Distant encounters

Hellish wind howled over the short strip of sandbeach, bringing waves out of the night to crash deafeningly against the shore. Where the ground sloped upwards, a man tried desperately to climb out of the wet sand, slipping again and again as his shoes failed to gain traction. The cold, humid air found its way inside his tweed, draining him of energy. He pushed harder, and noted with some relief that he was now among the rocks seen from below. It was a good moment to turn and look back at the dark shape of his father's tiny steam yacht, now run aground courtesy of an unusually high tide caused by the planet's three moons being in alignment.

It had been quite a shock to be awakened in the middle of the night by the incipient storm, only to find out that the entire crew of six, counting his own manservant, had abandoned ship in the rowboat, leaving him to his fate. And fate had made it that they were now lost at sea, while he was safely on solid ground. For certain values of "safely", anyway.

"Sylvain Von Hirschenwald," he shouted mockingly at the sea, "you're in big trouble now, young gentleman!"

And young he was. At barely twenty years of age, his life having been the sheltered one of a scholar, Sylvain was not made for adventure. He was neither strong, nor tall, let alone dashing; as for bravery, that was something one read about in books, by his own reckoning. Worry quickly drowned out his excitement for being alive at all, as he started up a muddy tract of land which could have been a road if not for the recent rain. His good shoes -- the first pair of footwear he had grabbed in his hurry -- were utterly inadequate for such a place, making his progress slow and unpleasant.

Where was he, anyway? The barren landscape, with scarcely any plant life, suggested one of the deserted islands off the old continent's western coast, but which one was anyone's guess now. His best hope was to find a grotto in which to spend the night, and then... it depended on whether the ship would still be there in the morning.

For now, even the first step of his master plan was in doubt, as the terrain kept going up and down, with no rocks in sight bigger than a man. The wind came in gusts now, sneaking in from random directions. A stronger one blew away his cap, and he quickly discovered that his night vision was insufficient for finding it again. Less protected against the elements now, he pressed ahead, making maddeningly slow progress while his already meager strength dwindled. In the end, he had to stop entirely, stooping to shield his face from a blast of icy needles that seemed to have no end.

He had no idea how long he had stayed like that, bent forward against the wind, before he became aware of someone staring at him. At first Sylvain thought his eyes were deceiving him: it was a catboy, straight out of a manga, complete with mobile triangular ears and a fuzzy tail that flicked nervously behind him as he squatted, looking up at the young man with yellow eyes sporting vertical pupils. The eyes of a prey animal ready to pounce.

Sylvain's hand darted instinctively towards his sidearm. But he didn't have the time to point it. With a blindingly fast motion, the catboy swiped at his wrist, leaving behind four parallel gashes. The pistol landed into a puddle of water, muzzle planted firmly into the mud, and the young man yelled as he grabbed his injured hand, trying to see how serious it was. The moonlight didn't help much; he felt something wet on the inside of his forearm, but between adrenaline and the freezing wind, there wasn't much pain at all.

His mysterious attacker had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. Sylvain dragged himself forward through the mud, cursing his rashness. The first soul he had met on this forsaken shore, however improbable a creature, and what did he do? It wasn't like himself to even consider shooting someone, and he hated the 1911 in any event. Too big and heavy a weapon for his delicate hands, and it kicked like a mule with its ridiculous nine millimeter gauge. But his uncle had insisted.

And now it was lying uselessly in the mud until it could be cleaned. The same mud clung to his shoes, making every step a chore. He spotted a tree that might have marked a bend in the road, had the road been visible, and leaned heavily against the gnarly, scrawny trunk, gasping for breath. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he wiped them furiously, ashamed of himself. From behind him, the three moons illuminated the irregular terrain raising steadily at last on the other side of the road, and what might have been the roof of a house on top of the hill.

Then the catboy was there again, examining him with eyes that shone in the dark. Sylvain held his gaze, torn between hope and fear. They were about the same age and build, the stranger's wild hair and worker attire the only details that set them apart.

That, and the stranger's language. He was saying something, with a tone of urgency in his voice, but Sylvain couldn't even recognize the language, much less the words. Still, the cloud that covered the moon just then was reason enough to worry.

"Je ne comprends pas," he complained, and started coughing. The wind seemed to blow his words away the moment they left his mouth. The catboy tried again, in a couple of other tongues. "Ich verstehe nicht," repeated Sylvain in the only other language he knew well.

Distant thunder drowned his words. His counterpart stood there for a moment, then grabbed his arm and yanked him in the direction of the barely visible building. The young man tried to struggle, but found himself as weak as a child compared to the stranger. His cuts were finally beginning to hurt, and he labored to keep up. It seemed like a long, arduous climb along a trail he could only suspect was there. Finally they reached a door, and he stumbled inside, the dim light that came on blinding him for a moment.

It was a washroom, with bare concrete walls and wooden pallets over the cement floor. Sylvain looked dejectedly at his ruined shoes, now caked in a thick layer of mud, and bent down to take them off, along with his wet socks. The lower half of his expensive trousers was in a similar condition, and he headed for the sink to try and wash them somewhat.

