Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
I laughed hard enough that Taran stirred against my back and I reached up with my right hand to stroke his hair a few times. He settled immediately. My eyes flicked around the subway car, looking for a way out, but the only thing I came up with was a bluff, so I cranked up the bravado, smiled, and leaned forward. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve got no chance of taking him now. You guys might be more advanced than humans, but coming into the bookstore to warn me was a mistake and coming onto the subway was stupid. Now I have witnesses. Lots of them.”
He looked around as if he’d only just realized that everyone else in the car was staring at us. When he looked back at me, his eyes narrowed and I could see the muscles in his jaw working.
Nodding, I leaned back just far enough to straighten my back without unbalancing my passenger. “At this point, all I have to do is ride to the end of the line with the driver, give appropriate contact information to his dispatcher, and wait for pickup. People have seen you here, seen the rest of your extraction team running through the streets. Oh, this is a big story, even in the middle of the night, so I’ll have to deal with media crews, and that’s less than desirable for the people I work for, but it’s an excellent alternative to losing Taran, I think.”
His whole body clenched and I considered what scenarios might be playing out in his head. He didn’t let me consider for long. “I could take the child and disappear into the night before your media can arrive, before the train even stops again. It is unlikely you could stop me, hobbled as you are by his presence and your solitude.”
He was right. It had been a hard run already. Not enough sleep and too much physical effort. My control was slipping. The smile on my face felt like it belonged in a bad action movie. “You’re probably right, but there’s still the problem of witnesses. What will it do to the Vyrian public image to have one of you seen taking a child from a human man on the subway? How will that play? Think about the video footage being captured right now, and I don’t just mean by the transit authority. Look around.”
My peripheral vision picked out two phones and a tablet flimsy. If I could spare the attention to really look, I’d probably find several more. This was not a private conversation, no matter what he’d thought when he first boarded the train. It might even be streaming, depending on network penetration depth in the tunnel. “You should have stuck to chasing me away from safe houses, kept me isolated. Pushing me into the streets, coming to me where other people could see—” I shook my head. “That was the real mistake.”
“We had thought to show you respect.”
Respect. At the bookstore, I’d been called an unexpected opponent, and it had been meant as a compliment. I didn’t know enough about Vyrian culture to put the sentiment in the right context, then or now, just a few news reports and half-digested documentaries. I had only my experience being human and playing in the shadows. “As an individual, I appreciate that. But this one emotional act, sending agents out of the enclave to kidnap a child, could go a long way to dismantling the image you’ve built for yourselves as rational, civilized beings.” I would have been willing to bet that just knowing they had agents who could take on that mission would change the whole tone of future negotiations.
Gloved hands clenched into fists, and for a moment I thought he might swing at something. Taran’s presence on my back would probably prevent it from being me. “The child is Vyrian!” Eyes widened, nostrils flared, and the skin of his face darkened. Replace the blue with something in a human skin tone, and you’d never guess his ancestors crawled out of a different ocean than ours.
“Is he? I might grant genetically, if you can show me the proof, but he’s been raised human so far, and he’s three. He won’t know the difference if you ask him.” A deep breath and a firm tone were all I had left to work with. “But I’ll make it really, really simple for you. You’re not getting him from me. If you have a problem with his existence, or how he’s being brought up, you’re free to go through the proper channels with the authorities. Go public with it, if you like, and I’m sure that will thrill everyone, but I’ll bet you don’t get very far with a happy, healthy kid. We don’t consider children to be property.”
His whole body tightened and I thought I might have gone too far, but the train started to slow again and he pulled the temper back under control. “That was tried first. Do you think we would start with an abduction attempt? Beyond vague hints, your government officials refused to even acknowledge the child’s existence. What recourse did we have?”
“The child has a name. And you could have kept talking. Why do you suppose we hid Taran from you?” Something that I hadn’t really thought about, but now the answer seemed too obvious. Maybe Vyrian thought processes were different. “Because we knew, sooner or later, you’d try to take him.” Jaw grinding, he kept silent, and I wished I could tell if he were digesting the words or trying to work out some internal conflict. Two bits of data clicked together in my head and I found one more card to play, one more button to push. “Have you collected any human DNA samples?”
Lips pressed together, his scowl deepened. “I am not in a position to know that.”
I laughed just enough to disturb Taran into trying to turn over in his sleep. “You’ve collected DNA samples from multiple individuals of every other animal you’ve gotten near, and made a big production of it for the media sometimes. Knowledge and preservation are your catch words.” I snorted. “Why should humans be an exception? What do you do with those samples?”
The doors slid open and shut again before he answered. No one got off and only one person boarded the car, oblivious to the proceedings until it was too late. “I am not a scientist, but I would suggest we study them. We collect samples to further our knowledge as a species and sometimes to assist in the preservation of endangered life forms.”
“Do you ever recreate them? Clone them?” The train started moving and he stayed quiet for so long my smile came back. “That would be a yes. So, you’ve cloned creatures alien to you, probably raised and sheltered them because you’d never create something just to destroy it, and kept it either in a lab or some simulation of a natural environment aboard your giant space ships.”
His skin flushed even darker blue and I suddenly wondered what that told me about the colour of Vyrian blood. “But we have never cloned another sentient being!”
Shrugging, I risked a glance at the glowing subway map above him, counting four more stops to the next main line transfer and something around a dozen after that to the end of the line. Half an hour at least, but since the only thing I had left to play was time, I just stared at my new friend.
Eventually, his shoulders slumped and the colour in his face dropped back to what I thought might be normal. The posture only lasted for a moment before he straightened his back. “I take your points.” As the train began to slow again, he stood. “The media attention would not be beneficial to relations between our two peoples should I choose force the issue. And the child, Taran, is a sentient being in his own right. Young yet, but with many rights under your laws or ours. I will accept this, though it is contrary to my orders and will make certain individuals unhappy in the hierarchy. Blind obedience is not in my nature. It is said to be a poor trait in a soldier.”
Not according to some generals I’d heard speak in the past, but I appreciated the sentiment, and looked for some way to respond as the train came to a stop. He wrapped a hand around the nearest bar and stood. “It is also said, that something done once can be repeated.” He ducked through the door but turned to face me again before it closed. “For myself, I would encourage openness on the subject of Taran’s existence from your authorities. It may be that our peoples can talk and learn from him. And each other.” He stared at me as the doors closed and the train started moving again. I didn’t see him turn away before he passed out of sight.
Questions from the other passengers started before our car reached the tunnel and I held up a hand. “He’s sleeping, and he’s gone through far too much in the last couple of days to be happy about waking up on the subway. Three year-olds need a lot of sleep, whatever their species.”
It worked on about half of them, but the others crowded around me, demanding I tell them the entire story, professing a right to know. The last few decades had spoiled us, the ever- increasing freedom of information leading us down the path that we had the right to know everything. Sometimes, there had to be a right to keep secrets, too.
“The only rights I’m concerned with are his.” I cocked my head to indicate Taran, still sleeping, wonder of wonders. “And if I’ve kept those secure from agents sent by the Vyrian Council, you shouldn’t doubt I’ll keep them secure from you, too. Back off and leave us alone.”
And they did. One or two inhaled to protest, but never got the words out. Having watched me talk a Vyrian commando, and one who out-massed me by at least fifty kilos, out of abducting a child, everyone listened. They exchanged looks and whispers and some of them undoubtedly took more pictures and video, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that they left me alone to think and Taran to sleep.
I got off the train three stops later, and didn’t care that three of them followed me as I walked to the last, lonely little payphone in the station, third in a line of three that might once have been twenty, and punched in far too many digits to call anywhere in the city. Two in the morning, but someone answered on the second ring.
