News & Politics
Table of Contents 1 -- Nykkyo......................................................................................... 3 2 -- Green! Everywhere Green!........................................................ 18 3 -- Sukiko ........................................................................................ 33 4 -- Sad, Sad Stories ......................................................................... 48 5 -- Christmas ................................................................................... 61 6 -- Not In Wisconsin Any More...................................................... 81 7 -- The Temporal Paradox............................................................. 104 8 -- You belong to your world and I to mine. ................................ 124 9 -- The Residence .......................................................................... 143 10 -- Expecting ............................................................................... 158 11 -- Destiny has led me back to you. ............................................ 176 12 -- A Little Quid-pro-quo............................................................ 195 13 -- Return to the Homeworld ...................................................... 212 14 -- Andra...................................................................................... 231 15 -- Unlocking Secrets .................................................................. 250 16 -- Zander .................................................................................... 265 17 -- A Unique Laboratory ............................................................. 281 18 -- Earthbound............................................................................. 298 19 -- The Easiest Thing in Two Worlds ......................................... 320 Appendix I -- Excerpts from Koichi Kyhana's Journal.................. 340 Appendix II -- Lingwafloran: An Introduction to the Language of Planet Floran................................................................................... 348 Edition of 10/10/2003 Copyright (C) 2002, 2003, D M Arnold. All rights reserved. This book is made freely available subject to the condition it may not be sold, redistributed, or circulated in any manner in electronic, print or other media without the author's expressed permission. Published by VIRTUALimprint http://www.virtualimprint.com firstname.lastname@example.org Your comments are welcome EARTHBOUND - 3 - 1 -- Nykkyo Nykkyo Kyhana dreamed of a blue world. It was the same as he had dreamt for the past ten nights: The flash of a warp jump and he found himself looking down at a blue orb flecked with white and seemingly small enough to hold in the palm of his hand. He began to fall, accelerating toward the planet -- a lone, naked figure falling through the void. The sapphire sphere grew to overwhelming size as he fell, expanding to fill his field of vision... He woke with a start, breathless and his heart racing. Beside him lay his wife Senta, her face turned from him and hidden by unruly locks of red hair. A shaft of golden morning sunlight streamed through the archway leading to the balcony. Nyk arose, showered and dressed in a tunic and xarpa. He stepped onto the balcony of the apartment he shared with Senta, looked down 353 stories to the street and watched the orange sun bronze the city. It was 6636.031 APF, the 31st Floran day of the 6,636th Floran year after PlanetFall. He turned from the balcony and stopped to regard a medallion hanging on the wall. It was a golden disk with a green stone set at its center and incised with three odd symbols. At the top was an upright with two crossbars. Next, clockwise, were two slashes tilted toward each other's tops. Clockwise again was another upright, bent to the lower left and crossed with a single stroke. EARTHBOUND - 4 - Nyk lifted the pendant from its hanger and cradled it in his palm. He noted a flaw where it had been bent and straightened. The disk was an artifact from the founding days of his world. He felt pride to hold it; and melancholy as he recalled how he had acquired it. It had belonged to his father. Senta stood nude in the doorway to their bedroom. “You didn't sleep well last night,” she said. “Your tossing and turning kept me up.” “You're right, korlyta,” he replied. “I didn't. Thoughts of my transit tomorrow kept disturbing me.” His gaze returned to the golden pendant and he traced the mysterious figures with his fingertip. “Nykkyo Kyhana -- the keeper of the crest.” “Why do you mock me so? I'm proud of my Kyhana blood. For two hundred generations this pendant has been passed from grandfather to father upon the birth of the first grandchild. It won't be rightfully mine until you and I have a child. What are the odds of that, Senta?” Her eyes narrowed. “Stranger things have happened, I suppose. How do you think Dad would react to learn his son finally made something of himself?” Senta folded her arms and sighed. “I don't understand how you can consider a one-year ExoAgency tour making something of yourself. You'll still need a career after you return.” Nyk ignored Senta's remark. He huffed moisture onto the pendant and buffed it on his tunic. “I suppose this should be in a museum. It is an object we know was crafted on Earth. By right, it belongs to all the Floran people. Maybe I'll donate it along with my translation of Koichi's journal, once I finish it.” He replaced the object on its hook, returned to the balcony and looked out. Floran City's urban landscape stretched before him to the horizon. He saw the streets filling with groundcars and foot traffic. Tubecars sped through the transparent, tubular roadways lacing together EARTHBOUND - 5 - the city's mile-high skyscrapers, and skimmers flew from rooftop to rooftop. Senta stood beside him. “The High Legislature is in session today,” he said. “No doubt debating the wisdom of relocating the polity's capital to a colony planet. I understand the Deltans are making a case for the honor. I wish they would. It might relieve some of the traffic.” “Will you be stationed in a city?” she asked. “In a small city. It's smaller than Sudal. The population's about fifty thousand.” “Come, I'll heat some breakfast.” He followed her to the apartment's kitchen and began brewing a pot of green tea. She retrieved a pair of prefab meals, warmed them and plunked the trays onto the table. Nyk sat across from his wife and regarded her as she ate. For an instant she seemed to him a stranger. He had married her eight Floran years ago -- shortly after the shuttle crash had claimed his parents. Like most Florans', his was an arranged marriage. Veska had insisted on it. “I'll be home early today,” Senta said, “to prepare for your farewell party.” Nyk was dreading the party. “I'm not looking forward to it,” he replied. “I don't know what's wrong with you -- why you're so adverse to having a little fun.” “Tomorrow I go offworld for a year. An Agency tour of duty seemed a good idea when I applied for it. Now the notion is beginning to daunt me.” EARTHBOUND - 6 - “I wish you hadn't chosen that assignment. I rather you had signed onto a scout cruiser, instead. You might have served on the vessel that discovers our next colony planet.” “Might-haves don't count.” “You certainly wouldn't have gone through such arduous training and you wouldn't find yourself alone on a hostile world.” “It's hardly that. It's different, but it's not hostile. I don't mind working alone. My Agency training is more than adequate. I'm sure I'll survive Earth.” Nyk's gaze focused on the coin-sized tattoo on Senta's right deltoid -- the marriage crest binding her to the Kyhana line. The design was identical to the one on the pendant, and he wore her family emblem on his right upper arm. The same Kyhana insignia had adorned the shoulder of Nyk's mother. He recalled his cultural training. On Earth -- or, at least in the corner of it where he was headed -- brides and grooms selected each other on the basis of love. He wondered if the Earth adage was correct -- if a man married a woman similar to his mother. If it were so, he mused, then what about Senta would remind him of his mother? They certainly didn't look alike. His mother had been a large-framed woman with the sandy hair and blue-grey eyes she passed on to her son -- round, soft -- attractive, in a matronly way. Senta frequently was mistaken for a girl half her age. He scooped a spoonful of his breakfast and wondered if it worked the other way around. Would an Earth woman choose a husband who reminded her of her father? What about himself was similar to Veska? One similarity he did recognize -- toward the end, his parents had been incapable of beginning a conversation without it degenerating into an argument. EARTHBOUND - 7 - “You know,” Senta said without looking up, “ExoAgents have died there. Some were burned alive.” “That was hundreds of years ago. We've had no problems with Floran Agents on Earth for generations. The Agency is a critical arm of the Service. I'll be making a valuable contribution to the health and welfare of our people.” “Think what you like.” “The Agency is how we obtain fresh genes to keep our food and fiber crops healthy. As a geneticist you must appreciate the importance of that.” Nyk scooped another spoonful. “I wish you hadn't planned this party. I'd prefer to have a quiet evening alone with my thoughts.” He sipped his tea. “And with you, korlyta.” “I think you'd rather have a quiet evening alone in your study. You'd probably prefer a quiet lifetime in there. Why can't you see tonight as a last chance to have some fun before you start your assignment?” “Senta, I know tonight's event is really for your enjoyment. You're well aware I don't like these occasions and I never feel comfortable at them.” “You're inhibited, Nyk. It must be that provincial upbringing of yours. You're in the City, now. You should regard tonight as a chance to get it out of your system. You'll be on Earth a long time. Indulging at one of these parties in no way diminishes what you and I have. I've invited some very beautiful men and women. The Arodsu twins will be here. They were flirting with you at last year's lab party, I recall. Aren't you the least bit curious about them?” “Curious, perhaps... a little,” he said. “Then, use this as an opportunity to satisfy your curiosity. The party is in your honor. No one would refuse you.” EARTHBOUND - 8 - “I don't like making intimate with strangers, and I hardly know them. I'll bet I'll hardly know anyone.” “If you would've given me the names of some of your amften, I'd have invited them, too. Oh, I forgot -- you don't have any. How can you have friends to invite if you can't take the trouble to make a few?” “Let me see the guest list, korlyta.” Senta handed him a datacel. Nyk inserted it into a vidisplay and scanned the list with a frown. “I was right. I hardly know anyone. How many of these number among your conquests?” “Why does my social life bother you so?” “It doesn't, Senta -- it amazes me.” “It must, or you wouldn't keep bringing it up. We do have our understanding.” “As you like to remind me.” He looked into her green eyes. “I'm sorry -- thoughts about the mission have put me into an odd mood.” He returned his gaze to the vidisplay. “Are any of the women on this list fertile?” “No -- none have applied for birth licenses.” “Good. Then we won't have to worry about any accidents. Did you invite Aahhn and his wife?” “Yes, but they declined.” “I'm not surprised. Aahhn's too busy now with his responsibilities at the clinic.” He continued to peruse the list. “Zander Baxa is coming?” “So -- you will know someone. He's the only dear friend of yours I could think of.” EARTHBOUND - 9 - “I haven't seen him in years. He and I were best friends as boys in Sudal, and he's the one who first interested me in the ExoAgency. He'll bring his trophy wife. You know she's an ax'amfin.” “I hope you won't use that word in front of her, Nyk. She'll be our guest.” “Would you rather I called her ax'amfa?” Senta glowered. “How about ax'amorfa?” She looked daggers at him. “You know how I feel about the ax'amfinen. You can sometimes see