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Authors: Piers Anthony

Awares

BOOK: Awares
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Awares

Piers Anthony

Chapter 1:

Mystery

Elasa and her son Bela awaited their guests in the garden, because this was a private visit. They arrived right on time: her friend Mona, Mona's fiancee Brian, Bunky the Lamb, the Vulture, and the Python. Brian was in Shepherd's body, Mona in her own, and Elasa was sure that Brian was well satisfied with that. The exchange program led to some interesting combinations.

“We just exchanged,” Mona said as she hugged Elasa. “It was quite an excursion, as you know.”

Bela, now a toddler, went to sniff noses with each of the animals. They knew each other from the group's brief visit to Earth five months before, facilitated by the Lamb's telepathy. All three animals had been ordinary Earth creatures until exchanged with the minds and memories of their Colony Jones counterparts. Now they still looked ordinary, but were anything but.

“Look how Bela has grown!” Mona exclaimed admiringly.

“He has good genes,” Elasa said. Bela was genetically Mona's child, because Elasa, being a machine, had no genes, but they never referred openly to that.

Then they got down to business as they sat on deck chairs and watched child and animals. Bela was happy to show off the features of the garden for his new friends, who were duly appreciative. “The Companions will have to stay with you,” Mona said. “I am busy with law, and Brian's busy with music. They know and respect you from that week you were with us on Jones, even if they can't relate to your mind.”

“Of course,” Elasa agreed. “I'm a stay-at-home housewife with time on my hands. A perfectly ordinary woman. The way I like it.”

“After six months apprenticeship for a similar situation, I appreciate its comfort,” Mona said. “But by the same token, I am now champing at the bit to tackle high-power law. Fifty percent is my limit for either pursuit, love or law.” She shrugged. “But you knew that. My father says there is a mystery that may relate to our interests.”

“One that Bunky can't fathom?” Because the Lamb was powerfully precognitive.

“He surely can handle it. We just need to get on it. What's worse is something we learned on Jones. There is a monstrous threat to Earth that even the sheep can't fathom. That's why we had to bring the Companions; we will need their help to have any chance of handling the situation, and even so, it is uncertain.”

“This is serious news,” Elasa said. “I trust the sheep.”

“So do I. That's why this is so alarming. They are unable to show us the path to victory. We shall have to find it for ourselves.” She took a breath. “If it exists.”

“Let's get into the one we can handle first,” Elasa suggested.

“People have been quietly disappearing, my father says. No signs of struggle, no apparent depression, no evidence of foul play. They just go about their routine business, and then fade out.”

“Such things happen all the time,” Elasa said. “I'm sure I could import memory banks full of similar cases.”

“My father discovered a unifying factor for these particular ones: they are all children of travelers to Colony Jones.”

“Now you have my attention.” As if she had not had it already. “No evidence of a plot against the colony?”

“No indication of that at all. We suspect that they are still alive and well, just hiding from their families and society. As though something has taken over their minds.”

“Like a vampire plant?”

“No evidence of that either. Maybe Venus will know, when she arrives here.”

“In five more months,” Elasa said. “Do we want to wait?”

Bunky turned his head toward them and bleated. “He said no,” Mona said. “In fact he suspects it's related to the larger threat.”

“Surely they are not turning zombie and getting ready to take over Earth,” Elasa said, smiling.

Even the Lamb seemed amused at that, before returning his focus to Bela. “No,” Mona agreed. “But there may be a connection.”

“So let's run down that connection.” Elasa was privately intrigued by the way that something she said could take effect, because Mona heard it and the Lamb picked it up from her mind. Elasa herself could not share minds, which she regretted. Yet that inability was what had enabled her to deal with the vampires on Jones.

“I'd appreciate it if you could,” Mona said. “The public eye is on me at the moment, so I don't want to be directly involved in this. But it may be important. Bunky isn't sure. There's something about those disappearances that is mysterious in itself. Things don't quite add up.”

“Hey, Companions!” Elasa called. “Will you work with me?”

All three paused and nodded, again understanding her via Mona.

“That's eerie,” Elasa said.