“Thank you for calling Thompkins Sec-“
“Skip the cover spiel. It’s me. Pursuit has backed off. I still have the package.” I made all the appropriate noises to respond to concerns. Yes, I could be at the southwest entrance to the station at street level in twenty minutes. Yes, I understood they’d keep me waiting while agents checked things out and established a perimeter. Yes, I understood that I was breaking procedure and protocol in a ridiculous number of ways. Yes, I understood all of the media risks and there were already reports on the net.
But a moment came when I’d had enough. “Twenty minutes. The clock’s running.” I hung up the phone with the man on the other end in mid-splutter and started a slow walk to the escalator.
A small hand scrunched the shoulder of my jacket and another grabbed my neck from the other side. Taran mumbled into my collar and then lifted his head just long enough for three words to make it past his lips. “Go home now?”
I reached up with my right hand and squeezed one of his, wondering what had finally pushed him close enough to awake that he could speak. “Yeah, buddy. Go home now. Sleep in your own bed tonight.” I hoped.
He squeezed back a little. “Good. Mph.” His forehead bounced against my neck and a faint snore reached my ears. I had to smile, but it faded as I walked, not caring if I still had followers. More pieces fell together in my mind, things I hadn’t thought of before and I wished I still had the same innocence to fall back on.
Something done once can be repeated. The Vyrian had meant, I thought, that if he took Taran, even in the face of all the bad publicity, we would just duplicate the experiment, try again to figure out whatever it was we wanted to know. It probably hadn’t occurred to the Vyrians yet to wonder if we’d only made one of Taran in the first place.by
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
All around me, being careful to never look directly at us, the other subway passengers watched from the corners of their eyes. I found it hard to blame them. An out of breath man with a child on his back runs into the station long past midnight and just in time to catch the train. Not exactly normal even for the late night crowd. People thought questions and accusations so hard they didn’t have speak, but I had a hard time caring. I’d gained a few moments of rest for myself and freedom for Taran, and that was all that really mattered.
And I’d been lucky. I never said no to luck, but would have been a lot happier to be called in from the museum. We’d be sitting in some quiet, guarded location, even a safe house, with backup and high end security systems and all the cartoons Taran could stand. Instead, I was alone, on foot on a subway with an unknown number of Vyrians after me.
No, they weren’t after me. I was just the keeper. They wanted Taran.
Subway logic told me I had two minutes between stops, on average. Every two minutes, I’d come to a decision point. My last safe house wasn’t as close to a subway line as the one we’d left. I’d have to take a cab or walk and neither option filled me with confidence. A better decision might be to stay on the train and head downtown for an expensive hotel room. I’d have to stay up all night, but it wouldn’t be the first time an assignment made that decision for me.
The train finally began to slow and I kept my focus on the doors while making sure my eyes stayed somewhere else. They opened just as the train stopped to let on a short, skinny kid with spiky hair and a neon blue leather jacket. Definitely not Vyrian. The triple tone came again, barely ending before the doors slid shut. In a moment, the train began to move and I let go of the breath I’d been holding. Two more minutes of peace. Two more minutes to think. Two more minutes to worry.
At least, that’s what I thought. Two minutes, on average, but the next stop must have been a little farther, far enough that I had time to start wondering when we’d slow down before I saw him in the next car.
Not the same one who’d come to me in the bookstore, although to my human eyes they looked enough alike to be brothers. He must have gotten on at the last stop and moved car to car. I clenched my jaw and put one hand on the pocket bulge of my stunner. Too well orchestrated. Too well organized. The Vyrians had too many resources available, and I had nothing beyond what I’d stuffed my pockets with.
His eyes found me long before he reached the door to my car, probably long before I’d even noticed him. A steady gaze, and I wanted to read determination and certainty in his expression, but my short experience told me I wouldn’t want to play poker with a group of Vyrians, at least not with my own money.
The train’s rattle got louder for a moment when he yanked the door open. I wondered if any kind of indicator light would show up on the driver’s console and what he’d do about it if it did. Any action he might take from four cars away wouldn’t come soon enough to do me any good.
I put a hand up to stroke Taran’s curls, lightly so he wouldn’t stir. “Sorry buddy. I’m still working on this but it doesn’t look good.” The hiss-thunk of the door seal swallowed the quiet words to everyone but me, I hoped, and I kept my eyes locked on the Vyrian as he approached, listening for another intruder from the other side. Running wouldn’t help me on a moving train, even if he’d actually come alone, which I didn’t believe for a second.
He sat down in the seat opposite me, almost taking up two of them, just as the train began to slow. Apparently, the Vyrians were still in the mood to talk. What would the second offer be? I didn’t see how they could improve on the first from their perspective and I didn’t see them finding something acceptable from mine. The train pulled into the next station and sighed to a halt before he said anything.
“The child is Vyrian, in spite of his skin tone.”
“I don’t care.”
His eyebrows jumped up, a remarkably human expression for me to dwell on at the wrong moment. How much did our two species have in common? “I don’t understand. The child has obviously been cloned from stolen DNA and in secret. Why else would a guard have been set over him? He is Vyrian and should be raised with his people.”
“You’re right, you don’t understand.” I shook my head. One of Taran’s hands flopped onto my neck and I felt his fingers scrunch up and then relax. “I don’t care if Taran is human, Vyrian, Martian, or a giant dust bunny in disguise. This is long past being my assigned protection duty, and I’m not going to take any racist bullshit, or comment on the arrogant Vyrian superiority that’s already starting to piss me off, which is pretty quick considering I just met one of you for the first time yesterday.” I shook me head twice. “I’m not Taran’s father or brother or anything else. Sometimes I get to play the fun uncle, if you have an equivalent, and a lot of the time I’m just around, part of his scenery. If you’re anything like us, the DNA used to clone him was probably left lying around after his progenitor walked through a room. Is he a secret? He was obviously supposed to be. Is he a breach of some agreement? Probably, but that decision was made so far above me that I’ll never know how it came about and it really doesn’t matter anyway. Genetically, he may be Vyrian, but I’ll say it again: I don’t care.”
It’s not often I get to rant. It’s not often I allow myself. Any kind of outward emotional reaction is usually considered bad form in my line of work, at least on duty. There have been exceptions, and I’d made a lot of them with Taran. More in the last thirty or so hours than ever before, now that I thought about it. That should have bothered me. I should have been thinking about how to take down or evade the opponent across the aisle and whoever he’d brought with him. Instead, I was angry, for so many reasons that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around, and enough that I’d let myself go in a public place, in front of witnesses, to verbally slap an alien commando.
Being angry out loud probably wouldn’t help my situation, but maybe it would keep the smug, ‘we’ve won’ look from this particular Vyrian’s face. “And I’ll even tell you why I don’t care: because I like Taran.”
He opened and closed his mouth several times, then took a deep breath. I heard the chimes again and the door closed. I didn’t remember them opening, or even the train stopping, but no one got onto our car before they slid shut. No one already on it had moved to get off, either. How could they? A real alien, not on TV but on a late night subway and being faced down by a man with a small child on his back. Even I would stop to watch. Taran rolled to one side, the shifting weight making me glad I was sitting down. Maybe not so small.
“This is strange and difficult.”
“Not my problem. I don’t care what agreement he breaks. You’re the ones breaking it right now. You’re the ones making my job a lot harder than it needs to be, so why should I care if it’s difficult for you?” I felt my jaw clenching and relaxed it.
“That is not what I meant. Such agreements are dealt with by someone with more authority than I will ever possess. I am speaking of… biology.” Pale blond eyebrows pressed together. “Have you noticed that being in the child’s proximity engenders feelings of affection and protectiveness?”
I nodded. Two deep breaths brought my temper down a little. I felt stupid enough and didn’t need to display my stress level any more than I already had. What I did need was to drag my mind back on task and consider the question. And it was an odd question, but why shouldn’t I like Taran? He was a good-natured, fun kid. The entire detail liked him, not just his caregivers.
