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Jules WhiteElk

[Nova Terra] [Fic] Jules

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9/12/2023

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Jules woke up gradually, her brain slowly becoming aware of the band of gray across the eastern sky. On this side of the mountains, it was gray behind the shadows of the mountains, rising like black teeth from the earth. Her view from the top of the building they'd slept on was pretty awesome. After assuring herself that it was dawn and not an imminent fight waking her up, the woman glanced behind her.

Sam and Ben were curled up in their sleeping bag, wedged between her and the broken heating unit; Sam had her fingers knotted in Ben’s short hair for some arcane reason. Ben was sucking on his thumb again, and Jules gently pulled it from his mouth. For a moment, she watched her kids sleep, indulging herself for a moment. They’re so beautiful. As always, their fragility scared her. Four and six was much too young for this kind of life, even if it was the only life they'd known.

On the ground below the park ranger garage, Jules heard something large moving. She gave a soft whistle and was answered by a shrieking grunt. Murphy’s awake, she thought, rolling out of her bag, and he’s not alarmed. She strapped her quiver to her back, threw her rifle over her other shoulder and pulled her bow closer to hand. Staying on her knees because the camo netting wouldn’t let her stand upright, Jules peered out carefully at the morning sky. There were no large shapes moving in the air above them and she began to break camp.

Her sleeping bag and their single duffel of clothing was easily packed. The waterproof bag with a copy of Charlotte’s Web, The Birchbark House, volumes I and II of Primitive Living, a book on herbs of the Northwest and a few other hydrophobic items were already packed after last night’s reading time. She checked the three one-gallon jugs of water to be sure they were tied in their harnesses and tightly capped.

When Jules got to their food bag, she frowned, just as she had for the past week. Food had become more and more scarce the closer they got to their destination. On one hand, it was good; someone had been foraging regularly and thoroughly. There was probably more goods inside the cities, but Jules hadn’t wanted to risk that with her kids in tow. They were too close to Vancouver and its phage for hunting; Jules hadn’t seen much in the way of natural animals in the last week. Most of them avoided the phage, having long learned that not only was it not edible to them but full of creatures that would eat them. This morning, her family had a can of tuna, three bars of granola and two cans of cat food. The cat food was for the kids as a last resort, and Jules was pretty sure the kids would have to be starving to eat the pet chow.

After a moment of hard debate, Jules opened the tuna and split it three ways. The food bag had made the decision for her. She could spend the day looking for a boat and foraging, or she could try to make contact. If only she knew whether making contact would kill them. Shaking off her thoughts, she moved to the kids’ sleeping bag. “Ben,” she whispered, easing Sam’s fingers out of his hair. “Sam, baby. Wake up.”

Sam woke up faster, as she always did, her eyes darting around for danger. When she didn’t see any, she climbed over her brother and into her mom’s lap. A moment later, Sam was dozing again, this time curled against her mother.

“Cold,” Ben whined, pulling the bag tight around him.

“I know. I can get out your jacket, if you need. First, get up and eat.” Jules poked her daughter in the rib. “You too, slumber-bug.”

Sam grunted, sounding way too much like an irritated Murphy, but climbed out of her lap and grabbed her tin plate. “No crackers?” she asked, gazing at the tuna critically.

Jules wiggled over to sit by Ben and started to coax him out of his sleeping bag. “We ate those last night, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” Sam ate in silence for a moment. “Is there anymore?”

“Later,” Jules promised, hoping she was right. She’d risked a lot to come here. If this didn’t work, she planned to turn north and find somewhere in the mountains to hole up for the winter. She didn’t focus on what that would mean, in the long run. Three years of living on the post-otherworld monster world had proven that if she were smart and careful, she could keep them alive. But they needed more than bare-bones survival. They needed other kids and stability. Watching Sam keep an eye on their surroundings like she expected attack told her that there was already damage done. Her kids could play like children but there were far too many times when they were small, serious adults. They needed to be kids, and so she needed to find them a sanctuary.

Once they’d eaten, had their re-hydrated milk and cleaned the dishes, Jules folded up the rest of the gear and helped the kids toss it off the building. Murphy waited patiently as they climbed down, his great gray bulk blending into the shadows of the early dawn. His heavy head was raised, watching her, sitting on his haunches. When Jules picked up her saddle, he stood and stretched like an oversized dog as his horned toes dug into the sod. It was one of the many bad habits he’d picked up from the dogs during their year in Nephi. “Morning, Murphy,” she whispered, alway conscious about making too much noise.

The horse-bear grunted again before looking plaintively up at the bag hanging from a nearby tree. Jules smiled and put the saddle down again. “Piggy,” she muttered as she undid the rope that held the bag in the air. She caught it as it came down and fished out some of the knotted purple phage plant that dried like hay. Murphy grunted, his shrieking call more strident. “I’m saving the better stuff for tomorrow, in case you have to carry us far from here.” The gray-skinned creature groaned but dug into the fibrous plant-life, grinding it into pulp and swallowing it. I need you strong, the woman thought, rubbing his high, humped shoulder. His skin-whiskers tickled her fingers as she petted his thick hide and tried not to feel desperate. I need you to carry my kids.

“Mommy.” Ben’s whisper returned her attention to her kids and Jules turned to see that they had gathered everything into a pile and were waiting on her.

“Yeah, let’s go,” she whispered, grabbing her saddle. The deer-skin contraption went on Murphy first, securing under his belly and around his shoulders. Jules checked to be sure that the straps didn’t interfere with his nostrils at the base of his throat. They were inflamed and purple instead of their usual silver-gray color and Jules frowned. “You gettin’ another cold, Murphy?” He squeaked softly; it was a stark reminder that she and the kids weren’t the only ones who were stressed. She quietly patted his neck and got the kids’ saddle. It secured to hers and had a loop that went under his heavy dinosaur-like tail for stability. Murphy laid down and she and the kids affixed the gear behind their saddle. Jules shifted a few things to the front saddle; she was going to walk today. With luck, it wouldn’t be far.

Sam and Ben got in their saddle, with the younger Sam in front so Ben’s longer arms could help hold her on. Murphy rose with them on his back, shifted slightly and looked to Jules. She led the way, taking the path from the ranger station back down to the water. The lighthouse topped the cliff to their right as they walked around to the former docks. Murphy grunted unhappily when he saw the wide expanse of the Salish Sea but Jules was more interested in the shattered remains of the docks. The boat would need to get close to land; Murphy was a terrible swimmer. He was too heavy to float and had his nostrils in a bad place for submersion in water. “Well,” she muttered, “here goes nothing.”

