“With all due respect, Admiral, the Hermes is not a science vessel.”
Maia Verrader did not sigh or slump, and kept her voice calm and measured. Beyond a slight narrowing of her eyes, she gave no indication at all of her frustration.
“You are correct, of course, Captain.” Admiral Shigeki’s skeletal, gray face filled the viewscreen in Verrader’s star cabin, his image utterly bereft of warmth or understanding or patience. “However, your ship is hardly a cargo tug. The Hermes is a Kyrenia-class destroyer, and fully equipped with the staff and equipment necessary for this assignment.”
“We already have an assignment,” Verrader said, though she knew she was nudging up against the limit of Shigeki’s tolerance for questioning his orders.
“Eridanus will wait. You are the only Star Force ship close enough to the La Superba system to observe the conditions there. Two weeks should be sufficient, Captain Verrader. Shigeki out.”
The viewscreen went dark, and Verrader rubbed at her temple, where a headache had begun to take root. She had not been a captain for long. This cruise on the Hermes was her maiden voyage with the second epaulette on her uniform, though she had commanded plenty of smaller ships as a lieutenant and commander, and she had boundless confidence in her ability. Star Force did not give command of one of its deep-space vessels to just any officer, and her promotion to captain had been a warranted capstone to a career of decoration and distinction. At forty-six, she was in the solid, respectable middle of that career, no longer a fresh young creature of promise and potential, and not yet in her professional dotage, shunted to some shore command or other paralytic sinecure. She was in command of a brand-new Kyrenia-class destroyer, en route to the galactic hot spot of Eridanus, and there was still time to make her mark. At least, when Admiral Shigeki wasn’t distracting her and her crew with these little research missions better suited to a science team on one of those little Tesla-class sloops. Verrader tapped at the flat screen of her desk.
“Commander, when you have a moment.”
“Of course.” The response was immediate, as she expected from her second-in-command. Commander Reed Tucker was a career officer, knew every reg in the book, and yet was still garrulous and beloved by a crew that called him Old Tuck, even belowdecks. A half minute later the door to Verrader’s cabin opened, and he appeared, tall and robust for a man half his age, the only hint that his fiftieth birthday had just passed was the tight bristle of salt-and-pepper hair still thick on his head. Verrader indicated a chair, and he sat, straight-backed, attentive.
“We’ll be late getting to Eridanus,” she said. “Star Force has rerouted us to investigate an unusual dying star halfway across the galaxy.”
“Demands of the service,” smiled Tucker, spreading his hands. “The Eridanus conflict will still be there in a few weeks, Captain. Years, even.”
“I don’t like being delayed, but Shigeki insisted. See to it that our course is changed for La Superba, Commander.” She rose, and he followed suit.
“Oh, and Mister Tucker. Notify the science department to assign Lieutenant Otis to bridge crew duty. This is right up her alley.”
La Superba was the vernacular name for the massive red star Y Canum Venaticorum, a name given by the Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi some seven centuries earlier in a poetic, hyperbolic reference to the star's beautiful crimson color, visible even on Earth a thousand light years distant. It was part of the Renaissance constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. The dogs belonged to the neighboring constellation Boötes the Herdsman, home to the bright orange and much more famous Arcturus. In antiquity, Ptolemy had considered the Canes stars to be part of Ursa Major, though they later became associated with Boötes as his club. Through a bewildering series of mistranslations from ancient Greek to Arabic to Latin, “club” became “dogs”, and so they remained. During the 21st century’s orgiastic search for extrasolar planets, it was deemed that La Superba had no satellites, and so resources and effort flowed into more promising quadrants. Now, as the red giant was cooling and preparing to retire to white dwarf status, there was renewed interest in the academic community, and a planet had been detected where no one had thought to look for hundreds of years. In the brief span left to the star, the big brains at the Jansky Astronomy Institute wanted to know more about this hidden world. Verrader knew all of this of course, which is to say that it was in her briefing data, and she always read her briefing data, though she did so without enthusiasm when it was as dull and dense as this. She was a smart woman, and she understood the value of exploration and scientific curiosity. Just with somebody else’s ship, she thought with a sigh, and somebody else’s time.
