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ou’re doing it again,” Anna said.

Herschel Rexrode powered the shuttle’s engines down as the landing struts sank into sandy soil. He peered out the front view shield. Just idle vegetation, nothing moving. “Doing what?”

“Patronizing me.” Anna vacated the copilot seat and donned her jacket.

“Need I remind you, we’ve got personnel missing. I have to follow protocol, you know that.” Herschel hit keys on the console to activate the bioscan, sampling the planet’s air.

“I don’t call your tone very protocol.” Her voice took on a mocking singsong. “‘Make sure to walk in single file, yourself in the middle. No unnecessary noise until we reach the station’. It’s really annoying.” She knelt on the cabin floor, opened her rucksack and laid out her instruments in a precise line, checking them off in her notepad.

Herschel regarded his wife. “So it’s fine for you to get meticulous about your botany gear, but you grouse at me for reviewing search precautions, is that it?”

“Excuse me, Herschel, but I’m about to record possible evidence of intelligent cultivation and I think that warrants some scientific method.” Anna pocketed her DNA micrometer, and calibrated her hydrometer; each device only slightly larger than her fist. “That is, when you allow us off this shuttle, my lord.”

 

“Will you lovebirds knock it off?” Steve Fineker barked from the rear. “It’s the air test result and not your darling husband that says when we get going. Then it’s my show.”

“There were no entry or exit holes indicating any dens,” she said.

“OK, fine!” He shut the cabinet too hard, stuffed his gear into his rucksack. “Then you tell us that this same crew disappearing is no reason to suspect any trouble.”

Fineker pocketed an extra rifle clip. “Right now they might be safer running into anything out there than being found by either of you.”

Fineker was here for security reasons. Herschel envied the classic square jaw and broad shoulders that broadcast a virile guy with military training. All a contrast to his own medium build and weak chin which he’d covered with a scraggly beard. He watched Fineker lay out his two laser pistols and photon rifle.

“Steve,” Anna said. “You’re a one man strike force, but I still think we’re dealing with latecomers and not the War of the Worlds.”

Herschel privately agreed that the ground crew’s absence was more likely due to either an equipment malfunction or a pathological agent, which the air sampling would hopefully rule out. No solid evidence of intelligent higher life forms had

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been confirmed on any of the dozen habitable planets discovered so far. He opened a cabinet to extract his medical field kit and spare clothing. “Anna, one minute you’re excited to claim a possible intelligent presence because our ground crew finds a few disturbed acres, which most of us believe is only a result of those small rodents—“

Herschel and Anna had landed two weeks earlier, dropping off four personnel to erect a settlement site. The newly discovered planet boasted ideal temperatures, a breathable atmosphere and plentiful water. The gravity was 89% that of Earth, some six and one half light years distant. To Herschel, the landscape resembled areas of the semi-arid American West with its sandy soil and gnarled scrub trees. Only the sky looked foreign, tinted green from traces of upper atmospheric sulfur ions meeting the light spectrum of the mother star.

Two days ago, the ground crew found what looked like cultivated acreage and began an overnight expedition to search for similar phenomena. The next morning they reported no other such fields existing nearby. But one of the crew had lifted some small half-centimeter pods from the four acres of overturned earth. Yesterday afternoon, all radio response had ceased.

Commander Cleary said he wanted to begin a search immediately. Of the eleven personnel on the orbiting Hub, Herschel and Anna

 

were the most familiar with the terrain, and Fineker, the former marine, was the logical choice to complete the team.

he console emitted two beeps, and Herschel read the air result. “Negative for any new bio infectors. So they weren’t felled by any airborne disease.”

Anna hauled on her backpack. “I could have told you that.” Yes, Herschel thought, so scientific when it comes to her plants, but uses guesswork in my domain.

Fineker unlatched the outside door, let down the ramp. “Let’s roll, then. But stay quiet and close. Herschel, take my spare pistol.”

They marched through the glade of scrub in single file, Fineker in the lead, his rifle at his hip. Anna was second, commenting that it was good to feel outside air on her skin, put her feet on real soil. She crouched now and then to examine tiny flora. Herschel brought up the rear with his laser pistol drawn. The sloped conical roof of the base station loomed over the short trees as they approached.

