It had been a busy few weeks for Jahv and his friends. First off, Niklas had brought Jason and Fabian out to meet Jahv and Keyro. That had been more difficult for Niklas than he had thought. He'd never kept secrets from his friends, but he had kept silent about Jahv and Keyro. So he hadn't been sure how to bring up the subject.
One morning, both Jason and Fabian had come to Niklas' house, just as Mrs. Edlund was taking Tina shopping. "Niklas is asleep, boys, but I'd appreciate it if you'd get him up, anyway. I don't want him sleeping the summer away." As usual during the summer months, Niklas had slept late. Jason and Fabian stood over the bed wondering what the best -- and most amusing -- means of awakening their friend might be.
"Water balloon?" suggested Fabian quietly.
Jason shook his head. "Did that three weeks ago, remember? And his mom got upset about the damp sheets. What if we just yank the covers off?"
Fabian frowned. "Look at him. Dead to the world. I don't think he'd notice. Yank his shorts off?"
Jason giggled. "That'd be fun, but I'm not sure he'd notice THAT, either. What if we jumped on the bed?"
"We did that four weeks ago, and I didn't like the way the frame squeaked." said Fabian. "I don't want to have to explain a collapsed bed."
Jason looked serious. "You know, no one else is home. That does expand our options somewhat."
"I can't believe he hasn't woke up with us just standing here talking." remarked Fabian. "What's it going to take?"
"Okay, let's try part of one of your ideas." said Jason. "We yank his shorts off, and if that doesn't work, we pick him up, and if he's still not awake, we put him in the shower and hit the cold water."
"You're suggesting that we throw him in the shower, without his shorts but with his shirt, sound asleep, and nail him with a cold shower?" said Fabian. "That is a hideously evil concept. I love it. Now I hope he DOESN'T wake up."
The two boys carefully drew back the tangled covers. Niklas twitched but was still sound asleep, flat on his tummy and with his legs outstretched. "Well, step two should be easy enough." remarked Jason.
The boys each grabbed one leg of the lightweight shorts Niklas had worn to bed and pulled. The shorts slid off, but Niklas was still asleep. "I don't believe this!" whispered Fabian. "I've never seen him sleep like this!"
"What do we do if the shower doesn't work?" asked Jason.
"Check him for a pulse." replied Fabian.
"Bet he wakes up when we start to carry him." said Jason, who grabbed Niklas' legs. Fabian slipped his hands under Niklas' arms and lifted. Niklas remained asleep. The two boys carried Niklas into the bathroom, but the youngster gave no sign of waking up.
"Unbelievable." said Jason, as they gently leaned Niklas against the wall of the shower opposite the nozzle itself. "Well, this HAS to do it. Set that thing as far to cold as possible, and turn it on full blast at the count of three."
"Aye-aye, sir!" replied Fabian, adjusting the shower controls and making sure the nozzle was pointed directly at Niklas.
"Ready?" asked Jason. Fabian nodded. "One -- two --thr..."
"Three!" yelled Niklas, instantly alert even as Fabian turned on the shower. Niklas grabbed his two friends by their shirt collars and dragged them into the shower, drenching all three of them in freezing cold water. Niklas was laughing and shrieking at the same time. Fabian and Jason were just shrieking. Fabian finally deactivated the shower, and the boys climbed out of the shower enclosure.
"All right, WHEN?!" asked Fabian, shaking water out of his hair and wringing out his shirt.
"I think it was when you said 'water balloon'." answered Niklas.
"You were awake ALL that time?!" exclaimed Jason.
Niklas grinned. "I just wanted to see what you guys would come up with."
Fabian rolled his eyes. "And I thought WE were being sneaky." The group headed back to Niklas' room, whereupon Niklas pulled on a T-shirt and some jeans.
"So, any ideas on how to spend the day?" asked Jason of no one in particular.
"Yeah, actually, I do." said Niklas. "There's something I need to show you guys out by that pond near where Davy lives."
Fabian raised an eyebrow. "You been keeping secrets, Niklas?"
Niklas sat down on his bed, and frowned. "Yeah, guys, I have, and I'm sorry. But the only reason I did was because you weren't out there when it happened, and what's out there is so weird that if too many people know about it, it could be dangerous."
"Dangerous?" asked Jason. "What do you mean? What's out there?"
"This is going to sound pretty crazy, guys." said Niklas.
"Tell us." said Fabian, more curious than angry at whatever Niklas had kept from them.
Niklas related the entire story. How he and Davy had been playing in the pond on one of the many insufferably hot days this summer had produced, and how there had been a bright light and a blast of sound, that had dropped a young alien boy whose name was best pronounced "Jahv" into their midst, and how later, a second, younger alien, Jahv's brother Keyro, had also arrived. Niklas told them about the hidden tent-dome, and everything Jahv and Keyro had been up to since then, mostly with Davy, Martin, and Keith.
"Keith and Martin know about these -- aliens, too?" asked Fabian.
"Davy introduced them." said Niklas. "You know how tight those three are."
"It would explain some of the stuff you guys have been up to this summer." said Jason. "Fishing around for computer parts a while back. Keith getting more time away from his stepfather. And those military vehicles around here a while back."
"So why tell us now?" asked Fabian. "I mean, I'm glad you did, and I kinda understand why you couldn't before, but -- why now?"
"They want to meet more people." said Niklas. "So you believe me?"
"Hey, we've promised to always tell each other the truth, right?" stated Jason.
"All right!" said Niklas. "Then let's go!"
It was a long bike ride out to the pond, but the three boys were there by late morning. They dropped their bikes, and Niklas started looking for where the tent-dome was. If you knew that it was out there, and had a general idea of where it was supposed to be, you could sort of find it.
Jason and Fabian held back. "What do you think?" asked Jason.
"I'm not sure what to think." replied Fabian. "Truth is one thing. Story-telling is something else. But there HAVE been some weird events around here recently. And why come all the way out here just to pull a prank?"
"I don't believe in aliens." said Jason. "I'm going to have to see this to believe it."
Niklas found the edge of the tent, and pulled the door aside. To Jason and Fabian, both suddenly astonished, it looked as thought Niklas had just ripped a hole in the open air, and there was something beyond it.
"Jahv!" called Niklas. "You in there? Got someone I want you and Keyro to meet."
