Premiered June 24, 2003
For the first time in many days, Woody found himself utterly alone in his room. Dawn had left hours ago and no one else had shown the slightest interest in him. Perhaps the questions had been answered, and it was now time for action. As Woody sat in the single chair, the finality became more and more real. In the same manner Woody knew he was ready. A portion of the greatest period of his life was ending, but in a way he could accept. It was indeed time.
Briefly Woody wondered at the 'results' of the many psycho scans, tests and analyses he had undergone in the last days. The Caretakers had been overly concerned in trying to read his mind, to understand which of his words could be counted on as the truth. It was as if they were preparing to take a great gamble. The future of their world might very well rest on the shoulders of a single man, and that man was an alien from another world. It was an unreasonable test the fates had imposed upon them. But it was also a test they could not ignore.
At one point Woody wondered if the waiting was but one last test. Had they left him alone only as a way to gauge him when he left in solitude? Woody smiled at the thought, as if he had just read the next question on a test. For once he knew the answer cold.
When the door slid open, Woody smiled. Perhaps he had just passed the last test. But then Dawn entered, and all the mundane thoughts departed. As he rose, she flowed into his arms and embraced him. But the loving smile had carried the mark of seriousness. Clearly the time was now.
Woody held her for a moment, tenderly and strongly. For her body seemed suddenly slight and susceptible. He let the strength of his own body flow into hers. Quietly he said, "It's time for me to leave?"
Her head leaned back while she looked first at his eyes, then his lips. She kissed him sweetly and enduringly on the lips and then answered, "Yes." Then she laid her head back against his chest.
For a moment they simply held each other. Woody knew it was temporary and the next move was his. Gently lifting her hair with his fingers, he asked, "Will you show me the way?"
Dawn increased her hug before releasing him. Smiling up at his gentle face, she answered, "But of course." Then she started to say something else, hesitated, and put it aside. Locking her arms within his, she led him out of the room.
They walked down the corridor and then through a portal Woody had never even noticed before. As they continued down the curving and random corridors, they came to numerous intersections. Dawn seemed to know her way without any thought, and they walked on without hesitation. They encountered only two others, but the meetings seemed to be nothing but chance and the only reaction by the others was one of curiosity.
Finally they came to a distinctive portal, clearly out of the ordinary. Standing outside the closed door, Dawn announced their presence. Slowly the panel slid open. Inside the door, the Caretaker leaned against a computer console, studying the video screen. For a moment he ignored both Dawn and Woody.
Woody glanced about the room. It was old. The signs and symbols of Riwan were everywhere, making the place appear almost holy. Only the console interrupted the thought. Woody looked at it for a moment. It was the first undisguised, blatant aspect of the Riwanian technology he had been allowed to witness, and without any thought of concealment. Interestingly enough, Woody found he was not all that curious about it. The value of things seemed to have different priorities as of late.
Slowly the Caretaker turned to look up at them. He smiled and said, "Welcome to Xlan." After a pause he continued, "The decision can no longer be avoided. It is time for you to leave the place of The Gods. What has been wronged must now be righted."
Woody stared intently into the eyes of the Caretaker. Quietly he said, "I'm ready."
The Caretaker smiled at the answer. "We would now ask for your most solemn and binding pledge never to reveal our existence or the secrets of Riwan." The last words momentarily choked the Caretaker, as he swallowed hard.
Woody took a deep breath, and replied solemnly, "You have my oath, my pledge, that I will never betray you." Dawn's arm reached around Woody's waist and hugged him. The Caretaker noticed the gesture, and added, "You realize of course, Dawn will remain with us forever, and you can never see her again."
Woody nodded, "Yes, I know."
The Caretaker gave a barely perceptible sigh of relief. He smiled, and with a motion of his hand, another panel opened and natural light flickered through the opening. The Caretaker bade him farewell, "Then go with the love of The Gods."
Dawn and Woody moved through the door and down a short cave like corridor. At the entrance, Woody saw woods and shrubs and sunlight. It was a reentry to the world of Riwan.