The stranger laughed, a short harsh laugh, and proceeded to unfasten the belt of his own denims, gesturing to Sylvain to do the same. The young man boggled. But... that was indecent! He turned to the sink again, only to have five mean-looking claws brandished at his face. He took the hint and did as instructed, trying hard not to think about his captor's likely intentions. It was that or stay in heavy, sticky clothes. Yes. All very proper.

Nothing untoward happened as they both stripped to their undergarments, Sylvain fighting with his stiff fingers and wincing every time he had to touch his wounds. The feline-like man simply pointed at a door in the opposite wall, and he didn't see any alternative than to take it.

He froze on the treshold.

Under his feet was a catwalk with no handrails, which crossed a room with no floor. Several meters below, various crates and shelves filled what appeared to be a basement. It didn't make a difference to his paralyzing fear of heights. He stood frozen until his captor came from behind to grab his arm again. The young man closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started forward step by step, focusing on the physical contact. It felt like a long way across.

There was yet another door at the other end, which led into a hallway covered in thick carpet. A door on the right seemingly led to a bathroom, as for the one on the left... The catboy opened it with his free hand, revealing an unlit room in which dark shapes loomed. Sylvain stopped in the door with a whimper. He was pathetic, and he knew it; he wasn't even afraid of the dark, but in his condition it was just too much.

Sylvain fully expected his captor to forcefully throw him in and lock the door. Couldn't have blamed him, either. After the way he had acted from the very first moment... But instead, the boy sighed and dragged him further along the hallway, past a narrow staircase leading down, and into a cozy living room.

The air was warm, even though nothing burned in the fireplace. On the wall opposite from it, bookshelves surrounded a large glass pane framed in ebony. There were doors on either side of the room, and a low table with baggy cushions around it in the middle. Against the far side, the ceiling slanted down, leaving room just for a couch with an oddly flat and wide backrest. That was were Sylvain's captor pushed him down, harder than necessary, and he yelped in pain as he landed on his injured hand. He thought he was seeing stars, but it was just lightning, visible through the little skylight above the couch.

The boy (his host?) looked at him over the shoulder with a mix of annoyance and worry, then grabbed his wrist impatiently. Sylvain winced and tried to pull back, but it was like struggling against an iron shackle. At any rate, his host soon released him and went to get a medical kit. The young man worried at the sound of metallic instruments, but the boy settled for disinfecting his wounds and wrapping them in a sterile bandage. Sylvain cursed his own wimpy attitude again.

The pain soon subsided. He was warm, and tired, and the lights were dim throughout the house. He lied down, just for a moment, listening to the sound of raindrops pattering on the skylight.

A stray sunbeam woke him up and he sneezed, momentarily confused about why he'd been sleeping, rather uncomfortably, on a couch. The blanket that covered him draped all the way over the backrest, and the body of a catboy sleeping there. As Sylvain watched, the catboy opened an eye and started purring thunderously, then stretched and slid to the floor with a fluid motion. He looked positively effeminate by daylight.

"I need to use the bathroom," said Sylvain standing up, before he remembered they didn't have a common language. He waved a hand in the general direction of the hallway, and his host seemed to understand, because he made a "by all means" gesture.

On a whim, he tried the entrance door, and found it locked. Not that he could have mustered the courage to brave the dizzying catwalk. So he was a prisoner after all, he mused as he entered the adjacent bathroom, but if so, he was in a most pleasant prison. No ideas as to how to handle the situation emerged while he showered. It was a wait and see kind of time.

His host? captor? (he still couldn't decide how to think of the boy) wasn't in the living room when he returned, but domestic noises could be heard from downstairs. Sylvain headed that way only to find himself in a kitchen, separated from the dining area by nothing more than a change in the floor tiling. All the modern appliances were present, even a stand-alone refrigerator, but they all looked like something out of a scientific romance. Much like the bathroom fixtures, now that he thought of it.

The boy was washing dishes, wearing an apron, and Sylvain realized he was yet to meet a servant in what was obviously a rich man's abode. An electric kettle simmered in the background, and the boy donned mittens imitating a cat's paws to take a plate of hot sandwiches out of what looked like a small oven. But then he closed the door, and in a burst of light and sound another plate appeared inside. Then another. Might it have been a dumbwaiter? But no, it was clearly standing on little legs above the countertop. More impossible things.

Hunger and thirst overcame intellectual curiosity, and Sylvain attacked a sandwich, while his host poured tea. He promptly made a face, but bravely continued to chew. Offending the boy was the last thing he wanted. And after all, it was a hot meal.

On the other side of the table, the host was eating two sandwiches for every one of Sylvain's, while fiddling with a flat slab of steel held like a book. Then he looked up from it and asked something.

"I still can't understand you, remember?" pointed out the young man.

"What about now?" said the device all of a sudden. "Hi, by the way."

Sylvain very nearly fell out of his chair.

"Y... yes, good morning. I understand you now."

"Aha!" exclaimed the boy, and the device translated... somehow. "I knew this was the right language database. So, what's your deal?"

It promised to be a long conversation.

"I'm Yuu," said the catboy after Sylvain finished introducing himself. "Nazokawa Yuu. My parents are on the survey team tasked with studying what your world went through during the centuries of isolation."

