William Boone took a cautious breath and grimaced. Burning pain erupted in his lungs. As it spread through his chest, he suppressed a moan, but found himself helpless against the coughing fit which followed right after.
‘Take it easy,’ the concerned face of Dr. Belman hovered over him as she put an inhaler into his mouth.
He did not object. The coughing subsided and he soon found he could breathe freely again. Still, the experience had left him exhausted.
‘Thanks,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I thought the symptoms should have been gone by now.’
‘Healing processes need time,’ Dr. Belman smiled as she returned to her desk and began adjusting the microscope. ‘You're in a far better shape than could be expected. That experiment of yours had almost left you on the brink of death.’
‘You know there was no other choice, and it worked.’
The woman sighed as she cast a glance at her auburn-haired patient beaming at her. ‘It did. But you scared the hell out of us all, Boone. If it wasn't for Da'an...’
Boone's grin faded. The memory of the North American Companion miraculously bringing him back to life was vague, but as it flashed before his eyes, his CVI furnished it with details he had not thought himself capable of remembering, considering the state he had been in at the time. He remembered the warm tickling of energy particles as they spread through his body, and the moment he opened his eyes, he could swear that Da'an's fatigued face bore signs of... concern. Although barely conscious, he could not help feeling concerned as well when he realized that the pale glow of Da'an's perfectly blue eyes was gone, and had been reduced to a disturbingly human, feverish gleam.
‘Has the vaccine proved effective on him?’ he asked.
‘Administering matter-based antibodies into an energy-based being is a challenge we are working on right now.’
Boone's face fell. He had not realized Da'an had not been given the antidote yet. A strange feeling of uneasiness overwhelmed him as he quickly considered his options.
‘Gathering volunteers to produce more antibodies.’
‘The last time I saw him he was as healthy as a horse.’ Dr. Belman winked humorously.
‘That's not what I'm asking...’ Boone gripped the edge of the bed to help himself to a sitting position. ‘Where is he?’
As if to answer his question, the door leading to Dr. Belman's provisional office opened, revealing the silhouette of the North American Companion's loyal shadow as always dressed in an impeccable black suit.
‘Boone.’ The agent's voice did not carry a single trait of emotion. ‘I am glad to see you will be returning to Companion service shortly.’
Dr. Belman could not help a critical glance in his direction. ‘Commander Boone will require several days to recover fully.’
Sandoval looked unconcerned. ‘The Synod wishes to know the details of your progress in developing a vaccine suitable for Taelons, Doctor.’
‘I am doing my best.’
‘That is for certain. What I need to know is how much time you require before the final formula is ready.’
‘Three days, perhaps two if I am not disturbed,’ she answered, and if her pointed remark was not lost on him, he did not let it show.
Boone, on the other hand, fully intended to use the uneasy moment of silence. ‘Who's watching over Da'an?’
‘Da'an wished to be alone.’
Boone felt his blood run cold. ‘Alone? You've left him alone?’
Sandoval raised an eyebrow. ‘It was his wish.’ Although the Agent rarely spoke more than was required, with the growing burden of his fellow Implant's accusatory gaze upon him, he suddenly felt the need to explain himself. ‘Like you, driven by concern, I was tempted to disobey - until he turned his wish into an order.’
‘Sandoval, he's ill and unattended.’
A fleeting bitter grimace curved the Asian's lips as if a sudden thought that he should have rebelled, had just occurred to him.
‘Have you got any idea where he might be now?’
‘He has expressed a desire to spend the afternoon in the garden surrounding the facility.’
Boone sat up. ‘Fetch my clothes. I'm going.’
Dr. Belman instantly blocked his way. ‘You're not going anywhere, you should be -’
‘Agent Sandoval,’ the Commander said as officially as he could. ‘If you don't want the Companion or the Synod to see me in my pajamas, you will fetch my clothes.’
The Agent's dark eyes widened at the very prospect before he stormed out of the room to find Boone's suit.
The late afternoon was pleasantly cool. Boone greedily inhaled the chilly air, feeling it ease the burning sensation in his lungs. He had not fully recovered yet, and although he had never liked formal wear, the harsh fabric of his suit seemed more irritating than ever as he was walking down the main alley.
The garden was deserted, but that came as no surprise since the inhabitants of Lincoln Hills had been instructed to stay indoors. Being a most narrow selection of common bushes and trees, it was nothing to match the beauty of the garden surrounding the Taelon Embassy in Washington. Still, Da'an seemed to find fondness in nature, and to tell the truth, having stayed locked inside the facility for quite a few days now, Boone was glad to have the excuse to take a breath of fresh air.
Only that... it was not exactly an excuse.