Just in the shadows, they stopped. Dawn turned slowly to him, her hands on his waist. Quietly and earnestly she said, "This is the wilderness which lays to the south west of your Intrepid. You need only walk straight ahead, between the rocks yonder, and the way will lead back to the market place. From there you can easily find your way to your ship.”
Woody nodded his head in understanding. Then he started to draw her to him for a last kiss when she glanced down and put her hand on his chest. For a long moment, she hesitated. Her eyes still on his chest, she added, "The Caretakers believe you are sincere in saying you will not tell others of your experience. Thus they have reluctantly agreed to release you."
Her voice hesitated as a tear began to form in her eyes. "But they also know that others may find ways to force you to divulge your secrets with or without your consent or knowledge. The Caretakers have no means to remove your memories of them without destroying your mind. Anything of that nature would be akin to murder. Thus there is no assurance our secrets will not become known to others, and thus destroy our world and its way."
"I understand Dawn. I would die before I would betray them."
Dawn shuddered, and continued resolutely on, "The Caretakers have taken some additional steps to ensure their security and that of their world." Lifting her face, she looked into his eyes. "The Caretakers have placed within your mind a means with which to monitor your words, what you would call a transceiver."
Woody smiled, having suspected the possibility during one of the intensive psycho scans. "Yes my darling. It's okay."
"But that's not all!" she blurted out. Looking again at his chest, she said, "They have also taken steps to prevent even the possibility of your betraying them!"
The thought of some sort of destruct device Woody would carry with him had already occurred to him. His inherent logic made the possibility a very real and understandable act. He had realized early on the Caretakers could hardly trust the survival of their world, their utopia, to the forced promise of an alien. But to Dawn, he only said, "I understand my love. There's no need to speak it."
Dawn looked intently into his eyes, trying to assure herself he truly knew. Not convinced, she said, "Should the secrets of our world be in jeopardy, I will have no choice but to prevent you from divulging them. That very act will be my last."
Woody finally was shocked. It had not occurred to him Dawn would be the one to stop him, to pull the trigger. He was momentarily staggered as his mind raced to cope with the logic. Dawn would be the one to make the decision and to execute it. And for her it would be the first step toward insanity and death. His actions would in fact determine both their fates. Any relinquishment of his vow would lead to death for both of them. There was no question Dawn would accept her duty. The Day of Renewal had already ensured that point.
For several moments they simply stood there. Woody embraced her, murmuring assurances. He knew he would prevent hurt to Dawn, no matter what happened.
As he held her, he regained his equilibrium. After a moment, he gently and lovingly kissed her. When they broke apart, he looked into her eyes for the last time. He then turned and walked away. His back to her, he struggled to maintain his bearing as long as she could see him. Finally, at the top of the crest, between two massive boulders, he turned and looked back. She still stood there, watching him, loving him with her eyes, but with no other gesture. In that moment Woody realized she was the most beautiful creation within the universe; she was in fact the very personification of love and beauty. With that last glance, he turned and walked away down the hill.
In the wilderness his thoughts ran rampant. For a time, the myriad impressions held sway, only to be slowly dissolved by the unassailable realities, ancient trees, and biennial flowers. He was besieged by the thoughts of what had transpired. His mind charged about, trying to see the dilemma from yet another point of view: A way out, a way to bear it, a way to find the strength. Because of Dawn, Woody realized he could find strength.
In the wilderness the healing process was rapid. Slowly but surely, the inevitability of his destiny came to him.
Shortly thereafter he found himself on the outskirts of the market place. Recognizing his surroundings, he began to think about his return. There would be a lot of questions; a lot of questions he would not want to answer. But he knew also they would give him time. There would be time enough.
His mind full of thoughts, he strolled almost casually along the pathways, always moving toward an objective, but never in a hurry. The Riwanians he passed seem to take his presence in stride, sometimes surprised, sometimes relatively unconcerned. It was as if they were watching from afar, interested but not a part of the story.
As he came into the clearing where the Intrepid had remained for the duration, Woody felt a smile coming on. The ship was truly beautiful and he was glad he was a part of it. He increased his pace to a clear distinctive gait, so anyone watching for his return would be impressed by his confidence and forthrightness.
