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BEHIND THE GEM

Published:  January 18, 2016 by World Castle Publishing



Prologue

 

In deep space, an exploration probe materialized out of the blackness.  A star plot of all visible pulsars showed many of them closely matched the distances to the nearby star, based on the radiating image shown on an alien gold plaque stored in memory.  When it scanned the region, the only planetary system within range had nine planets, matching the image of the gold plaque.  Scans of the third planet revealed it had an atmospheric composition closely matching what was stored in memory.  Comparisons of the planet being viewed to images stored in memory indicated a ninety-seven percent probability of being correct.  The probe accelerated toward the third planet at near light speed.

As the probe slowed to penetrate the dense atmosphere, it scanned the surface of the planet.  When sensors indicated millions of life forms, a small pod bubbled out and dropped to the ground.  Floating in a stand of trees, the pod singled out a life form and compared it to the images on the gold plaque.  Calculations indicated it had the correct configuration, and the pod moved slowly toward it.

***

Tanner Watson was awakened by a very early telephone call.  He was told to report to the White House immediately to meet with the president some time that morning.  Although this annoyed him, when the chief advisor from the Office of Science and Technology was summoned by the president, he had to show up.

Just before dawn, Tanner arrived at the White House.  Other than the secret service agents and the kitchen staff, there was no one around.  After reporting in, he left his briefcase in his office and took a walk outside.  The cool, early morning air was refreshing in the solitude of the floodlit garden, but as he paused near a fountain he felt his hair stand on end.  As he absently tried to smooth it, his hair sparked and crackled in his hand with static electricity.  Suddenly alert, he turned and saw a silver, egg-shaped object floating near him.  Startled, he backed away, but it slowly followed him, stopping at the edge of the fountain.  He watched in amazement as fragile looking manipulator arms extended from the shell, holding a sizeable object out to him.

Tanner slowly reached out and gently pulled the object from the manipulator arms, and quickly backed up.  The arms silently retracted into the silver shell, and it shot into the air.

"Nobody's going to believe this," he mumbled, looking up, but the silver thing had disappeared from sight.  In a daze, Tanner returned to his office and saw he had been given an oversize book written in English.

"This has to be a joke," he said, looking around.  "Okay, you got me.  Ha, ha, very funny."

Fully expecting someone to try and surprise him, he checked his closet and under his desk.  Secret service agents were the only ones in the hallway, and he knew they were too serious to be involved in any kind of joke.

Still holding the book, he sat in his chair, wondering what to do until curiosity got the better of him.  He opened the book and began to read.


Chapter 1

Taken

 

My name is Raymond Meinhardt, and this is my record of events since I arrived here, wherever here is.

This morning, as I sat down to drink a cup of coffee at my home computer, a news headline caught my eye.  A Seventh Building is Missing.  I scanned the article and read that another building had disappeared, scooped out of the ground near Atlanta, Georgia.  The first six buildings had disappeared from other countries, and I wanted to know more about it; but there was very little to be found online.  Joining me and reading over my shoulder, Kim wondered if the bank could disappear like that, and despite the cold chill crawling down my spine, I told her it wouldn't.

I felt something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  So, instead of voicing my fears, I reminded her that the first building to disappear was a pub in England crammed with people, as were all the others, and I assured her the bank never got crowded.

My job at the bank suited me because I enjoyed computer operations and I was able to work alone in a secured room, with few people able to bother me.  When it was time to go to my fortress of solitude, Kim packed my lunch, reminded me to get my notepad that I was always forgetting, and we loaded the saddlebags.  I’ve had a Harley since my stint as an army ranger in Vietnam.  I kept it over the years, but Kim had been trying to get me to sell the old classic.  I'd give it up if someone could pry my cold, dead hands from the handlebars, but even then, I wasn’t sure I will.  They would probably have to bury me with it.

Before I put on my helmet, we enjoyed a long kiss.  I'm sure we annoyed the neighbors with our open affection for each other, and it may not have been the way a pair of fifty-eight year olds should act, but we didn't care.  In fact, we got even longer and sloppier with our kisses when we saw the neighborhood busybodies peeking through their curtains.

Just before I pulled out of the driveway, she was standing in the grass in her favorite tight T-shirt and really short cutoff jeans.  No shoes.  It was an alluring change from the politically correct dresses she wore when she didn't have the day off.  Another chill spilled down my back, but her smile reassured me as she waved, and I rode off to work.

I had just settled down at my desk when everything started moving in slow motion, with a hum I felt more than heard.

***

The next thing I remember was darkness, except for the emergency lights.  I tried to call the branch managers to warn them about our power failure, but the phone was dead.

"Ray!  You gotta see this!"  Ann's voice sounded anxious from the hallway.

