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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 VI - Bill
After Graham brought back the Deere, and I had a glass with him and his brother-in-law, I went home and plunged back into the routine. I was like a robot for the next couple of days. Did the chores, tilled this and that, fertilized the Barley, chopped back one of the hedges, fixed the fence up North where somebody's pickup wandered off the road last week. (Couldn't have been anybody local - they'd have fixed it themselves. Probably some tourist.)
I dreamed a lot at night. Just the usual - running, flying, walking into class without my jeans on. Dreamed about Graham every night. Same dream. Damnedest thing - we were in his Jeep, and he stopped in front of his Farmhouse, and the lights were all on, like for a party, and he asked me if I wanted to come there for a piece. I tried to move, but I was frozen. Why couldn't I move? Say something? The house looked . . . different somehow, almost . . . alive, like something that would open up its doors to me, then swallow me down into . . . I woke up from that one in a sweat. Every time.
I thought about him a lot. Graham, I mean. About how he knew so much, but didn't make like he was anything special. About how nice he was when he talked about my Dad and my Mom. About how when Hal Cooper was grieving so bad over Lynn, he set up a barbecue for no reason except to get Hal among his friends. How he helped Mom after Dad died, brung her eggs every day and wouldn't take a penny for them, just an occasional meal Mom "forgot" to charge him.
Most of all, I thought about how I wished I'd known Graham when he was young, how I'd have got him before Mary Ashworthy got him. He was the kind of man I wanted as a partner - strong, quiet, knowing, kind, a real puller. Pity they didn't have any sons. Pity I wasn't born earlier, like as my Dad's father. I could have loved him more than . . .
Those kinds of thoughts were getting a litle sick, so I shut them down.
All week, I thought about going over for that drink he invited me to have with him, just to talk a little, listen a lot, share a little, just not be alone out here. But I didn't, wouldn't, couldn't. Graham is too smart for me. He'd see through me in a New York Minute.
I thought real hard about going over to see him on Monday night. Even drove down the Gove Road right to his drive, but I couldn't get up the guts to turn in and go up to him. I mean, what if he saw right through me, figured out my perversion while I was under the influence? Never talk with me again. Never see him again. I turned around and went back to the house, and sat on the front porch drinking a whiskey while the cats lapped at some day-old milk. When Feta, the female licked my hand for a rub, I couldn't help . . . I held her and stroked her and the tears just wouldn't stay inside my eyes, I was so alone.
I fell asleep in the chair, not waking until well gone midnight, and crawled into bed a few minutes later. I forgot to take my socks off.
Tuesday, while I was cursing the heck out of the damned chickweed I was tilling under, I called myself all sorts of names, like chicken-shit, scaredy-cat, asshole, fraidy-faggot, and resolved to go see him. I mean, he invited me to come over, didn't he? I thought through almost every scenario, what to say when he asked me who I was dating, when I was going to get married, how many kids I wanted. I thought how I would talk about this really pretty girl I saw in Gove. Sort of throw him off the trail, so to speak.
I got there at half six, then figured I ought to wait until he had supper, so went back to the farm and watched the sun head down until half seven, and drove back. I almost didn't turn in, but called myself an asshole if I didn't, and so I did.
He was sitting in an old cane-back on his front porch, watching the sunset, smoking a cigarette. Just watched me come up the drive, setting, waiting. I almost turned around and went back, but that would have been just plain dirt chicken, not to mention rude as a New Yorker, so I just got out of the truck and walked up the steps and invited myself for a drink, like he told me.
He treated me like an old friend, casual, open. We talked a little - some about his Hangar, but mostly about me, my farm, how was I doing, anything he could do to help. I said something about it getting a little isolated out here, asked him how he managed to get through it all after his Mary died, anything to get him talking instead of me.
And all the while I'd spent figuring on how to keep him from finding out was for nothing. As I was chattering away like a magpie, all I could think of was that I didn't want to lie to him, didn't want to let him down like that. But I was afraid to tell him all at once. Afraid he wouldn't like me any more, maybe not at least let me be a friend. I wanted him for a friend. I wanted . . . I didn't know yet what I wanted, but I wanted more than I was getting.
I thought maybe if I did an invite over to my house for supper, maybe it'd be easier. He could say no, showing me that he didn't want to get that close, take me off the hook. I asked him all off-the-hand kind of, like as if it was no big deal, just a simple meal, nothing special, just two friends having supper together after a long day on the farm. I held my breath after I asked.
He said yes.
Then I told him. About me, how I was. Just out and told him. No - that's not how it went. I don't remember, I was so nervous. I told him I was hurting, lonesome like I couldn't tell nobody, and he asked - he told me.
"Ain't gonna marry, are ya, son."
It wasn't a question.
And then it was easy. I let a lot of it out of me, not even caring if maybe I was grossing him out, just telling him . . . stuff.
He took it all in, and just told me it wasn't going to change the way he looked on me, yes he'd be over for dinner the next night. I wanted to kiss him, he was so nice, but that would really have screwed things up. He looked so handsome in his chair in the golden sunlight, so . . . masculine, sure of himself, comfortable in his skin. I wanted so bad to get a hug, but I couldn't let it show.
I left pretty quick. I couldn't stay any longer without making an ass out of myself, telling him things about me I didn't want him to know, about how soft I really was inside sometimes, how all this macho shit was real in a way, but I still wanted to touch and be touched, to hold and be held.