Sylvain snapped his fingers. "You're the people from outer space! I didn't think any of you were among us."

"We're not supposed to show ourselves. It's the price we pay for being allowed dirtside at all."

Sylvain nodded. He had been a child at the time of the Himmelstadt Treaty, but knew the story from the horse's mouth, so to say -- his uncle had been the artisan of the Second Contact, a remarkable feat during a full-scale civil war.

"I apologize for making a fool of myself last night. I... wasn't at my best."

"No worries. We gave each other a good scare. I'd say we're even."

"Why didn't you call upon your translator earlier?"

"Frankly, I forgot in all the excitement. Besides, it's not like we needed many words, did we?"

A mischievous thought occurred to Sylvain. "I bet you also enjoyed roughing me up."

Yuu blushed. "That's a stereotype," he answered at length.

"Apologies. That was a bad joke." The young man hesitated. "Ah... I simply have to ask... am I a prisoner?"

"What? No! I just didn't know what to think earlier."

He nodded again, slowly. "Thank you. I need to see what happened to the ship, but my clothes are not in any condition to be worn."

"No problem. I'll just make you a spare change of clothes."

"Make? Don't you mean lend?"

Yuu got up and went to the magical box on the countertop.

"I mean make."

The denim outfit was too tight, if surprisingly mobile, and Sylvain was feeling naked without some sort of hat, but when in Rome...

He followed Yuu along the rocky hill crest overlooking the road. It was hard going, but better than wading through what was effectively a ditch full of mud after two rainstorms in a row. Besides, the beach turned out to be much closer than last night's desperate march had led him to believe. Wider, too, now that the tide was low. Out on the water, irregular strips of lighter blue indicated sandbanks right next to the surface. The yacht wasn't going back at sea any time soon. In any event, the local seagulls had already taken residence, perching noisily on the bedraggled ship's single mast and smoke stack.

Still, the sun was nearly overhead by the time they were there. Sylvain was getting dizzy just looking up the rope ladder hanging off the fore deck. How in the world had he descended in the first place?

His host didn't seem to have such problems. He climbed up at an astonishing rate, then dangled dangerously back over the railing to help him up. There was a ghostly feeling as they filed along the port side of the vessel. No sounds came from the darkened insides, but for rythmic creaks and groans as waves rocked the still immersed aft end.

It didn't take long to learn what he needed to know.

"The boiler is kaput. Sabotaged," he told Yuu as he emerged from the engine room. "I have no way to power the wireless telephone."

"Would it even be wise to call for help?"

"What do you mean?"

"Think about it. You've been deliberately left for dead, near a place you weren't supposed to know about."

"Absurd! I have no enemies. Why would anyone want to kill a random archaeology student?"

But even as he said the words, Sylvain remembered finding his bedroom at the university broken into and a disquieting letter mentioning his recent excavations at the Grand Crater...

"Come on," said Yuu quietly. "Pack up your things and let's get back. Maybe my parents will know what to do."

Sylvain nodded absently. Dark thoughts assaulted him while he stuffed a travel bag in the gloom of his cabin, listening to the catboy clamber all over the ship's superstructure.

"There's definitely something happening," Yuu's mother said. "Top researchers from several institutions have been going out of their way to give their most interesting artifacts into our care."

She looked no less human than Sylvain as she examined him out of the big glass pane in the living room, now lit from inside, with a serious expression on her gaunt face framed by black curls. Next to her, Yuu's father was grinning like a Cheshire cat, a pudgy and hairy creature straight out of a children's illustrated book.

Sylvain was pretty sure biology didn't work that way.

"Anyway," resumed the woman, "we'll be home this night and then maybe we can all figure something out. Don't eat our guest in the mean time!"

She said that without the hint of a smile, such that Sylvain couldn't stop himself from giving Yuu a worried look. He missed the television screen turning off.

"So... your parents?"

Yuu tilted his head at Sylvain's puzzled expression. "Yes, why? Oh!" He flicked his fuzzy ears. "These are aftermarket accessories. Father took the genemorph treatment after I was born. It seemed unfair for me to only resemble mother." His tail draped over his lap.

The guest thought of several questions to ask, all of them potentially offensive. "I have much to learn about you," he said at last.

"And the other way around," smiled Yuu. "Come on, let's have lunch."

Sylvain was really starting to hate the machine his host called a "replicator". It could only create food that was pasty, rubbery or, in the soup's case, an amorphous cream. At least it was spicy -- likely so any other taste won't be missed. Also hot, which was always welcome in the island's chill, humid climate. The absence of any alcohol at the table was irksome, too, but having tasted the replicator's other products, he decided not to ask for any. Another trip to the yacht was in order -- maybe some of his own bottles had survived.

"Why didn't you bring a servant with you to cook?" he asked in the end.

"You mean a robot? We decided it was for the best. I enjoy doing most chores; it keeps me grounded."

"As long as you don't overdo it?" smirked the guest.

"Well, yes. Too much of anything is harmful, especially good things."

Sylvain nodded slowly. "I wonder what would happen if we had your machines."