Jules pulled out flare gun with its last flare, loading carefully. Hopefully, someone other than an Otherplace monster would be watching the morning sky. Pointing the gun up into the air, she fired. The red flare blazed skyward like a reverse falling star, marking her location to anyone who cared to look.

“Mommy?” Samantha looked horrified from her position on Murphy’s back; Ben looked scared, too. “Mommy! That’s bad!” Their cardinal rule was, Don't draw attention to yourself.

“Maybe, sweetie. I’m calling for help.” Jules forced a smile she didn’t feel. “Just stay on Murphy’s back and do what I tell you, okay?”

“Okay.” Sam didn’t look mollified; her fingers clutched the saddle as she waited. Jules got out her bow and nocked an arrow, prepared for otherplace monsters or hostile humans--and hoping for someone much friendlier.

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The forest around her went silent, not that forests this near a phage were much for birdsong or animal noises in general. Discretion had become the better part of survival for Earth's native species; there might still be small birds around, but they were the ones that head learned the virtue of silence in the World After. The children clung to Murphy, who shifted nervously himself and eyed the land behind them carefully for any signs of enemies drawn by the bright red light.

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The minutes ticked by, counted off in little bites by the diver's watch Jules had scavenged from a river rafter resort winter before last. At the six minute mark, Murphy lifted his head, catching her attention and pointing as well as he could out over the water; a small dark speck was making swift headway towards them in the sky. Ben hunkered down the saddle, gripping it so tightly that his small knuckles turned white, and whimpered. "Mommy...." Sam just watched with wide eyes and waited, holding onto her brother and trusting that her mommy knew best.

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Jules put a comforting hand on him and squinted into the distance. It was large enough to be one of the big Otherworld fliers, the ones that could start a wildfire in the summers, but they usually traveled in groups and stayed near phages. Moments later, as the speck quickly grew larger, she heard the double whomp-whomp-whomp of rotating blades. Her heart nearly gave out in relief - the fliers had wings, not helicopter blades. Whoever they were, they were human and using human technology. Something of civilization had survived!

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The large helicopter flew low over them, settling down on a clear patch of grass just behind the rocky outcrop the lighthouse sat on. Soldiers poured out, quickly taking up defensive positions and holding automatic rifles ready. Several wavered between pulling up the guns to put Murphy in their sites and keeping the children out of their line of fire. A fair-skinned man with bright blue eyes and well-groomed blond hair, dressed in a dark suit with a beautiful red silk tie, stepped out of the plane and took a few steps past the soldiers. He peered at Murphy for a moment, his fingers rubbing over a coin in his hands; Jules' mind flashed on the memory of an uncle that used to do something similar with his wedding band. He'd always claimed it brought him luck. The man waved back towards the armed men and women, who relaxed marginally at his gesture; she could see several guns lower from Murphy, but most of them stayed nervously at the ready.

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The man smiled at Jules and strode towards her confidently; he called out to her over the sound of the helicopter, "Ma'am, we saw a signal flare. My name is Ianto Dyncaredig." His words were accented, the rounded vowels of a Welsh upbringing. "We need to get you and the children over the water, to Nova Terra, before the xenos show up. Is, uh, is that your...um....horse?" The last was asked with eyes on Murphy, who swung his head back to Jules and gave a low rumbling sound, a question of what to do with the strange human.

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“I call him bear-horse.” Jules answered absently, her mind trying to make sense of the scene before her. What kind of people were these? They had military-grade helicopters, uniforms and discipline, yet they were led by a man in a fine silk suit. He would have made Jules feel grubby before the thahdi-ch’iidii; now she just wondered why anyone would run around the apocalypse dressed like that.

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Ianto frowned. “Shush-lin?”

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Jules shook her head. “That’s Navajo for bear-horse.” She felt suddenly self-conscious as she remembered how often she and the kids lapsed into a blended pattern of English and Navajo. Several elders in her clan refused to speak in English with anyone who knew Navajo, so she’d grown up hearing the language. There were some words that worked better in Navajo and some in English, and so she had used both with her children. “But his name is Murphy.” She rubbed his thick gray skin but he was ominously silent. “I’m Julia WhiteElk, and this is Ben and Sam.”

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“It’s good to meet you.” Ianto gave her a genuine smile and a bow of his head, his mannerisms curiously elegant. “We don’t have the time to socialize. Once my pilot assures me we can transport you all, we’ll need to leave.” He turned and walked quickly to the helicopter.

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“Wait, before you do.” Jules hated this but she pulled her sunglasses off, revealing eyes that belonged to an owl or hawk – yellow-orange, they filled most of her eye. “I’m tainted by them.”

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The impeccably dressed man smiled. “As am I, Ms. WhiteElk. Please excuse me while I make arrangements.”

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They’re going to take us. Her hand pressed harder into Murphy’s side, trying not cry with relief. Her kids wouldn’t understand and she wasn’t sure how Murphy would react to her having a strong emotional reaction. “It’s okay,” she said to her children, who still looked scared. “They’re not going to hurt us.”

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Unless they are waiting until they get to their island. The unpleasant thought coiled in her brain and made her shiver. Vancouver Island is huge. They try something, you’ll get away and hide… and then make them sorry.

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Ianto returned, smiling. “Yes, we can lift all of us with the xeno. He’ll have to lie in the center aisle, and it will be tight. Can Murphy manage?”

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“He will.” He’d have to, there was nothing else to be done. “Load everyone else on while I explain to him and the kids.”

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Ianto’s face expressed a flicker of surprise before he nodded and turned his soldiers. Jules could hear him explaining to them as she moved to stand in front of her thahdi-ch’iidii companion. “Murphy, we have to get to the island, over the water.” She pointed. “To get there, we have to get on the helicopter, which will fly us in the air. It’ll take us somewhere safe, where we don’t have to fight to live.” Murphy’s oil-slick black eyes peered at her, a sickly rainbow sheen of color. Ben and Sam’s dark brown eyes were full of worry and fear. “I need your trust, guys.”

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“I don’t wanna go,” Sam said. She looked at the armed soldiers. “Mommy, they’re the ones that burned you!”

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Sam’s voice had risen and carried; Jules saw the soldiers shift uncomfortably. “No, sweetie, they were in Idaho, and that was last summer. It’s not the same ones, just dressed like them. Would Mommy take you somewhere dangerous?”

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Ben shook his head, while Sam hesitantly replied, “No.”

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“I need your trust.” Jules hoped she could convince them before they had to leave, before the thahdi-ch’iidii came again. “Okay?”

