“All right.” Zvi asked the obvious question: “So what is this alien artifact of yours?”
Ellesmere and Young exchanged a glance. Sarah took a deep breath. “We think it’s a ship.”
Mayhem once again broke loose. This time it was Svetlana who shouted down the others.
“Vhat do you mean ‘a ship’?” she demanded, the stress of the moment bringing out her accent. “Vy do you say that?”
Young shrugged. “It seems like an intact vessel. It’s obviously of alien origin, like nothing we’ve ever seen before, but so far as we can tell, it’s in one piece.”
Rajan swallowed hard. “Is it…active?”
Young grinned. “If the question is whether there are any little green faces pressed against the viewports, the answer is no. It looks to us like it’s a derelict. We can’t detect any power use; we think it’s traveling along on pure inertia.”
“Did it originate within the system?” Carlotta asked.
Sarah spread her hands. “Who can tell? But if I were a betting person, I’d wager not. Our close-range scans have shown a lot of pitting on the outer surface, as though it were traveling for many many years.”
“What close-range scans are you talking about?” Kim asked. “Did you tap into ground-based surveillance systems?”
Young laughed out loud. “No, no. We borrowed Zvi’s telescopes and high-powered camera lenses.”
“That’s where my stuff disappeared to!” the astronomer exclaimed. “I was ready to tell the psych guys that there was a klepto onboard.”
“What does it look like?” Shiru asked timidly.
Young smiled. Going to a cabinet, he pulled out a sheaf of printouts, which he sent floating over to her. “See for yourself.”
The ship was much larger than their little shuttle, more along the scale of the space station. It seemed as though much of the mass was devoted to three large pods arranged in an equilateral triangle around what must be the vessel’s engines.
After several long minutes of silent staring, Gutierrez looked up. “What do we do now?”
“First off, we’ll tell Mission Control that the radio is acting up, so we’ll be out of touch for several hours. Then we’ll change course to intercept the alien. Sarah’s already plotted our path so that we’ll be behind the asteroids for most of it. The ground won’t be able to see what we’re doing.”
“And then?” Carlotta said uneasily.
“Then we’ll match speeds with the alien, and, assuming we can find something to pass for an airlock, we’ll board it.”
“What if there’s no airlock?” Zvi asked. “Maybe they beamed aboard or something.”
“Even the Enterprise had airlocks,” Kim rumbled. “But we could probably cut our way in with the tools in our emergency repair kit.”
“Are we all agreed?” Sarah asked. “Shall I relay the message to Earth?”
“It’s a go.” Gutierrez spoke for them all.
Within six hours, they were ready to send over a boarding party. “Who’s going?” Young asked, getting ready to pass out EVA suits.
“We can’t all go,” Ellesmere forestalled the chorus of voices. “If there’s any danger, some of us should remain here, ready to warn Earth.”
“That’s not a message I’d want to send,” Zvi muttered to Carlotta. “Hello, Mission Control, we found an alien spaceship, pulled over for a closer look, and found out that they’ve dropped by to enslave the planet. They’ll be landing in a few hours, so we thought you’d like to know about it. Well, gotta run!”
“All right, hot shot.” Young pushed a suit over to him. “Since you don’t want to stay, you can come along. Anybody else?”
“I want to come,” Shiru said unexpectedly. Her eyes were bright with fear and excitement.
Young looked at her affectionately. “Okay.”
“I’ll stay and monitor your transmissions,” Carlotta volunteered.
Rajan and Gutierrez exchanged a glance. “I’ll stay behind and make sure the medical station is ready in case of trouble,” Rajan said. “Juan, you’d better go and represent us life sciences types.”
Gutierrez nodded agreeably and accepted a space suit from Young.
“I’ll stay behind too.” Svetlana sounded as though the words were being dragged out of her. “As pilot, I’ll be needed.”
“I’d rather inspect the outside of the ship some more, to see what I can learn about its material. I can do that more easily from here.”
Young nodded. “All right, that leaves only Sarah and me. Anybody object if both of us go over? Svetlana, you’ll be in command while I’m gone. At the first sign of trouble, get the hell out of here.”
“All of us will carry acetylene torches with us,” Sarah told the others. “They’ll serve as weapons, if necessary. Also, in a worst-case scenario, they can slice open our suits in seconds. Remember, under no circumstances can we endanger Earth. We all must be prepared to kill ourselves before allowing that to happen.”
Sober nods all around.
“If we do have to flee, I will turn the ship so that the alien is caught in the rocket exhaust. That should take care of them.”
“Good idea, Svetlana,” Young replied, “but for all we know this thing can pass through a sun and remain unscorched. Don’t take any chances.”
She looked grim. “We’ll be ready to get out quickly. Raj can stay by the medical station, and Carlotta and I will be at the instruments. If Kim remains here at the main viewport, we can all be strapped down and ready for sudden acceleration.”
“Good. Do it.”
After they had all donned their space suits and crowded into the ship’s tiny airlock, Svetlana cycled the lock. “Good luck.”
“Are you reading us, Carlotta?” Ellesmere asked as the party made its way out onto the surface of their ship.
Their magnetic boots held them fast against the metal skin, but each had a safety tether locked onto the airlock as an added precaution.
