This story is posted for the exclusive enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. While you are free to make a personal copy, no copy of this manuscript may be published, copied, posted to another web site, or otherwise disseminated without express permission from the author, who retains copyright.
The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to living or lived persons is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.
Chapter V - Groth
The next couple of days were a blur, as I somehow managed to get the Garage up and running - at least in theory - before the weekend was over. I started on B. B.'s Deere right after breakfast at Charlene's. As I thought, I had to grind two of the outlet valves, all deposited with diamond-hard carbon, and replace the distributor, cracked on the side by excess heat. I had the engine apart in a hour or so - good engineering at Deere makes it easier than some.
KP&L arrived around ten o'clock, armed with a sheaf of drawings what Gary musta give 'em yesterday afternoon. They was pretty good guys, made a couple of tests of the circuits for load carrying capacity, and switched me on around dinner time. Acourse, by that time, I'd already done the grinding on the valves using the little generator, but it was good to know the power was there again, anyway. I called B.B. that afternoon to let him know the Deere would be ready for pick-up that night, but his phone just rang. I figured he'd forgot to put on the answer recorder. The rest of the day, I hosed out the Shop, uncovered the machinery at the first three work bays, moved a lot of junk I wouldn't need, some of it over the top of the Shop. The old monoplane up there was just a shell - the engine and prop was gone, and a lot of the copper wiring had been pulled out. I power-hosed out the dust on the Hangar floor, or at least a goodly part of it. Just hosed it out the back door.
I got home late, fed the hens, and stuffed my belly. I was real hungry, even though I'd et a first rate warm-up from Charlene's for Dinner. I et the other half of the chicken, a load of greens and carrots, a whole frozen packet of last winter's squash, a quart and a half of fresh cold milk, some cheese and crackers, a couple pieces of fruit.
My gums ached, but I et all the same. I even sat on the porch for a few minutes, downing a finger of Bourbon with a splash of water in two sips. The sunset was long gone, replaced by a slightly red line on the Southwest horizon. My mind was full of a mish-mash of thoughts about the Shop, Groth, the things that was happening to my body, the handsome young B.B., the mechanics that was coming over tomorrow. I finally got up and washed the glasses and headed up to bed.
When I showered, I was afraid to look, but I couldn't stop myself. My body was still shedding hair - there was another pile of it in the drain. There was red skin all over my chest and forearms, my lower legs, and what looked like maybe blonde hairs growing out in a patch in the middle of my chest, like peach fuzz. My muscles were more ropy under the skin, which seemed thinner somehow. Roger was . . . thicker, longer, and smoother than I recollected.
I was tired of being worried about what was happening to me, so I just jerked off and went to bed. I don't remember my dreams, but apparently jerking off wasn't enough. My pajama bottoms were sticky with semen - or at least my own lube - when I woke to Chester's clarion.
I did the chores, then did something I never did before. I got so horny I couldn't think straight when Chester mounted one and then another of the hens, taking advantage of the grain on the ground like always. I walked over to the side of the house, stood there in the dawn and dropped my jeans and jerked off, thinking only about kissing that handsome, smiling, wholesome face. Not Groth. Young B.B.
B.B. called me at breakfast at Charlene's while I was mopping up the last of an egg yolk with a remnant of biscuit, and we arranged that I'd drive the Deere to his place, he'd carry me home that evening, then he'd carry me in to the Hangar the following morning. He didn't have my phone number at home, and said he didn't want to bother me the night before. I reminded him that he had no need of an excuse to stop by.
I spent the whole day at the Hangar, setting up two work stations, calling around to see what was available in the way of decent mechanics, setting up that a few would stop by and see if they was interested. I told 'em all I'd pay the scale, at least to start, but no benefits for the first year, medical after that, and pension plan after that. Nobody seemed to worry on it. I power-hosed out the Hangar again, just to keep the dust down. The markings on the concrete might as well have been painted the month before, they were so fresh looking.
When I left at six, the Shop was ready for bear. After I dropped the Deere at B.B.'s place, he drove me home on his way to Charlene's for supper. There was an almost embarrassing silence between us until we were at my front door.
"Okay I stop on the way back for a few minutes?" he asked, a little shyly.
"Be wrong not to," I said, feeling a little edgy for some reason. "See you later." He gave me a grin and a half-ass salute, and roared off down the drive towards town.
I fed the hens, then zapped an Elva special in the microwave. I et it all with a quart of milk, then found some leftover roast beef, a can of chile, something else I don't recall. I was eating a lot more since - well, admit it, since I got fired - but I didn't seem to be crapping more than usual, just peeing every half hour or so. an I wasn't getting fat that I could tell.
When B.B. got to the house, Jerry had come over and was on the porch with me, talking about the Primaries. B.B. only had a finger of whiskey and a couple of minutes jaw time with us before taking his leave and heading home. He looked tired, but handsome as ever. I wondered if he'd been up late with Beth Adams the night before, and at once felt a touch of I-don't-know-what. Parental concern that he was wasting time on her? Worries about his health? Jealousy? (Of what, I didn't dare ask myself. His youth? Not really - who would want to be so young, just starting out, all this uncertainty, alone?)