them on news broadcasts, consorts to colonial officials looking so ... so stuffy and snooty. That whole institution's an abomination. We should abolish the genetic counselors that create them and the finishing schools that train them. I can't believe our society permits it.” “They're such beautiful women,” she replied, “so striking, with such light blond hair and white skin.” “I suspect she's the reason you invited Zander.” “I've wanted to meet one.” Senta sipped her tea. “I have some curiosity of my own. Promise me you'll make her feel welcome in our home.” “I promise, korlyta. I can't understand what Zander did to deserve one of those women. I've never heard of a mere mortal like him being assigned an ax'amfin. He's no colonial chancellor. He's a mid-level functionary -- an ExoService career man.” “Your father earned such a reward. He could've had a finishing school companion.” “My father did something much more sensible. He had the house in Sudal built.” “That's not my point,” Senta replied. “It is possible for an ordinary citizen to accomplish something and be granted a boon. Finishing school companions are frequently so awarded.” EARTHBOUND - 10 - “It's not right to make a human being the reward for accomplishment.” Senta placed her empty tray and cup into the waste reprocessor. Nyk dumped his utensils, walked to his study and sat at his desk. He picked up a metallic cylinder and turned it over in his fingers. A polymer tray held a number of similar objects. They were the data capsules containing the journal of Koichi Kyhana. Nyk slipped a datacel into his vidisplay and contemplated the screen. Senta stood behind him. “I can't make any sense of this.” “Those are the old Roman characters,” he replied and touched the screen. “This is the same text in Floran characters.” “That hardly helps.” Nyk flipped the screen to the Roman characters and read a paragraph in the original Esperanto. He translated the passage -- one in which Koichi lamented the loss of his wife Sarah the year before. “Koichi wrote that about twenty years after PlanetFall. Such pathos. Do you see what a sensitive journalist he was? And, Esperanto wasn't his first language -- English was.” “You know, Nyk, if you had applied yourself toward your studies with half the diligence as learning Esperanto, you might have that Food Service position today.” “That job was nothing but data pushing. Estimate this, plan for that, measure productivity, invent lame slogans for incentive programs. I have no interest in that sort of work, and you know it.” “You'll need some sort of career.” She headed from the study. “I'm going to get dressed.” Nyk laced his fingers behind his head and regarded the screen of Esperanto. He had read some of the other material dating from the founding of his world. The Floran's log was preserved and translated, as EARTHBOUND - 11 - were shipboard diaries kept by Captain Ty Davis and other crewmates. Nyk knew of the mission, launched in the opening years of Earth's twenty-third century. It was that world's first attempt to form a colony on a planet orbiting Beta Centauri, a star so close as a stone's throw in interstellar terms. Something went wrong when the Floran's warp coil was triggered. The vessel was thrown two hundred lightyears off course and five thousand Earth years into the past. It was Koichi Kyhana who discovered the colonists' only chance for survival -- the planet they named after their vessel. It was the world Nyk and a billion and a half others now called home. Nyk touched the vidisplay and brought up a photoimage. “Is that Koichi?” he heard Senta ask from behind him as she laced her sandals. “Yes.” “He looks nothing like anyone on this world.” “Our family originated in an Earth region called Japan. Koich's features are typically Japanese. Note his black hair, the shape of his eyes and his yellow-brown complexion. You can see a trace of his features in my eyes.” Senta looked at him and laughed, “Think what you want, Nykkyo, but your eyes look like everyone else's.” “Exactly. Interbreeding in the early years eliminated the racial diversity of the original settlers. Now, Florans come only in shades of blond. You're a bit of an oddity with your red hair. Floran eyes retain a hint of Asian influence and your eyes have it, too.” He leaned back. “Oh, how I wish I could experience Earth as Koichi describes it. It's two hundred years yet before his time.” Nyk returned his attention to the vidisplay. “I would give anything now for a bowl of my mother's miso soup,” he translated. “I wonder what miso is.” EARTHBOUND - 12 - “Nyk, I'm headed to the lab,” Senta said from the living room. “My skimmer will be here any moment. Don't forget the drugs for tonight's party.” He stepped from the study. “Of course not.” “Here's the list.” She handed him a datacel. “Thank you, Nyk. I'll see you this afternoon.” Nyk saw the skimmer approach and hover adjacent to their balcony. He glanced at the Food Service emblem on its side -- a stylized agridome within a wreath of wheat stalks. A wide door swung upward and a stairway dropped to the balcony floor. The pilot stepped out and stood by the open door. Nyk accompanied his wife to the balcony. Senta kissed his cheek and headed toward the skimmer. “Good morning, Dr Kyhana,” the pilot said. He nodded at Nyk. “Mr Kyhana.” “Rez, I'll be coming home early,” she said to the pilot, “It'll make a short day for you.” “Thank you ma'm,” he replied as he helped Senta into the skimmer. He gave Nyk the two-finger Floran salute, climbed aboard and shut the door. Nyk watched as the skimmer disappeared into the distance. Nyk returned to his study and worked on the journal until he began to feel hungry. He selected a sweet bean paste and rice cake and opened a bottle of an effervescent blue liquid. The time on the vidisplay caught his eye -- if Senta returned and he hadn't procured those drugs, there would be trouble. He washed down the last of the rice cake and deposited the empty packages into the waste reprocessor. The lift took him to tubecar platform on the 100th level and he approached a kiosk. He pressed his right wrist to the scanpad. It chirped as it read his personal identification code from a microchip implanted in his metacarpal bone. “Good afternoon, Nykkyo Kyhana,” a synthesized EARTHBOUND - 13 - voice came from the kiosk. “Where do you want to go today?” A list of destinations appeared on a vidisplay. “Arcade, two-fifty-seventh street.” The vidisplay showed an image of the mall. “Confirmed.” The fare for the ride was computed and deducted from his Central Admin spending account. “We apologize for the delay in our service,” said the voice from the kiosk. “Have a good day.” He paced around the platform. Overhead, the sky was a deep, lapis lazuli blue and constellations of brighter stars were visible in broad daylight. The bullet-shaped vehicle rolled onto the platform and its transparent cowl slid back. Nyk climbed in and settled into his seat. “Car, go,” he commanded. The cowl slid forward and the car accelerated into a transparent tube suspended high above street level. It slid, propelled by its inertial sink, along the tube. The vehicle slowed and veered into a two-lane tube, then accelerated. The car joined others in a ballet choreographed by Central Admin transportation computers. The tubecar arrived at the mall. Nyk climbed out and walked into the drug store. He reviewed Senta's list on a handheld vidisplay he carried tucked in his xarpa. He began selecting items from the array of intoxicants on sale in the government-run shop. The shop attendant called to him, “Have you seen this? It's brand new. This will double a woman's endurance.” Nyk picked up a few of the new product. He gathered a collection of inhibition-relaxant and euphoriant inhalers, psychedelic tabs and some injectibles. He paid for his purchase with a press of his wrist to the scanpad. Nyk proceeded down the mall concourse to the food store and began selecting refreshments. He reviewed the list and loaded a polymer shopping bag with packs of beverages. On his way toward the self- service checkout he picked up a package of snack wafers. EARTHBOUND - 14 - He decided to walk home. His mind wandered to his Agency training. He recalled the intensity of it. His trainers were given two years to instill flawless facility in the language and to teach Earth customs and practices. The instruction had been augmented with subliminal induction and mind-expanding drugs. Nyk remembered the language training. Actually, he remembered none of the training proper. He had lain in a coma for ten days as the subliminal inducer programmed the neurons in his brain. He remembered vividly awakening from the coma -- the crippling headaches and debilitating nausea. It was three days before he could keep food down. But, he emerged from subliminal sleep with a native- born American's fluency. One lesson in particular had been drummed into his head. “Above all, we must avoid temporal interference,” an instructor had lectured. “The act of placing Agents on Earth puts us at risk of creating a temporal paradox. Our civilization grew from the failed Centauri mission, five thousand Earth years in our past. However, the mission is yet two hundred years in that planet's future. “If those on Earth were to learn of the upcoming fate of the Floran, the mission might not be launched. Without that mission the Floran hegemony -- twenty-four billion men, women and children -- would cease to exist. This is the risk of an Agency assignment. Tread carefully on Earth. Think of the lives, the cities, the colony planets and the civilization we've built over six thousand Floran years. Think of your own life. Tread carefully...” Nyk headed down a side street. At about mid-block, he was approached by a gaunt man several years older than he, barefoot and wearing a stained and tattered tunic without a xarpa. His beard showed several days' worth of growth. An orange triangle tattooed onto the man's forehead marked him as an incorrigible. Nyk realized he had no way to escape an encounter. EARTHBOUND - 15 - “Excuse me, sir,” the man said, “I see you've been to the food store. Could you spare a miserable felon a bite to eat? I've exhausted my food credits for the period and I haven't eaten in two days.” Nyk reached into the shopping sack and retrieved the package of snack wafers. He handed it to the man, who ripped it open and began devouring them. “You're looking at what becomes of a criminal,” he said between bites. “Economic incarceration, it's called.” He held up his right wrist. “My ID's been marked. I cannot purchase anything, save subsistence food. I must travel on foot. Even use of the vidphones is denied me. I must sleep in a shelter. I'm a prisoner on the streets of this city.” He muttered as he ate. “I committed no crime. I was convicted of homicide, of murdering my amfin in a crime of passion. I did not do that, I could never do that. I loved her. I was convicted on circumstantial evidence ... They called me a societopath ... I volunteered for truth drug interrogation, but Internal Affairs convinced the magistrates even that testimony couldn't be trusted.” He looked into Nyk's eyes. “I ask you, does this look like the face of a societopath?” Nyk thought it might. “In fact, they've no proof she's dead. They never found the body! I've lost everything, my home, my livelihood and my family.” Nyk's gaze strayed to the man's right arm. It bore a solid black circle where the wedding crest would be. “I've served half a fifteen-year sentence. In two years, my sentence is up for review. I might be granted parole. I'll go down to Tinam and do some crop tending. Or maybe to one of the colonies. I'll enter a mining camp on T-Delta and start over, there...” The man finished the pack of wafers. “Thank you, sir. Thank you for taking pity on this wretch.” He crumpled the empty package and began to toss it on the sidewalk. EARTHBOUND - 16 - “I'll take that.” Nyk took the wrapper. The felon gave him the two- finger Floran salute and walked away. Nyk hurried toward his apartment building. He tossed the empty package into the waste reprocessor at the entrance and rode the lift to the 