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Limbo

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 8

I never wanted to live in the country. A New Yorker born and bred, I liked the feel of city life going on around me; muted noises from the street, the distant drone of neighbors' stereos, the pulse of the subway beneath my feet. But marriage includes many compromises, and Greg lived in Iowa--not even in Des Moines, which might have been tolerable, but fifteen miles out on an acreage that had, in a more stable time, been part of a family farm. Now, only the big white house on the hill, a garage, one wall of a barn, and the chicken coop remained. Greg was in the insurance business, and he didn't even bother to plant a garden. I had always believed myself hopeless with growing things, but I planted flowers and the odd vegetable, and some of them actually grew.

We socialized in Des Moines, but it wasn't home, and only with Greg was I really happy, sitting in front of the big fireplace on a crisp autumn evening, watching the summer sunsets from the big front porch, making love in the bed that had slept three generations of Everetts. Then Greg was gone, killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver coming back from a Cyclones' football game in Ames, and suddenly Iowa was a vast and lonely place.

You wonder why I didn't sell the house and return to New York. I had plenty of money--I could have found a nice co-op on the Upper East Side and put the wide open spaces behind me once and for all, but I didn't. When I let myself think of it at all, I realized that I clung to the old farmhouse because it was all I had left of Greg. He hadn't been able to have children, so we had no family, though we'd talked of trying to adopt. His parents were dead, and mine were cool and disinterested, so I stayed on the acreage, growing more isolated as our married friends included me less often. I did some volunteer work, but it didn't satisfy me. I got a job, but with no real training, it seemed like pointless busy work, and I quit Going back to school was another possibility--midway between Drake and ISU, I had two choices. But as the time passed, I never made the effort.

Then, one night in November, my entire life changed.

There had been several well-publicized plane crashes recently, and they must have stuck in my mind, because when I heard the increasing roar overhead, I thought another was about to occur on my front porch. The sound built to such a screaming crescendo that I dove futilely under Greg's grandma's heavy old dining table and covered my head with my arms. That ought to be a big help.

But the thunder raced past, and the crash, when it did come, was down the hill in the Millers' cottonwoods. I waited for an explosion and fIre, but they didn't follow, so I grabbed a flashlight, whistled for John Adams, Greg's ancient golden Labrador, and set off at a run to look for survivors. A sensible woman would have dialed 911 before investigating, but I had been too badly frightened to be sensible, and I didn't think I'd been very organized or practical since Greg's death.

It was dark and cloudy, so I had to take my time, but John Adams loped ahead of me, bounding down the hill, then suddenly starting to bark furiously. "Good dog, stand guard," I hollered encouragingly as I fumbled my way down the slope. Once, I caught the sleeve of my sweater in a bramble bush and lost precious moments freeing myself, cursing the country. Greg had loved nights here, but I had missed the city lights, and right then, I felt a row of street lights would have been splendid.

When I found it, the crash site was instantly recognizable, with broken branches, flattened bushes, and the ruin of the old rail fence pointing me in the right direction. I followed the path of destruction until I came upon the cockpit of the plane, pausing in astonishment at its size. From all the noise, I had half-expected something as big as a 747, but now I saw that fear had intensified the threat. The wings and tail section must have been sheared off, but I hadn't noticed them as I came down the hill, and there seemed to be no jagged edges. Even then, I didn't quite catch on. I thought I'd found the ruins of a small plane: a four-seater maybe, or even one of those tiny private jets. The cockpit was opened the way pre-war car hoods did, and there was a figure sprawled back in the seat, unconscious or dead, but evidently intact I'd heard of crashes so severe that there were no recognizable bodies, but at least I was spared that From the way John Adams was barking, I guessed the man was alive, so I gave the dog a sharp command for silence and tiptoed forward uneasily, afraid of what I might find.

My flashlight beam gleamed off the controls and I stopped dead, staring. I'd been up in a Cessna that belonged to one of Greg's friends, and the Millers had a Piper Cub, but the controls in this craft were so different that they resembled nothing I'd ever seen before. The absence of wings struck home then, and the insane idea flashed through my brain that maybe this was a UFO. I shifted the flashlight, and a very human face appeared, eyes shut, dark hair mussed. The blood that trickled down the side of his face from a cut at the scalp line glinted red in the light UFOs? I must be hysterical. Maybe it was some kind of glider. After all, what did I know of aircraft? I had never been mechanically minded.

