++Four years previously.++
Everybody loved a home side win, except for the tourists. Amir didn’t feel like a tourist, but Pakistani people supported the Pakistani cricket team, even if - like him - they had been born in Birmingham, had never left England, spoke English more fluently than their supposed “native” language, with an accent that was as British as tea and wet weather.
His best friend Muhammad and the rest of his friends had started heading in a different direction while Amir was zoned out. “You coming?” he asked.
Amir knew what the answer would be, but he had to ask anyway. It was how things worked. “Where?”
“For a drink! Come on bruv, we may as well have SOME fun tonight.”
Amir shook his head. “You know that’s haram.” he said. It was their one constant conflict that Muhammad was only a Muslim when it was convenient. The rest of the time, he was just another nineteen-year-old, high on life and not interested in the consequences.
“We’re all sinners, bruv.” Muhammad told him, amicably.
Amir turned away “I’ll see you tomorrow.” he called over his shoulder.
At least there were no catcalls or anything. They respected his faith that much, even if they didn’t respect it enough to practice it properly themselves. He just wished that his best friend wouldn’t use “we’re all sinners” as an excuse. It may have been true, but that didn’t mean he had to exploit it. That just didn’t feel like Islam.
He didn’t preach though. He was no Imam, he didn’t know how to be. All he had was his job delivering takeaway food, a council flat, and his religion. It was enough, most days.
He knew from experience that the bus stops near the Edgbaston cricket ground would always be heaving after a one-day game. He didn’t mind the walk: it was mid-July, and even the famously inclement British weather had decided to produce a warm night. So, anonymous and alone with his thoughts, he weaved through streets of Friday-night partiers, just another brown face in a crowd that ran the full gamut of human shades, hunched and with his fingers fidgeting with the edge of his pockets.
He was so shrouded in melancholy that he didn’t even see the person he walked into, but they felt solid as a rock. Knowing full well that a Pakistani face in this day and age could get into serious trouble with a surly drunk, he stepped back a pace, and got halfway through his “sorry mate” when he realised that the other man wasn’t moving. In fact, he still had his back turned.
Nobody else was moving either. Nothing else was moving. Traffic stood as still as scenery in the street. The pavement was solid-packed with warm, clothed, human statues, penning him in - he couldn’t even shove them aside to weave through the crowd. He stared at a young woman - she was in the middle of flicking her hair aside to answer her phone, and it stood out impossibly parallel to the ground. Even the light had a strange quality - he swore it took his shadow a brief instant to react when he moved.
And then that shadow became much better-defined as the night-time street orange was flooded out by whiteness. He looked up, and it filled his vision.
One man looked around in confusion, rubbed his back, and returned to his conversation. The streets didn’t even notice that Amir Bahmani was gone.
Kirk was a rich being - a Councillor of the Domain earned a handy sum of money from their position, not to mention the royalties from his biographical accounts, political sponsorships and some shrewd investments. Nevertheless, between buying his ultra-fast ship and then having it fast-tracked through a refit drydock at a corporate freeport where the owners were happy to sign an anonymity contract for an appropriate fee… well. His accounts were looking rather less healthy than they had done in some time.
They would, however, bounce back. He was a client of one of the best investment brokers in the business, after all. And the refits had been worth it. The little life-support blister with its bed, ablutions cubicle and control console had been dismounted from the hull, and behind it had been installed a somewhat larger and more luxurious living suite. Below that, a workshop loaded with the latest in nanofactories and CAD/CAM tools, a dense and comprehensive automated laboratory that could double as a sickbay.
And behind that, the enormous generator and the sealed unit that was the Corti blackbox drive. Mass made no difference to a Corti drive - any ship, any size, any tonnage, the only thing that mattered was how much energy you could force down that little box’s throat, and the behemothic bulk of the fusion reactor that made up by far the largest part of the ship’s size and mass was rated to power city districts.
There was one last addition: an excursion chamber, equipped with all the gear he could need to remain safe on practically any planet up to and including a Class 12. And it was necessary - the first destination on his list was a Class 10, an unclaimed world (after all, who in their right minds would want to claim a death world?) with the uninspiring designation “Main Yellow 2.554 67-1.002 09-0.141 3-57.888 11-3 Terrestrial Temperate 10” - literally nothing more than the type and location of the planet and of the star it orbited.