“You are coming in loud and dear,” Carlotta replied. For once Zvi didn’t correct her.
Young glanced at the alien ship floating only a few yards to one side. They were exactly level with the end of one of the pods. “This is perfect, Svetlana. Hold her steady.”
Svetlana’s use of such an outdated form of address indicated that her sense of humor was reviving. Like many of her countrymen, she took refuge in black humor. The worse a situation appeared, the more likely Svetlana would be making jokes.
“Zvi, give me one end of the line.”
Zvi promptly complied, keeping the other end of the ten-meter line firmly in his grip.
Young unstrapped his safety tether and after one last look to gauge the distance, launched himself toward the other ship.
He soared across the gap and collided with the alien craft. The force with which he hit knocked the breath out of him, and his gasp echoed over the others’ earphones.
“Are you all right?” Sarah asked anxiously, preparing to hurry to his aid.
“Just—fine,” Young gasped. “Kim, whatever this thing is made of, my boots don’t stick to it. Luckily there are a lot of little protuberances, God only knows what they’re for, that make it easy to hang on.”
“Can you see the thing we thought was an airlock?” Gutierrez asked.
“Yes. And it looks even more like one from this side. There’s some sort of instrument panel here, if only I can figure out how to work it. Damn! This is hard to do one-handed.”
“Do you want some help?” Shiru offered.
“I think—there! That’s done something!”
Despite the ship’s defunct appearance, Young’s tinkering had provoked a response. The panel began to glow with a cool blue light, and the hatch in front of him slid smoothly to one side.
Young cautiously looked inside. “This is it, gang. Come on over!”
Zvi made their end of the line fast to the shuttle, then one by one they pulled themselves along the makeshift bridge to the strange craft. “Everybody all right?” Young asked, once they had all squeezed into the small chamber.
Gutierrez looked around curiously. There were softly glowing instrument panels at both ends of the room. While Young peered at the one adjacent to the opening through which they had come, he propelled himself to the opposite panel and began to examine it.
“Do you suppose it’s the same thing to close the hatch as it was to open it?” Young mused, pressing on the touch-sensitive markings.
“Look out!” Shiru yelped as the door slid shut as smoothly as it had opened. All five quickly switched on their helmet lights.
“Lovely,” Sarah said dourly. “Let’s hope this isn’t an extraterrestrial mousetrap.”
“What do we do now?” Zvi asked no one in particular. “Try to cut our way into the ship?”
“Maybe that other panel opens the inner door,” Shiru suggested. “Juan, what do you see?”
“This one looks different than the other,” he replied absently. “There are more buttons and symbols. You know…they almost look familiar.”
“Oh, right.” Zvi snickered. “This is the famous Costa Rican space probe back from the far reaches of the galaxy.”
“No, no, I’m serious,” Gutierrez persisted. “Look at these. Don’t they remind you of something?”
The markings to which he pointed consisted of a group of similar geometric shapes.
The first showed a simple sphere surrounded by one ring. In the next, two closely associated spheres were ringed, while the one after that had four central spheres encircled by two rings.
The next symbol had seven small spheres around which were two rings then, after a short gap, another one.
The pattern continued in similar fashion. Next came nine spheres with four rings in two groups of two. Then eleven spheres and five rings, one group of two and one of three.
“Then twelve in the center surrounded by two rings, then four…” Gutierrez’s face was twisted in concentration. “Where have I seen that pattern before?”
“They look like star systems,” Shiru offered. “Planets circling a sun.”
“What about it, Zvi?” Young asked. “Do you recognize any of them?”
The younger man shook his head. “No, but we know very little about other planetary systems. It’s interesting that there are so many multiple stars depicted. I’ve never heard of systems with more than two suns, and even then the planetary orbits would never be these simple circular arcs.”
“Maybe they were just simplifying it, the same way we draw cartoons to represent complex scientific concepts,” Shiru suggested.
“That’s it!” Gutierrez exclaimed. “These aren’t solar systems! They’re simple depictions of the elements!”
“What?” The others stared at him.
“Look!” he ordered, stabbing an excited finger at the first figure. “That’s a single electron in orbit around a proton: hydrogen! Then an electron orbiting a proton and neutron: deuterium! Then helium, two protons, two neutrons, two electrons.”
“And lithium.” Sarah was nodding. “Three protons, four neutrons and three electrons, with the space denoting the different electron shells.”
“But why?” Zvi asked, confused. “Why put a periodic table on the outer airlock?”
“So that anyone entering could select an appropriate atmosphere!” Gutierrez guessed. “Look here: when I press on one of the symbols, a bar lights up. The more times I press, the more of the bar appears.”
He demonstrated. The symbol he pressed, representing oxygen, glowed green, as did the bar which appeared over the chart.
“See? If I press another one, say nitrogen, it glows a different color.”
Now half of the bar was red.
“See, the number of times I press the panel corresponds to the percentage of that element within the bar. Now. If the entire bar symbolizes 100 percent, then this is an easy way to indicate what percentage of each element is present in our atmosphere.”
“This is awfully convenient,” Young said skeptically. “Why would they design something that would be so simple to use?”
“Maybe they assumed they’d have company, and they deliberately made it so that other species could figure it out.”
“And maybe we’re reading into it what we’d like to see. Maybe it’s their form of lettering, or it denotes the difference between grades of methane,” Young countered.