I made it down to the Gove Road, and turned towards my farm, before I had to pull over and get hold of myself. Didn't work too well at first - I bawled like a kid for a few minutes, just at the relief of getting it out, I guess. Then I lit a cigarette and watched the moon for a bit through the windshield, the thin sliver chasing the sun, never catching it. I kinda just sat there thinking, not ready yet to go back to the old house, crawl under the cold sheets, jack myself until I either filled the handkerchief or fell asleep. I dozed off, I guess. I dreamed we were in bed, all snuggled up, and that I raised up and looked at him, and he was so handsome, so peaceful, then he . . .
I roused when I heard Graham's Jeep come tearing down his drive. I thought for a minute he was coming after me, coming to ask me what the Hell was I doing hanging around his place, and I went to start the engine again, get the hell out of there, run from danger.
His Jeep careened around the corner onto Gove, actually on two wheels, and he sped off towards town. I was a little stunned. He wasn't coming after me - where in tarnation was he tearing off to? I started up the engine and turned around to follow. Maybe there was a fire or something? Problem at the Hangar? Jerry and Elva? Mom? My imagination went all around the place, mostly looking for trouble.
The Ram sucks gas, but it's quick. I caught up enough to see him turn north on Katy Road, obviously heading up to the Hangar. There was no fire in the sky, so's I stopped worrying about Mom, and we'd already gone past the turnoff for Elva and Jerry's place. He blew through the Stop sign on Katy Road at the corner by Pete's place without so much as touching his brakes. I saw him from Gove Road - Katy is so small, you can see right through it. I lost a little time, driving slower as I passed through town, but I caught a glimpse of his brake light when he stopped to open the gate to the Hangar. Kansas is flat, and the roads are straight.
I went quick up Katy and pulled through the open gate, down towards the light over the side door of the shop at the side of the Hangar. He was already inside, leaving the door open, so I ran in after him, just as the lights in the Hangar went on. When I got to the big doors from the shop to the Hangar, he was already part way to the other side, going towards the front corner. I called out to him, but he kept walking, his butt like a beacon. I ran up to him, and asked him what was going on, but he just swore me to secrecy after promising it wasn't drugs. Then he opened the doors in the front, the huge doors grating and groaning as they pulled back.
At one point, Graham yelled out "STOP" and I thought he was going a little - well, a little crazy, but he calmed down, fed me some shit about not getting in the way. Then the weird part began.
He pointed me out a bubble or something, over the top of the Olsen place. It looked like a spot of junebug gloop on a windshield, making a distortion on the night sky, the stars wavering. A soap bubble. You could barely make it out.
"What is it?" I asked. It felt a little creepy out there, this thing moving around, just the two of us in the Hangar, sitting ducks. I moved a little closer to Graham, not jumping him or anything, just moving a little closer. My bladder started to tell me something, but I shut it down. He put his hand over mine on his right arm, and told me it was all right. It was a Ship, and he knew them.
It was. A ship. A great . . . huge . . . beautiful . . .not of this world . . . honest to God . . . pinch me it's not real but it's better than Close Encounters . . . oh Shit I don't believe it . . . Ship! The bubble against the horizon got bigger and bigger, sort of flattened out, then this magnificent, unreal, gigantic, perfect silvery-gold windowless and lightless fuselage. It just pulled right into the Hangar like it was Home. I guess it must have take a minute, but it seemed like hours, seconds. Then it stopped, just hanging there in the air, not moving at all, waiting while Graham closed the doors, all so silently (except the doors, screeching and whining) you'd have thought you were deaf. I felt like I was witness to the Second Coming. I wanted to laugh and cry all at once, it was so special, and even more because I was there with Graham. Big, solid, Marlboro Man with a brain Graham.
Then he started talking to someone. Groth, he said. There wasn't anybody there, but I didn't care. He could have talked to a thousand ghosts, could have said he was having a personal conversation with Jesus Christ, and I would have believed it all. God, the Ship was so . . . cool! Like a perfect gazing ball, but flattened and elongated, no ripples in the golden mirror at all, perfectly reflecting everything in the hangar, but curved, stretched. It just hung there, four or five feet above the concrete, silent, unmoving.
He - Graham - started to tell me. It came from a star in the Milky Way, much closer to the Core. It was here to gather and preserve the record of plant life on Earth, but their Drive - the one they had to use to travel between the stars - was damaged. He just rattled it off like he was reading a report on the damage to some car that messed up on the Interstate, calm as a just-bred bull.
A door opened, a little below the midsection of the ship, maybe a hundred feet from us, and a stairway extended itself to the concrete, beckoning to us, inviting us in. I didn't even doubt for a minute he was going into it. The Ship, I mean.
"Come on," he said, making my day, my year.
I looked at the Ship, the stairs, and wanted so bad to go inside, into what the future was about, into what it would bring us, I hardly listened to what Graham was saying. There was something about a Light called an Optimizer, and Graham seemed a little wary of it at first, but then he said it wouldn't hurt but maybe just a little, and we would be protected from illness. Sounded like a fair trade.
I was almost pulling Graham towards the stairs, afraid they would change their minds about letting me go on board with him, not let me be a part of this, not let me be with him.
We got to the stairs, and they . . . flowed us up to the door. It was like being on a high speed elevator, accelerating then decelerating at exactly the right times to bring us to the doorway at a dead stop, but super fast. There were no steps, nothing moved but us and the flat spot we were on. We walked into a square room, the one Graham talked about, and the door closed behind us. I moved closer to Graham, as the lights came on pretty bright, and he put his arm around me, drew me into him. I almost peed myself. I just closed my eyes against the light and moved into him, his warmth, somehow feasting on his odor of clean soapy shirt and honest sweat, a salty tang, a little yeast, a very light scent of tobacco and whiskey, a hint of musk.