He sighed, bound to admit that he was truly worried. Although the motivation imperative in his CVI had been extracted by Dr. Belman long before his implantation, he could not help behaving in a protective manner towards Da'an. What disturbed him the most was that he was not driven towards it by some alien technology implanted in his brain like Sandoval, but acted purely on that little treasure he had successfully kept hidden from the Taelons: his human free will. A few weeks back he even found himself incautiously defending the Companion in some dispute with Jonathan Doors, which clearly threw the Resistance leader off balance and made him doubt his secret agent's loyalty.
The fact was, his loyalties were neither with the Resistance nor with the Taelons.
His loyalties lay with the truth, and that incredibly wise alien being imprisoned in a physically frail body knew answers to all the questions he could possibly think of. Yesterday that being had saved his life. Not because such course of action had been ordered by the Taelon Synod, but purely out of his alien free will even if limited by the restrictions of the Commonality. Da'an had chosen for him to live - to sacrifice a part of his life energy to revive him even when any human in service of the Companions could easily be replaced by another.
It was Da'an's choice. Boone realized that soon a time would come to make his own.
He was more than certain that as soon as the issue with the epidemic was resolved, Doors would demand an explanation as to why his subordinate was busy helping the Taelons. The moment he had chosen to protect Da'an of his own free will, the Liberation had put his loyalty into question, and now fate had offered them a perfect opportunity to test him. Never in the history of Taelon-human relationship had the alien race been so vulnerable. Certainly, Doors would be uncorking his best wine if humanity survived the epidemic and the Taelons did not. With this unexpected victory of mankind, the Earth would be free again. The sudden twist of fate would obviate the need to regain human freedom and independence through military measures, and the spectre of a worldwide military conflict would be gone - and gone forever.
Still, achieving this at the cost of eliminating an entire alien species did not seem the right thing to William Boone. Not because he felt sympathy for the Taelons - he did not. They neither understood nor cared to try to understand what they referred to as lesser beings. But Da'an was different. He did care, even when other members of his species considered such approach inappropriate. If he died, Boone felt the world would be strangely empty without him. Inappropriately empty.
With that thought in mind, he took a moment to look around. In the golden rays of the setting sun, trees rustled in the breeze to the accompaniment of chirping sparrows which occupied some of the lower branches. The world of nature was as if nothing had ever gone amiss - as if the epidemic had been no more than some human's nightmare the world had swiftly awoken from.
A chink of pale blue light filtered through the hazel bushes, instantly catching the man's attention. Having moved several branches aside, he found a familiar figure enclosed in bluish radiance leaning over the fountain. He lowered his eyes, suddenly intimidated by the view. He had rarely had the occasion to see a Taelon in its pure energy form, but each time he did, he could not help feeling uneasy. No matter how beautiful and unearthly those shimmering energy particles looked in the daylight, he could not help being a mere human clinging too tightly to the physical world.
The Taelon must have noticed him as well, for the pale blue radiance quickly dissolved beneath a fine layer of snow-white skin. William Boone met a pair of sky-blue eyes observing him.
‘Commander Boone,’ the diplomat acknowledged his Protector's presence with a slight nod. ‘I was told you were yet to recover.’
Boone found himself groping for words. Lying to an intellectually superior being was a mentally engaging task, and one he was hardly prepared for when the pain in his lungs continued to distract him. ‘I'm sorry, I didn't wish to disturb you, but -’
‘I believe it was your intention. Has Agent Sandoval not conveyed to you my wish that I remain alone?’
Boone's shoulders dropped. ‘He has.’
‘Why then are you not taking your time to recover?’
Although by the greenish specks of energy shimmering beneath the Taelon's skin Boone could easily tell he was already in the second phase of the illness, he was surprised to see the diplomat waved his hand in his usual graceful manner. Perhaps Taelons were not as physically weak as Doors believed; whereas Dr. Belman's human patients who reached the second phase were barely conscious, Da'an's voice did not as much as waver.
‘You shouldn't have been left unprotected,’ the Commander said. ‘You know there are people who mean you harm.’
‘You mean people like the Resistance people,’ Da'an eyed his servant carefully before he slowly continued down the alley with Boone following him close behind. ‘It is my belief they will not strike when the epidemic may eradicate what they consider the greatest threat to humanity, especially that this unfortunate twist of fate shall absolve them of responsibility for my species' final annihilation.’
One point for you here, Boone thought grimly.
Da'an took a moment to continue. ‘If miraculously that is not the case, I have known Mr. Doors ever since my arrival on Earth, which is long enough to properly assess his motivation. I believe soon he shall find that what he refers to as the fight for freedom constitutes insufficient means to satisfy his ambition, and shall turn to other matters instead.’
Two points, Boone added up mentally. For an alien, the North American Companion had quite a talent for seeing through people. ‘That still doesn't explain why you're putting your life at risk by dismissing Agent Sandoval.’