Seconds later, Jahv and Keyro emerged, naked as usual. But that made their appearance that much more surprising to Jason and Fabian. A lot could be done with face paint and fancy uniforms, but here were two boys, one green, the other lavendar, with white, feathery hair, huge eyes, antennae on their heads, and no clothes.
"About that belief of yours..." said Fabian.
"Never mind." said Jason.
Niklas grinned, and made introductions all around. Jason and Fabian took distinct note that Jahv and Keyro only had four fingers per hand, instead of five. Jason seemed fascinated by their antennae. He reached up to Jahv, who flinched. Jason suddenly realized he was being impolite. "May I -- ?" he asked.
Jahv answered, "Please be careful. Those are what you would call ears, and they're very delicate." But he bowed his head and let Jason touch one of his antennae gently. Jason did so, and almost immediately withdrew his hand, looking more surprised than ever. "What?" asked Fabian.
"It -- it was warm to the touch. And I could feel a pulse in it!" said Jason.
That seemed to be enough proof for Jason that Jahv and Keyro were the genuine article, and the boys were then given a tour of the two aliens' home, including the bizarre computer, and the shuttle that Jahv and Keyro had been working on, which was now nearly ready. Niklas looked forward to traveling in it. Jason and Fabian weren't nearly as convinced. Conversation then turned to who else it might be safe to tell about the presence of these two otherworldly youngsters. It was generally agreed that Sniv would be safe to tell. Jonathon was another matter.
"I hate to say this, but he's too often an accident waiting to happen." said Niklas. "I like him. He's a great kid. But he's reckless."
"If he finds out without one of us telling him, and then finds out that we knew and didn't tell him, he's going to be really upset." said Jason. "He's going to feel betrayed by all of us and I wouldn't blame him. And he's had enough of that already. Look what his mom did to him."
"I didn't say we wouldn't tell him," said Niklas, "but I think we need to think about it. Maybe bring him out here with a group of us. Who else? Randy?"
"If we tell either Randy or Jonathon, we have to tell the other." said Fabian. "What about your sister, Niklas?"
Niklas scowled. "Over my dead body. That blabbermouth would have it all over the school come fall, as well as following us out here all the time and ruining our fun. She doesn't even know about this PLACE, never mind who's living here!"
Fabian grinned. "Easy, Niklas. I was just kidding. Who else do we know?"
"Jody?" offered Jason.
Niklas considered that. "Keith knows him better than any of us. It should be up to him. Didn't Sniv make a friend with a kid named Ricky, when he was tracking down Keith and Martin when Keith tried to run away a while back? And then there's Martin's new friend Chris."
Jason nodded. "Yeah, but I don't know if Sniv's seen much of Ricky since."
"I think Sniv should be next, and then later we should probably bring Randy and Jonathon out here together." suggested Niklas. "Telling Chris should probably be up to Martin. But we should get to all of them before summer vacation is over."
And so it had gone. Sniv was introduced to the two aliens, and was properly astonished. Martin, on his own, brought Chris out at one point, to not only meet the two aliens, but Davy as well. Davy and Chris got along well, even though Davy was a lot more outdoors-type and energetic, compared to the quieter Chris. Chris' reaction to the aliens was one of the more unusual. Of course, Chris spent a lot of time reading comic books and other fantasy material. He grinned widely and said, "I knew it had to be true. I knew there had to be people out there." Of course, he was a little nervous around them, but who wouldn't be at first?
Jason and Fabian later brought out Randy and Jonathon. Randy was also impressed, and Jahv seemed fascinated by Randy's long hair, which was longer than any of the other boys', but he didn't say anything about it except to stare a bit.
Jonathon was skeptical about the "aliens" until he had a chance to poke around the dome-tent. True to form, he started pounding on the computer until a horrendous squeal nearly deafened everyone in the room. "What'd I do?!" exclaimed Jonathon, suddenly frightened.
Jahv made a big show out of checking the computer. "Oh, very nice. When the invasion force shows up and enslaves the planet, I am NOT taking the blame for it."
"WHAT??!?!" shrieked Jonathon, suddenly terrified. Then Jahv started laughing, which in turn got everyone else laughing, including Jonathon, eventually. But it was a solid example to the accident-prone youngster about keeping the presence and location of these two aliens a definite secret, and Jonathon actually managed to keep quiet about it. He nearly slipped a couple of times in conversation, but a loud cough from someone else, one of the other boys, suddenly made him aware of what he was about to say, and he soon learned to say nothing.
Not long after, the shuttle Jahv and Keyro had been building was ready. Finding passengers was a little trickier. Talking about flying into space was one thing. The sudden realization of actually being able to do so caused a certain reluctance on the part of a lot of the boys. Eventually, Niklas, Davy, and Keith decided to go along with Jahv, while Martin and Keyro would keep track of them from the dome-tent. Niklas and Davy managed to overcome whatever fear they might have had about an actual space voyage with the sheer prospect of adventure. Keith figured he'd better go along to provide a reality check if one was needed, or so he said. He probably wanted the adventure as much as Niklas and Davy, but wasn't about to admit it aloud.
Their destination, explained Jahv, would be a planet orbiting a star roughly fifteen light years away. According to his people's records, the planet was habitable, but was uninhabited -- at least as far as advanced sentient life was concerned. And yet Jahv had detected, through his radio telescope investigations, what sounded very much like a distress signal, in a language that was believed to be nearly extinct.
Jahv had outfitted Niklas, Davy, and Keith in spacesuits similar to his own, but with different color patterns. He explained that the trip to the planet would only take a couple of hours, since much of it would be spent in a form of interdimensional transit he described as "hyperwarp". Fortunately, the boys technically had all weekend. Niklas, Keith, and Martin had said they were going to spend the weekend at Davy's. Davy had told his parents that they all wanted to camp out in the woods nearby, and they had made a big production out of hauling a large tent and more than enough food out there with them, most of which would be parked in Jahv's dome-tent.
"What are these uniforms made out of?" asked Niklas, tugging at the sleeve of his outfit. "They feel kinda weird."
"It's an organic fabric made out of -- " began Jahv.
"Never mind!" interrupted Keith. "Organic anything and I'd just as soon not know. How'd you get the fit so perfect?"
Jahv shrugged. "One size pretty much fits all. The suit is highly elastic. Now strap in. We're leaving momentarily."
Minutes later, the sleek shuttle shot out of the dome-hangar it had been built in. Not that anyone saw it or heard it. The grav-engines were utterly silent, and the ship had the same cloaking capability as the dome-tents Jahv and Keyro lived in.