I didn't want the lights to go off. I felt nothing - no pain, no discomfort. I only felt Graham, his firm body, his strong arm protectively around my waist, his steady breathing. "I could live with that," I thought to myself. I wondered if he could still "do it" at his age. I hoped to god so, even if it wouldn't be with me. Oh, God, let it be me! Even if he couldn't any more. I was hard. Like a diamond, but folded up under myself. It hurt a little, but I didn't want to draw attention by moving it.
The lights went down, stopped flashing, and I opened my eyes just as Graham turned us a little towards the wall on the right. I turned my eyes just as a square porthole irised open in the wall, and a man stood on the other side of it, wearing blue jeans and a denim shirt, a silver belt buckle, familiar looking . . . I did a double take. Graham - no, somebody that looked a lot like him, but not as old as he was, not as young as he is, not as well built as "my" Graham - was on the other side of the doorway and beckoned us, then spoke, but not in Graham's voice.
"I am Groth. Welcome. Will you follow me, please?"
So I did, partly glad of the chance to turn a little away from Graham, push my painfully folded dick sideways a little with my right hand, unfolding it from under me, over to the left. I could almost hear the "crack!" as it straightened out.
"You see him now?" Graham asked as we stepped through the door.
"Yeah. Looks like you, like your brother. Older. Same jeans and all. You one of them?"
He hit me on the shoulder and chuckled his denial, just like a friend would.
We got into this big room at the end of a long corridor, with a grey dome in the center, a model of the Ship hovering above it. This is going to sound totally weird, but I could see through it. I could make out the room we were in, but it was vertical, not horizontal - everything else was mashed together, all kinds of tubes and wires and . . .
We were surrounded by visiscreens, sometimes two high, the top ones showing views from the outside of the hangar in every directional view - even from above, looking down on Katy from maybe a thousand feet up, from the West. The bottom screens showed different things - a three-dimensional display of the water tables and a huge underground aquifer I never even heard of, a geologic display showing first one type of deposit, then another, and another and another, all in different colors, all labeled as they came into view. Ferrite, molybdenite, coal, lead, zinc chromate, bauxite and on and on. I'd never seen the like of it, but I knew somehow what everything was, even the deposits of low-grade coal.
Groth explained what they wanted from us, and that was that. I was in. Of course I wanted to! Groth asked me if I was sure it was of my own free will, and I almost had to insist. There was never any doubt, never any question after that. Graham said they could read our thoughts, our questions, and I was afraid some of the things I thought about Graham, about how I was starting to feel . . .
"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," Groth said. "Graham will never know of your bond to him unless you tell him."
My bond? "I never said anything about. . . " I said aloud. I was going to say "a bond. I just said I thought - I mean I just thought, I didn't say - I thought he was sexy, not that I was in love with him or anything. Get off my case." I only thought that. I wondered if Groth heard me.
I got no answer.
"About what/" asked Graham. looking at me with a question mark writ all over his face.
"Nothing," I said, too quickly. "Nothing important." I looked away from his face, sure I was blushing, my face felt so hot.
I looked back up at the projection of the Ship hung above the Kryst - the power generator - and I saw the insides a little more, the way the Drive unit was set in the center of the ship. It was connected to dozens of thrust units that projected out through the screens at mid-section, attracting matter from the "forward" side, expelling particles at near-light speed from the other, using heavy elements produced from the Kryst to augment the matter gathered in the forward shields and funneled to the thrust units' converters. I learned somehow that there was no such thing as "empty" space, that outside the disk of the galaxy, and to a lesser extent within it, space was loaded with vast quantities of matter, waiting for the Ship to use as propellant. I knew a lot more than I knew, if that makes sense.
I was getting information right into my head, things about machinery and tools that were available, how to operate them. All simple stuff.
The Drive was separate from the electro-grav propellor system (the Plastri) used within the gravity-well of a star or a planet, or in the high-gravity clusters - or near the Core. No point in wasting energy, and besides, the Drive was too powerful to be used for short-range work, although it could be used to accelerate the Ship from zero to a few thousand klicks in seconds in case of emergency.
A stubby tower thing came out of the floor near the Kryst, with four short posts sticking up from the flat table-like top, sort of a dark gray, about as big around as a hayrake handle. I knew at once that it was the Learning Center, and that we were to grasp the posts to learn things more quickly.
We went to the Table, center, whatever, and the Ship's computers gave me a double doctorate in neural network and connectivity in less than an hour. My head hurt a little when it finally dismissed us from class. I remembered everything. Graham was learning the Drive - he didn't tell me, I just knew.
We had to isolate the Hangar power grid from the KP&L grid, and hook up the Kryst to it for a simple energy absorbtion/broadcast screen, as well an an energy "dump." The energy generated by the ship had to be dissipated gradually, so as not to attract attention. That meant pulling open the hull with the destabilizer, then freezing the hull barely open for the cables. It would be opened a lot more so that we could pull the Drive for modular replacements, but we daren't do that except when it was absolutely needed. The Ship was too vulnerable.
Graham and I went back to the stairway to get started. Groth went with us down the long corridor to the Optimizer thing, but didn't come with us.
The lights went on, and I found about what Graham was talking about. I was totally blinded, and hung on to Graham like before, but pressed more into him. There was a sensation of dull aching in my arms, legs, chest and head, and the backs of my eyes hurt some. My ears popped, and I . . . I got another erection, right up against his leg, feeling something moving around in my innards for a second. My teeth hummed and then hurt. All around, Bad, but bearable.