“I am not familiar with human biology, but such a reaction is consistent with Vyrian. Beyond a blood bond, it is engendered by pheromones secreted into the surrounding air, a somewhat inconsistent survival mechanism common to the young but lost before the onset of adolescence. The pheromones are well known to work on other Vyrian life forms. Certain pets traditionally bred to provide security to family units in more primitive times are particularly susceptible to it, but we share a common biological history with those. I am surprised that it translates to humans. Very unexpected.”
Pheromones. He wanted me to believe liking Taran above and beyond my job was nothing more than a biochemical trick, and I found it hard to swallow. Alien chemicals messing with my brain didn’t make sense. Our DNA wasn’t similar enough to share a cold, so I didn’t see how Vyrian pheromones could have any effect on a human, let alone the same effect it might have on a Vyrian. I’d grant not knowing much about human biology, but even if what he’d said was true, it didn’t matter. I liked Taran to begin with and knowing about some little wrinkle of Vyrian biology or chemistry made no difference at all. I didn’t buy it. Couldn’t. More importantly, I didn’t have to.
“I still don’t care. And you should go back to the enclave before this gets messy.”
He Vyrian sighed and shook his head. “Not without the child.”by
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
Two escalators took me to the third floor and two turns along the hardwood path between the carpets brought me to the back of the store, as far from the front doors as I could get without going into staff areas I couldn’t see. Not worth the effort. I’m sure the Vyrians had all possible covered.
At the end of the aisle, a set of windows stretched floor to ceiling along forty feet of wall, and let me look out over the roof of the movie theatre next door. Two stories high, and flat except for some ventilation units, no one crouched there waiting. I looked down into the partly lit area between the two, expecting to see someone looking back, but no one stood in the light, and the darkness and shadows hid anyone who might not want to be seen.
Chewing my lower lip, I mentally measured the gap between the two buildings as somewhere between twenty and twenty-five metres. Employee parking with more than enough space left over for delivery trucks to get through, maybe even a little two-way traffic flow for commuters looking to save a fraction of a second on the way home if they knew the space was there. “I think I must be crazy.”
A throat cleared behind me and it was all I could do not to draw my stunner as I spun around, but the dark blue polo shirt and name tag marked the wide-eyed woman as a member of the bookstore’s staff. She leaned back a bit at my sudden motion and swallowed twice while considering what to say. Taran, still asleep on my back, hesitated mid-snore for a moment, but resumed without stirring. “Um, the store closes in about ten minutes, sir. Is there anything I can help you find?” Her voice didn’t tremble through what was probably a well-used sentence, but in her place, I’d be wishing I’d forgotten it was my job to get people out of the store for closing.
I had to wonder what she saw in my face, but tried to turn whatever it was into a smile. “No, thank you. I’m just up here to get away from the crowd on the first level while I avoid the Vyrian extraction team outside.”
“Um, right.” She backed away a couple of steps before turning to walk briskly between two rows of shelves, probably headed for the nearest phone to call her manager about the mentally unbalanced person with a toddler on his back.
Actually, since I’m sure someone would have called them from the cash area, that manager would probably already be on their way, likely with whatever passed for store security in tow, but I had no intention of waiting around. Delaying wouldn’t help me anymore.
I dug in my pocket for the vibra-tool. As long as the bank of windows in front of me wasn’t made of bullet-resistant glass, and the building seemed too old for that to be likely, I’d have a new exit in about thirty seconds. I tapped the power switch and thumbed the dial up to maximum before sticking it to the middle of the window. Something else for someone to clean up, and I almost felt guilty about it.
Backing up a dozen steps, I waited for the fractured result. It took a little longer than I hoped, long enough to start hearing voices on the escalator, but in a few seconds the vibration in the window built to an audible level, a deep hum but with a quickly rising pitch. Starting at Do, I think it got to about Fa before the window shattered, and not just the pane I’d put the vibra-tool on, either, but the ones to either side of it, too. Satisfying.
Sometimes, I loved the sound of breaking glass.
Tiny shards of transparent material rained down, most of them bouncing into open space to cascade through the night, catching stray photons along the way and redirecting them someplace new. Sadly, the vibra-tool followed those tiny jewels to the cement three floors below and I hoped I wouldn’t need it again.
I did need the gravchute, which had more than enough charge left for what I intended. Actually, if it worked, I’d only use a fraction of the remaining power, so that would be one toy I’d still have in reserve. For what, I didn’t know.
Footsteps pounded down the hardwood aisle behind me as I started running. The thought spilled through my head again that I must be crazy. It didn’t stop me from jumping, and it may have even helped me to time activating the chute, engaging just as my right foot pushed off the edge I’d made. Too bad I hadn’t thought of the maneuver sooner. Weeks or months sooner would have been nice, but at least far enough in advance to have practiced once or twice would have made me happy right then.
In that moment after I ran out into the air, I had the same feeling as jumping out of an airplane for the first time: committed, but not a hundred percent sure of what was coming next, but the chute did what it was supposed to.
The gravchute was a wonderful thing, but falling very slowly is an odd sensation until you get used to it. Falling very slowly while you’ve got some significant forward momentum just feels wrong until some tiny little perspective shift convinces you that you’re flying. That came half way across the open stretch, just before the electric crackle of the stunner hit me in the chest to prove anti-stun mesh was also a wonderful thing.
Someone shouted, probably in Vyrian but I didn’t catch anything that sounded like words, and I had just enough time to think about all the things I’d like to do to the idiot who shot me before my feet hit the roof and I started running again. Without the mesh, my forward momentum would have kept me moving to hit the roof in a small pile. At best, Taran would have been startled from a sudden sleep to some scrapes and bruises and a guardian who couldn’t answer his cries. I tried not to think about the worst, but hoped whoever might be in charge down below would at least smack the shooter in back of the head.
Feet firmly on the roof, I turned the chute off again and tried to check the charge as I ran. Through the brief bouncing glimpses at my belt, it still looked like more than enough.
Something hard bounced off the back of my head and the breath from a light snore tickled my ear. I couldn’t believe Taran had stayed asleep through shattering glass, flying across the gap between buildings, a stunner impact, and now running across the movie theatre roof. Wondering if I’d slept so well as a child, I didn’t turn down the luck. It was a lot easier to run with twenty kilos of dead weight on your back than it would be with twenty kilos of kid trying to look in every direction at once. Still, I’d been wearing him for a long time now on only a couple of hours’ sleep, and he was starting to get heavy.
I dropped down from the roof to a green light at the crosswalk and a clear path to the subway entrance. Over my heavy footsteps down the stairs, the hollow roar of an incoming train made me move a little quicker and the turnstile didn’t stop me from joining the sparse crowd just as the doors slid open. So many book store customers leaving all at once seemed unlikely, especially considering the show in the magazine section, but maybe a movie had let out in the last few minutes. Not being in a position to complain, I’d take whatever witnesses I could get.
Four other people got onto the same car, joining the seven already there to make an even dozen of us, plus Taran; really not a bad crowd for one-thirty in the morning even if I would have preferred rush hour at the moment. Three descending tones gave us all a short warning before the doors began to slide closed and I enjoyed the little hiss-pop as the rubber merged with the car’s frame. With the train in motion, I perched on the edge of the seat and let myself relax just a little and tried to get my breathing under control, letting the muscles in my back sag and rolling my head from side to side a few times.
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
Taran stayed asleep and I got the expected dirty looks as I walked in, but also a few of the isn’t-he-cute variety while I learned that there really is a magazine for everything. I tried to look like I might be interested in at least half of them while my mind churned with the tremendous lack of possibilities available to me.