That was the night that Jerry finally told me that he didn't figure he'd make next Spring's planting, seeing as how the cancer was creeping through his liver. I'd never let on that I already knew. I knew, 'cause Andy Johnson had filled me in, but swore me to keep my counsel. But I didn't want to know, not really.
Jerry wanted me to promise to look after Elva. As if I wouldn't. Told me he didn't want no long drawn-out passing, that Andy had promised him that once the end started, he'd make sure it was quick and painless. Andy's a good man, good as his Dad - he'd never make one of his "family" go through a long time of suffering.
I swore to him he would be able to look down and see that Elva was being looked after proper.
I didn't cry until I was in my bed, and let the sobs go through me. Jerry is more like my brother than a real brother. So good to Elva, never pounded on her, ever, honored her his whole life. (Jerry told me a few years ago that he was still a virgin when him and Elva married, and he'd never once so much as kissed another woman on the lips since they went on their honeymoon on a paddlewheel steamer all the way from Kansas City to New Orleans, then took the train back.)
When BB picked me up the next morning in his big Ram pickup, he already had a cup of fresh-brew coffee in the holder for me, I remember. Just like I likes it, too - just a drop of cream to round the corners. He musta talked to Charlene. He said the Deere sounded better than ever, and asked me how he was to pay, by scrip or have the bank pay me and add it to his loan account. I told him I never took the bank's blood money, and he was to pay me when he got the money from his crops, and breakfast was included, thank you very much.
We ate in the second booth, and talked about nothing and everything, I don't remember except I was drowning in his smile, his wit, his love of life, his enthusiasm. I was sorry later to see him leave after a quick zip up to the Hangar to let me off after coffee and a platter, but he's got his work in front of him, that old farm all on his own.
I et with Elva and Jerry a couple of times that week, and they filled me in on the latest on my two nephews, Dave and Darrell. Dave was in Phoenix working for some computer chip company, and Darrell was based at some Air Force place in Southern California. They each had two kids, all boys, all in High School or College, all looking fine in the dozens of pictures they sent home instead of coming for a visit. I haven't ever met any of 'em except Darrell's first wife, that gave him no kids, a big car payment, and credit cards all maxed out in just six months before she run off with another guy. Didn't like her when I met her; kept my mouth shut. At least my nephews carried on the family, if not the name.
Naturally, Elva sent me home with a basket full of frozen meals to use those nights when I didn't have the energy to cook for myself. She's the kind of sister only a few of us are lucky enough to have. I wondered how she would cope without her Jerry.
I hoped that maybe B.B. would stop for a jaw of an evening, but he didn't. No point in being disappointed - what does a buck like him have in common with an old goat like me?
A day or two later, I hired me a young guy from Grainfield named Rob Greene what worked at Sweeney's for five years. He was to be my second mechanic, and his cousin Cary Fox I took on as an apprentice. Rob was 27, knew engines pretty good, but not really perfect - then again, I wasn't looking for a Master. Cary was 19, and struck me as right bright. You could tell he worshipped Rob, so I figured he'd do whatever it took to learn enough to make his cousin proud. They both started on Monday, just when I got in the first emergency, old man Dreeson's '86 Deere, what blew the side outta the main seal, what got put in with a crease. Sweeney's cut a few too many corners, these last coupla years. Rob had it tore down pretty good in about an hour longer than I woulda took, but he's young, he'll learn. Cary was like a happy pup, fetching tools, wiping grease, absorbing information. You could almost see his tail wag every time Rob said 'thanks.'
Working with them both was a real pleasure after old Will and Ronnie. They joked around a little, had a good laugh at their own expense, livened the place up a bit. Plus, they was both willing to learn, didn't put up a wall of indifference. They got to work early, went home on time or a little after, worked diligently. What more could I ask. A couple of times, I thought maybe they was a little too joined at the hip, but chalked that up to being a old fart.
During the week, Deere shipped me a Diagnostic Unit at no charge up-front, agreeing to credit me a 5% commission on Deere parts or equipment sold until the unit was paid off. Cat didn't go quite as far, but they only made me pay 25% down, with a 7.5% commission override pay-down, then the fixed rate of 8% - their unit arrived the same afternoon. IH cut me the same deal as Deere - I figure they was all worried as how the disappearance of Sweeney's would cut into their sales. And like I said, they wasn't another decent garage for fifty mile. Hope that offends you, Ronnie..
I was eating aspirins four times a day against the pain in my gums, and had an appointment with Doc. Friedman in Salina on Tuesday. My skin felt like I had poison oak, constantly itching, especially my scalp, which now had a sort of dandruff or some'at flaking off. All my toenails was about to fall off (the little ones already had, and new ones was already growing in), it hurt to read any more with my cheaters, what I somehow didn't need all that much no more anyhow, and I felt a dull ache everywhere inside my body. I was also jerking off every night, and out of necessity - not remembrance of things passed. I couldn't keep from thinkin' on young B.B., try as I would to think on Mary. I felt guilty as hell after every session, but it felt damn good.