Stevens burst out of the hatch before any of the others and ran to meet him. Without a word, she gave him a warm embrace and simply held him. Leaning back she said, "Hi Guy." For just a moment she swallowed. There was nothing else to say.
The others were much the same: all greatly relieved, full of questions, but equally willing to forego any debriefing. It was something akin to the return of the prodigal son -- despite the unavailability of the fatted calf. The Captain was immensely relieved and perhaps the happiest of them all. Naturally he showed it the least. And he fooled no one. The others knew beyond doubt Michaels was as content as humanly possible. Still the Intrepid's Commanding Office did the obvious thing and ordered a medical exam for Woody. If nothing else, it would give all of them time to adjust to Woody's return.
Shari Ryerson was totally professional throughout the exam, but belied the effort by her constant smile of happiness. Finally she pronounced him fit as a fiddle, and left to report to the Captain. Woody was mildly surprised she had found nothing out of the ordinary. But content nonetheless and again himself, he dismissed the concern.
When he arrived in Control, the others made a great pretense of being busy at their consoles. Woody could only smile, but then volunteered the cover story in some detail. He told them of the maze like innards below the temple complex, which he suspected might have been the original rooms of the priests. He told them of the priests, who would bring him food and other essentials, but who had refused to even talk to him. The days had gone very slowly for him, until finally they had come and without a word, escorted him out to a place in the wilderness. There they had pointed the way home, and left.
The questions of his listeners were subdued, caring a faint disappointment in his story. They managed a few questions about the temple and Woody's thoughts, but no one spoke about Dawn. Woody could only say the temple rooms had apparently not been used in years, and the 'captivity' had given him at long last the time to think.
Michaels had said nothing, merely watching Woody with a long careful gaze. Then, he said, "While you were with Shari, we had a visit from the local priest."
Woody turned, clearly taken aback. Hesitatingly, he asked, "Any problems?"
"Apparently not. The basic gist of the conversation was 'All is forgiven'. He did not, unfortunately, specifically state that “All is forgotten'. Nevertheless they told us we could continue to remain on Riwan and learn of their world."
"Really?" Woody was just a bit surprised. Then he thought perhaps 'The Gods' knew what they were doing in attempting to downgrade the significance of the past events. Michaels grimaced slightly. "He did add that any further intervention in their religion or internal affairs would have serious consequences. I gathered the Riwanians may still limit any future visits to small scale scientific expeditions. If we foul up, they may throw us off the planet permanently."
Woody looked at Michaels and felt the unspoken question. "I can't imagine any of us fouling up again."
"Good. We've still a serious potential problem. Earth is looking for trading partners, not just scientifically interesting cultures to study. We still need to try to gauge the possibilities of interstellar trade. We need to find what they need and what they can give us we can't get ourselves." For a moment he hesitated. "Start planning accordingly. We'll recommence our field trips within a couple of days."
When everyone had acknowledged the order, Michaels added, "Woody, I'd like to talk to you in my stateroom."
"Yes sir!" Together they left control.
Neither said anything until they were inside the Captain's stateroom and had closed the door. Woody thought momentarily that he had seldom been in this room. Michaels had a serious view of privacy. They talked for a bit, while Michaels carefully and gingerly probed and Woody in turn tried to reassure him everything was okay. Woody even recalled some very special past history of which only he and Michaels knew, as a means to reaffirm that Woody was still very much Woody and still in control of his actions and thoughts.
Michaels' concern was slowly replaced by a new sense Woody had in fact grown up. A feeling of peace came over the Commanding Officer, who began to see Woody as one who could now be accountable for himself. For a moment, Michaels felt the imaginary mantel of parenthood being lifted from his shoulders. His responsibilities as mentor had come to an end, a fact about which he was not sad. He even felt a momentary surge of pride in this man he would always silently acknowledge as his dearest friend. A chapter in their lives quietly closed.
Woody sat alone in the computer room, his hand moving gently over the console. It was a pleasant, peaceful time. When Thomas came into the room, she quietly sat in the chair next to Woody's. For a moment neither said anything.
