noncomittally.
"Can you remove the IV too, or do you have to ask the doctor about that?"
"I'll ask him as soon as I can. Do you feel like eating something?"
"Yes, I could eat."
"I'll have dietary send something up. Meanwhile I could bring you a snack; would you like a popsicle or some ice cream?"
Nat opts for the ice cream.
A couple of hours later, after Nat has eaten, rested, and gone for another short walk with the nurse's help, a doctor finally comes to see her. He examines her and asks how she's feeling.
"Better," she says. "Stronger. If I didn't have this IV and so forth to deal with, I could easily walk further and faster."
"You were suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration when you came in," the doctor says, "but you seem to be nearly recovered. Since you're eating and drinking, I expect we can stop the IV nutrition as soon as you work up to eating a full normal meal and don't get sick afterward. You're walking around, so I'll have your nurse remove the catheter now."
"How soon do you think I can go back on duty?"
"There are plenty of superheroes around who aren't recovering from dehydration. Let them take care of these aliens for a while. I won't tell you a specific date, but work up gradually to your previous levels of exertion."
Nat thinks about that for a moment, and changes tactics. "So, how soon can I get out of here?"
"As soon as you're eating normally and able to walk - say, three times around the nurses' station without getting tired."
When the doctor has gone, Nat telephones the GSPA and tells them what's going on.
"If you think you still need me, I can jump into another ship with Zach as soon as I'm discharged. But I'd probably better not exert my full power all at once again too soon."
"OK," says Parvati. "Take care of yourself. The situation seems to be stable for now."
Next day, soon after her third lap around the nurses' station, the doctor writes Nat a discharge order. She calls Zach's home phone and doesn't get him, then a work number he gave her. She asks his supervisor if Zach is on duty (yes), can she talk to him (just a minute...). Zach says he'll be there in a few minutes, and is she alone in the hospital room? Yes. A very few minutes later Zach steps out of her bathroom, a towel around his waist. "Stand up, hold my hand, let's go," he says.
"Where?" she asks.
"The space station, if you're about ready to jump to the mother ship and change some of them again. Or our base in Toccoa, if you need more rest."
Nat sighs. "I could probably use a week of rest, to be honest. But I think I'm strong enough to change a few aliens. As long as I've got you with me to jump me back to the emergency room if I start passing out, I don't think it will kill me."
"No more likely than that the aliens will." He takes her hand. "OK, let's --"
"--go," he finishes as gravity disappears and they float nude in a small chamber with handholds all along the walls. Fixed somehow against one wall, there's a big sack. Zach turns, reaches for a handhold, and pulls himself closer to the sack, then rips open the velcro fasteners and pulls out two jumpsuits. Without a word they get dressed, bumping into each other a few times in the small space. Nat really wants to change back into a guy, she doesn't like this situation, but she knows she needs to save her energy for later.
"Ready?" Zach asks as soon as he's dressed, and without waiting for an answer pulls himself toward the small doorway, then floats through it and grabs another handhold in the corridor outside to brake himself. Nat follows clumsily, missing the first handhold and bouncing gently off the opposite wall of the corridor before catching another one. "This way," says Zach, and, pushing himself off from the first handhold, drifts down the corridor toward another narrow door. As he drifts down the corridor, he pulls himself along further whenever he gets close enough to a wall handhold. Nat follows more cautiously, always keeping at least one hand on a handhold.
They emerge into a much larger room, with a dozen or so people in it -- astronauts, cosmonauts, xenobiologists, and superheroes. Nat recognizes two of the heroes, high-profile members of the World Guardians: Roland and Oliver. A large part of one wall is a window, the aliens' mother ship just barely showing a visible disc several hundred kilometers away.
"We're about ready when y'all are," Zach says without introduction, then: "Oh, this is Nat. I told you about her. -- Can I take another look at the telescope monitor?"
"Right here," says an astronaut strapped in to a chair fixed in front of a large-screened computer monitor. She loosens the velcro straps, and, standing, expertly pushes off to drift to a place on the opposite wall where nobody is sitting, grabs a handhold, then a couple of velcro tethers to keep her in place. Meanwhile Zach is drifting slowly toward the chair; he looks like he's going to miss it, but reaches out to catch it, flips and sits down. Nat wonders if she should head that way too, but doesn't trust herself to jump accurately across that distance; she stays by the doorway, looks around and finds some velcro tethers like the one the astronauts are using.
Zach studies the real-time image on the screen, a close-up view of the mother ship from the space station's telescope. In the lower half of the screen, various numbers indicate the current distance, direction, and speed of the alien ship relative to the space station. Zach has been learning to read these figures over the last three days while Nat has been in Grady. After a couple of minutes, he nods, unstraps himself, and jumps across the room to grab a handhold next to Nat.
"I think we're ready," he says. "Roland, you got any new information that might help us?"
"None," he says. "We've been trying to make contact, telling them in several Earth and local spiral arm languages that if they surrender and prepare to withdraw, we'll change them back, but otherwise they can expect to keep getting changed. But they haven't said anything."
"I don't think I should try to change dozens of them at once again," Nat says. "This time I'll change them one at a time, as fast as I can, until I start getting tired; then I'll ask you to get us out."
"OK. Listen: just in case we miss the ship and land in vacuum, we need to be ready. Take a deep breath, hold it for a moment, and then start exhaling with your mouth open when I squeeze your hand. That way the air will rush out of your lungs freely and not cause damage. Ready?"
Nat nods, takes Zach's hand, and inhales. Then the squeeze; she opens her mouth, and --
-- Darkness, tingling all over; a rush of air, the fastest she's ever exhaled; her ears popping; Zach's hand squeezing hers tighter than ever. The mother ship is only a few hundred meters away; huge, it fills half her field of vision.
Then: Bright light and warm air again. A welcome rush of breath into the lungs. They fall lightly to a floor, landing on their sides. Blinded at first, they stand up carefully, Zach still holding Nat's hand tight.