The ground crew had used lightweight synthetics to construct their circular hut, twenty meters in diameter and set in a clearing near the bank of a small stream. The waterway ran through this flat plain that stretched about ten miles wide, bordered by mid-size mountains. An ideal spot for a station to be expanded for the sixty colonists en route.

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“What’d I tell you?” Fineker said. “Nobody home.”

Not only was the place deserted, but supplies and monitoring equipment were gone. Anna guessed aloud that they’d removed the instruments to their temporary camp.

Fineker shook his head. “Then why does this place look a mess? Why not radio us that they stayed over when last we heard they were on their way back?”

Herschel saw Anna rub at an eyebrow, her gesture for being agitated. “Well, like Cleary said, they may have had a malfunction with their radio or they’re stalled near one of this planet’s magnetic patches.” She referred to the subterranean deposits of iron-laced granite that interfered with their radio signals.

Fineker cut his eyes at Anna. “It’s one thing for the Commander to guess from up in the Hub, but he should see how the IR cloud scanner has been torn from its mount. And why trample their own garden?”

Herschel watched Anna scowl at the few rows of small cultivation where seedling stalks looked snapped, trampled. “That could be rodents’ work.”

“Bunnies, my ass.” Fineker loaded the extra clip in his rifle. “We make two groups going opposite ways around the station. If our first

 

circuit yields nada, then we do wider rings, always meeting up around the other side. We’ll leave our comm unit channels open and pulsing.”

Herschel noticed that Anna avoided eye contact with him as she started off with Fineker. He considered reminding her to be careful, but knew she’d only snap at him. An acute heaviness gripped his stomach. Two kinds of loneliness at once, he thought. Alone on this strange world and alone in his marriage.

He began his walk, hoping nobody would find anything. Then they’d reboard the shuttle and do a more thorough sweep from the air. The ideal outcome would be to locate the crew near the exposed soil patch, everybody safe and Anna happily taking her measurements.

After several dozen slow paces on his circuit, Hershel saw the odd-looking tracks in the sand. They began as angular imprints, then became something dragged. He raised his comm unit to call Fineker when he heard Anna’s scream.

Bodies, they must have found bodies. Then came the sound of branches snapping and another scream from the far side of the station. He sprinted toward the commotion. When he arrived a half minute later, Anna was gone. But there was Fineker, inert and twisted on the ground. He had a red welt on the side of his neck and his head lay at an unnatural angle.

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“Oh no, oh shit. Anna! Anna!” His heart wanted to burst through his chest. “Anna! Where are you?” Nothing could be done for Fineker. Near the body were two scrub trees with broken limbs and Anna’s discarded rucksack. The sand had a pasty patch that looked like blood. He picked up Fineker’s rifle, realizing he hadn’t heard it fired. Had something jumped Fineker faster than he could react?

He couldn’t waste precious seconds calling the Hub; he needed to find Anna now. Twice he circled the station at a run, then made his perimeter wider. He thought he heard sounds like the brushing of branches. He stopped and listened. Just his own heaving breath and the freshening wind in the leaves broke the stillness. He waved his laser pistol left and right; no targets appeared. Herschel decided it was time to send a distress message to the Hub. Cleary cursed and announced he was dispatching another shuttle. Herschel ran the perimeter of the station again, emitting sobs as his feet hit the ground.

And suddenly Anna was there, stumbling out of a tight clutch of bushes into the clearing just ahead of him. Her jacket was missing and her torn blouse was buttoned askew. But she was alive.

Herschel rushed at her. His arms enfolded her and he felt her go rigid. “Anna, are you okay?” Tears ran down his cheeks. “Oh God, I thought I’d lost you. Are you all right?”

 

he pushed him off. “Yes, yes, of course, why wouldn’t I be?” Then assuming a pose with her hands out in front: “Herschel, you know how you worry too much.”

“Did you see Steve get killed?”

He watched her face turn red, her features compress in frustration. He stroked her arm to comfort her. “It’s all right, you’re with me now. Where’s your coat?”

She looked down at herself, then gestured away from the station. “Out there. But I have more clothes, don’t I?”

Herschel peeled off his jacket and helped her into it. “Look, Anna, we have to get to safety on the shuttle, but I think I’ll also want to come back for Steve’s body.”

