Colony High

Book One of the High Horizon Series

High school junior Mark Bamford is skeptical when rumors fly about the California town of Twenty-Nine Palms… rumors of a kidnapped alien!  Only soon he and Alexandra Behr and their friends discover things are pretty weird in town and getting weirder by the moment. Soon they are involved in plots that range from inter-scholastic to international to interstellar. Their lives… and every student’s at TNP High… will never be the same.

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“Some Math Club nerds have got a real live alien! They’re hiding it in a basement rec room!”

High School junior Mark Bamford doesn’t believe the silly rumor. For one thing, here in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms? California homes don’t have basements! Besides….

A stranded alien? Seriously? Can we say c-l-i-c-h-é? Movie rip-off? Can’t the math geeks think up a better hoax?

But then… Why are black vans from the super-secret Cirrocco Corp cruising all over town, searching for something?

Mark and his pal Alexandra decide to do some investigating of their own. Only, where can they turn for help? The skateboarding “X” crowd? The varsity climbing team? It’s not like their social circle is an elite spy force!

Perhaps though… with home grown ingenuity… a little sleight of hand—okay, call it double-dealing, whatever….

The truth isn’t just ‘out there.’ It may be right next door.

Now available in full length for the first time – winner of the Hal Clement Award for YA fiction – comes the first book in a series about young humans confronting an age-old theme—that of strangers from beyond—giving it new shape, guided by the deft hand of one of science fiction’s modern masters.

Rumors can take on a life of their own.  Sometimes, they spread like a virus.

The latest bit of hearsay?

Some of the Math Club geeks have got their hands on a real live alien!

They’re keeping it hidden in a basement rec room, no less.

Mark had listened to some wild tales while growing up, wherever Dad happened to be stationed at the time. Just as soon as he could pick up some local dialect, Mark would foray to the nearest village or town and tap the gossip mill, fascinated by the bottomless human appetite for preposterous lies.  From conspiracy theories murmured in a Lebanese bazaar to scandals about local pop stars, circulating through Manila alleys — the things people believed!

Still, it wasn’t till Dad got transferred back to Southern California that Mark realized — there’s no place better to breed wild stories than an American high school.

Especially Twenty-Nine Palms High, where the football team mascot, Spookie, wore a huge trench-coat, a floppy hat and big black eye-mask.  Beyond all the nasty stories that kids typically spread about each other, and hearsay concerning the dating habits of certain teachers, there were always colorful rumors about what went on at the nearby airbase.  Or within the top-secret, opaque walls of Cirocco Labs.

But this one — about the Math Club guys having an extraterrestrial of their very own?

Well, it beat all.

Not that Mark believed a word of it.

California homes don’t have basements, for one thing.

Besides. A captive alien?

Such a cliché.  A stupid movie rip-off.  Couldn’t the nerds come up with a better hoax?  Crap, some of their parents worked at Cirocco.  What good are brains if you can’t be original?

When some of his classmates said they were going over to see for themselves after school, Mark begged off. He had other things in mind. Especially an hour later, staring down at the varsity soccer team —

girls varsity, in blue shorts and yellow tops. They charged across the athletic field in formations as intricate as Dad’s squadron during inspection week … but a whole lot more alluring.  The star forward, her tawny legs pumping, somehow made sweat and cutthroat ferocity seem, well —

“Bam?” A voice called to him from above. “Bamford, what are you doing?”

The words made him twitch, almost losing his precarious perch upon a stub of concrete, jutting from the wall.  Mark dug in with three fingertips of his left hand while probing desperately for a ledge to set his right foot.  His heartbeat jolted and spots danced before his eyes like flashing balls.

“Are you all right?  Bam?”

“Ye — yeah,” he grunted, short of breath.

“Well stop staring at Helene Shockley and focus!”

“Not … staring …” he grunted, both irritated and embarrassed. “Slack … Gimme a lot.”

Some tension left the rope, easing pressure from the climbing harness on his thighs and groin, freeing him to lean and traverse, seeking a higher footing.  This part of the wall was tricky, designed for competitions in a brand-new league. He would have to master it in order to make the team.

“More slack!” The rope still wasn’t loose enough for this reach.

“But …”

“Come on, Alex … I’m fighting the clock here. Slack!”

There was time to make up — precious seconds stupidly wasted during that blank stare at the soccer players.  Damn hormones.

“Well, fine.” She sounded dubious. “But concentrate!”

The rope loosened still more. He bore down, focusing on the task at hand.