He slept most of the journey out. The downside he was discovering to his ship was that, having as it did a stupefying turn of speed, the trip times were barely long enough for him to complete the in-flight checklist and get some rest. By the time his alarm woke him he was already within the last hundred or so interstellar units of final approach. There had barely been time for his neural implants to convert the slow-access digital data on his destination into working organic memory.
But, they had. He knew everything that it was practical and useful for him to know about that world, barring any gaps in the data, which was how he handled its unique upper-atmospheric turbulence with practiced ease despite having never previously landed without guidance from the ground.
It helped that his target co-ordinates were experiencing a clear day, and as hoped he found a thermal contact within only a short distance of the information that had been in Vakno’s file. Best to land a little way from it, he thought.
He did so. Landing a ship that was effectively a couple of small rooms tacked onto a highly oblate spheroid was a challenge in its own right under MY210 573TT10’s gravity, which was nearly 20% higher than the galactic standard norm. Not as high as Earth’s, but enough to be uncomfortable once he stepped outside of the ship’s generated gravity field. Once landed, he performed those few post-flight checks that any good pilot concerned themselves with, and then retreated to the excursion room.
It took only moments to select the appropriate harness and don it. The device had its own onboard gravity generator that would mitigate the local field, and the rest was a biofiltration force field that should keep anything nasty from coming into contact with him.
Time to meet the first human he had seen in the flesh for three years.
Amir had expected a ramp. Instead, the whole room slung under the ship’s equatorial ring descended to ground level, and a pair of large and very solid doors opened, gracefully and silently. He hefted his spear. If it was another of those grey-skinned devils, it wouldn’t know what hit it.
Instead, what stepped out and blinked in the sunlight was a six-legged being fully twice his height, upright atop a complicated pelvis. It raised both its pairs of hands in a gesture of peace and surrender and, with exaggerated care, produced a piece of technology which it set on the ground. The alien clicked at it, producing a sound not dissimilar to a strip of cardboard in a bike’s spokes. This was, apparently, some kind of a language, because once it had finished clicking, the little device on the ground spoke in flawless, though unaccented, English.
“Please, I couldn’t harm you even if I wanted to. You don’t need the spear, Mr. Bahmani.”
Amir practically fell over. It had been years since he had last heard any human language at all, let alone his name.
“H…” the words wouldn’t come at first. He could barely remember speaking aloud other than to recite the Adhān to call himself to Ṣalāt five times a day, and the Rakaʿāt. He had not spoken anything else in… years, probably.
They had been important. Only his faith had kept him going throughout those years. He didn’t have the first idea which way Mecca was, and so had simply settled for facing toward this planet’s east.
He cleared his throat and tried again. “You know English?”
This generated a chattering sound from the being’s lower abdomen, which he decided was probably laughter, followed by another barrage of clicking and crackling noises. “I couldn’t begin to pronounce English, I’m afraid. But my translator here can. You are Amir Bahmani though, yes?”
“I… yes. How do you know?”
The being made a gesture that he couldn’t identify - its body language was unreadable.
“I paid good money to get my hands on a copy of your abductor’s records.” It told him. “My name is…” <an unintelligible sound like plastic beads in a blender> “…but other humans have nicknamed me “Kirk”.”
“Kirk… like, Star Trek?”
“That’s the joke I think, yes. Though it’s also a fair approximation of the first syllable of my name.”
“My abductors… You’re not with them are you?” Amir hefted his spear again, and “Kirk” retreated a step or two, holding up four placating hands.
“No, no. I draw the line at abduction, vivisection and experimentation upon sentient beings. No, I’m here to offer you the chance to leave, if you wish.”
“You’ll take me home?!” Hope swelled in Amir for the first time in a long while. Earth! people! He mentally corrected himself at that one - Human people!
“If only I could.” Kirk told him. “But Earth is… well. The focus of much attention right now.” He looked around at Amir’s camp. “Actually, I’ll just be blunt about it. The rest of the galaxy found out about your species and collectively shit themselves in fear. Earth has been quarantined - they put up a force field around the whole solar system, nothing gets in or out. I… disagree with that decision. I have a plan, and it starts with finding every abductee I can and offering them the hope of a way home.”
He extended a hand, and Amir noticed for the first time that it was made of sleek plastic and metal rather than pale flesh. “Are you in?” Kirk asked. “Shake carefully please, it doesn’t matter so much if you break the prosthetic rather than my actual hand, but they’re a pain to repair.”
“Bismillah! You have to ask? I want to go home.”
