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 16. Echo
Walking through the wilderness of Tantalus with Jim was a very different experience from my unauthorized exploration session when I had only recently come to the planet. Back then, I'd had no idea of what I was seeing, and just a few minutes later I'd been worrying too much about staying alive to be able to appreciate the true beauty of the world.
Now, I found it hard to see anything else.
I didn't let go of Jim's hand as the two of us walked in the direction of the nearby Spire. Our steps were muffled by the thick carpet of springy moss that appeared to cover much of the surface of the valley we were in. I could feel the contentment that the Furballs following us were radiating at finding themselves outdoors again, free of confining walls and gigantic structures that they did not like. Some of them selected particular spots on the ground and began to feed, using their tiny claws on the underside of their bodies to shred the plants so they could ingest them. Tag in particular had been very hungry, and I received little waves of satisfaction as he began to feed, along with an unspoken invitation to join. I declined absentmindedly.
"This planet is magnificent," Jim said, and some of the new Furballs squeaked with mental prods of curiosity at hearing his voice.
I saw how he looked all around us with wonder in his eyes. "And to think I have been stationed on this planet for so long, and I had never seen this... I was missing out."
"Did you go outside?" I asked him.
"Of course I did, but it's simply not the same with a mask on. You feel like an outsider, like watching a particularly lifelike exhibition at the zoo, but that's all. Now I can feel the sunlight warm on my skin. I can hear insects chirping without headphones in the way. I can breathe the air."
As if on cue, both of us took a large breath and let it out slowly. The air on Tantalus had a comforting, earthy quality to it that reminded me of how greenhouses would sometimes smell back on Cora. It had a nourishing dimension that I was sure I had not experienced before my change. Being outside, with the warm wind of early morning and soft plants under my feet, felt right.
I smiled. The closer we got to the Spire, the more I saw the terrain was rising gently around us like an inverted bowl. I could see further away in the distance, through the gaps in the fog that coated the ground, and caught glimpses of strange rock formations rising through it, along with thickets of a kind of tree I had never seen before. The trees were short and squat like most life forms on Tantalus, but their canopy extended sideways for several meters in all directions until it met with the canopy of another tree. The branches appeared to mesh together, and the effect was that of a living cover of entangled twigs and orange-green leaves that dappled the sunlight underneath them into a pleasant array of light and shadows.
Safe, Tag said to me directly, taking a brief break from his munching to acknowledge the beauty of the terrain underneath the trees. Several other nearby Furballs joined in, sending me images of good hiding places where they liked to use their natural camouflage to escape from some of the flying predators in the area. The trees protected them, and the Furballs loved to play underneath them.
I exchanged a quick glance with Jim. "Looks like they like it here," I said.
He nodded, pointing to the distant mountains. "This is probably a very safe location. The mountains ring it on every side, and the Spire rises above everything with a good view of the entire terrain."
"Almost like a military observation post," I commented.
"That's exactly what I was thinking."
"Do you think that tower over there was made by... them?" I finished, sending Jim the images we had received from the Furballs when they had thought about those who'd had names.
"I believe so. It's strange, though. Our orbital scanners would have picked up the existence of this structure immediately, and they didn't. We've been on this planet for months, and Planetary Government in particular has been scanning it carefully, but last I heard they were not aware of its existence. Maybe it's shielded in some way, preventing them from discovering it."
"Or at least until that drone over there blew up," I mentioned, pointing at the place where the fragments of the military drone had fallen after the voice in the Spire had blasted it away.
"Yes. We probably don't have much time here either before they find us."
I swallowed. I was trying to make the most of the situation, but the fact was that we couldn't simply keep running away every time we were found. The Commander had said that the troops had already landed on the surface for a full-scale invasion, and that meant that they would comb the entire planet until they were sure nothing threatening was left.
That, apparently, included us.
"Let's just hope that whoever is hiding out there can help us," I said.
Jim gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry, Kyle. I have a good feeling about that voice."
I would have tried to hide my doubts from him, but the mind link prevented any of that. He knew very well that all of this running and hiding was getting to me. First we had been bombed, then we had been forced to hide in a shelter for a week, slowly suffocating, only to be rescued at the last minute by Furballs. And then we'd had a nightmare transformation, which I now knew had been for the best, but I couldn't forget the horror of it just the same.
Then that robotic Destroyer. The force fields saving our skin twice, and the train.
Too much luck. It couldn't hold out.
"It will," Jim told me, and both his voice and his mind projected reassurance and strength. "Let's climb that thing and find out who's there."
The Furballs followed us for a little bit, but they all stopped some distance away from the Spire. I queried Tag mentally and received hesitation and awe. The aliens knew something about the place, and they did not dare move any closer. Instead they formed a rough circle around the entire structure, which grew as more of them appeared from the fog in the valley.
The sky above us was bright with the orange swirls of planet Argos. The giant added its light to that of the sun and bathed the entire landscape with a friendly glow that suddenly reminded me of the glow inside the healing chamber.