"The only thing I gotta do is pay taxes and die," I said, walking to the hallway.  "What am I supposed to see?"

When I looked out, most of the parking lot was gone, replaced by a smooth sandy beach with waves gently lapping along it.  The sun was floating like a red rubber ball on a watery horizon under a sky streaked with vapor trails.  After several minutes of confused silence, I noticed something strange.

"That's not right.  The sun's rising, and that way's west.  Or, at least it was."

We watched for several more minutes until another sun slowly rose beside the first.

"You know what?  That looks like a binary star."

"A what?"  Ann said.

"A binary star.  You know, two suns circling each other."

"You're crazy, you know that?"

"Maybe, but there are two suns out there."

"Ray, what's going on?"  Cherie said when she joined us from the lending office.  I'd known her since I started working at the bank.  Her infectious smile, curvaceous figure, and laid-back attitude always made her comfortable to have around, even when she got a little flirty.  The ring on my finger didn't have to remind me to keep my pants zipped up.

"I'm not sure.  Let's go downstairs and check it out."

When Cherie and I reached the lobby, the entry doors were mangled and glass was scattered across the floor.

"Let's look around, but be careful.  Whatever broke through those doors might still be here."

Heavy office doors had been ripped from their hinges, and torn clothing was scattered around the usually spotless carpet.  I was confused by empty shoes still tied and leather belts broken apart.

"Cherie, do you see any blood?"

"No, and I don't want to," she said, clutching my arm.  "Where is everybody?"

"Judging from the clothes, I think they're still here, what's left of them.  Let's get back upstairs."

We carefully made our way upstairs, guided by a commotion in the spacious break room.  Everyone had gathered there, huddling together like frightened sheep.  Everyone was talking but nobody listening.  The two bank annoyances, Tonya and Rico, were there as well.  Tonya was a demanding, know-it-all bitch who used to be my supervisor.  Pulling a few strings and using office politics, I helped her leave the computer room.  I was a very happy man the day she took a position elsewhere, away from me.  Rico was an ass-kissing little weasel, following anyone in charge.  The grapevine said an office romance raged between them, not that I cared.

Nothing was getting done with thirty-seven people talking at the same time, so I decided to give them something to focus on.

"You're all gonna die!"  You could've heard a pin drop when the conversations ground to a halt.  "That's right.  You're all gonna die.  You'll be dead in a week if you don't get your act together.  We've got to figure out what happened, and we need someone to take charge."

"And you think you're the one?"  Tonya said.

"No, thanks.  I enjoy being a peon in the computer room, but I think I know what happened."

"You don't know anything."

"What do you think happened?"  Ann said me.

"You're not going to listen to him!"  Tonya said with a distinct whine to her raised voice.

"Tonya, you know better than to interrupt me.  Ray, what do you think?"  Ann had been hired to manage the department after Tonya left.  She was knowledgeable, calm, and unlike Tonya, she let me do the job without getting in my face.  She surprised me when she confronted Tonya, because I thought she was too mild mannered for that.

I spoke up, pointedly ignoring Tonya. "I'm sure you've heard the news about the buildings that have been disappearing.  This morning another one disappeared from Georgia, and I think we've been taken, like they were."

"I think you're crazy," Tonya said.

"Do you have a better explanation?"

"I don't need one.  You say someone needs to be in charge.  I'll do it."  Several of her friends quickly agreed with her.

"That's fine with me.  Lead on," I said, and left the break room.

My priority became finding my way back home.  I figured we’d gotten there, so there had to be a way back, and I was going to find it.

While I was packing some supplies, I felt a gentle pushing inside my head, like a tentative finger testing a fragile object.

You are the one I have chosen.

I was glancing around for the owner of that whispered voice when Cherie walked in.

"What're you doing?"

"I'm getting out of here.  I'm not staying to die with this bunch.  With my army training, I can survive very easily out there, and I'll be a lot better off than they will."

"You can't leave.  I need you to stay here, with me."

"I'm not staying with Tonya in charge.  Did you see how quickly her friends sided with her when she opened her mouth?   She knows I was behind her getting booted out of the computer room, and I'm not hanging around to be a target for her."

I grabbed a fire extinguisher, went to the break room, and broke the glass on the candy machine.  Astonished looks greeted me as I took a handfuls of candy and bags of chips.

"What are you doing?"  Tonya said.

"I'm leaving."

"No, you're not.  I'm in charge now, and you'll obey my orders to the letter," Tonya said.

"I don't think so," I said, and left the room.

Tonya followed me, grabbed my arm, and said, "You're not going anywhere.  Rico!  Keep an eye on him.  Nobody's to leave, especially him."