However, the boys were able to watch the lift-off through huge windows in the passenger cabin. The Earth quickly diminished in size behind them. "Incredible!" whispered Davy. Niklas was equally impressed. Keith was trying to hold onto his lunch. The inertia compensators of the shuttle were such that there had been no real feeling of extra gravity during the launch, but Keith's stomach wasn't entirely convinced of that.
Before long the moon came into view. "This is incredible!" proclaimed Niklas. The shuttle had windows along its sides, and Niklas and Davy's faces were firmly pressed against them. Keith was allowing himself an occasional glimpse, but he was also realizing that whatever he was when he grew up, it would most likely be something decidedly earthbound.
"Hey, I think I just saw a comet go past on this side!" yelled Davy.
"I feel like I oughtta be up on the bow of the ship yelling 'I'm the king of the world' or something." giggled Niklas.
"You would have to quote that movie, wouldn't you?" remarked Keith. "The ship sank. Get over it."
Niklas ignored him. "Jahv, this is incredible! And you get to do this sort of thing all the time?"
Jahv grinned. "Believe it or not, it becomes routine after a while."
"I don't believe that." said Niklas, still staring out the window. "This could never become routine."
"Hey, any chance of stopping on Mars on the way to this planet you mentioned?" asked Davy.
"It's not on the itinerary." replied Jahv from the cockpit. "Why?"
Davy shrugged. "I just thought it'd be a blast to walk past Pathfinder's camera and freak out all of NASA."
"You're evil, you know that?" remarked Niklas, grinning. "Fortunately for NASA in this case, I think I read that Pathfinder's batteries have already drained. But maybe we could figure out what happened to that Polar Lander probe they lost."
"I've got a better idea." said Keith, finally recovered from his brief nausea. "We do this again, we should take a couple of soda cans with us and leave 'em on Mars. Wouldn't that drive the 'first' manned mission to Mars completely nuts?"
"Great, we've got a kid on board who wants to be the world's first interplanetary litterbug." commented Niklas.
"Yeah, right." said Keith. "I saw an old video with astronauts on the moon. How about that one that golfed? You think he bothered to track down and fetch the ball back?"
Niklas groaned. "Jahv, when do we enter this hyperwarp or whatever you called it?"
"In about ten seconds, fortunately." replied Jahv.
Ten seconds later, the stars around the shuttle seemed to shift into long, straight lines, spinning around the small vessel. This time, the inertia compensators couldn't quite keep up, and the boys felt a decided tug of gravity slam them into their seats.
Once it alleviated, they all breathed something of a sigh of relief. Niklas had alternately been paying attention to the scenery outside the window, which at this point looked like stars whipping past so fast it was honestly making him dizzy, and noticing the empty co-pilot's seat next to Jahv. He surmised that Jahv and Keyro had used some sort of standard design for shuttle building that included a two-person cockpit. Figuring the shuttle was stable enough for him to get up and walk around, Niklas unstrapped and headed over to the cockpit. "May I join you?"
Jahv smiled. "Certainly. But strap in and don't lean on anything, okay?"
Niklas sat down and buckled the harness, and took a look through the front window. That scene was even more bile-inducing than the stars shooting past sideways where he'd been. It looked like a tunnel of stars, moving impossibly fast. Niklas wasn't sure if he was getting hypnotized or was about to throw up. He decided it really didn't matter, and averted his eyes and looked at Jahv instead.
Jahv looked just a little nervous, but was hiding it well. His antennae were perked up higher than usual. Niklas found Jahv fascinating. A child from another planet. He assumed that he and Jahv were more or less the same age, but what was a year to Jahv? Did his people age at the same pace? Jahv tended to act much more mature than his appearance. That could either mean he was older, or it was just normal for his people to act that way.
Niklas had always wanted an older brother, but he didn't have one, and of course it was an impossibility as such. Jahv acted older even if he wasn't. Niklas started to think it would be pretty cool to have a brother who didn't look any older, but sort of acted like a big brother, to a point.
And Jahv's huge dark eyes, white, almost feathery hair, and green skin made him that much more interesting. It was the differences and the similarities Niklas noticed, which put together made an interesting package. Given that Jahv tended to spend most of his time naked, it was readily apparent to anyone that he was both humanoid and a boy. And yet, if one combined the eyes, the antennae, the hair, the green skin, and the fact that Jahv had only four fingers per hand and four toes per foot, it was equally clear that Jahv was something quite different from what most people defined as "human". Niklas couldn't help but stare and smile at this remarkable friend he had made, and he felt something special inside whenever he thought of him.
Jahv, meanwhile, was paying very close attention to the navigational console and trying desperately to look like he knew what he was doing more than he really did. He and Keyro had assembled this shuttle from proved design parameters, and checked out all the specifications, so in theory, it should be a fully safe and operational spacecraft. But flying the thing was a different matter. Jahv was not an experienced pilot. He'd trained on a number of simulator devices, which were more than just games, and he had done well, but his mind couldn't help but remind him that this was the real thing, and if he messed up, he and his friends were space dust, and those left behind on Earth would have a lot of explaining to do.
An experienced pilot would not find this flight a challenging one. Straight shot out and back from one planet to another along precise coordinates was what would be called, in Earth slang, a "milk run". But Jahv was finding that all of the space-survival lessons he'd had pumped into his head from the instant he could understand language at once giving him a certain measure of confidence that he was capable of making this flight safely, and making him paranoid over everything that could go wrong. But he did notice Niklas staring at him, with a big silly grin on his face. Jahv returned the smile and Niklas' face reddened somewhat.
Niklas didn't visit the tent-dome quite as often as Keith or Davy or Martin did, but his visits were becoming more frequent, and he seemed to enjoy spending time especially with Jahv, and seemed to like being as physically close as possible. Jahv didn't entirely understand this. It wasn't rude behavior, but it did strike Jahv as peculiar. It had taken Keyro, after his arrival, and after witnessing this a few times, to finally explain it.
It had been one evening when Jahv and Keyro were discussing their new friends. "Niklas is the one that mystefies me," Jahv had commented. "The others are a little more obvious. Both Davy and Keith are, in their own way, lonely. Davy has few friends in the immediate area, and Keith comes out here to escape his home situation, much as we left ours. Martin comes out here because for him, it is a safe adventure for an otherwise timid boy. But Niklas seems at once the most well-adjusted of the lot and yet the most mysterious. I can't figure him out."