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“Kay.” Sam still didn’t look convinced but Jules didn’t expect her to be comfortable with people. All her kids would remember of other people was being chased away from sanctuaries.

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“Murphy.” The thahdi-ch’iidii looked up at her again. She rubbed his heavy head and murmured, “Trust me, please.” He whistled softly, which was as close as she was getting to assent from the non-English-speaking non-human.

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Turning, she walked toward the helicopter, Murphy on her heels. His head swung back and forth as he stared at the soldiers, the whiskers on his skin bristling. When she stopped, he bumped his snout against her arm, a sure sign of nervousness. She shared his discomfort. “How we doing this?” Jules asked, rubbing her hands together.

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“Soldiers first, then you and the children and then Murphy.” Ianto paused. “Unless you have a better suggestion?”

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“Only one. I’ll load with Murphy and sit in front of him in the aisle. That should calm him.” Jules tilted her head. “That okay?”

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“If you think that’s best, then that’s what we’ll do.” Ianto nodded to the soldiers and they loaded quickly. The soldiers were trained and precise; Jules admired that a little even as it made her nervous. Sam and Ben were coaxed into seats and buckled in reluntantly. When she carried Sam in, Murphy grumbled anxiously; when she took Ben in, the thahdi-ch’iidii crowded into the entrance, trying to get close to his family.

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“Come on,” Jules urged, moving forward and kneeling on the floor. “C’mon, Murphy.” She patted the floor. Murphy squealed then eased into the copter. The soldiers stiffened to find themselves so close to a xeno. It took several minutes and a bit of shifting on the soldiers’ ends but gradually Murphy settled onto the aisle floor, his nose resting on her leg.

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Talking in the helicopter was pretty much impossible without yelling and while the soldiers were well-trained enough not to shoot Murphy on site, the xeno clearly made them all very uncomfortable. Ianto slipped into the cockpit and sat next to the pilot, a Latino woman from the brief look Jules got while strapping the kids in. She was able to hear the garbled sound of Ianto speaking on a radio, presumably checking in with the settlement, and then the craft lifted into the air and there was no turning back. One of the soldiers, a younger man with a scar down his cheek, pulled out a wrapped caramel and offered it to Ben, but the boy only scooter closer to his mother, staring at the soldier with large, frightened eyes. The soldier didn't seem surprised or put off; he grinned and nodded at Jules, handing her the sweet instead.

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The flight was loud, tense, and mercilessly very short. Murphy made an unhappy startled snuffle when the helicopter touched down on hard ground, causing most of the soldiers to jump in turn. Luckily Ianto was already moving into the cabin and flashed everyone a dazzling smile. "We're home, folks. We're on a tennis court a little ways away from everyone," he explained to Jules. "There are a few people that are going to want to meet you and him," he gestured to Murphy, "and get a feel for the situation before we let you into town, okay?"

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She swallowed, the nervousness returning in a rush, but she also understood; no one survived in this day and age without being careful. She nodded, "Okay."

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The back of the helicopter opened up and the soldiers filed out. They fanned out like they were still in a war zone, but relaxed at the site of a cluster of people waiting a out on the green field next to the set of tennis courts turned helipad. Among the half-dozen people there, two of them were also in uniform, a thirty-something woman that the soldiers were saluting as they filed past, and an older man standing just behind her left soldier. The woman nodded to the soldiers; Jules recognized the weight and seriousness of leadership in her easily. There were two other pairs in the group: two men, one white and sharp-featured, and another swarthy and younger looking; they were both dressed nicely if not as nearly-rediculously nice as Ianto. Men used to money, she guessed. The final pair were two women, both dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans; one shorter and wearing a straw hat, smiling at the rescued newcomers even as Murphy worked his bulk out of the flying contraption. The other woman was almost still a girl, but tall and lithe, her black skin and long hair shining with health. Her jaw dropped open at the site of the xeno and she opened the pad of paper in her arms and starting sketching him as soon as he was out in the open.

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Ianto and the helicopter pilot started towards the group at the same time the group headed for the 'copter, letting them meet comfortably far enough away to speak privately for a moment while still being close enough to get a better look at the newcomers. Ianto spoke quietly, his body language clearly showing Jules who the three actual leaders were. The soldier eyed Murphy, frowning, and crossed her arms, clearly not happy with the situation; the other two look intrigued and the straw-hatted woman smiled and waved at the children, just as obviously pleased to see children as the soldier-lady was displeased to see a xeno flown onto the island. After a moment, the sharp-faced man nodded and stepped forward, bringing the whole group with him.

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When he reached Jules, he held out his hand, introducing himself. "Benjamin Lightman."

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Jules took his hand and shook it firmly, determined not to show her fear. "Julia WhiteElk."

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He motioned to the soldier, who shook her hand quickly. "Major Katherine Kataspokas."

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The straw-hat woman was far more eager, taking Jules' hand in both of hers. "Titania, and the lovely girl behind me is Cassandra. And who are these two darlings?" She beamed at the children.

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"My son Benjamin and my daughter Samantha, Ben and Sam," the two still shied away from the strangers, half hiding behind their mother. She nodded to the last member of her family, "And this is Murphy."

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Everyone blinked, except for Ianto, who seemed to be giving them a 'I told you so' look. Lightman looked at the xeno curiously and asked, "You managed to tame one of them?"

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Right after Lightman had just moved onto the subject of Murphy, he gave a sudden quick yelp, as if he'd been elbowed in the side. Which in fact, given the glare he flashed to the younger man next to him, it seemed he had been. The other man, unbothered, cleared his throat. "Doctor Lightman needs to remember completing introductions next time." To Jules and her family, he gave them a friendly smile.

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"Ali Badren. So how did Murphy-" The subject of their discussion started snuffling and moved forward with sudden focus, causing Major Kataspokas to tense up and the others to react a little. Jules immediately laid a restraining hand on Murphy, but she wasn't sure what prompted this change in behavior.

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Ali suddenly remembered the lunch he'd had not a short time ago, and chuckled. "I think he's smelling what I had for lunch. So he's a herbivore or omnivore then?"

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Jules had naively thought that her children would have the most difficulty getting used to people being around all the time, but Jules found that she struggled, too. Too much attention was being focused on her and her family; events happened so rapidly she didn’t feel in control. On the trail, she was boss. She made the decisions and reacted to three other beings. This many people felt like far too many.

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Swallowing, she said, “He’s an omnivore. He eats small creatures and plants of the leeh doo yo at eeh. I think he only eats other thahdi-ch’iidii when we’re in a dry area. Maybe for extra water?”

