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 15. Spire
Jim and I held on tight to each other’s hands as we sprinted away through the ancient dimly-lit corridor. Furballs were ahead of us, urging us forward with high-pitched keening and its mental equivalent. I tried to ask the aliens where we were going, but only received an echo of the earlier exhaustion I had felt. The greater Mind had done too much too soon and it was having trouble recovering. All I could glean in exchange for my question was an image which made no sense. It was a sphere hovering in the air, featureless and soundless.
From behind us came the sudden roar of thrusters being brought online and the entire structure around us shuddered under a colossal impact.
The Destroyer will break through any minute, Jim thought at me. I don't think we can get away.
I nodded, sending acknowledgment without speaking, unable to hide the wave of fear that swept through me as I realized that Jim was right. It didn’t really matter where the Furballs were taking us. We would be found, probably killed.
A stab of pain reached me through the mind link and I felt Jim flinch as well. Somewhere, Furballs were dying. I felt isolated attempts of the aliens at reactivating the beam weapons in some of the ancient Temples, but the synchrony they’d had earlier was gone, shattered by terror and doubt and too much effort. Individual Furballs were very simple creatures, and their communal Mind was like that of a child. At the moment, it was a very frightened, panicky child.
I wasn't doing any better. I ran through the gloom, barely able to keep my wits about me because I was drawing on some of Jim’s resolve and bravery. Since we had changed, his mind was completely open to me and I could see clearly that he was afraid, but not for himself. His chief concern was that I would be safe, and that the aliens would survive. His selflessness cut right through the hazy veil of panic that was threatening to make me start screaming and never stop. Instead of that, I bunched my hands into fists and willed the muscles in my legs to contract faster, to lengthen my stride, to catch up to the strange structure that the Furballs were leading us to.
Behind us, something cracked.
I wasn’t looking, but Furballs were able to see everywhere at once and I caught the image of another missile right as it was launched down the hallway, straight at us.
Jim and I turned a sharp left. The floor here sloped down very suddenly, and I slipped on the polished stone. Jim wasn’t far behind.
Danger! Tag warned me.
I covered my ears with my hands.
The explosion sent a rush of hot air barreling down the tunnel, but the stone underneath me was so smooth that it was like going down a slide. I started picking up speed, and I felt Jim's alarm that the flames would catch up to us, immediately followed by his relief when he saw that we were sliding down too fast for that to happen.
The fading glow of the walls flickered, and died out. I was sliding at a breakneck speed down an alien hatchway, blind.
I reached for Jim’s hand, projecting my need to hold him. He answered me, and even in the dark we managed to find each other. Ahead of us I could sense the end of the ramp from the different sensations that I was getting from the Furballs, and I relayed the information to Jim so both of us were prepared when it happened. We stumbled upright, fearing that something had followed us down the ramp, but we were greeted by eerie quiet in the depths of the Temple.
Follow! the Furballs urged us with their waning strength. I sensed them gathering whatever cohesion was left in their Mind even as they struggled to ignore the dozens of horrible mental jabs that meant another one of them had perished, killed by our military. They used their remaining mental power to activate something large that was nearby. I felt them try it, struggle, give up.
“It's too much for them,” Jim said, his voice full of worry. “Tell them to stop, Kyle. If they keep this up they will all die.”
I tried. The Furballs ignored me and tried again. This time, there was an answering kick right there in the room with us.
Success… Tag said, his voice faint. He was pleased, but it was hard to talk to me. And getting harder.
Lights turned on and I gasped. I backed away against Jim instinctively, but there was nothing to fear. It had simply been unexpected to find ourselves in such a large underground chamber, where the soft yellow glow of the intricate carvings in the walls highlighted what looked very much like a pair of railroad tracks crossing the chamber from one end to another, disappearing down dark holes at each end.
Right in the middle of the space, resting squarely on the tracks, was a train.
“I don’t believe it,” Jim said, approaching carefully. I followed just a step or two behind.
“It looks like a subway train,” I pointed out.
Tired agreement from the Furballs. After a pause, they also managed to convey something else to me. They wanted us to get on.
“Well, we don’t have another choice,” Jim answered to their unspoken request. “Come on, Kyle. Help me get them aboard.”
I nodded and set to work. There weren’t many aliens left, there in the chamber with us. I estimated about twenty or so, where before there had been many more.
We moved them quickly. Whatever had been done to us in the chamber of healing had been an exceptional tissue reconstruction job, because I had no problem at all keeping my heartbeat steady and breathing regular even as I lifted Furballs and moved about the increased gravity. In fact, I didn't even notice the change anymore. Temperature, gravity and air quality seemed to me to be just right.