They shook hands.
“I promise, I’ll try.” Kirk told him.
Having a uniformed chauffeur waiting at the airport holding up a sign with “Terri Boone” on it was a novel experience. The chauffeur was efficiency itself as she took Terri’s bags and politely delivered her into the back seat of a sleek black Audi. Next to the expensive car with its buff leather upholstery and general air of wealth, her travel-stained jeans, battered leather jacket and the faded hoody from Chamonix she had owned since a teenage skiing vacation that she wore under the jacket all looked not just dishevelled, but downright squalid.
She entertained herself on her phone as the chauffeur weaved in the comfortable silence of money through freeway and midtown traffic to her apartment, and was surprised when the chauffeur not only brought in the bags, but insisted that no tip was necessary. After quickly discussing what time the car would arrive to take her to Mr. Johnson’s office, she was left alone to re-acquaint herself with her neglected home.
She threw open the windows and lit some scented candles to drive out the scent of emptiness that had built up in the months she had been gone and then, in a move that would have surprised anyone who did not know her extremely well, she emptied all the drawers out of the chest next to her bed and lifted it up, revealing a small, slim box stashed underneath.
From this she withdrew a device of some kind and a USB stick, which she plugged into her PC and launched some programs from, before spending nearly two hours carefully inspecting every nook and cranny of her apartment with the device. Eventually, and apparently satisfied, she returned both to their box and rebuilt the hiding place.
Only then did she boot up some more programs. She spent half an hour alternately typing and watching the screen intently. That done, she took a spin through the shower, combed her hair, threw on some fresh clothing and the same old leather jacket, grabbed her handbag, and departed.
She would have been thoroughly disappointed to learn that her sweep for bugs stood no hope whatsoever of detecting the ones that had been installed a month previously. Among other things, finding them would have required a microscope. ++
“Nope, not organised at all.”
Kevin Jenkins was patiently explaining things and going through the notebook as some of the biology and medical teams examined the peculiar scar on his temple. They had made it as far as the political situation.
“I mean, before a few years ago, legally speaking we were all “non-sentient indigenous fauna”. It’s a bureaucratic mess out there, believe me.”
Tremblay examined the notes again. Mostly it was full of observations about the governmental structures of dozens of different species. the Dominion especially was troubling him. “Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing?”
Jenkins shrugged, ignoring a lab-coat’s protest to keep his head still. “Left hand could fill in a couple forms in triplicate requesting a third-party committee add a debate to their agenda on whether there’s grounds to start the process of commissioning an independent review on what part of the right hand’s up to.” he sneered.
“You make it sound… inefficient.” one of the junior officers commented.
“The Dominion couldn’t find whatever passes for their ass with whatever passes for their hands without three policy meetings and a vote.” Jenkins replied, tersely. It wasn’t quite a snap, and certainly not aimed at the officer, but there was definitely bitterness in the way he said it. “It’s all there in the manual.”
“And what’s in the manual is disturbing.” Tremblay said. He turned a page, and arched an eyebrow. “Roswell Greys? Really?”
“That was pretty much my reaction.” Jenkins said. He had a resigned expression as one of the scientists laid a ruler against his scalp and took a picture.
“According to this they call themselves the Corti Directorate and are the ones primarily responsible for alien abductions on Earth.”
“Hence how they became the Roswell Greys, I guess.” Jenkins sniffed. “But they’re not as bad as some of the motherfuckers out there. At least you know where you stand with the Greys, even if that is under a microscope.”
“Under a microscope still sounds pretty bad.”
“Eh, they’re just self-serving, cowardly, apathetic and practical to a fault. At least we can understand how they think. There’s things out there that think in ways I don’t even know the words for.”
“Like those things that attacked Vancouver, I’m guessing.” Tremblay turned to that page. The sketches were remarkably detailed. The biologists had gone into ecstatic paroxysms over them - the high-definition TV footage from the hockey game had been useful, but the panicked and shell-shocked cameramen hadn’t done the world’s best job of focusing on them and what had been delivered for necropsy had been thoroughly pulverised. A sketch was no substitute for having the real thing under the knife of course, but the detailed drawings of the cybernetic interface between creature and gun had answered some unresolved questions.
“Yeah. They scare me, but not for the right reasons.” Jenkins said.
“The right reasons?” That was Doctor Sung, the base’s counsellor and psychologist. He had, hitherto, been silent, content to just sit in the corner and watch the man who claimed to have spent years wandering the galaxy.