Welcome, visitors from another world, the voice said when we were just a few steps away from a towering arch that led into the building. Climb to the top of the Spire. There is --
The gentle mental message was interrupted by a sudden dissonance and a nearly overwhelming tide of pain and anguish that was swiftly cut off before I could cry out.
"Did you feel that?" I asked Jim.
Judging by how pale he had gone, he had.
"I saw something," he said.
I nodded grimly. Mixed into the overwhelming tide of emotion were images of more Furballs dying, of strange machines that were sadly familiar to me, destroying Temples around the entire planet. Everywhere there was chaos. Everywhere there was fear. The Furballs didn't know how to deal with it and they were regressing to their primitive states much faster than I had expected.
"We have to move," I told Jim.
We went inside the alien structure side by side.
The sudden shift in temperature caught me off-guard. As soon as I passed through the seemingly empty archway, which nevertheless sizzled a little bit as both of us went in, I was assaulted by what felt to me like incongruous, unpleasant cold.
They did this for the sake of the electronics, the voice said inside both our minds. The People discovered it was better for machines to run at low temperatures. That way, their inner components would be able to last for many generations... even after they were gone.
There was a hint of despondency and yearning attached to the words, unspeakable sadness and irreversible loss.
"What happened?" I asked quietly, but I received no answer to that.
We both looked up. There was a spiral staircase lining the inner walls of the Spire, rising up and up until it was lost from view. The building wasn't very wide, maybe ten meters at most, but it was very tall, the illumination being provided by long, narrow windows set at regular intervals following the natural spire of the stairs. The effect was slightly dizzying, although very beautiful.
"Good thing we have new lungs," Jim commented with uncharacteristic humor as he led the way up the stairs.
He was right. The effort of climbing constantly began to make the muscles in my legs burn with exhaustion after ten minutes, and the fact that the staircase had no railing on the left to prevent me from falling down to my death added to my tension and the sense of exhaustion. Craning my neck to look up, it didn't even seem we had made much progress, and soon the only sounds were our footsteps on the polished metallic surface and our labored breathing. I began to sweat, but after twenty minutes had gone by of nonstop climbing I realized I wasn't nearly as out of breath as I should have been. It felt to me like I could take deeper, longer breaths and use them to fuel my body for longer.
Eventually, we reached the top. I climbed the last step gratefully and walked onto a large flat surface that covered the entire circular space between the walls of the Spire. Much wider windows were set along these walls, offering a breathtaking view of the entire valley in every direction. In the center of the floor there was a pedestal of deep black, and hovering silently upon it was a sphere.
Before I could take a step in that direction to investigate it more closely, I felt the gentle mental tug of Jim calling my attention upwards. I looked at him and saw that he was staring at something about our heads, his mouth hanging slightly open.
I followed his gaze, wiping the sweat from my brow, and saw something amazing.
Just a few meters away there was a gigantic crystal crowning the top of the Spire, the same structure I had seen from afar, only now it was very close to me and I could take in every detail of its otherworldly beauty. It reminded me of a multifaceted diamond polished to achieve flawless transparency, except this crystal was bigger than any diamond that had ever been mined and inside it I could see the faint tendrils of light flashing through it, reflected by its countless surfaces, dividing, and joining again. It was a nonstop interplay of incredible complexity that hinted at something large directing its every move, the flashes of light mimicking neural impulses traveling from node to node of a gigantic artificial brain.
You are very perceptive, Kyle Mercer, the voice in my head said. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Yours as well, Doctor James O'Brien.
Gently, the focus of our attention was directed down. I found myself looking straight at the dull orb hovering silently above its black pedestal.
Even as we watched, though, the orb changed. Its unremarkable surface appeared to slide out of the way, breaking apart to reveal a crystalline matrix of material that resembled the giant crystal above us a great deal.
"Is that... Is that you?" I asked, looking at the beautiful orb with its inner yellow light.
"What is your name?" Jim said.
We felt the equivalent of a mental smile, tinged with sadness. A name, yes. It has been so long since anyone has asked mine. The People used to have names, and so they gave one to me as well, along with my task.
There was a pause. I wondered if it would be rude to ask again, but the voice continued before I could do so.
My name is Echo. My task is to remember. To watch. To protect.
At that moment, my attention was wrenched away from the orb and directed to the right with such ease that I knew a moment of complete terror at being in the presence of such a powerful being. Next to it my mind was nothing. And yet, it was being gentle.
I focused on the sky outside, following the mental directive from Echo. Next to me, I felt Jim do the same. A dark dot was approaching, growing larger.
"It's an orbit to surface missile," Jim announced grimly. "It's headed this way."
Another threat? Echo asked.
Yes, I replied. If we do not stop it, it will --
But I never got the chance to say what would happen, because Echo gathered its immense power, ordering the giant crystal over our heads to focus with what felt like a song that reverberated in the crystal and in our minds. Echo directed the process and I felt it sharpening its focus until the missile was in its crosshairs.
Then Echo released the pent-up energy and a second later the missile went up in flames.
The glow inside the Crystal died down, and I felt more than saw a small fragment of it go dull and lifeless, spent.
There isn't much energy left, Visitors from another world. I need your help, before... Before it is too late.