"For starters?" Yuu leaned back in his chair. "All your servants, dockworkers, trench diggers... all the menial workers would suddenly have time to work for themselves. Get an education. Enjoy life."

"But that would be chaos! Next time you know, they'd want voting rights."

The host laughed. "Trust me, that would be the last of your worries. But yes, there would be chaos. That's why we agreed not to simply dump our entire culture on you all at once. Even though people are suffering in the mean time."

"Do people ever stop suffering?"

Yuu's mirth faded away. "No... not really. But that just gives us something to do now that we have everything we can imagine."

They spent the afternoon wandering about the island, or at least the small portion thereof the Nazokawa estate occupied. Which it did in a most discreet manner -- aeroplanes were venturing ever further away from the mainland nowadays. A cave turned out to exist after all; it apparently served as a hangar for the family's own flying machine whenever it was in.

"There are only a few of us," explained Yuu, "so we live dispersed all over the planet. Makes it easier to reach various points of interest."

"I don't understand. Your mother for example could easily stay in town, near one of the large universities."

Yuu shook his head. "Not even mother could keep up the pretense for very long. It's not just about looks. Besides, I suspect many of your colleagues would sooner accept a talking cat as a peer than they would a woman."

"Wish I could say you're wrong, my friend."

"Eh..." Yuu seemed embarrassed for a moment. "Anyway, I have a surprise for you. Come this way."

Hidden behind a mound stood a little greenhouse, packed with plants to a degree Sylvain had thought unfeasible. Clearly, progress didn't just mean taller buildings and faster automobiles. He was all too happy to hold a basket while his host filled it with fresh vegetables.

"You must be wondering why we have a greenhouse at all."

"I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth," said the guest with dignity. "But how did you know?"

Yuu winked. "That's what friends are for."

Sylvain didn't know what to answer to that. But the salad at dinner was the best food he'd had all day.

And then it was time for sleep.

"Why do you have a bunk bed in your bedroom if it's just you?" asked Sylvain while easing himself out of the borrowed garments. He had forgotten to change back into his own. Tomorrow, perhaps. He would have to look presentable for the master of the house.

Yuu sprawled on the upper bed. "What do you mean?"

That made Sylvain chuckle. "All right... so why did you sleep with me on the couch last night?"

"I was feeling lonely. Not in that way, silly!" added Yuu in a hurry, seeing his guest's expression. "Why, your culture equates physical closeness with sex?"

Sylvain was at a loss for words again, so he simply turned off the light and crawled onto the lower bed. Nope, not afraid of the dark at all. Yet sleep was a long time in coming.

Mrs. Nazokawa was a tall but frail woman, very much the opposite of her husband. She was also stern-faced and never seemed to smile; Sylvain suspected he would have been terrified out of his mind if it had been her during his first night on the island, with her harsh voice, instead of her son. The irony wasn't lost on him, either, as they examined each other across the living room table and many centuries of history.

"Do you recognize this?" she asked, pointing at the item sitting between them. It was a flat slab of white metal, with an inscription in a dead language etched plainly into it. On a closer look, it was made of millimeter-thick plates, about twenty-five of them, held together by solid clamps.

"It's the Codex Deiectus!" he exclaimed, eyes threatening to pop out of his head. "But... nobody's been allowed to touch it since its discovery."

"Oh? But surely nowadays you can tell what used to make it so toxic?"

Sylvain nodded. "It was just covered in uranium dust. But for some reason we've been repeatedly denied permission to try and clean it up."

"Well, it's safe to handle now. Think you can read it?"

"Can I...?" he reached over with a trembling hand and removed the clamps one by one. The first slate was clearly for protection, but subsequent ones were covered in a grid of rectangles, each about the size of his thumbnail and divided by an even smaller grid. The woman quietly slid him a jeweler's loupe.

"These are pages from a book!" he exclaimed, and did a quick count. "An entire book on each side of a slate!" He took one at random and skimmed its contents. "It's a treatise... a treatise on electricity and magnetism... and instructions on how to build a primitive radio." He chocked. "We... we could have called for help three hundred years ago. You could have been here for a century by now!"

"And all the rich and powerful in your world would have become irrelevant in the mean time," she pointed out matter-of-factly.

"Which means you," added Mr. Nazokawa jovially, padding in with a tray of cocktails. Sylvain nearly jumped out of his skin -- the man moved without making a sound -- then hurried to reassemble the artifact and get it out of the way.

"I don't understand," he said. "You're rich. These things don't just go away."

"What makes you think we're rich?" asked the lady of the house, almost smiling for the first time.

Sylvain waved his hands around wordlessly.

"Ha!" Mr. Nazokawa sipped from his drink. "This is an average home where we come from. Thanks for the whiskey, by the way."

"All the same," mused the guest. "A house like this is all I could wish for. That's why I went into academia and not business like my father wanted."

"Ah, but you're missing the point," retorted the woman. "Rich people define themselves by how rich they are compared to others."

"That's my father all right. Oh! I see what you mean. We wouldn't lose our wealth, we'd lose our power."

He thought some more.

"But... isn't that going to happen anyway as we rediscover all the lost science and technology? It already happened in your history -- our history, before the Fall."

