“You’re an alien.” I glanced at Dad then stuck a finger in my ear and wiggled it around. Nope, that hadn’t been an auditory hallucination. My hearing worked just fine.
The night cocooned us. Bats darted and dove against a velvet sky. Stars twinkled. A light blazed a trail along the southern horizon then burst in a pop of white. Three months ago, I would have made a wish on a falling star. Now, I wanted to check my phone to see if some new extraterrestrial had arrived behind a meteor strike.
“Eat your sandwich, Doodlebug.” Dad jerked his chin at my right hand. “Pops made those specially for you.”
“We don’t believe in aliens, Dad. You taught me everything was the government covering up for their experiments.” And I believed it until I learned differently. Death had a funny way of shifting paradigms. I stuffed the bite of egg salad into my mouth, then licked the remnants of mayonnaise off my fingers. The food dissolved on my tongue and my stomach growled at missing the feast.
Dad held open the insulated sack and offered me another of the sandwiches he’d packed. “We had to tell you that. We had to say it often enough so everyone we came into contact with would never questioned our beliefs and hatred for the government.”
Unwrapping the new sandwich, I ate half in one bite. Cucumber with garlic and chipotle peppers. I polished it off and looked for more. Three finger sandwiches always equaled one whole sandwich. And I needed a whole lotta calories. I snapped my attention back to Dad while retrieving the last wax paper wrapped rectangle. “So you’re saying our government is benevolent?”
Dad snorted. “No one in power is benevolent. Power is the great corrupter.”
That sounded familiar. Eating, I turned toward the hacienda. The boxy shape of luminaries lined the roof of the ranch house. Mom and Pops had left the light on. Not that I needed it. My CeeBees slimed everything in snot green, but I could see clear as day.
“I’m saying that aliens account for some of the bad in this world.”
“Aliens. Like you.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was responsible for hundreds of extraterrestrials in Arizona and had access to the names of the rest. Dale Gardner hadn’t been on the list. I would have known. Unless it was hidden. A cold finger trailed down my spine.
Could the United Earth Defense have kept it from me?
My fingers itched with the need to check my phone. Maybe my little blue bugs could hack the system and get at the truth.
Dad tilted his head.
Oh, boy. I guess I hadn’t reacted enough to the whole alien bit. Should I reveal who I was? My skin tingled and my scalped tightened. Right, no talking about my new job. For their own safety, my family had to believe I was a bean counter at a telephone marketing company. I nudged Dad’s arm. “I’ve seen Independence Day. Aren’t you supposed to be gray with a big head and large black eyes?”
His lips quirked. “There are some aliens that look like that, but I’m human.”
For a moment. One wild, hope-filled moment, I wished this was his idea of a joke. Dad always had a wicked sense of humor. Please, be a joke. Please…
“Ah-ha.” I pointed at him. “I knew you were just funning me. You can’t be human and an alien.”
“Sorry, Doodlebug.” He fished inside the bag and brought out the squares of brownies. “But there are a lot of humans born on planets other than Earth. I happen to be one of them.”
I sighed and accepted the dessert. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I really wanted a drink, but we still had a mile to go before we reached the house. I needed the energy. “So you weren’t born in Kansas?”
“I was born on Antares.” He pointed at the sky, near the Big Dipper. “But I was able to travel to many worlds.”
His thumb formed an ‘L’ next to his hand as he swept across the horizon.
Antares. Antares? Where had I heard that name before? I filed it away for later and rolled the chocolatey goodness over my tongue. Life was always better with chocolate. “If you could travel to the stars, why did you stay here?”
“It’s a long story.” Dad fished a water bottle out of the sack. Next, he dipped his fingers in his pocket and removed a packet, which he dumped into the bottle. Water sloshed as he shook it, and the liquid turned purple. “Grape flavored.”
“My favorite.” My nose twitched from the delicious scent. I devoured the brownie then held out my hands for the bottle. Cold plastic pressed against my fingers as I raised it to my lips. Along with the sweet tang of grapes, I detected a bitter aftertaste. I lowered the bottle, breaking the seal with a pop and wrinkled my nose.