Relax, you’re in a California desert suburb.  No lives are at stake … this time.

Unlike that cliff in Morocco, when his father had to stay with a critically injured aid worker, sending Mark cross-country for help. One steep shortcut shaved an hour off the round trip … and Dad later blistered his ears over taking the risk.

The lip of Mark’s left shoe found a crevice.  Hardly more than a ripple in the wall. He tested it …

“That one’s iffy,” commented the voice overhead.

Be quiet.  But he didn’t have breath to say it. Shifting his weight to the narrow ledge and feeling a sudden burn in his calf, he launched himself upward, reaching ambitiously past a safe hand-hold, grabbing at the last one before the top.  For an instant he glimpsed Alex, scowling with concern, her cropped brown hair framed by blue desert sky.

This’ll show her I know what I’m

His hand brushed the knob — the same instant that his shoe slipped.  Mark clutched frantically, two fingers bearing all his weight as both legs dangled, desperately seeking a purchase, anything at all.  Specks of rough concrete crumbled under the pressure. Pain lanced down his wrist and arm.

“Mark!”

He saw Alex try to reach for him, and suddenly remembered. I asked for slack.  I hope not too much —

The knob seemed to tear away with deliberate malice — and the ground swung up.  Mark glimpsed shouting figures below, scattering out of the way.

Almost too late, the autotensioner kicked in, yanking the safety line hard enough to empty his lungs, stopping his plummet just short of impact. Splayed with arms and legs flung apart, facing the sky like a crushed flower. Like roadkill.

For some unmeasurable time he hung there, tasting acid, blinking away pain-dazzles and struggling to catch his breath till Alex popped the release, easing him down the rest of the way.

Those scattered figures returned, crowding around as Mark’s vision cleared — youths who were bigger, stronger and sweatier than most.  Well, everyone agreed that the Climbing Wall stood too close to the Free Weights area.

The tallest body-builder leaned over, expressing false concern. “You okay there, Bamford?  Want a pillow?”

Jeez. All I need right now is Scott Tepper, Mark thought.

And yet — there was no choice but to clasp the blond senior’s offered hand.  Better to stand quickly, ignore the pain and try not to groan, even if that meant swaying for several heartbeats.

“You’re lucky Coach wasn’t here,” Scott continued, still looking down at Mark from half a head taller. “He’s already ticked off that they put this stupid climbing wall here.”

“Yeah,” growled Colin Gornet, nearly as towering as Scott but much heavier, pushing close and poking with a finger.  But that wasn’t what made Mark recoil.  The big lineman packed aroma.

“You could’ve killed somebody, Bamford!  When Coach finds out, your ‘ascent team’ will be history.”

Brushing Gornet’s jabbing finger aside, Mark glanced at the nearest weight station. It lay at least three meters from the base of the wall.  Plenty of room!  He was about to argue the point when Scott Tepper raised a palm.

“No need for Coach to find out.” He interposed, keeping Colin’s persistent arm from poking again. A good thing, since Mark had had enough.

“But Scott, next time this moron falls …”

“There won’t be a next time. Will there, Bamford?”

Mark couldn’t think of anything to say. Though fuming inside, he knew it was a losing proposition to argue, or compete in any way with Scott Tepper, whose charm seemed to rise out of some infallible instinct. Coupled with good looks and serene confidence, it let Scott manipulate any teacher, win any school office, smooth-talk any girl.

So much confidence that he could offer generosity — at a price.  You owe me, Bamford, said the look in Scott’s eyes.

Others were joining the crowd of onlookers, including members of the girls’ soccer team. Helene Shockley, tawny and gorgeous, slid up next to Tepper with a questioning smile.

Mark shook his head, eager to get out of there.

“No, Scott. It won’t happen again.”

Alexandra Behr wasn’t as easy to deal with.

“Do you have any idea how hard we lobbied Principal Jeffers to get that wall?  It’s our shot at getting some X-Sports accepted inside!  You better not blow it for us, Bam.”

Mark shot her a glare as they walked toward the bike racks.  He’d never liked the nickname — Bam-Bam … later shortened to Bam — though its macho quality beat most alternatives.  High school could be a social nightmare for any transfer student, especially if you got off on the wrong foot.  Anyway, the Extreme Sports bunch had been first to accept him.  Mark couldn’t skateboard worth a damn, but none of them had ever gone trekking in the Atlas Mountains, so it all evened out.  Why not help pioneer a new sport at TNPHS?

“It won’t happen again,” he told Alex.