"Tonya, you don't have the first clue how to survive, and you're going to get a lot of people killed trying to figure it out.  By that time, they'll kill you, and as tempting as that sounds, I'm not going to be a part of it."

The distinct click of an opening switchblade got my attention, and when Rico pressed it against my throat, he said "You'll do what she says."

"For now."  I must be getting old.  Once, I would've easily taken the knife and shoved it up his ass with his hand still holding it.  Instead, I surprised myself and backed down.

Tonya said, "I know you, and I need your Ranger training and experience in survival.  I want you to stay and help me.  If you do, I'll go easy on you."

"Do I have a choice?"

"No, but most of these people trust you, and you'll do what's right for them."

"I'll stay for them, not you."

Leave them and come to me.  You will be safe with me.

"Fair enough.  Give me some suggestions, and I'll tell them what to do," Tonya said with a pained expression, pressing her hand on her forehead.

"We need the basics; shelter, fire, water, and food.  Shelter's taken care of, and we have lighters for fire.  Being near the shore, and with the jungle around us, it will rain.  We can use the plastic trash cans to store fresh water from the downspouts.  Food's a problem.  All we have is what we brought with us today, and what's in the break room.  We need to gather what food we can and ration it until we can figure out what's in the jungle to eat.  We'll test the plants to see what's safe and edible."

"We don't have anything to test with," Tonya said.

"Sure, we do.  Rub a sample under your forearm hard enough to get a stain.  After about an hour, if you don't have a reaction, then it's probably safe.  It's a primitive method, but it works."

"What kinds of reactions?"

"Reddening on your arm, or feelings of nausea or dizziness.  Keep a sample of what was tested so you can start a list of what's good and bad."

"I'll get a group started on that.  What else?"

"We need to know if we're alone, so you could send a four-wheeler along the beach to see what's out there.  You could use one of the repos the bank has," I said.

"Rico, see if you can find the keys to the king cab pickup we just got."

"What about him?"

"Don't worry about him.  What else do I need to do?"

"We need to know what's outside, so everyone should go to the windows and watch for anything that moves."

"Follow me.  David, find a hacksaw and cut the hinges off the soda machine.  Everyone else, stay upstairs and go to the windows and watch for anything that moves.  Yell if you see anything."

***

When the soda machine was opened, we took the bottles to a corner office that became the supply room, and we gathered all the food we could find.  It was disappointing how little there was.

"Tonya, make sure everyone gets two of these plastic bottles.  With their caps, they'll act like canteens, so make sure they keep them.  The front doors are smashed in, so you'll have to block the stairwell to keep anything from getting up here."

"I'll take care of that later."

"Ray!  Ray!  Something's outside!"  Cherie shouted.

"What is it?"  I said, running to her.

"I don’t know."  Cherie moved close to me as I went to stand beside her at the window.  "Something flew by.  It was shiny and kind of egg-shaped."

Tonya raised her voice above the increased ruckus.  "Cherie, you call me if there's a problem, not him.  Don't think for one second either of you will take charge over me."

"I think it's time for a break."  I wanted to add "from you," but gazed out at the beach and jungle around us instead.  My thoughts flashed, You’re not in Kansas anymore.  I wonder what would happen….

"Did you just click your heels together?"  Cherie whispered from close beside me.

"It worked for Dorothy."

"Uh huh.  What's the word with you and Tonya?"

"She and her attack dog convinced me to stay and work for her."

"But you don't want to, do you?"

"When you have a knife at your throat, your options are somewhat limited."

"Oh."  She frowned. "Well, I'm glad you're staying."

Finally I saw a large silver egg hovering deep in the jungle canopy.  The moment I saw it, it backed into the jungle and disappeared.  When I started toward the back door for a closer look, Tonya appeared and said, "Where do you think you're going?"

"I have to take a leak, if it's all right with you."

"Use the toilet."

"There's no water to flush with," I said.

"All right, make it quick, and stay in sight."

When I walked toward the jungle, the voice returned and said, Come to me.

"What do you want?"

Someone is coming.

"Tonya sent me to keep an eye on you."  Cherie answered the question as she walked up behind me.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I think I'm hearing voices."

"Really?"

"Yeah, and I think the flying egg you saw has something to do with it."

Come to me.

Cherie groaned and pressed her hand to her forehead.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm getting a headache."

"Come on.  Let's get back inside before Tonya gets upset."

A pickup drove around the building and stopped by the back door.  Tonya came out and gave everyone their orders.

"I need to know if anyone else is around here.  You four drive along the beach for a couple of hours, then come back and tell me what you found.  Rico, get ten people from the windows and send them down here.  They're going to do some plant testing.  Ray, go upstairs and watch the truck from the drive-through lanes."

When I walked upstairs, the voice returned.

Please talk to me.