"Of course," nodded Mrs. Nazokawa. "But the rich and powerful will do anything to postpone that moment. For as long as possible, and at any cost. That, too, happened in history. More than once."

Instead of answering, Sylvain took a long sip from his own glass. All the old legends claimed that people had been brought to this planet from elsewhere, along with all other lifeforms, only to lose all their knowledge and have to painstakingly claw their way back out of a Dark Age. But until recently, evidence had been circumstantial at best. It didn't help that the more relevant artifacts were to be found in areas that were either irradiated, poisonous or both. He'd worn a modern diving suit himself inside the Grand Crater, where nobody had even thought to dig until the big landing ten years before. Ordinary people still didn't know about the event, but in the upper layers of society it was old news by now. No amount of censorship was going to keep the truth a secret for much longer.

"I still can't fathom why anyone would want me dead," he said.

"Good question," stated Mr. Nazokawa. "Where were you headed before the storm?"

"To the Tropics. I was asked rather forcefully to take a leave of absence from my studies at the university. It did seem a bit odd that father was so keen on lending me the yacht."

The hosts looked at each other meaningfully but said nothing more.

A rainbow of colors lined the porch, flowers of every kind growing in neatly lined pots. Sylvain stepped out into the pale sunlight, passing among the meager patches of grass barely clinging to life on the island's thin soil, and looked out on the sea lined with the foam of low, long waves advancing in tight packs. The air was hazy towards the horizon, and he shuddered. Somewhere out there, hidden from view, were six men who had been well paid to make sure he had an accident, and they were just the tip of an iceberg.

"Sylvain! Over here!"

He turned to see Yuu waving to him from the door of a shed.

"I have a surprise for you," said the catboy.

On a small table lay in order a number of matte gray steel pieces, recently oiled by the looks of them. Sylvain brain needed a moment to understand what he was seeing.

"I found your gun," added Yuu, "and cleaned it, but didn't know how to put it back together."

"You... did this for me? But I almost shot you! How can you trust me with it again?"

"Because you didn't."

"I wonder what your parents would say if they knew I came armed to the island in the first place." Sylvain's hand were already in motion, deftly reassembling the pistol. "Tell you what... you keep it for me."

Yuu watched him working. "What did mom and dad decide, anyway?"

"They're going to try and reach my uncle. He'll know what's going on." He filled the magazine, chambered a round and sighted, then unloaded the weapon again.

"This is the safety. Keep it on at all times. Better yet, keep the gun unloaded." Sylvain handed over the ominously cold and heavy object to his new friend. "And pray that you never need it."

"Don't you mean, we? It's still yours after all."

The guest sighed heavily. "Yuu, why did you take me in?"

"Well..." The catboy sat on a stool, tail over his hands, ears drooping a little. "At first I didn't want to have a stranger lurking around the house... or dying out there for that matter. But then I saw that you were lost and scared, and... I spend too much time alone, Sylvain, or with people much older than myself. There's nobody else my age on the survey team. That's much harder to endure than I thought."

Sylvain leaned against the door frame. "I don't have many friends either. The other rich boys only talk of parties and hunts, gambling and races. As for my fellow scholars, they don't even see a world outside of their abstract, esoteric books."

Yuu smiled faintly. "We're a couple of misfits, aren't we?"

"Yeah... guess we can do that together for a while. You know... since I'm stuck here anyway."

The man on the screen looked haggard. He was in his thirties, with red hair and a bushy mustache in the same color, wearing a khaki uniform with countless leather straps and small round glasses. Golden oak leaves adorned his collar and cap.

"I can't tell you how relieved I am, nephew. Key people have been disappearing one by one -- pretty much anyone involved with the Grand Crater dig. I thought for sure the same had happened to you."

"It almost did," pointed out Sylvain. "What's going on, uncle?"

"The Treaty of Himmelstadt is about to be renewed. And there's a very powerful faction that wants to make sure it doesn't happen."

There was a stunned silence on their side of the screen.

"They're going to accuse us of stealing their research," said Mrs. Nazokawa. It didn't sound much like a question.

"It would appear to be their plan, ma'am," the officer said somberly.

Sylvain leaned forward. "What can we do?"

"For now, stay put. As far as everyone is concerned, you're out on vacation."

"But in a few days it will be obvious that I never made it to Las Estrellas."

The man nodded. "And by then I might just have enough information to act upon. The Secretary General isn't going to ignore solid evidence."

The silence was filled with unspoken worries.

"Uncle... do you think father is involved?"

"Hm. I bet he is. But probably not in the way you think."

The sun was atypically bright the next day, heating up the yacht's deck. An awning at the aft end provided shadow for a couple of chairs, from which the still sea could be clearly seen all the way to the horizon. But the two occupants were more preoccupied with the pair of good quality fishing rods that extended over the water.

"Are we supposed to catch something, too?" asked Yuu with just the faintest hint of irony.

"Er... I guess? That's not the point of fishing though."

The catboy chuckled. "How were you even planning on surviving, had the island truly been deserted?"

"I didn't exactly have time to think that far ahead," admitted Sylvain.


Time went on.