All of these things raced through her mind as the Hermes strained to penetrate the dense mess of cosmic clutter surrounding La Superba. Verrader had experienced solar winds, solar storms, and had even navigated through the oppressive doldrums of the Cold Spot during one particularly hairy mission to Eridanus. None of that had prepared her for the swirling miasma around La Superba. All stars shed matter along with light, but this dying giant was casting off mass a million times faster than the Sun, and had created a very thick and nasty soup for nearly three light years in all directions. When the end was near, and the star ejected the bulk of its remaining mass as a planetary nebula, things around here were going to get very nasty indeed. As it was, there was a constant alarm as the ship’s shielding deflected gaseous detritus.
“Garden spot,” the captain muttered as her ship, her new ship, burrowed gamely through the turbulence. “Turn off that damned alarm, we know the shields are encountering traffic.” The alarm ceased as her orders were carried out. The ship bucked, once, twice, and then the noise and commotion all but ceased, as the Hermes emerged into a sphere of region of relative quiet, at the doorstep of Y Canum Venaticorum.
The star was massive. It filled the viewscreen like a demigod ascending to Olympus, shedding carbon as though it were the last vestiges of human flesh, becoming briefly a maelstrom of flame before leaving behind only a lifeless husk. La Superba was larger than Earth’s sun by an order of magnitude – if the stars were to switch places in some kind of celestial exchange program, this red giant would gobble up Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars within its vast bulk.
“The planet is there, ma’am.” It was Lieutenant Mercy Otis, the officer assigned to science duty for this mission, who spoke. An indicator light appeared on the viewscreen, a blinking blue dot, cool against the unbroken red of the star. “Orbit is elliptical and stable. It might once have been capable of supporting life, but with the erratic growth of La Superba over the last millions of years as it approaches its final phase, it’s hard to tell what the Goldilocks zone might have once been here. Of course, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that life in its infinite variety is capable of finding a foothold just about anywhere.”
“We can dispense with the metaphysics, I think,” replied Verrader, more tersely than she intended. “Proceed with your scan, Lieutenant.” She wanted to wrap this up and get her crew and her ship out of here and heading back to Eridanus. That was where Star Force needed good captains, that was where promotions were earned and heroes born. Not out here watching a star die.
“Captain, the world below is dead.”
“Dead?” Verrader knew better than to second-guess her science officer, but while Otis might be the smartest woman in the fleet, she was still fairly young, not yet thirty. “No life signs at all, on any of the spectra?”
“None, ma’am.” Otis frowned, a crumpled black line across her sharp, angular face. “Not shocking given the time left before this star spits out a nebula. Any advanced civilization will have long since….” Her voice trailed off as one of her monitors chirped at her. Otis turned to examine it, blue eyes focused like lasers. “Hold on. Make that one concentrated locale of life signs. Weak, erratic, but there. Captain, hard as it is to believe, there’s something down there.” Verrader stood.
“Then that’s where we’ll go. Otis, it’s your team. Burns will go with you.” Jacob Burns, Sergeant of Marines, snapped to attention from his position at the door of the command center. “Take a techno and a Marine. You have thirty minutes from right now to investigate, then we’re out of this system before it blows up on us, you understand?”
Minutes later, Otis and Burns had piloted the ship’s launch, the de Gama, to the surface of the doomed planet, landing near the source of the intermittent, plaintive life signs. Burns emerged from the shuttle first, laser rifle in his hands, encased in the newest and best life-support skinsuit EarthCorp could produce. The faceplate of the Shepard 7 had no glare, no fogging, the lightweight nysteel exterior shielded against radiation and temperature variation, and the oxy-cycling woven throughout weighed no more than an ounce, yet could sustain human life for a full six hours. They wouldn’t need a fraction of that for this mission – they didn’t have that kind of time.
The broad holo-light at Burns’s shoulder illuminated a huge valley of black rocks and dead black tree-things. This was the final night of Superba One, the star it orbited alone looming enormous and pulsing on the other side of the planet, its glow faintly visible at each horizon east and west, a thin smudge the color of old brick. In one region the unremitting blackness darkened somehow, thickening, gathering.
“There,” he said, in his raspy baritone.
“That’s where the life signs are coming from,” confirmed Otis.
“It’s a cavern of some sort,” Burns said, staying one step ahead of Otis and the rest of the team. Becca Korin, the other Marine, brought up the rear, while the techno, Adam Hatmaker, loitered somewhere in between, taking readings as fast as his instruments would allow.
“No life signs out here, Lieutenant,” Hatmaker reported, his face plate scant inches from his scanner. “Not even a microbe.”
“That star is tossing some serious radiation,” said Otis. “Not much could survive down here.”