Graham was shaking, jerking a little, holding me tighter than he had before, squeezing me to him, first with just his right arm, then turning to hold me in a strong hug, our heads on each others' right shoulder. He was hard, like me. Down there, I mean. He was hard everywhere, muscles as strong, maybe stronger than mine. I hugged back, part in hurting, part in wanting. I'm not sure which was the more potent, but the hurt wasn't all that bad, and went away quickly, even before the lights went down. The wanting didn't. Go away, I mean. I held on to him.
He needed it to keep from slipping - it was bad for Graham. His breathing was rapid, and he groaned a couple of times, and at one point jerked violently, but kept me in his hug, not letting go.
When it was over, he said "That wasn't as bad as the first time. Tolerable bad, but not as bad." We still clung to each other, though.
He pulled away from me suddenly, just as the outer door dissolved. "Sorry," he said, not looking at me. "Guess Old Roger was a little out of order there."
"Old Roger?" I said stupidly.
"My privates," he said. "Wasn't meant to . . . uh . . . mean anything." He was blushing.
"Oh," I said. "No big deal, Graham. I know you aren't like that." But I wasn't so sure of that any more. I wondered . . .
He gave me a funny look, then turned to go out the door, get to work. I stepped on the stairs just behind him, and saw the hair. He had short deep mahogany-colored hairs growing all over the back of his head, even under the gray tufts of his sides and nape, and in the lights, I saw downy fuzz, dark, all over the bald bart of his head.
Other thing I noticed. He didn't have Farmer's Neck any more - the deeply creased and lined neck we all get by the time we're thirty from working all the time in the hot Kansas sun. His neck looked as clean as T.J.'s neck when I was still corn holing him. When T.J. was fifteen or sixteen. Graham had it - Farmer's Neck - when I was talking to him at Pete's pump, before he came to supper at Mom's. Last week. Graham was changing. I kept my mouth shut, though - I didn't know what this was all about, what to expect. God, was he all right? Was this really Graham? Was it maybe . . . one of them?
"It is the same man you have always known. He will suffer no harm. It will not displease you," Groth's voice said from behind me, and I turned, but he wasn't there. Damned computers!
The Ship had moved forward - backward, deeper into the Hangar, so it was almost up against the rear doors. I had felt no movement, heard nothing.
When we got to the bottom of the stairway and onto the hangar floor, the stairway seemed to just melt back into the ship, and there was no door to be seen at all. Not the slightest crack where a door might once have been. Like mercury, I thought again. I looked towards the front of the Hangar - the Ship occupied only a little more than half the length. Looking forward, there were no more than a few inches between the "nose" of the Ship and the rear doors. It was almost as if it was making space for . . .
"There will be another Ship making stops here," Groth's voice said. "It must not attract attention while the Ship is being repaired."
The rest of the night was a blur. We opened the bottom of the ship with the destabiliser to hold back the shield, and the dismounting tools to unhook the Drive were lowered, followed by the cables, only as thick as a piece of dry spaghetti. Graham got up on a ladder to hook up the cables to the main Hangar circuit box, throwing the main breaker open to isolate the circuit. His hands worked in a blur as he threw switches in the box, according to a plan he knew but I didn't.
I was busy calibrating the gravity platform, hooking it up to the Kryst, preparing the sockets for the Drive to rest in. It wasn't designed to support the Drive, only moderately heavy equipment up to a few tens of thousand kilo or so, so there were some cards to replace with new ones fabricated by the Ship and dropped onto the platform as it came out of its storage place and past a delivery chute, then floated down to the floor.
By the time Graham was finished with the cables, the platform layout was done, and we got to work laying out the covering screen, which would basically just do what the main camouflage screen of the ship did - absorb radiation from any direction, then broadcast the same radiation from the opposite side of the Ship, after modifying it for the distance between the absorbing point and the emission point. As long as the Ship didn't move, it was almost totally undetectable. (If it moved, there was always a slight uncancellable doppler effect, which created the "Soap Bubble" impression, but our radar couldn't detect it. I almost said "their" radar. I mean . . . )
I couldn't figure why they didn't just use the main Ship covering screen, and Groth gave me a technical explanation about the difference between general screens, which reflected all wavelengths, and visual screens, which only dealt with the wave spectrum of visible light, which in a small enclosed space would not result in harmonic reinforcement that would eventually turn the inside of the Hangar into plasma. Made sense - like running a big engine in a closed garage.
Graham helped me close the shield without too much noise, gradually reducing the power setting on the destabiliser, leaving a hole just big enough for the cables.
By four thirty in the morning, we had it set up, and the Ship switched on the Cloak, which seemed the perfect term, even if it was used in hokey science fiction movies and television. The Ship described it as something totally unpronounceable and completely unintelligible even if it were, so we just called it the Cloak from then on. Even Groth conceded it was easier to use. We could still "see" the Ship, because the Ship showed it to us in our heads. I'm not sure that makes sense, but that's the way it was.
Groth asked us to go back into the Light, telling us we needed to refresh ourselves. I didn't feel all that tired, but I knew my body wasn't in full agreement. I had to pee pretty bad. I wondered if there was a toilet in there. At exactly 4:32 by my watch, we laid down on two narrow cots that jutted out from the wall, the door closed and the Optimizer thing put us to sleep. I awoke feeling like I'd slept for a good eight hours, and looked at my watch. It was not yet 4:36. I didn't have to pee any more. Graham looked . . . younger still. The hair on his head was a quarter inch long, deep russet red brown, a little gold in it. His shirt was tight across his shoulders, his jeans loose. He had to hike them up as we walked away from the Ship.
