Rose by Any Other Name, by Brian K. Lowe

Kaine had been drawn to the mysterious Old Machines, trying to unlock their perilous secrets. But this traveler from the future soon learns that the secret of one mysterious girl traveling with a talking ape may be the most dangerous of all!

 

Kaine was crouching before a crystalline console tinkering with an ancient mechanism whose function he only thought he understood.

The next thing he knew, he was lying on soft, close-cropped grass. He remembered falling, tree branches raking his skin as he fell from the sky. He remembered his fingers skidding painfully off loose, oily bark, and how he managed to hang on to the next branch just for a moment before it broke under his weight. His body throbbed in pain in time with his heartbeat, but he couldn’t feel any broken bones or the sticky spread of blood.

The Old Machines, like the one he’d been trying to activate a few moments ago, operated on principles so poorly understood as to seem deliberately malicious. God only knew where he had been dropped this time. Through his dizziness, he heard distant voices.

“What was that?” demanded one, guttural and wary.

“Never mind,” another muttered. “They must’ve heard us! We’ve got to do it now!” Feet beat a tattoo on hard ground not far off, and drawing closer.

Kaine’s head was starting to clear, enough to allow him to orient himself. He tumbled to his feet, threatening a new wave of dizziness. He detached the telescoping staff on his left hip, but left his heavy ancient pistol holstered. Kaine hoped he appeared more ready to defend himself than he felt.

The park-like glade he had landed in was illuminated dimly by the half-moon and the glowing graffiti on the surrounding buildings. At least please tell me I haven’t travelled through time again. Glancing up, Kaine could see that the crack in the Moon looked the same. It was a small reassurance.

Most of the glade was covered in the short wild grass to whose cushioning he owed his life, or at least his limbs. Behind him the tree through which he had fallen grew alongside a graffiti-covered wall and cast gnarled shadows that might have offered him shelter—but now it was too late.

Four figures stopped short at the sight of him. Three were native human, shorter and lighter than he by half. They were of little consequence. The fourth… was a breen.

A genetic blend of man and wolverine, the breen bulked nearly six feet of lean muscle covered by sleek silver-tipped brown fur. The breen sported needle claws and intelligent close-set eyes that glittered in the moonlight. He could easily be at Kaine’s throat in heartbeat. But breen were also known for their tendency to kill any other creature on sight, not to stand companionably in the company of humans. Why would this specimen be traveling with these three?

Kaine drew his staff instead of his pistol because his supply of ammunition was virtually irreplaceable. He hoped he wouldn’t regret his thrifty impulse while the others studied him.

“My god,” one of the humans said. “He’s a giant! Where did he come from?”

“When” would be a better question, Kaine thought as he shifted his grip on the staff. To them, he was a Neanderthal. “Look, I don’t know what you’re after, but it has nothing to do with me.”

They ignored him. “What do we do, Morgn?” one asked. “We don’t have much time.”

“I know.” The smallest of them, Morgn, was balding and round, but his words were quick and clipped. “He’s seen Secanthe. He’ll raise the alarm.” He gestured past Kaine. “You two follow the others. Secanthe, kill him.”

The breen whom Morgn had called Secanthe howled its fierce, shrill cry designed by long-dead genetic engineers to paralyze his prey’s nervous system. But Kaine met the scream with a cry of his own, knelt quickly, and angled the staff to meet the creature as it came down. At the last instant, the breen gave an inhuman twist to avoid the pole that would have impaled him. He landed badly, but was on his feet before Kaine might press an attack.

Kaine had no such suicidal intent. He backed up to the wall, giving Secanthe less room to maneuver.

Kaine had no time to draw his sidearm, but his staff gave him the advantage of reach. The breen had strong hands and fingers, but lacking an opposable thumb, he would not be able to seize the staff from Kaine’s grasp. And breen had been created to attack, not besiege. The longer Kaine could keep him at bay, the more frustrated he would become.

Morgn’s remaining men had run off to fulfill whatever mission had brought them into Kaine’s path, but their leader hung back, either wanting to see the breen at work, or amazed that Kaine still breathed.

Secanthe feinted, a quick thrust to see how the large human would react–and got a rap on the knuckles for his trouble. He paced back and forth, awaiting an opening that Kaine was not about to give him. Morgn, his eyes following every motion, left his own gun holstered, making no move to rob the breen of his prey.

Secanthe began to range further and further in each direction, leaving his flank open, but Kaine had chosen his ground and stuck with it even while the cold sweat began to drip down his spine.

