© 1991 by Kate Halleron


by Kate Halleron


The late winter rain fell coldly on the San Francisco Starport. Kate Murphy walked apprehensively down the long dock to the shuttle from the Starship Gargarin - she had not set foot on or near a spaceship since her return to Earth three years before. She had come now to take custody of the only survivor of the ill-fated colony on Regius III, a nine-year-old boy named Patrick Murphy, and offer him a home with her at her family’s ancestral holding, Sequoia House.

Kate was greeted by Captain Gruon, a tall Ronuen with gray tufts on his long ears, whose ship had discovered the decimated colony. His Fleet uniform caused her a well-anticipated pang, but something about his face struck Kate as familiar. “Don’t I know you?” she asked.

The Captain blushed, which was quite a feat for a Ronuen. “I doubt you would remember, Ambassador,” he said, “but I was an attendant at the Ronuen court when you negotiated the alliance fifty years ago.”

“Of course I remember! You saved the negotiations.”

“I wouldn’t say that. . . .” Gruon began.

“I would,” Kate said, smiling her famous winning smile. “I am so glad to see you; I always wondered what happened to you, and I didn’t even know your name. After your act of mercy, I asked about you, but no one would tell me anything.”

“Well,” the Captain said, scratching his broad nose with one retractable claw, “it was a breach of protocol.”

“Oh, dear, what did they do to you?”

“Nothing too terrible. Set me to work in the Kamium mines.”

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Sort of the Ronuen equivalent of cleaning out the stables? Well, I certainly hope you didn’t learn your lesson.”

Gruon laughed, exposing long feline teeth. “Have no fear, Ambassador. I’m still considered something of a maverick back home. But I hear you’ve gone domestic - is it true you live in a treehouse?”

“Of sorts. And call me Kate, everyone does. You should come see Sequoia House while you’re Earthside. I’d love to have you visit.”

“I won’t be here long enough, I’m afraid. I’m only here now because it was considered of paramount importance to turn the boy over to you as soon as possible.”

Kate raised her eyebrows. “Why? Why would one boy be important enough to divert an entire starship?”

“We haven’t let a lot of news leak out - I think you’ll understand why when you hear the whole story, or at least as much of it as we know. May I once more have the honor of offering you a seat?” Gruon grinned and Kate laughed warmly, arranging the skirts of her sari as she sat. Gruon remained standing - Ronuen anatomy was not suited to sitting, which fact, coupled with the Ronuen’s natural hardheadness, had once nearly caused the failure of treaty negotiations between the Galactic League and the Ronuen Monarchy. That this Ronuen had had the insight to notice an alien’s discomfort and had risked his own honor to provide relief had given Kate the heart to stick out a long and grueling mission and to look beyond the Ronuen’s savage reputation. The Ronuen alliance was still considered one of her greatest accomplishments.

“We were making an annual inspection of the colony,” Gruon began, “all very routine, we thought. We became suspicious when no one answered our hail, and when the contact team arrived on the planet our fears were confirmed, only much worse.”

“What happened?” Kate asked.

“The colony was deserted. There were the buildings, the farms, and some alien craft, all empty. What records we could salvage from the ships showed that they belonged to a species no one had ever heard of - calling themselves the Sturgi, as best as our linguists could tell. They had apparently wiped out the colony, more than a thousand persons. All that remained were piles of human bones. The colonists had been butchered.”

“Isn’t that a rather emotional word?”

Gruon relaxed his attentive stance. “No, I mean that they had been butchered. And eaten.”

Kate blanched. “Oh my. And the Sturgi?”

“No trace. Just the ships. No alien remains and no signs of struggle.”

“They just left?”

“Not likely. The ships were equipped for over fifteen hundred crew.”

“Some sort of energy life form, like the Anddra , perhaps, that would be difficult to detect?” Kate suggested, both appalled and intrigued by the mystery.

“We considered that. But ship design speaks against it; something like the Anddra wouldn’t need control consoles, nor have done what they did to the colonists.”

“And Patrick?”

