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Authors: Margaret Mahy

Aliens In The Family

BOOK: Aliens In The Family
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Aliens In The Family

Margaret Mahy

First published in the UK in 1986
This ePub edition is version 1.0, released July 2013
PART ONE

Introduction

Even the most ordinary of days can be full of secrets and mysteries, and this particular Thursday was no exception. It was full of people, setting off from certain places and arriving at others. Thursday's children have far to go...

Jacqueline Raven was not only travelling on a Thursday, she had been born on a Thursday too. She was setting out from a small country airport to visit her father, whom she had not seen for over a year. Since she last saw him he had married again and now had a new family that Jacqueline had never met. Her own life had changed too, so much so in fact that she found it hard to believe that the girl she had once been had ever existed. She was sure the new family would not like her, and was quite certain that she would not like them, but there was no way around it. If she wanted to see her father again she would have to see them too, for the new children belonged to him more than she did

these days, and she must try hard to accept them and like them. Not that this was her only problem. She did not feel at all comfortable about leaving Pet, her mother.

"Don't forget," she said, turning anxiously to Pet, "if Granny can't sleep and starts getting up in the night and tidying drawers, that little blue pill is the one to give her. It just makes her restful and..."

"Don't worry, dear!" said Pet. "I won't forget." But Jacqueline, who really preferred to be called Jake, knew her mother often did forget such things, and although she was always sorry afterwards, afterwards was usually too late.

"Flight 317 to Christchurch is boarding now at Gate Two," announced the girl at the departure desk. It was such a small airport that you could hear her natural voice as well as the magnified one coming over the public address system. She was her own echo.

"Oh dear," said Pet. "I do wish you weren't going. You will come back, won't you? I mean, you won't get too enchanted by lovely old David and his lovely new family. No...that's not fair of me. But you
will
come back?"

"Of course," Jake reassured her. "It's just a holiday." They hugged each other awkwardly.

"Give him a hug from me too," said Pet, not needing to say who "him" was, but they both knew that Jake found it hard enough to give hugs on her own behalf. She could not pass one on. People were beginning to drift out across the tarmac towards the plane but still Jake hesitated. She wanted to go... and she wanted to stay.

"Dear, please don't worry!" Pet exclaimed.

"Anyone would think you were the mother, not me! Just you go ahead and have a wonderful time."

Jake strode determinedly out of the air terminal, looking rather like the hero of a cowboy movie striding towards a confrontation with the bad guys in the main street of town.

While Jake was saying goodbye to her mother, and in the city far away her new relations were arguing about the sort of thing that might make her feel at home, a farewell of a very different sort was about to take place in a different space and time from her own.

Bond was walking confidently along the rounded corridor of his school—the only home he had ever known. He was the only one awake in the dormitory and the dreams of his fellow students fretted the edge of his thoughts like a cloud of rainbow gnats, staining his vision with their colours. It was the first time he had experienced such quietude and he was able to hear the hum and groan of the school as it skipped through space like a stone skipping over the surface of a pool.

His school could flick through the dimensions of space as easily as a cat takes short cuts through back gardens. It could swing around whole planetary systems gathering in enough of their energy to hurl itself outwards on vast journeys, not only through space but back in time as well.

As Bond walked, a blue light moved with him matching his pace exactly. "Nexus ahead," said a soft mechanical voice. Bond hesitated for a moment and the light hesitated too. "Your final interview before assessment!" Bond still held back, and after a moment the light moved on without him. He had to hurry to catch it up.

Ahead, another light brightened to form a reassuring, rosy cone, blushing warmly in the dark. The light was falling on the nexus, a chair set where the light bled a little into the surrounding dark at the junction of two rooms. The floor curved up into the shadows, for there was no gravity to make an "up" and a "down", or any real direction at all. The rooms were linked in front of the chair by screens beaded with coloured dials. Bright worms of light looped along through them, rising and falling to make a pattern Bond was unable to decipher. In other small windows, numbers, symbols and diagrams flickered, briefly flashing their secrets before disappearing into electric light.

As Bond sat down, one of the screens lit up with a pattern of shifting bands confirming what he had already been told. He was to take his first test and had been awakened and called by his teacher, the voice of the school itself—that energetic and courageous school which moved continually among the stars. Its pupils, the young Galgonquans, would each be called upon at some stage to carry out their task of adding to the great Inventory.

"Well, Bond," said a musical voice, "you are about to set out on your first test. If you succeed you'll become a probationer and interface with the Inventory. Now, give me an account, in your own words, of where we are and what you are to do."

"We've come back through hypothetical time to actual time by tachyon transference," recited Bond promptly. "We're back in the past at some time prior to the Exodus, and we're lined up with a small city on the old, original planet which the prophetic circuits have predicted will provide us with good information for the Inventory. One of the probationers," he hesitated, "my sister Solita, is currently interfaced with the Inventory and her personality component is invested in a very simple Companion which has been concealed in the city below." He broke off suddenly. "I've never worked with a Companion before," he said looking at the screen as though it was a face. "It'll seem very strange to have Solita talking to me out of a machine."

"Yes, it will seem strange," agreed the teacher. "In some ways you may feel more alone
with the
Companion than you would feel without it, but part of the test is intended to measure your strength in this way. Go on."