"I can't figure out why you keep using those big words." said Keyro. "You put out much more static and people around here will start getting interference on their radios." The two alien boys, when on their own, of course, spoke their native language, which sounded like static to anyone else. "You don't have to impress me with your vocabulary, and I think Mom and Dad always figured you were just showing off."
Jahv huffed. "Mom and Dad probably never heard much of a word I said."
"Anyway, Niklas is easy to figure out, if you have the right perspective." said Keyro.
"Which would be -- ?" asked Jahv, genuinely curious.
"Mine." replied Keyro. "Niklas wants a big brother. We've heard him mention a younger sister a few times, but I think he'd rather have a big brother than be one."
"But he and I are of nearly identical age." countered Jahv.
"You also act a lot older most of the time." said Keyro. "Niklas is picking up on that. And I suspect he's probably not sure how old either one of us are. Basically, we look the same as they do, so they figure us for kids. But they're probably smart enough to consider the possibility that we might not be that close in age to them."
"But we are." said Jahv. "We figured it out one night. This world has a rotational period that is only 0.025% different than ours. And we age at nearly the same rate."
"They don't know that." countered Keyro. "Look at it this way, big brother. You know how upset our parents would get whenever we'd just hug each other."
"They didn't like it." admitted Jahv. "Said we'd picked up bad habits from other worlds."
Keyro nodded. "These kids seem a lot more open. And they're sure a lot more fun to be around. You should open up a bit more yourself. And you might find a really good friend in Niklas if you do."
Unfortunately, to date, there hadn't been that many opportunities to really test that theory, although Jahv certainly intended to do so, but not while flying a shuttle. That didn't mean that he couldn't enjoy the boy's company, however.
And Niklas was now talking to him. "What's your world like, Jahv?" Niklas asked.
Jahv recalled that Niklas had not been along on the holocron expedition recently. "Boring, frankly. There's some areas, mostly nature reserves. But we're not a people who do much with design, or art, or decoration. Everything is designed to be functional and not much else."
Niklas frowned at that, but then grinned again as he asked another question. "Isn't it just a little weird to run around naked most of the time when most everyone else is dressed?"
Jahv shrugged. "Not if that's what you were brought up to think of as normal. Besides, it's convenient."
"Convenient?" asked Niklas.
"Sure, you can pee anywhere you have to on a moment's notice." replied Jahv.
Niklas gave the green-skinned youngster an expression of combined alarm and skepticism. "Yes, I'm kidding." snickered Jahv. "Sorry, I guess I still have to work on my sense of humor."
"No, that's okay." said Niklas. "Just made for a weird image."
A short while later, the stars returned to their normal appearance, and there was a new planet slowly growing in size through the front window.
The world looked somewhat like Earth, but it was clear that it had less land mass, and the configuration of the continents was different. The oceans had a greenish tinge to them. There were more but thinner clouds, and the color of the continents was greener than Earth's.
"Ohhhh, wow." said Niklas in a quiet voice.
"This is incredible!" said Davy, somewhat louder. "That's really a whole 'nother world in a whole 'nother star system! It's really out there! We're really here! Look at that!"
Either Keith was also sufficiently impressed, or he was deciding to remain silent for the sake of his two friends' enjoyment.
"I'm homing in on the distress signal." reported Jahv, directing the shuttle to approach the planet. Calculating a proper orbit was actually what would take the greatest amount of time on their trip, except for the time spent in hyperwarp. Entering a proper orbit of a previously unknown world, Jahv explained, was always a precision maneuver, and landing on such a world even trickier. But before too long, they were rumbling through the atmosphere of the eerie new world. Jahv was used to this sort of thing. Niklas, Davy, and even Keith had their noses pressed to the windows, taking in everything, amazed. The green was clearly jungle. The entire planet seemed to be jungle, where there was land. The sky was pale green.
"Good." said Jahv, more to himself than anything. "A clearing ahead, and within half a mile of the distress signal."
Jahv brought the shuttle down for a landing and opened the hatch. He grabbed his ever-present backpack and motioned to the others. "This is unreal." whispered Davy. "We're actually on another world, that no one on Earth even knows about!"
Jahv was waving a scanner device around. "Distress beacon is about half a mile in that direction." he said, pointing towards a dense jungle. "Life readings are complex. Having trouble focusing on anything sentient. Perhaps once we have a better handle on whatever animal life exists here, we can do some fine-tuning."
"Assuming anyone's here." remarked Keith. "That distress beacon could just be all that's left of something."
"True, but I'd like to make sure if we can." replied Jahv. "Let's go."
The group headed towards the jungle, and were suddenly stopped when a huge grouping of round, fan-like flowers shot up from the tall grass.
"Yeek!" sputtered Niklas, startled, as were the others.
"Mobile plants." remarked Keith. "This is weird."
Jahv was hastily running his sensor near them. "They've reacted to our presence, but there's no indication of toxins in them. If they're capable of doing anything, it won't harm us. They do seem to be equipped to spray some sort of -- "
Before he could finish, the group of plants shot a fine blue cloud of pollen at the four youngsters. "If this is the local version of poison oak -- !" snapped Keith.
"No, it's not toxic to either you guys or to me." said Jahv. "But it does seem to have reactive properties with certain organic strains of --"
"Hey!" yelped Davy. "My suit is dissolving!"
"Mine, too!" added Niklas.
Jahv looked down and noticed that he was practically naked except for his boots, as well, which were made from a different, non-organic material.
Keith was almost laughing. "Boy, all of a sudden I'm really glad I kept my underwear on."
Within seconds, except for Keith's underwear, all the four boys were wearing were their boots. "What do we do now?" asked Niklas.
"I don't think there's much we CAN do." said Jahv. "These plants seem to be plentiful, and react to the presence of what they obviously consider a threat. While they can't harm us, they can clearly dissolve certain plant-based organics, which our uniforms were made out of."
"Good thing my shorts aren't cotton." remarked Keith, finding it difficult to keep a straight face.
"I can replicate new uniforms once we head back, but it'd be wasteful to attempt to replace them now." said Jahv. "These plants would just do it again."
Davy shrugged. "Oh, well, it's an isolated planet, with maybe only a handful of survivors here besides us. Let's hope they're not too picky about clothing."