There was a sudden flurry of sound just out of sight down the path. Secanthe cocked his head to listen, and Kaine struck—only to see Secanthe sinuously dodge the staff and aim a wicked clawed kick at his belly.

But Kaine’s lunge had been a feint as well. He leaned out of harm’s way, stabbed the staff into the earth and pushed off, above the kick, then returned it with interest, driving his boot straight into Secanthe’s nose. The breen grabbed his snout, howling in an oddly flat tone, and Kaine drew his sidearm, firing point-blank. Secanthe crumpled to the earth, and Kaine swung around to confront Morgn.

The little man gaped at the pistol, hands over his ears. “What was that?”

“Never mind.” Kaine gestured, and Morgn tossed his own gun aside . Kaine collapsed his staff one-handed and slapped it into place at his side while keeping Morgn covered.

He heard a shout; Morgn’s men had reached their prey. Kaine stepped up and felled Morgn with a quick, short punch then sprinted for the sound.

In a moonlit defile formed by two buildings, a figure whom Kaine recognized as part of Morgn’s gang stood pointing a glowing cylinder at a pair of bodies lying on the ground. As the bandit straightened his arm with unmistakable intent, Kaine shot him.

Kaine arrived as the intended victim groaned and sat up, and Kaine, who had extended a hand to help him to his feet, suddenly withdrew it again. Strong as he was compared to most men, Kaine would not boast of being able to lift a gorilla.

The ape did not seem to take offense and raised himself slowly without aid. “Thanks,” he said, shaking his head, in a smooth bass voice. “Since I’m still alive, I assume it’s thanks to you.”

Kaine had met so-called “humanized” animals before, but never one quite so imposing as the massive silverback which stood before him. “They’re all dead,” Kaine said, to cover his surprise. “Except their leader, and he’s back there sleeping.”

“Good,” the gorilla said, peering into the shadows. “Thorne? You can come out now. It’s all right.”

Kaine heard a scraping among the bushes, and tensed, but the gorilla put an arm in front of him. A girl emerged from the shrubs. She was slim and small, only lately come into adulthood. Her hair shone silver-grey in the dim light around her pale face, and her wide eyes flicked back and forth from her friend to the helpful stranger.

“I’m Balu,” said the ape, turning to Kaine. “And this is Thorne.” His attitude, like the girl’s, was friendly but wary.

“Kaine.”

“Who are you?” the girl demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“That’s not polite, Thorne,” Balu said gently, before Kaine could decide how to respond. “How many people would have helped us—” abruptly he stopped, his nostrils dilating, and his voice rose in surprise—”against a breen?”

The girl sucked in a frightened breath.

“Don’t worry. It’s dead,” Kaine grunted. He disliked drawing attention to himself, and these two not only drew attention, they drew assassins. Not to mention that the gunshots had been loud enough to wake the dead. But the gorilla was not to be shunted off so easily.

“And yet, he carries what appears to be a very large gun. Those are illegal.”

“As are beam weapons,” Kaine said. “Which your friend here tried to use on you. So perhaps we should simply say our goodnights before the police show up.”

“Not a problem in this neighborhood.” Balu casually reached to pick up one of the cylindrical weapons. He barely had to bend his knees. “Cantalian needlers. Not black market. You know what that means?”

“I assume it means these weren’t just casual robbers. But we knew that already.” Kaine nodded back the way he had come. “Human and breen don’t work together. Ever. We can let the police figure it out.”

“Yet these did.” Balu quickly stepped to the other two bodies and relieved them of their weaponry. “And stop worrying about the civil guard. If they come around before morning it’ll be a miracle.” He handed one of the small cylinders to Kaine. “Can’t use three.”

Kaine glanced at Thorne inquisitively, but Balu either did not pick up on the implied question, or else ignored it.

“The authorities are going to have a lot of questions,” Kaine said. “Two human bodies, and a breen… my gunshots. I’d really like to be somewhere else when they get here—whenever that is.”

“So would I, but I’ve got questions right now,” Balu said. “You said you left one of them alive?”

Kaine nodded and turned to point, then cursed as he saw Morgn disappearing into the distance, bandy legs churning over the grass.

“He must have been tougher than he looked.”

The gorilla shrugged. “No help for it now. No reason to stick around, either, I guess.”

“Well, good luck. I hope you find out who sent them to kill you.” Kaine patted his weapons. “Nice meeting you, Thorne.”

Balu stopped him with a touch. “Hold on. We’re in this together now. They’ve seen you, too. Besides, we owe you.”