Tuesday morning, I worked with young Rob and his cousin, showing them how the seal should get spread so as not to wrinkle up when the reassembly was going on, then took the old pickup into Salina to see Abe Friedman about my teeth. I got ushered right into his chair, unlike the last time, when I had to wait near an hour past my appointment time before he saw me.
"So what's going on in that big mouth of yours, GB?" He's called me GB ever since I started goin' to him. Had another patient named Graham Barker, he said, and didn't want to get hisself all confused. He had his back to me, lookin' at the charts.
"Dentures hurt like bejesus, Abe. I use double the adhesive, like you told me, but I can't get 'em comfortable fer the life of me."
Abe turned on the powerful overhead light and looked down at me. He just looked at me and didn't say nothin' fer a minute.
"You . . . uh, you have some kinda face-lift, Graham?"
"Don't be daft, Abe. That's fer women in Hollywood."
"Somethin' tells me you either lie good or you been getting some," he laughed. "I've never seen you looking so . . . healthy."
"Yeah, funny thing," I said back at him, a little nervously. "My nose seems to a shrunk some. I don't know why, though. I haven't stopped drinkin' bourbon."
"Any other changes?"
"Yeah, well, I got fired at Charlie's, and I'm setting up on my own."
"Do it every time," he chuckled. "You're probably working so hard, you're burning off even the fat in your face! Let's see what's going on in there, though."
I opened wide, and he felt my gums with his rubber-gloved hands.
"Yep, all swollen up," he said. "You allergic to anything?"
"Lawyers," I said. "And expensive dentists."
"Let's get an X-ray, full mouth, eh?" he said with a laugh.
So I follows him into this little closet, put my chin on the steel cup, and the machine whizzed around from left to right. No thick film, just a light-colored piece of soft plastic in my mouth, which surprised me. He told me it was the latest technology, computer stuff he didn't even pretend to understand.
By the time I was back in the chair and he'd checked for something on my upper jaw and felt around for Cancer like they does now, his assistant had brought in the picture. He sat on a stool and looked at it for a few minutes, pulled another piece of film out of his folder, looked at it for a while, then back at the new one.
"This may hurt a little," he said as his fingers went back into my mouth. Some men are blessed with small hands, and I was glad his were about the smallest hands I knew. He rubbed my gum on the top and the sides in a couple of places, asking if there was any sharp pain, but it was just the dull ache except in a couple of places where it hurt heavy, but dull, not sharp.
"Looks like you have some bone fragments, maybe even tooth fragments in the old tooth sockets," he said. "Probably reacting to a change in diet, just a little inflamed. What I don't like, is that there's one in every socket, about the size of a pencil lead, right at the bottom." He picked up the new film and showed it to me. "See where these little devils are?" He pointed out white spots well below the gum surface, in the midst of the bone.
Looked like sharp little teeth to me. No wonder they hurt. "So what do we do?" I asked. Abe always spoke of "we" not me or him.
"We're going to have to keep an eye on them, and if they grow at all, we'll have to go in and get them out. Sometimes the body tries to make a new tooth where the old one was if it gets pulled. Never gets to be much of a tooth though. Never saw all of 'em start up flaring like that before."
"Great. You told me when you extracted them all that I'd at worst have a receding gum line. I never thought I'd have to go through that again!" Getting 32 - well, in my case, 22 - teeth pulled all at once is not fun, believe me. Wish I'd had my teeth cleaned more often, then I'd a not had all them abcesses an' cavities an' all, much less the thing that makes the bone melt.
"Well, here's an option. We'll fit another couple of plates, bigger pockets, see if that don't solve the problem," he said as he pulled out the drawer full of upper and lower ready-mades.
Twenty minutes later, I walked out with a new set of chompers, a mouth full of that cinnamon clove adhesive flavor, and a heavier credit card. $460 heavier, to be exact. At least it didn't hurt so much to bite down. But the ache was still there.
I drove back to Katy, stopping at the Wal-Mart at the big center outside Salina to pick up a few things, some new T-shirts and boxers to replace the ones what was getting frayed. The store was packed, and I felt a lot better once I was back on the Interstate, away from all them people.
I didn't bother to go back to the Hangar, as it was already supper time by the time I got there. I threw together a chicken and green bean cobble and baked it in the oven, ate and washed up. Abe was right - it didn't hurt so much to chew, but my gums was still tender. They ached like the little devils was dancing.
After I did the evening chores, I was settin' on my porch with a fine sunset on the screen, working on a second finger of bourbon, sort of deadening the hurt, when a car game up Gove towards Katy. I was surprised to see B.B. turn into the drive, then drive up in his Ram and step up to the porch. I figured maybe he had a problem with the Deere again, and resigned myself to go out and look at it, despite my aching gums and burning skin.
"Hey," he said at the bottom of the steps.
"Hey," I said back. "Thirsty?"
He grinned at me. "Thought I'd take you up on that offer," he said, coming up the steps. "Got sick of the sound of my own voice."