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“Fascinating.” Lightman seemed to have recovered from Ali’s abuse; perhaps he’d already forgotten about it in his excitement. His bright blue eyes darted from her to Murphy; had he focused that intense gaze on her alone it likely would have flustered her. “How did you tame him? How do you know it’s a him?”

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“I don’t.” Again Jules defaulted to answering the last question because there it was the last thing asked of her. “I say him because I won’t use ‘it’.”

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“Is i- he safe?” Now Major Kataspokas spoke; she had one concern and it was clear from her manner. “Is he tame?”

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“He’s not tame.” Jules knew she’d chosen the wrong words when everyone tensed. “He’s family. Murphy’s had chances to leave – everyday we’ve been together, he’s chosen to do that. To be with us. To protect us. I didn’t do anything to ‘tame’ him.”

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“Has he hurt anyone else?” Titania asked, but her manner was gently inquisitive instead of interrogative.

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“Only people who have hurt me.” Jules felt more and more out of control as the questioning continued. “I get that you, especially you, Major Kata… Katar—”

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The man she hadn’t introduced corrected Jules. “Kataspokas.”

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Another person talking to her wasn’t helping. “Especially you, Major, feel we’re dangerous. What do I need to do to convince you that we’re not a threat?”

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The Major frowned and glanced at the kids, then back to Jules. "It's my job to assess threats and keep Nova Terra safe. That," she pointed to Murphy, "is a xeno. We don't allow xeno's on the island."

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Lightman gave the Major an arched brow of a look. "Here now, Katherine, I thought we only kept enemies off the island. This woman claims the xeno has acted in her defense and the defense of her family. That is certainly worth looking into." He didn't exactly sound friendly, and he didn't call Murphy by his name, but at least someone was actually speaking up for her family's side of things.

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Katherine shook her head. "No way, Lightman. For all we know, they're some new kind of Gorgo-"

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"That's not the relationship," Ianto cut in, his manner managing to be both firm and deferential. All eyes turned to him and blushed just a little, but carried on. "The xen- uh, Murphy, sees Ms. WhiteElk as a superior. Like a parent. When she says he is family, that is how he relates to her. Less to the children, but even then there is a faint connection." At Katherine's glare, Ianto seemed to rally himself. "This is why you send me out to greet newcomers, Major. I can tell you that Murphy is not controlling her or the children and that they relate to one another as a family. All of them."

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"And can you say that Murphy," she didn't say it with venom, but Jules could hear the eyeroll in her tone, "is safe for the other families we have here?"

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Ianto clasped his hand in front of him and shook his head. "No, ma'am, but then I can't say that about the human woman or her children either. I can say that you're agitating all of them, though. I don't even need powers for that."

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Cassandra stifled a laugh at that, then ducked her head to avoid making eye contact with anyone and kept sketching.

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"Well, we certainly can't turn them away," Titania said, crossing her arms and mirroring Katherine, the same core of determination that was so obvious in the Major coming out in the shorter woman now. "We agreed on that as well. We don't turn away children."

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The three leaders stared at each other for several long heartbeats, communicating in that way that only time can grant and testing their wills against each other. Finally Lightman broke the silence. "We'll house them at the labs for now, until we've had some time to observe how well Murphy integrates with other humans and how well the populous adjusts to such an unusual addition to the community. If Murphy is deemed dangerous or cannot integrate, then we can speak with Walkers on another safe place for him and, if they wish to remain with him, Ms. WhiteElk and her children to relocate to. We can set guards at the labs and I certainly have no issue being a test-case for Murphy's behavior."

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Cassandra snorted again and muttered, "There goes any hope of interspecies relations."

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"And since Ms. Verdad is so well-versed in socializing, I'm glad she'll be assisting me in this endeavor," Lightman continued with the overtones of either a father or a teacher. He turned back to Jules, catching her eyes and showing not the slightest hint of discomfort at their inhuman appearance. "If this is acceptable to you, of course, Ms. WhiteElk. I am the lead scientist and xenobiologist of Nova Terra. It is my labs you would be staying in and under my purview and responsibility, though I have a feeling Titania will make her presence known as often as you'll allow to get to know you and your children."

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Cassandra made a face, but didn't protest her new assignment, and Titania smiled hopefully at Jules. Katherine merely let out an annoyed breath, but nodded once to show her assent to the plan. "I'm moving Lucas' training next to the labs then."

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Lightman nodded absently to the comment but kept his attention on Jules, waiting for her decision. He knew time was on his side - it was almost winter.

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This was about as good as she could hope for in the circumstances but Jules still pretended to consider their options for a moment. It was fall, she didn’t have winter provisions and she was far north. She’d staked everything on getting her family up here but she didn’t want thing to think that she’s desperate. “All right. We can try and see how it goes.”

“Excellent, Ms. WhiteElk.” Lightman grinned eagerly. “The labs are just over there.” He pointed across the road and a parking lot to a series of buildings.

“Wait, in the labs?” Jules frowned at her new hosts. “Are their actually rooms over there or will my family be sleeping on a couch in the corner?”

“Not at all.” Titania’s voice was full of warm reassurance. “There are recovery rooms which we could turn into bedrooms for you all. We could even put several of them together to make an apartment.”

“Is there… something larger? That we can share together? And Murphy, too?” Jules sighed to herself at their expressions and clarified, “The last time we lived somewhere with buildings and people, Ben was almost three, and Sam wasn’t even one yet. Murphy was still about the size of a pony.” Lightman muttered something about his growth, which Jules ignored. “And even then, we all slept together in the same room. I think that letting us stay together in the arrangements we’re used to will help the transition.”

“I can see that.” Titania smiled. “What can we get you to make your transitition smoother? Or just to make you more comfortable?”

“I’m not sure.” Jules turned to Murphy and murmured, “Down?” Her companion lowered himself and she lifted up the kids, setting Sam in front and Ben behind. Then, because she wanted the comfort too, she shifted their items around until she could ride, too. Murphy rose with all of them on his back and Jules took a quick look at all of the gathered humans. There was awe on a few faces – surprise on others, while some of them were carefully blank. Lightman looked excited and hungry. Had he been looking at her kids like that, she would have called it pedophilia.

The short ride on Murphy’s back, so familiar to all four of them, helped calm so nerves. Their entourage followed them, some guiding and some guarding the rest of the island against them. “I’ve been thinking,” Lightman said as they stopped, offering a hand to Jules when she started to slide off Murphy’s back, “You could use the waiting room or the records room. The waiting room is pretty exposed and the records room has no windows. Which would you prefer?”