About to brush the offer aside and leave, Kaine abruptly realized that he had nowhere to go. He didn’t even know where he was.

“Do you have a safe place to spend the night?” he asked.

“We do.”

“Then you can pay me back by taking me there.”

 

Balu and Thorne’s room was clean but spartan to a fault. Upon their arrival, the lights brightened automatically, glaring harshly until Balu ordered them toned down. At Thorne’s command a bed extruded from one wall. She sat on it while Kaine and Balu claimed two plain chairs that rose from the floor.

“We could order some art,” Balu said, indicating the sickly white walls, “but it costs extra.”

“Not much of a fan anyway,” Kaine said. “Uh, do you mind if I ask where we are?”

Balu snorted. “I don’t think this place has a name. That’s why we picked it.”

“No, I mean, where are we? I kind of found myself here by accident.”

Balu blinked. “The town’s called Bacclay. I guess there’s no reason you would ever have heard of it. It used to be something but now it isn’t.”

Thorne had not taken her eyes off of Kaine for several minutes. “You’re different,” she blurted. “Why?”

By now, though, Kaine had had time to anticipate her odd moods.

“You tell me your story, then we’ll see.”

“Why? I asked first.”

Kaine glanced at Balu, who answered for him. “He saved our lives, Thorne. He didn’t have to get involved. We owe him an explanation.” Kaine refrained from reminding them that his involvement had been entirely accidental.

Thorne frowned. “I ran away from home,” she said after a pause. “They didn’t understand me. They wanted me to be something I wasn’t. I was looking through some ruins, hoping to find something I could sell. There was a bright light, and when I woke up, I didn’t look like myself any more. I looked like this.” She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I didn’t know what to do. I found some coins in the dirt, and I used them to buy some food and stuff, and then these men came looking for me and started chasing me. I ran into Balu, and he helped me get away.”

“You were playing around in some ruins, there was a bright light, and now you’re in another body…?”

Thorne lifted her chin. “You think I’m lying. But there was an Old Machine in those ruins.”

Remnants of Earth’s long past, Old Machines had survived their original eras in bits and pieces whose operation was now forgotten, but glorified in song and story. Kaine had had more experience with Old Machines than he’d wanted, none of it good, but he couldn’t leave them alone; they were his only chance to go home.

“Okay, I believe you, but why is someone after you?”

Balu reached into his pocket and extracted a coin. “This is one of the coins she found in the ruins.” He passed it over.

Kaine turned it over in his hands. Coins were still used in this era, but mostly by children or those with no credit history—such as himself. This one was small, brown, and old, its serrated edges worn down by decades, if not centuries, of handling. On one side was an image of the sun, circled about by writing he did not recognize. On the other side Kaine saw a familiar face. He looked up and saw the same face.

“Someone thinks Thorne is the woman on the coin.”

“Thorne is the woman on the coin. In appearance, at any rate. We rented a data port in town. Apparently this woman was really important about five hundred years ago; she was queen or something. We think somebody recognized her face and they think Thorne used a Machine to change herself.”

Kaine nodded. For reasons no one knew, only a few people could safely activate an Old Machine. Many sought the relics out; most met with failure—by turns complete and catastrophic. Anyone who survived an encounter with an Old Machine was highly prized, either to be hired, or enslaved and sold to the highest bidder. Balu would have been amazed to know that not one, but two, of those rare people were with him in this very room.

“But you don’t know how you did it,” Kaine said, drawing more from experience than Thorne could have guessed. “So why don’t you just go home? I’m sure your family would protect you.”

“Protect me? They wouldn’t even know me. And even if they did, it would be the same as before. I ran away, remember?” Thorne put her head down on her raised knees and said almost inaudibly: “Not that I’m doing very well here, either.” Thorne was young, and attractive, yet when she looked up her appraising gaze made Kaine uncomfortable. “Still…”

He hastily changed the subject. “Why were you outside after dark? Seems rather risky, under the circumstances.”

“I was hungry,” Thorne said. Suddenly she jumped to her feet and began to pace rapidly. “I’m hungry now!”

“The change seems to have had an effect on her… metabolism.” Balu explained. “She acts on appetite.”

Behind Balu, Thorne stopped pacing long enough to fix Kaine with a stare that said her appetites were not confined to food.

“That’s why I think we should go back to the ruins.” Balu said, oblivious to the by-play. “If you can figure out how that thing works, you can name your own price.”

