Kadi watched Cord follow the fluffy alien owl out of his office on their errand to check out the spaceship that was theoretically parked on the roof. For a moment, she just sat in the guest chair in Cord's office, trying to get her brain to catch up.
There was something she was supposed to do. Trevor. She needed to check on Trevor.
Kadi took the elevator down to the small second-floor clinic, unsure if she was checking on the others or checking herself in.
Marian was in the one-room treatment area, with two patients on the beds and two more on gurneys. She tossed orders and equipment at her assistant and the security guards who had come to help their fallen leader.
When Kadi squeezed into the overly full room, Marian turned on her with a glare and a frown. "You need to tell me what is going on. I don't even know what I'm treating them for."
"Stunner." Kadi could feel the trembling bubbling up to the surface. Her strength was minimally enough to keep her upright, and dealing with Marian might just be more than she could handle. She met her co-worker's gaze and hoped that Marian would understand.
Marian opened her mouth to say something and then paused, her gaze growing narrow. "Kadi. Sit down."
Kadi nodded and groped behind her, glad to find a chair that seemed at least slightly padded.
Marian looked around the room and growled. She stepped to a reception table in the clinic's tiny lobby area and poured a cup of coffee. Glancing at Kadi again, she added two packets of sugar and stirred. She forced Kadi's blue-dyed fingers around the warm paper cup. Kadi wrapped her other hand around the cup, using both hands to bring it to her lips for a cautious sip.
"Are they okay?" Her voice was weak and she found herself staring at the patients but not really seeing them. She kept seeing the attack over and over in her mind, trying to make sense of the blur of images. These were her friends, and they'd been attacked. By an alien.
"I think so." Marian brushed her hand over Kadi's shoulder. "Are you?"
"I just saw..." she shook her head. She wasn't really sure what to say. "You need to know... Staff meeting." She took a deep breath and tried to make sense. "Cord's called an emergency meeting. Is Trevor awake?"
Marian blinked and her head turned towards where Trevor was being helped by one of his crew. "Just."
"Good. Cord will want him. You, too, if you can be spared."
The medics were checking vitals, and the room was too full of people. They'd never had multiple injuries before. Trevor was struggling to sit upright. The guard at his side looked fierce. Trevor shook his head and waved the man away. He looked towards Kadi and their eyes met.
No, she couldn't collapse yet. She swallowed another sip of the coffee.
"I hate coffee. Did you know that?" she asked Marian.
Marian shook her head. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"No, but I need to go to this meeting. You need to come." She was repeating herself. Trevor stood and took a few hesitant steps. Kadi stood and let him rest his arm on her shoulder.
"The world changed today," Kadi said, then she laughed, an unpleasantly deranged sound. Trevor squeezed her arm gently. "Not just the world. The universe changed. Our universe."
The meeting room was built into a corner of the third floor, so two walls of glass looked out over the city. The table was from someone's dining room, with ten mismatched chairs spread around the room. As in most private areas of the 'Port, employees had donated the furniture.
Kadi sat down with her back to the view, Trevor on one side and Marian on the other. Trevor moaned and put his head down. He looked like he'd been poured into his chair. A low snore slipped from his slack lips.
Ronda sat tapping a pencil on the table, looking from one to another as the staff filed in. "Kadi—what's going on?"
Kadi shook her head. "Everything's different now." Her voice was barely above a whisper. She looked at Rhonda, wanting to explain, but the words wouldn't come out of her mouth.
Stephani sat next to Rhonda. "Something to do with a kid that Kadi brought up to meet Cord."
Tanner came in and walked to stand behind Kadi, one hand on her shoulder and the other on Trevor's. Trevor snorted and looked up for only a moment before falling back to sleep. Tanner had roughly the shape and personality of a cuddly panda. His family had immigrated from China two generations back. Normally, he laughed continually, but the laughter covered a uniquely perceptive personality. Tanner's eyebrows drew together as he looked at Kadi. "I thought you weren't supposed to drink coffee," he said, gesturing towards the cup in her hand.
Kadi watched a little ripple flow across the surface as her hand shook. Her words caused another ripple. "It's helping."
He rubbed her shoulder, trying to loosen the tension. She looked up and smiled, hoping she didn't look crazy.
"Whatever it is, it'll be okay, Kadi."
Tanner always knew what to say. He was always calm, sometimes funny, but always in control. She wanted to believe that Tanner could control this, could bring sanity back into her life. But she wasn't sure.
She shook her head. "I don't know."
Tanner moved to sit at the head of the table between Trevor and Ronda.
Cord entered, leading the alien.
Cordell spent most of his free time imagining scenarios for the 'Port. He was a planner, always working with spreadsheets and contingencies. But after all the procedures he'd developed, this was one situation he'd not prepared for. He'd never written a policy for what do to if an actual alien showed up.
His team was good. Talented. Young. Energetic. Creative. But no one was prepared for this. Kadi was shaken. Trevor was asleep.
