At the opposite end of the hall, Aran sat in a commandeered office listening to the conversation on a speaker phone. When the conversation moved to more pedestrian topics, she muted the volume and from the terminal in front of her connected to the open link between the Gulaan base and Alareen ship in orbit above.
"Emora Onatis please." She said to the young Alareen answering the com. A few seconds later there was a click and Emora's face filled the screen. "Yes?"
"Well, what do you think now?"
"Mr. Maray will be well enough to move about in another two weeks, correct?"
"That's what the doctors say."
Emora smiled. "Then I'll make plans to come down for a base visit at that time. It's been a while since we've done an inspection, so it will be a good opportunity to get a chance to meet him in person." She paused for a moment, lost in her thoughts, and then added "You listened to the entire conversation,
Aran nodded. "Yes. They seem to get along quite well with each other, don't you think?"
"You don't think
I mean do you think it's possible that
" Emora scratched her head. "I'm not really sure how to put this, but "
"Is it possible that the two of them are fond of each other?" Aran acknowledged. "It certainly seems like a possibility."
"Even after meeting in person?"
"You seem surprised
.and the last I checked Danny lacks a bit in the height department compared to you."
Emora rolled her eyes. "I know, I know. I'm not saying there's anything wrong, it just surprises me for some reason."
"Well keep in mind that the two of them have been talking to each other online for months now, close to a year from what your research showed. They've had plenty of time to get to know each other and without facing the reality of their situation" Aran smiled a slight smile. "To be honest, I think it's kind of sweet."
"That is beautiful. I'm assuming that isn't your reason for thinking he's the right person for this?"
"No." Aran said firmly. "It shows his ability to adapt."
"True, he is fairly resilient." Emora said, amused. "We'll just have to see what happens when I meet him in person."
Aran fiddled with the volume on the speaker, the conversation still going full steam. She looked at the monitor and raised an eyebrow. "I know we told them about 10 minutes or so, but I say we give them a while longer."
Erdis finished buttoning the shirt they had provided him. This was the third day since they had stopped actively tracking his vitals, and the first that he'd been allowed to dress in something other than hospital scrubs. They'd brought in some clothes and told him to get dressed as he was going to be meeting someone. When he asked who, the clothes were simply handed to him with a smile. "You'll find out soon enough." The nurse said, and left the room, pulling the door shut.
As he adjusted himself he wished there was a mirror to judge his appearance, but overall the clothes seemed to fit quite well almost as if they were tailored to him. His face flushed as he imagined how they were probably able to get the necessary measurements to adjust the outfit. They'd provided him with white dress pants, a red buttoned down shirt, and simple black shoes. He rubbed his hand on his scalp his face screwed up in a grimace they'd had to shave his head when they'd first brought him into the hospital and keep it shaved, and only now was it starting to grow in.
There was a knock at the door, and he heard Aran call out "Is it safe to come in?"
"Yeah, just straightening myself out as best I can without a mirror." He grumbled, tucking his shirt into his pants.
Aran stepped into the room and appraised his outfit. "Not bad."
"Isn't this a bit brightly colored for military clothing?"
"Not when you want to make sure you're visible to the larger half of the base." Laughing, she clapped him on the back. "So, are you ready?"
He shrugged. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be ready for. I'm just happy to be out of that bed."
"You'll find out soon enough. First, a tour of the base. Follow me." She turned and stepped out of the room. He followed, and saw that his room was the last one in a series of rooms along the left wall. On the right was a series of nurse stations, and at the far end of the hall, where they both were headed, was an elevator. As they waited for the elevator, Aran said "We're on the 3rd floor. This is the recovery ward. Surgery and emergency care are both below and above us to accommodate incoming, whether they be airlifted "she winked at him"- or hand delivered, or come by the more conventional route."
The elevator doors opened, and when they stepped in he saw that there were only four buttons. She hit the first floor, and the doors closed. As they started down, she continued "Like every Viana building here, each floor is actually a lot bigger. We built shock absorbers into the ceilings and floors, like what we do in earthquake sensitive areas, so that the vibrations from Alareen footsteps are nullified." Erdis nodded.
When the doors opened, he saw the ground level was one vast, open room. There were additional elevators to either side of them, and along the far walls were various pieces of medical equipment. There were a few people wandering about, but they only accented how empty of people the floor really was. "Where is everyone?"
"Well, we currently only have a small amount of people on base, so we only keep enough people on active duty as needed. As we continue to staff up the base and expand, we'll keep more people on at a time."