“Look, those bastard things… you know how some people see morality in terms of black, white and shades of grey? Well the Hunters see it in purple, orange and shades of fucking tartan. They’re notorious across the whole galaxy for not only eating the meat of sentient beings, but apparently preferring it to, like, farming a cow or something. That sounds like the right reason to be afraid of them, to me. They’re actual honest-to-shit space monsters. But that’s not what scares me about them.”
“What does?” Sung asked.
“You saw what happened in Vancouver.” Jenkins replied. “Well, that was no fluke: I’m telling you, I personally beat the crap out of three of those fuckers with their own limbs, right after I tore said limbs clean off. It wasn’t even difficult, man.”
He shrugged helplessly. “The worst nightmares in the galaxy and some random barkeep from Fuck-Nowhere USA can literally dismember them bare-handed. Worst I had to show for it was a black eye. That scares me.”
Sung cocked his head to one side, curiously. “Being powerful scares you?”
“I didn’t do shit to deserve it, you know? It’s not like you can just say “Hey, I EARNED that”, we’re, like, Kryptonians. We’re Superman, and the worst part is we - the human race, right? - we never had Ma and Pa Kent to teach us to be all about protecting people and all that shit. Before Vancouver, every day the news was full of the latest trending fucking atrocity.”
He stood up, raised his arms and adopted a goofy parody of a TV presenter. “it’s time for Wheel of Paedophile, where we reveal which TV icon of yesteryear was fiddling little girls! And after that, which journalist got beheaded for God today, kids? Tune in and find out on The Humanity Show!”
The moment of sarcastic enthusiasm died, and he sagged back down. ”Hell, it’d still be full if that shit right now if we didn’t have bigger things on our minds. And pretty soon we’re going to go back to being fucked up to each other when it turns out that whatever we do we’re still, like, probably years from even heading out to the barrier and knocking.”
He sighed. “That’s why the Hunters scare me: because despite that they scare the shit out of everything else, The Hunters never got a reaction like this. Which means that somebody up there thinks we’re WORSE than the Hunters, and I’m scared they might just turn out to be right.”
“You don’t think very highly of people, do you.” Tremblay commented.
“You’re damn right!” Jenkins exclaimed. “But, y’know, individuals can be kind of cool, so we’ve got that going for us.” he sniffed. “Which is nice.”
“I know who you are. You’re a Dominion security councilor.”
Kirk nodded slowly. “That I am.”
He was standing in the office of the ‘mayor’ of an asteroid mining facility deep in Reef Space, a string of systems that had endured the migration of a black hole spat out by the galactic core some few millions of years in the past and which had long since vanished into intergalactic space. Every one of the fifty or so systems in the region was flagged with a navigational hazard warning thanks to the erratic, disturbed orbits of their planets.
Many of those planets had been broken up entirely, leaving behind huge mineral-rich continents of drifting rock just waiting for the miners. The mining colonies of Reef Space were rich. They were also, by and large, unregulated. Nobody knew how many there were, most of them didn’t answer to the Dominion or the Alliance, they certainly didn’t pay their taxes, and the laws were made and enforced locally. And often poorly.
It took a certain kind of ruthless individual to rise to the top in such circumstances. Mayor Brelm was one of the most ruthless. He was a cold, calculating bastard even by Corti standards.
And he was utterly irrelevant as far as Kirk was concerned.
“I heard you quit. Coming to an asteroid facility like this one is a step down for you, isn’t it?” Brelm tapped a slender finger on his desk. “What is it that you want from me?”
“You?” Kirk feigned disinterested surprise. “Forgive me, mayor, I am not here for you. I came here for your bodyguard.”
The slim human woman who had been leaning sulkily against the back wall looked up at him sharply.
“You’re… for her?” Brelm twisted in his chair and looked at the deathworlder behind him. “Did you know anything about this?”
“You are Allison, are you not?” Kirk asked, as the human shrugged at her employer. “Allison Buehler?”
She kicked off from the wall and stood up straight. From what Kirk knew of human females, she was tall and slim. Next to most other species however she still had that pure strength, though Allison compounded it with a kind of fierce confidence. She tucked her thumbs into her belt and frowned at him. “…That’s me.”
“How would you like to go home?”
Allison shrugged. “Earth? No thanks.”