Gruon crouched and his amber eyes met Kate’s slanted green ones. “We found him in the woods where he’s been hiding for months, evidently. He was physically well, more or less - a little malnourished, but nothing the doctors couldn’t handle. We’re afraid the psychological trauma is much more serious. He hasn’t spoken a word since we found him six months ago.”

“Is that so unusual, considering what he’s been through? He’s only nine, after all,” Kate said.

“Maybe, but our psychologists and cyberneticists have put him through all the paces; tests, sleep therapy, dream analysis, you name it. Most people, I understand, especially children, if they can’t express a disturbance verbally will find another way - art, play, even violence. With Patrick, nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Nothing? Do you mean catatonia?”

“No, and that’s what is even more strange. He’s aware, even responsive, to a degree. He just won’t let out whatever it was that happened down there, and it’s of paramount importance. He’s the only person who’s ever seen an unknown alien race. We need to know what he knows, but no one’s gotten through to him. We don’t want to damage the boy, but we need that information.” He stood once more and paced, leopard-like, in front of Kate’s chair.

“So why bring him to me?” Kate asked. “I’m not a psychologist.”

“You are a very resourceful woman, a proven problem solver, and a woman of great understanding. And he’s a relative of yours.”

“A somewhat distant cousin. I don’t know what I can do, but you tell the League that as far as I’m concerned, Patrick’s welfare is more important than any politicking. Is that understood?” Her voice was calm and firm as stone.

“I’ll tell them,” Gruon said, crouching down to Kate’s eye level once more. “And for myself, I agree with you. Do what you can for him, Kate.”

He’s so small, Kate thought when they finally brought Patrick to her. How in the world had he survived down there all alone? She hugged the boy impulsively, but he stood in her embrace cold and rigid as stone. When she drew away from him, his green eyes bore into hers as though he saw all her secrets. Fortunately, she thought, she did not have many. There was neither relief, loathing, grief, nor any other emotion that Kate could decry on his dark face. She thought she had seen statues with more expression.

On the short drive south, Kate made no attempt to break Patrick’s silence. Instead, she told him stories of her adventures and of life at Sequoia House. He made no response; she did not at this point expect any.

As Kate pulled into the drive, the House loomed darkly out of the mist and she was overcome with a wonder that was now familiar. She had grown up here and had returned three years ago upon retirement and the death of her husband, Fleet Commander Mitchell Yeng, but Sequoia House still had the power to strike her speechless. Designed and built near the close of the nineteenth century by Padraig Murphy for his Chinese bride, the structure soared to a height of more than one hundred feet as it wound its way around the trunk of the giant redwood from which it derived its name. Once suspended by stout hemp cables and later by cables of steel, the treehouse was now supported by modern antigravs and inhabited by more than two hundred of the descendants of old Padraig. Sequoia House had endured for five hundred years and seemed likely to last five hundred more.

No one was quite sure how many rooms or, more properly, apartments there were in the House; no two persons who counted arrived at the same sum. Murphys seemed to fill every crack and crevice, but family history did not record a time when they had ever run out of room.

Kate showed Patrick the room she had prepared for him, surprised that he exhibited none of the awe that Sequoia House always inspired a newcomers. The room looked down over the forest, and after Patrick had unpacked his few belongings, he settled himself by the window, intently watching the birds that flew past and sheltered from the rain on nearby branches. He seemed to devour everything with his eyes, yet it all sank down within his depths without leaving a ripple behind. Kate shivered to watch him, but she did not know why.

As the weeks passed, Kate encouraged him to play with the other children, but they drew away from him as though he were an unpleasant smell. He seemed content to have it so. Kate exerted all the personal resources she had developed through sixty years of diplomacy, but she found no passage through his silence. He ate and slept when necessary, obeyed directions with a cold indifference, and watched everything with an icy green gaze that was chilling in its intensity. Still, it was not for several weeks that Kate began to think he might be more than she could handle alone.