No backup and no potential for it. No resources beyond what I carried, and that wasn’t much: a few toys, the gravchute and mesh, the goggles. I could fall safely another twenty or thirty stories, more with Taran’s chute, resist half a dozen simultaneous shots from stun guns, as long as none of them were to the head, see in the dark, shatter glass, cook an electronic lock or pick a manual one, confuse short range sensors for a few seconds, and maybe glue someone’s feet to the ground if my aim was good and they were close enough. How all of that translated into escape from a dozen pursuers, all bigger and faster and probably well trained, I couldn’t quite see, and the clock ran down fast to closing time.
Too fast. An announcement over the internal address system by some very young girl informed us all politely that the store would be closing in fifteen minutes and could we please bring any final purchases down to the registers, thank you. Translation: get out of the damn store, we want to go home. I’d love to, believe me.
After a tiny flurry of activity, the registers stopped and the few murmured voices in the racks around me dropped off, most of them in mid-sentence. A single set of footsteps echoed through the suddenly silent entrance level, heavy and long. I kept leafing through the magazine I’d just picked up, learning nothing about the intricacies of woodworking on a lathe. It didn’t surprise me at all when the footsteps came down my aisle. I sighed and shut the magazine, turning to face, well to look up to, the Vyrian delegated to negotiate. Taller than either of the two I’d met in the museum, and built like he could bench press half a ton for reps, a black body suit covered his frame neck to toe. While I couldn’t see any weapons, that didn’t mean he didn’t have any, but it didn’t seem likely he’d want the final showdown to happen inside the store.
He stopped far enough away that I didn’t have to crane my neck to make eye contact. A nice courtesy, but it didn’t help me relax at all. Neither of us spoke for what felt like a long time, long enough that my stress level actually started to drop. A deep breath, and I managed a smile. “The museum was a mistake.”
He shook his head. “No, I think it was an excellent strategy. We had no idea where you might have gone when you didn’t arrive at any of the anticipated backup locations after our initial… contact. Hiding in the open seems to work well in crowded human society. It was pure chance encountering two of my people in the museum, but truly unfortunate one of them recognized the child’s features.”
Recognized the child’s features. Innocuous words to confirm my subconscious conclusion. Somewhere, four or so years ago, someone had picked up a little bit of Vyrian DNA, or whatever they used for it, probably from shed skin cells, and you didn’t really need a big sample for a complete genetic coding. A whole lot of computer analysis and a bit of genetic tinkering later, the modified embryonic cell that would eventually become Taran went into a host mother or test tube or whatever they used for cloning. Taran was a Vyrian with a human skin tone, and probably a couple of other just-in-case modifications.
Which changed absolutely nothing. My job was still my job, and Taran was still under my protection. “I’ve had good luck hiding in plain sight in the past and keeping him cooped up wouldn’t make him very happy.” And I realized that wouldn’t have made me very happy.
He nodded, seeming to consider the words, but let them pass by. “You have been an unexpected opponent.”
“I think I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It is how I meant the words.” He nodded, but I couldn’t get anything out of his expression. “As a courtesy, I felt it time to offer the advice that I think you are out of options at this time.”
Translation: the building exits are all covered and when the store closes I have nowhere to go. I more or less knew that already, but at least he was being honest and up front. I might even say honourable. He didn’t have the look of someone who’d come to gloat, if Vyrians gloated, so I had to wonder what kind of out he planned to offer me. The obvious would be that he took Taran and I walked away. Reversing the roles, it was probably the first offer I’d make, but it was also one I had no intention of taking. He must have guessed that, but I didn’t know remotely enough about Vyrian psychology to guess what he might be thinking, or anything, really, and assigning human motivations to his actions might be dangerous. “So where do we go from here?”
“That decision is yours in large part. We are outside, waiting. In a simple world, when the store closes, you could come out and meet us. The child departs with us. You remain.”
Sometimes I wondered if I read minds, or maybe the offer would be completely obvious to anyone. “Even in a simple world, that wouldn’t be my first choice.” It didn’t even make the top ten, a reference that wouldn’t make any sense to him, so I didn’t bother saying so.
He nodded. “I understand, but the child is Vyrian. He comes with me.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. He’s under my protection. He stays with me.”
“I sympathize with your desire to protect him, more than you may realize, but you must understand the futility of your position. Based on all available data and resources, this can only have one resolution.” His upper body tipped forward—a bow I supposed—then he turned for the front doors without looking back. “We will be waiting.” He had to hunch to squeeze through the revolving door, and when he stepped beyond the light, he fade into the darkness with an ease I had to admire, professionally at least.
The whispered conversations began immediately, and I wondered how or why so many people stayed in a bookstore so late. The staff probably had to kick people out every single night, but I felt like it was more crowded than it needed to be, at least on the first floor. The Tuesday late-night movie crowd stopping in on their way home, maybe, not that I cared. I needed some space and a little quiet. That was all that mattered at the moment.
I dropped the magazine back into its slot and went for the escalator, pushing past anyone who looked like they might want to say something without making eye contact. I’d waste far too much time flipped through magazines without anything to show for the delay. Now I had a couple of minutes to make things work, and no idea what to do.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
We made it into the shadows, around the corner, and down an alley with no signs of pursuit. Taran had long since stopped giggling, but I took a breathy moment to remind him of the importance of being quiet. He nodded with a hand over his mouth to reassure me. I wondered how much he really understood, but the gesture gave me a lot of confidence, even seen bouncing in the corner of my vision, and if the Vyrians had better ways to track us than by sound, I didn’t see the need to make it easy for them.
And if we had better ways, so did they. My clothing, and Taran’s, might be made from smart fabric, but that wouldn’t do anything to mask the heat signatures from our heads, so we’d show up just fine on infrared if they wanted to use that. Light amplification wouldn’t hurt either, but if I could get into a more populated area, I could negate both advantages.
Jogging through a parking lot, I pulled a pair of powered glasses from my belt and tightened the sports strap as I put them on. One of my favourite toys, they could toggle between light amplification, infrared, sonar, and clear plastic. Environmental consistency was the key, though. Every time I looked near a street light, it washed out the low light mode, and without much in the way of heat sources the infrared didn’t help, the sonar representation was grainy and colourless. I decided I’d take crappy over nothing with great joy. It might mess up any bats who happened to be around, letting them see more than they should, but I could live with fewer mosquitoes in the world. And if we made it to anything like temporary safety, clear rims wouldn’t cost me any peripheral in normal light.
Heavy footsteps ruined the beginning of my improved mood. I couldn’t tell from where, but had to assume they were pacing me, at least, and tried think my way through a very short list of options. Too far away from any entertainment or commercial district to find any real foot traffic to blend in with, and not enough people wandered around the residential area this time of night to make a crowd. Besides, one or two witnesses could be stunned and any advantage I might find having more places to hide would be negated by the Vyrians having more places to set traps and ambushes. The only real option left was an odd twist of urban design. The industrial park backed onto a real one and if it would be far too easy to track us through it, enough speed might carry us to the subway station nestled between a movie theatre and a giant bookstore. Cutting through the industrial park might be a better gamble, but they’d know that, too.
At least my running shoes were new.
Even after midnight, a few trucks moved through the wide streets, which made a certain amount of sense. Any business that did a lot of shipping on the roads would probably prefer to beat peak traffic periods as much as possible. The big trucks were easy to avoid, but avoiding them slowed us down and getting through the concrete park went on long enough for Taran to start drifting off again in spite of the bouncing. By the time I could see trees, he’d slumped against my back.
My wristwatch vibrated almost the same moment the park came into sight, catching the ping of an active tracking system. Whether my pursuers were desperate or just close enough to triangulate me, I couldn’t afford to let up, and a shout behind me proved the point as I hit the grass. A second, just a little further away, came on its heels.
If it hadn’t been a race before, it was now. I stepped up my pace and made for the trees.
