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...
Chapter 14. Confrontation
Rocks snapped and delicate glowing ornaments crumbled under the savage onslaught of the surface Destroyer. I recognized the model. It was a P-13, a planetary assault weapon suit reserved for action in the most hostile environments. Its destructive capability was unparalleled, and there was no pilot inside the transparent canopy that housed the robot's high-definition visual sensors. Its exterior was a burnished shade of dull gray, a titanium-derived alloy that was nearly indestructible. Its four legs were thick and many-jointed, moving smoothly, and they kicked aside piles of rubble with barely a hitch in their mechanism. I knew the military had designed the vehicle so terrain would be of no consequence to it. It could jump, crouch, or merely speed forward like a predator bounding after its prey.
Joining the upper limbs to the legs was a large boulder-like body that was bristling with weaponry. I saw laser drills, surface-to-air missiles, EMP shockwave blasters and even spinning blades of wicked sharpness. The jagged irregularities along the body made it seem like it had been constructed at random, but I knew that its shape had been carefully calculated to maximize its effectiveness as well as the robot's defensive capabilities. It could retract all four of its legs into its main shell and become a monolithic rolling projectile that could tumble down the steepest mountain with no damage to itself.
The ceiling of the healing chamber shuddered when the Destroyer's front legs broke through, deploying sharp claw like pincers to grab onto the rock and stabilize itself. I saw the transparent canopy at the very top of the machine swiveling, scanning.
Then it saw us. It jumped down into the chamber.
"Look out!" Jim shouted, pulling me away from the robot. The Furballs surrounding us tried to escape, but some weren't fast enough. They were crushed under metallic legs, and a cry of pain escaped my lips.
"It's killing them!" I cried, barely able to keep moving.
"I know," Jim said from between gritted teeth. A quick glance in his direction told that he was feeling just as much pain as I was, but he was trying to remain strong in spite of it. From his mind, I clearly caught the imprint of every emotion coursing through it. He was afraid, but not for himself.
He was afraid for me.
We reached a dead end. A blank, featureless wall stretched out before us, boxing us in.
"Over here!" I yelled, gesturing to strengthen the mental summons to all the Furballs that were milling about the floor, scared and helpless.
Kyle! Tag answered, and I felt his desperate query. He didn't know what was happening, couldn't understand that a place of the old ones, which had stood for thousands of life-memories, was suddenly being destroyed.
"Come here!" Jim echoed me, adding his voice to mine. Between the two of us, we were able to break through the dark wall of fear that was confusing the individual aliens and they meshed together once again, responding by turning as one creature and heading to our end of the chamber. Squat, furry shapes scooted out of the way of the wicked slicing legs of our mechanical enemy.
"Which way is out?" I asked them quickly, looking everywhere with my eyes.
I received dozens of images from many different perspectives showing me a system of narrow gaps set at floor level, all of them barely big enough for a single Furball.
Just a few meters away, the robot brought its main laser array to bear on Jim and me. Sunlight glinted off its frame, and suspended particles of dust floated softly between us in the wake of its destruction.
"Isn't there a door?" Jim asked them, projecting mental images of opening doorways.
Confusion. The greater Mind received the concept and struggled with it for a few precious moments.
Door! Tag answered me triumphantly, as the word was matched to their memory of a shining doorway which had opened to allow Jim and myself through when the Furballs had brought us in, unconscious.
Yes! I agreed fiercely, and all of the aliens did a little satisfied wiggle.
I heard the low hum that signaled the warm-up of the Destroyer's lasers. Then it fired.
It swiveled its irregular body around a wide arc, trailing a bright line of deep red that sliced through rock and a cluster of five Furballs that were crouching the furthest away from us.
NO! I yelled in my mind, and I felt my legs give away. The squeals of the surviving aliens brought tears to my eyes. They were terrified now. Something was bringing death on them, and it wasn't a predator. It wasn't anything they could comprehend.
Their Mind tried to suppress it, but deeper, darker memories started to surface. They were memories of a dark time that had lasted for generations of Furball-lives. A time that had meant the end of the glowing creatures with names.