She nodded, open mouthed, the blush gone. “That would be okay. We can get the body if you like. It’s this way.” Anna pivoted and marched in the indicated direction.

She must be damn traumatized. He ran in front of her, took both her arms in his. “Let’s get you back on board, first.” He encircled her shoulders with his right arm, leaned her back and placed the other arm under her knees. As he carried her, cradle-style, to the shuttle, he noticed she kept looking sharply around. Once up the shuttle’s entry ramp, he pivoted and elbowed the button to close the outside hatch. He placed her on a side couch, near the operating console.

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“Rest here, don’t move.” He pulled his jacket from her and then the remains of her blouse, crusted in places with what appeared to be mud and dried blood. He leaned her back as he pulled off her pants, which had two long rips. Then, as a physician would, he examined her body, finding no contusions, no bruises. Crazy, but a relief. Something else was missing: her undergarments.

“Anna, didn’t you put on underwear when you dressed today?”

She shook her head, looking about as concerned as if she’d lost a hat. Lately, when he’d question her hard about anything, she’d get damn defensive, like this morning when they’d landed. And she’d taken to dressing hurriedly in front of him with her back turned, whereas now she appeared content to be reclining nude on the couch. He had a sudden longing to wrap his arms around her pale body, looking soft and curvy. No, not now.

Herschel took a robe from the closet. “If I’m not back with Steve’s body in five minutes, call the Hub. Do not go out no matter what, understand?” He helped her into the robe, tied the sash.

Outside, he drew his laser gun and sprinted to where Steve’s body lay near Anna’s pack. He put on her backpack and dragged the corpse by the legs through the sand, expecting any moment to have to let go and draw his pistol to ward off an attack. But none came.

Back on board, he pulled Fineker’s body to the center of the cabin’s floor. The forward console room had two pilot seats flanked on one

 

side by the exit hatch and a couch, where Anna was. The two benches that could fold up from the main floor were retracted to leave space for Steve’s body. Anna appeared to gaze at the corpse as a child would at a doll: no look of horror, only curiosity. She ignored her retrieved rucksack. Herschel’s sweaty neck evidenced his own agitation.

“Anna, I’ll get Steve into a refridge slot as soon as I get us aloft.” As he kissed her forehead, he thought he saw her irises change color. It had to be a reflection from the green sky through the window.

Two

Herschel lifted the shuttle off, relieved to be airborne. After setting a course to circle at 3500 feet, he made a more extensive examination of the corpse. The neck had indeed been snapped. An hour earlier, this body had been alive, leading a search. It could have been himself, or Anna. He opened a lateral insulated cabinet, and grunting, lifted the torso first, then hefted the legs inside. As he closed the refridge cabinet, he noticed Anna staring out the side viewport.

“I’ve never seen it from this perspective before,” she said.

“Seen what?” He moved behind her and began to rub her shoulders. Maybe he needed the feel of her to calm himself from just having shelved a corpse.

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“The land.” She leaned back into him. “Couples like to feel each other’s touch, don’t they?”

“Couples who love each other, sure.” She must still be in shock, denying what she’d witnessed. But the carotid artery in her neck beat a normal pulse under his fingers.

She held his arm that was wrapped around her with one hand while the other pointed to the view. “See how the hills are like these undulating bumps as you look out in the distance, but then flatten as you look below. Most of the clustered greenery would suggest a type of deciduous bush and the low trees are like the Serengeti Sika back on Earth. With my area of specialty, I’d be interested in giving it all more study. And look, the pattern in the cultivated field really stands out in sharp relief.”

In the past three years he’d seen her stress reactions go toward a hyper angry state, not this languid mood. Since he’d rescued her, she’d not rubbed at her eyebrows even once. Maybe Cleary, as their commander, might have more success at getting answers.

“Anna, I have to call in. Cleary might want us to jump to orbit.”

She turned, her eyes growing hard. “Yes, when do we climb into orbit?”

“That depends on what the Commander says and what more you can

 

tell us. Anything?” She stayed mute but grabbed his hand as it caressed her cheek and stared with a searching look into his eyes.

still love you,” he said. “Do you need anything to drink?”