“Just keep them out of sight,” Mona said. “They'll know how to do that.”

There was a knock on the door. “Who could that be?” Banner asked. “I'll see to it.”

He returned in a moment. “This person you have to meet, dear.” He gestured the visitor forward.

It was a young woman, smiling tentatively. “Do I know you?” Elasa asked.

“Yes, Elasa. I am Oria. Oria Ogress. We met on Colony Planet Jones.”

“Oria!” Elasa exclaimed gladly. “You made it!”

“Just yesterday, in the first group of the expanded exchange program,” Oria said. “I just had to come to thank you personally, before I did anything else.”

Elasa hugged her. “I did put in the word when I returned to Earth, and Shep said he would see to it, but I didn't realize it was already in progress. I didn't recognize you in this body.”

Oria laughed. “Hardly surprising. I'm still getting used to it myself. It's so small! But you are unchanged.”

“This is Mona, in her own body,” Elasa said. “And Brian, exchanged. And the Companions.” She gestured to Lamb, Vulture, and Python. Each nodded, and Bunky came up to touch Oria, verifying her identity his way.

“I remember,” Oria said, patting him. “And thank you, Vulture, for warning us of the storm. We barely cleared the area in time. We hated to leave you there, but had no choice. We did return after the storm passed, but you had already departed. I'm glad you made it safely back.”

“We did,” Elasa agreed. “Thanks to the sheep.”

“Always trust the sheep,” Oria said seriously. “I must be on my way. I have classes to get to. Thank you again for making it possible.”

“You are more than welcome,” Elasa said as Oria left.

“I'm so glad it worked out,” Mona said. “The ogres really helped us.”

“And they liked my music,” Brian said, smiling.

Then Mona and Brian departed, leaving the three Companions with Elasa. Bela was pleased.

And there was the way she could work with the animals. Bela understood her fairly well, and the Lamb would be able to read his mind and relay it to the others.

First she made sure they were comfortable. She would have let them into the house, but they preferred the garden. She would have to arrange for grain, carrion and live rodents for their food, and shelter from storms.

In due course they got on the mystery of the disappearances. Elasa downloaded information confirming they they were children of travelers who had physically visited Colony Jones as tourists or crew members, so there had to be some connection either to the planet or travel in space. Some were in their 30s, some were still children, male and female, none known to have associated with any of the others. They had led separate lives, scattered around the planet. Until they started disappearing in the past six months. There was nothing in the records to indicate any problem with infection or physical adjustment.

Their families had of course been closely questioned, and had been eager to glean any information available, not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. But they had known nothing, and were sure the disappearances had not been planned. Then in the past month they seemed to have lost interest, or at least become resigned. They had put the matter out of their minds and were getting on with their lives. They no longer cooperated with the authorities; they simply wanted to be left alone to grieve in peace. That was in one sense understandable. But its suddenness was another mystery. It was as though they had gathered together, discussed the matter, and agreed to drop it. Yet there was no record of any such connection; no letters, phone calls, electronic social networks, nothing. They had simply, independently, decided.

She focused on prospects for more specific investigation, and quickly oriented on one: a man named Yon, a failed private eye. He had been hired by the family of another disappearee, Adela, to locate her, apparently because they were unsatisfied with the official investigation and he could be had cheap and off the record. Then he, too, had softly and silently disappeared, the last to go. So far.

“I wish I could mentally commune with you, Bunky,” she told the Lamb. “So I could summarize what I know in my mind, then let you read it and guide me to a path. You might lead me to Yon and solve the mystery.” She sighed. “But though I am conscious, I have no living synapses for you to pick up on. I'm just a dead automaton to you. I can't emulate life, as I do for most human folk I know. Damn!”

She was overwhelmed for a moment by tears of frustration. She had tried so hard to be a woman, a real-life woman, but though she had gained legal recognition, she remained a machine.

Bela, sensitive to her moods, came to comfort her. She embraced him gratefully. He at least accepted her as his mother.