Finally, Marie said, "I've been thinking a lot about your request."
"I've decided to go along with you."
Woody smiled. "Thank you Marie. I always knew you loved me.”
Marie smiled. "Interestingly enough, I’d have to agree with you on that point."
Woody blushed slightly. "You've always been an amazement to me, Marie. You are a woman among women."
"I know," she kidded. But then, "Let's get to it, shall we?"
Woody nodded and punched in the codes for the video tape of Dawn's Day of Renewal. When the screen told them no one else had yet viewed the tape, Marie explained, "I sort of forgot the code sequence marker. And no one else seemed interested enough to find the code by searching through the archives."
Woody smiled at Marie's obvious lie, and then punched in the instruction code to erase forever the entire sequence. Next he punched in his personal code as a command officer and verified his authority to erase the tape. There was a brief moment while the computer considered the unusual request. Then it asked for a second verification. With no hesitation, Marie punched in her own command verification and autographed it. The computer seemed content and promptly executed the joint command of two command officers.
Marie leaned back, a trifle breathless. "Well that's done."
"Funny thing about things that are done," Woody added, with just a hint of wisdom, "They're never really undone."
Marie looked at him, nodding. "Yes, I know."
Looking intently at her, Woody offered, "Inasmuch as this appears to be some sort of holiday, would you like to take a walk with me?" For a second Marie studied Woody for ulterior motives. When she said nothing, Woody upped the offer, "There's something I would very much like for you to see."
Marie smiled. For a moment she felt a sense of peace, perhaps even a new level of understanding concerning the minds of other humans. A surge of confidence swept her, as she replied that she'd be delighted to accompany Woody.
Outside the Intrepid, Rip was stretching. When he saw them, he greeted them, "Beautiful day, is it not?"
Marie was quick to answer. "Oh yes, very much. Woody and I were about to take a walk. Care to join us?" She then glanced up at Woody, who only smiled.
Rip answered, "Delighted. Are we going anywhere in particular?"
"Woody was going to show me something. I think it may be a surprise."
Rip smiled, his hand in one pocket fingering the knock out hypo he now routinely carried. "That sounds intriguing."
The two men, with Marie in the middle holding each of their arms, started off. As they walked, Woody held the conversation. He talked about Earth, about Riwan, about all the marvels of each. There was humor in his voice and words, and both Marie and Rip felt eased by his calm attitude.
Then Woody's voice became a shade more serious. "There is a complexity to our existence that sometimes obscures the true values. And it is so easy to become caught up in the pressing details and forget the long term."
"That might sound profound, if I hadn't heard it so much before," Rip answered.
Woody smiled. "Tell me, Rip. What would you do if a great monster suddenly reared its head directly in front of us?"
Rip grimaced. Then questioningly, "Draw my blaster?"
"Why not stop and go around it? Why confront it? Why not just avoid it?"
Rip smiled cynically. "Why not?"
"It's a bit like debriefings: A monster any one might want to avoid."
There was a momentary hush, as they continued to walk. Knowingly, Marie said, "I've always thought of my debriefings as degrading. It's as if they want a part of your mind for their own use. I would never object to avoiding a debriefing."
Rip, surprised at Marie's comment, hastily added, "Don't you think they're a necessary evil?"
Marie's reply was simple, "Definitely evil, but not necessarily… necessary. No, Rip. The only reason I put up with them is because they allow me to do all sorts of interesting things. When those interesting things no longer hold enough value to me to pay the price, I won't put up with debriefings any longer."
Rip looked from Marie to Woody, seeing a common bond between them. Marie's arms had both subtly shifted to Woody, making Moltz the outsider. There was a momentary silence, while Woody and Marie seemed to communicate on a different plane, and Rip tried vainly to understand. It was then he noticed they were approaching the temple. His adrenalin soared with apprehension, and then subsided slightly as he recalled the knock out hypo. Still he wondered.
As they reached the top of the hill overlooking the temple, the three stopped. The blue glow about the temple shimmered slightly. None of the three said a word, simply taking in the scene of the temple, its blue haze and the surrounding hills. Off to the left, Rip noticed the approach of a priest and several others. The priest was carrying something.