I pulled the bottle of bourbon out from the rack under the table, and showed him the label.
"This do you?" I asked. "I got Jack in the house, and I think there's some Scotch somewhere."
"Does me fine," he said as he settled into the chair catty corner and I produced a glass. "Fine show tonight."
"Ayuh," I reckoned, pouring a couple of fingers for him. "We're truly blessed." I handed him the glass.
"With friends and Nature," he said, in a mock toast, raising his glass to his lips.
I raised my glass to him as well, looking at the notch in his cheek where the cheekbone and brow created an almost semi-circle, and his eyelashes stood out against the orange-white cumulus low on the northwest horizon. "To Friends," I said.
"You losin' weight, Graham?" he asked out of the blue.
"Nope!" I said with a grin. "I actually put on a coupla pounds last I got on the balance."
"You look . . . thinner. Maybe almost a little younger."
"It's all this work at the Hangar, maybe," I said. I'd noticed it too, though. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something going on with my body I didn't rightly get. The creases was gone outta my forehead some, and around my eyes, on my arms and neck. My belly seems to be getting less and less loose, and the moles and stuff on my chest and shoulders seem to be fading away. My face doesn't look right to me, changing.
"Doing you a pile of good, I reckon," he said. looking away from my chest.
"I sleeps good, that's fer sure," I chuckled.
"I wanted to ask you something," B.B. said after a long pause. "Something kinda, uh, personal."
"Ayuh," I said, afraid to say any more. It sounded a little serious.
"Well, I . . . I kinda wondered if maybe you . . . I mean, being out here all alone and all, if maybe you wouldn't mind having supper with me some time or other. I liked it last week when we talked over Mom's table."
I looked at him from the corner of my eye. He was starin' at his hands, twisting the glass. Like a young fella asking for a date . . .
"I'd like that," I said softly. "I'd like that a lot."
"I don't cook a lot," he said after he let out a long breath. "Don't seem to make sense for just me. But I'd like to fix you a meal. Just down home stuff, you know, nothin' special."
"I know, B.B.," I said. "I went through that fer a long time after Mary . . . passed."
He didn't say anything.
"When's best fer ya?"
"I thought maybe tomorrow?" he said. "I got that calf I had to put down Thursday, the one with weak legs snapped it's foreleg, and my freezer won't hold any more of it. Mom's got half of it in hers, too. I hung it for two days, so it should be tender."
"Be a real pleasure," I said. "I ain't been in that house since Hal an' Lynn's Silver 'versary, maybe five years ago. A real party."
"I'd like to have a party some day," he said. "Have the neighbors over for barbecue and cider, maybe."
He looked at me for a minute, not sippin' or nothing, just lookin' fer words.
"I get . . . I miss having . . . all my friends from school have gone, you know, jobs away from here, school, or startin' their own families and they don't have time for a farmer boy who doesn't . . . who isn't . . . married."
Oh, shit, what was he tryin' ta tell me. My chest was all gripped up. I took a sip of whiskey, trying to find the right words.
"Not gonna marry, are ya, son?" I said as gently as I could.
B.B. looked out at the dying embers of the sunset, and I could see his eyes glistening, like they was about to flow. He didn't answer.
"It's okay, I ain't gonna judge ya worse," I said in as normal a tone as I could. "I known you all yer life, B.B., ain't nothing you could tell me what would make me think worse on ya."
"I didn't ask to be . . . this way," he almost whispered. "I can't help it, Graham, I just am."
"Told anybody else? Yer Mom? Reverend Foster?"
"God, no!" his voice was stronger. The worst was over, he done got it off his chest a little. "Can't you just hear the fire and brimstone? The sermons on abominations?"
There was a bitter sweetness to the laugh, like when you try to make a joke to show a bad cut ain't all that bad while Doc Andy is stitchin' it up.
"You done anythin' 'bout it yet?"
"No!" he said a little too loud. "I mean . . . me and a friend, we kinda experimented, but it . . . we never, uh . . . we never said anything about . . . It was just . . . getting our rocks off. I never kissed him or anything."
"It ain't gonna be an easy path," I said, trying not to get too close. Now, especially now, I couldn't let him know what a dirty old man I was, fantasizing on him like I'd been doing for the past few days.
"Are you . . . ?" he started, but faltered. "I better go," he said downing the last of his glass, standing at the same time.
"What time you want me to supper?" I asked as he bounded down the steps. "I make a pretty good cider - got some in the cellar. Saving it fer a party."
He stopped at the bottom and turned to look up at me. He had a smile and a tear, all at the same time.
"You'll still come?"
"I done tol' you, B.B. I don't never go back on what I say. Never. Ain't nothin' ya told me what makes me think any less on ya. I'm proud you felt you could tell me. Right proud."
He turned, surreptitiously wiping his eye with his sleeve. (Had to look up the spelling on that, but I knew what the word meant. I'm getting better at writing as I practice.)
"Thanks Graham," he called as he went 'round the big nose of his pickup.
"I'm comin' right from the Hangar," I called out. "Be there around half six."