“Something did,” growled Burns, tall and angular in his Shepard, a mantis in a skinsuit. He sighed. “Keep your eye on your chronometer, Korin. I want two-minute notifications. At minus-ten, we head for the boat, copy?”
Korin nodded, while Otis ground her teeth. She was the senior officer and in command of the landing party, but this wasn’t the first time Burns had acted as though he were in charge.
“Sergeant,” she said over a private com-channel directed at him, “I’ll give the orders here, do you copy?”
Otis knew better than to take the response at face value. Marines tended to be overly protective of Star Force science personnel on surface missions, and Burns in particular was a motherly sort. Still, she chafed, as a scientist, as a woman, as an officer.
Burns pushed ahead into the mouth of the cavern, a low-ceilinged cave with smooth walls and a too-round entrance.
“Can’t be natural in origin,” Hatmaker opined. He was an odd duck, Hatmaker, socially awkward, not given to small talk, but brilliant in his field of xenobiology. A gifted techno, thought Otis, as they proceeded into the deepening dark, if he could overcome his oddities.
“Keep taking readings,” Otis ordered, unnecessarily. She knew Hatmaker would, but she wanted to keep his mind occupied on their job, and not on the thrill of danger. The tunnel – and it was a tunnel, not just a cave mouth – was a smooth tube, as if it had been bored by machinery. Otis’ own, less detailed scans indicated that the life signed grew closer the farther they penetrated, though they remained erratic, inconsistent.
“Less than a tenth of a kilometer,” Hatmaker said, and Burns tightened his grip on his pulse rifle.
“Can you get any granularity?” Otis whispered to Hatmaker. It was foolish, keeping her voice low. The com links were closed and only audible in the earpieces of the Shepard helmets. Even if the sound were to escape the headgear, whatever atmosphere Superba One had once had was long gone, stripped away as the star convulsed toward death.
“Trying.” Hatmaker’s voice conveyed neither haste nor vexation, as inscrutably calm as ever. “There are certainly at least five, perhaps as many as ten. The ambient radiation is interfering with the scan, but…” he trailed off, and stopped.
“What the hell?” That was Burns, but all of them saw the same readout on their arm-screens. The tiny green dots that represented bioactivity were flickering in and out, moving crazily around in an enclosed space just ahead. Otis had been on dozens of worlds, and had three xeno-primes to her credit, but she had never seen anything like this. This wasn’t radiation mucking with their scanners. It was as if these beings existed one moment, then evaporated, only to return an instant later, and not in the same spot.
“Must be the stellar interference,” she said, not really believing it herself. None of them did. The team had come to a halt, about a meter shy of the end of the tunnel, which terminated in a perfectly flat wall, one that on closer inspection yielded no cracks or seams or imperfections.
“They’re in there,” Hatmaker said, looking up. “Whatever they are.”
“How do we open it?” Burns asked, running his gloved fingers around the perimeter. “It certainly seems to be a door, but there’s no button or panel I can find.”
“Think about it,” Otis replied. “Whatever is in there, we have to assume that’s all that remains of the indigenous life on this planet. It’s safe then to further assume that the irradiation of the surface wiped most of them out. If we open this door, it would likely kill these survivors, too.”
“So what do you suggest?” Burns’ tone was slightly sardonic. “If I recall, in a matter of hours this whole planet will be dust.”
Circumstances conspired to render their debate moot, as the apparently seamless doorway irised open, retreating in four curved sections, until only the tunnel remained, dark beyond the reach of their shoulder lights.
“Well, that answers that,” Otis murmured. She glanced over at Burns with the hint of a smirk.
“Korin.” Burns’ voice was quiet and calm, but carried the authority of a barked command. Marine Private Korin stepped forward. She was young, short, white-blond hair cropped short, and on her first drop, but that was not in evidence as she moved forward, her stride firm, her grip on her pulse-rifle steady. Her holo-light played over the curve of the corridor, past where the doorway had been. Otis followed, then Hatmaker, head still bent over his readings. Burns trailed, one eye on the tunnel behind them.
There was a click, and slowly there was illumination in the darkness, a soft glow, phosphorescent, green-white. It grew by degrees, slowly, revealing a circular chamber, perfectly smooth like the entry tunnel. Burns cursed, softly, and Otis turned her head. The doorway had closed behind them. And there was movement. Something was lurking, just at the edges of the room, but whenever Otis tried to focus on one of the whatever-it-was, it was gone. She peered over Korin’s shoulder, a rising sense of unease filling the back of her throat.