Quietly Woody turned and shook Rip's hand. "Good bye Rip. Tell the others I am sending my love." Rip involuntarily stepped back, stunned by the words. Bewildered and completely out of his depth, Rip could only stare at Woody's face. Then Woody turned back to Marie.
Gently he placed a kiss on her cheek. "Good bye, Marie. I love you."
Marie's face radiated with a new found gentleness. Tears came to her eyes, but she ignored them. Smiling with all her heart, she answered, "Good bye, Lover. I'll never forget you."
Woody grinned. "You'd better not!"
Marie laughed, and abruptly hugged Woody. Releasing him she stepped back; still smiling proudly at him.
Rip was aghast. "But you can't..."
Woody gently turned to him. "Sorry Rip, the lines of your authority don't extend this far. In the end I must answer to my own authority." To Marie, he added, "Explain it to the Captain, if you can. Be sure he knows that I still love him."
Marie continued to smile. "I will."
Still smiling, Woody turned from them and moved to greet the priest. As he approached, the priest unfurled his burden to reveal a robe. Woody was momentarily affected by the honor, but then turned, his eyes lowered, as the priest set the robe upon his shoulders. He never saw Marie's brave smile or Rip's stunned amazement. With the robe securely in place, Woody turned and joining the priest, began to walk slowly down the hill toward the temple. Riwanians began to appear on the crest of the hill, witnessing and singing.
As they approached, the blue glow of the force field slowly disappeared. As they neared the lower temple door, Woody hesitated. With a slight smile he casually skirted the door and began to climb the exterior steps of the temple. The priest was briefly surprised, but quickly fell into step with him. There was a momentary lull as the Riwanians exchanged surprised glances.
At the top, Woody glanced around at an alien world, his mind full of beauty and love. When the priest approached him with the chalice of poison, Woody hardly noticed him, thinking only of the chalice. Easily he took the cup and started to lift it to his lips.
Dawn's voice spoke in his mind. "Woody my love, there is no destruct implant."
Woody smiled. "I know." Then for a moment he felt an angry frustration and rage, directed at the fates that uncaringly ruled the universe. Tragedy was not beautiful, romantic or profound. It was crummy! He drank the poison from the chalice, and handed it back to the startled priest who had never had one speak at this time. The priest took the chalice and backed away, as Woody moved toward the altar. Feeling suddenly a dulled pain in his side, Woody quickly reached for the altar for support. The pain passed quickly and Woody laid down.
For a few moments more he thought about Dawn's words. He had known there could be no destruct implant. First, it was extremely unlikely for the range of any device to reach across interstellar distances. That much was clear. It had also crossed his mind that the Caretakers were unlikely to have a destruct device in stock. It would be inconsistent with people who could not take a human life. Clearly The Gods had preferred to leave the final decision up to Woody.
Quietly he spoke his last words, "Dawn, I do it as an act of love. Do not grieve. It is for my own happiness and peace." Abruptly a second sharp pain in his side shot through, but it too passed. Still he smiled, knowing the gift was proper.
As a mist descended upon his consciousness, the loving glow of Dawn's face was before him. With his last breath, he uttered her name. Then the flames rose up, separating him from the rest of the world.
The mist cleared slightly. An angelic face crystallized. Woody struggled for the word. "Dawn?"
The voice answered, "Hello there. Welcome home."
"Is this heaven?"
"Probably." She added, "Mostly Riwan. The underground, you know."
Dawn glanced up at the Caretaker for a moment. Turning back to Woody, she asked, "Can you share me?"
Woody thought for a moment, the mist still swirling about. He smiled bleakly, "Yes."
Dawn’s face lit up. "Good!"
Woody seemed to hear the voice of the Caretaker. "We may have overdosed him. Stay with him for now. It may be awhile before he's ready to rise. When he is, bring him to me. We have all got a great deal of planning and work to do. His input may be critical.”
After a subtle pause, the Caretaker added, "It is time for changing."
Copyright 1983, 1996, 2003 Dan Sewell Ward
Chapter Fifteen -- The Gods
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