“I added extra electrolytes so it may taste funny.” Dad opened his own bottle and raised it in a toast. “I saw you tear across the orchard. With all that exercise, your body can use the salts.”
That was my Dad, always looking after me. All of us, Mom and Pops, and the folks at whatever place happened to take us in. Alien human, I would never turn him in. He was my dad. I tapped my bottle against his. “I’ll never tell about you being born in a galaxy far, far away.”
I drained half the bottle in one long gulp. The liquid snapped, fizzled, and popped on my tongue. The CeeBees must be applauding the addition of much needed resources.
Nodding, he capped his drink. The rocks had changed to sand as we followed the streambed toward the orchard. “I needed you to know, needed you to understand.”
My heart tumbled over a beat. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
I could keep him safe. I had the resources to change his identity, to give him a fresh start. My stomach cramped. I could if I wanted him in the system, wanted the UED to know about him.
“Leave my family? Never!” Dad looped an arm around my shoulder. “I just want to explain some stuff to you.”
“The long story?” I tripped over a tree root. Dang how had that leapt up at me?
“Finish your drink, while I tell it, okay?”
“Sure.” I smacked my lips. Dad might have put a smidge too many salts into the drink. Instead of quenching my thirst, it had made me thirstier.
“I arrived on Earth about thirty years ago.”
“Thirty? You joined us twenty-seven years ago.” I had the pictures of him holding me while I blew out candles on my birthday cake. There’d been three candles on the cake.
“No interrupting, Doodlebug. We don’t have much time.” He gazed at the lights of the house visible through the screen of dormant peach trees. A light breeze rasped through the dead grass.
I raised the bottle to my lips to keep from talking.
“I arrived thirty years ago in the Midwest. My team and I studied ancient Archa technology and my employers had recently acquired some very unique pieces.”
“Archa?” I couldn’t help speaking. That was another of the words I was supposed to know.
“An alien race, long since vanished from the universe.”
“Like the Hohokam?” The word clicked in my head. Ahh, that’s how I knew it. I was stuffed to the gills with Archa CeeBees. I brushed my neck to make certain, the little blue bugs hadn’t given me gills to be contrary. “So, you’re not the first extraterrestrial to visit earth?”
I made a zipper motion across my lips.
“My team and I made many breakthroughs while studying the new technology, but we couldn’t get the Cerebral-bots to do what we wanted.” He kicked at a fallen peach. The fruit shattered upon impact, spraying bits of pulp everywhere.
I clamped my lips together to stop myself from asking another question.
“Human nature is very war-like. We’ve gone out to space four times, cured diseases, famine, and conquered weaker races, but we still fight amongst ourselves.” He squeezed my shoulder. “I was in charge of finding weapons, new weapons, to give my own—, er, bosses the advantage.”
Cold air washed over my teeth. Dad designed weapons? “But you’re the most peaceful person I know. You rescue flies and put them outside.”
He kissed my temple. “I’m not the man I was. You, your Mom, and Pops changed me. Made me see that there had to be another way. But it was the CeeBees that put me on the path first.”
His nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed.
I followed his line of sight down the rows of bare-limbed trees. Nothing there. He must be remembering.
“I thought I’d uncovered the key to the CeeBees function, rogue code buried deep inside their make-up. I was certain this would allow me to turn the enemy’s infected operatives into our drones, incapable of free will. Flesh-cover automatons.”
“Robots?” My knees buckled. I didn’t want to be a robot only capable of following orders. I liked my free will just the way it was and wouldn’t trade it for all the grape soda in the universe.
Holding me up, he stared at the house, seeing the past as he lived it. “We would know all they did, could counter their every move and upgrade our weaponry so they would no longer be a threat to our way of life.”
I clutched him arms. I’d lost the feeling in my fingers. Were the spam dots turning me into their meat puppet even now? “What’s happening?”
Dad blinked. He dragged his gaze from the past and focused on me. “For millennia, we’d thought the CeeBees were there to guide humankind along. Stop us from going extinct like the Archa.”
