Chapter Nine

1

Had Chris or Samantha looked back they might have noticed that, as soon as they were off, M. Coopersmith's broad smile vanished. But that was only the beginning of the change that took place in his appearance. Turning away, he prepared to set aside the visage of M. Coopersmith, a mask he had worn for so long it felt almost—but not quite—like it was the real him. He had delayed transforming until now, but in order to do battle properly with the Sky Eel, he could no longer wait. All the while keeping his eyes trained on the patch of ground from which he expected the Sky Eel to emerge, M. Coopersmith allowed his human guise to dissipate. His legs and torso expanded, lengthened, until he stood more than eight feet in height; his skin darkened from white to pale blue; his thumb, middle, and index fingers combined to form a single digit, as did his pinkie and ring fingers. His clothing melted into armor of a slightly darker shade than his skin; an armor that was, in fact, organic to his tremendous body. His face narrowed even as his head enlarged to triple the size of a man's, in the process becoming domed rather than round; his eyes widened and blackened over, turning opaque; his mouth shrank to a tiny—and, in fact, non-functional—slit.

And now, he thought, for the best part.

From the joints of his elbows two long blades extended, curving around so that they ran parallel to his forearms and out past his hands, to end in sharp hooked tips. These blades, like the armor, were in fact a part of the alien's body. The skeletons of creatures such as M. Coopersmith were not kept wholly inside, like the mammals of Terra, nor outside, like the planet's insects, but instead were borne as a combination of the two, interlocking and blending with the hard blue flesh, sometimes exposed, sometimes not.

Like the Sky Eels, M. Coopersmith and his kind were able to produce a powerful internal voltage. The only difference was that a Sky Eel administered the lethal energy through its jaws; for M. Coopersmith, it would be his elbow blades.

Now, transformation complete, he waited.

M. Coopersmith had not said so before, but he had an additional reason for staying in human form until the last minute. He had developed a set of personality traits as a human being that did not carry over to his true self. His desire to protect both the Remnant and the two young humans with him would have remained intact, but his expression of that desire would have been different, rougher, colder. Not good for dealing with young humans—though for a Sky Eel, perfect.

The ground shook.

It was almost here...

2

Chris and Samantha hurried toward the five-acre expanse that had been cleared along the Summerville River. Glancing back, they could no longer see M. Coopersmith, as their view was blocked by the cast-off materials of industry.

Panting, Chris set down the Remnant. "I hope this is the right place," he said to Samantha.

"Me too."

3

The Sky Eel exploded from the earth in a whirlwind of dirt and torn roots, and the reaction of M. Coopersmith, armored alien warrior, was different from the one he would have had as M. Coopersmith, genteel Southern businessman. The present M. Coopersmith was glad to see the monster, thrilled even. He had yearned to kill a Sky Eel for a very long time now, almost as far back as he could remember, and disposing of it by means of a trap, as he had done with the other Sky Eel, brought only the barest satisfaction.

But to kill one personally...that would be superb.

Limited in its faculties, the Sky Eel nevertheless recognized its quarry had taken on a new and fearsome visage. It also detected that the Remnant was farther out, and so it bolted into the sky, keen to avoid a confrontation with this far more formidable version of M. Coopersmith.

But it could not. Effortlessly, M. Coopersmith leapt a good one hundred feet into the air, meeting the Sky Eel in cold, empty black space, and slashed it across its snout with the sharp appendage arcing from his right elbow. The damage inflicted was twofold: physical injury, plus a tremendous shock.

And an effective attack, too; the Sky Eel, shrieking, plunged to the ground. M. Coopersmith landed on top of it, went on to inflict a series of strikes upon the monster.

And as he did this, he remembered.

He remembered the terraced gardens of his homeworld.

He remembered the great old warriors who he had trained him when he was young.

He remembered the young warriors who had been his cherished friends.