"Let's hope there aren't any nastier specimens of plant life around here." said Niklas.
"Hey, guys, what do we call these plants?" asked Keith. "How about stripper plants?"
"Keep it up, Keith, and I'll throw your shorts into a tree." said Davy. "With or without you, I'll decide later."
"Let's keep going." said Jahv.
Fortunately, none of the plants in the jungle the boys had to make their way through seemed especially harsh. No thorns, burrs, or sharp-edged leaves to tear into skin. Even the bark of trees seemed soft to the touch. Roughly half an hour later, the group found the distress beacon Jahv had detected.
It was about two feet high, with a dish about four feet in diameter and a coil of glowing blue wire running in a spiral pattern throughout the dish. Nearby, perhaps twenty yards or so, was a fair pile of wreckage of a vessel somewhat larger than the one the boys had arrived in. It was difficult to be certain. "Nasty." remarked Keith.
"But someone survived." said Davy. "This distress beacon didn't set itself up."
Jahv seemed stunned. "I don't believe this. The shuttle, this equipment -- it's Dorrian!"
"Someone you know?" asked Niklas.
Jahv shook his head. "Dorrians are -- were -- a race, like Keyro and I are Botarans."
"'Were'?" asked Davy.
Jahv paused to explain. "A number of years ago, a race called the Soluans -- huge, lizard-like beings -- warriors and conquerors, although more nasty than effective -- invaded the Dorrian homeworld. The Dorrians fought back -- a little too well."
"How do you mean?" asked Keith.
"They defeated the Soluan fleet and sent them packing, but the Soluans detonated a terrible device over the planet. An atmospheric incendiary bomb. It's banned by any reasonably civilized race in the galaxy." explained Jahv.
"What does it do?" asked Niklas. It certainly sounded unpleasant.
"It causes a chemical change within the atmosphere of any world. Literally ignites the atmosphere. Once started, there's no known way to stop it. It burns the world to the ground, turns it into ash. Only a handful of Dorrians managed to escape. A lot of those were offworld to begin with." said Jahv grimly. "Out of seven billion known Dorrians, it is estimated that only a few thousand remain, scattered across the stars."
Everyone was silent for a long moment. Finally Keith spoke, "Well, it looks like some of them ended up scattered here, and maybe survived. Like Davy said, that thing didn't set itself up."
"What were these Dorrians like?" asked Niklas.
"They were an elegant people." replied Jahv. "They were builders. Architects and designers, mostly, with a good level of technology. Everything they did had an element of ornate decoration to it. Everything. Look at the legs on the distress beacon."
The other boys looked more closely. Indeed, the three small legs of the distress beacon were elegantly curved and sculpted, and seemed to be made out of a mottled copper-like metal.
"They were a quiet and peaceful people." continued Jahv. "And they wore the most amazingly ornate robes. Dorrian fabric sold for high prices on other worlds. The Soluans made themselves pariahs of the galaxy by attacking and destroying them. Not that anyone was that fond of them to begin with."
"But obviously these Dorrians could fight." said Keith. "You said they defeated the Soluans before they dropped this bomb."
Jahv nodded. "They could fight very well, but it took a lot to anger them. An invasion would suffice, though."
Jahv scanned the wreckage. "According to decay readings, this shuttle has been here for approximately three to four years, possibly slightly longer. Difficult to tell through the nearby plant life, which of course has its own decay rate."
Niklas sighed. "Then whoever survived could be dead by now. Or far away."
"Could." said Jahv. "Whoever set this up had to be trained to do so. And standard procedure is to stay reasonably near the device at all times, regardless of how long it takes. Also, the readings I've been taking on the way in show that most of the fruit on the nearby bushes and trees is not only edible, but highly nutritious. I'm actually amazed that no sentient native life exists here, but stranger things have happened."
"You going to analyze this entire adventure through that gadget of yours, and keep throwing big words at us, or try looking around once in a while?" remarked Davy. "This is incredible! We're really exploring another world."
Jahv smiled. "I'm sorry. It's how I was raised. I keep forgetting how unusual this is for you."
"So what do we do?" asked Niklas.
"Whoever placed the beacon here, if they're not nearby, should be carrying a beacon tracker. If anything deliberate is done to the distress beacon, such as shutting it off -- in other words, something that could not happen by accident, it will set off the tracker. Hopefully they'll come to investigate." Jahv knelt down near the machine and switched it off. "Meanwhile, we can explore this wreckage for clues as to survivors."
"If you guys would wait a second," said Keith, "I gotta pee."
"Watch out which tree you choose." offered Davy. "They seem to have more personality here than on Earth."
"So I'll whiz in the grass." muttered Keith, walking off a short distance and lowering his shorts. Seconds later, a sound vaguely resembling someone playing a harp -- badly -- emanated from where Keith was standing. "What the -- !!!!" swore Keith, jumping back.
Jahv pointed his scanner at the grass, but recalling Davy's admonition, put the device in his backpack and instead plucked a single blade of grass and held it up towards the sun. "Remarkable. These blades have tiny perforations in them that react with liquid and produce a musical tone. In a rainstorm, this place would sound like a concert!"
Keith returned to the group moments later, swearing and without his shorts. "Decided to go along with the current dress code?" asked Davy.
"Ah, shaddup." muttered Keith. He wasn't about to admit that he'd been so startled by the musical grass that he'd pulled his shorts up without completing his intended business and had soaked them. He had then removed the shorts, finished what he had to do, trying to keep it quiet, wiped his front with a dry section of the underwear, and tossed the shorts against the nearest tree. The tree had subsequently absorbed the shorts into its bark. That had been more than enough to get Keith to return to the group.
"How long do you think it will take for someone to respond to you turning off the distress signal?" asked Davy.
"Hard to say," answered Jahv. "Let's have a look at this wreckage meanwhile."
The shuttle managed to retain some of its native elegance even though it was trashed, ripped open in several places, and covered with local flora. The boys could see elegant sculpting both in the hull and what remained of the furniture inside. It was also a lot larger than how it had appeared from a distance.
"I was going to say this thing might've been a family van," commented Davy, "but I'd say it's more like a mobile home."
"This vessel was definitely intended for long-range travel in style." added Jahv. "Multiple rooms, personal furnishings."
"Where's the cockpit?" asked Niklas.