I let my fingers rest on the man's neck, drawing back when I inadvertently leaned against the side of the craft. It was hot to the touch, startling me. Was something burning inside? But there was no smell of fire, only that heat. Shifting a little, I resumed my examination, and after a few moments of amateurish fumbling, I discovered a pulse. I had no way of guessing if it was strong or weak, so I compared it to my own, which was racing. His was slower, but it was steady.

Aside from the hairline cut, there was no obvious blood, besides a graze on one cheekbone, and I couldn't feel any broken bones when I checked his arms and legs, but I didn't want to risk moving him in case he had damaged his spine or had internal injuries. I would have left John Adams to guard him and gone for help if I hadn't looked at his face again and noticed that his eyes were open and watching me unwaveringly. He was stunned and shaken, but something in the back of his eyes reminded me of the face that had stared back at me out of the mirror after Greg died.

I shoved that unwelcome thought away and said quietly, "You've crashed. I can't find any broken bones. Do you feel any pain?"

When he didn't immediately respond, my over-active imagination kicked in again, and I began to wonder if he could somehow be a Russian cosmonaut who had landed way off course and didn't speak any English. Then he replied, "Apart from a number of bruises, I seem to be intact. Where have I come down?"

"North of Des Moines. If you think you can get out of there, I'll take you up to my house and you can use the phone to let your family know where you are."

He received the suggestion in blank silence, but I suspected some kind of furious calculation was going on behind his eyes. At length, he nodded. "Thank you." He sounded rather British, certainly foreign, without the flat, Midwestern accent I'd become accustomed to in the past few years, but he had no problem with the language. Wincing, with great care, he eased out of the ruined cockpit, freezing warily when John Adams let go with a frenzy of barking.

"Quiet!" I ordered. "Sit! Stay!" John Adams subsided reluctantly, poised to spring up again, tongue dangling. His eyes never left the stranger.

"Is that...a dog?" the man asked.

"What do you think it is, an elephant?" I regretted the snapped words as soon as they left my mouth. He was bound to be shaken up and disoriented, but surely...

He looked down his nose at me as if I were beneath contempt, then he snapped his fingers at John Adams and stretched out his hand. "Come here," he commanded. He sounded like he was very good at giving orders.

John Adams forgot my command instantly and went to him. He sniffed the stranger's hand suspiciously for several minutes as if making a very unaccustomed decision, then his tail began to stir. Suddenly and rapturously, he licked the man's hand, and when the stranger gave his head an awkward pat, he quivered eagerly and whined in sheer pleasure. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it Since Greg's death, John Adams had barely tolerated me and despised the rest of the world, but all this character had to do was snap his fingers.

For a moment, his guard dropped, and he looked as delighted as John Adams did. There was life in his eyes as he ruffled the dog's fur and scratched behind his ears. "I've never seen a dog before," he confessed.

"In your whole life?"

At my incredulous question, he caught himself, and the barricades came up again. His eyes went dark and hard, and his face closed away completely.

I dropped my own eyes, feeling I had presumed too much, wondering if that was the impression he had meant to convey. I pretended I hadn't overreacted and said, hastily, "Do you think you can walk? I should get you up to the house and take a look at that cut. You're bleeding."

His fingers probed the wound and he winced. "It's not serious," he said flatly. "I don't have a concussion, and scalp wounds have a tendency to bleed. I'll make it."

After the force of the impact, I was reluctant to move him. They always ten you that--not to move an accident victim--but I couldn't leave him standing here, and I was beginning to feel curiously protective of my prickly stranger. Besides, he was standing on his feet with no evidence of dizziness and broadcasting a determination to carry on even if I tried to restrain him, and I suspected if it came to a battle of wills, I'd probably lose. Then, there was the strangeness about him. He was definitely different, and though his English was fluent enough to be his native tongue, I couldn't help believing that someone who had never seen a dog before had to come from...someplace else. But John Adams liked him, and John Adams hadn't liked anyone but Greg in his whole life. I was tolerated and protected as an extension of Greg, no more.

The trip up the hillside to the house must have hurt him, but he didn't complain, bearing it with a silent stoicism that I admired even as I regarded it as just plain stupid. Men, I thought impatiently. They made terrible patients and always seemed to have a macho urge to seem indestructible; either that, or they were complete babies when they had nothing more serious than a cold or a cut finger. But this man's restraint was of heroic proportions. He was in pain and I knew he was in pain, and pretending he wasn't proved no useful purpose. I was a restrained type myself and it had never done me any good. Only with Greg had I been able to drop my guard completely and be the person I was meant to be. Maybe my mysterious crash victim had never found himself a Greg-equivalent. Or worse, maybe he'd found one and then lost her the way I'd lost Greg.