All at once, the movement resolved into the light, and Otis, who had visited a score of alien worlds, choked back a scream.
There were ten of them, or close enough to make no difference. And they were terrifying. About two meters long, equally as high, and a black nightmare. A riot of legs, or arms, or some kind of multi-jointed appendages, the front two of which were elevated off the ground, ending in serrated points. Hovering above, supported by a thin, swaying tendril, was a long, tapered head, with no apparent mouth, but with two massive, bulbous, shining white eyes. For what seemed like long minutes, they stood in tableau, the four silver-suited members of the landing party and the spidery creatures that twitched noiselessly throughout the room. Otis took a deep breath and fought through her natural urge to panic. She switched her Shepard’s audio to the external channel, engaging the translator program.
“Don’t move,” she whispered, hoarse, surprised the words came out whole and intact, not choked with the stutter of terror. Nobody -”
“Korin, on my six,” bellowed Burns over the voice link, cutting over Otis. “Protect the officers. Fire on my voice, or if the monsters move.”
“Burns,” rasped Otis, “I’m in command here.”
“Not when a present danger occurs,” Burns replied, evenly and in total control.
“You don’t know they’re a danger,” Otis replied. If the aliens seemed perturbed by Burns’ aggressive posture, they betrayed it through no action or sound. One of the creatures, more slender and shorter than the others, tilted its head, seeming to regard Otis with its pale eyes. “They might not think our rifles are weapons,” she continued. “Without hands, they might not have tools, though they certainly built whatever this is.”
“Might not be intelligent,” Burns argued. “Might have been pets, or guard dogs, or wild scavengers.” He had his rifle at the ready, trained on the closest of them.
“Unlikely.” Hatmaker, somehow seemingly unnerved, was still taking readings. “I’m getting a lot of encephalitic activity here. If anything, they’re probably smarter than we are.”
“You see?” Otis relaxed, just slightly. She looked again at the smaller of them, and noticed that it wasn’t completely black. There was a pattern to its…shell? Carapace? Skin? A kind of smoky gray variegation, a kind of tortoiseshell. It was almost pretty. Otis turned her head to face Burns. “This isn’t your first drop, Jacob. You know the protocols….”
Lieutenant Otis never finished the sentence. Two of the creatures disappeared and reappeared on either side of her, their serrated forelegs clamped on her arms. She was so startled by the suddenness of the assault that she was paralyzed. Burns and Korin, in a testament to their training and reflexes, opened fire, but none of the beasts were in the places they had been a moment before. The smaller creature with the gray markings that Otis had been studying appeared on top of her, bearing her to the floor of the chamber. She started to scream, the entire field of her vision filled with the monstrous head of the thing, its eyes rotating and boring into her mind through the clear, unfogged faceplate, and there was pain, her skull set aflame. All around were sounds of pulse fire and yells, and skittering clatters, and then nothing.
Mercy Otis opened her eyes, expecting to see the horrible black chamber on Superba One, but instead it was the muted off-white walls of the Surgery on the Hermes. She was neither cool nor warm, it was quiet, and she was lying flat on her back. She tried to sit up, but was stopped by restraints that secured her to the clinical bed.
“Easy, Mercy.” Through the gauzy film that was clearing from her eyes, Otis could make out the pleasant face of the ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Commander Gordahl, with his kind, smiling face and perpetual stubbly veneer. Otis had never consulted him for more than a routine physical in their months as shipmates, and did not know him well, but the look on his face was not difficult to interpret. He was worried, and, she thought, a little frightened.
“What is it, Doctor?” she asked, shaking one hand so the restraint at her wrist rustled. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with me? How long have I been out?”
Gordahl scratched at his stubble, and made a show of examining the monitors above her bed, buying time, eventually deciding to answer the last of her questions first.
“Five days,” he replied.
“Five..?” Otis recoiled as if struck. “I’ve been unconscious for five days?”
“Oh, no,” Gordahl said. “There have been moments you’ve been quite animated. Hence the restraints. For your own safety, of course. And for my staff’s.” Otis stared at him, questions dying on her tongue.
“La Superba,” she murmured. “That’s the last thing I remember.” The doctor nodded.
“You certainly were in bad shape when they brought you back. Sergeant Burns made a full report, of course, of how those creatures set upon your party.”
