©2019 Thomas Pryce All rights reserved.
This short story is a work of fiction. Any names, places, characters, businesses, organizations, events and/or incidents portrayed within are a product of the author’s imagination, and as such, fictitious. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. Use of this work without prior written permission from the author and/or Cenozoic Publishing, Inc. (save for the purpose of review) is prohibited.
Klardt had trouble wrapping his mind around the test results he’d just seen on abductee Number 23. A task usually quite easy for him since he had sixteen of them.
One brain was his, of course, a massive multi-lobed hunk of gray matter that even without augmentation made him one of the most intelligent beings in the universe. Of his other brains, twelve had been absorbed from lower life forms, two were synthetic—prototypes he’d designed himself—and one was a parasite named Maurice welded to his oversized forehead like a barnacle zit, trading ganglionic bandwidth for symbiotic sips of blood. Maurice was a little souvenir from their last campaign, an enormously rewarding raid on a rich and oh so exposed little planet in the Tressanak quadrant.
But even with all that brainpower and extensive study in xenobiology, the NeuroPluck findings had Klardt confused. He reviewed the results three times. Out of the fifty specimens captured for study only one scan had come back peculiar. He ran diagnostics on the NeuroPluck computer, the device was in perfect working order. What are you, Number 23? Klardt mimed distractedly as he watched the NeuroPluck data once again, hoping the fourth viewing might spark new insight.
Klardt was a Plyth, a race of beings where intelligence ranked above all else, eons of evolutionary pressure selecting intellect over physique, feelings or carnal appeal. And as lead scientist aboard the most profitable—and arguable most exalted—reaper spaceship currently combing the universe, Klardt felt compelled to enrich those cognitive skills by any means. He considered it an obligation to his trade and, tasked with the study of such a vast array of creatures as they traversed the cosmos, it only made sense. Knowledge is power, he said to himself, using the lexicon of the species currently under evaluation. Expanding his mind not only fed the edict of niche but made him better at the job, the increased IQ a means to greater understanding the never-ending procession of creatures unearthed as part of the ship’s prospecting.
Their mission was one of commercial pursuit, wealth and treasure the bottom line. All of that was fine with Klardt, he understood the anatomy of economics. And over the years he had reaped great reward himself. But he was still a scientist. And as with many of such leaning, he was driven by discovery and the fundamental onus to chart data for future generations. His ambition was to compile a comprehensive field guide of sentient lifeforms across the universe. Specifically, class 5.0 to class 8.0 organisms, a group that spanned the taxonomic spectrum from tool-makers to those just shy of intellectual enlightenment.
It was a side gig, and he made sure it never interfered with the primary mission. The captain was a creature of hard bearing, had little interest for pursuits beyond duty. Fortunately for Klardt, he was able to manage both without overlay. He had unlimited access to reports on every lifeform studied and plenty of down time between intergalactic jumps to collate said data into intelligible format. The effort had been going on for the better of his life, and his tome was nearly complete. He’d seen all manner of life along the way, cataloging creatures with traits and capabilities ranging from bizarre to wonderous…and all points in between. Yes, he’d thought he’d seen it all, every conceivable mutation of amazing and permutation of strange…until today.
…Until he’d seen abductee Number 23.
Klardt stepped out of the lab and into the main corridor, heading toward the bridge to see the captain and deliver his report. The corridor was devoid of activity, most of the crew in their rooms resting ahead of the anticipated invasion. It was a long trek to the bridge, but he decided to walk, passing up the expedience of the gravi-loop transport tube. The extra time would allow him to sort his thoughts before meeting with the captain. And perhaps the exercise would help ease his stress.
Ordinarily, neither was a problem for Klardt. His ability to organize thought and disgorge reports was stout, and he was generally not inclined to emotional fluctuation. Over the ages, his species had largely shed the whimpers of limbic as the encumbrance it was. The squeeze of grief was as alien to him as was the surge of elation. He never felt the rush of pride because he possessed no insecurities. But today, suddenly, he felt…and what he felt was fear.
He didn’t like the sensation. It was not only unpleasant but impeded his ability to think. He vented a sigh as he paced the long empty corridor, felt woefully out of sync, like his sixteen brains were awhirl in an unstable orbit of thought. The symptom was clearly a result of just how potentially dire this situation was. He knew that much of the sudden sensitivity was likely from physiochemical bleed-over, a known side-effect of hosting a symbiont on your forehead. Maurice the parasite was a class 6.2 species; fairly intelligent but also a simmering cauldron of emotion.
Hooking left onto the main corridor, he almost thought to reach up and rip the little bugger out. See if it wouldn’t clear the fog in his brain and sharpen his thoughts. But as he considered it further, he decided to leave it in place. Given his normally serene demeanor and the fact that the captain was light-years from the most woke being in the galaxy, maybe a little extra emotional octane would be to his benefit as he presented his report.
Passing mid-ship Klardt could hear the thumping whir of the pulse-drive generator even through the triple-thick insulated ramparts. Veering from the main walkway, out of view from any overhead surveillance, he leaned an ear to the metal wall and listened. The wall was warm. He could feel as much as hear the energy of the pulse-drive generator as it churned to its physics. Though ably secured and historically very safe, the unit held enough raw energy to incinerate the ship a hundred times over. The thought gave Klardt a sudden jolt of anxiety. Another feeling he didn’t like, the sensation as displeasing as it was unfamiliar, a shiver of vulnerability speeding through him on the back end. It was the same queasy intestinal upheaval he felt as he reviewed the NeuroPluck footage on abductee Number 23. Pushing from the wall he got back on the main walkway, continued to reflect on the matter as he resumed his journey topside.
He’d viewed the NeuroPluck readings just a short while ago, and in that time his sixteen brains had worked the equation to death. The footage was beyond amazing. Given his vast experience, he recognized right away how important the find of such a unique creature would be to his study, not to mention the larger sphere of scholarship. Abductee Number 23 was his ticket to renown, would be the centerpiece of his work. The creature’s range of ability and boundless powers were traits of legend. The potential downstream science was endless; so much to compute, question and learn.