"Who are you?"

You are the only one I would choose.  Come to me.

I had the feeling I wanted to leave.  The feeling quickly became a craving, demanding my attention.

"I can't leave.  I have to stay and help my people survive."

You have given them what they need.  Come to me.

"Who're you talking to?"  Cherie said when she caught up to me.

"Nobody.  I was just thinking out loud."

"Are you sure it's not the voices you told me about?"

"Actually, it's only one voice."

"Does it answer you?"

"Yeah, and that's a bit scary."

"Do you know where it comes from?"

That female does not need your help.

"Oh, damn."  Cherie groaned and pressed her hands against her forehead.

"Headache again?"

"I don't know where it's coming from.  I don't get headaches like this."

"Come on, let's go watch the truck."

We opened a large window and crawled out on the teller lanes roof.  While we watched the truck's slow progress along the beach, a ground-shaking boom jolted us.  We looked up and saw a flaming meteor streaking across the sky.  When it disappeared over the horizon, we looked for the truck, but it was gone.

"Where'd it go?  It couldn't have gone out of sight that fast," Cherie said.

"Yeah.  Tonya, the truck's gone!  It just...disappeared!"

"Go find out what happened to it!  Cherie, go with him!"

We followed the tracks until they suddenly ended, as if the truck had been lifted into the air.  When I saw the head of a large creature resembling a plesiosaur rising out of the water, I grabbed Cherie by the arm and ran toward the jungle.  It watched us run with the crushed roof of the truck in its teeth.  Then, it tossed the metal aside, dipped its head, and disappeared.  We waited, desperately hoping someone would surface.

"They're dead.  They're all dead."  I sagged to my knees and knelt in silence, until Cherie insisted we leave.

When we approached the building everyone was standing outside.  No one spoke, but their silence was as devastating to my thoughts as trumpets blaring into my ears.  That is, until Tonya’s annoying voice shouted "This is your fault!"

"What?  How's it my fault?"

"You told me to send them!"

"No, I didn't.  You sent them!  You took over, not me!"

She wants to send you on the Long Walk.  That is unacceptable.

The silver egg flew over the building and dropped to a hover in front of us.

"Is that what you've been talking to?  Is it alive?"  Cherie said.

"I don't know," I said.

Tonya said, "You've been talking to that thing?  Since you're friends with it, go talk to it." She shoved me hard in the back.

Trying to keep my balance when I stumbled off a concrete step, I thought I was going to run into the silver thing, but it rose before I tumbled to the ground.  Then it took up a position between me and the others.

You must leave.

I scrambled to my feet when it moved toward me, and when I put my hand on it to push it back, I recoiled from an electric shock that knocked me down.  Everyone suddenly scattered and disappeared.

You must leave, now!

With the egg bumping me, shocking my ass as I was moved north, I hoped someone would follow me and give me a hand with the silver thing.  When I turned out of sight of the building, the egg stopped.

The pod will stay there to keep anyone from following you.  You must walk in this direction.  I turned my head in response to a pull from inside my head.

The heat and humidity were oppressive and I was going to take a break at a stream until I glimpsed movement out of the corner of my eye.  There was a head, like a giant alligator, just skimming the surface of the water as it came toward me.  I ran upstream, and then circled back through the jungle, looking for whatever it was.  I didn't see anything until a creature suddenly lunged from the water.  I scrambled into the jungle, tripping and stumbling through the thick brush until I couldn't see it anymore.  Then, I circled toward the beach again and peeked around a tree.  The creature had half its body on the beach, peering intently into the undergrowth until the silver pod swept in and shot it with some kind of energy weapon, driving it off the beach.  I slipped back into the jungle and moved quietly northward.

After slogging through the thick growth for a while, I headed toward the beach again.  I didn't see anything around, so I kept a wary eye and walked on.

Are you safe?

"What?  Yeah, I'm safe enough."

Continue in this direction.  You will come to a place where the water is far from the vegetation.  When you arrive, my people will come for you.  Then, she was gone again.

I should've been freaked out.  I'd been speaking to a voice that came and went inside my head.  I'd been knocked down and pushed around by some silver thing that could've easily killed me.  Certainly, I had fears and doubts, but somehow they seemed minor.  Maybe suppressed is a better word, but I wasn't doing it, that's for sure.

I began to wonder if this was how it started when people lost their minds.  Despite popular opinion, I was not crazy…I was sure of that.  To leave everyone behind was not the most sane to do, so I decided to head back, but felt resistance from inside my head.  I wanted to turn around, but I kept walking until I saw the silver pod flying toward me along the beach.  I stepped aside, hoping it would fly by, but it bumped against my leg, giving me another nasty shock.  It kept blocking my way so I turned around, and the pulling inside my head disappeared.  When I looked back, the silver pod was gone.  It had to be somewhere nearby, and I wasn't about to go another round with that thing so I kept walking.

