"Are we there yet?" Andrew Pierson asked the age-old question in a whiny falsetto, drawing the hoped-for chuckle from his brother.
My so-called brother, he reminded himself.
Adam seemed to take the question seriously. He paused and looked around. "Pretty close."
Andrew grunted. "That's good," he said in his normal voice. "I'm sick of hearing whether landmarks do or don't look the same as when you were here last. Whenever that was."
Adam didn't respond by telling him when it had been. But Andrew hadn't really thought he would.
Whenever it was, he was sure his close-mouthed "brother" hadn't been alone. Someone must have known the GPS coordinates of the site he was looking for! Adam's not having been able to contact that "someone," and get the information he needed, suggested that the person was dead.
Adam set off again, striding purposefully along the dusty country road. Sighing, Andrew fell into step beside him. "Look, I'll admit this has been a scenic hike. But I know there are more impressive places, even here on Earth. The Grand Canyon -"
"Stuff the Grand Canyon."
"And you took me away from a major dig on Hathor. I'm willing to bet that's where we'll finally find traces of other sentients. Hell, my team may have uncovered something while I was traipsing back here with you!"
"I know you're in love with the frontier," Adam said mildly. "Keen to find alien life. But believe me, we still don't fully understand this world and its life forms. Not by a long shot."
Andrew pondered that in silence. If you're really an Earth life form, bro, I guess that's true.
Older brother Adam was the only family Andrew had ever known. The younger Pierson had grown up in a succession of boarding schools, on a half-dozen planets. Adam had paid the bills, and dropped in frequently to chat with him and check on his progress. He'd been attentive, even loving. But he'd also been, and still was, an enigma.
Andrew had a good memory. He knew that in twenty-odd standard years, Adam had never mentioned an illness or injury.
More significantly, he hadn't aged a day.
And Andrew was sure they weren't related. They were close to the same height, and both appeared to be of unmixed Caucasian ancestry - something of a rarity. But otherwise, there was no resemblance.
He covertly studied the other man as they walked. What in blazes are you? Alien? Android? Angel?
And what's your interest in me?
We look the same age now, for God's sake. Do you plan to keep up the "older brother" act till I look like your father?
He'd tried, many times, to ask what was going on. But Adam had stonewalled - insisted he did age, and Andrew simply didn't remember how different he'd looked when they were younger.
Andrew had fantasized about being told some incredible secret on his eighteenth birthday.
Or his twenty-first.
Or his twenty-fifth.
By now he'd just about given up. If you're planning to spring some surprise on me here on Earth, I hope you won't keep me tramping over hill and dale till I turn thirty.
Adam stopped to look at an obviously old church, then veered off the road into a meadow.
Andrew gamely followed him. "What are we looking for, anyway? I know my Earth History. Nothing important happened around here - no major battles, no treaty signings."
Adam smirked. "I'm sure things happened that were important to the locals."
"Okay, I'll grant you that." Andrew was struck by a new idea. "Were you born near here?"
"Nope. At least I don't think so. I don't remember being born, do you?"
A half hour later, Adam came to a halt under a giant oak. "I think this is the spot I want. As best I can judge."
He sounded so serious that Andrew decided not to tease him. "I'm glad you found it. Now are you going to tell me why it's important?"
"Yes," Adam said solemnly. "I have a lot to tell you. But first...I think we need our lunch."
They dug into their provisions, Andrew so keyed up that he barely tasted what he was eating. He suspected that all he'd remember of it later was the beer. He shared Adam's opinion that Earth produced the best beer in the Spiral Arm.
At last Adam settled back, leaning against the tree trunk. He was still toying with his third beer flask as he said, "You're bright enough to have known for a long time that I'm...different. Older than I look. And I'm not your brother."
Andrew gulped. Even now, having that out in the open was a shock. He heard himself blurt out, "Are you human?"