But those considerations were quickly dismissed, prioritized to negligible by the immediate enormity of the situation. If he didn’t manage to convince the captain to drop any plans of invasion of earth and peaceably move on to the next planet on their list, nothing would matter. Not science, not standing. Not duty or treasure…
…Because they’d all be dead.
To Klardt the math was easy, a simple equation really. Even sludged with emotion his stream of logic was sound. Attack this world and they’d all be destroyed—fact. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist or class 9.0 enlightened to figure it out. But he knew that greed and doubt would muddy the math. And together they’d make conveying that equation to the captain less than simple.
Approaching the access to the bridge, the tall bulkhead portal slid open with a hiss. Klardt slowed and drew a deep breath as he entered, exhaling with purpose as he stepped through to bring his sixteen brains into geosynchronous thought.
“Captain Ghruell,” Klardt said, a step into the bridge. The captain was flanked by two of his associates. The trio hunched around the Holo-console in the middle of the bridge, a perfectly pixilated 3-D live-feed of planet earth floating above the counter. They were planning the raid, no doubt.
With a snort, the captain looked up. “What is it, Klardt?”
Klardt drew a breath of ready. “We need to talk…”
The captain lifted from his meeting. “Let’s take a break,” he said to his two underlings, dismissing them with the wave of an accessory claw. “Go on,” he then said to Klardt, impatience cast in his enormous anvil shaped chin.
The captain was a Zarkonyte, a race of beings known more for their assertive nature and single-minded drive than interpersonal skills. Character traits that made him well-suited to head such a campaign—determined and strong but not very insightful—a perfect patsy for those who pulled the strings from afar, the ideal ambassador of corporate greed. Klardt had studied the Zarkonyte as part of his work, of course, and the captain was a classic example of the genera. And indeed, seeing him in action, he possessed the conduct exemplar of a reaper spaceship captain. Had Klardt been tasked to make the hire he wouldn’t figure to have picked any different.
“My survey of the planet below is complete.” Klardt’s voice was unwavering, meeting the captain’s hardline eyes with a steady gaze.
“Couldn’t you have sent the report electronically…we’re busy here.” Throwing back his shoulders and rising to his full height Captain Ghruell was a chin and a half taller than Klardt. He was an imposing figure with his piercing red eyes and broad reptilian countenance. But Klardt was unawed by the flaunt of threat. He had a job to do and, studied as he was in alien social science, he recognized the captain’s actions as posturing, innate display behavior typical to his kind.
Though the captain outranked Klardt on ship, when it came to the evolvement scale, he was far lesser. A class 5.6 subset C creature, the captain was fundamentally tethered to ego and emotion, fell well below of the Accepted Studied Standard Point of Wokeness. With an ASSPOW rating of only three, he could no sooner thrive on a polar cold planet than interrelate without bluff and intimidation, his genomics simply wouldn’t allow it. Knowing this Klardt tailored his approach with appropriate tact.
“The report has revealed some findings of great potential consequence,” Klardt replied evenly. “I felt it warranted to submit the report in person.” He paused and pretended to clear his throat, allowing the captain the space to grunt and roll his eyes. Klardt was eager to proceed, the urgency of the situation tangible in his gut thanks to Maurice. But discernment told him steamrolling through the presentation was not the way to go.
At some point during his report Klardt knew the captain was going to become even more upset than he already was. It was unavoidable. But until that point he knew it best to prevent escalation. Adroitly impart facts while the mood held tenable…and hope the captain processed those facts before the inevitable emotional implosion hindered his ability to reason.
“Proceed with your report,” the captain hissed as he took a seat in his command chair. His tone blunt with unspoken stipulation but make it quick.
“Thank you.” Klardt nodded slowly, his voice a measured blend of respect and acquiescence. “I’ll be using VirtuClear screens number five and six to aid in my presentation,” he said, pointing to a bank of VDUs hung on the wall to port as he produced a remote control and aimed. With a flash an image appeared on screen five, a live-feed of the science lab. A high-tech device stood center stage, the unit a soaring spire of shimmering crystals and high-polished metals. Universally recognizable, Klardt did not need to clarify it as the NeuroPluck computer.
The captain sat back in his chair and spun toward the screen. With a quick sweep of the room Klardt noticed several of the crew had tuned in to the presentation. He could only see this as potentially helpful.
“We’re waiting,” the captain said, as he leaned in his chair and crossed his legs, a fist the size of a cinderblock coming up to support his chin.
“As you are aware,” Klardt began, “per regs, NeuroPluck diagnostics are run on the dominate lifeform or forms on every planet in advance of invasion. A fifty-specimen grab is the standard sample size. This is for several reasons, not the least of which is to see if there are any leads to assets or valuable scientific information…since it is likely many if not all indigenous lifeforms will be lost in the raid or sold off. Of course, the information from the NeuroPluck also helps in grading any livestock deemed marketable, maximizing profits.”
“We know all this,” the captain breathed, a taloned finger tapping his keratinized jawline with an audible clack.
“We’re set up for a live-feed of abductee Number 23,” Klardt said with a nod as the image on screen five widened to include a naked man lying on a gurney. “He’s currently hooked up to the NeuroPluck computer.”
“What a feeble creature.” The captain submitted with a condescending snort. “Must be cold in there,” he then added, pointing at Number 23’s exposed crotch. The remark was greeted by a buzz of laughter from several of the crew.
The man on the gurney was unconscious, a transparent funnel about the size of a traffic cone hovered wireless above his nude body. The funnel pulsed with blue light, the rhythm synced to the crystals flashing on the NeuroPluck kiosk. “A human as you know,” Klardt continued, his focus undeterred. “Homo sapiens, class 5.2, subset B, mammalian bi-ped, a species generally considered rather ordinary.
“Though rarely rising as an issue,” Klardt continued. “NeuroPluck protocols are also intended to warn of potential danger.” Klardt paused, he knew the intensity was about to ratchet up. An important reminder before the room filled with discord. “As I share the NeuroPluck imagery from Number twenty-three, please keep in mind that NeuroPluck technology is absolutely infallible.”
Klardt could hear the taut moan of super-metals as the captain shifted in his seat.
“Please direct your attention to VirtuClear screen number six,” Klardt said, fingering the remote.
