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 17. Memory
Touch me, Echo directed us. Information transfer works best with physical contact.
Jim took a step forward, but I hesitated. He turned around to look at me.
"What's wrong, Kyle?"
"I don't know. I..."
But I couldn't even finish my own sentence. I was still going over the terrifying spectacle of seeing Echo destroy a missile in midair as easily as flicking a bothersome fly away. Without really meaning to, I started taking a few steps back from the disturbingly powerful sphere. Jim approached, his look worried, but I started shaking my head slowly, and then faster and faster. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be there at all.
I turned back and started running downstairs, away from that glowing thing, away from all the explosions and the danger and the constant fighting. It was too much. I just couldn't take it anymore.
I made it thirty or forty steps down before Jim caught up to me.
"Hey," he said gently, once he had gotten me to stop."Want to sit down for a bit?"
I nodded, trying not to cry in front of him. I didn't want him to think that I was weak, but I supposed it was already too late for that. The moment I had the thought, though, I knew Jim had received it. For an instant I simply wished for the link to go away, to be alone with my own thoughts.
Jim didn't say anything at first. He didn't try to push me to return to the chamber, either. He simply sat down with me and waited until I was ready to talk.
"I wish I could go back home," I said, trying not to sound too whiny.
"I understand," Jim answered, and I could tell he meant it. "I miss my home too, sometimes."
He gestured in the affirmative and sent me images from his memories. I saw beautiful hills and valleys, sparkling rivers and a town that looked as if it had been taken straight out of the Middle Ages. I saw the home where he had grown up, and I caught fleeting glances of his family.
"It looks nice," I said.
"It is. Only if you fit in, though. Otherwise that idyllic landscape gets real ugly real fast."
Jim tried to suppress them, but I saw snapshots of fights he'd had at home. I saw him as a teenager holding another guy's hand, running away from his father's shouts and imprecations. I saw him looking down on his planet the day he had left, feeling glad to be leaving everything behind. At that moment, he had finally felt free from the shackles of his restrictive society. He was looking forward to finally being able to be himself.
I couldn't help it. I chuckled.
"What is it?" Jim asked me.
I shrugged. "I was just thinking that it's so different from the way it was with me. I didn't want to leave Cora. They made me. You couldn't wait to get away from your planet. Sometimes it's like we're total opposites."
"And now we're here. For better or worse, still alive."
"Not for long, I imagine. I don't care how powerful Echo is, we're not going to take on an entire armed invasion by ourselves. And when they get here..."
"Hey. Stop thinking about that. I get the feeling that Echo just wants to help, so we should probably let it help us. At the very least we can see what he has to say."
"It," I corrected. "It's just a machine. It feels like something resembling AI."
"It, then. But it has a message. We should go now while we have time."
I considered arguing some more, but I could see that Jim was right.
On impulse, I leaned into him and kissed him.
He was surprised, but he was soon returning the kiss, embracing me with his big, strong arms. I drew strength from the sensation of being important to someone else, and after a little while I felt strong enough to return with him to the chamber where Echo awaited.
I didn't give myself a chance to double think it. I strode right into the center of the room, reaching out with my hand until it made contact with the smooth, cool surface of the sphere that was Echo's body.
It was like a sudden jolt of electricity coursing through my brain. An instant later I felt Jim joining in and the two of us could do nothing but gape in awe at the magnificent structure that unfurled itself before our mind's eye.
Greetings, Echo said, its voice deep and resonant, with an edge to it that reminded me this machine was not human.
"Hello," I answered. "What... Um, how..."
We are connected directly at last, strengthening the mind link with our contact. There isn't much time. Please watch, so you may understand...
One second I was there in the Spire with Jim, and the next my entire reality had shifted. I was bodiless, an observing mind overlooking an underground metropolis. It was a vast collection of buildings carved into the living rock, crisscrossed by countless pathways and train tracks. There were people moving about, working, speaking, glowing.
The People, as they once were.
Another shift in reality, and now I was seeing the surface of the planet, watching the People interacting with the life there. Some studied the plants, others made art out of rocks, and others watched the sky and the giant globe of the planet Argos with telescopes.
Others interacted with Furballs.