We walked to the double doors, then looked back. The Ship had raised itself to be almost twenty feet above the ground, the cables to the Hangar power panel almost rigid. They would be invisible when the cloak was on. A man could walk through the Hangar from one corner to the other and never touch a thing. Suddenly, the Ship just disappeared, as it stopped showing itself to us, just to demonstrate how effective the Cloak was. Not a trace of it, nothing. But the platform, the tools, the cards, the destabiliser remained. They didn't look like much, then the Ship pulled a joke on us. It turned the stuff on the ground into a rusty old hand-pump double pallet jack, an industrial-size mop bucket, a carpenter's toolbox open to show a bunch of rust-riddled hand tools, a jackhammer leaning up against a porta-power box.
I never knew a computer could have a sense of humor. I couldn't help but laugh a little.
We left for the farms, riding pretty much in silence until we got to Gove Road. We took the Ram, as I would drop him at his place, we'd do our chores, then go to Charlene's for breakfast. I was caught up pretty much on tilling and fertilizing, and there were things I could be doing in the Ship while he ran the Garage. Just morning and evening chores, for a week, maybe two in a pinch.
"Did you know you were growing hair on your head? Dark red-brown hair?"
"Figured as much."
"I think the Optimizer did something to me. My beard is growing in darker. Thicker. I lost all the gray hairs on my chest, too. Think I'm growing in new teeth - feel sorry for babies all over again."
"You have false teeth?"
"Anything else? Changing, I mean."
"My feet and hands are different. The arthritis is gone. My nails are all falling out. Don't need cheaters no more. My . . . my face is getting less . . . less fleshy."
"I like your face like it is." I looked at his hands. The nails were all blue and black at the quick, thick and horny and ridged and yellowish at the ends.
"Kind of homely, I guess. Ugly kid when I was young."
"Not to me."
He looked over at me, and I fell into his eyes again. His eyelashes were longer than I remember. The face was the same, but it was . . .different. Younger. God-awful nice looking. Honest, caring. The redness was mostly gone. So were most of the creases.
"You know," he said in a faltering voice. "I never knew a more good-looking man than your Dad when he was alive. You're even better looking."
"Do you . . . like me Graham?"
"I think I'm falling for you, Bill," he said without hesitation. "Big Time."
"Me too," I managed to get out. "Do you think . . . ?" I was going to ask him if we maybe had a chance to sort of go further.
"I think we better play all this a day at a time," he said. "I'm not sure exactly what we're getting in to."
"Same here," I said, putting my hand on his leg, feeling the tingle on the back of my neck again.
He put his hand, his great warm hand over mine, and I felt better than I had in whenever I could remember. I was glad I'd got automatic transmission.
I dropped him at his porch. He looked me over after he closed the door, a big smile on his mug.
"We're gonna have a fine time of this," he said. "We go together good when we take a mind to."
I was too busting with things to say, so I just nodded. "See you at six."
"Come early as you can," he said. "We have a lot to do before too long is by."
I never did my chores so quickly. I milked the cows on the machine while I fed the chickens and opened the gate to the front pasture for when the milking was done, checked the lick, the water levels, everything. When I got back to the barn, the milk was all collected, and I took the teats off, set them in the sterilizer and switched it on, transferred the milk into the tank in the cooler for Tom to pick up at mid day, and showered shaved and dressed before a quarter to six. I wasn't even out of breath, but I'd run like a weasel to get it all done.
I was on Graham's porch at ten to six, and heard him upstairs singing in the shower. I was tempted to go up and . . . I don't know what, but I just grabbed a mug of coffee from the pot he'd just made, and sat on the porch waiting. The heat from the coffee felt good in my hands, but my teeth were a little sensitive to it. He was downstairs before the coffee was cool enough to drink.
"Got coffee?" he hollered as he bounded down the stairs.
"Ayuh," I said back at him.
He came out on the porch with a mug of his own, and I couldn't believe how good he was looking. His shirt couldn't hide the fine figure of his torso, slim and tightly muscled. His neck was long and sculpted, and I saw hair on his chest, above the shirt button, short and tight to his skin. He looked not a day over thirty-five, except for the gray of a few wisps of hair around the once-bald pate. His scalp was covered with thick short hair, and there was a definite hairline. His face was Graham, but new and improved.
I stood up, not quite sure of what our position was yet, and he just walked over and kissed me. Right on the lips. In front of God and all Creation. His lips are as soft and light as moist veal chamois, but there was a strength in that kiss that spoke of passion and power. I wanted more, wanted to stand there for an hour, but he pulled away before I thought to grab him, keep him in place, open my mouth to his tongue, strip naked and . . .
He had a pail of eggs for my Mom as well as his mug. I could have taken advantage of him if I'd have thought quickly enough. He gave me the pail and grabbed his old ten-gallon off the peg. "Been wanting to do that for a week or more," he said, turning to the steps and making for the truck. "Worth the wait."
I followed to the truck, spilling not a drop of the coffee despite my two left feet and spinning head.
"A week? A week? Why didn't you tell me? How come I'm the last to know?" I hollered as I went, and climbed in after the cup found a home in the cup holder and started the engine.
"What, and ruin your debut?" he said with a fat grin. "Let you miss out on the joy of telling me you were gay? I don't think so."
"I was in agony," I said as we swung out of his drive. "It was like confessing to be a murderer, and you just let me sputter?"
He put his hand on my leg, and I got a chill down my spine, a warm feeling in my loins.
"I was afraid to come on to you, jerk!" he said squeezing my leg just above the knee. "Old guy like me ain't exactly prime beef, you know."
"You're not old," I said. "Especially now."
"Yeah, things are changing kinda fast, aren't they?"