Screen six blinked and the monitor hued to solid gray mat, the statement establishing neuro-link with subject crawling across the bottom of the VDU. As the words scrolled by the computer gave them voice, a slow synthetic utterance issuing through the bridge like spa music, a soothing fusion of Alina and HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey that echoed in stark contrast to the mood of the room.
“Establishing neuro-link with subject…establishing neuro-link with subject…establishing neuro-link with subject…”
Klardt shifted in place, waiting for the NeuroPluck to sync up. “I have recorded these results, of course, and examined them several times but felt it important we view the memories in live pluck.”
“Neuro-link established,” the computer then announced. “Memory reel for specimen number twenty-three on stand-by. Please select episode or pluck mode.”
“Live pluck, November 2014, earth time.” Klardt replied. Memory reels were all automatically time-stamped by the NeuroPluck and, having viewed Number 23’s history several times, Klardt had bookmarked the scenes essential to his report.
Screen six flared with color, pixels crystalizing to an image of a house on earth, then zooming to the front yard, a few humans running around throwing a ball in what appeared to be recreation. One of the humans was of course Abductee Number 23; it was his memory after all. Right beside on screen five, the NeuroPluck computer glowed steady and bright, the cone above Number 23 doing the same. The apparatus was linked up and doing its thing.
“Advance reel please, segment by days,” Klardt then said as a scroll of memories flashed across the monitor, quick and blurry but discernable as ordinary. “Stop reel, play pluck live, normal speed.”
Behind him Klardt heard a collective gasp. Good. He had intentionally rolled the memory footage to the start of the action.
The room drew quiet, nobody was laughing now.
“What…what is this creature?” Out of the corner of his eye Klardt could see the captain lean forward in his seat.
“I searched the species database and was unable to make an ID.” Klardt did his best to keep it neutral. “It’s safe to say that whatever it is, it’s a formidable organism.”
On screen six a huge multilimbed beast streaked through the skies of an unknown cityscape. Dark and menacing and winged like a dragon the creature flew with the speed and precision of a jet fighter.
“Were you able to determine the location of this planet?” Klardt could hear the tug-o-war of awe and ambition in the captain’s voice. “That creature is like nothing I have ever seen,” he declared, awe getting a pull. “The Mandamoon Zoo or Skaal the Collector would pay handsomely for such a beast!” Ambition then getting the upper hand.
“I have not been able to identify this planet.” And I’m not sure it would be wise to mess with this type of creature, Klardt wanted to add but figured it best to let the memory pluck speak for itself.
Right on cue—Klardt having pre-scripted his delivery—the beast divebombed the city and began unleashing terror, dismembering chunks of the metropolis with its powerful limbs and vaporizing fleeing civilians with laser beams shot from its eyes.
From behind, Klardt heard another gasp sweep through the room. Travelling the universe, he’d seen his share of crazy—from predatory trees to giant robotic beetles that could crush an army with EMPs—and he knew most of the crew were seen-it-all hardened too. On the scale of one to extreme, this was at the top. A conclusion confirmed by the murmur of astonishment in the room.
On screen a squadron of aircraft streaked in and fired on the beast. But their guns were useless, rendered ineffective by some kind of protective energy field. The beast then spun and spit a chameleon tongue long as a chemtrail, swatting the ships from the sky with uncanny exactness. Columns of ground troops were likewise demolished, stomped and laser beamed into oblivion, their attempt to defend their homeland an utter failure.
“How did…” the captain began, voice trailing off as a new image appeared. On the edge of frame, a spaceship the shape of a dagger emerged from hyperspace and sped across the sky, a silver blur hurtling toward the beast like a bolt of lightning. Without a blip in air speed the ship penetrated the creature’s force field and slammed into its flank, the beast recoiling and reeling as the vessel stabbed it in the rump like a hypodermic.
“What the…” Klardt heard from behind, along with host of other assorted exclamations of amazement.
Klardt said nothing, let the NeuroPluck imagery play. Any narration would only detract from the video’s impact.
The ship held firm as the creature pawed it like a stuck thorn. The tiny ship apparently in possession of its own protective field. Despite the tumult, three capital letters were visible on the side of the ship. USA. Klardt heard another group-gasp as the spaceship began to turn transparent, its silver contents being injected into the beast. It all happened fast and before the vessel had fully emptied its payload the massive beast was falling, eyes rolling back, limbs going slack as it fell in stages, wrecking several buildings on the way down, until it slumped to the tarmac in an impact billow of metropolis dust.
“The ship…?” The captain appealed. He did not need to elaborate for Klardt to deduce the root of his confusion.
“Nanites, I believe, of one sort or another,” he explained.
With the creature down, the ship’s hatch sprang open. Again, Klardt resisted the urge to narrate, allowing the footage to spool forth in normal time. Jabbed perpendicular in the beast’s rump, a small being in a spacesuit peeked from the opened hatch, then leapt from the portal, landing on the creature’s flank. With hands on hips the tiny bi-ped scanned the scene behind a tinted faceplate, surveying the aftermath. Following a glance at a handheld instrument, the conquering bi-ped—a speck relative to the beast beneath its feet—unlatched and removed his helmet.
“Impossible,” it was the captain. The word issued with equal parts shock and awe.
“Not only possible, but only the start.” Klardt used the remote to zoom in, he wanted to be sure the connection was unambiguous. With a nod of his head and a nudge of the remote he focused in on the small bi-ped…and indeed there was no mistaking…
…It was abductee Number 23.
Klardt would’ve liked to let the scene play on, allow the captain and crew to see the ensuing imagery. Number 23’s memory of the next events, it was a scene both endearing and fascinating as the survivors—clearly alien to Number 23, their body’s squat and cilia primitive and three times the mass of the human—slowly waddled in and welcomed their rescuer with celebration of legend; food and dance and song and the honor of sex with an exalted princess. Rewards that, in the name of intergalactic fellowship, Number 23 graciously accepted.