I had the Furballs to thank for that.
I felt an irrational flash of anger directed at the Commander and all her brainless troops as I picked up Tag and put him inside the sleek silver train. He looked at me with his many deep black eyes, questioning. Anger was an alien emotion to him.
“I'm sorry, little guy,” I said under my breath. “I wish I could do something to help you in return.”
“Kyle, look at this,” Jim interrupted. He was standing at the far end of the train, hunched over a console.
I put Tag among his friends and walked gingerly through the unfamiliar layout of the alien craft.
It had obviously been designed for beings just as tall, if not taller than us, judging from the roof. There was almost no furniture inside the train itself aside from a few mysterious protrusions along one of the walls which glowed softly the same color as the chamber around us. I tried asking the Furballs what this train was for or where it went, but all I received in return was the same kind of muffled response I had originally gotten from Tag inside his tank.
The Furballs were running out of time. I could feel it. If enough of them were killed as they tried to defend their homes, I was certain they would no longer be able to connect and mesh they way they did right now. They would probably revert to being barely-intelligent creatures, even more defenseless than they were at the moment.
I walked all the way to where Jim was. The console in front of him was brightly lit with lots of unfamiliar symbols that were scrolling by too fast to make any sense of them.
“What is that?” I asked, stopping beside him.
Jim turned to look at me, and despite everything that was happening I found my heart beating a little faster just by looking at his handsome face.
He chuckled. “Even with the survival of an entire species depending on us, you still find time to think about other things.”
I shrugged. “Can’t help it.”
The light around us began to dim. The Furballs whined anxiously.
“I can't decipher this,” Jim said, turning his attention back to the console. “I’m sure it’s some kind of way to decide where to go, but none of it makes sense.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and looked with him. As always, physical contact appeared to strengthen the mind link, sharpening it. Together, we turned our attention towards the rapidly- flitting images on the console until I began to notice the hint of a pattern.
“There,” I said, pointing at something and tapping it with a finger. The image stabilized, becoming a sort of blueprint rotating in 3-D.
Questioning curiosity from the Furballs nearby. I tried to send back reassurance.
“It’s a pattern,” Jim said, his voice very soft. He joined the image I had brought out with another one on the other side of the console. Then another one.
“It's a map!" I exclaimed, right as the lights around us went out.
The Furballs squealed, terrified. Something was coming down the ramp and they could feel it.
Next to me I felt Jim seize my idea, turn it around, and use his own experience to make sense of the jumble on the screen in front of us until it coalesced into a shape. It resembled a many-sided polygon approximating the shape of a circle, all of its points joined to all other points in a beautifully complex pattern. At the center of the circle, larger than all the others, was a symbol that denoted something important.
“There's something there,” I told Jim, tapping the symbol in the center.
The image began to blink. Jim frowned, his brow furrowed in concentration.
“It’s something important,” he said. “I wonder…” Almost absentmindedly, he traced a line from the center to another little symbol which at first appeared to me to be completely random.
His motion left a glowing line on the console, and when the two symbols were linked there was a loud sound.
The train shuddered around us, then began to move.
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking behind me in time to see twin beacons of light blast their way through the ramp just a few meters away. The Destroyer had finally broken through, and it was looking for us.
“I think I just figured out how to operate this,” Jim said, keeping his eyes on the screen. “It’s going to take us…”
He gestured to the symbol in the center, the one that was larger than the others.
We began to accelerate, slowly at first, but then there was a sudden jolt and the sudden shift in inertia sent me flying back. I stumbled, tripped on my own feet, and fell down backwards. A soft furry carpet was barely able to move in time to catch me.
“Thanks,” I muttered, rolling away from the Furballs and taking Jim’s outstretched hand.
Jim smiled. "It seems we were just in time. Look.”
I stood up all the way. Ahead of me there was only darkness, interrupted briefly by glowing dots that became lines from how fast we were going. The effect was so similar to the subway I was used to taking back home that for a moment I had a weird déjà vu of conflicting sensations. Tag sniffled around my feet, curious at the emotions I was experiencing. He could not believe I had already seen something like that, but I knew that trying to explain to him that it was merely a superficial resemblance to a structure on another planet would be a waste of time.
Instead I picked him up and held him in my arms as the alien train zoomed on noiseless tracks, bringing us closer and closer to that glowing symbol that had to be a very important structure of some kind.