This time the promise felt sincere. He had let her down, foolishly losing focus. In the real world, a slip like that could be fatal.  Besides, he needed the ascent team, to boost upcoming college applications.  Lacking Alex’s grade point average, and a bit short for his age, this might be his one chance to varsity at anything.

“Well, okay then.” Alex nodded, accepting Mark’s word.  She punched his shoulder, knowing uncannily how to strike a nerve.  He quashed a reflex to rub the spot.

Dang girls who take karate.  Mark had grown up with the type, on a dozen military outposts around the world.  Oh, they could be great pals.  But a more feminine style also had appeal.  Anyway, Alex was only a sophomore — not even sixteen and still gawky. Mark inclined toward ‘older women’ like Helene.

Unfortunately, they went for older guys.

Barry Tang awaited them at the bike racks, his Techno already unfolded with gleaming, composite wheels — hand-made for last year’s Science Fair.  With unkempt, glossy black hair and a misbuttoned shirt, anyone could tell how he interfaced with Alex — on her non-athletic side.  They were both Junior Engineers.

“What kept you two?” Barry asked, a little breathlessly.  “I want to show you something!”

Mark groaned.

“Gimme a break, will you?  My carcass is still practically twisted in half and covered with bruises. And I gotta be at work by four.”  Not that he relished bagging groceries.  But Dad said any kind of job built character.  In lieu of allowance, he pitched in a buck for every one Mark earned himself — mostly for the college fund.

“So? You’ve got twenty-three minutes, and Food King is right over there.” Barry pointed to the supermarket, beyond Jonathan’s Shell Station and across the street from Twenty-Nine Palms High.

“Well —”

“Come on, Bam.” Alex took the back of Mark’s neck with one slim, strong hand and started kneading.  “I’ll work these knots, if you like.”

He suppressed an impulse to brush her away.  Alex was a pal, after all. Though every now and then …

Barry Tang glanced over at the two of them with a grimace of feigned jealousy that was maybe partly real. “Are you rewarding this guy for messing up, at practice? Maybe I should get some bruises too. Somebody’d rub my — hey! Stop that!”

Mark had grabbed Barry in a headlock and was knuckle-digging his temple, not very hard. Just enough to be true noogies. When he protested again, Mark let go.

“Why’d you do that!”

“You were asking for bruises. What’re friends for?”

“Well,” Barry ran his fingers through his mussed hair. “You know what I meant! Anyway …” His eyes suddenly widened. “There!”

“Huh?”

“Over there, beyond Olympic!” Barry shouted.  “I see one!”

“See what?” Alex asked, releasing Mark’s neck just when he was closing his eyes, ready to admit it felt good. By the time he looked up, both of his friends were pedaling ahead, past the alley where denim-clad bikers always hung out after tearing around on the dunes.  Mark had to chase after, swerving to avoid a muttering bag lady’s junk-laden shopping cart, barely catching his friends near the minimart on Main.   Barry jabbed a finger north along Bing Crosby Boulevard, toward the Marine Corps base and a vast expanse of desert beyond.

“I don’t see —”

“The van!”

Mark blinked.  Indeed, there was a van — dark blue, with windows tinted opaque gray. An oval area along one side had been painted over raggedly, without much effort to match shades.  A tarp covered some kind of bulge on top.

“So?  I don’t see —”

“That color and model, I recognize it from the fleet at Cirocco Labs!  There’s at least a dozen — maybe more — cruising all over the place. Must’ve been in a real hurry.  See how they just slapped some paint on the company logo?  And I’ll bet you that blanket’s hiding sensors. Maybe some kind of a search radar!”

Barry looked so excited — and happy — that Mark hesitated to doubt him aloud.  Especially when Alex cast a warning glance, shaking her head.

Is this going to be like a few months ago, when Barry kept yattering about giant Russian transport planes, landing in the middle of the night?

“Haven’t either of you heard all the helicopters cruising overhead the last few days?  I can spot two of em right now, from where we’re standing!  See that glint near the horizon?” He swiveled. “And there beyond the RV park, over Joshua Tree.  They must be looking for something!”

Mark and Alex shared another glance. Neither of them had to say it. In Twenty-Nine Palms, the sight of copters flitting about was as surprising as spotting your own shadow.  “An exercise,” Mark ventured. “Hotshots from Pendleton —”

“My parents have been nervous about something, the last few days,” Alex murmured.  “When I asked about it, they went all weird on me and clammed up.”

Mark shot her an accusing look.  You too?

Then something occurred to him.

I haven’t seen Dad in two days.