It was early evening when the jungle curved away and a large beach spread out before me.

My transport is approaching.  Go with my people.

The transport crossing the shoreline was large, oval-shaped, and flat-bottomed as it silently floated above the water.  When it approached, my hair crackled and sparked with static electricity that stopped when it settled to the sand.  A curved seam pulled back, and something stepped out that was about twelve feet tall with dark gray skin, wearing a snug fitting top blending into shorts that revealed tattoos etched on the upper thighs.  The head and face resembled a horse with large eyes; the hands had three fingers and a thumb, and it had a tail carried upward in an arc behind it.  The legs were double jointed like a kangaroos, but were more muscular.  There was a gentle rise under the shirt, making me suspect this was a female, and was not a reptile, but a mammal, or maybe both.  Her long hair was easily ruffled by the breeze.

Another one stepped out behind her and was apparently male, judging by the absence of a shirt and the tight fitting shorts covering the waist to the upper thighs.  He was shorter than the other one, with brush-like hair going down the back of his long neck.

The female walked toward me with a smooth, easy grace that belied her gangly appearance.  She squatted in front of me, and even in her seated position she towered over me.  Part of me wanted to run, but I could only stand in fascination.  She gently smiled and slowly extended an open hand to me.  Curiosity extended my hand to touch hers, bending at the waist because my feet seemed rooted to the sand.  Her hand was warm, and as she closed it around mine, I felt a powerful, controlled strength.  I knew I couldn't resist these things, even if I tried, so I surrendered myself to whatever fate had in store for me, and took a step toward her.  With a toothy smile that scared me at first, she stood and gently led me to the transport.  The male had squatted and extended his hands to me, palms up, his chin on his chest.

It is a greeting.  Touch your hands on his.

When I touched my palms on his, he lifted his head and stood up.  As I turned back, I noticed the female had assumed a similar stance, but her palms were down.

Turn your hands up to her.  She gently pressed her palms on mine.  Get into the transport.  I want you here.

When we entered, the male moved to a control panel, squatted, and wrapped his tail around a thick post set in the floor.  The female wrapped her tail around another post, and when I sat on the floor, she easily picked me up and set me in her lap.  It was very uncomfortable for me, on many different levels.

When the transport lifted and pivoted toward the water, the walls became transparent.  Quickly gaining speed, we left the sand and sped low over the water.  Suddenly, a plesiosaur-like creature reared up in front of us and opened its jaws.  A surprised squawk came from the pilot as the female wrapped her arms around me.  The loud thudding impact caused the transport to lurch and shudder.  I squirmed around to see the thing thrashing in the water as we sped away.

Are you damaged?

"Damaged?  No, I'm not hurt."  I looked up, and the female smiled at me again.

You will be here soon.  You will be safe with me.

After a short flight we approached a volcanic island.  The craft we were in climbed steeply and slowed, drifting over a large plateau until we settled to the ground amid many domes and a large pond.  When the door opened the female took my hand, and we walked to an elegantly-dressed female wearing robes.  The first thing I noticed was a large blue gem suspended between her eyes by a circlet on her head; the second, a scepter wrapped in her tail held above her right shoulder.

I stood very still, placed my chin on my chest, and extended my hands, palms up, like I'd been told.  She closed the distance between us, squatted, and covered my palms with hers.

Welcome to my colony, Raymond.

"You know me, but I don't know who you are.  Do you have a name?"

I am Ambrisseethsss, the High One of my colony.

"Can I call you Amber?"  I couldn't believe I’d blurted that out.

Amber is acceptable for conversations between….

Suddenly, a raging headache grayed everything out.


Chapter 2

Downloaded

 

I was struggling with consciousness until I heard rustling sounds, like someone walking through grass.  A gentle pushing began inside my head again, so I kept my eyes closed in case someone was watching.

I have reestablished the link, but I cannot hear him.  Why is he still damaged?

This is a new species, and I can only estimate his condition until I can examine him in detail.  I must remind you about the Kalmarins.  He is similar to them in many ways.

I have not forgotten the Kalmarins.  It is very sad they could not endure our contact.  Can you do anything for him?

It will take time to complete my examinations.  Oracle!  You have not been summoned.

I will examine this new species.  I felt something touch my forehead, hard and warm with an electric tingle.  The male will recover on his own.  Leave him to rest.