“The sequence is too regular for that,” Gutierrez argued. “Do you want me to predict the rest of the chart? After carbon comes nitrogen; it’ll have fourteen spheres and—”
“All right, let’s say I’m willing to accept the argument for now. How did they know that they were using the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we could see?”
Gutierrez sighed impatiently. “For all we know the wall’s also emitting infrared and ultraviolet radiation. Or maybe gamma rays.”
Shiru grabbed for the radiation badge on the outside of her suit. “No recorded exposure to harmful radiation,” she reported with relief a moment later.
“This could also be a simple light show designed to amuse the captives,” Sarah pointed out. “Still, I suppose that we might as well proceed as though Juan is correct. Do you agree, Will?”
Young shrugged. “Why not? Okay, Juan, try to punch in an atmosphere as much like Earth’s as you can.”
“Right.” Several minutes later, he turned back to them. The bar glowed green, red, blue, and orange. “I made it an oxygen/nitrogen mix, with a little argon and other trace gases thrown in.”
“Show off,” Zvi teased. “Pure O2 would have been good enough.”
“I just wanted to impress all of you with my knowledge of the elements’ atomic structures.” Gutierrez grinned back.
“Hey!” Shiru pointed back to the panel. “Another bar has appeared!”
“What’s that for?” Young asked in surprise and alarm.
Gutierrez stared at it. “I—I don’t know. The other bar hasn’t changed.”
“Maybe this is a fail-safe device: you have to enter the atmospheric formula twice, to be sure you got it right?” Shiru wondered.
“But it only has one glowing button,” Zvi protested. “Not the whole periodic chart.”
“What else might we be expected to specify about our life support requirements?” Ellesmere pondered aloud. “We already told it what we breathe…”
“But we didn’t tell them the density of the gases!” Gutierrez burst out. “That must be it!”
“And how do we test that hypothesis?” Young asked.
“Let me press on the button, and the rest of you look at the pressure gauges on your suits, the ones we use to tell when the shuttle airlock has repressurized. Tell me if the pressure around us changes at all in response to my fiddling.”
“Be careful,” Ellesmere admonished, but they all did as Gutierrez bid.
“Well?” he asked several moments later. “I’ve got the bar about half-lit.”
“Pressure has come up,” Young said, the amazement evident in his tone. “Just a little more and it’ll be just right for us.”
Within a minute, their suits indicated that they were surrounded by air pressure similar to that found on the surface of the earth.
As soon as the pressure gradient stabilized, the inner hatchway slid aside, and they found themselves staring at a dark opening.
“Shit!” Young brought the welding torch up in a movement of surprise. “I wasn’t expecting that!”
Sarah peeped warily into the dark ship. “Doesn’t look like there’s a welcome committee to meet us. You can lower the torch, Will.”
“The pressure’s holding steady,” Gutierrez said, studying the readout on his suit. “Do you suppose they pressurized the entire ship for us?”
“Who’s they?” Shiru asked nervously.
“Probably some kind of automatic system,” Zvi said comfortingly. “If there were anyone alive on this ship, they’d certainly have made their presence known by now.”
“Unless they don’t want to.” She gulped.
“Juan!” Will’s shout echoed over their earphones. “What the hell are you doing?”
Gutierrez’s hands were at the catch of his helmet. “I want to test the air. If our guesses were right, then we might not need these suits anymore.”
“Wait a minute!” Sarah’s voice contained such astonishment that all eyes turned to her. “It just struck me: we’re not floating anymore.”
They stared at each other. It was true. They were no longer floating, nor relying on the line to hold them in place.
Although the pull on their forms was much lighter than a full g, there was unquestionably a gravitational vector holding them gently against the floor.
“It came on so gradually, none of us noticed,” Sarah continued, still shocked. “But this means they’ve come up with a way to induce artificial gravity, independent of spin.”
“All the more reason to explore the ship,” Gutierrez said, “and I for one would prefer to do it without these bulky suits.”
“Wait a minute!” Young ordered. “If you’re wrong—”
“The ship is pressurized, so I don’t have to worry about decompression,” Gutierrez argued reasonably. “I’ll just raise my helmet and take a quick sniff. If I pass out, you can just close it up and send me back to the shuttle. Raj can take care of me.”
“There could be all sorts of pulmonary damage!” Rajan’s agitated voice came over the radio. “Don’t take such a foolish chance!”
Gutierrez looked steadily at Young. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Young deliberated a moment, then nodded permission. “All right. Shiru, you stand on his other side. We’ll be ready to catch him if he falls.”
With them positioned around him, Juan unlatched and slowly lifted his helmet.
“Well?” Sarah asked tightly. “Are you all right?”
“Aye, Madre de Dios.” Gutierrez’s tones were distant, now that his mouth was no longer right by the helmet’s microphone.
“What?” Young shouted. “What is it?”
“It smells a little stale,” Gutierrez replied, wrinkling his nose, “but it’s definitely breathable.”
Eight sighs of relief echoed over the radio. Back on the ship, Carlotta and Svetlana exchanged a hug of jubilation.
Gutierrez hooked his helmet onto the side of his suit and took several deep breaths. “Seems fine to me. Why don’t the rest of you uncover?”