“No. Make your call.”

He sat at the console and activated the signal. Anna moved into the copilot seat. “It’s okay, I’ll be fine here.” Herschel studied the profile he adored: her full lips, high angular cheekbones, tapering down to a softer chin, all framed by the long shoulder-length black hair. He’d always likened her to old pictures of Cherokee Indian princesses, but with lighter skin.

Commander William Cleary answered his hail. “Your call’s late. How’d it go?”

Herschel summarized the scene at the ransacked station and Steve’s death.

“Anna, what killed Steve?” Cleary asked.

“He met with an accident. Details will be in my report.”

“Just give me the one minute account now. How did he get his neck broken?”

Anna spread her fingers on the console, her irises again flashing a

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greenish cast. She hunched, looked ready to spring through the view shield.

Herschel had to salvage this. He’d heard of people being pushed too far after deep stress and going catatonic or even psychotic. He put a hand on Anna’s arm. “Bill, she’s been traumatized and a bit disoriented. Some memory loss.”

“We have an emergency here,” Cleary shot back. “Probably lost the whole damn ground crew. Anna! Tell us something.”

She straightened. “I remember now. Steve went to the roof. The highpoint is about four point three meters. That’s high enough, isn’t it?” She gave Herschel’s hand another squeeze.

“To break his neck?” Cleary asked.

“Yes, he’d climbed up. To get a view of things, to look for the missing.”

“Makes some sense,” Cleary said. “But how’d he lose his balance?”

“He tripped on something, had to be one of the ridges.” She bounced in her seat. “I could only see the top of him through the bush branches where he told me to hide. One moment he waved to me from up there and the next he toppled. He must have hit his neck on the side gutter, giving him that red mark.” She turned to Herschel, her eyes blinking hard. “I guess I see our . . .relationship in a new way. Again.”

 
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Herschel brought his arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him. “Bill, I think we have the basic picture. So what’s our next move with the incoming colonists?”

Anna stiffened in his grasp. “Oh yes! Sixty more of you. That’s what I remember.” Herschel felt a chill. For a moment she’d sounded so foreign.

Cleary replied that he’d soon be speaking with the arriving Admiral. “But we can’t just leave these crew unaccounted for. Herschel, remain in the area. Shuttle B will join you soon.” Cleary signed off.

Hershel programmed the console for 2000 feet. Then he reached for Anna, pulled her onto his lap. She half turned so she could lie on her side into him, and they watched the changing landscape below. I will give her the comfort she needs. She’s my Anna, devoted to me again.

She nestled her head into the pit of his shoulder. “Say soft things to me.”

He told her he loved her, that he would always keep her safe. Testing a sensitive issue, he asked that after this mission they take a long break from space travel. Reconsider starting a family. There’d be plenty of positions for a botanist like her back on Earth.

“That sounds pleasing,” she said. Three weeks ago, her

 

response had been very different. “Oh, come on,” she had complained. “With my new PhD I’ll need to log at least five years in the field. I didn’t train in off-world biomes only to have it cut short to play your housefrau.” Then she’d turned out the light and rolled over in bed, away from him.

Now he reached beneath the folds of her open robe to caress her belly.

She made an “mmm” noise. “Some places feel different than others.”

“What places feel best?” Crew members were lost, and he was engaged in foreplay! It all had to be avoidance. For both of them.

“Better lying down.” She pulled him to the double sized bunk in the rear of the cabin. Making room for him, she lay on her side.

He sat next to her. “Anna, I just. . .always want you.” With the accordion wall divider open, the light and view from the front console filtered back to their bed. Anna turned on her back, her robe coming off her shoulders, her black hair falling down the side of her neck and fanning over her chest. She pulled his hand to her cheek.

He bent and kissed her full on the mouth. She drew away, put her fingers on his lips. “I’ll breathe through my nose,” she said, and

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brought her lips back on his. First she held them rigidly, like a teen on her first kiss, then melted into it, making a rumbling purr.

The front console bleeped and Herschel popped up. “Sorry,” he said, wondering why he had to apologize. Cleary reported that within fifteen minutes shuttle B would join him for a sweep. Herschel felt like shaking himself off, or needing a cold splash. ”Anna, please get dressed now.”