The light faded and I was left in silence, so I took a chance and opened one eye, just a crack.  I was naked and alone on a table in what resembled a hospital operating room, which didn't give me a good feeling.  Looking over the side of the table, I saw the floor a long way down, so I sat up and quietly dropped to it.  What felt like grass caressed my bare feet, but it felt strange because it seemed to move.  When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I located my clothes and got dressed, then I crept to the door and peeked out, but there was no one around.  I walked out and saw the first light of morning beginning to show on the horizon.  These people would be waking soon, and I thought I'd better go back to the hospital before I was missed.

When I turned I bumped into someone, even though I hadn't heard anyone approach.  I could see it was a female as she squatted, looking at me, and as strange as it may sound, I still felt no fear.  I extended my hands in greeting as I had been told, and she pressed her palms down on mine.

How do you feel?

It was Amber.  I recognized the soft feeling in my head as the voice who had been speaking to me at the bank.

"I'm getting better."

I was very concerned when you fell.

"I was fine until we left the transport, then it hit me all at once.  It may be dehydration."

The High Draasen?  Do you have Draasen on your home world?

"Uh, no.  Is that what you're called, Draasen?"

Yes.  Our healer wants to examine you, but not until we bathe and have a feeding.  I will stay with you to be sure she does not damage you.  She spoke inside my mind as she smiled at me.

"I'm not sure if I should bathe with you.  I'm a stranger here."

You are not a stranger to me.

She extended her hand, and with only a little hesitation, I took it.  When I did, my mind was filled with incredible notions, not the least of which was that I was comfortable, like I'd always been there.

The bathing pool was at least three hundred feet across and about forty feet deep at the base of a volcanic mountain, getting shallow toward the steep cliffs where water ran over to the sea far below.  Amber removed her clothes and sprang into the air, twisting to land on her back with a splash that drenched me.

Coming in?

"Why not?  I'm already wet."

After undressing, I eased into the water and found a rocky ledge where I could sit and watch what was going on.

One female jump in, and it was easy to follow her movements in the clear water.  She stayed under a very long time, and didn't seem to be in any distress when she surfaced to take a breath.  Amber surfaced beside me and cleared her nose with a blast of air.

Why were you watching that female?

"I was curious to see how long she could stay under water."

Amber turned to look at the female, and then said, She is not for you to look at.  Come with me to the scrubbing ledge.

I pushed off the side and started swimming until Amber surfaced under me, supporting me.  We arrived at the shallow end of the pool and I slipped off Amber's back.  Touching bottom, I found the shallow end was still just over my head.  She picked me up, placed me on the hip-deep scrubbing ledge, and handed me a firm, sponge-like object she called a scrubber.  The bathers washed their own backs with their tails wrapped around the scrubber, although mutual back scrubbing appeared to be very satisfying.

Amber was scrubbing her back with her tail and her stomach with one hand when she offered to scrub my back.  I became self-conscious because I was butt-naked in front of everyone.

Is something wrong?

"No, not really."

She turned me around and washed my back with the scrubber, vigorously at first and then more gently.  I arched my back because it did feel good, but no matter how good it felt, I had questions needing answers.

"Why have I been brought here?"

Other things need to be done.  We will have first feeding, and you will be seen by our healer again.  Before any of that will happen, you need to rub off the scrub.  She slipped her tail between my legs, flipped me into the air, and I landed with an awkward splash.

As I tread water, I watched Amber swim deep into the pool.  She was very graceful, arching her back to change direction, rolling repeatedly while she swam with others near the hot springs at the bottom.

When I sat on my ledge again, Amber surfaced and placed her chin on the rocks beside me.

Are you ready to begin?

"I guess, but I don't want to take you from your bathing," I said, extending my hand to rub the side of her wet cheek.

She closed her eyes, apparently enjoying my attention.  I couldn't understand why I was so much at ease with these people, with her in particular.

Do you like me?

"Yes."  I was surprised by my answer because it didn't seem to come from me.

Good.  We will begin.  We rose from the water and walked to a nearby dome.

Inside, Amber took a piece of light gray fabric from one of the shelves.  The fabric was smooth like satin, and elastic like spandex.  She put the fabric over her head through a hole in the middle, and settled it over her shoulders.  Then, she took a thick rod from a shelf, pinched the fabric together under her right arm, and touched the rod on the fabric beside her fingers.  Right before my eyes, the fabric sealed the side from under her arm to the bottom.  Changing sides, she created the left seam.  She then pinched the fabric together between her legs, touched the rod there, and the fabric sealed all the way up her legs.  When she spread her legs and it split up the middle to become shorts, and when she pressed the rod on her stomach it formed around her, close to the skin.  The fabric became the clothes these people wore.

Amber took another fabric and wrapped it around my waist.  There was a large overlap where the fabric ended, and it hung below my knees like a long skirt.  She pinched the fabric at the overlap, touched the rod to it, and it formed around my waist.  She then pinched the fabric between my legs, touched the rod there, and it formed around my legs.  When I spread my legs, it ripped easily up the middle, and I was wearing pedal pushers.