“And I’m telling you it’s too dangerous!” She stomped back into his line of sight. “We should leave town; there’s got to be another Machine I can learn to operate. With you to protect me, we could live anywhere.”

“We can’t just run blindly; they almost caught us tonight. We know where these Machines are—if we go back to the ruins, maybe we can find a way to use them. And Kaine…” Balu turned his attention to Kaine. “Do you want a job?”

The question took Kaine off-guard, but he was going to have get a look at this Machine sooner or later. Every encounter with them told him something. Perhaps Thorne could help him understand it. Perhaps between the two of them they could even learn how to operate it.

Kaine nodded. “Yes. I’ll go with you…”

 

Somewhat to Kaine’s surprise, their room could actually manufacture semi-private sleeping bays for each of them. He lay in the dark, dressed but for his boots, his mind struggling to adjust to his current situation. He had followed his last clue to his last Machine which had brought him here. Was being here, where there were at least more Machines, any worse than being on his own?

One of the walls around his bed folded back into the floor. He saw a shadow pass before the room’s single window and felt a presence next to him, then the wall rose again. He tensed as the shadow leaned forward, dark on the darkness, and tensed again, differently, as warm lips met his mouth. Thorne’s arms wrapped about his neck and, as in a dream, she was on top of him.

For a long moment he returned her passion, his body arching, lifting to meet her. She was amazingly light but stronger than she looked, and it took an effort to tear away from her. Already he was panting.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She covered his mouth again. “I’m sure,” she whispered when she came up for breath. “Balu’s great but—he’s not what I need. Please, Kaine, you don’t know what I’ve been through…” And then she managed to lock her legs around his thighs and he could feel the heat of her as she began moving sinuously in an ancient dance that he couldn’t fail to respond to.

Hours later, he thought he awoke to feel her silently sobbing against his breast, but his aching body could not sustain consciousness, and he slipped back to sleep unable to say if it had been just a dream.

 

“What the hell did you do to her?”

Kaine awoke to find the bedroom partition down and Balu leaning right in his face. He gripped his staff convulsively, but the gorilla was already backing away, pacing the room.

“Look, what you two want to do in the privacy—well, what you want to do is your business. I saw the way she looked at you last night. She’s been looking for something since I met her, something she’s missing, but damned if I know what. Now she spends the night with you and in the morning she’s gone!”

Kaine was not eager to test the limits of Balu’s patience. He dressed hurriedly, racking his brain for any clue he might have missed last night. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall the details. It had been too unexpected, too…”passionate” wasn’t the word he wanted. It had felt almost more like war than love. And had she been crying…?

“Do you have any idea where she might go? Has she talked about her family, or friends? Anything about who she was before this happened?”

Balu stopped pacing and stared out the window.

“No. Like she said, she was a runaway. And now she’s done it again.”

“You think maybe she went to the ruins?”

Balu’s face crinkled. “Why would she go to the ruins? That’s exactly where she didn’t want to go.”

“You said it yourself; she’s a creature of appetite. If she thinks whatever she’s looking for is there, that’s where she’d go.”

“I’ve been trying to get her to go back there with me for a week!”

“Maybe she thought it was dangerous, and she was trying to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Spreading his arms and rising to his full height, Balu almost filled the room. “From what?”

Kaine shrugged helplessly. “We’re not going to find out standing here. Do you know where the ruins are?”

“Yeah, there’s just the one set of ’em. It’ll take us about an hour on foot.”

“Then let’s go. We may not be the only ones looking for her there.”

 

Kaine and Balu lay under the cover of scrub bushes on a hillside overlooking a small gully choked with giant ferns, dry and yellowed by the sun. The ground was splattered with patches of short, bright red lichens, the clash of colors threatening to give Kaine a headache. Near the bottom of the gully stood four walls and part of a roof, the last remnants of a non-descript two-story block building whose age and purpose were both lost to time. To the builders’ credit, however, the doors were still intact.

“Okay,” Balu said, dragging out the word. “Now you want to tell me what you’re doing here?”

“Waiting to see if anyone else shows up.”

“That’s not what I meant. You pop up out of nowhere last night the size of two men, save our butts, and swallow Thorne’s story like you hear it every day. But you never answered Thorne’s question. Now I may be just another country gorilla, but I know you aren’t a typical human. And since we’re out here facing who knows what dangers together, I have a right to know: what’s your story?”

