Lucy darted from shelter to shelter until she was going to have to go out in the storm. She put up an umbrella, which helped against the hail a bit. The rain was hitting the puddles so hard it seemed to splash right back up into her face. She squinted through the driving rain at the bright lights illuminating another shelter; her target.
"It's not so far!" She yelled. "One quick run; we'll be there in no time! Ready, set, GO!"
Lucy bolted and nearly jerked her arm out of the socket as the 65 lb. pit bull on the other end of the leash decided there was no way in hell he was going out in that.
"Caesar!" Lucy wailed. "We have to get to the ship!"
Caesar didn't move, only remained cowering against the last building. Tossing aside the umbrella, Lucy gathered up the dog, who clung to her like a small child. She staggered across the lot toward the lights.
"No offense, but maybe this is why your family left you behind!" Lucy spat through chattering teeth.
She had always described a bad storm as ‘like the world was coming to an end’ only this time, it actually was. A series of worsening natural disasters wracked the Earth; hundreds of thousands died. Just as scientists predicted that another few years of such events would be ‘incompatible with life’, then . . . they came.
No one really knew what to call them at first, they just knew what they were: aliens. They could pass for human if the light wasn't good and you didn't have your glasses on. But closer to, it was obvious something wasn't quite right. They were tall, thin, and graceful but the skin tones weren't quite . . . skin tones. Call it white, black, yellow or red, all human skin was varying shades of brown. That was never clearer than when you were faced with a species that based theirs on gray. There was variation of course, some individuals with almost white skin, others with nearly black and most a shade of silver. They were quite androgynous in appearance, although in an alien race, that didn't really mean anything. Long hair seemed to be the rule, this in every color of the rainbow.
They called themselves the Serai.
The Serai came on a mission of mercy; they would evacuate every human being possible from the planet and take them to another world to live. They only asked that the humans lived by their laws. When asked for a list of laws, the people were provided with something that wouldn't look out of place in a secular European city. Most people had agreed and signed up for passage on the Serai ships.
Lucy made it to the shelter and hurried towards a kiosk, still cradling her quivering dog. She was happy to dump him on the ground and dig out her Serai ID card and glasses. There was no sense wearing her glasses outside; the rain would have coated them instantly.
"Hi!" She panted, holding out her card to the Serai. "Lucy Miller."
He (?looked male?) fed the ID into his kiosk. Ceasar tried to crawl into Lucy's arms again, but settled on hugging her around the waist with his front legs. There were families lining up to get on board, doing head counts and checking what meager belongings they were allowed to take. One elderly lady seemed to have cashed in all her luggage allowances on potted plants. The Serai didn't seem to mind, the one helping her get checked in was all smiles and gushing over the multicolored blooms on a pocketbook plant.
"Lucille Anne Miller," the Serai helping her read aloud.
"Lucy is fine."
"A pleasure to meet you. You may call me Tai."
Tai was one of the light silver skinned variety, with hair that might have been black or maybe very dark blue. It was hard to tell in this light. His eyes were vibrant gold. It might have been the color making it seem this way, but his irises seemed larger than a human being’s. He wore a white flight suit.
"-Lucy. You were one of the first few thousand to sign up; why have you waited so long to depart?"
"Well, I don't have any kids or family. I thought more children should be allowed to leave before me."
"Oh. That's very commendable," Tai said, mildly surprised. "However, your file doesn't say anything about you bringing a-" the Serai looked down at Caesar and took a wild guess. "-a cat?"
"A dog," Lucy corrected. "I didn't have him when I signed up; some scumbag abandoned him when they left."
"I thought dogs were. . . pointier, " Tai said, making a pulling motion in front of his nose.
"Depends on the dog. I factored him into my luggage allowance and I have his health papers!" Lucy produced them, sealed in a plastic bag to keep them dry. "The website said last minute exceptions could be made for pets!"
"For small pets that fit into bags or--" Tai stopped.
Lucy took the duffel bag off of her shoulder, opened it, stuffed what clothes she could into a backpack already full of books (wrapped in plastic to keep them dry) threw the rest onto the wet pavement, and finally shoved Caesar into the duffel butt first, zipping it up until only his head poked out. Then she heaved the strap over her shoulder.
"He fits in a bag," Lucy announced.
Caesar gave Tai a miserable look. The Serai sighed.
"So he does. We will need to weigh him."
"Probably better to leave him in the bag for that," Lucy said, handing Caesar over, duffel and all.
Tai took the dog and laid him gently on a luggage scale. Lucy tried to gather up her wet clothes.