But playing the rest of the episode was not on Klardt’s agenda. And although he had watched the succeeding celebratory imagery several times—mostly with an eye for the science but admittedly with a touch of crude carnal voyeurism as Number 23 sexed up the beautiful ameboid princess—letting it play in this situation would only weaken his presentation. He needed to stay on task, especially here. Space pirates were generally not the most refined lot. Interesting as Klardt found the imagery of Number 23 partying with the adoring alien citizenry—dancing and getting drunk, then acceding to the rituals of the land by going where no man had gone before and fucking the sexy alien princess, his penis comically teeny as he tried to please her enormously engorged ovipositor—it would only be a distraction. Trying to appeal to intellect and empathy of the captain and crew would be of no help. It was best to stick to the basics, fear was the most effective means of persuasion here.
“Advance to June 2016,” Klardt told the computer, eager to continue, build on the fear and limit any opening for questions. Screen six flashed to Klardt’s command, a new scene coming into focus. He knew the questions would eventually come—he’d played this out a hundred times in his sixteen brains—especially once he suggested the invasion be cancelled. He knew the more he could put out there before those questions came, however, the abler he’d be to counter them.
“June 2016,” the computer replied, words hardly discernable amid the murmur in the room. The entire staff was now tuned in—navigation, comms, engineering, assorted subordinates. Good. Klardt had hoped as much.
“Play live pluck, normal speed,” Klardt told the computer, once again, advancing the reel right up to the edge of action.
The murmur died for an instant but then kicked back up as a meteor streaked across frame. A widening view revealing its course, an inhabited planet directly in its path. With a nova-bright flash a spaceship materialized in frame, bulky and shimmering and shaped like a pyramid. The ship veered and flanked the meteor, matching its pace. With a quick zoom the pluck-view was inside the spaceship. Klardt heard another grumble of disbelief sweep through the room behind him as the footage revealed the inside of the ship. Almost entirely hollow, the ship was a massive inverted amphitheater filled with a crowd of chanting monks. Easily recognizable as human the mass of holy men were all bald, traditionally robed and singing in unison, a guttural hymn reverberating through the pyramid.
A man in a ratty tee-shirt and blue jeans stood behind a central lectern leading the chorus. The image zoomed in, focusing on the lead preacher…
…It was abductee Number 23.
Some of the murmuring from the crew behind him crystalized to discernable but Klardt ignored it, allowing the scene to play on, his attention fixed to monitor six. Where, inside the pyramid a huge flat-screen blinked on behind the lectern, an image of the doomsday meteor flying beside them depicted upon it. The meteor suddenly began to wobble and shift, its movements seemingly in time with the chorus of meditating monks. The meteor continued to shake, but held course, still speeding toward the exposed planet. Behind the lectern, Number 23 raised his arms like a conductor, instructing the assembly to stand and join hands, synchronizing their ohhhmmm’s. The meteor wobbled again. Then from behind the lectern Number 23 joined the refrain, arms extended, eyes closed, singing along, staid as a wooden cross, his hollered psalm amplified by a mic on the pulpit. The meteor wiggled more, began to rotate and tumble, the chanting clearly affecting its trajectory. Then in a final move, Number 23 kneeled, turned eyes to the sky and yelled at the top of his lungs…
…and that did it, the meteor shattering as if it were struck by a hammer the size of a neutron star, some of the frags pinging harmless off the hull of the flying pyramid. The rest drifting off into space, no longer a threat. A chorus of rejoice rang through the amphitheater, monks cheering and high-fiving. On the bridge behind him Klardt’s audience reacted too, a garble of astonishment spreading through the room. Klardt ignored them and proceeded to the next scene. Punching in data manually this time, uncertain the computer would be able to decipher his command amid the din.
And it continued like that for the next several minutes, Klardt cuing up plucks from the abducted human’s life—Number 23 saving a distant world from giant flying jellyfish, Number 23 engaged in telekinesis and time travel, Number 23 coding a nanobot with Abe Lincoln DNA to help end a civil war between microbes on a space rock no bigger than a musket ball—each scene more fantastic than the previous.
“Stop this report, now,” the captain said, “That’s an order.”
Klardt nodded. “Yes, sir.” As he’d flashed through the last few tracks, in effort to relay as much info as possible, he’d been ignoring most of the cross-chatter and lobbed comments from the captain and crew. But this was different. This was a direct order. He was still a subordinate. He could be relieved of duty or even tossed in the brig. And ultimately, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. “Right away,” he said as he aimed the remote and hit pause, freezing the picture on screen six just as Number 23 was about to teleport through a strange space tube on his way to oppose another distant alien threat. All good, Klardt thought. He’d been able to impart a good bit of data, and it seemed to be having an effect.
“This makes no sense,” the captain said, flailing a limb at the screen. “This human shows abilities far beyond those of his kind.” The room went quiet as he spoke, yielding to his authority. “If we are to believe this report, this number twenty-three is not only extraordinary among his species, he’s also one of the most powerful creatures in the universe.” The captain paused, pondered. Klardt gave him the space to do so. “No,” the captain then continued, huge head swiveling with impatience, “This cannot be accurate,” raptor-sharp eyes locking on Klardt, “there must be something wrong with your machine.”
Klardt sighed, quietly nodding. He expected the objection. He’d already spun the equation obsessively in his sixteen brains and was ready with reply. “The NeuroPluck computer is in perfect working order,” he said, words spilling fluently, less thought than reflex, a sluicegate opened to allow flow. “I ran and rechecked the pluck data on number twenty-three several times…all flawless. I also conducted diagnostics on the NeuroPluck computer itself, twice, just to be sure. The unit is working just fine, the results are incontestable.”
“You rechecked the tests?” The captain’s eyes going wide. “Which means you found these results unusual, too?”
Klardt raised a placating palm. “Indeed, this is a curious creature, an extraordinary specimen, to say the least. But we have seen most of his abilities and technology in one form or another in our travels. And we have yet to explore even one percent of the universe. It only makes sense that at some point we’d encounter a being with a fusion of powers. So yes, unusual, but not impossible.” Klardt paused, drew a breath of prep. It was time to press the matter, put it out there and issue his council. Based on what he’d seen of 23 and the facts related, he didn’t figure they had much time. He knew his proposal was going to rile the room, not to mention the captain’s blood pressure, but he could no longer ignore the squeeze of immediacy. “With that,” Klardt said ahead of any retort, “based on my in-depth analysis of the situation, it is my recommendation as lead scientist that we abort this mission.”