Short of a crowded subway, I had no way to lose my pursuit. If the world didn’t slow down much anymore, it was still too late for one of those. Not willing to waste the breath, I swore fluidly and continually in my head. It made sense on several levels for Taran’s protection detail to be a tiny operation, but I would have given a lot for some backup at the moment. Anything at all would do, but since wishing gained me nothing, I decided I’d like a little covering fire and a nice helicopter ride to somewhere safe.
More familiar with the local geography probably didn’t give me any real advantage and didn’t do anything for the most immediate problem: I had shorter legs than the Vyrians. Tearing through the park as fast as I could go and still keep going, I knew they were gaining. Every time I crossed one of the walkways, other, heavier footsteps crossed a few seconds later, and the delay was shrinking. I could draw things out by being sneaky or cunning, maybe, but with nothing around but a sleeping squirrels and pigeons, they’d have no problems tracking me.
Alternate paths and random direction changes might keep me ahead until we reached the subway, but I’d be surprised if the lead came down to more than half a football field. My chances of finding a anything like a crowd to blend into were pretty slim unless a big movie had just gotten out, and if I couldn’t get onto the subway with a crowd, I’d just be cornering myself. Not good.
The movie theatre had too many dark places to be viable itself, which left my only real option earning dirty looks from the bookstore staff while hanging out in the magazine section near the cash registers. The store closed in an hour, so I’d just be buying time, but time could be a powerful thing if you had it. Time to breathe, time to think, time to plan. I needed all three, and 130 wasn’t far enough away.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
After we finished eating, I let Taran play in the fast food restaurant’s climbing gym with half a dozen other kids for nearly an hour. It made every muscle I had tense, smiling and ignoring the parental chatter around me while my eyes never left him, but I wanted Taran to fall asleep on the drive back to the apartment, a drive that would be two or three times longer than a shortest-distance GPS route might suggest.
His eyes closed five minutes out of the parking lot, leaving me alone with my paranoia. I didn’t think I had even remotely enough pieces to put the puzzle together, or even enough to know how many pieces the puzzle might have, but if I could make the right mental connection, if I had the time, I’d be ahead. Logic. I just didn’t think being ahead would help me beyond settling my mind a little.
The best I could hope for was a bit of warning when it mattered, and I doubted I’d get much. No, figuring things out wouldn’t give me anything other than personal satisfaction after the fact, so I decided to let my subconscious work out what it needed to and kept driving while I watched for followers.
I felt naked and exposed carrying Taran up to the apartment. Re-engaging the monitoring and security systems let me exhale but did nothing for my adrenaline. Before helping Taran put his pajamas on, I slipped the anti-stun mesh t-shirt over his head. Another fight I’d won.
Stunners predated the Vyrian arrival by something around fifteen minutes. Yes, they’d shrunk and improved with techniques we’d learned from them in trade, but they were a human innovation and we’d have gotten there on our own eventually. But the anti-stun mesh was straight Vyrian tech, with just a little human tweaking. Intended as a shock dissipator for anyone working with electricity, the scaled down version might not protect you from 50,000 volts, but it shrugged off a neural stun with just a tingle. The shock mesh had been just about the first thing with any defensive potential the Vyrians had agreed to trade, probably because they felt it had no offensive potential. So much like us and yet so unlike. The device itself may have been purely defensive, in an industrial capacity, but if there was anything in the system that could be adapted to serve an offensive purpose, we’d find a way. Amazing that the Vyria could study our history so deeply and not realize that about humans.
Making it a game for him, I put on my own before pulling out the magic belts, a grav chute for each of us. Once I tucked him in, and after a visit with Dr. Suess, a few other high tech toys found their way onto my belt or into my pockets, some of which I’d already been carrying, but I swore at myself for leaving the rest of behind when we went to the museum. What was wrong with me?
Next, a detailed check of all of the security and surveillance records of the day. Everything seemed clear. Not just nothing unexpected, but nothing at all. No attempted intrusion of any kind and no odd signals intercepted, but I still had an itch between my shoulder blades that couldn’t be scratched.
Something clicked in the back of my skull as a couple of things slid together, locking into place. Not an answer I expected to come up with, but it seemed obvious now. The Vyrians were after Taran, not any human agency. Not the only possible answer that fit what I knew but I was sure it was the right one, even if I didn’t quite have the facts at hand to back it up. Known capabilities, organization, and technology had narrowed the field to only a few real possibilities, and I’d never considered the Vyrians seriously, but Rastin’s glance back over his shoulder as he walked away clinched it. Whether knowing that might help me stay ahead a little longer remained to be seen.
The itch got worse.
A little after midnight, the security panel made an innocent beep, programmed to repeat every three seconds, each time a couple of decibels louder, until I touched the cancel pad. I think the third beep woke me and I canceled the audio before the fifth. No sense in waking Taran until I had to, and it looked like I had to.
Eight remote camera sets covered all possible entrances to the building plus the roof, and the indicator light for set six blinked red. Touching the light moved the camera feed to the largest of four tiny screens on the panel, and I watched six tall figures in the parking garage spread out to cover both stair wells. Remote camera set number two chimed in and I let the system show me two figures coming through the front entrance. Not to be left out, remote sets three and five demanded to show me the progress of the two busy securing the rear entrance and ground floor fire exit. Twelve operatives to cover a toddler and his bodyguard, and even without activity up there I had to assume they had the roof covered too. The Vyrians weren’t taking any chances. In between mental curses, I decided to be flattered.
Taran was less happy about being woken up this time. He’d expended a lot of energy at the museum and his three-year-old mind probably expected to stay in bed late the next morning. I thought he understand that we’d be away from home for a few days, but I doubted he expected his adventure to be so adventurous, or to involve so many sleep interruptions. He got over getting stuffed into the carrier fairly quickly—it’s hard for someone that young to hold a grudge, but I had faith he’d learn—sliding out of the sleepy funk the moment two tiny charges blew out the window.
“Boom!” He giggled.
One of the many reasons I chose the apartment, and the other two qualified the same way, was the lack of a fire escape. No fire escape equals no reason to watch a sixth floor window, at least not from up close, or so my theory went. With some knowledge of who my adversaries actually were, I wondered if I should revise that theory.
Too late now.
Taran squealed as gravity grabbed us, and kept laughing all the way to the ground. Grav chutes were my new favourite toy, letting me hit the ground running at about a tenth the vertical speed mother earth would have preferred starting at the sixth floor. I’d taken two steps before my finger hit the kill switch on the chute, thinking I might need the rest of the charge later even while hoping I wouldn’t. At the moment, I had a head start likely measured in a small number of seconds. If as much as a minute passed before one of the intruders managed to get back outside to track us, I’d be thrilled. Of course, that made the assumption they’d all gone in and smart strategy said to always hold some of your force in reserve.
Interstellar travelers, the Vyrians had to be put in the smart category. Alone, outnumbered, and certainly outclassed, my strategy needed to be brilliant. And all I had to work with was a bit of surprise, a few high tech toys, a roll of the dice, and the hope that whatever reserves they had were far enough away to let me reach the shadows with a three year-old on my back.
I wished myself luck.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
We made seven passes through the dinosaur galleries, the first three one right after the other without a break in between. After that, I managed to drag him to a few other areas, but only if animals were involved. He didn’t care at all about earlier human history, mostly due to the lack of robots and aliens involved, and animals were far more interesting than people. The Hall of Reptiles went over well, except it reminded him of the dinosaurs and he started talking about that again before we’d made a loop halfway through.
During our last circuit through the dinosaur galleries, we turned a corner and almost skidded to a halt at the sight of a pair of Vyria examining one of the Allosaur skeletons. I’d never seen one of them in person before, at least not up close. That hadn’t bothered me before, and I couldn’t understand why it brought my guard up now.
The rest of the humans in the gallery, and most of them consciously judging by the stares and nervous glances, gave the blue-green skinned aliens a wide berth. Not Taran, of course. He walked right up beside them with all the confidence of having been through the room six times already, pointed at the skeleton and smiled. “Allosaurs had lots of teeth and are stinky.”