Adam didn't seem fazed by the question. "Human? Yes, I think so. But I've lived for thousands of years, I and others like me. I've used many names - Adam Pierson is one of my favorites. But the earliest I remember is Methos."
When he fell silent two hours later, Andrew's heart was racing.
God in heaven, Immortals!
An ancient, mysterious race. All of them foundlings, all of them sterile. After their first death - always the result of accident or violence, because nothing else could kill them - they stopped aging, and injuries healed super-quickly. They could only be killed permanently by beheading.
Those lucky enough to find teachers became expert swordsmen. In the modern era, they had to master laser weapons as well.
Quickenings. The Game. The prophecy of the Gathering: "In the end, there can be only one." The ever-elusive Prize.
All of them foundlings.
I've never had any kin but Adam!
He closed his eyes. In his imagination, undreamed-of vistas opened before him. Hundreds, thousands of years to travel, explore, seek out the secrets of the universe! With Adam at his side. For surely they were brothers, in a much more real sense than the physical.
He opened his eyes to find the older man watching him, a quizzical smile on his lips.
"I think I know the rest of it," Andrew said, in a voice that trembled only slightly. "I'm one of those pre-Immortals you mentioned. You spotted me somewhere when I was a toddler, right? Sensed me. So you decided to adopt me."
"Uh, no." Adam's expression was unreadable. "There's something I haven't told you yet.
"The Gathering has already taken place. It's all over. I won."
Andrew felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut. Worse, he knew his face was scarlet.
"Oh." Trying to cover his embarrassment, he asked quickly, "What was the Prize?"
Adam grimaced. "There had been rumors, guesses. I was afraid it might be something I wouldn't want. So I tried for centuries to avoid other Immortals, to keep from being the last. But when there were only two of us left, the other guy hunted me down, and it was kill or be killed."
He gave a faint shudder. "It's possible there should have been more to the Prize. Maybe it didn't turn out as intended because some Immortals had been beheaded by mortals, and their Quickenings were lost.
"Whether or not there should have been more, all I got was...what I'd been most afraid of. I became mortal."
Andrew almost choked. "Wh-what? You mean...that's ridiculous! That was supposed to be a Prize?"
Adam said in a bemused voice, "There were Immortals who would have welcomed it. But I've never understood anyone's wanting to die. To me, it was the Booby Prize."
Andrew was still trying to process what he'd heard. "Your injuries stopped healing quickly? And that was how you knew you'd begun aging, too?"
"Th-this must have been recent." Peering intently at the older man, Andrew saw no change in the face he remembered from his childhood.
"Yes, it was."
After a few moments Andrew said softly, "So I'm just a kid you adopted when you were Immortal, because you couldn't have children of your own. I'm grateful for that.
"Now we'll be growing old together. But maybe you'll find you can father children now, and I'll have some too, and we can raise them as cousins -"
"Whoa," Adam said with an affectionate smile. "You're getting ahead of yourself.
"I may never have had children, but I've had wonderful friends. I want you to know something about them. My best friends. I picnicked with them once, long ago, on what I think was this very spot."
He pulled a miniature holo-projector from his pocket, fiddled with the dial, then pointed it at a nearby clearing and switched it on.
Andrew had seen thousands of holovids, but this one elicited a gasp.
Adam had set it to display still, if three-dimensional, images. "I could replay the whole picnic, of course," he said quietly. "But it would give me the creeps, when they're long dead. There was something to be said for the old two-dimensional movies - they weren't too lifelike."
Andrew stared at the three men in the clearing.
He tried to tell himself the vid only shocked him because it showed Adam, looking exactly as he did now, dressed in the style of five hundred years ago.
Of course that's all it is.
I can't be seeing...what I think I'm seeing.
But he knew he was.
"You see the young-looking one?" Adam asked. "The kid with the strawberry-blond curls?"
"Yes." Andrew managed a weak grin. So Adam was going to play with him, stretch this out. That's okay. I've waited all these years to learn the truth. Let him tell me any way he wants.