The room erupted with a cacophony of voices, but Klardt ignored it, speaking above the roar of parliament-chamber scorn. “It is my advice that we return all fifty abductees to earth immediately and with great care…then withdraw.” The level of dissent continued to escalate and Klardt raised his voice in kind. “Without a moment lost, we should then leave this place and move on to our next objective…and never look back.”
With a thud, the captain dropped a fist on the table like a gavel, quieting the room. “Your recommendation is noted, but I do not share your certainty in this report. First off, how come none of the advanced survey probes warned of any of this? Secondly, how come this number twenty-three is the only one of the fifty taken in possession of such powers? And finally, if he is in fact so clever and almighty, how come he allowed us to abduct him in the first place?”
Klardt nodded, took it all in. The captain was no idiot. Not woke or class 9.0 enlightened but when it came to crafting an argument, his logic was sound. Even if much of it was corporate regurgitation, a reply driven by the remote programming of greed. “Reconnaissance probes only measure basic biologic parameters,” Klardt said, voice unwavering. “As well as gross interstellar anomalies and potential environmental hazards. A being like number twenty-three would not ping as unusual. Also, it’s quite possible that there are others like number twenty-three, but we just didn’t collect any in the grab. There’re over seven-billion humans on the planet, after all. As for why he allowed himself to be captured…well, actually I think he was aware of the abduction, as well as our current investigation. And it is my belief that he is monitoring us as we speak, has been all along, and is just waiting…”
“Waiting for what?!”
“Waiting to see how we conduct ourselves.” Klardt panned the room slowly as he spoke, the better to maximize eye contact. “A test, if you will. Giving us an opportunity to do the right thing. If you noticed, in all of his plucked experiences, he’s never been the antagonist. He does not use his power for personal gain. His emotional balance is sound, his judgement honorable. He does not start fights but he certainly finishes them.”
The captain shook his head dismissively, but Klardt continued undaunted. “Based on my studies, this is a being of great self-assurance. Such a demonstration in the face of potential danger is a sign of supreme confidence—one that knows no fear. The most formidable creatures tend to be the most secure, least boastful of their powers. We know what number twenty-three is capable of, we should not test his—”
“How do we even know if these memory plucks are real?” The captain interrupted, doubling down on his original skepticism. “This machine, this NeuroPluck…I don’t trust it.” Again, a dismissive wave in the direction of the monitors. “The thing is reading his brain, after all. How do we know the stupid machine isn’t reading a dream? Maybe these were all just things that he’s seen, not things he actually did? Maybe they were all just some performance he saw?”
Klardt bit back a start of frustration. Had to quell the impulse to deridingly remind the captain of the fact that he had never questioned the NeuroPluck results in the past, when the outcomes had come back favorable. Results that later all confirmed to be one-hundred percent accurate. No, doing so would only provoke an ego already tetched with defensiveness, and push him to retrench. That was the last thing he needed.
Klardt acknowledged the captain’s qualm with a diplomatic nod. “I understand your concerns and recognize the economic obligations in play here. But I assure you that these NeuroPluck results are accurate. I helped develop the original prototype, the science is precise and incontestable. And just in case, the unit is equipped with multiple layers of protection to prevent any potential decoding errors. Allow me to explain…” This called for a poised approach, a chance to fortify his argument, hope that some of it squeezed past his ego. Besides, if his delivery was sound, it could help sway the sentiment of the others in the room. Beyond the captain, Klardt could not get a good measure on the crew, they were hard to read, and probably subconsciously sponging cues from the captain. But he thought he sensed signs of conflict among the ranks. Nervous tics and fleeting glances a subtle mutiny in their resolve. Maybe it was wishful thinking. The crew had no direct say in decision making, of course. The order to invade was up to the captain alone. But he was a deft leader, he would take the temperature of the room, factor that into his ruling. If he perceived the attitude skewed one way or the other, it might indeed weigh on his decision-making process.
“As you know,” Klardt continued, looking to the captain, then panning the room. “The NeuroPluck is designed to read only physical events. Memories of events that the subject has actually lived. Dream’s, imagination and observed events are filtered out by the NeuroPluck software. And as mentioned, the error rate is zero. The NeuroPluck sync’s not only with the brain but virtually every organ, sensory or otherwise, down to a cellular level. The difference between tangible experience and a dream or something a subject may have witnessed—however real—is vast. For this species, physical events of performance involve five senses, historic markers in physiology, as well as distinctive neuro-interpretive thought patterns. Like many creatures of this class, the differences are clear and distinct, universal and indelible. Events of experience are biochemically etched in engram patterns, a means of neuro-storage common in this type of organism. All of which makes the NeuroPluck readings as immutable as the basic laws of physics.”
Finishing up, Klardt held gaze with the captain but scanned the room in periphery. The psyche of the crew was still hard to read. No obvious clues that his explanation gained any headway, as he had hoped. And if he couldn’t sense any dissent, neither could the captain. It was not an encouraging sign.
Klardt heard the captain sigh in frustration, and he knew he was screwed before he even spoke. “I understand your explanation,” the captain said. “But I still do not share your confidence in this NeuroPluck device. And as I see it, having been part of its development, you seem constrained by personal bias. Which has hindered your ability to see the facts clearly. This creature, this number twenty-three,” another dismissive wave toward the bank of monitors. “This planet is ripe with riches. And there is no way I am going to allow fear of such a feeble being to stand in the way of what could be our most profitable raid to date. It’s irrational, and I won’t have it.”
“Captain,” Klardt said, raising his voice in a sudden and totally uncharacteristic loss of control, realizing his argument was failing. “I must reiterate and once again stress the infallibility of the NeuroPluck. Number twenty-three’s might is authentic and supreme. If we don’t call off this operation, we are all—”
“Enough,” the captain boomed, chest heaving with menace. It was clear he had heard enough.
Klardt cringed in reflex, recovered, then slowly bowed in acquiescence. “Yes captain,” he said. “I appreciate you giving me time to issue my report and respect your decision.” He really had no choice, there was no viable recourse. Further debate would likely find him locked up, maybe even drugged. And he had a feeling that in very short order his skills were going to be important.