Jahv looked around. The scanner wouldn't do a whole lot of good at this point even if he used it. This sort of inspection had to be done personally. He tried to imagine the shuttle in its original condition, and turned towards where the cockpit, at the very front of the craft, should be.
He found what he believed to be the cockpit door, hidden beneath a tangle of vines in a section of the shuttle that was nearly buried. This shuttle had come down hard and at a very nasty angle. Something told him to bring the scanner out again. He checked his readings and scowled. "Found the cockpit."
The others joined him. "Can we get that open?" asked Keith.
"Maybe, but I don't think we should." said Jahv.
"Huh? Why not?" asked Keith.
"Readings indicate decayed biomass." answered Jahv. Keith raised an eyebrow. "Bodies. Or what's left of them. Best guess -- two adults."
The boys were all silent for a long moment, and backed away from the sealed cockpit.
"Somebody still had to set up that distress beacon." said Davy at length.
"Let's keep looking around." said Jahv. "I'd like to find some indication of how this happened, and who did survive, at least long enough."
"This wreckage isn't very clean, you know." commented Niklas. He and the others were already getting streaked with rust and grime.
"What are you worried about, getting your clothes dirty?" joked Jahv. For him, it had been too obvious to pass up.
Davy had crawled around to the far side of the shuttle from where they'd approached. "Jahv, this shuttle would have had two engines, right?"
"Yes." replied Jahv. One engine, relatively intact -- or at least as much as the rest of the shuttle, could be seen protruding from the side of the shuttle from where they had approached.
"Then I think I know what happened, sort of." answered Davy. Jahv and the others came around. The second engine was at least half missing, and the portions that remained looked exploded.
"Yeah, that'd do it, I guess." remarked Keith.
"But what made it blow up?" asked Niklas.
Jahv was inspecting the machinery in the shuttle. "I'm not an expert on Dorrian ships, but engines tend to be engines to some degree, and this one looks like a power coupling failed."
"How can you tell?" asked Davy.
"Because the Dorrians bought their power couplings from Botarans, and I certainly know a Botaran power coupling when I see one, and only half of it is here -- charred, too."
"Okay, we know what brought it down. Now we need to find out who set up the distress beacon." said Niklas, heading back into the shuttle.
"We are going to need baths so badly when this is over." commented Davy. He'd gotten very filthy crawling around the engine.
"Aw, quit griping about a bit of dirt." said Keith. "You can be really pathetic sometimes, y'know?" Keith was poking around everything he possibly could. He'd just found a large cylinder attached to some piping near what little remained of the ceiling of the shuttle. "Hey, maybe this is like an overhead luggage rack or something."
Jahv looked over. Keith was trying to pry open a hatch. "Um, Keith, I'd be careful there. That looks a whole lot like a -- "
Keith finally got the cylinder open and was promptly doused in a dark blue gelatinous substance. "Aw, gross!" he proclaimed, sputtering.
"Coolant reservoir." finished Jahv, trying not to giggle.
Niklas and Davy were less successful at restraining themselves. "All we need now is some peanut butter and two really big pieces of bread!" said Davy. "What were you saying about a bit of dirt, Keith?"
"Ah, shaddup." muttered Keith, trying with very little success to wipe the sticky goo off. "Hey, this stuff isn't dangerous, is it?"
"No, it's completely inert except when in use as part of a shuttle's drive system." said Jahv. "However, you will be -- sticky until it can be washed off."
"Not to mention blue." added Davy.
Keith just groaned.
"I suggest we split up a bit to search the remaining rooms." said Jahv. The four boys were facing what was left of a corridor, and there were entrances to large rooms on either side. "Niklas and I shall take the one on the left, Davy and Keith the one on the right."
The boys separated, and Jahv and Niklas wandered into the darkened room. Here the roof was relatively intact, and little light shone through. "You asked me before we landed what it was like to go around naked most of the time," remarked Jahv. "What do you think of it?"
Niklas shrugged, trying not to blush but grinning slightly. "Yeah, but it's just us guys here, so it's no big deal. But I can see one other advantage."
"Which is?" asked Jahv.
"No laundry worries." quipped Niklas.
Jahv focused his small hand-light on a nearby console, and then flashed it around the room. "Some sort of master quarters, I would guess." There was a large bed and a comfortable sofa, bolted into place. The cushions for the sofa were in place, but the pillows to the bed were missing. Then something soft clobbered Jahv in the back. "YEEEK!"
Niklas started giggling. He'd found the pillows and had thrown one of them.
"You scared me." said Jahv, not really angrily.
Niklas just shrugged and grinned. It was just annoying enough to Jahv that he grabbed Niklas and wrestled him to the floor. Jahv had his nose to Niklas' face and said, good-naturedly, "If you're going to start a fight, you'd better be ready to finish it."
Niklas did so by kissing Jahv on the nose. The action so startled the alien boy that he backed away immediately. "What was that? Some form of surrender?"
Niklas looked at Jahv. "Hasn't anyone ever kissed you before? Not even your parents? Or your brother?"
Jahv shook his head and rubbed his nose, looking slightly cross-eyed as he did so. "What's a -- kiss?"
Niklas suddenly felt profoundly sad for Jahv. "It's -- a way of showing someone that you care about them."
Jahv looked at Niklas and suddenly smiled. Had there been better light, Niklas would've seen Jahv's face turn a slightly brighter shade of green.
Any further discussion was prevented, however, by a sudden call from the other large room. It was Davy. "Hey, Jahv, Niklas! I think you guys should see this!"
The two boys stood up and went into the other room. Keith was sulking at the far side. Davy had a blotch of blue gel on his upper chest. He'd probably teased Keith once too often. But that wasn't the point. Davy was holding several obviously child-sized robes and an odd stuffed animal. "Jahv, those two -- bodies that you scanned in the cockpit. You said they were adults?"
Jahv looked at the robes. "Probably." He held up one of the robes. It was far too small for any of them to even consider wearing. The owner had probably been no more than five or six years, in Earth terms. "Someone this young wouldn't likely have been in the cockpit, anyway."
Niklas looked at the stuffed animal. It looked like a cross between a teddy bear and a warthog. "What the heck is this thing?"
"A gralnok." said Jahv. "Domesticated animal native to the Dorrian homeworld."
"A little Dorrian kid would take something this ugly to bed with them?" asked Davy.
Jahv nodded. "Anything else in here?"
"Just this." answered Keith, who'd been going through some drawers he'd found embedded in the wall he'd been leaning against. It looked like a metallic headband, and although it was quite ornate, it also clearly contained circuitry. "What is it?"