No sudden touch of tentacles this time. As their eyes adjust to the brightness, as they hadn't had time for on their two previous incursions, they realize they're alone in a long corridor that gently curves upward in both directions. They feel very light; the ship is rotating slowly, providing some low pseudo-gravity on this level of the ship.
"Any preference about which direction?" Zach asks, trying to keep his eyes fixed on Nat's face and off the rest of her.
"It doesn't matter. That way, I guess."
As they start walking, they feel slightly heaver. "We're heading against the direction the ship is spinning," Nat remarks.
There are doors on either side of the corridor every ten to twenty meters. To the left of each is a small metallic plate; to the right, a mechanical handle behind a transparent screen. At the first door, Zach fiddles with the handle, managing to slide back the screen, but then unable to budge the handle.
"I bet the plate is the normal way to open it," Nat suggests. "It probably reads a tentacle-print to see who wants to come in. But if the ship loses power, the handle will work -- there's probably an electromagnet keeping it fixed in place now."
"That makes sense," says Zach. "But maybe it just needs a touch to open it with the plate; it might not look for a particular print."
"Better not touch it, just in case. If it is looking for a signature of some kind, it's sure to give an alarm."
"We've probably already been spotted by cameras by now anyway."
"Maybe, but let's keep going and hope we can take some of them by surprise."
This they do, before long. As they continue down the corridor, they suddenly hear a noise behind them, and spin around. One of the doors they've passed has opened, and two aliens emerge. For a long moment the four of them pause, staring at each other. Then the aliens rush toward Nat and Zach.
One of them becomes shorter and thicker, developing bright patterns on its front and presumably its rear as well. It stumbles, coming to a stop. The other rushes past its companion for a few meters; then it, too, changes and halts, just three meters short of where Nat and Zach stand, holding hands again just in case they might need to jump.
That's not necessary. After a few moments, the aliens turn and scurry away in the opposite direction.
"Let's check out that room," Zach whispers. They creep up to it slowly, then Nat peeks around the corner into it, still holding Zach's hand.
She doesn't see any aliens. The room is small enough for her to see all of it from here. There are two hammocks strung up, and two acceleration couches vertically fixed to the back wall; apparently that would be the floor when the ship is under acceleration. Then she notices two more acceleration couches against the outer wall between the bedroom and the corridor. A few spigots with handles flush to the wall, against either wall perpendicular to the couch walls, are the only other amenities she can see, though she guesses there are probably some drawers or cabinets not obvious to her.
"Nobody here," she reports. "Let's keep going, and fast; those guys, or girls, or whatever, have probably sounded the alarm by now." After Zach has a chance to glance around the room, they go on.
They've hardly gone another hundred steps when a loud, shrill whistling starts up, then a quieter, modulated series of whistles. Maybe it's the aliens' language, or maybe just a musical code like a bugle call. A few seconds later, all the doors in sight ahead of Nat and Zach open up, and aliens come out of them, mostly in pairs. They approach cautiously. Nat changes them, one by one; this time those changed pause, and fall back behind their comrades, but they don't run off.
Nat has changed almost all of those approaching them from ahead when Zach calls out "Behind us!" Nat turns around; there's just as many more aliens coming from the other direction, and they're nearly upon them. Nat changes the foremost, one two three four, and has to pause for breath. The changed aliens allow those behind them to pass, and then those come on at a run.
"Get us out of here!" Nat cries, "I can't change another just yet..."
Suddenly they're in the empty cabin they looked into earlier. "Let's sit flush against this wall, so they won't see us as they pass," Zach whispers.
"I'll need to rest a few minutes before I change any more of them," Nat whispers back. "Wouldn't it be safer for us to rest over in the space station?"
"Yeah, maybe so... but I need to conserve my energy, too. Keep a hold of my hand; if any of them stick their heads in, we're out of here."
So they sit there a while; Zach keeping his eyes off Nat by keeping them fixed on the doorway to their left, and Nat keeping her eyes off Zach; they're sitting as far apart as they can and still keep in contact.
In spite of the uncomfortably hard floor, Nat falls asleep. Zach notices when her grip on his hand relaxes. He wonders if he should jump them out now. But he's more than a little tired himself; that long jump up from Earth, the jump into vacuum and then into this ship... He should rest a while, too...
Nat is puzzled. These guys look familiar; one of them is the guy she first used her power on, back in high school, and the others are annoying bullies she remembers from elementary school and middle school. But when she uses her power on them they don't turn into girls, they change into little bright-colored hexapods, like nothing on Earth... What's going on?
She wakes up, lying in a low hammock in a small room -- not the one she was in before. Zach is nowhere about, and there are no obvious doors, but she's pretty sure this mirror wall is one-way. The only features are a couple of small sinks with spigots in the wall, one below a human's waist height, the other very near the floor -- perhaps a toilet, structured to fit the excretory organs of these aliens?
She's already pretty thirsty, but she doesn't want to try whatever comes out of the spigots until she's a lot thirstier.
After a while -- she has no way of being sure how long -- the mirror becomes a window into another, larger room; apparently the light has just been turned on in there.
In there she can see three of the aliens; these are about the same size and shape as the blue-black ones with red spots, but dark grey all over. A couple of them are working on a machine of some kind, sitting in the middle of the floor. The room has its own two sinks, several instrumentation panels on the far wall, and at least two doors she can see from here.
Nat thinks about exerting her power on the aliens from here -- she's pretty sure she could do it through the glass; she's done that to humans before. But she saves her energy for later, and sits on the hammock, leaning her back against the wall opposite the window, and watches the aliens for a while.
After a while she hears a high-pitched noise; after a few seconds she realizes it sounds like human speech, probably speeded up a bit and noisy, like a fifth-generation analog copy -- she can't recognize what it's saying, though, or even whether it's English.
The aliens are looking up from their machine, at her. After a moment she says, slowly and loudly, "I can't understand."
The aliens go back to work a moment later. Later: the same kind of thing again, slower and clearer, but still not quite understandable. After a few cycles of this she realizes that the voice is probably patched together from words and phrases copied from various recordings of human speech -- radio and television broadcasts, she guesses.