One of the giant trees had fallen across the main pathway in the night, blocking Kate’s way as she embarked on one of her usually solitary walks. A squad of twenty men and women were busy clearing away branches and brush before tackling the main trunk that, even lying on its side, towered high over Kate’s head. “Need any help?” She asked of Maury Stein, who was directing the massive job.

“Oh, I think we have it under control, Kate,” he responded, pulling a large bandanna from a pocket and wiping his grimy hands. “Not enough disintegrators to go round, anyway. Hey, be careful with that,” he warned the teenager who was wielding the large piece of equipment with an attitude that was a little too cavalier for Maury’s taste, “I wouldn’t want to see what one of those things would do to your arm.” The young man made an impertinent grimace, but began to use more care, nevertheless. The smell of wood ash filled the spring air.

“Are they really that dangerous?” Kate asked. “Maybe we ought to use something else.”

“Not as dangerous as anything else we could use, but it never hurts to be careful,” Maury replied. “That boy of yours was through here a little while ago.”

“Patrick? Did he say anything?”

“No. Does he ever?”

“No,” Kate grimaced, “but I always hope.”

“Give him time, Kate. He’s been through a lot.”

“I know. Where is he now?”

“I don’t know. He took one look, then scooted off into the woods as though the Xia were after him.”

“You really shouldn’t say that any more, Maury,” Kate chided. “Some of my best friends are Xian.”

“I know. Sorry, Kate - old habits and hard.” He looked up. “Well, it looks like we’ll have a tunnel cut for you in a few minutes.”

He was as good as his word, and Kate was soon on her way once more, although she found that the quiet of the woods made her think too much. She seemed to have lost the gift she had once had of finding adventure in each hour of every day. She found she missed it.

She was returning later that afternoon when she noticed a peculiar smell, hot and sickeningly sweet, and following her nose she found the headless body of a bluejay lying on the path. She collapsed to her knees, horrified, wondering who could do such a thing, but the answer was obvious even as she asked herself the question. She wondered how such a small thing could have so much blood in it. She thought she might be sick, and then she was sick, unable to quell the nausea of blood and violent death. Looking around until she found the bird’s severed head, she dug a hole in the soft loam of the forest floor and buried the poor thing beside the path. She wondered how many more bodies she would find if she would bother to look, but decided against it. She ran to the House, panting as she rested a moment against the redwood’s rough bark. She thought she could feel the ancient life of the tree flowing upward from the roots, and gained strength from it.

Kate mounted the stairs that wound around the inside spiral, each step swaying slightly as she climbed. Although modern technology made the House’s original flexible construction no longer necessary, it was preserved because the inhabitants were accustomed to it. A pack of children ran past her, shrieking and laughing and accompanied by a motley assortment of animals. Kate remembered a certain dark haired girl who had run up and down these stairs more than three-quarters of a century ago, and wondered why she did not yet feel at home here. She put away the thought as soon as it appeared.

Seamus Mueller was the only resident of Sequoia House who was not a Murphy by either descent or marriage. He was working in his usual place, the table strewn with lasers and crystals when Kate tapped at his open door. “What is it, Kate?” the young man asked as he covered the partially finished holosculpture and pushed his goggles to the top of his fair hair. He leaned his chair back against the wall as Kate seated herself across from him, clasping her hands.

She hesitated a moment, then told him what she had found, and who she feared was responsible. “It’s horrible. What could be inside that little boy to make him do such a thing?”

“Are you asking me for help?” Seamus asked.

She paused. “I guess I am,” she shrugged.

A bright smile lit up his boyish face. “Well, well, the Great Kate Murphy actually asking for help. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Don’t mock me, Jamie. I’m serious.”

“I’m serious, too. You know me, I’m always serious.” He leaned forward, the front legs of his chair hitting the floor with a soft thud, and rested his elbows on his knees. “All right, I’ll help you on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Marry me.”

It was an old discussion, and she sometimes wondered why she allowed it to continue. She studied her hands in her lap as though they were the most interesting things in the room; there was dirt under the fingernails and traces of dried blood. She shuddered. Seamus leaned forward and clasped her hands in his. “All right,” he said seriously.