At first neither Jim nor I said anything. I guessed we were too strung-up to relax, or even to believe that we were still alive after what we had just been through. I knew I was feeling that way, and through the link I knew that Jim was aware of it.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Jim asked after maybe fifteen minutes of expectant silence. Tag was finding my arms surprisingly comfortable, and I felt his contentment flow into me like a warm blanket.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“This connection we have now. It’s… I don’t even think I have words to describe what it’s like. I can see what you are thinking, and also what you are feeling, but it doesn’t feel invasive. I can tell you feel everything I feel, but we are not becoming a single entity. Instead, it’s as if I am more aware of you as an individual person than I ever was. And yet, I feel connected.” He chuckled. “I don’t think I’m making sense.”
But I nodded. “I feel that way too. Only for me it doesn’t feel so strange. I used to have a little of that before. I was very close to my dad, for example. Sometimes, it almost felt as if I could share his thoughts.”
I wasn't able to suppress the brief surge of longing and sadness that thinking about my father always brought up in me.
Jim stepped closer and I welcomed his physical touch as well as the gentle caress of his mind. “You still miss him a lot, don’t you?”
I stroked Tag's fur and nodded.
“How long ago did he…” Jim started.
“Almost five years ago. He worked at an iviron refinery and a fragment of a crystal exploded near him. They tried to save him at the hospital, but he didn’t last the night.”
“I’m so sorry, Kyle.”
I projected reassurance to the Furballs around so they wouldn't think something was happening to me. “It's okay. At first I was very sad, but I think that now I'm beginning to accept it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been so close to death recently, but now that I know just how fragile life is, it makes me want to live it more, you know? Like, I don't care how long or short a time I have left, I want to make it count.”
Jim patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve said another really grown-up thing.”
“Maybe it's the alien surgical implants in our chests,” I suggested jokingly.
“I don't think so. I believe that the bratty teenager who came to this planet is starting to become a man.”
I looked up at Jim, realizing that he was taller than me and that I liked that. I put Tag gently down on the floor and then hugged Jim as hard as I could. Feeling how his strong arms answered with a bear hug of their own, and seeing in Jim’s open mind just how much he had come to care for me in our time together, made me choke up with emotion. There was no hiding it, either. The link we shared made such a thing impossible and I discovered that I didn’t mind one bit. In fact, I looked back on the time before my change and I could not imagine how I had been able to go through life being so disconnected from everybody else. The communion I shared with Jim and the aliens went beyond words and beyond feelings.
It made me happy to feel so loved.
Another inertial shift alerted us to the fact that we were slowing down. At first I saw no change in the uniform darkness broken occasionally by the glowing dots, but little by little I began to see hints of light ahead. A couple of minutes later, we were close enough that I was sure we were approaching the end of the tunnel. I could see daylight up ahead, and I stood next to Jim as our train broke out of the dark and right into the blinding glare of noon on Tantalus.
There was a slight whine as of corroded gears grinding to a stop and our train came to a halt. Blinking tears out of my eyes, I scanned the area around us but saw nothing except mossy ground half-covered by fog and hints of tall mountains in the distance, surrounding us completely.
And the tower, of course. The tall spire rose into the sky as if trying to touch the orange globe of the gas giant Argos, crowned by what looked like a gigantic crystal formation, irregular and jagged.
Hinting at immense power.
As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, more Furballs which had been hidden among the rocks came out shyly, crowding around us and bumping each other with happy acknowledging rubs. Their mental link was frayed and fragmented, but they didn’t need it to recognize each other or give each other friendly greetings.
Hi, I projected with my mind, along with a thought-smile. My name is Kyle, and this is Jim.
Uh, hi, Jim joined in, more clumsily than I but well enough to make himself understood.
The aliens vocalized in response, but there was no answering thought of the greater Mind.
I looked back to the tower, feeling my attention drawn inexorably towards it. After a pause, I felt him do the same.
“It’s strange,” he whispered. “It’s almost like there's something there.”
Welcome, Kyle Mercer and James O’Brien, a new voice said. The Furballs all squeaked and dashed away as fast as they could.
I looked at Jim, mouth hanging slightly open. The message had not been the innocent yet hesitant way that other Furballs had communicated with us in the past. This voice felt different. Older.
Infinitely more intelligent than either of us.
Climb the Spire, quickly, the voice continued. There is little time.
I started hearing something then, a dull din that grew in intensity until suddenly I saw the unequivocal outline of a military drone approaching through the air.
The reaction from the Spire was instantaneous. The crystal crown on top of the structure started glowing more intensely until it was painful to look at.
Then it lost its fierce luminescence. The next instant it blasted the drone with a beam of pure energy so suddenly that its broken fragments hit the ground before I could even cry out in surprise.