This time it was the Taelon diplomat who seemed to be groping for words. ‘Agent Sandoval's presence is...’
‘...constant.’ Boone took the liberty to finish the sentence and couldn't help beaming a grin at his superior.
Da'an smiled back at him. ‘In certain circumstances every being in the Universe desires a moment of privacy.’
‘I've heard Taelons are never alone with their thoughts.’
The Companion tilted his head. ‘Your statement contains partial truth.’
‘Does that mean your collective consciousness allows for privacy?’
‘Every Taelon can be alone with his thoughts if he chooses so, yet throughout my life I have rarely witnessed such a decision being made.’
Boone bit his lip. He had long been seeking an opportunity for discussion to inquire into a matter which had been occupying his mind for some time now. He knew Da'an had secretly facilitated Sahjit's escape before Zo'or and Sandoval managed to interrogate him, and kept Ma'el's legacy secret from the Taelon Synod. The question was, how far he was willing to go in what was undoubtedly a dangerous game.
‘Have you ever chosen to keep your thoughts away from the Commonality?’
Da'an's lips curved in a smile. After a moment of silence it became clear it was going to be his only answer.
‘You often say the Taelons pursue common goals,’ Boone pressed on. ‘You have risked your life to save mine, but somehow I don't think Zo'or would act the same way.’
The Taelon tilted his head to the side. ‘Today Agent Sandoval has honoured my wish for privacy out of respect, whereas you have violated it driven by concern. Do these two courses of action imply that only one of you serves me well?’
The auburn-haired man stifled a laugh. ‘I can't outtalk you, can I?’
Da'an blinked, his demeanour as serious as ever. ‘No. You cannot.’
Amused, Boone shook his head. The Taelon had obviously not yet mastered the human art of leaving rhetorical questions unanswered. He silently watched the alien look up towards the sky bathed in golden warmth of the setting sun. Fatigued, sky-blue eyes caught streaks of this molten gold, shimmering in a distinctively unhuman manner.
All of a sudden an intrusion of Boone's CVI displayed before his eyes an earlier memory of those energy particles in high detail. He realized that the once bright, vivid flickers in the Taelon's eyes had become a shrinking collection of fading sparks.
‘Da'an, I know sustaining a physical form costs you energy. You don't have to maintain that illusion before me,’ he offered.
‘I have come to realize it makes humans feel less intimidated when addressing me,’ the diplomat said. ‘It has always been my wish to be respectful of human traditions.’
Boone raised an eyebrow. ‘Human traditions?’
‘Although every Taelon is perfectly capable of piloting a shuttle, I employed a pilot upon realizing that your most respected dignitaries do likewise.’
The auburn-haired man lowered his eyes. He had never thought that by having Captain Marquette pilot his shuttle, Da'an was showing his respect for human customs. But now that it had been mentioned, it made perfect sense.
‘So by maintaining a physical appearance, you honour humanity?’
‘Although I am perfectly aware I shall always be alien to you, I believe I have ventured to be as much human as an alien being possibly may.’
‘Who would have thought,’ Boone commented. ‘You really made me think our two races were strikingly similar.’
‘We are strikingly different,’ the Taelon finally turned his gaze toward his Protector. ‘I would venture differences create opportunities which would have otherwise been left inexistent, yet unfortunately in the current circumstances... this no longer seems to be the case.’
Boone felt a tight knot forming in his throat. ‘You can't give up. Dr. Belman is working on a vaccine, and I bet she'll figure it out in time.’
‘If that does not happen, certain measures will have to be taken to ensure long-term stability.’
The man blinked. He did not have the slightest idea what the Companion was referring to. ‘You know I always carry out every order you give me.’
‘That pleases me greatly, for should my species perish, I require you to destroy every interdimensional portal on the surface of the planet, and make certain the technology is never introduced again.’
Boone was dumbstruck. This order clearly surpassed all things weird he had ever been told to do. His CVI brought before his eyes an image of Paul Chandler and his crew - people trained to one day fly to Mars until their mission had been cancelled by the American government under the pressure from the Taelon Synod. Could Doors be right? For whatever reason the Taelons were keeping humanity locked in on Earth, he could not understand why they could possibly want to get rid of ID travel technology they had introduced themselves.
‘I don't understand...’
Da'an looked at him from the corner of his eye. ‘Understanding is not always an advantage.’
Boone sighed. He needed to know the answer, but an obedient Implant he was pretending to be would never question a clear directive from a Taelon, even less ask the rationale behind it. He decided to approach the matter from a different angle.
‘I am more effective in implementing the Taelon agenda when I am fully informed.’
‘Why then is it not in the best interest of the Synod to furnish their command with details?’