He remembered that hardly any of those warriors, young or old, lived now, and that the terraced gardens of his homeworld were bits of sand floating in space.

He remembered legions of Sky Eels spilling down from the skies, overwhelming the tiny garrison that had represented his people's last outpost of resistance.

He remembered the shame of retreating before those legions.

He remembered the rage he felt at his own helplessness; the guilt of having survived the onslaught when so many others had not; he remembered vowing revenge for the atrocities of the Great Enemy that he could not bring himself to name even now, because to do so was to cause him a physical revulsion so great it bordered on pain.

He remembered watching his planet, the repository of all his history, the only home he had ever known, explode into a trillion barren fragments. He remembered wishing he had been on when it was obliterated, and cursing those elders of his race who had chosen for him to be among the few who survived.

Remembering all of this, he struck the Sky Eel again and again and again. And with every blow he honored that which he had lost.

4

Chris and Samantha heard the Sky Eel's screeching, the crackling noises; they saw flashes from the ground rising into the night sky.

"What's happening?" Samantha whispered.

"I don't know," Chris said.

5

The Sky Eel's jaws closed on M. Coopersmith's right leg, and too late M. Coopersmith realized his error: he had allowed himself to enjoy the fight too much; had reveled in the sweetness of the monster's howls of alarm, of suffering, to the point that he had forgotten how dangerous and powerful it still was. So doing, he had given it the opportunity to inflict some damage of its own. His hardy alien constitution preserved him from a charge of energy that would have been sufficient to kill a hundred human beings, but just barely. He staggered, knocked the Sky Eel away, but it charged him and bit down again, this time on his shoulder.

6

Chris looked up at the sky. "Come on," he urged. "Where are y'all? Come on."

7

The tide had turned. M. Coopersmith was on his knees, still grappling with the Sky Eel, but he had received too many injuries in the last few moments to continue the fight successfully. Bite marks from the Eel riddled his vast body, yet these hadn't hurt him badly; rather, it was the multiple shocks he had received. He was disoriented, weakening fast. He could not mount an effective defense, let alone offense. And the Sky Eel sensed its advantage, hitting him with yet another bite, this time to the base of his neck. M. Coopersmith's tiny mouth froze in a silent "O."

8

"What if they don't come?" Samantha said.

"Don't say that," Chris told her, desperately scanning the night sky. "They've got to. They've got to."

Samantha clutched his arm. "Chris," she said. Her voice was very small. "Look..."

And Chris looked, in the direction that she was looking, back in the direction they had come from, he looked and saw—

the Sky Eel.

It was burned and gashed and sliced open in a dozen places, and yet it was as frightening in appearance as ever, perhaps even more so. It spiraled toward them, hissing its dreadful hiss, its eyes wild with pain, with madness.

Neither Chris nor Samantha could move. Instinctively they realized there was no point. They could not run from it. Even if they handed over the Remnant, it would still kill them, just as it had no doubt killed M. Coopersmith.

He failed, Chris thought as the Sky Eel loomed over them. He couldn't protect us.

And now we die.

We die.

And then a strange figure leaped high into the darkness behind the Sky Eel, high into the night air, and then let gravity hammer it down, faster and faster, with terrible blades extending from both arms at the elbows, and the right blade trained directly on the back of the Sky Eel's head. And now Chris and Samantha dropped to the ground as that blade plunged into the Sky Eel's skull, splitting it in two, with the blade protruding grotesquely from the mouth of the Sky Eel as it sank to earth with the strange figure who they knew without knowing was M. Coopersmith lying astride it, like Captain Ahab on the back of Moby Dick.

Then: a flash of light, followed by a boom, after which nothing remained of the Sky Eel's corpse but ashes and a sickly green haze.

Chris and Samantha picked themselves off the ground. Behind them lay the Remnant in its sack, all but forgotten at the moment.

A figure was emerging from the fast-dissipating haze: a small, stumbling figure.

Samantha identified him first. "Mr. Coopersmith?"

