Kyle does not want to leave his home behind, but he has no choice. He is assigned to a remote scientific outpost on the planet Tantalus where he meets Jim, the xenobiologist in charge of researching the indigenous species. Almost as soon as he arrives, though, strange things start happening. Things that could compromise Kyle's future, or even his life...
Jim pulled me out of the wreckage of our bunker, grunting with the effort, but even with his help I barely managed to scramble back to the surface. I nodded my silent thanks to him. I didn't have enough useful air in my lungs to actually talk.
The Furballs were milling all around us, urging me to hurry. I didn't know if it was because they sensed the urgency of our need or simply because they were scared of being out in the open. In any case, they climbed out of the hole like a furry tide and they started heading in the direction of the setting disk of the planet Argos. It had almost disappeared behind the horizon, a faintly-curving line of gold and deep maroon that could be seen among the ever-shifting clouds.
Without the friendly orange glow of the gas giant, the planet looked like a creepy, shadowed version of itself. The mossy plains that spread out in front of me had lost their welcoming green and copper tint to be lost in shades of black and gray, reminding me of a swamp.The fog that hung everywhere close to the surface appeared to drink in the little light that filtered down through the clouds from the faraway stars, leaving everything at ground level in almost complete darkness. The temperature had also decreased, becoming pleasant for me, but the Furballs found the cold disturbing.
The dark time, Tag said to me, channeling the thoughts of all the furry individuals around Jim and me. I received fleeting visions of dangerous creatures that stalked through the night, hunting Furballs. They were quick predators that could mimic the shadows, striking suddenly with razor-sharp talons.
I tried to send out reassurance to them, since I knew that because of the cycle of daylight from the system's star and the reflected light coming from Argos, the hours of darkness on Tantalus were very short. In less than three hours, the sun would rise again.
Tag sent me back confusion. He could not understand the meaning of my message, and I was having trouble concentrating.
"Have... to move..." Jim panted next to me. He reached out for my hand, grabbed it, and led me in the direction of the Temple.
I stumbled after three steps and fell down.
My head hit the ground hard and for a moment I lost my sense of direction. I tried to stand up, but the gravity of the planet was too strong. It had always been too strong. I suddenly wished I had a flat body and lots of short legs that would help me spread out my weight so I could move more efficiently through the moss. It was very soft, now that I thought about it. I moved my right hand slightly, marveling at the velvet texture underneath my fingertips. It was a wonder of evolution. So soft...
I heard Jim call my name but I knew I wouldn't be getting up again. He yanked me by the arm, struggled, and then I heard him fall down as well. I couldn't see him from where I lay and turning my head seemed like an enormous effort, not even worth making. I just wanted to sleep.
Furry shapes nudged me gently, radiating concern. They kept sending me images of the shining Temple, but I pushed them away. I was too tired. I couldn't move like they could. I only have two legs.
I started drifting in and out of consciousness. I felt fur underneath me and smiled. I had a sudden mental image of a flying carpet carrying me aloft in the wind, taking me to places no one else had seen before, and I closed my eyes with the smile still on my lips.
Pain. Blinding, searing pain.
Ahhhhhhhhh! I yelled, wordlessly because I couldn't open my mouth.
It was dark. I couldn't see. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe.
Jim. Where was he?
Where am I? I thought out, desperate. What's happening to me? What --
White-hot pain exploded in my chest, streaking out, pouring itself like acid across every nerve ending and pathway in my body. I cried out again, terrified, panicking.
The thought sliced right through the red-tinged madness of my pain. It was so sudden and so powerful that I stopped screaming in my mind.
Calm. Be calm, Kyle, Tag said, and through him, every Furball on the planet.
Something was different this time. Instead of simply being a thought, I could feel power behind their wish. There was something strong there, linking me even more deeply to their Mind than before.
I could not see, hear, or speak, but I could feel.
I was weightless. I wasn't hot, or cold. I could feel faint hints of motion against my skin, like waves underwater. A strong, rhythmic beating reminded me of sound recordings of babies inside the womb.
I suddenly felt peace.
I was still hurting -- in fact, the discomfort was spreading to my throat now, my nose, my mouth - but stronger than that was the message reaching out to me from millions of furry beings.
Calm. Be calm.
I regained consciousness later. I did not know how much time had passed, but I realized with a start that I was no longer in pain. And I could see.
I tried to move my head from side to side, but its motion was restricted. Before I could even think of panicking, though, I felt the mental support of the Furballs join my mind effortlessly. I sent back acknowledgment, and thanks. In return I received waves of happiness. They were glad I was still alive. They had known all I needed was a little help.
I wanted to ask more about that, but I suddenly saw bubbles streaking past my eyes. I followed them instinctively, and only then did I realize.
I was underwater.
I was floating somewhere, surrounded by an almost colorless liquid, which was the reason I felt weightless. Cautiously, I tried moving my legs. They responded, although their motion was somewhat limited, just like with my head. I attempted to reach down and feel what was holding me tight, and I felt the motion of my arms underwater until hidden restraints limited that as well.
Set me free. I thought.
"Genetic reconstitution has not been completed yet. Tissue regeneration requires additional time."
I cried out in shock at hearing that voice, but all I succeeded in doing was disturbing the liquid's transparency. The voice had sounded artificial, like a badly-calibrated text to speech generator, but it had spoken.
Let me out, I said in my mind. Let me OUT!
"Unable to comply at the moment."
I looked around wildly, trying to see beyond the liquid. There was a surface in front of me, dull gray, but I had no frame of reference and I couldn't tell how far away it was. I lifted my arms as high up as they would go, twisting them, and by doing so I caught a glimpse of something resembling a metallic frame attached to my skin, crisscrossed by tubes, strong and almost unyielding.
What's happening? Tag, talk to me!