"I think we can let you out of this, oh he's soft," the alien said, stroking the dog's head. "Are you sure he isn't a cat?"
"I'm positive," Lucy said with a smile.
Caesar sniffed Tai's arm thoroughly, curious enough about this new scent to forget how terrified he was. The Serai let him out of the duffel. The pit bull sat up, snuffling along Tai's chest, giving those little half snorts of a dog thoroughly investigating a new smell.
"What is he doing?" Tai asked.
"He's just smelling you. He's never met a Serai before."
Caesar finally took a few deep sniffs of Tai's breath. He wagged his tail. Then he slapped a tongue six inches wide across the alien's face. Tai squawked and leapt back in alarm.
"He tasted me!"
"He kissed you!" Lucy corrected, hugging her pet. "He likes you!"
Tai calmed a bit when he saw Caesar licking Lucy's face.
"Oh. . . Good. Let's get the rest of your things weighed. You like books?"
"Yes! It's mostly poetry."
Lucy looked stunned.
"You don't have poetry?!"
"I don't know unless you tell me what it is," Tai elaborated.
Oh, that was right, maybe he just hadn't heard the word poetry before.
"A poem. . . a poem is an arrangement of words that evokes a feeling or event in metaphorical, artistic prose. In English, they usually rhyme, but they don't have to." At Tai's confused look, she decided to offer an example. "Like. . . like:
On wide or narrow scale shall Man
Most happily describe Life's plan?
Shall he bloom and whither there
Where first his infant buds appear;
Or upwards dart with soaring force,
And tempt a more ambitious course?
Obedient now to Hope's command,
I bid each humble wish expand,
And fair and bright Life's prospects seem.
While Hope displays her cheering beam
And Fancy's vivid colourings stream,
While Emulation stands me nigh
The Goddess of eager eye.
With foot advanc'd and anxious heart,
Now for the fancied goal I start!"
The man standing in line behind Lucy applauded.
“Thank you!” she said.
“Did you write that?” the man – an older gentleman – asked in amazement.
“Oh God, I’m not that talented!” Lucy protested. “That was ‘Happiness’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”
“I used to teach high school English and that name sounds familiar . . .”
“Rhime of the Ancient Mariner?”
“That’s right! Can I pet your dog?”
“Oh sure! His name is Caesar! Well, anyway, that’s poet –try . . . “
Tai was staring at her as though she’d just sprouted another head.
“Um . . . you wanna hear something by James Whitcomb Riley?” she asked hesitantly.
“That was amazing . . .” Tai breathed. “Like singing without music.”
“Oh. Glad you liked it,” Lucy said, rubbing the back of her neck. “I-I didn’t write it.”
“Please . . . let me show you to your cabin. Sir? Jex will help you,” Tai said, gesturing to another Senai with slightly darker silver skin and vivid green hair.
Tai helped Lucy gather up her belongings, then gestured to the entrance to the spaceship.
“He doesn’t have to stay in a bag,” he said, gesturing to Caesar.
“He’ll just be glad to get out of the storm,” Lucy said, pulling her pet inside.
The hull of the ship muted the sounds of the tempest outside. Caesar quit cowering so much and wiggled his tail hopefully.
“Will we still be able to take off in this storm?” Lucy asked.
“Oh yes; that won’t be a problem at all,” Tai assured her. “It will be a very long journey to the homeworld, so you will sleep for a large portion of it. The cat – Caesar – will have to share your bunk.”
“Dog,” Lucy muttered, “But that’s fine. He does that at home.”
She paused, taking in the sleek lines of the spaceship.
“I guess . . . I don’t have a home anymore,” she admitted. She turned to cast a look behind her, seeing the raging storm disappear around a corner. It wasn’t just a raging storm out there, though. That was Earth. That was home. Perhaps it had turned into a hostile place, but that was home. Tears burned in her eyes. It was one thing to leave home knowing that you could come back if you wanted to. It was quite another to leave forever because you had to.
“This will be your personal area –oh,” Tai fell silent as he watched fat tears roll down Lucy’s cheeks. “It’s – it’s not so bad! You’ll get a real house when we get to our homeworld!”
“It’s not that,” she sniffled. “This . . . this is my home,” she gestured towards the door. “And now I have to leeeaaave!”
“I – I have heard many humans say ‘Home is where the heart is,’” he offered.
“I don’t know where my heart is,” Lucy admitted. “Well – I guess it’s here.”