“Very well,” the captain nodded to Klardt as he waved his associates back over to continue charting attack strategy. “Please return to your lab and prepare for invasion. We will be initiating the strike shortly.”
“Yes, sir.” Klardt snapped a salute, turned and headed out, the massive doors whooshing open as he approached. A step into the hallway he heard a subtle hum. He tilted his head and listened, the hum growing louder…
…and then all hell broke loose. Alarms sounding in the bridge, crew and staff startled to attention and scrambling to their stations.
“What’s going on?!” the captain demanded to nobody in particular. “What’s that noise?”
Klardt stepped back into the bridge, the portal doors yet to close. He watched as the crew scurried and hunched behind their stations, cuing up monitors and scanning diagnostics.
“Landryck, what’ve you got?” The captain demanded.
“Nothing,” the tech replied hurriedly, “All sensors in range, it’s not an encroaching vessel or cosmic anomaly…I don’t know.”
The hum grew louder, warning alarms wailing unabated, the bridge a buzzing hive of discord. Klardt noticed the captain glance over to screen five. Number 23 was still there, laying naked and linked up to the NeuroPluck computer, unconscious. Or was he?
“It’s the pulse-drive generator,” a tech named JavviK reported, lifting from his computer.
The captain turned. “What do you mean? What about it?”
“Something’s wrong?” JavviK replied evenly, his attempt at calm betrayed by an expression of terror.
Klardt looked around at the crew, gaging the vibe, the bridge a roiling aura of shock, uncertainty and fear. Klardt snuck a tangential glance at the captain, waiting for him to make the connection. A connection Klardt suspected, based on his sweep of the room, most of the others had already made.
“I can’t fix it…and…” JavviK stammered.
“What?” The captain’s voice hard with impatience.
“Based on these readings,” JavviK said, recovering from his momentary lapse. “If we don’t figure it out, the pulse-drive, it’s possible it could blowup…I don’t know,” he then added, his voice trailing off.
And then it happened, Klardt was sure. He could see it in the captain’s manner as he glared at monitor five, shoulders going slack with resignation, eyes going cold with dread. He finally made the link, his obstinance no longer able to quash the obvious. It was Number 23, it was the puny human that was somehow disrupting the pulse-drive…and he knew it. Hurry up, Klardt silently simmered, make the call already.
As if in answer to Klardt ‘s silent imploration, the captain turned to him and spoke rapidly, “Get down to the lab and release all of the abductees right now.”
“Yes sir,” Klardt replied, “I’m on it.”
“And get rid of this one first,” the captain added, jabbing a claw toward monitor five.
“Yes sir.” Klardt was already on the move.
“And send up a report as soon as all fifty specimens are off the ship,” the captain called after him. “I want to launch as soon as possible. And be sure and put them right back where you found them, safe and unharmed.”
Klardt spun and saluted, then turned down the main corridor.
“All stations prepare for departure,” he heard the captain’s barked command’s over his shoulder as he moved down the hall. “Prep auxiliary power in case the pulse drive’s out. And send a message to corporate, inform them of our decision to withdraw. Tell them to flag this quadrant as hazardous and off limits.”
With time elapsing dire as a burning fuse, Klardt opted for the gravi-loop transport tube to return to the science wing and was back in a flash. An instant later, he was in his lab, stooped over his computer, fingers speeding through the keystrokes to send the abductees home. As the teleporter began to whir in ready, he stole a glance at Number 23, still lying on the gurney beside the NeuroPluck. The robotic limbs had him dressed and ready to go. Though it pained him to have to send him back—a specimen this fantastic just didn’t come along very often—he knew down to the last dendrite in his sixteen brains that he had to. Keeping Number 23 for further study simply wasn’t possible.
“Teleporter locked on subject,” the computer announced. Wasting not an instant, Klardt pressed send and with a wisp of electro-mist Number 23 was gone, atoms and anima teleported back to the exact spot snatched, every electron reorganized intact and restrung with his unique soul freqs. Klardt then set the teleporter to auto to send back the rest of the abductees. The process would take only a moment. They’d be returned safe and without any lasting side effects or memory of the event. As the program cycled, Klardt opened a mic to the bridge, ready to alert the captain as soon as the transfer was complete. Shifting nervously, he gazed at the vacant NeuroPluck gurney and, in another atypical emotional moment, pumped a sigh of relief. Embedded in the reflex, thanks to Maurice, was both a rush of awe and a distinct sense of loss. Number 23 was a special being, no doubt. And beyond the aim of his studies, he would’ve liked to get to know him better.
The last of the abductees teleported off, Klardt keyed the mic and updated the captain. In the background he could hear the rushed ado of the crew prepping for launch. He then fished a small remote control out of his pocket, different from the one he had used to operate the VDUs on the bridge. He eyed the remote and for an instant thought to press it and shut off the disruptor bug he had placed on the hull of the pulse-drive on his way up to the bridge earlier. No, he then thought, better wait to be sure the ship was away. Don’t give the captain an opening to rethink the decision to leave.
Klardt did not want to have to resort to deception to get the captain to call off the invasion, but it was not a surprise that he had to. Examining the equation from every arc of possibility he knew it was going to be a hard sell. And it had played out much as he expected. The captain digging in his heels, failing to see things with logic, his objectivity blurred by greed and a shortfall of intellect. Concepts like NeuroPluck tech were simply beyond his genomic paygrade. But even knowing all this, Klardt still felt it important to follow protocol, deliver his report and hope it worked. Which he thought he managed with skill, he just came up short. Standing as tangible reminder of one of the most elemental directives for dealing with tasks of weight…always have a backup plan. In this case the backup plan was a lie, but it was a lie of high purpose…it saved lives. Making it not only justifiable but his duty.
And as his sixteen brains ran this in contemplation, he felt the cabin fill with a prelaunch pressure dip followed by a call on the PA for all crew to strap in. Klardt found his seat, engaged the body belts, keeping a hand free, the remote clasped in his fingers. A beat later, the ship took off, the finch of inertia squeezing him to the seat. He stiffened and held tight. In a moment the ship would enter the interstellar void-rip and the flight would stabilize. At which point it would be too late to turn back. Technically they could, but once inside the rip-stream the economic cost would be prohibitive.