We help, Tag thought back, slightly anxious now. He couldn't understand why I was scared all of a sudden.
Where? Where am I? Where's Jim?
As before, I received images of the Temple as an answer. It wasn't enough, and I very nearly lost my temper to shout at the dumb little creatures, but caught myself just in time. They were doing their very best to answer my question, but concepts of individual location were alien to them. I could feel it.
With an effort of will, I calmed down and did my best to project images of Jim and myself superimposed on the Temple, while also linking them with an interrogative statement. It was very complicated, because I had to keep it as simple as possible so that the creatures would understand.
It took time and many nonsensical images, but then I remembered that the last thought I'd had before falling unconscious. A flying carpet, taking me away.
Yes! Tag answered me promptly.
He was very pleased with himself, and I followed the emotion to its source. I received memories from several Furballs, who had joined together to form a living stretcher that carried both Jim and me from where we had fallen down on the planet's surface.
They had hurried, taking us to their Temple. As they shared their memories with me, I was able to relive their sense of urgency, and their fear at seeing much of their shining place of healing destroyed, surrounded by burned debris. Once, something large had flown screaming across the sky, and the Furballs had hunkered down, trembling, fearing more fire and noise and death.
They had taken us through a secret underground entrance, one they almost never used because it was too large.
Those who'd once had names used this entrance. They were long gone, but their glow remained.
I saw how the Furballs had carried us in, straight to a special place they did not really understand but which I could clearly see was a sort of medical bay.
They had put us inside two identical metal pods. At first nothing had happened, but very slowly warm yellow lines of light had lit up along the walls, across the ceiling, and on our pods. Ancient mechanisms had been reactivated, answering the mental plea of the furry creatures. Glass hatches had deployed, sealing us in. Then the Furballs had waited, for many days as they counted time.
They tried to send me reassurance, but when I asked for a mental image of Jim and myself as they could see us now, they hesitated. I looked around as best as I could, trying to establish eye contact with one of them, but either I was too high up above the floor or the creatures were hiding from me.
Show me, I insisted. Show me what you see.
More hesitation. I did not want to threaten them, but it was taking every ounce of self-control I had not to lose my mind and panic. Something was being done to me, and to Jim, and I didn't understand what it was.
Fear. Cautious hesitation.
SHOW me! Tag, what the hell are you doing to me?
SHOW. ME. Now.
I scared them. They were not used to violence or anger and the strength of my mental order forced them to immediately comply.
They sent me their images. First I saw how the floor underneath the alien medical bay was all but covered in Furballs, diligently standing watch over the two of us as the machines of the elder creatures helped us. Individual Furballs only left when forced to go out and feed, but there were always new individuals coming in to keep watch. We were special to them. They wanted us to be safe.
I pushed of those images aside and demanded to look at us.
I felt how every single individual in the room stood up as high as its stubby legs allowed it to. Hundreds of little eyes fixed themselves on me and on Jim, who was in a pod of his own to my right.
First I saw the two alien structures encasing us, contraptions of metal and glass that were flowing and elegant, crisscrossed by glowing lines of deepest yellow. I could feel the energy thrumming through the machines as I shared in a sense that the Furballs had for which I didn't have a name. They could sense energy, they were drawn to it. Here, in the remnants of this ancient Temple, energy had been stored a very long time ago. There was energy for healing. Energy for helping.
Energy for fighting.
I followed the dizzying array of perspectives that was 360 degrees of vision at the same time and saw the pods from the front and the back and the sides at the same time. Gently, I directed the gaze of the Furballs up, until I saw my legs and Jim's. We were each floating vertically in our pods, naked. A complicated array of metal and tubing covered us from the feet up, pulsating, each tube filled with red-tinged fluids. An occasional cluster of bubbles would rise from the bottom of the pod, to be lost up...
I made the Furballs lift their eyes even more still. It was hard for them, but it was more than that. There was something they did not want me to see. I pressed past their resistance, anxious now, and saw more metal and plastic encasing our lower bodies, our hands and arms, our--
I screamed. Even though my mouth and nose were completely covered by a mask with tubes going up my nostrils and down my throat, I screamed. I thrashed about in the confines of my liquid prison, fighting madly to break free, to get out, to just GO!
Straps tightened. Metal clasps closed down even tighter. I could not move now, could not speak, could only stare in horror, sharing the vision that the Furballs were showing me of Jim and myself.
My chest was gone. Gone.
I could see my spinal column, could see bones and organs pulsating within, but there was no skin, no flesh, and where my lungs had been there was now an intricate array of an incredibly fine-spun mesh of what looked like transparent, hair-thin glass strands through which bright pulses of yellow light crisscrossed each other at regular intervals, like electrical impulses traveling through neuron pathways. The mesh was shaped like a model of my own lungs, and I saw it contract and expand at the same time as I could see my heart beating wildly just behind where my left lung had been.
I did not want to look, but I couldn't escape 360 degrees of awareness.
Jim was the same as me. Everything looked normal except his chest. His eyes were closed, though, and I found myself being silently thankful. He did not know. Not yet.
What are you doing to me? I asked Tag. I would have cried if I had been able to. I was trapped in a nightmare. Why are you doing this?
I felt confusion spread through the Furballs, regret, and for the first time doubt. They were sharing all my emotions and now they were scared.
Help? Tag offered faintly.
I tried moving again. I wanted to break free. But then I saw how I looked as I tried moving, how the organs in my chest shifted to compensate for the motion, and I panicked. I started screaming, with my mind because it was the only thing I could do, and I felt the Furballs recoil from the mental onslaught.
"Adrenaline levels unacceptable," the mechanized voice said suddenly. "Administering sedative."
I saw a needle come closer from the corner of my eye, deploying itself like the stinger of a scorpion, approaching the ruin of my chest.