He stood and gazed thoughtfully out the window for a long moment. There was peace in his stillness, like the quiet strength of her childhood home and the tree in which it hung, and Kate found herself gravitating toward it. “Weren’t you told he might express himself violently?” Seamus asked finally, leaning on the windowsill. The forest sun shone around him to be reflected by Kate’s green eyes.

She shuddered again. “I know,” she said, “but I thought he might attack me, or another child or someone, something that could fight back. Not kill something helpless.”

“Have you talked to Brigid about it?” He asked. “She’s the resident psychologist.”

She started. “Brigid Stein. It never occurred to me.”

Seamus blew his breath out sharply, exasperated. “Kate, you’ve got to stop trying to do everything yourself. You’re not responsible for the universe.”

“I’ve always relied on myself,” she said simply.

Seamus rested a hand on her shoulder. “Do you know how hard it is for me, having you so unwilling to take what I want so much to give you?” He asked quietly.

“I’m here now,” she said, wondering why she felt so much more vulnerable than she had ever felt among aliens.

“Yes, you are, aren’t you?” He wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on top of her silver hair. “All right. Do you have Patrick’s psych profile?”


“Let’s go get it, and then I’ll talk to Brigid. What do you know about the Sturgi?”

“Not much,” Kate said. “No one’s ever seen one. Except Patrick, of course.”

“No one but Patrick,” he agreed.

Patrick was in his room. Kate suppressed a shudder when she saw him sitting in his usual place, watching the birds as they flew by, this innocent pastime suddenly turned sinister. “Patrick,” she said, sitting on the edge of the boy’s bed, trying to keep her voice calm. “I was walking along the main path today, and I found something that upset me very much.” The dark skinned little boy turned his Murphy-green eyes on Kate’s face. She thought she saw a flicker of interest and something else she could not identify. “I found a bird, a dead bird. Someone had. . . had twisted its head off. Do you know anything about it?” Patrick resumed staring out the window, cold and still as marble.

Kate handed Seamus the wafer containing Patrick’s psychological profile, and walked him to the doorway. “Did you see that?” She asked quietly.

“Yes,” Seamus replied, “but what exactly did I see?”

“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out, aren’t we?”

That evening, she cooked dinner and Patrick ate, quietly and coldly. Kate scrutinized him quite unabashedly. Let him feel uncomfortable for once, she thought, and immediately felt guilty for thinking it. She saw no indication of the flicker of interest she had seen earlier, and without Seamus’s confirmation would have thought she had imagined it. She tried to work after dinner - her memoirs were long overdue and she felt she might never finish them - but her agitation prevented her from making any progress this evening, either.

Patrick sat by his window until it became too dark to see out, then went to bed, but Kate noted that his sleep was troubled.

Seamus knocked at her door the next morning, blanket and old-fashioned wicker basket in hand. “How about a picnic, Kate?” he asked.

“But Patrick. . . ,” she began.

“What about him?”

“Well,” Kate said, absently tugging at her long hair, “after yesterday, I don’t think I should let him out of sight. You know how tame the wildlife is; there’s no telling what he might do.”

“All part of the plan,” Seamus smiled. He led her down the short flight of steps to the forest floor. “I’ll explain as we go along.”

As they strolled among the redwoods that Kate had always thought of as home, she suddenly realized that the forest reminded her of Sirius where she had spent her honeymoon with Mitch. It disturbed her that her childhood home should remind her of distant places; it was all backward. Still, the sky was a crisp blue, Jamie’s hand was warm in hers, and the soil put forth an early spring fragrance that was pure Earth. She pulled herself back to the present.

“So, Brigid thinks he should face the consequences of his actions,” Seamus finished. The sun shone through the trees against the springtime chill and a nearby stream bubbled past. Seamus spread the blanket on the grassy bank. “This looks like a good spot,” he said, taking Kate’s hand and seating her beside him. Opening the basket, “Wine?” he offered.

“Isn’t it a little early?” Kate asked.

“Perhaps, but then we are both persons of leisure, and if we want to get a wee bit tipsy before lunch, who’s to care?”