"Well," Bond spoke with increasing confidence. "Using students' access to the Inventory, I'm to design an appearance that will blend in with the time and the place. Then I will transform, go down amongst the ancestors and try to locate the hidden Companion by unravelling its electronic trace. Once I find it I am to take it out of the city to one of the given places, where my temporary body will be dissolved and the Companion and I will then be transported back to the school.

"And..?" encouraged the voice, as Bond stopped.

"Oh yes, of course! I'm to record continually. I have to notice everything."

"Does it all sound very difficult?" sang the voice.

"I don't want to seem too confident," said Bond, smiling modestly as he spoke, "however—no, it doesn't sound too hard. I know the images, I take false memories well and I enjoy untangling electronic traces. I love the challenge of it."

There was a subtle change in the pattern on the screen but Bond did not know what the change might mean. "How do you think you will maintain a temporary appearance?" asked the teacher. "It could be embarrassing to find yourself drifting back to your true shape in a strange city. It may be funny when you're in class—some of the hybrids produced by involuntary reversion are certainly entertaining—but out among the ancestors..." The sentence was left unfinished, and Bond dropped his head onto his chest.

"You know I'm not good at that," he sighed. He felt, soft as a breath on his cheek, the first touch of a feeling that he did not recognize, for he had had very little reason to feel it before. It was doubt—the forerunner of fear. He knew he must not let it show. He began counting to himself and repeated a formula that filled him with a peaceful feeling. His alarm did not vanish completely but he sensed the power of acceptance, and all time (his own time, hypothetical time and the past time he was about to explore) became a simple succession of small, rich minutes through which he could travel quite happily.

"Very good!" said the teacher approvingly.

"Note that your hands are still tense, however. It could cause fumbling at a vital moment."

Bond looked down at his hands and saw with surprise that his double-jointed thumbs were interlocked so tightly that it looked as though he had tied them in a knot. He took a deep breath and watched as they relaxed. His gill flaps, which had bleached away and become almost invisible, coloured up again, looking like black and scarlet lace tattooed onto his skin between the base of his ears and his throat.

"After all," the teacher observed, "there is no point in a test unless it tests something. My last advice is this. Take nothing at face value."

" 'Suspect all appearance'," quoted Bond. It was a primary instruction taught to all Galgonqua.

"You must now go to your first assessment. When you have drawn up a specification, present it to the students' Inventory. You will understand that we won't let you go down unless we feel you have chosen a reasonable form."

"But I can make myself look like a hero, can't I?" asked Bond, looking up and laughing. "Every little bit helps! Oh... and may I wear my old stone?" He was talking about an ancient sliver of jade, a birth present from his unknown father. Children of the Galgonqua did not know their parents. They were loved and nurtured by the school. "It came from the old planet in the beginning," he said. "That's been proved. It's a good luck stone."

The teacher considered this and did not reply at once. Finally he said, "No matter how remote it seems we must always consider the possibility of an object anomaly. If it was to encounter itself in an earlier form for example, it could set up a field that would stun you, or cause your own stone to vanish, or more seriously, it could disrupt your change. As you find it hard to maintain a metamorphic form you might begin dissolving if you were wearing that stone and found yourself near the rock from which it was originally quarried. And it's known that such objects try to equalize the time pressure by unifying. They pull together and can affect probability." He paused. "On the other hand, since we have faith in the prophets, even if we don't understand how they work, we are encouraged to consult good luck signs too. And if your stone came from there in the beginning, the anomaly would at least be local. If assessment clears it and the prophecy read-out is favourable, you may wear your stone. Now—on your way, Bond, and good luck with your test."

The pattern of lights was abruptly extinguished. Alone once more, there was nothing left for Bond to do but to get up from his chair and walk off through the halls of the school. As he walked, an aura of light moved with him.

On the planet below, but even further back in time, a man by the name of Sebastian Webster was setting out on the return journey to his home village. Suddenly he put his hand to his ear as if he had been stung. The landowner, eyeing him reproachfully, did not notice.

"I didn't think
you'd
walk out on me," he was saying. "Look at the work that still has to be done! We could use another pair of hands. The Maori boys—well, I can't say I'm surprised about them moving on—but you're an Englishman! I can help you build a wee cottage here, you could find yourself a bride and probably get some land of your own someday. I mean..." he gestured widely, "look around you! It's all there for the taking! It doesn't belong to anyone. Your son could be a gentleman. Mine will be!"

"I have a wife already... and a son," Sebastian replied, smiling politely, aware of the scrutiny of his Maori friends. He had walked over the peninsular with them to do a few days' work in return for some blankets and tobacco, and was now about to accompany them back through the bush-covered hills.

"Yeah, well—you look the part," said the landowner scornfully. Sebastian wore his long, fair hair twisted up in a knot Maori-style, and a long, greenstone pendant hung from his ear. He nodded, not bothering to try and explain how he felt to this
pakeha
—he no longer considered himself one. Sebastian had at last found a life he loved. The whaling-boat that had brought him to this country now seemed like a distant nightmare.

He set off with his friends towards home, leaving to others the clearing of the bush, the pit-sawing of timber and the planting of crops. They began their climb up the vast slopes of an extinct volcano, a great shell, one side of which now opened into the sea, forming a safe harbour for ships. They moved easily even on the steepest parts for they were accustomed to their land of hills and bush.

"Your
tautau,"
said Hakiaha, touching his own earring. "I saw you raise your hand to it. Did it warn you,
Wehipa?"
He addressed Sebastian using the Maori form of "Webster".

BOOK: Aliens In The Family
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