Kaine frowned. He had hoped to come up with a plausible lie last night, but Thorne’s visit had upset his plans. A familiar theme: before he’d walked into that cave in France, he hadn’t planned to be within a million years of here…

“I’m a time traveler.” The weight that suddenly fell from his shoulders told him how Thorne had felt the night before, admitting her secret. In a few sentences, he told Balu about the war, the time travel expedition and their tragic end at the hands of his enemies, and how he’d been forced to flee through a time portal leading to a strange land and time. “From what I’ve been able to gather, if there’s any way home, it’s through the Old Machines. I’ve been hunting from one to the next, hoping I can figure out how they work, and trying to find one that will send me back.”

Balu was silent for several heartbeats. “All right, so Thorne’s story isn’t the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard. And is that how you happened to be there last night?”

“Actually, no. I’m here completely by accident. I think the Machine I was working on exploded. Anyway, I woke up and I was here.”

After a moment, Balu asked: “How long ago—did you come from?”

“How long has the Moon had that crack through the middle?”

“Um, I don’t know, always? I’ve never heard of it not being there.”

“Well, it wasn’t there where I come from.”

“Really? Wow.” Balu took a moment. “No wonder you don’t want talk about yourself. If anybody knew about you, you’d be worth a fortune. Is that where you got that huge piece of metal you wear on your belt?”

Kaine withdrew his sidearm from its holster. “This is one of the few things I’ve held onto from my own time. It’s called a Colt 1911. It fires a copper-jacketed projectile when you squeeze the trigger, here.” He pointed out the various parts of the weapon. “It kicks like a mule and its range is nothing like a beam weapon, but the noise is very distracting, and it punches right through refractive armor.”

Down below, a feathery yellow branch moved without a breeze. Thorne slowly emerged from the ferns near the abandoned installation, looking each way.

“There she is,” Balu whispered. “She’s being careful.”

Apparently satisfied that she had remained undiscovered, Thorne approached the building. She waved her hand through the air alongside the door, but nothing happened. From his hiding place, Kaine saw Thorne frown and wave her hand again. When the results were the same, Thorne’s frown twisted into an expression of growing dismay. She slammed her hand on the door. To her watchers’ surprise, the portal slid open meekly, allowing to Thorne dart inside, before shutting behind her.

“Didn’t see that coming,” Balu said. Kaine was already rising to his feet.

“Well, she’s in. The question is, is anyone else coming?” Kaine began to sidestep down the hill, Balu following him easily.

“Like somebody who hires breen to do his dirty work?”

They reached the bottom of the hill and trotted up to the door, but it would not open to their waving hands any more than it had for Thorne, and unlike in her case, it did not respond even to their pounding.

At Balu’s suggestion, they circled the building but found no other means of entrance. The gorilla stopped at the rear and looked up. The wall here was cracked, with holes where the material had fallen away just above their heads. Balu placed his hands on the wall, trying to fit his fingers into the cracks.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m a pretty good climber. I think I can make it to the roof and get in that way.”

Kaine looked at the wall, then at Balu. Back in the century of his birth, apes still climbed trees and did not talk. He could not help but wonder how much Balu knew about where his climbing skills originated.

“Try it, then, and see if you can find Thorne. She could get herself in a lot of trouble.”

Balu nodded and began to pull himself upward. Kaine watched for a moment then returned to the front of the building, intending to hide again.

It was not necessary.

“A giant and a gorilla. Not hard to find, if you’re willing to spend a little for the information.”

One or two of the waiting men were nearly Kaine’s own size. All of them had some kind of assault rifle pointed in Kaine’s direction. Morgn stood in his accustomed position at their center, beaming with evident satisfaction. Two of his men stepped up to relieve Kaine of his weapons.

“No breen today?” Kaine had hoped to unnerve some of Morgn’s men by this remark. He was disappointed, though; their stony faces registered nothing.

“My business is none of your business,” Morgn replied. “Tell me where the girl is. And if you say you don’t know–” he added quickly–”my men will shoot you.”

Kaine closed his mouth, swallowing his intended response. He was outnumbered six to one, not counting Morgn, who was not showing a weapon. Not long odds, merely astronomical.

“She went inside.”

“Did she, now?” Morgn hesitated. The look on his face told that the little man was plainly torn between the wisdom of holding Kaine against the chance that he was lying and the satisfaction of having him shot right then and there. Prudence won out, apparently, and Morgn ordered two men to take him aside to the edge of the clearing and hold him.

As Thorne and Kaine had before him, Morgn tried to activate the door with hand gestures and, just as Thorne and Kaine had, he failed. He looked at Kaine, who suggested brute force with all sincerity. Unsurprisingly, this also failed, as did the obvious next step, blasting the door.