"Yuu, I meant to ask... How come everything here is so... normal? To hear my uncle tell his story, the visitors he met were these fantastic creatures casually juggling with the laws of nature."

"Ah, that's a funny story. If I remember the original report correctly, the people who rediscovered your planet were the crew of a, how should I put it? A traveling carnival. Dependent on exotic technology just to hold together and fly around. They're not average. While most of us..."

He cut off and stared into the distance.

"What is it?"

"Airplane, coming this way."

"How do you know?"

"The same way I knew about your ship." Yuu winked. "Seriously, we have a small radar that pages my implant whenever something approaches."

"You can explain me later. Shouldn't we hide?"

"We can't hide the ship," pointed out Yuu. "Let's wait and see what happens."

"Mmm." Sylvain tried to focus on his fishing rod, but the spell was broken. He fidgeted, while a little black dot on the horizon grew bigger, and resolved into the shape of a small floatplane, about the same time that its engine could be heard. Both men watched tensely as it circled above the yacht a few times, then flew back the way it had come.

"We're clear," breathed Yuu.

"Hardly. That was a reconnaissance plane. We can expect its mothership to visit soon."

"But we'll be discovered! We can't afford that now!"

"Maybe not. You go back to the house and let me talk to them."

"Why not come with me?"

"Because we don't know what they'll do if they find the empty yacht."

"But they'll want you to go back with them!"

"Yeah... I'd better talk fast then."

Yuu sighed. "Take this, at least." He handed the translator to Sylvain. "We'll be able to listen in."

He left in a hurry, and Sylvain very nearly ran after his new friend. It was so tempting to hide in that dark basement and stay there until the whole thing blew over. But he couldn't refute his own arguments.

There was plenty of time for evaluating options during the wait. It took half an hour until the expected ship appeared over the horizon, a sleek design with small guns suggesting a frigate, and another half an hour until it came close enough to launch a boat. Sylvain watched as six sailors rowed rhythmically, while a seventh man steered them around rocks and sandbanks.

"Ahoy there!" he shouted when the boat was close enough. Sylvain examined him carefully: a dark-skinned man, with shaven head and steely eyes that matched his uniform.

"Ahoy," the young man shouted back, leaning over the handrail.

"I am lieutenant Wolfe of the FRS Evening Star," shouted the officer again. "May I ask who you are?"

Sylvain introduced himself, and waited patiently while Wolfe patted one of his men on the shoulder. "Jones, signal the ship. We found our missing person." The sailor nodded and produced a mirror.

"Are you alone, Mr. Von Hirschenwald?" resumed Wolfe.

"Certainly, lieutenant. I'm afraid this island is as deserted as it appears." He cringed inwardly, hoping the earlier aerial visitor hadn't spotted the house. It was well camouflaged from the air, but you never knew. "Why do you ask?"

"Because we have six men over there swearing they've been forced into their lifeboat at gunpoint, by pirates intent on taking you and your ship."

Sylvain felt the blood rushing into his face. "Liars! They left me to die in the storm. Come aboard, I'll show you."

A mirror started flashing aboard the distant frigate.

"Sir, message from the ship," said the sailor. "We're receiving an S.O.S."

"I'll take your word for it," shouted Wolfe towards the yacht, "now please hurry and get down here. We can take you to Westport after a small detour."

"Sorry, lieutenant, but I'd rather not abandon the yacht."

Sylvain cringed again, his brain racing to come up with the flimsiest excuse. Another boat was rowing away from the Evening Star, soon followed by the frantic flickering of the signaling light.

"Sir, it's our guests. They've taken their boat and are rowing ashore."

Wolfe threw his hands in the air. "Everyone loves solitude all of a sudden! Fine, so be it. We'll radio your position to the Coast Guard as soon as we can." He signaled his men to turn the boat around.

"Thank you, lieutenant, that's all I ask."

Sylvain waved cheerfully. If they chose to think him mad, that just meant fewer explanations to give. The problem was going to be his former crew. He moved to the prow of the yacht before speaking into the translator. "Yuu, our traitors are coming. They seem to be headed towards the western shore of the island, away from the house." He sighed. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

The uniformed man on the screen wasn't happy to hear the news.

"Sounds like we'll have to expedite our plans, nephew. Hold on, the cavalry's coming."

He closed the connection abruptly. They sat and looked at each other in the suddenly quiet living room.

"What do we do now?" asked Mrs. Nazokawa, sounding a lot less sure of herself as usual.

"What can we do?" countered her husband.

"We can't just wait!" she insisted.

Yuu's big fuzzy ears perked. "We won't have to. Someone's at the front door."

Sylvain could hear the knocking and calls as soon as he drew near the stairs. He stayed behind while his hosts went to answer the door, a storm of feelings washing over him. Judging by the voices, it was his steward and cook -- the crew he'd trusted most aboard the yacht. The people he least wanted to meet after what they'd done.

And the Nazokawas were inviting them inside.

They looked terrible: thin, pale and with huge bags under the eyes, as if they'd spent a lot longer adrift. Then again, Sylvain remembered, that first night had been a nightmare even to himself; he could only imagine what it must have been like in a small boat on the open sea, not to mention however longer it had taken for them to be found.