Jules avoided his hand as politely as she could. “No windows.” The last thing she wanted was people wandering by the building to have a peek at the ‘tame’ xeno. What a terrible name for them. So… flat.

Titania smiled. “It’s a good choice—close to the bathrooms, with access to the back hallways instead of the front, so more privacy, if that’s what you want. And we can wheel in three beds for you.”

Beds? That sounded wonderful. “It sounds like we’re back in civilization, guys,” she said to Sam and Ben.

“I hate it!” Sam snapped, crossing her arms.

“You don’t know it yet.” Jules fought down anger and embarrassment; trust her kids to show their independence at the worst time.

“I hate it.” Her bottom lip came out, and Jules rolled her eyes and she pulled her daughter off the saddle.

“You can hate it all you want,” Jules said, shoving the clothing duffel at her. “We’re here.” Ben was quiet as she lifted him down and gave him the book bag and the nearly-empty food bag. Murphy shrieked softly, making most of the soldiers jump at the sudden noise.

“He sounds almost like a whale,” Lightman noted.

“I guess. I didn’t think about that.” Jules started to carry the rest, but Titania and Lightman both offered and Jules reluctantly let them help. They weren’t going to rob her; they could have done that without pretending they were carrying her gear.

The next hour was spent getting the last few filing cabinets out of the room, getting their beds in, and figuring out where the bathrooms were. Jules found out that they had hot and cold running water, clean bedding and extra clothing for all of them, and best of all a kitchen. Jules looked forward to cooking again.

The soldiers had given them privacy once they were settled, leaving the Major, her shadow-man, Titania, Cassandra, Ali and Lightman. It was the latter who immediately started talking once the kids were playing with their small box of Legos, Murphy was snoozing on two mattresses, and Jules said they were set. “Ali can give you all checkups, except for Murphy of course. I’d like some samples from each of you, too.”

“Not the kids.” Jules didn’t think about her response; it came out of her mouth. “And only if Murphy allows.”

“Will you cooperate, Ms. WhiteElk?” If Lightman was disappointed by her answer, it wasn’t in his voice.

Jules nodded. “Within limits. I’ll let you know when you hit a limit. And call me Jules.”

Lightman nodded. “So what was your transformation like, Jules? What can you do?”

Before, Jules had thought she’d find his full attention distracting. She’d been more than right; when her people discussed something important, they stared away from the person they were talking to. His intense gaze made her distinctly uncomfortable. “The things you call xenos – they dragged me away with some other people. At the edge of the… I call it leeh doo yo at eeh, the not-good land.”

“The phage is our term for it.” Lightman was so sure he had the right name for it but Jules let it pass. White men, even her husband, were always sure they were right.

,,

“At the edge of the phage, I escaped from the xenos.” Jules looked across the room, her eyes settling on her children. “I don’t remember it very well. They bound us in cocoons and left us there. I had a sharp rock, and I got out but the xenos were coming back so I ran. It was so terrible I’ve blocked most of it. But by the time I got back, I was changed. They—my husband included, didn’t want me anymore, so I grabbed what was left of my family and left.” She’d exposed herself in her telling; she could hear the sorrow when she spoke of being ostracized.

“What can you do?” Lightman brushed over her pain and went right her abilities.

Jules thought about blowing him off but they were opening their refuge to her and her family. That called for some cooperation on her part. “I can make a plant come to harvest. I can see better than a human. I have a knack for finding my way through the leeh doo yo at eeh.” She used the Navajo word just to see Lightman twitch with the urge to correct her. “I can build things from leeh doo yo at eeh material. I can cause fear in others. I’m an archer. I have primitive living skills and herbology knowledge. I’m good at building with my hands. I can shoot. I’m a mother, and I can serve as a mentor to another woman, or as a midwife.” She spread her hands. “That’s what I have to offer.”

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Titania leaned over while Lightman was asking his questions and said something quietly to Cassandra; the younger woman nodded and slipped out of the room. Lightman had found a folder and a clipboard and was quickly taking notes in that indecipherable handwriting men with doctorates seemed required to learn. Major Kataspokas gave her a respectful nod at Jules' recitation of her skills and seemed to soften her stance a bit. "That's an impressive list, especially these days, Ms. WhiteElk. We could certainly use all of those skills, especially if you're willing to teach. Too many of our people were hairdressers or lawyers or other pointless professions in the World After."

,,

"And most of the women are terrified of getting pregnant and giving birth without a hospital, even after Ali made it here," Titania added, sounding both exasperated and understanding at the same time.

,,

The still-unnamed man gave her a smile, which wrinkled his face and reminded her of the grandfathers in the tribe. He was still hard, but the smile gave him a soul. "I don't suppose you know how to make bows and arrows worth the time?"

,,

At her nod, the smile widened even further and Major Kataspokas let out a small laugh. "You've just made Will's year, Ms. WhiteElk. We've done some library raids into Seattle, but books aren't worth half the time as someone that actually knows what they're doing. We've got a smithy running in town and we're hitting the point where making armory runs isn't worth the ammo we're pulling in. If you can teach us how to make composite bows and stronger arrows, we can save the guns for emergencies." Her eyes were serious and wrinkled more with the stress than the lines of smiles and laughter Will must have earned before the world ended. Her lips slipped up into a smirk and she nodded to Lightman and Titania. "Be careful, though, Ms. WhiteElk, or you'll have all three of us trying to take your day and night training people or being a human pincushion." The last was an obvious jibe at Lightman, who rolled his eyes.

,,

Smells started to drift into the room, hot and inviting, and a moment later Cassandra knocked at the door and stepped back inside. "Lunch is almost ready. I didn't know if you were vegetarian, so I opened up some chili and some tomato soup and there's crackers and cheese. A nice hot meal is kinda the traditional welcome to Nova Terra." She grinned and held up a small sealed plastic filled with two or three dozen bear-shaped globs of sugar in different colors, "And I found desert for the kids, if you're okay with that."

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“Vegetarian?” Jules wasn’t quite sure what to make of this place. First were all the nicely dressed people; now there were people who felt they could be picky about what they ate. She and her kids had eaten hard cat food late one winter until she found early tubers. “No, I’m not vegetarian.” She tried to keep the scorn out of her voice but it didn’t work very well.

,,

“Gummy bears!” It was the first thing that Ben had said but when he did talk it was at a loud volume and with full enthusiasm. “Mommy? Can I?”

,,

“Don’t ask me. They’re not mine.” Jules tilted her head toward Cassandra in a clear ‘ask her’ gesture.