353rd floor. A press of his wrist against the scanpad opened the door. Senta was at the lab, but he expected her shortly. He set the drugs and groceries on the kitchen counter and headed for his study. Nyk heard the sound of the skimmer door. He walked into the kitchen. Senta was examining his purchases. “Is this new?” She held up an injector cartridge. “Yes, it's a new female endurance enhancer.” “Well, I want to try that tonight.” “You hardly need it, Senta.” She examined the groceries. “You didn't get the snack wafers?” “...No ... I can go out now and get some.” She scowled. “No, don't waste a trip. We'll manage without them. I put them on the list because I know you like them. I swear, Nyk, you're determined not to enjoy yourself tonight.” She opened a cabinet door, withdrew a stack of polymer fiber baskets and began filling them with the inhalers and injector cartridges. “I want to do some more work on Koichi's journal until it's closer to the time of the party. It may be a while before I can get back to it". “Take these on your way to your little sanctuary. Please, Nykkyo, try to enjoy yourself tonight -- and try to think first of the needs of our guests. Is that too much to ask?” He took the baskets, plopped them onto a table and headed to the study, pulling the door shut behind him. There, he picked up a datacel containing Koichi's journal. Nyk had not translated the journal in a EARTHBOUND - 17 - systematic fashion. He had started with easier passages and worked his way to the more difficult ones as his grasp of the ancient Esperanto language improved. Now he was struggling with an entry from early in the journal. He translated: 5.001 APF Today begins our sixth orbit around the orange star we now know as our sun. We have agreed on some conventions for the recording of the passage of time. Our year has now been accurately measured to be 251.724 Floran days long. We have agreed the first day of each new year shall be marked by the conjunction of our sun and the star Deneb, which is bright enough to be seen in daylight. When both Deneb and our sun are simultaneously at the zenith, it is a new year. Every fourth year will be shortened by one day to accommodate the nearly three fourths of an extra day in the revolutionary period -- analogous to the practice of Leap Year on Earth, except our Leap Year shall be shorter by one day, rather than longer. As for marking of time during the day, we have agreed to split each day into two meridians, the Zenith meridian, marked by the sun being at its zenith, and the Nadir meridian. Each meridian shall be divided into eight segments, and each segment into one hundred divisions. We have deliberately avoided the use of Earth terminology of hours, minutes, seconds, months and weeks. So far, there has been scant interest in carrying forward Earth holidays.... The study door slid open. “Nyk, our guests will be here any moment. Please get ready for the party.” He saved the text of his translation and switched off the vidisplay. EARTHBOUND - 18 - 2 -- Green! Everywhere Green! Nyk stood on the balcony watching the sky darken and dimmer stars appear. “I hope that's not what you're wearing,” he heard Senta say. “You look like you're ready for a day at the office instead of having some fun.” “I'm comfortable in this.” “Wouldn't you be more comfortable in the robe I gave you? You know which one I mean. It matches what I'm wearing. Now why don't you go change? Our guests will be here any moment.” Nyk walked into their bedroom, kicked off his sandals, removed his xarpa and tunic, and slipped into the short, sleeveless robe. The doorchime sounded. He walked barefoot to the front door and opened it. The first guests, a pair of young women with dark blond hair, walked in and slipped off their sandals. They were the Arodsu twins, dressed in revealing costumes to be mirror images of each other. “Hello, girls. It's Katha and Ratha, isn't it?” “I'm Ratha,” the one on the left said. Her twin giggled. Nyk eyed the colorful, abstract body art on their shoulders and thighs. “Those are ... impressive decorations. Do they rub off?” Katha giggled. “Not until we want them to.” “They go all the way up,” Ratha added, lifting her hem. “See?” EARTHBOUND - 19 - Nyk averted his gaze and gestured toward the living room. “Senta is expecting you.” He greeted more guests, most of whom flocked around Senta. A young man approached Nyk and handed him an inhaler. Nyk smiled and thanked him, then circulated through the guests and slipped it back into the basket of euphoriants. The doorchime sounded again. Nyk opened the door and recognized Senta's skimmer pilot. “Rez -- come on in. I'm surprised you didn't just drop in onto the balcony. I wasn't expecting you.” Rez looked at his feet. “Dr Kyhana invited me this afternoon. If there's a problem...” Nyk shook his head. “If Senta invited you, you're more than welcome. She's in the living room.” Rez nodded an acknowledgement, headed toward Senta and embraced and kissed her. Nyk rolled his eyes as he saw her take Rez's hand and lead him toward the guest room. An auburn-haired young woman approached him. “Hi, I'm Kyra.” “Pleased to meet you, I'm Nykkyo.” She handed him an injector and lifted her hem. “Please inject me. I can't do it myself.” Nyk saw it was loaded with an orgasm enhancer. He removed the needle guard. She closed her eyes and turned her head as he drove the needle into her thigh and triggered the spring-loaded device. “Done,” he said withdrawing the needle and replacing the guard. “That wasn't too bad was it?” He ejected the spent cartridge. “No -- I hardly felt anything.” She put her arms around him and rested her head against his shoulder. “It's funny, I can inject someone else, but not myself...” She pressed and rocked her hips against his. “I'm starting to feel it, already.” He held her for a moment, and then heard the doorchime. EARTHBOUND - 20 - “Excuse me,” he said and headed toward the door, flicking the spent cartridge into the waste reprocessor. He opened the door and saw Zander Baxa and his wife. “Nykkyo, it's been years.” Nyk tapped his left wrist to Zander's. “This is Andra.” Nyk regarded Zander's wife. She was dressed in a tunic and lifxarpa. Andra had oat-straw white hair, alabaster skin and eyes of the palest light blue, almost white. Her sash matched her eyes. She was tall with long neck and legs and slender arms. Nyk noted the diamond- shaped Baxa marriage crest tattooed on her right arm -- the black ink contrasted against her creamy skin. Andra extended her hand. “I'm pleased to meet you,” she said, making a hint of a curtsy. “I'm pleased to meet you, too. Help yourself to the recreational chemicals.” Nyk gestured toward the baskets on the table. She smiled. “I don't use them, but thank you so much for offering.” Nyk saw his wife appear from the midst of the crowd. “Hello, I'm Senta.” She led Andra toward the crush of guests in their living room. Nyk accompanied Zander toward the baskets. “It's quite a crowd,” Zander said. “I don't even know the names of most of these people. They're all Senta's friends.” Zander plucked a pair of inhalers from a basket, handed one to Nyk, put the other to his lips and inhaled. Nyk did the same, but he held his in such a way as to avoid inhaling most of its charge. Zander closed his eyes and held his breath for a few moments, then exhaled slowly through his nose. Nyk feigned a cough and Zander slapped him on the back. “You haven't changed, Nykkyo. You never could handle drugs.” EARTHBOUND - 21 - Nyk tossed the spent inhalers into the waste reprocessor. “What's happening in the Agency?” “Oh, the same-old-same-old. You start a tour tomorrow, I understand. You will enjoy yourself, I can assure you. Agency assignments are the most rewarding in the entire ExoService. We're a close-knit group and we take care of each other. For everyone's safety, you might not know the names and locations of other Agents. But we're there, and we help each other out.” He put his arm around Andra and she smiled. “The Agency's been good to me.” “Come on, Nyk -- have some fun!” Senta approached him, staggering. “Senta, your robe is open,” Nyk said. “So what? I'm enjoying myself. Why don't you open your robe and enjoy yourself? You're so stiff, Nyk ... except where it counts. Loosen up and have some fun! I invited the prettiest girls and boys I know. Come on -- use tonight to get it out of your system. You'll be Earthbound a long time.” “Senta's right,” Zander said. “You'll have to keep your hands off the Earth girls. If Seymor knew you even looked twice at an Earth woman, he'd bounce you back here so fast your head would spin.” “I don't enjoy intimacy with strangers, and I don't know the names of most of these people. Besides, I'm saving my desire for you, for when I'm home on leave.” “Maybe you'd like to spend some of that desire right now...” She looked up. “... Andra, can I get you anything?” “I'd like a cup of water, if it's not too much trouble.” “Not at all. Come with me.” Senta looked at Nyk. “I'll be back for you, later.” She led Andra by the hand toward the kitchen. EARTHBOUND - 22 - Zander held up his hand. “Go ahead and enjoy Andra. You know her name, at least. I'll call her over.” He waited until she glanced his way. “It's the training, Nyk. They're taught to watch their companions for signals.” He made a slight gesture with his thumb and Andra started walking toward them. “Thanks, but I'm not in the right mood for any of this. Enjoy yourself, Zander. Don't let me spoil your fun.” “If you say so.” Zander flicked his index finger. Andra nodded, turned and rejoined Senta. “She's too much woman for you, anyway.” He headed for the baskets on the table. Nykkyo eyed the festivities. Couples were on the floor kissing and groping each other. He glanced into his bedroom and saw a foursome on his bed -- a tangle of arms and legs. Undoubtedly they included the Arodsu twins; he rolled his eyes. A young man he observed earlier popping psychedelic tabs danced to music in his head. Senta stood with her arm around Andra's waist talking to a group of women. Nyk saw Kyra sitting on Zander's lap. They were caressing each other and she had opened his robe and slipped it off his shoulders. One of the men swiped a basket of euphoriant inhalers from the table and took it to the balcony. The traditional men's caucus was forming there and a noisy discussion of sports and politics was underway. He slinked along the wall of the apartment. A young woman who had overindulged in euphoriants tripped over him, fell to the floor and he helped her to her feet. He stepped over a young man who hit his limit and had passed out. Nyk reached the door to his study. He slipped through, pulled it shut, switched on the vidisplay and began translating. EARTHBOUND - 23 - Nyk lay on his back, cracked his eyes opened and closed them again. Senta lay beside him. He recollected the previous evening with a groan. “What time did you come to bed?” she asked. “I didn't look. That party kept me up too late.” “It wasn't the party. You were still in your study when I came to bed.” She rolled from him. “I want to try to get some more sleep before it's time to get up,” he replied. A clock built into a panel by the bed chimed -- Nadir-four. Nyk groaned again. He arose and found a cold breakfast package; he ate half and tossed the remainder into the waste reprocessor. Senta was showering as he dressed in a tunic and powder-blue xarpa and packed his travel gear. She stood behind him. “Wasn't Andra gorgeous?” “I didn't notice. I did notice how phony she was.” “Phony? What do you mean?” “I don't use them, but thank you so much for offering,” Nyk said imitating Andra and mocking her curtsy. “It was enough to make one gag. And how she dotes on Zander. They've been married more than three years and she sticks to him like glue, like a newlywed. It was the most nauseating display. You never gave me that kind of attention.” “Perhaps he deserves it. Where do they live?” “Zander has an apartment somewhere in the city. He also has a home on Earth, and he spends more time there than here.” “Maybe I'll give Andra a call. She probably has some free time on her hands.” EARTHBOUND - 