Oh, that alone wasn’t troubling. It happened several times a year. A note on the fridge, plus an envelope with some cash.  No instructions. Just implicit confidence that Mark could be trusted to take care of himself for a while.

Only now he found himself worrying. Could it be an alert?

With so many hot spots in the world, units were always being called up and sent to far places that he never heard of, fighting in little scraps that never got called ‘wars.’

He didn’t recall anything in the news that seemed threatening. No looming crisis.  But folks at the nearby base — and at Cirocco Labs — might be involved with something on the horizon, acting long before the media or public got wind of it.

“I joined the Math Club for a while, when I was a freshman,” Barry said, his voice cracking slightly.  “I still know a couple guys. We play chess now and then.”

“So?” Mark just knew he was going to regret asking.  Then the connection dawned on him …

… those silly rumors.  Oh, no.

“So,” Barry finished. “You guys want to find out what’s going on?”

You had to hand it to the Cirocco spooks. When they got a chance — responding to an anonymous tip – they pounced with startling speed.

A little after midnight, six blue vans swept into Bryer Estates, roared up the Gornet family’s ornate driveway and pinioned a surprised Tom Spencer with their headlights as black-clad men leaped out. Several of them carried sophisticated gear … sensors of some kind that they waved about, quickly triangulating upon the little guest house behind the swimming pool.

Other invaders – their faces covered by blur-cloth veils – brandished the latest model of stun-prod, creating an imposing barrier to teenagers spilling out of the main house. The black-clad men didn’t exactly aim their non-lethal weapons at the kids. They didn’t have to. Body language sufficed to keep Scott, Colin and the others back.  That, plus the very-lethal Glock pistols that the raiders also wore holstered at their hips, in easy reach.

Brief shouting poured from the cabaña. Then, out staggered the two big football players who had been standing guard inside, clutching their ears in evident nausea.  One of them stumbled, took a knee and heaved his dinner into the Gornet swimming pool, before Helene Shockley took his arm, leading the boy away.

Non-lethal – it didn’t necessarily translate as fun.

Mark watched the action through a pair of Tru-Vu glasses, provided by one of the passengers in his crowded Jeep… six sweaty adults along with their portable equipment. The scene was transmitted by Alexandra Behr, from a shrub next to the Gornet driveway.  Her voice hissed with tension.

“They have the alien, Mark. They’re leading him out of the guest house …”

Displayed on the inner surface of the Tru-Vu specs, the scene that she described was stark before Mark’s eyes. Poor Tom Spencer and his friends wailed when they saw their ‘xenoanthropoid’ tugged gently out of the cabaña — shambling toward an air-conditioned van, with the stained bathrobe trailing behind.

The jocks — including Colin Gornet — were quieter in their disappointment. Though fists were hard-clenched. (Goodbye Hollywood starlets!)

Mark’s heart pounded with tension. But he left the decision to Alex, choosing exactly the right moment to put their plan into action.

Even expecting it any moment, her command still made him jump. “Now Mark!”

It felt like Morocco, all over again. Especially sweaty palms that slipped over the old stick, the first time he tried to shift into first. Concentrating for calm, Mark eased the clutch, then slammed his foot hard on the accelerator, redlining the thirty-year old engine as he tore along Yucca street, then veered sharply up the driveway –

— swinging the Jeep sideways at the very last instant, just missing the tail bumper of the last Cirrocco van!  Now, there was no way for anybody to leave. And Mark made sure, by shutting down the engine and tossing the keys under a nearby shrub. It would take at least several minutes to find them again.

The black-clad spooks spun and crouched in surprise, clearly dismayed to find their exit suddenly blocked …

… as out from the Jeep spilled the witnesses that Mark and Alex had spent a hectic hour collecting. Two local TV crews, a hyperblogger, and one grinning high school teacher quickly deployed their own “non-lethal weapons,” covering both groups – the teens and the men-in-dark clothes — with spotlights and digicams, transmitting live to the world. With special attention devoted to the Guest of Honor. A visitor from across the stars.

The xeno raised one hand to shade its huge eyes – blinking sideways – from the spotlight glare.

Gotcha, Mark murmured within, as Alex emerged from her hiding place to join him. Sorry about the ruckus, but it truly is for your own good.

There had been no other way around the dilemma. It was one thing to get the alien out of the insanely irresponsible hands of the Tepper-Gornet bunch. It had been quite another thing, figuring how to ensure that it wouldn’t simply shift from one bunch of secretive fools to another.