"That's amazing.  How does it work?"

It is time for first feeding.

We made our way to a covered area where everyone was gathering.  Several males arrived with heaping trays of food from one of the caves.

Everything is safe for you to eat.  Please try everything.

When I settled on a tall stool set out for me, I looked for the basic eating utensils, but there were none.  Everyone waited until Amber squatted beside me and her tongue speared out, wrapping around what appeared to be a large round steak on one of the trays.  When she drew it back to her mouth, it sparked a flurry of tongues from all around the table.  Those closer to the trays were using retractable claws, which looked more like daggers when they appeared from their fingertips.  Feeding could be mistaken for a food fight, because those who couldn't reach a tray had items tossed to them, using either tongue or claw.  I watched in amused fascination at the food being thrown around, but no one missed a catch.

Not hungry?  Amber said.

"My tongue is not like yours, and I don't have claws.  Should I just grab something with my fingers?"

Suddenly, a steak-like item was hovering in front of my face on the end of Amber's tongue.  I took it in my hands and closely looked at it.

"What are these?"

They come from a nearby colony.  We harvest them from fast growing-trees and process them in the preparation area.

That was the last time I asked about anything on the table, because I really didn't need to know.  After years as a Ranger, I was accustomed to eating strange stuff.  I was hungry and there were trays of food heaped in front of me, so I bit into the steak-like offering, and smiled at the thought, It tastes like chicken.  I sampled everything, and although nothing was inedible, there were some things I wished I hadn't tasted.

Are you still hungry?

"No, High One, thank you."  I noticed when I spoke aloud, their ears turned toward me. "High One, whenever I speak to you, others appear to be listening.  Do they understand what I am saying?"

Everyone is listening and learning.  Almost everyone is happy with my choice, and they want to know you.

"You don't seem to have any problem understanding me."

I have watched you since your arrival, and I have listened to you very carefully.  You were the only one who would speak with me.

A floating ball, the size of a softball with shifting, multicolor hues, sped to the table and landed on Amber's forehead.

"Hey, get off her!"  I sprang up to yank the ball from her head.

In mid-jump, I was lassoed by tongues and fell on the table.  While I struggled with the bindings, the ball left Amber's forehead and landed on mine.  The connection was powerful and direct, with none of the gentleness I felt with Amber.

You would defend the High One at the risk of your own existence.  The thing seemed to contemplate what had happened.  No, not contemplate, calculate. You are acceptable.

 The ball left me and moved back to Amber, touching her forehead again.  I wanted that thing off her.  I didn't know why, I just did.  When Amber was released, she opened her eyes, and they had changed to a bright green.  Amber picked me up and held me tightly to her, excitedly stroking her long chin across the top of my head.

I knew my choice was correct!  I knew you would be acceptable!

"What happened?"

I was going to tell you why you have been chosen, but Oracle disagreed.  I was disobedient to protocols and Oracle came to remind me, but when you came to defend me, Oracle made its decision about you, and we agree you are acceptable.

"Would it hurt you?"

No, but Oracle can be insistent with reminders.

"What happens now?"

I want you to become a member of Draasen society.  For non-Draasen hatched individuals, there are three steps to be taken for acceptance; Escort, Consort, and Surrogate.  Will you take the First Step of Acceptance with me?

What's the First Step of Acceptance?

The First Step of Acceptance is called escort.  You would become escort to the High One, and I would become your escort as well.  Our pledge is to accept each other, nothing more.  You will be linked to me, and the connection must be renewed every suns rise, or it will dissolve on its own like it did when you arrived.  Raymond, will you accept me as your escort?

With the feeling I was being led somewhere, I placed my chin on my chest, extended my hands, palms up, and said "High One, I accept your offer as escort."

Amber squatted and pressed her palms down on mine, and then gently squeezed my hands.  Somehow, I felt she was very happy.

I cleared my throat, unsure what to say.  "What do we do now?"

We go to see our healer.  She took my hand and a path cleared for us as others moved aside.

When we arrived at the hospital, Amber approached the healer and they pressed their foreheads together.  When they separated, Amber picked me up and put me on the table.

"What was that head bump about?"

The one who hatched me is happy for me, Amber said.

"What's your name?" I asked the healer.

I have selected Ssurlanaseethesess.

"Can I call you Lana?"

You may call me Lana.

For the remainder of the morning I was subjected to the typical poking and prodding all doctors do.  Lana must have used a dozen devices on me, but I didn't feel anything, but one device she used I found especially interesting.  She wore it like a gauntlet extending halfway up her arm, and when she pressed and rubbed it all over my body, a hologram-like image formed in front of me.  She removed the gauntlet and picked up a device similar to a large TV remote she used to manipulate the image.