"Focus!" Jim shouted beside me, and despite my own horror I was drawn to the strength of his mental command. Furballs all around us stopped squealing. "Go through the doorways and open the big one for us. Understood? Open the door for us!" GO! he added mentally, and the little creatures obeyed.
They quickly scampered out of sight, but the Destroyer sensed it and launched itself like a ravenous beast upon the nearest furry shape, killing it instantly.
My friends kept going. The robot swiveled and jumped in a different direction, crashing against a nearby wall, but the aliens were very fast when they wanted to be and by the time the machine had managed to re-stabilize itself in the center of the room, it was alone with us.
I saw how the Destroyer brought its surface-to-air missiles online, but it didn't fire. Instead it approached us with heavy footsteps and stopped just a couple steps away.
"Don't worry, Kyle," Jim said next to me, reaching for my hand without taking his eyes off the robot. "These machines are hardcoded not to attack humans. Cluster law."
I nodded uneasily. The dust in the room was settling now, and everything was a play of blazing sunlight and threatening shadows. In the midst of it, like a statue come to life, was the Destroyer sent from another world.
It stared at us with its cold, calculating sensors for nearly a minute.
Then the Destroyer spoke.
"Doctor O'Brien," a feminine voice greeted Jim. It sounded clear, with no distortion whatsoever. It was almost as if she had materialized in the room. "What a pleasure to find you still alive. Along with your gifted apprentice."
"Go away," I said. I recognized her now. The Planetary Government Commander.
The robot swiveled with a mechanical whirr and focused on me. "Our test subject speaks," she said. "It's nice to talk to you directly, Kyle. I had no idea you would prove to be so resourceful when I instructed Doctor O'Brien here to keep an eye on you."
"Leave," I repeated. "Now."
"You are not in a position to make demands, young man. In fact, it is you who should be obeying me. I have transmitted your position to our surface troops and they will be converging on your coordinates shortly. Until then, step aside."
"I don't think so," Jim said. He took a bold step in the direction of the robot and stared it down defiantly. "This is an archaeological research site. Planetary Statute 198-TA strictly prohibits the destruction of any ruins or remnants of historical significance. This entire Temple is protected and your presence here is a breach of the law."
The Commander laughed. "What a speech. You are forgetting, however, that the law which you are quoting is rescinded in case of extraordinary circumstances, such as discovering that one of these sites is in fact dangerous, justifying use of military force."
"The Furballs have done nothing to you!" I broke in, unable to keep quiet.
"They have destroyed a terraformer, and threatened the bombarder drones that we sent, with their beam weapons. That is more than enough reason to destroy these sites."
"We have just begun to try and understand them," Jim intervened. "We cannot destroy them, simply out of fear."
Destroy? Tag asked me, confused. The Furballs were listening in on the conversation, but they couldn't understand the details. They were simply scared.
"I'm afraid the time for debate is past," the Commander answered. "Armed troops have landed all across the planet's surface as part of our concerted attempt to disable all threats at the same time."
Unbidden, an image came to my mind. Dozens of dropships unloading soldiers on a hostile world, like I would sometimes see in movies.
The Furballs received the image and I immediately received alarm as a response.
The robot beeped loudly.
"It appears someone has established a mind link," the Commander commented. "We can't have that."
The Destroyer took a menacing step forward.
Then it shot a missile at us.
"Kyle, look out!" Jim shouted, and jumped back to shield me from the blast.
He wasn't fast enough.
The battered walls of the Temple glowed bright yellow an instant before impact.
Then it hit.
I heard something like a chorus of voices in my mind at the same moment that the missile exploded so close to Jim and me that I could have reached out and touched the billowing flames that appeared to engulf my entire reality. I was aware of Jim holding me fiercely, but the heat and the shockwave never reached us. Something was shimmering in the air around us, a translucent mesh of soft yellow that glittered, faded, and disappeared.
Smoke and flame.
They reached us at the same time, but I was already moving, dragging Jim along with me. I had spotted an opening and rushed towards it before I could chicken out. More sections of the ceiling crumbled and fell down, but I stayed clear of those and only felt their dull shuddering impacts against the floor.