Pinned by light and by shouted questions from news reporters, the government agents had no choice then, but to identify themselves. To show credentials and do it all on video, while the juniormost anchor from Channel Six babbled excitedly, no doubt with visions of national promotion dancing in her eyes.  Perhaps, long ago, the spooks might have seized cameras, destroyed film evidence or memory chips. Those days were gone, and they knew it. The scene was visible from dozens of neighboring houses, with security cams streaming to the web. Heck, it was probably in view of a commercial satellite, right now.

You had to hand it to Barry Tang. A minute ago, he had been as pole-axed shocked as Tom Spencer and the others.  Now he chortled as he ripped covers off parts of the nearest van, exposing a license plate, then a panel with a Cirrocco logo. “Hey, Mark and Alex!  You see?  Was I right? Grab some frames of this.”

Mark knew there was no way to disguise what he had done this evening. And he was going to pay for it. But did Barry have to draw attention this way? While Scott Tepper stood with arms crossed and a calm, appraising expression on his face, Colin Gornet and two of his pals turned to look straight at Mark, drilling him with vengeful expressions.

He managed to stand erect in the light, having sworn not to regret this evening’s endeavor. While the Cirrocco operatives removed their masks and grumpily answered questions, Mark met Gornet’s gaze, remembering what Tom Spencer himself said, just a few hours before.

You’d be murderers if you kept this up.

You just didn’t have any idea what you’re doing.

Now, as the full impact started to dawn, Mark realized.

I don’t either.

I wonder if anyone does?

In the days that followed, Mark’s heart sank with every news report that mentioned his name.  Reporters haunted the front lawn, shouting questions whenever he came outside.  Every time the phone rang, he felt a tightness in his throat.

Fortunately, Dad handled most calls — the obscene or threatening ones, along with those who offered help.

“No, we don’t need police protection,” Mark heard him tell the County Sheriff at one point. “I’ve been given a desk job till this blows over — paperwork I can handle mostly from home. So just leave all the cranks and drive-bys to me.  They’re mostly blowhards.”

Maybe. But some of the phone voices were pretty scary, whispering or shouting threats … or else making dumb fake-alien noises.  Mark didn’t bother checking email or the sosh-sites anymore. His text-boxes, eposcenes and wallboards overflowed with messages from all over the world — some approving, but all too many of them anonymous denunciations, expressing ALL-CAPS fury over what he’d done. Meanwhile, Dad took care of the old-fashioned entreaties from the older generation.

“No, my son doesn’t need an agent … sure, I’ll keep your number. Goodbye.”

“No he’s not interested in doing a Reality TV show!”

“No sir, I don’t believe you’re calling from the Vatican.”

“Look, how do I know you’re really Bieber … prove it.”

“The governor?  Is this really the governor? We’ve had a lot of crank calls … er, if you don’t mind, sir, how about doing an impression of your father.  Say, ‘I’ll be back.’ Now do your great-uncle. Say ‘Ich bin ein Ber’ – hello?  Hello?”

After that last one, Major Al Bamford had grinned sheepishly. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure that was a fake call.  If it’s not, I could be in trouble.”  Clearly, Dad was both irritated by it all and trying to make the best of things.

“You don’t have to go on limited duty,” Mark told his father, who was already in uniform, despite the fact that he’d be working from home today. “Your unit has an important job, now more than ever.  I can stay. Watch things here —”

“— and skip school? Not likely.” Major Bamford chuckled. “Look, son, I know some jerks may be rough on you today.  But you’ve got to face them.  What you did was smart and brave. You thought about humanity and your country, not just a circle of delusional teens. It was the right thing to do.”

The right thing?

Maybe. But also painful. At Mark’s age, there were few put-downs more devastating than to be called a ‘snitch’. Even among those who agreed with his decision, many thought that Mark did it out of self-interest — to grab headlines and become the center of attention.  That opinion only grew each time his photo appeared in newzines or the web.

None of the stories got it right of course, or told how difficult the choice had been.

“Go on,” his father told him that morning, eighty hours after a fateful Thursday night. “Go to school.  Try to have a normal day.”

Easier said than done.  But Mark knew Dad meant well, and his approval mattered more than anyone’s. Especially since it might just be the two of us again, if I have to transfer schools.  Or leave town.

That seemed increasingly likely, from the moment he swung his bike into the racks at TNPHS, feeling intense looks from everyone he passed.  Conversations died whenever he drew near. A few kids smiled nervously. But a larger number scowled at the infamous traitor who had turned ‘their’ xeno over to the Feds.