She felt a nudge. The Lamb was there too. And the Vulture. And the Python. They were all touching her. They were evidently guided by Bela's feeling, emulating him. Maybe now they related to Bela because he was Mona's genetic son, and they had come to know and respect Mona during her six months on Jones.

She spread her arms and embraced them all. “Thanks, folks,” she said. “Even machines have feelings. At least this one does. We appreciate acceptance.”

Then she became aware of something else. It was just a feeling, a minor urgency, to seek darkness, go somewhere, do something. What brought that to mind? She wasn't given to flights of imagination. Yet somehow she wanted to—to go to Yon's office, to a panel behind the kitchen sink, turn the handle of a tap. An obviously pointless exercise, not at all typical of her logical mind. Was she suffering the illusion of a human daydream? Impossible; that was not in her programming.

Bunky bleated.

Suddenly it came to her. It was not her thought.

Bela and all three animals were looking at her.

“Was that your thought?” she asked the Lamb, amazed.

Bunky bleated again, and she heard it as Yes.

“But I'm not telepathic,” she protested. “I'm not even alive. I can't receive thoughts.”

There was a silent blast of negation. She had definitely received a thought.

“You sent me a thought,” she said slowly. “And I received it. The three or four of you got together and overpowered my doubt.”

Now there was a thought of agreement. She was definitely receiving it.

“Pardon me a moment,” she murmured. “I have to cry.”

And cry she did, for several minutes, while baby and animals patiently supported her, physically and emotionally. It was her joy at achieving a breakthrough beyond any she had had since becoming conscious. She was relating mentally to living things. It was half a step farther toward empathy, a living quality she had emulated but not actually felt. Until now.

At length she came out of it. “I thank you, Companions,” she said. “We are going to get along.”

That afternoon she explained it to her husband Banner. “I have had a breakthrough, thanks to the visiting animals. They reached me telepathically.”

He caught the significance immediately. “Your mind is coming alive!”

“At least in their presence, when they focus, when I am with Bela,” she agreed. “Bunky has a lot of telepathic power. Now, tonight, guided by the Lamb, I must do some sneaking and finding, so others won't know. Is this okay with you?”

“Are you sure? I doubt you'll find anything; the police have gone over all those lost-people homes.”

“But not with precognition. The Lamb thinks he can find it.”

“Find what?”

“What we need. Whatever it is.”

“Go for it,” he agreed, kissing her. One of the things she loved about him was his reliable support of her endeavors, whatever they were.

She went for it, trusting the sheep. Banner took care of Bela at home, while Elasa drove with the animals to the deserted office of Yon the Private Eye. Guided by the Lamb she sneaked around to the dark back door. It was locked, of course. But Python slithered into a vent, and before long the door opened, unlatched from inside. Elasa, Bunky, and Vulture entered. They were successful housebreakers, or whatever. There did not even seem to be an alarm.

Inside Elasa used a small flashlight, though she could fairly readily make her way in darkness, as could the animals. Vulture stood guard at the open door, in case anyone came. Guided by the Lamb and continuing thoughts, Elasa made her way to the kitchen, opened the panel of the cupboard beneath the sink, saw dirty sponges and bottles, reached in, found the grimy knob, and turned it. What was she going to get, a drip of filthy grease? In a moment it swung out, revealing a small compartment. Oho! No wonder the police had not tried this. Yon had had a cunning notion how to hide something private. She reached in and found a small machine: a pocket recorder. Bunky's thought confirmed it: that was what they had come for.

She tucked it into a pocket, closed the compartment, and followed the animals out of the house, carefully closing the door behind her. With luck no one would know they had even been there, let alone found something the police had missed.

“I wonder what is on this, that makes this so important,” Elasa mused as she drove home with the Companions. “I hope it's not a message from the grave, as it were.”

Bunky bleated, amused.

When they got home, Elasa checked the unit more closely. It was a standard almost antique model with a battery backup. She plugged it in so as not to drain the battery, and turned it on. It turned out to be a somewhat jumpy narration by the subject, Yon Yonson, who apparently did not fully trust modern devices like holo recorders or the Internet and had kept this very private verbal record for his own information. Until he disappeared.

BOOK: Awares
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