Help us! I all but shouted at the Furballs, but where before I had felt a sharp response now there was only exhaustion.
"I think we're on our own now," Jim told me, face grim.
The Destroyer turned around yet again, swiveling easily along its own axis.
"Interesting," the Commander said, almost as if she were commenting about the weather. "We didn't know their beam weapons could also form force fields. Another reason to destroy them, and their bases."
"You shot at us!" I shouted, looking at the blackened hole that the missile impact had left behind. "That's illegal!"
"Why?" Jim added, as if unable to believe that it had happened.
I could understand his confusion. Nothing was more taboo in our society than violence against other people. It didn't matter that we were from different worlds. Every planet had been affected by the Cluster Wars, and after that things changed. New laws were enacted to ensure that such a thing could never happen again. Every single person was psychologically screened regularly and given counselling when appropriate. Reactions to public violence were swift and brutal, like my expulsion from college simply for a fistfight. What the Commander was doing was unthinkable. She had actually tried to kill us in cold blood.
"Allow me to correct you yet again," she said, bringing her machine closer to us. "It is illegal to attack humans, yes, but according to my sensor readings you are not strictly humans anymore."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked, but Jim's thought arrowed into my mind.
He sent me an image of myself as he could see me now, an alien jewel in my chest glowing softly.
Breathing the air of another planet.
"It doesn't have to be like this," Jim said to the Commander, his tone surprisingly calm. "I assume nobody else is monitoring this data stream."
"That changes nothing," the Commander answered.
Jim nodded. "We can help you. Both Kyle and I are linked to the communal mind of the Furballs. We can talk to them, act as ambassadors. We can get them to agree never to use their weapons again."
There was a long, drawn out silence that led me to believe there might be hope. It was shattered when the Commander next spoke.
"They have too much power. Even if the aliens agree never to use it, there will be people who will come and try to steal the technology. You don't understand, do you? Of course not. What could a scientist from a backwater world and a rebel teenager understand of what it's really like out there?"
"Tell us," Jim said evenly. At the same time, he sent a signal to the Furballs, reinforcing our call for help. He was stalling for time, getting the exhausted aliens to focus once again on opening a door so we could escape.
Servo mechanisms whirled in two of the Destroyer's legs and revealed twin Gatling guns that aimed right at us.
"Have you ever heard of Pirates?" she asked the two of us.
"They're a myth," I answered quickly. Rumors that bands of rogue spacecraft patrolled the outer fringes of the habitable zone were stuff for tabloids at best.
The Commander chuckled. "You see. You are blissfully ignorant. Pirates are very real, boy. They are a threat which keeps growing despite our best attempts, feeding off mining shipments, selling spoils in the black market. Space is very big, despite the fact that our technology makes it seem small. We simply do not have enough ships to patrol every planet, every asteroid, and every passing comet for traces of pirate activity. They are out there, growing in number and power. I do not kid myself. Eventually, they will make a move and attack one of the worlds. Once they do...
"A planet like this one is a huge liability. It's enormous, and temples are scattered everywhere. Once news of the technology these aliens hold spreads, Pirates will come. They will attempt to steal it, and if they are successful millions will suffer. We simply cannot take the chance."
"This is not the way," Jim argued. "We can learn from these creatures. We can share, and grow together."
In the back of my mind, I could sense Furballs gathering around the exit door. Something was interfering with the mechanism and they were having trouble opening it. Tiny claws were digging into the dirt, attempting to sift debris.
"You don't understand," the Commander answered, and I could hear her contempt even through the robot's speakers. "Civilians like you lead a sheltered life because of us. Generations of people have made sacrifices just so entitled, ungrateful people can preach about peace and understanding. But the reality of the worlds is vastly different. I am the commanding officer of this detachment. The decision is mine, and it has been made. Don't worry. I'll make sure the obituaries do not show the hideous transformation the aliens subjected you to in order to become like them. Your families will remember your as true human beings, not the monsters you have become."
A door behind us opened.