But that was nothing compared to their expression when they saw their former employer.

"Monsieur!" gasped the steward, an older man who would have looked dignified under any other circumstances. "Thank the stars in heaven that you're all right!"

"An odd thing for you to say, isn't it, Maurice?" piped Sylvain.

The steward turned red in the face.

"For what it's worth, monsieur," his companion interjected, "Maurice and I were blackmailed into going along with it."

"So you know that we know." The lady of the house had regained her composure, and she looked scarier than ever. "What are you doing here?"

"It's... it's the captain, ma'am," stammered Maurice. "He's fallen ill with something. We need help." He lowered his head. "Also, we wanted to see monsieur before the authorities found us."

"You shouldn't have bothered," said Sylvain coolly. "If you think I'll..."

The master of the house stopped him. "That can wait. I'll go get my medical kit. Join me upstairs, young man?"

Sylvain frowned and stomped after him.

"How much do you trust them?" asked Nazokawa once they were out of earshot.

"After what they did? As far as I can throw them. But I can believe that they were blackmailed. Evil they aren't."

The furred man nodded. "Go get your coat. We'll watch each other's back."

In the privacy of Yuu's bedroom, Sylvain loaded the gun before strapping on the holster, higher than normal to make sure it stayed hidden under his jacket. For such a big weapon, the 1911 was easily concealed. He still hated it, but couldn't rely on prayers for protection. Unfortunately. And if it had been just his life at stake, maybe he'd have allowed himself to be killed. But now his friends were in danger as well. Cowardice equals irresponsibility.

The western beach was small and rocky, but the ground sloped down more gently in that direction. The scene could be seen from afar: three men in sailor uniforms standing nervously around a relatively small boat, itself occupied by a prone shape. They watched the approaching party with incredulous stares; Sylvain wondered whether it was himself or the alien that was causing them more consternation. The latter however seemed unfazed as he approached the boat and examined the man inside. The captain in turn raised his head weakly.

"Are you a doctor?" he asked hoarsely.

"No, but I'm the closest thing to one for hundreds of miles. If you want my help."

The sick man chuckled. "Ironic, isn't it? If I had my way, your kind wouldn't even be here." He paused to regain his strength. "But I want to live... doc."

Sylvain stood back, hand not far from the concealed weapon, watching his former crew, who in turn watched like hawks while Nazokawa diagnosed their captain with instruments as futuristic as his bag was old-fashioned.

"Looks like you caught a bug," he told his patient. "Likely from the Evening Star." He raised a hand to stop the man's protests. "You were weakened after your ordeal, they weren't."

"Can you help him?" asked a middle-aged man with huge sideburns, his uniform stained with oil and soot.

"I believe so," answered Nazokawa, not bothering to look up as he searched in his bag. He came up with two pills. "This is for the fever, and this other one will help your body fight the infection until I can figure out a better treatment."

"Wait," said the engineer. "How do we know that's not p..." He stopped and looked at Sylvain.

"They saved my life already," pointed out the latter.

"Looks like we'll have to trust each other blindly," grumbled Nazokawa, and helped his patient swallow the pills. The man fell asleep in moments. "He needs shelter," added the impromptu doctor, "but I can't say any of you is welcome into my house."

"Take the boat and go to the yacht," said Sylvain. "Might as well use it."

They did just that.

"What do we do now?" asked a younger man who must have been the ship's second engineer judging by his looks, as they sat around in the darkened lounge aboard the yacht, minus the captain and Nazokawa.

"Oh, I don't know... you got yourselves into a fine mess," deadpanned Sylvain. He was sitting closest to the door, still ready to draw on a moment's notice. "If only you hadn't told Lieutenant Wolfe that tall tale."

"We had little choice, monsieur," Maurice said apologetically, "they have our families."

"Who does? Is it my father?"

"Oh no, monsieur. On the contrary, your father expressly asked us to keep you safe."

"Well, that's a relief..." Sylvain trailed off as they all became aware of a growing noise outside, the buzzing of large airplane engines. It became so loud, they barely heard several people climbing aboard: the entire Nazokawa family.

"I brought proper medication," said the father. "And somebody brought a huge flying boat."

Everyone climbed on the deck in a hurry. The aircraft's flat bottom had allowed it to come close to the shore, enough that its occupants could wade through the water all the way to the beach. There were over a dozen people, all dressed the same and carrying rifles.

"Somehow I don't think that's my uncle..." mused Sylvain.

It was too late to hide, or for that matter do anything else while the armed men invited themselves aboard. They were followed by a portly person in an incredibly expensive three-piece suit that contrasted with the rubber boots he'd worn in order to disembark. His face looked familiar... ah yes.

"Mr. LePrince," called Sylvain icily. "What brings you here?"

"Is that a way to greet a friend of your father?" answered the man in a disgustingly sweet voice. "Why, we were all worried sick at your disappearance. When I heard the news that you had been found, how could I not make haste to come and see for myself?"

"Oh? And why didn't you bring his father along, then?" asked Yuu suspiciously.

One couldn't miss the way LePrince avoided looking directly at the catboy. "Why, there was no time to take him along." He turned as two of his men returned to the deck after searching the ship and whispered something to him. "We'll return for the injured momentarily. For now, if you'll all be so kind as to get off the boat..."