“‘Leisure,’ my eye,” Kate observed, amused. “You’re the hardest working person I know.”

“Ah, yes, but all work and no play makes Jamie a dull boy.”

There was a twinkle in his blue eyes that Kate had never noticed before and she could not help giggling. “Is that wine domestic or imported?”

“French. I can’t afford the imported stuff, but it’s a good wine, anyway.” He uncorked the bottle, grunting. He poured the dark liquid into two glasses; Kate held hers up to the light and the ruby glow of the vintage cast crimson shadows across her face.

“Earth wines are highly prized in other parts of the galaxy,” she remarked. “Most people don’t appreciate what they already have.”

Seamus raised his glass. “To the most beautiful woman in the galaxy,” he toasted, sipping his Bordeaux.

“That’s a new one,” Kate said, settling back against the tree and taking off her shoes. She thought the stream was playing a familiar tune she could not quite identify. Something by Bach, perhaps.

“It’s true,” Seamus said. “Your hair shines so, like moonlight, and those Murphy eyes are like polished jade.” He leaned close to her until their noses almost touched and he ran his fingers along the faint silvery scar that outlined one cheekbone. “Kate, I love you so much. Would you please marry me?”

Kate did not speak, but her eyes held her answer.

“Every day for two years I’ve asked, and every day you’ve turned me down,” Seamus said, pulling away.

“I never have,” Kate defended herself.

“You’ve never said yes either. Why? And please don’t give me the same old excuses - I don’t care how old you are and neither do you.”

Kate rested her arms on her knees and played idly with her wine glass as she collected her thoughts. The stream played its baroque tune. “When Mitch was. . .killed,” she began, “it suddenly hit me how little I knew him. Forty years of marriage and we were never together for more than a few weeks at a time. I wondered why it never seemed to bother either one of us; we each went blithely about our own business and spent a few rapturous moments together whenever we got the chance. I don’t know what it’s like to live day to day with someone; I wonder. . . I wonder a lot of things. So then I retired, hoping to find out how normal people live, but honestly, I don’t think I’m doing too well at it. That’s why I can’t say yes - I can’t make you any promises because I don’t know what I want myself.”

“This is a side of you I’ve never seen before,” he said.

“Does it satisfy you?” she asked.

“Not satisfy, exactly, but I think I understand you now. I’m not going to give up though.”

“I hope not,” Kate said, and kissed him.

It was late afternoon when they made their way toward home, basket empty and hearts full. The world seemed sharply focused; the shape of each leaf and stone seemed to Kate to leap out in perfect clarity. So it was a surprise when she stumbled into the arm that Seamus suddenly thrust in front of her. “Shh,” he hissed warningly, yanking her off the narrow path into the underbrush. “Look.”

Patrick’s eyes were focused intently on the blackbird perched just out of his reach. The almost forgotten events of the preceding day rushed back to Kate as she watched from the edge of the clearing. She took a step toward the boy, but Seamus pulled her back. “Better than we hoped,” he whispered, “we can catch him in the act.”

Patrick stared at the blackbird is if willing it to him, and he stood so still that it paid him no attention as it hopped gradually closer. Kate trembled; she had spent her whole life preventing death, and what Patrick was about to do horrified her. It horrified her still more that they were going to let him. She tore away from Seamus’s grip and ran, but it was done. Quicker than her eyes could follow, the boy’s right hand whipped out and his left dispatched the creature before it could so much as chirp. Red gore spurted over his fingers and ran down his arm, splattering bloodily in the dirt. Patrick soundlessly let the broken bird fall, and turning stared wide-eyed at Kate and Seamus, his own eyes full of fear. That’s it, Kate thought. That’s what I saw before - but what is he afraid of?

“Well, well, what have we here?” Seamus said, striding across the clearing. He knelt and wrapped the dead beast in a napkin, then stood, grasping Patrick’s shoulder firmly with his empty hand. The napkin dripped blood onto the forest floor. “Go find Brigid,” he said to Kate, studying her worriedly. “She said she’d be home early. Tell her to meet us on the north side of the House.” Kate bolted, glad for something, anything, to take her away from the gory scene she had just witnessed.