“Set upon…” Otis tried to think back, but there was a vicious throbbing at her temples, percussive and insistent. She remembered taking the shuttle to the planet’s surface, the hallway, the room…and those nightmarish spidery things. But from the moment they seized her, her memory was a fugue of pain and confusion.
“Burns and the Marine, Korin, managed to either kill or disable the beasts,” Gordahl reported, “and dragged you and Hatmaker to the shuttle.”
“The…beasts?” The word felt strange to Otis.
“The indigenous natives,” Gordahl continued. “Unbelievable that there was still life on that planet, so close to the end of its existence.”
“And the star?” she asked, dully.
“Completed its transition.” This voice came from the doorway, and Otis rotated her aching head to see Captain Verrader. “La Superba is a white dwarf now, or just about. A ghost star. That planet, and whatever was on it, is dust.” The commanding officer of the Hermes came to the bedside and perched at its edge awkwardly, and did not take Otis’ hand, did not touch her at all, as though there was something she feared contracting. The lieutenant paid no attention to this, consumed instead by a sudden wave of sorrow that she did not understand. She shuddered, as a grief cascaded over her.
“Doctor?” asked Verrader, standing, backing away. “Is it another fit?”
“I don’t want to sedate her again if I don’t have to,” Gordahl protested. He looked at Otis, searchingly.
“No,” croaked Otis, through tears she did not know why she shed. “No, please. Tell me what’s happening.”
“We don’t know what’s happening,” the doctor replied. “Since you came back from Superba One, you’ve alternated between manic outbursts of gibberish and a deep comatose state. The restraints are there to protect you, and my staff, from the more violent of your episodes. I don’t understand what’s happening, Mercy. Your white blood count is abnormally high, as though your body were fighting off some kind of contagion, but there’s no infection, no foreign bodies I can identify. I had hoped Hatmaker’s scans of the life forms on Superba One would yield some clue, but the data was all useless, as if the creatures were resistant to our scanning methods. As it is, you’re exhausted, you’re feverish, and I have nothing to go on. I don’t know why you’re sick.”
“We’re back on course for Acamar Station to report for duty at Eridanus,” Verrader interrupted. She stood rigid, her hands clasped behind her. “Acamar has a Level One medical facility. They’ll get you patched up, Lieutenant.” And without another word, the captain left.
“She’s concerned about you,” Gordahl murmured soothingly. “She’s never been one to show it, but she does care, you know.”
“I do too,” choked Otis. At that moment, she found that she did not care, at least not about Captain Verrader’s empathy. She felt as though she had already died, as though everyone she had ever cared about was gone, and the despair was a ravening pit inside her. “Am I dying?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Verrader had told the truth. The medical facilities at Acamar Station were first-rate. No surprise there – the suppression of Eridanus has been an ongoing, bloody military action for more than a year, with no end in sight. The spacious, well-stocked hospital at Acamar was spacious and well-stocked for a reason. Star Force knew how to handle casualties from a planetary pacification. Doctors and nurses took blood, ran tests, and yet came no closer to any answers than Gordahl had. Lieutenant Otis lost track of the days, slipping in and out of consciousness, exhausted whenever she awoke, drenched in sweat, as though she had run a marathon in her sleep. Then a day came, or perhaps a night, it hardly mattered, when Otis opened her eyes to find that she was no longer in the hospital. These walls were a gentle, flat sea-green, rather than the antiseptic white she had grown accustomed to both on ship and in the medical ward on Acamar. The small room was dimly-lit, a little cool, and there was a woman there Otis did not recognize.
Otis could not tell her age. She might be thirty or seventy. Sleek, silvery hair outlined a gray-eyed face that was startlingly white and beautiful. Not a doctor, thought Otis. She didn’t wear the medical uniform, but instead a snug jumpsuit the color of woodsmoke with no apparent insignia or decoration. She brought a chair and sat alongside the bed, and fixed those slate-gray eyes on Otis.
“Lieutenant,” she said, in a voice at the very bottom of the register, stone on stone. There was no warmth in it, no collegiality or intimacy. “My name is Athena Roga, and I am here to help you.”
“You’re a mindreaver,” Otis whispered, with an infinitesimal recoil.
“A telepath, yes.” If Roga was insulted by the slur, she gave no sign. She never seemed to blink.
“I don’t want your help.”
“That’s not up to you.” Roga tilted her head a bit, appraisingly. “You’re young, you’re a promising officer. Star Force would hate to lose its investment in you. So we’re going to solve your problem.”