"Can you understand us now?" it asks jerkily. "Why have you changed our warriors into drones?"
"Is that it?" Nat asks. "I wasn't sure how my power works on you, actually. If you let me go and leave our planet alone, I will change your drones back into warriors."
"This is not possible," the voice says a moment later, after the alien who seems to be in charge fiddles with the machine some more. "Our queen must take your planet. But we only need part of it. Not all humans will be killed. If you help us we will leave your family alone."
"If I change your drones back into warriors and you keep fighting, it will just take a little longer for our heroes and armies to fight you off. You still can't win. I won't help you unless you promise to leave, -- and put me in contact with some of the Earth authorities so I can verify you're keeping your promise."
"If you -- promise -- to change those drones back into warriors, we will give you Earth food. Until then you will get only water. If you wait until the drones have all expired, you will no longer get water."
Nat, furious, reaches out and changes the alien who seems to be busiest with the machine: it turns blue-black with red spots. It pauses only briefly before tapping out another message:
"Thank you. Changing workers into warriors is also acceptable."
Nat turns her back on the window and keeps quiet. The voice speaks once more a minute later: "If you change your mind, speak."
Nat says nothing, thinking hard. She's made a mistake; apparently these aliens have more than two sexes. Her power changes warriors into drones and workers into warriors: could she, in fact change drones into warriors if she wanted to? Probably by trial and error, anyway; but she suspects they might go through one or two more sexes before they get there. Probably the "queen" they referred to is of a fourth sex, and if they have four sexes, why not five or more? Or maybe she could learn to exert more conscious control of her power, and change workers into drones as well. It might be worth trying. She turns around again, but the wall is a mirror; if there's anybody in the other room they're keeping the lights down.
After a while her thirst gets the best of her. She goes over to the sinks, cups one hand under the spigot of the upper sink, presses it to get a handful of what looks and feels like water, and drinks it: tastes like water, too. After waiting some time with no obvious ill effects, she repeats the procedure until she's no longer thirsty, then lies down again.
Where is Zach? He must have gotten captured at the same time as her. She should have asked about him when the aliens were talking. But he probably teleported back to the space station as soon as he woke up and realized they'd been separated. Probably he would be coming back and searching this ship for her -- assuming she was still on the same ship.
After a little while she needs to pee. She walks over to the sinks again and looks at the lower one. It looks way too narrow to use without making a mess. She changes back into a guy; more convenient this way. The lower spigot turns on automatically for a few moments. After he's done he lies down again, even more tired than before, and soon falls asleep.
Nat wakes and sleeps, drinks and pees several times. He doesn't think he's sleeping a full eight hours or staying awake a full sixteen at any time, but it's impossible to be sure. He spends most of his time lying in the hammock, conserving his little remaining energy; sometimes when he gets up to pee he does a little light stretching exercise, but nothing strenuous. After a couple of wake cycles thinking about the aliens and how the war against them might be going, he turns to memory instead, remembering how the prisoner in _The Stranger_ tried to remember every detail of his everyday life before prison. He recreates his apartment in memory, every piece of furniture, painting, movie poster, all the books on each shelf in their logical order (no arbitrary Dewey Decimal silliness for him, no). Then more details: each bit of dirty clothing where it was left hanging on a door or chair or lying on the floor when he last left. He deduces how the bathrobe Zach was wearing and the clothes he was wearing must have fallen on the floor when they left. Zach... He places each dirty dish in the sink, each clean one in the drain...
The patched-together voice speaks again: "Two of those you changed into drones have died. The others will die soon unless you change them back."
Being obsessed with remembering the layout of his kitchen, it takes Nat a moment to process what the voice has just said. Finally it sinks in. "Sic pereant omnes inimici tui", he says, but not loudly.
"We do not understand. Please speak more clearly."
"I wasn't talking to you," Nat replies, not much louder than before; he has no energy to speak any louder. He probably wouldn't be able to change any more of the aliens anyway until they feed him first. Assuming they can keep their promise and give him "Earth food".
Then an idea occurs to him. "All right, I give in," he says. "Give me some human food, give me some time to digest it and get my strength back, and then I'll change your drones."
Almost before he has the last words out, there is a quiet click and a small door opens in the wall opposite the window, just within reach from the hammock where Nat is lying. There's a large platter or tray of some kind in it. Nat reaches into it and pulls out a loaf of sliced wheat bread, still in its plastic package; an apple; a red bell pepper; a clove of garlic; a stick of butter (already gone fairly soft); and a package of Cheetos, presumably all looted from a grocery store by one of their rover craft.
"Eclectic," he comments, "but this will do for now." He spreads out the bell pepper and garlic in little bites along with larger bites of apple and bread and butter, getting melting butter all over his hands and face and chest in the process. After eating most of the apple and several slices of bread, he throws up.
"Be patient," he says weakly, "I'll get more of it down next time."
Eventually, after several small meals and another couple of naps, he answers the importunate voice, saying yes, he's ready.
A moment later the light comes on in the other room, four dark grey aliens -- workers -- with one blue-black warrior come in, and the window-wall slides aside. Nat gets up from the hammock.
The warrior -- perhaps the same worker he changed earlier -- is carrying a machine of some kind on its back; its two middle appendages are manipulating controls on the machine while it walks with the front and rear legs. The same kind of patchy voice sounds, this time from the machine.
"Don't change any of us, or we will kill you," it says. "Come with us to where the drones are, change them back, and you will be given more food."
"All right, lead the way." Nat hopes his guess is right; if it isn't, he will have some extra work to do, and almost certainly get killed. He'll probably get killed anyway.
Two of the workers walk before Nat, the warrior with the speech synthesizer and the other two workers behind him. They go down a curving corridor a few dozen paces, then one of the workers in front presses one of its middle appendages to a door plate; it slides open, revealing a shaft with closely spaced ladder rungs.
"Are you strong enough to climb here, or must we carry you?"