"His name was Richie Ryan," Adam said fondly. "He became Immortal at nineteen, and he always had a wonderful ability to make himself look that age or much older. Here you see him with a plump face, and those curls. Nineteen, right? But when he wanted to, he could lose some weight, cut the hair short, darken it. And you'd swear he was thirty.
"When he really was in his teens, he raced motorcycles. So you can guess about when he was born. Later, he raced starships. Dead four hundred years, and he still holds every speed record there is! Under several different names, but they were all Richie."
Interested in spite of himself, Andrew asked, "Do you know how he died?" He wondered whether Immortals had avenged their friends.
He believed in friendship. But he felt a little queasy when he tried to picture Adam - or the third man in the vid - killing the one who'd taken Richie's head.
"Yes. And I think it was what he would have wanted," Adam said soberly. "He went off to fight in a war - colonists on Cydonia were rebelling against a tyrannical government. It was a fight for freedom, appealed to a lot of young and not so young idealists. Richie was one of many who died - a laser gun sliced his head off. But the good guys won."
"So he was killed by a mortal? His was one of the Quickenings that were lost?"
"Yes," Adam acknowledged. "That was unfortunate. But he'd often said he'd rather die for a cause than be beaten in some meaningless swordfight."
Andrew nodded. "I think I'd feel that way, too. Did you and your other friend fight in that war?"
Adam's lip curled in a mirthless smile. "No. I've never been known as an idealist. I was a gun runner, smuggling arms to the rebels.
"Funny thing is, I probably did more than Richie to influence the outcome. But I did it without risking my neck, and made a tidy profit to boot.
"I didn't feel particularly good about myself."
Andrew nodded thoughtfully. "And...?"
"Duncan MacLeod? He'd sworn off war before Richie was even born. But he was there, as a medic. Placed himself in just as much danger as the combatants. He wasn't close enough to receive Richie's Quickening - that would have been too much of a coincidence. But he did find and bury him."
"Duncan MacLeod," Andrew murmured. He gazed at the handsome, dark-haired man who looked so vibrantly alive. "Was he born in Scotland?"
"Yes." Seeming to weigh his words carefully, Adam said, "He was probably the best and noblest of all the Immortals."
"So how did he die?" Andrew couldn't shake the disloyal thought, Why were you the last survivor?
Adam looked away from the cheery tableau in the clearing. "It was over two hundred years ago. MacLeod and I were living on Grenoble, teaching at a university.
"A friend had been visiting, and we saw him off at the spaceport. We could have headed straight back to the city, but we chose to have dinner in a spaceport restaurant. One of those trivial decisions that change everything...
"We were still there when a starship preparing for launch burst into flames. With a hundred people aboard. We ran to try to rescue them - I don't know if I pitched in and did the right thing that time because of MacLeod's example, or because I was remembering Richie.
"We were badly burned, but we knew that couldn't hurt us permanently. W-we dragged dozens of injured victims off the ship -" His voice broke.
He cleared his throat and took a long swig of beer. The hands that gripped the flask were shaking. "Th-then the damn thing blew up," he continued hoarsely. "I was off it, but in so much pain that I didn't know where I was - or where anyone else was.
"MacLeod was still on board." Another swig of beer. "I didn't know he'd been...blown to bits...till I was hit by his Quickening."
Andrew could say only, "Shit."
When they'd had more beer, he mused, "That must have been hell for you. But he died a hero, and you have his Quickening. How in God's name did you get away, after taking it in such a public place?"
"Just vanished amid the confusion. I was seen, even caught on newsvids. But I'd been burned beyond recognition."
The sun was low in the autumn sky. By now they could barely make out the faces of Duncan MacLeod and Richie Ryan, frolicking in the clearing with a younger Adam.
"All right," Andrew said at last. "Tell me how you did it."