“Solve?” Otis laughed, and then winced as her skull barked in pain. “Going to make me a vegetable?”
“Nothing of the sort.” Roga’s smooth brow showed just the slightest hint of furrowing. “Give me more credit than that, please. I know my business, Lieutenant Otis. Now, I would greatly appreciate your cooperation. I can do the job without it, of course, but it would be somewhat more difficult. Probably more importantly to you, it would be markedly more painful.”
“To excise whatever damage the last denizens of Superba One did to your brain. Every bio-test has been exhausted trying to diagnose a physiological cause of your distress, to no avail. So now I’ll go in on a diagnostic scan, to determine precisely what we’re dealing with, whether it may yet be physiological, or instead mental or perhaps emotional. Whether it is related to the subconscious, or memory, or any of a thousand other possibilities.”
“I don’t want you in my head.”
“Young lady, you have no choice. Don’t be concerned about your privacy, about whatever personal secrets or hidden desires or animosities might be in there. I assure you, I couldn’t be less interested. This is no more or less invasive than taking your clothes off for your doctor. This won’t be my first scan, or my thousandth. I am neither a tourist nor a dilettante.” Roga considered her closely, as though she were already in her mind. “You are afraid. You should be afraid of what happens if I don’t find anything we can fix.”
“What happens then?” Otis whispered.
“Your body is failing, Lieutenant. Something is killing you. If I can’t find it and stop it, it will kill you, probably within a week. I am your last chance. So, shall we begin?”
There were not many telepaths, perhaps a dozen in each generation, and EarthCorp expended significant resources to identify and train as many as they could. Their unique skills were valuable in commercial transactions, military and espionage activities, and even medical applications. Athena Roga was a seasoned mindreaver, to use the colloquial description, with a diplomatic portfolio that had brought her to Eridanus as part of the suppression of that planet’s rebellious population. Star Force higher-ups had asked her to investigate the mysterious illness that had afflicted Lieutenant Mercy Otis of the Hermes after her first contact with the now-extinct native fauna of Superba One. There was official concern for the well-being of a talented officer, beneath which roiled curiosity about what had taken place, and whether it had potential for commercial or military applications. Roga’s orders were to save the girl if she could, but to glean information and value in any event.
“Breathe deeply,” Roga said to Otis. “Close your eyes and try to relax.”
Small chance of that, the telepath thought, seeing, and then, as she entered the subject's mind, feeling the amount of pain the young science officer was in. Deftly, Roga decoupled the brain’s pain receptors, and she could feel Otis relax, a sensation that deepened into sleep as Roga guided her into a restful slumber. She felt a strength and willfulness in the lieutenant that she liked, qualities compatible with her own that allowed her to readily ease into her subconscious mind. She’d been in hundreds of other minds, if not thousands, and was long familiar with the sensation of overlapping her own identity and presence with that of another. For the well-trained and talented telepath, there was a harmonic resonance that was almost pleasant, unless the person was deeply disturbed, and that certainly was not the case with Mercy Otis. Otis wasn’t insane, at least, not in a gross way that presented immediately. But as she tuned out the clatter of extraneous memories and thoughts, Roga felt something nagging at the edge of her own awareness. Something was amiss. As she quieted her own thoughts, probing, seeking, questing through the young woman’s mind, she found it.
They weren’t alone. There was another mind here, a third sentience, gossamer and ephemeral, but there. And then it wasn’t. Roga concentrated, groping about for what she had lost, and then it had returned. Cautiously, the telepath approached this third intelligence. She had scanned dissociatives before, worked to reconcile multiple personalities, knew how that presented, and this wasn’t it. This was something else, not organic to the brain of Mercy Otis. It was completely alien. It disappeared again, slipped into non-existence, but now Roga knew enough to wait patiently for a moment, and before long it returned. Scanning deeper, yet still gently, Roga suddenly found herself confronted with images and sensations like none she had ever encountered. A density of thought and memory buried her like the tide, songs sung by billions of voices at once, chanting, preserving, striving to endure. Roga knew then what it was, and for the first time in a very long time, it brought her to the verge of tears.
“I feel better,” Otis said after she woke, to her own surprise. “Whatever you did, thank you.” Roga shook her head. They were still alone, in that small green room, and while Otis had no idea what time of day it was, or even if it was day, it seemed as though scant moments had passed.