Once inside the house, I got my first good look at him, and while he stood in the entrance to the living room, staring about him as if he'd never seen a farmhouse before, I considered him. He was wearing some kind of crazy biker outfit, all black leather and studs, a vest over a jumpsuit, and black boots, and while he didn't seem armed, the get-up made me nervous. It didn't help that there was blood spattered around, either, but that must have happened in the crash.

I thought he might be around 40, but it was hard to tell because his eyes were ageless, with a look I might have thought was grief or despair had his face mirrored it. He had a strong face, the dark eyes intense, nose like a Roman coin, and thin lips that gave away no secrets. He was handsome in a dangerous way, and I think I would have feared him if he hadn't been hurt, and if I hadn't seen the pain in his eyes.

I made him lie down on the couch and set about cleaning up and bandaging his cut, then examining him for more serious injuries. There were no obvious fractures or major wounds, though he had his share of scrapes and bruises, now turning dark. When I commented upon his good luck in coming through the crash so well, he said flatly that the 'escape pod' was padded to prevent injury. He seemed cynically amused by my amateurish attempts at first aid. yet was patient when I compared his pulse with my own again to see how normal it was.

"Assuming I am human at all, that is a valid test."

I dropped his wrist uneasily. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, come, I can see your speculation. You're half afraid I might be a 'little green man.'"

"You look human to me," I said tartly to hide my embarrassment, lifting one of his eyelids to check for dilated pupils. They seemed normal enough, and his pulse was close enough to my own to qualify as normal, too.

"Well?" he asked coolly. "'Will I live?"

"I think so," I replied with equal coolness, annoyed at him. "You 'll probably be sore in the morning, though. Are you hungry?"

He considered it. "Yes."

We went into the kitchen and I seated him at the table, pulled out the remains of the pot roast and made him a sandwich, pouring him a glass of milk and leaving him to it while I heated some soup. The sandwich went down rapidly and with obvious relish. He wasn't so sure about the milk, raising an eyebrow at the taste as if he'd never experienced it before.

"What am I drinking?" he asked with pragmatic curiosity.

"Milk. Cow's milk," I clarified before he could ask.

"I thought cow's milk was a drink for children."

"Yes, but adults drink it too. I'm making you some soup now. I think you need some hot food. By the way, we didn't get introduced before. I'm Meredith Everett. John Adams you've met."

John Adams, the experienced old cadger, had his head firmly planted on my guest's knee, trying to give the impression that malnutrition would claim him in the next few seconds if he didn't get fed right away. Few people were hard-hearted enough to resist that pleading expression, but my guest was made of sterner stuff. He hadn't spared John Adams as much as a crumb, though once the sandwich was gone, his hand sneaked back under the table to stroke the dog. Disappointed but persevering, John Adams stayed where he was.

I set the soup before the man. "And you are...?"

"My name is Avon."

"Avon? As in 'Bard of' Or 'Avon calling?"'

He looked momentarily confused. "Shakespeare I understand," he conceded in the tones of one who might have endured a 'Bard of Avon' joke or two in his time. "But I don't recognize the second reference."

"It's part of an ad--an advertisement--for a cosmetics company."

"Wonderful." He applied himself to the soup with apparent pleasure.

"Just Avon? Or is your other name unpronounceable, like Spock's?"

"Who is Spock?"

"He's a Vulcan." That produced a blank stare, and I said hastily, "Forget it. He' s a television character."

"Perhaps you should stop while you are still ahead. My name is Kerr Avon. I prefer simply Avon. May I use your comm unit?"

"My what? Telephone?" This was getting beyond a joke. "Are there more of you here?"

That pulled him up short. I displayed the wall phone to him. He picked up the receiver blankly and, assisted by a few mimed directions, put it to his ear. I showed him the television next, and Greg's Apple IIC. At the sight of the computer, he closed his eyes in evident disgust and muttered, "Primitive."

"Lucky me. I meet an alien, and he's a snob."

He glared at me. "I am not an alien."

"Well, you're not quite from here and now. Don't tell me You're from England. You only work in. outer space."

He didn't catch the reference, of course, but he nodded "Geographically correct, though the old terminology is no longer applied."

"When, in the 23rd Century?"

"We use a different calendar, too."

"Oh, wonderful. A time traveler." I was a little punch-drunk from all this, and I don't think I really quite believed it yet. "How will you get back where you belong?"