“No more touching, then?”

Three:

During his sweep of the plains and hills, Herschel had to admit to himself that their roles had reversed. Since their Hawaiian honeymoon three years before, he had been the one reaching for her. Once back in university life, Anna became focused on completing her doctorate and qualifying for joining Herschel, himself an assistant prof in medical engineering, on one of the out-space colony teams. In the six months before the tour launch, she stayed up late nights and often left their apartment for hours of research in the library. She earned her degree only five weeks before their tour and had

 

convinced Herschel to join Cleary’s colonizing team, citing the opportunities she’d have to study flora on the newly discovered planet. William Cleary had been an adjunct of her two main professors and had even helped her on her dissertation.

So this tragedy of Fineker’s death had indeed shocked Anna into a rediscovery of their intimacy. Herschel vowed to give his full attention to the search now, to salvage lives if he could. Stay professional. The second shuttle called in and they coordinated a complementary pattern. Anna removed the laser pistol from the console, saying she would stow it in a locker.

The console scanner flashed, indicating the presence of machinery on a small hillock below. He put the craft into hover mode at 1000 feet.

nna made a strange grunt.

He turned to her. Something had altered in her eyes, more than just the color of the irises. “Have your pupils changed shape?” As he looked, the whites became a brownish yellow and her mouth was growing thin.

“This is how it begins,” she said, cocking her head at an angle. “My transformation. Please don’t be alarmed now.”


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Thick hairs sprang from her arms as her neck elongated. Her skin turned orange, began to peel in flakes, became scaly. The hair on her head shortened, became coarse and brown. Her nose flattened into her face and her eyes pulled into wider ovals, three times their previous size.

He emitted a cry and backed away from the seat. The robe fell away

"Transformation" by Sheryl Birkhead

as her body change accelerated. A second set of appendages grew from her midsection as her human legs shortened, became stocky. Anna’s entire body was now encased in reddish scales which sprouted rough hair. Her widening torso fell forward onto the floor and her metamorphosis was complete. In place of the human woman he loved

 

was a six foot ghoulish creature; a combination of insect and crustacean with a turtle-like head. A monster.

It began a ponderous crawl toward him as he crouched in a corner, unable to move, to think. He could only scream. “What are you? Who are you?”

The head lurched forward on its elastic neck and as its mouth opened Hershel could see jagged teeth. Instead of harming him, it began to speak. “Oh Herschel, please limit your distress, if you can.” The voice emerged with a crackling sound. It might have belonged to a human if uttered by a very ancient woman with a dry throat. “Look dear, you must get back to your console and keep going on with your pattern. You can’t attract attention.”

He lay frozen, until one of its pincers gently closed on his own arm and began pulling him up. Herschel heard himself howl, but he stood up.

“There, that’s it,” the monster said, as he stumbled into the pilot seat. “Please don’t put out any emergency calls, or I shall have to follow my original directive and I’m trying to avoid that just now.”

He stared at her, as if to ask, what directive?

“You know what I mean, like what I had to do to Steve. Now let’s not talk anymore until you gain altitude and re-engage your auto pilot.” She gave him another nudge and he shivered, but followed her directions.

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He stared ahead at the landscape beginning to roll under them again. “Where’s Anna?”

His console bleeped. “Shuttle A, why did you halt? Find something?”

erschel opened his mouth, but knew the wrong words would mean his death. “No, not yet,” he managed and cut the connection.

“Very good, Herschel. Now please face me, I don’t like talking to a profile.”

He made a quarter turn in the seat. “Where’s Anna? Are you her, now?”

The monster lowered itself by folding its hind legs to a doglike crouch on the floor. The front legs held up the torso and the head with its face studying him, about level with his. “Herschel, we have a dilemma here, you and I, we really do.” There was more free flowing expression in this voice than when it had come from the human form. “We have about twenty minutes left before you report and in that time we need to come to an understanding. Will you listen and not panic, my dear?”

“What choice do I have?”

“Two days ago was my first contact with your race. You see, my kind has what Anna would call a unique adaptive ability. We can take on the form of life species we encounter, provided they are roughly

 

our own mass.” The turtle-like head turned away, blinked, then a pincer slapped the floor. “No, ‘encounter’ is not quite accurate. Ingest is the better word.”