No matter that most of the students only heard of it when the news broke on Friday.  Not even the latest reports — about improvements in the star-visitor’s health and progress in crossing the language divide — seemed to make much difference in the mood on campus.  The alien had become part of the greater world, and this place was again just another drab American high school.

It got worse indoors. Soon he couldn’t take more than a dozen paces without hearing someone horking in the back of their throat, as if preparing to spit. It became a theme song, following him around. When Mark reached his locker and spied a greasy brown fluid leaking out the bottom, he decided not to bother opening it, denying any satisfaction to those who were watching.

A crowd had gathered at the door to history class.  Any hope of slipping inside and quietly taking his seat was dashed when yet another news crew emerged from the room, pushed by an affably insistent Mr. Castro, wearing his typical striped shirt and colorful tie. Hot camera lights made beads of sweat shimmer on his peaked, receding hairline.

“Enough please!  We’re serious students and educators here. Save your questions for off-hours.  Anyway, I was just a witness. The real heroes …”

Mark tried to melt into the crowd, but Mr. Castro spotted him first.

“Well, speak of the young man himself.  Here’s Mark Bamford, the fellow who invited me to participate in last Thursday’s adventure.”

Mark winced when he saw the camera crew was from Channel Ten, one of the local stations that missed out on the ‘adventure’ when they refused his invitation, dismissing him as a crank. A costly mistake, and now they seemed eager to take revenge by painting Mark in the worst possible light, making up ridiculous motives.

That he hoped for a reward from the government.

That he was taking revenge for a romantic disappointment.

That he had religious objections to aliens.

That he was already talking to Hollywood agents (a few had left messages — Mark didn’t plan on answering) about doing his story as a mini-series.

None of the reporters told anything like the true story of those frantic hours that he and Alex spent — that nervous Thursday evening — setting things up just right.  They had to act fast.  Scott Tepper and Tom Spencer — leading their strange jock-nerd alliance — were already gathering a caravan of private vehicles, preparing to transport the xeno off to some hip refuge deep inside the L.A. sprawl, rationalizing to themselves that they were doing something heroic, defending a ‘guest’ from the vile-distrusted government.

Oh, it would have been easy enough just to foil their crazy plan.   If that was all Mark and Alex wanted, they only had to phone up the Air Force.  Or Cirocco labs.

But that option raised worries of its own.  Did it make sense to transfer custody of the castaway from one group of secretive paranoids to another? Tom Spencer had a point.  Some clique of bureaucratic poobahs would surely talk themselves into thinking just like Scott and Gornet!  Foolishly trying to hide all evidence of an extraterrestrial encounter, keeping the news to an elite in-group, and coming up with elaborate reasons to justify it to themselves.

The world has plenty of bright fools in it, eager to act out movie clichés.

Oh, the secret probably wouldn’t hold for very long, for any group.  Mark doubted that any cover story could last in today’s world. Take the crazy notion that three generations of top savants had been studying a spacecraft that crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, ever since 1949.

Right. Hundreds of scientists and engineers, investigating fantastic alien technologies — with none of them blabbing in all that time?  Not even when they retired?  Nobody who actually knew a living, breathing scientist would believe such nonsense.  The best minds are independent; the very trait that made them “best.”  Even a military man like Dad would eventually get fed up with secrecy that stretched on and on, for no apparent reason.  Especially if it appeared also to violate the law.

And nowadays, secrets can leak, ‘accidentally’, by as many paths as there are addresses on the internet.

Still, some group of adult Gornets might decide to try.  In fact, given human nature, they probably would.

So, for two wild hours, Mark and Alex made calls and pounded on doors, collecting half a dozen reputable witnesses, then driving around — with several of them fuming impatiently — till the moment seemed right to dial up Cirocco.

As he elbowed his way into the classroom, ignoring Channel Ten’s shouted questions, Mark found himself almost wishing he never made that call — even though the plan worked better than he or Alex could have hoped.

It took Mr. Castro ten minutes to get rid of the TV people — maybe he wasn’t trying all that hard — and to settle class back to any semblance of a normal routine, taking roll and collecting the weekend’s essay assignment about the European Thirty Years War.

The teacher shook his head at the skimpy pile. Mark’s contribution amounted to just two pages, rehashed from a single Wikipedia article.  In big type, with generous margins.

“Now people,” Mr. Castro said. “I know there have been some distractions lately, but that’s no excuse for slacking off.  In fact, this startling news about First Contact ought to emphasize the need for focus.  What event could possibly make clearer the importance of education for your future?”