The Steins lived high up in the House. As Seamus had guessed, Brigid was home but her husband Maury was not. “It’s Patrick,” Kate began.

“Where?” Brigid interrupted.

Kate told her, and Brigid grabbed a jacket and a pocket computer before pelting down the stairs. Kate lagged behind, stopping at her own apartment, where she was sick once more, before rejoining Patrick, Seamus, and Brigid under the boughs of the great tree.

Patrick was spading a shallow hole in the forest loam under Seamus’s firm direction, into which Seamus laid the napkin-wrapped body of the bird. Patrick’s face had lost its fearful expression, and he had replaced it with his usual stony mien. His hands and arms were stained with the blood of his victim, now mixed with dirt and sweat. “Shall you do the honors, or shall I?” Seamus asked Brigid.

“You’re doing fine, so far,” Brigid handed him the comp. “I’ve already logged it in.”

“What are we doing?” Kate asked.

“Holding a funeral,” Seamus replied, concern for her evident in his pale eyes. “You don’t have to stay.”

Kate thought the idea of a funeral for the bird was childish, and more than a little cruel, but did not protest; she did not know what was right anymore. She shook her head at Seamus’s suggestion that she leave, and he thumbed a few buttons on the comp, reading the words that appeared on its tiny screen.

“My friends,” he began, “we’re here to observe the passing of, well, it doesn’t have a name, so we’ll skip that part. Oh, death, where is your sting? And grave, where is your victory?”

“Stop it,” Patrick whispered. Seamus continued with the service unheeding, but Kate regarded the boy with such wordless shock that she missed a large part of Seamus’s recitation. Patrick did not speak again for several minutes, impassive as ever, and Kate was beginning to wonder whether she had heard him at all when, without warning, the boy exploded.

“Stop it!” he yelled as he attacked Seamus, his small fists flailing at the much taller young man. Seamus dropped the comp and grabbed the boy’s wrists. Patrick pulled away, stomping on the corpse of the dead bird. “Mama and Da didn’t have any funeral!” he raged. “No one buried Jimmy! It’s not right! It’s not fair!” He ran around the base of the tree and they could hear the pounding of his feet as he charged up the stairs over their heads.

“Stay with him, Seamus,” Brigid urged, as Kate knelt and picked up the tattered remnants of feather and flesh, returning them to the grave. Behind her, Brigid picked up the discarded comp. “I want him,” Brigid said.

“Who?” Kate asked, covering the hole and patting it down. Tears ran down her face and spattered in the dirt, but she was not sure for whom she was weeping.

“Patrick, of course,” Brigid replied. “He’s broken, I can help him now. You know Maury and I don’t have any kids; we can give him a family again.”

Kate stood and absently wiped her grimy hands on her skirt. “And I can’t?”

“Kate, he’ll be better off with us.” Brigid moaned in exasperation. “Why can’t you admit there might be something you can’t do?”

“Maybe because I don’t believe it,” Kate said as she headed for the front door.

Patrick had taken refuge in the House’s vast attic, hiding among the dust and cobwebs and generations of the Murphys’ stored treasures. Seamus watched him quietly, not intruding on the boy’s grief, although he had as yet shed no tears. Patrick valiantly and unavailingly tried to piece together the broken shards of his silence. When Kate and Brigid arrived panting after the long climb, it was apparent to all of them that he would be unable to do so, and that he regarded himself with a terrified disappointment. Seamus took Kate’s hand, gently entwining his long artist’s fingers with hers. “I’m sorry, Kate. It was necessary, and you’re too gentle to do it.”

“I know.” She clasped his hand tightly. There were blood stains on all of them except Brigid. “Thank you.”

“Take him home for now, Kate,” Brigid said. “We’ll leave him in familiar surroundings for now. Bring him to me tomorrow.” Dry sobs wracked the boy as Kate led him down the long winding stairs.