Adam didn't have to ask what he meant. "I just wanted a memento of MacLeod after his death. He wore his hair long at the time, like you see it in the vid... I let myself into his living quarters and took one of his silver hair-clasps. I didn't even realize some hairs were caught in it."
"And centuries later," Andrew said slowly, "you found that you'd become mortal. Because there were no other living Immortals. So you solved your problem by using those hairs to create a clone of Duncan MacLeod."
"Guilty as charged. It happened thirty years ago - just an eyeblink, for me. I wasn't sure the cloning would work, or that you'd be a pre-Immortal. But you are. And I became Immortal again as soon as you came out of the womb. An artificial womb, of course."
"Of course." Andrew wasn't troubled by the thought of cloning. Many of his colleagues on Hathor were clones. But it had never occurred to him that he might be, because he clearly wasn't a clone of Adam.
"Why MacLeod and not yourself?" he asked. "Couldn't you have found a sample of your own DNA from before you became mortal?"
Adam made a face. "As a matter of fact, I couldn't. After the monster Quickening when I killed my last opponent, I had to flee the planet. I was able to grab a few belongings. But I didn't realize what had happened to me, and I thought my journals were more important than my soiled underwear." Then he smiled. "I think, though, I would have chosen to clone MacLeod anyway. He was a nicer person. I missed him."
Moments later he seemed to realize that required amplification. "Andrew, I don't expect you to be Duncan MacLeod! Or replace him. You're an identical twin, that's all. I didn't even name you for him."
"No," Andrew replied with a smile. "Just for the patron saint of this land we're in. This Scotland."
Adam chuckled. "I wondered if you'd realize that."
After another companionable silence, Andrew said, "This place isn't just a picnic site, is it? You wouldn't have remembered it for centuries unless it meant more than that.
"The place is important. And the date. You practically dragged me to Earth so you could share the secret with me here, at this time. But it's not my birthday. So what is it?"
"You pointed out that there were no major battles near here," Adam said quietly. "And you were right.
"But there was a foolish squabble between two Highland clans, in which the young Duncan MacLeod took a fatal wound. It was here, in a hut on this site, that he died as a mortal and was born into his Immortality.
"Three thousand years ago today."
Andrew sucked in a deep breath. He closed his eyes, and had the eerie sensation that only a tissue-thin veil separated him from that hut, that dying man who had been his twin.
With total certainty, he said, "There's something more you're not telling me."
He opened his eyes to see Adam nodding. "Yes. I had your birth timed. So I could bring you here on the three thousandth anniversary of MacLeod's first death, and you'd be the exact age he was. Within three months of your thirtieth birthday."
Then he saw the blaster in Adam's hand.
"You're going to kill me," he said calmly.
But this time he was wrong. "No, of course not! I thought you might want to make the transition here, on this anniversary, and I brought the blaster for you. If you want to use it."
Andrew held out his hand, and felt the cool weight of the gun slip into it. He aimed it at his heart. He didn't need to be told that with a weapon this powerful, a shot to the temple might take his head off.
Then he gazed out into the clearing, at those spectral picnickers. At the man who'd been born and slain in the Highlands, Duncan MacLeod.
He lowered the blaster and tucked it into a pocket.
"You don't want to become a full Immortal?" Adam sounded not so much disappointed as surprised. Uncomprehending.
"Not here, not now," Andrew told him gently. "This is his place, MacLeod's. And his anniversary. It must have been a dark day, the most terrifying he'd ever known.
"As you told me, I'm not MacLeod. I will make myself Immortal, Adam, and I hope you'll be with me when I do it. But I want it to be on my world. The one I've made mine, at least for now. Hathor. In the spring."
He felt tears well in his eyes, and let them come.
Then he saw that he wasn't the only one who was crying.
He pulled his brother into his arms.
"Thanks to you," he vowed, "that will be a day of celebration. A day when I'll embrace the future, with no fear and no regrets."
He heard the projector click off as Adam whispered, "So will I."