"I got teeth," he said. "The first four broke the gums this morning."
"You're shitting me." I said looking over. He had his teeth in, so I couldn't see.
"Show you tonight," he said.
"We got a supper date. You forgot already?"
"What about the Ship?" I stopped at Katy Road, letting Pete's tanker by. I flashed my lights just as Pete waved at us. He was headed for Breakfast, like always, then probably over to Salina to load up.
"We'll set up the Drive for pulling her out after dark. Then we have to wait until after midnight for the fourth Ship to bring in the first boards."
"Moonlight?" I asked.
"Not the problem. They have to gather four more primary boards from the other Ships"
"Why not gather them during the day, deliver them tonight?" We pulled up in front of Mom's place, behind Pete's tanker. I looked at the shiny end of it, so irregular in comparison to the Ship.
"Ships are in South America. Brazil and Chile. Can't risk a transfer in daylight. Don't forget - they don't have any mobility units left. Have to use old fashioned conveyor belts, I guess."
"We're not going to get anything done!" I said as we got down and crossed the road.
"Yeah we will," Graham said as we walked up the steps. "Don't forget, we don't have to sleep for a while."
"But I want . . . " I stopped as we walked through the door. I could just imagine the response from the "regulars" if I said "want to sleep with you." as we Arrived together.
"Patience, Bill," he said in a low voice, like a sexy growl. "It won't be long."
I didn't have time to register my protest. Everybody was saying howdy, and there was a little bit of surprise on a few faces that I was there. Mom, for one. She looked at me, then looked at Graham, then at me again, and I knew she knew. Just like that. We hadn't so much as kissed that once, and my Mom had everything all figured out. How do they do that?
"Bacon or Sausage?" Mom called out to Graham as we went to the first booth, after Graham apologized to Dan because he wasn't gonna set with him, and poured us each a mug. He didn't take off his Stetson. People would have taken note, I think. Of the hair, I mean. Most guys leave their hats on, anyhow, at least at breakfast. It isn't polite at Dinner or Supper.
"One of each!" called Graham back, ordering for me. "Bill an' I'll flip to see who gets second choice."
I know what he eats - I mean, I worked the counter for ten years, after all - and it was the right choice that day. I made a mental note to be sure and let him know I was my own man, though, didn't need him deciding things for me.
Pete looked round over his shoulder when Graham said 'Bill,' but just winked at me and went back to his cake and coffee.
Hal Cooper couldn't keep his nose out of a newborn goat's butt. He turned and said "What's wrong with B.B. all of a sudden?"
"Bill's my Dad's name, what he gave to me," I spat over my coffee mug. "I'm proud of it, and I'm gonna use it!"
"Bill, you want a side of flaps?" my Mom called out from the grill. Wow! She just canned them all, in one little sentence.
"Best idea yet, Mom!" I called back.
Everybody went back to talking about the prospects for rain. Nobody ever called me B.B. again, except Graham . . . well, I'll save that for later.
Mom brought over the platters just as Gary Boyce wandered in.
"You boys work all night last night?"
"Ayuh," said Graham. "Andy turn us in?"
"Saw your truck heading home from the Hangar before five this morning," she said. "Diane said Pete saw the Ram at the Hangar gone ten o'clock last night. Figure you're gonna get everything done in a week, grind yourself into an early grave?"
"Thought you looked right pretty this morning," Graham said back at her.
"And you're looking younger than ever this morning, you old fart," she laughed.
"Touché," Graham grinned. I just sat there a little embarrassed. Andy had slept over at my Mom's place, she about said so, and maybe she thought I was sleeping already with Graham.
"Seriously, Graham. I've never seen you look better," Mom said as she put her hand on his shoulder. "You neither," she said at me. "Maybe you're good for each other."
I prayed for a chasm to open up.
"Maybe," Graham said. "Right now, though, your cookin' is just what the doctor ordered after a hard night's work. Best in the land, Charlene."
Mom smiled and blushed a little, then dashed to flip Gary's eggs.
I ate in a fog. We talked about something or other - probably the prospects for rain - then Graham paid and we left, just after Pete left for Salina and some of the others were getting ready to go. Mom called out Nice Day' after us, and added something about "Bill, don't forget to get your money for the milk. Tom's left it over to Pete's." She knew Tom left it at my place now that Cal had moved out. She was just letting me know she was okay with "Bill."
We drove up to the Hangar, the heat of my hand on Graham's thigh almost white. I had these ideas about getting in another Kiss, but there was a pickup already out front, the doors to the Shop were open, and when we walked in, there were two Deere's and an IH in a line on the left, and a Deere and an IH in the two bays.
"Hey, Boss!" called out a voice from behind the Deere. I saw two pair of legs through the space under the tractor.
"Hey Rob! Morning Cory!" Whose rigs?"
"Guy named Dreeson and couple of other guys brought them in, said they's no rush long as as they're ready by Monday. Nothing but routine stuff, so we figured on gettin' them out of the way. Somebody called, asked if they could bring in a Cat this afternoon. Name's on your bench."
"Come meet my neighbor, Bill," said Graham. "Gonna help me out a little for a while."
I had a strange reaction to that. Neighbor? I wanted a hell of a lot more than that . . .
Two guys came out from behind the tractor, wiping their hands. One about twenty-five or so, maybe a little younger, the other a year or three younger than me. The younger one looked familiar, but I couldn't recollect from where. Good-looking, strapping guys. Graham introduced us, and we shook hands.
"Don't recognize me, do you?" asked Cary, grinning at me.
"I . . . No, I don't"
I was on the second string during your last season," he said. "Sophomore."