24 - “I hope you're not considering adding her to your list of conquests.” “I thought Andra was sweet and I'd enjoy having her as a friend.” “Senta, sometimes ... I just can't believe it.” “Are you saying you don't want me to have her as my friend?” “Have anyone you want as your friend.” “But you don't approve of her, do you?” “You know how I feel about the ax'amfinen and the schools that produce them. I wouldn't have a thing to do with any of them.” “Do you think Andra is somehow ... less than human? Do you think the blood flowing in her veins is some color other than red?” Senta shook her head. “This is so unlike you, Nyk.” “The whole institution is an abomination and must be abolished.” “Andra is not the institution. She's a pleasant young woman.” “She enables it. Without the likes of her the institution would starve to death.” “What do you know of how the finishing schools operate?” “I know enough -- enough to form a low opinion of anyone who'd enroll there.” “I had an opportunity to talk with Andra last night while you were holed up in your study. It wasn't her choice to enroll. Her parents sold her to the school. I'll bet you didn't know that, Nyk. She was only fifteen and she hasn't seen nor spoken with them since. If you had mingled with our guests, if you had engaged them in conversation rather than sequestering yourself in your study, you might have learned something about Andra. You even might have made a few friends.” EARTHBOUND - 25 - “I leave in a couple segments for a yearlong assignment on Earth. I'd rather we not spend our parting moments arguing. If you want to be friendly with Andra, it's fine with me.” “I don't need your approval, Nykkyo.” “As you've demonstrated many times over the years.” “What is that supposed to mean?” “Senta, can we drop it?” “As you wish,” she said as she selected clothes from her wardrobe. She slipped into her tunic and donned a lifxarpa, securing it with a pin emblazoned with the Kyhana crest. “I'm sorry I won't be able to see you off, but we're having an appallingly busy time at the labs. You'll call once you're there, won't you?” “Yes. We have a comm station moored above their sun's north pole. The station connects us with our communications systems, and also ties into the Earth computer network. Communicating with you will be as easy as if I were in Sudal and you were here.” “What are your plans?” “I'm taking the train to the fusion plant this morning. My packet leaves at zenith.” “Why the power plant?” “To collect diamonds from the ashpile. I must bring at least a half- kilogram of diamond crystals to the Agent-in-Chief. The Agency sells them on Earth and the proceeds fund our operations there.” “I don't understand the value of those rocks on that world,” she said, glancing toward the balcony. “My skimmer's here.” Nyk gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck on your assignment.” “I'll be in touch.” He watched her climb into the skimmer. EARTHBOUND - 26 - Nyk stepped off the shuttle and onto the transit platform, a large spaceport in synchronous orbit. He headed toward the departure lounge for the interstellar packets. His father-in-law spotted him and waved him into his office. “Hello, my friend and son.” “Veska. I'm on my way to Earth.” “Yes, I've diverted the Gamma-5 packet for your benefit. How does Senta feel about your assignment?” “She's not happy about it. She'd rather I'd signed aboard a scout cruiser.” “Life on an ExoScout's hardly a stroll in the park. Many of those cruisers spend long stretches out of range of the comm net. At least on Earth, you have communications. I'm always more than happy to divert a packet to bring you home if you're needed.” “Tell that to your stepdaughter,” Nyk replied, “unless she wants me out of reach for a year.” “Your packet boards at port three, middle level. Good luck on your mission.” Nykkyo picked up a case loaded with empty stasis canisters and capsules. He stepped into the lift, rode it to the middle level and proceeded to the departure lounge. He could see the packet through the viewports. It was docked with the transit platform and being serviced by tender shuttles. Nyk entered through the docking tunnel, found his seat and belted himself in. He glanced out the viewport for a final look at his world -- an indigo sphere suspended in the black of space. The packet's airlock shut. The starliner detached from the platform and sped away. The viewport shutters closed and the subjump jolted the EARTHBOUND - 27 - ship. The vessel had left orbit and was now outside Floran's heliopause. Another indicator flashed to signal the interstellar jump. He felt the jolt as the warp coil fired, rupturing the timespace fabric and permitting the starliner to travel two hundred lightyears in an instant. The viewports opened. Nyk could see the comm relay station as the packet approached in a docking maneuver. He walked through the docking tunnel into the station's main workroom. A short, older man with receding grey hair greeted him. He was Seymor, the Agent-in-Chief for North American Operations. Zander had told Nyk of Seymor -- that he had grown fond of an Earth lifestyle. “Seymor's sponged a personal fortune from Agency coffers, a fortune worthless to him on the homeworld. It's no wonder he never sets foot off that planet.” Seymor addressed Nyk in English, “Greetings, Nykkyo Kyhana. From now on, you will answer only to the name Nick Kane. Your wife's name is Cindy. You were born on the 27th of April 1974 in Augusta, Georgia, and your parents are deceased. Your assigned locale is near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The wardroom is over there. Select some appropriate Earth clothing and we'll head down. It's September, so you won't need anything too warm.” Nyk found a pair of jeans and a polo shirt and selected a pair of running shoes. “Very good, lad. You look every bit the university researcher. Here are your identity papers -- birth certificate, passport and Social Security card. This is a debit card you may use to access funds deposited in your draw account. I believe you have something for me.” Nyk turned over the bag of diamonds. Seymor examined the contents and scowled. “Next time, bring bigger ones. These will do for now. I will be riding to the surface with you. You are qualified to operate a shuttlecar, yes?” “Yes, I've had the required simulator training.” EARTHBOUND - 28 - “Simulators and the Real Thing are like Theory and Practice,” Seymor lectured. “In theory, they're the same. In practice, they almost never are. I want you to take the controls.” Nyk initiated pre-launch diagnostics and tested doorseals. He started shuttlebay decompression and the bay door retracted. The shuttle rolled forward and leapt into space. He checked the subjump coordinates and pressed the actuator. The warp coil discharged with a bang. The windows and windscreen lightened and he saw a deep blue planet flecked with white, swimming in the void. As the craft descended the sphere grew until it filled his field of vision. “Well done, lad,” Seymor said. “I'd think you've done this a dozen times.” “I have -- in my dreams.” He computed an orbital insertion vector, executed it, and activated countermeasures to make the craft invisible to Earth radar. Seymor pointed to a control on the panel. “You can use the timeline vernier to make slight temporal adjustments in your warp subjump. The goal is to arrive when North America is in the dead of night. We're a bit early and we'll have to sit in orbit awhile before we risk setting down. You can save some time by adjusting your vernier, remember that. It's a little tricky, but you'll get the hang of it.” Seymor gave Nyk the go-ahead for landing. He nosed the car down using its inertial sink to absorb re-entry forces. The shuttlecar landed on target, a quiet country road. His final destination was programmed into the navigational computer. At Seymor's direction, Nyk piloted it into a small city near Milwaukee and parked in the driveway of a house. “Don't power down the craft yet,” Seymor chided as Nyk began to switch off the life-support system. “We must pull it into the garage. This vessel resembles an Earth automobile at a glance, but we don't want curiosity-seekers taking too close a look.” Seymor stepped out. He unlocked and opened the garage door and motioned Nyk inside. EARTHBOUND - 29 - Nyk pressed the unistick forward and the shuttlecar rolled into the garage. “Okay, secure it.” He initiated an orderly shutdown. The craft went dark and he sat in it for several moments. Then he opened the door and put his foot onto the hard-packed dirt floor. A quiver ran up and down his spine -- he was now on Earth! He inhaled the smells the place exuded. “Come along, lad.” Nyk walked from the garage and glanced around. The dim glow of street lamps illuminated the undersides of leaves on the trees lining the street. He looked at the houses. All were similar but each differed in detail. Many had cars parked in their driveways. He heard the sounds of the slumbering city, of sparse late- night traffic on the distant main highway and buzzing from the trees. Seymor climbed the steps leading to the front porch of the house and beckoned Nyk to follow him. He opened the door and Nyk stepped inside. “As you recall from your training, Earth days are shorter than Floran days. You'll need some time to become accustomed to them. This is your home-away-from-home.” The house was an older, two-story dwelling on a small city lot. Seymor pointed out the kitchen, bath, and bedrooms. The furniture was old and battered, with wear showing on the upholstery. Seymor led him upstairs and into a bedroom converted to a study. He handed Nyk a small, black device with a button. “Here is the most important feature. Press the button.” Nyk pressed it and a wall of bookshelves swung open to reveal a concealed room behind. Inside was a rack of equipment, some of it Floran and some of Earth origin. “This is one of our communications uplinks. There is a GravNet transducer concealed beneath the roof. This equipment is a GravNet transceiver, and this is a protocol adapter.” Seymor pointed to another rack. “That is all Earth equipment, connected to a high-speed data circuit. This house is one of five such facilities in North America. Remember, under no circumstances should any Floran technology be EARTHBOUND - 30 - left lying about the house. Keep it in this room, and keep this room shut and locked unless you have a specific need to use it. Now ... it's two in the morning, and I think we'd both benefit from a few hours' sleep. We'll conclude the briefing in daylight.” Seymor retired to the house's spare bedroom. Nyk walked around the darkened house. The kitchen cabinets and refrigerator were empty. He sat on the sofa in the living room. Built-in bookshelves stood vacant except for an old television set. He climbed the stairs to the master bedroom, stretched out on the bed in his clothes and shut his eyes. Dawn's first light roused Nyk. He descended the stairs from the master bedroom. Seymor hadn't arisen, so he decided to look at the planet's sights in daylight. He opened the front door, stood on the porch and felt the cool dampness of the morning air. Walking onto the lawn, he stooped to pick a blade of grass, put it in his mouth, and chewed it. A grin spread across his face. He began looking around attempting to identify some of the plants he saw. An ash tree, he thought, a maple and an oak. Nyk walked to the oak and stroked its bark. The house caught his attention and he compared it with his mental image of the one Koichi described in his journal. Seymor called to him and he and went inside. “What's your impression of the place in daylight?” “Green! The vegetation's green. Everywhere, green. I'm trained in the appearance of Earth plants, but seeing it for real! “This house must be similar to the one Koichi describes in his journal. It's in New York, in Queens, and it belonged to the family for two hundred years before him. You're stationed in New York, you might've gone past it.” EARTHBOUND - 31 - “New York's a big place, lad, and I rarely get to Queens. Let's continue the briefing.” He handed Nyk a black