They stepped outside, and Erdis winced at the bright light, covering his eyes. As his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, a cool sea breeze blew over him. He inhaled deeply, happy to clear his sinuses from the lingering smell of antiseptics. Aran watched him, amused. "Feels good I take it?"
Not wanting to look ungrateful, he responded "I'm very grateful for all you've done to help me recover, but it does feel good to feel wind on my face and see real light."
"Understood. In order to provide the most insulation to noise and vibration, the hospital was built with everything grouped towards the center o f the building. The walls are heavily insulated, which provide a very stable environment to heal unfortunately, that means no windows." She watched as he slowly began to squint less and less.
When he was good to go, she led him to a small convertible vehicle parked along the side of the building. His eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that the building that had been his world for the past few weeks was a simple grey structure. As Aran had noted, there were no windows, and though there were only four floors the building looked to be close to three times that in height.
They both climbed into the vehicle, and as he adjusted his harness she said "You've generated a lot of discussion while you've been here. The first civilian on base, the first civilian to meet with an Alareen, the first medical emergency "
"-A lot of firsts."
"Indeed." One eyebrow rose as she looked him up and down in a mock inspection. Starting the car, she continued "In addition to the surface missions for samples, the Alareen have a few buildings here they use for overnight stays, as well as for research that they're doing in conjunction with us." Aran, paused, then continued, unable to keep it to herself any longer. "You recall when you spoke with Emora, correct? It so happens that this time, Emora herself is coming for inspection, and she'd like to meet you."
"Why would the head of the Alareen ship want to see me?"
"Well, what mother wouldn't want to meet her child's friends?"
"I guess I could s wait, what?!"
Aran burst out laughing at his stunned expression. "You mean you didn't
"It she never said her mother?" Erdis struggled to regain his composure.
"I mean, I knew her mother was part of the Alareen crew, but I had no idea so that was Avaliasa's mother I spoke with?"
She laughed again, obviously enjoyed his discomfited look. "Guess that's one way of showing you didn't suffer any lasting brain damage. Yes, that was her mother." She started up the vehicle and began to pull away from the building.
For a few moments they drove on in silence. Finally he spoke up "Do you think she's upset at me for all that's happened?"
She debated tormenting him further, but after glancing at his face said "As you noted a few weeks back, neither of you were forced into anything. No, I sincerely doubt she's angry with you." Tapping his shoulder, she pointed to the right. "Look over there."
He turned his head. Nearby were several buildings ranging from 4 to 10 stories. All three were relatively nondescript, with few windows and were spaced far apart, presumably for the occasional Alareen visitor. Past them, however he gasped. Beyond the buildings most of the entire horizon consisted of a vast grey wall. He followed it with his eyes, tracking upward, eventually tilting his head far back just to see its upper edge. Clouds rolling by appeared close enough to brush against its top. "What is that?"
"That's the smallest of the Alareen buildings, their storage facility. They have four buildings in all; that one, a lavatory, a workstation, and an overnight facility. They're all approximately the same height, but obviously the overnight location is longer than the others."
"At the moment, the base is only used periodically. They have some experiments that they work in conjunction with us, as well as some too delicate for delivery to their ship in orbit, so there are inspections every other week."
"How close are those buildings?"
"A better way to put it would be how far they are. That building is the second closest building, and is about 20 miles out. Our goal is the work station facility, which is located to the left of that building and about 3 miles closer. Right now it's just beyond the horizon."
Erdis closed his eyes as the sensation of vertigo swept over him. As before when he first met Avaliasa, it was one thing to intellectually understand the scale of her people, but to witness it in person. "Are you okay?" he heard her ask. "Yeah, just need a moment to put it into perspective."
When he opened his eyes, she had driven to what appeared to be the edge of the Viana base. The edge of the base was rimmed with a mesh metal wire fence that appeared to be well over a hundred feet tall. Spherical lights topped the fence at each post, giving off a bright red light. "What's with the fence? Do the Gulaan creatures get this close to it?"
Aran shook her head. "No, we've cleared out enough land around this base to discourage them from getting anywhere near here. The fence is really just markers indicating where the Viana portion of the base is for any visiting Alareen. It only goes up about a fourth of the way to their knee, but between that and the lights it serves as a good visual reminder."
Making a sharp right, she started heading towards the Alareen portion of the base, barracks on either side of the road. "Do we really have this much military here?"
She grunted. "We did at first, back in the early days of setting this up. The government kept the worst of their fears from public consumption, but there were fears of what even one Alareen could do. Each year we reduce the military staffing here a bit further, and convert some of these barracks into residential quarters for families of soldiers that are stationed here."