I didn't recognize him at all. "Sure," I said lamely. "You've grown a lot since then!" I hoped it didn't sound as phony as it was.
"Yeah," he said with a laugh. "You about bulldozed me in scrimmage once - I only weighed a hundred ten, soaking wet."
It didn't help - I remembered nothing at all of him. But there was something familiar, all the same.
"Bill's gonna do some work in the Hangar," Graham said. "We're trying to get some old equipment up and running. It's a rush job for some friends from out of town, so we're gonna do double duty for a while."
I almost swallowed my tongue trying not to bust out. From out of town? Try 'out of this world, out of this Universe!'
"No sweat, Boss," Rob said back, looking at me. "Cory an' me can handle all this stuff, no problem. I'm gonna need some help with the new Deere, though. I'm not too good with the Diag Unit yet."
"Great, Rob. Holler when you're ready to hook her up, and I'll run you both through it. It's a lot easier to use than the manual says." Graham was already walking over to the bench he used as an office. "How long you guys been here?"
"Only a half hour or so. Got here just when Starfleet arrived."
My stomach rolled.
"You mean Dreeson?"
"Yeah. He looks a little like Kirk, don't he? And that guy with the IH could be Spock's brother!"
I started breathing again.
"You must mean George Carmichael," Graham said. "He does have a pretty close look don't he? I keep telling him to stop lettin' his wife cut his hair, but he won't listen."
I never made the connection before, but it's true. George is tall and slender, with close-crop black hair, a long face and big ears. No points, though.
"We missed Scotty, though, laughed Cory. "I kept waiting for the Captain to say 'beam us up, Scotty' into his communicator!"
We all had a laugh, then Cory and Rob went back to the first bay. Graham opened the door part way into the Hangar and we went in, closing it behind us. The rusty old pallet jack, jackhammer and power pack, and the mop bucket were still there. The ship wasn't there one second, and was completely there the next, as the computers did whatever they did to let us "see" it. The destabiliser, gravity platform and probe were back to normal. The Ship drifted down towards the Hangar floor.
"Good morning. The delivery will be at 12:12 a.m.," said Groth. "We do not wish the Drive to be dissociated from the Cloak before that."
No amount of practice is going to keep me from having a little thrill go up my spine when the computer talks inside my head like that.
"Right," said Graham. "Bill will do everything possible between now and then to prepare."
"Yes," said Groth, appearing in front of us. "It should be done in time for you to go home, have your meal, relax before returning here."
He knew we . . . were having supper together that night.
Groth spoke inside my head. "I know everything you know, Bill. It is not possible for me not to, both because of the importance of what you are doing, and as a practical matter. There is a link between us, established when you agreed to help us, when you were in the Optimizer. But you must be clear on something. Nothing - I repeat, nothing - you do or think will ever be disclosed by me to another person or computer, nor will it be discussed with Graham without an overriding necessity, such as the success of this operation or your personal well-being."
"What if . . . " I thought of the hopes I had of that night. A kiss, more. Everything. I wanted no one but Graham and me there, I wanted it to be special. I didn't want anybody watching.
"Think of me only as a mirror, reflecting reality, but unable to interpret, communicate, or change the scene before it. I will not in any way intrude. It is unethical and immoral."
It helped, but only a little.
"You will learn through experience that what I say is true."
"What about Graham?" I asked. "How does he feel?" God, I wanted to know that.
I got no response, not even a refusal to say.
"What can I do here?" asked Graham as this exchange passed in an instant.
I didn't hear the response, as I got right to work on the destabiliser unit, placing the unit precisely where the Ship indicated with tiny lasers that it should go, so that the shield could be opened without turning it - the shield - off, opening an aperture of exactly the right shape and size for lowering the Drive down to the platform.
The gravity platform was self-mobile, and would put itself into position at the right moment. All I had to do the rest of the day was open the control unit of the platform and modify the arrangement of the neural "cards," placing new ones into open "sockets" to supplement the power going to the gravity grid (especially under the supports that would hold the Drive in place, and to strengthen the unit's resistance to lateral motion.
Graham was assigned to the Shop, to keep things as normal as possible. My work was simple enough for anyone, as long as I didn't screw up on any of the measurements or switch some of the cards around.
By the time I finished, the platform wouldn't move more than a millimeter unless there was an earthquake of 8.0 magnitude or higher, which the Ship told me was a one in twelve quintillion two hundred seventeen quadrillion nine hundred four trillion and a few billion probability of happening within the next ninety days. Or something like that. It actually gave me all the numbers, right down to the bitter end, before I could tell it to stop, but I can only truly remember the twelve quintillion bit. Just as well - the tolerance set for the destabiliser was only five centimeters, around two inches. If the platform was off by more than that, the Drive wouldn't clear the opening.
We had a hot Dinner at a big table Graham had built in the back of the Shop out of two sawhorses and a double sheet of thick plywood. Graham sent Cory to pick the food up at Charlene's. Chicken-fried steaks, two potatoes, two beans, kale, squash, parkerhouse rolls, salad, peach pie with custard and cream, and Gove Cheddar. There was plenty of iced tea and raw milk from the little fridgidaire he bought used somewhere - Gove, probably. We all ate well, but Graham was especially hungry. He ate double on the meat, kale, beans and squash, salad and cheddar, but didn't touch the rest. Except the peach pie, of course, which we cut into quarters just to keep things even. Graham and I drank milk - lots of it. I don't usually drink but a quart of so a day, but we went through a whole gallon jug between us.
My teeth hurt.