Kirk hit a mental wall. He hadn’t anticipated a straightforward ‘no’ at all. Suspicion and questions maybe, but simply being turned down wasn’t a contingency for which he had planned.
“You… would not?”
Allison shrugged again. “What’s there for me? You know what I used to do on Earth? I fixed bikes and cars, I served coffee, and guys used to stare at my ass. No thanks.”
“Why d’you ask, anyway?” she inquired, and Kirk finally managed to place her accent. Boston. “What, you got a ship full of humans you’re taking back home?”
“Yes, actually. Though, you are only the second I have found.”
“Yeah? Shit, you’re a regular good Samaritan, ain’tcha?”
“I suppose…” Kirk agreed.
Allison gave him a long, calculating, discomforting stare and then shrugged again. “Okay. I’m in.”
It was Brelm’s turn to be wrong-footed. He gaped at her. “You… what? You can’t leave, you have a contract!”
Allison laughed. “Brelm, if you can find some asshole on this station who could stop me then go hire them for your bodyguard instead. Being your hired muscle was getting dull anyway.”
She had a gun on her hip, Kirk noted. An actual human firearm. How had she acquired one so far from Earth? Had she had it on her when she was abducted, or had she somehow built one?
However she’d done it, the “friendly” way she rested her hand on that weapon drove the point home for Brelm.
“You-! …Fine. But our contract is void and you forfeit the rest of this cycle’s pay.”
“You never paid me enough anyway,” Allison ambled across the room. “So what’s your name, mister Samaritan?”
“Most humans call me Kirk.”
Allison shook his hand. “Nice to meetcha, Kirk. Let’s go find some folks who want to go home.”
“Miss Boone. A pleasure to meet in the flesh at last.”
Terri didn’t know what she had expected from Mr. Johnson exactly, and really, he lived up to that lack of expectation. He was a dapper, handsome man of about fifty years, with a grey-flecked beard, grey-flecked hair and grey-flecked eyes, wearing a tailored charcoal suit and grey socks. The kind of guy she’d have happily picked up in a hotel bar if she was in the mood for a couple of nights with an older, wealthier man, but no long-term entanglements. He had that curiously accentless voice too, that gave nothing away about where in the world he had been born.
Still, she shook his hand, prepared for - and duly receiving - the circulation-halting firm grip of a man who shook hands for a living.
She was immediately convinced that, whoever he really was, Mr. Johnson was not actually her client. If he turned out not to be a proxy for the real deal, then she would have happily eaten her treasured Chamonix sweatshirt.
Not that this suspicion bothered her much. The amount of money on show meant that frankly the client could have contacted her via strippergram for all Terri cared.
“It’s been a pleasure getting paid.” she said, deciding that playing along with the politeness game could go shove it. “What’s the new job?”
Johnson didn’t seem fazed in the least by this blunt approach, and simply handed her a folder. She flicked through it, seeing names and faces but not bothering to really examine them. One stood out, however.
“Hey, I recognize her. She was that film student who went missing from Vancouver a few days before the attack, right?”
Mr. Johnson smiled the thin-lipped professional smile of somebody who was being paid far more to smile thin-lipped professional smiles at her than she was being paid to receive them. “Xiù Chang, yes. Based on the information you recovered from the abductees, it seems likely that she was abducted herself. The others in that dossier are similar cases, most from this country, a few others from elsewhere in the world.”
“You want me to look around, try and find some more?” Terri asked.
“You have it exactly. That dossier should provide a template for the sort of thing we’re after. Circumstances, factors common to all abductees, and so on.”
“And for this you’re offering me…?”
“A million dollars, Miss Boone. The dramatic turn that events have taken recently means that we’re keen for this to be done with the utmost expediency.”
We, Terri noted. Her sweatshirt was definitely safe.
“I don’t usually say this to the man with the cash.” she said, carefully. “But… why? Everyone knows that the best working theory for the Darkening so far is that there’s some kind of barrier up around the whole solar system. If these people are outside it, then what’s the rush in finding them? What good is that information?”
“And if they’re wrong, Miss Boone?”
“That’s hardly relevant.”
“True, it’s not, really. After all even without a giant force field imprisoning us, it’s not like we’ve got hyperspace or whatever, so while I’m grateful for clients who pay so well, I do wonder why you want to spend so much on getting this done “with expediency”.”
“And you will continue to do so, I fear. You understand the assignment?”
Terri sighed. “Chase up on missing persons cases that match the profile of these apparent abductions, report them back to you as I find them, for which I will receive a million dollars.” she said.