He had to augment his words with gestures to make them understand, but they soon followed his lead.
They then spent a few moments removing the radio from each helmet, mounting and tucking it behind one ear. The attached microphone hung just to the left of their mouth and enabled them to remain in contact with the shuttle. Soon all five were bareheaded.
“Can you hear me, Carlotta?” Sarah asked.
“Loud and dear!”
“Keep your helmets with you at all times,” Young instructed sternly. “And don’t remove any other part of the suit. We don’t know how long this atmosphere will last, and if it suddenly fails…” He didn’t have to finish.
They detached the lights from their helmets and shone them down the long corridor. It was surprisingly wide and high. “They must be large creatures,” Zvi commented.
“Not necessarily,” Gutierrez objected. “Maybe they just like their space.”
“Maybe they’re claustrophobic,” Shiru said with a trace of a grin.
“Perhaps they’re an avian species and fly through the corridors. That would explain why they contain such a large volume.” Sarah shrugged.
“Let’s go,” Young ordered. “Stay close. Sarah, you keep in touch with the ship.”
They proceeded carefully down the hallway, illuminating the dark colored walls with their beams. “I don’t think much of their decorators.” Zvi sniffed. “All one color? Even the floors?”
“Maybe they’re colorblind.”
“Up ahead!” Shiru pointed. “Is that a doorway?”
“If my bearings are correct, then that would be the entry to one of the pods. We’ve been moving through a connecting tunnel they probably used to reach the nearest engine or one of the other pods. This must be the door to the main part of the ship.”
Zvi cleared his throat. “Like the living quarters?”
Young looked back at them. “I’ll go first. You stay ready.”
They braced themselves.
“Damn!” Young swore as he tried to work the instrument panel to the side of the door. “I’m trying to do the same thing I did in the airlock, but the keys are much closer together. I can’t do it in these gloves. Hold on.”
He stripped off his gloves and stuck them in his helmet.
“Can we do that too?” Gutierrez asked eagerly. More than the others, he hated the bulky EVA suits.
“Well…all right,” Young said reluctantly. “But not everybody. Just in case.”
Shiru and Gutierrez removed their gloves, while Zvi and Ellesmere kept theirs on. In the meantime, Young had managed to depress the appropriate parts of the panel. “Here it comes!”
As with the airlock, the door slid smoothly to one side.
“What the hell…” Young’s voice trailed off.
They were staring into a room gigantic in size. The entire pod must have been given over to the one chamber. The room was filled, floor to ceiling, with row upon row of scaffolding.
Inhuman in design but easily maneuvered, the shelves filled the room. Upon each of the dozens of levels stood small containers, each one glowing weirdly.
Shiru was sucking panicky breaths into her lungs. “I—I—”
“Santa Maria.” Gutierrez’s jaw hung slack.
Even Zvi was muttering a half-remembered prayer from his childhood. Only Ellesmere had retained a fraction of her composure and was dazedly describing the view to the crew back in the shuttle.
Her quiet murmur finally roused the rest of them from their wonder. “Let’s take a look,” Young said. “But don’t touch anything. There may be booby traps.”
“Why?” Gutierrez challenged. “Why make it so easy for us to get in, if they only want to kill us?”
“I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Besides, even something as benign as their food delivery system might prove dangerous for us.”
They recognized the merit in his argument and gingerly stepped forward. Even without discussing it, they split into two groups and investigated opposite sides of the room.
“They’re all the same,” Gutierrez reported twenty minutes later when they regrouped. “Every case has a fist-sized lump in it.”
“They all look exactly the same, at least superficially,” Shiru added. “What could they be?”
“Do you suppose we could chance opening one of the containers?” Gutierrez suggested hopefully. “They look organic.”
“Absolutely not.” Young ruled out the possibility at once. “It’s too dangerous.”
“But that’s the only way we can learn about them! Maybe these things are in a state of suspended animation—”
“Maybe they’re waiting for their lunch to wake them up,” Young countered. “Maybe they all died of some terrible plague. Do you really want to expose us all to God knows what? Act your age!”
Gutierrez looked rebellious. “The chances of the same disease organism affecting us is—”
“Unknown! Now, forget it. I said no.”
“Do you think the other pods have more of the same?” Ellesmere diverted Young’s attention.
“Why would any race go to all the trouble of shipping out these little blobs?” Zvi looked puzzled.
“Maybe we’re in their version of a septic tank,” Young said, glaring around at the walls. “The stuff’s the right color for it.” Mysteries always made him grumpy.
“If this is simply sewage, why bother to individually wrap them?” Sarah asked briskly. “No, they must be more important than that.”
“What do you think we should do next?” Shiru asked Young.
“Let’s continue through the rest of the ship and see what the other pods contain. Then, we can start looking for access to the engines. I have a feeling that that may be the most important find.”
“Do you think they might have managed to go faster than light?” Zvi asked eagerly.
“That’s impossible!” Carlotta squawked over the radio.
Gutierrez gazed down at the nearest blob, his brow dark with irritation.
He understood and respected Young’s caution, but he chafed under the restriction. This was rapidly turning into a job for the engineers and physicists.
A life scientist like him would have little to do, unless he could come up with some way to secure Young’s permission to open one of the cases. Such a thing was unlikely, though; he could think of no means to neutralize the captain’s stated concerns.