"I can climb. Up or down?"
"Outward -- down."
The two workers in front climb in, one above and one below; Nat climbs in, the one below him climbs further down, and Nat follows. The other aliens enter the shaft behind him. He estimates they descend four or five times his own height before exiting at another such door and walking along another, less tightly curving corridor to another room.
It's a small room, just big enough for one of the workers and Nat. "What's going on?" he asks.
The warrior fiddles with his synthesizer and makes it say, "We must be cleaned before going in to where the drones are." Then the door closes behind Nat and the worker who entered before him, and a shower sprays down. A few moments later it stops and air even warmer than usual blows through the room, drying them. Another door opens in the wall before them, revealing a much larger room beyond; the worker silently exits into it, and Nat follows. The door closes behind them, presumably another pair of aliens coming in to be cleaned.
There are more than a dozen hammocks slung in small alcoves here, most of them occupied by the shorter aliens with the bright striped patterns -- drones. Their six legs dangle lethargically over the sides of their hammocks. Several gray workers are moving about the room, carrying trays of water and probably food or perhaps medicine. One of them whistles something, and the worker who entered with Nat whistles something back.
"I'll wait until your translator comes in before I start, if that's OK," Nat says. He wants to make sure he understands what's happening when he uses his power on the drones, and his best chance of that is with the translator present.
The worker stays close to Nat while it continues its whistled conversation with the nurse-worker. A few moments later the door behind them opens and the translator comes in.
"We had to clean off the queen-scent," it explains. "It is everywhere in the rest of the ship. It makes them frantic, and hastens their deterioriation. Quickly, change them back now."
"I'll do one at a time," Nat says. He walks over to the nearest occupied hammock, the translator-warrior and the worker who came in with him following close. Nat makes no special attempt to think of a warrior, but just exercises his power on the drone in the same way as usual.
He's expecting and hoping for something different, but the bright purple skin, the green and sky-blue stripes covering not just the ends, but the whole body, and the vestigial wings above the middle pair of appendages are a welcome surprise nonetheless. Hoping this is a queen, Nat turns, as the translator and the workers start up a frantic whistling, and exercises his power on this whole row of drones, then on those on the opposite side of the room. Fourteen queens in one hive, thirteen of them in one room -- this will make life interesting, however many seconds of it are left.
The translator is rapidly tapping the buttons on his speech synthesizer. Fragmentary phrases sound from it: "Change them back! No--" A long pause, more tapping, while the queen in this nearest hammock whistles something, most of the workers fall quiet, and several of the other queens start whistling.
"Change the others back -- leave this one alone," the synthesizer says after a few seconds of this.
"I'll need to rest a while first, after changing so many of them," Nat says. He's not sure if this is a lie or not; he does feel pretty weak. "Did I do something wrong?"
"You changed them all into queens!"
"Sorry about that," Nat says insincerely.
The queens are all whistling now, louder, perhaps trying to shout each other down, and the workers, both the nurses and those who escorted Nat down here, seem to be frantically looking around at each of the queens.
Now this nearest queen is climbing down from her hammock; the translator's synthesizer says "Come with us, quickly." Nat follows the translator, the queen and one of the workers into the small shower room -- it's a tight squeeze. The warrior does something to some controls on the wall; the cleaning shower stops almost as soon as it's started, and the outer door opens.
The queen whistles uninterrupted for a minute or two as they disentangle themselves and exit the shower room. The worker stands in the outer doorway after the translator, the queen and Nat have entered the corridor; Nat guesses this prevents the outer door from closing and the inner one from opening.
When the queen stops talking, the translator taps out another message: "Come with us. Stay close by the queen. Don't change anyone unless I tell you to."
The translator and the worker whistle at each other softly for a few moments, then the worker taps out a long series of codes on the keypad by the door. Then the whole group moves out along the corridor, leaving the outer door ajar. Nat stays next to the queen, as instructed, in the middle; the translator-warrior goes in front and the worker in the rear.
A minute or two later they meet a couple of workers, who whistle furiously for a moment, being answered briefly by the translator-warrior and at greater length by the queen. The workers join the group, one in front and one in the rear. They go on down the corridor, down a shaft, and up another corridor, being joined by several more workers and one more warrior in the same way. Then they reach a storage room. The queen whistles instructions, and all the workers and both warriors start opening cabinets and collecting things -- weapons, mostly: long knives, cords, and little gun-like things Nat thinks might be tasers. The translator hasn't said anything to Nat since they left the drones' hospital, but now he taps at his device again and says, "We are going to the old queen's chamber. When we arrive, I want you to change the queen, and nobody else. If things go badly, I will say 'Warriors' and you are to change all the old queen's warriors into drones. Do you understand?"
"Yes. But if there's a lot of fighting going on I might not be able to tell the old queen's warriors from the new queen's. And if I try to change many beings at once, I can't easily target a specifc set -- I'll have to change them one by one, or else change every creature within range."
"That is acceptable. We accept the risk."
So they move out. One the way to the old queen's chamber, they meet workers by ones and twos, who join them immediately, being given extra weapons. Later on they start meeting groups of warriors; most of them get off one or two taser shots, or thrown knives, before apparently being overcome by the new queen's pheremones and changing sides. Nat is still next to the queen, near the rear of the column, with one warrior and two workers behind them as a rear guard; a few of the workers near the front of the column are injured, but none apparently killed.
This is repeated several times, and they're moving more slowly. Nat has no idea how long they've been moving -- he's starting to get hungry and tired again, and is glad the column is slowing down, or he might not be able to keep up.
Then he hears a human shout behind him, and turns. Zach, standing way back down the corridor behind them! A moment later Zach is standing beside Nat, then his hand is on his shoulder, then they are back on the space station, in a small room with a couple of sleeping bags attached to opposite walls.
"We have to go back," Nat says.
"No way," Zach rejoins. "I'm about worn out from doing so much jumping around looking for you, and you look pretty frazzled too."
Nat relents. "Yeah, we need to rest a little. But not too long." He explains rapidly the highlights of what's happened to him since they were captured.