"Don't forget the cider!" he hollered as he started her up.
"See ya!" I raised my glass to him.
He tap-honked and pulled around and down the drive, and I just watched his lights recede down the long drive, until he got to Gove and turned right, the truck now hidden by the trees and hedge.
I wrote the little bit above on my PC, downstairs in the "library," just before my world turned topsy-turvy.
I about jumped out of my jeans. There wasn't nobody there.
"Come to the Hangar. Please."
It was Groth. The voice was his. He wasn't there, but I heard his voice, like he was right in front of me. I got the willies, real bad.
"Nothing to worry about. We need you. Now. Please."
I just walked down to Jeep and jumped in. Didn't even turn down the lights in the front rooms. I guess I kinda drove pretty quick - my butt hit the bottom of the frame a few times.
When I got to the gate, there was nothing out of the ordinary. The Moon was pale, chasing the sunset, casting little light. The light was on over the door to the maintenance shop, but nothing else. It was near half nine, so everybody was home, either watching TV or turning in to be ready for Wednesday. I opened the gate, then drove in, not bothering to lock the gate behind me.
I screeched to a stop in front of the light, and bounded out. The door was locked, the lights out. I went in, switching on the overheads, noting that the Deere was reassembled, meaning Rob and Cory had stayed a little late to finish up. I like that in a man, that he likes to get the job done. No Groth.
I opened the doors to the hangar, only the "Exit" lights visible in the darkness. There was nothing there.
"Open the main doors, please," Groth said. I realized the words weren't coming into my ears, there was no "sound," just the words, in his voice, in my head. I shivered like it was cold inside my skin.
I flipped on the low-level lights, and started to walk towards the controls, in the little office in the Northeast corner, right by the doors. I wondered if they'd open. I hadn't tested the doors full open yet, wanting to lube them first, in case they got stuck half-way.
"Graham?" A voice came from behind me, echoing through the Hangar. I about jumped outta my skin. "Everything all right?"
It was B.B. He jogged up to me, as I continued to walk towards the control office.
"What you doing here?" I asked, but not like it sounds. I was glad of the company in this spooky new situation. I think it sounded like a greeting.
"I just sat in front of your place for a while, thinking, then went back to tell you I'd pick you up here tomorrow night, because I'll be at the Ag. Office, and we could have breakfast at Mom's when I brought you back," he managed to spit out as he jogged, then caught up to me. "You about hit me as you blew out of your road onto Gove, and tore up here like there was no tomorrow, so I followed to see if I could help. I didn't run the Stop sign like you did, so I got here a little later than you. What's going on?"
I stopped a few feet from the office and turned to him.
"B.B., you know I said you could tell me anything, that it wouldn't go no farther?"
"Yeah," he said, looking down at his boots.
"I gotta ask you to do the same for me. You gotta keep this quiet, not tell nobody," I said as seriously as I could.
"Swear," he said in a flash. Then, reconsidering, "It's not . . . drugs, is it?"
"Better," I said. "I think. We got visitors."
"You'll see," I said, turning back to the office, going in, flipping on the oil pressurizer, then turning the control to full open.
I knew, now. That wasn't no Air Force plane. No technology could make a man dream, make a man hear a voice in his head, make a man's body do what my body was doing, metamorphosing into something that looked like . . . , not like me anymore. My face that morning wasn't mine, not ever, no matter how much I kidded myself. I never looked even slightly good, I was always homely, from the time I was born, and I got homelier as I got older. The face in the mirror was still me, but I looked almost good. I flattered myself that it was the exercise, the fresh air, the new freedom, but I knew. They done something to me in that Ship, they changed me. I wasn't me anymore, I was . . . I don't know, but I wasn't me on the outside any more, I was turning into a stranger in the mirror. A stranger that I kinda liked.
"I'll explain," said Groth. I wheeled to look at him, where the voice came from, but he wasn't there. B.B. looked at me like I was weird.
"What is it, Graham?" he asked. "What are you looking for?"
"I don't know," I said. "Wait. You'll see."
We walked over towards the place where the doors moved into the box that kept them upright, where the seven sections were already starting to converge, all moving at the same time, like an accordion, squealing a little where they wasn't too well greased. It took ten minutes, maybe fifteen, before the pumps stopped, the doors encased, the opening maybe a hundred and fifty feet wide, maybe more.
We didn't say a word. B.B. kept looking at me, staring holes through the side of my face, but I couldn't look back into his face. I didn't trust myself to be able to keep him from seeing what I felt inside me about him.
When the doors "clunked" into their slots, and the hydraulic pump shut off, we looked outside, and there was nothing. No wind, no lights. The moon must have gone below the horizon, because there was no shadow at all of the Hangar on the forecourt. I felt a slight . . . pressure in my head, as I began "remembering" things I never knew. Electronic-like circuits, wiring coding, optic and UV cabling diagrams, access panels, vaporizing tools, metal manipulators, field molds, elemental separators, synthesizers - Christ, I was getting too much . . .