"As time goes, this will become a virtual city in and of itself, with schools and other amenities geared to less of a focus on alien containment and more about an exchange of information. Eventually this will become the central hub of our own space program provided nothing goes wrong." She shot him a look, but laughed before he could retort. "At least all's well that ends well, right?".
Before he could respond, they cleared the rows of barracks to a wide, empty, and paved area. In the far distance he could see a thin line of red dots, completely dwarfed by a monolithic Alareen building that again seemed to scrape at the bottoms of the clouds. Between their location and the distant building there was a large structure. It appeared to be about four stories in height. Unlike the other buildings he'd seen so far, this one appeared to be almost entirely made of windows. "What is that building for?" he asked, pointing.
"That, my friend, is on a need to know basis. You'll have to see how the rest of the day goes first."
For a moment they drove in silence, and he was struck by how vast this empty area was, not to mention how the distant Alareen buildings still appeared far out on the horizon almost as if they weren't moving at all. "Is this area left empty for Alareen visitation?"
"It's what it's used for, but not the intent. When they built the two bases, they built them as far apart as possible to allow for growth. The Alareen expand opposite their base from our side, though right now all they have beyond the four buildings is a designated landing site and a path from it to the base. "Well, "she allowed", a path for them, a massive highway for the likes of us!"
As they continued driving he did notice a difference. Soon it filled their vision, and as they fell into the shadow of the massive building he felt the temperature fall. It grew windier as they got closer until he could feel the car begin to vibrate slightly from the constant wind. "Is a storm coming?"
She shook her head. Pointing at the building, she said "It's pretty windy this far south on the peninsula, but what we're feeling now is simply the result of the winds blowing between and against the buildings and reflecting towards us. It doesn't get any windier than this they angled their buildings to reduce the impact but it's still a nuisance at times."
"So, how'd you two first meet, anyway?"
Erdis smiled and leaned back in his seat. "I've always been interested in the various other races and cultures out there, and I like to visit several different locations in the data sphere looking for any new information. In one discussion forum, there was this one person who was always providing times where you could see the arrival and departure of the Alareen shuttlecraft from here, or when the ships orbit would take it close enough to see with telescopes. I started visiting that forum regularly looking for that information, and one day I logged in to see a lot of new names. "
"You know how there's a small vocal group that's opposed to any interaction with the Alareen?"
Aran grimaced. "For a little while we had a few of them regularly protesting at the edge of the buffer zone. That's why there's that wide open area, and why the highway is so much wider than it needs to be. We needed room to get around them safely. Thankfully they gave up after a while and moved on."
"Well, they moved to various forums like the one I visited, and were spewing their nonsense at everyone there. They were especially focused towards the woman who was always posting the launch times accusing her of being in league with the Alareen and making some pretty nasty comments. I started rebutting all their points and then tracked down the moderator for the forum who promptly booted them and blocked them from re-entry. A short time later the person sent me a request for private contact, thanked me for my support, and asked me how I knew so much. Hours later, we were still talking," He spread his hands far apart ", and a year later here I am!"
"If only they knew how close they were, right?" Aran chuckled, and after a moment it hit Erdis, who joined in. After he calmed down, he said "I never thought of it that way, but I guess they were closer to the truth than they thought."
"You guys never talked by video conference, or at least by audio?"
"She told me she lived on the Gulaan base with her mother and step father, and that for security reasons she was had limited access to the data sphere. She said even if there weren't security concerns, most of their bandwidth was taken up by transfer of the various experiments and projects. She did send me pictures, but they were obviously altered to have her look Viana."
Aran glanced over at him. "Does it bother you that she lied to you?"
"It did at first, but when I gave it some thought , it occurred to me that I probably wouldn't have believed her had she told me. The restrictions they are under are common knowledge." His eyes unfocused as he thought back to that first moment, and he sighed. "Besides, even if I'd believed her, it wouldn't have made me any more prepared for when I did meet her."
"So, why'd you go to meet her? Were you planning on making some sort of romantic connection?" she teased, and then grinned as she saw him flush furiously out of the corner of her eye. He didn't respond, but rather stared off towards the base and sighed, the cheer draining from his expression.
As soon as she saw his reaction, she repented her comment, but before she could say anything further he stated in a low voice "I've always known that you never know who you're truly speaking with, when you meet someone online. With sufficient software, even video conferencing and audio can be manipulated. I knew that when I went out there." At that he turned his head, staring away from their destination.
"I've found just about anything's possible, out there." She said, glancing in his direction. He grunted, but didn't respond, lost in his own thoughts. Unsure of what to say, she lapsed into silence as well, cursing herself for having pushed the conversation so far.