"So why do you want to go back?"
"There are twelve queens left locked in that little room, or there were. I wouldn't be surprised if only one is left alive now. But if we go back to that room you can teleport the queens out, however many there are, and make the chaos on the mother ship even worse. Or maybe I can just change several random workers and warriors as many times as necessary until they become queens. That would be easier."
"Good plan. But you need to rest first, and so do I. I reckon you need to eat, too, right?"
Meanwhile Zach has been getting dressed in one of the jumpsuits. Seeing that they're not going to teleport again soon, Nat gets dressed too. Zach rummages through a sack attached to one of the walls, and takes a couple of squeeze-tubes of something nutritious but unappetizing from it, and a couple of larger bulbs of water.
"If we're going to eat and rest awhile, why not go back down to my apartment or yours to eat something better?"
"Too tired to jump that far," Zach says curtly. "Been jumping short distances on the mother ship every two seconds for hours, taking a few minutes' break over here every hour or so. I'll tell them we're back." He punches some buttons on a panel in one wall -- an intercom. While Zach explains their situation to the person on the other end, Nat starts squeezing some food-like substance into his mouth, and swallows a few mouthfuls, even while he climbs into one of the sleeping bags. A couple of minutes later Zach signs off, and gets into the other sleeping bag, continuing to nibble on the food-paste from one of the tubes. Nat dozes and wakes a couple of times; waking again he realizes that Zach has fallen asleep and his squeeze-tube is drifting in the air currents, toward the door to the shaft... Nat climbs partly out of his sleeping bag and grabs for it, misses; tries again, and gets it this time, but loses hold of the sleeping bag. But the room is small enough he is in reach of a wall everywhere; he pushes back to the sleeping bag, climbs in, and is soon sound asleep.
Nat wakes up gradually, and notices that Zach is still asleep. He climbs out of the sleeping bag, drifts across the room, and shakes Zach gently. In a minute or so Zach wakes up, and blearily asks what's going on.
"Remember, we need to go back? Are you strong enough yet?"
Zach mumbles something that sounds like "Coffee."
Nat isn't sure that hot coffee in free fall is a good idea or even possible. He exits the room and carefully works from one handhold to the next down the shaft, soon meeting one of the astronauts. The nametag sewn on her jumpsuit says "V. Czerneda".
"You're Nat?" she asks.
"Yes," he says. "I'll explain later about..."
"Zach explained it to us earlier -- before you came up here. And he told us about what you did on the mother ship -- that was sharp work, and brave too." Nat smiles back, uncomfortably.
"I think we can stir up some more chaos over there if we can wake Zach up," he says. "He wants some caffeine."
"Just a minute," she says, turning and pushing off down the shaft. Nat waits; she returns a minute later with a packet of caffeine pills and a couple of water bulbs.
"Thanks," he says, and returns slowly to the room where Zach has fallen asleep again. Czerneda follows.
"Wake up," Nat says, shaking Zach again. "Here's your dehydrated coffee, and something to hydrate it with." Czerneda watches for a moment, and asks "Do you need anything else? There are more food-tubes in the sack there, aren't there?"
Nat checks. "Yes, there's plenty. -- Hey, what all has been happening while we were asleep? And what day is it?"
"Most of the ships on Earth took off and have returned or are returning to the mother ship, but the mother ship is still in the same orbit. It's Saturday, the fourteenth, ten-thirty GMT."
Nat was captive for about three days, then.
"That's goood. Maybe we started a civil war over there, and both sides are calling for their friends...?"
"It seems likely. -- Well, I have work to do. Let me know if you need anything. Use the intercom there," she says. She pushes off down the shaft, out of sight.
A few minutes later Zach is wide awake. Nat repeats to him what Czerneda had said while Zach was still mostly asleep.
"So there's no real urgency, then, right?"
"No, I figure if we wait and let one side win, then it will be harder to start something new. If we go in while they're still fighting, and create some new queens with their own factions, that will at least prolong the fighting and weaken them, and increase the chances that the final winner will run away rather than fight Earth with their reduced strength."
There are a lot of unspoken assumptions here, but Zach is starting to feel the caffeine, and he doesn't question them.
"All right," he says. "Let me eat a little more and we'll go."
So they each finish off another tube of food substitute and wash it down with a bulb of something probably descended from Tang. Between bites, Nat gives Zach the best description he can of the infirmary where the drones-become-queens had been imprisoned. Then Zach takes Nat's hand and a moment later they're standing in the middle of that room.
Nat's eyes sting and tear up, and he closes them a moment before Zach teleports them out into a corridor; but not before he sees several queens and workers lying on the floor, not moving, not breathing.
He hears a soft whoosh beside him, and then Zach says, "Blow it all out!" But he's already emptying his lungs as hard as he can to get out whatever poison one of the queens has flooded the infirmary with.
After they catch their breath, they pick a direction and walk down the corridor. They meet a squad of workers. Before the workers can react, Nat picks one and changes it, warrior-drone-queen; then squeezes Zach's hand and says "Go!" They go: somewhere in another corridor. Nobody in sight, but they hear whistling, and turn around: three warriors and a worker, the former with edged weapons in their hands. Nat changes one of them -- drone, then queen -- but even as he's working on this, the other two warriors rush forward, and Zach gets them out just in time.
Here they're behind the lines of a pitched battle; warriors hacking at each other, with other warriors queued up behind them, in another narrow corridor. Nat changes one of the warriors nearest them, then Zach jumps them to the other side of the battle, and Nat changes another warrior here.
Six more jumps, five more queens, four last-moment escapes from onrushing warriors. Then Zach jumps them into a small cabin that's currently unoccupied, except for them.
"Tired," he says, flopping down into one of the hammocks. "Rest a minute, we'll go after some more of them."
"That's probably enough," Nat replies. "We can go back to the space station and watch for a while."
"OK. Need to rest first, though."
"I think we should go back now -- if you fall asleep while we're resting, then..."