"That is a question which has been concerning me as well."

"Will your friends be looking for you?"

"No." That was completely final. If I'd thought him closed up before, I was wrong. He' d been as open as the morning compared to this.

Okay, forget about friends, Meredith. Wrong question. "How'd you get here, anyway?" Surely, there would be no pitfalls in that question.

"Servalan's ship was pulled into an unexplained vortex. In the confusion, I managed to reach an escape pod. I landed here: Earth, obviously, but the wrong Earth. Were it not so primitive, I would be tempted to stay here."

"But you might alter history," I blurted involuntarily. I'd seen enough Star Trek episodes to know what might go wrong. "You might do something to destroy the future, maybe even prevent your own birth."

"Perhaps that would be no great loss." He sounded so matter-of fact that something leapt painfully in the region of my heart. No one should be so completely hopeless. He continued calmly, as if teaching a boring class. "But altering history is not so easy as one might assume, except in minor ways. I do not intend to go into the theory with you now, as it would serve very little point, but while it would be possible to alter history , one man, randomly placed, with no equipment and without a comprehensive knowledge of the next several hundred years' history could do very little. There is, of course, the theory that I am here now because that is the way it happened and that my presence is a part of history already. I have always felt that a foolish and sentimental theory, though some fools find it comforting. I have never bothered to study time travel in any depth."

"Oh," I said. It was his own history that would be changed, not mine, but I still didn't care for the idea of tampering with it "Who's Servalan?" I asked instead.

His face darkened. "She uses the name Sleer these days. Once, she was President of the Terran Federation."

"Terran Federation? We do get into space, then? That's wonderful! And we expand through the galaxy? What about aliens?" I was excited, forgetting for a moment his brooding eyes in my delight at the thought of a future which might match some of the science fiction books I loved to read.

"What about them?" he asked impatiently, favoring me with a disgusted look.

"Well, are there any? Are they part of your Federation?"

"It is scarcely 'my' Federation. And it is human. There are other races, but they have fared poorly against humans. Servalan destroyed the Auronar with a plague in hopes of getting to us. You might now understand why the thought of altering history does not alarm me unduly."

I stared at him, horrified. My dreams of the future had never pictured Man as the aggressor, though perhaps that was foolish of me: Man had been nothing else during the history of the Earth. Crushed, I asked in a small voice, "You mean Servalan killed a whole race of beings? Genocide? That's monstrous. What do you mean, to 'get' you?"

"Blake's people." His eyes turned away, and his voice was flat and cold as if he were relaying something learned by rote-or by bitter experience. "Blake was a resister. He thought he could defeat the Federation. He was wrong."

Avon's voice changed every time he said Blake's name. "Was?" I probed gently, tearing my thoughts away from the horrors he had been telling me and focusing on him again. "He's dead, then?"

"Yes." He closed his lips over the word as if he wished he could call it back. "At least in my time," he added, as if he found some slight consolation in the fact that here, it hadn't happened yet.

"Did Servalan kill him as she killed the Auronar?" I wondered what the Auronar had been like, but this was not the time to ask. Speaking of Blake, Avon's voice had been full of a pain that was even worse than my pain over Greg's death.

"No," he said expressionlessly. "She didn't kill him, though perhaps she orchestrated it." He was silent a moment, then he said, devastatingly, "I did."

For a few seconds, I could think of nothing to say. Then I heard myself burst out, stupidly, "But he was your friend!"

"Was he?" His head jerked up and he stared at me as if I were incredibly naive. Maybe I was, but I hadn't misunderstood the pain in Avon's eyes. "Yes," he agreed suddenly. "Perhaps. Why should that matter? The woman I'd believed I loved betrayed me and tried to shoot me in the back. I had to kill her. I was told Blake sold me. What else could I do? If it had been true, shooting him would have been the only answer." In spite of the cold reasonableness of his tone, I suspected he was trying desperately to convince himself this was true. It was horrible. I found myself wanting to conspire with him to change his history. How did the people of his time endure it?

"But he didn't betray you?" I asked softly. The novelty of my time and the trauma of the crash had distracted him momentarily from this unspeakable tragedy, but now it was freshly recalled and the man that stared at me out of his eyes didn't look quite sane. And no wonder.

Avon shook his head. "It was a mistake. I was...paranoid, and he'd learned to be suspicious. He left it rather late. He was betrayed to the Federation."

"Servalan's doing?" I was beginning to dislike her very much.


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