“Never mind!” Morgn spat at last. “If she’s in there, she has to come out. Spread out around the back.” As this required one of Kaine’s guards, Morgn took his man’s place at Kaine’s side. Kaine wondered how long it would take him to realize he could free up two men and eliminate a threat at the same time.

And then the screaming started.

The first, from behind the building, was abruptly cut off. They heard the air sizzle with burning radiation, then another gurgling death rattle, this time closer. Morgn and his henchman stared at each other across Kaine—who spun and hit the larger guard in the face.

Grabbing his captor’s rifle, Kaine scrambled across the man and stumbled about to face Morgn, but the short man merely toppled forward, the back of his neck neatly and silently sliced open. Kaine heard another shot from behind the building, and then nothing.

He edged toward the building, eyes darting back and forth, stolen gun at the ready. It was so quiet he thought he could hear the dust move. Just as he reached the door it slid open.

“Get in here, quick!” Hardly waiting to see if Kaine’s feet had cleared the entrance, Balu sealed the door again.

Despite centuries of neglect, upholstered chairs still awaited visitors, the floor was covered with clean, soft green carpet, and the red wooden reception desk was dust-free, evidence of automated systems still at work. Balu half-dragged Kaine to a staircase and went up. The wide corridors on the second floor were clean until they passed through a still-functioning pair of glass doors, where dust and cobwebs became the order of the day. Up ahead, the gaping roof was all the explanation needed for the change.

Kaine and Balu stopped in a corner room dominated by a smooth glass console in the center. The dust had been hastily wiped away. Beyond the console stood a half-enclosure whose interior was painted a once-bright red. A thick transparent cable ran from the console to a bank of cabinets on one wall directly below the gash in the ceiling. Kaine knew an Old Machine when he saw one, but he noted it only in passing.

“Where’s Thorne?”

“Down there.” Balu lead him to a window that had not been visible from below. “It’s all right. They can’t see us.”

A small clearing at the back of the building marked what might have once been a patio or landing pad. As Kaine watched, the gunman he’d hit slipped into view, a weapon held ready. A grey streak flung itself from cover, blurring past him. The gunman fell, his blood pooling on the ground.

“What was that?”

“That was Thorne,” Balu said. Kaine stared. “She said she’d been transformed, Kaine, she just never said how. We assumed she was human all along, but we were wrong. Now she’s back to normal.

“I was standing nearby when she came out of the machine. I thought I was dead. But she just ran past me, jumped on those cabinets, and out through that hole in the ceiling. When people started screaming, I went looking for you.”

Kaine may have muttered his thanks, but his eyes were glued to his narrow slice of the outside world. They heard no more shots, no more screams. Then the grey shape appeared again.

It was smaller than Secanthe, the breen Kaine had killed the night before, but its claws dripped blood, and its fur was streaked with red. It raised its head, letting out a screech, and other, larger, breen started to appear like magic until fully a half-dozen surrounded their red-streaked comrade. Kaine’s blood froze as they raised their heads as one, unerringly seeking him through the window they should not know was there, teeth bared.

But the small one must have said something, for they turned back to her, and all at once the entire pack loped into the brush, not hurrying, letting their retreat be watched, contemptuous in their ease. Even so, they were gone between one heartbeat and the next.

“They wanted us, too,” Balu murmured.

“But she told them to let us go.” Kaine let loose a shuddering breath.

“You were right. She wasn’t afraid someone was going to follow us if we came back here—she was afraid she’d kill me. That’s why she came alone. But why now? She could have come back any time.”

“Last night. With me.” Kaine said. “She was trying very hard to fit in, to be human. She was hoping that I could help her do that, but it didn’t work. So she ran away again, back home.”

They leaned against the wall and sank to the floor.

“I know the breen were looking for her, too,” Balu mused, “but it’s still weird that they’d be working with humans.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Kaine admitted. “I’d like to know how they did that. I’d also like to know how Thorne made the Machine work. Maybe there’s more to the breen than we think.”

“You want to ask them, you go right ahead.”

Kaine looked around the deserted laboratory, the Machine, the hole in the roof, and thought of the bloody bodies outside.

“Breen can’t climb as well as you, right?”

“I hear they’re really bad at it.”

“Then I think I’ll stay here a while.”

“Yeah,” Balu said. “I think I will too.”

Brian K. Lowe is a 20th-century man living in the 21st century writing fiction about the 100th century. On his rare visits to the present, he can be found at brianklowe.wordpress.com.

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