The flightpath program cued up on his computer, Klardt was able to track their travel. As the ship moved within the draw of the rip-gate he pressed the remote, shutting off the EMP disrupter he had planted. The distant alarms immediately went quiet. His timing was perfect. It was too late to turn around and, with Number 23 having just been expelled, it would appear that ridding him from the ship was the reason the pulse-drive issue resolved. This was good. It would confirm to the captain and those of influence back at corporate that Number 23 was indeed responsible for the unknown glitch. The quadrant would be black-boxed and designated as off-limits. A move that would likely save even more lives.
Klardt sighed again, felt himself beginning to relax, his brain returning to its normal default settings. Maurice had settled as well, no longer was he getting zaps of emotional bleed-over from the little bugger. The ship had moved into the main rip-way, their next destination of plunder locked in, the ship advancing fast and without judder toward a cluster of moons in quadrant Zeed-17. Though he was glad to be safe and on to their next quest, he would never forget Number 23.
The keyboard slowly came into focus as Thomas awoke. “Harrrung,” he slurred, head snapping to level as he blinked back sleep. He looked around, a little nervous. His brain was fogged, his muscles stiff. He didn’t remember falling asleep…or even being tired. He glanced at the clock on his laptop, 10:25 AM. Shit, he’d somehow lost time. He grabbed the cup of coffee from his desk and took a sip. It was cold. WTF.
Brain still woozy, he tapped the mousepad on his laptop and stared at the Word.doc that appeared as the screen came to life. It was his new novel, Unfathomable. He shook his head, wincing. He had started writing about seven-thirty. At eight he remembered he was thinking about taking the dog out for a walk, and then…nothing. And now, it was almost ten-thirty. It made no sense. He’d had a few beers last night, but he wasn’t hung over. He wasn’t up super late. No drugs to speak of. This was not good. Hopefully he didn’t have a brain tumor.
Looking down, he noticed something on his wrist. “What’s this?” he mumbled, his cheeks numb, tongue oafish, like it’d been shot up with Novocain. There was some kind of stamp on his wrist. He had no idea where it came from. It glowed fuzzily, was hard to read. It didn’t help that his vision had yet to fully clear. But it looked like Number 23 inked in barcode. Huh, he intoned, eyes narrowing in confusion.
Still half out of it he reached down and tried to rub it off. It didn’t seem to be fading so he rubbed harder, bracing his hand against his thigh and leaning in.
“Thomas…” The voice came from behind, cold as an icepick. Nora, his girlfriend.
“Umm,” he stammered, mind still adrift in some distant galaxy.
“What are you doing?” Uh oh, that tone. He stiffened, anxiety prickling his spine. He clearly did something wrong, though he had no clue what. “
Airbrushing on a smile, he turned, “Hey hon, how ya doing? Good to see you, babe. Wow, your hair looks great.” Hands on hips, eyebrows pinched in scrutiny, she was not at all thawed by his sweet-talk. “Uh, I was writing,” he added with a grin, jerking a thumb at the computer, trying to keep it light.
“Don’t lie,” her foot tapping in annoyance, “you were watching porno again. I could see your hand going up and down from behind when I walked in the room. You’re busted dude, own it. And geez, you didn’t even walk the dog like I asked.” She waved a hand at the little black poodle curled up on the couch, rolling her eyes and pointing to a dried turd on the carpet.
“Umm,” he stammered, realizing the evidence was not in his favor. “No,” he countered, raising his arm. “I wasn’t watching porn. Seriously, I was writing, I swear. I had something weird on my wrist, look? I was just trying to rub it off.”
She stepped closer and eyed his wrist. “There’s nothing there, Thomas.” She frowned and shook her head. He’d seen the gesture before and had no trouble decoding its meaning; you’re pathetic.
“What…” he stammered, withdrawing his arm and checking himself. The stamp was gone! It was just there, and he was sure he hadn’t rubbed it off. He looked closer, found nothing. Damn, what’s going on? Was it actually there or did I imagine it? First an unexplained blackout, now a strange hallucination. Ugh, the brain tumor theory was starting to look more and more plausible. “It was just there,” he mouthed, doing his best not to freak out.
“Thomas,” Nora pressed, head still shaking, clearly peeved. “This writing thing…” She paused, seemed to be measuring her words. “You’ve been at it forever, you hardly make enough money to survive. I mean, without my job and letting you live in my apartment for free, I don’t even think you could.” Another pause, a quick breath to chamber another round. “It was cute in the beginning, but it’s really getting old. You know my father can get you in at FedEx.” Shifting into lecture mode. “We’ve talked about this before. It would only be entry level, but in a few years, if you stick with it, put in the time as a package handler and learn the ropes, you can eventually become a driver with your own route. And they make great money and get full benefits. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Thomas felt his body stiffen, his anger escalating with each flap of her lips. He did his best to check his frustration, not puff out his chest and go howler monkey on her. With his inner wiseass trolling him with a mashup of him as Doug Heffernan from King of Queens grinning behind the wheel of a boxy delivery truck, it was not easy. Fuck, he simmered in quiet discontent. She just didn’t get it, had no clue what he was trying to do. His writing…it was legit, it was important. And beyond that, it fed his soul, loved the osmotic emotional rush it gave him, living the stories as they unfolded. To him it was magic. She probably didn’t even read any of his stuff, as she claimed to have. He took a deep breath, managed another smile. “Um,” he sighed. “I appreciate the opportunity butI’m a writer. It’s not the easiest profession, I know. And yes, I’m totally grateful for you helping me out and letting me stay here. But I know I’m on the right track with my work. It will eventually pay off, I can feel it. I’m gonna definitely get there.” He shifted in his seat, held her gaze, imploring. “In the near term, what I’m doing is still important. I’m trying to bring light to big issues I feel strongly about…and I really think I’m making a difference.”