A hand shot up from the forward right. Dave McCarty, wearing his usual black leather jacket, spoke without waiting to be called.

“Why?” he asked, pushing contemptuously at the textbook in front of him. “Everything we know is obsolete!  All our technology, science, arts … every bit of it is passé.  In a few years we’ll be using teleportation and warp drives, learning whatever we want from pills!”

That drew laughter. But some classmates also nodded.

“So,” Mr. Castro asked. “Should we dismiss our old-fashioned schools till then?”

“Sure! Why waste brain cells studying stuff we’ll never need?”

“Even the history of your species and civilization?”

“Especially history. It’s irrelevant. Everything up until now will be remembered as a time of primitives, like cavemen.  B.C. … for Before Contact!” McCarty chortled, clearly believing he was on a roll.

“And do the rest of you feel the same way?  Or the opposite?”

Silence.  Mark, especially, didn’t want to attract any more attention.  Anyway, he wasn’t sure he disagreed with Dave.

Mr. Castro walked around the desk and put his hand on an Earth globe that always stood there.

“I’ll grant you, it seems like a pretty small place in a big universe right now,” he mused. “Though our ancestors thought it was vast and filled with dark unknowns.” He set the globe spinning. “Take for example the period we’ve been studying, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries —”

Students groaned.  This teacher would use any excuse to swerve back on course.

“— a time of wrenching transition, perhaps even more shattering than the one we are about to enter.”

Froggi Hayashi snorted from a seat in back.

“How could anything compare with first contact?  To meet powerful aliens with incredible technologies you don’t understand —”

“Exactly!” Mr. Castro grinned. And he waited. One of his famous pauses. Which usually meant that something — some connection — had been made. One that should be obvious to anyone who was paying attention.

Amid the ensuing hush, Mark felt a sudden wrench of understanding.

Oh, he thought.

Almost against his will, Mark’s hand started to raise … but another voice spoke up first.

“People in Africa … and Asia and the Americas … that was when they had to adapt to strange new things — to aliens and their technologies — when they faced European invaders.”

Mark turned around to see Helene Shockley, sitting to his left and two chairs back. As usual, she was simply overwhelming, with black hair falling in ringlets over dusky shoulders.  To Mark’s surprise — especially after the events of Thursday night — she glanced his way with a fleeting smile that sent his heart lurching in his chest.

“Good point,” Mr. Castro answered with a nod. “And there’s no question that those Europeans were outright invaders in the Americas. There, the newcomers — or aliens, if you will — swarmed in without mercy, taking whatever they wanted, by force.  They also brought waves of horrible disease that caught native peoples in the Western Hemisphere unprepared … something that I hope our leaders are bearing in mind right now.”

Several students blanched at the idea.  Mark recalled how close he and his friends had been to the alien, breathing the same air! A plague from the stars. Now wouldn’t that just round out the whole month?

“Elsewhere, things were more complicated. Especially for the first couple of centuries after da Gama’s voyage, when Europeans came to Asia and Africa more as traders than conquerors, and where disease was much less of a factor.  Even there, however, the arrival of a foreign culture and new technologies had profound effects, disrupting everything that had been static and assumed in local cultures.  Even powerful nations that tried to control the effects of contact, like China and Japan, wound up destabilized, plunging into devastating internal strife.

“Still, none of those conflicts would match the bitter clash we’ve been studying for the last week, an awful conflagration that wracked Europe itself during the very same period.”

This time, the groan from Dave and some others held a tone of grudging admiration for the smooth way the teacher segued discussion back into the syllabus.  Mr. Castro swiveled toward a map that hung from the south wall, covered with arrows showing the harsh, back-and-forth struggle called the Thirty Years War.

“Can anyone explain why this period was even more riotous inside Europe than in far-off lands that their ships were surprising and exploiting?”

Trembling a little, Arlene Hsu raised her hand.

“B-because of the … Protestant Reformation?”

Mr. Castro always took a gentler tone when answering Arlene. It obviously took courage for her to speak up. Freewheeling class discussions hadn’t been the style in school where she came from — a small town north of Guangdong.

“Yes, that was the reason given by kings and princes and city states for waging brutal war on their neighbors. A dispute over religious doctrine. But does that completely explain it?  Anybody.”

Forgetting his vow to stay silent, Mark raised a hand.

“Weren’t they just as shook up by … by all this new contact with outsiders, as anybody else was?”