“I didn’t do anything,” she replied. It seemed to Otis that the telepath was tired, or sad, but certainly seemed drained. “Oh, I dampened your pain receptors a bit, which is likely why you aren’t hurting as much. But the pain will come back. And it will get worse, Mercy.” Otis stiffened, at the news and at the mindreaver’s use of her first name. I suppose, she thought, she feels like she knows me a little better now.
“So you didn’t fix it.”
“No.” Roga looked away for a moment, and blinked back, to Otis’ surprise, a single tear. “No, but I can. A least, I think I can.”
“Well, then, what are we waiting for?”
“For your permission. I want you to understand what it is that’s happened to you. And then I can try to fix it.” Otis just stared at her, so Roga continued. “The natives of Superba One were a wildly advanced culture, Mercy, and old. Millions of years old. They knew their star was dying, and so they prepared for the perpetuation of their race. Not through spacecraft – that wasn’t really their nature. They never reached for interstellar travel, or outward exploration, or contact with other species. Their name for themselves translated roughly into ‘the home people’, and the idea of leaving Superba never occurred to them. Instead, they worked for untold centuries on consolidating their culture, their history, their identity, everything that comprised who they were, into a kind of collective consciousness that they then passed on to a single individual, one in each generation. A soulbearer, they called it.”
“Soulbearer,” repeated Otis, and Roga nodded. “I met the last one, didn’t I?”
“No, Mercy,” Roga said. “You are the last one.”
There was a silence then, neither woman able to speak. Though she was usually uncomfortable with physical contact, Roga reached out and took Otis by the hand, felt the heat from the dying officer’s flesh.
“So their what, their cultural memories are in my mind? That’s why I’m sick? Can we download them somehow, into a powerful database or something? Get them out of my head without hurting them?”
“No, not really,” Roga replied. “And the soulbearer’s burden is only part of the problem. You see, our bio-scans didn’t pick it up because the Superbas – for lack of a better name for them – don’t show up readily to our technology. They exist on only a quasi-physical plane. They shift in and out of our reality, like…like…”
“Smoke,” Otis supplied, remembering the weak, erratic life signs they had tracked to the bunker.
“I suppose,” Roga agreed. “So the information downloaded into your brain by the soulbearer you met never showed up in medical scans using radiation or magnetism or blood tests.” The telepath took a long, deep breath. “And neither did the millions of eggs in your bloodstream.” Had she not been restrained, Mercy Otis would have sat upright. Her eyes widened, and her mouth hung open, wordless.
“Eggs?” she finally managed, nearly inaudible.
“Eggs,” Roga echoed. “As it turns out, Lieutenant, you are the carrier of the future of an entire race.”
Captain Maia Verrader was not a huge believer in mindreavers. She didn’t know many Star Force senior officers who were. They were useful enough, in certain situations, but she did not trust them, or like them. Still, Star Force had insisted that this one examine Lieutenant Otis, and as uncomfortable as it made Verrader, she had acquiesced. She walked quickly down the corridors at Acamar Station, restless and frustrated. There were here, only a figurative stone’s throw from the action at Eridanus, and she was detained here at the staging depot, with a new ship and crew spoiling for action. All but one science officer, a woman Verrader liked and had high hopes for, but a woman for whom there did not seem to be much hope. The captain had lost men and women under her command before, but while it always felt like losing a piece of herself, this felt worse, dirtier somehow. This wasn’t a casualty from a fleet action, or hunting smugglers, or putting down a planetary rebellion. This was a good officer in mortal danger from a mission she had never wanted, and never really understood. She had gotten the report from Roga on the situation, and she understood that even less.
Verrader found the private room that had been made available for Otis and the telepath Star Force had arranged to examine her. It was a pleasant little cube, just a bed and a couple of chairs, but it was private and comfortable. Otis looked weaker, more pale, less flesh on her already-slim frame, high cheekbones higher, not yet skeletal but certainly gaunt. Trying to imagine the fairy tale she had been told, that this young woman’s veins teemed with alien eggs and her mind with alien thoughts, Verrader’s imagination failed her.
“Lieutenant,” she said, disdaining the chair next to Roga and keeping her feet. “I understand we’ve got ourselves a diagnosis. I must say I’m pleased.” She turned to the mindreaver. “How soon can you remove the infections?”
“It’s not that simple,” Roga replied, looking to Otis and then back to the captain.
“I understand the process is dangerous, of course.” Verrader hitched a small smile onto her face. “But such is the life of a Star Force officer. I have no doubt you’ll pull through, Otis.”