Unthinkingly, he took out his frustration by slapping the top of the nearest case.
The sound brought the others around fast, torches ready. “Juan! You idiot! What—” Young took two steps toward him before Ellesmere caught him by the arm.
“Wait! Look at his face!”
“Juan? Are you all right?” Shiru asked timidly.
Over the intercom, Carlotta and the others were shouting questions at them.
Gutierrez stood frozen, one bare hand resting atop the container. The color of the lump within had changed slightly, adopting a more rosy hue. It also had begun to pulse, ever so gently.
“Juan?” Sarah stepped to Shiru’s side. “Can you hear me?”
Gutierrez’s face was twisted into a grimace of shock. His eyes stared straight through them, unseeing.
“He looks like he saw a ghost.” Zvi shivered. “Shouldn’t we pull him away? Is he even breathing?”
“Don’t touch him!” Raj shouted. “I’ll be there as soon as I can!”
“There must be something we can do!” Shiru raged, spinning to Young. “Something!”
As always in a crisis, he was cool. “Stay calm. You won’t do him any good by getting yourself injured. He must have tripped some sort of energy field that’s having a paralytic effect. When Raj comes, he’ll tell us what we can do.”
“Will, I don’t think he’s paralyzed.” Zvi was peering at Gutierrez as closely as he dared. “He’s breathing…I think.”
“See?” Young turned to Shiru. “He’ll be all right.”
“Can’t we even…close his eyes?” she fretted, desperately wanting to help her friend.
A raspy whisper made Zvi leap back in alarm. “He’s trying to say something!”
They all crowded close. “Juan! Can you hear me?” Young shouted.
“They’re not dead.” Gutierrez’s voice was hoarse, as though he’d been screaming for hours. His eyes remained unfocused, concentrating on something within himself.
“What?” Ellesmere’s eyebrows rose. “How can you possibly know that?”
His eyes finally moved, focused, found hers, and locked on them. “Because they’re telepathic,” he said simply.
Shiru let out a whimper; she’d had too many shocks in close succession. Zvi was regarding Gutierrez with frank alarm. “Are you serious?”
“It’s hard to reach us through the case,” Juan said softly, his attention clearly elsewhere. “But once I put my hand on it, they could.”
“Juan, can you break free?” Young demanded.
“Why—why would I want to?” he replied in a tone of mild surprise. “This is wonderful. Our first contact with an alien life form.”
“What is it saying?” Sarah asked.
“It wants… Oh, of course.” With no warning of his intentions, Juan reached down and flipped up the lid, his fingers unerringly finding the release catch.
Ellesmere cried out in concern, “No! Don’t!” But it was too late.
The instant the case was open, Gutierrez reached inside and picked up the alien.
“Unh!” When direct contact was made, Gutierrez’s entire body stiffened.
Almost as quickly, he relaxed and smiled. He blinked a few times, then looked around at the drawn faces of his shipmates.
“I guess I had you worried there for a while,” he said, smiling at them. “But you don’t have to be. I’m fine.”
He reached up and placed the alien on the left side of his neck. It quickly nestled against his dark skin, most of its bulk disappearing beneath the ring of his EVA suit’s neck.
As the others watched with expressions ranging from horror to fascination, the alien extended a process, much like an amoeba forms pseudopodia, and moved it up into Gutierrez’s hairline.
“What—what is it doing on your neck?” Zvi gulped.
“Oh, that way we can stay in contact, and I’ll have my hands free,” Gutierrez replied easily.
“Are you…all right?” Ellesmere asked, eyeing him closely.
The physiologist laughed. “If you’re asking whether my mind has been taken over by space slugs, the answer is no. These creatures, they call themselves Mynds, have come in peace. They want to be our friends.”
“Are you sure?” Young asked suspiciously.
“Of course I’m sure,” Gutierrez replied patiently. “I can see into its mind, Will. There’s no deception, no dark motives. They came in friendship, and Madre de Dios! What they can teach us!”
“Can we talk to it?”
“You already are. Everything I know, it knows.”
“No.” Shiru shook her head. “I mean, can I talk to it directly?”
“They’re telepathic. All you have to do is touch one.”
“Wait a minute!” Young interrupted. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea. I mean, one person is plenty to risk.”
“What risk?” Gutierrez spread his arms wide. “They welcome us. We welcome them. It’s just as simple as that.”
“I want to speak to one,” Sarah said quietly.
“Not you too!” Young demanded, spinning to face her.
“Will, this was the whole point of the exercise. Why did we come to investigate the ship if we weren’t prepared to go all the way? Every argument we gave the crew for why we should be the ones to search the ship is still valid. Who better than astronauts to make the first contact with an alien race? Would you trust this to the politicians?”
Young chewed his lip, undecided.
“It’s wonderful,” Gutierrez said. “I’m suddenly able to use all of my brain, not just the fraction man usually does. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time and seeing the world as it really is. I feel like my thoughts have taken on a new clarity; I can understand things so much better now.”
Young was looking less and less happy. “Is that thing messing with your mind?”
“No no!” Gutierrez shook his head impatiently. “It’s not like that at all. It’s helping me to think; it’s not telling me what to think.”
