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 6. Contact
An insistent ringing noise brought me back to my senses. I felt weird; I tried to bring my hands up to rub my eyes but I discovered I couldn't. They were tied to something.
My eyes snapped open. I was in the main lab, on my back apparently. The only thing I could see was the ceiling, but when I tried to move my head I discovered it was held fast too. My ankles were also restricted. I tried very hard not to panic, but I had no idea what was going on except for the fact that Jim had done something to me in order to trap me here. Drugged me, most likely, judging from what I had overheard earlier. It made no sense. Why?
The ringing appeared to get louder and I struggled to shift my view to the side so I could see what was making it, but I simply couldn't. I was about to call out when there was the sudden noise of the heavy door slamming shut and then the footsteps of Jim approaching.
I pushed the alien emotions away and closed my eyes, pretending to still be out. Jim walked by me and stopped a few paces later. I heard him click something and the ringing stopped immediately.
"O'Brien," he said. It had been a call, then.
"Doctor," a female voice answered. The same from before, I noticed. "How is the preparation going?"
"Almost complete, Commander," Jim said. He sounded slightly strained. "If I may comment… This procedure is highly experimental. Dangerous, even. I would not want to risk the safety of any of the parties involved if possible; if I could run a few more diagnostics I would have a more robust version in a few weeks' time."
"Your concern is noted, Doctor. However, you are to proceed as agreed. It is essential that we get this information as soon as possible."
There was a pause before Jim spoke. "If I could just know the reason for this sudden urgency –"
"Let me stop you right there, Doctor. You are smart man; probably the best in your field. Surely you can correlate the reports of recent events with our sudden policy changes on Tantalus, and come to a conclusion. I cannot divulge any information to you directly, but I can say that the sense of urgency I am trying to impress upon you is not feigned. Things have reached a critical stage and it is imperative that we have this crucial bit of intelligence before… well. As soon as we can."
"I understand," Jim said, sounding a bit wooden. I wished I could see his face.
"How soon can we expect to see preliminary results?"
"I cannot say with certainty, Commander. Mind-link interrogation of this nature has never been attempted before. Even the notion of psionic potential in humans was only recently proven, so we are treading new ground here with every step we take. We know the Furballs exhibit psionic capabilities, but–"
"Furballs?" the Commander asked, sounding impatient.
"Excuse me. That's my informal name for the aliens. As I was saying, even though we know Vannadiis lyraxis tantalosi specimens are capable of psionic projection of simple ideas, having a human receptor sensitive enough to decode them would have been considered fiction even one year ago."
"But you have confirmation that it is possible. I have reviewed the security video you provided, and even to me it is clear that this young man you found is communicating with the alien."
"Yes, there is no doubt. If Kyle is indeed a latent psionic it would explain many things that have happened since he arrived. His strange compulsion to explore the wilderness, for one; the way he appeared to be drawn to the tank where the live specimen is being held; and most recently his unusual level of tolerance for the neural blocker I administered last night. Whether we can actually establish a meaningful exchange of information between him and the greater Mind that we believe to be shared by all specimens of Vannadiis lyraxis tantalosi remains to be seen."
"That information is extremely important, Doctor. Begin experimenting as soon as you are ready. I expect a full status report by the end of the day."
There was a loud click and then silence for a while. I closed my eyes again, just in case Jim was looking my way. My mind was racing. I was going to be a guinea pig in some kind of mental experiment, and from what I'd heard it would be a dangerous one. I needed to find a way out. If I could only overpower Jim somehow…
"I know you're awake, Kyle," he said, making me jerk against my restraints. "I have a live feed to your vitals and I knew the moment you woke up."
Footsteps approached. Eventually Jim entered my field of view. He towered above me and suddenly looked a lot more intimidating than I remembered.
"Let me go," I demanded, sounding calmer than I actually was. "What you're doing is illegal."
He grimaced sadly. "Kyle, you're a smart man. Think on what you just said, and consider whom I was talking to."
I frowned. All laws were enforced by Planetary Government, of course. Jim had done this to me acting on their orders, which meant that even if I could somehow escape this place…
"I am a citizen," I said, refusing to accept the logical conclusion. "They can't take away my freedom like this."
"They can under martial law."
"But we're not even at war!" I exploded, straining against my bounds uselessly.