By the suddenly stiff spines, the aliens were a little shocked that anyone, especially a child, was willing to approach them. Once they got past that shock, both facial expressions smoothed into a sort of bland, pleasant structure, an approximation or imitation of being pleased.
I wondered why they should be surprised. Most kids have no real concept of alien or different until they’re taught that way, so as far as Taran might be concerned, the seven-foot-plus tall bluish people were just that: people. And if my research suggested shades of blue, green, and occasionally purple, with hair tending lighter, his suggested that almost everyone was taller than he was anyway, so what difference did skin tone make?
And maybe the surprise and its disappearance matched up. The main schools of thought ran that Vyrian thought processes and emotions paralleled ours for the most part, not that they’d shared anything in that field, though mental wiring would be very different and subconscious cues could never match, however human they might look. Proof, I supposed, that no matter how similar the starting conditions, and I had no idea what Vyria, or whatever they called it, might be like, evolution wouldn’t produce the exact same answer twice. Similar, maybe, but not the same. The Vyrians claimed to have encountered a dozen other sentient species in their travels and none of the rest were even vaguely humanoid.
Beyond their initial reaction, the two were quite good natured about the intrusion into their personal space. One bent down to speak to Taran and I had to fight to stay as relaxed. With nothing to justify the alarm bells in my head but unknowns, the worst reaction I could publicly justify was to step in close and hold Taran’s hand.
One crouched down far enough to attempt to look Taran in the eye. “Ran’cha hol keh-” He hesitated, and the shift of mental gears accompanying the language change made an almost audible grinding sound as his mouth twisted several times. “They do certainly have a large number of teeth, small one, but I do not detect any particularly unpleasant odour coming from the fossilized skeleton of the allosaur, or much of an odour at all, for that matter.”
His companion smiled, to me a chilling gesture filled with barely concealed teeth. “He means extinct, Mook’lan.”
Ah puzzled frown came just ahead of a slight greening of Mook’lan’s face. “Yes. I understand. Now.” Rising, his eyes moved well past mine before looking down at me. “You must excuse me, please. I find your language very difficult.”
I shook my head, trying a smile of my own, and wondering why I found it so hard. “No apology necessary. English is a language that borrows and steals from every other language it bumps into. It’s difficult enough for most humans not born to it, and you speak it very well..”
The second one nodded. I tried to pick out differences between them besides the slightly lighter skin tone, coming up with a fatter nose and not much more. “It is quite a challenge. I do not know how the original linguistics team managed to decipher it, though I’m certain they had an easier time than those on other contact missions.” He carefully extended a large hand. “I am called Rastin Shrooden and my companion is Holkit Shrooden.” Not what he’d called him a moment ago, and I filed Mook’lan away as a title or nickname.
I shook hands with both of them, giving the fake name I’d selected for today. The twinge of guilt I felt at the lie puzzled me. Lies were part of the job in general and very much part of my current job. I’d have to kick myself for being stupid later, whether it was some bit of racial guilt at not being entirely honest to visitors from the stars or getting soft around Taran. Either way, I couldn’t quite squash the feeling and that bothered me.
While I did manage to keep stupidities like, “So, how are you enjoying Earth?” or “Why did you wait so long to come here?” from falling out of my mouth, the small talk I settled on instead depressed me, asking after their health and enjoyment of the museum. A little more comfortable after the exchange, I admitted curiosity about family arrangements without knowing where the question came from. It did seem to impress them, but for no obvious reason I could see.
“You have likely understood that our ships are multi-generational.” Holkit bobbed his head, eyes widening along with his smile. “So our families travel with us. Mine is here in the Enclave.” He paused, tilting his head to one side. “But I think perhaps you meant the structure of our families. Is that so?”
Rastin sighed, an oddly human sound. “Clearly.”
Ignoring his companion—brother?—Holkit continued at my nod as if the other hadn’t spoken. “This can be quite variable, I suppose, though culturally most typical is a collection of bonded pairs tied together by blood or vows to form a… hmm, I believe you would possibly say a small clan. Each of the pairs has children or not as they choose or nature allows, although those children are considered a collective responsibility, not solely of the province of the biological parents. My clan is small with myself, two of my siblings, our mates, and our four children.”
Rastin interrupted. “While mine is considerably larger, with fourteen bonded adult pairs, including eight parents, plus eleven children. They remain on the ship in orbit, however.”
Something else I didn’t understand, but didn’t ask about since they hadn’t answered anyone else in the last ten years. The Vyrians had parked four colossal ships in orbit, each with thousands of people on board, and left them hanging there for nearly a decade while only a few hundred landed at a time for trade and information delegations. Granted that there weren’t many places interested in a flood of aliens, but the world was certainly big enough that they could all come down and explore if they wanted to. Unless we didn’t want them to have that level of free reign, poking around, taking genetic samples, and buying stories. Plus, some nations wouldn’t welcome the aliens at all and might be active in their displeasure if the Vyrians chose to visit a near neighbour. I supposed it might be safer to remain in high orbit. People had enough to deal with.
Holkit’s lecture went on minute or so before winding down and we slid back into small talk, remarkably like the human to human variety, for a brief time before Rastin began to get restless. Discomfort or, more likely, a schedule to keep, but I couldn’t read his expression well enough to pick one. While Holkit seemed reluctant, Rastin, on the verge of pulling away, asked the final question of the conversation, and the one that ultimately ended our visit to the museum, with his brow creased.
“Your pardon if this is personal, but your son does not much resemble your physical appearance. Is this common among humans?”
“My nephew, actually.” Strange how hard the lie was to get out. Not a twitch showed through my smile, I hoped, but inside all of my defense systems came back to full alert. Taran’s hand felt a little cooler to the touch as I tried, unsuccessfully, to clamp down on the impulse to carry the answer further than it needed to go. “But it’s still a good question, I guess. Basic genetics. Since any child takes half of his or her genes from each parents, they should have traits in common with both. They probably have traits in common with near relatives, too—aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins—by sharing a quarter or an eighth of their genes with them. Whether those are visible traits or not is a different question and depends on the gene mix. Do Vyrian genetics work differently?”
Rastin’s face darkened. No, not just darkened. Flushed. He was embarrassed, and for more than just a linguistic mistake. Something else to file away for reference. “I am sorry. You are right, of course. It’s only, well, I thought for a moment he resembled someone else I have met.” A weak finish, even if it might be true. Nice to know the aliens sometimes suffered from foot-in-mouth disease, but that weak finish made my mind churn harder. Something wasn’t right.
I smiled, putting as much warmth into the expression as I could and hoping they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. “Taran does favour his mother.” And he might, not that I had any idea.
Rastin smiled back, his face still a bit darker than when the conversation began. “Of course.” He bowed far enough to break eye contact. “Open spaces.”
Holkit smoothed out a frown and I wondered if he might be puzzled, missing something in the conversation. but bowed anyway. “It was pleasant to make your acquaintance. Open spaces.”
I returned the bow, hoping I managed to look a bit awkward. “It was nice to meet both of you.”
They bowed to Taran as well, who giggled and tried to bow back.
As I watched them walk away, something beeped quietly on Rastin’s belt. He poked at it a couple of times before waving a hand above the black surface and bringing it to his face. I heard him speak a few words in his own language, and guessed device to be the Vyrian equivalent of a cell phone. He glanced back at us once as they walked away, though Holkit didn’t appear to notice.
I looked down at Taran, impressed with how quiet and considerate he’d been during the conversation and I told him so. “Maybe you’ve even earned a treat for being so nice and polite to the spacemen.”
Stop somewhere special for dinner might be good for both of us. “You got it, bud.”
“Yay!” He jumped up, but then stopped, his little face creasing as he mulled something over. “Dinosaurs done?”