Jahv studied the device. "An encephalo-educator. Dorrian children wear these a few hours each day from the time they are three years old until they are ten. It teaches them language, math, history, science, all the basic skills."
"How do you know so much about Dorrian technology?" asked Davy.
"Botarans build a lot of it for them." replied Jahv.
There was a sudden THUNK on the roof of the shuttle. "Uh, ohhh." said Davy.
"I hope that was a tree branch." remarked Keith.
Then there was a low, growling noise. "And I hope that was your stomach." said Davy.
"It would've been if I hadn't figured out how to get a cheeseburger out of the food replicator." countered Keith.
"I still say what you people eat is -- " started Jahv, but he was silenced by a wave of Niklas' hand. Niklas was pointing at the open doorway to the room they were presently in, and so scared he couldn't even speak.
Standing in the doorway was -- something. It looked more or less humanoid, and about the same size as any of them. The light was so poor that they couldn't tell much more than that except that it clearly had very long hair and was crouched in a position as if to pounce. It was also what was growling.
"Oh, shit." muttered Keith.
The being sprang into the room and let loose a growling howl that nearly deafened the four boys. He went straight for Jahv, who was holding the only source of light in the room, which promptly shot out of his hand and skittered across the floor.
"He's attacking Jahv!" yelled Davy. "We gotta do something!"
"No, wait!" cried Niklas. "He's not after Jahv. Look!"
The new alien's eyes had followed the light, not Jahv. The alien released Jahv, and scampered across the floor and picked up the small hand light, inspecting it as an infant would a new toy. He was still growling, however.
"Is that a -- what did you call them -- Dorrian?" asked Keith.
Jahv was still checking himself to make sure he hadn't been hurt. "Yes, but Creator's name, I've never seen one in such sorry shape."
"Whataya expect?" remarked Davy. "He's a kid alone on a primitive planet."
Jahv nodded. "You're right, of course. But we need to try to communicate with him."
The alien had turned to face the others, and in the glow of the hand-light it was possible to get a look at his face.
"Is he a whole lot dirtier than we are, or is his face actually camouflage-patterned?" asked Niklas.
"Some of both, probably." replied Jahv. "Dorrian skin is naturally multi-colored. There's probably several shades of green and tan on him. And if you could see past the hair, you'd see he has long, pointed ears."
"It's the eyes that I'm seeing." gulped Davy. "Are those yellow eyes normal?"
Jahv nodded. "Yes."
"Like a wild animal." said Keith. "Real good. Our first encounter with alien life on another planet, and instead of 'Star Trek' we get 'Wild Kingdom'."
The alien continued to crouch and growl at the others.
"You think maybe he's upset because we're on his turf?" speculated Keith.
"What?" asked Jahv.
"This is HIS shuttle, after all." continued Keith. "Maybe he's mad we're in here."
Jahv raised an eyebrow. "That's possible. I hadn't thought of that."
"Okay, so what say we all back out of here, nice and slow, and see what he does?" suggested Davy.
"I have no problem with that." said Niklas.
"All right, let's do it." said Jahv. "Keith, bring the headband."
"Whataya want this thing for?" asked Keith.
"I think you would call it a 'hunch'." answered Jahv.
Keith shrugged, but kept the headband with him. The four youngsters very carefully backed out of the room, and out of the shuttle. The alien boy followed them all the way, never taking his eyes off of them, and continuing to snarl. But he stopped once they were all outside the shuttle, and stayed at the doorway.
"Maybe if we all sat down we'd look less threatening to him." offered Niklas. The others sat down in a crouched position similar to the newcomer, but looking less like they were ready to spring at someone.
Now it was possible, in daylight, to get a better look at the boy. To begin with, given that the youngster was wearing no clothes, it was obvious that he was a boy. And he was certainly far dirtier than any of Jahv's group. But not so much so that his natural camouflage coloring wasn't fairly obvious even through the dirt. His hair, a long and tangled mess, was also more than one color, streaked dark green and brown.
His eyes, although yellow, were more human-looking than Jahv's, and he had a full complement of five fingers per hand and five toes per foot. The only ornamentation anywhere on the boy was a small device on a chain around his neck. Jahv identified it immediately. "That's the homing device for the distress signal!"
"Are you saying George of the Jungle there set up the distress signal?" asked Keith, disbelieving.
"He probably had been trained to do so by his parents, and being very young when he did so and on his own ever since, lost whatever skills he had learned." said Jahv. "That's why I wanted the headband."
"You said that thing was some sort of educator device." remarked Davy. "But you can't expect to civilize him that quickly."
"Remember I said I had a hunch." said Jahv. "And it's a longshot. I'm going to try to teach him language, in the hope that he still has some semblance of civilized behavior left, and that if we can communicate with him, we can bring it to the surface."
"I don't think he's going to let you get close enough for that." said Niklas. "Besides, would that thing be able to teach English?"
"Hey guys, look." said Davy quietly. The alien boy was slowly coming closer. His angry expression had been replaced by one of curiosity.
"Now that we're out of the shuttle," said Jahv. "He wonders who we are."
"Maybe you will get to use the headband." said Niklas, trying to speak quietly and not move too much.
"I hope to use it to establish a telepathic link, through which I can teach him English." said Jahv.
"Can't you do that without the headband?" asked Davy. "You picked it up from us without one."
"Your minds were already civilized and organized." said Jahv. "His isn't. Besides, it's harder to implant information than retrieve it."
The alien boy had made his way over to Keith, who was trying not to back off or make any sudden moves. The youngster ran his finger along Keith's arm and came away with some of the gelatinous coolant. He stuck it into his mouth and spat it out. "Yeah, well, I kinda feel the same way." remarked Keith.
The boy crawled over to Davy next, and ran his hand along Davy's cheek, and then his own. His expression was one of confusion.
"I don't think he's used to seeing someone who looks more or less like him but is only one color." suggested Jahv. "Keith, pass the headband over here. He'll be getting to me in a moment if he keeps this up."
Keith did so. The alien boy was examining Niklas. He seemed to find the boy's blonde hair and rounded ears especially interesting. His gentle touch was ticklish, and Niklas was trying not to giggle. The alien boy was almost smiling.