She held open her arms and Caesar jumped up to hug her, bathing her face in dog slobber. Lucy hugged him tightly.
“You and me against the world,” she sighed.
“Ah . . . . this will be your personal area,” Tai repeated.
There was a porthole in the wall situated about waist height. It led into a sleeping space about the size of a queen sized bed. That would be plenty of room for one person and a dog. Various drawers and cubbyholes surrounded it.
“You can put your belongings in here. I’ll bring you something to help you sleep. You will need to change into this.”
Tai produced a nightgown from one of the drawers.
“This garment will monitor your vital signs while you sleep, to protect against bad reactions to the medication. You won’t be able to wear underthings beneath it. I’ll need to go get a pet sized one for Caesar.”
“Um . . . you don’t expect me to change right here, do you?” Lucy asked.
“You can’t have anything metal in the chamber. I’ll go get a pet vest for Caesar.” Tai then tapped a button on the wall and stepped back. An opaque segment of wall slid out, capturing Lucy in a private space about three feet by four feet.
“Oh . . . okay.”
She pulled a squeak toy out of her duffel bag and tossed it in the sleeping chamber. Caesar clambered in after it. He seemed to feel better in a dark den with his favorite toy. Lucy stashed her luggage, then disrobed. The nightgown Tai provided was . . . wow, very pretty, actually. It draped like a toga, glittered like gold lame and felt like silk and ultra-suede had a baby. It also fit perfectly. No wonder they asked for all those measurements at the sign up.
A panel on Lucy’s left disappeared and a little black girl about two years old ran through the space, completely naked.
“Naked baby on the loose!” Lucy yelped, scooping her up. “Who told you you could run around naked, huh? Who told you that was allowed? That’s against the rules, you knows! If I have to wear clothes, so do you!”
The little girl kicked and squealed with laughter.
“I hereby sentence you to be puppy kissed!” Lucy announced, holding the little girl into the sleep chamber.
Caesar complied by licking the baby.
“Doggie!” the little girl screamed in delight.
“Tawny!” The little girl’s mother reached through the open panel. “We have to get your nightgown on! How did she get this open?!”
Lucy banged on the panels gingerly, then tried pushing the button. That made her section of the wall slide back, but not the one between herself and Tawny’s mother. Lucy pointed through the gap at the corresponding button on her side.
“Try that button on the wall.”
“It beeped at me,” she reported.
“Then I don’t know. I’m Lucy, by the way. Here’s your daughter back.”
“Misty. Thank you. Let’s get you dressed, you little wiggler! Xel will be back with our sleepy medicine soon.”
“Noooooo! I don’t wanna go to bed! I wanna play wit’ da doggie!”
“What doggie – oh my God! That’s a big dog!”
Caesar had crawled out of the sleep chamber and was poking his head through the gap left by the missing panel.
“Does he bite?!”
“You are in very real danger of being licked to death,” Lucy said. “This is Caesar. He’s a mush and a half. Tai thinks he’s a cat.”
“Is Tai the name of your Senai?” Misty asked, wrestling Tawny into her nightgown.
“Every family gets a certain Senai to help them through the trip. The one that checked you in is the one assigned to help you.”
Misty put her daughter down. Tawny toddled over to the gap to hug Caesar. Only a pit bull could lick the child when she was still eight inches away.
“Oh. Yeah, Tai is my Senai, then. He likes poetry. Did you know they don’t have poetry?!”
“How can they not have poetry? That’s just singing without music. Do they have music?”
“Tai knew what music was, but . . . I don’t know if he learned that here or not.”
The wall on the far side of Misty slid back into the bulkhead, revealing a young black boy about ten years old. He was dressed in a long tunic and loose pants – the male version of the sensor nightgowns.
“Maybe that’s why they want to save the humans,” he offered. “They want us to teach them music and poetry.”
“Maybe! Lucy, this is my son, David, David, this is Miss Lucy and her dog, Caesar.”
“Hi,” David said. “Why are you just peeking through the hole?”
“We can’t figure out how to make it go back,” Lucy admitted.
David nodded, pulled his little sister away from the gap, waited while Caesar wiggled through it to follow them and then tapped on the next panel twice. The missing piece, which had laid tightly over the next panel, slid back into place once more, completing the wall.
“Now you can push the button,” he told his mother.
Misty did so and the wall slid back, leaving the corridor open.
“Of course the kid figures it out before the adults,” Lucy said with a grin.
“Yeah, that’s the way it works,” Misty agreed, shrugging.