"We will soon be," Jim said. He sounded regretful.
Jim nodded in the direction of the tank.
I blinked. "You've got to be shitting me, Jim. Let me go. I swear I won't tell a word of this to anyone if you just let me get the hell out of here and board a shuttle to the nearest mine colony. Or wherever. You won't ever hear from me again."
Jim ignored me. He was still looking at the tank. "The Furballs are believed to be dangerous. Do you remember the information you looked at last night under the prompting of the alien?"
"I saw everything you did here in the lab, Kyle. Don't even bother denying it. You accessed classified information regarding the incident with the terraformer that accidentally killed hundreds of Furballs over at the north pole of the planet."
"Yes," I admitted. "The thing was destroyed, wasn't it?"
"Exactly. By an unidentified weapon of pure energy in the ruins of a temple-like structure that the Furballs somehow activated. When the records of the incident were recovered, Planetary Government immediately put us under lockdown. All our activities became classified and suddenly our topmost priority was finding out exactly what had happened and if there was even the slightest chance of it happening again."
"And is there? A chance?"
Jim sighed. "We were able to recover a full energy signature of the beam weapon that destroyed the terraformer. The geospecialist team in Tantalus-III ran some tests… and discovered about a dozen other sites that matched that same profile. Do you realize what this means?"
I did, and I didn't like it one bit. "Planetary Government wants this weapon. Or, failing that, wants it destroyed."
Jim nodded grimly. "They sent a stealth explorer to either retrieve or destroy one of the beam weapons located very close to Tantalus-I. The explorer disappeared from all sensors the second it entered critical airspace. That was the last straw; now Planetary Government wants every Furball on this planet exterminated and their beam weapon sites destroyed. Any kind of military technology that is advanced enough to take out a stealthed, armored craft in one blast is too dangerous to ignore. I'm sure that military engineers will be all over the ancient temples once the beam weapons are destroyed or disabled, but for the time being the priority is destruction. And that's where you come in."
I swallowed. My throat was feeling dry and I was literally shaking with fear. It took me a moment to realize that the emotion wasn't my own. The alien in the tank was whining softly.
"What are you going to do with me?" I asked.
"Kyle, it is almost certain that you have latent psionic capabilities."
"Like in the movies?" I said disdainfully. Trying to cover up my unease.
"We don't understand it fully yet," he answered, sounding almost as if he were giving a lecture. "It appears to be a very recent mutation, localized only to Cora. Some people have started exhibiting extreme levels of sensitivity to specific types of field alterations that are somewhat akin to electromagnetic radiation, although of a different nature entirely. Physicists haven't even managed to classify this psionic field or integrate it into our extant Unified Theory; everything is simply too new."
"Then how do you even know it exists?"
"There have been incidents… Verified, measured instances of nonverbal communication between people with this genetic marker. In some cases there is a certain degree of empathic resonance between subjects. The vast majority of the population hasn't even got a trace of this, but every once in a while we come across someone whose latency is as strong as yours. It is thanks to them that we know of this phenomenon."
"Right," I said, struggling to digest the new information. A hundred little incidents from my life popped up in my mind, now suddenly imbued with new significance. That time when I was six and I just knew that the playground bully wanted to hit me. The way I could sometimes finish other people's sentences without even thinking about it.
The day my father was injured at work so badly he died a few days later. I was in a lecture at the time and I screamed as if it had been my own skin the laser had burned. I was a nervous wreck until I got home, and there I got the terrible news that he was at the hospital in critical condition. Except I'd already been expecting it. I don't think I could read minds or anything, but there was certainly something there. Like a weird awareness of some things… And of the alien.
"What happens now?" I asked.
"We interrogate the alien, using you as a translator."
Jim didn't answer. Instead he left me where I was and walked to a different part of the lab. I heard a series of keystrokes on a computer and suddenly the surface I was resting on started to move, tilting smoothly until I was held vertically with a full view of the back of the lab. I still couldn't move any of my limbs at all.
Jim was sitting at a workstation nearby, and his broad shoulders obscured my vision of the screen, but I could see his face and he looked troubled. Almost as if he didn't want to do this.
"Is this going to be dangerous?" I asked him.
"It's highly experimental. There may be some risks associated with the procedure."