Herschel’s hands came to his throat and he retched. He was on the floor of the cabin, on hands and knees, vomiting and then dry heaving. His world was gone, his Anna.

A pincer came into view in front of him, bearing of all things, rags from the utility closet. He back crawled a few feet, curled up in a fetal position in the corner. The jointed arm began wiping up the mess on the floor. “I was afraid of that. But I guess we had to get through this moment and now maybe it’s behind us.”

Herschel glared. “Behind us? You disgusting thing!”

“I’m doing my best to use the comforting expressions I’ve absorbed from your language. Your outrage makes sense. A product of your love for her. And that’s what has changed everything in the plan.” The creature folded up the dirty rags into a neat bundle. “Excuse me, where do I dispose of these?”

Herschel emitted a hoarse laugh.

“Very well, I’ll access the memories.” Oval eyes rolled up partway in their large sockets. “Oh yes, some kind of hamper in the sleeping cabin.” Its six legs stiffened, and Herschel saw several inches of additional length telescope out of its lower appendage joints. The claws angled so that instead of padding out flat like paws, they came

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up on a kind of point. What now? With a scratching sound it skittered to the rear bunkroom, edging the accordion divider partly shut as it searched on the other side. The sudden speed had astonished him. So it had two modes of movement; the slow turtle crawl and the quick spider-like dash--which must explain how it pounced on Fineker before he could get off a shot. On the sandy soil, the movement would have made only the faintest brushing sound.

As he heard drawers opening and closing behind the divider, Herschel scanned the cabin for his laser pistol, knowing his window of chance would be brief. Hadn’t he left the gun near the console? No, she had taken it when she was Anna. But he’d stowed the other pistol and rifle in the top sliding cupboard, just over the cabinet that contained Fineker. Herschel rose as the creature parted the folding doorway and came back into view, ending his chance. He sat down, not daring to risk alarming it.

It held forth a front claw. “You see, Herschel, I’m the caretaker of this sector, of the cultivated fields you saw. Our home planet is far off, but this is important harvest land. I patrol four of these farms, as you would call them. In about six weeks, by your reckoning, the crops will be ready for harvest. Your people invaded our lands. Do you understand that?”

“We came innocently,” he said. “We were ignorant of you.”

“Discovery by another race of a precious food source could cost

 

lives among my people. I witnessed one of you stealing seeds we planted, taking sustenance we need.”

“And for that you killed all of our ground crew, didn’t you?”

“I simply followed my directive. But perhaps going forward, that can be altered.” Her legs had shortened again and she pulled her torso onto the pilot seat, reminding Herschel of the way a sea lion might have its front end perched on a rock, with its rear flippers still in the water. A ragged claw waved over the console. “Our course is OK for the next ten minutes, and by then we’ll have to be in agreement.”

“About what?”

“The terms for your survival, dear.”

Four:

Bill Cleary knew he’d look bad to his Admiral, due to arrive on the incoming transport. Losing personnel on his watch might just get him canned as head of the Hub. But if he expanded the search, involved additional crew that could be lost, he’d look even more responsible. With night coming on the ground, he chose to cut his losses and bring his shuttles in.

When Herschel’s docked, Cleary would be at the ramp himself. He

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wanted to see how Anna was doing, why she’d answered him so strangely. Maybe he’d be able to get info from her that Herschel couldn’t. Later on. Cleary waited while the shuttle coupled with the bay walkway. The doors opened and Herschel Rexrode stood there, alone. He looked shaken and pale.

“Where’s Anna?” Cleary asked.

“She’ll. . . she’ll be along.”

“You don’t look well, Herschel.”

Herschel put a hand against the door jamb. “I’ve been through a lot.”

Then Anna was next to him. Except for a different color suit than the one she flew out in, she looked fresh as ever. Every hair of her beautiful dark mane in place, new lipstick, the works. She took Herschel’s elbow and eased him forward down the ramp. “There dear, lean on me.” Anna led him like she actually cared about him, didn’t want him to miss a step. “Steve’s death was hard on you, I know.”

“You look better than he does,” was all Cleary could say.

Anna met his gaze. “Fineker’s body is in the Cryo slot on board. Excuse us, now.”