,,

Ben shrank back for a moment but his eyes were latched onto the candy. Slowly, he stood up and went over to Cassandra. His big brown eyes were half-hopeful, half-hungry as he asked, “Can I have some?”

,,

“Please.” Jules prompted it gently; she hadn’t reinforced manners on the open trail and now it was making her look like an awful mother. No, she quietly decided. She’d only have been an awful mother if she’d failed to do her best for her kids. I am a badass mother.

,,

“Can I please have some?” Ben repeated hopefully.

,,

“Of course,” Cassandra said with a smile, ripping open the package and dropping half into his hand. She looked over at Sam, who was still playing with her legos. “Sam, would you like some?”

,,

The child gave her a withering glare and scooped up her legos to drop on the mattress in front of Murphy. The xeno opened his eyes as the child started to play again; seeing nothing of interest to him, he drifted to sleep again. “Maybe later,” Jules said, then glanced at Titania. “Would anyone mind if we ate in here?”

,,

“Not at all.” The other woman smiled warmly. “Whatever is comfortable for you.”

,,

A folding table and chairs were added to their spacious room and everyone sat down to eat save the major and her shadow left to tend to duties. Jules hoped Lightman would go with them but he seemed determined to press her for details. “So, Jules…” Lightman barely paused to shovel food into his mouth before he started to speak. “What happens when you mature a plant to harvest?”

,,

“It dies.” Sam spoke up from where she was playing with the legos. “It shrivels all up.” Her dark brown eyes lifted to meet Lightman’s.

,,

“Yes,” Jules said, trying to brush aside her daughter’s sudden creepiness. “It’s like it uses all its energy to give us food.”

,,

“Fascinating.” Lightman leaned forward, his spoon dipping into his bowl unnoticed. “How long did that take?”

,,

Jules smiled tightly and tried to hide her frustration but Titania must have seen it. “Actually, Jules, I was wondering - where are you from?” The transition allowed her to stymie Lightman from further questions. Finally Sam came to the table to eat. She scowled at the table and chair; her kids hadn’t really eaten at one before. Ben seemed to like it but Sam was determined to hate everything with as much passion as she could muster. The chili managed to win her over and the cheese earned her love early but everything else was treated like dirt. In the meantime, Titania weaseled most of the details of her life out of Jules.

,,

Finally, Jules sat back, feeling pleasantly full for the first time in a long time. “Remember the last time we ate this good?” she asked the kids, rubbing Sam’s back gently.

,,

“Last fall, at our harvest feast.” Sam’s anger had melted away while she was eating; now she snuggled against her mother’s side with a fond smile. “We had the deer, and the walnuts, and the field greens and lots and lots of whatever we wanted.”

,,

“Yeah.” Jules’s smile faded a touch as she realized they wouldn’t have to scrounge quite so hard in the future. They wouldn’t need harvest feasts anymore and she wondered if Nova Terra even had them. The annual fall feasts had been a way to cheer themselves up; to celebrate another year of life and living. She’d actually miss them.

,,

Her eyes fell on Ben and she realized that her son had his head in his arms and was dozing already. “Would you folks mind letting us get settled tonight and start with the training and pincushioning tomorrow?”

,,

“Not at all.” Titania answered before Lightman could.

,,

The scientist forced a smile and said, “Jules, I’ll bring you breakfast and we can do our initial physical, if Ali is available. I’d still like to take some samples and perhaps see a demonstration of your power?”

,,

“Very well.” Jules nodded and smiled at both men. “I’ll see you at breakfast, Dr. Lightman, Doctor. Thank you for dinner, Cassandra, and for joining us, Titania.”

,,

“You’re quite welcome,” Titania said, while Cassandra echoed her softly. With that, everyone left her and her kids in peace.

,,

Jules took a deep breath, glad to be back down to a number she felt comfortable around. “Hey, guys, wanna read Charlotte’s Web?” Both of them wanted to hear that story and together, they curled up next to Murphy to read. Gradually someone brought them dinner and then they fell asleep, enjoying beds, bedding and the knowledge they were secure.

,,

9/13/2023

,,

Jules woke up at dawn despite being in the windowless room. She looked at her kids immediately, lifting her head from the mattress to peer at them anxiously. Ben was in his bed but Sam’s was empty.

,,

Jules’s heart slammed to a stop then kicked into overdrive. Gasping, she sat up, fumbling for a flashlight and shining it around the room. When the beam fell on Murphy, Jules sagged with relief. Sam was with him, curled up in her sleeping bag between his front legs. The thahdi-ch’iidii lifted his head, his black eyes not bothered by the change in light. Sam grumbled and turned over, hiding under the blanket. Jules sagged back into the covers but now she couldn’t sleep.

,,

She dressed and grabbed her fletching kit, moving out into the hallway where she could work on her arrows without waking up her kids. She had a stack of six done before she heard the pad of bare feet. Jules looked up as Lightman rounded the corner.

,,

The scientist wore a dark blue bathroom and had a towel slung over his shoulder. “Good morning,” he said with enough cheer to make her think he was a morning person.

,,

“Good morning.” Jules looked away from him; the man in the bathrobe cut a distracting figure. She hadn’t noticed yesterday in the insanity of arrival yesterday but he was quite striking.

,,

He stopped in front of her, then crouched to pick up an arrow. He held his robe closed but Jules still averted her eyes, her cheeks warming slightly. “This looks like a genuine artifact.” Lightman smiled at her. “I took a class in anthropology in my undergrad. The arrows we saw in our studies looked like this.”

,,

“Thank you.” Jules turned her attention back to the arrow she was working on. After another moment of studying the arrow, he put it down and rose. Jules found herself watching him disappear into the showers. Shaking her head at her own silliness, she returned to fletching.

,,

The door to their room opened and Ben stepped into the hallway. “Mommy? I need to pee.”

,,

“Okay.” Jules set aside her work and took his hand. They walked down the hall together and Jules went in with him. Her kids hadn’t learned much in the way of modesty or privacy; something else she need to teach them. When they were done, she made Ben wash his hands. When they left, they ran into Lightman; for Ben, it was almost literally into him.

,,

“Good morning, Ben,” Lightman told her son; Ben didn’t say anything.

,,

Together, the two watched him walk back down the hall to his room. Jules was sure her son wasn’t watching him walk, or the way his wet hair curled. Why are the white men all so pretty?

Sam needed to go by the time they got back so Jules walked her to the bathrooms. Then they all went to the showers, Murphy included, though he just caught drops of water on his tongue and tried to eat the shampoo. She was so distracted by having shampoo that Jules almost let him.