They waited for a moment, unsure if they should come forward.

"Are you okay?" Chris asked him.

M. Coopersmith made no response, only took a few more steps in their direction, and then dropped to his knees.

"Mr. Coopersmith!" cried Samantha.

He fell onto his back as they hurried to him.

"Children," he whispered as Chris and Samantha took opposite sides of his now-unmoving body.

"Just hang on, Mr. Coopersmith," Samantha said, taking his hand. "Your people are coming. They'll help you."

"No, it's all right…" M. Coopersmith told her. "Just as I promised…"

"Please, Mr. Coopersmith, try to hang on," Samantha urged him. "Help is coming. I know it is. You just have to hang on."

"Tonight…" M. Coopersmith began.

His eyes were dulling now.

"…we all…"

His grip loosened around Samantha's hand.

"…go home."

That was the end. His hand fell from Samantha's and he lay still. He drew no breath; his eyes held no light; he was gone in a moment.

But Christopher Gerald Taylor of Summerville, Gerogia, refused to accept this.

"Wait, Mr. Coopersmith," the boy pleaded, leaning down so that their faces were inches apart, "don't give up so easy. Try to laugh. You said it healed you before when you laughed. So please, try to laugh now. I'll help you, okay? I'll help you laugh. I'll tell you a joke. A duck walks into a bar—oh, man. I've already screwed it up. I'll try again. A man walks into a bar carrying a duck. The bartender says to him, 'Hey, where'd you get that duck?' And the guy says…"

His voice trailed off then, for suddenly M. Coopersmith began to change. His appearance was alien, but less so than Chris might have thought. The eyes were large, the forehead high, the mouth small...but there were many differences between the face of the being that had posed as M. Coopersmith and the alien face so often described by UFO abductees. There was wisdom in that face, to be sure, but also, somehow, deep kindness: the face of a compassionate, if alien, philosopher-king. Chris could not understand why M. Coopersmith had not shown him this face before. There was nothing the least bit startling about it. This was a good face, a noble face.

It was also the face he could hide so long as he was alive, Chris decided, which meant he was not alive anymore.

And yet Chris urged the alien on in his mind, one last time: Laugh, Mr. Coopersmith.

Please, won't you laugh?

But there was nothing. They were kneeling beside a corpse. And still Samantha asked, "Is he dead?"

"I think so, yeah."

Behind them now: light and heat, followed by a rush of wind. Almost in unison, Chris and Samantha looked back, and then up in the air.

Chapter Ten

1

Where were you guys when we needed you? Chris thought as he watched the alien craft lower itself into the field.

It was a beautiful ship, triangular in shape rather than circular, about thirty feet in length, blue and gold with strange, hieroglyphic symbols running along its edges. It made no sound other than a low, soothing hum. It sank a few inches into the dirt and the humming stopped.

A hatch opened on the side facing Chris and Samantha.

Here we go, Chris thought. He looked down at the body of M. Coopersmith. Maybe we should run. What if they think we were the ones who killed him?

But somehow he knew they wouldn't think that.

Somehow he knew the crisis was past.

This was just the mopping up.

Two beings identical in appearance to the body that lay before them descended from the hatch, then two more, and two more, and so on until there were fourteen such aliens. At last another alien appeared, with a single feature to distinguish it from the other beings: two gold bands down the side of its face, and another one across its forehead. It motioned to the body of M. Coopersmith, and immediately the phalanx of fourteen approached them. Chris and Samantha got to their feet, backed away as the aliens lifted M. Coopersmith off the ground, hoisted him onto their shoulders, and then turned to carry his lifeless form back onto the ship. The gold-banded alien, the Fifteenth, bent down and picked up the Remnant. Then it too turned away, started off behind them.

Chris had planned to keep his mouth shut. He had worked hard to do it. But he just couldn't help himself. He had to say something. He stared hard at the alien and called out, "Hey!"