“Oh, your nightgown is different,” Lucy said, looking over Misty’s gown.
They were both made of the same material, that creamy, gold-ish, glittering, silky material but while Lucy’s gown cut in tightly at the bust to support her round, scholarly bosom, Misty’s draped loosely to allow her small, proud breasts to breathe free. In fact, it just seemed to follow the tall, willowy woman as she moved.
‘And after two kids, too,’ Lucy thought. ‘How disgusting.’
“I like the color better on yours,” Misty said.
“They’re the same col—or . . .”
Only, they weren’t now. Lucy was certain Tai had handed her a cream-colored garment, but it was now a silvery blue. She exchanged a puzzled look with Misty, then glanced over at the kids as they played with Caesar. She actually did a double take. Misty followed her look, then started, her mouth dropping open.
David’s clothes were gold, but Tawny, who had certainly been put into a cream-colored gown, was now sporting a bright pink dress. It was the same cut and material, it was just now very clearly pink. In fact, David’s tunic and pants were slowly shading to a brighter yellow.
“They change color!” Lucy declared. “I wonder how – David, if you figure this one out, let me know!”
“Did you need help with something?” Tai was back, along with another male Senai, this one with nearly white skin and lavender hair – presumably Xel.
“Our clothes change color! How do they do it? Can we do it on purpose?” Lucy asked eagerly.
“Your sensor gowns change color according to different combinations of your health, mood, personal taste, and energy level,” Tai reported, holding up the small vest he had brought for Caesar.
“We have mood clothes?” Misty asked.
“That’s a good way to describe it,” Xel said, holding up a sippy cup.
Lucy took the vest and wrestled Caesar into it. He didn’t fight her, just kept trying to roll onto his back so David could rub his belly.
Xel opened a small panel in the wall opposite the sleep chambers, revealing a stack of cups and a liquid dispenser. He put a small amount into the sippy cup and handed it to Misty.
“We’re still boarding. We’ll take off in about four hours. To expedite the process, once our guests are checked in, we give them something to help them sleep. To save supplies and hasten the journey, you will be sleeping a great deal.” Xel then filled a cup with significantly more of the liquid and handed it to David.
“I wanted to see the takeoff!” he protested.
“David, everyone has to sleep,” Misty reminded him.
“Take offs are only interesting if you’re the one flying the ship,” Tai interjected. “You probably wouldn’t notice much from here. Maybe some shaking.”
Tai had a flat dish with a lid on it. He took some liquid from the dispenser, pulled the lid off the dish and poured the sleep medicine in. Lucy nearly face-palmed when she saw the dish was full of milk.
“Tai, he is not –“ she cut off when Caesar began hungrily lapping up the milk, medicine and all. “Okay, maybe he is a cat.”
David was watching his mother and sister critically as they drank.
“It tastes like water,” Misty reported.
The boy nodded and swallowed his own medicine.
“Now it will hit you rather quickly,” Xel said. “So it’s a good idea to get into the sleep chambers before too—“
He was interrupted by Caesar letting out a yawn so wide it looked like the top of his head was in danger of coming off. The dog was already tired from weeks of being scared of the horrific storms outside. Now it was quiet, he had a belly full of milk and children to play with. Even if he had to wear a goofy shirt, this was all right. He flopped down on the hard floor.
“Into bed with you!” Lucy said quickly, rousing the groggy canine and half-leading, half shoving him into the sleep chamber. Caesar found his squeak toy, staggered to the back of the chamber and flopped down. Within a minute he was snoring.
Tawny yawned, followed by her brother and mother.
“It does hit you, doesn’t it?” Misty asked. “Bed! Bed!”
David went to his own sleep chamber without argument.
“But I’m not – I’m not . . .” Tawny swayed on her feet. Misty plucked her up and tucked her into bed. She paused and gave Xel a smile over her shoulder.
“Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”
“. . . you are welcome,” he answered.
Misty climbed into the chamber. A dark circle of glass slid over the opening, insulating the sleepers from the noise and light in the corridor. Xel gave Lucy a friendly nod and headed back toward the boarding doors.
“Guess I’d better take mine.” Lucy plucked her cup from Tai’s hand and lifted it to her lips. She stopped abruptly at the sight of a grey skinned hand on the opposite rim, keeping it from tipped back.
“I’m sorry,” Tai said. “But you said you had books of poetry. May I borrow one?”
“Oh! Yeah, sure!”
Lucy opened up the luggage compartment and pulled out her backpack. After all, if Tai was her designated Senai, she’d see him again for sure. And he had said that take offs were boring unless you were the pilot, so he’d have some down time to read.