,,

They could smell breakfast as they left the showers in clean clothing with clean bodies. “Wanna found out what we’re eating?” she asked her kids, grinning down at them.

“Yeah!” They bounced ahead, following the smells while Murphy grumbled softly. “We’ll feed you, too. We’re out of purple rope, so you’ll get the good stuff today,” she told the massive beast. “Sound good?” Murphy butted her gently with his head which she took as a yes. Grinning, Jules went to see to food.

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Breakfast and coffee were made and slowly the labs rustled to life. There were a half-dozen people that seemed to make their homes in the buildings of the small complex and they wandered into the main area over the course of the next hour or so. Ali appeared and the family was gently put through the rounds of general physicals; files were made for them, the statistics written down in precise handwriting on blank paper by a pretty younger woman dressed in "goth chic" clothing. Jules put her in her late teens, maybe her mid-twenties in more professional clothing.

,,

Ben put up with the minor indignities of Ali's physical without much complaint; he held onto his mother's hand and mostly just watched the doctor with large, solemn eyes. Sam was not quite so accommodating, requiring constant placating or sharp words from her mother to keep her still. She flipped back and forth between seeming frightened of the man and throwing a tantrum at being touched or spoken to. Jules might have been worried about her actually being scared of Ali if she hadn't caught the defiant look in her daughter's eye halfway through the second tantrum. Sam was a master of "whatever works to get my way", and she pulled this sort of back-and-forth switch on Jules before. She wasn't happy about being in the labs or all the new people in general and making a fuss with Ali was her best way to show it. When the beleaguered doctor finally declared the physical over, Sam squirmed off the table and hid behind Murphy, glaring at her mother for not having given in to her antics and taken them all somewhere else.

,,

Nicole, the goth-chic girl, left to go put their charts wherever it was they filed them now; Ali left shortly after that, apologizing for the abrupt departure with the explanation that he had several patients around town to see to before the afternoon. Lightman took his place, pushing in a cart of medical supplies when he came inside. He glanced over the children - Ben still quiet but getting fidgety from boredom and Sam still sulking behind Murphy - and cleared his throat. "Mm, Jules, you had said yesterday you would be amenable to giving some samples for me to study - and that I might be able to collect non-invasive samples from th- from Murphy, if it allows. There is a daycare in the town proper; perhaps your children would find the company of others their age more...agreeable?"

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“I doubt Sam will but we can try.” Jules wanted her kids to socialize with other children but she knew that Sam was probably going to throw a fit about it. Perhaps her daughter would surprise her. “Hey, guys,” Jules said, squatting down so she was at their level. “Would you like to go play with other kids?”

,,

“NO!” Sam screamed the word with all her fury before ducking behind Murphy again. The thahdi-ch’iidii looked vaguely alarmed at all the noise but didn’t move. Ben silently shook his head, no doubt freaked out by his sister, or perhaps the suggestion itself.

,,

“You don’t have to,” Jules said softly, pulling him to her. “Dr. Lightman just thought you’d like it.”

,,

“I wanna stay with you.” Ben only glanced at Lightman briefly before leaning against his mother.

,,

“Can you play quietly, then? Let Dr. Lightman do what he’s going to do in peace?” she asked, smoothing his hair behind one of his ears. Ben nodded and Jules smiled, kissing his forehead. “Thank you.”

,,

Detangling herself from her son, she rose to her feet and faced the doctor. “What do you want to do?” she asked softly.

,,

“I’d like to draw blood, swab your cheek and take a hair sample.” Lightman stared at her again with those blue eyes. “Do you think your children would play with Cassandra?”

,,

“I don’t know. If she comes here, perhaps.” Jules smiled uncertainly. “It’s just too soon. Maybe have a couple of kids come up here…” Her voice trailed off as Lightman glanced quickly at Murphy and away; it had been fast but the glance had been telling. There would be no playdates near the thahdi-ch’iidii. “Let’s try socialization with Cassandra and work up from there.”

,,

“Sounds good.” Lightman left the room to make arrangements.

,,

When he returned, he had Cassandra with him, and the young woman went to Ben’s side. She smiled widely as she knelt next to him. “Hey, Ben, do you and Sam want to come outside and play for a while?”

,,

“Can Murphy come?” Sam asked, poking around the side of the xeno.

,,

“Murphy’s going to stay inside for now.” Jules smiled at her daughter. “You should take your Legos outside and play.” Sam narrowed her eyes at her mother and Jules narrowed them right back. Jules would allow the temper tantrums due to circumstances, but only to a point.

,,

With suddenness, Sam relented, grabbing the small box of toys and stalking to the door. There she waited impatiently for Ben and Cassandra, as if it had been her idea to go outside. Jules could only shake her head as the three of them disappeared through the door. “So,” she said as she turned to Lightman, “I believe you wanted some blood.”

,,

“We doctors are all vampires.” The handsome doctor chuckled as he produced a syringe. Jules watched as he tied off her arm and expertly raised a vein. His fingers were warm and she made herself focus more on the sting of the needle. He filled two vials with the crimson fluid expertly and extracted the needle. As Jules held a cotton ball in place, he swabbed her mouth with a medical q-tip. Her hair was next; a quick tug finished that and Lightman bagged three strands carefully.

,,

“So vampire and stalker.” At Jules’s quip, the scientist frowned. “You took my blood, now you’re… keeping my hair. That was funnier in my head.”

,,

“Oh, yes. Clever.” Lightman chuckled and Jules resisted the urge to tell him not to patronize her. It had been a dumb joke. “Moving on to Murphy?”

,,

At his name, her companion looked up from where he’d been laying. The sudden interest made Jules aware that he was kind of bored. “Yeah. His nostrils are wet, and so’s the inside of his mouth. I’ll get it if you’ll get me the q-tips.” The scientist handed them to her, following as she walked to Murphy’s side. “Hey, big guy,” she murmured as she held out the q-tips. The thahdi-ch’iidii pressed his face to the sticks; Jules waited patiently as his whiskers wrapped around them, feeling them.

,,

She jumped a little when Lightman whispered in her ear, “What are those whiskers doing?”

,,

Murphy froze at her alarm, so she smiled and spoke in calming tones, “I don’t know but he touches everything with them. I think he senses the world with them.” She looked up at the man, who thankfully had turned his full attention on Murphy. “You want to touch him?”