"Risks? Like what?"
"I don't know. The compound I will be using is newly synthesized and there is little research on its effects."
"You're going to inject me with something?"
"A mild psychoactive which will theoretically lower your inhibition threshold to a level where you will be most receptive to input and output in the psionic spectrum."
"Dude. Jim, don't do this," I said, and I only realized I was scared to death when my voice shook on the last word.
Jim shut his eyes tight before hitting a particular key on his workstation. "I have no choice."
Things started whirring behind me. I caught a glimpse of a tube snaking out and then the sharp pinprick of a needle. The tank holding the Furball began to move, approaching the place where I was. The creature inside started moving around frantically, but when the tank came to rest in front of me it stopped and appeared to quiet down. From my vantage point the alien was simply a vaguely circular lump of fur, but I could feel its distress.
Then the drug kicked in.
"This is Doctor James O'Brien, lead xenobiologist on the research station Tantalus-V. About to begin interrogation procedure involving a live specimen of Vanadiis lyraxis tantalosi. The objective of the interrogation is to acquire useful intelligence regarding the military capabilities of the indigenous lifeform's weapons arsenal, its possible applications and weaknesses. Translation of requests will be attempted via a test subject exhibiting significant psionic latency.
"State your name, age, and origin," Jim told me.
I frowned at him defiantly, surprised that he would think I would cooperate… but my mouth was already moving.
"Kyle Mercer, nineteen, Cora."
"Kyle, I want you to try and link directly to the alien front of you, to establish a connection and see if you can read part of the creature's thoughts."
Obediently, I looked down at the Furball. It had climbed atop one of the small boulders in its enclosure and as soon as I turned my gaze on it I felt it returning the attention. A few of its eyes were directed at me, and I could hear a little scratching sound coming from underneath it.
"It's nervous," I heard myself say. "It's scratching a rock, showing anxiety."
Jim seemed taken aback by my prompt response, but he recovered quickly. I focused on him, and I got something… Nowhere near as clear as when I was getting from the alien, but it was there. Discomfort of some kind.
"Excellent," he told me. "Now please direct your attention to the following schematic."
He waved in the air and a projection shimmered into existence between us. It was a high resolution image of the temple that had housed the beam weapon which had been first discovered.
"I recognize this," I said.
"Good. Take your awareness of this concept and direct it at the alien. Try to find a strand of recognition, an answer of some kind that tells you that the creature is aware of the existence of this facility."
I looked at the Furball again. I tried to share the image with it, but I couldn't quite…
I gasped; the Furball had spoken to me. Directly. Not in words or anything approaching them, but in a burst of emotion. It was scared, and it wanted reassurance from me.
Jim was moving from console to console in a frenzy, at least three readouts displaying wildly changing information. I tried to see what was going on but my attention was gently redirected back down to the alien. It was still waiting, quivering slightly.
I tried to convey uncertainty. A bit of the fear I felt.
The reaction was instantaneous. The Furball squeaked and ran down the boulder to cower in one of the corners of the tank.
I tried something different. I focused on the beam weapon that Jim had showed me, trying to visualize it as clearly as possible.
The Furball knew what it was. I tried to ask it who built it, but all I got back was confusion. I also tried asking what its purpose was, like Jim had told me, but that made the situation even worse. I started getting chaotic images, snippets of things in my mind that made no sense at all. It was like trying to reconstruct an abstract painting from the fractally repeating fragments of it as seen through a kaleidoscope. My brain simply couldn't handle it.
I started getting a headache again. It was sudden and piercing, and I think I cried out. Jim was telling me something, but when I tried paying attention to him I found I couldn't. Whatever I was doing with the alien was getting stronger the more the link between us was maintained. Information was flowing more swiftly, back and forth, creating only mounting confusion, more pain...
The images ceased.
I tried to project acknowledgment and this time I felt an answering thrum. I tried again with the image of the beam weapon, holding only that in my mind without trying to convey anything else.
Then I switched to a mental image of the terraformer that had first encountered the weapon.
An image of the stealth explorer that had been destroyed, which I took from the hovering display.
An image of Jim.
An image of me.
An image of itself as I saw it, a small furball huddled in a tank.
Confusion. Then, slowly, understanding. Wonder.