“Precisely. It is always a pleasure to do business with a professional, Miss Boone.”
“Sure.” Terri replied. “A pleasure.”
Johnson waited a minute or so after she was gone and then stood, unlocked the side door to his office, and stepped through.
There was a coffin-sized metal-and-glass object along one wall of that room, and the being within - small, naked, grey-skinned, large-eyed and bulbous-headed, stared out at him lazily from where it floated in a gel bath inside.
“She agreed.” he said.
“Good. She is just the right mix of clever and mercenary. An excellent find.”
“Thank you, sir. She does, however, raise a very good point. Exactly what good will this information do us?”
“The more we know about who’s out there, the more I can assist the being who’s tracking them down. I didn’t come here to live out the rest of my life on a pre-warp deathtrap of a planet, Johnson. I want to go home.”
The Corti approximated a grim smile. “I want that barrier down.”
Maria Sadowski didn’t know what to make of anything. She had got used to the idea of alien life, got used to scavenging whatever scraps they could be bothered to deign to kick her way. Her ribs and bones were visible everywhere, her gums bled constantly, and the sores just wouldn’t heal.
And then just like that, the attitude had changed. One minute, she was ignored by aloof creatures who barely deigned to acknowledge her at all, now they saw her and walked across the other side of the transitway. If she went into an eating-house to beg, before she had been lucky to get scraps - now she got as much as she could stuff into herself while around her tables vacated and the owner carried itself in a way that suggested that, if its species could sweat and if that sweat meant what it meant in humans, it would have been sweating.
She hadn’t had enough time to figure out why when she heard the first recognizable word to fall on her ears in months.
It was an alien. one of the tall white ones with too many legs, though those were usually friendly. Behind it - him? - stood two humans honest-to-god humans. A tall blonde woman who could only be an American with a belt buckle like that, and a shorter, browner man who gave her a nervous smile.
She didn’t care that neither of them looked like they spoke a word of Polish, right now it was enough just to see somebody the right size, with the right number of limbs, eyes, fingers…
Weeping, she slammed into the man at a dead run and hugged him tight, oblivious to the way nearby beings stepped back in alarm at the solid sound their dense deathworlder bodies made. He made awkward comforting noises and rubbed her back.
The American woman put a hand on the shoulder and said something. They obviously had a translator or something, because Maria heard and understood every word. “She’s in a bad way, Kirk.”
‘Kirk’ shook his mane out and ignored the comment. Instead, he put his own hand on Maria’s other shoulder and spoke softly. “Do not worry. Everything will be alright now, Maria. You are going home.”
“Extraordinary guy.” Dr. Sung commented, once Jenkins had agreed to go under an fMRI scanner and departed with the medical technicians and biologists.
Tremblay made a strained noise. “Seems like a bad case of PTSD to me. Not that I’m an expert.”
Sung had the trademark dry humour of psychologists everywhere. “Well, speaking as an expert, I don’t agree with that diagnosis.” He said. “I think he’s just naturally a cynic and maybe had a few bad experiences. Besides, he actually makes a valid point.”
“Don’t tell me he’s turned you into a misanthrope too?”
“Confidentially? I think he’s the opposite of a misanthrope. The impression I got is that he’s the kind of man who’s a bit too driven by his compassion. But step back and think about it for a second. Personally, I believe his account, which means that he’s more or less the only man on Earth to have the chance of really getting to know what it’s like out there - apparently only a handful of the rest ever got that translation implant, and none of them were out there for as long.”
Tremblay leaned against a table and folded his arms. “Meaning?”
“Meaning he knows how ET thinks. He’s got a bit more of an outsider’s perspective than the rest of us. Maybe the reason he’s so bitter on the species is because he can see what they see in us.” He smiled uncomfortably. “It’s notoriously difficult for people to acknowledge stuff like that.”
“True. Self-deception’s a powerful thing.” Tremblay said, helping himself to a mug of the coffee that had been percolating in the corner of the lab since they arrived. Sung flipped through the document the pilgrimage had assembled.
“Which means by extension that self-awareness is a powerful thing too.” he said. “The whole world has been going over the question of why an alien civilization would bottle us up, and really the answer’s so obvious when you look at it from Jenkins’ perspective. We’ve been quarantined and the only reason to quarantine something is because it’s dangerous.”