“Let’s see . . . Shakespeare’s probably going to be a little hard for you to understand.”
“Do you have more like the one you recited outside?”
“Coleridge? Yes! I do.”
She wrestled a fat book out of the bag.
“You don’t have to wrap the plastic back around it; I just did that to keep it dry in the rain.”
“Thank you so much!”
“No problem; just glad to find another poetry nut like myself,” she said, taking her glass and drinking her medicine. “It does taste like water.”
Almost immediately, she felt extremely sleepy. Well, she’d been pretty stressed out over a long period herself and now it was all going away. It’s a good thing she was going to sleep a lot this trip; she could use the catching up. Tai took her cup and she crawled into the sleep chamber. There were pillows along the wall facing the corridor, so she turned around to face out and dragged one towards her.
“There’s no metal allowed in the sleeping chamber,” Tai reminded her in a soft voice.
“ . . . Okay?”
He smiled uncertainly, then gently reached out and took her glasses off.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot I had them on.”
“I’ll put them in this little drawer right here,” he said, doing so. “And I’ll be back to wake you for dinner.”
“Okay. See you then, Tai,” she sighed, laying her head down. Oh, the pillow was just ridiculously soft.
“See you in a week,” he returned.
Some part of her mind blurted: ‘A week?!’ but by the time it reached her throat it had downgraded to a soft ‘Mmmff.’ Then the dark glass slid across the opening and she was well and truly asleep.
Take offs were rather boring if you were not the pilot. Tai was not the pilot. Xel was the pilot. Tai was the captain. The Senai wore identical uniforms with no rank on display. It’s not that they didn’t see the need, but rather they didn’t want their human guests knowing who was in charge. They noticed early on that some humans treated others much differently if they thought them important. That was really the opposite of the Senai concept of showing worth.
Xel cleared the ground crew, checked his flight path with the other ships taking off and the ones in a holding pattern around the planet. The wind quickly approaching hurricane force caused him to struggle a bit as he rose through the stratosphere, but they were soon above the weather and heading off into space. They fell into formation with five other ships and set course across the cosmos. Xel frowned. Normally, Tai would make small comments or observations as they headed out; nothing that would break Xel’s concentration, but just enough to let him know the captain was paying attention. This time he was completely silent. Xel engaged the autopilot and turned around. Tai had a book open in his lap and was reading intently.
“Take off accomplished, sir.”
“Good,” Tai muttered.
“All the other ships crashed, though.”
“And the Earth exploded as soon as we lifted off.”
“Do you believe in signs, Xel?” Tai finally lifted his eyes to look at his crewman.
“That human woman with the big cat – she told me of something called poetry. It’s like singing without music. She recited some of a poem while she was boarding. It was about leaving the place you were born and striking out on a new adventure. I thought that was the whole thing, but I found it in this book and it’s about worth -- our concept of worth. And listen to this part:
Ah! Being blest, for Heaven shall lend
To share thy simple joys a friend!
Ah! doubly blest, if Love supply
His influence to complete thy joy,
If chance some lovely maid thou find
To read thy visage in thy mind.”
“ . . . . . Oh – kay . . .” Xel said slowly.
“It means that the gods bless you if you find a true friend, but they bless you twice if you fall in love. And the ‘read thy visage in thy mind’ part means – means she sees you for who you are, not what you look like.”
“You fancy the lady with the cat already?”
“Well, I mean – there’s potential for fancying . . .”
“You know you can’t court her unless she has enough worth,” Xel pointed out.
“She’s off to a good start already; she delayed her departure to give time for more families to leave, she took in the cat when someone else abandoned him, and when I stated only pets that could fit into a bag would be allowed, she threw her clothes onto the ground and stuffed Caesar in so he could come along. That’s pretty damned good for forty minutes.”
“ . . . I told Misty we lost a file on one of her children,” Xel offered. “She immediately told me to take her children and she would stay behind.”
“Then Mrs. Chen Fa stated that she was an old woman and had lived a long life; she offered to give Misty her ticket so she could stay with her children. Then her husband stated he wasn’t leaving without her, so I might as well give his ticket away, too. I had to shout that no one was getting left behind. I made a show of asking the Chens to ‘bunk up’ together and said the little girl could sleep with her mother.”
“ . . . we have a good load this trip,” Tai said.
“Lots of worthy people.”
“I bet we don’t have to purge anyone this time!” Tai said. “I hope not anyway.”