Like a movie being played in fast-forward, I saw the relationship between the People and the Furballs develop from a few chance encounters to attempts at domestication, then gene therapy and finally the attempt to bring the simple Furballs into the greater Mind. I saw the surge of joy that coursed through the furry creatures the first time they were able to talk with one of the People.
The Little Ones have always been our most trusted friends.
I saw times of peace stretch out into centuries, and life thrive on the surface of Tantalus.
But no happy time can last forever. Eventually, inevitably, I sensed a change.
It began with those who enjoyed watching the stars through telescopes. They developed more and more sophisticated instruments to allow them to peer through the thick cloud cover of the gas giant that dominated their sky, and as they did so their knowledge of the other world grew. They became fascinated with it, and their art and science reflected this fascination. They discovered life in that place that they had thought too hostile to harbor anything bigger than bacteria, and the discovery was like a fever that swept through the entire Mind. It had been alone for so very long, with only the Little Ones to talk to. Now, the People saw crude but undeniable attempts at civilization among the clouds of Argos. There were structures resembling floating ships that were able to navigate the violent currents of the storms in the upper atmosphere, inhabited by those whom the people called Travelers.
The sporadic observations of the Travelers became commonplace, and soon turned into a veritable obsession of the People. Their hunger to interact with other intelligent life forms was too great, their impulse to find friends in a system they had thought devoid of life too enticing a prospect to Resist. The idea of mounting an expedition to Argos was approved unanimously when it came, and the People created their first attempt at a spaceship, a primitive rocket that would take a few brave envoys to that other world.
There was jubilation in the underground streets as the mission finally set out. The Mind was thrilled at the prospect of finding another one like itself, from which it could learn new things. Contact with other sentient beings filled the People with hope, and when sensors indicated that the rocket had left behind the gravitational pull of Tantalus and started a controlled fall into Argos, the attention of the entire planet was set on that little ship.
When first contact was made, even the Little Ones stopped whatever they were doing to rejoice. The Travelers had seen the rocketship and sent one of their own cloud surfers to meet it. The envoys were rescued successfully and they sent back messages which fulfilled the hopes of all the People, and surpassed them. The Travelers were intelligent. They knew about Tantalus, and it was featured in many of their legends as an avatar of their goddess of life and death. Communication was easy, the envoys reported, because the Travelers were very susceptible to mental contact. In fact, after the first few weeks it had been possible to establish a reliable but rudimentary link between the envoys and a few especially gifted representatives of the Travelers.
Dialogue began. The People were baffled by the alien concept of individuality that seemed to be so important for the Travelers. Still, they tried to establish a common ground nevertheless and soon there was talk, shyly suggested at first by the aliens, of visiting Tantalus once the People developed craft powerful enough to visit Argos and return.
With the sincere effort of an entire planet backing the initiative, the People soon discovered a practical energy source that would allow a spaceship to escape the massive gravity of the gas giant. By then the envoys who had originally arrived were perishing one by one, falling victim to the merciless background radiation of Argos, but new volunteers had already been chosen, and better radiation shields had been developed. The second expedition into the giant planet was met with as much jubilation as the first.
The Travelers had been expecting the representatives of the People. The reports of the second generation of brave explorers outlined the efforts that were made by the struggling Travelers to understand the technology of the People. They wanted to develop technology of their own that would allow them to design ships so they could visit their neighbors on Tantalus. It was a golden time of teaching and learning for the shared Mind, as the two species worked as one and improved their knowledge of the universe together. The cloud surfers of the Travelers were changed dramatically, allowing them to fight even the storms of Argos, bringing together a people which had before been nomadic by necessity. Now, entire clumps of cloud surfers were being permanently joined, becoming flying cities where larger projects could be undertaken.
When the planetary alignment was right again, the envoys of the People chose a few brave individuals from among the Travelers to bring back to Tantalus. Their trip back was perilous, since they were running on experimental technology, but all sentient beings arrived safely.
The few Travelers who had come were treated with the highest respect and shown everything they asked about. They were scientists for the most part, and they proved quick at grasping concepts that had baffled the People for generations. They had brought gifts with them, information for the most part, detailing their rich oral history and the development of their society. These gifts were shared by all, and the bond between the two races was strengthened because of it.