"Good point. OK..." he extends his hand to Nat, without getting up from the hammock. Nat takes his hand again, and...
...<whoosh>; the air rushes out of his lungs, and the insides of his mouth and nostrils are prickling. Nat tightens his grip on Zach's hand. They're in sight of the space station, much closer to it than to the alien ship.
Nat expects Zach to try again to jump them into the station. But seconds pass and nothing happens. He realizes that Zach has passed out. He reaches awkwardly with his free left hand to take Zach's other hand, and shakes him; no result. Ice crystals that have formed from the sweat in his armpits crack soundlessly.
He continues to shake Zach. His vision is getting blurry -- frost forming on his eyes, probably. He closes them. The pain in his mouth and throat and nostrils gets worse and worse for the first few seconds, then levels off. He has to try something else.
A couple of seconds later Zach jumps them, not into the space station, but into the emergency room at Grady -- about two feet off the floor. Then she passes out again. They fall to the floor; for a few moments before he passes out too, Nat estimates he's at least sprained both ankles, if not broken something outright. He's more worried about Zach, who was more or less horizontal to the floor and fell on her tailbone. But there's too much ice in his throat for him to explain their condition to the emergency room staff.
The first few times Nat wakes up, there's something blocking his throat. He hurts all over, and is grateful when exhaustion, sedation or some combination of the two put him out again.
The next time he wakes, his throat is clear and he can talk. He uses this marvelous new ability to, first, ask for water; then, for more pain medicine; and finally, for news of the invasion. A nurse -- he seems to be in ICU this time -- responds quickly enough to the first couple of requests, but he falls asleep again before he hears any news.
The next time he wakes up, he finds his brother sitting next to him.
"Will," he says, his voice rasping. "Thanks for coming."
"I tried to come when you were in last week, but with the invasion and all, the traffic was insane; the State Patrol had turned I-75 northbound into southbound lanes for refugees from Atlanta and I couldn't get here before you were discharged."
"What's going on now?"
"Well, three days ago all the aliens on the ground took off and went back to their mother ship. And they've been there ever since, still in the same orbit. I can guess you know more about that than I do; nobody's told me anything that hasn't been on the news."
"Zach and I -- teleported into the mother ship," Nat replies. His throat is still sore and he can't get out a whole sentence without pausing. "Long story. Eleven queens in one hive. Civil war."
Will is silent for several seconds, figuring this out. He's known Nat for as long as he can remember, and has a lot of practice.
"Cool," he says, finally. "So your power does work on aliens. You figure whichever queen comes out on top will have lost too many soldiers in the civil war to attack Earth again?"
"Hope so. More later. Throat hurts."
Nat rests his voice for a few moments. He's fixing to ask if Will knows anything about Zach when someone else comes in.
"Nat," says Captain Rapid. "The doctors tell us you're doing better. Zach's mostly better, too. She wants to know when you can change her back."
"Now, I guess. Where?"
"No, I think the doctors want you both to be fully recovered and up and about before you use your power again."
A short while later, the nurse chases Will and Captain Rapid away to let Nat get some more sleep. He feels better still when he wakes; his throat still hurts, but not as much as before.
"Can I see Zach?" he asks the next nurse he sees.
"Maybe, if you promise you won't use your power yet," says the nurse, whose nametag has flipped around backwards so Nat can't read it. "Doctor's orders. First let's see if you can stand up."
Nat can, indeed, stand up. He's slightly wobbly at first but soon walks confidently enough, leaning on the IV pole. He walks beside the nurse to another small ICU room. Zach is lying in bed, watching CNN.
"How're you feeling?" Nat asks. He sits down in the more comfortable-looking of the rooms's guest chairs, very carefully arranging his hospital gown. They've been teleporting around together with no clothes on for what feels like a month, though it's only been nine days, four of them spent mostly unconscious; but somehow these gowns feel more exposed than nakedness. Probably the association with hospitals and helplessness.
"Throat hurts, nose too," Zach says curtly. "Still feel tired." When the nurse has left, she adds: "And female. Can you do anything about that?"
"I feel like probably could, but I promised I wouldn't until the doctor says I'm recovered."
Zach gestures tiredly at the television. "News mostly about Iran again now. Every couple hours, they say the alien ship is still there, still doing nothing."
"That might be a good sign. What if they killed so many of each other they haven't the manpower -- or whatever -- to operate the ship?"
"Maybe we can go in and find out," Zach says with a smile. "Not today, though."
"Probably the World Guardians will send a boarding party over to investigate. Maybe they're already doing it and haven't told the media yet."
"Guess we'll find out sooner or later."
Will visits again later that day, bringing a few books from Nat's apartment. A little later Flint from the GSPA comes by; she doesn't have any more news from the World Guardians, yet. In the evening Nat sees a doctor, who pronounces him nearly recovered, but says Zach has more recovering to do; he asks Nat not to change Zach until she's ready to be discharged.
The next morning Nat visits Zach again.
"Did the doctor tell you what he told me -- I can't change you back until you're ready to go home, even if I'm ready to go sooner?"
"Yeah," she says, her voice a little stronger than yesterday. "Sucks to be me." A long pause, then: "So, I told you a few days ago what happened when I first got my powers. You didn't say much about yours, though."
"No, I didn't," Nat says curtly. Zach looks mortified; evidently she's stepped on something sensitive. But after a few seconds of embarrassed silence, Nat says "I'll tell you about it sometime. But this is too much like a public place -- nurses and techs barging in every two minutes for vital signs or whatever..."
"OK." Silence, then, until Zach recovers enough energy to launch into another account of one of her adventures with the GSPA; how he teleported three officers into Kinetica's underground base, while she was away, and helped them set a trap for her. "She was surprised to come back with the loot from her latest heist and find four superheroes in makeshift costumes made of her spare bath towels," she relates, "but I've got to say she reacted quickly, and she nearly got away. Captain Rapid was after her like a cat after a squirrel; they were pretty nearly matched, and the rest of us had to mostly stand guarding the exits and watch them speeding around the base, all blurry. Kinetica knew her way round better and she was a little faster, but we had blocked all the exits, and eventually Captain Rapid caught up with her just because he started fresh and she was tired from the job she'd just pulled."