The Fifteenth stopped, pivoted, and faced him.

Looks like I really did it this time.

But Chris decided to keep talking anyway. "Hey, listen to me. He died so you could have that." He pointed to the Remnant in the alien's arms. "He died."

The Fifteenth appraised him dispassionately.

"I thought you should know."

Now the alien was walking toward him.

What did I just do? Chris wondered. Did I make it mad? What's it going to do to me?

The Fifteenth reached for the boy's head with its great hand. Chris flinched at first—and then he realized what was about to happen.

Gently, the alien cupped its hand over his head; as he felt the warmth of its palm against his skin, so too did Chris hear, in his own voice, these words:

"Thank you."

That was all.

The Fifteenth let its hand fall from Chris' head. Then it turned around and went back inside its ship. The hatch closed, and the craft began to hum again.

Together, Chris and Samantha watched it rise into the air. It lingered for a moment, high above them, and then zipped into space.

After a few moments, still holding hands, they embarked on a slow shuffle back to the building—now dark and vacant—that they had fled in terror a mere ninety minutes ago. Of course, it was a much nicer trip this time, through quiet downtown Summerville with its glowing lamplights, clean sidewalks, and darkened storefronts: Crawford's Jewelers; the Summerville Gazette; Suzie's Cupcakes and Confections; Barron's Fine Menswear; many others.

On the way, they spoke little.

In the days to come, there would be much excited talk in this fine old town about the strange mild earthquakes that had taken place tonight. Someone would report that a window had been broken at the now-vacated Offices of M. Coopersmith. Several others would report on a loud explosion heard that same night from the vicinity of the Port of Summerville. Then, of course, someone out fishing at night on the Summerville River would tell his friends he had seen a UFO land on the riverbank, but nobody would buy it because the guy in question was known for telling tall tales.

And life would go on, yes, go on just like the stars that glimmered in the sky above; just like the moon that drew in the tides that, in turn, fed the vast saltmarshes gracing the coast of Georgia; just like the Earth that kept turning; just like the yellow sun, hidden now, that nourished and warmed and brought life to the forests and the plains of grass and the oceans stretching out below it.

All of it going on, going on...

As they prepared to cross Bridgewell Street, Chris glanced up at the night sky and thought: I never got to ask him what the M. in M. Coopersmith stood for. It was probably several different names, all for different times or different generations, just to keep up the illusion that it hadn't been the same guy for the last hundred years. Who knows how he pulled it off, all that time. He just did, I guess.

Samantha's hand felt warm, felt good, in his. But for the moment Chris was lost in his own thoughts.

And I think I understand now what the phrase "Offices of M. Coopersmith" really meant. "Offices" didn't refer to a building. It referred to the titles he carried: Protector, Warrior, Guide,, lousy joke-teller, longtime resident, friend to young people and old people and everyone in between, even if they never knew it. Those were the real Offices of M. Coopersmith, not some old building.

They were almost there.

But I still wonder what the M stood for.

Chris glanced up. It was clear enough for him to make out an arm of the Milky Way Galaxy gracing the sky overhead: billions of tiny stars, so faint they looked like celestial mist.

I know what it should have been.

Once more he looked straight ahead.

"Magnificent."

Chris and Samantha arrived at the crushed-shell parking lot of the Offices of M. Coopersmith. The pair had walked in silence for awhile now, but as they came up to Samantha's car she asked him, "What kind of dog was Buster?"

Aside from the dialogue that question launched, as well as the little bit of noise the two kids made as they got into the Ford Mustang to drive home, the only sound that could be heard nearby came from a small sign on the building's front lawn; swaying gently in the night breeze, that sign read, in plain black lettering, "Offices of M. Coopersmith."

2

So, then: how well do you ever really know somebody else?

It depends. With some folks you can learn all you need to know in a single night.

Just ask Chris Taylor and Samantha Gibbons of Summerville, Georgia.

They'll tell you.