The others were just confused.
Time to enlarge their worldview.
He glanced around the table at each of his friends. "Did Ronda brief you?"
Ronda looked hurt, her fiery green eyes sparking more than normal. "No, I didn't. I don't know what's up. You sent Stephani to call a meeting. Kadi hasn't said much and Trevor hasn't done anything but snore."
Cord gestured for the alien to come closer as he moved two chairs to the end of the table nearest the door.
He saw Kadi gently shake Trevor, who snorted and sat up, looking blearily around the room. His expression turned confused as he looked at the alien standing next to Cord. Kadi pressed her coffee cup into Trevor's hand and encouraged him to drink. Cord smiled. His team would adjust. They'd help each other.
Cord looked along the table's length and met Tanner's amused gaze. They'd been best friends since grammar school. Second in command, Tanner was used to being in on the joke. He was used to planning the jokes. Tanner had designed or assisted with every staff costume at the 'Port.
Tanner would know they didn't have any green owl costumes, but his eyes didn't show any sign of understanding. Yet.
"Love the costume. I know you're up to something, Cord, but what's with the kid?"
The alien sputtered and started forward, but Cord held him back. He squeezed the alien's hand, or wing, or whatever the appendage was called, gently and said, "Give us a little time to get our heads wrapped around this. We'll be able to help you."
He sat and gestured for the alien to sit in the chair next to his. When the alien sat, he almost disappeared beneath the table. Tanner choked on a laugh.
Cord silenced him with a glare. "Stephani, do we have any phone books?"
"There's probably a couple in my office."
"Go get anything you can find to help him be taller."
He looked around the table and sighed while Stephani rushed out to get the phone books.
"First of all, this isn't a child." He put his hand on the creature's shoulder. "What is your name? I haven't asked."
A series of chirps followed. Clearly, the name didn't translate. Cord tried to imitate the sounds, but judging by the alien's pinched beak, he had not succeeded. The alien repeated the same series of sounds. "Right. So we'll call you Chirp," Cord decided.
The alien blinked slowly with those overly large, inscrutable eyes, and nodded in an almost human fashion. He was already learning some gestures. Just from their walk to the roof and back, Cord could see him adapting to communicating with humans.
"Chirp is from...." Cord stopped. This was not going well. "I don't know where."
He looked at Chirp, who paused. With the lightness of their touch, he could feel the alien searching his mind, looking for something. The little owl head turned sideways in that disconcerting, neck-breaking fashion that it had. "You do not know the system," his voice echoed in Cord's head.
Cord swallowed. He nodded and looked across at Tanner, repeating the alien's words. "He says his home world is not on our star charts, or at least none that are in my mind. His species is called the Sreteeran. They are spread across the galaxy on many worlds."
Ronda looked at Cord in confusion. "You're pretending you understand the gibberish he's making? Is this for a new booth?"
"Y'know," Cord said, looking around the table at the confused faces, "this is going to be a lot easier if we get that part over quickly. Everyone except Kadi, come and lay hands on this little guy."
Tanner laughed. "You've brought us a kid to pray for? Prayer meetings aren't generally part of the agenda, Boss."
"Just humor me, Tanner. I have a point, and I guarantee it will blow your mind."
Tanner looked at Kadi, and she smiled. "My mind has already been blown," she shrugged. Even though he'd said she didn't need to, Kadi joined the others around the fluffy alien. Already, it was feeling impossible to believe the voice had been real. She wanted to hear it again.
During the shuffle, Stephani returned with the phone books and they managed to get the little guy up a bit higher. Uncomfortable laughter accompanied their attempts to find a place to touch the creature without stepping on each other. Cord noticed Tanner fingering the feathers at the creature's neck. Tanner leaned in closer, probably trying to figure out the mechanism.
"Okay, Chirp, say something," Cord directed.
"Hello. It is my pleasure to meet you all. I hope that my existence will not cause you undue strain."
All hands leapt from his feather-laden skin as if it had burned them. One by one, they returned to their seats.
Tanner was the first to recover. "You're telling me he's an alien. A real alien. Here. At the 'Port."
Trevor chimed in. "He shot me."
Marian nodded. "Apparently, he uses some type of stunner."
Chirp looked around the room, making deeply disturbing eye contact with each member of the staff.
He reached out to Cord, and words formed in Cord's mind. Cord repeated them to the group. "He's asking me to relay an apology to Trevor. He says he thought he was under attack and defended himself. The effects should wear off soon."
Trevor's head had returned to the table. His green hair shifted to the side and one purple eye looked up. "Yeah. Fine. I'll forgive him when my headache goes away." He turned his face back to the table.
Ronda's voice chimed in. "I'm lost. Someone start at the beginning?"
Cord pointed at Kadi, and she struggled through the story of how she'd met Chirp in the bar. As she talked, her soft, halting voice calmed. She stared at the creature. "Chirp came into the bar. I thought he was a kid. He touched me and asked for sanctuary, and here we are."