Finally he came to Jahv. He fingered Jahv's feathery white hair, and started to examine Jahv's boots, which he'd ignored on the others for some reason. He started for each of Jahv's antennae, which made Jahv more than a little nervous, and he decided he'd better distract the youngster, so he brought out the headband. The boy glared at it, but made no move to run away.
Jahv gently brought it up to the boy's forehead and paused. Still the boy didn't move. Then Jahv placed it over the youngster's head and activated it, and pressed his own fingers to the visible circuitry.
Arcs of electricity sparked between the two alien youngsters. Niklas, Davy, and Keith backed off. "I just thought of something really unpleasant." said Keith. "What if that contraption is broken? If Jahv gets brain-fried, we don't get home!"
Niklas and Davy felt a sudden chill. Keith had a point, and none of them had thought of it.
Finally the two alien boys separated, and slumped to the ground. Niklas and the others quickly ran over to Jahv, who sat up instants later. "Are you okay?" begged Niklas.
Jahv shook his head to clear it. "Well, that was interesting. I'm having to dismiss this sudden urge to go swinging through the trees. But yes, I think I'm okay. What about him."
Clearly the alien wildchild had taken the worst of the shock. He moaned a couple of times and slowly sat up. He looked thoroughly confused, as if realizing something about himself he hadn't known. He opened his mouth and worked his jaw a few times before finally emitting sound. "What -- what these words you give me?"
Niklas, Keith, and Davy looked towards the new boy with shock, their eyes wide. "Cripes, I think it actually worked." whispered Keith.
"It's called English." explained Jahv gently. "It's the language my friends and I speak."
The alien boy gazed at the others. "Where you come from? Why you do this?"
"We picked up on the distress beacon." said Jahv.
The boy frowned. "I think you're going a little too fast for him, Jahv." said Niklas.
"I think you're right." replied Jahv. He turned his attention to the boy. "What is your name?"
The alien boy scowled, deep in thought. Finally he spoke again, with a slight grin on his face. "Morik. Name is Morik."
"All right, Morik." said Jahv. "What do you remember about coming here?"
Morik pondered this question for a long time. "Two others like Morik. But bigger. Say we have to leave home. Home not there anymore. Come here but not supposed to. Not see bigger ones after that." Morik scowled again, trying to remember all he could. "Morik -- did something with something, and put this around neck. Got hungry. Went into trees. Stayed there. Safe. Not go too far." Then he looked at the others. "You here because Morik did something?"
"Yes." said Jahv. "As you said, your home isn't there anymore. But we can offer you a new home, if you want to come with us."
"You from sky?" asked Morik.
"He remembers that?" asked Davy.
"Either the headband worked better than expected, or he's not as stupid as he's been acting up until now." answered Keith.
"Yes, but we're from -- another part of the sky." said Jahv, trying to use words he hoped Morik would understand. "But it's your choice."
Morik frowned. "Morik alone for long time. Not see anyone like him. You sort of like Morik. More than like anyone else. Morik not want be alone now. Morik come."
"Is there anything you want from the ship?" asked Jahv.
Morik thought about this. "Morik remember -- small animal. Not move. Soft. Friend."
"The gralnok." said Jahv.
"I'll get it." said Davy.
"Okay, hold it." said Keith. "Obviously we're pulling out. Well, I'm not going anywhere until I get this gunk off'a me."
"We could all use a bath." said Niklas. "And I don't recall a shower on the shuttle."
"Morik know place. Not far. Follow Morik."
Davy had emerged with the stuffed animal and handed it to Morik, who led the others through the jungle. The young Dorrian had astounding agility, and it was all the others could do to keep up with him. Finally they emerged in a clearing with a large lake.
"Wash here." said Morik.
"Like you'd know." remarked Keith, although the water looked inviting. Keith hoped it was enough to remove the sticky coolant.
"Not so." replied the boy. "Morik come here whenever trees turn color whether Morik need to wash or not."
"You're in no position to point fingers, Keith," grinned Jahv. "Besides, who's he gonna offend out here?" Seconds later, gratefully, the group was in the lake, washing off either recently acquired grime, a lengthy build-up of it, or an excess of coolant, which fortunately was water-soluable. Not long after, the activity had turned from washing to a lot of playful splashing. Morik seemed especially enthused. He'd been alone too long, and had almost forgotten how to play. But his childhood seemed to be gradually coming back to him.
"You know," said Keith, once he was clean, "this lake's not so bad. We don't have to be in that much of a hurry to return. And it is a nice day."
Suddenly bubbles formed at the far edge of the lake. Morik's eyes went wide. The others hadn't seen it, but before Morik could yell a warning, a huge, serpentine head and twenty feet of neck burst forth from the water and bellowed at the top of its lungs, then eyed the five boys hungrily.
"Get shore!" shrieked Morik, even as they all were doing just that. "That can't come on land!" Seconds later, the boys had made shore, grabbed their boots, Jahv's backpack, and Morik's stuffed animal, and had just kept running. "Boy, one word from you about having a good time on a nice day -- !" joked Davy to Keith.
"And how is this MY fault!?" countered Keith, but he realized his friend was kidding.
Not long after, and breathing hard, they had reached their shuttle and were all strapped into their seats, Morik having been placed and strapped into one of the extras since the vessel had been designed to seat seven besides the pilot, and took off.
"What your world like?" asked Morik, who was clearly nervous about being on board a shuttle or apparently anywhere near machinery, but trying to stay calm for the sake of his new friends.
"Well, for starters, we don't always run around naked." remarked Keith, standing up once the shuttle had cleared the atmosphere. Jahv hadn't had time to program the return course to Earth, so they had a few minutes. Keith was trying to figure out how to program the fabricator to make new uniforms. Finally Jahv came over and did so.
"For another thing," said Keith, "our dinosaurs had the good sense to either die off or evolve into something a bit less hazardous."
"You've never seen an alligator or a crocodile, have you?" remarked Davy.
Morik watched the others get dressed. Jahv hadn't bothered yet, not because he didn't intend to, but because he was too busy flying the shuttle. Technically, it would be appropriate for him to wear some space-clothes out here. Morik seemed confused by what the others were doing. "I have to put on extra skins like you?" He seemed upset at the notion.
"Not to worry." said Davy. "You should probably stay with Jahv and Keyro. They never wear anything, anyway."
Morik brightened. "I think I will like your world."
"We haven't had any complaints from any other aliens." joked Niklas, as laughter filled the shuttle on its way back to Earth.