"STOP!" I hollered, holding the sides of my head, B.B. about jumping through the top of his shirt.
"What?" he asked, not knowing what was going on in my head.
"I just . . . I mean, I didn't want you to go any further."
"I was right beside you, Graham. I'm not going anywhere you don't take me. What's wrong?"
"Good," I said. The stream of memories had stopped flooding into my head. "I think it's about to start." I saw a ripple of the stars to almost due Southeast.
I just pointed at the ripple, a quarter sized circle that moved across the sky, slowly, from the southeast to the north. "See it? Just above the Olsen's silo."
"I don't see anyth . . .You mean the . . . the . . . "
"Yeah. It's lining up."
"What is it?"
"A ship." The ripple stopped moving North.
The ripple seemed to expand, growing into a baseball, a soccer ball, a big balloon, closer to the ground, closer. It took form, gradually an oval, then a flattened oval, and then the ripple started to thin, become pale at the center, until the Ship became almost visible, the rounded front reflecting the darkness, slowing as it approached. It was over the rocky part the other side of the "runway," and you could see a little dust, puffing out sideways, at the edges of the ripple.
"Graham, I don't like this. Let's go." He put his hand on my arm, ready to pull me back.
"It's okay," I said, covering his right hand in my left hand, holding it to my arm. "I know them."
He gripped my arm tightly, but didn't move, as the Ship crossed the runway, sending bits of dust and gravel outwards at the edges, making a slight sound of a breeze, but no more. The center part was now identifiable as glassy metal, bulbous in front, the edges no longer the same as the sky behind it, beginning to take on a crisp border. The silence was eerie. In the movies they makes a humming or whooshing sound.
"Oh . . . my . . . God . . . " B. B. hissed as it got closer, the weeds suddenly flattening into invisibility at the leading edge, only a hundred feet in front of the Hangar now. The Ship's nose reflected no light from inside the hangar, then suddenly all of it, and we watched as it seemed to extricate itself from the gauze of the ripple, squeezing out into visibility, and into the Hangar, above us. There was a mini-storm of dust blowing out from under the edge, and we had to turn away for a second to protect our eyes, but it stopped almost at once.
The top of the Ship was no more than thirty feet below the top of the doorway, and the side closest to us was maybe fifteen, twenty feet away. The Ship kept going in, and in, and in, until the tail "end " of it (except I can't tell front from back except by the direction it travels, and it doesn't seem to matter) passed under the doorway. No lights, no windows, just glimmery silver-gold, the struts of the Hangar reflecting, like a huge spider web on the surface, the lights like stars.
I turned to go back and close the doors, half dragging B.B. on my arm. His grip was strong.
"It's real, isn't it?" he said, almost laughing, eager. "It's real! How? Yours?"
"No such luck," I said as I threw the control to full close, and the doors crept out of the boxes towards each other. "But it's what I saw that day last week."
"What do they want?"
"I . . . "
Groth was standing no more than ten feet from us, as handsome as I remembered, but somehow not as . . . desirable? I don't know. He wore the same outfit as before. I was proud of B.B. - he stood right beside me, didn't flinch.
"Groth. You came back."
"You know why."
"Who are you talking to?" B. B. whispered.
I looked at him and then at Groth, then back. "You don't see anyone?"
"He can't see me," said Groth. "I am not to him as I appear to you."
"Nothing," B. B. said. His voice was strong, but his hand trembled a little.
"They've come from another star," I said. "In the Milky Way. They've been here for a . . . while, studying, taking samples. They need our help."
I got another flood of information in my head, more than I can begin to write down. I summarized for B. B.
"They stopped to take samples on another world first," I said. "They refueled, but somehow got contaminated in the fuel system, and found it after they got here. I helped fix it. That was a test for me. They have a bigger problem. The drive has been damaged, they got hit by by some kind of a diamond traveling so fast it got through the sub-light screen system. Another one took out the lead Ship. They can't leave until the Drive is fixed."
"They can't fix their own machine?"
"The maintenance . . . facility, dock, something like that . . . was lost in the . . . first Ship when it's drive blew."
"There are more of them?"
"Twelve at first. Eleven now."
"Don't they have their own mechanics?"
"There are no . . . people . . . on the Ship."
"Computers," I said. "Computers by the thousands, each more powerful than all the computers on Earth combined."
"Why me?" I asked Groth. "Why us?"
I got another flood of information, and my head felt like it was being pumped full of molten steel. Most of it was technical stuff, the composition of the optics, the neural networks of the computers, the storage cylinders for the samples, the DNA separators, the crystalline control mechanisms.
"I - we - some people have a . . . feel for machinery. The Hangar is here. I can receive the . . . messages of the computers. I was willing to help." There was more, but I couldn't tell B.B., not yet.
"Why not just send another repair ship?"
"Take too long," I said. "The Ships have to leave soon. It would take . . . a hundred thousand years to get another ship here. Too late."
"Why so long?" We both asked, almost simultaneously.