 

he had looked at him so coolly, almost with a kind of rebuke. And her eyes had seemed to gleam with a greenish cast. Then she and Herschel were past him, heading for the corridor. Cleary called after her. “Anna, we’ll need to debrief both of you.”

She answered over her shoulder, barely turning her head. “Kindly interview the other shuttle crew first. We need some recovery time. We’ll be in our quarters.”

Cleary stood there, looking after them, until they vanished around the curve of the hallway.

*****

“You see that I’m keeping my part of our agreement,” the Anna-thing said.

Herschel sat on their bunk, looking from a bedside photo of Anna to the woman in front of him. Their living quarters had an oval central room, linked to a bedroom where they now sat. “How do I know that you won’t start rampaging this station now that you’re here?”

“Because I’m here sitting next to you perfectly calm.” Her hand

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stroked his thigh. “See, we can do this.”

He pulled away. “Stop. You could never love me the way she did.”

he folded her arms. “True. Because her love wasn’t real, not recently anyway. And mine, what I feel is . . .” She held her arms out to him.

Herschel jumped up. “How could you possibly guess what my Anna felt?”

“I have the memories.” As it did in creature-form, this human rolled up her eyes, the irises making half moons in white sockets. Then snapped down to regard him. “You’ve seen the truth about me; so it’s time you know the truth about her. She avoided your touches even before this mission.”

Herschel felt his face redden. “I won’t allow you to bait me. This is some mind trick of your kind.” But the recall of Anna’s complaints from that very morning nagged at him.

“And her feelings turned further when she met William Cleary in the graduate program. She wanted someone. . . more in command. Whereas you became too much“ —the eye movement again —“now this is odd—like a mother to her.”

 

erschel sat down hard on the bed. “She did accuse me of over-protecting her. Can you really retrieve her memories?” Did Anna still live somewhere inside this chameleon?

Her head tilted. “Cleary and Anna grew together, like a marriage would be.”

His gut wrenched. “No. I won’t accept that.”

The Anna-thing nodded, fixing his gaze. “She began the touching with him during their late night meetings when he was coaching her required report—the thesis.”

He rose, backed toward the door. “That would be too unprofessional. Neither would--why are you—“

“Telling this? Because you say you miss her love, but her love had left you. She and Cleary were planning. I could recount the talks.” The eyes flipped.

“Planning what, dammit?”

“Her leaving you after this mission. For him.”

Herschel grabbed at his head, feeling it would burst. Then he ran

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from the cabin.
******

Cleary was speaking with arriving Shuttle B, learning it had found nothing, when Herschel banged on the glass door to the control console. The commander pressed the button for the door to slide aside.

erschel strode in and grabbed Cleary by his collar. “Were you screwing her?”

“Who?” Cleary managed.

Herschel slapped his face and pushed him back into his chair. “How long?”

Cleary put his hands up in defense. “How dare you attack me--“

“How long, I said!” Herschel looked ready to do more damage.

“OK, OK. Back off and we’ll talk, but not here.” Cleary was up and leaving the room. He needed to be in motion, to buy time to think of a response. Herschel caught him in the hallway, spun him around.

“Talk now, damn you. How long?”

“Since about two months before the mission.” It was Anna who had

 

spoken. She stood there in the hallway, and came between the two men. “Fighting is not going to help.”

Cleary turned on Anna. “How did he find out?”

“I told him.”

His mouth dropped open. “After all we planned, what we mean to each other?” Now he didn’t care if Herschel heard. “Don’t tell me I’m losing you.”

She looked from one man to the other. “So this is how jealousy manifests. The reverse side of devotion.”

Herschel laughed, a crazy cackling sound. “You know what, Bill? Take her, go on.”

Cleary blinked. Anna looked perfect, but somehow colder. He had to bluff around this, until he could be alone with her later. “OK, I get it. I’m sorry, Herschel. Really. It’s over.”

“No, you asshole. You want her, she’s yours. I dare you.”

Anna took Herschel’s arm. “Let’s go back, you don’t know what you’re saying.”

Herschel tried to pull away, but seemed unable to overcome Anna. Part Two

Planetary Stories
Lovers Under the Green Sky
Page 17