“You don’t get it, ma’am,” Otis said, her voice reedy and slender but clearly lucid. “I’m not sure I want to try.”
“You don’t…” Verrader scowled. “You’re not afraid, are you?”
“No,” replied Otis. “Not that it won’t work, if that’s what you mean. I’m afraid that it will work.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means, do I have the right to destroy an entire sentient species to save myself? The memories, Roga, you saw them. This was – is – a peaceful, poetic life form, Captain. I should deprive the galaxy of that voice so Mercy Otis can live?”
“What about your voice, Mercy?” asked Roga quietly. “Your right to live?”
“I won’t buy it through genocide,” Otis said, and weak as it was, her voice had an unmistakable firmness to it.
“You can’t be serious,” Verrader said, after a moment. “Lieutenant, I order you to accept the medical treatment, as soon as possible.”
“You can’t do that,” Roga said, standing.
“Like hell I can’t,” Verrader growled. “Stand down, miss. You don’t know who you’re dealing with here.”
“I do, Captain. You are aware, no doubt, that senior telepaths are granted the functional rank of commodore? Useful in diplomatic situations. And when dealing with well-meaning captains of limited vision. Failing that, perhaps this message from Admiral Shigeki will change your mind.” Roga proffered a handheld data pad, which Verrader took, stiffly. The image of Shigeki appeared there, as lean and implacable as ever, and proceeded to order Verrader to remand Lieutenant Mercy Otis to the temporary command of Athena Roga, and then to proceed without further delay to Eridanus. Captain Verrader returned the pad to the telepath.
“That appears to be in order,” she forced herself to say. She looked then at Otis, aware it would be for the last time. “Goodbye, Lieutenant. I hope you know what you’re doing.” Without a glance at Roga, she left. Eridanus, and her career, awaited.
“Not how I expected my career in Star Force to end,” Otis murmured once the captain was gone.
“Don’t worry,” Roga said, patting Otis on the hand. “She’s already forgotten about you. And about Superba. In fact, the entire incident has been ordered classified, and the memories of the officers involved modified.”
“Already done. It doesn’t take much, really. Memory can be such a fragile thing.”
The next day, Otis and Roga were aboard a small Tesla-class scientific sloop, the Hestia, headed toward secret coordinates Star Force had provided. No one had said as much, but Otis presumed they indicated a habitable, isolated planet where the Superba natives would take root. She was glad Roga was with her, here at the end.
“I’m glad too,” Roga said, smiling. “Though it’s not the end, of course.”
“Reading my mind?” Otis choked, and some blood came up. She was no longer restrained, no longer a danger to herself or others, no longer in pain, thanks to Roga, but speaking was still tiring.
“Some thoughts are loud enough to hear without really listening.” Silently, Roga encouraged Otis to open her mind, to communicate with her by thought alone, to save her the effort of words.
<<Where are we going?>> Otis asked, in her mind.
<<Not where they think we are,>> Roga replied. Otis found that it strange to have a conversation in complete silence, knowing more than hearing the words, thoughts instead of voices.
<<I don’t understand.>>
<<Star Force wanted us to go an annex of the Jansky Science Center, on Io. To observe the process, I imagine, to determine whether the knowledge and abilities of these beings can be exploited somehow.>> Roga smirked conspiratorially. <<I took the liberty of adjusting some paperwork and some memories beyond those I was strictly ordered to.>>
<<No wonder people don’t trust telepaths.>>
<<We are a law unto ourselves, at need,>> Roga concurred.
<<So where are we going, then?>> Otis asked.
<<A little virtually unknown star system deep in the Boötes void, not all that far from where La Superba used to be. We’ll take them home. And no one will ever know, I promise.>>
There was a long pause then, and Roga thought Otis might have drifted off to sleep. She wouldn’t have been surprised. The young woman had been through a lot, and was even now drawing on her last reserves of strength.
“Will it hurt?” Otis asked, aloud.
“Yes, I think so,” Roga answered honestly. “Like childbirth, I suppose. There’s pain, but it’s for a purpose. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had any children.”
“Neither have I,” Otis replied. “At least, she added with the ghost of a laugh, “until now.”
“I will be with you, and I will help you as much as I can,” Roga vowed. And again she took the lieutenant’s hand, which gripped hers with desperate strength.
“Thank you,” was the last thing Mercy Otis said.