The Taelon seemed to hesitate. Pale blue eyes scanned the human's face as if searching for a confirmation of some prior assumption. ‘The command has not been issued by the Synod.’
Boone's eyes widened in clarity. Da'an was a part of the Taelon collective, but his answer proved that he was capable of making independent decisions irrespective of the Synod's agenda.
‘Your trust is not misplaced,’ the man lowered his voice. ‘But I need to know why you think the ID technology might be dangerous to us.’
‘The technology is perfectly safe. Unlike the interdimensional space it offers access to.’
Boone's eyes rounded to orbs. All of a sudden it struck him that what the Resistance had been missing for all those years was that the Taelons had no intention of having humanity confined on Earth. They wanted to keep something else out.
The diplomat's features softened. ‘I hope you shall long remain uninformed, William Boone, for it testifies that humanity has remained untouched by certain forces which you cannot yet cont-’ the Taelon gasped as a deep blush swept over his form, brightening his energy pathways.
‘Da'an?’ in the blink of an eye, Boone was at his side. ‘I'm taking you to Doctor Belman.’
‘No.’ The Taelon Ambassador took a step back as if afraid his subordinate might once more act against his orders. For the briefest of moments his blue eyes flickered, invigorated with energy, before their pale radiance faded out completely. Boone felt his blood run cold. He had seen that before when having been kidnapped by renegade soldiers, the diplomat had almost willed himself to die.
‘Da'an, you need medical help. Be reasonable,’ he pleaded.
Da'an tilted his head to the side and his eyes narrowed. Boone felt his mouth run dry. Clearly the situation had distracted him enough to make the one mistake Doors had been warning him against. The human free will - that little trinket no man in service of the Companions was ever supposed to have - had just compromised him. No Implant would ever reason with a Taelon. He knew it. And obviously, the diplomat did too.
But what came next was beyond Boone's reasoning.
‘I think it is best we speak of this no more. Return to the facility, please.’
Da'an's decision to let him go without having him arrested or killed left Boone at the very least flabbergasted. Deep inside he had always known Da'an would one day learn he was being deceived. Even Doors had to know that. Now that it finally happened, the man found it hard to believe that the Taelon Ambassador might refuse to follow the usual procedure and not have him terminated. Was Da'an truly letting him go knowing the motivational imperative in his CVI wasn't working?
‘I can't leave you here. Can't let you die,’ the man muttered, perfectly aware that if Da'an changed his mind, these words would most likely turn into yet another nail in his coffin.
Narrowed blue eyes shimmered upon returning to their usual oval shape. ‘Your concern is appreciated. Unfortunately, prolonging my life by several hours is a futile endeavor when developing the antidote shall take two days at the very least.’
‘I know it's all very logical, I really do. But you have to try. Giving up now serves neither the Taelons nor humanity.’
‘It is a human behavioral pattern, is it not? An illogical, pointless desire to continue trying when all is lost.’ Another wave of energy rippled through Da'an's pathways, making him blush. This time, however, Boone no longer felt restricted by the protocol and instinctively took his small, snow-white hand into his own.
‘It seems so,’ he said, analyzing the expression of utter disbelief on the Taelon's face.
Perhaps Da'an had not backed away from him because he was already too weak, but the very hint of a thought that he might actually wish for the contact or simply find it pleasant was more than rewarding. The alien skin was smooth and pleasantly cool to human touch, Boone noted as a pair of wide-open, pale blue eyes continued staring at him in silence. He neither spoke nor moved as if afraid that at the slightest stir Da'an would break the contact. But surprisingly, he did not. The man's heart rammed against his chest as he realized that his human touch - so alien to the being before him - was actually... welcome.
‘This behavioral pattern...’ Da'an was the first one to break the silence. ‘What is the name it has been given?’
Boone smiled wanly. ‘Hope.’
Reading emotions from Da'an's mostly immobile face had always been a challenge, but now that the he looked to the side, the man could swear he saw sorrow in his features. He was thinking about words of comfort he could use when another blush swept over Da'an's energy pathways, this time brightening them into a sickly, greenish colour which Boone knew was unnatural for a Taelon. Before he could react, the diplomat fell into his arms in a faint like a puppet suddenly deprived of its strings.
‘Da'an!’ Boone's fear was apparent when he quickly put one hand under the Taelon's shoulders and one beneath his knees to lift him up before he collapsed to the ground. The illusion of the Taelon's physical appearance gave in to pale-blue light of his true form - a mesh of energy pathways pulsing bright beneath the snow-white skin.
Hope. Hope was all that was left, after all, and if it was truly meant exclusively for humans, Boone silently prayed Da'an would accept his own share despite the arguments of logic. Earth needed him, the Resistance needed him, and most of all - his own Protector needed him, because he was the only Taelon who respected humanity.
The only Taelon who could ever learn to hope.