I had to smile. “Well, I guess we can finish looking at them before we go.”
“Yay!” He pulled me to the next skeleton, tumbling through something about a dimetrodon’s spines, but I had a hard time catching all of the words. My mind was still working hard, my subconscious desperate to tell me something. It would come eventually, I hoped, but until it did, I’d be looking over my shoulder more than usual. No, not more than usual, just more than I had been since Taran and I left the apartment that morning. Something wasn’t right, and I felt just a little compromised.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
Sometime during the next few hours, Taran dragged a blanket across the few feet separating us and crawled into the chair with me to finish the night. I had no idea how he managed it without waking me, but the small warm body snuggled into my side didn’t give me any reason to complain and I looked down at him, smiling.
Until Taran, I’d never been very comfortable around kids, but draping an arm over his shoulders, a bigger question occurred to me. How had he gotten so comfortable around me? We’d had to develop a certain level of familiarity so that he trusted me in the event I had to do my job, and I did my best to be smiling and friendly whenever I spent time around him, even to the point of putting together some Legos or reading to him once in a while, but I was hardly one of his nannies.
And still he’d crawled into my lap.
He didn’t know it was my job to protect him, just that I was nice enough to play with him sometimes. I decided to chalk it up to being the only familiar adult available and start figuring out what to do next.
Operating procedure called for me to take Taran somewhere for the day, to hide in plain sight rather than just hiding. It seemed a little riskier, but his mental wellbeing was considered paramount and the powers involved wanted to make sure he had as natural an experience as possible. Not thrilling, but not something I could fight against. The basic script we’d been handed assumed a father with the day off work taking his son somewhere a father might take his son. I adjusted that to uncle and nephew before reading the second paragraph. No one would buy Taran and I as father and son, just aside from the possibility of him using my name by accident. I didn’t coach him to call me uncle, but figured I’d deal with that when it came up.
I had the latitude to take him anywhere, for any activity I might feel comfortable with and that he might enjoy, the only catch being we needed to be within five kilometres of a particular radio station transmitter between ten and three. If the receiver in my watch picked up a certain signal, the ancient Monty Python theme song would play as an alarm, and I could bring Taran to the secondary residence.
Repeat daily until signal received. Nothing like making my job easy.
I’d given it a lot of thought, trying to pick places based on Taran’s interests and eventually came up with half a dozen possibilities. After that, I’d have to come up with more, at least once he got bored with my first choice, because the Natural History Museum was probably significantly repeatable, where he could wander, closely supervised, through the dinosaur exhibits to his heart’s content. Not exactly exciting for me, but then I needed to be alert to the rest of the world.
Taran found a passion for dinosaurs before he could say the word. By the time I arrived on the scene, he was long past calling them “saur-saurs” and had mastered the pronunciation of more species than I’d ever heard of. The museum had plenty of kid-friendly activities and displays, but I knew we’d spend at least half the day going through the dinosaur galleries over and over again.
It took a little bit of contortion to get out of the chair without waking Taran, and I gently shifted him back to the bed while I went to skim my news feeds and verify dates on the groceries I’d laid in two weeks ago. Nothing about my personal adventure last night and nothing really interesting standing out from the political and business noise. At least, nothing beyond the latest Vyrian trade agreement, which fit into both categories. Just seeing all of the excited, meaningless or misleading headlines made my stomach sour a bit. I couldn’t speak for the rest of the world, but I didn’t think I was alone in wanting them to leave for their next tourist destination anytime now and let the human race go back to figuring out things for ourselves. If only so I could stop hearing about them.
Wrong time to get sidetracked. I thumbed the tablet off and stuck my face in the fridge to take stock. We’d need milk and fruit, but should otherwise have enough food for the two of us to last at least a couple of weeks. I hoped we wouldn’t need it, but I always liked being prepared. Luckily for breakfast, Taran didn’t like milk on his cereal and I could get by toasting frozen bread. Margarine made the list after breakfast, because a half kilo wouldn’t last long, and I decided some fresh vegetables would be nice.
Taran toddled into the kitchen just after seven-thirty, still rubbing an eye. He looked at me and smiled. “My pull-up is dry.”
Infected by the cute, and impressed considering the night’s excitement, I had to grin back at the declaration of happiness. Taran wasn’t much over three and he’d only worn pull-ups to bed for the past couple of months, which made any dry night still a big deal. “That’s great, bud. How many days in a row is that?” I pulled his chair out for him to climb into. Specially chosen by me, it was a good twenty centimetres higher than a normal chair.
“I not know.” He held still, hands gripping the edge of the table, while I pushed the chair in.
“That’s okay. We’ll call it one and keep track from now, okay?”
I tousled his hair. His own name for any cereal shaped like tiny donuts. “Absolutely. I’ve got a giant box just for you.”
Hard as it was to keep a secret while clearing the dishes, I thought a little bit of anticipation might be fun for both of us and asked Taran to remind me of some of his favourite things while getting him dressed. Moments after breakfast, the first thing on the list was Oh-ohs. “And smarties, chocolate, spaghetti, pizza… airplanes, space ships, robots, an’ dinosaurs.” This last was muffled as I timed pulling his shirt down over his head to match.
“Sorry. What was that?”
He giggled. “Dinosaurs!”
Laughing now. “No! Dinosaurs!”
He made it hard, but I bit down on my own smile for one more. “Albino floors?”
“Yes!” The laughter dropped back into giggles.
“Ah.” I reached for the socks, orange and purple with cartoon dinosaurs on them. “What if I told you I knew somewhere we could go see a lot of dinosaur bones?”
“Dinosaur bones?” He bounced up onto his feet, sending one of the socks under the bed, just within reach. “Yes! Let’s go!”
“Well, we’ve got time for a couple of cartoons first, if you’d like.”
“No, no! Dinosaur bones!”
“All right. Do you think you can find your coat and shoes?” Not hard, since both shoes had stayed at the end of the bed where I’d left them the night. His coat hung on the door handle. “Great. You get ready and I’ll pack a couple of snacks for the drive and the museum, okay?”
I left him with a fifty-fifty chance of getting his shoes on the right feet, the same for doing up the coat zipper, and went back to the kitchen.
Pre-packed snacks from fridge and cupboard found their way into his small travel bag along with two changes of clothes and a half dozen juice boxes. Lunch at the museum would be a treat, and I had plenty of cash for that and anything else we might want or need while out. Outside the kitchen, I turned to the security panel, wondering if I needed to expect anything between the apartment and the car. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Not so much as a fly had touched the car and everything looked normal as far as the building went. Too late for most commuters and much too early for people working afternoon shifts, so not many people moved through the halls.
Away from Taran’s smiling face, my natural paranoia began to reassert itself as I scanned the camera images, and I wondered if the Natural History Museum was too obvious. Anyone who knew anything about him would know how much he loved dinosaurs. Even in a city this size, there were only so many places to go with fossils on display. It didn’t seem like much of a stretch to have the museum staked out.
But my opposite number or numbers knowing I’d take Taran anywhere instead of going to ground to watch cartoons waiting for an all clear assumed a knowledge of our contingency plans that frightened me. Only a few people knew what the procedures would be and everything was verbal. Nothing had been committed to any kind of record, or shouldn’t have been. Even still, the safe thing to do—the smart thing to do—would be to give my paranoia free reign, cancel the outing, stay in the safe house, and watch cartoons until he fell asleep again. Rinse and repeat.
Taran came to me with his shoes on the right feet and his coat zipped, sealing the bargain. I set the security timers for a five-second delay after the door closed, shouldered our supplies, and took his hand.
The trip to the museum was surprisingly stress free considering it was still technically rush hour when we got in the car, but starting late and so far out of the core helped a lot. Kids’ music with Taran’s headphones off put us both in a good mood. A couple of songs found me singing along, something I never do even by myself–too distracting, and not even I want to listen to me sing–but Taran found it hilarious.