"Matter can not travel faster than the speed of light," Groth answered. "The home to this ship is 50,000 light years from here, close to the Core of this galaxy. There is no closer planet with capability of reaching your system in time. The practical speed limit is less than light speed, as energy expended in acceleration becomes prohibitive."
"Einstein was right," I told B. B. "The speed of light is an absolute barrier."
"Come inside," said Groth to me. "There is much to learn before you can be effective." The Ship hovered in complete silence in the exact center of the Hangar. A doorway "opened" and I watched it "flow," almost like a liquid metal, down to the concrete, a third of the way from the end of the Ship.
"What will the light do?" I said, not moving. "It won't hurt him?"
"What light?" B. B. asked.
"The optimizer is more painful for organisms that have deteriorated," Groth said. "It will give you little further pain, as your internal adjustments are complete. It may accelerate the internal repairs now underway. Your companion's pain will be minimal, but the optimization will be equivalent. It would be unethical not to optimize him to be in parallel with you."
He spoke more softly. "We must have you at maximum efficiency if we are to succeed in repairing our Drive in time. You will never be sick, never be weak again."
I believed him. I don't know why, but I did. About the pain. About the need. "They want us to go inside, to learn what we need to help them fix their main Drive. There's a bright light when you go in and out of the Ship," I said." It's called an optimizer. It blinds you for a bit, hurts just a little, but it goes away. Keeps you healthy."
"Let's go!" B. B. said, pulling me towards the escalator. "I want to see! Oh, God, what a . . . what an adventure!"
We went to the foot of the escalator thing, and B.B. jumped on it, almost dragging me with him. His eyes were aglow with excitement, the joy of exploration, of the new and unexpected. He whooped when the stairs started to move, whisking us up the full sixty feet or so in seconds, slowing adroitly just as we got to the doorway.
He hesitated only for a second, then went right into the room I remembered, with the lights in all the corners. The door whooshed closed behind us, and I looked for Groth, but he wasn't there. The lights raised intensity, and I closed my eyes, not after putting my arm around B.B.'s waist and pulling him to me, to give him something to steady himself with. He leaned into me, a little closer than was good for him, but I was strong, and didn't give in to the urge to do more than support. I told him to close his eyes, and he just murmured a little "mmmm" in agreement.
We didn't say anything during the process. I don't know if that was for any reason or not, but I can't honestly say if I felt anything, heard anything, either. There was just the light.
After a half minute or so, the pulsing stopped, and I opened my eyes, gradually, in case it was still too bright. B.B.'s arm was around my waist, his odor wafting to my nostrils, clean, soft and . . . all right, arousing.
"You all right?" I asked. My voice cracked a little.
"Yeah. You?" He gave me a squeeze. I squeezed back.
"Fine. Groth will take us . . . "
I pulled away from him a little, turning us both towards the door just as it did the trick of opening without leaving a door, just the opening. I paid a little more attention to it this time. It melted into itself incredibly rapidly - if you blinked, you thought it just disappeared.
Groth was there. On the other side of the door.
"Wow!" said B.B. softly. "That is the most amazing door!"
"Will you follow me, please?" Groth said. I was amazed when B.B. started walking towards the door without my repeating the request. His arm went from around my waist, and I missed it with a pang.
"Do you see him now?" I asked as we followed Groth down the corridor to the room with the dome.
"Yeah," B.B. whispered. "Handsome, isn't he? Looks a lot like you, but not as well built."
"Like me?" I said. Groth looks nothing at all like me. He's got at least twenty pounds on me, an inch taller. He looks more like B.B. in a way than like me.
"His jeans aren't as . . . fit as yours, and he's got more hair on his head, but he's definitely like your brother or something."
Groth was wearing shorts. My Groth, that is.
We got to the big chamber, and all the screens were lit up, except the pictures weren't of what was outside the ship - that was just the Hangar, and we were inside it. The screens showed the view as if the Hangar wasn't there at all. I saw my Jeep and B.B.'s White Ram behind which was the road out to the gate, on a split screen with a view of Katy from above. (A car was driving down towards town from the interstate, with its high beams on.) The next screen showed the view directly West from the center of the Hangar, and I watched as Pete Pulaski's battered old Buick passed the gate on the way into town. The blue paint on the roof was gradually wearing down to the white primer.
Wait - it was dark outside! The screens showed everything in perfect detail - no fuzziness, no lines, no flickering . . . and no shadows. Darkness was no obstacle, and apparently not the walls of the Hangar, either.
I never had the chance to ask.
"Our screens work on a different principle than a camera. The computer gathers all the information from all spectrums - visible and otherwise - and synthesizes it into three-dimensional functions, then present the results on the screens from any perspective. They can "see" through almost anything - even lead - because there are always waves which pass through or around it, bouncing off other objects, dispersing, but not enough that they can't be detected and analyzed."
What do you really look like?" I asked instead. If he looked like me to B.B., and like Mr. Latham to me, he could look like almost anything or anybody to anybody.
"I am only a computer-generated confluence of waves. Your memories are very strong, very . . . observable, so I am projected to look as much as possible like your memory of someone you long ago admired and respected deeply. The same for you, Bill, but your memories do not extend far enough back in time in a completely observant way, so I appear to you as Graham did when you were still pre-pubescent, but becoming cognizant in a detailed manner."