Tremblay sipped his coffee, and poked around the lab, pausing at a sample of alien bone that was attached to a detailed report on its composition, strength, density and toughness - all depressingly inferior to the human norm, to judge by a summary of percentages that ran down one side of the page. “I suppose it’s hard to argue with that.” he mused. “Hmm.. hand me that notepad a second, would you?”
Sung did so, and availed himself of the coffee as well while the general flipped through the contents of the Abductee handbook, logged on to the lab’s computer and watched the footage from Rogers Arena, referring back to the notepad several times.
“Something up, sir?” he asked.
“Just… looking at things from a military perspective.”
Tremblay picked up a pen and tapped the screen with the reverse end. “See here? The way they exit those pods.”
“What about it?”
“It’s not aggressive enough.” Tremblay said. when Sung raised an eyebrow and gestured a need for more information, he stood up and put down his coffee. “Okay, so when a soldier enters a hostile area full of known threats, they move like this…”
Miming holding a gun, he barged forward, pretend weapon tucked tight into his shoulder and pointed almost along his sightline, weight forward, posture loose but coiled, ready to spring in any direction as danger demanded. Sung blinked and the general was half-way through dropping some virtual targets with a volley of precise shots. The burst of simulated violence lasted no more than a second or two before he relaxed again.
“Bear in mind that I’ve not done that for real in about ten years, and I’m fifty-one years old. I’ve slowed down a lot. But you get the idea - aggression. You throw yourself into the fight economically and efficiently - little movements, big effect, make the best possible use of the moment of surprise.” Tremblay told him. “Now the aliens moved like this…”
Despite being deficient two pairs of legs, Tremblay’s imitation of the beasts on the screen was uncanny. This time, the posture was upright and proud, the invisible gun held awkwardly level with his solar plexus and out away from his body. His progress across the room was notably slower, more like arrogant strutting than a hostile rush, and his “weapon” was much slower to aim. Everything looked more sluggish, less precise, less deadly compared to the study in focused violence that had preceded it.
“I follow.” Sung nodded.
“Yep. But then we get to… here…” Tremblay clicked forward in the footage to the point where one of the players swept in and smashed one of the aliens to the ice with his hockey stick. Obviously panicked though they were, as the remaining Hunters drew together in a defensive circle, their posture changed as well, into a stance much more like the one the general had first demonstrated - compact, focused, precise.
“That did them no good of course, but it shows that they at least know how to do things properly, so the question is, why weren’t they moving like that in the first place?”
“You have a theory there?” Sung asked him.
“I do. And it’s one that bears out Jenkins’ account of these things being the boogeymen of interstellar space. They practically swaggered out of those pods as if it didn’t matter if they did things the right way or not, like they seriously believed they were invulnerable.” Tremblay picked up his coffee again. “They got cocky.”
“Does that scare you?”
Tremblay shrugged, shaking his head very slightly with a wide-eyed expression. “I don’t know what to feel, yet. I’ve not had first-hand experience or years to get my head around the idea. It just doesn’t seem real, somehow.”
They sat in silence for a while, Sung sensing that the general was in the mood for a little peace and quiet, and content to give it to him. Eventually, both their meandering trains of thought were brought back to the here-and-now when Jenkins returned with the scientists.
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know the fMRI corroborated my account.” Jenkins said.
Tremblay accepted the summary and afforded it a quick reading.
“Fine. I think I’m convinced” he said. “But interesting as all of this is, the information’s a bit academic, isn’t it?”
“Yep.” Jenkins agreed. “But I wanted to make sure you’d got your heads around a few things before I dropped the real surprise on you.”
Jenkins grinned, and retrieved the battered hiking pack he’d been carrying when he first arrived at the base. Buried at the bottom under his spare shirts and underwear was a padded manila envelope, which he presented to the general.
Tremblay opened it and tipped its contents out onto his hand - a small, featureless silver box, about the size of a hard drive. The only feature of note on its surface was what appeared to be a power socket on one end, though not of a make that Tremblay recognised.
They all leaned closer, jaws dropping. Sung broke the silence, though only barely. “Is this…?”
Jenkins’ grin would have put the Cheshire Cat to shame. “Alien, yep. I managed to get my hands on it while working in a ship salvage yard on Freeport Fifty-Two. Smuggled it back to Earth when the observation team finally agreed to strip out my implants and bring me home.”
“What is it?”
The spacefarer’s smile broadened even further.
“This, gentlemen… is an FTL engine.”