“Will, I think you’re right to be cautious, but we’ll need more than one of us to interact with the aliens—”
“Mynds,” Gutierrez supplied.
Sarah nodded. “The Mynds, then. I think I’m the next logical person.”
“I don’t know.”
“We have nothing to lose, dammit!” For the first time, Sarah’s calm demeanor slipped a bit, and Young could see the emotions churning within her.
She lowered her voice so that only he could hear. “I refuse to spend the rest of my life presiding at store openings and public housing events,” she hissed. “This is my last chance to do something meaningful with my life, and I intend to do it.”
Zvi nudged Young’s shoulder. “Face reality. None of us has anything to go back to. It will still take a miracle to reverse the World Council’s decision, but now we’ve got the makings of a miracle in our grasp. Are you going to let it slip away? One way or another, we need to find out all we can about the Mynds. Hopefully, we’ll be able to use it to restore the space program.”
“We’ve talked it over too,” Carlotta radioed. “We agree we should take the risk. If the space program is defunct, then life as we know it is over anyway. What have we got to lose?”
“Look,” Zvi continued, “I’m the first person to distrust friendly overtures. My people can’t afford to believe our neighbors too much. But this isn’t empty words; Gutierrez says this is telepathy. You can’t lie to someone who’s inside your mind. They must be friendly.”
“How do you know what they can or can’t do?” Young snapped. “Suddenly you’re a telepathy expert?”
“What do they want? Why did they come?” Shiru asked Gutierrez.
“They want to be our friends.” He smiled. “They’d be happy to help us try to convince the World Council that the space program is important. They’ve even volunteered to share their technology with us. They only want to help.”
“What if we decline?” Young asked suspiciously.
“That’s all right,” Gutierrez assured him. “They don’t want to interfere with our lives. They’re willing to give us whatever assistance we request, and no more. They understand that we might want to develop at our own pace, but they promise to teach us all they can. If we ask for it, I mean.”
“Why did they come here?” Young repeated Shiru’s question. “Are they the local version of the Peace Corps? Are we the backwards planet they’ve come to offer foreign aid?”
Gutierrez lost his smile. “No,” he said quietly. “They’re refugees. Their world was destroyed by a terrible enemy. Only a few Mynds escaped the cataclysm.”
“No wonder they’re so accommodating!” Shiru exclaimed, touched. “They’re afraid we won’t let them stay here. They must be so tired of wandering the galaxy.”
“Don’t get all misty on me,” Young snarled. “Save the hearts and flowers for later. For all you know, this could be the advance ship of an invasion fleet.”
“Oh, stop it!” Shiru snapped back. “They were dead in space when we arrived, and besides, Juan can read their innermost thoughts! I say we all make contact.”
She nodded. “I agree. There’s no point in stopping now. If they’re willing to help us in our fight to stay in space, we’d be fools not to take them up on the offer. Will, I don’t consider myself a fool.”
Young reluctantly nodded. “All right. But I’ll hold back.”
“Suit yourself,” Gutierrez said amiably. “The Mynds don’t want to force anyone into anything.”
By the end of the day, everyone except Young had a Mynd sitting on their shoulder. When the boarding party returned to the shuttle, they brought along four Mynds for the crew still onboard.
So far as Young could tell, nobody’s personality had changed very much, although people were starting to talk more quickly and in an abbreviated fashion, as though normal speech patterns took too long.
Everyone had agreed with Gutierrez: the Mynds were friendly; they were extremely eager to please; they had no plans to conquer the earth; the telepathic contact was painless; in fact, if anything it was pleasurable.
Words like complete and ~fulfilled~ cropped up again and again.
They were once again gathered in the main room of the shuttle. “Will someone tell the Mynds—” Young began.
Eight heads shook simultaneously. “It’s not like that,” the others chorused, then exchanged looks of surprise, which quickly dissolved into laughter.
“I’ll explain,” Zvi offered. “It’s not a conversation in your mind, Will. There are no words exchanged. It’s just, well, a sharing of your thoughts. What you know, your Mynd knows, and vice versa.”
“‘Your’ Mynd?” Young echoed in surprise. “What are you, mated for life?”
Zvi laughed embarrassedly. “In a way, yes. This kind of sharing is, well, it’s very intimate, Will. You can’t change Mynds the way you change socks.”
“Wait up.” Young rose to his feet in alarm. “You mean you can’t separate from them?”
Sarah shrugged. “I suppose we could,” she said offhandedly. “But whyever would we want to? I’ve never thought more clearly in my entire life. Who’d want to give that up?”
Shiru shuddered. “It would be like having a lobotomy.”
“I don’t like what I’m hearing,” Young said nervously. “You’re sounding brainwashed or something.”
“Will, I’m a doctor,” Rajan said easily. “Trust me when I tell you that we’re fine. I’ve checked us all over, and there are no unhealthy side effects. If anything, we’re feeling better now that we have the Mynds with us! The Mynds are not brainwashing us, we’re not addicted to them. It’s just that they’re so, so helpful, that it’s hard to contemplate going back to life without them.”
Young resumed his seat, somewhat mollified. “You’re sure you’re all okay?”
“Absolutely,” they all promised. Even Kim smiled at him.
“We need to discuss how to tell people back on Earth about this,” Sarah said crisply. “It’s not the sort of thing we want to broadcast to everyone at once.”