,,

“Yes, please.” Jules took his hand and pressed it to the back of hers, then put her hand on Murphy’s side. His whiskers curled up over Jules’s fingers and then Lightman’s. When the thahdi-ch’iidii didn’t react violently, Jules removed her hand and let Lightman press his to Murphy’s side. When the xeno still tolerated that, Jules stepped back and let the two have a moment. Finally, Murphy’s whiskers uncoiled from around the man and Lightman stepped back, looking pleased.

,,

While he basked in the enjoyment, Jules got his samples. Murphy grumbled when she swabbed his nostrils, but he didn’t care when she rubbed the inside of his cheek. “What kind of teeth does he have?” Lightman asked, leaning down to peer at them awkwardly.

,,

Jules carefully peeled them back, watching Lightman get excited. “What?” she asked, releasing his lips.

,,

“He has human teeth.” Lightman grabbed a computer and opened a program, typing rapidly. “Can I see them again?”

,,

Jules carefully pried Murphy’s lips back. She noted the flick of his tail and the rumble that signified a loss of patience. “He’s getting tired of this. You don’t have long.”

,,

“Yes, yes… thank you.” Lightman straightened up. “I’m done. He’s got three molars, two premolars, a canine and two incisors on each side, top and bottom. They’re longer, proportionally, than humans, but it’s the same structure and number. Did he lose his teeth?”

,,

“Yes, he did, one at a time, when he was still very small. They grew back.” Jules frowned as the thought occurred to her, “Like a child’s.”

,,

“A human child’s.” Lightman was practically giddy. “You have brought me a most fascinating gift, Jules. The first xeno I’ve seen with any human characteristics.”

,,

Jules reached out and caught his wrist; when he met her angry eyes, he blinked. “He’s not a gift and he’s my family.”

,,

“I didn’t mean it like that.” His eyes were calm despite her tight grip on his wrist. “Jules, I don’t mean any of you harm.”

,,

She let go, feeling foolish and defiantly protective still. “What else do you want?”

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“I want to understand how the xenos work. I’ve done quite a few dissections and forensic studies but I’ve not had the chance to study one long-term who is alive.” He looked at Murphy, that unsettling intensity entering his eyes again. “That he is so unique offers the chance to create new theories to test.”

Jules half-snorted, half-chuckled. “No, I mean, what do you want from Murphy and I next?”

“Ah! Well, perhaps we can test his intelligence.” Lightman tilted his head to the side as he continued to watch Murphy.

“Sure, I guess.” Jules shrugged but before Lightman could go further, the door burst open.

“Mommy! Mommy!” Both of her children exploded into the room, their voices high and shrill. Jules spun, her hand reaching for an arrow that wasn’t there and Murphy rose to his feet with with rumble of worry, but Jules quickly realized that they were just excited. Cassandra followed them in and she was relaxed as well, and Jules let her tension drain away. As the kids bounced off her legs, she caught snippets of words: “boy--soldiers--fire--play!”

“Whoa, whoa!” Jules laughed softly as she swept Sam up in her arms and grinned down at Ben. “One at a time and one word at a time.”

“There’s a boy outside!” Sam said excitedly.

Ben cut her off. “And he’s with a bunch of soldiers!”

“But he’s throwing fireballs!” Sam wanted to tell her mother the biggest news.

“Can we go play with him?” Ben finished.

Jules looked at Lightman who smiled reassuringly. “That would be Lucas. He’s training right now but he might have some time to play later.”

“C’mon, Mommy, you’ve gotta see it!” Ben grabbed her hand and hauled her toward the door eagerly.

“Okay!” Jules laughed and glanced at Murphy. “Let’s go, Murphy! I think we can all use some sun!” The thahdi-ch’iidii surged to his feet and followed her out the door, down the hall and outside. A cluster of men in fatigues were across the green area; a large handpainted target burned merrily.

Jules stopped when she stood in the sun, tilting her face up to the warmth. She’d grown up in high deserts and heat had always been a part of life. Since coming north, she’d come to hate the cold, particularly during the long winters. This warmth was fleeting and would soon disappear with the change of the season.

“Mommy, move!” Sam pulled on her shirt even as Ben gave up on her and bounded toward the group of soldiers. As he did, a fireball roared out of the middle of the mass of people with an ear-splitting whomp of heat and displaced air.

“Ben! Stop!” Jules had a horrifying image of him running right into the flames, even as they arched high into the air and thudded into the target again. Her son stopped and turned back, gesturing for her to come while bouncing on his toes.

The cluster of soldiers tightened up on their center; Jules could barely see the small form among them. She frowned; it was a really small form. She caught up to Ben, only to have Murphy bound past her excitedly. “Damn it! Murphy!” Her precious thahdi-ch’iidii snapped around and bounced on a zigzag course back to her side. “You’re all children,” Jules muttered under her breath.

While she’d been getting her unruly family together, Jules noticed that the soldiers had shifted their position. Her archer’s instincts told her it was a better place to mount a ranged attack on the spot where Jules stood. It didn’t make her feel much better to know that they were probably aiming at Murphy, not her. It’s not personal, she thought sardonically, sure that’s what they were thinking. A thought came to her and she put Sam down. “Murphy seems to have a case of the fidgets. Go find a stick.” Her kids dashed away, their eyes on the ground.

“Are you…” Lightman let his voice trail off.

“Murphy spent the first year of his life raised around dogs.” Jules grinned as Sam came back with a heavy stick. She hurled it as hard as she could, aiming away from the soldiers. Murphy shrieked joyously and took off at a run. He didn’t catch up to it before it hit the ground; scooping it up in his mouth, he galloped back to her side. Jules took the stick from him and threw it again, watching as the thahdi-ch’iidii bounded off. “He really needs to work off some energy.” She smiled up at one of Murphy’s few allies. “Would anyone mind if we ran him around the building?”

“I think that would be fine,” Lightman remarked as Murphy dumped the stick at her feet.

“Great. Murphy, down.” Jules threw her leg over his back and wiggled into place. “Guys, you wanna ride?”

“No, we wanna meet the boy, please!” Sam looked hopeful and excited; Jules wasn’t sure why this boy had caught her daughter’s attention, but since it was the first thing she’d shown a positive reaction to that wasn’t food, Jules nodded.

“Sure. Ben, do you wanna meet Lucas too?” Jules asked, glancing at Cassandra.

“Yeah.” Her son smiled at her before turning that grin to Cassandra.

“All right, let’s go.” The pretty teen took Ben’s hand and offered the other to Sam. Her daughter ignored it but skipped along at Cassandra’s side, leaving Jules with the scientist.

Murphy grunted underneath her, still prone and waiting for her to be ready to ride. Jules glanced at Lightman, then said, “Well. You wanna ride with me?”

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