The Furball moved tentatively around its tank, holding my vision of itself as it did so. I felt the echo of its vertigo-inducing discovery of a different point of view. It climbed its boulder again and then it offered me…
The kaleidoscope image again, segments of me and the tank and the wall and Jim superimposed and incomprehensible, all shifted strangely into a different spectrum and glowing where they shouldn't.
I held up that image of us as it saw with its many eyes as long as I could, and sent back acknowledgment.
Then the Furball offered me something else. A fragmented and multifaceted collage of hundreds of Furball bodies in close proximity, purring and scratching at the nourishing moss underneath.
I tried showing it something of my own, a vision of my world and the people I knew. The ships we used to travel between the stars.
I thought it had been a miscommunication, so I tried again. I tried picturing a nondescript spaceship, trying to convey that there were people inside, people like me and that we –
My image was taken, compared, pushed aside. A new multifaceted image took its place.
"Kyle? Can you hear me? You need to stop whatever it is you're doing. Your vital signs are starting to cross into dangerous levels!"
I heard Jim's voice, but it was impossible for me to answer. My attention was held fast to this new image along with a sense of urgency that I see it, that I understand.
I saw dozens of aircraft designed for atmospheric entry flying in formation against an orange, swirling sky. At first I thought it was another fractally repeated image like before, but the more I focused on it, the more details I could make out, blurred and superimposed though they were.
I tried to send doubt. I did not know what that squadron was, but somehow the Furballs were tracking it across the skies of Tantalus with impossibly accurate precision.
"Kyle! Kyle, snap out of it!"
The squadron of black fliers swerved in unison. Only then did I recognize what they were: bombarders. War machines.
As soon as I identified what they were, the terror of the little alien was answered and repeated more times than I could count. I gained awareness of the fact that many more Furballs were listening in on our mental conversation, and had probably been doing so since the very beginning. They were scared. Echoes of the catastrophe with the terraformer flitted through my mind as the shared mind of the aliens felt threatened and responded in the only way it knew how.
It activated every single energy beam on the surface of the planet. The effort required to accomplish this was titanic, and just as before I had felt their terror, now a wave of exhaustion crashed against my mind. I felt the alien faint in its tank and just as I was reaching out to comfort him I was jolted violently out of the connection by –
"Kyle! Thank God; I thought the neuroblocker would be too late. Are you all right?"
It was awful. I focused on Jim's worried face inches from mine and I suddenly felt incredibly, horribly limited. I was seeing him from one direction only, the perspective was wrong and I was feeling nauseous.
I lunged forward, but I was still held captive. All I managed to do was turn my head so I wouldn't vomit all over myself.
"Crap!" Jim exclaimed. He hurried over to the console and hit something. The restraints holding me in place retracted at once.
I stumbled forward, lost my balance; tried again and fell flat on my face. The world was spinning. I felt as if I were blind even with my eyes wide open.
A thought. I had to form a thought.
"We're invading," I gasped even as Jim tried to help me get back up.
"What are you talking about?"
"Planetary Government sent bombarders. I saw them. The Furballs have activated their beam weapons and the sudden energy spike will be visible everywhere."
It was getting easier to focus. I saw how Jim's face changed from confusion to understanding to fear.
"You mean the Government is about to fight a war on this planet?"
But he didn't need me to confirm it. I glanced over at the nearest of his consoles and there it was, clear as day. Dozens of energy spikes appearing all over the map.
Suddenly, warning sirens began to wail.
Emergency. Please retreat to the underground bunker immediately. Emergency.
"It's happening," I said, standing on my own again.
Jim rushed to a console and his fingers flew over the keys. Suddenly the display of energy spikes around Tantalus zoomed in on one of the bright dots in particular. It was less than five kilometers from a large circular marking with a label I recognized.
"We need to get down to the bunker," Jim said, his voice hollow. "One of the largest beam weapon sites is right next door."
"So they're going to bomb the area even though we're here?" I asked, voice slightly panicky.
Jim turned from his console to look at me. He looked as scared as I was.
Then the ground shook violently, throwing me back on the floor and making Jim's chair tilt over and sending him sprawling down. The tremors lasted less than ten seconds but it was enough. I heard consoles hit the floor. I heard the crash of the tank holding the alien as it broke into a million pieces.
We lost main power.