The One" and "Alone" are essentially the same story set in different universes. I cannibalized the Buck Rogers' story "The One" to create "Alone" when I needed a story set in THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN universe. I was writing my Buck Rogers' stories at the same time as ONCE so they had cross-polinated already.
A vague sense of wrongness woke Wilma Deering. The bed beneath her was lumpy, and the blanket that covered her smelled of an unfamiliar herb. The air was real instead of the bland processed oxygen aboard a spacecraft.
She partially opened one eye and glanced around cautiously. Natural light filtered in through a nearby window. The room’s walls were built of stacked shale rock, the window a lexite derivative often used within small spacecraft. A nearby table was of roughly made wood and a chair from a civilian spacecraft’s bridge sat beside the table.
A young space colony would salvage ship parts for other ships, not use them in their houses. Survivors of a ship crash must have built this house.
The elaborate room and building technique suggested more than one person lived here. The permanence of the surroundings suggested inhabitancy of long standing. Many years probably.
What was she doing here? She’d been on patrol with Hawk, everything had been normal, then a horrible buzzing and humming began around her, and the ship interior had become blurry and white then....
Buck and Hawk must be frantic.
She sat up. Every synapse in her brain seemed to explode with pain, and the room darkened and spun. Groaning, she clutched her throbbing head.
“Hello,” a young male voice said politely in Basic. “Do you feel bad?”
As she jerked her head toward the speaker, a wave of blackness forced her to close her eyes and sag back down.
“Do not move. I come to you.”
Wilma opened her eyes gingerly and stared up at the avian boy who now bent over her. His face was softer than Hawk’s, the nose less prominent, and his feathers were more russet brown than white. He appeared to be around twelve or thirteen. Surprise and pleasure filled her. Hawk wasn’t the last of his people after all.
“My name is Ari.” He smiled bashfully.
“I’m Colonel Wilma Deering of the Searcher.”
“Are you a human?”
“Terrific. I have always wanted to meet one.” He held out a cup of liquid. “Drink this. It helps me on similar occasions.”
She lifted slightly and took the cup, then gulped down the vile-tasting liquid.
“You wear a uniform. You are a soldier?”
“Yes, I’m in the Earth military, but my ship is for exploration, not war.”
“That would be wonderful! To travel, see new species, to learn new things.”
“Yes, mainly it is.”
“I wish I could do that. Be there.”
Wilma’s unhappy tone brought the boy back to the present. “You are curious about what happened to you?”
“My father knew One would do this eventually. It was inevitable.” The boy held up a hand to stop her next question. “Let me explain. One is a congregate energy creature. Or to put it another way, One is a colony of individual energy creatures that form a single consciousness. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good, you will understand better when you meet it. One kidnapped you from your fighter almost a day ago. It can phase in and out of locations in space probably to a distance of several light years. It tends to stay here on this planet, though, because this is its home.”
“Why did it kidnap me?”
The boy blushed a scarlet red. “It wanted to find me a wife. It botched it as usual.”
“Gee, thanks,” Wilma said dryly.
“I have said something wrong. I am sorry. What did I say? I will not make the same mistake again. I learn quickly.”
“You just implied that I would not make a good wife.”
“What is wrong with that? You would not. You are not of my people.”
“I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does One want a wife for you?”
“Why does it want children?”
“I had better start at the beginning. My father said that is the best way to explain yourself. ‘Once upon a time.’” Ari laughed. “I love human fairy tales. About twenty-two years ago, my parents left our home world on an expedition. My father was a historian of our people. He wanted to check out some stories he had heard about another tribe of our people. He and Mother intended to be gone only a few years, but they encountered many problems.
“First, the information he had depended upon was wrong, then they had ship troubles and were grounded for years until they could replace the ship. Then I was made, and they stayed planet-side until I was born and old enough to travel. All these delays postponed their return home. They longed to return to our people and to my brother Grin who was left at home with friends.
“‘Brother Grin’ is a pun, do you not see? I love human puns, too. The Brothers Grimm, my brother Grin. Grin is my brother’s nickname because he smiled a lot when he was little. I wonder if he smiles now.
“After so many wasted years, we left. About six months into our journey, we traveled near here. I was a ‘babe in arms’ as you humans would say. Our ship broke. We drifted for a long time. One found us and brought us here.”
“So you’ve been held prisoner all these years.”
“You must understand about One,” Ari said defensively. “It is not mean or cruel on purpose. It is just that it has always been alone. Until my parents and I came, it believed itself the only intelligent life in the universe. It has trouble conceiving of other intelligent life or anyone else besides itself. It is selfish like a child, not vindictive like an adult.