"Why do you call him Bill," I said without thinking.
"It is your preferred title, is it not?" he asked of B.B.
"Well, " he said looking a little abashed at me. "Sort of. But even my Mom won't call me that."
"Illogical. A sentient creature should be able to decide for itself how it would be addressed by its correspondents."
"You are projected, you said. Does that mean you're just a . . . a hologram?" B.B. - Bill - asked. He was staring at the model of the Ship, hovering over the dome of the Kryst.
"No. The projection is what you would term nano-wave, directly stimulating your aural and visual interpretative centers. The image of the Ship over the Kryst is a physical image."
"But you . . . you carried me down the stairs."
"No. We took over motor control briefly. It was best you thought that I physically helped you than that we . . . controlled you."
"Yes. Well. Where from here?" I asked.
"First, we must make the changes in the power grid of this place to permit the high levels we need for the matter conversion work outside the Ship," he said. I heard some slight noises from somewhere nearby, felt the tiny vibration of the power generator. "The tools and equipment are being produced and will be available on the floor in a few minutes."
"I have plenty of tools," I said.
"Yes, but you will also need these." My head was immediately being crammed with memories of how the gravity hover platform was controlled, the exterior power converter was hooked up, the probe mounted and fired.
"These are easy to operate! Why do you need us to do it?" B.B. - Bill was also getting memories.
"We do not have mobility units on this ship," said Groth. "They were all three on the first Ship when the drive went critical."
"You mean you can't operate a simple destabilizer?" asked Bill. He obviously got a different set of memories than did I. I couldn't operate one either. Didn't even know then what it was supposed to do.
"It is meant to be operated independently of the interior of the Ship," Groth replied. It therefore needs a mobility unit."
Nice. We are mobility units.
"You are men. We need your help."
"I didn't say . . ." Oh, shit, he read my thoughts. He . . . they . . . knew.
"Yes," said Groth. "We never divulge any of your thoughts of a personal nature, unless to prevent harm to a sentient, or when ordered so to do by the judicial service. Our judicial service, not yours."
"What about the crew?" Bill asked. "Can't they operate your own machinery?"
"All three were destroyed when the first Ship's Drive destabilized into a black hole."
"You had a crew of only three, for twelve ships?" Bill turned away from the screen that showed the geology of the region. "I never knew we had molybdenum deposits in Kansas."
"That is all that is necessary," said Groth. "We are a small group. The molybdenum is . . . eleven miles below the surface."
"You only had three people?" I asked again, trying to absorb that was being said.
"Not people," Groth said softly. "Machines."
"Robots?" Bill asked.
"But where are your people?"
"There are none. I will explain later. We have much to do before the dawn. Come."
Groth moved to a pedestal that rose from the floor of the chamber, in front of the Kryst.
We followed, dumbly, to the unit, and followed Groth's instructions to put our hands on a pair of graphite colored posts that stuck up from the pedestal.
Immediately everything disappeared, and I was inside the Drive, looking at the damage being done by the "diamond." I watched it go through the entire ship at least a dozen times in instant replay, going so fast that apparently nothing had time to heat and fuse. The matter just disappeared. There remained only a tiny, absolutely perfect hole about a quarter of an inch in diameter from the top of the Ship to the bottom, through the Drive control unit along one side of it, through thousands of bioneural circuits, several power lines, and then gone, through the bottom. I watched the automatic shutdown of the Drive, the self-patching of the metal hull, bulkheads, walls and floors. Luck protected the anti-grav control units, just above the Drive, or the whole ship would have gone. Some of the bioneural circuits tried to regenerate, a few did, but the Drive could never operate without pulling and replacing the power cards, the matter conversion control neural sections, and at least half of the directional thrust neural control units.
Then I saw the procedures for repair - the Drive had to come out of the Ship, eight hundred forty-two "cards" and "plug-ins" replaced, and then the Drive re-mounted. The Ship carried the equipment to manufacture spares for some of the parts needing replacing, other ships would produce the rest. But the Ship - our Ship, as I thought of it now, would be open and vulnerable for as long as the Drive was outside the hull. The work would have to be done in the Hangar, faster than spit. The group was scheduled to leave in less than two weeks, and if the Ship wasn't ready, it would be scuttled. Along with its cargo - the entire catalogue of chlorophyllic life on two planets, from the first algae to the grasses, the trees, the cycads, the legumes, the Sequoias - everything. The other planet's biosphere was not as complex as Earth, but it was vastly different in structure. just as significant.
If our Ship was "dematerialized," the information would not be lost, but the actual samples would be destroyed The samples were critical to the reconstruction of the biospheres. In case something happened.
"Will you assist? Of your own willingness?" said a synthesized voice - at least it sounded like the telephone company operator. There was an echo, so it wasn't in my head. And it wasn't Groth.
"Of course," Bill said, just as I said "sure."
So began the craziest two weeks of our lives . . .