device. “This is a laptop computer. It may be primitive by Floran standards, but these do work, most of the time. They get the job done, and we can eliminate the risk of assigning you Floran communications devices. These have revolutionized the way we do our jobs. Even five years ago, you wouldn't believe the worry I had when one of our agents needed contact with the homeworld. With these, we've eliminated the need to issue homeworld technology into the field, except under special circumstances. “When connected to any data port in the world, you may use it to communicate with myself or other ExoAgents via Earth Internet email. You all have coded identifiers. If you or another agent is off-planet, messages are routed and sent via GravNet for delivery on Floran or any colony planet. “This computer can also access the Floran TachNet. I'll show you how. Maybe you'd like to speak to your lovely wife. If you would like for her to see you on her end, you must attach this miniature camera, which clips to the top of the display panel.” Seymor manipulated the keyboard and a blue window appeared on the screen, then an image. It was Senta. “Hi korlyta. I made it to Earth.” Nyk exchanged small talk with her. Seymor interrupted him, “We must go to the lab. I'll introduce you to the college brass as FloranCo's new botanist. As long as they can keep cashing our checks they'll leave you alone. Are you hungry?” Nyk said he was. “Good. As part of the deal with the school they issue us a university staff card. It is useful as it allows you to take meals at the university union, which is a short distance from the lab, quite convenient. The food is not very good, but it is expensive.” EARTHBOUND - 32 - Seymor escorted Nyk to the campus offices and obtained keys to the lab and Nyk's staff card. “You'll be fine, lad. If you need anything, you can call me or send me an email message. It's all in your training packet. Well, I'm off to New York. Enjoy!” He picked up the sack of raw diamonds and left. EARTHBOUND - 33 - 3 -- Sukiko Nykkyo unlocked the door to the Chem Annex building, entered the lab and looked around. Old laboratory benches were covered in years' worth of dust and grime. Seymor had told him the structure's history. Built in the mid 1970s, the wood-frame building had provided a temporary home for the Chemistry Department's graduate school. When the Science Center opened in 1990, the university abandoned the annex as a research facility. He walked along the concrete floor, assessing the effort required to make the place usable. Seymor had hired a cleaning crew and Nyk awaited their arrival. He was regarding some circa 1950 electrochemistry equipment when a knock at the door interrupted his survey. The cleaning crew arrived and Nyk began directing their efforts. He had found some empty filing cabinets and discovered they would accommodate his stasis equipment. He asked one of the cleaning crew to help him move the cabinets into position underneath a lab bench. “I clean, I don't move,” the worker replied. Nyk recalled a lesson from his Agency training. He reached into his pocket and produced a twenty-dollar bill. The worker snatched it, winked at him, and the heavy steel cabinets were in place. The crew left and Nyk began installing the first piece of Floran equipment, a power converter. He snaked the power cord through an EARTHBOUND - 34 - opening in the rear of the filing cabinet. The plug wouldn't fit the power sockets. Perhaps, he thought, he'd done enough work for one day. He walked toward the house, passing the university union. Students were coming and going, some talking boisterously and engaging in rowdy horseplay. Nyk shook his head and continued on his way. By now he was quite hungry and he knew the cabinets at the house were empty. He stopped at a small grocery along his route. His ExoAgency training course on Earth food came into his mind. “Earth people are, by and large, flesh-eaters. This is a difficult concept for a Floran to comprehend ... while we will not discourage an ExoAgent on assignment from experiencing Earth meat products, we do advise caution... “...the approach we recommend toward Earth food is simply not to think about its origin. Many Earth natives employ this approach as well. Those who wish not to consume flesh products should seek items labeled 'vegetarian'...” He passed the meat counter and lost his appetite. He saw a section labeled Health Foods, and there he found a can of vegetarian lentil soup. The picture on the label looked like a package meal from the homeworld. He bought it, trudged home and ate the soup cold, straight from the can. “It sounds like we shipped you the wrong power converter -- probably one for Europe,” Seymor said over the phone. “I'll send you a new one via overnight express tomorrow. You'll have it the day after that.” Nyk snapped open the laptop computer and clipped on the digital camera. The vidphone program activated and he selected Senta's locator code. She answered and he saw her image on the screen. “Hello again korlyta.” “How was the first day of your assignment?” EARTHBOUND - 35 - “I'm cold, tired and discouraged. I hadn't realized adjusting to the time difference would be so difficult. The Earth population doesn't appear as Koichi described it. The students here are loud and rowdy, and most of what's in the food store is stuff I wouldn't dream of eating.” “Now aren't you happy you refused to forget this ExoAgency nonsense and sign onto a scout cruiser? That would've been more like an extended vacation.” “Zander told me Agency assignments are the most rewarding in the Service.” “You're getting exactly what you deserve for believing one of your friends instead of me.” “Veska says life aboard a scout's tougher than you might imagine.” “Think what you want.” Nyk terminated the call and flopped on his bed. The replacement power converter arrived and the stasis canisters were working, concealed in the locked filing cabinets. Nyk tested the equipment by placing a strawberry from the grocery into a stasis capsule. He placed another in a petri dish sitting on the lab bench. Now, a week later, the berry in the dish was moldy and grotty while the one in the capsule was as fresh as the day he bought it. He had produced cultures of some vegetables by isolating individual plant cells and putting them into a nutrient broth. After a few days he had little plantlets. He could create an entire living plant from the smallest cell sample. It was now noon and he decided to dine at the union. He flashed his staff card at the door, stood in line and bought a bowl of vegetarian chili. His scan of the dining room found a single empty table near the EARTHBOUND - 36 - rear door. He scooped a spoonful of chili and reacted with pleasure and pain to the mix of flavors. A woman's voice startled him. “Do you mind if I join you? I think this is the only empty seat.” “Please do.” She sat across from him and began eating her lunch, fixing her eyes on her tray. Nyk compared her appearance to his memory of Koichi. She had the same black hair and yellow-brown complexion. Her face was an oval with prominent cheekbones and full lips. She was petite, with a well-proportioned figure. Her eyes were deep brown and had a pronounced epicanthic fold, more so than Koichi's. She was beautiful, and Nyk couldn't avoid staring at her. “Excuse me -- are you a Japanese?” he asked. “No. I'm an American.” He made eye contact, and then she looked down. “My mother is Japanese. My father's family came from Japan at the turn of the century.” She took a bite from a tuna salad sandwich. Nyk scooped another spoonful and gazed at her. “You have the most beautiful eyes. I've never seen eyes so dark.” She glanced up, looked down, gulped her mouthful and grasped her tray. “If you'll excuse me, I have a class.” Nyk watched as she stood, dumped her tray and walked out. He followed her to the door and observed her proceed into a classroom building. He estimated she was about his age, maybe slightly older. Nyk was 31 Floran years old, about 25 Earth years. She's not likely a student, he figured, perhaps an assistant professor. Nyk had tried to maneuver himself close enough to the Japanese- American woman to start a conversation, but she always seemed just out EARTHBOUND - 37 - of reach or headed the wrong way. Now he sat in the union dining room and saw her enter carrying a tray. She walked toward his table, stopped, turned and stood waiting for another to empty. He picked up his tray and carried it to her table. “May I please join you?” She made a hand gesture that said, do what you want. “I've been looking for you for the past two weeks. I suspect you've been avoiding me. I wanted to speak with you.” She looked up at him. “Why do you want to speak with me?” “I've so wanted to meet a Japanese. I was hoping you could answer some questions.” She glanced at the clock. “I don't have time. I teach two classes and I only have fifteen minutes for lunch.” “I work in the Chem Annex building. Could you come over after class?” Her eyes narrowed. “If I come and answer your questions, will you quit bothering me?” “I promise.” “My last class is over at 3:30. I'll come after then.” She picked up her tray and left. Nyk returned to the lab and tended his cultures. He watched the clock. At 3:45 he heard someone open the door to the lab. She walked in. “I thought this building was abandoned. Okay, I'm here, but I'm warning you. I don't take funny stuff. I'm from New York.” She held up her bag. “I have pepper spray and I'm not afraid to use it. So let's have your questions.” “What is miso soup?” EARTHBOUND - 38 - The woman looked at him for several moments. She started to giggle, and then she put her hand over her mouth. “I'm not laughing at you. It's just ... I didn't expect ... well, I don't know what I expected. It certainly wasn't for some guy to practically stalk me for two weeks, lure me into a creepy deserted building and then ask about miso soup!” She began to regain her composure. “I'm terribly sorry. I had no idea miso soup was funny stuff. I meant no offense.” She giggled again. “There's nothing funny about miso. It's fermented soybean paste. It comes in a variety of flavors and colors and it's used to make a lot of Japanese foods.” “What does it taste like?” “Awful. But I don't like Japanese food. It's so fishy and smoky and salty. Do you have a lot more questions?” “Oh, yes.” “Okay, I'll answer them, but not here. This gloomy old barn gives me the creeps. I'll make a deal with you. We'll walk over to the union and you can buy me a coffee. For as long as that coffee lasts, I'll answer your questions. Is it a deal?” Nyk walked with her toward the union. It was a cool, late October afternoon and dried leaves crunched underfoot. “If you don't like Japanese food, what do you like?” “No fair. I won't answer any more questions until I have my coffee. We have a deal.” “I'm sorry.” Nyk fixed his gaze on the sidewalk as he walked. She giggled. “I'm passionate about Indian food. That's east Indian, not Native American. I don't have it too often. There isn't a good Indian EARTHBOUND - 39 - restaurant in this town, so I have to make it myself. I rarely do that these days because it's no fun going through all that work just for me.” “It's getting cold,” Nyk said. “It'll get even colder. Is this your first winter here?” “Yes, it is.” “Mine too, although it certainly gets cold in New York.” He opened the door to the union, held it for her and gestured for her to precede him. “Thanks ... I'll find a table while you get the coffee.” She pointed toward the coffee bar. “Mocha latte double-tall.” Nyk stepped to the counter. “Do you have ... makka-loty?” “Do you mean mocha latte?” the attendant asked. “Yes -- that's it.” “What size?” “...Double-tall ... two of those, please.” He turned and watched the woman work her way toward a vacant table and remove her coat. She was wearing a knit top and scarf, wrap skirt and black tights. She smiled and waved at him. She took a brush from her bag, removed her headband and held it in her teeth as she brushed shiny black hair extending halfway down her back. Then, she examined herself in a mirror, returned her