I had much less fun looking for parking near the museum. Underground parking lots didn’t make the list for a lot of obvious security reasons, and no street parking existed so far as I could see. I finally squeezed the car into the edge of a surface lot almost eight blocks away and paid an exorbitant price for the privilege.
An odd mixture of emotions came with realizing I’d probably have to carry Taran back to the car when we finally left. I found concern easy to place, since carrying him without the backpack would hamper both mobility and equipment access if we had to get away quickly, but I had a harder time figuring out the happy undertone that went with it, trying to understand why I should be happy about carrying a child. Suddenly being conscious of the little warm hand in mine answered that, but it was an answer that didn’t make sense. Taran might be a sweet kid, both smart and articulate for a month past his third birthday, and I liked him, but there was no reason for me to have become so attached to him so quickly. Or at all. Doing my job properly meant staying detached.
I’d been a familiar adult in his life for months, taking steps to gain his trust and make him comfortable in the event of something like last night, but I had to be his guardian in a way most kids didn’t need, and that sometimes needed fast and cold decisions, not emotional involvement.
This morning, guardian and sometime-playmate had merged together to make me his favourite uncle, and I not only liked it, I’d embraced it. Something didn’t sit right and I needed some perspective, but with the museum steps in sight, I had no way to get it.
Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
I signaled to the three members of my team just as a second tremor passed through my soles. Waiting for the low rumble to subside, I let them take up preselected positions covering elevator, windows, and stairwell before pushing through the doorway.
The wild-eyed nanny already had every light in the apartment on. She spun around when the door smacked into the closet, pulling in a deep breath, and only didn’t scream because I shot a hand up. Two steps took me to her side and I leaned in close to whisper. “You know me and you know why I’m here. They don’t care about you. After we leave, stay down and you’ll be ignored.”
Her mouth snapped shut and she nodded, shoulders shaking as her eyes darted around looking for the best hiding place. I slipped into the larger of the two bedrooms to find the assistant had Taran dressed and in the carrier. That made me feel a little better, like we might get a few seconds’ lead.
She helped slip Taran onto my back and make sure all of the straps were tight before squeezing into the corner farthest from the window, a heavy dresser mostly hiding her. With a last look around at the nursery, I opened the closet door and felt under the light switch for the wall release pad.
I found the catch and the back wall of the closet slid away just as Taran yawned in my ear. “Go zoom?”
“You betcha, buddy. Go zoom.” Smiling, I stepped into the airshaft.
For a kid who’d been asleep two minutes before, he woke up fast, squealing as the grav field dropped us down through the building at about one floor per second. By the time we slowed for my feet to touch ground, level below the basement, he’d dropped back to a giggle but started to shift around in the carrier. Wide awake, but I didn’t think the adrenaline would last long.
I slapped the wall panel just outside of the shaft. Lights flared on in the tiny garage, the air car started, and somewhere I couldn’t see a timer began counting down from two minutes. At zero, a small charge would collapse the bottom of the shaft and disable the grav field. Two minutes was as long as I’d ever taken to get Taran into the harness and he’d been having a tantrum at the time. With him happy and engaged, we’d pick up a lot of those one hundred and twenty seconds, and every one of them made the sliver of hope just a little bigger.
Slipping off the harness, I scooped Taran up and slid him into the booster seat all in one motion. Three snaps anchored him in and one more did the same for me in the front seat. When the driver’s door closed, the vehicle locked automatically and a hidden door slid up to leave about five centimetres of clearance on each side, letting me pull out into the bottom level of the parking garage next door. All exits on the building I’d come from, plus the roof and sewers, would certainly be under observation, but my adversaries might not consider converted storage lockers letting me out into another building. At least, that was the idea. The ‘best laid plans’ came to mind.
Flipping down the rear view, I smiled at Taran. We still had about a minute before the charges went off, and I hoped it would take them longer to find the shaft. Much longer, if my people were as good as I thought they were. “Try to go back to sleep, buddy. We’ll be driving for a while.”
“Headphones? Purple Eater?” Still smiling, I reached back with a pair of headphones. He had them on before I could touch the play button.
A rushed, but I hoped not obviously hurried, drive to the street level exit pushed me into the late evening traffic. The excitement of the air shaft safely in the past, Taran sang along to his favourite song twice and promptly fell asleep less than five minutes out of the garage.
I wasn’t so lucky, spending the next hour criss-crossing my own trail and trying to be sure I didn’t have any tailgaters. I’d swept the car myself less than two hours before, and the onboard systems reported no abnormalities with the car, the traffic, or the buildings and air above us. We looked clear for the moment.
We’d gotten away, and it had been far too easy. Several extra senses itched in the back of my skull but none of them with any helpful extra information to add. Eventually, I had to decide you can only drive around with a kid in the back seat at night for so long. Time to try for a safe house.
There were five available, but if someone knew where to try for Taran, then our information network could easily be compromised, and I had to regard none of them as safe. Two months ago, I’d had a series of successful arguments and won the funding to set up three of my own.
The best choice was a small apartment in a small building well out of the downtown core, far from any government buildings or assets of corporate significance. Handy shopping, steps to two large parks and a thin tendril of subway, urban without being too urban. A renter’s dream to read the listing, but if I actually lived there, the commute to anywhere else would be murder, even on the subway.
This late, traffic had thinned enough that it was hard to take an hour to get to the safe house and harder still to wait for the every-fifteen-minute pulse from my security system. Decoding went quick and easy after I provided the key. No alarms, no signs of tampering. According to the logs, no one had entered the apartment since I’d last been there, two weeks ago. Everything looked fine except that a light plate registered as switching on and off just about the time I’d been loading Taran into the car, and not one of the plates on a random timer.
I drove away.
My other two options were similar setups, one a little closer to downtown and the other just outside a small industrial park. Both were good for a temporary escape and elude, but I didn’t want to spend long in either if I could avoid it. Ambushes and traps could blanket any real residential neighbourhood, and if escape became an issue, I’d be heavily outnumbered and short on time.
Which got me thinking.
I’d spent a long time getting good at my chosen profession, and planning could turn any problem into an edge. When not actually on duty, I spent most of my time planning, but big gaps existed in my knowledge about potential adversaries, identity and motivation chief among them. My initial brief had contained very detailed information on capabilities—surprisingly high tech and organized—but nothing resembling real background information. That missing information made me suspicious, and the lack of disclosure on who wanted Taran or why made me uncomfortable. If I’d had the option of refusing the assignment, only the fact that he was such a sweet little kid would have kept me from walking out.
But he was a sweet little kid. Size and intelligence for his age made him an obvious mod, but wasn’t something that could change my mind. I glanced in the mirror, smiled at the peaceful look on his face, and thumbed the volume down further on his headphones. Turning them off would be a mistake. He’d wake up and I’d have to find his favourite song again to get him to settle.
I had to make a decision, though. I didn’t really want him to spend all night in the car, and figured a few hours of sleep for me would be nice before he got up. Finally, because it was half an hour closer, I picked the apartment next to the industrial park, and the system there didn’t give so much as a flicker of doubt. An easy call to spend the night. Maybe we’d move tomorrow if I didn’t get clearance to come in.
Taran mumbled something when I pulled him out of the car seat, but I left the headphones on him and he didn’t wake up. The skin between my shoulder blades crawled the entire trip from the car into the apartment. So many things could go wrong during those couple of minutes, but I had to move him sometime.
With my charge safely on the couch under several blankets, I reset all of the sensors. The feeling went away and I started to relax. Not much, but just enough to slip into the easy chair and close my eyes. I wouldn’t have a lot warning if we were compromised, probably less than we’d had the first time, but if we were lucky it would be enough.
I just hated trusting to luck.