"You know Kinetica used to call herself Tachyon?"
"No way! I wondered what happened to him."
"I happened to him. He was a little too fast for Captain Rapid, and they hoped if I used my power on him he would slow down at least temporarily. But her reaction time was too good. Captain Rapid said -- I couldn't see clearly, it was too blurry -- that she stumbled briefly, caught her balance, and then just took off over the horizon in a straight line, not bothering to come back for more loot. Going straight out like that in an open area she lost him easily.
"Later on, after y'all arrested her, they called me in to change her back before she faced trial. Was he grateful? Not a bit."
"You worried he'll come looking for you when he gets out?"
"Not really. I've got a mask I usually wear on jobs like that, but when you explained how your power works I didn't bother getting it out of the drawer."
Nat is discharged later that day. He is about to visit Zach again briefly, but finds her asleep, so he just leaves a note. Will gives him a ride to his apartment. They watch a couple of movies, eat Thai takeout curry and stay up way too late talking.
Next morning -- Wednesday -- Nat groggily forces himself to get ready for school. He didn't miss many classes, most of them being cancelled during the worst part of the invasion, but he doesn't want to miss another day if he can help it. He has the radio turned to WSB, and hears bad news about traffic conditions on I-75 northbound: sounds like he's going to be late anyway. If he had a change of clothes at GSU somewhere, it would be nice to have Zach's power right about now.
Will is still asleep on the sofa in the living room. Nat has just showered and is only a little bit dressed when a series of commercials is interrupted with breaking news: the alien ship just opened a wormhole, or whatever it is they use, and vanished. Nat's victory yell wakes Will, who sleepily eyes his little brother dancing (not very gracefully) in his boxers and one sock.
"Whzt?" he inquires coherently.
"The aliens are gone! We ran 'em off! Me and Zach!"
"Great," Will says, and goes back to sleep, or tries to.
When Nat is about to leave, Will has woken up again, or given up on trying to sleep. "I'm glad you got through all this in one piece," he says. "That was great work, gutsy as hell."
"You think maybe Mom and Dad will let me come home for Thanksgiving when they hear about it?"
"Not sure," Will admits. "Maybe if you promise to wear a dress."
"Sure thing," Nat says. "I've got to go now."
"I'll be gone when you get home; can't afford to miss another day of work. Take care of yourself." Will stands up, and they hug for about fifteen seconds before Nat walks out the door.
When Nat gets home from school he sits down at the computer to check his email. Then he hears a toilet flush. A minute later, as he's taking his shoes off, Zach walks out of the bathroom, wearing a pair of Nat's sweat pants (a little too small for her) and an extra-large T-shirt.
"You ready?" Nat asks.
"Hell, yeah," Zach answers.
"Those pants look pretty tight. You'd probably better change into something looser, or else..."
In answer Zach teleports three feet to the left, appearing with her back turned to Nat, the sweats and T-shirt collapsing in a pile. Nat loses no time in changing her back; a moment later he teleports away, then a minute later walks into the room again wearing Nat's bathrobe.
"You heard about the ship, right?" he asks.
"On the early morning news, yeah. Even Dr. Armitage -- he's probably the most boring professor I've ever had -- even he couldn't spoil my mood today."
"I figure that makes us the most powerful superheroes on the planet right now," Zach says, scooping up the sweats and T-shirt. "Hey, that pile in the bottom of your closet is dirty clothes, right?"
"Right," says Nat. He's not sure how he feels about Zach making so free with his apartment while he's been away. "So, how long have you been here? -- And maybe you're one of the most powerful superheroes on the planet, but I'm still just a police reservist, and I plan to stay that way. Those were probably the only aliens in the galaxy my power would be any use against. And the fights the rover craft had with fifty or a hundred superheroes on five continents probably had something to do with them leaving, too."
"Not planning to apply to the World Guardians next, huh? -- After I got out of the hospital I went home and called you, and got your voicemail; then I called again after a while... Eventually I got kind of impatient and came over here to wait for you. Sorry."
"I know how it is," Nat reassures him, pretending he doesn't mind this little invasion. Zach has seen him naked in both sexes, so why does it bother him that he's seen how messy his bedroom is, too? "Not directly, I mean, but during my training when they had me practicing on various people, they were almost always pretty impatient to get changed back."
"But it doesn't ever bother you, does it?" Zach asks when he's returned from tossing the dirty clothes onto the pile.
"Colleagues teleporting into my apartment when I'm not home?" Nat says before he can stop himself. "I'm not sure, it hasn't ever happened before."
"I said I was sorry," Zach says, hurt. "Do you want me to go?"
"You can stay," Nat says hastily. He doesn't want to scare Zach off; he's a cool guy, and he can trust him with his life; his cavalier attitude toward privacy is understandable in a teleporter, if not totally excusable. "But don't do it again, OK? Ask and make sure I'm home. And maybe you should bring a change of clothes over sometime, by car, so you don't have to walk around in my bathrobe when you visit."
"I don't drive," Zach says. "I started teleporting before I was eligible for a learner's license, and I live two blocks from a MARTA station, so I haven't ever needed to. But I'll mail some clothes here if that's all right."
"Probably we can meet downtown sometime and you can just give me a package to take home. Or..."
"We'll sort it out later. You hungry?"
"Very. I'll heat up a frozen pizza, if that suits you."
"Let's order a couple; I'll pay for them. You like Papa John's?"
After a few minutes of sorting out what toppings should go on which pizza, Nat phones in the order, wondering how Zach is going to pay for them; she couldn't have brought money with her.
"If I can use your computer for a minute, I'll send you the money for the pizzas by PayPal," Zach says after Nat hangs up.
"Sure; let me set down first and dial up."
As Nat is busy with this, Zach says:
"But anyway... what I meant, earlier, was..."