implements to her bag and snapped it shut. “That'll be six thirty-six.” Nyk whirled around, dug a crumpled ten- dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to the attendant. He picked up the coffees and headed toward the table. “Your change, sir.” Nyk turned and retrieved three singles and some coins. “I didn't know what to order so I'm having what you're having,” he said as he handed her a cup. EARTHBOUND - 40 - “Before we start, I want you to answer a question of mine,” she said. “All right...” “What is your name?” “...Nick Kane...” She extended her hand. “I'm Sukiko. I'm pleased to meet you, Nick. Please forgive my behavior toward you earlier. It was my defenses acting up.” “I'm pleased to meet you, too, Sukiko. That's a pretty name.” “My mother wanted me to have a Japanese name. I wanted an American one, something like ... Jessica.” She sipped her coffee. “Now, Nick, what did you want to ask me?” He took a sip and his eyes popped. “What do they put into one of these?” he asked, looking at the cup. “Coffee, milk, cocoa ... a little sugar, maybe a touch of cinnamon. Don't you like it?” “It's different.” He took another sip. “A curious blend of sweet and bitter...” “Okay, we've addressed the topic of mocha latte.” She sipped from hers. “You said you had Japanese questions.” Nyk looked at her for a long moment. “I can't remember. I had a list but I can't recall a single one.” He gazed at her face and she returned the eye contact. She glanced down. “I'd rather you not stare at me like that. It makes me uncomfortable.” EARTHBOUND - 41 - He looked down at his cup. “I'm so sorry.” He swirled his coffee. “You have such beautiful eyes, Sukiko. I didn't intend to upset you. Please forgive me.” “It's just ... I felt on display, as if...” She giggled. “... as if you've never seen an Asian before ... or something.” She shook her head. “It's all right, Nick. It must be my defenses again.” Nyk stared at his cup until he noticed she was crouching toward the table and looking up to intercept his sightline. He glanced into her eyes and she smiled. “My friends call me Suki.” He returned her smile and followed her eyes with his as she sat up again. She took another sip. “Suki, you said you teach a class. Are you a professor? What do you teach?” “I'm not a professor. I'm a lecturer, which means I'm below an assistant prof and above the guy that sweeps the floor. I teach undergraduate comparative religion and a senior-level course on Babylonian and Sumerian mythology. Do you teach?” “No, I'm not even on the faculty. My company rents lab space from the university. I'm a botanist doing field work for FloranCo. I find plant specimens, make cultures and send them to the home ... lab. Our lease grants me use of the union. I'm new here and still feeling my way around. My assignment will run for at least nine months, maybe longer.” “So, that explains what you're doing in that awful old building. Are you alone, or do you have family with you?” “I'm here by myself.” “Then you're like me. We're both strangers in a strange land.” Nyk sipped his coffee. He gazed at her eyes, glancing down whenever she looked up at him. “Why do you like Indian food?” EARTHBOUND - 42 - “I stumbled onto it, almost by accident,” she replied. “I fell in love with it right away.” “Is it really so different?” “Oh, yes -- the complexity of the spices...” She closed her eyes. “Just thinking about it puts me into the mood for a hot dahl...” She sipped her coffee. “What sort of food do you like?” “I subsist on beans and rice for the most part.” “There are lots of ways to fix beans and rice. It is a big world, Nick.” “I wish I could experience it all,” he replied. “... the diversity of life and people and culture on this world -- all the different forms of humanity. I have such little time here.” “Don't we all. I wish everyone shared your view. I know from personal experience many don't.” “What do you mean?” “Have you ever been judged by your physical appearance?” “...No, I don't think so.” “I have. There are many, right here in this town, who'll see my color and my eyes and conclude I'm something less than human. I've had to develop a thick skin...” She pinched the back of her hand. “... a thick yellow skin.” “Do you wish you weren't Japanese?” She took a sip of her coffee. “No, I don't wish that. It doesn't make sense to wish for what you can't change.” “Might-haves don't count,” Nyk replied. EARTHBOUND - 43 - “They certainly don't. I do wonder though... What's it like, Nick? What's it like being blond and blue-eyed and having an all-American name like Nick Kane?” Nyk shrugged. “I'd like to live just one day of my life as Nikki Kane ... oh well, the grass is always greener...” “I'm sorry -- I'm not following. What grass is greener?” “You know, on the other side of the fence.” Nyk made a silent oh. “Where one can't reach it.” He smiled. “I understand the metaphor.” “I guess I made the mistake of picking the wrong parents,” Suki said and took another sip. “My mom's okay, but there've been plenty of times I wish I could've picked a different father.” “I cherish your Japanese heritage, Suki. When I took this assignment, I was hoping to meet someone just like you.” She smiled. “I'm getting a bit light-headed from being up on the pedestal where you're putting me, Nick. Don't you have Asians where you come from?” “Not very many.” “I do feel your sincerity,” she said. “I was guilty of pre-judging you. I don't know why my shields went up. New Yorkers are a suspicious bunch and I guess I'm suspicious for a New Yorker.” She looked into his eyes. “I feel a bit foolish, now.” She picked up her empty cup and examined it. “You know -- that was one of your better coffees...” “Would you like another?” “Lord, no, I'll be floating home from this one as is. I have a huge pile of test papers to grade, so I'd better be going. Thank you, Nick, for the coffee.” “You're welcome. It was my pleasure.” EARTHBOUND - 44 - “Maybe I'll see you around campus.” She stood and started to adjust her scarf. Unhappy with the struggle it gave her, she removed it and started to put it on. Nyk spied a pin that was concealed beneath it. He thought it looked like the family crest hanging on the wall of his apartment, though smaller and in silver. He took a step back and nearly fell over his chair. She slipped into her coat and walked toward the door. Nyk followed her, but became caught in the traffic of a group of students entering the union. By the time he reached the door she was gone, and he hadn't seen in which direction. He sat at the table to think. The pin! He must ask her about the pin.Nyk walked to the lab where his laptop computer was jacked into the university network, another privilege granted by the lease. He brought up the school's web site, accessed the faculty directory, entered “suki” and pressed search. The results were displayed. Kyhana, Sukiko, PhD. Comparative Religion -- Corliss Hall 234. Extension 7133 Myasuki, Tanaka, PhD. Chemical Engineering -- Drake Hall 101. Extension 7354 Otsuki, Michael. Admissions Assistant -- Old Main 132. Extension 7278 He looked at the first entry. Sukiko Kyhana! A quiver ran down his spine. He selected the map and located Corliss Hall. It was on the opposite side of the campus. Nyk dashed from the lab and headed across the quadrangle. Corliss Hall was one of the older buildings on campus, dating from the 1930s. His footsteps on the terrazzo floor made empty echoes as he walked through the building and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Here, EARTHBOUND - 45 - small classrooms had been converted into offices for junior faculty and graduate students. He found room 234. The door was shut and locked. A sign listed Sukiko Kyhana and three other faculty members and gave her office hours as Tuesday and Thursday, eight to eleven. Nykkyo climbed to the second floor of Corliss Hall and approached Suki's office. The door was open and he saw her sitting at a battleship-grey steel desk consulting with a student. He paced outside the door. Once he thought she glimpsed him. She was taking her time with the student. The hands on the clock in the corridor crept: 8:30 ... 9:00. The student left. Nyk knocked on the doorjamb and stuck his head in. She looked up. “Hi, stranger. You found me! It's my fault for giving out my name. I thought you promised not to bother me any more.” “I'm terribly sorry to interrupt your office hours. I looked for you Friday and Monday but I didn't see you.” “Did you remember your questions?” she asked. “No. When you left the union the other day, I thought I spotted a pin on your ... blouse. I was hoping you'd show it to me.” “This?” she asked, lifting her chin. She was wearing a thick turtleneck and had the object pinned at her throat. She removed it and handed it to him. Nyk studied it. The pin was the size of a large coin, with a pink stone set in the center. “It's sterling silver,” Suki said. “The stone is rose quartz.” He was trying to keep his hands from shaking. The design was identical to the ancient Kyhana crest pendant he inherited from his father. He traced the three characters with his fingertip. “Those are katakana characters that spell my family name.” EARTHBOUND - 46 - “Katakana?” “One of the three Japanese alphabets -- kanji, katakana and hiragana.” She pointed to the pin. “This is katakana.” She moved her finger clockwise around the disk. “Ky-Ha-Na. The name's been anglicized from the original Japanese.” “What is the original name?” “I can't even pronounce it. When my great-great-grandfather stepped off the boat, the immigration officer couldn't pronounce it either, so it became Kyhana. Why are you interested in that pin?” “I ... I thought I saw one like it, once.” “That's not likely -- it's the only one in the world. The only other thing at all like it is hanging on the wall at my parents' house.” “Where did you get this?” “My grandfather made it. He was a goldsmith, a jeweler. He became obsessed with the old country. He wore traditional clothing and called everyone so-and-so-san, even though he didn't speak the language.” She giggled. “Ojiisan -- that's what I had to call him -- Ojiisan had a crazy idea our family should have a crest, like the old Japanese nobility, so he invented this. My father has the original. It's gold, about this big.” She made a circle with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. “It has a jade cabochon in the center.” “Jade?” “Yes. It hangs on a cord. Ojiisan said our family should have a tradition where the crest goes to the parents of the next generation's first- born. He made this pin for my mother.” Nyk turned the pin over and saw an inscription: To YK From TK 5/6/67. “YK is your mother?” EARTHBOUND - 47 - “Yes, and TK was my grandfather.” She pointed. “That's my parents' wedding date. Ojiisan gave this to Mom at the wedding.” “How did you get this? Did you inherit it?” “Oh, Lord no -- Mom's very much alive and kicking. She gave it to me when I was a kid -- after Ojiisan died, of course.” “She doesn't care to wear your family emblem?” “It's not an emblem -- just an old man's foolish notion. Mom thinks this whole crest business is rather silly.” “I don't,” he replied and returned the pin to her. “You would've gotten along with Ojiisan.” She began to fasten it to her blouse. “Well, I like it because it's pretty and different.” “Thank you, Suki. I'm sorry I bothered you and I won't bother you again.” He started out the door. “Oh, Nick -- wait. I'll be at the union at 11:45 for lunch, if you'd care to join me.” EARTHBOUND - 48 - 4 -- Sad, Sad Stories Nyk entered the union and saw Suki waving to catch his attention. He brought his tray over. On hers was a tuna salad sandwich. She pointed to his. “Are you a vegetarian?” He scooped a spoonful of tomato soup. “Yes, I am.” “You should try some Indian food. The union has a token vegetarian dish, but it's awful. Once you've tried Indian vegetarian, you'll never go back to this stuff.” “I remember some of what I wanted to ask you. What's tatami?” “They're woven reed mats, a traditional floor covering in a Japanese home. My parents have them at the house in Queens.” “What about kimono?” “That's a garment, a sort of