“Why not?” Young frowned. “What’s the big secret?”
“There would be panic in the streets!” Carlotta gestured with her usual drama. “The masses are not ready for news like this. They must be prepared, gradually.”
Kim nodded. “But the leaders must be informed, so that the preparation can begin.”
“How do you propose to do that?” Young asked.
“When we return, we shall be quite famous,” Sarah said. “Last astronauts and all that. It will be simple to secure appointments with the leaders of our respective regions. We shall bring along Mynds for them, so that they can communicate with them directly. Then our plans can be made.”
“Why, to rescue the space program. And to decide how much of the Mynds’ technology we wish to secure,” Svetlana explained. “They do have the secret of faster than light travel.”
“Think of it! We’ll be able to colonize the galaxy!” Rajan exclaimed. “At last there will be enough room for Earth’s masses!”
“I hate to throw cold water on your plans,” Young drawled, “but I think you’ll encounter a few problems if you waltz in with those things on your shoulder. Security people for heads of state tend to be pretty paranoid.”
“The unassociated Mynds can easily be concealed in a briefcase,” Zvi mused.
At Young’s wary look, Shiru explained, “Remember, we have to keep the Mynds a secret until the world leaders have learned about them.”
“Actually, in many cases we won’t need the head of state,” Kim said. “Often the titular head has very little power. We need to contact the power behind the throne. They’re the ones we need.”
“That shouldn’t be hard.” Zvi shrugged. “We’ve all been around the political scene enough to know who the real players are, right?”
“There aren’t so many of those Mynds to begin with,” Young warned. “You’d better think twice before you start handing them out like party favors.”
The others smiled at each other.
“We’ll be very select in who we contact,” Sarah promised. “But there are several thousand Mynds in this ship, and there is another, slightly larger, vessel just beyond Neptune, which carries a few thousand more.”
Young tried to hide the surprise he felt at the news of the second ship. “Well, that still is just a few thousand. There are billions on Earth. Will the Mynds, uh, procreate or whatever they do until someday every human has a Mynd?”
“No.” Rajan shook his head. “Sadly, the Mynds cannot reproduce off their home world. These are the last survivors of the race.”
“So only a select group of humans will receive one,” Svetlana continued. “Still, the Mynds are extremely long-lived. One Mynd can live many generations, moving from host to host.”
Young scratched his head. “That’s good, I guess.”
“When we contact the world leaders—”
“Just a second,” Young interrupted Gutierrez’s remark. “You still haven’t explained how you’re going to get in to see them with a Mynd on your neck!”
Rajan and Gutierrez exchanged a glance. “It would be easy to implant them, wouldn’t it?” Juan asked.
Rajan nodded. “There’s plenty of room in the abdominal cavity. It would be a simple procedure.”
“Oh no!” Young yelped. “I saw that movie! There’s no way you’re going to put those aliens inside yourselves!”
“It’s the only logical solution,” Sarah replied. “Besides, they’re already in our minds. What difference does it make if they’re in our bodies as well?”
“What about rejection?” Young demanded of Rajan. “We’re always hearing about how organ donations are often rejected. If you implant an alien, won’t the body react against it?”
Rajan shook his head positively. “No.”
“You can’t know that!”
The doctor smiled. “Actually, I can. There will be no rejection. The body will treat the Mynd as an inert object. Trust me.”
Young glared at him in confusion. “How can you possibly know?”
“The Mynds told me.”
“How can they know?”
Rajan shrugged, unconcerned. “They just do. Why don’t you ask them yourself?”
“Goddammit, I will!” Young shouted. “It’s about time that I get some answers straight from the horse’s mouth!”
“Good,” Shiru said smoothly, pulling one last case from the container in which they’d ferried the Mynds between the ships. “We saved one for you. Just lift the lid.”
The rest of the story of the Mynd incorporation is easy to tell. The Mynds were quietly introduced to certain key politicians, and the hopes of the shuttle crew were completely fulfilled.
Seven months later, when the general announcement of the Mynds’ existence was made, it was accepted by the world population with great joy and anticipation. The public relations people had done their job well.
The space program was reopened with much fanfare, and an exploration/ colonization initiative was quickly underway.
Mynd-Augmented humans were soon ensconced in key political and scientific positions. Their advanced intellect and ability to utilize Mynd expertise and technology made them extremely valuable and sought-after individuals, but they modestly preferred to remain behind the scenes, eschewing the spotlight of major office.
Within a few years, however, every important figure had at least one Mynd on his or her staff, and mankind wondered how they had ever gotten along without the Mynds.
Screening programs were begun in cities around the globe to identify likely children to serve as Mynd hosts. Those so selected had to leave their homes for the Mynd training facility, but their families rejoiced in the knowledge that the children would become some of the most important people on the planet.
Mynd-Augmented humans were universally respected.
Perhaps the Mynds’ most important accomplishment was the inauguration of the first global peace in the history of the earth. The Mynds were excellent negotiators, and their impartiality was beyond question.
They could not be accused of harboring favoritism for either side, and centuries-old feuds were quickly laid to rest.
Once the majority of the globe had achieved a state of peace, the Mynds helped to transform the mostly ineffectual World Council into a powerful governing force. Member nations enjoyed such wealth and prosperity, thanks to the Mynd-assisted technology, that all the remaining nations clamored for admission.