Cary and Rob were impressed by Graham's appetite, that he could eat so much and keep trim. I think they'd be doubly impressed if they knew he was 65, not 30 or so, which is what he seemed to me to look like, even if I was prejudiced. We talked about this and that, where who lived, that sort of thing. Cary was living with Rob, because his family had six kids, and he was the oldest, and they needed space, and he wanted to get out on his own, and so on. I thought he was making too much out of it, like he was hiding why he had really moved out.
Rob's parents were in Salina. He moved out here four years ago to work at Sweeney's, rented a little house what had been built for a farmer's parents years ago. The farmer had sold out, and the farm was run by one of those megamonster grain companies, but they let the farm houses out as a way of improving security. Cary moved in with him to keep the rent sown..
The afternoon started out a bit of a drag. Graham worked with Cary and Rob on the diagnostic machine for the Deere. I set up the Probe and fired it, the tendrils probably burrowing down to where the earth's core made the material molten. The Probe is for two things - sucking up essential elements needed for fabrication of the new neural "cards," which are only partly biological, and dissipation of energy. The Ship was super efficient, but nonetheless it produced huge amounts of energy while making things, running screens, maintaining position, and so on. There was inevitably an excess, and it had to be got rid of, after the energy reserve banks were full.
The fuel tanks were full - the Kryst uses almost any fluid as fuel, but plain water is the easiest to manipulate as well as the third most common molecule in the universe. Has the perfect balance of particles for most fabrication work, too.
I had nothing left to do on the prep work. The ship was pumping circuitry data into me all the time, of course, but I had most of it down pretty pat. I was getting bored.
"You like music." Groth said.
"Yes, but I don't know much about it." I always wanted to take the time to learn a little more, but I never seemed to have those extra precious hours.
"Come on board the Ship, and go to the learning station. There is time for some amusement - you have done the work more quickly than the time that was allotted."
I told Graham I was going to be doing a stint on the technical data for the machinery, and I figured he understood that meant I was going to be on board the Ship for a while. I went back into the hangar, the Ship extruded the escalator, and I went in. The Light didn't bother me a bit.
Following the Ship's instructions, I put a hand on each of two graphite rods of the learning station, and was immediately in pitch-black darkness.
The flow of circuitry data into my head stopped.
I heard music. Familiar, but that classical stuff I never really had time for. A jig, almost. Suddenly, images appeared in the darkness.
The ship took me to the movies. I watched "Amadeus" from a front row center seat, the music surrounding me, incredibly beautiful. Salieri was pathetic, the acting pretty good - except I hated Mozart, which is probably what the director wanted anyhow - the photography incredible - but the music! It was the first time I'd really listened to it. I wanted more, even as the credits rolled.
The Ship obliged. I saw my first opera, Tosca, then Fantasia, Cosi Fan Tutti, Carmen, La Traviata, and Das Rheingold. I understood the words, somehow. And I heard music as if for the first time in my life. Finally, I heard the entire Requiem Mass, the one in Amadeus, looking through the eyes of someone in a huge cathedral, stained glass everywhere, a choir of hundreds on either side of an orchestra on a big platform in front of the Nave.
"You collected samples of our music, too?" I asked as the music drew to a close, as my eyes came back to the Ship.
"Not samples. Everything. There is no comparable catalogue of harmonic composition by any other civilization. All is in the fifth Ship's data core. From the earliest recordings to last week's top releases."
"All of it, including rap, soul?"
"All of it."
"How do you get it?"
"All has been brought to us by collectors, who are paid in metals you hold precious."
"And our literature?"
"In the eighth Ship."
"Why are you collecting samples from us?"
"Not samples. Everything of your civilization."
"To ensure that it is not lost."
"How could it be lost? Nuclear war? An asteroid?"
I remembered the biology class in High School, where they talked about the asteroid that probably killed off all the dinosaurs.
"No. There will be more information available to you shortly. It is not yet time for that. But it is time for you to prepare supper."
I looked at my watch - it was past five o'clock.
"Oh, shit!" I thought. "I'm not ready for this! I need a shower!"
"Relax," said Groth in my ear. "It is something you will enjoy far more if you do not concern yourself overly with details and specifics."
"I better go," I said.
"Yes," said Groth, as I got up from the learning station and walked swiftly to the corridor.
I went into the airlock or whatever it is, and the lights went on. I felt a little twinge in my gut, then the door opened. I didn't move on the escalator - I learned that if you stand perfectly still, it goes twice as fast.
When I opened the doors to the Shop, Graham was working on the third Deere with the Diagnostic unit. He looked to be no more than thirty, his hair in a buzz cut, his face screwed up in concentration over the machine. I don't think he even heard me come up behind him. Rob and Cary were gone.
I wanted to wrap my arms around him, hug myself to him, peer over his shoulder and suggest we go home and take a bath together, but I was afraid I might be a little too pushy if I did. Then I thought of a Kiss, just one, before we rode home in Jeep, then piled into bed. Together. Oh, shit, would I . . . please him?
I just reached out and put my hand on his shoulder and said "About ready for a break?"
"Thought you'd never ask," he said gruffly, making some adjustment to the unit, then switching it off.
"I . . . " I never got the next word out. Don't remember what it was, don't give a rat's rump.
He turned around, grabbed ahold of my head between his two hands, and pulled me into his lips like I was a ten-ounce crappie. Except I didn't fight. I just molded into him, wrapped my arms around him, squeezed him into me, opened my mouth and got the best Kiss anybody ever got on the whole Earth - in the whole galaxy. His hands moved to my shoulders, down my arms a little, around my back, sending shivers up and down me like electric yo-yo's.
"Let's go," he said hoarsely when we came up for air. "I'm powerful hungry."