The Travelers fell in love with Tantalus. More than anything, they expressed again and again their ceaseless wonder for the wide open spaces of the planet's surface. They had never known anything but clouds, and their most valuable form of currency was usable space aboard a cloud surfer. To their eyes, Tantalus was a single gigantic ship, its worth incalculable, its inhabitants rich beyond comprehension. The People lived underground for the most part, so they offered space on their planet for a settlement or two of the Travelers.
The aliens were overjoyed. Some stayed behind and founded the first alien settlement on Tantalus, while others returned with the third expedition to report on what they had learned. Back on their world, their reports were at first received with incredulity. Then, the first working electromagnetic link between the two worlds was created and the Travelers were able to see for themselves.
It was the beginning of their Fall, and that of the People, Echo mourned, reminding me sharply that this was all just a memory played out for me and Jim.
What had begun as earnest collaboration became a game of greed. Entire Traveler city-states began amassing weaponry and technology, and while it worried the People they allowed it to continue . They had no concept of war, and when the Travelers finally attacked it came as a total surprise.
The Travelers had developed anti-biological weaponry in secret, basing it on the devastating consequences that the first envoys had suffered when exposed to planetary radiation. They came from the violent skies of the planet Argos in a fleet of ships built in secret, and they attacked from orbit.
Their main weapon was radioactive seeker warheads. When the first impacts were reported the People struggled frantically to build up a defense against the deadly radiation, but millions died in the first waves and still more grew ill, unable to participate in the greater Mind anymore. Those who survived retreated deep underground, away from the fallout, surrendering their beautiful cities to the Travelers, who claimed them while laughing, impervious to the radiation.
Time passed and more People died. They depended on the surface for their survival, because although they lived underground, the genetically modified moss that nourished them could grow only with direct sunlight. Although the Little Ones tried to help, there was nothing to be done.
Seeing that they were doomed, those who still lived created me. They erected this Spire in the only valley which had not been invaded or claimed. I was to be an Echo of what they once were, and my mission would be to at least guarantee the survival of the People's greatest friends, the Little Ones.
Echo showed Jim and me what it did when the last member of the People succumbed to radioactive poisoning. It gathered the power of every Temple on the planet unto itself and released it at once, overloading every single unshielded electronic device on Tantalus. The Travelers, dependent on their technology as they were to survive in the alien atmosphere, died off in a single day, choking on the air of the world they had tried to conquer.
After that... I caught a vague impression of decades passing and becoming centuries, becoming millennia. Looters came to Tantalus and took away everything that was valuable, but the Temples they left alone. Power still slept in them, and most visitors were wise enough to leave them be.
Until we came along.
"I am so sorry, Echo," I said, and I felt Jim's silent agreement.
"It's happening again," Jim added. "Except now we are the invaders."
I need you, Echo said to us, and although it was a machine its desperation felt real.
"I don't know how we can help," Jim answered slowly. "We can tell you what our army is capable of, maybe some of its weak points, but the soldiers are too many."
"Then what do you need us for?" I asked.
You must talk to your army, those who still survive. Through me, you may reach them. If we work together you still have a chance.
I looked at Jim, but he shared my uncomprehending look.
"Echo, what do you mean by 'those who still survive'?" he asked it.
Look. There is little time.
Reality changed around us again. This time I did not have a visual environment around me, but rather an awareness of space. I could feel my own location, centered squarely on the planet's equator, but I also had feedback coming from hundreds of observation and surveillance posts around me. Some were very far away. Some were even in outer space.
With a start, I realized that Echo was sharing its awareness with us.
My orbital sensors have picked up something. Please watch.
Our own attention was directed gently towards a couple of nodes in the sensor network that were pinging insistently. They had discovered anomalous behavior coming from the one place Echo had always watched, even after the People were all dead.
Something was moving among the clouds of Argos.
At the same time, my senses were flooded by three hundred and sixty degrees of awareness and I could suddenly see our own military command mothership orbiting Tantalus, surrounded by a few shuttles.
There was a sudden energy spike that I felt in my very core, and it came from Argos.
The energy sliced through the void and impacted the military ship cleanly, obliterating it along with every other smaller craft that had been anywhere near the planet's upper atmosphere.
I cried out in my mind. Thousands of people had just died aboard the ship. Instantly.
Echo's voice was full of sadness.
The Travelers are coming back at long last.