My toes tingled and turned rubbery; my knees followed suit.
He gently lowered me to the ground and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “We’d detected the spikes you see. The rise in CeeBees and the number of people infected with them at every nexus point in human history. The CeeBees were there, and so was a leader to guide us through the tough times. To take us to the next step in our evolution.”
“Dad?” The word was foam in my mouth, sucking out the moisture. Something was wrong. So very wrong. My fingers spasmed and plopped onto my lap.
Opening his water bottle, he held it to my mouth. “But they weren’t there to help us. The CeeBees were there to destroy us. That bit of code, that was the map of our destruction.”
Cool water washed over my tongue, splashed down my throat. I tried to swallow but couldn’t. Oh, God, the blue bugs were killing me. I focused on Dad, his words, his presence. If I had to die, at least, I wasn’t alone. Not everyone was so lucky.
“When I revealed my findings, my team was recalled. We knew what awaited us. After all the time and money, we had nothing to show our employers.” He shook his head. “So we decided to sever our employment on our terms. You and your parents were camping in the woods when the ship exploded. You were hit.”
I was hit? I didn’t remember being injured. I didn’t have any scars.
Something rustled in the grass. Blue eyes glowed in the darkness.
Viktor. Given our past experiences, I didn’t think he was the kind to stick around when things got bad. I raised my hand to call him closer, let him know I forgave him. Old blue eyes stayed where he was.
Dad rocked me softly. “I shouldn’t have done it, but you were so tiny and you smiled even as you were dying.”
Dying. Dying. I was dying. My ears hummed. Weight rushed into my limbs.
“I woke up with your fingers holding onto my thumb. You told me to be brave, that if I took your hand we could walk together.” He brushed at the tears on his cheeks. “You were two and meeting death without fear. You are so brave, Doodlebug. I couldn’t let you die, so I used the CeeBees I’d lined my pockets with to save you. It wasn’t much, but you were so tiny.”
Sand filled my eyes. I wanted to sleep, to fall into the darkness sucking at my limbs. Dad was right; I wasn’t afraid.
“It wasn’t until later that I realized how much damage I’d done.” Tucking the empty water bottle into the sack, he pulled me onto his lap. “They’d multiplied inside you, and you could control them. You talked to them.”
My head lolled back. Finally, someone believed me. The CeeBees could talk. I hope he told Tobias at my funeral. Tobias… Warm air rushed past my lips. All those weeks with him sleeping next to me in bed, holding me when I had nightmares of being tortured and killed, and never once had I kissed him again.
If I had it to do over again. I would kiss Tobias and thank him for understanding.
And maybe…. Maybe we could have something more.
“We didn’t blame you. On those protests against Pop’s father, you didn’t have anyone to play with. So you created them and the CeeBees knit leaves, twigs, and branches into animated beings to sip tea and eat mud pies.” He lifted my hand and held it against his cheek.
It glowed a soft blue. I liked blue. It was better than the snot green.
“But then you animated the gnomes.”
Gnomes. I mentally shuddered. Those little pointy hatted freaks insane people tucked among the petunias. How could they not see the evil behind the frozen clay smiles?
“Pops tried to bring you in for dinner, but you didn’t want to stop playing. And they attacked him.” Dad’s grip tightened. “I was at the door when you screamed, but the damage they’d done…”
I saw his touch but didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything. Just like the last time I’d died. How long would I float here, outside my body before I saw a light? There had better not be a gnome guarding Heaven.
“That night, I made you a drink, just like tonight.” Dad slipped his arm under the back of my legs and rose. “I thought I’d cured you of the CeeBees, flushed them out of you. But I see now that they were only dormant, waiting for their chance to reawaken.”
The CeeBees. My thoughts thickened, sticking to my brain before they could be completed. The CeeBees were a part of me, a requirement to do my job. I liked my job. I closed my eyes, seeing was so overrated.
“I promise to kill every last one of the CeeBees infecting you, Rae.” Dad hugged me close as I drifted away. “I won’t stop until you’re free. I’ll hunt them down and keep killing them until they’re gone and you’re free.”