There was no mistaking those words for an invitation, even though not a single rifle was pointed at them. Yet.

"What do you intend to do with us?" ventured the young engineer once everyone gathered on the beach. The sun was still burning, but the wind was picking up, and there was a distant wooshing sound that didn't come from the waves.

"Oh, I don't know," LePrince said affably. "If only you had done the job you were paid to do."

"We did exactly what we were paid to do," spoke up the one member of the yacht's crew who hadn't said a word so far. He had on a uniform not unlike the captain's, and the same air of an experienced seaman about him. "We were paid to cut off some pipes, not to kill anyone."

"Too bad it didn't work out as planned, eh?" snerked LePrince. "I am to blame, really, for letting myself be influenced by old Von Hirschenwald's nonsense. Act with subtlety, he said. Let the aliens discredit themselves over time."

Mrs. Nazokawa winced at that. "I knew it."

LePrince conspicuously ignored her. "What happened to you anyway, Commander? I thought you were one of us. You hated them." He glanced briefly at the nonhuman among them and scowled.

"That still doesn't make me a murderer," the seaman answered with dignity, "and they did save the captain's life."

"Indeed? Tsk, what a waste."

"What do you mean?" asked the second engineer, looking around nervously. There were all the weapons pointed at them, of course, but there was also something in the air...

"Why," LePrince explained condescendingly, "since the original plan has gone down the drain, I have to make do. And you have conveniently provided me with the means to bring this story to an ideal conclusion."

"And that is...?" the commander insisted. There was definitely something in the air. If only they could keep the man talking...

LePrince's amiable mask fell. "You all died valiantly defending your master from the alien invaders." He motioned his men forward. A few of them didn't have the same rifles as the rest but rather an assortment of futuristic weapons that must have been somehow obtained from the much-hated visitors.

Behind Yuu's back, Sylvain's hand hovered over his own weapon. He only had seven rounds, half the number he required, and he couldn't possibly fire them fast enough in any event. But he had to try... didn't he?

LePrince's goons took aim. They started squeezing the triggers.

"Throw down your weapons!" boomed a voice overhead.

Two dozen heads turned to stare at the decloaking orbital shuttle. It hovered low, and the mean-looking quad cannon under its nose was pointed at the armed men. "Now!" boomed the loudspeaker again.

They complied one by one, timidly, before taking a few steps back in stunned silence. LePrince's eyes darted from side to side, his surprise turning to despair, then determination. When the shuttle started lowering itself to the ground, he dived for one of the abandoned rifles.

"Down!" shouted Sylvain, shoving Yuu to the ground with one hand, while the other reached under his jacket. Time seemed to dilate like in that crazy new theory while he followed the steps drilled into him by his uncle. Grip with both hands, flex your knees, aim carefully...

Both shots went off at the same time. But Yuu hadn't been the target.

Everyone stared as LePrince bent over and collapsed. It took a moment before they realized Yuu's father was also bleeding.

"Don't worry," he grinned widely as his son rushed to his side, "I'm tough. Genemorphing isn't just for looks." Then his knees buckled and he put all his weight on Yuu's shoulder. The catboy didn't even flinch. "Yes, dad. Yes you are."

It was evening by the time things settled down at the Nazokawa residence.

"I would be cross with you for bringing a gun into my house, but you did save my life," said Mr. Nazokawa. He was sitting on the living room couch, the ribs on his left side bandaged. He turned to Yuu. "You're a good judge of character, son."

Sylvain smiled despite himself at the indirect compliment and looked at his uncle, who wasn't even trying to hide his satisfaction. "Yes, uncle, you told me so."

"I wasn't going to say it, nephew. But you and your new friends also saved the Treaty. With little help from me, I might add."

"Indeed," said Mrs. Nazokawa. "Not that it matters so much anymore."

"What do you mean, ma'am?" asked the officer.

"We held a teleconference with the rest of the survey team. Treaty or not, it would be a bad idea for us to maintain a presence here any longer. We ruffle too many feathers just by existing."

"But..." Sylvain's smile melted like snow in a furnace. "Does that mean you're no longer going to help us? Are we doomed to repeat centuries of mistakes then?"

"No. There's a better way. It was Yuu's idea, actually." She nodded towards her son. "Tell your friend."

For the first time, Yuu seemed shy. "We-ell... You see... Our resupply ship should be in orbit late next week, in time for the Treaty renewal. And... it will have plenty of room aboard." He took a deep breath. "Sylvain, won't you come with us? With me? Live on our homeworld for a while, learn our ways. Then you can come back and teach others too."

"It won't be easy, or safe," added Yuu's mother. "I fear there may be a faction among our own who doesn't want this to work. I can't imagine why, but how else did those men have our weapons?"

"We'll investigate, ma'am, you can be sure of that," the officer assured her. "What do you say, nephew?"

Sylvain's head was spinning. "Well. Uh. I mean, my bags are already packed." Then he was hugging Yuu in a most undignified manner. "Yes!"

And there was laughter in the house that night.


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Distant encounters by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.