lightweight robe. My mother wears a kimono now and then. My parents gave me one to commemorate receiving my PhD.” “I'd love to see you in it.” “It's at the house in New York,” she replied. “What's a samurai?” EARTHBOUND - 49 - “A warrior from the feudal times. Why are you interested in Japanese things?” “I was reading and came across these terms. I'm so happy to have met a Japanese, Suki.” “I told you, I'm an American.” She smiled. “My mother's Japanese ... to the core. I'm not too fond of that culture.” “I have another question, Suki.” She glanced up at him. “Would you agree to meet for lunch on a regular basis? It's convenient for me, the lab's only a short walk.” She looked into his eyes. “Okay, Nick. I'd like that. We strangers must stick together.” He walked with her to drop off his tray and headed his separate way. Nyk carried his laptop computer home, set it on the kitchen table and placed a vidphone call to Senta. The initiation indicator flashed ... and flashed. He reached to cancel the call, and then Senta's image appeared. Her hair was wet and dripping and she had a towel wrapped around her. “Oh, it's you.” She removed the towel and began using it to dry her hair. “Hello korlyta. I'm sorry to call at a bad moment. The time conversion is very confusing. The most remarkable thing happened. I met a woman named Sukiko Kyhana. I think she might be a relative.” “It sounds like a coincidence to me.” “She's Japanese. I've shown you the photoimage of Koichi. She looks like him.” “She must be a very homely woman.” EARTHBOUND - 50 - “That's not what I meant. She has Koichi's features -- the black hair, the yellow-brown complexion and the eyes. She also has a pin with our family crest. She said her grandfather designed it.” “You mean this?” Senta pointed to the crest tattooed onto her arm. “Yes, that. She said the three symbols spell the name Kyhana. Ky- Ha-Na. I'm curious to know how closely we're related.” Senta flipped her hair from the towel. “If you'd like to know for sure, try to get a DNA sample. You can send it in a stasis capsule along with your cultures. I'd be glad to sequence it for you and we can look for common genetic markers.” “Senta, there must be over two hundred generations separating her from me. How good of a match can you expect, especially given the interbreeding in the early years?” “We can go into the sequencing archives. They must go back at least fifty generations. Let me check.” Nyk's vidphone screen went blank as Senta suspended the session. He saw her image reappear. “Yes, we can easily lop off one hundred generations using these records, maybe more. The Kyhana records are remarkably well preserved. We have a sequence file on Gordo Kyhana, who lived about thirty-three hundred years ago. That'll get us closer.” “How do you suggest I obtain a sample?” “Maybe you can collect a hair or two. You shouldn't have too much trouble engineering such an encounter. One with the root intact would be all we need -- so, if you do get hold of a sample, send it along. Now I must go to work.” Senta slipped into her tunic. “I'll see you later, korlyta. ” Nyk said as the screen went blank. EARTHBOUND - 51 - Nyk placed his tray on a table in the union dining room. Suki slipped off her coat and sat across from him. “I look forward to lunch here with you,” he said. “So do I. The past three weeks have flown by. When we sit and talk together, I feel almost like a normal human being.” Nyk regarded her. “You don't appear to have any abnormalities.” “No, my abnormalities are inside.” “Do you suffer from some internal disorder?” She giggled. “They're inside my head.” “Oh... If you have troubles you'd like to talk about, I'd be happy to listen. Sometimes talking about a problem is the easiest way to make it go away.” “That's sweet. Maybe, sometime. I'll warn you, Nick. You should be careful what you offer -- someone might take you up on it.” She placed her hand on his forearm. He gazed into her eyes and she slowly retracted her hand and looked down at her tray. Nyk ate his chili in silence. He glanced up. “Suki?” “Nick?” she said simultaneously. She smiled. “You go first.” “Suki, would you agree prepare an Indian meal for me? You said it was no fun making it for yourself, and it sounds like something I'd like to try.” She looked past him for a moment. “Okay, how about Saturday night at six, my place. Do you know where the faculty apartments are?” Nyk nodded. “Yes.” “Building 3, apartment 2A. You don't have to bring anything.” EARTHBOUND - 52 - Nyk picked up a sample vial and some forceps from the lab, slipped them into his pocket and headed toward the faculty-housing complex. His route took him past the grocery and he walked in. The place was old and had an air of not being quite clean. A faint, sour smell of something rotten permeated the place and Nyk was repelled by it. He noticed a bucket with fresh flowers and bought a bouquet. Sensing a mix of eagerness and apprehension, he approached her building. Outside the door was an array of buttons. He pressed the one beneath a label reading “S Kyhana.” A buzz and a click came from the door latch. He entered, walked up the stairs and saw Suki waiting at her apartment door. “Howdy stranger -- come on in.” Her apartment was small and warm. Nyk looked around and saw a pair of watercolors of nude female torsos on the wall. The place was sparsely furnished with institutional furniture. The living room sofa and chairs were pushed to the walls and a cloth and some cushions lay in the middle of the living room floor. Eerie music came from somewhere. A mixture of strong scents filled the air. Suki was barefoot and wearing a tank top and a pair of running shorts. Nyk regarded her from head to toe. “Should I remove my shoes?” he asked. “No need,” she replied. “I'm sorry about the heat. They can't seem to do anything about it.” “This feels fine to me. It reminds me of home.” “Home?” “I come from a warm climate.” He presented the flowers to her and she regarded them. “I hope you don't have any ideas about starting a relationship.” EARTHBOUND - 53 - “The flowers are a gift. I cannot accept hospitality without bringing a gift.” Suki blushed. “I'm so sorry, Nick. It's my defenses again, please forgive me. Thank you, they're lovely.” She found a jar to serve as a vase and set them on the counter. She nodded toward the living room. “I've prepared a northern Indian dinner. We're going to enjoy this meal Indian-style. Indians take their meals on the floor and they eat with their hands. If you'd like to wash first, the bathroom's over there.” While using the sink he noticed a hairbrush on the vanity. With his forceps he extracted four jet-black hairs clinging to the bristles and put them into the vial. He replaced the brush and slipped the sample into his pocket. Nyk returned to her living room. Suki brought out two battered looking dinner plates, on which were some glass custard cups containing the various entrees. “This is thali-style service,” she said, “... typical for north India. I don't have a real thali, so I had to improvise, but you get the idea.” She placed the plates on the cloth, brought out a bowl mounded with yellow rice and another plate with some flat bread. Then, she assumed the lotus position. Nyk sat and attempted to cross his legs. “You don't have to sit like this if it's uncomfortable,” she said. “Use the cushions. This position is natural for me, because I meditate -- or I used to. Lately my head's been so full of crap... I can't empty myself of thoughts, so I find myself meditating on how miserable I am and end up feeling worse than when I began.” She pointed to the custard cups and identified the various entrees, the bread and saffron rice. “I forgot to provide drinks. Would you like some beer? It goes well with Indian food.” “No alcohol, please.” She brought a pair of glasses filled with a ruby-red fizzy liquid. “This is an Indian soft drink.” She resumed her lotus posture. “Now I'll EARTHBOUND - 54 - show you how Indians eat with their hands. The right hand is reserved for eating, the left is for hygiene.” She demonstrated the technique. “I believe part of the dining experience is eating the way the natives do. When I cook Chinese, we use chopsticks.” Nyk started with a bit of dahl makhni mixed with rice. The flavors were such a far cry from the bland fare of his homeworld, even though the ingredients were familiar ones. The blend of spices exploded in his mouth. “This is so different from what I am accustomed.” he said. “Are the spices too much for you? It's easy to be overwhelmed if you're not accustomed.” “I'm doing just fine. Where do you find the ingredients for this?” “We're fortunate to have an Indian spice shop within walking distance, just down the street from the university. There are a lot of Indians on the school faculty. Maybe you'd like to walk over there with me sometime.” “I certainly would.” Nyk helped Suki return the sofa and chairs to their original places. “Thank you for dinner,” he said. “It was delicious and I truly enjoyed it.” “Thank you for suggesting it. It was my pleasure, and it helped take my mind off my troubles. I've had a lot on my mind lately.” “Would you like to tell me about your troubles? I'd be more than happy to listen.” “You're not heeding my warning, Nick. Maybe... But not right now.” “How did you become an expert in comparative religion and mythology?” EARTHBOUND - 55 - “I'm not. I'm an archeologist -- a historian. My specialty is ancient Sumeria. For my PhD thesis I prepared a translation of newly discovered clay tablets containing a version of the Gilgamesh myth. I translated it from the cuneiform.” She stood and took a small, flat box from a shelf and handed it to him. He opened it and saw a shard of pottery with odd impressions. “Cuneiform. This is a piece I found on a dig in Syria during graduate school. They let me keep it. It's nothing too important, just a piece of household inventory from a merchant-class family. It dates to approximately 3500 BC, making it about 5,500 years old.” “This is amazing, Suki.” The artifact was as old as Koichi's journal. He returned the box to her. She replaced it on the shelf and resumed sitting beside him. He looked into her face. “How did you end up here, teaching those courses?” He held eye contact until she broke it. “I ... I came here to get away from it all.” “Get away from what?” “I have a past, Nick, and not a happy one.” “Are you running away from something?” he asked. “...Yes.” “Did you commit a crime -- steal something? Kill someone, perhaps?” “No, nothing like that.” He looked into her face. “I didn't think you capable of such. Maybe you had an affair with a politician that went wrong.” “Of course not,” she giggled. “Did you intentionally and unrepentantly injure another?” EARTHBOUND - 56 - “No, Nick -- I'm the injured party.” “Then tell me about it. It won't change my opinion of you.” “I don't want to bother you with my problems.” “It's not a bother. Let me share your troubles, to lighten your load.” She buried her face in her hands, and then looked up. “All right. I'll make another deal with you. You tell me your sad, sad story, and I'll tell you mine.” Nyk looked into her eyes again. “I don't have too much to tell.” “Where's your home town?” she asked. “... My birth certificate says Augusta, Georgia, but I don't have a home town. I grew up in the country, in a house on a bluff overlooking the sea. I was an only child.” “Down south?” “Yes, the southeast -- near a small city on the coast.” “Your warm climate. I thought I detected a trace of a southern accent in your speech. It's quite charming.” “I had few friends growing up, being isolated the way we were. I flunked out of my first college, then I went back to study botany. I work for FloranCo on a ten-month assignment manning their field lab. They provide me with a house and living expenses, as well as a salary.” “Tell me about your family, Nick.” “It's just my wife and I. We don't have any children.” “Do you miss her? What's her name?” “Her name's... Cindy. Yes, I miss her. I'm not sure she misses me, though. She's a geneticist, a microbiologist. She's a brilliant woman, the EARTHBOUND - 57 - head of