Acceptance of the Council’s charter, with its emphasis on human rights and renunciation of violence, was a prerequisite for entry, but even the most repressive nation quickly changed its tune when it saw the delights associated with membership.
Terrorism died a speedy death. The Mynd negotiators solved most of the long-standing border disputes, and those small groups which persisted despite the Mynds were rapidly tracked down and eliminated.
The local population, which had heretofore tolerated or even abetted the technically illegal groups, had an abrupt change of heart when they realized that the group’s activities might keep them from membership within the Council.
Local law enforcement, which had always known the terrorists’ hideouts but never bothered to do anything about them, suddenly awoke to their duty and carried it out with a vengeance. One or two well-publicized such cases were enough; terrorism suddenly ceased to be an attractive career choice, not when the local people were stringing you up by the heels instead of chanting your slogans.
The Space Agency became an important power in the new government. Space stations and moon bases were reopened, the construction of a space fleet was begun, and within two generations humans were living on nine planets in six solar systems.
The colonies were still small, and none was self-supporting, but it was a start. Meanwhile, ships of the Agency ventured further and further into space, seeking other worlds suitable for colonization.
Then, seventy-one years after the Mynds first came to Earth, mankind encountered the Jannthru.
At first the thought of another alien race delighted people; after all, the Mynds had ushered in an age of unprecedented prosperity, why should this encounter be any different?
Interestingly, it was the Mynds who counseled caution. Without making any specific allegations, they warned of being too friendly too soon.
In their excitement, the humans discounted the advice and the Mynds, as always, bowed to their wishes.
Once they saw that the humans were determined to meet with the Jannthru, the Mynds assisted in the preparations, even explaining that the traditional etiquette for first meetings called for small groups of diplomats to meet at a neutral site, such as a space ship constructed for the conference.
The human delegation consisted of two dozen non-Augmented diplomats (the Mynds had insisted that such a momentous occasion properly belonged to the humans alone).
They set out for the meeting in high spirits, but thirty seconds after the Jannthru shuttle docked at the conference ship, the entire vessel exploded, leaving no survivors.
Earth was shocked, but not yet ready to accept the Mynds’ suggestion that the explosion was due to Jannthru treachery. A second conference was arranged, but as the humans’ ship approached the site, a Jannthru cruiser swooped out from behind a moon and destroyed it.
This time, Earth was outraged and frightened. Humanity had extended a hand in friendship, and these creatures had replied with viciousness. What did it mean?
The answer, provided by the Mynds, was war.
After the second attack, the Mynds reluctantly admitted something to the dazed humans: the Jannthru had been the race which had destroyed their home world.
The Mynds had hesitated to tell the Earth, lest their experience shadow the humans’ encounter with the Jannthru, but now that the Jannthru had demonstrated that their taste for cruelty and bloodlust was unchanged, the humans needed to know just what sort of an enemy they were up against.
Luckily, the large exploration fleet could be easily adapted into warships, and with nine planets churning out war material, Earth and its colonies were well equipped.
The decision was made to strike hard and fast, in the hopes of ending the war quickly.
No real communication had ever been set up with the Jannthru (that was what the initial conference had been meant to do), but Earth was confident that a show of force would push the Jannthru into truce talks.
Within a few weeks of the war’s start, the Jannthru star system was completely blockaded.
Amazingly, despite this, the war dragged on and on. The Jannthru proved to be vicious fighters, and as the atrocities (on both sides) mounted, it became clear that no quarter would be given. This was a fight to the death, just as the Mynds had predicted from the start.
The Mynds were a godsend. Without them, Earth would have been defeated within a matter of days.
It was the Mynds’ idea to enact the blockade, their technology which built the battleships, and their medical advances which saved thousands of humans wounded in battle.
Shortly after the war began, the Mynds approached the Council with a beautiful and generous offer. Since the humans and the Mynds now had a common foe, the Mynds wished to take a more active part in the battle. They offered to create a special cadre of Mynd-Augmented soldiers, known as the Strike Force, which would supplement the Council forces.
The government was overwhelmed by the offer, knowing how precious each Mynd symbiote was, but the war was going badly, and the help was desperately needed.
The Strikers provided the edge the Council forces required. They were excellent soldiers, tacticians, and warriors, and squads of Strikers did what no human forces could: they boarded Jannthru ships and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
Toward the end of the war, they landed on Jannthru itself. The Force distinguished itself time and again, earning great respect, if not love.
After twelve years of bitter struggle, the war finally ended. The Jannthru world was destroyed, its people utterly wiped out.
For those humans who felt pangs of guilt over the extermination of a race, the Mynds were quick to remind Earth that the Jannthru had received exactly the same fate they had earlier meted out to the Mynds.
Justice had finally prevailed.
Four years after the war, humanity was only beginning to recover from the experience. Exploration was once again in full swing, as was colonization, but there was a new caution. Humanity had lost its innocence.
Some things remained the same, however: the Augmented humans continued to hold important positions in government and science, the Agency still ran the space program, and the Strike Force remained a part of the Agency’s Planetary Defense Force.
It was into this setting that the PDF vessel Tribute sailed, little realizing what destiny held in store for her.
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