“Making a difference. Making a difference? Are you kidding me?!” Her eyes flaring with disbelief. “Making a difference,” she said again, this time dished with the pathetic head shake. “You write about space dragons and GMOed superhero’s, for chrissake’s. It’s science fiction. Nobody cares about a civil war of microbes on a space rock and a tiny Abe Lincoln robot.” Nanobot, he so wanted to interrupt. “You live these stories like they really matter, and to be honest, it’s pitiful. Nobody’s interested in reading stories about chanting monks flying around in pyramids saving planets from meteors. Teleportation and post-apocalyptic stuff—that crap has been done a million times over…and by writers far better than you.” Ouch, that one hurt. Watching her rip him a new one he was stunned speechless. Amid the ass-chewing, he glanced at the dog on the couch, still asleep. The little guy was very intuitive, no doubt sensed the quarrel, he was probably faking the sleep.
Thomas went back to Nora, braced as she drew breath. She wasn’t finished. “You’re not a good writer, Thomas. I mean, come on already. None of your stuff sells. It’s time for you to grow up and go out and get a real job.” Shaking her head, lips pursing tight. “To be honest, I really don’t think I’m gonna be able to do this much longer, it’s getting frustrating as fuck. I mean, let’s get serious here. This writing thing is a total waste of time. It’s not like you’re saving the world…”
Whoa, Thomas drew back, eyes going wide. He felt totally ambushed, his frustration swelling like a bug bite. You just don’t get it, he wanted to scream. All I need is a little more time. A little encouragement once in a while wouldn’t hurt, either. It takes time to generate fresh content, gain fans, develop a following. Pissed off and hurt he realized hewas shaking his head. So I don’t make a ton of cash (or hardly any, he admitted parenthetically) big deal. Writing’s in my heart, how can you ask me to quit? What kind of person would do that? Might as well ask me to stop breathing! No, no, no, he fumed in thought-cloud privacy. I don’t wanna give up and ditch my dreams for some stupid FedEx gig. No way I’m gonna become another idiot following the script, another monkey grinding to the humdrum of normalcy—yes sir, yes ma’am. How may I help you? Would you like fries with that? No no no, no fucking way, that’s not me…not at all!
But instead of saying all of that, or even a word of it, he just sighed and nodded. To argue would only escalate. He was already probably sleeping on the couch tonight. And if he pushed, he might be kicked out, have to sleep on the streets or the back seat of his Prius. He loved his writing as much as anything, but it was cold outside.
So in the end, there was only one thing to say, one way to play it. And it started with one word. “Sorry.” He said…and made sure he looked as if he meant it. He wasn’t even sure what he was apologizing for, but it didn’t matter, he said it anyway, the word uttered dry as a cough, as the fingers of self-doubt began to tighten around his neck. “Maybe you’re right,” he then added, shifting uneasily. “Maybe I need to make some changes.” The fingers squeezing harder, ghost hands choking him with fret.
“Alright,” she said, her attitude seeming to ease. Whew, Thomas reacted to the shift in her mood, felt his butthole unpucker a hair. It didn’t look like he was getting kicked out. The dog stirred on the couch, he seemed to sense her cooling mood, too. “I appreciate you saying that Thomas, we can talk more about it later.” A smile, tiny but there, his sphincter uncinching a little more. Thank god, he really didn’t want to be out on the street. “And thanks for the compliment about my hair. You didn’t get anything done around here and forgot to walk the dog but at least you remembered I was having my hair done this morning, so I appreciate that.”
“Aww, you’re welcome, hon. You know I always think you look great.” He had totally forgot she had her hair done this morning, but there was no upside to coming clean. Nope, just nod and play dumb. He may’ve lacked talent as a writer, but he had stupid down to a science.
“I have to call my mother now,” she went on. “We’re planning a surprise birthday dinner for my father at Mamma Lombardio’s this weekend, you’ll need to have your jacket dry-cleaned. I also have an appointment for a pedicure this afternoon so if you can cook dinner, that would be great.”
“No problem.” He was starting to relax, things were definitely trending for the better.
“And if you can please take the dog out now, I’d appreciate it. And on the way back if you could hit Starbuck’s and grab me a Venti Caramel Macchiato with extra whip and a Strawberry Yogurt Scone that would be great. And make sure you stop on the way back, so the coffee doesn’t get too cold.”
“Sure sweetie, text me if you think of anything else you need while I’m out.” He nodded and smiled. He had no problem helping her out with things. Much as she was high-maintenance, a little crazy, and ranked on the upper end of the bitch Richter scale, she was hot AF. And on the occasion he could usher her into seduction, rev her libido with a few glasses of white wine and doing some domestic chores as foreplay, she’d lube quick and wicked hot, her pussy Tootsie Pop sweet and downright legendary. An image of him fucking her flashed across his mind and he shuddered in relief, realizing he dodged a bullet. She didn’t ask him to give back his key to the apartment. PTL, thank you Jesus. He’d definitely have to be more careful in the future though. Right now, he needed her. And if he got kicked out, he’d really miss the comforting warmth of her walls.
“If I think of anything I need, I will let you know, Mr. Pryce,” she then said playfully, her mood still on the upswing. “And don’t forget to bring a baggie in case he does a number-two.” She nodded toward the couch. The dog was up and stretching, tail wagging in anticipation, eager to go out and sniff and pee, sniff and pee—do the doggie Facebook thing.
“I’m on it,” he said as she turned to leave, her focus going to her phone. “Love you,” he called after her.
“Love you, too,” she replied absently as she strut down the hall, zombie texting.
With Nora gone, he turned back to his laptop, closed out his current WIP, the novel, Unfathomable. Watching the laptop wink out, he felt a distinct pang of defeat, overlaid by a larger gist of conflict. He loved writing sci-fi stories, but maybe Nora was right. Maybe it was time to change, swallow the blue-pill and plug into the Matrix. Maybe driving a FedEx truck wouldn’t be so bad. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, at present he was just too overwhelmed to decide anything. But he knew if he did have to stop writing it wasn’t going to be easy.
Rising on unsteady legs, he remembered his blackout, the lost time, the glowing stamp he thought he saw on his hand. As he pondered it now, none of it made any sense. Glancing at his wrist, there was no sign of the Number 23. Whatever, he shook his head, dismissing the incident as a dream. He yawned and stretched, he felt fine now. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the end of the world. He probably just dozed off. Grabbing the leash, he tuned to the dog, leaned and patted his thighs. “Let’s go boy, wanna go out and do pee-pee.” The little dog hopped off the couch, spun in a circle, eager for his walk. “Good boy…good boy Maurice…”