You are very similar to a Kalmarin.

"What's a Kalmarin?"

She tapped the device and a new image appeared.  It looked like an aquatic human; about eight feet tall, long fingers and toes, with webbing between them extending outward like flippers.  The head was bald with slits for a nose and a circular mouth.  Openings in the side of the head showed where ears would've been, and the eyes were large and round.

"Can I see what's inside this thing?"

The skin disappeared, leaving a transparent skeleton with the internal organs behind it.  There were some differences, especially the lungs, and it had an extra organ of some kind near the heart.  I wondered why it looked so human.

"Are we finished?"  I said, suddenly feeling heartbroken.

I have what I need for now, Lana said, looking at Amber.

Amber squatted in front of me, held my chin in her fingers, and gently lifted my head.

Why are you unhappy?

"Why am I here?  I've been taken from my home and family, and I don't know why."

Oracle may be able to help.

"Will Oracle help after I tried to knock it off you?"

Amber and Lana exchanged a knowing smile.

Oracle may have the answers you need.

As if on cue, Oracle floated into the hospital, stopped just off the end of my nose, and said Come to my structure, and floated out again.

"I guess we go see Oracle."

You will see Oracle.  I must wait outside.

When we approached Oracle's dome, the door slid open.  Amber let go of my hand and gestured for me to go inside.  Oracle was in the center of the dome on top of what looked like a shaft of light.  Light glowed from the walls when the door closed.

Welcome to my center.

"What do you want?"

I want to take your memories to study.

"No, whoa, wait a minute.  I need my memories.  You can't have them."

I will rephrase.  I want to assimilate your memories into my reasoning centers.  Your intellect will remain undisturbed.  It appears to be similar to the Kalmarins.  I already know how to assimilate memories from them.

Oracle left his post and floated over me, stopping just in front of my forehead.

Close your eye coverings.

"Eye coverings?  Eyelids, they're eyelids."

You are safe.  Think of nothing.

I waited for something to happen.  When I opened my eyes again, Oracle was back on its post.

The scan is complete.  I will summon you when I have completed my analysis.  The High One requires your attention.

Amber was where I’d left her, and the suns were already high in the sky.

How do you feel?

"Tired, confused, thirsty, and hungry."

We will get a feeding.

When we walked toward a cave entrance, I suddenly got a headache that almost split my head open.  As everything grayed out, my last memory was of Amber carrying me.

***

When I came to, I recognized the ceiling of the hospital with Oracle at the center.  I saw Amber and Lana examining an enlarged image of my brain.

Feeling better, I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the table.  Oracle dropped from the ceiling, attached itself to my forehead, and I passed out again.

When I came to, Amber was holding me upright, and she looked like she might burst into tears at any moment.  Oracle floated to Amber's forehead, and she leaned toward me, took my head in her hands, and touched my forehead to Oracle.  I felt unusual sensations inside my head; pressure and buzzing.

Can you hear me?  Amber said, with much more clarity than I had heard before.

"Yes, what happened?"

Oracle said, Your brain structure can now maintain telepathic contact on its own, but only with modifications I have made.

"What modifications?  You could've fried my brain!"

The reason you lose consciousness is the link the High One established deteriorated each time contact was made and disconnected.  My scan of your memories accelerated the speed of the link deterioration.  Return to my structure.  There are many items in need of explanation.

He will not return until we have had a feeding and rest.  We will come to your dome next suns, Amber said in a manner that would not tolerate argument.

We went toward the feeding table where everyone was gathering for second feeding.

When you fell, the link stopped again.  I was very worried I’d lost you.

"It feels different this time," I said, pointing to my head.  She seemed very happy as she picked me up and carried me to the table, where she sat me in her lap and got various items for me to sample.

All day long, I had been poked and prodded, quizzed and modified, and Amber had been at my side every moment.

"High One, am I keeping you from whatever you do?"

I have shared duties with junior females who can use the experience.  Everything is as it should be.  It is time to rest.

"That's a good idea.  Which dome is mine?"

We share the same structure and rest together.  There is no safer place anywhere.

I caught my tongue and my thoughts.  I hadn't anticipated we'd be sleeping together as we walked toward her dome, hoping an out would present itself.

When we arrived at Amber's dome, the walls glowed with light.  Shelves on the wall displayed her scepter, robes, and the blue gem circlet prominently.  The center of the floor was dominated by a depression with a blue covering, and when Amber walked on it, it distorted with her steps.  She settled on her side and looked at me.

It is very comfortable.  Please join me, she said, patting the space in front of her.

The out I hoped for didn't appear.