The moon was rising over the tops of the redwoods when Kate opened Patrick’s door to check on him as she always did. He lay with eyes wide open and arms behind his head, staring out the window at the moonlight. “You’re not asleep, Patrick?” she asked.

“No,” he replied, and the sound of his voice after so much silence was shocking. “Kate, I didn’t mean to kill the birds. I couldn’t help it.”

Kate closed the door behind her and sat on the edge of his bed. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

He shook his head, and turned his face away from her. “You’ll hate me.”

She laid her honey colored hand on his black one, puzzled by his answer. “I don’t think there’s anything that could make me hate you, Patrick. Believe that. It has to do with what happened on Regius, doesn’t it?”

He stared at her, long and hard. Kate returned his gaze and he turned away, but he spoke, his voice raspy from long disuse. “It was Marty’s birthday, and his dad had taken a bunch of us guys camping out in the woods. We were sitting around telling scary stories when we saw a whole bunch of lights, like a meteor shower, only bigger. They were falling towards town, and Marty’s dad told us not to leave camp while he went to see what it was. We waited for hours, and he didn’t come back. Finally, Marty said he was going home, and most of the guys went with him. I didn’t go, because I was scared, and Jimmy, that’s my brother, stayed with me. The sun came up, we hadn’t slept, and none of the guys came back. We waited all day, and nobody came for us. Jimmy wanted to go home, but I didn’t want to, so he didn’t. It got dark, and I was so tired I couldn’t stay awake, and Jimmy must have gone home while I was asleep, because he wasn’t there when I woke up. I didn’t know what to do, I was scared go home, and I was scared to stay in the woods by myself. I took Marty’s dad’s ax, and I hid behind some trees near the edge of town where I hoped whatever it was wouldn’t find me and I saw. . . ,” he swallowed hard. “They were. . . .”

Kate clenched his hand. “I know,” she said, tears staining her cheeks. “You don’t have to tell me that part.”

Patrick inhaled and let it out all in a rush. His voice in the darkness was filled with grief. “They were like giant birds. They had feathers, and wings with fingers on the ends, and claws on their feet, and they sang to each other. I never saw them fly, though; maybe the gravity was too much for them. Anyway, I moved camp closer to town so maybe I could keep an eye on them. They never came out in the daytime, only at night, and after a couple of weeks, I ran out of food. They didn’t post guards or anything, so I snuck back to our house. It was weird; there were all these big birds just sitting around on the furniture with their heads under their wings. I tried to keep quiet, but I still made some noise, and they didn’t budge. I grabbed some food, and ran back to the woods, but I started thinking about it, and the next day I snuck back into town again.

“I got into Da’s shed out behind the house, and I found the organic disintegrator he used for clearing stumps out of the fields. It was awfully heavy, and it only works up close, but I hauled it back to the house and used it on them. Then I went around to the other houses and cleaned them out, too. It took almost three weeks to kill them all, and at night they hunted for me, but I knew the woods and some caves to hide in and they didn’t find me. After, I stayed in town a couple of days, but it was real spooky, so I went back out into the woods.

“When the ship found me, I knew I couldn’t tell, because everyone says it’s wrong to kill, so I decided if I kept quiet no one would know. But when I came here and saw the birds, all I could think about was what the Sturgi did to Mama and Da and Jimmy and everybody. I couldn’t help it. Now you hate me, but I’m not sorry, not about the Sturgi.” He buried his face in his pillow.

Kate’s face was awash with tears, for the slaughtered colonists, for the Sturgi reduced to ash blown by the winds, and for this tormented boy. She did not believe he was not sorry - his distress was too apparent, and he had gone to such great lengths to hide his guilt. She touched his shoulder. “Patrick, you don’t have to go on killing. We can help you. Will you let us?”

He rolled back over. “Really?” he asked, a hopeful note in his voice, and Kate was amazed at his resilience. “You don’t hate me?”

Kate put her arms around him, and he melted into her embrace, stony no longer. “Of course not,” she said, as he wept hot tears into her shoulder. “I love you, Paddy.”