"Changing into a girl and back doesn't bother me? No, it doesn't. I've had plenty of time to get used to both forms." He hesitates for a moment, thinking of his promise and already regretting it. "In the ICU I told you I would tell you later on about what happened when my power first showed up. Don't tell anybody else, OK? Most of the GSPA don't know the details."
"I won't," Zach says, sitting down at the computer desk as Nat gets up after dialing up and starting Firefox.
Nat walks back and forth across the living room a couple of times, then sits at one end of the sofa.
"I'd had sixteen years to get used to being a girl, and it never bothered me except for a few days in the month. My parents were fairly strict and I didn't start dating until after I was sixteen, and then under fairly tight rules. This wasn't my first date, but it was the first time I'd gone out with the same guy a second time.
"This guy I'll call Cory, because that doesn't sound anything like his name, seemed like a nice guy until near the end of this second date. Then, when he was supposed to be taking me home -- I had an eleven o'clock curfew -- he pulled onto a poorly lit side street and turned off the engine and the lights.
"...Is it OK if I skip the next bit?"
"You go right ahead. You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want," says Zach, who had turned away from the computer screen almost as soon as Nat started in on the story.
"Well, my power manifested itself just barely in time. It was dark and I wasn't quite sure what had happened; I felt this sudden shivery tingling sensation, and Cory pulled back and let go of me. I didn't wait to find out why, I just got out of the car and ran.
"I was lucky enough to meet a patrol car pretty soon after I got onto a main street. I waved them down and told them what had happened. They told me to get in the back, and I told them about where Cory had parked. But when we got there, his car was gone.
"So the cops called my parents and told them I would be a little late getting home, and they took me to the station to make a statement, and finally took me home. Mom and Dad and Will were waiting up for me in a panic; after I started to tell them what happened, Mom shooed Dad and Will out of the room and took care of me by herself.
"Cory wasn't at school the next day. But when I got off the bus after school there was a girl I didn't know there; about my age, but she looked pretty bedraggled, maybe homeless. She was staring at me, and the more I looked at her she started to seem vaguely familiar.
"When the other kids walked off toward their homes, this girl followed me, and when we were out of earshot of everybody else, she asked me, 'What did you do to me?' Actually, there was another word on the end of that sentence."
"Got it," says Zach. He's hardly moved a muscle.
"'Excuse me?' I said. 'Do I know you?' And she said, 'You changed me into a girl, you --!' That's when I realized who she looked like.
"'Cory?' I asked.
"'How did you do it? Change me back quick, and I won't tell anybody you've got this paranormal power.'
"'It's pretty weird, I guess, but how do you know it's not your own paranormal power that did it?' I was walking faster, and we were almost to my house. I remembered the weird shivery tingle I felt just before Cory let me go, and I realized she was probably right, I probably did have some paranormal power that had kicked in to save me.
"'Don't play stupid,' she said, and she made like she was going to grab me, but I ran the rest of the way home and locked the door behind me.
"The next few days were pretty hairy. I didn't have any control of my power yet, but after being woken up by that emergency, it started going off by itself whenever I was startled or scared. I lost track of how many times I changed Mom or Dad or Will or myself; sometimes two or three times a night when I was having bad dreams, which was pretty often, and during the day sometimes just a door slamming or a toaster popping up was enough to set me off. At first none of us left the house much. Then one day when Dad was male he left and stayed at a hotel. The next day Mom was female again and she joined him. Will and I got in his car and he drove all the way to Toccoa; I took a lot of Nyquil and spent most of the drive dozing, to keep myself from changing the other drivers around us and causing a wreck.
"When we got to the GSPA training camp, there were just a few people there: Flint and Captain Rapid and Polyphonia. They took us in, and after a few more days I started, with their help, to get some control of my power. Will went home after he was sure I was going to be OK, leaving in a hurry while he was the right sex.
"I home-schooled there at the camp for a few months until my power was thoroughly under control, and then did my senior year at Stephens County High in Toccoa. After graduation, I signed up as a reservist, and I moved here, got a job and started college. Now you know pretty much everything."
Zach is silent for a few moments. "Thanks," he says. "I'll keep quiet about it. Here, let me finish paying you for the pizza." He's wondering, though: when and why did Nat start being male most of the time? And what happened to "Cory"? None of his business, probably.
The pizza delivery guy arrives a few minutes later. They eat in companionable silence for a while.
"I need to be at work at seven tomorrow," Zach says finally. "I'd better go. Thanks for telling me all that. When I asked you... I didn't realize how, um, ... you didn't really have to tell me all that."
"Don't worry about it," Nat says. "We've saved each other's lives several times, and probably will again, if they see a use for my power and yours at the same time."
"Good night," says Zach, and the bathrobe collapses empty onto the chair. Nat picks it up and throws it onto the pile in the bedroom. He's about to go to bed, when he remembers he hasn't checked his voicemail since he turned off his cellphone right before the last class of the day. Afterward he was in too much of a hurry to get home to turn it back on again. Probably just several messages from Zach, but...
In fact there is just one message from Zach. Was he misremembering or lying? Or did he hang up without leaving a message the second time? Then there's Will, saying he'd gotten home about 4:30 -- he must have gone back to bed for a while after Nat left, then -- and finally, the voice of Parvati:
"Nat, give us a call if you've seen Zach. He checked himself out of the hospital kind of informally and the insurance paperwork is going to be pretty hairy if he doesn't go back to get discharged properly..."
Nat laughs, and thinks about calling Zach, but he needs his sleep. They both do.
Before he goes to bed, though, he turns on the computer monitor and brings up a form letter and a small mailmerge database: the classified ad department addresses for two dozen newspapers all around the southeastern U.S. He doesn't have time to do this tonight, but leaving the documents open will remind him to do it tomorrow; it's about time to place the ad again.
"Vincent, I've figured out how I did it and how to reverse it. Call me at 404-555-0135. Natalie."
Next: Nat and the Telepath
(c) 2007 Trismegistus Shandy.
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