Mr. Castro smiled.  Mark hoped it wasn’t too obvious that the teacher felt grateful for being chosen as one of the Thursday night witnesses.  He had clearly enjoyed the chance to participate, helping to transfer the alien into professional hands while also preventing any government cover-up … and getting to watch history happen in real-time.

Fine, but Mark didn’t need ‘teacher’s pet’ added to the things murmured behind his back.

“You may be onto something, Mr. Bamford. Their world was changing. Can anybody suggest what could have shaken up Europe, at this time?”

Hands raised. One student after another started contributing to a growing list.

“New weapons. New war tactics.”

“All the gold and silver and stuff stolen from Mexico. That would’ve changed the economy.”

“There were new crops too … like corn? Potatoes and tobacco?”

“New ideas —”

“— spread by printing presses. Didn’t all this happen just a little after that German guy, Gutberg —”

“Gutenberg.”

“— yeah. Suddenly books and newspapers were cheap.”

“And new ideas don’t always bring folks together, do they? Sometimes they frighten people, or divide them. In the beginning, printing was more effective at spreading hate than encouraging tolerance.  It took many generations to change that.  Anything else?”

“How about dangerous ideas that came from those places the ships went?” Arlene asked, and Mr. Castro nodded.

“Interesting point, Miss Hsu! Did cultural colonization go both ways, affecting the invaders as much as the invaded?  That’s not often talked about. Maybe you could do a paper.”

Again, groans.  Before the bell, several more research topics were sure to be assigned.

“How about —” Mark heard Helene say behind him, her voice more hushed than usual. “How about the very fact that the world was bigger … a much bigger place, after Columbus?  Maybe that changed view kind of drove them all a bit … crazy?”

There was silence for several heartbeats after that, as each student let the implication sink in. How her words applied today.  Even Mr. Castro appeared subdued.

Anyway, the point was made. Even Dave McCarty clearly realized it.  History still had a place in the post-Contact world.

“Excellent, Helene. That would also make a really interesting topic for a —”

Mr. Castro halted when the door creaked open.  A student carrying a hall pass entered, handing the teacher a slip of paper.  He read it with a pursed brow.

“Bamford,” he said at last, holding the slip out to Mark. “You’re wanted in the main office.”

Mark stood, lifting his backpack.  He didn’t dare look around to see how others took this — yet another sign of special treatment.  But at least now he might escape new assignments.

“Check my web site,” the teacher said as he departed, dashing even that silver lining. “Tonight’s homework will be a thirty minute e-debate, at the usual time. You can take first chair in the argument against contact, Mark. We’ll decide the exact topic while you’re away.”

Mark tried not to wince, especially with Helene watching.  I guess it wouldn’t do for Castro to show gratitude, for my inviting him to help make history for a change, instead of just teaching it.

The halls felt eerily empty with all students in class.  Along with his footsteps, faint echoes carried indoors from the athletic field, where coaches hollered at the lazy as they had for generations, probably going all the way back to Sparta. Mark shuffled along toward the administration suites, wondering now what?

It must be about Xeno.

Sure enough, when he entered the outer Administration Office Alex was already present.  So was Barry Tang.  They all shared a silent nod as the secretary ushered them through a final door into the sanctum of Principal Jeffers.

Jeffers cut an imposing figure. Almost two meters tall, he had actually trained for six weeks with the San Francisco Forty-Niners before failing to make the final roster.  That was many years ago, but he still kept the jersey from his brief pro career in a glass case, next to photos from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. The principal believed that everyone should have a broad range of interests.

“Here they are,” he said in a deep voice as the students came in. Two other adults turned at the same time, causing Mark to stumble briefly in surprise.  One of them was a Marine Corps officer — his father!

The other, a pale-haired woman wearing a lab coat, smiled as Alexandra Behr blurted — “Mom! What are you doing here?”

Dad shared a silent look with Mark, saying wait and see.

“We’re still looking for Barry’s folks,” Principal Jeffers said. “I can’t let him go on a field trip without their permission.  So if you’re really in a hurry…”

“We are, I’m afraid,” Major Bamford said. “We’ll just have to take Alex and Mark for now, and hope Barry can follow.”

Alex blinked.

“Field trip?”

Mark’s father drew a folded sheet of paper from his tunic pocket.  It had official-looking seals and signatures — plus some odd-shaped blotchy symbols on the bottom.

“Not a normal one, by any means,” he said. “It seems you’ve been invited.”

“Invited?”

This time it was Mark’s turn to express puzzlement. So Major Bamford explained.

“For a reunion. With the visitor. We’re going to see your strange little man from the stars.”

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