genetic sequencing in our organization. It's a very important position. She has plenty to keep her busy, and lots of friends.” Nyk looked down. “I'll bet she hardly notices I'm gone. She's had a long string of lovers -- both men and women.” “How do you feel about that?” “It shouldn't bother me, but it does.” “It must bother you, or you wouldn't have brought it up.” “We both believe what two consenting adults do while they're by themselves is no one else's business. I truly do believe that. She was like this before we married. She didn't think our marriage was any reason to alter her social life.” “Do you love her?” “... I don't know... I thought I did, but lately I've had my doubts. It's funny, Suki. You and I have known each other for three weeks and I feel more comfortable talking with you than with her. There are times I'll look up at her and ask myself -- who is this person? I'll wonder if our marriage wasn't a big mistake.” He brushed a tear from his face. “Her behavior does hurt me. I'm pained to know I can't satisfy her -- that I've never lived up to her expectations.” “How did you two meet?” “I've known her a long time, since we were children. She's the stepdaughter of an old friend of my dad's. My earliest recollection of her was when I was three and she was five ... I think she married me out of pity. I was so lonely and miserable after my parents were killed.” “I'm sorry to hear that,” she said. “How did your parents die?” “They died in a ... plane crash. That was ... eight years ago. Aside from Cindy, I'm alone in the universe.” Nyk looked down and saw Suki was holding his hand. He patted the back of hers. “That's all right with EARTHBOUND - 58 - me. I do well by myself. Maybe it's the reason I applied for this assignment. I'm sorry, Suki. I've made it sound like I'm unhappy. I'm not.” “Not unhappy isn't the same as happy,” she said. “Are you happy?” “I'm happy enough. I don't think my sad, sad story's all that sad.” “Well, my story will make up for it.” She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. “I want to set the record straight between us. I'm not interested in relationships -- not right now. I'm not looking for a boyfriend. I'm a lesbian.” She looked into his eyes. “I'm not saying that to blow you off, Nick. You're a nice guy, and I like you. I'm saying it because it's the truth, and I want to make sure we understand each other. I hope it doesn't bother you.” Nyk shook his head once. “Should it?” he asked. “We can be friends, can't we?” “It bothers some people. It bothers my father. After I finished graduate school, my father insisted I get married, in an arranged marriage like the old days in Japan. He wanted an heir, someone to pass the crest to. We fought about it and I finally relented. I married the son of one of his business associates.” “He wished to bind your line to his associate's.” “I don't know why he insisted. I think he was trying to make a point, that I'm not really a lesbian. It didn't work. The marriage was a disaster. I was never attracted to the guy. I had to grit my teeth in bed. My husband started abusing me, hitting me. One day, we had a big fight and he beat me -- he beat the tar out of me. I ran home to my parents and my mother took photos of my injuries. I had two black eyes and bruises all over. She called the police and they arrested the guy. We got a restraining order and I filed for divorce, which, of course was granted.” Tears were starting to well up in her eyes. “My father blamed me! He blamed me for not trying hard enough, for not being attractive EARTHBOUND - 59 - enough! He insisted I marry again. We had a huge argument. This time I refused and I told him I am absolutely resolute. I told him I am a lesbian, I will never marry another man, I will never even sleep with another man, and that the Kyhana family line will die with me!” She stroked tears from her face. “Then, my father said, 'To me, you're dead already,' and he threw me out of my childhood home. I haven't been back nor spoken with my parents since.” “So, you came here.” “No! There's more! I had nowhere to go. I knew of a friend with whom I had a brief affair during grad school. Alice was her name. I called Alice and asked her if she could put me up for a while. She agreed. I moved in and it turned out she was just as abusive as my ex- husband. Only in her case, it wasn't physical -- it was emotional abuse. She called me names -- she did everything to break my spirit and to make me submit. “After a year of this, I wanted out. I couldn't go home, I wasn't on speaking terms with my father. I started circulating my resume on the sly, looking for a position, anything away from the City. I hadn't used my degree in three years, and that didn't help. Finally, this college saw my Gilgamesh translation and offered me a two-year contract as a lecturer. I sneaked out of her apartment in the middle of the night. I spent the rest of the night at the airport and came here with what I could carry. Luckily, it's a furnished apartment. “So, I'm here by myself. It's hard for me. I've never been alone before. I mean, really alone with no one to turn to. This community seems so closed. Everyone here has their own family and circle of friends. I do feel like a stranger in a strange land.” She stood, turned from him and pressed her fist to her lips. Nyk stood and placed his hand on her shoulder. “If you ever need a shoulder to cry upon, use mine. Consider it another gift.” EARTHBOUND - 60 - She turned to face him. “Oh, Nick...” He opened his arms to her and she fell against him. “I'm so afraid,” she sobbed. “I'm not strong ... I'm all alone ... I miss my mother ... I'm such a mess...” He held her and felt the warmth of her body against his. “You've been mistreated, Suki -- you didn't deserve it,” he said, putting his lips to the top of her head and inhaling the scent of her hair. “No one deserves mistreatment.” He smoothed his hand along the back of her head and down her hair. “It's okay to let it out.” Nyk cried with her. “Let it all out.” Suki wept against him as he held her and caressed the back of her head. “Let me be your friend. You said we strangers must stick together. If you're ever alone and afraid, call me.” She looked into his eyes and stroked one of his tears off his face with her finger. “You're sweet,” she said and kissed his cheek. “I'm so sorry. This evening didn't end the way I expected. Nick, I will have you as my friend if you'll have me as yours. I hope you know what you're getting into.” He thought, so do I. EARTHBOUND - 61 - 5 -- Christmas Nyk set down his lunch tray and sat across from Suki. He reached into a pocket, withdrew a folded piece of paper and began to hand it to her. “What's that?” she asked. “A thank-you note. Hospitality must be followed up with a thank- you note.” “Read it to me -- my fingers are all tuna.” “Dear Suki. Thank you for the wonderful dinner. It was delicious and an experience I shall never forget. It was a gift, one I accept it in the spirit in which you gave it, and I give you my thanks. Thanks also for your gift of companionship and friendship. Your friend, Nick Kane.” He folded the note and tucked it into her bag. “That's sweet, Nick. By the way, I have a couple of gifts to thank you for. First, thank you for the wonderful cry and the shoulder to cry upon. It was cathartic. I meditated last night and my meditations were better than in years. And thanks for holding me the way you did, it felt so good.” She placed her hand on his. “Thank you, too, for being non- judgmental.” “For being non-judgmental about what?” “You're too sweet.” She touched the tip of his nose with her forefinger. “Are you doing anything for Thanksgiving?” Nyk recalled EARTHBOUND - 62 - his Agency training course on Earth feast days. “Next week. I'd love to have your company. I don't do well alone on holidays.” “I'm sorry. I have to travel home next week.” “To be with your wife? I understand...” “I probably will see her. I have to deliver my first set of cultures to the home office labs. I must also make a trip to headquarters in New York. I wish I didn't -- I'd rather be with you.” “I'll be all right, I guess. I don't suppose you'll be here for Christmas.” Nyk thought. “I'll be here for Christmas,” he said. Nyk loaded a stasis canister containing bean cultures and the vial with Suki's hairs into the shuttlecar. At midnight he drove into the countryside to a secluded spot, pulled onto the shoulder, ran pre-launch diagnostics and checked the doorseals. He pressed the launch sequencer. The car nosed up and shot into the sky. He activated countermeasures and was soon in a high orbit around Earth. A pre- programmed subjump put him close to the comm relay station. The shuttlecar's guidance homed in on the station's transponder and he parked it in the shuttlebay. The bay doors closed and the pressurization sequence began. Nyk connected cables to recharge the shuttle's power cells and picked up his canister. He went through decontamination, dressed in a Floran tunic and xarpa and slipped into a pair of sandals. A hail from the packet's captain blared through the comm station intercom. Nyk heard and felt the thud of the vessel docking. He boarded through the docking tunnel and took his seat. EARTHBOUND - 63 - Shortly he was disembarking onto the transit platform in orbit over Floran. He walked down the concourse toward the shuttle to the planet's surface. Veska beckoned him. “Hello, my friend and my son. How goes your tour as an ExoAgent?” “It's too soon to tell for sure, but it's been interesting. Earth people are different, but I think I like them. It's a beautiful planet with much more interesting plant life. The land is full of life. I see flying creatures called birds as well as ground-dwellers. Floran's biology is simple and dull in comparison.” “Don't be late for your shuttle.” He pressed his wrist to the scanpad outside the apartment and the door popped open. It was mid-afternoon and he figured Senta was at the lab. Nyk examined the family crest hanging on the apartment wall. Ky- Ha-Na, he touched the katakana characters. Senta's voice came from the balcony. “Thank you, Rez. I'll see you tomorrow.” “Good day, ma'm.” Nyk heard the skimmer door slam shut. Senta approached him from the balcony. “Hello, korlyta,” he said. He opened his travel case, withdrew a cellophane bag and handed it to her. “I brought this for you -- Earth sweets.” Senta slipped a peppermint lozenge into her mouth. Her eyes popped and she reached into her mouth and removed it. “The flavor's so strong,” she said as she tossed it into the waste reprocessor. “It almost made me sneeze. Don't tell me you like these.” EARTHBOUND - 64 - “Try a green one,” he said. “It's milder.” “Maybe later.” She pointed to the stasis canister. “Are those your cultures?” “Yes -- I have some of Sukiko's hairs.” He opened the canister, removed the vial and withdrew a hair with the forceps. “Look at the color... Did you ever see hair so dark? It's black!” Senta examined the specimen. “It looks like the root is intact on this one, so we should have no trouble sequencing it. It should be done in ten days or so.” “Ten days! Can't we get it done sooner?” “I'm sorry, Nyk, but we're in the middle of sequencing the latest set of prototype seedstocks. I must have those analyses done before we decide which strains to put into the pilot beds. If I can work it in sooner, I will. By the way, how was she?” “What do you mean?” “You seduced her, didn't you? How else did you obtain those samples? You knew I'd want a full report. What kinds of lovers are Earth women?” “I did not seduce her. I picked those out of her hairbrush.” Nyk stalked into his study, sat at the vidisplay and began scanning through Koichi's journal in the original Esperanto. His search for the word Sukiko yielded nothing. He began perusing the entire text from beginning to end, looking for family records. No references could he find to any Earth Kyhanas except Koichi's own parents. “I'm sorry, Nyk,” Senta said from behind him. “I should've known better. You've been away. I've missed you, and I want our short time together to be pleasant.” She draped her arms across his shoulders.