Cord smiled. That was Kadi—easily rattled, but with a depth of resilience that he admired.
Ronda leaned forward. "So we're talking alien. Real alien."
Tanner completed her thought. "Here. At the 'Port."
Cord nodded. "Here, and staying here. And he's probably not the only one in the 'Port." He let that sink in around the table before he continued. He watched as each of his people processed the information in their own ways. Some were clearly still in shock. Trevor, for example, was still too stunned to process, but he was awake and thinking.
Cord knew the shock hadn't actually registered for himself yet. But it was being overridden by this odd sense of purpose and adventure. He could feel potential sizzling in the air around him. It was like the first minute he'd walked into the abandoned mall. He could feel the future changing, that insane sense of energy just waiting to explode into a better future.
A general murmur rose and fell back to silence like a wave as the revelation washed over the group. "I vote we give him the sanctuary he seeks. He's offered to build us a universal translator so we can understand him as well as some of our less exotic guests. You have to admit that would be pretty cool.
"Oh, and there's a spaceship on the roof." He looked around at his team and smiled.
"A spaceship," Ronda said.
"Right. A real one. We need to get a crew up there to get it off the roof and into the basement. I don't want anyone to see it if they come looking for him."
"More aliens, you mean?" Kadi's voice broke and then steadied. "Wait, how are we supposed to defend him from aliens?"
Tanner waved his hand vaguely in the air. "No, wait." He shook his head. "I worked hard to build the mock-up spaceships we put up there for that publicity stunt. Why can't we just leave his up there?"
"Because the other aliens are looking for it." Cord watched as Tanner seemed to wilt back into his chair and mostly ignored Chirp's frantic peeps explaining that the ship needed to be hidden soon.
Ronda glared at Cord. "The aliens. The bad aliens we're supposed to defend him from. And what if he did something bad? Maybe we should just tell him to get in his ship and move on. Find somewhere else to take his troubles."
"I don't think we're going to defend him so much as hide him." Cord looked at the alien. "Do you want to tell us why you need to be protected?"
The alien looked up at him and blinked slowly. Finally, he put his wing on Cord's arm and the voice spoke in his mind. He repeated it for the others. "They killed my family. It was a land dispute. I am a survivor, a witness. If I reach the authorities, I can report what has been done. But they are waiting for me near the central worlds. I need to hide. Maybe they will forget I exist."
Cord nodded. "Hopefully, they'll fly right by the planet without even slowing down. I mean, would you look for an alien here?"
Everyone around the table shook their heads and looked convinced, except Chirp, who nodded his head aggressively.
Cord touched him on the shoulder. "You think we shouldn't hide you here?"
"Oh, you most certainly should hide me. They will come looking eventually. But your premise is in error. This is a very realistic place to look for an extraterrestrial on your planet. Where else would we feel welcomed? Where else could we interact with your population with less than a traumatic reaction?"
Cord frowned. "He says that aliens feel welcome here. They come here to interact safely with humans."
Stephani was silent, looking at the alien intently.
Kadi leaned forward. "We don't even know what he eats. Our food could poison him."
Cord relayed Chirp's response, "He says he has a supply of food in his ship along with the tools and basic equipment he'll need to build the prototype of the translator."
Stephani looked at Cord and it was clear she'd reached her own decision. "When you first said you wanted to open the 'Port, I didn't think you'd pull it off. You did." She turned toward Tanner. "So I think the two of you can pull off pretty much anything you want. If what Chirp is saying is true, we've been entertaining aliens for a while. Thinking about some discrepancies I've noticed in the numbers, this makes more sense than our theories of kids sneaking in the back door."
Kadi nodded. "We can keep doing what we've been doing. Just tell us what we need to do."
Around the table, his people nodded their agreement.
Cord smiled across at Tanner. "Alright, everyone. Let's break this down into something as close to standard as we can. Rhonda will handle PR. No one outside of this room needs to know Chirp isn't from around here. As far as anyone is concerned, he's just a really amazing actor. We should figure out a way to actually put him on payroll."
He turned to see what Chirp thought of that arrangement, only to see the alien had missed the entire exchange. Chirp was squinting at a spider crawling along the corner of the ceiling near one window. The alien's eyes were half closed in concentration, tracking every movement.
Cord frowned at the spider. Housekeeping wasn't keeping up with the offstage areas.
Why was Chirp so fascinated by it, though? Maybe his people ate bugs. Maybe that could be a job for him. He could help with pest control, maybe.
"Tanner, you're in charge of getting Chirp set up with a place to stay. Trevor, you and Kadi are closest to the public. You can keep your ears out for any hint that the secret has gotten out. Coordinate everything through Stephani."
He took a moment to make eye contact with each of them.
He watched as everyone nodded and then turned back to help Chirp down from the chair.
As the meeting broke up, Chirp touched Cord's hand. "There's a problem. I think the Treslians have already found me."