“My father said that the creation of a system of ethics first requires two or more people of equal or near equal power. One never had that. Before us it was all by itself. It did not know how to act or react in an ethical or civilized manner with sentient life.”
“Your father is an intelligent man.”
“He was.” Ari beamed. “At first One treated us as pets. It is gentle and good to other life forms, or it ignores them entirely. We were well-cared-for pets to it. My parents could not communicate with One to tell it otherwise. One communicates telepathically.
“But being very young and pliant mentally, I began to communicate with One. My parents and One were very excited. As I got older and had something to say, it was even better. I learned how to translate for One and my father.
“One was deeply shaken. You can imagine how it felt. It discovered the concept of otherness which fascinates it. Unfortunately, it could not understand separate will and desire in others. What it wants is all that matters.
“My father begged it to free us and to help us get home. It refused us. We were too incredible a toy.
“My father was afraid of One’s fascination for us. He feared that it would capture others or travel to other worlds to observe. One has dangerous powers. It can destroy a civilization. It should not be around other intelligent life forms. It is too immature and powerful.”
“Since it captured me so easily, I can agree with your father.”
“Yes. My father salvaged part of the ship’s computer. It has a wonderful library of history, film, and literature from our planet and others. I especially like human literature and history.
“He erased all astronomical information. He removed other information as well. One could not read the tapes, but I could, and One can read me. It has easy access to me. I can hold back things with effort, but sooner or later things slip out.
“I was never told the location of my home world. I know a lot about my people and others, but I am ignorant of so much. I know I am ignorant, but I do not know what I am ignorant of.”
“That would be frustrating to someone as intelligent as you are.”
“A compliment.” The boy smiled shyly. “Thank you.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“They are dead.”
Ari timidly offered his hand, and Wilma squeezed it in comfort.
“This planet is harsh and dangerous,” Ari explained. “The mountains are very crumbly. My mother was killed in a rock slide about seven years ago. My father became ill four years ago, I don’t know why, and died.”
“Did One read my mind? Is that why I have such a headache?”
“Yes, it tried to talk to you and failed. Even I have trouble. When it communicates too swiftly or too eagerly, it causes horrible headaches.”
“I hope it failed.”
“How have you managed by yourself?”
“The loneliness is hardest. When I have to talk, I go to One or speak to the computer. I fear I will go mad or am mad sometimes. Am I insane?”
“No, I don’t think so. You are remarkably well-adjusted.”
“Always I plead for my freedom. I tell it that it destroys me. I will go mad or die from loneliness. It does not understand this. It only wants more and more from me. It demands other conversations now. That is why it stole you.”
“Infants to train from birth in its communication.”
“Yes. My father hoped that One would not understand about sexual reproduction. It replaces worn energy beings asexually. I was left ignorant of reproduction for fear that One would understand and do what it does now. I am ignorant but not stupid. I figured things out for myself, and One acted.
“Unfortunately for you, it misunderstood. It is good at general understanding, but the specific frequently confuses it.”
“What will happen to me?”
“I will explain its mistake. It will return you.”
“Thank you. How can I help you?”
“You cannot. I am here for life.”
“One will try to find you another mate.”
“We have to stop it. There are no females of your race,” Wilma paused, not wanting to tell him his race was practically extinct, in the known regions of space, then added vaguely, “for many, many light years.”
As another thought hit her, Wilma inhaled hard. She’d been in short range of Hawk when the creature had grabbed her. Maybe Hawk had been the intended target. It had felt his avian brain patterns and found her ship that way.
Tilting his head as if hearing something, Ari said, “A piece of One is coming. It is a loose conglomerate. It can scatter itself over the planet with ease. That does not affect its thought or communication. Look at that corner of the room.”
Wilma stared mesmerized as a white light glowed and shaped and formed into an amorphous balloon made of light. Fluttering, it shifted from a child’s balloon to a man-sized glob then back again as it glowed, twittered, and hummed before them.
The sounds made her head ache even more.
“Hello, Fluffy. What do you want?” Ari walked to the energy balloon. “No, it will not work. You made a mistake.”
Wilma could hear Ari, but felt that she was missing most of what the boy said. Instead of the whole conversation, she was hearing Ari's unconscious verbalizations of pieces of the conversation.
“I told you. It will not work. You made a mistake. Return her. No, you cannot do that. It is wrong. We will try. Give us a chance. We will give you children. Give us some time.
“I will not speak again. Leave me. You sicken me.”
Fear streaked through Wilma. Realizing its mistake, did the balloon creature intend to kill her?